Trusting God’s Imagination

Sometimes the most auspicious turns in life are the ones we didn’t want.  We ask God for help executing our plans without offering to help him do his.  An insightful reader was kind enough to share her story about trusting God and his imagination.

After losing his 20 year old business, my husband was looking for work.  He had a lousy job with little pay for a couple of years, and we were very grateful for that. His raises were absolutely pitiful. I mean insultingly pitiful!  So he was applying for everything he could find with better pay.

He applied for a newly created position with the city.  It was a good fit for him, and I was just positive that God would give it to him.  I was certain I knew the will of the Lord at this point. Jeremiah 29:11 had come to me. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  I stood on that promise.

A few weeks went by, and he got a letter in the mail.  You know the ones.  They say, “Thank you for applying, we had many applicants, and we chose another guy,” all very polite.  I just didn’t believe my eyes, and I didn’t let go, either.  I told my husband that the Lord would come through, that the guy they hired would end up being a drunk, or a lazy worker, or some other thing would happen and they would end up calling him and asking him if he was still interested. I took the letter and wrote Jeremiah 29:11 out on the front of the envelope, sure that God was going to pull a rabbit out of a hat.  I kept that letter on my desk and prayed over it, laying hands on it for over a year!

Now let me clear up a few details.  If he had been offered the municipal job, he would have given 2 weeks notice at the crappy paying job, that crappy paying job that was barely getting us by.  I later learned that the city never actually opened the position that I was so sure God would hand to my husband.  No one ever got that title or that pay check.  Had my husband been selected for that position, he would have lost his paying job and been stuck with NO job!

Now it took a little over a year, but God did keep his promise.  Another company created a new position to handle a 75 % sales increase resulting from big contracts with HEB and Walmart.  The company has been very good to him.  It’s a family owned and operated strong Christian business that God blessed just as he blessed my husband with hiring him there.  God’s ways are not our ways. His plans are not our plans, and I am very thankful for that!

Join the conversation.  Have you ever greeted a life change as a travesty when actually the outcome was better than the best you could imagine?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Will of God: Do I want that, too?

Our biggest obstacle to doing God’s will, or even perceiving God’s will, is a preoccupation with what we want instead.  It takes commitment and discipline to recognize the difference.  My godfather has that commitment and discipline, and he still wrestles with his will.  We had lunch last week, and he relayed his prayerful reflections while driving to the office that day.  He was extremely pleased with the plan he had for his day in the office.  He didn’t really want to ask God if God might have something else in store for him.  “I’m asking you if you have a different plan, God, but I’m not happy about asking you, because I really, really like my plan!”

We tend to get in our own way on the journey to healing and life change because we resist taking that difficult step of creating a power vacuum to make space for God’s power to act in our lives.  There is a Jewish saying that you can’t pour water into a cup that’s already full.  “Islam” translates roughly to “surrender.”  Eastern traditions teach transcending self is necessary to ease suffering.  The Twelve Step tradition teaches self-centeredness is the root of life’s unmanageability and surrendering our will to God is the route to sanity.  The Christian tradition teaches Jesus’ life and resurrection represents the rebirth and newness of life that is available to all willing “to die to self.”  These spiritual traditions embrace the idea of emptiness—both emptying the mind to encounter the soul and, more especially, emptying oneself of one way of being to make space for a new way of becoming.

When we surrender our wants and ways to God, we make room for God to act in our lives, joining God as a partner in the creative process and inviting the kind of transformational life change we cannot even imagine.  C.S. Lewis encourages us to trust God’s imagination:

We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.

When I realize God’s imagination for me is better than mine for myself, I can relinquish my silly notions that I know best how to satisfy myself.  Whether those notions have led me to complete devastation or to a dull ache of emptiness (“There’s got to be more”), relinquishing them will free my imagination for the destination God would have for me.

When we have decided that an increasingly intimate relationship with God is the destination we seek, then recognizing and taking up his will for us becomes part of the destination as well.  What God desires is not so much a certain accomplishment as a certain reciprocal relationship.  God gives, we respond, and when we’re aligned to God’s will, our response to the gift is itself a gift to God.  When we seek God’s will in pursuit of this reciprocal relationship, we bring joy to him, to others and to ourselves.

