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Seven deadly sins.

How’s that for a conversation starter? Equally robust topics for family night be Nazi surgical techniques or the best fecal matter for fertilizing roses. How perfect for those post-dinner gatherings on cold winter nights. “Hey kids, gather round. We’re gonna talk about the quickest way to eternal damnation. Oh, and bring me a beer.”

Good friend, colleague, and all-round good egg, Laurie Jackson, just published her first book, “Little White Lies and the Seven Deadly Sins.” It isn’t an ivory tower dive into the pool of hamartiology (look it up, I dare you.) It is something better.

40601913.jpgBy her own admission, she doesn’t cover any new territory here. Instead, it reads like a conversation with Erma Bombeck while eating overripe watermelon over the sink. It’s sweet, immediate, fun, and some good juice runs down your face while ingesting good stuff. It brings the rather heavy topic of sin into a more amicable place in ways both funny and insightful.

And, it’s got me rethinking the whole topic. Sin isn’t exactly my first choice of hospitable, or even accessible party chat. And, it sucks as a Scrabble word. But the Bible seems to have rather an obsession with the stuff. It pops up like the drunk uncle at a wedding, inserting itself into otherwise polite company with slurry, spitty banter and totally short circuits our drive to the buffet line. It is as ubiquitous as it is exasperating.

Frankly, these days, I’m stuck knowing how to deal with the ramifications of this word and what it represents. The conservative theological pundits have a hard-on for it and can’t stop bemoaning how genuinely rotten is everything and everyone. Sin rules the day they cry through horn-rimmed glasses, shame and potluck on their breath. We just need to “get back” to God’s word and repent, repent, repent, feeling like shit the whole time. The guiltier we feel the better. Their Gospel: I’m shit. God’s not. Jesus took a good beating from his Dad for me. If I’m okay with that, I’m not shit anymore.

The progressive idealogues are, by contrast, tacitly unconcerned with any notion whatsoever that shadows, scraped knees, or even bad smells could possibly exist in so sunny a universe. If we just skip together, prancing hand in hand, hearty choruses of “We Shall Overcome” on our lips, no boogey-man will assert itself. We do not sin. We are sinned against (although I could never figure out who was first to get the ball rolling). I need only speak positively, even about the most heinous cell-blocks, and all will magically heal, rendering us all Pollyanna-happy. Their Gospel: I’m good. God is in question. The conservatives created a mess. Together, we’ll get this shit cleaned up. God’ll get a passing nod by the religious among us.

And, for both camps, the currency of faithfulness is outrage. I’m either pissed off at the sinfulness of everything everywhere, or I’m pissed off at those who are pissed off at everything everywhere. I sin in my self-righteous indignation at sin, forcing others into my thinking on the subject, or I sin in my satisfaction of not believing I’m a sinner in the first place. How’s that for a rabbit-hole conundrum?

Both feel a little insipid frankly, and neither give a particularly satisfying understanding of either sin or, by extension, grace.

As Laurie and others have stated, sin  translates as missing the mark. It’s an archery term. People who shoot arrows are intentionally aiming at something. They’re scrutinizing outcomes. Their desires are set upon something good. But, in our efforts at bull’s eyes, we miss every time. 

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Picture found here

Here’s why I love this word. It actually indicates something wonderful about God, and also about us. It tells us that God cares enough to help us in our aim. But it also reveals a universal longing in the heart of humanity, one that takes aim at what it most desires. Augustine once said “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.” We naturally aim at what our hearts most desire: peace, fulfillment, happiness, union with the divine.

Unfortunately, something is askew. Something keeps tugging at our arms as we line up another shot into the great unknown. Sin is the annoying guy making all those rustling and taunting noises right before we take our swing down the fairway. We aim for something because we’re made for God and long to return to God. We miss that something because sin somehow gets in the way and we’re wide of the target every time. We could call sin “aiming for the right thing in all the wrong ways often enough that the wrong thing feels like the right thing.”

That is until God steps in. God intervenes and removes the shackles, weights, magnets, and distractions pulling our arrows asunder. In Christ, the arrow of our longing has finally reached its target.

The destination is Christ himself.

The 7 Deadly Sins are merely the church’s creative means of naming the primary stalls in that effort toward aiming at God’s heart. For those of you following along in Laurie’s book, here’s a quick review of those: Pride, Envy, Anger, Lust, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth.

So then, here goes an armchair theologian’s look at…7.

