Category Archives: A life in the Spirit

Accept the one whose faith is weak (2009)

In 2009 my former church was going through growing pains. We were organized in a way that required many leaders to take initiative and get along. This speech reflects that. 

In the letter to the church at Colossae, Paul says: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” It appears a lot of people in the first century can’t read. And no one has invented the printing press, yet, even if you wanted to get your own copy of something to read. So people read to each other. That seems nice to me. There is something about hearing something read that makes it more personal, I think, more communal. There is also something ceremonial about public readings, tribal. The new churches to whom Paul is writing are getting their identity shaped by doing new things together, like hearing a letter to them. So since this chapter of Romans is all about creating redeemed people and being together in love, let’s have a major reading of Romans 14:1-15:7.

Let’s take turns, a man and then a woman, and everyone read the parts that are in yellow. We’re going to read it slow and ceremonially. Let it sink in. Maybe you can imagine it is a time, like the first century, before last vestige of tribal activity was gathering on Wednesdays to watch Lost and having a letter read to you might seem important.

Activated acceptance

Isn’t that a great chapter? And did you notice how well it fits into our era! So often the Bible seems kind of dated (since it is 2000 years old) — but not this chapter.

The thing I like best about living in the postmodern world is that the post-Christian, Eurocentric countries hung on to and activated Paul’s message about acceptance. A great contribution to western thought from Christianity is the duty to accept others as having a basic, God-given freedom of conscience that should be respected. That principle is clearly stated in this chapter.

Without Full Acceptance by Christians, Gays Are Demeaned and Hurt - NYTimes.comOne of the things I like least about living in the postmodern world is that the Christians are known for NOT activating Paul’s message of acceptance. I’m not sure the reputation is deserved, since many Jesus-followers are performing the miracle of reconciliation all the time – they are mostly unnoticed as great lovers often prefer to be. But there are Christians who like to get noticed who are out there front and center. Such signs were in the background of the recent Equality Forum. Those are Christians making sure that they are known for not accepting what they consider unacceptable. Paul says don’t dispute about disputable issues, but it looks like there are not too many issues that Christians find indisputable.

The Horning Church of Black-bumper Weaverland Mennonites split from their church in 1927 over the use of cars, but covered up the flashy chrome with black paint.

My favorite example of disputatious Christians has always been the Amish, who are supposedly among the peaceful people of the world. But they are quite disputatious.  Some won’t use any modern conveniences and are stuck around 1880. Others own vehicles but won’t drive them – they hire the English to do that. Others own vehicles but won’t allow any ornamentation on them – they are known as the black bumper Amish. Others can have chrome. They seem to accept one another’s weirdness OK, but it is kind of hard to imagine how someone got the argument going that started a new sect of black bumper Amish.

Acceptance forms a peculiar culture

In our church, in which some of us are the only-own-a-bicycle people, we are pretty good at accepting one another’s weirdness, too. But even though we are pretty acclimated to the best thing about postmodernism and we also like Paul’s ideas about accepting people, we still have our moments when we just don’t know how far acceptance should go. That is what Paul’s chapter is trying to sort out.

Like how much accommodation do meat-eaters make for vegetarians and vegans? How much should the rule-followers allow the footloose to NOT follow all the incomprehensible laws of Licenses and Inspections when we rehab another derelict building? Can a proactive peacemaker accept someone who thinks war can be OK? What matters of faith are not disputable?

As you can see in the chapter, these kinds of issues have always been with us. If we weren’t to be respected as people with individual choices to make, then we could just make rules and kill those on the other side – but God’s grace is more right than that kind of right.

The other day I was talking to someone about one of our blessed church leaders. There is a whole new crew of them now who are forming a new leadership team, if the Council approves this improvement on June 6.  I was seeing that a whole new crew of people has a whole new level of acceptance to exercise. It is very interesting to see how these things work out. This group doesn’t fully know how to communicate yet, so they have to listen hard. They all have power in their respective teams and now they have to actively share it. They don’t have mutual habits and agreements set, so they have to create them. These things all take a great deal of acceptance. To make the team work well, everyone has to start with Paul’s fact that everyone has their own beauty and value before God and God is able to make them beautiful and valuable to us.

The postmodern mindset leaves God out of this process acceptance. Most of us leave God out these days, too. When someone is about to go for a new job, like one of my friends did last week, we say Good luck! not God bless you! “God bless you” has fallen out of favor unless you are sneezing in certain parts of the city – some places less than others. So our acceptance these days takes on a form of godliness but denies God’s presence. We have laws that enforce acceptance and lawsuits to go with them. Now it is popular to be a comedian who is all about not accepting people, since comedians get mileage out of being cleverly contrary.

But true acceptance is another miracle born of the Spirit. We rely on that miracle happening among our leadership team, who are at the heart of a church where accepting one another is elemental to our character. That kind of grace can’t really be legislated, or willed; it is part of being redeemed and being a redeemer with the Redeemer. 15:7  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

The point of accepting one another is not merely because it is SO much more pleasant than not doing it, it is to bring praise to God who crosses barriers and builds love in the world. The point of accepting one another is not just to be nice and be acceptable to God, it is much more active than that, it is all about redemption. Accepting someone like Jesus accepted you is an act of aggressive, world-changing love like the Lord’s.

Jesus concentrates this aggressive, world-changing love in the church until the church gets mass and pulls other people into mutual acceptance. But receiving someone where they are and respecting the light they have is also a weapon for goodness every day among people who don’t have intimacy with God or his people.

Like Paul said, the acceptance we have been shown by Jesus is the kind we should show. Jesus died and rose so that HE would be the Lord of all. Judging people as if we were the Lord is the reason Jesus had to die and rise, so He could gain his own authority and undo all that judgment with his world-changing acceptance. People will stand before Jesus and he is all about making them stand. If we’re moving with the Lord, we are doing that, too.

Using acceptance as a tool for spreading redemption

In Romans 14 and 15, Paul is mainly talking about accepting a person who is weak in faith.  This mainly means that he or she has a tender conscience. They can be drawn into behavior that makes them feel guilty – either before God or others. Their faith is not resilient enough to stand up to pressure or argument. They may not have a lot of light or strength or love. So even though their conscience might tell them they should not take their clothes off, if you ask them, they might take them off. So don’t ask them. If they are alcoholic or just think drinking is wrong for them, they might be thrown into a problem if you, their trusted friend, served them a drink. Don’t do that. Stuff like that.

File:Messene, Agora 2015-09 (5).jpg
Ruins of the agora in Messina, likely area for the temple meat market.

The example in Paul’s mind is all about meat that is sold at the pagan temple’s butcher shop. Some people don’t think they should eat demon-tainted meat, either because it might infect them, or because it is beneath them, or because their pagan mother-in-law might see them doing it and think they are violating their morals. Paul considers this a weak version of faith.

Paul, when he is just being himself,  doesn’t care what people think and knows meat belongs to God. And he blesses it before he eats it anyway, so any demon influence is eradicated. I think he quite likes being strong and taking control of his temple-sold meat and eating it with gusto in the name of Jesus in the face of any so-called god that might lay claim to it. So he is talking to himself as much as anyone else. Because it is really even stronger to not act strong, like God acts weak for us. I’ll be “weak” if being “strong” injures someone’s conscience and set them back. If you’re having dinner with people of weak conscience, don’t serve them temple meat. And yes, you need to be aware of who it is who has problems with temple meat, as best you can. Just because you don’t know doesn’t make you any less responsible for messing someone up.

Paul is hardly saying, “Just keep quiet and don’t offend anyone.” I don’t think anyone thinks Paul is never disputatious! His whole letter to the Romans has been one long argument! The goal is not to avoid disputes altogether, it is to use acceptance as a redemption tool.

The heart of the matter is that is makes sense to err on the side of being overly accepting since that is how Jesus is with us. We aren’t avoiding conflict, just like God doesn’t avoid conflict with us. But our conflicts with others, just like God’s with us, should be based in an underlying love that accepts another person as someone God loves, someone Jesus died for and is someone Jesus is in the process of transforming. No one gets damned – certainly not for whether they think driving emission-spewing vehicles is acceptable or not, or whether they break your heart with their faithlessness, or upend you with their mindless sin, or torment you with their unprocessed psychology.

The strong should accept the weak

I tend to take Paul’s admonition to its logical extreme. He says the strong should accept the weak. I presume everyone’s faith is weak. I presume everyone’s conscience is as challenged as mine, even if they look strong and even if they think they are strong and I should not be presuming they have weak faith. I think we all have something that makes our conscience tender. It is always something. So it makes sense to start out assuming that I don’t know what I might be doing to someone. That makes me trust God, and it helps me not to trust my judgment too much.

So let’s get as practical as we can,

  • since you have to go home and re-accept your wife or husband after hearing this, even though you feel a lot of judgment about all the disputable things they do.
  • since you need to go back to work and deal with that obnoxious person you have been telling stories about.
  • since you need to go on the sidewalk and meet up with a person who looks suspiciously like they might do something objectionable if you looked at them.

We all need to develop an aggressive acceptance that changes the judgment people normally live under into salvation and grace. We are making a safe place to explore and express God’s love when we start with someone where they are starting whenever we meet them and hope for their best in Christ, even if they are clueless about Jesus.

Very briefly, here are two of many things in the scripture passage that we can do that will help us develop and use this acceptance.

Make it a rule to Accept the one who is weak in faith…without passing judgment on disputable matters.

Most things that bother you just do not matter to God. Stop noticing what people are doing that seems wrong to you. Everyone will stand before God, not you, and the Lord is able to make him or her stand

Most things that bug us don’t matter that much, most things we want to hold on to don’t matter that much, but every person does matter. Even for the most toxic person, God has a plan in mind for what to do next to help them stand and to stop them from cutting the legs out from others. If you do not presume that and see them accordingly, it will be hard to accept them. That applies to yourself, too, since you need to treat yourself like God treats you.

Someone is going to bother you in the next half hour or so. I may be doing it now by bringing that up. Don’t just swallow being bugged or avoid noting how messed up they are – accept them like God accepts you. You’ll feel better; the world will be better. And you will certainly have a better place to have a conflict, if one is necessary.

