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miracles2

Recently I came across news that four translators working with Wycliffe Bible Translations were brutally killed somewhere in the Middle East. Tracing the story back to the Wycliffe website, I read the article and came across the following words:

“Two workers died of gunshot wounds. Two other workers laid on top of the lead translator—saved his life—and died deflecting bludgeoning blows from the radicals’ spent weapons.

We praise the Lord that He protected the computer hard drives containing the translation work for eight language projects.”

These paragraphs brought forth an almost physical sense of indignation and outrage. Not at the murderers (because that goes without saying), but at the poor choice of wording and the deeper, underlying conflict of faith that the words elicited. Namely, the text says that the Lord protected the computer hard drives but, I want to ask, He didn’t protect the people? So, while the two translators were being beaten to death by weapons and the lead translator lay underneath them, God did nothing, but when it came time to destroying the computers, then he stepped in and said, “Hey, that’s enough.”?

The Christian response to this seeming contradiction and many others like it is to ascribe all the good to God, and all the bad to chance, evil, “the way things are,” depravity, the inevitable outcome of God’s gift of free choice, etc. I’ve generally accepted this view in the past, but here, with this unfortunate juxtaposition of chance against the direct intervention of God, it becomes really difficult. If God chose to protect the computer, he could have intervened and prevented the nightmarish death of the four translators, who were clearly doing his will in a dangerous setting. Since he did not protect them, my only conclusion must be that he did not intervene with the computers either. To avoid a capricious, irrational and masochistic god, I have to believe in one that is not directly involved.

Cases like this abound. When at church we pray for the healing of two individuals from a terminal illness and one heals and the other doesn’t, what are we to think? That God looked favorably on one, answering our prayers, and was just absent for the other? Inaction is also a choice, and thinking rationally, we cannot help but ascribe it to God. As a result, here too we are forced to think that it wasn’t God that saved the healed person, but that random chance just dealt him a luckier hand.

When I ask God to provide safety for my children, I am immediately affronted with the truth that there are many children whose safety God doesn’t provide. And what makes my prayers different from those of the mothers whose children die of cancer, are hungry, are lost, are perishing? The more I ponder this, the more I am unable to look at “acts of miracle” enthusiastically because, here too, an involved God ends up bearing the responsibility for all of the miracles he left undone, the millions of people he left unsaved, unhealed, unprotected.

One probable, though difficult, explanation is that God isn’t necessarily concerned with mitigating our suffering. He is concerned with gaining us. He wants us to draw closer to him, by whatever means necessary. Since ultimately our suffering will end, this very temporary discomfort is worth the closeness we will acquire with him as we lean heavily on him, pray to him, experience his love through the care of others…assuming that others are expressing their care and we have a God to reach out to. If we don’t, we just suffer, and then we’re back at square one.

No, sometimes I cannot believe in a God that acts directly, out of heaven, in and on our lives, though I very much want to. Yes, he mourns with those who mourn, yes, he rejoices with those who rejoice. But the only miracles in this world are those done by people, through the acts of their spirits which are moved by the spirit of God. If there is another explanation that makes sense out of my quandary, I do welcome it.

The Wycliffe article goes on to say that the survivors decided to stay after the attacks and continue with the work of translating the Bible. To me, that is the real miracle here, and I don’t know how much of it can be ascribed to God and how much to those courageous translators. Or maybe the two are not so easily distinguishable…

night

This year for the holidays we’re learning a 10-composition-long cantata in our church choir. One of the composition is a medley of Christmas favorites, including the Silent Night. Except in this version, the composers introduced several brilliant and sublime harmonies, which make the Night not quite so peaceful and pastel-colored. The sheep are not perfectly round, the minor, somewhat unresolved chords and counter-melodies seem to be asking more than stating.  The top line of the melody is the same, and the congregation, as they begin to sign along with the choir, won’t know to expect the lyrical hues and the questioning. We, the altos and the male voices will create that vibrancy and depth.

When we first read through the score, half-way through I couldn’t sing any longer, it touched me so. It seemed a more accurate rendition of the mood of so long ago: will this infant, so frail, so vulnerable, really save mankind? Will we be rescued from all of the evils that dwell within us by this little child? Now, hidden in the cocoon of intimacy with his mother, will he one day be called Emmanuel? The overtones make me see him through Mary’s eyes: the endless love of a parent, the awe and the timidity at the miracle of witnessing a new life, of witnessing the birth of the Savior.

