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In which I am learning to obey the sadness

“Not only preachers…but anyone who tries to express the Gospel in words, even if only to himself, has much to learn here. The weight of these sad times we must obey and must obey just because they are sad times, sad and bewildering times for people who try to hold on to the Gospel and witness to it somehow when in so many ways the weight of our sadness all but crushes the life out of it.  

One wonders if there is anything more crucial for the preacher to do than to obey the sadness of our times by taking it into account without equivocation or subterfuge, by speaking out of our times and into our times not just what we ought to say about the Gospel, not just what it would appear to be in the interests of the Gospel for us to say, but what we have ourselves felt about it, experienced of it. It is possible to think of the Gospel and our preaching of it as, above all and at no matter what risk, a speaking of the truth about the way things are.” – Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

***

My mother-in-law is a hospice chaplain. Every day of her work week, she abides with those who are sick or dying or injured, she sits with their families and friends. Most of us run from sadness and pain, but she went back to school after her children were raised precisely because she felt called to sit in those thin places with the hope of Christ, bearing the ministry of simple presence and comfort. She carries sadness that isn’t hers to carry because most of us cannot carry these moments alone and yet there are so few who will make peace with our despair.

***

I’m learning to obey the sadness – not only of our times, as Buechner wrote above, but the sadness in my own heart and the sadness of our community – and this is hard for me.

Our culture makes little space for the mess, I know. We are expected to have it all together. Don’t let them see you sweat, keep your dirty laundry and un-sanitized stories to yourself, thank you very much. Be successful, look good, feel good.

 

I never know if it’s a nature or nurture aspect of myself but I’m very good at compartmentalizing. I can put things into boxes in my mind and simply leave them there. When I worked full-time, I never brought my work stress home with me, it simply stayed at work. When things were rough in one relationship, I was able to still engage in the rest of life by simply putting it into the proper box in my mind and leaving it there until it was time to address it. I have been able to bear great stress and grief while still engaging in my life, still taking care of my children, still getting up and functioning in my life. I could be in the midst of great darkness or grief, but most people would never have known it. I took pride in my self-possession, counting it as righteousness that no one knew my heart was breaking.

But when I began my major spiritual awakening in my twenties, it was precisely because of those boxes. They were too full. Too full of questions and doubts, too full of criticisms and bitterness, grief and anger and frustrations. I had crammed too much of my very real self into these inadequate compartments in my mind.  The crash was real because the compartmentalizing was real.

Secrets make us sick, I’ve heard. I made secrets out of my questions and doubts and sadness because I didn’t know how to simply sit with them. Even now, I fight against the urge to explain or pretend or ignore away the darkness. It’s uncomfortable to lean into the pain, to find God there in the pain and the questions, the doubt and despair.

I’m too good at pretending. I’m too good at compartmentalizing. I do not obey my sadness. 

***

This might be a dark side of growing up in the whole faith-movement of charismatic tradition. We over-realized the very real truth that “our words matter.” Of course they matter: speaking life matters. I still teach my children this lesson and strive to remember the power of my tongue. But as a tribe, we over-realized that truth until we didn’t know how to feel our feelings.

Only our most over-zealous preached it but it was an unwritten expectation running through a lot of our theology: don’t give in to the darkness, don’t name it, don’t give it power, don’t acknowledge it, don’t confess it, don’t be sad, don’t be mad, don’t be despairing. We believed our feelings and our circumstances had to obey our carefully curated version of the Word of God: we are more than overcomers, the joy of the Lord is our strength, death has no sting. So don’t grieve when death comes calling: they are now with Jesus. Don’t be sick: come down with a healing. Don’t be sad: the joy of the Lord is your strength.

And I can’t tell you the grief I carry still over the people that were caught in the crossfire consequences of that teaching, believing that their darkness or grief or sadness or despair or sickness was their own fault because they simply lacked faith.

What bullshit.

When their stories didn’t line up with our narrative, they felt shame and eventually disappeared.

I understand how we got there now. I do. I know it was one-part ignorance, one-part hope. I am still charismatic, I still believe in signs and wonders, I still believe that God is for us and that we were meant for shalom.

