Confessions, Part 1: I am Broken.

Stopping is just so difficult.

I am a very busy person.  To be sure, there are thousands, perhaps even millions of people busier than I.  But I am still a very busy person.  I am constantly caught up in twenty different things, going twenty different places, talking to twenty different people, and somehow keeping everybody involved at least marginally happy.  Sure, there are days when I have “nothing” to do, but busy is a state of mind for me, not just a way of life.  Even when I’m sitting still, my mind can be racing millions of miles an hour.  There’s always something to analyze, ponder, and worry about.

I don’t like stopping.  Stopping is dangerous.  Stopping forces me to face what I’ve been ignoring for so long while drowning myself in business.

I’m a mess.

I’ve been broken for so long that I don’t remember what it’s like to be whole.  I’ve been tired for so long that I can’t remember what it’s like to be rested.  I’ve been empty for so long that I can’t remember what it’s like to be full.  There’s no running away from it, no hiding from it, no avoiding it.  I’m just simply a mess.  I’ve got all these secret pains and aches and feelings stuffed into places where no one will see them.

Every once in a while the miserable soup bubbling somewhere in the cauldron of my heart gets a little too hot.  Every once in a while there’s a blip on the radar, an incident that seems trivial, or a desperate word or two that escapes unawares.  There are days when I don’t want to be nice.  There are days when I’m sick of myself.  There are days when I have nothing to say, and days when my brain is so full it gives me a headache.  There are days when I don’t want to pray, think, or smile.
There are days when I don’t want to believe.

Not in God.

Not in anything.

On those days, it’s hard to be busy.  Obligations feel like chores and the tiniest trifle feels like a problem of monstrous proportions.  On those days, I just want to take my keys and drive somewhere far away, where nobody knows me and nothing is familiar.  The only issue is that I’d have to take myself with me.  It’s hard to run away from the problem when the problem is inside of you.

Salvation has become such an eternal concept in today’s church.  Everything is based on heaven, hell, and our respective places in them.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe salvation has an eternal aspect and determines our entrance into heaven or hell, but there’s one tiny problem.  On those days, I don’t care about eternity.  I don’t need a God for after I die.

I need a God for now.

I need a hope for now.

I need a healing for now.

Sure, much greater things will come in the future.

But now, right now, I need help.

It’s funny how a lot of Christian self-help books tell us to pray and trust and such and that things “will get better.”  It implies the future.  It’s just that a lot of times we don’t need things to get better at some point in the future; we need them better now.  We need peace now, love now, and above all else, faith now.

Luke 8:43-48 recounts the story of a woman who had been plagued for twelve years with disease.  After she touches the tassel of Jesus’ garment, gets found out, and casts herself at His feet, Jesus tells her, “Go in peace.”  The Hebrew word for “peace” is shalom. Our Western understanding of peace is usually the absence of conflict.  Ancient rabbis would not have limited shalom to this.  The shalom of God is the presence of the goodness of God.  It is wholeness, completeness, and oneness.  It is not simply the absence of conflict; it is the presence of an overwhelming love so powerful that it transforms the person enveloped by it.  It is not just a momentary peace.  It is an infinite peace, because it is an attribute of God, and God is infinite.  Philippians 4:7 speaks of a “peace that transcends all understanding.”  This is shalom.

When Jesus told the woman to “Go in peace,” He was really telling her to go in the whole and complete goodness of God that was transforming every aspect of her being.  There’s another word in that short phrase that catches my attention – “in.”  Jesus tells her to “Go in peace.”  He does not tell her to wait for peace, pray for peace, hope for peace, or work for peace.  He tells her to go in the realization of a peace that’s already there.  She goes, enveloped in God’s person.

That’s what I need.  I need God to be a person.  I need God to have ears when I want to scream, a shoulder when I want to cry, a hand to hang onto when I trip, and lips to kiss my boo-boos.

I so appreciate a statement made by Rob Bell – “It is possible to be a good Christian and go to church services and sing the right songs and jump through the right hoops and never let Jesus heal your soul.”

This is a confession.  I am a mess.  I am tired, empty, and broken.  I have not always forgiven, and I have not always repented.  Sometimes, I can barely hang on, and sometimes I climb over people.  I do not have all the answers, but I pretend I know it all.  I cannot exist alone, but I still keep people at a distance.  Very often I do not love.

Yet all of that is okay.  God is a person; He’s a God of now.  And now, right now, the personal God of now has His arms around me, His heartbeat next to my ear, and His lips kissing my boo-boos.

