Saturday, February 18, 2017

Wild Streams: An Analogy for the Church

I felt led to take the family down to Spokane Falls last Sunday in order to see what the Falls could teach us about "Church" and the ways God works. The snows have begun to melt and the Spokane river is swollen as it rages through downtown Spokane.



video


As we listened and reflected, my son Samuel came up with this wise observation:

"Though the waters are wild and uncontrolled, they are contained within boundaries that have been formed over long periods of time."

Wow!

I thought of how the Trinitarian Life of God is gushing and ever-flowing, transforming disciples of Jesus and overflowing into the world around us. I thought of the variety of traditions that have tapped into this river over long periods of time. I thought of the wonderful life-giving wine in a variety of wineskins and I feel a sense of awe and humility. 

May our unity as God's people be that we drink from this wild stream together and not that we worry so much about the containers. As we gather together, we join a stream of Life that is far older than our particular tradition, stretching beyond time into the Eternal heart of God Himself.
"Today a mighty river of the Spirit is bursting forth from the hearts of women and men, boys and girls. It is a deep river of divine intimacy, a powerful river of holy living, a dancing river of jubilation in the Spirit, and a broad river of unconditional love for all peoples. As Jesus says, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.' (John 7:38)" (Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditiosn of Christian Faith, xv.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Some Thoughts on the Body and the Kingdom of God

A dear friend and I were recently discussing a statement I had given him regarding the role of the body in the Kingdom of God:
"I am God's will in the place and time where I currently am in my embodied self, holy and pleasing to him, bearer of the Kingdom of God in my body to those around me."

This statement brings together several key Scriptures regarding the body:

Rom 12:1-2
​ (cf. Rom 6:11-14)

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." (ESV)

Hebrews 10:5-7
​ (cf. Ps 40:6-8)​

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:

“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
    but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
    you were not pleased.
Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
    I have come to do your will, my God.’”
​ (NIV)​

My body is the place where my will is done
​.​
 
​Apart from
 the mind, 
​the body 
is the only realm I have direct control over. It is my 
​"​
power pack,
​"​
 my only faculty for directly affecting the world around me
​. Through my body, my kingdom relates to all other kingdoms. The body provides a physical boundary/border between persons, which is why physical and sexual abuse are so damaging to the soul - they are profound violations of personal kingdom.

We were created to have bodies surrendered to our 
​will
 under God and his goodness. When we surrender and are "aligned
​,​
" then the boundaries between my will/kingdom and God's will/kingdom begin to blur
​, mesh and interpenetrate​
. This is PRESENCE
​, and it takes a lifetime to develop (usually through much suffering!)​
. We bear in our bodies the presence of the Kingdom
​ of God​
 to the extent that they are surrendered to
​- and abiding in- ​
 
​Jesus 
and his will.
​ This is why, in practicing the presence of God, Frank Laubach learned to focus on doing the will of God every minute.​

"Although I have been a minister and a missionary for fifteen years, I have not lived the entire day of every day in minute by minute effort to follow the will of God. Two years ago a profound dissatisfaction led me to begin trying to line up my actions with the will of God about every fifteen minutes or every half hour. Other people to whom I confessed this intention said it was impossible. I judge from what I have heard that few people are really trying even that. But this year I have started out trying to live all my waking moments in conscious listening to the inner voice, asking without ceasing, “What, Father, do you desire said? What, Father, do you desire done this minute?” It is clear that this is exactly what Jesus was doing all day every day." (Frank Laubach, Letters by a Modern Mystic, p.6; entry for January 20, 1930).

One of my favorite quotes from Dallas Willard's Knowing Christ Today is relevant here:

"With these two preliminaries in place—and when they are in place we will certainly be aware that God is acting in us—we grow in our knowledge of Christ-with-us by, first of all, constant expectation of him in the place where we are, wherever that may be. “The sacrament of the present moment,” as it is sometimes called, is from the human side nothing but the invocation, expectation, and receptivity of God’s presence and activity where we are and in what we are doing at any given time. Then we steadily grow in graceful interactions with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They gradually take up all of our life into their trinitarian life (John 17:21–24)." (p.153)

​Further, the statement above alludes to the fact that the body can only be present to its surroundings; there is no past or future except what our minds introduce. The place and time that is currently occupied by my body (and interacting with my body) are the only conditions that exist in which to seek and find God's Kingdom, the only conditions in which I can taste and see, test, discern and prove.​

