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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Always Waiting for What Comes Next

For the last week, this article (Single and Not Waiting) has been circulating on Facebook. It's been posted by several of my teen and young adult friends, and at least once by one of their parents. (Kudos to that parent, btw. It's a brave venture in this climate to publically encourage a young person to live his or her life now, even if that means embracing being unattached.)

I didn't read it at first because I thought it was the same article I had read a few years ago and shared with some friends in that age bracket. But just this morning I decided to look at it and found that this one was, indeed, new, but essentially saying the same thing. A young adult feels she is putting her present life on hold, waiting for God to deliver to her the man who will be her husband, and then, her life can begin. She feels "in between" places in life, and that feels like a static place to be. And the author is addressing how this perspective means she is not using her current days as well as she could be.

I've taken recently the advice of my own pastor in several areas of life in which my mindset is creating a false reality. "Rebecca, you have to change the way you think about that," he says. "Thinking that way isn't going to do you any good." He consistently offers an optimistic alternative, but I have to take it and apply it myself. It's advice that reaches broadly into many areas of life's challenges, and I think the author of this article has realized it fits her current situation too.

But what I wanted to say to her, and to my young adult friends, and to probably most of you who take the time to read, is that the "waiting for what's next" mindset isn't just affecting young single people. I'm in my 40s now. And, as I've said to several of you young adults, it's not just marriage that you're waiting for, so that life can begin.

It's an ongoing thing. Even now, I still find myself wondering when it's all going to REALLY start. Life is insanely busy, but I still have that sense of waiting for what's next. For the really important stuff. For the "what I'm really here for" part to make itself clear.

Just yesterday, as I was doing various tasks about the house, editing an article here, scrolling through other news stories there, doing what my hand found to do, I had the same thoughts turning in my mind. About a month ago, I withdrew from my second graduate school class. At the time, I thought I should also withdraw completely from the program. I was at a stage of defeat and felt that by walking away from the class I could not complete well through distance learning, I was also walking away from the entire program, the degree, the future in teaching that I had hoped to have. So yesterday, I was wondering, "What next?" I had that same sense of waiting: If only I could get that degree, that education, then I could do what God wants me to do with my life. Then I could be where he wants me to be.

I wasn't looking at today. I have work. Important work. I have family. Steadfast brothers, amazing children. I have friends. Delightful friends. I have a church community.  I have a neighborhood. I have a readership. And I still have that longing for finding what's next, so that the next stage can get started.

It doesn't go away.

Then I read the article, and realized that two years later, here's another author saying the same thing I forwarded to friends back then, and it's still current and applicable enough to go viral. So the issue hasn't been solved, and I asked the question, "Why?"

Usually, at the root of our most disruptive longings, there is an idolatry, and at the root of the idolatry, there is a truth planted, and I believe it's the same thing in this case--for the teen waiting to graduate from high school; for the single adults waiting to get married (whether it's the first time, or holding onto hope for a redemptive second); for the married waiting to own a house or find the perfect job; for the couple waiting to just have that first baby; for the sick waiting to be healed; for the adult waiting to get that degree or promotion, or whatever.

And the truth we all share is that none of us have fully arrived.

But that's not bad news. It may seem that way, but it isn't. Because there's a deeper truth even yet: We WILL. "He who began a good work in you WILL SEE IT TO COMPLETION."

It's a promise, from the Promise Keeper Himself. We are works in progress, and we know that much. What we don't know, or can't seem to remember, is that it already began. Think about it. How does Genesis start: In the beginning, God. . . .  Ephesians 1: He chose us in him before the foundation of the world. 

You have already begun. The beginning was recorded. This is it. The present, the now, you are in it. This is your life. This is my life. We who are created and chosen are being equipped for every good work in the now, not just for the later.

Yes, there is waiting. Waiting for what's already prepared to come next, but that waiting shouldn't be a burden to the now. And it should not paralyze. That's a tool of the enemy--paralysis. We have life more abundant at this very moment, for those who have been freed from the fear of ever being lost again from the Creator/Father/Author of our existence.

Come out, then. Be real. God walks with us through the very days we have now. Maybe all those things we are waiting for will come to pass for us, but whether they do or not, we each have purpose right now. Keep doing the work he's given you to do today. Keep gathering together. Keep encouraging one another, as long as it is called today. Keep your eyes open for the wounded on the side of the road, for the thirsty, for the orphans and widows, for even the rich young ruler who went away sad--maybe his waiting time has not yet come to completion and perhaps your path will intersect to help him along his way. If there is a person in your reach, you can be sure you are not placed there accidentally.

One of the potentially paralyzing tenets of the single-but-waiting-for-The-One mindset has been to cloister oneself from anything but superficial community while waiting. It is presented as a type of emotional "purity" even if it has nothing sexual associated with it. (Amazing to me, in my generation, how we were taught to abstain from sexual immorality, but today's Christian generation, even if they've held that line well, are given the new burden of trying to discern an emotional immorality to carry as well. Its definition varies greatly from one to another, as a new doctrine not fully worked out among its proponents, but within that range, I've known several truly well-intentioned young adults finding themselves laden with false guilt over fears of caring for the people God put in his or her path now, because if they let themselves invest emotion, it might conflict with that which belonsg exclusively instead to some unknown individual who may materialize years down the road. Does not God tell us he owns the future, and that divination is a lack of trust in him?) It's tied closely to this idea of putting all of oneself on hold for one singular goal: marriage. It's not consistent with the picture of the community both Paul (in Ephesians and Philippians) and Peter (in 1 Peter) promote for a church--individuals united in Christ, truly knowing one another with hearts purified by God's word, and seeking to abound more and more in knowledge and discernment about how to love one another better, genuinely, from the heart.

The opportunities are there, today, no matter what else we think we are waiting for--as long as we go with him into those opportunities.

