Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: Lent

Waking Up- Using Lent as a Season of Examination

Antibodies-attacking-a-virus1I find there is great comfort in specificity. So much of what pulls my heart around is more a general sense of something, a nagging disease with some unidentified something, a cloudy shadow of something.  But what is it?!  Why do I find myself sighing sometimes, or fearing sometimes, or discovering new unhappiness sometimes.

It’s good to ask with the psalmist, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?”  The psalmist goes right on to hope but I like to wait there for a good long while.  I need to be undisturbed.  I need to get to the specific things that are causing these feelings.  Sometimes it’s impossible.  Sometimes I don’t have patience to get there, but Oh, when I do, specificity is hot cocoa and a fireplace on a heart’s wintry night.

During Lent at Circle of Hope we are examining these things which generate so much turmoil for us.  We’re waking up to the darkness around us and with in us. We’re holding off the judgment and letting Christ’s resurrection life raise us from the dead–we’e letting Christ’s light shine on the untouched coldness of us and our world.

The specifics of Lent are of the body- like the human body.  The real wounds of Jesus are the nail holes in his hands, his speared side, the gauges in his head, and the lash marks on his back.  We identify with that suffering for forty days, not in a grotesque or morbid sort of way as some have in my opinion, but following our connection, even body to body.  We take on disciplines which remind us in our body to connect with God.  Fasting, feeling hungry.  Praying, living on more than bread.  We take communion every week to ingest something of God symbolically, and to be an actual people united in the remembrance.  It all couples very nicely with my call to specificity in the face of angst.

My body is like Jesus’ body.  But I eagerly await a new and resurrected body.  My hope is not pie in the sky. It is a new left forearm with no screws in it.  It is a right ear with no throbbing behind its infected drum.  It is illness free and soft skinned.  It is glorious and beyond my imagination.  I have a specific hope.  Jesus made the way for that hope through a specific time and place and a very specific death.  I want a world in which there are no more tears of sorrow.  I can name a million things that make me cry.  I will spend eternity remembering millions of things that no longer do, and I will rejoice.

So I want to be that specific now.  I want to start the list during Lent and mourn the broken, dark somethings that would usually beg to be ignored.  We are reminded in 1 John that  “God is light;in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”  Walking in the light is not ignoring the things that are in the dark.  I imagine myself strolling around my heart as a glow-in-the-dark version of myself illuminating all the corners of my interior house.  Or walking across a map of the world or just our region and leaving iridescent foot prints.  And of course, the light is God.

At the Public Meeting on Sunday night I was thinking about how are bodies get specific. The leukocytes attack infection and one type takes samples from the invading pathogen and takes it back to a lab where other cells make antigens for it.  The antigens are specifically designed for that particular pathogen and thus very effective in subduing it.  I promised to post this video which had me amazed out how well our bodies can work, even if they are suited for a hostile world. My prayer is that we might be so amazing in our battles against the darkness. It’s work. God help us.

Your spiritual nerve endings may be shot

synapseAt a couple different stages in childhood, our brain pruned neurons that were underused.  It was creating clearer pathways, concentrating energy, codifying regular patterns.  It’s called synaptic pruning (How crazy wonderful is the human brain?!  I’m imagining a lumpy gardener with tiny shears.)

What’s done is done.  We can’t grow those neurons back.  New pathways can still be created with the existing neurons—detours can be made—we can probably get to a lot of the same places in our brains but it becomes definitively slower as possible pathways are limited.  The endless possibilities of a child’s brain find their ends.  Our conditioning matters for how our brain works for the rest of our lives.

I think this is the same with our spiritual nerve endings.  Our hearts are permanently changed by our conditioning.  I believe that the tightknit Christian community I lived in as a young child conditioned me for an abiding sense of safety in the faith.  If I was born with a special proclivity toward trusting God it was amplified in the security of my formative years.  I feel safe with God.  That safety allows me to risk more easily in ways that are harder for others.

