Category Archives: A life in the Spirit

The wonder of being saved: A collection of ways

I’ve been improving my EMDR skills and enjoying the process of helping people install “safe places” to which they can return when the trauma they are processing feels overwhelming. We also imagine nurturing, wise, or protective people who can be called upon to help in the lonely process of bringing up dreadful past experiences —  trauma stuck in the deep parts of the brain and then inexplicably triggered and replayed as if they were happening in the present.  Feeling safe is strangely uncommon, it seems. Welcoming new feelings of being nurtured, helped or protected, or imagining those feelings if they are hard to recall, can be very useful for healing.

The wonder of being saved

It is not easy to be healed. Many people have despaired for a long time of ever being saved from what troubles them. When we watched The Whale the other day, Brendan Fraser’s character really did not want to be saved. And his long lost daughter did not want to be saved by him. The rain-drenched missionary who came in with salvation was soundly berated. Even after the unexpected forgiveness of his parents came through, he was still vilified. The movie is like Captain Ahab pursuing the whale of personal meaning and Moby Dick tangling him up in his own futility.

The lessons of the movie made me wonder what people are learning these days. If The Whale is indicative, they can’t be saved and they can’t save. But they don’t have the resources to save themselves. All they can do is avoid the pain hard, even when they thirst for meaning. Trauma therapists all over the world are working overtime to get some tools into their hands. Quite often their collaboration saves them. Just don’t tell the philosophers of the day such a thing is happening.

As the movie ended, I had to stop and thank God for saving me. For some reason, from an early age, I never thought it was reasonable to think I could save myself. The numbers just did not add up – what was required overwhelmed that with which I was equipped. Just before I typed that sentence a person texted me and reminded me of a lunch we had 20 years ago, which I completely do not remember — don’t even have a face. But they buzzed in to connect because of a piece of advice I gave them when they were in college. They never forgot that, given the way they work, they would never have faith if they just approached it intellectually. They needed the grace of God in Jesus.

I had to stop and thank God for saving me. I was reminded that the skills I am teaching people to help unravel the trauma that ties them up are skills I was taught by God and his people long before I knew about EMDR, or psychotherapy for that matter. As I remembered all the ways God has provided me safety and security, I came up with something of a memoir of the riches of faith I’ve received. I keep seeing how they not only work in conjunction with psychotherapy, they work much deeper. So often they have been blessing me long before I become aware of them.

The ways of being saved

I thank God for the healing presence of compassionate psychotherapists.  I am grateful even when they act like they discover things God-fearing people have always known, then codify them like they belong to science, and then sell them. They encourage me to see what I have been given in new ways as they repackage old truths that are new to their clients. I’ve learned so many of their lists of “tools” I decided to make one of my own. These some of are the ways I have been saved and I am being saved.

Breathing – Deliberate breathing/mindfulness is central to reducing anxiety and becoming attentive to our capacity to develop. It may have been Father Keating who opened up this practice to me. Now, every day, I spend some time centering and opening my heart by first  attending to my breathing. At this point, I am usually sensing my place in God’s presence as soon as I intentionally inhale.

Imagining – I love how EMDR practices require people to use their renewed imagination as a tool for overcoming their trouble.  That was a central element of my prayer in my thirties when I needed to be healed and encouraged to grow.

Recalling people, places, experiences – People overcoming trauma search their souls for anything that can be a resource. Sometimes they have drops of water in the desert and it has to be enough for now. When I look back on my life of faith there are hundreds of people to call on, living and dead, who have made my way sure, I am even confident about the future! I have countless experiences of faith, hope and love to call on. It is all an amazing collection of riches.

Wildly good ways

I decided to list ways of being saved because even some of my spiritual direction clients do not know about them. And really, why would they? The atmosphere in which we live gives birth to movies like The Whale in which people are stuck, stuck, stuck and defending their right to be hopeless and self-destructive. But even now, there are wildly good ways to exprerience the life beyond our ways.

My place: Tomorrow I will sit down in the chair in which I pray, study and meditate and enjoy God’s presence. Maybe I will decide to taken my kneeling bench out and kneel before my icon wall where significant art and symbols come around me like nurturing, wise friends and teachers.

Beads: At some point I may take up my new Anglican prayer beads and pray through my own “rosary,” remembering family, friends and clients.

Journal: At some point I will take out my journal, note my thanks, note the signs of God in the past day as well as acknowledge my sins and then ponder the events and challenges of the new day with God. I might sing.

Direction: Last week I visited my spiritual director and had the benefit of a kind mirror questioning my story and pulling me toward the guidance he could see. I also enjoyed the company of men in my new spiritual direction group as they inspired me with their sincerity and vulnerability.

Retreat: This week I hope to take a retreat. These experiences are central disciplines that have marked my life in the Spirit for decades. Dedicated time alone with God gives me space to hear and rest and hope in new directions. Part of what I will do is remember what has happened during the last quarter and see how I have been accompanied.

Church meetings: Being part of the church meetings and enjoying group worship used to be my central weekly discipline as well as a way to appreciate the historic Christian calendar. I am in between congregations at the moment. But slowly, much larger ways to be the church as well as much smaller ways are proving satisfying.

My brief listing of the riches of my life in the Spirit is hardly about all my accomplishments. I made the effort to show up, of course, but mostly I responded to the whispers and wooing of God’s grace. Beyond the traumas of the world and my own injured sense of self, there was God providing security and reinforcing love. When I meet up with people who have not experienced these riches yet, I can’t judge them. My journey can’t be explained and theirs doesn’t need to be either. I wonder at my blessings and can feel how deep the darkness would be if I lived without the ways of salvation.

Group communication “sad?” Try on some Virginia Satir.

I was in a group meeting with some wonderful people the other day. As I reflected on it this morning, I remembered Virginia Satir. She is often called the “mother of family therapy.” As a doctor of marriage and family therapy, she has done a little mothering of me, too. You can read her Wikipedia page for interesting details. Today I just want to share two things she offered the world that would improve most of the groups we are in: workplace, family  and the beleaguered church.

Virginia Satir (1916-1988)

Tell your own story

One of the things that made me think of Virginia Satir is the fact I was sounding a bit like her in our group. We were  group of Christians from around the country reflecting on a new statement about how to follow Jesus these days. (I’m reserving the name of the group because it is not the point). Like Satir, I was trying to encourage people to tell their own stories with confidence, not worrying what someone else might be thinking all the time they are sharing.

Virginia Satir knew how to share what she had to say. I have always admired her for creating a theory and forming a school of thought to explore her insights, even though, as a woman in the 1960’s to 80’s, as soon as she raised her voice, people called her “tyrannical” and considered her theories “unscientific.” She used her theories in her therapy and taught her disciples anyway, and we are still appreciating what she created.

I don’t think I agree with some significant things in her well-known declaration of self-esteem: “I Am Me,” but I am thrilled with the spirit behind it. My comrades in our group had brilliant things to say, but the present atmosphere in which we live and the captivity of  recent Christianity to modern thought induced them to pose most of what they said in relation to an imagined opponent or a critical expert. I think we should all begin, as Satir encourages us to do, with “I am me and I am okay.” Especially if one is in Christ and can say, “There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus, no fear; in the Spirit I am who I am.” We don’t need to make an argument all day, even if people who don’t love us are out there somewhere, supposedly ready to take us down.

