Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Thinning Veil

This week's lectionary reading for All Saints Day took us to 1 John 3:1-3. This is the written version of the sermon I delivered on that text. There will be a video. Maybe.

Sermon from 1 John 3:1-3
I’ve been present to many deaths. I’ve always found it a profoundly earthy, human experience. While many have, I’ve never witnessed a mystical event at death. Despite this grounded view, I still sense that in the moments that surround dying the boundaries between past, present, and future, between life and death and hope, seem paper thin. Witnesses to the death also bear witness to the life. They grieve their present loss. And many times, speak of hope for reunification. This heaving, unsettling change forces us to confront the interweaving of realities we often keep separate.

This weekend we celebrated All Saints, day a trio of days – All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day –  to commemorate those who died, and celebrate their influence on us in our present faith. As a nurse who cared for the dying – in a society that largely ignores death, and has no social language for grieving and shared grief – I appreciate a time devoted to focusing on more than just the physical, present realm. We honor the saints who brought us to our present, grieve the loss of ones who impacted our lives, and look forward to meeting with them.

One poet I read refers to these holy days as a thin space, where barriers and boundaries between present, past, and future become less perceptible. I call it a thinning of the veil. Apostle Paul refers to it as seeing through a glass darkly. We get a sense of the connectedness of our past, present, and future, but the connection is mysterious, and the future only hinted at.

It feels like John also talks about this thinning of the veil of time and reality. In fact, John wrote this book in order to combat the kind of hyper-compartmentalized thinking that caused people to claim Jesus was simply a spirit (a heresy called Docetism). John calls up a much richer view and loops in and out of the present, past, and future.

A closer look at the passage:
3:1 God’s love is lavished on us (NIV). That word lavished sounds like a sloppy, slathering kind of love -- not a metered unit of love per recipient. This past, present, and future love establishes our identity as Children of God. Though we’ve found this identity, we haven’t found home – the world doesn’t recognize us yet.
3:2 We’re promised a mystery. Even the disciple Jesus loved dearly didn’t dare specify what happens on the other side of the veil. He just knows we’ll arrive at the completion of this transformation to Christ-likeness we’ve been working on all along.
3:3 This gives us present hope. And, this hope causes us to participate in our purification.

This idea of a thinning of the veil captured me from the first reading. We create a false dichotomy that prioritizes and separates this world or the next. Ever heard the phrase, she’s so heavenly minded she’s no earthly good? Some entirely lose the value of this gift of creation, its potential, its hope for redemption; and live only with a construct of heaven in mind. I used to live this way. This life was only about getting to the next. But lately, my problem has been different, and possibly less creative. I get so wrapped up in this time/space/reality, in the physical realm, the here and now, I have no use or time for some mysterious future.

John thins the veil between these realities and asks us to hold in tension a past predicated on God’s love, a current identity as God’s children, and a mysterious future transformation to God’s likeness. He implies that holding this tension brings the believer to desire and participate in purification.

We are faced with a paradox. We are already and we are not yet. We are God’s children. We have yet another transformation to come. We constantly live in this thin space of tension.  I find it a very hopeful, if difficult place to hold.

“As Christians caught between realities, we need to accept that in this state there will be creativity and new ways of being. We need to remain open to this reality and allow it to move within our lives and transform our beings.” (Grace Ji-Sun Kim)

I love the focus on creativity and new ways of being. Tension often does produce creation, and in this case, the very tension works toward our transformation into Christlikeness.

We live multiple experiences of Already/Not Yet – day-to-day situations that heighten our awareness of the thin veil between our reality and our future. Think of the immigrant who left one land for another, but hasn’t yet arrived at home. They live in between identities and societies and modes of living. Sometimes out of this great risk and tension creation emerges – good food, beautiful art, new relationships.

In times of great transition, like marriage, divorce, or parenthood, we face already/not yet. When I became pregnant I was immediately a mother, but had no idea what being a parent meant. This identity is always becoming and evolving and transforming me. Out of that great risk and tension a new life emerges and a new family is grown.

