Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: spiritual health (Page 1 of 2)

Conversations with Lamentations

Biblical lament is hard to handle. Lament is hard to handle.  When we decided to practice lament as a way to hope for Advent, the idea resonated with me but I don’t know if I knew how hard the practicing would be. I’m finding all kinds of reason to avoid the difficulty. They come in internal and external narratives. Inside, I am very aware of the difficulty and I prefer to avoid the pain. Outside, Christmas is a happy time to turn on all the jolly. We definitely need a little Christmas, but we are working toward a deeper Christmas, a narrower way — a way that gives us less chance to fake it — a way that yields more real and robust hope and is more real with the situation we are all in together. I hope it “works.” The Lord is near. May we know it.

Here are some unfiltered, hopefully unfake reactions to the Biblical laments on the daily prayer this week. I hope they evoke your own conversations.

Is that allowed? (Me and Jeremiah)

“Why is my pain unending
and my wound grievous and incurable?
You are to me like a deceptive brook,
like a spring that fails.” — from Jeremiah 15

Me: Jeremiah, are you allowed to talk to God like that?
Jeremiah: It’s poetry. You’re telling me you never felt like that?
Me: …
Jeremiah: Well, I’ve felt like that. I’ve felt like that a lot.
Me: But aren’t you, I don’t know, like, insulting God?
Jeremiah: Better to insult God than to lie to God, I say. You think God doesn’t already know?!

Mental Gymnastics (Me and Jesus)

 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.” — from Psalm 22

Me: Jesus, you’re God, God can’t forsake you. That means you would be forsaking yourself.
Jesus: Here we go with the mental gymnastics.
Me: You are in the Father and the Father is in you.
Jesus: And yet I said what I was feeling, so…
Me: But why did you say it if it can’t be true?
Jesus: What are you running from?
Me: Huh? Why do you ask?
Jesus: I died so you could feel forsaken and not have to hide from my Father. Adam, why are you staying in the bushes.
Me: Adam?
Jesus: By the way, did you read to the end of David’s psalm?
David: They never do.
Adam: They never do.
Me: Whoa, where did you guys come from?
Jesus: I always said my Father was a God of the living, didn’t I?

Why so mad? (Me and Habakkuk)

“I heard and my heart pounded,
my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
to come on the nation invading us.” — from Habakkuk 3

Me: Habakkuk, Are you angry?
Habakkuk: Hell yes!
Me: You should probably tone it down a little. Your anger is scary and it doesn’t sound very Christian.
Habakkuk: Excuse me?
Me: … Um, well, I know you’re in the Bible and all but I don’t think you should be so angry. God loves those people invading you too.
Habakkuk: That’s what you’re going to do to me? Do you hear me talking about decay in my bones and my trembling legs? This is some scary stuff, here. What do you do when you’re feeling like that? Say nothing?
Me: …
Habakkuk: …
Me: Um … yeah. I usually say nothing.

So what? (Me and Amos)

Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph. — from Amos 5

Me; Amos, are you implying that God is not with us as we say God is?
Amos: Sure doesn’t look like it.
Me: But God is our God. We love God.
Amos: God’s son said if you love him you will keep his commandments.
Me: God’s love is unconditional.
Amos: So what?
Me: So God loves us no matter what.
Amos: And?
Me: And that’s it.
Amos: …
Me…
Amos: …
Me: That’s not it?

DOES God make everything better, though? (Me and Jeremiah again)

“I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.” — from Lamentations 3

Me: Jeremiah, you should probably forget all that negativity.
Jeremiah: What’s that now?
Me: The affliction, wandering, bitterness, gall. Just let it go.
Jeremiah: How could I do that?
Me: You just said how. The Lord’s great love, compassion that never fails, gotta stay positive.
Jeremiah: I don’t understand.
Me: God makes everything better.
Jeremiah: Oh really?

The Best I Can Do (Me and Isaiah)

“Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!” — from Isaiah 1

Me: God, why do you have to be like that?
God: …
Me: …
God: …
Me: We worked really hard on those festivals. They were for you.
God: Your life together is not a kindergarten craft project. I made it clear what I wanted from you, and you gave me this?! Don’t tell me that was for me.
Me: …
God: …
Me: But, but, it was for you. We made it.
God: And I made you. Is unmaking you the only thing I can do?
Me: This is the best we can do, take it, please.
God: No.