Others have experienced such an intense breach of trust or such a consistent disappointment from the Church that they are forever damaged.  Their spiritual nerve endings were mangled in the difficult relationship and the poor relating of the ones who claimed Christ as Lord.  A common reaction to a conflict in the church is to cut and run, and in so doing many have cut themselves—maybe even leaving the part of themselves that was best at connecting with God behind.  And now not only are they cut off from that community, they are cut off from God.  The isolation that this scenario brings about is the predicament in which many Americans find themselves. recently released the Spike Jonez film, “Her”, for streaming.  I watched it and was delighted by the parable of modern interaction with technology.  Without too many spoilers, because I think it is worth watching, the premise is that in a not too distant future a company produces a computer/phone operating system that can relate and learn.  The main character, played by Joaquin Phoenix and named Theodore (which means Gift of God), falls in love with his operating system who names herself Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson.  His profession is writing love letters on behalf of others for  He wonders aloud if he has lost the ability to feel or to relate to anything but a machine.  He is separated from his wife who he tried to love but from whom he kept his full self.  He is resisting the divorce proceedings in a depressed state.  On the way home from work before the OS saves him he tells his phone to play a melancholy song and when it doesn’t suit him he says “play a different melancholy song.”

Her-insideHe is crafting an emotional experience with the technology.  His job is manufacturing emotional connection for others.  His life’s love is an operating system.  His emotional and spiritual nerve endings are shot.  His heart is pruned like a 6 year old’s brain.

Do you feel this way sometimes?  Does your heart get hard at the sight of the other with whom you have unresolved conflict?  Are you waiting for it to get hard and flake off?  We’re probably not aware of all the things which fry our capacity to love and trust, but I bet we’re aware of some.  Let’s look at them full in the face, feel the pain they cause us, and awaken to the remaining working parts of ourselves.

Lent is a time for this sort of waking up.  We flex our spiritual muscles and give our spiritual nerve endings a few laps around the track.  We find out what’s dead and we put it to death. We find out what’s still alive and we nurse it back to health.  Of course this is the life of a Christian all year, except when it isn’t.  I always seem to need something to train for to keep at my disciplines, to keep my eyes open, to keep my heart soft.  What better event to train for than resurrection and Easter sunrise?

On Dying with Jesus

“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”Philippians 3

It’s not exactly good advertising: COME DIE WITH JESUS!  That’s one reason people aren’t flocking into the Church these days.  We’re currently interested as a culture in mastering death; have you seen the trailer for Johnny Depp’s new movie?  It comes out April 17–just in time for Easter.  Who needs resurrection when you have Transcendence [link]?  My biggest fear about this movie is that it doesn’t seem too far fetched that we could some day map the electronic patterns of the brain, digitize it and have a consciousnesses that could live forever.  I pray that it is impossible, but I am not confident it is.

But this coming week at Circle of Hope and at many churches around the world is all about death, more specifically, Jesus’ death.  Let’s not reduce it to storytelling though.  Holy Week, the week we remember Jesus’ last days before his death, is not just about Jesus’ death, it’s about ours too.

At the beginning of Lent many of us marked ourselves with ashes under the evocation “Remember you are from dust and to dust you shall return.”  We’ve spent weeks remembering our frailty, recognizing our need, and longing for the Resurrection.  Lent is about finding the parts of us that need to die.  It’s a quarantine from business as usual designed to give us some perspective on ourselves and our condition.  We fast to create some artificial suffering that could help us “participate in his sufferings” as Paul writes in Philippians.  The fasting also reminds us of what we are doing.  It gives us small opportunities to turn to God in our need.

The practical “lynchpin” of Christian theology is that we are freed from caring if we die.  Eternity is an everyday necessity for those who follow Jesus.  Hopefully (and probably) we won’t all become martyrs but it is the fear of death, the most basic human fear, that leads to any number of theological and practical concessions.  When Paul says in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” he does not mean that God will eliminate all who come against us, he means that our ultimate safety is secure.  We are called to lean into this ultimate security in order to avoid making personal and familial security paramount.  This conviction is the only way we can obey Jesus’ teachings on enemy love and peace making, but it is also pretty important in following Jesus in his special concern for the poor and not worrying about tomorrow, clothes and food.

We are saved from fear by Jesus’ promise of abundant and eternal life.  Personally, I have further uncovered the truth  that my basic human fear of death is integrally linked with my understanding of my own limitations and frailty.  To trust Jesus unto death allows me to trust him unto moments where I need to die to myself and the myths I make for myself about my own capacity.  This is taking up my cross and dying daily.  This is dying with Jesus.