High Lonesome

Today we have the Ten Commandments in Exodus and it seemed fitting to me to take a look at how these commandments have haunted us for all of our lives. You may think that this is the distant past, an archaic relic of ancient Israel, but I have found that the Law of God is alive and well in our day and age.

When we look at the level of human suffering, these ten words are the GPS of human pain because of our inability on our own to keep these commands.  We can’t love God and we keep hanging on to idols to solve our problems. We think of ourselves far more than we ever think of the neighbor, which leads to some pretty bad behavior- individually and collectively.

This past Sunday, our daughter Callie and her cousins were in Las Vegas. My nephew Brian was caught up in the chaos on the strip with his downs syndrome daughter, Katlyn, and is still shaken. With so many killed and wounded, it felt as if the Dark Side inched closer to us. The odd thing about this shooting is the swiftness of how we turned our attention back to regular channels. It’s another disaster, another scary thing happening, another event that makes us feel powerless.  We seem to be suffering from compassion fatigue as a society.

Russell Brand, who just wrote a book on addiction, talks about Las Vegas as the archetypal happening in America—‘One of those things’ that has happened again. Russell asks, “What is it that is not being addressed? What is bubbling up in the form of violence? [It appears to be] an extreme unhappiness, unaddressed darkness.” Brené Brown’s new research says that we in America are suffering a spiritual crisis of High Lonesomeness because we are disconnected from each other and God as the result of dehumanizing blaming, labeling and reacting.  We are disconnected and isolated and yet we are built for trust in God and connection to each other.

Psychiatrist Gerald May said that, after twenty years of listening to people, he was convinced that all human beings have a desire for God. He wrote, “Whether we are consciously religious or not, this desire is our deepest longing and our most precious treasure. It gives us meaning. ..Regardless of how we describe it, it is a longing for love. It is a hunger to love, to be loved, and to move closer to the Source of love. This yearning is the essence of the human spirit.” But May also gives us the paradox of how we yearn for love and turn away at the same time, seemingly because we are unable to handle the pain that life hands out and turn to addiction and rebellion.  The old French ‘atache’ means ‘nailed to.” We become nailed to what we see as our solutions for dealing with pain of feeling unloved. We cannot remove the nails by ourselves.

Edgar Allen Poe, who lived at 13 East Range on the Lawn, said, “I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”  Sin is the voice that threatens us with our inadequacies, loneliness and regrets. We have all experienced this at some level.

Paul Zahl says that the Ten Commandments are, “an accurate summary or description of what it means to be obedient, happy and fulfilled. If we were able to fulfill it, the law would be the answer to humanity’s problems.” This law tells us what we are supposed to do to be happy, joyous and free and yet gives us absolutely no power to be able to do it. The Episcopal catechism asks the question, “Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all?” The answer it gives is, “Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.”

Martin Luther believed this also—he said the commandments are the diagnosis of our human condition.. The Holy Spirit has written these on our hearts and we know at the cellular level when we break them—as our own conscience condemns us. These ten words describe what our own self-will looks and feels like. We don’t have to physically murder someone to know what murder feels like—we have murderous hearts that blame and rage because we are afraid of being alone. All forms of fear and self-righteousness spring from these ten thoughts and, although our bad behaviors do not make God love us any less, they can make us hide in guilt, shame, pain and isolation. We become more self-condemning and self-centered, which drives us to steal, lie, envy, condemn and dishonor others. The law shows us how corrupt and self centered we really are. It shows us the truth about ourselves that we can’t justify or cover up. Our self-sufficient ways do not work for us so we are eventually forced by circumstances to our knees to ask for help. What happens then?

Martin Luther also said that if the commandments are our diagnosis, the creeds are our prescription. This is the good news. Romans 10:4 tells us that Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. The law condemns but Christ saves us from the harassment of the law through the power of love. It is like having creditors call you but your bill is already paid—you don’t have to pick up the phone.  Grace picks up the phone for you.  The gospel that Christ died for you because of great love stops the torture of not-good-enough and relieves us of our burden of restless quests for self according to Gerhard Forde. This is grace.

Grace is also the hardest theological concept to understand because it is not of human making. This world is a world of law—of judging each other, being competitive, and self-centered fear. Christ’s kingdom is one of grace and forgiveness, which breaks into our world in surprising places.

Although the pain of Las Vegas causes us to turn away, grace shows up in the middle of pain. My nephew Brian and his daughter found a compassionate special agent who escorted them back to their hotel room door and calmed Katlyn down. My attention was also drawn to the Bad Apple Tattoo Parlor whose owner, Peter Barrios, realized that people in Vegas were sad, scared, traumatized and mad.  He decided it would be therapeutic to people to share their pain so he has been donating his time to tattoo people affected by the shootings. When he was raising the chair for one woman, the clik-clik-clik reminded her of the bullets and she began screaming and weeping. Barrios comforted her, repeatedly saying, You’re safe now. You’re safe. There were no more bullets to hurt you.” Henri Nouwen says that Christ’s grace, “shares our pain and touches our wounds with a warm and tender hand,” whether in a tattoo parlor in Vegas or a church in Charlottesville.

I want to end with one last story that seemed related in terms of the unseen hand of grace connecting us in unbreakable bonds. As the world cries out for love and benediction, we find care and love in the strangest places.

This week, a woman named Suzanne Simard changed the way I think about forests. She grew up in the ancient forests of British Columbia and her grandfather was a logger. By using isotope tracers, she discovered that trees are connected by a below ground web now known as the Wood Wide Web. Trees can warn each other, give information, provide nutrients, and even nurture their young. This is interspecies and across miles through mycelium or fungus tubes that also act as mineral miners and hunters to feed the trees. When mother trees are injured or dying, they send messages send warning signals to other trees to prepare them for bugs, weather or disease. Dr. Simard says that an intelligence greater than ours is at work because of how intricately balanced and fantastical these systems are. Why am I telling you this? Because I still believe what Alfred Joyce Kilmer taught me at 12 years old in the poem Trees—only God can make a tree. God makes trees that live with each other by design; that, even as they are dying, share and care for each other.  This defies the laws of nature as we know them—survival of the fittest, every tree for himself. If God has such love and care of trees in the forest who look so solitary, He certainly cares for us. There is a web of Christ’s grace just as hidden but just as strong upholding all of us.

May the law of God bring you to Christ’s grace this day so you may experience the vast web of of his love and care.