Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me...
Philippians 3:12

This is the passage on which God called me to meditate for the year (2014), but I haven't known what to do with it.  Honestly, it follows one of my least favorite little excerpts in Philippians.  I don't know, something about Paul's statement, "Not that I have already obtained it, but I press on toward the goal" just turns me off.  Maybe it's the race metaphor.  It makes me feel hot and tired.  I like to run in circles on the grass in my bare feet with my dogs.  I like to run on the beach or down a cascading dune of sand.  I like to run in moments of bounding joy or energy or life.  I do NOT like to run races.  Boo.

However, the truth is that this line, this specific line is kind of ... magical.  

It says that Jesus took hold of me.

Yes!  Yes, I have experienced that in so many ways, at so many times in the course of my journey.  Christ Jesus captivated me with his love and sacrifice when I was just a tiny girl.  He wrapped me in his presence.  He held me up as a kid when I was terrified of school, rejected by my peers, and unable to get out of bed in the mornings.  He gave me courage and he gave me joy.  And then he walked with me into the valley of the shadow of death.  And there, that is where he caught me up.  He reached down and took hold of me, and he brought me out.

And he had been wanting to do it for a long time.

He brought me out to something, for something.  What a glorious day it is to be brought out!  But how much more glorious is it to be brought out to something, for something, something he had in mind, something he had intended before he ever went in to get me!

But I must take hold of it.  I must receive it.  I must hold on to it.  I must fight for it.  I must chase it, chase it like life, like chasing my puppies through the grass on a firefly studded summer evening.  I must want it, dream of it, wait for it, imagine it, long for it, pray for it, work for it, defend it, cherish it.

What is this thing, this mysterious thing for which Christ has taken hold of me?  It is the pearl of great price.  It is the Kingdom of God.

It is for freedom that Christ set us free. 
Galatians 5:1a

So simple - unless you've experienced it or truly been desperate for it - it might be disappointing.

Freedom.

It's true.  And it is amazing.  I have both been desperate for it and I have experienced this freedom in Christ.  I have experienced freedom from shame through the conviction of the Spirit, through the humility of finding my identity in and through Christ, and through the confession of sin and the acceptance of this world as it is, not as I would have it.  I have known freedom from perfectionism, legalism, isolation, depression, and self-loathing.  I have experienced freedom from oppression.  I have known the freedom of being accepted as I am and loved in the darkest places of my soul.  I have experienced the freedom that comes from seeing and living in the truth.

A friend of mine confessed to me the other night: "I didn't know Christ had something for me. I didn't know that I didn't have what Christ had for me."

I didn't know that I didn't have...

It hit me.  It was profound.  He nailed it.  He described in two short sentences the "struggle" of his Christian walk ... through the desert ... for years.

How many of us ... don't know ... that we don't have ... ? How many of us don't know that we don't have freedom, life, joy? How many of us don't know that we don't have the power of the Spirit in our lives? The fruit of the Spirit? 

Christ has taken hold of us, but how many of us don't know that Christ took hold of us for something?

I just described the freedom Christ brought to my life.  But I didn't know it once. My life was simple, mundane. I worked a 9-to-5 job. I ate out 3 nights a week, went to the movies on the weekends, wrote reviews for a corporate newsletter. I went to church on Sundays, played in a worship band, took nice vacations every year, lived around the corner from my mom and we had coffee on Saturday mornings with my little dog, Sol. I watched my favorite shows on tv, went to the lake during the summer, worked on home projects year round, hosted Thanksgiving dinner. None of these things were bad. They were beautiful in many ways.

But I didn't know that I didn't have.

Blessed are the poor in spirit ... for they know that they don't have.

I didn't know that Christ Jesus took hold of me for something. And I didn't know that this something for which Christ Jesus took hold of me ... is something that must be pursued

I must press on toward it. I must grab hold.

I must want it.

I must need it.

But I cannot unless I know - truly know - that I don't have.

As CS Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory:  


We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.


My prayer for you and I as we close this year: 

May we be profoundly struck by the knowledge that we don't have.  

May we recognize then that Christ took hold of us for something, and may we desire it enough that it disrupts our lives and plagues us with such discontent that we pursue him and all he has for us.

Heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Amen

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ask for Directions!

Step Three

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

It was about 6 years into my recovery that I found myself praying this prayer on a fairly regular basis:

What does it look like to turn my will and my life over to the care of God right now - in this moment, in this situation, with this person?

I have found much solace and power in this prayer.  It has circumvented codependent rescuing when my loved ones have been in distress.  It has gotten me out of bed in the morning when I am overwhelmed with anxiety and depression.  It has given me the courage to face difficult situations.  It has reminded me that I can  survive making mistakes and even face the consequences of my actions.  It has helped me to live one day at a time, one moment at a time, and it has helped me to "accept, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it."

It reminds me that I do not have to have all the answers; I need only surrender now. It makes each step a step of faith rather than something I must do in my own power.

Proverbs 3, 14, and 16 and Step One helped us to understand that our way of doing things doesn't work, and continuing to do what we've always done will continue to get us the same results.  If you're not a fan of some aspect of the life you've created for yourself so far, well, I'm sorry, but that's all you really know how to do on your own.  It's all any of us know; we are all in the same boat.  There is no pride in Christianity.

We need a new way.

Step Two helped us to turn away from the old way of doing things (a chore in and of itself!) and to turn toward hope.  But turning in the right direction will not do us any good unless we start moving.

That is a rampant misunderstanding of repentance: Pastors often talk about the original meaning of the word "repent," and say that it is to simply "turn around."  They teach us to pray the sinner's prayer and send us on our way - right back down the path from which we came!  Yes, we must turn around and then we must go the other direction.  It doesn't magically happen and we can't do it on our own.

That was the discovery of my Third Step Prayer: I can ask for help.  I can ask for a new way!  I need to ask, in fact , fairly constantly and desperately, or I will simply go back to the way I've always known, like a knee-jerk reaction or slipping into auto-pilot on my drive home from work.  When we have traveled the same familiar path over and over again, we create a rut, and as soon as we aren't looking, our feet will slide right back down the embankment and resume that path without our even realizing it.

That is why repentance doesn't end with turning and why recovery doesn't end with Step 12.  Repentance is a lifestyle.  Recovery is a life-long journey.  This is what it means to
work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose
 (Phil 1:11-13).  If that sounds daunting or discouraging, well, I speak from experience when I say frankly, it is better to be traveling the path of salvation than it is to return to the path of destruction even for a moment, regardless as to how much work it ends up being in the end.  Salvation is free.  And it costs us everything.  But we gain life.

If we have truly come to grips with our powerlessness, and if there is a power greater than ourselves who will help us live, then we must ask for help.  Proverbs also taught us that wisdom, love, and faithfulness are not passive.  They will not land in your lap while you are sitting there day dreaming, feeling sorry for yourself, playing video games, or numbing out.  You have to ask.  You have to seek.  You have to knock.

For everyone who asks, receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks the door will be opened (Matt 7:7).

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you (James 1:5).

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with your whole heart (Jer 29.13).

Yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God!  (Prov 2:3-5).


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Only Way to Live

Lent is like a walk in a cemetery in the springtime.  There is a peace in the acceptance of death.  There is a validation of life in the honoring of its passing.  One gives way to the other, who gives back again.  When we say, "There is death.  It matters." we also say, "There is life and it matters; it is significant."

