Sunday, June 04, 2006

A sermon from Simeon Zahl:

Peterhouse Sermon: June 4, 2006 (Pentecost)

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Acts 2:1-21
Rom. 8:22-27

- It is appropriate on this Pentecost Sunday to talk about the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. If you are anything like me, when you think of the Spirit, you might think of some vaguely positive but non-descript way of talking about God. The Spirit is sort of nice and benign and everwhere, and is mainly associated with feeling loved, with inspiring the Biblical writers, with beautiful sunsets, and, for at least some of you, with speaking in tongues. And it is true that the Spirit does nice things for us, as our readings today tell us: he is our ‘Comforter’ or ‘Helper.’ He ‘intercedes for us’ in prayer when we do not know how to pray as we ought. He creates unity and enables communication between Christians, as at the first Pentecost. These are all very nice things, and we are happy that the Spirit does them for us.
- But our passages today tell us that there is also what you could call a ‘darker side’ to the Spirit. Jesus tells us in the Gospel passage: ‘I will send [the Comforter] to you. And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment.’ Reprove? ‘Reprove’ is not a very happy word, nor is it very vague. It is troubling. Many other translations translate it ‘convict.’ An unsettling word. We do not wish to be convicted of anything. What comfort is there in conviction?
- The Romans passage, too, points to a less pleasant than usual view of the Spirit: ‘For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.’ We who have the Spirit ‘groan within ourselves.’ It is clear from the context that this ‘groaning’ is not a sort of longing or yearning so much as the response to a real feeling of pain. It is a metaphor from childbirth, a metaphor of pain. Jesus, in the same chapter from which our Gospel reading is taken, identifies this Spirit-related pain with birth pangs.

-What are we to make of this ‘dark side’ of the Spirit? What does it mean that the Holy Spirit convicts us, and makes us to feel ‘birth pangs’? In trying to answer this question, I was struck by a remarkable quotation from a man named Christoph Blumhardt, a 19th century German preacher, and a very wise man, about whom I happen to be writing my doctoral disseration.
- Blumhardt explains about this side of the Holy Spirit in the following way: ‘Although people do sometimes have a sense of peace with God, ...nevertheless, in a given situation it is not so much peace with God that is the true mark of the Holy Spirit at work, but birth pangs and a sense of deep unsettlement.’ [repeat quote] I think Blumhardt is right about this. It is worth exploring what he said a little bit.
- So let us ask ourselves, then: do we see any of these symptoms in ourselves? Do you feel unsettled by anything in your life this morning? Have you been taken out of your comfort zone in a profound way? For example, often people like my wife and me, who come to Cambridge to study from abroad, feel unsettled and out of our comfort zone for a long time here.
- Or are you perhaps anxious about exams you still have to take, or, about the results of exams you have already taken? Or perhaps a job or funding application you are waiting to hear about? Often, these types of things can make us feel deeply unsettled.
- So what about Blumhardt’s other ‘sign of the Spirit’; what about ‘birth pangs’? Let me ask: are you hurting right now for some reason? Last year, when Bonnie and I were engaged and across the world from each other, I felt very lonely. It hurt to be alone, so far from her. I think this loneliness was a ‘birth pang.’ Or maybe there is a different pain, the pain of not knowing what the future holds? A close friend here in Cambridge moved here to study with the expectation that his house back home would sell soon, and he and his family would be able to live off of that money. 9 months have passed now, and the house still hasn’t sold, and that uncertainty is very painful for him. That feeling, of helplessness in the face of the future, of being thwarted in our will and our desires, is also a ‘birth pang,’ I think.
- We all know of these pains: of feeling unsettled, of living in uncomfortable anticipation of some result, of not having as much power over the future as we would like. The curious thing about our passages today is not their testimony that such pain exists in our lives, but that it is associated quite directly in John and in Romans with the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. My father sometimes describes this curious correlation in paradoxical terms: talking about God, he calls it ‘the presence of His absence.’
- It would be nice, of course, if I could explain to you, neatly and theologically, this strange relationship Scripture identifies between the Holy Spirit and the more uncomfortable feelings in our lives. But such an explanation is difficult. Why? Well, God is good, and we have heard again and again that he loves us. Why then, would He cause us these pains, even if they are only really just ‘birth pangs’? It would make more sense, would it not, to think of God only as the deliverer from the pains and the uncomfortable feelings, rather than as their cause also? And Deliverer he is, I assure you! Jesus himself calls the Spirit the ‘Comforter’ or ‘Helper,’ depending on your translation.
- But our passages today tell us that God is more than just a Deliverer, or at least that his style of deliverance is not always as straightforward as we might wish. Sometimes, his Deliverance hurts. Sometimes, truly divine ‘comfort’ and divine ‘help’ are deeply unsettling, and in fact feel very much like the opposite of what we want.
- This, then, would be one possible explanation for why the Spirit is so profoundly present not only in the obviously good things, but also in the unsettling ‘birth pangs.’ It is not an exhaustive explanation—I am not sure an exhaustive one is possible—but it is perhaps the chief explanation.
- So let me say it again: Often the places where we are hurting and where we are unsettled are the places where we have come in contact with a deep disconnect between what we desire for ourselves, on the one hand, and our power to bring it about, on the other. It is painful to run up against the limits of our self-determination. We see this clearly when we are trying to prepare as best we can for an exam: we can work very hard, but in the end we do not know what the questions will be, or how exactly they will be marked. There is an element of lack of control here, try as we might, and it is awful. Similarly, we are faced with the limits of our power when we have completed an exam or a piece of work or job application, and we are stuck in the limbo of waiting to hear how we did. In these cases, we know what we want—to succeed, to be affirmed, to get the job—but we are past the point where we can effect the result, no matter how important the result is to us.
- It is here, at the painful, awkward limit of our self-determination, at the limit of our power to control our own lives, that we are told today that the Spirit of God is present. To put it even a bit more strongly, the Spirit is perhaps most powerfully present, at least sometimes, when we experience the explicit defeat of our self-determination, the failure of our own power to effect what we desire. For it is here, here more than anywhere else, that the salvation of God can begin to have meaning for us.
- That is why Jesus can tell us, just a few verses after our passage today, that our sorrow will be turned to joy, like a mother’s pain is forgotten in the joy of the birth of her child: he says, ‘a woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. And you now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you.’