Times of great risk, that cause us to want to run to our false dichotomies, and reinforce the barriers between realities, have the most potential for creation and new life.

Here’s why I think this imagery of the thinning veil moves me so. Without it, I wouldn’t have come back to faith. The rational world I immersed myself in left me dry. It didn’t feel like I was living the whole human experience. And, according to Christian teaching, I wasn’t. In Christian teaching, this paradox IS our truth.

We are pure, and in need of purification.
We are God’s children, but on a journey to take on God’s likeness.
We are unique individuals, but part of a corpus, a body of other individuals, a whole and a part.
We are living constantly in a physical realm and a spiritual realm, between life and death.
We are chosen, and we choose.
We live, to die, to live again.
Our God came to be like us, so we could become like our God.
Here’s the crux of it. In this tension, we are becoming more like Jesus, and somehow, becoming most our true selves.

The work of living in the thinning veil is part of the transformation into Christlikeness. When we focused on the greatest commandments, to love God, and love others, I prayed we would be transformed to love as Jesus did. Living in the tension is that work. We begin to sense, as he did, Spirit moving on earth. We see Kingdom come and to come. We trust God more, and find open, liberating faith. We see the broken world as he did, headed toward redemption.

As we transform, we desire to participate in purification. We burrow into the community of faith. We pray. We study God’s word.

The Spirit uses these spiritual disciplines to purify us. We cannot purify ourselves. In holy community we are made holy – Wesley says “No religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness.” In prayer we face a great mystery. My rational world kept me from engaging in this paradox of prayer, but as my faith has grown, I can’t help but prophesy, and preach, and pray and share. Prayer focuses my attention on the Jesus I want to be like. When we study God’s word, we can begin to see all scripture through the interpretive lens of Jesus.

Our identity is an affirmation of the love God lavishes on us. John enthusiastically exclaims that God named us God’s children, just as in the gospels God proclaimed Jesus, “my son, in whom I am well pleased.” Think of the power Jesus expressed as God’s son. We are similarly empowered to join with Jesus in seeking justice, in creating, in sacrificially loving, in building relationships that transform our community and our world. As we are transformed, our world is transformed. This place that does not recognize is, that is not our home, is being redeemed through us.

When you participate in Communion, the veil is thin between your person and Christ’s person. Between you the individual, and us the present body of Christ. Between all of us, and the saints who came before us.

This week, when you love someone who votes on the other side of the ballot – I mean the kind of messy, sloppy, set you at the table, give you pumpkin pancakes and pumpkin beer and make you family kind of love God lavishes on us -- the veil is thin.

When you hold your sick baby, and your heart seems to ache with the flow of compassion and tenderness you never knew you were capable of, you are being Jesus.

When you grieve the loss of someone who died, leaving a gaping hole in your world, the veil is thin.

When you give sacrificially to your church, or a needy person, or a friend in pain, or forgive someone who hurt you, you actively transform your world.

When you listen intently to someone at work, you are holy.

When you create art that reveals the beauty of our reality, you cooperate in the holy spirit’s purification of you. 

The reality is that the veil is always, and was always thin. Every space is a holy space. Every moment a holy moment. Living in the awareness of that – not out of a sense of obligation to be perfect every second, but rather aware the Spirit of God is constantly working that out – causes us to be more invested in living the love of Christ. As we do, we become ever more like him.

In the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Prayer for Unifying Love

This week's lectionary reading included the Greatest Commandment -- to love God with my whole self, and to love my neighbor as I love myself. I meditated on these words of Jesus all week, trying to craft my opening prayer for our church service, and trying to piece together what this means for how I live.

What strikes me is this climate of fear and anger we live in. Angry words sell advertising. Simplistic and violent views make for popular blog posts. People think a Facebook rant is meaningful in any way, or a meme will make a difference.

We do have many fearful things in our world. Ebola. ISIS. Economical distress. Genocide. Rape. Schisms and 'isms' of all kinds. But we personalize these things. We pick a person, or groups of persons, as reservoirs for our fears, and become activists against those persons. We attempt to control our fear by making ourselves feel powerful.

