Happy New Year! Over the years I’ve stopped making ambitious resolutions at this time of the year, since I manage to break most of them by the second week of January … but I am resolving to up my presence at this intersection despite the limitations of this way-too-wacky year of single (substitute “desperate and hanging by a thread” here) parenting while my husband finishes up a nine-month, NEH research fellowship in DC. I’ve dubbed it “The Year of the Crockpot and the Hairy Armpits.”
The fact that these days I rarely have time to shave my armpits is also not a good enough excuse for being a recluse of late — now that my second book, The Recovery-Minded Church: Loving and Ministering to People with Addiction, by Jonathan Benz with Kristina Robb-Dover (InterVarsity Press) is hot off the press and available on Amazon. (Right now IVP is offering a 20%-off sale at their site.)
A really cool tidbit that I never knew until now: if your book generates at least 20 positive reviews on Amazon, Amazon starts to market your book for you at no charge. Since my full-time PR agent is currently occupied with JK Rawlings’ latest bestseller, I figured I’d try this strategy out. (Kidding, about the PR agent.)
But there’s another reason why I’m back at this intersection between God and life. It’s because I’ve genuinely missed you and because I’m really excited about the next two blog series we’ll be undertaking, themed around recovery:
- “The 12 Steps for Restless Souls” — If you’ve been around here long enough, you’ve probably noticed I’m writing for “restless souls” who “still haven’t found what they’re looking for,” to quote Bono, and they’re both in the church and out. As I described in first introducing this blog, they’re those of us “for whom an experience of ‘church’ has left us wanting and searching for more. More depth. More honesty. More trust and authenticity. More grappling with real questions. Without the judgment. More room for the grays.” How does 12-step recovery speak to our spiritual restlessness? What might the lessons from a world that, for many of us, may at first seem restricted to a mysteriously anonymous niche of chain-smoking addicts with a gift for jittery, confessional gab about their darkest secrets and a love for bottomless black coffee in styrofoam cups, teach us in our quest for “the More”? Or can it teach us anything?
- “The Recovery-Minded Church” — The series that follows takes its name from the book (fancy that) and will feature churches around the country that in various ways are seeking to become more “recovery-minded.” What does it mean to be “recovery-minded”? That’s a question we’ll unpack more with some practical examples from churches that are on the front lines of this transformation.
Yesterday I visited my daughter’s kindergarten class to present our family’s “holiday traditions” at this time of year.
A small circle of 14 eager five and six-year-olds sat cross-legged on the floor as my daughter Sam and I, on stools, unearthed the various Christmas surprises we had brought to share. They watched as Sam set up our family’s nativity set, a gift from one of my dad’s many trips to Africa that now sits on our mantle every year, its hand-carved figurines in their rosewood garb garlanded by mistletoe and Christmas lights.
“Why are there sheep?,” one child asked.
“Why are there camels?”
“Who are the men with the crowns?,” another wanted to know. (These were the wise men, I explained.)
And as is often the case, there was one very enthusiastic kid in the bunch who always raised her hand and had a wrong answer for every question I asked …
… And then there was the kid who always had the right answer.
I was impressed — not just by all of the right answers from this one little boy, Milo, the budding theologian in our midst, but by the unaffected and unselfconscious enthusiasm with which each of these kids entered in to the motley scene before us, its little wooden people and animals all gathered around an even tinier, rough-hewn shape in the middle of the clearing in front of us.
And a little child shall lead them were the words that flashed through my mind from the book of Isaiah, a reading from the day before in a special church service of “Lessons and Carols.”
Those kids sat with rapt attention as I told the Christmas story again — in a way that would probably have made Eugene Peterson’s The Message sound like the King James Bible …
We were drawing near the end of our time together with a last call for questions.
The hands quickly shot up, each paired with an angelic face looking plaintively back in an expression that could only be taken to mean, “Pick me, please.”
How could I resist?
“I’m getting a Star Wars advent calendar for my birthday!,” said Mick, one of the especially talkative participants in the bunch.
“What are the names of the wise men?,” Emilia, a heart-shape-faced little girl with full cheeks asked. (Earlier I had shared how these wise men from the East had followed the star until it led them to the baby Jesus.) I couldn’t remember all three names, but thankfully the teacher did.
