A Testimony of Forgiveness: A sermon for Ramsey Memorial UMC

April 27, 2014

John20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Let’s imagine this incredible scene from the Gospel reading…. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors, they obviously do not want any visitors, when suddenly… Peace be with you”, says Jesus. I imagine they looked something like this picture: rather surprised, possibly dumbfounded, somewhat  soiled…

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To quote Pastor Deborah’s sermon from last week, it had not “dawned” on them yet. This is why we are told that Jesus shows them all his scars and then greets them a 2nd time, “Peace be with you” he says again. The first time he greets them as a Holy stranger, the 2nd time as their risen Lord. Let’s look at what he says next:

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

What an incredible and mysterious instruction…

I should tell you I have a special affection for the harder and more mysterious Biblical passages, because I don’t think we need to dissect every mystery in order to receive it’s intended message. There are many times when exegesis and inductive Bible study will reveal layers of deep meaning in the text, but particularly with the hard passages I have found that the word is still alive with the Spirit of God, and by giving it space, airing it out, and allowing it to breathe, it will speak to us.

That is what I hope to do regarding the great mystery of forgiveness, and what Jesus’ instruction means for us today. I will not tell you in black and white whether we can forgive one another’s sins, because I don’t know; rather I want us to look at the mystery of forgiveness, where it comes from, where it’s going, and how we give forgiveness our best effort as ones sent by Christ to do so.

There is a book that I greatly recommend to anyone who struggles with the mystery of forgiveness, it’s entitled “The Sunflower”, written by holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal. The book is summarized in three sentences written right on the front cover: “You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks you for forgiveness. What would you do?

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This situation really happened to Simon Wiesenthal. He was a Jew brought to a hospital at the request of a Nazi soldier. The soldier was so haunted by his crimes that he felt the need to confess them, and he asked Simon to forgive him on behalf of the Jewish people. Simon listened to the man’s confession, but he walked away without forgiving him. Simon has spent the rest of his life questioning that decision, and asking other people what they would have done in his place.   This book is his best effort towards forgiveness, and it includes responses by Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and many others regarding what they would have done in his shoes.

Truly forgiveness is a mystery, and perhaps our best effort begins with relinquishing control to that mystery. I believe that’s what Simon Wiesenthal did when he allowed his own story to be shaped by the responses of many other people, regardless of whether or not they agreed with his decision.

For us as Christians, relinquishing control begins with an acknowledgement of what Christ said to the disciples before telling them to forgive. He told them to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

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Truly I tell you, all Christian forgiveness is the work of the Spirit.

If it were up to us, without God’s help, we would forgive the way that any reasonable person would; we would forgive when the other person has earned it.

However, as Christians we know that we are not the originators of forgiveness. It precedes us and it does not belong to us.  Just like God’s love and grace, forgiveness was given to us while we were yet sinners, we did not earn it. It is by this reasoning and this reasoning alone that we do it, we forgive because we have been forgiven, we love because God first loved us.

Even the smallest acts of forgiveness and love are examples how the Kingdom of God is permeating this world. Not through impressive actions done by people in positions of human power, but small acts of forgiveness done by ordinary servants of God. This is the subversive power of the Gospel, that we are the declarers of reconciliation in our ordinary lives with the knowledge that the King of Kingdom of God is on his throne, and that his transforming love is working it’s way through this world in all the ways that no one expects, like yeast being worked into dough, like a mustard seed growing throughout our well organized gardens.

Reconciliation is the resurrection and transformation of a dead or broken relationship, and it is built upon a foundation of forgiveness. The work of Christ on the cross was the act of reconciliation to bring total transformation to our relationship with God, our relationship with each other, and our relationship to creation. Forgiveness is already in motion, my friends.  It precedes us, it has gone ahead, and we are invited to follow and participate, because Christ’s resurrection was a creation-changing event, not just a life-changing event for me. It set in motion a holy work of worldwide redemption, making all things new, and we’ve been called to join in that work of love and forgiveness, it’s through us that this has a snowball effect.

If we are not working with God in this great work of redemption… if we are not forgiving others as we have been forgiven, then are we in fact retaining something?  If we refuse to forgive then are we holding back something that is meant to run wild?  I’m inclined to believe that holding back forgiveness affects us more that it does the other person.   Have you heard that old saying about holding grudges? Holding a grudge is like me drinking poison and expecting the other person to die…

Sometimes, like in the case of Simon Wiesenthal and the Nazi soldier, forgiveness seems impossible. Sometimes a situation can drain so much life out of us that we don’t have the strength to forgive, sometimes we don’t even have the strength to hold a grudge and all we can do is put one foot in front of the other. But therein lies the hope, in those times when we are in desperate need of care, we can choose the path towards healing, we can choose to unburden ourselves, to cast off the yoke of control by surrendering to the mystery of the Spirit, knowing that healing takes time, and that forgiveness might take years. There is hope in the knowledge that we are not the pioneers of that path to healing, we are not the pioneers of the path to forgiveness. Those are well-trodden paths, and they are wide enough for the whole community to walk together.

When we come to the place of surrendering ourselves to that mystery, relying on the Spirit to help us forgive others as we have been forgiven, we are being agents of reconciliation in this world, seeking to transform the brokenness around us; and as participants in that holy work, each act of forgiveness is a testimony and a declaration of the resurrection of Christ, as He is the originator, He is the pioneer and great forgiver, He is the reconciler, and He is the King of the Kingdom of God here and now and forever.  He is the bringer of total transformation.

