Go Naked

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” – Philippians 3:10

Scripture says that when Jesus was condemned the soldiers stripped him of his clothes.  We don’t know what it looked like – whether he looked them in the eye as they undid his belt.  We don’t know if he tried to cover himself, or if he pulled his tunic over his own head, smelling for the last time the fabric of his life – his sweat, tinged with the odor of his last supper.

What we do know is this: it was the worst possible death for a Jew.  Not because the flesh is sinful, but because the body is holy – made in the image of God.  And so he hung there, his arms outstretched, made vulnerable, open to the wounds of the world.  The Word of God made flesh, redeemed.  Reborn.

Yet, each morning we clothe ourselves – not just with garments, but with schedules, meetings, partners, plans.  We paint youth in firm brushstrokes on our cheeks, cover our anxieties with accessories, our fears with fashion.  We wrap ourselves in the diplomas on the wall, in the labels on the car and on the clothes.  We arm ourselves with our expectations for ourselves and others, our defense mechanisms and coffee mugs.

So today, go naked.  Take it all off.  Expose that scar.  Say a prayer of gratitude for the love handles and the crow’s feet.  Dare to confront the way you physically and emotionally bear the marks of time.  Because then, and only then, will we become like Christ –made vulnerable, open to the wounds of the world, yes, but also the wonders.  Do this, and I am willing to bet that you will see yourself again for the first time – the image of God made flesh, redeemed.  Reborn.

– Reflection by Elissa Johnk, from StillSpeaking

Facebook Me and Real Me

facebookThis morning in our Sunday gathering, Mike was taking us through the gospel terminology used in the New Testament book of Galatians. While explaining the term ‘righteousness,’ he made mention of the way we see ourselves against the way we want people to see ourselves, using as an example Facebook.

It is obvious that the stuff we put on Facebook is filtered reality–it’s what we want others to see in us. We try to build an identity so when people look at our page, they see the person who is better, more confident, more positive than we are in real life.

We want to appear more ‘righteous’ than we really are.

I know it’s hard to believe, but that’s exactly what I do. I know how I am and, in the words of someone whose name escapes me at the moment John Powell (see, I don’t have such a perfect memory either!), “I am afraid to tell you who I am because, if I tell you who I really am, you may not like me.”

I’d like to think I’m getting past that (insert ‘You know when you’re getting old’ joke here).

Truth is, I’m not . . . not as much as I would like to. I care about what you think about me. I try to present myself as clever, deep, spiritual (but not with my head in the clouds), active, mostly positive, involved, compassionate, controlled, massively ripped (OK, maybe that’s too obvious an exaggeration) . . . and I am all those things to some degree (except for my abs, alas!).

But I’m also short-sighted, stubborn, proud, intolerant, and sometimes downright unkind.

I am not as ‘balanced’ as I appear on my Facebook page (Those who know me well, say ‘Amen!’ but stay away from the ‘mental’ references, please).

I lean more to the left than I present myself to be. (Onya, Barack!) I’m not ashamed of my progressive (or what some may call ‘liberal’) leanings, but I know some of my friends are not at the same point on their journey. For the sake of those whom I know (hope?) will one day see things differently, I temper my comments, I filter my reactions, I watch which pages I ‘Like’ because I know they can see everything I do on my timeline.

I love my family and I’m really proud of who they are and what they’ve accomplished, but I never post a status of how sometimes they aren’t as awesome as I’d like them to be (or I’m not as awesome to them as I like myself to be–more like it).

I comment when I feel it is safe to do so. I weigh my responses to others’ posts about the hot button issues in the world today.

Is that a lie? After all, I’m not saying that I’m fully on one side or the other . . . the intention of my social media presence is not to be an activist . . . . my family might see it . . . you may misunderstand my intentions . . . I may get cornered after Church by people whom I really care about and love who want to show me how much they love me in return . . . I could get in trouble at work (um, wait! That’s right, they’re Anglican and are used to accepting all sorts of people–balanced and otherwise).

Or should I be more honest and vulnerable and show my true colours, my heart, the way I see the world, people, and God?

