Book Review: The Freedom We Crave

“The problem of addiction in our culture is not a drug or alcohol problem, but a people problem.” -William Lenters

“A man must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.” -C.K. Chesterton

The author of the book The Freedom We Crave, William Lenters, is a licensed addictions counselor and ordained minister.  He has served as campus minister at Purdue University and was director of the Calvary Rehabilitation Center from 1973-1981.  Presently, he serves as pastor of Hope Christian Reformed Church in Oak Forest, Illinois.

Lenters has counseled hundreds of people addicted to beverage alcohol and countless others addicted to any number of other drugs available in Western culture, some of which he discusses at length in his book.  In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to each of the three major addictions that he has encountered in his ministry:  addiction to romance and dependence upon another person, addiction to alcohol, and addiction to religion.  The author included another chapter discussing workaholism, addiction to food, and addiction to fitness – three other very common varieties of dependencies readily available to people in our time.  His concern, he states simply, “is with people, with how they develop addictive patterns of living to cope with existence, and with freedom from addiction.” (p. viii of the Preface)

The first point that the author makes, and one that he makes repeatedly throughout the book, is that addiction is not, in his estimate, something that plagues a hapless few who are somehow predisposed by their personality or their environment toward indulgences.  We may use that tactic to feel self-righteous or fortunate that we are not among them, but it is incorrect.  “Addiction describes something that happens to everyone at the deepest level.  None of us is exempt.”  (p. 4)  In a bold move, Lenters goes on to paraphrase Romans 3:23 as, “All have fallen short of the freedom we crave.” (p. 4)  His objective in writing the book, however, is not to discuss the theory of addiction or even the theological implications of it.  It is to simply point a way toward freedom, to provide a strategy for recovering from addiction.  “Because we bear the diving image, we have the privilege and the responsibility of freedom.” (p. 17, emphasis mine)

Lenters’ work is wide in its scope and bold in its presuppositions.  He speaks of addiction, but through the lens of our relationship with God and our very existence in this world linked to it and our need to live well.  He relates sin, our refusal to turn to God as our lifeblood and refuge and strength, to personality or character disorders, terms used by the psychological community to describe undesirable behavior.  He says,

A central question is this:  “How do we cope with existence?  How do we live and not simply survive?  How do we deal with the sense of being finite and with the limits of our existence?”  One answer:  We cope inadequately, sinfully, neurotically.  We develop almost ritualistic behavior patterns.  Our personalities take shape around the habits we thoughtlessly cultivate. (p. 6-7)

He goes on to describe the difference between freedom from and freedom for, and defines the former as one that is compulsively grasped for rather than graciously received, an “absolute freedom” (p. 22).

Our defection results in a loss of freedom brought about by the pursuit of absolute freedom.  In this sense “sin” and “neurosis” are two sides of the same coin: the complete isolation of the individual, the attempt to create one’s own world from within oneself, the refusal to recognize and accept one’s cosmic dependence. (p. 22)

And the freedom that he speaks of in his book?  He defines it succinctly as “grounded in the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” (p. 9)

The author then discusses these sins, these obsessions we give ourselves over to, and the reason that we might give up our freedom in exchange for them.  It might be a high, as Augustine experienced, feeling good or an emotional “fix,” unburdening ourselves of responsibility, or even, in extreme cases, the feeling of guilt.  “We become addicted to that which makes us feel guilty… such addiction is the criminally insane psychopathic person.” (p. 15)  Psychopathological or not, we often worship guilt as a feeling or a stance because we think that it will bring us restoration, that it will lead the way to our freedom.  Lenters explains that “there is within us a natural temptation to suppose that feeling guilty will somehow enable us to overcome our guilty behavior and thereby, with one swoop, wash away all our guilty stains.” (p. 16)  So pervasive is this approach that it may not in fact be limited to the criminally insane but perhaps the morally bankrupt as well.  It is a replacement, a quick switch, refusing Christ as the Savior from our state of guilt, and worshiping instead the feeling.  Besides, “there is a security in being unfree” (p. 18), and “we run to the comfort and security of one god or another to escape the terrible burden of freedom.” (p. 21)

This paradox of human freedom is the key to understanding addiction.  Ultimately, how we deal with death determines how we will live.  “We cannot get out of life alive,” says Lenters, “and that scares us to death… the issue of life… is death.” (p. 24)  Addiction, then, is our response to a profound fear and aversion to that reality.  Often our response is to repeat “that which produces feelings of safety, reassurance, affirmation, even pleasure.  As the addictive process grows in intensity, providing the desired result, we gradually lose our power to choose for or against the activity.” (p. 33-34)  And again: “It’s the law within us.” (p. 43)  No matter the addiction, the solution Lenters lays out is not a simplistic one, but it is one grounded in the reality that “since the children have flesh and blood, [Christ] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15, New International Version)  Perhaps this is what Jesus was referring to when he said that if a man “wants to save his life he will lose it” (Mark 8:35, NIV) and C.K. Chesterton’s thought that a man “must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”