- The salvation of God begins with ‘birth-pangs.’ So the Bible tells us. But let us rest assured also of God’s promise, through his Spirit, that his salvation will end in joy.

19 comments:

Tim Galebach said...

Thanks Sim/John, this was very helpful today.
--TG

Paul Zahl said...

Simeon, This is really outstanding. I simply love the expression, the "limits of one's self-determination". And the use of the Blumhardt quote is just so excavating and true to life, not to mention to these very powerful readings.
This is beyond good -- in the sense of the old sci-fi title, "They Came From Beyond Space".
I simply wish I had been present this morning in the chapel of Peterhouse.

Eve said...

Brilliant sermon. I really love in your writing (and I suppose speaking) how you can present ideas and teachings, some with answers or resolution BUT ALSO you can let some things just stand in tension. Things that don't add up. You don't seem to need to tie everything all up in a nice bow and I appreciate that, because it has the ring of truth.
I laughed at this: "What comfort is there in conviction?" because, thanks to your dad, and Forde, and Luther I find immense comfort in it, because I know the sequalae of His power being then being "made perfect in my weakness. " The sooner I'm convicted, the sooner he's working in me.
I also love too, how though you're just as uberintelligent as any person on this or any other blog, you have a way of communicating that is accessible even to just moderately smart people like me-(-I'm not in the league of the 10,000 Braniacs that inhabit and post on this site, but I love reading things that I DO understand. )
I really get smarter reading John Camp....or maybe it's just an illusion, (like how you think your voice actually sounds pretty good when you're standing next to a great singer in church!)
Anyway, loved the Pentecost sermon--- clear, and bright and fresh.

mike burton said...

Simeon-

Wonderful! Just wonderful!

Mike

Bryan Johnson said...

Thanks Simeon,
My family needed that message today.
Bj

Anonymous said...

thanks for these thoughts. but, i am struggling to see how your rosy conclusion squares with the brutalities of life for many. or even of the cross. for example, i am wondering about a news item i just read that is hard to forget. about a university student kidnapped, raped and strangled with her bikini top. nothing ended in joy here. about the absence of Jesus, or the perceived absence, in her final terryifying minutues. joy? about the slow starvation of children in Africa. about kids being sold into prostituition in India. joy? is the Holy Spirit really manifesting himself in uncertainty about the outcome of an exam at Oxford? what about the outcome of a daughter's leukemia test? how do the millions of people facing REAL PAIN, perhaps not the relatively comfortable anxiety of the priviliged, about taking an exam, or not selling one's house just yet, how does the Spirit answer their groans? how do they even get into a place of identifying their groans with the Spirit? How do they receive anything on Pentecost except another dose of anxiety? With all respect, I find this sermon, as articulate and polished as it is, irritatingly DETACHED from the real pains, the real losses, the real battles that Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior came to fight, win and overcome for us, his sheep being slaughtered all day long. Slaughtered by living in our isolation and not knowing how to get out of it. How does the Spirit enter into these pains and heal them? I don't know. But I don't think the Christian journey can so quickly and apparently blithely summarized as 'joy'. There is a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between the suffering side of the cross and the joy side. I don't believe this sermon does justice to this gap. And this gap, in all its ugliness and torture and seemingly endless time and distance, in my view, is all about the journey, and, yes, the promised joy. But I don't know where that joy is, or even if it is, in many cases. And I propose that you don't know either...In short, my reaction to this sermon is: long on 'bs', short on life. Blessings.

bpzahl said...

Hi anonymous,

Thanks you for your thoughts. It seems to me that no sermon, no solution other than God himself could answer to the problem of evil and the problem of suffering that we all see in the world. How do you reconcile that? What sort of message would you preach if, in reality, the gap between the cross and the joy is as great as the Grand Canyon? You said "But I don't think the Christian journey can so quickly and apparently blithely summarized as 'joy'." Agreed! It's the birthpangs that Simeon spoke to. Yet how would you preach a message of hope in light of all of this? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Bonnie

Anonymous said...

Bonnie-

Fair question, and a smart one... You've nicely turned the tables. Remind me not to debate you! Ok. I'll try to answer, knowing I can't.

All the bad stuff. How to explain it? How to then tie it into receiving joy? Habukuk gets no answer other than :if it (the answer to this very query) seems slow, wait for it... it will come. (Hab 2:3). Job doesn't get much of an answer either. But, he does seem to get unmediated presence with God, and from this an accurate context into his relationship with God, and thus into himself, that, in itself, seems to bring stillness and peace to his being.

Out of this, I take the following structure for an initial answer: faithful patience coupled with abiding in God's presence. Which brings accurate perspective to bear. That may form the basis for the waiting part. Creature vs Creator. Waiting for the sorrow or the pain or the fill-in-the-blank to somehow transmute into acceptance, perspective and possibly joy. If that is possible. We don't get much from Habukuk or Job, I think, on how this alchemy of transformation out of sorrow into joy works.

In this context, let's consider Paltiel, distraught on his road, and contrast him to another discouraged man on the road, Cleopas. I want to think about the alchemy here, or the bridge if you will, that might get Paltiel to the place Cleopas got to. If we can script that, maybe we can script the basis for an answer to the question.

First, let's enter into the scene. When David reclaims Michal. And Michal's husband, Paltiel, "...went weeping after her all the way..." (2 Sam 3:16). Later, in 2 Sam 6:23 we learn that Michal 'had no child to the day of her death.' Let us put our selves in the shoes of these two people. Made in God's image. With an internal yearning to be whole and united. Michal, who seemingly had found love, I say this as Paltiel ran after her in tears, and Paltiel himself who did find love. And then had it ripped away. Seemingly unjustly. Both seem to end up alone.

David, the man whom God loves, and to whom so much of the psalter wisdom is attributed, and who had so much, appears here as heartless, to say the least. (Go get him, Nathan...) So, 'God' here, in the form of David, seemingly distant and heartless, as seen through the eyes of Michal and Paltiel. Leaving them alone with their sorrows, alone in tears.

Let's just hold this scene in mind and in heart for a minute. The aches and sorrows of these two people. How their lives then played out, their prayer lives in particular. Day in and day out. And then expand that out to the many today.... No 'joy' here.. No 'nothin' here but bleakness I would surmise. This part right here- this holding the sorrow and the pain of people- is critical for the Gospel to have any chance of taking root in their hearts. To feel understood and met as they are, as we are, before the bombardment of 'all the language' of Christianity that can be so problematic, so ineffective to today's ears that do, in fact, long to hear. Before possibly premature assurances...

