Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Christ Over the Coronavirus City Notes '20 | A Beautiful Disaster: In the Care of God While We Wait

"If waiting functions as the womb of the Kingdom, then we must be on our guard when our souls become agitated and we lose our peace. We do not want to become so agitated that we leave the womb before it's time. ... I need to learn how to receive shalom in circumstances decidedly hostile to peace. There are those who somehow live in peace as they wait, even when circumstances are at war with them.+ Marlena Graves

To continue in similar themes of He Speaks in the Silence, The Dusty Ones, and A Beautiful Disaster during this novel coronavirus pandemic (you can read more about Marlena Gave's thoughts on "The Way of the Desert to Form Beautiful Souls" here), below is the content for the second of three posts in relation to disasters, deserts, and direction through wilderness spaces (or shelter-in-place spaces).

"In the Care of God While We Wait" excerpts adapted from Marlena Grave's A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness

"Do Not Fear, for I Am with You."

How easily our memories of God's goodness and faithfulness recede when we encounter new difficulties. It's as if we have a spiritual form of Alzheimer's, that most terrible of diseases. In our fear, we quickly slip into distrust. And yet God tells us over and over again, "Do not fear, for I am with you" (Is. 41:10). It's as if I'm back in the Hebrew camp. I can see myself fuming, impatiently pacing back and forth, asking God and anyone within earshot why that damnable cloud by day and fire by night are at a standstill. We escaped Egypt. Now what's the holdup? In my imagination, that billowing cloud and blazing nighttime fire are obstructing our view of the path ahead. Doesn't God realize that?

Because we can't see around the acts of God, we don't know where we are going. If we could just see what lies ahead, we'd calm down. "God, we're getting restless here. God, can't you see we're miserable in this desert? Why are you torturing us like this? At least in Egypt we knew what to expect in our oppression. In Egypt, we had figs, grains, grapes, pomegranates. Here we have little to eat and no water. Some God you are." ... In our panic, we're tempted to blaze our own trails through the wilderness. God seems a million miles away from the hell we're going through. If he were near, he'd make himself known, get us out of this mess, and provide right now. ... Who or what we turn to in order to alleviate our suffering, apart from God and his Church, tells us about our idols. ... Like Jesus in the wilderness, we are tempted to provide bread for ourselves instead of depending on God and his timing.

God Brings His Provision and Peace Daily

God meets our daily needs like a mother bird provides for her young. Like baby birds, we are to open our mouths and receive our daily portion. Sometimes God provides for us and others through the food pantry and food stamps, through nonprofits and his Church, and for that we say, "Thanks be to God."

Jesus tells us that it is kingdom-normal, not an unreachable kingdom-ideal to be careless in the care of God. We can be careless knowing that each day we will receive our daily portion as we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread." We can be careless in his care as we receive our manna moment by moment, depending on the grace of God and the grace of his people and others he chooses to use to provide. ... Provision may come in the form of being increasingly full of the fruit of the Spirit — "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23 NLT) — amid situations that, in any other case, would elicit the opposite. Frederick Buechner writes, "To be at peace is to have peace inside yourself more or less in spite of what is going on outside yourself." We are provided for when God's grace enables us to learn God's way of life. The Jesus way. Jesus had peace even though he knew he would die. He was full of Spirit-breathed life despite being disliked and misunderstood and rejected. And now he longs to provide his peace and rest for us in the midst of our suffering. Like baby birds, we must open our mouths wide to receive: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid" (John 14:27).
Slow Deaths to Self, and Divine Madness ... or Deliverance?

In a mysterious way, and for reasons known only to him, God uses our mortification — the thousand little and spectacular deaths we die in this life — as a means of provision for others. Our deaths to self are a means of grace for others and vice versa. ... I don't believe we'll ever know the eternal implications of our obedience to God. We'll never exactly comprehend how in our dying he provides for others. But we too are broken bread and poured out wine. A divine mystery.

We are humbled as Peter was when he threw his nets overboard just because Jesus told him to, though he had every reason to believe there would be no fish at that time of day in that place. But his nets were full to overflowing. We should be slow to accuse God of divine madness. If God tells us to cast our nets, then in obedience, we should cast our nets. God's provision may come from the strangest of places and at the strangest of times. ... Laura Swan, a Benedictine nun and spiritual director, writes, "Desert spirituality is characterized by the pursuit of abundant simplicity — simplicity grounded in the possession of little and the abundance of God's presence. Yearning for complete union with God, desert ascetics sought to remove all obstacles to ... this relationship." Those who spent time in the wilderness grew to understand that detachment from the things that possessed them opened them to be possessed by God and filled with his Spirit. To increasingly want God and his life and then be full of God and his life is provision. That is kingdom wealth.

