Grief: Make room to grieve in every way you need

I wonder if what has been making us mean in the last few years is unprocessed grief. Maybe we have not grieved at all, or haven’t considered all the ways our souls are working through the losses and sadness we carry.

Do people in the United States have good ways to grieve anymore? Were you taught anything by your family system that helps you?

I am connected to many people who are not conversant in grief at all. If I suggest we talk about their loss and the grief they feel about it, they almost immediately deflect. They can talk about trauma, anxiety and depression, which are words the therapeutic language we use allows.  But the deeper, soulful grief they are passing through and which they will continue to bear is hard to admit. For many men, especially, grieving seems weak, shameful, irrelevant, or just annoying.

You can see grief behind the meanness

It is possible, isn’t it, that not making room for grief is contributing to how mean we are getting. Many people have noticed our agression and disrespect growing, especially if they drive a car, and even more viscerally if they have been to the U.S. southern border. Americans are meaner. David Brooks wrote a great (long!) article about becoming meaner in The Atlantic last fall. But he did not highlight grieving.

Even though we went through a pandemic and even though the death and fear of it is not really over, Americans generally seem to brush off their need to grieve. Our president, at the outset of the health emergency, minimized the disaster and his followers loudly distrusted the vaccines which undoubtedly saved the lives of millions of the 111 million Americans who have been infected, so far — (yes, a full third of the country! and it may be more). Even with the vaccines, 1.2 million people have died from Covid so far in the U.S. — that’s over 1/7 of the estimated deaths worldwide. Donald Trump is famous for appearing on the porch of the White House, fresh from the hospital, still having trouble breathing, pointedly denying anything significant was happening.

I know many of us did not take his lead, but I think the country, by and large, buried its grief. The persistent irritation of unrecognized, denied, or avoided grief could make us mean and even sicker than we might normally be.

Maybe Trump takes his cues from the screen, since he is famous for having a lot of TV time. The screens contribute to our inability to grieve. We often learn how to live from them. And the screens are sketchy about what they teach about grief.

If you see grieving on the screen, it often moves through in a few moments. Some movies are enlightening stories of grief, of course — but even those films tidy things up, generally, after about two hours. Learning grief from film or TV shows may stunt us. They may desensitize us to our personal process because our catharsis happens while watching someone else, and someone who is not real, at that. It is not the same as having our own experience.

Our experiences rarely match  the screen. Most screens show grief in stereotypic ways. A Reddit ranter says:

I’m home alone watching Kingsman (I know) and the main character loses the son he spent his whole life protecting and after 3 mins of air time grieving, he’s smacked into reality and goes back to work…. Like, is this annoying to anyone else but me? A close friend can give you a pet [sic] talk to physically hit you and now you’re okay again?!!?!

The boatload of heroic spy and superhero movies we’ve had in the last decade usually include this message about grief: there is no time for it. Besides, we’re too tough to give into it. Heroes tend to say, “I’ll honor your moment of silence for the latest victims, even acknowledge your single tear squeezing out. But then it is back to the work of revenge or raining overwhelming force on our enemies.” For instance, here is Thor dealing with his grief in Guardians of the Galaxy:

He gets slapped. Then he “gets it together” in record time. Grief meets meanness on the screen.

Maybe we need grieving room

Leanne FriesenLast week a book my acquaintance wrote about grieving showed up in my Kindle. I forgot I pre-ordered it. I admit, I was hesitant to open it because I really admire this woman and I did not want to not like her book. But as soon as I read a few pages, I could not put it down. It is a charming, honest, helpful book about grief: Grieving Room: Making Space for All the Hard Things after Death and Loss. In a world that wants to rush toward closure and healing, Leanne Friesen gives us reasons, and maybe more important, gives us permission to let loss linger. She teaches us to give ourselves and others grieving room when the very worst happens.

I wrote a bit about grief last week, too, because I need to give it room, just like anyone else. I was not prepared for loss. I think the most I heard about grief in my family growing up was when my mom shouted “Good grief!” — which isn’t quite the same as demonstrating healthy living or having a serious discussion!

Reading Friesen’s book creates much-needed time to meditate on old, unfinished griefs and space to accept more recent, raw ones. She is mainly reflecting on her own life-changing experience of losing her relatively-young sister to cancer. But I think what she says easily applies to losing several years to a pandemic, to vicariously losing mass-shooting victims or Palestinian children, to being fired from your job, to losing your child to estrangement, or to many of the other losses we don’t think to make room for.

She also focuses on her own emotions, which she can readily access; there is lots of crying, angry outbursts, and tenderness. That does not mean you can’t use her book to help you grieve the way you do. Men who have rarely cried as an adult can read it, traumatized people whose losses are terrifying can enter in at their present level, even Christians who think the Holy Spirit bears all their griefs so they don’t have to can benefit.

The Bubble

One of the most helpful images in Grieving Room comes in the chapter “Room to Never Get Over It: Always Missing the One You Lost.” In that chapter Friesen faces the hard thing we all face when someone asks, “Are you over it yet?” — or when we fear someone might ask that because we should be over it, or when we ask ourselves that question because we want to be over it. She says:

There is a season when you live right inside that big cloud of grief. In the grief bubble, it feels like you live surrounded by grief all the time. This is a normal part of grieving. It is also true that at some point, we transition to a time where we live beside the bubble, instead of inside it. Moving to this season can take a long time. Even when the big cloud shifts, your grief never really leaves. It is still part of us, forever.

It could take years for us to get out of our grief bubble. If we don’t make room for that reality, we’ll probably get mean to ourselves or others — and who knows what else might happen?

This award winning short film reduces the process of grieivng to ten minutes, but it seems more accurate to me than many depictions. You might see the bubble in it.

Jesus in the dust with us

Even though Friesen is a protestant church leader, she realized she might not make room for resurrection. In the chapter right next to the one I just mentioned is “Room for Resurrection: Starting to Find New Life Again.” She writes:

One of my favorite quotations, from Frederick Buechner, says, “The resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.” [The Final Beast (1965)]…Had the idea of all of us rising together ever meant something to me before? It had a little but even more now. Until I lived through my very own worst thing, I didn’t know the truth of the idea that the resurrection means the worst thing isn’t the last thing. It took a lot of death for me to start to see resurrection. I had never really needed  resurrection until [my sister] died.

Unlike Friesen, many of us are tragically alone in our grief! To hear her tell it, her life is full of family, good friends and caring churches. I think it’s possible she could make room for the many hard things of grief because room had been made for her and her emotions in her family and community. She can look forward to rising from the dead with her family and friends!

That may not be where you are at right now. For one thing, the pandemic killed a lot of churches and the ones left are still recovering. Nothing will ever be the same. So if you had that togetherness it might be hard to find now. On top of that, you may have ended up too alone, locked down, to dare grieving. You’re more like Thor: hyper responsible for everything (but without a hammer) getting slapped. With morality gone, like David Brooks claims, and Christianity taking a nose-dive, you might basically be without God, too.  So many of us suffer a deep sense of being completely on our own.

Being alone, or feeling alone, might make it that much harder to to get out of that overwhelming bubble of grief. Grief might become a chronic experience. Resurrection, the other side of the deaths we experience and the losses we carry, might seem like a fantasy.

The New Testament is honest about how slowly resurrection dawns on the grieving disciples.  The Lord’s #1 woman, Mary Magdalene, thinks Jesus is the groundskeeper outside his tomb. At one point the risen Jesus finds his irritated disciples gone back to fishing.

The resurrected Jesus can be hard to recognize. He has a different look on the other side of death. We do too. Things look and we look different on the other side of our losses. I think the whole world looks different after the millions of deaths during the pandemic.

