Living the Whole Life

I am working through two books concurrently (three, if you count fiction, which I do, but not for today's purposes). One is Eugene Peterson's As Kingfishers Catch Fire and the other is Curt Thompson's The Soul of Shame. Both were gifts to me from friends who read them and knew I would need them or love them, or both. 

For many years I thought of myself first as an artist, a spinner of words. I lived in a place full of natural beauty, with never enough words to describe the way the blue heron dipped his head into the quiet riverbed, amidst lily pods and sodden sea grass. Waterfalls and mountains and quiet piney woods and apple orchards were mere minutes away, ripe for inspiration. I drew my cues from poetry and the contemplative. 

Then I moved to the other side of the country and my mind began to be captured by the intellect of theology, ideas, concepts, and I began to think of myself as a thinker, and lost the artist within. I was valued for my mind and ideas, and less valued for art. And I thought myself okay with this because I thought intellect was better than art. 

A friend turned 30 a few weeks ago and felt the things we all feel when we pass a marker in life: fear, anxiety, inadequacy, the question of "Have I wasted my life?" I remember feeling all of those same things on the eve of my 30th and in some ways those feelings have increased, but really it's just that I think myself more aware of their presence and less aware of their power. Turning 30 was hard, but being 30 wasn't. There is hopefully a settling sense of growth, maturity, and the temporality of life that no longer frightens you as much as invigorates you. If being in my 40s or 50s or 60s only brings an increase of that, I await it eagerly. Age brings the disparate pieces back together again, I think, or it should. All the scattered feelings and identities and questions come more into focus with a quiet, settled yes.

So I am reading Peterson and Thompson and both of them wrote about the union of these disparate pieces, namely the body, spirit, heart, and mind. How when we only address one of these, or address it more than the others, we begin to live lopsided lives. I am thinking of a man who skips leg day at the gym, whose body is strong on top and meager on the bottom. Or a comic illustration I saw many years ago of a man who only lifted weights with one arm so it was bulky and disordered from the other which was skinny and limp. We laugh because it's laughable but we also do it more than we like to admit. At least I do. I exercise my mind because it's easier than exercising my body. I engage my spirit because it's easier than engaging my mind. I entreat my body because it's easier than giving my heart. I am lopsided piecemeal. 

The growing awareness of these malnourished pieces came into focus over the past year in the void of anything to feed them (affirmation is such a powerful feast and we are such hungry paupers). We have been trying to begin seeing ourselves as whole creations intended for wholeness, instead of limping along at breakneck speeds without the equal use of our limbs. What does it mean to slow the growth of one part of us, in order to give attention to another? What does it mean to set aside the mind for the flourishing of the spirit, or to prioritize the health of the body when the spirit is strong? Not to neglect the other at its own peril, but to acknowledge that we are more than one appendage and therefore must attend to all of them? 

We are by nature legalists, always adding to the laws of God because we fear he will overlook us otherwise. But what does it mean to trust the Creator made us for wholeness and not half-ness? I cannot answer that for you and most of the time cannot even answer it for me. It takes time and trust and some times are easier than others. But I know I want it. 

I wonder, sometimes, if one of the reasons we're constantly searching for meaning in everything is because we're discontent with our under-exercised limbs. I read this recently and it's funny because it's true: 

"It’s easy to believe that if we look good enough, perhaps it might be true that our lives are meaningful or even blessed. Everywhere we go, we can see evidence of this. Walking along the Seine, one sees dozens of people from all over the world standing with their backs to the view, smiling hopefully up at their iPhones. Millions of selfie sticks are purchased out of hope and fear."

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my car waiting for someone and a girl sat on a park bench alone nearby. For nearly twenty minutes she posed herself with her phone camera, shooting image after image, and deleting, I'm sure, all but one. There were probably wrinkles or glints of light or too much chin or not enough hair or someone in the background or any number of reasons why being a whole person with wrinkles and frizzy hair and among others would not do for her. I don't know her, but I wanted to sit with her, make conversation, distract her from the myth of Narcissist inside her for one moment. Tell her she is not less than a body, but that she is certainly more than one. 

