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
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

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...