A Post of the New Year (2014)

Here we are in 2013, I mean, 2014.

I’ve seen several reflective posts. Was 2013 a good year? Did it bring achieved goals or greater evolution of self? Did it hurt? Is it a year that will always be remembered for one reason or another? I’m happy to read reflection. I’m not sure that I reflect enough. And reflecting, at its most basic level, provides an opportunity for me to stop and remember what it means for me to be human. But reflection takes solitude and focus, and frankly, who has time for that?

I’ve also seen several resolution posts. What was not accomplished in 2013 that absolutely must be in 2014? What lingering pieces of one’s self or lifestyle does one not want to carry into the next 365 days? Our scarcity and perfectionistic culture certainly lets us know loud and clear the things in which we are lacking.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a little tired of being told what I’m lacking. Are you? Little by little one’s self-esteem gets chipped away by the thoughts of what one should have, what one should be able to give, or how one presents oneself to the world.

Maybe a good healthy moment of reflection can deflect the messages that ask us to become something we are not. I’ll never be who you want me to be. I’ll be me. A woman who sincerely believes that love is it. Love is the jam. And I’m not scared to love past the fear around this place. I’m not scared to love through absolutism and disagreement, through ignorance and belittlement, through the Hollywood-ized version of self, through my own prejudice and fear. I’m not afraid to admit that I am not there yet, but I’m working towards what equality, grace, and interconnectedness mean and trying to base my ethics on such a place. I’m not really interested in the abstract. How am I living my ethics today?

So here’s my semi-obligatory New Years post, for whatever it’s worth. I’m here, ready to dust the cobwebs that need to be dusted, ready to smile at new opportunities, ready to hold a hand, ready to face my fears of false inadequacy, ready to nurture community with life-giving folks. My reflections elucidate my resolutions; they coalesce with a little sadness, a lot of gratitude, and a massive amount of excitement.

***********************************

If you have resolutions or reflections, I’m happy to read them here. Let me know what is informing your beginning of 2014.

Advertisements

Dance With Me

Dance with me,
Under the stars,
Across the plains,
Through the sequoias,
Hold me tightly,
when I just can’t.

Come with me,
to the edges,
edges of who we are,
who we want to be,
our best selves.

Take a chance with me,
for the rest of our lives,
smile with me in joy,
pray with me in uncertainty,
and miss me in separation.

Work with me,
to illicit change,
to grieve injustice,
to sit at the table
of the full menu,
of human rights.

Do life with me,
let’s find out,
about the mystery
of grace, and mercy,
and love.

Walk with me,
through my fears,
and hesitancy,
show me what
vulnerability means.

Dance with me,
Through the shadows of
what we might be,
if we, as humans,
would realize our
interconnectedness.

Asceticism: Past & Present (And what that has to do with John Piper)

Wearing a chain around one’s neck to remember the weight of one’s sin. Or leading a life of complete celibacy in order to focus more on the divine.

What is asceticism, and how are the ancient practices of asceticism relevant to 21st Century theological conversation and praxis? In other words, what purpose did asceticism serve for early Christians and is asceticism still relevant today? Popular evangelical theologian, John Piper, seems to think it is as relevant today as it was for the early Desert Fathers and Mothers and has used it to support his idea of “Christian Hedonism.” I suggest that Piper’s version of asceticism and his view of its role in modern Christian discipleship are skewed and misdirected; further, I suggest that asceticism is useful today in Christian theology and praxis but only insofar as it is practiced for the sake of our neighbors and not for avoiding idolatry.  … more on that to come.

What is asceticism, exactly?

