A number of years ago, I was biking home from work when I was struck by inspiration: I knew with utter certainty that there was a teenager named Tim in my congregation who I needed to invite to run the PowerPoint in our worship services. The PowerPoint was a significant ministry; Tim was only peripherally involved in the church, and with this sudden bolt of lightning from the sky I knew that to invite him to serve in this capacity was going to be a perfect match of his gifts and our church’s need.
I did talk with him. He was excited to be asked. Everything was coming together exactly as I expected.
But after helping out once or twice, Tim stopped showing up. Probably because he was embarrassed about not showing up, he also stopped responding to messages. My great moment of clarity, which felt to me like inspiration from on high, took the church’s relationship with Tim into a nosedive.
I wish that this blog was going to be about some ‘full circle’ moment where that long-ago conversation planted a seed that I came to realize eventually bore fruit many years later, but in truth, I have no idea what happened to Tim and whether my asking him to be involved with running the PowerPoint succeeded in anything other than making him feel awkward and guilty. Instead, I write with a question about trust. I had felt certain that God wanted me to talk with Tim. Was I wrong? Was God wrong? What does trust look like in my relationship with God?
This time last year, I was embroiled in several of the most intense, unsettling and educational months of my life. Our church was going to be electing a new bishop, and I had spent many sleepless nights in the fall of 2017 agonizing about whether, should I be nominated, I would allow my name to stand. My sleeplessness over the matter began to be coupled with a variety of signs too personal to explain, and with the support of my family, I had accepted the nomination.
I look back on the lead-up to the election now a year later, and I can admit a very difficult thing: I was convinced I was going to be elected. I thought I was going to be Bishop.
There is one reason why I’m willing to admit this. It is because my error is of profound spiritual importance. It wasn’t that I thought I was the best candidate or the most highly regarded. It wasn’t even wishful thinking; in fact, I was quite ambivalent about what outcome I desired. The reason I thought I would be elected is because I have rarely ever been so certain of anything as I was of God wanting me to be on that ballot. And it is all too easy to assume that if I know what God wants of me, then I also know where God is taking me and why.
Both the PowerPoint ministry and the episcopal ballot share some dangerous, and yet exceedingly common, soul territory. It is arguably one of the central reasons why we find ourselves sometimes tumbling into critical crises of faith. Religious people can be quick to name our spiritual quest as that of aligning ourselves more and more closely to the will of God. Often what we really expect when we do so, though, is for God to provide us with fairy-tale outcomes: not necessarily happily-ever-afters, but at least narrative arcs that could be best-seller material. It is the times when miraculous recoveries happen, when life is spared, and when impressive pinnacles of success are reached that we most often speak of God’s glory made manifest. We don’t talk about God’s guiding hand when death, disease and failure appear to take the upper hand. More specifically, we tend to speak out loud of how we sensed and responded to God’s plan for us only when outcomes would suggest that we had read the memo correctly: the person we were to talk with says ‘yes,’ the word we were given to say changes a life for the better, the courageous next step we believe is asked of us leads to visible accomplishment.
At our staff meeting this week, we were considering one of Jesus’ early healing stories from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus’ discernment takes him across the lake to the land of Gerasenes to a graveyard encounter with a man so riddled with demons that he has to be held under lock and chain well outside the confines of town. We read this story as a triumph of Jesus’s astonishing healing powers, we note this as one of the earliest recognitions of who Jesus is — with Jesus’s name and relationship to God clearly identified by the evil spirits possessing this man — and we connect this story to Jesus’ emerging calling for his message to take him beyond his own tribe to be a “light for all people.” And yet, the Gospel writer takes care to leave some of the sloppy details of the encounter speak for themselves too: there were two thousand pigs who died through the healing ordeal, the townspeople were angered and frightened by the healing, and when the healed man wanted to follow Jesus, Jesus instead sent him back to the people who were far from pleased to have him return. Even in writing the account decades after the fact, the Gospel writer couldn’t really give account for the story’s accompanying disarray. We never hear from that demoniac again, what happened to him, how or if his story and his healing came to serve the purposes of God. One person in our conversation wondered whether maybe a seed of faith could have been sown by the proclamation of that once-so-troubled man so that when the early church began to spread the message of Jesus across the Roman Empire, maybe in this little seaside corner, there was already a whisper of faith. It is an interesting thought, but the truth is that we just don’t know. We also have no idea whether or not Jesus felt like his encounter with this man, who he obviously felt called to seek out, was ‘successful.’ What is clear is that God’s not conforming to Jesus’ expectations presents no barrier to Jesus continuing to respond to God’s call.
I was talking a lot last year about trusting God. This should have been a red flag. Mostly talk of “trusting God” makes me nervous. It sounds like standard religious language, and yet it can all too easily be a cover for assuming that God agrees with me about what I think should be done. In the same way that we trust family or friends to honour commitments or behave in ways that are consistent and reliable, we attribute the same sort of parameters to God, as if God’s promises to us ever included predictability. There are actually few verses as terrifying and true as Isaiah 55: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord, and my ways are not your ways. The prophet beautifully names God’s closeness and encourages us in our seeking of the One who does hold the arc of our lives in loving hands, who promises that the purposes of love and joy can be fulfilled through God’s people. But nowhere does it suggest that God is beholden to check those purposes with us first or to show how the puzzle pieces might or might not fit together. In fact, trusting God is nothing like the trust that we might put into the people whose motives we understand and whose actions we can predict. Trusting God is surrendering to the whirlwind, the silence, the stranger, the wilderness, the wandering, the cross.
Thankfully it is also about surrendering to a supreme mercy and a great love. How many times do I fall, once again, into that most obvious and seductive kind of idolatry: making God’s purposes into the image of my own oh-so-limited understanding. God gathers me up again and again, cradles and heals me, and in a thousand different ways shows me that I am loved.
In doing so, God breaks open the false idol of even that trust so that I can learn what is actually more important — to allow God to be God; to keep listening for God’s call; to be prepared for all of the loose ends and strange outcomes that listening and following might entail; to be okay with seeds that I believe I have been asked to sow not ever bearing fruit that I can see.
Maybe trust isn’t the right word for how I relate to God, and surely it isn’t the right word for how God relates to me. And yet, despite my limited understanding, my false idols and my constantly trying to be the one to lead in this dance of faith, what God does continue to communicate to me through it all is that I’m worth sticking it out with and for. That’s enough. It’s enough for me to keep listening for that still small voice and believing that God is asking something of me. It’s enough to leave the fairy-tale endings — or not — to God.