And so, during Lent, we take the time to remember the death in our lives.  We acknowledge our own fragility.  We remember our need for new life, for a savior.  And we remember the death that our savior embraced in order that we might live.

I do not mean to neglect this last piece in my meditations here.  No, it's just that our cultural expression of Christianity seems to use the Gospel in an attempt to forget - forget our frailty, forget our need, forget or drown out our past, our slavery, our stories.  But it is in our stories of frailty and need that we find Christ, that he comes to be with us.  It is through these same stories that we join in his death and resurrection from the dead.  The Gospel doesn't drown out our stories, it redeems them.

Last night a couple shared their testimonies at church and I was disturbed by something they said - or rather, something they didn't say.  The husband, a life-long Christian, confessed to affairs and a pornography addiction that had permeated his life as far back as he could remember.  (His wife cried as he spoke.)  He went on to describe an experience of someone in his small group confronting him over his lack of sobriety (faithfulness).  Only then, after years  of being "in recovery," did he finally commit to being sober.  And only when he made that commitment could he actually work his steps.  The couple shared that he now had 3 years clean and they were working to help other couples dealing with similar issues.

Yay!  Clearly sobriety in that man's life is a miracle!  In fact, many sexual addicts never find sobriety.  It could have been such a redemptive story, a humanizing experience in the sharing ... except ... well, except that it was disturbing how this young man used Christianity for so long to keep sinning (hurting himself and others) ... and he talked about that tragedy as if were the most normal thing in the world, as if it were okay.  He talked about it as if the whole scenario weren't somehow tragic and completely heart-breaking, as if his wife weren't sobbing beside him in grief and loss.  He showed very little if any remorse for or recognition of the damage that he had done and the hurt that he had caused.  I make no presuppositions about his heart, but I left feeling grieved by the message of their testimonies.  Is this the Gospel we present in church, that Jesus just makes everything all right?  As if we don't live with the consequences of our choices?  As if those two young people would not have to recover from those things for the rest of their lives?  As if God is somehow okay with exploitation as long as it all works out in the end?

Jesus just makes everything all right - so we don't have to look at our depravity, we don't have to bare the hurt, we get to escape?

Jesus didn't say that we would escape.  No, we must lose our lives to gain them.  We must die with Christ to share in his resurrection.  In fact, he didn't say that we would escape really much of anything.  He offers freedom ... through suffering, through the taking up of our crosses, through hardship with purpose and hope.  Jesus is not an escape. And when we attempt to use God this way we do not accomplish the things of God.


If we diminish sin and death, if we minimize our slavery, we diminish, too, new life.  We diminish God's very salvation.  And we diminish the God who saves.

If that man's slavery was not truly tragic, then is it a big deal that he has found any kind of freedom?

Lent is the season in which we, as the Kingdom of God, confess to the world that sin matters.  Death matters.  We do not ignore tragedy, exploitation, and brokenness.  We do not minimize it.  We call it what it is and we repent.  We live in a manner worthy of repentance, because that is the only way to live.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Fear, Forgetfulness, and Getting Our Own Way

Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.
Proverbs 3:7-8

FEAR

It is not a topic I want to overlook in any discussion about the active, assertive nature of wisdom.

But it is not a notion we care to discuss in our culture - and perhaps rightly so.  We are recovering from some pretty distorted messages about God, and we have some pretty crazy people claiming to do some pretty crazy things in God's name.  Further, FEAR didn't seem to be a significant theme in Jesus' ministry or his message.

Or was it?

I think we could say that Jesus set out to strike fear in the hearts of the 'religious people' of his day - just a little bit - thrashing the temple, calling them vipers, that sort of thing.  And they were afraid; they were afraid of the wrong thing.  They were afraid of losing their power, of losing control.

They did not fear God.  

And I think that's why Jesus did it. His harsh words and even his violence was an impassioned attempt to inspire in them a reverential fear of God.  It was their only hope of being saved from their own addictions to power and control.

Meanwhile, Jesus didn't need to strike fear into the hearts of the broken and oppressed.  They already seemed to have a sense of awe and respect for authority, for God, and for Christ - probably because they were so aware of their own powerlessness.  It's amazing how a healthy dose of powerlessness (reality) inspires a healthy fear of and respect for God, [his] power, and our need for [him].  No, those who feared God were the ones with whom Christ seemed to perform the most miracles.  Those who feared God seemed to be able to receive Jesus; they seemed to be transformed by his message.

But for those on the sidelines, those who perhaps started out with a healthy reverence for God but who had slipped into doing things in their own power, Jesus gave them a fear-factor-like wake-up call.  He told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor.  He told the righteous that lust in the heart/mind is the same as committing adultery and getting angry and calling your brother a fool is the same as committing murder.

Have you ever stopped to wonder what exactly these stories were meant to inspire?  

These were not feel-good messages!  Even the "Sermon on the Mount" was moderately frightening when you consider what it means to be blessed!

                                                    fear
                reverence
                                honor
                                    respect

Jesus' message was consistent with that of the Old Testament (of course!): Y'all need to have a healthy respect for the holiness of God; it is from this place of reverence that you will begin to receive the true Gospel, the true Messiah, the true freedom.

He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.  
Isaiah 33:6

He wasn't encouraging people to treat God as if God were not God.  He wasn't dressing God's love up as a fuzzy blanket we can snuggle into on a cold day and discard when we don't need it.  Frankly, God's love is scary. 

And we should be a little frightened.

I pray we ARE a little frightened!

We are meant to have a healthy understanding of our own limitations and frailty, our need for a savior - a power greater than ourselves - because from that place of powerlessness we understand respect, honor, reverence: the fear of the Lord. 

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of  wisdom.
Proverbs 9:10

I think there is a key reason we don't want to talk about the fear of the Lord and its significance in/as wisdom, repentance, and the Kingdom of God:  Like the religious people of Jesus' time, we Christians fear / revere something other than God. I think of the sex addicts who are desperately afraid of giving up sex, the romance addicts afraid of giving up hope, the pop-culture junkies afraid of giving up media, movies, and video games - even us control freaks afraid to give up our judgment and image-management.  We spurn the fear of God as if it is passe, a sign of ignorance or a reactionary morality.  But we fear being without our little fixes!  We can't go without our favorite programs, our entertainment, our little indulgences, our program for happiness - even when we don't like who we've become or the way our lives have turned out.

We don't want to talk about the fear of the Lord because we don't want to give up our addictions; we don't want to acknowledge our slavery.  So we deny of our pasts, weaknesses, failures, frailty; we deny our need for a power greater than ourselves and we resist anything that will confront us with the truth.

Then something really scary happens: God lets us have our way.

Then they will call tome but I will not answer; 
they will look for me but will not find me,
since they hated knowledge
and did not choose to fear the Lord.
Since they would not accept my advice
and spurned my rebuke,
they will eat the fruit of their ways
and be filled with the [death which is the fruit of their own understanding].
Proverbs 1:28-31

Fear that!

We want to forget - forget how scary life is, how messy; forget how broken we are, how powerless; forget how risky faith is and how we cannot seem to control God.  And the fear of God won't let us do that, because it is from this very place of remembering, repenting, and reaching out that we begin to have a new understanding, one that empowers us to shun evil, one that leads us to light and life and salvation.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Seriously?

Step Two

We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Tradition teaches us that the working of Step Two involves three vital activities.

