Saturday, December 29, 2012

Descriptive not Prescriptive

Some believe that the Bible is basically an owner's manual for life.  They see it as a collection of rules, or, in our self-help-oriented culture, as a list of principles to make life better and more fulfilling.  Certainly, the Bible does contain "rules", rules which reflect God's character and how God built us as His creatures, and certainly it does contain principles which can improve quality of life.

But Jesus answered the question about what the Bible is all about once and for all in chapter 5 of John's Gospel.  He sternly rebuked the Pharisees and all their strict religiosity and moralism.  He said that they missed the point of the Bible.  The Bible was really about Him.  It is one giant arrow pointing to Jesus, from Genesis through Revelation.

To broaden the lens on this a bit, this means that the Bible is really not about me and you at all.  It is not about how we can apply principles to make life better.  It is not about how we can make those changes here and those changes there to climb the ladder to spiritual greatness and to the gates of heaven.  It is the story of God's doing, the story of what God has done in relation to mankind.  It is the story of the dance between mankind, with all our rebellion, weakness, stubbornness, blindness, and flaws, and the Living God, Holy and Set Apart from us, yet who works in and among and for us by His grace for our good by His love.

I've had a lot of personal problems, and I've struggled and suffered.  Who hasn't?  I've run to article after article written by Christian authors over the past fourteen years.  I've perused and poured over book after book written by Christian leaders, pastors, counselors, and authors, looking for answers, looking for solutions, looking for something that would make it better.  As such, I know lots of "answers," lot's of information.  I know that if I just "feared God" more, if I just had more faith, if I found God to be more beautiful and if I found Him truly to be all I need, for example, then certain things in life would roll off my back with more ease and less agony.  And it is true.  If A then B.

But here is what I have learned.  All of those books and stories of other people's victory they found in Christ -they are really descriptive, not prescriptive.  They are, in a sense, like a mini version of the Bible.  They are stories of what God did in those people's lives, by His grace and mercy.  To take that story, with all of its wonder, and turn it into a to-do list is completely wrong-headed.  Yet, isn't that what we try to do?  We try to turn something that took another person decades of trials and experiences to get to, by God's grace, into a self-help book or teaching session, a nugget, a principle, that we can just go ahead and apply to our lives, like taking a pill.

Good luck with that.  After all, isn't that our entire problem?  Sure, sometimes we can find help in applying some principles.  But for the big things, do those really help?  Not that I have seen.  Ultimately, isn't our problem much deeper?  We are dull and blind, and we want other things more than God.  We want control, and our faith is small.  Hmm...  And applying a few principles or hearing someone tell us "well , the answer is to fear the Lord more" is going to help with that?  We can all refrain in unison, "Yes, you are right, but that doesn't make it happen."  And the more I try to make it, the more I try to "apply" it, if I am honest, the more frustrated and hopeless I feel.

This, in some sense, gets back to something the Protestant Reformers were so adamant about.  The "Law" (ie. anything that tells you what God expects of you in order to fulfill your humanity) is good, but it is incapable of granting you the power to do what it commands.  In the end, it (by itself) just leaves you in despair because it reminds you -if you truly listen to it- of the fact that you are spiritually still-born and cannot save yourself.  Your problem is much deeper than mere actions.  And that is exactly what it is designed to do -to show you that the only Answer must come from Someone outside of you, from a Savior.  "Law" is not meant to make you feel better.  It is ultimately meant to leave you silenced and stripped of all your hope in your own resources so that you will give up your incredulity toward God and self-sufficiency and look to His grace over and over.

Truly, God can and does use the stories, wisdom, failures and victories of others, even written in articles and books, to inspire, encourage, and give us hope, to show us what the truth looks like with feet on it, helping to illuminate the guide-posts on the journey He is bringing us on, but it is still a journey between us and God -a personal, individual journey.  It is still a Shepherd leading His sheep, not a mere man with his information.  We make poor captains of our own souls -more like prisoners, drunk and tied to the mast watching it all sink.

The reason this is important, I believe, is because it changes our expectations and our perspective.  If we have the expectation that if we just found the "right" formula to apply, the right truths and principles, and then applied it in the "right" way we would be "fixed", then we are in store for a world of hurt, disappointment, and impatience (and perhaps anger) toward God.  Or, we are in store for something worse: a temporary delusion that we are pulling it off followed by a cataclysmic collapse at some point in our future.  But if we take the perspective that the goal is not the solution or "fixing" ourselves but the journey itself and Who that journey is it with, then maybe we will actually enjoy the ride a bit more and (who knows) maybe even get to the destinations God's wants us to get to a bit sooner.