Jesus lived in a time of great chaos too -- in a land under the thumb of far away governments, locally controlled by tyrants. The people around him held lengthy, intense debates -- quiveling over details, and even violently disagreeing with each other. They seized as desperately at control as any Twitter pundit, or talk radio personality. Here in Matthew, they try to trip Jesus up, as a threat to their rhythms and patterns. Keep in mind, these same religious people will engage in Jesus' murder in a week (an indictment of our own propensity to elevate the importance of religion over people).

Jesus, even while experiencing human fear about his approaching death, won't engage in the religious power plays. In quiet, simple terms, he brings back all the law, all the prophets, all of existence to this: love God, love others.

In that spirit, and mindful of this angry, destructive climate, I wrote this prayer:

We confess that in our fear for survival we choose positions, words, and behaviors of power, anger, violence, self-righteous judgment, and war -- creating discord and disunity and debate, and distancing ourselves from our fellow creatures.

We acknowledge and aspire to the example of Jesus, who even in the midst of great fear, here at the beginning of Holy Week, chose to live, and ultimately die, in a deep-rooted -- a radical -- love. A love of self-giving, of self-sacrifice. A love that welcomed all -- ALL -- to know and love God and each other, even as it tore down false religion. A love that sows words and behaviors of peace and connectedness between creatures.

As we contemplate what it means to love you with body, spirit, and mind, and to both be a neighbor and love our neighbors, give us the courage to do it as Jesus did. May this radical love set us apart in the world. May we live it in this space, and may we carry it out and bring restoration to all your creation.

We love you. Amen.

Note: I believe how we talk and think about God are very important. And, lovingly engaging each other in dialogue about where we see things similarly, differently, and incorrectly is critical. The tricky thing is avoiding the tendency to begin to vilify persons and lose communion. Theological discussion that doesn't revolve around the greatest commandment -- as foundation, as action, as binding thread -- can be a violent thing, indeed. May we love lavishly, lose a few rounds, and ultimately truly experience being knit together.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hello you. You're lovely.

This is the fifth and final part in a series on self-care for care-givers. Physicians, nurses, mommas, pastors, teachers and unsung care-givers of every stripe I hope you find something restorative here. Post 1, Caregiver, Love Thyself, Post 2, Thick Line in the Sand, Part 1, Post 3, Thick Line in the Sand, Part 2, Post 4, But...The Lord Told Me To, Post 5, Tapped Out.

As we wrap up this series, I want to pose a few questions all caregivers need to face. The answers to these questions help you know/see yourself more fully, and that makes your work most meaningful and fulfilling.

Question 1: Why do I want to be a _________?
Knowing why you're a caregiver is critical to how you do that work. In counseling school they made us write out our answer to "why do you want to be a counselor." I think every caregiving profession should make this a requisite. The truth is, an honest assessment of yourself will reveal some altruistic motives, and some deep personal needs. You need to know both. Unacknowledged needs drive us. They take over our actions. It's no crime. It's entirely human to be helping others for personal reasons. However, when we have no way of owning that truth, and understanding those motivators, they undermine us and put an unfair pressure on the recipient of our care to perform in ways they can't know, and we may not even be able to articulate.

Owning the truth of our needs helps us put an emotional check in place when we see ourselves place those demands on others. All of us have places that need healing. Sometimes we use our work to keep from confronting that pain.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Tapped Out -- Compassion Fatigue

This post is the fourth part in a series on self-care for care-givers. Physicians, nurses, mommas, pastors, teachers and unsung care-givers of every stripe I hope you find something restorative here. Post 1, Caregiver, Love Thyself, Post 2, Thick Line in the Sand, Part 1, Post 3, Thick Line in the Sand, Part 2, Post 4, But...The Lord Told Me To.

