WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless [God] guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for God provides for God’s beloved during sleep. – Psalm 127: 1-2
This Psalm says much about what I have been learning. So, too, does this paraphrase by Wendell Berry. “Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.”
A fundamental aspect of spirituality is this notion of rest, of relinquishment of control, of trust. Life holds together even when we sleep.
In my understanding, spirituality has to do with relaxing about who God is and who we are. It is not that we do not have problems. It is not that we do not have to change, even in major ways. I feel a little hypocritical quoting the Psalm’s admonition that it is vain to rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxiety. Too much of this book was written late at night. I hope that tendency can change.
However, even in our mixture of frailty, selfishness, and anger we can relax. We can relax about who we are, who we genuinely are. In fact, a great deal of our frailty, selfishness and anger comes from not relaxing. When we understand who we truly are and who God truly is, this will move us down the path of acceptance, trust and hope. These all revolve around an awareness of God’s mercy.
My approach in this book has been to reflect on who we are and who God is. I see these two themes, understanding ourselves and understanding God, as closely intertwined. When we truly see ourselves for who we are, we will perceive the merciful presence of God, the creator and sustainer of life. We learn to know God as we connect with reality. This provides the increasing openness and honesty that comes with increasing self-awareness and self-acceptance. These do not stand in tension with trust in and worship of God. In fact, neither side happens very deeply without the other.
It is hard to relax about who we are and who God is. I have referred to the problems of the hatred of humanness and the erecting of a hierarchical God.
We can’t trust ourselves so we try to eradicate ourselves. I had an intense experience of this in my late teens when I walked the sawdust trail at summer camp. I sought to “give it all to the Lord.” I sought totally to die to myself and give up my will. I tried to allow myself to be an unhindering vessel for God’s Spirit to live in me and act through me. I was pretty successful at first when I did this. However, in time my success evaporated. I realized later that I was being coerced to ignore my own soul and to live according to someone else’s ideal. Ultimately, such self-alienation can only lead to violence – against ourselves and maybe, in time, against others.
We can’t trust ourselves, so we try to construct an all-mighty, authoritarian, vengeful God. This God provides the pattern for all sorts of human tyrants and all sorts of human violence.
In face of this, I propose we turn to a different kind of God. The kind of God worth trusting in grows in power as we are empowered to be ourselves. We turn to a God who gives us, right now, resources to grow. These are resources to find encouragement, even amidst our struggle. In doing so, we approach Louis Dupré’s description. “The spiritual person comes to view the world in a different perspective. Underneath ordinary reality he or she recognizes another dimension. At the very core of each creature, the [spiritual person] finds an otherness that compels [that person] to allow [the other creature] to be itself and to abstain from the conquering, objectifying attitude we commonly adopt. [Such a stance] allows reality to reveal itself.”
We must – and we can – find sources of encouragement for our souls in our lives as they are. I have reflected on six such sources in my life. (1) The Bible provides stories of genuine life. (2) Worship provides perspective and even inspiration to see life as good, loving, and hopeful. (3) Listening to others, ourselves, and God is a form of prayer. (4) Nature, for me my river, provides a sense of beauty and aliveness. (5) Music cultivates my emotions, helping me to feel. (6) Friendship encourages me to be myself, to laugh, to experience compassion, and to move onward toward living out my deepest beliefs.
We need to cultivate these encouragements, recognizing how difficult it often is to do so. Our culture is not always freindly to spiritual encouragement. Partly, we try too hard. Partly, we don’t take responsibility for ourselves, hoping for someone else to make our lives happy for us.
Guy Clark sings of seeking help because of his discouragement with life. “Doctor, good doctor, I’m grabbin’ at loose ends. I haven’t felt like I used to since I don’t remember when. Yesterday got past me. Today is all the same. And tomorrow really scares me. I just can’t play the game.” And the doctor tells him what he needs to hear. “He said, ‘Quit whinin’. Sttraighten up and fly right. Life is not a piece of cake.’”  Guy concludes that his was money well spent. The message maybe is that we can’t look for someone else to fix up our lives for us. We have to take responsibility for our own souls.
