When Discouragement begins

Maundy Thursday has always been my favorite liturgical service of the year. I love the contrast of celebrating the Eucharist, followed by the immediate removal of all decorations and beauty. The stripping of the altar is beautiful and haunting. On that night, the church is left an empty shell as we exit the barren sanctuary in uncomfortable silence. It is a reminder of how the very life, and heart, of faith is ripped away if we disregard the resurrection.

Such theological reflections are easy when you sit comfortably in the prayer-desk, never having truly walked the road of suffering and emptiness. In the past, I entered my reflections with ease. I would feel appropriately subdued and contemplative. But was I ever truly affected?

In 2015, everything changed.

The news of my wife’s cancer had come unexpected. She had a tumor previously removed, but all indications were that the growth within her was benign. After hearing about its malignancy, we had thought our visit to the cancer center was a mere follow up appointment. After all, the tumor had been removed – that should have been the end of it. But on Maundy Thursday, 2015, the oncologist told us, “I’m recommending chemotherapy. You start next week. Here is the paperwork.” We were dumbfounded. To this day the pit of my stomach drops whenever I think of those words.

The fact that we sat, weeping in the exam room, as our church gathered for our annual Agape Feast is testifies to how spiritually distant I felt in that moment. I felt encumbered by sadness and confusion. All the times I prayed with my wife while she hunched over in pain felt pointless; the prayers I prayed seemed forsaken. In hindsight, I see things differently. But in that moment, it felt as if my faith was very thin. This is not a comfortable experience for an ordained priest.

This feeling of spiritual discouragement would linger with me through my wife’s entire cancer treatment, and far beyond. Each day I wrestled with an odd dynamic of both daring to believe in ever-present goodness of God, and yet at the same time, feeling deeply a lack of spiritual life. I preached messages I had a hard time accepting myself. I offered prayers that felt flat. I smiled while internally I wept.

Spiritual discouragement can be hard to pin down because it is different for everyone. It may be a general feeling of lacking livelihood in your faith, a feeling about being stalled in your spiritual life, or a feeling of a complete lack of faith altogether. It may involve a struggle with prayer, or lack of desire to read the Bible. It may result from life turning ugly out of the blue. These feelings can be hard to deal with. We feel like Ezekiel’s dry bones, lifeless and dry.

Compounding this problem is the fact that we rarely talk about spiritual discouragement. We pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s like we want to keep the illusion alive that faith in Jesus removes us from anything truly upsetting. Faith means being stalwart, unaffected. We live out a faulty theology that assumes struggles in faith are the denial of faith – if we really loved Jesus we would just smile and sing Shine Jesus Shine.

But that is rarely the case. This wasn’t the case for Jesus.  It wasn’t the case for the disciples. It rarely is the case for us. So, if you are reading this from the point of spiritual discouragement, I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that it’s ok to feel this way. It’s not a lack of faith, or a failure of your spirituality. It’s part of our Christian journey and myriads of faithful people understand exactly what you are going through.  The good news is, our Lord walked this path before us, and he walks this path with us today.

Messy Faith

This post first appeared at https://medium.com/@revkylenorman/  under the title “Embracing the Messiness of faith” 

Someone once told my mother that eating chilli peppers would cure her cancer.

I wish I was making this up.  Upon hearing of her diagnosis, this individual informed my mother that the Lord had led him to discover a certain brand of chili peppers, and that if she would but eat of them she would be healed.  This was not the only ridiculous thing spoken to her.  Another offered these words: “don’t you worry, we are going to pray for your healing, and God always answers our prayers.”  Don’t get me wrong, prayer is good.  It meant a lot for my mother to know her church community was praying for her.  But to boldly promise a healing, based on the greatness of my mom’s faith, or on the superb eloquence of their own prayers, is simply mistaken.  The reality was that my mother knew three months into her treatments that she was not going to get better.  She died six months after the date of her diagnosis.

I would like to say that the crazy comments stopped upon her death.  Sadly, they didn’t; they just migrated to other members of the family.   Upon her death, someone said to me matter-of-factly that the reason she died was because “she had finished her work on earth.”  This may sound like a nice sentiment, a simple explanation providing an easy logic for why people die.  It is even covered in a thin veneer of spirituality that makes as if it is a faithful response to death.  It might seem this way, that is, until you realise my mother was only 62.  She died before her own father; she will not get to see her youngest daughter get married or watch her only grandchild grow up.   I have no doubt that, given the chance, there would have been a whole lot more “work” that my mother would have loved to do.