Now let's think about Cleopas, another man, also dejected, also on the road, leaving town, turning back. Hopes and dreams stilled, apparently shattered. How is it that this man's life and spirit were able to be transformed right there on that dusty road? No, his income didn't go up, didn't get a new girlfriend or a new car. Somehow, he was able, in a encounter with the stranger, to feel his heart burn, to begin to feel different inside despite there being no change in his external circumstance. This slow heart change, leading to an internal clarity perhaps, spreading to his eyes which could then begin to see. Leading to him turning around, on that road, the road to Emmaus, heading back toward community, with, I dare say, a new, and eternal, spring in his step... Suffering transformed.

Let's return to Simeon's conclusion which talks about the Spirit always resulting in joy or similar words to that effect. (I think it is the seeming breezy confidence in the 'always' that bugs me). I am thinking now about the repeated 'if' emphasis in Jesus' words in John 14 and 15 about 'if' you keep my commandments, if you love the other, then you will have joy. Why the 'if'? I thought God's love was unconditional and could never 'leave or forsake us'. But, for many, there is sadly no such experience of God's love, or of the joy. So, what to do? How to make these pieces add up?

It seems to me that the answer has to focus on 'abiding', on the 'interiority' of the matter. The interiority that may, with God's grace, give us a remote chance of loving the other, as we have been loved. That is, if we have experienced that love that gives us the 'godly grief that produces repentance..." (2 Cor 8:10). And if not, then, I guess we just wait, with Habukuk perhaps.

So, how to live, in this world, in a way that allows us to be shaped and formed so we can begin to see, in pain, in tragedy, yes in the 'birthpains', how there may be, even remotely, the chance that God is working in those times, those places. About how we can become Cleoplas from Paltiel, if you will. And that life, that Christian life, of learning how to embark on that journey, that road to Emmaus, to eternity.

That is a skill set, it seems, a learned craft, counter-intuitive, a spiritual 'technology transfer'. Has impact. Words that will actually open the way, I think, in closed ears. Because they are words that describe experiences already lived. Through grace. They are words that denote 'ah ha' moments already experienced. That connect dots. Then, and I think only then, do all these words take root. But the technology on how to live life, see self, other, God, events, that Christian technology, that needs to be transferred first. I think. But this presupposes grace? Put another way, how does one first learn to pray the collect for the First Sunday in Lent? The "...Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each of us find you might to save.."

I think all we can do is try to learn how to live, day in day out, moment in moment out, in a way that allows us to receive. You know the mission impossible of this. But that is the technology transfer that can be offered, by human effort alone. Bring back the Desert Fathers!

So, the best answer I can come up with, for now anyway, to your question I guess, is this: 'learn to just be there in love'. Because we can't explain anything. We can't provide assurance on anything. After all, there are endless examples of Paltiel or Michal or worse in the Bible. In life. In our own families perhaps. In ourselves.

How can walking with Jesus Christ shape us into just being there in love and mercy for the other. But first, as a precondition, mercy for ourselves, from ourselves, to ourselves. To get through the awful and sad and lonely times, the Paltiel times if you will, until we become Cleopas. By grace. Somehow to be open and to learn how to abide in those times. And to offer that to others. It ain't much I realize. But, it seems to me, it's a platform for Grace should it decide to show up. And there are no guarantees...

Yes the joy, it gets cultivated in the waiting, in the suffering. It springs up, slowly, in that soil. Eventually. If we can be shaped into abiding. And meeting the stranger on our dusty road. How to do that, how to be that, that seems to me to be the message and the rare art. And I don't know how to say that to someone. I think it requires behavioral examples. Preaching without words, by being. By providing a place for shaping and forming to happen. Day in, day out. If and as it does. And I saw it happen, to some parents whose 7 year old died slowly of a brain tumor. They are now Christians, and were not before....I'm sure you've seen examples too.

Yikes, that was a lot of 'words' too. Now the fun part. I get to ask you. How would you preach it?

bpzahl said...

Hi there,

Thank you for such a thoughtful response. I agree with you that we’ve brought to the table one of the most difficult questions that no one has been able to answer since the history of civilization! I won’t be able to fully answer your questions either, but am glad for the dialogue nonetheless. I realize that we may actually be agreeing (though with different language) on some things, so please do not take this as any sort of counter-argument to what you said. Since you asked for what I think, here goes 

I am not so sure if I would agree with you that Job has God’s unmediated presence (at least not till the end when God speaks). We’ve actually been reading it and I am struck by just how much anger and bitterness Job has (see chapter 10, for example). I am also struck by how, in spite of his anger and bitterness, Job does continue to have (what I perceive as) an amazing reverence for God throughout. I don’t think that’s the same as unmediated presence with God though, and as I read Job (at least the first 15 chapters, which as far as I’ve gotten!) I would disagree that he has stillness and peace in his being – he certainly doesn’t sound like it, at least in my reading of Job!

You said, “I take the following structure for an initial answer: faithful patience coupled with abiding in God's presence.” I agree with you in theory, but from experience I would have to disagree with you in practice. I don’t think in times of crises it is at all in our power to have faithful patience. I think, when people are in deep pain and suffering they cannot be met with a standard answer of ‘be patient’, not because it’s wrong to be patient, but because we can’t handle living in the pain for so long. In moments of crises it is very hard for a person to really be creature and trust God to be Creator. So, while I agree with you fully that there is waiting, that is a) not easy, and therefore b) not a realistic assumption that when we tell people to be patient they can just do it. I agree with the waiting it out, and I think patience certainly accompanies waiting, but that process is extremely painful and difficult.

On the other hand, I do think we can get a lot out of Job about the transformation aspect. Maybe this is the answer that you disagreed with or disliked, but I would say that Job’s answer came from God’s intervention. God simply intervened and in the end, restored the man, and made his joy complete. That ending does sound like a cop-out; what about the mother who waits and waits for her child to resurface after the tsunami and doesn’t see her? (I met such a woman; her daughter was a student at a school I used to work in, and the girl, along with her father and one brother, were never found.) What about the faithful husband praying for his wife in a coma, only to finally let her go when her heart stops beating? I don’t know. I only know that the process and the end of those scenarios are heartbreakingly painful.

