The Taser's Edge


Which Is Easier?: Divorce, Forgiveness, and Healing

The Gospel According to Luke 5:17-26 (ESV):

On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”

In the wounded state in which the end of my marriage left me, my friends brought me to Jesus, and I knew that I wanted Him to heal me. But when Jesus looked at me and said, “Your sins are forgiven,” I realized that that was what I had most wanted. The desire deeper than my desire to be healed, a desire I had not known I had, was to be forgiven.

Why, consciously speaking, did I have the desire to be healed, but not the desire to forgiven? I wanted His healing because I could feel my hurt every day and every step and almost every breath, a spiritual nerve damage. I did not want forgiveness because I did not believe it was possible for me to be forgiven.

Many people have noted that evangelical Christians tend to focus on certain favorite sins, especially those with any connection whatsoever to sex, while mentally marking others as less important or less harmful. I thought I was good at avoiding this particular trap until I found myself getting divorced, and I found I was incapable of believing that God forgave me. When I tried to believe, my imagination sputtered, died, and rolled to a stop. Loss of imagination is more than a foggy, moonless night. Loss of image-ination is the definition of blindness.

How broken was the body of the man whom Jesus forgave and healed? Was he born this way? It’s hard to believe that he could have survived into adulthood if that had been the case. Did he have a degenerative illness that we could name today but still couldn’t cure? Did he have a spinal cord injury?

To “rise, pick up your bed and go home” requires balance and the finest of motor skills along with that bundle of motions we call the ability to walk. Think through all of the motions and muscle groups required to stand up from the floor, kneel down and roll up some bedding, stand up again, then bend over to pick up that mat and carry it over your shoulder to walk home. These are levels of restoration happening in the human body that we still could not explain.

And yet forgiveness is the miracle, what Jesus extends first and what even the Pharisees and the teachers of the law know is something only God can give.

To receive forgiveness in the places we most need it is not only a passive reception but an act of the will. We don’t even know if the paralyzed man believed that he was indeed forgiven. I do will to believe and more and more I succeed.

I cannot offer enough gratitude to all those who carried me to the Healer and who strengthened my will to believe that He was also a Forgiver. Thank you.

Healing High Five!



A Theological Twanscript

Please follow James K.A. Smith and me, but know first that we don’t actually know each other.



I Pray that You Will Fall Out of Love

M. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, doesn’t believe that “falling” in or out of love is really love at all. And he’s convincing (although it didn’t take much for me). Here, he makes an analogy between a couple continuing in love and a young child’s slow developmental discovery that it and the world are separate beings:

Just as reality intrudes upon the two-year-old’s fantasy of omnipotence so does reality intrude upon the fantastic unity of the couple who have fallen in love. Sooner or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will reassert itself. He wants to have sex; she doesn’t. She wants to go to the movies; he doesn’t. He wants to put money in the bank; she wants a dishwasher. She wants to talk about her job; he wants to talk about his. She doesn’t like his friends; he doesn’t like hers. So both of them, in the privacy of their hearts, begins to come to the sickening realization that they are not one with the beloved, that the beloved has and will continue to have his or her own desires, tastes, prejudices and timing different from the other’s. One by one, gradually or suddenly, the ego boundaries snap back into place; gradually or suddenly, they fall out of love. Once again they are two separate individuals. At this point they begin either to dissolve the ties of their relationship or to initiate the work of real loving.

To me, although it might be depressing to some, it is incredibly hopeful that “falling in love” is not love, and that “falling out of love” is actually a requirement along the way to “real loving.” This makes love about growing up, not about being “young [and stupid] at heart.” It also makes love about taking personal responsibility. If love just “happens,” then we bear no responsibility, take no ownership, and neither are we responsible if we never love or fail to love. But if love is work, a taking up of responsibility, a part of maturation and growth and human adulthood, then it is the greatest work of our lives, worth every ounce of sweat and tears along the way.

If you are in a relationship right now, I hope and even pray that you fall out of love soon.

