Risk much. Fail often. The wisdom of the desert.

Back in the 16th century, a Reformation was happening.  But it’s not the Reformation you’re thinking of.  There was, of course, the well-known and dramatic ‘protest’ of Martin Luther which captured the headlines.  But over in Spain, a tag-team reform duo was hard at work re-branding monastic life in a way that would draw persecution, expulsion, and even imprisonment.  Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were, by all accounts, not-your-typical-mystics.  They were reformers and movement leaders who attacked the lax, bureaucratic, and behavior-driven life of the Spanish monastics.  In a very different way than Calvin and Luther, theirs was a back-to-the-heart, back-to-grace, and back-to-Jesus reform movement.  But their special contribution, particularly for our purposes, is an emphasis on a journey through the wilderness of sin (defined as attachment) to the Promised Land of freedom.

Attachment is the key word for us.  Sin tends to indicate a behavioral flaw, but attachment describes a heart ‘nailed’ to something or someone, bound to it, enslaved to it.  By using this word, Teresa and John were able to talk about hearts nailed to the objects of their affection in Egypt, and slowly released from their enslavement through the “dark night” of the wilderness.  In other words, they described an existential and spiritual process, in great detail and remarkable psychological precision, of growth and maturation.  And they began to make sense out of suffering for people who believed that God had abandoned them or was punishing them.

You see, we misunderstand the suffering of the wilderness if we view it as punitive.  That leads us in directions that hint at an arbitrary and wrathful God only interested in targeting specific sins.  We can pick out episodes in the Bible where God did inflict suffering on “sinful nations,” but God’s furnace was reserved for His chosen, not for the outsiders.  John of the Cross calls this furnace an “immense fire of love” which enkindles the heart in order to enliven and free it.  It’s a purifying fire, though it feels like hell going through it.  And rather than being punitive, this fire is the “living flame of love,” according to John.

In other words, God in His love sends us down into the wilderness because it is in the wilderness where the chains of our slavery are melted.

It is a well-known male initiation rite in many cultures that a father takes his son from his mother at the appropriate age, and casts him into the wilderness.  Though devastating to son and mother, the father knows that it is the son’s time to mature beyond the milk of his mother, learning to live out his own story. “But this is cruel,” the son may say.  “I need my mother’s milk to survive.”  The father, however, knows what it takes for the boy to thrive.  And so, God knows that the milk that we became addicted to in Egypt is ultimately life-depriving, a poison that will kill.  Life – real life – depends on wilderness sufferings.  So God kicks us out of home so that we might find Home.

John of the Cross describes this life-giving process at work, saying:

The soul feels its ardor strengthen and increase and its love become so refined that seemingly there are seas of loving fire within it, reaching to the heights and depths of earthly and heavenly spheres, imbuing all with love.

home_nopeopleThis is why John the Baptist became a desert-prophet.  This is why Jesus was cast into the wilderness.  This is why St. Paul was blinded on the road.  The wilderness actually awakens us.  C.S. Lewis wrote, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”  You see, pain peels us away from our survival strategies, our silly ways of coping, our reluctance to risk again.  When things are going well, we play it safe.  But, when suffering greets us, we find ourselves once again radically dependent on God.  In those male initiation rites, fathers sent their sons into the wilderness precisely because they wanted them to experience powerlessness.  It was in the midst of powerlessness that they would discover the inner resources needed to thrive.  The prodigal son left home, and got the party.  The elder brother stayed home, and was too angry to celebrate.  Without suffering, we’re joyless.  Without leaving, we cannot experience the ecstasy of return.

Now, as I said in the last post, the answer to suffering is lament.  Plastering a happy face on an otherwise despairing soul is tragic, but this is what a Christian subculture often expects.  Lament, expressed in disappointment and even rage toward God, actually activates that deep, life-giving well of God-planted resources.  I’ve often said to people that depression is a symptom of the soul’s reluctance to engage God honestly, leading to the slow death of self-pity.  Empty platitudes and pasted-on smiles don’t bring life in the midst of suffering.  In the wilderness, we cry out, much like Jesus did in His final sufferings.  This was God’s permission to rage.

As we engage suffering, descending down into the wilderness rather than trying to anesthetize it or escape from it, we experience what John of the Cross described so long ago – a sea of loving fire welling up from our soul, a hard-earned joy that is real and not cosmetic, a freedom from the attachments we’ve been nailed to – reputation, predictability, money, appearance, sexual possessiveness, the eternal ‘buzz’, an unrealistic conception of romantic love, a religious high.  In losing, we gain much.  In dying, we live.  In weakness, we become strong.

So, I think it’d be safe to say that John and Teresa would offer this advice to you:

Risk much.  Fail often.  Lose willingly.  Suffer honestly.  This is the wisdom of the desert.

