Originally posted to my Litbits blog on Maundy Thursday of last year.
Originally posted on Rob's Lit-Bits:
Hints in a meal of trouble, come
while bread, still warm, newly broken
abides, hidden securely between teeth
in mouths hungry for more.
Hunger assuaged, 24 clean feet and a single, haunted table.
Only crumbs remain,
mixed up and jumbled in pools of spilled wine.
A rumpled table top, tussled
with detritus of a meal, but laughing, flaunting its revelry
through unknowing smiles and the heavy eyelids of sleepy friends.
They restfully recline, sashes loosened,
bits of meat trapped in beards,
but not without gnawing whispers of
“what now?” “What next?” “When?” And in their shared memory
of goodness sense not the coming bad; the storm clouds of betrayal.
An ominous, stealthy breeze sneaks through the room,
slithering past befuddled hearts
and blows its dark breath from one
whose riskless love cannot match he whose riskily painted love,
soon full-flayed and dying, cannot be matched.
“Do you have time to get together and talk?”
I haven’t kept track of the number of times I have heard that question in recent years. There were seasons when its frequency seemed to ramp into overdrive, filling up my days with numerous meetings that had been initiated with that one extremely vague and ominous question.
I don’t think I ever said, “No.”
Sitting down to discover why the question was asked has been, in large part, what I’ve done for the past six years. Not quite knowing into what I was being invited was equal parts terrifying and invigorating. It forced (and I really do mean forced) me to have a stronger trust in the Holy Spirit’s ability to actually lead us into Truth instead of my own ability to fix someone’s problem.
It was a beautiful season. Yet, something happened during that time I did not anticipate. I started developing a lexicon that was unique to me, and others started picking up on it. Before long, people knew how I was going to approach them. They knew my perspective. They knew my values and convictions. They even knew the words I would use to describe all of these things.
In and of itself this isn’t a bad thing!
Communities that have easily recognizable language to surround and embody admittedly nuanced theological thoughts often create a comfortable space where people can open up and be vulnerable about the raw interworking of their spiritual lives. These are rare and beautiful communities – the type of thing that you can’t ‘un-know.’
The problem comes when the same language that created the space begins to define its boundaries of ‘in’ – ways that deny ‘outsiders’ the ability to understand, engage, and embrace the God we are attempting to talk about in the first place.
This is when the good, the true, and the beautiful can become cliché. I’m sure you can think of numerous examples, but for our purpose here, suffice it to say, if it has been made into a ‘Christian’ bumper sticker, then it is probably that to which I refer.
Clichés are difficult to avoid. We humans crave an easily-digested certainty. They are difficult to avoid because they don’t start out as cliché. They begin as good, true and beautiful descriptions of an indescribable God.
Clichés are clichés not because they aren’t true, but because, at least at one point, they were SO true that they became an over-used, overly-recognizable slang, which drew boundary lines between the ‘insiders’ and the ‘outsiders.’ I’m not suggesting that we stop using language to talk about God. It was God who gave us language in the first place and it would be a denial of a good gift to throw it out simply because we can’t fully capture our subject with words.
Let’s just come to terms with the fact that using words to characterize the divine is akin to putting a leash on a lion. Then, let’s keep using words wisely, intentionally, and carefully, but not anxiously, fearfully, or tentatively. My guess is that God’s grace is grand enough to make up for any deficiency in description.
All of this highlights our predicament.
What does it look like to leave the already tired language behind while doing our best not to create a new one moving forward? My guess is that this is why many of us are drawn to the language that embodies spiritual formation. I love the language that spiritual formation is giving the Church. I love it so much that I want to steward it well in order to retain its vitality. This is why, when I’m talking with people who have a thirst for Christ (which is everyone, whether they know it or not), I’m not concerned with using it much at all.
Instead, I want people to have a deep, maybe even indiscernible, sense that they are ‘seen and known.’
Seen and known for who they are – invaluable creations who have the image of God imprinted on their souls, at the core of their beings.
Seen and known regardless of where they have been, what they have done, or what they are facing in the moment of our relational collision.
My hope is that this communicates a love that transcends our own capacity to show love. My hope is that this points people, even if only slightly, in the direction of Jesus. That it causes a subtle rupture in our souls, and opens our posture to the Spirit’s movement in our lives a bit more.
