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.