If God wanted us to have a list of rules or principles to self-apply so that we can just "fix" ourselves, then well the Bible would be different than what it is.  But the Bible is about God's actions toward and with and for us. It is His story, His story intertwined into ours.  It is ultimately how God came down into our world, close to us, with us, and gave Himself to us and for us to save us -something we cannot do.  In other words, "fixing" ourselves is a mirage, a farce.  But drawing close to the One who drew close to us, who bore our sins, faults, sorrow, and shame, and who still walks with us, is not.  It is real.  It is life, and it gives life. 

With every change I have gone through, I look back and realize this very thing.  It took a long time.  I made many decisions along the way.  I acted, I sought, I prayed.  I read, I sought counsel and counseled others.  I was certainly not passive.  Yet when I look back, it was not me.  It was God working through those things.  It was the Lord as my Shepherd.  It was not me operating on myself.  It was Him operating on me, using anything He so pleased, even terrible things, to accomplish what He wanted.

If there is a "prescription" in all of this that I have written, that is it.  Stop looking for a formula or a prescription to pop and look to the Person who is there.  Walk with Him, listen to Him, drink in what He has for you, and patiently trust Him to get you there.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Loss is Senseless

What I find funny, in a dark sort of way, is how quick we all are to try to turn loss into something good.  It's like we can't stand that loss just hurts, that loss is just loss.  It is what it is.  We hate the idea.  We always need to find that silver lining.  We always need to make it sound good somehow.  We call black white and white black.  And Christians can be the worst at it.

There is, of course, a grain of truth to it, and I will look at that a little further down.  But first and foremost, loss of a loved one, either through death or divorce or a mind-robbing illness or something like that, is in its barest essence the experience of a void where there once was connection and love.  That person, the way you knew them (however that was), is gone. 

So, we say things to try to comfort ourselves such as, "Loss is a part of life."  Yes.  But it is a part of life in a fallen world -a world that is not as it should be.  Therefore, it is misleading to say it is just a "part of life"... we must qualify that statement to remind ourselves that while true, loss is a reminder that this created order is broken and fragmented away from God, distorted and cursed with the promise of loss because of man's departure from God.  Loss of a loved one should not make us numb to the fact that this world is just wrong.  It should highten our awareness of that fact.

We also say things like, "It will make me stronger." Wonderful -a knock-off from Nietzsche. It can also make you harder and bitter. But, for the sake of argument, let's say we stick with the positive: it can make you stronger. Then by that logic, we should seek to experience as much loss and pain as possible. After all, if it makes me stronger (and stronger must be better) then I should want that, right? Of course not.  That is like saying that burning my hand on the stove makes my skin tougher.  Sure.  I'm sure it does over time as the scar tissue builds up.  But how on earth does that make burning your hand on the stove a good thing?

Why are we so driven to want to ignore the truth?  I think we are afraid that we will lose ourselves.  We will find out how weak we really are.  I think we are afraid that we will become something we don't like.  We will be "weak" in our own eyes, or we will crash under the weight of the sorrow.  We are afraid of ourselves, of what we will truly find, and I think it is partly because we know, deep down, that our sense of control is an illusion.  So, we look for ways to minimize the bad or paint it in a good light.  But does it really work?  How glorious can you really make it?

Take death, for example.  What is glorious about death?  A once living and breathing person you loved is reduced to a mass of organic tissue as they soil their clothes and take their final breath.  There is nothing glorious about that.  And what of you?  Where are all the clever words and sayings?  How do they hold up?  You come face to face with the chilling and unrelenting smite of powerlessness.  Your plans.  Gone.  Your hopes.  Gone.  Your love.  Unmet. 

Life as you know it has permanently changed.  A void has been created, and you were powerless to stop it.  You can, and you probably will, try to fill it with things and people and hobbies and cute little quips from this book here or there.  But it won't work.

At the end, loss leaves you without answers.  You scramble to try to make sense of it.  You look for reasons.  You rehash the past and try to figure out your place in the whole thing.  But there is nothing there to argue with, to reason with.  There is only a headstone.  Your cries, your frustrations, your longings, your questions, your "if only's" pour out of your soul and hit cold, dead stone.  No answer.  Silence.  It is amazing how big and empty the night skies feel.  You feel alone in the universe.

But then there is the cross of Christ.

The cross of Christ beckons us to come down to earth and walk in the real world.  It beckons us to avoid the temptation to call black white and white black.  Before we even talk of the wonderful effects of Christ's death, we need to look at the cross for what it is, first.  What happened on the cross?  Ignoring our desire to theologize and peer up into the heavens and make statements about something that must have happened up there, what do we really see if we look at the cross and the man who hung on it?  We see a man, the Son of God, God come down to us in human flesh, hanging, bleeding, broken, likely soiling Himself.  Could there be anything less glorious?  No answer.  Just a man, a man his closest friends were finally beginning to hang their hopes on, dead.  Lifeless.  Stuck in the side like a piece of meat.  There is nothing heavenly about that.  It is, if anything, both grizzly and ordinary, hauntingly non-special.