May we heed his words, may we be agents of reconciliation, may we surrender to the mystery, and may the forgiveness of Christ run wild with you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Songwriting at the Jars concert..

March 15, 2014

My best friend and I went to see Jars of Clay at the Hard Rock Cafe in DC this week.  One of the many reasons why they are my favorite band is that seeing them in concert  brings a lightness to my being.

Going to see them is like standing out in the healing cold… there are goosebumps on my arms, my hair stands up with electricity, and all of this loosens and raises right up off of my skin the weighty layers of stress.

Suzie brought two unicorns with us (whom she plans to travel with and blog about, think “travelocity gnome”), and we placed them on our table.  I’ll also mention that we were the front center table, less than 10 meters from the stage.  At one point, while singing a new song from their album Inland, Dan forgot the words… he said, “it’s hard to remember the words when you have a unicorn staring at you.”

Remembering words seems to be precisely what I do at these concerts, but I’m remembering words that I’ve never strung together before.  They are raised up right off of my skin, and I pin them down to the scrap of paper I’ve found in my purse.

How do we reconcile inner and outer worlds

Mistaking a balanced life for having become accustomed to unlevel ground

We adapt to easily navigate those rolling behavioral waves

I’m so good at it that I think it’s a flat plane

Praise the Lord for the ability to feel the pain

Of the paths that are wounding

 

A Review of A.J. Levine’s “The Misunderstood Jew”

November 6, 2013

In her work The Misunderstood Jew, Levine makes an excellent argument for the importance of acknowledging Jesus’ Jewish identity.  Jesus was a man of the people and for the people; he was thoroughly Jewish. 

Jesus went to the synagogue, he was passionate about the Sabbath, he observed the Passover, he defended the sacredness of the Temple, and he always quoted the Old Testament.  If we read Jesus’ words and think that he was trying to lead a movement away from Judaism (or against Judaism), then we are reading very selectively.

Levine gives numerous examples of how the teachings of Jesus can appear to be “anti-Jewish” if we remove Jesus from his context.  One example is when we take Jesus’ rebukes of several Scribes and Pharisees and use them to paint a negative caricature of the whole religious system.   If Jesus gets into one argument with a religious person, we assume that the system itself was corrupt and that Jesus came to shut it down!  Another example is unnecessary contempt for the Jews under the assumption that they are the ones who killed Jesus, such as the portrayal of the Jews in Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ.

Part of our misunderstanding of the Jewish system comes from constructing a picture of Judaism based on the Bible; however, the New Testament was not written to describe Judaism, it was written to describe Jesus.

Many of us are carrying a picture of Judaism that is full of holes.  One hole that we create in our view of Judaism is to only view the Jews to be the people Jesus is talking to or arguing with, without including Jesus himself.  If someone asked me to describe to them some of the practices of ancient Judaism, I could truthfully answer by describing the words and actions of Jesus Christ.

Perceiving Jesus as someone who did not embody Judaism (or was in conflict with it) gives us the wrong impression that Judaism was entirely corrupt, obsessed with rules that were impossible to follow, and was oppressive to everyone.  This description might be true of a few bad apples on the tree, but it cannot describe Judaism as a whole.  Levine claims that the Jewish society was much more tolerant, and less obsessed with purity than modern Christians would like to believe.  She even jokes that their 600+ laws were no more burdensome to them than the laws the United States are burdensome to us (which is a far greater number).

I myself am not a Jewish scholar, and therefore I cannot prove or refute Levine’s claims about the atmosphere of Jewish society; however, what is impactful for me is that our generalization of Jewish society can cause us to miss certain aspects of Jesus’ teachings.   We can mistakenly assume that Jesus’ main goal in life was breaking down stereotypes.

One example is the story of the Good Samaritan.  Modern Christians assume that the Priest and Levite are uncharitable towards the injured man because of their Jewishness; they are preserving their “purity/cleanliness”.  The parable does not actually say this.  We could not even imagine that Jewish priests were good people who would obviously help someone in need, and that an unhelpful person in the story is just a uniquely bad person.  We create stereotypes.

In truth, the “stereotypes” that we may or may not see in Jesus’ teachings are the least scandalous thing about those stories.  Jesus’ audience of ancient Jews probably did not hold the same stereotypes that we do as modern Christians.  How would that change the message of the story?

This shows how many layers of understanding can be disregarded if we are satisfied with viewing Christ’s teachings as being comfortable modern lessons.  What if there was something shocking in the teachings of Jesus, and we pass by it because we want a modern American Jesus who is mildly challenging

What if Jesus didn’t come to remind us of what we know is wrong by telling us stories we already agree with?

I whole-heartedly agree with Levine that a fuller understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus can bring many new layers of meaning and complexity to his teachings.  I also agree that we Christians mistakenly assume that we know a lot about Judaism from reading the Bible, and can unintentionally have “anti-Jewish” sentiments because of our misunderstanding of their culture.  Levine’s book has certainly inspired me to want to study Jewish history, exploring her presentation of Judaism and gaining a greater understanding of the context of Jesus’ ministry.

Turtle and a Beer Can

July 7, 2013

(just some random musings about the potential of all things) 

I went for a walk around my neighborhood, and I am privileged to live near a park that has a small man-made pond/lake in it.  It’s a circular pond, with a fountain in the center.

I didn’t originally plan to go there, but I glimpsed the pond as I was walking, and I felt a thirst… a longing to be near the water.  I realized that it had been a long time since I had been in or near a large body of water, and they are often a source of personal nourishment for me.

