Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Hungering Dark


I opened a package Thursday to find a book I had ordered a couple weeks ago and forgotten about. Even without remembering why I ordered it, tears sprang to my eyes at the title, clearly an indication I needed to read the book right then. So I sat down and read the first half that night, with a heart so swollen and tender each chapter was like a cup of cold water.

Consider the end to chapter 3:
Jesus said, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God," and in the end every word that proceeds from the mouth of God is the same word, and the word is Christ himself. And in the end that is the vocation, the calling of all of us, the calling to be Christs. To be Christs in whatever way we are able to be. To be Christs with whatever gladness we have and in whatever place, among whatever brothers we are called to. That is the vocation, the destiny to which we were all of us called, even before the foundation of the world.
The first day of school this week there were half a dozen students in my room, some studying their summer work for tests in other classes, some robot team students just looking for fellow nerdy introverts, some old students just dropping by to say hello. My heart that had been quietly stirring for weeks, felt like it just might burst from being exactly where it was supposed to be. Ever since my bitter battle with self-doubt a few weeks ago, I've been pondering what it looks like to be Christ where I am and what it means to make Christ the only stumbling block, but it has been a pondering without answers, a storing up of tiny moments in my heart.

This is Buechner's prayer at the end of chapter 3, and I must have read it a dozen times Thursday night, but since then I've been praying it for myself as well as for my students.
O Thou, who art the God no less of those who know thee not than of those who love the well, be present with us at the times of choosing when time stands still and all that lies behind us and all that lies ahead are caught up in the mystery of a moment. Be present especially with the young who must choose between many voices. Help them to know how much an old world needs their youth and gladness. Help them to know that there are words of truth and healing that will never be spoken unless they speak them, and deeds of compassion and courage that will never be done unless they do them. Help them never to mistake success for victory or failure for defeat. Grant that they may never be entirely content with whatever bounty this world may bestow upon them, but that they may know at last that they were created not for happiness but for joy, and that joy is to him alone who, sometimes with tears in his eyes, commits himself in love to thee and to his brothers. Lead them and all thy world ever deeper into the knowledge that finally all men are one and that there can never really be joy for any until there is joy for all. In Christ's name we ask it and for his sake. Amen.

Monday, August 10, 2015

perhaps

The Old Testament never fails to convince me that we serve a capricious God, or at least capricious from our perspective. When God says in Romans, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion," he really means it. Mired in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles as I am right now, I wonder at how God doles out both his mercy and his wrath. It leaves my head spinning and my spirit trembling and my mind uncomprehending. How does one love such a God as this or come to his altar in worship?

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that I have been unusually plagued by thoughts of self-doubt and self-recrimination. Sneaking in under the guise of conviction, such thoughts have stabbed my conscience like a thousand little fleas burrowing into my soul. After days of hearing my worthlessness whispered incessantly in my ears, I finally got fed up with the voices and started answering out loud with a resounding, "You're right, I'm not. But I don't have to be, because Christ was. So shut up." And they did. There followed a quiet in my soul, and I wept over the Psalms as I haven't in a long time.

I read Brendan by Frederick Buechner recently. It's a fictional account of the life of Saint Brendan. Buechner, master story teller that he is, contrasts the grit and obscenity of pagan life with the struggle of a man to live for Christ. Brendan the priest travels the world with his distraught soul, only to realize near the end that "perhaps we've given all but what he truly wants." The adventures, the self-loathing and self-deprivation, the monasteries he built - none of these is truly the work of Christ in him so much as the transformation of his heart from a loud mouthed braggart to a quiet servant of those around him.

Habakkuk is my favorite prophet because he asks for justice and receives faith. I'm beginning to realize that is how God has been answering all my requests, with faith rather than answers. So as I read through the histories this time, I'm seeking less understanding and more faith. Perhaps, just perhaps, that's what he truly wants.

