On Paradoxes (some Monday thoughts)

A mini-letter to the church, and some honesty to challenge me.

I am needed.
I am important.
I am special.
I am not needed.
I am a grain of sand in a seashore full of them.
This world will go on without me.

Sound contradictory? Explanation provided by Barbara Brown Taylor in Leaving Church;

“I decided to take a rest from trying to be Jesus……not today. Today I will consent to be an extra in God’s drama, someone off to the side watching the scenery unfold with self-forgetfulness that is not available to me at center stage. Today I will bear the narcissistic wound of knowing that there are others who can say my lines when I am not there, including some who can say them better, and that while God may welcome my willingness to play a part, this show will go on with or without me, for as long as God has breath to bring players to life. Today I will take a break from trying to save the world and enjoy my blessed swath of it instead. I will give my thanks for what it is instead of withholding my praise until all is as it should be. If I get good enough at this, I may be able to include my sorry self in the bargain.” (141-42)

Catch the paradoxes? Barbara struggles with “narcissism” and yet sometimes views herself as “sorry,” wants to be “center stage” and yet wants to be satisfied with being “extra,” needed, yet not needed.

Psalm 113 speaks;
“Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, you his servants.
Praise the name of the Lord.
Let the name of the Lord be praised,
both now and forevermore.
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the Lord is to be praised.
The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God,
the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
and the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He settles the childless woman in her home
as a happy mother of children.
Praise the Lord.”

Paradoxes; the Lord is exalted above the nations, far above the heavens. He doesn’t need any of us, or even the Earth for that matter. Multiple times in Scripture it seems like God is considering cleaning the slate and starting all over again with us pesky humans. And if he did, he would be justified in doing so. We’ve really made a mess of things. And yet, this exalted God stoops down into the dust and ashes for the sake of the poor and needy and walks alongside the barren mother. We matter; especially those who have been told they don’t matter by twisted human society.

The more I read about this God in Scripture (which confronts and challenges the God I thought I knew of by myself), the more I am astounded at how distinct and set-apart and glorious He is, and even more so by the mind-blowing care he gives to this flawed, twisted creation he has made. The length and breadth and depth of this God, who expects us to interact with His creation in the way He does; to tend to the earth that he has called “good,” to invest ourselves in other humans whom he has called “very good,” and to elevate the status of those our world deems unimportant to stand alongside us as brothers and sisters. This is who this God is.

And this God is sharply distinct from the God the Christian institution has often presented in the past and present.

Sometimes (shoot, a LOT of times), I get angry that we the church have allowed ourselves to be so swallowed up in our cultural environments that we neglect the poor in favor of economic security, neglect the barren mother because her problems aren’t answered by a Max Lucado devotional, neglect our enemies in favor of national security, and neglect an honesty about ourselves that we aren’t the center of the universe. God is clear about this sort of lifestyle in Scripture. He will curse us when we live in this fashion.

Do we care enough about this situation to seek to change it? And do we have the humility to know that it doesn’t all, ultimately depend on us? Will we have the guts and courage to seek to work hard at times and take time to enjoy this astounding creation around us other times? Can we have hope, the kind that’s grounded in the reality that things are not as they should be? Will we have the guts and courage to know that life is a series of conversions from our limited, twisted perspective to a more whole, more true, more life-giving, more God-centered, God-glorifying life? Do we have the guts and courage to know that this commitment touches everything from sexual purity and marital faithfulness to questioning consumerism and individualism and nationalism and patriotism, as well as a deep concern for the health of the earth we have had entrusted to us to tend?

How can we faithfully think and pray and act?

Paul in Philippians 1;

“(I) will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two; I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…for it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him…”

We are needed, but we are not. Life is complex and sometimes sucks, but we cannot change the gospel so that it denies the complexity and suckiness and tells us to forget the world around us as we wait for heaven (only to find that this lack of action may lead us to another place entirely). We will get frustrated, but we cannot quit. We will hate to be in the company of people who call themselves the church but look much more like the world; people who talk of the world’s sins but ignore their own. We will find that our discomfort with hanging around them is usually a projection of our own individual failure to love others (a hidden indictment that we are as guilty as they). We will want to leave them for the blissful comfort of our individuality and denial of our complicity in the problem, but we are called to find that we are called into community in all its discomfort and joy.

The truth is uncomfortable, but that is why it’s the truth, in all of its uncomfortable suckiness.


A glimmer of light

Why does it take the pits to remind you of how incredible your life is? And why is it I know I’m headed for the pits so often of my own volition and take every small step knowing what I’m doing? A tremendous man by the name of Francis de Sales wrote something that hit me like a brick between the eyes, because it’s so true. Writing about devotion to God, he says, “Since little faults committed in the beginning of a project grow infinitely greater in its course and finally are almost irreparable, above all else you must know what the virtue of devotion is…” The funny thing about his quote is that I already knew it, and I say the same thing nearly every week when I meet with a lady from my church struggling to gain a sense that she is loved. We talk often about the small steps we can take each day to remind ourselves of who we are in Christ and seek a deeper relationship with him…which she struggles with because of the darkness she lives with on a daily basis. Walking with her is at once deeply painful and beautiful as I’ve seen her inner healing take place one conversation and prayer at a time. And the funny thing is, she thinks I never could go through this, even though I remind her every time that the reality of my life is no fun cakewalk all the time, (nor that of any Christian anywhere, for that matter).

