Category Archives: Spiritual direction

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

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

I’m like a frog in the world’s pot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilgrim or tourist?

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

50 on May 2

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

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

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

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

A long obedience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lifelong apprenticeship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patiently keep faith

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

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

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

Not uncommon

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

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

Picture yourself at 50 (or 80)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Your worth: Check your attachment style before you decide

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

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

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

Your attachment style matters

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

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

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

Your view of yourself may cloud your view of God

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

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

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

The Bible’s view of our worth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eternal: What does the word mean to you?

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

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

Does Jesus mean what I think he does?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming and Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your sadness: You may have laughed to keep from crying

The discipline season of Lent is a lot of things to a lot of Jesus followers; that’s how it should be, there are a lot of us. But one thing it is for me, and I know for many others this year: it is sad. I’m grieving my personal losses, but we are all grieving societal losses: 955,000 Covid-19 deaths – a death for every 33 U.S. citizens, two lost years, the lack of accountability for the attack in which Breonna Taylor was killed, the madness in Ukraine, the lack of climate action; it all goes on. I keep Kasey Musgraves close at hand, but it sure feels like it is going to keep raining.

Often used to scorn, not for real feelings

It is not unusual for one of my clients to tell a very sad story with a stone-faced look. I often tell someone, “That story makes me very sad. How about you?” We often discover their sadness has been put away in some far corner of their unconscious because they have never trusted anyone enough to tell the story. Or very early on in their lives, they gave up on sadness because it was useless to feel it. One said, “I did not learn to trust and they did not learn to teach me.” Two said in one week, “I learned to laugh to keep from crying.”

“I had to laugh to keep from crying.”

My prototypical Oklahoma peasant, racist of a father used that phrase as a proverb during my youth. He did not cry much and neither did I. So I can relate to my clients who might not be well equipped to recognize sadness, even if it could manage to get through their defenses against being overwhelmed by it. Oddly enough, but not so odd Heather McGhee can’t name it in her amazing book, my poor father was a strange bedfellow with Tyler Perry’s economically oppressed family, who also used the phrase so much he could turn it into a play. A lot of us laugh to keep from crying.

If you are doing that laughing on purpose, like I think Perry is doing, it might be a good discipline. Laughter is good medicine. If you are laughing, or amusing yourself to death, because you are terrified of feelings that might overwhelm you, then Lent might be a good time to be sad for as long as you need to be, sad until you have passed through it. If you aren’t the sad you are, you might become depressed until you let it pass through.

As with so many human experiences, someone studied how we inappropriately laugh, or display other unexpected behaviors, when we are overwhelmed with emotions. The scientist told the Atlantic author “If you get into a very high or very low emotion that you’re almost to the point of being overwhelmed, you become incapacitated so you can’t function well.” Your emotional regulator will kick in because, “Emotional homeostasis is important for people so they can be in control of their cognitive, social, and psychological functions.”

We laugh to keep from crying because feeling and expressing the overwhelming sadness is too much. We also laugh to moderate our nervous feelings and cry to tone down our ecstasy. A big laugh (or punching the wall) is also a social signal we’re over our limit and need something to stop.

How about an honestly sad Lent?

Many Catholics are still hanging on to Lent as a season of mortification to purify themselves of earthly desires so they can be more like who they think Jesus is (at least these people are). Traditionally, that means mourning the death of Jesus and the sin that killed him. That’s why there were ashes last Wednesday and people are “fasting”  chocolate, or “giving up” things they love but don’t need (don’t give up water). Lent can be like a spiritual boot camp with Jesus in the wilderness. Like I said, there are a lot of variations. I am a long-time practitioner of Lent, to very good ends.

Abraham, Sarah & the Three Strangers, Psalter of St. Louis, Paris, c.1253-70

This year for Lent,  I am disciplining myself in some typical ways but I am also following the example of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Specifically, I am remembering when God called her out for disguising her despair with a secret laugh. There is an amazing little story about her in the Bible. Three strangers come to Abraham’s compound and he welcomes them as “the Lord.” Many interpreters see this as a rare Old Testament revelation of the Trinity. But I am more interested in Sarah hiding in the tent, listening in, than I am in philosophizing.

The Lord appeared to Abraham at the sacred trees of Mamre. As Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent during the hottest part of the day, he looked up and saw three men standing there. As soon as he saw them, he ran out to meet them. Bowing down with his face touching the ground, he said, “Sirs, please do not pass by my home without stopping; I am here to serve you. Let me bring some water for you to wash your feet; you can rest here beneath this tree. I will also bring a bit of food; it will give you strength to continue your journey. You have honored me by coming to my home, so let me serve you.”

They replied, “Thank you; we accept.”

Abraham hurried into the tent and said to Sarah, “Quick, take a sack of your best flour, and bake some bread.” Then he ran to the herd and picked out a calf that was tender and fat, and gave it to a servant, who hurried to get it ready. He took some cream, some milk, and the meat, and set the food before the men. There under the tree he served them himself, and they ate.

Then they asked him, “Where is your wife Sarah?”

“She is there in the tent,” he answered.

One of them said, “Nine months from now I will come back, and your wife Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was behind him, at the door of the tent, listening. Abraham and Sarah were very old, and Sarah had stopped having her monthly periods. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Now that I am old and worn out, can I still enjoy sex? And besides, my husband is old too.”

Then the Lord asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Can I really have a child when I am so old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? As I said, nine months from now I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”

Because Sarah was afraid, she denied it. “I didn’t laugh,” she said.

“Yes, you did,” he replied. “You laughed.” — Genesis 18:1-15 GNT

I can relate to Sarah laughing about having a child. Gwen and I will surely not be having one unless God visits us! Even more, I can relate to her laughing “to herself” as part of the internal dialogue she was having about what was happening outside the tent.

When the three strangers arrived, she was an old woman who never had a child. She was supposed to produce an heir to be the favored wife she was. There was no son. Her sadness about her infertility had long ago turned to shame, I think. She probably laughed at herself in the way she suspected other people scorned her. She probably tried not to feel sorry for herself the way she did not want others to pity her, because then the sorrow she carried alone would be out in the conversation, not hiding in the tent.

I think when the Lord asked Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh?” she was still lurking inside. She only came out to defend herself, “I didn’t laugh (I only did it in my head).” But the Lord looked her in the eye and said, “Yes you did. You laughed.” He could have added, “You laughed to keep from crying.”