I Drench My Couch with Tears (Me and David)

“I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.” — from Psalm 6

Me: David, maybe you shouldn’t have so many enemies.
David: That would be nice.
Me: Don’t you think it has anything to do with you?
David: …
Me: Everything to do with you?
David: …
Me: Isn’t it all your fault?
David: …
Me: It’s all my fault.
David: I drench my couch with tears.

Some Doubts Ought to Be Trusted

Doubt can be bad but it doesn’t have to be

In the glut of internet facts we swim in like a trash compactor on the Death Star, doubt is not hard to come by. Slogging through the truthiness spectrum of political speech might make you sick. Yes, you could be sick with doubt.

In its metastasized, cancerous form doubt is debilitating — calling into question every thought you thought you knew, casting a shade of suspicion even on the love from those you love the most. It can feel terrible, so we often run from doubt. Who wants to feel that discomfort?  Instead, we hide in sandcastles of certainty propped up by obvious lies which we accept because we’d rather not deal with it. This conceit codifies our cynicism as a way of life and the longer we go in that direction, the more solid our fantasies seem and the safer we feel. Which is why when these structures inevitably fall, we are so devastated and sometimes close to destroyed.

Doubt can be dangerous like that, but it can also be a step toward salvation. If we see our faulty foundations for what they are before our whole lives fall down on us, we can avoid a lot of pain and and make ourselves stronger to face even greater difficulties. We could choose difficulties for love and the transformation of the world — which is much better than reacting only to what life brings our way. Finding trouble for Jesus sake is what I strive for as much as I can.

Doubt is a door

George MacDonald said in his novel, Sir Gibbie,“To the true heart every doubt is a door.” Think about that for a second.

The first time I heard that read to me on librivox.org I paused the recording. I like the drama of actually pausing the recording as opposed to just looking up from my book. I stopped running (I was out for a jog), dug my phone out of my fanny pack (because fanny packs are very convenient), pressed paused (actually), shaded the phone from the sun (it was summer) and managed to hit rewind 30 seconds (Phew — feel the drama?). Then I listened to the reader say it again, “To the true heart every doubt is a door,” and then I paused it again and I just stood there on the sidewalk.

Whoa! There is a whole universe in there! What if doubt could be trusted? What if I could trust my true heart and learn not just to believe, but learn also to disbelieve. I wish a lot of people would start disbelieving. There is so much we take for granted that could use a lot of skepticism. We are good at skepticism but the things that need our skepticism the most are the least apparent. Often the most damaging lies are surrounded by those sandcastles that can make us feel safe. They might actually be a bit more solid when they are built by a whole cultural narrative, but they are still made of sand and they will still bury you alive when the waves wash in.

Doubt your ability to choose well

Here’s one great thing to doubt: Doubt your autonomy. Yes, you have agency and an ability to choose. This is a blessing but that is not your best feature. Choosing in itself is not freedom. Your God given freedom is for choosing WELL. Jesus got at that choosing when he told those two little stories about the pearl and the treasure in the field.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.  — Matthew 13:44-46

There is one thing that is better than all the other things. I think many of us know this at least in part. We have felt it in our bones. We have seen it in glimmers of recognition. We have heard it on the edge of other sounds. There is a longing we all know that we could trust more if we were better at doubting all our other conclusions. Those conclusions are ordinary pearls, or worse, they are just plastic. We wear the lesser pearls around our necks to help us forget the quest, but it’s still there. There’s doubt in that feeling of satisfaction. Do you feel it? Do you trust it? We found the treasure in the dirt but we didn’t excavate what clanged beneath our shovel for fear of what it would mean about everything else we think we really want. You really could doubt those other desires. I know you could.

But, but, what if ….

And of course you won’t be sure if you start a quest for that fleeting something more. The quest comes with little certainty. How would it be a quest if you knew where the end was? Requiring to know everything about the next step before we even try is another rule for life that could use your doubt. Have you ever known everything about anything? We fool ourselves with all the available knowledge without ever knowing very much of it anyway.

Again, my main man George MacDonald  said, this time in his novel Lilith (which is a hell of a quest BTW) “Doubt may be a poor encouragement to do anything, but it is a bad reason for doing nothing.” This is at once an encouragement for my line of thinking and a caution. Doubt is not incredibly motivating. That’s why it’s so common to ignore what you can plainly see and settle into living in a sandcastle. The path of least resistance often bushwhacks through a thicket of doubt with ease. This is why I’m writing this  blog post. It’s not that your doubts are bad, it’s that you haven’t trusted your doubts long enough to know which doubts are bad. Your doubts could be a door into a richer, fuller faith. They could lead you to riches you have not yet imagined, if only you can get past some of your conclusions. Come on, you can see the tide coming in.