But also, there’s this: when I was sad, when I had real legitimate reasons for grief or despair or anger or any emotion that was perceived as negative or dark, I had nowhere to go with it. I didn’t know how to feel my feelings. And by refusing to name it or acknowledge it, sometimes the darkness simply grew. As my worldview has expanded to include more stories than simply my own, as I woke up to the world outside of my own experiences, I saw this even more clearly. Look at the real darkness around us: don’t pretend it’s not real.

***

I’ve been thinking of our Jesus. How he took the bread and tore it with his own hands: this is my body broken for you. How he poured out the wine: this is my blood poured out for you.

First the death, then the resurrection. We like to skip that first part. We like to think we can have the resurrection without the death.

“Abide with me,” the Spirit whispers to us. Can we abide in what is real?

***

I think this is why I was so quick to pick up Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. I read it while on my way to Haiti a month ago. She writes about “solar Christianity” – bright and full of light and happy – in comparison to the lunar Christians among us who find God often in the darkness. And I realised that I have often found God in both places. I’m not one or the other, I’m both-and. But I‘ve been slow to make peace with my lunar spirituality, unaccustomed to walking in the dark with patience. I’m still in the early days of holding space for the lament to deepen the joy.

***

This isn’t an merely an intellectual discussion for us right now.  I’m writing this right now because this is what is happening. It’s not a puzzle to be pieced together, it’s a full immersion baptism.

Bear with me.

***

We are in deep grief with dear friends in these days. They are in a thin place, we are bearing witness. We have borne witness with each other in the joys and sorrows of our lives over fifteen years of true friendship: now an end is nearing.

There is nothing to say now. There is only what is happening. This is life sometimes, don’t pretend or compartmentalize or ignore or placate. Simply obey the sadness. Speak the truth of what is happening. Not the truth you wish were real. Not the truth that ought to be. Not the platitudes or time-worn cliches to minimize grief.

Of course, it’s wrong, we weren’t meant for this. This isn’t shalom.

But this is what is happening – whether it’s right in our own homes or halfway around the world in Nigeria – and so we learn to obey the sadness and live into the Gospel in the midst of it, to speak the truth.

I’m not walking in the dark, not yet, but I’m learning to abide with it.

***

One night, my broken-hearted husband called his mother: what do we say? what do we do? what will fix this? there is nothing else to do. You do this every day, Mom, what do I do?

Sit with them, she said. There is nothing to say, stop thinking there is something to say to make it go away. It won’t go away. Sit in the sadness.

 

Continue Reading · faith · 112

In which my naturopath shows me how to be more like Jesus

I’m not someone who goes to the doctor. I don’t have a big trauma story, just a steady aversion and disinclination. Even when I had my babies, I was reluctant to go to the doctor, preferring home-based midwifery care – which was amazing. I’m fortunate to be very healthy overall and so I can indulge my petty avoidances quite nicely: I hardly ever subject myself to over-the-counter meds. I tend to think that most of my ills can be cured by a good sleep and a bit of time outside (and usually I’m right).

However, my mum has been after me to go to her naturopath for no less than two years. She sang her praises to the rafters, swore it would change my life, and I shrugged it off. I’m fine, we’re fine, everything’s fine. But over the past few months, I’ve had a few health issues – nothing serious but enough that I knew it was time to not only make practical changes but also seek a bit of help and direction. And so I made the appointment reluctantly, contemplating cancelling it right up until I got in the minivan to show up.

A short time later, I was reaching for the tissues and apologising for the sudden rush of tears in her office. I think it was when she said, “Let’s take an hour and just talk it all through” with such patience and love in her voice. I can’t remember the last time a professional said something like that to me.

So often when we go to the doctor, we are apologetic for even showing up. “I’m so sorry I’m sick and taking up your valuable time.” We feel like the inconvenience when we are supposed to be the point of it all. And most of the time, no one makes eye contact with us, answers come before our questions are fully voiced, we skate on the surface of what ails by summarizing symptoms, the appointment is done in less than ten minutes, and then we walk out with another scrawl for an antibiotic and the profound sense that no one actually cared.