I am going to try not to laugh off Lent, although I admit I have been trying to keep from crying a bit, so far. I’m writing this because I think you might want to consider what you are doing, too. Lent is not for being sad just because we’re supposed to be sad. It is not a yearly revival of unexperienced guilt, unless you need that. It is certainly not a fast to hollow us out when we already feel hollowed out, unless you need that, of course. It is not for laughing at the fundamentalists, or the superstitious, or oppressed, who tend to do Lent big. It is certainly not a time for the present, popular derision for Lent-observers from people trying to experience their Nietzchean self-creation in spite of “God” — so don’t drink that poison.

I think Lent is a time to open up, however we need to, in order to welcome the risen Jesus — as surely as God came to visit Abraham and Sarah that day. Lent is the story of the crucified and risen Jesus in my own back yard. With Sarah’s help, I am noticing how God zeroed in on the person in the scene who was hidden in the tent with her secret sadness. I suspect the Lord is searching for you, too. That might make you laugh.

I’m uncomfortable being sad. But I have to note that it is the very sad Sarah who receives a miracle baby. It is a truly sad world that will kill the miracle Baby Jesus who then rises as the Lord to visit us again and again. On this year’s Lenten visit, the Lord comes to my sad country, which tried to deny the pandemic and almost a million have died. This time, the Lord comes to the sad me and the possibly sad you, maybe the sad baby you. In that fertile place the seed of resurrection is planted.

Breathe it in: Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

One of my clients became so anxious they could not drive to work. We began collecting tools to put in their “go bag” when they felt the symptoms of panic rising up in their body. One tool was simply being aware of their breathing. Turning our attention to the rhythm of our breathing almost always settles us down. If we can concentrate on nothing else but the movement of air going in and out of our nose, moving way down to the deep parts of our lungs and out again slowly, our heart rate is likely to go down and the adrenaline will recede. This kind of disciplined breathing works well with several of my dear, anxious clients.

Click the pic and buy them at Etsy!

Others, and this might be you, never get into it. When elementary school teachers ask their classes to do a breathing exercise, quite a few kids just might refuse or might feel unable. Calmness can feel like a straight jacket to people used to chaos. Being told to “calm down!” often ramps up people who lust for freedom. If you are accustomed to controlling things with aggression or being controlled by it, a breathing exercise might seem unbearably passive. Terrified people in Ukraine would think more clearly if they at least “took a deep breath.” But I suspect a lot of them won’t ever think of doing that.

How is it with you? Most people who read this blog are Jesus followers to some degree. Does the breathing that brings peace to your body also bring peace to your soul?

Breathing is a basic way we connect with God

I think attending to how we breath should be elemental to how we go about our day. Especially if you are a Jesus follower, you should see breathing as a basic way you connect to God. You’ll remember how Jesus, after he rose from death, surprised his anxious and grieving disciples when they were locked away for fear:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. — John 20:19-22

Jesus breathed his Spirit on them. I don’t think they imagined that happening before it happened. You might not know what to expect before you attend to the possibility that Jesus might breathe on you and you breathe him in!

Breathing is not just a way to calm down, it is a way to commune. For me, the communion starts with turning away from what preoccupies me, like climate change, relationship issues, or that unattached anxiety and attending to what is happening in my body and soul in this very moment.

There are many ways to learn to breathe

Many people around the world know a lot about how such disciplined breathing works. I began to think about breathing by Googling “breathing” (of course). Sure enough, this is what came up.

We’re all about breathing exercises these days. Somehow, we all got stuck on the left-side of our brain, for the most part, and are terribly inept at basic human functions, like having a holistic view of what is happening at any given moment. We need to learn about breathing, live in the present, and settle down. All sorts of people are teaching us. You can get apps to help. [Here is an exercise I have used: Anxiety: A letting go exercise with Jesus].

[I did not snip off that last Google entry because I was so happy to discover a foundation based in Elkins Park devoted to helping people get through their cancer treatments. These folks raise money and offer other support to give victims some “breathing room” during one of the most anxiety-provoking experiences we can have. Look them up, they might encourage you.]

I find apps to be distracting, so I still use books, which I find a lot less controlling. I have been slowly working my way through Soulful Spirituality by David Benner (when I am not mastering Wordle and other apps :)). He offers another example of how many people know about the basic spiritual discipline of turning into our breath, which many Christians think sounds kind of “new agey.”

Benner had an opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time with a Taoist professor in China who used attention to his breath as a central feature of his mediation. He writes:

I was struck by how important paying attention to his breath was to his practice. More striking was his surprise that I, as a Christian, did not make this a central part of my own spiritual practice. He asked, “Am I not right that Christians understand their origins to lie in the infusion of divine breath into the dust of the earth?” I assured him that was correct. “And,” he continued, “am I not right that you understand each breath to be a gift from God?” Again, I said he was. “And,” he pushed on, “am I not right that you understand that the Spirit of God is with you, moment by moment breath by breath?” Again I agreed. “Then how can you fail to see,” he asked, “the immense spiritual value in attending to those moment-by-moment expressions of the presence of God?” I was convinced, and soon found ways to make this a regular part of my own practice.

Disciplined breathing may already be part of your practice and this post feels like a Taoist professor assuming you are stupid. I’m mainly talking to Jesus followers who carry a principle of faith in their brains somewhere and have very little expression of it in their bodies. You might not have any kind of prayer happening every day, much less moment by moment! Like Benner discovered, Christians may believe Jesus breathed on his first disciples, but they have yet to open up to breathing in the reality of that themselves — as in  right now.

Prayerfully making each breath an act of drawing God in and breathing God out onto the world is an ancient Christian practice. I go with my ancestors who call it “breath communion.” [Try this recent liturgy]. Just as Jesus followers open themselves to God through eating the bread and drinking from the cup during our special meal, so each breath provides an opportunity to receive the Spirit.

When I attend to my own breath, and attend to the breath of God moving in and out of my body, nourishing me with life from my toes to my heart to my brain and on into eternity, I not only settle down and become grateful to be alive, I make space to be aware of God and my true self. I relate Spirit to spirit, Savior to saved. Parent to child, Creator to creature. From that place of peace I will find whatever resources I dare to bring to the work of making peace.

