Category Archives: Spiritual direction

The first week of Advent: The joy of being found

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

Hide and Seek by Pavel Tchelitchew (c.1940)

Being found

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

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

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

Finding

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

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

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

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

A chance to find the baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter says this rather plainly, doesn’t he?

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

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

Trying to be impassable in the zone of control

We are innately passable

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

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

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

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

Betrayed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is not Wakanda forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might be a green martyr sprouting despite your wound

ImageI was surprised to find my favorite Tweeter, Dan White, featured in an interview in the New York Times: “A Pastor Ripped Apart by Our Divided Country” (First Person, July 21, 2022). There he was sprouting in an unusual,  new place like an Anabaptish weed.

Dan and his wife now direct the Kino Center in Puerto Rico. He was well known as a pastor and a teacher of pastors. But in the last few years he has become well known for being an ex-pastor. Maybe history will see him as one of the martyrs for their third-way faith. I think there are a few of those martyrs from my former church looking to sprout somewhere. They are among the hundreds of U.S. pastors and others who have been traumatized by the spasm of power grabbing convulsing the U.S.

Dan White was an innovative, fearless church reformer himself, but his unifying message was drowned in the sea of division and combat that has flooded the world and the church. I was talking to another pastor, another victim, last week and the only reason he could see for his plight came from a line from the Bible: people are subject to the “ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:2 NRSVA). There is “something in the air,” isn’t there!

Talking about “martyrs” may seem an hysterical way to talk about people like Dan White. But Christians have experienced martyrdom in one way or another in every age of the church as they speak up about their faith. Tertullian is famous for saying in the year 197, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The treatment of my spiritual ancestors, the radical reformers of the 1500’s and before, is collected in a famous book called the Martyr’s Mirror. Martin Luther King was a martyr, along with John Lewis. Today, Jesus followers in India are being hounded by Hindu nationalists; and U.S. Christians are often hounded by Hinduish media myth makers.

Red, white and blue/green martyrs

As I was meditating through Margaret Guenther’s Book, Toward Holy Ground, I was intrigued by her reference to different colors assigned to different types of martyrs throughout Christian history. She was mainly interested in helping me affirm how wonderful it is, as an older Jesus follower, to discover the “marvelous freedom of living deliberately yet carelessly” as a “green” martyr who knows “the heroism and the sanctity of faithfulness to the ordinary,” who appreciates the discipline of the craftsman and has learned the patience of the harvester.

The original impulse of assigning different colors of martyrdom mainly had to do with different ways people “died daily” with Jesus. The colors mainly had to do with the way people expressed their religion – not the idea of “religion” born during the Enlightenment and subsequently expanded during the reordering of philosophical frameworks according to the scientific method (see here), but religion in its original sense of living under a “religio,” a rule (which is becoming popular again these days). The witness that leads to martyrdom is almost always more about how one lives than what one says.

The early Jesus followers had a rule of life which was so distinct from their society they were tagged as “Christians.” Their various rules came up against Roman and other rulers and got them killed. A Christian martyr gets in trouble because she follows the Ruler as a rule, even if she breaks the rules of the power of the air.

When Christianity started morphing into the government in the Roman Empire, Jesus followers sat in the seat of power and often found it practical to align with the “spirit at work among the disobedient.” So some Jesus followers longed for the experience of being beyond what the powers considered normal. This is a common development in spiritual enterprises; if you don’t keep transforming, something’s gotta give. For instance, the Benedictine monastic order started off as a brilliant adaptation to the chaos of the 6th century. Two hundred years later it was still going and expanding! But it needed reforming. Odo of Cluny helped do that. His reforming monastery ended up as one of the most influential institutions in Europe for another 500 years! But it got stagnant and corrupted, too. French revolutionaries were so sick of what the church had become, they literally tore down the huge church building in Cluny. (I saw the remnant). Something seems to be ‘giving” right now in the U.S., as well.

Red

We all understand red martyrs. Red stands for blood. I grew up in my non-Christian home schooled by old movies about martyrs like Quo VadisThat clip still gets my own blood stirred up.

