Category Archives: Psychological growth

Wrangling about law when “nothing is written”

One of my favorite scenes in the masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, shows what happens after Lawrence returns from his journey across the Nefud desert. He has just accomplished the impossible by taking the Ottoman port of Aqaba from the desert side.  Having returned across the deadly, scorching expanse, he is told one of his companions, Gasim, fell off his camel and was left behind. He is advised any attempt to save him is futile — Gasim’s death is “written.”

Lawrence goes into the desert to find Gasim.  I give you the long version of the scene of his return just to celebrate the cinematography and score. It is worth your four minutes just to watch David Lean humanize the abstraction of sand and sky.

Later on that night, after Lawrence has rehydrated and awakened in time for dinner, Sherrif Ali, in all humility, says, “Truly, for some men nothing is written unless they write it.”

I think it is safe to say Lawrence was teaching Ali to think, “Everyone decides their own fate. No one’s destiny is predetermined.” And “I’ll be damned if I let that man die.” I hesitate to disagree with Hollywood, but Lawrence is wrong even if he is brave. I don’t think it is “me, or us, against the world.” If nothing is “written” it is not because men rule  the world, but because  the world is alive with the Spirit of its Creator and is growing in grace (or in spite of it). We should be beyond arguing about what is merely written by now. But we wrangle.

Daily Mail captures Johnson at the courthouse

The fight for what is written

Last week the spectacle of Trump in court continued, with Mike Johnson, himself, attending in order to subvert the gag order (possibly in the name of Jesus), with Matt Gaetz tweeting in the ex-president’s honor, “Standing back and standing by, Mr. President.” For those guys “nothing is written until they write it,” for sure, as far as I can see.

For the prosecutors who dare to bring Trump to trial, “It is written, in the law. And no one is above it.” The law is god in a pluralisitc democracy and the prosecutors want it known the assaulters are crashing up against the stone of the legal code.

We’re having a national crisis about the law. But all those Christians involved in this battle should remember that law is just a tutor (disciplinarian, guardian, etc.) to teach us how to exercise our freedom to live in grace. Isn’t that the clear New Testament teaching? Subvert the law or apply it, it can’t kill you or save you, at least not forever.

The temptation to fight for or against what is written is everywhere, it seems.

  • Right now, many people are so afraid, they are reverting to certainty and order. Jesus Collective devolved into a teaching platform instead the catalyst for a movement. They may have fallen off their camel in the desert.
  • My former denomination has vainly tried to quash a book people have written about their experiences of being LGBTQ in their branch of the Church, cast out, and abused by what someone said was “written.” This contrary book was written by people who refused to leave someone in the desert, refused to be confined to principles imposed in the 1600’s.
  • My HOA leaders keep trying to shore up what went wrong with the past management of our old building instead of starting here and now and working together for the future. Like I said last time, someone threatened a lawsuit because of some words thrown their way! There are many lawyers scheming away.
  • My church splendidly presents ancient humans with lovely words each week and performs classic chants with great voices and instruments. They are heirs of someone else’s invention instead of inventing like the heirs we are. I think we may love being ruled by the liturgical rules.

You have your own examples, I’m sure. I think I am effectively tired, again, of everyone who teaches, “It is written.” I’m a Jesus follower, so I am mainly talking about church leaders, pulpiteers and dueling factions splitting up the Methodist Church, etc., who are wrangling over words, litigating righteousness constantly, sometimes like Trump, sometimes like the  prosecutors, but rarely in grace.

Don’t we resist bad teachers intuitively?

That is a wishful question, of course, since we follow tracks that are bad for us all the time. We believe the voices in our head defending us against what we thought might kill us as a child! We all have our own laws we follow. But don’t most of us also have an operable b.s. detector?

If we connect with Jesus at all, the Holy Spirit will be helping us detect what might really kill us.  The main way God does that is to bear witness in our own hearts, souls, minds and strengths that we are God’s adopted children in Jesus.

We tend to settle for much less than that wondrous place in the world. Nevertheless, I think we all know about it at some level. I think I felt the following truth before I read it in the Bible when I was seventeen for the first time, as a relatively aware adult:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption [into the full legal standing as an heir]. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs: heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if we in fact suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. — Romans 8:14-17 (NRSVUE)

I’ABBA, FATHER! – The Place of Praiseve always resisted the heresy of power-hungry men saying they love the Bible and then undermining the fundamental truth Paul taught. Nothing in the New Testament was written about how we should live  which was not first written by the Spirit witnessing to us, just like God taught Paul. Our organic relationship with our loving-parent-of-a-God is the central example Jesus wants to demonstrate. We’re not an application of principle, nothing is merely “written;” the Spirit is writing. We’re not unforgiveable, merely the sum of what we can make of ourselves, we’re all imminent miracles.

