Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene by Tintoretto.

I wouldn’t have even noticed the display as we hurriedly passed by it, late as usual to one or another of our homeschool co-op engagements. A regimented row of pink-hued covers beckoned, adorned with swirling cursive letters and glittery accents designed to lure the gaze of my five-year-old daughter who now cried out “Mommy, look!”, arresting me in my pursuit of the exit to which I’d been half-dragging her. I’d unwittingly chosen the route out that took us straight through the gauntlet of toys, and now trying to make it out with both her and my son was becoming a prodigious undertaking.

I turned, exasperated, and looked at the display toward which she, flat-footed and smiling, was now pointing.

“A Love Letter to My Princess,” I read, almost silently, from one of the covers. “The Beautiful Princess Bible,” another read. As my eyes lingered over the saccharine designs, so flagrantly pink and so gleefully sparkly, something that felt suspiciously like anger stirred in my belly. It was as though something from some deep calcified stratum in my heart was being piqued and prodded and drudged up into the light and I didn’t like it. So, I ignored it. I dismissed the display with a “hmmph” and tried again to impress a sense of urgency on my children, with little success. (It’s as though they want to just enjoy life and live in the moment or something!) But we left and got to our engagement in our habitually late way and I truly didn’t even think of that display of Bibles again.

A week or two later, I couldn’t sleep one early morning and got up while Steven was still home. He requires a draconian level of silence in the morning, so I did my best to be quiet and we each read and drank our coffee. But as I randomly flipped to the Old Testament and read a passage about God giving away someone’s wives to foreigners, I felt the incipient anger that had been fomenting in me deepen and take a shape and life of its own.

You see, In some distant lock-and-key subbasement of my heart, a false god lived, a hideous phantasmagoric beast that was a Frankensteinian pastiche of my own creation - a compilation of the spectacular failures of human love, the hurts inflicted on me by myself and others, the lie that I was only worth the amount of sexual interest I could garner from men, the times I’d believed all the lies the world tells about sexuality and the emotional devastation that invariably followed. All this I had pasted over God, superimposed it on him instead of surrendering it to him. It was the lens through which I been reading the Old Testament, gleefully exclaiming “a-ha! I knew it!” each time I found apparent confirmation of my bias.

I couldn’t keep quiet. “I don’t understand,” I began. Steven peered up from his reading, valiantly concealing his annoyance, at least for the moment. I continued.

“It says here that God is giving away wives, as though they were property, as though they were so much chattel. Didn’t the wives have some kind of say in this? And why did he routinely allow and, apparently, tacitly condone polygamy anyway? Obviously a crap deal for the ladies. I don’t get it.”

Steven sighed. “ I have no idea,” he said. “But God doesn’t think of women as… chattel? What the heck does that mean? Can’t you just use words people actually know? Why don’t you pray about it?”

“I did!” I insisted. Did I? With a broken and earnestly seeking spirit? Probably not, but I was mired in my rightness now, my conviction that God was a blatant woman-hater. I would not be moved. And then, suddenly, the stagnant sewage of all the false beliefs, all the ossified lies and treasured wounds, all the years of looking for the wrong kind of love (or at least, a stunted, compartmentalized piece of love that became poisonous when excised from its whole) in all the wrong places came gushing forth and met with that dang pink Bible cover.

I wept. And I wept, and wept, and wept.

Steven’s confusion registered through my vale of tears and I choked out, “It says… It says… It says ‘For My Beautiful Princess’, but -” I gulped and a sob arose again - “It doesn’t feel that way!” And he held me and I cried and the snot and tears comingled on the shoulder of his work shirt and he didn’t even say anything, bless him.

“Wow,” I said, when I’d reasonably collected myself. “I didn’t know that was in there.” And I didn’t. But God did.

I love how relentless God is. I love how he doesn’t let us die in sin, in unredeemed pain, in hiding and pretending and shallow, arms-distance relationship. In the days leading up to that early morning death and rebirth, I had become obsessed with a staggeringly beautiful a cappella version of Bon Iver’s “Heavenly Father”. I watched the video over and over again. It has profanity, which I’d prefer wasn’t there, but it’s such a profoundly raw and authentic lament and psalm and prayer and dirge all rolled into one and it was reverberating in the wildest reaches of my soul and giving form to the struggle I couldn’t yet name:

No, I don’t know how you house the sin
I never knew how much of you I could let in

How does he absorb the sin, take it upon himself, bleed for us, lay himself to be disfigured and maligned and humiliated? How does he house the sin? Grace is the most profound, vast, and beautiful mystery that exists. He not only houses it, he forgives it, erases it, makes us whole and new and infused with life and tender as babies with the wonder of that grace.

I never knew how much of you I could let in. I never did, never trusted that something could be that good or that someone could love me that much even as I stumbled through my late teens and early twenties, gorging from the hideous buffet of coping mechanisms that promised oblivion: drunkenness, eating disorders, drugs. I was betrayed and I betrayed; my heart was broken and in my cataracted selfishness I broke hearts. I didn’t believe God’s love existed, yet my restless heart wouldn’t stop looking for it. The dissonance reached an unbearable crescendo as I couldn’t divorce the act of physical intimacy from emotion as it grazed the very crux of my aching heart.

