Meeting God Underneath the Mountain

In my early adulthood, I worked for a ministry that stressed the importance of having “mountain top experiences” with God. They reminded us God lead Moses to the top of Mt. Sinai, where he experienced thunder, quakes, and then God himself.  They pointed to Jesus going up on the mountain to pray and how he communed with God.

We listened and we did our best to create these experiences in our own lives. And sometimes we did have those coveted, elusive moments with God. And just as often we wore ourselves out.

Mountain top experiences with God are all well and good until you find yourself pinned under the weight of a mountain. In those cases, heroically scaling our way to the top is out of the question. In fact, it’s a cruel dream that’s impossibly out of reach.

Last October, when I was absorbing the reality that my divorce was imminent, I remembered some words of Kierkegaard. He said something to the effect that while God promises to give us the faith to move mountains, in the case of grief, we are called to shoulder the mountain and move it ourselves. Somehow, the act of bearing the grief and walking with it would slowly crumble the mountain until became a hill until it became a boulder… and then finally a nuisance stone in our shoe.

Ok, he didn’t say that last part about the footwear. That’s a Shallenberger paraphrase.

I’ve been looking for that Kierkegaard anthology, because I think I might have altered his idea in an unhelpful way. Yes, I needed to hoist that grief on my back and walk. But I wasn’t alone. Not ever. In my sadness, I looked to the top of the mountain, certain that Jesus was up there waiting for me to find the strength to join him. But he’s not that cruel.

One of the many gifts God has given me this year is the realization that there are “mountain bottom” experiences as well. Jesus has met me below my mountain, more times that I know, and shouldered it with me. Shoot, if I’m honest, he’s like my lifting buddy, who ends up spotting more of the weight on my last few reps on the bench than I can.

The geography of my connection with God has changed. I’ve come to know that God meets us in the subterranean, gloomy parts of our lives just as easily as he meets us when life is all sunbeams and blue skies. He shoulders our mountains, which is no big feat for the one who carried his own cross.

And somehow, together, we will watch the mountain slide into the sea. What’s left of it anyhow. The greater part lies behind us on the ground, like cookie crumbs trailing behind a child.


Book Review: Teach Us to Want

Christianity has suffered a long history of distrusting passion and desire. This is ironic, since Jesus declared the greatest commandment was loving the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Our Protestant Work Ethic confirmed the value of loving God with our strength. The Enlightmentment celebrated worshipping God with our intellect. However, Jesus’ followers have been reticent to value the breath of our emotional desires way of understanding God’s will. Our desires, meanwhile, are seated in our limbic brain, the region of our mind that has no capacity for language. Desire, then, is primal and mysterious. Moreover, the Prophet Jeremiah declared that “the heart is deceitful of all things, who can really know it?”  However, Jen Pollock Michel invites us to believe that God is capable of not only saving us from our sins, but he is also capable of saving our desires as well.

Her book, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, & the Life of Faith, is a beautifully written practical theology of the place of human desire. She offers us the opportunity to rescue our faith from the false belief that the Christian life that Jesus prescribed is bitter medicine that we must choke down because it is good for us. Taking a cue from Aquinas, she insists that virtue is not about being drawn to the Difficult, but to the Good. Pursuing holiness isn’t about white-knuckling our way through some ethical obstacle course. It’s allowing the Author of all virtue to transform our hearts so we begin to want what God wants out of second nature.

However, Jen is a realist. She rejects the notion that our desires cannot be trusted. But she also understands that our desires have been damaged by the Fall. We don’t always want what God want’s for us. We suffer from selfishness and a limited perspective. It does us no good to reject our wants as unspiritual, but it’s equally dangerous deify our emotions. Fudging the books in order to enlist God as wanting what we want is a form of idolatry.

She finds the solution in the Lord’s Prayer which, she suggests, is the intersection of God’s desires and ours. Jesus teaches us to pray for God’s will to be done and for his kingdom to be formed on earth. But in the same breath, we are to present God with our wants: Give us this day our daily bread and deliver us from evil. The Lord’s prayer teaches us to live in the tension between God’s want and our own. Over time, as we make Jesus’s pray our own, we find our desires slowly being aligned with God’s.