I have to admit, I’ve got that power-hunger in me, too. I also often feel I, alone, must solve the problems I face. We were talking in a meeting of psychotherapists not long ago about clients who struggle so hard with their view of themselves, views that have a repeating narrative, something “written,” making ruts in their brains.   They come up against certain situations and a voice comes from nowhere, it seems. It could insist, “We never cause conflict. It is deadly.” Or worse, “You are unlovable. Don’t bother.” You probably have stories that repeat in you, too.

Yet In the surprisingly psychologically-sound Romans 8 (only surprising to people who think humanity has progressed until they and their pleasant splendor is possible), we are reminded, or promised, what every one who shares Christ’s death and resurrection knows. Nothing is “written,” at least not in stone. Everything is a new creation in Jesus. We’re changing and growing in grace. The Spirit of God is creating us right now and we’re creating right alongside.

Guilt: How it starves our true selves

To begin this meditation on guilt, I want to confess one of my guilty pleasures. I was (OK, still am) a John Denver fan. No, I did not think he was cool, and yes, he can still make me cringe at times. But his clear, sharp tenor often often gave melody to the best of the idealistic 1970’s and 80’s. Those were years when I also expessed some of my loftiest ideals (often in song!). Like Denver, I hoped to be accepted but sometimes I was scorned.

A hunger guiltfest

I was looking through old pictures from that era as I prepared them for digitizing and ran across one from an event for the youth group we called “The Planned Famine.” Our intentional community was devoted to living simply and sharing our resources so others could live. Many of us led the youth group so we spread our convictions into the church, as well. For instance, as part of our Famine, we charged the parents and other adults  for a “Third World Dinner,” which did not go over well with some of them who got nothing and “starved.” Even today I would remind them that getting aced out of food isn’t pleasing to the 783 million hungry people in the world right now, either.  (Here are some Mormons doing the same idea we had 25 years later).

Our theme song for the 30-hour, overnite “famine” was John Denver’s “I Want to Live.” He wrote it as a potential theme song for President Carter’s Commission on world Hunger. Here he is singing it.

A lot of the dinner and the overniter was, unfortunately, about our guilt. Not the good guilt of admitting a sin against God and our true selves, but guilt before what we should have been or guilt about what others think and say about us (or might), or guilt  about our lack of laudable courage and deficit of shining character (at least compared to others). When John Denver sang, we felt ashamed of ourselves and the earth for letting people starve. Some of us became hunger warriors. Most of us just became better educated about more things to avoid.

Life under criticism and contempt

There is some room for the shame we felt, but not in the way we often feel it. When  criticism leads to guilt and contempt leads to shame, we often defend against those awful feelings with only the tools psychology offers us. They aren’t bad tools, they just aren’t up to the full task we need to complete.  Paul Tournier says,

Freud reveals to us all that remains infantile and regressive in us, our fear of life and of responsibilities, our longing for a refuge in maternal consolation. We are all children, and we feel guilty at being so lacking in courage, in virility, in adulthood. C.G. Jung widens these notions by talking of integration and by depicting [humanity’s] destiny as the acceptance of all that is within [each of us]. — (Guilt and Grace p. 54)

We cannot blame our lingering unease with ourselves on psychology alone because Christianity has specialized in guilt. It has often been better at crushing people than fulfilling its promise to set them free. Instead of surpassing Freud’s “becoming adult” and Jung’s “integration,” Christians often  criticize one another’s behavior and pour contempt on people who threaten or offend them. Maybe you don’t do that, but the church of the last decade in the U.S. has become even more famous for it.

We pour guilt on ourselves, too, even if other don’t induce it. Instead of glorying in our weakness, as the Apostle Paul insists we should, so God’s power for transformation can break into us and break out, we feel guilty that our weakness makes us powerless. We can’t do what we are meant to do. Our fear of failing at our responsibilities has made us ineffective rulers of ever-diminishing zones of personal control. We have shriveled under the comparison with others, using the whole internet to demonstrate how incapable we are of measuring up. And we may also protect others from having their own struggle with guilt by suggesting they should not be so proud as to think their desires to live are relevant or warranted, just like ours aren’t.

Baby humpback finding her wings off Maui

Leaping from the dark

When we played John Denver’s song during the Planned Famine, we had a slide show to go with it. We needed to turn up the volume of the song enough to overcome the distracting squeal and click of slides moving around their carousel. The faces of child after child came on the screen from around the world, some happy, many starving, some dying. John sang for them,

I want to live I want to grow
I want to see I want to know
I want to share what I can give
I want to be I want to live

And then he changed to the hopeful imagery of animals marine ecologists were just coming to understand.

Have you gazed out on the ocean,
Seen the breaching of a whale?

We put up a beautiful slide of a whale leaping out of the depths. I vividly remember the small, involuntary gasp it aroused in me, “I want to do that.”

