Tag Archive for waiting

Revelation is Not a Guarantee

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For a three-month stretch when I was seven or eight, I tried to learn how to pray.

When I couldn’t sleep, I’d pull a children’s prayer book down from the shelf and move it to the crack of light that shone in from the hallway. I opened it up to the Lord’s Prayer and read through the words, hoping that praying would do something.

Anything.

About a year before, my parents had sent my older brother to a Christian children’s home called Sunshine Acres. Then they put my older sister in a psych ward at a local hospital. In about a year, she’d join my brother at the Acres, permanently.

I was praying in the eye of a hurricane that was not quite finished destroying life as I knew it.

At the time, I didn’t really know I was praying because of the chaos in my family. I didn’t connect those dots. I just felt like something was wrong, was scary, and hoped prayer would help me stop feeling afraid.

Looking back, I am astonished that my first instinct was to open up a prayer book. We weren’t going to church right then. The Presbyterian church I had been before we moved to a new city was nice, but like many churches, its niceness seemed like the niceness of school: lovely and wholly unconnected to terror.

I prayed anyway.

If this story had a nice tidy Christian bow on it, I would have opened my mouth and had it filled with sparkling revelations.

But when I prayed, I didn’t hear anything. Not a whisper of comfort. Not one trumpet blast.

But I didn’t give up. Not right away. I did it again the next night. Silence. Again. Silence. Again. Silence.

After a few weeks of this, I stopped getting the book off the shelf. I stopped trying.

I didn’t decide God was a fairy tale. I just assumed my technique was lousy. I had no problem believing that God could fix me. I just thought I needed to try harder for me to hear him talking.

Look: I am so grateful I did not take the silence as confirmation that I was alone in the universe. (I wish I had not decided that it was my fault.)

But my heart aches that I got nothing audible back from my prayers.

This isn’t just a “pie in the sky” wish. As an adult, I’ve prayed and sensed God’s presence and direction so powerfully that it might as well be an audible voice. I have been enfolded in safety and protection and love and had my whole outlook change.

But it makes me ache, ache, that when I was little, I didn’t get any of that. I had no idea that Jesus was with me.

I have to be honest: I have no idea why.

Why wouldn’t God give me a taste of revelation when I was desperate and without any power? I mean beatitudes, anyone?

Why did it take so long for help to come?

Why is it that so many children suffer so much, with so little done about it? Why are they alone in the dark in the first place? Why do little kids often get the least help when they have the fewest resources?

I don’t know. I really don’t know.

I know that I survived without God’s revelation there in the dark. I know that somehow my heart stayed tender towards Jesus and other people, and that when I had enough theology to reach out again, I did it eagerly. I know that in the end, I got the revelation, and it saved my life again and again.

You know what, though? I’m allowed to grieve with that young girl in the dark.

Maybe I’ve learned this: revelation is lovely. But it is not the same thing as salvation. I wish I had sensed God’s presence with me as a child—oh, I wish I had known he was there with me. But me knowing or not knowing it did not change the fact that God was with me in strength and power with every one of his angels. He was there.

It does not take away the ache. But it helps to know that what I took as absence was only silence.

It can take a very, very long time for us taste salvation. In the meantime, it can feel like God is not coming.

Even blessed, desperate, helpless children have to wait.

Is this good news? I don’t know. But it helps me to say it out loud, because it’s both the truth, and the only antidote for the “try-harder” lie I internalized as a small child.

If you don’t hear the voice of God when you are praying, it is not because you are doing anything wrong. I completely understand getting pissed off at God about this. Feel free. But please, don’t get pissed off at yourself.

Revelation is not a guarantee, and it is not doled out because we’ve earned it. Revelation, like so much else about God, is a grace-filled mystery.

More often then not, we are asked to wait. And wait. And wait. We are asked to believe salvation is already here despite evidence to the contrary.

I think the waiting must be necessary. It’s not a punishment or a trick to goad us into performing like trained monkeys.

I won’t pretend to understand the mystery of God’s silence. I won’t pretend it does not give me pain.

Regardless: even though I ache when prayer feels like a brick wall, I trust God’s holy stillness has its own purpose. Perhaps a long wait, helpless and hopeful, is the revelation we have been dying for.

Sometimes, silence is the most holy place.

And Yet.

 

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I’m not good at waiting. I never have been. Sadly, I can take after Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, “Daddy, I want a golden goose, and I want it NOW!”

Because the waiting is right where hope can feel a bit foolish.

I sat in the bathtub one morning as child and counted off on my fingers all the things that would need to happen for my transformation from “child” to “woman.” I listed things like “shave my legs” and “get married” and “have a baby.” Items that aren’t necessary to womanhood at all, and yet I didn’t have words to quantify things like strength of character, discipline, kindness, compassion. This list has always been in the back of my head. I’ve always wanted to be grown up. I had thought that waiting for things like college, travel, marriage, sex, and my own children would open up a path to freedom.

And now that I’m grown up with the responsibilities of raising my own brood of little people, I revel in their childhood. I wish I hadn’t been in such a hurry to cross over, because adulthood is not the freedom I thought it was. It’s bills and cooking and laundry and work. It’s the mundane.