We Came

In order to have the hope of sanity, we actually have to start showing up in our lives.  Step One helps us to do that by starting the long process of reconnecting us to who we really are and who we've really been - to reality.  Grief (which is the inevitable byproduct of step one) helps us to do that by connecting our emotions to our bodies, our experiences, our thoughts, and our lives.  But Step Two challenges us to feel all our feelings, to live in our skin instead of whatever world we've made up in our own heads for whatever reason (whether that be out of fear, delusions of control, the drive for gratification, pride, escapism, etc.).

Step Two challenges us to bring whatever is going on with us to our relationships, to speak our truth into the world and allow ourselves to be seen, to be known, and then to receive the truth from others.  This process is fleshed out in Steps 4 - 10.  To do that, however, we have to get in touch with whatever is going on with us, and we have to be willing to see it and speak it for what it is - no hedging, no hiding, no generalizations or vague references, no covering up or softening the edges.  We need to give up our attempts to control what other people think of us and actually let them know us, accept us, reject us, love us, or leave us, as they see fit.  That is scary, but that is the path to sanity.

Ironically, we cannot accomplish even the simple task of 'showing up' on our own.  We actually need help, love, and support just to know ourselves, let alone to offer ourselves in this vulnerable way.  That is one of the reasons that the steps begin with the word "we."  We cannot do it alone.  We cannot recover alone.  We cannot serve God or establish God's kingdom alone.  We cannot know the truth alone.  We cannot be sane alone.

That is why, for most people, Step Two actually means showing up at a meeting, a support or small group, a counseling session, or church, in order to show up in their lives.  Most of us need to start there in order to face what comes next:

We Came To

That's right: Step Two means we actually have to "sober up."  This means taking our lives, our histories, our behaviors, our relationships, our patterns, and our futures seriously.  But it also means that we actually stop using our "drug of choice."

For some of us, our drug of choice is minimizing, pleasing, joking, or other forms of hiding, so "showing up" is the task of sobering up.  For others of us, however, we are also using something on top of our hiding.  In fact, often it is the fear and hiding that drove us to addict in the first place.  We may be using fantasy, media, video games, alcohol, food, over-the-counter or illicit drugs, sex, intellectualization, perfectionism ... well, here, let me just give you the list of 18 Addictive Agents as they appear in Serenity, A Twelve Step Companion, by Fowler & Hemfelt (1990):

1. Alcohol or drugs
2. Work, achievement, and success
3. Money addictions, such as overspending, gambling, hoarding
4. Control addictions, especially if they surface in personal, sexual, family, and business relationships
5. Food addictions
6. Sexual addictions
7. Approval dependency (the need to please people)
8. Rescuing patterns toward other people
9. Dependency on toxic relationships (relationships that are damaging and hurtful)
10. Physical illness (hypochondria)
11. Exercise and physical conditioning
12. Cosmetics, clothes, cosmetic surgery, trying to look good on the outside
13. Academic pursuits and excessive intellectualizing
14. Religiosity or religious legalism (preoccupation with the form and the rules and regulations of religion rather than benefiting from the real spiritual message)
15. General perfectionism
16. Cleaning and avoiding contamination and other obsessive-compulsive symptoms
17. Organizing, structuring (the need always to have everything in its place)
18. Materialism
Sobering up may seem darned near impossible at this point, and truthfully, this is where many of us derail on our 12 Step (and our Christian) journey.  But if you don't stop using, your brain cannot clear enough for you to "show up" in your life!  Further, if you are not actually engaged in the struggle of being sober then you are more likely to slip back into denial and right out of recovery - because you will think that "you can handle it," that you don't really need help, that this isn't really a problem, etc.  When you sober up and it hurts, well, that is when the recovery principles (and Christianity) actually start working for you.  

They give you a new way of being, a new way of coping that connects you to yourself, to God, to others, and to reality.  

This will suck for a while because you are not used to it.  For you, normal has actually been "high," disconnected, isolated, and/or numb/checked out, and you will desperately want to return to "normal."  However, as you live sober, you are creating a new normal, one that does not produce insanity in your life.  Trust the process.

This part of Step Two will probably be the hardest for sex addicts - but it is for them the most crucial.  The hope for a sexual addict begins when he or she discovers that sex is not actually a basic need. You will survive without it.  It may be uncomfortable, scary, and stressful at first, but your body was never designed to run on sex, but on intimacy and non-sexual affection.

We Came to Believe

This brings us back to where we left off in my own sharing about Step Two - and the wrestling we each must do with this need for a higher power and for hope.

This is where the story of Christ meets our story - and either it is meaningful to us in our personal lives, or Lent - well, Christianity! - is a waste of time, and the Gospel is no good news at all.  For me, I chose to hope, and in hoping I have begun to share both in Christ's death and in his resurrection!


Monday, March 31, 2014

Forceful [Men]

Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.
Proverbs 3:7-8

In the course of remembering who we are and who we've been, we have spent no little time looking at and naming "our own understanding," "the way that seems right to us but that, in the end, leads to death."

Neither have I been shy about the promises we may or may not actually be signing up for when we truly give ourselves to and wrestle with this love/faithfulness/trust business.  So what draws my attention today is this:

There is absolutely no passivity in these verses - not in any that we have come across so far:

Bind 
Write 
Acknowledge 
Submit 
Fear 
Shun


Wisdom is not passive.

Another translation says "turn away from evil."  Sound familiar?  If there is one thing these passages are good at, they are absolutely dogmatic about the kind of  aggressive action  that it will take to love, to be faithful, to pursue God, to be healthy.  And it requires both turning away - forcefully repelling, keeping watch for and taking evasive action from, escaping - and turning toward - binding, writing, trusting, acknowledging, submitting.

It brings to mind a wedding ceremony I recently attended.  It was one of the strangest liturgies I have yet experienced, with the presiding pastor making random and vague references to the honor of marriage and the significance of the vows while reminiscing unapologetically about his own marriage and appealing indirectly for the audience to "come to Jesus."  Somewhere in the milieu he threw in bits of sage advise that he had heard from another pastor.

"Fight fair!" he urged, asking them to raise their dukes.  "Remain pure!"

I confess that I cringed through the whole procedure. As a newlywed myself I came to the ceremony with fresh experiences of the harsh realities of early marriage.  Moreover, I knew these two young people more than casually: He was recently divorced and she had just found out that she was pregnant.  These two were jumping fairly unwittingly into the deep end without life jackets.  They were launching their new relationship full speed down a black diamond course.  And their life-guard/ski instructor seemed to be waving merrily from the sidelines shouting cliches.

Can I take a moment to say here that "remain pure" is just an outright offensive phrase?  As if any of us were pure to begin with and all we have to do is somehow stay that way!  The admonishment itself is passive - and it invites passivity.  It's like saying to your child on her first time at the pool, "Don't drown!" and then chucking her in.  If you think that is even remotely helpful or somehow more appropriate than, say, floaties, swimming lessons, and adult supervision, then PLEASE DON'T HAVE CHILDREN.

On the same token, if there is any kind of purity [read: faithfulness, which is active and practiced, whereas purity implies passive, possessed] worth cultivating, then it is not inspired, planted, grown, nor harvested with weak admonishments!  No, you have to take purity by force, people!  You have to carve it out of the very rock of human existence!  You have to till up the hardened earth with some serious equipment and a lot of sweat, then plant it with seeds of self awareness, water it with grief, and fertilize it with your own blood as you let both truth and love crucify you.  You have to teach people how to do it - but moreover, you have to teach people how to unlearn the ways they already think, the behaviors they already practice.