Trust your doubt that this current castle will stand, and strike out on a quest for something more.

 

What to say to fear

Fear is a big part of everyone’s life in normal times, but in these “quarantimes” it is an even bigger part of our lives. We are sharing our fear in a much bigger way because we are all feeling a common threat. In some ways, this is a good thing because it’s not so lonely to feel scared. But the group project of fear can also amplify and intensify our fear until it is completely debilitating. What do we say to fear? How do we speak back to these feelings?

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” – Jesus in Luke 12:32

Jesus said this in the middle of a passage all about the many expectations of difficulty he had for his little flock. Worry, anxiety, fear — they were all assumed. Jesus knows us. He knows where we live. That was his mission in joining us in the struggle of human existence here on Earth — God wanted to know humanity and be known as human. Jesus knows what fear is like. It is a daily part of our lives. He sees you and loves you. Receive the tenderness of Jesus calling us his “little flock,” and the promise of something-more beyond our present suffering. Fear must be met with faith — and faith makes us hopeful. Faith makes us courageous. Jesus wants to actually en-courage us. It is from this God-sent courage that we can talk back to fear.

What not to say to fear

You’re wrong.” Fear is not really something we can talk ourselves out of. Don’t you hate it when you are sharing your heart with someone and, even if it’s obvious they are trying to be delicate, they respond by trying to explain away your feelings? It feels terrible. It’s easy to see it when someone else says it to you, so why would you talk like that to yourself? Jesus doesn’t say you’re wrong for being afraid. He sees how afraid you are and loves you. Jesus wants to be with you in you’re fear. It helps to tell him about it, and to tell a Christian friend who can listen without making you feel even more terrible.

 

You’re bad.” Fear has done a lot of good in your life. It is a powerful instinct that has plunged very important messages deep into your brain. Without fear you might take foolish risks. Without fear you might not be able to relate very well. Without fear you would not be human. Your defense mechanisms serve a valuable purpose. They have kept you safe in an unsafe world. Jesus does not condemn your fear. He sees you, he loves you, and he offers himself as an alternative. Whenever Jesus says “Fear not” you can read it like a mother saying to a child awoken by a nightmare, “I know it’s scary but it’s over now.” Jesus doesn’t say, “It was only a dream go back to bed.” You’re part of his little flock. Don’t judge your fear; there is no transformation there.

 

You’re in charge. Fear wants to drive your car (thanks Rob Bell for this metaphor). Fear wants to be in charge . Fear wants you to follow. Maybe the cost of planting those protective messages so deep in our brains is an inability to see fear clearly. Have you ever driven home from work and realized only when you got to the driveway that you have no recollection of the commute? Fear is like that unconscious driving many people have experienced. Occasionally we wake up to the steering wheel and realize, “Oh, I’m driving!” Fear is often driving while you’re unaware. It’s more common to let fear be in charge without knowing it, but happens consciously sometimes too, especially in a pandemic, or other incredible trauma. Sometimes we see fear in charge of our direction and say, “This is fine.” I think this usually comes from exhaustion or despair (which might be two sides of the same coin — one physical, the other spiritual). Jesus knows you’re tired and offers a lighter load. Jesus wants to carry the weight so you can be a dignified agent of his world transformation project. Jesus wants you to drive and he helps you do it.

What to say to fear

Oh, there you are.” Jesus anticipated the fears of his little flock. He saw their unavoidable presence and made accomodations for that. The Peace of Christ is a real thing. Sometimes it comes in a woosh. Sometimes it takes a long time to find it in a dark season like this one. The answer to fear is Jesus himself and he is ever so gentle with us in our struggle. Let’s be gentle with him even when we can’t find his peace. When fear comes up, say “Oh, there you are. I knew you must have been around here somewhere.” Assuming fear is at work in your thinking and feeling wards off the element of surprise. If we can get out from the judgment of “you’re wrong” and “you’re bad” fear could be a bit more neutral. And a couple degrees of turning when responding to fear could make a big difference in your long term trajectory.

