Month: September 2009

The fruit that takes away life, and the fruit that gives it

“Surrender don’t come naturally to me.” (Rich Mullins from his song Hold Me Jesus)

As you see more dearly that your vocation is to be a witness to God’s love in this world, and as you become more determined to live out that vocation, the attacks of the enemy will increase. You will hear voices saying, ‘You are worthless, you have nothing to offer, you are unattractive, undesirable, unlovable: The more you sense God’s call, the more you will discover in your own soul the cosmic battle between God and Satan. Do not be afraid. Keep deepening your conviction that God’s love for you is enough, that you are in safe hands, and that you are being guided every step of the way. What is important is to keep clinging to the real, lasting, and unambiguous love of Jesus. Whenever you doubt that love, return to your inner spiritual home and listen there to love’s voice. Only when you know in your deepest being that you are intimately loved can you face the dark voices of the enemy without being seduced by them.  The love of Jesus will give you an ever-clearer vision of your call as well as of the many attempts to pull you away from that call. The more you are called to speak for God’s love, the more you will need to deepen the knowledge of that love in your own heart. The farther the outward journey takes you, the deeper the inward journey must be. Only when your roots are deep can your fruits be abundant.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  (St. Paul)

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One of the hardest things I’ve learned (correct that:  am learning) is that surrender doesn’t come naturally to me.  Rich Mullins was right.  I’d rather cling to the old rags of Egypt rather than surrender to the infinite treasures of the New Eden.  Emerging out of the sufferings of the wilderness, I find myself stripped of those old rags…yet I remember them.  And in remembering, I sometimes lust after them again.  In their day, they held great weight.

I’ve found that my prayer in recent years has become a simple one:  Hide my life in yours, Jesus. It comes from St. Paul:  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. This is vintage ‘New Exodus’ Paul.  It’s the death-to-life pattern of Jesus, living out the Exodus pattern of Israel.  We were lost in the wilderness, but now we’re found – found to God, found to others, found to ourselves.

I hide in a thousand other things.  I avoid God, and in doing so avoid myself in the many false selves and false identities I live out of.  After a while, I’ve forgotten myself, and feel lost to God.  Descending into the wilderness, I am stripped of these counter-identities, and reminded of my Eden-born identity as God’s image, never completely lost but hidden as a treasure in God’s heart.  The lessons of the wilderness are hard.  I find that I’m stripped of reputation, identity-through-achievement, love when I want it, progress on my terms, and more.  But as we’ve said before, it is a stripping down which actually reveals our hidden life in God, our real selves, our deepest identity.

The journey up and out of the wilderness leads to the freedom of life as it was meant to be lived.  And St. Paul gives definition to that, as well.  He calls it “fruit” – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Love, once mis-directed to a thousand false loves, is now re-directed and renewed in its First Love.  Joy, once found in a temporary pleasure that could be bought or controlled at will, is now found in longing, sometimes without immediate gratification, for the greater Joy.  Peace, defined as conflict avoidance and repressed desire, now becomes a verb – the renewal of shalom, the re-ordering of relationships and the reconciliation of those at war with one another.  Patience, replaced by remote-controls that falsely convince us that we can control pleasure and quick spiritual fixes which sell us on 3 steps to our best life, now finds renewal in a heart that waits longingly for a deeper satisfaction.  Kindness, domesticated in fixed smiles on Christian faces, now becomes a risky compassion (suffering with another) that deepens relationship and bestows dignity on another.  Faithfulness, crushed into definitions mandating dogmatic certainty at the expense of relationship, now flourishes in commitment to living out (delightfully) the command to love our neighbors and relentlessly pursue (rather than demonize) those we differ with.  Gentleness, exposing our need to power over and control, invites a vulnerability which may in fact expose our weakness but show Christ’s strength.  Self-control, rather than a behavioral call to pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps, actually manifests in surrender to God, which can feel like being out-of-control to control freaks like me.

