WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God makes me lie down in green pastures; God leads me beside still waters; God restores my soul. God leads me in right paths for God’s name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.–Psalm 23
An attitude of trust – toward God, toward life – is the foundation for healthy spirituality. Trust is the crux of spirituality. With an attitude of genuine trust, we will find ourselves, God, and life, lived creatively and hopefully. Without trust, no amount of techniques, disciplines, retreats or spiritual directors, or any other kind of effort or struggle will result in on-going encouragement and vitality.
What do I mean by trust? Trust is an awareness that life will continue to have meaning and beauty even amidst darkness and suffering. Trust is an attitude of hopefulness about life, a sense that the power of love is the greatest power, at least over the long haul. Trust is a conviction that we, ultimately, can experience God as a “Thou” and not merely as an “It.” Life can include relationships, with people and with God.
Trust is an awareness that life will continue to have meaning and beauty even amidst darkness and suffering. The prophet Habakkuk truly faced despair. His was a situation of having all bases for security stripped away. The setting for his book is the period around 600 BC, just before Babylon took over the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah. He begins the book with a lament over the corruption and injustice which characterized Judah. These are the people of the promise, Abraham’s heirs. However, they are so far from God’s ways. They are about to lose the land. Their religion is corrupt. When will they be judged? Habakkuk asks. For someone like Habakkuk God must appear distant and the promises suspect. He does listen for an answer, though. God tells him that Babylon will attack, Babylon will be an instrument of God’s judgment.
Habakkuk finds this troubling. As bad as Judah is, Babylon is surely much worse. How can a people so unjust, even more unjust than Judah, be an agent of God’s justice? Still, Habakkuk awaits an answer, retreating to his “watchtower.” God gives two answers – first of all, God will judge Babylon as well. The proud, even if somehow used by God, will themselves surely fall and reap their just desserts, too. “The arrogant do not endure” (2: 5).
However, more important, God also tells Habakkuk, “the righteous live by their faith” (2: 4). This is faith that life still has meaning. The Babylons, the imperial Romes, all the other empires with their “new world orders,” wreak their havoc. Somehow, in the midst of this, the long-suffering, loving God of the promise continues mercifully to care.
This is faith, this is trust that God’s mercy still rules even when life strips all else way. The truly righteous shall live by a faith which means living in trusting harmony with this mercy. This is opposed to trusting in various means of self-protection, in seeking to take an eye-for-an-eye, or in using the sword to make sure the so-called “truth” wins.
Habakkuk faced the onslaught of the Saddam Hussein of his day, Nebuchednezzar of Babylonia. His answer from God was keep your trust in my merciful promise. Continue to shape your life by that, not by short-cuts which trust in human weapons of war.
Trust is an attitude of hopefulness about life, a sense that the power of love is the greatest power, at least over the long haul. Paul strongly affirms this in Romans 8: 39. Nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul writes out of personal struggle. He had had his secure, pious certainties shattered on the Damascus Road. He had had his own securities stripped away. His entire religious structure, which he surely had erected to assure access to God, ended in a rubble. This was not unlike what had happened to Jerusalem shortly after Habakkuk wrote. Through this all, Paul came to see that God’s love did remain and in fact was much more directly accessible than he had before thought. Out of all this comes a sense of optimism about life. Not that pain and sorrow will cease. Not that everyone is actually nice and all you have to do is to appeal to that niceness for life to be okay. No, the optimism stems from a profound, deep-seated awareness that God’s love cannot be thwarted. If nothing, ultimately, can separate us from God’s love, we can be hopeful about life.
Trust is a conviction that we may experience God, ultimately, as a “Thou” and not merely as an “It.” This faith is at the heart of the power of Psalm 23. The crucial affirmation comes in verse four: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thou art with me.” You, God, share that walk.
What God is about, the God we may trust in, is relationship. Friendship, as I reflected above, describes our connection with God as well as our most nourishing connection with other human beings. Out of friendship comes an awareness of ourselves as people being loved and loving others – people fully alive.
From where does trust come? Ultimately, it is a gift. Pauline thought affirms this. “For by grace you have been saved through faith [or through trust], and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Eph. 2: 9).
Some may directly trace this gift back to a powerful experience of unconditional love from one’s parents. When one genuinely knows such love, one almost instinctively experiences life and God and other people as fundamentally trustworthy. Such people themselves are certainly themselves worthy of trust. Alice Miller writes about the damage done when parents withhold this love. And she sees its presence as a powerful gift. This gift will enable that child to grow into an adult characterized by openness and creativity; by trust toward life and an ability to know love. “A loved child,” Miller writes, “recieves the gift of love and with it that of knowledge and innocence. It is a gift that will provide that child with orientation for one’s whole life.”
