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Thursday, December 31, 2015

God is in control... or not...

Sometimes I feel like we're a little hard on Job's wife.  Wait.  What?  One line in, and I feel the need to say, "stay with me".

Like every good Christian teenager in the 1990s, I sang along, with passion, to Twila Paris', "God is in Control".  There are still some good concepts there.  Is God ever going to forsake us?  Um... no.  Can anything separate us from the love of God?  Nope.  Pretty sure Romans 8:39 will back that one up.  But how does this indicate that God is in control and somehow responsible for everything that happens?  I think we rip this verse out of context just about as frequently as I Corinthians 10:13, which does not, in fact, read that God will never give us more than we can handle.  Let's be real, friends.  We often have more than we can handle, and if you have never experienced this, don't worry.  You will.

I don't think it's a mistake that Scripture says, "In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing" (Job 1:22, NIV).  I also don't think that this indicates that wrongdoing wasn't happening.  It's just that God wasn't doing it!  Job has just lost everything he has, his children, and is on the brink of losing his own health, at which point his wife finally says, "Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!" (Job 2:9, NIV).  Considering the circumstances, she is probably in an awful lot of pain, more than most people I know have ever experienced.  Maybe her words are even merciful, but we never look at it that way.  Personally, I've always thought of myself as pretty good in the midst of crisis (although I do tend to break down afterward), but the truth is, most of the crises I have ever dealt with have belonged to someone else!  Turns out I'm not as awesome as I think I am when I own the crisis.  Maybe that's why I feel some compassion for Job's wife, today.

Job's friends?  Not so much.  But they do sit with him quietly for a week, so there's that.  Then they talk... and talk... and talk... and they say some stupid things.  I really think we should dispense with the idea that bad things happen to people as punishment for sin.  I'm not saying that we don't suffer consequences for our lousy decisions sometimes.  Of course this is true.  But Job's friends are quick to blame him for his misfortune, even when he did not bring it on himself.  I think it is a foundational part of human nature to look for a reason when bad things happen.  Why we tend to blame the victims is completely beyond my understanding.  God calls the friends out pretty well, saying that they lied about who God is. 

We were talking about control, right?  Maybe it's a stretch.  Maybe there is some convincing evidence to prove that I've got this all wrong.  But I think it's pretty clear that Job's story is actually not a part of God's plan.  The narrative begins with Satan appearing before the Lord, seemingly as a surprise, since the Lord asks, "Where have you come from?" (Job 1:7, NIV).  A few lines of dialogue between them, and here's Satan, enacting his plan to destroy Job's life.  I think the question we all really want to ask is, "why". 

When good things happen, I think a lot of people just keep moving through life, perhaps thankful, but mostly unaware of or unaffected by God's presence in those things.  When bad things happen, I think most people tend to blame God.  But do we really think God is sitting somewhere, far beyond reach, orchestrating every moment and arbitrarily pouring out blessings or curses on people... on a whim... just because God can?  This doesn't really make sense.

God's answer to Job is an interesting one.  There are many words, but the idea that I see most clearly conveyed is, "I am here.  I have always been here.  I am in everything.  I am with you."  I don't feel as if God says, "I am going to make everything rainbows and unicorns... and glitter..."  I have no earthly idea why God would say to Satan, "Very well then..." (Job 1:12, NIV).  I would like it very much if God would never, ever say that.  But I do know that God's promise to stay near is one we can hold onto.  And I know that God doesn't cause suffering but holds us when it comes.

In order to believe in a god who is in control, I also have to believe in a god who doesn't always have our best interest in mind, in a god who is not, in fact, just, but who causes pain.  That is not my God.


Monday, December 28, 2015

What I Should Have Written All Along...

Or, "When You Just Don't Want to Lie in the Christmas Letter"...

Dear Friends and Family,

2015 was the worst year we have ever had.  Over the past twelve months, I have begun so many conversations with the words, "We're having a rough time, right now..."  To be honest, at some point I started having less conversations, because I got so sick of saying those words.

Early in the year, we dealt with multiple people who were content to take shots at our family and our children, over... and over... and over again.  I cried a lot.  I cried a lot in public.  I hate that.  Eventually, I managed to throw up the thickest walls I could build and stopped crying, altogether, but that hasn't been too healthy, either.

In March, Phil and I came clean with each other about pretty much every frustration we have had in (then) almost 18 years of marriage.  This moment was precipitated by the realization that I had almost completely checked out on him, so there didn't seem to be much to lose.  We fought harder than we ever had for a couple of months, often well into the early morning hours.  Then we fought a little less hard for awhile, because we were exhausted, but we picked it up again from time to time, all the way through November.  There were days when neither one of us thought we would see our anniversary in August (it was super appropriate that year 18 marks the "porcelain anniversary", because there were quite a few days we would have liked to just flush...), but we did see that day.  There were still other days when we didn't think we would make it to the end of the year, but we're almost there.  I realize this paragraph sucks.  Let me make it a little bit better by saying that right now, as December draws to a close, we love each other as much as ever, neither one of us is going anywhere, and it looks like we might even be able to do life together better than before.  Does that make it worth it?  I don't know yet.

Vocationally, things weren't any better.  We muddled through seven months of service in an abusive employer/employee relationship, because walking away at any given time presented a threat to Phil's ordination (which did take place in July, oh look... there's a bright spot).  In the meantime, I applied for numerous positions, but nothing panned out.  In September, I faced the worst vocational rejection, ever, and thought I might just stop trying, but that's not really who I am, so another batch of resumes went out in mid-December.  Looks like everybody is currently closed for the holidays, though. 

