07 May 2018

The Blood-Stained Hero: I am Not Who I Thought



I want to talk about two specific wishes that I have. You may not think me even a half decent person after the first, and that stance would be fair. But I have to show you one, so you can see the other.

I have two young children and another on the way. I’m really tired right now. The wish? It is like a groan. I wish my kids would just obey. I wish they would listen and be kind to each other. I wish they would let me do a chore without being interrupted every 30 seconds. I wish they would just go play on their own without any input from me. I wish they were easier. I wish I didn’t have to intervene, instruct, comfort, discipline, clean, fix, do ALL THE TIME. Shall I be more honest? I wish they would leave me alone. I wish they wouldn’t ask so much of me. I wish they didn’t need so much from me. I wish I could lay down and rest when I want. I wish I could lose my temper, shout at the top of my lungs, and then not have to deal with the fact that I have just shown my children to behave exactly how I do not want them to behave. I just want to do what I want to do. I want this to be easy, and I want to be left to my own devices. I want to be selfish and unencumbered.

Do you want to know what my other wish is?

It is one I have harbored in my heart since I was a very little girl, instructing all my friends that they were fancy princesses, and I was the ill-used servant girl who would rescue them from the bad guys. Ever since, a few years after that, I had dream after dream of fighting, saving, rescuing, sacrificing blood and life in battle and disaster.

I wish I was a hero. Not metaphorically, literally. Specifically a certain kind of hero. The one who is mistreated and looked down on, who takes many physical beatings, who—bleeding from the teeth, stab wounds in the leg—gets up and keeps fighting. Fights till they almost collapse, then gets back up. Again and again.

My heart does something strange that I don’t even know how to describe when I see a heroic character—superhero, vigilante, fantasy hero, whatever—who can take a horrible beating and just keep trying. They can barely stand, but they clutch the wall and keep going. They can suffer every frustration and every loss. They can be hated, oppressed, shut out, neglected, lying on a heap in the ground. And they get up. And they try to do what is right. They get confused sometimes, but then they try again. They’re shivering in the cold, and they keep going. They’re covered in sweat and blood, and they keep going.

I wish I was strong and tough and enduring while literally being punched in the face and beat to the ground. I want to be so heroic, it makes your heart ache.

Back to that first wish.

Do you see the problem?

Why is it that I do not take the person of the second wish and, with her, answer the struggles presented in the first wish? Why do these two wishes seem so disconnected when, in fact, the second one is the solution to the first? Why do all my ideals live only in my head, not on the cold hard ground of reality?

We want to be great. We want to be important. We want to be heroes. We want to be called tough. We want our character to be the kind that stirs souls.

But if we are not strong and perseverant in that which is given to us, however mundane it feels, then what on earth makes us think we will be strong in the moments of seemingly more heroic, dangerous trials?

If I cannot answer my son’s persistent questions with patience when I am weary in body, how could I ever persist in anything myself? If I cannot put my creativity into the time I spend with my children, will not my creative problem-solving be weak, and atrophied? If I cannot set aside my own pain and exhaustion to give my utmost to my children, to show them attention when all I want to do is hide somewhere and do nothing, how do I imagine I will set aside pain and exhaustion in any other context?

Until I can apply my heroic ideals to this thing that does not feel heroic at all, there is no chance of my ever being any kind of hero, and certainly not the sort that makes my heart ache when I encounter them in all the stories I most love.

This is true of motherhood.

Of marriage.

Of every broken relationship.

Of everything you ever felt justified in giving up on.

Of every time you felt like giving your least, because you were just too hurt and tired.

Of every time you felt it was better to hold on to your festering wound, than expose it to the painful good of salt and light.

I am not writing this from a place of achievement. This is a heartbroken acknowledgement that I have looked at my character and found it lacking. I have looked at what I have always most longed to be and found that the school God offered me for training has reduced me to a pile of complaints and a knot of exposed selfishness. I am so much weaker than I thought.

I am sorely disappointed in the disparity between what I love and how I actually act.