White

By the 3rd  and 4th centuries, some Christians missed the clarifying threat of red martyrdom. Their impulse to go beyond what had become normal created “white” martyrs. Jerome (347-420) created this new category of martyr “for those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism.”

In Medieval Europe the impulse of the desert fathers and mothers was woven into most religion. So people looked farther, like the first monastics did. It became very popular for people to go on pilgrimages to visit the sites or relics of martyrs, putting themselves in the danger of not being able to get home or dying on the road. For instance, my hero, Francis of Assisi, made a pilgrimage to Egypt in 1219 in an attempt to convert Sultan al-Kamil and put an end to the 5th Crusade

Green

The Celtic Church added  the category of “green” martyrs (or blue), basically “glas.” Irish doesn’t really have a good cognate for green of blue in translation and “glas” is much more descriptive than either (see here). Glas is more specific to a place or natural phenomenon and less distinct as a concept, which is one of the reasons Celtic Christianity appeals to me. Glas martyrs experienced a kind of martyrdom by devoting themselves to practical rules in their own place, maybe even attached to a place, like Cuthbert wading into the water every day to pray (according to Bede), or monks living on Skellig Michael (which is glas in the picture above).

The martyr colors need an update

The red martyr has the feel of “I need to stand firm in an evil day” (Eph. 6:13). Red martyrdom usually comes upon people rather than them seeking it, like what happened to the kind people killed by Dylan Root. There are still red martyrs. Coptic churches are blown up. The Chinese government threatens the burgeoning church there. Inequities and violence sap the capacity of many brilliant servants in the U.S. I think a pastor, like Dan White, or anyone whose ministry is ended or hobbled by the power-hungry authoritarian elements rising up everywhere could be considered a red martyr. They are not killed, perhaps, but they are traumatized and often neutered.

The white martyr has the feel of “I’ve got to get out of this place” ( 2 Cor. 6:1-7:10). People are leaving the church in droves, looking for something more and getting out from under dominating leaders and moribund thinking. Any church leader who is mostly focused on getting or keeping power probably has a philosophy about to become moribund. In the U.S., people leave churches or kick out their leaders because their white supremacist/heteronormative denomination won’t change their hurtful theological statements; then people leave the newly cleansed churches because they have to toe the line to a legalistic application of the new theology, which is also non-inclusive and power-driven. Evacuations from church war zones reflect the spirit of the white martyrs of old who could not not tolerate the worldliness of their church.

The original white martyrs fled to the Egyptian desert. Their medieval imitators “fled” on pilgrimages. Americans go on some great pilgrimages, too (as you know I do). But I think their best contribution to white martyrdom is creating alternative communities in self-defined “wildernesses” in which to flee (I have done a bit of that myself). In an anti-institutional age (for good reason) people get out by getting small and getting communal. I know many people who have exited their church but held on to the small group where they got most of their face-to-face faith. Sometimes people get very small and intimate. As a newly-credentialed spiritual director, I know first hand that new spiritual directors are rapidly being minted for a lot of one-to-one Christianity (SDI has 6000 members!). Like Jesus followers have often done, people are escaping the ruins of old institutions and chaos.

Green martyrs have the feel of “This is not radical enough for me” (1 Peter). That’s not “radical” in the sense of extreme (although extremists have a similar motivation) but radical in the sense of intense, focused, true, basic. I think there are a lot of new green martyrs these days, looking around town for community, looking for a good rule of life in step with the Ruler. The church is not what is used to be even three years ago! Many people  I know feel a new freedom, a new sense of urgency, new inspiration. Their old way of life did not survive Covid or survive the evils associated with the ascendance of Christian nationalism. The expression of their faith is experiencing the renaissance of starting from scratch and imagining being faithful in their new surroundings.

Maybe Dan White is a green martyr out of necessity, cast out of the institution he created, living on his island, collecting the like-minded and like-wounded, appreciating the sacred in the ordinary, crafting something beautful, and harvesting his small garden — a green martyr despite his wound. Maybe nurses and teachers, Christian or not, should be considered green martyrs since they devote themselves to the common good in a specific place without recognition or pay even when the spirit of the air tries to tear down what they build up every day. Maybe you are a green martyr despite your wound and you should secretly wear the name to get some comfort as you stick with a day-to-day faith which is basic to you but hard to plant in a post-Covid world.