Your examples from Samuel are truly fascinating. In response to that, I don’t think I would necessarily say (perhaps it is unloving of me) that Cleopas’ is the ‘desirable outcome’, as if Michal and Paltiel did something wrong and could have chosen differently. Maybe that is where we differ. In the grand scheme of things, Michal and Paltiel’s story had just as much to do in the salvation narrative as Cleopas’ story. It sounds awfully cruel for God to afflict and leave two people in solitude and despair for the sake of telling his grand salvation story. That’s actually what I see as the profundity of Job—his ability to voice his complaints, bitterness, and moments of resentment, and still uphold a very reverent view of God. That said, I wouldn’t really know what to say to Michal and Paltiel. I certainly wouldn’t say, ‘Don’t worry guys, it’s just all part of God’s grand plan.’ That is a great disrespect and disregard for their present and real suffering.

I love what you said about the darkness, the bottomless pit, as the place where the Gospel has any chance of taking root in people’s hearts. I also wholeheartedly agree with what you say about the power of being met as we are (broken) and where we are (in darkness and despair) by the Gospel. Do you think though, that God himself brings us to those places for the sake of us being able to be hit powerfully by the Gospel?

(You are so right to talk about the ‘bombardment of all the language of Christianity. When I was depressed, the last thing I needed to hear was someone telling me ‘maybe you should pray more’ or ‘why don’t you try to worship God in spite of your suffering’ or even ‘God will bring you through’. Because as long as I didn’t feel like God was bringing me through, all those words were just patronizing!)

The way I look at Cleopas is that God intervened in the form of a stranger. God met him, gave him an experience that changed his heart. Why didn’t God give this to Michal or Paltiel? Why didn’t he intervene their suffering, too? I don’t know. But I do believe that in BOTH cases, God was equally present (like Psalm 139 – ‘if I descend into the depths of Sheol, you are there; if I rise up to the heavens, there you are also.’). That still doesn’t answer the question of why it seems Cleopas was delivered from his suffering (and transformed!), while Michal and Paltiel were not.

I would hesitate to say that Michal and Paltiel were not transformed. It is impossible to know whether that experience left them as they were, or had changed them in some way. I wouldn’t want to presume that their lives got better eventually; that would miss my point, which is that I think God is there when there seems to be, _and_ when there doesn’t seem to be, intervention or immediate deliverance. I say that with confidence (in theory, mind you, because when I’m in a bad way I wouldn’t really act like I believed it myself) because Jesus came to save.

Now, let’s go back to Simeon’s sermon and the ‘ifs’ that you mentioned. To me, the problem is not God’s love failing us, but that we don’t always understand it. There are only two operational choices of seeing this: 1) God was lying, or somehow his love is given whenever he choose to, and sometimes he just lets us down; or 2) God is always loving, and his intention for us is always good, but we just don’t see it or get it. In fact, we don’t really even know what it takes for us to experience ‘joy’.

Both options seem unsatisfactory, in my book. The first because it is theologically untrue, and the second because, being confined in a body, time and space, it’s simply unloving and unhelpful to tell someone to overlook their (very real and present) suffering. (It seems I haven’t really gotten anywhere with all my verbosity!) So what now?

You said: “…grace. They are words that denote 'ah ha' moments already experienced. That connect dots. Then, and I think only then, do all these words take root.” If grace is a gift, then I would revert back to your point about waiting and abiding. But I would say that waiting and abiding doesn’t necessarily mean peace or painlessness; in fact I would say that the waiting and the abiding is often painful and we want to do everything to get rid of it (even if it’s something to do that distracts us from it!) We ask God, as you wrote, to ‘come quickly’ as we ‘learn to just be there.’ I didn’t put the ‘in love’ in it, because I think many find it difficult to ‘love’ God when they feel he is at least in part responsible for their affliction!

So, how would I preach it? The way Simeon did, which is to acknowledge that the pain is indeed very real and very painful. I believe it is not only unloving, but curel, to ask someone to pull themselves together and get themselves out of it. Most often than not (there are exceptions, I’m sure) the problem is that people have tried and tried and tried and failed, and as you said, they need mercy (not law) for themselves. They need grace, to be helped from without, not to muster more courage or strength or endurance from within. I actually think that in the moment of giving up to those birthpains (no epidurals here!) is the moment for the Gospel to enter in.

And I cannot agree with you more about _actually_ extending that mercy to others as opposed to just telling them about it. There is nothing more powerful than sitting with another person who is in pain, and crying with them out of compassion and empathy. Or visiting and caring for that family with the 7-year old dying with a brain tumour. Whatever communicates love, not judgment or expectation for them to sort their lives out, works.

Preaching is inherently words-oriented though, and there is a big difference between listening to and reading a sermon. It is funny that you were bugged by the ‘seeming breezy confidence in the “always”’ of Simeon’s final sentences, because when I heard the sermon at church my initial reaction was “dang, this is depressing!” It was far from the banal ‘God works for the good of those who love him’ which seems to be the default answer to every Christian’s problem. Simeon’s main point (and I know because he told me, which is the fun thing about being married to the guy who is preaching) is this: Often we think salvation or deliverance is the thing that comes to stop the birthpangs and the intervention that takes us out of the suffering, but the Bible says otherwise. The Bible says, in fact, that the birthpains and the suffering and the pain _is_ part and parcel of the intervention of God, because it is from _ourselves_ that we need to be saved. Yes, the world is under the power of the evil one and we need to be saved from that, but the greater darkness is within. Our self-determination is what we need to be saved from, because self-determination is diametrically opposed to justification by faith and salvation by grace. And salvation does come; sometimes in this world, but CERTAINLY in the next. That doesn’t undermine present suffering and doesn’t render it any less painful; it does mean, however, that there is no *ultimate* power. Would you agree?

It seems to me that you voiced your concerns out of a keen pastoral sense, which is wonderful. When we see people who are suffering, there are some things we know and keep to ourselves, and there are some things to communicate. We would never, ever disregard or underestimate a person’s suffering, which is real and painful, even though we know that ultimately the power of this pain and darkness will be undone. However, we do preach Good News to that suffering by first acknowledging it. There is power in acknowledgement, don’t you think? It affirms people and tells them you are taking their pain seriously. Then we preach the Good News – the kingdom is near – not because tomorrow their pain will go away, but because ultimately Jesus has overcome the world. If Simeon preached his sermon and expected everyone to ‘feel better’ a week, a month, or a year later, he would be kidding himself. We would hope for God’s intervention in the congregation’s lives, and pray for God to send a stranger to meet those on the dusty road, but he would not expect or demand anything to change. His congregation can come back week after week, still suffering and weak or even in sin, and he would still preach the same message that draws out our need and puts it on the table, so that it is, as you said, a platform for Grace to show up.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Mine was just as wordy, if not more so, than yours!

