April 26, 2013
Yesterday, I pondered spiritual boldness and the need for Christians to pray for it in an increasingly pluralistic society. From a cultural point of view, uttering certain viewpoints is risky and costly, leading some Christ-followers to be circumspect if not silent about their faith. I found out yesterday that one of my former students, applying for a ministry internship, was challenged by the interviewer for having me as one of her references, “because [I am] against gay ordination.” The student, taken aback by that attitude in what was supposed to be an ecumenical environment, stood up for me. [For the record, they never called me, but they probably googled my name out of curiosity. Great way to “check references,” when it becomes an evaluation of the reference rather than the applicant!] Upon hearing about this uncomfortable interchange, I was sad that my views and actions would penalize her—obviously, a completely unintended consequence. But it would explain why some, with less mettle than my friend, would distance themselves from me if they felt their livelihood threatened.
There is growing concern that teaching a biblical view of sexuality may some time soon be considered “hate speech,” if it includes an injunction against homosexual practice. It doesn’t matter to those of an opposing view whether the speaker is of good character or gracious manner. If she holds the now politically-incorrect view that homosexually committed persons must repent before being ordained to the ministry, she is believed to be a bigot, or worse, a hater, and must be isolated out of fellowship among “rational” and open-minded people.
In any other generation, the constitutional guarantee of free speech and exercise of religion alone should protect a Bible teacher; but alas, now if someone feels hurt by what a teacher says, regardless of the intent or the content of speech, those feelings “prove” a wrongdoing. We are entering a period of serious threat to reasonable discourse, historic constitutional interpretation, and even academic freedom. Some of my Presbyterian colleagues have felt this much more acutely than I have, and I empathize. This is no figment of the imagination.
And even in the PC(USA) I am hearing of more clergy who feel they cannot teach from the Bible on certain subjects, for fear that viewpoint would divide their congregations. There is great timidity out there, based on the desire to keep church members “in the boat” and not lose them. What I hear, however, is that members are leaving congregations for at least two conflicting reasons: the belief that the pastor is too conservative or perhaps not liberal enough. The fact is, because the issue itself exists and cannot be navigated in an emotionally healthy way, church membership is dwindling. Pastors cannot win for losing, so to speak. The challenge to a biblical and confessional belief about marriage and sexuality is slowly (though more quickly now) eroding the heart and soul of the church. Is that really what homosexualists want—to destroy the church?
If it isn’t their church members calling pastors to task, it is higher-ups who pressure conformity to the new standard (which is no standard at all, as I have previously written). What was generally touted as the removal of a restrictive standard has now morphed into a new “standard” forbidding consideration of a pre-established biblical standard of sexuality when evaluating candidates. Whatever happened to “the Scriptures, our only rule of faith and practice”?
So where does boldness come in? What is a person of conviction to do in a world and a denomination growing more hostile to a biblical point of view on sexuality? Careful consideration must be given to consequences, if only to prepare for them. But negative consequences did not deter the apostles from boldly proclaiming Jesus Christ and the transforming gospel. Peter and John, as mentioned yesterday, were strongly exhorted to never teach in the name of Jesus again (Acts 4:18). Paul, previously a persecutor of the church, was challenged constantly for proclaiming Jesus Christ, working miracles, and casting out demons (cf. Acts 16:16-19). And of course, we are inspired by the Savior himself. He knew what his job was—the atonement of humanity’s sin and the ushering in the Kingdom of God—and nothing deterred his progress toward that end. It meant momentary alienation from his family (Matthew 12:46-50 & parallels), the betrayal of friends (John 18), and ultimately his own death.
What about us? As the writer of Hebrews observed, “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3-4). What a convicting word! If our goal, navigating the waters of pastoral leadership, is not to suffer, we are missing the opportunity to develop under Christ’s discipline. If we are acting (or not acting) out of fear, we are to remember Paul’s exhortation:
“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7) The Christian faith is not a security blanket keeping us cozy in the safe confines of our homes and churches. The Christian faith, held with courage and conviction, puts us in danger or at least into trouble, where we can do the most good.