This post most closely fits those of you working in caregiving fields. Any work placing you frequently in the middle of others' traumas and problems puts you at risk for something called Compassion Fatigue (CF). Essentially, compassion fatigue is the caregiver's version of burn out. While many caring for children or aging parents experience elements of exhaustion related to that work, this syndrome particularly strikes caregivers who repeatedly encounter others, often at the hardest moments of their lives. Nurses, physicians, pastors & chaplains, counselors, I hope to reach you.

A story
I drove up on a fatal accident this Labor Day. Medical help not yet arrived, I jumped out of the car and approached a red Honda in the center of the road. The man inside needed no medical help. He was dead. I panned the four corners of the intersection, each littered with bystanders, looking for victims. The man's wife was covered in blood, crying in the grass. A quick assessment showed she had no external injuries. The blood was his. She called out for him. I could do absolutely nothing but crawl behind her on the hillside, hold her, and whisper things I don't remember in her ear. When medical services arrived, they took the same path as me. By the car -- help not possible; see bloody victim, approach. And then, as she screamed and cried out information about herself and her fears they yelled, "Ma'am, I need you to calm down." Over and over with this asinine phrase.

I understand the need in chaotic situations to create a presence of assuredness and authority. But this medical professional's response to the tragedy did not create calm. She exuded a detachment beyond that needed to perform her job safely. She demonstrated a need to protect herself from the gory mess on that roadside.

My guess is, she's encountered lots of tragedies that confront her with the fragility and mortality of our species, and the depth of our capacity to ache and grieve. She entered the medical field ready to pour compassion into these circumstances, and having poured it all out long ago, is now going through the motions of a job.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

But... The Lord Told Me To

This post is the third in a series on self-care for care-givers. Physicians, nurses, mommas, pastors, teachers and unsung care-givers of every stripe I hope you find something restorative here. Post 1, Caregiver, Love Thyself, Post 2, Thick Line in the Sand, Part 1, Post 3, Thick Line in the Sand, Part 2.
Ironic timing: I'm preparing a series of posts on how religion reinforces a lack of boundaries and self-care and my teenage sister sends me a meme saying: "Always remember God added another day in your life... not because you need it, but because someone else needs you."

I'm tempted to drop the mic... er... keyboard, and walk away.

This thinking typifies the unhealthy Other focus that religion can propagate. Your life isn't about you. It's about Others. Burn out for God, for The Lost, for a Dying World. Words like these make too much sense to caregivers. They fit our default position of other-centeredness, and we run with them.

My only religious background is Christianity, so I'll address that perspective.  Also, I'm still a Christian. The form of that identity has changed over the years, but essentially, I believe the radical love of Jesus Christ is the greatest model and hope for humans. This post is about spiritual misguidedness and abuse, not a call to end religion.

Moving On
I experienced mishandled religion perpetuating broken boundaries and broken people in several ways. I learned a poor theology of the person that corroded my ability to see the need to care for myself. I learned to distrust pleasure and rest. I absorbed an ethos of disproportionate focus on others, among other things. I saw basic human limitations labeled as sin and "heart issues."    

Friday, August 15, 2014

Update: Speaking in Texas and Blog Status

Hi Friends. Update on where we are:
  • I'm speaking at a women's conference called A Courageous calling tomorrow, in Keller, TX. They're accepting folks at the door, so it's not too late to sign up (you can do that here, or just show up!). I'm super excited to be hosting my session as a guided discussion, rather than lecture/speech. We'll learn and share together. I expect it to be a rich time.
  • I'm working on the third part of the series on Self-Care for Caregivers. This post will look at how religion can reinforce unhealthy boundaries and self-neglect. It should be on the blog in the next few days (gotta finish planning for that event tomorrow!).
  • The most viewed post for this week reflects on the truth about suicide. Many thanks to Matthew Paul Turner for helping to get this message out by sharing the post.
I hear a baby waking up. Time to go!

Monday, August 11, 2014

the enemy of suicide is intimacy

Robin Williams has died -- apparently of suicide. In seconds social media exploded with the news. America's gut wrenched because the man had us all figured out. Made us smile. Made us belly laugh. Made our eyes twinkle -- even the crustiest among us.

