Discernment, Acceptance, and the Dangers of Refinement

As my wife and I uncorked a bottle of new Cabernet, my 8-year-old son looked on with great curiosity and interest.  Since it was named after one of his favorite superheroes (Ghost Rider), he thought he should try some for himself.  Never wanting to squash his curiosity and desire to try new things, we poured out a splash for him to taste.  As he drank, a look of horror washed over his young face, and he quickly searched for the nearest sink.  After several minutes of spitting and washing his mouth out, he declared that the wine was awful, as my wife and I enjoyed every sip.  Most of us probably have a similar story when we were younger, as wine, beer, coffee, whatever, is a mostly acquired taste.  Our primary gastrointestinal instincts with these items don’t usually align with a desire to consume.  Our tongues are not used to these new flavors, but over time, we grow to appreciate, like, and even enjoy most of them.  Also over time, and with greater experience, our tastes mature and become refined.  What was at first bitter or strange now has a range of familiarity, developing into an array of quality and taste.  Our discerning tongues then know the difference between what works for us and what doesn’t.  When I first became a Christian, I involved myself in everything I could that was considered Christian.  Deeply committing to emotional and involved worship, I was interested in feeling everything.  Yet with time and experience, the initial desire for being swept up emotionally dissipated and a more discerning sense grew from the variety of Christian experiences I had, developing a desire for more intellectual involvement.  I desired a quieter approach that contained personal reflection, private contemplation, and confessional writing.  With a more refined faith, these newer ways furthered my walk with Him as the older ways just weren’t doing it for me anymore.  My more perceptive faith learned to search and test out various forms of Christian study and growth and decided upon what worked best for me.  Proverbs 2.3-5 models this approach to our faith, encouraging us to be forever seeking and refining: “Indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.”  Thus, it is not so much the final product, decision, or discernment that we have come to or developed, but instead the need to experience and refine our faith in whatever fashion that individually works best for us.  So, were my original more emotion-based ways of faith exploration bad or wrong?  Of course not!  There are still many people today who are refined in their faith and are involved in a more emotional approach to God.  Their faith increases tremendously with each new praise experience or spiritual intervention.  It works for them; it just doesn’t work for me.  There’s nothing wrong with them and nothing wrong with me.  We’ve just each grown in separate but wonderful directions. For those who have matured in their faiths, one of the dangers of experience is the temptation to look down on and judge harshly practices they have grown away from, and to now view them as pointless and wastes of time.  But who are we to judge?  If it helps others grow closer to Christ, then it must be good.  Just because it doesn’t work for you, that fact doesn’t make it wrong.  We must allow for variety when it comes to growing in Him and avoid judgement of other’s Christian walk, or we risk splintering the body.  We should instead further His kingdom through unity, embracing others and their diverse ways.  Whereas judgement and rejection fatally afflict the body, acceptance and understanding bring healing to it, uniting us as one in Him.  Amen.

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Grappling with Prayer, Searching for Answers

I’ve always had a difficult time with prayer.  In my endless searching, the problem I’ve always had has been exactly what the nature and purpose of prayer is.  At a young age, much like many other children, I was taught the Lord’s Prayer as a means of praying, not really understanding what each part meant.  Then, also like many, I would tack on my list of requests for blessings (naming the people closest to me), followed by a list of desires (things that I wanted to see happen in my life).  As I grew older and searched more, the words of the Lord’s Prayer deepened, and I understood them beyond just a memorization, however the way in which I would pray never reconciled with what my beliefs about God and the world were.  Many of us use prayer as a wish list, and the intensity of that wish list increases as the situation becomes more desperate.  A lost wallet or a possible failed test invokes passionate prayer, whereas a life of contentment and ease leads to calmer, contemplative prayer.  So, is the success of prayer based on human effort?  Just before Christ’s death on the cross, His prayer “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22.42) models for us to not request our own desires but to look to adhere more to His.  Similarly, Søren Kierkegaard theorized that the purpose of our prayers “is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays,” an idea that suggests our goal not be to change God’s mind, but instead our own path and mentality.  So, the words of the Lord’s Prayer “your will be done” and the follow up list of requests as pulled from my own will seem to contradict each other in approach.  CS Lewis, a fiercely private individual, was often asked about his prayer life, but would dodge these questions, feeling that prayer was something that was done, not talked about.  However, he too struggled with the purpose of prayer, feeling that requests (petitionary prayer) conflicted with the Lord’s Prayer (a surrendering to His will).  Lewis was quoted as saying that in his search, he worked towards “prayer without words,” a form of prayer that allowed him to meditate on individuals and visualize events without having an agenda towards a desire.  Additionally, he felt that in our search for how to pray, asking the question “Does prayer work?” misleads us into thinking that prayer’s success is an act of the will (the more faith we have and the harder we pray, the more likely our prayers will be answered).  In searching out answers for this apparent contradiction, Lewis felt that more surrendering and less requesting was in order, as requests are based in our sometimes short-sighted, earthly emotions, whereas surrendering allows for His perspective.   Like Lewis, our views on prayer are limited by our human perspective: we don’t have the answers and don’t know what effect prayer has.  Maybe our prayer requests, although important, are not how we should pray but instead may give us clues on which to focus.  Instead of a laundry list of requests, maybe when we tell others that they are in our prayers, in addition to providing comfort with those words, we then look to pray without words, seeking a meditative approach for support, as only God knows what is best for them.  We can allow ourselves and others to be drawn closer to Him not by putting conditions and stipulations on our expectations but instead wordlessly including those around us and supporting them in Him through ways we may never understand and down paths we didn’t even know existed.  Instead of focusing on our feelings about God, we could instead focus on God.  More importantly, although we don’t have all of the answers regarding how to pray, we can continue to seek them out, struggling to understand prayer through communion with Him.  It is then, in the quiet struggle and boundless searching, that we truly find Him.  Amen.