To See or Not to See…

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We’ve all heard the old adage, “one only sees what they want to see.” We easily and quickly make judgements on our perceptions of things, not always on the truth of things. It’s always been that way. I’m guessing it will always be so to some degree.

Some will see only a page full of black dots. Others see the number hidden in the middle (they kinda piss me off!) Some see the brown barrenness of parched desert. Others see the miracle of life which is possible even in austerity. What is to one a beautiful optical illusion is to another a confusing mess of nothing at all. One sees thirst and death. Another sees possibility and survival.

It is a remarkable feature of human nature that, on the basis of perceptions and in the interest of either self-preservation or the pursuit of fulfillment, we succumb to the process of other-worldly fabrications. Given our predisposition to see only selectively, we sometimes live our lives labouring under misapprehensions.

For my part, I have often built an enormous mental-emotional web of shadows and half-truths and desires and make-believe. A construct on whatever I think is true. It is mental, because so much of who I am and how I behave is conceived and constructed in my mind. Emotional, because, just like yours, my head and my heart are inextricably linked.

To think something is true is, correspondingly, to feel something as well. If I think a loved one is still alive after some long absence, it creates hope, expectation. To believe that same person to be dead is to create despair and hopelessness. If we believe the person to whom we’ve been communicating is still on the other end of the phone, we’ll happily blether on until the bleak reality dawns!

Conversely, to experience an inexplicable hope, is to believe all to be well in our little world. In the world at large. If we feel weighted down, we either have a need for companionship, a change of scenery, or mood-altering substances (my preferred M.O.!) Moreover, we will believe it to be so because, in such moments, the universe may appear to us at the time, a toxic and malignant place, unfit for habitation.

Our brains are a complex lump indeed! From the minutiae in our head comes the fodder for our palaces or prisons. All is either benign, malevolent or benevolent on the basis of what we believe to be true or false.

Perhaps the entire goal of grace, and with it, the contemplative enterprise, is constructed to help us monitor, manage, even master the cognitive dissonance we experience – the chasm between what we observe, what we know (or think we know), with what we experience?

It seems that God’s intention in the Gospel is to gift us with a mental-emotional equilibrium in a universe that, to our physical eyes at least, makes little sense. God seems to be trying to get our attention focused away from what we see and onto what we have yet to see. Or, better, what God sees.

For example, if I see endless amounts of unpromising, fruitless work – God sees a garden. If I see endless hours of frustration, ignorant bumbling and non-Sunday school language – God sees the end product of my labour – a new staircase, or a table. If I see fatigue, poverty, and unpredictability – God sees relationships, children, and the warmth of family.

To say then, “I see,” is no longer just a physical act – observations in time and space of what is immediately before me. In the infinitely broader perspective of God, contextualized in the Gospel, “to see” is simultaneously to hope, to rejoice, to weep with joy.

For, to see as God sees, is to inhabit all things at all times at one time. Things are not only as they appear to me now. They are shown to be what they will be then.

It is there, in that place of seeing through God’s kaleidoscopic eyes, that a universe –  sometimes tasteless, flat and hopeless – becomes a sumptuous feast of possibility. Only then do I experience something counter-intuitive to what I “should” under my limited experience. My heart and head agree because God has introduced them to the broad spacious land – the realm of God. My earth and God’s heaven, kiss.

And I am reborn.

Seeing is believing, say the scientists. Believing is seeing, say the theologians. Being is both seeing and believing, say the mystics. Some cannot believe unless they see. Others claim to see and not believe. Still others claim to see what they don’t believe. Others will not believe whether they see or not. Confused yet? Yeah, me too.

God’s deepest reality? All of us belong in some way along the continuum of belief, sight and experience. God journeys with us wherever and whenever that is.

All that to say this: one’s emancipation comes most readily not from a change in circumstances, but in the readiness, and ability, to see. To awaken. I have often said that, behind and beneath and around everything we see with our physical eyes, is a pervasive spirit of glory.

The light and beauty and truth of God subsumes all things into itself. And, from time to time, there come moments of lucidity, of universal benevolence, when one becomes aware of the overwhelming perfection of it all. A built-in beauty not always immediately apparent.

But such moments are frightfully rare. They are gifts, shards of translucence and splendour, reserved for the unasked-for moments of clarity; when the paleness of our present reality, gives way to something else entirely. When it does, simply observe.

Rub your spiritual eyes and let yourself be roused from slumber. Wachet auf (wake up) as Bach might intone! Awaken to God’s tap on your shoulder. Throw off the covers. Stretch. Say nothing. Speak not a word. Just drink. Drink deeply of this stream. Let it do its work. For, once it’s gone, there is no telling if or when it may come again. But its nourishment is ours to keep.

