Sunday, April 20, 2014

shatter

Sometimes this ocean I live in is too big for words. I've sat down to write numerous times, but found myself unable to follow the currents of thoughts because there have been so many moving so quickly. This winter I have dreamt a lot about the ocean, always wild and out of control. In one particular dream, there were tsunami waves so large the current sucked the water miles out to sea before the waves came. As I lay curled up under one of the waves, certain of my death, the water froze over me. When I reached up to touch the wave, it shattered like glass.

In describing her conversion, Rosaria Butterifeld attacks the modern evangelical tendency to minimize the offense of sin. As she describes it, "Sin lurks in our heart and grabs us by the throat to do its bidding." Oy. She must have been reading some John Owen. Lately I've felt sin's stranglehold on my neck, rendering me mute and making every breath an act of faithful endurance. I suspect the Lord has shut my mouth to keep me from saying anything terribly stupid. For that mercy I'm infinitely thankful.

So I lay here curled up, waiting for the crashing waves to be stilled, for the water to shatter like glass, for breath and words and a voice.

Friday, March 28, 2014

sheer force of will

If sheer force of will could bring spring to Nashville, it would've come weeks ago by the force of my will alone.  Earlier this week I rolled out of bed, threw caution to the wind, and dressed how I wanted the weather to be without checking my phone.  Bad call, Wendy, bad call.  As I ran through a blizzard in a short-sleeved dress and light cardigan to get my allergy shot, I laughed at my folly.  Then did the same thing the next morning.

I spent some time in the hills around Chattanooga last weekend with some dear friends, one of whom brought me the book Bread and Wine by Shuana Niequist. You know it's going to be a good book when you're underlining and dog earring the introduction. Seriously.  Buy it right now. Niequist does a fantastic job of interspersing recipes, life stories, Jesus, and the importance of community. Check out this thought on authentic community after a friend dropped by her house unexpectedly while both she and the house were in complete disarray:
This is my shame double whammy - my body and my house. It was almost physically painful. But this is the thing: she's my friend. And even though having her sit right in the middle of my house mess sets of every shame alarm I have, I stayed there, perched on my couch, listening and talking...
...I felt within myself a desire to shoo her out, to hide, to keep her from the disorder that is my real, actual life some days. But I took a deep breath, and she sat there listening to me across my dirty coffee table, and we talked about community and family and authenticity. It's easy to talk about it, and really, really hard sometimes to practice it.
This is why the door stays closed for so many of us, literally and figuratively. One friend promises she'll have people over when they finally have money to remodel. Another says she'd be too nervous that people wouldn't eat the food she made, so she never made the invitation.  
But it isn't about perfection, and it isn't about performance. You'll miss the richest moments in life - the sacred moments when we feel God's grace and presence through the actual face and hands of the people we love - if you're too scared or too ashamed to open the door anyway, even though someone might see you in your terribly ugly half-zip.
For two pretty serious introverts, Emmett and I loved entertaining.  You would have thought we lived for dinner parties the way we would plan then, talk thought menu ideas, and made up excuses to host them.  I never grew up entertaining, so hospitality was a completely new concept for me when we got married.  It wasn't long before I fell in love having people over despite our small hose, slim budget, and awkward social skills.  Even when Emmett was sick, we managed to host people frequently, even having visitors to our hotel in Houston. Though hospitality has been more difficult as a working single mom, I've treasured every opportunity to have people in my house. Recently I've been pondering the art of Christian hospitality.

Because I'm somewhat of a book glutton, I couldn't help starting The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield last night.  This is the spiritual memoir of a lesbian English professor and gay rights activist in upstate New York who eventually became a believer and gave up her lesbian lifestyle.  I was intrigued by her story, and even though I haven't finished Bread and Wine, I couldn't escape the check in my spirit that somehow the two books are going to work together to teach me something important.  So I dove in, stayed up late, underlined half the first chapter and dog eared the rest.  This, my friends, is how I live on the edge: stay up late, underling books, and dressing completely unrelated to the weather report.  It's been a wild spring break.

