On Guest Speaking

So I’m getting to guest speak/teach a bit more often these days (most recently last night at TNL, an amazingly wonderful group of people).  For some, adding any outside speaking to what they already do may be a drain.  For me, it’s positively invigorating.  I love experiencing new congregations and hanging with their people.  I love getting the opportunity to bless other pastors by giving them a Sunday (or in the case of TNL, a Tuesday 😉 off, since I now know so well the existential toll of preaching every week…

But most importantly, I really love the Church (capital C).  I love God’s people.  I love opening the Scriptures with them and helping them re-imagine themselves into the “world” that the Bible paints for us, a world that is being renovated under the reign of God in Christ.  So I approach guest speaking with total seriousness and total joy and anticipation.  A unique privilege.

Having said that, here are some rules I try to live by when guest speaking… I submit them to those of you who are ever called upon to guest speak, teach, preach – whatever – to a group of God’s people:

  1. Don’t break in new “material” with them, unless you absolutely have to.  This will reduce the strain on you and be a real blessing to them, since you’ve already worked with the flow of the ideas beforehand.  It will come out much more smoothly and naturally.  So, for instance, with the group last night, I used a bunch of my stuff from Sunday night and added a few new wrinkles based on stuff I’ve taught in the past.  Worked really well.
  2. Respect the “house rules.”  That is, if their teaching times go for 35 minutes, do your level best to stick to 35 minutes.  If they go shorter, stay short.  If they preach from a particular version of the Bible, try to preach from that version.  Nothing’s more awkward – or arrogant – than assuming that because you’re a guest, “anything goes.”  You’ll soon find yourself an unwelcome guest, or never a guest again.
  3. Don’t throw theological grenades.  If you have theological differences with the church, do your best to be honest about that with the leadership ahead of time.  And if there’s a way to avoid bringing those differences to the surface during your message, please do so.  Remember – “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”  Preach to the level of your commonality with them, and don’t make messes that the leadership will have to clean up afterwards.
  4. Try to use examples/illustrations from your own life.  I find that being slightly more “autobiographical” when speaking to a new group of people is really helpful, because it negates the awkward distance between me and them – the distance of, “so who the heck are you?”  Artfully weave the “who you are” into your message when you can.  It will disarm them and help you preach/teach/speak more easily and naturally.
  5. FINALLY, and perhaps most importantly, LEAVE THE CONGREGATION IN BETTER SHAPE THAN WHEN YOU FOUND THEM.  Bless, strengthen, help, encourage… leave the flock hopeful and energized and ready to keep charging ahead with their leadership in the work of being God’s people on God’s mission with JesusLeave behind a pile of goodness that the leadership can cash in on in running forward with their people.

Remember that you’re God’s servant to God’s church… so do this right.  As Gail Gungor (wife of Ed Gungor, who is the senior pastor of the church I first got to serve as an associate at) used to say to me before I would teach when Ed was gone, “Preach ’em happy Andrew!”  I’ve found that to be pretty sensible and sane advice wherever I am.

So get to it.  Preach ’em happy preachers.

Grace and peace.


The Morning after Easter… With Lots of Gratitude

Thanksgiving this past year (2010) was a super-delightful time in the Arndt household.  We weren’t able to make it home to ol’ Wisconsin, so we stayed here and enjoyed the day with a handful of Bloom friends who made the day really special. The next day, as has become our tradition, we put up the Christmas tree.  Also a delightful day.

The next morning, I woke up early for work, wandered bleary eyed into the kitchen to make some coffee, looked over at the Christmas tree and thought, “That needs to be on.”  So I turned it on.  And when I did, it occurred to me that in a small way I had inaugurated a journey that would culminate with Easter Sunday, yesterday… a five month march to joy.

