Saturday, April 25, 2015

Two Ways the Heart is Broken

I have been thinking a lot these days about what suffering does for us in our relationship with God and others. I am aware of times when I anesthetize emotional and physical pain with lust or food (I did it again last night); I am also aware of times when suffering ushers me into the wounds of Christ, like stepping through the narrow wardrobe into the vast world of Narnia.

The difference for me is found in the “bent” of my will; either I am angrily pushing back against what feels like assault, or I am broken to the point of surrender or despair. Usually I’m some place in-between. One thing I have found to be true is that if I linger in despair, shame is always right there, which leads me into further degradations of my soul as I inevitably seek to numb myself. I am learning from Jesus (the Man or sorrows, remember) how to direct my heart toward surrender instead of despair, because I have confidence that he holds me and every aspect of my story, even (especially) those parts even I cannot yet hold.

In the end, when I seek to numb the pain I am diminished. When I follow the suffering into conversation with God and others, I am enlarged.

Parker Palmer says it better than I can when he says,

Suffering breaks our hearts — but there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes and is sometimes thrown like a grenade at the source of its pain. Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.

What can I do to make my tight heart more supple, the way a runner stretches to avoid injury? That’s a question I ask myself every day. With regular exercise, my heart is less likely to break apart into shards that may become shrapnel, and more likely to break open into largeness.

There are many ways to make the heart more supple, but all of them come down to this: Take it in, take it all in!

My heart is stretched every time I’m able to take in life’s little deaths without an anesthetic: a friendship gone sour, a mean-spirited critique of my work, failure at a task that was important to me. I can also exercise my heart by taking in life’s little joys: a small kindness from a stranger, the sound of a distant train reviving childhood memories, the infectious giggle of a two-year-old as I “hide” and then “leap out” from behind cupped hands. Taking all of it in — the good and the bad alike — is a form of exercise that slowly transforms my clenched fist of a heart into an open hand.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Surviving Easter in an Evangelical World

Easter, alongside Christmas, is one of the highest points of symbolic reflection in the Christian year. We appropriately reflect together with other believers on the work accomplished on the cross and empty tomb. We create space and time for celebration and joy! These are all good things from our Father who gives good gifts.

My experiences of Easter in my 26 years of Christian pilgrimage have often been a bit discouraging, unfortunately. Easter celebrations, in my limited experience of the Evangelical world, present a shallow triumphalism that has little continuity with Good Friday or the life that Jesus continues to live as the Risen Lord. Too often the unspeakable suffering of Good Friday and the gut-wrenching silence and shameful failure of Holy Saturday are lost in the rush to celebratory shouts of Easter Sunday. What does this say about us - about what we value? What does this say about the gospel we actually live by?

As one who is often in some kind of physical or emotional pain, honesty permits me to say that this weekend doesn’t bring me much hope. The places where I can take my pain, suffering and mind-numbing confusion are eviscerated in the attempt to present “our best face” for visitors on Easter Sunday morning. What’s up with that, by the way? Why is it, that in order to feel welcome at Easter Sunday, I have to go visit another church? The guilt and pressure to serve and “make space” for visitors is quite overwhelming at times. I feel like I’m part of an effort to make a good impression on a first date. 

Sigh.

Now, I realize that I’m probably over-reacting a bit here; that there are things being “triggered” in me that are provoking an emotional response stronger than what is probably fair. But, does that make it any less real or important? I bring these things up in the hope that Jesus can heal these things in me and in his church. I love the church and long for the day when suffering and glory are not two disparate bookends to a fragmented story, but lovers intertwined in the mystery and intimacy of relational union and communion. This is what it means to know Jesus, folks. Intimacy with Jesus creates capacity to hold suffering and joy easily and naturally.

All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death, in the hope that I myself will be raised from death to life. (Philippians 3:10-11 GNT)

Saturday, March 07, 2015

What Theology is About

“Theology, I would now say, is about saving lives, and the work of theology, to use Rebecca Chopp’s phrase, is saving work. First, it involves learning to see the ways in which false images of God, ourselves, and the world have bound us and taken away the life God intends for us. Second, it involves learning to know God as God is, as a healing God, and learning to know ourselves, individually and communally, as people who correspond with that God in whose image we are made. Third, it involves imagining a future that is consistent with the God we come to know.” (Roberta C. Bondi, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life.)

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Receiving Interruptions as Grace

If we can receive interruptions and setbacks as invitations from our good Father for interactive conversation, we shall quickly undermine one of Satan’s foulest and most common devices. Obviously, this requires a serious “vision overhaul” in which the surrender of the care of our lives is truly and consistently given over into the good, strong hands of the Trinitarian God.