So here's the moral I am getting from Proverbs 3 so far:

You should take it as some relief to know that you automatically have the wrong understanding.  


You start out being wrong - there is no shame in it.  

We all desperately need wisdom - we all desperately need God - in order to have the hope of life and good things.  The good news is, wisdom, God, life, truth, and good things are within reach!  The bad news is, it is going to take one hell of a fight to grab hold of them, let alone hold on to them!

And today's lesson:

It's not enough to tie yourself up with the bondage of faithfulness so that whatever you do, love, truth, and God are ever before you, in mind in every situation; it is not enough to make every action an acknowledgement of God and an act of faithfulness, you also have to be alert, conscious of evil and the ways that she deceives you, an expert at your own weaknesses, so that you can push her away when she comes for you, so you can mentally, emotionally, and physically turn away and run in the opposite direction.

If you are passive, then evil has already won.


That is why I observe Lent.  That is why I practice the 12 Steps.  That is why I offer even these meager meditations here, spurring you on to remember who you are and who you've been, to face and name your slavery.  It is the painful way of communion with God, of love and truth, of freedom.  It is taking the land of promise.

...the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.

Matthew 11:12b

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Reason of Hope

Step Two

We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

"[N]aming our slavery is intrinsically linked to remembering the God who saves us."

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
~ Jesus


Sanity

-The Gospel-

is for those of us who need it.

It is for those of us who need hope.

Some may consider Lent depressing and masochistic at worst, empty tradition at best.  Many consider Christianity the same way.  Christianity is NOT for those who 1. don't have any problems and/or 2. have the power to be the people they want to be without any help.

If you are one of those people, kudos!  And I have a great post on denial you might want to take a look at.

For the rest of us, hope is particularly important when we take the time to remember who we are and who we've been, facing and naming the things that are out of control in our lives, owning our powerlessness, and reality checking with the experience and expression of grief.  That is why hope is Step Two.

*     *     *

I remember clearly the first time I contemplated this step.  I was walking on a treadmill reading a 12 Step devotional (as was my wont at the time) and I just about tumbled off the back of the machine.

What the hell is sanity?  I wondered.  And how can I be restored to it if I've never known it in the first place?

I didn't have an answer at the time, but I didn't need to.  The step didn't say that I needed to figure out what sanity is and then come up a with a 5-year plan for implementation.  No, I looked again to the first words and really had to ask myself:

Do I believe there is a power greater than myself?

That was easy: I was a good little Christian girl.  So, Yes: God.

Do I really believe that God can restore me ... to something I don't even understand, have never experienced, and cannot even imagine?

Good Christian Girl: Of course.

Yes, but, do I believe God will?

...

...

Um.

You see, it's one thing to believe in a God, or in the God of the Christian scriptures.  It is one thing to concede that Jesus is God and that he died on the cross to reconcile humanity to himself.  It is even one thing to learn about concepts like God's omniscience and omnipotence and love and grace and whatnot.  But it is another thing entirely to believe that God can intervene in my own personal little bit of insanity ... and that God actually will.

It seems awfully arrogant, doesn't it, my presuming what God will or will not do?  I mean, I was going through a divorce at the time.  God didn't "save my marriage."  The truth is, God doesn't do a lot of things that we want God to do or need God to do or would expect God to do.

Do I trust God?

At that moment on the treadmill I could see what my life would look like if I did not settle this matter in my heart once and for all.  I could see anxiety, doubt, depression, second-guessing, worthlessness and hopelessness plaguing me like sharp turns on a roller coaster ride.  I could see myself being fine sometimes, even hoping sometimes, but mostly just not thinking about it and then *bam* not being able to ground myself at crucial moments of fear or hurt and spiraling into existential angst.  I could see myself having repeated episodes of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, honestly.  I had been irrevocably confronted with how out-of-control my life was and how truly powerless I was to do anything different than what I'd always done.  I had to have help. I needed a higher power I could turn to and trust.  Without that, my life would only ever be insanity.

So I confess I made a very practical decision in that moment.  I did not know what sanity looked like, but I did know what insanity was like, and I was desperate to be done with it.  Hope would be better than that.  Even blind, stupid faith would be better than that.

Trust would be better than that.  

A simple line from a C. S. Lewis novel echoed in my thoughts.


God is not tame.  But God is good.

I can't predict or control God.  God is a person who has the freedom to show up as [he] so desires.  But I do believe that God is good, and I decided to trust in that.  I decided that I was going to trust God's goodness in the midst of difficulty, suffering, confusion, and the incomprehensible circumstances of life, because God's goodness does not mean I will always understand, but it does mean I can always come back to God and count on [his] intentions and movement to be for my good and the good of others

So I decided to trust God to restore me ... somehow ... to something I had never known but desperately needed.  And I decided that this was my line in the sand: I would never, ever question this decision.  It was not open for revisiting or reexamination.  Because doing so would only produce insanity in my life.

That decision changed everything.  It turns out that I didn't just decide to believe in God in a different way than I ever had before, I had to believe in myself in a way I never had before.  I had to trust myself in a new way in order to trust my relationship with God. I also had to believe that there was such a thing as sanity and I had to -vulnerably- hope for it, long for it, search for it.  But as a result, I have been able to return to the firm foundation of this step over and over and over again.  When I do stupid things (or I just think that I am stupid), when others hurt me, when I feel afraid, defeated, trapped, or discouraged, when I don't understand, I think of sanity.

And I hope.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Repentance and Remembering

I moved to Kansas City 8 years ago.  I bought my own little house and packed all my earthly possessions, including my only friend, the German Shepherd, into my pickup truck and drove 1900 miles to start over (I took the long way - it was January).  I arrived hopeful, feeling like I was somehow "home."

Once here, however, things started to happen - you know, things like: I got a job. I finished my BA.  I started another degree.  And another one.  I got downsized.  I got another job ... and another one.  Life started that mad tumble for which it is so famous. I started dating, I quit dating, I became a pastor, I resigned being a pastor.  I got married.

And somehow, in the midst of all of that, I completely forgot why.

Does that ever happen to anyone else?  I'm going along and suddenly I get caught up in some sort of doing instead of being. I forget something important about my story, about who I am and the why.

I look back now and realize that, once I got into seminary, I started to pick up on a standard.  This standard said that everyone has and should have at least a Master's Degree.  This standard said that everyone "normal" or "successful" comes from an upper middle class or well-off family.  It said that I was an object of pity because my parents didn't pay for me to go to school and I didn't attend one of the private undergraduate programs everyone else did.  The Standard started to tell me who I was, who I wasn't, and who I needed to be.

And I can't blame this particular standard, as if it broke into my house in the middle of the night and started sleeping in my basement while I wasn't looking (though that is precisely what it has felt like).  The truth is, I am prone to picking up stray standards and bringing them home with me, posting them like notes on my bathroom mirror and then using them to judge myself every morning when I get up.

And the Standard weighed on me.  Those who lived up to it were greeted in the hallways and cheered.  But it didn't seem to be working for me.  It didn't seem to be accomplishing in my life that to which God had called me.  My graduate program was a disaster and my church was, too.  I felt like an utter failure.  Achievement, education, intelligence (at least one form of it), a particular standard of living, looking a particular way, talking a particular way - somewhere along the way it had become my identity.  And even if I challenged that identity, it was still there, stuck to the bathroom mirror of my heart.