March 29, 2013
Today I gave blood. I do this each year as an intentional expression of my Christian faith and gratitude for what Jesus did for me. I sat in a comfy chair in a clean, safe environment. The procedure did not hurt. The company was congenial. And when I had deposited my pint, I was bandaged, fed, and sent home to take it easy for a few hours.
I give blood on Good Friday as a spiritual discipline and an opportunity for contemplation. I was quite conscious of the fact that the conditions under which Jesus gave his blood for all of humanity were completely unlike mine.
Jesus’ own spiritual discipline and contemplation prior to the Passion had reinforced his security in the care of his heavenly Father. Though he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to Judas’ betrayal, he chose to give blood for the salvation of all humankind as the fulfillment of the Father’s promised care for us. In the process, he was abused physically and psychologically. He was not fed during his ordeal; betrayed by a friend and falsely accused by his countrymen, he was whipped and spat upon, crowned with thorns and mocked by Roman soldiers. No one offered solace, according to biblical accounts, though the fourteen Stations of the Cross imagine the ministrations of comforting women along the way. When Jesus faltered on the Via Dolorosa, Simon of Cyrene was enlisted to relieve him of the cross for a short respite. By the time the actual crucifixion took place, Jesus was a physical wreck.
But only then was his blood fully spilled. And he did this for us, offering himself willingly as the atoning sacrifice for our sin. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
The nurses today at the blood donation center were quite eager for me to donate, for the need is great. Their attitude reminded me of the urgency the Church should maintain in sharing the story of Christ with the unchurched and the unreached. Presbyterians rarely articulate the urgency of evangelism, and certainly not in terms of Christ’s shed blood, more along the line of “new congregations.” Our responsibility is so much more than programmatic. When will we feel the urgency to pour ourselves out for the lost and independent people around us, so that they, too, can live in the security of the Father’s love and care? At what level must we encounter people in order to appreciate the darkness they walk in or the confusion that disorients them? How willing are we to enter their world with the urgent grace of Christ’s gospel?
These are the things I thought about as I gave blood today.
March 13, 2013
Monday I gave a rundown on the plot elements and poetic licenses issued for the second installment of The Bible on History Channel. Today let’s go back to a theme that was evident in the first episode and see if it carries through the second. That would be the voice of God: what God said, to whom, and how they knew it was God talking. In the first episode, you remember that Noah, Abraham, and Moses all reported hearing God give them specific instructions, which in all cases were preposterous but necessary for God’s plan to unfold. In week two, as the Israelites stand on the verge of claiming God’s promise, they contemplate the taking of Jericho. It looks like an impossible task, but the two spies who gather intelligence bring back the report that “their walls are strong, but their hearts are not.” With the confidence that their victory is sure, nevertheless, the leaders of Israel must still make a decision about how to approach the formidable structure of Jericho’s walls.
God sends “a commander of the Lord’s army,” presumably an angel, dressed for battle to tell Joshua what to do. The coming battle will be a psychological one, in which God will split the rock himself. All the warriors have to do is walk around the walls of Jericho, shouting praise to God, blowing their horns, and standing. They follow instructions to the letter, and the city falls into their hands.
Once the inroad has been made into the promised land, the twelve tribes spread out and distribute themselves throughout the region. They encounter Canaanites city-states and Philistine belligerence, and rely on the judges who emerge in leadership on an “as needed” basis. In Episode 2, Samson is highlighted (actually he is the only judge mentioned). His mother reports that God told her (through a hooded angel, as before) that God would give her a son who was to be dedicated to the Lord’s service under the Nazirite vow. He, Samson, would drive the Philistines away. God had spoken to his mother directly (verified in Judges 13), and she raised her son with the expectation of his role. He, however, is seen to ask God for guidance and then ask for specific strength, but he seems left with no verbal answer and must power forward. The viewer starts to get the impression that following the voice of God is not going to be easy any longer. Is this because the noise of battle is too loud? The distractions of life too compelling? Or sin too rampant?