The church in the rearview mirror

I went on retreat last week because my class required it. I wanted to go, theoretically, but I had a lot of natural resistance born of the grief I bear over the loss of my community. I’m glad I went. No matter how many times I experience it, it is always a wonder to feel the ocean of grace in which we swim when life is feeling dry.

If you are grieving (and what Covid-experiencing person is not?) or depressed, or in some other state of mental illness (which is the broad plain on which we all stand right now), you probably feel some resistance to doing what is good for you, too. Like someone texts and asks, “You want to get a drink?” You look at your sweats and reply, “Don’t think so. Early day tomorrow.” Then you sit back down on the couch and wonder, “Why did I do that?” Maybe you call them back. Maybe you get another bowl of ice cream. It is resistance. I had some.

My retreat view

Nevertheless, there I was in Brigantine looking up the beach to Atlantic City from the 7th floor of that weird resort that sticks out like a sore thumb. I love to walk on the beach, so I did. I don’t usually walk with headphones in like everyone else, but I did. I don’t know why I retain the Dave Crowder Band in my iTunes worship playlist, but there he was:

He is jealous for me;
loves like a hurricane. I am a tree
bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory.
And I realize just how beautiful You are
and how great Your affections are for me.

And oh, how He loves us so.
Oh, how He loves us,
how He loves us so!

I sang on the deserted beach, “You love me. Oh, how you love me.” And tears surprised me. I needed to remember. I needed to keep walking, with my afflictions eclipsed by glory.

Don’t hold on to the church that was

I’ve been having a tough time living outside of community for over a year, now. I don’t really move on. I retain a sense of belonging to all the places I have been before. I’ve always left them with a blessing and mutual care. Not this time.

As I read through my journal from the last three months, I came across a moment when I was quite low and felt drawn to sit in the chair before my icon wall and see if they said anything to me. There was Mary Magdalene kneeling before Jesus outside the tomb. He told her, and he told me, not to hold on to him.

This exchange between Mary and Jesus always says a lot. That’s why it became a well-known icon. This time I heard it revealing how Mary is holding on to this splendid moment. Jesus tells her, “There is more to come. Go tell people it is coming.” More specifically to me, I heard. “Don’t hang on to the Jesus that was – as wonderful as that experience was. There is more to come for you and them.” I have been waiting in the upper room, more like wandering in my wilderness. And the time has come.

I finally needed to see my old church in the rearview mirror. I don’t mean like the Meatloaf song, exactly. But I’m sure you’re missing him, too. I mean I had to finally admit the old church is gone (which is fine, things grow and change) and the new church does not want me there. Actually, the email the Leadership Team sent to me had a policy statement for former pastors attached which said something like, “Here’s how you do not exist here for another year and then we can negotiate your return.”

Time to move on

Miller with his workbook

Even though I have this big feeling that bothers me, when I look at the road ahead, as short as my road may be, I know there is an awful lot of beautiful scenery coming. Last week I had two experiences that made the way clearer. I got officially shipped out by my former leaders and I picked up Donald Miller’s book A Hero on a Journey.

I did not like Blue Like Jazz (Miller’s best seller). As it turns out, he also doesn’t like it that much anymore. I’m not super jazzed by his new book either. But he doesn’t think it needs to be perfect. He’s changing. I’m changing. And I am surprised he is helping me.  One of my clients is reading the book, so I thought I’d check it out. Among the many good things Miller does as he channels Victor Frankel, Jesus, and any number of entrepreneur gurus, is to remind me that meaningful lives happen when you are going somewhere you want to go and you name it.

That’s how Circle of Hope got going. It was all about being the church for the next generation. I wanted to go there. I hope that is where it is going now. I may not know much about that because I think people aren’t supposed to talk to me. But I’ve decided to keep going and I trust they will, too. We’ll all meet up again someday. Jesus is still walking beside me, but right now he’s like one of those companions whose step is always a bit ahead of yours. They are with you, but they know the way. As a result, new things happen. Here I am writing memoir style like Miller, assuming you’ll benefit. Here I am looking into what is next, knowing Jesus knows the way just as he has always demonstrated. Who knows what could happen?

This leg of my journey is starting out like the Gotye song that interested me so much in 2013 (and has interested 1.5 billion viewers on YouTube since). There has been a lot of cutting off since 2013 (and remember it’s counterpart “ghosting?”). I got a four-page policy statement detailing how they would “treat me like a stranger.” And yes, “That feels so rough.” It’s a loss. Telling a bit of the story feels like a good way to get moving.

As influential people pushed me toward the edge, I started noticing how many people out there are in the same boat — out to sea in an ocean of pandemic and institutional crises. I had wanted to prevent such disaster in my church with my elaborate transition strategy. But that didn’t pan out. (I’m from The Golden State). I can accept that fact. We are all moving on. Jesus is excellent at finding a new way.

Turn into the wind

I can’t imagine myself living outside the church in the future. I’ve never been outside of community like I am, for now. After I got the email it was final. I wrote them back and wished them well. And I definitely meant that – I love those people and I love their church. Jesus is walking beside them this very moment. Who knows what could happen? I suggested they call me up (or text, of course), now that they have me situated.

Whatever good things I am finding as I hit the road, it is still hard to see that church, the old one and the new one, in the rearview mirror.

And yet it is shockingly easy to turn into the sea breeze and find myself singing

You love like a hurricane. I am a tree
bending beneath the weight of your wind and mercy.
Oh, how you love me!

Write your own psalm: Another integrative way to pray

Matthew Birch on Dribble

An effective way to develop, if you are able to write, is to write. Writing is another integrative activity that helps us deepen psychologically and spiritually. It takes strength and mind to pick up a writing utensil or sit down at the keyboard and express ourselves. If turned the right direction, writing expresses heart and soul in a way that makes our feelings and our spiritual experiences more tangible and more connective. If you are interested in loving the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, then it makes sense to take out the headphones or put down the remote and write.

I know that last line sounds accusatory, so please forgive me if you must. But we have to acknowledge that what used to be simple is getting harder for lack of use. It feels hard, even weird, to write. Writers write and we consume their product. But we don’t write back. Someone told me last week that their family member wouldn’t even text back to a family group text! — writing is too something for them. Our capacity is being reduced by the technologies we use and the slave masters behind them. So writing has become an exercise in nonconformity or rebellion — if we aren’t too dulled or afraid to do it.