Monday, February 06, 2017

The Resolve of Vision

"God, I want to give You every minute of this year. I shall try to keep You in mind every moment of my waking hours. I shall try to let my hand write what You direct. I shall try to let You be the speaker and direct every word. I shall try to let You direct my acts. I shall try to learn Your language as it was taught by Jesus and all others through whom You speak - in beauty and singing birds and cool breezes, in radiant Christlike faces, in sacrifices and in tears. It will cost not only much, but everything that conflicts with this resolve." (Frank Laubach, Frank Laubach's Prayer Diary, 5.)
Two phrases from this luminous quote strike me:

"I want" (1x)
"I shall try" (5x)

Desire, born out of enticing vision, gives birth to intention and means. Commenting on the parables of Jesus, John Ortberg has said that "the mark of a transforming vision is its ability to elicit unforced desire." (See here for one version of this statement) We cannot just read a quote like the one above and "try" like Laubach did. We need to get behind the "try" and seek a vision that would naturally lead to such efforts.

From this statement, what would you say was Laubach's view of God? of himself? of the world?

How does this compare with your view(s)?

Spend some time in silence and solitude this week and allow your heart to mull over these things.

Lord Jesus, heal our vision. We are so narrow and shallow with our eyes. We only see what we want to see; we only see what will help us regain certainty, exert control and indulge comfort. Disrupt our lives so that we might entertain new thoughts, emotions, ideas and images. Let us linger over disappointment, suffering, mystery and beauty to see what they can teach us. Set us on fire with a vision of the nearness and goodness of your Kingdom such that we might live lives pleasing to you, lives that take on the epic qualities of your mind and heart.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Give Me Faith

"Give me faith now to believe that thou canst be all in all to me, according to my need, if only I renounce all proud self-dependence and put my trust in thee.

Forbid it, O Father, that the difficulty of living well should ever tempt me to fall into any kind of heedlessness or despair. May I keep it ever in mind that this human life was once divinely lived and this world once nobly overcome and this body of flesh, that now so sorely tries me, once made it into thy perfect dwelling place."

(John Baillie, Diary of Private Prayer)

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

My Heart Aches

A Journal entry from October 22, 2015

My heart aches
Lonely, thirsty sadness

On the brink of another 
loss of heart

As another dream 
slowly rips apart

I need a bigger and better story
than the one I currently inhabit.
"You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth,You will bring me up again.You will increase my greatness and comfort me again." (Psalm 71:20-21 ESV)
I am the son who ran
I am the son who stayed

Is this how Moses learned humility?
Is this how Joseph's blessedness got from his coat into his bones?

Lead me to a bush burning
Redeem my life from the pit.

They found in God
a story big enough to live!

Boundary lines beyond
The borders of their sorrow.

God-with-us: The Way, The Companion, The Comfort

The great ones learned to receive
obscurity, loneliness, and insignificance
as teachers and friends

I'd rather be ripped apart by love
than held together by what I can control.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Encounter at the Stable

I woke up this morning, grabbed some coffee and set myself before Psalm 80 as I prepared to enter silence and solitude. The repeated refrain was not lost on my slowly waking consciousness:
Restore us, Lord God Almighty;
    make your face shine on us,
    that we may be saved.
(Ps 80: 3, 7, 19 NIV)
 As I entered silence I was thinking of all that's been lost, broken, corrupted and ruined in my life. I felt the weight of all that still waits to be restored and redeemed. My automatic response to what's wrong and broken in my life has historically manifested itself in a sadness that overwhelms and stifles the soul. This "lethargic sadness" was heavy and covered everything.

Like black snow, lethargic sadness covers the landscape, sapping joy, hindering movement and choking the lungs. It's actually more like ash than snow. I experienced this "for real" when I was 10 years old. In May 1980 nearby Mt. St. Helens exploded and covered our Oregon neighborhood with 3-4 inches of ash. We had to wear masks outside for weeks, and the fire department had to come through to clean the streets with their fire hoses. The ash was so thick at times that mid-day was as black as night.

Two specific losses are close to my awareness. I think of the joy I used to experience as a young Christian in reading and study; now I can read only a few pages at a time without feeling weary, and only the "devotional" type of writing that helps me present myself to God. I also think of the joy and wonder I once felt in seeing snow fall; now my vision is too often clouded with overwhelming fear at having to drive in the stuff, after having repeatedly traumatic work experiences in having to drive in the stuff alone in the dark, without support.

Advent has been working on me, bringing my awareness before the stable and the wonder of a God-baby, and so this is what I brought to the stable this morning. I felt led to engage in an imaginary conversation, allowing my thoughts to fill the stable with symbolic meaning.

