Sunday, December 9, 2012

In the Wilderness


"...[L]ife comes only through a kind of death: a death to the old way of understanding and feeling about ourselves and others, in order to move into a more ... compassionate way of living, a way that we would not and could not create ourselves ... precisely because we did not yet ... see that our present 'self' was too narrow to hold the possibilities the Spirit was opening out for us ... [T]his darkness [is] the loving action of the Spirit drawing a person or community into a deeper and more inclusive love." ~ Joann Wolski Conn

Advent is a season of hope - a hope for a people walking in darkness, that they might see a great light. But as we examine the actual coming of Messiah, we find that the people walking in darkness did not recognize the light - and frankly did not want the kind of freedom that it offered. No, like the Israelites who were brought out of Egypt, they were not actually prepared for the Messiah and all it would cost them to follow him.

 The coming of Messiah actually led them to a very interesting predicament: Behind them was their slavery - slavery from which they had been brought out but which pursued them relentlessly - and before them was the wilderness, a place in which they would experience a new danger: hunger, thirst, wandering ...

Temptation.

The temptation to go back.

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

That seems to be the predicament we face even now as we look for the coming of the Messiah in our own darkness. When he comes he reveals to us our slavery and calls us out - leading us directly into the wilderness.

What kind of deliverance is that?!?

Yet it was in the wilderness that Jesus himself was led before beginning his "ministry."

It was in a "wilderness," too, that Peter found himself tested before he began the ministry he was called to do as well.

Does God lead us into temptation?

One thing seems certain: at some point, God leads us into the wilderness - if we will follow him.

But why?

 Why would God do this? Why would God go to all the trouble of breaking into our slavery and calling us out - just to wander in the wilderness ... just to die ... in the wilderness???

It's a good question. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to have had a similar question in mind when they stood before King Nebuchadnezzar and faced an immanent fiery death. God had called them out, set them apart for himself and asked them for their obedience, their faithfulness. This request put them at odds with their culture - first in what they ate, then in how they lived, until finally it required them to break the law when the penalty was death. Why would call them out just to lead them to such a wilderness, just to lead them to certain death?

I find myself in that question. I have been called out of Egypt - but it seems to have led me to wander in the wilderness, to wander until I have been tempted to go back and pick up again the burdens of slavery. In my Advent Confession I admitted that my failure to be attentive has indeed left me with a heart weighed down by the anxieties of life. But in this confession I found words of hope:

...the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Luke 3:2b

The word of God came in the wilderness.

From the wilderness, Jesus came with the anointing of God, "This is my son in whom I am well pleased."

After his wilderness experience, Peter went on to testify, and on his testimony the church was established.

The true testimony of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was in their statement of faith in the midst of the wilderness,

"King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty's hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods..." Daniel 3:16-18

Even if he does not...

What powerful words of testimony to their God, that they would choose death in his name.

Death. Death in the wilderness. It casts a whole new light on the Israelites' cry: "It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!" Exodus 14:12

When our options are slavery or the wilderness, which will we choose? When our choices are between serving other gods and following the Messiah to our death, are we willing to die? Because the truth is, that is what happened to the Israelites. That is what happened to John. That is what happened to the Messiah himself. And that is what happened to Peter. They were all led into the wilderness and ultimately to their own deaths.
...the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness and he went into all the region around the Jordan River, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as it is written in the words of Isiah the Prophet:
"The voice of one shouting in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way for the Lord ... that all humanity will see the salvation of God.'"
The word of God comes in the wilderness.

The gospel of salvation shouts from the wilderness.

It is in the wilderness, in death, that we have the hope of salvation, of resurrection life.

We have to be willing to leave Egypt. We have to be willing to face the wilderness. We have to be willing to die in order to testify to new life.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Christian New Year Confession

Slavery

It is a strange topic for Advent, the beginning of the "Christian New Year," set as it is in the blooming hullabaloo of sleigh bells, Christmas cheer, the decking of the halls and fa la la.  At first glance it doesn't seem to have anything to do with what was Away in a Manger one Silent Night, you know, the Greensleeves that drew the attention of Angels We Have Heard on High, We Three Kings, and The Little Drummer Boy (they were a fashion-conscious bunch).  

Be attentive, careful, on your guard...

But maybe it is not so strange a topic after all.  It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to consider the plight of the Jews at the time that Mary and Joseph embarked upon their journey to Bethlehem, an arduous trek even for someone not so great with child, and one not pleasantly anticipated when all it was going to mean was increased taxes and the strengthened rule of a more than moderately paranoid king.

lest your hearts be weighed down...

And maybe it's not so strange a topic for the wee small hours of a new year when we consider what it actually means to be Christian.  Do we not take on this identity only when we come face to face with and confess our failures and shortcomings, when we acknowledge our limitations, sorrows, regrets - our slavery - in the hopes of finding that the Messiah has come, is coming, will come to free us? We're supposed to be anticipating, right?  Anticipating what? What does Messiah mean, anyway?  What does it mean to have God with us?

Watch out or your hearts may be burdened, dulled and desensitized by dissipation, over-indulgence, or the anxieties of life...

Luke 21:34 was the focus of the first Sunday in Advent.  It seemed a little gloomy for the season: Let's talk about heavy hearts!  Depression!  Anxiety!  Drunkenness!  And dissi ... what the heck is dissipation anyway???

Dissipation: (noun) dispersion, disintegration, a wasting by misuse, distraction, amusement, diversion

The pastor happily described it this way:
"Life flattens as we feast on trivialities."
"We are entertaining ourselves to death."

It's a great passage to consider when one is considering slavery.  In fact, it's an opportunity to have our hearts sifted, to recognize our ongoing need of Messiah, to truly long for and anticipate God With Us.  Because we are a society that revolves around feasting on trivialities, over indulgence, and anxiety.

In fact, I wondered as I read the passage if it didn't really capture everything that might enslave the human soul:

Either we give our lives over to the utterly meaningless barrage of constant stimulation until our hearts have lost all ability to experience real pleasure...

Or we plunge ourselves into one great destructive addiction... (or two ... or three)

Or we wallow in the anxious horror of the cares of every day life.

Or any combination thereof, yes?

If that doesn't sound like slavery, I don't know what is.

If that doesn't sound like the place that the very heart of Christianity asks us to start the new year in, then I don't know what Christianity is.

So, let's do this thing.  Let's dig in deep to the burdens of the heart at the start of this new year.  And let's long for Messiah.  Let's press in to the ways we are in slavery on the off chance that our lives might be completely disrupted by hope.

My personal favorite is the last one, the anxieties of life.  I am REALLY good at getting weighed down by those.  Right now I have four papers I should be writing for classes that I actually really enjoy.  But I'm not writing them.  You know why?  Because my heart is heavy.  Because apparently I did not watch out.  I was inattentive at some point and the anxieties of life, they sank their razor-sharp teeth into my precious little heart and they've been pumping it with venom ever since.  The irony is, by NOT writing those stupid papers, they just add their weight to the burdens of my heart.

So here is my Christian New Year Confession: I have been enslaved - and I don't even know how it happened.  My heart is sad and disconnected and burdened.  I long for the Messiah that came once before, that came and freed me from Egypt and brought me to a place that he had prepared for me, that called me his own and invited me to call him My God, My Rescuer, My Kinsman Redeemer, Lifter of My Head, Lover of My Soul, Husband, Friend, Partner, Hope.  This is the place in which I will wait during Advent.  I will choose to be here, to acknowledge my slavery, and to long for Messiah.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Called Out of Egypt

You watch as she folds her clothes and tucks them away in a makeshift pack.  She doesn't look at you, doesn't speak.  She just takes the last little signs of her life with you here and hides them away until they are almost all gone.

You saw the cart outside already weighed down with the items of your day-to-day existence - the jars of oil and meal, the seed for planting, the candle holders and fire starters and bags of feed for the livestock - all of it so unrecognizable outside of their regular spots around the hearth, on the table, near the bed, in the front yard.

You don't say much.  The truth is, you're not thinking much at the moment.  Or maybe it's that you're thinking  everything at once.  And the roar in your head is so deafening it is absolute silence.  

She looks at you.  There is something you don't recognize in her eyes.  It would surprise you to know that she is thinking the same thing about you.