Thought not stating that everything we enjoy is an addiction, Lenters does examine our insistence upon those objects in which we find pleasure, or safety, or comfort to come through for us repeatedly.  Common areas for those to occur are romantic love, alcohol, and religion.  The message is the same:  “’Let me hide behind your strength’ – whether it’s the strength of a prayer group, the strength that comes from a lover, or the courage that comes out of a bottle.” (p. 34)   Regarding romantic love, we may become addicted to the object of our romance if we expect that person to complete us, to address our deep sense of solitude or anxieties, or if we expect love to make us happy.

I was especially intrigued by both the chapters on alcoholism and the use of religion as addiction.  The first, because alcoholism seems to be the addiction of choice in my family history for many men, and religion, because I have encountered several folks for whom religion, and not relationship with the Living God, seems to be the central issue of their lives.  Lenter’s treatment of both is profound.  I found myself reading through a few paragraphs, and laying the book down so as to digest what I had discovered, or heading off to find a Bible to see what more might be said about a controversial statement laid out by the author on the theological implications of addiction.  For example, as stated earlier, sin and character disorders are of the same lineage.  “Addiction is first of all a life-style, a behavior disorder.”  (p. 55)  The effects of addiction are the same.

Addiction has to do with the effect a drug produces on a given person.  Generally this is an effect that relieves tension; but paradoxically it decreases one’s ability to cope with life’s complexities, thus causing more anxiety, not less.  Persons who are addicted to a drug are addicted to the experience that the drug creates for them.  The depressing effects of beverage alcohol lesson a person’s feelings of pain and sense of life’s difficulties at the same time than they cause the person to deal less capably with those difficulties.  Potential addicts who turn to booze in order to gain rewards they are not presently earning or receiving from life will eventually find that their only rewards come exclusively from the drug experience itself.  And so the merry-go-round of addiction proceeds. (p. 57)

The hope Lenters offers, too, is interwoven throughout the book.  The addict’s hope and source of healing are one and the same.  “As a victim or as agent, the [addict] is still in need of Christ’s ministry.  Forgiving sins and healing the sick (note that he made a close link between these; Mark 2:3-12), Jesus was present ‘full of grace and truth’ when he ‘dwelt among us,’ and he expects his body to be present in the world full of his grace and truth.” (p. 69)  In addition to Lenters’ profound theological insight, his use of case studies at the end of his discussions lend practical and thoughtful aid on how a counselor or a friend or the body at large might intervene to help someone caught in an addiction.  Lenters also offers an inventory for the reader, “steps to healthy living,” at the back of the book.

I agree with Lenters’ closing words on the matter of addiction.  “The mini-hells we experience are our own creation.  We try to unseat the Creator from his throne, or to flee from his presence.  Either way we lose.  The gospel is good news counterpointing this fiasco.  There is winning in losing; indeed, the only requirement for winning in this life is to lose.  In biblical language, that means to die; and that includes all of us, because we all die.  Becoming alive to this truth is what sets us free.” (p. 114)

Amen.  May we all, then, come alive to the truth of our death with Christ on his cross, that we may rise with him in the Resurrection, to “somehow… attain to the resurrection from the dead”  (Philippians 3:11, NIV), where our real life begins and where we “shine like stars in the universe as we hold out the word of life.”  (Philippians 2:15-16)  That is something worth dying for.

Categories: Addiction, Book Review, Healing | Leave a comment

What’s Our Motivation?

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” -Frederick Buechner

I recently read a really great book on living in the love of God called “So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore?”  In it, a man named John approaches proselytizers on a street corner screaming at passers-by that they will be going to hell.  He nears one of the accusers, and, full of sadness, says to him, “You really have no idea what motivates you, do you?”

It struck me as odd, this comment.  Not because I’m not also put off by the accusers’ remarks, or by their apparent misunderstanding of the Scriptures or even the heart of God, but by the use of the word “motivation.”  Reading through the story, I came to understand John as a man of God, a man who knows Him very intimately.

Over time, I realized that in that question John really cut to the heart of the matter, the same as Jesus often does in His approach to us.  God is always interested more in what is in our hearts, the “why’s” and “what’s” and “what’s up’s” than he is in our actions, those “how’s” and “where’s” and “when’s,” at least at first.  To the man at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus’ first remark isn’t “get up,” but rather, “Do you want to get well?”  In other words, “What’s in your heart?”  Only after the man engages Jesus with something of his heart does Jesus then call him to action.

