relationship and mission: a marriage made in eden

•May 17, 2010 • 1 Comment

“People enter community in order to grow in inner freedom, then to give it to others; to radiate it, to offer good news to others.” Jean Vanier, Founder of L’Arche

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I’m stepping away from the New Exodus book I’m writing to focus a series of blogs on relationship, on community, on the kind of people God calls us to be in order to become the kind of people the world needs.

It’s tough to say what came first – the chicken or the egg.  Relationship or mission?  Can we engage in God’s mission without community?  Can we be a community without a mission?

It’s not a matter of priority.  For those who champion relationship, manifesting in authentic and vulnerable community, there is plenty of biblical fodder for you.  But there is also plenty of fodder for those who say that God’s heart is for mission, for the world, for kingdom.  It’s a false dilemma.

What we have is a God who existed forever and ever in Trinitarian relationship.  God has existed eternally in relationship, in what the early church called periochoresis, a kind of divine dance of Love.  But this divine dance continually consummated in divine self-giving.  In other words, relationship always culminated in self-sacrifice. And self-sacrifice always fostered intimacy, vulnerability, union.

In the beginning, God created humanity in relationship.  It is not good for man to be alone. And so God marked male and female with His image.  But, before God could take another breath, humans were tasked with a purpose, with work, with cultural cultivation and image multiplication.  Relationship and Mission were created, hand in hand.  It was not good for either one to be alone.

I’ve participated in communities which have emphasized each.  I’ve been in a therapeutic community with men and women who share vulnerably.  I have been floored by the courage of these people – the honesty that transcends openness and moves into vulnerability, into dependence.  I’ve also been in a missional community with men and women who give self-sacrificially.  I have been floored by the sacrifice of these people – the active and intentional life of service for the sake of others.  I have also been among both of these communities when they have mocked the other.

Consider these caricatures:

“Those therapeutic folks don’t get mission.  They navel-gaze.  They cry and whine and never get the big Kingdom picture of what God is up to.”


“Those missional folks are all about doing and never about being or feeling.  They act, probably out of guilt, and never enjoy intimacy with God or others.”

Seeing this, I’m reminded again that when God is at work, both relationship and mission are happening.  Simultaneously.  Seamlessly.

In this series, I am going to focus on relationship.  But I do this without wanting to minimize or de-prioritize mission.  I believe that God created us for a eucharistic life, a pattern of being taken, blessed, broken, and given.  I believe that Jesus invited us into a life of blessing characterized in the Beatitudes, which open with an invitation to brokenness, lament, hunger and thirst, but which quickly transitions into mercy, peacemaking, and self-sacrifice, even in persecution.  And Greek scholars will tell you that St. Paul will rarely divorce indicative and imperative, being and doing.  It’s a marriage made in Eden.  Relationship and mission.

But I live in an urban culture where men and women live active lives, busy lives, doing lives. And my desire is to cast a vision for something more, a divine union between being and doing, between intimacy and activity, between relationship and mission.  In the past weeks, I’ve been reminded that San Francisco is perhaps the most post-Christian city in the United States, and that intimacy and relationship is exchanged often for busyness, for efficiency, for sexual gratification, for social action, for a life lived for the approval we all so desperately long for but rarely find in a paycheck or a sexual experience.

For the mission of God to thrive in a city like San Francisco, a community must know what it means to dance like the Trinity, in love and intimacy and vulnerability and self-sacrifice.  Perhaps you experience the same condition where you are.  If so, let’s journey together, and explore the invitation to community, to intimacy, to relationship…the kinds of things which ultimately fuel mission.

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The love that casts out wilderness fear

•April 11, 2010 • 7 Comments

There is a desire within each of us, in the deep center of ourselves that we call our heart.  We were born with it, it is never completely satisfied, and it never dies.  It is the human desire for love.  Our true identity…is found in this desire. Gerald May, The Awakened Heart

Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 1 John 4:18

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There is a journey we all must take, up from Egypt, to the foothills of Sinai, through the wilderness, and into the promised rest.  It’s the New Exodus journey.  And it’s a cyclical journey.  Just ask the person who has felt that deluge of spiritual satisfaction only to wake up the next day bound by yet a new level of inner chainery.  It is in this moment, in particular, that we doubt God’s love, double-up on our layers of self-protection, and re-commit to our old friends – cynicism, despair, hopelessness, and perhaps worst of all – apathy.

