True Poverty

Jesus, my Brother and Lord, I pray as I write these words for the grace to be truly poor before you, to recognize and accept my weakness and humanness, to forgo the indecent luxury of self-hatred, to celebrate your mercy and trust in your power when I’m at my weakest, to rely on your love no matter what I may do, to seek no escapes from my innate poverty, to accept loneliness when it comes instead of seeking substitutes, to live peacefully without clarity or assurance, to stop grandstanding and trying to get attention, to do the truth quietly without display, to let the dishonesties in my life fade away, to belong no more to myself, to not desert my post when I give the appearance of staying at it, to cling to my humanity, to accept the limitations and full responsibility of being a human being – really human and really poor in Christ our Lord. – (Brennan Manning: Reflections for Ragamuffins)

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
Lamentations 3:25-26

Waiting on the Lord is something I’m learning a little more about than I ever cared to know, quite honestly. It is one thing to say that I belong to Jesus and that I have a certain hope as a Christian. It is quite another to say that I am willing to let go of my excuses, facades, strip myself of all my favorite substitutes, and lay myself bare – poor before Him (as Brennan Manning’s prayer so vulnerably articulates) and simply wait.

About six months before Tricia passed away I was having a session with my counselor. I was tired, frustrated, and numb. I began to share about all the ways that my life seemed to be dictated to me. My reality felt very decided for me by my circumstances as a caregiver and while I complained about it on one hand, there was a certain safety in it on the other.

After listening to my “I feel so stuck” speech for the bazillion-and-seventh time my counselor became unusually quiet and began to speak in a very cautionary tone as if she was treading into the conversational equivalent of a walk across a frozen pond.

“David, when Tricia dies I believe you will experience some very anxious days. There is likely to be a level of anxiety that you haven’t encountered even in her illness.”

“No,” I snapped back, “I may be a lot of things – sad, regretful, heartbroken, and even relieved, but anxious is NOT going to be one of the things I feel. I can promise you that.”

She smiled and continued her verbal trek across the icy Lake David.

“Well, time will tell,” she said. “But I believe Tricia has represented a barrier between you and several things that you haven’t had to confront yet. Suddenly it will be open season on things like vocational changes, new relationships, professional opportunities, personal risks, – all things that you haven’t even considered, let alone pursued simply because of your situation. You will be free and fearful at the same time and you will have to honestly ask yourself what you are going to do with these new options. You need to be prepared for that. As much as you’ve been shackled by her illness, you’ve also been protected by it and losing that safety net can produce anxiety.”

Sure enough, in the days and weeks that passed after losing Tricia I began a journey of restlessness like I’ve never experienced. I felt as if I didn’t belong anywhere. Nothing in my life was the same. I was no longer married. I lived alone in the house we built together. I had too many choices. No one necessarily needed me. Life was moving on and I felt as if I was left standing at the station waving at it.

When the subject of a season of fasting here at CCC first came to my attention I initially felt that it was just one more time I was being asked to give something up. Upon more prayerful reflection it occurred to me that I needed to treat this as a season of investment instead of a season of doing without. I realized as I approached praying for our church, prayer for change, and prayer for direction for us as a body I am demonstrating that I need that prayer for me. Life without excuses and substitutes is not for the faint hearted.

I’m finding that peace can reside in the fear as well as the freedom. And waiting on the Lord is simply waiting – quietly, patiently, and purposefully as we acknowledge all of our human limitations. For me, embracing the poverty of Christ is less about what I sacrifice and more about embracing His.

What Is

What Is

I believe the most spiritual things we do are the least spiritual. It isn’t the amount of great inspirational books we consume, or the amount of prayer circles in which we engage that most effectively develop our spiritual eyes. It is when we engage in the most ordinary things in life that we learn to see God.

My spiritual life on this day consisted of giving sips of water to my wife who can no longer hold a cup, can barely swallow, and doesn’t know for certain where she is. She asks the same question every thirty seconds because she doesn’t remember that she’s asked it. Delirious, disconnected, and demented we watch her slip away from us.

This is what dying looks like. It sucks with a loud noise! It isn’t graceful. It isn’t sweet. And it sure as hell isn’t pretty. Not the version I’m watching, anyway.

About a week and a half ago Tricia began slipping into long seasons of confusion, not eating, and not being able to feed herself. Her hands and arms are no longer much help as her MS has progressed upward. Her voice is very frail and her speech is slurred when she does attempt to speak. The painful shift in our reality culminated last week when she no longer recognized our daughter.