I want to do it because Freud is right. We are all children singing, “I want to live.” I want to leap because Jung is right. From the depths of the great ocean of the unconscious self, even the collective unconscious, if you like, our true selves are coming up to the surface for air. If we get out of the way, they might leap into the sky with joy.

It takes some courage to leap, to suck in clear air. It takes some effort to be real, to swim free in the ocean of grace in which we live. If we dive in and leap out, we know our previous methods of self-preservation will need to die. We know we will have to admit we cannot effectively avoid all the things that cause us to condemn ourselves: our lack of genuine relationships with mates and friends, our resistance to admitting our faults, our willingness to avoid responsibility, our lack of forgiveness, lack of solidarity with our struggling acquaintances and loved ones, our unfaithfulness to God and others. We will have to see how we flee, fight, and freeze because fear rules us.

Tournier, again says

To be faithful to oneself would mean to always be like oneself in all circumstances, in the presence of any interlocutor. We remain silent in turn about either our deepest convictions or the doubts which inevitably arise concerning them. We hide our feelings, or else we show them to be more ardent than they really are. To be faithful to oneself would mean to be natural, spontaneous, fearless of the opinions of others. (p. 57)

I think we all feel a calling to be faithful to our truest selves, perhaps from our first cry after leaving the womb. We want to live. I think we can at least imagine how God called us into being and can hear at least a faint voice encouraging us to live, full and free, embodying everything we’ve been given to be and do. I wish for you a moment of joy today when you dare to breach the surface. May your unique, childlike, fully-welcomed desires and fully-honored genius be well-fed and lively.

The impact of siblings: Five things you are probably sharing

There I am with my sibs, dressed to impess at the Grand Canyon.

I might have just learned the legendary tales I heard about my behavior at the Grand Canyon, or I actually formed some of my earliest memories on that trip when I was 3 1/2  years old. It might be the latter because I remember loving that cowboy hat I’m wearing in the picture. My oldest brother bought it for me with his own money! I also remember getting home with it and securing it in my toy box/treasure chest by stuffing it in and sitting on the lid. Maybe I just remember the trauma of my brother’s fury when he found out I’d ruined it. Or maybe  I’m remembering the verse my older brothers added the song they wrote about my shameful exploits (yes, that really happened), which I can still sing. For good and ill, my siblings made a difference.

Siblings finally found their place within the last twenty years as one of the main influences that make us who we are. They are kind of at the end of a list of understandings about human development that kept growing. The list is someting like this. We’re born with certain traits, as any parent can tell you. We’re shaped by our early experiences with our parents and other caregivers, especially mom. Our genes help define us. Our socioeconomic environment shapes us. Our the race and other labels pasted on us force us into molds. And then, the researchers finally started talking about our siblings. They may influence us more than we think! Much of this post aligns with an early proponent of their importance: Jeffrey Kluger in his 2006 book, The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us.  [And an NPR story, of course].

Family systems used to be of primary importance

Before Europe became overly individualistic and spawned the epitome of it’s philosophy: the United States, our membership in a family, our relationships with parents and siblings, was the primary way we were identified.

The two Testaments of the Bible demonstrate the primacy of family by placing one at the center of the story: that of Moses and Jesus.

  • In Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam, brother and sister, are among those named as opposing Moses’ leadership. (In Exodus, they are at his right hand, but some say they could also be construed to be members of his clan, not siblings).
  • Jesus’s siblings go with him to the wedding at Cana (John 2). Later they seek an audience with him (Matt. 12, Mk. 3, Luke 8). They ask him to prove his messiahship (John 7). They are among those waiting for Pentecost in Acts 1. His brother James leads the Jersualem church, and with another brother, Jude, writes part of the New Testament Canon. (Some say these were older step-siblings from Joseph’s first marriage. Some claim they were cousins. Some say Mary had one child and was, in the flesh, a perpetual vigin, or why was she left in the care of John?).

The plain reading of the Bible reinforces what most people in history have seen as obvious: families are central to life. That assumption still holds, although it is less relevant than it used to be. Nevertheless, Harry and Megan can scandalize the world by breaking from the royal family. Trump’s and Biden’s children are central to the drama that surrounds them. If your parents are still with us, one of their friends probably got the report on how you are doing this week. I’ve already reported to two of my friends and it is just Thursday, as I write. Everyone, including me, cares about the family.

The researchers validate our siblings still matter

By this time, we might all resent how social scientists keep discovering what everyone already knew. They seem to think nothing is true until they prove it with a peer reviewed research project. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how their data leads them to think our siblings have made much more difference in our lives than they are usually credited.

From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our scolds, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counselors, sources of envy, objects of pride. At our Easter brunch I overheard one older sib instructing the much younger grandchild how to behave for most of the afternoon.

