Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Not merely symbolic...

It is no secret that I have become increasingly awed by the power of the Living Word.  It is no secret that one of my favorite bits of the Christian Book of Concord teaches that the Living Word has and is able to do all that God is and can do (BOC, LC, IV, 17).  I believe I could spend a lifetime trying to take such a wonder in and never quite succeed.

It is no secret that the Living Word calms and soothes me, strengthens and sustains me, even when I am not particularly seeking for it to do so, even when my will is much more inclined to remain dwelt upon the misery and plight of mine rather than who I am in Christ, than the riches God has given me, rather than the work the Holy Spirit is doing in my life each breath that I take.

It is no secret that I feel as if God set down the very words of my heart in the collection of prayers that comprise the Psalter thousands of years before He knit me in my mother's womb.  It is no secret that I pray them all the time and crave having others pour them into my ears.  It is no secret that if you are looking for something to do for me, to say to me, all you have to do and say is a palm, any psalm.

But, to me, the power of the Living Word, in as much as it is humanly possible to grasp, seems very much a secret to so many of God's children.  I mean, I know that pastors are stewards of the mysteries of God, but this is no mystery!

Isaiah 55 promises that the Living Word will not return void and will accomplish its purpose.  And, as I have pointed out many a time, the Psalter is chock full of admonition to have the Living Word in our ears, in our mouths, on our tongues, and falling from our lips.  Surely, this is because of the power of the Living Word, a power that the Holy Spirit uses to create and sustain faith, to give life, to heal, to forgive, and to sanctify us.  But, surprisingly enough, these thoughts are not the ones foremost on my mind.

Thoughts of armor are.

Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might.  Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, and against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.  Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with the truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the Gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.  
~Ephesians 6:10-20

The ex-evangelical in me still holds this strongest association of this passage with the imagery of spiritual battle painted by Christian Fiction author Frank Peretti. In those swash-buckling spiritual battle adventures, God's victory comes only through the prayers of his saints, which give strength to the angels fighting the devil's forces.  If Christians fail to pray, the angels are weak and ineffective, unable to protect God's children or prevent bad things from happening.  When Christians begin to pray, then the angels have the moxie to smite the enemy...an enemy which often taunts God's army of angels with how weak and pitiful our prayers are at times.  It is all very exciting and even thrilling.  A part of you becomes enamored with the idea of giving energy to angels to go out and do God's work and you find yourself stopping to pray as you read the text.  My goodness, truly, by the end, you are on fire for the Lord.


Yes, I used to believe such bunk.  LOVED those books. Read them over and over and over again. Notice though, who is driving the action:  man.  Not Jesus.  Actually, come to think of it, I am not really remembering any Jesus in the stories.


Now, as I have written before, the authors of the Christian Book of Concord mince no words when it comes to the assaults of our foe. Truly, they paint this very dire picture, repeatedly, of how the devil, the world, and even our flesh fight us, draw us away from God and into death. Luther, of course, does this best, being the bluntest of all writers:

No one can believe how the devil opposes and resists these prayers. He cannot allow anyone to teach or to believe rightly. It hurts him beyond measure to have his lies and abominations exposed, which have been honored under the most fancy, sham uses of the divine name. It hurts him when he himself is disgraced, is driven out of the heart, and has to let a breach be made in his kingdom. Therefore, he chafes and rages as a fierce enemy with all his power and might. He marshals all his subjects and, in addition, enlists the world and our own flesh as his allies. For our flesh is in itself lazy and inclined to evil, even though we have accepted and believe God's Word. The world, however, is perverse and wicked. So he provokes the world against us, fans and stirs the fire, so that he may hinder and drive us back, cause us to fall, and again bring us under his power. Such is all his will, and mind, and thought. He strives for this day and night and never rests a moment. He uses all arts, wiles, ways, and means that he can invent.
~BOC, LC, III, 62-64

Against such an assault, against such a foe, we have the power of the Living Word:

And what need is there for more words? If I were to list all the profit and fruit God's Word produces, where would I get enough paper and time? The devil is called the master of a thousand arts. But shall we call God's Word, which drives away and brings to nothing this master of a thousand arts with all his arts and power? The Word must indeed be the master of more than a hundred thousand arts. And shall we easily despise such power, profit, strength, and fruit--we, especially, who claim to be pastors and preachers? If so, not only should we have nothing given us to us, but we should also be driven out, baited with dogs, and pelted with dung. We not only need all this every day just as we need our daily bread, but we must also daily use it against the daily and unending attacks and lurking of the devil, the master of a thousand arts.
~BOC, LC, LP, 12-13