 

I see you.” This is incredibly powerful, and surprisingly so. There is something so transformational about naming and describing your fear. Honestly, I don’t completely understand it, but it has proven true for me and countless others. Naming your fear in a safe environment disempowers it. Telling Jesus your fears just works. Living in an environment with Jesus at the center like one of Circle of Hope’s cells makes this a lot easier, and a lot more common. Having a culture of looking fear in the eyes and saying “I see you” will change a person’s life.

 

Back seat.” “Oh, there you are, Fear. I see you. But you are not driving this car. Back seat.” Fear is along for the ride. There is no fear-less life. Fear is part of who we are. Jesus sees that and affirms that. He does not offer us a way out of our relationship with fear. Jesus invites us into a transformation of how we relate to fear. If you spend all your energy trying to eliminate fear, you’ll be fooling yourself and disregarding Jesus’ posture towards it. Why would all the Bible writers be so interested in fear if it were not a given? Here’s an exhaustive list of encouragement from Jesus, God and God’s messengers throughout the whole Bible from catholic-resources.org. Putting fear in the back seat acknowledges its presence in our lives but gives us enough space to realize that fear is not us. The more space we can get between us and our fear the better. Fear has things to teach us still, but with Jesus whispering “Don’t be afraid” in our ear every day, we will see fear for what it is and not for what it isn’t. My personal practice for creating that distance is contemplative prayer, but there are lots of ways to work on this.

 

Therapy can help, too. Check out circlecounseling.com. They are doing online sessions in the pandemic.

Jesus is with you, we are with you

This is a long process, and we never arrive. The best thing for this conversation with fear is community. Cells are working on this every week. Learn more about cells here. Our pastors teach about this regularly. Check out our YouTube channel and/or tune into our Sunday meeting at circleofhope.net/OnlineMeeting every Sunday at 5 pm. Jesus did not come just to correct you, tell you you’re bad or to disempower you. He came to do the opposite of all that and his plan did not include eliminating fear. In our community, we learn to trust him and speak back to fear, “Oh, there you are. I see you. Back seat.”

The Mental Health Benefits of Circle of Hope

It seems to me that it is common to separate the mental health benefits of participation in our church from the other things we do to gain and maintain our mental health. We go to therapy, we practice mindfulness, we exercise, we do yoga, we journal… oh! and I guess there’s church, too. I don’t think most of my incredible partners would ever say, “Circle of Hope is not a benefit to my mental health.” By no means! They would say the opposite if asked. But I don’t think we are always asking. Church is not part of the mainstream conversation about good mental health regimens. This blog post aims to make what is implicit and fairly obvious, explicit and very obvious.

by Chloe Cushman

Why don’t we think of church as part of our mental health?

  1. Church is less marketable – It’s not like people haven’t tried (and succeeded) at making a lucrative business out of the Gospel. But true discipleship doesn’t really sell that well. Love your enemies, bless those who persecute you, share everything in common, discipline your appetites. These are not blockbuster sentiments. It’s hard to sell a free gift. And really, it’s things that are bought and sold that get the world’s first attention. If the church is not on the open market it must not be important. I don’t think it will be too hard for us to resist this temptation, but we must accept that ours is a quiet revolution — unlikely to be televised and trumpeted by those whose eyes are trained on the big money.
  2. Because it is not a technique – One way “Self-Help” and other beneficial practices like mindfulness and yoga have gotten onto the tips of our tongues when we think about our mental health is that they are techniques that can be mastered and practiced, and they have been marketed as such. There is great appeal to learning the moves, and conditioning our minds. These are good things to do, but they center the individual as the master of their fate. Take your life back. That sounds like winning! The messy, and often difficult, way of living and loving in Christian community doesn’t seem nearly as easy — and it’s kind of all over the place. There might be a thing or two we can learn form the clear paths that have been made by folks who teach these techniques, but maybe not. Our question is “How can the most excellent way of Love, as Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 13, be lifted up as the most excellent way to mental health?” I think love in Christian Coimmunity definitely leads to mental health, but it is a way of life, not a technique; and it can be somewhat unwieldy.
  3. The cure is communal and cannot be done in isolation – It’s being together that really has the biggest impact on our mental health. We are part of a community that cares about us. Our cells and congregations are sized so that you can be known face to face.  You can find acceptance for who you are right now. But, of course, that requires the risk of being with others. You could have any number of reasons why that is hard for you. I say it’s worth the effort and the risk, and the faith it takes to trust others is the same faith it takes to trust God. The community is a proving ground for our trusting and a place for healing hearts that have experienced a lot of broken trust.
  4. Mutuality is required and requirements are hard when you are hurting – In Circle of Hope we help one another process the inevitable conflict that comes with being closely related. We are taught to relate in ways that help us recover from trauma. And if you are hurting, the mutuality that can be such a source of healing can seem like an impossible demand. It’s hard. I can’t say it isn’t, but I will vouch for its efficacy.