  • They teach us how to resolve conflicts and how not to.
  • They show us how to conduct friendships and when to walk away from them.
  • Sisters teach brothers about the mysteries of girls; brothers teach sisters about the puzzle of boys.
  • They steer us into risky behavior or away from it. They make us brave or fearful.
  • They form a protective buffer against family upheaval and sometimes cause it.
  • They compete for family recognition and come to terms–or blows–over such impossibly charged issues as parental favoritism.
  • Whether they love and accept us or not is huge.
  • Whether they stick with us or not could prove life-saving or deadly.

Our spouses arrive comparatively late in our lives; our parents eventually leave us. Our siblings may be the only people we’ll ever know who truly qualify as partners for life. “Siblings,” says family sociologist Katherine Conger of UC Davis, “are with us for the whole journey.”

5 enduring impacts of sibling relationships

Not appreciating being dethroned by my one-year-old sister
The fighting is useful

My younger sister and I tied jump ropes around the necks of our teddy bears and engaged in  hysterical aerial combat. But I don’t remember having many fights with her directly, even though we shared a room  for probably too long. We still feel close even though we rarely see each other.

With our older brothers it was another story. To hear us tell it, we lived in a constant state of preparedness for the next attack. They were five and seven years older than me. So you can call me a “lost middle child” or the firstborn of the second family. The year I was born, our family moved to a new home in another city which my dad helped build with his own hands. My sister and I were part of that new beginning and probably responsible, as far as our brothers were concerned, for what they lost. Neither of us were welcome in the world of my older brothers. I spent quite a bit of time locked in a bathroom for fear of them, or locked in a closet because of them, or hiding under a bed. I had to be fast on my feet or my very accurate brother could nail me in the back with a green walnut.

“In general,” says psychologist Daniel Shaw of the University of Pittsburgh, “parents serve the same big-picture role as doctors on grand rounds. Siblings are like the nurses on the ward. They’re there every day.” All that proximity breeds an awful lot of intimacy–and an awful lot of friction. Being “stuck” with the involuntary relationships we have with sibs develops certain skills that can prove useful later in life.

Laurie Kramer, professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has found that, on average, sibs between 3 and 7 years old engage in some kind of conflict 3.5 times an hour. Kids in the 2-to-4 age group top out at 6.3–or more than one clash every 10 minutes, according to a Canadian study. “Getting along with a sister or brother,” Kramer says dryly, “can be a frustrating experience.” But think of all the lessons you learned about how to deal with future difficult people! You might want to take a minute and jot down how you learned to deal with conflict in your family, you are probably still acting out the same pattern, perhaps unconsciously.

Favoritism leaves a lasting  impression

I think I was about 50 years old when my sister stated what she thought was obvious, “You were the favorite.” Plus, “Mom and Dad did not cross you. When you were away on a foreign exchange trip, all hell broke loose.”  I was flabbergasted. I thought I was just an oddball. I did not feel special, just overly criticized. But her revelation did explain the car I did not have to pay for (like my older brothers had to), the clothes I had, and my father’s habit of zeroing his binoculars in on me alone at every football game.

At first, kids appear to adapt well to the disparity in their household and often learn to game the system, flipping blatant favoritism back to their shared advantage. They’ll say to one another, “Why don’t you ask Mom if we can go to the mall because she never says no to you. ” I am evidence of that finding.

But at a deeper level, second-tier children may pay a price. “They tend to be sadder and have more self-esteem questions,” Conger says. “They feel like they’re not as worthy, and they’re trying to figure out why.” Some of them feel a deep guilt for causing problems or shame for being such an imposition; they can feel like “No one wants me” when they see how their sibling is wanted.

If this does not seem to register with you, you might try thinking again. In the workplace, employees often instinctively know which person to send into the lion’s den of the corner office with a risky proposal or a bit of bad news. What’s more, it is really no coincidence when you feel that old, adolescent envy after that same colleague emerges with the proposal approved and the boss’s affirmation. I think a lot of people have been cancelled in the past couple of years because they are the favorite and someone needs to be scapegoated to expiate leftover sibling rivalry.

It is also true when you experienced those old feelings you pulled up the knowledge you gained back in the family room — the smartest strategy is not to compete for approval but to strike a partnership with the favorite and spin the situation to benefit yourself as well. Such an idea did not come from nowhere — you learned by relating to your siblings. Maybe you learned it on the playground, in the extended familiy or in the neighborhood. But if you had a sibling, the pattern was probably part of the mimetic experience we all have with them. Would you like to take a few seconds to remember where you landed in the order of things in your family? Naming your place or your role might help you not to mindlessly repeat it in your present circumstances.

 The role modeling works for good or ill

I set myself apart from my family in many ways (or as my sister might say, “I was set apart”). For one thing, like I said, I became a Christian. I also did a lot of reading, unlike the rest, got educated and, unlike my father, I did not smoke.