Forever.

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Amazing image found here

 

 

Glimpses VI: peering into the abyss

A truth many of us would rather not face is what I will call “lostness.” St. John of the Cross speaks at length of the dark night of the soul in his classic by the same name. But, since I’m not St. John, or perhaps saint anything, and my understanding of such things is limited, allow me to share my own rudimentary gleanings.

I’ve often mused that, if a person can say with confidence they are in a dark night, they’re not yet in a dark night. Nasty and ghoulish perhaps, but not what I mean by lostness. Dark means just that. Light has gone. Dark has come replacing sure steps with foundering ones. A way forward succumbs to guess work or less. Destinations become forgotten in a haze of bumping into walls not of our own choosing and which we cannot see anyway. As such, we lose not only orientation but the reasons for our non-whereabouts. Soon, we lose hope that light will come again and, at its worst, lose the desire and ability to see life as anything but one’s present bleak experience.

I am told that in situations of torture, people will sustain terrible beatings and then are placed in dark cells for weeks at a time. Painful sensory overload is replaced by unspeakable deprivation and loneliness. The non-existence experienced in these holding periods becomes even worse for the victims and they literally yearn to be beaten again. At least something is happening. Besides, even bad company means we’re not alone, the worst of all punishments.

Such is the lost-ness of lostness. Ostensibly, this is where God does God’s best work on the soul. When the senses have vacated their steadying influence and only a hollowed out vacuum remains, we are left with but one choice: believe anyway…or not. The sheer pointlessness of it all needs to sink into our being in order for us to be stripped of our need for pin-point accuracy in all our dealings. God alone rules here for, alone, there is only God. For we do not exist. Or so it seems. It is both the worst and the best thing God ever does in the human soul. A sweet cruelty, the pangs of which remain indelibly etched within.

A particularly poignant biblical picture of how best to weather such places of struggle is the aching repartee of Jesus with his Father in the garden of Gethsemane. The king of the ages, a long way from anything that was home, has just gotten comfortable with this broken, mortal coil. He loves us but is now asked to give it all up. For something even far worse. Perhaps with little idea of what “to be raised on the third day” might actually mean.

What is the intended result? In time, an eternity to us, a wink to God, we become shining trophies of grace. Not shiny like cheap flea market brass trinkets. But the rich, robust pewter and silver serving trays fit for royalty. The fickle fetters of sense and emotional agility that throw us under the bus when we’re not looking have now bowed to a deeper well. Unseen, but oh so quenching.

But not before we do a lot of fist shaking, weeping and finally giving up. That’s when rescue is sweetest.

 

Prayer of one who is lost

Hello…anyone,

can I call you God? or god? or what?

I am sick. My soul is sick and I am crushed.

Are you there? If you are, are you good?

Are you to be trusted?

Are you the one I should be looking for or do I wait

for someone else? something else? somewhere else?

How much does guilt, shame, blame

fortify this place of thick, impenetrable walls?

Am I wise or even smart to hope when all I see is

blackness; sorrow draped in the sickly posture of dreams forgotten,

of light full shaded?

Do not speak to me of Job like the others.

He is a fairy-tale, a mockery to me,

a dream of dust and ancient woes

far removed from this Halloween of hellish delight.

He does not speak anymore and,

unlike his, my book has an ending yet undecided,

murky, unmoving like a lake long dead.

Perhaps no ending will come at all?

Perhaps there is no book?

Picturesque dreams no longer peek into sleep otherwise uninterrupted.

A mind instead, in broken time, refuses better context,

mocking lost memories of what I once thought was life.

When a heart bitterly refuses whatever comfort felt like,

to what do I cling? Is this to be my rebellion? My condemnation?

Am I headed for hell because of these questions?

Because, frankly,

the questions are hell enough.

For what it’s worth,

help me through one more day, this day,

if indeed there still is such a thing.

* * * * *

Is this you right now? What practices might be helpful as you and God seek to navigate this dark time?

Do you have a support system in place? Others who can be co-sojourners with you?

Share some of your own dark night experiences.

Glimpses, part I: awakening to the indescribable

I want to take a stab at describing what cannot adequately be described. As a contemplative and a musician, I have met, from time to time, with mystical experiences that beggar explanation. I do not have anything close to adequate categories or temporal understanding for such things. In seeking them out, I must simply share and hope for the best.