I suppose it is because Luther so intimately understood the sin of our flesh, the doubt and despair, as well as the arrogance and independence that he admonishes us to be daily in the Living Word because we are daily in the devil's kingdom:

Let me tell you this, even though you know God's Word perfectly and are already a master in all things: you are daily in the devil's kingdom. He ceases neither day nor night to sneak up on you and to kindle in your heart unbelief and wicked thoughts against these three commandments and all the commandments. Therefore, you must always have God's Word in your heart, upon your lips, and in your ears. But where the heart is idle and the Word does not make a sound, the devil breaks in and has done the damage before we are aware. On the other hand the Word is so effective that whenever it is seriously contemplated, heard, and used, it is bound to never be without fruit. It always awakens new understanding, pleasure, and devoutness and produces a pure heart and pure thoughts. For these words are not lazy or dead, but are creative, living words. And even though no other interest or necessity move us, this truth ought to urge everyone to the Word, because thereby the devil is put to flight and driven away.
~BOC, LC, I, 100-102

So, I wend my way back to Ephesians.  For a while now, I have been thinking about how this passage has been taught to me in the past: a) the use of armor and its components are symbolic in nature, mere figurative language used to make a point and b) the point is that God needs us to pray to accomplish His work.  Without our faith, His hands are tied.

Though I am not pretending to be the pastor here, I am confident that a true exegesis of the passage could not be further from this errant one.  I believe this because I believe that the Living Word is the sole rule and norm of our Confessions.  And not a single sentence of our Confessions would lead someone to conclude that God is dependent upon our faith to accomplish His will, His plans and purposes.  Nor do I find that the Living Word is presented as merely symbolic in nature, as non-literal.

Yes, Jesus does speak in parables.  Yes, God does speak in dreams.  Yes, both of these are a use of language that is a vehicle of understanding, a means of drawing parallels that we might grasp the Truth.  However, I, the simple sheep, find no words of dreams or parables or any sort of figurative language in Ephesians.

The Living Word is not merely like armor, it is armor.  It is Living.  It is Active.  It is Powerful.  These things are not metaphorical.  They are actual.  The Living Word will repel the devil. The Living Word will shield you from his lies, his deceit.  The Living Word will bring light to the darkness, leaving no place for the darkness to remain.  These things, again, are not metaphorical.  Just as God can  and does accomplish these things, so can and does the Living Word.

In John 16, we are told that in this world, we, as believers, will know trouble.  Not might, but will.  But just as Genesis 3:15 already provides a way out of eternal death for us, Ephesians points out that God has provided the means to protect ourselves from such.

Having this new understanding of the power of Living Word has completely changed how I read Ephesians 6. I see not myself, but Jesus. I see not my own work, but that of the Holy Spirit. And, as such, this particular bit of Living Word has become all the sweeter to me.

Such solace and comfort and confidence we are given. 
Such protection. 
Such strength.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Getting to know the enemy...

One of the things I cherish most about the Christian Book of Concord is how very much the authors seem to understand weakness, especially anguish and terror.  Facing such is not presented as a possibility, but rather as common reality.  Of course, this is because our church fathers recognized that we are in the cross hairs of an implacable, relentless assassin of faith.  One whose attempts to destroy life range from stealth attacks to shock and awe campaigns.  One who uses the world, our friends and neighbors, our bodies, and even our own minds in his assaults.  They understood.  They knew.  And so compassion and consolation are laced throughout our Confessions.  And they are equally implacable about keeping Law and Gospel separate, never burdening the anguished soul with Law when it is the balm of the sweet, sweet Gospel needing application to the wounds she bears.

Many a thought chase themselves through my head these days.  Varied ones and ones that return again and again.  For example, I have come to the conclusion that we simply do not recognize how commonplace it has become to force ourselves, our ideas, our advice, and even our piety upon others.  And if anyone dare point this out, they are shouted down...oft angrily...with the specious rejoinder that the offender has only the best intentions.

