Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby!

Religions have been built around it.
Societies have been founded on its expression.

Human sexuality has been adored, hidden, shamed, placed on a pedestal, worshipped, hated, exploited, depersonalized, despiritualized, over-spiritualized, glamourized, over-analyzed, ignored ... and the list goes on and on. Sexuality (though not necessarily gender) seems to be a part of our nature from the beginning stages in the womb; we are hard-wired to feel sexual pleasure and to experience sexual drives. An argument could be made that even asexuality is an expression of sexuality. Regardless, it seems reasonable to start with the premise that, if you are human, you are a sexual being.

I could get into all kinds of theories, philosophies, arguments and speculations as to whether our sexuality is a part of how we are made in the image of God. Our ability to participate in the creation of "one flesh" from two (both in the sex act itself and in conception) is a unique invitation to participate in the divine with God. He even seems to command us to be sexual creatures in Genesis - as if He knew that this would be good for us and for the earth. At the same time, however, the whole story of Adam and Eve seems to be more about family than sex; it was not good for adam (the human creation) to be alone, so God separated the adam into ish (male) and ishah (female) so that adam was no longer self but community. We are created to be in relationship. It's not about sex or marriage or the mysterious one flesh so much as it is about the fact that if we are not touched as infants we literally die. Our idenity is formed in relationship and it is not good for us to be alone.

But I don't want to talk about whether sex is a necessary part of being human or being a reflection of God. I don't care if Genesis is about one or the other or both or neither. Sometimes I think we want to ask the big theological questions either in an attempt to justify what we want to be true, what we want to do, or simply because in our hearts we are desperately asking the question, "Am I alright?"

I want to address sex, instead, as a very real part of being human, partially to answer the cry of our hearts, and partially for practical purposes...

Because sex seems to be this crazy physiological, spiritual, and emotional thing that is meant to draw us to God and to relationship - because if we do not have relationship, we will die (or worse yet, we might live but live in isolation from God and others, which, in case you haven't made the connection, is hell). Sexuality is a good thing meant for our good. Unfortunately, it can also be the source of a great deal of shame, trauma, pain and destruction. Understanding and stewarding our sexuality seems vitally important and pertinent, then, to caring for our bodies, our spirituality, our relationships, our society, and our world.

Most people do not know that sex apart from relational bonding - mental, emotional, spiritual intimacy - literally destroys our brain tissue. That's right: self-stim and casual sex floods the brain with dopamine which, by itself, is acidic and eats holes in the frontal cortex (the place where personality and impulse-control reside) damaging a person's judgment, ability to connect with others and eventually resulting in personality change over time. It also creates a dopamine "crash" after which it takes the brain chemistry ten days to establish "normal" again.

Sex is not necessarily meant for our selfish, personal gratification; it is not meant for the harm or exploitation of others; and it is not meant to be expressed as we see fit, the way we want it, when we want it, how we want it. We are not entitled to sex or particular forms of sexual expression. Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. And frankly, simply because we are born as sexual beings does not mean that we have any sexual rights or permissions from God.

People need to hear that we are sexual beings. Denying or ignoring it isn't very productive or helpful. Demanding or abandoning ourselves to it isn't good, either. We need to integrate and steward it as a part of being human, as a part of being called of God, as a part of being mature and loving and healthy and alive. I believe that there has to be a healthy way to embrace this aspect of our personhood. And in the hopes of striving for that good thing, let's talk about...

~ The physiology of sex, purity, addiction, and recovery
~ The healing nature of God and relationship
~ The seasons of sexuality and sexual stewardship

Let's talk about sex, baby!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Amnesia and Anhedonia


I once wrote movie reviews for a very small, corporate newsletter. I was keen on the job partially because I loved movies. My mom had thousands of them in her video library as I was growing up and I honored her tradition by catching almost every new release that came out.

I feel the need to mention that I am a visual learner. More than that, I am a visual person, something I usually hear as a descriptor for men. I love that which is visually aesthetically pleasing and I have an archive of visual references in my head pertaining to just about every thing I've ever seen and been drawn to. I have no idea why that might be important, but there it is.

Needless to say, as much as I was a fan of movies and the visual arts, it was rather disconcerting when I started to notice something strange in the course of my movie-going. Honestly, I think it had been present and building for some time, but I first became cognizant of it while exiting a little theater in my home town one evening. I embarked upon the short trip home in the dark and I can still remember the blur of passing headlights as I absently made the left-hand turn onto my street. It was that moment that I found myself thinking that there was something I was supposed to remember.

It wasn't that I'd left my purse at the theater, or that I'd left the coffee pot on at home. It wasn't that I had forgotten an appointment or was supposed to be somewhere else. It was just a strange sense that I had been doing something, something important, but I couldn't remember what it was, and it seemed kind of vital that I remember it.

Soon it became a regular occurrence upon leaving a movie - and then even upon finishing a movie at home. It was like suddenly waking up to the fact that I had been asleep but not known it, and it left me with a sneaking suspicion that something significant was happening, something I once knew about but that I couldn't for the life of me remember anymore.

That is when I remembered - of all things - a movie. It was that scene in Labyrinth that I describe in the first blog on this series, the one in which the enemy attempts to thwart the heroine not by challenging her directly, but by distracting her in an effort to make her forget. That was the feeling I hadI was distractedly admiring each lovely image while slowly being buried in things that were completely unimportant, feeling strangely discontent, vainly looking for something - but not remembering what it was I was looking for.

Now, before I continue, I will say again: I still love movies. They can be a lovely way to relax, to set aside time to recuperate from the almost constant pressing demands of life. They are fun and they can be a way to make meanings and connections one might not otherwise make (as I have just demonstrated and will continue to rely upon). Furthermore, they can be a way to fellowship and connect with others. This is not a blog disparaging movies.

However, I started to realize at about the age of 24 some very interesting things. First, I started to notice that all the things I loved in movies (and books) were almost completely absent from my life. I went to movies because of the epic adventures, love stories, and depictions of causes and themes greater than self. But adventure, love, and greater purpose were a bit sparse in my real life. Oh, sure, I went to church every day and was a Bible-thumping fundamentalist when it came to political debates, but let's get real: I wasn't changing anyone or anything, let alone the world - or even myself, for that matter. I started to wonder if I wasn't just living vicariously through some of these movies. What I really wanted, however, wasn't to watch others live life, but to live a life worth watching!

But movies weren't helping me do that. In fact, they seemed to be luring me away from real life: They weren't just occupying my time, they actually seemed to be lying to me. 

I noticed that real-life love and adventure didn't *feel* the same as it did when I watched it on the "big screen."

This is actually an important factor in understanding pornography addiction and anhedonia. The sex and romance in movies elicit a different psychological and physiological response than real relationship or real life does. Of course, it makes sense that this would be the case; in movies, you are an observer as opposed to a participant in the action. You can drink in all of the highs and lows without actually experiencing the physical sensory data that would then lead to specific hormonal and chemical changes in the body. In other words, it stimulates your brain through the eyes and the imagination as opposed to through a more concrete, physical, or "holistic" experience. In movies, you can experience sex without all the trappings of a physical body or the tricky and risky interference of another person. It's like a kind of emotional masturbation. And what is particularly unnerving is what this kind of stimulation ends up doing to our brains.

Of course, this isn't just movies. It is the nature of pornography and romance novels - even Christian romance novels.

Before I knew about the studies being done on this sort of thing, though, I decided that, while I enjoyed the highs of fiction, my real life was being robbed of imagination; while I looked forward to the dreamy reassurance of Christian romance novels or films, I experienced a growing discontent because my life didn't match or make me feel the same way; and while I loved a good movie, it was programming me to process life as being a particular kind of visual/emotional experience that doesn't exactly exist anywhere else but while watching a movie - and that, tragically, can not only addict us to the highs of the surreal, but it can make real experience much less of a high, less enjoyable or less stimulating - or the wrong kind of stimulation - a kind that comes with discomfort or annoyances or frustrations and limitations.

Movies are easier than real life. Being a consumer of fiction is easier than living.