There is room for a good argument, of course, even gainst “straw” opponents. Working out common goals allows us to come from all sorts of places and end up on a mutual path. It usually takes some time and effort to get to harmony — and presenting my sacred opinion, standing alone with its chin up, is rarely the best place to start. Instead of setting up an argument with how we talk and act, I think we should begin with our own story  and receive another’s and so allow our vulnerability to seed the group (and the world!) with the possibility of real love.

Be aware of your communication style

Satir continues to be well-known today for her five communication styles. By now, you probably know your Myers-Brigs letters, your Enneagram number/wings and all sorts of  other labels that might chafe like a wool sweater sometimes. Satir’s labels came from observing families and seeing the same patterns arise again and again. She generalized the variations so people could consider how to make one another better humans, not just clutter the family system with dysfunction and debilitating pain.

As we went through our group the other day, I periodically got a glimpse of myself putting on one of these communication styles or fending off, in my mind at least, some dysfunctional style from someone else. Our group was super polite and not that intimate yet, so we were not treated to anything extreme. But our process made me wonder how the church keeps going when we are often stuck in the four less-functional styles of communicating and often despair of getting to the best style (Or think we are already best, but no one will tell us we aren’t because they think too poorly of themselves to reveal their experience!).

I aspired to be a “leveler” in the group according to Satir’s model. The leveler is “congruent,” meaning their internal states match what is communicated externally. For Satir, that means they are OK being themselves and are open to others being themselves. They are aware of self, other and context in a way that allows them to mentalize about what is happening instead of just reacting out of fear. In the chart (that blurry thing at the left), the leveler’s stance s open, arms welcoming, legs  relaxed, and their facial expressions and tone match their internal state. We are not all likely to be the “non-anxious presence” we hear about all the time, but trying to stay aware helps a group stay connected, even when times are hard. Satir followers often quote the Roman poet Horace to that end: “When things are steep, remember to stay level-headed.”

Satir had first hand knowledge of how communication styles could hurt. In the “family” of the first family therapists, the blamers accused her of all sorts of things, the placaters fawned over her, the rationalists were disappointed that she did not come up with a theoretical model to meet their expectations, and the distracters considered her irrelevant.

You may have had the same experience during a Zoom call for work this week, or in a small group of the church, or at your family dinner table.  I was having a little taste of all the dysfunctional styles coming at me in my group the other day (and coming from me, too!). In the chart above, you can see that each style is missing congruity with something — and irrelevant misses them all!

The four off-kilter types

Blamers defend by pointing the finger at someone else. They use words like “you should have” or “if you would try harder, then I wouldn’t have to…” or ” I do it right so this couldn’t have been my fault.”  Most Christians are clever enough to do this subtley. They would be more likely to quote the Bible or the latest critic of the church to put you in your place, which leaves them blameless. They set an atmosphere on edge.

Computers (the super-reasonable or rational) often position themselves with their arms crossed and use super reasonable words, like “I tried to tell you”, or “according to so-in-so.” or “when we last had this discussion.” They defend by ignoring feelings and other information, relying on logic to sound all put  together. In the chart above, they are all context, but not personal or relational. They make an atmosphere feel distant or cold.

When I get around a group of Christian leaders, it is often the blamers and computers versus the placators and distracters. That might just be the way of all flesh. But it also might be becasue their family systems operated like this. Married couples are more likely than not to have a “pursuing” partner and a “withrdrawing” partner. The withdrawers often have communication styles like placators and distractors. Truth without love kills. Love without truth lies.

Placators defend by trying to marginalize conflict in order to protect themselves or stabilize relationships. They sound like “please, won’t you just listen” or “now, it wasn’t that bad,” or “I don’t want to fight,” or they just stay quiet, sometimes letting their facial expressions say what they are not willing to put out there. I was on Zoom the other day with my group, which is a good venue to observe how faces tell things people are not yet willing to say.  The make the atmosphere a bit unreal or desperate.

Distracters (the “irrelevant” style) attempt to derail the conversation when they are uncomfortable. Their postures are more like rapid movements, or laughing at inappropriate moments. Words they use sound like “not to change the subject, but” or “did you see that new movie?” Maybe more, they feel so irrelevant or are so irrelevant to what is hapening they can’t keep their attention on it, they are easily distracted. I think people kept shutting off their video during our meeting the other day because it was hard to keep up the energy it takes to connect that way. I took a phone call from the City of Philadelphia myself. Distrcter make the atmosphere feel insubstantial, even foolish or shameful.

Being a leveler is hard. It is a lot easier to stay reactive and most of us prefer that, even when we feel called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Virginia Satir believed if we would all get congruent and live as levelers, world peace would be ushered in. As soon as she said that, she was criticized for being a naive woman who ignored the needs of the “Third World” (as Eurocentric people called it then).  She went around the world telling her story, anyway. As a result, her present influence might be more significant outside the United States now than it was inside then.

The blessings lurking in elementary school and behind the screen

As I recall it, the closest my grandson’s winter concert got to noting the meaning of Christmas was singing the song “Count Your Blessings.” The school managed to accurately describe Hannukah and Kwanzaa, but missed the incarnation of Jesus — unless “Jingle Bells” (by the much-loved and enthusiastic kindergarten) is enough of a hint for you. (Honestly, I probably could have discerned the presence of Spirit in anything those 5-year-olds sang. I shouted for an encore.)

I was counting my blessings when I left the school, despite the sting of witnessing Jesus being despised. Pointedly ignoring Jesus makes Christian supremacy that much more obvious, it seems to me. Nevertheless, I have not stopped singing “Count Your Blessings” in my head, which is not a bad thing. I even recorded it for my sister so she could enjoy remembering our mother singing it.

Micky and Minnie nostalgic for their more authentic past — Kinkade Studio

The lyrics matter

When you think about most popular American songs very long, they tend to fall apart. But think about them we must, or they might help us fall apart. So here we go.

The chorus of this little song is what got it into the elementary holiday concert of 2022. The kids’ great grandparents heard it first in 1954.

When I’m worried and cannot sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.

Sweet and comforting, isn’t it? The country had experienced some hard years. And those lyrics have some practical value don’t they? They are somewhat psychologically and spiritually sound.

The idea of “counting sheep” to get to sleep was purportedly donated to European culture by shepherds who had to keep a count of their sheep entering the pen. It was boring enough to put you to sleep – or so became the popular thought. A brave sheep will jump a fence under about four feet, and then the followers will jump, one by one, which is also mesmerizing. In the 1800’s, the image worked its way into plays and such, and became a cliché. It is probably better to imagine something like waves on the beach or a soothing symphony orchestra. But counting blessings might do the trick. It is surely better than piling up worries! So many of us sleep so poorly, we could use some tricks.

Counting stuff might not help you sleep

The American song problems arise when we get to the other part of the chorus and the verse.

When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep counting my blessings

I think about a nursery
And I picture curly heads
And one by one I count them
As they slumber in their beds.

I am not sure the teacher should have resurrected this old chestnut. But that’s undoubtedly because I follow Jesus and don’t like how his holiday has turned into a shopping spree all over the world. When the kids got further in this song, they found out the “blessings” are all about money and stuff. And it kind of looks like children are among the “possessions.” This seems in line with the American sense of well-being: “I think about when I was poor, but now I have stuff; about when I was childless but now I’m not.”

I’m not sure how the poor, unmarried and childless Jesus fits into all of that! Not to mention the third graders! So stick with the first stanza up there! Otherwise, going to sleep kind of depends on having enough stuff, which very few of us are good at having, even when we’re as rich as Carrie Fisher.

