It’s become fashionable to be socially just. The evening news covers protests about the horrifically evil kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls. We call each other to embody the gospel by breaking down walls of social division, and setting captives free, by working for environmental justice and empowering the poor and displaced. Clean water. End poverty now. Buy a shoe, give a show. There are buttons, campaigns, fundraisers, banquets. Come on. All the cool people are in.
It’s high time that the realities of suffering, racism, oppression, and ongoing injustice rose to the top of our collective consciousness. For much of her history, we who call ourselves “the church” have been guilty of either intentionally crossing to the other side of the road, so as to disengage from these pesky dark realities, or worse, we’ve spiritualized away the suffering by promising a greater afterlife in some bastardized version of karmic justice. Our passivity has misrepresented the essence of the gospel, and allowed ongoing exploitation of peoples and resources, resulting in mountains of suffering and loss for hundreds of generations. That these issues are now at the forefront of our collective consciousness in both our culture and many of our churches is a very good thing indeed.
And yet there are at least two lurking dangers in this justice revival:
1. Superficial Solutions inoculate. “I recycle and ride my bike to work on sunny days. I bought those cool shoes to help some poor kids. And last night I went to party where the tips at the bar went to a water project somewhere.” This kind of thinking becomes the equivalent of thinking we’re equipped to climb Mt. Rainier because we bought an ice axe. An ice axe is good, but it’s certainly not all you’ll need to get to the top. The sacrifices, discipline, change in priorities, and even change in world view that will be needed if we’re to be in any way a substantial part of the world’s solutions are for more profound than attending a few cool events and riding our bike to work. Take our call to justice seriously, and we’ll find ourselves, over time, become involved not only in deep personal lifestyle, but actively working to address systemic issues that are deeply embedded in our world. Paul the apostle called them “principalities and powers” because they’re animated by forces darker than single individuals.
Our fashionable protests, focused projects, and occasional forays into environmental stewardship or some other cause might do more harm than good if they create a resistance in us to the notion that we might be called to more. Jesus called people to this principle when he told the pharisees that they “tithed even their spices” but did so as substitute for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Of course, Jesus tells that crowd that they should have “done the latter without neglecting the former”, which is just another way of saying that an ice axe is vital, but you’ll need more than that to get to the top.
2. Spiritual Realities fade. What’s not to love about redemptive involvement in the pressing problems of our time in Jesus’ name? There are a few answers, but the most important one is simply that there are two great commandments and that they’re wed together like an ecosystem, each feeding off the other. Take one of them out of the equation and the other inevitably suffers. We made for love, plain and simple – made to love god and love our neighbor as our self. We’re in a season where love of neighbor is the rising star, and sometimes the light of one outshines the other. A little look back into history though, and we’re reminded of a time when it surely looked like people were loving God, at least if candles, hymns, preaching, and bible study were any indication. But of course they actually weren’t any indication. They were their own form of inoculation against more robust and truer faith, because in spite of it all, slavery was sanctioned, or racism, or colonialism. Praying and Bible reading convinced people they’d hit gold, but it was fools gold when it wasn’t coupled with the hard work of crossing social divides to love the neighbor. Bible reading mattered, and matters for some today too. It’s just that real transformation will drive us into real relationships in our broken world.
Today’s justice based t-shirts, shoes, water bottles, blogs, missions, non-profits are at risk of becoming the same form of 19th century pietism in reverse. Convinced we’re in the stream of God’s activity, we lost sight of our own need for transformation, healing, and freedom, so lost have we become in the consuming of justice symbols. Real longing for justice will do more than paint a sign or wear a bracelet. It will drive us to prayer, and brokenness, and mourning. And those things will drive us to intimacy with God.
Do you want whole faith instead of the 2%? Then you need to recognize the dangers on both sides of the ledge and go deep in your pursuit of intimacy with God, and justice in the world. That’s a journey worth taking, and it has a name: abundant life.