And so it was that the journey completed yesterday.  There is much to be grateful for:

  • For the way in which a simple decision (moving our gathering down into the basement at FBC in December) served as the platform for all kinds of beautiful health and growth in our community.  We ate dinner and worshiped together… and it was marvelous.
  • For a couple of sermon series (Take This and Eat: a Theology of Communion and Engagement with God: Foundations of Spiritual Formation, which you can listen to here) that, to my great surprise, struck deep chords throughout our community.  I get the sense that God did some things in peoples’ lives through those messages that will be bearing fruit for quite some time.
  • For a Lenten journey as a community in which the Spirit quite visibly conducted some MASSIVE OVERHAUL in people’s souls.  The fearlessness with which so many members of our community faced their darkness, letting the grace of God “mess them up” as it were… It quite honestly astounded me.  This is no ethereal “spirituality” at Bloom… it is a robust, Jesus-centered community of repentance and honest spiritual formation.  Thank God for that.
  • For the joy of taking a handful of our folks on a 4-5 week baptism class during Lent.  Jess, Jonah, Pam… LOVE YOU GUYS!
  • For a Good Friday service this past Friday night that just astounded me.  And that’s really a bigger story that deserves some “air time” here…

When I was in seminary back in 2005, on the Wednesday before Good Friday (since there would be no class on Thursday or Friday that week), the Chapel Team (led by David Whited, a great friend of mine) put on a “Tenebrae” service.  The service consists of a series of readings through Mark 14 and 15 (Mark’s recollection of Jesus’ Passion) that is punctuated by worship, periods of silence, and some activities.  At the center of the room is a table with seven candles on it, corresponding to the seven readings.  The center candle is the so-called “Christ candle.”  As each segment of the service is completed, the reader will declare to the congregation “God showed his love for us in this: Christ died for us”, and the congregation will respond, “Thanks be to God.”  We do thus until Mark says that “Jesus breathed his last” on the cross and the seventh candle is extinguished.  The congregation then leaves in darkness and silence, allowing a longing for Easter to rise in their hearts.

I was overwhelmed with emotion when I attended that first one and vowed that if I ever got the chance, I’d try to bring this liturgical dance to life in the church(es) I served.  Just two years later, I was working at Sanctuary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I got that chance.  Truth be told, I was a little fearful that our Bible-belters would have a tough time with a service that is… well, so DARK.  But they loved it.  And a tradition was born.  We did it every year, each year with a bit more wisdom and grace, and it became a real highlight for our folks.

Bloom had done a Tenebrae service the year before we got here (2009), so it was pretty natural that we would do it last year, our first year here in Denver.  And since we were renting a building from some good friends of ours (The Sanctuary Downtown – ironically named, huh?), we asked them if they’d like to do a joint service with us.  They agreed, and MAN… it was just SO wonderful to worship like that with another church.

When Lent this year rolled around, the TSD folks asked us if we’d be up for doing it again.  Obviously we said yes, and then someone said, “Why don’t we see if a few other churches would like to join in?”  So, quite casually, I started asking around with some pastors I’m friends with here in Denver, and one by one the churches – quite gladly I might add – threw their hat in the ring.  Within a couple weeks we were up to about six, (and in serious need of a venue!).

We found one – a lovely church in Englewood with an amphitheater-style sanctuary which seats up to 1800 people.  Based on estimates from each church, we figured that we’d need space for as many as 1500, so we booked it, and started making plans.

The planning for this thing was honestly a piece of cake, since we’ve done it so many times before.  The other five churches and their leaders (the aforementioned TSD, The Next Level, New Denver, Denver Community Church, and Adullum) were just SO easy to work with… and when Good Friday rolled around, despite the magnitude of the event, there was not a trace of anxiety or nervousness in my soul.  Just a whole lot of expectation that the night would be pretty special for everyone involved.

And what a night it was.  The room was about 85% full, which meant that we were possibly just north of 1500 people for the night… and to have THAT many people and THAT many churches with similar culture and values (and many differences too) worshiping together… Oh my gosh… it was just so beautiful.  And the outpouring of gratitude from many of the people who attended.  It blew me away.