I recently had a conversation with a friend named Jason where I read him the Fredrick Buechner quote above.  Buechner essentially states that when we are thinking of a vocation for our lives, we should listen to the voice of our heart’s desire and, at the same time, pay attention to what is needed around us.  Sounds good, but that’s actually a very difficult thing to do.  It requires that we actually pay attention to our own hearts and that they become whole enough and free enough to desire the right things.  And then it requires that we engage the world around us, the people we know and work with and the communities we live in.

Jason hates his job and is trying to discover what it is he is called to be doing at this point in his life.  It’s a good thing to be wrestling with, though painful.  Does he go back to school? Change professions? Update his resume and look online at job openings in other cities?  In our conversation, he insisted that it is better to listen to what God says to do, and that paying attention to our hearts and to our own gladness isn’t only unimportant, but might even lead us astray.  His problem, he said, is that he couldn’t hear God.  God just wasn’t speaking to him.

I told him that what I thought Buechner meant by his statement is that Jesus will often speak to us through the desires written long ago in our hearts, that the calling on our lives will be where we feel the most passion and energy and where we hear the Lord speaking to us.  Jason was asking God to talk, but then plugging his ears, shutting down the very organ that the Lord often speaks to us through.  It’s tricky, to be sure.  We don’t “follow our hearts,” which could lead us to do all kinds of crazy things.  We follow Jesus.  But we don’t follow the Lord without our hearts.

Jason could still only see the actions that Jesus calls us to, and not the motivation behind them.  Behavior divorced from the soul.  He just wanted God to give him the checklist, without having to engage his own deep heart.  Possibly the most important question Jason and I were able to hammer out was, “What is it, exactly that God wants for me, not merely from me?”

If only the man known as the “expert of the law” had been able to see that question when he came to Jesus asking what was necessary to “inherit eternal life” (Luke 10).  Jesus, probing his heart, asked him in return, “What’s written in the law?  How do you read it?”  (esus could very well have asked him, “You’re the “expert of the law,” right?  Your identity is in knowing everything about God so that you can lord that knowledge over others, all the while stealing their God-given place of intimacy with me.  So, you tell me.  How do you read the law?”  The man replied as he was taught, with the Scripture 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 then comes one of the most confusing verses in all of Scripture.  Jesus says to the man, “Yeah, that’s right.  Do that, and you’ll have life.”

Now hold on.  What is Jesus saying there?  Do thatDo that?  How does a man just “do” that, as if it were a task you could check off at the end of the day?  For any of us who understand love even a little bit, it is not something you do, it is something that flows.  That statement to us who have tasted love is equivalent of saying, “Yes, water is necessary to sustain life in our bodies.  Do water and you will live.”  It is nonsensical.  How do you “do water”?

In the same way, how do you “do love”?

And that was Jesus’ point.  You can’t.  You don’t “do love.”  You live it.  You live with it.  You feed it.  You abide in it.  You enjoy it.  You let it grow.  And love is not the point.  Our place with God restored is the point.  He is the vine, and we are the branches of that vine.

Immersed in a society that is task-oriented and consumer-driven, most of our ears have been deafened to the call of the heart, much like the expert in the law.  We hear “love the Lord your God” as a call to action, not a call to intimacy.  We’ve all heard the famous Mountain Dew commercials that declare “Do the Dew,” when, in fact, all you can “do” with Mountain Dew is to drink it.  It actually “does” its thing in you – either to hydrate you or to give you a rush of caffeine.

The tragedy of that encounter in Scripture is that the man left thinking he could just add “love the Lord your God with everything you are” as another item on his checklist as something to do to inherit, or earn or get, real life.

Can you imagine if a twig laying on the ground was thinking to himself, “Hmmm.  I wonder how I can get nutrients.  How can I grow?”  He lays there baking and drying out in the hot sun.  The trunk of the tree says to him, “You are a branch of mine.  What do you think you must do to have life?”  “I think,” replies the twig, “that I’ll go down my checklist.  First, I’ll try to bury myself in the dirt…” and on he goes.  The tree knows, of course, that the only way this branch will live again is to be grafted back into the tree so that the life-giving sap of the tree flows into him.

There is much action in the Kingdom of God.  In fact, living the life of God is the most active and adventurous thing we do, but only as an overflow of the life of the heart.  He loved us first, and our love is a response to His.

And then, we have life.  It begins there, in intimacy with God, and it grows and it extends from it.

Picture Elijah.  This fella was a prophet of God, which means that he was friends with God and that God entrusted to him His own heart and words to bring a nation back into fellowship and intimacy with Himself.  And what kind of life did he get to live?  Well, let’s just say he didn’t spend his life in La-Z-Boy flipping through channels.  At one point, God called him to Mount Carmel, where he was about to have a showdown with one of Israel’s enemies.  1 Kings 18 describes that encounter.