AT THE STABLE
I finally stumble into the cave they call a stable, summoned by God-knows-what. All I see is a baby in a manger, with a few unimpressive people hovering over it.
"I have come, Lord. I have brought everything I have - all that's been broken, lost and corrupted. I am laden down with darkness, Lord, and I have 12 camels outside with knees buckling with the rest of the bulk."
"I don't get it, Lord. A baby? How in the world can this be the redemption that I seek? How can this one restore all that's been lost? The locusts have eaten all the grass and all that's left in my life are barren brown hills, cloaked with ash."
I ask those nearby about the name of this child.

"Jesus," they answer, a common name which means "The Lord saves."
"Immanuel," which means "God-with us."
"This one, Lord? This one is to save us? I don't understand, but since I have no where else to take my caravan, I will wait and trust with what little trust I have left."
"I have heard the story of the three strange looking men who brought offerings fit for a King; my offering is much larger and far fouler! I have no other hope though, so I leave my entourage of corruption at your doorstep, little one, and I will wait."
As I wait, unable to really rest, I watch as the child grows and becomes a man with a tender and fierce face. He comes back to the stable and lays a hand on my tired and bent shoulder and says with a tear in his eyes,
"Thank you for your gift - you honor me beyond words!"
To my confusion and dismay, he speaks even more:
"Most people bring me their 'best' but their hearts remain far from me and I can do little for them. You have brought me your deepest heart, and so for you I can -and will- do much!"
"I will redeem what is broken, will restore what's been lost. I will do this by bringing your life - the life that is charred, torn and lost - into my Life. In my Life you will find peace, joy and lightness again. You can become a child again! You shall be whole and holy again, reigning at my side." 
"Continue to bring these offerings to me and we will live them together. I will then be able to immerse them - and increasingly, you - into the Life I share with my Father, who makes all things new!" 
"Look at your story, dear one. You will see that this is the case - much has already been redeemed, healed and restored! Don't lose heart over what remains broken, corrupt and lost. I and my Father will finish our work in you - restoring and redeeming everything - everything! that has been lost."
My response, trained by the wisdom of Mary:

"Yes, Lord, let it be to me as you say, according to your word. I belong to you."
______________

As I left the scene, with tears in my eyes, I turned to my first Advent reading of the day (Isaiah 61:1-4 which beautifully completed the experience:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
    that have been devastated for generations.
(NIV)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Lament Between the Paws: Walking with Aslan through Pain and Suffering - Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

Aslan and the Lost Boy
A young boy named Shasta has had a hard life. He was abandoned when he was very young and raised by a harsh fisherman. When he realizes he might be bought as a slave by a wealthy visitor, he decides to try and escape. The wealthy man’s horse happens to be a talking horse from Narnia, who convinces him that his homeland of Narnia will suit them both better than servitude. As they set out together, they encounter many dangers and trials as well as a few friends along the way. As this little band nears Narnia, they get separated, on the run from lions and enemy troops. By the time we catch up to Shasta, he is exhausted and nearing despair. It does not appear as if his life is turning out very well. He is being torn apart by his story, and he cannot keep it in much longer. If we listen closely, we might see lament at work and find ourselves in his story. Perhaps his story can give us renewed vision, intention and means[1] to engage in this ancient practice of lament as disciples of Jesus.

"I do think," said Shasta, "that I must be the most unfortunate boy that ever lived in the whole world. Everything goes right for everyone except me. Those Narnian lords and ladies got safe away from Tashbaan; I was left behind. Aravis and Bree and Hwin are all as snug as anything with that old Hermit: of course I was the one who was sent on. King Lune and his people must have got safely into the castle and shut the gates long before Rabadash arrived, but I get left out."

And being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks.[2]


Shasta is recounting his sorrows. Engaging in self-pity is often the first step toward lament. We allow ourselves to think about our suffering as something important. We give voice to what we’ve lived, if only in our own heads. It is very easy to get stuck at this point, wallowing in our sorrows and rehearsing the wounds of the past. We must often be frightened awake by something or someone outside of us, something that helps us consider a new interpretation.

What put a stop to all this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. And the Thing (or Person) was going so quietly that he could hardly hear any footfalls. What he could hear was breathing. His invisible companion seemed to breathe on a very large scale, and Shasta got the impression that it was a very large creature. And he had come to notice this breathing so gradually that he had really no idea how long it had been there. It was a horrible shock.

It darted into his mind that he had heard long ago that there were giants in these Northern countries. He bit his lip in terror. But now that he really had something to cry about, he stopped crying.[3]


Shasta has encountered something (or someone) more disturbing than all his pain. He is frightened awake to a larger world, which silences his tears in a way that reason could never do. At this point, Shasta knows little to nothing about Aslan, the Wild Lion of Narnia. His ignorance has opened him up to receive from Aslan the gift of his presence in a way that is unguarded and raw. This scene reminds us of Jesus coming alongside the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:14-35). Jesus shows up in disguise to allow the two disciples full vent to their grief. They are free to lament freely and to pour out their hearts precisely because they don’t recognize Jesus as Jesus. Had Shasta seen Aslan, he would have been too frightened to speak. Yet, he is frightened enough out of his wallowing and intrigued by the silent mass of a Being beside him. Finally the intrigue gives way to inquisitiveness and then to conversation.

