Question number three: “Can I avoid using stained glass language?” You can find it here:
Some thoughts on becoming the children of God we were each intended to be…
A new column on the question: How do we respond to hard times? Are they an invitation to surrender? Or are they another kind of opportunity?
I work in both churches and the academy. And, from time to time, people will preface their response to something I’ve said with the words, “Well, if you worked in the real world…”
Frankly, all those comments demonstrate is how little people know about the church and the academy, where (as the saying goes) “the politics are so dirty because the stakes are so small.” Both institutions could really afford to be a little less real, if by “real” what you mean is nasty, divisive, back-stabbing, grasping, or ego-driven.
But, as Karl Rahner, the great Catholic theologian noted some years ago about the church, those failings are no surprise at all. The church is for sinners, who are in the process of being redeemed — that is, living ever more fully into God’s good and loving desires for us. But the process is not complete. So, the church, our world, and — for that matter — every last one of us are not yet fully what we should be, can be, and (if we are open to it) will be.
That, however, is precisely the problem with offering up the “life in the real world” excuse. The moment we excuse our failure to do the right thing by referencing “life in the real world,” we foreclose on that process. And that process of growth and virtue cannot begin again until we open ourselves anew to the demands of “the real real world,” — the real world of God’s desires for us.
To be sure, there are a host of explanations for why our public and private lives are marked by cynicism:
Politicians will and do complain that they live in the real world of getting elected and reelected and, for that reason, can’t attend to true statecraft, be honest about the limits of what government can or should do, or consider facts that lie outside their particular party’s message.
Business people will complain that they live in the world of the bottom line, so the quality of the products that they produce suffers and the accuracy of the financial statements that they offer are sometimes can’t be forthcoming.
Journalists will argue that they live in the ever more complex world of reporting where entertainment and advocacy draws readers and viewers, which is why they can’t report the news in a fair and balanced fashion.
Schools and universities will argue that they live in the real world of budget allocations and means testing, so they can’t be honest about student progress.
Churches will argue that in the real world people will balk at being told that the Gospel demands something of them, so they will avoid preaching anything hard.
And each of us will write off what we hear on Sundays as “nice ideas” that can’t possibly work in the real world of our lives.
The excuses are endless, but the deeper issue is spiritual and the central question is stunningly simple:
Which is the real real world?
Answer that question and that is the world that will shape the choices we make, the world we serve, the people we become, the legacies we leave behind, — the men and women they will one day bury. We can scrape through the “real world” of our fears and cynical calculations and teach our children to do the same or we can open ourselves to the real-real world possibilities of God’s good desires for us.
It’s your choice. It’s mine. No excuses.
Nothing I said in What God Wants for your Life got me into more trouble than the chapter on signs and wonders:
Don’t you believe in miracles?
Don’t you believe that God is active in the world?
Don’t you believe in the power of prayer?
Yes…but I don’t believe that signs and wonders are necessarily indicative of the will of God. Sometimes the exceptional is just exceptional.
For example: I made a major move in employment some years ago — prayerfully, I might add — on the basis of what I felt God moving me to do with my life. It was a profoundly difficult choice and rooted finally in questions of vocation. When I told my employer that I was going to be leaving I was promptly offered a 10K raise to stay. That, in my experience, was exceptional — one could even say, miraculous. BUT it didn’t speak for a moment to the question of what God wanted for my life. In fact, taking that kind offer into consideration would have been a distraction. The right decision was much more deeply rooted in paying attention to the daily, annual, long, slow, work-filled years that lay behind me.
There are many reasons we pay more attention to the miraculous or exceptional in our lives than we do the daily, lifelong patterns — all of them understandable, some of them good, some of them bad:
We look to the miraculous because in principle we believe that God is active in the world and hears our prayers…That’s not a bad reason, but it can be easily distorted. God is not a cosmic bellhop and life is not all about us. We are called to serve as Christ served — we are not hear to live a lifelong, all-you-can-eat buffet.