As I walked across the 195 bridge, I felt the sun beating down and it seemed get noticeably hotter as I went… hotter and hotter.  I felt like dry bones cracking, like dry skin withering, on my way to the water.

I walked to the edge of the pond and sat down, I was tempted to jump right in, but the water was very dirty.  You could only see the debris in the water when looking at the waves closest to you, you could not perceive it while looking at the lake as a whole.  As a whole, it was beautiful, deep, and alive.  The wind was hovering over the water, and bringing me cooled newness of mind.

I immediately saw a large turtle floating in front of me.  He was beautiful, green with streaks of red on either side of his face.  He kept his head above water, and I wondered how long he could swim without getting tired and needing to lie down on something solid.

I then noticed something terribly ugly, disrupting my beautiful prayer time.  It was a long Budweiser can, floating in the water towards the edge, bobbing along and often bumping against the side with a horrible clinking sound.  The illustration on this beer can was stylized with an American flag that wrapped all the way around, and with the Budweiser logo on top.  This was not surprising to me, and I imagined that the dirty can was America itself.  It was proud and decorated, but was completely unaware that it was a tiny weightless can, moved at the mercy of the waves upon a pond.  The can might not even know that the water is out there, yet it might perceive itself to be the master and controller of the world.

Then I saw the turtle emerge again.  This turtle was the opposite image.  It was in the water, moving through the water.  The same waves met the sad can and the lovely turtle, but one rocked uncontrollably and without awareness, while the other cooperated with the water and was completely aware.

Then I began to think of the water as the Holy Spirit, and the reactions of America in all its intelligence, and the turtle in all its “ignorance”.  There is a way of living where you are unaware of the greater factors of existence, and you live a reactionary life with false ideas about power (like the can).  There could be another way, like the turtle, where you participate in the greater factors of existence, and live a cooperative life, where you seemingly move the immovable, and where you reside primarily in a depth unknown.

It did occur to me that since the can has a hole in it, there must be splashes of water that come in from time to time; however, because of the structure of the can, it cannot hold too much at one time and stay afloat.  This concept of there always being only a small amount of water seems to fit into my perception, as many Western churches will assume that they have a monopoly on water, or that water simply does not exist in other parts of the world.  Also, they assume that the water they have is the same water that was passed on by their forefathers, so that the water in the can has never changed.

I then looked out over the breadth of the lake and noticed many flashes of light.  There were waves and ripples all over the lake, but only a small percentage of the highest peaks of water would catch the sunlight.  Therefore, out of the entirety of the lake, both its mysterious depth and its constant surface motion, only a miniscule amount of the water flashed miraculously to the human eye.  I feel that this must be like the workings of the Holy Spirit.  We long for signs and miracles, and they do emerge here and there, but those are only the visible peaks of a miniscule percentage of the life of the Spirit.   There are infinitely more waves and peaks that are always presence, and that we do not recognize as miraculous when we see them, and an even greater mysterious depth lies below that is beyond comprehension.

In this particular lake, the source of the waves is a large fountain in the middle (and probably wind, but I’m not counting that right now).  The fountain has two parts, one large plume of central water, and a row of smaller jets in a circle around it.  It occurred to me that the fountain could be the relationship of the Father to the Son, and that this is the source of all of the waves.  The waves aren’t simply an arm or an extension; they go on to exist separately from the fountain, though it is all made of water.

After a time of prayer and listening, I saw the can again, but this time I loved it, and saw it as lovely, and heard the clinking sound as beautiful.  And again I saw the turtle’s head above water, now from far away, and I felt like the turtle and I shared a grand understanding.

 

I see you floating on a wave you won’t acknowledge

And you think that you’re moving on your own accord

And then you’re tossed on this sea below you

And when you feel rocked then it’s someone else’s fault

Maybe it’s God’s fault

 

But in the water is a face just coming up above the surface

Staying in place in the midst of those waves

And he is participating in an ebb and flow

Of the fabric of the tide that weaves and unravels our lives

 

He is diving into the mysterious deep

He is cooperating with the richness of the lake

While the riders on the wave refuse to look outside

They think the splash of water in the can

In the only water in the world

And they think aluminum is the only way they’ll survive

 

But on the water are countless ripples and waves

And only the highest peaks reflect the sun’s rays

And look miraculous to the naked eye

While 100,000 other miracles beside them don’t shine

 

Not to mention the sinking silent deep

Thicker than the dimensions of the Earth

An ever-present and endless vertical sea

And nothing that we would ever imagine

And better than we would ever imagine

And present inside our private canister of belief

This Pilgrim’s Regress

April 13, 2011

Has anyone seen this beautiful idea that’s been planted in my mind? I’m trying to locate it here on earth.

In the Pilgrim’s Regress, the main character (John/CS Lewis) sees a vision of a beautiful island.  He can see it, smell it, and hear it.  He then dedicates his life to pursuing the island and finding it.

*SPOILER ALERT*: the vision of the island is actually from God/The Landlord.  It is meant to reflect God’s beauty and love so that John will pursue and find God (which he does eventually, after finding his way through the maze of religion).

I feel like I have a similar vision.  Not of an island, but of a far-off beautiful thing… something I can vaguely see/smell/hear.  It’s something that gives me hope for the future, even if I don’t know what precisely that future will look like.

So this vision isn’t always satisfying… because when someone asks what my exact plans for the future are, I tell them “well it feels like this…” or “I think it will look like this…”.  Or I might even get more specific than that, “Well ideally I’d like to be writing songs and leading exploratory worship activities to push the boundaries of conventional practice in churches today….. but I have no idea how/when/where.