But I am not without hope. This is the work that has been given to me. And, by God’s grace, I’m going to get up and try again.

28 July 2017

Identity and Freedom


There are several modern axioms that sound lovely and praiseworthy, but have death hiding beneath there shiny skin.

An easy one would be “Follow your heart”
Another might be “What’s true for me…”
And perhaps one more subtle and more dangerous, “I have the to right to…”

But there is a particular set of phrases—a miniature lexicon of what matters to the modern (particularly western) individual—that fall into this category that are especially deceptive. They all revolve around identity.

For instance: “This is just who I am.”
Or: “Just let me be me.”
“I can’t change who I am. Deal with it.”

The contexts in which the above phrases are used are, by nature, defensive. We use such phrases when we feel that our very sense of self is being attacked. It makes sense that we would respond with that seemingly freeing statement, “this is just who I am” when we feel that something about the core of who we are is being maligned or belittled. It’s our identity.

To state the obvious, identity is fundamental. It is essentially the atomic structure off of which our whole functioning self is built. It dictates our “properties”; our behaviors, our capacities, our reactions.

It is no small wonder, then, that we are obsessed with defining our own identities these days. Personality tests. Political affiliations. Social groups. Apparently it is very gratifying to constantly tell ourselves and constantly be told who we are, whether it has to do with our taste in food, our modes of expression, or our emotional processes. We seem to thrive on constant identity analysis and affirmation.

Almost as if that very thing that is supposedly “ours” without question, is very much in question.

Why is that so?

There are, I think, several ways of approaching that question and I’m not going to deal deeply with all of them. Some of the explanations will seem obvious at once: people feel lost and disconnected. Families are increasingly patchwork affairs. Tribes are not a traditional feature of western society, except in a metaphorical sense. Nations alternately disappoint and globalize.

Suddenly these sundry and formerly peripheral social identities begin not only to have an outsized importance, but to lay all claims on us. The claims of family—loyalty, partiality—the claims of tribe and nation—sigil, service, self-declaration. One fights tooth and nail in defense of the symbols and rituals associated with that identity. We progress from identity patriotism to identity jingoism. One takes pride in the ‘local dialect’ of their particular identity, to the point of imposing it on others. Then we have reached identity imperialism, as it were.

This is no surety in this. There is no rest. There is no home. All these identities—whether wisely or unwisely cherished, whether our job, our nationality, our political affiliation, our philosophical bent, our activist or special interest group—they are not strong enough or good enough. Influential as it may sometimes be, my skin color is not ultimate. My desires and affections are not sacrosanct.

There is no bedrock here. In such things, we are fighting for an island paradise which, as it turns out, is only a sandbar. We will find ourselves trapped on it and, with it, we will be submerged. Perhaps we felt that we were willing to die for it, but in reality we may well die from it. And not the holy kind of death.

I am reminded of a scene in the book Perelandra where the antagonist, Weston, becomes possessed. The identity he thought he was claiming, claimed him, until he himself was swallowed down (not up), used by that diabolical entity as a mere tool, his intellect and body cast aside like a horse ridden ruthlessly into the ground by a rider who cares for nothing and for no one.

These piecemeal social identities at which we throw ourselves, far from making us whole, rive us down to far less than the sum of our parts.

The Sandbar

Any foundation but God—be it race, nation, activism, sexuality, political party, profession—will eventually crumble. They are only sand, and they wash away. We’ve been told this by Jesus Himself.

Of course it is easy to see that this is true when the thing in which we have placed our identity is false, or wrong, or shallow, or destructive. But this applies even to those things which seem inherently good.

One day a mother wakes up and her children no longer need her or, in a tragic case, do not want her. Who is she now? What happened to all those years of sacrifice?
One day a noble social movement has no place for you anymore. Where, then, did you place your soul?
One day you are no longer making the kind art that matters like you used to. Do you still matter?

These things may be good—even very good—but they too may fall away, and it is vital that there be something left when they do.