Smoking is one of those things researchers have studied in relation to role modeling among siblings. Joseph Rodgers, a psychologist at the University of Oklahoma, published a study of more than 9,500 young smokers. He found that while older brothers and sisters often introduce younger ones to the habit, the closer they are in age, the more likely the younger one is to resist. Apparently, their proximity in years has already made them too similar. One conspicuous way for a baby brother to set himself apart is to look at the older sibling’s smoking habits and then do the opposite. We might emulate a good trait, even idolize an attractive older sibling. Or we might differentiate from a negative trait or devalue an ill-behaved sibling. Either way, we learn.

You would think that siblings raised by the same parents in relatively stable enironments would be very similar. But my four children have all found their way to be distinct. They are all curious and read, they all make good rational arguments, they are all forthright, and they all share a similar moral compass. They all have a strong streak of faith and feel obliged to do good in the world. But the second did not follow the lead of the first and the last two who are twins can still conjur up their personal universe. The oldest and youngest vie to be the role model. The middle two tend to ignore them.

If you have/had older siblings what did you emulate? How did they influence? What did they instill in you? Celebrate it or finally let it go! If you have/had younger siblings, what did you do to them? How did their competition motivate you? Enjoy your role, or maybe apologize for it!

Having an other-gendered sibling makes a difference.

I spent an inordinate amount of time making designer clothes for baby dolls out of old socks on rainy days. My sister was available to me and I was often the only playmate available to her. Plus, we enjoyed a rather imaginative play-world. Such time spent made me a more approachable high schooler. My home was pretty dominated my testosterone, so being on my sister’s side gave me a different look at the other half of humanity.

Brothers and sisters can be fierce de-identifiers. In a study of adolescent boys and girls in central Pennsylvania in families with male and female siblings, the boys unsurprisingly scored higher in such traits as independence and competitiveness while girls did better in empathic characteristics like sensitivity and helpfulness. What was less expected is that when kids grow up with an opposite-sex sibling, such exposure doesn’t temper gender-linked traits but accentuates them. Both boys and girls hew closer still to gender stereotype and even seek friends who conform to those norms. “It’s known as niche picking,” says Kimberly Updegraff, a professor of family and human development at Arizona State University and the person who conducted the study. “By having a sibling who is one way, you strive to be different.”

As kids get older, the distance from the other gender tends to close. At that point, children with opposite-sex siblings have a relational advantage. William Ickes, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, published a study in which he paired up male and female students who had both grown up with an opposite-sex sibling — and set them up for a chat. Then he questioned them about how the conversation went. In general, boys with older sisters or girls with older brothers were less fumbling at getting things going and kept the exchange flowing much more naturally. “The guys who had older sisters had more involving interactions and were liked significantly more by their new female acquaintances,” says Ickes. “Women with older brothers were more likely to strike up a conversation with the male stranger and to smile at him more than he smiled at her.”

How did your sister or brother impact how you see yourself and your gender? Do you see any evidence of how they prepared you for future relationships? Do you need to process or let go of any abuses you endured?

Singing for the folks at their 50th
The ties bind

I think my siblings feel an affinity, a tie that somewhat binds. I suspect if I needed something, they would want to help me. But as a foursome, we are not too bound. The older two have a rift going that has kept them from even speaking for many years. My sister is most in touch and I try to keep up. But none of them are likely to call me or visit. So I think we feel the bind but it does not have a lot of force. It is possible, when a family system has a habit of cutting people off, everyone learns that trait. My mother’s three sisters had one whose husband cut her off. On my father’s side there is a brother who cut himself off. My sibs may feel like going it alone is normal.

More typical than in my family, the powerful connection siblings form becomes even more important as the inevitable illnesses or and losses of late life lead us to lean on the people we’ve known the longest. It is typical for siblings who have drifted apart in their middle years to drift back together as they age. “The relationship is especially strong between sisters,” who are more likely to be predeceased by their spouses than brothers are, says Judy Dunn, a developmental psychologist at London’s Kings College. “When asked what contributes to the importance of the relationship now, they say it’s the shared early childhood experiences, which cast a long shadow for all of us.”

While sibling relationships, of all relationships, may have an “inevitability” to them, it is still true that all relationships take willing partners. Love is not just a concept, it is a lived experience. So even the closest ties can fray and the loosest ones can be re-tied. (Watch The Miracle Club on Netflix right now). Inactive or not, our life experiences with siblings have shaped us and the ongoing feelings of conection and loss, the lessons learned, the wounds yet to heal and the unique joys and triumphs experienced continue to have a force for good and ill. In an age which deludes people into thinking they can or must go it alone, it is important to note the impact of the siblings who travel with us in our deepest memories and feeling patterns. For a minute, maybe you should mourn the loss of the siblings you have lost, acknowledge the value of those you have, maybe let go of the pains, and contact your sibling(s) if it is safe to do so. Their existence mattered and matters. You matter to them, too, one way or another.

Emergent identities: The queer future of the church, too

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https://twitter.com/markyarhouse

At the recent CAPS conference in Atlanta, Mark Yarhouse and friends again brought me up-to-date on the quickly developing gender/sexual identity landscape. Their workshop centered on three things: a 2019 book by Rob Cover, the re-examination of their own data, and their practical experience with young people and parents navigating the new queer world on the internet. It was enlightening to explore emergent identities with them.

Emergent identities

Cover’s book, Emergent Identities: New Sexualities, Genders and Relationships in a Digital Era shows how traditional, binary understandings of sexuality and gender are being challenged and overridden by a taxonomy of non-binary, fluid classifications and descriptors.

He explores how and why traditional masculine/feminine and hetero/homo dichotomies are quickly being replaced with identity labels such as heteroflexible, bigender, non-binary, asexual, sapiosexual, demisexual, ciswoman and transcurious. New ways of perceiving relationships, attraction and desire are contesting authorized, institutional knowledge on gender and sexuality. The digital world in which young people have grown up has played a central role in developing new approaches to identity, individuality, creativity, media, healthcare and social belonging.

Two charts from the presentation show how descriptions of gender and sexual identity have changed since the 1990’s. The “residual” are vestiges of the past terms still in use. The “dominant” are terms widely accepted and presently in use. The “emergent” terms are those rapidly replacing the dominant understandings. If you have a teenager in your life, they might be able to teach you a few things about the emergent terms personally, since they are likely being asked (or pressured) to adopt a way to describe who they are using one of many new “micro-minoritized” identity labels. My seatmate suggested “micro-marginalized” might be better. I came away preferring invited to the “queer smorgasbord.”

The Church is notorious for being at least 20 years behind the dominant culture’s debates about the society being constructed. There are some good reasons for this; the best being that the church sees itself as a dominant culture for its members with an historical and eternal worldview. The worst reason being that the church only listens to itself and is defensive of its power to use words to dominate its population.

The church has been having a fight about “homosexual lifestyles” since the 1990’s and churches are still breaking up over it. Christians in Congress are trying to turn the tide back to some imagined past. The pandemic unleashed a wave of division over racial inequity in the Church (which made sense to me), but those concerns were often supplanted by sexual identity issues. My own former church basically dissolved itself over arguments from which the culture was quickly moving away.

I don’t know if I prefer the chaos and hyper-individuality of the new era dawning. I doubt that 14-year olds can adopt an “authentic” identity in order to find themselves. And I am afraid tender hearts and minds may perform gender and sexual identity and end up with even more doubt and a tragic sense of being alone with an overwhelming, over-scrutinized landscape. I texted my son while I was in the session and said, “Right now I am listening about asexual demiboys.” He replied, “People failing to overcome their anxiety and trusting a pornography-filled society.” He might be right.

Regardless, I think I prefer the “queer” worldview that is emerging. It may never become dominant, but it provides a helpful corrective to the “born that way”/this-or-that views of the past. It is a great gift from the LGBTQ community. Even without a queer theory to describe a common sense approach, my acquaintances and clients would show how gender and sexual identity are much more fluid than us older people were taught. We may have felt that in our own souls and accepted it in others, but we would not have talked about it because we’d be in an argument. Nevertheless, I know more than one man with a wife and children who decided he was gay and left it all behind. I know of a twentysomething transwoman who decided, after a few years, she preferred presenting as male after all. I know a man who left his wife to marry a lesbian who left her partner. If they dare, many straight friends can recount their various gay or lesbian experiences. Life has always been a bit “queer.”

Philosophers with a “queer theory” are talking about more than gender and sexual identity, even if that is where they personally begin. The Q in LGBTQ is becoming an umbrella idea under which the dominant and emerging “letters” find shelter. Even more, “queer” is a lens through which academics and others can approach their disciplines with greater imagination, seeing “outside the box” as so many entrepreneurs like to do. Queer is the anti-binary worldview.

Innately queer grace

As I look back on my work in the church, a lot of what I was thinking could be called “queer.” In terms of sexual identity, I resisted forcing people to choose according to  a church policy. I did not win that fight, even though I asked Janelle Paris to introduce us to her book The End of Sexual Identity in 2012. When we finally offered a “policy,” it had a queerness, a both/andness, which did not satisfy everyone, but it allowed for people to find their own ways and stay in grace. I’m not sure we knew what we were talking about, but it was in line with the zeitgeist. That alignment ultimately did not last either, like I mentioned, but I still think it was more about the future than what people fought about.