I think I know how the disciples felt when Jesus was explaining the Kingdom of God, “well it spreads like yeast, it’s valuable like a pearl, it grows like a seed, and you treat it like a treasure…”.  Sounds like playing a guessing game (“so logically, if she weighs the same as a duck… then she’s made of wood.”  “And therefore…”).

This stuff has caused me to redefine success for my life.  Nowadays I view success as staying true to the vision God has given me, rather than trying to hit milestones at a certain age.

That makes me feel like there’s a good reason why I am where I am, and why I haven’t been hired for the multitude of 9-5 jobs I’ve applied to over the past 10 years.  It makes me feel like there’s a reason why I write songs all the time, and why the money that I had saved up for studio recording (which paid for my hearing aids) has been mostly restored.

On Sunday, my friend Rev. Dr. Robert Johnson preached a sermon called “going down-side up”.  He related that to the Beatitudes, and how an empty cup is blessed in that it can be filled.  He talked about his time living in Pakistan, and how he was sustained by God because he had nothing else to rely on… he was willing to go there with an empty cup.  I feel that way a lot of the time.  It’s a bit like floating.

Many years ago, I attended a church study/counseling class on Overcoming Suffering, taught by my friend Rev. Scott Marshall.  He emphasized our reliance on foundations other than God and how that can cause suffering…. even if the bad foundation is a part of your belief system.  For instance: someone believes that God will never allow them to be in a car accident, and then they get hit by a car… it shakes/shatters their foundation because they created bizarre rules for God (stuff he doesn’t promise to do).  He likens those belief structures to pillars, and we often times set ourselves up for a fall when we build on a poor foundation.

My pillars like that had to be knocked away (because you know I’m not willingly going to step off the edge…. or at least not in a productive way).  But when I look back, the foundational ideas I had about life weren’t all that great. I was leaning/building on the stereotypes that I should be married by now and sitting behind a desk somewhere, but those things aren’t what I want (or need) at the moment.  In contrast, the idea of writing worship songs is becoming less of a silly notion and more of a serious vocation.  The idea that I could have some type of job that’s built around my actual skill-set and education (which up until now seemed like just-for-fun) is looking more like a reality.

It still seems a bit idealistic and unstable, because writing worship songs doesn’t provide enough cash to rent an apartment, at least not yet; but when I need something, God provides a way.  It’s a bit like floating, and if I trust in it then there’s very little worry… but if I start analyzing it, judging how far the fall is, realizing even more so that I’m relying only on God (and what if he doesn’t come through)… then the storm looks much more menacing, and it’s a bit like walking on water.

I felt this way in Thailand.  God came through for me in a lot of unusual ways while I was there (he even saved my life), but a lot of heartache comes with this floating lifestyle, depending on how much you love the pillars.  I came to rely upon a very unique kind of foundation during that season, and it took me a very long time to forgive God for knocking it out from under me.  My situation had some similarities to Henri Nouwen’s crisis, out of which came his Inner Voice of Love journal.

I relied on something too much for stability… far too much.  However, I had assumed that God brought it to me as something to rely on, and when he took it away (after I had set all my hopes upon it) it was the first time since I was a little girl that I thought God was hurting me on purpose.  This took a very long time to reconcile, because even though the circumstance surrounded a man-woman relationship, it was actually God who broke my heart.

It was the worst thing I have ever experienced in my lifetime, and that’s saying a lot.   I can handle physical pain, and I can handle emotional pain (those are things I’ve had to build up a tolerance for)… but spiritual pain is on a whole different playing field.  When Jesus was drowning in sin on the cross, and God the Father separated himself… “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

God broke his heart…. his spiritual pain was much worse than any other pain; it was the only thing that made Jesus cry out.

In my mind, relying on God alone sounds easy, but in application it’s incredibly difficult… and the effort needed to reject these other foundations causes me to have a lot of highs and lows (but then again I always have to do things the hard way).

One symptom of fibromyalgia is depression, because my brain doesn’t produce enough seratonin during the night (also because my body feels like it’s dying all the time).  So I’m always at war.

I know in my mind that God loves me, but my heart needs convincing every day.  In fact… I would say that God’s love is a rock through my window, always breaking my heart anew.  Even with all of his blessings, and all of his peace, I still often forget… I forget how good he is, I forget why he loves me, and I lose my footing.

But he’s the Great Dreamer, the one who plants visions in my mind and grows hope in my heart… he has more faith in me than I do. There’s also a schemer, someone who throws shadows around to make the light appear dark, and to remind me of all my failures.  His scavengers pick at the softest flesh of the body, and their whispers of doubt speak to the most vulnerable places of the heart.  They often tell part of the truth too… they remind me of all the things I could be using as my foundation (jobs, relationships, material possessions).  They remind me of what I haven’t been able to accomplish, and how foolish I am to trust in God, and how foolish God would be to love me.

And it is foolish.  But thankfully, that’s kinda my style.

I do feel very foolish sometimes, when I stay home all day writing music and wondering whether or not it was a waste of time.  But when I play it at a service and people come up to me crying, I don’t feel so foolish then.  When I’ve played concerts in the past and not even my close friends showed up, I felt pretty foolish.  But this year I had NO money to record music, absolutely no financial pillar to rely on… (my hearing aids cost nearly $4k) but I went ahead and met with producers anyway, and my tax refund was about 10x the amount that I got last year (for no real reason), I didn’t feel so foolish then.