My point in sharing this entry isn’t to point out how challenging my life is. Nor is it to spin myself as some kind of hero. I’m not. I hate it and wish I were anywhere but here most days. Death’s waiting room is a crappy place to spend any time. The point of this entry is that our most spiritual place is right where we are. Taking up our cross is taking up our reality. This season is just about showing up and giving someone five spoonfuls of sweet potatoes and letting them ask us whether it is morning or night fifty times while we do it. My heart hopes that in those five bites of food she gets from me that she’s reminded that I love her and that I’m here.

What is it that has felt the least spiritual to you today and yet may be the very most spiritual? You may have only thrown a ball with your son, but you made a memory that will shape his life. You may have taken your daughter to the movie, but it impacted her because you gave her the gift of time. The conversation you had with your spouse between soccer games and the grocery store may have felt mundane to you but it meant the world to them. It is those things for which we live. Not the big ministry opportunity, or the great epiphany on the hillside with the guru. It is those five blinking spoonfuls of sweet potatoes that are exactly where God has us. Let’s not waste them and learn to see God in our reality.

Reality and My Doorstep

When reality finally catches up with us it confronts that which we think we’ve already come to grips with. In other words, we only think we know what we believe about something until we are actually confronted with it.

We often discover that maybe we adopted our beliefs in a vacuum. We can’t know precisely how something is going to feel until it finally shows up on our doorstep. This is when we realize that maybe reality isn’t quite as easy as it seemed in the vacuum.

When Tricia and I were newly married we were those people who judged the young parents of children in dining establishments and movie theaters. Fit-throwing, noisy toddlers were not going to be a part of our family because we were going to make sure our children knew how to behave in public. Not too many years later I found myself carrying a screaming two-year old of my own out of an Italian bistro in Green Hills after she suddenly decided she didn’t want to be there any longer. Covered head to toe in Fettucini Alfredo from the mini-meltdown we were apologizing to every patron we passed as we gathered our belongings like scavengers and took the long walk of shame out the door. Suddenly, my ideas about what I thought I would do in a situation vaporized before my eyes as the unending siren swell of my own child’s voice in an otherwise quaint little eatery became my glaring reality.

I used to have pat answers about divorce until some of my best friends were confronted with complicated and painful realities in their marriages resulting in the end of something that neither of them had categories for nor could have anticipated.

I had all kinds of solutions about addiction and what alcoholics looked like until I woke up one day and realized I was one.

Many of our cut and dried views regarding sexuality work great until the day one of our teenaged children come out to us. Reality suddenly has a face and a name and we love them.

Living wills, discontinuing curative meds, and medical powers of attorney, which allow me to make choices on behalf of a loved one, are where I live now. It was much easier when this was all a hypothetical vacuum before reality took a dump on my doorstep.

Reality rarely shows up dressed as it was in the brochure.

We are going to be changing my wife’s care plan as she continues to struggle with degenerative MS. She is no longer going to be on meds that aren’t working for her. She’s no longer going to be whisked off to hospitals and emergency rooms at the first sign of a crisis. Even with the gift of great friends and healthcare professionals to help me think it all through, at the end of the day, reality doesn’t feel like I thought it would. It makes what I thought would be a cut and dried decision another peek through the dark glass known as faith.

Go To the Wall!

After recently being away for a couple of weeks from work and a few more from blogging, I’m back! I’d love to say that I just took some time to burn up a few vacation days on a sun-soaked beach or holed up in a mountain cabin to escape the Tennessee heat. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

The truth is, I hit a wall – plain and simple. There was no crash. It didn’t even make a thud. It simply took on the form of a very pronounced but progressively dull ache that was exacerbated by every new calamity of recent months, let alone the last couple of years.

The culmination of several recent professional, personal, and family challenges lined up like moons and stars creating a tidal wave of emotional fallout for me that I frankly didn’t see coming. Most of these situations found me in “do” mode handling the necessary details required but allowing myself to feel very little of it. Being a virtual single parent, a caregiver of a progressively ill spouse, and the only constant in my job’s department of dwindling staff I found myself carrying a great deal of responsibility while feeling very abandoned and alone. Being the overall “go to” guy in the scope of all these scenarios left me a functional but numbed out robot who was finding it challenging to breathe, let alone answer my phone.

Enter The Wall and the silent crash. I should add here that by God’s grace I didn’t relapse although the idea of getting twenty-eight days away at rehab in Arizona sounded like a beautiful thing!

As I began to address The Wall and my recent clash with it I began to see it as the place of tension where the spiritual realm and the physical world meets.

