Friday, September 27, 2013
The beatitudes in Matthew are difficult to talk about because they come off as being so straight-forward: we see the present and the future juxtaposed against each other: an unpleasant reality and an eschatological end. The text holds forth a kind of theodicy because it tells us our present suffering will be justified by the good to which we will attain as peoples’ fortunes are reversed. The beatitudes don’t come off as a moral imperative, but more like a truth of how things will one day be. Anyway, that’s what the commentaries tell me.
I have several problems with this.
When God declares something blessed, He isn’t just sitting there throwing words around like so much beautiful, empty filler. God is making that thing blessed, not just in some hypothetical future to assuage our worries with promises of a glorious apocalypse, but here and now. Blessed are those who mourn.
How can mourning be blessed? To lose someone or something, to feel that raw pain ripping at your heart, how is that good? 1
Blessings are complicated, shifting and moving and living things that don’t respect boundaries like good and bad; weaving in between them like water, blessings reshape reality by surrounding it with God’s love and slowly wearing away at the jagged edges. God’s blessing, like the sun, shines in places we would not conceive (Mt 5:43-45).
To mourn, to lose, is already a blessing because it means we have had and loved. To have loved so deeply, to have cherished…it is a blessing that loss does not take away. The spaces of our loss are filled with memories etched deep inside of us that sadness cannot dim, that the passage of time cannot undo, that healing does not take away. We pass through the grief holding on to what was; through coming to terms with loss our love is embedded within us.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. There is no comfort, not really, in the end times, because there is no suffering: every tear has been wiped away (Rev 21:1-4). With no sorrow, with no mourning, there can be no comfort. But God’s comfort isn’t always a warm fuzzy blanket enfolding us so we can drift off into some kind of blissful, forgetful sleep like someone who’s drunk from the Lethe. God’s comfort can be profoundly uncomfortable, profoundly painful. God is with you in the hard moments, and that is comfort, but God does not strip us of our humanity and all that entails. God does not destroy us, and what we are, for the sake of merely assuaging our hurt. We go through it together – I go through it with Him – and I am comforted because in the depths of myself where I do not dare to go I am not alone.
Allowing yourself to mourn strips you bare: you are raw in your grief, emotionally exposed, vulnerable, and real. You are not hiding behind a wall or a façade, concealing your love and your loss from yourself. Grief is an openness, to yourself and to God, a crack through which light gets in. We encounter God in the depths of our loss. As we are at our realest, and at our most vulnerable, our hearts can open fully to that love which we do not deserve, cannot earn, and will never lose. The beatitudes tell us about the blessings that come to those who are real, stripped down, raw and bare and honest. God is at work in our willingness to be fully human, to listen for Him, to love, and to experience suffering and loss: blessed are those who mourn.
The Gospel makes demands on us; it is alive and transforming us, so how could it not? There is an imperative in God’s blessing that cannot be ignored. We are called to mourn our losses, to not bury them or minimize them or trivialize our loves because it would be easier. Mourning is difficult because feeling loss is uncomfortable, and people find all sorts of ways to numb the pain rather than going through it – trusting that they can go through it – and finding true healing and peace. Mourning is difficult because it exposes us to truths about ourselves. Mourning is difficult because facing ourselves in those spaces, and facing God in those spaces, can be terrifying. Admitting the extent of loss can be difficult even when it would mean a deeper and more profound relationship with ourselves and with God.
I have mourned many people in my life without reserve. I have mourned things that happened to people I knew and came to love, even over brief periods. I have mourned for people who did not recover from mental illness as I watched it steal parts, and sometimes all, of their lives. But I am coming to realize there are losses in my own life I haven’t had the courage to mourn.
I haven’t mourned for living with an inexplicable sadness that sometimes swallows me whole and which I do not fully understand, though it has certainly been a loss.
I haven’t mourned for the person I was, though I will never be the same, and in some ways I think that’s a good thing.
I have tried to use my losses to help other people, to be something to someone, but I haven’t grieved them.
I have never really mourned the times I was raped. Part of it is trying not to think about the emotional impact it has and has had on me, to brush it aside as things gone, to bury it deeply; but I have allowed it to surround me like water, wearing away at the edges and taking the place of God’s comfort, where God would be if I was willing to admit the painful spaces of loss and regret. Part of it is because I blame myself for not being more careful and more concerned with protecting what God had given me to cherish, and I am ashamed. Because I don’t love myself or have compassion for myself in those ways, I don’t trust God to love me either, and I haven’t asked – really asked – for His forgiveness.
