Category Archives: Spiritual Discipline

We need to hang on to our joy

A lot of us are bogged down right now.

If you are full of joy, maybe you can just skip this one. Conversely, if you are resisting getting into stuff and don’t feel like changing right now, maybe you can just skip this one.

Because this simple post is all about feeling bad about feeling bad and how that might change.

Image result for anxiety in the age of trump

When I was out to dinner with good friends the other night we were complaining about how we were feeling bad about how many people feel bad. (Three therapists at a table of four will put at least a sprinkle of empathy in your tacos!) I added, to all the reasons we were collecting about why people are feeling bad: Trump is stealing our joy. I don’t mean, “I hate Trump or the people who love him and will only feel better when they are defeated.” I mean he has been on the screen for over two years, every day, disrupting, dominating, bullying, confusing, sending immigrant children to prison, now furloughing a million people, soon to be found out for how the Russians were part of his election campaign (it would appear). He’s a joy stealer par excellence. And if you were already anxious before he took control and tried to get more control, now you are really anxious!

Not everyone at the table thought I knew what I was talking about and maybe you don’t either. But whether I am right or wrong, I will still need to hang on to my joy, won’t I? It is basic to my new-birthright. Jesus says:

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. – John 16:20-22

Having joy does not mean turning off contrary feelings

Those words from Jesus could encourage you or they might just drive you Christian-crazy. What I mean is, many Christians turn off their minds and hearts in order to perfect a fake joy that is really just a masterful defense against their anxiety and depression. They take charge of their joy and try to do joy right so they won’t be doing something wrong which might send them to hell, or might uncover their secret sins and unhealthy habits. Let’s not go Christian crazy, but let’s have some hope for joy in troubled times.

I love proverbs, in general, and this one in particular helps right now:

A cheerful heart is a good medicine,
but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. – Proverbs 17:22

This is one of those “factual” proverbs, that state the obvious we might forget. It simply says, if you are thankful and hopeful, the past does not clog up your feelings with regret and the future does not look so frightening; when you are depressed and anxious it feels like you are slowly dying from the inside out.

So it makes sense to hold on to our joy, tend it, even see it as a power that overcomes the woes of the world. The Bible gives repeated examples of receiving and using joy. Here are a few.

Image result for nehemiah building the wall
If you can find out who made this, let me know.

Affirm joy exists for you

Here is the famous Nehemiah 8:10

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah called for a party to celebrate the building of the restored wall in Jerusalem. We should all make a note to self – “Do not have vacuous parties that don’t include a reason people can hang on to.” Parties breed joy. Nehemiah wanted people to affirm  the goodness of God and their own togetherness and love, as well as their accomplishment – all the things that bring people joy. Because the joy of the Lord is our strength. That is, joy the joy of knowing the love of God and receiving goodness from the Lord is the core of what makes us strong.

The word used here in Nehemiah for “strength” means “a place or means of safety, protection, refuge, stronghold.” When we let go of our joy, we are vulnerable to the things that destroy us – our own weaknesses and sins and the bullies in the world. The joy of the Lord is my fortress. Don’t go crazy Christian and think God is all about keeping bad people and experiences away from you. But do affirm that if we have an impenetrable joy at the core of us, we have the strength to open ourselves to suffering and all sorts of “dangerous people” and take all sorts of “sacrificial” risks.

Remember past joy

Here is the wonderful Psalm 126 in its entirety:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

One good way to hang on to joy in troubled times is to remember past joys. The story we tell about our lives makes a difference. When anxious people cannot sleep, they have a difficult choice to learn. Instead of rehearsing their past failures and troubles, they need to search out the joys. Such searching is part of their strength.

Image result for paul joy in prisonUse your joy

When Paul was in prison instead of sailing for Spain, as he hoped he would, this is how he began his letter to his first church plant in Europe:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. – Philippians 1:3-6

Joy lives in us and we live in the expression of God’s joy. Creation is an enactment of the Lord’s generous love. Joy is the creative exuberance that the world reveals around every corner. Evolutionists don’t quite know, according to their theory, why animals prefer beautiful mates. Paul would say all creation is made to love our generous, beautiful God. Animals know that instinctively. The world is, in itself, an expression of joyful generosity. Jesus has opened up our hearts to love God and love with Jesus; when we do it, we experience joy, deeply.

When Paul writes his letter, he is also using his joy and sees it as a way to send joy reverberating all the way from Rome to Philippi. Along with joy being a wonderful feeling, it is also something we do. Paul is praying with joy. He uses his joy as a shield against what would do him in. And he uses it as an offensive weapon, too. A shield can deflect a sword blow, but it was also used to knock an enemy down.

