Those of you that have been reading know that I have recently been immersed in books that illustrate the lives and philosophies of folks that have forsaken the world’s idea of what success is (house in the suburbs, fancy car, self-sufficiency) to become inter-dependent with people that are forced to live in under-resourced communities.
They live such joy and authenticity. It is hard work but it is work that has been stripped to its essentials and is, therefore, more satisfying. Studies are starting to show that all of our wealth is making us unhappier, using phrases like “choice anxiety” and citing the loneliness of the car-based suburbs. So, the alternative to constant worry about possessions is to let them go and begin loving people.
I want this.
So far, I have not yet been able to trust God enough with my life to actually do it.
This past week, a guest teacher at Mars Hill church ended his sermon by what seemed to be a standard inspirational story about how he was diagnosed with a disease seven years ago that should have killed him after it seriously debilitated him in five years. Two years past that deadline, he was still alive and walking without a cane. I was only half-listening at this point while I did my filing and paper work. Yadda, yadda. Isn’t God great? Miracles, yeah, yeah.
But it turns out that this was all background for him to talk about he and his wife’s tight financials in their retirement because his disease is so expensive. He went into great detail about how they have stretched everything so that they would be able to support themselves, if spartanly, for their rest of their lives.
He reminded us that Zaccheus resolved to give half of what he owned to the poor when faced with love and acceptance from Jesus. He asked, “Would I be willing to give half of what we have to the poor like God wants us to?”
This type of rhetorical question is usually a set-up for the pastor to be an example for the rest of the congregation and he then goes on to explain how he’s chosen to follow God more closely.
But this pastor said, “Would I be willing to give half of what we have to the poor like God wants us to?” With grief in his voice, he answered, “The answer is somewhere between ‘I don’t know’ and, ‘Probably not.’”
His honesty stopped my filing. He voiced what has been making me so uncomfortable as I read these books. He, too, can’t trust God enough to let go, and he’s been a pastor for 50 years! He didn’t even resolve it by protesting that he was trying to mend his ways.
His grief echoed my own for my inability to let go.
Sober alcoholics have hit bottom and, while they were down there, they realized that they are not ever going to be perfect because only God is perfect. This means that they cannot actually control their lives. Only God can, even if God is that doorknob over there. I believe that when we can truly let go of the idea that we can control our own lives, we can be truly happy. The lilies of the field, you know? I am sometimes irrationally envious of sober alcoholics because they have a clear and focused reason to keep them on the path of humility and dependence on the divine. If they don’t, they will begin drinking again.
If I fall off the path of acting like I believe that I’m just as broken as the next guy, there are no dire consequences that I can see, so there is only abstract motivation to stay on the path. I have to remind myself that the cumulative consequences are just as bad as falling off the wagon is for drunks.
So, I have been reading a steady stream of books that have made me extremely uncomfortable because I accept the high standards that they set forth AND know that I don’t measure up to them. I’m not used to not measuring up. So, I’ve done what any imperfect would have done.
I ran away.
I ran back into the arms of fiction and it was SO good. It feels like what I think it felt like for my friend Jess to heedlessly begin smoking again because her new boyfriend does. We know it’s going to be bad for us in the long run, but after having abstained for so long, it tastes SO good.
I’ve read about 6 or 7 books of fiction in the last 3 weeks and just started the next one at lunch today: Ursula K. LeGuin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness. She writes fantastic speculative fiction (that’s a sub-category of science fiction) prolifically and I keep finding titles that I never knew existed at used bookstore to read and enjoy.
Melissa Etheridge’s song, “Lover Please” sets up a story in which the singer has just put together all the clues and realizes that her partner is about to leave her. She sings, “Oh this one's gonna hurt like hell.” The phrase sticks in my head because it perfectly captures that experience of dread because it doesn’t hurt YET, but that lack of pain just gives her more clarity of mind to imagine just how badly it WILL hurt. We’ve all torn off that band-aid.
So, I’m only on page 4 and I read this passage:
All the holy abstinence she had intended when she came here two years ago, the single bowl of unflavored grain, the draft of pure water, she’d given that up in no time. She got diarrhea from a cereal diet, and the water of the marshes was undrinkable. She ate every fresh vegetable she could buy or grow, drank wine or bottled water or fruit juice from the city, and kept a large supply of sweets – dried fruits, raisins, sugar-brittle, even the cakes Eyid’s mother and aunts made, fat disks with a nutmeat squashed onto the top, dry, greasy, tasteless, but curiously satisfying. She bought a bagful of them and a brown wheel of sugar-brittle, and gossiped with the dark-eyed little women who had been at old Uad’s wake last night and wanted to talk about it . . . She did not merely hear; she asked for details, she drew the gossip out; she loved it.
What a fool, she thought, starting slowly home on the causeway path, what a fool I was to think I could ever drink water and be silent! I’ll never, never be able to let anything go, anything at all. I’ll never be free, never be worthy of freedom. Even old age can’t make me let go. Even losing Safnan can’t make me let go.
Before the Five Armies they stood. Holding up his sword, Enar said to Kamye: My hands hold your death, my Lord! Kamye answered: Brother, it is your death they hold.
She know those lines, anyway. Everybody knew those lines. And so then Enar dropped his sword, because he was a hero and a holy man, the Lord’s younger brother. But I can’t drop my death. I’ll hold it to the end, I’ll cherish it, hate it, eat it, drink it, listen to it, give it my bed, mourn it, everything but let it go.
Oh this one’s gonna hurt like hell.
Fiction is a life passion of mine because it can tell the truth about life so clearly because it people as the medium with which it communicates. It is the ultimate in communication through identification because we all have stories. Like Tim O’Brien says in The Things They Carried, “Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
This book is about the same things that those books by Shane Claiborne and Bob Lupton and Rob Bell are about.
I’m in trouble.