Screwtape outlines a fundamental deception:

Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tête-à-tête with the friend), that throw him out of gear. Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright. (C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters)

Facing Our Fear of Emptiness

Henri Nouwen writes,

We are afraid of emptiness. Spinoza speaks about our "horror vacui," our horrendous fear of vacancy. We like to occupy-fill up-every empty time and space. We want to be occupied. And if we are not occupied we easily become preoccupied; that is, we fill the empty spaces before we have even reached them. We fill them with our worries, saying, "But what if ..."

It is very hard to allow emptiness to exist in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen. It requires trust, surrender, and openness to guidance. God wants to dwell in our emptiness. But as long as we are afraid of God and God's actions in our lives, it is unlikely that we will offer our emptiness to God. Let's pray that we can let go of our fear of God and embrace God as the source of all love. (Bread for the Journey, Feb 28 reading)

Our lives are consumed with preoccupation, desperate attempts to keep ourselves focused on anything but the emptiness that we feel underground. We fear, I think, that if we slow down and listen that the emptiness will overtake us and consume us. Scripture comforts us here, presenting our God as one who hovers over our emptiness, pregnant with promise.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty,darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2 NIV)

Silence and solitude are two of God’s appointed means given to his people to bring our emptiness before him in a covenant relationship of trust, surrender and hope. Dallas Willard is a good guide here.

By solitude we mean being out of human contact, being alone, and being so for lengthy periods of time. To get out of human contact is not something that can be done in a short while, for that contact lingers long after it is, in one sense, over.

Silence is a natural part of solitude and is its essential completion. Most noise is human contact. Silence means to escape from sounds, noises, other than the gentle ones of nature. But it also means not talking, and the effects of not talking on our soul are are different from those of simple quietness. (Dallas Willard, Divine Conspiracy, 357)

My most important rule for any discipline is to start small, think baby steps. At all costs, avoid the heroic. Starting small offends our pride, opening the way for God to work. It also starts from where we actually are, with what we’re actually able to do, with God’s help. In this case, if silence and solitude are new to you, start small, maybe 3-5 minutes a day. The point is to start small and do it daily. Turn off your smart phone and make yourself unavailable for a time; surprisingly, the world will keep spinning without you! Once you feel comfortable with that amount of time, build on it until you’re able to do 20-30 minutes a day.

This probably sounds like a profound waste of time, and it is, and that’s the point! Our surrender of time and space erode the roots of spiritualities of control that emphasize what we say and do and bring us back to our proper position of responding to God. Eventually, this posture can fill much more than just this devoted space and time. Our days are filled with many more “empty moments” than we realize. It is possible to learn how to fill these moments with God.

Emptiness need not be feared because it is the womb of our souls where God is at work knitting together new life in Christ.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:3-4 NIV)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Remembering Leanne Payne

I received word today of the passing of Leanne Payne, founder of Pastoral Care Ministries (PCM) and a huge influence in my life and thought. She taught me how to practice the presence of God, especially in broken places needing healing. In addition, she helped lay out a biblical vision of how God can use guided imagery prayer to heal the soul.

Rather than a long post on aspects of her life and ministry, I wanted to share some key quotes that have been meaningful to me as I remember her writings. She made other authors like C.S. Lewis and Clyde Kilby accessible to me in ways I’ve not found elsewhere.

“Saints of all ages have made it their business to be present to God, and out of this has sprung their truest vocation. They become, therefore, the ones who blaze spiritual trials for others. Every generation of Christians must courageously face dark wildernesses, peculiar to the time in which they live. These “perilous woods” through which a path must be hewn are made up of the choking undergrowth and dark flowering of the sins and blindnesses of generations past, and they always stand as formidable roadblocks to the next generation of Christians. The saints who make it their full intention, therefore, to practice the Presence (however they term this) become the courageous pathfinders, whether for the many or the few. And in the doing of this, no matter how much they suffer, they are to be accounted doubly blessed, for they have discovered what they were born to do.” (The Healing Presence: Curing the Soul Through Union with Christ, 34).

“It is all too easy for us moderns to regard the supernatural world (e.g. the Holy Spirit, angels, demons) and activities as somehow less real than the world we behold with our senses. As twentieth-century Christians, we live in a materialistic age, one in which our systems of learning have long based their conclusions on scientific truth alone. The presuppositions of such systems have misled many generations of students, blinding them to the truths of God and the Unseen Real, whether more or spiritual. Because of these intellectual blocks, we moderns have more difficulty with invisible realities and perhaps a much greater need for the discipline of practicing the Presence than did our forefathers in the faith. In the very beginning of the Christian Era, however, St. Paul spoke of the practice by saying: “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18) The practice of the Presence then, is simply the discipline of calling to mind the truth that God is with us. When we consistently do this, the miracle of seeing by faith is given. We begin to see with the eyes of our hearts.” (Ibid., 26).

