Not Exactly a Prayer

God,

I think I understand now why the Charlie Anderson character in “Shenandoah” feels more comfortable talking to his dead wife than he does talking to You.

I understand Charlie’s dinner-table prayers better now. The anger. The insistence on self-sufficiency. The determination to pray anyway because that was what she had done and it would have made her happy if she were still there at the dinner table.

I comprehend better what he feels to have a son distant and a daughter to whom awful things have happened.

Is that what this is all about, God? Becoming more compassionate toward a character in a drama?

No. Of course not.

But it’s not like You’re going to tell me what it’s all about, either. Those days of You speaking out of the whirlwind are gone, aren’t they?

Even Your answers to Job were mostly questions. Like that would help.

And It’s not like I blame you that Angi’s gone. You didn’t do that. I know who did, and I hate the evil that urges sin that leads to death at least as much as You do.

Yet you permit it. Sin and death, I mean. You let it happen. And there are millions of us who are trying to figure out why. Some will pin their disbelief on it. If You existed and You are good, they say, You wouldn’t permit it.

As if they understand all about You and can judge You any better than Adam and Eve did. Or what good is. Or what love really means.

Oh, I have my theories. That You created us to choose, and to make the choice fair You make it based entirely on faith and our perception of good in what we experience. You give us the choice to love You and others more than self or to love self more than anything else. And it doesn’t always work. A lot of us choose to love self thinking somehow that in spite of all the consequences of social alienation and personal guilt and even some perception of Your absence in our lives, being in love with self feels so good that it’s the best thing ever. I get that.

What I can’t fathom is why You would put someone in my life and the lives of so many others who loved self less and others more — someone who did that with such grace and abandon, like Angi — only to allow her to be taken away when so many years of that exemplary love could have blessed so many more, and so deeply.

I don’t get that at all.

I suppose it’s part of this whole faith environment that You remain inscrutable as a stone Buddha on the matter.

No, I haven’t forgotten Your Son. I know you allowed the same thing to happen to Him, and worse, and at probably half Angi’s age. I also know she went out of this world with all of the confidence in Your power to bring life back and better that He did.

Is that what this is about? Faith at the end? Faith that doesn’t quit? Faith that looks ahead in love?

Because I’ve got to tell You that, even with all the faith I can generate, life without her seems pretty awful right now, no matter how many other blessings You may send. Maybe I should see them better for what they are, but the proportion of pain seems so gigantic in my life that they are often eclipsed.  Life is empty and dark and cold, and its purpose is murky and its foundation is shaky and its ultimate end is never in sight — like the horizon of a planet too big to circumnavigate in a thousand years.

My friends say it’s all right to be angry with You. That Job got angry with You. That the psalmists were often angry with You. That You’re big enough to take it.

But being angry doesn’t help. And blaming doesn’t help. And being theoretical about theodicy doesn’t help. And being overwhelmed by grief doesn’t help.

Nothing. Helps.

Angi’s gone. And I’m still here. And, with the tiniest fraction of all her extraordinary gifts, I’m supposed to muck through all of this life stuff without her.

I get that, too.

She’s not around to talk to anymore. She’s not here to listen, not here to offer advice, not here to comfort or counsel or give warmth or a sweet embrace when words don’t work anymore. She was never stingy with any of that.

So I hope You understand that, just like Charlie Anderson, sometimes I’d rather talk to her.

Than to You.

And I trust that You really are big enough to take that.

Amen.

One Month

Wednesday I posted on Facebook:

If I were to blame/be angry at God over the death of my beloved wife, then I must also blame/be angry with Him over the death of His Son.

If I were to credit God with the resurrection of His beloved Son, then I must also credit Him with the resurrection of my dear wife.

Did God bring sin and death into this world or love and life? Which was His desire for us, His children?

Would the two pairings have meaning at all if not opposed to each other? Or if the other did not exist?

Eden was never intended to remain paradise, then; nor was it a mere crucible or test tube. Eden was meant to be the first battlefield.

And so what was within God’s will — sin and death — was not itself God’s will — love and life — but necessary for His will to have meaning to us; to enable us to choose love and life over sin and death.

To choose His will for us and not what gratifies self and kills the soul.

I can’t put this in simpler words. This is the only rational response I can pose to the great gaping WHY that challenges us all.

God is not to blame.

It is simply the way things MUST be, for anything to have meaning or purpose or significance.

It is not bigger than God.

It is the way He chose to make it fair for us to choose.

And we must choose.

Now it’s Saturday, and the day is done.