A new year is a blank piece of paper; a chance to stop and consider how to fine tune our investment in the one wild and precious life that we’ve been given. The “unexamined life is not worth living” is how Socrates put it, and there’s no time riper for examining our lives than now, when the calendar is clean. Rather than just thinking about goals, though, this article reminds me that it makes sense to think about values. Here are some values that need adjusting… more or less.
More Intentionality in affirmation and encouragement – I’ve recently become freshly aware of the power encouragement has, both through experiences of giving and receiving it. Decades ago, in the midst of a depression that came about in the wake of my dad’s death, the person who made the biggest difference in my life did so through encouragement and affirmation. When I thanked him, he said, “All of us know our inadequacies pretty well – what we need is to be told how much we’re loved, where we’re gifted, where we can shine.” While the value of truth telling and hard conversations are also important, I’ve recently reawakened to the value of encouragement and plan to fan it into flame this year.
More Openness to the fullness of life – I’ll be teaching from Ecclesiastes this Sunday, and this coming summer for an outdoor course. This book, more than any in the Bible, invites me to fearlessly live “fully” in every moment. As one poet writes:
“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit…” We live in a hyper-insulated world these days, afraid of all that might go wrong if we venture outside our comfort zones, and the fruit of this is a lowering of the bar, so that for too many the biggest adventure of our lives is a visit to the newest movie, or upgrading our xbox. We’re too often missing the reality that in Christ, we’re sometimes invited to step outside the boat, or into the river, or give away the last of our loaves and fishes. What if we said yes, shooting the moon and casting all our hope in the reality that God’s calling us to this next step? What would happen then? Abundant life would happen and by that God doesn’t mean material prosperity necessarily, but fulness, vibrancy, wholeness, right in the thick of the beauty and challenges on our plates.
More Companionship because we’re made for community and relationships. I’ve just finished experiencing an overwhelming outpouring of support in my life from close friends throughout the time of my oldest daughter’s wedding. They helped make the wedding happen in a thousand practical ways and I was reminded throughout the experience of just how priceless deep friendships are. I’m looking for ways to continue fanning those flames of relationship in the coming year.
In addition to human companionship, I’m very much looking forward to nurturing companionship with Christ as I spend 40 days hiking through the mountains in order to learn more about what it means to walk with God. After all, we’re invited to friendship with Jesus, not religious ritual. I hope to learn more lessons about what that really means through my walking days.
More Creativity – For people with responsibilities like work, marriage, family, keeping the car maintained, keeping the sewer line between the house and street flowing freely, keeping the deck stained, there are seasons when it’s hard to be creativity. Our longing to write, paint, create music or pottery, or whatever, is eaten alive by our day job and our night job so that we’ve nothing left for creativity. There’s no sense moaning about it; such seasons simply happen.
On other hand, when one comes up for air, and the creative urges begin demanding they find expression again, it’s important to fan those urges into flames and give the fire some room to grow. I’m going to do that by making a modest commitment to a word count for writing during each two week period of the coming year. Rather than some lofty unattainable goal, I’m shooting for something challenging but doable.
More Vegetables – There’s nothing to say here.
Less Late Nights – Everyone’s at their best at some certain point of the day, and for me it’s that time in the earliest morning hours, around 5:30. As a result, staying up ’til midnight, weary and uncreative, robs me of my best time.
Less Stuff – We’re slowly working our way through the closets and garage because, like plaque in your arteries, possessions have a nasty way of accumulating and then remaining as nothing more than clutter long after they’ve served their purpose. “Give it away” I say, and it’s happening, and it’s liberating.
Less Whining – I love that the Bible invites me to pour my heart out to God with honesty, expressing the full range of lament and praise, joy and sorrow. But there’s one response to reality that God roundly condemns: grumbling, which is this sort of low level whining amongst ourselves about circumstances, leaders, politics, the weather, jobs, customer service quality of Comcast, Seattle traffic and more. The Bible says this is more than just a wast of time; it’s destructive sin. God seems to be saying, “Tell me anything you want about your reaction to life, or your trials or pains or joys. But don’t whine to one another. It’s worthless.”