  5. Somewhere along the lines church and psychology got in a fight – I don’t know enough about it to expound upon it, but somehow a significant number of Christians decided that psychology was against God. I still meet people who have been told that to seek the help of a professional therapist is a faithless act. Ugh. We are doing our best to de-stigmatize professional counseling and we dedicate a significant portion of our budget to subsidize counseling at the counseling center founded by one of our pastors. Circle Counseling is amazing!

So if you are working on gaining or maintaining your mental health (especially in quarantine)…

Invest in the church! Invest in your relationship with God! Of course Jesus can heal you in supernatural ways, but the simplicity of life together ought not to be overlooked. The Church is  a great source of mental health resources. I am particularly glad that Circle of Hope is trying to be a psychologically healthy church. And to that end we have compiled a list of resources for you and our community wayofjesus.circleofhope.net/wind/mentalhealth.  May we find our way together through this mess and beyond.

A Vocabulary of Blessing

It’s the end of Spiritual gifts month in Circle of Hope; what did we learn?

Many of us learned what spiritual gifts were for the first time. There are 23-25 spiritual gifts described explicitly as gifts  in the New Testament (depending on how you slice it). Circle of Hope Daily Prayer gave us plenty of insight into the nature of each gift. You can read them again at circleofhope.net/dailyprayer by searching “spiritual gifts” in the search bar or you can see them on this google doc.

Personality or Gifting?

This paragraph from the July 30th entry was especially revealing to me:

Many people think considering our personalities is the same as considering our spiritual gifts. But the sorting does not come from the same source. Psychology can be practiced in the Spirit and spirituality can be psychologically informed. But, in general, “personality” is thought of as something coming from the inside out and spiritual gifts come from the outside in. Our personalities are the receptacles and vehicles for the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul calls us “clay jars”—very humble, everyday dwellings for the glory of God. Be in awe of that miracle.

My personality has historically driven me into much of what I do. I run on high octane conviction about my sense of self and my purpose in the world. Who I am is very important to me. I have submitted my personality in many ways to Jesus over the years. I made Jesus a feature of who I am by becoming a Christian and taking radical discipleship seriously. But this paragraph from the daily prayer hit me at the beginning of the month in that special way. You know what I’m talking about? When you read something and you notice it — maybe you highlight it in a book, read it out loud to your spouse or friend, or post it on your Facebook wall (that’s what I did). I realize, now at the end of the month, how the meaning of this is working itself out for me.

Mariko the Theremin

My lesson is this: Making Jesus a feature of my personality is not the same as receiving Jesus’ Spirit in my heart. I think the latter has happened in my life and the former is not inherently bad, but they are definitely not the same. During spiritual gifts month, that distinction became apparent to me. It happened at 2007 Frankford Ave when Mariko Snook, one of our brilliant Art Directors, was reading our questions.

She had asked us to write down whatever question was resonating with us. My question jumped out of me and felt true when I wrote it down, but when she read it in sequence with the questions of others I was strangely disconnected from what I had asked. This was due in part to the theremin-like vibration of Mariko. She was tremulous in her feeling — in OUR feeling really. It was a communal exercise. The questions of others spoke directly to my own. Our frequencies bounced into harmony. She channeled each person’s heart, reverberating with the vulnerability. Her eyes sparkled with welling tears lit with the great spotlights they have in that space. She brought us with her on that journey, and in the synchronization, I learned that what jumps out of me is not always who I am, even if it feels good coming out.

Later reflecting on the dissonance of that moment, it was the desperation of my question that couldn’t resonate with the deepest part of me. Taking time to pray about it later, I was aware of what had been poured into me. Jesus is firmly seated in my heart. His love did not resonate with the blurted despair of my question, “When is this going to work?!” Which was to say, “When will I get what I want, which i have equated with what You want?” There was no answer to this question, but a clarity about who I really am. Jesus is not a feature of my personality. He is present in my heart in a special way through the gift of faith that the Spirit has poured over me.

