Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Book Review: Find Your Way Home

There are few short devotional books I like, even fewer that don't tweak my theologian side as being too wimpy for anyone who wants to think deeply about God. But a few weeks back I was sent a book to review and I'm happy to say that though it is short (you can read it in 1 hour) and devotional it is not theologically wimpy.

In December of 2007 I wrote a blog, "The Human Side of Prostitution: Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy" reviewing a novel based on a real group of women, "The Sisters of Bethany", a unique Dominican Third Order of the Congregation of Saint Mary Magdalen. These were some wicked unique nuns, women who were previous felons, prostitutes, drug-addicts now committed to Jesus and transforming themselves and their culture. Reviewing Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy was such a pleasure, because I knew behind the fictional story's inspiration were real women living out lives of redemption after imprisonment. But this was all long ago, an order founded in the 1860's in France.

Well, through this new devotional book, Find Your Way Home I have found a modern day group order of women, here in the United States who are very similar to these Sisters of Bethany. Founded in 1997 in Nashville, TN, Magdalene helps women who have come out of lives of prostitution and drug addiction. The women of Magdalene have come out of correctional facilities or the streets, they have survived lives of abuse, prostitution and are experiencing a no cost, safe, disciplined, and compassionate community in which to recover and rebuild their lives.

Magdalene is a two-year residential community founded not just to help culture but to create culture itself. Their story and rule for living is simply written out in Find Your Way Home: Words from the Street, Wisdom from the Heart. This short book was written by the Women of Magdalene with Reverend Becca Stevens, Magdalene's Founding Director in short chapters listing out their 24 Rules for living in community.

As I read through the 24 Rules, inspired by Benedictine values, that govern the women of Magdalene's lives I was reminded of several things.

Ready to Change Themselves and You

First, these are women who have taken the bold step of changing from abused and abusers to daughters of God. Their journey begins and ends with God. They firmly believe that love heals.

When Dale and I were in Seattle last month we visited a homeless shelter that helps men get off the streets. The founding director taught us something significant. He said he often hears men say, "I want to get off the streets." The director, a previous addict himself, will offer commiseration (it IS cold on the streets, isn't it?), he has learned that these words do not mean change is forthcoming. It's only when he hears them say, "I want to change my life," that his ears perk up.

Find Your Way Home holds many first person stories, staccato paragraphs of women who were ready to change their life. I read from their words about the cycle of poverty, how difficult it is for the homeless to forgive others and themselves. One woman admits to being invited to Magdalene multiple times, attracted because women from this groups were giving her bags of toiletries and snacks, treating her, a stranger, with love. "The problem was, I couldn't stay clean. It would take me almost another year to give up the drugs, but I am so thankful God didn't give up on me." This going-the-long-distance love is something most church-attenders and small groups would benefit from experiencing, even if just through reading this short book.

The women's honesty would blow open most nice Bible studies. Let me give you one glimpse in a woman of Magdalene's own words, "I know the sweetness of grief and the feeling of tears against my skin. I also know that I will still sacrifice just about anything to be accepted by a man. But knowing that my body and spirit are connected at least give me permission to treat my body and every other body in the world as a great gift from God."

Embedded Bible Verses

Second, while I found consistent Christian ideas peppered throughout the 24 Rules, I did not find any Bible-quoting nor any mention of Jesus. As an apologist for Jesus I thought this worthy of mention. I began taking note of specific Biblical ideas, delighted to find so many God-honoring, true ideas woven into the Rules for life and stories from women. This was the Bible made flesh in a community of women in Nashville, Tennesee.

Here are a few Bible ideas I found.
  • "I have forgiven the man who abused me when I was a child. I can pray for him and hope for wholeness" an incarnation of Jesus' command to love your enemies and pray from them.
  • "We are God's children in flesh and spirit" reminiscent of John 1:12-13
  • "We give drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, comfort to the sorrowful, clothing to the naked, and companionship to the imprisoned and dying. We wash one another's feet" all commands of Jesus.
  • "In loving our neighbors we are meeting God" a version of Matthew 22:39 "love your neighbor as yourself" that feels slightly Hinduistic to me as we are not actually God, but we bear his image.
  • "I knew that God had new plans for me" echoing Jeremiah 29:11
  • "On my best days I know even this broken mess of a body is a temple of spirit" a version of I Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19 that says our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit.
  • My favorite was "we know we are our sister's keepers" a reversal of Cain's avoidance, "Am I my brother's keeper?" in Genesis 4:9.
This spiritual sensitivity with hidden Biblical truths can be a useful guide to helping any person coming out of addiction. It outlines the importance of a Higher Power and prepares them to meet Jesus. Sharing spiritual truths without Jesus can, however, be a dead-end since Jesus' power is necessary to heal us, fully. I can see Find Your Way Home being a good start to spiritual conversations with a friend, especially if she is already concerned with social justice for women. It would be a great way to introduce someone to the Biblical ideas that have power to change real lives today. Just keep an eye out for the Biblical nuggets inside.

