Category Archives: A life in the Spirit

The new movement of the Spirit takes lament, commitment, action

On May 4th I begged a piece of paper from Gwen to take notes at the Jesus Collective Partner Summit. One would think a serious partner would be prepared to codify his marching orders! At least Gwen came prepared to move with the movement.

A Spirit-inspired vision still being born

I really should have had a few sheets of paper because there were many good things to collect! It was nice to be among a group of committed, often brilliant partners from around the world who are united by a vision for keeping a spiritual ball rolling. Beyond the reformation of Eurocentric, capitalist-bound, principle-centered, power-struggling, often narcissistic and male Christianity, there is a movement of Jesus-centered people who see another way to be the church. It is not a new way, but after hundreds of years of European domination, it seems new. Jesus Collective is working on a practical expression of the ancient-future way of the cross and resurrection that transcends all the boundaries of the world. If you explore the website you’ll probably get an idea of what’s going on. The website won’t tell you everything however; the new zeitgeist of the Body of Christ these days is better caught by experiencing like mindedness in relationship than taught with more left-brained schooling.

I enjoyed the relating but I was also schooled during the Partner Summit and Unite22. Jesus Collective has a unique view of the future because it was born right before the pandemic hit. Life these days is kind of “before the lockdowns” and “after a million Americans died.” It was not the most advantageous time to start something, but Jesus Collective started. Then the pandemic hit and then the revelation of Bruxy Cavey’s infidelity torpedoed the Meeting House which had been the collective’s incubator. The megachurch is still the incubator, only it is more like a NICU in a Kharkiv hospital. Since the inaugural in-person gathering I attended in 2019, the whole constituency has been traumatized and reformed. I was schooled about that, too.

What to do when the movement meets resistance

But there was so much more happening among the Jesus Collective than trauma! I came away stimulated and inspired – and convicted to keep the ball rolling! I can’t vouch for my notes, since my handwriting is often indecipherable. But I am still moved by three points I noted from a speaker I can’t remember. He or she was trying to answer the question, “What do we do now?” If there is still a movement of the Spirit alive in the world, how do we not only move with it but move it along when we are exhausted and beset with overwhelming circumstances? Jesus shows us a way. Here are three elements of staying on the way and showing the way with Him: lament, commitment, and action.

Jesus wept / lament

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. – Luke 19-41-2

My Christian psychotherapy clients, especially, often call lamenting “griping.” They are prone to say, “I shouldn’t be having these feelings” or “I am not sure I deserve to be sad when Ethiopians are on the verge of starvation.” Jesus did not talk himself out of crying. He did not shut himself down because people would see his despair and despise him for his vulnerability.

Emmanuel Katangole, from the east of Congo, justly became more famous during the pandemic because he has written so eloquently about the necessity and the power of lament. He says:

Lament is an invitation to see reality through the eyes of the most vulnerable, and to name and admit what is broken.

In this historical moment, only through the practice of lament can we imagine a new and better future. More than a personal spiritual practice, lament has potent political implications in three ways: connecting us to the oppressed, telling the truth to governments, and transcending partisan political borders.

I believe there is a new movement of the Spirit at work in the world, just as there is tragedy and evil afoot. If we are being reduced to repentance, that is a good thing. Lament is a positive spiritual response to our shame and hopelessness. Tears often water the seeds of a better future. If we can be moved, maybe we can energize a movement.

Edvard Munch, Melancholy (1894).

Jesus asked, “Do you want to be well?” / commit

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” – John 5:6

I asked one of my clients that question once. They had to think about it. Their aloneness had come to feel like their safe place. The vengeance they wanted over their abusers felt more important than health. The small space of control they felt they owned seemed violated by the question. I don’t think we should underestimate just how profound a question the Lord asks us, “No, really. Do you want to be made well?”

Taking the Lord’s outstretched hand is just the beginning. The man who was healed had to relearn to walk and experience being “the guy who was lame for 38 years.” He had to change how he saw himself and keep deciding to be well. At the end of the day we have to make a commitment to life. We often have to fight for our lives. Together we’re called to fight for the life of the world too.

I think Americans are so accustomed to their imperial ease that hysteria breaks out if gas costs a dollar more a gallon. Filipinos just elected the son of their former dictator because authoritarianism looks good if it promises some semblance of order. Even churches are adopting the authoritarian playbook. In these reactions, I don’t see a commitment to wellness, just control: I see little of the Spirit, mostly fear. I know a lot of Americans and a few Filipinos; many of them are exhausted, traumatized and often numb – and a lot of them are Jesus followers! For the first time, many of us may be able to relate to the man who couldn’t get to the pool. But here comes Jesus asking us for a commitment to him, not just to our own capacity. If we can get up and move again, maybe we can stoke the spiritual movement we all need so desperately.

Jesus taught: love God and your neighbor / act

Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. – Matthew 22:36-8

When I went to the Jesus Collective Partner Summit, I admit I was wary. So it was moving when many people convinced me I was loved and accepted, even valued.  I have my own trauma that makes me suspicious; I’m still recovering from a love breakdown in my former church. Quite often I need to remind myself to act love, do love, see love as my daily task. Otherwise I might just do me; I might get in the habit of being suspicious.

The leaders of the church where I completed my pastoring shunned my entire family because they imagined we were a threat to them. It was a classic cut off. Since we all still live in the same town and still care about our old friends, the absurdity of it all comes to fruit when people get married, have children, etc. and throw parties. The people remaining in the church have to wonder if it is OK to still love us and include us. They aren’t sure why, but we are out and they are supposed maintain “boundaries.” I hope we will all be back together in love one day. But until then, loving hurts. It is the task the Lord gives me as much as a delight I experience.

There are still people in Philly who operate according to the old redlining boundaries from the past. Family systems still don’t talk to descendants of a “black sheep.” Whole protestant denominations still recoil when something seems like it might be “Catholic.” For some reason the Supreme Court will sacrifice the peace of the country to overturn the right to privacy. There is a lot of broken love built right into the infrastructure. I may feel like I’m making bricks without straw, but we all need to bring at least one brick to the building of the beloved community every day. If we can move another brick onto that vision, maybe we can nurture the movement of the Spirit springing up in the strangest places.

We are called to get up every day and do the work of love. We are not called to get up every day and wish someone would do the work of loving me or get up angry about the people who don’t do the work. The desire and demand to love may flood some days with the tears of lament – let it come, let it sink in, and move with the Spirit anyway. The desire and demand to love will make us wonder if it is worth it to be well since well is hard — listen to the “yes” of the spirit resonating with the truth “You are beloved and valued” then make the commitment.

Let’s love others because we are lovers not because everything is working out well. Love is a feeling that becomes a task. Love is a desire that can’t help but become an action. Love is Jesus looking over Jerusalem with tears, reaching out his hand in compassion and challenge, getting himself killed, giving his life and forgiveness freely and in hope of resurrection. The Jesus Collective, in league with people all over the world, senses a new movement of raw, Jesus-y love like that spreading around the ever-warming globe, changing and rebuilding lives and churches. Maybe like never before we have a chance to bring good news to everyone in an era full of bad news and broken institutions.

Psalm 2022: Make me an encourager, Lord

I turn to you Lord.
…..You encourage me.
Make me an encourager.
…..Defeat the enemies who live in my head,
…..whose betrayals and insults dominate conversation —
…..damning words inside and in the living room.
…..Mute them as my rusty swivel squeaks.

Make me an encourager, Lord,
…..like you finding your disciples and soothing their doubt,
…..like Francis tousling Giacondo’s hair,
…..like my director taking me seriously as I ramble,
…..like someone remembering me out of the blue.
…..We need the gentle reminders you are near.

I know you are content if I am small;
…..you seem to prefer I don’t grow to reach the countertop.
Save me from assessing how tiny I am:
…..my few words, unheard words,
…..my scant opportunity,
…..shouted down by TV, by children,
…..by catastrophe and weakness.
I am still a harsh critic.
…..You chasten thoughts your forgiveness —
…..the grace you voiced with your dying breath,
…..the word that recreates the world,
…..does not apply to my incompletion.