A friend once told me that the polar counterpart of love is apathy.  I had always believed it to be hatred.  But, after some soul-searching and even some biblical exploration, I couldn’t help but agree.  The Bible doesn’t call it apathy, however.  The biblical idea is conveyed in the word ‘hardness.’  The hard heart is the loveless heart, the heart that has abandoned love in favor of fear, the heart that has chosen a safer Lover than the wild, risky, and demanding God we worship.  Psalm 95 tells the story of those who failed to complete the wilderness journey because of their fear:

Today, if you hear his voice,

8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the desert,

9 where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did.

10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.”

11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
“They shall never enter my rest.”

The final words convey something profound about the human heart.  Not entering into God’s rest destines us to a life of restlessness, a life of placing our heart’s fulfillment in cheap substitutes.  This restlessness manifests in a hardened heart, a heart incapable of love, unable to be vulnerable.  And C.S. Lewis warned us of this when in The Four Loves he said

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

You see, St. John was right.  Perfect love casts out wilderness fear. And it’s Love that will get us Home.  Yet, love is scary, risky, and vulnerable.  It is the very thing we want desperately.  And it is the very thing we run for our lives to avoid.

I’m a card-carrying love-avoider.  I understand why C.S. Lewis spent a better part of his life unmarried.  And I also understand why, after taking a risk and falling in love, he berated God for playing a cruel joke on him after his wife Joy died.  Marital love brings you as close to heavenly intimacy as you’ll find on this earth.  It’s the prime image and metaphor for divine and human love throughout the Bible.  It’s the cat and mouse game of Song of Songs, which for many became the central text on love’s heartache throughout church history.  Pat Benatar got it right in her 1983 love lament, a song that messed with me as a 13-year old romantic.  “Love is a Battlefield,” she wrote, and it rocked my young and lovestruck heart.  Now 16 years into marriage, I can understand.  Vulnerability is difficult.  I’d rather wrap my heart around an old Egyptian flame, a more sure and certain lover than this Divine Heartbreaker.

And then there is the simple young disciple, the one Jesus loved, who writes something that makes the learned theologian laugh – God is Love. We don’t consult John for good theological advice.  For that, we go to St. Paul.  Paul seems to have been born with the dogmatic gene.  St. John, we suspect, would hardly know what to do with the lofty definition of God in the Westminster Confession of Faith – “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”  There is not a whole lot of Love to be found in this version of God.  Simple St. John should have left the theologizing to his later English and Scottish brethren.

And yet, the disciple who was likely a boy when Jesus was crucified knew something of Love.  “Perfect loves casts out all fear,” he wrote.  Again, it’s not likely to make a theological text.  But perhaps he gets the human heart.  Fear ruled the hardened hearts of wilderness worriers.  But Love would get them Home.

Vulnerable Love.

Risky Love.

Gerald May writes, “There is a desire within each of us, in the deep center of ourselves that we call our heart.  We were born with it, it is never completely satisfied, and it never dies.  It is the human desire for love.  Our true identity…is found in this desire.”  The image of God, though shattered by the Fall, did not suffer a permanent loss of desire.  And deep within we yearn for Love.  We replace Love with substitutes – bad relationships, addictions to work and porn and food, and perhaps even the need for certainty.  Yes, some of us still believe Certainty casts out all fear.  But God’s corrective is this:

Love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, and strength.

I’m scared to love.  My prayer is this:  God, love the fear out of me.

The Tomb becomes a Womb

•March 5, 2010 • 3 Comments

“The good news is an annunciation.  And the annunciation to Mary was no the imparting of information, or the planting of an idea.  By the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, she became pregnant!  Christ within us by the power of the Spirit is not an idea but a presence even more enfleshed and intimate than a baby in the womb.  Jesus, in all the fullness of his ascended glory and in all the living vitality of his undiminished humanity, is fused and united with each one of us.”  Martin Smith, A Season for the Spirit

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Once upon a time, Israel woke up to find herself enslaved among a once-friendly people.  The hospitable terrain of Goshen where she had blossomed had become inhospitable and unfriendly.  A womb had become a tomb, unsustainable for life.

