Thursday, February 7, 2019

Teenagers...


“I think Jesus was a woman. That’s what I believe.”

She says it plainly, boldly, her eyes smoldering with the heady drug of open defiance. I’m unfazed, though. She is so fresh, so pretty, waffling on the threshold between girlhood and adolescence. And she’s so different from a year ago. Physically, yes, she’s taller, with slightly oily cheeks and a pimple or two betraying sebaceous glands that are kicking into high gear. But she’s undergone that reckoning of puberty, The Change: the bubbly, childish innocence has morphed into brooding, sulky suspicion.

“Interesting theory,” I say. We’re clustered around an inadequate table in child-sized chairs, me and these seven tween girls, studying the Bible, supposedly. “Where did you hear that?” I ask.

“Dogma,” she says, citing the 1999 Kevin Smith movie. And now I am fazed. I eye her askance and frown a little but catch myself, not wanting to seem scolding or prudishly disapproving.

“Yeah… I’ve seen that movie, too,” I reply. “Not the most appropriate movie for a 12-year-old.”

She shrugs. “I’m thirteen,” she responds, as though in one year she’s definitively crossed into a realm where watching such things is, in fact, entirely appropriate, or at least not worth questioning.

I ask another girl to read the opening of the Gospel of John while the others whisper and giggle, paying attention for a brief moment only if I call them by name before they return to their commiserating. The room is warm and the air is close and at least one of these young women has not been properly informed on the necessity of wearing deodorant. I feel my frustration building as these magical words, in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind, drift listlessly about the room, looking for willing ears and finding none. So it seems.

“Who do you all think Jesus is?” I ask loudly and abruptly.

“He’s like this nice, sweet guy who just kind of floats around like he’s on a cloud,” one of them rhapsodizes half-mockingly, and it’s all I can do not to laugh.

“Well,” I hesitate, trying to keep a straight face. “He was definitely kind, and all about mercy and grace, but he could be pretty savage sometimes as well. Let’s read John chapter 8.” As I begin to flip to the page I hear her mutter, the one who apparently pictures Jesus as an innocuous and perpetually stoned pushover. The girl next to her giggles and as I look up they’re both looking at me and smirking. “Excuse me, what was that?” I’m amazed at the power of teenage mockery to make me simultaneously revert to a painfully self-conscious adolescent mindfeel and also summon the prim indignance of an austere school marm harassed by insolent children.

“Savage is, like, so outdated,” she sneers. “No one’s said that since, like, 2017!”

I sigh heavily and close my eyes, taking a moment to compose myself. I’m supposed to be showing these precious children the love of Christ, dang it! They’re supposed to be awestruck and dumbstruck by the kaleidoscopic prismatic profundity of John’s words, overtaken by the grace and beauty of the Light Himself. Yet they are not impressed, and they are especially not impressed by me. How can I make them believe Jesus is a real, dynamic, living presence, the one who changes everything, without whom Kevin Smith would not be able to make his stupid movies because Kevin Smith himself is HELD TOGETHER by Jesus?! How can I possibly achieve this when everything else beckons so persuasively, so seductively, and those very movies glitter with a patina of cool snark, and I get made fun of for using the word savage and am markedly uncool by contrast?! So much for speaking the language of the youth. I kind of want to go home and cry and then watch Dangerous Minds and regroup.

“Well, whatever,” I mutter, and begin to read the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. I pause after reading Jesus’ line about those who are without sin casting the first stone and look up. “Why do you think he said that?” I ask them.
She’s the first to answer, to my surprise, the Kevin Smith fan. “He means no one is perfect,” she replies. I nod encouragingly.

“Yes, exactly. The Pharisees were always high on moral superiority, thinking they’re better than everyone else. In another place Jesus tells the Pharisees ‘go and learn what this means – “ here I have to raise my voice to a pitch that is perilously close to yelling to get the other girls to quiet down, but she is still staring at me intently – “ ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ He was quoting – I don’t know, maybe Hosea? – but what do you suppose that means?”

She answers eagerly, her blue eyes bright, the brassy glint of rebellion gone for the moment: “It means he would rather forgive than sacrifice someone or have them hurt!”

Yes, I think, and I say it. “That’s what God is like.” And I realize He is there, even as the rest of our sad farce of a Bible study goes down the tubes amidst clamoring discussions of who is going to spend the night at whose house. I realize the Holy Spirit is swirling and soaring and diving and moving among us even now and always, with sacred legerdemain so deft and gentle and whispery that it is barely perceived but no less powerful than a thundering voice or a burning bush, and I don’t have to wrest and wrangle interest out of these girls, I don’t have to shake them silly while screaming “don’t you understand?!?!”, I can allow them to laugh uproariously at my interpretation of the Orange Justice and take it in stride when they shake their heads and tell me nobody whips OR nae-naes anymore. Do *I* even understand?! Do I have to? Or need I only trust? And is this being a fool for Christ? I can take it.