God Provides Right Where We Are

What propels us through the darkest nights of our souls, nights when we are convinced that God has left us to die without provision, is intentionally recalling his faithfulness.

Some of us are suffering because we've tried to provide for ourselves by blazing our own trails through the wilderness instead of taking God's path. Perhaps he is calling us to surrender something or someone, but we're scared, and so we hold on tightly to whatever is within our reach. And that's what's killing us. ... In the wilderness, we remember that God did not bring us out here in the desert to die. He brought us out to save us, to show us his power, to offer his comfort, and to put to death whatever is in us that is not of him. Then there's resurrection. God in Christ opens up paradise for us and provides us with all sorts of dimensions of life as we seek him. God ever and always has our flourishing in mind. It is we who must learn to receive.

"Waiting is the Hardest Part ... "

There's no doubt that waiting is one of the most difficult disciplines in the Christian life. God desires that we learn to wait well — that we trust him without panicking. Learning how to trust him during our long obedience in the same direction is a discipline we must cultivate. "Trust we put in GOD honours him much, and draws down great graces," Brother Lawrence tells us. Waiting well, a grueling discipline that becomes a grace the more we practice, is not reserved for those aspiring to be in the kingdom-of-God hall of fame. It is something God desires for each one of us. It is a gift of God for the masses. Andrew Murray is right in saying that waiting on God teaches us unceasing dependence on him.

I think it’s during the wait in the dark, more than any other time, that Christ is being formed in us. In a sense, waiting is the womb of the Kingdom in which we are formed. … Most of the time, we don’t exactly know how we are being formed. But while we wait and learn to pay attention to the details of life right in front of us, we discover that God’s grace is “always hidden under the strangest appearances,” as the 18th century Jesuit priest, Jean-Pierre de Caussade says. Life all around us is full of nooks and crannies, of delights and wonders – some of which have always been there but we’ve yet to see. The season of waiting slows us down so that we notice. … And we don’t want to become so agitated that we leave the womb before it’s time.

It is true that throughout our lives we will wait for different things. We will wait for the resurrection of the just, for God to make all things new. God will give us the grace we need to wait for these things. As we turn to him, the pain and angst over the wait will lessen. Our vision and understanding will widen so that anxiety will no longer dominate our world. In the meantime, whether our wait is relatively short or long, we can trust that we are being purified and that God is increasing our capacity for glory.

God uses waiting to enlarge our souls. While we are waiting on God, he is often waiting on us. He is waiting on us to fully surrender ourselves to him. Once we surrender, we can move forward. In this womb, this wilderness experience, we are being, and also becoming, who we are.

My friend Karen Swallow-Prior writes, "For it is in conformity to one's true nature that one is most becoming in both senses of the word: well-fitted and beautiful." The wait is where we become more well-fitted to the person God is making us to be. And the more we are what we were meant to be, the more beautiful we become.

Fighting Acedia While We Wait

I've spent a long waiting on God to bring order and healing out of chaos, but I haven't always waited well. ... When the present is painful, we want to do anything but wait. ... If we don't know how to wait well, or we refuse to wait well, we're vulnerable to acedia. The desert mothers and fathers called acedia the "noonday demon." At root, acedia is a lack of love for God, ourselves, and others. It can tempt us to check out of life by evading responsibility. It can have a numbing effect on us. As Kathleen Norris observes, it "takes away our ability to feel back about that. If we can no longer weep, or desire, or feel pain and grief, well, that's all right; we'll settle for that, we'll get by." ... People in waiting want to do something, anything, to find relief. Prolonged stress and pain can leave us feeling listless and helpless. In such a state, we are vulnerable to acedia. We can come to despise the place we're in, the place of waiting on God for an answer or just waiting for life to happen. Evagrius calls this hatred of place and for life itself. We may cast off self-restraint and seek to fill our emptiness with forms of escape and destruction. And that's when we can get into all sorts of serious trouble.

I think of Abraham and Sarah, who got restless while they waited for God to give them their son. The longer they waited, the more Sarah was tempted to believe that she and Abraham had been delusional in believing that God meant to provide. Surely he didn't mean for her to become pregnant at her age. What made sense to her and to Abraham was for him to sleep with Hagar, Sarah's servant. Maybe God was waiting for them to work things out on their own. So Sarah and Abraham, exasperated by the wait, decided to take the situation into their own hands. But we know (and they soon figured out) that impatience with God, disguised as a commonsense approach, proves destructive and sometimes fatal.