Passing through the waters, Israel was (re)birthed into a frightening wilderness world, where God would take her to be His own and bring about a beauty attractive to the whole world (Ezekiel 16).  He promised to be with her, but would not take up residence within her until the inauguration of a New Exodus in Jesus.

And now we can say not merely that God is with us, but that He is within us, bringing forth a beauty that will be attractive to a watching world.  How extraordinary.

I was introducing a candidate for ministry several years ago among a group of Calvinist pastors.  When I introduced a young guy I had gotten to know, I said, “Josh is a good man.”  Very quickly, a typically outspoken pastor leaped up from his seat and said, “Can we say that any man is good?”  This pastor’s brand of Calvinism reminds me of the words of an old elder at my childhood church who’d often say to me, “Don’t forget Chuck, there are none righteous, no not one.”

But this kind of wormology misses the reality that God takes up residence in human beings.  It points continually to our screw-ups and ignores the unfathomable reality that in Christ, we are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).  It’s actual.  It’s present.  It’s the re-Edening of your once-inhospitable soul.  The tomb becomes a womb, bursting with life.  And this mysterious growing reality within causes us to say, “It is longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!” (Gal. 2:19).

What’s more, this means that you can relax.  Attempts at cosmetic spirituality can be dropped.  External rituals can be stopped.  What defines you is within.  Martin Smith writes, “Unless we come to acknowledge and believe in this true center, we will continue to imagine that our public personalities or our image of ourselves is the whole truth of who we are.”  Our false selves can begin to wither and die.  Our cheap imitations of spiritual heroes can give way to authentic and unique expressions of God’s image-bearing art in each extraordinary soul.  Death to life metanoia takes place, and the Self among the competing selves breaks free.

Yes, while it’s true that our biggest problem is not ‘out there’ but inside of us, it’s also true that our greatest glory is not ‘out there’ but within.  This isn’t New Age pop psychology, but it is why so many have turned to alternative spiritualities and away from faith.  Recently, I heard a pastor make a cynical comment about Disney-theology, saying, “It’s a humanistic lie that teaches our kids that all they need is within them.”  That is, unless you really believe that God dwells within by a Spirit committed to seeing human beings becomes the royal vice-regents of creation that they were intended to be.  If that’s not true, then the Gospel isn’t good news and we are merely worms.

In my Calvinistic tradition, we’ve focused so much on the ‘objective’ work of Jesus that we’ve forgotten a remarkable and extraordinary ‘subjective’ reality – that God really does come near.  If our bodies are really living temples (1 Cor. 6:19-20), then the Spirit has come in to clean house, to offer rest to our exhausted inner Pharisees, to proclaim peace to our angry inner Zealots, and to invite back into the family our exiled inner Essenes.  Ancient Christians called this inner union theosis, a participation in the life of Jesus in a real, experiential, and transformative way.

Hindu’s are known to greet one another by saying, “Namaste.”  I greet the god within you.

How would it change our sense of self, our relationships, and even our churches if we really believed that God has already taken up residence within us?  It might be that our exhausted souls would rest knowing that God has already gotten to work within us in ways that spiritual techniques cannot.  It might grow within us a sense of dignity, allowing us to greet others with dignity, and expanding our sense of mission as we recognize that God’s heart is to see life inhabit dead places.  This isn’t some Disney fairy tale.  It’s a story of a God who takes up residence, making the tomb a womb where life can grow and develop.

Namaste, in the name of Jesus.

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Think about your sense of self.  Do you see anything good?  Are you plagued with shame or self-criticism?  How does knowing that God dwells within you by the Spirit change that?

What parts of you (or what voices inside of you) contest this reality?  What do they say?  Why are they afraid of letting God take up residence?

This week, create a quiet few moments where you can rest, breathe, and breathe in this Spirit of life.  Can you feel the Spirit filling empty places?  Can you feel the Spirit blowing away places within that feel congested, cluttered, or clamoring?

