June 26, 2014

Suffering Innocence

"For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him." - 2 Corinthians 5:21 
I awoke this morning still praying that I might learn to look on the face of God revealed in his suffering servant without revulsion, and I started thinking about sin.  Paul says, "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), and I think that there is something in that to which we, I, can acquiesce.  It satisfies my sense of justice.

This is the way I expect things to work.  The guilty are punished; the innocent go free.  I like this calculation so much that I regularly run it in reverse -- if there is punishment, there must be guilt.  "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2).

When I see the ugliness of suffering, I want someone to blame.  I want a reason and I want it to seem fair to me.  I want the punishment to fit some crime.  If it does -- cause and effect -- I know how to control it.  I don't commit that crime, and I avoid that punishment.  I'm innocent.  I won't suffer.

Only it doesn't work that way.  People who never smoke get lung cancer.  Faithful, diligent parents have children who go astray.  Runners have heart attacks.  And so on.

These simple facts remain somehow unconvincing.  I continue to order my life around the calculus of control.  I tiptoe.  I manipulate.  I lie to myself.  Anything, anything to maintain an illusion of my own innocence so that I can be spared the suffering I so fear.  I want to game the system.  I want there to be punishment for crime, as long as it's not my crime and my punishment.

It's a story as old as humanity.  The first five books of the Bible detail how the ancient Hebrews, as all ancient peoples, developed an elaborate system of expiation.  They knew that things weren't right.  People did things that led to suffering, their own and others'.  And it wasn't just individual.  The community might rise or fall.  Food might become scarce.  Other tribes might invade.  Once we were slaves in Egypt.  They needed a calculus of control.

Blood sacrifice was the norm for the ancients.  Take a lamb or a goat, unblemished, that is, innocent.  Spill it's blood.  Give its life in atonement, an exchange, innocence for guilt.  Lay on the innocent one the guilt of the many.  Life offered unto death.

Then in the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus, we also get this, the scapegoat:
"Laying both hands on its head, he shall confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites and their trespasses, including all their sins, and so put them on the goat's head.  He shall then have it led into the wilderness by an attendant.  The goat will carry off all their iniquities to an isolated region." (21-22)
That's right.  Take the sin and the suffering away where I cannot see it.

This is what I say I want, until I remember that I want the truth, and this picture is simply not true.

When I first started to get sick, I had moments when I wondered what I'd done.  Maybe this was me receiving wages due.  I didn't eat right or exercise enough, and now I was going to pay for that with the degeneration of my body.  That seemed sad, but fair somehow.

I have likewise looked back on the progress of my illness and its diagnosis and wondered what I could have done but didn't do.  It was months between the first time someone offered me a referral to a neurologist and my first appointment with one.  The neurologist is the doctor who diagnosed me.  Why didn't I go sooner?  The answer is that I didn't want my problem to be neurological (it's not), and I was engaging in the magical thinking that if I didn't go to a neurologist, it wouldn't be.  In the meantime, I continued to get worse.  How much disability might I have avoided?  How much trouble might I have saved the small army of people who have been taking care of me?

Do you see?  I still want to tally it all up on a tidy balance sheet with sin on one side and consequences on the other.

It is so difficult to look on the face of God's suffering servant without turning away in revulsion, because to look on him we have to embrace the dissonance of suffering innocence.  And once we see it in him, we start to see it everywhere.

Jesus is the scapegoat in the wilderness, but he is also the hideous public display of suffering innocence.  Crucifixions were meant to be seen in all their horror.  They were a warning to any who would threaten the order, the balance sheet.  Break the rules, suffer the punishment.  Except this One didn't break the rules and suffered the punishment just the same.

So it is.  It is not only the guilty who suffer, but the innocent, and it is terrible to look upon suffering innocence.  I cannot control it, so I want to hate and reject it.  But this only serves to put me in league with the forces of death.  I heap onto suffering innocence more suffering when I accuse and blame.

I have to learn to do otherwise.  This is something only God can teach me.  Only God can teach me to embrace with open hands and open heart suffering innocence.  It is beyond what my unassisted humanity can do.  It is the work not of flesh but of Spirit.  I have to learn to love.

And I become what I love.

June 25, 2014

The Face of God

"...men turn away in revulsion from the face of God revealed in his suffering servant." - Ruth Burrows, OCD, in To Believe in Jesus
I had a hard time moving past that sentence.  Revulsion is a strong word.

I discovered Ruth Burrows a couple of weeks ago when I happened upon this blog post.  I felt surprised that I had never heard of her before.  I did, after all, just complete a two year program studying prayer and spiritual direction.  But it didn't feel accidental that I should encounter her now.  I was compelled and ordered two of her books.

