Monday, August 27, 2012

Why God is Like a Spice Vendor

A few weeks ago I was able to watch a man from India mix spices to make a custom curry powder.  He was truly a master and an artist in his field - flinging spices through the air at lightning speed, mixing things in a blur, measuring, weighing, fingering, smelling... I was mesmerized!  I asked this man for "a little bit" of curry powder.  He gave me one kilogram! My spice jars are overflowing with the most amazing curry powder...

I've been thinking about him for several weeks now, and it occurred to me that perhaps we are like spices and God is like a master spice mixer:
  • Spices bring out and enhance the flavour of food. God uses us to enhance and bring out the best in others. 
  • Several spices have to be crushed to release their aroma.  Sometimes God allows us to be broken (ever think about what fragrance is released from your life when you're wounded?).
  • Curry powder is a mix of many different spices, combined in various proportions.  God places us in diverse communities to complement one another.
  • In order to make a brilliant curry powder, one must add chilli.  Sometimes, in order to refine us, God turns up the heat in life.
  • I asked the spice mixer for a little bit.  He filled my spice jars to overflowing.  Sometimes God does that, too.  

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Tension Between Doubt and Faith, Part VIII

"I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" - Mark 9:24

So where does this leave us?  I have no answers of certitude, no final thoughts except to say this:

It's okay to wrestle with God, doubt and faith.  Pursue God.  Push through the dark times.  And don't let anyone make you feel like a "bad" Christian for struggling with issues of faith and doubt.  It's normal... dare I even say healthy.  Embrace the fact that doubt and faith aren't always mutually exclusive.

For myself, I choose to persevere, even in the face of doubt, even if there's "nothing in it for me" except to pursue God and to know Him better than I do now.  I choose this because I believe there is a Purpose greater than myself that is worth sacrificing my own wants and needs for.

In the movie Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis' character says, "Why love if losing hurts so much?  I have no answers anymore.  Only the life I have lived.  Twice in that life I've been given the choice: as a boy and as a man.  The boy chose safety; the man chooses suffering.  The pain now is part of the happiness then.  That's the deal."

I think the same thing could be said of faith.  I'm holding on to the idea that to risk walking forward in faith - even when doubts are looming over my head - will lead to beautiful new vistas of understanding, relationship and growth.  Growing sometimes hurts.  Grow anyway.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Tension Between Doubt and Faith, Part VII

Wrestling with God can feel like having a huge temper tantrum.  Other times it's like having a really long, hard cry.  Either way, when you've finished spending all of your energy kicking, screaming and howling, there comes a pause and a stillness.  This is mostly due to exhaustion, I think, but also to the fact that we have given full expression to all of our not-so-pretty emotions.  And in that calm, before the comfort, answers and reconciliation come, a choice must be made.

If doubt and faith co-exist as fellow travellers on the journey, if it's not "either... or" but "both... and", then in those times when doubt has taken the lead we can make one of two choices:  walk away from faith altogether, or push forward in perseverance, knowing that faith is not far behind.

"Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour". - Habakkuk 3:17-18

Did you notice the word "yet" in the above Scripture?  In the stillness after the long, hard cry...  remember that word.  "Yet" has to be one of the most hopeful words in the English language.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Tension Between Doubt and Faith, Part VI

"With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those signs and great wonders...Yet the Lord says, 'During the forty years that I led you through the wilderness, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet'." - Deuteronomy 29:3, 5

Great trials, signs and wonders - there's a mixed bag of doubt and faith if ever I saw one, covering both extremes and everything in between!

I used to think this passage was so amazing, to have shoes that never wore out; what a miracle!  As a young adult I thought, how boring to wear the same pair of shoes for forty years!  These days I think I'd complain about having to wander in the wilderness for forty years and not even see the miracle of the shoes not wearing out.  What a single-storied mindset!

There are multiple stories and perspectives to each challenge, and I begin to realise that maybe it's not an "either... or" situation.  We are not necessarily experiencing times of doubt OR times of great faith.  Maybe they are fellow companions on the journey. It's "both... and". If this is the case, then my prayer is that while we are wandering in the wilderness, doubting, we would still be aware of the wonder of our shoes not wearing out.  May the small miracles (that I suspect are present every day) strengthen our faith and carry us through the wilderness.  And let us hope that our wilderness wanderings don't last forty years!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Tension Between Doubt and Faith, Part V

"Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, 'King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty's hand.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up'." - Daniel 3:16-18

This is a beautiful story of courage in the face of suffering.  As the story turns out, they were thrown into the fiery furnace, but God delivered them.  Talk about an exciting adventure that defied the laws of chemistry!

We who know the story, know the ending, so I fear that some of the courage is lost on us.  We like the drama and excitement because we know the story has a happy ending.  But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego didn't know that.

What I'd like to focus on are six little words in the above story - "But even if he does not..."  And that's really what the tension between doubt and faith boils down to, isn't it?  "Even if he does not"... I will still believe.  I will still trust.  I will still hold fast to the promises recorded in Scripture.