I’ve learned that a lot of people give up.  Anyone can quit.  Quitting is easy.

But I don’t want to quit.  In fact, I can’t wait for the next moment, because God is already there.  This may seem too raw, too honest.  I’m okay with that.  Being broken is beautiful.

Stopping is difficult.  I beg you, though, to stop.  To assess, to confess, and to allow the overwhelming shalom of God to wrap you up.  It’s an exiting place to be.

I’m excited, at least.

 

Because Jesus is healing my soul.

The Love Shack, Part 1

“The Get-Together!”

The B-52’s, an enormously popular new wave rock band started in the 70s, is most widely known for its biggest hit song, “The Love Shack.” It has won numerous awards, and was the bands first million-copy seller.  The song was released the year I was born, 1989.  Despite the song’s age, it remains a staple at parties, in stores, and on the radio.  It’s message seems to be timeless…though there has been a large amount of arguing over what the song’s message actually is.  For some reason I’ve always liked the song.  Perhaps it’s the catchy tune, or the funky dance moves in the video.  Perhaps it’s the eclectic mix of singing, yelling, and talking.  Perhaps it’s just the idea of a getaway.  Maybe it’s even that the idea of a place dedicated to love is appealing.

It might offend the sensitivities of a lot of people if I compared the church to the love shack.  Brows might be raised, heads might be shaken, and eyes might be rolled.  It is, however, a fitting comparison.  At least, it should be.  I’ve often found myself confused by the utter lack of love in some churches.  It is almost as if some people believe that the church is a good place to hide from the world.  The church is, on occasion, nothing more than an elite Christian club.  If a person does not dress a certain way, talk a certain way, or act a certain way, he may not be admitted.  If he is admitted, it may be grudgingly.  Recently I visited two churches of different denominations.  I wore nearly the same outfit to each one, and showed up with no Bible in hand.  I equipped myself with jeans, a black t-shirt, a slightly rebellious glare, and lots of eye makeup.  I sat in the last row for each service with my arms crossed over my chest.  I regret to say that at the first church, not one person said “Hi” to me.  Suspicious glances, raised eyebrows, and a few snickers was the extent of that congregation’s communication with me.  At the second church, however, I found myself completely unable to keep the rebellious glare on my face.  I was greeted by at least twenty different people.  One of the choir ladies sat down next to me and spent five minutes instructing me in the use of the hymnal.  Every single person that looked at me smiled genuinely.  At least ten people shook my hand as I left and expressed their desire that I come back, because they hadn’t had a proper chance to talk to me.  I was utterly amazed at the love shown by the members of that church, even when they had every reason to believe that I was not a Christian, or “one of them.”

The first two lines of the chorus of the song read, “The love shack is a little old place where we can get together!” It is an inviting, happy statement, full of anticipation and excitement.  Should not the church also be an inviting, happy place, where we can get together?  In those places where it is not, it is due to an incorrect definition of “we.”  Humanity has a terrible habit of splitting itself into groups.  It can easily be argued that these divisions are helpful to society and to the persons belonging to the said groups.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to make every group content.  When one group is cared for, it is usually at the exclusion of another group.  The “us and them” mentality always causes someone to suffer, to be neglected, to be forgotten.  But, as long as the group to which we personally belong is cared for, we are satisfied in ignoring the others.

John 15 contains one of my favorite Scriptures.  It is astonishing in its simplicity, yet profound in its implications.  Verse 12 reads, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” These are the words of Jesus.  If any person had a right to be in a group, it was Jesus.  The Son of God, the Creator of the universe, the Alpha and Omega, the spotless Lamb – certainly we wouldn’t expect God to place himself into our group.  But He did, and commanded His disciples to love as they had been loved: with no restrictions, with no prerequisites, with no judgments on their outward appearance or inward state of disarray.  They were commanded to love sacrificially, though they were not yet aware of sacrifice’s full extent.  They were commanded to love totally, for Jesus did not love them only in part.  They were commanded to love the unloveable with the same intensity that they loved the societally “acceptable,” for Jesus did not discriminate in love between Judas Iscariot and John.

They were commanded to love as Jesus had loved them…and He had loved them even when they themselves were not yet included in the “we.”  The unspoken question that the two lines at the beginning of the chorus raise is, “What if we don’t like who shows up?” The only acceptable answer is to love.  The church should be a place where we can “get together,” where anyone and everyone is viewed through the lens of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, and where the presence of love is so overwhelming that people can say, in the words of the last line of the chorus, “that’s where it’s at.”