Teach Us to Want is an immaculately researched book. Jen offers us an accessible survey of theological and philosophical reflections on the topic of human desire. But this is not a dry academic book. She risks telling her own stories of imperfect desires. She discloses marital temptation and a reluctance  to fully embrace motherhood, a role that she worried might cripple her ability to write. It’s only this last point that Michel got it wrong. Teach Us to Want is a beautifully written book, filled with intelligence and intimacy. I’m certain that it won’t be her last.

Four Things To Do Instead of Waiting for that Fax from God

One of the most frustrating experiences for anyone trying to follow God is getting a handle on what God wants them to do with his or her life. There’s this expectation that God somehow speaks to his followers in a clear and unmistakable way and hands them a gift-wrapped set of marching orders. Perhaps we’ve fallen into this perspective because of all the Biblical narratives where this actually happened. God appeared to Abram, Jacob, Noah, Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Mary, Joseph and dozens of others.

True stories, all.

But what we forget is that the few dozens of people that God appeared in burning bushes or visions represent an overwhelming minority of God’s people. Angel sightings were traumatic events in scripture exactly because they were so rare.

The Book of Esther, then, might offer tips for the 99.9999% of us who’ll never be graced with an epiphany. The book never makes a direct mention of God in ten chapters. Esther and Mordecai take heroic action to save the exiled Jews without a single prompt from God. Gabriel never shows up to tell Esther to “be strong and courageous.” Mordecai doesn’t receive any tactical guidance from above. And, somehow, they manage to do God’s work.

Here’s somethings Mordecai did worth imitating while you wait for God to fax you: Continue Reading…

How To Celebrate Easter for Six Weeks


My religious tribe doesn’t major on the liturgical calendar. We don’t know when the Feast of Epiphany is and celebrating Lent is a once-in-a-decade event. Occasionally, I get jealous of my mainline friends and wonder what I’m missing. For example, last night I discovered there’s a six week  Easter Season that started on Sunday. Six weeks! My tribe enjoys an hour long service, a ham dinner, and an Easter basket hunt.

I’m not sure how I’d go about celebrating six weeks of Easter, but N.T. Wright adamant that it should be exuberant. Champagne  breakfasts for a week! Joy is the only needed apologetic that Jesus has indeed risen. Here’s an excerpt from Surprised by Hope:

“In particular, if Lent is a time to give things up, Easter ought to be a time to take things up. Champagne for breakfast again— Continue Reading…

Resurrection as the Scene of Failure

A few years ago I was reading Mark’s Gospel and was struck by this note in the text:


My commentaries were more definitive: The earliest and best manuscripts do not include 16:9-20. The writing style of those verses is decidedly different from Mark’s and scholars believe the coda was added in the 2nd Century. The details in these verses are all found in the other three Gospels. Trustworthy information… that draws the eye away from Mark’s intended story arc.

Here’s how Mark ended his Gospel:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.  Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Mark’s Gospel ends with the women coming to the tomb to properly care for the corpse even though Jesus told his disciples more than ten times that he would rise from the dead. At least the women showed up. The disciples were still in hiding, not one had the courage needed to even check to see if Jesus kept his word. Peter was supposed to meet up with Jesus in Galilee (Mark 14:28)but was wrecked by the guilt of betraying Jesus. Jesus conquered sin and death, but his followers’ resume didn’t speak well to his ability to transform lives. The women were commanded to tell the disciples that Jesus was alive, but they were too rattled by angels they told no one.

This is were the curtain is supposed to fall in our reading of Mark.