[BTW, Carrie Fisher (AKA Princess Leia) is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Fisher had the most-selling rendition of “Count Your Blessings” in 1954 right after Irving Berlin published it].

 

There is meaning behind the idealization

Irving Berlin, the Russian secular Jew, was married to an Irish Catholic heiress for 63 years. He wrote “Count Your Blessings” for the movie White Christmas (named after the #1 best selling single ever), a redux of Holiday Inn, which both fenced off the idea of a godless winter holiday. White Christmas was nominated for an academy award in 1955.

The parents of Berlin’s wife were opposed to their interfaith marriage and wouldn’t speak to the couple for years until they lost their second child a month after he was born, on Christmas Day. So you can see the lyric came out of his own rags-to-riches and terrible pain. Berlin said the song came from his doctor telling him to stop belly-aching and count his blessings.

The movie stars who sang it to each other in the movie were Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney’s aunt and Debbie Boone’s mother-in-law). Their stories kind of undermine the sentiment with which Berlin probably wrote the song, because they didn’t or couldn’t perform it authentically. But they could perform the idea of it. Their lives demonstrate just how committed we Americans can be to presenting an image packed with idealized meaning (like “the holidays”), even down to being our own brand, becoming an ideal, public “self.”

Bing Crosby was an amazing showman but was probably an even better entrepreneur and visionary. His unique voice catapulted him to fame from nowhere and he took it from there. He pioneered sound equipment (and was instrumental in stealing advanced devices from Germany after WW2) which made him sound even better. He might be the first person to perfect a personal “brand.” His “Bingness” made him even richer and more famous when it was translated into big movies like White Christmas and Going My Way. In his “on the road” movies with Bob Hope he was the smooth, calm, connective , all-American guy to Hope’s goofier and more accident-prone guy. It sold. His kids said they wished some of that “Bingness” would have come home with him, where he was a distant, driven loner. It was mostly acting.

Rosemary Clooney also recorded the song and it was well received. But her own story belied its gentle confidence even more than Bing’s. She was a traumatized child who escaped to Hollywood. She married Jose Ferrer and birthed five children in five years. She divorced him over his affairs and married him again, then divorced him over his affairs again. She then waited thirty years before marrying again, all the while dependent on tranquilizers and sleeping pills. After Bobby Kennedy was killed, she had a nervous breakdown onstage and entered psychoanalysis for eight years. Always a heavy smoker, she died of lung cancer. She presented herself as a fulfilled mother, and she did love mothering. But the “Rosemaryness” on screen masked the trauma of her childhood and the ongoing instability of her life.

I think the stories of these people are fascinating. So is your story. But theirs has quite a lesson for me. In the U.S. especially, the screen lures us into what is ideal. I don’t mean fake, since it has truth and love in it, but it is never true to what is. The song “Count Your Blessings” ends up with sweetness rather than actually being sweet. It is strange, isn’t it? It is a song about vulnerability sung by people who can’t seem to manage their own vulnerability, at least in real life. So in that sense it becomes an anti-vulnerability song we are supposed to swallow even if we don’t have the blessings. We use it to salve the vulnerability we can’t face when the lights are on.

We may have a little “Aww. That’s sweet” feeling (and then immediately mock it) but we don’t have the real sense of resting in real comfort. Accepting that idealized sweetness as real seems to actually blunt our receptors for truly being blessed. Maybe it is comfort porn. The love we get  in real life is not as ideal as what characters are having on screen (or Instagram).

“Count Your Blessings” is only 2:42 minutes long! In that brief time we get a little taste of blessingness performed with Bingness and Rosemaryness, which I kind of like. Like I said, it is a pleasant earworm. But I would hate to live off it! By this time, the postmoderns have effectively deconstructed all that and exposed every dark underbelly available, anyway, so we probably get only a minute’s worth of the sweetness. What is left?

Maybe people will go with a relationship with God through Jesus, or though whatever preliminary means they discern. The real stuff is better. And it’s left when all the idealizations have been exposed as such.

Beyond trauma and resilience is Love

A rich sense of blessing came over my wife and I not long ago. The experience has stuck with me and continues to loosen the barriers between me and my original union with God. Bessel van der Kolk and Psalm 139 help. Here is a bit of the psalm:

For You shaped me, inside and out.
You knitted me together in my mother’s womb long before I took my first breath.
I will offer You my grateful heart, for I am Your unique creation, filled with wonder and awe.
You have approached even the smallest details with excellence;
Your works are wonderful;
I carry this knowledge deep within my soul.  — Psalm 139:13-14 (The Voice)

You should probably take a deep breath and read that again so you can sink into it.

It took me a few decades of life before I could take a deliberate breath and appreciate what my mind and body knew about God. So much of the Christianity surrounding me as I grew up was focused on being in right relationship with God, the great external locus of control.” You’ve heard: “Get right with God. God is good all the time. Everything happens for a reason. Jesus is Lord of all. Jehovah is King.” The Church has often been a place where men fight each other to see what image of God is going to dominate, or what philosophy will rule. You’ve seen: Pastors raised up in sky-high pulpits or on jumbotrons, giant altars, a screen from behind which a man brings out holy things, founders who end up as dictators. Even Psalm 39, above, has been used to describe a very powerful creator whose total knowledge gives him total control (“God’s in control”) and so gives infinite opportunity to criticize the smallest details of our sin.

My Christian clients often come to therapy with the predictable effects of their damaging view of God. Even when they accept Jesus into their hearts (often in response to fear of hell or fear of ostracism from their family if they don’t), he resides in them like a prison warden, and the most avoidant are in solitary confinement.  Yet, once given a chance to tell their story, to be seen and heard, to explore the taboo topics of trauma and self-condemnation, they find a surprising knowledge of another God deep within. As they find their own value and exercise their own agency they get a new sense of an internal locus of control, and a new view of God emerges. They are free to form a much deeper relationship. As a result, Psalm 139 becomes more like the very gentle reading in The Voice. In that amplified translation, the rich word they translate “shaped” feels more intimate and, for what I want to say today, like a loving touch.

Bessel van der Kolk recording On Being. (Image by Kelli Wilkes)

Is resilience all we’ve got?

As I have been languidly reading The Body Keeps Score (in order to keep up with everyone else, honestly), I have enjoyed Bessel van der Kolk’s memoir-like presentation of how the science of trauma has developed over his lifetime, since the 1970’s. He’s a learner and open to any way to help people, to whatever works to free them, including spiritual ways. In 2021, Krista Tippet unearthed that his parents were fundamentalist Christians and the fact he “spent a fair amount of time in a monastery in France called Taize.”  One thing he has learned lately impressed me. It came from his own experience of MDMA as a means to revisit places where memories are stuck in a debilitating narrative of trauma.

Van der Kolk was a sickly, impoverished, hungry child with neglectful, traumatized parents. He says in the interview,

In my last experience [with MDMA}, actually, I experienced in a very deep way what that little boy went through, who was starving and his mom was not there for him. And I had a tremendous sense of compassion for, oh my God, what that little boy went through. And the people around me were extremely attuned. And it sort of took care of something so subliminal inside of myself that I think it’s produced quite a significant transformation inside myself. In terms of that I don’t feel deprived. I don’t feel that there’s a deficit anymore.

He says the drug gave him access to the “cosmic dimensions” of himself. It opened him to the “mystery of the universe” and he ended up “feeling at once insignificant and utterly precious at the same time.” He could have written Psalm 139 himself!

