“These moments were not empty suffering”

Any person who believes in God has to confront the problem of human suffering. Why does God permit it?

“Lord, does suffering have any purpose or meaning?”

Of course, suffering is what makes life serious. Imagine a world in which actions never resulted in suffering. Imagine a world without the pain of regret, without feeling bad about doing something wrong (or) shameful.

“But disease serves no moral purpose.”

Now you are fencing with Me on “the problem of pain.” Just listen. You will never learn from fencing.

Disease, disaster, aging, death are essential aspects of suffering. “We” live in a physically vulnerable world. That is the essential condition that makes life serious.

“All that’s rather abstract, Lord. What exactly does disease do for us?” I thought of Job’s boils.

Suffering is the test of your humanity. There is no greater test than pain—how one copes with it. It is easy to be nice, faithful, and such, when things are great, but very hard under adversity.

“But, Lord, that just seems perverse—or cruel.”

No, that’s not so. Think about your own times of physical suffering—in the hospital, for example—the shots, the clumsy aide, the itch, the nurse about urinating, those were full of growth.

Those examples brought back memories. A couple of years before these prayers began, I suffered a mild heart attack and was rushed to the intensive care unit. They took blood tests, day and night. There are a limited number of places from which blood can be drawn, and the same spot cannot be used again right away. The wrists are ideal, but mine are sensitive and a needle there smarts. One does not have much power as a patient, but safeguarding my wrists became my prime imperative. One after another blood drawer would come, and I would plead, argue, wheedle, and insist they find some other place to puncture me. Each resisted, then managed to find a spot.

I was transferred to another hospital for the surgical procedure. I was met by a technician who said his name and stuck out his hand—while looking the other way and standing on my oxygen tube. When it was time to go into the operating room, he snatched away my blanket with so violent a jerk it would have ripped out the intravenous insertion if I had not by now been on high alert.

Once in the operating room, I was placed on a slab with my arms flat at my side. Medical equipment loomed above, posing an impressive threat. “Don’t move!” I was told. My nose chose that moment to itch. The itch grew intense, then more intense, dreadfully intense, until nothing existed but me and that itch. Then I understood. I can’t fight it. I just have to live with it, until the procedure is over. I don’t know if the itch went away or what—I forgot all about it.

The procedure went smoothly. I watched the monitor as the surgeon snaked a catheter through an incision in my groin up to a major coronary artery where a stent had to be placed.

Opening an artery is a very serious matter. Bleeding can be life-threatening. The patient has to lie flat and immobile for twenty-four hours. Nurses at my first hospital had been angels in white, but here I was attended by Nurse Ratched’s less charming twin. She seemed to resent patients needing her help. Finding it difficult to manage the bedpan flat on my back, I asked for assistance. She acted as if it were a dirty-minded request and responded by threatening me, “If you can’t manage the bedpan, we will catheterize you!” Finally, I did manage, and it was time to close up the artery. Another patient had told me the closing could be dangerous as well as painful.

“Who is to perform this delicate operation?”

Nurse Ratched gave me the grim news: young Mr. Sizzorhands, the technician whose previous efforts to hurt me had been foiled, would now have another shot. I asked for someone else. “He is the only technician available.”

“I am not going to let that guy lay another hand on me.”

She made it a battle of wills. We went back and forth. Finally I said, “Let me speak to the doctor.”

She said she would see what she could do and, after a time, she returned with a young Asian-American attendant. He had magical hands. I didn’t feel a thing.

My body was recovering nicely, but the whole experience—starting with “indigestion” in the night (I didn’t know that was a heart symptom), calling the office the next morning to find out what nearby doctor was covered by my health plan, driving myself (fool that I was) to the doctor’s office, filling out forms and waiting for some time before going up and telling the receptionist, “I may be having a heart attack,” the quick examination and discovery that I was at that very moment in the throes of an incipient attack, an emergency medical team rushing to my side trying to head it off, being shoveled into an ambulance, the sirens, intensive care, the surgery, the whole ordeal—left me feeling fragile, as if I were made of spun glass. A sharp tap and I would shatter.

They (these moments) were not empty suffering; they even had to do with leading you to Me.

“How so, Lord?”

They focused your attention on your mortality, which (led) you to open your heart fully to Abigail because you realized how precious this love was. And it led to your prayer to serve God.

“There are different pieces of the same puzzle.”

If there is one God, why are there so many religions?  Philosophers call this the Problem of the Diversity of Revelations.  But I was told,

(There is) no reason to think (the) diversity of revelations is a problem, any more than for a therapist to say different things to different clients (whose needs and situations differ).