So, I set aside my Christian romance novels and I sought to learn about relationship from my marriage.Then, one day, I stopped picking up sci-fi novels and eventually, I actually stopped going to movies for a while. I gave up my tv, too, and was without any kind of artificial visual stimulation for some time. In fact, I still do not own a tv and do not have cable. I live without the inundation of sights and sounds being channeled into my home, my mind, my daily personal life (and it is GLORIOUS). I started to pay attention to how things felt in real life and I started to develop a new appreciation for the messiness of being alive - and from deriving pleasure from reality, from good things that I was always meant to enjoy.

It's like drinking water again after only ever drinking soda. It's not sweet. It doesn't give you that lovely bubbly feeling as it hits the roof of your mouth and travels down your throat. But it is so much better. And when you're sick and dehydrated, you recognize that it is better - unless you're really addicted to pop, in which case you crave it even when it'll kill you. But why does it take us getting sick and dehydrated on Pepsi or Coke or whatever to appreciate water? And then, why do we go back to the fake, dehydrating substances again?

In Recovery Ministry, we talk about how the freedom to do what we want is not true freedom. It is the freedom to not do things - the freedom to not take another drink, to not visit particular websites, to not think about sex, to not eat more, or to not get sucked into someone else's insanity - this is true freedom. This is the freedom I have found - freedom from distractions like the emotional stimulation of movies and tv, freedom from feeling what isn't real so that I have the capacity to feel what is - what is good and beneficial. 

awakened after a movie one night to the fact that I had been lulled into a strange forgetfulness, a place of feeling but not feeling, a place where I was living but not living. And so I pushed aside the pretty pictures, the trinkets and the books, I pushed aside the colorful distractions that the "Goblin King" and "Garbage Lady" had buried me in, so to speak, and I discovered that I was a girl on an adventure, called to vital work.  I am a part of an epic story unfolding in real life. And, like Morpheus, I seek to awaken others to the "world pulled over their eyes;" I want to expose the labyrinth so that it can be smashed to pieces with one simple phrase, "you have no power over me." If there are others out there who are slowly being lulled into a forgetful state of amnesia or anhedonia - or worse, addiction - I want to awaken them to the real story, to the battle being waged for our imaginations, our emotions, our energy, our lives.

After a long journey of more than six years, this is what I have discovered: Movies, romance novels, fiction, pornography - they all provide things we don't need, things that aren't real, all the while trying to convince us that they were what we really wanted all along, that they are somehow satisfying or fulfilling - perhaps even more so than real life, real love, real experience, real relationship. And the more we listen, the more we give them our time, energy, and emotional investment, the more it seems true, and the more we slip into anhedonia, an emotional amnesia that makes us forget who we are and what is really good. We don't know how to be in the real world anymore - and worse - we don't find the real world to be beautiful or fulfilling - or worse and worse - we become forces of destruction on those beautiful and fulfilling things, and we end up sick and dehydrated. Hopefully at that point we start to crave living water. But sometimes we stop feeling even that vital stirring for something more.

Now, if you are just someone who enjoys pop culture, movies, and books; if you don't think you pay a price for your movie-going, your tv watching, your pornography use, your over-stimulation, your emotional - or literal - masturbation; if you don't have a lack of emotional resources, investment, or energy; if you don't have to deal with anxiety, disconnection, depression, broken relationships, doing things you don't want to do, or a life that isn't all that you hoped it could be; if you aren't missing something or haven't forgotten something, or are simply happy right now where you are, then, honestly, praise God! This message isn't for you. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick!

If, however, you are poor, blind, enslaved, broken, empty, inadequate, lame, or just left with a nagging sense that you were made for so much more; if you think you might suffer from a strange amnesia or a subtle anhedonia, then my message to you is this...

Remember! Remember who you are and what the story is really about. Set aside the video games, the novels, the movies, the tv shows and come play outside, come sip of life, come and participate in the story God is telling and find real freedom, come find that which truly satisfies. Embark on a process of UNdoing what has been done, a process of RElearning what feels good, what is enjoyable and pleasing and beneficial.  Come, feel again, but not the emotional highs and lows of over-stimulation; come and feel the subtle beauties of just being alive. Come and learn how to love, connect, and tolerate unhappy feelings!

"Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare."

Isaiah 55:1-2

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Labyrinth

"Why don't you look where you're going, young woman!"

The words were spoken by a hunch-backed grandmotherly lady clothed in garbage, her face like an over-ripe pumpkin caving in on itself, her body round and squat. She had turned upon a childish brunette displaying large, dark eyes and a naive, empty gaze.

"I was looking..." the girl responded, trailing off.

"And where were you going, hmm?" the garbage woman pressed.

"I ... don't remember."

"You can't look where you're going if you don't know where you're going!" the old lady proclaimed, narrowing her eyes ever so slightly.

"I was looking for something," the girl said softly and in some confusion.

"Well, look here!" replied the woman in a sudden change of tone. She reached into her cloak and procured a teddy-bear as if by magic. "That's what you were looking for, wasn't it, my dear," she said. It was a statement more than a question - or perhaps, it was better described as an invitation.

"I forgot," the girl took the bear absently and held it close. Yet she seemed ... disconnected, dissatisfied somehow with the stuffed animal and the answer offered so abruptly by a stranger.

If you've seen the movie Labyrinth then you know why the young girl was confused. She was looking for something, something very important, but it was not a teddy bear. She was searching for her brother in an attempt to save his life. However, in the above scene she has completely forgotten what she is doing, what she is looking for. In fact, the girl's quest has been neatly sabotaged by a very ingenious enemy who, rather than challenge her outright, has foiled her by distraction.

The scene plays out as the garbage lady draws the mystified girl into a harmless-looking yet very intentional ambush, and soon our heroine is covered in toys, trinkets, makeup, books, and a plethora of other shiny/soft/colorful objects. The old woman isn't trying to bury the girl - not literally anyway. No, it is an inundation of stimuli meant to serve one purpose and one purpose only: To make her forget - forget what is important, what is good, what is vital, what is at stake - to make her forget and to keep her forgotten.

The visual metaphor is rich, and if I can, I'd like to use it to draw out a series of topics I have been wanting to write about for some time ...

Sex
Addiction
Ministry
Dating
Anhedonia
The Gospel
Pornography
Oxytocin
The Church

It's a strange conglomeration of issues, I confess. But starting with this simple scene in an 80's movie, I would like to try and lace them together. I want to paint a picture for you of my own story and quest to save lives and the battle that rages to make me forget - my identity, my calling, my story. And perhaps, if I can weave these topics together adequately, I might just expose what you may have forgotten about your story, too.

Welcome to my labyrinth!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

what God asks

The same God who promised Abraham a nation of descendants turned right around and asked him to kill his only son.

I wonder if we try to justify God and His behavior at times. We say things like 'He sees the big picture' and then we paint that picture in elaborate theological hues, often to evade such things as 'blood atonement' and 'child sacrifice.' Is it so that we can feel better about the outright scandal that is a part of the story of God and His people throughout scripture and throughout history? Is it so that we can feel a little less rejected, ridiculed or stupid when atheists point and call us 'dangerous' or hypocritical?

The truth is, the story of Abraham eventually describes God as commanding a kind of child-sacrifice (though the Jewish tradition notes that Isaac was a grown man at this point). But regardless as to how you frame it, it is atrocious. As Christians we are happy to make this story about Christ and then turn quickly to the New Testament. But God does not stop telling people to do things that are absolutely horrendous by anybody's standards throughout scripture - and history. Genocide, child-killing, prostitute-marrying, getting knocked-up by ghosts, preaching the gospel when it means a death sentence to everyone involved, including the new converts and their families. The scandal of the gospel itself was horrendous to the Jews of Jesus' time. It birthed a whole new [pagan] church that had something to do with cannibalism (as far as Judaism was concerned). And it is the scandal of the gospel that has prompted people like John Wesley to postulate a quadrilateral approach to faith, lest any one of us become the Wacko in Waco or a Hale-Bop Comet-Hopper, or just decide to go on blood-bath crusades.