They are slim volumes.  I am reading this first one slowly, one short chapter at a time.  I can see why I hadn't stumbled on Ruth Burrows before.  Ruth Burrows takes Jesus very seriously.

Her first point in To Believe in Jesus is that most of us don't.  She's not talking about the average person.  She's talking about the professing Christian.  She unapologetically and frankly states that belief in Jesus crucified as the revelation of God's own face is something that most of us are unwilling or unable to accept.

I like to think I take Jesus very seriously.  I want to take Jesus very seriously.  I want to believe I love the face of God revealed in his suffering servant.  I want to think of myself as one of the women at the foot of the cross, not revolted by the blood and the nakedness and the agony.  At the same time, I have matured enough to recognize that I am not so above-average as I'd like to think I am, so I had to stop and consider that sentence and wonder how it is true of me.  How do I turn away in revulsion from the face of God revealed in his suffering servant?

I sat and thought about other people I have known in their suffering.  I thought about people and situations that I have not turned away from.  I could have stopped there and felt smug, but, this time, I didn't.

How willing am I, really, to watch, to remain, to love what is revolting?  For instance.  I have this sympathy card sitting in my desk.  I bought it many months ago.  I bought it for a woman in my wider circle, an acquaintance, someone I know but not terribly well.  Her young adult child died suddenly.  I bought the card because I'm that kind of person, I told myself, someone who could face that sort of suffering with love.  I had a prior commitment on the day of the memorial service, so I hadn't planned to go.  But then my prior commitment was cancelled, and I still didn't go.  And I never sent the card.

I turned away in revulsion from the face of God in his suffering servant.

Here's where else I turn away -- when I see that face, gaunt held up by a neck whose muscles were too weak to keep it straight, sitting on wasted shoulders, in the mirror.  I claim to be willing to put on Christ, to be the healing hands and feet of Jesus for God's kingdom.  I claim that I am willing to suffer to serve.  But I realize I am not willing to be the face of the suffering servant.  That fills me with revulsion.

What I see in that face is need, and I don't want to be needy.  I have a deep unwillingness to reveal to the world the face that needs to have the blood and tears and sweat wiped away.  I am unwilling to see in myself the weakness, the frailty, or the vulnerability.  I look away in revulsion.

Isaiah 53:2-3 says,
He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,
no beauty to draw us to him. 
He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem. 
It's time, at least for me, to get honest about this Jesus I claim to love, whose life I claim to want to allow to be lived through me.  It's time to learn to love the unlovable, what is ugly and broken and dirty, even grotesque -- and not by pretending that it's not.  It's not about putting over the ugliness a lovely shroud of holiness and thereby declaring what is revolting to be beautiful.  That's not Christianity, it's Orwell or Huxley.
To look with love on the revolting face of the Crucified is something God, and only God, can teach me how to do.  I'm starting by looking in the mirror.

June 19, 2014

Straining Forward

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do:  forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 
- Philippians 3:10-14
"Forgetting what lies behind..."  I endeavor to do that, to forget what lies behind.  Most days I succeed.  Some days I don't.

As someone on the spiritual path, I have heard endlessly about the so-called power of now.  Remain in the present moment.  That's the wise admonition.  Just be.  I'm not denying the truth of it, but I have to confess that on the inside, whenever I hear it, I do some serious eye rolling.  Yeah, yeah.  But some of us live in the real world where there are kids and dirty dishes and ringing telephones and endless tasks and distractions.

Except now I can't drive the kids or wash the dishes or jump up to grab the phone.  I'm doing a lot of being.  Too much.

When I forget to forget what lies behind, the able-bodied me, I want to do more doing.  I think about what I used to do, and I want not only to do it, but to go back to taking the doing for granted.  Who thinks about hopping out of bed or tying her own shoes or being able to reach the light switch or the kitchen faucet?  We just do it.  Did it.

I get tempted to live in the not-so-distant past that seemed so permanent.  The last time I needed help washing my hair, dressing myself, getting myself a meal, I was a preschooler.  That was a long time ago.

The intervening years were all present, day after day of practice until those tasks and so many others became invisible to my awareness.  They were not the background, but the very fabric of my days.  Get up, go, do.  Repeat.

What would it mean or matter to bring my attention to them?  In rush the Wise Spiritual Teachers to tell me to taste each bite or pause to feel the water on my skin or smell the proverbial flowers.  Become present to the present.  It seemed to eye-rolling me like an exercise in either navel-gazing or futility.  And maybe it was.

