Saturday, February 26, 2011

"The Samurai" by Shusaku Endo

I broke out of my habit of reading only literature that was originally written in English to read something translated from Japanese. Shusaku Endo was a modern Christian author who has been called "a Japanese Graham Greene" for his deep explorations of Catholicism. The epithet is unfair to both authors, since the only things they had in common were their religion, their willingness to ask painful questions, and their consummate skill as novelists. Their styles and perspectives are completely different.

In other words, I read this book with as much enjoyment as I did any of Graham Greene's stories. Endo's art as a novelist shines through translation, since his structural balance and precision with symbols transcends particular words. The emotion contained in this story is very deep yet restrained, making it feel characteristically Asian.

Endo's Christ is a man of suffering who can identify with the poor in spirit, and in The Samurai, suffering is the gateway by which humans begin to desire God. It is an extraordinarily thought-provoking and meaningful novel.

Waiting Together

"I wish I had known. I wish I could have just sat with you," commented a friend on a previous post in which I described a time of great darkness in my life.

She expressed what Henri Nouwen describes as key to our spiritual lives: waiting together. Nouwen recounts that after being visited by Gabriel, Mary visited Elizabeth, who also was waiting on a promise from God. The two women spoke God's words to each other and together experienced joy and awe at what God was doing in each of them. Nouwen says:
By being together these two women created space for each other to wait. They affirmed for each other that something was happening that was worth waiting for. . . . Christian community is where we keep the flame of hope alive among us and take it seriously so that it can grow and become stronger in us.
Does your Christian community allow space for your fears and questions? Does it listen quietly, intently, for God's voice spoken into your life? Does it accept the existence of times in your life when you are not alright? Does it sit by your side as you wait, just being with you, a warm presence when the world feels dark? Does it affirm the promises you have heard, expecting to see God's goodness expressed tangibly to you?

It's very rare to find Christians who can wait with us, but it is a good desire to have. If you are waiting alone for something, don't feel ashamed if you have to look outside of your current community to find people who can truly help you in this way.

There's a lot more in Nouwen's "Path of Waiting" that I didn't discuss in these blog posts - specifically a big section on God's waiting for us - so go read it yourself now!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Active Waiting

My last entry about Nouwen's essay said that it's okay not to be some kind of spiritual hero while you wait for something. But I do believe there is a practice of waiting - things you can do to draw out the meaning and purpose of your particular situation. Here is what Nouwen says about this:
If we wait in the conviction that a seed has been planted and that something has already begun, it changes the way we wait. Active waiting implies being fully present to the moment with the conviction that something is happening where we are and that we want to be present to it. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, believing that this moment is the moment.

Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna were present to the moment. That is why they could hear the angel. They were alert, attentive to the voice that spoke to them and said, "Don't be afraid. Something is happening to you. Pay attention."
I try to be present to the moment by thinking in terms of the following questions:
  • What is happening inside me?
  • What is happening around me?
  • What might God be saying to me?
For nice little Christian girls like me, asking myself what is happening inside is difficult. It means identifying how I actually feel - whether that means admitting that I actually feel sick and therefore can't follow through on a particular commitment, or admitting that I feel angry or fearful or some other emotion that I have learned to suppress as evil. But when I allow myself to just listen to what's going on inside, I meet myself on a deeper level. And it's the real me that God cares to interact with.

What is happening around me? is the fun question. Instead of fleeing my current situation or feelings, I bring myself to the moment and engage all five senses. I look out my window or listen to the wind, or I pay attention to the people around me.

And then I use the information I have gathered from within and without to see where it points. Sometimes the beauty outside my window reminds me of God's gentleness and the fact that He is taking care of me no matter what happens. Other times I see something to be done - something simple and practical like eating lunch, or something more longterm and complex, like seeking counseling. (Again, this is hard for me. Over the years I've somehow developed the mentality that suffering is merely to be endured, not addressed.) And other times, nothing happens. I stay there on my bed with my headache and nothing changes, and I try to be patient, and sometimes I am and other times I get grumpy, but eventually the headache does go away because life never sticks at just the one place forever.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"'If people can live all alone,

why do cries of grief fill every corner of the world? You have travelled through many countries. You have crossed the ocean and circled the globe. Surely all along the way you must have seen that those who lament and those who weep are seeking after something.'