Darkness visible, c. 2007

I’ve been married for almost nine years now, and I thought my grieving over those days was over. But God knew it wasn’t. God knew, somewhere deep down, I still wondered if he loved me, wondered if he cared about women at all, wondered if he could ever truly love a Mary Magdalene. And I cherry-picked passages out of Scripture that buffeted my deepest fears and the lies I still carried with me.

I’ve been up here for [all these] years
Filling up holes with [all these] fears

Well I know about it, darling, I’ve been standing here.

Jesus. He was standing there all along, through the sojourns in hell and the interminable nights when the room spun or flowered in fractals, the mornings of hangovers or unbearable coming-downs when I’d realized I’d gone loping across the cosmos and yet my heart remained unchanged and my wounds grievous.

When I languished in the agony of break-ups that seemed cataclysmic, certain I was unlovable and worthless, He was there.

When I turned away again and again and again to chase some other hologram that promised the world while it siphoned my soul, He was there.

When I’d finally exhausted nearly every other avenue, sprinted down every road that seemed to shine only to return bereft and more broken than before, and found myself one Sunday morning sitting in the backmost pew of a church sobbing during the worship music with my mind straining to explain away this sudden humiliating deluge while simultaneously my heart whispered maybe- just maybe - there was something to this whole “Jesus thing” I’d been hearing so much about.  

And when I look at Jesus, I see the precious and honored place women have in our Creator’s heart. Jesus came into the world through a woman. Mary Magdalene was the first to see him after his resurrection. He revealed his identity plainly to the woman at the well, something he didn’t even do for his disciples. When I read about Jesus and women, all I see is perfect compassion, mercy, and grace. And Jesus is God. As Brian Zahnd says, Jesus is what God looks like and is what he has always looked like - we just haven’t always known it.

I think wrapped up in repentance, inexorable from it, is the full realization of the true gravity of what we’ve done. We have to suffer the full weight of what we’ve done to ourselves and others - how we’ve desecrated these temples and strained gnats and missed the whole point over and over again -  in order to be truly free. It’s not karma. It’s mercy, because compassion can be formed no other way. But with it comes grace - torrential, extravagant, amazing grace - making us new creations in Christ. 

This love isn’t too good to be true- it’s the only thing good enough to be true, and all other truth originates from it.

I have to confess, though I love Mary Mother of God, I’ve always identified more with Mary Magdalene. During a nadir in the midst of my lost years, when it felt as though my very soul was disintegrating and the tenuous center of self could no longer hold, I decided to go to church one Sunday morning. Any one would do, so I picked one and I walked in and immediately felt an agonizing psychological tension as the demons to whom I’d given clearance warred with my primal yearning for healing, for relief, for the name above all names that I simply couldn’t yet utter. I left abruptly after about ten minutes after someone spoke kindly to me during the greeting time. I was so close to the precipice, to having a full-on Damascus style conversion, and I turned and ran. As I listened to a sermon years later about Mary and her seven demons, my heart sighed with relief. Although sin has a high cost, it is also true that where it abounds so does grace, and often when you’ve been forgiven so much, it’s hard to forget you are and always will be, as Brian Zahnd also says, a beggar at the table.  

Something in me still resists the idea of a princess bible. It’s too maudlin, a voice within says, too trite, too reductionistic. But is it? Why is it so hard to rest in God’s radical love? I remember one of my favorite movies as a child, The Little Princess. At one point, the mean girl (don’t remember her name, you know the one) is mocking the idea that Sarah is a princess. “I AM a princess,” Sarah responds with great conviction. “All little girls are!” Well, that’s a little silly, I protest. I mean, I read theology! I’m trying to move on to solid food here! Yet there are these love-malnourished iterations of me - the chubby little girl who sincerely believed if she could just wear her sister’s Calvin Klein logo t-shirt, she would finally be among the anointed in the social hierarchy at school; the acne-ridden, still chubby, too-tall teenager who was always left on the wall at the school dance (that is, the few she mustered up the courage to attend), the rudderless and desperate young woman; - they all just want to be a princess. 

They - she - just wants to rest under the gaze of a Creator who is pleased with her, whose love is pure and adoring and free of exploitative desire and in fact embodies the opposite - love that is assured, sacrificial and unfailing, love that knows how to mend the deepest wounds, love that calls the sinners chosen and the last first and the cross worth it. So I’ll let the grown 33-year-old woman be that princess, sometimes. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Velveteen Mother

“My mom ALWAYS cries when she reads this story to us,” my son loudly proclaimed to the librarian as we stepped up to the desk with a movie adaptation of The Velveteen Rabbit. The librarian nodded and looked at me with a knowing smile. “Yep, it gets you right in the feels, doesn’t it?” she asked.

Oh, does it ever. We get about three pages in, to the part where the Velveteen Rabbit is learning about becoming real from the wise old Skin Horse, and I’m gulping and sniffling and struggling to keep reading while the tears blur my eyes and my kids are patting my back and saying “mom, it’s okay! It’s okay!”

Whenever I cry in front of my children, my daughter always asks, “Mommy, are you crying because you’re sad or because you’re happy?” And when she asks in the midst of one of my Velveteen Rabbit meltdowns, I never know how to answer. Well, am I happy? Or am I sad? I’m just not sure. The answer is… both. It feels like a polyphonic deluge of feeling with the beauty and the sadness so intimately intertwined as to be inseparable; two sides of a single emotion. All I know is, it’s real.