St Paul is known to have coined the phrase, “I have become all things to all men . . .” Surely this is what got him in trouble on more than one occasion. Is it worth it?

Well, I guess that you now know who I am, I’d better do the best thing by all of us . . .

. . . I’ll just have to de-friend you.

All is Grace

I finished reading Brennan Manning‘s book, All is Grace, a while back and have been meaning to write about it but, for once, I am lost for the right words to convey how much I was moved by Manning’s story.

All is Grace is autobiography at its best–not simply a story but one that draws the reader into the author’s life and, more importantly, the joys and sorrows and lessons learned. Black Coffee Reflections blog writes of this book as being “A true testimony of a man who desired to be devoted to God but was insistent on sabotaging himself and the will of God at every turn. Brennan seems to know two things in his life: Despite his talents, he is his own worst enemy, and two, he knows he must cling to the grace of God to get him through – hence the title, All Is Grace.”

What I most appreciated about this book–in fact in all of Brennan Manning’s books–is his honesty and vulnerability. He has no problem divulging the dirtiest of secrets or the deepest of sins. And he has plenty to reveal. . . . but then, don’t we all–if we are honest with ourselves?

Brennan does this in such a way as not to paint any masterpiece of his erring ways, but to paint a glorious picture of God’s great love and all-forgiving grace. One cannot read this book and not see the grace and generosity of God.

I recall only a few times when I have been struck with such a powerful image of grace and both relate to books I have read and how they spoke into my life at precisely the right moment. The first was Why Grace Changes Everything by Chuck Smith. Here I began to understand grace as coming to me not because of my ability or effort, but simply as a gift as I rest in the goodness of God. The second was In the Grip of Grace by Max Lucado where the overwhelming love of God and unrelenting graciousness was first revealed to me.

Manning’s book takes God’s grace one step further. While Smith and Lucado both wrote beautifully about grace, Manning experiences this truth in a immensely significant way and shares his struggles, his failures, and his pain to show us that God’s grace is real and far stronger and greater than anything we can throw up against it.

God took one of the lowest points in Brennan’s life to teach him a lesson about the magnitude of his grace and forgiveness. Brennan’s mother had passed away and, partly because of his memories of her and his life at home and partly because of where he was at this point in his life, he turned to the bottle. He was so drunk he totally missed his mother’s funeral.

One of the questions I’ve often asked myself is, What makes a man drown himself in drink to the point that he passes out and misses his own mother’s funeral? It has seemed like a huge question to me. but eventually I realised: It is not the question. There is another question behind it. a more seminal one that forms and informs all my others. Not long ago, I came across a small yellowed piece of paper in my stack of writings. It has the letterhead “Willie Juan Ministries” with a scratch below it from my own hand, a single line, a question: “What is the telltale sign of a trusting heart?”

I cannot remember when I wrote it or what might have prompted the question. Yet it is there, evidence of a ragamuffin’s lifelong wondering. Here is my answer, the answer that is. as Thomas Merton wrote, “the ‘Yes’ which brings Christ into the world.”

The trusting heart gives a second chance.

I know that’s true because of an experience I had on a November day in 2003. My mother had been dead and gone for close to ten years. As I was praying about other things, her face flashed across the window of my mind. It was not a worn face like that of an old mother or grandmother, but a child’s face. I saw my mother as a little six-year-old girl kneeling on the windowsill of the orphanage in Montreal. Her nose was pressed against the glass; she was begging God to send her a mommy and daddy who would whisk her away and love her without condition. As I looked, I believe I finally saw my mother; she was a ragamuffin too. And all my resentment and anger fell away. The little girl turned and walked toward me. As she drew closer, the years flew by and she stood before me an aged woman. She said, “You know, I messed up a lot when you were a kid. But you turned out okay.” Then my old mother did something she’d never done before in her life, never once. She kissed me on the lips and on both cheeks. At that moment I knew that the hurt between my mother and me was real and did matter, but that it was okay. The trusting heart gives a second chance; it is forgiven and, in turn, forgives.

