Sunday, December 19, 2010

Surrender and Conception

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father  David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” 
Mary  said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God...
Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.”
Then  the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:30-35, 38

Every other week or so I get the opportunity to partake in Eucharist as a part of Sunday worship.  It is always a wonder and a joy for me, a moment of delight and reverence, though some find it trite, meaningless - an empty tradition.  It is beautiful to me in particular because during worship service I usually take time to journal; I write out a portion of the 12 Steps.  I begin by admitting my powerlessness, then I name my hope. I seek God's intervention and surrender again my life.  And finally, I write an inventory. I fearlessly search my heart before God, giving an account that ends in prayerful confession.  It never fails - and never ceases to amaze me - that as I finish my last words of repentance, it is then that the pastor invites us to come forward and eat the bread and drink from the cup.

It really is a beautiful - dare I say mystical - experience.  I come to meet with God.  He offers His Word through the service and I offer mine through worship and through prayer.  He prepares His table and I prepare my heart and mind.  I confess in my heart and then join in the communion of the saints to confess publicly and accept God's forgiveness and transformation.  As I do, the love of God and the communal act of worship fill all the empty places of my spirit.  God fills my heart and then - then - He invites me to come forward in the flesh, to receive bread and juice in the same way that I just received His Word, His forgiveness, His redemption. There is something astounding about getting up and walking forward to do the very thing that God and I have been doing in the secret places of the heart all along.

On the third Sunday of Advent I journaled and I prayed, but this time ... this time I did not want to go forward when the pastor invited us to partake.  

You see, my whole life I have been taking communion; I have been praying that God might grant me His Spirit.  I have been chasing Him so that I might be where He is, for there is no other place that I would rather be than with Him.  No other place offers me contentment, peace, or happiness.  My whole life I have attempted to prepare a place and I have anticipated God that He might dwell in me, that I might live and thrive the way He has asked me to.  Every time I take communion I am longing for the Deliverer to fulfill, to fulfill His promises. But that morning  I prayed ... and God answered. 

Will you allow me to conceive in you?

Um. Excuse me, God?

Will you allow me to conceive in YOU ... my son, my plan, my kingdom?  Something larger than yourself - that is for your good but is also not about you - something that will break you the way a seed is broken in order to give birth to the life it has inside?  It will require and demand all of you.  It will require and demand all of your sacrifice - the greatest sacrifice.  It will reorder your life.  It will demand your life.  And I will be there; you will be where I am.

In a breath I began to catch the tiniest glimpse of the enormity of that which God asked of Mary, because in a breath it was as if God were asking me to bear a child.

It's a poignant metaphor.  God offers us His Spirit but we do not receive it to remain unchanged, to feel fat, happy and content until the day He comes again, stagnant and rotting in our piety.  No, should the God of the universe overshadow us, should He enter in, He does it to conceive something in us - the very way He did with Mary.  He does it to conceive Christ in us, new life.  
And it sounds all well and good; it sounds so lovely and spiritual.  It even sounds exactly like what I have prayed and asked for and sought through my inventories, my confessions, my participation in communion.  But in the metaphor, in the context of God's commission to Mary - in the context of actual 
pregnancy and birth - well, it really becomes a whole different story.  Think about what it would be like if God asked YOU to have a child. Right now.  Think about how your life would change ... forever.  

I did.  And frankly, the thought made me "sore afraid."

But allow me to offer a glimpse into my context.

I have never wanted children.  I have grown up witnessing the heartache of the world and some of the greatest tragedies known to family.  I have asked the question, "Why would anyone want to bring a child into this?" and I have found no answer.  I myself have gone without and I have watched others experience much worse.  I carry sorrows in my heart that leave me with the solid conviction that I do not have what it takes to bring a life into this world.  Literally.  And once upon a time I was sure I never would have.

If the God of the universe appeared to me and asked me to 'bear a child,' my honest answer would be ... dear God, no.  Not even for you. 

So there you go.  Apparently, I trust God with my life; He has asked me to do some pretty crazy things for Him.  But if it came down to it, in this, I didn't trust even Him enough.  Yet...

We are all Mary.

This thing that He asked her to do, He asks it of us all.

I sat in service and prayed, a secret war raging in my spirit.  Suddenly, pregnancy was a symbol for my very relationship with Christ, and if He had asked anything else of me, I would have done it without a second thought.  But this - I didn't want it or anything like it, not even with Him.  I know the cost.  I know the sacrifice.  I know what I don't have to give.  If he asked me to die, I would die.  If he asked me to move to Africa, I would go.  I would offer anything - except - something that sounds like pregnancy and motherhood.  That is too much.  I don't want to put myself in a position to want or need even GOD that much, so much as to conceive and give birth, to accept responsibility for new life and to lay down and live my life for it, helplessly.

Is this what I have been praying for this whole time?  What was I thinking?

Of course, the blessed irony is, though I sat in the pew holding the elements as if they were contaminated, as if God could swoop down and turn them into a helpless infant that I would have to take home and somehow figure out how to live with, I had already chosen precisely that.

I have already chosen to conceive His new life.  (I couldn't help but choose it, the seductive God that He is.)  I have chosen it every time that I have worked my steps and gone forward to receive communion.  I have chosen it every time I have chosen to do the hard thing in love and obedience to what He has taught me.  I chose it when I chose to take the Land He has commanded me to take.  I have already chosen God, and even as the "reality" of what I have chosen hit me in this Christmas narrative, I knew I wouldn't choose anything else.