And take the low road, down through the wilderness…because real joy awaits on the other side.

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What personal, family, or cultural customs or ideas does this framework for thinking about suffering challenge?

How does it change your understanding of suffering to know that it is not punitive, but restorative and formative and refining?

Think of suffering you’ve experienced and/or are experiencing.  What is God pulling you away from?  What were you “attached to” that might be loosening?

On John Piper and tornadoes sent by God…

I pause for this commercial break in the New Exodus book blog, in part because I’m so terribly irritated by John Piper’s recent blog and in part because this is one of those “teaching moments” which coincides with the narrative location of our recent New Exodus journey.

If you’d peek at my library, I have about a dozen John Piper books.  When I was a seminary student in the mid-90’s, Piper came and spoke, flooring us with both his powerful message and evident humility.  Over time, I’ve noticed that he has spent considerable ink on people he disagrees with – the Emergent folk, Greg Boyd, Tom Wright, and more.  Listen, that’s cool.  I’ve learned a lot from some of those academic debates, finding myself more sympathetic (on the whole) with Piper when he debates Boyd, and a bit less sympathetic in his disagreements with Wright.  I’ve especially loved his historic windows into suffering saints, and (like many) was ‘saved’ through his invitation to Gospel hedonism.

But Piper said something this past week that we’ve heard from the likes of Falwell and Robertson, and it’s disturbing.  He placed himself in the control tower, monitoring tornado flights in and out of Sin City.  And he played God in the process.  That’s not cool.  In his blog, he builds a series of premises in his tornadic syllogism toward a logical conclusion:  “The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin.”

Let’s talk.  First, this business of who suffers and when they suffer is quite mysterious.  Indeed, suffering seems to be a clear mark, in the New Testament, of obedience, not disobedience.  St. Paul is literally chased down by literal storms and pharisaic stormtroopers.  Piper knows (and this is what makes this whole thing so baffling) that it’s the televangelists who prey on a quid pro quo theology: have faith, be spared from suffering, and acquire great wealth!  It’s clearly a mystery when we see a good (and godly!) family suffer the loss of children (think Samuel Rutherford, Dr. Piper), and an abusive Dad thrive in his life and business.  In this mystery, the biblical invitation is not to play “air traffic controller” for divine tornadic activity, but to pray and lament.  Only a few prophets along the way get to ‘divine’ God’s ways…

…Which leads me to the second point.  Piper has been around longer than I have.  It probably requires a lot of gray hair to pronounce a “Woe to you” complete with tornadic proof.  I’ve wanted lightning bolts to hit the foreheads of sexually abusive fathers who recited prayers over their victims (yes, I’ve counseled people who have experienced this).  I’ve wanted God to strike down white-collared politicians who have turned a blind eye to the poor.  But it takes a lot of guts, and perhaps a divine mandate, to follow through with a “Woe to you.”  Perhaps Piper has earned the chips in heaven to make prophetic weather announcements.  But it seems to me that these divine initiatives only take place when hurricanes place a bullseye on New Orleans, Tsunami’s race toward pagan coasts, or tornadoes bear down on a denominational meeting where homosexuality is being debated.  Hmmm.  It seems that Jesus, the Tornado Incarnate, directed his deadliest winds at the religious establishment, choosing to blow gentler breezes in the direction of the sinners Piper is so concerned about.  Just saying…

Third, in this instance, I suspect it would do much of us good to look hard at how we’ve further shamed, insulted, belittled, and alienated those who struggle mightily with gender identity (bracketing off for a moment what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’).  I counsel people in these places of confusion.  They hear Piper’s quotation of 1 Cor. 6:9-10 and either a) believe they’re damned and descend into self-sabotage or b) recoil with anger at the church.  Few bother to explain that St. Paul was a follower of Jesus, who turned the law on its head and pointed the finger squarely at those who were self-righteous.  The adulterers, the immoral, the greedy, the drunkards – that’s us.  Jesus so radicalized it that the thought of lust made us adulterers.  That said, we need to be careful to point the finger, making sure that those to whom we point it know that we’re aware of our own junk.  Maybe Piper has a relationship with the ELCA leaders I don’t know about.  Maybe he’s done much more than I know to repent on behalf of all of us who in the name of Christ shame and mock homosexuals, using a few key verses to pronounce their very near damnation.  I apologize, Dr. Piper, if all of this has been done.  But from your blog, it appears that you are throwing stones, or more accurately, predicting divinely judgmental weather patterns.  This has the smell of a prophetic mandate.  And Jesus, being the Final Prophet, turned his tornadic activity in different directions…