Peacemaking types may not like the idea that they do anything that remotely resembles violence. I think that kind of “empire-thinking” is a tempting luxury for people who imagine themselves above it all like that. Regular folks are having a day-to-day problem with forces that want to steal their lives. We must fight those forces, coming from the inside and out, with joy, among other things. Here are some examples:

I believe God loves me. (Pow!)
I believe God is actively loving me right now in this situation. (Crash!)
I believe God’s love will never fail. (Wham!)
I believe God will not withhold any good thing from me. (Smash!)
You could not possibly steal my Christ-given joy! (Flattened!)

I still kind of feel bad that I ever feel bad. (Come Lord Jesus!) But I also remember when I did not feel the joy of the Lord! You may have been there last week, you were so depressed and anxious, living in this Trump-dominated country.

It helps me get back into the reality of God’s love when I affirm what is my destiny, then I begin to see and recall how God has surprised me and gifted me with joy, then I really get rolling when I use my joy in the same generous spirit in which it was used to find me and rescue me.

My faith is eroding: One thing you can do right now.

Relevant Magazine

“I think I am losing my faith—and I don’t know what to do about it.” I wish people would say that more often; they mostly just feel it until the feeling pushes them over the edge. Blame it on Trump. Blame it on unreconciled relationships. Blame it on dumb churches and their leaders. Blame it on science. Blame it on yourself. The blaming does not really help the feelings. They still end up with an internal struggle that has big consequences whichever way it goes.

If you feel some of these things, you are not alone. All sorts of people, from every corner of the planet, from every strand of the Christian tradition, from every conceivable segment of society are feeling it with you. They are once-religious people who for any number of reasons now find the very ground of faith eroding beneath their feet. Some are panicking, many are reverting to the defense systems they relied on as a child and trying to find other things to hope in.

The terrors that taught us as children don’t really go away. So when we get pushed to the edge it is terrifying. It is one thing to question the institutional Church or to poke holes in the religious systems people have put in place or even to critique the Bible and how we interpret it. Those are all sustainable losses. We can endure such things and still hold on to some confidence that God is and that God is good. Even if on some days, those assertions are all that remain of our fragile faith narrative, they can be enough.

But what do you do, when with all the sleepless wrestling and the furrowed-browed prayers and the ceaseless questions and the best-intended efforts, even that fragile bit of faith seems out of reach? What happens when the very reality of God (or of a God who is good) seems too much to own? How do you keep going in the middle of a full-blown spiritual collapse?

Encouragement for the eroding

These mysteries of faith can’t be “solved” in a blog post. They can’t be “solved” as if they were a “problem” at all, can they? Most people of faith need to move beyond faith that solves problems into faith that is more about love – and we all know that love causes the delicious problems of being human as much as it solves them. So I have just a few beginning things to say which I hope will encourage people who are in the thick of some spiritual trauma. All the linked blog posts scattered around the page might help, too.

You may be at a point where your loss of faith feels unsolvable. At that point, living in faith often isn’t a matter of just being more determined or more “religious.” Jesus followers can become desperate while they are reading the Bible, when they are praying, after they are done volunteering and when they are trying to believe in the middle of a church meeting. They may be as devout and engaged as ever, only these pursuits no longer yield the clarity, confidence and comfort they once did.

I’ve met people who feel a barren, spiritual dryness. I often tell them that feeling is actually a sign of their faith, not merely their loss of it, since others, obviously, have already adapted to a barren spiritual landscape and feel it is normal. These dried-out people almost always feel burdened by a sense of failure – a secret feeling they dare not share or often dare not admit to themselves. They are grieving, feeling helpless about regaining what they’ve lost, and angry at themselves for not being faithful enough to conjure up belief that used to be easier. And they are often angry with God, too.

So what can you do right now?

If you’re in that place right now, I won’t pretend there’s any easy way out or a simple path back to faith. I can’t even promise that you’ll ever find your way back, at least not to what you used to call belief. It may be a very different experience for you in the future.

Sticking with prayer, Bible study or church attendance might provide anchors for your faith until the storm passes—but they might not. You might like to try psychotherapy to see if there is something in the way of your growth you don’t know about, or to provide some heavy-duty support while you are growing – maybe you aren’t up for that.

Maybe the process should be more about what’s right in front of you, for now — about what you can see and hear and touch and smell and taste. Maybe the best thing you can do right now is to experience all of the things that you can know, and simply receive them with gratitude: a delicious meal, the evening breeze, some music that moves you, the laughter of your best friend, the depth of a relationship, the smell of your baby’s head.

Maybe just accepting these great, pure, measurable gifts and presently cherishing them is all the faith you are able to have right now, and that will have to be OK. Maybe that’s as close to proving God’s goodness as you can get. To simply live and to find gratitude in the living is itself a spiritual pursuit; it is on the holiness spectrum. And as you do this, you may find that this contentment is a pathway back to the hope you’ve lost. It may clear the road to God that has been cluttered by sadness, disappointment, doubt, and your worn-out religion.

