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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: sin

Proclaim a Fast

jenmichel@me.com

It's been years since I gave anything up for Lent. And here are the pretty little lies I tell myself about this:

- I'm a disciplined person. Fasting is a spiritual practice for those who don't live as moderately as I.

- There's nothing really to be gained by giving up something for forty days. In fact, there might be unnecessary zeal in trying.

- I have nothing to give up: no vices, no crippling neuroses, no secret addictions.

I am beginning to recognize the depth of that fraudulence. I'm also realizing that I, more than anyone, am in desperate need of a Lenten fast.

If the habits of regular Bible reading and prayer in my life are part of what keeps me spiritually grounded, the danger in that daily routine is for how self-reliant it can become. The alarm sounds, I get up, I make coffee, I open the Scriptures. It serves to construct this dangerous illusion that I'm piloting this whole thing. So long as my "quiet time" yields the impression that God has spoken to me, so long as I sustain clarity for my questions, so long as I feel sent into the world to do something purposeful, life hums pleasantly. I feel connected with God.

But spiritual routines, like every autopilot, can unexpectedly fail. You can be left wondering what you have done or failed to do to make God mute.

There is nothing to do in that moment (which can lengthen to days, to weeks, and for some, to years) but to wait and to listen.

In fact, I think listening might be the most patient of all the spiritual disciplines. (And here's a book I'm really looking forward to: The Listening Life by Adam McHugh.)

Listening feels a lot like getting lost in the woods and trying to regain bearings. Living in a big city, I wouldn't really know anything about this (and it's dangerous to ever write about something of which you're completely ignorant), but I'm imagining that if I were ever lost in the woods, I'd have to slow down. Hunt for something recognizable. Listen to the sounds orienting me to direction.

Listening can feel like lostness. You have to prevail upon your senses. You have to be patient.

So that's a bit of where I've been recently: lost and listening. Lost in a book manuscript, trying to make sense of where it's supposed to be headed. And lost in a bit of deafening silence from God.

The good news is, I've found a clearing. The listening has led somewhere spacious. The book has a new direction. And so do I.

I'm headed toward a Lenten fast.

Yesterday, I was reading Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's fantastic book, The Wisdom of Stability, and here was a tiny little paragraph that unraveled the fraudulence I was telling you about. Wilson-Hartgrove is talking about the story of Legion, a man from whom Jesus casts countless demons. The demons flee to a herd of pigs, who rush over a cliff and drown in a lake. The man, once as wild as a beast, is now composed and calm:

"The sight of this man seated at Jesus' feet puts fear in the people of the town. We are, after all, accustomed to our demons. Despite our frustration and occasional acts of resistance, we accommodate ourselves to the ways they limit our own lives and crush the lives of others. However terrible our demons may appear when we look them in the face, their presence along the periphery of our lives feels normal. Maybe the demons kill, but we're often more comfortable with the frenetic forces that drive us here and there than we are with the radical new way of life that Jesus brings" (38, The Wisdom of Stability).

The frenetic forces that drive us here and there: ah, yes.

Those demons. Those vices, those neuroses, those addictions. I'm starting to recognize something familiar in myself.

When I have the chance, I'll write more about the specifics of my demons, which are really tied up in my use of technology. But I think this post is less about my vice and more about the necessity of resistance and ruthlessness in our spiritual lives.

What sin do we tolerate? What pretty little lies do we tell ourselves? And how much listening will we "suffer" until the fraudulence is exposed?

There is a radical new way of life that Jesus brings. It's wholeness in every sense of the word. It's shalom.

And for all that's attractive about this with-God, abundant life, it's also true that life as we've often known it - life driven by the frenetic forces - has a certain consolation to it. Familiarity makes sin safe. It can be incredibly hard to make a change, no matter how necessary that change may begin to seem to us.

Frequently, I fail the courage for that change. But I believe the Lord grants willingness to the willing. Grace.

This Lent, by grace and grace alone, I will step into the risk of resistance.

Grace is the first and final word in our lives of faith. But it doesn't exclude our participation, our involvement, our willingness. So this Lenten season, may grace stir in each of us willingness. May willingness give birth to resistance. May resistance become repentance, repentance become obedience.

Let's proclaim a fast.

And may we all be led into the everlasting light of shalom.

Found Wanting: Ben Jolliffe, "I wanted nothing."

jenmichel@me.com

I am curating stories for a blog project called, “Found Wanting.” (If you’d like to submit a guest post, learn more here.) During Jesus’ earthly ministry, it was not uncommon for him to approach the sick and sin-sick with this question: “What do you want?” In John 5, he speaks with a man lying next to the healing waters of Bethesda, a man who has been an invalid for 38 years.

“When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’"

The man seizes an excuse. “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.”

Was it too much for this man to hope for healing?

What is too great a risk to invite the responsibility for walking again?

There can be fear in desire: fear that we will want what God will always refuse to give; fear that we will not want whatever God, in his sovereignty, chooses to give.