These are the fruits of the New Exodus journey.

But Henri Nouwen is right.  Read the quote at the top of the blog again.  It is precisely at this moment that the memories of Egypt stir, the old demons awake, and we imagine that the control we had and the pleasures we experienced and the identities we formed back then might actually be better and more satisfying.

Hide me in you, Jesus.

Ever since Adam and Eve took a bite into the deadly passion-fruit, we’ve been hiding…hiding from who we were truly meant to be, how we were truly made to live.  Freedom and joy awaits the one who finds that hidden self bound up in God.  That is fruit that nourishes…us, and those around us…

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What are the old identities God is calling you to surrender?

What is the cost of losing that identity?  How has it defined you…to yourself, and to others?

What “fruits of the Spirit” do you feel are most difficult for you to live into?  How does your struggle reveal what you are most attached to right now, and how you might need Jesus?

fixed or found? the journey from self-reliance to surrender.

In the last post entitled Opening Our Clenched Fists and Reaching Out Towards Hope, I began to paint a picture of the scary but glorious emergence from the dark valley of pain.  Nouwen’s metaphor of clenched fists opening – released from tension and clamoring – is a beautiful metaphor for a heart that releases its grip on control (manifested in the many self-remedies we choose) and surrenders its past, present, and future to a God that Walter Brueggemann once described as “wild, unfettered, and free.”  It must have seemed crazy to the Israelites, and so it also feels crazy to us to trust this Divine Mystery.  Perhaps, though, the second generation of Israelites, having seen the follies of their parents, intuited C.S. Lewis’ insights on Aslan’s character in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

“‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver…’Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. but he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.'”

And perhaps we, too, having seen the follies of our parents (the wounds inflicted in Egypt) and the folly of our own self-remedies (the wickedness revealed at Sinai) find ourselves plunged into the valley of the shadow of death only to discover, at some point, that we’ve been released from the burden of blaming others or fixing ourselves and propelled into freedom.  These New Exodus moments can be so rare, but the beauty and joy we find in them is profound.  Surrender is a glorious thing.

But how on God’s green earth do we surrender, you say?

The theologically appropriate answer, at this point, is – the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit blew in like a fresh wind at Pentecost, re-animating a New Humanity, a New Adam with the breath of life.  And on this New Exodus journey, we find at our darkest valleys and lowest moments that we are powerless, that the First Step in the Twelve Steps is the starting place – Blessed are the poor (ptochos – broken, beggarly, powerless) in spirit. Those impoverished in spirit need a Holy Spirit.  Those who have drowned need new life.  We simply cannot revive ourselves.

But how does this theologically appropriate answer translate into our daily battles with anorexia and sex addiction, workaholism and achievement addiction, depression and grief?  How does “surrender” fix our problems?

I’m convinced that our problems may actually be God’s way of leading us to surrender.

Rembrandt - The Return of the Prodigal SonYou see, we are not problems to be fixed.  Rather, we are broken and beautiful children of the King needing to be found.

Fixing is the problem.  Think about it this way.  It is in trying to fix ourselves that we continue to perpetuate our anxiety and depression.  It is in trying to fix ourselves that we run headlong into addiction.  It is in trying to fix ourselves that childhood wounds actually fester and grow.

The Prodigal Son tried to fix his problem (hunger) by eating the pods of a carob tree, a meal that middle-eastern scholar Kenneth Bailey claims would have given him no satisfaction, no nutrition, and no relief from his hunger pains.  He needed to be Found.

The Prodigal Son tried to fix his problem (despair) by going back to his father and asking to be a slave.  His problem was fixed by being Found…greeted by a Father who would run to him in his mess, not away from him, saying, “My son was lost and now is found.”

The Elder Son tried to fix his problem (insecurity) by becoming a narcissistic, self-promoting do-gooder.  The father told him that what he perceived to be the problem was never a problem.  “Everything I have is yours.”  He was lost and needed to be found, and hadn’t even left.