I think we wrestle with this scandal partially because we want to rest in our own judgment, our own ability to reason and rationalize and understand, and we want to cling to our own social context for making sense of the creation and the Creator. We want to be able to sell Christianity on the open market with all the other philosophies and religions with confidence that it meets FDA standards, labeling it clearly for those who want a little more faith in their diet - but not so much that it clogs the arteries - as a legitimate alternative to atheism or agnosticism. We want to say, "God doesn't DO that," or "That isn't Christian" because it helps us sidestep the real issues of frustration, anger, fear, betrayal, despair, and the unknown.

But God says the foolishness of man is His wisdom and His wisdom is foolishness to man. He says that our ways or NOT His ways and His ways are not ours. Scripture also teaches us that against the fruit of the Spirit there is no law. Do we realize how scandalous that is? Maybe that is why, when Abraham left Sarah to go sacrifice his son it was credited to him as righteousness, because against faith, against hope, against love there is no law (which, by the way, doesn't mean that there is no law against faith, hope and love, but that, in comparison to these ultimate tests, the law is non-existent. It holds no weight, it has no authority). The greatest law is love.

Scandal!

Here's what I think. I think that our sin in the garden was thinking that we could know good and evil apart from God, that, in essence, we could become gods by our own rationale. Eve saw the fruit and decided that, setting aside the whole God thing, that it was good for food and she ate it. And we have been buying in to that frame of reference ever since. We divorce reason from relationship and in so doing fracture our own identities, our very connection with reality, by creating alternate selves, alternate worlds, alternate stories. We discuss situations where certain behaviors can be judged by themselves (as if behavior ever happens outside of motivation, emotion, social and historical context and relationship) based on some sort of inherent knowledge of right and wrong ... that sounds a lot like a tree in the Garden of Eden to me.

Did you know that God chose Jacob over Esau? Jacob was a mama's boy, a manipulative liar. There was nothing inherently right about him. We can make up a lot of stories as to how Jacob's succession as heir fits into some kind of plan that fits into some kind of ordered universe of right and wrong, just and unjust. But the truth is, it's really about God. God does stuff all the time that doesn't make sense and that affronts our sensibilities. The fact that He calls the Jews his people and others, at best, grafted-in, well, it kind of infers that we weren't all created equal, doesn't it? Maybe they are chosen and others are grafted in all as some sort of product of the fall from the perfect, ordered universe that still kind of exists and that we should somehow be able to tune into if we try really, really hard, but that still sounds like a tree in the Garden of Eden to me, in some ways.

But what if there were a perfect God who is not subject to our standards and all the rules we have come up with as we're eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? What if we could get to know Him instead? What if we stopped trying to justify ourselves and justify God by "the law" but lived in the Spirit, in relationship with God and others, in reality instead?

Yeah, the truth is, that's just a half-baked question and I'm a fan of the quadrilateral approach, myself. If I were Abraham I could imagine myself being brave and setting up the altar, but about the time it really came to doing something, I'd be like, "Um, okay God, I can't do this..."

However, God told me once to sacrifice something very precious to me. And when it came right down to it, I couldn't not do it. Even so,I had to tell God He would have to do it for me. So He did. And in so doing, I acted in direct opposition to scripture - well, to several verses, anyway, all while living several others out more fully than I have ever done before. And people called me what they wanted to - crazy, sinner, wrong, misled, rebellious. I was removed from public leadership, banned from small group, and investigated. And when all was said and done, the pastor apologized to me. The whole time, God merely said, "This is the fruit of My Spirit; against these there is no law."

But along with that story is another in which God told me to lay hands on a crippled boy and tell him that he was healed. I did not do it. I stood in a room of pastors as a 25 year old girl and said, "Me? You would ask me to do this among all here?" And I froze.

God does ask scandalous things of us, of me, constantly. I have both acted in faith and I have failed to act along the way. The question doesn't seem to be 'might God ask something of us as He did of Abraham?" but rather "God IS asking something of you; what is it?" The question isn't "How will I respond," it's "How am I responding?"

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Our Father

Anyone who knows me knows that I have never had a desire to have children. As a young girl, I credited my (at that time) unheard-of stance to a very pious (and somewhat self-righteous) philosophy that went something like this:

"I cannot think of one UNselfish reason to have children."

And, it was true, I could not. Having grown up in a home full of girls, most of them being much older than I was, I heard much pining for children with little variation in motives. Some girls dreamed of being wives and mothers - practiced and planned for it all of their young lives. It was about the fulfillment of their calling, their aspirations, their life's work. It was all about them. Some girls longed to have "someone who would finally love them." (Eeek! God help the poor child born into such an empty heart and into such unfillable expecations!) I heard women talking about getting pregnant to keep a man or to save a marriage. I also heard the stories of women and men who wanted to give their children "the life they never had" growing up (which, frankly, still sounded very selfish to me).

But in addition to the reasons I could not find for having children, I found a lot of reasons for not having children. Once again, growing up with kids who were in child-protective care for some reason or another gave me PLENTY of reasons. I think we have very little concept as to the prevalence and true depravity of the abuse that is perpetrated on the helpless every single day; I got to hear those stories first-hand. Why would anyone want to bring an innocent into a world so dark, so evil? I could not fathom it.

Furthermore, I knew something very fundamental, even then, about myself. I am human. I could see only too clearly a number of very personal reasons as to why I should not ever be a mother.

I feel the need to offer a disclaimer at this point. I think that motherhood is only ever to be honored as one of the most selfless and thankless jobs in existence. I do not share these things to denegrate motherhood or to belittle women who want children or dream of being wives and mothers (though, of the latter, I have definitely and sadly been guilty). No, I share this because, though I may never change my mind about having children myself, I have come face-to-face with something life-changing...

I grew up without a father. My mother had to be mother and father all by herself - not just to me and to my sisters, but to literally hundreds of children who were raped, beaten, molested, used, exploited, and abused in unfathomable ways. I suppose that she didn't have to. She chose to. She chose to be a mother to me, to her family, and then to further give of herself to care for others that way.

Anyone who knows me knows that I counted myself lucky at not having a dad growing up. There was no one to hurt us, for example, as most perpetrators are men, with a large percentage being fathers, sadly. There was no arguing or marital strife to cope or contend with. Honestly, I looked at other families and I truly thought that I had it made.

But I also thought that I was crazy when, at age 22 or so, I would very nearly burst into tears any time an older man in church looked me in the eye and spoke kindly to me. You see, though I had not experienced hatred, rage, or abuse at the hands of a father, I had also never experienced kindness, comfort, or cherishing either. In fact, I had never even witnessed other women experiencing those things or receiving those things from men.

It was a rude awakening at 25 to discover that I had a very empty, very dark place in my heart where a father was supposed to be - where any kind of positive male role-model or experience was supposed to be, for that matter. The image God gave me was of a neighborhood street, the homes neat and trim, the streetlights stretching on ... until they just stopped. The street continued, but there was only the blackness of night byond. And then ... nothing. Just ... nothing. Where people ought to have images of father, memories and fondness, love or connection or whatever, there was simply emptiness for me.

I began to recognize, to come to grips with and grieve this loss.

And then the strangest thing started to happen.

God started to fill that void.

There is a man that I will never forget who led a worship team at my church. He and his wife advocated for me at one of the darkest times of my life, and I will always remember that he was willing to step into the messiness of real-life and fight, fight for me the best way he knew how. I will never ever forget his words of compassion.

In the last five years there have been men who have spoken affirmation where there was only trauma and unworthiness before. There have been those who have offered a strong arm on which to cry and even a protective presence in questionable circumstances. I don't think any of them will ever know just how valuable these small and precious gifts were and are, like light on a dark street.

I have never been the kind of girl to look for a father. No, I suppose in some ways I tried to be what I lacked. I have always sought to be perfectly logical, for example, rational, and never controlled by emotion. I went for years without crying and then never let anyone see my tears when they came. More than that, I sought to be a woman of character - character that I never saw in men, in a dad. I wanted to be solid, dependable, a woman of integrity, in some ways to fill the void of that type of figure in my life - and, as I saw it, in the world. Everything I wanted in a dad I tried to be.