Nevertheless, that check in my spirit was justified.  Having lived a highly educated life, Butterfield had always experienced Christians as bad thinkers who glossed over real problems with vulgar platitudes that ended conversations rather than deepening them. Can I get an amen on that? Even as a believer I have to agree with her on that point.  Butterfield was doing some research on the rise of the religious right in America, which led her to read and reread the Bible on her own. When she wrote an editorial to the local paper critiquing the Promise Keepers for their gender politics, she received an extraordinary amount of mail in response to her critique.  The hate-filled responses from the Christian right she immediately tossed in one box and the fan mail from supporters of women's rights in another box.  But one particular letter, from a local pastor sat on her desk for over a week:
It was a kind and inquiring letter. It encouraged me to explore the kind of questions that I admire: how did you arrive at your interpretations? How do you know you are right? Do you believe in God? He didn't argue with my article; he asked me to explore and defend the presuppositions that undergirded it. I didn't really know how to respond to Ken's letter, but I found myself reading and rereading it. I didn't know which box to file this letter in, and so it sat on my desk and haunted me.
After many days thinking about this, Ken's letter made me confront the presuppositional problem of my research.... It may seem strange to you, but no one had asked me these questions before or led me to ask them of myself. These were reasonable questions, but not the sort of questions that postmodern professors toss around at faculty meetings or the local bar. The Bible makes it clear that reason is not the front door of faith. It takes spiritual eyes to discern spiritual matters. But how do we develop spiritual eyes unless Christians engage the culture with those questions and paradigms of mindfulness out of which spiritual logic flows? That's exactly what Ken's letter did for me - invited me to think in ways I hadn't before. 
By the way, I hate a messy desk, one where papers litter the surface. Pastor Ken's letter sat on my desk for a whole week - this is six days longer than I can normally stand. It really bothered me that I didn't know where to file it. I threw it away a few times but always found myself digging through the department's recycling bin to reclaim it at the day's end...
Turns out that thoughtful questions, spoke in love to an honest seeker have a deeply profound effect to change a person.  I love Butterfield's reminder later in the book that preaching the gospel is not offering an invitation to safety and security and solutions to all your problems.  Preaching the gospel is an invitation to completely upend someone's world view, an invitation to "comprehensive chaos," as Butterfield describes it. No one enters into this chaos without the courage born from genuine community.

And somehow Niequist's reminder in Bread and Wine that hospitality was about creating spaces for authentic community rather than showing off suddenly made more sense.  Planning a space and time and meal that allows people to meet together in real, meaningful fellowship simultaneously creates a safe place to ask the real questions.  It is no surprise that the next step in Butterfield's faith journey happened over the dinner table at Pastor Ken's house and continued to happen there for over two years before she came to know Jesus.  Pastor Ken and his wife accepted Butterfield as she was, open to honest conversation without requiring anything from her.

I am struck by the simple, unglamorous courage it takes to ask honest questions, on both sides. The courage to take a discussion to a deeper level without personal attack is extraordinary in our cutler.  Often honest questions from either side are not met with the same intellectual integrity and genuine kindness that Butterfield and Pastor Ken showed each other. Snark and irony are much more likely to get a laugh at another person's expense and at the expense of the gospel. The unfortunate side of the internet is that we've become a culture whose intellectual currency has moved from discussion around a table to the posting and forwarding of one-sided op ed pieces. Perhaps it is no coincidence that we've simultaneously become a culture of take-out meals and eating in front of the television.

If sheer force of will could have converted the world to Christ, it would have been done by now.  The combination of these two books has given me a profound sense that one of our obligations as believers is to cultivate the kind of hospitality that allows for authentic conversation, difficult questions, and answers that will push us over into the comprehensive chaos of walking in faith.

I'm sure I'll have more thoughts on these books in the coming weeks, but for now I need to do a lot of meditation, repentance, and self-reflection. One last thought from Philemon, though.  We've been reading through Philemon with our students at school, and these verses struck me:
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. 
As ministers of the new covenant we partake of a faith community that births boldness, but that boldness should never overshadow the appeal of love. Paul himself was a great example of loving sinners in their community despite their sin, of a ministry based on patient, long-suffering, discussions, of engaging with difficult questions in bold humility. He never wavered on the definitions of sin, but he always stressed the supremacy of love over the force his will.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

hugging a cactus

I came across this blog a few weeks ago about adult onset runners.  I particularly like the phrase "starting to run as an adult can feel like trying to hug a cactus." So true.