Make me an encourager Lord.
Everywhere I look this week
…..chins are dragging,
…..lips are quivering,
…..eyes are vacant.
…..People are tired, sick, ruined.
…..The leaders are fools,
…..as are their blind followers.
You do not recoil.
Your reach out your hand as I look in the mirror,
…..the fool thinking his dashed-off psalm is worthy of you.
…..And you say, “Yes. It is. You are.”

Make me to say, “Yes,” today and every day.
…..May my yes be yes as your yes is yes to me.
And if I die or my work comes to naught,
…..is despised even, my love thwarted,
encourage me to keep on in a wicked day,
…..so I can gently say with you,
…..“We do not recoil.”

The power of virtuality: Will teletherapy close the office?

The other day, therapists working with Circle Counseling considered how we are going to manage the new reality of teletherapy. I’ll get to that.

But first, I’d like to think about what is happening to us humans in the age of virtuality, of which teletherapy is a part. I am not sure what virtuality means, completely, but how I am using it is:

you and me, individually, connecting to the great power that is the internet.
You and your screen,
you and your headset,
you and your Oculus, etc.,
accessing experiences, products, and representations of people
outside of embodied, mutual physicality.

I did not bother looking for a better definition. It would be nice if we shared one. We need some kind of common understanding for this new experience, but that will be hard to find. Because part of the facts of living in our new condition is that each of us has our own experience and resulting definition of what just happened. And we don’t need to explain it to anyone, just conform to the rules that let us into different parts of the internet.

There is a new creation occurring

I decided I needed to get serious about what I, my family, partners and clients were experiencing in the solitude of our virtual lives when I happened upon an article in the New York Times about a Japanese man, Akihiko Kondo, who is among a growing number of people who have intimate relationships with animated, but inanimate, characters. He married a fictional character in 2018: “Hatsune Miku, is a turquoise-haired, computer-synthesized pop singer who has toured with Lady Gaga and starred in video games.”

Mr. Kondo is one of tens of thousands of people around the world who have entered into such unofficial marriages. Some of the characters they marry come from manga. Manga is a style of graphic storytelling which is a mainstay of Japanese publishing and popular worldwide. A child of one of my acquaintances lost their job because they are an “otaku.” In their case that meant they were addicted to manga stories in a way that made them unable to relate to reality. Their experience gives me sympathy for Mr. Kondo. I wonder who among my loved ones is losing their hold on reality right now.

The younger my clients are, the more likely they are to feel disembodied. Some are more comfortable with virtuality than merely human reality (as in the many young men who have difficulty with sex because they are acclimated to porn). Many are avoidant, mistrusting of “reality,” which is so uncontrollable. I’ve noted a   vicious cycle. Their relationship with virtuality is often about controlling their anxiety. But virtuality ends up controlling them and creating more anxiety. Those feelings, in turn, require deeper commitment to what controls them.

I am pondering what our wholesale adoption of teletherapy, which I can accomplish in pajama bottoms and never leave the confines of my home (perhaps ever), is doing to the people we want to help. Is using the medium attaching them more securely to it? Can they ever receive what I offer if they never make the effort to know me (or themselves) as a living breathing human? Or is it OK to marry a fictional character?

Where is teletherapy leading?

I practice teletherapy and now have clients from all over the country. NPR is constantly recommending the latest in teletherapy businesses. And even though I am sounding suspicious, I know I have provided helpful therapy screen to screen — sometimes to people who would not have received it otherwise. So is there really a problem? Is there any line at all from teletherapy leading to manga addiction, much less a direct line? I don’t know. I just have a hunch there might be something worth considering.

Months  before the omicron variant hit, researchers were producing articles on how teletherapy was radically changing the practice of psychotherapy. Even as my comrades were talking about what we are going to do, I got on my other screen and found an article from March of 2021 titled, “Will We Ever Again Conduct in-Person Psychotherapy Sessions?” A few of us had already decided, “No.” Others wondered if they wanted to get back in an office. And others were dismayed the question was even being asked because they needed off the screen.

Keep in mind, the researchers I uncovered were writing about research done a full year before Omicron was discovered in South Africa and quickly turned the world upside-down again. Two and more years of adaptation to lockdowns and social distancing is more than enough to solidify a new approach.

After more than a year, the researchers reported positive experiences with online psychotherapy. Long before the pandemic, some cognitive–behavioral therapists had positive attitudes toward teletherapy. Psychodynamic people, like me, were less enthused. In their study, the participants stated the pandemic changed their attitudes toward teletherapy. Over 60% said they now preferred it.

However, 70% of the participants agreed that remote work is more draining. Nevertheless, 78% agreed with the statement: “Remote therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy.” I think screens can suck the life out of us, and I believe the powers that run them are intent on doing just that. But I don’t feel drained by remote work. What’s more, even though I think good work is done virtually, I don’t think it is one to one comparable with what happens in person. I guess that puts me in the 30% of something.

This little piece of research and just looking around will tell you teletherapy is here to stay unless some compelling reason forces us out of the arms of virtuality the same way we were forced into it. We’d have to break a habit.

Click for NY Times article

There are reasons we won’t break the habit

Many clients prefer teletherapy. Thus, I have met entire families as they interrupt mom’s session. I’ve had sessions in several cars. Every session begins with making sure the connections work. Many sessions are interrupted by some glitch. But no one needs to go anywhere and sessions can fit into the catch-all schedules we concoct now. Why rent an office if you can work from a free one?

Vaccinations have made a big difference since the researchers were talking to their participants. But health concerns remain. Many of us can’t risk carrying home some unknown virus to our aging parents, who now live with us instead of virus-ridden care facilities. You may be concerned about what it means to your own health when you think about signing up people you don’t know for therapy — some populations would be more likely to be carrying the virus! If masks are required when new variants strike, that makes in-person therapy not much better, if not worse, than online.

Insurance for teletherapy was set to expire as the pandemic waned. But it appears people will be reimbursed at the same rate for teletherapy by providers. The new online businesses advertising relentlessly will take a chunk of the increase therapists might have realized. But if you already have an established practice on your own, the cost of not needing an office is a nice, needed pay raise.

There are reasons we probably should break the habit.

I wrote my dissertation on an ethical issue, and I often lean into those questions. Teletherapy makes me wonder, “Is confidentiality affected by teletherapy?” I don’t mean “Is Google somehow listening?” But few of my clients have a devoted space to do quality work. Babies come to therapy. Children interrupt. Any number of devices need to be quashed. When at home or in a closet at the office (unless you see execs with a corner suite) there is a sense of holding invasive things at bay. It is distracting. And it is often not private. Confidentiality provides safety. An office overseen by  a caregiver who provides it for caring is a benefit.

I also wonder if doing therapy out of my home is boundary breaking. Maybe you blur your background and hope your head stays in focus. Or maybe you have constructed a background that makes your circumstances appear neutral. But we know where you are. I think many people do good work by visiting people in their homes to do therapy. Some people have little office buildings in their backyard. Good work is done many ways. But I wonder if it serves the unique process of a client when they are enveloped by the personal world of their therapist. Granted, the office can do that too. But at least the office is, by definition, a place where professional services are dispensed, often by a person licensed to give them.

My main issue with not breaking free of virtuality has to do with community. When our therapist group was sharing I felt hungry for more togetherness and most of them voiced similar feelings. Let’s talk about cases. Let’s have dinner. Let’s build some love. We are starving. Yes, we are just coming out of the weirdest two years ever, perhaps. But our starvation is the future if we conform to the changes the pandemic accelerated. I think psychotherapy is best accomplished in the atmosphere of the beloved community Dr. King preached. Attachment issues are best repaired in a place where people attach. Psychotherapy is about our bodies, not just our minds instructing our reactions and feelings. I think people feel it if therapists are not lone rangers, logging in from wherever with whoever.