That analogy didn’t take me very far.  The therapist, like a doctor, is giving advice depending on the needs of the client.  But God is giving different people contradictory stories about Himself, and also about how they should live.  Perhaps God’s messages had to start simple, when cultures were primitive, and became more adequate as cultures developed.

“Lord, do Your revelations progress from lower to higher?”

Yes and no.  Much of what I have to say is universal, and good for all times and places.  Some is quite specific to the individual and his or her circumstances, the actions he or she faces.  Some is developmental, on the side of the culture and also on My side.

“Why not just give everyone the whole truth?”

Your question has presuppositions—that I have given different, incompatible stories to different cultures.  This is only apparently true.  If you think them through, they are different pieces of the same puzzle.  Names shift but that is superficial.

“Even though one says ‘God’ and another (thinking of Buddhism) says ‘Nothingness’?”

No religion puts Nothingness in the place of God.  If it appears to, think again.  What is the role of each (name)?  Is one a substitute or replacement for the other?  And (think about) the meaning of each.  Are they really incompatible once you examine their properties?

“Perhaps each religion is like a single eye-witness report of some strange event such as a Martian landing.  The reports might be wildly different from one another.  The challenge would be to sort them out and put them into a single coherent account.”

Not exactly.  It’s not to blend the religions into a single synthesis or theology.  It’s to put them into one story.  (To take your analogy,) imagine a reporter who interviewed everyone who had an encounter with the Martians, starting at the first encounter, and wrote it up as a narrative.  Certain consistent themes might emerge, but this would be different from a scientist trying to adjudicate and synthesize the reports.  In your version (of the religions), there will be an additional unifying factor—Me.

“I want you to enter My heart”

It all seemed intolerably bizarre. I thought I should talk it over with the wisest people I knew. One, a distinguished medical ethicist, responded, “First of all, this is not weird.” Nothing he could have said would have been a greater relief to me! Another, a well-known author, said, first, “That’s great—now you know there is a God,” and then added, “You have had a Kierkegaard moment,” recalling that philosopher’s question, “If you encountered Jesus on the streets of Copenhagen, would you follow him?” A prominent lay theologian said he was “touched” by my story and suggested some reading while I waited for my “big” assignment.

While there were also cautionary responses, no one seemed to think I was crazy or a fool to take the voice seriously.

Still, I was not prepared for the next experience.

I want you to enter My heart.

Enter God’s heart? This is weird, Lord, and scary, like out-of-body travel.”

I will protect you.

For moral support I asked, “Lord, first give me Your love.”

Let Abigail love you. You will feel My love through her.

“Then strengthen me, be with me, for this.”

I will.

He took my hand, as it were, and led me into the “heart of God.” I had expected it to be an overpowering, perhaps terrifying experience. But it was more like the eye of a hurricane. I was at the center of something vast and powerful, but here it was quiet, calm, and peaceful. I surveyed the things I feared—the end of my career, loss of reputation, financial insecurity, and a book that went nowhere. In that calm that is God, each concern disappeared.

Illuminations

 

 

 

 

Ask yourself what I am looking for.

One day I learned more about God’s story when I asked simply, “Where should I begin today, Lord?”

Ask yourself what I am looking for.

“Love?”

Well, yes, but what is that love?

“Interaction, communication, understanding?”

YesI long to be recognized, to be understood, and then to be taken in.

I wondered why a great being like God would need to be loved by mere mortals.  “Why does that matter to You, Lord?  You’ve got it all, just being God.”

That is silly.  This is what I am.  I am like a function looking for a variable.  I am only half the equation.

I looked for a humbler analogy.  “Like cement looking for bricks to hold together?”

Okay.

“Is that connection only what You need or is it also what the world needs?”

Both, obviously.  In your analogy, the world is like the bricks that need to be held together.

“But, Lord, I sense that Your yearning is not just a factual incompleteness, like needing a pair of gloves.”

Yes, it is a deep internal dynamic that drives Me forward to do the things I do.  I unfurl the world and call forth life and send signals to people.  Listen, and feel.

“The feeling that comes to me is Your desire to call into being a corresponding being.  It seems a lot like the dialectic of self and other in Hegel.  Subjectivity desires to objectify itself, as it does in artifacts, and to subjectivize the surrounding world, as it does in interpretation, and, even higher, to encounter another subjectivity.”