Before death comes to us or on us, resurrection can be an easy thing to keep on the outside of us, maybe more like a nice thought or an inspiring principle. Even Peter rebuked Jesus for wanting to go to Jersualem — no death, no need for resurrection, let’s keep things controllable. When death gets inside our defenses, into our heart,  resurrection becomes crucial. When grief can no longer be denied or prevented, we have nowhere to go except to the one who holds the words of eternal life.

I think this very short video does a nice job of bringing us to rest in the hope of Jesus being with us, not only in the bubble, but in the challenge of facing death, inside and out, every day. I’ll leave you with it. When you say with the psalmist in Psalm 22,

“My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death,”

may you experience how God lays down with you in your dust.

Judith Viorst’s Necessary Losses: A helpful guide through your loss for Lent

Judith Viorst’s Necessary Losses (1986) is a book I have recommended many times to friends and clients over the years. If you are ready to meet an honest but encouraging guide as you move through the losses along your way toward development, she is a good one.

Judith Viorst and Alexander (still having a bad, no good day)
Judith Viorst and Alexander (still having a no good, very bad day)

Inevitable loss and glory

Now that I think it is safe to say I am officially “old,” loss cannot be as easily denied as it used to be. My also-old friends are deteriorating with me. And I find it much harder to avoid the yet-unfinished griefs and fears of childhood. There are tender scars of betrayal and failure to bump into. There are unmet needs (and my complicity in keeping them unmet) to feel. And there is the mean old world lapping at the sinking shoreline beneath my feet.

Life is wonderful and difficult at the same time! For instance, we had such a wonderful Valentine’s Day! We rehearsed all the things we like about our relationship over dinner and then found so many reasons to laugh during Mrs. Doubtfire. But it was not long before I watched myself doubt my own fire and long for some intangible thing I felt was missing in me or my life. Difficulties arise daily. As Paul would say,

I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. — 1 Cor. 15:31

Yet in the next letter he says,

Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. — 2 Cor. 4:16-17

Death and glory travel together.

Lessons from Judith Viorst

As I prayed about these things, I remembered I wanted to recommend Necessary Losses to a client. But then I thought my inspiration might really be God encouraging me to pick the book up for myself, which I did. I thumbed through to the final page and was encouraged all over again by Viorst’s frank and hopeful view of how we develop. Here’s some of it for you:

In thinking about development as a lifelong series of necessary losses—of necessary losses and subsequent gains—I am constantly struck by the fact that in human experience opposites frequently converge. I have found that little can be understood in terms of “eithers” and “ors.” I have found that the answer to the question “Is it this or that?” is often “Both.”

That we love and we hate the same person.

That the same person—us, for instance—is both good and bad.

That although we are driven by forces that are beyond our control and awareness, we are also the active authors of our fate.

And that, although the course of our life is marked with repetition and continuity, it also is remarkably open to change.

For yes, it is true that as long as we live we may keep repeating the patterns established in childhood. It is true that the present is powerfully shaped by the past. But it also is true that the circumstances of every stage of development can shake up and revise the old arrangements. And it’s true that insight at any age can free us from singing the same sad songs again.

Thus, although our early experiences are decisive, some of these decisions can be reversed. We can’t understand our history in terms of continuity or change. We must include both.

And we can’t understand our history unless we recognize that it is comprised of both outer and inner realities. For what we call our “experiences” include not only what happens to us out there, but how we interpret what happens to us out there. A kiss is not just a kiss—it may feel like sweet intimacy; it may feel like outrageous intrusion. It may even be only a fantasy in our mind. Each of us has an inner response to the outer events of our life. We must include both.

Another set of paired opposites which tend to merge in real life are nature and nurture. For what we come into the world with—our innate qualities, our “constitutional givens”—interacts with the nurture we receive. We cannot view development in terms of either environment or heredity. We must include both.

As for our losses and gains, we have seen how often they are inextricably mixed. There is plenty we have to give up in order to grow. For we cannot deeply love anything without becoming vulnerable to loss. And we cannot become separate people, responsible people, connected people, reflective people without some losing and leaving and letting go.

I may be old, but I am still developing. Letting go of my losses is not the only way I do it. But letting go is an essential skill if we don’t want to run into a psychological and spiritual wall every day. I know this personally. Letting go of some significant losses in the past few years has opened up many new avenues for growth and love for me. My spiritual direction group helped me let go of something just last week and the freedom is still taking shape! It feels great. None of us is finished yet.

Lent would be a great season for meditating through Judith Viorst’s book and letting go of the necessary losses that lead us to resurrection after resurrection.

Lent is another both/and. It is right now and quite deliberate, but it is also a window into the losses of the past and a view into the promises of the future. It is the turning season, a yearly  invitation to move into the way of life after death: daily and eternal, out of the old self and into the new, out of the past and into the future. You may or may not feel the immediate results of your Lenten disciplines, but, come Easter, you may come to recognize you feel inwardly renewed, and you will likely come to feel the delight of sensing the glory of God unveiling your true glory.

*************************

Today is Xi Shengmo Day! Meet one of the first modern Chinese church leaders who renamed himself “Overcomer of Demons” @ The Transhistorical Body.

The screens vs. the real intimacy of the soul

A.I. Irish forest
A.I. Irish forest

When John O’Donohue published Anam Cara: A Celtic Book of Wisdom in 1997, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair presided over the politics of the West. At that time, here in Philadelphia, we were a few years into planting a church. It had a great run until my successors hit the pandemic wall. The 90’s seem like a very long time ago.

Everyone Needs an Anam Cara—or Soul Friend—to Feel Understood and Loved: A Celebration ofBut in many ways, O’Donohue is even more relevant now than he was in the 90’s. Then, he was just wading in the rivulets of what is now drowning us. When the publishers released the 25th anniversary edition of O’Donohue’s classic, new readers saw how prophetic his thinking was.

His main intent was to preserve vestiges of the sacred worldview of his Celtic ancestors; he was like Cary Fowler lobbying at the time for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Only O’Donohue’s seeds were spiritual and the fields from which he gathered them were quickly disappearing from Gaelic islands like the Amazon forests from Brazil.

Even more, he was like the prophet Isaiah, who intended to make an old truth present as he spoke for God to to his chosen people. In Anam Cara O’Donohue interprets the past, establishes God in the present, and offers a surprising, prophetic message for us twenty-seven years later.

Let’s listen to just one paragraph that speaks about the sacredness of intimacy. It will give us a chance to examine how we feel and think about relationships these days and how the threat to them O’Donohue prophesied is as real as he feared. The restoration of the kind of intimacy the Celtic church experienced with God, with one other and with Creation is the way to freedom through the shadows that dominate us.

In our culture, there is an excessive concentration on the notion of relationship. People talk incessantly about relationships. It is a constant theme on television, film and the media. Technology and media are not uniting the world. They pretend to provide a world that is internetted, but in reality, all they deliver is a simulated world of shadows. Accordingly, they make our human world more anonymous and lonely. In a world where the computer replaces human encounter and psychology replaces religion, it is no wonder that there is an obsession with relationship. Unfortunately, however, “relationship” has become an empty center around which our lonely hunger forages for warmth and belonging. Much of the public language of intimacy is hollow, and its incessant repetition only betrays the complete absence of intimacy. Real intimacy is a sacred experience. It never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye of a neon culture. Real intimacy is of the soul and the soul is reserved. (pg. 15)

Let’s cut his word into three parts and better see what he is saying to us. I hope he will help us hang on to our souls in this troubled time.

