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Archive for discernment – Page 4

The Difference Between Doubt and Despair

Doubt has a very bad reputation in most Christian communities. It’s seen as a temptation to be avoided, a slippery slope to losing faith completely. In these communities, questioning God – or, even worse, the established teachings of the church – is seen as the worst thing you could do.

In the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, we see things a little bit differently. We welcome honest doubt and wrestling as a pathway to faith. Doubt is where questions come from, and questions help us learn. If we never doubted God, we’d wouldn’t have any reason to ask questions about him, to grow in our knowledge of him. Without doubt about our faith, we’d never find the momentum to embrace new perspectives, reform struggling institutions, and breathe new life into our neighborhoods. Doubt is valuable. Though at times it can seem like doubt is destructive, healthy doubt ultimately builds us back up, leaving a faith that is even stronger.

Despair is different. Despair isn’t about asking questions, it’s not about the search for truth. When the darkness of despair creeps in, it speaks with finality. It tries to convince you that everything you love, everything you are, is a big waste of time. Despair is a suffocating presence. It annihilates our God-given spark, our life, our vision. If we spend enough time immersed in despair, we’ll die.

Doubt and despair often get mistaken for one another. I guess I can understand why. Both can be traumatic, throwing our whole worldview for a loop. But the outcomes that the two produce couldn’t be more different. Healthy doubt ultimately leads us to embrace a new sense of life and truth, but despair isn’t finished until it has taken us to rock bottom and beyond.

As followers of Jesus, how do we embrace honest doubt while rejecting the darkness of despair? Do we acknowledge that we are in a spiritual battle with forces that want to separate us from God? What are practices that we can embrace to discern the spirits, telling the difference between doubt that builds up and despair that destroys?

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That Moment When It All Comes Together

It’s a sensation that the ancients associated with the divine. The whispers of the muse. Inspiration from the spirit world. That moment of clarity when the veil is torn away and naked reality stares you in the face.

These moments of clarity come in all shapes and sizes. Those little “aha” moments when a particularly tough problem yields up a solution. A flash of awareness, when you see your own personality reflected in a trait you despise in someone else. A spiritual awakening that changes the entire course of your life. These are times when our human illusions become weaker and the truth is lifted into view.

Sometimes the truth hurts. There’s a reason that we went so long without looking at it. These encounters with reality can challenge us in ways we never considered possible. Most of us have had our share of euphoric mountaintop experiences, but what about those moments of clarity that find us when we’re face down in the slime of rock bottom? Both are real. Whether in the peaks or the valleys, these moments reveal the presence of a power greater than ourselves. We find clues about who we are and how our lives might change.

These moments when it all comes together, they’re mysterious. We can’t make them happen. There’s no switch we can pull for inspiration. The whisperings of the Spirit sneak up on us. At best, we can endeavor to be awake and listening when God speaks.

Perhaps our greatest challenge is to remember. Everyone has moments of clarity, but translating these experiences into changed lives is another matter. That requires endurance, a daily investment in storytelling, long after the fires fade.

Do you remember a time when the wisdom of God showed up in your life? What did you see? What did you learn about yourself? How were you called to change? Don’t forget.

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Will You Become What They Call You?

We humans are story-telling machines. We tell them about ourselves, and about those around us. We use the power of words – the good, the bad, and the ugly – to paint a picture of who we are, and who we expect others to be.

We tend to live into the expectations that others have of us. When I was a kid, I got a reputation for being a weirdo free thinker. I got made fun of constantly, both by other young people and by adults. That was all the encouragement I needed to really dig into all sorts of unpopular thinkers and causes. I became a radical because they told me I was one.

This didn’t always lead to happiness. Quite the opposite. I spent most of my childhood on the margins of my social circles. I was an outsider, first because I was told that I was one, and eventually because I chose this role for myself. The story was just too strong for me to escape its gravitational pull.

As I grow older, it’s easy to see how reactive and self-defeating all of this was. I let the words of others shape who I became. Their story became my story, and it hurt me. But now I know that there’s another story to tell – a deeper one that doesn’t rely on the praise of my friends or the taunts of my enemies. It’s a story that springs up like living water. It’s the story that God’s Spirit is telling within me. I’m finding a solid place to stand in the midst of all the competing stories of this world.

What’s the story that you’re living in? Who told it to you, and why did you believe it? Is there a deeper story that you’re being invited into?

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A Kingdom Without Walls

This Sunday, we heard the story of the apostle Thomas, who refused to believe in the resurrection until he had witnessed it for himself. All the other apostles had been there Jesus when Jesus appeared, but Thomas missed it. Thomas was sure the others were making the whole thing up. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe!”

To everyone’s surprise, Thomas got his wish. A week later, Jesus appeared again, holding out his hands for Thomas to touch. Seeing his teacher and friend raised from the dead, Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God!” For the skeptical Thomas, seeing was believing.

I have a lot of sympathy for Thomas, having myself experienced a similar challenge of faith. I haven’t always been a Christian. There was a time when, though I was intrigued by Jesus, I just couldn’t believe all of the traditional theology of the church. I wanted to follow the man I read about in the New Testament, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around what it meant to call Jesus “the son of God.” I definitely couldn’t make any sense of the idea of bodily resurrection. I was convinced that God spoke through Jesus, but all these miracles and high theology seemed more like mythology than historical fact.

I was really lucky to be part of a (Quaker) Christian community that was able to embrace me in my doubt. Some churches might have distanced themselves from me when I started asking hard questions about the resurrection and other cherished Christian teachings, but I found space to wrestle with my doubts without having to leave the community.