Less Yes – All these musing about life change have to do with one single thing. I’m trying to answer the question of how to make the most of the few precious days we’ve been given on this earth. The answer, I’m learning, resides in focus. “Fan your gifts into flame” is what Paul said to Timothy, which is a way of saying that you can’t do everything so once you find your calling, don’t worry about saying no to the many sirens of temptation that will come your way. Stay committed to your thing… your craft, your marriage, your kids, your writing, whatever. Give it your best and take of yourself so that you have your best to give. Living into that requires less yes.
What are you saying more or less to in the coming year? I welcome your thoughts.
(in light of some conversations I’ve been having lately, here are some formative, not definitive, thoughts, about the words we use and how they affect our testimony)
When you talk to people and the subject of spirituality or faith comes up, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to use the word Christian in any meaningful way. Here’s why:
Words, in order to have meaning, need to have boundaries. The noun Hat can mean a lot of things – ranging from a baseball hat, to a helmet for football or motorcycle riding, to a lovely hat for some sort of formal event, to an Amish head covering. But we all know that it isn’t referring to a bottle, or a piece of cake, or a car. The limits of words make conversation and understanding possible, and though words can have varieties of meanings, the boundaries need to “reasonable” or else the possibility of some real misunderstandings arise exponentially.
This brings me to the word I’m putting on trial: Christian. Here’s why:
“I’m not a Christian – I’m a democrat”, implying that Christian and a view of the world that favors higher taxes and bigger government are inherently, de-facto, incompatible.
“Yes. I’m a Christian. I was baptized when I was 8 months old.”
“Yes. I’m a Christian. I grew up in the church.”
“Yes. I’m a Christian. I prayed the sinners prayer and went forward in church when I was nine”
“No I don’t want to be a Christian. Have you heard of the crusades? Slavery? The Christians were at the root of all that suffering.”
“I’ll never be a Christian. Just look at what Christian Europe did to our (African) continent.”
You could go back through these comments and try to build a definition of the word Christian based on the answers, and what you’d end up with are six different definitions, but that’s only because I’ve shared six stories with you. I could share thirty, and then you’d have thirty definitions, each one diminishing the meaning of the word rather than clarifying. The result? The word has come to mean so many different things that it essential means nothing.
What’s a Christian to do?
Continuing to use the word in the same way we talk about baseball and perfume, (assuming that everyone who’s listening knows what we mean by it) isn’t wise because we’re identifying ourselves with a word that, in the end, likely misrepresents us to the people who are listening.
If we’re not going to keep using it, there are only two options left: First, we can try to recover the word, offering a fresh definition. I’ve been a fan of this strategy for a long time, believing that to surrender the meaning of the word to all its false detractors is sort of like raising a white flag and quitting the fight. Isn’t it better to let everyone in the world know what the word really means by living out its true meaning for everyone to see?
Well, actually, no. It’s not better at all. That’s what I’ve come to believe at least. I’m tired of fighting this battle and saying, “don’t confuse MY Christianity with that yucky stuff over there. I’m not like that. I’m not like them” because these conversations have led to perhaps the worst definition of “Christian”- “Christians fight with each other all the time!” It’s a true statement, and ironic, since the one thing for which Jesus explicitly prayed is that Christ followers would be known by their unity. Instead, we’re known by our capacity to point out, more than any other religion in my opinion, how so many groups wearing the same word Christian really aren’t – and are worse than us.
“Over here. We have the real stuff! We’re the real definition of Christian” we shout, loud enough so that people already not interested in Jesus are now less interested than ever.