Milo’s hand was still up, clamoring for another right answer.
“And you know what?,” Milo said, his eyes getting big. “God is actually the star.”
“Uh huh,” I said peremptorily, glancing up at the teacher. She and I exchanged a quick knowing look: the dubiousness of this last statement signified it was time to wrap up …
A few minutes later, after collecting my props and saying a quick goodbye, I was walking out to my car thinking how kids say the funniest, most peculiar things some times.
God is actually the star, I thought. What would’ve possessed him to say that?, I wondered …
But then it dawned on me …
Wasn’t Jesus the “star of David” Scripture had longed for and prophesied — the Anointed One, the Messiah? Wasn’t He the same One of whom the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he pointed to a day when “the Lord” would be “an everlasting light”? Of that light, Isaiah said “nations would come to it” and “kings to the brightness of [its] rising” (Isaiah 60:1-5.). This same Light and Life of the world would one day rule over all the earth, and one sign of this God’s rule would be this: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).
So Milo had been right again: God is the star of the Christmas story — in so many more ways than one, albeit with the sort of cross-shaped celebrity that the great majority of us sinners and saints would never wish upon ourselves.
In a season when today’s Herods and Caesars clamor for our attention, money and votes …
God is actually the Star.
And when at the so-called center of life our own pursuits and plans and busy forms of self-justification claim prime importance …
God is actually the Star.
In a time when everywhere I turn, senseless warfare between peoples and the turbulence of the human heart declare only a manifesto of despair …
God is actually the Star.
And yesterday a little child led me there.
Front row seats to the pool. Her kids and mine doing back float drills and breathing techniques. We’ve exchanged small talk before.
She is tall, graceful, around my age, and nearly totally bald – and today she casually drops the reason into our conversation, as if mentioning the weather: a second round of chemo for breast cancer, finished just this summer.
She lost her breasts and her hair right around the same time.
“Which was harder, or were they equally hard?”
“Really? I’d always heard the hair was especially hard to lose…”
She had decided against the reconstructive surgery.
And in the course of the two rounds of chemo, she and her husband had split up. Now she’s single parenting two boys, 7 and 4.
“What an ordeal you’ve been through. I’m so sorry. You probably could write a book about all the lessons you’ve learned – or did you learn anything?”
A pause. Quietly, reflectively and with the wisdom that only someone who has touched this one, particular, distant planet of suffering can produce …”I’ve learned…” breaking off … “My husband and I are now separated, you know, because of this”…another reflective pause…”that love is the most important thing.”
And in those words, I hear a familiar echo: something about how faith, hope and love are the three things that abide — and that the “greatest of these is love.”
I wonder why we, so many of us Christians (I included), fall prey to the notion that the Gospel rests on our shoulders as something that depends on us to “give” those who may or may not “have it” — as if, by our proclamation or lack thereof, the “Good News” will either stand or fall, or as if our utterances are what actually sustain the validity of the claims we make. (After all, at its heart, isn’t the Good News a claim about Reality Itself — a Reality that does not depend on our proclamations in order to be true?)
Love is the most important thing. Some would protest the notion that the Gospel in a nutshell could be as simple as this. Don’t such pronouncements sound like a warm and fuzzy – “secular,” in the pejorative sense – rendition of what Jesus came to do, after all? Without the name of Jesus explicitly uttered next to them, aren’t they little more than watered-down Hallmark greetings?
But I beg to differ. A quick survey of current events — global terrorism and fear, racial divisions and anger, the deep political polarization of my own country and the demonic moral paralysis to which it so often contributes in our life together — calls into question the notion that what is ultimately most abiding and most important is Love. On the contrary, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing the opposite: that what matters most is everything but Love: our security, our comfort, our prejudice and power plots — yes, even hatred. Hatred tends to get the biggest headlines after all, and those who live by this mantra often draw the greatest limelight, if not the most applause.
Yesterday evening, the heart of the Good News that makes this world go ’round divulged itself for me in the space of a poolside chat with a stranger who had a thing or two to teach me as a result of her suffering. Maybe she was a Christian. Maybe she was not. What mattered is what she knew to be true: “Love is the most important thing,” she said. And in the broken places of my life where love falters, I say “Amen.” And “Help my unbelief.”