But maybe you shouldn’t worry about whether the gratitude gets you somewhere right now. We’re good at turning simple goodness into a means to an end – gratitude is not a result to achieve or another religious exercise to evaluate. Try receiving the goodness and pleasures of this day and allow them to speak to you and surprise you. People have often found the beginning of a new season of faith there.

As you are working at finding a new center, keep noting when you feel guilty. Guilt is good for turning us from bad behavior, but it needs to be checked when it makes us feel like a worthless person. Talk back to that voice in your head that tells you you’re terrible and don’t worry about what you think people are saying about you. You’re the one walking this road and you understand it in ways they never will. Maybe most of all, don’t worry about God. God is big enough to handle your doubts, fears and failures and knows exactly what you’re going through and why believing is such a struggle right now.

You may have indeed lost your faith or you may have just lost your way a bit. Either way, this might be a good time to breathe, to look around and to find joy in what is right beside you and all around you as your journey continues. If that is all the faith you can muster right now, let it be.

Suggested by John Pavlovitz

I feel the pressure. I receive your promise.

“I feel the pressure. I receive your promise” is a prayer like Mary’s “magnificat.”

Magnificat is the first word of the Latin translation of Mary’s song, recorded in Luke. Great musicians have been putting it to music for centuries. Try listening to this one by Estonian composer Arvo Part, who manages to evoke Gregorian chant and be postmodern at the same time.

In her prayer, Mary rejoices that she has the privilege of giving birth to the promised Messiah. She praises God’s power, holiness, and mercy.  She looks forward to God transforming the world through her son. She prophecies how the proud will be brought low, and the humble will be lifted up; the hungry will be fed, and the rich will go without.  She exalts God’s faithfulness to His promise to Abraham (see Gen 12:1-3).

Mary’s radical prayer is another reason her life is worthy of our meditation in the middle of the Christmastime anesthesia. Like I was saying the other night at Frankford Ave., Advent is is our discipline season when we remember Mary’s story and also collect our own spiritual histories. Just like her, we feel the pressure and welcome the birth of Jesus into our own lives and our own time. Advent is full of stories about how the Holy Spirit gets into human hearts and into the heart of humanity in Jesus. Somehow, stone-hard places in us, maybe places so hard we didn’t know they were places, are impregnated for the first time or for a surprising umpteenth time, and newness begins to pulse in us. Sometimes, even in spite of ourselves, we end up pregnant with some new life that is pressing to be born.

My home congregation’s pastor, Rachel, wrote to her leaders about some new things popping out in the Sunday meeting two weeks ago. She said, “There was a long-awaited moment of forgiveness and reconciliation between two friends. Someone else joined a Sunday meeting team because they realized that they need to serve in order to make themselves show up every week. Someone else risked some dialogue even though they feel different from “everybody” else, and learned that they actually belong! Someone else gave us all permission and encouragement to village parent because the kids need us all. Someone else risked coming to our meeting for the first time even though they feel burned by religion and are still angry.” Sometimes our rocky center cracks and shafts of light pour through like the sun after a storm. We have moments that become stories about these times we will never forget.

Some of you may hear stories like Rachel listed and feel pressured to have an experience your pastor could put in her little note. You might even be upset that something long-expected is not happening to you right now. Advent may depress you a little. That’s good. Move with that pressure.

I suppose, in this day, I was supposed to say, “No pressure. No problem. It’s all good.” I think some of us still say, “Whatever.” But I’d betray Jesus if I did that! Of course you feel pressured by the story of Mary and stories about the advent of Jesus in the lives of your friends. I think we all feel some kind of resistance to whatever is trying to get out of us and be born. I don’t know this first hand, but I’ve heard many times that pushing a baby out for the first time is especially hard. There is a LOT of resistance. Likewise, blessings are not easily born every time. Of course we feel pressure!

We are into something real here as we remember Mary’s story and our own. They are stories about birthing a child, and birthing a new you, and bringing newness into the world. All those things are hard. Jesus goes through death to give birth to new life! So I will NOT say “No pressure.”   Much the opposite. I say we all need to welcome that pressure like a mother giving birth in Yemen right now, where her children are starving and her husband is out scavenging, and the house is half ruined from bombs, and yet the birth must happen. Even though she must wonder how she could possibly bring a new child into her ruined world, she has the hope that convinced her to carry that child and she has the love to welcome who is being born. Like a Middle Eastern mother giving birth to the hope of the world — that is how Advent keeps showing us how the life we were created to enjoy works.