But as I venture on this path of remembering during Lent, I find myself returning to the events that brought me to Kansas City.  I remember one night in particular more than 9 years ago...

It was the night I finally forgave ... myself.

It was the night that, for the first time in my life, I actually felt worthwhile.  It was the night when, for the first time in my life, I could truly love and forgive others.  It was the first time in my life that I felt free, free to be myself without shame.  All stray standards that I picked up somewhere along the way and used to torture myself were gone.

You see, I didn't move to Kansas City to "be somebody."  I moved because I already was somebody.  I didn't finish my degree to measure up, but because my talents and life were worth my attention and development.  I embarked upon this adventure to embrace a lifestyle of repentance.  I wanted to repent of my romance with death by choosing to face my life.  I repented of fear by embracing who I was and the responsibility I have to live.  I repented of worthlessness, lies, and abuse by believing in myself, by investing in myself, by valuing myself, by saying no to unhealthy things AND saying yes to good things.

As a side note, I had to learn how to be satisfied with good things.  I'm still learning.  When one nurses on low self esteem and the sick images/standards of our culture, developing addictions and compulsions and tolerating abuse, it may be awful, but it becomes normal.  It is like growing up using whole milk even when you're lactose intolerant: you're accustomed to the taste and it's what you have to drink.  And even though it makes you sick, anything else just tastes ... well, nasty.

I learned that repentance isn't something you do once and for all.  It isn't something you do occasionally or even regularly.  It is a lifestyle.  It is a lifestyle to which I have given myself because I am forgiven, because I am accepted, because I am valuable and redeemed, because I am loved.

I had to have an experience of that forgiveness, that acceptance, that value, redemption, and love. I had to know it and accept it and let it change me.

And it did.

So I'm not here to be successful, to be "educated," intelligent, or to keep up with the Nazareneses.  I am not even here to be normal.  I am here to live in loving response to my Savior who taught me my value as [he] taught me how to forgive.  I am here to be with [him].  I am here because I am a new creation, and I must live in a manner worthy of repentance.

And I repent of my post-it notes - the ones that say my relationships should look a certain way, that I shouldn't struggle with anything, that I shouldn't have problems, that I should look better and act better and be better somehow.  I repent of the standards I have lifted up to tell me who I am so that I forget who I am and who I've been and from what exactly I have already been saved.

Can I get an amen?  Anybody else want to repent of your post-it notes - and keep on repenting?  Anybody else want to center their life around an experience of love and acceptance and freedom?  I highly recommend  it, even if I forget myself sometimes.  I highly recommend repenting of picking up stray standards and bringing them home with you.  In fact, I dare you to do it. I dare you to develop a whole lifestyle around repentance.  For the Kingdom of God is near.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Lament

I remember now.

I remember that the great sense of freedom, release, and gratitude - the invitation to new life - only came after and in the midst of grieving.  I had forgotten that part.

I had forgotten that part of powerlessness and how it ties in to the lament of Lent.  It seems kind of ridiculous that I would forget this component of the spiritual walk: Lent is renowned for its themes of suffering, death, and repentance.  Of course grief is a part of this.  And of course grief is a part of naming our slavery and its effects on our lives.  That is rather close to the point.  We grieve to "sober up;" it is one of the many ways we turn away from our addictions and compulsive behaviors, our way, our understanding.  We grieve to get in touch with reality.  We grieve in order that it might change us.  We grieve because grieving is a part of repentance.

We grieve because we care and we grieve in order to care.  If we give up grieving, we give up part of our humanity.  We deny our own fragility and we dismiss the ache of our precious hearts.  We say of our hurts, our experiences, and our lives, "they don't matter."  Our hearts become like a leper's skin; desensitized, numb, calloused, hardened.  We lose our empathy, and when we lose our empathy, that is when we become sociopathic - an animal bent only on survival and self gratification.  Literally, we have lost our capacity to connect or to love - ourselves or others.

There is a popular bumper sticker that says, "If you're not angry, you're not paying attention."

If you are not grieving, you are not living.

Did you know that you cannot avoid disappointment without also shunning excitement?  You cannot numb your pain without also numbing your ability to feel pleasure, to feel alive.  This is common knowledge in the helping professions.

More distorted thinking, relational dysfunction, and debilitating habits are created by attempts to disconnect from or escape hurt, pain, rejection, and disappointment than by any chemical imbalance in the brain.


Likewise, deepening your capacity for pain expands your capacity for joy - and vice versa.  In fact, in order to truly face your pain you need an expanded capacity for joy!  They go hand in hand and not one without the other.  Ultimately, to truly live, to truly love, you must feel.  You must embrace both the fears and the ecstasies of life.


But if in your fear you would seek
only love's peace and love's pleasure,
it is better for you that you
cover your nakedness and
pass out of love's threshing floor,
into the seasonless world
where you shall laugh
but not all of your laughter,
and weep
but not all
of your tears. 
Kahlil Gibran
The Prophet

And so we linger, revisit, and remind ourselves of our powerlessness.  We face it and name it and own it when we see it, because we need to grieve.  Grieving isn't a sign of failure.  Grieving is an acceptance of that which we cannot change so that we might change the things we can.

So, to any who embark upon the path of remembering, and particularly to myself, a note:  You will grieve.  Take the time to do it.  Acknowledge those things you cannot change - the past, others, your own character defects and slavery  - and let them go, let them be.  They already are, after all.  You're just recognizing and living in the truth.  Have a funeral if need be.  Write a eulogy.  Sing a song of lament.  Count the cost without judgment - for judgment will only lead you back to denial and the insanity of trying to change things over which you have no control.  And say goodbye to lost time, lost hopes, lost dreams, and unrealized expectations.  Say goodbye to the person you wish you were or could have been and accept the one you are.  Live in your own skin.  And grieve the childish notions that there is a world without grief - if you could just figure out how to live there.  Grieve the loss of the fantasy solution, achievement, or relationship that would eliminate the need for grief or growth or pain or regret or sadness.





Monday, March 24, 2014

A Straight Path, A Wandering Way

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
lean not on your own understanding
In all your ways acknowledge him
and he will make your paths straight.
Proverbs 3:5-6

I watched this weekend as my friend cried, her heart broken and aching over a death in her family.  She wept over her own sense of inadequacy and failure, her regrets, and she grieved the sense of powerlessness she felt to help, to change things, to save.

I can relate.  I have not lost a loved one the way she did, but I have experienced death in my life, that helpless and disorienting sense of loss, that great sadness that comes with a deep feeling of failure.  And I feel powerless in my life, too - powerless to be the woman I want to be, to effect positive change at my workplace, to create worthwhile and edifying relationships.  While naming these losses and regrets is the first step, the truth is, acknowledging our powerlessness is deeply sad.  In fact, that is a good deal of the point: We need to grieve.

"Sadness allows you to let go of what you cannot have in order to make room in your heart for what you can have." 
~ John Townsend, Hiding From Love

That is what I am finding as I face my powerlessness: In the very act of doing so I somehow find a way through - a new way that is different from before, a way that is not my way, nor is it my understanding.  Grief is a great example.  I generally do not want to be sad, nor do I go out of my way looking to be sad.  Yet, as Townsend goes on to note, "God's solution for resolving loss is sadness ... Sadness is the antidote for depression.  It does a job.  Grieving prepares us for love."  Facing and naming, confessing our powerlessness is, itself, a new way.    It is the first step down the path prepared for us, to take us through our wilderness, to lead us out of slavery and into the Land of Promise, into freedom.  It is just not the way we expect.

