Category Archives: A life in the Spirit

Avoidant attachment style: Why you might be developing one

Is avoidant attachment style more prevalent than it used to be? It seems so. Many people I meet and counsel have an “ avoidant streak” rippling through their character. I wouldn’t expect a lot of those people to be in therapy at all, since  they don’t usually trust in the good will of intimates (like therapists get intimate), and they generally maintain independence, self-reliance and emotional distance. But there they are.

There they are, more and more, describing their struggles to connect and their overwhelming sense of being put upon and unacceptable. They got me thinking that their troubles, though probably rooted in their childhood reaction to their parents, were being exacerbated or even created by the cruel time in which we live. The leaders and leadership structures of the world right now do not invite trust. Everyone, down to the counter server and the communion server, seems to be playing by a ruthless, negative playbook.  Flip to the macro and Putin is threatening nuclear war while climate change rolls over Puerto Rico. You probably feel at least a little insecure, yourself.

What is attachment style?

I was doing some research on what I was experiencing and came upon a scholarly paper by Mario Mikulincer (Israel) and Philip Shaver (California) which summarizes the outworking of attachment styles  and hints at why I might see adults getting caught in their childhood avoidance or developing levels of avoidance they never had (Title:  An attachment perspective on psychopathology).

Paula Pietromonaco, Nancy Collins, Phil Shaver, Mario Mikulincer, Sue Johnson, Roger Kobak at an adult attachment conference in 2002

You may be quite familiar with attachment theory, by now, since John Bowlby started teaching about it in the 1970’s and 80’s. I appreciated the authors’ succinct way to recount how our attachment experiences result in attachment styles – how we see ourselves and habitually behave in the world.

Interactions with attachment figures who are available in times of need, and who are sensitive and responsive to bids for proximity and support, promote a stable sense of attachment security and build positive mental representations of self and others. But when a person’s attachment figures are not reliably available and supportive, proximity seeking fails to relieve distress, felt security is undermined, negative models of self and others are formed, and the likelihood of later emotional problems and maladjustment increases.

When testing this theory in studies of adults, most researchers have focused on the systematic pattern of relational expectations, emotions, and behavior that results from one’s attachment history – what Hazan and Shaver called attachment style. Research clearly indicates that attachment styles can be measured in terms of two independent dimensions, attachment-related anxiety and avoidance. A person’s position on the anxiety dimension indicates the degree to which he or she worries that a partner will not be available and responsive in times of need. A person’s position on the avoidance dimension indicates the extent to which he or she distrusts relationship partners’ good will and strives to maintain behavioral independence, self-reliance, and emotional distance.

I found it enlightening to see myself plotted on a four-quadrant chart created by anxiety and avoidance axes when it came to my attachment style. The way you can see if you are more or less one way or another is to see what you do when you are threatened or distressed.  People who score low on anxiety or avoidance are generally secure and tend to employ constructive and effective emotion-regulation strategies when life gets hard. Those who score high on either the attachment anxiety or the avoidance dimension (or both) suffer from insecurity and tend to rely on “secondary attachment strategies,” either deactivating or hyperactivating according to their childhood attachment system or the one they’ve recently developed to cope with threats.

Click for Anxiety Canada

Avoidance

I am mainly interested in the avoidance axis today, since I suspect when the CIA reports how many more assets are being killed than usual and Donald Trump had top-secret papers in Mar-a-Lago for a year it makes you want to avoid something! People who should be trustworthy aren’t. A great many people are so avoidant they trust no one. This is not new to the planet, but it is seismic right now.

According to Mikulincer and Shaver, people scoring high on avoidant attachment tend to rely on deactivating strategies – not seeking “proximity, denying attachment needs, and avoiding closeness and interdependence in relationships.” These strategies originally developed in relationships with attachment figures who disapproved of or undermined closeness and expressions of need or vulnerability.

Attachment style may be mostly about baby you, but not completely. It is too limited to think it is  something an individual carries inside and needs to deal with personally. One’s style arose in a relational setting, in a system, first off, with parents, and our habits can develop in new contexts. A marriage or workplace could change us. Donald Trump lying and calling people losers could change us.

Bowlby claimed that “meaningful relational interactions during adolescence and adulthood can move a person from one region to another of the two-dimensional conceptual space defined by attachment anxiety and avoidance.” Recent research keeps showing how our attachment style can develop, subtly or dramatically, depending on our current context, recent experiences, and recent relationships. There are studies that focus on highly stressful events, such as exposure to missile attacks, living in a dangerous neighborhood, or giving birth to a physically challenged infant which indicate avoidance is related to our present distress and the poor long-term adjustment that contributed to it. Our environment may deteriorate or we may create a dysfunctional environment which develops more avoidance.

Becoming less avoidant

Insecure attachment sets us up for other issues with both mental and physical health and strains all those relationships we hunger to have. Creating, maintaining, or restoring a sense of attachment security should increase resilience and improve mental health. Mikulincer and Shaver say,

According to attachment theory, interactions with available and supportive attachment figures impart a sense of safety, trigger positive emotions (e.g., relief, satisfaction, gratitude, love), and provide psychological resources for dealing with problems and adversities. Secure individuals remain relatively unperturbed during times of stress, recover faster from episodes of distress, and experience longer periods of positive affectivity, which contributes to their overall emotional well-being and mental health.

Whether an avoidant person moves toward security depends on how they travel three significant pathways.

View of self. The lack of sensitivity and responsiveness in your parents may have destabilized your self-esteem, or made you over-dependent on the approval of others. Insecure people are likely to be overly critical, self-doubting and likely to defend themselves by committing to perfection to counter how unworthy and hopeless they feel. Avoidant people praise themselves before someone doesn’t. Or they might deny weaknesses or needs because no one will care. The zeitgeist contributes to their view. Criticism is rampant right now. Perfection is a national obsession.

Emotional regulation. Hopefully, available attachment figures taught you to share your feelings and learn how to regulate them in relationship to others. Relatively insecure, avoidant people tend to cordon off their emotions from what they think and do. They may look secure and composed but they leave suppressed distress bubbling inside, which may erupt when crisis unleashes it. Then they need the coping skills and relational support system they didn’t imagine they needed.

Problems with relationships. It is no surprise that problems with our first relationships lead to learning a relationship style that has or creates problems. The avoidant person’s “deactivation” strategy for self-preservation creates issues. They generally have problems with nurture since that is a basic instinct formed with mom and dad. They may seem cold, may be unreasonably introverted, or may be overly competitive for what they see as the scarce resources of affection.

The neuroscience of attachment processes describes how the human brain evolved in a highly social environment. Our basic functions rely on social co-regulation of emotions and physiological states. So, like I said before, we should not see each other as separate entities whose interactions need to be interrogated and reconfigured according to theory. We should accept our fascinating interrelatedness as our normal starting point. When we do that, it helps us to see why separation, isolation, rejection, abuse, and neglect are so painful, and why insecurity-provoking relationships often cause or amplify our mental disorders. The pandemic left many avoidant people hesitant to ever leave their homes.  Teletherapy is a good option for them, but it may also deepen their avoidance.

Our attachment styles develop. We can change for the better. Great thinkers and practitioners are providing us a lot of help to do that. For instance, I discovered the Attachment Project website a few weeks ago. I probably sent its link to everyone I thought might be leaning toward an avoidant attachment style  (here it is). I would not put TOO much stock in this unattested and anonymous site, but it does some nice work to summarize different attachment styles and explain how people who could be characterized as “avoidant,” for instance, tend to behave and relate – and suffer. Please don’t use it to label yourself, we are in a dynamic process, here, getting worse off and better off all the time. But no matter your style, the site might help you get an inner dialogue going — and mentalizing is fertile soil for God to plant something whole and joyful.

Evil: N.T. Wright helps you think it through, again

Friends, clients, and loved ones were wrestling with their experiences of evil this week. One was attacked at work and felt guilty, but then realized the accusations were so irrational, they might be evil.

Another watched The Comey Rule series on Netflix and was reintroduced to the evil ways of Donald Trump. Another was overwhelmed by the sheer extent of evil that has gone into the production of climate change. Another was disheartened because the church is not better than the world and seems as subject to the aforementioned evils as anyone else.

Have I already used the word “evil” too much for you? Or is it still OK to name it where you come from? Last week, Governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbot, both claiming to be practicing Catholics, used immigrating Venezuelans to own the libs in Barack Obama’s playground. Did you call that evil? Name it a political stunt? Call it illegal human trafficking? Consider it an appropriate response to an onslaught of border crossers? Did you sink into confusion? Stay uncommitted? Remain avoidant? Evil is harder to identify than one might think and even harder to deal with, especially in an environment in which it is often a word you’d be embarrassed to say. Maybe you haven’t said “Jesus” in polite company in a while, either.