Mary welcomed the surprising reality that she was a slave to hope in the most elevated sense of the word handmaid.  The other day someone put a job description on the share board. The real estate company was looking for a person who has (quote): “A no job is too small attitude. We want a team player in the office, candidates who have a “that’s not my job” attitude are not welcome.” Mary qualifies. She shows us that the advent of Jesus is all about recognizing a much deeper calling than our usual job description. When Jesus comes to us, things change and we change things. Mary took on the identity of slave (or “handmaid” in the KJV) like a badge of honor, the same way her son would. They turn the powerless word doule (Greek for slave) into the word doula as they aid the birth of new lives in a redeemed creation.

I’ve been practicing Mary’s example by making this my Advent prayer: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” The repetition helps me remember that I, too, can turn slavery into birth. We don’t need to say it in King James English! I’ve made that my breath prayer, but I also say things like:

  • I am your slave. Guide me.
  • I serve you. I am listening for what is next.
  • I have no one to trust but you. I will.
  • I feel the pressure, I receive your promise.
  • Wow! Help! Thanks!

However we say it, the goal is to face our fear of letting it out. We are moving with the pressure, not resisting it.  We let God hear us when we pray and learn to feel heard and known and accepted. We let others hear who we are now so they can keep up with us. We let the world know by how we bring life to birth however we are given to serve.

You’ve been called and gifted too. That pressure we feel usually signifies that something needs to be welcomed into the world. That stranger you fear just might be you becoming your true self. That new little movement cracking your hard heart, even irritating you, is probably the best thing happening in your life right now. Jesus is being born.

Advent: Thank God for the Dayspring!

For me, Advent has a lot of layers (like my December wardrobe!). Maybe the layer I need the most is the personal one: the Advent of Jesus to me, Jesus coming to be incarnate in my little life.

The other day, after I woke up with some threatening congestion, I stumbled downstairs in the dark and finally made it to my chair to pray. I had been feeling what one of my friends called “a recession” for a couple of days –not quite a depression, and I was letting some of my anxieties get the best of me.

In the middle of all that unpleasant stuff, I had such a sweet, little experience of Advent, I thought I’d share it with you, in case you also feel like you are stumbling around in the dark on these darkest days of the year in what feels like a dark time of the world.

I was looking around my room and seized upon a flaw in one of the walls, lamenting that the contractor had done a poor job. Suddenly, it came upon me how wonderful it was to have this warm room in which to pray! It was a strangely instant turnaround. It felt like the Holy Spirit had whipped off the emotional bag that was over my head and showed me the joy that was in the very same room I had been criticizing! Just as suddenly, two Christmas carol lyrics leapt into my mind and I meditated on them for a long time.

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The first song centers on a quote from the John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, as he was prophesying over his child:

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. — Luke 1:76-79 (KJV)

The Dayspring visited me in the time of my impending seasonal affect disorder and lit up my darkness. My troubled way was guided into peace. So I am writing with this song in mind for me and for you

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel  [Sweet in Latin!]

Image result for northern lights
Like the hem of a garment

Another lyric quickly came to my mind, since my thoughts are  usually occupied by lyrics. It is a reference to a prophecy by Malachi, collected in the last book of the Old Testament. The old Christmas hymns come from writers steeped in the King James Bible, which is quite beautiful.

For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.

And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts. — Malachi 4:1-3 (KJV)

The Sun of righteousness rose in my room with healing in his wings. Like the hymn writer, Charles Wesley, I’m talking about Jesus. Malachi has a broader metaphor. His “Sun” is like God moving through the heavens, the fringes (or “wings”) of his long flowing garment spreading the blessings of life to farmers luxuriating in mild spring sunshine and gentle rains that restore parched ground and fatten starving calves. I woke up to the dawn and felt like singing with Hark the Herald Angels sing!

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings. [Brits!]

It is so good to have Advent again because I need the advent of Jesus in my shadeable little world.

I hope any dark clouds you are experiencing soon pass as the Dayspring drives them away. May the Sun of righteousness rise again where you are seated and convince you to reach out, touch the hem of his garment, and be healed.

Stages of Faith: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water – video version

Here is a video version of Monday’s blog post.

The Stages of Faith: Earth, Wind, Fire and Water

One of the best things we have ever tried is the Way of Jesus site where we collect resources for people developing faith from their first steps to their maturity.

The Way of Jesus follows a faith development model which reflects the wonderful contributions of Piaget, Erickson and Kohlberg to our understanding of how humans naturally develop.  There is a spiritual development process that moves along with our biological and psychological growth. We are all on a wonder-filled journey at our own pace. This reality has only become more interesting as I have aged and I have been eager to find the right metaphors in order to teach it. A few years ago we decided that the the ancient symbols of  Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water encapsulate, in an organic way, the stages of spiritual development.

A lot is made of the stages of human, biological/psychological development, but less is made of the spiritual development that accompanies those stages. James Fowler did some great work in the 1980’s to apply Piaget’s, Erickson’s and others’ work to spiritual development. These days, the hard edges of these geniuses’ definitions are being softened. Feminist thinkers and non-western thinkers add the sense that life is more like a spiral than a straight line. I can go with them. Janet Hagberg’s works (especially one of my favorites: Real Power) make these stages applicable to people leading in everyday life.  I have gone with her, ever since I first saw her present her (then new) ideas for the first time.

