Sunday, July 28, 2013

Wherein I name my depression "Karl"

Luke 11:1-13

The Lord’s Prayer

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come. 
   Give us each day our daily bread. 
   And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

Perseverance in Prayer

 And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

This is one of those passages that is so full, so true that I feel like simply reading the passage out loud and then dropping the microphone and saying “peace out.” Maybe we could all call it a day go get ice cream or donuts or something.  Everything we need to know about Jesus and faith and Christianity and God and love and truth is all tied up right here. There’s really nothing more that could be said. Nothing, really, that could be said in a better way.

This is how to be a follower of Christ.  This is how to trust in God. 
This is how to pray:
That’s it.
Keep it simple, silly. (we don’t say “stupid” in our house...)

And yet, when it comes to praying, we just can’t keep it simple, can we? 
Even the disciples want to know the “right” way to pray.

When I was a young, idealistic evangelical in college, the “quiet time” was the bane of my existence.  I just couldn’t seem to get down to the business of praying every day.  I had a list of things that needed to be done in order for my time to be qualified as a legitimate “quiet time.”  Find a quiet room.  Make sure the room had the perfect ambiance - light a candle, close the drapes, kneel or sit cross legged by the bed, or prop the pillows just so, make a cup of herbal tea, play calming, but appropriately hip, Christian music in the background.  Read a particularly intense passage of scripture, preferably from Paul or Isaiah. And then I’d be ready to talk to God.  
But I had to talk to God in the right way.  First, adoration.  Then, praise. Then, thanksgiving, intercession, and then finally -- if I was still awake -- petition.  It was a mental marathon every morning before 18th Century American Lit. Class.  No wonder I’d usually just make very good friends with the snooze button.

It would go this way for years.  Going to bed with the best of intentions, only to wake up dreading what I “had” to do. Each day, I’d finally crawl out of bed feeling guilty for not spending time with God, promising to make time during the day to do it, sometime, later, then collapsing back into bed feeling a failure.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

It just so happened during those spiritually formative years that the weight of the world, the weight of my life, the gray curtain of blah, suffocated me so much that even sneaking up onto the roof of my dorm and smoking clove cigarettes wasn’t enough to keep me from wanting to jump from one of those Dutch windmills into Lake Macatawa. Like those black and white montessori cards for a two month old, depression had sucked me in.  

At first, depression was kinda the hip thing to suffer from, kinda sexy. And since I’d never before had a real boyfriend, let’s just call my depression, “Karl.” At first, Karl would just come around during deadlines: midterms, term paper due dates, final exams.  He’d hang out at the end of my bed and, with sultry, seductive eyes, ask, “what’s the point, anyway?”  Wooed by his ability to wear factory torn jeans with a sense of irony, I’d believe him, and he’d start to come by more often.  At first, like a nervous teen, I’d invite him over.  I’d read textbooks about the Holocaust and the Black Plague, and the rise of the patriarchy. Then, eventually, he’d just show up out of the blue to criticize me. He became “that” boyfriend.  He’d join me in the cafeteria line, questioning my choice of french fries and ranch dressing for lunch. He’d ask if maybe I should buy a larger pair of jeans or try that new acne cream. We’d ride together on those dutch bikes, tempting me to swerve just enough into traffic.  He’d be the pillow I’d smother myself in when I cried myself to sleep.  He was that persistent dull headache.  He was the voice in my head that said, “why even bother to jump from a bridge into Lake Macatawa; it’s not even worth the effort.” 

Needless to say, I needed to quit Karl.
But he was so wrapped up with me -- or I was so wrapped up with him -- that I couldn’t tell the difference between Karl and me.  Between my depression and who I really was.  Like Brangelina, or Benifer, or Kimye, Karl and I were TIGHT.  We were #Jarl?  #Jenrl? #Karlifer?

And do you know what my “Christian” friends told me?  Get back to those quiet times.  Pray more. This is my fault because I wasn’t putting God before everything else. With God as my first priority, Karl would fade into the sunset, be kicked to the curb.

But anyone who has suffered from depression knows that the LAST thing you want to do is be alone with your own thoughts.  That’s like leaving the front door unlocked, your windows open, your phone off the hook, just waiting for Karl to come bursting into your house wearing a ski mask and looking for where you keep your jewelry and your savings bonds. 