Grisha comes up and I try to explain the ingenuity of the composers, to transmit even a bit of why this rendition of Silent Night sends me shivering and unable to hold a steady B. I mention that they are playing with everyone’s expectations, they’re innovators, I try to describe the majors and minors, and he nods – of course he knows all about them. Enthralled in the ancient mystery, I feel a thousand light years away from him. He is an atheist, I am a Christian. How can I possibly send my little beam of feeling across that vast expanse?

Wanting to hold on to the eternal, I aim for the door to the room where I can listen to the recording of the composition. This is a rare moment when I want to feel close to Him rather than him. But, there is a pile of dishes and, succumbing to the inevitable, I stop short and we tackle Sisyphus’ mount together. As I soap up and he brings the remnants from the table, Gri picks up, “You know, there’s an entire school of thought in the Philosophy of Music about major and minor tonalities and about how they’re supposed to make you feel. It turns out, it is not a gut feeling you have from birth – you are trained into reacting to certain sounds a certain way…” Yeah, our reaction to it is imprinted on our collective, western consciousness, I respond. He goes on: “And once you’ve identified that certain way that you’re “supposed” to react, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along and starts to play with that expectation. And then someone bends the rules further, and still further, until finally you’ve so completely neglected the way things ought, that you’re in a universe of your own. You get someone like Berg…”

Somewhat disgruntled, still, by being stuck washing the dishes while the Divine calls, I retort that I don’t see how this is a unique thought. What other option is there? That’s how all the arts evolve: you get a status quo, then there’s a renegade, then the nouveau is slowly accepted and then it becomes the new traditional. It’s a matter of exploration, Grisha suggests. Innovators in music explore alternative ways that emotions can be superimposed on sounds. Feeling like I am about to sink into the logic the way the spoons and forks are sinking into the pot of watered-down ex-macaroni and cheese, I remain silent. He senses that I am not into a philosophical discussion. I explain, that I, for one, am having trouble fathoming how talks of the philosophy of music can be superimposed onto myself, standing there up to the elbow in cold orange gloop.

He sighs. Well, that is a fair question. Thinking a little, he adds, “But that’s the big question of life, isn’t it: We’re up to our elbows in shit, and we have to rise above it, still have to think about the Beautiful and the Sublime. We have to learn be greater than our circumstances…In a way, that’s what life is all about…”

Save for the clink-clink of the forks and spoons, the evening is quiet. We ruminate on things unsaid. Outside it is night. I am silent, he hums a familiar, Christmas favorite.

Dear God,

It’s been a while since I wrote.

Thing is, I felt like I couldn’t reach you. Maybe it was the Church that did it. With its zealous campaign to remind us that we are flawed human beings, it overshot its target and made us believe that we were completely hopeless. Some of us, who already had a good sense of our depravity, became convinced that as fallen beings we had no access to you, no place by your side and really, no place even on this Earth. Instead of being empowered we were weakened. At some point we forgot that we were created in your image, and that you created us good.

We began spending many hours of each day in ritual self-flagellation. We beat ourselves up over not being good enough parents, bad church goers, non-tithers, immoral, apathetic, un-praying and uninvolved. Not only could be not talk to you, because, after all, we hadn’t read the Bible in so many days, weeks, months, but we weren’t good enough to go to church either. We had to take action in order to at least somehow justify our existence. So we wrote to-do lists, pushed ourselves to the limit, put ourselves down and promised to do better. This all must have looked ridiculous to you.

Or maybe it was our society. Goodness, what a bunch of health-conscious, environmentally aware confused individuals we are. The world told us to eat better, to drive less, to care for the minorities among us, and instead of joyfully taking it on, we were consumed with guilt – for eating sweets, throwing away plastic cans, driving instead of biking to work, using non-biodegradable materials. There was no joy in anything we did. We were only desperately, without any real hope, trying to make this world a little bit less of a horrible place to live. And us – just a rung higher up on the unending ladder of guilt and social responsibility.

This was your enemy’s work. He took all of the good that might have been intended, and deranged it. The father of lies had prevailed, if only temporarily, at his best craft. We came to believe, I believed, that we had to earn our place; that we had to deserve it. This was impossible, and we floundered around helplessly. This is why I hadn’t written.

But lately I noticed that this idea doesn’t quite jive with what you teach. In fact, it renders the death and resurrection of your Son completely absurd.

So I just wanted to drop you a line, let you know things are getting better. I am allowing myself the joy of not thinking about guilt. You thought of that already. Funny that it took me only 20 years of faith in you to realize this. But that’s OK too. You’re probably smiling right now, maybe even rolling your eyes a bit. But hey, better late than never, and in the grand scheme of things – it’s not late at all.

It’s the perfect time to be finding the child you love.