Finally, God is in the business of (mysteriously) using suffering in order to make us into something better than we are.  It can make us aware of how we’ve been hurt, and how we’ve hurt others.  Always, God is not surprised by it.  This is where I disagree with Boyd and agree with Piper.  Let’s face it:  if you have a big God, you have to deal with big Mystery.  You can’t explain away verses about God’s rule over the bad and good in the world with an Oprah-like, “My God would never do such a thing.”  That’s great for your God.  But, reckoning with the hard realities of Scripture is more difficult.  Some people choose to re-write the narrative.  I’m with Piper in the stream of those who place themselves within it.  But like a good (but hard) Story, we don’t always know the motives of the characters, let alone what the Author was divining.  We trust the Author.  We engage the plot.  We await its final outcome.  And along the way, crap happens, and we lament, cry, scream, beat God on the chest, and wonder along with the wisdom-writer why He blesses the evil doer and curses the obedient.  With the huge weight of our own junk and the world’s mess, I hardly believe that Piper has time to pontificate on tornadoes and ELCA evil-doers who will not enter the kingdom-of-heaven.  If our right-or-wrong view on homosexuality is the litmus test, then I’ve seriously misread the Gospels.  If Jesus is right and we’re all a mess, then by all means let us all look at the grand logs in our own eyes and get on with forgiving others for the speck in theirs.

With that in mind, I’ll end with an ever-present feeling of dread, knowing all-too-well that I’m so often very wrong.  Calvin himself said that our theological ramblings are but baby-talk.  If we’d take our theological forefather seriously, perhaps we’d be attempting to better play with each other as the children of God we are rather than criticizing the messes we’ve made in our diapers.  Piper, this one is worth a retraction.  You are too good of a man, preacher, author, mentor and more to be writing this stuff.  Retract, and then come out and play…even with those whose messes smell worse than yours…

Grace and peace.

Suffering and sanity: How lament can save us in our darkest moments

It is a key insight of Freud that until there is an embrace of honest helplessness, there is no true Gospel that can be heard.  It is telling that the Psalms use the words pit/Sheol/waters/depth (as images of the dangerous realities of life), for in therapy, one must be “in the depths” to experience new life.  Freud has seen that the utter abandonment of pretense is a prerequisite to real joy. (Walter Brueggemann & Patrick Miller, The Psalms and the Life of Faith).

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I don’t do suffering well.  In fact, I despise suffering.  My daughter’s tears bring out the worst in me.  My first thought is “How do I fix this?”  It’s easily translated in to pastoral care or clinical counseling.  “What should I say?  How can I help?”  I’ve been habituated to respond to suffering with answers.

It’s because I despise suffering and its nasty side-effects that I take a kind of twisted pride in how well my community, my church, and my nation deal with suffering.  We seem to be so civil about it.  A slight tear brings out the Kleenex, and suffering is wiped clean.  (Suffering can be wiped clean, incidentally, in scented Kleenex or Kleenex with aloe.)  We’re domesticated sufferers.  Our churches acknowledge suffering only as something true faith can mitigate; we deny its reality, and in doing so evade the possibility that we might have to dive in to uncivilized grief, grief with tears that cannot be quenched.

And it is with a degree of arrogance that I watch the Nightly News, shaking my head at the very uncivilized displays of communal lament among the “ancient peoples” of the mideast.  Poor souls…they look so miserable as they march through the streets, wailing with fists raised at their impotent deity.  If only they would embrace my form of civil suffering…my Kleenex theology…then they might not subject themselves to awful displays of raw and uncontrolled emotion.  Poor, uncivilized souls.

Of course, the secret truth is that I admire them.  Don’t tell anyone, but it’s true.  I long to lament in a way that releases me to surrender as Jacob was released at Peniel.  I long to join the ancient cry that was rarely private: “How long, O Lord…”  I long to abandon my sanitized Kleenex theology for a messy one, one that even allows saints already in heaven to lament before God (Revelation 6), one that acknowledges the paradox of God incarnate crying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  In other words, I long secretly to know the ancient art of crying our prayers before a God who doesn’t offer fast food fixes or purpose-driven principles, but who enters my pain in order to know me, and I Him.  That sounds like biblical faith.  And more and more, I’m convinced it is.

Honest Expression

“If I would have wanted my pain theologized away, I would have gone to Job’s friends.”  So said a very wise, very wounded client of mine early in my clinical counseling internship.  She was incapable of such wisdom, or so I thought.  I was the wise one, the expert, the one in the cozy leather chair with a hand stroking my beard, looking the part of clinician.  Her comment struck me dumb.  She needed Jesus, one who would leave the comforts of heavenly bliss to engage suffering face to face.  Instead, she got a theologian, a medical doctor of the soul, applying theories, making generalizations, testing cures.  I had failed her.  But she had the courage to speak.