Can we open our arms, our hearts, ourselves (like the doves spread on the altar) to not just accept with grumbling but embrace with confidence the very moment of today and our lives in it as they are, while we also wait with confidence for the completion that is to come? Can we live to own the promise in the present?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Gift of Darkness

"Someone I loved
Once gave me a box
Full of darkness.

It took me years
to understand
That this, too,
Was a gift."

--Mary Oliver


How are gifts honed and matured? How is precious metal purified?

There is the trial by fire. There is the trial by market. I would not say one is more painful than the other.

Flannery O'Connor's prayer journal has been published, posthumously. It records her youthful prayers--prayers that God would make her gifts mature.

She died at the age of 39. That's a short life. She was stricken with lupus. It left her crippled, and rejected by lovers. She remained single. But she begat two novels and 32 short stories, and garnered the National Book Award. She held a slot in my freshman literature anthology. Very few female authors can say the same.

When in the fire, we can't see what the smelting is doing. We can't know what the result will really look like.

I was observing my friend Phillip the other day. As I listened to him, I thought to myself, "Everything about him is tempered." I meant it in the way of being softened, well-managed, controlled. And then I thought to wonder, "What hell has he endured to come to this?" Tempered by fire? There must have been dross consumed. I don't see it now, but I believe we all have such corruption woven in among the mitochondria.

Would Flannery have traded her crutches for legs that leapt and danced with suitors, if with them she also lost the craft and wordsmithery she craved? What might Phillip be, without the woes he most certainly must have experienced? And what of you? And of me?

When my young friend H confessed her heart-felt agony about her own idolatry, I begged our God to hear her prayer but handle her gently. Do I know what I am asking? Of course not.

Someone I loved once gave me a box of darkness. I will never be the same again. But who was I then? And even if the wounds never heal, can I be sure I am not actually better for it now?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Bind Me Again! I Don't Want To Be Free

It is for freedom Christ has set you free, says Paul at the opening of Galatians chapter 5. I'm free for freedom's sake? Freedom itself is the goal?

A Janis Joplin song declared the frightening nature of freedom in this way: Freedom's just another word for 'nothin' left to lose.'

We find so many ways to refuse to accept it, substantial freedom. How do we respond?

Bind me! Bind me up again!

Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery, Paul says, even leading it off with the full expectation that we're going to want to: Stand firm, he encourages. He knows our weakness. We don't want to be free. It's scary. It's loose. We can't control total freedom and boy, how we like to be in control.

I just had a very brief exchange with a creative young friend who has imposed some restrictions upon herself for the purpose of a designated challenge. And while she wants to meet those rules to comply with the terms of the challenge, she took a moment to complain openly about the fact that now, she's restricted from beginning her project until the time the rules (which were made and entered into voluntarily) allow. This is, of course, no big deal at all. There is no sin in casting those rules aside and starting earlier by her desire to do so. There is no sin in waiting. There may be lost opportunity to achieve as much with the full fervor that would be there if the project were heart-directed all the way through, instead of bound and hindered while the clock ticks off some arbitrary number of seconds until that formerly arbitrarily determined date arrives. But so be it. It's no big deal in the cosmos.

However, it's such a symbolic parallel for how we humans often go about our lives, and that can be a big deal in the cosmos. Loki, in the movie The Avengers, stood over a crowd of terrified humans and scoffed at them as they knelt in fear before him: You were made to be ruled. There's a truth in that. We were and we know it. But by whom or by what?

Only one man stood to face him, saying, Not by men like you. And yet, by men like ourselves? Because if we fear we have too much freedom, we set about with diligence to find ways to bind ourselves again. Personal preferences become policy. Self-revelation becomes reason for restriction. Fear wins the day.

Living and breathing are symbols God gave us to let us experience something of what freedom is, but life, real life, comes from him and through him. Still, he knows how we are. When he raised Lazarus from the dead, he knew. Lazarus will be back. So will you and so will I. So Jesus himself didn't remove the man's graveclothes. He called him from the tomb, summoned spirit back to decaying body, restored the components for life, and watched Lazarus obey the command to Come forth!

But then Jesus turned to Lazarus' friends with a charge: Unbind him and let him go free.

We have to keep freeing each other. We have to keep reminding one another that we have been freed, that we are covered, that we can't be lost again. We have to keep unbinding each other. Or else our lives, though still not lost from the Father's hand, can be pictures of such tragedy. And as Jesus raised Lazarus and then commanded his unbinding, so also he wants us to live abundantly, not bound.

Speaking of tragedy, of being left bound reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne's protagonist (I suppose that's how we are to think of him) in the short story The Minister's Black Veil. The man elected to lead a flock could not for all his life believe that God's grace was really for him, in this very day, in this life. And so horrified was he of his own unspoken sin, that he covered his face with a black veil. As life went on about him, he refused to lift the veil. And it ate away at his life, a life he chose of loneliness, because he could not believe the power of Christ was great enough to walk with him, with others, in the day to day.
Thus, from beneath the black veil, there rolled a cloud into the sunshine, an ambiguity of sin or sorrow, which enveloped the poor minister, so that love or sympathy could never reach him.

Love or sympathy could never reach him, it says. He chose to maintain a superficial level of relationship with his flock, even his beloved, rather than let the light into his box of darkness. He clung instead to being bound to his sin, instead of letting his friends unbind him so that he could go free. Was it because he was simply worse than they? No. Even the minister, the one who delivered the word of God to others, for all his outward goodness, he simply could not grasp grace.

Dell Tackett says in The Truth Project that one cannot open up a box of darkness and have it overcome the light. No. Light enters into the darkness when it is opened. Light wins! It is dark inside a closet. But if you open the door, even just a crack, light floods in and overtakes the darkness. It is not the other way around.

But addictive people that we are, we can't believe it for long. We're so skeptical, accustomed to the "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" mantra. Grace can't be that big a deal. I still have the same old junk. I've got to cover it up and maintain it and polish it on Saturdays to keep up the best I can do. And that becomes our addiction. Return to being bound.

