Becoming Music

There’s some kind of powerful magic in someone who knows how to use their voice like it’s an instrument — not beat-boxing or what have you, but the recognition that their own voice is a powerful, potent creator of music. With the really well trained individuals, I find it’s not just their voice. Their whole body knows music, and at least how to play an external instrument or 2 or 7.

This is not something that is bound my music genre, and I’ve very nearly (and may yet) buy albums of music of genres I don’t care for, lyrics that don’t speak to me, only just because I hear the exceptional control and wielding of music moving through a human body.

There is something very important here that I want. I don’t want to make light of the word “sacred,” but nor do I want to understate the importance I find here: it’s something deeper than aesthetic. It’s something deeper than just skill alone. It’s something that is not a Pinterest/Instagram style romanticisation of music and those who make it. My own inability to speak well in the language of music leaves me feeling — not uncultured, but rather childish and lacking understanding of basic truth.

I keep circling around my failings in this matter. Surely some people are gifted more than others. Or had more opportunity than others. But really where I keep landing is looking full in the face of my own inhibition. To music (which is not a verb, yet the only word I know to describe the action), one cannot remain cloaked, clothed, withdrawn. Those two things are completely at odds with one another. Music, from a place of inhibition and refusal to be vulnerable or truly share, is just noise.

And I cannot. I cannot put aside the self-consciousness, the awareness of self and other, long enough to move to the music, let the music in me, through me. I keep thinking if I could just — get better, I wouldn’t be self-conscious. Or if I could just work with the music alone long enough, then I wouldn’t care who else heard it.

If you look deeply into anyone who is serious about their art, you will always find it turns into a spiritual discussion. I don’t think it is really possible to separate art and spirituality. Not from the poets or the painters or the sculptors or musicians or anyone else. Nor is there any religion that I know of that does not make use of music. And my difficulties with music do not come to “I’m not smart enough” or “I don’t understand” or “there is no way to learn.” It comes down to an essential human problem: how do you be vulnerable, and not die?

Some of us come into the world naturally less inhibited. Some find the need the chemically loosen up. Some of us struggle with our inhibited nature, knowing that inhibition is not always a virtue, but unsure of how to bridge the gap. Yet how can one engage in truth, in comfort, in beauty from a place of deep inhibition?

It is essentially fear and pride that hold me back. There is no way to move deeper into music without also confronting fear and pride. I do feel that the phrase “spiritual practice” is over used and under understood. But one does have to understand the problem to move toward any solution. The problem I need to tackle is not one of having an ear that is not trained enough or a lack of practice. The problem I really need to tackle is that I recognize deep value in those who can avoid fighting being an instrument, but I am more concerned with my own protection, and I am too cowardly to move forward. Both humility and courage are needed, and I think that is a definition of grace, a definite quality of music.

Stars in the black, black night

I had a hard December, following a strong of hard months, years. I finally had a two day reprieve, and in the space I had to breathe, I said in my head,

“That was hard.”

And instantly was the response, one part words I have said over and over to my patients and all the parts from God,

“Yes. It was supposed to be hard. If it’s not hard, then you don’t get stronger; and then it is a waste of time.”

It gave me a little hope, a very little hope. That maybe it wasn’t for nothing, that maybe it would bear fruit, that maybe it wasn’t pointless suffering, that maybe there was a plan.

But in my two day reprieve, I also saw the thumb screws being tightened down on someone I care for, and to the best of my knowledge, has a ways to go before she has a reprieve. And I know of no way to help her.

And I am still left with that hole. What’s the point? What for? Why all the pain for no reason? People talk about alleviating the suffering of mankind, but the true suffering of mankind is the suffering that cannot be relieved.

It is technically and philosophically easy to say that suffering has a purpose. But when you are in suffering, it is far harder—in part because you don’t get the suffering and the fruit at the same time. When the fruit comes, even if it is sweet or sustaining, it comes long after the bitterness and pain. There’s no spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down; there’s just begging for mercy.

So what do you do when someone is begging for mercy beside you? The obvious answer is beg along side of them — for mercy for you both. But there is also a reason we all tend to ask for “practical implications.” There are lists out there for what to do when people are going through hard times. . .being there, “holding space,” offering practical solutions of what you could do to help, not avoiding conversations about the thing, etc. And sometimes those lists are helpful, and sometimes they just shine the light on the other problem: it hurts us to see others suffering, and we would like to know how to alleviate  our own distress. Sitting quietly with someone while they sob does very little to comfort us.

When you walk on the other side of the road, it is mostly to protect you from the mess of human suffering. It is easier to bless, be warm and filled, than to drink down suffering with others. Because sometimes, it’s not even about not wanting to “do” something about it, or physical risk or sacrifice. It’s the internal pain of confronting the fact there is un-savable pain and suffering in this world: it’s broken, it sucks, and there is nothing you can do to fix it. Looking away feels preferable.

The saving that we want is for more than just the current moment; we want the world to be fixed such that there is no longer meaningless, pointless, stupid suffering. Not just her. Her and her and him and everyone. But when God gives justice and judgement, He also gives grace and blessing. And though the world has been judged, and cries out for redemption, still He sends blessing: rain, sun, food. And, I hope I am not too rash in suggesting, His people to carry His light, and to serve as beacons for people to find, not the relief from the suffering they are currently in, but rather the suffering that is yet to come. Do not, He says, put your light under a basket, safe and protected and secure, but bring it out into the darkness.

The very reason that we most want to look away is the very reason we must move closer to suffering.

And the practical application of that, if I may, is that when we know why we must do what we must do, and who sends us to do it, we have greater courage and strength and comfort to carry out the hard and unpleasant tasks that need to be done. I am moving toward this person and this suffering, not because I have the answers, can fix things, know what I’m doing, am more capable than they are, or like suffering. But because God said, “You have My light, and I am sending you into this world, and you need to trust that I will have My light be seen in you. I’m at work and will be at work, and I told you that, so you need to believe it.”