But now the now is all about being and noticing, whether I like it or not.  No more taking for granted, because everything, everything requires an effort, an act of will.  Get up from the chair?  Where's the walker?  Are my feet in the right spot?  Have I sat somewhere I can expect to rise from on my own?  I am painfully aware of what it takes to get up from a chair.  Hips too weak.  Quads and  forearms just strong enough to compensate from the right upright chair.

It's not all that interesting, and the days are filled with these moments.  What can I do?  What do I need help with?  I carried the cushion and the pillow today from the upright chair at the dining table to the upright chair in the living room next to the computer.  It took two trips and ten minutes.  And lots and lots of attention to how I might hold the pillow, carry it while I dragged the walker, prop it up on the chair.  I did that.  But I could not find a way to reach the bathroom cabinet to open it to reach for the toothpaste.  Not today.

I claim I want resurrection.  I say I want to be like Paul, knowing "Christ and the power of his resurrection."  But I am avoiding the fine print, the "sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death."  Why does something always have to die?

I've thought a good deal about how God says (for instance, in the Beatitudes) that in order to get the good stuff He wants to give us, we have to need it.  The hungry get fed.  The mournful get comforted.  The need then its fulfillment.  Resurrection doesn't even make sense if I'm not dead.

I don't like having needs.  I liked taking for granted that I could take care of myself, thank you very much.  I liked sleepwalking through the busyness of days and doing and feeling a little smug and Spiritual when I chose to pause to pay attention and Be.

Now I can't not pay attention.  Every thing I do is a "straining forward to what lies ahead," to the day when I can get that toothpaste out of the cabinet.  Or not, because I don't really know what lies ahead, not in practical terms.  Thinking I do is just another variation on looking behind.  That's what was.  I don't know, can't know what will be.

I only know what is.  I can know or figure out what I can do -- move the pillow, get out of the chair -- today.

June 10, 2014

Plastic Cups

As I have received, with gratitude, readers' feedback from yesterday's post, I get the sense that I have left a partially wrong impression.  I stand firm by the idea that God doesn't strictly need me.  But that's not the whole story.

In 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul memorably says, "But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surprising power may be of God and not from us."  Sometimes "earthen vessels" is translated as "clay pots."  What could have been more commonplace in Paul's day?  In my house I might say, "I hold this treasure in a plastic cup."

Imagine that with me.  I have a cabinet full of plastic cups.  Many we got for free at this or that restaurant when the kids were little.  Their outsides are faded from too many trips through the dishwasher.  Their rims are cracked and a little melted.  They're the cups I send outside.  If one doesn't make it back in, it's all the same to me.  We got them more or less for free.  In a way, they're worthless.

"We hold this treasure..."  I'm not inclined to put a treasure in a plastic cup, and Paul might not have been inclined to store treasure in a clay pot.  But somehow, God is so inclined.

He takes me, and you.  Here's what he's got to work with:  "We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed:  always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body" (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).

This is not Paul at his most transparent, maybe, but we can untangle it.  We're afflicted and perplexed and persecuted and struck down and carrying about, well, death.  If I were choosing a vessel in which to hold a treasure, I would choose something a bit more attractive.  No melted edges for me.  I'd use crystal, or glass, at least.

But because I'm faded and overused, I am also not constrained....not driven to despair...not abandoned...not destroyed.  I've got nowhere to go but up.  I don't break easily.  I flex.

For as long as I last -- and I'm not going to last in this body forever -- I can still be filled up.  The life of Jesus can still be poured into the little plastic cup that is me.

What I knew on Sunday at church is that if I show up just as myself, I show up empty.  I'm the cup.  It's only when the life of Jesus is poured into me that I've got something to give.  It's not me, but it is me too.  God could use a golden chalice.  But he uses me, the plastic cup, "that the surprising power may be of God and not from us," from me.

And it is surprising, isn't it?  I have never picked up one of my ugly plastic cups, put it to my lips, and found it filled with fine wine.  I wouldn't expect to.  But maybe I should.

God takes me, and you, just as we are -- faded, afflicted, cracked, perplexed, melted, and He offers to pour into us the finest wine, not for us to drink, but for us to offer as libation for a thirsty world.

I have to ask, and you do too, what it takes for us to let Him fill us up.  If I want to fill my own plastic cup, it has to be upright, held still.  Or what I want to pour into it will simply spill out onto the floor, as if the pouring had never happened at all.

I have to contain what God wants to pour into me.  That is my job, me, the plastic cup.  I give the wine of God a form, a shape.  God's own Spirit can then be carried around and offered as drink to someone in this world of thirst.  God could do it another way, but He doesn't.  We hold these treasures in plastic cups.