Yet God did not demand it of Mary.  He does not demand it of me.  He does not demand it from any of us.  He offers it the way a lover offers himself.  Will you allow me to conceive in you ... my son, my plan, my kingdom ...?  We can say no.  I could say no.  I knew before taking the bread and the cup that I could do so saying no, not this plan, not me - I am yours but that is too much.  And I would have walked from that place still belonging to God and gone back to my life as I had always known it.  But...

I also knew that I wanted to be where God was.  I knew that ever since I prayed to God as a little tiny girl that I had been longing for Him to come and to conceive new life in me.  I did feel it every week at church.  I did pray for it before every taste of communion.  I've longed for it the way the betrothed longs for her bridegroom ... yes, the way a barren woman longs for a child.  I just hadn't thought about what it would be like to ... get it ... how hard it would be, how much it would cost, how scary it is, how powerless - like having a child, becoming a mother.

We are all Mary.

On Christmas Eve I watched the Nativity story again, and I watched with a different insight.  I watched feeling a greater camaraderie with Joseph.  He was a little more startled, I think, a little more affronted by what was happening.  He had it in his mind to divorce Mary quietly, after all.  He had to have been bewildered.  He had to have felt betrayed.  This was not what He had wanted, what He had planned for, what He had worked his whole life for.  He was a man of honor and he certainly had not transgressed.  He lived among a people wherein reputation - a good name - was everything - one's livelihood, one's evidence of dedication to God!  And in one bitter twist of fate, he could be ruined.

And as I watched I realized yet again, isn't that what God asks of us?  He comes to us with something that we did not conceive, something that isn't ours and isn't the way we would have it.  It is for our good, but it doesn't glorify us.  It isn't what we deserve, isn't what we have worked for.  And God asks us to give up our lives for it, to offer all that we have, even though it is amazingly inadequate; it will never be enough.  It is bigger than us and it will cost us everything.  God asks us to offer ourselves like a father offers himself for the life of his child, but to a child that is not even our own, a plan that is not our own, a kingdom that is not our own, but His.

We are all Mary.  And we are all Joseph.

The third Sunday of Advent, after everyone else had eaten of the bread, after everyone else had already drank of the cup, finally I did also.  I did it with new insight into the things that God asks of us, something personal and meaningful to me probably beyond anyone else's comprehension.  It is as if the thing I have most longed for is also the thing I have most feared and turned away from.  But in the end, I have chosen God and I will continue to choose Him, even if my greatest hope and my greatest fear are both in the choosing.

This isn't a traditions post, I suppose, unless it is the recognition that the acts of inventory, confession, repentance, prayer, and communion are Advent and Christmas traditions.  It is, however, the startling recognition that if we really come to God to prepare a place for His arrival, if we really long for Him and hunger for the consummation of His promise, we undoubtedly will come to a point of surrender in which the fruit of the arrival will come to bear in us.  

In other words, do not enter advent unless you are willing to bear the Christ yourself, my friends.  For I have the feeling that the final weeks of advent and Christmas - even the times in which we live - are about labor and giving birth.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Emptying and Inviting

On the first week of advent, in preparation for "arrival," I thought it fitting to commence with a tradition of ... cleaning.

Yes, I know. That is what spring is for. But everywhere I look everyone is encouraging me to accrue, to fill up, to partake. I am supposed to gather up decorations and fill my home and my yard and the office to overflowing. I am supposed to gather ingredients and fill my kitchen (and my belly) with food, food, and more food. I am supposed to buy, buy, and buy some more, gathering up gifts for my family, my friends, and myself. I am supposed to fill my eyes and ears and the very air around me with Christmas programming and Christmas music and Christmas release movies. I am supposed to fill my time with parties and white elephant gift exchanges and maybe some volunteer work and people and, yes, more food and more stuff. And certainly not all of these things are bad by any means.

But part of preparing a place is making room, yes? Part of preparing for "arrival" is creating space, yes? There will be plenty of parties, celebrations, and gifts this year, I'm sure, but it seems appropriate to begin by emptying out and by being quiet.

I was reading in Luke about the preparations the Spirit of God was attending to even before going to Mary to announce his plan. God sent Gabriel to the temple, to the Holy of Holies, to Zachariah to tell him that Elizabeth would bear a son who would prepare the way of the Lord. Zechariah asked for a sign so that he might know that this would truly happen, and Gabriel made him mute. He was unable to speak for the full term of Elizabeth's pregnancy.

He was made to be quiet. And then, when he proclaimed that his son's name would be John, he could speak again, and he filled the air with the sound of his praises.

So, however clumsily, I thought my first experimental tradition would be one of cleaning out and being quiet. As it turned out, it ended up being more of a time of spiritual, emotional, and relational cleaning-out than physical house-cleaning. And the whole experience puts me in mind of fasting. In fact, I unintentionally spent some time fasting. Even beyond food, my covenant group accidentally fasted meeting together and I decided to fast or take a sabbatical from certain forms of ministry. Now that I reflect, I wish it had all been more intentional. Perhaps next year my first week will be cleaning, fasting, and abstaining - emptying out in order to get in touch with my need for God, in order to long for him and for "arrival," in order to seek him. Perhaps in this way I can connect with a people in exile longing for their Messiah.

Which leads me to week two.