But as I have slowly released my death-grip on this one-girl attempt to change the world by being the one thing I never had, as I have painfully turned to look at who God created me to be, who I am, I have found that God has had His own agenda. He has wanted to be a father to me.

I was at the gym the other day. It was one of the worst days I have had in my journey of healing and recovery with God. I felt desolate and, I guess, a little lonely. I asked a friend who was on the treadmill next to mine how he recovered from the hurts and betrayals of his past enough to go on, marry, and have a family of his own. Honestly, I don't even know why I asked the question. I suppose I was just looking for a connection with someone and knew from his testimony that he would understand what I was fighting, that he would understand and not try to fix me. But what he said surprised me.

He started talking about being a father. He started to talk about looking down into the face of his little girl, and I saw and heard something I have never heard before.

I heard the heart of a father.

I had to turn away from him to bite back the tears that sprang to my eyes unbidden at his tenderness. I've never had that. I never had a dad to look down into my face and just love and delight at what he sees there.

But at least now I've seen it.

And I have a slightly better glimpse into how God must look at me: I think it looks a little something like the way that man in the gym looked when he talked about the face of his little girl.

As an adult, I have stumbled across two people who, when I asked them why they wanted to have children, gave me answers that I couldn't so easily dismiss as merely selfish. The first was a woman who took me in and gave me a place to stay when I didn't have a home anymore. She said something along the lines of, "When you have been filled with such good things as love and life, having children is a natural expression of its overflow." Cheesy, I suppose. But the other woman I asked said this: "God has given us two very unique opportunities to participate in the divine, opportunities that are ours only while we are on this earth, only to be experienced in this life: Marriage and parenthood. I want to take advantage of those opportunities while they are mine." Somehow, I think the two answers are intrinsically linked.

I confess that I am glad I am not faced with any such divine opportunities right now. I do not know if I have the courage that these last two women seemed to demonstrate, the first who is a mother and the second who is not yet married. However, I can attest to the truth in their words, for it is out of the overflow of love and life that God has been filling me, that I might have something to offer others, and it is in the divine participation of others that I have begun to know healing, hope, and fathering.

Our Father which art in heaven
My Father which art in heaven (and on earth in the hearts and hands of men!)
hallowed be thy name.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Time, Love, and Dating (oh my!)

"Love is built through soul-to-soul connection, shared values, commitment, resolving conflicts and hurts, tenderness, sacrifice, forgiveness, giving, displays of character, spiritual compatibility, and sharing - things that all have something important in common: time. Love takes time."


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rewrite the Script

"If your life is no longer a tragedy, you won't need a villain. If it is no longer a comedy, you won't need a flake. If it is no longer a disaster story, you won't need someone who produces crises. If it is no longer a seedy sex thriller, you won't need an addict... A healthy movie always requires good characters! So, as you get healthy, people will audition for those parts in your life that your health requires."

Dr. Henry Cloud

How to Get a Date Worth Keeping

Monday, August 10, 2009

when God lies

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Exodus 5:21-23

"May the Lord look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us!"


Moses returned to the Lord and said, "O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name he has brought trouble upon this people and you have not rescued your people at all."

You have not rescued your people at all...

I am struck by the irony that must have been Moses' life and the lives of the Israelites who, eventually, were -in fact- led out of Egypt ... only to wander and die in the desert.

Is this why you sent me?

When I read the story of the Israelites being led from captivity in Exodus, I cannot help but see it in the light of history, in the scope of a larger, unfolding story. Those people who marched through the Red Sea on dry land all died without seeing the Promise. And when I think of the generation that did arrive on the shores of the Jordan, I know that their trials had only just begun. Where was this milk and honey God talked about? Sounds to me like they got a mouthful of giants and war.

I'm beginning to think that God doesn't just save us from things, like our captivity. He saves us for something, and that something may not be exactly what we signed up for.

I was listening to All Star United the other day. They have a great song called "La La Land." One verse in particular comes to mind as I read the above passage...

Stake your claim on power and wealth
strong healthy teeth
a spot at the beach
and romance that's really swell

All the saints and martyrs alike
well they would have called a national strike
demanded less pain
more personal gain
if only they'd known their rights

Rights. When did we decide as Christians that we have rights? When did we decide that we deserved power and wealth, strong healthy teeth, a spot at the beach, and romance that's really swell? When did we figure out that we deserved a Promised Land? If anyone had the right to a Promise, it was the Israelites who fled Egypt, after all. And what did they get?

I seriously have to wonder if the Promised Land is nothing more or less than ...

Hope.

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

I Peter 3:15

I think the point of the Promise, the Promised Land, the Deliverance, the whole nine yards is HOPE.

In the end, it doesn't matter whether we die in the desert or whether we live to face the giants on the far side of the Jordan, what matters is whether or not we have hope. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, the Psalmist said. Hope is what we have to offer others, not land, not strong healthy teeth or romance. Hope.

For me, my hope was awakened one summer afternoon as I walked on the treadmill and prayed through step two:

We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

I didn't even have a concept as to what sanity was when I first read this principle. It's a beautiful promise, though. It means an end to bondage, hopelessness, and despair. It means an end to endless cycles. It promises peace and the sense that all that we have gone through actually serves some sort of purpose and can be used to benefit others.

Sanity, to me, represents something I have never known in my life but that I desperately want to know. It tells me that life is worth living, that God is who He says He is, and that, whatever happens, I can trust Him, I can choose Him and I can serve Him even in the context of my limited understanding.

Oh, I believed that God could restore me to sanity, but would He?

The interesting twist on this question is that if I had decided to answer, "I don't know," then I would have remained in the spiral of insanity. If I don't know, if I can't know, then there is no possibility of hope and moving forward. There is no end to the cycle of doubt and questioning. The only hope for sanity is in believing that God can and will fulfill His promises. That is where hope lives - there, in faith.

Faith creates hope, and hope births sanity, and these things are real regardless as to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They are the evidence of things not seen.

So, I suppose our passage in Exodus today, and the story of the Israelites in general, tells me that I can't entirely define the Promised Land by physical boundaries or specific signs or landmarks. Even Moses did not get to go in to the land to which he was called to lead his people. Did that make God a liar? Was God made out a liar to every person who died in the wilderness over the course of 40 years?

Interestingly, what Moses had was faith, and the promise he DID get was hope - intimacy with God in the tent of meeting, provision for his day, purpose and direction for his life, and the promise that everything he went through meant something - it was used for the furthering of God's kingdom and for the benefit of all generations to come.

Whatever form God's promise takes in our lives, whether it be literal land as it was for Israel, or a child as it was for Abraham and Sarah, if we hold on too firmly we may find ourselves wondering if God is a liar. It is no wonder, if step two is the embracing of hope in promise, that step three then is the surrender of that promise in hope:

We turned our lives and our wills over to the care of God as we understood Him.

My hope, particularly in those moments when God seems to be a liar, is sanity. What is yours?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

In Memory and In Joy

It is a strange and beautiful anniversary this week. Starting on the 15th and ending on the 17th of June I remember the three days that I was in a coma in the hospital after attempting to take my own life.

That was six years ago today.

As I said, it is a strange commemoration, to remember such a dark moment, to memorialize a rock-bottom. But it is a beautiful thing, too. It is remembering not only my powerlessness, but God's power. It is a telling of His story, the story of his intervening mercy, His life-changing grace, His transformational love. For it was six years ago that He rescued me, that He broke the bondage of my slavery and proclaimed this captive free.

There is a song that became a life-line to me in the difficult times that followed:
Mercy said, 'No, I'm not going to let you go.
I'm not going to you slip away.
You don't have to be ashamed."
Mercy said, 'No. Sin will never take control.'
Life and death stood face to face
and darkness tried to steal my heart away
but, thank you, Jesus
Mercy said, 'No.'


For each of the last five years I have taken this time to tell the story of my darkness, to share my testimony at a recovery group and rejoice in God's grace. Tonight, however, I am drawn to a different story, to the story of the six years since that moment.

It has been a long six years, yet it has rushed through like a Kansas City thunderstorm, wreaking its own havoc but lighting up the sky in an awesome display. So much has happened...