When van der Kolk and others explore trauma they are looking for psychological, relational and physical ways to diminish or reform memories that color future reactions to life and love and often shape us for self-destruction. When most therapists get to the “bottom of things” their main hope for healing is human resilience. In their view, our personal capacity, for the most part, is the power we have to get well and feel well, or at least stay safe and sober. Often their confidence is well placed because we are wonderfully made and have an amazing capacity for survival. For most of us, trauma often ends up transforming us, not tormenting us. In North Jersey I think most people say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

What is beyond the trauma narrative?

I am often amazed at the resilience people demonstrate. Once they rediscover their capacity, when it is affirmed, and they construct a new narrative for how their life works, they often feel good to go and they go. Others, once they have a new sense of safety and personal agency, are free to see what is deeper than their trauma. Beyond the faulty foundations of their attachment and the troubles of this world, they have always known God, in one way or another. Van der Kolk begrudgingly sees this knowledge in his parents’ infantile faith. But then he can’t miss it when his normal senses are bypassed with MDMA and wonders are revealed, received by and stored in his right brain, where he knew God before he knew language.

This post arose from a similar experience of revelation and reassurance. We were having a conversation  and both felt grateful for how our faith had helped us keep going and even transforming us when we were deeply hurt, not only by each other and the forces surrounding us, but by the trauma of the last two years and experiences clear back to our early childhood.  We were helping each other memorize the new narrative of love we had learned, the love that preceded our trauma, the trauma to which we had devoted much energy recounting and fearing.

Maybe now that scientists like van der Kolk are belatedly acknowledging the primacy of the right hemisphere of the brain, more and more people  will be open to their natural state of oneness with God. He says in his book, “The right brain is the first to develop in the womb, and it carries the nonverbal communication between mothers and infants” (p.79). I believe it is primarily in the right hemisphere where God also nonverbally communicated with us and continues to nurture us in a spiritual womb. I often tell about my first experience of church as a five-year old. I did not bother much with the left-brain lessons. But when we sang the songs, music being among the languages of the right brain, I felt like I was at home; they gave my senses the words to explain how I had always known God.

Psalm 139 gets at the sense we have always been with God and God has always been with us. I think it 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. Psalm 139 is another version of my kindergarten experience of oneness, “If it happened there it happens everywhere.” We are all known by a loving God. Jesus makes that plain.

So we can all find faith in God which supports us even better than our own resilience. We can find assurance that allows us to keep going when we are hurt. In the face of all the trouble we face, it makes sense to be stubbornly loved and always looking for love, even when the absence we feel hurts, knowing it is there, sinking into it beyond words, feeling it in the love of others. If it happened then, it can always happen. Deeper than suffering, than resilience, even deeper than trauma transformed is love. My prayer remains, “Your works are wonderful; I carry this knowledge deep within my soul.” I am the work of your love.

Top Ten Posts of 2022

I like to write and would probably do it whether anyone read my writings or not. But it is nice to be heard. Thanks for listening. Thanks, especially, to you who have responded, personally, in some way this year. You encouraged me.

I hope to encourage you, too. I hope you develop psychologically, spiritually and relationally by visiting my site. If I have a gift for you, I am happy when you receive it. Let’s stay on the journey together in 2023!

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?

2021

1. Fridays for the Future #6 — Phoenix/Tucson the most unsustainable: It’s about water
My trip to Arizona gets me thinking about climate change

2. Why are the Post-Covid regimes so cruel?
Experiences with hurting leaders makes me wonder

3. Osheta Moore: When White Supremacy runs the stop sign
Hanging on to being the beloved.

4. The love story about God and us: Another version on Netflix
The atonement debated on the tube!

5. Jesus Collective is taking us back to the future on the “third way”
I take a stab at affirming the transcendence that make the “third way” more than a compromise.

6. Resources for Understanding and Impacting the Borderlands
My gateway to the treasure trove of resources I collected on my MCC pilgrimage to the borderlands

7. Criticism is undermining relationships like never before
One of the “four horsemen” of relationships is riding roughshod over the country.

8. Does it take too long to make a good friend?
We are a lonely bunch of people these days, aren’t we?

9. Rebuild after an affair: 4 basic nutrients for new love
My clients and friends long to keep their marriages together, but can’t see how.

10. Find your contemplation where you can
There are many ways to connect with God. No need to feel tyrannized.

Some posts from the past were read even more than 2022’s

The fourth week of Advent – The joy of hope

[This is revised from an Advent message given during Circle of Hope’s “captivity” in Benjamin Franklin High School]

Advent is the pregnant season. It always seems to pop up and try to grab my attention just in time, right when I feel emptied out or adrift on an ocean of trouble. Thank you, Jesus!

The noisy prophet, Jeremiah, is often the tool God uses to focus my attention on hope instead of trouble. The revelation he experiences draws me into a listening space with him and I often end up pregnant with hope, myself. I hope that is your experience this year (after, again, what a year!). As Jeremiah speaks what he hears from God, he paints a picture that won’t be completely clear until God impregnates the world with himself in Jesus Christ and continues the process through His followers. Here we are being what he is seeing.

I love the richness of having Jeremiah open our eyes from his vantage point 2600 years before our time. He can do this because what we experience with God and remember during Advent is like what I hear is sort of a timeless moment women in labor experience just before the baby is born. For some women everything seems to stop – they may have a wild sense of euphoria or suspension, maybe a still point before the final push, when the seconds slow down and all times become this one time. We are called by Advent to enter into such a still point and be with God as God is with us. I believe Jeremiah had many still points when God came to him. What the Lord revealed then can teach us now. We can enter that timeless moment with him.

Ebed-Melek Pulls Jeremiah out of the Cistern
Ebed-Melek Pulls Jeremiah out of the Cistern — Johann Melchior Bocksberger (1587)

Some things never change

We need a Jeremiah during Advent to tell us to keep looking for the fullness. But don’t overlook what you’ve already received! Jeremiah did not have the already but not yet experience we have – he was fully into not yet. And his own people definitely overlooked him like yours may be dismissing you. But he has an amazing amount to teach us about hoping for God when he seems far away.

Jeremiah is a fascinating guy. God calls him into the middle of a huge political situation in Judah, which is the remaining functioning part of the nation of Israel at the time – we are in the 620’s BC, here. His little country is a political football between two huge empires: Egypt on the south, with which the kings of Judah have been allied for a while, and a new conqueror, Babylon, to the north, with its famous, brilliant, King Nebuchadnezzar. The powers that be in Judah, including some sincerely patriotic, but false prophets, are on the side of Egypt. But Jeremiah is convinced that God is going to use Babylon as part of His plan to fulfill what He started in Israel. So he says, “Don’t resist Babylon.” Because of this message, Jeremiah is a lonely, isolated, threatened prophet, trying to hold on to his faith and calling while the conquerors are at the door, as the city of Jerusalem is about to be taken over again, and as his own people think he may be a traitor. There is a lot of sadness and doom and personal struggle in the prophecies of Jeremiah that his buddy Baruch so carefully wrote down.

When you look at what Jeremiah says, it may seem like he lives in Philadelphia, or in your own town. He cries out about sin and separation from God, outright rebellion and disrespect — broken, antagonistic, competitive relationships are making a mess everywhere — everyone has their own agenda. Survival of the fittest reigns. Who you know, not what you know, reigns. King Zedekiah is generally considered illegitimate, a ruler who did not gain power in the proper way (no one “stopped the steal”).

