In the midst of all the planning and preparation for Easter in 2012, I was confronted with the reality of a dear friend's death. He had been ill for years and at the end, fought and lost his almost constant battle against a body that kept trying to betray him. He was 56. I miss him.
What I admired, is that while his body failed, his suffering never conquered him. He had bouts of depression, but he never gave up. His faith kept him whole. Even when he was hanging by a thread, he knew that God was with him. He kept his faith, kept his trust, at times when others would have given up. He knew most of those things Paul writes about suffering and pain, and yet knew the persistent grace and love of God through them.
What I learned from him is that there is something in suffering that can refine us. It pares away the silliness of our lives and brings us to the elemental things. Life, love, faith. honesty. It can make us real. Like that old story of the velveteen rabbit, whose parts have been worn away and who isn’t whole anymore, but who is more real than can be understood—my friend was that kind of real. His suffering, his pain, brought him to the basic things, the eternal things. It taught him, and those who paid attention to him and the way he lived, to look beyond the surface, beyond the struggle, to see what is right and true and lasting and pure. No matter the varnish he put on it, the jokes he told, the way he deflected the attention, the man under the surface was that kind of real, the kind that comes only when one has tasted and touched suffering and seen the grace of God through it.
Paul said to the Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God. For us, that means not disease or dialysis or depression. Not lymphoma or pneumonia or hospitalization, or medications or infections or medical technology. Our friend knew it, felt it, lived it, and it made him who he was. I hope I have the ears to hear and the eyes to see and the heart to live it too. May we all…. -originally written 04.2012
We seem always to want something we don’t have. We endlessly strive for something more. To be “content” is a dying art, practiced by a dwindling few. We are influenced by television, by our friends, by our own unrealistic dreams, to seek something more. Jesus had something to say about that, in what is perhaps his most widely-recognized teaching, the Sermon on the Mount:
"If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don't fuss about what's on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to God than birds...What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God's giving. People who don't know God and the way God works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how God works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met." --Matthew 6:25-33, The Message
One of the best-known stories of Jesus is the story of the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes—the miracle of the feeding of more than 5,000 people from almost nothing. What a rich, rich story that is; for me, it’s a story of “abundance thinking.”
Abundance thinking is choosing to believe without question that everything that is necessary is already present, if we look deeply enough and become open enough to see it. It’s a choice to see solutions where others see problems. It’s a choice to be receptive to whatever may come, because we know the resources to get through will become evident.
This is the opposite of “scarcity thinking.” When we say, “there isn’t enough to go around,” we are coming at things from a perspective of scarcity. We panic, because if we open ourselves, we might lose something. We might not have enough for ourselves. Scarcity thinking influences everything we do—it becomes the lens with which we see the world and the people around us.
I think the great miracle of that story was not the bread and fish; I think it was the move of the disciples from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking in about a minute and a half. From ‘we can’t possibly’ to ‘we can.’ The wonder of the day is the transformation of the disciples. They move into a different way of understanding faith, and God, and what the kingdom of God looks like; they see that the kingdom of God isn’t away somewhere, in someone else’s hands. It’s not to be bought and paid for as some sort of simple transaction that will solve a problem. What they learn is that the realm of God is abundantly, overflowingly at hand, from the resources that are already there, from what is already within; it changes what they do and empowers them for the rest of Jesus’ ministry, and their own. They won’t always remember—they will sometimes slip back into old patterns. What they learn on this day, though, is that this abundant kingdom-of-God way of being in the world changes everything about what they do and who they are. It changes us as well. -orig 11.2014
I have had countless conversations with people in all stages of their spiritual journeys who feel their faith is dry and stale. They don't know how to revive it, and some are not even sure they want to try.
All too often, faith feels remote, tied to an ancient book or to the traditions of the church, and not always like a living thing, and we can get discouraged about it: What does something so old and dusty have to do with my life? Why bother with something so abstract and archaic?
The thing is, our God is not tied to a book of scripture, nor to stories of the dimly lit past. Our God is always of the past, and the present, and the future. There is no beginning, no end, with God. God is in our stories, whether we notice or not.
