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2014 Sherman Lambert photo of sidewalk chalk art

2014 Sherman Lambert photo of sidewalk chalk art

Years ago—almost two decades ago—my husband Sherman and I attended classes at church based on a series of short stories and essays—more often secular than not—where readers were challenged to hear God in the words, even if the author had no intention of addressing God from a faith tradition. Over time we studied all four volumes in the Listening for God series.

I liked the classes. They reminded me of the “Portraits of Jesus” class I had taken in order to meet the religious course requirement at my college. I wouldn’t have signed up for the course, but I was studying abroad and had to rely on my fairly unconventional advisor to register me for the next term. I was surprised he had chosen this class for me after receiving my instructions where I told him to find me something different since “I had gone to church and Sunday School all my life.”

But, boy was I wrong about what that course was about. The first day of class the professor handed each of us a sheet of paper with various facial features for us to cut and paste into a portrait of who we thought Jesus was. Dr. Wolff presented Jesus in the varying Christian gospels, from readings from other faiths, and through all sorts of secular literature and movies where we looked for the Christ figure. He did not tell us what to think though I knew for a fact he attended a Lutheran church close to campus. Surprise, surprise, but at the end of the course I still thought Jesus was the guy I was taught he was while growing up, even though a bit grittier and more nuanced.

Our church is revisiting the Listening for God story series and this time Sherman is taking turns teaching the course with the woman who originally taught it back in the 90s. Sadly, since I sing in choir now I can’t attend most classes, but I’m still re-reading the stories so I can work with him as he ponders the coursework.

What I realize is that these stories are much darker to me now than they were the first time around. I and the world have changed. I see depths I could not see then—I am not quite the sunny optimist I must have been years ago. Is this part of the natural process of aging or have my own life experiences dimmed my ability to read with a more objective eye?

Frederick Buechner’s words in “The Dwarves in the Stable,” an excerpt from his autobiographical Telling Secrets hit me hard, especially now that they were so personal to me. In it he discussed a time in his life when his daughter was dangerously anorexic and how trapped he felt in his fear. He compared himself to C. S. Lewis’ dwarves who cannot accept the food and drink offered by the lion Aslan (of the Chronicles of Narnia) because they are so afraid that they cannot see love when it is offered.

“Perfect love casteth out fear,” John writes (1 John 4:18), and the other side of that is that fear like mine casteth out love, even God’s love. The love I had for my daughter was lost in the anxiety I had for my daughter.

This time I really got what he meant when he stated, “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.” Maybe it was the daughter part—which I now understand to my core having lived something similar—but somehow in earlier days I hadn’t connected with how fear—of anything—drives out God’s love. Maybe all fear for me pales compared to the fear for a loved one’s life.

Oh, the darkness was always in the stories but now I know fear much more personally. Unlike Buechner, though, apparently I have not done enough of the hard work of putting aside my fear in order to receive the love freely given to me.

That God’s love is greater than fear and darkness is a lesson I seem to have forgotten. As I once read those stories from a place of innocence and light, my bigger task now seems to be re-learning to see the light that is also in all those stories—and all around me.

Fear not, indeed. And so I renew my search for light—and continue listening for God.

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