Resting in God

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Giraffes Can’t Dance, by Giles Andreae & Guy Parker-Rees.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 11:28-30

St. Augustine of Hippo

When he was not much older than me, a man back in the fourth century started writing a book. That one book turned into thirteen before he was done pouring out his soul through pen and paper. The author—named Augustine of Hippo—had only been a Christian for ten years, and these books were an attempt to express how God had worked in and through him. The Confessions—as the books came to be called—are an outpouring of praise and repentance, and they continue to function as a model for Christians who seek to articulate their own spiritual autobiographies.

In his own telling, Augustine was a man who had trouble finding his own way in life. He was born in North Africa, in what would have been regarded a backwater area. His father was a Roman official, but his role meant he was held personally responsible when there was a shortfall among the collected taxes. This was no doubt a strain on the family’s resources and one reason Augustine described them as poor. While Augustine’s father was a pagan, his mother had raised him Christian, and her devout faith left a significant imprint on young Augustine.

That said, he never himself became a Christian until his 30’s. He proved himself to be a good student, but the family’s financial troubles kept interrupting his study. In the end, he attended university and became a professional public speaker and teacher. He started living with a woman and had a child out of wedlock, and he began following the Manichaean religion, which was a kind of syncretism of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity—all of which Mani (the founder) did not believe went far enough. (Later in life, Augustine would be perhaps the most significant voice of the Christian Church condemning Manichaeism as heresy)

At about age 30, Augustine moved to Rome—it seemed a prudent vocational decision at the time. In reality, however, it proved disastrous. The only good outcome is that he was noticed by a Roman official who helped him get a new job in Milan.

It was in Milan that everything changed. From his previous experiences, Augustine felt that Christianity just wasn’t intellectually rigorous—it consisted of simple beliefs held by simple people and it did not stand up to the inquiry of logic that was so central to his life. (He was an academic, and Christianity was soooo hoi polloi). 

But in Milan, Augustine encountered a bishop named Ambrose. Even today, Ambrose is considered an eloquent speaker, so you can imagine the impression he left on Augustine. For reasons I’m not sure even Augustine ever understood, Ambrose took him under his wing. In the Confessions, Augustine writes: “That man of God received me as a father would, and welcomed my coming as a good bishop should.”

Everything was coming up roses. His career was taking off, and his mother managed to arrange for an advantageous marriage to a good Christian girl. This latter part was painful for Augustine, however, because the cultural dictums stipulated that he must send away his lover in order to be married. 

But it was also around this time that Augustine had an experience of God that shaped the rest of his life. As he tells the story in the Confessions, it was in August 386 that he heard a childlike voice telling him “take up and read.” He understood this to mean he should pick up a bible and read the first thing his eyes alighted on—what a mentor of mine referred to as “bible roulette” or the “flip-and-point method of discernment.” Augustine landed at Romans 13:13-14:

“Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy—Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:13–14 NRSV+)

This Augustine saw this to be an indictment of his life and an instruction to make some changes. He broke off his engagement, changed many behaviors, and was baptized the following Easter. Over the next years, his mother and child died, and Augustine sold virtually everything he had and gave the money to the poor, following the instruction Jesus gave to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:21. He was ordained in 391, and became “bishop of Hippo” in 395, a position he retained until his death. Augustine began his Confessions just two years after becoming bishop. He was a famous preacher and we still have over 350 of his sermons preserved. He advocated for Christianity in North Africa his entire life, fighting the heresies that so frequently invaded Christian churches. Alongside John Chrysostom, he is one of the most prolific writers of Christianity, and many regard him as the most significant theologian of the Church after the apostle Paul.

In the first book of the Confessions, in the first chapter, in the first paragraph, and in the third sentence—(so the third sentence of the entire work), Augustine prays: “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” [REPEAT]

Aside from being a beautiful sentiment, I believe this brief confession is truly at the core of Augustine’s faith. As he tells the story of his life in the Confessions, Augustine tried to “find rest” through relationships, through education, through work, through prestige, through wealth, and through pretty well anything else you can imagine. But none of these things brought peace; none brought rest. Like a wandering pilgrim on a journey, Augustine shuffled from one place to another, but he never arrived at a place that welcomed him home. Not until he found a home in God.

Matthew

I think that is what Jesus is talking about in today’s scripture text. Just like Augustine, there are so many things we try to stuff into the voids we feel in our being: we become workaholics and wanton consumers who worship at the idol of busyness. Like junkies, we sacrifice our health, our relationships, our faith, and everything that counts for another hit……of new, or entertaining, or at least distracting.

It all adds up—everything you buy, everything you consume, everything you damage along the way—these are the burdens that crush shoulders and souls alike as we submit over and over to slavery to the powers of this world.

Jesus calls to us:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30 NRSV)

“God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”

Isaiah

It’s a call that has gone out from God since the beginning, really. The words of God in Isaiah 43 have long echoed in my heart in those times I need to find rest in God:

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you…

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine…

For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:2, 1a, 3a NRSV)

Giraffe’s Can’t Dance

The children’s book this week might be about dancing giraffes, but it speaks truth to the heart of this struggling Christian as well. 