Keep asking the right questions

At the Spiritual Gifts Intensive, the Leadership Team formed the core of our mutual discernment. The main agenda at the Saturday morning part of our two day event was group time. We got in a group and they told us what they felt our Spiritual Gifts were, based on their long time understanding of us, or their vague impressions depending on the various pairings of people. Then we did it again with a new group. We were all flexing our discernment and building a common vocabulary of blessing. I hope we keep asking and suggesting, “What has God given you?” and saying “Maybe you have the gift of…” That we might be as pulsing amplifiers of the Spirit for each other.

You can start by answering the 125 questions that make up the sorter we used. Find it here on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net. Thanks to my friend, Joshua, for turning it into an online format. Which spiritual gift corresponds to HTML?

Yo, Mountains Are Big, Even Bigger Than Me

A warped sense of scale and control

People who live most of their lives indoors have a warped sense of scale and control. We who live in cities and towns and spend much of our time outside traveling from one building to another have grown accustomed to an environment that is catered to the shape and size of a human person. Being in a building all the time shapes our minds in ways I don’t always consider. My friend Scott uttered this prophecy just this morning, and like most prophecy it deftly sparked the ready tinder in my own mind and heart. I was excited by this revelation as we sipped coffee on couches in a building on Haddon Ave in Collingswood — a very walkable avenue I’ll have you know — similarly proportioned for ease of use by a human body — prejudiced toward the bodies not encased in air conditioned boxes on wheels to boot.

From Logan Pass

Put simply again, we humans have created safe places in which to live and these places have shaped who we are and how we think. My friend Scott and I knew this to be true again because we were both recently on top of mountains. Scott was hiking Mount Katahdin’s Knife Edge Trail in Maine where at several points the passage is not quite 24 inches wide with shear cliffs on either side. I was on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park which winds across the Continental Divide at Logan Pass in a dizzying feat of engineering. Scott is objectively cooler, but I had a five year old in my party, sooo…  Despite the difference in transport, our experience of scale was the same. We were acutely aware at the regular smallness of our usual existence when we found ourselves in wild places where sky and stone are indomitable. We wer resized in our own estimation by the magnitude of inhuman proportions.

We need to get smaller

Even our grandest buildings, museums, skyscrapers and cathedrals are dwarfed by the almost incomprehensible size of many of the mountains in Glacier National Park. This is not news to you, I know, but it is 100% forgettable and thus needs to be news every day in some way. It needs to be felt in your feet — in your lungs — in your eyes — and, I don’t know, in your inner ear. Vertiginous heights are corrective for any human body. We need to stand in the proximity of something really, really big again and again if we will escape the mental encasement residual of our literally sheltered status quo. We must  with some regularity return to the high places, or the wide places where our vision can expand sufficiently to recalibrate our scales.

We need to get smaller. It’s dangerous to be too big. It’s dangerous to live in a human scale mental landscape. The pilgrimage to the big places in my world is made for right sizing, which is to say diminishing me. The physical space of the impossible scale robs me of my illusion of control in a happy way. Tilting at the windmills of control in our hyper-complex, consistently desperate, unrelentingly demanding society burns me out.  The architecture of my life is under-girded by more than the commodious avenues and couches on which I walk and lounge; I am taught to be larger than life and fuller than Google with knowledge and wisdom.

A scrap of my native sky

Two ways to be overwhelmed

Ironically this demand also makes me feel small. It might make you feel smaller than you are. Being overwhelmed by the magnitude of a mountain is helpful because it is concrete enough to be definitive. The mountain requires nothing and our relationship is not debatable. It’s the vagueness of the demand of our societal myth-makers that is so uncomfortably overwhelming.  Living under the spell of my infinitely potential control is exhausting.  I cooperate with this story pretty actively I am discovering. I inadvertently end up consumed by my own power, simultaneously hoping and despairing in another kind of vertigo. But it’s hard to stand across the valley from Jackson Glacier and maintain my own personal aspirational magnitude. In an instant I remember, “No,  I really am small. And that’s okay. I’m small like a sparrow or the hair on my own head.” This incantation produces a momentary vacuum, left from my sudden shrinking, which inhales God’s love instantly. It’s the care of my Creator who made me this size that alone makes my tininess bearable.

Dear God! Look up!

When I can’t take the two week trek to the wilds of America’s west or the slightly closer drive up to the center of Maine for a jagged hike (which is now on my to-do list) I can always just look up. It takes some more concentration for the scraps of sky I always live by to achieve the desired result, but they do the trick. I take pictures to amplify their efficacy. Sharing my sights seems to extend them and with them my precious and ever receding smallness.

