confronting my brokenness in lent...

In an insightful and spiritually penetrating book, The Paradox of Disability: Responses to Jean Vanier and L'Arche Communities, the founder of L'Arche writes:  "... it is only when we touch the powers of destruction within us and begin to accept that they are there, but do not let ourselves be controlled or governed by them, that we can truly understand and accept others in their anguish - and then help them to grow." This is my challenge as Lent 2017 starts to settle in to my soul.

Using the insight of St. Paul that "God has chosen what is weak and foolish in the eyes of the world" to lead us into the embodied wisdom of the Cross through the community Christ creates, Vanier is clear: living and embracing our brokenness in solidarity with other wounded people is the way Jesus transforms and heals us.  Our selfishness is challenged. Our fears are exposed. Our addiction to violence becomes tangible. And our need for God's love becomes palpable. In one of the book's essays, "Seeing Peace: L'Arche as a Peace Movement," Stanley Hauerwas tells of Vanier's encounter with Lucien, a profoundly disabled adult who was unable to speak or walk. When Lucien entered La Forestiere, a community of care, "his constant screaming continued and nothing seemed to work to calm him. Vanier confesses that Lucien's screams pierced the very core of his being, forcing to recognize that he would be willing to hurt Lucien to keep him quiet."

Vanier had to realize that he, someone who thought he had been called share his life with the weak, had in his heart the capacity to hate a weak person... as we face the mystery of pain, we confront the violence we harbor in our hearts, violence created by a world we cannot force to conform to our desires... and the only thing that matters (in the face of this violence) is that we be truthful; that we do not let ourselves be governed by lies and by illusion.
                                                                              Hauerwas, pp. 118-9

As in all spiritual deepening, humility and honesty are most often born of humiliation - facing, confronting, owning and surrendering the brokenness of our human reality - and this has become the core of my Lenten journey this year. Two truths keep rising to the surface within me, calling out to be embrace even as I hate them. As Vanier puts in in his paraphrase of Jung: most of us like to honor the call from Jesus to love the poor, wounded, frightened and alone as long as they remain "out there" - beyond us - the other. We're not so good at sharing this love within our own wounds. Yet without the honesty, patience and tenderness to love ourselves as our neighbor, our compassion remains incomplete and even fractured. 

+ First, I know a frustration that holds the potential to become a simmering anger. Whenever people waste my time, I come face-to-face with my life-long demon. Currently it rears its head whenever sloppy planning, binary thinking or wishy-washy words are spoken about living into radical trust. I can feel my blood start to boil whenever I bump into this fuzzy, extra-curricular approach to Christian community that so often carries the day. Deep in my soul, I know that this feeling is calling me to quit my obsession with judgment. Most of my life, I have tried to compensate for my insecurities by reading more than most, learning deeper than the status quo, and becoming the expert in my field. 

But this is only partially about my own emptiness and fears; I know descending into frustration doesn't advance the cause of Christ. It is also about owning the ways I have enabled the Christian minimalism I despise over the years. My emphasis in ministry over 35 years has centered on encouraging others to take small steps into discipleship. There is a place for authentic patience but I suspect that too often I have fostered more sloppy agape and cheap grace than Christian commitment. It feels as if I have not done my part in helping privileged people (like myself) repent our status quo of greed, violence and dishonest adoration of country. Walter Brueggemann is spot on when he writes...
Much of my current angst flows from this sense that much of my ministry has been too little, too late. I confess that a strategy for ministry first articulated by Eugene Peterson, one of working quietly and clandestinely to subvert popular culture, hasn't really worked. It isn't honest. It doesn't help anyone count the cost of following the Cross. Yes, it may have preserved my pension, but not a whole lot more. So, as I slowly exit this type of ministry and search for new directions I carry some shame about this failure. That's why it can be ignited into the flame of anger whenever watered-down and culturally addicted faith is confused for the upside-down wisdom of the Jesus. One of the Lenten truths being revealed to me this year has to do with owning my own shallow witness - especially as a pastor. I'm ok with most one-on-one connections, but have not been able to crack the nut of equipping more than a few people for radical compassion.

+ The other humbling truth I am bumping up against is the loss of energy for confronting bourgeois religion. I have simply run out of gas when it comes to challenging those who aggressively insist on confusing their business models for the ethical commitments of Christian community. Top down administration is NOT the way of Jesus who always listened first and found a way forward in mutual respect. Trying to squeeze the rule of bureaucracy into the Body of Christ violates trust and respect in the body. Always entering a conflict in community with the assumption that the other is trying to rip you off - or get something for nothing - or simply shirk his or her responsibility is clearly one time-tested approach to human relations - but I hate it.

To be fair, I've tried to be a hard ass manager/administrator who kicks butt with complicated and trying people. I've tried it and given it up, too. Not only does it foul the environment for ministry, it violates the love of Christ we are called to make flesh in our generation. It denigrates the weak among us and denies us the chance to learn what the foolishness of the Cross has to offer. In times past, In times past I have been up for this challenge and taken it on with vigor. But not any more. My engagement with this aspect of church is over: like St. Lou Reed said, "Stick a fork in it, its done!" I have come to see, in ways that are humbling and even sad to me, that I no longer have the strength to fight this fight. I've been worn down and worn out by bourgeois religion. My movement into semi-retirement is a small acceptance of this truth.

For me at this late stage of doing ministry, Jean Vanier's first and only question for the church is simple: Do you love me?  Do you love one another? Do you love Jesus?  None of us get this love completely correct all the time. We are all broken and ache for the grace born of honest confession and forgiveness. But our brokenness need not only serve as a reminder of our wounds; our wounds can lead us to truth - and then to trust - and an ever maturing experience of grace. As Vanier teaches: good hearted people so often want to "do" something to help the suffering. We want to make the world a better place. But "there is no way of doing something for other people if you do not first learn how to receive whatever gift they have to offer, which presupposes your willingness to accept that you also are a person in need." (p. 4) Hauerwas paraphrases L'Arche like this:

The practice of patient love - charity - teaches us not just to wash the feet of people with disabilities, but to have our feet washed by them, too. By having our feet washed by them, we may begin to recognize that we must first learn to receive if we are to give. A receiving, moreover, that requires that we acknowledge our wounds.

When I was visiting a woman in the nursing home yesterday she said

something to me that really caused me to listen more carefully to what God is saying in my heart this Lent. "You know what made me want to be a part of our faith community?" she asked as she prepared for yet another round of surgery. "It wasn't the music - but I like that - and it wasn't the liturgy - I was a Pentecostal - but came to like that, too. No, it was when you said out loud that YOU were broken." I sat in silence with her for a moment before she continued: "Besides your earrings, those words about being broken gave me the trust that maybe this was a place of God's love. You guys are my peeps!" The blessings of brokenness continue to be revealed and I am grateful.

At the close of this month, I am going on retreat in Ottawa. During that time away I will spend an afternoon and evening with one of the L'Arche communities. I will join in their music therapy time and then be a part of the dinner celebration. I am an amateur in the ways of L'Arche. But as Henri Nouwen writes, always remember that amateur literally means "a lover." And for this truth I give thanks today.


Popular Posts