the paths before us

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The stages of the Christian life aren’t very well explored. We like to make a big deal out of the transition from unsaved to saved but don’t ever really parse what comes after that, and by not parsing what comes after there’s a lot of confusion among those who venture down the path past the gates of Grace into the deeper realms of the Spirit. This means we’re all sort of left to self-discovery, walking blind, trying to follow the path we can’t really see, hoping to hear other voices along the way and avoid getting torn up by the thorns that line the road. Though, we avoid the thorns because of our already bloodied legs and a desire to run rather than walk or stumble.

The pull of the Spirit before us brings us to discover Christ, and in discovering Christ our eyes are opened to mysteries and newfound peace and tastes of heavenly fruit. Sometimes this is coupled with physical blessings, more often it is accompanied by being thrust down newly opened paths. Much like going to a recruiter some are thrown into quicker routes of activity, seeing the results of their faith sooner, others are picked from among the ranks to train more, endure hardship, find light only after darkness, and experience the depths of hell so as to best understand the heights of heaven. These latter God places on a different path, with a heavy hand pushing and prodding and provoking and preventing. The blessings expected of faith that others see, such people do not see, and often aren’t even allowed the blessings that even those outside of the faith are given as normal parts of life. Such people are plucked like brands from the fire, given gifts and then given inner drives which don’t allow them to settle. God sends grace, but also allows evil spirits to never let one rest or be content in just any circumstance, whether in career, or in spirituality, or in relationships. We are drawn by light and whipped by darkness, ever coming to terms with the Divine “Yes!” and the Divine “No!”

Where we don’t hear the whispers and wander down darkened paths we are forcibly pulled aside and pointed right, all to the point where it almost seems there are no choices in life. We go where God allows us to go. While others can explore the range of roads, we find roadblocks all around, with the Divine “Yes!” being that which works out, and finds full agreement within and without. This leaves us with all the kinds of “No!” we hear, with our immaturity at first making our lives like a constant contest of bumper cars, crashing here and crashing there, finding the path only by running into things. Maturity is the discernment of hearing the no and reacting to it before we hit, the bumper cars become a spiritual sonar. Like bats we do not see but we respond to what we know, hearing not looking in the darkness to forge the paths that provide life and sustenance and fullness and peace while avoiding the dangers that bring death and suffering and misery. We react to what we can’t see, reacting differently than those who can see, the Spirit being our eyes and our guide.

To discern the whispers and to hear the path takes sometimes brutal lessons and reforming of our expectations, our desires, our senses, our loves and most of the deeper parts of us.

Jesus calls. We think we see the light. But we don’t recognize the light for what it is. At first Jesus holds us by the hand. Then he lets go, with expectations. We are to walk his way, think his way, embrace the way. Only in the process of our inner reformation all our hopes become conflicted and we are left again with stark choices to follow or not to follow, choices that appear every day and just about every moment. As we embrace these choices we hear the Spirit and begin to find fluidity in our walk.

One way of embracing these choices is to leap fully into the river of the Spirit, deciding to make life most fully dependent on the Spirit’s salvation. This way offers many less choices, but it also flirts more with despair, as the Spirit doesn’t move any quicker or open more doors except the ones that were always to open. This is the monastic path, and whether permanent or temporary, it forces the person to look upwards and find the Life in the midst of the darkness, learning perseverance and patience and thanksgiving.

I wait for the Spirit, and while I do occasionally have curious opportunities I can pursue, the weight of the Spirit has continued to work to help understand the profound differences between the Spirit’s “no!” and the Spirit’s “Yes!”. I don’t flirt with the former any more, and have even recently made choices that reflect this, because there is such a stark difference between peace and not peace. I am a buoy floating on the ocean. I become untethered to my source, and I endure the full force of the tempest.

I step away from the Spirit and suddenly I feel the knives. I feel the torture. I feel the utter and devastating pain. I feel every slice, every cut, every tearing and searing and breaking. So I avoid that which says “No!” because it may not change my state of life and death but it absolutely changes my sense of peace or no peace. With the Spirit I watch, and observe, and even analyze, taking notes on their methods for future reference.

Last night I was thinking about this and the curious stages of development, and the disciples came to mind. We read Peter and the others, in Acts or their letters, and see the profound faith, and fluidity of their spiritual walk. But there’s that curious passage from John 6, which follows the disciples hearing a teaching they don’t know how to accept, and which caused many to walk away:

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life ; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life . 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.