I am a Person, searching for …

“That’s what I wonder, Lord.  I can’t quite imagine what You are searching for.  Just interaction?  That seems too limited and, in a sense, too easy.”

It is not just looking for company.  Perhaps speaking of loneliness is misleading.  Why does a human being look for love?  It is not just for company.  That is companionship, not love.  You want to pour yourself, your concern, your destiny into another person.  And you want them to respond in kind, to understand and recognize and sympathize with and care about you, (and) to share your life story, so that I becomes we.  And the result is not just good feelings or good times; it is ontological, it is virtually molecular.  You know that, because you have experienced it.  Imagine how puny your love is (not to belittle it, but just for comparison) compared to Mine.  What is barely ontological or molecular in your case is fully so in Mine.  The constitution of the universe is altered by My love and My being loved.  You can’t just say “God so loved the world …”  Love is a two-way street.  Anything unilateral is merely an effort at love, not its fulfillment, not its achievement.

You could tell My story, one version of it at least, through the history of love.  What has love meant and been over time?  From Abraham’s love for his wife and his son and his God, through the Ramayana and the compassionate Buddha and Jesus and Plato’s philosophy as eros toward wisdom, to Christian chivalry and Buber’s I-Thou—these are stages that reflect My development and My interaction with human beings. 

“The whole now needs to be told.”

“Lord, what exactly is my assignment?”

The world needs to understand My story, or at least to understand it better.  I have given parts of the story to different people at different times.  The whole now needs to be told.  Your effort will be part of telling that whole story.

“Do You want people to piece the whole together out of the parts?”

What I most want is for people to listen to Me.

“And to listen to what You have told various people over the ages?”

Yes, that is part of listening to Me.

“What exactly do You want me to write?”

God: An Autobiography.  My story is the history of Me—how I came to be.

I have given you some clues . . .

I had received visions of the explosive expansions of time and space, and of divine energy rushing up through all levels of reality. Were these intimations of Creation? I was told,

The work I want you to begin involves reading and writing about My nature. Start with the Creation. I have given you some clues already. Follow up on them.

One day, in quiet reflection, I was taken deep into the Self, taken back, it seemed, to the Beginning. Here is how I described it right afterwards:

“There was a sense of things shattering, like crockery breaking, or like the shell of an egg breaking. (I think of Kabbalah and its image of Creation as divine vessels breaking.) Then there is a river, or milk, flowing out from amidst the shards. The river is clouded in mist and flows a long way down canyons of shards or rocks. Until it settles in a pool below. Tranquil waters. This is when Life begins. Cool, calm but rippling waters.”

 

All this was taking place on a flight to California to visit my ninety-year-old father. Sitting beside me was a nine-year-old girl, traveling alone. She kept looking at me, wondering what I was up to. Ignoring her was unkind, so I stopped praying and chatted with her.

After that, I returned to my own meditations and received a stream of visual images, a vision: the sun cracking up, solar flares that zoomed out into the reaches of space. I then saw, through the mist, an ethereal caravan of camels and their riders, coming up a valley, their long line stretching behind, down a winding road into the distance. I followed the road back to the source. I came upon vast winds, like a monsoon, then a world exploding—and then the vision abruptly stopped. The caravan seemed to represent the long course of human history, traced backward, all the way to the beginning, and then nothing.

I had received hints about the moment of Creation. Then, one day, He told me more. This is where God’s story really begins.

Do it as an organic flow

“Lord, I know I should try to live each day in response to Your purposes.”

That is right.  Not just to do it mechanically, like a soldier following orders, but to do it as an organic flow, wishing to be in touch with Me and to live in accord with My will, My love.

 

“It’s a mistake to try to control God . . .”

My first impressions of the ancient Egyptians were formed in Sunday School, put to music by gospels such as “Go Down Moses,” and brought to the silver screen by Cecil B. DeMille.  It was not a pretty picture—false gods, harsh rulers, fake magicians, and slave-drivers wielding the lash.  Egypt was on the wrong side of everything.

But now I was told that God was sending divine messages to every culture.  So I had to look at the land of the pharaohs through different eyes, Egyptian eyes.

Written in hieroglyphs that were already old when Sumerian cuneiform was young, the Pyramid texts date back almost five thousand years.  Chiseled into the walls of the dark corridors beneath these monumental tombs, these texts provide the deceased Pharaoh with the keys to a successful afterlife:  how to overcome each obstacle on the way to the divine realm and what words to speak to the guardians who block the way.  One strategy was to enter the cyclical course of the cosmos and accompany the sun god in the barque that transverses the sky each day.  The deceased king went so far, according to one inscription, as to kick the sun god overboard to make room for himself in the divine barque.