The past few weeks have been really good, the kind of really good that makes you nervous about halfway through when you start wondering about the inevitable crash ahead.  I'm not speaking of circumstances here, like everything happening was good.  More of a state of being, that no matter what was happening, good or bad, I was able to give the circumstance the mental space it deserved.  Triumphs didn't earn my salvation, failures were not reflections of my worthlessness, and sin led me to Godly sorrow instead of worldly sorrow.  Faith was easy.  I was in the zone.

It's not that I was expecting something disastrous, I just know from experience that faith is hardly ever easy for me. Even just a couple weeks of rest from the daily battle with my sinful nature leaves me weak and flabby.  I started to get nervous a couple weeks ago when I read this from John Newton's Letters:
Strength of grace is not ordinarily acquired by those who sit still and live at ease, but by those who frequently meet with something that requires a full exertion of what power the Lord has given them.
Um... Lord... Maybe this is why people aren't all that excited about following you? Just a thought.

I have never been a runner and never really wanted to be a runner.  A combination of boredom with my workouts and only having access to a treadmill at home meant I was suddenly running distances I never thought possible for me.  Sure other people can do that, but not me.  And while full on running for me is a light jog for most of the runners I know, I actually enjoy the pain and mental workout that comes with running.

I am pretty certain that it is impossible to maintain my affinity for baking and ever call myself an avid runner, but I've started reading a few articles about how to race.  Although it should have been obvious, many of those articles are on training your mind to push your body.  One particularly good article quotes Arnold Schwarzenegger about pushing himself until he passes out because the benefits of pushing himself outweigh the inconvenience of passing out.  Although this advice isn't intended to be taken literally for runners, it is meant to illustrate that the benefits of pushing your physical body harder than most people are willing to push it outweigh the momentary discomforts.

Enter 2 Corinthians 5: 4, 6:3-4, and 4: 17.
For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed, but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
We put no stumbling block in anyone's path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships, and distresses...
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 
 I'm starting to think that trying to follow Jesus is like trying to hug a cactus...

There are all sorts of people in my life who aren't following Jesus, and I totally understand why. To have our overwhelming desires for intimacy, excitement, newness, comfort, image, etc. met right now in this instant is an unbearable temptation. I get it.  I fail all the time.  And then I try to pretend it wasn't that big of a deal or maybe God should change his standards or maybe I'll just give up for a while. Or best of all, maybe if I pretend he's not real, then I can do whatever I want, guilt-free. Only none of those options ever work. They weaken my will, allowing me to give in to temptation, but truth always comes back.

And the truth is, I haven't pushed myself to passing out. I do groan in this mortal body, longing to be swallowed up by life, but I have not pushed myself to great endurance. So weeks like last week where everything comes crashing down emotionally, and my sinful nature bears down on me from nowhere like an avalanche, and things that were easy last week feel impossible this week - it feels like mile ten of my twelve mile run, like I'm going to die.

What would a trainer say if this were a race? Push harder and run your best split because the only thing stopping you is your mind.  And who cares if you pass out trying (even though you probably won't)? Passing out is not going to kill you.

Maybe, just maybe, that is what Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians.  I sure hope it's not, But I think it is.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

deluged

I made a cup of tea tonight for the sole purpose of warming my hands while I stood in the driveway to watch the approaching storm.  A violent spring storm storm brings its own sort of chill that travels straight down to the bones no matter how warm the day or thick the clothes. I spun circles in the driveway as part of a furious game of hide and seek with the lighting that was always somehow behind me. Big fat drops forced me back to the safety of the porch and eventually inside the door where I watched sheets of rain billow across the yard like the curtains at my window.

Watching storms always reminds me of a summer afternoon in Charleston over a decade ago where for hours I watched black clouds from hundreds of miles away race to overtake the daylight. Hulking black masses fell over themselves like a thousand hungry demons in a race to deluge the land with their wild torrents of water. It made me feel very small. I'm still awed by the relentless fury of an oncoming storm.  The foreshadowing, the rising action, the tense quiet are the best parts of the story.