The Thing (unless it was a Person) went on beside him so very quietly that Shasta began to hope he had only imagined it. But just as he was becoming quite sure of it, there suddenly came a deep, rich sigh out of the darkness beside him. That couldn't be imagination! Anyway, he had felt the hot breath of that sigh on his chilly left hand.

. . . So he went on at a walking pace and the unseen companion walked and breathed beside him. At last he could bear it no longer.

"Who are you?" he said, scarcely above a whisper.

"One who has waited long for you to speak," said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.[4]


            Shasta is able to finally put a voice to the presence. It is a presence of One who has been waiting not to speak, but to listen. It is the presence of One who has been waiting to receive Shasta’s words of pain and sorrow. The One who sang Narnia into being with his voice chooses not to speak in order to provide space for Shasta’s words. Aslan’s silence is Shasta’s invitation. If you’ve ever sat with anyone in intense suffering, you know this experience. Words fail at a certain point, and the only thing to do is wait and listen.[5] Each person’s suffering is unique and sacred. It is in those places where life has pressed us to a point where we break and all that we thought we knew and trusted in is tested by fire.

. . . "I can't see you at all," said Shasta, after staring very hard. Then (for an even more terrible idea had come into his head) he said, almost in a scream, "You're not - not something dead, are you? Oh please - please do go away. What harm have I ever done you? Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world!"

Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. "There," it said, "that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows."

Shasta was a little reassured by the breath: so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman. And then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis. And also, how very long it was since he had had anything to eat.[6]


            Shasta cannot see the person or thing that he can hear, and this makes him afraid. His fears rise until they get the better of him. Fear that takes him back into the land of his sorrows. There, in the land of his sorrows, Aslan’s simple invitation to “tell me your sorrows” acts like a release on a pressure valve and all the toxic interpretations come bursting forth. He holds nothing back, because he believes he has nothing left to lose.
            Lament is God’s invitation, his breath on our hand gently saying, “beloved child, tell me your sorrows.” Lament is given to us as a gift from a loving Father who knows that if he showed up in all his glory we would run for our lives. So, he comes to us often disguised in our own stories, as things unnoticed and mundane. He comes in friends and strangers and birds and rainfall.
            Now the real action is taking place. No new interpretations of Shasta’s story could be considered until he shares, of his own volition, his predominant interpretation. This is Shasta’s confession, the self-disclosure that is at the heart of all lament. We are not just crying out about something wrong out there, but something radically wrong in here. Something is wrong in me, something broken, and unless something happens I won’t make it. This is lament.

"I do not call you unfortunate," said the Large Voice.

. . . "I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you."[7]


            Aslan begins his new creation of Shasta’s story by challenging the existing interpretation. Shasta has been going on and on about how “unlucky” he has been and “unfortunate.” He has identified with his sorrow to such a degree that he is enmeshed with it. Aslan gently retells Shasta’s story to show him how fortunate he has been in receiving Aslan’s providences. Everything that Shasta believed is in upheaval and in disarray. There are no more foundation stones left, and he is losing his sense of self. In a surprising turn, everything that Shasta believed that was evidence for his rejection and mistreatment is reworked between the paws of Aslan into something else, something new. Shasta is shocked, taken aback.

"Then it was you who wounded Aravis?"
"It was I."
"But what for?"
"Child," said the Voice, "I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own."
"Who are you?" asked Shasta.

"Myself," said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again "Myself", loud and clear and gay: and then the third time "Myself", whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all around you as if the leaves rustled with it.[8]

            We now come to the crux of the story. Shasta comes back to his opening question, “Who are you?” This is the fundamental question that underlies all lament. The identity of God is at stake. What we need is to know God better, and this is far more important than getting relief, gaining clarity or regaining control.
This One, whoever he is, is Lord of all stories.[9] In Narnia, Aslan is the only one who can tell us our stories because he is the initiator and finisher of all stories. Aslan is telling Shasta’s story, not Aravis’.[10] This is important because our pain seems to be at times the strongest story we know. We need help seeing that as powerful as it is, it is only a part of a much better story being told, one which we do not yet understand. God is the only one who can help us understand this.
This is what lament does; it pours out all our pain at the feet of our Creator. If he does not speak, we will not live. This is the crisis. If he does not re-tell us our story, then we will be lost in a panoply of lesser stories of our own making which are nothing more than ragged, discordant interpretations. In telling our story to God, we open ourselves up to hearing our story retold. It cannot happen otherwise. Listening is the backside of lament; once we’ve poured ourselves out we feel empty. If we learn to listen for long periods of time, we learn not to fear the silence or the emptiness. We might even catch a glimpse of something glorious going on - resurrection.

Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, nor that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too.

The mist was turning from black to grey and from grey to white. This must have begun to happen some time ago, but while he had been talking to the Thing he had not been noticing anything else. Now, the whiteness around him became a shining whiteness; his eyes began to blink. Somewhere ahead he could hear birds singing. He knew the night was over at last. He could see the mane and ears and head of his horse quite easily now. A golden light fell on them from the left. He thought it was the sun.

He turned and saw, pacing beside him, taller than the horse, a Lion. The horse did not seem to be afraid of it or else could not see it. It was from the Lion that the light came. No one ever saw anything more terrible or beautiful.[11]


            Finally, it is safe to see and be seen. Shasta sees Aslan but is unafraid because he has won his trust. The beautiful story being told has something to do with this beautiful Lion. He still feels fear, but it is fear enveloped by trust. The stories that our hearts know and uniquely hold are arguably the most sacred part about us. When we bring this out before God in practices such as lament, God can’t help himself - he rushes to make himself known to us in tender kindness. We find that this is what we’ve wanted all along.


Conclusion: Learning Lament Between the Paws


The High King above all kings stooped towards him. Its mane, and some strange and solemn perfume that hung about the mane, was all round him. It touched his forehead with its tongue. He lifted his face and their eyes met. Then instantly the pale brightness of the mist and the fiery brightness of the Lion rolled themselves together into a swirling glory and gathered themselves up and disappeared. He was alone with the horse on a grassy hillside under a blue sky. And there were birds singing.[12]

Shasta’s encounter with Aslan was life transforming. Suddenly appearing next to him in the dark, the Great Lion had invited Shasta to tell his story, particularly the story that he had been rehearsing – a story of pain, disappointment and despair. Had Shasta known who or what walked beside him, he surely would have been too frightened to share anything so painfully sacred. Aslan’s anonymity was necessary for Shasta to feel safe to share what was on his heart.
Several themes can be gleaned from this encounter that can help us understand and enter into the spiritual discipline of lament.
Aslan’s Hiddenness

The soft, gentle presence of Aslan next to Shasta invites him to open up the most painful parts of his heart. As he laments in Aslan’s presence, he is invited into an experience of shared intimacy with the Great King. Our God also shows up in our stories as one who is weak and vulnerable, as needy as a baby in a manger and as a crucified criminal. The hiddenness of Aslan draws out our most sacred stories.
Aslan’s Compassion

The Great Lion is not distanced from the pain of those he rules. What he offers is not quick fixes, but an invitation to relationship. He is not unfamiliar with suffering, which helps us understand how Jesus can be a “man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isa. 53:3a NIV). Lament is not directed toward an uncaring deity of stoic resolve. We have a God who has entered our painful stories and taken the worst of it upon himself.
Aslan’s Beauty

In his encounter with Aslan, Shasta (and Digory, before him) encounter a beauty so rich, free and wild that it pierces them even more deeply than their pain. Beauty is essential for lament because we need to know there is a better story going on than the one contained in our pain. Sometimes, a walk outside among trees, birds and flowers will do more for the sorrowing soul than a counseling session. We remember that our God is a God of unending, soul piercing beauty - a beauty that we were made to inhabit. Beauty reminds us that there is a vast story being told by a good God, and somehow our pain (and lament) has a place. As disorienting as our pain can be, we can never be dislodged from the love of God in Christ.[13]
Some Final Thoughts About Lament

            Lament as seen through Narnian eyes can help us bring our sorrows to God, with the growing experiential knowledge that God meets us in our sorrows in every possible way that we need him to.  We find in the character Aslan a symbolic lens through which to see Jesus Christ, and his desires for our lives. Above all, he pursues relationship with us in order to teach us how to really live.
            Lament is, in one sense, “telling God what we really think.” It is a form of confession that brings together the dark plotlines in our lives and places them in the light of God’s healing presence. For lament to be formative, we approach it as disciples with radical honesty before God. This often involves allowing ourselves to feel and express anger over our pain, as the Psalmists did.[14] This experience of anger, submitted to God in the act of lament, can be one of the greatest acts of faith we can engage in. As it connects our pain with the healing power of God, it becomes spiritually formative.
“Did I get angry at God during my struggles? You bet I did. I stood in the middle of my living room and screamed at Him. I pounded my fists on the floor. Once I slammed a door so hard that the molding shattered. I got far angrier with God than I have ever been with any human being. I do not defend this behavior. But in the course of it I did learn that such feelings are not at all incompatible with faith. On the contrary, faith involves our deepest passions engaged by the reality of God. Precisely because He is more real to us than anything else, He is able to sound both the top and the bottom of our registers in a way that no one and nothing else can. The person of faith is one who, like Job, knows what it is to be torn apart by the enormity of God.”[15]



