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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…

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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.

Verusha: Mama, what if the reindeer run into us while we’re walking?
Me: We’ll just jump out of the way…
Verusha: I think they can crash into us. They can crash into you so hard that you might die.
Me: Well…
Verusha: But it won’t be the saddest thing, if you die.
Me: Why not?!
Verusha: Well, you’ll resurrect. God will resurrect you eventually, and then we’ll be together again.
(Silence)
Verusha: And in the meantime I can go sleep over at Anya’s house. And then I can spend the night at Penelope’s, and the next night at Alana’s…Oh, I know! How about when you do resurrect, just give Alana’s mom a call, and tell her you’re ready to pick me up?
Me: Sounds like a plan.

Yesterday in conversation with a friend I realized that I never actually wrote down a major thought that I have been ruminating on for the past few months. “It’s in my blog”, I told him. “I wrote about it…” Apparently not. Though I have touched on it here. But here is the thought it all of its splendor.

We as human beings have many needs, physical and emotional. Being the intelligent and adaptable creatures that we are, we have learned to meet most of those needs. But two stand out as the most pressing, and the most unfulfilled. We have an insatiable need for attention. And we desperately yearn to be loved.

Ours is a culture of talking. Of yelling, and of sharing ideas and of shoving them down people’s throats and of forcing them on our neighbors. In a culture where a person eagerly pays $100 for a 45-minute counseling session (where he does most of the talking, and the counselor, mercifully, listens), we have an overabundance of talkers and a paucity of listeners. And even if you have a close friend who will listen, or a family member who cares to hear you out, you know that your speaking time is limited to a few minutes, ten at best, before the listener begins to interject, make unsolicited recommendations, offer unwanted consolation, or just starts talking about him or herself. There is internal pressure to condense what you want to say to a few minutes or a few short, well-planned sentences. The luxury of being actively listened to is reserved for the psychologically disturbed.

In Ecclesiastes the writer says that God “set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecc. 3:11). I think God has also embedded in us the need for attention – a need that only He can fulfill.

To think, we can be in dialogue with Him for hours, and he won’t yawn! He can just listen, and we can feel at peace knowing (and having received his reassurance) that he actually cares. Not only does he care, but on his end this is what he wants from us: just to talk to him; to tell him about our day, about our dreams and frustrations and concerns. God is the perfect listener who values our words not because of what we say, but because He loves us and wants us to be in contact with him. But woe to us. Instead of talking to him, we cling to others whose needs are also not being met, we force people to listen, we throw our pearls to pigs.

Arguably this need for attention is just a part of the larger, more pressing need to be loved (just as the giving of attention is one of the expressions of love).

The need to be loved is immense. We desire to be doted on. We want to be thought of as precious. We yearn for the unconditional love that the best of parents can give. As serious and well-adjusted adults by day, we dream at night of being wrapped in the arms of our mothers, of hiding under the strong wing of our fathers. In our inner core we are vulnerable and needy, and, in love, very short-changed. Though we have devised many palliatives, only God can love us the way we need to be loved. Because He made us to be loved by Him.

I often wonder about what unconditional love really looks like. Once when describing a complex situation that I was involved in to a friend, I was struggling for words with which to show that I may have been at fault. He noticed this and said, “Whatever you tell me, I’m already on your side.” I think unconditional love looks kind of like that. There is no way to undo it. When I talk to my parents I find that they always take my side, even if I am in the wrong. It’s as if their love for me clouds their better judgment. With the Lord it is also like this, only better.

A while ago I was struggling to talk to Him, feeling guilty for something that I had done and unable to access him because I thought that he wouldn’t talk to me while I was “living in sin”. Then I thought about Jesus and it struck me: I’m not guilty. Then I thought about Satan as the accuser (Rev. 12:10). He is the one who wants to bind us in the prison of guilt, and in this day and age, he is quite successful. Guilt renders us helpless: we cannot toss a plastic bottle in the trash, we cannot splurge on a colorful knickknack, and we surely cannot each a slice of chocolate cheesecake without feeling the guilt. But in God’s eyes, we are not guilty! Otherwise Christ’s death on the cross is rendered meaningless. Yes, God cannot tolerate sin. And yet He does not see us as sinful, depraved and tarnished, but, as a loving parent, he sees us as the beloved children and beams at us. He sees us as he created us. And he created us to be loved.

