Category Archives: Mostly the arts

Psalm 2022: Make me an encourager, Lord

I turn to you Lord.
…..You encourage me.
Make me an encourager.
…..Defeat the enemies who live in my head,
…..whose betrayals and insults dominate conversation —
…..damning words inside and in the living room.
…..Mute them as my rusty swivel squeaks.

Make me an encourager, Lord,
…..like you finding your disciples and soothing their doubt,
…..like Francis tousling Giacondo’s hair,
…..like my director taking me seriously as I ramble,
…..like someone remembering me out of the blue.
…..We need the gentle reminders you are near.

I know you are content if I am small;
…..you seem to prefer I don’t grow to reach the countertop.
Save me from assessing how tiny I am:
…..my few words, unheard words,
…..my scant opportunity,
…..shouted down by TV, by children,
…..by catastrophe and weakness.
I am still a harsh critic.
…..You chasten thoughts your forgiveness —
…..the grace you voiced with your dying breath,
…..the word that recreates the world,
…..does not apply to my incompletion.

Make me an encourager Lord.
Everywhere I look this week
…..chins are dragging,
…..lips are quivering,
…..eyes are vacant.
…..People are tired, sick, ruined.
…..The leaders are fools,
…..as are their blind followers.
You do not recoil.
Your reach out your hand as I look in the mirror,
…..the fool thinking his dashed-off psalm is worthy of you.
…..And you say, “Yes. It is. You are.”

Make me to say, “Yes,” today and every day.
…..May my yes be yes as your yes is yes to me.
And if I die or my work comes to naught,
…..is despised even, my love thwarted,
encourage me to keep on in a wicked day,
…..so I can gently say with you,
…..“We do not recoil.”

Adele on marriage: Four takeaways from Easy On Me

Adele in 2021

I am not a big Spotify user. I first downloaded the app so I could listen to the Tea Club’s latest album (still highly recommended). I made a visit to the site recently and discovered the lists. I love “top 100” lists of most kinds. And there was the most-streamed songs list on Spotify — and there was Adele with Easy On Me, still on the list after six months. She put out the album, 30, just after the deadline for the 2022 Grammys, so she didn’t get any awards last night. But she might still be in the top 50 in 2023.

On YouTube the official video for the song has 261 million views. I know a couple of people who had it on repeat as soon as they heard it. I caught on to it because one of the repeaters was a client who could relate to her lament of breakup and liberation. As a result, I got interested in Adele for the first time. I even found myself watching her as Oprah dug into what was happening during her years of recording silence.

Mental health issues

She’s been depressed. She’s been anxious. She got a divorce. She became a single mom spending half-time with her child; she had to think about whether to buy a 9 million dollar home in Beverly Hills.

I wonder if she has also been interested in her role as the unofficial poster-person for mental health issues. Like I was saying last time, the WHO says depression is the #1 disability in the world. You may be feeling it yourself right now. It has been a hard two years; go easy on yourself, baby. Adele’s album is all about her pain and recovery; she’s a forthright woman.

I have to admit, I suggested to one client that listening to her might not be a road to wellness for them. It was more likely a way to keep the trauma fresh and deepen the narrative of despair which was creating a canyon in their brain from which it might be hard to deviate when they wanted to move on.

Adele’s guidance

But I might be wrong about Adele being a bad influence. Music is such a natural cathartic and integrative experience. If one sang along with Adele rather than just being formed by her, Easy On Me might be useful.

If we look at the words, I think we can find some takeaways that might help us on our own tragic journeys.

Go easy on me, baby
I was still a child
Didn’t get the chance to
Feel the world around me
I had no time to choose
What I chose to do
So go easy on me

Adele probably said what the words of this famous chorus mean during her extensive publicity tour. I did not hear about it. But here is why I think people love them so much. We feel them. Even if you want to get out of a relationship, breaking up feels terrible: “Please don’t make this any harder than it already is, baby,” And if your marriage or other relationship is breaking down and you can’t see your way back, “Please, baby, go easy on me. I can’t stand any more criticism, contempt, defensiveness or withdrawal” (the four main relationship poisons).

Every one of the couples I counsel are experiencing the childhood wounds with which they arrived when they were married. We could all say “I was still a child” in one way or another, and our inner child is still with us! Adele had the common experience of significantly growing up in her 20something marriage, alongside her young child, Angelo (who will be 10 this year). Many young mothers are depressed after giving birth, and feeling constrained by a child can be a shock to their system. “Where are my choices?” and “Did I choose this?”

There ain’t no gold in this river
That I’ve been washin’ my hands in forever
I know there is hope in these waters
But I can’t bring myself to swim
When I am drowning in this silence
Baby, let me in

I’ve met with many individuals and couples over the years who sang this verse. “Where we are at feels intolerable. I can’t see any hope, even though I hope there is some.” They’re  too depressed or otherwise upset to swim. “I’m sinking. We can’t talk. The isolation and loneliness I feel is overwhelming.”

There ain’t no room for things to change
When we are both so deeply stuck in our ways
You can’t deny how hard I have tried
I changed who I was to put you both first
But now I give up

Adele spent years trying to figure out what to do. Her song is not about a snap judgment! She finally gave up. Sometimes you have to give up. I sometimes think people hold on too long, and sometimes if feel they gave up right when they were dealing with reality for the first time. But when enough is enough will never be my call to make. If you are walking with Jesus, the Lord could turn your greatest loss into your greatest growth. It happens all the time. That miracle could happen in a renewed marriage or a divorce. Either way, there will be pain.

The family at Disneyland

Four takeaways for people who don’t want to give up

Adele gives beautiful voice to our pain and that’s why Easy on Me keeps being streamed. But what if you don’t want to give up? What if you don’t want your partner to give up? Adele alludes to some roads not taken in her song.

1) Go easy on your partner. If you feel bad, they probably do too. Learn how to be taken care of by God and cooperate with his care. Depression is a fight. If you go easy on your partner and yourself, it might make you easier to live with and might give you some space to see some good in your partner — and yourself. You might be able to do something good for the relationship, not just feel bad about what it is right now.

