Monday, February 20, 2012

Looking Toward Lent


We threaded our way down narrow, rough-hewn stairs chiseled into stone; the walls of the cavern rose up to swallow and surround us.  In silence we stepped into that great pit, a hole carved down into the bowels of a mountain made of rock, hidden beneath the streets of Jerusalem. The air was cool and tasted of earth; the increasing gloom could not be completely dispelled by the row of electric bulbs along our descent.  We pressed in close until we were all gathered on the cavern floor; that is when the lights went black.

Our eyes adjusted slowly. The only bright spot was a small sphere some 60 feet overhead. It was the hole through which prisoners were lowered in or raised out, a hole through which only a meager ray of sunshine weakly penetrated the darkness.  Through this opening rainwater would fall, filling the cistern with just enough of the cold deluge that, once upon a time, the captives sat constantly in it, in their own excrement, in the stink of their own unwashed bodies.

This pit was the place of Jesus' captivity before being brought to the Sanhedrin.  This was the holding cell for criminals and miscreants, perpetrators, the fruit of society's greatest failures.  I stood in that darkness with 66 other pilgrims on a pale day in March as someone recited Psalm 88:

I am overwhelmed with troubles 
   and my life draws near to death. 
I am counted among those who go down to the pit; 
   I am like one without strength. 
I am set apart with the dead, 
   like the slain who lie in the grave...

With a sudden palpable realization, I began to weep:

Christ has been with me in the darkest places of my life.

I have experienced deceit to the extent that it robbed me of all I thought was good and pure in this life.
I have experienced unfaithfulness and betrayal that destroyed everything I had - and nearly destroyed me.
I have known a loneliness and heartbreak of which I hope others will never even dream.
I have understood the depths of grief, the price of hiding, and the pits of death and the grave.

And Christ was there.  Christ covered me there with his blood that I would recognize my own precious value and live in spite of it all.  Christ raised me in the mornings and laid down with me at night.  Christ breathed breath into my lungs that I might keep breathing.  Christ was there with me in the darkest night of my soul.

And that day, in a cistern in Jerusalem, Christ shared with me the darkest hours of his soul.

Christ invited me into his darkness, to be with him.

I sobbed there among 66 friends-yet-strangers, there at the bottom of the pit.  I wept for the enormity of it all, for the recognition of great tragedy, for the beauty of communion in its midst, and for the sacred intimacy that is being allowed to know another's deepest suffering.  I was overcome with grief, but also with the promise of Emmanuel: God-with-us.  I was overcome with mourning but also with a great, reverent, humility that Christ would share his broken heart and his journey with me.

I have likened that moment to the moment in which a lover chooses to let down the walls and let the beloved into the deepest, most vulnerable parts of the heart, into the frailty of human experience.  

It speaks of great trust.  It is a painful, humbling honor, an intimate communion. 

That is the invitation that I hear on Ash Wednesday.

The liturgies and traditions are ebenezers, stones raised to mark a sacred space.  They are poles in the Tent of Meeting where we have the opportunity to enter into the very presence of God by inviting Christ to share with us the story of his sorrow, by walking it with him in mindfulness, fasting, and prayer together as his body, his bride.  It is a rich and beautiful time, a time of awareness of all that was dead, all that is dead, all that cries out for life and resurrection.

As the Lenten season approaches, I am keenly reminded of those parts of my heart and life and experience in which I long for resurrection.  I am reminded of my own story; I have been invited to share my testimony the last two years at church but I have been unable to do so.  I have been too ensconced in the thick of recovery to feel like I can offer meaning to others.  I have been too aware of all that doesn't makes sense and that doesn't yet seem to bear the mark of redemption in my heart, mind, and life.  I have been too needy for something more in my own journey with Christ to offer my story this time, though I have offered it 7 years in a row.

It is for these parts that I pray during Lent.  It is for these parts in all our stories that I pray, these parts in the story of the church, in the story of our culture, in the story of our world.  I pray for those whose imagination has been captured by sexual exploitation through media, movies, pornography, and advertising. This is part of the reason that I give up movies during Lent even as I offer myself a reprieve from the bombardment of images.  I pray over the deep isolation that we experience in our culture and our church because we do not know how to be in relationship with one another: we hide, we numb-out, we seek instant self-gratification, illusion, and looking good on the outside until we don't even know how to be present, authentic, honest.  This is one of the reasons I fast Facebook and other forms of social media during Lent even as I sensitize myself to my own need, my own relationships, and my own character defects.  And this year I will add to these practices an endeavor to write my testimony one more time. I hope to share it at the end of Lent with the understanding that, just as Christ shared with me, I share as one who lets down the walls and invites the beloved in to the most vulnerable places of the heart and human experience.  I share it so others can know Christ, know him through our suffering ... and our resurrection.

