Sunday, May 27, 2012

*sigh*

When I was a young woman, I used to be very careful with my necklaces. I only had a few, and I would hang them neatly in a row. But then, as I accumulated more necklaces, it wasn’t so easy to keep them all straight. As the years went by, this got progressively worse. If you should lift the lid to my jewelry box today, you would see that the necklace situation has gotten completely out of control. You would find a giant glob of gold and silver threads that not even an accomplished micro-surgeon could sort through -- fine chains wrapped around each other, woven together so tightly that you can’t tell where one begins and the next one ends.

For most of my life, this would have made me crazy. I would have seen it as a problem, and gone to work at remedying that problem a.s.a.p. I can remember working relentlessly, for hours, just to untangle one necklace. But now, I’m perfectly content leaving that big tangled-up mess sitting there in my jewelry box. I know that may sound like I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s hopeless, but that’s not it. The fact is, I find that big tangled-up mess a source of great hope. I can even look at it and smile.

There were a lot of things that troubled me spiritually when I was a kid. I worried about whether there really was a God. And, if there really was a heaven. Then, before I could find the answers to those questions, I got older, and more questions came along. Why does God allow evil? Is God responsible for everything that happens? Is there really a point to all this? Question after question accumulated in my brain. I was seldom satisfied with the answers I found. Even when I thought I had resolved one of them, it seemed like, before I knew it, my answer wasn’t so satisfying after all, and I was right back where I started.

When I was younger, I always thought that the whole point of the spiritual journey was to learn and grow so that I would come to understand such things. If I read my Bible, and studied, and prayed, and listened to what God was saying to me, then gradually, I would start to get a clue, and eventually, I would find clarity. I believed that if I worked hard enough at it, as I got older, I would finally come to understand those spiritual secrets that seemed to elude me when I was younger. And that’s when I would become the wise old woman I aspired to be.

I thought of the Holy Spirit as God’s teacher in my life. When I was too thick-headed to comprehend what God was trying to teach me, the Holy Spirit would soften my brain up so I could receive the truth God wanted to impart. You know, like the parable where the seed was planted in the fertile soil. The Holy Spirit cultivates the good soil so it’s receptive to the word. There’s also a part of Luther’s explanation to the Creed that talks about how the Spirit works. “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead it’s the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers and enlightens…” I always saw the Holy Spirit as my own personal tutor who works on me so I can understand God better. This, I assumed, was the pathway to wisdom.

Well, I do feel that I’ve grown wiser as I’ve grown in years. But wisdom doesn’t look anything like I thought it would. It has little to do with gaining knowledge, or being able to finally answer those questions that used to keep me awake nights. It’s more like that tangled mess of silver and gold threads in my jewelry box. I’m comfortable with the mess. I no longer feel a need to sort through it all. In fact, the mess is actually a sign to me of the incomprehensible mystery of God’s love.

Being able to systematically take threads of doctrine and hang them all neatly in a row is no longer my task. Picking apart a Biblical text and squeezing every possible meaning from it doesn’t excite me like it did thirty years ago. Critically going after people who don’t see things my way and proving my point isn’t something I feel a need to do any longer. I’m comfortable with the mess. I no longer need to be vigilant about warding off ambiguity, paradox, and mystery like unwelcome guests who come pounding on my door in the middle of the night. I dare not open the door to those guests even so much as a crack or they’ll invade my house and never leave. Well, that’s not the way I live these days. I don’t lock the door to my spiritual house anymore. A lot of the time, I leave it hanging wide open. Ambiguity, paradox, and mystery are welcome guests. In fact, I’m hoping we can settle down and have a home together. I not only tolerate them in my life, I treasure them.

You know the familiar saying, “The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.” Well, it’s sort of like that. But it’s more than that. Because it’s also coming to the place where that I don’t need to know. Richard Rohr says that in any genuine spiritual experience we are utterly humbled before mystery. We are “in awe at the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind.”

Romans 8 talks about the Holy Spirit working in our lives in a way that I have really grown to appreciate. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (26-27). I used to find comfort in the fact that when we’re praying and don’t know the right words, the Spirit will provide the words for us. Now, when I read these verses, I think more about how the experience of God transcends words.

Communication is a way of transferring what is in your brain to someone else’s brain, so maybe they can get a glimpse of what you’re thinking. It comes from our need to be in relationship with other people. But communication is also a way of deluding ourselves into believing that, because we can describe something with our words, we understand it. Using language implies mastery of concepts. So, when we describe the Holy with words, we are always diminishing God. We are making God into someone so small that we can explain him. A better way of capturing the mystery that is God is a “sigh too deep for words. “

That’s what the Romans passage says the Spirit offers on our behalf. Sighs too deep for words. Doing more than just teaching us what we don’t understand. But holding us in the midst of all that we can’t possibly ever understand. Carrying us into the incomprehensible mystery of Love incarnate. There are no words to describe it. We can’t possibly sort through it and make sense of it. But the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.

Have you ever had an experience that left you sighing? It may have been a sigh of longing, or deep appreciation, or sorrow. There were no words that could possibly have captured the moment. You could only sigh. This passage from Romans suggests that God sighs for us like that.

I think that may be the gift of the Spirit that I am most ready to receive this Pentecost. I’ve known the relentless call of the Spirit, pushing me out of a place of comfort to venture down paths unknown. I’ve known the subtle prodding of the Spirit, drawing me to those who walk alongside me on my journey of faith. I’ve known the overwhelming power of the Spirit, rushing into my life like a mighty wind and empowering me to do things I never imagined. I’ve known the gentle guidance of the Spirit, leading me when I felt lost in the wilderness. I’ve known the sweet comfort of the Spirit, filling the emptiness after I suffered a deep loss in my life. I’ve known the unmistakable enlightenment of the Spirit, revealing clarity and direction when I sought it. I know the Spirit acts in all those ways because I’ve experienced it personally.

The way I experience the Spirit these days, may not seem to be as dramatic as it has been at other times in my life. But it feels as if we’re finally settling down together. It’s like looking inside a jewelry box of tangled necklaces, and smiling. It’s trusting patiently in what I cannot begin to comprehend. It’s an increasing awareness of the loving presence of the One who sighs for us.



1 comment:

Sylvia said...

Thank you! I have spent so much of my life wondering why I just never was CERTAIN like most of my family and friends. I have just come to appreciate that this is the way God made me and I should be okay with it.
Sometimes hard to do.
Glad to know that I am not alone with my questions and that someone I consider very faithful is somewhat like me!