Someone asked me recently how we help young teens not obsess about perfection and I don't know the answer. I think it starts with teaching them they are whole people, whole image bearers, that their hearts, souls, minds, and bodies are all made by God and he called all of creation good. I think that's where we start, by not neglecting what God called good—even if it's frightening to engage. I don't know what you'll find there, when you begin to stop counting calories and running incessantly, when you begin to engage your mind instead of only your body. I don't know what will happen when you set aside the books and papers and themes and dig out the painful occurrences of your childhood, ways your spirit was crushed and hasn't ever recovered. 

Yesterday morning I sat on the couch with my husband and confessed some shame I've been feeling about something that happened when I was nine years old. I had wronged and been wronged and couldn't differentiate the shame I felt from doing wrong and being wronged in the same scenario. All I knew is, years later, confessions later, I still feel the clinging shame of those moments. Most of that is because I've neglected that space, have been afraid to enter into it for fear of what I'll find there. It's easier to engage my mind or my body than it is to open the door to my heart. But I must go there, I know I must, because wholeness cannot happen when only half-ness thrives. 

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

Eugene Peterson, Homosexuality, and Theology from 30,000 Feet

Edit: Today the good journalists at Christianity Today did what good journalists do and followed up on this interview, publishing Eugene Peterson's clarification and affirmation of a "Biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman." Deeply grateful for that, though it changes almost nothing of my position below on the theology of marriage based on Scripture—which is how, I think, our theology ought to be. 

This morning a religious site published the conclusion of their three part interview with Eugene Peterson, in which he said he would perform the ceremony of a same-sex couple. The Internet has responded predictably since the voices on it are made up of humans and humans are predicable. As for me, predictable as well.

I'm sad for a few reasons, none of which I'm going to talk about much today. Eugene Peterson has been an example of a pastor who walked faithfully, steadfastly, and humbly in quiet places for the past fifty years and I want no less for my own life. I know thousands could have opinions on how each of us does that, but if I reach the end of my life with a quarter of the humble faithfulness Pastor Peterson has, I will die happy. 

It does occur to me, though, that speakers, teachers, and writers who endeavor in faithfulness and yet do not lead in issues like these (and many others) will fail in some respect. There may have been clues along the way that Peterson would capitulate in this way, but his voice never landed too strongly on one side or another. I mourn that in some ways because if I am honest with you, I struggle, deeply, with this issue and I need to know where to look sometimes. Many conservatives lack empathy and many liberals lack theology. I want both. 

I am a relational person and high on empathy, so my natural inclination is to side with marginalized. My natural inclination is to listen, hardly speak, love those who are struggling and  love those who are happily indulging. My gay friends are happy people mostly. They love their partners, they seem to feel at peace with them, they enjoy them—much in the same way that I love, feel at peace with, and enjoy my husband. It's hard to argue with joy. It's actually impossible to argue with joy. And when that joy is accompanied by a certainty that their relationship is God-blessed and God-ordained and within the bounds of Scripture as they understand it, well, it's even harder to argue with that. I'm just being honest with you, friends. It is hard to argue, disagree, and draw a hard line here while at the same time loving, laughing with, and enjoying my very human friends who also happen to happily identify as gay.

But, when I read Scripture saying things like, "In this life you will have sorrow," and "Deny yourself and take up your cross," and "He must increase, I must decrease," I remember, "Oh, it is hard. We were warned it would be. But we still endeavor on in loving people all the way through even though it's hard, even when the source of their joy is rooted more in earthly fulfillment than it is in God's good design and the point of it all: the gospel." 

In the moments when I've found my faith in these things weak, I've found it so helpful to redirect my heart and mind back to original design and gospel implications for marriage instead of centering my theology and love in experience. I don't know if that will be helpful for you, but here's where I'm meditating today: 

Because we are human, and God gave us a full gamut of emotions and experiences, we will always be tempted to build our picture of the gospel and marriage on those things. Experiences are real, tangible, and felt. And emotions are raw, deep, and inexplicable. The union of these two can produce a powerful force when it comes to theology and it's easy to do it. I do it all the time. It's why slogans like "Love is love," and "How can something that feels so good be wrong," are invented. How can my experience coupled with my emotion toward something be considered wrong? 

