the spirituality of the city – part 2 – on ‘waiting’

In Orlando, I lived 5 minutes from work.  Yet it’s inevitable that I’d be pushing it to get to class or a counseling appointment.  Such was the life of convenience.  Living closer actually created more tension.

In the last piece, I introduced a “Spirituality of the City” – an urban way of living and being that invites deeper devotion and surrender to God.  One crucial component of urban spirituality is the art of waiting.  

I remember the first time I pulled up my transit options for my urban voyage to work.  Several routes emerged, each requiring 45 minutes or more of transit time, as well as 2-4 transfers.  Panicked, I entered the addresses again, and the same results came up. There’d be no drive-thru coffee, no quick back-track home if I forgot something, no sleeping as late as I could before class.  In fact, I’d be at the mercy of an often fickle and unreliable mass transit system, riding on germ-infested busses and light-rail trains, hoping beyond hope that I’d make it to my destination on-time, without catching whatever the 30 other passengers were coughing up.  My blood pressure began to rise.

1791492489_6e344a4d45(Of course, this was reason #342 why I was ticked at God for taking us away from our magic kingdom of convenience, and calling us to the messy realities of urban life.)

It’d take too much time to run through the full litany of messes I made in the first couple of months we were here, but here are some.  I found that the reason seniors looked mad at me was because I was sitting in their designated seats.  I found that coming by $1.50 in coins twice (or several times) a day was a royal pain in the backside.  Even more frustrating was having to ask for change all of the time (urban spirituality, it turns out, requires you to ask for help…I hate that).  I found that the pain in my neck wasn’t my kids, but the minor whiplash that comes from busses starting and stopping on a dime.  After waiting on line for 20 minutes at City Hall, I found that they only accept cash for bus passes, and Sara had our bank card.  I found that after ordering a Tommy’s Joynt carved ham sandwich, that I couldn’t have it because they only accept cash.  Turns out, at many places, credit cards aren’t accepted, which is (once again) very inconvenient.  I found out that busses break down, and that people wear germ-masks for a reason, and that 29 Noriega doesn’t go all the way to Geary, and that smells that I had never dreamed I’d smell hover longer in a bus than anywhere else on earth. 

“Creation groans as it eagerly waits,” St. Paul once said.    

But as it turns out, this discipline of frustrated waiting actually changes you after some time.  In fact, it invites you to surrender. And for someone who craves control, it seems that one of God’s reasons for moving us out here was to teach me, yet again, that I’m a better man, a better husband, a better Dad, and a better friend when I’m stripped of control. 

I’ve discovered, over the past months, that I can do without.  So, I’d forget my power cord and need to ask for help.  I’d be short a quarter and need to ask for help.  I’d see a senior and need to give up my seat, only to be greeted by a smile.  And I’d find out that for 15 minutes, my I-Phone would not give me the opportunity to check emails or surf the net while in a tunnel.  I’ve learned to wait to use the restroom beyond what my convenience-loving bladder ever dreamed possible.  And, I think I’m actually beginning to like the people around me a bit…even the smelly people…in a way that I didn’t or couldn’t before. (By the way, some of my fellow pastors actually say they “love” the poor and needy…I’m not so sure we need to go that far!)  🙂    

Waiting is so damn frustrating.  I think that’s what St. Paul might say today.  It leads me, at times, to whining, which in turn leads to my wish list of ways God ought to make my life more convenient.  

But it also exposes how selfish and arrogant I am.  

Surrender is difficult.  My greedy fists are clenched around any form of control I can get.  I learned a long time ago that it’s easier to trust myself than others.  Others disappoint.  God disappoints.  And that hurts.  But if I’m in control, I can at least manage the disappointment, and blame myself if I fail.  But God is the Author of a better Story than the one I’d write, and it seems He is committed to prying my clenched fists away even it means long transits on germ-infested city busses and trains.  Sometimes it’s helpful to walk a labyrinth.  And sometimes I’ll practice the Ignatian Examen, or the Lectio Divina.  But it turns out that urban spirituality might be as simple as boarding the 29, taking it to the L-Taravel for a 20 min trip on light rail, and then transferring at Van Ness to the 47 or 49, depending on which gets there (if they do get there) first.