Many days I get bogged down with the grind, with my own inability to see the Kingdom of God in my laundry piles, with all the ways I blow it as a mother when I lose it yet again. Sometimes I’ll stare mindlessly outside while doing the dishes: What I’m waiting for? Is it for my kids to go off to school so I can write in quiet? Is it for that book deal? That down payment so we can purchase a home? To put down roots and stay in one place? And then a child will whine he’s hungry or the rice will boil over, and I’m back in the present. But the questions and the waiting lurk like shadows.

And yet.

And yet, this is the pain of living in the in-between spaces, the place where the Kingdom is both already here and not-yet. We’re gloriously stuck right in the middle. And like all growing pains and thresholds, we want to jump to what is waiting on the other side, to “be on the inside of some door, we have always seen from the outside,” like C.S. Lewis writes.

Adulthood hasn’t provided me the key to the other side. So I wait. I commit to the mundane tasks like laundry, washing up, cooking, and the spiritual disciplines: prayer, church, reading my Bible. Small, inconsequential things really. Things that do not feel like they move and shake the world; these things were not on the list of the “world-changer” job description I received from school and youth group.

And yet.

And yet, I know in my bones that hope can look foolish and awkward like a gangly teenager. I know that hope flourishes only after it’s buried deep in the earth and rooted down in dark places. I know that hope comes bursting forth in spring and the crocuses and daffodils show us how color can push through winter snow. I know that if I cannot find God in my laundry piles that I’m unlikely to feel his presence when all the circumstances align just so.

So I suppose I’m waiting to be on that other side of the door—for glory, for all the horrible things that make our world feel like it’s spinning out of control to be put to right. It sounds like a fairy tale.

So right in the middle day between death and resurrection, I wait, clinging to the truth of the fairy tale. My children know it. Just this week, their eyes light up about Santa and Harry Potter and I watch them play hidden from view. I see the power of story enacted in their play. I see how words can create worlds, how synapses fire with imagination and how because of it, we all, are like the ancient Caedmon, drawn in to the dance.

I’m re-learning, too, that the happy ending, the “joyous grace” of fairy stories, according to Tolkein, does not deny or prohibit painful reality. Getting wrapped in story—and specifically in the story of a glorious homecoming that we look forward to—does not deny the pain in our world or the mundane parts of adulthood. Rather “it denies, (in the face of much evidence if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

So as I wash dishes and fold laundry and write, they are building blocks of my story, The Story, and part of all of our stories. Even when they feel like dirty dishwater. Even when it is cold and dark outside my window and spring is just a promise. Even then.

Joy in a Minor Key

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The holiday season is almost upon us, like a sweaty dog. The Christmas lights and jingly songs blare their good cheer into the darkness, but they don’t seem to penetrate it. 

This year, we will decorate the tree together as a family, and I will try and snap pictures of my little boy looking angelic while hanging a straw star onto pine branches. (This seems to be more of a challenge as the years go on: he is more prone to making monster faces when there is a camera present. This, too, makes me smile). My family will gather at Christmas, and we will exchange gifts, eat far too much amazing food (and swear we will eat less next year), and watch the Queen’s speech, as we do every year in our home in South West England.

It holds comfort and joy. Christmas, for us, is a harmonious symphony, repeated every year with minimal variation. 

But for others, Christmas tunes have been punctured by the rattle of gunfire; the devastating news of an unwanted diagnosis; the death of a friend; or painful memories from the past. I cannot sing ‘Joy to the world’ in my head while there is a discordant bass line that’s thumping throughout the world. Syria, Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Mali. They hold such darkness that it is hard to remember there is a light that will overcome it. It is hard to sing ‘tidings of comfort and joy’ without picturing a refugee child, huddled and shivering, or the relatives of those killed in Beirut, comfortless, weeping.

My friend, writer Kath Cunningham, talks about joy ‘in a minor key’. If you’ve ever tried to play ‘Joy to the world’ in a minor key you’ll know how wrong it sounds. Just that extra semitone down can make all the difference. 

Sometimes life is like that. We have joy, but in a minor key. This life mixes up the best and beautiful with the ugly and evil of the world, and sometimes they play at the same time. 

As I approach Advent, the season of waiting and in-between, I want to be honest about the joy and the sorrow together. It doesn’t work to pretend that everything is okay when it is not; nor that everything is bad, because it isn’t. We have both. We have joy, but in a minor key. We have sorrow, but with a resolution into a major key.

As I approach Christmas, I want to remember the darkness of the world, and sit with those who are in mourning. But I will also light a candle and remember Jesus, the light who was not overcome by darkness. Whenever the world looks particularly dark, it is not a trivial thing to believe that evil will not have the last word. Faith can be an act of defiance and boldness. Lighting a candle does not solve anything, but it does help to refocus on the truth, and truth has power.

It takes discipline to reject both the jangly tunes and funeral march that this world offers, and listen out for a melody that encompasses redemption. This world holds pain; but it is not without hope.

There’s something about slowing down, lighting candles in the dark and listening to God in the silence that makes me hear that song once again: joy, in a minor key. But this time it sounds more beautiful. 

 

(Kath Cunningham’s Advent thoughts which inspired me are also worth reading.)

 

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