God’s Will and Messy Faith

Colossians 1:9-10
9For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

This past Sunday, I announced that our family will be moving this summer to serve as the next Senior Pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas.  It was an emotionally difficult day announcing we are leaving Wesley at Frederica.  We love Wesley.  We love the people of the church.  We love the community.  Ministry together over the past five years has been deeply rewarding, encouraging, and powerful.  As I shared with the congregation, I am better because I have served Wesley.  Wesley made me better than I ever thought I could be.

I shared Sunday the difficulty of the decision.  How do we discern God’s Will when confronted with two wonderful opportunities?  Deciding between the clearly right and the wrong things should be easy (although, I recognize sometimes it can be a hard decision as well), but how do you go through the process of discerning between two great choices?  Is there only one right path?  Will God only bless the one and not the other?  I didn’t do as good a job explaining Sunday as I hoped to due to the nature of the day.  But let me explain a little more how I believe discernment between two good choices works.

As Wesleyan Methodists, we don’t believe in “determinism” – that God scripts every action, every step, and every move of our lives.  Determinism says we don’t really have choice, we just have the perception that we choose, but God scripts everything.  We see this in language when we say, “It’s all God’s Will,” or “God knows what He’s doing,” or “it’s all in God’s plan.”  This understanding is rooted in a different strand of theological thought than Wesley’s theology.

Others believe God creates the world, sets it in motion and stands back never involved in the creation.  It just operates like a clock that has been wound up and let loose.  Called deists by some, they understand God to be the great Clock Maker.  God is not involved in our lives.  We have total freedom and we can choose any path we want.

A more balanced approach is rooted in our Wesleyan theology.  We believe God is actively involved in our lives.  But we also believe give gives us the freedom to choose.  Freedom of choice can sometimes disrupt God’s purposes for us, but choice also allows us to love God more perfectly.  After all, how can it really be love if have no choice?

Thomas Merton wrote, “A [person] who is afraid to settle their future by a good act of their own free choice does not understand the love of God.  For our freedom is a gift of God given us in order that He may be able to love us more perfectly, and be loved by us more perfectly in return….He Who loves us means to leave us room for our own freedom so that we may dare to choose for ourselves, with no other certainty than that His love will be pleased by our intention to please Him.”

And that is the key…when confronted by two great choices; we are given the freedom to choose.  I truly believe God is involved and can work with us in either choice.  I believe God is pleased by either choice as long as it is our desire to please God.  We use a lot of factors to make our decisions…meditating on scripture, prayer, contemplative listening, listening to wise counsel, watching for opportunities, and sometimes miraculous signs!

The hard part in my decision to leave Wesley and serve Chapelwood is that I had to choose.  That can cause anger and hurt.  This is why in the Methodist Church we Methodist preachers like to have the Bishop simply appoint us.  That way we don’t have to accept any responsibility for moving.  We can let all the anger project on the Bishop and Cabinet.  It is also easier to talk with “deterministic” language about this decision.  God desires this and God led me and it is God’s will.  After all, you can’t be mad at me if God is the one pulling all the strings!

The complexity of discerning God’s will when we face good choices is evident.  My counsel to you is to spend time in prayer, spend time in God’s scriptures, talk to those you look up to and admire spiritually (seek those who are on both sides of the choice), spend time listening to God, and listen to your family.  Then, when time comes…make a decision, know God can work in and bless either choice.

This has been a difficult decision, but I truly see God in it.  I am excited about going to Texas to serve with the wonderful people of Chapelwood, but I am also grieving at the thought of leaving behind the wonderful people of Wesley.

This is a part of the journey, my friends.  As my friend Samuel Ghartey used to say, “I am struggling peacefully, my friend.  I am struggling peacefully.”

God Weeps With Us

Matthew 26:37-50

“I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want…”

I will never forget a story shared to me by Bill Mallard, one of my theology professors at Emory. He recalled a story of visiting a friend whose husband had died way too early in a tragic situation. As the people were at the house grieving, a friend of the husband asked Mallard in the presence of the wife, “Bill, where is God in all this?” Bill Mallard shared how he looked back with tears in his eyes and he replied, “God is here. And he is weeping with us.”

That’s not always how we think of God. We get that God is with us, but the weeping part has never been a part of our understanding.

N.T. Wright is the former Bishop of Durham and now Professor at the University of St. Andrews. When students would come to him and say, “I won’t be attending chapel, I don’t believe in God,” his reply was, “Which God is it you don’t believe in?” This would cause them a little hesitation, then they would begin to describe something like this, “I don’t believe in a God up in the sky looking down, a God who doesn’t care about humanity and suffering, a God who is removed from the world.” N.T. Wright’s response was, “I don’t believe in that God either!”

