Archive for the ‘Redemption’ Tag

The Raw Edges of Life   18 comments

I read this piece in tears the day after my dad’s funeral where we were all dressed in black dignity, smelled of shaving cream and lilacs, and spoke in polite, quiet voices.  This story by Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors, is raw and real and connects with the deep places in my heart that long for grace in the messiness of living.  The truest bonds come from sharing our brokenness with one another.

Then I called my Jesuit friend, Tom, who is a hopeless alcoholic of the worst sort, sober now for 35 years, someone who sometimes gets fat and wants to hang himself, so I trust him. I said, “Tell me a story about Advent. Tell me about people getting well.”
He thought for a while. Then he said, “OK.”
In 1976, when he first got sober, he was living in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, going to the very hip AA meetings there, where there were no fluorescent lights and not too much clapping — or that yahoo-cowboy-hat-in-the-air enthusiasm that you get in L.A., according to sober friends. And everything was more or less all right in early sobriety, except that he felt utterly insane all the time, filled with hostility and fear and self-contempt. But I mean, other than that everything was OK. Then he got transferred to Los Angeles in the winter, and he did not know a soul. “It was a nightmare,”he says. “I was afraid to go into entire areas of L.A., because the only places I knew were the bars. So I called the cardinal and asked him for the name of anyone he knew in town who was in AA. And he told me to call this guy Terry.”
Terry, as it turned out, had been sober for five years at that point, so Tom thought he was God. They made arrangements to go to a place Terry knew of where alcoholic men gathered that night in the back of the Episcopal Cathedral, right in the heart of downtown L.A. It was Terry’s favorite gathering, full of low-bottom drunks and junkies — people from nearby halfway houses, bikers, jazz musicians. “Plus it’s a men’s stag meeting,” says Tom. “So already I’ve got issues.
“There I am on my first date with this new friend Terry, who turns out to not be real chatty. He’s clumsy and ill at ease, an introvert with no social skills, but the cardinal has heard that he’s also good with newly sober people. He asks me how I am, and after a long moment, I say, ‘I’m just scared,’ and he nods and says gently, ‘That’s right.’
“I don’t know a thing about him, I don’t know what sort of things he thinks about or who he votes for, but he takes me to this place near skid row, where all these awful looking alkies are hanging out in the yard, waiting for something to start. I’m tense, I’m just staring. It’s a whole bunch of strangers, all of them clearly very damaged — working their way back slowly, but not yet real attractive. The sober people I’ve met back in Berkeley all seem like David Niven in comparison, and I’m thinking, Who are these people? Why am I here?
“All my scanners are out. It’s all I can do not to bolt.
“Ten minutes before we began, Terry directed me to a long flight of stairs heading up to a windowless, airless room. I started walking up the stairs, with my jaws clenched, muttering to myself tensely just like the guy in front of me, this guy my own age who was stumbling and numb and maybe not yet quite on his first day of sobriety.
“The only things getting me up the stairs are Terry, behind me, pushing me forward every so often, and this conviction I have that this is as bad as it’s ever going to be — that if I can get through this, I can get through anything. Well. All of a sudden, the man in front of me soils himself. I guess his sphincter just relaxes. Shit runs down onto his shoes, but he keeps walking. He doesn’t seem to notice.
“However, I do. I clapped a hand over my mouth and nose, and my eyes bugged out but I couldn’t get out of line because of the crush behind me. And so, holding my breath, I walk into the windowless, airless room.
“Now, this meeting has a person who stands at the door saying hello. And this one is a biker with a shaved head, a huge gut and a Volga boatman mustache. He gets one whiff of the man with shit on his shoes and throws up all over everything.
“You’ve seen the Edvard Munch painting of the guy on the bridge screaming, right? That’s me. That’s what I look like. But Terry enters the room right behind me. And there’s total pandemonium, no one knows what to do.The man who had soiled himself stumbles forward and plops down in a chair. A fan blows the terrible smells of shit and vomit around the windowless room, and people start smoking just to fill in the spaces in the air. Finally Terry reaches out to the greeter, who had thrown up. He puts his hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Wow,” he says. “Looks like you got caught by surprise.” And they both laugh. Right? Terry asks a couple of guys to go with him down the hall to the men’s room, and help this guy get cleaned up. There are towels there, and kitty litter, to absorb various effluvia, because this is a meeting where people show up routinely in pretty bad shape. So while they’re helping the greeter get cleaned up, other people start cleaning up the meeting room. Then Terry approaches the other man.
“My friend,” he says gently, “it looks like you have trouble here.”
The man just nods.
“We’re going to give you a hand,” says Terry.
“So three men from the recovery house next door help him to his feet,walk him to the halfway house and put him in the shower. They wash his clothes and shoes and give him their things to wear while he waits. They give him coffee and dinner, and they give him respect. I talked to these other men later, and even though they had very little sobriety, they did not cast this other guy off for not being well enough to be there. Somehow this broken guy was treated like one of them, because they could see that he was one of them. No one was pretending he wasn’t covered with shit, but there was a real sense of kinship. And that is what we mean when we talk about grace.
“Back at the meeting at the Episcopal Cathedral, I was just totally amazed by what I had seen. And I had a little shred of hope. I couldn’t have put it into words, but until that meeting, I had thought that I would recover with men and women like myself; which is to say, overeducated, fun to be with and housebroken. And that this would happen quickly and efficiently. But I was wrong. So I’ll tell you what the promise of Advent is: It is that God has set up a tent among us and will help us work together on our stuff. And this will only happen over time.