In God’s ironic grace, my failure was the gateway to her renewed journey of Hope.  She had spoken, and spoken honestly, not only to her counselor but to a minister, a spiritual leader, much like the ones responsible for beating hope out of her for so many years.  The child of a pastor, she had known only spiritual platitudes and proper ways of interacting.  She had known only a Gospel of principles for better living.  Never challenged to use her voice, never encouraged to speak her doubts, never engaged by people willing to wade in her murky waters, she lived a lonely, isolated life.  Referred by her pastor, her presenting problem was “depression.”  Categorized, isolated, marginalized and referred to professionals for help, she had begun to believe the message her church was feeding her:  “You’re too messy.  When you get better, we’ll invite you back in to ministry.”  In the months following, she learned to lament and not be ashamed of it.  In offering her desires to God in tears, she found new hope released in her soul.  She began to see the world in color.  However, her journey required a path of validated suffering.

Job needed friends to engage the pain, not interpret the pain.  Job needed friends who would join in the chorus of lament, not offer the secret prayer to a life of blessing.  Job needed what Henri Nouwen calls “Wounded Healers” to enter the pain with him, but he had friends who were “Healed Wounders.”  Blinded by their own comfort, security and sense of well-being, they arrogantly jabbed at Job, attempting to come up with a rational explanation for the mess at hand.  Job lamented before God, not only because he had been subjected to terrible trouble, but because his friends had failed him.  “A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends,” Job cried, “but they’re as undependable as intermittent streams.”  In the end, Job is commended for his honesty.  His theologically correct buddies are scolded for their insensitivity.

Ordered Messiness

I like how Barry Webb describes the Book of Lamentations:  Ordered Messiness.

Biblical lament, much to the relief of the “Healed Wounder,” is not ultimately chaotic.  To the contrary, biblical lament has a beginning and an end.  While the middle may be messy, while it may seem to go on and on without relief, lament, properly understood, rests finally in the Sovereign hand of God.  Eugene Peterson echoes Webb when he describes the form of Lamentations as a series of 5 acrostics (much like Psalm 119), literary patterns that travel the alphabet slowly, in meticulous detail, from beginning to end.  Lament begins at aleph and ends at tau, proceeding with careful detail and extraordinarily honest expression through each letter.  5 times in 5 distinct poems the writer revisits his pain, most often in communal expression, with a brief interlude for private weeping.  The writer’s intent is clear…every detail of pain is important. Suffering cannot and should not be wasted on quick fix alphabet dances that deny proper expression.  Acrostic was used as a memory device, as Peterson points out, emphasizing that every jot and tittle of suffering be remembered and experienced.

Thus, the message of Lamentations is that the denial of lament is the denial of reality.  Interestingly, neurosis is often defined as the denial of reality.  Perhaps, providing a context for lament might be a way to alleviate the neurosis of a culture that feeds on un-reality, false reality, and virtual reality.  Perhaps, too, this provides a challenge to the church that works hard to keep lament on the margins.  In denying the opportunity for an embrace of lament, we miss a Christ-formed life of pain-sharing, compassion, incarnation and Gospel-healing.  We miss the opportunity, in other words, to become more like Jesus.

Lament, the Most Hopeful of Things

“Do everything without complaining or arguing,” St. Paul once wrote.  “Rejoice in the Lord always.”  It’s amazing how we pluck verses like these out and use them as evidence that the day of lament is over and the day of rejoicing has come.  St. Paul wrote these words in a letter to the Philippian church, the same letter in which he laments over his long and continuing earthly pilgrimage, the same letter in which he calls “suffering” a gift from God along with faith, the same letter that plainly identifies the reality of his culture as “crooked and depraved”, the same letter that invites the cruciformed Christian to follow the downward path of Christ to humility, suffering and even death, for the sake of knowing Christ.  St. Paul, in other words, was not at all afraid of suffering.  His hope came in the embrace of it.

Lament is ultimately hopeful.  Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it?  The person sitting before you is weeping and wailing about his pain, and it is supposed to produce hope?  There, of course, is a fine line between complaining and lamenting, but too often we dismiss the baby with the bath water.  Dan Allender says that one who laments often looks like a grumbler or complainer, but that biblical lament is nothing of the sort.  Instead, lament contains in itself the possibility of extraordinary hope, restored desire, a changed heart.  Lament is, at its core, a search for  God.  It is not a search for answers.  It is not an invitation to fix an ailment.  Rather, lament enters the agony with the recognition that it might not go away for days, months, even years.  And yet, the lament carries with it the hope that God will eventually show.  Dan Allender puts it this way:  “Lament is a search – a declaration of desire that will neither rest with a pious refusal to ache, nor an arrogant self-reliance that is a hardened refusal to search.”

