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...


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.