I think the story pricks so many tender emotions because it tells our story, or rather the story God wants to tell in our lives. For us to become “real” and embrace an even more majestic future, something must be lost, often something precious but something whose time has passed. Loss and gain, surrender and persistence, nostalgia and hope - these pairs can’t be divorced. But we resist. 

I told a friend once that when I’m feeling pessimistic and overwhelmed by the bigness and ruthlessness and sometimes outright badness of this world and I gauge it against the tenderness and vulnerability I see in my children, I wish I could just fold them back into myself. “Oh, well, THAT’S healthy,” my friend sarcastically exclaimed, and we laughed. But it’s true. The tension is real. When my kids were really tiny, I remember spending entire days feeling filled with dread about the passing of time, days when the cliche “the days are long, but the years are short” rang so true and I’d project years ahead and my heart would cry “no!” and ache at how everything changes.

In those moods, it felt like everything was being irrevocably lost. Gone, gone. When I tried to stay on top of the flow of time rather than let myself be subsumed by it, panic and melancholia and a feeling of things constantly and irretrievably tumbling into the chasm of the past, despite my desperate efforts to hold on, poisoned my days. Memories of hazy spring days spent at the park, memories once lucid, grew faint as they receded. My children’s limbs kept lengthening and those baby fat creases kept fading and time kept rolling on like a river, like water over the palm. And I finally learned that if you clench your fists and try to stanch the river, it seeps through your fingers and pummels your knuckles with its relentless onslaught. You drown. But over an open, receptive palm it flows untrammeled, pooling for a moment before being replaced by new streams. It’s living water, not a stagnant pool.

Seasons crest and ebb. We are always feeding out more rope to the tether that binds us to our children. One day it will become gossamer-thin as we watch them eagerly venture out into the world alone. And we’ll still be able to see the baby, the toddler, the child echoed in features and mannerisms and we’ll feel terrified and accomplished and nostalgic and fulfilled and emptied all at once. So I hear.

We can’t stop the flow of time. We can’t predict the future. We can’t, by force of will, keep things the way they are forever. Our children will grow. Things will change. But we have a good God who holds it all. He has made and is making everything beautiful in its time, and we are being invited into greater trust with every passing moment.  

Will it hurt? Yes, it will. It’s bittersweet, this mothering business. There’s no point pretending it isn’t. The delight of witnessing them learn and grow and become is tempered by the yearning for days gone by, for sweet kissable baby cheeks and quiet moments in the still of night when the whole spinning world seems to revolve around the silent, sacred sanctuary that is you and your baby. It will hurt, the constant letting go that motherhood demands. But the fruit of letting go, of holding the flow of time in an open palm and trusting God - is joy: magical, flowering, overflowing joy. And joy isn’t pain-free. It isn’t safe. It isn’t shallow. It’s not a one-dimensional kind of happiness but a prismatic bounty full of texture and complexity that nourishes the wild wordless places of your soul. And it makes you real, and draws you into a life more deep, more rich and more lush than a life clutching to any illusory sense of control ever could.

And when you’re real, as the Skin Horse so wisely says, you don’t mind being hurt.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Well, I NEVER...

From the scene of the infamous Santa-Cali-Gon incident recounted in the postscript.

Fun facts:

On our first date, Steven asked to use the bathroom in my apartment before we went out. He spied a small cardboard box in my bathroom trash can and he told me years later that my thoughtless disposal of a fully recyclable item gave him serious pause about asking me out again.

Well into our 1.5 month engagement, I learned that Steven had in his possession a book he’d checked out from the library and kept because, well, he wanted it and it was out of print and it cost too much to buy. Aghast, I momentarily considered breaking off our engagement.

To both of us, the other had committed an unpardonable sin worthy of excommunication. Yet love  (or, perhaps for Steven at that early juncture, more just physical attraction) transcended and made us question our most dearly held “rules”. The ways we divided people into categories - good versus bad; wanton, styrofoam-burning earth destroyer versus pious recycler; evil saboteur of the magical institutions known as libraries which are designed to benefit the commonwealth and provide literary education and pleasure to all which only works if EVERYONE FOLLOWS THE RULES versus respectful library patron - suddenly didn’t hold up to the reality and complexity of another human being. (To be honest, it’s probably for the best that the library book revelation occurred late as it did in our courtship. I was in way too deep by that point).

Relationships in general, and marriage in particular, have a way of composting our most dearly held “rules”: our absolutes - our can’ts, won’ts, don’ts and nevers. As the rules we use to delineate, to divide, to map our world into clear-cut categories collide with the reality of a flesh-and-blood, sinful, broken human being with whom we’re desperately in love, we can either save our rules and shrink our world and calcify our hearts more and more, or surrender our rules and stay and love. Before I met Steven, I would say that I never wanted to get married or have kids and furthermore I didn’t understand what compelled people to want to do either (yes, I was totally insufferable and out of touch with my own yearnings).

Then suddenly, here was this magical man who was convex in all the places I was concave and concave in all the places I was convex: who just fit me. He loved order when I tended toward chaos. He was brave when I was scared. He knew just what to say and how to say it in the way I needed when I was stammering and wordless.

And then, when he invited me to his family’s picnic on our third date (we move fast), I witnessed the way he interacted with his niece and it was so beautiful and touching that it began to excavate some deeply buried longing of my heart that had been tamped down with cynicism and fear. As I watched him play with her and heard her darling toddler giggles, the thought popped into my head, startling and unbidden: “he’d make a really good father”. It both terrified and exhilarated me, striking out into this particular uncharted territory of daydreaming. I didn’t even know how to hold a baby, and yet some of the oldest magic in the book was enchanting me and beginning to erode my nevers.

