Bible Study, Faith, Gardening, Spiritual Encouragement, Uncategorized, Writing
Comments 12

When You Don’t Know God Is

sunsetpond

I haven’t written on this blog since Christmas. It’s now Holy Week.

I don’t know if I quit or took a break or got busy.

I did go to Europe for a month.

I’ve written snatches. I’ve read tons.

I saw the Notre Dame and rode the tube and watched the sun set in Scotland.

 

edinburghsunset

 

So, yeah, I’ve been busy. Away.

But, is something else going on? Something in my knower, in my insides? Maybe it’s midlife. Maybe it’s a spiritual crisis. Maybe it’s winter.

Most days I feel like I don’t know much of anything at all anymore. And that has left me quiet.

There’s been a shakedown, a sifting. The holes in my soul are showing, and I am gutted.

Writers are encouraged to write what they know. Memoirists (am I one of them?) are taught to write in the tender bruise, from the flowing vein. I wish I were good at comedy writing. Just keep the jokes coming, you know? Venous writing can be draining (see, I am funny!). But here I go, sharing my holes again…

*

We just passed the vernal equinox, the 24 hour period when daylight and night are in balance—twelve hours each—everywhere on the planet. I live where spring is usually cloaked in frosty snow, the shadowed corners of the garden still entombed in ice. Holdovers of winter grip tightly. But not this year. My husband swept the deck and we sat in the sunshine visiting with friends sharing our Scotch whisky. The sweet scent of the peat and the North Sea right there in my backyard brought a lump to my throat.

And the sun warmed right through me. Not even a chill in the air. Spring arrived on time and we delighted in the surprise of it.

But the garden is still full of the death of winter. Our friends left and after we said our goodbyes walked outside to gather the glasses. I looked at my yard knowing the work to be done is all mine. So many stems to trim, dead leaves to clear away, branches to prune, to make way for the growth that is even now pushing through: glimpses of green, tightly folded buds. In time and with a bit of coaxing by spring sunshine and rain, they will unfurl to full leaf.

My insides are rustling in breezes making the scratching music of dry leaves on dead twigs.

It is a lonely, little song. Not much of a song at all. Just the skittering whispers of my spirit. The wind blowing through the holes, my experiences and knowledge and beliefs all scattered like garden detritus at my feet.

Barren. Bare twig. Dead leaf.

It is not the message the people want to hear, I breathe to the Wind, when I feel that prompting to write this out, share it. People want golden, honeyed words, encouragement to get them through the day. People want promises and victory stories. People want heaven’s power, healing, on tap. Five Steps to Being a Happier Christian. Fill my cup, lord, and all that.

I don’t have the power phrases, the right church words. I’m repelled by spiritual platitudes and put-off by #blessed. Have I turned cynic?

No. Just work out the message. Dig through the stuff. Look at my word. You’ll see.

(That’s all I get in response.)

And I make a decision.

I’d rather the wind howl in my soul full of holes. At least the hollow moan is real. Undressed, unfilled, naked, waiting.

sunsetpond

 

I’ve been a Christian all my life. I live in a Christian society. Every presidential candidate professes to an affiliation to a Christian religion. We’re all about the big holidays: Christmas and Easter. We say God Bless America.

Our collective crops are full to choking the goose with all this Christian goodness.

I am deconstructing. I am working backwards and forwards in this thing we call “Christian faith”. Asking questions.

 Why is our “faith” framed by traditions instead Scripture? Where is it culture and where is it true?

When did followers of Jesus the Jew become the American Evangelical Right? And when did Jesus become a fan of gun control laws?

And why do we all claim he’s in our camp, politically, denominationally, theologically?

Why is National Geographic producing a show about “Who is God?” when we’ve rendered him a cultural icon, a crutch, irrelevant?

And when asked, “Who is God?” is it wrong for a Christian to honestly reply, “I don’t really know”?

Why do we act all certain all the time?

Isn’t certainty counterintuitive to faith?

According to our bibles it is. Certainty may indeed be faith’s opposite.