Asceticism in early Christianity was defined by devotees renouncing worldly pleasures (sexual, familial, monetary, social, etc.) for the sake of spiritual ascent. The Desert Fathers and Mothers are oft referred as “ascetics,” they lived around 300-500 CE in remote desert areas of solitude. Some of their practices were literal and extreme, such as one wearing a weighty chain around one’s neck to be consistently reminded of the weight of one’s sin, or fasting from sleeping and eating for days to focus on prayer. Richard Finn on Oxford Bibliographies offers a helpful general definition of asceticism here. Asceticism grew during a time in which the Roman political authority was imperializing Christianity. You see, Christianity was evolving from a subversive, persecution-filled experience to a state religion under the Roman Emperor, Constantine. A martyr’s death at the hands of Roman officials for one’s faith was not necessarily an empire-wide reality any longer, rather, it was but a memory for these early Christians. Martyrdom was held as one of the highest Christian acts; it was an ultimate act of inversion as persecutors sought to degrade and stamp out Christians. It achieved the opposite, giving martyrs a high honor in the faith. It was a literal manner of giving up one’s earthly, sinful body to emulate Christ in his sacrifice; in other words, it was a way of spiritual ascent. Many of the martyrs are still venerated in church traditions today.1, 2  So, if persecution was no longer a widespread threat, how did Christians achieve spiritual ascension?

The church?

Maybe.

But what if the church was too close for comfort to the Roman government? What if the ideals of the faith had been watered down? What if bishops were controlled by the emperor? Better yet, what if the emperor was venerated as a deity?

Moving away from church and state authority, ascetics chose to reside in the solitude of the desert, finding spiritual ascent in self-denial of worldly pleasures. Their teachings began subsuming anti-empire sentiments during a time when the debate of authority was rampant. There is no doubt that ascetic teaching was a valuable theological practice for early Nov. 2013 038Christians, but it also could very well have been a subversion of church authority with the intent to place that authority in the hands of those who were willing to adopt lives of renunciation.

So is asceticism relevant today?

Rev. Dr. John Piper thinks so.

Piper, a reformed, Calvinist, popular theologian, believes that asceticism as self-denial is necessary to American faith because of the lack of persecution experienced in America the Comfortable. In the 1990s, Piper revived the language of asceticism as he believed it was an essential element to his theological scheme of “Christian Hedonism.” He drew widespread criticism when he wrote a post entitled:  We Want You to Be a Christian Hedonist!.” Piper asserted that a human is made to pursue pleasure, and the chief end of a human is for him/her to find pleasure in God. In fact, he stated that this pleasure is salvific. In his book, Desiring God, he wrote:

The pursuit of joy in God is not optional. It is not an extra that a person might grow into after he comes to faith. Until your heart has hit upon this pursuit, your faith cannot please God. It is not saving faith” (Desiring God, p. 73). 3

Given his belief that a saving faith is one which finds ultimate pleasure in God and not idols, Piper finds asceticism to be an essential faith practice. In a video interview at a Desiring God conference, Piper stated:

“I’m more inclined today at age 58 watching my life and its ease… I’m more convinced than ever that I need asceticism in my life with all of its risks and dangers because I think, in my experience, I am more likely to be deceived right now that I am leaning on God, when I’m leaning on a retirement, or my wife, or successful pastorate, than any other danger. Therefore, I feel like I need some conscious self denials to put myself to the test and see if I get angry, or irritable, or fretful by not having something I want so bad every day or every week…might be sex, might be food, might be approval… wherever I am leaning for pleasure. …when really it’s idolatry. So how do you find out which it is? One of the ways is asceticism.”

So Piper finds that full pleasure in God leaves no room for other idols; he sees asceticism as a litmus test for determining the presence of idols. The denial of self in order to achieve spiritual ascension. Sound familiar?

Perhaps asceticism is relevant today, but not Piper’s version. 

Spiritual discipline and self-denial is valuable to one’s faith, and honestly, one’s sanity. I suspect a deep and profound experience can be found in prolonged solitude and prayer. But in a society of gross economic, sexual, and social injustice, Piper chooses to focus on denying self, not because one’s neighbor is in need, but because denial helps avoid idolatry. And then he calls it saving faith. It takes a fairly privileged view to maintain this theology. Such a theology seems to have not considered hunger, marginalization, or economic despair. To say that the highest calling of a human is to find pleasure in God is to assume an entirely heavenly vision, but what if one does not have the privilege of looking up because one cannot see past the hell?

Racism.

Genocide.

Female mutilation.

Rape.

Cycles of Poverty.

There is a place for self-denial in Christian faith BUT it is needed because of our neighbor’s lack and not because it is the way to avoid idolatry or a way for our salvation.