[1] A concept developed by Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 2002).
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Horse and His Boy (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1982), 172-173.
[3] Ibid., 173.
[4] Ibid., 173-174.
[5] Even Job’s friends, for all their faults, seemed to know this. Job’s suffering was so great that they sat with him in silence for seven days and seven nights (Job 2:11-13).
[6] Ibid., 174-175.
[7] Ibid., 175-176.
[8] Ibid., 176.
[9] He is “Myself” which reminds us of the great “I AM” of Exodus 3:14.
[10] cf. John 21:20-22.
[11] Ibid., 176-177.
[12] Ibid., 177-178.
[13] Romans 8:35-39.
[14] Cf. Psalms 60 and 74 for example.
[15] Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), xii.

Lament Between the Paws: Walking with Aslan through Pain and Suffering - Part 1

I recently submitted an article for the special Fall 2016 edition of the Journal for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care on the topic of Lament. I received a copy this week and wanted to post the article here as well.

As I re-read the article in the print edition of the Journal, I experienced several things.

First, I remember how the project felt like a new kind of collaboration with Jesus. It was difficult for me to find time to write, let alone believe I had something worth saying. At least one mentor heard my idea and thought it was not relevant or scholarly enough, so I gave up on it for a few months. The burden I felt returned, so I kept thinking and praying about it. It was quite formative to lift it up to Jesus, hear his responses and to get to work on it in trust that he was with me and for me. Actually deciding to write with the Lord's help was a huge step for me, believing that I had something unique to say.

Second, my hyper-critical editor self came surging out, finding everything wrong with it that could be found. I'm not saying there isn't a time and place for editing, there is; but there is also a time to let it go as it is and trust it will accomplish something good. In the midst of such esteemed writers, I felt very, very small and incapable.

I brought this too to the Lord and felt his smile; he likes the imperfections because if the article has beauty and strength in it for others, then it is because of something other than polished perfection.

Third, related to the above, I felt a strange mixture of shame for being seen alongside the desperate longing to be noticed. This is nothing new to me, but becomes more intense when I engage in something public - writing or speaking, etc.

The Lord has been stabilizing my heart and granting me grace to let go of outcomes. I pray that others might find hope and help in my ramblings. I will post it in two parts due to length, but you can order print copies or subscribe here.

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Learning Lament between the Paws: Walking with Aslan through Pain and Suffering
by Scott Holman, M.T.S

Introduction

"Son of Adam," said Aslan. "Are you ready to undo the wrong that you have done to my sweet country of Narnia on the very day of its birth?"

"Well, I don't see what I can do," said Digory. "You see, the Queen ran away and - "
"I asked, are you ready?" said the Lion.
"Yes," said Digory. He had had for a second some wild idea of saying "I'll try to help you if you'll promise to help my Mother," but he realized in time that the Lion was not at all the sort of person one could try to make bargains with. But when he had said "Yes," he thought of his Mother, and he thought of the great hopes he had had, and how they were all dying away, and a lump came in his throat and tears in his eyes, and he blurted out:
"But please, please - won't you - can't you give me something that will cure Mother?" Up till then he had been looking at the Lion's great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion's eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory's own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.
"My son, my son," said Aslan. "I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.”[1]

Young Digory Kirke is in a bind. He desperately wants to find a way to save his mother who is dying from an illness and he thinks Aslan can help; but he also has to own up to harmful choices he has made. He is feeling torn apart by it all. As we eavesdrop on this scene from Narnia, we see lament at work. Lament is a desperate expression of grief, sorrow and loss. It is a useful tool to give voice to the pain one is experiencing, and it is a very human means of asking for relief, help and wisdom. It is the primary way persons have to incorporate difficult and traumatic experiences into their stories. Through lament, Digory connected with Aslan the Great Lion, and found something more precious than relief; he discovered shared intimacy. In the intimacy of shared experience with Infinite Goodness, there is a beauty that pierces deeper than pain.[2]
Placing Lament in Story
The revelation of God in Scripture is told in the form of a story - one vast, beautiful story centering on and culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Within the broad strokes of this Story, we are presented with a variety of other literary genres that serve as lenses and connecting points between us and God. Since this is the way God chose to make himself known, we can assume that a great variety of genres are what is required for us to become entirely human, whole and holy before God in Christ. We need to be taught how to worship God, so we are given psalms, prophecies, laws and poetry. We need to be schooled in joy, so we are given history, gospel and song. Poetry, story and particularly lament are given to us to provide space and language to bring our losses to God.
            We were designed to have a richly interactive relationship with a Trinitarian God, where every aspect of our day to day lives gets taken up and immersed in the intimate life of the Triune God. Such a life becomes eternal because it becomes united with God’s life. Though we lost this with-God life in the fall, it is restored through union and communion with Christ. Indeed, this immersion into eternal life occurs over a lifetime of trusting in Jesus in all the ways that it is possible to trust a person, which includes pouring out one’s soul to God through various means and practices.