On this Palm Sunday and as we begin Holy Week, we are reminded of the last week of Jesus’ life. During this week, we see betrayal, suffering, and death. The death of Jesus at the hands of those in power. This was always God’s plan, but it doesn’t make it any easier for Jesus. You see, we seem to forget that Jesus was a man (yes, he was God in the flesh, but let us never forget that he was a man) – human flesh and blood just like us – and he suffered tremendously.

At this moment in the Garden of Gethsemene, Tom Long points out that “we see the collision of wills and desires at work”. This happens to us all the time in our Moments in the Wilderness. The collision is between the divine will and the human will. There are times when we can clearly draw lines of distinction between divine and human wills, but when times are difficult and suffering and grief are present, the lines are not as clear. We’ve all dealt with this – when something has happened to us – a broken relationship, divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of anything of value or importance – we struggle with the why. That is normal and God doesn’t have a problem with that at all. The hard part is when we move beyond the grief work and try to figure out the why. When we struggle to answer the why of the conflict between the human and divine wills, we find confusion and a lack of clarity. This causes many of us to believe God is not with us, God doesn’t care, or God somehow caused and we just have to accept it.

In the Garden of Gethsemene, we see Jesus grappling with the same thing. The tension between the divine will and the human will. Trust me; it’s not easy to see God and believe and understand when you are in the midst of great suffering. Here we see Jesus struggling in his soul. He is profoundly anguished. Jesus knows his life is in peril. He knows what is coming and he doesn’t face it with stoic resolve. He is emotional, full of sorrow, and distressed. Like the Psalmist in Psalm 42 and 43, his “soul is cast down” and he is “deeply grieved even to the point of death.”

In this moment of trouble, we have been taught that Jesus says, “Alright God, I know what I’ve got to do, give me the strength.” In almost every church Sunday school or sanctuary stained glass is the image of Jesus kneeling in the garden with his back straight, his eyes toward heaven, and a light beaming down. Funny thing is that the passage in Matthew 26 says that Jesus “threw himself down on the ground and prayed.” Jesus reveals deep pathos and humanity by asking God to provide a way out, an easier road that his life may be spared.

Jesus can relate to our grief and suffering. Not only because he has felt suffering and stared into it with the same questions we have, but because he also knows what if feels like to go through it alone. I think it is ironic that he asks his friends to stay up with him to pray. They cannot. This passage of waking them up and them falling back asleep communicates something we all know; we go through suffering alone. Jesus experienced this. Thomas Merton writes, “When a man [sic] suffers, he is most alone. Therefore, it is in suffering that we are most tested as persons. How can we face the awful interior questioning? What shall we answer when we come to be examined by pain? Without God, we are no longer persons. We lose our humanity and our dignity.” We must suffer with faith, knowing God is with us – knowing God weeps with us.

Let us look deeper into the life of Christ and say, “The God I believe in is not some God living in the sky who doesn’t know me or my struggles.” No, we serve a God who is revealed through Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus who died for us -yes; but Jesus who has also suffered. Jesus is acquainted with our griefs and our sorrows when we are in our moments of wilderness.

Thomas Merton: Being and Doing, Part 3

I continue to be amazed at the insight Merton had on the human soul. In this final reflection on “Being and Doing”, Merton pushes all of us to reflect on work and rest, sound and silence, being and doing. His line, “If we strive to be happy by filling all the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth.” My prayer is that our lives will not be a hell on earth. -JES

Matthew 12:1-6
At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ 3He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 7: Being and Doing (Part 3, pp. 127ff)
• One who fails well is greater than one who succeeds badly. One who is content with what they have, and who accepts the fact that the inevitably miss very much in life, is better than one who has much more but who worries about all he may be missing. Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony. Music is pleasing not only for the sound, but because of the silence in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm. If we strive to be happy by filling all the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth. If we have no silence, God is not heard in our music. If we have no rest, God does not bless our work. If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner of them with action and experience, God will silently withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty. May we learn to pass from one imperfect activity to another without worrying too much with what we are missing. It is true that we make many mistakes, but the biggest of them all is to be surprised at them: as if we had some hope of never making any.
• The relative perfection which we must attain to in this life if we are to live as children of God is not the twenty-four hour a day production of perfect acts of virtue, but a life from which practically all the obstacles to god’s love have been removed or overcome. We have this selfish anxiety to get the most out of everything, to be a brilliant success in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. We can only get rid of this anxiety by being content to miss something in almost everything we do. We cannot master everything, taste everything, understand everything, drain every experience to its last dregs. If we have the courage to let almost everything else go, we will probably be able to retain the one thing necessary for us – whatever that may be. If we are too eager to have everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need. Happiness consists of finding out precisely what the “one thing necessary” may be, in our lives, and in gladly relinquishing all the rest. For then, by a divine paradox, we find that everything else is given to us together with the one thing we needed.