Praying only made things worse.  

I’d talk to “God” about my sins.  About how awful I was.  About how I sucked at quiet times, sucked at being a friend, sucked at being a student, sucked at being human. God  had given me so much, and how do I repay “him?” By ignoring him like a spoiled brat.  I’d leave my “quiet times” worse off than when I started -- and hearing nothing but my own self-hatred and God’s big fat silence.

Lord. Teach us to pray.

How did I finally “quit” Karl?  

Some people loved me.  I talked to some great shrinks. I popped antidepressants like vitamins. 

Oh, He’s still around. But more like that cat that needs to be stroked a few times before he runs out the door and disappears for a few days.

I started to attend a tiny Hispanic church over by the train tracks.  Crossroads Chapel.
This was a mess of a church.  It usually started about 15 minutes late.  Every song went to the rhythm of “boom chick chick, boom chick chick,” and worship consisted of people shouting out their song requests from creaking, rusting folding chairs.  And the pastor who was also the music leader, who also was the janitor, and administrative assistant was also the Spanish-to-English translator.

In fact, he would get so lost in all his many roles, so lost, especially in his translating, that if you didn’t speak both English and Spanish, his sermons would rarely make sense.  

But wonderfully, gracefully, amazingly, these people knew how to pray.  And they all prayed in Spanish.  And wonderfully, gracefully, amazingly, I don’t speak Spanish.
Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo.
Santificado sea tu nombre.
Venga tu reino.
Hágase tu voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo.
Danos hoy nuestro pan de cada día.
Perdona nuestras ofensas, como también nosotros perdonamos a los que nos ofenden.
No nos dejes caer en tentación y líbranos del mal.
Most of the time, I’d have very little idea of what was going on in that church.
And that was fine with me.

When someone else was praying in Spanish, I didn’t know for what, or how, or whether or not I agreed with her theology, or shared his political preference, or even knew his name; it didn’t matter.  They were praying.  And in a way, they were praying for me, instead of me, praying in my stead. It didn’t even matter if I liked God at the time, or trusted God, loved God, or even if I believed in God.  They did.  They liked and trusted and loved and believed for me.  I didn’t have to understand how. Or why. They just carried me.
And I sat in silence.  And let it all wash over me. 
I’d feel what I felt.  Anger. Exhaustion.  Confusion. Deep, profound sadness.
And slowly, I’d give that to God.  Not in a way that was a “let go and let God” sort of “giving.” But as an offering. I’d tell God, “well, I got nothin’ in these hands but a bunch of anger and confusion.  And all it seems you’ve got is a whole lot of silence.  So. So, here we are.”
And then I’d pray to God about how much it hurt. About how dark it was.  About how I wanted to just close my eyes and never wake up.

And then I’d ask to make it to another Sunday. And another. And maybe just one more. 

And people would start to look for me during the passing of the peace.
And they learned my name. And I learned theirs.
And I’d go up for communion.  
And I’d take the bread and dip it in the juice and I’d tell God, “Well, I am so angry at you and your maddening silence that I could spit, and I’m probably not even talking to anything real right now anyway, but I’m hungry.  And I believe that I’m holding bread.  And I believe that this is juice.  And someone’s looking me in the eye as she offers it to me, and she says, “the body of Christ,” and I don’t know what that means, but bodies are good, even if I hate mine, so I’m going to take and eat. And maybe come back next week. Amen.”

It felt like God was that friend - the one from our passage - who slammed the door on me when I asked for bread. 
And like a stubborn toddler who demands his mother’s attention, saying “Momma! Momma! Momma! Momma!” until Momma finally says, “WHAT!?!,” and then gives me the bread I asked for, I knocked so hard my knuckles bled. I sought so hard my eyes dried out and turned red and I used toothpicks to hold them open.  I asked until my voice was hoarse and my throat was dry and I needed a trache because I could hardly breathe.

And then I entered into a community that knocked for and with me.
I joined a family who sought God in honesty and vulnerability.
I joined in a chorus of voices - some silent, some rowdy and raucous, some quietly petitioning - asking and asking and asking.

