“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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I’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.