When the service was over, I exited like everyone else in darkness and silence, and darted off into a dark hallway just to get a few moments by myself.  I sat down in a corner, took a deep breath, and then felt my eyes well up with tears of thankfulness… to see an idea like this grow and become something beautiful that blesses and nourishes and unites.  What words are there to describe how marvelous that is?  In Tulsa now the tradition continues, and they do it with a level of beauty I never could have dreamed of… and now here in Denver, all these churches together.  God only knows what will happen next year…

And that I got to play the role that I got to play in this… life is funny like that.  Sometimes, unwittingly, you find yourself stewarding something that far exceeds the few little inputs you’ve made into the process, and the sheer GRACE of it overwhelms you.  I had so much fun on Friday night and was just ridiculously grateful and humbled that I got to serve the people of God in Denver in that way.  Thank you God!

  • And last but not least, an Easter Sunday baptism-and-pancakathon that was just a perfect bookend to an incredible journey.  We baptized the three I mentioned earlier (Jess, Jonah, and Pam) and a fourth (Rachel), in a horse trough out in the rain at the corner of 14th and Grant… they told their stories, we buried and raised them with Jesus, and then sang the Doxology in the rain before going in to eat pancakes.  It was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.  (See video below… thanks Rusty Gates for taking it!).  And even though I did get thrown in the trough immediately afterwards (thanks again Rusty Gates and Patrick Rauls) it was a perfectly joyful evening.

And so, this Monday morning, the morning after Easter… I wake up completely exhausted but with great joy in my heart for all the good that God did.  He still “bears his arm” to rescue and redeem and renew… what a delight to be the objects of his goodness.

Praise be to God!

Maundy Thursday: Beyond the “Golden Rule”?

Today is Maundy Thursday.  So-called because of the new “mandate” that Jesus gives his disciples just hours before his death, at the Last Supper.  Surely you remember the scene.  Dinner is served, and when it is finished, Jesus, as John says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love” (v1), and then does the unthinkable – he pours water into a basin, gets down on his hands and knees, and starts washing feet.

The act of washing feet of course was something that only folks on the lowest end of the social totem-pole did for those at the highest end… so much was this the case in Jewish culture that it is said that not even Jewish slaves washed the feet of other Jews.  Simply too degrading.

And so Jesus, as only Jesus can do, flips the whole system on its head and says, “This is what my love is like.  This is the perfect symbolic embodiment of what my love characteristically does.  It does not insist on its social standing.  Instead, it lowers itself to cleanse and lift and save.”  This trajectory of Divine Love of course culminates on the Cross… where all the filth of humanity is piled on Jesus and he dies in our place, to cleanse and lift and save.  There is no depth to which his love will not stoop to help us.

And that is just where things get interesting for us as his followers, for Jesus at this last meal does indeed draw out a “moral” for his disciples.  John writes:

12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

The disciples are to mirror this ethos of “there is no depth to which I will not stoop for you” in their dealings with each other.  And this will be a testimony to the world of who their Lord:

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

The world will know Whose we are when it sees us as living embodiments of the Love that cleansed and saved us… and that is just where things get really interesting.  For Jesus does indeed in his teaching affirm the sort of morality in our dealings with others that we all probably believe is good advice anyhow – “Love your neighbor as yourself”, the so-called “Golden Rule.”  And in perfect fairness, in his summary of the Law and the Prophets, he makes this the “second law” which is “like unto” the first: Love the Lord your God… and Love your neighbor as yourself.  “All the Law and the Prophets” he says, “hang on these two commandments” (Mt 22:40).

But here he goes beyond it, and methinks there is deep wisdom here.  For as many in our culture have noted, for “love your neighbor as yourself” as an ethical principle to work, one has to have a sort of healthy respect for their own “selves”.  The problem of course is that most of us have at the very least an ambivalent relationship with those “selves.”  To put it simply, I don’t want to be loved “as” most people love “themselves”, for most people’s “self-love” is shoddy.  They let people run all over them, don’t take care of their minds and bodies, have no concept of living in interdependence with other people since they never speak up for themselves or ask for what they need, and then constantly disrespect themselves and their gifts by not living in full adoration of their Creator, without whom, as Pope Paul VI said, “the creature itself grows unintelligible.”  Loved “as” those folks love themselves?  Thanks, but no thanks.