Finally, what about that “ego boundaries snap back into place” line? Surely (you may be thinking) the ego is exactly what’s getting in the way of so many relationships, with self-centeredness and all that. While selfishness is indeed a problem, the reality is also that you cannot love someone until you recognize them as an other. If you do not recognize their otherness, then you are not loving them as yourself, but only as if they were yourself, and you will inevitably try to control them, to assert your power over them. That is, you will be “loving” a lie; to see the other as yourself is an unreality. The other person is an other person, and only when you see the space between you can you embrace.

Ten out of ten people agree, sex with someone-not-yourself is just better.



The God from Whom I Repeatedly Flee

All theologizing, if worth its salt, must submit to the test of hospital gowns, droning television sets, and food spilled in a clumsy effort to eat. What can be said of God that may be spoken without shame in the presence of those who are dying?…I met a woman by the elevator each day whose mouth was always open wide, as if uttering a silent scream. In a bed down the hall lay a scarcely recognizable body, twisted by crippling arthritis–a man or woman I’d never met. Another woman cried out every few moments, desperately calling for help in an “emergency” that never ebbed. Who were these people?

They represented the God from whom I repeatedly flee. Hidden in the grave-clothes of death, this God remains unavailable to me in my anxious denial of aging and pain. He is good news only to those who are broken. But to them he’s the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, lurking in the shadows behind the nurses’ desk, promising life in the presence of death. This is the last place I might have sought him. I found myself wanting often to run from that gaping mouth, the twisted body, the cries that echoed through the halls. I resisted going to the nursing home. Yet at the same time, I was drawn there.

I know why Francis had to kiss the leper, why Mother Teresa reached out to those dying on the streets of Calcutta, why Jean Vanier gives himself without restraint to the handicapped. It has nothing to do with charity. It’s a concern to touch–and be touched by–the hidden Christ, the one found nowhere else so clearly. It’s a longing to reach out to the grotesque, stroking the bloodied head of a slain lamb as its image gradually changes into the fierce and kindly face of a Lion whose name is love.

-Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes



“Progress”

“Over the last two or three decades, the stereotype of the easily aroused, enthusiastically sexual, even predatory female has replaced the more traditional view of the demure woman who has to be seduced or loosened up with alcohol. But this new woman is a fiction in much the same way her reticent forerunner was.” (p. 178)



My First Novena

Knowing no Latin, I knew a novena had something to do with prayer, but my assumption was it was connected to nova, “new.” Nope, Dorothy Day teaches me:

Every Catholic faced with a great need starts a novena…Novenas are started nine days before the feast of some favorite saint or they can be made at any time. My favorite novena is the rosary novena, a devotion during which one recites three novenas in petition and three in thanksgiving. If you don’t get what you need by the end of the thanksgiving of twenty-seven days, you begin another series–continuing in prayer with perseverance, with importunity. “Ask and you shall receive,” “Knock and it will be opened to you,” and Our Lord tells the story of the unjust judge and the widow, and the weary friend and the neighbor who comes to get a few loaves, to show how importunity and perseverance are rewarded.

I know that we all prayed, coming and going, night and day, sleeping and waking.

(The Long Loneliness, this edition, p. 283)

I found this to be a beautiful idea, even if I’m not sure if I’m doing it right. Around the edges of my interest, there is the fact that it’s a Christian spiritual practice that has been done by literally billions of followers of Christ in history, but which I have basically never heard of, beyond its name. (Yay for growing up Protestant in the US!)

Then there is learning about all the numbers at play here. Sevens and tens, in Jewish and Christian numerology, are symbols of perfection. Nine, however, is incomplete, just as all people are incomplete, just as I am incomplete. The nine is also important because, especially at the novena for Christmas, the nine days represent the nine months of Jesus’ gestation in Mary. Christmas Day is the tenth day, perfection, the birth of God as infant.

Finally, because I’m doing six novenas (three petition then three thanksgiving, as described above), it’s a work of creation. God created for six days and then God rested on the seventh. Pray six novenas then rest in what God has created.