Our problems reveal the specific cure we need.  They reflect parts of us that crave God’s original shalom.  Our problem (sex addiction) is not an internet connection to be cut off, but a longing to be found intimately by another.  Our problem (depression) is not simply a feeling that should go away, but a longing to be known, loved, and found in our tears.  Our problem (eating disorder) is not about more food being eaten, but about a person who wants to disappear being found by One who sees and loves.  Our problem (cutting/self-mutiliation) is not simply a bad behavior to stop, but a longing to be released from a deeper pain and held in the arms of One who was cut on for our sakes.  Our problem (marital issues) is not a problem to be solved, but two people who long to be better known, understood, and intimately allied with one another and God.  Our problem (abuse) is not a memory to be erased, but reveals a longing to be held in the healing safety of Another.

You see, we surrender our need to be fixed, or fix ourselves.  We embrace the mysterious cure found in the strong, yet intimate, care of a Good (but not safe…) God.  Repentance, then, becomes something more than a mechanical prayer we say when we feel guilty.  It becomes an active and daily turning away from self-reliance and into the loving embrace of a God who isn’t mad, but delighted…

This process takes a lifetime.  For behind each clenched fist is another.  Our brokenness runs deep.  It is embedded in decades of hard memories, brain chemistry which has adapted and actually fosters the self-fix, the torrent of a powerful unconscious which lurks beneath our awareness, the body-memory of a place where our abuser violated us, and the seemingly inviolable patterns and habits which have emerged from years of resistance.

But here is what is liberating.  To assume we can fixed leads us further into a desperate search for the illusive pod that the Prodigal sought to devour.  It leads us to the lie of quick fixes and the false promises of hotshot preachers and therapists who pretend to be gods.  Instead, we’re lead out of the wilderness and into the embrace of the Father, to be Found.  This “being found” is a lifetime journey.  We’re prone to forget, and leave the safe arms of God and our community for more familiar lovers – less-Wild lovers.  But in those times, when we’re prone to find the fix again, let the quiet whisper of the one who longs to find you say again, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy ladened and I will give you rest.”

Found.

Where surrender is possible.

May the Spirit blow this new wind your way…

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Think about a significant “problem” you struggle with.  How have you attempted to fix it?

How is “fixing” a way we actually assume we can manage our own problems?  How does it actually minimize our need for grace, for love – to be Found?

How might it be frightening to abandon your “fixing” project?

How would your life look different if you stepped into this new reality of being Found?

Feel free to post comments about your journey.

Opening our clenched fists and reaching toward Hope

Night journeys, both actual and spiritual, may fall to the lot of those who carry Jesus with them.  Even the Son of God, who is pre-eminent above all others, must depart into Egypt like the rest of the family and must only come out when He is called.  Let us not wonder if we, also, have to go down to Egypt, and go in a hurry, and go by night, and are allowed to stay there for many a day.  We, too, shall be called out in due time by Him whose call is effectual.  The angel who leads us into Egypt will bring us word to come out. (Charles Spurgeon)

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Spurgeon was on to something.  For Spurgeon, the wilderness was much like going back to Egypt, back into exile, in order to learn the way of suffering with which Jesus was acquainted.  In the wilderness, people sometimes feel hopelessly mired in their enslavements. The hope, of course, is that struggling people will emerge from this darkness, just as Jesus did, and experience what St. John of the Cross called illumination, the soul’s emergence from its sufferings into the beauty and freedom of resurrection life.  From death comes life – God-breathed life, Spirit-animated life.

