Saturday, February 29, 2020

Lenten City Notes '20 | The Dusty Ones: Losing Jesus, Finding Jesus, & Quiet in the Walk



"It is true  Jesus is a migrant from another land, takes the lowly job no one else takes, speaks a different language, and never gets the benefit of the laws of the land. Jesus isn't always welcomed, is he? But the message of Scripture is that we are given a chance to welcome him, to make space for him, to hear what he has to say. Will we?" + A.J. Swoboda


In honor of the season of Lent beginning this week, and to continue in similar themes of 2020's first set of City Notes on Diane Comer's He Speaks in the Silence (with thought-provoking considerations around interactions with God that involve The Fear & the Fury & the Beautiful No), I now look forward to introducing you to A.J. Swoboda's The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith.

I appreciate A.J.'s writings, particularly during this season of Lent, as both his books, Dusty Ones and his A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience, have greatly served me in considering this journey leading into Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. 

And now I hope these excerpts will serve you on the road ahead. Here is a link to the first two posts:

Lenten City Notes '20 | The Dusty Ones: Wild Wanderings in the Desert Spaces  
Lenten City Notes '20 | The Dusty Ones: Walking & A Wanderer's Rest

And below is the content for the final of three posts: 

"Losing Jesus, Finding Jesus, & Quiet in the Walk" excerpts adapted from A.J. Swoboda's He Speaks in the Silence: Finding Intimacy with God by Learning to Listen


Found Regardless of Feeling

Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where He will be found. + Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to Dr. Rudiger Scheicher

Feelings are a fickle business. And many of us live in our feelings as though they are a constant source of good direction. Feelings aren't good or bad; they are just fickle. ... Largely, we have allowed our feelings to be our identity — we are what we feel about ourselves. We base our identity and self-worth on how our careers are going, how we feel our marriages are, how good we think our children are doing, whether we have gained some popularity or not, and if we have garnered respect from those around us. When we feel things are bad, then things are bad. When we feel things are good, they are good. But such a way of living creates a cycle of life that is both destructive and unsustainable. When we are our feelings, our fickle feelings betray us.

The gospel of Jesus — the love of God in Christ — is not based on feelings by any stretch of the imagination. There is a danger in constantly giving our feelings a place of sovereignty in our lives. When we give our feelings all the power they wish to have, we can safely assume we will eventually find ourselves in a kind of spiritual paralysis. ... Christian faith is not the sum of our feelings on the topic. We may not feel as though God loves us, but our feelings on the subject have no bearing on the reality. Emotions do not change truth, no matter how strong they may be. 

What would it look like if we didn't bow in worship toward our feelings? Someone will raise the point that feelings are good and should be respected. Unquestionably. Feelings are a gift from God. Feelings help us know and sense, and they lead us to realize problems and blessings in our life. Feelings are the internal nerve endings of the soul. They help us know when something may be off. I am not suggesting we discount our feelings as though they don't matter. Sometimes, entering into our feelings is of great importance. The best counselors who help people sift through life's problems are masters at this. They don't try to get you out of what you are feeling. They ask you to sit in the feelings. Play in the dirt of your feelings. Just be there. 

But — and I think there is a balance here — a Christian has to learn the lesson of simultaneously being aware of his or her feelings but not worshiping or bowing before them. While feelings are a gift from God, I am concerned that we give way too much credence to something Jesus didn't really seem to discuss or even care all that much about. The "feelings" and "emotions" of the disciples are not mentioned once. Jesus had very little, if any, teaching on how people were feeling about his ministry. Feelings are not a central concern of the Bible. In fact, I would go so far as to say that at times our emotions and feelings about reality actually undermine our sense of identity before God. Do you know why that is? Because human feelings are not the main moderator of truth. We can feel one thing, and reality can be something completely different.

Feelings can actually lead us astray when we bow to them. Joseph Campbell, the famed anthropologist who wrote Hero with a Thousand Faces, rejected the narrative of Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world. Belief in that way had no meaning for Campbell. At one point, Campbell said that he had no need for doctrine because he had experience. When we live by experience alone, then we have no need to think of, consider, or worship Jesus. The Christian narrative says life is not made up merely of experience and emotions; rather, it is experience mixed with doctrine that make it all worth living. We wander about life thinking and believing that our feelings are reality. They aren't reality. Are they important? Yes. Can they help us come to reality? Yes. But are our feelings always right? No. Our feelings can betray us.