Why would Mark end his Gospel on such a low note? Continue Reading…

The Other Way to Speak for God


A few weeks ago, we all took in the passing of Fred Phelps and none of us quite knew the proper way to respond. Phelps was a hate-filled whisp with a keen knack for projecting a large shadow. We all wrestled with his passing because we felt guilt over the relief and– Lord forgive us–maybe joy he wouldn’t be around to inflict his brand of hate any longer. Theologies degrees weren’t needed to know that Phelps’s “God Hates __________”websites and pickets didn’t originate at one of Heaven’s zip codes.

Its fairly simple to sniff out those who don’t speak for God. Prophets are like prison wardens. Aspiring to hold the job disqualifies you from it. Self-importance is a strong musk. When we pick up its scent on someone its second nature to work our way to the door. And we move twice as fast when that person happens to be holding a Bible.

This past week I attended a conference for writers. Between sessions I walked the exhibit hall and came across a table filled with stacks of books warning about some impending doom or other. I picked up a booked and studied the harsh cover art. The copy of the back cover explained how the author solved the riddle of prophesy just in time to warn America of its impending judgment. A bee-hived woman with Buddy Holly glass sitting at the opposite side of the table asked if I was curious and if I had any questions. Yes and yes, I thought. I wondered how much money the author and invested in his paranoia and hatred to get these books self-published.

Instead, I politely lied , said I was good, and scanned the room for the nearest exit.

God didn’t speak to my heart in the exhibit hall, but I heard echos of his voice at several points during the week.

God whispered to me during Shannon Polson‘s workshop “Memoir as Lament.” Shannon shared tips on structuring a spiritual memoir, but she also invited us into her experience of losing her father and step-mother in a horrific bear attack. She admitted the process of writing the memoir was terrifying as she was forced to reexamine her faith, a faith she wasn’t sure could hold up under the scrutiny of her grief and doubt. God spoke to me in Leslie Leyland Fields‘s workshop, “Writing Toward Reconciliation” as she cautioned us that our own attempts at forgiveness would be imperfect and wobbly, but even so they still reflected God’s nature. Anne Lammott gave a nod to her condition as a sober alcoholic, acknowledged the circus of voices in her head, and then admonished the audience to take up radical self-care while expecting us to do the work of life and writing anyhow.

I heard God’s voice in all three of these sessions, but neither Shannon, Leslie, or Anne postured themselves as God’s spokesperson. None of the presumed to be a prophet or a Bible expert. Not one of them reeked of self-importance. But each person had suffered well. Each person had gone through some type of Hell and managed to pull the pieces of their lives back into something beautiful. Each imitated God’s capacity to redeem beauty from ashes. They quietly did this work– at times with clenched teeth and tears blinding their eyes– bearing witness that God cares and is in the business of restoring his hurting children.

God told Jeremiah, “If you extract the precious from the worthless, you will become my spokesperson” (Jeremiah 15:19).

I’m beginning to suspect the people who God speaks through don’t even know it. I’m wondering if God chooses to speak to people who are preoccupied with the burden of extracting a precious narrative out of the meaninglessness of a personal tragedy and pain that had left them broken and robbed of meaning. I suspect the people God speaks through are too busy calling out order from Chaos, that they don’t realize they give silent witness to a God who makes all things new.

Maybe “speaking for God” looks like this: We bring out brokenness to God and invite him to use it as the stuff of creation. We agree to co-create with him, like a young child “helps” his father on work under the hood of the car. And somewhere along the line, our lives begin to resembling a genesis that only a loving Creator could  have brought into being.

Adversity’s Backhanded Way of Transporting Us to Paradise

“Challenges are given us to transform, to make of the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.”– Borges, from “Blindness.”*

Anytime a person picks up that knot we call “The Problem of Evil” and tries t0 untangle it, even by a turn or two, she quickly remembers the “Big Problem”:God is complicit in our pain. We all share the universe with an ever- loving, God Almighty, one with more smarts than all the wonks at Google. This God could have prevented the evil our hero faces, but didn’t. He certainly didn’t prevent the pain I’ve experienced this past year. I’m betting you’ve got your own grievances with your maker as well.