Of course, you won’t know the hope of lament if you don’t risk walking through the valley.  But we need not venture in to the valley alone.  We journey with a host of biblical witnesses, and hopefully, a community of faith and friends more dependable than Job’s.  The biblical model for lament, whether in the Psalms, Lamentations, Job, Jesus, Paul or the saints in heaven reflects a rugged heart born for a risky, but incredibly rewarding, journey Home.  The cry of lament, as Allender writes, is the deepest and most honest cry of the homeless person.  Our journey is no different than the saints of Hebrews 11 who, by faith, kept on their sojourn because their hope was in a heavenly city.  In other words, we walk in familiar company, men and women who longed deeply for God’s presence in times of trouble, people thrown to the lions and hung on crosses and beaten mercilessly for the sake of the Kingdom.  Our hopeful lament is caught up in the universal cry reaching up in to the heavens, even among the saints.  God has given his community permission to lament.  In fact, he has given his family permission even to make their complaints known to Him.  Psalm 44 and Psalm 80, for instance, bring accusations before God that send chills down the spine:

Rembrandt, "The Prophet Jeremiah"

Rembrandt, "The Prophet Jeremiah"

You have fed us the bread of tears

You have made us drink tears by the bowlful

You have made us a source of contention to our neighbors.  (Ps. 80:5-6)

However, we speak with the confidence that our complaint will be heard, contained, validated, listened to, and ultimately bring about a change in our circumstances.  Like Jacob, our wrestling leads to surrender, deeper relationship, greater trust, a heart made soft by its honesty before God.  It is a sure indication that we are fully alive human beings, says Barry Webb, open to the full possibilities of God’s wild and risky involvement in our lives.

This wild trust, this openness to surrender, is precisely how God brings about radical transformation in the hearts of sinners.  But it is a transformation that takes time, that is often un-remarkable, that doesn’t change the facts and circumstances of life very quickly.   Lament without a quick fix or a happy principle to mitigate it is lament that is ugly and un-productive to modern, ‘results-driven’, western Christians.  However, the gift to be patient and engage suffering not to fix or make sense of it, but simply to experience it before the face of God honestly, is a gift that stirs the deepest hope, the hope of the saints, the hope of the very un-broken, tear-free world to come.

He Will Wipe Away Every Tear

God is not in the business of quenching hope.  His way, however, often is the longer, harder road through rough wilderness terrain.  The oft-quoted proverb, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” speaks of the reality of life in the now.  Suffering is just plain sickening.  I hate to see it.  I hate it for myself, and I hate it for my friends.  It angers me, and it causes me to jump-start quick cures to get through it.  I almost always have a better plan than God’s, but His wisdom wins the day.

In St. John’s apocalyptic history of the world, The Book of Revelation, God does respond with force and fury to the enemies of His people.  The Satanic trinity of dragon, beast and false prophet are, once and for all, thrown in to the lake of fire.  God’s wilderness-wandering people are vindicated, saved, and prepared for their heavenly betrothal.  The weary Bride, tainted and tarnished from her long journey through dark valley’s of self-indulgence, and the rough terrains of persecution, is now readied for eternal glory, fitted in her pristine white wedding dress for her heavenly Pursuer and Rescuer.  Gently wiping away her tears, He speaks to her words she has longed to hear:  “There will be no more weeping or mourning.  Isaiah’s prophecies have come to fruition.  No more death, no more pain, no more struggle.  You’re mine, and I’m yours, eternally.  Lament no more.”

The end of the Story is a happy one.  The Gospel is for those who love comedy, tragedy, and a good, true fairy tale, as Frederick Buechner loves to say.  In Revelation 21, the scene shifts from epic battle to unimaginable glory and ecstasy.  The Bride is given back her lost Eden, the paradise-city she remembered only in her dreams.  CS Lewis reminds us that the first Eden has always existed, if only in our memory, urging us own to lives of holy desire as we search out our Paradise-Home.  The Bride gets all she has ever desired, and much more.  Her ancient lament, raised to God not as an angry fist of rebellion but as an impassioned complaint rooted in desire, is heard, received and acted upon.  Her Groom has come to the rescue.  And now, eternal happiness.

The Glory of the Gospel is that our lives, our worship, and our relationships need not end in a minor key.  The kingdom Hope is the dominant tune, albeit thrown off-key by our trials and tribulations.  The minor key of lament is an important reminder that we’re not Home yet, and an invitation to sing songs that reflect our deep hearts and truest struggles, knowing always that our long-suffering Savior will win the day.

So, lament.  Join the chorus of ancient voices in their universal cry.  Speak honest words to a God who does not fear a complaint born in desire, but actually responds to it.  And by all means, live.  Pain, as CS Lewis says, is God’s megaphone to call us to be awake, and the awakened, passionate life is a lot better than the false realities our neurotic and fearful world has to offer.  Lean hopefully in to lament, and be honest with those who don’t lean with you.  The wintry valley of suffering will eventually lead to green pastures, tall-snow capped mountains, and a sunrise that will break through the darkness to a final chorus of praise.

