It was when I was happiest that I longed most.
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing
to find the place where all the beauty came from.
One night I kept dreaming about a big ship out on the deep blue waters of the ocean. I’ve learned that when a dream repeats several times it is worthy of attention, so I prayed, asking about the significance of the image of the ship. Then I remembered that before I fell asleep I asked the Lord what “in the world, but not of the world” meant.
This was a loaded expression for me. In the culture I grew up in “worldliness” was the biggest enemy. “In the world, but not of the world” meant I had to go to public school, but I couldn’t look good doing so. Dressing fashionably, wearing make-up or having an up-to-date hairstyle was considered worldly -as was just about every other fun thing my friends did. The list of worldly activities seemed to grow with every request to do anything. I couldn’t play the same games, go to the same places, watch the same TV shows, or listen to the same music -at least not with permission. My grandmother gave me a transistor radio to listen to her favourite evangelists, but I may have tuned to a pop rock station after I figured out how the ear bud worked. I realize her intent was to protect me, but I often felt isolated and well, just weird. It didn’t help that my school mates re-inforced the weird label.
One of the sad results of having fences around fences was that I became very good at spotting worldliness breaches in others. If I couldn’t get away with it, why should they? I learned to be pretty judgmental.
Another consequence was not learning self-control or moderation when I was young. Since the rules often made no sense to me I depended on others to determine what was right or wrong. Choices were based on fear of punishment more than on caring and loving myself or others. I had a fear-based relationship with a God who specialized in saying no with a “shame-on-you” scowl behind that great white beard in the sky since he was mostly evoked to make me more compliant.
The end result of striving to obey all the rules, ironically enough, was that I never realized I had the right to say no. No to religious authority figures who abused power, no to bullies in the workplace, no to those who wished to make me their personal servant, no to people with ulterior motives — not even no to salespeople I felt sorry for. I bore a lot of scars for a long time. The hardest part of breaking free was constantly living with a sense that God, when and if he showed up, was on somebody else’s side -because they had already gone and tattled about me.
It’s been a long journey to learn that God is love and relentlessly kind and is not very much like the god I grew up with. So when I asked, “What does in the world, but not of the world mean?” the question carried a lot of baggage.
“Like a ship,” I heard.
I thought about it. A ship sails on the water; it depends on the water, but it remains separate in substance. Even a submarine avoids becoming one with the sea. When a reed raft, like the one used on the Kontiki expedition absorbs too much sea water, it sinks. When an iron ship has a hole under the waterline like the Titanic, it takes on water and is dragged down to the bottom. But a ship in dry dock, safely away from dangers of sinking, is a boat going nowhere. It serves no one and has no influence no matter how modest its paint job or how clean its decks.
Then, much to my surprise, I found the expression held over my head for so many years, was not actually in the Bible. The closest passage I could find is Jesus’ prayer in John 17:
13 “Now I am coming to you. I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy. 14 I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to this world any more than I do. 17 Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. 18 Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. 19 And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth. (John 17:13-19)
He asked for protection from the evil one for his followers and that they would be set apart by the word, which is truth. I may come to the same decision about choices I make now, but a lot of times I don’t – especially if pressured to make decisions based on negativity (God’ll get you for that) or fear (What if there is not enough?) or impatience with God (I guess I’ll just have to fix this myself) or a need to control others to remove the temptation to worry (You really should…). Boxing God into the limits of human reasoning no matter how impressive the brain (and I have met some incredibly intelligent people) feels like absorbing soggy ideas laden with questionable presuppositions sometimes, and when I neglect to dump the bilge water of too many scornful talk shows or scary shark movies my thinking is affected. I start going down.
The Greek word used for Spirit in the New Testament is pneuma, meaning air. I can live on the ocean and appreciate its beauty and its dangers, but I am not called to be one with the ocean. I need air. I need to be in a boat that floats so I can enjoy the ride. The Holy Spirit is the one who fills our sails and leads us into the truth that brings about real change. Repentance doesn’t mean doing penance. It means cooperating with Holy Spirit to change my way of thinking and choosing to go in a better direction in a boat that can be as colourful as I like.
God’s language is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, and when decisions are based on these things, there is no need for rules.