And so Jesus takes us far beyond the Golden Rule, to a New Mandate… a New Command… one not based in our own self-hood (which as it is is fairly corrupt), but in his eternal, self-giving Life and Love.  We are called OUT of the way we have known and understood ourselves and invited into a new way of life in which He lives his Life and Love through us.  As Paul said famously:

I have been crucified with the Messiah, and I no longer live, but the Messiah lives in me.  And the life I live in the body I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me… (Gal 2:20)

The Messiah living his life through us.  What an image.  The one who stooped down to wash feet (even the feet of Judas, the betrayer!) and then culminated his self-giving love on the Cross, living through us.  Not merely calling us to be nice to each other AS we are nice to ourselves… but LOVING each other AS he loves us.  That is by far a brighter hope for our world than the Golden Rule.

It strikes me also that the hope for Jesus’ Church is in this.  Maybe the reason we suck at unity is because we’ve stopped at the Golden Rule, and haven’t journeyed further into dying and rising with the Messiah who longs to live his love for his disciples THROUGH us.  For Christ’s body may be broken, but it is not Divided.  Would to God that we would see this.

Oddly enough, insisting on this may bring trouble to us.  Unity is a dangerous idea.  That what unites us (Christ and his love) is greater than what divides us.  But that I suppose is what we should expect, as CWF Smith said, “No one would crucify a teacher who told pleasant stories to enforce prudential morality.”  Love other people as we love ourselves.  Fine.  We can get away with loving only our friends that way.  But love as HE has loved (and does love still)?  That could put us in all kinds of associations we never would have expected… and may, like Him, get us in trouble.

Grace to you this Maundy Thursday, and may you find power to live the “new mandate” among Jesus’ people, and the world that Jesus so desperately loves.

The craft of preaching

Up late tonight, thinking about the craft of preaching… obsessing a bit over the, well, “craft” is the best word for it.  Dang I love preaching.  And it is indeed a craft.  A habit of the mind, and heart, and tongue.  An art form.  And man, when it’s at its best… I hear people these days talk a lot about how real transformation doesn’t happen during the preaching moment, that it only really happens in small groups and such, and I think to myself, “Then you’ve never sat under really good preaching.”  Some of the most transformative periods of my life… when my faith was alive and expansive and sharp… those periods were so at least in part because of really good preaching I was around.  And some of the worst periods of my life were times when “the word of the Lord was rare”, as one prophet said.

So I listened to a few of my messages from the past few months tonight.  I kind of hate listening to them.  Its so artificial.  The “moment” in which a message is delivered can hardly be reproduced just by listening to the audio.  The myriad of things that the Spirit was doing in the moment with the people… when its you and the people and your real life lived among them, and the Spirit speaking in all of that… it feels weird to put that under a microscope.

Nevertheless, I did that tonight, asking myself the question, “As a preacher, when am I at my best?”  I came up with a short list, based on what I heard and remembered of my most recent preaching.

I am at my best when I am…

  • Biblically focused
  • Pastorally precise
  • Comfortable within myself and effortlessly exposing the “core” of what God has done in me over the years, and
  • Patient

The phrase I wrote on my whiteboard to summarize what I think good preaching is was, “Deep, precise biblical insight stitched together with the very stuff of life.”

Then, in thinking more about those things, it occurred to me that what I was describing when my preaching is good is that “less” really is “more.”  The words… “focused”, “precise”, “patient”, etc., imply fairly high degrees of comfort with eliminating, attenuating, reducing, boiling down, narrowing, stripping away.  A laser is powerful not when it is wide but when it is focused like the head of a needle.  A scalpel is sharp and able to do good work when its edge is infinitesimally small.

So with my preaching… it is at its best NOT when it is “wide” but when it is ridiculously “narrow.”  When what is spoken from the Scriptures is done so on a razor’s edge of precision, and when the pastoral insight is fired off at specific targets like a sniper picking off his opponents… and then all of it “stitched together with the stuff of life”, including but not limited to the vast reservoir of all God has led me into and through.  Stories and tales of fidelity and failure on the road of following Jesus.