Now people live in the shadows

In our culture, there is an excessive concentration on the notion of relationship. People talk incessantly about relationships. It is a constant theme on television, film and the media. Technology and media are not uniting the world. They pretend to provide a world that is internetted, but in reality, all they deliver is a simulated world of shadows.

In 1997 the misanthropic Seinfeld was nearing its last season of nine at #1 in the ratings. We laughed at terrible people unable to connect. Jerry Seinfeld mocked our increasingly shadowy existence and normalized the despair that now dominates our cultural self-image. Here he is on the Tonight Show when Jimmy Fallon was getting started deriding our relationships and the Post Office in his much-imitated way [link].

Meanwhile, in 1997 Friends was spending the third year of its ten-year run at #4. That charming group might be even more insidious. They, in some sense, suggested the world could be united as friends, just like they formed their unlikely, alternative family in the media ether. When Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) died last October from “the acute effects of ketamine” there was a worldwide cry of anguish on the internet — as if they had lost a friend. But technology and media have not united the world, have they?

The prophecy is: It is all shadows. Increasingly, people live in these shadows. The explosive use of artificial intelligence tools has led to the fear of “shadow AI” (that is, AI used outside system protocol) destroying order and normal relationships in a business. Creations like the A.I. Irish forest above are more real to people than actual ones. The colonization of souls by technology causes people to despair of relating and to become acclimated to living in shadow.

Now loneliness is an epidemic

Accordingly, they make our human world more anonymous and lonely. In a world where the computer replaces human encounter and psychology replaces religion, it is no wonder that there is an obsession with relationship. Unfortunately, however, “relationship” has become an empty center around which our lonely hunger forages for warmth and belonging.

Psychology has named loneliness a mental health crisis but generally has little to offer as a solution apart from trusting in individual education to cause individual change. People need something deeper and they are looking for it. One of the newly-popular, albeit usually illegal, paths they are taking is psilocybin/mushrooms; some think their use is outpacing the research.

Regardless of how you search, many of us are feeling and acting desperate. I don’t think we know what the pandemic did to the world yet. But our desperation is evidence something went wrong. An easy-to-see example of the upheaval is how the increasing loneliness of the West has become its own epidemic. Many of us are still not completely out of our lockdown. Not only are we dealing with health issues and death, our social institutions, like the church, took a hit. Many churches have also died in the last few years alongside millions of virus victims. The leaders burned out. The systems proved untrustworthy. One of the results of all this is we’re lonely because we’ve been left alone to fend for ourselves.

But we are obsessed with relationships, constantly foraging around the “empty center” for warmth and belonging. We scroll for intimacy. My heart is warmed for a second by fleeting images of pets cuddling and babies laughing which are fed to me by the algorithms. People who are serious about connecting download an app. According to a Forbes poll in late 2023 “Nearly 70% of individuals who met someone on a dating app said it led to a romantic, exclusive relationship, while 28% said it did not.” Pew’s 2023 survey says “One-in-ten partnered adults – meaning those who are married, living with a partner or in a committed romantic relationship – met their current significant other through a dating site or app.” As usual, any tool can be used to a good end, but the technology often makes the user in its image.

When the new Surgeon General put out his report on loneliness, the media started talking about it. He reported: “In a U.S.-based study, participants who reported using social media for more than two hours a day had about double the odds of reporting increased perceptions of social isolation compared to those who used social media for less than 30 minutes per day.” 75% of social media users reported they would find it difficult to give up their internet foraging.

The prophecy is: We will not find the intimacy we crave by going to an imaginary watering hole for a drink. True intimacy requires a soul language the media can only represent, if it even cares to; it takes humans and God to share it in reality.

Now intimacy is fully hollow

Much of the public language of intimacy is hollow, and its incessant repetition only betrays the complete absence of intimacy. Real intimacy is a sacred experience. It never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye of a neon culture. Real intimacy is of the soul and the soul is reserved.

Watch Taraji P. Henson 'Push Da Button' in The Color Purple | Playbill

As soon as I re-read those lines above, I felt my reaction to The Color Purple (the new film of the musical) all over again.  It is so hollow! It has great performances, especially by Fantasia, but the music feels redundant, like it was formulaically feeding on Alice Walker’s masterpiece (1982). Even more so, it feels like Oprah and Spielberg (the producers) are feeding off the movie they made of the book (1985) — in which Oprah was tremendous. The musical opened on Broadway in 2005, and by the time the movie of it was made, the horrific story of broken intimacy had been fully bathed in “neon.” The only interesting song among a series of derivative, banal tunes is the cringeworthy “Push da Button,” the antithesis of O’Donohue’s sense of intimacy.

Likewise, pundits noted how this year’s Grammys were dominated by women whose songs all tell intimate, often excruciating stories — Sza and Taylor Swift exposed to stadiums full of people, and the brilliant Billie Eielish (with her Gaelic name meaning “pledged to God”) singing about Barbie’s search for meaning and connection as a stand-in for countless people who can relate to her yearning. The performers hollow out intimacy, which “never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye.” The under-exposed Tracy Chapman’s reserve at last week’s award ceremony made her seem like a goddess.

The prophetic word is: real intimacy is sacred. It rises from an environment where God is present and honored. There is a secrecy, a mystery to it. We don’t own it, produce it, or control it. We share it. We receive it. We appreciate it. The “voyeuristic eye of a neon culture” is like Sauron’s eye searching Middle Earth for the final ring of power and we dare not placate the eye or wear the ring.

It is as dire and hopeful as Isaiah says it is

In the short run, Isaiah prophesies, the Jewish Kingdom of Judah will be overrun by Babylon, which is deserves to be. But in the long run:

Violence shall no more be heard in your land,
devastation or destruction within your borders;
you shall call your walls Salvation
and your gates Praise.

The sun shall no longer be
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give light to you by night,
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory. — Isaiah 60

O’Donohue has a similar prophecy. The outlook for the West is grim, but he has a lived message of intimacy with God and of security grounded in Creation. In the shadows “the Lord will be your everlasting light.” A seed of hope has taken root in him. He has seen God in the world and can’t unsee Jesus. The Holy Spirit has enlivened his soul, she has undammed the yearning that flows between heaven and earth and unleashed the joy inherent in that longing.

**********************

Today is Fanny J. Crosby Day! Visit this spiritual ancestor at The Transhistorical Body and subscribe for reminders of future posts.

Is it disobedient to be afraid? (2012)

In my long stint as a Philly pastor, I often answered “frequently asked questions.” This speech reflects a time when someone asked me, “Is it disobedient to be  afraid?” Someone must have asked me for more Bible study, because there is a surprising amount of scripture here.

Is it disobedient to be afraid? We are going to talk about that. The answer is, generally, yes, but probably not for generally accepted reasons.

Rhyolite bank building

What are you afraid of?

I am afraid of heights. I’ve done a lot of things to try to overcome this fear, but I am not very successful. One time I got stuck on a ruin Rhyolite, Nevada (like the one above) when I was out in the desert with some friends and could not get down from my climb because I was too afraid to bridge the gap between my foot and the next foothold. They had to come up and rescue me.

But I think I am more afraid of depths. It is hard to look into certain territories inside. I am not alone in this.

But the worst thing might be that I am most afraid of people I am close to, even people I love. I have a nagging fear of you, right now. I am so afraid of the things that might hurt me again, or make me feel too alone, or make me feel smothered or shamed. My reaction is so automatically fearful I am afraid of my reaction! What’s more, I am afraid to be myself because that might hurt someone else. I not only don’t want to do that, I don’t want them to do it to me.  Are you as messy as me?