From the belly of that city and situation Jeremiah tells what he hears from God. And I mean belly, quite literally, since the king throws Jeremiah into a cistern for a while so he will be quiet. From the pits, Jeremiah prophecies hope. God likes using people to do that. Jeremiah impregnates the city of Jerusalem, the navel of Israel, like a little seed planted in the cistern; he shoots up life into the air and talks about hope that is going to arise from this distressing pregnancy. God’s people have become like a woman with no prenatal care at all, but she is going to give birth to a remarkable, healthy child. That is his message.

See if you can listen to him over the 2600 years since he lived. I’m not sure anyone can do this anymore. We all think this “magic moment” is the only time we can share. But I think our eternal God can draw us all together across time. In these readings from Jeremiah’s prophecies, see if you can enter the moment with him. See if you can hope for something you don’t have from God yet and believe it will come.

Call Trump's Attacks On The 1619 Project What They Are — Censorship of American History

Hope in bondage

In this first piece, Jeremiah is speaking to people under the yoke, like so many of us and like even more of those around us. We see our version of this yoke in the bondage of addiction to drugs and porn, of self-destructive habits of heart and relating we can’t get rid of, the yoke of unbelief we cling to, of fear, the prison of disease and cancer and trauma, of demons and mental illness, of relationships that dominate us, of ignorance. From the belly of all that Jeremiah is crying out to get people to hear the possibilities of the coming of the Lord.

“In that day,” declares the LORD Almighty,
“I will break the yoke off their necks
and will tear off their bonds;
no longer will foreigners enslave them….
I am with you and will save you,”
declares the Lord. — Jere 30:8,11 (NIV)

Jeremiah doesn’t know when “that day” is, but he sees it. It is an eternal now, a live possibility.

Hope before your jump

Meanwhile, it has really gotten bad. The people and the whole nation have gotten to the point of no return. It is like some of us who teeter on the edge of diving into what kills us, and then jump, or like some of us who have been ambivalent about a relationship for so long that we finally get too far away to get back to reconciliation – too dismissed or dismissive, cancelled or cut off.

This is what the LORD says:
“Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing.
There is no one to plead your cause, no remedy for your sore, no healing for you.
All your allies have forgotten you; they care nothing for you.
You have been stricken as one would strike an enemy and punished as one would the cruel,
because your guilt is so great and your sins so many. — Jer. 30:12-14 (NIV)

Jeremiah’s pictures of what things are like, begin to feel like Philadelphia. It is like he is walking down some of the streets where quite a few of us work and live. Jeremiah sees the ruin, but he cries out for hope.

This is what the LORD says: “I will restore the fortunes of Jacob’s tents
and have compassion on his dwellings; the city will be rebuilt on her ruins,
and the palace will stand in its proper place.
From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sound of rejoicing.
I will add to their numbers, and they will not be decreased;
I will bring them honor, and they will not be disdained.
Their children will be as in days of old,
and their community will be established before me;
I will punish all who oppress them.” — Jer. 30:18-20 (NIV)

Can anyone hear this? We were at Sampan on 13th St. the other night  (very good!) and they were blasting electronica and people were talking so loud we could hardly hear each other. Can anyone hear anymore? As it turns out, most people in Jeremiah’s hometown, Jerusalem, couldn’t listen.

Some people always see and hear the promise

You may see as well as Jeremiah, and even better. We can’t wait for a season that gives us a better excuse to celebrate all that God has born in the world than Advent. We strain to take it all in.

Keep trying to look to what is coming from God: in your yoke, in your bondage, in your incurable-seeming wounds, in the middle of your ruined city where so many lives are ruined right now due to their own sin and the sin of the system. Can you hear God’s message of hope? He says:

the Lord will not turn back
    until he fully accomplishes
    the purposes of his heart.
In days to come
    you will understand this. — Jer. 30:24

The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: 

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
I will build you up again,
   and you…will be rebuilt.” — Jer. 31:3-4

God Used Holy Spirit To Cause Mary To Become Pregnant, Even Though She Still A Virgin | BabyCenter

Hope in the pregnancy

How is this going to happen? – how will this purpose accomplished, how will this this drawing to himself take place, how will this building up again begin? In a very strange image, Jeremiah says we hope in a pregnancy.

Study it for yourself, but Jer. 31:22 (NKJ) says:

The Lord will create a new thing on earth –
a woman will surround a man.

It is the language of sex, of procreation. “Surrounding” in the old English is a euphemism for having sex. Usually men are seen as the ones who surround the woman. But here is a turn of events. God is going to do something upside down, and a woman will surround a man! God had often been imagined as surrounding the nation of Israel, husband to wife. Can it be that Israel will surround God? Could this be Jeremiah dimly seeing God being born, surrounded by a woman from Israel? Jerome in the fourth century thought this was all about Jesus being “surrounded” by Mary in the womb. However much a person can get out of this, I certainly think it means that a new kind of pregnancy is going to occur. And from my vantage point, it has occurred.

What did Jeremiah see that gave him hope in the pits? In one of the most striking examples of being pregnant with God’s presence, Jeremiah sums it up, and he still gives me hope.  I hope this seems remarkable to you – not only because Jeremiah could see it, but because it all came about with the coming of Jesus.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
    though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.” — Jer. 31:31-4

Notice two things about this, OK, so you can be a part:

“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”

This is about you and God. She wants to be incarnate in you, impregnate you with life and see life get born in you and from you.

“I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”

This is about US and God. She wants to be incarnate in you, impregnate you with life and see life get born in you and from you. God wants US to know him, from the least to great. I know the church in the U.S. is a wreck right now, but there are multiple seeds in cisterns sprouting right now. God will be among us, knowable. We will know him in the biblical sense and be pregnant with him. And we will give birth to love and goodness and hope in the world.

This is as crazy as a woman surrounding a man! What do you do with this, apart from receive it and appreciate it? If you are listening to Jeremiah at all, you couldn’t do the “Christmas” thing with it and see Jesus as some nice little gift under your tree. The only true response is to get intimate, get pregnant, give birth, enjoy the timeless now of knowing and being known by God with us.

The third week of Advent: The joy of being named free

In a Covid haze, I watched the Jan Zizka movie on Prime (titled Medieval in the U.S. and apparently titled Warrior of God somewhere else). It is based on the early life of the Czech national hero, Jan Zizka (1360-1424) who was finally taken down by plague but never lost a battle. It is the most expensive Czech movie ever made. The film is dedicated to “everyone who fights for freedom.” [It is interesting to see the trailer in Czech and you will not miss an ounce of meaning].

I’ve studied Medieval European history for decades and still found the politics of the movie incomprehensible. Nevertheless, despite the gore, I enjoyed a view of the time when Jan Hus stirred up what became the Protestant Reformation of the church in Europe. Zizka starts out as a mercenary faithful to God and his king and ends up the populist leader of an innovative peasant army who says, “Kings may be chosen by God, but they still make the mistakes of men.”

Such revolutionary thoughts unleash 200 years of death and destruction as kings defend their rights and peasants get some rights. I don’t know if the U.S. founders would claim Zizka as an ancestor, but his spirit of “fighting for freedom” is a sacred thought in America. Unfortunately, the “survival of the fittest” built into that fighting (and into Medieval fighting) has left the country dominated by petty kings and warlords like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, the wannabe Trump, and that guy at L&I who think their best interests equals the common good. We are still taught that sacrificing lives for the “freedom” to fight for freedom is a holy act.

A better way

Maybe Zizka would have kept maturing if he would have lived a lot longer until the Anabaptists came along to free themselves from the bondage of competing for the state’s approval to be alive. They are the logical ancestors of what he was fighting for.

