Faith in the Midst of Ambiguity

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Do a search on the word “faith” and you will find a vast array of quotes and scripture passages describing it and how necessary it is on life’s journey. Most of what we will find we can give assent to and perhaps determine to follow, but when a crisis hits the measure of our determination and assent is bound to be tested in ways that were not on our radar screen at the outset of our decision.

A crisis often brings things into focus because it forces us to set aside all the other things happening inside and around us to deal with that crisis. That can be a help as we seek to appropriate faith and often have others around us to support our efforts. But make no mistake – it’s difficult.

“There is nothing more difficult than to live spontaneously, hopefully, virtuously – by faith.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses

But what does faith look like during a long period of uncertainty – ambiguity?

It’s been said that life is a marathon, not a sprint and that is certainly true with faith. Even those of us who are not runners are more likely to consider a short sprint over a marathon experience. Living in the midst of ambiguity is more like the marathon that can feel as if it will never end.

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The marathon uses up every reserve we have of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy we have developed in our training. By the time we near what we know will be the end of all those miles most runners will feel totally depleted and wonder if they can really cross the finish line.

Most of us do not do as well when we are faced with a period of ambiguity where we don’t know a definite end point will come. Somehow for as hard as uncertainty may be, when we know there is an end point something tends to kick in that helps us make it through to that end and buoys our hope.

The longer we live the more we get in touch with the reality that we will face many of these longer periods of uncertainty that will stretch us to appropriate faith as never before. Sometimes it will start as a crisis such as a job loss that then stretches into a much longer period of time than we could have expected at the beginning. Sometimes the crisis will be an illness that cannot be cured, and we must live with its ravages with medical support for an indeterminate amount of time.

Some of us might equate the current pandemic as one of those long periods of ambiguity. When it started a year ago, we were upset by the inconveniences and the restrictions, but some of us took these as a challenge and started listing all the things we could get done since other things were not possible. Most of us never expected that a year later we would still be living with so many restrictions and uncertainty and discovered months ago that the list of things we would do fizzled to a large degree.

Paradoxically, some of us would rather live in difficult situations that were predictable than live in ambiguity. Sound unlikely to you? Consider the children of Israel who had been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years until God sent Moses to be an instrument for their freedom. Freedom sounded like a great idea, but it meant a long trek into the wilderness where life was anything but certain. Soon the Israelites were grumbling and complaining because at least in Egypt there was no ambiguity.

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“Not that there are no clarities in the life of faith. There are. Vast, soaring harmonies; deep, satisfying meanings; rich, textured experiences. But these clarities develop from within. They cannot be imposed from without. They cannot be hurried…

The clarities of faith are organic and personal, not mechanical and institutional. Faith invades the muddle; it does not eliminate it. Peace develops in the midst of the chaos. Harmony is achieved slowly, quietly, unobtrusively – like the effects of salt and light. Such clarities result from a courageous commitment to God, not from controlling or being controlled by others. Such clarities come from adventuring deep into the mysteries of God’s will and love, not by cautiously managing and moralizing in ways that minimize risk and guarantee self-importance.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses

This pandemic season of ambiguity has not changed our call to be salt and light. Despite vaccine development much ambiguity remains and does so for an indeterminate amount of time. Our feelings about it are understandable but our situation is one that gives God an opportunity to more deeply plow up faith and turn it over so that like soil it can bring forth fruit for the season ahead.

One of my “companions” during the pandemic has been the book by Eugene Peterson – Run with the Horses – that I have quoted often. The richness and depths of this work on the life of Jeremiah slowed my pace in reading so I would not miss any of the understanding it offered. Many sentences are underlined, and numerous pages have flags on them. I came to see that one thing I wanted was to be more like Jeremiah. Despite reading his book in the Old Testament, Peterson gave me a much more significant understanding of the man and his faith.

“He (Jeremiah) argued with God but he did not abandon him. He was clear at the center: it was with God he had to do. He was committed to the covenant of God. He was unwavering in his understanding of morality. He was steady in his hope in God’s mercy. But just because he was sure of God did not mean he was always sure of himself. Nor did the world around him ever become clear. The world remained a muddle – and it will.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses
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To Be Chosen

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I think from the time we are very young each of us has an innate desire to be chosen. We want someone to pick us for the team or to choose us first for something or some reason. Too many of us recall the embarrassment of being the last one chosen for the game or team. It probably wasn’t meant to be personal, but it felt that way. I know I have memories of the “Red Rover” game in the church parking lot at VBS and teaming up for kick ball at recess on the playground at school. I was never athletic and never a fast runner, so I was never picked first and often last of all.