Words are difficult. I rarely use the word rape in writing, and almost never say it aloud: it is raw, and open, and ugly, and I am afraid.
I can’t have truly forgiven my rapists if I haven’t allowed my loss to be a part of myself, and I want to forgive them.
Jesus speaks the beatitudes as the Anointed One prophesied in Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound [and] to comfort all who mourn; [Instead] of your shame you shall have a double portion, instead of dishonor you shall rejoice in your lot; therefore in your land you shall possess a double portion; yours shall be everlasting joy” (Isa 61:1-2, 7).
Blessed are those who mourn.
God makes promises not for the future but to transform us through the power of His blessing; God utters blessings that do not erase what has gone before but that hold us by His side as we open ourselves to mourning and loss, together.
1 The DSM-V, the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, appears to have removed grief as an exclusionary criteria from Major Depressive Episode. This means that people who are mourning a recent loss can be diagnosed with a mental illness on the basis of that grief. I have several problems with this.↩
Sunday, September 22, 2013
There are many lovely diagrams of neurons available on the internet, but because I’m afraid of copyright laws this won’t be one of them. This is something I attempted to draw on my computer but that could probably have been better rendered by monkeys. If you want to know what a neuron actually looks like, please use Google. If you want to 100% quote me on the accuracy of my science, maybe this blog isn’t for you.
|In real life, neurons are much, much smaller than this|
Inside the soma is the cell’s nucleus. As is true of other cells, the nucleus carries the DNA of the cell – the instructions that tell your cell how to produce the various proteins that allow it to function properly. If you have a disease like Huntington’s which is straightforwardly genetic, for example, and which causes mental-illness-like presentations, you know that the reason for your symptoms is a genetic defect that means your cell cannot do its job properly. Most mental illnesses are not straightforwardly genetic: there is a lot of talk about complex and varied genetic alleles (groups of genetic variations or markers), as well as problems of protein expression (epigenetic phenomena), and – most importantly – nurture/experience as expressed either epigenetically or in terms of neuroplasticity. But I digress. Stupid nucleus, throwing me off course. Some people like to think of the nucleus as the cell’s brain, but I like to think of it more like the instruction manual your cell is working with.
Your cell also has dendrites, which are short branches allowing your cell to receive signals from other ‘upstream’ presynaptic neurons; those signals are relayed electrically to the soma. Your dendrites receive signals through receptors, which are basically specialized proteins to which neurotransmitters bond. You can think of your dendrites like a massive array of antennae listening for signals from other cells and then relaying those signals to a central listening station.
The axon of a cell extends or leads away from the cell body at a swelling or juncture called the axon hillock. When your cell decides to fire, the electrical charge is dispelled or pushed down the cell’s axon to the terminal so that your cell can communicate with ‘downstream’ postsynaptic neurons. It is basically the cord responsible for transmitting the neural signal from one part of the cell to the other. The awkward bubbles I’ve drawn around it are meant to represent the myelin sheath, a protective coating that some neural cells have surrounding their axons. The myelin sheath is a protective, insulating layer keeping the electric current from leaving the axon, allowing it to travel down the cell faster. Damaged or defective myelin sheaths cause nerve damage, and signals along the neuron become degraded and lost.
The axon terminals (or terminal buttons), are where your cells finally releases the chemical signal that allows it to talk to its little friends. They branch out from the axon, and transmit the signal to other cells by means of neurotransmitters.
For reasons that currently escape me, I’ve decided that we need to take a closer look at what’s happening in the axon terminals. Probably because it’s magical.
|still not a good artist; but seriously, my stick figures are amazing|
This has been fun, and maybe even a little informative. If you want to learn more about neural cell biology, pick up an introductory psychology or cell biology textbook; you could also probably just read the internet. Any of these options will net you more detailed and accurate information than you’ve seen here today. Think of this as a teaser, forcing you to either do more research or look silly at your next cocktail party.
Stay tuned for the next installment: your cell is an electrical machine (or, how your mind powers the Matrix)!
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Which person living with depression has not felt this way? O Lord, why have you led me here to die? For you do not sustain me and have left me thirsting; I hate that which you have given me.
Who has not felt, at one time, that God has led them astray in a vast wilderness and abandoned them there with empty promises and worthless gifts? Who has not felt the sting of the sameness of their days, feeling like the promises of God are forever out of reach?
Why have you led me here to die?
