‘Tis the State of My Discontent [1]

I’m starting this off with a disclaimer of sorts.

I will be sharing some rather raw feelings over the next couple posts. My worry is that as I share it may seem that I, or that Christie and I, are ungrateful for what God has provided for us… and/or perhaps ungrateful for the hospitality that has been provided for us (for instance by my in laws)… and/or somehow ungrateful for the church community where we have landed here in Carlsbad… and/or totally down on the church tradition that we grew up in and the prevalent ecclesial expressions available here in Carlsbad. The fact is that none of this is actually true. We actually are very thankful for God’s provision, grateful for the hospitality of my in-laws (Christie’s parents), blessed by the church community where we have thus far landed, and (while we have some pronounced tensions with the church tradition we come from and the predominant expressions of such that one finds here in New Mexico) we value our roots even if we are in a somewhat different place.

It’s possible to be thankful and grateful for something and still yet be at odds, come from a different perspective, or exist in a rather pronounced tension with that something. Too often I’ve seen that when someone wants to voice their struggles concerning whatever this something is, there is a great potential of misunderstanding on the part of others. And often, with the misunderstanding come accusations of ungratefulness or even worse unfaithfulness. Sadly, I have done this to others myself and had this done to me. More often than not though, I think this sort of thing is the result of not only deep convictions being impinged upon (or at least it seems this way at the time) but also at a deeper level I think…just plain ole’ hurt feelings.

I have done and said things out of hurt feelings that I have had to repent of later (thankfully my wife is forgiving!). I’m sure everyone reading this has at some point or another experienced this also. You have had to forgive and be forgiven…and this you have had to do seventy times seven, have you not? This is why one of the most important lessons we can learn is to listen and meet folks where they are in their real and raw experiences with God first, before we snap to judgments and act out of hurt feelings. I am going to suggest that this goes for those just now meeting God, perhaps in anguishing circumstances, as well as for those who we expect to not to struggle because they are a pastor, ordained, have certain degrees on their wall, and are otherwise supposed to be ‘closer’ to God than other mere mortals. But the simple fact is this: even those who we expect not to struggle do in fact struggle and experience anguishing circumstances and even experience God in these anguishing circumstances. In such times (and this is what I am asking for here) what we need to do first is listen.

The reason for a ‘disclaimer’ of this sort is that I realize (as I’ve said already) that some of what I say (especially in the second post) will be subject to misunderstanding and even hurt feelings. Various persons may even think to themselves, ‘Its Thanksgiving this week dude! Shouldn’t you be, well, thankful?’ (On this please see the first paragraph again.) But also, some of what I say will be a critique of certain things and meant as such, and some will in fact understand what I am saying and strongly disagree. From my side that’s ok. I don’t mind it when others disagree with me. As far as I’m concerned I still want to share community with you over a nice cold Dr. Pepper and hear what God is doing in your life. If you are honest, no matter how ‘spiritually mature’ you are, sharing with another about how God is (or isn’t?) active in your life will involve sharing some raw places and significant pain. Being honest about these raw, painful places does not mean one does not appreciate what God provides or that one is not grateful to others. These realities do not cancel out or mitigate the others. It simply means that we inhabit often unrealized or perhaps flatly ignored irreducible tensions in life.

In fact, I have come to think that the more mature in Christ we really are the more in tune we will be with the raw and painful places in life. We’ll end up feeling this irreducible tension even more as we seek to enter into the sufferings of Christ in the world. Sharing in these experiences of community is actually a sacrament of triune grace. The God who is none other than the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit inhabits the raw and painful places of life. We learn this much from the incarnation of our liberating King Jesus. If we hope to have communion with our Lord Jesus, if we hope to have communion with each other ‘in Christ’ then we must inhabit the raw, painful places of life together.

To inhabit these places means to listen to the other continually. There is no other way! As I share, just know it’s not my aim to simply whine and gripe. And as I seek to lay myself existentially bare know that my theological method really isn’t dominated by some sort of pure feeling centered romantic existentialism (actually, Paul Tillich, regarded by many as the foremost existential theologian, is not a favorite of mine – I truck more with hermeneutical and narrative theology over existential theology but many probably fell asleep just by reading this parenthesis, so I’ll move on).  I don’t think the world revolves around me and I realize that my feelings aren’t the sum and definition of reality. I have faith that God will provide for us. But I also believe that the mutual sharing of our doubts, fears, and the basic ‘raw-ness’ of life a part of the journey of faith. Yes, you read that correctly. I said this is a part of faith. In a very real way faith presupposes doubt, the state of not knowing, fear, and the raw-ness of life. The question is…will we..will I…will you…truly listen?