Accept the one who is weak in faith…make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way… make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

Don’t merely react well, be a proactive accepter. Be strategic. If not strategic, then at least considerate. If not considerate, then at least not a pain in the neck.

Paul wants us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Eurocentric societies have been all about power, all about competition, all about blame, all about fear of not getting what we want or all about fear of not being respected for who we are. Our minds are infected and in need of renewing. In contrast to Eurocentric ways, Jesus insists on a new mindset of love, born God’s love which graces us all day. We didn’t know God’s acceptance, but Jesus has made it known and is making it known to us. So we have something good to do every day. We make peace. We build people up.

We need to make up our mind to accept one another like Jesus accepts us — do it and learn to love it. It won’t do much good to look like you accept someone on the outside but you judge them when you are talking to someone else, or hold on to their badness in your heart. Being outwardly nice it better than not being nice, but it is not the life-changing acceptance that Paul is describing.

An influx of migrant children tests the preparedness of NYC schoolsWe need to take this habit with us into the street, too. For instance, there are laws about discriminating against Spanish-speakers. They aren’t working. But we are not necessarily working that well either. Spanish speakers inhabit our neighborhood, but they are still invisible to a lot of us. I won’t suggest that each of us can undo this invisibility, but we could plan to look at someone and smile on the sidewalk – at least have that much proactive acceptance! Say “Hi.” Same goes for moments with our landlords or our  clientele. Same with the police and security guards. Same with the rich people and with the people working out at Sweat across the street. They are all potential brothers and sisters.

Paul is working hard to help us react well and help us act well. Just make sure to NOT think you can follow that law well and accomplish it. Accepting others starts with being accepted by God as he aggressively seeks us out in Jesus Christ and connects in love. It was hard to do that, and Lord knows we keep making it hard on him. Accepting someone who is weak in faith is hard because it is that good.

In this age of fear it is hold the pickles and the human contact.

The Taco Bell Defy store prototype arguably started the drive-thru makeover trend nationally.

In the summer of 2021, hot off the deepest trough of the pandemic, the first Taco Bell Defy store was unveiled. They called it “Defy” because it will “defy norms and define the future.” It is a 3,000-square-foot, two-story restaurant in a suburb of Minneapolis with four drive-thru lanes. Three of those lanes will be dedicated to mobile or delivery order pickups. That means you’ll need to pick the correct lane for your indecision.

Digital check-in screens will allow mobile order customers to scan their orders via a QR code, then pull forward where their food will be delivered by a “contactless proprietary lift system.” That means your nacho fries will descend to your car window via a transparent dumbwaiter. Two-way audio and video will allow customers to stay in touch with taco providers in real time.

Everything from Shaquille O’Neal’s Big Chicken to Portland’s Human Bean Coffee are building drive throughs. A.I. companies are dashing to provide a virtual workface to keep the lanes moving. One company uses cameras to track cars, which adds another layer of assurance that customers get their correct orders. An A.I.-powered menu board will suggest items based on the car itself. So if I am still driving my indestructible minivan, I will likely be served (or tormented, depending on how you see these things) with suggestions for kids’ meals, since it’s typically a family vehicle.

This trend is cooking so fast the Today Show created a segment about it:

Only 8 months ago our local CBS network thought it was news when a new Dunkin went up in Delaware that was drive through only:

No wonder my church “warden” noted in her fall fundraising letter that it is good to see how the church has just started to see some recovery in attendance after the pandemic. A lot of churches just died — no drive through option. Our meetings are still live-streamed, however, so we are probably a permanent hybrid store.

A lot of people still fear getting out of the house

If you watch the Today Show story, you will see the comments of drive-through interviewees that caused me to want to talk with you about this. I have quite a few clients who are still not out of their houses and would not do therapy if it were not virtual. Likewise, one woman in the segment talks about those times when she doesn’t want to get out of her car if she has to get out of the house. The world is unsafe and frightening.

Jesus followers in many eras have ignored the Spirit and truth in the Bible. Justifying slavery is a notable example. Not loving enemies is a regular example. Not “making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” is expected. But we usually know we should not be so afraid. Even so, it seems most people, Christian and otherwise, are missing these themes:

“Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. (Isaiah 8:12)

For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. (Isaiah 41:13)

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me. (Psalm 23:4)

The QSR Industry (as in quick service restaurant) says the customers want speed and convenience. That may be so. But I think they also want to be alone and are afraid of each other. If they can’t get stuff delivered, they want to be out their door and back in as soon as possible. Nobody wants to be afraid, but the the QSR industry is trying to pave over our need to face any fear. They stay in business by making sure all our needs are met without us having to do much. I think they can see the glint of profit in the fear flooding the country and are building sluice gates.

Being generous

That was a rather dim view of humanity, right? I suppose I hang out with a lot of people who have a dim view of themselves and project it on humanity. So let’s be generous about what might cause Taco Bell to provide us with a four-lane drive through.

We had Covid

We had to stay inside and now we “need” to stay inside.

But wait, there is long covid. The fog has not lifted, literally, for many Covid sufferers. And the fog that descended on us all has not cleared from many hearts and minds. It is not really over.

We have Trump/Biden

We are in a bunker as if we lived in Gaza ourselves. I went to the store and witnessed a couple of guys screaming at each other in the parking lot. This is why we get groceries delivered. The disabled people of the government are spending billions to scream at each other. It is disruptive.

But wait, we have long Trump/Biden. Someone reminded me that if your are 17, you’ve been listening to the Trump craziness since you were 9 and just coming to reasonable cosnciousness. It never ends.

We had George Floyd

I have this terrible feeling that even though Derek Chauvin was apparently knifed in prison last week, most people have basically lost consciousness about George Floyd. He was killed about 3 1/2 years ago. There has been a lot of news cycling, disinformation and whitelash since then, plus the Capitol was attacked.  Cherelle Parker’s new police chief had to get on the news and say, “We are not your enemy” last week. Even I have first-hand experiences to make that seem dubious.

I guess wait, we have long George Floyd.  Last week Ron DeSantis lashed out at “liberal Republican” Nikki Haley for saying George Floyd’s death should have been “personal and painful” for Americans. He mocked her, saying,

She has accepted liberal narratives on a whole bunch of things. When the BLM riots happened, the George Floyd riots, I called out the National Guard. I was not going to let that happen in Florida. I stood by the police. She said that it needed to be personal and painful for each and every American.

Why would it need to be personal and painful for you? You had nothing to do with it. Did you tell that cop to do anything? Of course not. It’s just buying these ridiculous narratives. And so I think it’s clear what she’s trying to do.

Such people might make you want to not only stay in your house, but stay in bed.

I get scared when the QSR industry helps people stay safely scared, locked in their cars, barricaded in their apartments, developing their dissociation. But let’s be generous with each other. Don’t you, personally, have a lot to overcome this week? Aren’t you more distant from and more scared of people than before the pandemic? Aren’t you overly-aware of just how mad and disillusioned people are (or did you give up TikTok)? We all have a long way to go.

I am glad Jesus is going with me. Assuaged fear — leading to fear cast out by love, is the blessing of faith in Jesus. But when you are swimming up stream in a river of it you can get exhausted fast. Let’s be generous with each other. And let’s come out of the fog and pay attention to the hopeful admonitions in the three scriptures I quoted

  1. Check your dread. It is often based on lies.
  2. Hold God’s hand. It is almost Advent and it is being held out again.
  3. See how darkness cannot hide God’s love for us. It is never that dark and it is always that light.


Dissociation: Alive and unwell on the sidewalk and TikTok

I often need to study issues which show up with loved ones in my office. So I was studying how people experience dissociation.

I paused to go out and see if the workers were finished with the new railings for our counseling offices. As I chatted with the general contractor, the boss of the metal workers came up on crutches with an amazing device attached to his leg. The limb was held motionless by about a dozen pins protruding from a cylindrical framework and into his body. The G.C. asked, “What in the world happened? Car accident?” He said, “No, I was shot three times in North Philly.”

2: a) An Ilizarov fixator, commonly used in the stabilization of bone... | Download Scientific Diagram
a) An Ilizarov fixator, commonly used in the stabilization of bone fracture b) The corresponding X-ray image. Image

I’m standing on Broad Street, humanity passing by, metal workers on my porch, then someone hobbles up who has been shot. The scene quickly brought me right back down to earth from the ether of my studies. Even more, the strangeness and horror of talking to someone about how they were caught in gunfire just up the street, helped me understand that much better why people dissociate.

There are reasons people dissociate.

You might relate. Have you ever “zoned out?” (That term is another new entry for my emotions list – a phrase tailor made for 2023). Most of us know how zoned out feels. Many of my clients take it farther. They have added “I dissociate” as a way to describe what they feel and do in certain situations.

It is small wonder they have learned to dissociate.  Generally, dissociative disorders are clinically reserved for the severely traumatized. But it appears the defense mechanism and the disorder are on the rise. Just because “I dissociate” is entering common parlance does not mean more truth is being told. But there might be something to the new recognition that many of us use dissociative defenses or experience dissociative disorders to deal with the general trauma we experience.

Here are some elements of the general trauma coming at us this week. Israel and Gaza. Russia and Ukraine. The gold rush poisoning rivers in the Amazon (not to mention the parts being burned down as we speak). Biden and Xi. Inflation. Trump on trial. Mass shooters. People wonder, “Are drivers really getting crazier?” You might confess, ” I sometimes feel alone on my busy street.” You might say, “I’m terrified now that I know someone who has been shot.” Plus, “There really are neo-Nazis? Really?”

Some people criticize the soft, general public for not having enough gumption to cope with such things. (They are snowflakes). But that kind of bullying is part of the zeitgeist to which people arre reacting. My homeowners association meeting last night featured people yelling at each other and openly expressing their distrust. Most people were watching the meeting on Zoom (keeping their distance). But the majority of the condo owners would not have touched the meeting with a ten-foot pole on Zoom or otherwise (quite unassociated with the association). I think overwhelming forces are causing people to cope the only way the disempowered can, by turning off. Why vote? Why go to school? Why not shoot up?