Advertisements

Posted June 13, 2016 by janathangrace in Reading

Tagged with , , ,

Star-Crossed   6 comments

“Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.” –Elizabeth Alexander

That is profound.

The greatest pain arises from the profoundest joy. To eliminate loss, one must abandon love since in this broken world suffering and death are not simply a risk, but a certainty.  Love inevitably leads to sorrow.  As C. S. Lewis so powerfully explained:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Elizabeth Alexander originally wrote to mourn the loss of her young husband to sudden death.  “The story seems to begin with catastrophe,” she wrote, “but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story.”  She is no Christian, but her personal journey reflects powerfully the great story of which we are all a part. Anywhere we open our book, we find tragedy–brutality, abandonment, hatred, violence, suffering–so that we must go back and back to the very start to discover that all this pain springs up from the love that inspired creation, and to understand that all of our suffering is borne in the great heart of God himself, who willingly embraced all our agony to gain the inexpressible joy of loving us.  The cross is a tragedy, but it is more fully and deeply and finally a love story, and the end will be glorious.

Posted June 12, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

Tagged with , ,

Singing in the Dark   1 comment

We need good stories, stories of courage and generosity and unexpected kindness.  In this dark world, we need to share stories of endurance and empathy and reconciliation–not to falsify reality, to romanticize the present or expect fairytale endings here, but to remind us that there is some good still, some glimmer of light to warm our hearts.

Bubblewrapping ourselves with comfortable lifestyles to avoid this broken world may bring picket-fence peace, but is not living by faith.  Faith is never a denial of the bad.  The very reason we are called to live in hope is that our present is rife with heartbreak.  The tintinnabulations of good that we catch are echos of a future yet to be.  So we tell those little stories of good to recall our coming deliverance, to remind ourselves that the infinite and eternal glory of God that surrounds this dark closet of our earthly days is the far greater reality, though it only reaches us through the cracks of our prison.  Those glints of good we share with one another makes our suffering more endurable though it may not lighten our present pain.

So come let us sing to one another in the dark and encourage our hearts with hope of redemption.  God is good, and one day we will see it and feel it and breathe it, but until then let us cheer ourselves with the little sparkles of good that we daily encounter.

Of the many heart-warming stories out there, here is a good one.

Posted May 29, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

Tagged with , , ,

Conquering the World from a Cross   Leave a comment

Good Friday was the triumph of grace over law.  Law was unmasked, over-ruled, dethroned.  Forgiveness triumphed over judgment, love and mercy over just desserts.  Do your worst to God, torture and kill his own son, and he will love you still, he will reach out to you, offer you a way out of your lostness, bitterness, hatred, and misery.  God will never stop loving you with all his heart… or your neighbor… or your enemy, which is the hard part for us.  He does not love us more than them… he does not even see them as more wicked and deserving of damnation than he sees us.  That is the tough news of grace–it embraces everyone or it succumbs to the law, loses its whole nature of undeserved love.  Once any small degree of deserving enters, grace disappears.  The amazing, wonderful news is that grace is not partial, it covers every evil we have done or will do without flinching.  No act, no person is beyond its reach… which is also the hard news.  It means the world is not divided between a good us and a bad them.  There is no them, just us fallen human beings.  We’re all in this together, broken and in desperate need of grace.