If we set our hearts on these non-God identities, even the best and truest of them will begin to turn, and inch by inch, they will force us to give up God in order that they may maintain primacy and relevance, or in order for us to feel satiated by them (even for a moment), or in order for us to remain part of the “group” that we held dear unto the point of worship. This is how we know we have not found our real identity in God; our social identity has eaten us up, corroded our morals, blurred our vision. Ultimately even truth will be thrown overboard so as to save a ship that is nevertheless going to sink.

Back to the Beginning

Again we come down to those ancient, perplexing words: "Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it."

The more we live in perpetual fear of losing our social (or professional or political or philosophical) identities, the less abundance of life we have. We live in incessant reactiveness against any actual or theoretical slight upon that identity, guarding it with increasing viciousness, and decreasing rationality.

Paradoxically, in relinquishing our whole self--absolutely every last drop of our identity--to God, we are given it back enriched and reconciled. That which we cling to, we will lose, along with everything else; that which we give to God we will receive back "pressed down, shaken together, and running over." It may not look like what we wanted, or what we thought, and there is certainly a dying in it--a crossing of the cold, dark river of submission--but it will be the truth. And it will be whole. And nothing anyone says or does, not even the laws of the land, can take it away.

All those threads of our identity that are really true will be sanctified so that they do not--cannot--take precedence over God. All that which was false, confusion, sin, and wound...these will be washed away. Indeed, your identity once submitted will be salted. The true savor will be awakened.

It amazes me how long and far we'll go to defend and preserve our brokenness under the guise of "this is who I am." Just like sometimes the distinctive way someone walks is due to a muscle strain, an ache, or an injury, sometimes that which we think is our identity is just the way we've learned to walk to compensate for a grievous wound. To take pride in it and plant our flag in it is a deadly folly.

I am reminded of a scene in the recent film Moana. Admittedly, I wasn't really impressed with that movie the first time I watched it. I thought it was merely 'okay.' I was in and out of the room taking care of my newborn son when we saw it and, as it turns out, I missed a crucial scene. It was the scene where the people of the past are voyaging across the sea, singing "we know who we are."

Now this is a Disney rendering of a people's real history, but in this particular version the reason the people 'forgot' who they were was because they feared losing what they had. They clung to their island (identity) thereby losing themselves, day by day, abandoning a very great calling in the process.

Later those words "we know who we are" come back in a different form. Moana sees the raging, burning, angry monster Te Ka; the fiery monster is defending her territory with a violent ferocity. She is defending it...and it's not even there anymore. The rage and defensiveness has kept the truth of her identity far, far away. It isn't until Moana sings the words "This is not who you are. You know who you are," that the rage begins to ebb. The echo of truth. A real identity, not this one of violent fire and hardening shell.

And in order for Te Ka to get her true identity back, she has first to let the fire go out. She has to yield. To die.

A hard and terrifying thing. But then...

The hard shell breaks open. There is new life, and life abundant, overflowing to everything around it.





Now I am not saying that the above scene is a unassailable metaphor for what I am trying to communicate, but there is in there—as in all good stories—a rich taste of truth.

Freedom

We cannot be salt and light if we hoard ourselves, nurturing those sundry, shallow ‘identities’ about which the world so obsesses. We categorize and define ourselves to death, scribbling incessantly in our internal margins about introversion or extroversion, privilege or marginalization, activism or patriotism or any other ism you can think of so that we can “have” ourselves the way we want ourselves, so that we can scream that others acknowledge our definitions of ourselves. And it will be the worst pyrrhic victory imaginable for, “the one principle of hell is—‘I am my own’” (George MacDonald)

So the questions becomes: which is really freedom?

“Well that’s just who I am. This is me. Get over it. ‘I am my own.’”

or is it “I don’t have to be ‘me’ anymore. I am bound by none of this. I am free to give it ALL to Him.”

It is the person who is not afraid to lose anything who can walk sure and confident, who is without fear; we cannot lose what we have already freely given. We can dive, headfirst, into the refiner’s fire, into the salting.