But even Elijah drew his life and breath from the intimate time he spent with God.  Just after the encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah fled in fear and weariness toward a cave.  God tenderly ministers to Elijah, twice bringing him food and water.  He travels to Mt. Horeb to hide and rest in a cave.  God comes to him and listens to his laments.  Elijah is worn out from simply “doing” and needs restoration.  God sends a great wind to the mountain, and then an earthquake, and then a fire.  But God was in none of these.  Then Elijah hears a “gentle whisper,” and it is here in the whisper that he finds God.  There, in that tender embrace from God, Elijah’s life is restored.  He is not doing.  He is, in fact, fainting into the embrace of his God.

In the ‘80s BMX movie Rad, Cru is trying to learn to perform a backflip on his bike.  Bruised and worn out from slamming on his back again and again, and his girlfriend Christian finally tells him, “You’re letting your body move your head.  Let your head lead, and your body will follow naturally.”  On the next attempt, Cru lands his flip perfectly. (I can tell you from experience after watching that movie the first time at 10 or 11, attempting a backflip on a bike isn’t a good idea.)

We’ve all heard the phrases, “Use your head,” or “Get your head in the game.”  That’s another way of saying, “Put your heart into this.  Let this be your entire focus of energy and passion.”  But what if you can’t?  What if you cannot put your heart into the game?  Can you still play well?

In the Kingdom, the answer is no.  The heart is central.  The heart is first.

That is why, I think, Hebrews tell us to keep our eyes focused on Jesus.  We will follow with action and intention what motivates us in the heart.  If our faces are set like flint on the life of Jesus and the love of God, and if we are experiencing them daily as we abide in Jesus, then the effects of love will shine through.  Our motivation will be love.  Love, and the life of God, will be our modus operandi.

It was the summer of 2003.  I and a small band had traveled across the globe to a small village in what is now the new country of South Sudan where we would be shooting some footage for a film we were making on the life of persecuted Christians.  Unable to sleep early one morning, I flipped through the Bible and landed on a verse that had before given me a lot of encouragement, Jeremiah 29:11, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”  Angry for reasons that I could not explain, I left the hot, cramped hut and walked outside.  Due to the absence of electricity, I found myself enshrouded in a nighttime darkness I had never encountered before.  There, under a billion brilliant stars in a sky that stretched wider than the continent, I lamented to God in despair, “I can’t!  I can’t find you, then, because I can’t seek you with all my heart!  I don’t do anything with all my heart!”  I knew painfully well by that point in my life that my heart was broken, obvious to me by the ways I too often hurt people around me with careless remarks, the way I didn’t love others the way I really wanted to, the way my heart was still so easily caught up in cynicism and defensiveness, judgement and condemnation.  I was broken.

I didn’t expect a response, but I got one anyway.  It was a single word, one that has ricocheted and reverberated in my soul ever since, and one that pierced me with its finality and invitation.  It was simply the word, “Exactly.”

And possibly for the first time that night on the other side of the world, I got it.  I understand what the cross had really done for me.  I am grafted back in.  My primary role now is to simply abide there with Christ, and to let His life and love flow into and through me.  Jesus was telling me that yes, indeed, my heart was broken and yes, indeed, I needed a whole heart in order to live full and love well and yes, that finally, there was a way to become wholehearted, through His active grace and presence within me.

In the years since that night, Jesus has done much to heal my heart, and I am living out of more of it now than I ever have, in a way that feels full and free.  Those old abiding places of cynicism and despair and depression and anxiety are significantly diminished.  I am becoming, in the words of Paul, “whole and holy by his love” (Ephesians 1, The Message), the mission of our God for which He sent Jesus as our Rescuer and Redeemer.  The process of healing and restoration requires an intentionality and deliberate collaboration with Jesus on our part.  But now, that action can be the result of a newfound energy and desire of the heart, a new modus operandi.  “Oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him — endless energy, boundless strength” (Ephesians 1:19, The Message).

Categories: Jesus

Our Stories Matter

It’s been nearly two years since the greatest disaster in our community’s history, and in fact one of the worst natural disasters to happen to our country, ever.  The Joplin Tornado on May 22, 2011.  No one in our city has forgotten, or even gotten far from that day.  Yes, life continues on.  Homes and businesses are returning to our community — exciting plans are being drawn up to expand and grow and dream big for the city.  Schools are coming back.  Families have discovered how to reorient their lives without the member they so loved that was taken from them.