I'd argue you're right, actually. The problem is the experience and emotions to which you refer are only the tiniest tip of the iceberg—there is something far greater and far better and far more profound to be both emoted and experienced below, and this is the Love of God toward his creation and the act of Christ on the cross. 

The whole work of creation is a symphony of harmony. Two very different entities, coming together, making one, and this is a picture of the gospel: God and man, reconciled, united, together for eternity. Tim Keller said this,

"In Genesis 1 you see pairs of different but complementary things made to work together: heaven and earth, sea and land, even God and humanity. It is part of the brilliance of God’s creation that diverse, unlike things are made to unite and create dynamic wholes that generate more and more life and beauty through their relationships. As N. T. Wright points out, the creation and uniting of male and female at the end of Genesis 2 is the climax of all this.

That means that male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories—they each see and do things the other cannot. Sex was created by God to be a way to mingle these strengths and glories within a lifelong covenant of marriage. Marriage is the most intense (though not the only) place where this reunion of male and female takes place in human life. Male and female reshape, learn from, and work together. 

Therefore, in one of the great ironies of late-modern times, when we celebrate diversity in so many other cultural sectors, we have truncated the ultimate unity-in-diversity: inter-gendered marriage. "

I wrote this a few years ago, 

"God, in beautiful ways, makes it clear to His people that He and they are wholly different from one another. Though man was created in God's image—a likeness in part, a reflection—intrinsically they are not the same. This is not a simple love story, though, here is the most sacrificial love possible: this is two entities, completely distinct, absolutely different, and intrinsically separate—brought together to form an eternal union.

A homosexual union cannot be, by its nature, a reflection of Christ and the Church because Christ and the Church are intrinsically and holistically different from one another. For the Christian, the bride of Christ, a homosexual marriage cannot reflect that which marriage is intended to display: their union with Christ.

It is not about biology or parts fitting together, or feelings of love, or a fullness of emotion, or unalterable attraction—it is the definition of a love story, legislated by God, for the good of all men. It is the greatest love ever known. Earthly marriage between a man and woman is meant to be a profound mystery, but it is meant to be a mere illustration of what happens when two holistically different entities are joined together.

The kingdom is made complete."

In order for me to love all my friends with disordered loves (and to know myself with all my disordered loves), I have to return again and again to two things: The original design of marriage and the mystery of marriage. The design was to take two different entities to illustrate the love between Christ and his bride, the Church. The mystery is that a man and woman preach the gospel over and over and over again simply by being married to one another. 

Seeing how this is God's original intention with marriage helps me to see it from 30,000 feet, enabling me to better love my friends and our world, while still saying, in full faith, that two people of the same sex cannot participate in the mystery of marriage to one another as God intended marriage. They might be partnered, they might live together, they might engage in sexual activity, but it is not marriage as God designed it: complementary and mysterious

I felt a little sad today, all day, having read the article from Peterson this morning. I know he isn't deity. He's not God. He's been an inordinate help to me through the years and my shelves are full of his books. He's not infallible, though, and I'm not surprised by his answers. But here's what I'm most sad about: it seems that if we're at all inclined to be like he is and like what I've admire him for: empathy, gentleness, a listener, one who practices compassion, one who aches and joys with those who ache and joy, it seems, at some point, there is a great temptation to so enter into that mourning or joy, that we believe it is the most true thing about a person. I don't believe that. I believe the most true thing about a person is that they were created in the image of God but also they are not God, and, as much as possible, I want my mission to be mourning with those who mourn with a sorrow that leads to life without regrets, and joying with those who rejoice with a joy that lead to life. And I can't do that if my eyes are on them instead of on God. 

I don't know where you are today in this whole discussion. I used to write about this a lot more years ago and for the sake of my soul had to take most of these conversations offline. But I didn't know if you're where I find myself a lot: aching with my friends who are attracted to people of the same sex, and wanting to ache with them in a way that gives them what they want. I find it helpful to remember again and again and again, that my beliefs about God and man come from the greatest emotion and greatest experience of all time: the Love of God and the sacrifice of His Son, and these are found in Scripture alone, giving us all we need for life and godliness. 

If you'd like to read some of the archives on this subject, start here: 

What God Has Joined Together

Delaying Marriage and Same-Sex Attraction

Bearing the Burdens of Brothers