How generous, then, and how humble we will be able to be with ourselves. How wholly unconcerned.

04 June 2017

Of Prophets

I have always been drawn to the figure of the prophet. Not the fairy-tale type who mutters mysterious things and then says ‘now you must seek your own destiny!’ But the real-world ones as recorded in the Bible. These prophets are strange, controversial people wracked with passion and anger. Most of the time, people don’t like them very much. Sometimes they seem to have gone insane. God seems to use them rather roughly, as well.

My interest in the prophets had a lot to do with the fact that I’ve always found the book of Isaiah beautiful and compelling. I mostly thought of the book in terms of the words, but a while back I had a Rabbi-professor who gave us an assignment to write an essay about a section or a story in the Bible. Naturally I chose Isaiah: it’s poetic! It’s epic!

But I had to do the research into the historical period, the political situation under which Isaiah wrote, and the very nature of the prophets of ancient Judea. This necessitated my very happy introduction to the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel whose book The Prophets is highly recommended.

This investigation into the nature, history, and calling of the prophets helped me to finally understand my own love for the biblical prophets. They are living and breathing bridges between God and man. They are caught in the middle. Berating the people with justice, passion, and wrath, pleading to God on their behalf with mercy, love, and hope. They have fire in their bones, and their lips are touched with coals. They are angry. They are heartbroken. They are half-mad. They are “some of the most disturbing people who ever lived,” said Heschel.

We always think of the person who stands in the middle and argues for both sides as a compromiser or an appeaser. Pick a side already, we say. But the prophets are the least compromising people on the planet. Jeremiah thought he would burn up from the inside if he didn’t say what God had given him to say. No room for compromise. Seemingly, the only one the prophets ever managed to please was God, though we get no insight on that score.

They will be threatened with death, called traitors and liars, they will be hated and even killed, all so they can speak the truth. For they have been yanked out of the crowd as with a hook, and have had God’s own words poured into them, and we can imagine that it truly is “a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

The Translator:

If you’ll pardon the deeply personal perspective, one of the reasons the prophets strike me so is that they are, in one sense, translators. I cannot help but see this.

Sometimes a translator may find themselves interpreting between two antagonists. This is a very tricky situation. We would assume, at first, that the translator must remain neutral: they must not coerce the language to achieve their own preferred outcome, nor prefer one party over the other. But, really, they must be anything but neutral. They must be passionate, and accurate, and wholehearted in both directions. They must be invested in the ideal outcome for both sides.

Now, the prophet as translator is in a quite different situation in at least one regard, for he stands as intermediary between One who is utterly righteous, and a people unrighteous. The languages of either side, so to speak, are not on equal footing. This is a higher language—an ineffable language, really—being translated downward.

“But what appears to us as wild emotionalism must seem like restraint to [the prophet] who has to convey the emotion of the Almighty in the feeble language of man.”  -A.J. Heschel

Regardless, the prophet is still positioned as the intermediary and it is because he cares for both sides—belongs to both sides—that he is torn in spirit. He ultimately is God’s. He is also human. If Israel falls, so does he. If plagues, if famine, if ruin befall the people, they befall him too. If the people are sinful and of unclean lips, so is he. He is a citizen of both nations, heavenly and earthly. He is both conduit and recipient of what God has to say.

No small wonder that the prophet trembles and raves.

Divine Tension

Most of us have heard of the concept of divine tension before—the idea that something must be put in careful, taut balance. Not this, but not quite that either. Perhaps there are times where the phrase feels like an escape hatch out of a very sticky subject—like predestination vs. free will—but that is probably because in God all things are exactly as they should be, whereas we are wild pendulums, and seem always hurrying to extremes. We antagonize intellectualism in favor of emotionalism, then turn around and hold emotions in contempt so as to revere only intellect (God gave us both). We forget we have sins to forgive, and then forget that our sins are forgiven. We forget wrath to talk only of grace, then forget grace in order to indulge in wrath.