Sincerely,
Bonnie

Jeff Dean said...

Dear anonymous,

I do wish you would make your name known. Hiding implies that disagreements are things to be ashamed of. If we're all Christians here, then we're all in the same boat, correcting and admonishing one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I think that your comments accurately reflect the thrust of the feminist critique of Protestant theology. How can we say that a battered wife is just where the Holy Spirit wants her to be? Do we call those who suffer to remain in their bondange in order to grow closer to God and his will for their lives?

Certainly not!

Suffering is not ipso facto salvific, nor is it ontologically good. This is, incidentally, one of the problems with the current debate in the Episcopal Church--just because honesty is painful does not mean that such pain is meritorious.

The cross is not redemptive because of the suffering it entails, but rather because of the choice it exhibits. I, as a human being, am not free to choose suffering for the sake of Christ, but Christ was free to choose suffering for my sake.

The essential difference between Christ's suffering and our suffering is love. We suffer because we are enslaved and weakened in the world; Christ suffered because of his love for us.

Thus, you are entirely correct to say that starvation in Africa or rape in America is neither Holy nor redemptive.

Because of the cross, however, Christians can proclaim to the world that Christ has entered into suffering through his love for those who experience it. Does that make suffering any less horrific? Certainly not, and God protect those who are suffering even as I write this.

Our faith, however, is that we can endure even the cruelest tortures because the love Christ has for us is stronger than all of the chaos in the universe that seeks to obliterate even a memory of our existence.

Suffering is not redemptive, but Christ's love redeems even suffering.

Anonymous said...

Bonnie-

Thanks for writing all that! Much appreciated. All I can say is 'agree' to most of it, and that includes all the big stuff. You are effective.

You have demolished my fear that the reality behind Simeon's sermon was basically a perspective of 'mouthing assurances at wounds uncomprehended'. I seem to see so much of that. I also feel like I have experienced it. Unforgettable, that. Maybe I see it now in places where it does not exist! In fact, I wonder if my concerns were not more about my own fear of doing this that I then transferred onto Simeon's sermon. The 'if you spot it, you got it' phenomenon... In any event, I will read Simeon with a stilled and open heart going forward. I feel better already...

So now, perhaps you could help me with what is my central query and struggle: the 'how to' part of it all? For example, when Jesus says do not be anxious, how to not be anxious? Both in general and right now, at this instant, and the next, etc? And in all the other parts of the NT that say: be loving, gentle, patient, kind, turn the other cheek, love your enemies, etc. Not in general but right now. And now again. Ok. But, how?!

This 'all' seems to come down to 'relationship'. What it is, and how to be in it. Maybe it is oversimplified, but the whole Bible seems to be about this. What is proper relationship? Macro and micro. And I think part of the consequence to our not living the right answer to that gets to one of your points about us not knowing what it really takes to experience (receive) joy.

I see this part, the 'how to' part, of the journey, on a daily, or minute by minute, or second by second basis, as where 'Christianity' seems to be relatively lacking today in its 'offer'. As far as I can tell. The most fruitful areas I can find seem to be: a) the 'rule of life' tradition of the Benedictines and b) contemplative stuff from the Desert Fathers or those who have revisited their teachings and techniques for modern times. And I read all this and try to put it in practice. Again, this all seems to me to be about the mechanics of implementing 'life in relationship' in the real world. With the human bodies we find ourselves in.

What do you know about this? How do you 'do' this? I am all ears!

I'll quickly tell you what I know, which ain't much. Where I am finding what seems to be a rich vein of technique in this area, in the 'how to' area, is in 'Buddhist stuff'. Or in certain related 'new age' stuff. It seems like 'techincal philosophy' to me for living wide awake in 'mercy and awareness'. Fear not, I see it very much under the umbrella of the Gospel. But it seems like a kind of specialized technology for the journey. Like snow tires for winter driving, perhaps. Or polarized sunglass lenses on the beach.

And in this way I see this kind of 'technique for the moment to moment awareness' as actually opening the way to a far richer Christian experience. Because it seems to be technique to help one stay present, stay open, in the minute to minute sense of the daily blur, and thus to receive. Receive the Word. Yup, the Christian one. So it is not a competing religion at all. Just components. Lego blocks maybe.

I will pass on the names of two 'non Christian' books that I have recently found to be super helpful here. Not because they are 'non Christian' per se but because they seem to be very effective. More effective than 'Christian' books I can find on this 'how to' technique.

I offer them to you on the off chance that you examine one of them at some time and see what you think. Or, that you say: oh, I see, do you know about xyz "Christian" book in the same area?

The first is The Power of Now by Eckhardt Tolle. If you are prejudiced against this book, like I was, reading it may well reverse that. I approached it with a 'what can I learn' view vs a 'what can I find fault with view.' And I learned a lot! Especially in the second half on, you guessed it, relationship. What it is how to live in it, offer it. It is really helping me 'be Christian' I think.

And many parts of it are, to me, a good example of how one can take basic Scriptural insight and make it more effective with fresh 'language' that can be heard perhaps without initial negative reflex reaction by the listener. I was also surprised that the 'new age' Mr Tolle signs onto original sin.

The 2nd is Embracing the Beloved: Relationship as a Path of Awakening by Stephen and Ondrea Levine. This is just an astonishing book that breaks down the emotional chain reaction in us going on 'behind the scenes' that most of us completely miss. This chain reaction internally that leads to _expression of resentment, anger, covetousness, etc. And shows how to stop the chain before it gets going. Through a constant awareness. For me, lots here as well about how to live without being anxious, etc. If nothing else, read the chapter on "Narcissus' and the one "Desire". I think they both take direct aim at 'the how to' techniques of the constant fight against 'self-determinism' that we can both agree is enemy no 1.

Actually there is one 'Christian' book on this topic, very short!, that I have found which is just dynamite. But it may be out of print in the UK. Still around in the US I think. It is called Crossing, Reclaiming the Landscape of our Lives. It is written by an English Benedictine monk named Mark Barrett who is based in Worth Abbey. Interestingly, it incorporates, you guessed it, a fair amount of Buddhist 'technique'. Fuses it with Benedictine daily office in fact.