Dissociation is a new thing on TikTok

The experience of dissociation is so prevelant, it was briefly written up in the New York Times last month. The author noted that most of us know what dissociation feels like. It is just the “ability to disconnect from our thoughts, feelings, environment or actions.” Jalen Hurts is doing it when the commentators say he is “tough as nails and will play through the injury.” Authors might do it when they forget what time it is (and the fact they have a family) and concentrate on the novel until it is done.

For us non-atheletes/authors, dissociation is a reaction, not an action.

“Rather than fight or flee in a stressful or threatening situation, some people ‘freeze,’” said Dr. Frank W. Putnam, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and an expert on dissociative disorders. “That’s the dissociative state where you shut down and you kind of go away.” (NYT)

1-3% of the population might have actual dissociative identity disorder or depersonalization/derealization disorder.

This defensive reaction gets diagnosed as a disorder when it begins to organize how people see themselves and habitually behave. Such disordered behavior usually occurs after experiencing overwhelming trauma; the dissociation used to cope with the trauma gets stuck and becomes habitual, even extreme. Severe dissociative disorders result from horrific, chronic, inescapable harm, usually before the age of 7 or 8 — You might say, “Of course the minds of little children must fragment to survive having breakfast every morning with a parent who assaults them in the middle of the night.” Lord have mercy!

Many people are surprisingly familiar with those disgnoses. The internet helps them “discover” them and adopt them as their own. They might even “perform” them. We all might zone out in reponse to troubling situations that don’t really qualify as trauma. But it seems many people are being trained for dissociation by the overwhelming experience of being alive in this era and are further lured into dissociative behavior by the isolation of the internet.

According to the Times,

People are capturing their experiences with dissociation and posting them on social media. TikTok videos hashtagged #dissociativeidentitydisorder, or D.I.D., have been viewed more than 1.7 billion times and #dissociation has drawn more than 775 million views. Some show what it looks like to dissociate, or use visual effects to explain the eerie feeling of living outside your body. In others, people describe their different identities, also called alters or parts.

I would add that much of what I viewed was in error, misleading, or click bait lies and misinformation. Whew!

Let’s have some grounded dialogue

Even though TikTok misleads people, I think the dialogue is relevant because I keep meeting people who describe some form of dissociative coping. It is not unusual to meet someone quite conversant about their out-of-body experiences or how they are accustomed to looking down on themselves as if they were observing their reality from afar.

While the article in the NYT was useful, the comments were priceless. They represent thousands of zoned out people who are searching for some connection while feeling desperately out of touch.

Tisha fromSacramento wrote:

I’ve been working with a therapist for the past few months to support me with childhood sexual and emotional trauma. I have been processing the ways in which I coped with the abuse. One way was through elaborate extensive daydreams. I would retreat into long complex storylines of my own creation like a Netflix miniseries in which I was a strong,competent, beautiful heroine. Often popular actors and singers were my romantic interest. This was a refuge for me and a way to role play a different way of being. Sometimes I would choose to do this instead of spending time with others, reading, doing a hobby. To that extent it fits into a possible category of disassociation called maladaptive daydreaming. I never talked to others about this because I knew it was a different behavior, but I realize now that I’m not alone in engaging in this coping strategy.

Jane Dough replied to Tisha

@Tisha, I had the same experience. I lived almost entirely inside my own head, Walter Mitty style, for over 25 years. It was a skill I developed in response to a childhood characterized by sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. I finally quit the habit because I was so ashamed of it, but it was just as difficult to release as any other addiction. Even though I see a psychiatrist and a trauma therapist now and have told them all the gruesome details of my abuse, I have been much too embarrassed to mention my years lost to “maladaptive daydreaming.” Thank you for sharing your story. Knowing I’m not alone makes me feel much less ashamed.

Alongside my compassion for these facinating people I noted two important things.

1) They found each other on their screens.

I am glad they found each other and probably experienced validation and relief. But I am concerned the means they used might have normalized and deepened their dissociation.

The internet is drawing more and more people into a dissociative, unreal world. Putting on an avatar in a video game, having arguments and making confessions anonymously are obvious examples of how the web grooms us to live outside out bodies and face-face community. I’m sure there is something on Netflix right now that celebrates someone’s capacity to not have a body (remember Altered Carbon?).

2) They were relieved to finally tell someone about what they thought was their peculiar coping strategy.

“Tisha” told her therapist about her defence and then the world via the New York Times. “Jane” had never told anyone before  she anonymously told “Tisha” (and you and me and the world) on the Times platform. None of the comments were verified as coming from actual people, but I read many of them and now so have you. And now we share a common unreality.

I did not look for it, but I would not be surprised to find a worldwide “Maladaptive Daydreaming Network” forming on the web. But even if she were part of it, would “Jane” actually be less alone? Would she be derealized watching herself feel connected? I hope she feels more connected. But I have significant doubts.

“Jane” represents so many of us who have no one to talk to. The fact that she is talking to the Times anonymously shows how many of us do not know anyone we feel is trustworthy or capable of understanding us. We seem to have less solid ground to stand on all the time.  Having a weighty conversation seems like a rare event — many people might not  know what a “weighty conversation” feels like. You might also feel alone in a very threatening world — and the numbers appear to be increasing. I hope bringing the subject up helps jar a few people into having an in-their-body, self-caring, grounded conversation with someone real enough to help them heal the wounds they carry.


Today is Leo Tolstoy Day. Remember him fondly at The Transhistorical Body. Thanks for subscribing here and there.

What will it be when deep calls to deep today?

Deep unto deep calls out
at the sound of Your channels.
All Your breakers and waves have surged over me.
By day the Lord ordains His kindness
and by night His song is with me –-
prayer to the God of my life. (Robert Alter)

My Psalm this morning came after pondering the portion of Psalm 42, above. 

Thank you for helping me turn, Lord —
turning: the base skill of spiritual health,
turning: the squeal of worn-out ball bearings
under the faulty drum of my inner washing machine,
turning: the painful choice to stop looking
at the past as if it were not over
but ready to click into the spin cycle and wring me out.

We don’t need to be in the churn of Psalm 42, do we?
What will it be when deep calls to deep today?

The psalmist probably meant
“’Chaos calls to chaos!’
I am stuck in the primordial soup
waiting for ‘Let there be light,’
for life to blow into my nostrils of mud.

The optimistic kataphatics
hear the depth of God calling to the depths of them.
Those “waterfalls and waves”
are a mindful trip to Bali
floating on a calm sea of love.

I always seem to start out in the churn
(only the faithful dare to look into the abyss),
but here I am longing for the turn.

Mindful or mindless, I hold this in my heart.
From the old RSV:
“By day the Lord commands his steadfast love;
and by night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.”
From the new VOICE:
“Yet in the light of day, the Eternal shows me  his love.
When night settles in and all is dark, He keeps me company —
His soothing song, a prayerful melody to the True God of my life.”

I will try not to toggle today Lord,
wobbling and banging like an overfilled washer
then floating on a sea of forgetfulness and wonder —
the twain rarely meeting.
I will have joy in one hand and suffering in the other
and turn into the song of eternity in me and ahead of me.
Help me listen
and listen again…
and turn and turn into your song,
even turn round right.

What Makes for a Non-Consumeristic Church? 

I did not create as many messages in 2008 because I was gifted a four-month sabbatical. Before I left, I answered a question someone offered.

I want to answer a question that someone slipped into the offering box, which doubles as our question box. “What would a consumeristic vs. non-consumeristic church look like?” I suspect this good person picked up on a bias against consumerism around here, especially when it comes to people “church shopping.” Maybe they witnessed one of my random outbursts of rebellion about being treated like a “product,” and they wondered, “What’s with that? It is a good question. Ask some more.

So this is how I want to structure the answer, which what I often do when I make a speech. I’m going to set up the problem as I see it, tell you what the Bible might say about the problem, and then let’s think about how to solve it and do something about what we’ve concluded.

The problem: Living in consumer culture

The problem with the church in the U.S. is a lot like the other problems I can associate with being a consumer culture. It is all a lie. Life is not about buying and selling things. People and experiences are not products. Jesus can’t be bought or sold. The church and worship are not commodities.

On the contrary, the church is a spiritual-physical ecosystem; it is an organic thing. If you turn it into a product, you mess it up. Consumerism is not good for organisms, for creation, in general. For instance, we’re not sure we should raise animals in industrial contexts; animals are not mere products. Likewise, we’re not sure you should endlessly burn carbon fuels; the atmosphere is not a big trash can for byproducts. When we are run by what we consume, bad things happen.

I heard a story on NPR that provide a helpul example for everyone who wants to mess with organic things, like the church. You may have heard about the elephants, ants and a particular tree (which would be a bush in Pennsylvania).

Elephants gather around the ant-plant Acacia drepanolobium.

Think of the church as the tree in this tale. African elephants eat a lot; they are big consumers. They like to eat trees. A certain tree found a way to protect itself from being eaten by exuding a tasty sap that ferocious ants like. When an elephant goes after this tree it just might get a snoot full of ants. So the tree is nibbled and not devoured.

 A little aside, here: 

  • If this were an American tree it would find a way to pump up and get rid of elephants for good. You’d see this redundant commercial for “New extra strength anti-elephant sap.”
  • If the elephants were American they might try to get rid of the ants so they could eat trees. The news story would say, “No Amnesty for Ants: The Freedom to Eat Trees Act has allotted 100 million dollars to capture and deport illegal, tree-invading ants.”

But back to the story. In a long-term experiment, a scientist cordoned off some of these trees to see what would happen if elephants were prevented from getting to them. He expected the trees to flourish. But instead of flourishing, the trees stopped producing sap, since the ants were not needed. The trees kind of dried up. They didn’t grow as much as when they needed to produce sap for ants and leaves for elephants. What’s more, without the protector ants, other bugs infested them and started drilling holes in their bark and hollowing them out.