Nope. I’m finished with that game, because the person not talked about very much in all this shouting is Jesus himself, which is ironic, because in the end, what we’re supposed to be doing is inviting people to follow Jesus. The name calling, doctrinal fighting, and presumptive claiming of moral high is a game that’s worn me down. But when all the shouting, and divisions, and pleas for institutional loyalty have died down, what I love is that Jesus is still here in the room with me.
“I’ve been waiting for you man. Where have you been?”
“O you know. Out and about, promoting your faith.” I know I look tired, and it’s a little embarrassing because he seems so calm, so centered, almost unconcerned that I’ve been running myself ragged for him.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that” he says, sipping his coffee. “You’re confusing people. Don’t promote ‘my faith’. Why don’t you try just telling people about me? People are tired. They’re dealing with shame and failure. They’re living in the midst of kingdoms that are enslaving them. I want to bless them, help them, heal them, invite them to rest. They don’t need religion. They need me.”
“I thought I was telling them about you.” I say, defensive. Jesus reminds me that telling people to “go to church” or “become Christians” are phrases so loaded with toxic junk that they do more harm than good.
“I think that’s why Paul said that he was determined to know nothing more than Christ crucified. It might even be what Bonhoeffer meant when we referred to religionless Christianity. But even those words are too loaded. Just love people like I do. And tell people about me. Good things will happen.”
It’s advent. “Messiah” is playing on my computer, reminding me that the whole arc of history is, in the end, not about Christianity at all. It’s about one person who changes everything, ultimately saturating the universe with glory and beauty, bringing hope and healing to all. I pray that my eyes, this advent, will be looking for him all the time, talking about him freely, and giving him the freedom to do what he does best through the likes of me; love, serve, bless, and impart hope.
Yes. I’m burying the word Christian… if it rises from the dead, so be it. But may it never rise unless it represents the pure unadulterated glory of the risen Christ. Amen?
These are my thoughts… still forming. I welcome yours!
A little while ago I posted a piece about “the end of sex” as we know it, referencing an article about the dramatically diminishing sex lives of Japanese young people, as the joy of human contact is displaced by virtual realities, work demands, and the discovery that commitment free recreational sex is a mirage, as even popular movies tell us here.
Stepping back from the particulars of sexuality, its easy to see the trend line pointing all of us towards lives that are increasingly removed from physical realities. Food comes from boxes. Comfort comes from climate controlled indoor boxes called buildings. Entertainment comes from boxes. Sexual release comes from boxes. It’s possible to live such a ridiculously insulated existence that we need never leave home again.
“That’s ridiculous!” I can hear you saying it. But when was the last time you ate food straight from a garden? Walked barefoot? Spent time outside in the rain? Slept under the stars? When was the last time you were hungry, or cold, or thirsty? When was the last time you hugged you spouse or parent or child, not in a formal way, but in a lingering way, indicating of your deep affection for the other? When was the last time you looked into your lover’s eyes deeply enough to see their soul, and allow yours to be seen too?
When David encourages us to “taste and see” that the Lord is good, he’s inviting us to allow revelation of God’s character to come to us through our senses, to allow ourselves to be shaped not only by revelation from the scriptures, but from taste, touch, smell, beauty, pleasure, pain. IN world that’s increasingly becoming virtual, urban, and disembodied, Christ followers have a chance to display an alternative: life lived fully, unmediated through pixels.
This, though, will be challenging because since the beginning, Christ followers have struggled with integration. The gospel and letters of John, along with Colossians, address our tendency to split the universe into spirit and matter, a view that comes from Plato, not Jesus. We’ve gone there though, for reasons beyond the scope of this little piece. The results have not been pretty, as sexual phobias drive desire underground, misreadings about “love not the world” lead to neglect of the environment, and “set your mind on heavenly things” has come only to mean “read your Bible more”. It’s time to come home to the good news that God has made us to be whole people. It’s time to come home to our bodies. Here are some ways:
1. View body care as a faith issue – Phrases about the spirit “giving life to our mortal bodies” and our bodies being “temples” ought to shake us out of our gnostic slumber long enough to help us see that exercising, eating real food, getting enough sleep, and maybe taking our shoes off once in a while aren’t evidence of self indulgent narcissism, but rather stewardship. There are lots of places to go if you need motivation or inspiration. I go here.