But…what do you think? If you could sum up the Gospel in one line, what would it be? Leave your comments below.
Single motherhood for the next nine months — with my hubby traveling back and forth to Washington, D.C., thanks to a National Endowment of Humanities (NEH) research fellowship there — may reduce my presence here at this intersection. But I’m hoping to show up at least once a week. I hope you will, too. Here’s what to look for in the next several days at this intersection between life and God for all sinners and saints, converted, unconverted or under conversion:
- Depression, Suicide and What Every Family Affected by The Leading Cause of Disability Worldwide Needs to Know Inspired by the recent suicide of a young man in a faith community I was once intimately part of, this was a hard piece to write; but September is “National Suicide Prevention Month,” and this local tragedy hit too close to home for me not to say anything, even if it required some vulnerability.
- Is Your Gospel Too Small? Some insightful meditations from Bruce Strom of Gospel Justice Initiative, an organization whose board I recently joined and that is doing God’s work serving the spiritual and legal needs of America’s poor.
Another big “thank you” to saint and sinner Br. Mark for sharing his reflections with us. Coincidentally, the latest cover story of the Atlantic features some challenging reflections on the prison system as it pertains to racism and black America. (If you subscribe to that magazine, his reflections are worth a read.)
Here’s a catchy tune I heard this morning from the eccentric British virtual band Gorillaz. It’s an oldie by some musical standards, having been around for five years, but it’s nice company this morning as I write away. And I’m digging the uniforms in this video of their live performance on Letterman four years ago.
Yesterday the news broke of Oklahoma death row inmate Richard Glossip’s last-minute reprieve of execution within only hours of death by lethal injection. The reprieve grants Glossip a two-week delay of execution, during which time the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals can consider a last-minute petition by Glossip’s lawyers. (Glossip has been on death row since 1998, reportedly on the basis of another convicted murderer’s testimony alone and little forensic evidence. Yesterday marked the third time Glossip’s execution was delayed.)
And maybe it’s fitting that these latest headlines happen to coincide with the below reflections from friend and fellow saint and sinner Brother Mark. For 44 years, Br. Mark has lived, worked and worshiped in intentional spiritual community at the Roman Catholic Monastery of the Holy Spirit, in Conyers, Georgia, where I met him last week while on a personal retreat. Before serving as the guest/retreat master there, Br. Mark worked in the infirmary for 30 years.
When I invited Br. Mark to guest post here at this intersection, he graciously took me up on the offer. Below are his reflections on what those behind bars might have to teach us and the life-changing power of a simple but increasingly extinct form of correspondence — letter writing:
“..I was in prison and you visited me.” — Jesus to his disciples (Matthew 25:36)
I am not much of a letter writer; in fact I hated corresponding by letter. Even after I started dabbling in writing 17 years ago, letter writing for me was very rare.
A couple of years ago, all of this changed. I’m not sure how I got started, but now I’m writing to six prisoners: three on a very regular basis; the others more infrequently.
And I always let them lead. (If they write I respond, and if they don’t, I figure they don’t need to write me anymore.)
Simple Words of Encouragement
The prisoner archetype is usually a dark one. I have been told that “they will only use you for money,” or “try to get you involved in some scam.” I am sure that is true in some cases. (I have encountered this only once in my personal correspondence with prisoners, when one prisoner wrote asking for money for various items.) Most prisoners just want someone to write them with words of encouragement.
The ones I am writing to are seeking a deeper relationship with God, and since I am a monk that is why they write me. They tell me about their inner struggles, their failures and their getting up and starting over again. They don’t need a lot — just to be listened to and some sort of response. None of the men I am writing to live up to the dark stereotype that keeps many people from writing to them. |
I’ve been writing to one man who is in for second-degree murder. He admits to the act and knows he needs to be where he is, but the sentence was severe — thirty years. He was highly trained in martial arts and self-defense. That along with some anger issues probably got him a stiffer penalty. The judge told this man that with his training and title he did not need to kill the other man. This man’s wife, the love of his life, died a few years ago. They had stayed married and close throughout his imprisonment.
And perhaps because this man agrees with the judge, he has not become bitter. Instead he is trying to have a deep personal relationship with God, and prays his way through days that are filled with noise, abusive prisoners, theft, and at times intimidation.