The moral I draw from this story for the ecosystem of the church is, don’t try to turn the church into a feel-good, easy-buy, no-fuss, no-pain, instantly satisfying product. It won’t work. Just like the acacia tree needs the tension between ants and elephants to flourish, every living tree has giving, and taking, and hurting going on. If you mess with it, you will end up hollowed out. The church is a living tree.

Getting hollowed out is exactly what I think happens to the church that adapts to consumer capitalism. When the church gets commodified, people buy it, they find out it is not really what was advertised and the whole enterprise gets a little more attackable and empty. Isn’t that generally happening?

You can see what consumerism does to the church by seeing what people who are cultured to be consumers do to this meeting. This meeting is the most visible part of the tree, you might say. This meeting is where ants explore for sap and elephants nibble on leaves. It is a rather complex, mixed bag of a meeting and the church has always used it in a number of ways and leaned it in many directions. Is it a show that anyone can come and enjoy, or is it a disciplined spiritual exercise for the initiated? Should we tamp the deep things down so the spiritually hungry ants coming to sip will like it, or should we fill it full of meaty things so the ravenous elephants won’t get bored, move away or even starve? Needless to say, if you come to it looking for what you wish you had, you’ll probably be disappointed, at least a little.

I’m not sure we know exactly what we are doing with this meeting, either. But I don’t think we have just concocted a great product. This meeting is an expression of us. For us, it is the family’s public meeting. It could careen from light to heavy at any moment. In the course of five minutes one person might find it shallow and another deep. I might seem like a great show to some and a total flop to others.

It is kind of painful to hold a public meeting. Ants and elephants both live off this tree – but strangely enough, we thrive when our sap is eaten and our leaves are stripped.

Non-family are welcome at the family meeting — people don’t show up and automatically love us like family, so it hurts — people who feel connected don’t have all their needs met, so it hurts. But I honestly think it may be in the hurting that we are most valuable, so I am willing to do it.

People criticize what we are doing as if we are just another show when we are an organism. They check out our schedule of events to see what’s in it for them or to see if they fit, as if we were an investment or a pair of shoes – being treated like that hurts! I’m not $3.99 a pound, I am a cow!

What are you going to do? We are a nation of consumers. George Bush is famous for being interpreted in 2005 as saying our duty in the present state of warfare is to shop (redacted video above as evidence). The president of the seminary I went to wrote an article in the latest Christianity Today magazine that defended what some people label consumerist tendencies as more a matter of freedom to grow and choose than just being a slave to fashion or personal taste. He doesn’t think it is automatically bad to consider whether you want a Big Mac or a Whopper, a Pentecostal or a Catholic. He has a point. Since he is a philosopher, he probably IS making a choice and he is rich enough to make whatever choice he wants. But for the rest of us, I fear that an awful lot of us haven’t thought over how we choose and just go with what is going. We perpetually shop. That’s the problem. Consumers by nature make the church a commodity to be consumed in the typical pattern, and that kills the tree.

I have two Bible passages that tell us what to do instead.

The Bible speaks to consumer culture

The first quote encourages us to have our pain, rather than just go for “What’s in it for me.”

[H]old out (or hold on to) the word of life–in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.  So you too should be glad and rejoice with me. Philippians 2:16-8

The basic example of Jesus, who is our model for being created in the image of God, is living a life of self-giving love. Living a life of self-giving love is our true destiny. Lust for self-getting should not drive us; the quest for a true self that lives in love and expresses love should drive us.

In the case of Paul and Jesus, they both think their highest calling is about being poured out in service and worship, not being poured into. Paul finds joy in his connection with God which transcends even the joy of seeing some fruit come from his tireless labor. He is filled with the Spirit of God and doesn’t feel an endless need to be filled. This is a very anti-consumeristic verse, wouldn’t you say? But I do think it is honest about the pain involved in being anti-consumeristic – not shopping feels like being poured out, without getting a good return. It is not a good deal.

I have told you before that in seminary I was actually taught (by “church growth experts”) that Americans will not come to your church (note “come to,” like coming to the show) unless you WIIFT them, as in “What’s In It For Them?” People must be WIIFTed; that’s how they work.

I think the experts are right about how to get people to come to the show, but they might be wrong about making followers of Jesus. If people are cultured in the church to always consider what’s in it for me, they’ll have more trouble connecting with God or others than they already have, because, as Jesus shows, to connect takes suffering. There will be pain to connect. I’m not sure there will be blood, but there was God’s blood. To paraphrase one of the Lord’s most basic teachings: If you consume as a way of life, you’ll lose your life, but if you pour out your life in worship and service, you’ll find joy.

Endless shopping and deal-making creates insecurity, even when you find something you like or you make a good deal. When we are always shopping, our relationships end up being about “Do I feel good?” or “Can I make you feel good?” We’re always pondering ourselves and never connecting, and then we wonder why we never feel connected and we wonder who or what might make me feel loved? It is endless.

If we endlessly shop, we end up looking around our cell skeptically, wondering if we should get in any deeper with these flawed people, since people in Phoenix are reportedly friendlier. We look at ourselves and feel ashamed, because if we were more saleable someone would have bought us by now. We think “No one shops in the extra-large or extra small section for love,” or “No one would want a used product like me.” Our value ends up based on whether we are a good deal. Shopping creates false expectations, good and bad, “I deserve the best” and “I deserve the worst.” You see how this goes.

Within my lifetime, Americans became mere consumers; they started being labelled “consumers.” People began raising their children as consumers. Like the children are even consumers of parenting. Like they need to be the best parents possible or their children will have gotten a bad deal and they will tell their therapist what bad parents they had and feel deprived. As a result, the children are predictably insecure and demanding; they never get enough, they are perpetual shoppers – and as a result they never pour their lives out, and have a tough time receiving and giving God’s love.

Given that self-giving love is at the heart of being a Christian, how can we make a non-consumeristic church?

Being consumed in the right way

Let me give you another verse. But first let me admit that I haven’t made a very clear definition of what consumeristic means. I don’t think consuming things is bad, of course, unless that is all you do. Being “consumeristic” is being a slave to consuming and organizing everything to be consumed effortlessly and as a top priority, regardless of the consequences. But like my seminary president says, not everything about church shopping is bad. I have been Baptist, been rather Franciscan, been pretty Pentecostal, and mostly Brethren in Christ, which is in itself, a little supermarket of Christian brands. I looked around. I grew. Life is not an either or. We need to choose.

But you can’t make good choices just by consuming. Eventually, you need to be consumed if you are connected to Jesus. Lately I have been talking to people who have tasted it all and they are sick of it all when it comes to Christianity. They are jaded consumers. They never got to faith. They tried to eat the wrapper and missed the candy bar, I guess.

A fire that does not consume -

Here’s the other verse for them and you.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28-9

Maybe the difference between a follower of Jesus and a consumer of Christian products is that the follower is consumed by the Fire. A follower is filled with the Spirit of God. A follower is loved in the light. The consumer is considering whether they want it. The consumer is aspiring to get something more than they have. The consumer is trying it on to see if it fits.

Don’t take that the wrong way, if you are a consumer. Consumers belong in this meeting. Because if you eat enough rice you might learn to like Asian food. Before I went to Indonesia as a teenager, I could not choke down a spoonful of rice. I hated rice. The smell of rice cooking in my host family home in Semarang almost made me sick. But I was served rice constantly. I learned to love it and now I yearn for a spoonful. Consume the right thing and you might become like it. This verse kind of says, sit by the fire and you’ll get warm. Live in the light and you’ll have less shadow. Be in relationship with God and the Spirit of God will make you real.

The writer of Hebrews is talking about coming to the glorious kingdom of heaven that is far beyond the smoking mountain where God wrote the ten commandments with fire on Moses’ tablets. Jesus reveals how God is even bigger than his commandments. You can’t consume God, you can only relate to God, who is all-consuming. You can pour out your offering on the altar fire, like Paul imagined his life, and worship.

It is not like God is a consumer and you’re not. God is consuming, like the ultimate fire. We can’t put him in a box to buy, we can’t package her neatly (in the correct gender term), we can’t manufacture God, we can’t keep them on the shelf. God is. Jesus says, “I am.” We can be with him and do with him. If not, we might be consumed.

Making a non-consumeristic church

I think people are working with God around here and managing to pull off a non-consumeristic church. Rather than tell you what to do in theory, let me tell you about people who pour themselves out before God, who is a consuming fire.

For instance, we recently scrambled the Public Meeting Teams — the teams that make this meeting, our three acacia trees. The East teams had scrambled this and they kind of inspired and baited the BW teams to mix themselves up, too. Shake things up. Get the ants and elephants back to the tree. Cause some pouring out and needing God. Rachel and Angie took new leadership, here. Some of our valuable servants felt uprooted. New, even risky people were added in. But, all in all, it has been amazing how people are working out a weird thing. It hurts. It requires love. We’re not just keeping what we’ve got or just getting what we want, we are going for the consuming fire, trying to get beyond what’s typical. We’ll see what happens.

But whether it all works or not, at least those 30 people or so who make up our PM teams are not sipping to see if they like it. They aren’t sniffing around to see if they are welcome. They aren’t visiting. They are the church.

Likewise, look at the Council meeting we had yesterday anchored by our 43 cell leaders. It is very optimistic to expect such a high level of interest and commitment in the middle of a consumeristic culture. Can’t you people find a more exciting way to spend Saturday morning? You could be sleeping, working, going shopping, fixing the house, having sex, looking for someone to have sex with, being amused, doing as little as possible because you are always asked to do too much. There are a lot of other choices to make than pouring oneself out with an expanding group of people pushing along an enterprise that often seems like it is already out of control! We have a remarkable level of being – and we trust it. We don’t just wait around for someone to sell it to us, we build it. We don’t passively consume it, we are it. The Council meeting is another place we trust God very seriously. And if we do not have that trust, we expect to justly die.