We are afraid to have faith…all of us use training wheels on spiritual journey — experiences that bolster our faith: things that have happened to us, answers to prayers, familiar approaches to worship, Scripture. These are good things. But they should not be the object of our trust and confidence (a.k.a., faith). God is the one on whom we are meant to live in ever closer dependence. Days, weeks and years marked by the sameness of life — or, harder yet, by loss and tragedy — make it harder to live in dependence upon God. So we look for God-sightings, the miraculous to secure our hope. Those are the moments to cultivate a greater trust in God — whatever happens. Training wheels are a great thing, but if you show up at the Tour de France with three wheels in back, you are not Lance Armstrong — and if, as children of God, we show up at the finishing line more dependent than ever on God’s gifts, instead of God, we will have missed the point.
We also long to experience the presence of God…In our materialistic world, where what we can see, feel, hear, touch, and smell makes the more powerful claims on our attention, it is not surprising that we look for the exceptional to reassure us that God is here. That’s understandable. Cultural forces and intellectual forces have left us with the impression that, if God exists at all, God is “out there” beyond the last process or molecule that we have successfully identified. In an environment like that, we are bound to what God to “show up” with the same, tangible evidence. The problem, though, doesn’t lie with God. The problem is with our perceptions:
The whole of creation, material and non-material, common and exceptional, is the work of God’s creative and sustaining presence. What could be more miraculous than the ability to see, hear and understand — to love? What could be more miraculous than new life or the wonders of the world around us? The Greek Orthodox church has long held — and rightly so — that we owe the miracle of our existence to God as Trinity. The very fact that we count only the exceptional as miracle, then, constitutes one of our problems.
The other is this: If you aren’t alert to the work of God, you won’t appreciate it. For most of us, as we mature spiritually, we have more and more of those “Why-didn’t-I-see –this-before?” moments. And the answer, of course, lies not in the supposed absence of God, but in our awareness of God’s presence. You can be in the best of acoustical spaces, with accomplished musicians and if you have a tin ear for music or have never cultivated a love of it, you will not appreciate the music performed.
The same is true of God’s work. God doesn’t need to work more miracles. We need to learn how to see.
One of the prevailing problems for all of us spiritually is that our experiences define and delimit our understanding of the spiritual life. We close ourselves off to the language and experiences of the journey based on a single experience — be it positive or negative — and that becomes the once-now-and-forever way in which we see some dimension of the journey.
Ironically, positive experiences can be just as limiting as negative ones. Negative experiences of a given chapter in the spiritual life can close us off completely. Positive experiences can give us a single point of contact beyond which we never grow.
What is a bit alarming is to realize how early in life we embrace those once-now-and-forever ways of looking at things. As I have worked through my own impressions and as I have talked with others about theirs, I’ve been surprised to learn how early those impressions can take shape — many of them before we exit our adolescence.
That’s understandable. Those are volatile, impressionable years during which we embrace strong opinions about the world around us. Those opinions help us to test our impressions and differentiate ourselves from the world around us. As important as that process is, however, it is not clear that every opinion we embrace by age 18 is necessarily worth taking with us the rest of the way through life.
Spiritual maturity is about forming impressions, making commitments, and holding on to both with gentle humility and a willingness to admit that there might be more. Any journey into God is, by definition, provisional and growing.
Take time to do an inventory of your deepest convictions about and impressions of the spiritual life. Which ones (positive and negative) are defining? Which ones have narrowed your journey and hardened into once-now-and-forever thinking?
Then ask yourself — do you trust God enough to move beyond those moments?
One of my students recounted a story that, I’m told, is widely known in Roman Catholic circles. So the story goes: A little girl was sitting with her mother in church and asked,
“Mommy, where is Jesus?”
Deeply formed by her faith, the little girl’s mother pointed to the Tabernacle where the reserve sacrament is kept.
The little girl was silent for a moment and then declared,
“When I grow up I’m going to buy him a bigger box.”
This Christmas, consider getting something that cost you nothing, but may make all the difference.
Get a bigger box for Jesus.
Just what that might mean in your own life, I can’t tell you.
But you knew instantly —