What follows is an excerpt from a piece that was part of a Lenten blog series I hosted a few years ago on how to introduce the mysteries and beauty of Christian spirituality to everyone, even “the least of these?” How do we make these principles reachable for everyone?
Eyes in the Alley: God’s Beauty for Our Ashes She fumbled through her purse for her phone. Its unnecessarily loud ring matched the other bells and whistles blasting in her head. They were 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 that damn thing? she cursed. Out loud apparently. The pastor, full-robed, full-throated, and in full-sermon, rebuked her with a glare. She’d seen it before. Often. It would have been less humiliating to slap her.
She was flustered and wound up tight as a bedspring. And, she was frustrated at her own lack of discernment. Why the hell didn’t I turn this thing off? Who’d be calling now? It’s Sunday, they shouldn’t even be open today she thought, half angry, half relieved. After dropping almost everything, she fingered the noisy culprit. Sliding sideways past her pew neighbors, she answered just in time to catch the call she wished she hadn’t. “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 cheap wine, conspired with his stomach against all lucidity and balance, let alone self-respect. He smelled of piss, puke and pain. These days, only shame kept him alive and the dull remembrance of a life once lived, once alive with the common promise of…well, 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 in 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. And, as it began to snow, he blacked out.
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, powdered 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 pounded 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. After safely shoeing her daughter away in a back room, yelling for her to lock the door, with quivering hand she buzzed him in.
He stormed and swore his way up the four flights of stairs. It was 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.
Ash Wednesday. Ashes indicate something. They tell us something has been used up, finished. There is nothing left. Any fuel that had provided light or heat no longer exists. It is rendered useless. Ashes are basically meaningless and, at one level, can provide a bleak 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.
In the Gospel however ashes become something more than foul smelling carbon. Jesus reveals to us how the ashes of death are turned to the fertilizer of new life. In his name, we trade our ashes for God’s beauty. Death and dying for life and living.
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.
All of us are only a hair’s breadth 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.
The journey of Lent starts in ashes and ends at Easter’s empty tomb. The leftovers of our charred and dying selves have been replanted in ground upon whom walks, impossibly, someone newly alive. Our ashes, only the carbon possibility of something else, leads instead to some One else. Emptiness, spent and without purpose, leads to emptiness, welcome and full of promise.
If we manage to let the entire Lenten journey of self-inspection do its work in us, we will not only benefit from the two ends of the equation but will have as our journey the very steps of the One whose ignominious death ended in glorious life. The Jesus Way becomes our ‘way’ with ‘forever’ thrown in as a bonus.
Easter has come and gone leaving both questions and answers in its wake. We’ve risen along with Christ, and all that means. In the backwater stench of our lives, those void, stale places, we still wonder how such a humungous mystery could possibly shape us.
How this Lenten road, the arena of spiritual formation thereby, and the lost ones we find on the shoulder has been the subject of our inquiry. We have titled this series, “Eyes in the Alley.” This signifies a need for honesty and vulnerability in the midst of our precarious, sometimes sinister lives. Whatever language a person uses to describe their experience of the Holy, combined with the mess and mystery of our own experience, leads us to ask the primary questions; questions that might, in turn, lead us to the streetlight of hope and safety. To Jesus.
We who are “the convinced” have ready access to centuries of holy dictionary and sacred stage upon whom great men and women have acted out their influential lives. We have learned to find comfort in the theological work of our forebears even as we engage in our own. But, as is so often the case, we can quickly “Pharisee-ize” this good stuff to such a degree that it becomes insurmountable to the very souls most in need of its Jesusy nutrients. Without our even recognizing it, we turn the language of freedom and rescue into the insider language of church potlucks, the monastery, or the country club. Although often unintended, where bridges are needed, we build gates. Instead of a boat, we offer an anchor.
Christianne Squires helped us do this by learning to see, along with her, Jesus hanging out in “the dark and dingy places…Jesus with his back against our wall.”
The meandering faith journey of Bob Holmes resulted in his deepest discovery: the love of a God who is love.
Valerie Hess reminds us of the deep restoration to be found in the Gospel by means of confessing our powerlessness, similar to the life-changing experience of those in A.A. She equates the resulting freedom to hitting a re-do button, birthing for us a new beginning.
That very love, made fully human in real time, enters an extraordinary conversation with an unexpected woman by a well. Her humble responses to his unexpected questions leave her empowered and rejoicing. Dr. Elaine Heath recognizes just how purposeful and powerful such a story can be for women even today whose sense of shame and rejection can overwhelming.
Tara Owens’ story reminds us, once our fences come down, we discover grass really is greener on the other side since it involves the lawn of someone else, just as lonely as we are. Where there are no obstacles, either real or imagined between us, friendship and community result. Complacent proximity becomes warm friendship.
Much of what I have been struggling to say about what we struggle to say is the subject of Giff Reed’s piece. In it he makes the important observation, “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.” His conclusion is an apt one, “God’s grace is grand enough to make up for any deficiency of description.”
A fitting denouement to our Lenten exploration is found in Valerie Dodge Head’s heartwarming story of finding Jesus in a homeless man, whose presence allowed her and her granddaughter to be ‘present’ to him. For them, laying a blanket on a smelly, hungry, tired stranger became the Eucharist. “It felt as if the three of us had just shared the Eucharistic feast together, on Holy Thursday, at the park, in ordinary life. God had awakened me to something so good, so true and so beautiful.”