The new atmosphere of virtuality is an ongoing dialogue worth having. Elon Musk did not spend $44 billion on Twitter instead of climate change action for nothing; he probably wants to be the chief oligarch. The internet domination system is the future. I’m having the dialogue about virtuality quite practically this week. On one hand, just less than half my appointments are in person this week. But on the other, we are flying to Toronto out of a conviction we need to show our faces at an important conference. It is hard to spend the money, time and energy to travel when the governments still feel like protecting their borders (especially getting back into the U.S.!). But really being there and building something planted in creation makes a difference, I hope. Maybe I will have more to say about what not being virtual is like next week.

A pilgrim or tourist disciple?: What will I be like at fifty? (2004) 

My Jesus Collective group was talking about spiritual formation this week, as their churches are re-forming after the pandemic. I think some of my past thinking in this speech might contribute to the subject.

I’m like a frog in the world’s pot

It is a wonder any frogs grow up. I wondered how threatened they must feel the other day when Helena, my three-year-old friend, showed me the frog she caught at the Love Feast. He looked like a twenty-something in frog years, certainly no tadpole. He was just hopping around checking out the world, and then he was in the clutches of a toddler. He was exploring on a nice, humid, July day in Philly, as happy as can be, and then, “Doh! I’m in the pocket of a little sun dress! How the toad did I get here!” But by then it was too late, he was about to meet death by caress. It seems similarly shocking, but I know a lot of people who got to fifty and said, “Doh! I’m fifty! How in the world did I ever get here and what am I doing in this pocket?”  Let’s talk about that.

First let’s talk about feeling like the world has you in its pocket. It is hard to put one’s finger on what is wrong in the world, especially when it’s caressing you but you’re not dead yet. The following analogy gets used for everything, and I’ve never tried it to see if it is true, but…the temptation of settling into the world is often compared to the proverbial frog in the pot. They say if you throw a live frog in hot water (no, I do not know who would do such a thing) the frog will try to escape before he dies. But if you put one in swamp-temperature water and then slowly turn up the heat, the cold blooded frog will enjoy the warmth until  the temperature goes over a tipping point and she is cooked. This could happen! We gradually gets used to what should have seemed wrong; we slowly acclimate, like a frog heating up in a pot, and then we’re cooked.

You know how this works. When does a young musician who hangs with the drug users and drinkers during performances wake up to the fact that he’s become one of the gang? When does the young woman who took the job to make money realize that she became a corporate lackey with debts to trap her there the rest of her life? The ways of the world are an atmosphere, almost like a mood. Spiritually aware people get an uneasiness that not all is well, but every time we define the illness we feel uncertain and stay put. We often sense the environment we are in is eroding our faith; it is wearing out our hope and proactivity; it is corrupting and blunting our love — then, “Doh!”

What you are now is a step toward who you’re becoming

How you go through the world as it has formed itself in your era, right now, will define what you are when you are fifty. Some of us care about this. Some of us are looking at thirty and realizing, “I needed to do more during my twenties – this could be serious!” Some of are fifty and wondering, “Is this it? – I should consider how to die well, not just die.” I’m trying to speak into those thoughts because people are asking good questions.

The little part of Hebrews I am highlighting shows how to do make our way. The writer is winding up the big finale of his message in chapters 11 and 12 with a call to faithfulness in the face of pressures from the world to shrink back in fear and not go the whole way with Jesus on His way. The famous chapter 11 lists all the great heroes of faith by name and by action. The writer calls us to follow in their footsteps. Of these people of faith she (it could be a she!) says,

the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

And they did a lot of other amazing things that showed their faith.

With these examples, she calls each of us to imagine how and where we want to wander. Many of us are following the ways of our time and trying to line our pockets with as much brick and mortar, bank accounts and power as we can. In the face of similar circumstances, the writer of Hebrews in our reading 11:38-12:3 is saying, “Imagine another way. Remember the amazing people who didn’t go the way of the world, but went the way of faith in God and his Son, Jesus.” And I’m thinking of it more like, “Imagine — What do I want to be when I am fifty?”

Pilgrim or tourist?

Let’s dare to ask ourselves and God, “Do you think I could become a spiritual someone?” A full-fledged someone probably has their full development going by fifty, at least, wouldn’t you say? Spiritual maturity takes time. I’m fifty – did I make it? In some ways, yes, in other ways I’m just very adept at seeing how far I have to go. But one thing I did, which I feel very blessed about, is, at about 19, I made a definite decision to take the journey by faith, and that has made all the difference.

50 on May 2

To be a mature person of God when you’re fifty, to be going somewhere in the Spirit, will mean you’ve taken the journey seriously. Just like the writer of Hebrews says, you realize that the world as it has fallen is not worthy of your submission. You don’t quite fit. You recognize the water is too hot and get out before you’re cooked.

As such, believers are the perpetual pilgrims, wanderers; they’re followers; they’re the ones who went out. If you want to get somewhere with God by fifty (or eighty), be a good pilgrim, starting now. Some of the colonizers who came to America to settle were so serious about this wandering they called themselves the Pilgrims. They were spending their lives going somewhere, going home to God, putting their feet to responding to Jesus when he says, “I am the way. No one comes to the Father but by me” 

They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

On the journey of life, faithful people are on a pilgrimage to a sacred place, and God is eager to welcome them into it when they get home. To decide where you will be later depends on how you are travelling now. Are you a pilgrim or are you a tourist?

A long obedience

Think about the next verses in today’s reading. A maturing faith is a journey of long obedience, not instant or merely experiential.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Pilgrims sustain a long obedience, even when they don’t get everything they want right now. Tourists want something instant; they are always looking for the next immediate experience. It is axiomatic that we are all so conditioned by thirty-second commercials we have no ability to sustain interest in something for very long.

I went on my first trip as a pilgrim a couple of years ago, and now I try to figure out how I can make every vacation a pilgrimage rather than a mere tour. I would have liked Spain as a tourist, too – seeing everything, getting in line to do all the things I heard everyone else already did, having some extreme experience that would make a good story. But I made up my mind to do the pilgrimage to Santiago and it reaffirmed something important.

It’s a long story, but my pilgrimage did not work out like I had planned. I did not receive what the trip promised; it kind of fell apart. But I kept going and found another way to do it. I love doing sights, but a pilgrimage isn’t about sights, it is about following God with my body and soul and mind and strength. For example, I was quite surprised by what happened  when we got to kind of an sad village, a deserted place no tourists bothered to visit. We made a habit of stopping to pray at the town’s church. So in this out-of-the-way place we labored up to a rather ugly church, expecting it to be locked. We found ourselves the only ones there for a long time. We rested and prayed. As we stood to leave, I was moved to sing in this echoey building: “I know my redeemer lives.” We’ve never forgotten how God met us there. It was moment pilgrims get that tourists miss.

Eugene Peterson quotes Frederic Nietzsche, of all people, who got this right. He said:

The essential thing in heaven and earth is…that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

Being determined to develop faith, not settling in the world as it is but obeying the vision, believing the promise, trusting the Way — that makes you something that is worthy of living at fifty.

Lifelong apprenticeship

Look at the next set of verses. Learning the life God gives is a life-long apprenticeship in the same thing, not just a search for something novel or the next big thing.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Tourists are just visiting. They are always looking over your shoulder at the next thing. They are just tasting and planning their itinerary to get a novel meal tomorrow night, too. Pilgrims have more of a life-long mindset. They are going somewhere. It doesn’t matter how far away it is, they know where they are going. They are traveling with their Master in a loving and learning relationship – disciples, apprentices. It is a whole worldview.

It seems to me that religion is captured by the tourist mindset these days. It is understood as a visit to an attractive site when we have the leisure to get there. Some go to church. Some go to big services held in arenas or watch them on TV. Some like religiotainment – from one retreat, conference, rally, seminar to the next, complete with the latest personalities and controversial topics. There is always something new: podcasts, yoga, being purpose-driven, medieval liturgical revival, holy laughter, or a Unitarian taste of them all. We’ll try anything, go anywhere, until something else comes along.

