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. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Thy Kingdom Come.

Eyes to see.

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” - 1 Corinthians 1:18-20

“It is always that way with the kingdom. It is so strange, so low; it is seldom recognized. It looks like a mistake.” - Paul Miller

“She’s read too many books, she’s got nails inside her head.” - Bob Dylan

I like books. I like them a lot, in fact. Okay, I love them. I love them with a rhapsodic and rapturous love and I feel safest and most relaxed in libraries, enwombed by rows upon rows of of the things. I approach ecstasy when leafing through one and practically huffing the synesthesiastic bouquet that is Fresh Book, or Old Book, or even Musty Library Book. I love the promise of a new title, which is the promise of escape and transport and knowledge and edification. I love the objects of themselves, their heft in my hand. My mom has been trying to sell me on a Kindle for years. Not gonna happen, though I suppose I’ll have to (very begrudgingly) concede when print breathes its last, if that happens in my lifetime.

As with all things we love, we have a unique and perverse flair for turning them into idols, salvific vessels that hold some magical power to deliver us. We make things into little gods because we can control and manipulate them. Books can be transcendent, yes; but they are only transcendent because they point to that which transcends. Everything - every piece of art, every book, every bit of wisdom or writing only insofar as it reveals Jesus Christ.

GASP! Such a sentiment would have been absolute anathemic tripe to the cataracted eyes and stoppered ears of my 20-something atheist self. I prided myself on the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge through books. I prided myself on being “smart”. I remember a heated argument with my dad one morning as he incredulously marveled that I believed there was nothing beyond this world. “But what do you have to hope in?” My eyes full of tears from the emotional intensity of arguing with my dad - both of us impassioned and with a flair for rhetoric and a love of debate that too often turned into a prideful need to Be Right - I gestured toward the stack of books next to me. Weak, a voice in my own head retorted. Truly, no one can see the kingdom until they are born again.

The months that followed turned into a frantic search for justification and some thread of knowledge that would save me. I pored over Dawkins and Hitchens and my search for justification turned into a kind of desperation for something, ANYTHING that just rang true and resounded in the eternal soul that I refused to acknowledge. I distinctly recall throwing “God is Not Great” down in disgust one night in my apartment. Rationally, I believed what I was reading. But why, then, did I feel so gray? So leaden? Why wasn’t it fulfilling? Why did it seem so ugly?

Brian Zahnd, in the excellent “Beauty Will Save the World” (yes, a book), says that the story of the life, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most beautiful story in the universe. Our souls thirst for beauty and truth and love and there is one and only one font that will fill us, only one name above all names. And intrinsic in beauty, inextricable from it, is mystery. Jesus said that the coming of the kingdom cannot be observed. Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, has Father Paissy observe that “… the learned ones of this world have absolutely nothing left of what was once holy. But they have examined the parts and missed the whole, and their blindness even is worthy of wonder.”

My blindness was, and is, certainly worthy of an absurd kind of wonder. Yet also therein is the mystery of lavish mercy and grace. I have been so wrong, and proud of it for most of my life, and yet He loves and has always loved me!  

As I pursued a loveless “truth”, examining minutiae and collecting big words like a deranged crab hoarding metallic seajunk, I think my unspoken premise was that I would collect all the information I could and sift through it and if someone could present a convincing enough intellectual argument perhaps I would reconsider my atheism. But oh, that isn’t how God works at all, and thank Him for it. Faith isn’t the antithesis or opposer of knowledge, as it's so commonly postured in our world and as I believed. It’s the soil from which the only true knowledge can grow.  

Knowledge is never an end in itself. It’s valuable only in whether it draws us toward God.

When the humbling came, the holy epic smackdown, the Stone Cold Stunnah (as Steven would say), the flash on the road to Damascus, it was terrifying and beautiful and the knowing and being known-ness that flooded my inmost parts erupted in the most cleansing tears I’d ever shed. There’s a reason God invented baptism. Water has some kind of inherent rebirthing power, I’ve decided. At the swimming pool, whenever my children’s badgering overrides the universal mother’s refrain of “I don’t want to get my head wet” and I plunge underneath, much to their delight, I always feel a sacred sort of freshness afterward that lasts for hours. Yes, even in public pool water that you know has some pee in it. Water - it’s magical.     

And it’s still like that, even now, when God’s grace pours out on me anew - the words, the knowledge, the arguments and counterarguments fade away. And there is mercy, and beauty, and love, all of them so deep and abiding. There is the bread and the wine, the body and the blood. There is a person, the most beautiful person in the world, at the crux of the universe. I was struck by a verse in Galatians today - Paul was actually scolding them for their waywardness, but the first part of the verse says this: “But now that you know God - or rather are known by God…” Or rather are known by God. Paul almost seems to think that’s primary, our being known. God calls us by our names, he floods us with his knowing, and Jesus says the kingdom is in our midst if we will only repent and believe. I love what Paul Miller says about it being so low and and so strange. We have to bend down to see. We have to get strange, to let God turn things on their heads and turn us on ours and confound our hard-won wisdom.