The safety of my doorway gave me perspective on the sheets of water twisting across the yard. Someone got caught in those torrents tonight, getting out of their car or heading home from work. I imagined the futile wrestling with umbrellas rendered useless by the sideways motion of the water, the icy feeling of rain piercing clothing, the gross lack of perspective caused as life collapses to a single desire to get out of the rain. I imagined this storm inside of a tee pee or log cabin, with leaks in the roof and without the weather channel app and 911. I said a prayer of thanks and felt very small.

I started Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky a few days ago. Although I enjoy a book that makes me laugh or cry, it is extremely rare for me to find a book that triggers anxiety. Something about the way Dostoevsky gets into the minds of his characters and communicates the darkness of sin, the hopelessness induced by injustice and poverty, and the absurd lies our egos devour on a daily basis makes me feel like I cannot breathe. It will likely take me a year to read this book because ten pages brings me dangerously close to hyperventilating. After twenty pages of reading tonight I was so out of sorts that I snapped at Quinn. I had to leave the room, do some breathing exercises, and speak some truth to myself before I was calm enough to apologize.

In the preface Richard Pevear describes a change in Dostoevsky's writing after his return from exile.  Dostoevsky's later works, including Crime and Punishment, are considerably darker. The flimsy reality of the concrete world plays a secondary role to the darker realities of consciousness. I feel like a voyeur peering into someone else's soul and finding my own struggles being played out as a farce on a stage.  It is both mesmerizing and unhinging. To what would crushing poverty or a hopeless economic system reduce me? How would gross injustice or extreme hunger warp my understanding of the truth?

I've been sitting in a class on Sunday mornings where overfed upper middle class white people talk about theology.  I love the people and I love the discussion, but every once in a while I want to climb the walls and claw my eyes out because we sit there like Job, throwing out God's precepts with so little experience of his person, as if there weren't a thousand hungry demons bearing down on us ready to unleash all kinds of evil.

I'm also reading The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day.  After being sort-of wrongfully imprisoned, she writes of lying a cell listening to a woman in the next cell:
In the next cell to me there was a drug addict who beat her head against the metal walls of her cell and howled like a wild animal. No woman in child birth, no cancer patient, no one in the long year I had spent in King's County hospital had revealed suffering like this. I pressed my hands to my ears, and covered my head with my pillow to try to muffle the sounds. It was most harrowing to think that this pain, this torture, was in a way self-inflicted, with full knowledge of the torture involved.  The madness, the perverseness of this seeking for pleasure that was bound to be accompanied by such mortal agony was hard to understand.  To see human beings racked, by their own will, made one feel the depth of the disorder of this world… I felt the sadness of sin, the unspeakable dreariness of sin from the first petty self-indulgence to this colossal desire which howled through metal walls! And yet I do not think I thought of these things as I thought of God  while in the solitary confinement cell at Occoquan. I just suffered desperately and desired to be free from my suffering, with a most urgent and selfish passion. The instinct for self-preservation made me forget everything but a frantic desire for freedom, to get away from these depths into which I had fallen…. I could get away, but what of others? I could get away, paying no penalty, because of my friends, my background, my education, my privilege. I suffered but was not part of it. I put it from me. It was too much for me. I think that for a long time, one is stunned by such experiences. They seem to be quickly forgotten, but they leave a scar that is never removed.  
I nearly sobbed at these words, seeing myself in both the addict she describes and in her own instinct for self-preservation. John Owen may have taught me the theology of sin's deceit, but Dostoevsky's storytelling is leaving its scars on my consciousness.  Whenever I put down his book, I can only describe my emotional state, like Day does, as a "frantic desire for freedom, to get away from these depths into which I had fallen."

Because of Day's book and Wilson's Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl (which I can't stop coming back to for some reason), I've been exploring the concept of smallness in my quiet time.  What does it mean for Christ, the Word himself, to take on flesh and wash the feet of the men who would abandon him just hours later? Certainly I am completely out of my league, here, but I suspect I have greatly underestimated the role of courage in this story. To face the approaching storm and stand in its billowing torrents without fleeing is a feat unimaginable to my weak frame.  I can't even watch it coming without a teacup to warm my hands and a dry house prepared for my retreat. Even reading about these storms deeply scars my consciousness, so how can I presume to try and face them in real life?