I think I just said a lot of stupid words to a person I don’t think I can help, who has some heavy burden laid on her that she cannot/will not even explain. Her suffering is so palpable it makes my heart hurt, like a physical sensation inside of my chest, and there is nothing, nothing, nothing I can do. If my confidence is in me doing the right thing, this is a hopeless situation.

God have mercy; God stay true to Your promise to put Your light into Your people as You send them into the world, and let me be faithful to Your spirit. There is no hope unless You are the one at work; and let me find comfort in knowing Your work is being accomplished — in me, through me, beside me, around me, and toward the world. Bless us still.

Scattershot

I have been frustrated the last couple of times by trying to work on coherent thoughts and losing concentration, time or energy about 2/3 every time. I don’t (at the present moment) feel like I actually have a coherent thought to get out, so maybe, hopefully, I won’t be disappointed 2/3 away through and pushing ‘publish’ with dissatisfaction and disgruntlement.

Relinquish. Receive. Beauty. Communion. Trust. Seek. Listen. Wonder. Witness. Confession

Previously, I had only one word for Sabbath, and that was ‘rest.’ I felt compelled by this being a concept God introduced along with creation, apart from the giving of the law, yet also distracted by “He is our rest,” and also, with frank honesty, a pile of to-do lists

Still, I’ve been fighting a building anger that I don’t have time to seek God. Even putting that into writing makes it obvious that “time” isn’t really the root issue. There are certainly things I don’t want to surrender that should be let go of — quite frivolous things, really, but all things standing by figure for the desire to be in control.

But there is also the problem that I have inescapably Grown Up. I passed the dread line of 30, I went and got a stupid doctorate degree. The starry-eyed time of dreaming about what life will be ‘when I grow up’ is quite passed, mostly, I think, replaced with the raw terror of running out of time. Realizing better now how incredibly fleeting time is comes the desire to ‘make something of it.’

Partly I think I swallowed accidentally while attempting to swim just a bit too much of the salty brine of school. The parts about having a defined plan, discrete goals, clear-cut deadlines, and then simply acting on them with puritanical industry. It was certainly pushed at me a lot, and looking around at that world, seemed to be the making of the sausage: audacity to declare the future, and then some dreadfully long hours to make it happen.

Looking at my life rapidly shrinking in front of me, I’ve felt a compulsion to define what I want and make it happen, like a properly educated individual (with very little actual living experience). But then infuriated by these attempts, because whatever else I do have, I have an ear I keep trying to tune closer and closer to truth, and none of the words I was telling myself had that tell-tale ring that guides you with the certainty of the North Star.

Do you believe that change can be forced by the outside in, or really only happens from the inside out? For me, this has not ever really be a question of doubt: absolutely, change only comes from the inside out. The outside in can throw up a veneer, it can pass to a quick glimpse, it can show an image. But to be the solid truth from bark to core, it has to be from in the inside out.

Somehow, though, I’d walked my way down a path of trying scheme appropriately to forge my outside circumstances thoroughly enough that my insides would transform (all the while give lip service to ‘of course, this must come first from the heart’). I hate how thoroughly we can deceive ourselves

That makes all of my to-do list a have-to, because I do have to — to obtain my objectives and my goals on my timeline by my strength. So rapidly I buy the lie it’s only responsible of me to do so. It’s an expensive lie, though; costly on so many different fronts.

Basically, what it comes down to, is the question of if life is taken or if it is received. If it is to be taken, there is no earthly rest to our labor at all. And if it is given, then the greatest attentiveness must be to the One Who Gives. It does you little good at all to be chasing after all these other voices while the One who is actually in fact handing you out your life is patiently trying to explain to you how this goes. As with that frustrated child on a party sugar-high who didn’t listen the first three times, and now is in serious melt down because of unforeseen circumstances, there is wailing that someone should have told them what was going on. No doubt the patient parent is holding their forehead and trying to hold their tongue

I read somewhere — or maybe heard? It maybe an Emily P. Freeman podcast — that the Sabbath is not taken; it is kept. All this weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth because there is no time to rest, only there is, only you keep giving it away for things less valuable. That was convicting for me, but not so much so that I didn’t keep trying to find better and better solutions for to-do’s and productivity and getting-these-monkeys-off-my-back.

With great grudgingness on my part, I felt goaded toward a book on “Sabbath keeping.”  I don’t know why other people always pull up children as examples of innocence and wonder. I remember being a child, and frustrated melt-downs and grudging obedience seem like much more apt embodiments of childhood. I don’t even care for the author and tone of the book (in deference to I suppose is the reason I don’t name them), but as far as I’ve read so far. . . well, more often than not, I find myself almost rolling my eyes. At myself. Because this does ring of the truth, truth I’ve already uncovered, already experienced, already known, already argued for — and somehow managed to deliberately and I suppose disobediently put aside.

Speaking of asides, I’m beginning to doubt if there is any value or applicable worth to practical techniques of surviving this life and turning oneself always back to God. Careful, I don’t mean those techniques or forms aren’t valuable, or that there isn’t any worth in trying to cope with this life and find God. I just mean, the more I look into it, the more it seems to me like these things are so individualized than to offer any assistance to anyone else. Their finders and keepers are have comfort and steadiness by them — joy to them! But it feels a bit like trying to wear someone else’s face. It only gets there by the life you live anyhow, and to pick up someone else’s and try it on. . . it’s strangely disconcerting, even though it’s a perfectly fine face.

I’ve tried several different iterations of counting blessings, or list makings as a way to journal, and I can keep it up (by effort!) for a few months, but never enough to make it life sustaining. Just a different type of chore. I suspect, should I ever find a rhythm that works for me, it will seem horribly odd and unlikely to others — just as how I sleep better in an un-made bed. I still keep leaning toward wanting to know what everyone else is doing (and so have a vague fascination with largely arbitrary ‘church calendars’), but I think it’s mostly because I’m trying to escape the work of figuring it out myself. I kind of want to take the easy way out and have the answer handed to me instead of doing the more honest work of seeking, which is where my only real answer will be.