But here, right here, God is calling. The kingdom is coming. I know it is because the waiter at IHOP had a supernatural glow about him, a cheerfulness that didn’t jibe with the packed restaurant and the beads of sweat on his forehead and the children running perilously close to his legs as he hurried over the tiles and when he laid my plate in front of me the tattoo on his forearm in cursive script read ‘Jesus Forgive Me”. I know the kingdom is here because the night before I’d kept my friends up way past their bedtimes talking about God and He was there, where the three of us were gathered in His name, and it was holy. I know it is here because earlier that afternoon I’d sat next to my dad at his birthday dinner and decided to start peppering him with bold questions: Are you afraid of dying? What’s your favorite memory of your mother? Your father? What’s your greatest regret? What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done? And this relationship, the one I’d fretted over and worried over and tried to analyze into submission was suddenly pervaded with a sense of wonder and delight and curiosity, and though it had been fractured in a hundred places was healing in a thousand more, there, in that moment, in that restaurant. I know the kingdom is coming because as we drove home after all this, back to Leon, I listened to my favorite music and its notes and harmonies somehow threaded through me so I wasn’t just passively listening to the music but was bathed in it, and Steven was sitting on the porch waiting for us and he jumped up and I ran into his arms and it was the sweetest homecoming hug ever and I saw him anew, fresh, like a newlywed. I was Home.

That whole weekend, God was revealing himself to me, weaving his goodness through everything in that simultaneously subtle and extraordinarily vivid, joy-saturated way that makes you want to both laugh in delight and cry and fall down on your knees in gratitude. You think you know? God asks, tenderly. You think you see? You don’t. Surrender. Get low. “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up, do you not perceive it?”

Repent, and believe. Easter is everywhere. Let Him love you.

P.s. Craziest thing he’s ever done: He and an old girlfriend and another couple decided to break into a stable in Brea Canyon at midnight to joyride some horses. They successfully carried off this caper until my dad’s horse suddenly made a break for the stable door, only the bottom half of which was open. He tried to rein the horse in, turn it, anything, but realized it was futile and laid down as low as he could just before the horse went through and barely cleared the door.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

On Community and Belonging

The Last Bar-b-que by Margo Humphrey. One of my favorite depictions of the Last Supper. 

I had finally arrived, I felt. This was it. This was the community I wanted, the community to which I yearned to belong. Babies crawled bare-bottomed over the grass, pulling up clumps of it with their tiny fists and watching wide-eyed as the same fists slackened, as though the fists were not under their power, and the blades fluttered back down. Other babies flopped happily in natural-dye wraps and carriers, and toddlers were free to follow a butterfly’s path or caterpillar trail with the mild caveat that the creek bed was awfully steep. “Animal carcasses” were strictly prohibited foodwise but a vegetarian feast arrayed the folding tables under the copse of trees that sheltered a picturesque rope hammock. Nipples were freed liberally and many had a baby, toddler or preschooler latched on. There was a lovely clear-running creek nearby and it seemed to be a tacit rule that swimsuits were verboten and belonged to a shame-saturated, prudish world outside from which this peaceful enclave of divine feminine empowerment was absolutely unshackled. A majestic teepee stood in the center of the field. And everything was so green, was that deep rich succulent green that abounded here in the Missourian equivalent of the tropics. I had stars in my eyes. These are my people, I thought. I have arrived. And on the surface, it was perfect, this community built around natural home birth and all the concomitant practices.

But the hostess, a revered midwife, terrified me. I regarded her with a sort of holy awe. She was petite, but energetically and emotionally occupied an imperious berth. A chestnut French braid, threaded with silver, fell halfway down her back. She bore the sort of regality that demanded her respect be earned, as it wasn’t about to be freely given. I don’t know if it was me, unworthy as I felt, or her, or a combination thereof, but I felt sized up and found wanting. Politesse was not her game. The friend who had brought me to the gathering introduced me to her and effused about what a privilege it was to be there. “It IS a privilege,” the midwife said emphatically, sending a pointed and lofty gaze in my direction.

We soon gathered around the campfire and space was offered to share whatever one felt moved to share. The friend by whom I’d been invited encouraged me to tell the traumatic story of my son’s birth. Although it had been 19 months prior, the wound was still suppurating and as the narrative slipped stutteringly from my mouth the tears came too, unbidden but inextricable from the story. I was also twenty weeks pregnant with Arrow, so, you know, hormones. But the pain was still fresh enough, and the feeling of profound violation and assault: how the doctor had ordered the nurses to hold me down while she forced her hand up into my uterus and scraped Israel’s placenta from my screaming body. I blubbered and sniffed and someone kindly handed me a tissue. “They should NOT have done that to you,” one woman sweetly offered.

When I got myself together and cleared my eyes enough to look up I saw the midwife staring at me stonily, unmoved. I felt like she found my weakness distasteful. She quickly rallied the other women around me and insisted that I crouch in a birthing squat and imagine pushing out my baby triumphantly. She stood behind me and braced herself against me, her arms hooked under my armpits. She breathed heavily into my ear, a rhythmic bellows into which the rest of the group weaved their own breath, peppered with grunts and moans, the guttural dirge of childbirth. “Your baby is crowning! She’s crowning!” the midwife yelled.