The prophet embodies our broad-scale pendulum swings in so concise a manner, it’s almost as if he’s trying to contain two seemingly opposing truths in his mouth at one time. And so he is. The words of the prophets roll up against us like waves, rising with anger, then crashing down with mercy, towering over with wrath, then relenting to forgiveness, heaving up with judgment, then rolling to the shore with love. Again, and again, and again.

Yes, it has a whiplash effect. Yes, it is confusing. But instead of dismissing one part for the other, perhaps we should consider that this is yet another instance of “the feeble language of man” being unable to contain God.

Perhaps the many instances of divine tension which we encounter in the scripture, in theology, are simply the best translations we can receive of God’s thoughts, and God’s ways, which are higher, and which are not ours.

Prefiguring Christ:

“He who loved his people, whose life was dedicated to saving his people, was regarded as an enemy” –A.J. Heschel, speaking on the prophets.

Make no mistake, the prophets suffered. In varying ways and degrees, but in New Testament retrospect, persecution was considered one of the major characteristics of a prophet. And for what does the prophet suffer? Telling the truth. Telling people what they don’t want to hear. Speaking of hypocrisy, sin, and punishment—yet also hope and renewal and rising from the ashes.

A prophet is often telling a truth that is unpopular, against the prevailing winds of the time. Everyone—King and country—wants to go one way, but the prophet is pointing in another. Perhaps the prophet suffers because of the specific, physically miserable way in which he must convey the truth (Ezekiel). Perhaps the prophet must go somewhere he does not want to go (Jonah). Perhaps the prophet is called to love one who has been adulterous (Hosea).

Whether it is the powers that be, the broad culture, or the religious hypocrisy of the time, the prophet has to set himself against the flow, and he often gets thrashed about as a result.

Thus Jesus. He pleased neither the secular nor the religious powers of his day. He spoke of sin and wrath, but also of love and mercy. His words stirred tremendous passion, hope, anger, and violence. The zealots wanted a battle king, and got a sacrificial lamb. The religious leaders wanted compliance and to keep the social hierarchy in place, and they got the Messiah who was to change everything, and humble proud souls. The powers that be just wanted this to be a Jewish issue taken care of by Jews, but it became a phenomenon that spread throughout the Roman world, and then the whole world long after Rome fell.

And He suffered. Contempt, mockery, torture, then death. He told the truth—of who He was, and what he had come to do—and He was that which all the prophets prefigured, both in their actual words, but also in their very experiences.

I confess that this is the aspect of the prophets I understand the least, because Jesus Himself is so hard for me to understand. I understand with my mind, but struggle to truly grasp the nature of His sacrifice. I want to remain in the realm of the imaginary heroics where one feels hard-pressed, but prevails with a few minor bruises. Far less can I imagine or reconcile myself with something that would cause the Son of God Himself to sweat blood and quote David’s most frightening lines, Eloi, Eloi Lama Sabachtani.

As the prophets are sometimes brightly illumined, and other times painfully inscrutable to our souls, so Jesus. The prophets speak for God and Man. Jesus is God and Man. I will not pretend to understand this, but the parallels are present without question. It is as blazingly clear as when a form of poetry repeats itself, in rhyme and meter, building on itself, reaching a crescendo that now resonates with, but is so much more than, its first use of the form.

He is the second Adam, and all the prophets fulfilled.

Messengers:

This is probably the most straightforward and obvious fact about the prophets. They are the couriers of a divine message. They didn’t create it, they may not even like what they are bound to say, and it certainly isn’t for their own personal benefit, but it is their duty. I can’t help but picture the runner-couriers in WWI, as in the tragic battle of Gallipoli, who sprint to pass battle commands, to keep the troops from running straight into their deaths. They may be in terrible danger, they also may die under fire, but above all else they must get the message through. Even if no one listens, they must get it through.

Often the Prophets’ message is distilled simply to that: stop what you are about to do or you are going to die. Death (or enslavement) of either body, soul, nation, or future generations, but here is the word of warning if you will heed it. Turn back. The battle will fall to the enemy if you keep on as you are going. It may already be to late. Turn back.