And yet, there are places in our hearts and memories that haven’t left that day, and perhaps never will.  As a counselor, I still see a handful of folks that were affected by the tornado, by losing their homes and some nearly their lives.  A particular woman comes to mind, and it could be any of a 100 women living in our community, who lost not one but two close family members.  Another gentleman I know watched a friend be taken into the air while he screamed for help.  It was the last he would ever see him, except in that memory that still haunt him from time to time.

So while life marches on, it’s important to recognize that we’re still in recovery mode.  So much happened in two years ago in such short amount of time, and many are still sorting through the debris.  A friend of mine who works at a bank told me the other day that she still has customers come in with jars of change to roll, and when she pours it into the counter machine, it is full of insulation and particulates from that day.

We need times to reflect and allow those parts of us wounded that day to speak, to have a voice, to continue to mourn the loss and allow that process to grow hope in us.  We can heal — that’s been proven again and again by such courages people who are willing to face the painful memories.  But it takes intentionality.  We none of us can pretend it didn’t happen, as if that were even an option.

As a counselor, one of my jobs and joys is to hear people’s stories, to go with them through the twists and turns of life’s events and try to help them make sense of what’s happened, and to learn what the next right step is to take. In May two years ago, removed from the tornado only by a few days, I sat before a man who had been injured so much that it was difficult to know where to begin treating his wounds, where to begin making sense of things.  It was a triage, a short meeting for me to simply check in with him and recommend immediate psychiatric treatment if he needed it.  He was not a patient of mine, and I didn’t expect he would become so, since he was planning, as I recall, on moving away from the city to live with family in another state. But that brief encounter left its mark on me.

My reflection on meeting him is what follows.  In revisiting this blog post, I wonder now where this man is and how much he has overcome these past two years.  And I wonder what wounds remain yet to be healed. In the end, this isn’t about the tornado, but about the heart, and how the heart experiences and recovers from those unexpected and deeply painful twists in the road, whatever they may be and however they may come to us.

______

I spoke to a gentleman today who had survived the F5 that screamed through Joplin taking out his house on 26th Street.  He held his head down when he spoke.  His eyes were tearful, distant, far-away.  He spoke with a kind of solemnity, a seriousness, without giving eye contact, looking into the pictures he still saw flashing in his mind, still hearing the “horrific roar” of the wind and debris. “I guess I can’t really complain,” he told me quietly.  “I should feel lucky.  I survived.”  Part of his body had been amputated.  His face was still so swollen family could hardly recognize him.  The tornado for him was a monster that ate part of his body and left him crippled.

I listened intently, allowing myself to feel this man’s fear and pain the best I could, while trying to help him feel safe as he retold his story.  It scared him even to think about it, but think about it is all he has been able to accomplish these past ten days.  He retold only pieces of the events, and I didn’t prod him for more.  Since I didn’t spend much time with him, I didn’t feel I’d earned my place to offer much counsel.  I only wanted to let him know that his story mattered.  His pain, his fear, his worry about the future — they are not only expected (“normal reactions by a normal person that’s gone through abnormal circumstances”), but they are also, in a very real sense, important.  They are his, you might say.  He deserves to feel them, needs to process them.  They are his heart’s way of making sense of the deep “why” questions, his mind’s way of dealing with the overwhelming images and smells and pains as the world crashed in around him.  There will be a time when they are no longer appropriate, when pain and fear should give way to hope and joy again, and he will need the help of doctors, medicine, and both physical and psychological therapy to get him there.  But for now, just for a little while, it was my honor to join him in his experience.  He was alone that Sunday afternoon. He doesn’t have to be alone the memory and the recovery.

Of course there’s more to his story, much more.  But it isn’t mine to tell.  The hours and days that have followed since then have been radically different for this man than anything he’s ever lived through before.  They have changed the nature of his life and the relationships he has with everyone around him.  Looking up at me, a furrow in his brow and the same pensive look in his eyes, he told me that everything looks different. “Nothing feels the same,” he said.  “And nothing ever will be again.”

This man has just lost his home, his security and safety, and part of an arm, but he was looking over some precipice that I couldn’t quite yet see.  His brush with death shone light someplace in his soul, and he was trying to see what was there.  Should he have the courage, he has the potential to change things for the better.  There’s hope there somewhere.  The possibility of reconciliation with estranged members of his family.  A fresh glance at the gift of life.

But those changes are still yet to be told.

Those of us who have been affected by this deadly storm have in these days an opportunity to take hold of an incredible gift, something that we normally shield ourselves from with busyness and the small dramas we live in.  It’s the recognition that life is fragile, that life is short.  These are realities that we must hold to if we are to live well.  Those who have lived the greatest lives always seemed to live it with the knowledge that death was only a moment away.  It somehow gave them courage and vision to live more fully and freely.  “Desire life like water,” said G.K. Chesterton, “yet drink death like wine.”