In the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, my spiritual ancestors, the Anabaptists say,

From all these things we shall be separated and have no part with them for they are nothing but an abomination, and they are the cause of our being hated before our Christ Jesus, who has set us free from the slavery of the flesh and fitted us for the service of God through the Spirit whom he has given us.

Therefore there will also unquestionably fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force — such as sword, armor and the like, and all their use (either) for friends or against one’s enemies — by virtue of the Word of Christ. “Resist not (him that is) evil.”

The Anabaptists take Jesus at his word and example and excuse themselves from the constant fighting. As a result, both sides attack and persecute them. But they do manage to keep hope alive for the freedom given to those whom “the Son has set free.”

The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds — Thomas Cole (1833-4)

Americans are still divided as to what the word freedom actually means. When John Lewis called on us to “let freedom ring” he was calling for emancipation and equality. Alongside that call there has always been a cry for “liberty” which consists of the private enjoyment of one’s life and goods. The latter fear the emancipated who might elect majorities which might make them share their property. I think those two approaches to freedom can be balanced, but then what would we have to fight about?

I began thinking thoughts of freedom because of several Advent experiences came my way last week which demonstrrated the Lord’s better way.

The first had to do with the song O Holy Night. I was going to record it on Smule and scrolled through various karaoke renditions. I did not realize that many recent versions truncate the second verse, which is all about emancipation. They just use the second line:

Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
and in his name all oppression will cease.

They cut out the first line:

Truly he taught us to love one another
his law if love and is gospel in peace.

They could just be shortening an overlong song (they skip the third verse completely), while retaining one of the most dramatic lines. But I think they might also have erased that pesky love and peace in honor of freedom fighting. People don’t love Jesus but they certainly love their rights.

A second experience was hearing about my friend totally immobilized by sciatica. He could not even get out of bed without severe pain. Yet he wrote me a note to tell me he had experienced the most profound sense of God’s presence and joy he had ever known while confined to his bed. He felt freed from all sorts of burdens he had been carrying. The experience completely confounded him since he was so bound physically and so freed spiritually. But he completely welcomed it. He was overjoyed to be free of the past.

Freedom is the experience of life in the Spirit. It is not the result of fighting everyone else to dominate them or to be free of them. The endless fight for justice is real but it will never be conclusive, as our Anabaptist forebears discerned. I would like to take on their attitude as they sought to take on Christ’s

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
assuming human likeness. (Phil. 2)

The Bible does not condone slavery. But does say the enslaved are free in Christ and the masters are mastered. Even if you are laid out with Covid or some other ailment, the joy of Christ can transcend your pain. Freedom is not something doled out by the powerful or something to be stolen from them. It is the gift of God.

The baby in the manger in Bethlehem is God emptied of her rights, taking on our bondage, and showing the way of transcendence.  “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” How you define freedom may end up encapsulating how much of it you experience. One of the things I am learning this Advent, again, is freedom names me. In chains, in bed, diseased, despised, disempowered or empowered, Jesus sets me free and that’s enough. He calls me free and I respond when I am called. It is joy.

The second week of Advent: The joy of being forgiven

New Yorker, 9/28/2009

I think I am good at forgiveness as a conviction — mainly because I just don’t want the bad feelings that come with not forgiving people. One time a church I led had the slogan “life’s too short not to love somebody.” I’m on that wavelength.

There’s another reason, too. I never got over my first training as  Jesus follower. I would not say I was well trained, but I was introduced to Jesus giving his “Sermon on the Mount” and his teaching about forgiveness is pretty clear in Matthew 6.

 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

I never got over the conditional nature of those lines. If I am not forgiving, I’m not on the team. It is a forgive-the-world and restore-humanity team; it is a peacemaking, undo-evil-even-if-it-hurts team; it is a love-is-#1 team. If I don’t want to forgive, but I do want to be forgiven, I’m just trying to get Jesus on my team, as if my vengeance rules should rule. But that is exactly what he is upending and he assumes I will be praying and acting with him.

Forgiveness is a fundamental force for good. I think I should forgive debts, relational and material, even if I am a victim. I think that is why, right after we forgive our debtors, we pray “Don’t leave me alone, Lord, lest I fall again into evil.” There is no way I can keep developing and behaving in a way worthy of the Spirit in me unless I stick with Jesus and forgive.

We have reasons not to forgive

If I am honest (and maybe you are, too), I have some good reasons not to stick with Jesus. So I am not surprised but still fascinated by how I keep running into lack of forgiveness in the broken relationships my therapy clients endure.

Sometimes they have been cut off or have to cut someone off without being reconciled and need to forgive at a distance if they can, because the hate or the danger is just too strong. Jesus is not in the mix or maybe just on one side, so the miracle is not going to happen.

Other times, people just agree not to forgive without rancor. Forgiveness is so difficult they make an agreement not to forgive and write their story without it.  We’re discovering more and more that the increasingly avoidant way we relate is hard to overcome. Some people agree on relationships that incorporate avoidant behavior as normal. I think many more people just go it mostly alone without much thought.

This example of unforgiveness is a composite of different people I have known. Lets say a married couple grew up managing their dysfunctional parents. The woman apologizes easily because she needed to to protect herself from the wrath of an abusive mother’s control system. But she admits her apologies have no content. Her husband won’t apologize at all since his mother was consistently drugged by painkillers and his father was absent so there was no place to take his injuries. He despairs that there is anything to forgiveness at all and doesn’t do it.

So in their relationship they have a deal: You don’t need to change if you don’t make me change. You don’t need to say you are sorry if you don’t make me say it — that is, as long as you keep your behavior on a spectrum that is not too damaging. She likes that because she doesn’t need to figure out how to forgive with her heart. He likes that because forgiveness is generally fruitless. But when they talk about it, they realize that forgiveness is really on a higher plane than they are operating, not lower. If they don’t forgive, there is no unconditional love in their relationship, no grace,  just the same managed distance with which they were raised, never a closeness. She says, “Oh yes. Love would be nice.”

A client was mortified when they thought our appointment was an hour later than it was. When we got together, they said they were sorry and I said, “I forgive you. Let it go and lets move on together.” They were a bit stunned. No one had ever said something like that to them before. Maybe they got “It’s OK.” or “No problem/o” or “No worries” but never, “I forgive you.”

Do we not like to say “I forgive you” because it seems too formal, too ceremonial? Is it too authoritiative? Maybe it is too committed, too publicly caring. Maybe it is too, “I have to mean it if I say it, and people need to think I can mean it, and I need think it is OK if I presume I mean something.” Maybe we aren’t sure.

The incarnation is about forgiveness

Maybe we don’t forgive others because we won’t, or think we can’t, forgive ourselves. Maybe I don’t readily forgive myself because I don’t practically receive forgiveness from God. Even if Jesus spoke, “Father forgive him” over me at the cross as I was nailing him up,  maybe I still don’t get it and don’t receive it. I’m  still in charge of making the world run right and ashamed I keep failing.

Want to pause an say, “I receive your forgiveness God?’

You may have found that little sentence humiliating, like you had to admit you were wrong for not receiving forgiveness well enough. Isn’t that why people say, “No need to ask” after I say I am sorry? It is sweet that they meant, “Of course I forgive you. I would never make you ask me.” But I DO need to ask and receive an answer. I don’t get forgiven easily. I need the act so I know it happened, so it is recorded in history, and so I know myself as the forgiven one. Being forgiven speaks me into being. It is a creative  and re-creative act. Don’t let me miss it!