2) It’s a river. If you aren’t finding gold the way you are panning or not finding it where you think it should be, move down the river. Adele can sense hope in the water because things changed. She  changed. Relationships can change and grow when one person has the courage, like Adele, to grow up. No one needs to drown in a relationship. But it is likely the relationship will drown unless both partners are going for gold. There is often a way.

3) Keep talking. It sounds like Adele feels like she did a lot of talking, but her husband withdrew — “Baby, let me in.” When he did that, she got more aggressive and he built more of a stone wall to protect himself and the relationship. This may have made her feel abandoned and made him feel rejected. It is hard to talk about feelings as deep as abandonment and rejection, but marriages are built on the love we make when we keep talking.

4) If you are defensive, your shame button may have been pushed. When she says, “You can’t deny how hard I have tried,” I am sure I believe her. But life is not failure proof if you just try hard enough. Behind that defensive statement there might be some shame about not being good enough, capable enough, lovable enough, or not trying hard enough and failing — any of which is intolerable to feel. It is easy to imagine her partner saying, “I can surely deny how you tried hard enough. What is your standard? Are you blaming me for what you have done?” Now he’s defending against feeling shameful.

I hope Adele and her husband got the best marital therapy money can buy, since she’s worth $190 million. Having a third party listening with compassion and noting the unique patterns of your relationship can help. Most of the time a therapist helps partners “go easy” on someone who has hurt them whether they make it through to the next steps of the marriage or go their separate ways. Many times the therapist helps them build something new, now that they are over thirty, or starting from wherever the river has taken them.

The Batman: Hope for the victims of trauma

The Batman gets used to the dawn.

Warning. If you are afraid of a “spoiler alert” related to a Batman movie this post might disturb you. But you’ll probably be OK. We don’t go to Batman movies to be surprised. We go to see someone re-imagine a very familiar story.  Besides, the trailer gives away some of the best parts!

To be sure, this overlong, best-Batman-in-my-opinion is cleverly re-imagined. It is so beautifully created I wouldn’t have needed a coherent plot, but I got one. The Batman is a couple of years into his nocturnal crime fighting and things don’t always go too well. He is facing an identity crisis in the daylight as Bruce Wayne (but don’t expect too much daylight in this dark movie), and more crisis in the nighttime as “Vengeance” personified. Everyone is corrupted by wicked elements that threaten to drown (and then actually drown) Gotham City, past and present. The millennial Batman is not sure he is making a difference. And he is sad, mad, and afraid he is turning bad: “They think I’m hiding in the shadows,” he intones in an opening voiceover. “But I am the shadows.”

Post-traumatic growth

The movie is not another origin story; it assumes we know The Batman’s parents were murdered in front of his eyes. His iconic trauma lives on. The Batman has reinforced it by reliving it night after night and attempting to relieve it by wrecking vengeance on anyone who would dominate the good people of Gotham, like his parents were.

So far, his fury does not seem to be making a big difference on the streets. But it takes a toll on The Batman’s scarred body; it undermines the Wayne business empire; and it makes having a relationship with The Catwoman difficult. The movie does not dig into this toll deeply, even though it is three hours long. More time is taken up by chases using the first-generation Batcycle and Batmobile and by splendidly choreographed fight scenes in which the hero uses prototypes of what will become Batman’s famous collection of gear.

The Batman is quick to learn about crime fighting, but he is slower to learn about his trauma. I wondered if the script writers had consulted a book I assigned a class a couple of years ago called The Post-traumatic Growth Workbook. The film reflects the increased awareness people have gained in the last ten years about how trauma can shape us. Some people end up perpetual victims and may even victimize others. But some people use their trauma to become more resilient and hopeful. (Most people land in between). The workbook (which you can use yourself, it is not just for professionals) assumes everyone can be positively transformed by trauma. By the end of the movie, The Batman seems to be validating that hope. In service to that theme, the movie is too short, since it often takes a long time for people to uncover and explore their trauma and find a way out of it and into new patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving.

Bruce Wayne spots his inner child

The inner Batboy

The search for mental health often starts on the outside and works its way into our hearts, a lot like God coming to find us and rescue us in Jesus. Jesus pops up here and there in the movie, but the “caped crusader” is saved from saving himself by a trinity of important people: the likewise-traumatized Catwoman, the injured Alfred, and the newly-fatherless son of the assassinated mayor.

  • Catwoman begins to undo his steely isolation“Maybe we’re not so different. Who are you under there?…Are you just hideously scarred?” (He grimly answers, “Yes.”)
  • The threat of losing his surrogate father reminds him how he has been loved by Alfred and offered the attachment he lost; some bat-tears even well up. – “You needed a father. All you had was me.”
  • But it is the speechless boy the filmmakers make sure you don’t miss. On three occasions time stops; The Batman and the boy lock eyes and make a mysterious connection. Some people say this is Robin-in-the-making. Maybe.

Someone told me a much better idea than Robin, since they experienced Bruce Wayne’s revelation vicariously while they watched the film. This lost boy, who Batman rescues twice, is the image of the batboy suffering within The Batman. As he rescues the boy he is rescuing himself. As he attends to and attaches to this boy, he is attending to his own wounded soul. You can usefully watch the whole movie through this lens. (Even the parts Colin Farrell steals as the Penguin). Try it!

My friend’s moment of truth centered on the scene when the The Batman tries to rescue the new mayor, who understandably, in her traumatized state, is reluctant to take his hand. To our surprise, another hand rises from behind the wreckage. It is the former mayor’s son reaching out. The boy slowly comes into the camera’s view and his formerly unreachable, new friend pulls him from the wreckage. That might be the adult you reaching back to care for that poor orphaned you still stuck in the wreckage of the past. It is certainly the Spirit of God in us overriding our personal rules of life to free us from our victimhood and welcome even the abused parts of us into their dignity and transformation.