As I have previously philosophized, we tend to think that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  "He will make our paths straight."  In geometry that may be true, but for some reason it doesn't quite work that way when it comes to the narrative arc of our lives, and I think it goes back to that whole "our understanding" pitfall.  God doesn't say that the path is straight: Therefore we are to follow it.  God says, "In all your ways submit to [God] and [God] will make your path straight" (NIV).

So, we follow God and as we do, God makes our path straight, not based on our understanding of straight, but on God's!

We would not expect to be sad in order to let go.  But God leads us to grieve.

We would not expect to have to remember who we are and who we've been in order to embrace grace and freedom.  But God leads us to accountability.

We would not expect to have to bring our secrets out into the open, but God leads us to confess.

We would not expect to have to ask for help, but God leads us to depend on [him] and others.

We would not expect to have to die in order to live, but God leads us to resurrection life.

This mysterious way, the path that is not necessarily straight and logical to our minds - certainly not the obvious way to go - it is the way of repentance, and when we walk it and all its strange meandering curves through all of its pain and its peace, we find that we can look back and see God has made our path straight.

That is the message of Lent.  That is the path of the Twelve Steps.  That is the Gospel.   

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Power of Powerlessness

Step One

We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors, that our lives had become unmanageable.

(Bet you thought it was time for Step Two, didn't you?)

When one begins the spiritual practices of the 12 Steps, one quickly learns that the steps are never finished.  We always return to step one and start over - not just when we have completed them all, but any time we are confronted with our slavery, any time we see those telltale signs of something being out of control.  We need to learn how to go back to this step, to use it, to mine it, to depend on it as positive movement out of our slavery.

For those who thought that focusing on and contemplating our secrets, failures, shortcomings, and character defects was dreadful and unproductive, the thought of doing it on a regular basis is insanity.  Of course, pretending that you have no unmanageability in your life, no failures, or shortcomings, or nothing that you would prefer to hide from others seems like insanity to me.  Continuing to blindly bulldoze through your life doing the same old things you've always done and hoping for different results seems pretty unproductive.  Admitting our slavery simply aligns us with what is already true about our lives.

But did you know that admitting powerlessness can actually be very empowering?  

Of course, that is the beautiful paradox of recovery - of Christianity!  It is only when you give your life away that you may truly live - the very paradox we explore in the practice of fasting.

First, by facing and admitting our darkness, failures, compulsive behaviors, fears, etc., we begin to release the shame that attaches itself to them.  Remember Adam and Eve in the garden?  They ate of the fruit, and they were ashamed.  And it was because of the shame that they hid - from God and from each other.  That hiding didn't help them; it isolated them.  It was the beginning of the death that was promised when they ate the fruit: The death of fellowship with God, of self acceptance, of vulnerability, of relationship with one another ... the list goes on.  Hiding is the fruit of death.  Naming our weaknesses empowers us to come out of hiding.

Naming our slavery also loosens the grip that compulsive behaviors, hurts, disappointments, and fear have on us.  For example, we can often feel like no one really wants to hear about what is really going on with us, and that feeling controls us; it squelches us, prompts us to pretend, to say stupid things, to hedge our comments, minimize our feelings, avoid vulnerability, limit intimacy, and apologize for taking up time or space.   Or it may make us a constant comedian, a compulsive discusser of our topic of choice, an expert at small talk, pop culture, and memes, or just downright disconnected from reality - twitchy, compulsive, neurotic, and never quite able to say exactly what we mean.  This is not self-control!  This is oppression!

But when we just say it - when we can just name what is true, what is real, what is vulnerable - suddenly we are free.   We dispel the myth that we are somehow unwanted or unlovable, the only one to struggle or hurt.  We are free to talk about everything, free to connect, free to be known and loved and accepted as we are.  We are free to be ourselves.  Free to be heard.  Who doesn't want more freedom in her life?

Then there is the fact that admitting our powerlessness is actually doing something new.  And doing something new is not only the best possible opportunity for getting different results, it means that, right now, in the moment of your admission, you are not perpetuating your slavery.  In other words, it is very difficult to practice this step as a spiritual discipline and also stuff your face with doughnuts, say, or masturbate to porn.  By practicing this step intentionally - again and again - you are actually already replacing old behaviors with something new.

I wrote recently about my friend who is obsessively distracted.  One of the things she learned is that she cannot be thinking about and focused on distractions when she is focusing on and practicing her admission of powerlessness.  Admitting powerlessness can seem negative to a lot of people, but it is actually a positive behavior that replaces oldnegative ones.

We reclaim all kinds of power in practicing Step One.  But probably the best part is the way we are setting ourselves up to need and ask for help, and to need and search out God.

And that leads us again to Step Two ...



Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Not So Fast

A reflection on Lent

A friend of mine recently attempted to "fast" certain things that distract her from her work at the office.  

She quickly grew frustrated with the practice and gave up.  She felt overwhelmed by the sheer number and type of distractions. "Clearly this isn't working!" she spat in exasperation over her two-page list of "struggles."

But what I heard was that it did work: She had become immediately and intensely aware of all the things that she allows to pull her mind in different directions in just one eight-hour time period.  More than that, she was confronted with the ways these distractions took her places - places she didn't want to go.  She often felt anxious, insecure, or disconnected by the end of the day and as she looked at the things that she allowed to capture her attention and her thoughts, it started to make sense why she might feel these ways.  She also realized that, once upon a time, she had actually intentionally practiced these distractions - she had actually created this monster to begin with.

She suddenly understood that she needed to start paying attention to what she was paying attention to! 

Fasting and Awareness

Incidentally, as a result of her little experiment, my friend developed a new strategy for "paying attention" and eventually came up with a technique to explicitly focus her thoughts on the things that were important to her - which was not just about the work at hand, as it turned out, but her life-goals and values, too!  She was amazed that she could redirect her thoughts so effectively, and what began as short-lived "fasting" became a sustainable lifestyle of walking in greater self-control.

When we choose to abstain, or to fast, as a spiritual discipline, we are choosing to increase our awareness - and our opportunities for awareness - of God, self, and others.  In the case of my friend, it might seem like she was already "too aware" because she was so easily and readily distracted, yet she was unaware of her thought life, its history, and the impact it was having on her.  She was also unaware of the choices and the power she actually had to do something different.  When we fast, we stop our normal, every-day routines and habits and we do it for a purpose: To create space for something else!  Namely, fasting is about turning away from something in order to turn toward - toward reflection, self-examination, toward God and a greater truth and understanding of ourselves, and ultimately toward greater love and freedom.

Fasting and Freedom

What shall we say, then?  Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?  By no means! We are those who have died to sin ... because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.  
Romans 6:1-7

Recently I served in a church wherein the freedom to drink alcohol was celebrated - to the point that it became a concern.  A family or two left the church over it.  The denominational leadership got involved.  There were questions about whether church fellowship events were threatening to newcomers or to those who are in recovery from alcoholism or drug use.  As conversations and accusations circulated I began to wonder, "We have the freedom to drink, but do we have the freedom not to drink?"

