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.

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.

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.


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


"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.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Watching Boats

I wanted to share this meditation practice from Richard Rohr because it is very similar to a guided imagery practice I've found very healing to my soul. If I've got many things bouncing and buzzing in my mind in the morning I will try to place each thought and feeling into some kind of floating object. As it floats by I feel a letting go take place inside. Often I actively roll them down the hill into the water.

Take 10, 15 or 20 min (as much as you can stand!) of silence and solitude and try it, aware of the risen Jesus with you. 

Here is Rohr's version: 

Practice: Boats on a River
Most people have never actually met themselves. At every moment, all our lives long, we identify with our thoughts, our self-image, or our feelings. We have to find a way to get behind this view of ourselves to discover the face we had before we were born. We must discover who we are in God, who we’ve always been—long before we did anything right or anything wrong. This is the first goal of contemplation.

Imagine you are sitting on the bank of a river. Boats and ships—thoughts, feelings, and sensations—are sailing past. While the stream flows by your inner eye, name each of these vessels. For example, one of the boats could be called “my anxiety about tomorrow.” Or along comes the ship “objections to my husband” or the boat “I don’t do that well.” Every judgment that you pass is one of those boats. Take the time to give each one of them a name, and then let them move on down the river.

This can be a difficult exercise because you’re used to jumping aboard the boats—your thoughts—immediately. As soon as you own a boat and identify with it, it picks up energy. This is a practice in un-possessing, detaching, letting go. With every idea, with every image that comes into your head, say, “No, I’m not that; I don’t need that; that’s not me.”

Sometimes, a boat turns around and heads back upstream to demand your attention again. Habitual thoughts are hard to not be hooked by. Sometimes you feel the need to torpedo your boats. But don’t attack them. Don’t hate them or condemn them. This is also an exercise in nonviolence. The point is to recognize your thoughts, which are not you, and to say, “That’s not necessary; I don’t need that.” But do it very amiably. If you learn to handle your own soul tenderly and lovingly, you’ll be able to carry this same loving wisdom out into the world.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 94-95.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

This is My Story, This is My Song . . .

During times of transition, it is helpful to rehearse what we value and what we've learned along the way. This "rehearsing the story" is a biblical way of presenting ourselves before God and anchoring our hearts and minds in a broader Story that goes beyond our brief life on this planet.
As I started to write out my story, I was prayerfully aware of several things:
  1. We cannot bear the weight of our stories; there is too much glory, mystery and sorrow for any one person to bear on their own. This is one reason why community is so important. Only an interweb of supportive relationships centered around the presence and activity of God can support our stories.
  2. Only Jesus can ultimately bear our stories. Only his shoulders are broad enough to bear their weight. Only between the paws of Aslan is there enough space to hold every part of our stories.
  3. The process of picking and choosing what parts to tell, as well as assigning value and interpretive meaning to events, people and words are all tools in the storyteller craft. The process itself is revealing. I found myself more thankful and sorrowful through the telling.
Seeking to live a story worth telling,