Those early memories create a fear that we are not good enough. It stalks us throughout our school years. It doesn’t just happen on the playground, but it happens when tryouts occur for the musical or a play. It happens when tryouts for “first chair” in your section of the band are announced. It happens when you go to the first school dance and discover they aren’t doing just “line dancing”.

The truth each of us comes to grips with is that we will be in this spot of wanting to be chosen over and over again throughout our lifetime. It happens as adults when we desire to be part of a particular committee or small group study. It happens when the church choir’s anthem has a solo part to be sung. It happens when job interviews are on the line. It happens when scholarships are being decided. It happens when we want to be considered for a promotion or move up in the company when someone retires or leaves.

Of course, it also happens when we want a particular person to choose us as a lifetime partner and wants us to marry. A nagging fear can creep in that we are not wanted or desired if that doesn’t happen early or perhaps at all.

While I was reading Luke 6 during my devotions a few days ago, I saw it again. It’s the passage where Jesus is choosing His disciples and there in verse 13, we read, “And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles.” The names of the disciples, the 12, that we have come to know so well were chosen. What struck me when I was reading the passage this time was the phrase before those 12 were chosen. It seems clear when He called His disciples there were likely more there than the 12 the verse says He chose. If that is true, what became of them? Did they still follow Him?

We know by reading the gospels that later others were called. At one point we read about 72 being called and sent out. In that case and in the case I have pointed out, these disciples are nameless to us today. What caused Jesus to choose the particular 12 men who became the apostles who tell the stories of His ministry on the earth? I wonder.

Did He choose those 12 because He knew their hearts were open and responsive to Him? Did He know they would follow Him? None of them were scholars. Did He see them as more teachable somehow? We cannot know, but we do know that time and time again scripture points to our hearts as His primary concern. He has no interest in religious acts and traditions that come from what we think we should do. He wants to woo our hearts to Him and as an omnipotent and omniscient God, surely, He would know who would respond.

I was perhaps like some of you, wanting to be chosen and unsure I would be. The BEST news was learning that Jesus chose me. The important question was whether I would choose Him.

To come to the realization that despite every flaw, failing, or false self I had ever been, He really wanted me…blew my mind.

Too often we miss that He chooses us because of who He is and because it is His nature to love and show grace and mercy to us.

After all, our condition doesn’t surprise Him!

He made us!

It is we that must humble ourselves and come to grips with who we are and more importantly, who we are not. Once we do, we need never let the shadows of doubt and fear overtake us.

If the God of the universe has chosen us, if the King of Kings is preparing a place for us in His eternal Kingdom, we can rest in the sure knowledge that we are wanted, desired, valued…valued enough for Jesus to die for us.
Choosing Him means He has already chosen us!!!!!!!

What Are You Leaking?


This might sound like a strange question to ask but consider this: whatever we are full of will be what leaks from the deepest recesses of our being whether we intend that or not.

One obvious way we see this is when we are overly tired or stressed. No matter what our faith or desire may be to emulate, most of us will leak lots of evidence of that exhaustion. Our words will be sharper, and our tone will often reflect frustration. We will listen less well even if we don’t want that to happen. We will be eager to get away from everyone and everything to find some level of relief even if that simply means falling into bed.

It happens to all of us.

But there are other things that seep out of us that may be harder to recognize unless we determine to observe ourselves objectively. If we are full of bitterness, envy, jealousy, lust, selfishness, greed, anger, or resentment, those will leak in our responses to life and those in it. We may very well try to hide such things in the recesses of our hearts, but we are never as skilled as we think in doing so.

Those less nice things, those sins, that we have left unattended within our hearts lead to a feeling of emptiness and we go to great lengths to try to fill that emptiness. We may use any number of things including but not limited to alcohol, cigarettes, food, spending (also known as retail therapy), sleeping, TV, movies, music, gambling, or even excessive exercise. We want to evade and avoid what seems to be devouring us. But we won’t stop there.