I suppose I am innately rebellious, but I mostly use writing to keep open to God. For me, writing is about opening things up, exploring things, revealing things, and receiving things of the Spirit. Receiving things is what I mainly want to talk about today. I was reading Teresa Blythe’s very practical book 50 Ways to Pray and she started by suggesting we use writing to pray. Other Jesus followers have written wonderful things, the New Testament being primary, and you could exercise the same Spirit and intention those writers exercised by writing yourself! Let’s try that.

Create your own psalm

One of the ways Blythe suggested praying was to write your own psalm. She offered an exercise to help us create one. This appealed to me because I have been writing pslams, with my dear wife, for many years. Most Sundays we get up and write a psalm. Then we share it with each other and pray together. If I am not with her for some reason, I do it anyway. It is a good way for me to pray. There is so much heart, soul, mind and strength involved in that loving, open receptive act! I would have a terrible time parting with the discipline.

This past week I was reflecting on songs that had moved me and sustained me in my grieving. I wrote this final stanza to my psalm:

I thank you that Spring
will be right on time again,
and though my sprouts
will never be the same,
they will, in time, sprout again.
Parents, grandparents,
and so many have died,
my past is gone
and soon go will I.
Maybe they are waiting,
I will then know, in the place
where the lost things go.

When I feel a bit lost,
lose things, lose thoughts,
I delight in your touch.
A whiff of music scents my soul
And pulls my attention
like Spring in the air.
I turn into it expectantly
and meet you there.

My psalm is not high art, even after I have fixed it up a little from my original.  I never meant to show it to you, anyway. Most psalms are not written for public use; they are a way to connect with God, a way to open up, to use some strength on behalf of what’s happening inside, to get it out, to get it heard. Writing a psalm is much more like your baby or your dog, for that matter, making sure you know it is time for dinner than it is about doing good art. It’s following an urge. Besides, God’s great art is you. When we function spirit to Spirit with him, she sees a piece of art in action. A beautiful rendition of your best is frosting, but everything you do with heart, soul, mind, and strength is cake.

My wife can write a nice psalm that reflects the basic structure of the Bible psalms, which tend to repeat thoughts rather than sounds to make a lyric. Lots of people have written about how they work. Here’s a little article.  Robert Alter wrote his great work on the Psalms; I have poured over it to good end. Walter Brueggemann wrote one of my favorite books about how the Bible psalms work. But Teresa Blythe is not suggesting a prayer pursuit that feels like what scholars do. She just wants us to practice getting our heart and soul through the blockade of our minds and expressed with our strength. Writing a psalm is good practice for a life full of that love. She says “It doesn’t matter whether you think of yourself as a writer or not. This is heartfelt communication, not an exercise in pretty writing.”

The Bible’s collection of Psalms reflects the thoughts of the collectors at the time. There were undoubtedly more psalms and there is demonstrably more poetry in the Bible that might qualify as a psalm. All of it can serve as inspiration for your psalm, if you need some. Blythe made a list of psalms you can go to if you feel a certain way and want to express it,  or need to be seen as feeling  a certain way and are looking for a response. Of course, no psalm was written topically, like “I am going to write a psalm about joy.” They are all pretty organic, not abstract. But many are well known for the parts of them that always resonate. I edited Blythe’s list a bit for you:

I feel or want this positive experience. “I’m happy.”

  • Joy – 11, 18, 23, 27, 33, 84, 87, 103, 112, 122, 150
  • Peace, — 23, 63, 103
  • Love – 33, 62, 99, 103, 104, 139, 145
  • Gratitude – 30, 32 65, 75, 77, 103, 118, 136

I feel or want relief from this negative experience. “I’m needy.”

  • Fear – 86, 130, 131
  • Anger – 55, 58, 94
  • Threatened – 17, 26, 35, 69, 141
  • Distressed – 29, 42, 44, 71, 88, 109, 113
  • Sick – 22, 37, 72
  • Uncertain – 25, 37, 72
  • Oppressed – 26, 52, 114
  • Guilty – 39, 51

You could take one of these Psalms and use it as a form for yours. It may have been based on something else, itself! You could re-write it in your own words and tilt it towards your own purpose. I’ve done this many times and it is always a good exercise – as long as it doesn’t turn into to a poem critique like in English class! Using a well-known psalm as a base is a good way for me not to worry about form and content and let a person guide me to my own expression.

You could sit back and let your greatest desire, feeling or conundrum (as of today) rise up and come into focus and then write a psalm that expresses it.

  • I want to feel_____.
  • I want help with ________.
  • I think of myself as (ungrateful, over-certain, flawed, etc.).
  • I appreciate this about my relationship with God
  • I am puzzled or distressed about this in my relationship with God.

Those are just suggestions. Let it flow and see where you end up. God is with you as you use your strength to be with God.

David Composing the Psalms, Paris Psalter, 10th century

When you are done you could put your psalm in your drawer or notebook for future reference. You might pass this way again! You may not want your stuff laying around, so you might not keep it at all. Maybe you want to share your psalm – but that is hardly required. Think of all the people who wrote psalms, just like King David (St. Patrick, too), sitting out on a rock with the sheep, and never got one of them into the Bible or a blog post! They were just doing it.

The main challenge with any kind of development, is to overcome our resistance and do something. When we get out of ourselves and enter the space between us and God, the Lord meets us in many ways. As simple an act as writing a psalm — getting the feeling and thought out of our hearts and minds and onto the paper, is one of many ways to move into the space between. It is a good way to pray. Give it a try!

“How I Got Over:” Mahalia Jackson helps us do 2022

Singing is one of the most integrative activities we can do. It uses heart, soul, mind and strength to express our desire and open us to receive good things from God and others. When we sing in a group (and we will again, some day) it is often a unitive experience. So let’s sing with Mahalia Jackson . I think she can help with 2022.

When Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 in the category of “Early Influences,” even their watered-down bio said her “voice hit audiences with the force of a hurricane.” That hurricane did not just emanate from her birthplace of New Orleans, it came from God and her own suffering. The opposite of a storm that knocks down, Mahalia is a storm that lifts up.