Join the conversation.  When God put an opportunity you didn’t plan (or didn’t want) in your path, did you alter course or stick with mudpies?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

4 Steps for Discerning God’s Will Up Close and Personal

Having a general idea that God wants to be in relationship and that he wants me to be fruitful doesn’t help me with specific decisions, like a career path or a spouse.  I make choices every day, and most don’t seem to have anything to do with God.  What does “choosing God’s will” mean in my daily life and work?

This post rounds up four steps based on what Jesus taught about God’s will that answer this question in a very personal way.  No two people will come to the same conclusions after taking these steps.

Step One: Examine Gifts

We are not given equal abilities or identical opportunities.  The unique combination of opportunities and talents that God gave singularly to you is your cosa nostra with God.  It’s something only the two of you share.  The first step for discerning God’s will on an  intimate basis is to acknowledge those gifts given uniquely to you. 

Step Two: Examine Boldness

If scripture is any indication, God doesn’t intend for us to play it safe.  God called an old man to uproot his family with no clear destination, an unwed teen to get pregnant, and his own son to death by torture.  On the other hand, he doesn’t expect us to face life’s challenges alone under our own power.  Those who trust in him receive awesome grace.  “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7)  The second step is to put your gifts to use in a manner so bold that you are sure to need God’s help.  It glorifies God when we collaborate with him in this way.

Step Three: Examine Compassion

We can use our gifts boldly to lift others up or to cut them down.  Jesus’ ministry of free healing and open table radically challenged cultural norms, and if we dare to follow his example, he leads us to relate to God through relationships with others, including the despised and outcast.  Ask yourself: Am I going about my daily life and work in a way that promotes egalitarianism or in a way that excludes?  Does my daily life and work contribute primarily to the well-being of others or to my bank account?  Do I focus on safety for my inner circle or security for all?  Step three is to exchange attitudes and actions that leave people out or drag them down for attitudes and actions that embrace all and lift people up.

Step Four: Examine Motive

Many of us take right actions without the right frame of mind.  We want credit for going through the right motions, but we stop short of looking at the true motive in our hearts.  Are we driven by unquenchable love and a desire to work in partnership with God?  Or are we racking up credits, paying our dues while banking on a future reward?  Step four is to look on all your daily tasks, important and tedious, as your very personal and unique offering God.

A career in ministry is not the only way to do God’s will or to put talents to a bold and compassionate use.  When we find joy in serving God, even in the small things, and that joy becomes our motive in all we do, we have found new intimacy with God in our daily life and work.

Join the conversation.  Where do you find intimacy with God?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Making God’s Will Personal: Step Four-Examine Motives

One can find “cosa nostra” with God by looking to the gifts God gave singularly to her and by putting them to use boldly for the sake of God’s glory and the welfare of her fellow man.  It is possible, however, to take right actions without the right frame of mind.

Jesus’ parable of the prodigal illustrates going through the right motions with the wrong motive.  Both sons love earthly stuff more than serving the father.  One broke the rules and one followed the rules.  The one who followed the rules generally had an easier go if it.  Confronted with the father’s rejoicing upon the prodigal’s return, however, the obedient son’s resentment reveals he was not serving his father out of love and thankfulness for all the father gave.  He wanted earthly rewards for his obedience.

The rule followers among us are especially at risk of failing to recognize a misplaced motive.  We want credit for going through the right motions and for exercising self-control.  Self-control, after all, isn’t easy.  It’s a lot harder than following every whim.  Why does self-control seem to get less reward in the bible than a major failure mea culpa?

Self-control has its own rewards, of course.  Or rather, lack of self-control begets its
own punishment, a la the prodigal.  The real invitation, here, is to examine the true motives in our hearts.  Are we racking up credits, paying our dues banking on a future reward?  Or are we driven by love and desire to share joy with God?

Medieval rabbinic authority Maimonides recognized the dichotomy between actions and motives. He defined degrees of teshuvah.  Often translated “repentance,” teshuvah is the process of turning back to God and it requires sinning to stop.  To stop sinning due to fear of earthly consequences is a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to fear of divine consequences after death, which is yet a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to a change of heart.  To stop sinning because of love is the highest degree of teshuvah, but it is not required for forgiveness.  Maimonides establishes that lesser modes of rapprochement are fully adequate.  God yearns for love but right actions lead us towards him.