The people of the promised land, wandering in the wilderness, ask this question over and over. In one sense, they strike us as whiny children, forever asking for more, and more, and more. This manna is not good enough, we don’t have enough water, are we there yet. They ask so many times, without seeming to give thanks, that it’s difficult to have sympathy for them. We keep waiting for God to smite them for their impertinence.
And smite them He does. The people speak against God, and He sends fiery serpents among them, killing many. They go to Moses, repentant, and God answers them, drawing out the poison that was their punishment (Num 21:5-9).
The snake is a multilayered symbol in the Bible. In Genesis, the snake figures in the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden of Eden: God puts enmity between the woman and the snake as the text sets up a dichotomy between the two and casts the serpent in the role of instigator (Gen 3:1-24). The snake is associated with evil and bad omens, and later comes to symbolize Satan.
Later, Aaron’s staff is transformed into a snake as a warning that the Egyptians are not following God’ will, a feat which they copy by magic and whose meaning they refuse to heed (Ex 7:8-13). The snake is both a warning-omen that a person is ignoring God, and a real and dire threat. In Christian iconography, Jesus and Mary are often depicted crushing the serpent, Satan, underfoot as a sign of their triumph over evil.
In Numbers 21:5-9 we read about Israel in the wilderness and their encounter with God’s wrath. Because they do not see the blessings God has given them, instead only cursing Him for their misfortune, God sends fiery, poisonous serpents to kill them. The drama of their exodus has repeated itself again and again during their forty year journey: the people curse God for leading them out of Egypt because they doubt God’s ability to lead them where they’re going. In return, God is angry at their lack of gratitude and begins to kill off his own people. God has destroyed an entire generation in the wilderness, but still the tug and pull between God and God’s people continues. Let it never be in doubt that God feels passionately about those He has chosen for His own.
But the people repent, acknowledging that they have sinned. To save them, and to be saved, Moses lifts up the bronze serpent, and every person who looks upon it will live.
The serpent takes on layers of meaning as it become both punishment and cure, evil omen and symbol of salvation. In other ancient near-eastern cultures, the serpent is used in traditional curative magic to draw off sickness, as well as to cast off evil influences (hence its place in the modern symbol of medicine). The bronze image, so reminiscent of the Hebrews’ earlier idolatry in the desert, was even worshipped by the surrounding peoples.
The different symbolisms of the serpent become entwined as Moses – and God – coopts and transforms it into something different, something new. Thousands of years later, in the Gospel according to John, the writer uses the bronze snake to prefigure Christ: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-15). The bronze serpent is incorporated into the Messianic pre-narrative as the thing which draws the poison of sin from a repentant people.
Jesus does not symbolize new life, but is new life. Jesus is lifted up as God Who Himself has come to save us in his reckless love: “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17).
Why have you led me here to die?
Who that has lived with depression has not felt in their hearts the cry of being lost in the desert, and the fear of not being found? Who has not turned to the bronze snake to save them: the promises of medicine, of prophets, preachers, healers, and magic? Who hasn’t heard the spectacular stories of success, people healed by pills, by faith, by crystals, by diet? In His mercy and love, God has given us many ways to be lifted out of the darkness of depression and despair.
But who hasn’t also heard the stories that don’t end quite so miraculously?
Depression is not like the fiery snakes in the wilderness because it is not a punishment from God, though it would sometimes be easier if it was. And while healing comes from many sources, and its hope is attractive, it is not the same as the bronze serpent because Jesus does not offer healing as the wages of repentance.
As the symbol of the serpent is transformed, so too our covenant is with God not the same. Mental illness is not the price of individual sins, and prosperity is not the result of righteousness. We do not live by arithmetic or by signs but by faith. We will not all gaze on the bronze serpent, and we will not all be healed. We are offered something more difficult to see, and infinitely more precious.
Our experience of depression is transformed when we conceive it as part of what it means to journey in the wilderness. Embrace healing when it is offered, but do not make an idol of the bronze serpent. It is okay to doubt, because we are held firm in the unwavering faith of Christ. Above all, finding oneself deep in the desert, or in the darkness, or in the storm, is an opportunity to throw yourself heedlessly on God’s mercy, trusting in the fathomless depths of His love.
Sunday, September 8, 2013
History is littered with the remains of people arguing over the role of works and faith in salvation, and everyone has an opinion. I’m not quite sure what mine is, but whenever I start to get a headache from thinking about it, I turn to the letter of James. Maybe I’m attracted to his words because he leaves things a little…fuzzy. We’re not really sure what ‘faith’ is, for him, because he leaves it undefined. But he does say a few things that help me articulate what I believe.