We continue to crawl along, ever reaching…

•February 14, 2010 • 3 Comments

Let me introduce you to a therapist named John Calvin.  Get ready – this Reformation icon is about to tell you that you can relax – that we’re all plagued with divided hearts and in need of integrity, but that much of the time we’re barely crawling along toward progress.  Listen:

I insist not that the life of the Christian shall breathe nothing but the perfect Gospel, though this is to be desired, and ought to be attempted. I insist not so strictly on evangelical perfection, as to refuse to acknowledge as a Christian any man who has not attained it. In this way all would be excluded from the Church, since there is no man who is not far removed from this perfection, while many, who have made but little progress, would be undeservedly rejected. What then? Let us set this before our eye as the end at which we ought constantly to aim. Let it be regarded as the goal towards which we are to run. For you cannot divide the matter with God, undertaking part of what his word enjoins, and omitting part at pleasure. For, in the first place, God uniformly recommends integrity as the principal part of his worship, meaning by integrity real singleness of mind, devoid of gloss and fiction, and to this is opposed a double mind; as if it had been said, that the spiritual commencement of a good life is when the internal affections are sincerely devoted to God, in the cultivation of holiness and justice. But seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating, and halting, and even crawling on the ground, they make little progress, let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress. This, therefore, let us never cease to do, that we may daily advance in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the slender measure of success. How little soever the success may correspond with our wish, our labour is not lost when to-day is better than yesterday, provided with true singleness of mind we keep our aim, and aspire to the goal, not speaking flattering things to ourselves, nor indulging our vices, but making it our constant endeavour to become better, until we attain to goodness itself. If during the whole course of our life we seek and follow, we shall at length attain it, when relieved from the infirmity of flesh we are admitted to full fellowship with God. –  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

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I used to read this great quote to my Master of Divinity students in a Christian spirituality course I taught at a seminary.  Seminary students are some of the most tightly wound, internally tormented people around.  They can never do enough to please Jesus.  Most of the time for these students, a Calvin quote brought to mind how inadequate their theology was, or how tough it would be to pass an ordination exam.  It was always a comfort to them to hear from the pen of Calvin, himself, that progress on the road to the New Eden is hard, really hard…like crawling…

It’s at this point on the New Exodus road that we’re all expecting the grand finale – the tips for emerging from the wilderness unscathed, the principles for living continually close to the heart of Jesus.  But I’m about to tell you a secret.

There is no secret.  No secret message.  No secret recipe.  No hidden prayer tucked away in a remote portion of Scripture.  No 7 steps.  In fact, Calvin’s message is that a real and accurate assessment of yourself might actually be the freedom you need to get Home.

The poet Robert Browning once wrote: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/or what’s a heaven for?”

Most of our lives, if we’d admit it, are a grasping.  Whether our grasp extends to wealth or reputation, transcendence in a bottle or in sex, we’re all in the business of grasping.  Calvin’s point is this:  the grasping leads to futility, and futility is an opportunity for us to recognize the truth – that we’re a mess, and that even the best attempt to grasp control will end in even more futility.

Craig Barnes says it well:  “The way of the Cross never takes us away from the limitations and hunger that are characteristic of all humanity.  It simply leads us back to the world with the strange message that our limited humanity is the mark of our need for God.  It is enough.  It is a great reason for hope.”

Our wilderness leads to dependence.  It humbles us.  It doesn’t make us super-saints.  It doesn’t make us spiritual giants.  Emerging from the wilderness, we’re not marked by halos.  We’re marked by a thorn in our side, a limp, a weakness that is a testimony to Christ’s strength.

I spent the better portion of my days after seminary trying to achieve sainthood.  I had discovered the mystics during a summer in England, and was hooked.  I am still hooked.  I was especially drawn into contemplative spirituality.  It seemed as if the Carmelite mystics like St. John and St. Teresa, or the mysterious unknown author of the Cloud of Unknowing, or Brother Lawrence lived in perpetual ‘mystic sweet communion.’  And so I tried to grasp this communion, too.  I walked labyrinths and lit candles and created quiet spaces, and did my best to manufacture the mystical.

But “union” doesn’t come in a bottle.

I’ve quoted this from C.S. Lewis before, but it bears repeating: “All joy emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire.  Our best havings are wantings.”  Spiritual union and communion, itself, will disappoint.  Our best havings are wantings, our best graspings will be mere reachings.  And each will bring a kind of grief.

I’m not a spiritual giant, yet.

