|My parents' headstone|
As Kathy and I reach our 17th wedding anniversary, I find myself thinking of the pains and losses we have suffered over the years. Some of those things seem like they could have really thrown us for a loop but I don't think any of them have.
Lately I have found myself hearing from more and more atheists, agnostics, and believers who struggle with the question "How can a good God let such bad things happen?" And I agree with all these folks that events from Liberia to Gaza to Ukraine to China to our own border with Mexico do and should weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of anyone who is paying attention. These things challenge all of our unexamined ideas about how the world works.
In response to of all this, I'm writing this post as some sort of confession and explanation of my own faith, and I write it in a spirit of hope that it will be useful to fellow strugglers.
I don't see the logic in scolding anyone for not believing. Often, I think "believing" is really just feeling like you believe. And sometimes, your feeler gets tired.
I also don't see the point in lying to others, to God, or to ourselves about what we are feeling. That lying might just be coming between us and a more real relationship with the divine.
I think faith is much more than intellectual ascent to a few propositions. As others have said, most notably Jesus, faith is a way of life and love, a consuming action of one’s whole being.
Light has been shed for me in the midst of the shadows of losses. It has fallen particularly on words from I Kings 19.
1 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
The thing that has become illuminated in this passage for me is the fact that God was not in those things. We talk about God's omnipresence and we like to sing that the "whole world is in his hands" but this passage is indicating that God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire.
I am comforted by this biblical truth: God was not in those things.
From what I've learned, it is likely that the writer was making it clear that the Lord being referenced here is someone other and beyond the nature deities being worshiped at the time. A concept of God's transcendence is being articulated in this passage.
The transcendent God, one that is beyond our realm, one that is, in fact, outside the realm of realms or any other category, is the God that starts to make sense to me. It is the God who is convincing because of being beyond our grasp, whose essence is irrelevant to grasps.
But the passage also suggests that the presence of God and the whisper of God are not inaccessible to our experience. Using the words of the Iona liturgy, I think there is a wooing going on here. There is stillness, smallness, and silence, as well as some sense of movement in which God's presence might be found.
Where does this wooing happen? Maybe at the mouth of the cave of the heart.
And where is that presence passing by? I’ve encountered it in worship and in the testimony of others.
And it is passing. It's alive and not to be pinned down. It can't be locked into our brains or into a formula or into some sense of proof. It requires that we respond in moments and learn to dance with it. It appears to desire an ongoing relationship, not to become an object for us merely to observe or possess.
In the rituals of worship, we engage the narratives of scripture which are testimonies of those who have encountered that presence. Like us, those many writers witness to inexplicable good and bad breaking through in the breadth of their experience. Also like us, they sometimes dismiss the good that streams into the senses and fixate on that which is not so satisfying.
In spite of the way that some ideas about scientific method have undermined a sense of faith for many, I find that experience itself points me in the direction of God or at least in the direction of needing some way for accounting for phenomena that seem to be from beyond our realm.
Following one loss, I had a moment in which it seemed that it was time to express anger and maybe even to lose faith. In those moments of rage a bit of my father’s experience returned to me asserting that God is there regardless of what I might feel at any point in time.
Here's my father’s retelling of that experience from his early manhood. I’ve excerpted it from an autobiographical chapter he wrote in an unpublished book on ministry.
Yet another indelible memory from those years that helped shape the future of my life is one that also witnesses to the
goodness . . .
grace . . .
and gloryof the God Who has a plan for every life.
|My father within a year or two of this occurrence|
If we know enough people and our conversations are open and wide-ranging, we find that there are moments of knowledge like this that go beyond a conventional understanding of data gathered by the senses. There are also spontaneous healings of body and soul. And there are visions being had that have a depth, personality, and meaning that exceed the workings of any troubled individual's twisted grey matter.
When we add up all of that stuff, and as we keep adding more to it, we need an explanation, an epistemology, that aspires to do those things justice. And of course there is already a great range of explanations that have been espoused by generations and generations of people whose experiences and wisdom we might be tempted not to give much credence.
Of those explanations, I find the Christian concept of a God whose essence is transcendent, but who also lovingly becomes one of us, to be most compelling. The message that God is beyond us but also loves us seems to me like a good basis for being. It has energy and complexity that satisfy and activate. I can live with it and live by it. While a god worthy of the name needs to be other in essence, Jesus backed up his promise to be with us always by undergoing the sorrows of our existence. And spiritual stories from credible sources like the one from my father reveal the reality of a Spirit that still communicates that message.
In the midst of good and bad experiences, there is a presence. Nothing less than that adequately describes what happens in the fullness of human experience. The Bible is a record and an interpretation of that presence. In it, we see that God woos us. Sometimes that wooing comes in the midst of tumult where it needs to sound more like an intense stage whisper. “Life and death hang in the balance is says. "Respond for your action is of the greatest import,” it implores.
The Bible provides access to a rich tradition of struggle and of experiencing that presence. Its pages contain no denial of the bad that happens. Instead, its words remain relevant because the people who spoke and wrote them were remembering the name of the Lord in peace and in trouble. Their consistent witness is that God delivers us through things, not necessarily from things. It proclaims that, in spite of the winds, earthquakes, and fires, God is present.
To conclude, I share an ancient blessing from Psalm 20. I think it’s good for sitting at a graveside, or waiting outside an operating room, or for those sad and empty moments that sneak up on us in the midst of our daily work.
May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
2 May he send you help from the sanctuary
and grant you support from Zion.
Postscript for pianists:
For those who might play piano, I’d like to share a recent work or outline for a work. The idea for this and several other pieces came to me as an inspiration while we traveled back to Lakeland after this summer’s Lasker Summer Music Festival. When the time is right and musical ideas start flowing – when the mechanics of inspiration kick in – my faith in the presence that passes by is strengthened further.
This work is the beginning of Pilgrimage of Practice IV which is a postlude to the piano curriculum I’ve been writing the last couple of years. The entire series is based on stories of the life of the 6th century Irish saint, Columba. Volume IV introduces piano students to various practices of 20th and 21st century music. This piece explores indeterminacy as well as a bit of silence.
I encourage you to play it for yourself. Lately, I’ve been playing it daily and finding it to be a religious experience.
The Hermit’s Hollow
Like the prophets,
Columba went to a secluded place to commune with God.
wind, earthquake, and fire . . .
Beginning in the bass register,
Play a chromatic cluster, an octatonic upheaval, and a treble tremolo.
still small voice . . .
Quietly play a series of seven pitches, each one followed by a silence.
Attend to each pitch until it is inaudible.
share each silence with your listeners.