dark moments and ways forward

It has been a hard 36 hours.   Margo and I learned something a couple of days ago that potentially halts important plans that have been months in the making.    The news was not a bump in the road; it was a deal-breaker.   It could halt everything and potentially change the direction of our next few years.

The bad news involved circumstances and realities that are completely out of our control.   Hearing the news made us all of the sudden feel very vulnerable, victims of an impersonal world and other people’s bad decisions.  I wish I could share more details, but they are both complicated and personal.  Suffice it to say, what’s important here is that our very sense of security and self-determination was completely undermined.  It created a feeling of insecurity and dread that I feel still. The outcome is unsure and the feeling lingers.

I know others have been here.

We experienced this kind of loss of control over our lives before when Margo was first diagnosed with TTP in 2007.  We spent 30 days fighting for her life in an out-of-state hospital, racking up a bill we didn’t know would get paid.  This time, the circumstances were different.  But, the feeling of helplessness and insecurity were the same.  Emotionally and mentally, it was debilitating.   Everything was up in the air.  We felt trapped.  This was one of those moments when the flow of life, itself, was disrupted and you can question everything.

Everyone, I think, experiences these situations from time to time.  It can be from a death, unforeseen bad news, an innocent but bad decision, loss of work, break-up of relationship, loss of control.   Some live with the dark feelings of these situations chronically.  We live in a world where more and more of us are seemingly less and less in control.   Economic crisis, unemployment, divisive religious issues, shrinking churches, strained friendships, loss of security, increased isolation, hostile politics – no wonder we live in a culture that seems to perpetuate and profit from depression and escapism.   No wonder the airways are full of angry talk about security and freedom.   Along with trust and sanity, both seem to be so scarce these days.

Dark moments can hit from out of the blue or haunt us seemingly incessantly.  Few things can shake the foundations of faith like a loss of control in your life and an inability to see a way forward.  I’ve experienced that myself lately.  When this happens, many people either try to lose themselves in the busyness of immediate demands or others’ needs: going to work, hitting deadlines, focusing on getting kids to practice, keeping schedule, and making lunches.  Others lose themselves in other things: eBay, day trading, internet outlets like facebook, gaming, and online communities.  Not all are bad or destructive.   Connecting with others and healthy outlets can be a salve for getting through difficult feelings.  The ways to escape and channel the energy of dark times and their feelings of anxiety or insecurity are as many as the people who feel them.  Sometimes the darkness and feelings pass.  Circumstances change or we make our own adjustments.  Sometimes, the darkness lingers and is difficult to escape.  In either case, withstanding the difficult loss of control, helplessness, and insecurity is a passage of its own.  Faith, I think, plays an important role in keeping both our mental sanity and emotional flexibility, as well as strength and sense of peace.

One way people use their faith in dark times is to use faith, itself, as an escape.  This isn’t all bad.  It’s easy to suppress or counter dark feelings and chaotic circumstances by telling us God is in control or God will make a way.  This can be incredibly important.  But, it can also be a short cut and follow an incomplete understanding of God and faith in our lives.

In my view, the problem with turning to faith for escape is that it does not provide a new way forward.  It becomes an alternative – rather than a reason to face – reality.  The dark moments and feelings are real.  The situation that causes them are often real.  But, God and faith offer more than merely surviving dark moments by waiting out the situation in a bubble.  Again, this path forward isn’t always bad and sometimes necessary.  The difference is a matter of spirituality.  A simple way to make the distinction between an escaping kind of spirituality and using faith to move us forward into reality may be the difference between faith as belief versus faith as how we choose to live.

Of course, the distinction is real, but it represents a false choice.   Spirituality can mean separating beliefs from actions.  But actions usually aren’t separated from beliefs, conscious or unconscious.  Nevertheless, the distinction is helpful.  If faith is simply a matter of what we choose to believe, then believing God will turn things in our favor, restore our sense of control, or take care of us becomes one way you use faith.  We believe something despite our feelings and circumstances.  But, this kind of spiritual approach is very different than one that uses faith to face immediate reality, take it in, accept dark moments of insecurity and our shaken sense of things.  Faith can be power in and into these moments of helplessness, not just go around them or survive them.

When the bad news came to Margo and I, at first I was extremely frustrated, even angry.  Because of my feelings, my thoughts raced.  Without thinking, I began to rant and blame.  I also immediately felt helpless.  “What are we going to do, now!?!?”  This question haunted me.  As long as it haunted me, a feeling of despair and helplessness set in.  In all reality, there wasn’t alot I could do except be patient and come to peace with alternatives I could not control, but I could face.

As I faced what might be, my difficult feelings compelled me to pray.  They were so real.  The loss of power and choices made me feel abandoned.  The situation reminded me of how much our sense of wellbeing and security in this world is based on our ability to make decisions, control the outcomes, follow our desires and seek (what we think is) our best interest.  When these are taken from us, the darkness of the loss is total and can feel equally unjust and debilitating.

Instead, however, I faced my feelings and my options.  I didn’t do it with cool confidence or grace.  I just refused to believe what my feelings wanted to say.  I was not abandoned; God does not abandon us.  I also knew faith wasn’t about being in control.  With all the tragedy and injustice in our world, God also may not be in full exacting control.  But, God’s power is also not a power we understand.  I know and trust God’s presence in all things – even darkness and tragedy.  Looking and expecting God in these concentrated moments of loss and seeming darkness is difficult, but also transforming.  It brought a peace the ways of the world couldn’t give me.