But the tough news is the good news, because we finally have a solution to our fractured and destructive relationships.  Our resolution to the anger, hatred and aggression of others is not to overpower it with our own righteous judgment and coercive power–for when we try to stand on our own righteousness, we ultimately judge ourselves.  The law condemns all equally.  The only resolution to hatred, whether self-directed or other-directed, is more love.  In other words the true solution, the only solution, the only possible way out of our lostness, is grace.  And that grace is ultimately, finally, completely poured out in the life and death of God’s only Son.  Grace has come and triumphed over all, breathing life into death, flashing hope into despair, filling our crushed hearts with love unconquerable.

Posted April 5, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

Tagged with , ,

Postcards from My Dark Past   9 comments

Early this summer I dragged out a cardboard box from my closet, blew off years of dust, and opening it, pulled out a stack of notecards. Each card held a quotation, insights that inspired and challenged me, scribbled down from a decade of reading, and I planned to transcribe them to my computer. For two months I couldn’t muster the energy, but last week I finally plunked them down in my lap and started flipping through for some encouragement to share on Facebook.  I read through ten cards… and then ten more, pulling them randomly from the pile, and discovered that what I meticulously recorded and saved was toxic. They were snippets of a mindset that dragged me into darkness and despair, a spirituality that was intense and genuine… and deeply flawed.

One of those treasured nuggets read, “A really humble man would rather let another say that he is contemptible and worth nothing than say so himself….  He believes it himself and is glad that others should share his opinion.”  Another famous divine wrote, “Strive always to choose not that which is easiest, but that which is most difficult; not that which is most delectable, but that which is most unpleasing; not that which gives most pleasure, but that which gives least; not that which is restful, but that which is wearisome; not that which gives consolation, but rather that which makes disconsolate.”

DSC01823

“HUMILITY CONSISTS IN THE CONTEMPT OF OUR EXCELLENCE”

Even when the quotations were “positive,” they crushed me with their impossible standard, like this prayer: “Grant that every word I speak may be fit for you to hear; that every plan I make be fit for you to bless; that every deed I do may be fit for you to share” –flawless speech and thought and action daily.  I was a very committed young man.  If this was the measure of true spirituality, then I was determined to reach it.  With all my heart I drove myself to meet this standard, redoubling my efforts when I fell short, and finally I despaired.

In my brokenness, the grace of God found me.  In my years of striving I would have looked on such a free gift as “cheap grace,” as taking advantage of God’s goodness, as spiritual lukewarmness like the church of Laodicea.  But once I despaired of myself, grace was the only hope left to me.  We cripples cannot earn our keep.  It must be given to us.

For years after stumbling into the light of grace, I blamed myself for that twilight of wandering, of waste, of wounds to myself and others, but that murky stretch of my journey may have been inevitable, even necessary, since only the destitute embrace grace. Moses spent four decades in the backside of the desert herding sheep. David spent years running from Saul, sleeping in caves, being tagged a traitor.  Demolition sets the groundwork for re-creation, so that the very strength and success of the unbroken stunts their souls.  So let me, like Paul, brag about my weaknesses and magnify the grace of God.

Posted September 6, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

Tagged with , , , ,

A Flickering Candle In A Darkening World   11 comments

I was washing dishes in the kitchen yesterday and thinking.  My mind follows me everywhere and won’t shut up.  Suddenly I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach as I reflected on a political article I had been reading.  The current state of civic engagement in America is deeply disturbing to me, but what drives the stake into my heart is the entrenched position of my own people, the church… at least that part of the church I have always called home spiritually.  It feels to me like our world is careening around hairpin turns in the dark and the headlights just died.  This is not going to end well.  And leaning against the sink with dripping hands I realized another huge source of my depression.