As such a faithful and troubled woman she is a great guide to yet another troubled year. Trouble and faith go together. We are all suffering the pandemic and the uncertainty of our politics. And Black people, in particular, are still suffering the burden of needing to “get over,” as institutions highlight their struggle and this week the media reports the instant barrage of defamation hurled at any prospective Black, woman Supreme Court justice.

Mahalia Jackson performing How I Got Over in the March for Jobs and Freedom on Washington DC.

When I remembered Mahalia Jackson last week on her death day (January 27) [song link], I was once again moved by her iconic rendition of “How I Got Over.” She most famously sang this song [song link] after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963. And she’s been singing it in my head and heart since last Thursday, which I greatly appreciate.

She wanted her music to be for everyone. She told a reporter, “I have hopes that my singing will break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and Black people in this country.” That’s a work for Jesus. People try to do it without Him, but they rarely get very far. Jackson took songs other people just sang and she filled them with spirit and The Spirit in a way that made them a force for good, and a force for change. When I listen to her, even now, after she’s been dead for fifty years, she changes me. She does me good.

A transformation meditation

That experience of transformation is why I wanted to remind you of her today and give us all a chance to lodge her song “How I Got Over” into some sturdy place in our memories. We can come back to places where we have met God again and again. Those places comfort our troubled souls; they give us a place to stand when we are under attack; and they create a solid place from which to launch into whatever will require our courage and passion. This song is such a place for me, maybe it will be for you, too.

Here are some annotated lyrics. My idea is to expand what the lyrics could mean for us and lead us into meditation as we face what we will face today. I think Mahalia Jackson intends to lead us through our deep struggle into a place where we give thanks. Just like she got over and is getting over, she wants us to  “get over” into our re-birthplace in Jesus. Let’s use the song for all it is worth.

How I got over
How did I make it over
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over
How I made it over
Going on over all these years
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

I don’t speak Jackson’s vernacular or sing well in her musical style. So what? I don’t think she cares, and neither should I. She is turning my heart toward wonder. That’s what she cares about and so should I. All day I am tempted to attend to the forces and voices that put me under their malign control; this song is about turning away from those powers and seeing what is good. The question is, “How did all this life happen and how does it keep happening? How did all this good happen? How did the Lord bring me to this place where I would be meditating on this song and looking for meaning and hope?” It is a wonder.

Tell me how we got over Lord
Had a mighty hard time coming on over
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did we make it over
Tell me how we got over Lord
I’ve been falling and rising all these years
But you know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

When Jackson turns the subject to “we,” I think she is first referring to the Black struggle which she felt as an abandoned child in the Jim Crow South of her youth and then felt in new ways after she joined the “great migration” to Chicago where she struggled to survive. She’s singing about the terror of facing down white supremacy and the capricious violence of the United States as the Civil Rights movement progressed. “How did we get here telling our story on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial among all these politicians and movie stars? How did we stay so resilient and faithful though all our struggle, all our falling and rising?” It is a wonder.

It is a rich stanza full of Bible imagery. Jesus is falling and rising as we observe the stations of the cross on our way to our own death and rising with him. In like manner, the song alludes to the promise we will “get over” the Jordan River and into the promised land. Jesus is baptized into, identifies with, our sin and death in the Jordan. Like the Israelites passed over on dry land, we follow Jesus through death into life, a death now made impermanent by his gracious work. “How did we make it over?” Only by the Lord’s grace. It is a wonder.

So Mahalia unveils the wonder and invites us into it.

But, soon as I can see Jesus
The man that died for me
Man that bled and suffered
And he hung on Calvary

And I want to thank him for how he brought me
And I want to thank God for how he taught me
Oh thank my God how he kept me
I’m gonna thank him ’cause he never left me
Then I’m gonna thank God for  old time religion
And I’m gonna thank God for giving me a vision
One day, I’m gonna join the heavenly choir
I’m gonna sing and never get tired

We can use a song like we use an icon. It gives us a musical vision of Jesus and we experience that connection heart, soul, mind and strength. It is worth singing this song with Ms. Jackson enough times to feel it more than think it, sink into it and sense all the nuances and even beyond them — “Jesus brought me to this place, taught me, kept me, never left me.”

When she thanks God for “old time religion” it is not just religion that used to be popular but isn’t; I think she means the Spirit-filled experience that transcends time and culture. We are one with the first disciples of Jesus. Being in God’s presence gives us a vision beyond the boundaries of our humanity. As a result, we can let loose our innate imagination and  be part of the choir of all beings who see the face of God, however dimly, in this darkness. Let your tiredness lift as you tell it all to Jesus who walked with us and on our behalf in history and walks with us now.

Meditation that leads to connection is good for whatever ails us in this hard time! Sister Mahalia has led us to the altar, now she calls us to worship

And then I’m gonna sing somewhere ’round God altar
And I’m gonna shout all my trouble over
You know I’ve gotta thank God and thank him for being
So good to me, Lord yeah
How I made it over Lord
I had to cry in the midnight hour coming on over
But you know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

Tell me how I made it over Lord God Lord
Falling and rising all these years
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

We are joining with the huge crowd John sees gathering from the four corner of the earth in the age to come.  From that place, we are looking back on all the trouble that is now over, all that crying in the midnight hour we had to endure. Looking back on what we’ve already gone through creates wonder — if we celebrate how we are alive and don’t fixate on how we’ve been dying. Try it. Maybe you can start a vision history in your “wonder journal.”

The Bible has a lot to say about the “midnight hour.” The first born are killed in Egypt before the slaves are set free at midnight. Paul and Silas are singing hymns to God in prison about midnight before they are miraculously released. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a great sermon about “A  Knock at Midnight.”  Through the vulnerable moments, sleepless, anxious moments, tell me Lord, “How did I make it? How can I believe I will make it right now when I still feel scared and ashamed, and when I am still threatened and scorned? But I do believe. Help me where I don’t.”

Mahalia puts on her new self like she belongs at the coronation.

I’m gonna wear a diadem
In that new Jerusalem
I’m gonna walk the streets of gold
It’s in that homeland of the soul
I’m gonna view the host in white
They’ve been traveling day and night
Coming up from every nation
They’re on their way to the great Coronation

Coming from the north, south, east, and west
They’re on their way to a land of rest
And then they’re gonna join the heavenly choir
You know we’re gonna sing and never get tired
And then we’re gonna sing somewhere ’round God altar
And then we’re gonna shout all our troubles over
You know we gotta thank God
Thank him for being so good to me

Rest in the “homeland of the soul” might feel hard to grasp, but we know what she is singing about. A little bit of that rest seems fleeting and even paltry, but how odd it is that such a little bit goes such a long way! We can’t forget about it and we long for rest for our souls all day.