At dead center of making my first novena, however, is that while I’ve prayed for and about people, situations, etc. regularly and/or over long periods of time in the past, I have never determined to persevere in prayer every day for anything approaching 54 days. Now I’m really asking…What if Jesus actually meant it when he said to keep knocking, to keep pestering the unjust judge, to keep bothering the neighbor for what you need?

Traditionally, the major novenas were the nine days leading up to particular holy days. My 54 days happen to end in a novena to Saint Joseph, whose feast day is March 20th, whose name is my middle name. What’s more, Joseph is the patron saint of the Universal Church, of the family, and of workers. My petitions are about my place and calling in the Church, about family as I experience the end of my marriage, and seeking vocational clarity for the future (as well as…a job).

I had really wanted to write a prayer to memorize and meditate through each day of this time, but a week in, I basically have a theme, and it is Light. One version of the prayer I am praying:

Lord Jesus Christ, you who are Light, push back the darkness, bring vision to my eyes, and guide me into your brilliant future for me. Amen.



Secularism and Me

I’m someone who would like theologians to stop pretending that all theology is not also autobiography, and so I’ll embark on a long trip with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age in this way…

I have traveled and lived and still travel and still live in circles where secularism is a problem, and a scary one. There are theological aspects, spiritual aspects, sociological aspects, political aspects to this, and to draw a Venn diagram would not work. But I can outline some of them.

In case any of the following beliefs sound fringe-y, they are not. You have your lawn mowed, your mail delivered, your water meter read, your hair cut, your latte made, your paycheck signed by people who hold these beliefs. You are biologically related to and in many cases descended from people who hold these beliefs.

Yes, I do know and love and am loved by people who believe that it is illegal to pray in United States public schools in 2012. Some of these folks also believe that it is important to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that United States money is printed with “In God We Trust,” and that the central statement of the Pledge of Allegiance is “under God.”

The secularization of society for these groups of people is the transitioning of the United States into a post-Christian nation, a descent into godlessness and chaos. A secularized United States is terrifying, because there is no order without God’s order, which is Christian (or at least North Atlantic, Judeo-Christian-inspired) order.

There is a more critically considered version of this, which I’ll call the First Things-ian view of secularism. First Things is the magazine founded by John Richard Neuhaus, who marched with MLK, who authored one of the most brilliant books ever written on being a pastor (Freedom for Ministry), and whose last days were spent as a neo-con (or not quite that). First Things is basically the magazine through which well-considered conservative (and/or traditional) Judeo-Christian political thought travels. It’s a magazine that helps you think better, but which you might also find yourself throwing across the room in anger/mystification.

The First Things-ian argument is that secularization is the corroding of the traditional values which aid all human fluorishing. These values are shared and universal. (For a First Things thought from earlier today to illustrate this, click here. For a problematizing of the universal claims that the Christian religion makes and has made, click here.)

For me, discussing how I relate to secularism and secularization is one of those (many) areas where I feel my lack of a coherent and contiguous narrative of history. But here is my understanding, embedded in my sense of history: the United States is much more accurately described as a pagan culture than as a secular culture (or as “pre-pagan” rather than “post-Christian”). God and gods have not been removed from public discussion and society at all. Christianity was one among many cults in the religious marketplace at its beginning, and it is so today. This “new” world is not something to fear (as both groups described above would tend to believe, although the latter hides it better), but it is still God’s world, populated by God’s children, all of us in need of conversion by God’s love through Jesus Christ.

There are some differences between these worlds, 1st and 21st centuries, of course…

Charles Taylor argues that having no god is an option for large masses of people in a way that it has never been in human history. Or, as he puts it in his Introduction:

[T]he change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.



Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places. Everything and everyone, existence itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resemblance. Perhaps this is what is meant by that brief and now almost archaic word: elegy.

That’s the opening paragraph of Anatomy of a Disappearance. Good writers go their whole lives without writing sentences like those. Hisham Matar wrote a novel-full (at least one, as I haven’t yet read his In the Country of Men).