I tried, I tried. But even the simulation of giving birth again in this tribal ceremony into which I’d suddenly been swept gave rise to an irrepressible sorrow within me and as it erupted I sank to the ground limply, sobbing, my very essence possessed by defeat. A giver-upper. A weak one. A loser. I was back on that hospital bed, torpid and dazed, washed up on the shore of something resembling life from the raging sea of Israel’s birth. Dead-eyed, hollowed-out, raped, left for dead. My own strength would never be enough.

“THAT!” the midwife demanded, slapping the back of one hand against her palm, referring, I assumed, to my disintegration. “What is that?!”

“I don’t know,” I cried. I was desperate to give her the right answer, but I just didn’t have one at all. “I don’t know.”

“Well,” she said in disgusted resignation, shaking her head. “I don’t know, either.” She looked straight at me. “But you’re not going to make it.”

Those words. Her words. They stung like few others could have, maiming my already enfeebled sense of power and self-possession and the inchoate hope that I’d begun reservedly tending since I found out I was pregnant again that maybe I could, maybe I would push this baby out. Maybe I could go into this fire - if not willingly, then at least resolutely. Now I had no hope. If this woman, who’d caught hundreds of babies, coached hundreds of women through birth, didn’t believe I was capable of it, then I clearly wasn’t. She pointedly ignored me and my child the rest of the weekend and I had an odd feeling of being shunned. I’d failed the vision quest she’d foisted upon me. I’d failed the prerequisite for joining. I didn’t belong.

About five months later, I pushed my daughter out of my body into a birthing tub in our living room. Soon afterward, I felt a compelling need to write the midwife and tell her what I’d done. See?! I wanted to say, if not plainly, then in subtext. I did it! You thought I couldn’t, but I did! She wrote back with a cursory congratulations, and I felt vindicated. A little. Somewhat. Not really. The aftertaste of my excommunication that weekend, based on my performance - or lack thereof- lingered. I had so badly wanted to be counted, wanted to be among the chosen.

It was more than five years ago, this experience. I learned a lot, lessons which took a few years to spin out and coalesce fully. I wonder: is community that requires certain criteria be met before one can be accepted really community at all? Is a community really a community which is not based on a fundamental ground of acceptance and love? It seems to me that a community built on anything other than the Gospel will be hostage to the fickle shifting sands of power grabs, elitism and fear.

I reread this wonderful but very slim little volume by Jean Vanier yesterday, “From Brokenness to Community”. It’s really just a manuscript of two short lectures he gave at Harvard about his experiences living with severely disabled people in a community called L’Arche. “Community is a wonderful place, it is life-giving; but it is also a place of pain because it is a place of truth and growth - the revelation of our pride, our fear, and our brokenness,” he says. But that growth can’t occur when our belonging is tenuous. Jesus is always inviting us into communion with him, Vanier says, a communion which begins with a call of “Will you come with me? I love you. Will you enter into communion with me?” He never says “meet my standards, and then I might deign to hang out with you.” When we’re uncertain of our fundamental acceptance in a community, when belonging is not assured, but performance-based, vulnerability is too costly. And without vulnerability, there is no real communion and thus no real transformation. A performance-based community is a shallow and fruitless one.

The older I get, the more I realize that I do not usually choose my community. Community chooses me, or rather, God chooses my community for me. I generally don’t lust after being part of this or that group anymore because I trust God to place me in the midst of life-giving community. It’s not always easy. Just as Jesus called his disciples and invited them to be in community with one another, so God calls the sick, the lonely, the outcasts, the cowards, and the desolate to be with Him and one another. Human love is imperfect and will fail. There will be conflict and destructive forces within and without. But a people whose hearts are given to God, Vanier says, trust that He will defend them. In all things, we trust that God works for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28).

Perhaps the community I felt shunned by was fruitful for some, I don’t know. But there was just a sense that only the strong, as narrowly defined, were welcome. Only the adherents of certain parenting practices were welcome. There wasn’t space for disagreement, space for weakness, space for the poor in spirit. But the Gospel is different. The Gospel says we must be weak first, we must realize our own dependency and vulnerability and miserable poverty to be gloriously reborn into childlike trust, abundance and the power of Christ, made perfect in that weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Come with me, be with me, you don’t have to be strong, Christ says. My yoke is easy and my burden is light. And that’s Good News.  

Postscript: I've felt a little convicted by this post in recent days, because there is a spirit of bitterness and condemnation hovering over it. I had never written about this experience before and I guess there was still some anger in it for me. I thought about editing it or deleting it altogether but decided to leave it with this postscript. I saw a narrow slice of this community and while my feelings about my experiences were real, it seemed to be a place of solace for some. Yet I still feel that Gospel-centered communities aka the church (while imperfect, of course, because they are composed of sinners) are God's kingdom vehicle here on Earth, and the gates of Hell - exclusivity, shame, etc. - shall not prevail against it.