Brendan by Frederick Buechner

Thursday, July 30, 2015

refreshment

For a late summer morning, this one was rare and beautiful. Instead of the stagnant, oppressive blanket of heat, a delicious breeze greeted me as I stepped out this morning. The sky, swept clean by last night's storm, showed off a blue so vibrant it looked surreal.

I've been working through Solomon's life and Proverbs this week. As I read the account of Solomon asking God for wisdom, it gave me pause to realize that even wisdom isn't enough. As a bibliophile and hopeless nerd, I somehow think that maybe if I just read a little more or think about it just the right way, then understanding will make obedience easier or sweeter. But even the wisest man on Earth was led astray by the lust of his flesh. No matter how hard I beat my head against the impenetrable veil, I won't get through. That truth has pierced my soul this week with unusual acuteness. 

Then came the thousand voices of discouragement and despair that feed off this particular grief.  Whispers of worthlessness, futility, and hopelessness have been trying to crowd out the gospel in my heart, but this verse, like the morning sky, has provided unexpected relief in this desert
Be not wise in your own eyes; turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. Proverbs 3: 7-8

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Count me in

An unexpected but much needed two hour nap this afternoon has left me bright eyed at a later hour than I am usually able to be coherent. How is it that a two hour nap can make you wide awake for four or five hours later than usual? The math does not make sense. The one upside is that a late night cup of tea feels like a chance to steal a slice of my sanity back while everything else in the house is quiet. 

Perhaps it is just me, but this summer seems more filled than usual with news and political drama. I am somewhat exhausted by trying to keep up with what society considers socially acceptable. It is considered humane to kill human babies in the womb and sell their body parts but not sea turtles or eagles in their eggs.  Apparently regardless of your genetics it is socially acceptable to pick the gender with which you would like identify but socially inappropriate to pick the race. And killing someone is illegal on your own but perfectly acceptable when agreed upon by twelve people in a courtroom. Am I the only one feeling a little schizophrenic after listening to the news? The only firm conclusion that I've been able to draw these past few weeks is that society has largely lost its ability to have any kind of coherent rational discussion. Or maybe it never had that ability after the fall.

It seems appropriate to be reading about David's life right now. I'm paralleling the histories as best I can, and for the first time I was struck by the long reaching effects of David's affair with Bathsheba. Because it didn't start with Bathsheba. That whole story begins with the statement that it was springtime when the kings when out to war, but David stayed home. One small decision to stay home sets off this chain of events that becomes one of the most notorious acts of sin in the Bible. And it doesn't end with the murder of Bathsheba's husband. Absalom's rebellion is a direct consequence of David's actions. David, having lost the moral high ground in such a public and egregious act of hypocrisy, is rendered impotent and almost pathetic in his own defense. I was reminded of a quote from The Ascent of Mt Carmel:
The misplaced desires of the soul are sources of endless weariness because they allow the soul no rest since they can never be filled.  Like bugs to bright light, we are drawn to these desires, blind to all else, even our own destruction.  "He that is blinded by desires has this property that, when he is set in the midst of truth and of that which is good for him, he can no more see them than if he were in darkness."
It wasn't that David was ignorant of sin in general because he could recognize the same sin when presented to him in a story by the prophet Nathan. But a continual series of small sins drew David in deeply enough that the cost of repentance was so great that self-deception was preferable to repentance on such a subconscious level that David remained stubbornly and willfully blind to his own destruction. 

That is scary. It was like seeing exactly how hopeless our situation is without grace. I do not think I see people that way very often, and it has renewed my own sense of urgency in prayer both for myself and others. Because once I start down the path of sin, repentance becomes both more difficult and more unlikely the longer I continue down that path.

And yet God still shows up for David in a way God never did for Saul even though Saul's sins were far less publicly offensive that David's. 2 Samuel 22, which is also Psalm 18, is a victory song of David. A victory song. Saul performs one offering a little too early and he loses his life, his kingdom, and the lives of his children. After all that mess David made, David gets a victory song? The modern news media would be having a field day. David even has the nerve to say that "the Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness." Um, excuse me? Did I miss something here?