I remember our courtship and the way I was entranced by his laugh - so uninhibited and earnest and real - the easy way he moved, the way he made up little limericks on the spot and made me laugh more often than anyone I’d ever met, his complete lack of pretense and how he knew how to push the boundaries of decorum just as far as they needed to go to disarm and charm people. In short, he was perfect. Except when he wasn’t, and my can’ts and won’ts and alwayses and nevers butt up against this person I loved, this person I was covenanted to, and I had to choose.

God delights in surprise, in subverting our manmade kingdoms and our dimmed expectations. I’ll never have a baby, said Sarah. I always outwit everyone, Jacob thought (I imagine). And then there’s one of my favorite moments in the book of Acts: when God asks Ananias to go see Saul, lay hands on him and restore his vision. Ananias’ response was quite measured and contained, and he didn’t even ask God to repeat himself or exclaim “say WHAT? You want me to go see WHO?” He did, however, essentially say “Lord, you do know who this guy is and what he’s been doing… right?” Of course, this moment doesn’t represent so much the dismantling or an absolute as the presentation of a command that is so outrageous, so far out of the realm of plausibility that I doubt Ananias had even ever given it the consideration that would lead to the formation of a “won’t” or a “never”. Inasmuch as he thought of Saul it was probably to grieve the violence and loss of life that Saul perpetrated and assiduously avoid running into him. And now God is asking Ananias to intentionally seek him out! 

Recently I was thinking about Paul and his murderous, Christ-hating past and I laughed out loud, wondering “who would hire that guy?! God would!” God would, because he didn’t look at Saul and only see an enemy and someone who was venomously and diametrically opposed to his purposes. He didn’t see the lost cause of all lost causes, like we would. Instead (I believe), he saw a passion for God gone horribly awry under the jurisdiction of human terms and rules, but a passion which, once brought under the ownership of Jesus Christ, could yield fruit 100 times what was sown - fruit of hope in the boundless redemptive promise of Him.

God delights in showing us how far his mercy and grace and redemption goes - and it’s always way beyond our human boundaries. We say things like “I could never forgive someone if they ____”. God says he would rather sacrifice everything than not forgive or follow the “rules” of karma or retaliation. We say perfectly reasonable things like “I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget,” a not-so-clever ruse to actually not forgive and instead continue to remind our trespasser of his trespass. God says crazy stuff like “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18) and “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17) and "love keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Cor 13). We crucified Love Himself, we denied Him three times, we held people’s coats while they stoned one of His anointed, and yet still God delights in pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible. We, the prodigal sons, come home to a lavish banquet. What a preposterously unfair equation! What an outrageously unbalanced scale! What a scandal! But even more: what a beautiful, great God.

Is it wrong to say that I understand the Pharisees? I do. I can see in them my own anxious attachment to the rules as they gape at Jesus’s flagrant disregard of them. “But you can’t just --- !” “Who do you think you are? We have rules around here!” I had rules around here, too, once. Big ones. I was pret-ty proud of them and they made me feel awfully self-righteous. But God is dismantling them one by one as He pulls me more deeply into trust and obedience and faith that following His Son is enough. More than enough. It’s everything. The yoke of my rules, my absolutes, my self-righteousness, my hypervigilance is hard. Cumbersome. His is easy.

God is not safe. He will take us far beyond our self-imposed brackets and the circles we’ve drawn around the things we think we can control. He’ll never lead us into sin, but He will take us past our man-made rules. Sometimes He’ll take us to a place where it feels like the bottom is dropping out and the center will not hold and where our white-knuckle grip yields nothing but greater and greater pain until we just let go. And there, watching our kingdoms fall and our once dearly-held rules demolish, we’ll realize they were no treasure at all. He is our treasure. And He chooses us. Miraculous.

P.S. God has a delightful sense of humor. The best ever, you might say. In addition to the “nevers” and “won’ts” I am also cautious these days about strong declarative statements concerning things that I dislike, I.e. “I HATE (insert band, food, etc.).” I find whenever I do this I have to eat my words or end up in curious situations such as one autumn evening when Steven and I were riding one of those rickety, jerky traveling carnival rides where the veil between life and death is thin and bolts seem to be working themselves looser with every turn and I thought as I listened to the Nickelback song blaring over the tinny loudspeakers “You know, they’re really not so bad!” True story. Be careful out there. God loves a joke!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Genesis of Hope

The run-of-the-mill childhood illness had given his sister only a fever for three days and an itinerant rash on her torso. But in him, it bypassed the fever entirely and poured all its virulence into an angry rash that distended his cheeks, swelled his eyelids and pilled his smooth skin to a swath of angry red bumps. He sat on the sink, his feet in the basin, and stared sadly at his reflection in the mirror. Then he hung his head. The words were flat, his voice weak and downcast, and I barely heard him, but I did. Oh, I did.

“God didn’t answer my prayer. Instead he just gave me a silly face.”

The night before when the rash had first appeared, creeping its way up his cheek, he’d prayed so simply and directly, in his blithe and innocent way, to be healed. Hands clasped and eyes squinted tightly shut, he offered up his request, so sweetly and earnestly. He had been so sure in the asking, and so certain of the deliverance. And now, here we were. God didn’t answer my prayer.