Within a year of being so broken, so helpless and hopeless and lost that the only answer I could see was to give up the life I had so utterly failed to live, God had not only made a covenant with me that would never allow me to go back, but He had so reconstructed me that I stood in the face of infidelity and actually believed in myself regardless. That first year saw me move from devastation to standing on my own two feet, separated and in counseling.

By year two, I was by all means divorced, living on my own for the first time in my life, with a new relationship with God and His people. By this time in the second year, I was ready to move here to KC, to go back to school, to face the things I had been unable to face at 18, to launch into the adventure of a lifetime - growing up!

Year three saw me cut those ties, purchase my own home, and move here, some 3,000 miles away from my family and all I had ever known. These two years together brought the blessing of love into my life, and they also took it away. And I will never be the same but always be the better for it.

Year four was about friendship and accountability. I graduated from college, the first in my family to get my degree, and it ended with an invitation from God to embrace 'life after death,' resurrection life!

Year five began with a trip to Africa and another covenant, a covenant of relational sobriety. It was about coming to grips with my own character defects and investing in those around me, and it ended with my starting graduate studies, pursuing a Master's in Counseling.

Year six... I think in many ways it has been the most difficult. Graduate school has been as much about facing my demons as it has been about embracing my heart. I watched as someone I loved got married to someone else. I found my brother and then lost him, too. In fact, I lost a good friend, as well. I suppose that is the nature of investing in others - you have to face losing them. In the process, I was called upon to grow up in unexpected ways - and to be young again in equally unexpected ways. I discovered a different kind of differentiation than I had dreamed possible before and as a result I began to see my world so much more clearly than I ever had before.

Truly, in that way, God has fulfilled a promise to me this year - the promise of SANITY - seeing things just as they are - no more denial, no more fear, no more splitting. Somewhere along the way, God has done for me what I could not do for myself.

Year six has marked another turning point. I've identified my true wounds, I understand the bigger patterns, I've accepted myself, good and bad. It is as if year six, with its mistakes and angst, has been like the breaking of the seed when it bursts forth in sprout. Or perhaps, better said, it is the bursting of the plant, the tearing of its tendrils, to produce fruit. It hurts. But there is fruit. For the first time. There is fruit.

Year six ended in a promise and an unexpected excursion to the Promised Land. Interestingly, this marks my movement into year seven...

Long about January it seemed that God declared a year of abundance, a year of jubilee in which He would take HIS land back, His people back. And I am just realizing that now I am headed into the seventh year, the Year of Jubilee.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

comfort zone, war zone, promised land

The thing about God speaking New Things is that stepping into them is going to feel, well, new. It's going to be scary, frankly. It's probably going to feel like something is wrong. I wonder if it might even feel like sneaking into enemy territory. I have this image of soldiers inching their way through tropical forests with the potential of bombs going off at any moment. They step with breath baited, listening for the sound of machine guns. Their own weapons jag this way and that to point at any little movement in the overgrowth.

Tense.

Isn't that what the Israelites might have felt like standing on the edge of the Promised Land, particularly after hearing the report, "There be giants!" With the announcement I'm sure everyone within hearing range undoubtedly ducked a little and stared into the sky apprehensively, as if cyclops might appear out of the very air around them and start bashing heads.

I confess, I feel like one of the scouts, saying, "Dude. Don't go in there. It's not worth it. What's a Promised Land, anyway, but just another plot of earth with work to be done, enemies to fight, more potential for screwing up and being taken captive - or worse - killed. I think I like it in the desert. We know the danger of the desert. We've been there for, what, 40 years now? We've learned how to survive there. We've been taken care of there with manna and springs of water. The Promised Land is overrated, IMHO. I recommend we abort!"

Who's idea was a Promised Land, anyway?

Oh, wait, wasn't it our crying out in our slavery that prompted this whole mess?

*sigh*

I can imagine how Moses must have felt wandering the desert one day, minding his own business, taking care of his father-in-law's flocks. He probably had a fresh cheese round and newly baked bread waiting for him at home, maybe a little kosher wine, a new bride. Then there was this disruptive burning bush that ruined everything and sent him back into the hornet's nest, the one place he never wanted to be again, the place of his past, of his shame and rejection.

God, disrupting lives since ... Adam.

As Christians, we LOVE to talk about healing and transformation. We celebrate the Prodigals and have parties for the Recovered. We're all about change! We pray earnestly for the Back-Slidden and relish fixing our Brothers and Sisters, Neighbors, and Friends. "If only so-and-so would do this," or "why won't this person get it?" But I don't think that we think about what it is actually like to leave everything you've ever known, the culture that gives you meaning and shapes your world, every survival mechanism you've developed and that has seemed to serve you well, your way of life, your hopes and dreams and expectations for the future - all of it - and decide to go live in the Looking Glass with Alice ... and Jesus. Are we really willing to do that ourselves?

What is the Promise God has spoken in YOUR life? What are you going to have to leave behind to enter in? What is it going to cost you to sieze it? And is it worth it?

I suppose that is the question we have to answer. How we answer will change our lives.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Awaiting Pentecost

Monday, April 6, 2009

It was the first Tuesday home after God swept me off to Israel. I sat in chapel, the rows of simple wooden pews spread out before me like lined paper, pristine and awaiting the pen, the glow from the stained-glass windows bathing them in rosy hues. Service had not yet started - only a few people dotted the seats here and there. It was a perfectly insignificant and mundane morning.

Yet...

There was something in the air, an alacrity that I could not connect with any physical source or emotional reason. The speaker was from Puerto Rico. He seemed perfectly ... normal. Dark hair, olive skin, nondescript height - he would be preaching in Spanish and Dr. Wesley was to interpret. There was nothing about the arrangement or the message title or the people gathered that seemed to warrant an almost tangible presence in the air. There was no particular sense of expectation, no emotional charge. It didn't seem like a particularly needy bunch.

And yet...

Something was different. Something was happening.

God was already speaking.

When the preacher began to address the group, he went immediately to the story of Exodus - not surprisingly, to the very passage of scripture I was reading in my devotional time...

"I have certainly seen the oppression of my people ... I have heard their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them ... and lead them ... into their own [land of promise]"

And while the preacher was speaking, the translator began his task of translating, and his voice joined the other in a kind of syncopated song, a call-and-response that echoed through the lofty ceilings and out into the foyer.

And then another voice joined the first two, above and slightly to the left.

"This is my heart revealed for my people," it said. I looked up and a presence in the room seemed to hover above the stage, completely invisible and yet very nearly distinct enough to be an angel with a trumpet and a crown of glory on its head. And it seemed to go on, but it spoke with desire, longing, love and yearning instead of words. I smiled and looked back to the preacher. Did this man know how much God longed to speak the words He had given him?

And even while the three of them spoke together in perfect unison, another voice began to speak, and another, until there was a gathering on and over the stage. One spoke directly to me as if it knew me. It reminded me of my own story, of my Jordan crossing, of my deliverance. Still another began to speak the names of people, some of them I knew, others I did not know but they seemed familiar to me when he said them. As he said each it was as if their stories began to unfold before my eyes, like scenes in a play. Yet another voice began to speak of wonderful things, prophecies and the fulfillment of prophecies.

I need to write this down! I thought. But when I looked down at the empty pew beside me, I had no pencil or pen, nothing to write with or on. I looked back up to the stage and it was as if one of the voices said, "This is mine to speak, not yours." I settled back to listen, then, content that what God would desire to make known, He would make known.

The sermon continued, a medley of what seemed nearly 15 voices, all telling different stories, with one master-story-teller seeming to tie them all together so that one could listen to them all at once and understand perfectly, seeing connections and patterns like seeing a tapestry take shape before one's very eyes. Even so, my mind began to boggle at some point. The wonder of each new phrase and meaning seemed to usurp the last so that it was difficult to hold it all in my awareness. It felt like holding on to sand - it was full and warm and overflowing and the more I tried to hold onto it the more it slipped through my fingers and poured into time. Some, however, stayed with me, like the desire of that first voice, reminiscent of Jesus' cry as he looked out over Jerusalem:

"...how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings..." Matt 23:36-38

"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Mark 2:16-18

And then all the voices came together in one final chorus:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

The hair was standing up on the back of my neck. Chills moved up and down my spine. But I felt surprisingly peaceful and content, yet motivated. I wanted to walk from that place and proclaim the good news.