If waiting functions as the womb of the kingdom, then we must be on our guard when our souls become agitated and we lose our peace. We do not want to become so agitated that we leave the womb before it's time. ... I need to learn how to receive shalom in circumstances decidedly hostile to peace. There are those who somehow live in peace as they wait, even when circumstances are at war with them.

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

Embracing the present moment means being fully present to the now, not letting our minds wander somewhere else or wishing we were somewhere else while performing a task or talking to another person. ... Mark Mallett defines the present moment as "the only point where reality exists." It is now that we are to be attentive to God, to existence. Yesterday disappeared like a puff of smoke, and we are not guaranteed another moment. The present, even when we're waiting, is holy unto God. It is where God acts. 

It's in our wilderness experiences, in the seemingly godforsaken wait, that we must discipline ourselves to remember that God is here. Emmanuel. God with us. Kathleen Norris writes, "For the early Christian abbas and ammas, both heaven and hell were to be found in present reality. While both were envisioned as an inheritance – one to be hoped for, the other avoided – neither existed apart from every day experience." We must choose which direction we wish to move in the present. Will we inch toward life or toward death? ... One time while I lay pondering the future, the Lord brought this to me: "Marlena, your incessant pondering about this is like a student who sits in a classroom itching for class to be over. All she does is glance up at the clock without paying attention to what the professor is saying. Although present in the classroom, she is disengaged and learning nothing, all because her attention is on the clock. She is waiting for class time to wind down because she'd rather be somewhere else." While my eyes were on the fulfillment of God's promise, they were not on him. I wasn't paying attention to and cherishing the life right in front of me.

It was as if everything else in life didn't matter as much as the fulfillment of the promise. My obsessive ruminating, turning the situation over and over in my head, was trying to figure out how God might answer me. I was not waiting well, for I was more obsessed with getting a future gift than with loving the Giver of all things right now. I needed to transfer my desire for control over to God. 

We must live the blessed life now, not forsake the present in anticipation of a future blessing yet to be revealed. ... There'll be some days when we can barely function. We needn't beat ourselves up over it. God remembers that we are but dust, a passing breeze that does not return. He doesn't have unrealistic expectations for us. ... Waiting can teach us to pay attention to the details and intricacies surrounding us – the details of goodness and beauty and the details of suffering. ... Waiting can also teach us to joyfully appreciate what we have instead of despising it because of what we don't have. Ah, waiting! It is the gift that keeps on giving but a gift that not even the best of us welcome, at least not initially. Waiting becomes a form of fasting from our need to exert control over our circumstances and others. When we experience delayed gratification, we begin to surrender our need for control. However, relinquishing control can bend us out of shape because we don't know how to function otherwise.

God uses waiting to destroy our illusions of control and self-sufficiency and to remind us of our utter dependence on him. He also uses waiting to humble us and shape us into people who are poor in spirit. Being poor in spirit is the greatest gifts. ... The Lord says that the poor in spirit are blessed because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them (Matt. 5:3). Psalm 147:6 tells us that the Lord sustains the humble. 

God wishes to sustain us by giving more of heaven now. And since the kingdom of heaven is filled with the humble, and since in it, the last are the first, God uses the wait to humble us; that is truly what is good for us and the world. Moreover, the poor in spirit are able to recognize and receive all the riches of God's grace. Practicing the sacrament of the present moment while we wait on God is also a way of exercising the discipline of detachment. God uses the wait to detach us from loyalties and affinities that we shouldn't have, or that are no longer good for us, or that are no longer needed because we are about to transition into a different phase. In this way, waiting is the Lenten season of the soul. It is a time when we examine our motivations, prepare to receive answers from God, and also prepare to live well in the next phase of our lives. ... Waiting tempers disordered passions and allows us to deal well with reality. We might come to understand that things aren't as bad as we thought or are far worse than previously imagined; God uses the wait time to develop in us fortitude that keeps us from being destroyed by our circumstances. We realize that we don't need this or that thing or relationship to be whole, whereas before, when we had what we thought we wanted and weren't waiting on anything, we never thought we could live without it. In the wait, we are almost forced to learn the discipline of detachment. In the wait, we are being detached from what weighs us down so that we can "run and not grow weary," so we can "walk and not be faint" (Is. 40:31). And once we become detached from those things or people or circumstances we thought we couldn't live without, we learn contentment. In our contentment, we are able to reach the point where we can say to God, "Not my will but yours be done," and mean it.

Here are links to previous City Notes books:

Soli Jesu gloria.

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan

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