I bring these things up because I feel we do not always give voice to the messiness of our Christian faith.  Our faith rarely exists in palaces of simple logic and problem-free solutions.  We face difficulties, we struggle with God’s silence in prayer, we sometimes are left bereft of an answer for what is occurring in our lives.  When we rationalize such difficulties by resting upon easy answers and stock phrases we reduce our faith to something safe and palatable.   For example, a church in my neighbourhood recently posted the quote: “When the answer is simple, God is speaking.”  Now, there are two things wrong with this quotation.  Firstly, this is quote from Albert Einstein, a man who fundamentally rejected any notion of a God who loved you, cared for you, or spoke to you.  Einstein’s god was a non-personal, non-affective, non-redeeming God.  But more importantly, what does that say to the person going through a tumultuous time?   What does this say for the one struggling for direction?  If God is speaking only when the answers are simple, then any difficulty in life necessarily testifies to the absence of God.  In promoting this easy answer, we step away from the very incarnational reality testified to in scripture.

The fact is, scripture is filled with messy situations.  From Adam and Eve to King David, from Job to Jesus, we see faith lived out amongst the muck and mire of regular life.  In scripture we uncover many questions, yet interestingly, very few answers.  The book Job is a prime example of this. Upon Job’s suffering, Job’s friends put forward the answer to his plight:  Job is suffering because he deserves it.  Their theological outlook is quite simple, really: Bad things happen to bad people. The logic of easy answers are direct and pointed: Sin means suffering; Death means God has no more need of you; Chilli peppers cure cancer.  Yet such statements offer nothing to the grieving or struggling person.  They only serve to let’s us off the hook, to move us away from actually wrestling with our life with God.

Faith does not make us immune to difficulty or struggle.  The good news, however, is we are not alone as we bear the difficult things in life. We see this throughout all of scripture, starting right from page one. In response to their sin, God enters the garden (that has just become infinitely messier) and calls out to the hiding Adam and Eve.  We see in Job.  Despite all his questions, God provides no easy answers.  Instead, God provides Job with an understanding of his presence. Job final words are “now my eyes have seen you.” It is in this reality that Job finally rests.

Of course, we see this most profoundly in Jesus.  God steps into the world to take our mess upon himself and to bear it with us.  Christ is born in backwater town of Israel, surrounded by animals, unclean shepherds, and gentile mystics.  Although perfect and without sin, Jesus is baptized in order to take up Israel’s need for salvation.  In the wilderness he experiences the temptations that so often besiege us.  He is hated, despised, and rejected.  Jesus is beaten mercilessly and suffers an excruciating death on the cross.  Such physical agony is only matched by his spiritual anguish as he cries out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” Make no mistake, the messiness of Christian faith is that Christ is there in the mess.

Rarely do easy answers make us feel better. I can’t answer why, despite all the prayers, my mother was not physically healed.  But I can claim that Jesus held her each and every moment of her difficult journey.  And that gives me comfort. See, when we fail to embrace the messiness of our faith, we may just fail to meet the one who embraces us in our mess.  It is the presence of Jesus in our lives, not safe and easy answers, that makes all the difference.

As you journey through the rest of Lent, allow me to pose a question for reflection: Where is your faith a little messy at this moment?  Perhaps you have some questions that remain unanswered.  Or possibly those easy answers you have been previously offered just don’t seem to cut it anymore.  Maybe you are facing a hard conversation, a difficult road, an unforeseen circumstance.  Whatever it is, what might it look like for you to embrace that mess?   Because having a messy faith is not the worst thing in the world.  It is within that mess that you may just uncover the presence of the Lord.

View at Medium.com

Cancer and the Cross

Maundy Thursday has always been my favourite service of the year. I love the solemnity of the service. The stark contrast between the celebration of the Eucharist, immediately followed by the removal of all signs of life, leaves me continually awestruck. I find profound poignancy in the church being left as nothing but an empty shell. For me, it is a reminder of how the very life and heart of my faith is ripped away if I disregard the resurrected presence of the Lord.