A similar dynamic unfurls in King Saul and later in King David’s life. There is less certainty, more confusion. I believe the reason for this homeland insecurity is the context, which now includes significant deviation from God’s will. In Saul’s case, Samuel, speaking as the Lord’s prophet, tells him that only complete annihilation of the enemy will secure their land inheritance. But Saul’s people take prisoners of war and claim the spoils of war. Samuel sees the disobedience, added to Saul’s usurping the priestly role to offer a sacrifice, and the deal is broken. Saul has disqualified himself as leader, and it is only a matter of time before David will replace him as King of Israel.
In David’s case, adultery with Bathsheba and the conspiracy to kill her husband Uriah now bring heavy burdens upon him. The prophet Nathan certainly speaks faithfully into his life, but David resists the warnings and the rebukes in favor of doing things his own way. A heartbreaking personal mess unfolds, and the voice of God can only be discerned in the word of the prophet.
To use a metaphor, disobedience to the Lord’s will creates “chatter on the line” (for those old enough to remember the telephone party line) or “static in the air” (for our radio hams), obscuring the clear voice of God. The solution to this is to go silent and listen. I do not believe that God stops speaking, but, like a kindergarten teacher who starts whispering until her charges quiet down enough to hear her, God is looking for some discipline and focus from us.
This is why quietness of soul is so important for hearing the voice of Jesus today. This quietness is not only physical silence, which is hard enough to achieve in a world full of electronic background noise. This quietness is also the peace that comes from aligning one’s life to God’s will, if in no other way than choosing intentionally to stop sinning for the moment. This ability to calm down comes from the Holy Spirit, for the asking, and we rely on God’s gentle power to restrain our noisy impulses even as we practice the discipline of quietness.
The plot lines of The Bible: Homeland certainly cause me to wonder. If the people had not fashioned the Golden Calf in the Sinai (Exodus 32), if they had not done what seemed right only in their own eyes (throughout Judges), if they had obeyed God’s conquest strategy (in Joshua and 1 Samuel), if Saul had been patient, if David had been faithful, how might the story have turned out differently? We too must ask the parallel questions: how might our personal lives, our congregation’s life, and the direction of the PC(USA) be different if we had remained faithful to the Word of God at key moments? Having messed up, our life together has created interference to make it even harder to hear and heed the voice of Jesus in our midst. Only a radical quieting is going to get us back into a place where we can discern what God is saying to the church today.
March 5, 2013
Yesterday, in my review of The Bible: Episode One, I mentioned the voice of God as quiet and young-sounding. Noah, Abraham and Moses unmistakably heard God’s voice and distinguished it from their own inner voices. Consequently, they gave great weight to the message they heard. Sarah needed a little convincing—I mean, if your spouse came home and said, “God spoke to me today, and we’re moving to a place he will show us when we get there,” what are you going to say? “Are you feeling all right? Are you having delusions?” It’s just not the sort of thing one expects or one claims with a sound mind. And in all these cases, God had been silent a long time, and yet the hearers were convinced of the Voice’s origin.
All three followed a similar path under different circumstances: they were confronted with a word from the Lord “out of the blue”; reception of that word required faith in the One who uttered it; and dramatic, responsive action followed. Noah built an ark and gathered animals in pairs to reside in it. Abraham uprooted his entire family and followed God’s leading to Canaan. Moses overcame his own objections to go to Egypt’s Pharaoh and plead for the release of the Hebrews. It’s rather staggering to think what “listening to the voice of God” entailed for these three and makes me wonder if God might be saying to the church anything half as dramatic and life-changing.