What does that mean for us? It means that the story of each of our lives is unfolding all the time, and God is always present in that unfolding. For some, this is a little intimidating; for others, it is comforting. We should be mindful of it, however it makes us feel, because it means that there is always possibility and potential ahead of us. I have known persons who felt that one mistake, one weak moment of wandering away from God, was somehow permanent. I have known persons who felt that God would never want them back. I have known persons who have never known that God might want them in the first place.
What we desperately need to take to heart and know to be true is that our stories are always pregnant with the possibility of redemption and renewal. Our stories have a happy ending, whether we can see it or not, because God is always in it. This is not to say that every ending is easy, or that it will be what we expect or want. But God is always in it, and there is joy to be found in that.
What would it look like to take a look deep into our own faith story, with no pressure, no deadline, no goal besides to see what it looks like. What does it look like? Who have been the important persons or experiences along the way? Where has it taken you? What have we learned, and how have we grown. Leading people through exercises like this often opens up memory and understanding.
Grant me, O Lord to know what I ought to know, to love what I ought to love, to praise what delights you most, to value what is precious in your sight, to hate what is offensive to you. Do not allow me to judge according to the sight of my eyes, nor to pass sentence according to the hearing of my ears; but to discern with a true judgment between things visible and spiritual, and above all things, always to inquire what is the good pleasure of your will. – Thomas à Kempis
How do we know when God is speaking to us?
As Christians, we say we want to listen for God’s voice and do what God wants us to do. It is in those times we are really serious about it, when we feel an urgent need, when we really want to know, that we struggle to discover what that is--what that voice sounds like, what it is God wants us to do. Who has the real answers? Who has the truth?
There are churches on every corner, each with a different message; televangelists; politicians speaking like preachers; doom-and-gloomsayers; each one proclaiming that they’ve got the true word of God and the authority to speak it. There are religious folks on both sides of any hot-button issue in politics or culture--whether it’s war, peace, abortion, homosexuality, global environmental emergency, or economic crisis—every one of them is convinced that they’re speaking the inspired truth, revealed by God.
But there are times when God’s truth is spoken, and it is possible to know it. We know it in the teachings of Jesus: what he says gives us a glimpse of the realm of God—what it might look like for the presence of God to be more powerful than any other person, thing, illness, addiction, weakness, power, or principality in this world. In Jesus we hear a word, a truth spoken in power and with authority—because it has no conditions. It demands nothing but choosing to listen, requires nothing to earn it, yet gives everything: freedom, release, healing, wholeness, purpose.
It’s not necessarily flashy, or showy. We think of God’s guidance being spectacular, and often wish it would be. We look at the story of Moses and the burning bush, and we wish God would be that evident, that obvious. It would be great if we could always know what God wants because it always comes with a show. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. God’s word for us often comes in a whisper, a nudge, a conversation.
That’s often the way to discern what is the true word of God. When we encounter something that helps us to establish a relationship with God, and it exists only for that reason, then it is of God. When we hear a word that strikes a chord somewhere deep in our souls, and requires only our response to it, then it is from God. Maybe it is just that simple…
It is not always easy always to have ears to hear and hearts to discern, and the courage to listen always for God. I have discovered, however, that every time I forget, I miss out on something important.
Between the hectic portions of Christmas week, seeing my kids, and entering into the worship of season, I've actually had a little time to think about this blog and its renewal/resuscitation. In evaluating the past year, and setting goals for 2020, I reflected that getting back to blogging has been actively on my mind since last June. You should see my to-do list: BLOG MORE is at the top, and hasn't been crossed off for at least a year now. Along with that, Central's social media genius has been asking me for content for the church website. So I added it to my 2020 intentions. Reading over my sporadic old blog posts, which wound to a halt about 2 years ago, I have been struck with the sense that I really do want to start over. I may include some of the old posts, but reworked. That may sound like a large task, but seriously, I never wrote that much on my previous blog--in five years, I probably created 10 posts. That is embarrassing. I fight constantly with the idea that someone might actually want to read my reflections, and am terribly critical of my own writing (yes, sermons, too), but I have been itching to make time to write, and there is no time like a new year to get to it. I want to include essays I've been working on and develop some thoughts and reflections I never get to explore deeply in the context of preaching. Maybe it will go better this time? Maybe not?
Here's to new intentions, and a new blog...
Michelle Bogue-Trost is a devoted follower of Jesus, a pastor, preacher, leader, teacher, and mentor, committed to the health of individuals and congregations.