I — we, my family, all those who love her — lost Angi one month ago today.

What will we choose?

What will I choose?

Will I choose to continue believing, go on trusting?

A friend who has experienced the loss of his wife as well as a dear child (in a way that I feel certain would have broken me) commented on this blog recently that after such an experience, it was possible for him to keep his faith for a while. He said that for him, it was about two months.

I keep putting on the brave face. I keep writing to encourage myself, and sometimes it seems to encourage others. I keep busy, putting off having to deal with the loss fully. There are so many other things that require my attention. I have plenty of excuses to procrastinate.

But the cracks in the courage still show up. I can weep. I can patch them up. I can cover them over with a smile and brave words.

Still I know the measure of joy I knew is gone. It  will always be gone, as long as I live and breathe.

And I find there are things that I still can’t do.

I can’t seem to find time, make time, put myself to the time to continue posting submissions at New Wineskins. I have commitments to people. I have proposed to myself extending the current edition about “Lament” to a second month, into which we have gone an entire week and a day now. I just can’t seem to do what needs to be done.

Yes, I believe the e-zine still blesses people. The blessings I receive by e-mail and Facebook message from folks who’ve been blessed by it still outnumber the railings and the condemnings by quite a good margin.

Yes, I believe Angi would want me to continue working at it, keeping it up to date and fresh.

Yes, I still want to do it.

I just can’t seem to now. Not yet. It hurts to try. It hurts to think about it.

One month.

And I wonder — though my friend’s comment was in no way a challenge, dare, or warning; simply a personal observation — how long will my faith persist before the cracks start to show?

Two months? Three? A year?

I don’t know.

It would be so much more than a shame, a pity or even a tragedy to be fighting and running for the prize in an arena of witnesses, then let the accuser cut in … give up the fight and quit the race; not finish the course.

Not keep the faith.

Running in vain.

How long can I keep faith flying on wings like eagles before my pace slows to a run that grows weary and then a walk that ends in a faint?

If I were truly alone, it would not take long at all.

But I’m not.

There may be people who can go it alone, and walk and run and fly solo on a wing and a prayer and a book of scriptural verses.

I’m not one of them.

Like the author of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, I need Christ before me in the pages of the Word, yes.

I need Christ behind me in the witness of His saints, yes.

I need Christ above me, bearing my prayers to His Father, absolutely.

But also …

I need Christ within me through His Holy Spirit.

I need Christ about me in the surround of His church.

Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

If you don’t need that, I suppose that’s fine for you. But I know what I need. What I’ve always needed. What I need now more than ever before. What I always will need, in increasing measure and greater grace and wider fellowship and deeper love and endless trust.

Until the day I breathe my last.

And it’s only been a month.

A Thundering Answer

 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”  The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

~ John 12:27-29

jesusprayingrockI have prayed and prayed. My soul, like my Lord’s, is troubled as surely as His was on that day when, still freshly arrived in Jerusalem, Phillip brought to Him two Greeks who wanted to see Him. And He told them it was time for Him to die.

That a seed must die before it can grow.

That one must hate life to save it.

That one must follow and serve Him.

My soul is troubled, because life as I knew it and wanted it to be will change in the weeks and months to come; will be overshadowed by fear and pain and death — and none of us in our family knows what those days will hold for us.

I have prayed and prayed. And, like Jesus, I don’t know what to pray for anymore. The very Son of God, God in essence talking to Himself in prayer, shared my perplexity about what to pray.

But Jesus’ answer came immediately, and it has come to me this morning. Thundering. Unnerving. Blowing me away.

“Father, glorify Your name.”

He can glorify it by taking away Angi’s pancreatic cancer and liver lesions; by completely conquering the depression that Laura has been courageously battling these many months. I understand that. It’s what I want, and what I’ve prayed for.

Yet, I also know somewhere deep within that He can also glorify His name by doing only one of those things, or neither, or something exceeding abundantly beyond all that I can ask or imagine. I don’t understand that. It’s what I’m afraid to want, and what I’m unable to pray for.

Jesus’ answer is simple: “Trust Him.”

He doesn’t need the thundering answer from His Father or through an angel; it’s for our benefit. For my benefit:

“I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”

That, of course, it what must matter most.

Not because God is any less if His name is not glorified, but because we are.

Not because God will shrivel up into a powerless dry myth if His name is not made known, but that the power of His name will not be made known in order to explode the dry myth into powder.

Not because God will be blown away, but because sometimes “me” needs to be blown away, and replaced with “He.”