The word “discernment” is not used in these Bible stories, but that process well known to Presbyterians is certainly in play. God’s word came to these men, they believed that God spoke it, they trusted God’s wisdom and promise, and they acted according to the instructions given to them. They did not have the benefit of sacred Scripture with which to “test the spirits,” as we do (1 John 4:1), but the power of God was evident to them.
God spoke, and these men acted accordingly. It seems a reasonable conclusion that if one has really heard the voice of God, then doing what God says becomes a compelling interest.
We certainly have plenty of examples of fully committed Presbyterians who believe God has spoken to them about, say, the homosexuality question, even though their conclusions have landed in mutually exclusive arenas. So we must ask: how do we know it was God speaking?
This is the question addressed by Gordon T. Smith in a wonderful book The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer and the Witness of the Spirit (IVP, 2003). The book identifies two very basic questions, “What is Jesus saying to you?” and “How do you know it is Jesus speaking to you?” The ability to tell the difference between our own hopes and desires from God’s Word is extremely important for our spiritual growth and active discipleship, not to mention the direction of the church. Humility is the basic posture of the godly listener in reverence for the Word of God written, which is the word of Christ (Col 3:16). We also appreciate that “the voice of Jesus is present to the Christian community through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit” (14). Smith goes on to show that this inner witness is always grounded in the written witness of the Spirit—holy Scripture—and it is recognized by those who live in mutual submission within the community of faith. These two anchors enable not only the individual but also the discerning body to determine if what is heard is in fact the voice of Jesus. Smith draws from the writings of Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards to demonstrate how this works. The Church would do well to reactivate the discipline of spiritual discernment with their wise guidance at hand.
It will be interesting to observe whether History Channel’s The Bible continues to portray God’s voice as quiet and direct to individuals, when the story warrants. In the meantime, during this Lenten season we are invited to tune in to God’s voice through Scripture reading, quiet time, and spiritual alertness. To recognize the inner witness of the Spirit is to practice the presence of God, so that we become familiar with his voice. And then, when God needs to get our attention on a busy day, we can turn to him without delay!
February 14, 2013
Quilters refer to UFOs, unfinished objects, to describe the projects tucked away in mid-course. The QT (Quilt Therapy) group I belong to ’fessed up to UFOs on Tuesday, making commitments to complete said projects within the year. For me, the list includes the famous “Ahwahnee Quilt,” inspired by Yosemite’s oldest and most famous hotel. This quilt has been stashed for at least five years, but 2013 is the year to get it done.
In the same way, I have some UFOs in the writing realm, outlined but unfinished, that await my attention and effort. Here is the list of working titles:
Reclaiming the Ministry of Teaching in the Missional Setting, which in its current form is my Doctor of Ministry dissertation. A revision is required to make it useful for pastors and elders desiring to own this aspect of missional ministry. The first third of the book must be recast entirely, and the third section needs more concrete examples. My editor-daughter required me to jettison several stories and illustrations to maintain the academic tone, so those outtakes are awaiting readmission.
In the face of resistance to the idea of teaching both not-yet-Christians and committed believers in this postmodern era, my premise rests on the Great Commission. Jesus said that we were to make disciples both by baptizing them (welcoming them into the family) and by teaching them (informing them of the defining characteristics of life in Christ). The question is not whether we should or can teach people, but how. So my book explores methods demonstrated throughout Scripture, finds solid practical support from the best in educational theory and methodology, and offers one particular method I call “informative conversation” as a way to fulfill the Great Commission today.
Why I Don’t Pray, which was outlined in the 1980s and fleshed out into a fifty-page term paper for Dallas Willard in 2006. He gave the paper an A+ and said I should expand it for a wider audience in book form; if that isn’t motivation, what is? The book is a cross between a survey of total depravity and an examination of conscience. I consider the six realms of human existence that Willard listed in Renovation of the Heart, and identify within those realms (body, mind, emotions, will, etc.) the resistance to prayer—that is to say, the excuses I give for not praying, like busyness, physical illness, or anger. For each excuse, I cite a saint of the church who turned that reality into a reason or impetus to pray. The book will expand on the lives of these saints and add biblical examples and instruction in those same areas of resistance, to create what I hope will be an invitation to relinquishment and honesty in conversation with God.