Soul Storms

It has been raining today, quite violently.  It seemed almost as if the clouds were bitter about something, and had to take out their anger by pounding away at the earth.  I can’t help but think that it didn’t work.  The sky is still dismal and out of sorts.  The earth is a sickly green color and seems to be sulking.  Occasionally a grumble of thunder echoes through the air (the sky has to get in the last word).  Very probably the nighttime will tiptoe in soon and coax the world into closing its eyes until the morning.  Perhaps the sun will deign to show her face tomorrow.

The weather has an uncanny way of putting me in strange and wonderful moods.  Days like today make me restless and a touch wild.  I feel like a tiger in a zoo, endlessly pacing along the bars of his cage.  It is not that I’m unhappy, it’s just that I sense the “bars” of my existence, and notice that the path next to them has become incredibly well-traveled.  It is not my mind that is restless, nor my heart.  It is my soul, that immaterial part that finds itself embodied in a thousand different actions and emotions.  It is the place of being.  I wonder how many people pace through life just like a tiger in a cage  – for the most part content and well-fed, but occasionally becoming uneasy and restless when something reminds them of the outside world.  I wonder how many ignore the uncomfortable feeling until it passes back into the murky oblivion from which it came, and how many agonize over its appearance.  I wonder how many glance down at the well-traveled path under their feet, and sigh that they have seen it so many times before.  I wonder how many shudder at the malnourished, shriveled, desperate thing they find inside themselves.

Octave Mirbeau, a French journalist and art critic, once said, “When one tears away the veils and shows them naked, people’s souls give off such a pungent smell of decay.”  The soul is perhaps the most neglected aspect of our being.  It is routinely forgotten, ignored, smothered, and starved.  A scratch on one’s body is immediately cared for; a scratch on one’s soul is left to fester for long periods of time, and is often never attended to.  It is only on the occasional stormy day that it is remembered, when the restless longings gather enough energy to touch one’s emotions.

Have you ever met anyone with a healthy soul?  They are vibrant, passionate, and overflowing with love and mercy.  Sadly, these persons are so few and far between.  I dare not place myself in that category; I know all too well the state of disrepair my own soul is in.  When the soul is not healthy, vibrancy and passion fade into apathy, love and mercy to self-absorption.  It is not the soul that gets fed, it is the miserable, gluttonous carnal nature.  And yet, it is not difficult to nourish a soul.  It only requires a willingness to listen.  The Lord speaks to those starving souls in Isaiah 55:2-3, saying “Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.  Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.” It’s almost too simple.  All that is required is a walk into arms that are already open, and a conversation?  The Lord will freely pardon (Isaiah 55:7).

It would be enough if it stopped here, but it does not.  It is not only sustenance, relationship, life, and conversation that is offered.  It is peace and healing, rest and redemption.  “Peace, peace, to those far and near, ‘says the Lord,’ and I will heal them” (Isaiah 57:19).    It is an opportunity to be clean, to be whole, and to have the shriveled core of our being lose its sallow color and gain a glow of contentment and fulfillment.  We have only to make the approach.  He stands, waiting, never tiring of whispering “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened…and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:2829).


Perhaps when our souls are satisfied, the most dismal weather – literally or figuratively – will be unable to make us restless and discontent.  Perhaps we will be able to say as Goethe did upon awakening in the morning, “Nothing is worth more than this day.”

Dead Flowers

Throughout the centuries, flowers have been adored, revered, enjoyed, enshrined in vases and pots, given as tokens of friendship and love, immortalized by poets, placed on graves in memorial, and captured in the snapshots of photographers.  They are among nature’s most beautiful jewels.  A simple lily is arrayed in more splendor than Solomon and all his glory (Matthew 6:28-29).  Friedrich von Schiller referred to them as “The offspring of the morning sun.”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called them “Stars, that in the earth’s firmament do shine.”  The beauty of the tiniest flower can enrapture even the most melancholy soul.  Flowers are given as peace offerings, proclamations of love, and gifts.  Their uses are nearly infinite; their poetic potential endless.

It is strange that we so venerate  flowers.  Their lifespans are short and their beauty fades quickly.  Once cut from their stems, they can only hope to live a few days or a week.  They are almost like firecrackers, ablaze one moment with color and energy, shriveled and lifeless the next.  The place where they grew sprouts new blooms, forgetting that it was ever visited by such glory.  One of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 103, speaks of flowers.  It doesn’t praise their charm or thank their Creator.  Instead, it notes their short life span, and compares it to that of a man.