The musical artist Gotye sings, You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness. It's scientifically true, actually. Peptide receptors in the cells of our bodies grow and reproduce to respond to the type of hormones our bodies produce. Make a lot of happy ones, you'll have more happy receptors. So when your happy hormones start to run out, your body will literally crave more happiness, prompting you, perhaps, to phone a friend, or sing a song, or write an encouraging note, or go out dancing, or whatever floats your boat. But if you make a lot of sad or guilty or frightened hormones, those peptide receptors will flourish to receive and deal with the results of those emotions. And when they get hungry again, they want more sadness, more fear. You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness. But it is still a pattern that can be broken with effort and commitment, or at least made better. I'm discovering this. There is freedom to be found, even from profound grief, loneliness, and heartbreak. Even from the misery of knowing who I really am.

But first we must find victory (or at least some control) over that willful desire to maintain superficiality that prevents the unbinding. A willfull loneliness. For some of us, its an argumentative nature: I made my rules and by golly, I'm going to live by them! Self-righteous pride and saving face can become more important than even our own goals and contentment being met. For others, it can be a concocted piety. I'm supposed to deny myself, so I can be sure I keep on suffering here. I deserve nothing better. Others of us identify ourselves with our sin. Oh, woe is me. I'm too corrupt to be unbound. Or too hurt. We might identify ourselves with our pain (mea culpa).

And I think at the heart of all that, is our desire to not need grace. Because knowing grace really answers it all. Everything. The most important thing I've found in breaking that addiction of returning to my chains is always the same thing: believing grace. Believing the Spirit of adoption. (As a tangential aside, I will offer that sometimes I have been envious of children who were adopted--specifically chosen by their parents. What better picture is there of the kind of love God gives us? Did you ever have someone tell you they chose you, with no DNA in common, no bloodline, to be at the level of family? That means they wanted YOU for you. That's how God loves. He can't be scandalized away from us. He knows exactly who we are, and chooses us anyway. That's the Spirit of adoption.)

I've been reading today, because I'm home sick, and it's miserable. But even in sickness is this little mercy: time to read uninterrupted, whatever I want. And what I want is Three Free Sins by Steve Brown. Because my peptide receptors are demanding more and more of the certainty of knowing grace, and Steve finally got it. As an old man, he wrote a book about the futility of his life spent trying to make rules for what obedience ought to look like, and promoting his own piety, and expecting others to meet his set standards and rules. Chains upon chains upon chains. And then he realized that he was just following his addictions.

He says, and I love this because I know this of myself, Christians, by and large, are neurotic about purity, obedience, and holiness. [As if we even really knew what any of those things meant! and yet, we focus so much on our actions by our own definitions!] It is probably the main reason we're not very pure, obedient, and holy. And in order to maintain our 'witness' [quotes mine], we have learned to fake it.

Why?

Because we don't believe grace. We still can't buy this deal. It's too good to be true. Done for me? Forever? For certain? Can't be lost? And it's not all about what I do any more? Bind me again! I want it to be about what I do! scream the peptide receptors of self-righteousness.

What is this grace anyway? It's a word we use so much that we may forget how total and overarching it is. I've even heard a pastor friend say grace is such a big concept that we humans ought not speak of offering it to one another. It's so big, ONLY God can offer it.

I think that is an appropriate expression of reverence for the uniqueness of grace. I still think you and I can try, just like we toddle along after our Lord, to offer our best efforts of grace one to another, as we seek to speak the truths that unbind, as we seek to be like our Lord in offering forgiveness and compassion. But we may never be able to hit the big GRACE thing, because we are finite and faulty, and we just don't have the same raw materials to work with.

You see, Grace is absolute certainty. It is certainty that no matter how much you may have to hide behind your own dark veil, you really, truly are already OK. It's done. It's good. You have right standing that can never, ever, no matter what you think you're still clinging to, or possibly capable of, NEVER be lost. It's cemented there for eternity. God loves you. You are his. Period. It's more than cemented. Even concrete is going to crumble away one day but your right standing with God, if you've received his grace (and he's offering) will never alter, shift, diminish, lessen, or fade away. It's not an insurance policy. It is already paid out. It can't be taken back.

Light came into the darkness, and overcame it. That's the way it works. It's science. It's fact. It's grace. The yoke has been lifted in the very real sense. What? You still feel it there? Well so do I. But that doesn't mean a thing. God doesn't see it. To him, it's gone. Dealt with.

I think we get deceived into thinking that we aren't really free if we don't feel healed. So we put back on the chains and start working again at trying to heal ourselves until we FEEL better. We convince ourselves it's karma. I didn't really do everything right yet, so God's not blessing me with liberation. I must do this thing in a "more godly" way, and then he'll bless me.

Maybe, instead, God has us right where he wants us, because he wants us with him. Pastor Stuart Mizelle says that 1 John 1:7 (But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin) tells us how to keep moving forward without having to wear our own dark, separating veils, our own chains, our own self-righteousness. Walking with Christ does illuminate our dreadful condition. When the light falls on our sin, it exposes it. We want to cover ourselves. It is our fleshly, self-protective response. Hide me! Veil me! Let me earn my way out of this!

But Stuart says no. Just see it. And acknowledge: I see it there, Father. Thank you for Jesus. Accept the grace that says, EVEN with that in your makeup, God loves you still. And you are permanently, perfectly his. Your acknowledgement that the sin is there, and your acknowledgement that he alone is God who can deal with it, and not you, is enough. Even if you don't yet feel better, it's gone. You're safe. So go. Have fellowship one with another. Do what your hand finds to do, and do it with your might. Fear not. Unbind someone else. Stand firm, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery, beloved.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"I can't carry it for you...but I can carry you!"






Samwise Gamgee, always the loyal, faithful friend, told his exhausted and over-tried companion Frodo Baggins, regarding the trial placed on him, “I can’t carry it for you. But I can carry you.”