The final scenes of mayhem are probably worth the admission price for most of us. But I reveled in watching The Batman assisting in the final cleanup that followed. In the process of cleaning up, he gets cleaned up. The sun rises after a night full of horror and he is out in his mud covered, designed-for-the-dark uniform helping the injured into helicopter stretchers. One youngster won’t let him go, which would probably soften your hardened heart, too.

The movie is not all tidied up at the end, or how could there be sequel (which would be the 14th live-action rendition, and that does not include Lego movies)? The messiness makes it a great movie for the mud-spattered spring of 2022. Many of us feel a post-Covid fear of being stuck in the mud as we watch Russian trucks running on fumes through muck-season in Ukraine. Will we ever get out of feeling victimized by our trauma, newly-experienced and triggered every day? Getting used to the dawn, The Batman realizes, “Vengeance won’t change the past. Mine or anyone else’s. People need hope.”

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.

Overwhelm: The feeling and what we can do about it

More and more clients seem to come into a session feeling overwhelmed. In fact, they use the word in the new way we have begun to use it to describe their feeling: “overwhelm.”

I can relate to experiencing overwhelm. The last few years have been the most overwhelming I can remember — maybe for you, too! As for me, I transitioned out of my long-time pastoring work – that would cause anyone some trouble. I was defrauded by a contractor. I moved to a new home. I lost my church community. And, of course, we are still in a pandemic and the country is unraveling – at least that’s what David Brooks says. And then the next climate disaster is in the offing! I have had my peculiar version of the overwhelm most of us are experiencing.

I am feeling OK now, but I am really concerned about those who don’t feel OK. I think they are multiplying and their feeling of overwhelm might be deepening. We have had two years of pandemic isolation to heighten issues we might normally handle well. We need to check on each other. Check on the vulnerable even if you feel vulnerable. We all need to find more community life.

Royal & the Serpent gets it

In June of 2020 Royal and the Serpent recorded a song which depicts the feeling of overwhelm just right. I can’t help but believe the 11 million people who have viewed it feel some kind of community with each other as an artist musically names what they are experiencing.

FYI, Royal and the Serpent’s stage name translates to “Me + My Ego.”  Her given name is Ryan Santiago. She struck a chord with many of her listeners on YouTube:

Youraverageartist commented: “I feel like the beat represents the buildup to an anxiety attack. The beat gets faster and more intense as they sing about being overwhelmed, and then when the beat drops into the wild electric music, that represents the anxiety attack. Then everything is calm and back to normal. You realize that everything around you isn’t any different. These attacks normally aren’t very physical, they happen in your head, although it doesn’t always show to the outside.”

Check up on people who might be feeling this. They might like to talk to you rather than a YouTube audience.

booksandboots commented: I’m 28 and I’ve known about my anxiety since I was 8. This is the first song I’ve ever heard that really captures what it feels like. For me, it’s never gone away. It’s a part of who I am, for whatever reason. Perhaps an evolutionary response to a threat that isn’t there?…

I’m happy to say I haven’t had a true panic attack in over a year, something I never, ever thought would be possible. I had just accepted that was my life: panic attacks every day or multiple times a day. Frozen. Silent….

It also helps to listen to your anxiety, as strange as that sounds. To ask it questions like, “What are you really upset about? Is it that person standing too close, can you do something about it? If you can’t, can you breathe slowly and deeply and try some grounding exercises? If that doesn’t work, can you try to drink some water to occupy your mind in this moment, focusing on nothing else but the water? You can do this. I believe in you.”

And, as juvenile as it sounds, I speak to my anxiety as if it were a child. In a good way. I don’t think of my anxiety as some monster in the closet. It’s just a chemical imbalance that believes it’s helping me stay safe. I explain what reality is to my anxiety and comfort it the same way I would my own child. If my anxiety is here to stay, then we better get used to each other. I can’t walk around hating that part of myself because it doesn’t make the anxiety go away, it makes it worse.

Tender people who are bravely looking OK might not be. Given what we are all facing, who isn’t feeling a bit overwhelmed? I know I have needed to tell my story to people who care about me. Telling it diminished the power of the loss and the trauma. But more loss and trauma is likely to come my way. We need community to face it all.

Signs of overwhelm

Sometimes (and maybe over a period of time), the intensity of our feelings outmatches our ability to manage them. At some point you will probably feel overwhelmed by negative emotions, such as anger, fear, or guilt. Some of us will experience mania and be overwhelmed by euphoria.

If you feel overwhelm, it might be hard to pinpoint why. Usually a collection of stressors contributes rather than one particular event. Your emotions may bleed into seemingly unrelated parts of your life until you are “all stirred up.” Emotional overwhelm may be caused by stress, traumatic life experiences, relationship issues, and much more.

Here are some common signs of overwhelm:

  • You have a big reaction to a small situations. For example, you may panic when you can’t find your keys.
  • You feel physically ill or fatigued and don’t know why.
  • You have trouble focusing or completing simple tasks.
  • You find yourself withdrawing from friends and family.
  • Your emotions color your perception of everything. For example, your grief may keep you sad even during pleasant occasions.

Causes of overwhelm

When we are stressed by the small things in our collection, we might say to ourselves, “This is dumb!” Nevertheless, small things often add up to overwhelm. For instance, it is common for a simple things-to-do list to hijack someone’s brain. That’s because your brain might not see a to-do list, but see the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into 24 hours. Or it might see the threat of failing, the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling like you’re not doing enough or might not even be enough.

We react to these feelings the same way we do with other threats. We fight, flee, or freeze. That’s true whether the threat is a bus hurtling toward us or our responsibilities  make us feel like we can’t catch our breath.

Usually, we land somewhere between freeze and flight, numbed out. We avoid. We dig in our heels and resist. If we’re at work we might procrastinate: make a call, do tasks that don’t matter, call in sick. If we are at home we might binge-watch Netflix, stay up late reading things that don’t require thought, sneak off for some porn, buy something on Amazon, or scroll through Instagram.