Because looking toward Lent is about getting in touch with, feeling, and naming the things that have died and are dead.  Looking toward Lent is getting in touch with the need for Resurrection.  Looking toward Lent is simply that: Looking toward Christ.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sex, Legalism, and Liberal-Mindedness

[N]either legalism nor good intentions will deliver a properly Christian ethic of sexuality ... the gospel addresses itself to a level - the deepest strata of injuredness and self-dividedness - where neither strategy will do.  It says that the places of pain, powerlessness, injury to self and others, despair, and bewilderment are laid open to a God who does not condemn or desert, but who works tirelessly in the middle of our very betrayals and evasions to bring life.
If my life can communicate the 'meanings' of God ... my sexuality too can be sacramental: it can speak of mercy, faithfulness, transfiguration, and hope.  
Our main question about how we lead our sexual lives should be neither 'Am I keeping the rules' nor 'Am I being sincere and non-hurtful?' but 'How much am I prepared for [sex & sexuality] to signify?' 
These are some of the thoughts that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, shares in his book A Ray of Darkness. His essay, "Is There a Christian Sexual Ethic" explores what many Christians have discovered the hard way: Legalism hasn't truly helped us to accept and steward our sexuality, and "right-thinking, liberal-minded conventional wisdom" hasn't actually delivered us from fear and shame.  Neither seem to be inviting us into the sacred for which both long.
Can [sex & sexuality] come to reflect and communicate what Christ's incarnation and cross tell us - that it is faithful gift and costly promise that set us free to return such a gift and such a promise with the fullness of which we are capable? If not, something of the richness of the image of God in us is not yet brought to life.
Williams' question, "How much am I prepared for [sex & sexuality] to signify?" is a brilliant place to start.  It's a brilliant place to start reading the story of Christ giving himself up for and to the church in faithful commitment and unbroken promise and to start hearing the story of our own sexuality within it.  And I would take it a step further.  His question searches the heart's willingness; the next questions search the heart's truth.  "Am I surrendered to and practicing that which sex and sexuality signify?  Does the fruit of my practice reflect and affirm the covenant and faithfulness of God?"

In other words, I think that it is within Williams' framework and foundation of Christ and the church, God's relationship with us, that suddenly both legalism and liberal-minded wisdom are recapitulated and offer something of value in our narrative.  By testing our practices to see if they are covenanted, committed, faithful (keeping the rules), we search our hearts and bring that deepest strata to which the gospel speaks before God for examination.  By searching and being open to having our motivations examined when our practices are not images of God and his faithfulness, and by facing any pain, hurtfulness, or damage we've caused to ourselves or others, we allow ourselves to be in the pain of transformation, not by our own power, but by his.

Liberal-mindedness and Legalism, when submitted to Christ, become love in spirit and in truth, making us perfect until the day of our final resurrection.  The problem is that they have been divorced from each other and wielded outside of Christ, and so we need Christ's tireless work in the midst to bring us life.
Our sexual lives are about making sense of the oddities and uncontrollabilities, tragedies and farces, of bodily existence; a Christian sexual ethic ought to be saying before all else that there is a distinctively Christian sense to be made, the sense God makes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, where flesh itself carries the meaning of God's Word.

Friday, February 17, 2012

From Slavery to Promise

Observe therefore all the commands I am giving you today, so that you may have the strength to go in and take the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess...


Deut 11:8

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.   It is the first principle of geometry, if I remember correctly.  It is one of the purest examples of rational logic: a scientific truth, a scientific proof. It makes perfect sense.  Anyone who might suggest anything else would have to be crazy.

When one starts on a path of "recovery" one must set aside all of one's rationales and systems of logic, one's reasons and meanings and soapboxes, all for one simple truth: my life is unmanageable.

My emotions are out of control.

My habits are unhealthy.

My thoughts take me places I do not want to go.