I've been reading this psalm and the penitential psalms recently, Sometimes I forget that repentance is not turning away from an action, it's turning away from the lies and self-deception I'm buying into each day. Saul's repentance was so characteristic of my own, a shallow way of placating my conscience while I continue down my path of sin. David's repentance, though, was a complete and glorious turning away from himself towards God. 

But it means I have to change. Aye, there's the rub because change is costly. But the result? Oh man, the result of true repentance is that God shows up. Just read the part of 2 Samuel 22 I've copied below. It gives me chills. Because I want God to show up with smoke and devouring fire and a canopy of darkness while the earth trembles, for I know that somewhere in all that chaos is my salvation. I can only pray that no matter how costly the repentance, I will always choose to throw myself on the mercy of God rather than trust in the logic of this schizophrenic world. Though the Lord may destroy me, he delights in me. Unfathomable. Completely incomprehensible. Count me in.

“In my distress I called upon the Lord;
    to my God I called.
From his temple he heard my voice,
    and my cry came to his ears.

“Then the earth reeled and rocked;
    the foundations of the heavens trembled
    and quaked, because he was angry.

Smoke went up from his nostrils,
    and devouring fire from his mouth;
    glowing coals flamed forth from him.

He bowed the heavens and came down;
    thick darkness was under his feet.
He rode on a cherub and flew;
    he was seen on the wings of the wind.

He made darkness around him his canopy,
    thick clouds, a gathering of water.
Out of the brightness before him
    coals of fire flamed forth.

The Lord thundered from heaven,
    and the Most High uttered his voice.
And he sent out arrows and scattered them;
    lightning, and routed them.

Then the channels of the sea were seen;
    the foundations of the world were laid bare,
at the rebuke of the Lord,
    at the blast of the breath of his nostrils.

 “He sent from on high, he took me;
    he drew me out of many waters.

He rescued me from my strong enemy,
    from those who hated me,
    for they were too mighty for me.

They confronted me in the day of my calamity,
    but the Lord was my support.
He brought me out into a broad place;
    he rescued me, because he delighted in me.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

toes


Though I am now safe at home, yesterday morning I was standing in the Atlantic Ocean one last time before leaving my brother's house. The longshore current was incredibly strong, and the boys would dive into a wave and come up 15 feet down the beach. I spent most of the morning standing sentry to make sure they didn't get pulled down shore into the fishing lines. The water pulled the sand out from under my feet, slowly burying my toes in the ocean floor as even I struggled to stay parallel with our towels on the shore. It's an apt metaphor for my walk with Christ, the struggle to keep my eyes fixed on the author and perfecter of our faith. In a world with such changing currents and coastlines, it's no wonder I get pulled down shore with every wave. 

I love my counselor because we always end up talking nerdy. I walked into her office a while back and we started on social anxiety and ended with a discussion about authenticity, also covering several great books we've read recently. It was fantastic. Somewhere in the midst of asking me questions about why I'd rather hide under my bed than say, have a conversation at church, she asked me something like, "do you struggle to be authentic?" I paused for a moment until it hit me. I completely despise the modern notion of authenticity. Consider this really great quote from an article in the Harvard Business Journal by Herminia Ibarra on the paradox of authenticity in leadership:
Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable. But few jobs allow us to do that for long. That’s doubly true when we advance in our careers or when demands or expectations change, as Cynthia, George, and countless other executives have discovered. In my research on leadership transitions, I have observed that career advances require all of us to move way beyond our comfort zones. At the same time, however, they trigger a strong countervailing impulse to protect our identities: When we are unsure of ourselves or our ability to perform well or measure up in a new setting, we often retreat to familiar behaviors and styles. But my research also demonstrates that the moments that most challenge our sense of self are the ones that can teach us the most about leading effectively. By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs. That takes courage, because learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous. But the only way to avoid being pigeonholed and ultimately become better leaders is to do the things that a rigidly authentic sense of self would keep us from doing.
The idea of authenticity as the genuine and spontaneous overflow of me into a conversation terrifies me because an overflow of me is not pretty. Neither of us want this sinful mess oozing into our discussion. Trust me. And it's not anxiety or fear of rejection or shame that freezes me in social situations. It's stupidity. I don't want to bring myself to the conversation. I want to bring Christ. I want to bring holiness, but that is so not authentic or genuine or easy or even comprehensible. So instead sometimes I just stare at people and think, "Lord have mercy, I have no idea what to do or say right now, can I please just run away?" Which, of course, is also not holy. 