Hebrews 11, often called “the great faith chapter” begins by stating this thesis (NIVUK): Now faith is the confidence in what we hope for and the assurance about what we do not see.

This verse. It’s always been a tough one. So, I wrangle up my online study tools and look into the Greek words from which our text has been translated and this is the definition of faith (as defined by Hebrews 11) that I arrive at:

Faith is the foundation for hopeful trust and a tested proof of the existence of the indiscernible.

Can you see the tension in the concepts that define faith? It is the foundation for a hopeful (not yet realized) trust and tested proof of a reality that cannot be grasped.

Faith is not simple.

I’m sorry to be contrary, but I think the cultural norm of talking about ‘having the faith of a child’ is nonsense. Kids ask “Why” all the time. They test the bounds of gravity and boundaries every waking minute. They are by nature, professional proof gatherers.

I can participate in the cooperative work of being part of the faith equation.

I can still ask why.

I can believe and wonder. I can accept that I seek the answers and never possess them all.

I stand on my deck in the middle of a March breeze, fling my arms wide and say, O holy wind whip through me, blow the chaff and empty me.

*

We live in a Christian culture consumed with being full: full of the spirit, full of joy, full of grace, full of truth, full of answers, full of values, full of morality, full of commitments, full of ministry, full of bills to pay, that we’ve forgotten—or never known—and maybe in all honesty we’re a bit terrified of—the ache of hungering after the truth of Christ.

We go to church, to conferences, to worship sessions and women’s weekends and small groups to top off, make sure that needle stays far from “empty” on the gauge.

We may sing about being desperate for Jesus, but are we actually desperately afraid of not feeling faith-full every minute?

And I feel again the hollow within me and wonder how long we can live on empty calories.

I’m vulnerable right now. But I’m full to sick of calling tradition “faith”.

I may not have the words that people want to read. I may not even know much at all. So writing a blog about faith seems a little silly.

cathedralceiling

I have this app on my phone created by the Church of England (yes, I know the political history) of the Book of Common Prayer. Morning, afternoon, night. I can tap the app and take part in tradition. I do. I like repeating the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes, when I’m alone, I read the passages aloud. A little liturgy.

And one day this:

Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6 NIVUK)

And it rattles in my hollow.

Out come the study tools again, for I like a forensic look at scripture.

A more literal read of the text: For he who comes to God must believe that he is and he is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

The words in the Greek reveal the mystery of faith:

Believe=pisteuo

(derived from pistus, faith) To think to be true, to be persuaded, to place confidence in, entrust

 

He is=eimi

To be, exist, happen, to be present

 

That he is=ginomai

To become, arise, appear in history, come upon the stage, to be made, to receive being

 

A rewarder=misthapodotes

One who pays wages

 

Of those who seek=ekzeteo

To seek out, search, investigate, scrutinize, beg, crave, demand back, require, seek for oneself.

 

Once again, I am undone. There is more here than I can take in one swallow. But I need to eat truth. Because I’m hungry.

I’m transported to that Midian desert when the voice speaks from the burning bush to a curious Moses who saw the fire and moved toward it, searching out the mystery. I flip the crackling pages of my bible to Exodus 3.

And there, in that fire, on that hillside-made-holy, a barefoot Moses heard:

I AM THAT I AM.

The Jews had something right by never giving a spoken name to the mystery and power that we call God. YHWH. The breath of the universe, the indefinable power.

Do you notice the reverberating echo here in the book of Hebrews? Don’t miss it. It’s there on purpose. He is and he is.

God: IS THAT IS.

Exists and existing and to become in existence.

If I think it to be true, if I am at all persuaded of the IS THAT IS, I can push and test and investigate and ask why and push the boundaries of tradition and find the IS in all of it. My part of the equation, my response? To seek, search, investigate, scrutinize, beg, crave, demand, require…

Faith is movement. Movement in the investigation, in the testing, in the seeking and perpetual finding of God who always IS wherever we are. Faith is active, not passive.

And the wage at the end? The “reward”? A small description in Hebrews 12 nearly bowls me over:

You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.