I was raised in a small Oregon town (Forest Grove) to nominally church going parents. Though we semi-regularly attended the local United Church of Christ, I never heard the gospel -  it was usually just a mix of teaching on positive thinking. It wasn’t until I was in a very deep crisis in my late teens that I heard and responded to the gospel of Jesus.
My childhood had been fairly lonely and damaging, but I didn’t know it at the time; I just thought there was something very wrong with me! My Dad left us when I was 9 and refused to pay child support, so we were pretty poor and my Mom had to work several jobs. Consequently, she was rarely home. I was left to fend for myself in the house, often without much food, along with an older brother. Shame and self-hatred became early companions that nearly killed me. They were nurtured through constant issues with eating for comfort and weight issues from when I was very young. I gradually became convinced over many years that suicide was the best way out for me, the only way to escape emotional pain. Drugs, alcohol and dark, angry, metal music only made things worse. My emotional struggles made it difficult to find friends, which only reinforced by story of abandonment and shame. Most of my friends during high school were “party” friends who could help me numb the pain but offer little else.
After one of my drinking buddies committed suicide in 1989 (I was 19), I felt closer than ever to taking my own life. Thankfully, this is the time when Jesus invaded my story! At the time, the only real Christian I knew had been periodically teaching me to play drums. He never pushed Jesus on me, but was available one night to answer questions I had. On a July night in 1989 he asked me if I wanted to receive Jesus, and with a sliver of faith I said, “Why not? I’ve tried everything else.”
Jesus took that weak step and gave me new life! I felt something different inside almost immediately. I began attending my friend’s church (Foursquare denomination) and got involved in helping lead the youth group. I was baptized in water about a month later. Though I was never a reader, I found an insatiable thirst for the New Testament, and read it through several times in the next few months. That first year was a dream; Jesus felt so close and so good! I thought for sure my inner anguish was gone, taken care of, paid for. Little did I know that there was much in me that was still deeply broken and in need of healing.
To my dismay, I developed a degenerative disc disease in my back in the next year that forced me to quit my warehouse job and consider other options. With my love of Scripture and a growing sense of calling to leadership, I began to entertain the idea of Bible College. I attended LIFE Bible College in Burnaby, British Columbia from 1990-1994, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Theology (this school has since been renamed and moved - it is now Pacific Life Bible College in Surrey, BC).
During my time at LIFE, my struggles with depression, shame and self-hatred came roaring back and I experienced a great deal of disillusionment because of it. It became clear that I was still messed up inside even though Jesus was “Lord of my life.” To make matters worse, neither I nor the Christians around me had categories to help someone like me. Brokenness was not really in their vocabulary, except for addicts in 12-step groups. I was told to “just pray more” and “trust God,” which only provoked greater shame because I felt unable to.
Through a few compassionate professors during my time at Bible College, I developed a deep appreciation for Theology, Church History and Hermeneutics. The Reformed faith of a few of my professors was appealing because God’s Sovereignty seemed to give me breathing room for my troubled heart. Though I loved the hunger for God that ran through the Foursquare/Pentecostal faith, I was frequently troubled by the lack of empathy for people like me who struggled and who didn’t quite fit the “victorious” Christian model of living. I was also distressed with how much abusive manipulative tactics were used to get good Christian people to do things. Many pastors I knew led by manipulation in the name of Jesus, so I quickly became disillusioned with church. Things seemed to brighten as my graduation drew near and I began to think hopefully about my future with the person I had fallen in love with several years earlier.
I met my wife (Cheri) during this time at the church we attended together.  Cheri and I dated for several years and got married in 1994. Over the next 6 years we lived mostly in southern British Columbia, having one son (Samuel) in October of 1998.
During these years I had remained involved, off and on, with the Bible College in an adjunct teaching capacity. I greatly enjoyed research and teaching, and I began to sense a call to return to school to develop these gifts. I attended Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS) from 1999-2001, graduating with a Masters degree in Theological Studies. In my reading, writing and teaching I continued to develop a thirst to resolve an issue that seemed to come up repeatedly - how to wed the mind and heart in an integrated way, or how to unite a heart of devotion with an academic mind. With J.I. Packer’s guidance (Regent College), I wrote my Master’s thesis on Jonathan Edwards’ spirituality, thinking that in him I had found my solution to the tension.