Because God is here.

I also left that place with a very distinct impression. I was put in mind of Daniel as he was taken into the king's palace and prepared for service. He and his friends readied themselves with a very specific kind of diet of vegetables. Strangely enough, I felt the need to do the same.

Yesterday at church the pastor mentioned in an off-hand sort of way that God wanted to work the miraculous in our lives. He then went on to talk about all the prophets who had been sent before the coming of Christ. It reminded me of the voice of God's longing in chapel. It seemed almost as if God has been wanting to do something very specific for a long time now, something miraculous even if, like the coming of the Messiah, it isn't what we are expecting. He has been whispering it, calling people to participate in it with him, but where are the prophets? Where are those just crazy enough to believe Him and proclaim the year of His favor?

I found myself at the altar that morning and the woman who prayed for me claimed my voice for the kingdom of God. That night I found myself in prayer with a friend who claimed my body for the purposes of God. Interestingly enough, both of those very things had once been claimed by another. Those who know me know the story I like to tell about how I pretty much stopped talking as a kid - and didn't start again until I was about 25-years-old. (I like to tell the story to explain why I seem to have so much talking to make up for.) And those who know me also know the story of a suicide attempt that left me in a coma for 36 hours. Once upon a time, Death had claimed me. God has taken me back like the land that was returned to its rightful owners during the year of jubilee.

As a final note, I've mentioned changing my diet to largely vegetables, very apologetically, I might add, thinking people would find me odd. But it seems that every time I have mentioned it I have gotten fairly similar responses...

"I have been feeling the same way, thinking the same thing..."

Um. Excuse me? It's one thing to say to your friend, "I've been feeling like I should love my neighbor" and they respond, "me, too." It's quite another thing to say, "God's been telling me to eat vegetables," and have others say, "yeah, me too!" But three other people are going to eat vegetarian for a time, one more is considering it, and still another complete stranger has already started, she said, because God told her to do it while awaiting Pentecost.

I am almost afraid to speak lest my words take root and bloom in the very air around me and I have to come up with some way to explain the hanging garden to the disconcerted passerby. That is how fertile the time and how ripe the work of the Spirit.

Winds of pentecost flow
spread the perfume of your embrace
stir the tongues of flame to spark and grow
to feast upon your grace

Fire of pentecost rise
find the tender of our hearts
ignite the power of the Spirit
for freedom to impart

Tide of pentecost flood
the thirsty land cries out
bring with you the silt and sow
the seed that blooms in drought

Prepare, o child of God
your hunger He will sate
His promises are come
so for pentecost we wait

Monday, April 13, 2009

Jesus the MAN

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

An excerpt from a letter to those who made my trip to Israel possible...

...I wanted to take a moment to write and share with you just a little bit of the impact your gift has had on me. In the midst of what must be an unbelievably difficult time for you, you sought to be a blessing to another, and in so doing, you shared something with me that I would never have had the opportunity to experience otherwise.

Because of your generosity, I walked the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus called his disciples, where he spent many a day preaching or fishing or talking with friends, where he built one last fire and cooked breakfast after his death and resurrection.

Fish.

The Word made flesh and raised from the dead stood and cooked fish on this beach! I could practically smell the smoke and see the flames from my vantage point on the rocks looking out over the waves. The same wind that pulled at their robes tousled my hair as I pondered the beauty of that place...

Here, Jesus began to be real to me in a completely different way than he had been before. No longer a Sunday-School-story or even a distant-Savior-who-lived-in-some-other-time-and-in-some-other-place-far-removed, he appeared right before my eyes as Jesus the Man. He built campfires the way my mom used to when, growing up, we camped at the lake in the summer. He pulled his cloak close around him against the wind even as it tangled his hair. He sat in an intimate conversation with Peter right after the unbelievable ordeal he had been through, asking him, "Do you love me?"

And what an ordeal he went through - that is an understatement! Only a few days after walking that shore and 'meeting' the Jesus who lived and breathed and waded in the sea (as well as walked on it!) enjoying the sun, we visited the dungeons and the pit where they would have kept him as he awaited his trial before the Sanhedrin. We went down in and I witnessed just a fraction of the darkness he would have experienced. They described for us what it would have been like, how the prisoners would have been standing in stale, contaminated water - Jesus with many others, all unbathed and pressed in together, the only source of light and air a tiny opening in the roof over-head. We all stood in the bowels of that prison, all 55 of us, and read Psalm 88.

O LORD, the God who saves me,
day and night I cry out before you.

May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of trouble
and my life draws near the grave.

I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like a man without strength.

I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.

Your wrath lies heavily upon me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
Selah

You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;

my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, O LORD, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.

Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do those who are dead rise up and praise you?

Selah

Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?

Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

But I cry to you for help, O LORD;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.

Why, O LORD, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?

From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death;
I have suffered your terrors and am in despair.

Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.

All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.

You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend.

Standing in that pit I was well aware of the dark times I have known in my own short life. How many times have I read the Psalms, their words giving expression the the cries of my own heart? And even as I remembered those times, I remembered how God was with me in them. That day in Jerusalem in the bowels of the earth, it was almost as if Jesus was opening up his heart and allowing me into his dark place with him, too. Hearing his agony as expressed through the psalmist made it all the more poignant, all the more vivid and human. Christ shared his suffering with me.

We ended that day at the memorial museum documenting the tragedies and horrors of the holocaust. The atrocities visited on Jesus' people, God's chosen ones, painted a picture of the atrocities inflicted upon Christ when he was tortured and crucified. They shared in Christ's suffering as well, in ways that I cannot even conceptualize - nor would I if I could. It was a somber day, but one that I will never forget.

It completely reframes the call that God has placed on my life to minister to his people, to take up my cross and follow him. Many of those who made this pilgrimage remarked that one does not have to go to the Holy Land in order to meet Jesus. But in a way, I met a Jesus there that I had not yet known. It was as if a long-time friend decided to open up and let me in a little, to share his burdens with me, to share his suffering, yes, in order to share his heart. It was like that moment when a special someone you've been getting to know reaches over and reaches out and really allows you to catch a glimpse into his world. You're blown away by the beauty and the magnitude and the richness of one person's life, and you're humbled to be a part of it even for a moment.

As followers, we are the blessed who believe in Christ without seeing; he meets us where we are. But because you chose to give, I found myself invited by Christ to come home with him, the way a fiance would bring his beloved home to meet his parents, his people, and see the place where he grew up. It is a special and intimate thing, a treasure. Thank you for that opportunity...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Rest of the Story

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

I wish I could capture for you just what kind of miracles God has been orchestrating...

I wish I could do justice with my testimony to that which God is doing in our midst...

I got to go to Israel!

The things that had to happen, that had to come together in order to even put such a thing on the radar, let alone bring it to pass, it was nothing short of a parting of the Red Sea.

"We need to do this," I said to my best friend when I first heard about the trip. But we both knew we couldn't come up with that kind of money. And then school and internship demands discouraged me from giving it a second thought, and the dream disappeared on a horizon of life.

But if I were to do the story justice I would have to go further back.

Five years ago a woman approached me after a prayer service and told me that God prompted her to give me something - a packet of information about Israel, about visiting and participating in prayer for God's chosen people. It planted a seed in my heart and mind - not just the idea of visiting the Holy Land, but the idea of praying for God's chosen ones.

Interestingly, two years later I made a friend whose family lineage is Jewish. He started talking to me about God's people, about the Jewish laws and customs and culture. He allowed me to catch a glimpse of God through their eyes, even to the point that I got to hear the story of Isaac and Rebekah from a chubby Jewish lady in the old oral tradition. It was delightful!

And interestingly, that story is one of a promise fulfilled...

