What I love about winter in the north is the way the backdrop of snow and cold highlights every hidden beauty. Visiting my parents’ house, I took a walk in the woods I grew up playing in and stopped at everything that caught my eye – berries, bright red like the world’s own Christmas ornaments, thorn bushes with green and purple branches branches bound together, rich brown stripes on mushrooms growing like shelves on fallen trees. Even in the cold, dead winter, there is enough small grace to take the breath away.
About a year ago, I wrote a blog post pondering how God speaks. It’s still a topic I find endlessly fascinating, and fairly recently, I read Frederick Buechner’s memoir The Sacred Journey, where he says,
“If God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks. Someone we love dies, say. Some unforeseen act of kindness or cruelty touches the heart or makes the blood run cold. We fail a friend, or a friend fails us, and we are appalled at the capacity we all of us have for estranging the very people in our lives we need the most. Or maybe nothing extraordinary happens at all—just one day following another, helter-skelter, in the manner of days. We sleep and dream. We wake. We work. We remember and forget. We have fun and are depressed. And into the thick of it, or out of the thick of it, at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks.”
This sounds quite nice, and is certainly something I would like to believe—that God speaks and is present in all things, but I would be the first to admit that in my own life, I rarely sense it. What does it really mean to say that God speaks?
This is the way God loves you,
in the quiet of blue mountains
that have only to stand tall to speak,
and this is the way God loves you,
in red clay earth staining rivers across palms,
blood-splashed dirt drunk on men
who fought for freedom and men they kept as slaves;
from this unholy ground springs flowers,
pressing blue petal-lips to sky.
I am often frustrated by God’s silences or my own failure to listen. I have friends who talk about feeling close to God, and I wouldn’t say I’ve never felt that way, but it’s rare for me. I understand that faith isn’t about feelings, but I want to know that I am on the right path and truly following Jesus. I want the relationship so often talked about in contemporary Christian circles. Relationships are two-sided, so why does God sometimes seem so distant?
I know, frequently, I don’t give him time. I am rushing through my days in a whirlwind, with ears only for the next step in my schedule or the clamor of daily anxieties. But when I do take time and get nothing, what am I supposed to make of that?
In Genesis, God speaks the world into existence. If you have ever looked outside, this itself is incredible. YHWH’s voice is the eruption of stars and the parting of waters, the growth of forests and the spread wings of Earth’s first birds.
Then there is Elijah who watched as
“a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.” (1 Kings 19:11-12).
This low whisper is the voice of the Lord–not booming, not quaking, but a low whisper you have to lean in to hear.
Other times in the Bible, God seems to choose deliberately not to speak. God is quiet as Job’s sons and daughters die, his riches and livestock are plundered, and his body is covered in sores.
Job cries out for answers, but God stays silent until the very end. What he says is powerful, though not extremely comforting:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
He goes on like this for pages, and it seems like the message to take away is that God has no obligation to answer us. He does what he does. He is who he is.
Yet when Job acknowledges God’s greatness and his own smallness, the Lord restores his fortunes to twice what he had before. Why? He had no obligation.
I am most envious of Jesus’ disciples who saw him face to face and heard his voice. They could ask any question and expect an answer. They could hear him as he hung on the cross, crying, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.
I know the Holy Spirit is with us now, to teach us and remind us what Jesus spoke, but it’s very mysterious. I do think I have heard it, felt it? (I think I lack the vocabulary to talk about these things.)
I was a brittle teenager on a band trip in Europe in July. We were visiting a church somewhere in Austria, far from all the places where I knew what to expect. London and Paris were shining cities, but this church was just a short stop on a long bus trip across the countryside.
Inside the stone walls, I can only describe it as radiance. Perhaps I remember it brighter than it was, but in my memory, light will always burst from the ceiling, white and gleaming. Images of Jesus lined every wall and surface. A pamphlet about the place said its builders wanted the church to convey the joy of Christ. Joy. In the brightness, I could see it.
The choir sang a short concert there, and one of the songs was called The Prayer of the Children, written in the midst of civil war and ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia in the 1970s. These are a few of the lyrics:
Can you feel the hearts of the children?
Aching for home, for something of their very own
Reaching hands, with nothing to hold on to,
But hope for a better day
Crying Jesus, help me
To see the morning light of one more day
But if I should die before I wake,
I pray my soul to take
I believe what God spoke to me in that church, in that song, was hope. I wasn’t exactly suicidal as a teenager, but I was very unhappy, and killing myself was something I thought about, always an option if I ever really wanted out. The children in the song, victims of ethnic cleansing, had much more reasons than I to be hopeless, but they believed in something better to come. I knew then, or at least I chose to believe, that hope was not in vain. It was real and bright, and it couldn’t be choked by darkness.