“As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.”
Psalm 103:15-16

It’s an almost depressing verse.  It calls up memories of James 4:14: “What is your life?  You are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”  I Chronicles 29:15 states, “Our days on earth are as a shadow, and without hope.”  Job 9:25 sighs, “My days are swifter than a runner.”  One might surely be tempted to ask “What’s the point?”  It is a valid question, for there seems to be no point.  After all, what affect can a shadow or a vapor have?  How can a flower, only alive for a moment in time, have any impact on its surroundings?

There is one tiny redeeming word, however.  It makes up for the gloomy sentiments in the verse.  That word is “flourish.”  Most translations of the Bible use “flourish,” or some variation of it.  It is a quite wonderful word.  The dictionary gives it a few cryptic sentences, and yet still gets to the very heart of its meaning.  To flourish is to thrive, to prosper, to be in a state of constant activity or production.  Verse 15 states, “he flourishes like a flower of the field.” It is not as though we are dropped on earth to merely exist.  We are placed here to thrive, to produce, and to prosper.  If a flower were not to be in a constant state of activity and production, it would not bloom.  If it did not thrive, it would simply waste away without ever fulfilling its purpose.  Certainly no great poets have eulogized about flowers that didn’t bloom.  It is the tiny window of life that is forever immortalized, the moment of activity, and the explosion of color and perfume.  Flowers that have lived are mourned after their deaths.  Flowers that refused to grow are not.

May we not be as flowers dead on their stems, refusing to progress.  A walk with Christ is not an exercise in mediocrity.  It is not a license to stagnate.  It is not an allowance to hoard the redeeming, sanctifying life that we have been given.  Let us not abuse the grace we have received, for this grace was given to us that we may preach to the world the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8).  If we must pass away (for eventually we must), let us have lived such vigorous lives that others mourn the loss of color when we leave.  Let us thrive and grow, so that when we return to the ground, others may build, using our lives as a foundation.  Let us be as a firecracker, ablaze with passion and energy for the time we are alloted.  Let us flourish, and leave traces of glory.

“All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.” – Indian Proverb

Yad VaShem: Heartbeats Extinguished (The Holocaust)

Posted from my trip to Israel.  I also encourage you to read Brad Chandler’s blog on this topic (http://bkchandler.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/more-than-a-number-from-israel-journals-9-15-09/).

I’ve been requested, by more than a few people, to discuss my feelings after visiting Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. In the simplest terms, it was draining. I assume it was a very difficult experience for everyone attending; for me it was beyond heart wrenching. I walked through much quicker than most, reading what I could, watching what I could, and thinking all I could. I could not read everything; it was too much. Too much tragedy, too much desperation. I did my best not to feel while I was walking through. Tears get in the way of reading, and there were certainly no tissues anywhere in the building. There were movies playing, many plaques to read, many items that belonged to Jews that had perished. There were handwritten letters, many from children, that had been tossed out of the trains as they chugged their way through Europe to the concentration camps. They didn’t know where they were going; they couldn’t understand why. Even now, I can’t comprehend it. I understand human nature, but what comfort is that? Is it a comfort to know that without God, I am capable of committing such a sin, or perhaps even a greater one? Is it any comfort to understand when it cannot change reality? Is it any comfort at all to think of the millions lost forever?

At the end of the museum is a round room called the Hall of Names. It is at least twenty feet tall and from floor to ceiling, on all sides, are lined binders filled with names of those who perished. I sat on the floor in that room for over an hour. I wept, prayed, and wept again for my people. Over a thousand people with my family name were murdered during those years, either in concentration camps, ghettos, or death marches. Their names are recorded in those endless black binders. Even in death, they are trapped in alphabetical order, with a number. There’s an entire section of black binders that only have numbers on them. They contain pages for the murdered that don’t have names. They only have the number, and nothing else. No identity, no future, not even the dignity of a name. I wonder how many were schoolchildren, extinguished before they even had a chance to bloom, a chance to dream, a chance to live. I wonder how many were parents, agonizing over the rejection their children faced, praying for more than one loaf of bread so that they could eat, and somehow strengthening each other in the dirty nighttime. I wonder how many were elders, watching the world with sadness, desperately afraid that their families were going to perish, and confused at how their own countries were treating them. I wonder, and it breaks my heart.

The most difficult part of the whole museum, for me, was a huge case near the exit filled with shoes. Hundreds and hundreds of shoes, of all different sizes, were just piled on top of each other. They sit there, waiting for owners to use them, waiting to be worn, waiting for people that died sixty years ago. There is no greater example of the devastation than those lonely shoes, so forlorn, and so very, very empty.