As part of my duties in the Masters program, I served as a teaching assistant. This gave me a taste of teaching in a graduate level setting. I enjoyed this even more than the College level. I knew I would need a Ph.D. if I wanted to teach graduate level, so I began looking at Ph.D. programs. The church in the lower mainland BC (as I experienced it) was becoming more and more “liberal” and I found myself having to defend basic Bible teachings in the classroom and in small groups. I was tired of having to ‘defend the Bible,' so I was looking for a school that shared my values. I settled on Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY because of it’s conservative resurgence and it’s reasonable tuition. We moved to Louisville in June 2001. I began working on prerequisites for entering the Ph.D. program from 2001-2002 and was on the verge of applying to the program when “the floor” fell out from under me.
A dark night of the soul descended upon me in 2002-2003, though I had no idea what was going on at the time. Over a few months I lost most of my ability to study, read and write; my concentration was shot, and I felt weary, confused and distant from God. This made completing my classwork very difficult and the idea of beginning a Ph.D. program impossible. I had felt sure that God had called me to Louisville but began to doubt whether or not I had ever heard anything from God. I dropped out of school (what I thought was a temporary break) and found some desk work that I could do. My wife and I sought community where we could “be broken” in, and I turned to authors who seemed to have categories to help the suffering Christian: Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen, John Eldredge, Eugene Peterson and Larry Crabb. I could no longer read Scripture in traditional translations; it only seemed to reinforce the distance I felt between me and God. I turned to Peterson’s The Message for the next several years and it saved my faith! It provided language and symbolic space for my questions, anger and raging confusion.
As I just kept walking through each day trying to make sense of God and my story, I began to realize that the Lord was remaking me from the ground up. I began opening to new ideas and practices related to the Christian life. I learned about the true/false self from Thomas Merton and Judith Hougen; I learned and began practicing listening and inner healing prayer from Rusty Rustenbach, Sandra Wilson and Leanne Payne; I discovered my heart through John Eldredge; I found freedom to be broken in Henri Nouwen, David Benner, Brennan Manning and Larry Crabb. I learned how to do silence and solitude from Ruth Haley Barton’s writings and the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY.
Though I was also receiving regular counseling, I still had great difficulty relating to God and especially Jesus, and I could not make much sense of the gifts and calling that seemed irrevocable in my life.
We had two more children during these years - daughters Anna Beth (2002) and Elise (2004). Though I couldn’t make sense of my story, my family provided me loving space to just simply be. They also provided me the desperately needed relational connections that helped me survive the darkness. I couldn’t trust much in the world, but I could trust that at home there was a wife and children that loved me. At home I found solace, a place of love, acceptance and forgiveness in a world that didn’t make sense.
I found some outlet in leading small groups over the years and the occasional opportunity to preach; but I mostly found my sense of purpose in walking with people one on one. I developed a few close friendships, and a small handful of broken people (many who were either leaders or recovering leaders) sought me ought to help find some hope. My greatest joy became helping people consider new thoughts, ideas and images about God and his goodness and helping them work out the implications in their lives.
A turning point occurred in 2012-2013, revolving around how I related to and through my body. In July 2012 I had experienced another in a long line of food binges followed by shame. I was tired of it. My wife and I resolved that we had to try and change things up. We decided to begin by recording our eating without trying to change much, at least initially. We had tried multiple times to make radical changes, but always lacked the vision to sustain it.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that although I did have some healthy eating patterns, there were a few specific habits that were always overturning my efforts to lose weight. Several times a week I would typically deal with work/life stress by stopping by a convenience store on my way home from work and picking up a handful of candy bars. When we started recording our eating ( I tried cutting out these binges because i didn’t want to record them!
Though there were many hunger pains early on, I was surprised how easy it was for me to push through them and stay on track. This time felt different. As I found new ways of dealing with being hungry, I was still tempted frequently to turn to sweets when life felt sour. I was able to let these go for the most part, and when i did fail, I tried to re-interpret it along the lines of a long process of lifestyle change, saying to myself that this little incident didn’t need to ruin that. I was also learning daily times of silence and solitude and practicing God’s presence. The breakthrough seemed to come when i began to take God with me into these episodes of bingeing. I would try my best to talk with God about what I was doing, how I felt about it, how I wanted him to help me change. I knew he was there and that he loved me, right at the point of my shame, and this brought some deep healing to those places. As I practiced this, these temptations began to lose their power and frequency.