I don’t know what I love more, the picture Jackson paints of the age to come, or the picture  I imagine of her in her diadem. Some people hear the lyric as “diamond dress,” which is also great. Everyone has traveled a long way, but here we all are. We are looking good, feeling happy, and dancing down the street in the New Jerusalem [like a NOLA funeral]. If you can’t sing this song, just play it, and let yourself move at least a little during this part. Feel at home in your new self and feel the energy of renewal remaking you. God is good to you. It is a wonder. “Maybe I should strut like the wonder I am!”

Now Mahalia goes into the part that probably made her famous. She started out calmly, but as the song goes on, she can’t help feeling it. She is not just performing it, she is inhabiting it. She is an incarnation and, as such, an invitation to everyone to enter in with all the gifts, services and energies we bring.

You know I come to thank God this evening
I come to thank him this evening
You know all, all night long God kept his angels watching over me
Early this morning, early this morning
God told his angel God said, “Touch her in my name”
God said, “Touch her in my name”

I rose this morning, I rose this morning, I rose this morning
I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting
I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting
I feel like shouting, I just got to thank God, I just got to thank God
I just got to thank God, I just got to thank him
Thank God for being so good, God been good to me

I put this song up in some chat the other day and someone said, “That is a long song!” We’re mainly used to 2 1/2 minute pop songs and jingles. I said, “She can sing it all day and I will sing it with her.” Turning into “I just got to thank God” is a lot better than resenting some fragment from a 70’s song stuck in the crevices of my brain. Turning into thanks, feeling gladness well up, and letting it loose with a shout, a dance, a hug, or some tears is the kind of integration we need to open us up to wonder.

An angel wakes up Zechariah and Elijah in the old Testament. But I think this final picture Mahalia paints is about how we get over. Just like an angel apparently woke Jesus up from his slumber in death, just so will we be awakened on the last day. And as long as we are in the age before death, that is every day. Every day is as good as our last day. Every day of life is gift. We are raised up into it. Relying on an angel to follow orders to “Touch her in my name” is a wonder. I want to live constantly touched by God.

I pray for us all to wake up today touched by Mahalia Jackson who is much like an angel sent to open us to new life. She was a struggling, Black woman who went with her gift in faith and kept turning away from her trauma, and then turned others away from theirs. I hope this meditation helped you turn away from yours and into wonder.

Letting love in: Mary the beloved leads us

The Annunciation — Henry Ossawa Tanner

On the second Sunday of Advent, Hallowood Institute provided some space for clients and friends to prepare a room for the Lord, to welcome love in. We created space to follow the full arc of Mary’s journey of receiving the angel’s message to entering into the fullness of God’s grace. She moved from doubting her belovedness to confidence in it, from “How can this be?” to the Magnificat. Here is an outline you might like to use to follow her example. I know it can’t really replicate everything that happened, but it might help you stay on the Advent journey.

The Annunciation of a Woman — Harmonia Rosales

First movement:  Doubts about our belovedness

Mary pays attention to the word coming to her and to the doubts it arouses. She listens to her body and to the thoughts that automatically come to her mind.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth,  to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.  And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.  And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” — Luke 1:26-34

When our “angel” comes to us we, like Mary, probably ask, “How can this be?” We doubt God can or would come to us. We doubt we could be important. We doubt we could be worthy. We doubt we could be loved.  We need to go through a process to let love in, to become the beloved of God we are.

Our brains and the rest of our bodies are accustomed to patterns that have defended us from not getting the love we crave and defended many of us from further abuse and disrespect. Our brains are rutted with programs of self-protection that don’t meet our needs and don’t protect us any longer. Our bodies have memories of trauma and fear that cause us to keep reacting in certain ways.

Mary was afraid when God came to her in the angel and doubted she could be part of the wonderful future he promised.

During our retreat we worked a little on getting our left and right brain to integrate. We found a place in ourselves of safety where we could return when we felt afraid. We created a container in our imagination where we could store intrusive thoughts that invaded our meditation.

Then we tried to welcome our doubting parts — the voices that tell us we are not loved. Maybe you would like to try it. Picture a time when you doubted you were loved or even lovable.  What makes you doubt you are loved? Is there an event from your past (distant or near past) that captures the feelings of this doubt? Put it into words. Then, if you can, float back to being 14 years old with Mary. Picture yourself at about that age. Identify the negative beliefs about yourself that go with this doubting picture. Write them out.

The Castello Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli

Second Movement:  Mary lets love in to talk back to her view of self

Mary turns from her former view of self and attends to the new life she is being given.

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”  

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. — Luke 1:35-38

The various depictions of the annunciation tell different stories. The one above shows the second movement we are exploring as Mary shies away from this angel. Is she saying, “Don’t bother me I am trying to read the Bible?” Or is it, more likely “What do you mean ‘nothing is impossible with God?’ I feel quite impossible myself?” The process of moving from doubts about “For nothing will be impossible with God” to “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” is what we were exploring. It takes a process to see ourselves as the beloved of God, to turn away from other views of ourselves and turn into that one.

From Henri Nouwen in Life of the Beloved:

I am putting this so directly and so simply because, though the experience of being the Beloved has never been completely absent from my life, I never claimed it as my core truth. I kept running around it in large or small circles, always looking for someone or something able to convince me of my Belovedness. It was as if I kept refusing to hear the voice that speaks from the very depth of my being and says: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” That voice has always been there, but it seems that I was much more eager to listen to other, louder voices saying: “Prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular, or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire.” Meanwhile, the soft, gentle voice that speaks in the silence and solitude of my heart remained unheard or, at least, unconvincing….

Try this exercise to name those different “voices” competing to speak the loudest to you. Find a negative view of self that comes up in you. Do not collect all the views you can think of, just one. It might be as simple as when you look in the mirror and you go right to the body part you don’t like like: “too fat” or “bad hair.” But the voices can come from a deeper place: “I don’t deserve to feel good. Someone will discover what I am really like. You are all alone” — even “No one loves you or wants you.” Once we start listening, these often become quite clear as voices competing for our attention. Naming them does not feel good, but it begins to loosen their power on us.