Ultimately, we are profoundly afraid of ceding into the hands of God our trust.

I’m grateful for those willing to share their stories of desire here. I'm neither applauding nor condemning their stories: rather, I am amplifying their desires - and reminding each of us that to be human is to want. In my book, Teach Us to Want, I claim that:

“Desire takes shape in the particularities of our lives. We cannot excerpt desire from the anthology of our stories. Our desires say something about us – who we have been, who we are and who we are becoming. They tell a part of the story that God is telling through us, even the beautiful and complicated story of being human and becoming holy.”

To catch up on the series, read these featured stories: Amy Chaney, "I didn't want to be a coach's wife." Beth Bruno, "I've wanted beauty." Wendy Stringer, "I didn't want to move to suburbia." Steve Burks, "I've wanted to produce entertainment." Faydra Stratton, "I didn't want a child with Fragile X." Brook Seekins, "I never wanted to be a missionary in Africa." Sarah Van Beveren, "I have always wanted to be strong." Holly Pennington, "I didn't want to find out what I wanted." Larry Shallenberger, "I wanted to know what I wanted." Hannah Anderson, "I didn't want - because I couldn't afford to." Megan Hill, "I want your blessing." Bronwyn Lea, "I wanted a boyfriend, college scholarships, permission to sleep over at the popular kid's house." Jennifer Tatum, "I've wanted to be a woman of faith, but . . ." Sarah Torna Roberts, "I didn't want to be broken." Suanne Camfield, "I want a bigger house." Courtney Reissig, "I wanted a baby." Cara Meredith, "I've wanted it all." Anonymous, "I want to not want marriage anymore." Deborah Kurtz, "I wanted a husband."

Today, Ben Jolliffe shares his story of desire on the blog.

* * * * *

I wanted nothing. My whole life felt centered around denial.

As a [good] Christian kid, the son of a pastor, I focused on not doing the bad things. More than simply avoiding them, I worked at not wanting them. Sex. Porn. Money. Success.

Along with the big categories go the little, every-day things I also wanted: Doritos, another coffee, time alone. My spiritual life seemed to consist of eradicating these wants from my life and soul. It wasn’t all bad. At times it was incredibly freeing and life-giving to be free from porn and other sins.

But it felt like a zero-sum game. What happens when I get to the end? What happens when all the bad things are eliminated? Purely a hypothetical question of course, but when the house is swept clean, what happens next?

At some point, years deep into ministry, I read James K.A. Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom” alongside Christopher Wright’s “Mission of God” and something clicked. Dealing with sinful desires (and actions!) was only part of the picture. Maybe not even half the picture. There was something bigger I was being called into, namely, the cultivation of desire to participate in the Mission of God.

The best part? The mission was bigger and broader than I imagined. It included gardening, playing tennis, eating, sleeping, sex, evangelism and social justice. It might even include Doritos once in a while.

I felt so refreshed. No longer was I aiming to be a neutered, passionless (and joyless) Christian man who simply avoided sin. I now had the chance to think about directing all of the energy, passion and testosterone at good things, things that spoke of the new Kingdom, things that brought life and vitality.

Now shaping your desires is much tougher than one might expect but it is a whole lot more interesting than a race to zero.

* * * * *

Ben Jolliffe is a church planter in Ottawa, Canada.

Celebrate Advent: Make room for forgiveness. (Matthew 1:18-25)

jenmichel@me.com

She undresses. Fears and insecurities, slowly and carefully unbuttoned.  Wrinkled pretense, stripped and heaped at her feet. And when she finally stands before us, crowded room of practical strangers, she is soul-naked and exposed, and we, the voyeurs, we stare.

She whispers quiet the bedroom conversations and tortured inner dialogues. She opens doors to her interior spaces. It's the of space you don't keep neat for guests.

She risks, divulging the bloody guts of what it really means to live wrecked. 

And we hold out our hands to receive her fragile and holy confessions.

And breathe relief.

She is like us.

We are wrecked, too.

* * * * *

There's a word for this wrecked state of the human soul. It's called sin.

And Advent, if nothing else, is this and most simply this: a season to celebrate a Savior. God-Man, Jesus, stepping into human skin and bearing all its porousness, hero for the wrecked.

"Neither the language of medicine nor of law is adequate substitute for the language of [sin]. Contrary to the medical model, we are not entirely at the mercy of our maladies. The choice is to enter into the process of repentance. Contrary to the legal model, the essence of sin is not [primarily] the violation of laws but a wrecked relationship with God, one another and the whole created order. 'All sins are attempts to fill voids,' wrote Simone Weil. Because we cannot stand the God-shaped hole inside of us, we try stuffing it full of all sorts of things, but only God may fill [it]." - Barbara Brown Taylor

To admit I'm a sinner is surrender the pretense and lay down the excuse-making.

To embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ is to admit the dead-ends of my resolutions. I keep none of my promises. I'm the repeat offender. I am hopelessly criminal in what I do and intend and neglect.

For the wrecked, forgiveness is the fantastic news of Advent.