For others, the achieving of trust is a more mysterious process. Since it comes from God, since we are all created to achieve it, all born to achieve it, trust must be attainable. The key, ultimately, is self-knowledge. Ernest Becker asserted that fear is the root of all mental illness. Out of fear, we deny, we repress, we spin out fantasies. Perhaps the basic fear is fear of ourselves. We’re afraid we can’t honestly face who we truly are – perhaps because we’ve had the belief beat into us that we are truly nothing.
However, when we know God as loving, we will find true self-knowledge. We will discover that, deep-down, even with our proclivity toward violence and selfishness, as creatures of God, we are good. We are loveable. We are creative. Overcoming this fear of looking inward to see who we genuinely are is the largest task most of us face.
So, my proposal is that trust, the foundation of spirituality, has to do with discovering who we really are. In doing so, we discover who God really is. We discover that we are loveable and we discover that God loves. These are the basic facts of life. In so discovering, we will find that life ultimately is trustworthy. Not that life is always good. Life is hard and at times extremely, excrutiatingly painful. However, with an attitude of trust in the availability of resources for helping us through – from our own souls, from others, from God – we may expect to find these resources. In so expecting, we will in fact find them.
I have seen this happen. I also know many other people who share similar experiences. My mother, one of the most powerful people I know, was brought to her knees following my dad’s death. She was disoriented, she couldn’t sleep, she struggled to go on. In the midst of this she visited us in Berkeley and found some tranquility. She finally was able to sleep. I have always said, sleep is the best medicine. She finally began to recover, to find resources. She expected to, eventually, and her patience paid off. In the years until her own death, she led a full, creative life.
Lately, I’ve read some accounts of people finding this through prison experiences. These people had everything stripped away and discovered the resources that remain. These are profound stories.
Irvin Moore received a life-sentence to prison without parole at the age of 19. He met some older “lifers” in prison who intrigued him because they appeared to be getting along okay even without hope of release. They gave him a book to read.
“The next day I gave them back the book. They asked, ‘Well, did you read it?’ ‘Yes, it was hard.’ ‘Well, tell us about it.’ I hadn’t read it. I said, ‘Let me read it again.’ I saw they were serious about this.
“The book was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It dealt with Frankl’s expereinces in a concentration camp, not unlike the situation I’m in now. Frankl too was in the midst of hell, yet all around him he found examples of human nobility. He saw human cruelty but also experienced human nobility – the human need to rise above one’s condition and experiences.
“So I read it. It took me a couple of days. It touched me. I went back to one of the men, and we talked about it. Then he gave me another book and another. We did this for months. I learned that the world was immensely larger than I had imagined.”
Moore found hope, he came to see life as trustworthy. “Some people equate a life sentence with a death sentence. The only way I can agree with that is if life itself is death. A life sentence is not a death sentence unless you make it so. We happen to be isolated for a time in a particular location but that doesn’t limit the mind.
“Since I’ve been incarcerated my mind has traveled the universe, and I’ve met a host of people I would never have met in inner-city, urban Philadelphia. More importantly, I have met and come to understand myself as a person, a member of the family of life.…
“There are days, moments when we succumb, when we don’t feel like talking. But those are fewer than the days when we are actively doing something, growing, learning and being. The greatest thing we can do is to learn about self – discover who and what we are. We go through life with perceptions about how society wants us to be or respond. Instead we need to learn who we are, what we want, how we feel, what we like. We should learn what our strengths, our weaknesses are. Learning about me has been and is an enjoyable trip even in the midst of this life sentence.”
Earlier, I mentioned the experience of Oscar Wilde almost a hundred years ago. He went to prison and lost everything. The final and harshest blow came when he was separated from his children. In despair, he later wrote, “I did not know what to do. So I flung myself on my knees and bowed my head, and wept.…That moment seemed to save me.…It was my soul in its ultimate essence that I had reached. In many ways I had been its enemy, but I found it waiting for me as a friend.”
This experience changed Wilde’s entire perspective on his life in prison. At first, during his deepest grief, he had simply felt that he was in hell and was inconsolable. However, when he found his soul as his friend, he began to notice signs of life around himself, even there. He discovered some fellow travellers, others who through their suffering also were discovering their souls as friends. He ends up concluding, “The prison style is absolutely and eternally wrong. I would give anything to be able to alter it when I go out. I intend to try. But there is nothing in the world so wrong but that the spirit of humanity, which is the spirit of love, the spirit of Christ who is not in churches, may make it, if not right, at least possible to be borne without too much bitterness of heart.”