So, part of the problem I am having with Christmas and the creation of traditions is the fact that the entire holiday really has absolutely nothing to do with the Jews or their Messiah. Christmas trees and their decorations, lights, the giving of gifts, even this particular time of year - none of it has to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the One who delivered a chosen people from slavery to a Land of Promise, the One who became flesh to offer us a new covenant relationship with Him. Oh, we say it is about Jesus, but really it's just a pagan holiday that we invaded. We invaded, in fact, and confiscated all the contraband and paraphernalia ... and used it to worship our God. Which is kinda creepy, in my book, especially if there is any truth to what this contraband and paraphernalia was made of and used for before we 'christened' it.  It's positively disgusting.  Why would I want to put up a tree with anti-semitic meaning to celebrate the God of the Jews, a family in which I have been grafted?

Now I have to confess that on the second Sunday of advent I did in fact pull up my fake Christmas tree and erect it in the living room, cover it with garlands, and plug in the lights.  I did it because I don't have a tradition to replace it yet...

But it puts me in mind of Hanukkah - a celebration I know next to nothing about - and the lighting of the candles in honor of rededicating the temple.  Rededicating the temple?  Hello, talk about preparing a place!  Why don't Christians practice that?  Why didn't they take a Jewish celebration and adapt it to be a rededication of the temple of our hearts, minds, and bodies, to prepare a place for the Messiah?  My understanding is that, when Christ said, "I am the light of the world" what he was actually saying was, "I am the shamash," the candle used in Hanukkah to light all the other candles.  Why don't we remember that this time of year?

Furthermore, the thing I love about my tree and my decorations is the lights.  I've always loved the lights.  I used to get up even as a small child and sneak into the living room not just to peek at the presents under the tree, but to sit and gaze at the lights.  I could stare at them for hours.  There was something remarkable about seeing the Christmas lights glow in the darkness and peace of night.

What I'm probably getting at is the fact that I'm using the wrong calendar and the wrong holidays to begin with, and I really need to research Hanukkah and make that my celebration instead.  But until then...

Week one was a cleaning out, a fasting, an abstaining, an emptying out in order to get in touch with my need for my Messiah.

Week two, then, was an invitation to light and warmth, to prepare a place to receive fellowship and celebration again.  I brought in lights, music, movies, and meetings.  I hope that these will translate into specific traditions for the future.

As for the rest of advent, well, it appears that this is a discovery process for me more than a set of practices I have already ordained in my heart to do.  So I will read the story of Mary as I progress.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

To Prepare a Place

Many things tug at my spirit as "the Holidays" approach. 'Tis the season for ... taxes, class registration, fees, and 3,000 lbs of sand in the back of the truck. I won't get to be with family again this year and for some reason after five years I suddenly find myself missing my home in California. I miss the days of hosting get-togethers, sharing traditional home-cooked food, playing board games, getting on each others' nerves as only family can do...

Perhaps because of this disconnect, I venture into this time of year with a distinct longing in my heart for greater meaning. Alone, I'm likely to wake up on Christmas Eve to find that it is just another day; whatever opportunity there is in this time and for this season will be gone before I've even realized it's started. Oh, sure, there will be church services here and there, but unless I am actually living these days out of a more meaningful story, church is, at best, a glimpse of something that is passing me by.

So, what I am searching for, I think, is my own personal traditions. I want intentional practices that engage my heart and mind in order that I might connect with God during this season. Advent devotionals, decorating, candle-lighting - there has to be something I can do to remind my spirit to meet, commune, and worship in the midst of the chaos, commercialism, superstition and stale religion. Why can't there be something that I can do to make this time more meaningful?

Incidentally, I had kind of a big fight with a friend this weekend. In the aftermath I was reminded of a story...

It was the winter of my move to Kansas City. I had prayed all summer about going back to school. I had submitted applications and visited campuses, trying to engage in the process that I had circumvented at 18. Prospects took a turn for the worst and there was a solid month of depressing dead ends. There was no money. There were no housing prospects. Loose ends wiggled this way and that, refusing to be tied up. My lease was running out and a new tenant wanted in. Things were going nowhere and I was starting to feel pretty bleak.

After 30 days of praying I fell upon the passage in John 14:2-3.

Behold, I go before you to prepare a place for you. And if I go, I will come back to take you to be with me, so that where I am, there you will be also.

Yeah, yeah, I thought. Jesus goes before us to prepare a place with his Father for us in heaven someday. I'm familiar with this passage.

No, God said. I go before you to prepare a place for you. Now.

Hrm. What does that mean?

The next day I got an email about a house I looked at in Kansas City - the asking price had dropped $30,000. I then got a call from someone who suddenly wanted to pay me what he owed me, and within a week I got the money for both the house and the bachelor's program I had fallen in love with at MidAmerica. A month later I closed on my house, and in another 30 days I moved.

When I arrived in Kansas City, I discovered the story behind my house - it seems God had actually been preparing it years before I could have known I would even need a house - before I ever dreamed of going back to school. And the money that paid for it - it turns out that someone in my home church had put it up so that the person who paid me *could* pay me. In fact, the story of my house alone could fill pages, but that is a blog for another time. And what God did for my home he also did for my school and my church and my job, too.

Behold, I go before you to prepare a place for you.

That is when I decided that, where He leads me, I will follow - no matter what, no matter where, no matter how - for wherever he is, that is where I want to be.

I think of it now in the aftermath of a hurtful fight with a friend and in the midst of my advent ponderings because in moments like these, when I am far from family, when I feel alone and disconnected from others and from a greater story, I am most aware of feeling like I don't belong, like there is no place for me. No one seems to go before me to make my path straight or safe, to ensure that things work out. It's like that 30 days of dead ends.