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Most people tell me they have no idea how to lament, or are afraid to offend God.  Can you relate?

What is it like to read this and hear that God invites your honest expression of pain?  Do you believe He can handle all you throw His way?

If you’re reading this and are not a Christian, how has the Church’s unwillingness to deal honestly with painful realities affected your attitude towards it?  Would engaging the Church or Christians be more appealing to you if it took suffering and lament more seriously instead of offering quick fixes or guilt?

Suffering: When Making Sense Makes No Sense

But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence.  (CS Lewis, A Grief Observed)

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Invited out of Egypt with the hope of a land flowing with milk and honey, the Israelites took the bait.  You might call the wilderness the switch.

In his book Dominion and Dynasty, Dempster (2003) writes, “As soon as the journey from Sinai to the land of promise commences, the people move from disaster to disaster, or, in the telling place names given to the first few stops along the way, from ‘Fiery Blaze’ (Num. 11:3) to ‘Graveyard’ (Num. 11:34).”  Perhaps you’ve experienced life as a movement from “disaster to disaster” too.  Maybe you’ve known that the bait-and-switch madness when a moment filled with hope careens toward disappointment, with nothing at all you can do.  I suspect that you are familiar, at least to some degree, with the wilderness terrain that the Israelites walked.

And then some dense person comes along and says, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”

Making sense of suffering makes no sense, at least most of the time.  In fact, trying to make sense of suffering usually trivializes it, and de-humanizes the person who is going through the pain.  Think of it this way:  if God really wanted us to feel better, He’d send us a Hallmark card rather than places called “Graveyard” and “Fiery Blaze.”  It makes little sense rationally, but God actually invites down into the wilderness, further into suffering, down into the fire.  And the most human response Scripture gives us is not a pep talk, but an invitation to grab a hold of God and cry out to Him with all of the anger, confusion, sadness, and despair we know.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

C.S. Lewis, the great literary critic, Oxford don, and author of the Narnia series knew this all-too-well.  In a better time of his life, he penned The Problem of Pain, addressing pain as a problem to be solved.  And then pain kissed him on the lips.  In his devastation, his old rationale made no sense.  In fact, it only made him more mad.  In the pain, he could have said that God felt a million miles away.  But his description is even more dark:  He goes to God and God slams a door in his face, bolting and double bolting it from the inside.  And then God goes silent, not a million miles away but right on the other side of the door.

The premier literary theologian of the 20th century who gave us Lucy and a Lion gives us the description of our worst nightmare – an absent and cruel God.  But for those who know pain, everything else makes little sense except for this.  God does feel calloused and cruel in our wilderness.  And we feel utterly helpless.

Or do we?  You see, gimmick-driven American Christianity has given us a wealth of resources to not feel so helpless. American Christianity hates helplessness.  It’s un-American.  We are a nation of progress, a victor in war, a crusader for all that is good and humane in the world, right?  Americans are winners.  Think about it.  Somehow we feel a great injustice has been committed when our athletes don’t win their Olympic race.  We recoil when a more honest politician dares to name American sins and express disappointment in country.  We rage when we discover Americans grade lower in standardized tests or health care.  We win.  We can’t lose.

Rouault Head of ChristExcept in God’s economy.  In God’s economy, a spiritual journey takes us headlong into suffering.  Even the rich, as we’ve seen with Michael Jackson, can’t spend enough to avoid the fire.  Our logic fails us in this.  God’s logic, on the other hand, places a Cross at the center of Scripture.  Christian preachers and authors and apologists want to explain away suffering, or minimize it, or treat it as less than it is.  But God doesn’t only send us into it.  He goes in Himself.  “Fiery blaze” and “Graveyard” were stops along Israel’s way to the Promised Land.  And they were stops for Jesus, too.

To be sure, we’ll need to elaborate on these things in the next posts, as we continue to navigate through the New Exodus way.  But for now, it’s more appropriate to simply feel the heaviness of this reality, without answers and perhaps without much to say.

A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence.

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What is your immediate reaction to this post?  Rather than figuring out what is right or wrong about what I wrote, how do you feel?

Can you think of places in Scripture where others felt as you are feeling right now?

Is God big enough to confront with our deepest confusion and despair?