I was companioning someone in their spiritual growth not long ago and they broke into tears because of the evil done to them. They were “triggered” by their church’s feckless response to the present evils that threatened them. They asked, “Why does God allow evil to flourish if he loves us?”

Exodus 1952-66 by Marc Chagall. Used for the cover of the Chinese version.

Why is there evil?

Brilliant people have been answering that question for centuries, ever since European Christians wanted their theology to compete with every philosopher that popped up. Why is there evil and why doesn’t God save me from it all if Jesus saves? That’s the perennial question. I still like N.T. Wright’s stab at dealing with it in his book Evil and the Justice of God. I rarely think his applications have as much genius as his theologizing, but I think he was mainly gifted to think well for us, so that’s OK. Here is a summary of the book, if you like.

Spoiler alert. People criticize Wright for answering the perennial question by not answering it. He says the Bible doesn’t answer it, which leads him to believe he doesn’t need to either — what is beyond us is beyond us. He is much more interested in talking about what God is doing about evil than what, exactly, and why it is. God’s action in response to evil is a topic the Bible exhaustively explores. Likewise, the Bible leads us to learn what we should do about it, since “the line between good and evil runs through each one of us” [video including Jesus, Solzhenitsyn, and many others].

I thought about Wright when my comrades were lamenting and I was confronted with the question again, which usually feels like a temptation to me – “Why is their evil and why didn’t Jesus fix it for me?” Wright does a better job at what I am about to try, when he tries to get behind what we feel about facing evil in us and around us. But here is a small bit of thinking to keep evil in your sights before it overwhelms you.

God judging Adam — Wiliam Blake. Used for the audible version

Back to Adam and Eve

Demanding an answer to the questions “Why is there evil if the creator is good?” and “Why am I experiencing evil if our loving Savior has already defeated it?” is a lot like the dialogue between Adam and God in the Garden of Eden.

God: Why did you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
Adam: The woman gave me the fruit. It’s her fault.

Somehow the dialogue about good and evil usually ends with shame and blame.

The argument goes on, something like this. We would know; we’re often replicating it.:

God: Why did you choose evil?
Adam: I wouldn’t have had the choice if you had not offered it. You’re God, after all.  Why did you supply it? Besides, I didn’t choose it. It happened to me. It is happening everywhere.
God: But aren’t your questions more important to you than my love? Didn’t you choose the question?

The deepest expression of the image of God in us is love. God is love. God is not you or your knowledge or your control or your safety. The power of the knowledge of good and evil will not protect you from others, yourself, or God.

Roku has been playing a film of a live performance of the musical Heathers in which a high school couple sings “Our Love Is God.” The thought of it was creepy when I first heard it sung and keeps getting moreso as the play goes on. The power struggle in us destroys and destroys.

The Garden dialogue went on, and goes on in us, something like this:

God: As my friend who I gave this garden, as my loved one, you greeted my question with skepticism and reproach. You set yourself up as my judge, and your own. You ate the fruit.
You prefer the control you gain by staying ignorant and miserable instead of being receptive and humble before the unknown. You don’t trust me.

Wright works with this in his great chapter on forgiveness:

It will [always] be possible for people to refuse forgiveness–both to give it and to receive it–but [in the end] they will no longer have the right or the opportunity thereby to hold God and God’s future world to ransom, to make the moral universe rotate around the fulcrum of their own sulk.

I have often said to myself, and to others, in the middle of these questions and answers, “If evil were not happening around you, you would invent it. You are just like Adam and Eve. If we dare to look, we can see how we perpetuate the loveless habits of our childhood self-protection schemes. We can’t part with the patterns because we think we’ll lose ourself without them. Every day we get mad at people we can’t control and keep protecting against the terrible feelings of need we have and rebel against the demand to trust, hope and care.

If you want more on the themes of political and corporate aspects of evil, Wright might suggest Engaging the Powers, by Walter Wink. For thoughts on forgiveness, see Exclusion and Embrace, by Miroslav Volf. For answers to the problem of evil in modern thought, see Evil in Modern Thought, by Sue Neiman or The Crucified God, by Jurgen Moltmann.

If you want to follow Wright into what God is ultimately going to do about evil, you could check out his most accessible book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.  In it, he does a final takedown on Greek philosophy and offers a vision of eternal life that matches the Bible better than what most of us have been taught. If you are tired of thinking about how terrible the world is, how evil is at the door, this book might encourage you by opening up a good thinker’s vision of the future. Spoiler alert: It is better.

If you lost Jesus, start by looking in your desires

It is a familiar post-pandemic story. “When I was locked away from people, bombed by loss, steeled against what seemed like an inevitable disease, my faith dribbled away like I had a leak in my soul. “

Some people had the exact opposite experience, of course. The solitude of the season was like fallow ground for them. When they got out from behind their masks they felt renewed and refocused on what is important. They bloomed.

It is not uncommon, however, to hear people tell a different story. When they got back to church, it was gone. People were divided over whether it was safe to meet. About a third of the people had disappeared. The pastors were often exhausted — they went through a pandemic, too! But now they were supposed to present what used to be with less people and less money. What’s more, so many churches chose the pandemic to take a scathing look at their racism, homophobia and patriarchal tendencies. The post George Floyd movement had just gotten to the church when the virus hit and could not be postponed. So when people came back to their community bearing their griefs, with new anxieties to face and thirsty for love, they were surprised by the coldness and suspicion with which they were met. It is like the whole country got strangled, wrung out and did not have a lot to give.

So a lot of people are not in church anymore. And of those people who are wandering, a lot feel they have lost Jesus. They are in the dark. At worst, I think they are holing up and hoping nothing worse happens. At best, I think they are looking for lost desires to be met. If the latter description fits you, hold on to those desires, they will probably see you through.

Befriending our desires

In his book Befriending Our Desires, Philip Sheldrake encourages us to attend to the desires that either drive us to despair or drive us to overcome the unnecessary limitations of our present circumstances.

Desire haunts us. You could say that desire is God-given and, as such, is the key to all human spirituality. Desire is what powers our spiritualities but, at the same time, spirituality is about how we focus our desire. At the heart of Christian spirituality is the sense that humanity is both cursed and blessed with restlessness and a longing that can only be satisfied in God. It is as though our desire is infinite in extent and that it cannot settle for anything less. It pushes us beyond the limitations of the present moment and of our present places towards a future that is beyond our ability to conceive. This is why the greatest teachers of Christian spirituality were so concerned with this God-filled desire and with how we understand it and channel it

In a time when so many of us feel like we did not get what we want and are not getting what we want, what do we do? Do we turn off our desires? distract ourselves even more? turn to law instead of grace to circumvent desires?

First of all, those questions are probably answered by considering how you see God. Is God full of desire? Some theologians have presented God as a sexless, “ground of being” or an abstraction like the “unmoved mover.” I say those are very weak views, when the love of God is poured out so wantonly in Jesus. God wants us, desires relationship with us. His delight in us reveals infinite enjoyment. Is your God full of desire?

On the human side of viewing God, many say the goal of all human desire is God. So does this mean that all other desires are a distraction? That has often been taught. Does it mean I should be celibate so sexual desire does not get in my way? Many monks have thought so. Or is God met at the heart of all desire? That might seem suspicious to you if you have been suppressing your desires for Jesus. But I think a thoroughly Christian, incarnational answer is Jesus is the heart of desire. C.S. Lewis is famous for saying:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. ― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses

Proven ways to find Jesus again

New prayer

Ignatius Loyola taught that prayer, our basic connection with God, was all about focusing our desire. Many of my clients bump up against that thought like a wall. They don’t know what they desire. Or they know what they spend their life chasing would not satisfy them if they finally got it. They think they must either ramp up the chase or quit. The pandemic stripped away a lot of what we could get, it took away years of time and took the lives of loved ones. Many of us are still at the bottom of all that and feel we can’t even find Jesus. That’s a good time to pray, if you are with Ignatius in his cave, when you aren’t asking for a new job or just asking to stop doing self-destructive things. When we are wrestling with desire we may come to know how our desires connect with God’s.

Waiting

Some people say as they age, old ways and images wear out and they feel alone in a new kind of darkness. Where is the Jesus I knew? I know after my church reneged on agreements and exiled me, I felt adrift without my church. I was not prepared for that! I am not alone. The surprising new post-Covid statistic is older people are leaving the church in great numbers. They were the mainstays! But one does not need to feel old to feel a bit lost these days.

