Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ashley Madison.  It’s got to be some woman’s name—probably several.  And yet she’s not the one we think of when we hear the name.  I feel a little sorry for her at this time.  It’s not as bad as having the last name Hitler, but for a while those women will endure the onslaught of petty jokes.  
The Ashley Madison we think of at this particular time is the website for “cheaters” to connect with other “cheaters” and have a sexual encounter.  Apparently there is a lot of money in hosting a site for this sort of thing.  Ashley Madison isn’t the only such site.  And, of course, there’s a plethora of other such sites that cater to people and their sexual desires. 
There has been some fallout related to the hacking of the Ashley Madison site as recognizable names are found—politicians and others, even pastors—and are identified as…well, cheaters. 
I can’t help but think of the passage in the Gospel of John that was a later addition to the book (thankfully!) about the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus to be stoned.  He acknowledged her sin and the consequences and then invited the one without sin to cast the first stone.  Of course, we all get it, just like they did.  No one is guiltless and therefore our judgments are skewed and self-serving. 
The media response to the Ashley Madison website hacking is a sort of mob dragging the adulterous woman out into the open for her justice.  What hasn’t been mentioned is that whether or not the rest of us are on the Ashley Madison website or any other website for indulging our lusts we are still cheaters of one sort of another. 
Let’s take a simple example as an illustration.  I’ve gotten speeding tickets.  Yes, that’s plural.  I’m 55, well on my way to 56, which means that I’ve been driving for 40 plus years.  I don’t know how many tickets I’ve received, but it’s less that I can count on one hand, or at least close.  I’ve had conversations with people who tell me they’ve never received a ticket for speeding, to which I have responded “have you ever sped, broken the speed limit?”  To which they say “yes” and I then say “you’ve just never been caught.” 
Is the point about obeying the speed limit or not being caught breaking it? 
If we start hurling our stones at the woman caught in adultery or the names exposed on the Ashley Madison hacking then we’re saying the point is not being caught.   Being caught is what people end up being punished for, not breaking the law or cheating or doing whatever else we frown upon in public but then snicker about in private.  If the focus was on the breaking of the law or some ethical or moral standard, then our response would be quite different.  Indeed, perhaps the response to anyone else’s exposed sin ought to bring us to our knees in repentance and acknowledgement of our own sins and transgressions.  It is a sign of sin, I think, that when I learn of someone else’s sin I do not immediately plead for mercy and forgiveness—no matter whether I’ve done what they’ve done or not. 
Certainly there is a need to address the transgressor and his/her transgressions when they become evident, since if we don’t then we are likely to create a worse mess than we have, but in doing so we must make the sincere personal effort to be honest about ourselves and our own history or lapses as well as the brokenness of our social context and political system—it should produce huge amounts of humility instead of the ranting and finger-pointing that we have. 
In regard to the religious rules, I have come to believe that they are about our protection, rather than prohibition.  By engaging in the “sin” we are exposing ourselves and others to serious harm and hurt.  The “rules” aren’t because we’re naughty, but that we’re loved.  Julian of Norwich wrote “Sin has no substance itself, it is only known by the pain that it causes.”  That’s a rough translation, but the point she recognized was that we only know of the sins by the damage done to our hearts—and others.
The Ashley Madison website hack has been terrible for a lot of people—the least of which are those who make money from providing the service.  There are a lot of families and partners and children, congregants and constituents who feel betrayed—but that brokenness is just the tip of the iceberg.  The harm was there already, long before the hack exposed it. 

Here’s a poem I wrote last year about the passage in John I mentioned. 

A woman was brought before Jesus one day
“Adulteress! Stone her! For her sins she must pay!”
Kneeling to the ground, his finger in the dust

Scribbling something mysterious and convicting, I trust

For he captured the hearts of accusers and accused 

And changed the hearts of both abusers and abused

He stood and looked in eyes filled with rage

Seeing the wounded people locked in a cage

Stone her, yes, he said, this is the law

So let the stone fly first from the one without flaw

The silence was louder than their shouts had been

For each knew their lives were not free of their sin

A thump on the ground was the first sound

Then stone after stone dropping was heard all around

Like thunder it sounded for a moment or two

The people convicted, their lies he saw through

Though foolish, they knew better than to challenge his word

For grace was whispered and forgiveness was heard

Not only for the woman, but all who were there

They knew the law was a burden too great to bear

So what about you? Are you holding a stone

Ready to hurl until you’re standing alone?