St. Anne and the forgotten grandmothers we need

Saint Anne ca.750 Faras Cathedral (Nubia) in present-day Sudan

The wall painting of St. Anne, above, from the now-submerged Faras Cathedral, was saved from the waters of Lake Nasser (Lake Nubia in Sundan) in the early 1960’s as Aswan Dam came into service. Polish archaeologists discovered her under the plaster of more recent redecorators. Now Anne is secured in Warsaw in the Polish National Museum. She looks like she might still be pondering what happened to her.

No one knows why she is holding a finger to her lips. She could be encouraging silence for prayer. Or she could be modeling a common pose for praying, guarding one’s lips against the entrance of evil.  I think it is fine if you invent whatever meaning suits you, since Anne is an invention herself. The purported mother of Mary, entered history in the late 100’s or early 200’s when the author of the Gospel (or Protoevangelium) of James added her to the story of the birth of Jesus.

Legendary or not, St. Anne became a very popular saint by the late Middle Ages in Europe and is still widely venerated. Where I come from in Southern California, the friars among the Portolá Expedition were naming mountains on her feast day in 1769.  So we have the Santa Ana Mountains and the Santa Ana River flowing from them (or so they thought), which leads to the present day city of Santa Ana, near Disneyland. In the early 1800’s the Moraga expedition named the river that flows through the southern half of the Central Valley of California after Anne’s husband San Joaquin. Anne and Joachim are the grandparents of Jesus in popular imagination. As a grandparent myself, it is nice to vicariously feel necessary.

The Holy Kinship — Matthäus Gutrecht the Younger (c. 1500-1510). Philadelphia Museum of Art

I became interested in Anne as I read Margaret Guenther’s nice book about becoming old  called Toward Holy Ground: Spiritual Directions for the Second Half of Life. She uses Anne as a centering image for what she writes.

“Image” is an important word when it comes to Anne. She is not written about in the Bible, but she is depicted all over the Bible-for-illiterates: the medieval church building. When Guenther interpreted  the many images of Anne and the family that grew along with her legend in Medieval and Renaissance art,  she revealed scenes I wish were influencing the Jesus followers of today:

Typically, God the Father is in the sky, watching over the scene in the garden, while the Holy Spirit descends as a dove directly over the Christ child. The matriarchal, earthly trinity is, of coure, comprised of Anne and Mary, with the child between them. It is an immensely satisfying picture of the union of divine and human.

At the heart of it sits the grandmother in the garden. If she is a typical grandmother, she is convinced that the child she holds is perfect, gifted, and beautiful. She has no trouble loving him unconditionally and his divinity is easily apparent to her, for grandmothers can see the divinity in every child even when the parents cannot.

Can you think of many Annes in the hagiography of popular culture today? The world did stop for Queen Elizabeth last month. Was she an outlier, or are there more? Oprah? Jill Biden?

I’m not sure our old people even want to be old people or display a lot of wisdom to call on. It seems like a lot of young people rarely even relate to their grandparents, who tend to pop in on their way to their latest destination, or who must be visted in Florida, or who just get in touch when they can’t master a new bit of virtuality.

Our own secret St. Anne

As soon as I saw St. Anne peering out of the Faras icon, I thought, “I think we have a picture of St. Anne I have been ignoring for over 40 years.” I had to ask if we still had it. It used to be over our fireplace in the old house; as it turns out, it is now in the bathroom off our guestroom. Here it is.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne — DaVinci

Whenever I looked at that painting, I thought of the dear freind who gave it to Gwen, and did not give much thought to St. Anne. Maybe I was not ready for her.

Anne is a commanding figure in DaVinci’s painting, but she is still, like many grandmothers, comfortably in the background. The action is all about what Mary is going to do about the baby Good Shepherd already going after sheep. I think Anne looks on with a serene confidence which speaks of knowing a lot about how things work, how to live, and how to die.

