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.