At times I’ve felt like poor Job, with all his pillars ripped away… scraping the skin off his bones… sitting there on the bathroom floor cutting through all my dead wood, stripping off the bark in hopes of finding something green underneath, some promise of life and future.  That’s when a scavenger comes with a mirror, to show me how dead the tree looks, and how all of the leaves/all of the flowers were lost long ago.  But the only power that evil has is in its ability to lie… and a lie can change your entire life.

A lie can end a marriage, a lie can end a pregnancy, a lie can cut a life short.  However, the primary reason why anyone lies is because they’re afraid of the truth… and this is true of evil.  The truth is that a tree doesn’t die in the winter when the leaves fall, it goes dormant and actually thickens/fortifies inside and becomes stronger.  And though the trees have no clue when Spring is finally going to come, they know it’s gonna get here… Spring is their vision.   I feel like that’s true of me as well.

I have no idea if this vision is a job that I’ll end up with, or if it’s a lifestyle, or just a direction to walk in… and let me tell you, this path has lead me through the desert, but I feel like it’s important for me to stick with… because I am followed so closely by attacks and miracles that they might as well be man and wife.

So I’m going to stick with the advice of my friends… I’m going “down-side up”, and I’m leaving that cup empty to be filled rather than cushioning it with the world’s idea of success.  I’m kicking away false pillars; I won’t build a foundation that’s based on achievement or relationships.  I won’t use this vision itself as a pillar, which was John’s mistake in “The Pilgrim’s Regress“.

There’s another book that helps me with this enormously, it’s called “The Art of Being”.  It helps me to cut off all of the noise and chaos, and start at square one: being who I am, and letting God be who he is.  It helps me to kick away the crows who would tear into my fears of being unloved, and helps me find identity within the gray area of musicial vision (not knowing where it will go or how it will fit in).  It reminds me that the vision isn’t something we make ourselves (it’s part of a larger story), and that helps me to guard against manipulating it for my own purposes, or unknowingly playing a role in destructive stories.  It reminds me that tragedies don’t mean the story is over, and that failures don’t mean I missed my only chance.  It says that what is valuable isn’t always measurable, and within the realm of creativity there are lots of ways of being productive… but the most important part is being.

When I forget to be, and I allow others to decide how I’m going to look and act, and what I’m going to do with my life, and upon what foundations/pillars I’ll stand… then I’m not allowing God to be in my life either.  To follow this vision (my particular chapter in this story) is to just be myself, fully, unquestionably so.  It sounds pretty easy, but I feel like everything is against it.

I think that’s what Irenaeus was talking about: “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.”

Auditory Impact

February 21, 2011

Get ready, I’m about to make a huge generalization: everyone takes their ability to hear for granted… as if it will always be there and can’t be taken away from us (and we’re like that with a lot of things).

But let me tell you from experience, anything can be taken away from you (except God’s grace).

In his book Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry describes a young woman who’s widowed by warfare.  She and her husband were married briefly before he died, and afterwards she felt like a big part of life had been closed off to her.  I’ve felt that way too, like certain expected joys of living aren’t meant for me because of the things I’ve lost.

One of those things is my hearing, I’ve lost more than 75% over the past few years.  I can’t even count how many times I’ve been in a coffee shop and someone tried to start a discussion with me about the background music (what music?).

People are funny when it comes to music.  Some see it as pointless entertainment (much like tv), and others are addicted to it and rely on it for their happiness.  I don’t support being emotionally-dependent on it (God knows I love silence)… but I can’t stress enough the importance of hearing and making music, and how significantly it can impact lives.  I often joke about how I dislike FM radio, and how I refuse to write catchy pop singles that have shallow lyrics… but in reality, songs like that impact a huge audience, and those people’s lives are affected by what they hear.

In fact, I think we’re impacted by a lot of things without realizing it. We have a surprising amount of faith in celebrities/artists/authors and the messages we receive from them.  Maybe it goes back to that old belief that what is outwardly beautiful must also be good.

In addition to the impact that others have on us, I think we sometimes downplay or simply neglect the impact that we ourselves have on the world… or rather, we forget that we make an impact at all.

Anyone who’s watched me play the guitar has probably noticed that I put it up to my head to feel the vibrations (because I couldn’t hear it unless I played really loudly).

Because I couldn’t hear myself well (musically or otherwise), I was always afraid of being too loud and not knowing it… so I overcompensated, and no one could hear me at all.  Even now with hearing aids I’m still working on breaking those habits, and getting used to being heard.

It forces me to face the way that I impact (and am impacted by) the world.

When go into an establishment (let’s say… the bank) and the teller says ‘hello’… it’s so new to me that I literally start laughing.  I had no idea what kind of silent bubble I was in before, that people would try to engage me like this and I would have no idea.  I don’t know how many times the same teller said ‘hello’ to me in the past and I never heard him… I hope the world didn’t think I was being a jerk.

Don’t take this stuff for granted.

To be in a room full of friends and not be able to converse with them… to ignore a call because you can’t function on the phone… to be in an emotional conversation with the person you love and not be able to tell them that you can’t hear what they’re saying… if you can hear people, don’t take it for granted.

To miss an opportunity to comfort someone in need, when all it takes is an encouraging word… to see someone’s addiction and not intervene, when they simply need to hear that someone else cares enough to tell them to stop… if people can hear you, don’t take it for granted.

The auditory impact that we have on the world (and that the world has on us) is of monumental importance.  Please appreciate it, please be wary of it, please be present.