Now the ancient word illumination is a tricky one, because for some it might suggest that real spirituality involves some sort of Gnostic awakening reserved for only a few who have more deep and profound experiences of God.  However, as it was used by spiritual writers of old, illumination assumes that every person experiences pain and struggle, and every person has the opportunity to emerge from the darkness with hope.  Of course, many do not.  As has been said, for some the choice to return to the habitual enslavements of Egypt seems easier.  Indeed, God’s way seems like a cruel bait-and-switch that offers life in a Promised Land but delivers misery.  Trust is hard.  Illumination, though, is the fruit of trust, ripened in the rocky terrain and difficult weather of the wilderness.

sun praiseNouwen (1995) speaks to this difficulty in moving through the wilderness into freedom, offering the metaphor of clenched fists.  Our angry and self-protective fists, he notes, are created out of life’s pain, and show a rugged determination to take life into our own hands, to craft our own solutions, to blame, to continually live as a victim, to bandage our own wounds.  So many of us live perpetually in this place.  As a counselor, I have had many clients walk down the road of taking their pain more seriously.  This is often a very good thing, an entry into wilderness reality and the possibility of lament.  However, some have chosen to stay attached to the pain, feeling empowered by it, but never being freed from it.  With fists clenched around the neck of their victims (but ultimately themselves), they choke out life, refusing to take the next step – letting go of power, letting go of control, letting go of their version of another’s repentance, letting go of the need to be validated.  They never move from lament to forgiveness and reconciliation, and often become the angry, bitter, and loveless person they most despise.  Theologians call this state homo incurvatus in se – a person turned in on herself.  In this place, our soul shrivels up and dies.

Trust, however, requires opening one’s clenched fists, releasing the burdens that are carried, and assuming a posture of relationship and receptivity before God and others.  Nouwen, however, empathizes with our reluctance.  He writes, “It is a long spiritual journey of trust…Much has happened in your life to make all those fists” (p. 18).  We ought to be patient with those who find it hard to move from anger to forgiveness, and from blame to reconciliation in this respect.  They are fighting a deep battle within, and once again God alone can deliver freedom.  This long journey is akin to Israel’s journey.  She, too, walked the long path through the wilderness, fighting God along the way before relinquishing her control over the journey.  Iain Matthew (1995) writes, “It is not surprising that the admission comes to us slowly: it took Israel most of her history to learn it” (p. 69).

Illumination, in its most basic sense, is an opening of one’s hands.  It indicates a posture of trust – “God, I surrender myself and my own failed solutions, and embrace You.”  It recognizes that staying in Egypt and living out of the addictions, enslavements, and self-saving strategies of the past only bring a more fatal pain.  The wilderness of purgation is redemptive, ultimately.  In being stripped of the things that bind, one is freed to live more radically for others.  After a time of lamenting the loss of his son, theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff (1987) wrote, “In the valley of suffering, despair and bitterness are brewed.  But there also character is made.  The valley of suffering is the vale of soul-making” (p. 97).  Illumination assumes that by being broken, we are actually freed up to love and serve others not merely because we should, but because we have tasted God’s love through the trial.  St. Paul wrote,

Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Rom. 5:3-5)

Illumination, it must be emphasized, is not some special level of spirituality.  In fact, young and old experience tastes of this freedom every day.  However, fewer live here.  Nouwen was right.  Living self-protectively is simply easier, at times.  Yet, the Exodus narrative opens a door of hope.  Within the narrative, life emerges out of death.

Across the Jordan lies a land where the Spirit blows life into dead bones, animating souls for joyful freedom.  Across the Jordan crazy things happen – wounded souls forgive abusers, broken hearts trust again, clenched fists open.  Across the Jordan, Eden’s memory is alive and well, pulsing with the shalom of God, a reconciliation of all things and all people.  Though the foretastes here-and-now are rare, and though the Church is often the poorest example of this Spirit-animated reality, we get glimpses along the way.  I’ll leave you with just one:

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Ben and Sarah counseled with me many years ago.  She was slowly awakening to the reality that Ben was an angry, angry man.  But his anger was subtle and quiet, rarely erupting but always simmering.  Her awakening was coupled with his denial, further alienating the two.  By all accounts, their marriage was dying.  And their marriage, as it was, needed to die.  Sarah moved into a stage of both trying to change Ben and punishing him, relentlessly beating him with angry words and firm demands.  Ben, in turn, became indignant.  He would fight back, but most often stonewall.  They slept in separate beds before she eventually left him.