Disciples, in contrast, are sticking with an apprentice relationship with Jesus. We’re learning the skills of faith as we go – not sitting in a classroom getting info. We’re walking with him, going where he goes and how he goes. It takes a lifetime. We aren’t learning to hammer a nail straight, we are learning to live straight. We are learning perseverance.

I love the point in a cell (or whatever circle you are in) when things gets boring — when people are over the novelty and have to make a relationship with someone they might not really like all that much. Then real love, faith and hope will have to show up. The church we built was set up to torment people with that reality, and we did torment them. Some fled.

The assumption we’ll have to keep learning has made a lot of people suffer around here. Because they realize that to get anywhere they will have to stay and commit. For instance, we use the word apprentice to describe the comrade of a cell leader. The use of this old-sounding word was well-debated. It takes a lot of humility to be an apprentice – we all want to be co-leaders and never learn anything or aspire to more. What’s more, the word implies that you are sticking around – when the cell multiplies, you will become the next leader nurturing the next apprentice. A lot of people just cannot honestly become an apprentice cell leader because they can see that Circle of Hope (and your church) will soon lose its novelty and they will want to move on – they’ve already heard about a church in California that is cool. Thomas Szasz, the therapist, says,

What we call “sanity”…has a great deal to do with competence – earned by struggling for excellence, with compassion – hard won by confronting conflict, and with modesty and patience – acquired through silence and suffering.

Having a race set out for you and running it with perseverance builds something into you that looks good at fifty.

Patiently keep faith

Finally, look at those last sentences. Getting where Jesus is leading means also being a pioneer with a long view, not hurried or impatient.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Tourists are right in with the world’s passion for the immediate and the casual. Pilgrims are like those pioneers in our country who called themselves by that name. They are authors of life in unknown, even hostile territory. You don’t have to have the famous Pilgrims’ catastrophic view of the native people in Massachusetts or Africans to admire their faith, the same way your real or potential faults do not ruin yours (at least your sins don’t have to ruin you). Pilgrims have the long view of what can be built, what will be, which includes themselves.

Not uncommon

The world is going for short cutsTell me how to be a mature Christian in 20 minutes – if you take an hour I’ll have to go because I made a date for dinner.” We want instant credit. We are impatient for results – blow up Iraq and build a democracy in a year – heck, we can barely get a Thrift Store going in that time! We are impatient for results in ourselves and others, too – “You went to the therapist for six months, so what did all that money go for?” We live in fear of the world — if it doesn’t happen now, it won’t pass muster with the world (which it won’t). Spiritually, that touristy way is a disaster. We can’t get into life in Christ by hitting the high points of the Bible, or go to the sacred places like we are driving by on the bus tour – “And on your left, there is Henry Nouwen suffering for thirty years to understand the prodigal son; now on you right we have Mother Teresa….”

We, as a people, are trying to be rather strange in all this. We purposely don’t try to win a person with a meeting that will wow them with one pass. You’ll have to stick around and relate, or we have nothing to give. I think God is like that, too. He knows what is best and she is not in a hurry.

Picture yourself at 50 (or 80)

To end up a holy person, a sane person, a loving person, a pioneer person, a person who didn’t get boiled in the world, here’s the way:

  • Let us fix our eyes on Jesus – settle in with Jesus and don’t take your eyes off him.
  • Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith, — he’s the generator, the pioneer, the way-clearer, the light in the dark, the welcoming hand at the end of the long tunnel. Start at the beginning, or restart.
  • He is the one who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. – he’s been everywhere you might go, even death, and he made it to God. Endure your dying and heap scorn on the world when it tries to lure you into its pocket.
  • Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – keep your faith in Jesus and follow his way, even when the road seems long.

Picture your church 50 years from now – bunch of tourists? A ship of fools? Can you even imagine lasting that long?

Picture yourself as you, the pilgrim, at 50 (or if you are already there, pick a date you’ll likely die). How many years will it be until then? What can you do with that many years? To what do you aspire to be in your heart and in your life with the author of our faith by your side? What do you want to learn to be? Through what would you like to go and come out the other side with the perfecter of our faith?

If you need a practical step to take in that direction, why not live in today’s reading and keep journeying with them this week. Obey what God says to you in them, learn the depths of them, make a pioneer’s house with them in the middle of this world.

[T]he world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 11:38-12:3)

 

 

 

 

Your worth: Check your attachment style before you decide

I am writing on Good Friday, when millions of Christians consider the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The most popular interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death is well-attested in the Bible: Jesus is “dying for our sins,” as my collection of atonement explanations can show you.

The story goes: We have become creatures unworthy of God’s love, since His justice cannot tolerate the betrayal of our duty to worship and serve him as we should. There are many more specific sins we carry, as you can probably  enumerate, which just makes things worse.  The good news is: we become worthy as God sees us through the lens of Jesus. We are free to live up to our new, official status as individuals saved by the grace of God.

This particular atonement explanation is especially good news for people with the “secure attachment style” they developed as a child. As for the rest of us, we might want to have another look.

Your attachment style matters

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth did us a favor by exploring how we arrive at our sense of worth when they came up with “attachment theory.” This theory of infant development is so common, you’ve probably investigated your own style. I think such investigation is a good idea, as long as you don’t think the label you discover is more than a suggestion or a starting point.

When you consider what the death of Jesus means for you, your attachment style makes a difference. If you do not have a “secure” attachment style, you already felt unworthy of love when you heard about Jesus. So the story above resonated: “I need a Savior because I am unworthy of love.” I have had clients say, “I am perpetually unworthy. My only worth is what God imputes through grace by the work of Jesus.”  Their theology dovetails with their lack of self-esteem. If you keep the theory in your head and don’t let it get muddled up with your feelings, it kind of works; just don’t look too deep.

If you have a secure attachment style, the preacher may have to do quite a bit of work to make you feel unworthy so you can receive the Lord’s worth. I grew up hearing very convincing speakers who made me feel guilty and terrified if I did not confess how bad I was and get saved. But, I have to admit, I felt the love of God long before I was listening in on adult church meetings. I kind of added on “substitutionary atonement” to my general sense of living in God’s grace. Jesus has always been more of my friend than my lawyer.

Your view of yourself may cloud your view of God

One of my favorite descriptions of the atonement is the famous story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. God is described as a worried father of two sons. Neither are securely attached. That might be due to the fact no mother is mentioned in the parable. When their father talks to each of them, he needs to convince both of their worth.

But they were never unworthy. Their father was always sharing everything he had with the older son and was anxiously watching for the younger son to return. God sees us as children whether we are at home, sulking, or coming up the road, skulking. As a parent and grandparent, I understand the Lord’s story of love and hope much better than the courtroom picture of being freed from the consequences of my sin so I can appear before God with impunity. My children were loved little sinners. I saw the best in them.

The work of Jesus is described in various ways in the Bible and that may not be a  mistake. It seems like the ways are tailored to the intended audience and come from a particular style of person. I’m arguing that people with different attachment styles see themselves, God, and the atonement differently — that is realistic and good. I also think it is better to come to God as oneself instead of cramming yourself into a one-size-fits-all rubric from the 1600’s! What’s more I think we need a different side of the atonement at different developmental stages of our lives. At eleven years old, when I was baptized “as an adult,” I needed more substitutionary atonement than I do now.

The Bible’s view of our worth

No one writing the Bible is shy about naming the sinfulness of humanity. If we did not have the Bible, the Spirit of God could use today’s headlines to convince us of our bondage to evil. At the same time, she could use each individual as an example of the wonder of creation. It does not take long to meet up with the work of God alive in each human when you get to know them. In my work, I get to know a lot of humans intimately, and each one, even in their suffering, is amazing.