Setting up a Rule for Living

Third, this book would be a helpful guide for anyone attempting to set up a series of rules for guiding victims of addiction into healthy life. Inspired by the Benedictine rule, the women have developed guidelines for living with proven working power as they are the guide for everyday interaction and deep-seated community among the Women of Magdalene. Some of the 24 Rules particularly welcome to me like, "Unite Your Sexuality and Spirituality" a much-needed Jewish truth that we are made to be embodied souls, "Consider the Thistle", and "Walk Behind." The personal stories of women from Magdalene are proof that women are finding change, as one woman wrote, "It is not a problem to be lost. It is only a problem if you think it is impossible to find your way home."

Overall, Find Your Way Home made me very glad. Here is a group of women finding hope to leave addiction and find a home, a community, worthy work and meaning in their lives. If you're interested in helping the Women of Magdalene open more homes, you can buy this book as all the proceeds go to Magdalene, or you can visit their ingenious Thistle Farms, a non-profit company where women of Magdalene make all-natural body-healing products. I mean if you've every bought Bath and Body Works, you have to check them out. I've just put in my first order.

Next time I travel to Tennessee, I want to visit Thistle Farm named for that often overlooked flower that blooms where most would die.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Lynching Today

Please be forewarned, this is a heavy one.

Last night I attended a Theater Dance Production where I saw much talent and a lot of skin.

Some dances were sensual, some merely sexual. One in particular stood out to me where a posse of women (teens?) danced around one man to the music of Timbaland and Ludacris. I believe the songs were "Bounce" and "The Potion". At one part the women enacted a violent sexual act with the music sounding much like a woman gasping for breath as she was being choked again and again and again.

After the number I leaned over to my friend, Emily and told her I had three major issues with the whole thing.
  1. Most of the moves were not interesting. I mean if you want to watch women and men bumpin' and grindin' just go to any club. The ones I've been to in my teen years gave me enough pelvic thrusting to leave me rather bored with the unoriginalness of it all. Isn't dancing an art? Shouldn't it be creative beyond club moves?
  2. It was sexier than sex, which means it's not real enough to be rooted in the ways of romance between a real man and woman, which means it's a farce, a deception, a lie. And I have a problem with anything that smacks of lies because it finds it's source in the Enemy of our Souls, the Father of all Lies. The reveling in this kind of dance is the kind of thinking that destroys marriages, prevents intimacy, keeps women invulnerable and men silent and stony. There's no life here.
  3. Women were re-enacting abuse with the man on the stage. They were charading being backhanded, sucked dry, flayed, suffocated, slapped and abused. If the dance was meant to show the pain of evil, it might have been redemptive because it accurately portrayed a reality in this world: woman are abused. But there was no mourning going on, more of a promotion of this kind of sexual/violent encounter. It looked almost cool. Every woman or teen in the production was dressed in a gangsta outfit, baggy pants, one leg up to below the knee, plenty of midriff, sidewayz baseball caps, that sneering, I don't give a @%$*! attitude. They all looked tough, as if they still had control of their body and their heart, even while the guy slapped them around. There was a bit of glory in the manhandling of their bodies, and an attempt to sexify the physical abuse. I cannot enjoy seeing my gender abused and I cannot call that sexy.

So I went home last night rather discouraged that women would want to dance like that.

Today dawned rather solemnly as Dale and I had plans to attend a funeral of a young friend of ours, a twenty year old from our town named Stephen Thomas.

But everyone called him Chongo. Addicted, heartbroken, stony and guarded, Chongo was a guy we ran into regularly around town when we were out past 10 pm. I always felt sort of awkward around him, like he was too cool for me and that whatever I said was not clear enough or interesting enough. I didn't know how best to love him.

We knew those who were mentoring him. We knew he had recently accepted Jesus. We also knew that sneer that often met us when we said hello. He was downright unkind and rude to Dale several times. And I'm fairly sure the reason he talked with me is because he found me mildly attractive.

Chongo overdosed last Saturday. His life snuffed out. His apprenticeship for electrician work, his recently gained GED, his sense of humor, even his sneer that masked his pain are gone from this earth. His funeral did not comfort me. The evangelistic message fell flat on my ears, except in one point.