Many spiritual writers see this kind of wandering in the dark as a ripe, meaningful, realistic place to be. A dryness of experience means you feel what showers of blessings would be like if it rained, not that you don’t care. The loss of previous images and experiences of God, leads into a darkness or an “unknowing” in which desire alone becomes the force that drives us onwards. For Julian of Norwich, “longing” and “yearning” are key experiences in our developing relationship to God. Likewise, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing says, “Now you have to stand in desire all your life long” (Chapter 2). Now is the time to stand open-handed and open-hearted, not assuming that we know best or that we know anything very much. Now is the time to wait in trust, to be like Mary asking the angel, “How can this be?” Waiting is one of the hardest lessons for the serious seeker after God. When we stand in desire we are ready to struggle. We are anticipating a change in  perspective and waiting in trust for God to act in us.

Discernment

Our desire reveals how incomplete we are. The pandemic stripped a lot of us down to our basic desires, like people often talk about when they have narrowly escaped death and now know what is most important (and it is not the 401K). Our desires highlight what we are not, or what we do not have. So desire cracks us open to possibility. It forces us into the future. You might see it in terms of sex, to which desire is often restricted. An orgasm is a wonderful, physical, mutual, experience of now – desire satisfied! But it also feels transcendent. Desires ground us in the present moment and at the same time point to the fact this moment does not contain all the answers or everything we need or want. Discernment is a journey through desires – a process whereby we move from a multitude of desires, or from surface desires, to our deepest desire which contains all that is true and vital about us. If you are missing Jesus, I’d start the search there.

Change

I’ve said quite a few times that living in the U.S. and following Jesus is very hard. Americans take perfection to an extreme and we have the money to make it happen. If desire is all about openness, possibility and a metaphor for change, what does that do to our ideals of perfection and to a God who “changeth not?’ Get the job done. Make it work. Just do it.

For many of us, life is supposed to be organzied and predictable. For most people, I think heaven is pretty static like that. It is where things get finished and we get all that matters to us. The afterlife is all “eternal rest” and no more tears. People see it as freedom from desire because there is no need for “more” and because the sexual connotations of desire are overridden by union with God.

But no one can perfectly know what “eternal life” ultimately means. I don’t see the age to come as an endless, static existence with the unmoved mover. I think it will be more like life with the Creator we encounter day by day. Eternal life will surely have a dynamic quality to it, a life in which we shall remain beings of desire.

Thomas Traherne (d. 1674) is often considered as the last of England’s “metaphysical poets,” which includes John Donne and George Herbert. Most of his poetry remained unknown until 1896, when two of his manuscripts were discovered by chance in a London bookstall. This first stanza of Traherne’s poem “Desire” begins with praise to God for the desire that promises Paradise and burns with the presence of it in the here and now.

For giving me desire,
An eager thirst, a burning ardent fire,
A virgin infant flame,
A love with which into the world I came,
An inward hidden heavenly love,
Which in my soul did work and move,
And ever, ever me inflame,
With restless longing, heavenly avarice
That never could be satisfied,
That did incessantly a Paradise
Unknown suggest, and something undescribed
Discern, and bear me to it; be
Thy name for ever prais’d by me.

To find the Jesus you may have recently lost, step away from politics, processes and problems long enough to let your desires rise and then befriend them. Take them seriously like they matter, like you matter. Don’t follow the first blush of reality they hint at, but listen to them and let them lead you deeper into what is at the heart of life and the heart of you.

How did SHOULD get into my meditation?

It is wonderful to watch the Evangelicals catch up with the rest of the Church when it comes to experiencing that personal relationship with God they always talk about. I had to desert them, for the most part, to have one.

I spent my first years of faith with the Baptists as they fought with the charismatics, who scared the pants off them (recent example). I felt a little guilty about my thrilling charismatic dalliances, because I was taught people like me were following feelings not facts and undermining the authority of scripture, thinking the Spirit was going to begin something already settled. The way I looked at, and still do, the Evangelicals arrested their development because of their Eurocentric and Enlightenment-dominated theology. They had to have the Bible front and center and had to interpret it in a way they considered “literal.” Only their “literal” was a pseudo-scientific, supposedly “innerrant” set of principles that still resemble a textbook to me. I suppose that’s why so many of them are still fighting about textbooks.

But I think a lot of Evangelicals are now catching up with last century’s main spiritual movement. Their development  parallels the translation development of a familiar Bible verse I was taught as a youngster — Proverbs 23:7 in the King James Version (KJV):

For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee.

My preachers regularly skipped the meaning of this Proverb to concentrate on the first eleven words, which I was assigned as a memory verse: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” I got the idea, being male and all, that what we think is paramount. When CBT was invented, Evangelicals liked psychotherapy a bit more, since the modality was all about think-> feel-> behave.

But when boomers go looking for their memory verse in the new Evangelical Bible, the New International Version (NIV), they can’t find it. It has disappeared into a much more accurate rendering:

Do not eat the food of a begrudging host, do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of person who is always thinking about the cost. “Eat and drink,” he says to you, but his heart is not with you.

The extricated bit the preachers emphasized in my youth has appropriately become part of the previous sentence. The readers have begun to find out, like the Bible really says, that true discernment is all about the heart and right relationships, not just about how excellent one’s thoughts are.

The staying power of should

The Evangelicals are, more and more, turning toward developing hearts. But as they do, they often bring their heresies with them and undermine the process.

I stumbled on an example of this undermining when I explored the  Pause app. It is part of John Eldridge’s latest reinvention as a spiritual director. The app is a generous free gift that encourages us to buy his book and other things, as most apps do. I have friends who are enthusiastically using it. As with most Evangelical things, it is wordy and teachy. But the heart of it is good: Please pause and center in on God with you.

I decided to try the app to see if it is a good thing for my tech-connected spiritual companions. Normally I feel like relating to God through a machine is dangerous. But that is arguable. Even though I was holding my app fears at bay, I did not get far until I ran into a problem that made me not want to run into any more.

I had a Bible isssue. The whole thing is coming from the Bible, assuming it is the essential way God is revealed and our primary means of forming a relationship with Him. The Bible does not teach itself as that, especially in the passage in question. But I love the Bible and I think studying it is fundamental to following Jesus. So what does the Pause app give me? The New Living Translation (NLT). It is the revised Living Bible from the 1970’s. I had one of the originals with a cool handmade leather cover. I tried to find it so I could take a picture but I think I threw it away when I downsized since I hadn’t cracked it in 30 years.

The very first entry centers on a beautiful key passage from Ephesians 3 which opens up an expansive picture of all it means to know God through Jesus Christ. The NLT says:

I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God

Pause and let God speak to you through that! It is a wonderful statement and very accessible writing.

The NLT has merit, but I don’t think it is a good translation. It gets rid of things that might trouble postmodern sensibilities and adds things that fit modern evangelical preferences. Maybe it is still more of the paraphrase it started out as. I found it hard to meditate on it because I love relating to the Bible writers and couldn’t get over disputing what the translators considered revelation. I was also concerned about those less suspicious than I am.

I also had a heresy issue. This is my main reason to write today. Perhaps I learned to attend to clauses too well since one in this sentence bothered me:

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.

For one thing, nobody else translates the verse this way. The Greek implies to me a great celebration of the already but not fully realized place we stand in Christ, where we are one with God and growing into our fullness. Paul knows he and his readers have an eternity of revelation to relish; we are incomplete. But he also believes we are already risen with Christ, living in Him right now, and are fully entitled to know and love Him as we are known and loved. We don’t need to wait until we are dead or deserve it.

This most offending sentence includes the word SHOULD: “[M]ay you have the power to understand ” (as if you don’t ), “as all God’s people should.”  I was too irritated by the ever-present Evangelical “should” inserted, at the very beginning of the app’s program, no less! I could not even get started! I don’t think that “should” can be construed from the Greek. The paraphrasers just had to get it in there. I don’t think Paul is looking at his readers ruefully as if they should get their act together. Nor does he think God looks at him that way.

l am particularly sensitive to the overriding should my Evangelical directees bring to their development. They got the point. They get arrested by it. When they look inside they see guilt. They are always an aspiration, never acceptable, never enough. Their hope is often based on getting better, thinking better, behaving better, not on pausing to experience being better by being with Jesus, as Paul is praying they will know.

Drugs: What do you know about the rising sea in which we swim?

Are you among the many people who will use a drug this month? When you answer, you may first think about what prescriptions you are taking. But include “self-medicating” with alcohol and marijuana — and maybe some other stuff.

You may also be experimenting with “psychedelics.” I am acquainted with people who have had profound experiences with two of the increasingly popular array of mind-altering drugs being offered to people seeking mental health (whether health means eradication or remission to them). Ketamine, psilocybin, and MDMA are high on the list of researchers as they look for new solutions to age-old problems.