Remember, your emotions may get overloaded by a single stressor, like surviving a traumatic accident or violence, or losing a loved one. But overwhelm can also occur due to the pile up of many smaller stressors. For example, missing your bus may not feel like too big of a deal by itself. But if you’ve been fighting with your family, having trouble sleeping, and are hungry from skipping breakfast, a missed bus can be the proverbial “last straw” of the day.

A therapist can be a big help. Even if your are in therapy, everyone still needs some community. Check up on people. We are all experiencing the same big things bearing down on you. What’s more, the latest trauma may have dislodged some unprocessed memories. Everyone needs a safe place to tell their story.

Six ways to deal with overwhelm right now.

  1. Ground yourself in the present using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.

When your emotions are flooding, your mind is getting foggy, or your skin is getting clammy, this technique could be a way to get your feet back on the ground and your mind cleared. It’s a classic tool everyone needs in their backpack. Donate it to someone who needs it.

5 – Look around and name five things you can see, right now, from where you are.

4 – Listen and name four things you can hear.

3 – Notice three things you can touch, like the pages of a nearby book or the feeling of your feet on the carpet.

2 – Next come two smells: Breathe in the pages of a book or the citrus scent of the candle you lit.

1 – Finally, name something you can taste: a sip of cold water will do, or even just the taste of your own mouth.

This does two things to interrupt the overwhelm. First, it grounds you in your senses and, more importantly, the present moment. Second, keeping track of the counting and working your way through your senses interrupts spinning thoughts.

  1. Clean up your immediate surroundings.

The phrase “outer order, inner calm” is popular for a reason. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tidying the area around you restores order to a little corner of your universe and allows you to move forward.

You don’t need to redo the office or redecorate the house. Restrict yourself to things within arm’s reach. Stack loose papers, put caps on rogue pens, wipe away dust or grime. The resulting order will help you feel like you’ve accomplished something and allow you to focus. One time we all went over and cleaned someone’s whole house with them just to give them a boost and allow their emotions to settle and let them feel part of the friendship circle.

  1. Ruthlessly prioritize.

Cut everything that should be done and stick to things that need to get done now. This is harder than it looks for some people since if they change their “shoulds” they will feel disloyal to their family or feel like they are condemning their past self. If someone trusts you, they might let you help them sort.

  1. Stop accidentally multitasking

Trying to work from home and simultaneously keep an eye on the kids, holding a conversation while the TV is on, eating lunch at your desk, leaving your email open while you work, or simply keeping your smartphone at hand 24/7 are examples of things that force you to transition your attention (and then transition it back) hundreds of times a day.

Multitasking works about as well as texting while driving—which is to say, it doesn’t. So if your nerves are frayed, mend them by doing a singular thing at a time. When you’re feeling less frantic, you can go back to googling Beyonce’s net worth while making a sandwich. But until then, single-task, single-task, single-task. You might help your friend do this by asking them to take a walk around the block with you or eat lunch together — community building is also a single-minded task; giving someone else attention and receiving it is a natural way to heal from the pressures of life.

  1. Take the next tiny step.

When you feel frozen in the proverbial headlights of what is bearing down on you, think only of the next tiny step. The next step can be very tiny—only you have to know that you’re inching forward by thinking “Okay, now click on the folder. Now open the document. Now start reading.” Or “Sit up, Put your feet on the floor. Breathe in goodness. Stand up. Stretch slowly” all on the way to starting your day. I am often grateful when someone calls me and I get a chance to tell them what I am planning to do. Just talking to them gets me out of whatever rut I am in and often encourages me to take the next step.

  1. Radically accept what you cannot do or control.

This is the basic stance of faith. We stand in grace and we can turn into the reality of it at any time. God is with us and loves us. You can strategize, organize, and hack all you want, but at some point, you will run into something you can’t do or control. When you do, the only thing to do is to radically accept. Trust Jesus and be one of those good people who can be trusted to listen and care.

Radical acceptance doesn’t mean throwing in the towel. It means allowing for uncertainty and uncontrollability, without struggling like you’re trapped or complaining as if bad things should never happen to you. It is keeping on with what you can do instead of dwelling on what you can’t. (Thanks to Jade Wu).

When you get behind the wheel of a car, you radically accept that a reckless driver may hit you no matter how well you drive. Yet you still do it because you want to get from point A to B quickly. When you fall in love, you radically accept that your heart may get trampled on. Yet you do anyway because love is worth the risk. When you simply can’t meet a deadline without compromising your mental health, you can radically accept you’ll have to be late and you may disappoint someone, because your well-being is worth it.

Just telling a story, thinking things through, letting some feelings settle down or pass through might be enough to deal with overwhelm. Doing it together with Jesus is undoubtedly even better. There are a lot more resources to apply to feeling overwhelm, of course. Your therapist or trusted friend or mentor can help. This post was mainly a means to give you some space to feel some hope and experience some care. I write because I care. I think we need to keep finding ways to check in on each other and build some community. It is an overwhelming time.

Achmed the Angel — 2017

We invite each other to write a Christmas story every year. Here is mine from 2017 after a trip to California and a year of concern about Syria.

Achmed noticed the old nun sitting in the bus shelter on Brookhurst. This was not unusual since an assortment came to the stop in their unmistakable outfits. Even though she was clear across the parking lot, he could tell she was the same one he saw at the Thrift Store when he was there with his Auntie the previous week — she was the shortest and roundest of them all. At the time, he was showing his mother’s sister and her little children around the shops. They were just in from Lebanon and he was helping them get acquainted with the neighborhood.

Now he saw the nun from his perch on a stack of pallets in front of the grocery store as he attempted to do as little as possible. He was acting like he was not slyly watching people. But he carefully scanned the streetside boundary of the strip mall where his parents had a restaurant fronting on the back lot. He had a feeling his father might kill him if he were caught with a toe off the property, but he enjoyed seeing as far through the boundary as he could. He looked and looked for hours. He also needed a reason not to venture into the back lot, where one of his busy parents would find something for him to do. For instance, he was good at peeling cucumbers, even though he was only nine, and his mother did not mind who knew about it. But he did not want to peel cucumbers. They felt slimy.