I write these words now while I can still write them in faith, because I know me and I know I will need to read them again later as my faith is stretched and pulled and yanked out of socket by the unseeable future. I will need to remind myself of the commitment of faith I’ve made to praise Him as the only One whose name is to be hallowed; to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven;” to offer as my only plea, “Father, glorify Your name.”

I will still tell Him what I want and need and beg for in His unique love, mercy and providence.

Yet I will still need to temper my petitions with the recognition that He knows me better than I know myself; He knows what we need more accurately than we do; He knows and loves my family more dearly than I ever could.

He alone can — and will — do what will best glorify His name, to the blessing of all whom He loves.

And His grace will be sufficient.

Your Prayers Needed for My Family

20130219-201831.jpgThe Brenton family needs your prayers, because we need two miracles.

Angi has been a little ill – digestive difficulties – since January and it got bad enough that she went to the doctor early last week. They did some blood tests and a CT scan Friday, 2/15. The preliminary diagnosis we got the next day from the scan is pancreatic cancer – a golfball-sized tumor near the bottom of the pancreas, and unfortunately, signs that it has spread to the liver.

The prognosis for this type of cancer is never good, and life expectancy if caught early is usually about nine to twelve months – less if other organs are affected.

She will see an oncologist in Asheville Thursday, one who specializes in this type of cancer, and we’ll know more then.

This has been a shock for all of us, and we have been informing family members and friends. It has been especially difficult for our 16-year-old daughter Laura, who has been battling depression for some months. The day Angi’s scan was taken, we were admitting Laura to the local hospital’s ER for a comprehensive evaluation. We agreed (including Laura) with the evaluating team that she needed to be placed temporarily at a hospital which specializes in treating depression, and one of us was with her at the ER 24 hours a day until a bed opened up Monday evening 2/18, just 3-1/2 hours away. We have taken her there, and she’ll be in that program to help restart her life about 5-7 days.

I preached Sunday morning and longed to explain to our church family at Sylva why I was so earnestly seeking their prayers, but I couldn’t until we had been able to tell extended family – our moms, kids, sisters and Angi’s cousins – and a few working colleagues. Each one of our church family respected that, and prayed in faith that God knew what was best for us and would provide.

That’s what we’re asking from all of you: prayers of faith. Be as specific as you want to be in your prayers, but we really need two miracles. I’ve only asked for a miracle once before – my dad’s recovery from a heart episode and coma at age 66, 20 years ago. God didn’t answer as my family and I had hoped or asked at that time, but we still believe in His limitless power and desire for what is best for us.

Thank you in advance for your grace in doing this. We may not be able to respond to every kind word you send while we try to cluster our far-flung family in prayer and hope. But please know how much we appreciate your prayers, love and well-wishes.

A Spirit-Filled Church

Do you worship with a church that is primarily concerned with getting it right and doing it right and not doing something wrong?

A church that is a little afraid to do anything because it might not be directly authorized by scripture and might be wrong?

Do you gather with saints who speak mostly of duty and law and authority and judgment?

You’re not alone, and there are many more like you who yearn to be free to worship every day.

Here is something you are free to do and it’s authorized by scripture:

Pray for your church.

Jesus prayed for His church, with some of the last breaths He took as a mortal (John 17).

Paul prayed for the churches in Rome (Romans 1:8-10), Ephesus (Ephesians 1:16), Philippi (Philippians 1:4), Colossae (Colossians 1:3), Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:2),  He prayed for them constantly, always, without stopping — those phrases characterize his descriptions of his prayers for them.

Pray that your fellow believers will receive the Holy Spirit, and receive power and wisdom through Him, just as those in scripture did (Acts 8:15; Ephesians 3:16; Colossians 1:9).

Pray in the Spirit (Romans 8:26; Ephesians 6:18; Jude 1:20).

Pray in faith (Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24).

Pray boldly to be able to speak boldly. Pray for God to stretch out His hand. Pray for your church to be shaken (Acts 4:23-31).

Ask for the Holy Spirit for yourself, as well (Luke 11:13). He is a promise made to you (Acts 2:37-39).

Then have the courage to start being the answer to your prayers (1 Corinthians 16:13).

It’s important! Vitally, crucially, eternally important!

And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who livesin you.” ~ Romans 8:9-11

If you can’t see words in scripture that say the Holy Spirit of God and of Jesus Christ is now just a passive, passe, common enthusiasm like the “Spirit of St. Louis,” then it’s not true.