So if the Bible teaches I am being disobedient to God when I am afraid, I am pretty much disobedient a lot. I’ve got sin ready to pop out all the time!

The Bible does say, “Do not be afraid” a lot. Like in the famous account of the resurrection. Some one read it and everyone read the bold part.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”  — Matthew 28

Jesus has died, there has been an earthquake, an angel has appeared to the soldiers and they have fainted they were so afraid. The women see the angel (note they do not faint) and he says, “Do not be afraid.” I suppose it is disobedient to not do what a messenger of God tells you to do.

But also note that in verse 8, they are disobedient, still afraid, but they are filled with joy. You might want to hold on to that seeming incongruity for later.

So they are obediently running to tell the disciples the news that Jesus is risen, when they run into Jesus! They fall on the ground. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

Is it disobedient to be afraid when Jesus says “Do not be afraid?” I honestly think the answer to the question is “Yes.” It is, at some level, basically disobedient to be afraid. It is idolatry, the fear has a bigger place in your worship than Jesus.

People organize their lives around fear every day. Why are our national leaders so afraid of people in Northwest Pakistan? There are a lot of reasons that could be given. But they are not afraid because they trust God!

Why are we so afraid of each other? You get next to someone and suddenly you are afraid of what they think of what you just said. You are so concerned about what they might feel  you are anxious and miserable all day. When all the while, if you actually follow Jesus, you are going to live forever, which means even if what you experience kills you, things will work out OK.

What can mere humans do to me?

The writers of scriptures from about 1000 BC to 64 AD have a common memory verse that you might like to add to your thinking: what can mere humans do to me? My spiritual director often asks me, “What can really happen here? Really, what’s the worst thing? Why be so locked in fear?” He does not always succeed in getting me to not be afraid, but he is right to ask.

Four of you read one of these as an invitation to us to give up our fear. Don’t read the reference:

  • In God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere human beings do to me? — Psalm 56:11
  • When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; / he brought me into a spacious place.
    The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. / What can human beings do to me?
    The Lord is with me; he is my helper. / I look in triumph on my enemies. — Psalm 118:5-7
  • What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. — Matthew 10:27-9
  • God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can human beings do to me?” — Hebrews 13:5-6

So yes, God tells us to not be afraid — and for some very good reasons. If we don’t trust him and are afraid for our usual bad reasons, then it is disobedient. God commands us to act for our best interests. Trusting God is in our best interests.

How to Calm a Fussy Baby: Tips for Parents & Caregivers - HealthyChildren.org

Is there a fearless human somewhere?

All that being said it would be bizarre to find a fearless human. They might be a sociopath. Some Christians seem to be to have some kind of psychological talent that allows them to act like they are not afraid and pretend they have no fear.  They are committed to being obedient, they saw that the Bible said “Do not be afraid.” So, by God!, they are not afraid. But I think they might be afraid of being afraid, deep down inside. And they might be so afraid of God that they would shut their feelings down in order not to offend her. They might be afraid their religious house of cards will tumble if they call God “her!”

Contrary to that, I think it is very likely that all those scriptures that say “Do not be afraid,” were intended to be comforting scriptures. Those passages are more like when you are holding your screaming child and you say, “Don’t cry honey.” I think they are saying “God and all his messengers know you are afraid. Don’t be afraid.” They are pointing out our fear, acknowledging it exists and working with it.

We have a strange problem in this era. We think what we feel is who we are. If I feel fear, I am afraid. I think It makes more sense to separate feelings from actions. You can be afraid and filled with joy, too! God and his angels might scare you, but you could respond with worship.

After all, Isaiah says:

Therefore, this is what the Lord, the LORD Almighty, says: “My people who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians, who beat you with a rod and lift up a club against you, as Egypt did. “

Isaiah is speaking for the Lord, who is telling his children, the people of Israel — the whole nation is like his offspring, “Don’t be afraid of the Assyrians,” even though the Assyrian Empire is huge and is undoubtedly going to take you over, and your King, Ahaz, is trying to make a deal with them instead of trusting God. Be faithful to God.

Isaiah notes however, that the experience of being beaten is installed in the nation’s memory, since that is what happened in Egypt when they were slaves. When they were just a child of a nation God rescued them from their abusive condition, but the fears born of having been in that condition are still real.

When God tells you don’t be afraid, he remembers your beginnings, too. I have a story about why I am still afraid inside, even though I can act fearlessly in many ways. I have an Egypt in my past where I was hurt. Some of you have stories you don’t even want to tell, they are so painful to recall. Some of you have stories you can’t tell because you blocked them out completely. They were being formed when you were just a small human. There is no way God is telling you, “Don’t be afraid,” as if you were never in Egypt. He encourages us to not be afraid because we were in Egypt and we needed to be rescued. And now the Assyrians are coming upon us.

We have a lot to be afraid of

Get a picture of what you are afraid of in your mind. Even make a mental list. I am not going to make you tell us what it is, so don’t be afraid. But I am going to offer the opportunity to a couple of people, so we can be honest, like God is, about carrying things that scare us. Any body want to tell us the first thing that came to mind?

I don’t think being obedient is not ever being afraid. I think being obedient is listening to God’s call and trusting him when we are afraid, which is pretty much all the time. “Do not be afraid,” should be translated, “I know you are afraid. Listen to me. Trust me. This is going to go someplace. I am with you. Act in faith even though you are afraid.” The scriptures suggest ways to live that out.

Meet God in the night

Everyone read this if you can:

Do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight,
preserve sound judgment and discretion;
they will be life for you, …
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. — Proverbs 3:21-2,24

I sometimes wake up in the night and can’t resist making a list of things that trouble me. I did it last night, because I forgot to do something I needed to do and I was afraid of the consequences. My fears get to me when my defenses are quieted by sleep and they can get out. I hope that does not happen to you. But for most of us, it does happen, at least once in a while.

To be obedient, try some rituals. You might need to get up and pray or get up and deal. You might need to push it off. You might recite the Jesus prayer and re-center. You might use your new memory verse “what can humans do to me?’

When we become aware of our fear it tests our obedience to God’s command. We need to meet him in the fear. The Lord is calling into the fear for us — calling us out. If you experience fear, it is a place to meet God.

Trust in the touch

Let’s all read this in a mysterious whisper:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. — Revelation 1:17

 This is John in Revelation thinking about the end of time. The other day we got a movie out of Red Box called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. It turned out to be a God-free rendition of John’s revelation! The movie was all about fear and finding someone to touch before the meteor hit. It was touchingly disobedient and lovingly hopeless. I think John’s vision is better. John’s vision is such a wonderful thing he experiences as he is awaiting the end of this age, exiled on his island. He has a vision of the risen, ruling Jesus, and Jesus tenderly touches him. Do not be afraid.

God is going to touch you where you are afraid. But you will have to let him and learn to let him when you are too afraid to let him or too accustomed to not letting him. You learned to be afraid and not let it touch you. You have a tendency to fall down dead in the face of what you fear. The touch of God, who is the beginning and the end, before you began and bringing you to your end, is how we deal. That is obedient.

Take a step

Let’s have a woman be Moses:

See, the LORD your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, told you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”  — Deuteronomy 1:21

This is Moses telling the people of Israel that the people of the promised land are not too big for them and they should go inhabit what God has given them. They are afraid. We come up against things that make us feel tiny and helpless every day, don’t we?

One of my grandsons is learning to swim. When he is done screaming, he is quite proud of what he can do. He feels better because he has gone through a fearful thing. We don’t get very far if we don’t travel through fear to get there.