Good for you.  Neither am I.  Welcome to the way of Jesus.  And as Calvin said, “Let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him.”  We continue to crawl along, ever reaching…

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How have you tried to “grasp” spirituality?  What books, programs, rituals, or principles have you tried to use to manufacture spiritual union and communion?

Re-read Browning’s quote.  What is this “reaching” he speaks of?

How do you relate to my own journey?

The life of the Spirit in the chaos of our day

•February 2, 2010 • 5 Comments

“As soon as we feel at home in our own house, discover the dark corners as well as the light spots, the closed doors as well as the drafty rooms, our confusion will evaporate, our anxiety will diminish, and we will become capable of creative work.” — Henri J.M. Nouwen

“We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves.” – Thomas Merton

“As soon as we are alone, inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distraction manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.”  – Henri Nouwen

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As I travelled on the light rail this morning re-enacting my everyday commute-liturgy, I felt a familiar feeling.  My iPhone beckoned with its perpetual morning whisper: Come to me, you who are weary and heavy-ladened, and I will increase your burden. My mind clasped onto its first priority – mastering the content of a lecture I needed to give on cultural engagement for our first class for the Newbigin Seminary Project.  Behind the tension was another voice.  Don’t screw up.  You can’t screw up.  We’re getting a seminary started, and good first impressions matter. My cell phone buzzed.  A call from Sara, my wife.  She has been ill for 3 days, yet pushing through it because I couldn’t miss my weekend Newbigin event and this important class.  Another voice:  You’re a bad husband for not bailing her out. Still another voice:  She ought to suck it up and get over this illness.

A sense of constriction pervaded my body and mind.  There was absolutely no room for Jesus in this cacophony of inner voices.  Some might say, “Just read a little Scripture,” or “Do the Daily Office.”  I’ve already thought of this.  One of those inner voices has reminded me, perhaps guilted me, into thinking that if only I’d more faithfully practice this discipline, I’d be free from the inner chaos I’m feeling.

The problem – there is no space inside for the words of Scripture or the Daily Office to land.  My inner room is cluttered.  It is at this moment, as Merton says, that “we must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves.” Yet, choice begins with desire…a longing for space, an inner freedom.

A deeper voice within called Spirit says, “Relax.”  I close my eyes.  No one on the train has a clue what’s happening inside.  I breathe in.  A rush of air enters my lungs, filling them with air, but not merely air.  N.T. Wright explains:

In Genesis 2:7, it is said that God breathed into human nostrils the breath of life, so that Adam became a living being.  There is a strange truth here which we do not usually grasp.  If we even think about the act of breathing, we probably regard it as a purely “natural” or “scientific” phenomenon. Genesis regards it as part of the gift, to humans, of God’s own life.  Breathing sets up a rhythm that quietly gets on with the job of enlivening and energizing us.

As my lungs expand, a spaciousness ensues.  A divine de-cluttering is underway.  I begin to feel centered, aware, in the moment, awake.

The need to attend to my responsibilities does not go away.  I am still giving a lecture.  I must still respond to my emails.  I must wrestle with my responsibility to Sara.  But…a space is growing within from which I can do these things, all of these things, with greater creativity and love.  Somehow, the space which opens invites selflessness – that rare quality which moves me to begin to pray for Sara, for the participants in the seminary course, for the blank-faced commuters around me, for the coming of the Kingdom in and through real participation in the divine life of Christ.

From this place, my work becomes a joy, not a compulsion.  I am freed to live in the present.  The voices that demanded my attention retreat to the background.  Somehow, they seem content, as well.  They seem to trust that from this new and more spacious place I might even be more productive in my work and relationships.

I step off the light rail and into the rest of my day, breathing deeply of a life that only the Spirit can give.

From the wilderness to the promised land: The recovery of Dependence and Desire

•January 18, 2010 • 2 Comments

The whole life of a good Christian is a holy desire.”  St. Augustine

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” C.S. Lewis

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Stumbling through the dark wilderness, there are moments when all hope feels lost, when Egypt’s old securities beckon our weary hearts, when the promise of new life and a new land feel like a tease.