On top of de Sales, I’m reading a book by an amazing fellow named Erwin Raphael McManus, who leads an innovative, really wonderful community of followers of Christ in LA called Mosaic. In one of his books, he writes about atrophy…the deadly disease afflicting many churches and Christians today; the one where we settle into maintenance mode and protect what we have while forsaking our mission to change the world with the message of freedom; all the while not realizing that we’re rotting from the inside out. Atrophy. A nasty word, with a nasty meaning.

You know, the funny thing is, it takes a convergence of four to five different influences to show me the obvious thing I already know…for the past few months I’ve been in maintenance mode while showing a good front to others I know…my spiritual life is in full atrophy. The most important and lifechanging influence came tonight, when I signed on to try to write out the numbness I live with right now, randomly searched the name of one of my friends, and happened upon a blog that reduced me immediately to tears. Now, given, I know this woman…but I also went to college with her, and even though we weren’t much more than light acquaintances, she reminded me again of what life means…of the significance of what the world considers to be one small personal decision…heck, why should I tell you about it? Read it for yourself…http://www.livejournal.com/users/rmille68/4800.html

New life is beautiful…it seems the routine that often follows this massive shift in one’s life ends up denying what that new life represents. Very deadly. I hate the front Christians (including me) put up that everything is perfect and “sin-free” because they’re afraid to let others in on deep wounds they carry…rebecca was real about her struggles, and I’m sure she’ll have more. Her honesty cut through the wall I’ve set up to separate myself from God here recently. In reality, I carry significant issues that I struggle with on a daily basis; some that are parts of me that don’t want to die from earlier in my life, and others have arisen over the course of the past couple years. And those issues are important enough that they wound me deeply…and I’m so afraid to share them with others because a)I’m a guy, and we struggle with that, b)I’m the de facto pastor at my church, and c)this is a recurring, habitual issue. There’s guys in my life who know what I’m going through, but I’m afraid to share with them because it shows my glaring, refuses-to-die weakness I carry. So I’ve ignored it, ran from it, as a result ran from God, refused to share deeply recently with anyone, and have found myself bitterly cynical over the past two weeks. Spiritual platitudes and false fronts work out in the public arena, but my self-respect and inner life are (I should say “were”) dying on the vine. Rebecca’s story woke me up again…immediately placed me back in the reality of my actions (which hurt bad…the purity and intensity of this feeling was ironically a tremendous step for me), and reminded me of my calling.

I had a conversation with a guy at seminary the other day, and he said, “Most Christians don’t recognize the reality of what their life means and how their actions ripple in eternity…but we’re called to be shepherds of our congregations, and we are held to an even higher accountability because we are leading others: how important our life, our decisions, and our leadership is!” I agreed, was blown away by this truth, and immediately after this moment of epiphany, I jumped on my computer and destroyed my heightened awareness of the impact of my decisions. After all this (if you read this far), you may have thought I was skirting around the issue…like any self-respecting Christian would, right? I struggle deeply with maintaining a healthy approach to women. Women were created by God beautiful, complementary to men, tremendous examples of the diversity of God’s creation, and wonderful partners to walk through life with; especially in marriage, the ultimate and most amazing creation of God…that a man and a woman could make a covenant to share life together and walk together through the ups and downs of life, could become one sexually in God incredible design that merges not only the spouses’ physical bodies, but carries emotional and spiritual union as well. This is God’s creation. Women are created by God as amazing examples of his intimate meticulous care in his creation. But the world has twisted the way we view women, and the nature of sexuality. We have substituted the beauty of sexuality expressed through marriage for impulsive one-night stands or a long line of relationships…we have taken the beauty of women and turned it into a commodity, into an industry in pornography that destroys a wholistic understanding of who women are and reduces them to flesh; in short, a vagina and a pair of breasts. I am at once sickened by this and still deeply caught in the cycle that started for me in the tenth grade…given, the time that passes between my falling into viewing women in this fashion is much fewer and far between, but still deeply hurts the same nonetheless. I am a king of rationalizing my decisions away, somehow proving to myself that what I am doing is ok, while knowing that what I’m doing is perpetuating the cycle all along. In the words of Paul, “What I want to do I do not do, and what I do not want to do, I do…what a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

I continue to be confounded with what seems to be the slow and painful death of the priorities and aspects of my life before Christ…at times I continue to be so caught up in my struggle that it seems to be futile. “Little faults committed in the beginning of a project grow infinitely greater in its course and finally are almost irreparable.” I’m on the slow, arduous, painful journey away from a life consumed with my selfishness and twisted desires to the truth of what it means to be a disciple of Christ…I’d be fooling myself if I thought this would ever change. I know we are called to live with joy and freedom in this journey, but I’m also aware that there is a season for everything, and this dark night is the reality I exist in right now. It’s funny how no one really knows this…but yet some random person from the web will happen upon what I can’t tell to those closest to me because I’m paralyzed by my fear that I will be judged. How screwed up is that?

Thank you, Rebecca, for showing me how beautiful the light is. You know, it’s weird…I feel like the light’s just around the next turn, and I know that the only thing that will make that light a reality is my willingness to fall down at the feet of my Creator and truly repent…maybe I should stay there for awhile, instead of mumbling my apology and turning around and doing the exact same thing again.