Paul put it this way:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  Romans 7:15

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  If I see what I want, what I want to do, who I want to be, why don't I just do it?  Why don't I just walk it?  It's that simple, right?  It's that logical, that rational; it makes perfect sense.  Yet somehow, we're all just a little bit out of control.  Something in that equation just seems to be a little bit unmanageable because we don't get what we want, don't do what we want, don't become who we want or think we ought to be.  And even if we do, like Paul, we discover that our righteousness is actually dirty, filthy rags, having a form of goodness or godliness but lacking something vital.

Hmmm.

When one starts on a path of "recovery" one challenges one of the most basic principles of survival by admitting: I am powerless.

What if the only way to get what we want, to do what we want to do, to be who we want to be is to be ... powerless?

"In short, when God's light breaks on my darkness, the first thing I know is that I don't know, and never did."  ~ Rowan Williams

It seems a little counter-intuitive.  How can being powerless to do something actually be the way to do it?  That is not a straight line at all.  That has got to be crazy.

Or perhaps the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line after all.  The notion of recovery proposes something absolutely insane; it suggests that the only way from point A to point B is by going to C.  And here's the catch: you don't know what or where point C is, but it doesn't necessarily seem to have anything to do with point A or point B.

Conundrum.

Insanity.

Yet how sane is it to do what you don't want to do and, instead, to do what you hate?

Recovery teaches us that the only way from point A to point B is to...

Take the 1st Step and call our unmanageability (however large or small) what it is: Unmanageable.  We must name the good that we want to do and do not do; we must name that which we hate that we do.  And we must admit that, if we had the power to do what we wanted to do and avoid that which we hate, we would have done it already.  We must admit our powerlessness.  This is called reality testing, or getting in touch with reality.

Then we must take the 2nd Step and accede that our only hope, if we are powerless, is for a power outside of ourselves, a power greater than ourselves, to help us. If we are all there is, there is no possibility for change.  We are trapped.  We're condemned.  We're hopelessly ensconced in this narrative of doing what we don't want to do.  We're powerless. And I use "we" intentionally not just to indicate a group of individuals but to also indicate community as a whole.  If all we have is others, we're just as trapped, just as hopeless, because others fail, too.  Community isn't enough.  But, if there is a power greater than us ... if there is God ... well, then the only way from point A to point B is to ...

Take the 3rd Step. Seek God.  Call out to God.  Talk to God.  Ask God.  Listen to God and be willing to hear what God has to say.  Hang out with God.  Accept God's help.  Some people call this sort of thing a relationship.  And it is.  But it's not just any relationship.  It is a relationship in which God is God and you are not.  God is the power greater than you.  God is the only one who can help.  So in this relationship, the characterizing feature is a kind of giving yourself to God and God doing something in and for you that you are not able to do in or for yourself...


What community cannot do...
What society cannot do...
What money or prestige or success or perfection cannot do...

What education and intelligence cannot do...

Do these steps sound familiar?

The shortest distance between point A and point B is "12 steps," steps that take you to point C, a place you do not know and cannot fathom but that somehow gives you the power to do what is good and refrain from what is hateful (Jer 33:3, Acts 2:28). And isn't that what point B is, after all?

At least, that is what I have found as I have walked the path of recovery.  I have found that when I try to get from point A to point B by going the way that seems direct, the way that seems best to me, I never get there.  Or I get there and it's awful.

There is a way that seems right to a person, but in the end it leads to death.  Proverbs 14:12, 16:25

But if, instead, I take the path of 12 steps, I find this strange thing happening.  I find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and ...

What's that last one?

Self Control

I do what I want to do instead of what I hate.  I walk in self control.

Who knew that self control involved giving up control?

That's just crazy.  Everyone knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

There is a land of promise; it is a land of milk and honey, a land with pools of water, a land that bears fruit in and out of season.  It is unlike the land from which you have come, the land of your slavery ... slavery to shame, to isolation, to sin; slavery to the way that seems right to you, that is the only way you know, the way that produces death.  It is a land with cities you did not build, wells you did not dig, vineyards you did not plant.  To take this land, you seek God and you  follow God's path, step by step.  This is the way  from point A to point B.  This is the way from slavery to promise.

Paraphrase of Deuteronomy 6:10-12, 8:6-9,  9:6,  11:8-12, Proverbs 14:12, 16:25