Poem by Vladimir Strochkov

(Translation: Anya Ezhevskaya)

I say that I’m tired, I’m tired, can’t do it, can’t
I’m tired, I tell him, let go me, let go
He doesn’t let go, won’t listen, again in his palm
He lifts me, he laughs, but you haven’t yet flown.
He says, as he laughs and he lifts me up over his head
Opens his fingers, tosses me into the sky
Fly! He says, I’m flying, I say, spitting grass
Let me go now, you saw – I was flying, I know how to fly.
I am tired, I say, let me go, but he just goes on
Picks me up again, tosses over his head
He laughs, you just fly to the bushes, he says.
And throws me, I’m tired, but he can’t understand
But I’m tired, I’m flapping as hard as I can
Tear up my face, but I reach the branch closest to me
okay, fine, but just this last time, I say, and he –
You’re crazy, you flew just there, I know, I say, let it be.
So how ’bout one more time? No, he says, that’s enough
I’m tired, get lost, he laughs, you’re annoying me too
But just once, I say, can’t, he says, go fly yourself
Well screw you oh Lord, my goodness, I’m tired of you.
And I laugh, he stares at me, I can’t help it, – it’s fun
Alright, he says, let’s do it – running start, and I run.

Original text:

Я говорю, устал, устал, отпусти,
не могу, говорю, устал, отпусти, устал,
не отпускает, не слушает, снова сжал в горсти,
поднимает, смеется, да ты еще не летал,
говорит, смеется, снова над головой
разжимает пальцы, подкидывает, лети,
так я же, вроде, лечу, говорю, плюясь травой,
я же, вроде, летел, говорю, летел, отпусти,
устал, говорю, отпусти, я устал, а он опять
поднимает над головой, а я устал,
подкидывает, я устал, а он понять
не может, смеется, лети, говорит, к кустам,
а я устал, машу из последних сил,
ободрал всю морду, уцепился за крайний куст,
ладно, говорю, но в последний раз, а он говорит, псих,
ты же летал сейчас, ладно, говорю, пусть,
давай еще разок, нет, говорит, прости,
я устал, отпусти, смеется, не могу, ты меня достал,
разок, говорю, не могу, говорит, теперь сам лети,
ну и черт с тобой, говорю, Господи, как я с тобой устал,
и смеюсь, он глядит на меня, а я смеюсь, не могу,
ладно, говорит, давай, с разбега, и я бегу.

This morning at church our pastor talked about Saul’s conversion to Christianity as it was described in Acts. He mentioned the relief that Saul must have felt when Christ showed himself so clearly, because now he could stop trying to live the good life and measure up. In other parts of the New Testament Paul writes himself about the extent of his piety as a Jew. In Philippians 3, Paul lists his credentials: he is circumcised, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a man thoroughly versed in the scriptures, zealous, righteous, blameless…and yet he suffers deeply because his strivings towards perfection only point to his inability to be good enough; to win God’s grace, to earn His love. In his epistle to the Romans, Paul exclaims, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death…”

Our pastor went on to say that, “In Christ Saul received the freedom from the frustration and despair of trying to be good enough…”

As is almost inevitable these days, my thoughts took his words and wondered to the topic of my failed marriage. I could see myself in Saul. I too had labored long and hard to get the right credentials. I prayed and I forgave and I put forth tremendous effort to DO everything to make the marriage work. Time and time again, I did the right thing. My actions were praiseworthy from every point of view.. And yet, I was wretched. And no closer to causing myself to be joyful, and no closer to saving the marriage.

During all of our years together, I did not feel like I had the freedom to give up. The freedom to fail.

I remembered a conversation I had with my youth pastor many years earlier. I asked him what he thought about the idea mentioned by many non-Christians that we believers use God as our crutch. He responded merrily, “Well, they’re wrong. We don’t use God as a crutch – He’s more like a stretcher.”

The beautiful thing about salvation is this: once you realize that you can’t be good enough, that it’s not at all ABOUT being good enough, you’re free. And God offers himself as the stretcher equally to those that seem almost perfect, and to those that are FAR from good enough. I thought about that, and about weakness, mine, and strength – his. Another conversation came to mind, one with a close friend that I had a few months ago. A non-believer, he told me that I have to let weakness consume me. That my future, my hope – was in my weakness. I wondered if he intended to mean then what I now understood that phrase meant.

And I made a decision today at church: I am SO over trying to be good enough. I am not good enough. And it doesn’t even matter. I’m not going to continue limping, putting on a smile and pretending I have this under control. I’m kind of tired, actually. Where’s that stretcher?…

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