Like the body and the spirit, for James works and faith can only artificially be separated. We can talk conceptually about what faith is, and what works are, and how they differ from each other in the economy of salvation, but when it comes right to it faith and works are inseparably part of the same thing. Faith and works are both the fruit of our relationship with God, intertwined with one another.
Show me your faith apart from your works…
So often, we think of faith as something you do with your brain, maybe because in the history of Christian thought we’ve somehow managed to connect our concept of the soul so closely to rationality that we don’t conceive of the soul as being substantially different from the part of ourselves that thinks. We’ve come to frame our creation in the image of God more as our ability to reason than as something deeper and more like love. Faith, in our vocabulary, is a way of saying ‘I believe’ or ‘I think’ certain things. We have become able to separate faith out as a thing which stands on its own and by which we are justified. If only I believe the right things, I will be saved.
I by my works will show you my faith...
But the gift of faith is so much bigger than the way we think. God Who made the world is bringing it to completion, working always in and through all things, making creation new. Faith is a part of the change being worked out, both a gift and visible sign of what we are given. Faith is God at work, and God’s work is transformative. There is no inactive faith, no such thing as belief that just sits in you, doing nothing. You cannot show me your faith apart from your works because faith consumes and enfolds the whole of your life, changing who you are as a living fire. Dead faith is not faith. By works faith is seen and shows itself because works are faith, not because works save us. Neither works nor faith, but God – Who is the ground of both – saves us. They can’t be taken apart because faith is not something we have but who we are, not something we merely hold true but the fabric of our entire lives.
So faith apart from works is dead…
What does this mean for someone who doesn’t see themselves living this life of faith? What if you aren’t feeding the poor, or doing all sorts of good works? What if it isn’t because you don’t want to, but because you find yourself so mired in depression or mental illness that you can’t? Does it mean that you don’t really have faith after all?
I don’t think that can be true. I’ve seen too many people struggle too hard against the darkness pulling them down to believe that they don’t have faith in the moments they aren’t doing what we would call good works. Faith, as something alive within us, ebbs and flows and moves and has its being in ways we don’t always comprehend, just as the soul speaks in words deeper than understanding. We live in a broken, fallen world where things don’t always line up neatly the way our theological treaties say they should. Sometimes I can’t show you either my faith or my works, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t both there in ways I don’t begin to comprehend.
While the eschatological end to which we are moving is the perfection of all things, we are not perfect: we sin, and fail, and struggle with ourselves, and suffer needlessly. Seeking forgiveness is works and faith. Desperately looking for God when you can’t seem to find Him is works and faith. Our rebirth through baptism is works and faith. All of these things connect us to God, and are signs of the Spirit working in us – not because of anything we’ve done but because of God. Our relationship with God is founded on God, not on us: on God, the Rock Who cannot be moved and on Whom we build our strong house.
The body apart from the spirit is dead…
Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we fall down and can’t stand up again. Sometimes we have trouble loving our neighbor and even loving ourselves. But God is still doing that work in us. And, because our lives are hidden in Christ, God is doing that work in us even when we feel we have nothing in us to contribute. In doing our best every day to commit to living our faith, God brings forth in us both works and faith that transform the world in often invisible ways. God’s work shows us our faith, and God’s love will overcome all obstacles.
Sunday, September 1, 2013
Every time I read this parable, I feel like the story really, really sucks. People who are already really lucky and have lots of stuff will get even more stuff, while the unfortunate people, who don’t have a lot – or maybe any – good things will lose even the stuff they have. How is that fair?
The concept of what fairness is isn’t necessarily a straightforward one. Fairness means different things, in different contexts, to different people. In Social Psychology and intergroup relations theory, researchers often try to delineate different psychologically salient concepts of fairness and what those mean for people as they interact with each other and experience the world. 1
There is the ‘fairness’ of equity or merit: what you get in – either in relationships or in other areas of life – is what you get out. A servant who puts a lot of effort into getting the pound his master gives him to grow and prosper will receive much more in return, because he has put in much more. Conversely, the servant who puts in no effort, because he knows his master is a hard man who reaps what he does not sow, gets nothing in return because he himself put in nothing. In this sense, the parable is completely fair. It also reflects what life is so often like, a truth experienced painfully by people who, for reasons so often beyond their own control, find that they do not have anything to give. Those who live with depression understand this kind of fairness only too well: the crippling effects of chronic and major depression mean that, for many, there is nothing to give and nothing received in return. The friends you once had abandon you because you aren’t what they need, and because being with you can be draining: they might even think that you just don’t like or care about them anymore. People living with depression lose their jobs because they can’t get out of bed in the morning. They lose relationships because they can’t maintain them. They lose their homes, their families, and sometimes their faith because the effort is beyond them. It is common to experience devastating personal loss precisely because you’re getting out what you’re putting in. In a sense, this is fairness, the same way that reciprocity in, say, economics, is fair.