I think living our lives in the power of the Holy Spirit involves becoming people who don't spend all of our time thinking about ourselves. ... Christianity has nothing to do with finding yourself. In fact, it is in mysterious ways about losing yourself to be found. Jesus also said it is entirely possible to find yourself and lose him.

Must God be felt in order for God to be true? I don't believe so.

When we equate God's presence with a certain feeling, then we will most likely believe that is the sign of God being near. For instance, if God feels like joy, then I can know that God is near as along as I am joyful. While I do believe that God can bring about great joy, I have overwhelming discomfort with the idea that God can only be felt when we are joyful. Or excited. Or sad. Or lamenting. Because when those particular feelings end, the assumption is that God's presence has ceased. If God is felt through joy, the minute we experience pain or sadness, God must be dead. Do we stop believing in God the minute the feelings (we want or have experienced) of God end? Because we have had real, tangible experiences with God in the past, we spend so much time, energy, and emotion doing whatever we can get back to those experiences. We can be so focused on past experiences that we can't enter into today with grace and love. ... I heard a Jewish rabbi once say that Moses wasn't all that special. He said that there is an ancient teaching that lots of other people had walked by the bush but did not have the gumption to lower themselves to talk to a bush. Moses, he concluded, was unique in the he was willing to stop, take off his shoes, and talk to God in a bush.

Sent into the Desert, but Not Deserted

The stories of Israel in the desert and Jesus in the desert become even more illuminated when we contrast Jesus in the desert and Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In essence, Jesus in the desert reverses the whole garden of Eden story. In creation's paradise, Adam and Eve had everything they needed — food, friendship, drink, relationship, and peace. They were all set; the environment was so good. Yet in that idyllic state, they still managed to fall into temptation and sin. Adam had a wife. Jesus was single. Adam had food. Jesus's stomach rumbled. Adam had shade in the garden. Jesus was in the blazing heat. Yet despite the drastic environmental differences, Jesus had the ability to reverse the destructive narrative of the garden of Eden, which is why we call him the second Adam — he undid what the first one did.

The fact that Jesus was "sent" into the desert suggests a powerful message from the life of Jesus — namely, that being in the desert is not the same as being deserted. Jesus was in the desert, but he was not deserted. As with Jesus, the desert is exactly where God wants us to be from time to time. ... In the desert, Jesus said we can't live on bread alone. We need God. His point was the we could have full stomachs and empty hearts. ... We don't live on bread alone. We also live by the words of God. If our physical needs are met but not our spiritual needs, then we are not truly human. We were created to live on both.

Silence, Scripture, and the Offensive Goodness of Jesus

We must resist the urge to tell the Bible what we want it to say to us.

A disciple will often respond to God's silence as the same things as God's rejection. ... God created sound and silence. And silence can be as much an answer as anything else. It often is the answer. Most of the time we consider our prayers answered only when we get what we want. That isn't prayer for Jesus. And thank God Jesus's prayer in the garden wasn't answered in the way Jesus wanted it to be. Jesus asked to have his cup of suffering removed. It wasn't removed. The world, as such, was saved through a prayer that wasn't answered as requested.

The racism of the disciples (see Matthew 15:23-28 for example) is one of the reasons I am a Christian. What other religion would include this story in its sacred scripture? Every other tradition would want to get that stuff out of the text. The Bible outs the disciples, exposes them, calls them what they are: racist sinners. Ignoring a problem is never the Bible's answer to a problem. This story is so embarrassing for the church. As a Christian, Jesus is constantly exposing my racism and indifference. And as a Christ follower I am not invited to hide it. I am invited to deal with it, confess it, and overcome it. We need others. Community is a house of accurate mirrors where we can really see our own sinfulness. We see our own prejudice when we see it lived out in others toward us. At the end of this story in Matthew's gospel, the disciples are going to see Jesus celebrate the woman and not them. I wonder if it woke them up.