All I can do is encourage him.
Forgiveness From Behind Bars — and the Life-Changing Power of Letter Writing
One situation that was painful for him was when his mother’s rosary was stolen out of his locker. It was the only item he had that connected him with her and he was very angry about it. In the past, he would have been filled with rage. This time he decided to do something else, to seek the road that the Lord wants him to tread. Below is something that I wrote to him about that:
“I am glad you are praying for the men who have ‘hurt’ you and stole from you. You do have a hard road my friend, yet to give in to anger would be a harder one I believe. The love of God heals. The acting out of our inner rage only leads to deeper trouble and more rage and more fierce fighting; it can be unending. By praying, by keeping your ‘peace,’ you are stopping the cycle of violence in your life…easy?…..of course not, but you have the grace of God supporting you, even if you do not feel it at times. God is always the same, our perceptions of His presence go from hot to cold, yet the Lord is always ‘Yes.'”
Writing simple letters to prisoners does not take much time. Being locked up apart from family and friends only to face frequent rejection can be unbearable. Faith seems to give many prisoners the inner strength to step back and not get involved in gangs, drugs and sexual domination. In prison the situation can be very black and white; the choices become simple, yet in making them a deep inner struggle can happen. Writing can help them stay on the road of inner healing that flows from being open to the Holy Spirit.
And life can be funny: a man who never liked writing letters, now writing and perhaps getting more out of it than what I put in.
The dramatic transformation that our old house continues to undergo, as of Week 6 of renovation, inspired the following reflections — about faith, surrender and resurrection, and about what it means to call a residence “home.”
This Old House: A Poem
Before we tore down your walls like sixth graders at a dissection, only more affectionately, you had stood at attention. And the “Open House” sign had let us in.
You had potential, we thought when we drove away, our first-born strapped in his car seat, oblivious.
Something left unspoken which could come to be — was it the creaky wood floors or the ancient fuse box or the wood-paneled attic? — convinced us we could live here: that we could call you “home.”
And through the years, many friends have passed through your doors.
One died too young and unexpectedly, but I think I catch a flutter of her spirit every so often here — like a throb of arthritic pain on a rainy day, reminding me I’m alive. She lived next-door and loved to rock our children.
Those same children have cut teeth here and run mud tracks across that old linoleum floor and with their friends played under your eves. And within these walls you’ve been privy to all the little human dramas that, when added together, make our lives so uniquely our own.
One hundred famous last words later, about how one day we’ll move to some exotic land and raise our children there, your embrace still keeps us here.
(Even the bats in the attic last fall couldn’t drive us away, after we abandoned you to face their exorcism alone — those pock-marked eves the only reminder.)
One year later, we tore down those rotting beams and ripped open your intestines: an act of loyalty and affection, if not true love.
Unsurprisingly, you’ve borne it all with no complaints.
Still I can’t help but wonder, while standing among these solemn ruins tonight, if nearly a century is finally long enough to learn the art of being broken in order to be remade: To endure coming undone with the quiet assurance that the suffering is not in vain.
Then again, to stand cut down and exposed to the universe, and still, to raise your broken limbs to the sky: is that humble faith or proud rebellion? A final surrender or a last hurrah?
Maybe it is both … or does the fact that you’re inanimate make them something else?
This old house dares me to wonder.
It’s been a while since my last “retreat” at the monastery. The last time I was here, I was on deadline to finish the manuscript for my first book Grace Sticks. So I holed myself up in one of these rooms with a cheap bottle of red wine I had snuck in, and over the course of several days furiously wrote and re-wrote more “shitty first drafts,” (one of Anne Lamott’s many helpful prescriptions to wannabe writers), in a last-ditch effort to spare myself the anticipated shame of my editor’s first reaction.
That was more than two years ago now, which apparently is long enough to forget the lingo of this place …
Relearning the Meaning of Things …
“Are you going to the office?,” the bearded Cistercian brother who checked me in asked in a gravelly voice.
After discovering my room key was not in the small pile of keys for late-arriving guests, and nervously double-checking my iCalendar to confirm I had the right day of arrival, I had called him a bit sheepishly at the “emergency number” on the door to the now-boarded-up room that housed more of those awkward, clunky keys. He had appeared within minutes, offering words of reassurance that Patty, the woman who answered phones and had taken down my reservation during daytime hours, had told him I was coming.