Divine Discontent:

I do not get the impression that there was a great deal of satisfaction in the lives of the prophets. Trust and faith and hope, yes, but they seem to all have been inflicted with a divine frustration. Let this not be confused with the sort of discontent we experience in our fleshly selves, when we do not get to do what we want, or things aren’t going our way. This is something different.

“The essence of blasphemy is confusion and in the eyes of the prophet, confusion is raging in the world.” –A.J. Heschel

This is the prophet seeing the muddy water for what it is.

This is looking at the world and aching for all that has gone wrong in it. This is feeling it like a knife in the gut when someone takes a step that, to them, is of no consequence, but the prophet can see where it will lead. This is sensing the roiling misery under the pleasant veneer of the people or the culture. How can the prophet withdraw to his own affairs when all these things sting his lungs like a poison?

And will he get to see the fruit of his labors, the wheat that grows from the words he has sown? Probably not. Some things he may see come to pass, some morsels to feed his faith, but that is far from guaranteed. For “prophecy is never complete in itself; it is a burden, a tension, a call, the waging of a battle, never a victory, never a consummation.” (Heschel)

He cannot, like a monk, withdraw to be prayerful and meditative. That is a noble office, and some are called to it. But not the prophet. He has been tuned to a frequency in which he will hear all the terrible discordance around him. God has opened his eyes and ears, and it is not often a pretty sight.

So, then, what are the prophets to us? Certainly their words are not dead, but is their office? I do not think so, but I also do not know how to judge the matter. We speak a great deal these days of having prophetic natures, or prophetic personalities. We speak of it in terms of spiritual gifting, as is mentioned in the New Testament. Not that this label is wrongly applied, but I do believe we would do well to consider the concept of the prophet, or the nature of a prophet with wisdom and humility.

It would be very presumptuous of us to slide our feet into the shoes of the prophets—to take on that mantle when it must be one divinely bestowed. So I myself must be terribly wary of thinking “because I am passionate, it must be the passion a prophet,” or “my uncompromising nature is probably because I am in nature very like the prophets.” We must be especially careful not to put too much stock into our own words. I say all this more to myself than anyone else.

That remembered, let us play that dangerous game for one moment. You are as a prophet of God. Or I am.

What would that really mean? Certainly not praise and accolades, except perhaps after we are dead, and will neither know nor care about it. It would almost certainly mean:

-Being ignored.

-Aching in compassion for those very people who ignore you, mock you, call for your blood

-Weighted down by those infinitesimal fragments of God’s own compassion, justice, mercy and wrath he sees fit to show you, and finding that weight almost impossible to bear.

-Speaking truth to a beloved authority

-Speaking truth to a despised authority

-to the church

-to those who have abandoned the church

-Telling people that the impossible is possible

-Feeling like all your words are wasted

-Watching the world crash down around your ears

-Being a vessel, not a hero (poor Ezekiel)

-Enduring hunger, humiliation, discomfort, refuse, shame

-Knowing that the very people your rail against, and all their sin, are part of you and you are part of them. Your rail against your very self. You are never above that which you condemn. When God says, “speak this to the people” you—and I—are one of the people.

-Knowing that our own fallenness is one of the apertures through which we must look if we are to have good aim when sighting in on sin outside of ourselves.


So we might be cautious in comparing ourselves to the prophets merely because we experience passion, and we desire to speak, but—whatever else—we must emulate them in their fierce love for both God and man, in how ruthlessly they lash themselves to the truth in spite of all consequences, in how unabashedly they communicate both the wrath and love, the justice and compassion, of God.

If I have any love in me, it came from God. And from him it is infinitely truer, deeper and more pure than mine.

If, in my paltry love or sense of empathy for a perfect stranger, I feel as though I could enter a fight to the death to save someone…how much more so God. He sent many messengers to wake us, and some died in pursuit of their task. And then He sent His Son to die in the pursuit of His.


Only this time, that was not the end.