Death.

And then Ben began to shift.  He didn’t agree with everything Sarah had said or done, but he began to see his subtle, simmering anger as his assault with a deadly weapon in their marriage.  And it broke him.  I felt hope for them for the first time.  But Sarah didn’t believe him.  She felt as if his brokenness was a ploy to get her back, and she resisted.  Yet, this is where Ben’s movement from death to life, from darkness into illumination, became real.  He didn’t need to convince her.  And he didn’t get angry. In fact, Ben became more sad and broken, recognizing that his own anger had contributed to Sarah’s hardness.  He gradually opened his hands, and did his pleading with God, not with Sarah.  He let time and Providence work on Sarah’s heart.

Life.

She let him back home one day.  Something shifted.  She just began to trust again.  And he came back in – first for a visit with the kids, and then for a date, and then for a dinner at home, and then for an entire evening.  They did the dance of distrust.  They slipped into old patterns.  They revisited Egypt again and again.  But something new was breaking through, and we all could see it.

Shortly after Ben moved back in, they conceived their fourth child.  I remember when they called me to tell me the news.  Later that evening, I balled my eyes out.  I’m convinced the angels were dancing that evening, and I was too.  In Ben and Sarah, I saw something akin to resurrection.  I saw the awakening of dead and hardened hearts.  And I watched more as a witness than as an actual contributor to the healing, because it was Sacred Ground.  The movement from death to life is always God-breathed.

I’m convinced that it is this picture that says to a watching world that the death and resurrection of Jesus is real – not just real as a matter of a one-time event, but real as a continuing witness, as an ongoing embodiment in men and women who participate in the sufferings, death, and resurrection of a living Savior (Philippians 3).  Perhaps, the reason the world laughs at us is because we fail so often to live into this and up to this.  But as we saw last time, it is only as we’re taken, blessed, and broken that we can be given to the world.  May we be men and women who willingly lay down our lives, and open our clenched fists, in order to experience the new God-breathed, Spirit-animated life that enables us to beautify a broken world.

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Where does this piece connect with your life?  Do you feel stuck in the wilderness?  Have you experienced some of the freedom beyond it?

What is prone to keep you stuck (anger, resentment, hopelessness, shame, blame, etc.)?  Reflect on and write down how staying in this state actually works for you, or protects you from something.

Reflect on and write down what might be scary about opening your clenched fists, and giving up some of the power of those “wilderness” feelings.

Reflect on and write down what excites you about living in this new way, and experiencing what John of the Cross called “illumination” – the new life that emerges out of death.

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“Drown me in your waters”: Why hope doesn’t float

“To get at the core of God at His greatest, one must first get into the core of himself at his least.” Meister Eckhart

“It is only when we have reached the bottom of the abyss of our nothingness and are firmly established there that we can walk before God in justice and truth.” Jean-Pierre Caussade

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Drowning_by_Pretty_AngelI’ll never forget the advice of a counseling supervisor early in my internship.  A client was neck deep in the tumultuous waters of long running addiction.  Together, we’d conceive of ways for him to keep his head above water – strategies to avoid the temptation.  Each week, he’d come back having found some way around our strategy, feeling even more guilty and desperate in his struggle.

My supervisor watched our sessions, sensing my growing futility and desperation.  She knew I had some lifeguard training in my past, and said, “Don’t you know not to let a drowning man grab a hold of you?  You’ll both drown.”

“But nothing we do is successful,” I said, missing the point.  “He just wants to stop sinning.  And my job is to help.”

“Then you’ve missed the point,” she said.  “Maturity is not about not-sinning.  Salvation comes through death.  You need to stop playing your version of ‘God’ and let him drown.”