Biographer, novelist, and translator of seventeenth century religious classics H. L. Sindey Lear (1824-1896) suggests the small things are our best training ground for spiritual growth.

“When persons have learnt to look upon the daily course of their ordinary life, with its duties and troubles, however common-place, as their offering to God, and as the safest school for themselves of perfection, they will have made a very important step in the spiritual life.  Another step, so simple that it is often despised, is to do everything, however ordinary, as well as it can possibly be done, for God’s sake.  A third is to be always pressing forward; when a mistake is made, or a fault committed, to face and admit it freely; but having asked God to supply the deficiency caused by our own infirmity, to go on steadfastly and hopefully.”

Join the conversation. What is your daily offering to God?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Making God’s Will Personal: Step Three-Examine Compassion

In a quest for intimacy with God, we have been discerning the will of God by accepting the talents he has entrusted to us and putting them to bold use.  Just any use won’t do, however.  We can use our gifts boldly to lift others up or to cut them down.  By what rubric can we measure how a bold use aligns to God’s will?

Escalating Judaism’s teaching of justice and fair treatment of fellow man, Jesus preached and practiced radical egalitarianism.  If Jesus was only starting a new religion, the Romans would have left him alone.  Rome tolerated religions.  What Rome did not tolerate was challenge to the authority status quo.  His “kingdom of God” language was an affront to the power holders of Jesus’ day.  Threats to the social pecking order are uncomfortable for those at the top of the power structure.  It might be worthwhile to pause here to consider where you sit in the social pecking order of the world today.

Jesus used numerous parables to describe the revolutionary rearranging of power that he called the kingdom of God.  Historical Jesus scholar and Jesus Seminar fellow John Dominic Crossan summarizes Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom in two points: free healing and open table.  The Greco-Roman system of patronage served the powerful by giving them a means to influence and to control the peasant class.  By complying, peasants averted social ostracism wrought by no association with a patron.  Against the backdrop of the Greco-Roman system of patronage, Jesus’s offer of free healing disrupted the status quo.  It offered the peasant class something radically better than patronage.  Not only that, Jesus welcomed the despised and outcast, including women, to his table.  As dining customs echoed in miniature the social pecking order in the culture at large, Jesus’ open table symbolized a flagrant challenge to deeply held Mediterranean cultural values concerning status, honor and shame.

One way to examine how we use our gifts is in this context of open table and free healing.  Another way to examine them is in the context of tzedakah.  The Hebrew
word tzedakah is often translated “charity,” but the Jewish concept of tzedakah
is the opposite of charity in many ways.  Whereas charity is at the discretion of the giver, tzedakah is the giver’s obligation.  Whereas recipients have no claim to charity, recipients are entitled to tzedakah.  Tzedakah is more accurately translated as the giving that fairness and social justice demand, and it is commanded of all people (including those in need of tzedakah).

Am I going about my daily life and work in a way that promotes egalitarianism or in a way that excludes?  Does my daily life and work contribute to the well-being of others or only to my own well-being?  Do my actions promote God’s glory and the welfare of my fellow man?  Or do they garner earthly possessions for me?  Do I focus on safety
for my inner circle or peace and security for all?

Join the conversation.  What are the questions you ask yourself to measure your actions?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Making God’s Will Personal: Step Two-Examine Boldness

God doesn’t intend for us to play it safe.  He wants us to stretch.  In discerning the will of God on a personal and intimate basis, not only must we recognize that unique combination of gifts given, but also we must put the gifts to bold use.

Jesus’ parable of the talents makes that clear, and the feeding the five thousand (Matthew 14:14-21) shows us how.  In all four gospel accounts, Jesus retreats with his disciples to a remote place for rest and, instead of rest, he is greeted by a great crowd.  Having compassion for them, Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God and heals until late in the day.  The disciples grow concerned about where the next meal will come from and ask Jesus to send everyone away.  Not one to miss an “open table” opportunity, however, Jesus instructs his disciples to feed the crowd.

