When a Week Holds Too Much

Some weeks I feel like nothing more than clay thrown on the potter’s wheel. Hollowed out by forces beyond my control, I see once again that I am not in charge here. Life presses in, making it clear that I have not reached my final form. The potter is not finished with me.

Yet just as I’ve been pressed and pounded, I’ve also been stretched and shaped. The vessel’s curved sides are taking shape, rising in accord with the potter’s vision in these last few turns of the wheel.

We have a great deal of freedom in what we do with our lives, but we are not in control. Sometimes the best I can do is to be good clay. I can try for the balance of malleability and resistance that allows the formation of a good vessel. I can try to sustain the cohesiveness that allows good clay to hold its form.

The sum of the past several days may feel like more than I can hold—challenge and loss, hope and disappointment, love and sorrow—yet the week has nonetheless brought all of it. So I act as I am able, and respond as I can. I cannot assuage my friend’s grief, but I can offer soup and love. I cannot make the world kind, but I can make laundry clean. I cannot make life easy, but I can be grateful for the ability to work.

I cannot see the future, but I can appreciate the beauty of the world around me. I cannot make my wishes come true, but I can take a risk and reach toward them. I can neither force nor forestall change, but I can accept the love and grace that remain constant.

The wheel keeps turning; a hand I trust remains on the clay. All will be well.

What is the turning wheel bringing to you?

Moving Forward When We Don’t Know the Way

When my daughter was in elementary school, there was one year when math was more than a class—it was a foe that demanded months of wrestling before she could pin it to the mat. Those afternoon homework sessions required a lot from both of us; it took all the patience and humor, strength and courage we could muster.

But the most important breakthrough came when I finally realized that she believed she was supposed to already know how to work the new problems. She cut herself no slack for the process of learning a new skill. If she couldn’t master it immediately then it was too scary, too hard, and too far out of reach. The first thing she had to learn was that it’s ok if you don’t yet know how to solve a problem. You’re not supposed to already know everything. You’re learning. That’s your job.

After that, it was just a matter of learning to work the problems. She overcame her math anxiety—better than I did at her age. And I came to appreciate the importance of not being intimidated by problems we don’t yet know how to solve. Years later, it remains a good lesson to remember when I need to move forward and don’t know how.

We all face problems that we’ve never encountered before, requiring resources and abilities we have never used. People who have passed through a time of change often speak of finding strength they didn’t know they had. They look back and see the growth that occurred as they rose to meet the challenge. Life seems designed to foster our development in this way.

The issues we face have been there for others as well. Whether the challenge arises from a particular situation or in the larger context of the changes in our lives, we are not alone. There is a source of wisdom and clarity that far exceeds anything we can know on our own. That Source is at work, urging us toward where we need to be and helping us to get there. It’s ok to take one step at a time; it’s ok to only see one step at a time. God works through those steps, leading us to move in the right direction. People with insight and experience can also help, and often appear on our path as if placed there by a loving guide.

We can trust that we’re being led forward even when progress is hard to see. It’s easier to remember that when I know how to work the problem. But it’s even more important to remember it when I feel I’m not up to the task. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid,” are the words of Jesus in John. This deep reassurance is part of the gift of faith. Not knowing how to proceed doesn’t mean I can’t meet the challenge. It means relying on the abundant resources available. It means remembering to pray, and to open my eyes to how prayer is answered.

What helps you move forward when you don’t know the way?

I Don’t Believe in the Same God the Atheists Don’t Believe In

I still read the old-fashioned newspaper, the kind you can carry around and spill coffee on and it’s no big deal. One of the things that keeps me connected to the local paper is Paul Prather’s religion column, one of my main motivations for reading the Saturday morning paper. We don’t approach religion the same way, but I look forward to his thoughtful reflections, his candor, and his utter lack of pretension. And he’s a good writer.

His most recent column is worth passing along to you. He looks at the thread of anti-religious thought threading its way into Western intellectual life through the proponents of the “new atheism.” Here’s a quote from Prather’s column:

The irony is that this current brand of aggressive atheism is just another form of fundamentalism. These particular atheists are zealots on the subject of faith who see no shadings of gray, only black and white. They’re dead-set against religion but weirdly obsessed with it.

It’s a subject that Karen Armstrong also addresses in her excellent book, The Case for God. (I’ve written about Armstrong’s book in the posts, Opening to the Sacred and A Church of Unknowing.)

There are some received notions of God that I’m all for rejecting. But the range and complexity of religious experience makes a simplistic dismissal of religion irrelevant to any thoughtful conversation. It’s short-sighted to deny that the source of spiritual and artistic inspiration—silence, awe, reverence, connection, inspiration—have a place in a thinking person’s world view. It’s not simply a denial of the existence of God, it’s an impoverished view of humanity.

When I don’t believe in the same God that the atheists don’t believe in, it’s hard to take seriously their critique of religious thought. Yet many people seem to. Ironically, the counter to their pseudo-rational message is the thoughtful voices of those with a deep understanding of what religion is and their experience of it. The world needs the clear thinking of those who value their faith.

What God do you not believe in? What helps you name the God you know?

A Definition of Faith

One of the things I love about John O’Donohue’s Anam Ċara is its deeply rooted optimism. It does not deny the darkness in life, yet conveys unwavering trust in life’s goodness. His assurance of life’s faithfulness is itself a wonderful definition of faith:

“Creative expectation brings you healing and renewal. If you could trust your soul, you would receive every blessing you require. Life itself is the great sacrament through which we are wounded and healed. If we live everything, life will be faithful to us.”

This is a powerful statement, one that I’m drawn to and also challenged by. I’m not sure that I want to live everything. There are plenty of difficult, painful, and trying things that I’d like very much to avoid. Yet when those things arrive in spite of every effort to turn them away, there is no choice but to live them. And when that happens, I’d like to believe that walking through a dark valley eventually leads toward healing and wholeness.

How do we learn to trust life, knowing its power to wound? How do we overcome the fear that we won’t be safe, loved, or cared for if we aren’t good enough? How do we cultivate creative expectation when we’re weary and disappointed?

O’Donohue points toward the inherent strength of the soul. He knows there is a place within us that is eternal, where we can go “to be nourished, strengthened, and renewed.” He offers the assurance that “The deepest things that you need are not elsewhere. They are here and now in that circle of your own soul.” The presence of God is within us always.

That presence is manifest in a chorus that echoes throughout scripture: “Do not be afraid.” It is spoken to ancient ancestors and through the words of the prophets. It is the message of angels to Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds who visited the Christ-child, and to the father of John the Baptist. Jesus says to his followers, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.” Holy reassurance seems a universal stepping stone toward a life of genuine faith, one that trusts in the work of God.

Faith understands that the power of God permeates all of life, making growth, healing, and renewal part of the experience of being alive. Faith trusts that God is faithful. Faith frees us from being trapped in our circumstances. Faith rests in the assurance that God is always at work in the world and in us, and invites us to live into a greater vision of all that life can be.