One of my directees talked to his father after five years recently. It turned out even worse than he expected. But not talking to him had clogged him up with the fear of not making that connection. He feels like he is getting free. He took a step.

You are not going to be unafraid when you take a step. See what the Lord has given to you. See what those who have taken steps before you are telling you. Go with it.

So is it disobedient to be afraid? Yes, if what you mean is you are ruled by your fear and not by your faith in God. But no, it is not disobedient to be afraid. You are just afraid. It is a feeling, and one that makes a lot of sense, given your circumstances. It will pass through.  “Do not be afraid.” Have joy in your fear, Jesus is with you.

Did the devil write The Sound of Music?

“What?!” the Evangelicals say, “The only movie my parents would allow me to watch is being subjected to the latest litmus test?”

Well, if that is how you want to see it, yes. Call it deconstructing, if you like. But the population was fed a lot of hogwash. That’s especially true when it comes to the sweet, romantic, almost iconic scene I want to briefly discuss.

There is some ambivalence about this earworm

I have the misfortune/blessing of having a song in my head most of the day. My mind seems to trap them. The other day this one from The Sound of Music popped up. I was upset, because it had been banished for while due to its terrible theology. But it is a hard earworm to resist.

Before I ask you to give it another look, you might want to give it another look. If you choose to do that, you can hit this link to the YouTube (less than 2 minutes long). I’m going to give it some disrespect. But before I do,  it is fine with me if you look beyond its terrible lyrics.

While you are watching it, go ahead and vicariously enjoy being a grieving, angry man who  has been re-awakened by the governess who initially irritated him. Or vicariously relish the wonder of being a woman poorly assigned as a nun who has found her place as a wife and mother, loved and accepted as she is. I hope someone has met you in the gazebo! If not, I hope they will. Be glad that love can unexpectedly happen – even when the Nazis are at the door! Good grief! Stop being too cynical for this lovely story!

Feel free to get a little tear in your eye for a second before we cast off the terrible, supposedly Christian, logic that led to this scene in this strangely religious musical.

Here’s the problem with this lyric

It is evangelism for a gospel that is not THE Gospel and believing it lands people in misery.

Richard Rogers (who wrote the music) was reportedly an atheist. Oscar Hammerstein (who wrote the words) said this about his faith is a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace. He was telling a story about an exchange he had with a fan. The fan asked,

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” and I said “No.” “He said are you religious?” and I said, “Well I don’t belong to any church,” and then he patted me on the back and he said, “Ah, you’re religious alright.”

And I went on feeling as if I’d been caught, and feeling that I was religious. He had discovered from the words of my songs that I had faith, faith in mankind, faith that there was something more powerful than mankind behind it all. And faith that in the long run good triumphs over evil. If that’s religion — I’m religious, and it is my definition of religion.

In The Sound of Music Hammerstein is trying to picture what he thinks Catholics would probably be thinking if they were getting into this wonderful love relationship – a bit like he looks into Polynesian culture in South Pacific or Oklahomans in Oklahoma. He’s painting in stereotypes (and often undermining them).

Unfortunately, he got it right when it comes to the mess people make of Christianity, which is why I hate it when this messy song pops up. It has such a lovely feeling and such terrible thoughts!

Let’s go through this once and for all

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth

To be clear, he’s teaching usto beleive: “there must have been a moment of truth” because otherwise I could not deserve this moment. I must have done something right because me doing the right thing is how I get good things and, what’s more, it is how I get into heaven.

I have atonement explanations in the side column over there if you want to revisit what Jesus Christ is all about. He is certainly not about noting our “moment of truth” so he can reward it later by fulfilling our deepest desires. My Christian clients are often tormented by the thought of how unworthy they are of being loved by God or anyone. They may accept that God is good enough to love them but they don’t accept that they are good enough to be loved. Hammerstein captured their dilemma in a song:

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

Yes, you were wicked and miserable (and many times still are), but you were not and will never be responsible enough to be good enough to balance it all out. You will not be able to perform well enough to solve the problem, even if you can sing like Julie Andrews! You did not merit the blessings God delivered out of love in Jesus. And if someone professes their love for you, you should probably just take it instead of evaluating it according to your self-loathing.

I think many people believe the theory of God’s grace. But we still feel it is unlikely, if not impossible, for God or anyone to love the real us. Many of us feel if we were just better everything would be better — that’s the truth we live by and deeply suffer as a result. We never get good enough. Whatever nasty thing you say to yourself when you look in the mirror (or suppress saying,  it is so terrible), it is probably spawned by “truth” that pops up like this lyric I’m decrying. We vainly try to control the conditions that led to our lack of love. We’re always sorting things out, “I’m wicked. I’m good.” But inconclusive sorting ends up being the habit of our heart and closes us off to what we need.

A lot of the problem stems from this terrible line of logic I wish I did not remember:

Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

If you are a Jesus follower and you believe this nonsense, dash back to your Bible and go directly to:

1 Cor 1:26-30: God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to abolish things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

Colossians 1:15-23: [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Romans 4:16-23: [We] share the faith of Abraham (who is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”), in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Everything comes from nothing by God’s grace.

It is the presence of God that matters, not how well you present or whether what you  present is good enough.

So did the devil write it?

I don’t know and neither do you. But so what if he did? If he didn’t write it, any one of us might be saying a similar thought in our head right now: “Maybe I did the wrong thing and that is why no one loves me” etc. The fact we are awash in such thoughts is why we need a Savior. When my clients triumph over the wicked, miserable thoughts in their heads, it is still not enough. Ultimately, we are all seeking to live in the presence of God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist,” who out of great love chooses “what is low and despised.” People also call and choose like that in various gazebos — it is a wonder.

Maria von Trapp died in 2014

I hate to spoil the lovely scene. But we all know that after the kiss it will only be a decade until the Captain is dead and the von Trapp family is making a living in Vermont as struggling immigrants. Maria von Trapp was not thrilled with The Sound of Music. She thought the stage and screen stars, Mary Martin and Julie Andrews, “Were too gentle – like girls out of Bryn Mawr” (times change, eh?). Her life was tough. You might not be thrilled with how your life story looks on film, either (or how it is torn apart like in Anatomy of a Fall). Our lives are messy.

The Sound of Music certainly got that right. What a mess! Love in 2024 is a miracle, too, and yet it happens all the time. It happens even when a false line in a sweet song threatens to corrupt the whole thing. When the temptation to control the world pops into our minds, we hang on to the faith — of millions living and hundreds of millions dead, in the presence of God in Jesus,  “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. “

The basic motivation that keeps us going.

I noticed an uptick in my motivation this morning. My zip contrasted with the nagging zapped feeling several of my clients reported.

My energy was also right on the heels of a client’s sense of victory over the issue that drove him to therapy: his lack of motivation. It is sort of a mystery why some of us change and others struggle. I sometimes feel like I am surfing the tempest more than channeling the stream, myself.

8 Reasons Why You Feel Unmotivated – Psych2Go

Why are we unmotivated?

So, I started a little research project on motivation. I was intrigued (OK, appalled) by one of the first articles Google supplied (there are hundreds). It was from a website called Medical News Today, which looks like it is based in Great Britain (it uses an “s” for organize) but exists mainly on the internet. It is led by fortysomethings (apparently) who may be interested in making hay on the web. They boast 85,000 readers.

I want to improve upon their teaching on motivation. But first let me complain about it: What makes people lose motivation?

Like most articles for professionals now, this one starts with a summary so you can decide whether you want to read for another 5 minutes. Here is theirs:

A person may experience a temporary lack of motivation when they are overwhelmed, stressed, or burnt out. However, a sense of apathy, or lack of interest in doing anything, can be a symptom of something more severe.

