Monday, January 11, 2010

When things don't turn out the way they should...

I pray often. But as I've posted somewhat recently, understanding prayer and how much God intervenes in the world has been a real struggle for me. When hundreds of people prayed and my sister's cyst still appeared to have returned after her surgery, I got frustrated. And when literally thousands of people prayed for days, and my friend Anthony still did not come down from Mt. Hood (alive or otherwise) this fall, I was devastated. My questions get bigger, it seems, and not smaller, as I've begun a journey through seminary.

In the bathroom, I've been keeping Joan Chittester's book "The Breath of the Soul" on hand (borrowed from a classmate), which is a tiny book with two-page chapters on prayer (much more than this on prayer at a given time, and I have trouble making any of it stick). Just the other day, I read a chapter that really soothed my spirit. Below, I've quoted from the chapter (called "Humility" - something I can always use more of), because not only do I think it may help someone reading this one day, but because I want to come back to this (after I return the book) when my questions grow bigger yet again:

"We spend so much of our lives pretending to be God it is often difficult to remember that we aren't. We proclaim it to the office staff, we remind the family of it by the day, we ply friends with stories of our supernatural victories over small children and store clerks and neighbors. Even early in the process when we go to prayer, we take with us the same attitude of the imperious and the agitated. We order people and things to do our bidding and make our worlds perfect. We secretly expect God to do the same. As Aldous Huxley put it, "the Third Petition of the Lord's Prayer is repeated daily by millions who have not the slightest intention of letting anyone's will be done but their own.

"But then, somewhere in life, we find ourselves facing walls that will not move. We have a child who needs special care now - and will need special care all their lives. We lose the savings of a lifetime and all the retirement plans go with them. We develop a chronic disease that will not end our life but will certainly limit it severely. We watch the business fail through no fault of our own but so far beyond us there's not a thing we can do to save it.

"Now, we find ourselves new people. We have become the spiritual beggars we never before understood. Except that even begging is useless now. And we know it.

"So for what do we pray at a time like this? In fact, why bother?

"The questions are important ones. It is possible that there is nothing that teaches prayer more quickly, more effectively than having nothing to pray for that can possibly happen. We are lost in the land of nowhere to go but God, not to change the circumstances of our lives but to change our whole attitude about what life is really about.

"We learn now in the throes of a heavy heart that the grace simply to be may be one of the greatest graces of life. We discover in the silent arms of God that it is enough to be loved, to be understood, rather than "saved," from the things that are their own kind of salvation.

"Sickness saves us from glorifying the cosmetics of life.

"Need saves us from isolating ourselves from the rest of the world.

"The limitations of others save us from self-centeredness.

"Powerlessness saves us from the sickness of arrogance.

"Then, when we go to prayer we go, not to be given something but to be quiet, to develop a heartbeat of acceptance, to become the calm that is calming. Humility makes listeners of us. And in listening to everything that happens to us, we find God's word for us."

I certainly believe that it is not wrong to pray for our heart's desires (to make the sick well, to mend a broken business, etc), and the Bible is full of examples of this in people of great faith. Sometimes God answers the way they ask, and sometimes God does not. But it is in the "not," that we must find a way to pull through, to return to prayer without returning jaded or cynical. Only in a good measure of humility, of admitting we are not God nor do we know better than God, does this seem possible.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Here's to you, Aughts

In a decade, I've graduated from high school and college, and begun graduate school (ha - never thought I'd be saying that!) I've held 8 different jobs, I've moved like 15 times, I have moved back in and then back out of my parents house. I earned my CPA license. I've fallen in love 4 or 5 times. I've had my heart broken. I made three "forever" type friends. I quit a "dream" job to pursue a different kind of dream. I purchased and a car and paid it off. I crossed the Pacific ocean six times. I joined a band. I spent 5 summers at summer camps. I spent at least part of every one of those ten years in ministry with youth. I watched my sister survive an intense surgery and bravely battle emotional demons I can only attempt to imagine. I lost a grandmother and watched Alheimers claim my grandfather. My faith has gone through the ringer and gone through again, and has come out in tact with stronger, more flexible edges.

What does the next decade hold? Only a few items on the above list would have made my "ten-year-plan" as a seventeen year-old ringing in the new Millennium. Shouldn't I know better than to try and plan the next ten years? I think I mostly do. My list of desires and hopes is shorter, more general: I'd like to fall in love and have a family. I'd like to become a pastor or a missionary or a part-time minister of some sort and use my seminary degree in some way. I'd like to continue to travel but I'd also like to put down roots in a community and stay in one spot. Other than that? I want to live a life that honors the one who gave it to me.

All in all, 2009 wasn't exactly a "top of the list" year for me, though looking back a lot of good came out of it. A lot of rough things happened to. But to take the good and forget the bad cheats me out of both a greater appreciation for the times that are good, and allows me to forget that the time I spend in this world is NOT supposed to be perfect. I cannot try so hard to create a perfect life for myself that I forget that joy does not depend on life's circumstances, good or otherwise. My dependence belongs on something much more steadfast, much more reliable than something that can change faster than the wind. My friend Anthony's death this December while climbing on Mt. Hood was quite a shocking reminder of that. Anything I cling to in this life will disappear, change, or disappoint.

So, where does the ultimate steadiness come from? God does not change, disappear, or disappoint, though sometimes He seems to. I have no assurance that anything circumstantial in the coming decades will improve upon the one I just lived. Hell, I have no assurance that I will live through the coming decades. Change (in people, jobs, families, friends) is a reality of life - I would never try to downplay its effect on me. But if I can't hold on to something that does not change, something that is always true no matter what happens around me, no hope is in sight. So this New Year, I am thankful for a God who does not change. I am prayerful that my joy, my constant will always be with that God.

So here's to you, decade of the Aughts. You brought me a lot more than your namesake might suggest. May I now have the grace to look forward and not behind and live the Tens more vibrantly, fearlessly and lovingly because of what I have learned from you.