Arise, cry out in the night,
    as the watches of the night begin;
pour out your heart like water
    in the presence of the Lord. (Lamentations 2:19a, NIV)

Trust in him at all times, you people;
    pour out your hearts to him,
    for God is our refuge. (Psalm 62:8 NIV)

In the course of this interactive life, many deaths are required to fully embrace the Kingdom of God. As Paul and Barnabas reminded the believers of Asia Minor, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22 NIV). We are addicted to the running of our own kingdoms, so suffering often accompanies us in our journey toward Christlikeness. It is one of the most formative elements we encounter as we live life this side of Eden. Yet, it remains one of the least understood elements. How does suffering and loss fit into a curriculum for Christlikeness? How does lament help form us? In order for the Spiritual Formation movement to maintain traction with ordinary people (the kind of people Jesus hung around) then we must venture into how we can bring our sufferings to God in such a way that, through them, we are made more like Jesus.[3]
In our day, we don’t know how to suffer well. We feel pressure to maintain some semblance of strength, wisdom and control. We avoid pain at all costs or as something to get through or “get over.” Not only do we avoid pain, but we assign incredible value to happiness that is pain-free.[4] Unfortunately, Christians seem to be just as ill-equipped as non-Christians in these matters. We typically do not give space for experiencing and expressing sorrow and loss in our lives or in the lives of others. Oftentimes our severest sufferings are due to the fact that we are not free to suffer. The cruciform life of God in Christ does not allow for such a position. Jesus on the Cross has forever redefined how we see and experience suffering. We cannot avoid it, for in the Christ life, suffering always precedes glory.
As we walk with Christ we repeatedly experience circumstances beyond our control that strip us of clarity, control and comfort. This world can feel like a cruel and arbitrary place! We need help connecting with God in our pain. Further, we require instruction in how to integrate our darkest experiences into our overall life with God so that they do not own us. If we don’t engage in practices like lament, the result may be orphaned parts of ourselves floating around waiting to be triggered and overwhelm us. What we disown may come to own us. Thus, whether or not we engage in lament practices will have a profound bearing on our spiritual formation in Christ. The best place to begin is a learning posture in the presence of a trusted, safe and wise Master.

Discipleship and Loss
A disciple is a learner, or apprentice, that is with someone else who knows how to do something. As they are with the teacher or master, they become like them. Thus, a disciple of Jesus is with Jesus learning to be like him. It involves having a vision of how Jesus would live my life, if he were I. This obviously involves all of life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows. Without the context of this learning relationship, and all the humility it affords, attempts to engage in spiritual disciplines (including lament) will likely result in one more project that I engage in to maintain clarity, control or comfort.
Dallas Willard used a “golden triangle of spiritual growth” diagram (Fig. 1) to try to capture the essential components involved in our life with Jesus. At the top of the triangle is the person and work of the Holy Spirit. On the right bottom corner are our planned disciplines to “put on a new heart.” On the bottom left corner is our daily trials, our everyday lives which contain all sorts of beauties and dangers, joys and sorrows. Disciplines like lament (bottom right) can help ground our everyday experiences (bottom left), especially the darker more painful ones, into the life and work of God (top).
Image result for willard golden triangleFig. 1[5]

Lament as Spiritual Discipline
Lament can be a disciplined form of prayer that connects our dark and painful plotlines to the ongoing work of Jesus through the Spirit. As disciples of Jesus, we look to Jesus to teach us what lament is and how it is to be expressed. We are with Jesus learning how to suffer, to see how he did it so that we can become the kinds of person who also suffer in faith.[6] We can learn to express our sorrows as he did as he struggled with the will of God.

