Faith hurts

February 1, 2009

praying_mantisI wish someone had told me ten years ago that faith hurts. I must have missed the seminar when more mature Christians sat down the babies in Christ and said, “Listen….”

Somewhere I picked up this idea that a healthy, vibrant, authentic faith was one that had no problems. When a relationship ended or I suffered some disappointment, whenever I discovered that I was not as emotionally resilient as I thought, I turned to Jesus and prayed the equivalent of “Okay, I’m ready for you to fix me now.”

I remember walking around Lipscomb University’s campus in Nashville, Tennessee, with my friend Taylor during one of our marathon conversations. He had received the same misinformation because part of our conversation was his recounting how he prayed for God to fix him, over and over again. If God is the potter and we are the broken potsherds, then why doesn’t he do his job and put us back together, make us whole?

I thought that was part of the promise. He calls Himself the Great Physician and Healer. In Ezekiel, He can put flesh on the dry bones. He can bring the rotten corpse of Lazarus back to life. He can resurrect the Messiah. He can cleanse the old heavens and old earth and make a new existence out of the ashes. He can create something out of nothing.

So why doesn’t He fix me? Why do I feel like such a wreck all the time? Why doesn’t she love me back? Why did he die? Why didn’t God protect her from sexual abuse? Why can’t I love people the way I mean to? Why am I so damn selfish and self-absorbed?

Why is the world so broken and where is the light of redemption? Where are the pierced hands and bleeding side and new, incorruptible body of Jesus in this world starving for love and peace?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but this past Advent season I remembered the promise of God-with-us. My problems won’t go away. They may change and evolve, but my life will never be perfect. God’s promise to us is not that He will fix all our problems and make us feel good about ourselves. God is no guidance counselor.

God promises to make us holy. Jesus promises never to forsake us even to the end of the age. We have the Holy Spirit burning inside of us. God assures us that we can never go anywhere without bumping into his love. We can never travel outside of his love.

God promises to meet us in the midst of our problems, to walk with us, to love us back into health. Divorce, poverty, hunger, genocide, rape, ignorance, nakedness, greed, sexual slavery, and disease: this is the world we have created. After Jesus saves us, we wake up to the same old problems with one difference: hope.

I await with eagerness the fullness of the kingdom of God because I am the worst of sinners and Jesus is in every person I meet. My job is not to protect myself but to point the way to new life. Faith hurts because we must die before God can resurrect us. Baptism, rebirth. Baptism, rebirth. Baptism, rebirth. This is now my story. Now that I know pain is a part of it, I don’t feel like I’m failing at faith.

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Sehnsucht

February 1, 2009

madison_rainbowI came across a German word-Sehnsucht-that captures what I have often felt, a feeling I can only describe as indescribable. I can, however, name the various experiences and sights and sounds that seem to catch inside of me in a place for that purpose. What is it about the ocean and the rhythmic murmur of breakers and the capacious heavens wheeling above set with the pulsing light of stars that evokes melancholy and a deep yearning? Moonlight floating on the heaving water like mercury, the flashlight beams swooping about like yellow bats of families hunting for sand crabs, and teenagers flocking to the beach to avoid their parents and cruise for fleeting romance?

What is that shaft of emotion piercing the heart, like nostalgia yet different? Nostalgia is that bittersweet longing for a person or a sweet memory tucked away in the folds of the past. We know we often remember a caress as more significant than it was or a drunken evening as funnier than it really could have been. If we learn something from our mistakes, we say, “Hindsight is 20/20.” However, our memories always take on a luster and richness that perhaps speak more to a lack we feel in the present than a more nuanced understanding of the past. We need to remember in golden tones; we need to forget the altercations and swollen, tear-stained faces.

However, Sehnsucht, as I understand it, is a fierce longing for something or someone we have never experienced or met-a longing for fulfillment outside our spheres of experience. I understand nostalgia. For example, bus exhaust on Headington Hill above Oxford, England, brought to mind burnt gunpowder-boyhood days spent in a dove field, sitting but jittery with anticipation, the hay from the bale rough through my camouflage t-shirt, captivated as the birds sashayed and careened through the sunlight. Then, I would burst to my feet, the twelve-gauge over/under finding its nook in my shoulder, deafening explosions, birds stunned in midair and tumbling to the ground, puffs of feathers, pellets raining all around and sometimes stinging the skin. Crunching across the stubble to recover the birds. That boyish jolt of joy with skill and accomplishment and mastery. Feeling like a man for doing something well.

Unless I really dig back into those autumn days, I forget the many shades of my boyish anxiety: What if there are no birds? What if I don’t shoot well? What if I am embarrassed in front of strangers? What if we arrive too late or leave too early? What if I run out of shells? Unless I dig deeply, I don’t remember the inevitable sunburn I had the next day. I forget the make-up homework from skipping school. I forget the missed shots, the lost birds, my best friend’s younger brother who would always shoot too soon, and his mother who would claim birds I thought were mine, not to mention the dirty business of cleaning the birds and the sadness implicit in killing those delicate creatures even if for food, sport, and camaraderie. Or, did we kill out of envy?

We must work to piece together the full picture of a memory because we most often pick the ripest fruits and leave the less palatable. Something will always be left out, forgotten forever. And perhaps this is a gift from our Creator-the grace of remembering the sun-warmed sweetness, the triumphs that become more brilliant than they truly were, the failures without the full taint of humiliation, and the trespasses of others without the deep sting of anger. Perhaps nostalgia humanizes us in that regard. Yet, no matter how hard we struggle, we cannot live in the moment. I cannot fully appreciate her hair blazing at dusk; my father’s hands warm on my neck while he taught me how to tie a single Windsor; the big Rainbow out of Big Creek at the end of our last day of fishing in central Idaho. I was so relieved to land it and have my picture taken that I failed to savor the sensation of my rod straining against its power in the mountain-cold water.