My experience with my naturopath was so different. She was kind. Yes, she was kind! Imagine this. She listened. She asked questions. She pressed past the symptoms to have a conversation with me about my sleep and my food, my work and my pace, my family and my faith. She wanted to know about how I spend my time, about my fingernails, about my moods. She wanted to know about my feelings and the thin places in my life. She wanted to know about my weight and my appetites, my energy and my joys. We talked and sometimes I cried because it was such a relief to talk it out. She didn’t rush me, she didn’t coach me. Instead, when I fell silent, she let me be silent until I wanted to continue. She let me find the words on my own and then – wonders! - she believed me

When she began to make recommendations to me, she took the time to explain them. Instead of just shoving a piece of paper at me with the terse instruction, she drew pictures and used metaphors I understood to explain the complex workings of my body. She wanted me to know what she knew. She loved her work, you could see it in her eyes. She was wise but she never made me feel stupid. She showed me the connections I had missed, the symptoms-behind-the-symptoms and the cause of them all. It turned out that some minor things could be adjusted or fixed. There was no shame.

When I left, I was filled with hope. I felt empowered. I understood myself better and felt reoriented around a new path that would hopefully lead me to a more holistic healing. 

And being me, the chronic theological over-thinker, it made me think of our Church and how we encounter one another in the Kingdom. I have no idea if my naturopath is a Christian but she acted more like Jesus in our time together than a lot of Christians I know.

Don’t we need our fellow pilgrims or leaders to be gentle with our hurts and with our healing?

Maybe instead of learning best practices for marketing, we could begin to learn best practices of listening, best practices of seeing, best practices of silence or encouragement or patience.

Of course there is a path forward, wisdom to receive, healing to seek, but we never walk alone.

Perhaps we need to stop giving answers before the question is fully asked. Or maybe we need to sit in the silences and wait for someone else to speak first. I pray we give the gift of holding the despair or wounds of another with validation and grace. We need to educate without patronizing or blaming. We need to stop fixing the symptoms and start looking towards the full story, the connections behind it all.

No one gets where they are in their journey in a cosmic jump: we walked a path, however circuitous or complex. I wonder if we knew the path that lay behind each of us, if we would be so quick to prescribe quick fixes and rhyming couplets. The physical symptoms are only one aspect of ourselves: there is our mind, our histories, our dreams, our souls, all of it, so connected and so necessary for our full healing. I wonder if started with love, if it would show up in the way we talk about our Jesus, the way we talk about our beautiful-and-broken Church, and each other.  I want to move on Kingdom time, not hustle time, with eyes to see, ears to hear, a heart to understand.

My naturopath is setting me on a path of healing and wholeness, sure, but she just might also be teaching me live more fully as a disciple of Jesus.

Continue Reading · faith, health · 21

In which the Kingdom of God is (sort of) like light in the trees

light

Go for a drive as the sun begins to sink away. Turn off the radio, and lean your head against the passenger side window and look up into the trees. Watch the light thread through the leaves, flicker, dance with the wind, moving like sunlight on an open lake.

The light is breaking through, blink and you’ll miss it but look, the light is here. It grows and takes over your senses, even when you close your eyes, you see the light moving.

We Christians, we have a saying about the Kingdom of God: it’s now and it’s not yet. We live in a tension. It’s the tension of living our lives as Kingdom-people, oriented around the life and teachings of our Jesus, a Christo-centric people, in a world that is not yet redeemed. Of course the world is good – God made it good – and even though it has fallen, it will be restored.  We are balancing between the new upside-down kingdom ways of our Jesus and the reality of our present age. It means that even though all things are made new, they are still in the process of being made new. So we live in a fallen world and terrible things happen but we live our lives as if the Kingdom has already come because it has and yet it is still coming.

The now-and-not-yet of the Kingdom of God is one of those beliefs or ideas that I understand in my marrow, not my mind. I understand the Kingdom of God if I come at it from the corner of my eye instead of straight on. Like love, it defies definition and tidy resolutions and scoresheets.

But sometimes, I am too focused on the not-yet part of the Kingdom. I focus my eyes and my life entirely on the despair or the brokenness, on the frustrations and injustices. I miss the beauty in the brokenness. I miss the Church living and breathing new life into death.

See that God is doing a new thing, do we not perceive it.

I’ve missed the light because of the trees, instead of seeing that it is the movement and shadow of the trees making the light even more brilliant. The trees aren’t blocking the sunlight, it’s filtering, it’s making the light dance in our lives like dry bones rising up alive.

