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.

Seeing foxes

January 30, 2009

img_5077_3_21I have an obsession with red foxes. I can’t remember when it began. I think I was surprised that something as impractical as a red fox even exists. What do they do all day? Steal chickens from coops? Where do they find coops in Brentwood, Tennessee, amidst the Starbucks and franchise restaurants?

One evening, my family ate at Saltgrass Grill in Franklin, Tennessee for somebody’s birthday. My dad’s side numbers over thirty now with marriages and babies. I don’t remember the food being much to talk about, but after we finished and walked outside to our cars, my mom pointed and said, “There’s a fox!” I’d seen them before, but only at night and in place with some patches of forest in the midst of suburbs and strip malls. In other words, just the type of place a suburban fox would call home. I’d catch a glimpse of bush tail just as the fox slips out of the reach of my headlights. These sightings happened at night, on Granny White Pike, or Lyon’s Bend in Knoxville, or on the road that takes you out to Mt. Vernon in Washington, D.C. I remember when I’ve seen them because a fox is in my mind a sort of cinnamon-colored, canine unicorn from Aesop’s fables. They’re cunning and sneaky. So what was that one fox doing trotting across a parking lot at sunset, as though it were on an errand, running to the grocery to pick up milk? Trotting is probably the wrong word. The movements of foxes are fluid, closer to a cat than a dog. They’re legs are long for their bodies. They have sweet, almost shy faces. They sometimes carry rabies.

I happened to have my digital SLR in the truck with me, so I drove helter-skelter after this thing as it followed an invisible path through an office park, stopping for a sniff here and there. I parked my truck and followed on foot. The fox looked at me like a cat: “What do you want, you bumbling oaf? I know all your secrets.” Then, it walked off without any sign of alarm. He looked back a few times out of curiosity. He was definitely a he. I didn’t see any tell-tale signs, but I knew. He turned around and stared at me through some fence slats: “Okay, okay, I see you. What do you want?” He finally disappeared through some Bradford Pear trees and a wall of honeysuckle behind a building. Oh, I remember now why he was a he. He lifted up his leg to pee. He didn’t seem to care who was watching. I think I know people like that. I was on a football team with about sixty of them. They also smack each other on the rear and say, “Good Game,” but from what I could tell, that fox couldn’t talk. His larynx was the wrong shape.

I digress. I got home, uploaded the pictures onto my camera, and was pleased to find several worth keeping. I set one of them as the wallpaper on my laptop. However, it wasn’t until I was writing the abstract for my Master’s thesis that I fully understood why foxes hold such significance for me. Yes, they’re mysterious creatures. They provide an apt metaphor for Ted Hughes’s poem, “The Thought-Fox.” Foxes are elusive and sudden like inspiration. “The sharp, hot stink of fox”–what a wonderfully gritty phrase. I love Roald Dahl’s stories. He wrote one called The Fantastic Mr. Fox. I think Mr. Fox was after the hens. Aren’t we all. But sitting down with a sigh to try to summarize my collection of poems in 200 words or less or whatever the count was, I realized that a fox sighting was similar in ways to encounters with the Divine. God shows up in unexpected places. If you blink, you will miss Him. You have to be paying attention, which takes practice. Brother Lawrence wrote a book called Practicing the Presence of God. Apparently, he learned to immerse himself in God’s reality while washing dishes. Jesus promised to be with us to the end of the age. God promises never to forsake us. I’ve wasted a lot of time crying and asking God where he is. I often forget that I already know where He is. His Spirit dwells inside of me. I have to practice planting myself in that truth so that by God’s grace I can live in light of it.

Keeping watch–vigilance–requires discipline. You might say that seeing God, and seeing foxes, is a lot like hitting a fastball. You have to train your spiritual eye. Some of us will never learn how to hit a fastball, so here’s the good news: if we seek, we will find. If we watch, we will see.

However, lest someone accidentally read this and misunderstand, I’m not saying seeing is believing. Faith hurts. Faith is hard. I don’t have all or even most of the answers, but when I die, I would like for people to say that I walked with a limp and took the name, “Israel,” because I wrestled with angels and cried out, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”

So then, let seeing foxes be the guiding metaphor of this blog, whatever it may become. My prayer is that we all may know God, his son Jesus, and a fox or two.