As a result of learning how to soften and broaden the stages of spiritual development, I am fond of relating to people according to  all their stages of development at the same time. We still have the baby, the toddler, the elementary kid, and especially the adolescent and early twentysomething in us. That’s why we might yell, “Stop being such a baby!” even as we all have the first senses of being fully comfortable in the ocean of grace in which we’re swimming. That latter fact is why we might say, “That baby’s  just a little old man!” We need to keep growing, but it does not serve us to despise where we are, despise the past, or fear the future. All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose in Jesus Christ.

A brief look at the stages

The stages of faith have  become common thinking among us, as a church. A version of this chart below is part of our Children’s Plan.

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Stage 0/1: The rise of imagination

Earth — infants, toddlers, preschool

Young children have a changing, growing and dynamic faith. It’s marked by the rise of imagination. A young child does not have the kind of logic and language that makes possible or necessary the questioning of their perceptions or fantasies. Their minds are “religiously pregnant,” you might say. It is striking how many times experiences and images from before a child is six have powerful and long-lasting effects on their life of faith, both positive and negative.

How we love God and others will be colored by how we attached to our parents or other significant caregivers. I know that one of my images for God is my Grandmother coming clear from another town with broth for me when I was imprisoned in my room in the dark, sick with measles. She spooned the broth into my mouth and I can still remember the tenderness and wonder. It still seems quite supernatural.

Stage Two: Making meaning

Earth — school age

Elementary school children usually like stories and tend to be preoccupied with rules (especially those they violating). They are developing ways to make sense of the world and deal with it. They can criticize and evaluate their previous stage of imagination and fantasy. The gift of this stage is narrative. The child now can form and re-tell powerful stories that grasp his or her experiences of meaning. There is a quality of literalness about this. The child is not yet ready to step outside the stories and reflect upon their meanings. They take symbols and myths pretty much at face value, though they may be touched or moved by them at a deeper level.  The faith of a few people remains at this level all their lives.

I have often told the story of my personal miracle at this stage that basically sold me on faith in God. For others, this is the Sunday School era where they learn the ways of God and their church. How a church tells their stories: as rules and principles or as loving relationship may color a child’s understanding the rest of her life. Jesus has often been reduced to a story or a set of rules and you can see arrested development in the ways of many churches.

People stuck in stage one or two, the “earth” stage, are usually self-centered and often find themselves in trouble due to their unprincipled living. They are the “You’ll go to hell Christians.” If they do end up maturing to the next stage in adulthood, it often occurs in a very dramatic way. Our “Way of Jesus” metaphor acknowledges that a person’s natural faith development may be like a child’s until they meet Jesus in their twenties or fifties. Not only do we reach stages of life which begin with baby steps, some of us take first steps of faith when we are older.

Stage Three: Forming identity

Wind — adolescence

This stage typically begins around age 12 or 13. It’s marked by what Piaget calls formal “operational thinking” which means we now can think and feel about our own thoughts and feelings or “mentalize.”

Now is the time when a person forms a sense of identity, and is deeply concerned about the evaluations and feedback from significant other people in his or her life. They pull together their  valued images and convictions and think of themselves as themselves, albeit insecurely.

One of the hallmarks of this stage is how teenagers often compose images of God as extensions of interpersonal relationships. God is often experienced as Friend, Companion, and Personal Reality, in relationship in which I’m known deeply and valued.

I think the true religious hunger of adolescence is to have a God who knows me and values me deeply, and can be a kind of guarantor of my identity and worth in a world where I’m struggling to find who I can be. That’s why my youth director was so valuable. My parents were not so sure about my identity as a Christian; they were much more interested in raising a capitalist. But my youth director affirmed the stirrings of the Spirit in me and encouraged my differentiation.

People can get stuck in this stage, too. They probably rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give them stability. They become attached to the forms of their religion and their leaders and get extremely upset when these are called into question once they are set. A good example is how upset Catholics have been since the abuse scandals surfaced a decade ago. In 2007 they were 24% of the population, in 2016 they we 18% — that’s 20 million people!

At any of the stages from two on you can find adults whose faith is best described by one of them. Stage Three, thus, the Wind stage when we take first steps in the Spirit, can be a final adult destination. Many people, in churches and out, can be best described by faith that essentially took form when they were teenagers. So you can see how Circle of Hope is a new narrative for many people. For some, it literally hurts to be with us were seem so out of order. We tell them to leave their precious memories of church, but that teen faith is still strong. Some people are too afraid, or stubborn like a teenager, and can’t betray it.