Those judgments we point to, convinced we are right

Forgetting the log in our eye, impairing our sight

The mercy is for all, the grace is a gift

No more need we cast stones or rocks need we lift

We all are the woman as well as the crowd

So listen quite closely, for the whisper quite loud

God loves each one of us, both sinners and saints

No sin stains so deeply, or vice endlessly taints

There’s nothing to do since do something we can’t

An operation is necessary, a new heart transplant

And this is what the people and the woman receive

And we each do too, if we simply believe.

© Stephen Carl, 2015

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Something I wrote as a pastor, humbled; with a prayer for the church I was serving at the time.  Pastoral ministry is beyond definition, perhaps even description.  One is stretched between the competing horses of discipling and administering, of maintaining an institution and serving one's Lord, of calming unnecessary anxieties and leading people into the presence of God, of wrestling one's own ego and pursuing measurable matrix, of living with integrity and coveting security, of being prophetic and of keeping one's job, of being a voice crying out in the wilderness and of being an ordinary parent for one's children.  What a strange mixture of incongruities ministry has become!  Still, I find that nothing compares to what I discover as one who has been shown mercy.  The following I wrote in October, 2014.

My heart has been captured by God.  With Paul, I realize that I contended against God--sadly I still do, much to my dismay, often as my lips utter words that appear quite the opposite.  Of course, my mind--disclosing the deceptive duplicity by which it was trained--Is too frequently convinced that my words are not a betrayal and my life is not an offense to God.  
On occasion I have moments of humbling clarity when I shudder at my pride and weep at my foolishness.  In such moments I resolve to remain faithful--like Peter on the mount when the Lord was transfigured, I desire to remain, building a tabernacle in which to abide unscathed by temptation or weakness.  Such a resolve, however, is not faithful, nor is it possible.  My deep desire remains pure in its hope of faithfulness, but this hope and faithfulness itself is not without the stain of sin.

The old creature does not relent, does not let loose my soul.  It patiently persists and grows in strength as it whispers excuses that become greater and greater wedges driven between my heart and the One who redeems.  

For me, this cycle has been a gift of love, for it has proven that which I could not see, that which I continue to ignore and deny, that which is obvious if not for the blindness of my heart to its own depravity.  What is disclosed by the Spirit is that even my resolve and every effort to remain chaste and pure, unadulterated by the sin that did not pursue me, but rose out of my very own soul, yes even my proclaimed faithfulness was infected by idolatry as it believed in God's mercy to forgive and grace to be saved, but foolishly maintained that my own power was necessary to remain in the presence, to preserve what I had been generously given. Sinner to the core with no cell unaffected by this fallen predicament I am. The darkness does not rest.  It will become a Trojan horse of holiness in order to slip within one's fortified heart and bring it down from within. 
And yet herein is its downfall, for with this repetition I have seen that even my faithfulness and purity are a gift. Do I remain pure and obedient on my own account, is there any percentage of my own effort necessary for my sanctification or am I doomed to fall from this blessing if I am lacking in persistent action to hold this position I have been granted with my Lord?  It is comical to believe so.  And this is a whisper of love! 
So I have been captured and taken prisoner of the Holy One.  But I have not been enslaved or caged or punished--no, indeed I have been freed.  I have been given pure eyesight to see and recognize the lie I have served for what it is: a sweetness on the tongue, but a deadly and mortal poison with no antidote except one, the blessing of the Holy One who draws from the veins of my life the poison.
I am beyond grateful.  Gratitude is now the air I breath, exhaling praise and thanksgiving.  
I am a clay jar--an earthen vessel with chips and cracks--but it is my joy to contain the treasure.  I am deeply moved by the will of our Creator to grant me such an honor as to bear this love and truth.  I have not done so without mistake and there is nothing I grieve more than for the nature of my earthen vessel to become that which is seen rather than what has been poured into me by grace.  It grieves me, though I know that in God's will, even this cannot eclipse God's love.  