Another phrase I've used a lot, this year, or at least I've used some variation of it, is, "Well, at least our kids are beautiful... wonderful... smart... amazing... still alive at the end of the day... whatever..."  And they are all of these things and more.  So there's that.

I wasn't going to write this letter.  Is there any question why?  But then someone sent us a letter, and I knew I had to do this...

In the midst of Christmas craziness, we received a beautiful handwritten note that said that the Scripture we included in our letter, last year, had inspired some very dear and beautiful relatives of ours to give generously (even more so than usual) to those in need.  This was overwhelming to me, to say the least.  It hit me hard, because I feel as if I have failed at almost everything this year, but even in the midst of that, God was using something I penned (well, cited) to bring about some good in the world, all year long.  If God can do that, I really can't avoid sharing our story.  Maybe there is even something redemptive about 2015.  Maybe I can live with it if that's true.

If I had sent a Christmas letter this year (and I did write one, but this one is better), I would have included this verse:

"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze" (Isaiah 43:2, NIV).

In the last few weeks of 2015, I had been gearing up for kissing it good-bye and starting over.  I'm not even ready to get into all of the details of what happened next, but the truth is, we are still right in the middle of the waters and the fire.  I am far more afraid than I would like to be that 2016 is going to be another series of, "We're having a rough time, right now..." moments.  A well timed phone call or two could put that worry to rest, but even if it doesn't work out that way, it will be OK, because God is still with us.

I was thinking, just yesterday, about how we might not be certain of much of anything, but we have a roof over our heads (even if it is a small roof, and the rent just went up... again...), we have a refrigerator and freezer full of food, and the kids are always able to find socks (even if they don't match).  We have certainly been abundantly blessed in unexpected ways (see: did we manage to take a three week vacation to Florida in the midst of this mess), and God seems to come through even when we can't see how things could possibly turn out alright.  I'm going to hold on to that. 

I'm not going to lie.  I might hold on to it while listening to loud, angry music; screaming into my pillow; taking long walks; or kicking a kitchen stool or two (although I wouldn't highly recommend that, because it hurts).  But sometimes holding on is about all we can do.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention, at this point, that there has been a pretty good group of friends who have stepped in and held up our arms, even when they haven't really known it.  Some of them have been around for most of a lifetime, and others have caught us by surprise as people we didn't expect to have this kind of presence in our lives.  As often private people, it has sometimes been a challenge to remember which friends know which part of the story, but the sharing has been good.  I hope they stick around.

Before I finish this thing, there were a couple of quotes that caught my eye, this morning:

"What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family." -Mother Teresa

"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." - Mother Teresa

If we ever needed anything, right now, it's peace.  And that's it, for now, friends.  Life is hard.  God is near.


Monday, December 14, 2015

Find the Common Denominator...

This is, undoubtedly, my favorite place in our house right now.  And it's not because I love conflict.  No, in fact, it is the exact opposite.  I love this place, because I love peace, and I think we would all do well to remember that, as human beings...  as people created Imago Dei... we have much more in common than we often admit.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14, NIV), "For God does not show favoritism" (Romans 2:11, NIV)... Hmmm...


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Deconstructing the God We Want

Sometimes I'm cynical (and nobody gasped, ever).  So...  When I start talking about deconstruction, people squirm a little bit.  I love deconstruction.  In fact, I love it so much that the moment when I got so upset during a synchronous chat that I turned my microphone off and typed angrily for the rest of the time, because I was appalled that we would enter into a phase of reconstruction, has become something of a running joke among the members of my spiritual formation cohort.  Cut me a little bit of slack.  It was early in the program, and I have learned much since that night.  I also completely promise that I will not do that again in my upcoming class with the same fabulous professor, about which I am very excited.  But I still love to deconstruct.

It's important to distinguish right away that deconstruction is not the same thing as destruction.  I mean, it does involve taking everything you have ever believed to be true and basically blowing it up, but it's OK.  Stay with me.

We want to know who God is.  That's good, but in our desire to know God, we have often, instead, built a box for God that ends up looking much more like what we want than what is true.  A lot of people don't want to hear that, because their god is safe and comfortable... unless we're talking about how that god interacts with other people, you know, the ones who are different than they are.  Then their god is all business and hell and stuff.  Where did we get these convoluted ideas?  They have to go.  This is why deconstruction is necessary.  It weeds out the lies we have adopted as foundational.

Interestingly, God doesn't seem particularly interested in giving us a handle on God.  This is probably most apparent in God's interaction with Moses in Exodus 3.  Moses, when faced with a daunting task essentially asks God, "Who are you?"  and God responds with, "I am who I am" (v.14).  At this point I should admit that it's a very good thing that this interaction took place between God and Moses as opposed to God and me, because I likely would have responded with, "Very helpful, God," and an eye roll, and then maybe I would have been consumed by the burning bush.  Moses, however, although he still had some doubts and things to work through, at least stopped to listen.

So, what if we began by accepting that everything we think we know about God might be wrong.  I'm not saying it is, but what if we went with, "it might be"?  In Moses' case, that leaves just a couple of things that God says.  God is who God is.  God will be with us.  Maybe we need to listen to just that for awhile before we start building again.