"What he said was true. In every land, every village, and every home they visited, the samurai had seen an image of that ugly, emaciated man, his head bowed and both his arms extended.

"'Those who weep seek someone to weep with them. Those who grieve yearn for someone to lend an ear to their lamentations. No matter how much the world changes, those who weep and those who lament will always seek Him. That is His purpose in living.'"

~ The Samurai, Shusaku Endo, ch. 9

Saturday, February 05, 2011

When You Don't Know What You're Waiting For

Those who were waiting [Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna] had each received a promise that gave them courage and allowed them to wait. They received something that was at work in them, a seed that had started to grow.
What if you don't have a promise? Nothing's happening and nothing's changing, and you're just hanging on, barely holding on and perilously close to letting go.

I have been there, so I don't write this flippantly. I have waited so long, such an agonizingly long time, for things I wasn't sure I would ever receive. In the summer of 2009, just before I was diagnosed with Lyme disease, I gave up hope that I would ever be healed from chronic illness. I had waited so long that my soul was emaciated with it.

I wasn't waiting on a promise, like the people Nouwen mentions in the passage above. I had no idea what was in store for me. I couldn't count on something good happening. In a way, my waiting wasn't waiting at all - it was a day in, day out struggle. And I don't fault myself in the least for that. I got tired of spiritualizing my misery, trying to exercise some sort of superhuman faith that had no relation to the reality of my existence. I got tired of pretending, or of putting the real me to death so that I could look all churchy.

We don't always know what we're waiting for.

* * *
We too can wait only if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. Waiting . . . is always a movement from something to something more. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna were living with a promise . . . that nurtured them, fed them, and enabled them to stay where they were. By their waiting, the promise could gradually unfold and realize itself within them and through them.
Just because I didn't know what I was waiting for doesn't mean that God wasn't bringing it to pass. I can look back now and see the "promise unfolding," God laying the paving stones of the path I would walk on to freedom. It was all happening in those years of devastation. When everything inside was dark, the little dead seed was getting ready to grow. Things were happening; everything was happening.

God doesn't need our help with this stuff. He doesn't need our false patience and our empty faith.

* * *

So you don't have a promise. All you have is dreams of a better life, of real love and living beauty - a vague dream of heaven. And it's a heaven you aren't even sure exists. You aren't sure about the God (god?) that lives in it.

We are all so wonderfully human, with that ghastly survival instinct, that stubborn will to live. Something in the tangled darkness of our hearts keeps breathing, makes us fight for air. It's horribly selfish and yet beautiful too, because that's the life that God fans into flame. That's the promise when we don't have a promise.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Fear

Nouwen rightly identifies fear as a main reason why we don't want to wait. "As fearful people we have a hard time waiting, because fear urges us to get away from where we are. If we find that we cannot flee, we may fight instead. We are aware of the many destructive acts that arise from our fear that something harmful will be done to us."

Take my mid-afternoon slump at work, when I want to bolt across the country. What fears am I fleeing? I am afraid of a meaningless existence, a life in which no adventure happens. I am afraid of never getting married. I am afraid the difficult things in my life will never improve. And these are not small fears. To fear meaninglessness is to recognize that as a human I was made for splendor, and to wonder if the God who made me this way will also satisfy this need, which is the same as wondering if He is good.

I may not be aware, as I sit there in my cubicle, that my agitation results from an uneasiness about God. But in my restlessness, I might do some pretty destructive things. I might be unproductive because I can't concentrate. I might go and have a stupid conversation with someone, a conversation in which I don't really love the person I'm talking to, because I'm trying to silence my fear. I might spend a panicky half-hour planning a particular future for myself that I'm never going to follow through on.

The alternative is to wait: to sit with my fear for a while, hold onto my questions without answers.