Which also makes me think of a humble couple wandering the streets of Bethlehem on a cold, dark night. There was no place for them. The God of the Universe who had promised a savior to a people for generations upon generations appeared to a girl, told her that she was going to play a part in the fulfillment of scripture by having a baby out of wedlock (what a horrible term), and when that baby was due to be born, that girl was in the street because that same God forgot to make hotel reservations.

Of course, we know that God didn't forget anything. God had gone before them. He did prepare a place. It just didn't seem like it at the time.

And that wasn't the only time...

Foxes have dens and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head (Matt 8:20, Luke 9:58).

Throughout scripture we see Christ and his followers without a place of belonging, even to the point that they are described a strangers and aliens in this world. Yet God had prepared a place, a place in His plan of redemption, a place of sorrow and sacrifice, yes, but also a place at His right hand, victorious over death.

I suppose the theme I see in each of these stories, both my own and those from scripture, is that there will be dark, cold, lonely moments - moments when it seems like no one has gone before you, that there is no place prepared and nowhere to 'lay your head' - but the truth is, though we cannot see it, God does go before us and He does prepare a place for us, in His plan, in His work, in His presence.

This comfort, then, brings me back to the way I want to approach this season.

In the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord... (Is 40:3).

If advent means arrival then I want to prepare the way, to prepare to meet God here and now in this place and this time, and to prepare a place for Him - even as He prepared and does prepare a place for me. That is how I will choose a season of greater meaning in the midst of disappointment, loneliness, and chaos. That is what gives greater meaning to the times when things seem a little bleak, the times when things aren't working out and we feel like we don't belong and there isn't a place for us.

Prepare me, O God, to meet with you.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

An Unlikely Credo

A Conclusion to My Labyrinth

Since taking a break from graduate studies I have felt a bit like an autumn leaf caught in an eddy. The current has taken me here and there, over and under - to visit fears and futures, regrets and hopes, passions and purposes and various other landmarks of the heart.  It has been an interesting adventure, kind of like a spontaneous, open-ended road trip with God.  I never quite know where we're going or where we'll end up or what we will find along the way - but isn't that kind of what adventure is all about?  Indeed, there may be many posts yet about that journey later.  My purpose, however, in taking this break has been to stop - to stop the maniacal busyness and the achievement drivenness and, instead, to wait and listen - to seek and hear from God specifically about purpose, calling, and the good works He has set aside for and designed me to do.

Today and for the last weeks I have been hearing something specific.  It is as if the gentle voice of my spirit has been whispering something to my conscious mind.  Interestingly, as I sat down to write it out I discovered that I had already written it. I stumbled upon a draft for a blog entry from April 12th ... almost the very day I stepped away from my internship...

April 12, 2010

We interrupt this broadcast with a short blog ...

(Well, maybe not a short blog. After all, when have I ever written a short blog?  Unless it was merely to feature a quote from someone else?) 

... so, a blog, anyway, about STORY and the Importance of Story.

In fact, if you have ever happened upon my Sparrow Anthology page you have discovered a blog that abruptly and rather unceremoniously launches itself into STORY, namely, a couple of analogous serial short stories apparently about princesses, dragons, gardens, epic journeys, and people being lost at sea, that sort of thing. The significance of these stories is not that they are particularly well-written, though they can be interesting.  It is not that they were imported from another blog so that the readers there (who patiently awaited and read each chapter as it was being written) might have them all in one place to read as a story, though this is true.  It is not that they are necessarily good fiction or fantasy.  No, the signficance is that they are word pictures depicting real-life adventures, heartaches, and lessons.  They are symbols, symbols of my story, painted so that others might find something of their story in mine.

In fact, "Confessions of a Church Girl" in its own way has been an attempt to articulate just how these stories began and why they are important.  This site is one link between my life, my culture, and the mythical adventures captured in the short stories that I write.  It all started with the realization that I no longer wanted to watch others live life, but wanted to live a life worth watching - I wanted to live a life that actually tells a story - and not just any story, but the story my heart most longed to tell.

As a counselor I could tell you about the significance of story therapeutically.  It is what we use to make meaning of the events of our lives.  Story determines whether we are the good guy or the bad guy, the main character or a foil.  There are branches of psychology and paradigms of treatment utterly dedicated to story...

That was the end of the draft on April 12th. As I read these words now I realize that in my graduate studies there was a dominant story attempting to tell me who I was and what I was to do.  I found bits of my story in the midst of it, but in the end I found that my story, the story God was telling in my heart and life, and the dominant story were actually two very different things.  The story my conservative, private university was telling was not one in which I was mentored or encouraged to find God and His calling on my life at all.  The faculty took a hand-washed approach (it's not my problem, it's yours) to our formation. The new professors were fresh out of their doctorate programs, no teaching experience, very little clinical expertise, and they offered even less about or toward an encounter with God, personally or corporately.  Their wisdom, with the exception of one, came from the book chapters they had read that morning (if they had bothered to read them, which sometimes they did not).  If I saw or heard their hearts at all, the stories they were telling were dismissive, overworked, and desperate, frankly - desperate to make a bottom line.  And their bottom line was about passing a test, not about the students in their midst, not about the lives they had in their hands, but frantically pulling off whatever they thought was going to get their CACREP accreditation.

It's not a bad bottom line.  But it's not the point of my story.   In fact, it kind of flies in the face of my story, which is about relationship, people, and challenging the bottom line mentality in order to recognize, participate in, and appreciate a larger story.