There is also the ‘fairness’ of equality, where everyone is treated the same and receives the same outcome regardless of what they put in, or of their needs. In the sense that people and groups seek harmony, this in an operating principle of fairness; it underpins social theories like communism because it reduces human interaction to a principle of absolute commonality that ignores real difference. In legal proceedings, and when speaking about human rights, the fairness of equality makes perfect sense. For people living with depression, it can be a source of comfort because it means an end to discrimination. It means that a person suffering from depression, or any other mental illness, is not to be treated differently from anyone else on that basis.
But this fairness isn’t always fair, and isn’t always experienced as fair. A person who needs more help will not necessarily receive more than anyone else, though it may be necessary for them to actually be equal. Nor is this the sort of fairness advocated for by Jesus: the Jesus of the Bible displays a demonstrable bias toward helping the oppressed, the marginalized, and those in need over and above other people: “the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk 19:10).
We find that there is another kind of ‘fairness’ principle guiding social and personal relationships: fairness based on need. The needs principle, and norms of social responsibility, tell us that fairness means an obligation of giving to people and helping them based not on their absolute equality with others, or on what they have contributed, but on what they actually need. The person living with depression might need more help and support than their neighbor, and that’s okay. They might never be able to repay it, and that’s okay.
God’s promise of fairness is this kind, and while He makes it to everyone (for all who are saved can never earn or repay it), this kind of underserved love is perhaps felt most strongly by those who live their lives in the midst of suffering and darkness. God promises that He will make it right: “Light rises up in the darkness for the upright; the LORD is gracious, merciful and righteous” (Ps 112:4). I know that, in the end, God’s justice is about love and compassion for those who are suffering. I trust that, though this is often not the justice of the world, in God’s kingdom we will be lifted up and know the kind of healing that undoes all the wrongs, and all the pain, and everything that isn’t right or fair about the world.
Where does this leave us with the parable about the servants and the pounds? The story is marked by all the ‘fairness’ of the world, but it isn’t really fair. It also isn’t really about Jesus or the kingdom, because Jesus is not the wicked master who gives to those who have and takes from those who don’t. It’s about the world, and how inadequate and painfully true its justice can be, and how there is no escaping it no matter how much you believe in the Kingdom, or in God, or in the things to come. Here and not-yet-here, God’s kingdom does not remove sin from the world. But the parable – and, more importantly, the story of Zacchaeus that precedes it – tells us something about servanthood. We live in the world of the wicked master, but we are servants of God, and that kind of fairness is what we are called to live by: “It is well with the man who deals generously and lends, […] He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever” (Ps 112: 5, 9). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to “[let] brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers […] to do good and share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb 13:1-2, 16). Jesus tells us that “when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (Lk 14:13-14).
Although I live with depression, I am no less called than any other disciple to live my life this way. I am called to give all I have, regardless of how little that seems to be, and regardless of how happy I feel or how difficult it is. I, like the rich happy man, and not entitled to curl up with myself and be content to reap while others sow. That is not God’s justice. As I am receiving in the gift of God’s love infinitely more that I could ever hope or imagine or merit, so God has called me to live that love in the world by embodying, in good times and bad, the free gift that I am given as best as I am able. Some days, when I feel like I’m drowning, that won’t be a lot. But the fairness that we are called to – the one reflecting God’s love – isn’t about tallying up the score, or always performing the same. It’s about holding nothing back that you have to give, regardless of what you receive in return.
Though the justice of this fallen world is imperfect and unfair, yet I am not bound to it nor afraid that this pain is the final word or the ultimate truth of my life, for “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid; for what can man do to me” (Heb 13:6)? I will follow the Lord, trusting that this darkness is not the truth, though it can feel like it. Although I may in this world live in darkness, and though the darkness never be vanished, yet I am “not afraid of evil tidings; [my] heart is firm, trusting in the Lord” (Ps 112:7).
1 To learn a little more about these concepts and the theories surrounding them, you can check out “Equity Theory: Reconciling Affirmative Action” in Taylor & Moghaddam’s Theories of Intergroup Relations: International Social Psychological Perspectives and “Helping Others” in Brehm et al. Social Psychology 5th Ed.↩