There is the literal carrying, and on rare occasions, we get to do that. Think of Forrest and Bubba. But it’s the figurative we all can relate to.

U2 camped on it in their song One—obligation or privilege? Option or responsibility? It’s a very real, rather tumultuous, utterly committed picture of relationship. We get to carry each other, carry each other.

Today someone I love is hurting. Waiting. Wondering. How can I carry her?

I can’t relieve the burden for her. I can’t carry it for her. Can I lessen her other life obligations somehow? Not easily, and not always a good approach. Busyness, neededness, regularity, consistency are often a means of coping in hardship.

I can listen, yes, if that’s what she needs. The offer stands. I’m here if needed. But what more?

Not too long ago, in a heart-to-heart email exchange, a friend told me of how she had carried another in intense hardship. Her very close friend was battling cancer. Part of the fight included a double mastectomy—a life-saving necessity. But that didn’t end her battle. She still had to face surgical recovery and further treatment. Staying alive moment by moment was her focus. And so my friend took the mourning of the physical loss upon herself. While the one in ongoing trial could not stop to mourn her own loss, her friend could. Our mutual friend couldn’t carry the trial for her; but it was absolutely appropriate that the loss should be mourned, and so she carried that portion for her. In a way, I think that is like carrying her. “Let me take this part as you carry on with the urgent at present.”

I don’t know that I would have thought specifically to do that. I think that kind of heart prompting comes from a true concern for the other person—a closeness that lets the unspoken need be recognized—and from a source outside ourselves.


Friday, October 18, 2013

How Do We See Miracles?

Galatians 3: 1-6
 1O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.  2Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?  3Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?  4Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?  5Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

I have a very hard time believing in mere coincidences. I can’t accept that events which occur and plant themselves before our eyes as noteworthy and remarkable can be dismissed as meaninglessness and chance. But still, I probably don’t use the word “miracle” very often. It seems to me something that should be used sparingly, like “hero,” or “despair,” or cilantro. Be sure you need it before you use it.

But I do believe in miracles, and I do believe they come directly from the hand of a personal God, and that they work into individual lives in dramatic, “in the moment” ways, even while they ripple out, maybe invisibly, into the greater work he is doing in history.

So after hearing today’s sermon, I could hardly consider it a coincidence that I had been asked to reflect on this one for the church blog. God knows what he is up to, even if I can’t see it very clearly.

I was particularly thankful for the pastor's explanation of the three approaches in modern thought to miracles: Cessationist, Continuationist, and Analogous. As he predicted, most of us have heard of, whether by formal name or not, both of the first two positions. But the “third way” comes into play here, and hearing it named was new to me—though it is where I think I fit best.

I was never at home in either the Cessationist or Continuationist camps. I accept that the scriptures are complete, and so I agree with the first position in that regard. Everything we need to know about God's work and how it brings us to salvation is in the book already.

But in my own personal experience, I have seen too many things I cannot call coincidences to accept that God does not still act in some regard, supernaturally, outside of the normal order of things as we expect it.
The description of the Analogous position is satisfying to me: God is still involved. He still turns the king’s heart like a watercourse and reaches into my life to touch with healing, or presence, or provision in ways I cannot explain away as the workings of an impersonal universe. But it isn’t new revelation.

It is instead affirmation of the revelation the Bible has already given. It is the work of the Holy Spirit continuing to testify to all that the apostles, and Christ himself, and the prophets, and the God who took his people by the hand and led them out of Egypt have been saying all along: I AM is with you.

And I need that affirmation. I have a chronic case of spiritual amnesia. I hear it’s a plague among believers, and I am absolutely infected. I have no excuse. I know his voice, and I’ve seen the physical miracles in my own life so many times. Evidence as clear as manna falling from heaven.

When we were newlyweds, God clearly met me before I, in my seedling faith, had even thought to ask him. I was paying household bills and found we were $90 short of all that was due, with no paycheck for either of us coming for weeks yet. I remember sitting at our tiny kitchen table fretting. Just fretting. Not praying. Not asking him for help. I was living the naturalist then: We don’t have it. My pristine credit is about to get a black mark. Oh woe is me, what shall I ever do? And then the phone rang. I mean it. Right then, the phone rang. I wish I could say with smug piety that I had prayed and God answered, but that isn’t honest. I didn’t pray. He still came.

A local businessman who was an acquaintance was on the phone. He owned a property less than a half mile from our house and he was also in charge of maintenance for his church’s property. His lawn care guys had spontaneously quit on him, and both properties needed to be mowed ASAP. Could Bill just load up his mower and quickly run over to both and mow the grass to make it presentable? He’d be glad to pay and his budget was . . . wait for it . . . $90. Exactly. Oh you of little faith? Why do you still doubt?

I’ve held a tiny, beautiful newborn in my arms and listened while her pediatrician counted off the assortment of symptoms she had: double inguinal hernia, hypercalcemia, failure to thrive, stellate irises, upturned nose, narrow chin, small stature, heart murmur. They ticked off identical to a checklist for a frightening genetic disorder called Williams syndrome. You’d better believe I prayed that time. And miraculously, over the next few months, I saw those symptoms and the possible diagnosis just evaporate. Miraculous healing? Or no-less-miraculous revelation that it was not ever her condition at all, despite the great weight of evidence suggesting it was?

I’ve seen another of my babies, who was predicted not to live, pull a ventilator tube out of her own lungs when just a few hours old and proceed to thrive against all expectations. I’ve known what it is to experience the mercy of my believing grandmother passing into the Lord’s presence while I was on my way to give her the worst news a mother could ever hear: that her youngest, her baby girl, was on her way to that same place as well. I consider it a perfectly timed act of the loving, merciful Holy Spirit that she never had to hear those words, that I never had to speak them to her, and that in her blessed passing, my own suffering mother was released from her need to “hang on for Mama’s sake,” and was able to go as well just 36 hours later.