There will be always be appropriate times to speak of the ‘reason for the hope that we have,’ but we no longer live in a world where ears and eyes and hearts are receptive to an acknowledgement of God’s grace found in Christ without first developing a relational foundation of mutual trust. If people don’t feel, and have evidence of being, truly seen and truly known, then they simply don’t believe that we (or Jesus) have much of anything valuable to share with them.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken” (The Weight of Glory).
However we define ‘neighbors’ – be they our roommates, classmates, co-workers, or even our children or spouses – they have a desire to be seen and known. God desires for us to be the conduit through which they are introduced to and nurtured in relationship with the One who fully sees them, fully knows them, and fully loves them.
This is part of what it looks like for the Kingdom to come ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’
This is good news.
Giff Reed is a husband, father, and friend. He is one of the pastors at Red Door Church in Bloomington, IN, and founded a college-aged ministry, theCanvas, six years ago. He works in Career Services for the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University. Giff enjoys his wife (Lilly), his ruggedly handsome sons (Quincy and Abraham), good bourbon, Indiana Basketball, and many other holy and sacred things.
It started when the fence blew down.
We’d been casual acquaintances with our next door neighbors for some years at the time, close enough to chat in the driveway when we saw each other, but not intimate enough to know the inevitable struggles and joys that went on after the garage door slid closed. We knew they had dogs, saw them walking them, so when it came time for us to adopt a rescue dog of our own, they were supportive and kind.
Then, during one fairly typical windy Colorado afternoon, the fence between our backyards blew down.
As typical house owners, we gathered over the wreckage and mumbled about how much it would cost to replace the fence, what kind of work it would take, what an eyesore it was. My husband and Rob* tore the flimsy remnants down and as the dogs frolicked over their newly doubled territory we came to a realization: we didn’t need a fence between us, after all.
So, instead of rebuilding, we chopped the weathered wood into usable pieces, and flung it into their backyard fire pit. We sat long into the night over beverages and fence, watching the barrier burn.
Years ago, I would have seen this burning as Jesus’ invitation to evangelism, a clear path to converting my neighbors to our way of relating and being with God. Years ago, I would have seized this “opportunity” as evidence that their souls needed to be saved, and that I was the one meant to do the saving. (Evangelical hero complex, anyone?)
Today, as with the day the fence blew down, I only see the invitation to learn to love more, and more deeply. Instead of seeing souls to be saved, I saw God asking me to share space in a way that most suburbanites don’t do, their properties protected by privacy fences and gated communities. Instead of a mission field, God was beckoning me out into my own backyard.
Over time, the torn down fence became symbolic of tearing the walls of relational intimacy between us. We learned more of their story, and they, more of ours. Hurts and illnesses, celebrations and losses were shared over our newly spacious shared ground. When they went out of town, we readily looked after their pooches, marched across our elongated backyard and into their home in pajamas and boots for morning feedings and late night rescue missions. They returned the favor. We built a few raised beds for vegetables, and shared both the watering and the crops as the years went by. Eventually, they installed a dog door, and each morning our eager pup makes his way from our living room into their kitchen to say good morning over a cup of coffee. We jokingly refer to our arrangement as a “dog co-op.”
This new neighborliness didn’t come without its cost. As an introvert, I like to power down when I get home, to crawl into my much-needed cave of solitude and silence. The wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am theology of converting my neighbors instead of loving them sometimes felt simple and appealing on the nights when I’d had a long day at the office only to come home to Lisa* sitting silently by the fire pit, clearly in need of an ear and a friend. But the call of love is always louder than the call of convenience, and I would wander out to see if she needed company, sitting to listen and talk even when dinner would have to wait. Like the monastics, I began learning that stability in community brings out the rough edges not in the other, but in me. The ground that I’ve covered interiorly over this time is much larger than the length of our combined back yards. I’m not proud enough that I can’t admit there are still days when I see one of them crouching over the veggies and step back from the windows so they can’t see that I’m home. I’m not perfect at loving, and I don’t get it right all the time. But I’m learning to love both of them (and their dogs) as I would love Christ.
Rob and Lisa and their two dogs have taught me to love when it’s not convenient to me, theologically or emotionally. Today, they are dear friends for whom I could ask for a cup of sugar or a pound of flesh. When either they or we are in crisis, we end up in each other’s kitchens, talking it through over a cup of tea. They know we love Jesus, and they respect our faith. When other factions of our politically conservative town cause them to scratch their heads or, worse, break their hearts, we end up back at the fire pit, talking through the way of Love.