What I do know is that I have a long list of things that I desire, that don’t seem to fit any of my carefully plotted goals. I just want them. And as soon as I issue the edict to myself to rest (which is a very hard fought war, even in the midst of sickness and ill health), I immediately revert to those things. When I declared today that I would rest, sabbath-style, today, and sacrifice my mouse-laid plans of accomplishment and needing — I had this little thrill that maybe now I could actually have time to read poetry.

That in itself was a little stunning.

I didn’t even think that was on my list of deeply wanted things.

I mean, I knew I wanted it, vaguely, in the back of my mind. It irritated my highly to recognize that some individuals get to spend vast swaths of their time — even, in many cases, earn their livings — deeply engrossed in “The Arts.” I want to be deeply engrossed in the arts! And I’m angry that I can’t find some way to square my industry and productivity and manufactured sense of responsibility with putting even half as much time as I want to into The Arts.

I’m not swanky. I’m not pretentious. I just want to.

Also, I’m angry that I can’t figure out a proper plan to allow me to.

But the Sabbath wasn’t just a time to rest. It was a time to look at all that God had done. If my artistic involvements are of God, I don’t need a 5 year, carefully delineated — in a bullet journal — with washi tape — plan of how I will get there. I need to sit down, shut up, listen to what God is saying, and receive what He is giving (up to and including  — wait for it — rest).

That looking to see what God has done, to me, is about beauty. It’s looking for and participating in the beauty, because the beauty is from Him. What are the beautiful (never mind if impractical) things to observe and do? Are those not good things for a sabbath?

Mostly, I’m in a dreadful hurry to write this down as a testimony to myself. A witness that at one point, I did too know better. That this is a thing that resounded with truth and should be held on to.

But also I am a little hesitant, wondering what a deliberate intent to look for God looks like for me. I did read a poem today, A Forest Hymn, and one line got stuck:

Ah, why  
Should we, in the world’s riper years, neglect  
God’s ancient sanctuaries, and adore  
Only among the crowd, and under roofs  
That our frail hands have raised?

 

Why did it get stuck? Because I’ve never felt I was adoring Him while among the crowds. Only ever in those ancient sanctuaries. The more people there were, the less I felt there was anything meaningful going on at all.

Curiously, to me, I have felt a little bit of that corporate worship — more so in the “higher” church services (if you can count things so). It’s curious to me, because I disagree resoundingly with so much of their theology. But I like their liturgy. I like the responsive readings and prayers. I like their more elemental music where we can actually hear our own hearts.

And in some fashion, I’m drawn to a liturgy for myself. I doubt the “church calendar” will give me any satisfaction. But I like the idea of a rhythm and framework to hide myself in, predictable but different, always there but speaking something different, that would give a home within the day. And I can’t imagine myself not giving in, again and again, into petty to-do lists and plans, if I don’t have a More Important framework to build around. If you don’t declare what is important, either someone else does for you, or you spend your time getting grey hairs chasing around minor stupid things that don’t matter in any real scheme of the universe.

Not passively observing. Actively declaring, and disciplining yourself to that confession, and by that I mean “not allowing the pressing importance of reading web-comics to de-rail all values and intentions.” Some things rightfully ought to hold more weight. I don’t mean we never get to unwind. But I do note, wryly, that if I can keep the electric siren away from me, I do seem to fall into prayer a good deal more often. Because I’m not so full on cotton candy and pork rinds that I can’t fit even one bite of pot roast in my mouth.

If life is a process of editing out the things that don’t actually give life and actively seeking the things that do, there are a good many changes that should be made, because there will be much (and immediate) rejoicing, is all. You feel better when you aren’t about to explode from eating junk food, even if it is ok to indulge once in a while.

What I do know was that when I was out of work for three weeks to do nothing but heal, I felt a good deal closer to God and instantly gravitated toward things that fostered that. But when I am busy, I keep doing all this crap that doesn’t help me at all and I feel very far from God — and by far from God, I mean it both ways. It’s so much harder to pray, and so much harder to have any sense that He is present.

It’s not a struggle of knowing the truth. It’s a struggle of pride, of vying for control, and of thinking too highly of my own priorities to put God in His rightful place.

Repentance does not come easily, but it is freeing.

Enough

I thought I was trying to start a healthy habit, but it turns out I am really struggling to grow more faith.

After struggling for months of being sick and worn down, I decided I should really get serious about getting at least 8 hours of sleep every night. I didn’t really think through where the hardest part of this plan would be. If I had pick one word to describe it, I think I would have to use the word, “enough.” Not “enough sleep,” because despite being able to suddenly cut my caffeine consumption by 2/3s, I still feel tired. No. Admitting there had been enough in the day. Admitting I was done. Admitting what God had done was enough, and I could rest.

What was supposed to be an exercise in rest and restoration turned instead into an ugly power play. I wasn’t done yet. My things were important. I don’t want my life to just be work and sleep. This is not enough.

It made me stop and think about resting as an act of worship. First there is aspect in which we are to stop and look at what God has done. I think that’s how the original 7th day of rest came around – not that God was wearied, but as a observation of all that He has accomplished. But that’s not enough, either.

It’s also a sacrifice, in more than one sense of the word. In one sense, we have to give up the things that we want to do in order to do the rest God calls for. We want to think that we have to do things, or that OUR things are important, but what we’re called to do is agree with God that He is right: He provides all things, and this world is ultimately very insignificant. It’s humbling. Surely the bare necessities of food and clothing demand our attention. Surely Martha is right. But didn’t He say something about finding His sustenance in the work of God? About manna being provided double-fold the day before the rest, so you’ll still have food even when you don’t work? About clothes not wearing out for 40 years, because He said so?

It is very humbling. Because the other sense in which it is a sacrifice is in recognizing that our own striving, our own attempts at righteousness is not enough, nor even desirable by God. We have to be covered by something else – to rest and be covered in His provision. What we do is simply not good enough.