Interestingly, stepping away from that insanity did not silence the voices of competing story.  In this time of rest and seeking, other dominant stories have tried to tell me who I am.  The fact is, I live and work among the rich and educated, for example.  I am poor and, at present, a graduate-school dropout. I live in a world in which one is supposed to have a full-time career and/or a family, a certain income and standards for living including a Christian paradigm of abolishing any kind of debt.  I am single and, at present, I work part time in a support role while participating in ministry to addicts and finding creative ways to pay student loans.  Imagine how these stories would define me.  Moreover, there is this culture all around me, a culture of quiet nights at home watching tv, days spent surfing the net, illicit relationships with make-believe people - a culture in which we don't really live in the real world.  This story is particularly compelling to a postmodern world that has been kicked around in real life by the stories that have come before.  This is the story of the Labyrinth.

And there among the cacophony is a simple credo ... I don't want to watch others live life. I want to live a life worth watching.  I don't want to be a spectator, a surrogate-user, a media consumer, a tv-watcher; nothing more than an audience member at a show.  I want to be someone who lives, who truly lives, in the real world that is scary and discouraging and frustrating and yet good and beautiful.  I want to live the story of my life, not someone else's, not some institution's, not some culture's - the story of my heart, the story of my God.  I want to be someone who lives in such a manner that it is inspiring, that it inspires others to want to live, too.

In the twists and turns of life we forget sometimes to live, to live our stories instead of buying into a substitute, a farce, a mirage designed to make us forget that we have a story, a life, a calling.  And it is fitting that bookending my time of intentional seeking and listening for God's story is this credo, my credo, that I must remember and challenge myself with every day.

As a side note, I have continued my studies in the Old Testament during this time and I constantly revisit the instructions the Hebrews were given in order to take their land of promise.  One of the most vital imperatives they had was to remember.  They placed stones from the Jordan after they crossed it on the banks of their new land, an altar of sorts, to remember, to tell their story, to seek God and to keep their covenant with Him.  I have decided to build my own memorial altar in the form of a book, a covenant book.  In it I will record reminders - images, scripture, articles of faith, visions, vows, promises and covenants - of my story, of the story God is telling in me, in my heart, through my life.  On one page it will read:

I don't want to watch others live life.  I want to live a life worth watching.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

An Invitation to Live

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming...

I have a theory about sex.  

The experience of a sex drive, sexual arousal and attraction, is not entirely dissimilar to other experiences of passion: The passion for justice, for example, or the passion to make a difference in the world, the passion to know and be known, to feel significant or have a sense of belonging, even a passion for good food, service, purpose.  We can become passionate about many different needs or causes or callings, and the fact that we can experience passion in whatever form seems significant.  

Passion moves us.  

It inspires and motivates us to action, to live, to thrive, to master or assert or fight.  While passion is not enough for satisfaction and contentment or life-fulfillment by itself, a people without passion perish (if I may reinterpret an Old Testament verse).  In other words, to live without passion would mean to live in apathy, a place of not caring vehemently about anything really, not enough to do something, to change, learn, grow, try, persevere.  As people, we have to care, and we have to care enough to exert the effort of living, of making a living, of loving and struggling for survival.  This is the danger of anhedonia, losing our capacity to enjoy, to care, to experience love or pain to such a capacity as to develop true passion; without it, we give up.  We become distracted, empty, compulsive, hopeless, despondent, purposeless.  We die.  It may be a little at a time, but slowly and distinctly, we die simply because nothing is really worth living for.  And if we still do the things necessary to live, we live almost heartlessly, in a state of numb or constricted experience or, worse yet, a state of silent misery that we can only pray gets bad enough to make us desperate.

Back to the sex part: The point is, sexuality moves us.  It is designed to move us.  We are designed to experience passion and beauty and joy and longing and even sadness and grief and loss because we are designed for life, and that is what life and truly living is - feeling, caring, fighting, hurting, and continuing to do all these things even when we are faced with and ultimately must accept the very real and solid fact that we are not all-powerful, we are not the ultimate authority, we will die and must integrate our mortality into our experience of life, coming to grips with the idea of some sort of accountability.

The other point is that sex, like food, isn't the point.  Sex and sexuality are things that God has wrapped up in the human experience (collectively if not individually) for the purpose of making us desire and look for the point.  It's a reminder to seek, to reach, to ask, to want more in life, in relationship, in existence, and in relationship with God.  As hunger is the reminder to eat, sexuality is a reminder - one of many, but probably the most innately physical - to reach.  

Sexuality is a reminder to reach.

It is a reminder of both our aloneness in the world and our desperate need to be connected.  

In this way, sexuality is intrinsically intertwined with attachment, the need for human touch and caring, for fellowship, companionship and all the things that we associate with being a social being - all the things that we will die without, just like we will die without food.  

Disclaimer:  Some people feel that sex is a basic need like the need for food, water, and shelter.  Sex is not a basic need.  You will not die from a lack of sex.  You will die without touch (usually within the first couple months or weeks of life).  You will die without relationship, first emotionally, psychologically, and t hen, eventually, physically.  You will die without food or water.  You will not die from a lack of sex.  You will not go crazy.  You will be just fine, fully human, fully alive.

That said, what if, instead of viewing our sexuality as an indication of our right to gratification and release, we embraced our sexuality as the drive and longing for connection and relationship and for doing what is necessary to have healthy, meaningful intimacy?  It's what keeps us coming back for more when, frankly, people are hard to get along with and relationship is frustrating and often, ironically, lonely.

This is why masturbation, pornography, and casual sex is so dangerous to us physiologically, psychologically, and relationally.  It's confuses the point and in so doing becomes a drug, a release or a high for a moment, that isn't actually the thing that we need.  It's like watching tv when you're hungry; you might get distracted for a while, but you'll starve to death in the process.  It's also why splitting off our sexuality - or other forms checking or numbing out - is equally dangerous.  To tie into the post that started this series, the labyrinth we must navigate is a narrow middle road of remembering the point, the real story, our purpose.