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Stage Four: Reflective Faith

Fire — early adulthood

Stage Four, for those who develop it, is a time in which a person is pushed out of, or steps out of, the circle of interpersonal relationships and principles that have sustained his life to that point. Now comes the burden of reflecting upon the self as separate from the groups and the shared world view that defined them. For many of us: You move to Philadelphia and see what happens.

We don’t know who discovered water but we know it wasn’t fish. The person in Stage Three is like the fish sustained by the water. To enter Stage Four means to spring out of the fish tank and begin to reflect upon the water. Perhaps it feels like out of the frying pan and into the fire. In therapy this stage often means looking at your “script” and acting outside of it, making a choice. In marriage, it may mean getting out of the power struggle, uniting to beat our relational habits, and writing the new, loving narrative we choose. I often admire my clients’ rebellion against the narrative or structure that has throttled their development. Jesus was super mad at the Pharisees for doing the throttling – he wanted to kindle a fire.

This is the tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside “the box” and realizing there are other “boxes.” They begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own and often become disillusioned with their former faith. Ironically, the Stage 3 people sometimes think the Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when, in reality, they have  moved forward. The stage four people may think they have lost their faith, when they have just grown up.  Those who break out of the previous stage usually do so when they start seriously questioning things on their own. A lot of the time, this stage ends up being very non-religious and some people stay that way permanently. Some throw out the baby Jesus with the bathwater of their changes.

I think my holy dissatisfaction turned to holy differentiation. But it wasn’t without some strange days. At this stage I kind of blasted out of a very safe cocoon in my mid thirties. Ultimately, the process led me to Philadelphia and the fun I have been having ever since.

Many people don’t complete this transition, but get caught between three and four. They come up against “the wall” and don’t get farther. We may be forced over the wall when we lose a job or a marriage or our childhood faith. Sometimes people stay on an endless loop of the questions that inhibit their next steps. There is often a lot of concern about “Where do I stop and you begin? Where does the group I can belong to with conviction and authenticity end and other groups begin?” We want to fit authentically where we are, according to who we’ve become. It is not easy to find such a place. We realize we’ll have to build it.

Stage Five: Connective Faith

Fire — middle adulthood

Sometime around 35 or 40 or beyond, some people undergo a change to a more conjunctive faith, which is “adult” faith. What Stage Four worked so hard to get clear and clean in terms of boundaries and affiliation, Stage Five makes more permeable and porous. As we move into this stage, we begin to recognize that our unconscious is relative and deep, likewise the universe is huge. We become comfortable with the fact that much of our behavior is shaped by dimensions of self and God into which we are just dipping our toes. There is a deepened readiness for a relationship to God that includes God’s mystery and unavailability and strangeness as well as God’s closeness and clarity. We are more likely than before to love God for who God is rather than for who we are.

Stage Five is also a time when a person is also ready to look deeply into the social unconscious — into those myths, taboos and standards we took in with our mother’s milk which have powerfully shaped our behavior and reactions. We’re ready and able to re-examine those, which means we’re ready for a new kind of intimacy with persons and groups that are different from ourselves. We are ready for allegiances beyond our tribal gods and our tribal taboos. Stage Five is a period when one is alive to paradox. One understands that truth has many dimensions which have to be held together in a blessed tension. You can see that, paradoxically, ones needs a lot of water to sustain this fire.

Stage Six: Embraced and Embracing Faith

Water — adulthood

We all have this faith planted in us like a mustard seed. Whether we get to some idealized maturity, we have all known what the water stage is all about since we were babies. In a sense I think we can describe this stage as one in which we radically live as though the Kingdom of God were already a fact, since it is. We experience a shift from the self as the center of experience. Now our center becomes our participation in God, our ultimate reality. We’re at home in the creation, in that great commonwealth of being in Christ.

One the one hand, we experience people at this stage as being more lucid and simple than we are, and on the other hand as intensely liberating, sometimes even subversive in their freedom. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the last years of his life, or Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. James Fowler loved Dag Hammerskjold and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the last years of his imprisonment. We collect these great examples of people who demonstrate how to swim freely in grace in our Celebrating our Transhistorical Body blog.

These are Jesus followers who, in a sense, have loosened the hold their self has on them for the sake of affirming God. And yet in affirming God they become vibrant and powerful selves. They have a quality of relevant irrelevance. They have lost their lives and found them. Their “subversiveness” makes our compromises show up as what they are.

God be with you in your development!

If you got through all of this, I hope it affirmed where you are right now and inspired you to hope in your future. We are all growing. In a couple of months, I will be sixty-five, when our society provides an arbitrary line over which I can cross and become “old.” On the one hand, I already feel increasing, blue-ish freedom. On the other hand, I feel like a baby toddling into the unknown, wondering if my mother is looking at me as I run toward the street.  It is the transitions that get us. We can feel them as exciting baby steps or struggle with them as the end of something beautiful. Development can be scary or it can be the beautiful way we deepen our faith.