In recovery I have come to recognize that one of the greatest freedoms I can experience is not in what I am free to do, but what I am free not to do.  This is the Alcoholic who is finally free to not have a drink.  This the sinner free from sin.  This is freedom from slavery!

"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 ... not everything is constructive.
I Corinthians 6:12, 10:23

Fasting is about the search for true freedom in Christ, not about an immediate sacrifice or the value of a sacrifice in itself.  

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
Psalm 51:17

"To love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."
Mark 12:33

Fasting and abstinence as a lifestyle is practicing the freedom of saying no to some things so that we can say yes to others, so that we are not mastered by anything, so that we keep our hearts soft, repentant, contrite, and sensitive, free to respond to God and to grow in love.

Fasting and Maturity

According to human development studies and theorists, we actually have an emotional (and spiritual) need to say "no" to things, and especially those things to which we might not want or know how to say no!  If we do not develop our ability to "turn away" we become stunted in our development and emotional maturity.

Many Christians talk about abstinence only in terms of -specific- sexual activity, and then only in the context of being single.  But abstinence is the ability to say no, to turn away.  Abstinence (sexual and otherwise) is something you must learn to practice throughout life! In fact, sex is a great example: The need for sexual abstinence does not change when one gets married - in fact, it becomes, in some ways, more vital. 

Allow me to explain: You have heard it said that I cannot look at another person lustfully or I commit adultery in my heart - and I say that this includes my spouse!  Lust dehumanizes another person by making that person an object to meet my sexual gratification.  It also dehumanizes me, corrodes my moral reasoning, distorts and confuses my thinking.  Jesus' warning about lust and adultery is not a warning about "sex outside of marriage," it is about the ways we exploit and dehumanize ourselves and others in our hearts because we are not practicing the very difficult and loving behaviors of turning away.

As a married person, I do not get sex when I want it, how I want it, nor should I.  Those passages about a husband's and wife's bodies not being their own is not permission for exploitation or moral license for using - or making demands - from one another.  The point is a plea to treat one another as human beings, with the love, honor and respect we would want shown to us!  Sadly, we live in a culture of sexual addiction wherein we violate ourselves sexually, so it's no wonder many Christians expect "sexual gratification" in marriage instead of love, respect, and intimacy.

But I digress, the point of this example is that, in marriage, I must abstain from sex as much as I participate in it.  I must abstain when it violates me or my partner, when it is unhealthy, when it is selfish, or when my partner says no for any reason.  I must abstain from sex that isolates me.  And I must abstain from sex with anyone other than my spouse - in my mind or in body.  If I have not developed the character required to be abstinent outside of marriage, I am setting myself up to fail in a sexual relationship.

And that is how it is with all forms of "saying no".  We must develop these muscles, this strength of character, so that we can turn away when it is loving and appropriate and humanizing to do so.

Consider that before you give up fasting for Lent!

Monday, March 17, 2014

I Don't Understand (and Neither Do You)

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
lean not on your own understanding
In all your ways acknowledge him
and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

One thing I have learned in recovery is that we each have our own unique brand of "our own understanding" that, at its end, is what Paul called "futile thinking" (Eph 4:17-19); it ultimately produces insanity, dysfunction, distortion, and eventually death.

That is to say, we each have our own personal, creative, and living version of the "way that seems right to [us]" but that actually "leads to death" (Prov 14:12).  But here's the catch: It actually seems right to us.

As a young person, I used to think these passages only applied to people who did not know God.  Sure, their thinking is futile (I thought in my naive arrogance) but Christians have abandoned 'the ways of the world' for God's ways.  We don't lean on our own understanding; we lean on the "foolishness of God" to save us (I Cor 1:18) and the word of God to direct us.

You know what changed my mind?  This little thing called death.

You see, Jesus mentioned a tidbit about "by their fruit you shall know them" and it turns out that it goes deeper than separating the sheep from the goats - us from them.  No, by their fruit you will recognize ... your own understandings and how you are leaning on them, because "in the end it leads to death."

Do not be deceived, reads Galatians 6:7-8, God cannot be mocked: a man reaps what he sows.  Whoever sows to please their flesh, from their flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.

Matthew 7 tells us not to judge, but to examine ourselves and help othersMy mentor termed it, 'the call to be fruit inspectors.'

I started to notice that there were little bits of insanity in my life as a Christian; in the darkness of my own heart and the quiet places of my intimate relationships there was hiding, lying, bondage, rage, self-loathing, depression, anxiety, resentment, violence, and, yes, death.  I participated in some of these directly.  Mostly I helped to create an environment in which these fruit just sort of cropped up.

I didn't know it, but I had been "sowing to the flesh."  I had been leaning on my own understanding, following the way that seemed right to me, and it was not working out so well.

What we learn in recovery that this is pretty much the only way to recognize our own futile thinking: by its fruit.  Where there is death, there is "our own understanding."   Where there is insanity, there is the "way that seems right" to us.

This is why it is so important for us to remember who we are and who we've been, to name our slavery: It is the first step to forsaking, turning away from, repenting of our own understanding.

 ... even when that understanding seems and sounds so Christian.  That was the brutal twist on my life: The things I was doing, they were all my understanding of what it meant to be Christian, to be 'obedient,' to be 'submissive.'  I legitimately believed that I was doing what was right.  And if it hadn't been for the awful fruit, I never would have known that I was really in bondage.

None of us escapes "our own understanding."  Paul describes it as the "sin living in me... the desire to do what is good [that] I can't carry out" (Rom 7:17-18).  In fact, I think the more we were 'raised in the church' the more likely we are to fall into this trap. Paul is one of our best examples:  He had lived his whole life in dedication to his people's covenant with God.  He had abandoned himself completely to honoring God through the very law God had given for just that reason.  And it was garbage, dirty rags, excrement (Gal 3:8).  It produced death. 

I am going to go way out on a limb here and say, if it looks and seems and sounds Christian, even if it looks and sounds word-for-word like scripture itself, but it does not produce the fruit of the Spirit, it is not truth - not the gospel.  Did you know the law itself cannot stand against the fruit of the Spirit?!  "Against these there is no law" (Gal 5:22-23).

That is how desperately we need God to make our paths straight!

I have not even touched the notion of "trusting God with all our hearts" nor what it might mean to "acknowledge God in all we do."  But that is because I have found that these, too, are intrinsically addressed in the disciplines of the 12 Steps. I cannot help but explore this kind of trust and surrender as I continue my time of remembering during the Lenten season.  So if you want more on these fronts, you will just have to stay tuned.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Slavery, Story, and the First Step

Step One: 

We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors, that our lives had become unmanageable.

I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin...  Romans 7:14b

The first step of recovery is also the first step of becoming a follower of Christ.  It is the first step of telling our own story.  It is the first presupposition of Lent.  It is a global recognition of sin and death, human frailty and failure.  It is an expression of our desperation and need for rescue - but rescue from what?  Death isn't just a physical end.  Sin isn't just a theoretical entity, a doctrine.  We are in bondage.  We are all Israelites at the mercy of Egypt.  We are all Paul, unable to do in our own power the good we want to do and, instead, chronically doing the very thing we hate - which seems to be the only thing we know how to do unless God [himself] intervenes constantly (Romans 7:15-19).  Slavery is the truth of our existence.  It is the death we carry with us everywhere we go until we die.  This is the sin that lives inside our very person, from which we need ongoing rescue (Romans 7:17, 21-25).