She has stopped talking now, after months and months of discussion, months and months of prayer, months and months of preparing and urging you to prepare.  And you did some.  But the truth is, you didn't really think it would happen - not even when the Angel of Death passed through the streets.  The truth is, you had too many other things going on, too many other demands on your time, too many other things to think about - or not think about.  You have been too busy, well, living life.  And with all of the uprisings spurred on by the Troublemaker - or  Liberator, depending on who you talked to - there were plenty of extra demands.  And then there was the regular entourage of weddings and social events and, well, just the normal stuff.  Today you notice that a lot of time has passed - more than you realized.  You can't help but remember the last time she spoke:

"I have been called out of Egypt," she'd said simply.  And that was that.

Maybe you thought about her words a little as you were on your way to meet up with friends that night.  Maybe it unsettled something.  But mostly everyone was talking about it and saying lots of extreme things.  So if you thought about it that night, the truth is you probably just thought, Good for you, and maybe, I wonder if they'll have those great little cakes I like tonight.

But now it actually means something.  Now it means something to you.

"Tell me again," you find yourself saying, realizing she is still looking at you though she doesn't pause in her packing for even a moment.  You feel a little inane, but Egypt is the only frame of reference you have for ... anything.  You are a Counter in the Courts, not even a manual laborer.  You can't imagine anything but the city.  You can't imagine what kind of lifestyle could possibly exist out there.

"Tell you again?" she asks, somewhat incredulously.  "I am called out of Egypt. Life will never be the same.  Where are you called to live?"

It is the strangest conversation you think you have ever had with anyone, let alone the one closest to you in the world.  She is leaving.  And it is clear that you have a decision to make.

A decision, you wonder.  What kind of decision is it?  Shall I go live in the desert?  Shall I just pack my bags and walk out of the city gates - into oblivion?  Surely the Creator did not expect that!  I have been faithful here.  This is my life.

Sure, part of you longed for some kind of freedom.  But what kind of freedom was this?  You would have preferred the kind of freedom that would have allowed you to stay and, you know, just do what you want.  THAT would have been true deliverance - not this uprooting, not this liberation that requires you to ... give everything up, to ... come out.  What kind of freedom is that?

"I am called out of Egypt," she says again, now looking down.  And as she places the last piece of fabric and ties up the pack, it becomes clear that, if you are not called out of Egypt, she will leave you with the city.

*     *     *

Advent.  It is a time when many of us turn our attention to an old story, to the events leading up to the birth of Christ.  If a church has a strong tradition, perhaps we are invited to consider an ancient people longing for Messiah - even as we ourselves look forward to his second coming.

But there may be a few who take it a step further.  There may be a few who find their story more intrinsically intertwined with the ancient people of God.  In fact, there are some who would say that the ancient stories are, in fact, our story.

The ancient story of a people in desperate need of Messiah...

The ancient story of a people enslaved...

Okay, so what if I told you that YOU live in Egypt?  And what if I told you that advent is about being called OUT of your slavery?  More than that, it is about being called out - delivered - but not in the way you might expect, not in a way that you may even really want...

Honestly, that is the place in which the Israelites found themselves in Exodus.  They were delivered from their slavery to Egypt - Yay!  But delivered to what?  They had to walk away from everything they'd ever known, their way of life, and head into the wilderness.  Why?  For the story of a magical land of milk and honey?

Where was the milk and honey when they crossed the Red Sea and they began to get hungry and thirsty and lost and tired?

You think they were excited about being delivered from slavery? 

"Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'?  It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!"  

Exodus 14:12

And that is the place in which the Jewish people find themselves as the Christ child is foretold.  You want us to believe what???  You want us to give up on all our previous notions of Messiah - of identity and freedom and deliverance - for what purpose?  For a magical Kingdom of God?  And that is going to require WHAT of us?!?

And isn't that our story?  We cry out, "God, deliver us" but the truth is we do not really want to leave Egypt.  We do not really want the Messiah to come and expose our hearts and our infidelity and call us to the kind of freedom that costs us everything.

What if you were enslaved and you didn't even know it, and what if the coming of the Messiah meant that you had to give everything up?  What if you had to give up ... smoking? Alcohol?  Desserts or junk food?  What if you had to give up soda?!  What if the coming of the Messiah meant that you were called out of ... watching tv, going to the movies, playing video games, or surfing the net?  What if it meant not getting notifications on your phone every time someone posted to your FB profile or twitter feed?  What if it meant giving yourself to God in the ways you usually give yourself to the media?  What would that even look like?  Can you even imagine it?  Or is that just crazy wilderness talk?

Maybe.  But maybe, like the Israelites, you have made your home where you are and, frankly, you're kind of okay living in Egypt.  Sure, you raise your hands on Sunday morning and sing about deliverance but only as long as you can go home and get on the computer afterward, or watch the game, or go to lunch and a movie.  Maybe, like the Jews when Christ was born, you figure you've  been pretty faithful even while doing all these other things.  You can be faithful, after all, and still look at pornography.  It's not hurting anyone.  You can be faithful giving God 10% of your time and attention and Facebook 90%.  If the coming of Messiah means the giving up my computer, well, I'd really rather that the Messiah not come...

Personally, I'd rather die in the wilderness than serve any other god.

I am called out of Egypt. My life will never be the same.  And I find myself wondering, where are YOU called to live? 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Miracle Whip is the Devil

Subtitled: Why I'm grateful my house blew up.

I've learned the most interesting things in grad school.

For example, I learned that a family is primarily defined by rules and traditions rather than blood ties. It is our traditions that give us a sense of identity, a sense of familial belonging.  

My family, for example, uses mayo; Miracle Whip is the devil. 

The creation and negotiation of traditions is what forges an entity that is larger than self.  And most often, it is a lack of tradition - or lack of meaningful tradition - that leaves so many people feeling disconnected and disenfranchised - particularly during the holidays.

Living by myself, I think it would be that much easier for me to merely cross off the days on my calendar in tribute to the passing of the "holiday season" and go about life as normal.  I have no one for whom to purchase gifts per se - which is good because I have no money for gift purchasing anyway.  I have no children for whom to make up ridiculous seasonal stories - and no reason to care about the old myths that birthed those stories, either.  (St. Nicholas did what for whom?  Why exactly would I want to commemorate him annually?)  Worse, I find the commercialism surrounding the holidays APPALLING.  I don't like shopping. I hate crowds and traffic and wandering around the parking lot of the grocery store for half an hour waiting for a parking spot to open.  And finally, I cringe at how much of our "holiday" is actually spent living vicariously through movies and other media as opposed to connecting with real people and living real life.  (I know, all that's missing here is a resounding "Bah! Humbug!")

Setting aside the soap box (or the high horse, as my co-workers like to call it [What can I say? I LOVE horses!]) I decided a couple years ago to find/create my own traditions for the holidays, to have my own little sense of family identity, if you will.  The creation of traditions are not just for married couples or families with kids.  In fact, how much more freedom do I have to come up with creative traditions that bring me to life and make this a special time of year, and how much more do I need traditions that connect me with God and others?  How much more does my generation need that?

All of that is the very long introduction to my revelation tonight: I have had no Thanksgiving Traditions! None!  (You know, not since that one year that the house blew up. *)

What?!? No Thanksgiving Traditions!?! 

This makes me think of a story.

Once upon a time, I learned a lesson that one may never learn in grad school: Gratitude is stronger than fear.

Nine years ago I lost everything - my home, my truck, my cat ... my marriage.  (I still miss that 2003 Tundra 4x4 V8 Silver Beauty.)  I very nearly lost my life.  I remember waking up one morning in a tiny little apartment, utterly alone, in a life that was not mine, in a world that was so foreign and so painful as to be a nightmare.  Terror and sadness welled up from the inside out and the outside in.  And then ... there was gratitude.

God saved my life.  God rescued me from a sick, abusive relationship. The terror of suddenly finding oneself alone is NOTHING in comparison to the terror of living with lies and trauma and darkness.  I was free.  God had set me free.  I was safe.  I was whole.  I had hope.  And the gratitude that filled my heart for the new life I had been given melted away any fear.

It was such a remarkable experience, this gratitude for what God had done, I wanted to remember it forever. I said to myself, From this point forward, I want to be grateful in my desperation, and desperate in my gratitude.

But I have to confess, I lost it somewhere along the way. I lost my desperation and my gratitude.  It didn't happen overnight but over a period of years, until one day I woke up and I couldn't feel it anymore.  The gratitude was gone and the fear had returned.

