Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love - My Take (My Very Long Take)

(Since I had just finished reading the book, and had no idea there was an upcoming movie, it felt like the movie was made just for my personal entertainment - literally two weeks after finishing the book! My kids, of course, knew there was a movie coming out. "Silly Mom, let me show you the trailer..." Oh! And I have to agree with my friend Megan who said the book is, of course, "infinitely better than the movie." Honestly, I don't think I would have even enjoyed the movie had I not read the book.)

Elizabeth Gilbert is not a Christian, and it was refreshing to discover in her book Eat, Pray, Love that she knows it:

"And while I do love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed he would do, I can't swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only way to God." p. 14

I say "refreshing," because it is frustrating when a person insists they are a Christian, but they refuse to accept this and other very fundamental principles of the Christian faith. And just in case you're wondering where that fundamental belief comes from, here's a start...

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. John 14:6

I was thankful for this disclaimer of sorts at the beginning of her book, because it enabled me to continue through the pages and simply enjoy hearing about and learning from her experiences without the anxiety that accompanies a misrepresentation of your faith.

(And now my own disclaimer: This is in no way a complete review of this book - just my own thoughts about and take on a few parts that stood out to me personally.)

Another thing Ms. Gilbert gets right is her summation of the status of the Protestant churches in New England...

"My mother used the church as a headquarters from which to organize good works of volunteer service for the community. But even in that church I don't remember there being a lot of talking about God. This was New England after all, and the word God tends to make Yankees nervous." p. 152

Her statements tickled me, because not only do I live right in the middle of that wacky dynamic, but my husband and I were called here to plant a church that actually does talk about God.

And we talk about Jesus, too. ("Horrors!" as my grandmother would say.) He makes 'em really nervous.

By now you probably already know that Eat, Pray, Love is a book about travel writer, Elizabeth Gilbert's, one year adventure in Italy, India, and Indonesia. She is on somewhat of a spiritual journey after a nasty divorce and hasty, codependent, rebound relationship; a journey of self and god discovery. Recently, I have read a couple of reviews of the book and movie that suggest that Elizabeth Gilbert is nothing but a white, wealthy, self-absorbed narcissist using the beauty and spiritual aspects of each country she visits - aloof to the problems and poverty - to soothe her restless soul. I did not have those strong reactions, but rather could relate in several ways to her inner struggle. But then I, too, am a self-absorbed narcissist at times - longing purely for personal comfort and peace. In reality, I think we all may be. Yes, even the missionary to those foreign lands. And even you, Ms./Mr. Social Justice/World Peace/Human Rights crusader.

When Gilbert described her depression and melancholy temperament, I understood it. Yes, she seemingly has everything one could want - talent, career, money, recognition, public accolades, friends and more, but still she couldn't shake her companions: "Loneliness and Depression track me down after about ten days in Italy," she admits. (p. 46) I know that feeling. I'm much better now, but in the last year and a half, I also battled those two guys intensely. One friend I confessed some of my struggle to said, "But I don't understand. You have the perfect life." And I knew what she meant: health, home, happy marriage and family, wonderful husband, great kids, fruitful ministry - things my friend didn't even have at that moment, but still my own tears and sadness prevailed. I guess you could call that self-absorbed, but I am very thankful the few around me who knew of the struggle didn't accuse me of that. My enemy was doing a pretty good job of it already - which didn't help things at all. Feeling bad about feeling bad is a very BAD cycle.

"Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them before our God day and night." Revelation 12: 10

And he is so convincing.

I was amazed, though, that Gilbert and I share the same thoughts on the use of anti-depressants:

"I'd never wanted to be on the medication in the first place. I'd fought taking it for so long, mainly because of a long list of personal objections (e.g. Americans are over-medicated; we don't know the long-term effects of this stuff yet on the human brain; it's a crime that even American children are on anti-depressants these days; we are treating symptoms and not the causes of a national mental health emergency...) (p.48)

She does eventually see a psychiatrist and take medication for her depression, but only after she had tried everything else, only when getting sunshine, spending time with good friends, a new haircut and cute dress were not helping anymore, only when she "could not walk another step," only when she was beginning to be tempted to commit suicide. I think she was both wise and humble in this situation, but even then she "always felt conflicted about it," and "wanted to be off them as soon as possible." (p. 51)