How oft my sight is veiled by lies

Whose subtleties undo me

The noise which darkens ears and eyes

From song and silence both

From song and silence both

 

Built from bricks of burden-stone

My legs are dense with shame

But still he carries all of me

He’s strong despite my failings

He’s strong despite my failings

 

You found me while I was a fiend

To teach me love yourself

Only in Jesus am I relieved

My Heav’n is you and no one else

My Heav’n is you and no one else

Visions and Songs

January 3, 2011

I. There are things that I can’t get off my mind, and there are things that come to me in dreams.  There are hopes of sweet torrents that seem impossible, and there are hidden redemptions that are granted in the smallest measure of wine.   There is something that would be given to me in infinite amount, and of the same thing I would turn around and spend an infinite amount.

From Dec 27th:

The original lover

Whose kisses are living water

And satisfy every deep desire

Moving in sunlight

Moving in shadow

Moving in water

Moving in me

Re-ligamenting a torn world

Putting back the petals of a flower

Putting hope into broken hearts

Putting peace into broken homes

Giving faces to the forgotten

Giving names to the lost

Ocean waves of fresh water

A world of wells of fresh water

To my lips


II.  I posit the question (to myself):

What is the difference between the love that pursues me and the love that I pursue?

There are three possibilities:

The first is the love that pursues me, but is not pursued by me.

The second is the love that both pursues and is pursued by me.

The third is the love that is pursued by me but does not pursue me.

(everything exists in one of those three categories, and if no category seems sufficient then it certainly falls under the first, as does everything in the third)

 

From Dec 28th:

You make my heart strong

You are my hope for the future

You are my hope for the moment

You are my freedom from the past

I find rest in you

I find strength in you

I’ve found my salvation


III.  So what is the nature of pursuing… to catch you and keep you (but not ensnare)?  And what is the nature of following… to go where you go and do what you do (but not mimic)?  Sometimes there’s both, and sometimes it shifts back and forth between confirming what is and questioning what is not.  Some days it’s in fishing boats, and some years it’s miles and miles of desert, with no oasis in sight.  No trees, no shadow but my own, always a drop in my cup, but never more than just enough; and my tears, the sand just dries them up.  But that’s the nature of devotion.  To breathe and walk, breathe and walk.

From Dec 29th:

It’s not quite like anything else

This place we’ve found

Nowhere was right for us

So we made a place of our own

If you feel like you don’t belong

Here’s a hand you can hold onto

My house has enough rooms

For all of us

If we abide in each other

And if you take me home

And if I take you home

For good


IV.  There is the sweetness, the desert rain.  There is home.  Not between the wanderings, but in every step, in the stretching of tendon and the flexing of muscle, and in the very thought of stepping.  When warmed, when relished, there is home.  When neglected, when exploited, there is home.  At the pig farm, and on the return, there is home.  When it is recognized, finally!

The hearth fire, the desert cold, the love-sickness, the dry tears, in all things is the love that pursues and is always pursuing.  In the face of other chases, in the firelight of other loves, through the dust of the feet of other masters, it remains.   It does not fear them.  It does not withdraw when rejected, it does not stay behind when abandoned.  It is patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast, is not proud, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.  Love, home, Jesus never fails.

From Dec 30th:

You’re not what I would make of you

(Thank God!)

A City With Two Suns

September 23, 2010

I think that I’ve had false notions of both beauty and love for most of my life.  I have created beauty and have been inspired by beauty, I have loved and been loved, but I now realize that there are truths and decoys in those arenas.

There is a lot of time and money spent on the creation and preservation of what we deem to be beautiful, and there is a reason why we spend all our efforts on it (constantly filling our lives with it)… and the reason is because most of this beauty is fleeting. 

Ironically, the most jeweled, painted, and dramatic displays of beauty are often in fact the mildest, plainest, and poorest attempts at mimicking the Beautiful One.  No diamond ring, designer gown, or emaciated supermodel can compare to the splendor of the world, and likewise no reality TV Show or Hollywood slasher film can compare to the genuine drama and atrocity of the world.

 The grandeur of the Creator (and creation itself) is not displaced, but rather our own eyes are deceived with the thinnest and subtlest veil… which veers us from reality ever so slightly, so that we don’t notice we’ve gone anywhere until we’re out of sight… at which point we reason that we’ve probably always been on this path and in this direction, and forget where we’ve come from altogether. 

We’ve become a post-apocolyptic society, minus the apocalypse.  We value what’s meaningless, and turn our backs on true living… like a culture that eats only bricks, while the food around us rots.  We enjoy being entertained by fake horror, and are indifferent towards true horror in the world.  We choose a select few people from society (who are no better or worse than anyone else), and worship them as gods.  We wear what they wear, we buy their movies, their music, their magazines… so that we can see them as much as possible, and know about their private lives, while never actually knowing them beyond pictures and speculation.  What agony it is for the people when the hero fails, when we find their fatal flaw… and how quick we rush to tear our teeth into them and forget the “love” we had for them.  The downfall of an idol (be it a celebrity, politician, athlete, etc..) can turn the entire city’s attention away from the mouths of starving children and the chains of the enslaved.

This perception deception desensitizes us to truth, in favor of the lesser, shallower, more glamorous injustices that require no responsibility on our part… much like the dreamy stranglehold that the entertainment industry has on love.  With these things we can safely keep love and horror at a distance, admiring them in their cages… we don’t want the real thing, we want the dream.

This often teaches us that love is not a place to abide, but rather is a means to something else.  Sometimes we see love as a road (one of many) to a city called Worth.  The trouble with Worth, is that you’re nobody unless you get inside; however, you must be someone in order to be let in.  For instance, “I’m loved by someone”.