Last Thursday, the 29 was a no-show at 8:01am.  God smiled, and so did I.

the spirituality of the city – part one

Nowadays, there is a spirituality for everything.  There is a spirituality of gardening and a spirituality of sex, a spirituality of work and a spirituality of play.  And some of this is intriguing and even helpful because “this is our Father’s world,” as the old hymn puts it, and every square inch of creation bares at least a speck of God’s original good imprint.  I could go one with the usual disclaimers about how this sort of thing could lead to become New Age or lead you to start listening to Yanni or Enya (or, God forbid, Yanni and Enya in concert together from Amsterdam or Paris…), but you’d probably tune me out…so let’s not go there.  Suffice it to say, I think spirituality of any sort is always rooted in one’s “larger story” (and we all have one), mine is obvious from the title of my blog.  Yes, I’m a Christian, and quite convinced (with Augustine and Calvin and C.S. Lewis and many others) that this ocean of spiritual sensation always leads to the Fount from which all goodness originates.  

So then, the spirituality of the city is just one more way of noticing, within this ocean teeming with life (and sometimes dark places and bad creatures, too), the signposts which point to Home.  The city, after all, may not have been our original domain, but it is the final destination in the Christian story.  St. John describes it in Revelation (not Revelations, please!) 20-22 with all of his apocalyptic color – it is, as some have called it, a “gardened city” – the original vision of the great Architect who apparently loves coffee shops as much as He loves irises.

My city, of course, is San Francisco.  I grew up outside of New York City, and was first captured by the view of the skyline from Central Park.  Though young, I suspect something of that ‘original inkling’ from the Garden awoke in me, and I knew that this was it – a beauty that drew both from the garden and the city.  In Orlando (where I spent 13 years), I saw it at Lake Eola, where an urban walking path leads you around a lovely lake with paddle-boats, a pagoda, the outdoor Shakespeare Theater, and more.  But San Francisco – well, it outdoes them all, which is quite ironic given the fact that many evangelical Christians see it as one of the most dark and dirty places on earth.

That’s a sad fact, and perhaps others can address why that is.  I’ve not experienced San Francisco in that way.  Walking through the manicured paths of Golden Gate Park, into the wonderfully serene Japanese Tea Garden, over past the waterfall at Stow Lake, and on to enjoy the satisfying urban cuisine at the energetic Park Chow on 9th, I begin to see why God said, “And it was good.”  

img_0168In the city, people love good food, by the way.  I’d do well to devote a whole blog to it.  And you won’t find the drive-thru on every corner that you see in the suburbs.  On a cool day, you’d probably prefer to watch whales while eating breakfast at the Cliff House or Loui’s, while on a warmer day you might do your week’s shopping for fruit and vegetables at the Embarcadero Farmer’s Market.  People like to eat and drink, and do it with others here.  They work hard, but play hard after it’s all said and done.  And while I suspect the preachers and politicians are decrying the evils of the Left Coast and San Francisco, the suburban family is chomping down the fattened calf of processed Big Macs while a San Francisco family is likely dining together, perhaps with friends, on food that isn’t processed, that is locally grown, and probably lacks the chemicals that just accelerated the suburban daughter’s journey into puberty by a year.

But, the spirituality of the city, and this city in particular, is seen in its ability to anticipate the future Gardened City.  

Now, there are other naysayers.  Some, of course, are in the business of pitting rural vs. urban, with lots of love for Wendell Berry and the nostalgic simple life of rural America.  I lived in rural America, went to college in rural America, and learned to sin in ways I never learned on Long Island in rural America.  I’ve also read Wendell Berry, and he’s not shy about the ravages of sin in fly-over country.

There is also John Eldredge, whose books convinced one family I knew to move to Montana because cubicles are evil and buffalo are not, or something like that.  That family moved back shortly thereafter.  They didn’t find God in Montana.  It seems that wild hearts can be bred in the urban jungle, as well as in raging Colorado rivers.