At the end, that is all this life, this created order, this system, has for us.  Despite the presence of good in the world and a lot of temporal blessing, it ends the same way.  There is no ladder up and out of it.  No self-improvement scheme will break it. No amount of pulling up our bootstraps will change it. It is a literal dead end.  You live, you experience loss, and then you die a very ordinary death -ordinary only because, in this age, decay and violence and disease are just part of things.  In the end, the curse stands -even the Son of God did not escape it.  It swallowed Him whole.  The wage of sin leaves its mark on all of us, leaving us all helpless, powerless, stricken with loss, until it finally claims us in a blanket of futility.

But... after His ordinary, futile, unglorious, senseless death, something happened.  On the third day, He rose from the grave.  He rose to newness of life, being, as the Bible states, the "firstborn of a new creation."  A new age began on that day.  Something new was created.  The old had to die.  This new thing is not a fixed-up version of the old.  A bleak, ordinary, senseless death happened first.  And then a new light dawned, the first dawn of the new creation where God will ultimately be with His people and sin and loss and brokeness will be no more.

Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24)

Why spend all this time explaining this?  It isn't new.  It is important to hear this because Jesus is not just some kind of life preserver or way to minimize the blows of this life.  He is not here to help you climb your ladder to heaven.  His death shows us there is no ladder, just a dead end.  The only way through the bad is to die.  Redemption is no patch-job of this age.  God doesn't work that way.  There is death followed by resurrection.  To be part of it, you must die and be born anew into the new creation, the new age.

How does this figure into loss?  When you see this, I think, at least for me, I become slightly more and more able to accept loss -not because it is good, not because there is a silver lining, not because I can call black white, and not because I'll somehow try to turn it into some kind of elixir for stronger living.  I am able to accept loss more because I realize that I am dead and belong to something new, something that is growing like an infant in a mother's womb even right now.  I am able to accept loss more because I can face it head on, looking it in the eye, embracing the loss as loss, powerlessness as powerlessness, calling it what it is rather than trying to water it down or turn it into something else.  I can begin to approach living in reality rather than just telling myself something that temporarily makes me feel better. 

The truth is that there is no hope in avoiding and minimizing and Christian-sugar-coating what is painfully part of reality (our preferred way) -it is a lie, but there is hope in facing loss head on because beyond the senseless futility, beyond the very necessary death of our sense of control, -and only beyond it- is resurrection (God's way).

And then, and only then, can I see the beauty of how God creates something new out of death.  That is how there is a "silver lining," if we should call it that.  That is how the bad is used for good.  God is not one who helps us patch ourselves up, and the Christian life is not a self-improvement ladder.  It is a life of getting used to dying and walking in newness of life.  It is a life of getting used to the fact that our old self was nailed to the cross with Christ and now, in Him, we are new in God's sight -blameless because He took our place.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

In Sorrow

Loss and grief have a way of making life feel so bleak and lonely.  There is an irony in that, for everyone suffers and experiences loss -one would think that those experiences would be part of what makes us feel like we belong, like we aren't alone.  But such is not the case.

In Propagandhi's song Without Love, we are given a bleak and painfully lonely picture of loss:
All in nature ends in tragedy and I was the first to finally fade away from my grandfather’s memories. How long ’til the day my memories of him finally fade away? Dissolving into gray. Is breathing just the ticking of an unwinding clock? Just counting down the time it takes for you to comprehend the sheer magnitude of every single precious breath you’ve ever wasted? I did everything I could. I bargained with the universe to take my life instead of hers. But no amount of money, drugs or tears could keep her here. What purpose did her suffering serve? Is breathing just the ticking of an unwinding clock? Just counting down the time it takes for you to comprehend the sheer magnitude of every single precious breath you’ve ever wasted? So much misery. So much indifference to so much suffering that we can become tempted by appeals to hatred. But this world ain’t nothing more than what we make of it. Revenge ain’t no solution to the inevitable pain that every single one of us must face in losing the kindred spirits in our lives. Lives so brief, so disappointing, so confusing. As Cronie slipped away I held her in my arms, reduced to “Please don’t leave me. What will I do?” But this cosmic sadness is just here to remind you that without Love, breathing is just the ticking of…
Loss makes us feel... helpless.  Powerless.  We try to "bargain with the universe."  We are reduced to helpless cries -"Please don't leave me.  What will I do?"- and an emptiness that gnaws away at us from inside.