 

 

 

Bieber and Sheeran Channel Our Loneliness to Number One

I Don’t Care” is at the top of the billboard charts this week and it’s no wonder. A song about escaping a place you don’t want to be without leaving it ought to be the expected ear worm of August 2019. So many of us long for the power to disappear. Can we just not have to deal with any of these demands? It’s about agency. It’s about loneliness. It’s about apathy. It’s about loss.

Most of my friends who keep up with pop music don’t examine the lyrics too much. They say “I just like the beat,” or “It’s just so catchy”, or, maybe, “I don’t know, I just feel it.” But pop music is regularly very deep. Number one songs regularly channel what everyone is feeling. The lyrics probably matter a lot more than we usually realize. Our ears long for something that resonates. It’s like a body with a vitamin deficiency — something in our animal brain knows what we might not be able to say and we are drawn to Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber (again) saying what we don’t know we want to hear.

“Don’t think I fit in at this party
Everyone’s got so much to say (Yeah)
I always feel like I’m nobody, mmm
Who wants to fit in anyway?”

WE ALL DO, Ed and Justin! WE ALL WANT TO FIT IN! And of course, they know this. That’s why the song works. We are all suffering from this unquenchable longing yet we are all surrounded by other people who we know are just like us. We are all led around by the same thirst. And no one is pouring any water! Everyone is hoarding it in some sort of mass prophetic performance of the future wars we will wage for H20! The scope of togetherness is narrowed to one person, a sexual partner, who is the only one — a classic love song trope.

“I don’t like nobody, but it’s like you’re the only one here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, I don’t care
I don’t like nobody but you, I hate everyone here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, yeah”

But the 2019 twist is the emphatic apathy. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. The not caring is what shines in the song, not really the connection. I think that’s because the connection is week. As much as we long for water, we mostly want the wanting. It’s maddening. I feel it too. Our eyes, hearts and ears are thoroughly leashed to the search for satisfaction. We can’t connect even with those we are connected because everyone is intermittently available, vaguely present, or drowned out by all the noise.

In an interview by Krista Tippet with Esther Perel on the OnBeing podcast, the guest described this inability to connect as a cultural phenomenon. Borrowing from Paula Boss, she describes the disassociated norms of 2019 as a form of “ambiguous loss”

To explain: ambiguous loss, for example, when a person is still physically present but psychologically gone, as if when they have Alzheimer’s, for example. Or if you have someone who disappeared, they are physically gone but psychologically present. In both cases, you cannot resolve the question of mourning and loss, because you don’t know, are they here, or are they not here?

When people describe to me being put on pause in a conversation or lying next to someone in bed who is scrolling through their Instagram feeds and is physically present but psychologically gone or is having literally another life with their phones, what they’re describing is not the physical isolation of loneliness. They’re describing a loss of trust and social capital that they are experiencing next to the very person with whom they should not be feeling alone. That’s ambiguous loss.

I think Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber found the vein of golden ambiguous loss in the bedrock of the American mind. While they cash in on our loneliness we raise a glass to the anthem of our peculiarly 2019 loneliness.

This is why I’m a Christian. I need more than a good diagnosis of the cultural phenomenon of ambiguous loss (though there is incredible power in properly naming the problem).  I need a solution. Jesus is a reason to connect with the people I am with. Jesus is a reason to pour some water. Jesus is a reason to love the people at the party. Jesus is a reason to put down the phone. And I need a really good reason to do any of that. The tide is so strong. The animal instinct is so  overwhelming at times. I need a rescuer, and a reason to do something different.

I have found that loving others is more fulfilling than satisfying my needs. I am more able to receive love when I love. And my ability to love is easily stunted by refusal to love. It’s like it’s all or nothing — like the tap is on or off. So being at a party feeling like Ed and Justin, would cancel my ability to love anyone, even the ONE who is better than all these around me at the party. I could only take from anyone if I refuse to ever give — if I only embrace my desire — if I chronically control my engagement in any given space. I could only satisfy. I could only drink. And I will consume it all!

Jesus fills me up and sends me out as an overflowing cup instead of an insatiable hole. He is an infinite well, and no one else is.  He is a reason to care, in a world that persistently pulls me, and you, and Justin and Ed, towards “I don’t care.”

