A Soul In Need Of Scrubbing

“God creates everything out of nothing. And everything which God is to use, he first reduces to nothing.” -Soren Kierkegaard

I used to think that a regular practice of kenosis (“the emptying of self”) was mainly for the sake of talking to people I normally wouldn’t. Now, I understand that kenosis also reveals, to those who practice it, the person of Christ located properly within a theology of suffering.

My mentor and I sat down to grab lunch at one of the more popular dining options on our university’s campus. After chatting about the weather and classes – those which he was teaching versus those which I was taking – he noticed that I had barely touched my food, resorting to simply pushing a fry from one side of my plate to the other. My brow was furrowed.

He blinked. Leaning back from his daily special that he had been working through, he let out a sigh. Waving a hand, he remarked, “But enough about your classes, I’m assuming you have something on your mind. How are you doing, really?

I let out a laugh more bitter than a typical cup of three-day-old coffee which has sat unused in a French Press. “Yeah, about that.”

Looking at him, I muttered, “I used to think that Paul wasn’t being serious. I thought he was using hyperbole when he said that we are dead in our sins.”

“But now,” I paused, “Now I think I am beginning to understand. I’m starting to see that my righteousness is like filthy rags.”

He nodded. “That’s a pretty valid point for most of us. All of us, I would argue.”

Yet, still, it was as if a crack had formed in the wall holding back a flood of thoughts, doubts, and fears. My demeanor began to crumble. “And the thing that gets me the most is,” I said, my voice growing louder as I continued, “That, when we get down to it, I realize that even what I consider as goodness and virtue is motivated out of pride, a desire for control, and a fear that I am not who I have portrayed myself as.”

I tapped the table, stressing each syllable as I pronounced them. Words like rocks hit the floor and began piling around my feet. “God, I hate myself sometimes.”

He was silent. His eyes scanned my face as I stared at the table with the same intensity as if to count every speck which made up the design of its surface.

“Nothing! Nothing I do is ever good in its entirety!

They say that in Hebrew, the word for one’s face is the same as that person’s presence–as if to suggest that to really see a person’s face is to bear witness to their very soul. Little wonder, then, that as my mentor witnessed tears, hot with frustration, strike the tabletop between us, I could sense that, for one of the first times, I knew that he could see who and where I really was.

“No matter how hard I scrub my soul, it’s still filthy.”

And for some time, a holy silence rested between us. Somewhere, some time, a slight smile flickered across his face.

“You know, being nothing is a good place to start. God usually creates from nothing.”

“Being nothing sure feels like I’m nothing but dirt.”

“I know,” he said. “Boy, do I know.”

 

A few days ago, I found myself at a church during a Celebrate Recovery session. Celebrate Recovery is the Christian equivalent of any recovery program which was started out of Rick Warren’s church almost twenty-five years ago. The beauty of this program is that participants place their hope in the higher power of Jesus Christ, explicitly. People, regardless of demographic, come to bear one another’s burdens and sins, offering, in turn, the grace and truth of God in equal measure.

I almost felt like a complete outsider, an observer without any draw toward a program like this, until I heard someone share that they struggle with pride and self-acceptance. Suddenly, it was as if Jesus himself was speaking to my soul.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sets the characters of a religious leader and a tax collector against one another to illustrate a point, stating:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” [1]

Typically, the Pharisee was looked up to as an illustration of what people ought to strive for in regard to holiness. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were considered among the vilest of society.

In walking into Celebrate Recovery, it was as if I walked into the midst of Jesus’ own parable. I am well on my way, in more ways than one, in becoming like the Pharisee. And many people would consider the people who attend accountability groups like Celebrate Recovery to be of the same class as the tax collector. I think they’re right. But not in the way that they intend.

I think that Celebrate Recovery, and groups like it, are places for where people are more open about what they wrestle with. I think that they are more in touch with being human than most of us, too.

I am just as much in need of grace and love and forgiveness as each and every one of my brothers and sisters here. On what grounds should I even think I am better than them, that I don’t need just as much grace (if not more!) as the next person there? For every person there, they own and voice their flaws and shortcomings, seeking help and community. I still cling to my pride and desire for control because they are familiar.

Who here is closer to God, then? Who here is just playing games?

Frederick Buechner once commented that recovery groups like A.A. or Celebrate Recovery “is what the church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be big business. Sinners Anonymous. “I can will what is right but I cannot do it,” is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).” [2]

When you realize that you are in over your head, you have a greater propensity to run back to the one we can call Abba Father – Daddy, in other words. No wonder why Jesus mentioned that the spiritually poor are blessed – they know this to be true. When you find yourself in over your head, you realize in your darkest moments that you cannot save anybody, even on your best day.

But it is here that you realize that in this, in the fact that you are not anyone’s messiah, you also recognize that the reason why God has you here is not to bear the burden of others’ salvation, but to spend time cooperating with the Father, being fully present to those with whom you find yourself. There is no pressure to be perfect because God is, instead. All we need to do is be there, and bear one another’s burdens as a brother or sister. Compassion simply means “to suffer with.” Not save.