We live in a story that isn’t safe.  It often doesn’t make sense.  The pain and fear can sometimes overwhelm us.  I don’t even pretend to understand what it must be like for some who have survived this horrific event while someone they love hasn’t, or who lost their beloved pet or lifelong home.  But we also live in a story that, above and beyond the tragedy, has the potential to be breathtaking and meaningful, full and true.  There’s much, much more to be told.  It doesn’t end with the tornado, not for any of us.

Categories: Jesus | 1 Comment

In-Tension

The disciples did not understand any of this.
-Luke 18:34

The journey we’re on with Christ is one of great tension, of what can at times feel like a balancing act,  tug-of-war between two opposing forces and we are tight-roping the taut rope between, trying at times with all our might not to lose our balance.

But knocking us off balance seems like a favorite thing for Jesus to do.  And He seems very intentional about it.

What confounded the disciples was not that Jesus was laying out a black-and-white picture of something, a heaven-vs.-hell, and asking them to choose between the two.  He did that at times, for sure, but typically not to those already with Him.  No.  If you notice, the disciples were always confounded whenever they encountered something about Jesus and something about the Kingdom they did not understand, and perhaps did not want to understand, because it would require so much more from them (see, for example,John 12:15-17Luke 18:31-34Mark 9:14-29John 9:1-3John 4:27-33).

It was as if Jesus was wanting to open their eyes to see more of reality, to be able to take it all in.  It was as if He was expanding their hearts even as He was blowing their minds.  He was taking them by the hand and walking them into the “life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).

If we are not expecting to be confounded by Jesus when we encounter Him, if we are not anticipating our small-minded and lop-sided pursuits to be blown to bits, if we are not ready to hear what may frighten us or confuse us, we will never be able to hear the Lord God speak to us.  It was the Pharisees, not the disciples of the Living God, who needed everything to be perfectly clear and straightforward and predictable.

Let me offer an example from my life.  I have a sincere desire to love a friend of mine who is addicted to all sorts of things, making a mess of his life, and hurting a lot of other people along the way — wife, kids, family, friends.  But my desire to love this man is clouded by my anger about his actions, about where he’s taking his life.  To love him feels like being inauthentic with my own ambivalence toward him; but to embrace my hatred of his sin only is to become unavailable to love at all.

So Jesus speaks to me.  I know what I am to do.  I am to act toward him (to show in my actions) authentic love — love that calls him out to become the man he was born to be, all the while embracing in felt affection the screwed-up man he sees each day in the mirror.  In other words, I am to love him where he’s at, but not let my love for him stop there.  But these two actions feel almost contradictory to each other. Paradoxes of love. I’ve heard that God “loves us where we are but loves us too much to keep us there.” How? I know that to be true, and yet to live in the tension of that love is to expose your heart to forces fierce enough to break it.

But once again, humility begs me to confess that I’m the student in this.  If the Teacher goes there and beckons me on with Him, even if I don’t get this… well, then, I want to go there as well, whatever the consequences, for this is true life. There is life to be found in following Him — even in this — and nowhere else.  It’s like Thomas.  When Jesus announced He was going back to Judea (straight into the den of lions, so-to-speak) out of love for His friend Lazarus, Thomas chose to go with Jesus even if it meant his own death (John 11:7-16).  We must choose to go with Him as well, whatever the cost.

(Jesus’ love of Lazarus was a similar kind of tension, actually. Lazarus was dead, and Jesus came to him and wept for the loss. Yet He didn’t leave Lazarus there. His love for him brought him out of the tomb.)

So this is living in-tension-ally, to be comfortable with the discomfort and content with the discontent.  We somehow have to be okay with things not being okay, all the while trusting in the One who is out to set everything right again.  In this tension, we have to at some point come to see that Jesus is out for our good, to expand our hearts so that we may have the capacity for Him to dwell there in all His glory.

All good love — love between lovers or for a friend, love of freedom or a cause, love for life and love for God — all of these will require that we live somewhere between the Fall and the Redemption.  Our God is fully alive in this tension.  We are told to “consider Him who endured such opposition” so that we do not grow weary along the way and totally lose heart (Hebrews 12:3).  There is a way of living that allows us to make it through this world without getting torn to shreds.  Let’s find it.

Categories: Discipleship, Jesus, Love | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

You are the Silence

You are the Silence
when there is only noise,
the Stillness after the quake.
You are the Fire in the night,
hotter than a hundred stars.
You are my Song,
my feet where I cannot stand,
the Rock I cannot break.
In the avalanche of night,
dark and suffocating cold,
You are still my Breath and Blood and Bread

Categories: Poetry | Leave a comment

Six Months Later

Joplin just commemorated the six-month anniversary of the tornado that wiped out a third of our city on May 22nd.