A few years ago, Lisa returned from a vacation with a gift of wine and a thank you note for once again caring for their furry twosome. Lisa grew up in a Christian home, and we’ve had more than one conversation about how crazy the conservative Christian culture makes her, how little she wants to do with those ways ever again. I can’t say I blame her.
This evening, though, as she leaned against the back of our couch, she misted up slightly at the reality of our shared space and shared lives.
“You know,” she said haltingly, “I’ve never understood that ‘Love your neighbor’ verse until you guys.”
Me, neither, I thought quietly to myself. Me, neither.
*Not their real names.
Tara M. Owens, CSD is a spiritual director and supervisor with Anam Cara Ministries, where she accompanies people in their journeys of faith. She’s also the Senior Editor of Conversations Journal, a spiritual formation journal founded by Larry Crabb, David Benner and Gary Moon. She’s looking forward to the publication of her first book, Embracing the Body: Finding God In Our Flesh and Bone, through InterVarsity Press in December 2014. She is honored to steward a thriving spiritual community on Facebook here, and you can follow her on Twitter here and here. Tara is a fan of Dr. Who, red velvet cupcakes and warm thunderstorms. She, her husband Bryan, and their rescue dog, Hullabaloo, live in Colorado.
It was a sweltering summer day. I wiped perspiration from my face while I made my way to the church. The topic I was about to address was hot, too, as in controversial. I had begun preaching a series entitled “Men, Women and God” in a congregation in the Ohio River Valley, a region with unusually high rates of violence against women. My goal in the sermon series was to introduce the congregation to deeper levels of the healing and liberating power of the gospel. I also hoped to give voice to the suffering of many who experienced sexual abuse and domestic violence in our city. This is tricky in any church, introducing a tough topic like this in a way that opens people’s hearts and minds, challenges the status quo, and yet doesn’t alienate everyone.
So it was that on this Lord’s day, several weeks into the series in which I had already established a biblical foundation for gender equality, I talked about sexual abuse. I named its presence among Christians, its relationship to patriarchy and how the church that could help to prevent and heal this form of violence instead often perpetuates it.
My biblical text was the story of the woman at the well in John 4. I have heard this woman described by preachers in many pulpits over the years, almost always with mild contempt. They referred to her multiple broken marriages as her problem, her issue, and something she instigated. She was tainted. Impure. Unclean. A joke. They treated her like a Samaritan Hollywood celebrity, ditching her latest conquest for someone younger. Today would be my chance to offer a very different view.
The congregation was unusually quiet, listening intently as I described the woman’s worth in God’s eyes. Jesus asked to drink from her cup, breaking cultural taboos on many levels, I said. She was a despised Samaritan, a woman who, because she might be on her monthly cycle, was automatically unclean and untouchable. She was alone at the well at noon, meaning she was an outcast from all the other women of the village who went to the well in the cool of early morning. She was everything that bigots in Jesus’ culture and her own people loved to hate. Yet, neither sexualized nor objectified her. He asked to drink from her cup, an unspeakable transgression of cultural norms.
Her series of rejections as an adult could very well have been the outcome of the wounds of childhood sexual abuse, I suggested. There were aspects of her adult life, I said, that are often found in survivors. She lived a narrative of broken boundaries that kept moving from bad to worse. In her culture men, not women, initiated divorce. Women couldn’t even bear witness in a court of law. Every time this woman experienced another divorce, another loss of home at the hands of a husband she became an easier target for predators. By the time Jesus met her she had reached the bottom. Now, she just lived with someone without the protection of marriage. In Jewish culture at the time this was crime, punishable by death. Here was a woman with deep wounds, living as an outcast.
So, instead of looking at her story as just one more example of an immoral woman, I said to a congregation that was absolutely silent and listening, what if we thought about the kind of childhood experiences that can move a person toward this much chaos as an adult. This familiar story from the gospels was a way to ease into a very difficult subject as we considered some of the consequences of childhood sexual abuse for adult survivors. As I spoke of the struggle with perfectionism and anxiety and other consequences of sexual abuse I noticed several people had tears in their eyes.
