Putting Ourselves in the Way of God

I sobbed the night Rich Mullins died. I wasn't a fanatic fan, I was just a 16 year old girl who'd been jostled from a stupor by his lyrics. I still wouldn't awaken fully for another 14 years, but the jostling was powerful still. 

Rich was the first Christian I knew about whose faith—and the wrestle for it—seemed real and not built of principles and precepts and rules and boundaries and all the suffocating things I thought Christianity was. I dreamed about his kind of Christianity for a lot of years, knowing it must be possible to be as jacked up as he was and still as loved as he seemed to think he was. It would be another decade and a half before I'd begin to really understand the way to know the "reckless raging fury that they call the love of God," and that the way to believing we really are that loved is to first admit we really are that jacked up—and to never separate those two confessions from one another ever. 

I sat at a table with a friend last night and we talked, as we have always talked, for as long as I've known her (a few years after the night I cried wet tears with my best friend while we leaned against my bed and listened to the news of Rich Mullins' death on the radio), about the gospel. She has always been a teacher of sorts to me, the one who used the words gospel and grace and predestined and the cross in a way that drew me instead of confused me. She was canning beets and I was drinking water and it has always been that way for her and for me. She, faithful with the work of her hands in a small sustainable farm in upstate New York, parenting her kids, being a wife, listening and sharing sermons, and every day reminding herself and others that the gospel that saved her is the gospel that sustains her and she needs it, oh how she needs it. She's in her 50s and canning beets and telling me again she can't coast by on anything but the kindness of God who draws her to repentance. I want to be like her. 

The thing I love about Rich Mullins, and the thing you do too if you've given any of his lyrics a good hard listen, is that he never let anyone believe he was too big for his britches, too big for a walloping from God, or too important for anyone. I think that's the reason he was barefoot so often, as if to say it's all holy ground, "every common bush afire with God," and yet we're not yet, not yet afire with God. Not all the way through. He wore the garments of sinner and saint well and I want to be like that too. 

I've grown weary of the goodness again, the pretty perfect people. I've grown weary of hearing myself talk or talking at all. The harder I work to be sanctified, the more I despise the person I become, straight-jacketed, self-important, principled, careful, wise, stupid, or naive. I hear more Pharisee in me than Jesus in me. Not because I'm a hypocrite or a white-washed tomb, but because I forget the gospel that saves is the gospel that sustains. 

I read this from Andrew Peterson this morning, the intro to the concert I was a little bit heartbroken to miss. I'm reminded we're all just folks wanting to put ourselves in the way of God, desperate for the kind of affection and attention we think will fix or save or help or reward us. But the thing I think Rich Mullins knew, and my friend who was canning beets knows, and the thing I want to know more than anything is God has put himself in my way.

As a Father he picked up his robes and ran toward our filthy sin-stained rags and our filthy righteous robes. As the Son he became sin. As the Spirit he comes and fills and overflows and empowers us to live today and the next day and the next day and the next, one step in front of another, ragamuffins, but faithful ragamuffins as best as we can understand it. 

There's a wideness in God's mercy
I cannot find in my own
And He keeps His fire burning
To melt this heart of stone
Keeps me aching with a yearning
Keeps me glad to have been caught
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God

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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