Janell Downing is a voice we all need to hear this season. Her profound call to faith and resilience in the midst of a world gone mad is the steel reinforcement our battered souls need.
I first met Janell in Bible College when we both joined a singing travel group called, Destiny. Since then, I have helped decorate for her wedding, played with her children, and have shared some of the most connecting moments over a good cup of coffee. She is passionate about theology and the arts and finding the Gospel in our stories. I am thankful for her friendship and her bold heart to speak the truth in love. It’s a blessing to have Janell with us at the table today.
Guest blog by Janell Downing
“Pour out your Spirit, Lord : that we might dream your dream.” (From the Book of Common Prayer).
“So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?” -Ecclesiastes 3:22
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” -Hebrews 11:1
I long for structure these days; boundaries and routines. These got pulled out from under me when the Pandemic hit back in March. It’s now the end of June and my life feels like a swamp rather than the above picture of neatly plowed fields, each with their own design and purpose. My friend Camille says to look for the things that spark life in me to help me trudge through the swamp. Clues to get me from one mossy stone to the next.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.Psalm 119:105
I’ve grasped at things I can control like, paint colors and food choices and music, while the world we live in spins out of control. Controlling words are spewed at each other on the internet, arguing on separate wavelengths. Anger and pain are left within the human while their fingers type blurbs about complex issues. Humanness and nuance are bypassed for the individual’s right to be heard. (Oh Lord hear our prayers). Underneath all this rubble of words and debris of misunderstandings, we can find longing as old as Eden. The desire, no, the need to be loved. And to love in return. I wonder how much-misplaced love is out there? I would hope that if I were found among the injured at the bottom of the rubble, I would not be too proud to cry out for help. I would hope I would not remain angry.
Here is where I find faith these days.
Faith was given to me when I was a child. It remained a small, comfortable thing because I was small and comfortable. Little did I know that this faith of mine had a life of its own. I grew in my understanding that faith never originated with me but it was something that came to me by God’s grace alone. I’m glad for this because if faith were something I had to conjure up myself, it would die! I would be crushed under the weight of my own doubt. Thankfully, as Makoto Fujimura puts it in his stunning book Silence and Beauty, “rather than having faith in faith itself, as a point of certainty that relies on our volition only, true faith is a childlike trust in God, who allows his children to question him as they might question their earthly parent, and to do so in the certainty of the relational knowledge and trust of the Father.” I am free to doubt within a trusting, relational knowledge of the Father. To cry for help, to confess, and honestly wrestle with the faith God has given me is painful. But the alternative would be a deadly fake. How vital it is then for us parents to allow this in our own relationships with our children!
This living and breathing faith moves and grows in me like the Holy Spirit that is uniting and moving believers around the world. I am pulled to this mighty breath of life here in my small corner. More than ever, I find myself wondering, what is the work I am called to right here and now? How do I find out what the work is? I’m discovering that small, consistent acts of contribution are growing seeds of faith in me that I never thought possible. If something is worth keeping, I will develop faithful practices to cultivate it. I will pay attention and listen. I will value silence, solitude, and stillness. I will value a trusting rest in the Father.
I will till the soil that is Faith.
As a steward, I fertilize, water, and pull weeds; so that the fruits of the Spirit can grow. Parker Palmer says in his book Let Your Life Speak, “We do not believe that we “grow” our lives – we believe that we ‘make’ them. Just listen to how we use the word in everyday speech: we make time, make friends, make meaning, make money, make a living, make love.” I’ve been trying to move my perspective to one of patient and attentive growing instead of the more instantaneous and impatient making.