2. Embrace our identities as sexual beings – This is where we’re afraid to go, afraid even to talk about it because we think that any body positive, or sex positive messaging will lead to promiscuity and addiction. That’s like saying that we shouldn’t take about food for fear of obesity or anorexia. In fact, it’s the phobic taboo nature of the topic that leads countless men and women to struggle with their sexuality alone, underground. Thus this fundamental part of their identity, this gift from God is only spoken of in hushed tones, when it ought to be an integral part of our lives and teaching. I’m presently collecting resources to share in this area and will devote an entire post to a list soon.
3. Unplug. – You’ve got to turn it off. Phone. Pad. Computer. Music. You’ve got to listen to the silence, or to the nuances in the voice and body language of the one to whom you’re speaking. You’ve got to pay attention, tasting the food you’re eating, the smell of coffee just before it touches your lips, the new trees growing out of an old stump, the sensation of cold when you walk barefoot in November. This kind of “tasting and seeing” is ultimately a tasting and seeing that the Lord is good, or can be, if we’ll but start with the realization that God is speaking – all the time, through all God’s made. Reduce your focus to a screen, though, and you’ll miss it.
5. Get outside. Garden. Hike. Gaze at the Milky Way. Go for a run. Climb a mountain. Walk to work. Do whatever it takes so that you can come to see and believe that you’re part of something much bigger, that God’s providing for you through the water cycle, seasons, and the interconnectedness of all life.
6. Read your Bible. I just wrote about Coffee with God, and the necessity of meeting Christ in the Bible. Why? This is your map, offering interpretation for all the beauty and pain, and desire and fulfillment, loss and hunger, feasting and celebration, intimacy and distancing that you’ll experience when you live an embodied life. This is vital because in the end these very bodies we’re living in will decay. But if we let them, they’ll inform, sanctify, and fortify all that we are, not just in time but in eternity.
You think our world is thirsty for this? I do, as seen here:
I’m planning on coming back to the previous post about “the end of sex as we know it” because it addresses an important trend in our culture. But a convergence of conversations and activities have conspired to point today’s post in an entirely different direction: If there were one single habit you could develop in your life that would become so foundational that it would provide catalyst for transformation in every other area, would you be interested? If so, read on.
I thought the notion of coffee with God was unique to me, but this little devotional (it’s nine minutes that might just change your life utterly) reminds me that an older, wiser pastor also uses the term. The pastor shares the story of a man whose life was completely transformed as the result of developing the habit of meeting with Jesus every day. If need help making this commitment and getting started, consider this:
Failure to enjoy coffee with God is almost never a shortage of time – it’s a matter of priorities. Of course it might be fair to say that I don’t make the time because the time’s never been meaningful, but don’t say you don’t have time. Do you have time to brush your teeth? Work out? Eat? Sleep? We make time for stuff that matters – so maybe the question should be, “How can I make this time matter more?”
Create a consistent space and time. It’s helpful to view your time meeting with God as a genuine encounter with a living being. Setting a space for it to happen helps. The video referenced earlier is about a man who began meeting God daily in a rocking chair. The story will, perhaps, motivate you to name some space and begin meeting God there because you’ll hear the man’s story from the prime of his career until the end of his days. Think what might happen to you if you develop habits of intimacy with Jesus for the next 40 years!
Read the Bible. If it helps to have someone help you with the meaning, consider this book. If you want some directed prayer as well, consider this book. There are dozens of reading programs on your computer that will send you some portions of the Bible every day. It’s like getting an e-mail from God! You can’t meet with God unless you’re willing to read your Bible, which is revelation vital for our transformation. Here we are, all of us striving for better relationships, better careers, to overcome bad habits, and more – and all the while, the council of God awaits. We’d be wise to start the habit of listening.