That brings me back to the dual nature of this meeting. I think most people come in as consumers. We love them. God loves them. But we don’t conform to them. That means our relationships might need to develop. We might have conflict. We might even witness some elephants running off with a snoot full of ants, at times. There is a bit of pain on the way to joy. But we want to be that spiritual ecosystem that trusts the Creator to bring it all to fruit and put it in order just the way she sees fit. We want God to be the consuming presence of life in the midst of us — can’t shop for anything better than that!

Talk back – What Do you think? Questions? Further thoughts?

If creation were friendly, how would you love?

It is not that easy to be a human, easy to be married, or easy to love your neighbor as yourself when you forget to love yourself. And it is strangely easy to just forget about love altogether.

John O'Donohue: How he loved and how he died - Irland News
John O’Donohue (1956-2008)

Sometimes, when I am attempting marriage counseling, I would like to send the couple off with John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (1998/2022) until they can feel the possibility of another context for loving than the one they inherited from America or their  traumatized and confused parents.

A soul friend to yourself and others

When O’Donohue begins his lovely book, he tries to describe a place in which to live that is hard for postmodern people to imagine. He wants us to return to a lost place the Celts knew well. He says of them:

“Their sense of ontological friendship yielded a world of experience imbued with a rich texture of otherness, ambivalence, symbolism, and imagination. For our sore and tormented separation, the possibility of this imagination and unifying friendship is the Celtic gift. “

Every marriage will be better if the partners have a sense of “ontological friendship.” That is, the sense of living IN Friendship with a capital F. That is, not sorting out the world or trying to get some power over it, but being a welcome and welcoming part of it — curious, receptive, awestruck, and creative. If we listened to our mate (and everyone, of course) from that context, it would be great.

Instead, we often come to our relationships from our “sore and tormented separation.” And the way we evaluate one another’s words more than feeling with someone beyond their words keeps us wounding others and creating distance. Sometimes I try to force a partner into a new way to listen and they realize they really do not want to give up their wound or their distance. If they lose their aloneness, they are not sure who they will be. Moving into an unknown place with trust in God and others is one of the things O’Donohue wants us to relearn.

John O’Donohue can’t help being poetic. When I bought Anam Cara (“Soul Friend”), I have to admit I was disappointed to find out it was not a collection of his poems. But as I read, I realized I was not disappointed after all, because his prose is basically poetry. I have arranged his following paragraph as a poem. In it he offers two important things I wish couples would learn so their conversation and experience of each other could get closer to the longing of their hearts.

If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will haunt us.
We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person or deed can still.
To be wholesome, we must remain truthful to our vulnerable complexity.
In order to keep our balance, we need to hold
the interior and exterior,
visible and invisible,
known and unknown,
temporal and eternal,
ancient and new,

No one else can undertake this task for you.
You are the one and only threshold of an inner world.
This wholesomeness is holiness.
To be holy is to be natural, to befriend the worlds that come to balance in you.
Behind the façade of image and distraction,
each person is an artist in this primal and inescapable sense.
Each one of us is doomed and privileged
to be an inner artist who carries and shapes
a unique world.


Our “vulnerable complexity” takes time in silence and vulnerable dialogue to form an “interiority” that is fearless and pliable enough to connect with someone else. To have a better marriage, explore yourself.

Since we, unlike the Celts, generally live in an unfriendly world, we struggle to be friendly and struggle even more to get some friendliness. We’re very external these days: a picture on social media, a presentation at an interview, a constant smile (or fear of one) that is always looking for a safe place to land. All that energy pouring out leaves us accustomed to emptiness, but hungry.

I heard a person say once they broke up with a long-term dating partner because they both realized they just did not have enough substance to give to a relationship. They were both hungry, but they had no food to share, they were starving together. But their brilliant, honest analysis did not still their hearts. Being truthful about often being out of balance and hopeful about reality beyond our control often provides the stillness where we can be known to ourselves and others.

Fleurs et mains by Pablo Picasso


To have a good relationship, we need some wholesomeness to share. That holiness develops when we accept we are “doomed and privileged” to carry and shape the unique life we have been given. We are the threshold into the unique territory that is each of us. Holiness/wholeness is being formed in us – or not. No matter how many SUV commercials lure us to look for some rare wilderness where we will have an external experience that nourishes us, it will always be a false hope. The wilderness is in us.

People say the pandemic made everything that was getting bad get worse. I think one of the things it made worse was our fear. There is a lot of talk lately about how a child’s freedom to play has been declining since the 1980’s. You may have never been allowed to play on your own recognizance by your fearful parents and now you are not confident enough to goof around with your mate. You’re frustrated that what you think should come naturally just doesn’t. It feels difficult to welcome someone over the threshold.

The huge complex being built at Broad and Washington in Philadelphia is mostly studio and one bedroom apartments. We don’t even plan for families, partners or groups anymore. We’ve institutionalized fearful aloneness. Part of the reason we are so alone is we are conditioned to keep people on the other side of the threshold of our hearts. We could justly blame that attitude on the world around us, but when we do we are more likely to be subject to the unfriendly, unbalanced world within us. Acting in faith and friendship with God, ourselves and others is the beginning of being the artists we are created to be.

Friendly creation

Our interiority will haunt us” and “You are the one and only threshold of an inner world” could seem very threatening if we are committed to living alone, or just trying to survive an unfriendly world. It surprises me how many marriage partners feel resigned to their “sore and tormented separation.”

But O’Donohue inspires me by telling a truth I think we can feel. We bring beautiful things together in ourselves. We create wonder alongside God when we love others. The world is on our side, providing for and encouraging my wholeness.

When I bring that view of myself and my partner to our dialogue our “sense” of “ontological friendship” brings us together. It might even allow us to play. It would undoubtedly improve the depth and pleasure of sex. And it will eat away at the fear that is eating away at us.

Right now and forever: Life at the end of the world

At least three of my clients last week were talking about the end of the world.

When the Circle Counseling therapists got together for their monthly meeting, I asked them if they had similar experiences. They not only had similar conversations with their clients, some of them personally sensed the same apocalyptic zeitgeist that worried them.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween Ends
Jamie Lee Curtis (the latest Great Mother) endures our never-ending Halloween in last year’s Halloween Ends.

Our stories piled up until we had a lot of evidence that people feel the end of something is happening. I immediately thought the pile resembled R.E.M.’s dreamy nightmare song from 1987: It’s the End of the World As We know It (and I Feel Fine). Here are a few of the scenes in the nightmare I heard about:

  • the hollowing out of Late Capitalism courtesy of consultants like McKinsey,
  • everything global warming,
  • the terrifying and tragic war between Israel and Hamas,
  • a man with a combat weapon at large in Maine,
  • a Trump-affirmed election denier elected Speaker of the House, and more

The powerlessness is palpable.

How do we help each other endure this time? Can we find faith, hope and love in it? Or are we doomed to throw off such niceties and just survive? The therapists did not answer all my questions. But I did come away with some inspiration to stay in a place I have been trying to remain, into which I invited a couple of clients when they were feeling overwhelmed: right now and forever.

Psychologically, it makes sense to stay in the present and work with what is in front of you, not living in regret about the past or in what ifs about the future. Spiritually, if we nurture our right-now relationship with God, we can live in a transcendent, eternal reality that fuels our hope in hard times and often creates possibilities for goodness to emerge from the most recent tragedies we experience.

The Transhistorical Body

I think my right-now-and-forever relationship with God includes being part of the transhistorical body of Christ that emerged with Jesus and is eternal. Even though the Church is getting tossed around by the zeitgeist, it is still the home for the hope of the world, it is still stationed in the hollowing out middle, and it is still a place where everyone can find relief and restoration.

When my former church became the end of the church as we knew it, my son and I retrieved some of our intellectual property before the web archives all died and reformed The Transhistorical Body website. Day by holy day, our collection of wonders will reinforce how Jesus has been present in every era and in all sorts of people bringing the hope of resurrection. [Here’s the link if you want to subscribe. It goes live with the All Saints Day triduum, October 31]

Living in right-now and forever with God in the transhistorical body of Christ brings freedom from being over-responsible for Russia’s takeover of Crimea and under-responsible for caring about the person in the elevator with you. Being part of the Transhistorical Body comforts us by reminding us how Jesus has found people in every era who follow him and make a difference, and it comforts us by reminding us we can’t possibly know or control just how creative God when times are scary.

I want to leave you with one example from the transhistorical body who might help explain why Mike Johnson is Speaker of the House (especially if that scares you) and why it is crucial to have a right now and forever relationship with God.

First, Mike Johnson

Speaker Johnson was born in 1972 to devout Evangelicals in Louisiana. Few people know a lot about him, yet. But I do know a lot about the church of his childhood, since I was there. It was obsessed with the end of the world. (Michael Stipe was born in 1960, raised as a Christian in a family full of Methodist ministers and says his song reflects that preoccupation).  Apocalyptic movements often thrive in troubled times. Reactive groups look toward a golden age. They often follow a person they believe is God-ordained. If you want to get deeply into the weeds on this, read this fascinating paper by Paul Ziolo that traces occurances.

In Mike Johnson’s case, Trump is his leader (yes, people think he is ordained by God) and the golden age he longs for hearkens back to a time before godless people infected his beloved church with abortion and same-sex marriage — and before capitalism was regulated (how that gets in there still mystifies me).

Johnson’s goal as a child was to become a firefighter like his idolized father. His life changed forever when he was twelve and his father was permanently disabled while fighting a fire. His father could not save his (notably black) partner who died in the fire and spent the rest of his life running a foundation named in his memory. Johnson, the oldest child, took on a great deal of responsibility, became a lawyer, and became a leader among the lawyers who have been working to take back America for Jesus.

The ongoing influence of Joachim de Fiore

Strangely, I have found, Mike Johnson’s view of the world and the urgency he and his fellow election-deniers feel follows the path laid out by one of the most influential teachers you’ve never heard of: Joachim de Fiore. Fiore’s extremely influential prophetic writings in the 12th and 13th centuries reshaped European thinking and formed the basis for many subsequent reactions to the troubles of the world, right down to the cult of Trump. In Fiore’s case, the Church has been particularly transhistorical.