You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (12:22-24)

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe for our ‘God is a consuming fire’. (vs 28-29)

So YHWH (Jehovah, El, IS THAT IS), God, has happened and is appearing and will be made. You and I are in the “now and not yet”. We are the inquisitors, the begging, craving, truth-wanters.

Or we’re not, if we so choose.

And God’s answer to the question of “who is God?” might well be: I KNOW I AM BUT WHAT ARE YOU?

Sounds like playground rhetoric. But the stark reality of it stands against the backdrop of time.

Prove me, God says.

YHWH is not intimidated by my questions, by my doubts, by my railing against tradition.

YHWH doesn’t need me to prove that he exists. He doesn’t require my obedience to prove I’m faithful. He is faithful to reveal himself when I step into the unknown in response to his invitation to obey, to follow after, to find him.

YHWH doesn’t need me to defend him to the world, to prove to others that he’s real. Instead he holds out a strong arm and asks if I’d be willing to link my scrawny arm in his and cooperate in proving whether or not what I can’t see can be trusted.

YHWH doesn’t give me a 7-step-program or a Roman’s Road or even a plan of salvation. God is. And I can be, or can not be, persuaded to test this claim.

*

graffiti

I spotted a bit of graffiti in Paris. A swath of paint on a wall above the drain spout near the cobbled stone road in the Jewish district of Paris, France: I know but I don’t understand but I know.

I have this conflict as a believer.

I can’t say that I know that Jesus is God’s son, that he died on the cross, was buried and rose on the third day and is coming again. I don’t know that. I didn’t watch it happen in real time.

But I am persuaded to believe it. And I will confess it.

I am searching out the word of God; I am testing the claims and seeking the answers; I am linking my weakness to God’s “IS-ness” and I am moving toward understanding the answers I don’t know yet. I am persuaded there is a superior kingdom, a future existence that I don’t see yet, that I don’t understand, but I know it the way a child knows: by always asking hard questions and pushing boundaries and being content with not understanding it all.

I’m faithing this thing out. Like Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi: I’m persuaded that he who began a good work in me will be faithful to complete it.

I might never be a speaker at Christian women’s conferences with this sort of stuff. I won’t be on staff at a church. I think I won’t try to market this in a book. The questions and answers are hard and lumpy and sharp-edged and I can’t arrange them in chapters with catchy, letter-matching titles. I’m a bit of a mess, actually, so don’t jump on my bandwagon and I promise I won’t try and build a “platform” and invite you to be in my “tribe”.

But join me?

Find a spot and fall apart and let the howling wind blow away all you “know” until it comes down to this: The IS THAT IS calls your name, that name of yours written in heaven where the thousands and thousands of angels happen to be in joyful assembly. The IS THAT IS invites you in the cooperative process of proving the IS-ness of the existence of God.

And one day, the reality of that unshakable kingdom will be known, understood, fully. That is the promised wage for the earnest seeker of IS THAT IS. Until then, we can ask questions, we can test tradition, we can be empty and hungry for what’s true—Who’s true. And we can whisper into the emptying wind and believe.

paradox

Alyssa

(For further reading: Hebrews 11, 12, Philippians 1, Exodus 3)

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12 Comments

  1. I am a bit jaded with everything being victory stories, and steps to anything. Lately I have been a bit disconcerted with all the things people say aren’t true anymore about faith…..they thought it was, but wasn’t. I get that. I have done some of that myself, but find it a bit of shifting-sandness when everything is up for grabs, including belief there even is a God.I appreciate what you have said here.

    As i was standing on the ocean shore, this morning with my feet in the shifting sand,feeling like I would lose my balancet, as well as getting dizzy by looking and focusing on the water rushing in and out around my feet, I remembered the advice when seasick to always keep your eye on the horizon…the thing that doesn’t move. And I remembered one morning hearing the music from the group Petra, singing the “The Apostle’s Creed” blaring from my teenage son’s room as he was getting read to go to school. I thought then and I thought this morning, I do still believe the bottom line – the “horizon”. The Apostles Creed. We add so much to it…But this I do know.

    thanks for sharing your journey.