An interesting observation arises from a number of the healing stories. Jesus, on many occasions, puts up what I want to call a "wall" before eventually healing someone. For instance, a man who couldn't walk for thirty-eight years begs Jesus to heal him. Jesus's response was, "Do you want to get well?" (John 5:6). Who would ask such a question? Clearly the man wants to be healed. But Jesus wants to hear it from the man. Jesus puts up a wall to be climbed, so to speak. Outside of Jericho, he says something similar to a gentile widow who has a needy child. Why does Jesus "put up a wall to climb" for such healings? ... A wall is Jesus's way of clarifying what we really want. ... The gift of God to us in such moments is often silence. The silence speaks louder than words. Silence helps us press in to him. Sometimes, our talking at God is our way of sidestepping the holiness of silence. There are a few walls one will have to overcome in our pursuit of Jesus. One wall for us is that Jesus is offensive. Everyone — outsiders, religious people, kings, soldiers, even the disciples — will hear or see Jesus do something that is not politically correct, seemingly kind, or even all that helpful. The Bible should offend everyone who reads it. If it doesn't offend you — if Jesus doesn't offend you here and there — then you aren't reading the Bible honestly.

If we are politically correct, we will never be able to fully enter into the brash but honest narrative of God. God doesn't care all that much for political etiquette. He stands for truth telling. And truth is offensive. ... 

Listening to and Loving God and Others Persistently and Equally ... Even in Desert Spaces

Listening to others has a similar effect to foot washing in the first century. Listening is a kind of twenty-first century foot washing. It involves placing ourselves squarely at the feet of someone's stinky story and hearing what they have to say. And all good listening has its starting place in learning to listen to God ... W.H. Auden once said that to pray was the pay attention to someone or something other than oneself ... and God's mystery isn't cleared up with explanatory citations all the time.

Christianity is not a movement of secrets. It is a movement of mysteries. A secret is knowledge withheld from others. A mystery is knowledge imparted to others; it just so happens that the knowledge is beyond our finite minds to fully comprehend. God is a mystery. Resurrection isn't logical. Grace isn't rational. Love isn't reasonable. I cherish how much mystery I'm invited into every day.

I am learning that one of the greatest skills of the best preachers is that they refuse to iron out the "unironables" in the Bible. ... I think that the same goes for the people in my life who have loved me with Christlike persistence. These are people who, like the best preachers, don't try to iron out all of me on their own. ... An oppressed Bible oppresses people. In other words, when we malign, quiet, or manipulate the holy words of the Bible, we can use it for whatever ends we want. I think the same stands for our relationships with other people. Oppressed people can oppress people. At the very place we ourselves are not loved as we are, when and wherever we find ourselves, we will refuse to do the same for others. I increasingly hear people, when facing such stories in the Bible, say things like, "I couldn't follow a God who could do that!" At the core of such a sentiment toward God is the same sentiment toward others. We refuse to love God who God is on God's own terms. We welcome embracing a God that fits logically, culturally, and sensibly into our own sensitivities. But the minute God colors outside those lines, we bounce. We are as guilty of this in our love toward others. Jesus's word were actually true. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' ... 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Mark 12:30-31). Our love of neighbor is a shadow of our love for God, and vice versa. Just as we are invited to love God on God's terms, a neighbor is invited to love their neighbor on their neighbor's turf ... even in desert spaces. 
Dan Rather interviewed Mother Theresa before her death. Rather was caught off guard by her answers: 
Rather: "When you pray, what do you say to God?" 
Teresa: "I don't say anything. I listen." 
Rather: "Well, okay ... when God speaks to you, then, what does He say?" 
Teresa: "He doesn't say anything. He listens. And if you don't understand that, I can't explain it to you." 
When I think of Teresa's explanation of prayer, I am reminded of David's words: "Rest in the LORD" (Ps. 37:7 KJV). Resting prayer is being there. 

The Gospel is a Wanderer

The gospel wanders like a pilgrim — road weary and resilient — through the hearts, minds, and souls of people in history. As it touches our hearts, it changes us. But we must first let it in. This wandering gospel has gone through countless generations to come into my heart. How many roads has the gospel walked before it came to me? Countless. And I didn't create it. I didn't make it. All I can really do, like you, is receive it. 

Welcoming in that wanderer, strangely, is our only way home.

Next post: Lenten 
City Notes '20 | A Beautiful Disaster: The Way of the Desert and Beautiful Souls

Here are links to previous City Notes books:

Soli Jesu gloria.

Christ is all,


Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan

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