“Sometimes when you’re different you just need a different song.” There is no one-size-fits-all shape to the Christian life—in fact, Paul and others are quite adamant that we are all made and gifted differently by God’s intentional design. 

We each have to find our path; we each have to discover our gifts. But we are also not in this alone. The reason we are different is so we can be complementary—after all, we are created to be interdependent……in community, as our triune God is in community. 

Hear the Christ, calling across the ages:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

And confess with me:

“God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”

Indivisible?

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Hugs from Pearl, by Paul Schmid.

Scripture Reading: Romans 8:35-39

Separated?

In our scripture lesson today, Paul writes to the church at Rome, where it feels the world is spinning off its axis. 

Tensions are mounting between Christians and Jews…

Christians are getting kicked out of the synagogues where they’ve had their faith home…

and the politics of their city and nation are absolutely out of control. 

In all likelihood, Nero is emperor, and the burning of Rome and his casting blame on Christians is less than a decade away. 

The Christians of Rome are in a toxic environment—one that is filled, quite literally, with “hardship… distress… persecution… famine… nakedness… peril… [and] sword.” This describes daily life for them.

Paul wants them to know with certainty that this reality does not indicate God’s displeasure with them—that they are not experiencing hardship because of a lack of faith. God’s love is indeed with them. And not only can these physical realities not separate them from God’s love, here (offers Paul) are a list of immaterial realities that also cannot divide them from God’s love: 

not death, not life;

not angels, or rulers;

neither things present, nor things to come;

not powers, not height, not depth;

not anything else in all creation (Romans 8:38–39 NRSV)

Nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Period.

Lovable?

But you know, I believe Paul is also speaking to Christians here who (like many of us today) struggle with whether we are very lovable to God. 

From my experiencing listening over the years, I know there are many of us who just don’t feel like it is possible for even God to love us. 

We know some of the struggles inside ourselves all too well. 

We know our failure to reach perfectionistic heights. 

And more often than not, we were taught explicitly or implicitly that perfection is precisely the God-ordained minimum. 

So how then can God love us at all?

 

Now while I’m talking to Christians here, I have to point out that I’ve heard some of the same things from folks who haven’t yet decided to follow Jesus. 

How can God love me given my past? 

How can God love me given my struggles with addiction? 

How can God live me given the things I’ve done? 

How can God love me given the things I’ve let others do to me? 

How can God love someone as messed up, broken down, and untrustworthy as me?

The truth is, I don’t always know how to respond.

I don’t know how, because I do not understand God’s love for me. These struggles are my struggles too. But life with God has taught me that whether I feel lovable or not, God has loved me—and does love me—and will love me with a deeper, more real love than any I have ever known.

Christ is the proof of this, at least in the eyes of the New Testament writers. 

Just a few verses before where we started reading this morning, Paul defines God’s love for us: it is because God “did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Romans 8:32 NRSV). 

Or as Jesus put it in John 15:53, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NRSV). 

Or as 1John 4:9 offers, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1John 4:9 NRSV).

Wherever we pull from in the scriptures, we cannot get around the fact that Jesus demonstrates for us God’s radical love of us. 

We do not deserve it…… That’s why it’s called grace.

We cannot earn it…… That’s why it’s called grace.

It does not rest on what we do…… That’s why it’s called grace.

God’s love is an unorthodox, unrestricted, and incomprehensible gift…… And nothing we can do can cause that love to be diminished, divided, or erased. 

Period.

 

To be clear: our human embodiment of that love may be even more incomprehensible (if that’s even possible). But the nature of love remains the same. 

“Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. 

It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth. 

It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.” (1Corinthians 13:4–8 NRSV)

Indivisible?

I know I’ve used this illustration before, but when we were expecting our second child, I was truly concerned: I loved our first child so much that I was genuinely worried that I wouldn’t have enough love for another one. My fears, however, were quickly put to rest; love, it seems, is a bottomless well, an endless stream, a cup that always flows over.

Maybe saying love is “indivisible” isn’t quite right. 

Love is divisible, it just doesn’t diminish when divided. That’s what we get wrong about love, I think: It actually has infinite divisibility. 

Infinite disibility is just one more bit of wonky church math to add to your repertoire:

There’s the Trinity, where 1 + 1 + 1 = 1

There’s the dual natures of Christ, where 1 + 1 = 1

And now we get the infinite divisibility of love, where [love ÷ n (where n = any number) = LOVE]

 

I was thinking about this already, and then I came across a pretty remarkabe poem by Anita Atina called “The Heart of Love is Indivisible.” A couple lines near the end nearly took my breath away. She says:

If the heart of love is indivisible,
set free those you love

From the chains of expectation
and labels of the world…

For the heart of love expands,
when more is asked of it

“The heart of love expands when more is asked of it.” 

That certainly characterizes the heart of God that I have come to know through Jesus. And I believe that heart of love expands even larger than anything we might conceive. 

It is God’s love that brought Jesus into this world.

It is God’s love that is demonstrated in the world through Jesus.

It is God’s love that we embody, when we allow our hearts to expand large enough to set free those we love from the chains of expectation and labels of the world.

May God’s desires be fulfilled through us, for the glory of God and the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom.