Incognito

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When I saw this mannequin in a country store she reminded me of someone going incognito. Incognito is Latin for unseen, unknown. The goal of going incognito is the opposite of intimacy, something else I’ve been thinking about lately.

The problem with writing about intimacy with God is that when you use the word intimacy, people think you are talking about sex. Intimacy in current usage is very much about being seen and being known by someone of importance.

We see articles about improving intimate relationships in marriage and advertisements for intimate apparel, which have their place, but there is a greater intimacy with the Creator that goes beyond the physical and the emotional. I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe this kind of intimacy without alluding to sexual intimacy, but as I read the Bible, I notice something. God is proficient in the language of symbolism. He doesn’t avoid talking about sex, so why should I?

Sexual intimacy is a metaphor for something even bigger and better.

When God created man and woman they stood before each other naked and unashamed. The Bible says Adam knew Eve and she conceived. According to Strong’s, yada’, the word often translated knew means:
1. to know, learn to know
2. to perceive
3. to perceive and see, find out and discern
4. to discriminate, distinguish
5. to know by experience
6. to recognise, admit, acknowledge, confess
7. to consider

The first act of seduction and the first act of unfaithfulness was when the serpent, the creator of lies, convinced these two humans that if they ignored God’s instructions and ate from the tree, they would become like gods themselves. They would yada’ good and evil.

The first bit of knowledge they perceived, learned and experienced (yada’ again) after they chose to believe the serpent, was that they were naked – and ashamed. The Hebrew word for ashamed also carries the connotation of disappointment. Sin brought a sense of disappointment in themselves and disappointment in each other as part of the package deal. That profound disappointment is called shame. They needed a layer of protection to try to keep their shame from being seen. They covered up. They hid from God. They tried to go incognito. Unseen. Unknown.

The plan failed. It’s been failing ever since because God came looking for them.

One of the key verses for my life is Philippians 3:10 and 11: “… that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

The problem is that knowing him intimately means confronting the problem of shame that piles up like stinky laundry in front of the door. Can I be honest and tell you that a life-time of sin-awareness has not made me less sinful, but more aware of my shame? I’ve watched an entire industry based on the design, fabrication, and marketing of fashionable religious cover-ups expand in my life. I’ve watched it burgeon in the lives of people around me too.

The thing is about sexual intimacy is that involves us standing naked before someone and exposing our less-than-perfect parts. Am I the only one who has noticed, after many trips to the beach, that I am not the only one with scars and rolls and, um, a disappointing shape? I won’t even mention smells and sounds.

Sexual intimacy requires a lot of trust. One of our greatest fears is taking a risk and later experiencing rejection or betrayal as a result. That’s why Jesus said that when a person claiming to represent God betrays the trust of a vulnerable person, they have committed a heinous crime. If a victim thinks God is on the side of the perpetrator, they are hindered from turning to God for healing. It may take years and many demonstrations of unconditional love before they can regain a sense that God will not also betray them. So many people have believed lies about the nature of God as a result of abuse. I believe God wants to uncover truth about who he really is through his goodness.

Spiritual intimacy also requires trust, perhaps even more than physical intimacy. When we make a spiritual connection we give access to the deepest, most vulnerable part of our being.

Entire literature and film genres cash in on crimes of passion based on fear of rejection and betrayal. It is easier to approach God covered with a thick bullet-proof mantle of religiosity,  to speak in tones of formal scripted recitation, and to never let him get between us and the exit than it is to drop defenses.

But God makes a way.  He deals with shame by inviting us to consider it dead. He makes us into someone new. He shows up with his goodness and covers us with his own righteousness. Jesus’ humiliating experience of hanging naked on a cross as he bore our shame purchased that righteousness for us.

Intimacy requires the participation of two naked people with nothing hidden, nothing held back. Because God makes the first move by exposing his heart for me, I can drop my own attempts at cover-up. I am free to expose my heart to him. His righteousness becomes mine. In his eyes I am beautiful.

The passage before the verses I’ve claimed as my life theme goes like this:
“…I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith…” (Philippians 3:8 & 9)

As I was thinking about daring to respond to God’s invitation to increased intimacy, a line from an old song came to mind:

“…dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before his throne.”*

Trust involves risk. For so many years, I found it difficult to trust someone I was told wanted to punish me for not loving and obeying him perfectly. It was too risky to trust. That’s because I didn’t know him. Eventually I took the risk. Trusting someone who demonstrated love by giving his life for me is worth the risk. To be known and loved down to the cellular level by the One who created me is priceless.

It’s worth the cost of dropping disguises — that I may know him.

 

*From My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less by Edward Mote

“Come and Talk With Me”

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“You’re not doing it right.”

Okay, those are not the exact words. Most controlling people are slightly less direct, but that is the essence of the message they feel compelled to convey.

“There is a right way and a wrong way to do Christianity and you, my dear, are doing it the wrong way. I will tell you how to do it right.”

This was the theme of the class of religious leaders who opposed Jesus Christ. In those days they were called Pharisees. Today they have many names, but mostly they like to call themselves “right.” They have the scriptures, they have the rules, but somehow they have lost sight of the point of grace and end up putting barricades in place that block people from having a closer relationship with God.  Instead of building highways and bridges they build giant speed bumps.

Years ago I broke my leg. (That’s a strange expression right there because it was not my intention, I assure you.) More accurately, in the process of rescuing two little boys whose mittens tangled in barbed wire held them captive to a fence, I fell on the ice. I heard the bones in my leg snap. That’s not a sound I wish to hear again.

The news of my mishap was not something the director of the opera, in which I had a lead role, and which was due to open in less than two weeks, wanted to hear either. I had no understudy. She had to figure out how to re-block the entire production for a Countess who couldn’t walk. Amazingly with one or two creatively re-written lines, she changed the Countess into an invalid (another strange expression) thus giving the philandering Count  more motive, means and opportunity to follow up on his temptations (not an unrealistic scenario.) It worked.

I chose roles with care. I wouldn’t be in a play or opera that promoted evil. This opera had an adult theme but there was a clear difference between right and wrong, and right won. It was based on a morality story that criticized the accepted practice of not holding the noble class to account for sexual abuse of servants and other vulnerable commoners. It was about the misuse of power.

I was resting, leg propped on cushions while I memorized recitatives, when an “expert” in the ways to appease God paid a visit. This person told me God was punishing me for singing secular music. He broke my leg to teach me a lesson. He made me a temporary cripple so I would learn to praise him properly with church music, and not that show-off worldly stuff.

Now God moves in mysterious ways, but I have since learned that breaking people’s legs to get them to give him what he wants is more of a Mafia don’s technique than the ways of the one who sent his only son, Jesus, who was willing to lay down his life for me in a demonstration of love.

These harsh words could have been water off a duck’s back. They weren’t. I was stricken with guilt and shame and questioned my square peggish-ness yet again. Until that point I had known a lifetime of being told “There is a right way and a wrong way to appease God, who is currently deeply disappointed with you. And you, my dear, are doing it wrong – again.”

It took a while to realize that the scenario in my living room that day was another version of the misuse of power story. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time on earth, and the privileged nobles of Mozart’s time, some of the “experts in the ways of God” in my own time have tried to manipulate others to meet their own need to be in control. (Not all, of course. Not even most. Don’t hear what I am not saying.)

I had never learned to listen to God for myself. After years of being manipulated by guilt and shame because not only did I feel I had done something wrong, but that fundamentally I was something wrong, I abdicated the authority Christ had given me as a daughter in his royal household. I allowed people who handled their own anxiety with a desire to feel in control speak for him and tell me how to respond. It became a fictitious conversation I didn’t even need to attend. Gradually I stopped showing up.

They didn’t invite me into a closer relationship with Christ, who made a way for me to experience God’s love and affection. Instead the accumulated experiences of years of being told I wasn’t doing it right led to feeling I needed, like Adam and Eve, to cover my shame and hide myself in the trees. When God called me to come and talk with him, I hid.

I didn’t find God. I knew where he was. I was avoiding him.

Then he found me.

I was told God could not look upon sin and it was my sin that separated us. I was taught to be ever mindful of being a sinner prone to wandering and that I was a continuing source of grief to him.

But in my less-than-perfect state he pursued me, he allured me, he loved me unconditionally. In his kindness he drew me into the desert, away from the control of religiosity. When I gave up trying to be good enough he taught me that his grace is enough. He is the saviour and sanctifier. When I allow him to come close enough he writes his thoughts on my heart.

He is still demonstrating how he sees me as a unique delight and that living in his presence is not only for the experts who seem to do religion right. It’s about having an ongoing vibrant relationship with a Person. It’s his goodness and kindness that allows me to respond to him with love and not fear. He is teaching me to see myself and others with his eyes.

The one thing I ask of the LORD—
the thing I seek most—
is to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
delighting in the LORD’s perfections
and meditating in his Temple.

For he will conceal me there when troubles come;
he will hide me in his sanctuary.
He will place me out of reach on a high rock.
Then I will hold my head high
above my enemies who surround me.

At his sanctuary I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy,
singing and praising the LORD with music.
Hear me as I pray, O LORD.
Be merciful and answer me!

My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
And my heart responds, “LORD, I am coming.”

(Psalm 27:4-8 NLT)

Is he calling you to come talk with him? What is holding you back? The reward Jesus died to give to the Father is you. You are his delight.

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Absalom: When Rebellion Thwarts Reformation

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Twice this week I heard this question: What makes you angry?

Both times the men posing the question suggested paying attention to the circumstances that raise a flood of righteous indignation.

“It could be a clue to your calling.”

I didn’t have to think long. What makes me angry? When the cries of the victims of injustice, when the wounds of the abused, when the silent tears of those imprisoned in mental anguish or in circumstances they cannot control are ignored or downplayed by people who have the capacity to help. When people who brag about leading a loving community misuse their power by exploiting their charges I am livid.

Recently I read a rant by a popular writer who can obviously relate to my anger. He blasted away at hypocrisy and corruption and cover up within the institutional church.

“Wow, Lord! This is good. I totally agree. This guy is absolutely right.”

God’s still small voice response shook me.

“So was Absalom.”

“Absalom? The son who rebelled against his father the king?” I asked.

“Beware the man who calls out to victims of injustice to follow him saying, ‘If I were in charge…’”

I re-read the story of Absalom in 2 Samuel 13 to 18.

David harp statue IMG_9841Absalom was right about injustice and corruption being covered up within the kingdom. He had first-hand knowledge of this. The prophet Nathan exposed King David’s crime of taking what was not his – Bathsheba, the daughter of one of his valiant friends and the wife of Uriah, who was out fighting for him. It couldn’t have been easy for a faithful servant to tell the king that his decision to cover up his sin by committing a greater one, arranging Uriah’s murder, would have serious consequences in his family for a very long time.

Later David’s eldest son, Amnon, also abused his power when he took what was not his. He raped his half-sister, Tamar, Absalom’s full sister. David was very angry, but he did nothing that gave the appearance of justice being done on behalf of his daughter.

Some say David couldn’t act because Amnon and his cousin/adviser made sure there were no witnesses, and in those days, and often in these, a mere woman’s testimony was not enough. Some suggest David did not take action because he was still in the throes of depression over his own sin. Some pose that Amnon, as first-born, was in a position of privilege, and even though God continually broke the expectations of society by choosing a younger son for a task, David was still intimidated by primogeniture culture (the eldest son inherits everything) – and because Amnon was still his boy.

Maybe David hoped that if he ignored it someday the whole thing would just go away.

It didn’t go away. It became worse. Absalom took things into his own hands. He arranged for Amnon’s murder. Then he fled.

David mourned for two sons.

The story of David and Absalom’s uncomfortable estrangement and later reconciliation is told in 2 Samuel 14. By this time Absalom was a full-fledged manipulator. He used appearance, charm, popularity, intimidation – whatever it took to move himself toward a position of power. He sat at the gate and listened to people’s complaints of unjust treatment, something the king had apparently been failing to do. garbage streets Jerusalem IMG_1241Injustice was piling up like garbage in the dark corners of Jerusalem. The failure of authorities to listen to the common people and deal with injustice is fuel for rebellion. How many times is this lesson repeated in history?

 

Absalom began to build an army of malcontents.

But wait? Didn’t David do the same after he fled from Saul? He did, but there was a difference. Although he wailed loud and long about unjust treatment, David never took justice into his own hands. He would not touch God’s anointed. He honoured the office, even when King Saul was reduced to a dangerously unbalanced giant wounded ego. David knew he was more popular. He could have made a bid for the hearts of the people to back him up in military take-over. But he waited for God to hand him the scepter. He honoured the king who was trying to kill him.

Absalom couldn’t wait. Absalom dishonoured the king who disappointed him. Absalom led a rebellion. Absalom publicly shamed the women in David’s household. Absalom died. He fell victim to his own symbol of beauty and by the hand of the man who once took up his cause.

 

I can relate to the popular writer who is dismayed by the lack of love or fairness and the willingness to hide corruption in churches. I haven’t been in a place where I felt unsafe in years but I know from the past what it is like to see women and children’s stories of abuse dismissed or “re-framed.”

I have seen a pastor badger a woman on staff of a Christian organization to confess her part in seducing the elder who raped her violently, even though she had been beaten. She lost her job. There were no serious consequences for the man.

I have hidden victims of incest in my home who were coerced to change their stories because they were told it would be their fault if the family broke up and the step-father was subject to ridicule or prosecution.

I have seen men falsely accused by bitter ex-wives who knew how to garner sympathy but neglected the children kept away from their daddies.

I have seen men on the verge of bankruptcy because another member of the congregation cheated them out of weeks of wages – and nothing happened to the thief.

I have seen teenagers thrown out of the house when they told a someone they were gay or that they had an abortion.

I have seen people become slaves to cult leaders with bad, bad, bad theology who prey on spiritual vulnerability and need for acceptance.

I know what it is to cry myself and not be heard, and I know what it is to be loved, healed and restored by people who cared.

But I’ve also known the horror of feeling I had to betray a friend’s confidence because she chose to protect her husband’s reputation over her child’s sexual safety. I know the utter agony and extreme pain of hearing someone I cared deeply about screaming that I had ruined her life as the police took him away. All these years later I cry just thinking about it.

As a teacher, foster mother, and friend I have heard stories that make me want to cover my ears and scream, “Don’t tell me! I don’t want to know!! Shut up! Just shut up! Shut up because now I am obliged to do something about it and I know how this goes!” But I listen and I act. I understand how the prophet Nathan must have felt.

I know it is worse to leave the garbage festering where the next generations play than to deal with unpleasantness. Hidden corruption in the church is threatening our ability to live and breathe and unite in trust and love for each other. God is exposing it for a reason – love.

I can relate to the popular writer’s rants, and I can relate to the pastors and staff who don’t want to know because taking proper measures might cause years of building to crumble. In the end, as painful as it is, we must stand up to protect vulnerable lambs in the flock while still seeking rehabilitation and restitution for offenders.

I also know the sickly sweet voice of the enemy entreating, “Are you angry? I can help you with that.”

And I  hear a warning from Abba, my heavenly Father, “There is a higher way. Do not take justice into your own hands. Do not join up with an army of angry, invalidated unheard victims as a force for reform. Unless you are part of the process of honesty, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration you are not working for the kingdom. You are working for yourself. And that never ends well.”

 

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I hear you

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I decided to re-post a poem I wrote several years ago. The day I wrote it I was sitting outside writing a letter to God. I couldn’t quite talk to him yet, but I was daring to write down my feelings and mail them to the fireplace. My page was full of angry accusations. In places my pen tore right through the paper. While I was crying a sudden squall blew in. I was so utterly at the end of my rope I didn’t bother moving. It felt like the storm raging in me was now raging around me.

The sun broke through while it was still raining. When the shower stopped I picked up my strewn papers and my wet Bible. It fell open to Psalm 18 where David writes about God wrapping himself in storm clouds on his way to deliver justice to his child. “Wrapped and hidden in the thick-cloud darkness, his thunder-tabernacle surrounding him, he hid himself in mystery-darkness; the dense rain clouds were his garments. Suddenly the brilliance of his presence breaks through...” (The Passion translation) And verse 19 “His love broke open the way.”

I’m publishing this again because this week I’ve read several excellent blogs by people younger than I who ably describe their frustration with church experience that involved competition, consumerism, hypocrisy, political manipulation, performance-oriented faith with impossibly high standards, dogmatic theoretical faith without power, and lack of demonstrations of love.

Yes, I know the saying that you get out of church what you put in, but change means admitting there are things that are not working for everyone. Many people are happy where they are, but there are also a lot of hurting people out there who feel no one hears them. They are expressing their disappointment with their feet. To those young people who are walking away I want to say, I hear you.

I think the largest “mission field” in North America is among those who have known spiritual abuse, from mild coercion to dastardly deeds worthy of criminal charges. I define spiritual abuse as the act of exploiting a vulnerable person’s longing for connection with their Creator for the purposes of acquiring  personal power -usually by a person with some degree of authority or responsibility for nurturing them. It is far more prevalent than anyone wants to admit. Repentance means to change the way we think. And we do need to repent. All of us.

The first step toward healing involves admitting there is a problem. If you have been a victim, express your pain, but don’t park there. Keep searching for the God who loves you as you are. He is not disappointed in you because he understands human frailty. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to show you what he is really like. He never expected you to be good enough to earn his love. He is the One who heals our wounded hearts and showers our lives with loving kindness.

We are incapable of loving God until we know his love. When you know you are loved and forgiven you can afford to take your hands off the throats of those who owe you. That’s when the world will know we are Christians – by our love.

 

Mourning

I cry, Oh God! Oh Christ! Oh Jesus!

Where are you when the ones who say
they speak for you –those who squeeze us,
press in on every side, demand
that we respect authority,
obey their rules, come (cash in hand)
to hear their words, as only they
have got the regulations straight at last?
Where are you when the weak are hurt,
aggrieved and stumbled in your name?

Don’t you see what they have passed?

I sit entangled with the chords
of bitterness around my feet.
A plant blows over on the boards
that fence me off from outside world.
The petals scatter on the grass
and now the gust of wind that swirled
their frail wings in electric air
becomes a greater blast of rage
that showers ashes in my hair.

Flash tears the sky –breath rent apart,
and splits the veil of one who mourns,
with lightning striking to the heart.
Deep groaning rolls across the vale
from craggy peak to worn down ridge
and rains pours down –beats down in hail.

The sun withdraws beneath a cloud.
and saplings hang their weeping heads
as thunder rails against the proud,
who dare to claim the earth their own,
–and in the woods from hill to hill
creation echoes back the moan.

My tears obscure the sky from view.
Oh God! I cry. God! Where are you?

My child, I hear.  I weep with you.

(written during the struggle)

He Restores My Soul

For my friend,

I believe it was the writings of Henri Nouwen that first made me think about the blessings Jesus talked about (also known as The Beatitudes) as the stages of healing from old wounds and the process of forgiveness. This has also been part of my journey.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We come to a point where we realize we do not have what we need to fix our lives by ourselves. We definitely do not have it all together. This is good! It feels awful, but it is a vital step in accessing the kingdom of God. We enter humbly and not with a sense of entitlement. It feels like loss. It feels like that moment when you think you’ve reached the bottom of the stairs, but your foot continues to fall. Old temporary foundations fail and we feel like there is no place left to stand.

That’s what it’s supposed to feel like. Call out to God, “Help!”

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

We admit our faults and are willing to examine the lies we have accepted. By acknowledging that we have created false idols and ineffectual coping mechanisms, by feeling remorse for the hurt we have caused ourselves and others, and by grieving for the resulting losses we receive comfort.

Tell God exactly how you feel, even if you are angry with him. He knows anyway.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

I like this definition of meek: teachable. Meekness means, “I know I don’t have the answers but I am capable of learning, Lord. Teach me.” We sit at the feet of Jesus Christ and listen. When we listen, really listen, we gain an understanding of how God can use anything to work together for our good.

Open your heart to receive your inheritance.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

At this stage we develop a greater hunger for God and long to be in good relationship with him. (note: this is not the first stage. The desire for God increases as we give up our own methods of coping, get honest, and listen. Don’t worry. It will come.) Then, when we let go of the stupid stuff we are hanging onto, which we thought would ease our pain and  give us a sense of purpose and significance, like on the Hoarders TV show, he starts to come in and take the junk away. In its place he leaves more satisfying things, like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, meekness, and self-control. He equips us with gifts (tools) to fulfil our destiny.

Throw out the rotten junk food. Feast on the righteousness Jesus provides..

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

At this stage we can look up and see the struggles of others. We can see we are not alone and can dare to be empathetic, compassionate and reach out to help others without being pulled under again ourselves -because we are giving out of the abundance the Holy Spirit’s provision for us and within us, and not out of duty or a need to “be a something.” We are aware of his love. We can finally feel it. We can start to be ourselves and give more freely of ourselves.

Let his love flow through you.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Innocence can’t be restored, but purity can. Without purity, spiritually sensitive people will be overly consumed by the presence of evil, but with restored purity we can see, like Elisha’s servant, that the forces for God are much greater. We have no reason to live in fear. Impurity, in its many forms, leads to bitterness and complaining which result in anxiety and fear.  Purity leads to assurance and confident courage as we can now have our eyes opened to the nature and ways of God.

Be willing to see beyond expectations of disappointment. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

We start to relate differently. We are not as impatient or prone to make judgments on people. We desire restored relationships and renewed bridges.

Give the peace you have been given.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. A fully restored relationship requires honesty on both sides. The Bible tells us “As much as is possible be at peace with all men.” We humbly, but confidently do what we can, but the results are not always what we would like. We’re blessed, at peace and learning to comprehend more who we are in Christ. Less and less do we need to buy into into the world’s coping mechanisms, or the excuses of those whose theology is strongly influenced by disappointment. Possessing the peace that passes understanding sometimes means relinquishing the right to understand.

Take the risk of countering attack with goodness.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

It’s surprising how some people react when you tell them God healed you or worked miraculously to change your heart. Some will say, “You’ve changed. Change back.” Some are happy for you, but others say, “Prove it.” Some will be offended. Jealousy is not satisfied until a reputation has been destroyed.

Who knew? Well God did, so he warns you. And he says you’re in good company, so rejoice. Spending time getting to know God, learning to hearing him speak in many different ways, and having a restored relationship with him is ever so much more fun than depression, anxiety and living a lie. God is good. Very, very good.

We have the privilege of repeating this process many times in life. I say privilege because each step comes with a new blessing. Sometimes it feels like we are going in circles, but we are actually going in spirals, going deeper each time. Sometimes we feel like we spend an inordinate amount of time on one step, but he is faithful and doesn’t give up on us. He understands our pain and sends the Holy Spirit to come along side on the journey.

May the Lord bless you and keep you, my friend. May he make his face shine upon you, be gracious to you and give you peace.

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