Bringing the message to a close, I reiterated the systemic layers of oppression that burdened this woman, isolating her from her own people and religious community, linking the sin of childhood sexual abuse to the larger systemic issue of patriarchy. The good news, I concluded, the wondrous truth, is that this woman became the first evangelist in the gospel of John. Because of her words, the entire town came to listen to and trust in Jesus and what he taught. This happened without her saying “I am a sinner, please forgive me,” or Jesus saying anything at all about sin. He did not say to her, “Go, and sin no more.” He did mention that she had had many husbands and was now living with someone. He was, as they say, naming the elephant in the room (or at the well) as to why she was outcast. I imagine him laughing and waving to her as she ran off mid-sentence to tell all the people who loved to hate her, about Jesus.
Here’s the thing. She had always wondered about God, but who could she talk to about such things? So, Jesus talked to her at length. Not about sex or her checkered past, but about the nature of God; the problem of thinking we can lock God into a religious box, and the meaning of authentic worship. This was a conversation Jesus had not had with anyone else. He spoke to the woman—an outsider on every level—as he would speak to one of his disciples—insiders. Jesus trusted her, wanted to drink from her cup, was willing to be seen with her. This woman was not her living situation. She was not her history of rejection. If indeed she was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, she was not her abuse, either. She was a human being made in the image of God, someone for whom Jesus was happy to break lots of cultural rules. That is how she found her own voice, and with it led others to the one who set her free.
After the service I stood as usual, shaking hands at the door of the church. An older woman*, tall and dignified, thanked me for my sermon. It was the first sermon she had ever understood, she said. And she’d been a church person her entire life. Leaning close she said to me quietly, “I was raped when I was a child. I never told anyone before.” That day was the beginning of her healing.
Over many years as a pastor and theologian what I have learned is that the church and the world are full of people who need to hear the Bible interpreted by survivors of sexual abuse—those who are healing well and like the woman at the well, are doing our theological homework. We bring a different perspective. We get it about shame, how it destroys every aspect of life. We see through patriarchy in the name of religion, because it’s obvious to us that it is a road to hell. We know that straight doesn’t mean good and gay doesn’t mean bad. We think of sexual sin more in terms of violence. We also know how evil it is to be treated as a sex object because we bear in our bodies, memories, and stories the scars of that abuse. So, we are unwilling to victimize people because of their sexuality.
Today, I honor the woman at the well for her chutzpah, and Jesus for his transgression of cultural norms. Together they beckon all of us to look at our brokenness and our neighbor’s dysfunction through a different lens.
*Her identity has been obscured in the interest of privacy.
Adapted from We Were the Least of These: Reading the Bible with Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011).
 The statistics for abuse for both genders are staggering. While both men and women are victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, 95 percent of domestic violence is against women. Twice as many girls as boys are victimized by sexual abuse, with one out of three girls and one out of six boys experiencing sexual abuse before the age of 18. “Q&A” Faith Trust Institute, http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/. Rape Victim Advocacy Program, “Myths and Facts—Child Sexual Abuse,” http://www.rvap.org/pages/myths_and_facts_about_child_sexual_abuse . “Domestic Violence in the Workplace Statistics,” American Institute on Domestic Violence, http://www.aidv-usa.com/Statistics.htm; “Domestic Violence Facts,” National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, http://www.ncadv.org/files/domesticviolencefacts.pdf.
Painting: “The Woman at the Well” by Carl Heinrich Bloch found here
Elaine A. Heath is the McCreless Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, and is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. She is the co-founder of the Missional Wisdom Foundation (www.missionalwisdom.com), which administers New Day, the Epworth Project, and The Academy for Missional Wisdom, an experimental network of missional, new monastic faith communities in historic mainline traditions. Elaine has provided retreat and seminar leadership in spiritual formation, leadership development for clergy, and the missional church for many years and is a highly sought after preacher, teacher and lecturer. Among her research interests are the new monasticism, emergence and the church, spirituality and evangelism, and gender and evangelism.
Missional.Monastic.Mainline. co-authored with Larry Duggins (Eugene: Cascade, 2013). We Were the Least of These: Reading the Bible with Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011); The Gospel According to Twilight: Women, Sex, and God (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2011); Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community, co-authored with Scott Kisker, (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010); Naked Faith: The Mystical Theology of Phoebe Palmer, Princeton Theological Monograph Series(Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2009); The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); and More Light on the Path (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), co-authored with David W. Baker.