Another road to Worth is called Achievement, but most of its travelers are there because they mistook it for the road to Success.  Some will pass through Success on their way to Worth, and others will do just the opposite, depending on what direction they’re coming from.  But it’s all false, and we don’t question it because we don’t recall where the ideas came from in the first place (which is the strategy of the False One). 

Even if people live in a beautiful world, you can fool them by fashioning a shantytown out of tinfoil… and convince them that it’s not only better than the kingdom they’ve been given, but you can actually lead them to believe that they’ve always lived in the shantytown and their domain doesn’t extend past it.  This is why we’ve grown so accustomed to worshiping our own creations, thinking that the idea of beauty is to create something so appealing that people will idolize it and grant it influence over their lives… but the danger is that people begin to resemble what they worship. 

This is why many of us are but a shadow of what we might be… and why our relationships so often end in divorce, because the love relationships which we’re bombarded with in film and media are entirely false, or alteast highly unlikely scenarios.  We’re taught very early on to have unrealistic expectations of other people, thinking that after you’re married the movie ends (and your problems along with it) and you live in happily-ever-after scrolling end-credits for the rest of your life.  Watching this as a movie may portray it as a perfect relationship, but in terms of real life, you’re using that person as a means to an ends if all you want is a happly-ever-after.  The manmade creations that we idolize are only shadows of reality, and the love that we go to great lengths to seek is but a pale copy of the original Love (through which everything came into being).

In the same way that we forget what real relationships are like by watching movies, we forget where real light comes from when we allow our hearts to be illuminated by false light.  This causes us to grant undue authority, power, and goodness to the fragile sun-copy which we want our days to be governed by.  We try to assimilate love and beauty to these bizarre paradigms, these fleeting notions that we create to entertain ourselves and later are indoctrinated with.  Like a gleaming spire jutting out from the center of the city, a hideous monument erected to throne our false sun, to elevate our creations above ourselves.  Like Atlas bearing the burden of the Earth, the pedestal holds up what we really believe to be our light source, this poor piece of junk… this beacon of exploitation.

Of course we wouldn’t believe the truth anyhow (that we live in a vast kingdom as children of a great inheritance, and that we are the beloveds of the original lover).  We would reason what nothing exists beyond the shantytown, because we can scientifically prove that the walls exist.  We would reason that the false sun is the true light source, because we can reach out and touch it (while the other sun is just a far-off shape).

I’m not saying there’s NO beauty in what we ourselves create (especially since that’s my biggest hobby), but beauty itself is an attribute of God (and there’s nothing new under the sun)… so when we create beauty we’re reflecting God’s creativity and cultivating that aspect of his image in ourselves.  He is the creator as well as that which is beautiful, and true beauty is that which bears his resemblance the most.  A supermodel on the catwalk can be beautiful, but there’s a different depth attributed to the beauty of self-sacrifice or random acts of kindness.

Similarly, many people genuinely “love” each other without actually “loving” each other.  Have you ever witnessed a married couple who make biting remarks to each other all the time?  Falling in love is relatively easy, loving someone as a commitment is much harder, which is why we prefer to use it as a means to something else. 

I think that’s one reason why Jesus taught love as a lifestyle: to love not only those close to you, but your neighbors and your enemies as well.  One question that brings up in my mind is: is every person worth loving?  Is my love for someone dependent on their actions?  If you believe that some people are not worth loving, then I think there’s a far greater possibility that one day you might decide that your spouse is no longer worth loving, or that you yourself are not worth loving.  However, if you adopt love as a lifestyle: showing grace to yourself and others, rather than forcing them to earn it, then you’ll find it significantly easier to fully love and appreciate one other person, and again you’re cultivating an aspect of the image of God.  I’m not saying it’s possible to love everyone unconditionally, but to maintain a spirit of Love… to acknowledge the worth in each person, the image of God in each person, and know that they’re worth trying for.

 The band Waterdeep wrote a song called “18 Bullet Holes”, and the chorus goes like this:

Oh God it hurts so bad / To love anybody down here

Why don’t you come and help me out / Cause I can’t even see clear 

Oh God it hurts so bad / To love anybody down here

But oh that’s right / You know so well

One thorny crown, three nails, and a spear

I pray that we can continue creating love and beauty, even more so than before… using it to fight (rather than further) exploitation, and to reflect what’s truly beautiful in the world, and to direct attention towards what is truly important rather than drawing attention away from it, and to show our innate worth rather than convincing us of our lackings, and using it to consistently grow in beauty and love rather than drinking it dry.

A seed in hand

August 9, 2010

I wonder why the Hackberry hangs in shreds… 

A perfectly formed Hackberry leaf looks like a heart that’s been torn in two (and then melted).  I pick one of the small bark-colored berries, shaped like a cherry pit, and turning it in my hand the Hackberry rolls it’s eye at me while navigating the lifelines on my palm like a silver ball in a handheld maze.  Not too different from Tai Chi or spontaneous meditation, rolling myself around the circuitry of the world’s electromagnetic fields to drop myself like a silver seed into the Earth’s core.  

A train screeches past us, the trucks can’t be pulled along very far without sending out timely screeches… agonizingly familiar, I didn’t realize until now that my body is a train.  I’ve been thinking about the tracks ahead for the past few days, and how many times I’ve taken the same detours before realizing that I’m the one who paves the roads, I am the pioneer.  