The restaurant was doing well enough. He knew this because his parents yelled about how much money each of them was spending and what exactly should be bought for the new baby on the way. There was a lot of fighting. In a way, the name of the restaurant: Aleppo, was a good name, since it often seemed like it was the site of a civil war. Achmed knew all about the war in Syria because his aunt and uncle, who had just arrived, told them all about it. New refugees had basically crowded his uncle out of Lebanon, so he had to come to little Syria in Anaheim.

No one who worked at Aleppo had actually lived in Aleppo. His father was from Jordan, but mainly from the United States. His mother was from Lebanon. She’d been to Aleppo as a teenager, before the war started, and before pictures of starving people and bombed out buildings made everyone cry. Aleppo was an old city. He had heard this over and over when she told the story to old Americans with nice clothes and careful haircuts who came to the restaurant because they had never had Syrian food yet. Aleppo was Turkish, Armenian, Lebanese and who knows what else all mixed together with a cuisine all its own. Aleppo was like a jewel, combining all the many lights of ancient peoples.

So they had a new jewel in Anaheim, a little pocket of memories in a strip mall along with a barbershop, a hookah parlor, a little grocery — which was one of the few places you could find old copies of Lebanese newspapers, and a store where Muslims could buy clothes. Technically, Achmed’s family were Muslims and they did Eid and Ramadan in their own way. But his father did not go for praying and did not own Muslim clothes. He said, “I did not come to America to stay in Jordan.” But when the Imam came to the restaurant for lunch he acted Muslim enough.

Achmed saw a lot and heard a lot. He was quiet and stayed off the radar as much as possible. There were not a lot of kids his age in the families who managed the shops. And since he could not go off the premises, it was somewhat difficult to have friends among the native Americans, many who spoke Spanish and thought he was weird, and many who were as white as Disneyland and stared at him like he was in a display case.

The bus came by and the nun did not get on it. Pretty soon another came by and she still did not get on. Achmed was curious. He secretly thought she might be dead like a character on TV. He had never seen a dead person and did not want to, really. But he also did not want to tell his father there was a dead nun in the bus stop if she were not really dead. So he quietly went across the parking lot and stood right outside the shelter like he was waiting for a bus. His mother would have rather died than see him get on a bus, but he did not expect the nun to know that; besides she might be dead.

He turned his head ever so slightly so his eyes could see her from their farthest right corners. Was she breathing?

She was not only breathing, she was crying.

This scared him mightily. The nuns, dressed in their black and white armor, seemed impervious to bad things. But this nun was proving to be surprisingly human. He could not help himself, and he felt responsible for the honor of strip mall. So he went over and sat on the bench next to her.

She did not immediately see him. But when she turned to get a Kleenex from her sleeve, she was startled. She took off her eyeglasses, wiped her eyes and looked at him more carefully. “You must be an angel,” she cried.

Achmed did not know a lot about angels, so he let that pass. “I saw you crying,” he said.

“And why wouldn’t I? The world is full of sorrow and I have almost no idea where I am!”

“You are on Brookhurst” he said.

“Yes, so the bus says. But I have forgotten my way home. I have become too old to be of any use to a needy world. I have been sitting here waiting for someone to find me and so you did. God must have sent you like a little Jesus to save an old lady.”

Achmed had even less idea of Jesus than angels, although he had heard the Imam say “Isa be praised” a few times.

“Aren’t you a nun?” he asked.

She straightened her habit and said, “What was your first clue?” And for the first time she smiled. “What is your name?”

“Achmed.”

“I don’t think I have ever seen a more handsome angel. Would you like to save my life?”

Before he thought clearly he said, “I guess so.”

“All you have to do is get me home.”

“But I don’t know where you live, either.”

“Oh, you probably do. You’ll have to think about it. It can’t be far or why would I be here?”

That made sense, somehow. So he said, “OK. Let’s go.” He got up and so did she. When she got up she was not much taller than he was.

“You are not very tall are you?” she said. He wasn’t. Then she took his hand in hers. Achmed looked back at the barbershop to see if anyone was looking.

He usually saw the nuns coming from the direction of the fireworks at Disneyland, to which he had never thought of going. So he crossed Brookhurst. He figured it was OK since he was with an adult. The nun took his arm in the crosswalk like they were husband and wife.

There were two white girls on the far corner. He decided to ask them where the nuns lived. But as soon as they saw him they started laughing. By the time they got across the street, one of them said, “A penguin and a terrorist. Merry Christmas!” Then they ran off laughing.

“Those were nasty little girls. You’ll have to pray for them after you save me,” she said.

They kept walking, even though he had no idea whether they were really going the right direction. Halfway down the block an older man was up on a ladder putting up Christmas lights. He couldn’t see anyone else, so Achmed took the nun up his walk.

“Hello?” he softly said.

The man dropped his lights and grabbed on to his ladder. He looked down on the two little people on his walk and said, “What are you two doing here? You scared me to death.”

“Do you know where the nuns live? This one’s lost.”

He looked at her and she smiled back through her glasses. “No. I make it a practice not to know where nuns live.” And he turned back to his lights.

So they kept going. It seemed like a long way. Pretty soon they were at Euclid Street and Achmed thought he might forget where he lived, too.

She noticed the puzzled look on his face. “God is with you wherever you are,” she said.

“That’s nice. But I’m not sure where you live.”

“I know. It is quite terrible isn’t it? But you shine like a star. I suspect you will figure it out.”

He stood on the corner stuck to a nun who thought he was a star. This was only the first time in his life he would be in over his head. But he did not know how that felt yet. It was terrible.

Just then a Honda van rolled up and out burst three more penguins. They all started praising God, one in Spanish, “Gloria a Dios! Gloria a Dios!”  One in some Asian language, “Vinh danh Thánh Chúa trên trời,” and one in English. “Thank God! Sister Clare, we found you, you naughty woman! We will need a tracking device soon.”

They hugged and kissed and then did it all again.

Sister Clare wrested herself free of their clutches and straightened her habit a bit. She formally turned to Achmed with a little bow, and directed their attention to him with a sweep of her hand. “Sisters, I would like to introduce Achmed the angel. He graciously decided to save me.” They descended upon him.

