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


Monday, March 12, 2012


The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

This phrase continues to echo through my mind as I journey through lent.  As I grieve and let go, as I walk away, it is a reminder that I walk toward something, toward Christ, and it is only in Christ that I find my heart's desire.

Because he is my heart's desire

It is amazing how appealing that straight line is, however.  In fact, I have come to think of it this way:

The shortest distance between two points is Denial.

Denial wraps itself around anything that is too painful for our psyche to bear in an effort to make it go away or make it look, you know, like it's not so bad.  What is really true, ironically, is not that something is so bad (all sin is pretty terrible when you get down to it) but that ultimately we are vulnerable.  We are vulnerable to sin and pain and death, regardless as to "how bad" it is.  It robs us of our hope and our joy.  It deteriorates us from the inside out. It isolates us. It kills us.  And we have no control over it.  We can't stop it.  We can't save ourselves.  Further, I think we are incapable of truly facing our own fundamental weakness, our own frailty, our limitations, our failures, and the failures of others.  This is not a judgment; this is a statement of truth.  Only God can give us the strength to face reality, face what is too painful, too confusing, or too hard, and to walk a different path.  Meanwhile, the blanket of denial gently isolates us from God and others and creates a perfect incubation space, all warm and dark, for secrets and sin and death to grow and become even MORE debilitating, MORE painful, ultimately keeping us trapped there - forever.

It's really kind of nasty.

Christ faced something that was too painful for him to bear.  As he cried out in the garden of Gethsemane over the horror that was about to befall him, the horror or pain, sin, and death, he demonstrated what it looks like to turn from denial and to take our human vulnerability to God.

Take this cup from me.

Some of us have prayed our own version of this prayer.

Remove this thorn from my flesh.

Take away this desire.

Heal me.

God's response is pretty consistent.

You must face your vulnerability.  You must turn your life and your will over to me.  I will give you the strength to suffer. And somehow as the truth crucifies you, you will live - with me.

Some of us do not even bother to pray those prayers; we sneak out of Gethsemane while it is still dark or, heck, abandon going to Jerusalem in the first place.  It is too shameful for us to stand naked before God and others, so we slip away and sew fig leaves to cover ourselves, then hide in the overgrowth as if God's light is not going to shine on us there.  Some of us get to the point that we pretend that there is no such thing as naked and that certain things are not sin, all so we can hide from our vulnerability and avoid standing in our shame before God.

Some of us progress to the point of blaming.  "I am not really vulnerable," we say. "It was *insert whatever is really broken and culpable here* (the man, the woman, the serpent, the church, the nation-state, fundamentalism, liberals, whatever)."

Some of us would murder our own brother before we would humble ourselves and face our vulnerability, our failures, our limitations.

And some of us, God help us, would murder ourselves.

But Christ did none of these things.  Instead, he laid the very frailty of his flesh bare before God.

I don't want to face this pain; I don't want to die. But not my will; your will be done.

What pain are we avoiding in our lives?  What death are we running away from?  What is the thing we are saying is "not so bad" in our lives?  And what is the naked frailty we cannot face without the help of God?

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

Recently the vulnerability I didn't want to face was that someone I cared about lied to me.  In fact, I was deceived to the point that I ended up, unwittingly, in a very harmful situation.  It was excruciating to face that this had happened to me again, despite my best efforts, despite my agonizing attempts to be vulnerable, to risk, and to follow God and allow him to address my own character defects.  I did nothing wrong and there was nothing I could have done to prevent it.  It took me a month of crying out to God before I finally had what I needed to face the sin and death in my life because of someone else's choice.  And it will take me longer still to fight again that human desire to run away, hide, blame, dismiss, or murder, and I will succeed only with God's help.

This is the nature of vulnerability.  This is the nature of lent.  I will grieve looking for resurrection.  Again.