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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the Covenant, ours together and ours with God

I started to add running to my morning exercise about a year ago.  At first, it started as just adding a ½ mile jog onto the end of my 3+ mile walk in the morning.  A year later, without pushing myself hard, I run/jog the majority of my 3+ mile route usually 2x a week.  It’s been a rewarding journey learning how to pace myself and trust my body as someone who’s overweight, an ex-smoker, and diagnosed with asthma at 15.

The time I spend exercising each weekday morning along the Lake Michigan shore is time I spend with God.  The team of ministers I work with have made a covenant, which includes living our discipleship and upholding each other and our mission for about an hour each day.  As I walk or run, I’m often in prayer, feeling the frustrations of my life and/or focusing on our team praying.  I also try to listen, to allow myself to be spoken to by God through my thoughts, to see God in the sunrise over the lake or the behavior of the water.  Sometimes, it lies motionless.  At other times, waves crash against the seawall where, at points on my trail, sea spray hits against my skin.  This morning, however, I heard God in a different.  God spoke to me through shutting out my surroundings.  In doing so, I had a brush with divine wisdom that I needed for today.  I want to share it with you.

On the mornings I chose to run, I often push myself.  I’m either tired from the day before and need to force myself to run through my fatigue.  Or, I try pushing my endurance and breathe a little harder, which is very rewarding when I am done and I feel the release in my legs and body.   Running can have a calming effect on my day that way.  If I do this often, my morning run changes the character of my time with God.  My prayer and medication is more based on feeling my way through.  I strive to find God in the run.  My thoughts focus on the meaning of my physical pain, the fatigue of my legs, and my thoughts compete with obsessions about how far I’ve run, whether I’ve reached the mid-way point, or how far I am from finishing when I can cool down and walk the rest of the way.  Pushing myself has a spiritual quality to it.

I often feel that all of us in denominational ministry, especially serving the Community if Christ, are running a marathon in our work with the church.  The pain and frustration I feel from pushing myself as I run can be the same experience of pain and frustration I feel emotionally as I try to fulfill people’s expectations in my role in ministry.  Whether preparing a sermon, running a meeting, or just trying to do the right thing by a church member – all in an environment of denominational decline and dwindling resources in which our problems are too big to respond to – I hit points in my role in ministry in which I just look for the finish line or obsess about how far I have to go before I can stop.   I’m looking for a break from the jurisdictional responsibilities and congregational problems that our North American church, as a whole, are facing.

I had a different experience today, though.  As I ran this morning, I began a little tired.  I had a 13 hour day yesterday.  And, on Sunday, I was a part of closing one congregation and at another that is trying to be reborn.  I had my mind on some relationships and projects that I’ve been trying to get control of and successfully complete.  Taking a different tact today running, however, instead of pushing myself I decided to pace myself because I wanted to run a little longer today.  During my time with God as I jogged, I felt God talk to me.  It didn’t come through the beauty of the lake or my meditations on God.  The moment of communion and epiphany came when I felt divine wisdom intersect with my body’s feeling and prayers as I was jogging.

Almost ½ way into my run, I realized I was really enjoying it.  Yes, I was tired.  My legs were fatigued and felt a bit heavy.  But, I was pacing myself and my body felt good.  I emotionally felt up and I wanted to keep enjoying that feeling.

As I continued to jog, instead of enjoying the beauty of the lake or the sun rays I could see descending through the cloudy morning sky, I closed my eyes and shut out all that was around me to focus on the enjoyment of jogging.  My eyes peeked open every few second just to make sure I stayed on the trail and didn’t run into cyclers or other runners on my path.  But, for the vast majority of those couple miles, I kept my eyes closed.  I didn’t focus on how far I’d run or how far I had to go.  I simply enjoyed the running.

I felt God speak to me through the experience about the pace of my mind and of my life in all this.  This wasn’t a mental exercise or logical conclusion I came to.  It felt like a moment of revelation – revelation for that moment, for today, for what I was struggling with at this point in my ministry and my walk and run through life.

As I serve in this call to the church, I don’t have any idea how long it will take before I see things turning around for my congregation, the congregations I serve, or the North American church in general.  I don’t know how long it will take before the decline and contention seems to end.  I don’t know if the search for good pastors or volunteers for church camps will ever become easier, or if there will be a change in momentum.  I don’t know how many congregations I will help close or watch struggle for direction.  I can’t see the finish line for this job, nor any sort of mid-way point.  And no amount of short-term accomplishments will change the overall trends.  All I can do is keep running.

But…if I pace myself, discipline myself to stay with the Covenant, discipline my life to pray for and seek community with others, I won’t only learn to enjoy the run.  I can learn to close my eyes and take my mind off the obsessive search for signs of change, for finish lines, and half-way points.  I don’t have to rely on my eyes to find meaning or see what I can only trust in faith, whether it be new life or just plain relief.

There is no finish-line in ministry any more than there is a finish line with Christ.  Ministry, like discipleship, is not a series of tests on fulfilling others’ emotional or scriptural expectations, or test of organizational accomplishments.  We are called to trust less in these criterion of success or fulfillment and, instead, on the covenant.   Covenant and discipleship are Christian code words for a different kind of life and different kind of community than our world offers.  It is measured in completely a different way.

True.  Life, and life with others, remains a marathon, of sorts.  But, we cannot measure our progress solely on what we can see.  It isn’t always about finding God in the beauty of our surroundings.  Sometimes, there is more tragedy than beauty.  We also cannot give into staving off life’s despair and difficulties by setting artificial goals with discernible mid-points and finish lines.  Ministry, like discipleship, requires that I learn to close my eyes and trust in what I cannot see.  Living in covenant with God and others requires trust, which is only learned when we can pace ourselves and enjoy the journey.  The Covenant, like our life’s journey, is sure.

Christ has crossed the finish line and continues on that we might learn to walk/run with him each day.