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The Western church, in large part, has little room for a theology of drowning.  We help.  We give pep talks.  We teach sin management.  We motivate.  Rarely do we provide a context for drowning.

The New Exodus way is through the waters, down into the tumultuous deeps, into death.

One of the difficulties of pastoral and clinical counseling is that most people come for help – to get better, to overcome, to feel a bit more stable, to stop sinning.  Rarely do people come saying, “Help me drown.  Push me under.  I cannot live until I die.”  I find this often in marriage counseling.  A number of years ago, I led a church marriage retreat and called it On the Death of your Marriage. People came for advice.  I came to tell them how irreparably screwed up they are and (as a consequence) their marriages are.  I told them that until they get really honest about the mess they’re in, change can’t happen.  Predictably, half the room left feeling more hopeful than they ever have, for their marriage and for themselves.  The other half left puzzled.

The New Exodus wilderness is where the darkness overcomes the light.  With an abusive Empire behind them and a seemingly unconquerable Enemy ahead of them, the Israelites found themselves where we find ourselves – in wilderness paralysis.  The only thing we know to do is survive, to keep our heads above water.  All around us, well-dressed and smiling pastor-lifeguards try to convince us that it’s not that bad, that we’re not that bad, that human brokenness is just a minor crack in the road.

Prophets and priests and everyone in between
twist words and doctor truth.
My dear Daughter—my people—broken, shattered,
and yet they put on Band-Aids,
Saying, “It’s not so bad. You’ll be just fine.”
But things are not “just fine”! (from Jer. 8, The Message)

Things are not just fine.  But this is why God leads us into a deep waters to drown, a wilderness to die.  The quotes to begin the post tell the story.  Death to life is the pattern.  It is the cruciform pattern – the way of Jesus himself.  God, in this scenario, is in no way distant and arbitrary, insensitive and punitive.  God paved this road with his blood and tears. Saints and mystics picked up on this through Paul’s description in Philippians 2:  Christ emptied himself.  And in our drowning and death, we are emptied – of pride, of self-reliance, of band-aid remedies, of pointless strategies, of boasting in our own resilience, of cheap substitutes for happiness, of self-pity, of desires far-too-small, of faking it in our marriages, of futile ways we’ve used to treat childhood wounds, of religious performances, of a belief that we’re capable of not sinning, of constant theological finger-pointing, of lifeguard-pastoring.

“In my end is my beginning,” T.S. Eliot wrote.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the hungry,” Jesus said.

If this isn’t the case, then growth and maturity is merely about improvement. And if that’s the case, then we don’t need a Savior, we need a coach with a loud whistle and a strict program of self-help.  However, my sense is that along this wilderness road, we do no favors to one another or those we’re privileged to help if we deprive them of the truth of just how broken they are, we are, and the world is.  But consider this, too.  A realistic view of brokenness breeds compassion, not condescension.  It creates a community of broken (but not hopelessly broken!) men and women who need one another, and need a Big God.  We can enter the messes of others if we know we’re a mess.  We become available to others when they see that we’re accessible, not because we’ve got it all together, but because we’re deeply needy too.

At the center of Christian worship is a eucharistic table which proclaims the death and resurrection of Christ, and invites our own journey through death into resurrection.  The celebrant takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the elements.  Likewise, Christ takes us, blesses us, and breaks us so that He might give us to one another, to the world, and to God. Blessed is the broken road, paved with the blood and tears of Christ and each other, stretching forward to the heavenly city “where there will be no more tears.”  Our invitation is to enter in to this story, to die, to drown.  It’s scary.  It’s counter-intuitive.  It’s paradoxical.  And it’s extraordinarily freeing…

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How are you bandaging yourself?  What motivates our self-bandaging?

Our society (and even our churches) creates little space for the way we’ve talked about.  What is scary about moving in this “way of Jesus”?

Have you experienced church or community where this Jesus-way is lived?  Respond to this blog with stories.