My prayer is this: for each soul to plumb the depths of one's heart with the Holy Spirit and be relieved of the burden of pride, be washed pure of deceit, rise new in grace, and pursue truth and generosity in strength and earnestness.  It is too easy to blame and point judgmental fingers and by doing so remain in the chains of sin, and kept from the rich gift of grace.  
May it never be! except as a peculiar avenue to stumble into the mercy of God!


© Stephen Carl

Friday, June 12, 2015

There is a door that leads to peace. The door is shut and there is a lock on the door too.  For some, opening that door seems impossible.  For one, we may be so overwhelmed dealing with stuff on this side of the door that we don't even see the door or remember it is there.  We may have brief moments of reprieve, look upon the door and long for what lies beyond the door, but believe that it is beyond our capacity to get there.  We may at times try to force our way through the door, break it down, pick the lock, but nothing works. We adopt substitutes for the peace we crave, but these eventually magnify and multiply the lack of peace we have.  We become angered that the peace we so desire is kept from us, denied to us.  We kick the door.
We hear others speak from beyond the door.  Their words of gratitude and joy produce both envy and anger.  
How did they get through the door?  What secret do they keep from us?  Why do they tease us with their possession? 
Years may pass as we writhe in our self-pity, pride, fears, and anxieties.  Remarkably, we may feel led back to the door.  We hear a silent voice ask us to reach out and take hold of the door handle.  We do so and turn it.  We are surprised that the lock is not engaged and wonder if this has been the case all along?  Our heart beats with hope and anticipation as we pull and the door begins to open quite easily.  
We look through the doorway and are surprised by what lies beyond the door.
There beyond the door are those we've heard speak before from beyond the door, and many, many others.  This isn't, however, what surprises us.  Instead, what is astonishing is that other than those who know peace, everything else is the same.  Everything.  Everything beyond the door is also what lies on this side.  Our circumstances remain the same, but our perception of them is transformed.   
We step through the door and we feel something course through our veins.  Peace. Deep, rich, pervasive peace runs though us and washes over us.  
Around the challenges that we face we no longer see the fabrications of fear.  These dreads are gone.  
What has happened?  Why has this not happened before?  Why have others been here for so long while we suffered on the other side of the door?
As if we had spoken our questions, a friend responds: surrender, you let go of what you cannot control and you have learned to trust the only One who does have control.  That One gives us courage to face our challenges, hope that carries us, strength to persist in faith, and humility that keeps us from reclaiming what was never ours.  

© Stephen Carl

Friday, June 5, 2015

I have something to utter
To say
To speak
To verbalize
To make real with words
Stuck in my throat
Lodged there
Wedged in my narrow throat
Wide earnest words of desperation
Why is my throat so narrow
Yet so wide when I speak the sharp arrow words from the quiver of my spite?
I am adept at stringing those words to the bow and aiming and letting them fly
With no consciousness
No thought
Reaction, not response
Survival instinct
What archer abides deep within who does this?
Teach him to pray
To utter words of surrender
To lay down bow and quiver of tongue
To speak humility
Poverty of soul
Indebtedness of heart
To kneel in silence
Bridled mind
Hush hush hush
Be still
Let the soul’s silence be equal to the darkness in the depths of the earth
where no light has shined
Listen      listen                listen

I hear the singing
Silent singing
Song heard not with ear
The vibrations of peace and glory and wonder and awe
The eternal YES
from the eternal voice
Speaking love
Into the darkness
Echoing light
Deep deep deep

Down to the archer
Who weeps in anguish of missing the mark always
Rise up
And take this golden bow
This arrow tipped with hope
Notch it
Draw it further than ever before
Aim it higher than imaginable
Release it
Follow it
Soar with the word to the footstool of The One
Who is The Word
The One from Whom all words arise
The One through Whom all words are blessed
The One from Whom all blessings flow
And let praise replace plaintive cries of punishment