A sole focus on Christian hedonism clouds the church with a focus on inward, ascetic worship while there is much to be done outside the church in the ways of justice making. I suggest that we get back to the basics of believing that if we can even possibly know how to glorify God, that God is most glorified when we love God and when we tend to the imago Deo in our neighbors by our love for them. I suggest that the self-denial of asceticism is important in our theological praxis, but only insofar as it stems from our neighbor’s lack. I suggest that if we have a highest calling, it must be to love, living ethically in that love.

The way of choosing love is salvific.

So in summary, does asceticism have merit in 2013? Yes, I believe it does. So let us practice self-denial and renunciation. Let us renounce the pressure we are under to achieve the American Dream at the cost of other’s lack. Let us renounce the willful ignorance that we become comfortable in. Let us renounce our fear of those who we think are not like us. Let us give up what we think is ours so that we may share it with our neighbors.

***************

Citations:

1. Wilken, Robert Louis. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

2. Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

3. Piper, John. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2011.

Getting Muddy

San Francisco 2013 024

I think courage comes in a multitude of ways. We often hear it associated with war or soldiering, firefighting, policing, or something of the sort. And though I’ve never been engaged in any of those activities, I am sure they require one to forgo one’s innate fear which kicks in the innate flight response… but lately, I’ve been thinking about a different kind of courage.

The kind which allows you to wait in a relationship while you are working things out, the kind which allows you to hold a friends hand during a scary health situation, the kind which allows you to continue to inspire even when you do not feel inspiration, the kind which allows you to admit you are weak or tired or both, the kind which allows you to go into the mire and muck with people and get muddy.

There are so many fears in this world, that it is natural for us to want to survive and take care of ourselves first. But when we enter into the mud with another person, we are saying essentially, “screw what may or may not happen, screw the violence around this place, screw the fear that I have of not getting far enough in society, screw the fear I have of being drug down by someone else’s problems, screw the to-do list I should have had completed two seconds ago… I believe that you matter right now, and I am here for you. I am breathing life into a situation which you can’t see the life in because I believe, at the end of this crappy day, love conquers all.”

It is not being afraid of getting muddy, of getting soaked, of letting the mascara run. Today, this is courage to me. May we have the courage to get filthy.

Something Unpredictable

Inevitably life comes in seasons. Much like the four seasons that greet us at the door each year, we journey through a sectioned life. Seasons in our lives change. Change perpetuates more change. It’s not all bad… because we need that change to grow. People enter and leave our lives for seasons. And sometimes that’s ok… and sometimes it hurts terribly.

So how do you endure… how do you persist?

First, knowing who you are is key. You have to understand your passions, your personality, your body and then sanction all of the above. Learning to be kind to yourself is a necessity. You have to know that when you are on your knees praying, your voice matters. You matter.

Next, it helps to understand the following helpful (rather painful) lesson. Some people who you have given your heart to and love deeply just can’t give that back to you. Maybe it’s because they don’t have it to give. Maybe they still don’t know who they are. Maybe they are just stretched too thin. Maybe they are fighting a bigger battle than you can compete with. Or maybe you just aren’t their person (Grey’s Anatomy reference). Here’s the thing: you can’t force that relationship… as much as you want it to happen, you have to let them go. As painful as it is, you have to release them.

You have to let them go so they can be. Let them be. And be kind to yourself, knowing you’ve just created more room for the right person for you. Or just room for you to breathe again and keep growing.

Often when you let something go, something that matters greatly, you get it back again. Maybe it’s time to let someone go.

And last, you focus on those people in your life who do not change with the seasons. The ones who will hold you in bed when you are exhausted and the ones who will sit down at the kitchen table after their busy day to hear about yours. The ones who let you double dip. The ones who plop down next to you while you cry or confess your deepest insecurities. The ones who you can call 24/7. The ones who look into your eyes, and without speaking, tell you they’ll love you forever.

The ones who would be crushed if you weren’t in their lives tomorrow.

So thank those people in your life today because it takes a lot of bravery to love you like that.

For an INFP like me, this lesson may be one of the hardest I ever have to learn. But the learning of it, is also the path to freedom and hopefully, on the other side of the cloud, the sun’s just waiting to shine.