Don’t get frustrated by setbacks. So you’re reading and it gets boring; or you sleep in; or your habit slips a bit. Don’t worry about it. It’s a relationship and any relationship hits dry spots and rough patches. We need to just hit reset, and get back in our chair.
Keep a journal. This might be optional, but I like it because this is where I write prayers, concerns, thoughts. It’s where I wrestle with what God is revealing and ask God questions. It’s priceless from my perspective, because it’s my response, and my response is what makes it a real relationship.
The video (did I suggest you watch it?) tells the story what happens to someone when they develop this habit.
Here we are, talking about national debt, spying, schisms in the faith, self-improvement programs, body image issues, sexism, racism, money, power. We’re worried, scattered, often afraid, often driven – wondering what’s around the corner, what’s next. I know, from first hand experience, that the scattering of concerns, the anxiety, and the striving that so often marks our lives, fall away like leaves on October, when we develop this habit.
I’m praying as I publish this – that people will do more than read. I’m praying new habits of intimacy with Jesus will form because it’s this, in the end, that is all we need.
“Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex.”
So begins an article about the continuing loss of interest in sex among young people in Japan. The government even has a name for it: Celibacy syndrome. It’s examined at length in this article. Though a loss of interest in sex might be every fundamentalist preacher’s dream, a closer look at the “why” behind it should terrify us all, for its rooted in several dysfunctions that are the byproduct of an increasingly techno/material worldview that has little time for, or interest in, physical or spiritual realities. Here’s what I mean:
1. Work Life is consuming real life – Here’s an example from the article: Tomita has a job she loves in the human resources department of a French-owned bank. A fluent French speaker with two university degrees, she avoids romantic attachments so she can focus on work. “A boyfriend proposed to me three years ago. I turned him down when I realized I cared more about my job. After that, I lost interest in dating. It became awkward when the question of the future came up.” Careers take time in Japan, and they take time in the USA too. A fruit of this value structure is that there’s less energy, both physical and emotional, for the pursuit of intimacy. Still, it might be worth it if intimacy and union was something worth pursuing. But it’s not, because of the second problem.
2. Intimacy Cynicism. Every post-boomer generation seems to have an increasingly cynical view of marriage. There are lots of reasons for this but perhaps the biggest one is the appalling lack of accessible healthy marriage examples. Boomers marriages have failed more than previous generations. Further, among those that didn’t fail, many simply lowered the bar, particularly in religious circles, so that a successful marriage was defined as “not divorce”. I remember an older couple at church telling a young woman that the key to a successful marriage was to realize “there’s no back door – no escape – no leaving – no quitting” I watched the hope drain out of her face and after he left she said, “That’s why I doubt I’ll ever marry. I want intimacy, not a roommate to be stuck with the rest of my life.”
Of course, if I’m skeptical about marrying, or skeptical my marriage will last, then my own financial security becomes paramount “just in case”, and then the notion that either of us can contribute to the household in some way other than through a career evaporates. We each need our jobs, not out of a sense of calling, joy, or creativity, but as a trump card for our own survival. In such a setting, cynicism about the possibility of intimacy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for many because you don’t have the hope and trust necessary to enter into the risk of commitment. “Marriage? Too risky.” I hear iterations of this regularly.