How good it is when from the distant land,
From lonely wanderings, and from weary ways,
The soul hath reached at last the golden strand,
The Gates of Praise!
There, where the tide of endless love flows free,
There, in the sweet and glad eternity,
The still unfading Now.
Ere yet the days and nights of earth are o’er,
Begun the day that is forevermore–
Such rest art Thou!
-from “Hidden in God’s Heart” by Gerhard Tersteegen, 1697 -1769
Though the Lord gave you adversity for food
and suffering for drink,
he will still be with you to teach you.
You will see your teacher with your own eyes.
Your own ears will hear him.
Right behind you a voice will say,
“This is the way you should go,”
whether to the right or to the left.
(Isaiah 30:21.22 NLT)
“3-2” doesn’t mean much when it’s just an answer floating around in the air, unattached to a question.
But in this part of the world, where annual general meetings, and weddings (or even funerals) are not given a spot on the calendar until the hockey schedule is checked, “3-2” is a great response to a question. The question? What was the final score for the Canada/USA women’s hockey game? I tell you there was so much hootin’ and hollerin’ going on around here this week that if my Grandma was still alive she would have been fixin’ to go to the revival because it sounded like a whole bunch of folks just got saved. (And apparently a last-minute “salvation” of sorts did show up at that game.)
I expect more than a few Canadian hockey fans will pull themselves out from under down-filled comforters at 4:45 A.M. to watch the men’s finals in the morning. Personally I don’t get it. I’d much rather sleep, but hockey is a big deal here. It’s like football in Europe and the rivalry with the much more populated country to the south is a little silly, but it’s part of our overlooked little brother (or little sister) identity, so there you go.
It’s questions that give answers value. Many believers sit in pews being fed a mountain of answers that have as much bearing on our lives as a detached “3-2”. Sometimes God allows adversity and frustrating circumstances to show up because he has the answer ready for us. He’s just waiting for us to recognize its value. He’s waiting for the question.
I read my journal from last December that I found whilst re-organizing my home office this week. It was full of answers without questions. Some of them were verses of scripture that stood out as if written in neon lights. Some of them were “pay attention” concepts repeated in books or blogs or podcasts or in song lyrics over several days. Some of them were ideas that came “out of the blue” as I prayed or walked in the woods thinking about something entirely different. I knew they were important, but I didn’t know why, so I wrote them down in my journal -and filed it someplace safe amongst my shelves of books -where I wouldn’t notice it for a year. But when I did go back and read it, I was amazed at how accurate those entries were.
One of the answers was very specific. I dreamed a Jesus-loving friend who lives in difficult circumstances in a third world country, came to me with a message that I would have many storms ahead in the next year, but that Jesus would be in the storm with me and would see me through. He was giving me the tools in advance.
I just didn’t appreciate them at the time. It was (metaphorically speaking) like getting a bus ticket to Bien Fait (pronounced Bean Fate by Les Anglais) when I had no intention of going to Saskatchewan. Later when I found myself somewhere around Moose Jaw (still being metaphorical here) in a horrendous storm, I prayed (begging and crying and pleading) for a train ride or covered wagon ride -or anything that could get me through the onslaught. Then a kind of spiritual bus stopped and I finally found the soggy ticket in my pocket. He did get me through.
I wrote to someone the other day, asking for advice on how to handle a problem. He answered by asking (nicely) if I ever actually read the stuff I write, because the answer was already there in my email, and repeated in a blog. I looked again, and realized he was right. It was right there.
God doesn’t always give us the answers ahead of time because he knows some of us have a tendency to belittle them, thinking them either illogical or too challenging. Like a good teacher he waits until we try all the solutions that don’t work first, the ones that cause us to become frustrated and hopeless enough to ask a better question than “Why me?” He waits for a question that connects with the answer and makes us realize His solution takes into account unanticipated last-minute changes. His ways are brilliant and worth hootin’ and hollerin’ over when we participate in the victory. He’s just that good.
So the Lord must wait for you to come to him
so he can show you his love and compassion.
For the Lord is a faithful God.
Blessed are those who wait for his help.
O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem,
you will weep no more.
He will be gracious if you ask for help.
He will surely respond to the sound of your cries.
(Isaiah 30:18, 19)
He rescues and saves and sets us up to score.