Grace doesn’t stop with forgiveness by God, but works its way through the heart of the forgiven one until he or she, overwhelmed by God’s love, then becomes a channel; of that generous grace in forgiving others. Grace, then, becomes a life. Broknenness becomes a path to understanding love. Pain becomes an avenue to trusting. Vulnerability leads us to see how much we are loved by God.

And then we realise, as Brennan Manning does, that

All

Is

Grace.

Champions of the Abstract

There is safety in the abstract.

Much as we celebrate community, relationship, and inter-connectedness in our faith communities, we often find ourselves drawn back to the abstract. We talk about God, seek to understand all the intricacies of theology and religiosity, study the Bible and learn the nuances of its original languages, write beautifully-crafted liturgies and prayers, and compose great hymns and songs.

In all this, I sense we are afraid: afraid of being seen for who we are, afraid of being “found out,” afraid of our reputation or our character being tainted by what others may perceive to be shallowness, “worldliness,” or immaturity.

I am somehow fascinated by the stories of those who have been brought up in a fundamentalist environment only to find freedom from this way of living in their adult years. What I have seen as a common thread throughout the vast majority of these accounts is the fear of being found to be a “compromiser” or a “traitor” by family, friends, and fellow church members. What happens, more often than not, is that, once they start asking questions or doing things that are outside of the list of permitted activities, they are shunned by their community. I have heard recently the sad story of a man whose parents told him “We cannot speak to you until you repent”—effectively severing their ties with him as long as he continued to behave in what their church considered to be an “immoral activity.”

So we talk in abstracts, saying things in such a way that we cannot be nailed down on a specific meaning. Our pastors preach sermons in the third person, lest their own experience weaken their reputation and cause the congregation to question their suitability for employment. We speak of our own lives in general terms, unwilling to give voice to our own struggles, questions, or understandings.

We are afraid of being misunderstood, rejected, disconnected from our community, or condemned for going against the tide of our subculture’s opinion.

We settle for the abstraction of an academic understanding of God and God’s revelation, and bottle up our own stories, feelings, beliefs, and our own real selves. As Parker J. Palmer writes:

“Instead of telling our vulnerable stories, we seek safety in abstractions, speaking to each other about our opinions, ideas and beliefs rather than about our lives.

“Academic culture blesses this practice by insisting that the more abstract our speech, the more likely we are to touch the universal truths that unite us. But what happens is exactly the reverse: as our discourse becomes more abstract, the less connected we feel. There is less sense of community among  intellectuals than in the most “primitive” society of storytellers.” (From A Hidden Wholeness as quoted in MINEmergent)

And so we have people living within a community feeling a sense of “detachment” or “unconnectedness” with people in that same community. The same is heard from those in many different communities of faith: “I can’t be myself.” It’s a perception that, while many freedoms are afforded, that of being able to freely tell your story is one that is too dangerous and, possibly, detrimental to maintaining unity within that organisation. Therefore, we sacrifice reality and connectedness for the safety of what is more acceptable and palatable to those who share our own cultural context. We become champions of the abstract, keeping our own subjective feelings, interpretations and experiences within.

When we dig deeper, we realise that this way of living is dangerous—it is detrimental to our wellbeing in so many ways, leading to resentment and bitterness which can then lead to all kinds of mental and physical disorders.

How can we rise above our fears and open up to the freedom of being who we are? I’ve got to do a lot more thinking about this because, I presume, there is no easy answer. However, I strongly suspect whatever resolution we find to this problem will be found within the framework of Jesus’ commands to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27)

Is this possible, given the context of our human tendency to judge and condemn, putting down others and refusing love when another does not meet our standards?

With God, I believe, it is.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

I’ve just finished reading an insightful book by Andrew Himes called The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family. He traces his own family tree in light of his grandfather’s high popularity in 20th Century American Fundamentalism. It is an enlightening book full of history lessons as well as a deep understanding of context and culture that birthed what is so widely known as “The Religious Right” in America. Yet, as one who was in the centre of this cult-like phenomenon, who turned to atheism and Marxism in his College years, and who came out the other side to witness his own redemption and understanding of the other, Andrew shares his story to show how understanding and grace trumps judgement and bitterness.

I’ll write more about this in a future post.