His question had taken me by surprise.
“Uh, is there an office here?,” I asked, imagining some little room with fluorescent lights, computers and a fax machine, overseen by a librarian-like monk in shy, gruff tones.
“Oh, no, it’s just that some retreatants like to attend the services in the chapel,” the monk said, kindly overlooking my Amelia Bedelia moment. (One saving grace at this juncture was that he had been prepared for some cluelessness about how things work around here by the admission that I was once a Presbyterian pastor.)
We exchanged a few more words — about the pope, about “weird Presbyterian theology” like “double predestination,” and about AA, recovery and the writing life.
Still, I left that exchange with the realization that when I’m here I often become a female version of Mr. Bean, one reason being how easy it is to forget the appropriate religious lingo. (Just think Mr. Bean as nervous wedding officiant in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”)
… And the Promise and Peril of Silence and Solitude
The other reason is the self-imposed silence here, which takes some getting used to.
It’s not that I don’t love the silence or seek it out and find restoration from its embrace — I do — but something about it also makes me feel a bit silly and uncomfortable, like an eighth grader who just got braces and who knows those new metal laces across her teeth are good for her but isn’t so sure about wearing them just yet.
For example, in the absence of a “hello” or “good morning,” acknowledging the presence of another visitor here seems to call for some form of additional compensation. In the form of a bigger smile maybe, or the more exaggerated nod of a head.
And during mealtimes in the silent company of others, I’m careful to avoid squirting honey on my bread. Some poor guy made that mistake at breakfast this morning and sounded like he was passing gas.
The geese on the pond last night sounded better as they honked their goodbyes and made off in formation: one big “V” that broke off into two smaller “v’s,” and eventually a dotted line on the horizon. I was almost alone then, excepting one lone duck and a stray cat on an adjacent picnic table, and something about this fragile enclosure of solitude and the delicate beauty of a stillness I had grown so unaccustomed to — had almost forgotten existed, in the relentless movement of life’s many distractions, as noisy as they are meaningless —made the tears rush to my eyes.
Last night, as I lay in bed drifting off to sleep, my demons momentarily came out (as they are inclined to do when there are no sounds or distractions). They scampered about mischievously, throwing spitballs, but this time only briefly, before I managed to stuff them in some drawer.
By then I was drifting off to sleep, having read these words from Psalm 130:7: “Put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and him is full redemption.”
This morning I’m savoring some final moments of silence before I make the drive home. This time though, when I put my key in the ignition, I won’t immediately turn the radio to NPR or 94.1. I’ll want to prolong the silence, and I’ll be thinking about how to spend more time at “the office.”
At the risk of beating a dead horse — can anyone help me understand where that awful expression comes from, by the way? — this piece takes a new angle on the whole Ashley Madison scandal. What does an eye-opening dearth of female users on the marital infidelity website reveal about married women who cheat?, I wanted to know in my capacity as a full-time writer with Elements Behavioral Health (EBH). (EBH oversees a family of addiction recovery programs nationwide, including one at The Right Step, for women with co-occurring intimacy and substance use disorders — hence this piece.) Enjoy — and have a great Labor Day!
Within a few hours of its appearance here at this intersection between God and life, my last post on the Ashley Madison scandal had a total of one share.
“It must’ve been something I said,” I told my husband later that night, as we were getting into bed.
When I checked in yesterday, reader shares had gone from one to 1,000.
It must’ve been something I said.
“Your post did sound like an apology for Ashley Madison,” my husband had remarked — at which point he launched into an argument about why signing up for an account on Ashley Madison was intrinsically more morally problematic than a more accidental case of falling in love with someone else. Wasn’t there a clear difference between intentionally seeking out an affair and falling into one?
He has a point. “Life is short. Have an affair,” reads the tagline on the Ashley Madison website after all. If that doesn’t play as much to someone’s intentions as to their inner teenaged child, I’m not sure what does.
That said, drawing such distinctions is at best marginally helpful. At the end of the day, adultery is adultery, whether it’s falling in love accidentally or signing up to do so (or to avoid doing so) online. Either way, you’re still making choices that have deeply painful, even tragic consequences.
