God in the Echoes

Written by admin on June 21st, 2010

[This is the first in a series of entries from my unpublished book, Desperate Devotion, which  details my experience with the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew during a crisis of faith and calling.]

“Lord, if you won’t speak to me, if you won’t come to me directly and reveal yourself, then I will listen—I will watch and wait for you—in the echoes of your words gone by. I will listen for you in the words of Jesus.”

Thus began my journey through the “red letters” of Matthew’s Gospel.

Origins of a Devotional Experiment

            This entry and the ones that follow originated in a sometimes desperate experiment of devotion. As a long-time follower of Jesus Christ, I had always counted on some sense of God’s presence and guidance. At the time of these conversations with Christ, I particularly longed for God to give me life direction. After 30 years of pastoral ministry and in the midst of an exhausting chapter of it, I found myself rethinking my calling and needing guidance. New possibilities tugged on me; current circumstances dragged me down.

            At previous vocational turning points I had experienced God’s presence and guidance in a variety of ways: through conversation with others, through reading, through times of reflection, and always also in what the Bible refers to as “a still small voice”[1]—moments of clarity that seemed like God communicating directly into my inner ear.

I had never experienced anything as dramatic as the cross in the sky that led to Emperor Constantine’s conversion, but I had, a time or two, actually heard an inward whisper. Furthermore, I had always counted on the fundamental confidence that I was floating on a sea of grace. Even in the emotional ebb and flow of my life I knew God’s nearness.

            Not this time. This time, despite constant pleading, all I experienced was God’s silence. Days turned into months. Months became seasons. Seasons added up to a year, then two.

            I asked God for strength to press into the challenges of my life. I asked God for grace to enliven the church I served. I asked for clarity of direction for all of us. I asked for insight into what was wrong and how to make it right. Ultimately, I asked for some word—any kind of message—that would tell me whether God wanted me to hang in there or move on. I got nothing.

            If you’ve been a lifelong skeptic or if for any other reason you’ve not lived with an underlying impression of God’s nearness, the idea of God’s silence may evoke a shrug of the shoulder. “So what?” you might say.

            For me, the sense of God’s absence caused real distress, sometimes even panic. Eventually, it led me to question the basic framework of my faith. Having spent a lifetime talking with God, I found myself seriously considering the possibility that I had been talking to the ceiling, the stars, the sky.

            I begged. I pleaded. I bargained. I shouted. I cried. I confessed and asked for mercy. Nothing.

            Depending on one’s faith tradition there are different explanations for what I was experiencing:

  • Faltering faith? There’s a story in the life of Jesus in which he encounters a father desperate for his son’s healing.[2] “If you can,” the father says, “please heal him!” Jesus responds almost indignantly, “If you can! All things are possible to those who believe!” The father’s reply has become a classic: “I believe. Help me in my unbelief!” Did my dilemma originate in a weakness of faith?
  • Some moral obstacle? The prophet Isaiah records God as saying that our patterns of moral life can separate us from God.[3] I had to allow for the possibility that I had created a barrier by choices in my life. Indeed, I did take this possibility very seriously and had plenty of material from an imperfect life to confront.
  • Dark night of the soul? The 16th century mystic, St. John of the Cross, wrote of periods like this as a Divine gift, strange as it may sound. These periods of dryness purge us of a dependence on emotions. They cleanse us of pride, greed, anger, and ease. They enliven the cardinal virtues of faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, self-control, and courage. They draw us more deeply into a mature life of the Spirit. He called these experiences “the dark night of the soul.”[4] Did this explain my dilemma?
  • Faith development? My Ph.D. dissertation focused on the idea of faith development, with special attention to James Fowler. Fowler, who defines faith as “the quest for meaning,”[5] argues convincingly that our faith develops through stages and can alternate between periods of relative stability and unsettling periods of instability, when one stage of faith gives way to the next. We can reach points in our human experience when our faith, as constructed, no longer proves adequate, no longer works. Had I outgrown the structure of my faith? Was I needing a more mature framework for a new stage of life?
  • Projection of the imagination? The German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, concluded that our notions of God are nothing more than figments of our imagination projected onto the backdrop of the universe.[6] In one way or another, all atheists tell us that there is no God, no Divine Other at the opposite end of prayer. Was I simply confronting a reality I had resisted all my life? Was I finally waking up to the unpleasant discovery that God does not exist?

I will say that I have never wrestled with this possibility more seriously, more deeply, and more personally than I did during the long, dry spell during which most of what is written in this book was first penned.[7]

I couldn’t know for sure which of these explanations made the most sense for me, and at one time or another, I tried them all on for size.

The Red Letters of Jesus

In the mean time, I settled on the only strategy I could think of for making contact with God. I had grown up hearing the Bible called “God’s Word.” I had grown up in a tradition that thinks of the Bible as the revelation of God’s will and way, and even as God’s very self-revelation. According to this conviction, the Bible is not just a record of God’s words and deeds in the past; it is also a living expression of God’s presence and purpose today. God’s Word, including that recorded on the pages of the Bible, is “alive and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” [8]

Furthermore, this tradition of faith places special significance on the words of Jesus, whom it believes to have been God in human flesh, the defining self-revelation of God. So valued are Jesus’ words that certain Bible publishers set them off in red ink, so that they stand out all the more.