The truth is, this is a hard pill to swallow.  We're so conditioned in Western society (and even the Church) that if we obey, we are rewarded.  If we do what is right, good things will come... or at least not bad things.  But even if it does not... 

I don't have that level of faith yet.  I used to think I did, but in the past two weeks as I've battled with my faith and God's (seeming) lack of provision and care, I realised that I do, in fact, expect him to appear in his red cape and save me from the fiery furnace every time it looms on my horizon.

What gives me hope - what I'm hanging onto tenaciously - is the fact that I don't know the end of my story.  But even if not...

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Tension Between Doubt and Faith, Part IV

"Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died". (John 11:21)

"When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died'. When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit.... Jesus wept". (John 11:32-33, 35)

Jesus didn't show up, Lazarus died, and everyone wept.  The part of the story I left out is that Jesus tarried on purpose, knowing that Lazarus was going to die, knowing that he was going to perform an even greater miracle than healing Lazarus; namely, that of raising him from the dead.  Mary and Martha, not knowing this, felt that Jesus had let them down.

What touches me profoundly is that when Jesus finally did arrive, he didn't rebuke Mary and Martha for being angry with him, he didn't chastise them for their lack of trust, and he didn't offer pithy condolences.  And - this is the best part - even though he was about to do something so amazing it defied logic and the natural world altogether, he paused...

Jesus was deeply moved by the emotion of his friends.  He entered into Mary and Martha's grief and their feelings of abandonment (Jesus didn't actually abandon them, but even so, he compassionately validated those feelings).  And he wept.  He wept for them and with them.

In the tears of Jesus lies most of theology.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Tension Between Doubt and Faith, Part III

Here are two stories of faith with very different endings:

A Roman Centurion's servant was seriously ill.  The Centurion sought out Jesus (which is interesting, since as a Roman he probably did not adhere to the Jewish faith) and asked him to heal his servant.  Jesus offered to go to his house, but the Centurion declined and said, "Just say the word and my servant will be healed" (Matthew 8:8).  Jesus praised him for his faith, said there was none in Israel with greater faith, and healed the servant.

Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were siblings and very good friends of Jesus.  Lazarus fell ill to the point of death.  Martha and Mary sent for Jesus to come and heal him, knowing that He had the power to do so.  Jesus tarried in Jerusalem, and Lazarus died.  When He finally arrived in Bethany, both Mary and Martha let him have it.  "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (John 11:21, 32).

Two stories, both containing great faith in Jesus.  In both cases, Jesus didn't show up at the scene.  In one, He heals.  In the other, He doesn't.  There is more to the story of Lazarus (which I will address in the following days), but what I want to emphasize here is this:  there are no magic formulas to faith.

We like formulas, don't we?  We like certainty and the ability to depend on that which is known. "If this... then this."  Life is uncertain, however, and faith, perhaps, even more so.  And while the Church is quick to have answers to the point of domesticating God, things don't always happen the way we'd like them.

I begin to realise how a sense of entitlement has crept into my Christianity.  I want God to give me what I think I deserve.  I also begin to realise how much American politics has shaped my faith to the point where I view it as a democracy - I vote God in, He sticks to an agenda that is agreeable to me, and when/if He doesn't, I throw a temper tantrum and remind Him that I "voted for Him".

It is tempting to say that I'm not really like this, that I'm "mature" in my faith, that I have an answer for every life challenge that comes my way, and that I trust God no matter what.  It is even more tempting to say this as I work for a Christian NGO and am supposed to be the "expert" in faith and trust.  The truth is, I am as human as the next person.  It hurts when Jesus doesn't show up and heal. 

In my next post I'll tell you why I still love Him, even when He doesn't pitch up.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Tension Between Doubt and Faith, Part II

Let's take a look at John the Baptist.

According to Jesus, he was a prophet who fulfilled the prophecy recorded in Malachi 3:1 ("I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before you.")  Jesus also said, "There has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:9-11).  That's pretty high praise.

According to people around him, he lived in the desert (Mark 1:4),  wore clothes of camel hair and subsisted on a diet of locusts and honey (Matt. 3:4). Some even went so far as to say that John "had a demon" (Matt. 11:18). Ouch.

Without a personal encounter with him, he has become sanitised in our minds and on the pages of the Bible - a great man who stuck by his convictions.  Had we met him in person - crazy guy that he was - we would probably not have welcomed him into our churches.  We would likely have nudged our children away from him. But that's another story.

What I'm interested in is the fact that John - of whom Jesus said no man was greater - had doubts.  He ended up in prison.  His crime?  Doing the right thing.  Upholding the law.  And the man he spent his whole life proclaiming, promoting and following - Jesus - was doubted.