My heart broke, hearing it. My hand went to my mouth and my eyes started to sting. Not now, I thought. Not this weighty theological dilemma that is way too complex even for me to understand, let alone simplify and codify into some teachable moment for my child. And the timing, oh, the timing. My frustration in prayer had crescendoed to a huffy resignation just the week prior. My prayers, it seemed, had been fluttering to the ground like forlorn confetti at a wedding where the groom had gotten cold feet; my words falling unheard into a formless void. Hearts were getting harder (mine included) and people were getting divorced and getting sicker anyway. I didn’t feel like running any race. I felt like sitting down in the middle of the road. When I did try to pray, it felt hollow, as if the bitterness on my tongue poisoned the words before they even left my mouth. Maybe there isn’t even anyone there to hear, I thought, which seemed an even more incredible and terrifying alternative to the idea that God was indeed there but silent. And in the space between doubt and nihilism, I languished, feeling like a fool: a fool to believe and a fool to disbelieve. Instead he just gave me a silly face.    

So I just held my son and stroked his calloused cheeks while I let the tears come down my own. “I know. I know. It feels that way, doesn’t it?” I said. And in saying those words I remembered the last time they were spoken to me, and I was back there again, pulled over on the side of a remote country highway, desperately trying to make it to my parents’ house 300 miles away in a state of almost complete disintegration. Darkness closed in on the periphery of my very being and threatened to swallow me whole. I was pretty sure my marriage was over and now a terrible misunderstanding blunderingly handled by me meant that my husband might lose his job. It’s a long story, for another time, of how I arrived at the side of that road, sobbing into my phone to one of my dearest friends, clinging for dear life to her words as though they were my last remaining tether to hope above the pit of chaos that loomed beneath me, belching meaninglessness from its rotten belly. And truly, they were just that. “Everything’s falling apart,” I cried out in between the convulsive sobs that held my body in thrall.

“Yes,” Stephanie said. “I know. Yes, it feels that way.” That was the medicine I needed. In that moment I didn’t need platitudes, I didn’t need facile reassurance, I didn’t need someone lying and saying it was okay when it so obviously wasn’t at all. I desperately needed hope, yes, but I needed that validation first. I needed my lamentation to be real to someone else.  

I think sometimes before we can authentically hope, lamentation must come first. When our story doesn’t turn out how we wanted or expected, the temptation to meaninglessness, cruel opportunist that it is, slithers in and taunts us with its blackened barbs. We start to wonder if this is it, if this is where our story ends. We start to wonder if there is a story being told at all, or rather if the welter of disintegration that swirls around us is the truth: that there is none, that entropy reigns. The most profound refrain of despair resonates in our bones: Why? Why have you forsaken me?

Out on that lonely road, I cried harder. But my friend wasn’t finished: “But it’s not true. And it won’t always feel that way,” she said firmly. I couldn’t believe her in that moment, but I let her hope for me, even though it seemed so distant and so absurd. I couldn’t believe it then, though I came to in time. In the midst of pain, it seems untenable, even ludicrous to see beyond the pain, to believe that dry bones can come alive again. But they can. I’ve seen it, and tasted it, and known it with my own eyes and tongue and heart.

A couple days after my son despaired over his reflection, the swelling receded and his face began to return to the handsome little boy I knew. I was fearful, though, fearful that the incident had planted a seed of doubt that would now grow unchecked until he’d eventually abandon any semblance of faith at all. I thought just because he was little, my son’s faith was fragile. Deep down, I condescendingly thought his hope was sweet but quaint and naive. And I thought it had been crushed. I was so wrong. He smiled at his face in the mirror now, and turned toward me. “See, mom? God healed me. It’s a miracle!”

Tears stung my eyes again, at his untarnished wonder. Hope isn’t always just a specific wish for something to happen or not to happen - it’s also an unwavering belief in an ultimate good ending and a sense of awe at the beautiful, bewildering gift of life. Because if we allow it, if we want it, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, God infuses everything with meaning. Every thing. Sometimes we have to pass through meaninglessness to get to the meaning, but it’s there. There are (or at least there will be) no meaningless or profitless dangling threads, none at all, in the end. No ultimate tragedy. Death, in any of its forms, does not have the last word.

That’s the genesis of hope. And so we hope, even when everything seems to point toward the chasm of chaos, even when the collective voices of cynicism and despair growl “don’t bother”. We hope when it’s irrational, when it doesn’t make a lick of sense, when the void of meaninglessness yawns before us and the storm assails us. And when we can’t hope, we let someone else hope for us. My husband didn’t lose his job after all and eventually, after months of the hard work and pure grace of healing, our marriage was restored. But even when this or that leg of your story doesn’t end the way it should because our world is broken - even when hearts harden and the sick don’t get better - it’s not over yet. Your story - our story - is good, and it isn’t over. 

This article originally appeared in the spring 2017 MOPS Magazine.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Cynicism: The God of This Age

Washed clean.

I was only 9 years old, in Mrs. Hagedorn’s third grade class, and to cap our economics unit at the end of that week we watched (on Laserdisc, no less - the technology of future past) a series featuring a jaunty character named “Econ” and catchy song and dance jingles designed as mnemonic devices for concepts such as supply and demand and compound interest. It was a little hokey, sure, but I can still recall “opportunity cost, opportunity cost, iiiit iiiis your opportunity cost!”