The Bible shares my view of humans, I think. The writers all obviously think they know God and have something to say, so their personal sense of worth is intact. When they talk about other people, they often reinforce the fact that God sees her creation as good. Jesus talks about his work as rebirth, assuming there is a seed planted in each of us that can multiply. Psalm 139 famously says,

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

Our own sin and the sin committed against us does wreck us. We need to be saved and we can’t do it on our own. But once I get next to Jesus, I think it is a sin to keep seeing myself as contemptible. Being responsible for being contemptible may be the terrible lesson we learned as a child from which Jesus is trying to save us! If we continue to insist we are unworthy of God’s love, that might be more about our attachment style than God.

Some kids in Mary Ainsworth’s attachment experiments, when left alone with a stranger for a few minutes,  were quite unsure they would again be lovingly received by their mother, or if she would even come back!  They sound like the son who was coming back from feeding the pigs who only imagined getting back into the household as a slave. Other children in the experiments were so sure they would not be cared for, they didn’t even look for any care and stayed alone. If I stretch it, they seem a bit like the other son feeling all alone in the back yard while a party was going on in the house.

Paul, who was certainly good at sinning and felt sin at work in him even when he was writing his dense letter to the Roman church said, as he was ending up his treatise on the work of Christ:

[Y]ou did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17).

Again, in those lines, there is that intimate, parental image right at the climax of his argument. There is no condemnation. The law of the Spirit is greater than any other law. You were always meant to be a child of God and now you know that, not in theory but in experience.

When Jesus bent to taste your death with you, it was surely because he felt you were worth it, wasn’t it? You were worthy even before you were born. You were the sinner worth dying for standing in front of the cross looking at Jesus helplessly. You were always the wonder he knew you could become, just as you were created to be. I don’t think God needs a Jesus lens to look at us. I think it’s we who need the new lens.

Eternal: What does the word mean to you?

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
John 10:10

[T]hose who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.
The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
John 4:14

Does Jesus mean what I think he does?

Jesus came to find us and give us eternal life. So where is it? Is it off in the future and I just need to gut it out until I die? Or is it resident somewhere in all of us and I just need to  become restful enough for it to well up? Insert your own variation of these questions.

Eternal life sounds like a good idea, but most people I know aren’t that sure about it.  I think the “may have” there in John 10:10 sounds conditional to a lot of us, like those metaphorical sheep who hear the Lord’s voice “may,” as in might, have an abundant life. Some self-described “sheep” are still out there looking for that life, and feeling tentative.

And that word to the Samaritan woman in John 4 puts a lot of pressure on her to “drink of the water,” doesn’t it?  — as if she should have already done it and be someone better already. Other desperate people, like her, are thinking, “What if I didn’t take my drink? What if I can’t find the ‘water’ to drink? Is what I’m drinking the water, or not?”

Most psychotherapy clients are searching for answers to such questions whether they consider themselves spiritual or not. There seems to be some thirst-quenching abundance somewhere beyond us all. We feel its possibility.

Jesus is offering an abundant life. He wants us to have it to the full. To the woman at the well he says this life is eternal. In the famous John 3:16 Jesus is quoted promising whoever follows him — whoever believes him and trusts him, eternal life.

Most Christians probably think eternal life is “immortality;” one will live forever — some see that immortality beginning after you die, some see it beginning as soon as you receive it like a cup of water from the Lord’s hand. Others see eternal life as more of a sense of being fully alive in the present — like eternal is the quality of the life, the very life of the Eternal One, the Spirit-life of God welling up within us.

Without thinking much more, what do you say eternal life is? Are you waiting for it? Trying to get it? Hoping for it? Living in it? Is it living in you? Is it making you? What was your first answer?

Becoming and Being

You don’t have to have a right answer. But how we see ourselves, see God, and see life makes a huge difference. Someone told me lately that their life was a curse. To be sure, that made a big difference in how they were moving through the week!

The word eternal invites us into the mystery, the unknown or unknowable reality we sense beyond our present capacity to experience or understand. The mysterious word eternal has two sides to it which some see as mutually exclusive, but I see as two sides of the same coin. However your day flips, you may feel on one side or the other.

The “heads” side of the word eternal might feel more familiar. Some people see eternal life as a long stretch of days leading off into forever. If that’s you and you are ambitious, then you are on a long developmental journey one day after the other. If you aren’t ambitious, then you are waiting out the tribulation you are experiencing because Jesus will overcome for you in the end.

I think this linear, physical, practical view makes sense because we are embodied spirits. I think we will always be aware of time, even in the age to come. From our first breath we are developing. Spiritually, we are becoming full or we are emptying out. I wish we could be serene pools of living water without any evaporation, but I’ve never seen that happen. If we aren’t moving into eternity, we are moving toward death.

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You can see this side of eternity in our marriages. Once we find a person to travel with, we often wish we no longer had to become anything. “Why doesn’t my partner already know what I want and give it to me? How could I have married someone who needs to learn something? Why can’t we just be OK? What happened to the honeymoon?” It sounds kind of silly when those things are written out loud. But that mate you have can set off a longing for eternity, for abundant life, that can’t be quenched very easily. The main characters on Bridgerton develop for a few episodes and enter into bliss. We turn to the lover on the couch and say, “Why are you depriving me? Where is this thing we’ve got going?”

On the other side of the word eternal, some people see eternal life as choosing abundance now. It is living in the present, being fully awake and ready to engage, drawing on that inner spring of goodness.  Richard Rohr calls spiritual life the “eternal now.” The creation itself is a gift of life and by grace Jesus restores its fullness to us. You can hear him calling if you have ears to hear.

I think this nonlinear, spiritual, otherworldly view also makes sense because we all feel the pull of our spiritual awareness – even if only for three minutes when we are touched by a beloved piece of music or when are faced with our mortality. From our first breath we have a sense of being with God.  Jesus comes to us and blows the breath of the Spirit on us and invites us to be refilled, to access what can quench our deep thirst.

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This side of eternity also shows up in our marriages. I wonder if “in touch” people like Richard Rohr might be even harder to live with. If every moment has a deeper meaning than appears, it might communicate to your mate that they are a bit disappointing at times. At the worst, such a seeker can seem a bit tortured, either making sure they are happy or sinking so far into their goodness they don’t really need anyone else. Madam Bridgerton was so blissed out on her late husband that she left it to her unprepared eldest to do the real living.  He almost missed out on his own trip to the well. To his good fortune, he was on Netflix.

Suffering

The bad news about psychotherapy is often: there will be some pain accompanying your change for the better. A lot of people can smell the threat of that suffering even in the Bible verses that promise eternal life. For instance one could reply to Jesus in John 10, “The thieves already came in and stole, Jesus! You know that; they took your life!” A person thirsty for forgiveness and community has surely talked back to Jesus in John 4 saying, “If there is so much water available, why do I feel so dry?”

People come to therapy suffering. They often come to spiritual direction, to church meetings and to dinner the same way. We are all in need of eternal life. I think the sufferers are among the most honest people on the planet. They are asking the all the right questions. Because feeling outside of eternity is terrible.

The way into eternal life begins with welcoming the future or turning into the presence of it right now. We need to move toward or with life day after day. I have been doing that for a lot of days mostly more on than off, I think. I started early, so that’s about 22, 995 days towards death and through it into the promise of eternal life. Like most of you, probably, I’ve recently had a couple of doozies of difficult years. Plus, I am getting old and have to get up and keep moving when my bones ache and heart aches. I have to keep choosing life as things change. I have to change. We suffer.

Before I go, I just want to confess for us that even when I have stumbled into wonderful abundance and when I have turned to swim in the death-quenching water all around me, even when I have done it right and when I have felt at peace, those realities have also caused suffering. I became different, I was different, and I disrupted what others considered normal. I came into abundance and had abundance to share, but people didn’t always take it or even understand it. When I wanted to connect and love, my care was ignored and my chances were stolen. I disrupted myself, too. My opinion of myself had to change because a full me usurped the me who had been protecting against emptiness for a long time.

Becoming and being eternal go together. If you can’t keep going there will be no place to be. If you can’t delight in who you are and who you are in Christ right now, at least a little, there is no motivation to keep choosing and becoming your full self.