He did a respectful amount of wriggling, and protested, “I really did not do anything. I don’t really know where you live.”

“We will show you!” And they dragged him into the van.

“Oh my god,” he thought. “I will never see my parents again. I should be peeling cucumbers right now.”

They were only on the road for a minute. “Here it is. We would let you in, but we don’t allow men in.”

“But he is an angel,“ protested Sister Clare, “And I have a tin full of cookies from Michigan.”

The nun who seemed like the leader was having a theoretical problem. “He is obviously a male angel.” She turned to him with a jolly but inquisitional attention, “Where do you live?”

“Aleppo.”

“Isn’t that in Syria?”

“No it’s on Brookhurst.”

Sister Agnes took him home in the van.

When they reached the strip mall she turned to him with tears in her eyes, “Thank you so much for caring for Sister Clare. She used to love this entire area so well. She would still like to do it. But she can’t keep her mind on it anymore. Here, have a sucker. She handed him a red tootsie pop and he popped out the door. She roared out of the parking lot, assuming cars were going to stop. They did.

He sat back down on his pallets and determined to never tell his parents one bit of what had just happened. That would work out as long as no one in the nail salon saw him take a tootsie pop from a nun; if they did, everyone would know within half an hour. He decided it would take about a half hour to dissolve the sucker, so he unwrapped it.

The only problem was, on December 24 his mom came into the restaurant and yelled, “Achmed!” He turned away from the futbol rerun he was watching and saw that she had a shiny red and green package in her hand. She came right up to him as soon as she saw him and showed him the tag. “Do you by any chance know anyone named Achmed the Angel?”

“Um. Uh. I have no idea?”

“Your friends the nuns were glad to meet your mother. One of them took one look at me and called me Mary, then gave me this.” She held up another red tootsie pop.

Come as a child: Return to the memory of harmony with God

“Truly, I say to you,
unless you turn and become like children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
— Jesus in Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

I am thankful my childhood home life included a lot of music. My father sometimes played his old guitar and my mother was often singing a snippet of a tune. My siblings are all musicians. I latched on to singing like a life jacket, I think. Floating with the harmonies was like a return to Harmony, itself.

 a child in joy

When Jesus gives the profound teaching, above, which no one ever forgot, I think he is drawing his disciples back into that Harmony —  just as he demonstrates how to live in harmony and is, in fact, an expression of it. So often we go with many translations which read “turn” as “unless you are converted,” or “unless you turn yourself around and go a new, better direction,” or “unless you repent of your sins” you’ll never get into heaven. The word does imply “turning one’s back” and can be used in all those ways.

However, the older I get, the more I think the simple word “turn” is probably the best way to get at the meaning. Turning is the basic skill of spiritual development. And when Jesus attaches the word to becoming like children, I think he has to mean it more in the sense of “return.” As in, “Unless you return and keep returning to what you knew as a child, to the experience of knowing God’s presence you had, you’ll miss eternity.” Part of what Jesus forever represents is the Son of God, the child of God, even God identified with the lost child of Luke 15, returning to the loving embrace and extravagant care of the Father, who has been waiting and watching for the sight of that lost and longing child coming up the path.

The right brain has a memory of harmony

We tend to read the whole Bible with the left brain. That’s not surprising, since language resides mainly in the left hemisphere and, if we don’t watch it, that part of us can end up fencing off the words from any influence other than themselves.  In that context we could easily think this Bible verse provides a principle for how to get into heaven: one must become like a child, having the traits of that abstraction – trusting, humble and forgiving. This is true as far as it goes. But I was already a child. I don’t need an abstract child to become, I need to return to being myself in harmony with God. That is where I think we start out.

The experience of oneness and harmony for which I keep looking is not only an ideal, or a promise of something I have yet to see, it is also a memory. Before I had language, I lived in the presence of God. I did not know any better. My parents may have contributed to that sense or not. But I wanted them to. I wanted to attach to that trust, truth and grace forever. My parents were my first shot at experiencing such harmony consciously. For most of us, it was a bit of a shock that what each of us needed at the core of us was not fully realized. [Attachment theory explained in the NYTimes].

a child in the tall grass

I am not among the many people I know who cannot remember much of their childhood. I remember a lot. I think I gloss over the troubles of it and retain the goodness — sometimes to a fault. What came to mind just now was laying in the tall grass that had grown up in a housing development that went bust not far from my childhood home. I thought I was the only one who had thought of doing this. Invisible. Ignoring that I was not supposed to be there. Staring up into the sky for I don’t know how long. Feeling secure in the embrace of the earth, entranced by clouds in an endless sky, returning to the presence of God. In harmony. I later attached that feeling to the songs and lessons I learned when I got dropped off at Sunday school. I think I can safely say I learned all I needed to know about God by the time I was in kindergarten.

Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary gives me some exhaustive science and philosophy to validate my experience. He reminds us that the right brain was the  first hemisphere to develop. It is not an add-on to our more scientific left brain, it is the part of us that developed the left brain and feeds it.

In childhood, experience is relatively unalloyed by re-presentation: experience has “the glory and the freshness of a dream,” as Wordsworth expressed it…Childhood represents innocence, not in some moral sense, but in the sense of offering what the phenomenologists thought of as the pre-conceptual immediacy of experience (the world before the left hemisphere has deadened it to familiarity). It was this authentic “presencing” of the world that Romantic poetry aimed to recapture.

The Romantic acceptance that there is no simple “fact of the matter” – a reality that exists independently of ourselves and our attitude towards it – brought to the fore the absolutely crucial question of one’s disposition towards it, the relationship in which one stands to it. This emphasis on disposition towards whatever might be rather than the primacy of the thing itself in isolation or abstraction, explains the often contradictory accounts of what Romanticism “stood for.” (McGilchrist, 359)

Prayer is returning like a child

When I turn to centering prayer, meditation, even the left-brainish “mindfulness,” I am returning to childlike thinking, just as I think Jesus is encouraging. Meditation is the older sibling of science. When we move into the silence, we still the left brain and experience the holistic, right-now, apprehension of the right — including the longstanding memories of what it was like to know God and feel one with the earth, full of boundless hunger and curiosity, before we were constrained to find our place among others and compelled to consciously turn and turn into harmony.