Of course, we discover some paradoxes here. As we learn to be with, to respect, to listen to ourselves we will find that we much better relate to others. We respect others more. We hear others better. As we take the journey coming to terms with our own souls we will find ourselves coming to terms with God. Also, as we let go of trying so hard to control our lives we will find our lives coming better under control. Like so many skills, a light touch works much better than an intense grasp.
In time, we will understand better. We will cultivate the ways we find encouragement. We will take responsibility for our own souls in ways what that open us to God and to other. When these happen, what will our attitude toward life be?
Two themes that characterize a healthy spirituality are an openness to grief and trust. These are important approaches to reality, important attitudes to have.
Grief helps us to be aware of life as it actually is. Grief helps us to realize, to feel, hopefully to accept, that life includes pain. Life includes loss. In his book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff, writes out of his own grief. He learns that “we all suffer. For we all prize and love. In this present existence of ours, prizing and loving yield suffering. Love in our world is suffering love.”
Wolterstorff believes that growth can emerge from suffering. Sympathy for the world’s wounds can be enlarged by our anguish. Love for those around us can be expanded. Gratitude for what is good can flame up. Insight can be deepened. Commitment to what is important can be strengthened.
Sympathy, love, gratitude, insight, commitment – these can emerge from pain and grief. They remain stifled when we avoid pain, hide from grief, or seek to maintain total control, following the path of denial. Part of what grief is about is relinquishing a quest for control and opening ourselves to our feelings of pain and helplessness. Faith confesses that in this very relinquishment comes an answer from God. This answer may be found in the growth of sympathy, love, gratitude, insight, and commitment.
God’s answer provides a basis for trust, for resting on the reality of God’s love. In the midst of our grief, if we listen, we will discern a God who grieves also. This God feels with us letting us know of life’s goodness, even with its pain and calling forth trust.
It is with trust that we conclude our reflections. An attitude of trust – toward God, toward life – is the foundation for healthy spirituality. 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 most powerful. Trust is a conviction that God, ultimately, can be experienced as a “Thou” and not merely as an “It.” Life can include relationships, with people and with God.
Trust is difficult because we are so afraid. In our fearfulness we cling to our self-protectiveness inflexibly. We see others as Its, not Thous. We reduce life to a power struggle. We forget that love exists. Perhaps the fundamental fear is fear of ourselves. We are afraid we can’t honestly face who we truly are. Perhaps we have this fear because we have had the belief beat into us that we are truly nothing.
However, when we know God as loving, we will find true self-knowledge. If God is loving, if God loves us – then we are not nothing. We are creatures loved by the creator. Being created in the creator’s image, we are capable of ourselves also being loving. We not remain only fearful and self-protective.
Trust, the foundation of spirituality, has to do with discovering who we genuinely are. In doing so, we discover who God genuinely 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 if hard and at times extremely, excrutiatingly painful. However, with an attitude of trust helps us realize that there are resources for helping us through. These are resources from our own souls, from other people, and from God. Such trust helps us to expect to find these resources. In so expecting, we will, in fact, find them. We need only to be patient.
We return to our Psalm. “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, reating the bread of anxious toil; for God provides for God’s beloved during sleep” (127:2). And Wendell Berry’s paraphrase: “Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.”
Questions for Reflection and Discussion. In reading this book, what have you learned about spirituality? About your own approach to life? About where you find encouragement?
What have I left out? What have I said that I shouldn’t?
What do you think of the priority I place on self-understanding? On connecting this intrinsically with understanding God?
Do you think life ultimately is friendly? Is believing that a helpful perspective or one that is hurtful to spirituality?
Can you see how grief can contribute to spirituality in a major way? Is it as central to an honest life as I make it out to be?
How do we find trust when there is so much to be afraid of around us? Is it actually feasible for us to rest at night?
Berry, What Are People For? 13.
Quoted in Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), 120.
 Guy Clark, “Doctor Good Doctor” on the album, Old Friends (Sugar Hill Records, 1988).
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Eerdmans, 1987), 91.
Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, p. 92.