What Step One invites us to do, however, that the "Sinner's Prayer" or Lenten liturgies can fail to inspire, is to name our slavery, our death, personally - and to recognize this ongoing nature of our need.  Like Ash Wednesday, this is not some morbid fascination with darkness.  It is God's call to remember.  

"Be careful that you do not forget ... otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied ... then you will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery ... and if you ever forget ... I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed" (Deut 8:11-19, emphasis mine).

Remembering, facing, acknowledging, naming our slavery is intrinsically linked to remembering the God who saves us.  The two are inseparable.  If we forget the one, we forget the other, and we slip into "[our] own power and the strength of [our] hands" that only brings destruction (Deut 8:17).  

The work of the cross is done, yet we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12-13).  We are delivered "through Jesus Christ our Lord" but what are we delivered from but "the sin at work [ongoing] within me"? (Rom 7:23b-25).

So how do we name our slavery?

When you "work" the first step, you don't just read it.  You don't just "agree" with it.  You actually "do" it.  

List the things of which you are ashamed...
That you've done.  That you are. That you've thought. That have been done to you.

...the things you don't want anyone to know...
and don't think you have to tell anyone about because you've 'taken care of that'

...the things you do but do not want to do...
...the things you want to do but are destructive, hurtful, or violate your own values...


all your 'compulsive behaviors.'  

All of them.  

You will actually make a regular practice of listing them, because remembering is a discipline, but that's getting ahead of ourselves.

Sound morbid?  Don't worry, you don't stop there.  The story doesn't end in slavery.  That's just where it begins.  We're only on Step One, you know?

If you don't actually list them and call them what they are, then you aren't admitting anything. 

You can read the step and agree with it, but you aren't doing what it says until you actually start admitting things, specific things.  (And don't think you can get away without writing them down - because steps four and six make you do it specifically, in case you thought you could skip it.)

You also have to look at -name- what is unmanageable.  

You see, the truth is, you probably don't even know what you are enslaved to, what is compulsive and addictive in your life, how you have forgotten yourself and God, until you start looking at the things that have gotten out of hand, the consequences, the symptoms, the little bits that are out of control. In other words,

this is your opportunity to truly recognize your 
"hurts, habits, and hangups" 
as slavery:
What is the price you're paying for your (or another's) behavior?

(It's true: All of these things apply when what you're doing is actually enabling someone else's destructive behavior.)

A great way to name your slavery is to use the first few lines of the Serenity prayer to search your heart:

God, 

What am I not asking God for help with?

grant me the serenity

What is stealing my peace? My joy?  My worship?

to accept the things I cannot change

What am I trying to control but actually have no control over?  
Where am I ignoring my own limitations?

the courage to change the things I can

What should I have have control over that is out of control?  

and the wisdom to know the difference

What do I continue to do over and over and over again, 
expecting different results?

And that will take us to Step Two.

Until next time, if you really want to know and name your slavery, pray this Psalm.  But be warned: If you ask, God will tell you.

Search me, O God, and know my heart
Test me and know my anxious thoughts
See if there is any offensive way in me
Lead me in the way everlasting
Psalm 139:23-24




Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Back to Lent

In 2007 my beautiful sister, Penny, passed away.  We gathered by her grave hidden among the pines and sycamores on a sunlit-dappled hillside that could have come straight from a chapter of Little House on the Prairie.  We sang Amazing Grace and visions of Penny dancing barefoot on a similar grassy hillside somewhere far away comforted me in a special way; she had been severely handicapped and could not talk, walk, or care for herself while she was here on this earth.  The thought of her whole, laughing, dancing - and the possibility of knowing her someday in a way we could not while she was here was joy set before me.

It may seem morbid, but I hold a special reverence in my heart for funerals and feel privileged when I get to participate in one.  It is one of the few moments when it seems socially acceptable to remember, and it seems so good and right to honor a life by doing so - to acknowledge together its value, and to tell of those things that made it special.  


I have often thought it a waste to wait until a funeral to remember someone's life, to tell favorite stories, to laugh at ridiculous moments, to celebrate a person.  

Perhaps that is what should happen at birthdays, too, but I rarely experience it at any of the parties I am invited to for such.  There is something sacred about remembering a person - who he is, who she was, the meaning of that one, unique life telling its one, unique story.

Another great waste, in my summation, is the way we do not take the time to remember ourselves.  We live from day to day, sometimes completely baffled as to how we have come to be where we are - how we have come to be who we are.

We often get hit at some point in our journey with a shocking realization that our lives do not look the way we thought they would - or the way we want them to.  How did this happen? we wonder. 

But rarely do we take the time to reflect.  In fact, we are often discouraged from it.  "Live for today" is a valid and yet sometimes misleading colloquialism.  "You are a new creation - the old is gone, the new has come" (2 Cor 5:17) can be equally deceptive out of context, especially if we think we are supposed to somehow "forget" the past and press on toward the goal (Phil 3:13-14).

But, of course, it was never Paul's intention to forget who he was.  

No!  In fact, Paul constantly takes the time to remember and tell his story as a Jew, his story as a Pharisee, his story about the road to Damascus.  The good news is in and can only be told by his own story, his testimony.  He remembers who he has been so that he can remember and tell others about what God has done.

And that, of course, brings back to Lent.


*     *     *

There are a lot of cliches that circle the trenches these days.  A good number of them ask us to consider where our identity resides.  "Who does God say you are?" they chant.  It's a valid question in a world of a million stories, each attempting to cast us in a particular role and assign meaning to our lives.  But truthfully, the answers that follow any such questions are often disconnected - from the context of scripture, from personal relationship with God, and from our own stories.

"Hello, my name is Child of the One True King" a popular song proclaims.

Okay.  What does that mean?

It means I am "adopted into the family of God!"  I am a saint!  I am a sinner saved by grace!

Okay.  So, where were you before you were adopted?  What were you before you were a saint?  What were you saved from?  

Oh, you know, sin.

Okay, so what's that?  What did that look like in your life?  What does it look like now?

Um.

The truth is, you can't coherently tell the story of God unless you can tell your own story - just like Paul.  And just like Paul, you can't tell us who you are without recounting who you've been.

On Ash Wednesday I shared the story of the Hebrews trapped in slavery at the beginning of Exodus.  Why?   Their story, their past, is important. It is what made them the people of God. It is what tells the story of God.  It is how we remember God, what God has done, and the covenant God has called us to.  In fact, that seems to be the whole point of God choosing a people in the first place; it turns out that the world has a difficult time knowing and receiving God apart from God's people! (Gen 18:18)

Yes, Lent is about remembering the suffering of Christ, the path he walked to the cross!  And how can we do that with any authenticity if the story of Christ doesn't mean something about us?  What good is the Good News if it has nothing to do with you?  What purpose does the crucifixion have if it doesn't have the power to impact me, to change my story, to set me free?

"I want to know Christ," Paul wrote from prison, "Yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection of the dead" (Philippians 3:10-11).

Lent, and its invitation to remember, is the proclamation of the story of Christ - but not as a single event that happened thousands of years ago, a bed time narrative we repeat to our children, a theological doctrine with which we may either agree or disagree.  Lent is the recognition that the story of Christ was meant to be and is our story somehow.  We were meant to share in it and we do - yes, "indeed, we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory" (Romans 8:17b).

How?  How do we share in all of this?

We start, even as Paul did, by telling our story, by remembering who we are and who we've been...