“If broken lives and souls are to be healed, I must begin with teaching the practice of the presence… To abide in the presence of the Lord is to begin to hear Him. To follow through on that hearing is to find healing, self-acceptance, and growth into psychological and spiritual balance and maturity.” (Listening Prayer, 131).

“The renunciation of self-hatred is a deliberate (volitional) step we take, and we keep our eyes on the Source of our salvation, not on our subjective feelings, which are unreliable and even ‘diseased’ due to the habitual attitudes we’ve formed. As we do this, God honors our transaction and showers His grace upon us. We then do battle with all the diseased and negative thoughts and imaginings, lifting them up to Him as they arise in our hearts and minds.” (Restoring the Christian Soul: Overcoming Barriers to Completion in Christ Through Healing Prayer, 21).

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Light as Snow (A Reflection)

[first a little context: 2” of fresh snow has fallen this morning in Louisville KY, adding to 8” that fell two days ago. Snowfall can be a powerful trigger for anxiety for me as I usually have to drive through it to get to work. I still feel traumatized from a job I had 7-8 years ago that didn’t allow for “snow days” or any days off whatsoever (had to even work Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc.). I became terrified of inclement weather as well as anything that might make me sick, and developed phobias I carry with me to this day.

 

 In light of this, I need to do hard work re-interpreting what I experience with what I believe to be true about God and God’s world. This is the only way I know to move toward trusting God in the midst of deep anxiety. Today’s re-interpretation comes through an attempt at poetry and some texts to set my mind on.]

 

Have you ever listened to snow falling?

 

Peace falls gently to the ground

out of God’s sky.

Directly from the heavens where he reigns,

peace falls.

 

Beauty blankets the earth,

frozen goodness.

Ice crystals piled high,

each one utterly unique creations

lighting up a cold winter’s night.

Have you noticed how snow has a light of its own?

 

It’s message available for all who hear, with ears to hear:

God is pure light

no darkness in Him

none at all.

no malevolent motives or tricks up his sleeve;

no secret, manipulative malice.

 

If pure desire to bless could take visible form,

and fall to the ground,

might it not look like this?

 

Jesus showed us what God is like;

God is gentle and lowly

humble and childlike.

Willing to be set aside and ignored,

willing to be shoveled roughly to the side of the road

by those he loves.

No other form of precipitation

can give light to the world;

a dangerous lustrous beauty.

 

Beauty that’s wild and free

provides an odd sort of safety

for those willing to accept it on its own terms.

 

 

Some texts to consider (all NIV; emphasis mine):

Jeremiah 32:38-41

38 They will be my people, and I will be their God.39 I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them. 40 I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. 41 I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul.

 

John 1:4-5

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

 

James 1:16-18

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

 

1 John 1:5-7

5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 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, purifies us from all sin.

[thinking also here about how Isaiah talks of God making our sins as “white as snow” though they were scarlet with blood (Isa. 1:18)]

 

Matthew 17:1-2 NIV

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. (cf. Lk 9:29)

 

2 Cor 4:5-6

5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

 

Eph 5:8-9

8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)

 

Col 1:12-14

12 . . . and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

 

1 Thess. 5:5

You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.

 

1 Tim. 6:15-16

God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.

 

Rev 21:22-25

22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.

 

Rev 22:1-5

22 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Walking Through Pain and The Good Life Jesus Offers

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was working through some painful issues surrounding my “work life.” As I think through this issue, I take the familiar path in dealing with heart pain - name what is hurting so that I can bring it to Jesus and have a conversation with him about it. Involved in this process is thinking through what the end goal might be, what kind of person I might become on the other side. It was around this point that I came across Luke 6 in my daily reading in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants.

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” (Luke 6:27-31 ESV; all texts are ESV unless otherwise noted)

Several thoughts came out of reflection on this text. First, I noticed that Jesus uses terms and phrases to describe certain types of people that we’re all familiar with – “enemies, those who hate you, those who curse you and abuse you, etc.” This tells me that I need to take note how I’ve been wounded and by whom, in this case in my workplace experiences. I need to explore the events, memories, personalities and emotions involved. But thankfully, it doesn’t end there! In this text (and in the larger context of Luke 6) He is offering me a vision of life with Him in his Kingdom where I can freely and easily do the things he describes here – love, do good, bless and pray for those who have done evil to me. This vision of life in His Kingdom must also occupy my attention, increasingly as the process goes on (and it is a long process!)

It is so easy when attending to wounds to get caught up in lesser stories of vengeance and payback, isn’t it? Jesus offers us so much more. But I have to ask, do I really want this? Because if I do desire and seek to lean into this vision of life, then I will have to give something up, lose something. One thing I’ll lose is the “right” to vengeance, the right to repay evil for evil. The persons who injured me will likely never know or care and I lose the right to bring it to their awareness through like action. But if I look at what I gain - a life of love, freedom and joy – the bargain seems pretty lopsided indeed.