I resent it. I resent my human limitations; I want to be a god. I don’t want to have to rest. I resent that the world doesn’t actually fall apart when I rest; striving is so hard, it seems like all sorts of things should fall apart when I stop striving and rest. But they don’t. Because it isn’t really about us at all. My human nature is that I don’t want to agree with God. But isn’t that what worship is? Agreeing with God. Agreeing with what He says about Himself, about us, about this age, about what matters. The humility of bending the knee and admitting He has the final say in anything, that He is the arbitrator, that what He declares is true.

Who gets to decide what is enough? I find myself muttering to myself, “this isn’t enough.” Who decides? I have so much more than so many. So much less than so many. Who draws the line and says, this is enough? In truth, God. In truth, going to bed at the end of the day and saying, “it is enough,” is not a declaration that we are enough–we’re not. We never will be. It is agreeing with God that what He gives is enough. It is not fighting with God to be more powerful than we are, and agreeing with Him that the nature He gave us is one that needs to rest — and only can rest, if we truly believe God will provide whatever is truly needed. That it’s enough to rest in Him and the things He does, and to not do things myself. That it’s enough, what my lot in life is right now.

It’s hard to make ourselves small. It’s painful to make ourselves small, or rather, to recognize the truth of our smallness. But it’s also the only way we see the greatness of God. We so easily lose sight of what “holiness” means, or “authority” means. We’re far too inclined to put ourselves on level with God, and in doing so, rather than make ourselves large, we make God small.

The feeling that things are never enough is part of how God made us. . .He has placed eternity in the hearts of men. We subvert that to say, this day was not enough, so I’m going to stay up later, try to squeeze more in. What it should really drive us to do is to recognize the smallness of our to-do lists in view of eternity. It really doesn’t matter, it really isn’t important, because it really won’t last. Only the things that God is doing will last.

I am still incredibly frustrated by how little time I have. Week two of “getting sleep” is not shaping up to be any easier. The only thing I have now is the recognition that this is actually a spiritual battle. That the resentment I feel at having to rest needs to be turned into the humble acceptance — and gratitude — that it is enough. Because God said so, and He is fearful and wonderful, and I recognize my place beneath Him. He is enough.

You and your soul

Do you think I’m a good judge of character?

I do.

I don’t know really how we can know such things about ourselves. But especially since I’ve gotten into a career where I see so very many different kinds of people, from all different walks of life, I feel like I can get a pretty good measure of a person by a first impression. Not a complete dossier, of course. But I’ve had the hair on the back of my neck rise up in wordless warning, with no tangible reason for it. I’ve pried recalcitrant people out of their shells. And I’ve been perfectly at ease around people that society would have you to believe ought to be scorned.

But you really do have to trust me as a judge of character, at least to a certain point. Because sometimes there are just random things that happen to me, where if you trust my sense of character, are just are just a really good story. And if you don’t, the whole story goes from novel-worthy to really kind of skeevy and a little unsettling.

So I went for a walk. I didn’t even really want to, but when I have too many emotions, I need to walk. Preferably over lots of hills. It’s sort of like getting mad and hitting things, except without the violence. And of course there’s no hills here, but still I’m charging down the sidewalk, storming around the park. And some random dude is like, “Hi!”

Seriously? He looks like a college aged guy, out walking himself.

“Do you like to talk while you walk or think to yourself?”

Well, I inform him apologetically, I like to think to myself. Walking is how I sort through the day and get my emotions out.

It turns out it wasn’t really a question, because he tags along anyhow. So earnest about being encouraging and trying to ask me what’s on my mind and cheer me on through it. And if I am a terrible judge of character, then he is just rude and annoying and won’t get a hint. But in my judge of character, he is just pretty crazy, and I kind of just want to laugh at him. He is strange in his own way, but not ill-intentioned.

So I tell him about missing home, about being far from anyone who knows me. And he admits he feels the same way, even though he grew up here. He asks me how many siblings I have, and then he asks me how many have died. And the whole conversation is this strange mix of serious and surreal. He insists on walking on the the side closer to the road, so he’d be hit first. He complains his friends have become cops and he can’t talk to them anymore. He confesses several of his siblings have died and his uncle committed suicide. He chivalrously steps between me and annoying barking dog. He tries to slow me down from walking too fast, talking too fast–he’s the one with the energy drink. He complains that people are suspicious of everyone now, even people walking you home.

And I just want to laugh. It’s broad daylight on a busy street. We’re almost to my residence. There is nothing he can take from me. If I am any judge of character, dude has had a rough, sad life and is tired of people pretending they can’t see each other. Tired of people not even trying to be kind. Maybe–maybe–he would like tears from me and the chance to comfort me like a hero. But I already know he won’t get that, and I think he can tell that’s not who I am. But still he will walk me home, so I won’t get run over by a car. And we continue our random and bizarre conversation, about chickens and goats, and brothers who have too much money and won’t talk to you anymore and would you just slow down and chill out.

And then I say, I’m sorry to end our conversation, but this is the house I’m staying at. So he gives me a casual hug good-bye, and I hug him back. Because this is all so silly. And we both know it. And so he stops and turns,–no, wait–and puts the crowning finish on it all by kissing my hand goodbye. And I would really laugh at him, if he didn’t already know he was being silly, but he already knows. So we wave good-bye as random friends, and I go into the house and he keeps walking off toward the college.

We are still sad. But we can still smile.

There is no reason for it, for any of it. For the heartache of this world and it’s loneliness and it’s brokenness. For the walking and talking with strangers. For walking on the left. But we don’t have to hurt each other, either. We can still be polite. We can still be kind. And sometimes the kindest thing we can do is not pull back. To not be offended by the broken offerings of kindness, to not refuse that a person could have any worth to offer you anything.

You see me walking with a burden, and I–I see you walking with a burden. And we are both already broken enough, and don’t need any more breaking. So kiss my hand; I’ll not pull away. Go in peace, you and your soul.