Anyway, enough of that. Any helpful hints in this 'how to' area that you have learned would be much appreciated.

Finally, re Job. The reason I say unmediated presence with God led to inner stillness is because of Job 42 1-6. In line 6, my ESV translation says: "...therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes'. The translation notes say that 'repent' here can also be translated 'and am comforted'. Seems about right to me- comforted from learning about 'right relationship'- and being thrust into it...

Now, how to stay there?!

mattie said...

Sim (et al) -

I'm coming to this discussion late, as I've been off on retreat without a computer (ten days of me, God, and Iowa forests - what a glorious time)...

We know the areas in which I disagree with your theological perspective, so I won't point them out, nevertheless, I think there are some important points made in your sermon and I applaud you for the work. I have a couple of thoughts not really at all related to the other posts, but things I nevertheless want to share.

1) I wonder if a sermon of this sort might be enhanced by utilizing the scriptural (and simply linguistic) notion of the spirit as wind. As you remember, at Pentecost, "suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting." (Acts 2:2). On my retreat I was outside a great deal and I remember one afternoon I was sitting looking at the forest and listening to the wind. But I realized I wasn't listening to the wind, I was listening to the ways the leaves on the trees were rustling in reaction to the wind. Perhaps, then, we can understand the "convicting" or "reproving" power of the Spirit as the reactions of sinners to the "mighty wind" of truth and holiness. I think of this in this way - when wind blows through leaves, it makes noises because the leaves are frail, unsubstantial, prone to being moved, torn, falling. The rushing wind of the spirit "makes noise" as it were when it touches leaves, but not (unless it is particularly strong) when it passes over something more solid, more sturdy - like a mountain.

I think this analogy might be useful in your theological perspective because, to you, we are all perpetually leaves, only to be made sturdier in the next life. I find it useful because I see the wind as something that makes us stronger and allows us to withstand future gusts of wind, not because we are resistant to the way the spirit works in the world but because we are being build up by the spirit in faith, hope, and love. An interesting anecdote is that when gardeners are moving immature vegetable seedlings from a greenhouse to the outdoors, they deliberately initially leave the tiny plants outside for short periods of time - fifteen minutes, a half hour. As the plant grows used to the wind, the garder increases the time slowly until the plant is ready to go into the ground. The wind and sun (or "Son" if you want to extend the Trintitarian analogy) by intitially "threatening" the health of the baby plants gives the plants a wherewithall to survive and thrive. A sort of gardening version of 1 Cor 3:1-3 in my mind...

2) Oh how I wish you would have pursued the idea of "deliverer/deliverance"! There is a reason that the section of the hospital where children are born is called labor and "delivery." The image of God through the person of the spirit, in inducing and yet comforting during our "birth pangs" is being the ultimate "deliverer." God is our midwife, who births in us the ability to be called children and friends of God. He delivers in us spiritual graces and the ability to love more deeply. As I grow more deeply in my Catholic faith I begin to realize why Mary is genuinely integral to understanding God: she birthed him in the person of Christ Jesus, but not without her very own "deliverer" - the one we rely on also - our one true God.

3) I have to get going, but I'd encourage you, if your interested in pursuing this pneumatic understanding, to look at the way St. Ignatius describes "the discernment of spirits" in the Spiritual Exercises. I'm taking a class on that very topic this summer, so I'll know more in a month or so ;) but for now, I know that Ignatius believes with you (and scripture) that the spirit has a convicting and purgative role. Nevertheless, the spirit of God (as opposed to the spirit of evil/the devil) can be recognized by a sense of rightness and peace. By this, I think he means that in convicting us the spirit of God helps us be more ourselves by pointing out things that we already sensed in our hearts, but were too insecure/anxious/angry/sinful to admit. That, while intitially threatening, is actually liberating - it is a "birth pang" that comes in the revelation of our true selves, our "imago dei" which comes only by the stripping away of our rebellion and sin.

Any responses?

Anyway, gotta go. Great sermon!

Mattie

Leigh Leopard said...

Do not know if this went through first time...but Jeff Dean I thought you nailed it! Clear, concise, perfect!

christopher said...

Brother, you can PREACH.

(I'm hoping you didn't have to buy or otherwise solicit an "amen".)

You're an original thinker, and you express yourself beautifully. Thank you for sharing.

I also loved the "limits of self-determination". And I especially loved the insight about "birth pangs", and was promptly reminded that from the beginning, in Genesis, the first recorded creative activity of God is "birthed" out of that great formless void, over which the Spirit hovered.

Similarly, the Spirit hovers still, over what seems to be nothing, or next-to-nothing, ready to birth...what? Nothing less than the mighty work of God.

bpzahl said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks again for your thoughtful response! I am so glad to be a part of this conversation with you.

It seems to me that you are asking the 'how' of Christian living, and here you will find a variety of (and even conflicting) theologies and thoughts. Theologies differ, and experiences differ; whilst I hesitate to relativize theology, I also hold the Spirit to such high regard that I think what God considers to be helpful in the 'now' for one person might have the opposite effect for another.

In my own life the area of 'spiritual disciplines' has been this way; there have been times when what I really needed and wanted was to be taught disciplines that would further my spiritual life. In retrospect I would say (descriptively!) that those were the earlier, more youthful days of my spiritual life. As of the past two years, those have not been as helpful for some reason. I have more wanted to rest, to trust God entirely and wholly that transformation comes about sometimes in dark places that I cannot see, and even where God seems most distant. In those times, I have found prayer and the Word to not be comforting, but afflicting; they only served to highlight what Paul Zahl calls 'the presence of his absence'. Sounds good, but feels terrible!

If I were to put my money on one 'how', it would be to pray and discern what that person needs at that particular time in their lives. Sometimes the graceful thing is to offer discipline. Sometimes the graceful thing is to offer encouragement. Sometimes the graceful thing is to simply be silent and let them be, even if it seems, well, unhelpful. My 'how' would be asking the Spirit to show what that person needs at that particular time. If that person is myself, I would ask the Spirit to grow me and trust that somehow, sometime, and in some way that I do not see right now, he would.