Have you had to let people go? How do you show those who love you that you appreciate them?

A Prayer for My Future Spouse

From my bedroom floor, I’m on my knees, praying this prayer… for you:

-That you would have the courage to cry when you need to
-That hugs would be plentiful
-That you would be generous in giving yourself to others
-That you would love until it hurts.
-That travel would be frequent and memorable. And you would love the journey, knowing God is with you, and you’d come home safe and sound
-That you would be kind to yourself when you know you’ve made a huge mistake
-That you would speak your mind and communicate effectively
-That would you see injustice around you and fight it with persistence, intelligence, and a loud voice.

-That you would live with gratitude
-That you would realize your own strength and use it to make a difference
-That you wouldn’t be too cool to dance
-That you would regularly put yourself in your brothers and sisters shoes
-That you would fight for equality
-That you would let yourself be amazed by the beauty of a sunset
-That you would have the courage to be vulnerable
-That you wouldn’t let a business card or bank account dictate your worth

-That you would laugh heartily and eat exotically
-That you would delight in life’s small pleasures
-That you would learn the constellations as you watch the stars
-That you would know who created you and praise your Creator
-That you would read liturgy like poetry
-That you would embrace simplicity and frugality
-That you would be able to fix the flat tires you’ll have and maybe even a broken toaster or two
-That you would be a peacemaker, trading the sword for the plow

-That you would meet love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in the morning as you wake and welcome them as dear friends.
-That you would have the time to get lost on day long hikes
-That you would be merciful
-That you would persist during hard times
-That you would seek mutuality and not dominance
-That you would believe in yourself

-That you would be soaked in the sweat of living passionately

-That you would embrace doubt as a part of faith’s journey
-That you would create more than you consume
-That you would forgive even when it hurts to do so
-That you would not cherish pride as a close ally, but an unwelcome stranger

-That most of all, you’d know that I’m loving you more and more every day of my life & that soon, I’ll come alongside you, take your hand in mine, and we’ll walk each other home.

Unexpected Mercy

As I was driving through a little town close to my hometown yesterday, I decided to stop for lunch at a cute, mom and pop diner along the main drag. I felt at home as I entered the diner where an assortment of country folk were enjoying their BBQ and root beer floats. Lots of plaid, ball caps, and half- empty coffee cups. I was alone so I made my way to the counter to sit on a bar stool. Having ordered my squash and field peas, I was looking forward to managing a quiet lunch while catching up on some reading.

Though there was other seating available, a smiling middle-aged man approached and with a heavy country accent, asked: “is this seat taken?” I said “no, feel free,” while secretly annoyed that he had parked it at this spot beside me. I don’t feel like talking and I definitely am not interested in you, I thought. I happened to have my best shirt on and frankly, –and this is not at all bragging– my hair was just working for me that day. Maybe I should have chosen the grungy look this morning, I thought.

As he settled in, I went back to my endeavors. Ironically, I was reading over some notes I’d taken on a recent talk about compassion and apparently, it wasn’t quite sinking in yet. The man began talking to the waiter as she came to ask his order; he unfolded a sad story, his husky voice trying unsuccessfully to hide the pain in it. Recently his daughter had suffered a traumatic brain injury that had rendered her a subsequent neurosurgery and was currently incapacitated, needing a ventilator to breathe for her.

Well, suffice it to say, I began feeling terribly guilty for my shallow first impressions of this man. I didn’t know what to say since I hadn’t technically been invited into this conversation. I’m a big fan of keeping my mouth shut if at all possible, especially when I haven’t a clue as to what I’m talking about.

As the waitress walked away, knowing nothing else to do, I leaned in closer to him as we both sat eating. We were close in our communal silence. It was as if he knew I was saying, “I hate this for you right now. And I’ll sit right here beside you as long as you need. Because when it comes down to it, you and me… we’re really not so different after all.”

Eventually, he slowly rose, smiled just slightly, and walked away.

And there I sat, having learned another lesson.

Sometimes just being close to someone, even a stranger, is enough when you are hurting so badly. And at the end of the day, all we can hope to do is take each others hands and walk each other home.

What are you learning these days? Pray, tell!