Elaine holds a BA in English from Oakland University, an MDiv from Ashland Theological Seminary, and a PhD in theology from Duquesne University. She and her husband Randall live in Garland, Texas and are the parents of two adult daughters. Favorite activities include hiking, camping, bicycling, canoeing, exploring small towns, music and watching movies.
“Where is the “re-do” button on my life?” I have wondered that more than once. My computer has a restore point that, when the all else fails to fix the mess, I can take my computer back to where it was a day ago, a week ago, even longer. How many times have I wanted a link to click on that will take me back several decades.
The problem is I want to take the lessons I have learned up to this point with me. I don’t want to go back to where I was without the hard-won truths I now possess. I’m not even sure that Steve Jobs could have figured out an app for that one.
There is hope, though: God restores our souls and the re-set button God uses has a fancy term called the “discipline of confession.” It really is a fresh start. By saying the truth of who you are and what you have done, without any excuses or rationalizations, we open the door to God to hit the “restore” link in our souls. The 12-steps in A.A. and its affiliates say it this way:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (or food or sex or lying or drugs or fake religiosity hypocrisy or [fill in the blank]—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves [I am using the word God in this essay but call him/her/it what you want; see next point] could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. [The Church calls this the “discipline of confession:” no excuses, no rationalizations, just straight-up talk about how wrong we were in all kinds of ways.]
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
As we open up our lives, we partner with God-as-we-understand-him/her/it, allowing God to hit the “restore” link in our life. Next, we show ourselves and others that the mess really is being dealt with and not swept under the rug. [The Church calls this “penance.”] The next steps shows us how to begin to make that happen:
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
The need to hit “restore” happens more than once:
- Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
We then seek to move forward, creating less destruction and havoc with ourselves and others:
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
We return to the practice of these steps regularly:
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The Church calls the yearly springtime process of doing this intentionally as a group “Lent.” It is a time of invitation to people, whether they can admit to others in a group their deep brokenness or not, to stop running and hit the “restore” button in their lives. Unfortunately, the Church does not always facilitate or explain this process well to its people. At times, the Church needs the folks in the 12-Step groups to show it how to do this more effectively.
That doesn’t mean that the idea of Lent with its invitation to fasting, almsgiving [hospitality and care for others] and confession are wrong or useless. People can and do mis-use a 12-Step program by lying to themselves and their sponsors, having remorse only over being caught and cornered into a program. That doesn’t make A.A. any less effective.
And so it is with the way God works through the Church to restore souls. Just because people who consider themselves Christians can be mean, small-minded, bigoted, hateful, unloving, lacking in generosity and hospitality, and/or unrepentant for really bad things, does not render God’s good gift useless or ineffective.
We all need to get back on the wagon, no matter which wagon we were riding on when we fell off. The Church calls that “daily repentance.” It is what Lent is all about. Think of it as a six-week long A.A. meeting with restoration [or Resurrection] at the end.
Valerie Hess is an author, instructor in the Spring Arbor University’s Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership (MSFL) program, retreat speaker, musician, mother and pastor’s wife. She does a weekly blog at www.valeriehess.com and has written numerous articles, mostly on the themes of spiritual formation through the spiritual disciplines and church music. She has written three books: Habits of a Child’s Heart: Raising Your Kids with the Spiritual Disciplines (co-authored with Dr. Marti Watson Garlett), Spiritual Disciplines Devotional: A Year of Readings and The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation” (co-authored with Lane M. Arnold). Her husband is an Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Boulder, CO. She has two daughters.
I stopped by to tell you a story. I remember the last time I saw New York City. It was from the cold floor in the back of a dirty New York City bus station, through heroin eyes. And I remember the spring morning I ate peyote in a self-directed Native American rite. I was looking for a real supernatural God.
Among church folk, I stopped telling these stories years ago, because the wilder and crazier story you could tell, the more approval and attention it could win. It wore thin.
What I do want to tell you is a different type of story. Not the story of coming out of a drug hazed culture, or out of Buddhism, or Native American shamanism, but of the person who led me out.
And why I followed him.
You see I’ve got a Spiritual Guide, and it’s called the Holy Spirit. And I’ve got a Spiritual Master who walks beside me, and his name is Jesus. And the reason I follow him is not because of who he is or what he’s done, but why he did it. And why he did it for you, too.