When i started, I needed to lose about 90 lbs to get my “ideal” weight. I was dropping weight pretty fast, averaging 3-4lbs a week. Within about 6-7 months I was approaching my goal weight. I had never experienced this kind of progress before; I felt “help” with and in me that felt different. Though I didn’t understand fully what was going on, I cooperated with it where I could and a vision began to form in which healthy eating not only made sense but was couched in goodness. It felt like a “reset” button had been pushed in my body.
Around the time of reaching my goal weight (February 2013) I saw someone post on Facebook that some Dallas Willard lectures were going to be streaming for free as they were delivered (Knowing Christ Conference). I thought I would listen to them as I worked, and though I missed a few of them was able to catch most of the messages.
I had read some Dallas Willard before, but never heard him lecture that I can recall. I was captivated! As he talked about life in the Kingdom of God I knew that I was hearing about what I was experiencing. Connections were aflame in my mind, and all the big words in my theology were finally finding cohesion - grace, gospel, discipleship, Kingdom, eternal life, etc. In my bodily experiences of weight loss, I was cooperating with God in ways I’d never known before, but my experience was as if I had backed into it without knowing it. I listened to those lectures 20-30 times each in the next several months, and I seemed to get something new each time. I had never “devoured” a teacher or teaching like this, but I felt “ripe” to hear it and jump into it.
That experience launched me into an exploratory adventure into the Kingdom of God that continues to this day. I have sought to apprentice myself to Jesus every day and learn how to live as he would, at his pace and in his spirit. I rarely seem to do it, though; it’s usually as an indirect result of something else going on, some crisis in my life or in the life of someone I love, that I step into this stream of eternal life. I want to grow in consistent vision and intention. I have committed myself for a long time to opening myself to God’s life in every way I can, whenever I can, trusting that Jesus will meet me and work in ways that I can’t. Everything seems to hinge on vision and intention; when these are in alignment, means becomes powerfully significant.
I still feel a great deal of emotional pain at times, and sometimes feel just as weak, powerless and despairing as I used to; but these are slowly decreasing in power and frequency as healing goodness permeates my soul day by day. I have been blogging for years about my journey, which has been therapeutic for me and for many other broken people. My heart breaks for hurting people who fall through the cracks in their experience of church and of Jesus! This desire to write was united with a leading by the Spirit to write something for the Journal for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, a journal I have been following and supporting since it’s inception. I am humbled and happy to say my article will appear in the Fall 2016 issue on Lament. It is an attempt to address a serious gap I see in the spiritual formation movement - a lack of awareness of weakness and psychological pathology as well as attention to inner healing as a consequence of Kingdom living. I have come to believe that spiritual disciplines are much more organic than we think, arising out of a soul’s particular need to engage with God in particular way in a particular time. Some people cannot do disciplines until they receive significant healing first; but most spiritual formation talk doesn’t address this (at least, in my limited experience of it).
The latest iteration of Kingdom work in my life has been to take the rubble of my calling, giftedness and desire and to rework it along with the entire category of “pastor.” I began imagining with Jesus what it would look like for a church to be the church - in the Kingdom, free of outcomes and making people do things. I also re-imagined the role of pastor in similar ways, and soon discovered that this is what I felt made for.
Since June 2015 I have been actively pursuing a pastoral vocation, with no “success” as of yet. Conversations with my mentor in Louisville (Rich Plass, co-author of Relational Soul from IVP) and many other leading circumstances led me to conclude that geography and place deeply mattered to me. I needed to be closer to mountains and to our families in the NW, so we chose to move to Spokane, WA in July 2016. I hope and pray a pastoral vocation will unfold in the Lord’s timing here. If not, I know my story will not be in vain. If I do not have the opportunity to be a Kingdom shepherd here and now in this life, I believe that nevertheless I am undergoing training for the next life, the real life, the life of reigning with Jesus in his way. With that as my vision, I am desiring and pursuing God and this calling, but am content if he decides that it’s best for me to remain doing desk work on this side of the veil.