Several folks who knew of my struggle suggested the use of anti-depressants, often so forcefully that I began to feel both unwise and immature for deciding to try other things: rest, more focused and extended prayer times, reading Scripture, working through two Bible study workbooks that addressed some of my battles, exercise, healthy foods, better boundaries with time, etc. Also, there were contributing factors - extended family crises, lots of travel/time away from home, and my own sin of unbridled perfectionism among other things. Depression and sadness are God-designed emotional responses to bring about awareness of need or maybe needed change. I have no interest in numbing those natural responses. I'd rather press in to Jesus and allow Him to help me "take on depression like it was the fight of my life..." to use Gilbert's words. I did decide to see a wonderful, godly Christian counselor who, at age 70, was able to help me get some perspective and make connections to reasons for this depression. She was a gift and just the perfect balance of nurture and truth. (And may I just mention that it seems you can count the number of Christian counselors in New England on one hand. Yes, a miraculous gift - and just 45 minutes from my home.)

Now I feel like a lot of other disclaimers are in order here, (I can almost hear your "buts" and "what ifs") because I do think there are those who desperately need the medication, but I also think life is hard. Jesus promised it would be hard, (it's a fallen world) but that He would be our hope. Depression is literally all over the Bible. "Why are you in despair, O my soul?" (Psalm 42) or how about, "We were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life..." (I Cor. 1:8) What concerns me is when, Christians especially, are quicker to take the medication than to press in for real help and healing in Christ. I once lived in a place where nearly every Christian minister's wife or ministry staff woman I knew was on anti-depressants. Something is wrong with that picture.

Larry Crabb is a prominent Christian counselor that many love to hate, but I tend to like him, because I'd much rather (usually!) hear it straight up than sugar-coated. Here's just one great quote from his book Shattered Dreams that was a great help to me in years past:

"It's hard to hear, but it is important to know that God is not committed to supporting our ministries, to preventing our divorces, to preserving our health, to straightening out our kids, to providing a livable income, to ending famine, to protecting us from agonizing problems that generate in our souls an experience that feels like death. We cannot count on God to arrange what happens in our lives in ways that will make us feel good."

"We can count on God to patiently remove all the obstacles to our enjoyment of Him. He is committed to our joy, and we can depend on Him to give us enough of a taste of that joy and enough hope that the best is still ahead to keep us going in spite of how much pain continues to plague our hearts."

That's what I want - to not have anything in the way of enjoying Him. Oh, depression and melancholy were and are not fun. More than I have ever let myself before I crave comfort, peace, and ease these days, but I know there are no such things apart from Him.

Whom have I in heaven, but you? And besides you, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever....As for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works. Psalm 73: 25, 26, 28

Recently, a Christian friend wrote to me to see what I thought about Eat, Pray, Love - spiritually speaking. I think she hesitated reading it, because after only a few chapters she said, "I am already realizing what a messy, religious mishmash it is." Yep. But what to make of Ms. Gilbert's spiritual experience - especially during her months at an Ashram in India? Because she definitely has an experience in which she describes being "suddenly transported through the portal of the universe and taken to the center of God's palm." (p. 198)

Well, if our enemy is "the great accuser" to those diligently seeking the one true God in Jesus Christ, then he is also "the great encourager" or "the great leave-r alone-r" to those who are not. The Christian must be "sober of spirit" and "on the alert," because our "adversary, the devil prowls about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour." (1 Peter5:8) Think of Job, whom Satan was confident would reject God after he was finished with him, or Peter, whom Satan demanded to "sift like wheat." He did not demand this of, say..... Jezebel or Judas. They were on his team. He could rest in their loyalty to him (though they didn't even know that's the team they were on) and go after those who threatened his power and authority on earth.

Missionary friends returning from cultures that engage heavily in the meditative, Buddhist, and other practices which Ms. Gilbert describes, tell of the great oppression and attacks they experience there. Some we know have had to return home because of it - for the safety and health of their families. These Christians are on his territory, and he wants them off. On the other hand, he's thrilled that millions are devoting themselves to a human guru, to "emptying themselves" through meditation, and to surrounding themselves with little graven images and idols. It pleases him to no end.

And as my husband summed it up, "Satan is cooking up counterfeit experiences left and right."