In Sue Monk Kidd’s, Secret Life of Bees, May was a broken, mentally challenged and traumatized woman prone to deep emotional upheaval. When May would display a dark, dramatic emotional episode her sisters would say, “Go to the wall, May. Go to the wall!”

May would slowly make her way out to the garden wall with her pad and pencil. She would scribble down the things she could not say aloud on tiny bits of paper, fold them tightly and place them in the cracks of the mortar. For May, this was where the pain of the physical world and the hope of the spirit coexisted. It was the tension of the wall that held the beauty of her soul, her secrets, and her prayers.

As I begin to process my trip to The Wall I am spiritually scribbling down the things that I want to leave there. Little bits of fear, resentment and anger tightly folded in confessions. The pieces of my heart that need to heal. The concerns that weigh on me for those I love. Asking God to give me my life back and at the same time fearing what it would look like if he did.

Faith is seeing us placing our scribbled fragments in the mortar. Salvation is what happens when we can walk away from them.

When Life Plays for Keeps

In keeping with all the Olympic metaphors of late I’ll throw one in to the ring as well.

There are days when I feel like I’m playing some type of volleying sport with Life! Unlike the women’s Chinese badminton team, however it seems that Life does not play to lose.

It feels as if Life likes to slam things past me at speeds that make my neck snap. She plays to win and she plays for keeps. Much of Life seems to have to be lived on her terms. After all, we don’t get to choose the diseases we get, the jobs we lose, the children we have or don’t have, or the floods, fires, and famine that plague us. We don’t get to pick our families, our gene pool, or how our ancestors were treated.

On the surface, Life could convince us that we have no recourse but to hand over the match and walk away in a quandary of confusion and convoluted thinking.

As people of faith, however we have another piece that follows us out on to the court and that is the element of belief. We believe that God has uniquely placed us in the story for a purpose. We believe that the purpose is to bring hope and heaven into the darkness – to leave things better than we found them. We believe that Jesus calls us to take who he is into places that don’t know it yet.

I’m learning that we live in that thin, snug space where we experience pain and peace at the same time – where the pain turns out to be the peace. It is the narrow gap between swinging back and despairing that we call home.

When we view life as something to be won instead of something we live, we will be in perpetual conflict. Freedom comes when I see something that isn’t mine to change and instead ask God where to find him in it. That’s far different than hitting it back again and again. On the occasions that I can make a difference it will be from a place of peace and conviction, not because I hit it back enough. It will be more about releasing than resisting.

When it feels like Life is playing for keeps I am reminded that God is the keeper. I experience more comfort in the thin, snug space of what is the more I quite trying to win at life.

Beacons In the Shadows

I have a recurring nightmare where Joyce Meyer is in a policeman’s uniform reading at me from the book of James while hitting me over the head with a flashlight! No more sleeping with the TV on for me!

Okay, I don’t really have that nightmare but that’s what I feel every time I flip channels and come across televangelists telling me how to be a better Christian, not succumb to my own stupidity, and what a loser I am for not living in a definition of “victory” that belies what even God himself means by the word. Just tie me to a chair and pelt me with scripture until I lick the boot of my own unworthiness, feel sufficiently pathetic, mistake my self-loathing for repentance, and agree to get up and give it another go albeit even more exhausted and defeated than I was before.

Not to pick on our sister, Joyce. She just happens to be an easy target. I do respect the fact that if these are her convictions she takes no prisoners in making her point. The issue for me is how the culture perceives the church in light of what those who like to speak for God serves up to them.

Are we a city on a hill, a beacon of hope in a very tumultuous and dark world? Or, are we like that hotel we see in the distance when we are on vacation – the one that after driving all day and most of the night we view glowing in the distance only to find that the closer we get, the less likely it is that we’ll be pulling in for a good night’s sleep. The lights in the distance from the dark and deserted highway were certainly attractive but upon closer examination it becomes obvious that if the clientele hanging out in the parking lot don’t kill us the vermin roaming about the rooms might.

Early in my adult life there was a point when I began to realize that I had embraced a faith that depended on me. One that was about me doing better, trying just a little harder, mistaking self-contempt for contrition and hiding behind the bible (or what I thought the bible meant) to justify it. I had embraced that “turn or burn” mentality to hide from the “stuff” in my own heart and life that I didn’t want to face about me. When I began, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, believing more in God’s goodness than my badness it gave me room to believe that for others as well. That eventually resulted in me finding myself in relationship with people who considered me a “safe” person with whom they felt comfortable sharing their secret truths and me being able to hear their stories without fixing them.