That's a lie.
We are sinners.
We never have only the best intentions.

And good intentions do not absolve or justify harming another with our force. They are merely a false veneer, an inadequate bandage we try to place over the wounds...sometimes gaping...we inflict upon others.  Not understanding that we are doing so is no excuse.

But that is not what is on my mind at this moment.  Fear is.

I am sure Fred could tell me if I have blogged about fear before.  I am sure that since I am oft afraid, oft overwhelmed by terror, fear has been woven into some of my entries.  And I know that I wrote about night terrors.  But I am not sure if I have ever really tried to capture fear itself in this online memory of mine.

I want to.  Very much so.  Only I do not believe I have the words yet, for what I want to say.  Perhaps, this shall be another series of entries until I find the right words.

For me, fear has been primarily about overwhelming me, oppressing me, crippling me.  Fear has been the gigantic monster from the most terrifying cheesy sci-fi made-for-TV movie possible.  Fear has been the dogged pursuer who chases me through alleys and caves, over mountain tops, across oceans.  Fear is the terrifying, impending natural disaster.  Fear is the Class 6 hurricane or the 12.0 earthquake.  There is no escaping fear.

For the past two months, Bettina has been reading this book to me and with me and for me: The Courage to Heal. Of late, I have posted a few quotes on Facebook. Below is the one I chose about fear:

Often fear accompanies the unfamiliar and exciting leaps we take in life. It's the feeling that makes your knees shake the first time you sing in public, when you apply for a job you really want, or when you confront the person who abused you. When you do something new and challenging, you need that energy. It's adrenaline. Often women feel this kind of fear when they are taking absolutely the right steps for themselves. It can help if you recognize that this feeling might not be purely fear. It may also contain excitement, exhilaration, hope, and uncertainty about new endeavors.

Fear doesn't have to stop you. Even if you're afraid, you can still go ahead and make the changes you want. You just do it anyway. You do it afraid. You do it nervously, awkwardly. You shake or sweat. You are not graceful or composed, but you do it. This is the definition of courage (p. 207).

I found it interesting that the authors turned fear into something positive.  I still do.  And I believe that thinking about fear from such a foreign perspective (foreign, at least, to me) helped me to make a connection to the Gospel.

A while ago, I wrote a blog entry about how the Gospel does the clinging.  To be honest, it is one of my favorite thoughts to myself and one I wish I was reminded of more often.  I need to hear that, be reminded of it.  Anyway, I suppose another recurring theme of thought has been the idea of clinging.  

I have come to believe that it is important to understand the things in our lives, even the frightening, overwhelming, and horrifying ones.  Understanding them helps us to process them or simply to endure them.  Understanding takes them from inside of us and makes them external, makes them an outward thing that we can consider and face in an objective sense, rather than as merely another personal failure.

For me, I have been trying to understand some of the fears within me, the fears felling me.  And in doing so, I have realized that there is another aspect of fear to understand.  Fear does not merely overwhelm or batter you.  Fear is not always this violent storm, this great and terrible and obvious monster.  Fear sometimes is a silent, subtle foe, one cloaked in near invisibility.  Fear sometimes merely clings to you, almost like a comfortable piece of clothing that you forgot you were wearing.

Sometimes the reactions, the responses, the thoughts, the feelings I have are actually born of a fear that is clinging to me rather than a monster or storm that I am battling.  Fear I have not even noticed.

I believe that understanding this, learning to recognize this, is important.  One concrete example is that the smell of beer sparks fear within me.  I have avoided that smell, places and people and events where it might waft my way, my entire adult life.  Perhaps recording the why is not important.  I doubt I shall ever forget.  For me, in my life, the smell of beer means pain and betrayal and shame are coming my way.  

With the PTSD, my response to the smell of beer has become a very physical one.  The magnification of it, however, has been a blessing in a way.  For I am not sure I would have ever noticed this particular fear was clinging to me in such a way that has affected both social interactions and my mental/emotional balance for most of my life.  

But it is not only the smell of beer.  In many ways, I am discovering many things I that I do or say or think or feel not in fearful response to what is happening in the present--its potential outcome--but to what has happened in the past.  To what is over.  To what is not now...even if my body is reliving it.  Even then it is not now.  Even then I am still safe.