I am deluged by "the depth of the disorder in the world… the unspeakable dreariness of sin from the first petty self-indulgence to this colossal desire which howled through metal walls!" But though I am deluged, I fear drowning far less than I fear the self-inflicted torture of my sinful nature.  And perhaps that kind of desperation, selfish though it may be, is the beginning of courage.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

well-aged

My blog and I are in that awkward phase of our relationship where I've been avoiding him for a while wondering if we should break up. But here I am again. Who am I kidding? I know nothing about relationships.

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of busy, mostly the lovely sort of busy like coffee with friends, late nights playing games, and a trip to somewhere warm. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day describes certain inspired moments she had as a child:

Whenever I felt the beauty of the world in song or story, in the material universe around me, or glimpsed it in human love, I wanted to cry out with joy.
I've shied away from writing because I have felt so much like a better version of my 13 year old self. Not that I'd ever want to be that age again. The horror! But I have felt the overwhelming desire to cry out with joy lately, like one of my students when they crush on some boy at school. And frankly, that kind of girlish delight is just downright undignified and embarrassing for a woman of my age. There's no way I would write about that kind of silliness.

Don't get me wrong, my life is hard. Like HARD hard. Like single mom, want to send my kid to granny's house and hop the first plane back to Costa Rica and live in a hut on the beach selling coconut water forever kind of hard. I weep often. Not just your shed a tear, woe is me kind of sniffling, but the full on I'm ready for heaven kind of ugly cry.  All the time.


Best description of Hell I've ever read: (From ND Wilson's, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl)

God is kind and reserves a place for those who loathe Him to the end, an eternal exile, a joyless haven for those who would eternally add to their guilt, a place where blasphemy will be new every morning.  A place less painful and less terrible than the alternative. Unless you change, Heaven, the Shekinah, the close presence of that burning Holiness, the presence of the creator God and the face of the exalted Word, the winds and fire of that storm of joy would be a worse hell than Hell itself, a worse burning than any figurative (or literal) flames.  In the end there will be no escaping Hell because all else will be Heaven.  There will be no need for walls or chains or any kind of cell, because Hell will be that place farthest away from His smell.  A place you will hate but have no desire to leave .
Wow.  Earlier in the book he rants:
Why do Christians think of purity, holiness, and even divinity as something with big eyes and soft fur? Why do we so often ignore the beautify in exchange for the cute? (several pages later) Holiness is terrible. It comes with the whirlwind. It is a purifying fire. We are not the first Christians to trivialize the cherubim.  We are not the first to make things soft on our imaginations and comfortable in our dreams.  
Holiness is terrible. It is a purifying fire. To be unmade in its flames is a terrifying thing indeed. I can tell many stories of myself and others shrinking away from it, pulling back as it draws near, hiding under the bed when it breaks in through the window. The ways we have of wriggling out form under God's purifying thumb are absolutely astounding, but holiness is relentless. It hunts, it devours, it stalks, but if you run away long enough, it may just leave you alone.

I had a chance to try surfing for he first time last week.  I'm pretty lousy, but I loved it.


Our pastor is speaking through Hebrews this year, and he began with Hebrews 12:1-2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Perseverance that comes from fixing your eyes on Christ is the central theme in Hebrews. Few things in this world will teach you about perseverance like trying to learn how to surf.  Try to get your board out in the waves, get knocked over, nearly drown, paddle around a while, try to stand up, fall over, choke on salt water, gag, then do it all again. If you can't make the connection between surfing and life, then I don't think we can be friends because my life is a whole lot like surfing, and not the Mavericks Invitational, I make this look easy kind of surfing.  No.  My life is more like the Lord have mercy on that old lady trying to stand up on a surfboard, somebody rescue her before she kills someone, kind of surfing.

But that is what holiness does to a sinful soul like mine.  It knocks me over, nearly drowns me, makes me gag, wears me out, leaves scabs on my elbows, and salt water in my sinus cavities and then has the nerve to tell me to get out there and try it again without any promises it's going to get easier or I'm going to look better trying.