Turn into a positive view of self:  “I am the kind of person who tries to grow” or “I have a very good grandmother” or “I see how I have good choices I can  make.” The big one is, “I am the beloved of God.” Nouwen talks about Listening to the gentle voice of God with great inner attentiveness. That attention makes the “angelic” voice surer and our true selves more obvious. Depriving the other voices of attention makes them weaker, fainter — “I can’t hear you!”

Painting in the Church of El Sitio, Suchitoto, El Salvador

Third Movement: Mary receives validation from Elizabeth

Mary welcomes support to face her fears and enter into her context with confidence.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” — Luke 1:39-45

Recent scholarship on healing from identity wounds based in trauma says, “Radical healing involves being or becoming whole in the face of identity-based ‘wounds,’ which are the injuries sustained because of our membership in an oppressed racial or ethnic group.”

We acknowledged how our spiritual journeys differ because of our racist and sexist culture. For some of us, the wisdom of our communities has been deeply damaged by racist practices. Some of us have experiences of both healing and trauma from our interactions with our communities, in our neighborhoods and families, in our interactions with systemic violence, in our churches.

Mary experienced isolation and rejection as her story became known.  She and her young family had to flee oppression and slaughter based in part on race.  In this part of Mary’s story, she seeks much needed validation — even though she has spoken with an angel and knows she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  The encounter with Elizabeth validates what she knows inside, what her body is certainly telling her.

Take some time to consider your own journeys and where such validation may emerge for you. Note a few aggressions you have experienced recently.  Gwen’s was “The invisibility I often feel as a woman in leadership positions, or when I am left out, like when my husband got an email that should have also been addressed to me.”

Now consider how you responded to these aggressions. In your childhood were there any practices that you found comforting when faced with hurts — cultural practices or personal practices? What current social networks/systems are offering you support? Where do you feel empowered as Elizabeth empowered Mary? Are there ways you might help create further spaces where you can find this social support?   Notice what’s coming up in your body right now as you consider aggression. Deep breath and long exhale.

We need to meet our Elizabeths.  To listen to them and receive their love and encouragement, even though we already know that the life of Christ is growing in us.

Magnificat by Sister Mary Grace Thul

Fourth Movement: Mary takes her place as the beloved with her “Magnificat”

We created a final space to follow the full arc of Mary’s journey in Belovedness. She moves from doubting her belovedness to confidence in it, from “How can this be?”  to the Magnificat. In her prayer, Mary owns her belovedness and acts out of it.

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. — Luke 1:46-56

I was inspired to own my belovedness by Osheta Moore’s Dear White Peacemakers earlier this year. Both Mary and Osheta Moore show their beloved selves in their context, in their families, and in their societies. And they both speak out of this belovedness, claiming their birthright to be the beloved of God, sent with reconciliation into their own space. I actually got in a little trouble with my some people when I quoted Moore teaching that being beloved is where the Lord starts when he calls for truth and justice. It’s a radical and important principle. As beloved is how we should see ourselves and others, even those nazi-like guys who paraded through the Lincoln Memorial the night before our retreat. Even in the battle against white supremacy and the scrourge of racism, we lose our cause if we lose our souls by not seeing ourselves as beloved of God and not insisting that everyone is a potential member of the beloved community.

Osheta Moore is keeping it radical and I am with her. Here is a bit of what she says in Dear White Peacemakers

Jesus says that in this world we will have trouble, but to take heart, for he has overcome the world. He did this by first owning his Belovedness and then proclaiming it to every single person he met. His Belovedness empowered him to challenge societal hierarchies based on fear of the other, offer relief to those who have been oppressed, and eventually to sacrificially love on the cross. When you are grounded in something other than your work or results, when you are grounded in a truer, deeper, soul-healing confidence, you can continue to press on—even if it means death to all your comforts and control. This is your calling when trouble comes as you practice anti-racism….[O]wn your Belovedness so that you can proclaim mine. Belovedness is like a flowing river of renewal and justice. It allows us to challenge systems and have difficult conversations. It moves us from individualism into community.

Many of us wrote moving, personal “magnificats” of our own, to take a stand as the beloved of  God, to affirm we are letting love in — and out.

Mary’s prayer is called “the magnificat” because the first line of it in Latin is “Magníficat ánima mea Dóminum” — in English, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Familiar prayers have often been known by their first word.

Try writing a prayer of your own. Write it for God, not for anyone else. You could use Mary’s prayer as a model. Better, use the spirit of what she is doing as a guide. She is pulling together the most meaningful thoughts she has into a song of belonging to the Beloved, graced with wonderful things going on inside her. She sees amazing opportunities to offer love to the world.

Our own magnificats sum up the whole process of letting love in. When it is time for you  to speak yours, what have you overcome? what are you standing up against?  When you say, “This is who I am, this is how God sees me, this is what I am for, this is what I intend to do, this is what I hope, this is what my truth in Christ is,” etc., what competes for that view of yourself? It could be your own family, government systems, or oil companies; the list goes on.

What do you say? If it is just: “I am the beloved of God, there’s nothing you can do about it. It is what it is.” That is good enough. That’s a short magnificat I am using this Advent as Jesus is newly born in me in this new era of the world being born.

Parker Palmer and the trouble with autonomy

The psychological work of exercising healthy autonomy is challenging when it is seated in individualism and seeded with identity politics.

Part of a “heritage ride”

According to the Richmond Co Daily Journal, Jacob Mumford decided to hold a “Heritage Ride” after seeing news reports about calls to ban the Confederate flag. He said about the demonstration, “It don’t represent racism. It just represents my heritage, being raised in the South, Southern pride. That’s all it means to me.” He was trying to be someone, the newspaper was reporting it, the country was protecting it.

Mumford was reacting to the great cleansing that began after Dylan Roof murdered nine loving people in an historic Black church in Charleston. In 2015 the National Park Service ordered all Confederate flags and merchandise to be removed from all parks under the agency’s direction, including Fort Sumter and Gettysburg. By 2021 the massive Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond was removed, symbolizing the ongoing deconstruction of white supremacy intertwined with everything American.