Lost motivation could indicate a mental health disorder, such as depression or schizophrenia. It may also occur in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

I can only hope my more tenderhearted/anxious/traumatized clients do not read this article and worry, “Oh no, I have Parkinson’s!” Apart from scaring people, the only thing the writers have to suggest is the common idea that lack of motivation comes from being “overwhelmed, stressed, or burnt out.”

But, of course, people may be overwhelmed, stressed, or burned out because they are unmotivated. I think there are medically trained people who do not just look in their textbook for symptoms but also have some sense of deeper places: light and dark, known and unknown, obsessed about and shunned – all the things that motivate people!

I think “overwhelmed, stressed, or burnt out” is usually applied to the workplace. There, people need to stay motivated to do all sorts of semi-interesting things in semi-conflictive relationships. I think the article is probably looking there for readers, since that is where the money is — one has to keep the workforce working, somehow! Being burned out is a real condition, especially in the workplace. But I have usually thought the designation feels superficial. Identifying burnout rarely resonates with anything beyond a certain track in the frontal lobe.

What fuels lack of motivation?

Instead of plowing through Google I decided to bring to mind my clients who are concerned about or afraid of their lack of motivation. I jotted down about thirty reasons that seem to cause it or fuel it in them.

While I think they might just be going through what humans always go through, I also think they might be like canaries in the coal mine for humanity as it barrels unconsciously into the next era of troubles. They might be the ones who can’t respond to superficial diagnoses by doctors handing out ill-attended-to medications. They might be the people who can’t cope because what they experience should not exist in the first place. They might be honestly shutting down in the face of something that can’t be conquered by indomitable will or a positive view of human potential.

For the sake of dialogue, I boiled my brainstorm down to four big elements that de-motivate people I know or leave them listless and looking for wind in their sails. By listing these things, I think you might see your own condition. Even more, I hope you will take heart in my conclusions.

Why are some people unmotivated?

They are addicted.

Addiction colonizes motivation (“colonises” for Brits).

These are my acquaintances’ addictions: Marijuana/alcohol/street drugs/nicotine, their “meds” (some of which are crucial, of course, but some probably aren’t), TikTok (and anyplace there is a “reel”), online games and gambling, porn, food or trying to control food.

Long before they met me, most of them knew they were medicating their lack of motivation with substances, prescribed or not. Many suspected they were vainly searching for how to avoid that lack, or get around it, by using the predatory offerings advertised in online markets.

They are trapped

They feel like they can’t change.

Their living situation is or feels unchangeable. The leaders of the nation, workplace, or association are terrible, and they don’t know where to turn. They are married and parents (or one or the other) and it does not feel good.  The weather is frightening. They are aging and their bodies feels more like a cage than an ally.

Feeling trapped and thinking one has to be responsible to survive or escape leads many people to shut down. It is too much.

They have been or are being abused

The terrible past is present.

They were bullied, neglected, stunted, injured, especially in their childhood, and every similar circumstance triggers their deeply-installed reactivity. They were betrayed loved ones and it challenged their sense of worth. They are in or on the other side of power struggles that sapped their energy. Society has no morals so they live in fear. Huge corporations and bureaucracies demand a lot of energy to get basic necessities or to avoid jail.

I am amazed at the courage people demonstrate as they come up against forces that threaten to destroy them. They face truly overwhelming things; I often feel overwhelmed vicariously.

They are immature

They missed a developmental onramp.

Their parents did not or could not provide the love they needed as a young child or help them through the crucial teens and twenties. They are run around by negative, often secret, self-talk: “You are a loser. You are damaged. You are unlovable. You are stupid. You are unwanted. You are a bother. You must not let them know you or you will be abused or cast off.” They believe the myth which says it is all up to them. They just need to believe in themselves. Never give up. Do it right or don’t do it at all, etc. They are alone.

In the U.S. The “invisible hand” generally does not value adult development or wisdom.  I am surprised at how much knowledge people have but how unable they are to feel it or do something with it. Instead of growing into who they know they are and doing what it takes to embody their true selves, they shrink back. They give in to their resistance. They blame or criticize others and perfect many other defensive behaviors.

Any one of these realities will undermine one’s motivation. You probably saw what you were up against as your were reading them and maybe even did that thing you do when you are faced with what needs to change and grow. One client had to say “No porn.” Another had to resist “blanking out.” Another had to tell themselves, “Turn away from that damning voice!” Another had to resist dismissing all I said because they could not trust it, or me. The deeper things that undermine our motivation are not simple or easy. I rather resent the article I read for implying, “If you aren’t handling this you might be schizophrenic.”

The basic motivation

I love and hate that heading. I love it because I know life surges from a basic, common fountain and we can all drink it. I hate it because it implies that something is basic in the sense that you’re a dummy if you haven’t achieved it yet or it is basic equipment and you are missing the part. Motivation is not a one-size-fits-all dialogue. It is about the deeper, mysterious parts of us that are not easily measured.

For instance, several clients lately have expressed beautiful looks at their inner life and felt enthused about what they could do and intended to do. They even felt some joy. But they immediately, almost automatically, followed up their joy with a set of observations about themselves and why they would not or should not change: “That’s not me.” Or “I remember when my ex-wife told me she never loved me.” Or “How will I ever find time for this?” Or “I’m not very good at self care; I’ve failed before many times.” Or “I never truly stop my addictions.” Or “It will all work until my husband comes home.” They often don’t know they are contradicting that other “sunshiny” self! Their inner dialogue is just rolling along.

Beyond the Horizon | Dark Life Note
Click the pic to meet Vadimka Rassokhin making music for the soul in Izhevsk, Russia

I have told a couple of people who have introduced faith into their development that they may need something more than just their own capacity. The love of God, the truth of God, the Spirit of God, the prayers of Jesus may be what they find when they stop trying to avoid hitting bottom. Beyond the parameters of their top and bottom, that uncontrollable control system, is the kingdom of God.

I think surrendering to the reality that God is with me is highly motivating. I experience it every day and throughout most of the day, even when I deal with Comcast (like I did last week, AGAIN). Refusing the grace of God, not being beloved, contradicting the Lord when she sees you worthy of his relationship is the sin that keeps us pushing a rock up a hill and seeing it flatten us every day.

Better to feel it like the Psalmist:

we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place  — Psalm 66:12 (and James Taylor, NPR)

What if God really is on your side? What if you are created beautifully? What if you are loved? What if the future holds possibilities? When such questions take root and hope starts building a narrative, a new story tends to overwhelm the other one that tells the old, enervating tales of being alone, in charge, or impossible.

A meditation to help us face 2024

Are you or your friends scared to face 2024? After everyone finished their reports on the December sicknesses last week, many people went on to report their anxiety about the coming year — for some it was more than anxiety, it was terror.

I can see why they feel that way. The Trump effect has created trickle-down lawlessness that makes simply driving one’s car frightening. The decades of partisan power struggle in U.S. politics has leaked into everyday transactions. Left-leaning institutions cancel their leaders, right-leaning institutions fire their pastors and directors and everyone has a litmus test, everyone is primarily concerned with power. Jane Coaston coined the term, “vice signaling,” to describe how Trump’s core supporters convey their tribal allegiance and show how little they care about conventional moral norms. The basic questions of life have become “Is my side winning? Am I getting what I deserve? Am I getting ripped off? Can anyone be trusted?”

It is not like humanity has ever stopped asking those questions. But cultures all over the planet have found striking ways to fight our sinful impulses. People keep reporting how they don’t have anyone fighting for them and don’t have the strength to protect themselves.