Massacre of the Onnocent — Leon Cogniet (1824)

The incarnation of God in Jesus this month is, in itself, an an act of forgiveness. Before Jesus is born it is  predictable that Herod will try to kill him. We are so about power, not love, about creating debtors, about do all we can to deliver ourselves from more trauma. That’s the kind of sin being forgiven. Jesus is rightly seen as the new Adam, wrestling sin into exhaustion and defeat, that’s what it takes to forgive someone. He is also seen as the new Noah gathering people into a new ark that will make it through the trials of this stormy journey into the age to come. Forgiveness is right in the middle of the turbulence and Jesus is right there with as as we endure the waves.

People did not like it when Jesus saw his incarnation as, primarily an act of forgiveness. You may feel the same. But just one more story.

In chapter 2, right at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, he tells a story about a man paralyzed from birth. His friends believe Jesus can heal him and lower him through the roof of the place he is teaching. The gatekeepers of orthodoxy question his authority and Jesus knows what they are thinking.

Now some of the scribes were sitting there questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves, and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.”

We may be paralyzed and cannot use our bodies. Our hearts may be stone and we can’t love. Our spirits may be undeveloped so we can’t forgive. But the advent of Jesus is God coming to our homeplace to forgive each of us and to spread grace throughout the world through all of us. One of the joys every year during Advent is hearing Jesus say again, “Stand up. You are forgiven. Whatever is easiest for you to hear, I am here to say it. Now stand up. Learn to walk with me.”

Shall we pause to feel the joy of hearing him? “Stand up. You are forgiven.”

Do you think someone will feel joy when they  hear that same forgiveness from you today?

The first week of Advent: The joy of being found

Whenever I hear a client say, “I do not feel seen,” I can relate. It is such a joy to be seen and, better yet, to be known and accepted as one is right now. We long for that experience from our first days of being held in our mother’s arms and gazing up into her eyes. And if our mother was missing or missing in action, we long for it even more.

Hide and Seek by Pavel Tchelitchew (c.1940)

Being found

I could see that longing to be seen play out the other day when the granddaughters amused themselves with hide and seek. I think they love that game because they love the joy of deliberately hiding and being assured someone will come find them. You may have squealed yourself when somone lifted the blanket and there you were.

I remember being their age and trying to be a part of the bigger kids’ all-neighborhood hide and seek game on summer nights. I was little enough to crawl into some very unlikely places — and I was left in one more than once! Sometimes, no one even remembered I was hiding at all! You can tell I still feel something about not being found.

One of my stories about my mother has to do with hiding from her and not being found. She didn’t even know she was in a game of hide and seek. It was sort of a test I gave her which she usually failed. She would be talking on the phone to a friend, but not talking to me, so I used her inattention to run and hide. I was either a very jealous, demanding, four year old or she was a very neglectful mother. Even if it was the former, I felt the latter – we note even the smallest neglect. I came out after what seemed to me a long time and she didn’t even know I was gone. Sometimes she was still on the phone! It hurt not to be found. It scares us. We need to belong. We want to be seen. Through my tests and hurts I developed an invulnerability to being seen so I would not have to experience the pain of not being seen. Do you do anything like that?

Finding

I think part of my lifelong vocation had to do with not feeling found. One of my reactions to the feeling was to develop a life of finding. It is what evangelists do all day. When someone new came into the church meeting, I never left them feeling unseen if I could help it. One of my dear friends likes to tell the story of how we met – I followed her down the stairs of the meeting place saying, “I’m chasing you!” She felt noticed. A person in the church might have felt neglected if they already belonged, but if you were new to the community, I was on it. We often give people what we want to get.

I am not saying I wasn’t called to be like Jesus coming to seek and save the lost. I was. By giving that act of love I was meeting a basic need we all have! We can’t get enough of being noticed, even from the most loving parents; we keep looking for it. I’m just saying part of my motive for becoming a seeker must have included the thought that, “If I see everyone, someone might see me. If I find someone, someone may find me.” I’m glad my basic needs are still kicking — I haven’t given up on looking for love just because I don’t want to bear the feeling of it not finding me. Not yet.

These days (finally!), I think I am more content being found — or not. I have felt seen a lot. And I feel found by God. So I don’t even do much advertising for clients and mostly let them find me — so far, I have more work than I can handle much of the time. Instead of working the room at a big gathering, which I still think is a lot of fun, I can often sit back and wait for conversations to come to me. My desperation to be known can be noted, but not followed. After a lifetime of “outreach,” I can be reached. Or not.

Adoration of the Kings by Pieter Bruegel (c.1556)

A chance to find the baby

This first week of Advent, I am thinking about that obscure birthplace of God-with-us and the baby who is going to grow and present himself to be seen and known by humanity. At the beginning of the liturgical year, here (whether people know what a liturgical year is or not), Jesus is going be born in a fresh way; he will be finding many people for the very first time — some who feel terribly small and get a little comfort by staying as hidden as possible. Jesus will be seen and known by millions and either unseen or dismissed by millions more.

Jesus is so hidden! Even when people see him, he’s hard to see. Even though I know him well, I feel I know so little. What must that feel like for God? I hope she is not like me, deliberately hiding with the hope someone will find her worthy of being found! More likely, God is sure he will be found because he has made himself to be found

Jeremiah assures us of that. I think Jesus fulfills his prophecy in a wonderful way. I like to hear it in the old language (and in song).

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.
Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you.
And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.
And I will be found of you, saith the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

In Jesus, God is saying , “I will be found of you, for real.” The shepherds are famous for going to see and finding the place. They went to see and I think they felt seen. The magi are famous for reading a lot into the stars, and for travelling for who-knows-how long to find Jesus.  They behold him and are overjoyed. They went to know and I think they felt known. Seeing and being seen, finding and being found is how creation works, from birth to death. When we despair of that experience, we go numb.

One of the personal messages of Advent to us all is this: It is at least possible I will be found by someone who is glad to see me. I can sit in my cradle and assume I am a baby worth loving, even if it seems to me I am not. Some kind of shepherd or wise man will wander in with admiration and gifts. Whether my self-esteem is high or not, I can at least accept that baby Jesus is God seeking me and I can stop hiding now, I am found. I can stop hiding from not being found because I have been deemed worth finding. It is a constant fact that I am seen, sought, and loved.

Jesus was “handed over”: What that means for our own passion

Le baiser de Judas (ca. 1996) — James Tissot

Let’s start with the man Christians love to hate: Judas.

In chapter 16, Luke  introduces the twelve main disciples of Jesus and gives Judas an extra title: “the traitor.” The noun is less commonly translated “the betrayer.” Judas is famous for betraying Jesus, so you’d think that verb would be all over the accounts of his deed in the Bible. But this line in Luke is the only place Judas is directly called a betrayer. In the thirty-one other occasions he or his deed is mentioned another word is used: Jesus was handed over by Judas. That verb root  should be returned to its proper theological place. The Lord’s passion and our passion is more about being “handed over” or “given over” than being betrayed.

In the Gospel of Mark, when his account gets to Judas going out and coming back as a guide for the authorities, an entire change of literary viewpoint takes place. Up to that point, Jesus has been the center of action and the verbs are mainly about what he is doing. After Judas hands him over, the verbs are mainly about what is being done to Him.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is waiting,  anticipating the judgment and violence of the powers that be. Then he is handed over to them. Previously in Mark, he had given his love freely and was the main power, even if hidden, in every scene — even now we can feel his affection as his love acts on us. But once he is handed over he enters into passion (which means suffering overwhelming forces). He is dependent on who loves him. Bearing our humanity, Jesus becomes vulnerable to overwhelming powers and waits for what will be done to him.