I see in all those things a miraculous provision of physical needs. And I know: Our God is with us. Yet even so, I forget. A week later, a month later, I do need to be reminded again. I forget too the spiritual preparation the Spirit has done before each of those events too. My presumed self-sufficiency in the first example needed to be addressed. And he did it so lovingly. Rather than run us into financial ruin to show me my need for him, he let me think myself sufficient, momentarily showed me the falsehood in it, and immediately provided. He entered with power and I wasn’t even looking for him at all in that scenario. But I learned. He’s there, even when I’m not noticing.

And oh, how he prepared me for the birth of Jane, with all her many issues then. It is no coincidence that for most of two years prior to Jane’s arrival, my older daughter would bring me one and only one book to read to her, over and over and over again: The Baby in the Basket—a very young version of the story of baby Moses. Sometimes the message has to come simply and repeated until it sinks in. I read that story at least three times a week for two straight years. I read it to her from Exodus as well, so she would know all the details. Every baby doll in our house was named Moses. But the character that I drew closest to was Jochebed, the baby’s mother. Even before I found out that my next child might be seriously ill, the Spirit spoke to me through that mom, from millennia ago. I had wrestled deeply alongside the mother who had to surrender her beloved infant—no ordinary child—to the current of God’s will, knowing that holding too tightly would mean his certain doom. I had come to praise God for doing that which we all as parents long for him to guarantee: that if we truly do give them to him, he will give them back. He had prepared me spiritually for surrender. He’s there, even before I think I need him.

At a time of sheer panic, with a baby seemingly dying inside me, and me, strapped to a gurney in complete helplessness, I was calmed by the word of God’s power speaking within me, assuring me of his presence and activeness in even that desperate situation. Preparing me spiritually for what was about to happen, when I would see his power enacted physically as well.

My core issue, at the heart of my spiritual amnesia, is to forget that God has set his love upon me permanently. I am much more prone to believe that I am unloved and unlovable, that God will lose interest in me and cast me aside. It is my lack of faith. It is calling him a liar. Regardless of our position on miracles, Pastor Dave tells us there are two undeniable miracles every believer in any time will experience (even me): 1) Faith in Jesus guarantees a raised soul from the dead, eternally and forever in his presence. That is a supernatural and miraculous work. And 2) Every believer, after leaving this planet, will experience a complete transformation that makes us like Christ. That too is a supernatural and miraculous work.
That is the truth of our common faith.

The presence of the Holy Spirit with us now is proof of those two miracles to come. He is already here, acting, working, reminding me of those truths. Every “lesser” miracle I’ve seen has illustrated his presence with me. I am not abandoned. I am not left an orphan. The miracles of daily life don’t give me new insight into what God is doing in history. But they do affirm and remind me of what I knew in the beginning, when I first believed. They refresh my love and affection for him, which fades like the flower of the field in the tedium and turmoil of this life, when I am so focused on my own wants and needs and plans instead of on him. They testify to the “already” condition—that he is with me always, even to the very end of the world—and look ahead to the “not yet,” those two guaranteed miracles we will know once the time is accomplished.

No, I don’t believe in coincidences. My God is with me, the Great Physician is acting through his Holy Spirit to heal me progressively of this blight of spiritual amnesia by never leaving my presence. There is a balm in Gilead—even for the weak and faithless such as I.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

When Doves Cry



How could you just leave me standing
alone in a world that's so cold?

Does that sound familiar? I mean, apart from the fact that it is a lyric to a popular 80s song. Does it sound like the cry of a human heart, maybe even your own at some point in time? It's familiar to me.

The world is cold, and we're all still trying to find our place in it for our time here. It pulls in so many ways. It tells us so many partial truths. It leads this way and that, and never, never brings safety or satisfaction. Don't we all know it, deep inside?

I wrote a few days back about the lack of understanding we often have for one another, and how for believers, even where we have differences in our perspective, we're all still covered by grace. (That post is here.)

We need grace so much, even those of us who have received it from God. We still need it from one another. Do we forget? Do we forget how desperate we were for it when it came? Do we forget that those who don't yet know it are standing alone in a world that's so cold?

I know at one time I held a smug satisfaction that somehow I had found answers. I was convinced that I was good. Had it all together. I could look down, then, on those who weren't there yet. I could see their specks even around my own arrogant plank. I am thankful that through a number of different (and some catastrophic) events, God took me down on that position. He peeled me raw and showed me anew my own need. He showed me anew his mercies, and this not of myself, so that I could no longer boast. He opened my eyes to my poor state, and the poor state of others around me. Standing, alone in a world that's so cold.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, he says. Poor in spirit. If poverty is the absence of wealth, then the poor in spirit may just be those who are not indwelt with the powerful Holy Spirit--the ones standing alone, for the presence of the Spirit removes that solitude in a way that binds us eternally and inseparably to our Maker and Savior. I was poor in spirit when he came to me.

And it is because of his mercies (Romans 12:1) that I can see my poverty being met by the one and only thing that works: his own riches.

When Jesus looked on the masses of humanity, though he can see in a way none of us can, he didn't see their filth and turn away in disgust. He didn't comment on their provocative behavior, their greed, their flaunting of material wealth, their confidence in themselves. He saw their poverty. He saw sheep without a Shepherd. He saw neediness. And he filled it--practically with bread that multiplied in his own hand to meet every need with abundance, but we all know that was just a symbol of the reality of the soul-needs he meets in intimate communion with those who were once his enemies--the unfaithful people he made into a people, he elevated to Bride, to joint heirs with himself. You who were not my people shall be called My People.

I think it's significant that in the Bible, the dove represents the poor, the poor in spirit, and it also represents peace, provision, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, descending from heaven. The dove, you may know, was the sacrifice of choice for those who could not afford mammals at offering time. Jesus himself was ritually covered by the bird sacrifice when his parents went to the Temple after his birth. The Man of Sorrows.