Questions flood in.  "Why, God?!"  "How long will this continue?"  "Why do I cry out to You for so long and it seems my cries go off into nowhere?"  And there is no answer.  With every breath, with every cry out from bottom, our pit feels deeper, the light seems further away, and the gulf between us and God (and us and others) feels bigger and bigger.  Our demand for an explanation or a reprieve leaves us feeling only more desolate and empty as our eyes become engorged with the loss before us.

But what if the "answer" is not in getting answers to those questions?  Of course we want the pain to end.  Who wouldn't?!  But if that does not or cannot happen, what if the answer is not in escaping loss but in finding something or Someone else within that loss, within that pain?  Isn't that what it is all about?  When we mainly speak of loss, we mean loss of fellowship and love and relationship and a bond we once shared with someone.  That is what that song above ends with, rhetorically asking us, "Without love..." what is there?  Even from the author's bleak and athetistic perspective, he still recognizes that the only thing that makes life "life" is love, is having an "other" with us. 

Could it be that God -the God who, Himself, exists eternally as a love-harmony of Three Persons... Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- built us that way?

What if the paradox is in finding that there is love and fellowship in the pain, the loneliness of loss?  There are others with us in our pain.  And, though we would not expect to find Him there, God is there, as well.  This is what makes the True God, the God of Christianity, different from all other conceptions of "god" out there.  God became flesh and dwelt among us (cf. John 1:1,14).  His name is Jesus.  God came down to us, to meet us, to suffer for us and with us, to bring us back to Himself. 

And as He hung upon the cross, He remembered the words of a song, too...
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
My God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest..." (Psalm 22)
As author Tullian Tchividjian points out in his book, Glorious Ruin, maybe our temptation in suffering is to ask the wrong question.  Maybe instead of asking things like "Why" or "When" we ought to be asking, "Who?"  Or, since I prefer to avoid phrasing things as "ought to's" with such a sensitive topic as personal suffering, maybe the answer is in recognizing Who is there, right there with us, right there beside us, walking next to us hang-in-hand or at least offering to.

There is always One who is there.  Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheren pastor and theologian, was a part of the German resistance during WWII and was involved in the plot to assasinate Hitler.  He was captured and kept in prison by the Nazi's before he was eventually hanged.  He discovered who he called the "Suffering God".  It was not an idea or a theological concept.  It was a He.  Jesus is the Suffering God.  Bonhoeffer lived his days in communion and fellowship with Him -even and especially during the most bleak and despairing of his final days.

The paradox is that as we experience loss, as we see loved ones consumed by physical death or other forms of death (addiction, mental illness, sin, selfishness), we are plunged into an abyss of loneliness.  "Please don't leave me.  What can I do?"  But it is there, at the bottom, that we find that there is One who walks in those shadows and has walked in them before.  He walked in the deepest and darkest of shadows so that we would never be left alone.

Without Love...

Monday, December 03, 2012

Communion Thoughts

When things get really bad, I sit out on the porch and think about life and reality.  What is real?  What does it mean to be real?  Sometimes it feels like it is all a dream.  Yet, existence is as real as we know anything is real.  I wake up, I work, I eat.  I hug my daughters.  I drive them to school and pick them up.  I sleep.  I get up, and I do it all again.

But when life falls apart, it feels like the fabric of what is real is unraveling.  You don't want what is real to be real.  You want it to be a dream.  You become exhausted.  Let me mow 1,000 lawns and build 100 sheds, and I will be physically tired but happy and content.  Break my heart, burden, and oppress me in my spirit, and the burden will drain my soul of its strength to the point of splintering, walking around like a zombie who merely goes through the motions of life.

Is God real?  Why all this trouble?  Why all this exhaustion?  Why does it seem like there is no relief for my soul?  Why do my prayers seem to flutter off into the ether, off to nowhere?

Yesterday was communion.  I took the body and blood of Jesus.  It was only bread from a store.  It was only juice from a bottle, packaged in some factory somewhere.  But in that moment, it became much more.  It was God showing up through the material, the tangible.  It was treasure in an earthen vessel, just as Jesus Himself is as He came down and walked this earth. 

Holding those things in my hand was Jesus saying to me... "I am real.  I am as real as the bread and juice you hold in your hand, as real as the taste in your mouth, as real as the chair you sit in while you eat.  I am with you.  I know what it is to be broken, and I am with you."

There is a continuity in the Lord's Supper, in what we call "communion."  Jesus told his disciples to do it in remembrance of Him.  It has been celebrated ever since, in a line of continuity from that singular point in time, that one night when Jesus ate with His disciples and then was betrayed.  That continuity speaks to me, as well, reminding me that this is not all a dream, not something made up.  Real people were involved in all of this, in all of the events of Jesus, and real people with real stories, real lives, real pain, real brokenness, real blessings and joy, and real hope have been ever since.  And it will continue on long after I'm gone.

Tangible, real, historical, true, actual, flesh and blood, imminent, with me, beside me, in me...