Rushing God’s Timing

Today is an unexpected day off in the middle of a week-long fence-repair project. My contractor has pruned all the plants in the flower beds on the sides of the fence and covered them with painters plastic. She has replaced a rotten board or two and used a strong cleaning product along with a brush to remove algae. Through the process, the boards got a good soaking. She asked me to check the bottoms of the boards this morning to make sure they were dry enough for paint.

They weren’t. So painting is postponed. If we were to ignore the dampness and move ahead with painting, as planned, the paint would not adhere correctly, and the job would be botched. Soaked boards take time to dry thoroughly here in my shady yard; it would be a mistake to rush the process.

It’s the same way with God’s timing. All of us plan things for our lives, and we always have in mind exactly how it should all go. We usually have a schedule we’re working out, even if we haven’t consciously thought of it that way. We still have our ideas of what should happen next and when and how it should happen.

But often times God has other ideas. Maybe He knows the wood isn’t dry yet, even though we don’t detect the dampness, and if we’ll listen, we can avoid a wrong decision. Maybe there is really nothing wrong with the plan we’re trying to put into effect—other than that God has a much better one around the corner, if we can hold our horses. We’re always much better off to take the time to pray, to seek divine guidance, to try to discern God’s way for our lives, and never to rush God’s timing.

           

Another Look at Faith

You could almost say that faith is a gift that keeps on giving. That is, no matter how many times I visit the issue of faith, there comes another time when the subject deserves another look. It’s a very big subject.

Last September, in one of the rare occasions when I gave the message for the Sunday morning service at my church, I chose as a title, “What We Do; What God Does.” The message was about faith and grace—specifically, how our faith activates grace. Somewhere along the way, I had come to understand the concept that our faith is the mechanism that joins God’s promises with the fulfillment of those promises.

In other words, the promises of God are available to every one of us; they are the grace of God. But if I don’t come to them in faith that they are for me, I will never see them materialize in my life.

Both sides are required for the miracles to occur.

What prompts my latest reconsideration of this vast subject of faith is the book my Sunday study group has been reading: Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered, by Martin B. Copenhaver. A few weeks ago, the group took up Chapter 4: “Questions about Faith and Doubt.” In those pages was a quote by William Sloane Coffin: “Faith isn’t believing without proof—it’s trusting without reservation.” [Coffin was a former Yale University chaplain who was instrumental in creating the Peace Corps.]

I’ve spent some time chewing on the distinction Coffin draws. It doesn’t run parallel with the common Hebrews 11:1 guidance, which tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For one thing, the Hebrews verse is about faith as a noun; the Coffin quote is about faith as a verb. It’s hard to adequately compare nouns with verbs. Worse than apples and oranges.

You may think otherwise, if you take the time to live with the Coffin quote for a while, but it seems to me that if all we had was the first half (believing without proof), faith would have to be considered static, inactive, and even fairly lifeless. But that second half, now, (trusting without reservation), that’s faith that opens up unlimited worlds of life-giving grace.

           

Loss of a Heroine, Mary Oliver

I was saddened to see the announcement yesterday of the passing of Mary Oliver, longtime favorite poet of mine and of many others in my circles. What an extraordinary woman and writer! I first fell in love with her over her poem “The Summer Day,” which asks big questions like “Who made the world?” and states big thoughts like “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” then devotes the heart of the poem to a grasshopper she has happened to meet. That’s the poem that ends with her famous question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Her close association with and powerful descriptions of the smallest details of nature kept all of her readers grounded, and she was clear in her instruction: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

She left a large body of work, more than twenty collections of poems. The latest, Devotions, was published by Penguin Press in 2017 when she was in her early 80s.

Of course, in all that work, especially work so closely tied to nature, there was bound to be something on death, because she thought about that too. She wrote: “When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

She didn’t simply visit. She graced us all with poems that remain with us, reminding us to pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it. God bless you, Mary.

           

Gratitude for What Has Been Taken Away

This morning I read a reflection by Henri J.M. Nouwen, the widely read priest and author noted for his work with the poor and disabled. Entitled The Spiritual Work of Gratitude, the reflection ended with this prayer: Lord, cultivate within me a spirit of gratitude for all you’ve given and all you’ve taken away. Blessed be your name, Lord. Amen.

Now, it’s easy to generate gratitude for blessings given, for people and events and things in our lives that we see as positives, but the second part about having a spirit of gratitude for all God has taken away from us – that’s asking for something else entirely. That’s probably why the prayer is for the cultivation of that spirit, because it doesn’t grow within us naturally. Nor is it necessarily natural to consider that important parts of our lives that have slipped away from us might have been “taken away.”

What would it mean to live in gratitude for all that has been taken away from us?

We can be grateful that what was so precious to us was, at least for some period of time, ours. We can be grateful for what we learned from the experience of having that promise/person/position/thing that we loved, and put our focus there rather than on the pain of the loss. We can be grateful for the implied possibility, that if we had it once, we can surely have it again. But beyond that, what would it mean to be grateful for what has been taken away?

If our perception is that the loss was the work of the Lord, the choice of the Lord, and if we at the same time believe that the Lord is good, then we become candidates for grace. Because then we will be living in faith. And faith is always cause for, always leads to, gratitude.

           

Happy Miracle of Hanukkah

It’s December 2nd. Tonight at sundown the Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins.

Historically the celebration is about the dedication of the second Temple at Jerusalem some 2200 years ago. Spiritually it’s about an approach to life that need not be restricted to those of the Jewish faith.