Sexuality can be a reminder on that journey, an invitation to live.  That is my theory.  And when I am tempted by that invitation to withdraw for my own personal gratification, I turn my thoughts instead to life, to the things that create life, however hard they may be, things like initiating and investing in relationship, things like taking risks and trying new things even if it means making a mistake or feeling uncomfortable, things like dreaming and fighting for what can be, what I hope for, things like giving back, loving, and being honest and vulnerable.

What will you do with your invitation to live?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Note on a New Story, a Better Story

Once upon a time there was a girl who didn't exist.  It was her job, in fact, not to be a person at all.  She lived without a dream, a heart, or a will of her own.  Now she lived with a noble purpose, to be sure, for she lived to serve and to help others, but with that task somehow came the addendum that she herself must need and require as little as possible.  She must not be different.  She must not be separate.  She must not be.  In fact, in order to serve her 'master' most lovingly, she had to be, instead of herself, whatever was needed.  Her life wasn't her own; you could say that she was a slave.  She grew up in bondage.  She knew no other way.

You could call this girl Cinderella and it would be fitting in many ways.  It would be most fitting because she made her bed in ashes and believed that this was ultimately where she belonged.  But her name was not Cinderella.

Once upon a time I discovered that the Cinderella story was not working for me.  In fact, it was killing me, and it wasn't glorifying to God, either.  I needed a new story.

Praise God, He wasn't content to leave me in the ashes where I had made a life for myself.  As He did for His people, He saw me in my slavery and heard the cries of my heart.  He reached down into my ashes and He called me out.

The story I want to live now is the story He is telling in me and for me.  It entails discovering and living from and caring for my heart.  God calls it "taking the land" (the land of promise) another similarity to the story of the Israelites as they were delivered from their slavery.  For me, taking the land means discovering who I am, my gifts, abilities, and limitations, investing in these and offering them to the world - not because it meets pious church standards but because it is what God created me, a unique creature, to do in the time that I'm given.

This new story, this "taking the land" means that I want to practice, hone, and develop my writing and speaking skills.  The truth is, I want to write, to write about recovery and healing, to share my testimony as an offering of hope, if for no other reason than it honors the heart God has given me and the new story He is writing in and for and with me.  I've started living this out through the creation of this blog.  But I want to write a book.  I want to write a book about emotional stewardship and what it means to grow up and become a mature disciple of Christ.  I want to write about relationship because it is something that we don't seem to know how to do in this century.  I have the first book in mind - even a title - and I have many of the chapters outlined.  This is part of my new story, part of taking the land, part of advancing the Kingdom as God has called me to do as me, not as Cinderella.

More than that, I want to write music.  I want to offer the music that I have written to the world.  I want to submit songs to the USA Songwriting Competition one after another, year after year.  I want to grow from the feedback they offer.  And if what I have to offer should be something that others need to hear, then I have to be willing to offer it and to keep offering it until it does the work that God has ordained it to do.

Ultimately, the new story that I want to live into and out of, that I MUST live into and out of, is a story in which my heart thrives instead of merely surviving.  It is a story in which I embrace and accept all of who I am and how I am uniquely made and the gifts I have to offer, however humble, meager, or limited - whether they meet the traditional standards of Christian love and service or not.  Writing and singing - let's face it, they're not "build a shelter for the homeless" or "raise $100k for children dying of AIDS."  But the new story that God seems to be calling me to, it is a story in which, if He has put it in my heart to write and to sing, then that is what I must do, and do with all my heart.

It is too late for this piece to count as an entry for the Living a Better Story opportunity recently offered by Don Miller, but I wanted to put the words down anyway, to make some stab at capturing the competing images, articulating the competing stories that were and still are trying to claim my life and my attention - because in the writing, whether for a contest or a conference or not, is a step toward living my new story.  And a conference like the Living a Better Story Conference, even if it it's not this year, is a chance to reach out to others who are straining to hear God's story above the cacophony of voices trying to tell them who they are and what they should do with their lives.  I am convicted that such an act of reaching out and connecting with others in something like this, whether at this time or in the future, is by itself a step toward living this new story of thriving instead of merely surviving.  But the the inspiration and the accountability of fellowshipping with others who are serious about not only hearing God's story for their lives, but actually doing something about it - that isn't just a step, that is a leap toward doing the same myself.  So though the time is past for this particular opportunity, I will live into my new story regardless, and if it is my story indeed, there will be other chances.

One day I hope to have the chance to learn from, even be mentored by, another author.  That was something that I thought about as a wild possibility that could come from attending a conference like Living a Better Story.  It looks like I may want to start, however, with picking up A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and finding out what all the fuss is about.  There is more than one way to skin a cat, take the land, or live a story.

Living a Better Story Seminar from All Things Converge Podcast on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Story of Sex and Ministry

I remember the moment that God finally convinced me to open my heart to pastoral ministry.  It was the day after my birthday.  I was having a conversation with a fellow student about sex...

The Backstory

I grew up in a church that did not allow women in leadership.  Period.  I wandered from major to major in college, a rebel without a clue; the only thing I wanted to do was learn about God, but that seemed pointless given my context.  After all, a religion degree does not a "successful, contributing member of society" make, so I looked into law, teaching, communications, and psych.  It was not until I ended up in another church under the care of amazing women leaders that it dawned on me: Women are called to ministry - in the church even.