When I look at what Jesus did and what he went through for you and me, I’m startled. Not so much by what he did, but why he did it. His love baffles me. I can’t grasp it. It’s beyond me.
We all do things for love that we would never do for any other reason.
In my lifetime, I’ve sacrificially done things for my wife and children that I might never have done for myself. Love calls me further than I’m willing to go. Its then I find that my ‘line in the sand’ is behind me. Nothing is too great for the extravagance of love. It will go anywhere. Love will do whatever it takes for the object of its affection.
Because of love, God sent Jesus to make a way where there was no way.
When Scripture tells us that love is as strong as death, Jesus proved it. In fact, he shows us that our Father God’s love for us is stronger than death and hell, and anything else. Jesus broke through death and hell because he loves you and wants you and me to feel his love and acceptance. Jesus, “for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame.” Love broke through.
It startles me. It baffles me. It captures my heart. It’s a love that’s overflowing with joy and peace. Such love is beyond human beings. It’s because of this love that the God of all creation would carry the brokenness of all creation in his human body, ending it on the cross. It dumbfounds me.
Jesus could have come, and just shown us the way to God. He could have come and simply spoke of truth. Instead, he comes and says, “I Am God, come to rescue you.” So he comes under us, to lift us up. He comes to fill us with eternal life. But more than that, He comes to sit down beside us as a friend. Some who knows what we’ve been through, and loves us just the same.
It’s crazy that he doesn’t ask us to change anything. But he knows we really can’t. Our brokenness is embedded in our DNA, a hundred generations deep. So, instead of asking us to change, he does the exact opposite. Jesus asks us to receive him. He says “Come to me,” and then begins the change that changes everything that is. “Jesus un-wounds evil bit by bit” as he heals our lives from the inside out.
He says, “Come to me, all who are worn out and broken down, and I will give you rest.” And then he tells us how he’s going to do it. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I’m gentle with a humble heart. You’ll find rest for your souls because my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The beauty of surrendering into the arms of love is that we can do it a thousand times a day, because we’ll need too.
When I stop and turn my eyes to what God has done for us, I see love that dumbfounds me and captures my heart all over again.
When I was in Buddhism, I reached a point where I thought, “Wait a minute, God wouldn’t make it so hard to reach him. God would make a way for the sick and the diseased and the mentally handicapped to come to him, and it wouldn’t take a thousand reincarnations to get there.”
I was hearing the call of love. I hope you hear it, too.
Hi, I’m Bob Holmes. I came to Jesus during the Jesus Movement and I haven’t recovered yet. I’m a professional Grower who’s an Anglican Franciscan Postulant. You can find me writing at Contemplative Monk, or hanging out on Facebook and Twitter.
Contemplative Monk: http://contemplativemonk.com
God speaks to me in images a lot.
It’s hard for me to share that openly, especially with an audience that might think that’s weird. But it’s true. When I’m praying, God often gives me pictures, symbols, images — even whole scenes — that unfold in my imagination.
But maybe you can relate to this. Maybe you’ve had vivid dreams, where you woke up and just knew it meant something important. Or maybe you’ve had moments when you just knew something came to you from a source other than yourself —something that felt like God, the universe, or something cosmic or otherworldly speaking to you or showing you something or answering your prayer.
Maybe it’s not such a far stretch for you to believe God can speak through our imagination.
It’s true. God can. It happens to me a lot.
So, here’s a story of a time that happened that maybe will mean something to you. Maybe you’ll see yourself in it. Maybe you’ll see God.
You know how sometimes in a dream, you just know someone in the dream is a certain person? In this image, my experience was like that. I was walking along a grassy hillside, and I just knew the person walking beside me was Jesus.
Then we got to the crest of the hill, and he stopped and turned, drawing my attention to a scene below us.
A dark and rundown city.
The city was surrounded by a high concrete wall, and over the wall I could see buildings upon buildings of all shapes and sizes.
The next thing I knew, we were standing outside the city wall, getting ready to walk through to the inside.
Once inside, I could feel the soot. All the pollution, filling up the air. Buildings towering above us. People hurrying along the streets, scuttling from one street to the next, not catching a single eye, not saying one word, just hustling and bustling to get where they needed to be.
Do you know what that’s like — rushing along the street, not catching the eye of a single other person? It’s rather lonely.