Tonight I had a conversation with someone dear to me.  I don't think he knows it but I think it was a conversation about how we are going to fight fear - together. I don't know how to do that, personally - the together part, not the fighting fear part.   But I think I'd like to make a tradition of it.  I think I'd like to create some traditions that connect me again to gratitude, to that desperate kind of gratitude, to that remarkable remembering of all that God has done.

So I'll start this Thanksgiving Day by being grateful for this thing that God has done: I have met someone who isn't afraid of going back with me to face the ruins of a blown-up house.  Actually, I've met four someones willing to walk with me on that journey.  These friendships are truly miraculous.  May they help me to be grateful in my desperation, and desperate in my gratitude.

*****

* The year that I moved to Kansas City, the home that was taken from me was literally blown up for the insurance money.  The truck that was taken from me was repossessed.  And the man who took those things from me went to prison.  

The cat still lives in the ruins if the house to this day.

The Beginning 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Lessons from John Carter

Occasionally a scene or image - or even a whole movie - will catch my attention for its cinematography, story, depth, acting, or symbolism.  I have a weakness for good metaphor in particular and so, as you may recall, I loved Labyrinth for its marvelous depiction of the subtle yet insidious ploys of evil, and I mentioned House of Flying Daggers recently for its depiction of the burdens and honor of being a woman with a calling.  (Okay, that's not exactly what I said but it's kind of what I wanted to say.)  I have had good conversations lately about even the disappointing Snow White & the Huntsman, which I thought did one thing well: It painted an amazing picture of one of the great feminine conflicts.  (Some men resonate with The Hulk as they wrestle with their own anger and aggression.  Some women will find their story in the duality of Snow White and her Wicked Step-Mother Queen: Both were scarred by tragedy because of their beauty. Both faced decisions as to how they would offer their beauty to the world in response.)

Today I was caught by surprise by the movie John Carter.  Specifically there were two scenes that changed my entire experience of the story.  I will only discuss one here, particularly in light of my note about Snow White. I think I can do it without creating any spoilers.

The scene is short and simple.  The princess Dejah faces a typical royal dilemma: Will she sacrifice herself for what appears to be the greater good of her people?  It is the moment of her final decision and she makes one more appeal to the man she has asked to help her fight...

She stands in a position of power that requires this man to kneel before her, yet we know she is helplessly caught up in a greater power play - even down to the fact that she is draped in finery she detests, that displays her as the object she is destined to become, but that she has no choice but to wear.  It is in this moment she uses what power she does have to do something she hasn't yet attempted up until this point.

She poignantly releases all  overt control, manipulation, deception, or blackmail.  Instead, she shares with this man her heart, her vision; she recognizes and accepts him and his story; and she lets him go.

Even though it is obviously painful for her to do so.

Even though she clearly hopes that he will choose her
that he will fight for her
that he will partner with her for this greater good.

Even though it means she faces an unimaginable future without his help.

She offers her heart.

She makes her request.

And she lets him go.

It is a moment in which she operates in true power and authority, in the beauty of knowing who she is and knowing her own strength.

And right down to the very moment when her captors burst in upon her room only to look around in bewilderment - she waits.

"Princess, are you alone?" they ask, confused.

She turns and as the tears well up in her eyes she finally says, "Yes.  Yes, I am alone."

She has done all that she can do.  She has acted in humility.  She has acted in true strength.  And now she is alone.

She takes a breath. She stands up tall.  And she walks out to do what must be done, to be the woman that she knows that she must be, to face the difficult reality that is before her.

"Yes.  Yes, I am alone."

I think it is often a woman's story - to be given a facade of power, a "pretend" humanity, choice when there really are no choices.  And I think it is her greatest fear to have to face this great injustice, to see the great horrors of the world, to try to be a woman of strength and beauty and integrity, only to find herself utterly alone in it.

I don't know, but I think it is a woman's greatest fear.  I think every woman at the core of her being wants to have strength and character and integrity; I think every woman wants to sacrifice for a greater good. I think women uniquely bear a burden over the horrors and tragedies of the world around them and I think they want to do something.  Yet in so many ways we are helpless, powerless.  We cannot do it on our own.

Do we dare to believe in ourselves? Do we dare to reach out?  And if we do, what if it is only confirmed?  What if we find that we really are powerless?

"Yes. Yes, I am alone."

Many women are driven by this fear, I think.  Like Dejah, they may try to exercise their power to manipulate, control, deceive, hide, or pull any number of mechinations in an attempt to avoid that moment of choice, that moment of truth.  Perhaps it is the case with men, too, but this is something to which I cannot speak.  All I know is that I myself have been a coward in my own life, unwilling to face what is required of me, unable to face it alone.  Until the day came that I stopped running, stopped trying to control what was never mine to control, stopped trying to manipulate or blackmail or cajole.  One day I stood as Dejah did, accepting both what I had power over and all the ways I was distinctly powerless.  One day I decided to believe in my heart, to share my vision, and to ask for partnership.

And just as Dejah did in that moment, I found that I was alone.  It was my worst fear realized.

And I think that's the point.  I think that is the true line of integrity, the true test.  Are we willing face our fear, find that it is true, and stand in the face of it anyway? Are we willing to choose the path of integrity - even when our greatest fear is realized and we find we face it alone?

I read a blog recently written by a friend, a man appealing to women to forsake pornography, explicit novels, and other exploitive material/media, describing the impact that partaking in such things could have on men, particularly in their own struggles.  He is right.  If women choose to abandon this point of integrity because men have already abandoned them for the same, it only escalates the problem; it doesn't solve anything.  (That is the lie of sexual sin - any sin, really.  It poses itself as the solution. It pretends to be the answer, but it only creates a greater problem.  It only begets more sin and pain.)  But though he was right, the difficult truth for men has been one that I think women have faced for a long time now.

Will you choose what is right regardless as to who stands with you or abandons you?


Will you choose the difficult thing, the painful road of self-sacrifice, character, and integrity, even if no one sees it and no one stands with you?  Even if you do not get what you need?  Even if you have been wronged, belittled, or have suffered a great injustice?  Even if you find that you are alone?  That is the choice that men must make on the issue of pornography regardless of their own hopes and dreams and helplessness and suffering, regardless of women.  That is the choice that women have had to make in the midst of all the injustice that has been perpetrated upon them, too.

I, for one, can say I made my choice.  I chose to do the hard thing and I found my greatest fear realized.

"Yes. Yes, I am alone."

And I survived.

The fear said that I could not do it but I did.  The fear said that I would not make it but I did.  And it was only in facing this fear that I was finally able to truly accept that I was not alone at all.  God was and had been with me, and he had been raising up a woman of character within  my very skin.

My story did not turn out like Dejah's.  But by letting go as she did, I found that I was capable of real love, real sacrifice, real life, and real hope.  By letting go, fear no longer controlled me.  By letting go and finding that I was alone, I was able to receive the gift of not being alone when it came.

It makes me think of Esther.  When it came down to it, no one else could do what she did.  No one could walk the path to the court with her, no one could step out beside her as she presented herself to the king and offered up her life.  She was alone.  She had limited power; she was a figurehead, an object in the harem of the king.   It's a woman's worst fear.  And her story is recorded as a testimony to each of us about the calling God has placed on each of us.

All that, in a 2 minute scene from John Carter.  ;-)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Subtle & Epic

"Why do you speak of your people that way?" the young African asked. He stood among a group of men and women from different tribes of sworn enemies, his face earnest and shining.

"My father killed my class mate's father in a tribal war," he went on, looking at his colleague, another young person with a peaceful, glowing countenance.  "But we do not speak of each other or our people with disdain because of their failures, because of the past. We speak vision and hope and reconciliation to our people, that the dark continent would instead be a continent of light."

It was a prophetic voice, a loving word of conviction from a student at a university in Kenya to a group of U.S. Christians who had used disparaging language about "Americans."

Do not abandon your people, he seemed to say. Do not disown and ridicule them. Speak light to them, that they might be light. Speak hope to them, that they might be a people of hope.

I will never forget the testimony that young man offered us, a testimony about what it means to be called to a people. For the 14+ hour flight home from Africa, I sat listening to the Holy Spirit speaking to me through the words of a young African. They were echoed in a book titled "Waking the Dead" and in the scripture God led me to that day. They began to take shape so that, when the plane finally descended, it wasn't Atlanta that I saw below; it wasn't even the U.S. I gazed through a tiny window across the aisle out at a land, a people, shrouded as if in a fog, unable to see one another, unable to connect for the cloud that was lowered over their eyes and hearts, a veil that blinded them to their own need and to their calling.