The sweat rolls down the center of my back, the Hackberry rolls its eyes in my pocket, the train rolls reluctantly down the track, and my spirit rolls along the lines on God’s palm, fingering those grooves until I fall into the hole that bought me.

Names, Isaiah, Eunuchs… yep.

June 30, 2010

What’s in a name?

A whole helluva lot. 

In the beginning, God created a human… and  always in Hebrew scripture, a new human being is named for either their personality or for situations surrounding their birth.  The parents never chose a name simply because it sounded nice.  God started this trend himself by creating a creature in his own image and calling it “human”.  The word “adam” (human) comes from the word “adamah”, which means “dirt/ground/earth”.  God created the person from the dust of the ground, and named them accordingly. 

When this human was split into two beings, the two people were given more descriptive titles, “Eesh” (male) and “Eesha” (female), based on their situation of needing (and helping) each other.  They were still collectively known as “human” (adam), but after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, their names change.  The man chooses “Adam” as his proper name, and the woman is called “Eve” (the mother of life).

A lot of people have name changes (identity changes) after major life events, both in the Bible and in modern day.  Women often change their name when they’re married, we add titles and abbreviations to our names when we receive specialized degrees; in the Karen culture, women aren’t called by their first names anymore after giving birth to their first child, they become known as “so-and-so’s mother”.  In fact, many of the chief people in the Bible had name changes: Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Jacob/Israel, Simon/Peter, Saul/Paul. 

There’s a lot of power in your name.

Isaiah 62:12 says, “They will be called Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord; and you will be called Sought After, the City No Longer Deserted.”

Isaiah 60:18 says, “No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.”

Isaiah 56:4-5 says, “For this is what the Lord says: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant – to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”

That last one about the Eunuchs is one of my favorite parts of the entire Bible.  A eunuch was defined by what they had lost (or rather, what had been taken from them).  They don’t only lose a body part (as if that wasn’t bad enough), but also their name and their entire identity (from then on they are simply known as a “eunuch”, their real name is forgotten).  They can never walk away from that injury, the wound never heals, because it defines their very existence from that point on.  Imagine that your name was changed, and the only purpose of your new name was to summarize, publicize, and exploit the most painful and traumatic experience of your life.  It’s just horrifying, and I’m so glad that Isaiah brings that to light… because God says the most redemptive thing to them, “I will give you an everlasting name what will not be cut off“.

  Because in all honesty, physical wounds heal easily compared to emotional wounds… so in terms of the lifespan of a eunuch, the thing which was “cut off” was their name and identity (the physical injury was simply the cause of that).  God tells them that once he names them, no one has the power to cut it off, he will not let that happen to them again.

It all reminds me of what Jesus said over and over, “You have heard it said that…  but I tell you this…” 

You have heard it said about your identity that… (blahblahblah) …but I tell you this about your identity…

People have said that you are worthless, but I tell you this, you are valuable beyond worth, and if you were lost I would leave everything to seek you out (as a coin, or a sheep, or a son).  People have said that you are poor and unclean, but I tell you this, you are blessed and you will inherit the Kingdom of God.  Forget the names that you’ve been called in the past, that is not who you are, this is who you are

Isaiah 54:4-6, “Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame.  Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.  You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.  For your Maker is your husband – the Lord Almighty is his name – the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth.  The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit – a wife who married young, only to be rejected”, says your God.

Isaiah 62:2-5, “The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.  You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate.  But you will be called Hephzibah (my delight is in her), and your land Beulah (married); for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married.  As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons (builders) marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”

One part of that “remember no more the reproach of your widowhood“, brings together a lot of things which I hadn’t connected before.  Widows and orphans were in the same predicament as the eunuchs.  I think that’s why the disciples were told to show mercy to those specific groups of people, because widows and orphans were totally defined and marginalized by their loss.  If it’s not bad enough to lose a parent or spouse, it also caused you to lose your income, your home, and your place in society.  So now you’re grieving, alone, penniless, homeless, and outcast from everyone.  It’s just ridiculous.

It also reminds me of one of my favorite stories about Jesus, when the woman pours out perfume on his feet.  The pharisee thought that Jesus didn’t know the woman’s true identity (a sinner), but it was Jesus who exposed what kind of person she was, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much.”

A friend of mine recently pointed out to me the significance of Jesus casting out demons by naming them and exposing their true identity.  I also think Jesus saves us from demons of our own making by exposing our true identity.

The Book of Silence has a lot to say on that subject.

 

 

The Discipline of Confession is what comes to mind, with all of this name/identity business.  Calling things as you see them, proclaiming the truth, uncovering what is hidden, revealing our true names.  Like being stewards of the truth for one another, for when we forget our names… or when we let others name us, or when we re-name ourselves based on our situation (if we lose then we are “losers”, if we fail then we are “failures”, etc…)

I’ve found that it’s very difficult to be around a friend when that person has forgotten who they are, and is acting totally out of character.    It’s very easy to simply turn your back on a friend if they’re acting like a jerk or an idiot.  But this year especially, I’ve learned that this time period when a friend isn’t acting like themselves, is when they need us the most, to remind them of who they are.  I’ve realized that it’s the true test of friendship, to turn the other cheek when they slap you (or stab you in the back).  To remember that the person you care about is still in there, and for some reason they’ve given into some lies about their identity and what kind of person they are.

And I know that I’ve had plenty of friends stick by me when I’ve been a jerk and an idiot.  I also know that I’ve been deceived many times over about my identity, based on the names I’ve been called in my lifetime… but I have also received help many times in order to recover (or uncover) my true identity, which being created in the image of God, is everlasting and will not be cut off.