Fear can be a healthy thing.  After all, it is fear that leads us to not stick out fingers into fire.  We fear the pain and damage that comes from being burned!  And we rightly should fear our foe and the impact sin has on our lives.  We even fear God.  

I have always been taught that the latter means to respect God as a god and all that entails.   I suppose I am trying to say that I am in the process of respecting fear and all that it entails.  But unlike the Gospel, which will never let me go, the fear that clings to me can be conquered.  It can be pealed away. It can be shed in one fell swoop.  Or it can be made powerless by acknowledging its presence and remembering that no reaction or response, no thought or feeling, born of fear negates the fact that I am baptized.   

I am forgiven.
I am loved.
And I am whole, pure, and without blemish.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The perfect word...

For me the perfect word is always the Living Word.  Pick a psalm, any psalm, and the power of the Living Word will penetrate the moment and carry me along.  These days, I also very much long to hear John 1:1-5.  But sometimes the perfect word can be a Gospel of sorts that is outside the Living Word.

Tonight, I had such a perfect word.

I am once again writhing on the bathroom floor.  That my bathroom is now beautiful should make it somewhat more bearable.  It has actually been more than a week, I believe, since I have writhed. So I should be grateful, right? I think.

My new friend is a nurse and does not mind me talking medical stuff.  Since she works nights and has a baby, her sleeping schedule is strange like mine.  As a result, we sometimes chat early morning.  Lately, when I am in pain or am ill, I become very frightened.  So, I reach out by text or chat, rather desperately hoping that someone will be awake.  That I will not be alone in that moment.

Tonight, I sent a chat message to her: Writhing. Wonder if it is something I ate or just random. It's been a while, so I should be grateful, but I'm not.

Her message back was the perfect word:  I don't think we are ever happy to have pain come back. Its absence does not make a heart fonder, even if we ought to be grateful for being spared a little. 

I have been working for a while at not shoulding on myself.  To be perfectly blunt, the person who had been helping me understand things once said that shoulding on other people is like shitting on them.  Telling someone what he or she should or should not do is to oppress him, is to kill her...kill his feelings, her thoughts, to deny the validity of the moment he is living.  It is law.  And there is never life in law.

In my friend's response there is no law.  There is only freedom.  Freedom to feel wretched.  Freedom to suffer.  And freedom to dislike that suffering, to not be grateful for it.

I have yet to hear a Lutheran pastor teach about the first chapter of James...about what I learned as law for Christians: consider it joy when you suffer.  A command.  And if you are not the joyful suffering saint, you have not faith.  SIGH.  Oh, the anguish of that particular failure of faith!  After all, it is usually a public failure, which makes it a double failure for not being a good enough witness for Christ.  DOUBLE SIGH.

Recently, I spent time with someone who shoulds all the time.  All. The. Time.  And so I, rather understandably, black slid.  I was talking with my dear friend Wynne yesterday, and she noted that I was shoulding on myself again when I had done such a good job of getting away from that in the past two months.  SIGH.  Though I am working on being gentle with myself when I make mistakes or back slide.

Here I am, ill and in pain, and my Good Shepherd provides a perfect word for me through my new friend.  She gave me the freedom to call my suffering suffering, without placing me under the law of needing to praise God for such a thing in the moment.

I really would love to have the Lutheran teaching on James.  I mean, I am suffering because my body is not working as God designed it to be.  And this is not because God is inflicting some sort of penance for my faltering faith.  This is because I live in a fallen world and sin permeates and twists everything. How can James be taught at Gospel, since it sounds so very Law-ish.  Do this.  Doing is never Gospel for Jesus has already done all that is needful and it is His faith that we are given, that is accounted to us for justification.

Regardless of the proper division of Law and Gospel for that particular bit of Living Word, I wanted to note this:  From where I stand (or, rather, am lying at the moment), what few understand is that when facing someone who are deeply wounded, struggling, ill, or otherwise overwhelmed, you need not have to figure out what to say to him.  Give her a perfect word.  Read the Living Word to him.  And speak to her the freedom to feel, to think, to struggle in the moment.  Tell him, that it is okay to simply be as he is in that moment.  For no matter how we are--suffering or at peace, full of faith or hanging on by a mere thread--we are still loved, we are still forgiven, and we are still not alone.

I am Yours, Lord.  Save me!