In the consumer-driven U.S., buying whatever products are offered almost seems like an obligation, whether we need them or not. We have a lot of what we need, here, and a lot we probably don’t. Drugs are a well-advertised product, so you are more likely to be using them than not. I am with you. I will keep using the prescription drug I have been taking every day until the treatment is over. On our walk yesterday, I thanked God for a pain-killer that was so helpful to my wife, not long ago. According to SAMHSA, about half the people in the United States used a prescription drug in the last month. 24% used two or more. 13% used five or more (13% of the U.S. is 43 million people).

According to the CDC, when people went to see their doctor in 2018, 860+ million of them were given or prescribed drugs. 68.7% of visits included drug therapy. The drugs frequently prescribed were analgesics (pain), antihyperlipidemics (blood), and antidepressants (mental health).

In the same year, people who went to the emergency room were given or prescribed drugs 336 million times. 79.5% of the visits involved drug therapy. The drugs most frequently prescribed were analgesics, minerals and electrolytes (hydration), and antiemetics (nausea) or antivertigo agents (dizziness, nausea).

drugs: top ten drug companies 2022
The FDA approved 50 new drugs in 2021

Last year, the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer (42nd St. NYC), netted $21.98 billion. Johnson and Johnson (New Brunswick, NJ) netted $20.88 billion. Two Swiss companies, Novartis and Roche were #1 and #4 in the top five profit-makers. Local favorite, Merck (Kenilworth, NJ), netted $12.35 billion to be #5. If you watch commercial TV for five minutes, you are likely to hear from one of these worldwide mega-corporations selling their latest wonder.

The medical/pharmaceutical industry is designed to sell products for consumers, like everything else in consumer economies. It is no wonder, with huge corporations needing to sell so shareholders profit and a huge distribution system dispensing drugs as a primary means of healing, there is a lot of encouragement, even pressure, to use drugs of all kinds, legal and illegal.

Suspicious drugs

Like so many products people want, certain drugs that used to be illegal are creeping into mainstream acceptance. People will kill the planet to inject fossil fuels into their environment, so we have companies too big to die who extract and refine those products for them to buy. It is not the same, but similar, with drugs. People do not think they should suffer and die (ever) and will buy whatever promises to stop that.

Drugs that were formerly illegal (or still are) are creeping into mainstream use. People appear to be more desperate for them every year. Legal opioids famously addict and kill thousands of people every year. Prescription opioids (natural and semi-synthetic opioids and methadone), along with heroin and synthetic opioids other than methadone (primarily fentanyl) caused 21,000 overdoses in 2010. People were aghast when that number rose to 69,000 in 2020. In 2021 the number shot up to 107,622.  2022 is expected to see further increase.

The sea of drugs we live in is full of wonders, but there are a lot of predators in it, too. So the experts are doing studies and the news people are reporting on what they are finding. I am writing because I think the researchers and reporters could be a bit more suspicious.

drugs: psilocybin capsule
A psilocybin capsule Credit…John Karsten Moran/NYU Langone Health, via Associated Press

For instance, the NYTimes published a story last week about how psilocybin (‘shrooms) curbed excessive drinking. The researchers suggested it might be a new treatment in the making. AA suspects it is more likely a new way to lose one’s sobriety. MDMA (ecstasy) is being tested as a treatment for PTSD.

In general, psychedelics are moving into mainstream mental health treatment. Forbes recently published a helpful article about the trend, focusing on treating autism. In it, the author noted the increasing use of ketamine for mental health purposes:

While the drug’s usage carries serious risks if used recreationally, there is a reliable protocol for doctor-controlled use that has a steadily increasing track record of success for treatment-resistant depression. There’s even an FDA-approved spray called Spravato that is helping to make ketamine more and more mainstream, and improve more lives each day.

I think it is easy to notice that most drugs which provide out-of-control experiences are rarely effectively controlled. The Spravato website is worth a look to see, again, how salesmanship leads the way when it comes to introducing treatments.

Generosity about drug use needs limits

With the legalization of marijuana and mainstreaming of hallucinogens, it is no surprise that the use of those substances among young adults rose to an all time high in 2021, according to the NIH.

When the NIH, CDC, DHHS, etc. talk about drugs, they are even-handed. They try to stick to the facts — even though they track illegal uses and deaths, which implies disapproval. I think I might have a similar generosity. I have clients who use cannabis for more than recreation. Other clients have had life-altering experiences with ketamine and mushrooms. In their cases, the impact was not long-lasting. But I don’t know about everyone else. I generally reserve judgment.

Even though our minds are open, our discernment needs to be sharp when we introduce drug technology into our bodies. About seven years ago, the church in which I served offered a time for our theologians to think about drugs together. I wrote about our findings and I think they still provide helpful discernment. What do God and the Church think about drugs? What are some practical ways to approach life in the midst of constant wooing into and opportunity for drug use?

Colombian drugs smugglers shipwrecked
Shipwrecked cocaine smugglers on rising seas in 2019

I’m still pondering and applying what I learned then and have learned over the past few years. Each year, as overdose deaths rise (significantly in my own hometown!), the need to think and act becomes more urgent. I can’t help but notice that as the oceans have risen due to climate change, the sea of drugs has been rising with them. Do the powers-that-be extravagantly use them to pacify the most vulnerable? Regardless, like the Covid-19 vaccines did not solve all the problems of the pandemic, most drugs over-promise and under-perform until the general population feels it is normal to have 100-year floods and 100+ thousand opioid deaths in a year.

I repeatedly encouraged drug use for my clients and loved ones last year. Some wonders were worked. But I suspect I am being too generous about the new normal, in which we use drugs as the first act of healing. I think of giant drug companies as part of the powerful forces who brought the world to the present disasters we face. Now they want us to rely on them to solve the problems with their latest products.

While I don’t think the blanket mistrust rampant these days is the answer, Psalm 146 comes to mind. Discernment begins with trusting God, not just assessing the data and making endless, experimental choices.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish. (Whole psalm)

Is MrBeast teaching us philanthropy or greed?

One of the benefits of a week with my teen-age grandchildren is learning about what is going on with the internet. That’s how I was introduced to MrBeast. If you are under 25 you probably know all about him. I am way out of his target audience, but he corraled my eyes anyway. He is very good at that.

All week we were watching movies together and spent some interesting time after each film “breaking it open,” as we say (thank you Mel White, I think). Part of our dialogue included seeing the films through a Jesus lens. After one such session, I made a reference to seeing the MrBeast video we watched earlier in the day through a Jesus lens (the one replicating Squid Game). I made the hyperbolic statement, “That video was the greediest thing I have ever seen.” I soon found out a few of my grandchildren knew the myth of MrBeast more exhaustively than they knew much of the New Testament.

My contention was, and is, that MrBeast is an amazing entrepreneur and his money giveaways are, though well-intended, a great marketing ploy and a fun way to surf the wave of greed which constantly churns through the United States. Maybe I stated my contention too defensively, since I feel unfashionable when I mention what the Bible mentions all the time: greed is deadly. I will quote just one verse. Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15 NIV)

When I suggested MrBeast was dealing in greed, one of my grandchildren immediately looked up his counterpoint on Google, which was “He gives away most of his money. He is not greedy.” I stood corrected, since I had just met MrBeast and was not quick-to-the-draw with Google.

I gave one of those apologies that has a “but” on the end and said, “I just watched him spend a boatload of money, which came from somewhere, to produce that elaborate video full of people doing stunts to get money.” Now that I know more about MrBeast, I could have said, “Most of them got the fun of acting in his video for free. Many got an unusually generous payout. The winner got an amazing sum. Then Jimmy Donaldson (MrBeast) got all the ad revenue from the video, which has 282K+ views on the MrBeast channel with its 102M+ subscribers. Plus he got to sell his merch.” According to YouTube analytics service SocialBlade, MrBeast makes up to $2 million a month from YouTube ads alone. That does not include the in-video brand deals which earn him untold millions.

MrBeast in Rolling Stone

Who is MrBeast?

Jimmy Donaldson is a social media influencer. He was born in Kansas but raised in North Carolina, where he still lives.  Donaldson uploaded his first video to YouTube in 2012. He was just 13 at the time, operating under the handle “MrBeast6000” and rarely appearing in his videos. His earliest output was mostly of the “let’s play” (video games) variety, though he’d also comment on various YouTube dramas, offer tips to potential content creators, and estimate the net worths of well-known YouTube celebrities. His subscriber base consisted of about 240 loyal followers by 2013.

By 2016, Donaldson was gaining in popularity on the heels of his “worst intro” videos, which poked fun at the various introductions he found on YouTube. He dropped out of college around this time to focus on content creation, wrangling old friends to help him and gaming the platform’s algorithm as the subscriber count increased.