Fast-forward a couple of years and the next thing I know, I'm presenting the "message" at local recovery groups, "leading worship," and eventually "preaching" in conjunction with mission trips and thesis work.  I completed my degree in management and HR only to have a fellow student say to me, "If you don't become a pastor, I'm going to have to kick your ..."

A pastor?  I don't think so. I'd have to be crazy.  I still hadn't completely wrapped my head around women in leadership, let alone women as pastors.  (Sorry, ladies, but I am a recovering fundamentalist.)

Interestingly, my thesis recommendation for this little church up north of the river was to hire an Administrative Pastor.  Even more interesting was the experience of being recommended for that position.  The weird thing was, in that context it didn't scare the frijoles out of me.  I could actually see myself doing something like that.  After all, I had just finished a management degree that focused exclusively on human relations.  Weird.

Of course, I couldn't go be a pastor for a baptist church, so fast-forward again to graduate studies in counseling, and that brings us to the conversation about sex...

I remember it well because it was one I had actually had many times before. When it had happened before, however, it had been me trying to explain to a very sick sex-addict exactly what he was doing to his heart, mind, spirit, and marriage.  I had tried to describe the desensitization process, the isolation, the objectification that occurs with pornography use.  I had hoped to depict the mental, emotional, and relational repercussions.  I had wanted to open his eyes to something he could not see within the context of his justifications, a truth as stark and as real as I was.  But he refused and his distortion of sex eventually cost him his marriage, his relationship with God, and his freedom.  He walked away from the church and is now in jail for the crimes he perpetrated.

That man was my husband. I watched as his preoccupation with sex addicted and then changed him until he almost wasn't human anymore.

I've since done quite the research on sexual addiction, the epidemic sweeping the US and now other countries of the world.  I've perused Christian literature on the subject - which often minimizes or over-spiritualizes the issue.  In fact, I agree with recovering addict, pastor, and specialist Mark Laaser when he says that the "Every [insert pertinent subject]'s Battle" books are generally crap; they do not even touch the physiological, spiritual, and emotional ramifications of masturbation and pornography use.  The leading researcher and author is Dr. Patrick Carnes (see his book Out of the Shadows).

But I digress.

The Thing About Sex

The bottom line was this:  One night in class, while talking with another counseling student, I learned about the ground-breaking attachment studies that have exposed the physiological, psychological, emotional, and relational effects of sexual addiction.  It was the first time that I experienced someone else telling me what I had been trying to tell others for years.  I have since taken the class that sparked this conversation, and this is what I learned:

There are two primary chemicals released in the brain during sex: Oxytocin and Dopamine.  Oxytocin is the "peace" chemical created by and in attached, intimate (committed) relationships.  Dopamine is the "high" and it is also highly acidic.  The two chemicals together bring pleasure and well-being, promoting mental health and all of the benefits associated with sex.  However, without the right amount of oxytocin, dopamine actually eats away at the the brain.  It then drains away, leaving the brain in a state of deprivation experienced as a "crash," or depression, from which it takes 10 days for the brain to recover and return to a normal chemical balance.  Studies are showing that, over time, this acidic dopamine flood destroys brain tissue to the point of measurable crevasses and holes in the frontal cortex.

Sexual stimulation outside of a committed, attached, intimate relationship does not produce enough oxytocin to balance dopamine levels.  

Literally, casual sex, pornography use, masturbation ... destroys brain tissue.  The worst part is, it destroys the part of the brain where personality and impulse control is managed.  It is also the part of the brain that facilitates our ability to understand the difference between right and wrong and to create intimate relationships, connection, and attachment.

And people think that it's not hurting anyone.  Not only does this create addiction (ie. reaching out to a "substance" to feel better, only to feel worse and need more of the "substance" to feel better again) but it literally changes your personality and thinking over time, destroys your impulse control, isolates you and then erodes your ability to foster and create the intimacy and connection you need to survive.  It is not just that pornography itself objectifies people, it is that it fosters the process of disconnecting and dehumanizing self, others, and relationship physiologically in your brain.

Suddenly, Paul's words "everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial" seem particularly pertinent.  It is not a question of what is sin and what isn't.  It is not a question of "how far" one can go.  It is a matter of that which creates or destroys life within you and your relationships, your body and your spirit.  This is why accepting, understanding, and stewarding our sexuality is so vital to us as human beings.  This is why it isn't just about marriage, too, because destructive, addictive sexuality occurs in marriage all the time, with heart-breaking consequences.

The Pastoral Thing

This was the process I watched unfold in my marriage.  This was the spiritual truth I could see as plain as day.  As I stood in class that night having a discussion about sex, it was as if God confirmed a message He had given me, a message that was not just for my own relationship, my own church, my own recovery, but for a time and for a people.

I mentioned that I began preaching as a part of missions trips - specifically, a trip to Africa.  It was a strange and miraculous adventure that I thought would culminate into a call to missions, to Africa, or to something similar.  I almost didn't expect to come home from the trip - at least, I didn't expect my heart to come home.  Something did happen on that excursion, but not what I expected.  It was in Africa that God turned my heart back to the US, a country under a fog of distraction and disconnect, blind to its own beauty and potential, its calling to partner with the world to make disciples, its neediness.  Since that trip in 2007 I have been searching to be equipped to minister to my people.  I started graduate studies in counseling for that purpose, and that is where, 2 years later, I received this confirmation.  That is where I think I have started to understand what God might be calling me to do about this blind and needy country.  At the very least, in that moment in class, I understood that I needed to speak out, to expose the "world that has been pulled over our eyes" and the damage it is doing to us as a church, as a people. If that means being a pastor, so be it. 