If you can’t see words in scripture that say the Holy Spirit is now just present in you only through your reading of scripture, then it’s not true.

If you can’t see words in scripture that say the Holy Spirit will stop living within, working within, comforting from within, empowering from within, then it’s not true.

If you can’t see words in scripture that say the Holy Spirit “living in you” is just a metaphor; just a simile; just a manner of speaking, then it’s not true.

No matter how many times you hear it; no matter how loudly it’s repeated; no matter how hard the pulpit is pounded when it’s said, it’s not true.

It’s a lie. And it’s from Satan. And it’s designed to de-emphasize, demoralize, and de-energize the church that Christ died to empower with the gospel of truth: the Spirit is His free gift to us, and through that Spirit, life without end.

That life begins in the here-and-now; a life that lives in Christ, for Christ, through Christ by the power of His Spirit living in you.

The utter, plain, inarguable truth of that is the reason that Paul could claim:

I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me. ~ Colossians 1:25-28

If you want to worship with a Spirit-filled church, be a Spirit-filled person.

Let it begin with you.

Stand for the truth.

You Can Pray

There may be a lot of things you can’t do to relieve suffering, help others, make the world a better place, proclaim the gospel or work toward the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.

But you can pray.

You can pray for your fellow commuters, fellow workers, customers, clients, patients, suppliers, visitors, office neighbors, family, friends, church, city, state, nation, world.

You can pray for newborns, babies, toddlers, children, pupils, students, graduates, applicants, candidates, professionals, laborers, retirees, the aged, the dying and the dying inside.

You can pray for the healthy, the ill, the confused, the distressed, the hungry, the hopeless, the helpless, the depressed, the damaged, the deserted, the bereaved, the forgotten, and the lost.

You can pray for the public servant, the private tutor, the teacher, the instructor, the professor, the administrator, the honest, the dishonest, the learned, the learning, the giver and the recipient.

You can pray for the pastor, elder, shepherd, deacon, servant, minister, preacher, leader, member, seeker, saint, rebel, mentor, questioner, enforcer, incarcerated, the free and the enslaved.

You can pray for people you know and people you don’t.

You can pray for your friends. You can pray for your enemies.

You can pray for angry people, hateful people, evil people, nasty people, people opposed to God, people who don’t believe in God, people who don’t want to believe in God, ever, because it might mean having to give up on their self-dependence and self-indulgence in a world that has perhaps blessed them and/or perhaps let them down in every way possible.

You can pray for justice. You can pray for mercy. You can pray for a humble walk with God.

You can pray for the Kingdom to enter hearts with force and tenderness and love. You can pray to be part of it.

You can pray for gifts for others. You can pray for gifts for yourself.

You can pray for greater understanding, more compassion, increased courage, elevated awareness of others, deeper love, heart-baring compassion, a cascade of opportunities, and a bottomless reservoir of spiritual wealth to share with all you meet.

You can pray for time and energy and willingness to use them when given.

You can pray for peace of heart, peace of mind, peace among neighbors, peace on earth, peace with God.

You can pray and pray and pray and pray.

And then you can be part of God’s answer.

He will answer. You may not like His answer. It may not come at the time you want it to come. It may sweep you off your feet and engulf you in a life you never dreamed possible, for your good but perhaps not for your comfort – but certainly for the good of those you encounter.

You can pray to enter into partnership with God through Christ, sustained by their Holy Spirit, to do good works that He has created beforehand for you to do and for which He created you.

You can pray timidly or dangerously.

You can pray for healing for others, but you can pray for healing for yourself, too.

You can pray that others will be blessed with greater insight and understanding of God’s will for them, but you can pray that for yourself, as well.

You can pray morning, noon and evening. You can pray without ceasing. You can live your life as a prayer, a sweet-smelling savor of incense burning in the hearts of God’s saints, pleasing to His senses.

You can.

You can.

Is God Hearing My Prayers?

Short answer: Of course.

Long answer: Maybe it just seems like He isn’t, because you’re not getting the answer you want or expect or soon enough to suit you.

I’m not one for checklisting your prayers, but here’s a few thoughts. Maybe it would help you perceive God listening, if you’re not already doing these things, by …

This isn’t a comprehensive list. And none of these are guarantees that you will get what you want or receive the answer to the questions you ask or even feel better.

But you will have spent time with God. He will have listened, already knowing what you wanted to tell Him, and you will have acknowledged that He is the only One in the universe who can and who wants to and who will.

And that is a very wonderful, important, blessed thing to remember.

(At least, it is for me.)