Why am I so quick to take a heavy burden upon my back? Why am I so loathe to trust him, to believe that he is working more prolifically than I could ever conceive beneath the veil of seen reality, weaving beautiful vignettes redolent of him, fresh as dew and older than time, recapitulations of THE Story which crescendoes even now toward a climax no eye has seen and no ear has heard? Do you hear it, though, the future-echoes, flittering toward us from the new heaven and the new earth? Do you see it, the intimations of the Really Real, the hint of new birth simmering and percolating just beneath the surface of all things? Do you feel it, the days when even the flowers seem to stand up and shout his grace and colors take on all their original shimmering Edenic intensity? Sometimes I have to squint and strain, I admit. But even despite all the death of the past year, and perhaps even more vividly so because of it, I know it is there.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Then and Now


The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” - Matthew 6:22-23

Oh, how great it was back then. It yawned vastly like a bottomless cavern emanating with a miasma of decay, a death-bouquet of emptiness, nihilism and despair. My whole body was clotted with it and the idea of hope seemed a flickering wraith, a child’s thing, a quaint and flaccid make-believe trinket that could not stand in the onslaught of darkness. My eyes were more than unhealthy. They were putrid, rotten, veiled with hatred and fear. 

I looked nice then, sure. “Miss Ashley, why are you here? I wish I looked like you,” the curvaceous nurse said, with a broad smile, after handing me my daily medication in a tiny plastic cup and tapping over the old-fashioned scale to take my weight. “You be lookin’ like a model.” 

I felt contaminated in her presence. She seemed so clean, so sweet, so good. If only she knew. I may have looked nice, but I felt irredeemably ugly. I had used and exploited and devalued people and allowed myself to be used and exploited and devalued and ran from God, disavowing his very existence and hiding from him in terror in a garden that appeared, to my eyes, to be crawling with rot and sewage with hideous beasts lurking behind every shadow. The enemy stoked my fear and hopelessness to rattling crescendo and here I now stood, between the rock of death and the hard place of interminable despair. Words left me and there were only tears. So my parents checked me in to a psychiatric facility and here I dwelled, feeling a bizarre paradoxical mix of deep belonging among these seriously ill people and perspective that I wasn’t, perhaps, quite as damned as I’d feared.
My roommate was a slip of a woman, a sweet and unassuming alcoholic who neatly folded my clothes for me. There was a man who’d staged an epic standoff with police before surrendering to inpatient treatment. He was loud, brash and aggressive, a braggart who proclaimed in group therapy that he’d slept with over a thousand women and attempted to coach me like a drill sergeant during our rec basketball game, but who turned meek and warm when he introduced me to his petite wife during visitation. There was a young man, a boy really, who beat me at chess and said he’d been hospitalized for violent outbursts but who cried like a child when his mother and girlfriend came to visit. There was my best friend that week, a 20-something around my age with a droll sense of humor who had been on lithium for as long as he could remember for schizophrenia. And there was the near-silent, pale and wasted woman without a stomach who I sat with on a couch one evening who spoke softly of how the doctors couldn’t figure out how to get her body to absorb nutrients. I was sobered. 

Listen: I tried everything to fix myself. I sampled liberally from the vast smorgasbord of cures which clever and glittering marketing inflates to panaceas and came away only more hollowed out than before. Jesus is the only remedy I know of. What inexpressibly sweet relief to hear his voice beyond the noxious din of the world, telling me at first hard truths: yes, it was true, I was really, really messed up. Fatally flawed, even. I was headed down to death. But wrapped up in his hard truths, inextricable from them, was a brightly dawning undercurrent of hope, like a new movement within a suite, the movement which will change everything and swell to an exultant blaze of joyful triumph, was an unless. And that unless was everything. Unless you turn toward me and receive the free gift of everything you’ve ever truly desired. Unless you give your life to me so I can give you mine. Unless you come home. 

And eventually, that unless became not a mere unless, defined by its preceding truths, but instead an ecstatic, victorious, ever-blooming YES in Jesus, a riot of color and surprise and delight.

I used to think my story was embarrassing. But I am not ashamed of it any more, only because I am not ashamed of the gospel. I look back at my asylum week and my numerous mental breakdowns, and I see God weaving them in to the beautiful whole of how I falteringly came to him, a story full of backsliding and stops and starts and hesitations and pride and finally, a fear-filled leap. I’m still stunned to find myself with a place at his table with a sumptuous feast laid before me, my head anointed with oil and these wonderful vessels of the holy called friends sitting around me. And Jesus says that he and I are family!!!! What is this miracle of grace?!?!?! There aren’t enough exclamation points or exclamation point-question mark couplings in the wide punctuated world to express my astonishment. 

Friends, I was and am so unworthy. I was the sinner of sinners. I railed against God. I told people he didn’t exist. I sneered and scoffed and treated his people like trash and murdered them in my thoughts.  If there was and is hope for me, I am absolutely confident that there is hope for you. Praise him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can hope for or ask. His grace is there waiting for you. I promise.