But there are moments, every so often, when light seems to break through into the darkness, when hope awakens and a desire for more returns.  We recognize that though we’ve tried to find security and satisfaction in substitute gods at every turn, real life begins as we extend our heart forward into the great unknown, re-kindling our longing for something more, however illusive it may be.  The German theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), put it this way:

The soul must long for God in order to be set aflame by God’s love; but if the soul cannot yet feel this longing, then it must long for the longing. To long for the longing is also from God.

Now, truth be told, a thousand things have happened in our lives to convince us that a desire for something more is futile.  The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “Meaningless, meaningless, life is like a chasing after the wind.  Everything is futile.”  He looked for life in good things – work and love, religion and relationship – but in his pursuit he sought to possess. And in attempting to possess the good things God made him to enjoy, he became enslaved by them.

Futility characterizes life in the wilderness.  Futility describes our desperate attempt to speed up the journey through the wilderness.  It never works.  But we keep trying.

But it feels like one big setup, right?  Think about it.  If this is true, God actually expects us to experience life as futile.


In this New Exodus series, we’ve explored the many ways in which we cope with the insecurities and difficulties of life, particularly life in between Egypt and the Promised Land.  Indeed, our heart divides and conquers, seeking control by establishing elaborate inner mechanisms to regulate and manage our worlds.  Though God leads us down a wilderness road with the intention of fostering dependence and deepened Desire for Him, we resist at all costs, seeking instead to duplicate our Egypt-born control strategies at every stage of the journey.

We do everything we can to prevent ourselves from having to confess the obvious – that we are needy and desperate little children, longing for love but finding it in all the wrong places, hungry for the real satisfaction that comes only as we relax and trust.  We resist the first gift of futility – dependence.  We resist, as well, a second gift of futility – Desire.  For it is as we wait and trust, long and desire, that God satisfies us in a way that our wilderness substitutes cannot possibly satisfy us.

The late psychiatrist and spiritual writer, Gerald May, talks about how our substitute lovers (our addictions) suck the energy of desire.  He writes:

“Psychologically, addiction uses up desire.  It is like a psychic malignancy sucking our life energy into specific obsessions and compulsions, leaving less and less energy available for other people and other pursuits.”

When we renounce a life lived out of Desire for a life of manageable security-strategies, we actually find the energy we have for love of God and others used up, expended, and ultimately wasted.  May continues, however, arguing that our psychological strategies lead to spiritual catastrophe:

“Spiritually, addiction is a deep-seated form of idolatry.  The objects of our addictions become our false gods.  These are what we worship, what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love.  Addiction, then, displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire.  It is, as one modern spiritual writer has called it, a ‘counterfeit of religious presence.’”

Though parts of us want to manage life, securing reputation and financial stability, optimism and efficiency, the deepest core (where the Spirit resides) within longs for more.  It recognizes a deep truth – that though we’re called to live faithfully, as good stewards of our time, possessions, and relationships – this urge towards faithful responsibility must never dupe us into thinking that we’re in control of our lives.  The life and mission God calls us to is much, much bigger than us.  In his fantastic short work – The Bible and Mission – Richard Bauckham echoes this, saying, “The church is never far from the insignificance of Jesus and his band of unimpressive followers.  It is always setting out from the particular in the direction of God’s incalculable gift of everything.”

Throughout my life, I’ve noticed that the times when I feel most drained and lifeless are the times when I’m expending a lot of energy on managing my life impeccably.  In these times, I find myself addicted to security, to people’s approval, to extreme control of my schedule so that unpredictable things cannot happen, to cycles of drinking caffeine and alcohol to regulate my moods, to sexual satisfaction on my terms, to reading as much as I can to manage people’s impressions of my intelligence, and much more.  Good in and of themselves, these things become addictions and idols as they suck energy, and demand even more fuel.  When I attempt to possess and control, my life actually becomes less controllable, less manageable, less satisfying.  And I find myself back in the same place…

…on my knees.

This is the only path to the Promised Land.

…on my knees….

This is the narrow way.

…on my knees…

This is the way of Dependence and Desire.

The great saint and mystic – St. John of the Cross – used a Spanish word that characterizes this dynamic.



Can’t find it here.  Can’t find it there.  Can’t put God in a box.  Can’t find hope in a bottle.

The search for the eternal buzz is futile.


We become more free as we become more dependent, as a deeper Desire stirs for more, as our wilderness attempts at control and satisfaction only lead to more nada.