Contemporary scholars debate whether Jesus actually spoke all of these words. As a trained Bible scholar and theologian, I was aware of this debate; but, in the crucible of my existential crisis I decided to cut through all of the complexities of academia and settle on a simple strategy in simple faith.

I would experiment with the possibility that I could have a personal encounter with Jesus through his words, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. If I could not hear him speak directly into my inner ear, I would listen to him in the context of the stories of his life, allowing my imagination to transport me to the times and places in which his words were first spoken. In keeping with the tradition of which I am a part, I would allow his words to “come alive again,” to speak directly to me in the here and now.

The Shape of the What Follows

What follows are short clips from 40 of my journal entries during my experiment with the red letters of Jesus and 40 accompanying reflection pieces. I have selected them carefully to capture the flow of my eight-month excursion through Matthew. I chose the number 40 for a couple of reasons. First, to have included all of my journal entries would have made this book too long. Second, the number 40 has an honored place in Jewish-Christian tradition, signifying a time of seasoning and preparation. For Moses, Jesus, and countless others across the centuries, 40 represents a wilderness time, the suspended animation between what has been and what is to come. Given the nature of my experience, the number 40 seemed particularly appropriate.

The accompanying reflection pieces open up deeper conversation about themes that arise in the journal entries, themes related to the pursuit of God and the quest for what Jesus called an “abundant life”[9]: a life rich with love, joy, and ultimate meaning. Even here the tone is confessional and autobiographical rather than detached and all-knowing.

Here’s my rationale. I cannot pretend to have a dispassionate interest in these topics. Yes, I bring my theological training and years of preaching, teaching, and counseling to the conversation; but I also bring my hopes and fears and personal struggles. I penned this material not as some ivory tower intellectual pondering abstractions, but as a person of faith in the throes of a faith crisis.

There are any number of wonderful books on theology and biblical faith that you can read without knowing the personal stories behind them. I would be happy to supply you with a bibliography upon request. But if Italian film director Frederico Fellini was right—and I think he was—that “all art is autobiographical,”[10] doesn’t it make sense to apply this to the art of conversation about matters of ultimate importance? Doesn’t it sound like a worthwhile experiment to take the autobiographical element out of hiding and thread it openly into the flow of the conversation?

            I will go so far as to say this: I want you to empathize with my circuitous journey of faith. I want you to empathize, but not for the reason you might think. I’m less interested that you “feel for me” or that you validate my story and my opinions than that you allow my confessions to open up your own confessions. Too many Christians suppress the troubling questions that float around the edges of their faith, and too many skeptics dismiss the spirituality of Jesus without giving him a chance to speak to the spiritual longings of their heart.

            Empathy can overcome these obstacles. Empathy, in its truest and best sense, has to do with how one projects oneself into someone else’s perspective, someone else’s experience.

            If you will allow yourself to enter into my search for faith footing, if you will allow yourself to be moved by what occurs here, you may just find it moving you into a richer life with God. That would please me.

            Of course, given the nature of my particular struggle, as recorded here, the journey might unsettle you before it settles you. This book doesn’t just record answers; it records questions, too. In fact, this book is as much about the search for truth as it is finding it. Sometimes, it turns out, the journey is the destination in disguise.

[1] I Kgs. 19:12.

[2] Mk. 9:14-27.

[3] Is. 59:1-2.

[4] St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul (London: Baronius Press, 2006).

[5] For James Fowler’s seminal presentation of his thinking, see: Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981). I have been most deeply influenced by his subsequent work, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984).

[6] As a starting point, see, Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, George Eliot, trans. (NY: Prometheus Books, 1989). For a serious Christian treatment of Feuerbach’s perspective, see: Hans Kung’s analysis in, Does God Exist?An Answer for Today, trans. Edward Quinn (NY: Doubleday & Co., 1980), 191-216.

[7] Determined to take this alternative seriously, I decided to read the bestsellers of those being called “the New Atheists.” I read Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (NY: Mariner Books, 2006); Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (NY: Penguin Group, 2006); Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terrorism and the End of Reason (NY: Norton, 2004); and, John W. Loftus, Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008). Dennett’s book distinguished itself among these four because of its even-handedness. Unlike Dawkins and Harris, Dennett resists the temptation to take cheap shots at those who dare to believe in God. He focuses on making a case for a naturalistic worldview.

[8] Heb. 4:12.

[9] Jn. 10:10.

[10] Frederico Fellini, in The Atlantic (December, 1965). Fellini recognized that every painting, every sculpture, every concerto, every book on the shelf conveys something of the artist’s life, something of the artist’s soul. It tells us something of their life’s joys and sorrows, something of who they are, something of what moves them and matters to them. It leaves trace marks of the story of their life.

When we step into the world of the sacred, the autobiographical elements become even more compelling. After all, those who write, compose, paint, perform, or craft to the glory of God thereby invite us to see God through their eyes. The lens of their experience becomes the lens through which we filter our own hopes and fears about time and eternity.


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