The church could use a big dose of queering. The biggest reason might be so it can have any hope of listening and speaking to the next generation. Some healthy queering would help theology emerge from its captivity to Eurocentric, Enlightenment/binary, cis-male domination. It would also let the Bible be as honest as it is about humanity, including sexual expression. When it comes to sexual relationships, the Bible is rather queer: there are polygamists, eunuchs for Christ and almost no nuclear families. While there is an assumption a man and woman should covenant and make a family, it seems like there is a lot of room for people who don’t do that (like Jesus!) and lots of room for love that goes beyond whatever the present boundaries might suggest. I wouldn’t put the Bible under the “queer” umbrella, but I do think queer fits easily under the umbrella of grace.

 

Arelational: To not wear the label, try this exercise

“Arelational” is a new word that keeps popping up. It had to be coined to describe the kind of environments in which Americans, in particular, increasingly live. Such environments  develop individuals who struggle to make and nurture relationships. As a result, labellers can label them: arelational.

It's official: We stare at our phone more than we stare at our TV

It takes relationships to flourish

Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been investigating what makes people flourish. The original participants and their descendants have provided the longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever accomplished. The answer to their original question is simple but profound. The way to flourish is to have good relationships. The only thing you have to do is nurture them.

The latest director of the study and his associate recently wrote a book to expand on this simple truth. In a teaser article in The Atlantic they explain why their conclusion is not just painfully obvious.

Turn your mind for a moment to a friend or family member you cherish but don’t spend as much time with as you would like. This needn’t be your most significant relationship, just someone who makes you feel energized when you’re with them, and whom you’d like to see more regularly.

How often do you see that person? Every day? Once a month? Once a year? Do the math and project how many hours annually you spend with them. Write this number down and hang on to it.

For us, Bob and Marc, though we work closely together and meet every week by phone or video call, we see each other in person for only a total of about two days (48 hours) every year.

How does this add up for the coming years? Bob is 71 years old. Marc is 60. Let’s be (very) generous and say we will both be around to celebrate Bob’s 100th birthday. At two days a year for 29 years, that’s 58 days that we have left to spend together in our lifetimes.

Fifty-eight out of 10,585 days.

Their conclusion is: that’s not too many days to commit to such an important relationship.

Did you make a list of your closest relationships and do the math? It may be a little terrifying to get serious about that subject. It can seem a little daunting to make and keep a friend, but it is one of those things about which we say, “No pain, no gain” and, “It’s worth it.”

Our arelational environments

Bringing this subject up feels dangerous to me. I’m afraid it will wound people further where they are hurting the most. Since the pandemic I have heard story after story of broken relationships which have not been recovered. The British government recently, and famously, created the loneliness ministry and sociologists keep writing articles about how loneliness is literally sickening and killing people.

As psychological researchers begin to explore what has happened to therapy clients, a new literature and new words are emerging to describe what is going on. A few weeks ago an acquaintance used a new word his therapist had given him: “arelational.” The therapist was helping him to see the environment in which he grew up and the institutions that he inhabited in a new light. They were filled with important relationships in which people did not fully connect and change each other. The effects of these environments dramatically impacted his marriage, where he was mainly insisting on a transactional relationship based on mutual benefit.

If you Google “arelational” you won’t find too much. Google will just send you to “relational” (and Word is trying to spellcheck me right now). But it seems like a good word to describe how thin our relational ties are these days. Many of us spend weeks in arelationality. Some of us don’t even go to stores for transactions but rely on contactless transactions to keep fed — we are becoming accustomed to arelationality.

Google did take me to the “Relationality Lab,” however. It was founded after the pandemic in response to the “global loneliness crisis,” the threat to democracies, and the failures of justice movements to address climate change and systemic inequity effectively. I like their logo at the left.  In one of their research articles, they use the word “arelational” as if it were in common use. The founder is talking to corporate and governmental settings, where he wants to make the most difference. But I think the word applies to most contexts where we will spend most of our time today. The “Lab” workers say:

Some environments are better at generating and maintaining relationships than others. A community that trusts one another gathering to share a meal is more relational than, say, Twitter. In a relational environment new connections are effortless, conflicts resolve in generative ways, and creative power is unleashed. In an arelational environment all of these things can still happen, but they are a lot harder and a lot less likely.

Creating and maintaining relational environments requires a particular kind of skilled labor. People with this skill can see where powerful relationships could exist and create the conditions to let them emerge. They can see where important relationships are at risk, and provide the care necessary for them to keep them resilient. Relational work might look like planning events and facilitating workshops, or it might look like cooking someone their favorite meal when they are sick. Though relational work often manifests as acts of care, it is the deep understanding behind those acts that makes it effective.

Imagine an elder who is part of a multi-general community that provides meaningful care and support. Now imagine the same elder in a corporate chain of senior homes which provide care based on a uniform set of policies. Both provide care, the care in the senior home may be better resourced and more technologically sophisticated, but the community is providing significantly more relational work.