We all have moments in our lives that we will remember forever, that are etched into our brains with the searing heat of the pain and fear of tragedy.  My parents know where they were the day Kennedy was assassinated.  I can remember, as we all can, the details of the morning of September 11, 2001 with crystal-clear clarity, as if it happened yesterday, as I watched with horror as people jumped from the top floors, trying to wrap my mind around the reality of these buildings caving in on thousands of people.

May 22nd is that kind of day for this community.  I’ve heard a hundred stories by now, many in first-person as a therapist trying to help make sense and work through the twist and wreckage of a day that was supposed to be a normal, average Sunday.  I remember my wife and I driving alongside the tornado, only missing driving through the heart of it by a simple prayer and God telling us to go a different way.  I remember seeing the transformers popping and watching as debris swirled within and around the enormous black monster, thinking at the time they must be small pieces of wood and whatnot, and only later learning that they were full-sized buildings, cars, people.

I’ve not been a citizen of this community all my life, but at various times I have called this place home.  My wife and I have been here this time around for six years.  We developed and opened our own counseling practice, which has deepened our roots, as our lives have become intertwined with the lives of others.  We’ve worked in this community and for it, being a part of small church groups and large business ones, staying when we have had offers to move elsewhere.  These were our homes, our churches, our businesses that were destroyed.  These were our families, our lives, our friends that were taken and whose lives were irrevocably shaken.

What has struck me again and again, beyond the grief that wells up at times unexpectedly when I drive past my old practice, now only a slab of concrete in an open field of concrete slabs lined up like gravemarkers, is the insistence that we come back, that our community thrive again.  The overwhelming response of volunteers and people across the country was more than we could take in in those first weeks.  We were, I think, only partially able to appreciate the kindness and selflessness.  The search and rescue crews, the work crews, the cleaning crews, the city managers and politicians who fought for this place, the folks who, bleeding and bruised and confused, stepped beyond themselves to cover a cold woman in a wheelchair or look for a man lost in a crumbled house, and the business owners who decided to rebuild.  I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but then there are times in life when you simply have to recognize the drama for what it is.  There are days when heroism trumps tragedy, when an epic story overwhelms a mundane account of despair.  I think to do less with this day and the days following would be dishonoring to those of us who witnessed these things, and denial of the weight of these past six months.

Six months.  In some ways it does feel like six days or six hours.  Pieces and piles of debris still remain.  Trees are still uprooted, twisted, gnarled.  Some buildings that stood remain standing still, ghosts over the landscape, large and looming memorials who seem to grieve in their darkness, their windows like our hearts still shattered and no longer guarding what is now an empty and broken space inside.  Other structures still lay, flattened and sprawled, where they were knocked and beaten.  The landscape is still at times unrecognizable.  Scarred.  The path cut by the storm undeniable, and still hits you between the eyes when you drive through the city.

So there are these times it seems like days ago, and and other times, it seems like years have gone by.  So much water has now passed under the bridge.  To see new buildings and businesses, some built right on top of the old, like Jerusalem after it would be sacked and destroyed.  Grasses replanted.  Sidewalks reconstructed.  New traffic lights and a few replanted trees.  Houses have begun to be rebuild, some standing in stark contrast to the ruined ones just a block away that haven’t yet been dealt with, standing as proud and defiant reminders of reconstruction.  The hard-won smiles and laughter coming from a man who lost his wife, a wife who lost her child, a family that lost their grandfather, a child that lost her legs, a nurse who still sees all too clearly when she closes her eyes at night the blood and cries and shock of a hospital overwhelmed, a couple that lost their confidence and security in a quiet midwestern city and who lost their American dreams.  New ones, better ones, slowly seep to the surface to take the place of the lesser ones that were blown about in the swirling debris of that fateful afternoon.

I’ve said before that there were 50,000 tornadoes that day.  What I hadn’t thought of is that there are 50,000 stories of change since.  Fifty thousand sets of eyes that see slow and steady growth as well as the sadness still and the brokenness that remains clinging like tentacles through the city and around the hearts of those of us affected.  Fifty thousand kinds of hope, fifty thousand opportunities to come under the shelter of a God who didn’t abandon us and who loves us into wholeness and healing.

Here’s to these last six months of hope, of a kind of demonstrable, tangible hope that I couldn’t have expected or planned for.  Here’s to six more, and may we in these next six months take hold of the kind of life that goes beyond and deeper than death, that brings life and freedom from the debris.

“And here, in dust and dirt, O here do the lilies of His love appear.”
-W.H. Auden

Categories: Healing, Jesus, Restoration | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Experience and Reflection

There exists this model of therapy called Accelerated Experiential-Dynamic Psychotherapy.  It’s a complicated title to a fairly simple approach, but one that is profound for a community that prides itself more on professional distance than on entering into the muck and mire of a person’s story to help them find the redemption and way of life in it.