Wilde discovered the tremendous power of self-awareness. He discovered the ability to find gain even in the most destructive of environments. The spirit of Christ does its healing work even there – maybe most especially there.
Out of such stories comes the basis for trust. Trust, as Paul affirms in Romans 8, recognizes that nothing can overcome the love of God.
How do we achieve trust? Trust, like all of God’s genuine gifts, is not something we can create by force of will. There are no surefire techniques. We may long to be spiritually alive, but the more we struggle to achieve it, the farther we will likely be from it.
Van Morrison sings, in his song “Enlightenment,” – “Chop that wood, carry water, what’s the sound of one hand clapping? Enlightenment, don’t know what it is. I’m in the here and now, and I’m meditating. And still I’m suffering.” He ultimately implies that the answer is to quit trying so hard.
One of the keys is listening. Listening especially to our own hearts. Listening to others. Listening to the wisdom from those who have gone before us. Listening to the rest of creation – the birds, the rivers, the trees. These all have to do with listening to God.
Only when we listen will we know that there is something to hear. We tend to speak, to struggle, to strive to control life so it will work the way we want it to (even striving to achieve spiritual enlightenment). In that state, we will not be able to hear much.
Some are more gifted listeners than others. This usually has a lot to do with these people being listened to themselves, especially as young children. When we are treated with respect, we then find it easier to respect others. We then find it easier to trust that we will remain safe even as we make ourselves vulnerable enough to listen.
The experiences of people such as Irvin Moore and Oscar Wilde show us, though, that all of us can learn to listen. In listening, all of us can learn to trust. In learning to trust, we very likely will find encouragement and hope. That is, we likely will discover a creative spirituality.
One of my favorite “spirituality” writers is Studs Terkel. This is because he is such a great listener. He evokes creativity from those he interviews. By listening so well, he calls forth their spirituality. He helps them give voice to that which keeps them going on. This isn’t always attractive, because some people keep on out of selfishness and bitterness.
In numerous books Terkel talks with diverse people, never failing to help them bring out their basic hopes and fears. He captures the dramas of human existence. One of his best books is American Dreams: Lost and Found. He examines the American spirit in a way which, while certainly critical of much about our country, also celebrates much that is creative.
In his epilogue, he concludes the book with interviews which shows us two people who have found the way to trusting in life. The first is an old Oregon logger, Bob Ziak, who has struggled to maintain the beauty of the forests. “The chance to live my life out without being a rich man is probably the greatest gift that any person could ever receive. I have no feeling that I’ve ever been beaten or I’m a poor man. I’m rich in many things. I feel I have a responsiblity while I’m on this earth to preserve some beauty and pass it on to the next generation. Because if I do not pass something on, these children and the children’s children will have a barren world. I believe that only by being in the presence of beauty and the great things of the world around us can humankind eventually get the damn hatred of wanting to kill each other our of our system. We begin to understand that we’re in this world such a short time it’s incredible we should spend these few years hating and killing each other.”
The book concludes with an interview with Clarence Spencer. This was taped in 1963 as the 70-year-old black man was on a train heading for Washington, DC for one of Martin Luther King’s marches. “The hour is late, ” Terkel writes. “Most of the passengers are asleep or trying to. [Spencer] is wide awake.”
“It’s something like a dream, children,” Spencer says. “I’m just proud to ride this train down there, whether I march or not. I’m so proud just to be in it. It means something I wanted ever since I’ve been big enough to think about things. That’s my freedom, making me feel that I’m a person, like all the rest of the people. I’ve had this feeling ever since I was about ten years old.”
He goes on to tell about his life, especially of the cost he has paid for being black. He then sums up his feelings. “Someway, some means, somehow, we’re gonna win it. We haven’t got anything to fight with but what’s right. This government have been run a long time with justice for some people, not all the people.…My daddy was a slave, my daddy was. We have worked. We have built the railroads. We have built good roads.…We have worked hundred two, hundred three years for a damned little bit of anything. You know a fella should be tired now, don’t you? He should be really tired and wore out with it. But I’m proud to be in this. I’m kind of overjoyed.”
For Clarence Spencer, for all people who find joy amidst their weariness and pain, trust is the key. This trust is a gift. Our job is to cultivate it, to find ways to be open, to listen. Our job is to discern that yes, we can count on the spirit of love, the spirit of creativity which infuses the world. This trust is the base for our spirituality.
Alice Miller, Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 51.
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973), 209.
 The Mennonite (January 12, 1993), 3-4.
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis and Other Writings (New York: Penguin, 1973), 169.
Wilde, De Profundis, 181.
 Van Morrison, “Enlightenment” from the album Enlightenment (Mercury, 1987).
Terkel, American Dreams, 512.
Terkel, American Dreams, 515.