Wednesday, February 02, 2011

God is Good (all the time?)

I shared last week at my church's Women's Bible Fellowship. We're studying James Bryan Smith's “The Good and Breautiful God” and I spoke on the chapter about the goodness of God.

Each chapter in the book is coupled with what the author calls “Soul Training.” This chapter's exercises directed us to sit in silence and work to experience God in nature. Several people asked for a copy of my thoughts so I'm posting them here. Now if you read on, at least you'll know what you're getting into. We sang a bit together and then I sat (safely tucked where I feel safe—at the piano) and shared something like this:

As you read this week, maybe you wondered, as I did why the quality of God's goodness is so important, so central? In the list of the fruit of the spirit, it's tucked into the middle; after the cheerful “love, joy, peace,” it whizzes by just about the time my mind beings to wander and before I finish up with that dreaded “self-control.” Frankly, it feels a little wimpy—
Good dog
Good girl
Good job
Good enough

A few years ago, with the professor's permission, I sneaked myself into a Gary Fawver Christian Classics class. We read many books that semester, but Julian of Nowich's “Revelations of Divine Love” was then (and remains now) one of the most influential personally. At the time, I read passages like this one from the 6th chapter with so much confusion:

For the Goodness of God is the highest prayer, and it cometh down to the lowest part of our need. It quickeneth our soul and bringeth it on life, and maketh it for to waxen in grace and virtue. It is nearest in nature; and readiest in grace: for it is the same grace that the soul seeketh, and ever shall seek till we know verily that He hath us all in Himself enclosed.

OK, so maybe I needed to get past some of the out-dated language, but I still spent a while working through how the goodness of God could be so important, so central to his character.

For the Goodness of God is the highest prayer, and it comes down to the lowest part of our need. It quickens our soul and brings life, and makes it to grow in grace and virtue. It is nearest in nature; and readiest in grace: for it is the same grace that the soul seeks, and ever shall seek till we know truly that He has us all in Himself enclosed.

If he were not good, the God of all holiness would be impossibly demanding, an all-seeing God would be no better than a peeping-tom. Without goodness, an all-powerful God would be a tyrant.

We need God to be good, so we can trust him to be everything else, all knowing, infinitely powerful. The problem is, our experience sometimes (in these days of world-wide media, often) doesn't appear to prove that theory.

So we make up excuses, “It'll all work out eventually. It's all for my long-term good. I'll understand it when I get to heaven.”

But if I really stop to think about it, I can't deny that it feels an awful lot like circular reasoning. “If life is good, it's because God is good in a way that is clear. If life is bad, it's because God is good in a way I can't understand.”

The Bible says that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights in whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (James 1:17) And it also says that “all things work together for good to love who love God and have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

So everything is good, or if it's not...wait long enough and it will be made good. My inner skeptic scoffs, “Isn't that convenient!”

Last weekend, Bryan and I went to the beach. We hadn't been away alone (except on our boat) for almost 10 years. It was so nice to be together in a place with standing head-room, flush toilets, one that didn't drift around at night, with absolutely no chance of sinking.

And I was in the mood to enjoy it. About halfway through the weekend, I caught myself exclaiming over one more blessing—“Isn't it wonderful that the B&B isn't too full? Isn't it great that the weather is so nice?”—knowing full-well that if circumstances had been otherwise, I would have been rejoicing in the chance to curl up inside and watch the storm or the opportunity to meet all these wonderful people. I am my own spin doctor.

Tuesday, we got a call that my pregnant sister-in-law had been in yet another car accident, her second during this pregnancy. It was a minor one, and the baby is OK (and she will be too, eventually). And we breathed prayers of thanksgiving to our good God.

But in the times in my life when the disaster has not been avoided, I have still found ways to see God's goodness, still work to praise him. This is both Biblical...and completely illogical.

Seeing the silver lining comes naturally to me, more, I've learned over the years, than for many others. And yet I still fight for faith.

Am I just beliving in God's goodness because I can't face the thought of living without that assurance? What if I knew I would never understand his reasons? Would I still choose to believe that he is good?

In the book, James Bryan Smith shares that Jesus pointed to the goodness of God. Despite the early death of Smith's daughter, even through and because of it, he came to believe more deeply in the goodness of God. That God would never harm a small child because of the sin of the parents.

But we just finished a study about David where it seems pretty clear, God did just that. I don't understand. I know that I have found ways to reconcile tragedy in my own life with my hope for a relationship with a good God. But there aren't easy answers.

Yesterday in the shower, where my mom says all good thoughts are born, I had a new wondering, one that even feeds my desire for logic.

For many people, the problem of evil in the world is a huge hurdle in their pursuit of God. If God is good, why is there so much suffering? Well, smarter people than I (with lots more free time) have spent their lives pondering this question, so don't think I have an answer for you.

But the opposite question is just as mysterious. If God is evil, why is there so much good? An evil God running a world where goodness persists makes a lot less sense to me than a good God working to redeem a world marred by his gift of free-will.

No matter how you look at it, it remains a mystery. We can't KNOW that God is good. All our experiences that point to a benevolent Creator can be countered with just as many to the contrary.

If I'm honest with myself, my circular reasoning about the goodness of God gets me through my days mostly sane and even happy. I'm not about to give it up.