 Which is all to say that the spirituality of the city is a subject worth exploring, and will be one explored in coming installments.  For now, it’s worth considering a small thing – that God may not be as cynical as your inflatable-ego talk-show host who has written off the left coast, that He may be so fiercely passionate for His original goodness to flourish that in the places where you least expect it – among the poor, the wounded, the not-so-sexy, the marginalized, and the powerless – (even when these things are bound up in a place, a city) – that He’ll show up and make sure His garden flourishes, not just with blossoming flowers, but with the scents of cuisine representing all nations and tongues, and from the backyard gardens and kitchens of people who in very ordinary ways (sometimes beautiful, sometimes broken) embody God’s vision of the Gardened City.

Ehrman on Colbert

Bart Ehrman’s latest appearance on the Colbert Report came just in time for the Triduum and Easter Sunday.  That said, Colbert had an early Easter lunch.  It amazes me that the most liberal and most conservative scholars have one thing in common – they play by the rules of Enlightenment rationalism.  Colbert, though a comedian (and, reportedly, a RCC Sunday School teacher), seems to get this.  His  interview with Ehrman, though comical, seems to get at the core issues.  His elephant parable is a shining example.  The Gospel writers were humans telling a story from their own perspectives, selecting and arranging materials that fit their audiences.  That’s not contradiction…just good (inspired) journalism.  Take a listen…

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bart Ehrman
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor NASA Name Contest

Seven Stanzas at Easter

By John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all 
it was as His body; 
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules 
reknit, the amino acids rekindle, 
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers, 
each soft Spring recurrent; 
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled 
eyes of the eleven apostles; 
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes, 
the same valved heart 
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then 
regathered out of enduring Might 
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor, 
analogy, sidestepping transcendence; 
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the 
faded credulity of earlier ages: 
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache, 
not a stone in a story, 
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow 
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us 
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb, 
make it a real angel, 
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, 
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen 
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, 
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty, 
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are 
embarrassed by the miracle, 
and crushed by remonstrance.

Telephone Poles and Other Poems © 1961 by John Updike.

the myth of healing

“God never promised you a perfectly whole and happy life.”

I’m finding that this has become a frequent mantra of mine in pastoring and counseling.  In fact, it’s something I’ve had to work through myself.  You see, 12 years ago, I started going to counseling to get healed, to get whole, to get the nagging ache of existence to go away.  12 years later, I’ve not gotten rid of the ache.

It’s always a scary thing when someone comes to me for counseling, and hopes that they’ll get their needs met in a way that Mom and Dad didn’t meet them.  I’m glad to play a minor role in re-building hope and trust, but I don’t have a fighting chance to meet their needs – at least, in the way they assume I can.

This, of course, is a uniquely Western phenomenon, born out of an Enlightenment promise of progress and fulfillment that has almost run its course, aided by cynicism of postmodernity.  Even still, people are not willing to let go of the promise of certain fulfillment just yet.  It’s hard to give up the conviction that happiness is within our reach.  This is why addiction runs so rampant in the progressive West.

Soul care, you see, is not about meeting unmet needs (ultimately – of course, “needs” will be met), or getting whole, or achieving healing.  It’s just that arrogant of us as Westerners to believe that.  Counselors are not experts, nor can we ever pretend to be able to fix people, fill their gaping holes, or mend their wounds.  We’re a mess, too.  We’ve learned to join the chorus of lament as faithful friends along the way, and we’ve discovered a few tools that might help.  These tools – empty chairs or collages, family sculpting or letter-writing – are helpful, but they are not magic.  It’d be incredibly presumptuous to think that we could mend a broken heart.

People often ask me, “What is Christian counseling?”  Whether the name Jesus is spoken or not, what we do is lead people into more honest living that ultimately begs the question, “I’m finished.  What more can I do?”  In other words, we lead them to the end of themselves, hoping that the miracle of all miracles happens – that they discover that there is nothing they can do to mend their broken hearts.  Anything less than Jesus is but a drop of water in an endless desert.

Now, these drops of water – the things we go to in order to satisfy the thirst – while not ends in themselves, are signs.  And these signs are powerful.  They’re not powerful in their ability to satisfy.  They cannot possibly satisfy our thirst, whether we look for satisfaction in a substance, a relationship, a religious ritual, or food.  No, these things might cheer us a bit in the moment, but will ultimately leave us disappointed and empty.  The power comes through listening into the disappointment.  What was I looking for?  What was I longing for?