His first viral video aired in 2017 when he was 19. He counted to 100,000. It took him more than 40 hours but his efforts paid off.  As a result, he broke the 100,000 subscriber mark. Since first airing, the video has been viewed over 26 million times. It was followed by other successes like counting to 200,000, reading the dictionary, and watching Jake Paul’s music video for “It’s Every Day Bro” for 10 hours straight.

In 2018, the man now known as YouTube’s biggest philanthropist found his niche in the online world: giving away money to strangers. His stunts tend to have a philanthropic angle, like adopting an entire shelter of rescue dogs. It has almost become a joke that when people first see him, they hope/expect to get money.  He talked to his mom about this in 2018 when he decided to give her money. She did not want it. In a video, he told her, “If I don’t give it to you, I don’t have a viral video.”

Where does the money come from?

Like so many popular (and unpopular) YouTube channels, MrBeast’s comes with video ads. See MrBeast (103M), Beast Reacts (19M), MrBeast Gaming (29M), MrBeast Shorts (15M). With each ad comes a respective cost per mille (CPM), which is the amount an advertiser pays a website for every one thousand people who see the ad. The exact CPM can vary from one country to the next, but most sources suggest that it averages out at around US$5 per one thousand views. Multiply that by the millions of views that each MrBeast video racks up and you begin to see all kinds of dollar signs. By 2021, when he turned 23, Forbes estimates he made $54 million.

Donaldson quickly understood his worldwide reach and began to “localize” his videos to increase his influence and revenue. He reports that the English channel views amounted to more than 122M in the first half of 2022, and the localized channel views added up to more than 160M in the same period. In March alone, the combined total number of views for all his channels was above 283M.

MrBeast approaches localization through dubbing. He has created separate channels for Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, and French content, and hired native speakers to provide voice-overs for his videos. These are MrBeast’s international YouTube channels:  MrBeast en español (Spanish), Beast Reacts en español (Spanish), MrBeast На Русском (Russian), MrBeast Brasil (Brazilian Portuguese), MrBeast Gaming en español (Spanish), MrBeast en Français (French), MrBeast Gaming Brasil (Brazilian Portuguese).

By most estimates, 40-50% of MrBeast’s net worth comes as a result of merchandising and other business opportunities. Some sources report that the YouTube star earns as much as $2.25 million a month through merchandising alone, including sales of his own clothing line. Well-versed in internet economics, MrBeast reportedly receives around $1 million a month from the main sponsors on his primary YouTube page. There are further sponsors for his secondary channels and other social media accounts, as well as sponsors for his various charitable efforts and sweepstakes.

In 2020, Donaldson launched MrBeast Burger, a delivery app that brings signature fast food items straight to your door. It’s currently under contract with over 1000 brick-and-mortar locations throughout North America and Europe, with plans to expand. Along similar lines is Feastables, a chocolate bar company that MrBeast launched in 2022. In the spirit of Willy Wonka, the company routinely holds sweepstakes with prizes ranging from an Xbox game system to a Tesla Model 3. You can also download his game app: Finger on the App

Behind the scenes, MrBeast is a fairly active investor and partner in various startups and companies, including Backbone, Juice Funds, Current, Quidd, CSGO Lotto, and TikTok. He is a firm believer in crypto, but he received backlash in 2021 after Refinable, a token and NFT platform that he personally backed and promoted, plunged in value.

He is popular in Greenville, where his headquarters continues to expand.  As of 2022, the MrBeast team was made up of 60 people.

Shall we look through a Jesus lens?

Philanthropy is an essential part of MrBeast’s operation. Not only does he give away considerable cash prizes to the participants of his many stunts, he also donates tons of money directly to charity. Over on the Beast Philanthropy channel (10M), 100% of the ad revenue, sponsorships, and merchandise sales go to charitable organizations (like to my pet causes through Team Trees and The Ocean Clean Up).

He’s also quite modest in terms of his lifestyle. As he told Joe Rogan, “I think living your life chasing like a nicer car, and a bigger and bigger box to live in is kind of like a dumb way to go about life.” Mr. Beast also talked to Rogan about his ongoing struggle with Crohn’s Disease.

Put everything together and you get the picture of a passionate content creator, with an eye on his mortality, who would produce a blockbuster stunt and donate the proceeds before buying himself a fancy car. But keep in mind, MrBeast is only 24 years old and has plenty of time to build upon his already impressive fortune and develop a taste for big houses and sweet rides.

As with every person, I have no intention of judging what Jesus is doing with Jimmy Donaldson, personally. Not.My.Job. As far as what he is doing publically, and as a person who profits from influencing people I love, I have to exercise some discernment. So I did my research.

What I like about him is his alternativity, his simplicity and his community-building.

What I think deserves some skepticism, is #1, the greed factor. Most of what he is doing is about money: making it, giving a lot of it away, and investing it in a masterful, entrepreneurial empire. The Greenville headquarters alone is worth at least $14 million and they are scouting the town for more property. The attention of the greedy, gullible young, worldwide, is the fuel for the enterprise.

Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15 NIV)

Individually, Jimmy Donaldson “appears” (the all-important YouTube word) unconcerned with possessions. So maybe he could be considered interested in the second clause of Luke 12:15.

But MrBeast sure is good at acquiring possessions — especially subscribers! And his millions of followers are fascinated by his handouts. Most of his performers (except his mother) are greedy for some spillage.

Since we live in the hyper-capitalist US, we should beware of the Jekyll and Hyde nature of living greedy all day but trying not to really be (or appear) greedy. I think MrBeast teaches us greed, but Jimmy Donaldson might like his life to be about philanthropy. If you watch the video about headquarters, you will see that Jimmy lives in a little room inside of the huge MrBeast enterprise (he also has another house) — that picture is a visual warning to us all. We live in the house of greed and only Jesus can save us. Without Him, we will be swallowed. Look at poor Jimmy! Isn’t he a feastable?

Jesus gives 5 ways to endure the shame: Kansans lead the way

Was the Kansas vote last week a striking affirmation of the right to choose? Or was it a repudiation of shameless, corrupt Christianity?

I would not ask such an incendiary question if it did not beg to be answered all the time, both in my office and in other relationships. Many Jesus followers are suffering shame because they feel associated with politicians who claim to be leading the country in the name of Jesus.

ABC News

I haven’t seen any confirmation of this suspicion. But it is at least possible that Kansans, about 80% of whom identify as Christians, were trying to regain their faith, not lose it, during the recent vote.

Kansas people are known for being fiercely independent. Their faith probably has an independent streak, too. The Kansas Supreme Court said, in their ruling,  “The natural right of personal autonomy is fundamental.” So women can decide what to do with their bodies. The state has led the way toward greater individual freedom in the past, too. In 1861, the Kansas territory established itself as a free state — which provoked terrorist raids by pro-slavery factions and helped incite the Civil War. In 1867, Kansas held the first referendum on women’s suffrage in the United States. On the same ballot they gave voters the opportunity to eliminate the word “white” from voter qualifications in the state Constitution three years before the 15th Amendment was ratified. Both ballot measures failed, but Kansas voters would grant women the full right to vote in 1912, well ahead of the 19th Amendment. I think many Christians might like some autonomy when it comes to coercive “Christian” leaders enacting their vision of an ideal American Empire in the name of Jesus, who is about as non-coercive and welcoming as one can get as he leads his transnational and transhistorical body!

Maybe normal Christians are fed up

I wonder. Are people finally embarrassed enough by the inept autocrat, Trump, his increasingly-incarcerated gang, and his enablers to do something about it?

Call me naïve, but I don’t believe the typical Kansan, and I know a few, would ever think of doing what their legislators did in trying to overcome their Supreme Court’s 6-1 decision that abortion was protected by their state constitution. They are probably mostly pro-life, like I am, in a broad-minded way. But they are not likely in favor of politicians controlling women and controlling pregnant people with abortion bans. What’s more, whether “life” begins at conception or birth is still an open question, and they might be thinking about that, too.

I doubt a normal Kansan would want to gerrymander, voter-suppress, and dark-money their way into office, to begin with. They don’t favor elections that are threatening and where the results depend on who is running them. And they are sick of being overwhelmed with misinformation like the rest of us.

So it is possible they did something about it. The anti-abortion lawmakers and their supporters tried every trick. They placed a major referendum on a primary election ballot, in order to sneak it through at a time they expected low voter awareness and turnout. They knew Democrats would have little to vote for during a midterm primary and expected them to stay home. What’s more, about 30% of Kansas voters are unaffiliated with any party, so they don’t vote in primary elections. They might not have known the abortion measure was on a ballot normally of no concern to them.