    • It’s interesting that you bring up the Apostles Creed – I was reading it today. It begins with “I believe”. I don’t know, but it seems to me that we are a culture that wants to be inclusive and compassionate and somehow that’s created an environment where tolerance has been redefined and we are offended by one another’s strong beliefs. So for many, it’s perhaps easier, less troublesome, to not possess any strong beliefs about anything meaningful. We can have strong beliefs about football teams or pizza restaurants but God? I agree, the horizon is vital. I keep going back to the word – never disappointed there.

  2. Alyssa, I love reading your posts. You have such a way with words!

    It sounds like you are disillusioned. In the Buddhist tradition, this is a very good thing. We start to see things as they are, and they are not what we had believed them to be. It’s a scary place, the unknown. But entirely necessary to traverse if we are to know God as God is.

    When I was writing thoughts much like yours, a friend told me to read the Gospel of John. I didn’t want to, but I did anyway. This is the passage I found that day and it has stayed with me:

    John 4:24 “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (NRSV)

    You cannot commune with an image of God. If you truly seek God, God will not allow you to be satisfied with that kind of superficial faith. You must ask, seek and knock until you break down the religious images, and find Truth. It is, in a way, a form of worship to seek Truth in this way.

    Blessings to you on your journey:)

    • I think that wondering or questioning tends to be threatening to most traditions, and Christianity is not immune to a conformity-based system. Also, we tend to want people to be learners, but without making mistakes or asking the wrong questions. I’m not disillusioned with God, actually, but perhaps with the culture of Christianity. I am trying to sort out the traditions of the “church”<– this refers to christian school, home, youth group, church, bible school…. There was a lot of conforming going on. Now, I just don't want to buy into a consumeristic evangelical trend of sound-bite faith quotes, or pass it along to my kids. Nor do I wish to (and wouldn't) walk away from faith in Jesus. I am and always will be journeying through, slogging and questioning. I've decided that "simple faith" isn't a possibility for me. But I don't follow a simple God! Thank you for reading and communicating with me. It means so much.

      • The traditions of the Church are many… Even going back to the letters of Irenaeus from the third century CE, there is already pressure to conform to a dictated set of “church norms”.

      • …which, I realize are necessary. Because crazy happens. And the culture of the day, the value systems of Rome and the worship systems were as pagan as the Jewish temple was legalistic. So how did this Jesus movement really look? I think there is much we won’t know about those early decades as the followers of Jesus became an organism. And as many potential mistakes were made in the formation of what we know as the church (I mean Constantine finally made Christianity legal but also forced people into it….) I do believe that God is able to work all the time, in all circumstances and will make all things work together. We do see through a glass darkly…

      • Indeed. By some accounts, the casualties resulting from the 11th century crusades, then the 30 years war and the French religious wars number near 20 million. 20 million people met early deaths in the name of Jesus (mostly, due to warring between Protestant and catholic factions). How far away from the real Jesus does one have to get in order to wage war with those that worship God differently? It’s a very sordid history. One that isn’t taught in Sunday School;)

  3. I greatly appreciate your honesty and humility, Alyssa, as well as your passionate search into the meaning of faith and seeking after God. Those synonyms you found for “seeking” are enlightening, especially investigate, scrutinize, and crave. And maybe we could add a definition based on your words: a cooperative process of discovering/proving that our God IS the great I AM.

    • yes! I love digging around and learning about the language of the Bible. And I love that we have the richness of the original languages to explore. I think we get stuck in the familiar translations, especially with often read passages. Finding treasure beneath the familiar words helps me see God with fresh clarity and appreciate his word anew. He is so faithful, truly, and pleased, I think, when we snoop and turn over rocks in search of more of him.

  4. jodyo70 says

    Oh, my friend the wordsmith…you’ve uncovered your heart and soul and some gems along with it. Wow, this is awesome, liberating truth. Your words resonate, friend. Write on.

  5. Cassy Walker says

    I love you Alyssa. I am so thankful to call you my friend. I look to you as my mentor. The fact that you aren’t afraid to show your imperfections is what makes you the kind of person I want to be around!

    Love Me

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