But I have to admit it remains a mystery, something I don't understand, but choose to believe.

Here we stopped and sang together “Blessed be Your Name.” Lyrics like “Every blessing you pour out I'll turn back to praise. When the darkness closes in, Lord, still I will say, 'Blessed be your name.'” are hard for me to understand without the body of Christ around me, showing me what this looks like in real life—messy, catastrophic, mysterious.
Then I shared a bit of my experience with the “Soul Training.”
Initially, I was confused as to why the soul training exercises were coupled with this particular chapter. I mean, I like sitting in the quiet or with nature as much as anybody, when I can get it. I wondered if the author had a list of spiritual exercises to get into the book and figured this chapter was as good for these as any.

But as I worked through my difficulties with the quality of God's goodness, and came to peace with letting him be more mysterious than I like, I realized that nature and slience are perfect ways for me to interact with the mystery of God.
There are so many things I don't understand about nature—it's not always tidy or pretty—but God speaks to me so clearly through his created works; he orchestrates the universe as the chief worship leader and my heart can't help responding.

This week, the winter trees sillouhetted against the sunset called me to worship. The waves on the rocks at the beach bowed my spirit to his power. The fog in the trees outside my window hinted at his gentleness.

I hope you experienced similar moments in your life this week. Would you speak out a word or characteristic of God you saw displayed in nature this week?

The women responded with such a variety of God's character qualities. I wish you could have been there to hear the words of praise.

After all these weeks, you won't be surprised that I want to read a poem about daily noticings.

To light a candle without a prayer,
takes a practiced inattention.

It's hard work to listen to children laughing,
Revel in a perfect melon,
Watch the dusk fade into night,
Without feeling the soul respond.

This requires:
Clenching my heart shut,
Holding my spirit's breath,
Pursing the lips of my soul.

When will I relax into fearlessness,
breathe again the natural inhalation of mystery
and be at peace?

Over the past 11 years of motherhood, I've gotten really quite good at recognizing God's presence in my daily activities, in nature, in my children, my husband, in captive moments here and there.

This fall, for the first time, there has been space in my life for irregular meditation—not regular, my life is too scattered for that, but I have been practicing sitting still with my breath several times most weeks and have found it to be a very helpful practice for this season of my life.

I wouldn't presume to suggest that this practice is right for everyone in every season. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with the writer I read the other day, Dr. Kristen Shepherd, who said about both meditation and yoga poses, yoga asanas,

Today, despite wanting to fill you with the deep desire for stillness, I'll say this: Don't meditate until you want to. (In truth, I feel the same about asana. People email, occasionally, saying they hate yoga but would really like to work up the oomph to have a regular practice. My response is, don't do it. Stay away. Go on with needlepoint, caber tossing, or Vietnamese cooking. Pursue the things that are already delicious to you. If caber tossing brings you peace and a sense of oneness, caber tossing is your yoga. Yoga should not be a battle.) Meditation may be endlessly interesting, challenging, and blissful, but if your heart isn't leading you there, go with your heart.

I'm learning that it only makes sense to approach the mystery of God with a method of prayer that doesn't make much sense. Sitting still and thinking at least sometimes feels productive, but sitting still and NOT thinking—how could that ever bring me closer to an understanding of the infinite? Not to mention all the warnings I've heard along the way about not emptying my mind for fear something will enter.

I finally came to a place in life where I had the space and inclination to read all the books on centering prayer I'd been collecting and then, even, to experiment with practice. And because research is a great procrastinatory technique, I've also found many resources in the area for silent prayer, like the monastery and options for personal retreats; if you're interested, talk to me after.
I've found a few ways to sit with the presence of God, mental images that help me to calm the constant mental clutter, breathing practices that help to focus me, body and soul. And I've found , well I don't know what I've's a mystery. But I am closer to the mystery than ever.

Jo spoke last week about God's ability to transform us through indirection, not willpower. And sitting in silence, meditating, centering prayer...whatever you want to call a fabulous way to surrender into God's mysterious presence, that which is infinite and personal, he who is good enough to accept us and good enough to work in mysterious ways to change us.

I'd like to share a few more words read these slowly, please) from Julian:

For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed. ...all these may waste and wear away, but the Goodness of God is ever whole...

For the Goodness of God is the highest prayer, and it comes down to the lowest part of our need. It quickens our soul and brings life, and makes it to grow in grace and virtue. It is nearest in nature; and readiest in grace: fo it is the same grace that the soul seeks, and ever shall seek till we know truly that He has us all in Himself enclosed.

I don't know if you had a chance to find silence this week or not, but I'd like to give all of us the opportunity to meet with God in the quiet this morning.

Maybe it would help you to see your thoughts as a train rushing by, one you don't have to catch. Or maybe you could use the image of your mind as a still pool, not to be disturbed by anything, good thoughts or bad thoughts, good emotions or bad emotions.

Let's sing together and then enter a few minutes of quiet. Make sure you're comfortable, shift to the floor if you need so your body can help teach your mind to relax and be still. I'll keep an eye on the clock so you don't have to think about it and call us back to close in a few minutes.

At this point, we sang Steven Curtis Chapman's “Be Still and Know,” spent a few minutes in quiet together and responded with a little more worship in song. It was a lovely morning in God's presence, one that can't be captured in mere words. Thanks for coming along for the recap.

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