It All Started in the Garden, currently in development as an adult class I am teaching at church. For decades, in explaining the context of doctrine and theology, I have found myself saying, “It all started in the Garden.” So this year, I am checking my assertion by identifying eighteen theological themes that have their roots in Genesis 1, 2, or 3, and tracing those themes through both Old and New Testament. So far, we have covered topics like creation, work, the meaning of life, incarnation and redemption, and Trinity. When we resume next week, we will dive into Theological Anthropology, with a concentration on sexuality and marriage. This is the book that will probably contain my thoughts and prayers for a present-day church that is confused about the way things are, at a very basic level.
Three diverse topics, each requiring a different kind of brain. Though I speak as though I am writing these for publication (which would be nice), the only way I can get over the initial threshold is to write for myself. Each topic represents a passion I have carried for many years, a passion that has shaped me for ministry and been the growing edge of my discipleship. My biggest UFO is myself, and Paul encourages me with his words, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). If embracing these UFOs helps me to sustain a Close Encounter of the Divine Kind, then it will all be worth it.
April 12, 2012
The few fans of this blog have perhaps noted my silence the last few days. Can it be true that Mary Naegeli is speechless, or has nothing to say? Au contraire, mes amis, the problem is the opposite! There is so much to say, so much to digest, so much to ponder, that one hardly knows where to begin. On the other side of my mind is the desperate need for some perspective, some peace and quiet, some reflection on the meaning of this moment in the life of the PCUSA.
This morning, as I walked out of the gym to dark skies and accelerating rain, a full, uninterrupted rainbow appeared before me. Reaching from one end of the horizon to the other in unbroken glory, God’s sign of promise also reached into my heart once again.
12“This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (Gen. 9:12-16 NRSV)
The original rainbow was God’s optical reminder to himself and the world that he would never again execute his judgment upon the whole planet by flood. Obviously the promise was not that there would never be flooding somewhere around the world, but God suspended his punitive power prerogative in order to live out the full ramifications of covenant. Human beings had not lived up to their end of the relationship, but God in unilateral covenant kept a grip on his people and would not let them go no matter what they did. By this means, they would know his unending love and amazing grace and perhaps remain open to his divine plan for reconciliation and redemption.
When I see a rainbow, this is what I think:
• that God is present and active in this world
• that God’s promise of care and relationship overshadows any overwhelming flood I might be experiencing
• that God possesses great hope for his creation
I needed that reminder, because this is what I am experiencing these days: a flood of work coming from three different employers (my seminary, my organization, my parish), the river of judicial process flowing to its mouth on April 27 (GAPJC), and what seems to be a denominational appointment with danger at General Assembly in early July.
I am appreciating very much the heart-cries of fellow pastors who do not feel they have the energy for the demands of the parish and the rigors of denominational discourse. I get that. I perhaps differ from many pastors in that I feel called and well suited for the denominational discourse. But for three months (this Spring Quarter) I am living with the tension of trying to balance discourse with discipleship, organizational strategy with organic ministry, geekiness with graciousness, teaching with learning, writing and reading, making things happen and letting things happen. The amazing thing—not to make my full-time pastoral colleagues jealous—is that virtually 100% of everything I do these days is at the heart of my calling, my gift mix, and my personality type, and therefore I love it all. There’s just too much of a good thing at the moment, and I will be very glad when the quarter is over.
Having said all this—in reflection, not complaint—I go back to the basics of spiritual vitality and ministry effectiveness:
• keep your eyes on the rainbow and its Creator (Psalm 8)
• take Sabbath rest and observe the daily rhythm of Christian discipleship (Matthew 11:28f)
• hold fast to the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)
• persevere—do not give up (2 Timothy 4:5)
• seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33)
• plan with humility (Proverbs 16:9)
• endure hardship in joy (Romans 5:3f)
• receive the Holy Spirit and walk in his power (Romans 8:11)
It’s time to get back to work! [You too!]