We all have something to give

We may have more capabilities to cope and even thrive than we think. That reality also appears in my office every day.

We all have something to give that makes things better. I think Jesus followers, especially, should feel an obligation to express the truth and love in them — that truth and love which is given to you in a unique way only you can give. In light of that I have been trying to figure out how to keep putting some truth and love out there that is not just outrage about Trump or despair about how many bad things have happened to me (e.g. – I have Xfinity issues).

My attempt at truth and love today centers on my recent, new soul friend, John O’Donohue. I think you could use some time to meditate on the teaching I received from his book Anam Cara. It could soothe your fears and even help you find a way through all those things you dread.  Throughout his book, O’Donohue keeps describing the basic alternative to the constant power struggle we are all sick of and sick from.

Life is not about who wins the election and who controls the economy. If it is, then life is just about getting power, and most of us do not have a life. That is, the life we have remains hidden from us.

In his Celtic way, O’Donohue reinforces what every baby knows and every adult longs for: life is about love.

O’Donohue can’t help but write poetry, even when he is writing prose. So I took a nice section of his book and made stanzas out of it, like a poem. I gave each section a title.

After you’ve used it all to meditate, I’ll make a few comments in closing.

See if this meditation gives you a non-anxious few minutes and fans the flames of God’s love in you. I believe as we claim such space in the world and live out of it, the Spirit of God transforms fear into fulfillment.

Your face is the icon of creation

Against the infinity of the cosmos and the silent depths of nature,
the human face shines out as the icon of intimacy.
It is here,
in this icon of human presence,
that divinity in creation comes nearest to itself.
The human face is the icon of creation.

Your heart is your inner face

Each person also has an inner face,
which is always sensed but never seen.
The heart is the inner face of your life.
The human journey strives to make this inner face beautiful.
It is here that love gathers within you.

Love awakens what is divine in you

Love is absolutely vital for a human life.
For love alone can awaken what is divine within you.
In love, you grow and come home to your self.
When you learn to love and to let your self be loved,
you come home to the hearth of your own spirit.
You are warm and sheltered.
You are completely at one in the house of your own longing and belonging.

Longing and belonging fuel the fire of fulfillment

In that growth and homecoming
is the unlooked-for bonus
in the act of loving another.
Love begins with paying attention to others,
with an act of gracious self-forgetting.
This is the condition in which we grow.

Once the soul awakens,
the search begins
and you can never go back.
From then on, you are inflamed
with a special longing that will never again linger
in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfillment….

Love unlocks eternity

At the deepest level of being,
possibility is both mother and transfigured destination
of what we call events and facts.
This quiet and secret world of the eternal is the soul.

Love is the nature of the soul.
When we love and allow ourselves to be loved,
we begin more and more to inhabit the kingdom of the eternal.
Fear changes into courage,
emptiness becomes plentitude,
and distance becomes intimacy.

Godless people are going to try to use fear, emptiness and distance this year (and always) to dominate us and steer us in the direction of surrendering our true selves to their power. Trump even shared a fan-made video on Truth Social saying he was chosen to save us.

What should we do?

I am going to keep re-membering as the powers try to dislocate my insides and separate me from loved ones. I plan to keep turning into the truth and love in Jesus.

I am going to go back to James:

For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. — James 1:23-25

I am not going to forget what my face looks like, whether distorted by AI or tracked by cameras. My inner, unique face is going to be shown to the world through self-forgetting, transfiguring, and embracing love. I don’t need the world’s power if I am secure in the heart of creation, resting in the grace of God in Jesus. I may use my power to good ends, but I will never try to live off it like it longs to feed on me.

**********

Today is the MLK National Holiday in the United States. If you’d like to join in and learn what it is all about, visit The Transhistorical Body. 

There is a lot of bloom left in you, too.

When we first moved into our high-rise condo overlooking the park and the Philadelphia skyline, we were, along with all our neighbors, shut into our units by the pandemic. Not good. What’s more, our wrap-around balconies had been condemned by License and Inspection and needed to undergo a complete, expensive and LONG rehabilitation. Also not good. If situations like that, and worse, kind of resemble your life in the last few years, shut in and in need of rehab, you are not alone my friend.

Thank God things change! The pandemic was just recently declared over – although my son and my dear friends are fighting off Covid as I write, so I guess they missed the announcement. But things are generally better when it comes to the virus. What’s also exciting: our balconies were reopened last Spring, just in time for me to experiment with a new little farm I planted on them. I had plenty of new territory to plow. My daughter-in-law remarked at our New Year’s party, “These balconies are like extra rooms!” That’s really nice.

Hawaii State Flower Yellow Hawaiian Hibiscus
On the Big Island

Miracle hibiscus

I have a stories that go with each of the dear plants I have been nurturing, but in the interest of time I will just mention four that seem rather miraculous, especially the two hibiscus.

It started getting cold, so I thought I’d bring the plants inside and see if I could keep them alive until spring. They looked kind of “peak-ed” (FYI – in farm territory that means you’ve wasted away with illness until your cheek bones are pointy like mountain peaks). The hibiscus were already losing leaves, like they do when they aren’t in Hawaii.

To my surprise, when I brought them into the house to nurse them over the winter, they all got a second wind! The geranium budded. The dipladenia sent out six shoots looking for a trellis. And the hibiscus leafed out and began to bloom! My wife wondered how she was going to get rid of these plants that invaded the living room. But I was giddy with delight over late-fall blooms.

You are glad you read far enough to hear this good news, right?

Lessons from bloom to bloom

I confess, I visit these plants like they are much-loved children and attend to their buds and shoots with tender interest. So they have been central icons for my meditation. I am writing to share my revelations with you.

First, I did not know my 21st floor balconies are, in fact, more like Tibetan steppes than a Narberth backyard. I thought it was a perfect place for a farm. But if you saw my tomatoes you’d know something was very wrong. The plants baked in sun amplified by window reflection. They were rocked by unobstructed wind. Storms blasted them. They got dried out faster than I watered them (and then I went to Spain). It was very stressful for them!

It dawned on me my friends and family look like they have been on the balcony for a couple of years. Like I thought of my balconies, the world kind of looked like it should be a hospitable place. But there was virus, economic upheaval, riots, new wars, all sorts of tyrants — big and small, and unpredictable weather. A lot of us have very small tomatoes, spiritually speaking, and our leaves are about gone. My plants got small and tried to survive, so did many of my loved ones.

Opal Red Vining Dipladenia - Container
Diplandenia

Second, I did not know that moving the plants a few feet into my condo terrarium would create an environment conducive to a miracle. Those hibiscus did not need much of an excuse to let loose with some flowers; Lord, they wanted to bloom! And I thought the trellis I made for the stunted dipladenia looked silly it was so big. But now the tendrils are reaching up into the nothing above it. I think the farm still needs more experimentation. But I can see how resilient the plants are if they are given a chance.

My friends are like that too. I am thinking about three people, in particular, who had a classically terrible pandemic: lost jobs, went off the wagon, or went broke. But they are budding these days. One of them is starting on something that looks more like him than the other career ever did. They ended up in unexpected territory and started noticing unexpected growth. There is absolutely hope. I’m a bit shocked about how good I feel right now myself!

Rest in God’s presence

My recent guide, John O’Donohue, keeps reopening my mind to the reality that instead of frittering away my sleepless nights worrying about my friends and family, my frayed connections and threatening circumstances, I need to remain at rest in LOVE. The creation is friendly; look at it. Slow down. Let things develop. Suffer. Recover. Explore. Fail. Die well. Be resurrected.