You mentioned the relationship, which reminded me of John 15 - being the branches and abiding in Christ. That is incredibly true. Sometimes the abiding isn't easy - especially when you are being pruned! A few months ago I came to realize that the feeling of being pruned (having pieces of you cut off) feels the same as being cut off altogether (painful!). One is for the sake of growth; the other is for destruction. In my experience, the darkest spiritual times often feel like I have been entirely cut off from God. But because of Jesus (because of justification by faith!) I know that even in those times of pruning, when there is no fruit and there is only pain and feeling cut off, it is for a greater good. That said, it doesn't make it any less painful!

Continuing with John 15, God prunes so that fruit is borne. To me, the critical aspect of such transition (from fruitlessness to fruiltfulness) is that a) the branch is passive; it is living, but it lives off of the vine. The pruning occurs from outside. The things that nourish the branches (sunlight, rain, good soil, etc.) are also from without. The branch cannot choose where it wants to grow; it simply grows. What makes it grow and what makes it bear fruit comes from without.

Yet it seems there are plenty of fruitless branches, and plenty of branches that bear bad fruit. What to make of those? I would say that somehow those have ceased to be grafted in Jesus. Why, I don't know. And how to restore it? I would say only the Gardener fully knows.

I also hold the personal view (which you may not agree with) that our self-awareness, even in the Christian sense, is tainted with sin. That is, we use our self-awareness to try to get to God by works and not by faith. I hold a (personal and working) hypothesis that self-awareness (and in part the evolution of consciousness and this understanding of our different 'selves') is a part of the Fall. Today God uses our self-knowledge and this Romans 7-esque 'multiple selves' to point out what is and what should be. But I think prior to the Fall, such distinctions never existed, or at least were never experienced by Creation. I'm not saying that I think we should live in oblivion, but I do think that the 'digging out' and the conviction is the work of the Spirit, and not the work of ourselves.

So, the 'how to'...I once said, tongue in cheek, that 'the last time I checked, the Bible was still in the 'religions' section of Barnes and Nobles and not in the 'self-help' section. I guess I can't really offer much of the 'how to' except to trust in the Lord. Proverbs 3:4-5 comes to mind :) I think we can never be far from God if we are so aware of our position as Creature, that we are (as Job says) 'comforted in dust and ashes', for that is where we came from and where we return to. It is because of Christ that we have hope, and when he returns, all will be new.

Lastly, as a side note - having lived in HK and watched the Christianity there change, and having spent quite a lot of time on missions, I am wary of prosperity gospels which, by definition, preach prosperity in Christ (as in, God wants you to be healthy, well off, happy, beautiful, etc.) Though we do change and there are significant transformations in Christians, I think it is a dangerous ladder to climb up. It seems all too wordly. It may be an extreme example, but I think the question of 'how can we be better?' is often asked in the same spirit of progressive, epigenetic self-actualization (in the Rogerian sense) which seems to be contrary to the Spirit's work of death and resurrection.

Sorry if I didn't really answer your question! I may have a lower view of ourselves than many, but I do think it is in the dust and ashes where we are comforted and where we are transformed by something much greater and outside of ourselves.

All best!
Bonnie

Eve said...

WHOA!-- Now, if the resultant discussion is not PROOF of what a great sermon that was, I'm not sure what would be. I enjoyed reading all of this immensely, and am enlivened by all of it.

Anonymous said...

Bonnie -

Dynamite. Thanks v much. I see where you are coming from. I also love John 15. I'm still not sure how to remain 'abiding' but I see that is a life long learning thing. Your words are very clear, very helpful.

So this is where I am left at the end of all this: is Simeon's conclusion about joy actually based in Scripture?

Does Scripture say that God promises through the Spirit that his salvation will end in joy?

I am assuming what is meant here is that salvation for all, or certainly at least for all the faithful. Is that right?

I don't know where this assurance or this promise is. Can you help me find this? I ask in the full sense of Scripture, not a phrase here out of context which ignores that phrase over there which contradicts it.

In this light, I am thinking of Romans 9:14-28, especially 22 where Paul talks of God making vessels designed for destruction to show his greater purpose. Ever wonder if you might be one of these?! I don't think that South Korean Chrisitan in Iraq who had his head cut off with a dull knife on video thought he'd be one either...

I'd love to really believe this. That God promises to all that they will all be saved and it will all end in joy. Or at least to the faithful. Or the 'elect'. How I hate that phrase! Despite it being in the BCP. But that is another topic... Or is it?

What exactly does Simeon mean when he says that God promises that salvation will end in joy? Whose salvation? Joy- when? How do we know when this has taken place?

And how does Simeon have confidence that this is true despite the many, many, many awful examples around us every day that seem to suggest it may not be. Back to our hapless South Korean... Or maybe me next time, or you..

Any help here mucho appreciated.

Thanks (again!)

bpzahl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bpzahl said...

Hi Anonymous,

I hear you completely about how difficult it is to 'abide', especially at the moment when one is being pruned! How to stay put and still believe and trust even in the time of deep pain is a mystery. But if a branch cannot choose to remove itself from the Vine (only the Gardener does that!) not can it even grow apart from the Vine, so I believe that somehow God makes a way for us to survive the pruning - even if that way is to have just enough to make it through another painful day.

Simeon's conclusion about joy comes directly from the passage in John 16: 20-22. Jesus says: 'I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.' In the least, Jesus himself says that the pain of this world will definitely end in joy in the next world. Of course, God is fully capable of making pain in this world end also with joy in this world (for example, in the comparatively short time of child-birth!) but the promise of joy in the next world is certain.

I would encourage you to re-read John 16. Jesus speaks of this world and the coming world in relation to each other, and it is really interesting. Rather than saying that this world will end in joy in order to welcome the next, he says that in this world we will be scattered and we will have trouble. Yes, he was speaking in reference to the Passion and the scattering of the disciples, but don't we all feel scattered (whether internally or externally) and troubled when we look at our lives and at the world around us? Isaiah chapter 40 onwards speaks precisely of this unrest and unsettlement and the hope that God's return will restore all things to the way they should be.

I hear very clearly your concern for suffering (and often unresolved, inexplicable suffering) in this world - where is God in that? I personally believe that insofar as I am a mortal, God is hidden from me. Sometimes he reveals himself to me, but I believe that most of the time my perception is malfunctioning. The Spirit helps me to see sometimes, but my mind and my body (and thus my psychology and perception) are still finite. For me to comprehend the infinite with my finite mind is not really going to work too well. To be honest, I don't like that - it makes it hard for me to relate to God, especially when it feels like he is making life hard for me! And in those moments I don't like to think _I'm_ the one who's got it wrong. So yes, I fight and argue with and yell at God a lot. But when I've vented my anger and my frustration, I (and this is just me - others may feel differently) think that a relationship with God (even if it feels sort of crappy and a bit of a mess) is more important than no relationship at all.