February 21, 2012
Today is “fat Tuesday,” the day before Lent begins, and time to ponder spiritual realities, discipleship goals, and what it means to be “Reformed and always in need of Reform according to the Word of God.”
Our back yard garden is home to fourteen bearing fruit trees, two walnut trees that are past bearing age and dying off gradually, and numerous other decorative trees. My pet project every year is our fig tree, and I have already applied the shears to it for its annual severe pruning. Every year, my husband says, “You’ve killed it for sure!” but the leaf buds pop out in March and by August we have a lush, fruity tree to remind us of Eden.
On a windy day last week, our stately birch trees took a beating, necessitating their removal. Turns out, they were dead, decimated by a bark beetle from the inside out. One of our lemon trees also sustained damage in the wind: a particularly laden branch bearing perhaps forty lemons has started peeling from the main trunk. It’s only a matter of time before that branch must be lopped off, but sap is still running and the fruit is still ripening, so I will wait another week or two and see what happens. We call it our miracle lemon tree, as this has happened before and my hopes are high for harvest.
The image is ripe for interpretation for the church, and Jesus helped us along in this direction with his parable of the Vine and the Branches (John 15:1-17). A portion of it here:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
The first idea of note here is that pruning is a necessary exercise whether the tree is dead or alive. If it bears fruit, it gets creamed. If it doesn’t bear fruit, it gets creamed. Pruning is in our future, perhaps even our present. If the tree is dead, like our birch trees, it must be taken down to make room for plants that are still alive. If the tree is fertile and full of potential, it must be pruned to coax fruit-bearing. For whatever purpose, pruning is necessary but painful.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is undergoing a pruning, a spiritual discipline with which we must cooperate in order for God’s purposes to be accomplished. It is a necessary, painful process we must endure as a prerequisite for God’s blessing, for vitality, and for fruitfulness. If we do not go along with what God is doing, we will end up either a dead, dead shell of a church that will fall over in a wind storm or a forever fruitless vine of undisciplined foliage that looks good in a dead-end sort of way.
If the PCUSA is dying, it is because individual members have died spiritually and only the structure of dead wood (an institutional organization) is holding them together. Tree-tending takes the form of Christian discipleship and disciple-making, getting people in touch with Jesus so that they can stay connected to the Source of life. To the degree the church has failed in this basic vine-tending, we are seeing the result in diminishing membership, fewer congregations, and a paralyzed ministry.
If the PCUSA is fully alive and well, it is because individual members have abided in the Vine, stayed connected to Jesus, stayed connected to one another “remaining in love,” stayed connected to God’s will “remaining in obedience,” and stayed connected to their calling “bearing fruit.”
The reality of the present moment is something between dying and vital, but trending toward dying as an institution. [Alternatively, some believe that the PCUSA is now two trees, one flourishing and the other dying.] If as God’s people we want to reverse this trend, we must submit to pruning. However we interpret the reality, being Reformed and always needing Reform points to our perpetual need of this shearing, to contain this tree, curtail its free but fruitless growth, and discipline it into fruit bearing. Pruning restores the shape of a tree just as God’s discipline of his children shapes lives in the image of his Son. We are always called back to our roots. During this Lenten season, may we submit to God’s discipline, cut back our ecclesiastical excesses, lop off our errant and fruitless beliefs and practices, and undergo the shaping that will produce a tree of life that exists for Christ’s sake and the nourishment of our neighbor.