When God made his covenant with Abraham and the animals representing the two parties were presented, they were cut apart, but it was God himself who passed between the pieces to say, "If this covenant is broken, then this is what will be: that I, God himself, will be divided and suffer the punishment of death." And that is what happened. The triune God separated himself. The Trinity was rent, and one Person of it took the death penalty. But note: even looking ahead from that point in Genesis, the dove at the Abrahamic covenant was not cut up. It was not rent. It was simply spread open at the heart.

From that point forward, the sacrificial system recognized this. The sacrifice of the poor was not to be broken, merely opened up.

We are the doves, we poor in spirit. We who understand our impoverished state and cry out for mercy, and he does not break us. He broke for us, and we respond, by opening our hearts wide and offering that openness to receive him.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, because of the mercies of God, we offer ourselves, our bodies, as living sacrifices. Living! No longer alone in a world that's so cold. We so need that grace.

Can we then look out at the masses, can we see them that way too? As doves crying, poor in spirit, but still at a loss for what they need?

If Jesus, who had every right to condemn us for our lost state, chose not to bring blanket condemnation but instead to come to save, with mercy and compassion and affirming, unquestionable love, can we do the same, even for those whose style of crying out makes us uncomfortable?

I decided recently that I was going to choose not to be a picketer, nor a bumper-sticker preacher. I want, instead, to be one who puts an arm around a shoulder. It's hard. I have to remind myself frequently of the position I want to take, the one I think is the more appropriate response. That smug satisfaction wants to come back. It keeps creeping up and I have to remember God's mercies, and my own poverty-stricken state, and reject it. It's harder for me in some areas than others, but compassion for the lost or for the seeking or the wounded is growing.

I can't say for certain what all the right actions are in every situation. But venting frustration at what I consider to be a flaw in another person is unlikely to bring that person the sustenance he or she needs to be filled. Instead, I hope to learn to see those who ______ (fill in the blank here with the action that irritates you most: try to get something for nothing; show cleavage or belly buttons on Facebook; elevate themselves by cutting down others; ignore the needs of friends to pursue their own gain; etc.), as the needy ones, declaring that need in a way that lets someone know, "I have a hole in my heart! My identity is not complete! I need! I need!"

This is what it sounds like when doves cry.


Monday, October 7, 2013

The Land of Tears

"It is such a secret place, the land of tears," wrote Antoine de St. Exupery.
He's best known, most likely, as the author of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), a small but profound book on the search for a friend.

But he was more than just a book author. He was also a pilot, and he knew firsthand terrifying weather conditions, life-threatening circumstances, and hostile societies too. Though Le Petit Prince has a sweetness and naivete to it, there's also a lot in there of the pain caused by loneliness, being used and abused, having hopes crushed, the constancy and futility of work, and the emptiness of materialism.

It's such a human story. Is it surprising that a man who had such a rugged, adventurous career was also able to write poignantly about love, longing, and even grief? And if it isn't surprising, then why is it such a secret place, this land of tears?

We seem to recognize, universally, that to be human is to know grief. And yet, grief remains one of the most private experiences known to humankind.

Why is something so universally experienced also so uncomfortable being shared?

It is a secret place, the land of tears. And perhaps that's why that place seems to be so permanent. I don't know about you, but I'm finding that, with so very much to grieve, I may need to start picking out curtains for the house of mourning. I never thought I'd be here so long.

We're instructed to rejoice with those who rejoice and grieve with those who grieve. Do you feel another's grief? I think I can tell, when someone really feels it with me. It's a tie that reaches to clasp hands across that secret place. What does that look like?

Once, many years ago, I witnessed what should have been an avoidable car wreck. I was following a friend out of her neighborhood, since I didn't know the way. It was a couple of weeks before her wedding, and I had stopped by in passing through town to help her prepare the birdseed bags. As she was leading me out to the interstate, her car dipped into a valley in front of me. From my higher vantage point, I could see, careening toward her, obviously out of control, another vehicle gliding across the center line. There was no way to stop it. I saw the two cars collide head-on. It was a horror to watch followed by several more moments of horror while I dashed toward her, watching what I thought was smoke billow from her car.

She was OK. Her heart was badly bruised from impact with her own rib cage, and at her wedding, bruises showed front and back through the exposed skin of her neck, torso, and shoulders--anything exposed through the elegant styling and lace of her gown. My job at the scene was to keep her safe from the dazed, bleeding, broken-nosed driver of the other car, who wanted to paw and fawn at her in apology, smearing his unknown and possibly tainted blood all over my likewise dazed and disoriented sweet friend.

After knowing she was safe and with her own family, I drove myself home--another hour and a half drive--running the experience through instant replay after instant replay in my mind. The next day, I told a co-worker what had happened. I told the story journalistically. Matter of fact. But she could tell it had reached into me, shaken me, left me moved. She sank to the floor of my office and put her own face into her hands. I realized that tears were running down her own cheeks.

"You must have been so frightened," she said, "seeing it happen, not being able to stop it, not sure if she was alive or dead. I'm so sorry you went through that."

She was crying for ME. And that opened it up for me too. I could then weep and tremble and let out the pain of just what she was feeling in my place, which I had stuffed down, into that secret place, that lonely place, that land of tears which I had deemed too private to share.

What is this empathy that allows such a connection between two people, and what power might there be in it, if we really did grieve with those who grieve? "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted," says the promise. If we do not mourn, then, but keep it secret and hidden, will the comfort come?

I must say that the thought of making that secret land of tears even more public frightens me. Given the pain of this life, in all its many facets, what sort of pump might we be priming? But then I wonder also, would the comfort rise to match the mourning, and truly, would we know what it is to have our sackcloth turned to dancing?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Can't We All Just Get Along? (The Answer to Christian Cannibalism)

You've probably heard the term "Christian cannabilism." It gets applied to situations in which one believer or group of believers has disagreement with another individual or group, and rather than building one another up and affirming the positive, one side (or both sides) tries to consume the other. Left unchecked, all manner of schisms can occur, from lost friendships to rifts in congregations to even divisions in denominations. The point of this blog entry is not to argue that there is never a reason to divide. But it is to point out that maybe if we could try to understand one another before reaching that point, then perhaps it would either happen less or happen less painfully.