These reflections are easy to make, sitting comfortably in my prayer desk, knowing that Easter is right around the corner. After all, these ruminations are easy when you never have to walk the road of suffering. Thus, year after year, I would enter this, my favourite service, with an attitude of pretend sombreness: the liturgy would be spoken with a touch of sadness, my pace of speech slow enough to echo a sense of mourning, my demeanour appropriately subdued and contemplative. But it would all be skin deep, for I would have already written my Easter sermon. Already had I read of the resurrection, and begun preparing myself for the Sunday celebration. Despite my love of Maundy Thursday, I have to wonder, did I ever actually enter into it?

But last year was different. My wife and I had known for some time that she was sick. Doctors had confirmed that there was a growth in her body, but assured us that it was benign: annoying, yes. Threatening, no. Surgery was done, and the growth removed. We thought that was the end of it, but then life turned upside down. The doctors had been mistaken, and that annoying but benign growth had, indeed, been cancerous. On Maundy Thursday, my wife and I were called down to the cancer centre to sign the appropriate paperwork so she could begin Chemotherapy. We heard about the risks, the symptoms, and the probability of survival. This day, the day of my favourite service, became a day about cancer, about the loss of hope, and about the closeness of death.

Despite the appointment at the cancer centre, I had agreed to be preside at the Maundy Thursday service. I drove my wife home from the cancer centre, having just signed on for an extremely aggressive treatment plan, turned around, and arrived at the church roughly 20 minutes prior to the beginning of the service. I walked into the church in a haze. I put on my vestments, and I sat in silence.

I know what you are thinking: I shouldn’t have been at the service. I should have called someone. I should have been sitting beside my wife. You would be right. But I wasn’t thinking straight. And so, I just went on auto-pilot and presided over the liturgy. I washed people’s feet; I preached the sermon; I began to celebrate the Eucharist. I felt as if I stumbled through the service, my words and prayers spoken from a place of deep emptiness. I felt an inner disconnect between who I was and who I was to be at the church. It was as if the church was expecting ministry as usual: the safe-and-easy-but-subdued Lenten reflections that had become common. Yet for me and my family, life was no longer safe, and it certainly wasn’t easy. Over everything we knew and loved, cancer had thrown a big question mark. Everything had changed, and I was not the same person.

This feeling of disconnect changed, however, as I celebrated the Eucharist. I stood behind the Altar, saying the words I have spoken so many times before: “this is my body given for you,” “this is my blood shed for you.” So many times, these words have been rattled off without thought. So many times, I have lifted the elements in a liturgically appropriate but completely rote action. But as I spoke the words that night, I heard them echoed back to me. It was as if Jesus whispered these very words into my heart. In that moment I almost began to cry as the full force of the Eucharistic message made its way to me. In those words I heard Jesus say:

Into the fear of what comes next, into the awaiting pain, into the vomiting and the constant sickness, the hair loss, the time off work, the crushing weight of chemo drugs and cancer treatments,—I come; Into the times when the role of caregiver seems taxing and long, into the feelings of exhaustion and sorrow, and into the fear of loss, my body is given for you, and my blood is shed for you. It is into all these dark places that I come. You are not alone.

Maundy Thursday, and indeed all of Lent, reminds us that it is in the very sucker punches of life that we find the presence of God. As we reach our hands out to receive him once again in bread and wine, we do so not from places of ease and comfort, but from places of agony and heart-wrenching need. The glory of the incarnation is the very ugliness into which Jesus comes. Christ offers himself into a world of lostness and confusion, a world where sometimes we feel powerless against the dark things that crash down upon us. The power of the cross is not just that Jesus heals our hurts and softens our pains, but that he hurts right along with us. Our agonies are met by his. This is the space in which we come to him in the Eucharist. We are called to enter the Eucharistic mystery precisely when we are overwhelmed with confusion, anger, and betrayal, and when can’t help but feel separated from God’s presence. Jesus institutes the Eucharist, and offers himself to us within it, precisely for the times when we stand in the church and feel completely hollow.

And yet, in that place, there is grace. In that place, there love. In that place, there is a Saviour. Alleluia.