In Africa, God gave me a vision of and for his people here; God called me to his mission here.

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.

(Note: Be careful about inviting the Spirit of God to move in your life; he brings adventure in subtly epic proportions.  That's right: Subtle and Epic.)

It has taken several years but I have come to understand that I am here to call a people, that they might awaken to "the world pulled over their eyes" and see their own brokenness, that they might learn a different way, a way of intimacy and connection with God and others, a way of hope and reconciliation, a way out of the bondage they do not even know they are in.

God is not content to leave us in Egypt, even when we have made slavery our home.

Church, God has not asked us to serve those people, as if need and bondage and disconnect is somewhere out there. God has called us to open our eyes to our brokenness right here. God has called us to recover, to be reconciled to him; only then do we have life and light and hope to offer, that the world might be reconciled to him, too. How can we lead anyone down a path we have not tread ourselves?

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Unless we are sick, we have no need of Christ, we have no need of recovery, of reconciliation, and we have nothing to offer the world. But if we are willing to have our eyes opened to our sickness, then the doctor can can begin to form us in a new way, a way of life that brings life and serves all from a place of being made whole ourselves.

God has been leading me down this path of recovery, of being reconciled to intimacy with him and others, for 9 years now. It has been painful, humbling, grueling even. Just last night the path led me to share things I would have preferred not to share and I walked away from that conversation feeling very alone and more than a little ashamed. I fought back tears all day today over my story, my failures and my weaknesses, the sorrows of my heart, and the alienation and rejection that these seem to bring. Then the path led me to a meeting in which, for some strange reason, right in the middle of a business discussion God whispered to me: My story is not something about which others should be warned or for which I should apologize. It is something to be cherished and celebrated and shared with great honor as one shares a special and dear secret.

That is the path. That is the path to which I call others. It is a path of vulnerability.  It is a path of making mistakes and making amends. It is a path of sharing truth.  It is a path of intimacy and wholeness and healing. It is scary as all get-out but it is good.

I watched a movie the other night called House of Flying Daggers. In it, the main character is given a monumental and life-threatening mission for the greater good of China. It is an honor for her to be tasked thusly, not just because it is a remarkable act of self-sacrifice and daring that will perhaps esteem her in the eyes of history, but because it is her unparalleled skill as a warrior, her unrivaled spirit and beauty, her unprecedented cunning and commitment that uniquely qualify her for the venture. Further, it is her brilliant subtlety that pull all the pieces together for the success of her quest.

I would never in a million years think that this subtly epic warrior should apologize to anyone for her gifts, her experience, her mission, or her calling. Over the course of her journey, she is not only in constant danger, she is repetitively used and betrayed. Moreover she ends up bringing a great deal of pain to those who are really the most precious to her, and even to herself. But not once did I ever think that she should be ashamed of her prowess, her beauty, her cunning, or her mission, that she should apologize for any of it or the mantle it placed on her life.

When the movie was over, a friend turned to me and told me that I was like the main character in that film.

Of course, I thought he was crazy at first, but as I thought about it, I did have to admit that, though I am no war-provoking beauty, no breath-catching artisan, no great warrior, I have been given a mission and I am every bit as passionate about it as she proved to be in her iconic way. Yet I genuinely walk around broken-hearted over the very things that uniquely qualify me for my mission.

What?!?

In fact, as I reflect on my experience in Africa, I realize that I am guilty of speaking of myself the way my American friends disparaged their own culture.


Why do you speak of your people that way?

May I take the words of a friend and the testimony of an iconic warrior to heart!  There will be no apologies from me anymore for my story or my calling. May I stand, instead, ready and waiting for those who will join the cause, for those who would allow their pain to be made their honor, their experiences to be made a story of redemption, their weakness to be made their calling and offering of hope to the world.  And may all the dark places of my story be made testimonies of light.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Far Be it From Me

A Meditation on Romans 6

To accept the message of shame
to condemn ourselves
to back out of the presence of God
it is not only death
it is a wicked sort of pride.

Humility demands that we enter into His throne room
that we go before Him
Humility beseeches that we approach
clothed in our very unworthiness
Humility dictates our acknowledgment
that it is He who called us by His own name and made us his own
He covered us with His blood
that we may enter.
He calls us from within the depths of our being
from within our very flesh
from within our lives, our story
from within our aching hearts;
Humility requires that we respond.
Humility, a gentle but relentless slave-driver
a master that we can only defy with anger
with hatred and empty hopelessness
Humility is overcome only with the holding of ourselves apart
in self-loathing
with a guilt that isolates
a twisted self-righteousness, a sick rebellion.

How much more righteous is it to choose God
even in the very midst of our wretchedness,
to hold to Him in our very failures?
And all of those who refuse to let go of Christ
even as they succumb to the confusion and failure and bewilderment
of a finite body made of earth
finite conception, finite experience, finite life;
all who genuinely cling to and choose God
in the very persecution of their own spirits and flesh -
those whom we have judged so harshly -
how much stronger are they in the midst of their weakness
to proclaim the light in utter defiance
of their very enemy's power or success?
That is their hope of glory:
Proclaiming God is the possibility of freedom
from the very bondage in which they are snared.

So, shall we sin that grace should abound?
No. Grace is the very hope of freedom from sin,
freedom from death and confusion
freedom from the distortion within which we suffer.
Grace is the only possibility of hope.
Grace, its existence, its offer, its promise,
is the agent by and through which we have and experience hope.
Grace enters into our sin and stays with us there,
it is a beacon, a light drawing us toward redemption.
We do not stay in our sin to follow it
but it will stay in our sin with us if we do not.
Its light is always there,
though we may cover it, close our eyes to it,
though we may even look at it in anger, hurt, and self-loathing pride
we may reject it, refuse to follow
refuse to allow it to lead us ever further into the presence of God.
Does this sin cause us to love or be loved? No.
But neither does it either extinguish or expand grace.
Grace is the light
the opportunity for repentance
the hope of deliverance
the possibility of God's working in us
that which we cannot do for ourselves.


Will you allow failure and shame to separate you from God?


Far be it from me.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Church: The Final Frontier

I step into ministerial leadership with a strange excitement and a distinct terror.  The two really aren't competing but at this particular moment the terror is quite a bit more ... vocal.  In this chaos of fear and discernment, both the present process and its two-year milieu, I find myself coming to some interesting conclusions.

First, I have felt a distinct lack in my church community for some time now.  I have addressed this lack by regularly attending and serving in recovery ministry, by organizing my own "Covenant Meetings" and small groups, and by collaboratively facilitating a monthly prayer service.  I think these activities are appropriate regardless as to whether they are motivated by a lack or an abundance in church, but something has grown increasingly disturbing to me, particularly as I have sought to hear and understand God's call.

But I can't put my finger on what it is.

The greatest source of my discomfiture seems to be this: I experience in recovery ministry something that I don't experience in church.  Never has this been so painfully obvious than in considering church leadership or any kind of pastoral ministry.

You see, I have given countless hours to services, meetings, worship, leadership activities and responsibilities, small groups and one-on-one discipleship as a part of recovery ministry without even a qualm.  In recovery, I believe in what we do.  I find it fundamentally Christian and surprisingly thorough.  I had a basic education in scripture and a lifetime in church, and it was in a recovery meeting that the two finally started to come together in a real way.  A Christian recovery meeting doesn't look completely different from a church service, but it has something vital that church just doesn't seem to have, frankly.  And so I am equipped to lead music, to preach, to share my testimony, to lead small groups or to give extra time to sponsoring in and to this broken community because here I am filled, here I am transformed, here I have hope, and I know with every fiber of my being that God is working and we are doing what is good and right and substantive, what is meaningful.

John Wesley apparently felt the same way; when I began learning about his "methodism" I discovered that I was practicing it in recovery.

It's not based on the music, its style, performance, or volume.

It's not based on whether the sermon, message, or testimony is particularly good, ground-breaking, or skilled.

It is not based on how organized, professional, or smooth the service is.  Nor is it even based on the mutuality, healthiness, or the depth of the sharing during small groups.

How is it that none of these things seem to make or break?