A counseling relationship can be one such powerful sign.  I cannot possibly be a Dad to a young man, but my presence can stir a longing which, if explored together, can lead to a more loving Father than I could ever be.  In fact, this is part of why I love the New Exodus motif.  Like Moses, we are guides on the journey.  Like St. Paul, we provide a roadmap.  Christ-followers debated about who had the best ‘magic Jesus pills’ back in the day – Paul, Apollos, Peter, etc.  Paul said it well…it’s not about us.  We’re happy to lead you down the path…but the path leads to Jesus.  Relationships stir a longing.  And though I’ve seen dozens of married couples for counseling over the years who thought marriage would satisfy the ache (or sex addicts who thought prostitutes would satisfy it, or co-dependents who thought helping would satisfy it…), it never, ever does.  It cannot possibly make the ache go away.

We grow and mature (note: stop using the language “we get healed”) as we step more deeply into this ache and find beneath it desire. In this, we find that whatever our drug of choice might be, it is only a false or momentary panacea.  One of my drugs of choice is reading.  I’ve always hoped to find myself in a book, and I’ve spent hours with dead writers drinking their medicine.  The journey has not been futile, as I’ve found that the books or words themselves don’t satisfy, but stir in me something more real.  C.S. Lewis said it best in The Weight of Glory:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

What Lewis doesn’t say is that we should give up looking at our pasts, or reading books, or drinking wine, or enjoying sex, though in some cases we know these things can become self-destructive (addictive).  What he proposes is that we take a look beneath them.  If we do this, our hearts are inevitably broken, as we’ll need to grieve the loss of our false gods.  But out of the brokenness, new life will come.  Our hearts – constricted from our idols and addictions – will beat stronger and grow larger, longing more freely and fully for real life.  Honesty will grow.  Hope will grow.  Relationships will grow, because we’re no longer looking for final satisfaction in them.  Our pasts will stop enslaving us, as we stop trying to re-create our lives in the present (forgiveness).  Out of the darkness comes light.

the-inner-criticAs I write this meditation, it’s Good Friday, and it strikes me that this is what we remember as we descend with Jesus through the liturgy of Good Friday, only to rise with Him on Easter.  One last story might be appropriate.  I saw a woman for counseling whose pain was so raw and desperate that she was literally carving into her arms.  Already scarred, she’d continue to go back for more, hoping that by cutting on herself she might be able to control the deeper pain inside.  Counseling, as it often does, was only making the pain greater, for her eyes were opened to see her past more honestly.  Sexual abuse.  Rape.  Humiliation and mockery.  No wonder she’d cut.  I might too.  Counseling, she hoped, would heal.  It would be the magic pill, the panacea.  She had heard I was good (oh, crap!).  And she was beginning to doubt as the pain increased.

I’m not that good, and neither are you.  But, I had the presence of mind (translate: Holy Spirit) to walk her, like Moses or Paul or some of my mentors/counselors walked me, further into the wilderness until she was exhausted and expended.  “Nothing will help,” she said. “Not journaling, not empty chairs, not processing, not crying…I’m tortured.”  And then Holy Week came, and a movie called The Passion of the Christ happened into theaters, by God’s providence.  And so, I asked her to go to it with two good and safe friends.  (Sometimes this is all a counselor can do).

And she watched Him cut.  And she watched Him bleed.

A raw, guttural cry came after the movie, and she rocked and cried and ached and…confessed – “I’ve been trying to cut myself when You’ve been cut for me.  I’ve been trying to heal myself when You suffered and bled for me.  I’m so sorry.”

Cutting lost its power for her after that.  That doesn’t mean she didn’t cut again, for it was habitual, an almost mindless reaction to internal pain.  But, it lost its power to heal.  And as she looked beneath the ache, she noticed a desire welling up to enter more deeply into His sufferings…and perhaps even the hope that emerges out of suffering…Easter hope.

She isn’t healed.  She’d be the first to tell you.  She is hopeful.  And she still recommends me as a counselor.  “He’s good,” she says, smiling, when she tells people.

She’s not talking about me.