June 9, 2014

There Are Bad Days Too

Not all days are good days.  Sometimes I sit here feeling helpless and useless.  Sometimes I want to eat or need to go to the bathroom and all of my helpers also need to do whatever it is they are doing, and I have to wait.  And I try to wait patiently, and sometimes I feel impatient instead.

That's when the thinking starts to take over.  I think I should be able to get myself in and out of the bathroom or fix my own snack.  I remember that this isn't how it has always been even though it is how it is now.  I remember, and I think I'm supposed to be able to take care of my own damned self.  Dress myself.  Feed myself without dropping food down my front (draped with a dishtowel) or onto the floor.  I remember that the old me, regular me, could get in and out of a car -- and drive it -- and roll over in bed and walk uphill and cook and shop and...  You get the idea.  I get mad.

Sometimes I'm angry about what I can't do for myself and even more angry about what I can't do for anybody else.  I have a sister-in-law with a new baby, and I can't help her.  Some people I love very much have had some significant losses, and I can't help them, not even with a visit or a meal or a hug.

When I was in college I knew a woman who was planning to finish her education and join a Carmelite monastery.  Carmelite nuns are cloistered, which means that they take a vow of silence along with their vows of obedience and poverty and chastity, and their lives are dedicated to prayer and to work, in that order.  When I was 20 I could not even conceive of such a life, but I didn't question the value of a community of women whose primary vocation was prayer.  God knows the world needs prayer.

Now, here I sit, in my little cloister.  I don't do much.  I do my physical therapy exercises, walking up and down my hallway, playing with silly putty, standing at attention to strengthen my neck.  I can type, obviously, but, between predinsone-induced brain fog and fatigue, there are days when my thinking is pretty fuzzy and serious reading or writing is a struggle.  But I can pray.  I guess.

I want it to feel like enough.  I have taken very seriously the need for me to pray for others in this season, these others, especially, who have been so faithful in praying for me and in doing all the things my body won't do.  So I turn to God, or I try to, and sometimes it feels like prayer, and sometimes it feels empty and I feel helpless and useless.

That's when the thinking starts.  What is prayer supposed to feel  like?  Something?  Sometimes it just feels like thinking -- thinking about other people's troubles or losses or celebrations or struggles.  Is that prayer?  Sometimes instead of remembering, I forget.  I forget that I said I'd pray for her or him or this or that, and then I talk to you and you remind me and I feel guilty, because I'm just sitting here.  Can't I at least pray?

Sometimes I get mad at all the lousy stuff that happens to other people.  Why is she in so much pain?  Why did they have to suffer this loss?  Why, why, why?  Then I'm facing a God I'm not sure how to pray to anyway.

Sometimes I tell myself that it's enough for me to gather up all these needs, the ones I remember and the ones I've forgotten but that God still remembers.  I gather them up, like piling odds and ends into an old rag for a knapsack and tie the four corners in square knots and hold them or fling them toward the light, toward God.  I don't know what else to do or how else to do it, and it most definitely does not feel like enough or, sometimes, like anything at all.

Saturday night was one of the sometimes when the thinking starts. This time was a consequence of everything feeling a little too normal -- sitting on the couch, watching a movie -- but with the little wrinkles around the edges of the smooth surface -- the near-impossibility of raising my hand to my mouth to get a piece of popcorn in, the turtle-on-my-back helplessness when it's time to get off the couch.  I went to bed cranky and woke up cranky and took it all, my own odds and ends, to church and sat with them and wondered what God was going to do with All That.  And I listened.

Know what I heard?  God said, "I don't really need you."  In a nice way.

It's the truth, of course.  "Where were you when I founded the earth?" God asks Job (38:4).  And me.

That's not to say that I don't think God has work for me to do.  Important work.  Kingdom work.  I believe God has me -- and you -- alive today for a reason.  God's reason.

As I sat there in the pew, I stopped trying to pray for everybody else and noticed what was happening inside of me, and I realized I was empty.  I wanted to give, but I didn't have anything to give.  I was forced to allow it to become my story, my need, to ask God to fill me up and notice what I needed to be filled with.  I'm not all that happy about the answer.

I want, so badly to feel useful and helpful.  I want to have capacity, to be filled with the blazing fire of the Spirit which was the theme of the Pentecost celebration.  The limp rag of truth is that I was tired, and I needed sleep.  No tongues of fire or speaking in foreign languages or roaring wind.  I needed an early bedtime.  How quaint.