However the coin lands, the life and death choices being explored in psychotherapy (and many other places, of course) are about eternal life. We long for the happiness of abundant life. The spiritual thirst we feel implies there is water. Even if we suffer to enter the life Jesus offers, the choosing, itself, makes us more human and more enspirited.

Adele on marriage: Four takeaways from Easy On Me

Adele in 2021

I am not a big Spotify user. I first downloaded the app so I could listen to the Tea Club’s latest album (still highly recommended). I made a visit to the site recently and discovered the lists. I love “top 100” lists of most kinds. And there was the most-streamed songs list on Spotify — and there was Adele with Easy On Me, still on the list after six months. She put out the album, 30, just after the deadline for the 2022 Grammys, so she didn’t get any awards last night. But she might still be in the top 50 in 2023.

On YouTube the official video for the song has 261 million views. I know a couple of people who had it on repeat as soon as they heard it. I caught on to it because one of the repeaters was a client who could relate to her lament of breakup and liberation. As a result, I got interested in Adele for the first time. I even found myself watching her as Oprah dug into what was happening during her years of recording silence.

Mental health issues

She’s been depressed. She’s been anxious. She got a divorce. She became a single mom spending half-time with her child; she had to think about whether to buy a 9 million dollar home in Beverly Hills.

I wonder if she has also been interested in her role as the unofficial poster-person for mental health issues. Like I was saying last time, the WHO says depression is the #1 disability in the world. You may be feeling it yourself right now. It has been a hard two years; go easy on yourself, baby. Adele’s album is all about her pain and recovery; she’s a forthright woman.

I have to admit, I suggested to one client that listening to her might not be a road to wellness for them. It was more likely a way to keep the trauma fresh and deepen the narrative of despair which was creating a canyon in their brain from which it might be hard to deviate when they wanted to move on.

Adele’s guidance

But I might be wrong about Adele being a bad influence. Music is such a natural cathartic and integrative experience. If one sang along with Adele rather than just being formed by her, Easy On Me might be useful.

If we look at the words, I think we can find some takeaways that might help us on our own tragic journeys.

Go easy on me, baby
I was still a child
Didn’t get the chance to
Feel the world around me
I had no time to choose
What I chose to do
So go easy on me

Adele probably said what the words of this famous chorus mean during her extensive publicity tour. I did not hear about it. But here is why I think people love them so much. We feel them. Even if you want to get out of a relationship, breaking up feels terrible: “Please don’t make this any harder than it already is, baby,” And if your marriage or other relationship is breaking down and you can’t see your way back, “Please, baby, go easy on me. I can’t stand any more criticism, contempt, defensiveness or withdrawal” (the four main relationship poisons).

Every one of the couples I counsel are experiencing the childhood wounds with which they arrived when they were married. We could all say “I was still a child” in one way or another, and our inner child is still with us! Adele had the common experience of significantly growing up in her 20something marriage, alongside her young child, Angelo (who will be 10 this year). Many young mothers are depressed after giving birth, and feeling constrained by a child can be a shock to their system. “Where are my choices?” and “Did I choose this?”

There ain’t no gold in this river
That I’ve been washin’ my hands in forever
I know there is hope in these waters
But I can’t bring myself to swim
When I am drowning in this silence
Baby, let me in

I’ve met with many individuals and couples over the years who sang this verse. “Where we are at feels intolerable. I can’t see any hope, even though I hope there is some.” They’re  too depressed or otherwise upset to swim. “I’m sinking. We can’t talk. The isolation and loneliness I feel is overwhelming.”

There ain’t no room for things to change
When we are both so deeply stuck in our ways
You can’t deny how hard I have tried
I changed who I was to put you both first
But now I give up

Adele spent years trying to figure out what to do. Her song is not about a snap judgment! She finally gave up. Sometimes you have to give up. I sometimes think people hold on too long, and sometimes if feel they gave up right when they were dealing with reality for the first time. But when enough is enough will never be my call to make. If you are walking with Jesus, the Lord could turn your greatest loss into your greatest growth. It happens all the time. That miracle could happen in a renewed marriage or a divorce. Either way, there will be pain.

The family at Disneyland

Four takeaways for people who don’t want to give up

Adele gives beautiful voice to our pain and that’s why Easy on Me keeps being streamed. But what if you don’t want to give up? What if you don’t want your partner to give up? Adele alludes to some roads not taken in her song.

1) Go easy on your partner. If you feel bad, they probably do too. Learn how to be taken care of by God and cooperate with his care. Depression is a fight. If you go easy on your partner and yourself, it might make you easier to live with and might give you some space to see some good in your partner — and yourself. You might be able to do something good for the relationship, not just feel bad about what it is right now.

2) It’s a river. If you aren’t finding gold the way you are panning or not finding it where you think it should be, move down the river. Adele can sense hope in the water because things changed. She  changed. Relationships can change and grow when one person has the courage, like Adele, to grow up. No one needs to drown in a relationship. But it is likely the relationship will drown unless both partners are going for gold. There is often a way.

3) Keep talking. It sounds like Adele feels like she did a lot of talking, but her husband withdrew — “Baby, let me in.” When he did that, she got more aggressive and he built more of a stone wall to protect himself and the relationship. This may have made her feel abandoned and made him feel rejected. It is hard to talk about feelings as deep as abandonment and rejection, but marriages are built on the love we make when we keep talking.

4) If you are defensive, your shame button may have been pushed. When she says, “You can’t deny how hard I have tried,” I am sure I believe her. But life is not failure proof if you just try hard enough. Behind that defensive statement there might be some shame about not being good enough, capable enough, lovable enough, or not trying hard enough and failing — any of which is intolerable to feel. It is easy to imagine her partner saying, “I can surely deny how you tried hard enough. What is your standard? Are you blaming me for what you have done?” Now he’s defending against feeling shameful.

I hope Adele and her husband got the best marital therapy money can buy, since she’s worth $190 million. Having a third party listening with compassion and noting the unique patterns of your relationship can help. Most of the time a therapist helps partners “go easy” on someone who has hurt them whether they make it through to the next steps of the marriage or go their separate ways. Many times the therapist helps them build something new, now that they are over thirty, or starting from wherever the river has taken them.

Eradication or remission: With what healing do I bless you?

What do you say when you bless a sick person?

  • “I hope you get well soon” or
  • “I hope you feel better soon?”

Both, of course, are expressions of love and a sick person probably gets the love, no matter what you say. I wondered, however, why I almost always say, “I hope you feel better soon” just like my mother.  Maybe get well, seems like a demand; while feel better is more tentative, more humble. When I say “I hope you feel better soon,” I think it is flavored with, “I am not sure where this is going. I don’t feel comfortable promising wellness. But I am hopeful.”

The other day some Circle Counseling clinicians got into the subject of getting well and feeling better applied to mental health. We discussed whether mental health was more about eradication (well) or more like remission (better). I had never really thought through the difference. Eradication vs. remission is often the tension cancer patients feel, right? They wonder “Is there a cure or will I have to worry forever?” That kind of tension also applies to mental illness. “Does being well mean I am just like I remember good times in my past — a return to normal? Is it acquiring an idealized future — what I always thought I should be?” Or is mental health feeling, thinking and behaving better, beginning where I am now and moving on?

Need to talk about power

I think eradication was paired with remission in our dialogue because people in the U.S. assume power is at their disposal or should be. Around here, successful treatment for many means eradication of the invading illness. Something like “Vaccinations would have provided a no-fly zone against the virus if people had just gotten one, two, three and now four!”

Like I was asking last week, many Americans see healing as an act of power. Should Jesus followers all be like Jesus and eradicate disease and mental illness with a word, a touch, or a prayer? Or is healing more typically resting at the feet of Jesus, having faith in the storm, and persevering in trust? In a powerful country, psychotherapists might lust for power — the power of my work, my touch, my method. I heard a different take when I talked to a person last week who lives half-time in Ecuador. They said it would be much more likely there to see health in terms of one’s relational context and one’s daily process. People there never expect to have power, so they are more comfortable with unpredictable destinations and more attuned to feeling present in their relationships and circumstances. They do not find suffering sinful.