Obstacles to Overcome
Unfortunately, the people who most need this discipline – the most broken and hurting among us – often seem the least able to access it. The severely wounded and traumatized person often faces significant obstacles giving voice to their pain. We have removed lament from our liturgies and homes with the result of either great guilt (something wrong with me) or great denial (just keep pretending everything is ok).
“Obviously, what we must never do is get over it as soon as possible or make as little of it as we can. ‘Get over it’ and ‘make little of it’ are unbiblical and inhuman. Denial and distraction are the standard over-the-counter prescriptions of our culture for dealing with loss; in combination, they’ve virtually destroyed the spiritual health of our culture. The societal effect is widespread addiction and depression.”[7]

If our access (conceptual and experiential) to Jesus has been hijacked by psychological baggage, we will likely need extra help to trust him enough to pour out our souls to him in the way above described. Metaphors, poetry, songs and stories are some of the richest means for us to access these realities “by the back door,” in subversive ways designed to bypass defenses without triggering them. Sin and psychological damage can, and frequently do, prevent us from accessing the healing presence of God in Jesus.[8]
Many of the friends I walk with are angry with God at times, though they are afraid to admit it. Most often they have experienced some trauma or loss and have not felt free to process it; they have no idea what to do with it. This is compounded by religious leaders not handling their pain well. I occasionally encourage such friends to let go of what they think they’re “supposed to do” or what “God expects from them.” If the timing is right and they’re open to it, I might suggest they take some time each day to “tell God what they really think.” I put it that way to try and communicate that God is already with them, right where they are. The starting place for all of us, always, is engaging with God from right where we are. In my world, this is what lament looks like – telling God what we really think – about him, about our stories, and about what we’ve lived and experienced. Such a lament takes a surge of faith to get past the initial hurdle of discomfort of speaking like this to a holy God, and often it’s our presence with others that gives them (and us) the courage to do such work. Since Jesus has taken all our curses upon himself, there is literally nothing obstructing us from doing this lament work except our own fears, expectations and prejudices. In lament I can give myself and others freedom, space and language to pour out the toxic brew that has been hidden away in my heart, sometimes for decades. A broken peace often follows such work, enveloped by a transcendent tenderness that is Trinitarian grace.
In addition to the obstacle of psychological baggage that we bring, we have an understanding of grace that also works against a practice of lament that is interactive and discipleship focused. We have an understanding of grace in our day that makes us passive consumers of religious goods and services. We can sustain this consumeristic life as long as it works; once it stops working and we experience the disorienting pain that comes with it, we have a choice: become open to other categories, other ideas, other practices or hide the mess and try harder. It is often a brush with traumatic, acute pain and suffering that ushers us into a world of responsive interactivity with God that our rational categories have no room for. I would call this Spiritual Formation. Whatever we call it, it is vitally necessary for becoming human and maintaining a viable Christian witness in a world where beautiful and terrible things happen.
How can we clear away the rubble and dust off this ancient literary genre called lament? What good is it when your body is screaming in pain, or when you would almost do anything to end your suffering? Even more difficult, how do we own and express our losses through lament when they are tied with wrong conceptions of God and Christ? When a person suffers religious abuse in the name of God, that person will be less than willing to talk to God about it unless an alternative metaphor can be introduced that helps them see God differently.
 The character of Aslan in the Narnian Chronicles can function as a wonderful alternate metaphor. From my own experience, I discovered the land of Narnia late in life when I desperately needed help interpreting my story and my world, which had fallen apart. I did not intend on finding the character of Aslan so compelling, but he seemed to bypass most of my own defenses and was able to communicate Christ to me in fresh new ways.[9]



[1] C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1983), 167-168.
[2] This is shown in Digory’s own tale. After completing a mission given him by Aslan, it is written, “‘WELL done,’ said Aslan in a voice that made the earth shake. . . . But he was in no danger of feeling conceited for he didn't think about it at all now that he was face to face with Aslan. This time he found he could look straight into the Lion's eyes. He had forgotten his troubles and felt absolutely content” (Ibid., 197).
[3] This is why twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous will always be a wonderful model for Christian spiritual formation. At it’s best, it takes into account the regular lives of ordinary people and their brokenness and connects them with the resources of God.
[4] The recent Pixar movie “Inside Out” characterized Joy that was detached from sorrow at first; as the main character (Riley) developed emotionally, sorrow was incorporated into joy to create a fuller experience of maturity.
[5] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1998), 347.
[6] cf. Hebrews 12:1-2; 1 Peter 4:1, 12-19.
[7] Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1997), 120.
[8] I am assuming that the baggage obstructing our access to Jesus is due merely to sin alone, but also psychological damage in the form of wounds.
[9] C.S. Lewis once replied to a letter from a concerned mother whose son seemed to love Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis replied, “Laurence can't really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that's what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.” C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children, Lyle Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead, eds. (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995), 52-53.

Go to Part 2 here.