We also will try to use others to try to fill us up. Ruth Haley Barton puts it this way:

“When we are not finding ourselves loved by God in solitude, in the company of others we are always on the prowl for ways they can fill our emptiness. We enter life in community trying to grab and grasp from others what only God can give.”

Ruth Haley Barton in Invitation to Solitude and Silence

What we most need is for those persons we seek out to lovingly point us to the only Source that can deal with both the ugly things in our unattended heart and the emptiness that comes when our hearts have chilled from bitterness, disappointment, hurt, rejection, and more.

“At times the strength of spiritual community lies in the love of people who refrain from getting caught in the trap of trying to fix everything for us, who pray for us and allow us the pain of our wilderness, our wants, so that we may be more deeply grounded in God.”

Rosemary Dougherty

Those people will need a tenacious grace-filled faith to both nudge us and leave us alone with God even when we protest that we don’t hear Him, or He doesn’t care.

“Solitude, at its most basic and profound level, is simply an opportunity to be ourselves with God.”

Ruth Haley Barton in Invitation to Solitude and Silence

The simple truth is this: when we sit in the presence of the Lord, we are changed. His love overshadows us and washes away the debris within and floods us with Himself. It is then when we have been drenched like dew on grass in the early morning that we are satisfied. And when we leave that place to re-enter our world, we leak His love, His fragrance.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians:

“For we are the sweet fragrance of Christ [which ascends] to God, [discernible both] among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing;”

2 Corinthians 2:15 (AMP)
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Hope or Wishing

Photo by Rob Blair

In the midst of winter, we so often wish for spring as the harsh whistling wind tugs at the scarves we wrap about our necks and the snow heaps high under our windowsills. We love the snow that falls for Christmas but wish it would be gone by January if we live in the northern hemisphere.

From childhood onward we are encouraged to make a wish when we blow out the candles on our birthday cakes or toss coins into a fountain, but somewhere along the way we start to interchange the word “wish” with “hope,” using them as if they mean exactly the same thing, but do they?

The dictionary defines wishing as “a strong desire for something that is not easily attainable, wanting something that probably will not happen.” But the definition for the word hope is not really saying the same thing – “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.”

You probably think I am splitting hairs again with the definitions, but I think that it is significant for us to be clear about what words mean and how we use them. The context in which we use these words, and the specificity of their meanings matter more than we think. (Little wonder that pastors who diligently study the Bible look at the original Greek and Hebrew words to be certain the text and the context is saying what was intended.)

Words, languages, are how we connect with one another. Often our difficulty with misunderstanding and division can begin with the words we use that may convey different meanings to someone else than they do to us or not even mean what we actually think they mean because we have not really checked to be sure our communication is clear and accurate.

I wish that weather was more consistent and pleasant. That would be a way to view the word “wish.” But I “hope” that our guests enjoy the dinner I have prepared more accurately points to the definition of the word “hope.”

We sometimes hesitate to use the word “hope” because it does sound like we are counting on something to happen and that puts us on the spot in any number of ways with those who hear us say whatever it is.

“All acts of hope expose themselves to ridicule because they seem impractical, failing to conform to visible reality. But in fact they are the reality that is being constructed but is not yet visible. Hope commits us to actions that connect with God’s promises.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses

One of the great examples that fits with the concept Peterson describes is found in a well-known passage in Hebrews:

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

Maybe we can all grow in our respect for the words that can so easily slip from our tongues or pens, but also respect the value and need to hear words that encourage, inspire, comfort, nourish, or challenge us to be better than we may be if we have not heard them or spoken them. Reading Hebrews 11:1 reminds me (perhaps you) that it appears faith activates hope.

“Biblical hope, though, is an act…Hope acts on the conviction that God will complete the work that he has begun even when the appearances, especially when appearances, oppose it.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses

Peterson goes on from this statement to quote William Stringfellow whose words spell this out more specifically: Hope is reliance upon grace in the face of death: the issue is that of receiving life as a gift, not as a reward and not as a punishment; hope is living constantly, patiently, expectantly, resiliently, joyously in the efficacy of the word of God.”

Wishing is looking at the heaps of snow, listening to the howling winds, and shivering in the icy temperatures and wishing it would go away. Hope is seeing, sensing, and feeling all those things and looking for the crocuses to pop up their heads from the snow.