I long to practice this faith well. Thankfully, I can find structure within practice, discipline and habits. In On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior, she writes “While our works cannot save us, our habits can strengthen our faith. Martin Luther cautioned, ‘Do not think lightly of faith. It is a work that is of all works the most excellent and most difficult.’ An understanding of faith as not only a gift that is received but also a virtue that is exercised will emphasize any single moment less and the accumulation of moments more. Fortunately, the Bible gives a clear recipe for the building on the foundation of faith, which can only strengthen faith itself:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.2 Peter 1:5-9
I’ve heard a lot of complaining these days, my own voice included. The Covid-19 Pandemic has revealed to us yet again that we are not the boss of our lives and we don’t like to be told what to do. But to the American Church, I say let us remember who we belong to. Let us not be nearsighted and blind. Or as my friend Alexa likes to say, “Don’t grumble, be humble.” Let us learn how to suffer well. Let us learn how to sacrifice for the sake of the world knowing that we are one. There is no law against the fruits of the Spirit. What am I feeding myself? Am I hoarding information and conspiracies in fear or trusting that God will yet again provide my manna tomorrow? Manna is only available today. Remember when the Israelites tried to collect extra? It rotted. And then they had to clean it up. When my faith is misplaced, I spend more time and energy cleaning up the mess. Oh, how impatient we can be!
The stunning thing about faith found in Christ is that it is resilient.
If I let Him break my heart of stone, He will turn it into flesh. Molding, stretching, making small and then expanding, but never breaking. Down here in the swamp, I grasp onto faith practices like the Examen. The Examen is a centuries-old practice in the church that invites us to prayerfully reflect on our days in the presence of God. One that has helped me stay attentive to the work God is doing in me and those around me is from Sacred Ordinary Days compiled by Jenn Giles Kemper. Weekly and monthly, I can reflect and reset. I prayerfully contemplate my spirit, body, mind, relationships, home, work, and resources. I find that when I am consistent with the Examen, I am more at peace with myself, God, and others.
But the Examen is a personal practice. There’s a curse within the past three months. That is, the one place that we could gather together and kneel, and fix our eyes on the eternal and reconciliation, we can’t go there. We’re maxed out on technological “connection” and we just can’t look at another screen on Sundays. I’ve yearned for that tangibleness. I’ve felt a heaviness to repent. Often. And to have absolution! I miss the gathering of believers. I miss proclaiming the Good News to one another in song. I miss corporate prayer. I miss laying hands on one another as we pray. I miss sitting in the pew when I’m tired and sad and letting the Church body give glory to God for me. I miss taking communion together and offering it to each other. I know some of these things are still happening, and that is where I have to trust that the Holy Spirit is working. Underneath all of our desperate prayers, the Spirit is moving and uniting the Global Church.
So I return to the meditation center at The Grotto here in Portland. As soon as phase 1 started, I found myself running there. Within the quiet enclosed room is a bronze replica of Michelangelo’s sculpture Pieta (Italian for pity, sorrow or compassion), and Mary holding a lifeless Jesus in her arms after he was crucified. I wept. There is something to be said about going to a place with intention, to confess, lament, and listen. My tears don’t even come close to Christ’s as he suffered on behalf of us.
So it’s here and there, up and down I go.
Down into the swamp to find Jesus, and up the trees to see what His Spirit is doing. From the aerial view, it looks like nothing is wasted; while down here, I’m afraid everything is. And this is where I find myself, between the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and Omega of a resilient faith. I’m learning to settle into sehnsucht, described by C.S. Lewis as “inconsolable longing.” Letting that homesickness guide me and pull me, instead of always trying to make it go away. Maybe the Maker of the Universe is trying to tell me something. As Andrew Peterson writes in his book Adorning the Dark, “The Kingdom is coming, but the Kingdom is here. That’s why we’re homesick, and it’s also why we might as well get busy planting.”
Get to work and let it be.
A little note from Colette
Hey friends, I am so glad that you have joined us for the Ordinary Time series! This series will give us the opportunity to hear from a variety of voices, from different backgrounds, holding their own strong convictions around faith all the while calling us to the same thing: perseverance. I give my guests the freedom to express their faith freely and any specific convictions they may hold. This is bigger table theology working itself out on this blog. We may not all agree concerning specific areas of scripture but one thing I know we can, Jesus is Lord!
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