There is no way I can sum up the intricacies of Joachim’s thinking, which mainly interprets the Book of Revelation. But Lucas Coia gives us a good start on his groundbreaking theories which now seem very familiar:

Simply put, Fiore believed that the events recorded in the Old Testament prefigured those of the New, which in turn, predicted the future.

This was linked to Joachim’s famous tripartite division of history, with each epoch corresponding to a person of the Trinity. Thus, the Age (status) of the Father began with Adam, came to fruition with Abraham and ended with Christ, while the status of the Son began with King Uzziah of Judah, came to fruition with Zechariah—John the Baptist’s father—and was about to end in Joachim’s own time.

This last point accounts for the popularity of Fiore’s prophetic message. According to Joachim, the Age of the Holy Spirit, believed to have begun with Saint Benedict of Nursia, was soon to be fulfilled. In fact, this would occur in the year 1260. And people needed to prepare.

Why 1260? Well, Revelation 12:1-6 reads: “A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun … and (she) fled into the wilderness … so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.” Yes, it was that simple.

Fiore’s tripartite “tree” (above) is reproduced in all sorts of European programs for world improvement from then on. His approach to history infects almost everything, especially in the 20th Century when technological revolutions make enormous power possible and Eurocentric thinkers believe they can control the world.

  • Hitler’s idea of the Third Reich directly reflects Fiore’s view of history.
  • Marxists look to the withering away of capitalism and a golden age of communism.
  • Jihadists, like Hamas, look to the defeat of infidels and the universal rule of Sharia law.
  • Americans believe dictators will be defeated and they will make the world safe for democracy.
  • Evangelicals look to bring in the second coming of Jesus by making the Gospel available to every people group.
  • I still sing “this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.”

Fiore’s patterns thoroughly infected thinking in Europe long before the 20th century. One example from Paul Ziolo illustrates:

During the 17th and 18th centuries — the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ — thinkers sought to redefine the ‘modern age’ and the core of their legacy is the still-current tendency to dismiss the past as an aberrant prelude to modernity, confining it within the  straitjacket of ‘mainstream’ history teaching — the three epochs, Ancient, Medieval and Modern, with the last held equivalent to Joachim’s Third Status — the Age of Reason now, rather than the Age of the Spirit. For the French philosophes such as Voltaire, Montesquieu and Descartes, reared as they were within the Latin Catholic cultural ‘attractor’ and therefore closer to the psychological roots of the Joachimite program, the viri spirituales that were to supplant the clergy and catalyse the Age of Reason were philosophers. Yet the unconscious ties of these philosophes to their psychoreligious past became clear when Reason ‘herself’ was deified during the French Revolution — as an avatar of that vast, complex and hidden deity that is always the last resort of humanity in psychological crisis – the Great Mother.

Mike Johnson inherited an interesting mix of Joachimite and philosophical/scientific Christianity. He must have heard about the Seven Dispensations in the Bible and seen charts about the 3-7 Biblical Covenants so popular in Protestant churches. They look and feel like variations of Joachim de Fiore’s Three Ages/Status.

What to do with an unsettled age

His law training made Johnson a congenial legal scholar for the law of God, too. In 2002, he left his lawfirm to work with the Alliance Defense Fund, as it was then known. This Christian nonprofit, a conservative answer to the American Civil Liberties Union, has been at the leading edge of litigating high-profile cases contesting protections for abortion, contraception coverage and LGBT rights. His work was energized by miracle. He said, speaking about his father, burned over 80% of his body, “From a young age, I saw that prayer and faith are real, tangible things. I watched God work a miracle and save my father’s life.” That defining experience seems to have provided ongoing motivation to bring about a righteous age.

The rapid changes and troubles in the age of Joachim and Francis are strikingly similar to what Mike Johnson has experienced. Me too. I have a categorically different, Christian response contrary to Johnson’s, but it would be wrong to say I don’t share any of his hope for the age to come or don’t feel an obligation to bring about the fullness of the age of the church.

I am unsettled by the turmoil in the news and even more unsettled when my clients spill it into our sessions. It is tempting to be swept up into the zeitgeist which only needs a match or two to flame into hysterical, apocalyptic reactions similar to other outbursts we can easily see in history. Some of the reactions were astoundingly good, like the Beguine movement of the 13th-16th centuries. Some were horrifying, like Mao Zedong or Pol Pot purging their people to create socialist utopias free of the past. I think the latter kind of movement can be seen in what has been happening in many churches, both left and right leaning, since the pandemic launched the world into hysteria.

When Jesus taught his disciples about the troubles that lay ahead of them and the whole world (Luke 21), he gave them three instructions:

  • Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
  • Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.
  • Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place and to stand before the Son of Man.

My response to my turmoil this morning had a bit to do with the words of Jesus.

  • I took a step back and see the big picture: the transhistorical nature of the Lord’s work in the world which is much bigger than I could fully know. And I looked into the eternity spreading out before me, which is wondrous — right now and forever.
  • Even more, I determined to let my anxieties go for a while and sink into the presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus with me. In that green, leafing space I was reoriented, aware of being healed, and restored to a sense of well-being.
  • I became more awake, shaking off the tiredness that accompanies the constant onslaught of powers too big to control. And I shook off the notion that my time was the most important one and my actions crucial to the world’s survival. I let my trust in God prevail.

I can’t say what happens to you when you pray and meditate, we’re all on our own road, but I became much more ready to love who was in front of me. My wife came back from an early appointment and said, “I am back.” I stopped typing, stood up, embraced her and said, “I love you. Please keep coming back.”

Perhaps Jesus says the same thing, “Please keep coming back.” Please be who you are and do what you can to love what is in front of you, yourself included. That love is always the first step on the road to deeper and farther, especially in times like these.

Biden in Israel: The problem with being the chosen ones

Being chosen is a wonderful thing. The surprising hit show The Chosen films the feeling wonderfully, most of the time. Everyone who finds themselves chosen by God — including Jesus appreciating his own self-awareness, is thrilled with the pleasant absurdity of being noticed, appreciated and singled out. There is a lot of “why me?” voiced, both in joy and suffering. We see that being chosen is an experience, a relational reality, an undeserved grace, love.

When I think about the delight of being chosen I usually go back to having a higher-than-expected rank, at times, when I was picked for a team at recess. Or I remember the evening I asked a  young woman at the jr. high cotillion dance (yes, I did that) to be my partner when she did not feel like she was someone who would be asked. She was surprisingly pleased.

Gideon’s army being reduced. James Tissot.

The “chosen people” in the Bible are having the same experience, as far as I can tell. Sarah is chosen to give birth as an old woman and laughs out loud. Her grandson, Jacob is blessed as the second son and is shocked his elder brother does not try to kill him. Jacob’s son, Joseph, is elevated from an Egyptian prison to the highest ranks of government. Moses is called to lead even though he is a stuttering felon. Gideon is told to make a point by collecting a weaker army which can only succeed by relying on God. David is called from the forgotten outskirts to be king and repeatedly restored from utter failure. Then, of course, there is Jesus, the Chosen One, born in a manger in the Roman Empire backwater Israel still is at the time.

The perversion of being chosen

Then there are the people who apparently missed the main teaching. They are proud of being chosen and do not intend to let anyone take that mark of their value away from them. Jesus tells the Pharisees who are restoring and beefing up their identity as Abraham’s offspring:

“Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Luke 3:8).

After Emperor Constantine co-opts the Church in the 300’s, Jesus followers generally stopped accepting the main teaching and started living in palaces instead of prisons. After Constantine, being a “chosen one” becomes a badge of privilege and entitlement instead of an experience of surprise and undeserved endowment. By the time Europeans divide us all into nationalities and identities, everyone can have a little sense of being chosen over someone else.

Americans, especially the Evangelical portion, have mostly assumed the privileges and responsibilities of being the chosen people. Even Barack Obama made a point to reaffirm  the idea the United States deserves its special place in the world. He, like the rest of us, was taught the U.S., like Israel was given Canaan, was given North America. (Thus we have towns named New Canaan, CT). The myth is, CRT notwithstanding, we kept becoming more deserving of our special place in the world. After WW2 we were chosen to lead the free world. (As if the country had not always had such designs– Thomas Jefferson famously called it an “empire of liberty”). The idea is, the U.S. is chosen to give the world a choice, unfettered by tyrants and tradition. Obama said in his famous “A More Perfect Union” speech,

“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law, it is our willingness to affirm them by our actions.“

He wanted a new kind of exceptionalism, but he did not doubt he is one of the chosen people.

When Biden spoke to the country last week about Israel and Ukraine he asked,

What would happen if we walked away? We are the essential nation… And as I walked through Kyiv with President Zelensky, with air raid sirens sounding in the distance, I felt something I’ve always believed more strongly than ever before: America is a beacon to the world, still, still.

We are, as my friend Madeleine Albright said, the indispensable nation.

The dangers of protecting one’s choseness

Ronald Reagan, of course, was much more directly religious than Obama or Biden about it. He was always quoting John Winthrop calling Massachusetts a “city on a hill”  (as in “the light of the world” in Matt. 5:14). He said it again it in his farewell address (here lovingly augmented with background music by the Reagan Library).

At the same time Reagan was preaching, some Christians were writing books about how proud they were to be part of the chosen American people. When my wife took over directing a bookstore in an Assemblies of God church during the Reagan years, she came upon a big display of The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall Jr., son of the famous Senate Chaplain, Peter Marshall, and the famous author Catherine Marshall. It is arguably the most popular Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written.

If you are looking for a starting point that ends in the Trump cult, peopled greatly by Evangelicals, this engaging book could be it. In the intro, Marshall and his co-author David Manuel summarize their thesis with this rhetorical question:

“Could it be that we Americans, as a people were meant to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32)—a demonstration to the world of how God intended His children to live together under the Lordship of Christ?  Was our vast divergence from this blueprint, after such a promising beginning, the reason why we now seem to be heading into a new dark age?”

Their answer is “Yes!”  And they proceed to make an historical argument that the U. S. came into being as a Christian nation; it had a special calling from God to be a light to the world, and had fallen away from God, forgetting the Lord’s “definite and extremely demanding plan for America.”