At the tender age of 9, however, I thought it was a lot more than hokey. As I sulked behind my desk, I made snide comments under my breath until one of my classmates, Amanda, turned around and yelled at me “Some of us like it, OKAY?!” Effectively shamed, I sank down farther in my desk, at once baffled by the idea that someone could genuinely enjoy something SO totally lame and jealous of her ability to do so.

How, I wonder now. How did I believe myself so debonair and jaded at the age of 9 that I, a child, was unable to enjoy a children’s program? I believe it’s because I’d already, if not necessarily intentionally - more by osmosis - absorbed the spirit of the god of this age: cynicism.

Cynicism saps the color and joy from life because it robs us of our capacity for hope. Cynicism is just nihilism with a sense of humor - albeit a mean-spirited, spiteful, ugly one. If, as Paul E. Miller says, pride is Satan’s basic game plan, the spirit of cynicism achieves that end with remarkable efficiency. You know it all, cynicism whispers seductively. You already know how the story ends and so you know enough never to hope, never to try. It may look like spring now, but winter will be here soon enough, it says. And you know everyone who does is just pitifully naive and will be crushed soon enough but is worthy only of mockery and scorn in the interim.

Cynicism pervades and saturates our culture even more thoroughly now than it did twentysome years ago. It’s the subtext, the underpinning, the ground from which we operate. We mock, we scoff, we endlessly parse the motivations of other people and project crude innuendos on everything. We simply no longer have any framework for earnestness or innocence. Postmodernism, which promised a laminate ideological field of equal validity for every belief, has in practice eroded both our ability to believe in anything and our ability to allow others to believe. As Tim Keller says of postmodernism, the demon is in deep. And yet, and yet… like me, sulking and shamed in that third grade desk, we both frantically justify ourselves and - if deep down - mourn for what seems irrevocably lost. Earnestness looks like freedom, yet we’re so deeply entrenched in the mire of cynicism that we can’t see a way out that doesn’t look like total inauthenticity. Playacting. A fairy tale.

I know the way out, though: Jesus Christ. When I’d exhausted the world, run recklessly down every deceptive cul-de-sac just trying to mute the agonizing howls of pain, alienation and unworthiness that refrained through my heart on a daily basis with varying volumes… suddenly, vividly, miraculously, there was Jesus Christ. And with his presence, the scales fell away. I could see things for the first time, untainted by my fallen projections. You see, cynicism dumps on the world the pain it feels within. It’s essentially this: if I can’t be happy, no one can be happy. If I feel like a broken, forsaken, rejected fraud then everyone else must be a fraud, too. If I can’t be earnest, than true earnestness must not exist and anyone who pretends to be must be doing so for manipulative reasons. If I can’t believe, then no one must actually believe. Cynicism believes it monopolizes true insight. It’s a Satanic perversion of true seeing through Jesus Christ.

 I believe part of being born again is realizing - for me, in one cataclysmic fell swoop - that your way of looking at things, your eagle eye on the world that you believed was so piercingly and shrewdly perceptive, is - pardon the expression - radically bass-ackwards. It was both an excruciating effrontery to my ego and the sweetest relief I’d ever known, this death: to realize while I believed I owned the truth, and luxuriated in smug self-righteousness, the clue and the way home - indeed, The Truth - was right in front of me, and the people I thought were hopelessly clueless were on to it before me. So, finally, I saw. I had been brought blessedly low, and I saw things now. I saw crystalline, shimmering beauty all around me. I saw God’s hand at work, saw his radiant, overflowing, absurdly profligate yet somehow perfectly apportioned grace and mercy. And I saw the crowning beauty of all creation, Jesus Christ, and the immense weight of the burden he bore for me that somehow, mysteriously, brings me perfect freedom. WOW! How about that? (I actually typed “how bou dah” and erased it because that is terrible and please never let me do that again). God is AWESOME! Always surprising. Always unexpected. Always loving. And always, always beautiful.  

I remember the first time that, as a newly converted Christian still bearing the residue of the world, with one foot still in it, to be honest, I experienced the bizarre magnanimity of a Jesus freak. We became acquainted with a couple who were interested in my art and with whom we had some mutual friends. We had them over to dinner one night and had a very pleasant evening - only the second time we’d met in person. We’d shared with them that I had an art show coming up in LA and mentioned that we wished we could attend but were obviously unable to do so. A couple of hours later, around 11 p.m., the husband - a devoted Christ follower who’d been a missionary in New York City - called Steven to excitedly share that he’d had a brilliant idea. He was going to start a Facebook page for the purpose of ‘crowdfunding’ our trip to LA, and was happily contributing as well. I was floored. Why would he do this?