Prayer was a passage into humility, something my modern sense of power and control could not provide nor fully understand.  Nor, could it help me escape.  Accepting and taking in the humility, even humiliation, of my situation all was a profound feeling that helped me embrace what was happening.  All was not lost.   Salvation, whether here and now or in the hereafter, is not based on my own power to control my life & circumstances.   The substance of God was in present reality, not escape from it.  That’s where I found both myself and myself with God.   Together, I was able to find both peace and possibilities if things didn’t go our way.  The experience was transforming for me, and the future I was dreading.

I want to be clear about this.  This wasn’t a moment of “let go and let God.”  It was a moment of embrace, not letting go.  It was based on a spirituality and faith that God is in and amidst reality – not in flight from it.  The humility of it all was deeply grounding.  I emerged from the bad news and negative possibilities somehow more grounded, capable, alive and complete.  It’s something that is difficult to put into words.  It wasn’t just resignation or a change of mind.  But, it was also an experience that was incomplete without bearing my experience in testimony.

I’ve always been led to believe, by the Spirit I trust, that God’s passage in Jesus Christ is a passage of God from heaven in, to, and through our reality – not around it.  Jesus, on the cross, did not commit the great escape.  The only way we can believe he was the messiah, that we die with him and in him (like Paul), and that all creation is changed because of him is if we also believe that, somehow, Jesus came into the world and into its darkness.  All human reality came to a head and a turning point in his death on the cross and its humiliation.   In this passage, God, in Jesus, teaches us how to die and live.

I can only conclude that when Jesus says, “Bear your cross” and “Follow me,” Jesus does not point the way out of or around this world.   Discipleship and the cross are not a path or way around reality or escape from its dark moments, but a path to go through them – not alone.

In scripture, that’s where we find Jesus, Immanuel.   The only way to tell God’s passage from heaven to earth – for our sake – was to tell of God in sufficiently human terms.  Jesus was that human, who’s ministry and death bear all the marks of a real human life – birth, parents, temptation, struggle, calling, moments of embrace as well as betrayal, eventual humiliation and tragedy.  The point of the story is that God triumphs.  Jesus did not overcome to escape, but embrace and change reality.

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gospel = good news…for whom?

I was moved this week by an encounter I had at a grocery store.   I posted it on facebook.  An interesting discussion of Christians, ministers, and non-church-goers ensued.

I was at the store helping a church member and friend.   A disease was changing his life and his family’s.  He had not been able to work for three weeks due to this disease.  It made him chronically sick.  He was just starting to think about applying for disability.  His wife and four kids had run out of food.  The lack of income was beginning to cave in on them.  We were out at the grocery store getting food for the next week before some other aid kicked in.  The difficulty of the whole situation was really heavy on he and his family.  We talked about what was harder:  the emotional stress of the family’s financial crisis and no longer being able to work, or just suffering through the disease that was making it all happen.

Shopping at the store, I overheard another young woman near crying to a store associate.  She was a young mother.  All I heard of the conversation was this as I passed by filling our cart:  “…and the churches kept saying that they would only help out their own members.  I have three kids.   What am I supposed to do?…”  I immediately felt convicted by her words.  I am a full-time minister.  I was helping friends that were members of my church.  Even though they had not attended for a while, the situation they were in was not – and is never – the time to talk about how often they had been attending.   I had a relationship with them.   I care for them.  It had been years since we saw each other, but we shared a heartfelt connection.   But, what about this women at the store?    I thought about the verse in Luke:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”  (Luke 6:32-33)

This was the same passage in which Jesus teaches to give without expectation of return and to love our enemies.   This is the heart of Jesus’ gospel.

The women I overheard was now down the aisle.  I opened my wallet.  All I had was $20 in cash.  The $20 was neither guilt money or anything to get puffed-up about.  It was simply a matter conviction, a matter of principle.

I chased her down.  I gave her the $20 and said, “I’m a Christian.  I don’t believe churches should just look after their own.  It isn’t much, but please take this.”  I put it in her hand.   She received it.   No angels sang.  No crisis averted.  It was no great act of generosity.   It was simply a moment of awkwardness between strangers, but also a moment of graciousness.   Maybe not all churches and church-folk were the same.  Or, that’s what I hoped.  I walked away with a feeling I still can’t explain.

I get the arguments.  I’ve been a church administrator.  Church’s could not help anyone if they practiced no discretion in offering financial help.  But, can we justify restricting generosity to our own membership?  What do church’s say about Christ, Christ’s message, and God’s mission when they only support their own?   I think this is the deepest betrayal of the gospel, and I think Luke’s gospel supports that way of thinking.

On the facebook discussion about the experience of this young mother, there were several insights.  They came from good friends and ministers in the UCC as well as some ministers and volunteer pastors in Community of Christ.  One was from my friend Derek Sanders, who said that he is more interested in relationship than membership.  I believe Christ’s example is precisely that relationships are the fabric of the gospel and his ministry.  To that, I say, “Amen.”   Nan, another pastor of a Community of Christ congregation, talked about her struggle with how many people were reaching out to her small congregation for aid.  She said her congregation was going to have this conversation about building relationships soon.  Others talked about how congregations they knew cooperated with local agencies to pool resources and centralize ways to help.   These are things that, I think, churches can and should do – not proselytize to those in financial crisis or only help their own.

In the end, for churches, the question of helping others in material ways comes down to a simple matter of Christian identity and mission.  What are churches, really?  Why do Christians comes together in “churches”?  For themselves? What is their gospel and who is the good news of the gospel really for?    Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ judgment of the nations in chapter 25 should not be read as a scriptural scare-tactic for church folk, as much as a humble moment of clarity.   When churches reach out to those in need, the good news of the gospel come to both.

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory…34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.”  (Matthew 25: 31,34-40)