In seconds social media exploded, and mere moments later the pontificating started. I read a post exclaiming that suicide is the "most selfish act of all." The gnawing feeling of grief infused with the acidic feeling of anger.

Suicide is the most lonely act.

I've been suicidal. I suffered post partum depression. The gory images of ending my own confused, chaotic moments came to me unbidden. Suicide has nothing to do with selfishness or generosity. It is no more generous or selfish to live in agony than to die in agony. 

Agony of depression. Of loneliness. Of grief unfettered and out of control. Sometimes it results from chemical and hormonal imbalances. Sometimes those things result from prolonged emotional and physical suffering. Your own body and mind turn against you, whispering ugly, forceful things. And the disease of depression effectively shutters you from friends and family -- the ones with the antidotes to the lies.

The survivors after a suicide suffer tremendously. The grief from this loss is complicated -- draconian. Even more so because this form of death we know the individual should have - could have - escaped. There is choice involved. But it's not so simple. The suicidal person cannot see the choices in front of them. The persistence of intrusive thoughts, the proximity of the means of destruction, the depression-imposed isolation cutting them off from relationships that could speak wiser words and choices -- all flow into a seemingly pre-selected path.

That's why we say someone is a "victim of suicide." Because they are swept up in something bigger than them.

Imagine shooting rapids on the Colorado River, without raft, paddle, life vest, guide, or companion.

Suicide is intensely lonely. Tragic. Devastating. Life and promise ending for the victim and the survivor. Its power is fueled and protected by depression encased isolation.

I suffered my suicidal thoughts and images for weeks - weeks - before I told my therapist or husband. Catch that? I was already in therapy. And those of you familiar with my story know that I counseled suicidal clients while obtaining my masters in counseling. No one should have been better equipped to deal than me.

Others suffer years. Our society rarely gives voice or forum to the mentally and emotionally agonized.

Whittling something so complicated down to an act somehow about the healthy person ("you're selfish to do this because you didn't think of me") misses all the points.

The enemy of suicide is intimacy, not judgment. Please read what our friend Kate wrote:

Depression is way more serious than one would think. It can twist our brains in such a way that we think death is our only option for peace and escape from the debilitating pain it causes. It eats away at me every day despite how hard I work to fight it.

If you need help and you need someone to remind you that you mean so much to them and they can't fathom their life without you, let me be that person. You are loved and it will get better.

If suicide seems like your answer, it isn't. The words, the visions, the thoughts are lies. In my belief, you are intended for the life you have, purposed to live your days -- a being the world needs, and you bear the image of Divine. Depression sucks all your energy, making the most important thing to do -- reaching out to another human -- the hardest thing. Do it anyway. Bring someone inside your heart, as Kate offered, to speak the truth of love. It will get better.

I told my OB about the thoughts, after my therapist reminded me most people don't have visions of shooting themselves in the head. I started an anti-depressant, and intensified my therapy.

I have recovered from my suicidal thoughts. Although, they leave an oily residue -- like glass after wiping off grease. Sometimes, when things feel intense, I see through that section of the glass, and it frightens me. I tell my husband. I speak it out loud so I can hear the ugliness of it, instead of being wooed by it playing quietly in my head.

It's seeing myself mirrored in his eyes, hearing truth from his lips, that I see falsehood for what it is.

For Survivors
I know your heart is busted. You may feel intense guilt. And probably a hell of a lot of anger. The anger is normal. Don't rush past that feeling. The trick is to experience it without getting lost in it. But do relieve yourself of that guilt. Examine yourself. Learn from the moments you had, or didn't have, with your lost one. But remember the rapids we talked about up there? They were caught in something big and terrifying. The result wasn't your fault.

For the Healthy-Minded
For those of us who have the strength, the health, the hope, the presence of mind and truth -- may we pour those gifts into the lives of the friends and family hurting among us. May we combat the lies of the disease with love. You did not cause the sickness. You cannot cure it. But you can participate in its cure.