The second line of thought was this - What do you think was easier for Jesus to do? Love his enemies or hate them? Picture him on the cross. When he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34) do you think that was easy for Jesus or difficult? Do you imagine the words came strained out of his heart, somehow forced out?

The answer to this question is huge. It will determine whether or not we believe the commands of Jesus to be easy or impossible. It will determine how you read the gospels and indeed, the entire Bible.

Some might say here that you’re talking about Jesus, the God-man; he had stuff going on that we don’t.

Did he? Let me ask another question, one that has rocked my world for several years now.

What did Jesus expect from his disciples, his earliest followers?

It seems pretty clear that Jesus expected his apprentices, his disciples to follow him in a certain way of life, something he called “eternal life” (John 3:15-16; 3:36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27, 40, 47, 54; 17:3). He expected his disciples to do the things he did and say the things he said, in his confident peaceful manner (Matt 7:21-27; 11:25-30; 28:18-20; Colossians 3:1-17; 2 Peter 1:3-11, Phil 2:12-13, etc.). Below are merely a sampling of verses regarding this.

Luke 6:40

“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Cf. Matt 10:24)

 

John 14:12-15

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do 15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

 

John 15:7-11

7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

 

1 John 5:2-3

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.

 

We need to have the thought, that for a certain kind of person, loving an enemy and doing good to them is an easy task and light burden. For others, for a different kind of person, it is largely impossible, at the very least an arduous task requiring herculean effort.

The hard thing for Jesus to do on the cross would have been to say, “You idiots! What the hell do you think you’re doing?! I will make you pay, MARK MY WORDS!! YOU WILL BURN IN HELL!!” The easy, light way to live came out of him naturally at this time as at other times. He offered love, compassion and forgiveness to his cruelest enemies simply as a natural overflow of what was stored up in his heart from having walked with his Father in God’s good world. He could not have easily done otherwise.

Grace for Broken Souls

I was meeting with a friend recently and the Lord brought this section of Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel to mind. Having been under a vague, dark and oppressive cloud since the beginning of the New Year, I found that I needed it probably more than he did.

Since I have found life in sharing with others what I need to hear, I wanted to put it out there for myself and others to drink from (I’m not sure the page reference, found the quote online).

Many of us are haunted by our failure to have done with our lives what we longed to accomplish. The disparity between our ideal self and our real self, the grim specter of past infidelities, the awareness that I am not living what I believe, the relentless pressure of conformity, and the nostalgia for lost innocence reinforces a nagging sense of existential guilt: I have failed.

This is the cross we never expected, and the one we find hardest to bear.

One morning at prayer, I heard this word — “Little brother, I witnessed a Peter who claimed that he did not know Me, a James who wanted power in return for service to the kingdom, a Philip who failed to see the Father in Me, and scores of disciples who were convinced I was finished on Calvary. The New Testament has many examples of men and women who started out well and then faltered along the way.”

“Yet on Easter night I appeared to Peter. James is not remembered for his ambition but for the sacrifice of his life for Me. Philip did see the Father in Me when I pointed the way, and the disciples who despaired had enough courage to recognize Me when we broke bread at the end of the road to Emmaus. My point, little brother, is this — I expect more failure from you than you expect from yourself.”

The ragamuffin who sees his life as a voyage of discovery and runs the risk of failure has a better feel for faithfulness than the timid man who hides behind the law and never finds out who he is at all. Winston Churchill said it well — “Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It is courage that counts.”

Stop Being a Pleaser

Some new wounds were unearthed this week. Or, to be more accurate, light was shed this week on wounds unearthed back in November 2014. Wounds revolving around work, bosses and tasks, some of which go back decades. They are pervasive and long-standing in their effects, and as I contemplated (at times, with shame) how deeply and easily my heart is injured I felt the need to re-visit these words from Henri Nouwen.

Perhaps later when I have more perspective I shall write more on the journey the Lord is taking me on, but for now I’ll let Nouwen speak from a page out of The Inner Voice of Love titled, “Stop Being a Pleaser.” Inner Voice was Nouwen’s “secret journal” kept during a period of public breakdown just a few years before his death.

“You have to let your father and father figures go. You must stop seeing yourself through their eyes and trying to make them proud of you.

For as long as you can remember, you have been a pleaser, depending on others to give you an identity. You need not look at that only in a negative way. You wanted to give your heart to others, and you did so quickly and easily. But now you are being asked to let go of all these self-made props and trust that God is enough for you. You must stop being a pleaser and reclaim your identity as a free self.” (Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love, p.5)