The only answer that I have is a story, the story of a people called out of slavery, led through the desert, and instructed to take the land.  This is the narrative I find in recovery, a narrative that does not seem particularly meaningful to church life.  We don't talk about our slavery in church; we hide it from ourselves and others.  If we do talk about it, we talk about only other people's slavery, bondage, and sin.  We have created a culture in which we are not even taught how to examine ourselves so that we can talk about these things.  Inventory is something that is done at work once or twice a year; it has nothing to do with confession, repentance, forgiveness, amends, or Christianity, let alone holiness, righteousness, and the kingdom of God.  In fact, rarely do I hear about forgiveness and repentance, let alone confession and amends in church.  Rarely do I hear (let alone witness) the instructions and practices for taking the land, building a kingdom.

I hear and see echoes of them in liturgies and traditions, in the occasional sermon illustration or overused colloquialism.  I hear whispers of them in communion, in prayer, in serving the poor and I rejoice over them when I hear them.  I praise God for the recent experience of a church community that practices confession as a part of their communal worship! But if this is the only place where confession is taught, modeled and practiced, it is a whisper, a call to us, a melody on the wind inviting us to come and taste a symphony, to come and dance and sing.  It is not the main course, it is the appetizer, or the dessert, or ... soup.  The point is, the bridegroom has laid out a feast and we are chewing on hors d'oeuvres.

So what do I do with that as a member of a church, as a leader, a minister, a pastor?

Well, apparently I experience distress over it.

Which puts me in mind of the process through which I undoubtedly go every time I prepare to share my testimony in a recovery service.  It is distressing to have to go through one's story, to relive painful memories, to synthesize experiences again and again.  It is painful to walk through the process of articulating for others that which is deeply personal, fundamentally vulnerable, and overwhelmingly complex.  It is scary as hell to consider the very nature of laying bare one's story, one's weaknesses, one's journey, one's hopes and failures and fears.  It is an anxiety-provoking process for me every single year, and every year I get bent out of shape as I do it.

"Why share this?" I ask.  "Why expose myself to others?  Why dredge all of this up?  Why articulate that which is inadequate?  Why am I doing this?"

And every year the answer is the same.

I am doing it because it is a part of my own recovery.  It is part of the process.  It works something in me that I cannot do for myself.  If I am the worst orator in the universe and my story turns out to be utterly pointless, if everyone who hears walks away having gained nothing, I am working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.  I am remembering. I am submitting.  I am being obedient.  I am practicing humility.

I am taking the land.

And the truth is, if one person, just one person, has the opportunity to hear one thing in my story that speaks to their own, that grants insight, understanding, or permission to work the principles of the Christian faith, then I have spoken freedom and hope into the bondage of another human being.  I have accomplished a work toward the establishment of a kingdom.  I have revealed a truth and I have asserted a norm to self-examine, confess, and serve in humility and obedience and honesty.  I have offered a competing narrative to make sense of the world, a verse in God's symphony.

And I do it because I must: It is the 12th step.  I cannot work my steps without completing this final one!

There is no lose in this scenario.  I am always victorious.

And perhaps therein lies my path within the church.  Church is a form of sharing my testimony.  Perhaps I do it because it works something in me that I cannot do for myself.  Perhaps I do it because it works out my salvation with fear and trembling.  In church I am remembering. In church I am submitting. In church am being obedient. I am practicing humility.

Perhaps I can do it knowing that if one person has the opportunity to experience one thing that speaks to their heart, grants the insight of the Holy Spirit, understanding, or permission to work the principles of the Christian faith, then I have spoken freedom and hope into the bondage of another human being.  I have accomplished a work toward the establishment of the kingdom and, at the very least, established a norm to worship, to recite the scriptures and the story of Christ...

But.

I have to confess that I do not want to testify to or establish the norms of the church - norms like poor boundaries, lack of self awareness, and failed accountability.  In recovery, we know what we can expect from one another and we know how we can hold one another accountable.  This just does not seem to be the case in church - or worse, the expectations, if clear, are destructive.  

Take church leadership, for example.  The model is a pastor and his family who do not confess their vulnerabilities, failures, or struggles to anyone. They do not meet regularly with a support network inside or outside the church.  They "serve" in isolation.  They are tasked with "running a church" and their success is based on numbers, income, and other materialistic measures.  They often live duplicitous lives, practicing in the dark that which they would never want discussed in the light - usually right up until the point that the darkness overcomes the light and their hidden sin is exposed.  If they are not thrown out, they get burned out by this insanity.

This is not every pastor, but this is the model and the fruit it produces, IMHO.

In recovery, a leader must have recognized and confessed his failures and vulnerabilities and struggles to himself, to God, and to at least one other person.  A leader has to have developed accountability and support networks.  A leader has to be engaged in constant self evaluation and promptly admit when he is wrong.  He leads through humility and weakness, through expertise in the practices of living a Christian life and knowledge that is born of Christian formation, and through the wisdom and discernment that is developed in him as a part of that process.  And he serves from this place of transformation.

In recovery, we accept the language and practices of the Christian faith.  In church, it often seems we obscure the language and practices of the Christian faith.  It's like, in church we're 'playing church.'  In recovery, we're doing church - teaching people how to be the church, because church in that context flows out of the transformation that Christ accomplishes in us as we give ourselves to him in the specific ways he has instructed.

I think the conclusion to this, for now, is that church, for me, shall be a place of service and testimony rather than, well, church. I will look to plant the seeds of church ... in church.

Some people move to foreign countries and enter into the culture, slowly introducing, as they do, the gospel of Christ to those who are in need, to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.  It seems my foreign country ... is church.

Whose story is this anyway?

When you begin a story with "Once upon a time" and end it with "and they lived happily ever after," you are telling us a fairy tale.  When you begin a novel with "It was a dark and stormy night" and you end it with a big reveal, you are probably writing a murder mystery or psychological thriller.  When you start your oration with unfamiliar words describing an unfamiliar time and place, you are either launching into a science fiction/fantasy trilogy or a theology paper.

That is not to say that mixed genres cannot be very entertaining when done right, but it takes a great deal of skill to blend them properly.  Why? Because each narrative relies upon completely different aspects of story to convey meaning.  If the narrator of a fairy tale cared at all about critical awareness, for example, we would discover that Cinderella probably wasn't so much beautiful and kind but codependent, dissociated, manipulative, passive aggressive, and preoccupied with physical beauty while attempting to earn her sense of personal value and gain love through martyrdom, achievement, and impression management.  She also either displayed significant signs of malnutrition or she suffered from delusions, schizophrenia, or some sort of drug problem - after all, she heard talking animals and saw a fairy godmother turn a pumpkin into a coach.

The Christian story is a strange one because we don't know how to tell it.  Often we borrow from or use other genres to help us capture specific images or to explore particular facets of the story.  When we want to talk about the mystery of the unseen, perhaps we'll use poetry or the reality-challenging literary tools of science fiction and fantasy.  If we are trying to articulate a relationship with God, fairy tale rhetoric may offer decent symbolism and meaning.  In fact, many argue that universal components of myth and fairy tale find their origin in fundamental truths about God and our relationship to and with him.  It is possible that the Christian story, then, does not borrow from these narratives, but that these narratives borrow from Christianity.  Chances are that both are inescapably true.  Certainly the scope of the Christian story allows for and indicates both; after all, God is creator and redeemer.  He is other but he also claims to enter in and reclaim.

Of course, the Christian story is not confined to source nor borrower in its relationship to all other stories.  It also integrates and discerns all other stories.  That is the nature of story itself; it is designed to sift through the infinite amount of sensory data available for the purpose of meaning-making.  Any narrative is attempting to tell us what to pay attention to (if anything) and what to dismiss (if anything).

I met and talked with a new Christian recently, a single man who was very sexually active but who was getting this weird message from God that he should explore celibacy.  This message did NOT make sense to him.  He had given much of his time and attention to sex, to pursuing it, to performing its expression well.  Sex gave him something significant - pleasure, hope, purpose, competence, comfort, excitement, joy, validation.  As I listened it was easy to see why his story was so compelling and why he would consider a Christian sexual ethic to be prudish, irrelevant, and irrational.  Yet he obviously was disturbed by this call God seemed to be whispering to his heart.

"Why should I listen to what Christianity has to say about sex?" he asked, not in so many words.  "I take care of myself and others. No one is hurt.  Why change? It makes no sense to me. How am I going to explain it to others?"

And, if his story were about sex, it would make no sense at all.  In fact, his story had been about sex - sex and rationality and reasonableness - and that is why God made no sense to him.  God is not sex. God is not human rationality.  And God, well, he does not have to be terribly reasonable, just as love and sacrifice and forgiveness are not necessarily reasonable.  In fact, this young man confessed that if it had not been for an experience of God that he could not explain, he would not be a Christian.  But he did have an experience of God, and it changed what his story was about.