McGilchrist quotes Wordsworth as a prime example of someone who is good at returning to the wonders of childhood. The art of the Romantics is a conscious turning into the presence of God (at least for many of them). Some are turning into the presence of “presence” itself, which I think is mostly just moving to the fringes of left-brain domination. Their movement, as short-lived as it was, is a good example of how humanity never really forgets who we are. Here is part of the poem to which McGilchrist refers above

But for those first affections,
……………………Those shadowy recollections,
……………Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
…………….Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
……………To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
…………………..Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!

— From Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood William Wordsworth by William Wordsworth

I think Wordsworth is embellishing what Jesus is saying. We have all experienced the “fountain-light” of all our days. It may be dimmed by the messy attachments we have made, but it still has the power to reveal eternity when we turn into it. The enemies of joy may threaten it, but it can never be destroyed.

Waterworld: The climate prophet as a box office flop

It is “shark week” here at the Big Cousins week (not THAT shark week). So this year Nana and Papa are screening shark-related movies each night by decade, starting with the 70’s. Last night we let a naked lady sneak onto the screen during Waterworld from the 1990’s (think Mad Max on the water, as off the big island of Hawaii). The ice caps have melted, and 500 years in the future the only dry land is on the upper slopes of Mt. Everest, now a roosting place for seagulls. People have forgotten other dry land ever existed and the remaining bit is considered a myth by most.

There are a lot of profound observations in the film which tempt me to tell you the whole plot. But the main one about ice caps is apropos. Isn’t it amazing that Waterworld premiered 26 years ago? During that time the governments of the world began to think about the doom it depicts; the corporations have just recently got on board. And the next generation began to have issues when Greta Thunberg got fed up (don’t miss that link). But people are still debating whether global warming is a hoax — and I don’t mean you, I mean the U.S. Congress! The IPCC put out an alarming report recently and about half the population got alarmed. Then the news cycle moved on to how embarrassing it is to leave Afghanistan the way the army is evacuating — the place the country spent its climate-change-combating money.

At the time it was made, Waterworld was considered the biggest waste of film money ever, since it was the most expensive movie ever made at that point. It had problems. For instance, a million dollar set had to be reconstructed because a hurricane destroyed it. The sets are amazing; there is no CGI, for the most part. Two Pirates of the Caribbean movies subsequently beat it by over 100 million dollars and three Avengers movies are not far behind. Waterworld made a return on its huge investment, but people called it a flop and Kevin Costner got a bad reputation for a while. He and I are about the same age, but he somehow is about $250 million dollars richer. I was there when his profitable “flop” came out. Even now, as I did then, I think I think it was labeled a flop because it proposed the melting ice caps were going to be a problem and vested commercial interests were not yet finished selling the spoils they had pumped out of a world captive to capitalism.

Is there a future for a warming wicked world?

My mostly-tween grandchildren had quite a bit to say about the movie. I’m the only one who mentioned the naked lady. They had a lot of speculation about what land would actually be left when the ice melted and they debated other less-than-reasonable elements of the plot (like where are you refining the gasoline for all those tricked-out jets skis?). I made the point that the people commandeering all the gasoline would be the same ones who tried to develop the mythic place called “dry land” if they ever found it and conquered it. The grandkids vaguely relate to my application of Anabaptist/Celtic/Franciscan theology colored with Kevin Costner/Southern California sensibilities (he started as a Baptist from Lakewood). But I persist.

There was supposed to be a Waterworld 2. But the production was so mired in slander it never quite got off the ground. And Costner was not that interested in doing more. At one point he said something like, “They can just re-release the first one. It makes more sense now than ever.” But people would love to make “Waterworld 2: The attack on Dry Land” (at least that is what I would name it).  It is just too ironic. The ice is melting and dry land is being attacked by fires and floods; hurricanes are lining up to deck Haiti and developers  are still trying to squeeze every ounce of profit out of the housing market before everything changes. It is ironic that everything already changed.

Kevin’s gills

When Kevin and I were about 20, I learned a section of the Bible that is always close at hand when the rulers of the world (and the church, etc.) are not paying attention to reality, but assuming they can make their own:

All you wild animals,
All you animals in the forest,
Come to eat.
His watchmen are blind,
All of them know nothing.
All of them are mute dogs unable to bark,
Dreamers lying down, who love to slumber;
And the dogs are greedy, they are never satisfied.
And they are shepherds who have no understanding;
They have all turned to their own way,
Each one to his unjust gain, without exception.
“Come,” they say, “let’s get wine, and let’s drink heavily of intoxicating drink;
And tomorrow will be like today, only more so.” (Isaiah 56:9-12 NASB)

Waterworld and Isaiah are on the same prophetic page and the same people are not listening.

I woke up this morning and had a couple more conversations with the kids. We were still marveling over the spectacle of imagination Waterworld represents. Those sets! That weird plot! John Dutton was once a mutant? Great stuff. In your face Dennis Hopper!

Palmer amaranth aka Pigweed

People are creative. This is kind of a strange aside here at the end of this piece. But I just discovered that farmers in Kansas are being taken over by a weed from the Southwest which has developed a tolerance for Roundup and other even-riskier weed killers. They may have to cultivate the weed as a food source, since they can’t keep ramping up the chemical bombs they use to kill it. That method is over. They are getting inventive. Organic farmers do not have the same issues with the weed. Maybe the corporate farmers will get more organic! They may finally get creative with the Creator rather than exploitative with the Invisible Hand.

It is pathetic to spend 20 something years on a failed war in Afghanistan, on a doomed method of farming and on debating whether the climate is changing due to human wickedness. All those are much more a waste of human ingenuity than a bloated bit of movie prophecy. But it is still true that when people put their mind and treasure to it, they come up with something wildly creative, like Waterworld, like the church which reinvents itself every generation, and like you, listening to the prophets wherever you find them and probably being one yourself. We might yet make it to dry land — or develop gills!