But I certainly admired Gibert's earnestness and devotion to her spiritual practice. And here is where I think many Christians (including myself) are sometimes missing the mark and wondering why they are not experiencing Christ in their daily lives. We are also called to meditate - on truth, on His Word. We are also called to surrender and release - everything to Him and His will. The experiences of peace, forgiveness, grace, and love that Gilbert described having at times are available to Christians all of the time - in even greater abundance, with deeper meaning and truth. We are filled with the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion. What could be better than that? And as Robert mentioned in last week's sermon, this filling of the Holy Spirit automatically unites us with divinity - the Trinity.

"In that day you shall know that I am in my Father, and you in Me, and I in you." John 14:20

"That day" being the one in which believers would be baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Yes, constant intimacy with the divine is available to us at all times. Unfortunately, we often prevent this intimacy by our own sin and selfishness, by our seeking of other gods; gods more comfortable and less demanding. Ms. Gilbert was in search of this very thing, and she was willing to get it at nearly any cost - denying herself, waking up early, sitting in meditation for hours, etc.

How often do I make myself available to the Holy Spirit in the same manner? It is my desire, though, and the place of healing and hope that I am in need of. So, I have to say that although I think she was misguided and even deceived, she inspired and exhorted me in my own practice of biblical meditation, surrender, faith, and trust - in my devotion to the spiritual practices that allow the Spirit to move within me.

"Devotion is diligence without assurance," Gilbert declares.

Thankfully, for this perfectionist - diligent in all things small and large - I have assurance.

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1

" the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." Hebrews 6:11-12

"This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us..." Hebrews 6: 19-20

At the end of the book, Ms. Gilbert describes an earlier getaway to a remote island on which she rents a beach cabin and vows to not speak at all, to retreat into silence and solitude until something changes inside of her. Reading this experience, I thought she might finally come to realize the Truth that Christians claim, and the gifts of pure love and forgiveness that they experience in Christ. On her ninth day of silence she calls to mind all past life episodes of sadness, anger, and shame. After hours of recall and acknowledging even her worst moments of selfishness and arrogance, she experiences freedom and forgiveness - at least temporarily, she says.

The words she describes as coming from her own heart in that moment are these:
"I love you, I will never leave you, I will always take care of you."

And this is exactly what the Lord says to His followers...

"I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness." (Jeremaiah 31:3)

The LORD is the one who goes ahead of you; He will be with you He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed."
(Deut. 31:8)

So yes, that is what God does and is, but there's just one problem. After all of this was over she states, "I looked into my own heart, at my own goodness, and I saw its capacity....I knew then that this is how God loves us all and receives us all, and that there is no such thing as hell..." (p. 328) She credits herself. She says that her own goodness was always there, and God just gently led her to realize it. And according to her, He does this for everyone, whether or not they credit Him or acknowledge Him for exactly who He is. But it is He that takes upon Himself all of that anger, sadness, and shame - on the cross. It is not our own heart that does that. She understands her need for redemption, but seems to conclude that she is capable of that in and of herself.

So...she doesn't quite get there. And for me it was a bit agonizing to see God revealing Himself to her so graciously at times, but for her to continue to reject who He is:

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.
(John 14:6)

God cannot be limited by our comfort level and ideas of political correctness. He is who He is and lovingly demands acceptance as such. Just like if you want to be in relationship with me, I'd like that relationship to be based on who I really am and not someone you create in your own mind - someone who fits better with your ideas and experiences.

So again, I'm thankful that Ms. Gilbert at least acknowledges this fact - that she is not a Christian according to Jesus' own definition of Himself as God, and the only way to God. Also, I'm comforted by her similar struggle with all things internal and emotional, and I'm spurred on by her devotion to her god. (Just like Barbara Mouser says we ought to be inspired by Jezebel's!) But I'm still left frustrated at her rejection of God for who He really is, and pray her journey continues to that end.


jen chau said...

We were just talking about this book the other day. Thank you for sharing your inner struggles and insights. I too gave much thoughts about struggles with dark and cloudy days. I would love to have coffee sometimes.

Melanie said...

Hi Jenny - I would LOVE to have coffee sometime. Lets talk soon.

Rachel said...

I would LOVE to have coffee, too! We have plenty of Starbucks out here... :) Love your long take on these things!