Now, if you’re a theology or philosophy student, tugging at this ball of contradictions is a fine way to pass a Friday night in the dorms. However, for those who have suffered deeply and lost jobs, children, parents, marriages, or innocence, this unholy knot is a source of horror. We’re the ones who’ve blooded our knuckles, pulling on the ropes until we felt the stakes: What if God isn’t as good or as loving or as strong as our Sunday School Teachers told us?

Not only did God not prevent our suffering, he didn’t prove his worthiness, once and for all, by pulling the sword off his hip and cutting the knot in two. God didn’t have the decency to dedicate one Bible verse to justify why he allows his children to marinate in all this brokenness.

God doesn’t defend himself as he tells his story. Continue Reading…

God Meets Us Where Our Fears Are

By Marsyas, from unknown original source. (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was once of the mind that grief fixates on the past. That she always looks over its shoulder at lost yesterdays.

This past year taught me better.

I’m no longer grieving my past, what was or might have been. If a genie knocked on my door and invited me into the yesterday of my choice, I’d shoo him back to the mason jar from whence he came. I didn’t choose or welcome this path I’m on, but I see God’s hand in it. The negatives of God’s mercies feel like a wicked backhand some days, but I’m better for the sting.

Instead, I find myself grieving tomorrow and all its uncertainty. There’s no point to this, I know. God allotted me a twenty-four hour sized plot of anxiety to subdue and cultivate. Meanwhile, I keep looking over the future-fence to untamed tomorrows. Maybe future-oriented grief is anxiety in disguise. Perhaps it’s feeling defeat prematurely, when I haven’t even stepped into the ring yet.

Tomorrow is none of my business, I tell myself. But bumper sticker-sized wisdom never did much for me. It’s this truth but not particularly helpful, at least not for me. Continue Reading…

They Teach You a Secret Handshake as You Leave Hell

Whenever someone is fortunate enough to be pardoned from Hell, the demon working the front lobby teaches that rare individual a secret handshake. Least that’s what the stranger in the diner said.

The stranger sat at my table uninvited and spilt coffee over my half-read newspaper and launched into his story before I could cuss him out.

He claimed to have been in a heavy equipment accident just yesterday. Brain injury would explain volumes.  But the dozer bucket just didn’t ring his bell, he claimed, it killed him dead.

My money’s on a sharp but non-lethal rap to the head.  But I had time to kill until the missus returned from shopping, so I let him ramble.

Shortly after dying, he was ushered into Hell and was processed for an Eternity of suffering. A short hour later, an embarrassed minion politely explained that there had been a clerical error and that Hell wasn’t authorized admit him just yet. The demon explained to the shaken patron that he could collect his personal affects at the lobby on his way out.

By the time the man reached the lobby he collected himself and was more relieved than scared and struck up a friendly conversation with the demon wearing the shabby suit behind the desk.

“Whada day. My own personal hell”, the man said as he scratched his name next to several “X’s.”

“You think a hell, on any scale, is ever really personal?” the Demon asked.

“Come again?”

“Nothing. Just thinking out loud. Continue Reading…

The Woman Who Sparred with Jesus and Won

A free lance writing project re-introduced to me into an incredible woman in the Bible who, I’m embarrassed to admit, I overlooked up until now. Matthew captured her story in his Gospel and although he didn’t record her name, the story of her tenacity lives on.

She was Canaanite. Centuries ago, her people suffered great losses when a young Israelite general by the name of Joshua led his people into their land. Some of her ancestors managed to cling to the earth like weeds and survived the onslaught, but her particular forebears were pushed northward and lived in the district surrounding the twin cities of Tyre and Sidon, in the region of Syro-Phoenicia. Ironically, during Israel’s Golden Age, Jewish communities sprung up along the trade routes in the same region. Ancient enemies co-existed peacefully, although the prejudice and hatred along religious and nationalistic lines was palpable.

Grief walked into the Canaanite woman’s house, unannounced and unwelcome, when her daughter became afflicted by a demon. Her whole world convulsed. Continue Reading…

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