The love story about God and us: Another version on Netflix

I have slowly been watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix. I hope they don’t disappear it before I am done. It is a surprisingly religious show which my wife should like. But it is also bloody, which she does not like. So I watch it on very rare occasions when I am watching TV alone.

King Alfred’s daughter in need of a rescue

I won’t tell you the whole medieval plot: soap opera, action/adventure, theological Ted talk all rolled into one. The heart of the plot, usually, is what it means to love. Last night King Alfred had to decide whether to give all the treasure of Wessex to ransom his kidnapped daughter from the Vikings (a daughter who fell in love with a Viking and spiced up the plot, since we all hate her husband). Alfred asked his wife if he were being selfish not to let his daughter die for the sake of the country and impoverishing peasants to get the silver required to pay off his enemies. She told him, “Your honor and hers cannot be ruined by the shameful spectacle of leaving the symbol of God’s anointed in the hands of the pagans.” Another advisor told him he was, indeed, betraying his duty as king for the love of his daughter. It was another interesting Christian thought problem. Should the king sacrifice everything for the love of his child? Should the child sacrifice herself for the good of the country? Is justice or love the main question? Is there another way?

Much of the conundrum (in a TV show!) circled around the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement” which began to develop into the preeminent doctrine it is about the time Alfred was king. I am not a fan of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as it is generally taught, although I work with it since it is one of the atonement explanations offered in the Bible [here is a short explanation of all of them]. At the basis of the explanation is the idea there is always a law to be honored, a principle to be served, some justice that must be satisfied. Jesus pays the ransom due; he takes the judgment we deserve; God sacrifices his own son to save us from the consequences of sin.

This can sound legal and distant, just the facts. It already happened, just receive the gift. In King Alfred’s case there is a deep love to be expressed. He will give all his treasure, even at the risk of denying his vocation as king and risking the capacity of his beleaguered country to survive, because he wants his daughter back. People take the love out of substitution, as if the whole thing is happening in a courtroom. But The Last Kingdom offered a scene that shows how it is the king’s love that offers everything to the evil in which the child is held. He is working with the evil deal that runs the world. He satisfies the false justice and does it extravagantly for the sake of his beloved child. God did the same for all of us in Jesus.

There are other explanations, other ways

As if turns out, the still-pagan warrior who is pledged to Alfred (for a variety of reasons) manages to free the daughter and upend the Viking conquest plans. There are many other ways for God to rescue us, too. The plotline of God’s love for humanity is extensive.

Aethelflaed saved

Sometimes I feel like a pagan warrior surprising one of my Christian clients with an escape route they did not imagine. The worst side of the dogma of substitutionary atonement is the idea that we are so bad we are about to be sentenced to death for our many sins. Justice must be satisfied, because King God must preserve the basis of his kingdom, which is his holiness, his sovereign rule, his law. My clients often feel like a stench in God’s nostrils (as they have been told they are). At best, their inner critic is always matching them up with who they should be according to the law instead of the wretch who causes the blood of God’s Son to be shed. In their heads they know they have been saved, but it is hard to dislodge the deep wound of shame for causing Jesus to die — especially since they are quite sure they will sin again.

On the other side of Christianity, the one before the Roman Empire became the Roman Catholic Church and beget all the other Eurocentric churches, lies J. Phillip Newell and his deep appreciation for Celtic Christianity. This pre-Roman faith is still soundly Biblical but not infected so deeply with the law-oriented dogma with which so many are familiar. Here is his experience of sloughing off the worst aspect of substitutionary atonement as taught in the church of his youth.

I had an epiphany moment in my early adolescence. It came through someone else [than God] who looked to my heart, my mother’s mother. She lived with us when I was a boy. Granny Ferguson, from Banffshire in Scotland, was a presence of unconditional love in my life. I could do no wrong in her eyes even though she knew full well I was a mischievous “scallywag,” as she called me. But she looked at my heart. I knew that to her I was precious….I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was nothing I could so that would make my granny not love me. And so my epiphany moment came when I realized that Granny was more loving than the God of my religious tradition.

I had been given the impression that God somehow required payment to forgive, whereas I knew that my granny would never need to be paid to forgive me. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and the general religious atmosphere that surrounds the dogma, struck me as a violation of everything I most deeply knew about love, that it is entirely free. Who are the people who have truly loved us in our lives? Could we imagine them ever needing to be paid to forgive? In my mind, it was like the prostitution of God, payment for love. I did not have theological tools at that time to unpack the implications of this realization, but I knew deep within myself that there was something wrong with my religious inheritance.  – Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation by J. Philip Newell (2008)

King Alfred thought his daughter was precious (and so did the Viking who saved her life from abuse in captivity!). She was loved. That’s why she was going to be ransomed. That’s why he made a binding deal for her, as was customary in that time. That’s why King Alfred was willing to give everything.

Love is the heart of the story

But I think Newell has a better answer for the depressed, anxious, fearful and angry Christians I meet in therapy. It may take a long time for many of them to become porous enough to feel the love of others or the love of God. It could take a long time to let the idea of being precious to someone or to God get through their wall of constant self-criticism. They are living the famous line from Groucho Marx: “I do not want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.“ Self-loathing may be human, but elements of the church have made things worse. As a result of bad teaching, many of us look at ourselves in ways God, like Newell’s granny, never would.

Rather than seeing Jesus receiving the sentence we deserve, which is more a reduction of the Bible explanation than the whole of it, I think I might prefer to see Jesus as a wild warrior, driven by love, available at just the right time, against all odds, to save us from what has us in its clutches – like the grip of condemnation that keeps some of my clients committed to their captivity. Many depressed, angry, critical Christians are stuck working out a piece of logic in which the facts are all stacked against them and God is so interested in justice he will kill anyone who stands in its way. They perform goodness to stay off his radar or exact justice to please him. But they would rather be loved. Thank God that is really at the heart of the story!