First, we start with the foundation of how we know and relate to the world. As our God is triune in nature, he often designs triads into our existence and experience, and this relationship we have with our physical world and life in it can be placed in one of those triads.

The drawing below shows that each individual person has a point from which he or she views the world. This is me, in the existential position--I exist. From that point of existence, I look outward to everything that touches my life. The world and all my decisions and choices in it: what I value, how I parent, which job I take, who I befriend, whether I save or spend or share. Everything lies before me and is seen from the point of my existence.
 
But I view all those things through a triadic structure. And here's where it gets interesting.

There are two elements that I am in relationship to, which affect HOW I view the world and all my decisions I must make in it. Coming down from above, from outside this created world, is revelation. It comes with authority from God. This is scripture primarily, but also general revelation and the revelation of conscience. Across from me is the situational component--the life situation, the physical world and the time as well as space I inhabit. This is the culture I live in, complete with the conventions of the day, the traditions the culture upholds, the story of the history that brought this culture to this point in time and space. As I look at the world and the decisions and choices for me to make in it, my view will be shaped by both the culture I live in (and its conventions and traditions) and the revelation of God.

In an ideal scenario, there would be a very easy, balanced view of that world which we all commonly held. So this arrow here (I won't scare you non-math folks off by calling it a vector, as author Dr. Esther Meek did) shows that view. Bisecting perfectly the midpoint between revelation and culture, one might make decisions and choices that gave equal weight to God's revelation and to a (hopefully trustworthy and on-target) set of conventions and cultural norms and expectations.


But they say "There's no such thing as an average citizen." And that's the rub that causes Christian cannibalism. Because there's also no such thing as an average Christian. In my case, for instance, I'm always going to be just a little bit unconventional. I'm not outrageously so, but I am never completely satisfied with the status quo unless I've evaluated it to own it myself, with confidence that it's consistent with a real Christian calling for how to live. I also tend to expect that everyone else has done the same evaluation. So I'm far more likely to crank my view upward, emphasizing more the revelational than the cultural (even with all its historical support, or its reactionary support). But as it turns out, that isn't always very popular in conservative communities.

 In fact, I've met all these responses as a result of that perspective. Some are perplexed, worried, not sure what to make of such an emphasis. Some get angry and feel the need to put a stop to anything not as conservative as the way things have always been viewed or done. Others are downright scandalized and shocked. It's an uncomfortable place to be.

 On the other hand, some people (far less likely to be me) trust that the culture they live in really must be the most correct. (I am referring here mostly to the conservative Christian community, since that is the only one much concerned with approaching life through this triad.) As those look at the world and their choices, they are content to let the familiar culture and its norms which they know and operate in guide them. They expect that the conventions and traditions they were brought up in are biblical, and therefore the right way to approach whatever lies before them (and others).

 The result of being conventional, then, is that a few of the community may be pleased with you. And pretty much everyone else doesn't notice a thing. They go on about their own life-making, with a blissful apathy as you fit in well with their expectations. It's freeing, in a sense, because the worry, anger, and scandal is off the table. And no one really likes to be negatively the center of attention, right, even if there's something good to come of it in the end? If I do what everyone expects me to do, I can coast through this thing called life, right? Right?

 Well... maybe some can. I, however, do not feel God's pleasure when I take that approach. I hear his voice sometimes above the conventions of the Christian community. I hear him wanting me to wake up. I hear him telling me that being satisfied with the way so-and-so does things isn't the calling he has for me.

"What is it to you?" he said to Peter, when Peter wanted to know John's story. "You follow me." 

And so the bunch of us may set our arrows at any point along that line of being informed and guided, some more by biblical revelation and authority, and some more by culture and accepted convention. And we're a big hodge-podge, then, of how we approach this Christian life. And over the course of a life, one whose arrow is cranked far over in one direction may find God moving his perspective to a different focus.

And you know what? That's really not dangerous. Or evil. It's not sinful to be more given to question tradition and search the scriptures for the heart of the truth, even if it changes how you relate. It's also not sinful to do the best you can in this life, leaning on the framework set up by others of the faithful while you are weak, or young in your faith, or just uncertain at times, taking the crumbs that fall from the Master's table to nourish you until he gives a Feast.

As long as the focus is somewhere between those points of revelation and situation, you're on the chart. It's when we get outside of those points that things get dicey. Crank your view up too high, so that you completely reject any influence of the physical world and the situation you are placed in, and you're in the range of the radical zealots (which occur in almost--possibly all--religions as well as those who claim no religion). Radical zeal that cares nothing for the community in which it is placed is what results in terrorism and anarchy.

On the other hand, tradition that will not be informed by genuine revelation--entire revelation, the whole of God's merciful plan--results in hyper-legalism. Merciless rule-making with concern only for doing things the way WE, the powerfully self-justified, do things. There's an ethnocentricity, arrogance, and judgmental piety that comes in here when the culture trumps the humility of the God who enters the physical world to go to the cross on its behalf.

Both positions are damned.

 And both of those positions should strike fear in us, because they are truly dangerous and spawn nothing of any earthly or eternal good.

But here comes the real kicker, for me, in this triad. Revelation came through evidence in creation, through the given scriptures, and through the embodiment of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Revelation was always meant to come directly to the individual as well as to the whole of the culture. God enters in for the purpose of transforming me and the time/place/community I live in, and to unite to himself and to one another, and to reconcile (bring peace) between himself and individuals, between himself and a people, and between individual-to-individual relationships. Revelation is FOR the real world. It's for me and it's for my culture.

And that in itself is evidence of the biggest, really the only, answer here to Christian cannibalism.

It's GRACE.

God did not have to speak into his creation. He did not have to enter into it. He did, though.