Jesus teaches us to pray “Our Father.”

Not “My Father.” 

Maybe we have the words.  Maybe we don’t. 
Maybe we are experiencing the mountaintop high of conviction that God is real and directing our every move.  Or maybe we are so lost we don’t even know which end is up.  Maybe we’re just cruising along, numbly ambivalent.

We aren’t praying alone.  Even when we don’t think we’re praying at all. 

It’s “Give US this day OUR daily bread.” 
Not “Give ME this day MY daily bread.”

We ask God to forgive OUR sins, not just mine.

We ask that God not bring US into a time of trial - even if I feel like I am suffering from that time myself.

I’m not fed unless you are.
I’m not forgiven unless we all are.

And if I’m hungry, then you are too.
If you’re worn and weak and flailing on the ground, then I am too.

And if you’re praying along with the rest of the communion of saints, then somehow, I am too. Even if I’m not saying a word.  Even if I don’t believe or understand or claim one bit of it.

It’s vital that we pray this prayer in the first person plural.  We need the “we.”

And so, together, in the Lord’s Prayer, we cry out into the silence with the audacity of a child who forgets to say please and thank you. We just demand what we want. What we need.

It’s a bossy, audacious prayer.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we become one collective, demanding toddler.  We call out “Dadda,  Dadda! Dadda! Daaaaaaadddda!” Until we get a response.  
Give us! Forgive us! Lead us! Deliver us! 
We are really praying when we come before God as our authentic, broken, messed-up selves.  Not when we’ve got it all figured out, or when we are believing it right or when we feel particularly grateful or faithful or full.  Not even when we’ve convinced ourselves that we’ve finally “given our lives to Christ for real this time.”
Real prayer comes from when we are hungry, from when we don’t know how to pray, from when we are so smothered in clouds of desperation that we can’t fathom a way out. Prayer comes from our deepest need, our fullest brokenness. 

Slapping that snooze button was a prayer.
Weeping into my pillow was a prayer.
Lying numb and broken in my dorm room was a prayer.
Not jumping into Lake Macatawa was a prayer.
Sitting with my arms crossed and rolling my eyes during the services at Crossroads Chapel was a prayer.
Closing my eyes and letting the Spanish voices wash over me was a prayer.  
Opening my eyes to the day was a prayer.
And God’s response usually comes in the form of bread and juice, or collective prayers in foreign languages, or when someone looks you in the eye or remembers your name, or maybe when you get a little release from that tension you keep in between your eyes or between your ribs. It comes when you finally have the strength to kick Karl out of your dorm room, or at least ignore him, or put him in a  monogrammed pillow at the end of your bed where you can at least tell him to “sit,” “stay,” and “be quiet.”  God’s response comes through an eventual lifting of the fog.   

Lord, teach Us - all of us - together - to be real. To be honest. To be hungry. To need. To carry each other. To face the day. 

Lord, teach us to pray.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Plumb Lines. Time Outs. Fresh Bread.


Amos 7:7-17:

Colossians 1:1-14:

Isn’t this the quintessential Old Testament passage? Could we have two more different passages lined up together on a Sunday? For our first reading we have the Colossians passage praising the community for being so wonderful, and the Amos passage condemning the entire Israelite Nation for not measuring up.  This Amos passage is the kind of passage that is one of those proof-texts that folks - like Marcion - bring out to say that the Old Testament talks only about the wrathful God, and the New Testament talks about the loving God - as if there are two different Gods depicted in the Scriptures, and thus, we can dismiss the entire Old Testament.  It is “old” after all!   This is the kind of passage that we think of when we think of fundamentalism, or judgmentalism, or those giant overhead bins where we’ve put all of our painful religious baggage. I mean, where is the grace in all this condemnation?  In this passage, like a parent who has told her preschooler for the fifty-seventh time to “Get in bed!,” God has had it. God’s patience is shot. Israel has pillaged the land, oppressed the less-fortunate, ignored the widow and the orphan, and built temples and shrines to worship their accomplishments. God. Is. Done. 
And we hate that. As any kid who is being disciplined probably should.  We hate to be told that what we’re doing is wrong.  And as much as we want to wriggle out of this, we really can’t.  Oh, we try.  We only eat organic chicken, we donate money to the homeless shelter, we even go to church in the summertime.  Maybe we’ve even splurged to buy that hybrid vehicle, or we’re thinking about putting solar panels on our roof, and maybe even next year we’ll be so bold as to go to that prayer march in Homewood. We are constantly trying to measure up to that plumb line that God has set up for us.  But the reality is, even when we shop at farmer’s markets and put “Free Tibet” bumper stickers on our cars, we’re still buying oil from companies who pillage our oceans and dig up our neighbors’ back yards.  Even when I buy fair trade coffee and make sure I put out the recycling every other week and teach my son to say “please” and “thank you,” and to tell the neighbors “I’m sorry for peeing on your tree,” I am still typing this on a machine that was made by people across the world from me for questionable pay in questionable working conditions. 