Then we were in a dark hallway of a dingy apartment building. A lone light bulb hung uncovered near the door. At the far end, against the wall on the ground, huddled a lone dark figure.
I couldn’t see the figure’s face. A hoodie covered their features.
But Jesus walked toward them. Approached them, quiet but sure. Knelt down beside them. His shoulder touched theirs. Leaned his back against that same wall. Pulled his knees up to his chest, sitting just the way they were.
Jesus in the dark and dingy places.
Jesus in the places we’re alone.
Jesus with his back against our wall.
Jesus in the same posture as us.
Jesus a quiet presence.
Jesus a sure pursuer.
When people talk about Lent, this is one part of what they’re talking about: the belief that God really enters our experience,that God actually comes to us, that God meets us where we are, that God even experiences what we do.
It’s a 40-day walk toward Easter, where we meet upon the idea that God entered the human experience so fully, God even experienced death.
People talk about “giving up” something for Lent. Some give up eating chocolate or meat or soft drinks or coffee. Some people give up Facebook. It’s a way of letting go of things we might normally use to cover up our pain, just like God gave up avoiding the pain of human experience and death.
What if we practiced giving up loneliness? What if we chose to look people in the eyes when we walk those city streets, rather than scuttling along in silence? What if we let ourselves believe Jesus is right here, sitting in the hallway in the darkness, next to us?
What would that be like for you?
Christianne Squires is a writer and spiritual director who lives in Winter Park, FL, with her husband and their two cats. She has a pretty imaginative prayer life, but God uses it to change her life — and she’d love for you to experience the ways it can change your life too. Learn more at www.stillforming.com.
She fumbled through her purse for her phone. The familiar ringing matched other bells and whistles blasting in her psyche, the kind that told her old lies, played old tapes. Lipstick, business cards, flash cards for her Spanish class, gloves, make-up mirror…where the hell is the damn thing? she wondered. Out loud apparently. The pastor, full-robed and in full-sermon, looked, glared really, in her direction. It would have been less humiliating to slap her.
The depth of her self-loathing and embarrassment couldn’t reach any lower. Or so she thought. Her neighbors, obviously as perturbed as preacher, reminded her of her faux pas with their faux compassion filtered through eyes glazed over in very real judgment.
She was wound up tight as a bedspring, and flustered; frustrated at her own lack of discernment. Why the hell didn’t I turn this thing off? Why are they calling now? After dropping almost everything, she fingered the noisy culprit. It’s Sunday, they shouldn’t even be open today she thought, half angry, half relieved. Sliding sideways past her pew neighbors, she answered just in time to catch the call, most needed but least wanted. “Your test results are in, ma’am. Can you meet with the doctor tomorrow?”
He fell backwards against the brick wall, his guts, freshly emptied of the remains of fish-dinner-a-la-dumpster. His head, swimming in too much shit wine, acted in connivance with his stomach against lucidity and balance, let alone self-respect. He smelled of piss, puke and pain. Only the shame kept him alive and the dull remembrance of a life once lived, once alive with the common promise of…promise.
Was it only yesterday that he’d felt the warm body of a wife sleeping next to him? She had stayed with him through the final merger; the one he’d promised would bring them financial freedom. She muscled through his two affairs and the drinking that bridged them both. Now, two years, a foreclosure, divorce and bankruptcy later, he thought he smelled her hair, the fragrance of mint intermingled with aching reminiscence. But it was only the smell of loss mixed with dog shit on his one remaining shoe. He’d lost the other earlier that day foraging for what was left of his meal, now part of his concrete pillow. He slept.
She was desperate. It had been too long between hits and her most regular but equally violent trick had just buzzed to be let in. She frantically ravaged through her regular places searching for her small bag of white, blood-borne courage. If she could get high enough quick enough, perhaps he would get enough soon enough and leave her just enough to start the whole process again.
He started pounding on the buzzer. Now, he wasn’t just horny but pissed off and, most likely, more violent as a result. Her lust to forget competed with his to be remembered and a battle ensued as to whose needs would be met first. She gave up. This time, a paying customer in person overruled her quest to be absent and with quivering hand she buzzed him in.