I hope this very brief rendition of a subject so many have explained so well helps you see where you are and where you want to go — there is a path, even if you can’t really see it right now. You are not alone or odd. There is hope for all of us.

I also gave this to you to lift up the idea that you are carrying all your selves from the past. They complete, inform, and undergird who you are becoming. They are not bad; they are part of you. Their pains and possibilities are still yours; I think you need to care for those many selves and love them and take them with you into your bright future.

A few resources:

  • Wikipeidia: James W. Fowler
  • Faith Development at Twenty Years: pdf (scholarly)
  • Spiritual Development link (makes Fowler’s theory more inclusive)
  • Janet Hagberg’s website.

Anxiety: A letting go exercise with Jesus — video version

Anxiety is an epidemic. Why don’t you try this O.P.E.N. prayer right now? It is a prayer of opening our clenched fists and our knotted hearts to the healing, hopeful love of God.

Anxiety: A letting go exercise with Jesus

Why does it seem like so many people are anxious? Some researchers say an increase in reporting issues with anxiety is due to greater access to treatment. So an actual increase in anxiety may not be proven yet. But there certainly  has been a lot of talk about anxiety in the past few years. And one researcher, among many, says there are common reasons people report more anxiety now than in the past.

The United States is breeding anxious people:

  • Society has shifted. Kids are set for “extrinsic goals, such as materialism and status and away from intrinsic goals, such as community, meaning in life, and affiliation. Motivations are drifting away from the community and onto the individual.”
  • More people are living alone. Some people like to live alone. But many more are forced to live alone — and loneliness increases anxiety. In 1960 under 7 percent of U.S. adults lived alone; by 2017, that figure had soared to well over 33%.
  • We live in a chemical bath. Nobody knows just what is going to happen to us as a result of constant exposure to chemicals. Studies suggest that the cocktail of plastics and other pollutants children drink daily may contribute to their future anxiety.
  • The introduction of social media platforms changed things. The onslaught of social media has changed relationship structures. Studies show, all over the world, that the more one uses it, the more likely they are to be depressed and anxious.
  • Life, in general, seems more stressful. Are jobs more stressful? Is commuting to blame? When we tell kids that they can “achieve anything if they try hard enough,” are we setting them up to fail? Is our self image being driven into the floor by the constant bombardment on our senses of perfectly filtered, digitally altered models? Has capitalism shifted our attention to vastly unobtainable personal desires, leaving us with a gaping chasm we know we can never fill? Climate change, nuclear apocalypse, Ebola, flesh-eating viruses, antibiotic resistance, ever-growing economic inequality, dictators, fake news…the list is endless.

Then we start talking about all these things on all our media, and the reverberations amplify our anxiety!

Last Saturday at the thirtysomething retreat, we boldly talked about the anxiety-decade.  If you are thirtysomething, a naturally challenging time of life is happening when the world itself provokes anxiety

So I offered a prayer that might help us find some peace. This outline is commonly used and I adapted it for our purposes.

O.P.E.N. to your Newness — the true you in Jesus

The next time you find yourself over-thinking past situations or feeling overwhelmed by life’s stresses, try this prayer that leads you to cooperate with God’s compassion and restore your attention to the present moment.

Observe

Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Notice how your body feels—tension in the stomach or heaviness in the shoulders, for example. Then notice the thoughts you’re thinking in the moment or are dwelling on from the past, and name them, such as, worrying, fearing, replaying, or planning.

When we notice where our bodies are carrying stress, we can focus our attention and relax our body parts. When we observe our thoughts, we’re able to choose which to believe and which to let pass, which are condemnation and which are freedom, which come from anxiety and which come from love. What are knee jerk reactions of your old self, what are death-defying traits of the new you in Christ?

We’re going to try it in a minute, so this is just an overview to get ready.

Peace

Now that you have identified the stress or seen the battlefield from a helpful perspective, let’s find peace. When you are ready, invite peace to your body and mind by saying things like, I am deeply hurt and it is okay to feel the way I do. (Receive comforting words to ease your distress about a specific situation or feeling).

Some other sentences that may deepen you peace: Even if other people judge me, I don’t have to judge myself. What other people say and do is about them, not me. I am angry but angry is not me. Jesus, guard my heart.

Cooperate with the peace of God.

Enjoy

Take a deep breath and take a moment to sit in the calmness of mind and body. Dwell in goodness. If you are using the Bible as part of this process (as I suggest below), enjoy the words or enjoy the pictures the words bring to mind.

Newness

Say to yourself: The moment has passed and now I am at peace. I am new in Christ. The God of peace is with me.

Let the goodness rise in you. More times than not, returning to the present moment — in which you can attend to yourself and to God, is an anchor, a solace in the midst of chaos. You can always come back to the place where you meet Jesus in the here and now.