Moments like these are rare ones, I think, but they do happen, when God in his creation voice grabs us by the shoulders to tell us he is here when we thought he was long gone.
A lot of people think the Holy Spirit speaks mainly through God’s word in the Bible. I am sometimes skeptical, because I think people take verses out of context, treating the Bible like a magic eight ball or a prescribed textbook, when it’s 66 different books including records of kings, words of prophets, letters to specific churches at specific times, poetry and origin stories.
It’s been translated multiple times, and it’s a messy, often hard to grasp story, but it is the story of our savior, and I think he is alive in it.
In one of my loneliest days last fall semester, I will not leave you as orphans sprang into my head–the words of Jesus before his arrest, John 14:18. Perhaps a coincidence, but I think they were words for me as well as the original audience.
Moments like these don’t always come, though. There are days I read the Bible and am bored by it, when I pray and don’t feel heard, when I am listless and unhappy and even the beauty of creation does not stir me. I want God to grab me by the shoulders and speak, but often he seems to sit silent and still.
These are the days when I sometimes wonder if I am crazy, if the Lord never spoke to me at all, and all us Christians are wasting our time. But I think God is still working in silences, even when we can’t see what’s he doing, and I aspire to sit like Job when I can’t hear him, dressed in sackcloth in the dust, saying stubbornly:
I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God.
I was going to share an old post today because I haven’t had much time to prepare one, but then last night I had the pleasure of reading G.K. Chesterton’s essay A Piece of Chalk. Every once in a while as an English major, I get to read some really great and beautiful things.
In the essay, Chesterton is drawing with colored chalk on brown paper, which he says makes one realize that white is a color.
“It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black,” he writes.
For the rest of this post, join me again at Together at the Table.
Together at the Table is a new blog created by a couple friends and I to bring our thoughts and perspectives together in one place. We are trying to each blog once a week, rotating which days we post on. I want to maintain my own blog as well, so I will probably be posting a truncated version of most of my posts here and then linking you over. But if you want to make things easier for yourself, subscribe to Together at the Table and read posts from my friends as well as myself!
Sometimes I find the Bible incredibly unsatisfying. I am reading the parts of the Israelite history I don’t know very well, and to be honest, they’re parts of the Bible I usually try to avoid. The God of the Old Testament seems so often fierce and unforgiving. Last week I read Joshua and cried for Achan’s and his household, the women and children all stoned to death for this one man’s sin. And so many people of Canaan similarly struck down with swords. No prisoners allowed– total destruction in the name of the Lord.
Theologians offer explanations for this violence. The people destroyed by Israel were corrupt, they say. We all deserve the same death, they say. If we’ve forgotten that, we’ve forgotten the gospel.
I can’t argue with them, but I’m still uneasy. It doesn’t seem like God gives everyone the same chance. How can people be held responsible for the cultures they are born in, for the things they are raised to believe?
It’s been a good trip around the sun this time. All years have ups and downs but I remember mostly good things. Here are a few:
I spent half the year living with my best friends, and it was wonderful. We sat on our porch reading our Bibles together, made a lot of cakes for no real reason, and had lots of car ride singalongs. Though we’ve gone separate ways for now, I can still go to them for anything. They’re forever friends.
a blanket of snow, somehow warmer than every fall night
snowflakes dropped from the sky like stars falling,
in morning a bright world shines, made new
and the weather’s different everywhere,
but for me, here, it’s like the Lord taking my hand saying,
I know things haven’t been easy, but look how it glitters for you,
a miracle sent to the cold, bleak world
as the savior sent to cold, bleak hearts
born beneath a great shining star:
the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shown
his name is Immanuel, God with us
Here am I kneeling on linoleum,
because Immanuel came to set the captives free
and yet I chain myself to cruel gods
who breathe despair into these lungs
made alive by the breath of YHWH,
I have poisoned them day after day.
I was grasping at grace sent from heaven,
joy more abundant than ever before
like manna in the wilderness,
it was bundled in arms with fear
of not having enough.
Fall is approaching again. If you’ve read my blog through the seasons, you’ll know that I am in very strong opposition to fall. Other people get excited about apples and sweaters and pumpkin flavored everything, and I like to just kind of cross my arms and glare.
Perhaps I should try to withhold my judgments this year and make better memories. I do like sweaters. I don’t like school starting again or trees dying or losing people.
I have been without some of my dearest friends for over 23 days now. I am sad about it, because–well, I’ve already written about it. We grew close and loved Jesus and went on adventures. Adventures are my favorite, and my friend Fern is very good at instigating them.
Fern is a gem and made me realize that I’m not quite as introverted as I once thought. I am more introverted than extroverted, I think, but I really, really like being with people and doing things.