But he does not just love us, he is enamored with each one of us. You know the type of love where you collect little bits of the person you cherish, and you store them in the scrap books and hard drives of your mind: a raised eye-brow, rolled up socks, a hand gesture, a timbre of voice. It is almost obsessive. No, it IS obsessive. Shamelessly so. You try to guess what they’re thinking about. You know what they need before they need it. This condition of being hopelessly in love is a reflection, an iteration, of God’s love for us. How vividly this is seen in Psalm 139:

You have searched me, LORD,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, LORD, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain….

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body…

In his epistle John says that “God is love”. This phrase has been proliferated and profaned to no end, yet its significance should not be overlooked. This is extremely important. I see this statement as a venn diagram where God is the larger circle, and love is the smaller circle fully enclosed within the larger one.

God is not only love, but all love is God. Love an expression of God. And although God is much more, the core of Him is love. Fortunately for us, love is non-denominational. It cannot be claimed by the Presbyterians, or by Protestants, or by Christians alone. It does not belong to the realm of the religious. Anyone who has ever loved has been in the immediate presence of God. John writes about it like this: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God…No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (The short chapter of 1 John 4 should really be read in its entirety). And how many of us haven’t loved that special love – purely, selflessly, madly? And so we have all known Him, as he yearned for us to know him and feel him. Maybe we just haven’t all known that it was Him…

A final attribute of His love. The Lord wants it to be personal. He will not force it, rather, he awaits for it in humility. In Revelation 3:20 Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and we’ll eat together (as friends)”. This is the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings! The Creator of the universe is standing outside your door. He is right there, knocking, and he wants to come over and eat with you. You just have to go and open the door.

A week and a half ago, Sunday, the kids and I went to church. As usual we were late, and as usual I made my way to an empty seat during the worship part of the service. There were empty seats on both sides, and as I often do during worship, I sang and looked around the people gathered in the sanctuary that Sunday. (The sanctuary is amphitheater-shaped, so it’s easy to see the folks below and around you.) And yes, as usual, I saw families, couples, groups of people that I knew came there together. As I raised my hands high and bellowed out praises, I felt a pang of sadness seeing the empty seat next to me. How many times had I come to church alone? How many times did I long to share with my spouse the joy of worship, of that greatest communion of believers? I wondered if the couples standing and sitting below me truly appreciated what they were experiencing there, together, refreshed and united through word and song. Yes, sometimes my husband came. But he was not with me – he would often leave before the service began, or endure the sermon, fighting sleep and boredom. Sitting next to each other but desperately alone, abjectly looking forward, we did not feel any closeness.

I also thought about Eve and her curse. Two lines haunt me often: Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. That curse is as relevant today, as it was when it was first uttered. On a global scale, man continues to dominate over woman, holding most positions of power, violating women, killing them through war, political conflict, domestic violence. And on the level of each family, each couple, the husband more often than not dominates not only because of his sheer strength and cultural/ethnic traditions, but because the woman desires him . Her desperate need makes her vulnerable, and even if the man does not mean to do so, he has control over her. In the end, she is ruled by her own desire and her desperation. The tragedy of the curse is that both people become hostages – the woman needs from the man that which he cannot provide, the man feels inadequate because the woman’s need is too great. Of course the answer is simple: the woman needs to turn to God.

Only the Lord can fill that need. But how incredibly difficult it is to change focus! All we need to do it turn, and God would heal us (Matthew 13:15). But within the context of the intoxicating draw that women feel towards men (and vice-versa), this conversion seems to border on impossible.

The singing continued, and I imagined the possibility of another man standing next to me. What if there was someone out there, who would want to live worship together? Who would understand the importance of this shared experience, who would do it gladly, openly? I glanced at the seat again. It was still empty but suddenly I fancied that I saw Jesus there, smiling and worshiping, grinning at me. It’s like He was saying, “I’ll come – take me along…” And I imagined the various scenarios from the minutiae of getting to church – buckling the kids up in their car seats, me climbing in the driver’s seat, Jesus hopping in the passenger, popping Ella and Louie into the CD player, rolling down the windows… Walking to church, me holding Leo’s hand, Him holding Vierra’s. The pain lifted. I grinned back and sang louder.

Sunday came again, and again we went to church. This time my husband wanted to go, and we went together, all four of us, as a family. The kids went to their program and we went to the worship service. And so we sat there, peaceful in the eye of the tornado of our marriage unraveling all around us. The tethers and cords that held that frail entity in place were snapping, tearing off, breaking under the strain of so many hurts. But there in that warm and well-lit place we felt safe. My husband put his arm around me, and I instinctively huddled closer. Now we looked like that stereotypical, happily married Christian couple. Now I had finally received, after many years, that which I had yearned for. But I…

I didn’t need him there anymore.

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