I love Ibarra's line, "we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable." How many times have I given in to self-indulgence or sloth or gossip or complaining under the noble guise of being authentic? How many times have I led others into sin because being holy felt inauthentic? I shudder to think of those answers. Ibarra goes on to describe authenticity in leadership as an evolving process. Her words felt so similar to sanctification that I thought it necessary to roll my eyes at the Holy Spirit. Clearly he knows how dense I am. Speak slowly and use small words and maybe she'll get it this time.

I'm out of the ocean and back on my couch tonight, but I still feel harassed by the longshore current ready to carry me off every time I lose my footing. After that lovely little bit in Hebrews 12 about fixing our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith comes a much longer passage about the Lord's discipline. There's the rub. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (vs 11) I'm still waiting for that harvest. I'm digging in my toes and bracing for the waves, but in the meantime there's wonderful beauty all around me and a certain invigorating joy to the fight. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

10,000

Summer nights like tonight are the kind that inspire love songs and adventure stories. I love being from the South. Fireflies and tomato sandwiches, sweet tea and biscuits. Sign me up. Even as this week has been a stark reminder of how our terrible past still haunts us, I've been brought to a season of personal prayer and repentance. Prior to Jesus, my disdain for people was both universal and indiscriminate. I mostly thought everyone was an idiot, or maybe that was just a side effect of being a teenager. Either way, I am continually humbled by the intersection of grace and providence in my life that has taught me love and repentance.

My reading of 1 Samuel this month is well timed with the season. Song writing, sling toting shepherds defeating giants and psychologically unstable kings trying to hold on to power. These are stories for the back porch on a steamy summer night like tonight. The battle between selfishness and holiness in Saul, the first king of Israel, has always been one of the most terrifying stories of the Bible for me. Because he loses. He's anointed with the Spirit of the Lord, for crying out loud, and he still manages to descend into unimaginable selfishness and disobedience. That's way more terrifying than a fiery furnace, because it is way more possible for me. Saul chooses to listen to the voices of fear and insecurity, descending into insanity and unspeakable evil. Utterly terrifying.

I paired my reading of 1 Samuel with an unlikely book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Despite the title it's not a religious book at all, rather it's a conglomeration of sociological and psychological studies artfully woven together in a series of compelling narratives. The premise of the book is that our fascination with underdog stories is often based on a poor reading of the text. From David and Goliath to the civil rights movement, Gladwell reframes the discussion to show that what we assume are unassailable strengths turn out to be great weakness, and often what appears as weakness may actually be strength.

Consider one of my favorite, though often overlooked parts of 1 Samuel 17. David finally makes it around to Saul, offering to fight Goliath. When Saul points out how small David is, David responds with quite the list of achievements, having killed both lions an bears while being a lowly shepherd. I find the plural here amusing. Either there was an abundance of lions and bears near David with a hankering for sheep, or God sent those animals specifically to prepare David for what lay ahead. In another of his books, Outliers, Gladwell explains the 10,000 hour rule. Study after study shows that perceived greatness in fields from composing to professional hockey to computer programming starts somewhere around the 10,000 hour mark. After 10,000 hours of practicing something, you start to get really good at it. In other words, there are no prodigies. David had clearly reached the 10,000 hour mark somewhere in the wilderness and now could sling stones at speeds several times that of a modern major league pitcher. Rightly understood, David had the clear advantage, not Goliath.