On Being and Doing: Thomas Merton

Continuing to struggle with Merton, pushes me deeper to discover who I am and how I understand my vocation and calling. Merton’s great, probing reflection for me in these thoughts from his work, “No Man Is An Island”, is “The deep secrecy of my own being is often hidden from me by my own estimate of what I am. My idea of what I am is falsified by my admiration for what I do. And my illusions about myself are bred by contagion from the illusions of other men. We all seek to imitate one another’s imagined greatness.” May we always struggle to be only who God calls us to be (I wish that were always easy).

Isaiah 58.13-14
13If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;*
14then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 7: Being and Doing (Part 2, pp. 120ff)
• It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our interior life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting immediate reward, to love without instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.
• Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great.
• When we are truly ourselves, we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.
• We do not live just to “do something”. We must engage in a wise alternation of activity and rest. We do not live more fully merely by doing more, seeing more, tasting more and experiencing more than we ever have before. On the contrary, some of us need to discover that we will not begin to live more fully until we have the courage to do and see and taste and experience much less than usual. Everything depends on the quality of our acts and expressions. There are times, then, when in order to keep ourselves in existence at all we simply have to sit back for a while and do nothing. And for a man who has let himself be drawn completely out of himself by his activity, nothing is more difficult than to sit still and rest, doing nothing at all. The very act of resting is the hardest and most courageous act he can perform: and often it is quite beyond his power.
• The value of human activity depends almost entirely on the humility to accept ourselves as we are. The reason why we do things so badly is that we are not content to do what we can.
• The fruitfulness of our life depends in large measure on our ability to doubt our own words and to question the values of our own work. The man who completely trusts his own estimate of himself is doomed to sterility. All he asks of any act he performs is that it be his act.
• The deep secrecy of my own being is often hidden from me by my own estimate of what I am. My idea of what I am is falsified by my admiration for what I do. And my illusions about myself are bred by contagion from the illusions of other men. We all seek to imitate one another’s imagined greatness. Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all. I would be liberated from the painful duty of saying what I really do not think and of acting in a way that betrays God’s truth and the integrity of my own soul.

Thomas Merton on Being and Doing, Part 1

During Wesley staff meetings each week, we wrestle with the writings of Thomas Merton who challenges us to BE in God more than to DO for God. This week, Tommy directs us to examine how we understand our being and if it is tied negatively to our doing.

Genesis 2.2-9
2And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,* and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 7: Being and Doing (Part 1, pp. 117ff)
• We are warmed by the fire, not the smoke of the fire. We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of a ship. So too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in outward reflection in our own acts. We must find our real selves not in the froth stirred up by the impact of our being upon the beings around us, but in our own soul which is the principle of all our acts.
• My soul is hidden and invisible. It is hidden from us. We cannot see our own eyes, but we know they are there because we can see. Our soul can reflect in the mirror of its own activity, but what is seen in the mirror is only a reflection of who I am, not my true being. Much depends on how the soul sees itself in the mirror of its own activity.
• Our soul only finds itself when it acts. We must act. Stagnation brings death. I do not need to see myself; I simply need to be myself. I must think and act like a living being, but I must not plunge my whole self into what I think and do, or seek always to find myself in the work I have done. The soul that projects itself entirely into activity and seeks itself outside itself in the work of its own will is like a madman who sleeps on the sidewalk in front of his house instead of living inside where it is quiet and warm.
• Being means nothing to those who hate and fear what they themselves are. They must struggle to escape their true being. They verify a false existence by constantly viewing what they themselves do. They keep looking in the mirror for reassurance, but they do not expect to see themselves. They are hoping for some sign that they have become the god they hope to become by the means of their own frantic activity – invulnerable, all powerful, infinitely wise, unbearably fruitful, and unable to die.
• When we constantly look in the mirror of our own acts, our spiritual double-vision splits us into two people. We strain to see and we forget which image is real. In fact, reality is no longer found either in himself or in his shadow. The substance has gone out of itself into the shadow and he has become two shadows instead of one real person. Then the battle begins. Instead of one shadow praising the other, it accuses the other. The activities that were meant to exalt us now condemn us. We can never be real enough or active enough. The less we are able to BE the more we must DO. We are now our own slave driver – a shadow whipping a shadow to death, because it cannot produce reality out of our own nonentity. Then comes fear. We who “are not” become terrified by what we cannot do. We had illusions of power and sanctity, but now tidal waves of nonentity, powerlessness, hopelessness surge up in us with every action we attempt. The shadow hates and judges the shadow who is not a god and who can do absolutely nothing.
• In order to find God in ourselves, we must stop looking at ourselves, stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to BE in God and to do whatever God wills, according to our limitations, judging our acts not in the light of our own illusions, but in the light of God’s reality which is all around us in the things and people we live with.