Wilson's thoughts on heaven:

Heaven will be wonderful (understatement). It will be more wonderful than we can imagine, even if our imaginations weren't so stunted by marshmallow visions. You will have a body more physical than this one. Heaven will be hard and bright, and the winds will be strong. You will have the body and the eyes and the purified, well-aged soul to bear it. We will remake this world with blistered hands.…Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shekinah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails and hawks and rabbits playing tag….But we cannot reach the final chapter by dreaming, by holding our collective breath and staring at an unshaded acrylic escape painting. The only road to that final chapter began at the garden and led into the wilderness. It runs through these chapters. Live now. Relish the tensions, the challenges, and laugh at the petty pains….The problem of evil brings its own strength. We do not need to strengthen it by imagining perfection to be cross-stitch and cookies and… kittens. The world is already more wonderful than we can imagine. Heaven will be better still.
Heaven will be hard and bright and the winds will be strong. But I, yes, I will have the purified, well-aged soul bear it all because I am being unmade and remade in the furnace of holiness.  I am being knocked over and nearly drowned, but I am still getting back up to try again, no matter how ugly the last fall was.  I can weep, but not without laughing.  I can mourn, but not without dancing.

Unless we are changed, we will fear the burning presence of a holy God more than eternal exile. One day recently I woke up to the reality that I am being changed.  I am being made into a new creation.  And if I feel a little giddy, like a school girl with a crush, well, then so be it.


Monday, December 30, 2013

snow globes and black coffee

The other day I craved black coffee, and enjoyed it.  That is a sure enough sign that something is dreadfully wrong with me.

Consider this from N.D. Wilson's Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl:
Honestly, I wasn't expecting this book to be all that deep, but it has proven to be one of the best answers to David Hume and the long tradition of skeptics that I've ever read.  And the book is hilarious.  That helps a lot, especially because Hume is really boring.

The problem of evil is a genuine problem, but it's not a logical problem. It's an emotional one. Wow.  My mind has been dancing around that truth for months now, but I never had such simple words to express it.  The problem of evil is not a problem of God's existence, it's a problem with our humility.  Without God, the concept of evil cannot exist.  Discomfort, yes.  Inconvenience, sure.  But not evil.  If you remove God, everything and everyone from Hitler to Mother Theresa is simply a matter of taste and fashion, not good and evil.

We do not want to hear an answer that puts us so low.  That's the real problem.

Ouch.

I am in a season of resisting the lowness, of not wanting to accept a cosmology that doesn't feature my comfort as the central focus.  Ouch.

In the book Prelandra, by C.S. Lewis, Dr. Ransom travels to Prelandra, or Venus, and attempts to keep Dr. Weston (who has been possessed by something completely evil) from introducing evil onto the maiden planet.  The book is kind of dull, as most of it consists of one long argument between the two men, but at one point Dr. Ransom realizes that words are useless, and he actually has to kill Dr. Weston.  Such an action offends his very cultured, British sensibilities.  Eventually, though, Dr. Ransom realizes that at its most fundamental level, evil cannot be reasoned with, and it must be killed to be stopped.

Wading through the content in my head is like sloughing through a blizzard some days, but every once in a while, a chat with a good friend stirs things up.  Thoughts dance around my head like flakes in a snow globe, and a beautiful landscape is put back aright.  We were exchanging prayer requests, and I finally found the words to express where I am.

I want to carry this unfulfillable longing without falling into despair or covering it up with a false reality.  To do so, though, I must both accept the smallness of my place in the grand story of everything and simultaneously put to death the sin and evil in my own heart.  I must both be still and put on armor.  Somehow it all ties back into Tolkein's concept of fighting the long defeat, but I'm going to need more coffee before I think about that.


Monday, December 16, 2013

fighting the long defeat, santa, and a soapbox

Tis the time of year for Christmas concerts, readings from the Jesus Storybook Bible, shopping, scarves, coats, and unfriending my uptight Christian friends on Facebook….


...okay, so not really unfriending, but definitely hiding them.