These thoughts have been developing since then. When Catholic, Supreme Court “originalists” ask “What would the Founders do?” it becomes a proxy for “What would Jesus do?” Pastors all over the country impute this kind of moral authority where God has not granted it.  That is idolatry. But idolatry or not, many people thought they were taking back the country for God on January 6. I suspect some Representatives think breaking the House is a small price to pray for returning America to its “calling.”

Biden's visit to Israel yields no quick fixes: ANALYSIS - ABC News

Biden and Netanyahu: a meeting of the chosen peoples

Equating the state of Israel and the United States with the Bible’s description of the “chosen people” is not only heretical, it is dangerous.

Nevertheless, the idea is laced into the country’s thinking and maybe yours. Dallas Jenkins, the writer and the director ot The Chosen says, when it came time to give the show a title, he decided on the name because of the term “Chosen One” is used when referring to Christ.

“We look at and use the term for Christ as the ‘Chosen One. ‘ So, it refers to Christ in many ways. The Jews are God’s chosen people. Even as an Evangelical, I believe that. And the people that Christ chose to follow Him and be on his team – as we like to say – it’s a little bit of a nod to that.”

What if you take that farther and apply Israel’s Old Testament, land-based assumptions to preserving a Christian nation-state?

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)

For many Evangelicals, the U.S. is Israel 2.0. The countries are team mates making sure history turns out right.

The state of Israel translates  its choseness as a right to exist, which Hamas decries. Radically religious Israeli settlers are willing to risk their lives to secure Abraham’s patrimony. The mostly-secular states of the U.S. and Israel are absolutely committed to securing the safety of the Jewish state, even though it has a diverse population that includes Palestinian Christians, both in Israel, and the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The religion involved in all this political turmoil is ancient and complex. But the sense of chosenness is clear.  Biden promoted his “arsenal of democracy” as an expression of the obligation of being chosen  in his speech. He spoke of the “iron dome” protecting Israel as if it were sacred.

Reclaim being chosen

Psychologically and spiritually, we need help to be sure we are chosen, which always needs to be metered by our desire for the Chooser. Like with sex, we can settle for pleasure and never make the vulnerable connection of love. Being chosen can stay dangerously superficial, attached to whoever has enough power to protect their special status. But that quest for power never satisfies our desire to feel chosen, which requires an ongoing experience of mutuality. We wake up every day wondering if we are wanted, together, and safe. Against our best interests, we might defend our chosenness against anything that threatens our status, but that usually leaves us alone behind our defenses, insecure about being chosen.

The powers that have corrupted God’s gift of being chosen cause us great misery. I keep pondering the irony of the “great Christian nation” firmly supporting Israel’s recent bombs on the Christians of Palestine. The dissonance flabbergasts a doctor at the only Christian hospital in Gaza, which provided shelter to people until it proved unsafe. [Link in case the embed does not show up]

In the middle of the power struggles of the world the upstart, crowd-funded TV series The Chosen reasserts what it means to be chosen over and over. It is an obscure, overtly Christian show that doesn’t deserve to get made or be popular itself! But there it is. When it depicts Matthew chosen by Jesus to become his disciple (in the following clip), it gives me hope that many, if not most, Christians understand the Bible and feel the truth about being chosen in their very bones.


9 reasons you are such a know-it-all

Someone may have called you a know-it-all – maybe even to your face – and you are considering whether to listen to the criticism. This post might help you.

Or maybe you are tired of co-workers “mansplaining” or tired of “authorities” who enforce household or office rules, or tired of endless arguments about factoids that bore you. This post might help the people you despise.

How would you define a know-it-all?

“Know-it-all” is not a diagnosis from the DSM, but it is probably a defense system someone uses to protect themselves from further harm or uses to regain something that was lost or neglected. If you try hard enough, I think you can probably add “know-it-all” to  descriptions of certain enneagram numbers (they are looking at you, number 1), or to several Myers-Briggs types (watch out NTJs). Regardless, most of us can spot the behavior in others (if not ourselves) when we run into it.

Lenny on the Polar Express

Someone will be correcting what we say (even our memories and feelings), or they will launch into detailed descriptions of their own (or our) history or book plots which only tangentially connect with what we were just saying, or they may appear to know more than everyone about any subject brought up during any meeting. One person complained a co-worker could not resist blurting out “That’s not right” when someone was sharing a thought. They did not blurt back, “Who made you the arbiter?” — but they were blurting in their mind. A person on the search for “rightness” often gets tagged a know-it-all if they always have the correct thing to say.

This “type” of person is so common there is a Wikihow article about them, which is helpful. Eze Sanchez just updated it in May. Here is his intro:

Smarty pants, wise guy, smart aleck – we all know one. Whether at family get-togethers, at the office, or in a social setting, know-it-alls are everywhere and they know everything. Sometimes it is utterly unbearable to spend time with these annoying individuals even if you have tried to engage, endure, or even empathize with them. In the end, it might be best just to avoid them, but if they are friends, family, or coworkers of people you know, it is still possible to come into contact with them. Therefore, you better be prepared to deal with them.

This is not a study or much of a lit review, but I offer nine reasons you might be, or at least come off as, a know-it-all. Eze goes on to be more empathetic after his intro above, and I also want to help us care for people who are messing up social situations or locked in self-destructive patterns they can’t see. Just “avoiding” know-it-alls or “dealing” with them is not good for them psychologically and does not reflect the way of Jesus very well, either. I hope this list will help you see yourself with kindness and also help us see one another with understanding and hope, rather than with more judgment.

9 reasons I am a know-it-all

  1. Knowledge is power and I want to be one up.

I think this is what we usually think about a know-it-all. They are power tripping. They are working on being greater than everyone or they think they already are.

The apostle Paul had a whole faction of know-it-alls spring up in one of the first churches. In his first letter to that church he wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). By his second letter he is saying, “I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. Even if I am untrained in speech, I certainly am not with respect to knowledge; certainly in every way and in all things we have made this evident to you” (2 Cor 11:5-6). The know-it-alls were challenging their teacher!

In the info (and false info) age we live in, everyone thinks they are, can be, or ought to be a Google-aided expert. So life has become an endless argument. We are all know-it-alls in training. For example, Progressive Insurance is filling our football games with commercials about people “going to replay” to verify that they are right.

  1. I am an affirmation pig, since I am, somewhat hopelessly, still trying to get parental approval because I grew up in an affirmation desert.

I think this is much more likely than #1. Being a know-it-all could be a misguided approach to finding soul-food, just repeating a habitual approach that never really worked. If I am smart, I will get praised (for once).

  1. I actually have more knowledge than most people, but I have few social skills. I would like to be an expert for people. I learned stuff, but not how to relate. I might be “on the spectrum.”

Some people are just smarter and many people have worked hard to learn stuff. They might be bursting with it (ask any dissertation writer). Respecting them might be appropriate.

But some otherwise smart people might be less smart about how to present what they know. An Asperger’s/HFA mom wrote on a forum:

I can become hyper focused on topics and want to know as much as possible about them so that they, too, become part of my mental algorithm for connecting dots. I retain a lot of the info and am able to think about possible solutions to problems that others seem to either miss, or just don’t research enough to see. I try to impart topics to people in an attempt to help them (oh you have dry eyes- get your zinc levels tested) but it’s about 50/50 whether it’s received well, or taken negatively as if I’m trying to demean them with some perceived superior intelligence.

  1. Looking like I am smart is a façade to mask my insecurity. I don’t trust you to love the real me.

A lot of us reading this probably have this wound, which leads us to think we should be competing with the other know-it-alls for some kind of recognition that validates the persona we use to protect our vulnerability.

Married couples run into this when they are longing for intimacy. One person in counseling, who admitted they are something of a know-it-all, frankly said, “I married a know it all, so ‘active listening’ does not work well. We both have too many corrections and ‘but whats’ to get in there.”

  1. Performing knowledge tricks is the main way I have gotten attention my whole life. I had to compete.

This is a lot like 2 and 4, it just focuses on how we train children to feel attended to. Most of our training comes from a school of some kind. “One achieves what one measures” is a Western culture proverb. We measure the intellectual development of children and they are good at figuring that out. They may keep achieving smartness at your Thanksgiving dinner to get attention.

  1. I have no reflection time. I am mostly making up things as I go along. So anything you bring up I expand on as I am incorporating it. I might be dyslexic or a verbal processor.

A lot of people get their view of self by grazing in social situations, they never eat a home-cooked meal. They might not be correcting you when they are chewing on what you just said as much as spitting it back out as if they thought it in the first place. This might irritate you if they don’t “quote” you, but it could be taken as a back-handed compliment.

During neurodiversity week this year a dyslexic woman said, “My dyslexia has given me more strengths than weaknesses. My ability to read people’s emotions and situations extremely well means nothing can get past me, and I always know when to ask someone what’s up.” She may have trouble reading a book and having an inner dialogue about it, but she may be able to read you and quickly use what you say.

  1. I have to be right or I will go to hell. And I have to make you right or you might go there, as well.

Everyone who latches on to some kind of fundamentalism, religious or not, thinks what they know is salvation for themselves or others. Sharing their knowledge (or imposing it) seems like a gift to humanity. This reflects #3 in the sense they may actually have knowledge others need or should want. But it could also reflects any of the other numbers, only the truth behind it is subsumed under a religious or social justice rubric.

  1. I learned it was unwise to trust others, so I try not to need anyone. I know it all to be self- sufficient. And I don’t care what others think because they are untrustworthy.

Jada Pinkett was on the Today Show last week marketing her new memoir when she revealed she and Will Smith have been unofficially divorced since 2016. She said, “Why it fractured…that — that’s a lot of things … By the time we got to 2016, we were just exhausted with trying. I think we were both kind of just still stuck in our fantasy of what we thought the other person should be.” A know-it-all might be consigned to their own sense of truth and justice because they only feel safe alone. Kelly Clarkson sang about it once. It hurts to feel disdained. But before you take on a know-it-all’s scorn, you might want to see if you should feel sorry for how alone thye are.