The complex mythology of the Egyptians far surpassed the simple piety of preliterate polytheism.  But, however complex, these greedy efforts to compel or trick the divine powers seem spiritually retrograde compared to the sensitive cave paintings and the humble peasant honoring a stream with a pile of stones.

“Isn’t that right, Lord?”

Yes, it is a fundamental mistake of man to try to control God rather than the other way around.  Do not exaggerate it.  It is no different from (no worse than) trying to bribe the king’s mistress or learn the password that goes you through the palace gates, but it is not high spirituality, and in fact is not really a kind of spirituality at all.

Illuminations

 I Did Not Feel Ineffable.

Mysticism is often considered the highest level of religion, but for a long time, there were no mystics.  God was interacting with people in many ways, but not through mystical union.  Then the first mystic seers appeared.  In prayer, God explained,

Now people were coming to me—not in limited ways, praying and offering sacrifices and so forth—but in a kind of merger … they were entering into Me, and I was receiving them.  That was a new experience.

“So You responded?”

It is hard to explain.  It’s like suddenly finding that you are the natural home for these creatures … the bosom or womb or home or ocean that all return to.  That is no more important a part of My nature than others we have discussed, but it is important … 

And then another thing happened.  Much more than before, these sages began to ponder My nature and (to) try to articulate their understanding of it.

And two changes occurred as a result.  First, for the first time, I was an object, to be defined and analyzed.  It is like your first experience with a psychologist who has a lot of boxes to put you in (introverted, repressed, etc.).  As God, I had not pondered My own “nature.”  I had no need to “define” Myself, but the effort of others to do so had an impact … 

It came clearer that I was an object to others, a source of puzzlement, even mystery, to them.  In fact, they would say that My nature was ineffable, beyond all language, all logical categories.  They would describe Me in paradoxes—neither existent nor non-existent, and so forth.

And this has an impact.  I did not feel ineffable.  To be sure, I am hard to describe and human concepts are not adequate, but that is true of the physical universe as well.

“You say it has an impact?”

It creates a problem.  It puts a barrier between Me and My creatures.  How can they approach the ineffable?  And even that mystical aspect leads them to regard Me as a pea-soup they want to dive into.

It did leave Me with a problem:  how to break through the fog ….

“Then mystical union is not the goal?  The purpose is to live the life you’re given?  Is that right, Lord?”

Yes!

 

Illuminations

I will be there.

Let’s go to Moses.

Exodus reports that the Israelites “groaned from the bondage and cried out, and their plea from the bondage went up to God.  And God heard their moaning, and God remembered [literally, took to heart] His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.  And God saw the Israelites, and God knew.”

“What did You know?”

What I needed to do.

“And what was that?”

Read the next chapter.

“It’s about Moses encountering the burning bush.”

Yes, I had to get his attention.  Often I have to put something in people’s paths to get their attention.

“And the Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of the bush, and he saw, and look, the bush was burning with fire and the bush was not consumed.  And Moses thought, ‘Let me, pray, turn aside that I may see this great sight, why the bush does not burn up.’  And the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, and God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’  And he said, ‘Here I am.’’’

“He reports for duty, ‘Here I am.’”

Moses had the capacity to listen to Me and to obey.

God gives Moses his mission.  “And now, go that I may send you to Pharaoh, and bring My people the Israelites out of Egypt.”  And Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring out the Israelites from Egypt?”

But Moses will not be on his own.  “And He said, ‘For I will be with you.’”

Moses protests.  “Look, when I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’, what shall I say to them?”

There are various translations of God’s answer, the most revealing of which is by Everett Fox.  Moses should tell them “I will be-there” sends me to you.  “What does this mean, Lord?”

Several things are going on in that name.  I did disclose it and they got it essentially right.  Self-disclosure is part of it.  Presence is part of it.  The fact that I am seen all the time, that I am ever-present to people, communicating with them sotto voce all the time.  It is also reassurance, because I am there to help.  When you need me, I will be there.  It also has something to do with the quality of presence, that I am fully and authentically and immediately and intimately present, as when you say that one person is “more present” than another.

It means that My essence for human beings is that I will be there, be present, that I am a companion and friend and ally; that My very presence is the heart of Me, and is what (the what of Me) human beings need to know, (the what of Me) that matters.

I will be there for you, by your side, in the fight or in the suffering or in the love.  I will be a participant and a partner.  That is My essence for human beings.