Those that know Christie and I, or have read past posts, know that we have seen our fair share of struggle. Most recently this summer, after two years in Houston as hospital chaplains, we wondered where we would end up next. I fired off a couple of posts about our experience (these were written in a kind of a stream of consciousness mode. In the interest of the reader I’m trying not to do that this time). We ended up in Carlsbad, NM living with Christie’s parents. I currently work for a mental health organization as a ‘Community Support Worker’ (aka, case manger). It has been very difficult but God has provided a church, First United Methodist (yes, I said Methodist, and yes, we are Baptist…I’ll explain later), and a small group, which has thus far responded well to our particular style of messy faith. We have been able to go back to homeschooling our Damaris, and after a rocky start it looks like we have found some medical care for Christie (which is difficult since we don’t have insurance). In all these areas there has been divine provision and blessing. We believe that! But there has also been great struggle and much raw-ness. For me personally…I have been laid bare and in a very real way stripped naked. I feel exposed and broken and at times I wonder where God is at. I feel incompetent and impotent at the most basic of levels. I feel at the most basic of levels like a failure.

I wonder how well I’ve run the race

I can’t seem to find a space where I fit

I feel an acute sense of being out of place

These three statements do a good job of summing up where I find myself presently. There are five threads that make up the tapestry of discontent that seems to be my ever present companion – that make up what seems to be the latest experience of the dark night of the soul for me. I will get to these threads in the next post (until then you will just have to deal with the mystery). Before going though, I want to say that I value any comments you may want to leave here on the blog (or on facebook if that’s where you are reading this). However, I also want to institute what we might call a ‘no clichés’ rule. Again I anticipate that there may be some negative reaction to something like this, or maybe without clichés some may simply be left with nothing to say (which is not always a bad thing by the way).

Despite feeling a bit risky, I feel a no cliché rule is important (and not just for a blog but for life in general). Why? It’s because clichés are built with a kernel of truth, yet they domesticate this truth and keep things on a surface level. Clichés keep us from entering into what we might call the ‘deep experiences’ (I’m coining a term here) of others or even ourselves. Very often (if we are honest) we wield clichés specifically so we don’t have to enter into either our own ‘deep experience’ or those of others. We are far to often to busy, to lazy, or the ‘deep experience’ is too uncomfortable – the cliché (however well meaning) serves as a buffer, perhaps even a protection of sorts, but regardless clichés are almost always a way of not getting too close. Perhaps most tragically, clichés ensure we don’t really have to give the grace of listening. Clichés help us keep our distance and even when not intended that way, they serve to distance us anyways.

Here’s an example: a friend of yours who is a single mom with three kids shows up at your door with an eviction notice that says she has to be out in a week. She tells you that the only other place to live in town she can even come close to affording has a 6 month waiting list. In a week she and her kids will be homeless…what do you do, what do you say? Too often Christians have resorted to clichés like, “God’s in control. We’ll just pray about it and God will fix this situation for you.” What a travesty when we make prayer, a matter of deep communion with the triune God, into a cliché. The issue here is not whether God is in control or who believes that God is in control. Indeed, your friend here may have prayed already and God sent her to YOUR doorstep! What is missed at the surface level of cliché is that there is a ‘deep experience’ of suffering to be entered into, and that by entering into the experience of suffering of others we enter into the sufferings of Christ.

By participating in (literally having koinonia with) the sufferings for Christ, we have deep communion with Christ and his body, and from this communion we are sent out as the hands and feet of Christ as living sacraments. But first we have to incarnate ourselves into the ‘deep experiences’ of others – this is what lament and celebration is all about. We are to ‘rejoice with those rejoicing and mourn with those mourning’, which is not possible at the surface level of clichés. And this is all potentially very messy. Well, not potentially really…it WILL be messy. But that’s life!!! The ‘deep experiences’ of life – messy and all too human as they can be – do not require clichés but the deep, triune grace and shalom experienced in communion with God and others. May our liberating King Jesus be with all of us and may we learn to listen well.

Next post in a couple days…