Friday, September 28, 2012

Smoldering Wick (part 2) - Select Passages

As I continue to think through preparations for preaching through 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:5, I was thinking through biblical history and trying to remember all the saints who have, at one time, lost heart. Here is a sampling: [EDITED 10/11/12 - Check back occasionally as I continue to add to this list as the Lord brings them up in my readings]

“I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.” (Numbers 11:14-15 ESV)

“Let the day perish on which I was born,
and the night that said,
‘A man is conceived.’
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
nor light shine upon it.
(Job 3:3-4 ESV)

“For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
      through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”
Selah (Psalm 32:3-4 ESV)

    Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.
    But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
(1 Kings 19:3-4 ESV)

“Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:3 ESV)

Heman & the sons of Korah
    “For my soul is full of troubles,
        and my life draws near to Sheol.
    I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
       I am a man who has no strength,
    like one set loose among the dead,
        like the slain that lie in the grave,
    like those whom you remember no more,
        for they are cut off from your hand.
    You have put me in the depths of the pit,
        in the regions dark and deep.
    Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
        and you overwhelm me with all your waves.” Selah
(Psalm 88:3-7 ESV)

Author of Ps 119
My soul clings to the dust;
give me life according to your word!

My soul melts away for sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word! (Psalm 119:25, 28 ESV)

Cursed be the day
on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father,
“A son is born to you,”
making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities
that the LORD overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning
and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb forever great.
Why did I come out from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?
 (Jeremiah 20:14-18 ESV)

    And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” (Matthew 26:37-38 ESV)
    And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 ESV)

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” (2 Corinthians 1:8 ESV)

What these texts tell me is that a “loss of heart,” even to the point of praying for death, is potentially part of the disciple’s experience as we walk with God. Spanning both Old and New Testaments, God faithfully and tenderly cares for his broken reeds and smoldering wicks.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Smoldering Wick

I feel the need to write out some stuff that’s going on in my head right now -

I’m preaching in a few weeks (10/12) at a church in rural Kentucky about 1 hr from Louisville. A dear brother who pastors the church is staffing the Men at the Cross retreat that weekend, and asked me to fill in for him. I haven’t preached since February 2006, and needless to say I was a very different person back then. I could never put in the chunks of study hours that I did back then; if I did it, it would have to be on a text that I’ve been marinating in for years.

I’ve been struggling of late whether or not I made the right decision in accepting, mainly doubting I have anything worth saying. The Lord is persistent though, and keeps bringing me back to it. This morning I settled on my text: 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:5.

   But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
    Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
    So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (ESV)
There are many themes near and dear to my heart here. Brokenness and glory, the spirituality of the body, and God’s grace and power in weakness to name a few. What is most prominent right now though, and hauntingly so, is that it is part of Paul’s exhortation as to why he doesn’t “lose heart” (4:1,16).

I didn’t think too much of it at first, but I’m starting to think this is what God’s up to in me. I feel like I’ve lived in the “loss of heart” state for a very long time, and I’ve just assumed it would continue perpetually. It usually manifests itself in a profound sense of meaninglessness and/or failure in an area of my life (just happened a couple nights ago concerning my parenting). It can also manifest itself in a general sense of meaninglessness. I think of that area, sigh, and try not to think about it anymore. That’s what “loss of heart” looks like in me. Resignation has taken the place of prayer or desire. I engage in some escape activity in order to avoid thinking about how painful that area of life is. Not proud of it, but there it is! I do take time to look at it, try to process it before God, but it’s exhausting and very painful so I can only do it in short bursts.

I think I know what “loss of heart” looks like – what would it look like to regain it? I imagine it would mean feeling more hope about God and his ability to redeem the broken areas of my life. Maybe even more peace and joy, though I’m reluctant to hope for that. Deep down I fear that I’m being teased with the possibility just to be disappointed – again.

I’m skeptical that my heart can be restored, but I’m moving forward trying to trust that God is able & willing to “restore my soul” (Ps 23:3).

Friday, September 07, 2012

Enemy Mine

I find myself trapped inside my head these days, questioning my interpretation of things but unable to “step outside” of said interpretation to see things differently. For years, I have viewed life through the lens of my self-protective old/false self (who I call my “ogre,” because he’s huge, fat, lethargic and VERY ANGRY!). I am only beginning now to mourn what I have lost to the ogre and his interpretations – bridges burned, friends shunned, joys unseen and love un-received. He has kept me isolated and alone, reinforcing the messages of abandonment I received in abundance while I was young.