3. The Dusk of Commitment Free Sex – From the article: Tomita sometimes has one-night stands with men she meets in bars, but she says sex is not a priority, either. “I often get asked out by married men in the office who want an affair. They assume I’m desperate because I’m single.” She grimaces, then shrugs. “Mendokusai.”Mendokusai translates loosely as “Too troublesome” or “I can’t be bothered”. It’s the word I hear both sexes use most often when they talk about their relationship phobia
There are a growing number of young people who are beginning to experience the reality articulated in sources as wide ranging as the Bible and “No Strings Attached”: Sex has emotional consequences and costs. The notion that sex can be rewarding as “just sex” is increasingly seen through the lens of real experiences as myth. Sex is devalued. Intimacy is divorced from sex, or intimacy is birthed as an unanticipated expectation. And so, Mendokusai – not the worth the trouble. Or, as I’ve heard it said in Italian: Non vale il pene – not worth the penis
4. A disembodied existence. Our virtual world of social media, phones, TV, video games, and easy access to porn, creates an entire alternative, unreal world, a world which is consuming more and more time among the generations. Phillip Zimbardo speaks of this through the lens of American culture in his e-book, “The Demise of Guys”, cataloging many factors for the social, sexual, and intimacy dysfunction of men. The church, sadly, has been part of the problem too, not by encouraging social media and porn, but by ignoring enjoyment of, commitment to, and care for the body. Unfortunate understanding of our faith have exalted disembodied spiritual existence as a sort of “Christian nirvana” when in reality the Bible is filled with great food, wine, sex, thirst, hunger, sweat, blood, sunrises, mountains, rivers and streams, and everything else that invite us to be spiritual people in our bodies.
The therapist in Japan says, cites one man in his early 30s, a virgin, who can’t get sexually aroused unless he watches female robots on a game similar to Power Rangers. “I use therapies, such as yoga and hypnosis, to relax him and help him to understand the way that real human bodies work.”
If we who follow Christ shrug this off as “someone else’s problem” we’re blind both to our own sickness, and to the opportunity given us as a voice of hope and transformation. Christ followers must show the way forward by living out their faith in the flesh, which requires the risk of intimacy, the enjoyment and discipline of the body, and aliveness of the senses, and the embodiment of genuinely grace filled intimacy and sexuality, with all its vulnerability and courage. We can’t be light in this world without these commitments.
PS – since I’m out of words, and out of time, I’ll post thoughts regarding helpful steps for each of these four issues on Friday or next Monday. If you subscribe, you’ll be sure not to miss it! (just hit the “sign me up” button to the right)
NOTE TO MY READERS: I’m going to be moving my blog away from the Patheos website that presently hosts it, so if you’d like to be apprised of my posts and join the conversations, feel free to subscribe by clicking over there on the right. Thanks!
We’ve all had moments when we ran and hid, tears stinging in our eyes as we either said or received angry words, words that should never have been spoken. We’ve all had moments of anger towards those we love, when we felt our blood pressure rising and couldn’t imagine the person in front of us as capable of goodness or beauty. We’ve all had these moments, and when they pile up we become something we were never meant to be. We become lonely.
Isolation and our longings to connect would go on to saturate thoughtful music and film, beginning with Ordinary People, and continuing on with Fight Club, Garden State, Lost in Translation, and Goodwill Hunting.
Loneliness and isolation are woven into the fabric of every cultural demographic worldwide. It’s increasingly said that “all poverty is relational”, which means that when people are stuck in cycles of oppression and want, there’s a lack of healthy relationships upstream from those presenting problems. Dealing with relational poverty is increasingly seen as the first step in dealing with material poverty. But the wealthy aren’t immune from loneliness. In The Price of Privilege, we read that wealthy people, “in spite of their economic and social advantages, experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of group of children in this country”. The overwhelming evidence is that whether you’re shopping at Goodwill or wearing Gucci, odds are that you’ll face intimacy challenges. There are two good reasons for this, along with the good news that the gospel provides a way forward in our intimacy dilemma:
1. We’re made for intimacy. If the first two chapters of Genesis are our reference point for how humanity is intended to live, then we’re clearly made for intimacy. “It is not good” says God, “the man (humankind) should be alone”, after which God creates another person and we find this glorious phrase, “naked and not ashamed” in the text, a word which means that this first couple knew each other perfectly, with nothing hidden, and were able to love each other in the knowing. God is telling us something significant here about the longings of the human heart, telling us that in distinction to the animal kingdom, we’re made for more than procreation and copulation. We’re made for intimacy, and this is as it should be because we’re made in God’s image, and God isn’t a one, but a three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, living in perfect fellowship, community, and union.