Thomas wrestled with his doubt in community, too. It might have been easier for him to simply walk away from the other disciples, concluding that they were either lying or deluded in their visions of the risen Jesus. But instead he made the decision to stay, and his brothers were willing to put up with him and his challenges. I imagine he was arguing with them for the whole week before Jesus showed back up again!

I believe that this is an example that our modern-day Christian communities can learn from. Often, when our ideas about God are challenged we’re tempted to circle the wagons and distance ourselves from the skeptic. But this is a sign of weakness. Real faith can stand up to the honest questions of our brothers and sisters in community. The non-judgmental compassion of the Christian community is precisely what lends credence to the most fantastic claims of our tradition.

I wouldn’t be a Christian today if I hadn’t found a community that embraced me in my doubts, gave me space to explore and question, and invited me to go deeper. I think this is true for more of us than we imagine. Yet it is so tempting, once we finally accept the teaching of the church, to turn around and judge others for challenging the very beliefs that we were doubting only a few years ago!

It’s time to pay it forward. I want to be part of creating grounded, loving, non-judgmental Christian community – spaces where other doubting Thomases, just like me, can grow in truth and love.

What does it take to open up this kind of safe and sacred space, where our whole lives point to the beauty of the resurrection? What does it mean to lead lives so grounded in our faith that there is no longer any need to defend? How do we become a kingdom without walls?

I want to find out with you.

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Want to Change the World?

Want to Change the World?

It’s amazing how inspiration can come in the most ordinary moments. Most recently for me, it was during my morning commute into downtown Washington, DC. As I watched the US Capitol Building gleaming in the morning sunlight, a powerful sense of peace and calm covered me like a blanket. Without warning, I found myself seated in the presence of God.

It was a quiet, hidden glory. Sitting next to several dozen other commuters checking their cell phones and going about their morning routine, I was experiencing a moment of clarity. Nothing around me had changed, but something inside me did. My eyes were opened. Everything seemed bathed in a new light.

And as silly as it sounds, a melody from the original Willy Wonka movie came into my mind. I began to sing the words to myself:

“If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.”

In that moment, the song was no longer just a charming melody from a motion picture. It was a personal message spoken to my heart. I was getting a glimpse of beauty. I didn’t go looking for it; paradise found me. What might life be like if I practiced this kind of awareness always? What hidden love and freedom would I experience?

There is a life and power that lies behind every ordinary moment. Far too often, I trample it in my rush to get to whatever’s coming next. I walk right through the oasis, ignoring the springs of water, instead chasing a mirage on the horizon. And I imagine myself daring!

Want to change the world? Yes, I do. And like Wonka says, “There’s nothing to it.” It’s not about me at all. If I’ll just let go and allow the Holy Spirit to transform my vision, everything will change.

Has your life been touched by an unexpected change in perspective? Have you encountered this hidden beauty in the ordinary? How would it feel to live in this awareness, to have your world changed by it?

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You Just Need More Light

We have a plant in the office where I work. It’s one of those plants that is supposedly indestructible. Even the most negligent gardeners shouldn’t be able to kill this thing.

Yet last week I noticed that the plant had begun to wilt dramatically. It looked like it might not survive.

I went and checked the soil, assuming I would find it bone-dry. But on the contrary, the dirt around the roots was soaked. Had we been over-watering it? What could be causing this rapid decline? Not knowing quite what else to do, I moved it out of the office, into a window sill in the hallway.

Weird thing is, the plant fully recovered by the next day. It was almost miraculous. All it needed was the direct sunlight of the hallway to transform it from a sad, wilted mess into a healthy plant again. I thought the problem was the soil, but it was actually one of light.

The story of this plant reminds me of how often I get confused about the reasons for my own wilted and downcast state. It’s easy for me to blame the soil of my life – the people, circumstances, and material conditions of my daily existence – for my darkness. But in reality the problem isn’t with the soil.

When I’m really struggling, it’s usually because I’ve lost track of where my life’s light comes from. I’ve shifted my focus away from the loving presence of God, losing myself in the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and desires for other things. The lack of light chokes the word of God within me.

The parable of the office plant is a reminder to keep a good eye on the way I live my life. Are my priorities drawing me deeper into joy, love, and peace, or am I being lured into busyness? Am I getting lost in the details of the soil, or am I daily drawing nearer to the light?

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Making Room for Others to Dream

I’m a future-oriented person. At any given time, I’m probably using half my energy thinking, dreaming, preparing for what’s coming next.

But this year for Lent, I’m trying to give up dreaming for a little while. As much as I’m able, for the next month or so I’ll avoid pondering any possible future, no matter how wonderful. Instead, I want to focus on the life that I am living right now – and to be grateful for it.

It’s hard to tell where visionary thinking ends and escapism begins. I suspect that I cross the line more often than I’d like to think. That’s one reason for this fast: To spend some time being truly present with what is, instead of being in such a rush to create what will be.

There must be other reasons, too. The truth is, I don’t really know why I’m feeling compelled to undertake this odd little period of renunciation. You might say it’s a leading of the Spirit. Or maybe I’m just a little bit burnt out. But whatever it is, it feels bigger than my conscious mind. Something deeper.

One of these hidden reasons became a little clearer to me today. I had a flash of inspiration, realizing how much of an impact my dreaming has on those around me. Mostly positive, I hope. I invite the people around me into my dreams, and to discover dreams of their own. At best, my out-of-control vision can help spark creativity in others. 

I’m realizing it can also do the opposite. Sometimes, the sheer volume and intensity of my waking dreams can suck up all the oxygen in the room, making it difficult for others to breathe their own unique forms of imagination.

I want to leave space for every flower to bloom. I want to see joy come alive. I want to make room for others to dream, even if it means that my own dreaming needs to learn some limits. 

What’s your experience? Are you a dreamer, or would you benefit from a little more space to imagine a more beautiful future?

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