As I lay in bed last night, I kept returning to what I now knew, to the awareness that laying there, trying to sleep, was my way of allowing God to fill me up.  Sleeping was a way of saying yes to God.  A way of praying.  This is my vowed life in the cloister, the poverty of disability, the chastity and silence of my solitude at 3:30 a.m., the obedience of turning my attention to God even when, especially  when, that feels just exactly the same as doing nothing.

June 2, 2014

From the Outside Looking In

I had a phone call last week to set up my first appointment with a new spiritual director.  We're already well acquainted; she taught the second year of my spiritual direction formation class.  She knows all about what's been happening to me since I've been ill.

Near the end of our phone call she suggested that I have been courageous and inspirational in her view and in others'.  Some readers/friends have said the same.  Those two words:  Courageous.  Inspirational.

I told her in all sincerity that I did not have the slightest idea what she was talking about.

And I didn't.

It looks different from the outside.  That I know.  I've been on the outside so many times.  I've watched other people suffer -- undergo chemotherapy, divorce, bury a spouse or a child.  I have had the thought.  He's so inspiring.  She's so brave. Strong. Faithful

But what did I know?  All those things and more may well have been true of the people to whom I ascribed them.  Still, I suspect that I was also engaging in projection.  What I was projecting into his grief and her cancer and their broken marriage was my own fear.

I didn't want to be them.  I believed I couldn't survive it.  As I looked at this or that person who was surviving, I felt like they had to be endowed with something I didn't have, a superpower for overcoming adversity.  Now, I know for a fact that I possess nothing of the sort, so I hesitate when someone calls me brave.  But I've still been projecting, because I don't know what someone else is thinking or feeling when they call me brave.  I may have done or said something of that sort from my fear, but that doesn't mean you're afraid.

I took the question with me when I went to meet with my director.  She is very wise and discerning, and I wanted to know what God might be saying to me about these foreign-sounding words, courageous, inspiring.

Here's what I knew before I walked through the door for my appointment:  I knew that, for the most part, my seeming courage wasn't virtue, because it wasn't a choice.  I simply haven't felt afraid.  I don't know why.  I explained it to my daughter this way:  "I think God is hiding from me how deep the bottom of this well really was.  I can imagine getting to the top and looking down and thinking, 'Wow.  That is far to fall.'"  But for now, I don't see it, at least not most of the time.

That I knew.  There was still a lot I didn't know.  What my director said was as helpful as it was surprising.  She said, "Your toenails are painted."  She said, "I don't know who painted them [a friend who, when I said I didn't know how I would reach to cut my toenails, drove to her house for clippers and nail polish], and I don't care.  You could be laying on the couch in the fetal position, but your toenails are painted.  Red."

Then I understood a little bit, because there is one choice I have made.  I've chosen to say, Yes.  Yes to gifts of expensive blenders and meals and visits and potted plants that I know I'm going to kill, yes to red painted toenails.  Yes, God help me, to myositis.

On a shelf in my spiritual director's home, just across from where I sat, is a beautiful wood-painted icon of the Annunciation.  As the angel comes to Mary, looking quite earnest, Mary looks frankly horrified.  She seems to be saying, "You want me to do what?"  I have spent a fair amount of time in prayer these past several months suggesting to God that, while I'd like to trust His good will, I rather question His sound judgment.  This is the plan?

And so it is.  Not that I believe for an instant that God wills our suffering.  I do believe that God uses it all.  He's using this.

I want Him to.  Please!  If I have to spend weeks and months like this, without any physical strength, helpless and dependent, dear Lord in heaven, use it!

Not that I was given a choice about the myositis.  It came without advanced announcement or invitation.  Honestly, I can imagine having been given a choice and saying yes to this.  I'm not dying.  The sickness is contained within my body, not in the body of someone else I love.  Granted, many, many people, from my husband and children outward in widening ripples are sacrificing a great deal to take care of me right now.  It would have been difficult -- probably impossible -- for me willingly to have assented to that.  Yet it has come, and to it, I have said, with as much sincerity as I can muster, Yes.  I receive you.

Whatever is in this, I don't want to miss it.  I know there are treasures to be uncovered amidst the rubble of this mess.  Some I have already glimpsed, like this new experience of gratitude.  Some I may not realize the value of for years to come.  Some I may recognize only when the Kingdom comes.  But to all of it, my will and my heart say, Okay, Lord.  If we're going to do this thing, let's do it.

So my toenails are red and my walker is wound in purple ribbons like a parade float and I look for what's funny and share it whenever I can.  If that's somehow courageous or inspiring, it's all grace.  I don't know how to do this any other way.