  1. I am isolated because everyone else is a jerk. I project my own inner critic on others. It is especially hard to go to class or church because the leaders always have a flaw.

This is similar to the previous idea only the energy is going out, not in. A know-it-all might not think they are smarter than you, you are just receiving the knife edge of their projected self-loathing. They may see themselves as radically flawed or were taught to see themselves that way. It is so intolerable, they have to project the criticism on someone else. Any imperfection is fair game for them. I hope they are not reviewing your play or restaurant!

After collecting aspects of the common label: “know-it-all,” it seems like a less-than-useful description, doesn’t it? We’re all rather complex. So reducing our irritating behaviors into a single label might be the height of know-it-allism! Most of the time, what irritates us about others is also in us. But even if people are lost in their ignorance, malice or power hunger, a sympathetic, curious and life-affirming (but appropriately boundaried) realtionship with them will do more for the world than more judgment, cancelling and fearful self-protection.

Why can’t I receive a compliment?

You’re heading back to your desk after grabbing some coffee when your boss walks by and compliments your work on a project. “Great job on that report,” she says. “I especially liked the way you formatted those graphs. They’re so easy to understand.”

What’s your first reaction?

  • You take yourself down (lest some unknown watcher might):“Ha ha, sometimes I get the job done.”
  • You parry it (like in fencing) as if it might wound you: “No, no, this was all you!” (Like a Musketeer? “Non. Non. c’était tout toi! Touche!”) “It wouldn’t have been possible without your guidance!”
  • You throw out a squirrel: *awkward smile* “So … um, did you see the game lastThe Dog From Up Squirrel GIFs | Tenor night?”
  • You depreciate in front of their eyes: “It was nothing, just doing my job.”
  • You deflect on someone or something nearby: “It was really a team effort.”
  • You convince them they are wrong about you and their impressions are faulty: “I really don’t think I did a good job, here’s why…”

Do any of these responses feel familiar to you?

A lot of us just can’t take a compliment. Not long ago I complimented a client after hearing a story about their success. They applied almost all the reactions above, but I stood my ground until they had to suffer a moment of praise penetration. In a study of more than 400 people, Christopher Littlefield found nearly 70% of them associated feelings of embarrassment or discomfort with recognition or receiving a compliment. [Thanks Dr. Littlefield for the general outline of this post].

I think a lot of our discomfort has to do with our “view of self.” Some people would attribute it to “low self-esteem.” But it might be more complicated than that. Before we lament our low opinion of ourselves too much and bring it even lower, we might consider that an even more immediate response to a compliment might be surprise. You might squirm simply because you were caught off guard

In their book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected,  Tania Luna and LeeAnne Renninger define surprise as “an event or observation that is either unexpected (I didn’t see that coming!) or misexpected (That’s not what I thought was going to happen).” They expand their definition into a “surprise sequence,” riffing on the themes of evolutionary psychology. They suggest an unexpected situation — whether it is a pleasant compliment you weren’t prepared to receive or a bear you encounter while walking in the woods — triggers the same prehistoric sequences in our modern brains.

The authors can track four stages in this surprise sequence:

1. We momentarily freeze
2. We latch onto an explanation for what is happening

If we learn something, we can move on into:

3. We realign our perspective
4. We share what is happening with someone else

If you’ve ever been given a surprise party, your first response may not have been “Oh! How wonderful!” The intensity of the moment probably put you right into Stage 1: Freeze. That’s why people say “You about gave me a heart attack!” right after we pop out from behind the couches. Tania Luna explains, “Intense emotional experience can feel uncomfortable and destabilizing. And, as a result, some of us may want to shut it down so we can feel stable and get comfortable again.” So blurting out one of the awkward responses above may be our unconscious way of trying to regain control in what feels like an emotionally vulnerable situation.

After the initial surprise, we start to look for answers in Stage 2. What caused this feeling? When we discover “Oh. They appreciate what I did.” That reality may bump into our usual way of seeing ourselves, which is less positive. The collision can feel jarring. As a music performer and sermonizer, I have had a lot of experience with someone’s praise bumping into my self-criticism. At one point early on I wanted to stop singing altogether because I could not stand the dissonance.

The interplay of surprise and self-image can make it harder to process the nice things we hear about ourselves. I have had many clients tell me something like “I fear if I let in a compliment, and feel good about it, and then end up disappointing others or myself in the future, I risk taking a bigger bite out of my self-esteem.” We’re clever when it comes to self-protection. Sometimes so clever we can’t get complimented!

These psychological triggers are compounded when they are overlaid with some of the debilitating theology which is unfortunately quite common. Many church leaders have been overly successful in convincing people they are sinful, or even totally depraved. If you compliment a Christian they might say, “Not me, it was Jesus.” Or “I’m just a clay vessel in the Lord’s hands.” Or you tell them “Good job!” They say, “Glory to God!” Humility is important. But not having the humility to receive the love of someone else is not what the Bible teaches. It is also humble to accept the idea that if God is at work in you, you must be something praiseworthy. The good you do is not an anomaly or an opportunity for an object lesson, it is you being alive in the Spirit.

Compliments can trigger joy instead of anxiety

The last two stages of the surprise sequence mirror what the Bible has taught us about praise for generations. Walter Brueggemann developed a helpful way to categorize psalms, which are all about praise,  so we could use them in normal life. They meet us in one of three places:

  • A place of orientation. Things are normal and they make sense. (Like you are just sitting at your desk doing your work.)
  • A place of disorientation, in which we feel disrupted, attacked, even brought low. The boss comes up and wants to talk to you (“Am I going to get fired?”) and he compliments you (“Is she crazy?” Am I crazy?”)
  • A place of reorientation in which we realize God has lifted us up and we are full or awareness and gratitude. (“Well, OK! I guess I can do something. I make a difference!”)

The third stage of the authors “surprise sequence” is about reorienting. When we find an explanation for the compliment, we can shift our perspective. If we are porous enough, we can fit the new information into how we usually see ourselves. With a little practice, we can expect the unexpected!

The Psalmists effected Stage 4 by writing a Psalm we are still sharing with them! If you share what has happened to you with someone who can listen, that may help you with the integration process. Such changes take practice and time.

Here are three starting points for reorienting how you receive compliments.

Don’t steal the compliment

When a person recognizes you, don’t immediately steal their praise and lock it up in you view-of-self vault. It is their compliment and they are sharing it with you. You may have done everything last minute, lost a whole page of your speech, or burned the French fries. That’s OK. They are talking about what they experienced, not what you did.

I gave up on not receiving praise when an accompanist  skipped an entire staph of a familiar wedding song during the ceremony, but the show had to go on. Someone came up to me afterward and said, “I’ve never heard that song performed that way. I loved it.” I said, “Thanks a lot.” I’m still experiencing the dissonance, but I’m also still receiving their compliment.

Some unexpected

Prep your vulnerability rather than it prepping you

Maybe “expect the unexpected” should be one of your proverbs. Especially if you follow Jesus, you know that much more than you can imagine or control is going to happen. You might get complimented and not immediately know how to respond! Get ready for that.

Luna and Renninger recommend thinking of your vulnerability not as a weakness but as openness. Praise doesn’t always need to feel unexpected or scary. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to connect with someone else, or learn how others experience you or your work.

When someone praises you, you could have a prepared response ready to go, like, “That’s so nice I hardly know what to say!” Before long you might fee less anxiety and relate to compliments as nice surprises.

Explore how you formed your view of self

Many of our knee-jerk reactions to compliments are learned behaviors. Our reactions are often influenced by what we see, observe, and experience from those around us. For instance, if your parents responded to recognition by making jokes, praising God, or diverting others’ compliments, you may find yourself doing the same. Similarly, if you witnessed classmates being made fun of or excluded after receiving positive recognition (like being called a “suck up”), you may unconsciously avoid similar situations out of fear the same might happen to you.

Below is a series of Littlefield’s questions to help us dig deeper and explore why compliments may make us uncomfortable — extra praise for jotting down your answers on paper so you can see them better!

1) In your culture or faith, what were you taught was the appropriate way to respond to praise? Was it to just say thank you, praise God, or divert the compliment with your eyes down? None of these responses are wrong, just observe what you were taught and how it impacts how you respond today. 

2) How abundant or scarce was praise or acknowledgment in your childhood? If you got an A on a test, would people be excited for you? Or would they ask why you didn’t get an A+? How did that make you feel? How do you think that may impact your experience of recognition as an adult?

3) What are the unspoken rules about recognition in your home? Was it something like, “In my house, if you are not being told you’re doing something wrong, you’re doing it right. But don’t expect to be complimented.” How about your house? Did your family have any unspoken rules around praise and acknowledgment when you were growing up?

4) When you were growing up, did people around you regularly use praise inauthentically? Would people use flattery right before asking for something? Would teachers regularly praise one student to make others feel jealous? Would your parents praise people to their faces, and then gossip about them after they left? If you ever find that you doubt the authenticity of people’s compliments, this may be why.

5) Can you think of any incidents from your past, maybe in school or with family, when you were (or were not) recognized that made you uncomfortable? Did you grow up hearing statements like, “It’s not that big a deal,” or, “Don’t let it get to your head?” Reflecting on those experiences, how do you think those incidents impacted your current experience? As a more self-aware adult, how might you reframe those incidents to update your past experience, and thus, your current one?

We can learn to slow down conditioned responses and let ourselves feel gratitude. Just as any other behavior change, learning to take a compliment well starts with self-awareness — hopefully you have been gaining more of that for the past few minutes. The more aware we become of our feeling/thought patterns and how they impact us, the more we can choose how to respond to them and build new patterns.

In my house, I spent a lot of time trying to please my overly-critical parents. When I did something I knew to be praiseworthy, I remember my mother noticing and say, “I think someone needs to take you down a few pegs.” I did not know what that meant for sure, but I could feel being taken down. I am still leery of letting my flag fly too high. But I am not so fearful that I would run away from writing this blog post and telling you the story! Besides, Jesus loves me as I am right now and the ultimate surprise I am expecting is just how good my destiny is going to feel.