In a way too mysterious for words, this is where God shows up.

In the mystery of Dependence and Desire, God actually fills us in the way we hoped we could fulfill ourselves.

We call this Union.

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– Have you experienced moments in your life when the attempt to find satisfaction on your own terms fails?  In these times, do you attempt to regain control or to relax your grip on control a bit?

– Some time ago, I counseled a couple who took a honeymoon to the Caribbean.  They came home, and told me they felt like God was calling them to move to the Caribbean.  I told them that it was no doubt glorious, but their desire to move back was an attempt to bottle up a temporary experience of joy, and that it would ultimately betray them if they sought to possess it.  Have you had an experience like this?

Shadows and Realities: How God Wants Us Whole

•January 5, 2010 • 5 Comments

By faithfulness we are collected and wound up into unity within ourselves, whereas we had been scattered abroad in multiplicity. (St. Augustine)

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I used to think that spiritual progress looked like a straight line, aiming upward and onward, reaching toward a state of perpetual contentedness.

But then, life happened.

We’ve talked about the division within ourselves, and on those parts that are not often easy to face.  We’ve talked about the big bag we carry behind us, filled with parts of ourselves that no friend, nor Savior, could ever look upon (…or so we think.)  We’d rather not look at those parts, either.  Like a dark shadow, however, they seem to follow us.  And when the light shines, these shadow parts are particularly visible, haunting us with the memories of evil thoughts and cruel intentions.  Many of us, including me, would rather live in a fantasy where this shadow does not exist, where our quiet times and noble moments out-shine the shadow.

But then, life happens…

We see ourselves playing out a scene that we vowed would never happen again – a binge and purge episode, or a night of pornographic indulgence, or a bath in corporate greed, or an episode of self-righteous contempt upon our spouse.  And we see ourselves as the divided self we are – desiring faithfulness, but living conflicted lives.

How do we achieve what St. Augustine ponders upon?  How do we experience a unity amidst the inner divisions and utter contradictions that our lives present?

It is interesting to me that St. Paul defines unity with Jesus in the context of participation in both His death and His resurrection, in suffering and in Spirit.  The shadow has a place in God’s economy.  Maturity requires a descent into the furnace of struggle.  It does not come through a naive refusal to acknowledge our darkness, but emerges through the deliberate work of self-examination.  As we peer beneath the surface, we see darkness greater than our capacity to fathom.  And we find ourselves at the place of our deepest need, yearning to dive into the fearsome chaos waters in order to emerge cleansed, participants in the death and life of Christ Himself.

While we’d prefer a kind of unity with Christ that emphasizes the power of resurrection, the reality is that a fellowship in His sufferings can be a great encouragement, too.  It was Jesus who announced His Kingdom as the domain of the broken, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the mourner, the persecuted, and the prostitute.  It was Jesus, seeing how the Essenes, Pharisees, and Zealots had shaped the Abrahamic faith, who re-wrote the books and re-drew the lines, drawing in the shadow-members of the community.  Pretenders who acted as if the shadow didn’t exist would find themselves marginalized now, condemned under the very system they had erected, but saved if they could courageously admit the plank in their eyes.

Truth is, God didn’t send Jesus to save half of us.  He wants us whole, and saves all of us…those parts of us we present to the world, and those parts that we’d rather others not see, both the Elder Brother and the Prodigal Son.  Disowning the shadow amounts to discounting our need – our need for one another, and our need for a Savior.  We might as well say to God, “There are some burdens too scary to admit, and too great to be healed.  I’d prefer to carry this one myself.”  The world is full of strategies for fixing ourselves.  We’re a self-help culture with bookshelves filled with self-help wisdom as old as the Greek philosophers.  Yet, St. Augustine says, “I have read in Plato and Cicero sayings that are wise and very beautiful; but I have never read in either of them: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.”

It is in choosing the wilderness that God is able to be who He is – Savior – and deliver us up into the Promised Land.

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What are parts of your self and your story that you’d prefer to edit out?

Imagine that these shadow parts of you are like little ‘selves’, exiles quarantined to a distant country yet in need a Savior to lead them Home.  Pick one exiled part of yourself.  Imagine having a conversation with it.  What are its fears?  What burden is it carrying?  How does it need Jesus?