© 2015 Stephen Carl

Thursday, June 4, 2015

There are many authors and theologians I admire and appreciate for their insights and articulation of faith related topics.  One that stands out for me as well as many others (though I do not agree with everything he states) is C. S. Lewis.  His life and story of coming to an orthodox Christian faith is remarkable.  He was not one who easily abandoned his agnosticism, but because of his astute mental practice, he has provided us with deeply analytical and logical explanations of Christianity.  I am fond of many of his writings, but for the purpose of this article I am focusing on his concept of the Shadowlands. 
Lewis’ speaks of the life we know as the Shadowlands—that real life has not yet begun.  The idea that what we commonly call heaven is more real than reality, more substantive than what we currently experience, more true and solid than we are even able to fathom is a direct connection to Plato’s story of the cave. 
Plato explained this concept in a thought-experiment: think of a cave, home to prisoners who spend all their lives chained up in it, facing a blank wall. Behind them a fire burns brightly. People move in procession in front of the fire, but behind the prisoners. The procession throws shadows on the wall. The prisoners watch the shadows: the shadows are all the reality they have. And that’s us. What humankind thinks is real – the material world – is nothing compared with the world of the spirit.
Lewis’ Great Divorce borrows from Plato this idea as well and describes heaven as very hard—not to those who belong, but to those who choose not to belong.  The grass is like nails to those who refuse the offer of love and truth and beauty and life.  These people are unable to surrender their self-salvation through their own petty means and consequently they experience an aversion to the gift—as if it is the very thing that they should avoid at all costs.  For those who are able to lay down their tools of self-justification and humbly accept the gift, however, they themselves become solid and more real and therefore are not harmed by the hardness of heaven.  It’s a wonderfully playful way to describe a truth that is difficult to articulate.   
That Lewis uses an ancient Greek Philosopher’s idea of what this life is and what life beyond this life may be is not a misalignment of a Judeo-Christian concept with a non-believer’s ideas.  Indeed, Plato’s idea points to the truth accurately, albeit missing the richness of what is contained.  Plato’s separation of body and spirit, however, has been co-opted by Christian theology in a way that has not been helpful or accurate to the Judeo roots and sacred notion of life in its unity.  That’s another issue altogether. 
That we cannot begin to imagine heaven is the very sweetness of the gift.  Paul writes that we are being prepared for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure—in other words there is no ruler, no standard by which to measure or compare what we are to receive—there is no way to describe it for nothing in this life begins to even point toward the gift.  Lewis takes Paul’s phrase “weight of glory” and preached a sermon by that title, in which he says we are too easily distracted and amused by making mud pies when we are offered a holiday at sea that we cannot even comprehend. 
That heaven is more solid and more real and more substantive than what we know is a mystery.  Instead, most concepts of heaven are ethereal and cloudlike, with wispy spirits floating like mist stirred by gentle breezes and everyone is mellow and appears to be high on some pharmaceutical compound. 
Lewis had a way of turning our experiences and ideas inside out and exposing our “truths” as flimsy and fake.  Though he was a single man well into his 50’s and then wed an American woman he met through correspondence, he had a profound understanding of love.  He knew that love was more than an emotion, that love requires of us more than we can imagine, that to offer love was to offer our deepest and most treasured self to be trampled and stomped, it was to be vulnerable, but very, very real. 
Remember that it was wonderfully illustrated in a book for children called the Velveteen Rabbit, when the skin horse told the velveteen rabbit that one becomes real through love and when one becomes real then most of the hair is worn off and stuffing is falling out. 
Lewis captures this notion of love when he writes that love opens us up vulnerably and leaves us exposed to the harsh and broken realities of life—and he then gives us an insight into the alternative to the love that leaves us vulnerable and hurt by saying that the only place we’re safe from such truth in love, is hell. 

© 2015 Stephen Carl