Effective relational work requires a deep understanding of the local environment and a mind capable of seeing how relationships might change within it. A software platform, even one with the most sophisticated machine learning tools, cannot perform this work (though it might support those performing it), nor can one person perform it meaningfully for a community of thousands. Relational work requires many humans working at a human scale who are accountable to the communities they serve.

When I resigned my last pastoral assignment in August of 2020, one of my exhortations to the staff for which I worked was something like this: “If you love one another, you have a chance to survive. If you don’t, the church will fall apart.” Unfortunately, a small group of leaders took over the system and installed justice in place of love (maybe unwittingly, since I doubt they thought the two did not go together). A relational system had been holding the church together for decades. An arelational system quickly reduced it to nothing. The “deep understanding” went missing. Such stories are not unusual these days.

An exercise to help nurture relationships

Are you still thinking about your own deepest relationships and how you are nurturing them? Your personal health and the health of the systems we inhabit depends on them. If we teach our children the “deep understanding,” they will also be able to see how strong relationships are the glue of everything.

The kids might be hearing more about dissociation from TikTok, or societal meltdown from a news source, or broken relationships from Olivia Rodrigo. Or they might hear more about keeping a safe distance from germ carriers, or avoiding sexual predators and malignant  narcissists, or hiding from gun-toting radicals or anyone who takes more than they give. If we demonstrate a relational way to see the world, they might learn not to be arelational.

The Holy Spirit will probably teach you to be relational, in line with who you were created to be: a person born and reborn in love. That’s the deepest understanding.

But in honor of the researchers who are discovering  deep understanding by crunching numbers and seeing what helps people flourish and what helps people groups cohere and change, lets makes that list.

Be generous when you list the people who you love, or who give you life, or to whom you feel closest (not necessarily the ideal relationships you want). Spouses and families count, but stretch out beyond them. Try to get beyond twenty people. To do that you will be including acquaintances with whom you have some sense of mutual care, or even acquaintances you would like to see develop into caregivers. Your list might get to 50 or more!

Then rank them in terms of closeness. You could make four columns.

  • Close: The closest few (you can decide what defines close).
  • Near: The friends and neighbors on whom you could rely in some way, large or small. “Your people.”
  • Acquainted: The acquaintances for whom you have affection for or affinity with but have limited interaction with (likely from work or church or other groups)
  • Known: The acquaintances with whom you feel some connection but who are not “in” relationship with you.

If you follow Jesus, you’ll see how he could have made this list. Ask him to walk you through yours and show you what it means and what you might do about it with his help.

Even if you don’t have the help of Jesus, you can nurture relationships, increase your well-being, and keep your society from falling apart. Like the Harvard studies keep proving, it will take nurturing, which requires effort. Relationships often start like they just “happened.” But they don’t last if you expect them to just keep happening to you. They have to be built and maintained. You may not have the tools to do that work, so you will need to acquire them. There is substantial opposition to relationships these days (screens, capitalism, hedge funds, addiction, you name it) so you’ll have to be stubborn about nurturing and hold on to your deep understanding.

I’m going to avoid thinking about effecting a glorious endpoint full of great relationships and concentrate on taking the next step. I’m going to try making a chart and tracking how much contact I am making with all those people on my list. I am not going to track how much effort they are making with me (unless I am being weirdly and harmfully codependent). I am just going to make sure I am doing what I can to keep from sliding into arelationality.

Grief: Make room to grieve in every way you need

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

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

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

You can see grief behind the meanness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe we need grieving room

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

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

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

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

The Bubble

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

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

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

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

Jesus in the dust with us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inevitable loss and glory

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

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

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

Yet in the next letter he says,

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

Death and glory travel together.

Lessons from Judith Viorst

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

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

That we love and we hate the same person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it disobedient to be afraid? (2012)

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

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

Rhyolite bank building

What are you afraid of?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can mere humans do to me?

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a fearless human somewhere?

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

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

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

After all, Isaiah says:

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

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

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

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

We have a lot to be afraid of

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

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

Meet God in the night

Everyone read this if you can:

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

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

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

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

Trust in the touch

Let’s all read this in a mysterious whisper:

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

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

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

Take a step

Let’s have a woman be Moses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The basic motivation that keeps us going.

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

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

8 Reasons Why You Feel Unmotivated – Psych2Go

Why are we unmotivated?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What fuels lack of motivation?

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

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

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

Why are some people unmotivated?

They are addicted.

Addiction colonizes motivation (“colonises” for Brits).

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

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

They are trapped

They feel like they can’t change.

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

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

They have been or are being abused

The terrible past is present.

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

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

They are immature

They missed a developmental onramp.

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

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

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

The basic motivation

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

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

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

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

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

Better to feel it like the Psalmist:

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

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

Top Ten Posts of 2023

2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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