And for ALL, me, you, others, who believe, no matter where our perspective falls on that bond that connects his revelation to our world, we are all covered, equally, by his grace. Grace applies to every single decision, choice, even error (yes--even in the times when our journeys deviate off course--"When you turn again, Peter, encourage the brothers") we make, as long as we are approaching our world and everything in it through that triadic structure, and not outside the lines.

So if my attempts and your attempts are good enough for God, shouldn't they also be good enough for each other? Am I a stricter judge than God? Can we not wait patiently enduring in love with one another for our time here? Can we stop chowing down on one another because I hear the Holy Spirit calling me to live this way--a bit outside another's conventional comfort zone--and you hear the history of your Christian culture telling you to hunker down where you are, the way it's always been--even if I might want to see you burst into passionate response to the Savior and be willing to step out of the boat onto the surface of the water? I mean, really--only Peter, of all the disciples, actually stepped out of the boat. Were the others any less safe in God's grip because they stayed on board? Or were they justified at all if they chose to judge Peter for trying?

Can't we all just get along?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Persistence of Memory



Are you one who escapes into your thoughts or into a daydream when life gets very hard? When you feel overwhelmed? Grieved? Do you have a “safe” place, a memory, something that tugs at your heart with that longing that C.S. Lewis gave the name of “Joy”?

And if you are one of those, as I am, do the thoughts, the memories, the visions, and the longings catch you buy surprise sometimes?

I was driving on the interstate late yesterday afternoon. The busiest traffic time of day. The zipping in and out, starting, stopping, bigger vehicles bearing down, entering, exiting felt a lot like the chaos of that day.

I was leaving one event for another. (The whole day was like that.) I had just left one child who had suffered a deep (for her stage of life) disappointment and even mild physical injury. I was going to a place where I would meet up with another child, who had been away from me the entire, very long day, and she would wait another hour at least before I would be free to deliver her back home. Yet another is in transition, and the confirmation for that came yesterday, the details kick in today.

Several individuals yesterday met me with grace and kindness. One in particular shines into my life like a ray of light handed directly from the Father’s hand whenever I cross paths with her. Even before running into her yesterday, God had pricked my heart to think of her constant kindness and optimism toward others. I had already given thanks for her, then he put her into my path, so that I could give thanks to her as well. Yet another person had showed kindness, but revealed a misunderstanding about me that I am powerless to clear up. It is difficult to change the perceptions of people who don’t really know your heart, and reflect only their own into and back out of you. It’s difficult to change that—even if we are called to do so, and I’m not sure I am called to try. Might that be seeking revenge, in a way?

I have, of late, come to think that, even as a non-violent person, I am not off the hook from the Romans 12: 19—Beloved, never avenge yourselves. Jesus was labeled and misunderstood, and he didn’t speak back. He didn’t have to. In a way, I think my deep desire to set records straight and make others see my perspective, when they are not my close beloved, is a sort of revenge, isn’t it? It’s the same idea: You harm me by misunderstanding and misrepresenting me, therefore I must change you and your thinking. You must see me my way.   

You hear it, don’t you? Verbal, mental, intellectual vengeance.     I do.    God, have mercy on me, a sinner.    

Understanding one another comes in relationship. Without relationship—loving, tender, truth-seeking, committed relationship—one may not be able to press to be understood without it becoming a type of self-justifying vengeance. And so, I battled with myself in my thoughts on the way home. How to be loving in that situation? How to not assume the worst about the one who assumed about me, but how to open my mind and heart to consider that there’s some trauma that person has been shaped by which makes “the worst” in others the first option to assign? How to give something to drink to the thirsty, if the situation arises? And then the children: How to ease this one’s disappointment when she is already so hard on herself? How to affirm this one’s transition in a way that is all positive? How to keep relationship with one who is so on-the-go she’s rarely even with us anymore?

And then that place, that safe place, hit me. It was so tactile. I was on the verge of completely being washed overboard with the swirling thoughts, and my mind just flipped to that memory.

I was looking down at my own childhood feet. I was barefoot and bare legged. Skinny, bare feet, pink nails showing through the dusty-gray from the powdery, super-soft, sandy soil of the South Carolina midlands. And there was a rhythm. Step, step, step, kick. Step, step, step, kick. I was moving, not gently, but almost soaring, back and forth, back and forth.

And there was a scent. That soft, talc scent. From the round box with the huge powder puff. And the sound, a happy, joy-filled if sometimes off key and sometimes even shrill, singing.

I was in my Grandmama’s swing, under the mock orange trees, and she was there. Soft and loud and joyous.

I can’t tell you how many hours I spent in that swing. I could walk or run from my own house to hers, past the maple tree now almost consumed by mistletoe, around the tight curve through the pecan grove where we some years gathered enough nuts for us kids to fund our own Christmas shopping, past the always-threatening-to-fall-down barn, the parked John Deere left alone so long a tree had sprouted between the frame and tires, under the zip line, and to the swing beneath the mock oranges. If the weather was nice, she always found time to swing. To sit and talk and swing and sing.

And I was safe there. Safe and happy and carefree. I know her life wasn’t easy. She lived through a lot. Lost siblings to death in childhood. A deadly influenza epidemic. The Depression. Wars that took or utterly changed loved ones. She never had much, materially, but enough. Widowed almost two decades. She worked and kept a clean and tidy house and her groceries stocked and her friends fed. Every day had Bible and devotion time, all that work, and still, somehow, time to visit. Time to share herself. Time to let me in.

How is it that when life was carefree enough to drop in on her at any time I had free, I didn’t need it then? But now, probably 35 years later, in the chaos, it’s that place, by her side, in her life’s rhythm, that calls to me as my safe place in the world?

But it’s gone. She’s gone. The swing is gone. The mock oranges are gone. 

The child is gone.

O lost! And by the wind grieved. Ghost!

We’re promised a time to come when every man sits in the shade of his own fig tree. I wonder if I can request a mock orange. And a swing. I wonder if she has one already.

Step, step, step, kick!