I am desperately trying to kill this ogre and in its place receive a new self way of looking at life, enabling me (by grace) to receive and give love. My problem is this: how can I just “step out of” something I’ve been immersed in nearly all my life? To question the ogre feels like the equivalent to questioning the core of my being, my sense of self. To challenge him feels like challenging everything I’ve ever known. I suppose this is why the process is slow in putting down the ogre and receiving the new self: something must take the place of the ogre, it cannot simply be stricken down. That would leave an impossible vacuum. Their must be a slow and steady “regime change,” as new neural pathways are developed in my brain, new interpretations considered and believed.

As I described these things to my wife, she wisely pointed me to a JJ Heller song, and I’m glad she did. It’s called “All the Beauty (Kati’s Story)” and it’s from her Only Love Remains album (2006). Here are the lyrics:

I know that she's a liar when I look into her eyes
But I believe in every word she says
She's out to start a fire burning everything I have
I can't put it out 'cause it's all inside my head
And then you sing
I hear you sing

You call me lovely
You call me friend
You call me out of death and let me try again
You call me beloved
You call me clean
Then you show me all the beauty that you see in me

I still hear her whisper and sometimes I hear her shout
You're not good enough and you will never be
But if I focus on your singing I can start to tune her out
'Cause you came with a love to set me free

I know that you love me enough to die
And I will try to see the value that you place on me
And you say I'm worthy

The songwriter is addressing her old/false self, the one who lies to her and is determined to “burn everything” good in her life. The fire can’t simply be put out because it’s all inside her head, implying that it’s a significant part of her. Like a cancer that’s wrapped around vital organs, it can’t simply be removed without killing everything. A different treatment is necessary. In this case, only the hearing of the song of the Beloved can free her from the false self.

This phrase I find especially helpful - “If I focus on your singing I can start to tune her out . . .” It is impossible to simply repent and/or eradicate this false self and be done with it, since it is in my mind and interwoven with many (all?) of my thoughts and actions in some way. The new self must be fed, and the old self starved. The old self must be put off, the new self put on, perhaps millions of times. This is possible through meditatively listening to the song of the Beloved singing who I am.

I recall here that in both of my favorite fantasy series, Lord of the Rings (Silmarillion) and the Chronicles of Narnia (Magician’s Nephew), the respective deity in each of those stories created the worlds through song. I need to step aside, take time to hear Him sing, for in his song my deliverance is birthed, the new self can emerge.

    The LORD your God is in your midst,
        a mighty one who will save;
    he will rejoice over you with gladness;
        he will quiet you by his love;
    he will exult over you with loud singing.
(Zephaniah 3:17 ESV)

Monday, September 03, 2012

A Life Without Mirrors?

(I just submitted this for the Society for Christian Psychology newsletter; it may be edited a bit before being published)

Could you go a year without looking at yourself in a mirror? Kjerstin Gruys wanted to try an experiment - swear off looking at herself in a mirror for an entire year to see if it helped her have “greater self-acceptance and appreciation for her body.” The first half of this year would involve getting ready for a married life, a time typically saturated (obsessed?) with focus on one’s body. She has chronicled the journey on her blog with started in March of 2011 and ended in March 2012.

Several things about this story intrigue me. First, it is a fascinating experiment in taking steps to address body image issues in our society and in our personal lives. Gruys has done academic research “on the relationship between beauty and social inequality.” This is an area of research that Christian Psychologists would be wise to examine as well, given the even greater implications of the body being made in God’s image.

Second, I think it accurately depicts the symbolic nature of mirrors in our society, especially for young women. Mirrors seem to carry the weight and expectations of perfection that we as a society have put on young women (and men) to achieve a certain (arbitrary) kind of body. Our mirrors serve as judges whether or not we have achieved our goal (a similar argument could be made for weighing ourselves on scales, but mirrors are more pervasive); to quote Grace Gold’s article (from the first link above):

“. . . recent studies have pegged the average number of times a woman looks in the mirror at over 70 times in just one day. According to Renee Engeln-Maddox, Ph.D., psychology professor and body image expert at Northwestern University, constantly checking ourselves out in the mirror can be bad for our mental health. ‘What you see in the mirror is what other people see-it's an outsider's perspective. When you look in the mirror, you're increasing your tendency to see yourself as an outsider would,’ says Engeln-Maddox. ‘A lot of research has shown that lowers your body satisfaction and depletes your cognitive resources, meaning that your brain-which has limited resources-is less able to think about other things."

In the Christian worldview, mirrors are symbolically useful in seeing ourselves as we really are (Exodus 38:8; James 1:22-25); but when they have become subverted as they have in our culture to promote values of impossible perfection, maybe it’s time we cover them up and look to God for our self-worth more intentionally. We need more spiritual disciplines that engage our body image before God, and maybe “mirror fasting” could be one way to do it.