The Dangers of Teeth-Brushing Christianity

Among many other odd and troubling things about the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings last week was a comparison between church attendance and brushing your teeth. On one hand, I admire the regularity of his devotion, but on the other hand the comparison is dangerously close to just going through the motions.

I don’t know Brett Kavanaugh, so I’m not really evaluating his faith (and even if I did know him, that’s not really anybody’s job but Jesus). Because he is a public figure now, his story has a magnitude that transcends the individual, and there are other very valuable conversations that he and Dr. Ford are bringing up for all of us. Sin is run amok, and it’s so clear to me again. I’m tempted to despair when I see in Washington what the Teacher in Ecclesiastes saw in his time,

In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
    in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

Maybe everyone is just brushing their teeth with religious affiliation instead of being cut to the core by the extent of the wickedness all around us.

The world needs better Christians

We need to create an alternative. We need it badly. Brett Kavanaugh, and 82 of the 100 Senators claim Christianity too. We need to do better, and I’m not talking about starting to floss. We don’t need to get better at what is–brush our teeth more often, or use the right toothpaste–get the right people in power and find the scriptural magic bullet for all of the policy debates. If Christianity is what we see in this political fiasco we need something else. If disempowering millions of women in the name of one powerful person’s reputation is brushing your teeth, then we need to grow some baleen and start straining krill from seawater. We need to do something completely different.

Circle of Hope was designed to do and be something different but I am fully aware of how easy it is to not do that. I get how Brett Kavanaugh could describe going to church like brushing his teeth. It easily can be just something you do, and if you’re like me and most of my friends, you don’t really need just another thing to do. We need to know the living God, to breathe the breath of life, to trust tomorrow to tomorrow, to make a way where there was no way before.

Here are a few ways we can avoid teeth brushing Christianity

1) Find out what moves you

Be curious about yourself. We might think we have to have it all figured out, especially ourselves. It’s very easy to quickly codify our experiences as settled law isn’t it? “That’s not my thing.” “I’m not into that.” “I’m not a church person.” “I suck at prayer.” Some of those things might be true at times, but don’t count yourself out of everything. You’re not the same person you were last time that happened. Maybe what didn’t work for you will work this time. Worship, prayer, singing, silence, scripture, dialogue. When were you moved? It doesn’t have to be in a church setting. When did something happen inside? I don’t know how to describe it too clearly without poetry; I hope you know what I mean. Follow that — drop into that gear when you meet with the church — pursue that experience. If you’re not expecting it again, or asking God for something every day, it is less likely to happen. Thankfully you could be moved despite yourself.

2) Say no to your resentment (out loud)

Anything we do regularly becomes routine (that’s the definition). There is a lot of potential growth in keeping at your routines even when you don’t feel like it. But if you dwell on how much you hate what you have to do the whole time you do it, of course it will be miserable. I could hate the dentist every time I brush my teeth for what s/he might say to me if I don’t–as if the dentist were responsible for my dental health. It helps me to say stuff like that out loud (or type it to you because I actually do hate brushing my teeth). Name your resentments. They’re nothing to be ashamed of. They aren’t who you are; they are just thoughts. You can put them on loop and let them control you, or you can say “no.” Sometimes I just say (or yell depending on where I am) “NO!” to the thoughts I don’t want. I’m at this meeting with the church because God has done something in me that I can’t deny. Jesus is inviting the whole world into unimaginable newness. I want to keep tasting that and extend that invitation to others.

3) Aim for something new

We don’t really need the same old thing, even though that’s very comfortable and effective for some people. We need to aim for something really new, not just the old thing slightly rearranged. We are not called as a Circle of Hope to feel different by comparing ourselves to other churches (something we are prone to if we aren’t careful); no, we are called to be different from the world–a peculiar people that demonstrates the foundation of love in which God establishes us. Our existence puts a question mark behind all of our culture’s conclusions just as Jesus’ did and does. It’s hard to escape the boxes we are put in by others or the ones we build for ourselves, so we must always be aiming to do what is new, what is next. Maintaining an institution is a common motivation for slowly accommodating ourselves to wickedness. Let’s trust God beyond our institutions. If it all comes tumbling down, God will make something new in the rubble. That’s been God’s MO from jump street, hasn’t it?

And… St. Francis

It’s October 4th, so I must conclude with a shout-out to our favorite Friar from Asissi, St. Francis. He exemplified these three things and many more. When the institution of the church was full of wickedness he made something new. I doubt he ever brushed his teeth (it was the middle ages 😉). Learn more about him today if you can.

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