Band-Aids and Brokenness

The law always ended up being used as a band-aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us. (from Romans 8, The Message)

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As I’ve elaborated on in this series of posts, the spiritual geography of the Israelites as they marched from Egypt to the Promised Land is much like our own.  We find ourselves enslaved in all kinds of ways.  So much of what I do in pastoral work and clinical counseling and spiritual direction and mentoring is getting people “unstuck” – freed from patterns learned in harder times, unblended from reactive and extreme emotional states, disentangled from relational patterns that frustrate them and others, and released from a narrative that defines identity in all the wrong ways.  Getting out of Egypt, so to speak, is one big hurdle.  But facing the tough questions of identity, of hope, of acknowledging our own patterns – this is the terrain of Sinai.  It’s a major signpost on the map of our spiritual geography.  And it is, as I’ve quoted before, an even greater roadblock to the Promised Land of life and freedom and joy than Egypt ever was.

Why is stepping out of our old identity and into a new one so hard?  If we’re broken, why is it so difficult to get ourselves fixed?  To be sure, not everyone thinks it is so difficult.  I find myself terribly irritated by the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps moralism of patronizing pastors or political commentators who presume that this process is so easy.  I was listening to a political tv host the other day who said, “If you don’t have health care, it’s your own damn fault.  Stop whining, and get to work!”  But is it that easy?  Does this guy really understand people?  I don’t think so.

Truth be told, our own hearts conspire against us in the process of growth, making the journey even longer and harder.  While a part of us really wants to grow and flourish, another can sabotage us – “You surely don’t believe that you are capable of more, do you?”  The hard work of rooting out these still-enslaved parts of ourselves is the art of soul care.  And Sinai shines a magnifying glass on this part of the process.

KadishC.S. Lewis once said, “We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved, we are…rebels who must lay down our arms.”  Moralists who make patronizing comments, in other words, don’t take the depth of our sin seriously.  They treat it as if it could be fixed by more effort.  So afraid of over-victimizing people, they actually victimize them more by not helping them to see both the depth of their woundedness and wickedness, caring for them through it.  As the feminist theologian Crysdale (2001) notes surprisingly well, we divide people into victims and perpetrators, never seeing that we are all both wounded and wounding people.  And Sinai reveals just this.  It shows us how deeply addicted we are to the slavish-patterns of Egypt, so stuck in the dead-ends it taught us, so prone to continue to sin not because we necessarily want to all the time, but because it’s what we know.

Now, it’s true that the first sojourners on the Exodus road thought it’d be a cake-walk.  They missed how hard it would be to re-establish their identity and re-gain their dignity.  This is why Jesus makes such a big deal of the law in his Sermon on the Mount.  Re-telling the story, He teaches his followers that their half-baked, behavior-driven version of the law missed the point, and made the law a terrible burden (a heavy yoke) to people.  His re-telling of the story doesn’t abolish the law or erase Sinai’s lessons, but amplifies it.  He does this by telling us that we’re far worse than we think.  Lust amounts to adultery.  Hate amounts to murder.  And suddenly we’re all guilty, and guilty many times over because our hearts are addicted to patterns of lust and hate and greed and self-centeredness.

Yet, for Jesus, the lessons amount to a profound soul-cure – Blessed are the poor in spirit (the “broken”), blessed are the mourners, blessed are the hungry.  In other words, you’re best off when you’re in deep need, in-over-your-head.  In that place, you can’t possibly try hard enough.  You can only…break.

And so we come full circle, back to that great old teaching:

A disciple asks the Rabbi, “What does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’?  What does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”  The Rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts.  So we place them on top of our hearts.  And there they stay until, one day the heart breaks and the words fall in.” (from Parker Palmer, “The Politics of the Broken-Hearted”)

Sinai’s goal is a broken heart.  Soul care, in other words, is not about better solutions, quick fixes, or 3 steps to a better life.  Against my natural instinct to “help people,” I find myself becoming more and more able to let God do His sacred work of breaking hearts, so that He can put them back together again.  This is how He restores identity, dignity, and hope.  It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?  Perhaps, to some it sounds mean.  But this is about deep healing, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message:

The law always ended up being used as a band-aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us. ( from Rom. 8 )

The Spirit’s heart surgery is the good stuff of soul care which emerges out of brokenness.  From the dust comes new life.  But not without a struggle.  As we’ll see, the wilderness follows Sinai.  God’s way of “putting us back together” isn’t an instant fix, but a long, hard journey of continual surrender.  The question is:  Do we trust the Great Physician enough to let Him put us under His surgical knife?

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Sometimes people get stuck at “Sinai,” relentlessly committed to fix themselves and manage their symptoms.  Can this be said of you?  In what ways have you lived like this?

When your own fixes don’t work, what do you do?  How do you feel?

Many people, in these times, commit to yet another strategy – a new self-help book, better obedience, a stricter diet, etc.  What is your pattern of self-survival?

What are you afraid might happen if you stop trying so hard to manage your life, to survive, to help yourself, to do it better?  What might you do/feel?