Are Kansans the only Americans not subject to being hoodwinked by power-hungry aspirants to the Empire’s thrones? The anti-abortion side used confusing language in the amendment, which suggested a yes vote (to change the constitution) would ban taxpayer funding of abortions — a ban that already existed. They said the yes vote would institute laws to protect victims of rape and incest, who already had that protection with their legal access to abortion. The proponents insisted they had no intention to pass a total ban on abortion, but The Kansas Reflector obtained audio from a meeting in which a state senator and amendment advocate who promised an attempt to pass just such a ban. On top of that, the day before the election, Kansas voters received deceptive texts to vote yes to preserve “choice,” confusing untold numbers of voters. (Sarah Smarsh, NYT)

All the ploys did not work. I can imagine a Kansan saying, “Just how stupid do they think we are?” And I don’t mean MSNBC-watchers who were dancing in the streets. I mean the kind of practical people I know who generally disapprove of people who don’t say what they mean and mean what they say.

Life among the hoodwinked

You would think such honest, forthright people are the kind who follow Jesus. But that assumption is like a ship that sailed long ago from the harbor of popular imagination. Christians, as far as many people know, are more likely to be led by Trump, whose friends, it appears, all specialize in illegality. They are more likely to be led by Tucker Carlson, who is enamored with an autocrat from Hungary.

I have a long history of failing to push back the tsunami of lies autocrat-types and their thralls use to usurp power. Back during my short stint as a pastor in Central PA, I used my “monarch pastor” status to decree that listening to Rush Limbaugh was not of the Lord. In an Anabaptish church I had to demand that no political guides be left on the info table. I did not fully succeed in converting some minds captivated by the latest deception.

The endless failure to have anything one says mean anything drives pastors to despair. They specialize in the truth business. The people who believe the election was stolen from Trump (or that the facts  don’t matter) also say Jesus rose from the dead. Makes church leaders wonder, “Will anyone think anything matters?”

Suskind’s book

Heather Cox Richardson verifies how embedded the unreality propogated by power-seekers has been this whole centrury. She writes:

Way back in 2004, an advisor to President George W. Bush told journalist Ron Suskind that people like Suskind were in “the reality-based community”: they believed people could find solutions based on their observations and careful study of discernible reality. But, the aide continued, such a worldview was obsolete. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore…. We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Maybe reality is starting to reassert itself. It can’t be too soon for Jesus followers who are ashamed of the Church. A reader wrote of their:

intense feeling of shame as a “Christian” over how the faith has related to the creation (using and abusing it a resource to be used up since we are all going to heaven and won’t need it anymore), the treatment of indigenous peoples (as objects to be removed, subjugated, transformed into Northern Europeans), and now the movement toward white nationalism as the model for leadership going forward (even the Russian Orthodox Church is justifying the war on Ukraine using white nationalism as a base of thought, and I think it is the long term strategy of the Evangelical far right efforts at controlling the courts, women, Congress).

You can empathize. The present is saturated with the loss of something, either facts or ideals. Many people are experiencing an unusual emptiness, frailty and disappointment. It gnaws at them.

The first followers knew how to endure

For the hopeful and despairing I have five words from the first Jesus followers. You might think I am going to get them to comment on the present political landscape, since that is where this got started. But I think they can do better than bed down in nonsense. They help us endure. They overcame their own nonsense. Like them, from our blessed place of reconciliation with God we can keep on being and doing good, no matter what happens.

  • The success or failure of the American Empire is not your direct responsibility.

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty. — Mary, in Luke 2:51-3

Many Americans have an imperial point of view which implies they should have enough power to remake the world in their image. Jesus has overcome that worldliness. He endures.

  • Suffering for good is a terrible vocation but you may be called to it.

But 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.  — Peter in 1 Peter 2:20-21

Most Americans have bitten the “we’re exceptional” apple (even Obama). So suffering seems inappropriate. If gas costs $4.50 ($7-8 in Europe BTW) that’s a national crisis. The economy and everything else is just supposed to get bigger and better and no one should be allowed to get a piece of my piece. Suffering for good like Jesus gets us off that hamster wheel. It is how we endure.

  • Shame is a soul-killer so get beyond it

[Look] to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.  — Priscilla (IMO) in Hebrews 12:2

If someone (like Donald Trump) is sick enough to be shameless and leads others astray, it is not incumbent upon you to bear his unborn shame. Refuse to be shamed — if someone nails you to it, go through your seven words and rise again. It is grandiose to bear the sins of the country. Repent of your own sins, your complicity, your privilege (if you have it) and live in reconciliation with God, or the work of Jesus in bearing our shame is of little account. If you can’t access the hope of joy on your “cross,” Jesus will help you endure. Follow him.

  • What you do matters

 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. — Jesus in Luke 12:6-7

I feel like a wandering fool many days. I look for my past church and for some future perfection and miss the good I might do and be in the present. It is a great temptation to not be good enough, and then to project that intolerable feeling on someone else, or the whole nation, or God — someone other than me needs to not be good enough, unworthy of  love and honor.

I don’t know how many clients have told me this month, after I got excited over their growth or good deed: “It was nothing” or “Should have done that twenty years ago” or “Its no more than anyone would have done.” Meanwhile God is counting the hairs on their heads — I suppose I would say, “But I have so few hairs. No big deal.”

If everything goes wrong, you still matter. What you do in a terrible situation still matters even if it does not effect the difference you desire. We can always do more and better, but if that aspiration undermines the joy of expressing the truth and love of Jesus right now, I think it is a sinful aspiration.

  • Declare independence

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery…. You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. — Paul in Galatians 5:1,13

Unlike the Constitution of the U.S., the Kansas state consitution includes the promise in the Declaration of Infdependence of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I guess people did not move to Kansas so someone could tell them what to do. I also think most of them were Christians and bristled at the thought of wearing any yoke but Christ’s.

I hope many more people will declare their independence from leaders who will do anything for power, including threats and lies. I hope people all over the world will unite to use what freedom they have to “serve one another humbly in love.” Until that day, I am on the road with Jesus looking for opportunities to use my freedom to endure the trials and experience the joys of living in truth and love with all the joy I can muster.

Please people out of love, not defensiveness

Thanks to David McElroy

A man reluctantly agreed to marriage counseling. When he got to the session, resistance was written all over his body language. She predictably got the ball rolling with a string of criticisms which she assumed I would consider well-intentioned facts. I turned to him and wondered out loud what he was feeling. He said, “I’m the one who organized this therapy.” She said, “You wouldn’t have done anything if I hadn’t nagged you, like I usually have to.” He said, “It is impossible to please you.” Their defensive exchange quickly arrived at deeper understanding. But it doesn’t always go that way.

Defensiveness

The Gottmans include defensiveness as the third horseman of their Four Horsemen of marriage apocalypse. They define it as “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.” Many people become defensive when they are being criticized. It might be more effective if they just said “Ouch.” But what they usually do is take an eye for an eye and respond with blame. The husband above did not listen to the legitimate complaint behind his wife’s criticism, he justified himself by shifting the blame to her for not recognizing his efforts.

We have all been defensive. When any close relationship is on the rocks, it is a good time to notice what is important to you and what scares you. You are probably defending it the way you do that. The storms of intimacy have a way of uncovering what we might keep hidden. What is hidden by us or from us is often well-defended.

We hate feeling exposed. We rarely start off talking about what we keep hidden because we prefer it hidden or are no longer conscious of what we hide. When someone considered why their mind went blank when certain subjeccts came up, he noticed a little person in a subterranean control room getting a command when he was threatened to, “Shut the gates!” We all have a “switch” of sorts that activates our defenses.

Acting defensively is usually a knee-jerk reaction. We all have defense mechanisms we organized when were very young to make sure we survived. These behaviors usually involve our deepest emotions, which we may or may not be conscious of. But the behaviors are very familiar and feel crucial. We have a childish commitment to them.

When you feel unjustly accused or threatened in some way, you usually first try to get your partner to back off. You defend yourself in a reasoned way. Easy-to-see defensiveness is shifting the blame. We say, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” The Gottman’s have a good antidote for de-escalating a relatively superficial power struggle. They teach us to accept our own responsibility. If you have a problem, check with yourself, first.

If you are activated by certain situations over and over, it is likely your partner is hitting that button in your unconscious where you have a deep need to feel cared for and it is not happening. For instance, if I already feel unworthy and you criticize me, I will get defensive. Actually, if you just point a finger at me and start a sentence with “You!” I will probably feel defensiveness rise up.

Have you noted the last time you were defensive yet? Have you noted the effects of your own and others’ defensiveness in your life? If not, now would be a good time.