But what do you think? Is there utility in drawing such a distinction?
For those of us saints and sinners who even remotely have been following last week’s Ashley Madison scandal, I can think of at least three lessons it offers (and you may have more, in which case feel free to leave them below):
1. Chances are you will be found out. 37 million Americans with personal accounts on Ashley Madison seem to believe otherwise — or did before last week. But if you’re trolling Craigslist ads looking for anonymous, kinky sex without all the inconveniences of love, there is always that possibility that so-and-so knows your mother’s best friend from college whose daughter is in your spouse’s pilates class.
And they just had coffee last week.
And if you’re building your kamasutra playbook online, without the fall-out of the next morning when your spouse gives you that look that says “I’d rather organize my sock drawer than try that move again,” you might want to think again before signing up to try out your trick on nice strangers. Someone will eventually catch you with your— ahem— “hand” in the cookie jar: something along the lines of “What’s in the dark will be brought to light,” maybe…
2. Shame kills. The fall-out from last week’s hacking has been lethal: some people have allegedly committed suicide after learning that intimate details of their private lives have now become the exotic and titillating digestive material of a national (and international) conversation. And when embarrassing details about your messy private life have reached a whole chirping chorus that includes members of the national news media bent on nothing other than boosting their ratings, crowds of recreational gossipers on jittery chat rooms, and, maybe worse yet, your church’s public prayer chain (like that scene in the movie Saved), who can blame you really? That would probably be enough to encourage even the thickest-skinned among us to get lost hiking somewhere on the Appalachian Trail.
High-decibel shame of this sort can kill. (And a note to self: explore this concept further in next book on shame.)
On the other hand, lower-decibel shame — of the kind that drives addictions like sex and intimacy disorders and an impulse to court sure disaster in the form of extramarital entanglements — kills, too. The difference is that this kind of shame will do you in over the longer haul, sucking the life right out of you, damaging your closest and most significant relationships and ultimately, destroying your soul (if not also your body).
3. Love covers a multitude of sins; it doesn’t expose them. There was nothing kind or loving about what hackers did last week in exposing the private indiscretions of millions of people.
In the sense that true love entails justice, I can summon an exception to this general impression when those who loudly trumpet their high moral and religious values, while indulging in the very opposite of what they profess, get their day in the court of public opinion. (In this case, Josh Duggar, a spokesman for conservative Christian family values already under scrutiny for child molestation charges when last week’s news broke, is the most obvious example.)
But I suspect that the great majority of people whose dalliances on Ashley Madison are now scintillating public knowledge are probably not the Josh Duggars of this world. They are more likely pretty ordinary, somewhat complicated people like you and me, who are capable of doing great good but also make plenty of dumb mistakes and are prone to lead messy, confusing lives, people who, when honest with themselves, are thankful only God and their very best friend or maybe their therapist know the asinine thing they did last year or this morning. Most of them probably aren’t looking to excoriate publicly those who fall prey to the same regrettable impulses, weaknesses and moral mishaps (“sins”) they themselves experience. They may even be trying to do their best, and dream of a day when they might be healed once and for all of their “multitude of sins.”
That makes the very dramatic and salacious public exposure of the far too particular ways in which 37 million Americans fall short, (and implicitly, “shorter” than the rest of us saints and sinners), nothing less than destructive and mean-spirited.
Yes, it’s possible that for Duggar and his publicly shamed compatriots, last week’s hacking signified a much-needed corrective — a redemptive day of reckoning, if you will. But to those who seek to publicly shame others on the basis of their sexual misbehavior, Jesus appears to dish out a taste of their own medicine. When the religious leaders of Jesus’ day drag an adulterous woman caught in flagrante delicto to Jesus, demanding a word of condemnation, Jesus makes no effort to appease them by casting stones at the wrongdoer. Instead, in response to their finger pointing, Jesus bends down and silently begins to writes something on the ground. Whatever Jesus writes is enough to cause them to walk away one by one, leaving only the adulterous woman to contend with Jesus. Some commentators believe Jesus is writing down all of these accusers’ most secret sins.
If that interpretation is right, I’m guessing last week’s hackers have something more to learn about their own blind spots — and maybe even about love itself.