I think we often see Jesus, and so see the image of God in our own humanity, primarily through the lens of the first half of Mark — like Jesus is another action figure on the hero’s journey, mastering his suffering and moving into transcendence. But I think it is more true to the revelation in the Bible to see the passion experienced in the garden, then during the trial and then on the cross, as elemental to our own spiritual development and our calling.  The passion of being handed over is also an example for us. We are made by the God who waits; we are endued with the capacity for suffering love.

Peter says this rather plainly, doesn’t he?

If you endure when you do good and suffer for it, this is a commendable thing before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21;2).

[I was happy to run across an unusual book that inspired my refined thinking on all this. You might want to read The Stature of Waiting by W.H. Vanstone.]

Trying to be impassable in the zone of control

We are innately passable

In my therapy practice, I am often talking to a suffering person who, nevertheless, feels compelled to be impassable, not experiencing negative feelings or any feelings (same root as passion).  Their face may even be devoid of expression. They think it is shameful to have endured the trauma they have experienced or feel guilty because they are suffering. If they have grown up in the church, these poor people may have an impassable God as a model, which adds further motivation for trying to be in control.

Many influential theologians have seen God as impassable. Some people accuse them of caving into a Greek philosophical lens. Others suggest the earliest theolgians were contrasting God with the very emotional and volatile descriptions of Greek gods. They emphasized how God is not controlled by human emotions but is independent and unaffected by the whims of humanity.

You can see how this thinking might go too far and imply that God has no emotions at all, even though love is central to God’s character. So some theologians qualified the doctrine of impassability to mean God is not subject to sinful emotions, involuntary emotions, or emotion unworthy of her character. (See this article).

I don’t think there is anything unemotional about what Jesus experiences in Gethsemane and Paul says Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Jesus is passable, or able to suffer. There is nothing we went through today that was emotion-free, either. We are also passable. Though we may use a lot of energy defending against suffering and suppressing the memory of it, we suffer every day. We suffer what is past and present, and even suffer what we anticipate the future will be. Jesus struggled the same way we do and struggles with us now. Take a few seconds, at least, and feel that Jesus cares about your suffering — so much so, he is bearing it with you.

Betrayed

I think there are some good reasons to cut the first translators of the Bible into English some slack. I think they unwittingly, repeatedly, mistranslated the words based on the Greek word “to hand over” as “to betray.” They even did it in Paul’s often-repeated “words of institution” of the communion ceremony in 1 Corintians 11:

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you [there is the verb], that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed [there is the same verb mistranslated] took a loaf of bread…”

The first Jesus followers made it a point to say “the night Jesus was handed over.” Handing over and being handed over were central to their view of Jesus, themselves and the world. Maybe we could say they were passion-centered, passability thinkers.

Paul uses the verb in other significant places, and it is translated accurately:

  • And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself (handed himself over) for me (Gal. 2:20).
  • He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up (handed him over) for all of us, how will he not with him also give us everything else? (Romans 8:32).

Paul’s letters were apparently written before the Gospels were collected. In those later writings, Judas is highlighted as the one who shows the nature of God in a significant way as he hands Jesus over and Jesus suffers the sins of humanity. Judas is still despised as a betrayer. But he begins the Passion. If he hadn’t been there someone else would have done the deed (“Is it I, Lord?”). Peter betrays him later in the evening, too.  The disciples all scatter like scared sheep. Judas just turns out to be central to Jesus being handed over, which is central to the Lord’s passion. I think the early church expected to be handed over, at some level, and encouraged one another to develop a deep trust for God instead of just a deep resistance to suffering.

I can see how the word betrayed overtakes handed over as translations evolve. For one thing, the word in the Latin translation, with which the first English translators were more familiar, is much easier to lean that way than the Greek. But I also think the word betrayed appeals to bloodthirsty humanity. Betrayed implies: “You thwarted my action. You stopped me cold. You defeated me in an underhanded way.” Doesn’t it betray your sense of agency, safety, value and power when you are handed over? Seen through the lens of betrayal, Jesus still looks powerful as he mocks the dirty deeds of sinners by dying according to God’s plan and rising up in their faces on Easter. (Check out the atonement explanations if you want to think this through).

I think the mistranslation contributes to our sinful assumption that following Jesus means we always have power over suffering and injustice — just do God’s will and it will all end up as a “win.” We have been betrayed and we should make that right. We feel entitled to such power, even though the main percentage of the Gospels are devoted to Jesus not exercising power and being handed over to suffering.

The glory of God in Jesus is also revealed when he finishes his active work and becomes subject to the authorities. As he taught quite clearly, his final passion is the ultimate turn of the other cheek. He does nothing to protect himself. He waits.

Life is not Wakanda forever

We’re all action figures here. It is Wakanda forever. There is goodness in that. Jesus is also about suffering love for the abused, oppressed and poor. But his love transcends the power struggle, just endlessly fighting the power. His own death vividly shows that the powers of the world are doomed to their redundant self-destruction and unavailable for resurrection.

Nevertheless, for most of my readers, only what we do is valued, what we produce. We don’t wait around. We inevitably introduce ourselves by what we do. If you are unemployed you are hard to see as a person at all. Retirees are expected to do things for themselves and they are reminded to keep active.  But eventually we all  will be subject to what comes upon us. Old people better hope someone loves them or they will be handed over to be housed by the state or processed by the hospital. During Covid (and for many, that is right now) we all got a taste of being passable; we were patients (from the same root as passion: bearing suffering), we were called on to be patient, since we were vulnerable – and we hate that, some people wouldn’t even submit to a mask.

The beginning of the great work of Jesus begins with being handed over. He waits for what will happen in the garden, assuming it means death. He does not fight it. Like John says, he told his disciples, “Night is coming, when no one can work” (9:4). The night came. Like John says, Jesus told Peter, “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (21:18). The time came. We can’t always do something (I learned).

I got overpowered by ruthless church leaders and handed over to an unexpected future. When I complained about it, my spiritual director called the expereince “a passion.”  I did not like it. Passion, like Jesus experienced, was something I had almost never experienced. I had barely even been in the hospital. I had been pretty impassable, similar to the  heretical view of God that ends up tormenting so many people. I am still figuring out what it means to be vulnerable, passable, dependent on love or subject to the lack of love. How about you?

I hope W.H. Vanstone can sum it up and inspire you in this last quote (which is full of his  passive voice and his unassertive assertions). Your suffering has meaning, too. Your waiting for the impossible to occur is also like Jesus. Your patience in the face of tragic circumstances, your vulnerability, is also a vehicle for the love of God. Your passion is like God’s passion!

The divine image we bear may be an image of passion no less than of action; for the God Who is disclosed in Jesus in the One Who hands Himself over to be affected by the world, to receive the impact and the meaning of the world, to wait upon the world. It is of this God that we bear the image – an image that includes passion no less than action, waiting no less than working. Now within our human experience there is one kind or occasion of waiting in which it is not too difficult to discern at least the faint image of the God Who waits; and that is the waiting to which we destine ourselves by loving. In the human figure who, because he loves, finds himself exposed and vulnerable to what may be done to him, the image of God Who is disclosed in Jesus is not unrecognizable: one might almost say that that figure seems a ‘holy’ figure.