“It is, of course, far easier to languish in despair than to live in hope, for when we live in despair, we don’t have to do anything or risk anything. We can live lazily and shiftlessly with an untarnished reputation for practicality, current with the way things appear. It is fashionable to espouse the latest cynicism. If we live in hope, we go against the stream.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses

It can be easy on wintry days, days of chaos and growing darkness and confusion to leave hope out of our arsenal to face these things we would prefer not to, things we wish would go away. That would be a sure way to upend us. But we must resist that temptation and steadfastly move to act on what we believe Christ points to over and over again. Otherwise, we will only see giants in the land and miss the fruit He has provided as well.

Photo by Rob Blair – Quote by Eugene Peterson

Challenges of Being Uprooted

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How often someone can speak about a desire to escape to a deserted island when life feels overwhelming, but the Tom Hanks’ movie, Castaway, presents a much less glamorous picture without likely still covering the full scope of such a reality. Most of us enjoy getting away on a vacation, away from our usual responsibilities and schedule but it isn’t “home” and after a rest and reprieve from our routines, we tend to look forward to returning home.

Being uprooted can bring a lot of different things to mind. It may connote disconnection from a place or people we love or a required transfer from a job and routine that we have known. It can mean leaving home and moving because you have married, been deployed for military service, or been forced to move into assisted living.

Many have felt uprooted by the challenges this pandemic has created. That means nothing about our usual activities or connections with others have been the same for many months. For some it has resulted in feelings of isolation due to the separation from those people and things they most value. Home has been where we spend most of our time and for some who live alone it has been harder to cope with as the months have stretched into a year.

But there is another kind of uprooting that is more ominous that some have faced – exile. From those persons we can learn much beyond the more common kinds of uprooting and sense of isolation I have described.

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Exile requires us to take a road to a place that is not of our choosing. Eugene Peterson gives the meaning this way:

“The essential meaning of exile is that we are where we don’t want to be. We are separated from home. We are not permitted to reside in the place where we comprehend and appreciate our surroundings. We are forced to be away from that which is most congenial to us. It is an experience of dislocation – everything is out of joint; nothing fits together.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses

Whether we are exiled or more commonly uprooted the crucial question is how we respond to it. They each are tests of our character and the foundation on which all we are rests. The uprooting caused by the pandemic and its consequences give us a glimpse of how we might respond if exile was ever required of us.

We can spend the time lamenting about what has changed or we can use the time as an opportunity for growth.

“…this very strangeness can open up new reality to us. An accident, a tragedy, a disaster of any kind can force the realization that the world is not predictable, that reality is far more extensive than our habitual perception of it. With the pain and in the midst of alienation a sense of freedom can occur.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horse

How easy it can be to forget this world in which we live is not our home. Peter reminds us of that in 1 Peter 2:11. Our lives will always be prone to uprooting and upending, pain and dislocation, so long as we are on the earth. It doesn’t mean that we will not have good times, pleasure, comfort, sweet memories, but the earth has been contaminated ever since Adam and Eve fell in the Garden of Eden and we live out those consequences even now. But if we are believers in God, in his goodness, mercy, and grace and have been restored to Him through Christ there’s “a better” ahead of us beyond our capacity to fully imagine.

Various people groups have experienced exile that was both terrifying and traumatic. One of those was Israel. Their exile recounted in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah and elsewhere is described by Eugene Peterson:

“Israel’s exile was a violent and extreme form of what all of us experience from time to time. Inner experiences of exile take place even if we never move from the street on which we were brought up.”

“These experiences of exile, minor and major, continue through changes in society, changes in government, changes in values, changes in our bodies, our emotions, our families and marriages. We barely get used to one set of circumstances and faces when we are forced to deal with another.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses

Living life requires us to adapt to change because this quote about change being a constant in life is true. No matter how much we might think we enjoy change or actually do, not all changes will be of our own choosing. Our bodies will change and age and that will bring other changes (many will not be ones we enjoy). If we accept this truth about change and the words of Peter, then perhaps we can rest in the surety that our faith can grow and even thrive in the midst of being an exile or uprooted at any level.

“The only place you have to be human is where you are right now. The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at this moment.”

“Exile reveals what really matters and frees us to pursue what really matters, which is to seek the Lord with all our hearts.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses
Photo by Rob Blair