Whatever we don’t readily understand, we submerge under the waters of our safe controls. To gaze into a night sky, exploded in the shrapnel of light year stars, is to have our tiny selves contextualized rightly. We are given perspective that leaves us wondering more than calculating, praying more than dissecting. The same is true when we gaze at the mysteries of Easter.
As I see it, our task as people of faith is to help another’s jaw fall agape, like our own, in the humble fear that accompanies awe. This gives birth to…something; faith perhaps, or longing; perhaps even seeking. Our theology, our orthodoxy, our language, our shared values-all of these is important. But, a beautiful life lived fully and well brings more glory to God and more souls to the table than all of the above combined.
Therefore, armed with the very love of God in Christ Jesus, let us strive to enter into the Gate, named Jesus, with that love writ large upon our lives. It will be the most convincing Gospel argument for those for whom mystery means darkness, the cloud of unknowing feels like the smog of unseeing and lectio divina just means homework. If that is the result of our Eastertide, then “I believe that God the Father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth, will keep them coming…until we all wake up.”*
I had every intention of attending the Triduum during Holy Week this year. At the beginning of the week I received a call from a single mother who happens to be my daughter. She needed child-care on the same evening as Holy Thursday, which meant I would need to take my grandson with me to a very long Mass. I decided to help her while keeping my reluctance to myself. Thursday afternoon came and after having experienced the precarious mood of a crabby two-year old, I discouragingly gave up the idea of going to Mass. My lament started giving birth to mounting negative thoughts. I know well that when I give my own pity parties a welcome mat, it almost always turns into a mudroom of resentment. So with everything I could muster, I tried to let go of the fact that I felt gypped out of a holy practice in which I longed to engage. Though the thought of it “felt unholy”, I decided to take my grandson to the Children’s Museum.
We drove over, walked in and paid our entrance fee. My grandson watched intently as the curator stamped both our hands with green turtles. I rolled the stroller into the exhibit area where my grandson made a sweeping gaze across the giant hall of wonder. His curly lashes blinked slowly over his brown eyes, now as big as saucers.
That is when I was invited into a sacred space.
The dance in his eyes made a great leap into my heart with a very clear invitation, “Grandma, let’s play right here, right now!” He grabbed my hand and in the wake of his screaming delight, we were flying to the first station.
After a lot of hard and fun play, we bid our farewell until next time and started walking toward the car. On the way over we saw a man whose disheveled head was lying on the cold ground with his coat covering only half his body. There was some leftover food next to him all bound up in a wad of used tin foil.
The resentful heart I had donned earlier that day was no less hardened than the ground on which was laid this precious man’s head. I sat next to him while my grandson watched silently. The sleeping man was completely stripped down to the very depth of his nakedness. It really moved me.
Softened through the sacred act of play, my heart broke open like an alabaster jar.
That is when I entered into a sacred space.
In grief, I felt so deeply connected to him. Whatever he lost had now exposed a shame that was obvious to the whole city. This was no different than the way I feel when my morals and my efforts to be “holy” are not covering me – like missing Mass on Holy Thursday.
That was the holy moment I had longed for earlier. I thought I would find it at Mass, but God led me instead to a child, and through a shared brokenness with a homeless man. In that broken place, both of us had missed the very message that Jesus died to give us.
we are shining like the sun even when we don’t know it.
we live in shame though God sees us whole.
our true selves lie beneath our shame.
we need to die to that shame so we can be resurrected.
I strolled my grandson to my car and fetched a blanket out of my trunk. With blanket in hand we walked back to the homeless man and we covered his dignity.
It felt as if the three of us had just shared the Eucharistic feast together, on Holy Thursday, at the park, in ordinary life. God had awakened me to something so good, so true and so beautiful. In a strange way, this moment felt even more holy than going to Mass.
There is no doubt that the traditional Christian story of the Lenten journey always lands on resurrection. Yet, without a personal experience of true resurrection, these Easter stories, heard over and over, eventually become like pennies wasted in our wishing wells. Not every Easter resurrects.
Maybe one of the best places to find resurrection is in the margins of life. This seems to be a way that God brings us into union with Godself and others. This is where all lines are erased. This is where we can see the unseen. This is where we find our brokenness and our connectedness. I believe it is also where Jesus secretly sets his table and calls us all to dine together.
I believe that Easter is less about our sins and the coming day of our salvation than it is about waking up right here and right now. I believe Easter is about resurrecting our deepest intuition. That life with God is as good as we hope it to be (those things we are too afraid to name). Jesus’ death and resurrection became the inaugural Lenten journey and Easter of many more to come.
I believe that God the Father, almighty maker of heaven and earth, will keep them coming…
Val Dodge Head, M.A., lives in Grand Rapids, MI, and serves on the CenterQuest staff and board. A trained spiritual director, she will be entering into a year long residency program to become a chaplain in the Fall of 2014. Val’s favorite roles in life are that of mother, mother-in-law and especially being a grandmother to a two-year old boy and a 2 month old girl. She loves to build bridges between the good and bad and to envelop herself in various forms of contemplation, all of which have helped her see God in all things good, true and beautiful, wherever and in whomever it leads. You can find her on the CenterQuest blog, Instagram and Pinterest.
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.’
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.
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.
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).
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 Godas 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 withthe 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.
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?
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.