What do you say?

You know what they say: Love Wins.

And if you are anything like me, “they” make you very frustrated and sad, because that’s jut a feel-good cop out that refuses to look at what love is. First of all, love is verb. People want to think it’s a noun, and I’ll dig around at that thought a bit more later, but the consideration of love as a noun is usually an attempt to avoid the difficult questions.

Love Wins. Love of what? Love of others? Love of nature? Love of self? Don’t try to squirm out of this – if you don’t confront that love is a verb, you are trying to pretend that those above choices will never be in conflict and that is demonstrably false. One of the most painful examples I have seen of Love Wins is people trying to use it to justify infidelity. It’s okay that I left the person I promised to love forever, because I love this other person, and Love Wins. Yes, that is “love winning” but that’s love of self winning. By dropping the direct object of “love,” it makes it sound very pious but is actually deeply deceiving.

The idea is, any action goes, as long as it’s in the name of love, because love wins. There’s no condemnation with love. But that’s still avoiding. Love of what? Love of whom? Because the object of your love is the object of your worship. There is One who claims the noun of Love — God. And that’s exactly what it means: the love of God, the love through God, the love toward God: the worship of God.

That’s the love that made the only innocent and holy man take on the full wrath and judgment of God. Love of God. I’ve seen a lot of people say Jesus did that because He loved us, but I don’t believe that to be it at all. He did it because He loved God, more than He loved us or Himself. Love is so very often what leads to self-denial, the exact opposite of how most people are attempting to use the slogan Love Wins.

Love Wins. Do you not understand what hard things this means in the real life? If there is one who wrongs, and one who has been wronged, who do you love? And is it really for you to judge about wrongs and wronged? And this question requires that one be worthy of love. Is that love? How do you love awful things? People like to use Hitler as an example of all that is wrong in this world — so do we love Hitler? Have we judged that Hitler is not worthy of love? If we get to decide who is worthy of love, is that Love Winning?

The only way I can see for Love Wins to make any sense at all is to appeal to authority: what you love. If what you are really saying is Love for Self Wins, you justify your actions by yourself and what benefits or harms you. If what you are really saying is Love for Dogs Win, well, heaven help you, you are appealing to the authority of dogs for your actions. And if what you are trying to say is the Love of God Wins, then you have do this other thing: submit to the authority of God, even when it means self-denial.

That is what Jesus was called to do. And I think that is what we are called to do. I don’t think it’s easy, nor is it always pleasant or feel good. And in all honesty, I don’t think it is often easy to understand. But when you are caught in the struggles of understanding what the loving thing to do is in this messed up situation, the only way to make any sense out of anything is to admit that you do not have the authority to decide what love is. Only God does. Or whatever you have decided to worship as your god.

If love was easy to understand, or love was easy to do, there would be a whole lot more “love” in the world. Let us not do ourselves the disservice of pretending that the struggles of loving in this broken word can be distilled down to a catchy, dismissive slogan that requires not heartache or difficulty self reflection, or brutal examination of all that you believe and worship.

I was listening to someone tell me the other day of her raw heart ache and her feelings of not being worthy of love, and how she felt badly betrayed and mistreated by her most recent lover, who had rapidly moved on to someone else to love — better and more gently than he’d ever loved her.

And sitting there listening to her pain and her grief, I kept wondering what love was. Love, in that moment, it seemed to me, was just hearing her, and recognizing her hurt. So that was what I endeavored to do. But all the while, my mind churned. You keep going from lover to lover and you think you will ever feel “worthy of love”? You think love is both something we must be worthy of and something that is still worth it, as conditional as you seem to understand it to be? In light of eternity, is true love rebuking you — painful in the moment, but so life giving in the long run? What would the apostle Paul say? Probably something starting with “brethren and countrymen–” and I’m just not feeling the brethren and countrymen thing right now. What would Jesus say? How the heck can I know? Sometimes He rebuked and sometimes He said, “do not rebuke her.”

Love Wins? Love Wins what? No, truly, what is love winning? You can’t even remotely pretend that love makes this world okay. This world is coming apart at its seams, has been, will be, and cannot be patched back together with love. Love can be a balm in this world, a comfort, a refuge sometimes, but what does it win? And I say this in all seriousness, because if you are going to die for love, you had sure better know what it is you are winning. And if you don’t think love is something you’ll ever be called on to die for, what makes you so sure it’s winning? How do you expect to actually make a difference against darkness and hurt and hate if you aren’t going to have to sacrifice for it? Plenty of people have died in the name of love. (Jesus, for example, comes to mind.) You can’t love and be safe and not do hard things.

Love Wins. It’s called, “sticking two verbs together and pretending it makes a sentence.” It doesn’t. It’s a slogan to hide behind, but doesn’t actually do anything in the way of guidance or illumination of how to deal with the hardness and the brokenness of life, and the confusion we all face when we come face to face with the command to love and the ugliness of the fallen world.

I don’t have an answer back, and that makes some people angry. Don’t just criticize. Keep your mouth shut unless you have a solution to offer. But people, you’re missing a step. Don’t you open your mouth and pretend to offer a solution when it’s a solution you haven’t vetted. If you won’t do the work of vetting your own offering, don’t be surprised or offended when other people are testing it and trying it. Love Wins is a feel-good farce designed to belay guilt, accountability or authority. It’s the childhood chant of “I’m right, you’re wrong, ha, ha, ha” without actually having meaning or depth behind it.

Love is supposed to be sacred, so playing “love” is supposed to be the trump card. If you don’t agree with me, you’re just a hater. No, I’m not. I’m someone who’s desperately trying to love, who finds that all sorts of different definitions and objects of love are completely contradictory or antithetical to each other. Love Wins is not a solution to someone struggling to understand how to love guilty, condemned people who have done horrible things. Love Wins is not a solution to understanding how people can say they love you, and love someone who has wronged you, hurt you, torn you apart, and ripped your life to shreds. Love Wins doesn’t help you understand when you are loving someone, and when you are enabling them more and more into their own self destruction and destruction of others. Love Wins doesn’t bring people back from the dead or end suffering. Love Wins has never helped me figure out Love or Winning, and in all honesty, I’ve never seen it used as more than sickening expression of “I’ve Got Mine!”