But here, I think it is good for me to answer the questions. Am I more of a psychological technician, eradicating mental illness and discomfort? Or am I providing space for health to unfold? If the latter, I might be able to promise raising your pain tolerance instead of implying all pain is an anomaly. In a recovery mindset, I might admit I don’t know the meaning of your suffering, or whether some ideal of wellness might really be a trap!

I’m glad I travel with people who ask good questions.  At one point last week, I listened to an Indian psychotherapist (his choice of label) explaining why Native people might not take advantage of the services of the counseling center on the reservation. The elders told him the center’s idea of “wellness” was mostly about becoming individualized (as opposed to tribal) and medicalized. If one is poor or constrained by colonization, “getting well” might mean eradicating who one is to become more “white” and more acceptable to the power structure. One’s setting or one’s relationships might be the cause of mental illness, not only what is happening inside. If a person refused mental health care, that might be the same thing as resisting the indignities of colonization, the end of which would likely improve their mental health!

Eradication/Medical model

I was not sure the interesting binary argument we therapists were making between eradication and remission was reasonable. Aren’t most mutually exclusive labels easily placed on a spectrum that meets somewhere near the middle? But once I started looking, I found a lot of eradication models that feel pretty exclusive, mostly coming from the world of medicine, from which psychotherapy emerged. They looked a bit one-sided, as in this definition: “The biological approach of the medical model focuses on genetics, neurotransmitters, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, etc. Psychopathology says that disorders have an organic or physical cause. The approach suggests that mental conditions are related to the brain’s physical structure and functioning” (link).

I usually love science. It is unintentionally miraculous. But I don’t love it when it dominates us. So I have mixed feelings about some relatively-recent approaches from the medical end of the spectrum that propose and sometimes promise eradication of mental health issues. Here is a collection.

  • A TV station gushed: “Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation is a depression treatment that is “turning lives around in five days.” By adding imaging technology to the treatment and upping the dose of rTMS, scientists have developed an approach that’s more effective and works more than eight times faster than the current approved treatment for the world’s leading cause of disability.
  • The medical terms are Psilocybin and MDMA. The terms you know are ‘shrooms and ecstasy. Psychedelics have resurfaced as a means to treat stubborn disorders. Psilocybin (the essence of mushrooms) has been used for severe depression and MDMA for PTSD. One of my clients ended up in psychotherapy because an uninvited night of ‘shrooms unveiled an inner world he never dreamed he contained.
  • Ketamine injections have become a new mental health industry, lately. The anesthesia has been found useful for treating depression, PTSD, social anxiety and OCD. Mindbloom is the company that a new client connected with; the effects were real, but apparently short-lived for them.
  • I am not sure I think of EMDR as a “medical model” in essence. But it is another way to short-cut lengthy talk therapy. I’ve done some training myself. It gives a lot of authority to the technician. Brainspotting seems, to me, like a more easy going, user-friendly version of EMDR. Both use bi-lateral stimulation of the brain to allow for entrenched feelings and patterns to be accessed and renegotiated.

Remission/Recovery Model

I hesitate to say the “remission” end of the spectrum is more “right-brained,” but there, I said it. While the medical model gets more specific and tiny all the time, right down to your neurotransmitters, the recovery model allows for a wider range of possibilities and contexts for the state called mental health. The documentary Bedlam is one of the latest critiques of the results of the medical model the recovery model seeks to correct.

The recovery model takes a holistic view of a person’s life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery from mental disorders and/or substance use disorders as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” SAMHSA outlines four dimensions that support recovery: 1) Choices that support physical and mental well-being, 2) a safe place to live, 3) meaningful occupation and participation in the community, 4) supportive relationships of love, emotional availability, and respect.

The recovery model is in direct response to the unmet promises of the medical model. Rather than focusing on “the elusive state of return to premorbid level of functioning” these are more systemic approaches emphasizing “one’s personal ‘resilience’ and control over problems and life” (NCBI). For instance, the medical model makes many promises to alleviate depression, the leading cause of disability  worldwide (WHO). The recovery model is honest about the shortcut approaches that sometimes prove ineffective and discouraging.

In the case of depression, a sufferer is moving toward recovery when symptoms respond to treatment and diminish, however slowly. Remission is achieving a symptom-free state and returning to normal functioning. After several month s of remission, one enters the recovery stage (more). For many people, looking for remission may be more satisfying than never achieving eradication. Finding a new normal, rather than lamenting the lost one, allows a person to live the life they have.

With what healing do I bless you?

I think I can bless someone with “Be well.” Whatever wellness you have in your present state today, I hope you can have it rather than lusting for what you don’t have and condemning yourself for not being healthier. If you don’t see yourself in the light of the medical industry’s “gaze” and label yourself according to your faults, I think you’ll find amazing tools there to use.

I also think I can bless someone with “I hope you’ll feel better.” Whatever process of development or recovery you are in, there is hope of appreciating it, moving beyond it, or suffering it creatively. You have personal resources – some you know about and some which are yet to be fully realized or even discovered. You are valuable as you are right now and there are likely people who can see that. Even when you feel ill and less capable than you desire, what you bring to the community is worthwhile right now and will likely grow in blessing as you learn to love and share your true self.

The hidden work of healing in psychotherapy

When I wrote my dissertation, I had the joy of flying here and there to meet with Christian therapists who formed counseling centers associated with churches. One woman in Chicago was having an awkward time talking about how church life integrated with her professional life. She hadn’t shared very much about how her faith informed her psychotherapy and she hadn’t heard much about what her colleagues thought about it. She sheepishly admitted, “I pray for my clients every day. Do you think that is OK?”

What do you think? Is it OK?

As a client, you may need to talk this over with your therapist, if you want your faith taken seriously. Maybe they don’t pray for you. You may also need to talk to them if that’s an area you did not expect to be a part of therapy, or you don’t want it to be, or you can’t trust them with it. The integration of Christianity/spirituality and psychotherapy is not clear for many people, some therapists included.

This has only happened once, but it did happen when a couple came in for marriage counseling. It was apparent the husband was not feeling it. Arms crossed. Short answers to begin with. But we seemed to be getting somewhere. We made another appointment. But the wife called me the next day and said, “He looked at your website and it looks like you are Christians. He can’t handle that. Thanks anyway.” I still think about that. Circle Counseling is a means for many churches to do the work of healing. But some will not be able to handle the thought that I might be praying for them!

Honestly, given the reputation of Christians these days, I might feel like that man who never came back — I mean, the Russian Orthodox Church is sponsoring a war right now! The MCC Rep for Korea gave an amazing report the other night about our peacemaking efforts there; but he had to note how the South Korean churches are dominated more by capitalism, nationalism and anticommunism than they are patiently and deliberately fermenting the hearts and minds of people into new wine. Christian psychotherapists don’t always know what they are doing either. Even though the guild guidelines include competency in spirituality these days, the teachers seem to sideline it more and more. I think many therapists leave their faith outside the door to their office.

We are healers

Various conversations about prayer and counseling made me want to clarify what I think I am doing. I realized I have an assumption that has kind of been hidden, since I am concerned about people who might walk out of my office at the least hint of Jesus. (That happened once in ten years, and I have not forgotten!). I may not advertise the “contemptible” name Christian, too much but I definitely am a healer in the name of Jesus.

Some people do not think psychotherapy “qualifies” as a healing profession. That’s for actual doctors. I admit I was concerned I might be asked what kind of healing profession I was in when I dashed over to the convention center with all the other health workers to get the vaccine when it first came out. I was afraid I might get a “You are not what we meant” look. But as the mental health crisis deepens in the U.S. I believe, more than ever, we need Jesus to heal us, heart, soul, mind and body.