If there had been only his narrative and meaning-making around sex, I would have tried to answer his question. If God had not been giving me a different story for my own life, I would have felt just as puzzled by his conundrum - or I would have tried to talk him into a particular cultural paradigm in the hopes of controlling his behavior.  That totally sounds like something I would do.  But something was wrong with the conversation.  Something whispered to me that his very question was born of the wrong narrative.  What he needed was not an answer, but a different question, a different story.  He would not find what he was looking for in the story that sex had given him to make meaning of himself and his life.  And he would not find what he was looking for from me.

So I asked God, and what God seemed to say was that this young man wasn't really asking about sex; the whole conversation was not about sex at all.  It was about God.  God had initiated the conversation when he called this man and God had asked the question when he whispered to his heart about celibacy.  This was a story about God.  And so, with the question fresh on his lips and lying on the table between us, I did not try to reason, debate, or persuade. I offered him a different story.

I told him about a lover who longs for him, who is whispering to him, inviting him to make love.

"Do you delight in me?" the lover asks.  "Do you want to know what brings me delight?"

The lover is alluring but shy, desiring to initiate but also to be pursued.

"Do you want me?" the lover asks.

The man smiled.

The desire you have to please and to be validated by a lover, to find affirmation, identity, purpose, connection, and joy - that is by design. Because God is that lover.  The question isn't, "Do I have sex or don't I?"  The question is, "Do I want God?"  Do you want to delight in God and to know what brings God delight?  If so, do not do what I say or what sex says.  Pursue God.  Ask him.  Seek him and keep seeking him.  Never let up.  Seek him in scripture.  Seek him in church.  Seek him in others.  Seek him in the quiet places, but seek him with all your heart.  Seek him the way you sought sex before, the way you sought validation before, the way you sought women before.  Whenever you experience the desire for sex, experience it as a desire for God, and go to him and ask him how you can love and be fulfilled by him.

For the first time in the two-plus hours that we had been talking, the man was speechless.

This young man had had an experience of God, one that stopped him in his tracks much the same way that encountering a strikingly beautiful woman might.  She is captivating, mysterious, alluring, complex.  That is what makes her so appealing.  But he didn't know how to make sense of his encounter with God because he was still trying to make his story about, well, women and sex. Women and sex were only ever meant to tell us something about God in the first place.

I suppose it was a recent blog about an amendment in North Carolina or someplace that made me think of this.  Debates are raging about rights and marriage, the church, the government and the nature of right and wrong. Christians are trying to narrate the story.  Some have been accused of a culture war.  But others seem to have accepted a very sneaky story about sex and identity and love.  I can't help but remember the young man I met in DC and the conversation we had.  As long as we were telling the story of sex, we were not even asking the right questions.  It wasn't until we were open to another story, God's story, that we began to catch glimpses of what we were looking for.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Confessions of a Seminary Student

Brace yourselves, all you who critique the uneducated masses! Prepare, all you who are suspicious of higher education! Here is the confession of a seminary student...

The thing I don't like about seminary (and when I say seminary what I mean is "some professors, students, and/or rhetoric found in-and-coming-out-of the hallowed seminary halls"), interestingly, is the same thing that I tend to find distasteful in church (and when I say "in church" what I mean is "among some Christians and/or their attitudes").

That is to say, seminary and church are not necessarily equated with this particular pet peeve of mine, but I find it in both places, actually. So, dear readers, this incriminates us all...

We get it in our heads that we know what is best without actually asking God.

Here is the irony: We may know all about God, about his word and his church, about the principles of counseling, the theology of the sacraments, the history of spiritual formation, or even the simple facts of dealing with and caring for people.  We may know a lot about, well, a lot about a lot of things.  But "there is a way that seems good to a person, but in the end, it leads to death" (Proverbs 14:12).

In recovery we talk about the notion of powerlessness.  Left to our own devices, we will only ever do what we've only ever done.  In other words, we've come to recognize that the only thing we have in our own power is our own understanding, and leaning on our own understanding is what got us into trouble in the first place; it will get us into trouble every time.  Our understanding is the way we approach the world over and over again, every time expecting different results - or maybe even the same results because, hey, we're right, right?  Without God, we are trapped in our own understanding, our own way of seeing the world, our own way of doing things. This is all there is. Forever.

So in recovery, we recognize that, for any hope of anything different - for new life - we are utterly dependent on God.  We are utterly dependent on God to break in on even our best understanding, to clue us in, to wake us up, to confront us and bring us out of our denial, to acquaint us with the truth, to challenge our preoccupations, and to expose our character defects.  We are utterly dependent on God, as the one who knows what is really going on in the world, in his own heart and mind, in his own plans, purposes, and kingdom, to restore us.

Restore us to what? To right thinking? Yes.  But right thinking isn't going to save us.  Is he restoring us to emotional health, fulfilling our creational function? Sure. But emotional health and the perfection of original creation wasn't enough for Adam and Eve, was it? It isn't going to save us, either, and for the same reason.  Perhaps, then, he is restoring us to right relationship with others? Absolutely!  Interestingly, however, right relationship isn't something we can completely grasp or do on our own, is it?  What is vital, what we need, is for him to restore us to himself.

Things like "right thinking" and even "right relationship" only end up becoming their own forms of bondage apart from God - apart from God's presence, apart from his speaking to us and in us and with us, apart from his constant intervention, apart from his life.

But we have this strange, unshakable tendency to operate in our own understanding, even of God.  We take our understanding and we walk away from God and we start conforming the world to it.

What would have happened if Adam and Eve, when confronted by the snake's question, "Did God say..." had actually gone back to God and asked him?  What if they had brought it up to God when he came to hang out that evening?

"Hey, the serpent said this. What's up with that?"

Heck, what if they had actually approached God about it? Who said they would even have to wait until evening?  We talk about God as if he is far away in this passage.  Maybe he was, but I kinda doubt it.

But they didn't ask or reach out or wait on or approach God.  Wanna know why?  Because they knew.  They had their own understanding to use.  And their sin wasn't that they had their own understanding, it was that they took their own understanding and made it their god instead of bringing it into submission to God.

They took their own understanding and made it their god instead of bringing it into submission to God.

That's what happens at seminary sometimes, and I don't like it.  That's what happens at church sometimes, and I don't like it there, either.  Heck, in recovery, we recognize that this is the very thing we are all battling, constantly, in our everyday lives as individuals.  This is ultimately what we are in recovery from.  So that's what happens in MY LIFE sometimes - okay, a lot - and I HATE it.  Just recently I discovered how even my understanding of addiction had snuck in to preclude all other perspectives until I had reduced a friend to the sum of his depravity.  I praise God for his gift of recovery so that I have the hope of recognizing these things and the practices that bring my understanding into submission to Christ!

Ironically, however, that is what I find, practically, in recovery that I don't find in church: awareness, hope, and the disciplines that put me in a posture of humility and submission before God.  I don't find these so terribly often in the church, and it seems that I find it even less in seminary.  

For example, I attended a forum the other day in which someone was collecting data on why bi-vocational ministry is the shiz-niz.  I didn't think about it at the time but reflecting back, I never once heard anyone say, "Bi-vocational ministry is good when you approach God and he says it is what is best or what he wants or how he wants to work in this situation." No, every single answer was based on our understanding.  I wonder now how many people might be headed out into the world, ready to make the decision to jump into (and potentially drown in) bi-vocational ministry based on - what? Their own understanding?  Our own collective understanding?

Interestingly, as I have been on my own path of seeking God's vision and purpose, bi-vocational ministry has been something that has seemed to match God's calling on (to?) me. With the proper boundaries, provisions, and divine intervention, I think it could be a good thing.  But God-forbid that I do it in my own power, based on my own understanding.  I have done enough of that in my life and I know exactly what it produces: Death.  In fact, I know exactly how to know when I have stepped out in my own understanding because that is the fruit I start to bear in my innermost places and eventually in my world: Death.  Where there is death, there is my own understanding apart from God.  The End.

So, that is what I don't like about seminary.  That is the big disconnect I feel sometimes in cumbersome classwork, the occasionally pretentious rhetoric of fellow students, and the dripping sarcasm of a few key professors.  But that is what I find disconnecting in church, too, and why I have to attend a recovery group in order to follow Jesus.