While in prison, he sent some of his followers to ask Jesus if he really was the Messiah.  Jesus answered with this reply, "Go back and tell John... the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." (Matthew 11:4-6)

Healing.  Healing and joy all around... but not for John.  John never left prison.  In fact, he was soon beheaded at a party after a sexy dance and some poor judgement.  The man who spent his whole life devoted to Jesus wasn't rescued.  And in that dark moment just before his death - in that dark cell - he had to decide if it was all in vain or if he should stand firm in his faith. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Tension Between Doubt and Faith, Part I

It seems to me that the Western Church isn't comfortable with doubt.  When doubts - or even crises - of faith arise, fellow Christians try to fix, admonish or offer magic formulas to drive the doubts away.  "You just aren't trusting God enough," says one, while another says, "If you just claim the promises of God's Word, tithe, pray three times a day and end your prayers with this specific phrase (while patting your belly with one hand, rubbing your head with the other, anointing everything with oil, casting demons from behind every stone, and eating one tablespoon of flaxseed every morning...) then you would release God's blessings."  Some even go so far as to say, "It's because you have unconfessed sin in your life."

The fact is, as humans we do doubt.  When God seems silent or absent, we can't help but wonder.  We grieve.  We can't make sense of why things are happening the way that they are.  The Bible doesn't offer easy answers, either.  It is full of promises of God's provision for those who have faith and believe against all odds, yet it is also filled with stories of men and women who followed God in obedience and suffered terribly.  It is full of mighty victories as well as people who died not having received their promised inheritance. 

Even worse, we Westerners have let consumerism creep into our Christianity.  We "pay" God with our acts of obedience and faith, and then expect God to "provide" our material needs.  I'm not sure that's a biblically accurate faith, however.

What if God never met your needs?  What if He didn't answer your prayers in the way that you thought He should?  In other words, what if there's nothing in it for you?  Is God still God?  Is He still worthy of honour?  If your faith is only about how it benefits you, then God is not at the centre of your world; you are.  God exists to serve you and not the other way around.  Yet to have a faith with no element of selfishness - no ulterior motives - is difficult at best.

The tension that exists between doubt and faith is troublesome to handle.  There are no easy answers, no platitudes, no soft berths.  To castigate those who have doubts is to deny the example of Jesus, who was kind and compassionate with those who struggled.  In fact, the only people that Jesus castigated were the religious experts - the ones with all the answers.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Wide River to Cross

There's a sorrow in the wind
Blowing down the road I've been
I can hear it cry while shadows steal the sun

But I can not look back now
I've come too far to turn around
And there's still a race ahead that I must run

I'm only halfway home, I gotta journey on
To where I'll find the things that I have lost
I've come a long road, still I've got miles to go
I've got a wide, wide river to cross

I have stumbled, I have strayed
You can trace the tracks I made
All across the memories my heart recalls
But I'm just a refugee, won't you say a prayer for me
'Cause sometimes even the strongest soldier falls

 -lyrics by Buddy Miller, Julie Miller

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Thoughts on Silence

Let the silence praise God-

the muffled, decibel-dampening,
"if a tree falls in the forest and
no one is there to hear it" silence...

the disconcerting, disorientating,
"harsh fluorescent lighting and
sterile waiting room" silence...

the welcome pause, rest,
"take a deep breath and
stop to appreciate beauty" silence...

the anguished, fallen sparrow,
"whole body shaking but
no sound emerges" silence...

the encroaching, stifling,
"where are you, God, and
have you abandoned me?" silence...
Let the silence praise God 
in watchful anticipation...

every symphony begins with silence.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Finding Beauty in Unlikely Places

This is the view from my back window.  On most days I think it's dreadful - nothing but brick, electric fence, aluminium roof and encroaching walls. 

This morning I noticed the telephone wires.  I notice these every day (or rather, I try not to notice them!), but this morning I noticed their similarity to a musical staff.  A few birds flew and landed on the wires.  I could almost hear God whisper, "Sing the notes, Anna."  I smiled shyly.  "The wire is a musical staff, and the birds are notes?" "I give you music every day, Anna. You have only to become aware of it."  I sing the melody, which is not bad for pigeons on a wire!  I giggle with God.

I am learning to find beauty in unlikely places.  Suddenly these encroaching walls aren't so encroaching; the music opens them up to reveal a world of wonder.  The wires aren't so ugly anymore; they are a picture of the symphony that moves and swells outside my window.  I can see the music.

Abraham Heschel said, "Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation... What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder."  In our quest for knowledge and wisdom, may we never lose a sense of wonder and awareness of beauty... even in the unlikeliest of places.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Friday Quote

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily anSpartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”- Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods 

I am not suggesting that we all follow in Henry David Thoreau's footsteps and live spartan lives in the woods, but I am suggesting that we be more intentional about living life, about the choices we make each day, and about enjoying the journey and not merely counting down time until the destination is reached.  I am suggesting that we develop an awareness of the beauty that is all around us, the blessings that God bestows upon us each day, and to live more in the present rather than dwell on the past or worry about the future.