Cynicism gets used to searching restlessly for ulterior motives, certain of their existence. Nothing can be as good as it seems. And this seemed unprecedented. I remember that in the course of our conversation that night - on an entirely different topic that I can’t remember - he had said “Oh, I have no problem asking people for money.” At first, I was a little appalled. But now I see why. Anyone who knows M. Bryce Olson knows he could sell ice to an Eskimo, yet he uses his skills in service of Jesus Christ. Money is in its proper place for him - it isn’t a god, and doesn’t create invisible chains of obligation where it is joyfully given and joyfully received. He isn’t naive about the ways of the world, but subverts them to the glory of God. As Michael Frost says: be so countercultural that people ask ‘who the heck are you?’ Bryce and his wife, Natalie, had me asking that question. I was intrigued, and drawn deeper to the person of Jesus Christ. 
So here we are, called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Of the swamp of cynicism, some of us were wise enough to never enter in the first place; some of us visited for a time to see what all the fuss was about and hightailed it out; and then some of us (like me) languished in that rotting belly that dresses itself up as sophistication, with its ravening lies and acid sarcasm. We’ve breathed its putrid air, and we ain’t goin back. As the beauty of Jesus flushes the cynicism from your life, space is made for joy, for childlike wonder, for awe, for mirth. I still backslide to the way of the world, quite often, but God has a way of rebuking with beauty. I expect the worst from someone, and then get the best. I expect drudgery, and then discover laughter and delight in the most unexpected places. I expect maintenance, status quo, survival, at best; and then get resurrection beyond my wildest imaginings in the person of Jesus Christ.  

Thursday, March 2, 2017

How Can It Be? (Lost in the Cosmos)

c. 2008. Very lost. Jesus is in there (upper righthand corner). He always was.

“I will be glad and rejoice in your love,
For you saw my affliction
And knew the anguish of my soul.
You have not handed me over to the enemy
But have set my feet in a spacious place.”

-Psalm 31:7-8

I’ve been frustrated in my efforts to share the Gospel lately. My most passionate words seem to be filtered through the lens of what people want to see, the entrenched judgments they made long ago. As the Father has carried me to mountaintop heights where I truly tasted and finally fully believed that His love is better than life, heights where I realized yes, yes: I would die before I would deny the absolutely transcendent, ineffable, prismatic beauty of Jesus Christ and the infinite font of joy that is His love, and I was left stuttering and weeping, on my knees, stultified by the sheer deluge of it all, I’ve felt fortified by Paul’s words: Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold (2 Cor 3:12). Yet my most earnest, impassioned appeals seem to have fallen on unhearing ears lately (at least apparently, at least for now). Although I know there may be a harvest in time, and with prayer, enthusiasm has sometimes yielded to frustration: You don’t hear what I’m saying! Why can’t you see this?! It’s right in front of you! I want to cry. Why are you so blind?!

And I remember my own desperate blindness before I knew the pure beauty of Jesus Christ.

I remember distinctly the moment I finally believed there was a reality beyond this world, when my stony empiricism, vanity and selfishness was cracked wide open and I was left dumbfounded, newborn, knowing something monumental beyond monumental had occurred but utterly unable to grasp it. “There’s so much more than I ever thought there was,” I repeated again and again, through a veil of snot and tears. I’m not proud to say drugs were involved… but He will truly travel anywhere to reach us, and my insular, self-obsessed, compressed world would never be the same. Truly, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but only the beginning, and only if we submit. I didn’t. Or perhaps I pretended to. Like Israel, I remained hard-hearted and quickly turned to other gods and began to cobble together a cosmology of my own authoring that professed belief in God yet was really only a smorgasbord of new age and yogic philosophies, and which kept me in control. I still believed The Bible was regressive claptrap. I was on to the good stuff, the deep stuff, the high and mystical stuff.

As much as God’s presence had been real to me in that earlier epiphanic moment - a presence at once fearful, thundering and chastening but also tender and somehow more familiar than anything of this world - God became a reality to be accessed and manipulated, whether through yoga, meditation, or drugs, rather than a gloriously relational and real and infinitely holy yet astoundingly merciful and loving Lord of all creation. I demanded heaven yet refused the Gate, and unsurprisingly it wasn’t long before I found myself in hell.

I remember one night after I’d dropped acid by myself in my apartment. I was in my early twenties, and convinced I was plumbing the depths of innerspace, or the endocosmos, as I liked to put it. Certain I was spelunking in the outer caverns of Paradise, drawing closer and closer to God, I watched molecules dance before my eyes, beautiful glittering prismatic geometries blooming and receding, overlaying one another in a gluttonous visual feast. But I was losing my mind. It was like I’d sieved myself through a honeycomb and now the disparate pieces were drifting out on a sea of chaos, the waves carrying them farther and farther apart from one another. There was no anchor, and, in my personal cosmology, there was no one to help.

I remember what happened next so clearly to this day. As I sat there on my couch, looking out my window, idly watching the transformed street below, in which swam a million rainbow lattices, the softest, gentlest, most compassionate voice resounded through my mind.

You don’t have to keep doing this to yourself, you know, it said. God said. It could have been no one else. I was convinced I was on the right path, even as a thousand demons settled into their new home within me, whispering silibant lies at opportune times.

I began weeping. No one had ever spoken to me so kindly. I realized how desperate, how thirsty I was for a kind word, for living water. But the demon was in deep. The drugs went by the wayside as I met Steven and we had our beautiful children, but still I clung to lies and arrogance. I was devout, almost obsessive, about practicing yoga. It was nearly catastrophic for me if I had to miss a class. And a while ago I read Arrow’s birth story and cringed at the pretentious, ridiculously solemn blather about chakras and the Hindu goddess Kali I had included in the narrative. Not long after her birth, we’d traveled to Topanga Canyon for an art show. I was elated - I’d always revered Topanga as a mythical epicenter of hippiedom, and it didn’t disappoint. Roadside crystal shops abounded. Mandalas decorated the sides of houses and a city festival promised all the green juice and new age healing modalities one could imagine. You couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a certified Reiki healer. And yet during our whole trip I felt a fundamental unease, which would often mount into near-panic attacks. What was wrong with me? I wondered. I’d finally arrived!