That is today's confession.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Performance Before the Performance

For the gospel soberly reminds us that the human heart is not reasonable at its center: without knowing it, the human heart may slowly give more and more place, more and  more tolerance, to the unreasonable, the destructive. Or it may grow the kind of hard skin that blocks off questions of moral imagination, of conceiving and hoping for a certain kind of humanity.
"Have I, have we, allowed ourselves to become people ... who do not hope for - and fear - God's judgment, a moment when we are called to true decision?"
~ Rowan Williams*
**HP Ehrenberg, a Jew converted to Christianity who then became a pastor, helped to establish the "Confessing Church," a network of congregations that suffered through anti-Jewish legislation in the 30's as it was enforced by the Third Reich.  He and his parish discovered something profound in their meeting together among a world gone mad; they called their meetings "rehearsal," a time to test the reality of what was happening all around them and to practice the confessions of faith, truth, and conviction in preparation - preparation for the moments when they would be called upon to make a decision, to bear "witness" however it might be demanded of them.
In our case it was ... the final rehearsal ... a sort of "performance before the performance."  ...It was only within the Church ... that [we] learned to resist the enemy, to attack, to condemn, to exorcise, to overcome in actual places, such as the concentration camp.
He goes on to describe a young girl who, upon attending a "united service" found that this church presented a large picture of Hitler at the front of the room.  The girl grabbed the picture and threw it against the wall with the words, "Thou shalt have no other gods but me."
The remarkable thing was not that she smashed Hitler's picture, nor even that she had the courage to confess the First Commandment, but that she was prepared beforehand to do both.**
In the last three-and-a-half-if-not-more years
I have experienced a church
a church that goes to church
for the sake of going to church
a church that practices the liturgies and traditions
(even if they think they have no liturgies and traditions)
for the sake of liturgies and traditions
as if liturgies and traditions are
the point
or their own point
"means of grace"

Interestingly, I experience many liturgies and traditions as means of grace, but I think that is because, for me, they are not just practices but practicing.  They are the rehearsing, preparing that Ehrenberg describes.  I observe Lent because it is a practicing of remembering, of abstaining so that when I need to abstain in order to honor God, myself, and others I recognize and choose it.  It is a practicing of seeking God when there are a million reasons not to - not to need him so much, not to feel, not to question, push, or wrestle.  It is a way to practice getting in touch with my need, with my humanity, with my limitations, so that I can then practice crying out to God. It is an opportunity for my heart to practice humility, softness, and the imagining of what humanity can be, what I can be, what life can be, when I am not letting myself tolerate more and more destructiveness.  Because if I don't practice these now, I have already decided what I will do later "in actual places."  I am already performing before the performance, and in both places witness will be given regardless as to what it is given to.

In fact, I have often wondered if "judgment" isn't a day at the end of time, but a moment of decision as Williams describes - moments of decision - life, now.  Now I am giving an account.  Now I am telling a story.  Now I am bearing witness.  What am I bearing witness to?

The liturgies of the church are a kind of bearing witness all by themselves, it's true.  But as I read Ehrenberg's account, I don't just want liturgies that bear witness to themselves.  I want my practices to actually prepare me for something. I want to overcome in actual places.  But I confess that what I find is often a distinct disconnect between what the church says and what I actually need to be preparing for and doing in my life.  And when I say "the church" I do mean the pastor on Sunday morning but also the fellowship on Sunday night.  I do not often experience the words of my brothers and sisters in Christ being my reality test; usually I have to reality test the words of my brothers and sisters.

I hear educated people ridicule the reactionary "uneducated" and I hear those who desire to be faithful grow suspicious of education.  I have born witness to the diatribes of liberals and King Jamesites alike. And this is irony: They both speak some truth.  That is the topic of the essay whose lines are quoted in the opening of this blog.  They both have some truth but neither is listening to the other so that we can reality test the world around us and rehearse together the doing of something different.

I suppose that is why I personally gravitate to and cherish recovery ministry.  There I experience as I experience almost nowhere else rehearsal.  When we worship we are preparing.  When we teach we are preparing.  When we are in small groups we are practicing.  When we work the steps we are practicing.

We are preparing for actual decisions - to drink or not to drink, to eat or not to eat, to own or not to own, to admit when we are wrong or to hide, to make amends or protect, to repent and how to repent.  Recovery requires those present to do what I experience the rest of the church only talking about (or spiritualizing, or ritualizing, for that matter).  In fact, those who do not do, leave.  They LEAVE because they do not want to DO - not in a meeting nor in their lives. They do not want to have to practice to practice being personally responsible AND letting go of their codependent judging and fixing of others, to practice being known AND having an impact on others that others are going to offer back to them, to practice actual self examination, reality testing, listening to God and doing what he says.  The list goes on with the exceptions of those who leave to go practice somewhere else or in slightly different ways.

Of course, that is also why I love some of the traditions of the church, as I have mentioned.  But never as their own point or for their own practice; only ever inasmuch as they actually call me to  my performance before the performance.

I find one other such place to practice. It is in a small gathering with a few friends that we call a "Covenant Meeting."  Without knowing it, this little band is our own Confessing Church in miniature.  We meet semi-weekly to rehearse ... 

We practice - actually DO the practicing of - confession, honesty, intimacy, exhortation, accountability, forgiveness, love, and prayer.

We practice seeking God together.

We practice right relationship (not perfect relationship).

We practice discernment.

We practice together so that, as the moments demand our decisions and ask for us to bear witness, we can decide and we can act, we can give an account of ourselves, of our God, of our covenant, and of that to which we are called.

We practice honesty and humility so that we can show up with truth and love in our lives.

We practice right relationship so that we might produce the fruit of the Spirit rather than be controlled or enslaved...
to fear
lust
insecurity
anger
doubt
shame
even self-righteousness and legalism

We are the church.  But that is also what I want in church.  I want a church that is preparing me to act.  I want a church that is rehearsing together their final "performance before the performance" - not simply moving through liturgies or crassly rejecting them.  Is that too much to ask?

It is if we do not actually want to have to make hard decisions in our lives, if we do not want to abstain or reality check and face the madness in our world, in ourselves.  It is not just too much to ask but impossible to require if the people who call themselves the church do not want to have to experience hardship and suffering.  For escapism and rehearsal cannot occupy the same space.

I will close this eve before Resurrection Sunday with a link to a sermon about this very thing.  It is a substantive message, both in content and in time, but I encourage you to give it your ear.  I offer it because it describes that which I have been rehearsing as well as that which I have been rehearsing for.  It explores a metaphor for the practices of experiencing God, not just studying him; learning truth, not just knowing it; going to the other side in the hopes that, if there is anyone who needs hope, we have it to offer.

for unless Christ had traveled to the other side of death for me, I would not have known that on the other side of death is
life

The Strength of Christ (in Suffering) MP3

Or watch the video here.

The first minute is a movie endorsement; the sermon begins at 1 minute 25 seconds and lasts about 30 minutes, the last 10 of which are truly powerful and worth the time.  It articulates the truth and calling behind CS Lewis' "The Silver Chair."  It articulates my calling.  Perhaps you will find it relevant to your own journey, too.

On this, the eve before Resurrection, we mourn, but not as ones who have no hope.


"God's Time" A Ray of Darkness, 1995, pp. 41, 42.
** Autobiography of a German Pastor, 1943, pp. 48, 50, 64 - as cited in A Ray of Darkness.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Broken & Poured Out

Sadness seemed to seep into the outer edges of my body.  I felt it in my fingers and in the skin on my arms, in the muscles of my legs and in the edges of my eyelids.  I wondered at its insipidness.

I was slumped in a simple wooden pew listening to a pastor tell the story of Mary, the woman who broke open the alabaster jar of expensive perfume and anointed Jesus before his betrayal and crucifixion.  Hers was the offering of a lover who knows the beloved has only days to live.  It was a lavish, extravagant gift, an expression of adoration made by a woman whose life had been touched by Christ.  It was a surrender of that which was most precious to her, a surrender of her security, her livelihood, her future - for love.

It is a heartbreaking and beautiful image.

And those who witnessed it ridiculed her.

Many things floated through my mind as the familiar story unfolded.  I could relate to Mary.  My life, too, has been touched by Christ.  I have known those moments of being so broken and poured out - of longing to be so broken and poured out because of love.  I want to surrender my life, my security, my livelihood, my future for such brokenness.

And I, too, have been ridiculed for it.

Most recently, I experienced that ridicule in the words of a friend, a pastor, no less. He scoffed those who subscribe to the notion of sexual "purity."