And there you have it.  I love preaching.  I take it WAY seriously.  Because I am utterly convinced that the “Word” of God always is creative… always makes alive… always nourishes and sustains and inspires and convicts… always twists oaks and levels forests… always separates and divides… and is ever capable of bringing new and ever more faithful and robust communities of faith into existence out of the very dust.

So I’m gonna keep working at this… : )

How about you preachers out there?  What have you found?  When are you at your best?

Joy, joy, joy…

Meditating on Psalm 81 this morning… some highlights:

  • “Sing for joy to God our strength” (v1)
  • “I removed the burden from their shoulders” (v6)
  • “In your distress you called and I answered you” (v7)
  • “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it” (v10)
  • With honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (v16)

God removes burdens; He feeds and satisfies; He answers us when we call.  JUBILANT CELEBRATION comes from there, and only there; and how could it not?  Joy is fundamentally impossible to avoid under such knowledge.

This morning I am reminded of a few things:

  • That Lewis was surely right when he said that “Joy is the serious business of heaven”
  • That this joy is possible because Jesus wants to shoulder every heavy burden of mine and replace it with the light and easy yoke that is Himself
  • That fruit of every kind (ministry, acts of mercy to the poor, evangelism, etc) is a byproduct of me focusing on my first call, which is to love and delight in God above all things and as my only real Good, and that every time I go wrong on this point, I will inevitably wind up in the depressing rut of legalism.  Doxology is my central vocation… everything else is what gets thrown off of me when I do that well, and I had better not get those two backwards.
  • That the Westminster catechism was surely right when it said that “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever…” and that it is never wrong or selfish for me to throw myself at doing what I was created to do in the first place.
  • That Piper for sure gets it right thus when he says that “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him”, which makes me think of St Irenaeus who said “The glory of God is man fully alive”, which is not some individualistic, hedonistic, self-help blather, but rather is an affirmation that when human beings are fully alive in and satisfied in God (and they are only such when they are beholding the face of God), they throw off and make manifest God’s glory… As St Paul said, we are called to live “to the praise of his glory”
  • As such, my task is never more and never less than joyfully being a son in my Father’s house
  • That in order to enter the kingdom, I must become as a child
  • And that wherever and whenever I am feeling burdened, stressed, depressed, or worried, I can be sure that I have forgotten all of the above.

To “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength…” this is the Alpha and Omega of Christian spirituality, and the fountainhead of all good works.

May my greatest delight be in you Lord God.

When the Lights Go Out

One of things that causes me a bit of angst as a pastor is how infrequently we get to gather together as a community (once a week), and how infrequently I get to see everyone (not everyone comes every week… duh).  And then when we DO gather, we have this formality called “putting on a service” that has to happen, which often doesn’t give very much space for our joy and pain, our hope and grief… in short, our humanness, our very lives, to come through.  There are times when I just want to throw the whole “service” thing to the dogs and just have an honest discussion about how we’re all doing.  Are you joyful?  Frustrated?  Experiencing strength?  Suffering immensely?  HOW THE HECK ARE YOU DOING?

Needless to say, this past week I was having one of those angsty, pastoral “how the heck are you doing?” times.  My sense was (is) that a good deal of our people are walking through some VERY dark and difficult seasons right now, and it seemed good to address it, which I did last night.

If you spend enough time around what I’ve often called “pop” Christianity, you’ll get the impression that following Jesus is supposed to make life more wonderful and, in general, more pain-free than it would have been otherwise.  Relationships will get better, you’ll be more successful at your job, you’ll get married and enjoy a blissful marriage existence, your body will be healthy, people will like you more, and on and on and on.  Jesus will give you the life you’ve always wanted… right now… in 5 easy steps.

I have come to believe that this is, to put it baldly, a lie.  True, God is always the Genesis God who brings beautiful order out of the chaos of our lives, yet it has been my experience that the kind of order he brings and the way that he brings it are not always what we would expect.  In short, the path from chaos to order is not as linear as we’d like it to be.  It is full of fits and starts, progressions and seeming regressions, and is almost never without deep difficulty and struggle.  There are times when following God leads us into deeper and darker pits and valleys than we would have experienced otherwise.  “You guide me in paths of righteousness”, yes, but also, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”  God “with” and God “guiding” all the way.  And enacting his purposes for us and through us for the world all the way.