It is, in other words, “in our nature” to seek intimacy, to be fully known, and to fully know. It’s why we risk sharing our hearts with others, as we peel back layers to share our deepest selves, or listen intently as another unveils in order to be known. It’s why we have parties and spend time with the neighbors. It’s why we smile when we see an old couple holding hands and think to ourselves, “this is as it should be”. Maybe the Beatles were right; maybe love is in fact, “all you need”.
2. Anti-Intimacy is in our nature. Though love might be all we need, love isn’t “all we have”, because there’s something in us that runs from intimacy too. We discover this in Genesis as well, where we see that it’s in our nature to make anti-intimacy choices. First, we reject intimacy with God by saying in essence, “I don’t care about your longings for me. I want to do what I want to do”, and choose paths of our own making rather than those of the one who loves us perfectly and longs for us to be whole. Then, having chosen autonomy from God rather than intimacy, everything else unravels. We suddenly see the world through a different lens, and shame becomes part of our being. We feel the stinging pain of our own vulnerability, our loss, our hurt – and decide that we don’t want others to see that, so we cover our shame. In the Genesis garden we covered it with leaves. Today we cover it with other things: fancy clothes, fancy cars, plastic surgery, schedules so packed that we’ve no time to share or listen to those we love, machismo, hyper-sexualization; it’s a long list but in the end we see that there’s a whole tool kit enabling us to hide from each other. And we’re experts at using it.
What’s more, we’re afraid. Adam tells God that he heard God’s voice and was afraid, so he ran and hid. I’m afraid of rejection, afraid of conflict, afraid of truth telling because at various times when I’ve gone down these roads, things haven’t turned out well – I’ve been hurt, and so I crawl into my shell – choose safe illusion over naked reality. “Naked’s too risky” is what we tell ourselves as we run from each other, not literally usually, but metaphorically through the use of words that paint a thin veneer of propriety over reality. The result is loneliness, as we know from movies, and the lives of others and our own lives as well.
This is our dilemma. We’re made for intimacy and long for it, but there’s something in us that wants to run and hide. The results are stale marriages, stalemate relationships between children and parents, millions settling for the pseudo-intimacy of porn or sexual addiction, and an ache in our hearts which, try as we might, we cannot fully numb.
3. There’s an isolation antidote – The gospel is good news because it makes a way for intimacy. God pursued Adam in the garden and said in essence, “you’ll never be able to cover your shame – but I’ll deal with your shame” and God killed an animal and made coverings for Adam and Eve. That act was a seminal picture of what God would do in Christ when, naked on the cross, he absorbed our dysfunction and shame, our sin and guilt. This reality enables us to know that we’re fully loved and accepted, in spite of our failures. There is ONE who is inexorably for us, more even than we’re for ourselves. Learning to actually believe this isn’t some theoretical theological exercise; it’s what enables our own transparency and intimacy.
What’s more, this Jesus not only forgives and loves, he transforms, so that little by little, we find ourselves better able to choose truth telling, confession, forgiveness, sacrifice, and vulnerability. All the ingredients of intimacy become ours in fuller measure because the Master of Intimacy lives with us, and in us, and is committed to teaching us his ways. “Perfect love” we’re told, “casts out fear” because fear involves judgement, but the one who is our judge says, “you’re known – and forgiven”. If I can believe this, receive this, then I can learn healthy patterns of intimacy, because I know that, come what may in this world, there is One who loves me completely, with whom I can be naked and not ashamed. If I have this as my starting point, I’m on the right road. If I miss this, I miss a lot.