The story is that the Maccabees wanted to put together an eight-day celebration, lighting a candle each day, but when they looked at their supply of oil for the candle, they discovered that they had oil enough to light the candle only once. They could have allowed this perceived insufficiency to stop the entire festival, on the practical grounds of “we simply don’t have what we need for what we want to do.” Instead, they saw in their minds and hearts the eight-day festival they wanted to do, then they went ahead and used the oil they had to light the candle. The miracle was that the next day, when they looked at their supply, holding their vision in mind, there was again enough oil to light the candle. The same miracle happened again the next day, and the day after . . .

You and I have the same connection the Maccabees did to a Power greater than we are, to a Presence that is gracious by nature. The way to welcome the miracle of Hanukkah into your life is to hold a vision in your mind and heart, then take the first step and do what you can do, even though you do not have at the moment everything you will need to complete the entire project. Taking the step you can take opens the way to the step you can’t yet see. May you be blessed this Hanukkah season.

           

The Other Serenity Prayer

My niece recently posted on Facebook something called “The Other Serenity Prayer.” Most of us know by heart the standard Serenity Prayer, which goes: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Anyone who was active in the various support groups that came alive in the 1970s and ’80s knew that standard prayer well, because it was how we ended every “codependency” support meeting in those days.

The Other Serenity Prayer goes like this:  “God, grant me the serenity to stop beating myself up for not doing things perfectly, the courage to forgive myself because I’m working on doing better, and the wisdom to know that you already love me just the way I am.” This version of the prayer is attributed to Unknown.

The Bible gives ample support for the idea that God loves us as we are, because of His plans for our lives. Here are just a few of the hundreds of verses that follow this theme. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” [2 Corinthians 5:17] “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” [Ephesians 2:10] “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” [John 1:12] “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” [2 Timothy 1:7]

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life journey, faith can make you whole.

           

The Bluest Skies

My friend Mary reminded me of that old song that includes the line that the bluest skies you’ll ever see are in Seattle. These October days show clearly why someone might have that thought. It is rare for Seattle to have such a string of beautiful, clear, vivid days like we have been having.

In such a stretch as this, it is easy to forget the unending days of rain, the relentless gray that once made Seattle the suicide capital of the nation, and the storms of winter that are escalating in recent years with more ice and snow than the locals (not to mention the thousands of new folks) know quite how to deal with, considering the seven hills on which Seattle was built.

It is easy to give thanks on days like this, when we feel blessed by the warm sun and the gorgeousness of the changing colors of autumn.

But the days will return when we simply have to know that the blue skies are up there somewhere, when we have to have faith that warm days will be with us again, when we will give thanks even though there appears to be less reason to do so. And the reason we will do that is because the Bible is clear:  “… in every situation [no matter what the circumstances] be thankful and continually give thanks to God; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (AMP).

           

Praising and Giving

I’ve been thinking about the connection between praising and giving. There must be a strong, direct connection because congregations all over the nation, if not the planet, routinely close the “giving” portion of the worship service with the Doxology: “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”

It seems to me that the relationship might look like a chain of links. The first link would be praise—the starting place of all things good. We praise God, from Whom all blessings flow. Those blessings give us the power, ability, and inclination to be givers ourselves. That’s the second link: us in the role of givers.

The third link is composed of all those individuals, causes, church functions, etc., who are the recipients or beneficiaries of our giving. Every gift has the potential of reaching an ever-widening circle in its impact.

I believe that something mystical happens in the second and third links. That is, the Presence of God is there.

The benefits received in the third link are cause for new praise, the fourth link, as people give thanks for the good that has come into their lives.

Praise is the beginning and end of every circumstance of giving.

 

           

Blessed Characterizations

A blog entry here two and a half years ago (January 2016) discussed a phase I was in of reading Marilynn Robinson books. The phase is currently being revisited because my reading buddy, Linda, and I have taken up Gilead—we’re both reading it and will spend some time talking about it.

Robinson’s gift as an author is not plot, nor setting, nor pacing, but rather characterization. Her key characters are deeply drawn to the extent that they become unforgettable. This is true mostly of the characters who actually appear on the page as part of the story (the pastor John Ames and his wife, Lila, for example), but also of a few who appear only in the memories of the key players.

Through John Ames’s memories, we come to know his grandfather pretty well, a difficult man long gone from the world but one who left his mark on his family and his church. No matter how dire a situation the old man faced—including the loss of an eye in wartime—he was inclined to remark: “I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.” How can you not love a character who makes such a statement his approach to life?

Gilead is a love story, of sorts, but much more it is a working out of one man’s theology and fortunately he is quite ready to admit when he’s in over his head. One of a great many lines I’ve marked is this one: “… there are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice, and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.”

           

An Answer to Spiritual Darkness

Several months ago, a friend and I read and discussed Jacqueline Winspear’s Pardonable Lies, third in the Maisie Dobbs novel series. Maisie is a survivor of World War I in which she served as a nurse providing aid and relief to the most seriously wounded soldiers in France. Ten years later, she makes her living as a psychologist and investigator. But she is not without her own psychological challenges and areas of spiritual darkness.

When those challenges become disruptive, Maisie is wise enough to take those matters to her spiritual guide, a man named Dr. Basil Khan, who had taught her early-on that “seeing was not necessarily something we did with the eyes; there was a depth of vision to be gained from stillness.”

That practice of stillness gets Maisie through most of what comes to her in her daily life, but there are still times of serious challenge. Khan’s counsel to Maisie is: “. . . when a mountain appears on the journey, we try to go to the left, then to the right; we try to find the easy way to navigate our way back to the easier path. But the mountain is there to be crossed. It is on that pilgrimage, as we climb higher, that we are forced to shed the layers upon layers we have carried for so long. Then we find that our load is lighter and we have come to know something of ourselves in the perilous climb.”