Do I believe in Love? Yes, but it’s not pretty and neat. I believe in the love and the authority of God. I don’t believe I’m worthy of love. I believe it is only the judicial act carried out against the innocent Son of God that satisfies a holy and just God to love, but as such, I don’t need to be afraid of losing that love. Because I never claimed it by my own action or merit anyhow; I was declared worthy by One in authority, and His declaration and intent stands. I can’t accept that love without also accepting that authority, and that means my measuring stick for love is not my own: sometimes, I’m called to love when I don’t want to, when I want to wash my hands of the whole situation. Sometimes, I’m called to not love when I want to, like when I want to love myself more than any kind of self-sacrificing love. I don’t get to say, “well, I don’t think that aspect of God is very loving,” because I don’t get to define love, because I don’t have the power to love. Not even as I think I should love.

I’m twisted, I’m broken, I’m weak. My love is tainted and fragile and without power. That means the only love I really have to offer is the love that God gives me, and that must therefore be defined by His authority. That really is all I have to offer you. Do I believe love will win? Yes, but winning is defined by God’s terms, not ours. And God was pretty blunt about saying that won’t be how we expected it or valued or how would have done it ourselves. So, no, I don’t really know what that means. I don’t know if I’ll be seeing my great-grandmother again. I don’t know what happens to people who seem to have broken other people by their inability to even understand what love is. I don’t know what the fullness of God’s love looks like; I only know I don’t have the authority to define God or His attributes. It is He that has created me, not I that have created Him. Love wins, in that love remains after this world has passed away. Love wins, in that it is Love that has sought to redeem us. Love wins, in that it is God who wields the love. Love wins, in that we can’t really commandeer it, and it will always be beyond our definition and power, as we echo faintly of what we’ve heard.

If I have to pare it down to a scant sentence, I cannot say Love Wins. I can only say, the Love of God will Win.

“God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

First

I am a child of God first.

This became my mantra this week. It began to grow out of a conversation I had with a friend.

I have just been thinking that a lot of my stress comes from feeling insufficient, and if I just work harder, I’ll be more sufficient. I’m trying instead to look to God, who alone is sufficient, and declares us sufficient by His blood But I lose sight of that every other minute.

Lord, let us find our satisfaction in You, instead of in ourselves, and let us receive Your grace, a grace unknown and unoffered by this world.

Do you see the outgrowth? I feel insufficient. . .as a student, a friend, a practitioner, an adult. But! I am a child of God first. So when there is a person or situation that is standing there, making me feel insufficient and incapable, I remind myself that I am a child of God first, before any other thing or occupation, and that it is Him only I am living to please. Not others. And not myself.

But it has been a very sobering mantra. I am a child of God first. It seems almost like a feel-good cliché. Instead, it has been revealing to me how very little I have thought about what it really means to be a child of God first. What does it mean, really? In some aspects, I think it means we have to pay attention even more to what God says about Himself, because, as His children, He is also saying it about us. A complex thought which I am afraid of being misunderstood, but bear with me.

To paraphrase Rich Mullins, “Jesus didn’t come and die so you could live a comfortable life.” Okay, yes. But you cannot always define things by what they are not. Why did Jesus come and die? The most succinct answer I can give is, “To be about His Father’s will.” Jesus prayed a multitude of times for the cup of suffering and judgment to be taken from Him, yet, “not as I will, but as You will.” What He did, He did not out of self-fulfilling joy, but out of deliberate obedience to the Father, and the work the Father meant to accomplish.

I think that puts us, though perhaps not to the same degree, in the same place. It matters what God is doing, if we’re His children. Not children in the sense of spoiled royalty who get whatever we want. His children that are about the work of their Father.

What that has revealed to me this week is how very much I am not interested in being about the work of the Father, but rather how much I’m drinking the wine of this world. Its cares, its values, its priorities, its reason, its logic, and a pervasive desire to figure out how to get along with its people, its systems and its social rules. It has shown me how very much I have been trying to figure out how to get comfortable, and how to paint my favorite fairytales–how so very much I have been trying to create my life and lead my life, two things which are very acceptable by this world and contrary to a life of obedience to something much, much higher than you are. The first step to acknowledging the greatness of God is a deep humility in regards to yourself.

The more I try to define what a child of God is, the more I find I have been running the other direction. Not deliberately putting myself up against God, but fearing created thing (humankind) more than it’s creator. Avoiding speaking the the truth to avoid conflict, because sure, judgment is coming sometime, but. . .I mean, that’s between them and God. Well, the judgment is, sure, but how about the truth that we are supposed to bear witness too? I don’t want any type of conflict, but. . .isn’t light and dark supposed to be in conflict? If it were a novel, we would all be desperately hoping that the powers of light wouldn’t be giving way to the powers of dark, wouldn’t be accommodating, wouldn’t be trying to fade into the background and fit in. We’d be hoping they were putting up a strong resistance, because they would be the only hope of a happy ending. This would be horrifying, and isolating, and offending so many people. . .and possible only if you really acted as child of God first, knowing that this world and it’s forms are passing away and God’s word is enduring forever.

I don’t mean that we should go around deliberately trying to offend people. But Jesus was an offense, and warned us that if they were offended by the master, how much more so by the servants? He testified to the truth; He was the truth. He was perfect in every way, and utterly and completely rejected by this world. And if I am honest with myself, I very much would like to avoid that rejection.