How can we be forgiven for such a thing? Can a prayer sent up by a broken girl have any effect on a tragedy so large it is unfathomable? Tears don’t seem to do them justice, so I have stopped crying for the moment. But my heart aches. It aches for every life cut short, for every dream shattered, and for every bitter survivor. It aches for those who did the killing, and for those who did nothing to stop it. It aches, and it will never stop aching.

The sheer enormity of the tragedy lessens the chance that there will be reconciliation. We must pray for it though. The incredible love of Christ is not only for the oppressed. It is also for the oppressor. If it is not for both, then I myself cannot be redeemed. Pray, I beg you; pray for restoration – a restoration that starts in the heart and spirit, for that is the only kind with effect.

I plead now for forgiveness, for peace, for healing. I plead now for reconciliation and redemption. I plead now for the emptiness left, the holes filled with hatred, and the weary searching for rest. I plead now for today and tomorrow. I plead now for hope.

But who, who pleaded for them?

When Mercy is Ugly.

In one of Shakespeare’s most widely read works, The Merchant of Venice, Portia pleads for mercy from the money lender.  The heroine  prays for the mercy “that droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven.”  Matthew 25:34-40 speaks of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and showing hospitality to strangers.  Charles Sprague stated that “Hate shuts her soul when dove-eyed mercy pleads.”  Even the dictionary defines mercifulness as “a disposition to be kind and compassionate.”  Mercy is portrayed as one of the highest of ideals, a shining beacon of love and hope for those afflicted, the sole bastion to which the desperate may cling to.  It is a gentle thing, a quiet, dove-eyed apparition, rather like some beloved sister in a convent, that sweetly sprinkles reprieve on those who need it.

Mercy is beautiful, we are taught.  Mercy is good.  Mercy is desirable.  Rarely do we stop to ponder what mercy supersedes.  Mercy supersedes justice.  It takes “an eye for an eye,” discards it, and adds “turn the other cheek.”  It takes “a tooth for a tooth,” discards it, and adds “to him who takes your outer garment, give him your tunic also” (Matthew 5).  Not only does mercy pardon the unpardonable, acquit the murderer, and release the wretch, it goes the extra mile.  But how can this be?  How can we react when mercy is ugly?

The upcoming release of James Huesman, a man convicted of murder and sexual assault and sentenced to forty years in prison is certainly an unpopular snapshot of mercy.  He has served less than half of his sentence.   The family of the man he murdered has cried out at the injustice.  Justice demands that crimes not be overlooked, that they be punished to the full degree.  Justice demands that offenses not be swept under the rug.  Yet, it seems that here mercy served as the broom.  Mercy is always ugly to someone. Even Shakespeare, after portraying mercy in such pastel light in The Merchant of Venice, stated “Mercy but murders, pardoning those who kill.”

When demanding justice is partial to our situation, mercy’s ugliness becomes clear.  We insist that justice be done when it is we who have been wronged.  Transgressions must be paid for in full, sentences served, and penalties accepted.  To overlook misdeeds that have harmed us would be ridiculous.  Justice must prevail.  “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  Strangely, it seems that whenever we are the transgressors, justice is not viewed so favorably.  Mercy is begged for, and even expected.  We bring justice to the table and somehow presume to think that we will taste mercy.  We flog others with the whip of justice, yet delude ourselves into thinking we will only feel mercy’s kiss.  Alexander Pope wrote, “That mercy I to others show, that mercy show to me.”  Galatians 6:9 intones, “A man reaps what he sows.”

How can we, the undeserving recipients of mercy, withhold it from others?  “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  While we were still sinners, Christ stepped in and paid the just price, so that we might be touched by mercy.  The requirements of both justice and love were met in his sacrifice (more to come on this later).  While we were yet murderers (“Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer…” 1 John 3:15), adulterers (“…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.” Matthew 5:28), blasphemers (“Do not swear at all, either by heaven…or by earth.” Matthew 5:34), and hosting a world of other sins, the Father showed mercy to us through Christ.  May we never be as that wicked servant, who, being pardoned a great debt by his master, failed to pardon a small debt from his peer (Matthew 18:23-25).  May we realize the depths of sin that we ourselves are capable of, and have compassion on others.  May we, having been rooted and grounded in love, eradicate sin from our lives so that where sin increases in others, grace and mercy may increase all the more, that by this we may save some.

Mercy is ugly, but only as ugly as the nail-scarred hands of Christ.