It is always more about God’s goodness than my, or anyone else’s badness. That is the illuminated city, the beacon that invites us to pull in from the desolate, shadowy roads of our life journeys. It is the difference between holding out hope to others and hitting them in the head with a flashlight!

Great Expectations

Far too often I find that I confuse expectation with faith.

What I do believe that I can expect is for God to honor his promises. The quandary becomes exactly what I interpret those to be. What does God actually promise us and how do I integrate that into my faith, my personal grid for how I pray, and for whom and what I pray?

These are bigger questions than I can answer in five hundred words assuming I had the answers at all.

In my own story of adversity and prayers that seem to hover just below the ceiling tiles I’ve begun to ask myself some questions. First of all, is God faithful, trustworthy, and just? Is it an answer to prayer only when things turn out favorably from my perspective as opposed to when they turn out in ways that disappoint and even devastate me? Is God in his sovereignty only going to do what he chooses anyway and my puny prayers are just exercises in futility other than me showing my utter dependence on him?

These are the questions I get pelted with on a very regular basis as I encounter people in the areas of chronic and life threatening illness, tragedy, and the areas of addiction and compulsive behaviors that wreak havoc on the lives of individuals and those around them. Our natural expectation would be for God to heal us, strike us sober, get us well, fix us, and sweep in to smooth out all the fallout.

God doesn’t promise us that any two situations are ever going to turn out exactly alike. I also don’t see that we can take certain promises in scripture that were made to specific individuals, people groups, or cultures (regardless of how comforting and glorious they may sound) and extract them to always fit our personal paradigms. Otherwise, we would just keep the ones we like and throw out the ones where he promises to hand people over to their enemies and even allow terrible things to happen to their women and children.

I see God’s promises to be in the areas of peace, wisdom, courage, and hope. Even as I ask for certain outcomes on behalf of my loved ones and myself what I can expect from him is peace, courage, wisdom and acceptance. These things focus me on the process much more than the outcome, which I believe is really the point in the first place.

Expectation and faith are like Christmas tree lights. Even though I think I have them neatly sorted and wound up when I put them away every year, I manage to open the box to a tangled web of cords when I need to get to them again. I will probably be revisiting this point for the rest of my life. What I am careful to remember these days is that God’s promises seem to be more about carrying me through the process than about guaranteeing my desired result.

Between Black and White

I wrote this week that most of us lose our authentic selves by creating personas that we think our faith requires mistaking those for our authentic selves.

I’m beginning to see how many of us, not the least of which is me have lived with very skewed ideas about who we are and what we are to be about in light of our Christianity. Many of us have experienced a very dualistic faith. Things are either all good, or they’re all bad. People are divided into two groups. Good people and bad people. Saved people and lost people, in people or out people. I’m either completely certain, or I’m a complete agnostic (which really isn’t the exact opposite of certainty but in most circles still carries a very negative connotation).

It seems that it is from within that kind of mind that we begin to create our false selves. We have to. In a black and white faith the only safe thing we can do to fit in is to create the person we wish we were and then try to parade it around in public masquerading as us. Many of us have tried to embrace life in black and white yet life hands us twists and turns for which we are unprepared. Rather than addressing those challenging realities we go into damage control. If we can’t change our realities we try to change the way we present them or at least the way people perceive us to be living with them.

Life is anything but black and white. There are about a hundred scenarios in my life that I could rattle off without taking a breath for which I have no categories or clear grids from which to live them out. I’m not always going to cope with them extremely well and I’m not going to apologize for that anymore. I’m human, a human with every shade of gray inside and outside of my reality. I’m depending on the Holy Spirit to help me sift it out.

True faith doesn’t ask us to abandon our reality or the deepest things about who we are. It asks us to take the things that we are most impacted by and share them. In Micah we read that God has already told us what he requires of us – to uphold justice, to love mercy, and to walk in humility. If being honest about our heart isn’t humility then I don’t know what is. Jesus said that we could sum it all up by showing compassion to one another from a heart that loves God with our whole essence. Nowhere is the gospel telling us to take all the hard truth about our lives and hide it in a box in the basement.

This simple faith doesn’t require me to create a cut out version of me that is pristine and prop it up so that I’ll have credibility.