I will try one more time to say it, to clarify what I am trying to get at: we can’t serve two masters. We will either please the one and anger the other, or anger the one and please the other. Yet at a certain level, I’ve been trying to please both. It doesn’t work. But committing to one most certainly means rejecting the other.  “Fleeing” to the place of affirming my identity as a child of God de facto means that I have to take a position of enmity toward the ideals of this world, which are resolutely set against God. Their god is their pleasure. Not so for the Child of God, who prayed with blood and sweat. Not so for us, if we truly go to join Him. There is a joy and a peace in following God, but it is not the comfort of this world. We cannot honestly pursue both.

And I am a child of God first. And still trying to learn to understand what that means.

Trust and obey

So often I only seem to manage to write here when I am stuck in an ugly place, and that makes it all the more refreshing to be able to write, occasionally, from places of noteworthy peace. Not, mind you, noteworthy energy or noteworthy answers, or noteworthy understanding. Just peace.

This is not a peace that comes from knowledge. I mean, my peace is “God has a plan.” But I’ve heard that and “known” the unceasingly. Sometimes, what we know becomes in a more full sense for us Truth: in the words of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

Since there is no new knowledge, it seems at times hard to describe to anyone else the kind of change that takes place. There was no sudden revelation or clear words from heaven. If I could partially attribute it to anything, I would attribute it in part to finally having a chance to digest some of the most difficult and unpredictable things I’ve ever gone through. Note that I did not say “going through those things”; I said digesting having gone through those things. There was very little peace in the midst of them, or even right after them.

In the space of one night, I went from my body functioning, to my body and my mind not functioning at all. When you cannot even depend on the body that houses you, so many kinds of uncertainty open up. This lasted months upon unending months. In one year, my health dipped drastically lower than it ever has, improved to higher heights than I can remember in decades, and finished the roller coaster by dropping once again. I am in the process of spending the better part of a year being essentially homeless, and driving north and south and east and west across this country, big enough to span many countries. In this rotation alone, there’s been more nights than I can count where I literally did not know where I was going to be sleeping that night.

I have said it before, but one seems to have to continuously re-learn: Sometimes having utterly all control stripped away from you leads to a greater peace when you finally have no choice, no option, no power or ability or determination to do anything other than trust.

And sometimes you don’t or can’t, and you just slog through weeks and months of misery. There’s that, too.

That’s why I feel like digesting all the hardness and uncertainty is only part of it. The other part — again, we are not discussing new knowledge, so my apologies if you were hoping for a revelation to change your life — is the growing conviction that God loves me. That God likes me. That He’s not arbitrary and distant. That He has plans for me — GOOD plans, not cold, calculating, take-your-medicine-and-stop-whining plans.

I can’t for the life of me tell you how or when that happened. Except, obviously, sometime between now and the last time I wrote. Again, no grand revelations. Just a quiet coming along side, you and Me — we’re in this together. He goes ahead to prepare. And it’s going to be okay. It’s going to be more than okay; it’s going to be good. I don’t know how or what or why or when. I just know it has to be good. Because He is good, and He is in control, and I have heard that all a million times before and sometimes it just turns into Real. My Lord and my God.

 

If I was a good writer, I would stop right there. Many a good work has been painfully burdened with an uncalled for epilogue that doesn’t display any trust in the reader. Even knowing that, I feel compelled to point out that “my Lord and My God” is what Thomas said after God rubbed his face in the fact that that he was not believing the things he needed to be believing. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much Job in a nutshell, too.

It continues to fascinate me how it is so much easier for us to believe the things that terrify us rather than the things that will comfort and encourage and strengthen us. Perhaps, for some select few, hope comes easy; but for most of us, it seems, it takes a good deal of audacity to hope. (This concept did not, incidentally, begin with a certain senators book; I dare say it’s been around a good long time, but you might enjoy reading this: http://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2008/03/for-the-record/218866/ ) I think that everyone can interpret the use of that word – audacity – a little differently. For me, it is the idea of, “Who am I, that I should expect any good?”

Again, maybe not everyone struggles with that particular aspect. But while it is more frequent a topic to discuss “hidden sins,” most people don’t even seem to acknowledge another fault: hidden dreams. On first scan, it seems unnecessary to call it a fault. Wanting good things, verifiability good things, and not making a fuss out of it, hardly seems like something to complain about. But the problem, I have discovered (and to me, this part is new knowledge) is the “hidden” part. Because hiding implies that it isn’t safe or can’t be trusted. To “hide good things” is to in a way act as though one cannot be trusted with good things, or with us, or with our delicate hearts. Rather than dare to tell Him, “God, this is really what I want from the future,” I stash it in the corners and peek at when I pretend He isn’t looking. That’s not trust.

Upon reflection, maybe this piece has more to do with it all than I first realized. The last month or so has really been a time of me confessing my hopes and dreams and desires to God. I don’t think I ever before really understood how hopes and dreams could be involved in the same sentence as “confessing,” but I have been becoming increasingly convicted that this was an area that I tried to keep from God. That He could have His plans, and I’d make my little doll house plans, and if they didn’t happen, I understood, but I would have my own little doll house plans, that I would mostly try to hide from Him so He wouldn’t mock him. That’s not trust.

I do repeat myself. It’s important. Sitting there and saying, “You know, God, this is what I want,” is something that I actually continue to find to be incredibly difficult to do. But as with confessing sin, also strangely freeing. There’s a quiet resentment to hiding your dreams. And there is no guarantee that by confessing your dreams, you get them miraculously fulfilled. There is freedom in clearing the air and admitting freely that you do have hopes and dreams. But there is also that audacity of hope.

And that is when I discovered, when I bring the desires of my heart before Him — as is His explicit injunction — He doesn’t mock me. He doesn’t crush me. He doesn’t promise blank-check I’ll get everything I want, but (curiously!) there seems to be no offense in me saying, “these are my dreams.” I might not get what I want, but if I don’t, it’s only because He has something better planned.

I still wonder. I still want to know. But I am so much less afraid.

Comprehendeth Not

After the last series of complaining  was tried, wondering if I was sick and wondering if I was depressed– well, I was sick. After the antibiotics, I went back to wondering if I was just tired, or maybe some depressed, or maybe the antibiotics weren’t enough.