I will be doing so in a short series of posts under the general heading, “Glimpses.” A little unoriginal I admit. However, I trust that my faltering attempts at self-revelation will prompt your own journeys of inner discovery and that, together, we may find God’s deep reservoir of grace.

At the foundation of Christian spirituality (and others) is the very basic principle of awakening or awareness. It comes in many different packages, under numerous ideologies, representative of a host of approaches, all with practices that lend themselves to one’s emerging spiritual life.

To become aware is to wake from some form of slumber, sleep or sloth. One of the mysteries of spiritual awareness is that one does not awaken naturally. We are prodded awake by the loving work of God upon the sleeping soul. It requires this nudge from God upon our shoulder before any meaningful process of receptivity and relationship can occur. In order for us to embrace this work, basically to ‘awake to our awakening’, we must intuit God’s whisper, speaking grace into the spiritual ear of our understanding.

I do not speak so much of the prophetic proclamation to “arise, shine; for your light has come.” No, before we can be so attuned to the prophet’s voice calling us to faithfulness and righteousness, we must first hear the voice of the Lover calling us to succumb to this wooing for which our only response can be, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

As comforting and romantic as that sounds, however, upon awakening to the first primal strains of the song of God, there comes a dissonance amidst the lilting notes. We awaken to beauty and begin to see that for which we have always yearned but of which we were unaware; blind. This, however, can often be a fearful and groggy experience. Cobwebs invade our minds unaccustomed to such sharpness of color. Ears that have been plugged up suddenly pop as our inner altitude changes. It is as disorienting as it is invigorating.

I remember places, glimpses into…something; an awareness that hints at a proximity to the indefinable, numinous presence of God. These are never easy things to describe, but there is a delight in the attempt for, in so doing, I am taken back to some of those places. For me, it was often some old, stone church or monastery; most often at night, alone.

Yet, not alone.

As I have since come to believe, they were, as the Celts called them, thin places where a barely perceptible sheath surrounds the holy otherness of God and where comes a mystical awareness of God so immanent that one feels she can literally smell God’s breath, touch God’s skin. These experiences have often made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Ironically, they used to happen often when I was a boy, long before I had any faith lexicon or tidy systematic theology with which to scrub them up and describe them away. I recall one particular time as I lay on our living room floor. I was probably eight or nine years old and, as I did every year, was watching the first snowfall of winter. Enormous frozen flakes dove in random, disciplined lines, dancing past the streetlight that stood outside our home. The glistening goodness provided a panacea against which the world was complete and all was one, if only for a time. In those moments, gilded and encased in childhood wonder, I became curiously aware of a haunting peace that arrested my sensibilities and held me spellbound in what I can only describe as ‘rightness.’ The cosmos and I were one. God, as I now understand God, was lying beside me on the living room floor that night, whispering wordless words to me, convincing me of my place in it all, be it ever so miniscule.

This is a story best left unfinished…

This week, consider quietly and prayerfully, the ways in which you may have heard these awakening whispers of God.

Journal them. How did they occur? Under what circumstances? What, if anything, changed in you as a result?

What are ways you may be invited by God to enter even more deeply into these places of awakening and transformation? Agree, humbly and with resolve, to enter into them with the God of grace to guide you.

Feel free to share what you and God have been up to in your journey together.

Jars of Clay – A Prayer

Lord, you have exalted your name above the heavens.

Your name means grace and peace and wonder to all who speak it in faith and love.  You have chosen to use weak and broken vessels to be your eyes and hands and feet in this world.  It seems, Lord, that you love to pour out your glory through

the ordinary, the fragile, the imperfect.

In this, Lord, we are honored – but humbled.

You ask us to mirror grace, love and faithfulness to the world – the very grace, love and faithfulness so eloquently portrayed in Jesus Christ.  Through him, you promise to give us all we need to live rich and holy lives in our communities, our families and in this world.

Mysterious God, so great a salvation!

We sinned, you forgave.

We turned away, you gave chase.

We rebelled, you paid for it.

We forgot, you remembered.

We are often faithless, you are ever faithful.

We complain, you are patient!

Lord, do not allow us to make excuses for ourselves, hiding as we do in the limits of our humanness.  Although we are perfectly aware of how inadequate we are to the task, help us to see ourselves as you do, as reconcilers, as peacemakers, as redeemed kingdom builders.  If we are dull, make us shine.

Lord, take these imperfect jars of clay and make them holy cups of pure grace, forged in your desires for us.

May it be so, Lord.

May it be so.