When I first heard about this book, it was being spun as a literary mystery novel, which is dead wrong. A different author might have written that 700-page political thriller, but this is a dream and a meditation on the question raised in that opening paragraph:

What does it mean to live when your whole life is an elegy for a missing man, one whom you might never really have known?

It’s not a question with which intense wrestling accomplishes more than sweat and injury. But the “answer” seems to be that if your life is an elegy, then you live, and that is your answer. And if you’re a writer, you write. In Anatomy of a Disappearance, narrator Nuri el-Alfi’s father is a wealthy political dissident who is kidnapped while abroad in Switzerland. The book’s author’s own father was an anti-Gaddafi activist who disappeared from Cairo in 1990, apparently by pro-Gaddafi forces. The narrator tries to live, and the author writes.

While it’s tempting to think that there must be a close correlation between this novel’s protagonist and its author, that’s misleading. I know this because not every survivor of a terrible crime can write. Read this book. It’s what fiction is meant to be.

As for me, I’ve already reserved Matar’s first novel from the library.



On Being Wounded and “Getting Over It”

Lately I’ve been thinking deeply not just on suffering but on woundedness, the delineation being that suffering is a present experience and set of sensations while woundedness is about the changes that suffering causes in us, sometimes forever. At the encouragement of a friend, I finally got a copy of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed.

For those who aren’t familiar, the book is the very raw journal of Lewis’ mourning the death of his wife. It actually seems so raw, literally written within months of her death, that it’s difficult for me to reconcile the buttoned-down conservative C.S. Lewis with the author of this book which lets so many questions just hang in the air.

Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am trying to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.

Keep in mind that those words were written by a man who was a patient in the combat hospitals of World War I, and you’ll receive them more deeply.

In the quote itself, it all sounds so final, but one theme of the book as a whole is that grief is the revelation that nothing is final, that nothing we know now is permanent, that everything is passing away. Not that you one day grow a leg back, but that one day you lose that now-one-legged body altogether, and then that state passes away too. Ecclesiastes, anyone?

One thing Lewis doesn’t stress which I want to, however: there is nothing wrong with having one leg, and there is no less value, belovedness, or blazing image of God in the amputee than in the person who, after all, only seemed to be whole in the first place.

I hope that you know that.



In Which I Present Lots of Random Quotes from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in a Ploy to Get You to Read It

This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives. That’s clearer to me every day. Each morning I’m like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes–old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable. What of me will I still have? Well, this old body has been a pretty good companion. Like Balaam’s ass, it’s seen the angel I haven’t seen yet, and it’s lying down in the path. (p. 67)

The article is called “God and the American People,” and it says 95 percent of us say we believe in God. But our religion doesn’t meet the writer’s standards, not at all. To his mind, all those people in all those churches are the scribes and the Pharisees. He seems to me to bit of a scribe himself, scorning and rebuking the way he does. How do you tell a scribe from a prophet, which is what he clearly takes himself to be? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do. (p. 142)

Boughton says he has more ideas about heaven every day. He said, “Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two. I’d multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy. But two is more than sufficient for my purposes.” So he’s just sitting there multiplying the feel of the wind by two, multiplying the smell of the grass by two. (p. 147)

No sleep this night. My heart is greatly disquieted. It is a strange thing to feel illness and grief in the same organ. There is not telling one from the other. My custom has always been to ponder grief; that is, to follow it through ventricle and aorta to find out its lurking places. That old weight in the chest, telling me there is something I must dwell on, because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself–that same good weight worries me these days.

But the fact is, I have never found another way to be as honest with myself as I can be by consulting with these miseries of mine, these accusers and rebukers, God bless them all. So long as they do not kill me outright. I do hope to die with a quiet heart. I know that may not be realistic. (p. 179)

Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. (p. 209)

And old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound, and he would protect him as a father cannot, defend him with a strength he does not have, sustain him with a bounty beyond any resource he could ever dream of having. If Boughton could be himself, he would utterly pardon every transgression, past, present, and to come, whether or not it was a transgression in fact or his to pardon. He would be that extravagant. That is a thing I would love to see. (p. 238)

There are a thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient. (p. 243)