As a family, we’d been dabbling hesitantly with attending a Christian church in that season - Steven more than me, but I’d begrudgingly followed his lead. During the Topanga trip he suggested that we attend a Sunday morning service at the only Christian church in Topanga. I reluctantly agreed, but was embarrassed about it as we informed our hosts of our plans. At the church we met a tiny ragtag congregation of about ten people, most of them over 50. The pastor and his wife were stunning paragons of blond SoCal beauty, and suddenly I was overcome with shame and fear and panic that was totally incommensurate with my surroundings. What is wrong with me? I asked again, as my nervousness erupted into a full-blown panic attack. Now I know: demons don’t like to be in church, and everything in me was compelling me to run out the door as fast as I could.

But I knew I couldn’t. I excused myself to the nursing room with Arrow where I wept profusely as the service went on. I was so terrified and lost, but I didn’t know I could cry out to God. I don’t know that I believed there was really anyone there.

Somehow, I got myself together, and after the service Steven and I chatted with the pastor for awhile. He was from Santa Monica, but was traveling up to Topanga every Sunday as a kind of interim pastor to try and help the church grow, he said. I tried to nod politely and follow the conversation, but I was still desperate to just get out of there, and my mind drifted away.

When it returned, the pastor was discussing Topanga and how it was a hotbed of new age beliefs, and he said “I’ve had so many people come to me for help and they’re just tormented. They’re just tormented,” he repeated. “But they can’t accept Jesus Christ.”

That’s me! I screamed inside my head. THAT’S ME! YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT ME! HELP ME! I nearly cried in desperation. But though my heart was crying out I kept silent and nodded in faux sympathy.

I could write so much more about my long journey to Christ - made long and arduous only by my own resistance and pride - but those were pivotal moments, brought to mind when Steven asked me the other night what I would say if someone asked me why I believed in Jesus Christ. Because I tried nearly every other conceivable path and they all led to death, I said. Because only in Christ have I found the fulfillment of all my heart’s yearnings. And I was able to offer this analogy to respond to those who say there is truth in his teachings, but one needn’t give their life to Him or declare Him their Lord and Savior: 

It’s like an extract of orange flavor versus an orange. The extract holds a residue of the flavor, but none of the body of the orange - the texture of the rind, the way the fruit breaks apart, the juice contained in tiny ovoid chambers, the way the oil scents your fingers for hours after you’ve consumed it. The extract contains what can not even necessarily be reasonably termed a part of the whole; it just contains a shallow, hollow echo of some distant memory “orange”, bitter on the tongue, which has nearly lost all meaning instead of the glorious multisensory experience that is holding and peeling and eating an orange. The branch is off the vine.

In many ways, I believe the indiscriminate, confused Brahmanic pastiche that is the new age / yogic world of thought is the ideal “spirituality” for a postmodern West, as it was for my postmodern, cynical mind. It requires no real commitment or sacrifice, and is committed to a kind of false humility / gullibility that is offended by truth claims yet is open to nearly any idea (dolphins are hyperintelligent, highly evolved beings from outer space? Sure! Jesus Christ? Oh hell, no!). It purports to exalt an ultimate goal of evolution and love, yet is muddied by a million differing ideas on how this is to be achieved.

Jesus Christ offers us One Way: Him. It’s so beautiful and simple yet neither naive or flat, as I had scoffed in my new age days. Instead, following Him is full of infinite complexity of ever greater heights and adventures. The new age, on the other hand, is labyrinthine and complicated, with a thousand gates that lead nowhere.

There’s a difference between complexity and complicatedness, to my mind. Complexity is patterned, ordered; like the unfolding of a fractal. There is a Creator behind it, a good God who holds it all. Complicatedness has no creator, but is manipulated into being by Satan; it is our sin, our turning away from God, our distortion of things, our pride. We think we know the way, can forge it on our own, but then we pull desperately on a thousand tangled strings which turn up empty in our hands, leading nowhere and untethered to anything. New age folks love to substitute “The Universe” for God, crafting an idol that is vast and impersonal, yet strangely capable of granting wishes and telling you things. It gets weird. What a profound relief to realize I wasn’t alone in the world with only this vague, unfeeling “Universe”, but held and loved and redeemed by a God with a deep investment in me individually. Yes, God’s love is oceanic and fearfully vast - yet it is also highly, almost absurdly particular and personal.

But the god of this age blinded my mind. I saw Christianity as an absurd regression, a crutch, antiquated and unsophisticated. I, on the other hand, was plumbing the depths and heights and hidden places of the universe. I was a mystic, a cosmonaut, one of the courageous, in my mind. Thinking of the mask of arrogance I wore then makes me weep now, because the truth is that I was absolutely lost, terrified and alone, assailed on every side. What a merciful God we serve. He is patience is truly beyond our comprehension, as he wants no one to perish but everyone to come to repentance.

How can it be?! How can this lavish love exist, so full and sumptuous and warm and radiant and astounding, this love which hangs itself on a cross and endures that which cannot be endured for someone who spit in His face?! How can it be? And yet it is. I promise it is. It is better, sweeter, fuller than you can ever imagine yet feels like home. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. I pray that you will believe me and believe the one He sent. Come home.