Sure, I hang out with homeless people on my neatly isolated Tuesday and Thursdays, but I’m still quick to assume that the guy with the cardboard sign on the Birmingham Bridge is just going to use my money for alcohol or pot or crack. And don’t ask me to hug one of them, or give them a ride downtown - that’s just not safe! Plus, they probably have lice. 

No matter how hard we try, none of us measure up. We’re all walking a little crooked.  We’ve all built houses that are not quite plumb.

It’s strange that such an archaic tool is actually still used quite commonly today.  Bricks are still laid by hand, and this simple tool of a string with a weight on the bottom is used to make sure that the wall is straight, correctly upright, or “plumb.”  And if it’s not, you have to tear the whole darn thing down, and rebuild the wall from scratch.  

We don’t want to hear that God uses a plumb line.  I mean, after all, God was the one who created us - messy, messed-up, consuming, fleshy, human failures that we are.  God could have made us perfect. So if God expects perfection, then why didn’t God make us that way?  Like a preschooler who blames you for leaving the lid off of his sandbox and letting the rain get in, it’s easy for us to blame God for our imperfections. 
But what if God isn’t measuring for perfection, but measuring for humanity?  What if God’s demand for us is not “perfection” as we think of it, the kind of perfection that sends many of us in a depressive tailspin, or diving into our second pint of Ben and Jerry’s, but a kind of humanity that tears down crooked walls that divide and discriminate?  Walls that we’ve built out of our own insecurities.  Walls that keep me sitting alone at the coffee shop with ear phones in my ears, staring down at my phone, looking for human connection from a Facebook page, not thinking twice about my five dollar latte, while the homeless guy is busking with classical fugues on his violin half a block away.  

Walls that tell us that the only way to “measure” up in our world is to get a degree and be responsible.  Walls that keep people out because they do not believe the “right” things or profess the “right” faith.  Walls that say that if you smell, or you’re homeless, or overweight, or your kids have been taken away from you, or you’re bankrupt or you’ve flunked out of school that you’re a failure through and through?  
If we read this passage carefully, without rushing to put up our own walls of insecurity and pain from failed religious institutions and TV evangelists, we will see that it’s the institutions that God is condemning, as well as our complicity in supporting those institutions.  Amaziah himself has emphasized what Amos is prophesying against - “the king’s sanctuary,” “the temple of the kingdom.” The Israelites have lost perspective.  They’ve lost their purpose.  As God’s chosen people, they aren’t supposed to be protecting the king’s sanctuary, or the kingdom’s temple, but God’s sanctuary, and God’s kingdom.  

We don’t measure up, we’re walking limp and crooked, not because we aren’t good enough, but because we’ve put our hope and our trust in things that are not from God.  We’ve put our hope and our trust in our own perfection, our own institutions and their yard sticks and measuring tape, and we have forgotten our created, earthly, human, humanity.  