The Bride of Christ grows lovelier to me with each passing day, I keep finding our brothers and sisters in the strangest of places, quietly doing the work of the Kingdom, not because anybody “deserves” it but because this is what we do. This is who we are. This is the allegiance of the Kingdom, our calling is to live out our lives right now as if the Kingdom has already come because it has. We have God’s promises that all things will be made new, and so now: who do I see?

Beauty. Redemption. Miracles. Wholeness. Healing. Renewal. Friendship. Conversation. Prayer. Worship. Work. Music. Art. Justice. Jubilee. Mercy. Love. Sex. Aging. All redeemed.

I want to see the light and I want to see the trees. I want to learn to see them both, moving quickly, stirring with the wind of the Spirit.

I think the Kingdom is more poetry to bear and live into throughout our life, than dictionary definitions to memorize or boundaries to place. Go for a drive, go for a walk, look up and fill your eyes with the Kingdom already come.

image source

Continue Reading · faith · 18

In which I’ll do the dishes :: a guest post by Zach Hoag

book club

I have asked a few of my favourite writers/bloggers to respond to the Jesus Feminist discussion questions. The discussion questions are meant for small group discussions or journalling but I wanted to make a bit of room on the blog for each of us to respond to them, too.

(Okay, so really I wanted an excuse to give away books, encourage people to work through the discussion questions, and also introduce my readers to some exciting new-to-you voices!)

From Chapter 3: Tangled Roots

Think about how gender differences were framed for you as a child or as a new believer. What stands out to you looking back? What do you understand as truth today?

Weigh in with your response to the day’s question in the comments.

One commenter’s response will win a free signed copy of the little yellow book.

Today, Zach Hoag of The Nuance is responding to our question.

 

Dad never did the dishes.

Not once.

He never cooked a meal, either. Or balanced a checkbook. Or cleaned the bathroom.

And even though there were never discussions about “complementarianism” in our third-wave, charismatic Christian home, there was a functional expectation of fixed gender roles. Dad fancied himself an apostle-Paul type, determining that chores were “not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables” (Acts 6:2). Never mind that the verse was ripped out of the context of equipping qualified leaders to serve the widows in the community – the Spirit-led application was that he would study the Word and lead the family while Mom did everything else.

As I began to grab hold of my own faith in my late teens, I was swept off my feet by Reformed theology. Where the fast and loose Pentecostalism of my parents had essentially led our ministry family to ruin, the Reformation seemed to offer stability. Ironically, the gender roles pushed by newfound heroes like John Piper were not too dissimilar from those lived out by my tongue-talking folks. As a result, I became all the more convinced of my biblically-mandated responsibility to exercise authority over my future wife. I would not serve tables. I would get in the Word, run things, and make decisions. And she would do the rest.

During my first year of marriage, both my Reformed theology and my rigid gender roles began quickly crumbling. I did not marry a woman without a will, sans a personality. And I loved her too much to mimic the domineering behavior I saw demonstrated in the Reformed Baptist church we attended. I also loved her too much to see her forced into the mold that so many women in our church had submitted to. Even as my own immature theologized machismo was being confronted at every turn by the real, strong, passionate person I was living with, an entire theological system I had bought into was losing its structural integrity.

And finally, it fell.

The end result is a marriage that has become fully and completely equal and mutual in a way that neither my childhood nor my Calvinistic cage phase could have prepared me for. Our roles as husband and wife are anything but fixed. Instead, they are fluid.

It is not my place to have my way, do my thing (even if it’s my Jesus thing), and expect my wife to do the rest. No, it’s my place to serve. And to contribute. And collaborate. And lead. And submit to my wife’s leadership. 50/50, all the way.

I’m a Jesus Feminist because I now believe it is my place to serve tables. And clean the bathroom. And balance the checkbook. And change the diapers. And get the four-year-old ready for bed.

And even though I’m a pretty worthless cook, it’s the least I can do to submit to my spouse, roll up my sleeves, and do the dishes every once and awhile - you know, out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

 

zachZach J. Hoag is a church planter and missional minister from the least religious city in the least religious state in the U.S. – Burlington, Vermont. He wrote a book called Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, and he blogs at The Nuance on Patheos. Most importantly, he binge-watches cable TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Continue Reading · faith, family, Guest Post, Jesus Feminist · 46