But more than the silver threads of circumstance, if I were to tell the story well, I would have to tell you my testimony, a testimony about a woman who was in bondage but who didn't even know it. I would have to describe for you a young girl with a broken, impoverished heart, enslaved to death much as the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians. She made her life in the darkness of isolation much as the Hebrews made lives for themselves while slaves. And just as God had compassion on their suffering, He heard the cries of her heart and He was not content to leave her there. No, He is never content to leave us where we are, even when we do not know any better, even when we do not know what to ask for or how to pray, even when we think we are okay.

God saw me in the pit. He saw me in bondage. He saw me in my solitude, entrapped in a codependent view of love and broken relationship. He saw me bound by legalism and ensnared by my own self-righteous judgement. He saw me swallowed up by the grave and he reached into my darkness and pulled me out.

It hurt, by the way. It hurt for these lungs, full of earth, to expel the death inside of them and breathe instead the stinging air. The mud scraped from my skin left it raw and smarting, naked in the emptiness of space. I longed for the safety and embrace of the grave. I felt exposed and afraid.


And then there was the part where I began to acclimate to new life and yet was acutely aware of the dirt that still clung to me, the mud that caked between my toes and fingers, that hid under my nails or still sucked at my feet, while I was not able to do a thing about it.


No, it is not a pleasant experience, being brought to life. It is not easy opening one's eyes to the daylight when all one has known is the night.

But then there is the moment when you first smell the fragrance of a rose and it intoxicates you. There is the moment when you first taste the water of a fresh, cold spring, when first you feel the kiss of the rain, when suddenly you hear the true majesty of thunder or see fireflies appear like magic sparks out of the air. There is a moment when you first know love. It descends upon you like a flash flood, filling you up until your knees buckle and you are sitting on the floor looking at the sky, tears streaming down your face in wonder. It steals your breath away until you can't feel your toes and you gasp because you've never known such painful bliss. There is a moment when you first discover something so precious and so beautiful and so small and fragile that you forget to breathe lest you disturb it.


There is a moment when you start to feel alive. That is what God had for me. That is why He would never be satisfied to leave me in bondage. That is why He was not satisfied to leave His people in Egypt. And so He brought them out.

If I were to really tell you the story, I would have to tell you about the vision He gave me when He brought me out of bondage, a vision for fellowship. I would also have to tell you about Africa, how one day I knew nothing about it and the next day I was going, a freak event that took me to meet a people - a people who would turn my heart to minister to my own, to invest in those around me.

Impoverished Africans filled with the Holy Spirit spun me around to look at the beauty and potential of my land and my people. If God had already dismantled my very identity and rebuilt it in His image, then it was in Africa that he dissolved my mythos and gave me a new imagination, a whole new framework for making sense of my story in the world.

He gave me a message for US, for THIS people, THIS land, THIS time:

"You have much to offer;
God's heart is to live through you, to bring life through you!
Open your eyes, oh great sleeper,
and see the work He has for you to finish,
see the love He has for you to give.
See the passion He has birthed in you
and the difference you can make!
The nations ache for you
- they need you -
not your money or your ideals but YOU..."

And then, in Israel, God revealed what the world needs us for.

But the story would not be complete if I did not tell you about the couple who was betrothed for 8 years but never married. It sounds random, I know, but this couple, they are a picture of the body of Christ, Post Modern American Christians, if you will. We have been a people betrothed but never married, promised but never filled. I met this couple last year. They were content in the life they had made for themselves. He even bragged at what he had accomplished by his own hand, this living death in relationship, this false purity, this word without power, this distorted sexuality and self-righteous condmenation of all that is actually good. He called death life and life death.

You see, he was in bondage and he didn't even know it.

And God whispered again, "I see you in the pit. In the darkness of the grave your heart cries to me and I am not content to leave you there." And God reached into the earth and breathed life into his lungs...

And Exodus began all over again.

And what was the significance of meeting this couple? It was as if God was saying to the young man, "Fulfill your promise!"

For that is the message God desires to send to the world:

"I will fulfill my promise; I am a God who fulfills His promises!"

And that is what ties it all together. You see, that is what the ministry in Tel Aviv is all about, the one I heard about five years ago from a stranger. They are praying 24 hours a day, crying out, "Fufill your promise to your people, O God!"

And that is what I learned about the entire Jewish culture - it is built around the consummation of a covenant.

And that is the word I received in Africa, spoken on behalf of those in bondage in this culture in the United States - in bondage to pornography, apathy, and distraction: God has demanded that these wicked taskmasters let His people go! He has a promise for us and He longs to fulfill it!

That is what I learned in reading about Abraham, that through us, through the blessing of His people, God will infiltrate and bless the world! I see now that by fufilling His promise to us, to the gentiles, He is painting a picture of the consummation of His promise to the Jews. In the same way that God blessed the nations that rejected him by blessing and fulfilling His promise to Abraham, now through the gentiles God will sneak back in and bless those who reject Him still, His chosen ones!

It is a beautiful irony. God will set us free and fulfill His promises to us as a proclamation, a prelude to the consummation of his promise to Israel.

And seeing this, how can I do anything but preach His Word? How can I not proclaim to those who are in bondage and may not even realize it, to those who have been called but have never received His Spirit:

"I have seen you in your oppression, in your pit.
I have seen your yoke of slavery, your darkness,
and heard the cries of your hearts,
and I am distressed," says your God.
"I am not content to leave you in your bondage.
Come out! Come to me!"

For "The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Luke 4:18-19

Surely it is the year of the Lord's favor, when all who desire freedom shall be granted it and all who long for promise shall be given it.

When I came to Kansas City, God told me to collect stones along the way, just as He instructed the Israelites as they crossed the Jordan. When I arrived at KC First church, they invited me to take a stone from the altar in an act of committment to pursue something very specific - the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. When I left for Africa, that was exactly what I sought. What I found was the precursor: Fellowship, the call to be a part of a circle of apostles. Now we gather, a ragamuffin group, riff-raff, misfits, in His name.

I don't pretend to understand it, but God is finishing what He started. The prayers of the here-and-now apostles sent me to Israel and I did not know what to expect. But I have found what I have been looking for. The Holy Spirit moved in a way I cannot fathom and I've come back hearing things I've never heard before, seeing things that were only hinted at before.

Even with all of these words, still I would not have told you enough to truly tell you the story. And so I will close with this strange string of events:

The couple that has been together for 8 years but has never married - I sought to bless them but they did not understand. We had a heart-breaking falling out and it has weighed heavy on my spirit. But it was actually in this falling out that God spoke a call over me to be a pastor.

As a random side-effect of embracing that call, my entire life has been rearranged, changing my internship requirements so that suddenly, I found my calendar clear....

Then, because of a random work email, someone invited me to Chipotle. And then because of that invitation, I ended up in a conversation with two friends about Israel. The first friend felt prompted to pray,though she didn't let on. The second friend? She happened to be the one in charge of the trip...

What I didn't know was that, while this conversation was going on, two of God's people were engaged in a life-threatening fight with cancer, a fight that would ground them, literally, and keep them from going on this self-same trip to Israel. And, in spite of their difficult circumstances, they felt prompted to donate their tickets ... two tickets ... to two students. So they called the trip coordinator...

my friend...

...and my friend called me.

And because I was given an amazing gift, a blessing, I finally got to bless that couple ... the one that still isn't married. I got to bless her in spite of him, in spite of past hurts and disappointments. I got to bless them the way God wants to bless us, His people, the way God wants to bless Israel. It all points back to God.

Last night, she asked me why I had chosen her to go on this once-in-a-lifetime trip. I wish I could tell her...

Because God ordained it. Because He told me to. Because He is offering to you a fulfillment of His promise, if you will but accept it. Because you are to be a message of hope to others. Because you have been called.

But "To bless you," was all I answered. Maybe someday she will know the rest of the story.

And speaking of the rest of the story, while I was gone, two more friends who had also been estranged were reconciled. And the two people who battled with cancer? It turns out that because they stayed home, they were present for the last moments their father spent on this earth. They got to say goodbye.

And the cancer - it is gone.

That's what God does. That is what God is doing. Glory be to God.