A favorite Christian mechanism: reaction formation

In power struggles, it is usually the most powerless people who think they have to exercise the most power and bear the most burdens. Strong people feel fine about being strong and doing things strongly, perhaps with little self-awareness or compassion. Powerless, fragile, wounded, or traumatized people often feel alone against strong forces and come up with all sorts of ways to protect themselves. I wish all this defending were invented by adults; it would be easier to see. But most of it gets built before have much ability to think about what we are doing. We are surviving. But even as asults we often react like powerless children when we are most distressed.

The definitions the Gottmans use above for how couples are defensive are quite accurate. But they are also oversimplified. For instance, I think one of the greatest defenses a child learns is to appear to be defenseless, to appear compliant or pleasing. Rather than expressing themselves to ignorant or inattentive parents they discover a pleasing personage (Tournier)/persona (Jung) which engenders some validation of their worth, or at least gets them fed. You may have tried to be pleasing enough to avoid the violence lurking in the household or to be more pleasing than a sibling to get a better share of limited resources. Many children begin to unleash themselves from this form of defense with the terrible twos when they explore the boundaries of what they are being schooled to obey. Others just perfect their false self and even forget how furious they are with how relationships hurt and shame them.

I think many of my Christian clients are working out this subtle form of self-defense. They have been well-schooled that causing conflict with parents or the church system is a big no-no. So they defend their place in the family or the larger system by looking like they are being good while seething inside (or being depressed because they don’t know they are seething) — this is the seed thought of many semi-autobiographical novels, right? Freud called this mechanism “reaction formation.” You might feel guilt or shame so you act out the opposite of what you feel by looking compliant or self-assured, effectively hiding what you fear to have exposed. The classic example Google will immediately tell you is of the elementary boy who bullies a girl because he can’t deal with the attraction he feels. I think I remember blushing when a playground friend accused me of liking the girl I had just beaned with a four-square ball.

Christians are notoriously seen as repressed hypocrites because they never allow their true feelings to despoil their appropriate behavior. When a child learns they are powerless against their abusive or neglectful parents, they may adopt the persona that works for their best interests, hopeless of ever being truly seen. When such a persona marries, they surprise their partner when a person does not show up. I suffer for people who have a mate pointing a finger at them when all they are trying to do is please them. They’re like the poor man who said, “You can’t be pleased.” Being pleasing was the main weapon he had to use in the power struggle and he is disappointed it does not work.

Roman sacrifice: Suovetaurile

Try not to find your defenses in the Bible

For many church people, reaction formation seems like a tenet of faith. If you want to find it, you can read it into many scripture passages. For instance, look at Romans 15:15: 

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself, but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” NRSV

I think this is easily interpreted to say, “Jesus did not please himself, but others. So you should please others, not yourself. That’s love. And such love will be rewarded. Don’t please yourself if you want to go to heaven.”

When I was young, some teacher taught me the way to J-O-Y is Jesus, others, yourself, and they meant in that order. I instinctively put the three words in an inclusive circle, but my teacher definitely meant it as a hierarchy. Other teachers left off the Y altogether and encouraged me to annihilate or at least severely discipline myself for Jesus; these days some people call that mentality “cruciform.” Even though Jesus says you lose yourself to find yourself, and Paul says he leaves his false self to receive a true one in Christ, many Christians spend a lifetime denying themselves and presenting the same false compliance they did as a child, often feeling the depressing or anxiety-causing effects of resenting how they are never recognized for all they do and are.

Love out of love

We have seen a lot of angry Christians on the screen in the past few years. I think they drive people out of the church with their reaction formation. They are obviously angry, but they think they are behaving in the loving way Jesus would prefer, and saving people from sin. Not acknowledging I am miserable or being curious about why, while I insist I am just trying to please you, quickly undermines trust in any relationship. When you cause such suffering, don’t blame your mate for persecuting you like Jesus was.

If you read the whole account that leads up to the often-misinterpreted snippet of Romans, above, you’ll see that Paul acknowledges the weakness of people who are frightened by pagan meat. He doesn’t tell them to eat it and pretend they like it. To the strong who are just doing whatever they want, eating whatever they bless and feeling blessed, he says to attend to the dark side of the strength they have – the side which would ignore the poor for the pleasure of their own freedom or power.

If, when you please me, you are mainly trying to get loved, I will feel that. If you care for me because you are defending yourself, I will probably know that, eventually, too. We won’t be tuned in to each other because you won’t really be there, just the persona you think pleases me. If you are having a similar relationship with God, same results, by the way. You might not be so aware of it, but I will probably pick up on the anger and resentment you really feel, which you try to hide behind your appropriate behavior. What’s more, I will likely feel like I should be helping you in your project to “love” me, because you will be even more angry or depressed if you don’t succeed at it. Your success means I accepted your sacrifice of your true self for me as of supreme value.

I’d rather you loved me out of love not defensiveness.

In this uncertain now: Who are you Lord and who am I?

I thank God for every moment of honest soul-searching I run into during my week. Probably the best thing about the last two, terrible years is they have reduced people to asking the basic question of soul-life: Who are you Lord? And who am I? In an uncertain time, we have many terrible opportunities to ask those basic questions.

I would never tell you exactly what a client said, or even a recognizable story about them. But you probably know that Black people continue to be tormented by the violence and subjugation they experience. On April 4, Patrick Lyoya was executed when he ran from a traffic stop in Grand Rapids. On May 14, 19-year-old Payton Gendron murdered 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo — last week he was also indicted on 27 federal hate crimes and firearms offenses. On May 28, a hurting Jayland Walker ran away, unarmed, from a traffic stop and was shot 60 times by 13 Akron police officers. Black parents with young sons are terrified.

The Supreme Court rulings are returning the country to the divisions that started the Civil War. The main one I hear about is Roe V. Wade. A woman’s past choices are criminalized. Medical care is politicized. Husbands question wives about routine procedures following a miscarriage. People are again debating “quickening” and whether unused frozen fetuses can be destroyed (Embryo Project).

This just begins to describe the challenging times in which we live. Who am I, now that my post-pandemic church fell apart? (CT) Who am I, after the deconstructers upended our institution and grabbed power without a purpose? (Northern Architecture) Who am, I when the one percent continue to game the system (even during a pandemic!) to make record profits? (Fortune)  As we ask our immediate questions, the atmosphere continues to warm.

Burned on the bulb?

All my interactions last week seemed to lead back to these fundamental questions. Now that I am this age, in this country, re-forming community, surrounded by distraught people, who are you Lord? And who am I?

The other day a group of us in the Jesus Collective were drawn into a discussion on Jesus-centered leadership. The leader loves the Mural app so we each made virtual post-it notes of leadership traits we then offered to the whole group for discussion and ordering. The process was mostly bereft of personality, dialogue and context so it ended up more like editing than revelation. It used a method which, essentially, presumes deconstruction and so requires social construction, mostly centered on words and fragments of meaning (Wiki). But it still has me thinking. It was asking an abstract question, but it again begged the basic, organic question, “Who am I as a Jesus-centered leader?”

Two of my three post-it offerings (I can’t remember the third) about a Jesus-centered leader’s traits were “at rest” and “indomitable.” I think I was mainly recalling an analogy I often make about a lion and a moth. When a lion rests in the sun, he or she has little to fear; they are secure in their place. It is good to be at rest, indomitable, like a lion in the sun. When we live in the light of God’s love and truth, we have an inner security which allows us to be at rest even when we are working hard for a troubled world. The moth, on the other hand is drawn to the light but is always beating its head against the bulb — a frantic restlessness, always seeking and never finding. It is exhausting.

A Jesus-centered leader (or anyone) is not coercive because they can’t be coerced. They are who they are in Christ. They share the Lord’s sense of “I am.” The Mural exercise easily reinforced a moth-like seeking of “what” I am, what is required of me, how do I fit in. It took some effort for someone to be “I am who I am” doing this exercise with this beloved collective.

Or relentlessly asking the right questions?

Rubens – 1635

But, like I said, the process still has me thinking. It led me back to Francis of Assisi being spied upon by Brother Leo as he prayed.