Anne is not only associated with the Holy Family of Jesus, which calls us to kinship and connection, people light a candle in front of her statue (or pay attention to spiritual directors like Margaret Guenther, writing in her old age) for many reasons.  Women consult her when they would like to conceive or can’t, since she, like Hannah, conceived miraculously in her old age. She’s all about healing and about the arts and crafts of homemaking. She is help for the troubles of birth and present for the blessings of a “good death.”

I have been known to light a few candles myself. I love being part of the communion of saints, historical and legendary, saints living (like you) and dead, saints closeted away in my DVD collection (where I found Francis on the 4th) or tucked away in European museums. I especially love Anne, right now, because she was, in her time, a much-needed antidote to too much patriarchy, as men made her daughter, Mary, a goddess instead of a human, like the rest of us (similar example). I also love her because Anne is a much needed encouragement in our time to pay attention to people who are wise, who can offer some direction in an overwhelming time. I wish all our ancient political leaders qualified as wise people, but they mainly serve the invisible hand. So it makes sense for us to search out the forgotten wise women in Christ hanging on the walls of our lives.

In the Catholic devotional universe, people pray for St. Anne’s favor and ask to be adopted as her grandchild. That may be effective sometimes and is undoubtedly well-intended. But diminishing Anne to an intercession tool might undermine the teaching of all those paintings. Grandmothers in the Spirit are grounded in the earth at the center of our extended birth and rebirth families. They are meaningful and they know it, and they make meaning. They are deeply rooted in the present age and the age to come. Their appreciation for eternity rubs off on us. They are finally content with the love they have and so enfold us in love. Their lively but enigmatic faces (a DaVinci speciality) lead us to look beyond what we normally see toward broader wisdom and beyond the present moment toward deeper lives and good deaths.

I hope your own grandmother was or is an Anne-like presence of faith, hope, love and communion. During the course of writing this I thought of grandmother Gwen and the dear friend in California who gave her the painting a long time ago. I hope people are seeking them out right now. Grandmother Margaret Guenther died in 2016, but she is still someone I listen to through her books. I have so much need for spiritual grandmother energy I may pull my kneeling bench into the bathroom and pray with St. Anne for a while!  She may not be a fact, but she embodies what we really need, and what people needed when they invented her. Who is waiting comfortably for you in the background of your life?

Lone Goose

The lone goose I sometimes see
draws me into the air with him
away from all the noise of the flock,
for a while away from flutter and clamor.

They call your Spirit the Wild Goose,
since you draw lovers into your sky,
your huge, blue, true atmosphere.
And I feel your wind ruffle my feathers;
your sun gently warms my back.

The lone goose will not stay gone long,
but long enough to see with a bird’s eye
a view so hard to find down among the trees,
missing the forest, stuck on winding roads.

I call your Spirit the Wild Goose,
since you raise me up with him into wonder —
that wounded, unwound next,
where I meet my instinct for home
and call the place it leads me new.

I know the goose will soon be back with the rest —
“It is not good for goose to be alone” —
back with freedom under his wings
and the nourishment of silence in his soul.

We call your Spirit the Wild Goose,
brooding over us with release, wooing us into the breeze,
gliding in from unknowing to land on my lake
and splash me with your strange flight pattern,
raising me out of my impending entombment.

My wings brush the clouds as they roll back
and I plunge into unexpected new light.
We’ll be back to flustered flight and noisy mooring,
but always in the memory of soaring.

 

Want to hear me read it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is there evil?

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

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

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

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

Back to Adam and Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wright works with this in his great chapter on forgiveness:

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

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

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

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

If you lost Jesus, start by looking in your desires

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

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

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

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

Befriending our desires

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proven ways to find Jesus again

New prayer

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

Waiting

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

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

Discernment

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

Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did SHOULD get into my meditation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The staying power of should

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suspicious drugs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generosity about drug use needs limits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABC News

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

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

Maybe normal Christians are fed up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life among the hoodwinked

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

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

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

Suskind’s book

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

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

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

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

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

The first followers knew how to endure

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

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

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

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

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

But if you endure when you do good and suffer for it, this is a commendable thing before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.  — Peter in 1 Peter 2:20-21

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

  • Shame is a soul-killer so get beyond it

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

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

  • What you do matters

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

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

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

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

  • Declare independence

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

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

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