He stormed and swore his way up the four flights of stairs, a distance not her friend when it came to her chances of getting through this unscathed. Her door flew open, along with his zipper and a stream of obscenities. Everything aligned in a perfect storm, conspiring against her and sealing her fate. She lucked out this time and suffered only one punch before he got down to business. Through a left eye, now starting to swell, she toughed it out through one more indignity.
I sat on the stairs, for once only slightly drunk and for once, just watching. I was a guest in a home that presently provided the shell casing for a larger than life exposé of human depravity: unwise hook-ups, unending pharm drops, unstable bro-downs in the living room, uncool furniture-demolition, and I’m sure much more that wasn’t immediately verifiable from my stairway perch. I watched. I watched for a long time. How long I am uncertain. I watched some more and, for the first time, came to what might be called an epiphany. I can only describe it as a peaceful comma on a life that was quickly becoming a bad run-on sentence – unintelligible and heavy-laden with too much exhausting emotional verbiage. What was the point I thought? Was this to be the sum total of my aspirations?
That particular staircase on that particular night was for me a precipice – a cliff of choice. The “voice” I’d been hearing for years now had become annoying and insistent. I recognized it as a compassionate voice but couldn’t pin it down. That voice had been subtly inviting me to pursue its source; a living déjà vu, like a memory becoming fleshed out before me. Now, that voice was literally sitting beside me on a staircase inside a run down bungalow in Edmonton, Alberta.
Today is Ash Wednesday. It may mean nothing as far as our daily experience of darkness or light is concerned. It may never have been part of your experience. But it offers us a gift. It is a day typically set apart from others by the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of those whose desire is to recognize their own mortality thereby.
Ashes indicate something. They tell us something has been used up, finished. There is nothing left. That which provided fuel for life and heat no longer exists and is rendered useless. Ashes are basically meaningless and, at one level, can provide a bleak but poignant picture of what many of us feel about our lives. Sometimes, life offers little more than the used up fodder of someone else’s fire.
The Gospel says however that ashes can be something more than foul smelling carbon. Jesus’ portrayal on the ethic of self-giving love and his triumph over the ashes of his own life and ultimately over death itself tells us that ashes as death can be made ashes as garden fodder; the potential of new life. In his name, we trade our ashes for God’s beauty. Death and dying for life and living.
Jesus is God’s best idea. God as blue-collar carpenter in a backwater town on the backside of a forgotten desert in an occupied land. Jesus was no stranger to misunderstanding, misrepresentation, abuse, scorn and humiliation. In life and in death. God’s whole point was, through Jesus, to point us from the broken, burned up parts of our ash heap toward the ashes of newness. An anxiety-ridden woman receives the call; a washed up businessman is now one with the streets; a hooker walks a tightrope of addiction and fear to survive the only lifestyle she knows; my own sense of turning from meaninglessness toward God’s better way.
All of us are only a hair’s breath away from ruin or reward, disaster or dream, life or lies. We’re in this together. And wherever our lives may be in ruins, God can bring about beauty from our ashes.
You stood, heavy, on my chest.
You asked me to breathe more deeply,
but I couldn’t breathe at all.
You were too heavy.
Your feet felt hot with purity
and singed my skin with perfect love.
You stood, heavy, on my chest.
My eyes grew heavy, my breathing labored and shallow.
You asked me to breathe more deeply.
I grew afraid, having become accustomed to
the trusted rhythms of easy breaths, drawn slowly.
My head swam, my thoughts ran, my chest ached.
You stood, heavy, on my chest.
Through winsome gaze and trenchant eyes
you asked me to breathe more deeply.
Feeling myself near the end,
my heart beat angrily, demanding more.
I gasped in, and there rushed in a fullness of
breath more sudden, more round, more living than ever.
You stood, heavy, on my chest.
You asked me to sing what you were singing.
Breath renewed, thoughts ablaze in the fire of life
I joined your song. But your voice was too perfect.
I thought I knew the words for you had sung it before –
many times. Still, my joy, still shy
waited for something more.
You stood, heavy, on my chest.
Then, you bent your head low, listening to my heartbeat.
It matched your own. To my fading words. They had
your accent. For my faltering voice.
Finally, words came and, as effortlessly as my last memories of breathing,
I gasped out the song.
I had been full of breath, longing to appear.
I had known the words all along, the melody’s true bearing
found tracks in the blood-worn pathways of
lungs newfound, air fresh-breathed, songs bright-lipped.
I sat, singing, upon your breast.
Picture found here