Back in the 80’s our community took a field trip to the first Vineyard church, led by John Wimber. His congregation separated from Calvary Chapel when they took the call to follow Jesus literally and reluctantly decided that call meant healing people like Jesus did. This conviction was not new at all in the history of the church, but it seemed new to them.  After a lot of failure, a woman was healed, much to Wimber’s surprise. He was in the act of explaining to her husband why not all people are healed but the husband was looking over his shoulder at his wife getting out of bed!  An outbreak of healings and other experiences with the Spirit followed.  The population of the church boomed. Wimber called their new ministry “power evangelism” – people came to faith because they encountered the living God.

The first disciples described in Acts demonstrate the same conviction. I think all Jesus followers have a part to play in healing individuals, societies and the creation. “Power evangelism” is an improvement over “God is not answering the phone anymore;” but it also strikes me as the kind of thing an American would invent and package. Americans tend to think power is their birthright or their birthright has been stolen, one or the other. And don’t get me wrong, I think encountering the Spirit among the people of God in Yorba Linda is great. But Jesus did a lot more work in a hidden way than as a rally leader. He was fermenting new wine more than just crushing grapes.

Hidden spiritual work

Another therapist I interviewed in California during my research had a Bible on her office table and told me she usually prayed with her clients.  I was surprised! I was so circumspect, myself, a person would have to go to the website to find out I was a Christian before they asked me. And many people never find out. I don’t think they need to deal with whatever the Bible symbolizes to them or whatever a white, Christian, male might symbolize to them before we get there.

But I do pray for them. As a Jesus follower, it might be malpractice for me not to pray for my clients! I don’t remember ever praying with one. But I can’t help praying for them. I come with the One who comes with “healing in his wings.”

My work, like the ministry most Jesus followers do, is more along the lines of Matthew 6:6: But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” There is a “hiddenness” to the work of the Spirit. Like it is often said, the work of the Spirit is like salt in your dinner, or yeast in your bread dough, or a breeze coming on you when you sit on your stoop in August, entering in and invisibly changing things.

Healing is more patiently, deliberately fermenting; it is much more about love than power. The church and the counseling center are crucial vehicles for the transformation of the individuals and the whole world but Jesus does the healing. We never see just exactly how he does it.

Ripe in their time

When I am with clients, my prayer is less like an event and more like a presence. I am a living prayer. I am the presence of God’s love. Another interviewee in my research project was not sure what would happen to her if she revealed to her colleagues how she loved her clients. “How could I not?” she asked. I can’t help it, either. And why, in Jesus’s name, would I? As they enter and as they leave (or after I click them in and out of Zoom!), I intercede for them. Sometimes I wake up in the night and feel like praying some more. God is healing all the time. The unceasing prayer I embody is part of the Sprit’s work.

I’ve never had anyone ask me to pray for them. I hope that is because they get the idea what we do is not about me. It’s not about my special prayer. Not about my power. They have access to whatever power they need. The Spirit of God is with them and for them just as I am with God and I am with them and for them. If they did ask me to pray before they left (after they visited the website, I guess), I think I would say, “I’m not sure about that. We can explore it some more next time.”

The Batman: Hope for the victims of trauma

The Batman gets used to the dawn.

Warning. If you are afraid of a “spoiler alert” related to a Batman movie this post might disturb you. But you’ll probably be OK. We don’t go to Batman movies to be surprised. We go to see someone re-imagine a very familiar story.  Besides, the trailer gives away some of the best parts!

To be sure, this overlong, best-Batman-in-my-opinion is cleverly re-imagined. It is so beautifully created I wouldn’t have needed a coherent plot, but I got one. The Batman is a couple of years into his nocturnal crime fighting and things don’t always go too well. He is facing an identity crisis in the daylight as Bruce Wayne (but don’t expect too much daylight in this dark movie), and more crisis in the nighttime as “Vengeance” personified. Everyone is corrupted by wicked elements that threaten to drown (and then actually drown) Gotham City, past and present. The millennial Batman is not sure he is making a difference. And he is sad, mad, and afraid he is turning bad: “They think I’m hiding in the shadows,” he intones in an opening voiceover. “But I am the shadows.”

Post-traumatic growth

The movie is not another origin story; it assumes we know The Batman’s parents were murdered in front of his eyes. His iconic trauma lives on. The Batman has reinforced it by reliving it night after night and attempting to relieve it by wrecking vengeance on anyone who would dominate the good people of Gotham, like his parents were.

So far, his fury does not seem to be making a big difference on the streets. But it takes a toll on The Batman’s scarred body; it undermines the Wayne business empire; and it makes having a relationship with The Catwoman difficult. The movie does not dig into this toll deeply, even though it is three hours long. More time is taken up by chases using the first-generation Batcycle and Batmobile and by splendidly choreographed fight scenes in which the hero uses prototypes of what will become Batman’s famous collection of gear.

The Batman is quick to learn about crime fighting, but he is slower to learn about his trauma. I wondered if the script writers had consulted a book I assigned a class a couple of years ago called The Post-traumatic Growth Workbook. The film reflects the increased awareness people have gained in the last ten years about how trauma can shape us. Some people end up perpetual victims and may even victimize others. But some people use their trauma to become more resilient and hopeful. (Most people land in between). The workbook (which you can use yourself, it is not just for professionals) assumes everyone can be positively transformed by trauma. By the end of the movie, The Batman seems to be validating that hope. In service to that theme, the movie is too short, since it often takes a long time for people to uncover and explore their trauma and find a way out of it and into new patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving.

Bruce Wayne spots his inner child

The inner Batboy

The search for mental health often starts on the outside and works its way into our hearts, a lot like God coming to find us and rescue us in Jesus. Jesus pops up here and there in the movie, but the “caped crusader” is saved from saving himself by a trinity of important people: the likewise-traumatized Catwoman, the injured Alfred, and the newly-fatherless son of the assassinated mayor.

  • Catwoman begins to undo his steely isolation“Maybe we’re not so different. Who are you under there?…Are you just hideously scarred?” (He grimly answers, “Yes.”)
  • The threat of losing his surrogate father reminds him how he has been loved by Alfred and offered the attachment he lost; some bat-tears even well up. – “You needed a father. All you had was me.”
  • But it is the speechless boy the filmmakers make sure you don’t miss. On three occasions time stops; The Batman and the boy lock eyes and make a mysterious connection. Some people say this is Robin-in-the-making. Maybe.

Someone told me a much better idea than Robin, since they experienced Bruce Wayne’s revelation vicariously while they watched the film. This lost boy, who Batman rescues twice, is the image of the batboy suffering within The Batman. As he rescues the boy he is rescuing himself. As he attends to and attaches to this boy, he is attending to his own wounded soul. You can usefully watch the whole movie through this lens. (Even the parts Colin Farrell steals as the Penguin). Try it!

My friend’s moment of truth centered on the scene when the The Batman tries to rescue the new mayor, who understandably, in her traumatized state, is reluctant to take his hand. To our surprise, another hand rises from behind the wreckage. It is the former mayor’s son reaching out. The boy slowly comes into the camera’s view and his formerly unreachable, new friend pulls him from the wreckage. That might be the adult you reaching back to care for that poor orphaned you still stuck in the wreckage of the past. It is certainly the Spirit of God in us overriding our personal rules of life to free us from our victimhood and welcome even the abused parts of us into their dignity and transformation.

The final scenes of mayhem are probably worth the admission price for most of us. But I reveled in watching The Batman assisting in the final cleanup that followed. In the process of cleaning up, he gets cleaned up. The sun rises after a night full of horror and he is out in his mud covered, designed-for-the-dark uniform helping the injured into helicopter stretchers. One youngster won’t let him go, which would probably soften your hardened heart, too.

The movie is not all tidied up at the end, or how could there be sequel (which would be the 14th live-action rendition, and that does not include Lego movies)? The messiness makes it a great movie for the mud-spattered spring of 2022. Many of us feel a post-Covid fear of being stuck in the mud as we watch Russian trucks running on fumes through muck-season in Ukraine. Will we ever get out of feeling victimized by our trauma, newly-experienced and triggered every day? Getting used to the dawn, The Batman realizes, “Vengeance won’t change the past. Mine or anyone else’s. People need hope.”