Truth is, following God is rarely pain-free, struggle-free, and without periods of a sense of deep inner desolation and abandonment.  Recall Elijah, “Take away my life Lord…”  Recall David, “My God my God, why have you forsaken me…”  Recall the Psalmist, “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me, the darkness is my closest friend…”  Recall Job, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, may the name of the Lord be praised…” Recall Paul, “We despaired even of life…”  Recall Jesus, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death…”

Even in our own time, many modern saints have gone through deep periods of inward desolation.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s memoirs depict a character who, despite all his obvious public strength, often struggled deeply with a bleakness of soul.  Henri Nouwen, whose works like The Wounded Healer, The Return of the Prodigal Son and In the Name of Jesus have touched so many lives, battled depression, inward loneliness, and a sense of isolation for much of his adult life.  And of course there is the now well-documented extended period of inward darkness that Mother Teresa experienced for years and years… a darkness and sense of abandonment so deep that she came to refer to Jesus in her journal as simply “The Absent One.”

I wish someone had been more frank with me about the role such seasons played in the life of faith when I was just getting started.  I wish I had been given more theological “space” for making sense of why those things happened, where God was in the middle of them, and what he was trying to do.  When my first “Dark Night of the Soul” occurred (a term coined by the 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross) in late high school and early college, I was completely at a loss to know what was happening to me and what I should (and shouldn’t) be doing while I was in the middle of it.  The sense of isolation and God-where-are-you despair, especially as this season (which lasted for several years) came hard on the heels of a year of profound sweetness with God, were nearly more than I could bear.  Would to God that I had had even ONE person in my life wise enough to let me know that not only are such seasons normal and to be expected, but also that they were integral to my growth.

Now, nearly 15 years on the other side of that first “dark night”, and having gone through many more since, experiences both inward and outward that were hard, stressful, frustrating, and deeply disorienting, it is clear to me those seasons serve at least four crucial functions:

  1. They make me stronger.  They really do.  The Bible says that “suffering produces perseverance.”  To take a lickin’, as they say, and keep on tickin… The tension produces strength.  I am stronger, MUCH stronger, for what I have been through, and as such am capable of being a strength in a much more profound way for others.
  2. They teach me virtue.  The great philosophers have always taught that virtue isn’t just doing the right thing, it’s doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason.  Truth is, most of us do what’s right because it “works” or it is “convenient.”  But when you’re walking, to the best of your knowledge, in what is right and good and it STOPS “WORKING”… that’s when you have to dig down deep and figure out why the heck you do what’s good, what your reasons are.
  3. They teach me to love and stay devoted to God for God’s sake, not because of how it makes me feel or what it does for me (this is closely related to #2).  The reality is that most people say they love God, but they really love how God makes them feel.  There is a difference.  And if loving God and being devoted to God stopped “profiting” them in some way, they wouldn’t have anything left to hold on to.  This the book of Job in a nutshell.  Can human beings love God “for nothing”?  The Adversary thinks not.  Yahweh thinks otherwise.  The testing of Job will prove this out…  In my own life I have found that this is not an automatic thing.  I need to be tested on this.  Naked I came, naked I will depart, God is my portion in this life and the next… do I believe that?
  4. They make me wiser.  I find that on the other side of such experiences, my ability to “see” the world as it really is gets sharper, more nuanced, more complex, and hence, more likely to be helpful to people.  St. John of the Cross used to talk about how the “dark night” for us is in some ways like a blind man whose eyes, having been opened for the first time, experiences the light at first like a searing pain.  But if he can go through the pain, he will emerge with stronger eyes, with new sight.  He lets go of an old way of grasping the world (through mere smells and touch and sound, etc), in order to reach out towards a new way of grasping the world (through sight), and as such, his ability to navigate reality is better.  So it is with us.  If we’ll let them, the periods of testing and trying will make us far wiser than we ever would have been otherwise.

