Wednesday, September 11

Consider It All-Joy

"It's not a comfort to me."

My friend - who waits for wholeness, for excitement in faith - waits, years now, to see God.  Running hard after him in education and community and pure grit; she knows he's more broad paint strokes than he is minutiae of the mind.

Hearing me say the things I've written here about suffering did nothing to move her toward him.  I have to wonder what is the magnetism to stay behind while his peace is just steps ahead?  When we see the end at least in some sketchy line-drawing sort of way, what in us makes us want to leave it be off in the distance. We might think "someday," but we say it with gnat-like confidence.


The book of James says that verse that we quote with a full adolescent eye-roll:  "Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance and let endurance have it's perfect result that you may be perfect and complete lacking in nothing."  

The very first word is like a hole in our own yard that we try to fill with the leaky garden hose of poor interpretation.  It doesn't say, "feel."  It doesn't say, "Be comforted." There is nothing here that says, "In the middle of the trial, I should fully grasp and experience joy because I know God is going to make me better because of it." This is not stiff-upper lip stuff.  This is a thinking word.  Consider.

This is early, early church and maybe James is the first to write a letter to a church, at least the first that we have.  And what do you know?  They're in the midst of something unpleasant right from the start.  This Christian life was never a predictor of ease or reward.  Early on, the Jewish Christians were scratching their heads, maybe weeping, stressed, threatened. We still follow suit in that, walking in the footsteps of all the trial-bearers that have gone before us.  There is nothing new under the sun.

And because every good mentor casts a vision for a mentee, and James is no exception, he begins the letter with the vision of hope. "Even though you're in this deep place of confusion or betrayal or persecution, you won't stay there.  The training doesn't last forever."  The mentor says, on the other side of it, "you'll be made complete."  It's just a sketch, because we can't really grasp what complete looks like but it's enough to make out the shape of it from a distance.

He knows the joy isn't right. this. very. minute.  But he knows it will be full and attaches "all" not to "trials" but to "joy."  He knows that there is the "all joy" coming.  This brother of the Lord, who once thought Jesus was crazy only later to be changed by the resurrection.  This brother has seen and lived with the difference between the young Jesus, the dead Jesus and the live Jesus.  This brother who devoted his life to the message of renewal and rightness with God; he knows what all-joy looks like.

We don't. We roll our eyes at it, because we think we have to feel it.  No.  Be free of that.  But we do have to think it.  Which means we have to stop thinking the other things, the false truths, the assumptions.  We have to stop clinging tighfisted to the tapes in our heads:
"I'm not worth anything."
"I'm dirty."
"I'm a failure."
"I'll always be this way."
"I'll never hear the answer."

The brother of James knows differently, thinks differently of you.  He's a man of love and love assumes the best, sees the best, wants the best.   Our assumptions about ourselves hold back the steadfastness, hold back the lacking in nothing.  Take up the thoughts that he has for you:

  • You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers
  • Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need
  • The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death
  • Even when we were dead in our trespasses, made alive together with Christ
  • The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me
  • And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field
  • Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation
  • We are reconciled
  • To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God
  • Competent, equipped for every good work

Joy is unnatural. There's no good reason for it.  It's the steady push toward trust in God. It doesn't have to be happy, just thankful, hopeful.  In the middle of contentment, it's there outloud, like paint on the walls.  But in the middle of trial, it's there, hidden, padding the floor where we lie down in grief.   Deep and steady and settled.

James says "consider."  Keep it in front of your mind, don't look away from the endurance that leads to wholeness.  Push to the all-joy.  It's not a comfort. It's a promise.

Thursday, September 5

The Discourteous Friend

Yesterday I had the chance to take part in a spiritual formation exercise which focused on a photograph.  
This is not the photo.  But there are some similarities.  If you could pretend the shadowed trees were sunflowers... 