"When people wear rings to indicate that they are saving themselves for marriage," he said in disgust, "it makes me sick."

I looked down at the gold I wear on the ring finger of my right hand.  It is a simple band with the word אהובה (ahuva) which means "beloved" written along its edge.  It had been an extravagant purchase made in Jerusalem - not terribly expensive, as jewelry goes, but extravagant for me, a poor graduate student who doesn't know from whence her next meal might come.  I risked going hungry for it as an act of love, not a desire for adornment.  It had been a response to God's lavish invitation to pilgrimage when he whisked me away, quite suddenly, to Israel.  I felt like the very betrothed of Christ, invited to return with my Lover to his home town to meet his family, his people.  There, I had the ring made as a symbol of my utter devotion to and longing for the one who called me Beloved and who poured out upon me such lavish gifts.

It's not a "promise" or "purity" ring in any simplistic sense.  I didn't purchase it as an emblem of my desire for a husband and my intentions around the sacredness of sex.  It does symbolize promise, however.  It is evidence of God's promise to me.  It is symbolic of the promise, the covenant of and for life, which I have made with him.  It is an ebenezer, a remember-stone originating from and reminding me of something even greater, a land of promise, a land that God and I are taking and creating together.  I am that land.  Love is that land.  Life is my promise - but not just any life, a life wholly surrendered to God, laid on the altar, because it is only in and with God that it is life at all.  So it is not a "purity" ring indicating a puritanical paradigm for sex.  My value as a woman does not hinge on my sexual experience or lack thereof.  No, it is a ring of betrothal first and always to Christ. It is a ring of dedication and covenant to the God of Israel, the God who delivered me from my slavery and who leads me through the desert, preparing and teaching me to take the land.  And, yes, that does actually mean it is an indication that my sexuality, along with all else that God has interwoven into the fabric of me, is also laid on that altar - for God to shape and form in order that I may be brought into greater intimacy with him.  It does, therefore, symbolize my faithfulness to the covenant of marriage and to the abstinence of sex outside of that faithful expression, an expression that I want to reflect, inasmuch as possible, the very faithfulness of God.  God has given me his instructions for taking the land, and this ring is a symbol of my desire to submit myself to him and live in that place of his provision.

I don't know why such a ring, such a promise, such a gift as obedience, life, love and sexuality poured out in an offering to Christ would be ridiculed - except that, like the disciples who chastised Mary, my friend just did not understand.  Perhaps he has never been so in love with Christ that he would want to be broken and poured out, the giving of his body and the offering of his faithfulness the only natural, if extravagant, response.  Whatever the case, he certainly thought he knew better.  His superior education told him that giving to the poor is more important than such ridiculous acts of "purity" in expression of faithfulness, love, and devotion.  And to his credit, his behavior followed suit.  I watched as he gave money to a man on the street who asked for it, not knowing that in the same manner he also gave his body first to pornography and then to a woman who was not his wife.  I cannot help but think now that, as he gave away his pennies, he was unaware that he kept his alabaster jar for himself, to anoint the desires of his flesh instead of anointing Christ, because he was tired of waiting.

Yet I do not judge him.  If I desire to anoint my Christ with an alabaster jar of rich perfume (which, please hear me, is not about sex but about life) it wasn't long ago that all I had to offer were tears - gut-wrenching, abandoned, repentant tears.  Christ accepts them both when we desire to be broken and poured out for him.  One washes his feet and the other anoints his head.  Both are acts of humble love when they are offered.

So my sadness is only partially over the ridicule and lack of understanding offered by a friend and brother.  It is also over an unanswered question in my own heart: Am I still ready and waiting, willing to be broken and poured out in love for Christ as I was then?

The honest answer: I don't know. But I want to be...

Monday, March 26, 2012

Resistance, Repentance, & Sobriety

I am one of those strange souls who typically looks forward to the Lenten season as an excuse to simplify and quiet myself, to get in touch with what is most important and most real in a spinning, cacophonous world of falseness. It is not easy. I miss get-togethers with friends during the week when we would normally eat out.  I miss the camaraderie that is the fellowship of movie-going, planning, anticipating, and discussing.  But Lent is a beautiful moment of tuning myself to a different story - not the "Christian calendar" honestly, but simply God's story and God's story in me.

It is also more than that for me. I have this unsettling desire to embrace a lifestyle of tuning myself to God and his story, of remembering the way that the Israelites were instructed to remember.  Like them, I want to found my identity in what God has done.  Like them, I want to regularly consider what it is that I have been delivered from.  Like them, I want to shape the practices of my life in keeping with my covenant with God, remembering what he has taught me so that I may take the Land.  Perhaps that is why I see in Lent such opportunity.  It is a unique season to remember in specific ways, ways that are particularly effective in that they often involve silencing competing narratives and other more present demands.

But I have found my spirit strangely resistant in the last 30+ days.  I think I have experienced literal withdrawal symptoms around giving up movies, and mostly I have simply traded that fix for incessant reading.  There were things that I gave up for only about a week and then had to give them up again.  My focus has seemed ... off ... my tuner out of tune.  My rememberer seemed set on spin cycle.  The truth is, it has just been harder to give things up this time around, and I've started to wonder if the wonderful freedoms I have in my Christian walk haven't become a new set of task-masters.

"I have the right to do anything," you say.
But not everything is beneficial.
"I have the right to do anything."
But I will not be mastered by anything.
I Cor 6:12

At what point does a freedom become an entitlement and then a detriment?  For me, I start to get concerned if I have even an inkling to refrain from something and then I somehow do not actually refrain ... almost as if I can't.  I start to wonder, "Who is the master here?"  Of course, it's pretty easy, normally, to set the whole question aside as a moot point because, well, why give something up if it's a freedom in the first place?  But Lent doesn't let me off the hook.  Fasting is a remarkably efficient and effective tool for exposing the heart.

Sometimes repentance isn't about having done something wrong, but the need for something to be made right.

I have things in my life that aren't necessarily wrong but that need to be made right.  In fact, I need to be made right. Constantly.

I think this whole notion ties in to the idea of sobriety. 

It isn't a popular word.  For those who associate alcohol consumption, for example, with uninhibited life, joy, friends, camaraderie and stress relief, sobriety can draw a picture of the world in grey tones and hangovers.  For those who do not consider the word in the context of alcohol, it can connote seriousness possibly to an extreme - pessimism, negativity, or the inability to have fun.  To 'sober up' is usually to come face to face with the hard facts and realities of life - which usually are not terribly pretty.  It can be equated with somberness, drudgery, perhaps even an aspect of surviving instead of really living.

But I kind of like the word sobriety.  I find it to be earthy and, yes, real. It invites me through the looking glass of self delusion, escapism, and insanity into the stark and daunting adventure that is living.  And I don't buy the belief system that says reality is only hard, hurtful, painful, scary, or depressing, so sobriety  is not monochromatic and desert-like to me.  The realities of sin and hurt and loss are painful, but a real relationship with God, for example, is also present and sustaining, joyful, peaceful, and fulfilling in the midst of difficult circumstances.  Real beauty, real character, real life is far more glorious than the false images and false promises of denial, vain hope, and delusional faith that does not produce fruit, the substance of things not seen.  I believe Jesus when he said that he meant for us to have life in abundance, and I don't think that has to do with the circumstances of my life (or my pocketbook).  I think it has to do with the fruit of the Spirit being produced in me in and out of season.  I think it has to do with living in a real and sustaining relationship with God in the truth.  It is, after all, the truth that sets me free - free, even, from being enslaved by the law or by my own freedoms.  And repentance is less about good and evil, the law and freedom, and more about aligning myself with what is true.

That is all very philosophical, I suppose.  The point seems to be this: As I make this journey through Lent, as I notice my own struggles with being human and being Christian and seeking God, I recognize that which grounds me is a lifestyle of pursuing God's story, which I have come to understand only and ever in the context of sobriety, reality, truth.  This is the part of the Covenant of Life that I commit myself to and practice so that I might take the Land of Promise, bearing his fruit in me in and out of season, producing abundant life.

In the midst of giving up and giving in this season, I look back to recognize that this has been 40 days of pressing into that which is real and living there.  I have faced and seek to face difficult circumstances, attempting to see things as they are, not as I would have them. I have sought God and I have acted on his truth, longing for his story in the hopes that, once again, the fruit of his Spirit might be born in me and I might know the abundance of new life, resurrection life.

He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit
while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes
so that it will be even more fruitful.

John 15:2

Amen.