When God Talks Back

In last week’s blog I wrote about the idea of God giving us a “new song”. I posed a challenge of sorts at the end of my post. I said, “Ask yourself if the song you’ve been singing is one you own, that resonates with you in the most authentic parts of yourself. If it doesn’t, ask God to give you a new song. Then hold on tight…”

As my new song has emerged I’ve found myself reading a book entitled, When God Talks Back by T.M Luhrmann (published by Alfred Knopf, New York). She is a psychological anthropologist who spent a few years in two different Vineyard Fellowship Churches (one in Chicago and another in California). She wanted to research the evangelical mindset that has construed a hyper-personalized faith and an allegedly supremely personally engaged God. I should be quick to point out that she doesn’t necessarily consider herself to be a Christian but at the same time isn’t sure that she couldn’t be.

She is quick to say that there were times that even her own experiences confounded her. She describes small groups where the members were praying for one another and her being moved to tears by the compassion that was shown to those in pain, need, or desperate loneliness. It reminds me how the world will know we are true followers of Jesus by the way we love one another.

She shares that anthropology demands humility and that she can only speak to the human side of the relationship. What she is most curious about exploring is how we as believers can come to a place in our own psyche that allows us to suspend natural laws and believe what we cannot see, prove, or support with “facts”. The things that keep sane people sane are somehow suspended (and even required to be) when it comes to matters of faith, and yet the most intimate spiritual encounters can test the bounds of solid mental health criteria.

She says emphatically that she isn’t here to answer the question about whether God talks back, but rather what we might be experiencing when we think he does.

There is a lot to digest here. Not because she is trying to throw any of us off of the horses of our traditions or religious persuasions, but because she is asking some very good questions that might help me get a little further along on that new song I’ve been talking about. Questions like how much of myself I project on to God when I think I’m hearing him, when I pray, or when I find myself speaking on his behalf to others.

Since I haven’t completed this book I’m not commending it. I can only say that so far it has been very thought provoking in light of a subculture that gives God credit for everything from telling us where to spend vacations to getting our imported Italian marble counter tops delivered in time for the cabinet maker to meet the closing date of our house.

A New Song

New Song

Psalm 40:3 – He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in him.

Two things make people nervous about mystics. They ask questions and they don’t ask permission.

I’ve said before that I’m really a mystic disguised as a cynic who has opted for conformity to avoid conflict.

Somewhere down inside my perfectionist, driven self is a heart that is asking more questions than will ever get answers on this side of heaven. And I’m good with that – really good. In fact, I’m freer because of that than I’ve probably ever been in my life. It is as if God has given me a new song. I’m not sure that I have all the words yet, but it’s coming together. The melody is still a little rough to be sung by others but it will happen. I can feel it. As a songwriter this is the best way I know to articulate the experience.

I’m beginning to understand that being a believer is about loving the things that God loves, not satisfying a minimum requirement to get into heaven. In fact, I’m seeing that a lot of my Christian experience in the church has been experiencing people as either in or out and feeling like it was my job to help them find out which they were.

In this new song that I believe God is giving me (and I’m not speaking of a literal, singable song lest anyone find themselves awaiting some new worship tune from me), I’m finally able to be honest with myself about what I don’t know, what I believe I do know, and that there is a lot of open road between the two to be explored.

The joy and relief that come with the words, “I don’t know for sure” are freeing. They free me from defending things that feel like I have to memorize a handbook to address. I’m free from the anger that crawls up the back of my neck when people put me on the spot with their spiritual quandaries expecting me to answer them and be God’s personal PR person. It frees me from trying to convince myself of something while I’m trying to convince someone else of something. It frees me from trying to turn an “out” person into an “in” person.

This new song was conceived during lots of dark nights, lonely days, silence, and literally aching with uncertainty. I wasn’t sure I wanted this song at first. It evolved as I found myself in the company of other very broken and honest people who celebrate life in a way that I never had. This song was delivered in joy and ultimately worship as I truly begin to seek the things that God loves and in turn, learning to love Him. Not the concept of Him or the idea of Him.

I always believed that a new song would be one sung with gusto, assurance and certainty. Now I’m hearing a song that sounds distinctly different. My naïve self believed it to be a song that everyone would embrace and want to sing with me and that has turned out not to be the case. I realize that such journeys are up to God and mine doesn’t make me better, more evolved, or more mature. It just makes me different.

If I had to attach a wish here it would be that everyone reading this post would take the time to sit quietly. Turn off the music in the car. Turn off the TV while you eat dinner. Take a walk on one of these cool spring nights we’ve been having and ask yourself if the song you’ve been singing is one you own, that resonates with you in the most authentic parts of yourself. If it doesn’t, ask God to give you a new song. Then hold on tight…