I have known for many years that my personal sense of failure drove me into a deep depression.  I gave it everything I had and just couldn’t make it work: the overwhelming poverty of India mocked my attempts to help.  It is a great blow to realize your life is meaningless in the greater scheme of things, that your world, even your small corner of the world, will go on as it always has with or without you.  Still, though I wasn’t making a difference, someone was making a difference.  I had lost all hope for my own personal relevance, but I knew that the good side would win.

Then I slowly realized my pointless life was not in contrast to the overall progress of the world, but was a microcosm of it.  All the good in the world–the huge, sacrificial efforts of selfless people–did not and could not ever reverse the direction of this tragic human story.  Suffering is alleviated and evil stopped in small back eddies of history, but the world as a whole flows on in its destructive ways.

At some point in my own journey I finally understood that the positive, upbeat message on which I was raised was a false narrative that we told each other to keep us fighting a losing battle.  Against all the evolutionary optimism of my culture, the world would never be a better place, and there was nothing any of us could do to change that.  One war would succeed another, today’s tyrant would rise on the ashes of yesterday’s, a new disease would always spring up to laugh in the face of all our medical advances.  We were doomed to play violins on the deck of our sinking Titanic.  I was not just a failure in my own small sphere, but my story was one line in a great tragedy. My impotence was a small, dark reminder of the miserable whole.  I was not simply hopeless about myself, I was hopeless about the entire world.

I’m not suggesting we should stop playing our violins.  If we are all going down, perhaps we can bring some small comfort to face the disaster.  But if we hope that our stringed ensemble will keep the ship from sinking, we set ourselves up for repeated disappointment, and despair at last.  We will either strum more and more violently trying to drive back the rising waves or we will pretend the ship is fine and turn a deaf ear to the cries around us.  In a crazy way I found hope in hopelessness yesterday.  Sweeping away false hope clears a space for realistic hope.

It is not useless to adopt one mangy mutt from a city full of strays, give one store clerk a smile in her long, harsh day, clarify a point for one person on a website crowded with dissenters.  It is no small thing to bring laughter to a child’s cancer ward, to give a sandwich to a man three days hungry, to hold the hand of a mother whose son was killed in Iraq.  Perhaps I cannot cure Alzheimer’s, but I can listen lovingly to the same story repeated for the fourth time.

We have violins, let us play them.

Posted April 9, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

Tagged with , , , ,

Hope When Hope Is Gone   Leave a comment

Matthew 1:5 and Obed fathered Jesse

Obed is to me a sign of hope when hope has breathed its last,  CPR hope.  For some of us, like Naomi, life seems like a ragged march of crippled dreams, and we wish for it all to be over.  After Naomi and her family were driven to destitution by a famine, they fled as refugees to a foreign country where her husband and both sons died.  She returned in old age to her homeland with a widowed and childless daughter-in-law Ruth, and they survived as beggars.  Naomi was not only at the end of her own fruitless life, but with no offspring, she was at the end of her whole family’s history.  She began life full of promise–Naomi means pleasant–but all those hopes were dashed along the way, and she was tottering towards a pauper’s grave.  She told everyone to stop calling her Pleasant and instead to call her “Bitter.”  Her hope had burned out. Then hope lit up her darkness.  In the last extreme something happened, something unexpected and outrageous–a wholesale redemption.  Ruth married Boaz and gave birth to Obed.

defibrillator

According to Old Testament law, Obed, the son born to her daughter-in-law, was Naomi’s own grandson.  In one moment her life was transformed from penniless, meaningless, and future-less into the bloodline of the Son of God.  Her friends called Obed her “redeemer, restorer of life and sustainer of your old age” (Ruth 4:14,15).  Grace, even last minute grace, rewrites our whole history.  It does not simply counterbalance the negative, but transforms it into something great and good.  That is the meaning of redemption. Take all the zeros of our life strung together, and add this one element of grace and it changes 000000 into 1,000,000.  However empty and broken our lives seem, the message of Obed is that grace sweeps us into the grand scheme of God’s redemptive purposes.  “Why are you cast down, O my soul?  Hope thou in God.” (Ps. 42:11)

Cohen

Posted September 4, 2013 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

Tagged with , , ,