When Peter protested that Christ would even stoop so low to wash his feet, Jesus responded by stating, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”[3] Peter, like many of us, found himself in the uncomfortable position where Jesus began to wash his feet, an act reserved for the lowest slave or servant within a household in the Ancient Near East. Christ was too good, too honored, too holy to wash the grime from everywhere that Peter had been in the past seven or so days.

Likewise, when Christ reveals himself in our moments of self-emptying, I think we are prone to try and skirt away from his ministering to us. We, rather, should be ministering to him, our Lord and Savior, in the least of these. Shouldn’t we?

But I think the reason why Christ still comes in the form of the least of these to minister to us is because each and every person that we encounter is a reminder that we are in need of grace and cleansing in some way, too.

If I realize that, on my own, nothing I can do or be is ever good – that’s kind of the point of needing Christ in the first place.

 

A week passed between my conversation with my mentor before I found myself seated in a liturgical style chapel at my university. His words he offered were helpful, but nothing had changed in terms of my mood. I had tried reading Scripture and meditating on God’s love and forgiveness. Prayer seemed like an empty respite. It would be another two weeks before I would speak with my mentor again. Yet, as the pastor presiding started to deliver the Eucharistic rite, something happened.

“Come to this table,” he said as he widened his arms in a welcoming gesture toward all, “Not because you must but because you may…”

It was as though the voice of the speaker trailed off. No longer could I hear him. My heart beat in my ears. I could hear the breath inside my lungs. I could barely hear his next words.

“Not because you are strong, but because you are weak…”

I realized I had been holding my breath. I exhaled. Suddenly, tears flowed once more, freely.

God wants me anyway. He wants to work with me, on me, for me, despite me.

I blinked as the Gospel made itself clear to me once more, a ministry major of all people. Realizing that I am nothing feels a lot like reducing me to dirt. I think that it’s because it’s the way which God goes about reminding us of who is the Potter and who is the clay. It’s his way of letting us know who is the Savior and who needs the saving.

I sat there in my chair, silent as I felt full of meaning and purpose once more, even despite my emptiness. Kenosis is as much for the person emptying him or herself as much as it is for others.

“Thanks be to God,” I whispered. “Thanks be to God.”

 

[1] Lk. 18:10-14, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Frederick Buechner, “Alcoholics Anonymous,” in Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 5.

[3] Jn. 13:8, NRSV.

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The Places Between Us

Simply put, we are creatures of habit. We are going to follow one routine or another. If we don’t make some intentional commitments about what that routine will be, then our life circumstances will dictate it for us […] If you believe that Saint Augustine was right when he prayed to God, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you,” then you’ve got to consider that the only true happiness is the happiness we know in Jesus Christ when we grow in our faith and learn what it means to be mature disciples.[1]

I found myself sitting by the side of the road the other day. I was waiting for the bus, watching people in cars flash on by. Every so often, someone would pass by and glance at the guy on a bench before continuing on their way. But, for the most part, everyone had somewhere to go, somewhere to be, something to do.

Someone coughed. At the far end of the bench was a man dressed in a maroon polo shirt and jeans. He, too, was waiting for a bus. Or, at least, I thought so. His eyes never strayed from the screen of his phone. In his ears were headphones and I swore I could hear what sounded like salsa music. That would probably be me, I thought, if I had remembered to bring my phone. By the time I had reached the stop, I had realized that my phone was sitting on my desk back in my apartment.

I groaned inwardly before deciding that the walk back to my apartment wasn’t worth missing my ride. I shifted my weight as I began to settle into waiting on the side of the road.

The traffic light ticked red. A Lexus stopped in front of the bench, long enough for me to get a look inside the vehicle. The driver was on the phone, his eyes focused on the car in front of him. Behind him, a small child was sitting with his face pressed against the window.

He waved. I waved back. And in another instant, he was gone.

Eventually, the bus turned the corner and began making its way down the street towards my bench. The door opened. I clambered on and found my seat.

On an average day, I might find myself strolling around my college campus, scuttling from one class to another as I made my way through the schedule for the day. On occasion, I would glance up from examining the scuffed tops of my shoes to see whether I had chanced upon a familiar face while on my way. Belonging a small Christian university, my campus almost guarantees such an event at least once while going from point A to B. When such an event would occur, I would wave at my friend or acquaintance momentarily and greet them. In rare events, I might stop to chat and exchange pleasantries before moving on, mentioning that I would hope to see whoever it was soon over coffee or some other college staple.

But come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever once stopped and ignored the marching orders which I have set in front of me to actually make space for my acquaintances. I tell myself it’s because I have commitments and a responsible person always makes them. But late at night when I’m lying in bed, counting the number of stucco peaks in the ceiling to fall asleep, and I’m too tired to deceive myself, I begin to think the real reason is because I’m too comfortable to want to leave what my agenda requires of me.