The other night when I was lapsing into being a Christian and my spiritual cheeks began to plump up, I remembered a song we sang at my best friend’s funeral after he died in a plane crash when he was in his early thirties. My part in the funeral was to lead the singing for this very large crowd from the very large Assemblies of God church where we had worked together. I had never led such a big group, so I was terrified of looking foolish. I had said I’d do it because I’d do anything for Rick, not realizing what it would be like to lead in someone’s funeral I deeply loved (and still miss!). But the moment turned out to be a wonder, one of those thin places you remember when you need to find another one.

The other night, I needed that favorite song of his  and the experience of the moment we sang it at his funeral. When we sang it then, I remember the shocking feeling of God’s presence orienting me (and surely everyone else) right into the center of the Lord’s great love. I felt, “Rick is OK. We are OK even though we feel all the things we are feeling.” It was the first hint I got that goodness and grief are not mutually exclusive.

It is a simple, might be less-than-true, sort-of-sentimental song — and that made no difference. It was Rick’s song, our song, that moment’s song and the singing of it was truer than any words could convey:

Surely the presence of the Lord is in the place.
I can feel His mighty power and His grace.
I can feel the brush of angels’ wings; I see glory on each face.
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. [People still sing it.]

It was as if I’d been moved just a few feet into God’s living room. I felt the bloom coming, in spite of grief, fear and everything else swirling around in that room and in my soul.

In our DNA, spiritual and physical, love is waiting to bloom. There are not too many places or moments in which that blooming is unlikely to happen. The Spirit of the Lord is in us and around us. We are suffused with Love, even when we are sick, unhappy, stupid, or somebody put us on the balcony in the burning sun, or forgot to water us.

I may need to learn that again tomorrow, when I am surprised by tiny tomatoes. But I keep getting better at learning reality — and I at least expect another opportunity for learning to arise, just like all the other opportunities have sprung out of strange songs and unlikely situations. There are always a lot more thin places than I know about before I really need to find one. Then I stumble into one and realize again: there is absolutely hope. You’ve got some bloom in you.

Top Ten Posts of 2023

2023

Group communication “sad?” Try on some Virginia Satir.
My new group reminded me of two things Virginia Satir taught me: 1) Tell your own story, 2) Be aware of your communication style.

Slander divides: Six ways to overcome it
Trump has unleashed a slanderfest. If it threatenes to swallow you, what are some things you can do? I’ve needed to try a few myself!

The Upside-down Apocalypse: Power fantasies be damned
My acquaintance, Jeremy Duncan, wrote an intriguing commentary on Revelation that makes so much sense I wanted to add my review to advertise it.

A call to prayer: Frodo and Sza on Mt. Doom
The dialogue Frodo has with Sam and Gollum on Mt. Doom is just like what is happening in us (and Sza).

The Spirit of God is Praying for You
Forget cetrainty. Prayer is all about discerning the presence of God who is constantly praying for us, who desires to be with us and hopes to see us flourish.

The Sad History of Christians Co-opted by the Powerful
The good things Jesus creates and recreates in the world are always threatened by some power that wants to co-opt them or just eliminate their alternativity.

The Common Emotion Wheels Need Unpacking
The emotion wheel charts imply emotions just happen in us, they are built in, “it is what it is.” I not only think we make meaning of our thoughts and feelings, I think we make choices that create them and heal them.

Beyond Trauma and Resilience Is Love
Psalm 139 has always been a good reminder, a symbolic representation, of what we all know in our deepest hearts beyond our brokenness. We were created in love.

I am Disconnected: Why? Can I change?
A perfect storm of troubles has atomized the country and wicked people are capitalizing on our disconnection to seize power and keep us divided, as they historically do in such circumstances.  What should we do?

The Wonder of Being Saved: A collection of Ways
Nobody in The Whale wanted to be saved. If you do, there are many ways to get there and stay there.

2022

FFF #17 — Brendon Grimshaw and his Seychelles wonder
I loved being in solidarity with the Fridays for the Future climate strikers.

The church in the rearview mirror
While on retreat I get some vision for my future that might help you move on, too.

I believe in you: I’m rarely talking about me
My 50th reunion gives me a lot to love about the community I have.

Jesus gives 5 ways to endure the shame: Kansans lead the way 
The first followers of Jesus would applaud the declarations of independence from corrupt Christianity some people are proclaiming.

Should I forgive them if they never offer an apology? 
Forgiveness is hard under all circumstances. When reconciliation is unlikely, it is even harder.

“How I Got Over:” Mahalia Jackson helps us do 2022
I have been singing with Mahalia all year. She did, indeed, help me get over.

The new movement of the Spirit takes lament, commitment, action
Time with the Jesus Collective inspires me to move with the Spirit now.

Overwhelm: The feeling and what we can do about it
The word of the year might be “overwhelm.”  Better to name it than just wear it.

Three reasons the Trump effect is not over yet
The elements of the Trump effect are not going away too soon. The wickedness has a “trickle down” impact.

In this uncertain now: Who are you Lord and who am I?
I have had a tough couple of years in a few ways. How about you? Who are you and who is God now?

Top ten posts from the past — many of them read more than 2023’s

I’m wasted, but I am not wasting the 12 Days of Christmas

I looked at my journal earlier today and noticed my first reference to Nyquil was on December 5. I had a week’s respite for a vacation (so there ARE miracles) and then I was in bed for three days straight and I am still in some stage of whatever it is. How has YOUR month been?

So why in the world would I begin twelve days of celebration of the Nativity of Jesus, the famous “12 Days of Christmas?” There are a lot of reasons to hole up and practice popular forms of dissociation, or roll up in self pity and exhaustion. Like: 1) I am sick and tired (I am!), 2) I am alone with no one to call, 3) Christian stuff should not be touched or it encourages Christians to think they are right even more than they already think they are, 4) This twleve days stuff has been done and I hate that song, 5) Learning about rituals is for fans, 5) Organized religion is for suckers, 6) My church blew up and I don’t do well by myself. 7) I don’t feel like it. Etc.

Now that I am piling up popular reasons, I realize we could observe the “12 reasons not to observe the 12 days” and start from there.

Santa in southern Ukraine

Emmanuel, God with us

My wife is so sick, we cancelled our annual Christmas breakfast, which may be a 40 year old tradition! So the FIRST day of the 12 days of Christmas is going to get a severe test this year.

Fortunately, we have forty plus years of spiritual discipline to tie us to joy and love that are deeper than germs and war and hypocrisy and cruelty and poverty and lonelinees. We know Jesus does not need the world to work out right to be the light of the world.

The main reason Ben and I wanted to restore our The Transhistorical Body blog was to stay connected to the spiritual disciplines and the Spirit-filled predecessors who keep us tied to our true selves, that rescue us from miry months (like this one has been!) and inspire us to keep our focus on eternity, to turn into our birthright like one season turns into the next, to keep writing our version of the greatest story ever told.

Each day of the twelve days of Christmas we’ll have a special entry over at The Transhistorical Body [Here’s today’s]. Some days you’ll meet an inspiring spiritual ancestor as we celebrate their day, some days you’ll learn about a special day in the Christian calendar. You’ll get resources if you really want to learn something that puts you and your time in history in some perspective. Especially for these twelve days, it will give you a daily reason to sink into the reality that the incarnation of God in Jesus is the scandalous miracle which continues to work into each of us and all of us just like God managed to get into Mary and be born as one of us so we would be the family of God.

 

PS — Please consider subscribing to The Transhistorical Body. It is just one month old!