What happens next is the crux of the story.  The disciples say, “We don’t have enough.”  Jesus says, “Give me what you have,” and then he does the miracle of making it enough.  So it is with us.  If we are really stretching, doing something bold with our talents, we will feel like we don’t have enough–enough acumen, perseverance, persuasiveness, tenacity, grace, generosity, etc.  If you do have enough, then you might just be playing it too safe.  Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to have enough.  And he didn’t ask them to do it on their own.  He asked them to give what they had in partnership with him.  If you think big, God will do the heavy lifting for you, but you have to do some lifting!  The first step is yours, and it is to get working with what you have.

I wonder which would please God more:

(a)    beings who lament, despite the innumerable gifts and opportunities bestowed upon them, paralyzed by uncertainty, pleading for paint-by-numbers instructions; or

(b)   beings who imagine boldly, come up with wild and outlandish ways to use their talents and have faith they will receive serious intervening help?

At the risk of projecting human attributes on God, I imagine he’d be greatly entertained and delighted by the second group.

Scripture indicates it glorifies God when we ask for his help in this way. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7) There are no caveats on this scripture.  The passage does not say it will be given to you if only you ask for the right thing.  Undoubtedly we do ask for the
wrong thing at times.  Sometimes we are sorry we got what we wanted.  Other times we’re grateful we received something else instead.  We don’t find out, though, unless we ask.

Many religious traditions encourage jumping into action to avoid squandering the gift of life waiting for perfect circumstances to come along or for perfect clarity.  The great Indian mystic Kabir offers this poetic example:

Do you have a body?
Don’t sit on the porch!  Go out and walk in the rain!

Join the conversation.  How did you make a leap into action even though timing or conditions seemed suboptimal?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Making God’s Will Personal: Step One-Examine Gifts

You’re looking for an intimate and deeply personal relationship with God.  The abundance of love spilling out of you fuels a curiosity about what you can do uniquely to please and to delight him.  What should you do?

If you are looking to relate to God in a very personal, singular way, a reasonable starting point is looking at those gifts God gave singularly to you.  We are not given equal abilities.  Jesus’ parable of the talents recounted in Matthew 25 makes that clear.   Further, the parable indicates our talents are not self-generated but entrusted to us for a limited time by God.  Moreover, we are expected to use what we are given.  The worst offense is inaction because of fear.  The slave who buried a talent for safekeeping was cast “into the outer darkness” with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  This parable does not describe a God who is into playing it safe.  It describes a God who loves boldness and risk-taking.

Yet many of us anguish and are paralyzed by uncertainty as to what God wants us to do.  Sometimes we agonize between two choices that are essentially the same.  “God, should I take the telecommunications software sales job in Santa Clara or the telecommunications software sales job in Ottawa?”  Other times, we face a decision that sets a course in life, a decision that will have long-lasting consequences such as a
career direction or marriage.

Paradoxically, the most gifted among us can suffer the greatest perplexity concerning
vocation.  Many aptitudes can create many choices that can confound decision making.
“Should I lead the consumer subsidiary of a billion dollar corporation or should I start my own company or should I lead the local chapter of a national non-profit?”  The gifted telecom executive who faced that decision now works for Special Olympics of Texas.

Ponder the abundance set before you—the talents you enjoy, the opportunities that have come your way, the love that surrounds you on all sides.  If you had the great fortune of being born in North America, count that.  Is there a gift you have been neglecting?  Is there a talent you resist using?  What is the consequence you fear?  Is it sinking in failure?  Is it rising to success?  Air this out with God.  That unique combination of gifts he gave only to you and your response to them are your cosa nostra with God—“our thing,” just between the two of you.

This pondering is not meant to become an exercise in navel gazing, however.  Scripture suggests God wants us to recognize our gifts, but he wants even more for us to get up and to do something, anything, that is a fruitful and creative response to the gifts.  Our response is our gift back to God.  Santa Clara versus Ottawa doesn’t really matter that much.  Where do the people inspire you most?  Where do you inspire others most?  Which company is the better corporate citizen?  God will give you an abundance of opportunity to love and to serve others either way.  He can’t wait to encourage you there.

Join the conversation.  What gifts have you given God this week?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com