So this approach, AEDP, has in it the basic concept that we learn best by two complimentary steps.  The first is experience.  Another word would be “encounter.”  By this we mean not mere intellectual understanding or learning some rote fact or absorbing some information.  We mean the real and raw process of something, the journey into a new territory somehow.  Therapeutically, we often mean the experience of some emotion and memory as an encounter with another person present who can help navigate and offer life into the usually painful and, because of that, often blocked part of themselves.  A place that is ungrieved.  A memory too painful to recall.  Insight into themselves or the world or a particular relationship that hasn’t been acknowledged consciously.  A thought too threatening to deal with alone.  That gets expressed and experienced in the presence of a salient figure, a person tuned into their experience.  The dragon in the cave that’s threatened them for so long, that they’ve run from and feared, finally gets dealt with.  It’s encountered and slain.

The second step is reflection.  Apparently, and research seems to support this, we cannot learn or grow by mere experience.  We need to take time to reflect on it, to put words and meaning to what it is we’ve been through.  Wisdom, it might be said, is comprised of these two crucial elements — to first enter in and deal with whatever is at hand, and the second is to find the meaning in it, to ask the tough questions regarding it, to see it for what it is.  This is the “dynamic” part of the model’s name, AEDP. And we might add one more piece to the therapeutic approach that is included as a fundamental aspect — community.  That’s a given.  That’s what therapy is all about, the journey through difficult stretches of the trail with someone who can offer a hand-hold and a familiar and hopeful voice when the light grows dim.

I think the developers of this model, building on more than a hundred years of clinical practice and deep thinking about what it takes to help people change and grow, have landed on something profound.  Of course, I always want to equate these things back to Scripture and ask, “Does the Word of God support that?”  Is there evidence that this is truly a way we are made as people that we need to think deeply about and incorporate somehow into our daily living and our spiritual disciplines.  The first person that comes to mind is Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, after Jesus.  He did quite a lot of reflection, and fairly deep if you consider the Proverbs he wrote and potentially even Ecclesiastes.  A philosopher, really — and one that, incidentally, was instrumental in leading me to the Lord to begin with.  And then you have David, who experienced quite a lot in his life, suffering as well as glory.  Maybe more than anyone else in the Old Testament.  And he reflected on everything.  Then you have Paul, whose missionary exploits are the stuff of legend.  And then he reflected on them.  Just take a look at Acts or his letters to Timothy.  Teaching for him was a way of reflecting.  Oh, and Jesus.  This seemed to be one of the ways he instructed his disciples in the art of living in the Kingdom of God.  He would teach them something, then demonstrate it through action.  Reflection and experience.  Sometimes he reversed this and would help them experience something totally different than what they’d ever thought, and then reflect on it, tell them more about it.  He did this occasionally with his parables.

I’m a reflector — I like to reflect on things.  It started way back for me when I would crawl onto the roof of my house as a kid and stare as deeply as I could into the stars.  That for me was when experience and reflection kissed, and wonder burst through.  I’m not sure we can do both at the same time, but I would feel myself to be so small against such an immense backdrop, and then reflect on the expanse of the stars and be filled with awe.  And then I would do it again, always trying to feel myself get smaller and smaller.  It was a wonderful feeling to experience, especially when at other times it seemed as if I was the center of my little world and all orbited me.  Finally, I wasn’t.  And I have carried that practice on in my spiritual life, even now considering it something so crucial that withholding it is like holding my breath.  Last night my wife and I watched a Discovery channel documentary on the ocean and ocean life.  Narrated poorly, it still showed some of the extremes of creativity that God employs in creation.  I’m flooded again with wonder and awe, and now internally reflect on how immense is this Heart behind all hearts.

I think the first time I ever really heard something related to my calling was when I heard Amy Grant talk about Rich Mullins, posthumously.  She said that he would go to the edge, look over and see what was there, and come back and write a song about it.  That’s exactly what I’m talking about.  Experience and express.  And by doing so, extend our concepts and understanding of this Lover God and the life He’s invited us into.

I don’t know if many read this blog.  I’m okay with that either way.  I’m not sure I would read it myself if I didn’t write it.  It’s a chronicle of my journey, and it’s as much for me as anyone else.  I’ve written professionally before, and it was something I did for others to read, not necessarily something I wrote for myself.   If I ever write a book, I think my MO will be to write something that is meaningful to me, meaningful to write, something I need to read, something I need to hear and experience.  And, hopefully as a byproduct, something others will as well.  I want it to be a reflection of my experience with God so that others will be compelled toward experiential interaction with Him.

Categories: Jesus | 1 Comment

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