And I haven't even described what I saw in Israel!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mountain of Promise

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Four in the AM and I'm up. My room still feels like a display at the museum in Cairo - poor lighting illuminates the clutter of a hasty departure and late return. Dust belies the fact that it has been bereft of human presence for two weeks. And I feel like a passer-by, an observer in my own home after wandering Jordan, Israel, and Egypt in some surreal version of my life...

A version in which...

I dreamt of chariot races in Petra last night.

I've done nothing but crave oatmeal in the 24 hours I've been back.

I climbed Mount Sinai.

* * *

We set our alarms for 1AM and headed out a half hour later. Wendie and I missed the bus (she thought her clock was fast) but we found it again at the little shop/lobby where the others were sipping tea or coffee and eating bread before the big climb. We had a moment to partake of the fare before we piled onto the bus and headed out.

The sense of adventure was as palpable as the chill in the night air. We pulled up to a building with a single light illuminating only a 20ft radius or so. The mountain was hidden in the darkness. All we could see was our guide as we stepped out of the bus and through the gate to begin our ascent. My mind was filled with what I had just been reading in Exodus: God instructed Moses to prepare here - prepare himself and the Israelites for His appearance - here, at the base of the very mountain we were attempting to ascend.

I had walked the valley in awe only hours earlier, the late afternoon sun bathing the desert foothills in a golden-amber glow.

This is where they camped. This is what greeted them every morning and what they said goodnight to every night. This is where they gathered manna, where they grumbled and complained, where they saw GOD...

Prepare.

The scene reminded me of a vision God had given me four years earlier, a vision of a high plateau with mountains all around. Only in the vision, the valley and the mountains were initially covered with snow and then had become a garden. The land I walked here was dry and barren. It was like I had already caught a glimpse of the way God made in this desert, the springs he brought to the wasteland. But that is another story - a story of how I was prepared.

Prepare

It's the word that God has spoken over this season of Lent. God said it to Moses, to the Israelites, too. The image I continue to carry in my mind's eye is that of the parable of the ten virgins. They prepared by having oil in their lamps at all times, waiting, watching for their Lord, ready to greet him, to go away with him at a moment's notice. They were prepared.

And because God had been saying it, I was prepared when the call came on Friday night saying, "Do you want to go to Israel?"

I was prepared in some way, yes, but shocked out of my socks! I had only just mentioned it that morning in an off-hand conversation. Little did I know that someone had been praying for exactly this trip, for me, for almost a week.

And when I went to God to ask him, "Can I go? Is this your time for me, your doing?" all he said was, "Prepare."

My only sadness on the morning we gathered at the base of a mountain we could not see for the dark was that I was climbing alone. It had been many years since the last time I went on a hike. Memories of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone toyed with my imagination, but other than a distinct sense of my solitude, I was surprised to find little grief in my heart. It seems I have walked the path of sorrow and cried my tears for that life. I have already climbed that particular mountain and seen the view from there - and it was hard and beautiful and I am no longer the same person. I am no longer the Corpse Bride. I am no longer a tragic story. I am a new creation.

In fact, that revelation was a tangible presence, my companion on this pilgrimage to the Holy Land. So it was with the thought of that mountain I climbed four years ago that I grew excited about the hike ahead of me. What view would I gain from atop this mighty peak, the peak of Mt. Sinai, the place where God appeared and spoke and made a covenant with his people?

What view indeed! It was pitch black. We walked by the glow of a few flashlights and looked up at a sky overflowing with stars. At one point someone yelled, "On the left!" and a caravan of camels passed by. We paused as their tall, shadowy figures walked beside us, nothing but knees and swishing tails illuminated by our bulbs, their great long necks, regal heads, and besaddled humps dark shadows somewhere over our heads. For a moment they were sillhouetted against the stars and it nearly took my breath away. I felt like a pilgrim then, like one of the shepherds making her way to see the baby the angels had spoken of, or one of the attendents to the wise men who traveled so far to see the Christ.

My head was covered in a close proximity to the arabic fashion and I wore several layers against the chilly early morning air. At one point we walked beside the camels and I wondered at the picture we painted - if it had been light enough to see. Crazy Americans climbing from 3,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation with camels at 2AM!

I got into the groove and led our company out, walking in the dust of our guide, eventually joined by Galen, who's wife had opted to ride one of the camels to the top - or as close as the camel could get her to it. He held the flashlight for me and kept me company with his talk. It made me happy and I smiled at how God chooses to walk alongside us at times. I couldn't have asked for a more congenial, more considerate, and more appropriate hiking companion. He was even the one that loaned Wendie and I his thermals and kept us from freezing to death! :)

Somewhere near the peak the hike changed and the camels could go no further. The path became a very steep staircase carved into the rock or assimilated out of huge boulders. They were steep and they climbed up into the sky, into the black night without any hint as to their end or their final destination. I think there were about 750 steps, and it was the hardest climb I have ever encountered. The young guys passed me, I am ashamed to say, but I still think I did pretty darn good considering I am a girl and their senior. I was grateful for Galen's requests for more frequent stops to catch his breath until soon it was light enough to see and I pressed on by myself to the peak.

There were only two or three at the top when I arrived. There was a church of some sort, two plain stone buildings and a kind of courtyard in between. I climbed on top of the wall at the edge of the court, on the crest of the great cliffs looking down, and I watched and waited for the sunrise, breathing deeply in an effort to keep my body warm.

When I climbed that spiritual mountain so many years ago, I stood at the top and looked behind me. I saw the path coming up, I saw the past, a patchwork quilt with a ribbon of water through it. I saw the forest and the meadows and the sky. On top of Mt. Sinai I looked forward to what I could not face before - the path ahead of me. I saw an endless sea of mountain peaks, like waves in an ocean. I saw the mist hanging over their crests, like the Spirit of God resting on the waters. I saw the light of the sun long before it appeared, like the light of God's truth as it precedes him, illuminating all that was hidden in darkness before. I stood on the top of the world looking down as all of creation was being painted in pastels below me.


Then we huddled as a group as Roger read to us out of Exodus - I think. I can't remember exactly because all I could think about was pressing into the community around me, needing to get closer to them to avoid hypothermia, to feel warm, to live.

I'm glad I could not see but the steps in front of me as I climbed. If I could have seen the arduous path ahead I probably would have grown discouraged. If the hike had been scheduled for the middle of the day, I may not have gone. In the sun the stairs were endless, the path dusty and deep and hot, the mountainside a desert. I would have wondered about whether the peak was worth it. Perhaps I would have contented myself with the height just before the monstrous stair-climbing and comforted myself with an over-priced cup of cocoa and a solitary view of the sunrise from just below the top.

But God showed me only the steps in front of me disappearing into the darkness. It was not mine to ponder the length of it, to consider when it started or where it ended. It was mine to relish the moment, to embrace the challenge and savor the adventure. It was mine to accept the companionship along the way, to offer covering when it was needed (Wendie will know what that means), to dangle on the cliffs by myself in the first rays of light and to press into the warmth of others when there was a chance.

I looked toward the future, toward life on top of that mountain, then we climbed down the way we came.
I always thought that embracing the future would be to step off the cliff in faith somehow, to fly from the mountain peak or dive off into what is in store. But we climbed down the way we came and continued on the journey where we left off.

Aaron, "The Burro," and Rodney, "The Puma," were my companions on the way down. My heart was full and I sang for a while...

Soon and very soon we are going to see the King
Halleluiah, Halleluiah we are going to see the King!

Then we talked and told stories in easy comaraderie until the bottom, recalling such tales as our first kiss and first date, Rodney performing his classic "Ta-Da" that we laughed about for the remainder of the trip.

Once upon a time I used to meet with God in a place in the heart, a perfectly round meadow surrounded by trees. Then God brought me to that place. It's called the Sanctuary of Hope and it's in Kansas.

Once upon a time God took me to a place in my imagination, a plateau in the cleft of the rocks where he called me his dove and covered me with a pristine white robe. Then God took me to the desert where I camped in that plateau and climbed to that peak where he covered me. It looked like the desert, but I had seen it both white with snow and bathed in the rainbow of a spring garden. I saw it now and in the future through the past, the past of God's promise, which he is fulfilling, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but always materialized if we believe.

Prepare for the consummation of God's promise, people of the Lord!