On Suffering, Part 2: From Thomas Merton

I Corinthians 15:51-58
51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on imperishability and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
55‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island,
Chapter 5: The Word of the Cross: On Suffering
• Physical evil has no power to penetrate beneath the surface of our being. It can touch flesh, mind, and sensibility, but it cannot harm our spirit without the work of that other evil – sin. Sin strikes deep. It attacks personality, destroys our true character, identity, and happiness – it works to destroy our fundamental orientation toward God.
• Physical evil is only to be regarded as a real evil insofar as it tends to foment sin in our souls. That is why a Christian must seek in every way possible to relieve the sufferings of others, and even take steps to alleviate some sufferings of his/her own: because they are occasions for sin.
o According to Merton’s statement here, he would be an advocate of social justice as an integral part of our faith (unlike some television personalities)
• Compassion for others is good, but it does not become true love and charity unless it sees Christ in the one suffering and has mercy on him/her with the mercy of Christ. Jesus had mercy on the multitudes not only because they were like sheep without a shepherd, but also simply because they had no bread.
• Bodily works of mercy (acts of mercy) look beyond the flesh and into the spirit, and when they are integrally Christian they not only alleviate suffering but they bring grace: that is, they strike at sin.
• Human Sympathy: Alone, it can only offer loneliness in the face of death. Flowers are an indecency in a death without God. The thing that has died has become a thing to be decorated and rejected. May its hopeless loneliness be forgotten and not remind us of our own. How sad a thing is human love that ends with death. This is why many of us fight off suffering and death as long as we can, unless it block our human love forever.
• The Name and the Cross and the Blood of Jesus have changed all this. In His Passion, in the sacraments which bring His Passion into our lives, the helplessness of human love is transformed into divine power which raises us above all evil. It has conquered everything. Such love knows no separation. It fears suffering no more than young crops fear the spring rain.
Why is there peace for the Christian in suffering? Because Christianity is Christ living in us, and Christ has conquered everything. He has united us to one another and to Himself. We all live together in the power of His death which overcame death. We neither suffer alone nor conquer alone nor go off into eternity alone. His love is so much stronger than death that the death of a Christian is a kind of triumph. And while we rightly sorrow at the separation of the one we love, we rejoice in their death because it proves to us the strength of our mutual love. This is our great inheritance – which can only be increased by suffering well taken: We belong to God and no one will snatch us out of God’s hand!

Thomas Merton on Suffering

I Corinthians 1:18-25
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written;
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man Is An Island, Chapter 5: The Word of the Cross
• The Christian must not only accept suffering: he/she must make it holy. Nothing so easily becomes unholy as suffering. Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration. True asceticism is not a mere cult of fortitude. We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.
• Suffering is consecrated to God by faith – not by faith in suffering, but by faith in God.
• Suffering has no power and no value of its own. It is only valuable as a test of faith. To believe in suffering is pride; but to suffer, believing in God, is humility.
• Pride tells us we are strong enough to suffer, that suffering is good for us because we are good. Humility tells us that suffering is an evil which we must always expect to find in our lives because of the evil that is inside of us. But faith also knows that the mercy of God is given to those who seek Him in suffering, and that by His grace we can overcome evil with good. Suffering, then, becomes good by accident, by the good that it enables us to receive more abundantly from the mercy of God. It does not make us good by itself, but it enables us to make ourselves better than we are. Thus, what we consecrate to God in suffering is not our suffering, but our selves.
• The Cross of Christ says nothing of the power of suffering or of death. It speaks only of the power of Him Who overcame both suffering and death by rising from the grave.
• What after all is more personal than suffering? The awful futility of our attempts to convey the reality of our sufferings to other people, and the tragic inadequacy of human sympathy, both prove how incommunicable a thing suffering really is. When a man/woman suffers, they are most alone. Therefore, it is in suffering that we are tested. How can we face it? What shall we answer in the pain? Without God, we lose our humanity.
• When suffering asks, “Who are you?” we must be able to answer distinctly, and give our own name. By that, I mean we must express the very depths of what we are, what we have desired to be, and what we have become. All these things are sifted out of us by pain, and they are too often found to be in contradiction with one another. But when we live in Christ, our name and our work and our personality will fit the pattern stamped on our souls by the sacramental character we wear. We get our name in baptism. Our souls are stamped with an eternal identification. Our baptism, which drowns us in the death of Christ, summons upon us all the sufferings of our life.
• Suffering should call out our own name and the name of Christ.