And that scares me too. David's battle with Goliath wasn't won on the battlefield that day. It wasn't a single act of faith. David's battle was won when he stood alone in the fields with only the sheep around, forcing himself to practice over and over and over. David's battle was won in the lonely 10,000 hours of faithful obedience when no one was looking. His triumph over self will was won by the daily disciplines for which he still receives no credit. Why isn't this the story we tell each other? Why do we persist in the illusion that divine providence was only in the throwing of the single stone and not in the 10,000 hours of practice? Why do we credit faith only in the large moments when those are merely the byproducts of 10,000 previous smaller acts of faith?

I spent most of the first 18 years of my life (way more than 10,000 hours, FYI) practicing hate by default because I was not actively loving. The damage those years did to people around me is probably more devastating than I can imagine. Did I contribute to the pain and suffering of others in such a way as to make them more hateful? Most likely.

Even in the 18 years I've known Christ, there are many days I feel more like Saul than David. Each tiny act of faithfulness threatened by fear, laziness, and selfishness. I can blame technology, other people, physical ailments... but truthfully it is a lack of faith that what I do right now, when no one is looking, is more important that what I do in front of others. I have been spiritually and emotionally destroyed by that truth recently because I do not always make good choices, and those bad choices have consequences. 10,000 hours of practicing selfishness can be as devastating in my life as it was in Saul's. It can be just as devastating in my son's life, in the lives of my friends and students, and in the lives of strangers I meet every day. That is scary.

So I have spent this week repenting and grieving the sins of my people, each and every large act of hate is mirrored in the unseen acts of selfishness in my own heart. Such tiny acts of unfaithfulness accumulated over generations and distances has allowed evil to ravage this world I love unchallenged like the giant Goliath. So I am praying for one more hour of faithfulness for today, and another for tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on because I still have a long way to go on my 10,000 hours. But maybe, just maybe, after a few more thousand hours, I will be ready to sling my stone at the darkness.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

winds

I stepped out of the shower in Kansas City this morning to a slew of messages. Thinking of you, praying for you, remembering. I'm always amazed that I can feel this day coming for weeks and yet be surprised by its arrival. I can't believe it's been four years.

I knew it would be a hard semester, but I had no idea it would be so good, so deeply and beautifully restoring. Not that everything has been sunshine and laughter by any means. Between single parenting and teaching, someone is always unhappy with me, and I've had plenty of failures in both areas to keep me humble for quite a while.

I haven't written in many months. At first that was because life was too big for me, and I found myself in May wondering how I got there. Lately though I haven't written because I can't wrap my mind around joy. If I were home with access to my books, I'd pull out good old Brene and see what she had to say about this in her book The Gifts of Imperfection. She has a great chapter about the difficulty of embracing joy out of our fear of being caught off guard when grief comes around again.

And that's been my problem with God. It's not that I haven't made time for reading and praying, it's that I can't seem to draw near his throne because I'm afraid he'll decide it's time for another round. I've found myself unconsciously preparing for the next blow, trying to anticipate it's arrival. In all my years, I have found grief more bearable than joy. Grief is familiar and comfortable, and I see why so many people choose to stay there and let it define them.

In March I met a dear friend in Nicaragua for some rest and recuperation. One morning we hiked part way up a rock on the edge of the bay where we were staying. On a promontory overlooking the bay, we paused and left the shelter of the trees to check out the view.  I don't particularly enjoy heights, but that day it was the wind that caught me unprepared. While the trees were calm and shady, the wind at the edge was so fierce that standing up was terrifying. The way it gusted, changing directions and force without warning left you off balance. That's what joy feels like to me, unpredictable and even violent, shifting directions.

But as I sit in the Kansas City airport with beautiful blue skies above me ready to go home to my favorite boy, I remember today's new mercies. This season is about finding the strength to stand in these shifting winds and learning to trust the one who holds them in his hands.