More Than You Can Ask or Imagine

There’s a lot going on.

I’m writing this while a torrential rainstorm is raging outside my window, except I don’t feel like I can legitimately describe it that way, because Texas has just been demolished by hurricane Harvey, the Caribbean and quite possibly soon Florida are being more-than-pummeled by Irma, and the Columbia River Gorge is going up in smoke.

I visited the Columbia River Gorge for the first time in June, and one of my fellow Northeasterners said, “It’s like back home, except on steroids.” He was right. Everything looked familiar–only about 50 times bigger, and prehistoric. Northeastern woods aren’t that old, actually, because early European settlers deforested the place, optimistically trying to farm this pile of even more prehistoric rocks. It’s weird to think that the first time I saw that particular West Coast view is now the only time, for me, and that no one else will ever see quite that same view again outside of pictures.

Also, the United States (where I happen to live, which is why I’m not also citing the monsoons in Bangladesh, etc: much as I might want to be entirely un-nationalistic, sometimes I have to admit that I am at least as self-focused as anyone else) is in what might be called a state of everything-turmoil (including but not limited to politics, religion, morals, ethics, the environment, personal and national identity…fill in the blanks). Also, nukes. There are a couple of passages in the Bible where God promises to do more than we could ask or imagine, but see here, God–I don’t personally know anyone who actually asked for any of this, and it is, I’m pretty sure, beyond what anybody could have imagined. And so maybe that promise isn’t what we wanted either?

On Sunday I preached a sermon which was supposed to be about joy, and maybe it actually was by the time the Holy Spirit tweaked what came out of my mouth as it reached the hearers’ ears. (It wasn’t, I felt, that great a sermon on its own merits, but I got a lot of positive feedback.) I was preaching from the story where Simon Peter has an epiphany that Jesus is the Messiah, except he doesn’t quite know what that means himself, because right after Jesus says, “Yeah, so the Messiah has to go to Jerusalem and be tortured and killed and come back to life,” Peter says, “God, no. [That’s not me throwing in the Lord’s name in vain–that’s basically what Peter said.] That can’t happen to You,” and Jesus ends up calling him Satan.

I was thinking about this tendency we have as humans to imagine that a miracle always means the prevention of disaster. Or the halting of it, if the disaster is already underway, like Irma, or cancer. Or the fixing of it like it never happened, if the prevention and the halting don’t work. And if we don’t get the miracle (or can’t quite believe in miracles), we just try to reframe the tragedy, like Not As Bad As Someone Else’s Problem or like It Will Get Better or like At Least You Still Have… (or …Don’t Have… or whatever).

I was thinking how Peter was just trying to give Jesus a little bit of positivity when He was being so dang negative. I was thinking how Jesus called Peter “Satan” after that little bit of positivity and then told him he was thinking from a human and not a divine perspective. I was thinking how human we just all are. I was thinking about how even Jesus asked His Father, some time later, to prevent the suffering–His own suffering–if it were possible to accomplish what would have been accomplished through the suffering. But it wasn’t.

Because apparently God accomplishes things through the suffering.

Now I’m wondering, more than thinking. What I’m wondering is about the nature of “what we ask or imagine.” I’m wondering about the reaches of God’s imagination beyond ours. And I’m starting to wonder if maybe, in God’s imagination, preventing catastrophe altogether is less of a Big Deal Miracle than utterly transforming it. I don’t mean reframing it, rebranding it, “at-least-ing” it, suppressing it, ignoring it, pretending it didn’t happen. I mean remaking and “re-meaning” the whole thing.

Traditional Christian teaching says that when we throw our lot in with Jesus and let Him take over, we ourselves become something new. I think this is a process as well as an event, but what I’m wondering now is if, when it says that we ourselves become new, it also opens up the possibility of God transforming not just our character, and not so much our circumstances, but our experience of things, and of God Himself. I wonder if that sounds like a consolation prize to us simply because the only experience we have that seems remotely like that is reframing, and we all secretly know that’s a hollow exercise even if we engage in it regularly. I wonder if it sounds thin simply because it’s fathoms beyond what we could ask or imagine.

I pray, “Lord, have mercy,” an awful lot these days. Usually when I pray it, I mean things like, “Please bring an end to the violence and fear,” or “Please don’t let hurricane Irma come any further.” I don’t think it’s always so bad to make those requests to God. Even those miracles take me pretty much to the edge of my imagination, and certainly to the edge of my faith. Also, right this second, all I’m experiencing is a rainstorm and a cloudy day. I have absolutely no desire for disaster to hit any closer to home. I’m a wimp, really. I’m certainly not asking God to bring it on. But my mind is being nudged open a little these days, to consider that God–in His very mercy that I am invoking–might on occasion only be able to do a Real Miracle when catastrophe unleashes itself so that God can transform it.

I mean, it’s happened before.

Crucifixion Sketch by St John of the Cross, c. 1550

Published by Jennwith2ns

Jesus person. Wife and step-mom. Daughter, sister, auntie, friend. Collector of stories: mine, yours, tangible, not... Pastor of Central Baptist Church, founder and spiritual director at The Pilgrimage, and author of Trees In The Pavement and Favored One.

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