About 100 years after his death this story appeared in a compilation:

Brother Leo knelt and with great reverence asked the saint: “I ask you, Father, to explain for me the words which I heard and tell me what I did not hear.” Saint Francis had a great love for Brother Leo because of his purity and his gentleness, and he said: “O Brother Little Lamb of Jesus Christ, two lights were opened for me in what you saw and heard: one, a knowledge of the Creator, and the other a knowledge of myself. When I said: ‘Who are you, Lord my God, and who am I,’ then I was in the light of contemplation in which I saw the abyss of infinite divine Goodness and the tearful depths of my own vileness. Therefore, I kept on saying: ‘Who are you, O Lord, supremely wise and supremely good and supremely merciful, that you visit me who am utterly vile, an abominable and despised little worm.’ The flame was God who was speaking to me as he spoke to Moses in a flame. (The Deeds of the Blessed St. Francis & His Companions 1328-1337)

Like a lion, Francis was “in the light of contemplation.” Who am I? I see the “abyss of infinite divine Goodness.” This is not a personal trait one can find by completing an inventory. It is reality one can experience. Who am I? I see the depths of my own self-deception and brokenness. I think being a worm, to Francis, is more about being tiny, meritless and slimy than being unlawful. But what quickly follows this wormthought is the question, “Who am I?” I am the visited one, the one to whom God speaks like in the burning bush that drew Moses into his true self and best action.

But who is God now?

In a socially constructed world, now habitually deconstructed, most questions end up answered through the lens of “me” (maybe “us”) and this moment – like the Mural exercise. But there is no true wisdom and little self-awareness if one does not know God.

Even though a lot of people are seeking to know God, God seems hard to find, these days. Many churches are just a big mess. And the church in the news looks terrible. A mentee was thrilled the other day when a man my age told him, “It is so nice that you aren’t an asshole like all the other pastors I know.” And where does one find a way for themselves, much less their grandchildren, through such an era? David Brooks calls it “some sort of prerevolutionary period — the kind of moment that often gives birth to something shocking and new.” Overwhelmed, uncertain, isolated are the characterizations someone will use to describe their circumstances almost every day in therapy.

I have the same experiences, so I have the same questions for God.

  • What about the future? How I knew you before won’t quite do for the next 20 years will it?
  • What can I trust? What we thought was certain or needed to be certain probably doesn’t matter, does it?
  • How do I find comfort? Our focus on ourselves is bearing its fruit, isn’t it?

We might have to stay up all night and pray, won’t we? We might have to commit months, not minutes, to build a community that matters. We might have to listen in new ways when Jesus tells us to leave it all behind and follow him. We might need to sink into the eternal now in this moment and hear God speak in the contemplative flame.

Paranoia is running deeper: Help for attending to it

Researchers at Yale found a way to be happy during the pandemic. The crisis  gave them a rare chance to study what happens when the world changes rapidly and unpredictably. One of the things that happens, they confirmed, is people get more paranoid. During the recent troubles, especially in places where masks were mandated and the rules flouted, people felt betrayed and acted erratically — its part of being paranoid.

Paranoia

The researchers also found that people who were more paranoid were more likely to endorse conspiracies about mask-wearing and potential vaccines. They were also more likely to accept the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits, among other ideas, that the government is protecting politicians and Hollywood entertainers who are running pedophile rings across the country.

When fear grips someone, one way to exercise self-defense is to project that fear outward rather than feel the full weight of it. When someone is gripped by this behavior or unaware of it, their actions can be labelled “paranoid.”  Someone experiencing paranoia puts their fear on someone or something outside themselves where they can fight it, contain it, or, sadly, kill it.

Back in the volatile 1960’s, a time torn apart with Vietnam War protests, antiracism marches and assassinations, Buffalo Springfield sang about what happens when fear is rampant.

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

Am I becoming more paranoid?

If you are becoming more paranoid, it would not be surprising. Many people are. When I was talking a couple of weeks ago about why the Trump effect is not over yet, one of the reasons was increased paranoia.

Nancy McWilliams says  the “essence of paranoid personality organization is the habit of dealing with one’s felt negative qualities by disavowing and projecting them: the disowned attributes then feel like external threats” (in Psychoanalytic Diagnosis). She goes on to say that people experiencing their paranoia not only struggle with anger, resentment, vindictiveness and other visibly hostile feelings, they also suffer overwhelming fear.

Paranoid people can be hard to help. To hear some people talk about it, they stopped going home for Thanksgiving during the during the Trump era because Uncle Bill would not quit talking about conspiracy theories. The general atmosphere of paranoia makes normal rules of politeness less relevant; there was no way to talk to Uncle Bill in a civil way. In therapy, or in the church, paranoid people can be difficult. They are mainly dealing with shame and guilt by loading those internal enemies they fear on you and making you the enemy.

When it comes to shame, paranoid people may use denial and projection so powerfully that no sense of shame remains accessible to them. Their focus on the assumed motives of others rather than on what is happening internally makes it nearly impossible to relate to anyone who is not sharing their paranoia.

Paranoid people are also profoundly burdened with guilt, usually unacknowledged and projected. If you try to help them, you will probably excite the terror they have that you might really get to know them. Because, if you do, you will be shocked by all their sins and depravities, and will reject or punish them for their crimes. They chronically use their energy to ward off such humiliation and transform any sense of culpability into dangers that threaten them from the outside. They unconsciously expect to be found out, and transform this fear into constant, exhausting efforts to discern the “real” evil intent behind anyone else’s behavior toward them.

Unfortunately for us all, like the Yale researchers found out, paranoia breeds more paranoia which causes people to act outside usual norms – the “norms” they suspect are fronting evil intent. Suddenly all Democrats are pedophiles and all Republicans are Nazis. So leaders such as school teachers, doctors, pastors, and block captains need watch dogs more than followers.

How does one become paranoid?

Psychological traits are all on a spectrum from healthy to harmful. They mix with other styles to form complex approaches to life. So “becoming paranoid” is not like crossing the border into a new land.

Chances are however, one is paranoid because they are very afraid. They had a good reason to think someone or something was out to get them. More paranoia may be induced by:

  • Intense fear. This fear may have been as a result of experiencing trauma, especially if it was in one’s family, but also if one witnessed violence or was threatened. Being overwhelmed by fear could cause someone to constantly worry about further harm.
  • Isolation. If one felt alone as a child or lived in a disorganized or dangerous family, they might have developed hypervigilance to survive.
  • Drug use.  Research shows substance use can cause suspicion and fear which then increases the risk of living with paranoia on a regular basis
  • Detrimental view of self. When one feels fatally flawed or worthless they are likely to suspect others think and feel the same way about them and are ready to shame them for it.

Paranoia causes mistrust; and once-betrayed, one can  remain in a state of suspicion. This suspicion will not only have an impact on one’s psychological well-being but also their feelings,  thoughts, behaviors and physical health.

If you think you are being watched and that your life is under threat, this is going to cause higher levels of anxiety, increased levels of stress or worry, and may cause you to avoid going out. I have clients from marginalized populations who are nervous about the thought someone could be watching our Zoom session via their laptop camera or phone. Constant surveillance increases paranoia. During the recent coup in our church, people stopped talking, stopped reading newsfeeds on social media, blocked people from communicating with them because they suspected anything they said or posted would be collected, misconstrued and used against them. Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep

Pandemic sleep disorders contributed to the increase in paranoia and paranoia increased sleep disorders. Living under threat has an impact on one’s sleeping patterns and is an overall high risk impact on one’s general wellbeing and mental health.

What can stop someone from reaching out for help?

Continuing to live in fear can have long term effects on both physical and mental health. If you have symptoms that worry you or someone has told you you have them, it is important to reach out for help.

The most graphic example of someone in the Bible who did not reach out for help is King Saul. Paranoia took over his life. When Saul realized young David had captured the hearts of the people of Israel, he became angry and began to keep a suspicious eye on him (1 Samuel 18:6–9). David had made no threatening moves toward Saul, yet Saul’s jealousy turned to paranoia and he began seeking ways to kill David. The Bible records that “an evil spirit from the Lord came upon Saul” (1 Samuel 18:10). This seems to imply that, in his jealousy and hatred toward an innocent man, Saul opened the door for demonic influence in his own heart. His paranoia became so overwhelming that he went on a murderous rampage, convinced that David was out to get him and that everyone else was against him, too, including the Lord’s priests (1 Samuel 22:13–19) and his own son Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:30–33). We often think a king might be above such trouble, but we are all vulnerable.

A person experiencing paranoia always has reasons, often unverifable, for why they won’t get help.

  • They are afraid to tell anyone what is going on and the reasons they feel the way they do.
  • They have been warned not to speak to anyone. Their internal dialogue or real oppressors threaten them.
  • They are afraid to leave their home or visit an unknown building because it feels uncontrollable.
  • They are afraid they are being watched. They may not want to drag someone else , like their theerapist, into the bad thing they expect to happen. Paranoia and secrets go together.
  • They are experiencing hallucinations – for example, hearing voices. Their voices are fearful of people who will diminish their reality.
  • They have no idea where to go for help.

All of the above reasons to avoid seeking help can be fed by paranoia. Thankfully there is support out there to help you to overcome this. If you or someone you care about needs help, just Google “paranoia hotline.” If you want a more secure, personal connection, call Circle Counseling or the Council for Relationships.