I determined to go well before I realized it would be a day of tears riding at the surface; before I knew the hovering darkness would encapsulate me.  Grief danced with joy at inopportune times this week -- sometimes beaten back with the stick of hope, sometimes trampling on all my freshly sown seeds.  There are less trampling days now, but this snake is not crushed yet, and it had a tail to lash that day.  

I entered the room of the spiritual Jedi, formidable souls who reported to move through their days on a sea of grace, focused on the Almighty and saying, "It is well with my soul" around the table.  But I knew that this well of sadness couldn't be contained.  In that roomful of spiritual mentors, before they even knew my name, they knew it was not well with my soul.

Why couldn't the groping have come the next day?  Why did I have to introduce myself with trembling lip before a circle of gentle monks and sisters who could see into my heart?  Why couldn't yesterday's strength have lasted?

I managed to tell the briefest story, to lower my eyes, to tuck in my lip, and simply say, "And we're just looking for what God has next for us here." 

Thankfully, the speaking stopped and we moved into our morning's exercise.  We watched the photos on the screen and asked, "What does God have for me to see?"  When they ended we sat in a moment of silence, contemplating and then viewed them again.  And silently we left the room and scattered about the sanctuary asking Him not what do you want me to hear, but what do you want me to see?


In the desert, weather-worn treeless bluffs greet the rise of the sun.  The light and the warmth hit the peak of the rock, and nothing grows.  Not even with all the energy of the sun painted fast upon it. Not even with that.  And this happens all the time in a forever pattern.  It's not the first sunrise on these rocks and it will see sunsets again and again.  The light and the dark are rhythms like truth and grace.

But at the base of the bluffs, where the sun hasn't yet fingered, in the cracks and crevasses grows Asteraceae, the Sunflower.  In a cluster of life forms they wait to feel the sun on their faces.  Waiting.  Waiting.  It will arrive, but not in this moment.  Never in this photo.  

No one comes there to see them.  No one sees that they are doing exactly what they're designed to do.  They are beautiful enough for a garden, for companions in growth; but they're here between nowhere and anyplace.  Yet capable enough to persevere even so.  The growing continues even in desolation, even in the middle of nowhere.

What do you want me to see?

Keep doing it.  Keep growing.  Keep doing what the design says to do.  Follow it closely.  Do not waiver.  Do not believe that the energy is only in other places.  Keep crying.  Keep asking.  Keep leading.  Keep pushing into the side of God.  

Growth comes up out of the cracks.  That hard surface where the sun beats down grows nothing.  It's the cracked ones, the ones that walk with a limp, that have the potential to be made new, to absorb the life and give it back again.  

Always be ready with beauty.  To give it away.  Even if no one's around to take it. 

You are tucked.  
to push, fold or turn so as to hide or make secure.
to draw something together in a small space
to put or keep in a specified place so as to be hidden, secure or comfortable.  
I don't want to be tucked.  I want to be that plant, even in the shadow doing what it should do, reaching higher toward its Maker.  I don't want to be hidden or comfortable.  I don't care about secure.  But I am so tired of this pushing and turning and folding first inside then outside.  I won't give up the hope of the sun.


The women, wrinkled and warm with wisdom and grace, gathered around me and were silent at first.  I said it all to them.  They knew the picture.  They saw the paradoxes: the dry and the green ("It's not about the green, but the Giver of the green."), the dark and the light ("We can have a broken heart AND have joy").  

I know.  I know.  

Because I do.  I keep a list.  All summer I've tried to make a list of what I love, my gratitudes, and it's been sparsely attended to.  But in the midst of the great heartbreak I see the loveliness of the brave husband, the simple gift of flowers, the gatherings of friends, the provisions, the song, the purposeful work, the boys now moved into contentment.  My list just keeps growing.  My gratitude is great.  

Now I see.  

The woman near me who's been in the soul business in our city for so many years said to me, "This is how suffering is a friend."  And she quoted the end of a story she'd read in a book wherein God said this:

"If there was anything more I could have given you for your good I would have done it."

Hello, Suffering.  My friend.  Make me new.