Empathy Amidst the Chaos

As words were slung between my two senior students, the stress levels of each continued to rise, and tension filled the room.  Each had very strong stances on illegal immigration, and the two girls took each comment more personally than the last, until they were ready to attack each other physically.  When I finally called a cease fire and told each to rethink their approach to the other person, reflecting instead on the way that each was responding, the two began to reach a deeper truth in each other, seeing the other’s worry and fear in the issue, taking note of how the issue was impacting the other on a more personable level.  Their anger was stemmed in their individual fear, and each was acting out in anger based in that fear.  When they were able to see the rooted fear in each other, they became empathetic to the other’s struggle, then putting aside differences, resulting in better and more true communication.  This past week has been difficult for this country.  We’ve seen an election literally split the country down the middle, where the two sides are now in a bitter feud regarding the outcome.  Riots and protests fill our nation’s streets, as both sides feel that they are misunderstood and that the other side is completely wrong.  Anger pervades, but this anger is rooted in something deeper than hatred: fear.  A recent Pew Research Center poll found that “more than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them ‘afraid,’ while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party.”  Both sides are deeply fearful of the other, terrified of what the other might do to the country.  With each thinking that the other is deeply unreasonable and misguided, a lack of communication results, all of which is based in fear.  So, where there is fear, there is a lack of communication, and thus a lack of empathy develops as both sides misunderstand the other.   When Christ was beginning his ministry in Matthew 9, many gathered to Him to be healed, but the crowds became large and unruly as they quickly grew in number.  Christ could have looked at these people and dismissed them as angry and riotous, but instead He saw what was at the root of their actions: “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (9.36).  Looking past their outward anger, He saw their deep-seated fears, and became empathetic to their plights.  With this understanding, he continued his ministry instead of scattering them.  When my two students understood that fear was at the root of their anger, they listened to one another and began a constructive dialogue.  Although they didn’t agree in the end, there was a mutual acknowledgment and appreciation of the other’s viewpoint, leading to an empathetic understanding of one another.  When we allow our fear to lead to anger, we open the door to hatred and suffering.  With the amount of anger our country is feeling right now, our hatred will only grow if we don’t work towards open communication.  It’s time to look past the anger we have for one another and see the fear that is at the heart of our actions.  When we see that we are acting out of fear, we begin an empathetic journey that leads to a better understanding of one another.  Although we may never agree, we can certainly appreciate each other and work towards an openly communicative understanding of each other’s point of view.  In the aftermath of this most difficult election, we need no longer focus on our differences and be afraid of one another, but instead empathically look towards open communication and to what unites us as a nation.  Only then can we be healed.  Amen.

The Not-So-Solo Act of Drowning

I’ve been feeling amazingly overwhelmed this week.  I’m literally drowning in paperwork and expectations.  I have a self-paced graduate class I haven’t begun, and the work is due in a week and a half, stacks of letters of recommendation to write for outgoing seniors, college essays to grade (which needs to be done right away, since many need to send them out this week), as well as this devotional to write.  Then, there are the household things to get done that don’t include meals and cleaning.  (That faucet isn’t going to stop dripping on its own.)  I need a haircut and haven’t gone for a run in a week.  I was feeling a little less rundown last week, but just when my head started to get above water, I was quickly dragged back under with the weight of all of these items.  So what gives?  1 Corinthians 10:13 says that No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”  Christians often times read this verse as meaning that God will not put more than what you can handle in your path, that God will always provide a way out for you, a deliverance from all of your struggles.  However, with all of this work staring me down, the idea of tossing it all out the window doesn’t seem like a viable option.   Too often, people think that becoming a Christian means living problem and worry free, but here I am with both.  Some think that God is some sort of magician that makes all of our problems disappear, that we won’t have any more money problems, emotional issues, or life hardships to contend with, and when we do have these problems, it’s because there’s something wrong with us.  Our faith must be weak, or maybe we aren’t praying hard enough.  Yet, the truth is, these struggles don’t go away once we commit to Christ.  They are still there and still plague us.  The difference is that now we don’t need to face them alone.  There is great comfort in knowing that we aren’t the only ones with these issues.  I mentioned to my students the other day that, despite everyone’s seemingly put-together exterior, we are all struggling underneath; we all have issues.  I mentioned that we all feel alone or invisible and just want someone to acknowledge that they noticed us struggling.  About an hour later, I received an email from a student in that class, someone who seemingly had it all together on the outside, saying that she thought she was the only one with those problems and can now face them knowing that she’s not alone.  Like most, she didn’t want to tell me her problems, but just my letting her know that she wasn’t alone was enough that she could now face them.  For those of us in Christ, we can take great comfort knowing that Christ never leaves our side, that we face our struggles with Him.  But for those that don’t have Christ, we can model Christ’s example to them by letting them know that we see them struggling, and that they don’t need to struggle alone anymore.  As this weekend comes to a close for me, I feel less burdened than at the beginning, as I was able to face my workload knowing that He faces it with me.  I can overcome it because I know that I am not alone.  This week, when you struggle, know that Christ struggles with you, but when you see others struggling, let them know that they don’t struggle alone.  More often than not, just being acknowledged is relief enough.  Amen.