Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Giving thanks, no matter what

For the past week I have been about the important tasks of connecting with family and giving thanks.

The first task proved to be easier than the second.

Events in the past week forcefully reminded me that giving thanks is not the same as feeling satisfied that all is as it should be.

It was a bit difficult to give thanks when my deer-damaged car wasn't repaired in time for the drive to Atlanta. How can you be grateful when your plans are frustrated?

It was harder to give thanks when I discovered six inches of water in my basement. How can you be grateful while throwing out ruined possessions and wading in filth?

Hardest of all was the funeral of a teenager who died on Thanksgiving Day. How could anyone even think of giving thanks in that situation? How is it possible?

It's possible because gratitude does not depend on our feelings of contentment. It doesn't require us to approve of what is happening. Instead, it is the willingness to let go of our annoyance or anger or even grief, if only for a moment. It is the deep, healing breath that cuts through our gasps of desperation.

It is the acknowledgement that our pain or inconvenience is not the sum total of reality. There is more, and it is good. Otherwise we wouldn't feel the losses so keenly. The change in travel plans grates because I know the loving welcome that awaits me at my destination. The flooded basement annoys because it is the literal foundation of that special place called home. The death of a promising young man is agonizing to those who know him or his parents because he brought such light to the world. Because he loved and was loved.

Here's a paradox: We can be grateful because of the very things that make gratitude more difficult. Because they are precious, their loss hurts. But because they are precious, they are gifts for which we can truly and sincerely give thanks.

What do you think? Is it important to give thanks even when it seems more reasonable to complain?

Friday, November 16, 2007

A walk in the book of Creation

Yesterday I walked through the woods on our property, as I once did far more frequently. The old trails were harder to find, choked with underbrush and blocked by fallen trees. It was easier during my husband's illness to withdraw -- physically into the house and emotionally into worry and fear.

Now, taking the walk seemed a daring act, a venture into the unexpected.

But what I found was familiar: the rich, heady scent of soil, the sight of wind tickling leaves that fell laughing to the ground, the cool touch of boulders older than history. Ghosts of past joys lingered in well-remembered places: the steep hill we careened down after a snowfall, the clearing where my husband once built a sweat lodge, the rock where I sat and dreamed of new directions. The seven-trunked tree that had been mostly dead was now entirely dead, yet filled with life; a variety of creatures called it home.

One remembered sound was missing -- the creek's song was silent. The long drought has reduced its usual flow to a trickle. I stood a long time looking at what it had become.

The Celtic Christian tradition held that God revealed himself in two books: the book of Scripture and the book of Creation. That nature speaks of the sacred if we are willing to enter it with eyes and ears and hearts open.

What nature told me on this walk was that, like the creek, I was dry and thirsty. I needed to return to these paths, open this book, experience its wild truth.

What have you found in the book of Creation?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Screeching brakes and God's plan

When I felt my car slam into a solid object, saw glass fly and heard the sickening thud of metal crushing bone, my first thought wasn't, "Why didn't God intervene?"

My first thought was a word you would not hear in church.

My second thought was terror that I might have hit a child, since I knew I wasn't close enough to another car.

My third thought was relief that the object was a deer and that my son and I were unharmed -- although the same can't be said of my months-old car.

The incident left me thinking, though, about how suddenly life can change, how disasters much worse than hitting a wayward deer can strike without warning. When the unthinkable happens and proves we're not invulnerable after all (our favorite delusion), big questions bubble up.

Why did this happen? What does it mean? And the perennial favorite: Why didn't God stop it, if he exists and is all-powerful?

Some people see misfortune, injustice and evil as proof that God must not exist -- or is too weak or uncaring to act on our behalf. Others are quick to tell those who suffer that it's all part of God's inscrutable plan.

What these views share in common is the assumption that a loving, powerful God would necessarily micromanage and manipulate the lives of every human being.

Since when was that a requirement of love?

I believe that bad things happen because they happen, not because God is pulling our strings to punish or polish us. That doe chose to run into the road; God didn't send her in my path so I'd have something to write in this blog.

But here is where belief makes a difference. Because of my faith, I was willing to look past the fright and inconvenience of the wreck and let its lessons shape my spiritual life. Upon reflection, I had to acknowledge how attached I had become to that vehicle, how proud I was of its little luxuries. I pondered the need to be more aware of my surroundings -- not just while driving, but in my interactions with other people.

And I was reminded again that no matter what happens, God is with me -- not causing or preventing disasters, but redeeming them from meaninglessness.

A wreck doesn't have to be part of God's plan to be used for God's purposes. That's up to us.


Friday, November 9, 2007

Star Wars and the All-Faith SmackDown

d.j. wrote: "Jane, it seems you want a discussion where everyone shares their experiences and we all embrace those experiences as equally valid. This is not possible for someone like myself who believes in the absolute and exclusive truth of the gospel of Christ."