Buck Chavarria, a jewel in our town, was one of the mentors in his life. He and his fantastically matter of fact wife, Tara, are good friends of ours. Together they run Christ for Life Sk8 Church, a local ministry that works with the kids most of us have given up on. He and Tara serve the kids on drugs, the high school drop outs, the runaways, the vagabonds, the true ragamuffins of our society. They feed them dinner every week, hang out with them at the skate park and help them know what love looks like.

Buck shared at Chongo's funeral one line that has stuck with me this evening. Facing a crowd that spilled out into the foyer, Buck, his black hair greased back in his faintly punk/rockabilly style explained the ways things were, "Chongo didn't know he was loved by you. He had a hard time believing people would love him. I think we all have a hard time believing all the people who love us."

Those words echoed in my soul as I thought through my day. I had spent the last few hours picking up hot Starbucks coffee, coordinating soda and water bottles and driving them to the reception for after wards. I had lugged crates of coffee up stairs through doors, sweating with the effort. All the while I was thinking, what if I had spent this much effort trying to love Chongo when he was alive?

I know I listened to him and complimented him and tried to draw him out. But he was so closed, in so much deep pain. I remember a time when Dale and I were speaking for Sk8 church when Chongo was asking us questions. He was, for a moment, really relating to what we were saying. He asked us something and we tried to take him a step deeper, but he couldn't follow us. I was frustrated with how he gave up. I was frustrated that we couldn't explain the concept of Jesus and his love better. And since that day I would feel a sense of inadequacy around Chongo, hoping I could share anything, even listen, in a way that showed him I cared.

At the church I looked out on the audience of people who all claimed to love Chongo. I mean, that's why we were here, right? Why didn't Chongo feel loved? Why did he seek refuge in substances to alter his reality? Why couldn't he break out of his addictions? Why couldn't he take our love?

I felt the immense wound of this world so intensely.

If you could have met Chongo, you'd see a lack of willpower, a sense of frivolity and meaninglessness. But this was a mask. Every now and then you'd see the pain in his eyes. On the table at the church were many of Chongo's childhood pictures. In a picture taken when he couldn't have been more than 2, I saw something in his eyes. His eyes were dewy, I imagine he had been teary right before being plopped down for the photo shoot. But the expression in those eyes, open, wide open, they radiated such a heart wrenching sensitivity, one that, as I looked at pictures of him growing up, dulled into a sneer, a protective, hardened, even dazed look. The hope and sensitive spirit in him had been dying before he did.

Buck shared about Chongo's kind side during the service. But it was a side Dale and I rarely got to see. As fellow friends, perhaps some who had hosted the party where Chongo had OD'ed filed out of the sanctuary, I was overwhelmed with their grief and hopelessness.

I came home, put on some soft music, lit as many candles as I could find and grabbed the biography of Rosa Parks I've been pouring through. I read two pages before I came upon a horrible lynching story of a young man, Emmett Till, when he was fourteen years old. His body was found in the Tallahachie River, his eye gouged out, his skull crushed, a bullet in his brain and a 75 pound cotton gin barb-wired to his neck. The lynchers were found not guilty.

I put the book down and marched over to my computer and began to write this.

Times have changed since then. In 1954, some white men were the perpetrators against some black men. Today, we don't have to read about horrendous lynchings, but we are still hateful, cruel to some of the people closest to us. I don't know the particulars in Chongo's case, but I have read enough and spent enough time online chatting with teens during Soulation Ask LIVE and after speaking events to know that teens are being destroyed from the inside out. Smoking, using, cutting are only symptoms of their soul's pain.

Often this is due to parents who will not face the truth, who live as people of the lie, who would rather sweep the painful picture of gouged eyes under the rug. It hurts too much to know what painful things we do to one another--often so unintentionally.

Soul pain is the most insidious method the evil one uses, for we cannot immediately see it, tend it, heal it, unless we study each other's eyes. And even then, we know how to mask our pain.

Today we hear about young men and women destroying their souls. Their spirits so abused by others (mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, themselves) that they have no will to feel or live or know.

Today, teens are lynching themselves; the signs are rampant. They starve themselves, they cut themselves, they fall into abusive relationships where they have no will to break away, they grow passive in school, their eyes no longer carry any sparkle or sensitivity to give me hope, the women glory in their lithe, supple bodies, magnifying their sexual powers far too soon, captured by their own powers of captivation.

And these children and young adults are the walking dead among us. And they are very, very hard to love. Their lives are snuffed out as they continue, numbly, to exist. Mostly their choices are meaningless and their lives feel controlled by someone else. Most of the teen addicts are living in ways against their will, for their wills have been rendered useless against the power of the evil one. He bends his will to make the image bearers of God grow passive, listless and powerless to find the good stream of living water.

At the moment, I cannot bring myself to think of solutions, I can only meditate on Buck's words that we are loved. We are loved, though few of us know it.