There’s a bakery on the Southside that I pass by often on my way to a favorite coffee shop.  When you look inside, the display windows are always decorated with streamers, pictures, and the plastic kitsch of the most recent or upcoming holiday.  In February, there were bright red cupids flying over heart doilies and red tablecloths.  In March, green leprechauns and four leaf clovers and pots of gold.  July 4th was celebrated with red white and blue streamers and American Flags. The window decorations are changed, religiously, every month.  But the thing is - try to open the door, and it’s locked.  The bakery is closed, and has been, for at least two years.  If you go there looking for fresh bread, or your Sunday doughnut, or a birthday cake with those giant red roses made of buttercream frosting, you’ll be sorely disappointed.  This is a bakery that decorates for Columbus Day and Halloween and April Fool’s, but doesn’t make fresh bread.  
Maybe this is the plumb line.  God doesn’t want decorative kitsch, a false, empty perfection of our own design.  God wants fresh bread. That’s why we celebrate communion.  If God wanted human perfection, we’d parade our diplomas or our bank statements or drive our cars around the sanctuary every month.  But instead, we break bread. (And maybe we should do it more often). We say, “This is Christ’s body, broken for us.”  We say that this simple cup of juice is “Christ’s blood, shed for us.” Because it’s not our deeds, our work, our achievements, our kingdoms that make us plumb.  No matter how hard we try, we’re never going to measure up.  

And yet, we never stop trying, do we?  Like Israel, we still put our hope and our faith in structures that we have built ourselves.  And, like a good parent, God lets us try.  God says, “Ok, if you insist on measuring yourselves by these expectations and demands, try it, and see what happens.  But be ready for the consequences.”  And like a parent whose child is so exhausted from the effort that he is irrational, screaming, hyperventilating, kicking and wailing on the floor, God will put us in a Time Out.  We’ll feel like we’re in exile.  

We’ll feel disoriented and lost because the place that we’ve been calling “home” is not God’s home - our real home.  The place where we think we ought to be is not the place God wants us.  We want to make our home in the sanctuaries and temples of our own perfection, in court systems and libraries and cathedrals of learning, but God wants us to be at home in our humanity.  We want to decorate ourselves with designer clothes, community service awards, high credit and GRE scores, dollar store cupids and leprechauns and plastic tablecloths. But God wants to feed us with fresh bread. 
Bread is where the Grace is.  The Body and Blood of Christ is where the nourishment is.  That’s why we have the Colossians passage here.  If you listen to the language to people of Colossae, you don’t hear the language of measurement, perfection, discipline, accomplishment, or success.  You hear about growth.  You hear about bearing fruit. You hear the messy language of love and prayer, thankfulness and patience and light.  

You hear earthly, organic language.  This is God’s plumb line.  The plumb line of Jesus Christ, who embodied in his flesh and his blood the very Godly-ness of God. Set a human plumb line up to a tree or a tangle of vines or the waves of the ocean or a ray of sunshine or a loaf of bread, and they will never pass the test. Set it up against the cross of Christ, and it will seem like utter foolishness.  

But set the plumb line of the messy, vulnerable life of Christ against our pride, our accomplishments, our demands for each other, and we, too, will never pass the test.  God’ll put us in time out. Not to punish us for the sake of appeasing God’s bloodthirsty wrath, but to reorient us back to what really matters.  God will set the reset button. God will demand that we repent - to, literally, turn back to what is real, what is true, to what matters, to what is human.

  Eventually, God’s gonna tear down all those things that don’t measure up.  This sounds terrifying, because we think we’ve made our home in these things.  But let’s try to remember what that plumb line is - it’s the earthy, human, loving, messy, vulnerable life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The one in whom we put our hope and trust - because we know, deep down, that Christ is the only hope for those of us who get so distracted by the sanctuaries and temples that we have built for ourselves that we feel lost, hopeless, and even in exile. Can we be reoriented back to God’s plumb line - the measurement that is revealed through Christ?  The one who hung out with sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors and wandered through grain fields and made himself into the bread of life?  The one who condemned the temples and sanctuaries of the kings, the powerful elite, those who thought they had it all together?  
A farmer doesn’t plow his fields because he hates barren stalks of grain.  A farmer harrows the ground because he is preparing to plant something new.  And God doesn’t tear down buildings or send people into exile because it is somehow God’s nature to tear and destroy and exile.  God reaps so that something new can be sown.  God plants new wheat so we can bake and eat and share fresh bread.  
We don’t have it all together.  But thank God that’s not what God is setting the plumb line against.  God wants to mold us to be more human, to be the way we were created to be.  God wants to nourish us with fresh bread, and calls us to nourish each other with the same.  May this be so.

Thanks be to God.