Now, onto Romans 9:14-28. Unlike you, I read that from the perspective of eternity (as in, the vessels for wrath and the vessels for glory are in reference to eternal salvation, not just being helped in this life). Yes, the Predestination debate. So, the South Korean Christian you mentioned may seem to be a vessel of wrath in this world, but in fact he is a vessel for glory in the world to come - which is, in my book, a much more important world than the one we live in! That's easy for me to say, but not easy for the South Korean to experience, and I know that. If I were in his position I'd probably think this world was pretty crappy and wish it would end before too long (Job thought this, too.) That's why I think I can't convince you or anyone else of the truth of this matter; somehow only God can make eternity real to you (and I) when you (and I) live in this life, in this world.

You said, 'I'd love to really believe this. That God promises to all that they will all be saved and it will all end in joy. Or at least to the faithful. Or the 'elect'.' You might not like to hear this, but I do believe that the Romans passage you mentioned is talking about the difference between the saved and the unsaved. The 'end' that it speaks of is the ultimate end, not the penultimate.

Simeon never means to make light of suffering in this world, nor does he promise that somehow everything will be ok before we die. But joy is a deeper thing than happiness, would you agree? A prisoner of war who dies in his cell may have joy even in spite of his circumstances. A professional athlete who has been paralyzed by a drunk-driving accident may have joy. I don't know how they would have it (I would never be able to muster it up myself!) but it's possible. Rare, but I believe it is possible by the Spirit.

The case rests for me on seeing this world as only temporary and seeing the next as the ultimate and eternal. That is very hard because we live as embodied beings with feelings, thoughts, physical sensations that is constantly being attacked. How can you tell a person who has cancer in his pancreas, cannot eat, and is in constant pain even remotely be satisfied about his condition? I knew of such a man. He was an elder at a church of over 1000 people, CEO of a business that was committed to donating at least 5% of their annual income to charity organizations, had built schools in China, and was just one of the most godly men I had ever met. I met him about 15 months ago - he looked healthy and vibrant. Yet about 7 months ago his cancer in the pancreas deteriorated (I didn't even know he was sick!) and he died about a month ago. For the months before he could not eat, he was bedridden, and in a great deal of pain. It was so hard for me to hear that!! It felt so unfair - why would God allow that to happen? Why not let Bill stay in the world for a longer time and be a witness for a greater period of time? But God took him home.

I know he is in a better place now, that his joy is truly complete. He is with the Lord and there is no more pain and suffering. Now he lives in Psalm 23 - but without the valley of the shadow of death or the enemies; there is only green pastures, a good shepherd, a feast at the table. Is it good that he had to endure such suffering to get there? No. Is cancer good? No. Is it fair? I don't think so. But is Bill in a better place? Yes. And is he there forever? Yes. So I guess it evens out just a little bit.

The end of your very sobering post reminded me that well, our salvation is at the mercy of God. We don't know if we're objects of wrath or glory. I may believe now, but what's to say that somehow I don't lose my faith when I'm 45? I think it just keeps me humble. Hopefully if I'm never stubborn enough to give up on God and decide that I wouldn't believe!

But sometimes we don't know (maybe we know a little more about ourselves than we do others, but ultimately we don't - not till the day we die). When you said you hated the thought of 'the elect' who were chosen for glory, and those who were chosen for wrath, you reminded me of a woman I knew, who attended an Alpha course that I was advising. She was really sweet and really gentle. She told me she wanted to believe but she couldn't, because her husband would never believe. She didn't want to get to heaven and be there without him. I was really struck by that; there she was, faced with a question that would eternally affect her, but there was something that kept her back. I nodded and told her that I understood, and in my mind I knew that only God could intervene in this situation. I don't mean to imply that she is overly dependent on her husband or she has a very weak will (I don't really believe in free will). What I mean is, in that situation I really wouldn't know whether she is a vessel for wrath or for glory.

Another example is my own grandmother, who became a Christian a year before she died. She was so stubborn, so superstitious for so much of her life. She was also subject to real suffering; two of my uncles died when they were young (one of cancer, and the other committed suicide). Can you imagine that for any mother? Having two of your five kids die before you. That's almost half your children. She was a tough lady and somehow we'd almost given up on trying to convince her of anything. Somehow, God intervened! I still remember the day she called me and said 'Bonnie, I believe in Jesus.' and she had all the idols and alters in her house smashed down (she was very superstitious, as many Chinese people in the older generation are). Then a year later she passed away when I was a freshman in college. I was mad at God for not letting me say goodbye and the grieving process was still really hard, but I am really glad that I will see her with Jesus when God takes me home.

Last year I went through a period of being really pissed off with God for not being who (I thought) he said he would be. (Basically I got mad at him for not helping me when I needed help!) At that time I didn't feel like he was going to help at all and he was even responsible for making me suffer by not helping! And after a while I didn't even want his help, if 'help' was putting me through a crappy time, then no thanks! At that time, I wouldn't have been able to hear Simeon's sermon without getting really pissed off. How can birth pangs be part of God's help extended to me? That just sounds really mean!

But I guess now that I'm a bit less angry at God, I can see that indeed the pain was humbling, and it saved me by showing me the 'limits of our self-determination'. If self-determination is that which drives us away from God (because we wouldn't want to call on him for help) When I got mad at God and decided to basically ignore him, my self-determination didn't really get too far. That was pretty crappy too; I couldn't really make things better on my own, either. I was then left to consider whether it was better to keep on believing in this mysterious God who can seem mean at times, or to put him in the cupboard and go on living life on my own. I think I missed the relationship with him. So even if I didn't really understand how to relate to him, it was better than having no relationship at all.

So I guess I have again failed to give you some direct answers; oops. Well I hope that didn't bore you too much!

Take care,
Bonnie

P.S. Starting thursday I will be on vacation for a few days so I won't have internet access. If you wanted to email me, please feel free to - my email is my name (one word) at gmail dot com and we can continue the discussion. And I'll check back on John Camp when I return and we can continue this here, too :)