Agendas are a terrible thing for people like myself. They’re clean-cut. They’re clear. They plot out one event from another without much, if any, overlap. In my own little arrogant way, my agenda affirms that I am the god of my day. I have control over what I do. And, insofar I abide by such a mentality, hell can easily become other people detracting from my sovereignty.

No wonder, then, that C.S. Lewis described hell as an ever-expanding city. In The Great Divorce, Lewis writes:

You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing […] What’s the trouble about this place? Not that the people are quarrelsome—that’s only human nature and was always the same even on Earth. The trouble is they have no Needs.[2]

We like to be the centers of our own universes. Needs remind us of our dependencies. When that’s removed, we become our own gods; gods who don’t want to coexist with others demanding that they abide by their own rules and schedules and lives. When we allow our pride and arrogance to take the precedent over people, the places between us grow wider still.

In a similar manner to how Lewis describes Hell’s residents, when we become increasingly mobile, it’s easy to remove any form of intrusions to our basic way of seeing the world. We’d rather be free to move away from any form of discomfort or inconvenience by jumping into the car for greener pastures. Soong-Chan Rah, in The Next Evangelicalism, points this out:

Contemporary life is characterized by movement, oftentimes at high speeds, with the absence of any real connection to the world around us. Mobility, and the speed of mobility, result in the ability and the power to disregard and disconnect from suffering. There is no space or time for the theology of celebration to intersect with the theology of suffering–there is only motion that dulls the senses.[3]

When we are independent from one another, we tend to want to throw up some walls between us and whoever the “they” are. People tend to be messy creatures. Inefficient. There is no clear-cut formula to dealing with each one.

I think it’s because God intended it that way.

At the same time, when we share in the mobility with others, when we become dependent on some schedule which is independent of our own desires, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Either we could retreat behind a screen as a last attempt to control our space, or we could be present with those who we find ourselves.

I sat in my seat for a good while in silence while I took in my surroundings. Across the bus sat an elderly man. He was dressed in a patterned tan dress shirt, which was complemented by worn black sweatpants and a visor like those which some accountants might wear. Next to him was a walker, presumably his, that collapsed to fit neatly in the aisle. At some point, he noticed that I was examining him and his walker. I looked away, slightly embarrassed that I was caught staring at someone. When I glanced back up, his focus hadn’t shifted.

We both said nothing.

Eventually, the bus came to another stop. A handful of others came and found seats. A drowsy, middle-aged man who seemed to just be getting off his shift as a security guard. An elderly lady carrying bags of groceries. A young man, not unlike myself. Many of them brought something which commanded their attention. All of us said nothing.

I glanced at my watch. Only fifteen minutes had gone by. Across the bus, the elderly man cleared his throat. I looked up. He had turned himself to face me. Still, he remained quiet. It wasn’t until the young man, who seemed to be about my age, shifted from his seat and settled himself next to me that the older gentleman began to speak.

It is here that I believe it appropriate to mention the writer Frederick Buechner who, in musing on the notion of the word “you,” once wrote:

It is possible that the whole miracle of creation is to bridge the immeasurable distance between Creator and Creature with that one small word, and every time human beings use it to bridge the gap between one another, something of that miracle happens again.[4]

The elderly man looked at both of us and remarked, “Both of you aren’t regulars on this bus, huh?”

I glanced at the man next to me. He did likewise. Suddenly, it was as if the bus, which had been placed on mute, had the volume restored in an instant.

We both responded simultaneously, stumbling over each other.

“Yes, I-”

“-How did you know?”

The older man smirked, “I ride this bus every day.”

I was incredulous. “Well, why?”

“Why the hell not?” He stated, matter-of-factly, as if taking the bus was the only real option for transportation. “We old timers need to get around in style somehow.”

He extended his hand. “Name’s George, by the way.”

“Hi, George. Pleased to meet you. I’m Tim.”

“I’m Eli.”

George gazed intently at Eli, the man who had shifted his seat earlier. “What’re you two doing here anyway?”

And with that, the three of us launched into a conversation which lasted the remainder of the hour. I reached my stop and thanked George for his insights and thoughts about life. It’s funny how similar, yet how different, people are.

Most of the time, if we care to slow down enough and pay attention, we might just realize that most of us just want to be heard. And truth be told, I’m starting to wonder why conversations with random strangers aren’t more common.

I guess what I’m asking is how can we claim to want to love our neighbor when we don’t know who or what they are? 

We are creatures of habit. We don’t like uncomfortable situations. We’d rather stay where we are and have others come to us. But if nobody came to us, and we didn’t go to anyone else, I’d figure that we’d find ourselves eventually in a Hell of Lewis’ imagining.

Instead, Christ showed us another way. He came to us by leaving his place of comfort for the sake of humanity. Perhaps then, we should divorce ourselves from our agendas from time to time to go and do likewise more often, too.

 

[1] Andrew C. Thompson, The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice in Today’s World. (Franklin: Seedbed Publishing, 2015), 103.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “The Great Divorce,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 472-473.

[3] Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downer’s Grove: IVP Books, 2009), 148.

[4] Frederick Buechner, “You,” in Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 128.