Well, maybe. Maybe any of those things. Maybe none of those things. Maybe all of those things together. But I was suddenly struck with an epiphany that regardless of ANY of those things, problem numero uno was: I was believing lies.

Believing lies doesn’t make them true, any more than “knowing” the truth means you are always believing it.

More often than not, I find that looking to actual children helps me to understand my own situation. A child may “know” that there aren’t monsters in the corner of the room. But in the darkness, the child may see what looks scary. . .and it feels scary. . .and believes it to be scary. And maybe the adult tells the child not to be afraid, and the child knows the adult is telling the truth, but maybe it’s still hard to believe. Maybe it takes the light coming on in the room to see the monster is just a sweater over a chair for the child to believe the truth, but the truth was always the truth, no matter what the child was believing. And maybe, once the light is off again–even though the child has seen the truth–it’s hard for the child to keep believing the truth. Because, there it is, looking scary, feeling scary, and seeming to lead to nothing but scary conclusions.

And looking at my future, short-, medium-, or long-term, has looked pretty scary. It’s felt pretty scary. I’ve believed it to be scary. But that doesn’t actually mean that it is scary.

I grew up with the Bible. I grew up hearing the very word of God. I know those words, and not only do I know them–I’ve never known not knowing it. And it’s very easy to take for granted the things you’ve always known, like that the earth is round or like when you jump up you’ll always land on the ground. It’s very easy to take for granted the people who have always been there, like an annoying older brother. And sometimes, I wonder if the fact that I have always had a Bible at easy reach, always heard the promises of God read aloud, has lulled me into taking them lightly.

Yes, yes, I know everything will be okay–but right now I feel frightened, I feel hopeless, I feel. . . and then I stop, suddenly struck but the realization that a lot of people can’t say, with true certainty, “everything will be okay.” A lot of people can’t say “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed within us.”

Having the promises of God are, truly, a precious thing. Because that means we have something to cling to. We have an adult, even if at the moment in another room, speaking the truth. We’re not left alone in our terror, and the truth of the situation has been revealed to us for us to believe it. Although we see, or hear, or feel, or reason, or logic out scary things – we don’t have to believe those terrifying things, because we’ve already been given the truth by the One who actually understands what is going on, and the truth that He speaks is: Fear Not.

And just because we’re screaming in the darkness, seeing and feeling frightening things. . .does not negate the truth.

What it means is that we’re being lied to. And, for the moment, believing it.

And oh, there is such freedom in that, do you know? When you suddenly realize the horrible things you think you are seeing aren’t the truth, and you don’t have to believe them? It is a bit like waking up from a bad dream. You might still feel jittery, and in some ways  it might still feel real — but you know it’s not really the truth. Not really.

And there’s another way that it’s freeing. You have to respect the truth, no matter how painful or uncomfortable it might be. But you don’t have to respect lies. There’s no need for “well, maybe. . .” or, “I guess I should see how it goes. . .”No. Wholesale, out-right, complete rejection. That’s a lie. That. Is. A. Lie. And the truth, the certain, unchanging, unrelenting truth is: Fear Not.

Hallelujah.

Even So

“I don’t really know where I live anymore.”

I just blurted it out, and then felt the weight of that unexpected truth.

Someone asked me if I still lived at home. I was preoccupied with what I was doing, so I guess the truth was closer to the surface without my mind being available to keep it in check. The person wanted to know if I still lived “at home” but I haven’t been living “at home” for over two years. And I’m not even living in the same state I was in for the last two years any more, and although I know where I park my car every night, in a few months I’ll be in a different state. . . and then a few months later, another state altogether.

I miss my family and friends, but it’s hard to feel like that’s “home” when I feel like I don’t have much autonomy there. I made good friends while at school, but I never felt at home in that city or under those mountains. I’m staying with relatives now, and I like the place where I’m working, but it doesn’t ring as home.

It was such a succinct statement of the real crux of the matter that when I was thinking about it later, I wished I had time to sit down and have a good cry. I’m not homeless in the sense of sleeping under an overpass. But I feel very homeless in the sense of feeling like I don’t really belong anywhere, that “my place remembers me know more,” that I don’t know where I’m trying to get to anymore, and that I don’t ever know when “this” will be “over.”

And aren’t the homeless to be pitied? I pity me.

But Jesus said, “Birds have nests, foxes have dens, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Which leads me to my perennial question: why? Why does God have this thing for homelessness?

Abraham? Leave your home. Go wandering aimlessly for the rest of your life. Joseph? You’ll never belong, no matter how long you’re there. Moses? Take a whole lot of you people and go get lost in the wilderness. David? Just ’cause I said you would be king doesn’t mean I won’t have you driven out of your own country. And He didn’t spare His only Son, either, who grew so famished in the wastelands that He had to be fed by angels.

I want to stamp my foot and demand that God gives me a home. But I can almost hear Him laughingly say, “Why would I do that?”

I know home is not home is not home until we are finally Home. I know it would only be a shadow, a foretaste of what is to come. But in the meantime, while we’re waiting, why don’t we get that taste? Yet the theme of having no place to rest is quite strong, and I don’t think it can be easily dismissed. But why? Why is it so much to ask, to know that kind of goodness in this world? Why does He say, “blessed are those who give up home and family for my sake”?

It’s so easy to say trite things about “making us depend on Him more” or “showing us how trustworthy He is” or “nothing of this world is really of value, anyhow; we have to keep our eyes fixed on the the things above.” But you know what? When you really get right down in the midst of it, when you really feel this millstone of it around your neck? You still ask “why.” You still ask why there can’t be a better way to know Him or trust Him or understand about what things have value. You still cry out, “how long, O Lord?” Because it’s still the pits, and quaint sayings don’t change that.

And I have no answer. And I have no comfort.

But if I were to respond to one blurting of the truth with another unexpected expression of the truth, then it would have to be with. . .

“Come, Lord Jesus!”

Amen.