The untwining is far from over and the pickups still parade. Alongside the Confederate flag a driver often has the yellow Gadsen flag, as in the picture above. It is the flag with “Don’t read on me” on it. “Don’t tread on me” has been an assertion of national autonomy for over 200 years, and now personal, pickup autonomy. I saw the same display in Lansdale the other day.

Christopher Gadsen designed his anti-British flag in the run-up to the Revolutionary War. The timber rattlesnake on it was something of a Colonial-era meme, evidently created by Benjamin Franklin. The snake is unique to the Eastern U.S. and came to symbolize a new country ready to bite anyone who stepped on it. The symbol stuck around. You can get a specialty license plate with the Gadsen flag on it in nine states. You can say your license plate is about “heritage,” but Gadsden was a slave owner and trader, who built Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina. As many as 40% of enslaved Africans who were brought to the U.S. first arrived there. You can say it is about southern pride, but don’t leave out the white supremacy and dread people feel when the pickups parade. I felt some fear when I saw one on the Turnpike!

Around the Time the Philadelphia Union was using the flag in 2006, the “Tea Party,” anti-tax Republicans began using it. They used it to communicate the U.S. government had become the oppressor threatening the liberties (I would say the unhealthy sense of autonomy) of its own citizens. By the time it was prominently displayed at the January attack on the U.S. Capitol, white men were flying it on their pickups to communicate they would not be replaced, not be tread on – especially by Blacks and not by immigrants “flooding the borders.”

Fighting for freedom

In the United States, liberty is life. Like the slave-capitalism that dominates it, the powerful dole out freedom to their tribe. But even the lowliest feel a taste for “freedom,”  for individual rights, to be one’s unencumbered self able to make as much money as they can. Even Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen, whose great wealth and power make them free, echoed this urge in the title their recent book Renegades: Born in the USA. As he was selling the book via NPR, Obama said,

So the truth is that either we tell each other stories that allow us to see each other as fellow travelers and humans, or we have conflict and clash, and whoever gets the most power wins. And I would argue that at its best, America’s been able – with a pretty major exception in the Civil War – to try to make progress and perfect the union without resort solely to violence, solely to power.

I keep wondering if the authors were riffing on Taylor Swift’s “Renegade” in which she sings, “You wouldn’t be the first renegade to need somebody.” They might have subtitled their book, “Meditations on our recovery from ‘Don’t tread on me.'”

I connect the search for freedom in all its perverse and noble forms as part of our drive to achieve the healthy autonomy we need as humans to become our true selves. It is the natural movement Paul describes as leaving the old self behind and taking on the new self restored in God’s image. We all need to have an experience of I AM in relation to God just like Jesus demonstrates His place in the community of the Trinity. The Gadsen flag states “I am an expression of power” the Jesus-follower insists “I am an expression of right relationship with Love.”

Nurturing good autonomy

How we do psychotherapy and relate in other ways requires many choices about how to handle everyone’s need for autonomy and our perverse lust for power.

I think “good autonomy” is when a person gets a sense of their true self operating freely. It is like the experience of getting the training wheels off the bike, feeling your own balance, moved by your own power, and even pedaling out of your parents sight and control. It is the freedom Paul writes about in Galatians: a life not defined by law, but confident in one’s reality as a person made in God’s image, the beloved of God whose life is eternal in Christ. I think of that autonomy as “I am-ness.”

There is a dangerous autonomy, however, lurking in the word. Nomos is Greek for “law”. Auto-nomos mean “makes its own laws.”  It would be great if Palestinians had this political right. It is not so great when individuals assume they are a law unto themselves and must be. One of my grandsons calls his brother the “dictator from the second grade” because he does think he should make all the rules. I think that is an example of what dangerous autonomy can do to community. When we, as therapists, parents or leaders protect someone’s autonomy to be themselves and make their own rules  as if their freedom should be inviolable, we do them a disservice. We may condemn them to be alone, going their own way according to their undisturbed thinking and feeling. We can hope God is disturbing them, which is usually the case, but the weaker among us could get the impression they are on their own and should be, even though they are connected to various communities and are part of creation.

Protecting a person’s personal freedom as a primary goal might be like giving them a bike so they can figure out how to ride it on their own. Personally, I was a bike-stealer as a child. I stole the neighbor’s bike and rode to kindergarten (which was illegal). I parked it in the rack right in front of the principal’s glass-paneled door. I stole my brother’s big bike when I was not tall enough to reach the pedals and crashed it into the curb. My father liked my gall but had to punish me anyway. My parents often left me alone to figure stuff out — and I did. But I also felt alone, which is worse than not figuring things out. And their neglect/appreciation for my independent spirit may have made me a little thief. It is in mutuality we thrive. Subject to a spirit of individualism in the U.S. and painfully alone, a lot of people can’t even give a full body hug because it feels like a violation or improper. What they need more than autonomy is to attach to God and others.

The best autonomy is mutual

The dialogue in the Bible about autonomy is all about having a relationship with God, first of all, then loving others. Jesus followers teach each other to accept every person and love them as they are right now. Such teaching includes freedom but also includes mutuality. My deepest freedom comes from right relationship. In love, my present limitations and boundaries are accepted and maybe even admired. In love, none of us are a law to another; we are all gifts who should be respected.

One of my psychotherapy clients wondered out loud if I knew a lot of thirtysomethings the other day (which I do). He doubted people could connect like I described healthy attachment. But I persist. Parker Palmer helps me persist. He is a gift from the Quaker homeland in Philadelphia. He added to the spirit of what I am trying to say in his well-known essay A Place Called Community. When he wrote his piece in 1977 I was in seminary and about to experiment in autonomy-defying intentional community – which was an irreplaceable education in love, truth and growth in the Spirit.

In his essay, Palmer says:

  1. If we promote autonomy in the individualist, psychotherapeutic and political sense we set up a society of dissociated individuals most suited to authoritarian government
  2. Mental and spiritual health is never just about oneself. It happens in our common suffering in the web of humanity. We build community to encourage health.
  3. Connection always breeds problems. Not connecting and leaving people alone in their autonomy creates even deeper problems.

When you fly the Gadsen flag or react to the flag as if it has power, you might be surrendering your healthy autonomy. Like Obama worries, we could get stuck in a perpetual fight for individual freedom. True renegades end up in friendship and mutual creativity, they appreciate one another’s true selves, and so undermine the endless power struggles of the world.