I was reading a great article from The Gospel Coalition about Tolkein's phrase "fighting the long defeat." His uses of the phrase both in his fiction and to describe the Christian view of history are pretty amazing.  He talks about our war against evil as one continual fight against the long defeat because until Christ returns, evil will come back, and sometimes even appear to win.  But be careful.  This isn't a hopeless view of our struggles, indeed it's just the opposite.  Fighting the long defeat is about recognizing that there are battles worth fighting even if we expect we're going to lose. It's about sending your men into battle knowing they might die with the hope of giving the hobbits a little more time to destroy the ring.  It's about fighting poverty and injustice one case at a time, knowing there are millions more out there in need and no one may notice what you're doing.  It's about starting another round of chemo when you'd rather give up, or apologizing when you'd rather lash out in anger, or even getting out of bed when it's too cold or hopeless or lonely.  It's about fighting even when you may lose simply because the fight is good. Fighting the long defeat is looking at the Shire or your childhood or your family traditions, it's about fighting for the possibility of joy and hope and laughter on this dying planet and trying to preserve the possibility of freedom.


And when I think of Christmas and growing up in a secular family, I remember the sacrifices my parents made to make it special.  I remember the family trips and crazy food and Santa and shopping. And I love it.  Yes, I love Jesus, and I love Santa and gifts and elf on the shelf, and all the other things people want to make me feel guilty for.  I love it all. And I don't feel guilty.


Why?


Because I know what it means to fight the long defeat.  I have no illusions that life is easy if I just find that magic solution.  If I just act Ike a certain kind of Christian, then suddenly I'll be rich and happy and carefree.  I know that pain will come no matter how hard I fight, but I still fight.  And I know that fighting the long defeat with grace and joy is about imagination.  It's about being able to imagine a new creation, to look forward in hope to things yet unseen, to pulling from past experiences of wonder, awe, and hope and peace so we can find strength in the moments we can't muster them up on our own.
Because when I'm tempted to fall away from the fight, it isn't just a Bible verse that corrects me, it is the Spirit of God who brings to mind not just a verse, but the smile of my son, the memory Emmett's laugh, the knowledge of what my family has sacrificed, the stories lived out by my friends, and the the knowledge that these witnesses are just a small part of the great crowd of witnesses watching history unfold. Mine is a faith that has been fed by imagination, well trained to hope in the Gospel because it was raised on fairy tales and imaginative play.  A fairy tale isn't evil because it isn't true, and people didn't stop celebrating Christ at Christmas because of Santa, the elf on the shelf, presents, or any other tradition.  People have stopped celebrating Christ at Christmas because there is sin in the world whose whole goal is to separate us from Christ, and maybe just maybe Christians are spending too much time making each other feel bad about their family traditions instead of sharing the joy of the gospel of Christ.


Last I checked we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, and you can give everything you have to the poor, but if you don't have love, then it's meaningless.


So if, like me, you are feeling a little beat down by all those holiday Scrooges who wave the banner of self-righteousness because they are more holy than you since they don't this, that, or the other and can slap you with Bible verses to prove it, then remember that the courage to fight the long defeat comes from a life filled with joy, laughter, and hope.  Whatever traditions you do, infuse them with grace, mercy, love, and laughter.  And if waking up each morning to look for the elf on the shelf gives my son a memory of joy and expectation that in some tiny way makes him look forward to the new creation where each day we will get to explore the depths of God's infinite majesty, then I will wake up early and move that silly elf.


Because one day my son will be discouraged.  He may lose his sense of wonder, feel lonely, be tempted to abandon his own family, lose his way, or any number of things.  But I know that what will hold him steady or bring him back is the Spirit of God using the longing, the hunger, the desire for truth, beauty, and justice that fairy tales and stories, both real and imaginary, give him.  This kind of longing keeps us fighting the long defeat when the nights are darkest and Christ is impossible to see. So I will cultivate that longing, that imagination, that desire while I still can, in any way I can.  And I trust that God will use my flawed, human efforts for his glory because after all this is his story, and there is no perfect formula to achieve my comfort.  There is only a good fight that may kill me and those I love, but the hope fueled by faith and fed by stories tells me this fight is still worth fighting.



Thus concludes my soapbox.