Lean In: When the Valley of Suck Gets To The Soul

I don't recommend posting pictures of food while fasting!
"You gotta deal with what is on your plate."

I think this phrase goes along well with Jesus’ challenge to deal with “the log in your own eye.”  When I wrote about an internet troll the other week who likes to “pounce” on hashtags Christians often use, I thought the issue was about my faith.  After a few exchanges, I had volunteer work to do, and so I had to leave our conversation.  I can only guess this person went back to his hobby.  What was on his plate was not what was on my plate.  I’m not saying he had a log in his eye - I have my own - but it seems to me, there is no reason to start trouble where none exists.  Now if it is already there?  That maybe another story altogether.

In my Christian tradition, the United Methodist Church, we’ve got a mess on our hands.  Here is the thing for me though, I have my own plate right now: trying to figure out being a single dad, dealing with my own grief, caring for my soul, and trying to return to caring for my church and community as a pastor.  My journal indicates my plate is piled high with my own stuff.

So I’ve been hesitant to weigh in much farther than I have.  In my reality though, the UMC IS part of my plate.  I have also experienced both grace and neglect at the hands of my denomination.  We are not a perfect denomination.  There are MANY growing edges and we are not perfect people (though we ARE suppose to be striving after perfection).

We may well still be a people seeking after God’s heart, but even the one was a man after God’s own heart was proved to be fallen and corrupted by sin.  Consider just a moment the OT and NT comments in reference to King David:

...but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” (1 Sam 13:14, NRSV)

When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.’ (Acts 13:22, NRSV)

All this sounds good until you read 2 Samuel 11 and beyond.  The real man after God’s heart wasn’t David, but Uriah the Hittite, the man who appears loyal to God, king, and country.  David, though “a man after God’s own heart,” abuses his power and takes advantage of a man full of integrity and loyalty.  He trusts his king.  What does it get him?  Death.

Ultimately, the issues is not one JUST reserved for the UMC.  There are ample stories of the church being used and abused for selfish gain.  It grieves me to write this in so many ways but it seems true that if even the one man after God’s “own heart” can succumb to selfish ambition and power, how much more so will a group of people be tempted to do the same?

And by corruption I DO NOT mean the exploitation of funds I mean something far more sinister; that is the desire to amass power and influence; the underlying corruption of the “passions” the desert fathers and mothers fled and warned us about.  I DO MEAN the neglecting of soul searching and examination.  I DO MEAN an intensity and passion for seeking after God.

I wrote on Facebook the other day:

When you "Go with God," why do we always forget that means building a big boat? Going to a land you don't know? Heading into the desert? Facing giants in the land? Having spears thrown at you? Being tossed into pits? Thrown in furnaces? Not having a place to sleep? Leaving behind family? Giving up privilege? Being crucified?

If your "Going with God" only includes material blessings and peaceful living and a perfect family life, you aren't reading from the same Bible or history or tradition I keep studying and reading about and have been the past few decades.

"Going with God" means following Jesus, and friends, we're not there yet, not me and not you. Certainly not in the USA. Mercy Lord.

Notice what I left out?  “Going with God” may also get you killed by “the man after God’s own heart.”

Do I sound a bit dire?  Well yeah!  This year I’ve been preaching on Luke’s Gospel all year and that means a lot of time reading Jesus’ words and you know what? Jesus seems pretty adamant  the situation of our souls and our lives is pretty dire too.  We may not know it.  We may know it and not want to speak about it but this doesn’t change Jesus’ concern:

23 Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily,[a] and follow Me. 24 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. 25 For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? (Luke 9:23-25, NRSV)

I never seem to get this one out of my head and heart, especially not after living with someone like my late wife who lived so much of her life “losing her life” for the sake of Jesus.

What I’m finding is this journey, walking through the valley of suck, can mire us down.  What I have found most freeing though in my soul's journey with grief, is not to step back, but LEAN IN. It applies to ANY crisis of our lives and faith though but it is not often addressed. Even though my kids are struggling with their faith, I am still encouraging them to LEAN IN and not WALK AWAY. Their mother did not and it is not what I'm doing. I've yet to see it to be helpful in anyone's life. In times of trial, it ought to be our first counsel to ourselves and others - lean into traditions of the faith handed down; lean into the radical nature of Jesus’ call to die; lean into the call to crucify “the old self;” lean into the arms of Jesus.  

Remember doing trust falls?  This is precisely what the lesson is - but now you do it with Jesus.  Jesus knows us too well.  The Bible doesn’t say trust those with “God’s heart.”  It says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths (Proverbs 3:5-6).”

May I Ask:  Who or what are you really trusting with your soul?  Is it the church? Is it someone? A spouse, friend, or therapist? Or honestly, is it God?  Don’t give up on the others but take time to be honest with yourself.

May I Suggest: LEAN IN.  Go all in with the practices of faith and life of your tradition.  Rather than turn from God (the tendency in the valley of suck), go ALL IN with prayer, meditation, worship, Bible Study, fasting, etc.  This is EXACTLY the right time to “taste and see” God.  (Psalm 34:8)

Image used with permission: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/chimichanga-1318480


Cynthia Astle said...

Ken, once again you have seen past the externals into deep spiritual truth, both for yourself and for our faith community, the United Methodist Church. With your permission, I'm going to repost this entry on United Methodist Insight.

And on a personal note, my husband John and I have been going through our own "valley of suck," as you know. I will try to do more "leaning in," and not pulling back, as John and I have both wanted to do. Meanwhile, my prayers for you and your family continue to "rise like incense." We are on parallel journeys, but we're still connected through the Spirit. -- Cynthia

Ken Hagler said...

Thanks for asking as always and you're welcome to repost. Prayers continue for ya'll too

Ken Hagler said...
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