In other words, I have been known to say, "Where He leads me, I will follow."  It is the credo that took me to Africa.  And if He leads me to be a pastor because that is the culmination of the message, the gifts, and the passions He has placed in my heart, or if that is just His plan, then so be it.

The Good News

I will close with this good news: The brain damage caused by sexual addiction is one of the only kinds of damage that can actually be undone.  The way to promote healing?  Intimate relationships.  Healthy, attached, intimate relationships stimulate the growth and development of the frontal cortex.  This is how babies grow and develop - and another reason why relationship - family, community, the church - is so important to us as human beings from the cradle to the grave.  This is part of the reason why recovery groups work - they facilitate authenticity, vulnerability, accountability, knowing and being known - they facilitate the creation of real connection and intimacy.  In fact, the 12 Steps reconstruct one's ability to build relationship, among many other amazing things.  But recovery is a process.  It is vital to stop the damage by "sobering up" so that the brain can recuperate and heal, and you can learn how to love and be loved again (or perhaps for the first time).  That is why recovery from sexual addiction calls for sexual abstinence even in marriage, sometimes for up to a year!  Abstinence creates the needed environment to begin physiological, emotional, and relational recovery, which is why I believe sexual stewardship starts when you are single.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Seasons, Sexuality, and Being Single

"Sexuality needs to be integrated into one's personhood. It should be connected to all of who you are, and it should show up in real life, not in a dungeon."

Henry Cloud
How to Get a Date Worth Keeping
(emphasis mine)

Before I get too far into this discussion on sex, I thought I would introduce sexuality in the context of the single life. As a single person who desires to live not just in abstinence, purity, and integrity but also wholeness and maturity, I have discovered that:
  • Singles (and many of their married friends and other loved ones) often treat being single as if it were a disease to be cured, a problem to be solved, or a question to be answered.

  • The single life is NOT, however, a holding place for people who are not yet married. It is NOT a premature developmental stage. It is NOT a burden to be alleviated or a sentence to be escaped.

  • The single life IS a season that has divine purpose with rich blessings, daunting challenges, unique experiences and joys, and special sorrows - JUST LIKE MARRIAGE. Just like marriage and parenthood, the season(s) of living singly accomplish purposes that no other season does - at least not in the same way.

  • If you see the single life as a necessary evil or as merely the stage through which one might have to pass in order to get to marriage and family, then you are missing a significant opportunity to develop your identity, character, and relationship with Christ.

  • Many look to marriage as the "answer" for dealing with their sexuality. However, if you're looking for a place to work out your sexuality, start with being single!

So, let's start be establishing that sexuality is not about sex.

We are sexual beings, and that is and will be true regardless as to whether we ever get married or have sex. Being a sexual being is about MORE than sex, and the single lifestyle is a unique and significantly important opportunity to learn about and develop sexuality and sexual identity apart from sex - an opportunity you do not want to squander, especially when doing so could just end in pornography or other sexual addictions, infidelity, divorce, or a trail of broken relationships. For example, learning about the sex drive and learning how to steward it is how one learns how to be whole, mature, and to walk in self control. Marriage requires even greater sexual stewardship and self control than being single - not less! It is not easier to be married, it is more complex; you are dealing with two people and their distinct ideas and expressions of sexuality, not one, and you are learning how to steward yourselves together - a good, beautiful, challenging opportunity, yes, but one that still involves delaying gratification and dealing with rejection - sometimes much more demanding delays in gratification and much greater experiences of rejection than single people can imagine!

Some Christians expound on the beauty of sex in marriage. But I hear very little about the actual stewardship and development of sexuality in marriage, and I certainly do not hear about any beauty and sexuality in the single life. It is not surprising, then, that the significance of the season of being single for developing one's sexuality is lost. In fact, there is such a negativity about sexuality outside of the context of sex-and-marriage that Dr. Cloud in the aforementioned book notes two devastating consequences: Asexuality and sexual promiscuity. Both are marked by sexual regression in which neither the 'pure' nor the 'oversexed' have integrated their sexuality or know how to steward it. The result is often blunted adults who don't know how to engage sexually with their spouses later in marriage, or loose canons who may desperately try to "hold themselves back" for marriage, never developing self control, especially not the self control needed to steward sexuality and sex in a covenant relationship! If a person cannot learn to be sexually faithful in the single life, what will give him or her the self control, wisdom, and maturity that it requires to be faithful to a sexual partner - particularly considering that partner is NOT an object for that person's sexual gratification any more AFTER marriage than he or she was BEFORE? In other words, you're not going to get it when you want it, the way you want it, so learn how to be whole, satisfied, and content NOW, as a single person, or you may just be in for some serious pitfalls in marriage.

Though allow me to state again, the single life is not necessarily about preparing for marriage; it is a beautiful opportunity to learn about self, relationship, and love, and it is a season of maturing. It is a season for growing closer to God in specific ways, as is every other season of life.

I'll conclude with this: Marriage has its own loneliness right alongside its unique and beautiful intimacy. It has its own deep sorrows and heart-breaking rejections right alongside its distinct moments of bliss and joy. You are not escaping or being saved from anything when you get married, you are just getting the opportunity to experience the dance of intimacy with a distinct set of risks and unique experiences. One of the keys to adjusting to marriage is learning how to embrace the beauty with the sorrow, the joy with the pain. And all of these things are also true of being single. Learn how to grieve and let go of what you don't have and embrace that which is offered in the season you are in.