…which is why these periods of having the lights go out (however those periods come, whether they’re just inward experiences of desolation or whether they’re triggered by some outward difficulty) are so pivotal.  I SHOULD ADD, for the record, that I don’t think its just as simple as saying, “God sends them.”  If the book of Job teaches us anything, to the extent that “seen” realities (the cosmos) are beyond our comprehension, the “unseen” is SO MUCH MORE beyond our comprehension.  As one preacher said, “When the Bible asks, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?’, its not expecting any of us to raise our hands.”  That is to say that in my opinion every tragedy or difficult season in our life is not directly sum-uppable with “God did it.” Reality is more complex than that, and God is not the only power at work in the universe, even if his power is ultimate…

NEVERTHELESS, in his infinite wisdom, I think that God intends never to waste opportunities to sanctify our lives and lead us into greater union with him… so that no difficult family situation, no season of depression, no illness or loss of a family member, no gross injustice done to us, is beyond him making use of for our growth.  It is for this reason that James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you fall into various kinds of trials, BECAUSE YOU KNOW that the testing of your faith” leads to all kinds of good growth (James 1).

Having said all of that, I wanted to make sure to give our folks a short list of things to do – and avoid – when they find themselves in seasons of difficulty and darkness, and so in closing I give them also to you, hopefully for your benefit (I’d also recommend listening to the podcast if you get some time… more content there than here):

  • You’re okay.  Something about suffering makes us feel like freaks.  You’re not a freak.  Suffering is normal.  And God is with you, despite how you feel, so…
  • Keep on walking.  Don’t opt out of the process, don’t “turn your heart back to Egypt”, back from where you came.  God intends neither to take you back to the past NOR leave you in the midst of the “falling apart.”  He intends to take you right on through to the other side.  You might not know what “the other side” looks like, but take you there he will, in this life or the next.
  • Don’t try to “manage” the process.  Let it be what it is, and don’t think that if you just change this or that it will all magically be over.  I’ve sometimes found that my impulse in darkness is to say, “Aha!  I’ve figured out WHY God is allowing all of this, and now if I just stop doing X and Y activity (or starting doing A and B activity) I will have ‘passed the test’ and it will all be over.”  How ironic that we should turn something that God wants to use to push us to surrender as yet one more opportunity to stay in the driver’s seat.
  • Surround yourself with a couple wise people who know how to keep what I’ll call “appropriate silence.”  Remember Job’s friends?  Everything was fine until these well-meaning fellas opened their mouths and tried to “sum up” Job’s experience.  Wise people will sit with you in the suffering, not rush the process, refuse to reduce your situation to a few simple life lessons, and will in so doing help create for you “space” in which the Spirit can do his work.
  • Lament, because God loves you and is not put out by (in fact he welcomes) the cries of his children.  BUT…
  • Don’t get defiant. Job was on pretty good ground when he was saying, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away…”, scraping himself with pottery and lamenting his situation.  But when he started demanding a trial with the Almighty in order to vindicate himself, he went awry, and God had to put him back in his place.  Remember, creature, who you are.
  • Stick to what you know that you know.  I have found that such seasons of darkness often push me back towards a deepening of my confidence in certain “core” realities about God.  Like, “God is a good God” and “The earth is full of his unfailing love”, even if I don’t feel it, even if everything in the universe seems to be screaming contrariwise.  I will believe it.  And in so doing, a certain unassailability of faith will begin to emerge in me.
  • Remember, the future is better.  “If we endure, we will reign with him” said Paul.  Truth is, some seasons of darkness last longer than we’d like.  Mother Teresa’s apparently lasted until the end of her life.  The promise is those who persevere will inherit the kingdom.  Sometimes that “inheriting” happens in this life.  We taste glimmers of the glory that will be ours.  But often it doesn’t.  Paul said that while we are in these “tents” (our bodies), we “groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling” (2 Cor 5).  To expect that we will never groan is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of reality and distort the way the Scriptures present salvation history.  We are living “between the times”, awaiting our redemption.  So stick it out.  The future is better.  ALWAYS.

Much mercy upon you… You are loved.