December 9, 2011
The fifth reason why individual Presbyterians must be equipped for stand-alone discipleship is to capitalize on the opportunity to grow spiritually through times of trial. Spiritual progress can certainly be made when things are going well, but the testimony of saints through the ages is that growth is accelerated when things are going badly, if one is open to it. Another observation must be made sadly. If one is not open to the work of God through suffering, suffering can become an obstacle to growing faith. The novel The Shack exposes this reality vividly, but any pastor will tell you stories of individuals who utterly rejected God because of some unexplainable tragedy in their lives. This is why great attention must be paid in discipleship ministries to learning the Scriptures, contemplating the character(istics) of God, building faith and trust in the long view of God’s purposes, and cultivating hope. Without these, it is all too easy to give up, to exit the difficult situation, and in the process squander a golden opportunity for spiritual development.
The testimony of saints through the ages is that God has met them in their pain and strengthened the bonds of covenant love and grace. As an example, St. Thérèse of Lisieux suffered from tuberculosis as a young Carmelite nun, but saw her physical torment as an invitation to “the fellowship of sharing in [Christ’s] sufferings” (Phil 3:10). This way of interpreting what is an extremely unpleasant experience is counter-cultural and even suspect in the current environment. Americans with access to health care expect that any problem encountered can be fixed, healed, or anesthetized. Embrace pain? Why? By cultivating the attitude of avoidance, people buffer themselves against the very conditions that can draw them closer to Christ.
For some, however, the pain itself is the wake-up call and God’s presence is recognized. C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, wrote:
We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities, and anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
Madame Guyon (1648-1717) gives testimony to this dynamic, experienced in 17th century France. She was born to wealthy and well-placed parents, and at a young age was impressed with spiritual things and desired to cultivate a relationship with God. Her parents arranged her marriage in 1664 to a man much older, whom she did not love, and she played into the world of fashion, social contacts, and shopping to keep her spirits up. During this time, the young woman was known for her exquisite beauty. Three children arrived in quick succession, but not before her life started experiencing severe reversal. Her husband lost most of his wealth in 1666. Mme. Guyon got deathly ill that year, and her sister and her mother both died. In 1670 she contracted small pox, the scarring of which marred her face permanently. Her youngest son died a year later, and in 1672 her father and her daughter died. Two years later, a seven-year period of spiritual desolation started, during which time her husband also died. She was imprisoned in the 1680s for her Christian teachings, was poisoned there and ill for seven years. She was imprisoned again in 1695, including terms in a dungeon and banishment, until her death in 1717. Her reflection of the calamities and afflictions that had befallen her led to this conclusion: “Such was the strength of my natural pride that nothing but some dispensation of sorrow would have broken down my spirit, and turned me to God.” Later, she wrote this prayer, “Thou hast ordered these things, O my God, for my salvation! In goodness Thou hast afflicted me.”
Fleeing into the presence of God when affliction persists is one way to practice the affirmation of the Westminster Confession, “Q1. What is the chief and highest end of man? A. Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever.” Affliction sorely tests one’s basic desire in life: Do we desire comfort and ease more than we desire to glorify and enjoy the living Lord? It is possible and necessary for Christians, despite pain, to find their satisfaction in the Lord and Giver of Life.
This new appreciation for spiritual fruit amid tribulation is one motivator for embracing the difficult life many conservatives experience in the Presbyterian Church. It may not be a sign of superior spirituality to leave the church that causes such deep pain, if in fact the point of leaving is to avoid the pain. Rather, to embrace the pain and allow God to shout to us (and through us, to the church) a call to repentance and a word of hope can reap huge spiritual benefit.
Paul spoke of the connection between trials and the experience of God’s love: “. . . we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). Let us seize the opportunities for spiritual growth through adversity— encountered far too often, I know—and be prepared for the trials ahead by the practice sessions we experience at our presbytery meetings. God will meet us there and strengthen us against all temptation to take short-cuts, if in preparation we have learned to trust God and enter the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 90-1.
 James Gilchrist Lawson, Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, 2000), 84.
 “The Larger Catechism” of the Westminster Confession of Faith, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part I, Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 2002), 195.