Share experiences? Yes. And beliefs. And ways of worship. And images of God. And thoughts about prayer. And more.

Embrace them as equally valid? Not at all.

I do not want to squelch conviction. I do not want any of you to feel inhibited in talking about your own beliefs. All I want to discourage is attacking other people's beliefs, especially when those people are saying that's not what they believe at all.

An exaggerated, imaginary example:

Person A writes "I think God is just like the Force in the Star Wars movies."

The sort of responses I'd prefer that we avoid:

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

"No, people like you really believe that God is Darth Vader and wants to blow up Earth with his Death Star, which would kill billions of people."

"Everyone who believes that faces eternal damnation."

"Point to a verse in the Bible that proves it. If it's not there, you have no right to believe it."

A better response:

"I don't think God is like the Force at all. I think he's more like Gandalf in 'Lord of the Rings' or Aslan in the Narnia books because ..."


"That's not in line with what I read in the Bible, which I take as the final authority. I see the Bible as saying this about God ... "

Best response of all:

"Really? What makes you think that?"

The difference is "I believe" as opposed to "You're wrong."

It's not necessary to assume that everything said is true. I'm not asking you, d.j., to believe any less that you know absolute truth. All I'm asking is that you let others say what they believe to be true. You don't have to agree, but you also don't have to tell them they're wrong point by point. Not everyone reads the Bible in the same way you do or takes it as the ultimate revelation of God.

I don't mean to pick on d.j., who has presented his thoughts respectfully. I'm responding directly to him because he made an assumption about what I wanted here. So to clarify:

I want this blog to be a forum where we can learn what matters to one another, not as a wrestling ring where we determine whose view of God whups the competition. Welcome to the All-Faith SmackDown!!!!! Does the world really need that? I sure don't.

By the way, thank you for the kind words about my husband, who died in April from cancer. I wrote a few columns about his illness and death for the Viewpoint page in the Observer, which is why I didn't go into more detail in my last post.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Is angry debate all there is to organized religion?

I've been away for a while, but I see the conversation continued. I wish it had done so with less rancor -- with more of a desire to understand other views than an eagerness to prove them wrong. But that will only happen when people write about their own beliefs rather than insisting that they know what someone else believes, or that they know another person's motivations for posting.

So is it true that this sort of argument is the inevitable fruit of organized religion? Is it the best that churches can offer?

If I thought so, you certainly wouldn't find me there almost every Sunday. I know better, though.

Despite the noisy, often nasty debates that make up much of the news we hear about religion, that's not the real face of faith. Most people don't go to church or synagogue or mosque to join an argument. They go for community. They go to learn how to love. They go to find God.

This past weekend I experienced why being part of a church family matters. It had nothing to do with apologetics or condemning others or fighting over the meaning of Scripture.

It was my church's annual retreat in the mountains, a time for reflection and togetherness. The retreat was to be even more meaningful for me this year, because we were placing the ashes of my late husband in the memorial garden there.

The decision to make Kanuga his final resting place was easy. It was a place that had been special to us throughout our marriage -- in fact, we even spent part of our honeymoon in one of its cabins. We had laughed there, prayed there, made joyful music and lasting friendships. We led retreats and worship services that we wrote together. He played his fiddle to make children dance. It was, Gary once said, a place where he could be himself.

But as the time approached, I began to doubt whether that decision had been right. I began to fear that this place of such happy memories would forever be tainted by grief. That from now on the absence of Gary would be felt more intensely than the presence of God.

The decision had been made, though, so a few days before the retreat I sat down to plan the service. I pulled prayers and scriptures from several sources, then added, adapted and edited until it was the way I wanted it. And as I read the final prayer, something in me shifted.

The prayer read in part: "God of creation and renewal, we thank you for your good earth, which now cradles the body of our brother Gary. Continue to meet us here, at this holy resting place, where earth and ashes and dust mingle. Open our eyes to its beauty and our ears to the whisper of your voice on the wind. Keep Gary present in our hearts, that we may honor his memory by embracing each new day with courage and faith ..."

The prayer reminded me that the memorial garden would be a place not of remembrance only but of encounter. "Continue to meet us here," in the place where I had always found it easy to experience the divine. "Keep Gary present," not trapped in dusty memory.

It was a shift of heart that changed dread to a sense of blessing. And it happened because I chose to share this parting ritual with my church family. We could find together what I might not have found alone.

So it was with great gratitude that I welcomed about 50 people to that "holy resting place." We listened to one of Gary's students play "Amazing Grace" as he taught her to, while golden leaves spiraled to earth. We prayed and wept and read ancient words of hope and spoke of how Gary's life intersected with this place. We prayed some more, then sang enthusiastically while my son played guitar with his father's passion.

In the embrace of "organized religion," I found joy and comfort. No arguments, only love. It helped me find meaning when life's certainties fell apart.

That's the true face of faith. Too bad it's so often hidden behind a fearsome mask.