“Does this offend you?” That’s the question before us. Are we willing to let go our selves and throw ourselves into the Spirit, even if this means letting go those promises of a supposed happy life, a life married, and children, and career success, and financial security. Are we willing to endure the gap between our stepping away from this world and the discovery of the Spirit’s deeper blessings?

We don’t say, “Hooray!” for Christ in our life’s blessings as first. We find ourselves stuck between there and here. Unable to go back, blind to the future. If we embrace Christ we don’t see instant light, instead we say, “Where else will we go, You have the words of eternal life.” And in saying this our faith becomes real and the opportunities, sometimes ludicrous opportunities of the Spirit for future profound blessings begins to open up.

I think of Paul. Who also had a great “Yes!” in his life. His “Yes!” came after the most stark “No!” imaginable. He was blinded and thrown off his horse. He was given a “Yes!” that was in entire contrast to everything he had previously assumed or expected, turned around and shown that his “No!” was Christ’s “Yes!”. This took a bit of work, but the results in him and around him still resonate to our day. We’re not given that same stark choice, and remain blinded as we stumble about, but the message is so often the same. We have been given time to find the maturity Paul found in an instant. But, so often we are told by Christ before us, “It hurts you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14).

Following the “No!”, kicking against the goads, becomes increasingly painful, so we learn not to do it, even if we haven’t been yet shown what we should do.

We leap off the cliff into the cloud of unknowing, trusting, believing, hoping, praying that the desires and promises we have been given haven’t been entirely lost even as we increasingly let them go. Our versions hold us back. Our expectations pull us down. We lighten the load by letting go these things, not knowing if we will ever see them, or anything palpable again. Between “No!” and “Yes!” there are often great gaps, and mysteries which refuse to resolve. But we embrace these mysteries because that’s all we have. We look back and wonder about previous choices. With regret if we are low. With hope if our eyes are forward, knowing we let go for a reason and reasons more potent than we can even imagine.

The hard thing is that all too often we are left with the “No!” on our own, but to really take hold of the “Yes!” we require another or others or many to resonate the fulfilling work of the Spirit. We can dodge but we can’t commune unless there is agreement, and it is in this agreement with those who are likewise led by the Spirit knowingly or unknowingly that we see the positive work of Christ that washes away the lack and frustrations.

This leaves us with two ways of moving forward. We can move forward by dodging the “No!” and we move forward by embracing the all too rare “Yes!”.

I’ve bounced around “No!” for the most part thus far, finding “Yes!” in leading me to Wheaton where I discovered the depths and pull of the isolating Spirit. I found a “Yes!” when I decided against pursuing law as a career and decided to go to seminary. I have found a “Yes!” in certain directions but not in fulfillments. But, every “Yes!” remains unresolved still, as I wait for God’s timing and arrival. I leaped over the wall into the river and now have committed myself to each “Yes!” while learning how to better avoid each “No!”. But, for me, the curiosities come in that which are not fully “Yes!” yet have no taste of the “No!” about them. Ministry has this quality. I am open to it because there is no “No!”. Pursuing a vocation as a writer has this quality for me because while I feel the “Yes!” about writing, the details are left unresolved.

Embracing the mystery, for me, in all areas is an exploration, an exploration of hope and of risk. Not physical risk, but emotional and spiritual risk, as I seek to step directions without knowing why, or for what, or any expected results. I yearn but I learn to yearn without absolute expectation because at the root of all my yearning is to embrace the Spirit above all. I learn to hear, and watch, and wait, and discover the nuances of the Spirit’s guidance in pushing me peculiar directions. I do this because the hope of maturity isn’t simply about avoiding the bloody legs caused by thorns on each side of the path. It is because in embracing the peculiar work of the Spirit, by embracing that which is foolishness to the Greeks and a scandal to the Jews, I not only learn how to walk, but also how to run.

Then when I learn to run I begin to dance, and suddenly the rapture of the Spirit in life or in death, beaten and mangled or blessed and confirmed, is constant. I move to the rhythm of the Spirit and discover the fullness of God’s eternity even in this present, resonating this to others as they join in this dance. I become in full what I’ve only been in part.

I have to be careful because I’m not dancing yet. I am still learning, still wandering, still seeking without hearing fully. So, I wait. Like the disciples waited, praying for the Spirit to bring a “Yes!” but less and less willing to force any yes upon my life that is not ordained. This leaves me in somewhat isolation, except for notable even if mysterious, exceptions.

This all is the nature of the Spirit, however. Where else will I go?

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