Identity Shaping – Letting the Words Fall In

A disciple asks the Rabbi, “What does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’?  What does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”  The Rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts.  So we place them on top of our hearts.  And there they stay until, one day the heart breaks and the words fall in.”  (from “The Politics of the Brokenhearted,” by Parker Palmer)

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If this Exodus way provides a roadmap for our own spiritual journey, then Sinai would have a great big star located on top of it, much like a state capitol on a map.  Sinai was no mere pit stop for the weary Exodus travelers.  No, it represented the hopes and dreams of a people who had been savagely treated by a narcissistic Pharaoh.  Sinai is where the Israelites would begin to get put back together again.  Sinai is where a fractured identity begins to be mended.  In our own journey, it represents a confrontation with a new ‘rule’ for life – not one that steal and kills dignity, not one that binds and burdens us, but one that invites us to live the whole life we were meant to live back in Eden.  Sinai is our confrontation with life as it was meant to be.

In the last post, I said that Sinai is where God says, “I won’t abandon you.  I’m committed to restoring you!”  We all long for this. It’s significant because only in relationship, with God and each other, do we begin to begin to realize that we’re not so broken as to be forgotten.  God’s smile, best seen in Jesus and His pursuit, is for the broken, the weary, the adulterer, the raped and the rapist.  Only as we begin to see that we’ve not been left alone, but are engaged precisely in our moment of despair, do we begin to lift our heads again, see our identity being restored, and see our spirit being revived.  I’ve seen this over and again as a counselor and pastor.  My relationship with a person can instill hope again.  Notice:  not my words, not my theological correction, but my relationship can instill hope and dignity again.

At Sinai, God does something remarkable.  Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner (2002) views God’s giving of the law at Sinai to be the defining moment in His great rescue plan.   The law, he says, constitutes them as a people who have decided to “accept God’s rule and the Torah and all the commandments as the embodiments of that rule” (Neusner, p. 18).  What does that mean?  It means that they get their identity back.  They get their dignity back.  It sets apart God’s people as a “treasured possession,” a “holy nation,” and a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:5-6).  That should indicate to you that God is all about giving us our very self back.  If Egypt represents the place where we were wounded and enslaved – the place where our dignity and identity were torn apart – then Sinai represents the place where God says, “You’re mine, all mine…and I love you.”

HANDS POTI’ve found that our identities are formed in all kinds of different “Egypt” experiences.  Egypt can represent the identity-killing wound of abuse.  But, that’s not all, as Egypt’s story is written into ours in any number of ways.  Egypt represents an identity formed in isolation from God’s Edenic intention, and so it necessarily goes in the direction of power, manipulation, greed, gluttony, possession, pride, and more.  Our growth requires us to identify our own “Egypt,” to see how its narrative has usurped God’s narrative for our lives.  I know a man who has been a part of his church for a long time, but still lives by a different narrative, governed by power and control over people and things.  He looks and dresses the part of a churchman, and he gives lots of money.  But, he has not yet been confronted with the life-changing and identity-transforming new ‘rule’ of Sinai, which requires us to lay down our own agendas, our narcissism, our power, our self-assurance.  Some people would say that this man is a saint, but I’m quite sure he hasn’t left Egypt yet.

We know ‘Sinai’ because it offends us, it confronts us, it jars us, it turns our self-centered worlds upside down.  It’s the ‘rule’ of Jesus, which indicts power and threatens pride.  And, as the quote at the beginning of this post indicates, if our hearts are closed, continuing to be enslaved to the ‘rule’ of Egypt, then we’ll have a hard time progressing on the spiritual journey.  With open hearts, Sinai’s confrontation will be an invitation to rest and dependence, to a life emptied of self-striving, self-promotion, and self-rule.  But, as Jesus said, in order to find ourselves, we must lose ourselves.  Identity begins here.

I’ve found myself confronted by Sinai over and over again.  It’s where Jesus hangs out, calling us out of Egypt into something so much more.  How badly I want it, and yet how often I choose to go back to slavery.  As a counselor and pastor, Sinai is where I, as a broken person, commit to engaging another human being in the journey back to human-ness, wholeness – life as it was meant to be.  Sinai’s confrontation can be hard, especially for those of us who think our life of slavery is actually more like freedom.  In reality, God’s rule is identity-shaping, the beginning of a new life (new creation!) for those who would open their hearts, and “let the words fall in.”

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– How is God’s invitation to this new ‘rule’ of life both very exciting and very scary for you?

– Where are you on the New Exodus roadmap?  Have you left Egypt?  Are you stuck between Sinai and Egypt?  Are you struggling to believe something better lies down the road ahead?

– What makes this journey so difficult?  What internal obstacles keep you from forging ahead? (Note: I’m not saying the journey should NOT be difficult!  It is.)