At the retreat, we used a familiar portion of Philippians 4 which is a comfort of millions of people around the world. It could be read in an anxiety-provoking way: If I am worrying, I should not be. My heart is unguarded, so something terrible is going to happen to me. I can’t think straight, my mind races too much to dwell on something good. I am so inconsistent, God must not be with me. I can’t do it right, so I should give up.

Much of the Christianity in the U.S. runs according to the anxiety-provoking ways of the U.S. But I don’t think Paul, much less God, calls us to anything but the basic peace of Christ, moment by moment, forever. We kept affirming this : God is for me, in this moment and the nextMemorize that line so it is ready to recall when you need it — like when the police stop you, when the baby is crying inexplicably, when your husband is late, when the doctor’s diagnosis is iffy, when there is a midterm election, when you don’t know why you feel so fearful.

Image result for open hands in lap

Why don’t you try this O.P.E.N. prayer right now? It is a prayer of opening our clenched fists and our knotted hearts to the healing, hopeful love of God. You wouldn’t have to use the Bible to do it . But Philippians 4 enriches the process. 

Observe – Note your body and thoughts. Let the tight parts of your body relax. Choose the thoughts you need to hold on to and let the others go.

The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Peace – Invite peace into your body and mind by saying the honest truth about you and God

 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Enjoy – Breathe. Take a moment to sit in the calmness of mind and body. Dwell in goodness.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Newness – Let the goodness rise in you. Be anchored.

Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. — Philippians 4:5-9

It would be great to hear about how you experienced this prayer!

[What to see it as a video? Here it is: https://youtu.be/U3e09WeLzdI]

My creative relinquishment — and ours.

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The true vine and branches. San Clemente — Rome

A week of praying through times of transition at Circle of Hope Daily Prayer :: WATER last week was very good for me. I am in one of those transitions. You might be aware of it, since Circle of Hope sent me into it when they declared a transition of the whole church into our “second act” a couple of years ago. I thought I kind of knew where I was going, but there has been more development and change than I imagined!

The well-watered schedule

As a church we bought a new building, created new businesses, multiplied a new congregation, bid good-bye to significant partners, developed a new kind of pastors team and solidified a mostly-new leadership team. I was in the middle of all those changes. As a result of them, it seems to me, we are pulsing on the edges of our two-handed outreach: compassion and disciple-making. In a societal environment in which Jesus is not too popular right now, it is amazing how many people have made a brand-new relationship with the risen Lord this year!

Personally, I found myself jumping in and out of the problems that development causes. Nobody knows what a “development pastor” really does, since nobody else is one. But I quickly found out as my assignment came into play. I had plenty to do with mentoring, developing our crucial leadership team, helping with the practicalities of businesses, buildings and staff, and working out new teaching and communication (and there is more, I realized as I was making this list). I was supposed to work less hours but that did not immediately pan out.

Now that I am entering the last year of my term, I realize I have also been learning how to get smaller and let go, as I knew was my trajectory from the beginning.

Dead wood

That learning brings me to the Daily Prayer entry that really hit me last week. It was on “creative relinquishment.” I even enjoyed the extension of the Lord’s metaphor about him being the vine and we the branches to include considering what has become dead wood and what is sprouting on our branch. “One of the challenges of living in concert with the creativity of God is how to attend to present passions while releasing those tasks that are completed. How can we honor the past that we carry with us while not letting it define the future? How can we live in a well-ordered psychological house without accumulating too much stuff in the basement?  Life in the Spirit is a flow of engagement and release, of attachment and detachment, of commitment and relinquishment…. As we listen to God’s creative beckoning, we need to ask, ‘What must I release, in order to make way for what is calling now?’”

Unlike many people, I suspect, I actually did the prayer exercises that were suggested. Don’t get me wrong, I often avoid spending my precious time on spiritual exercises and my self-importance often has the same bad effect yours does on you. But I am in a time of life when I need to figure out what is the best next step for me. So I did some exercises. The question that I’ve been pondering ever since is: What is the “dead” wood on my branch of the vine? I was glad to be reminded that, in the Lord’s ecosystem, when a seed falls into the earth and “dies” it rises to new life and bears much fruit (John 12:24). So dead wood is not “bad” wood. I may be getting old, but I am hardly dead yet. Even though people persist in asking  me, “How is retirement?”, that does not mean the Lord has retired me. “Creative relinquishment happens in the context of resurrection and eternal life, not in a realm of scarcity and decline.”

Possible sprouts

As I am looking back on my recent history, I am happy we decided to go the route of “creative relinquishment” of our first act as we patiently and relatively consciously moved into our second. Although our risky behavior and unexpected changes have upended us a bit, lately, I think we are poised for deeper and more effective ministry than ever. I am also happy the church trusted me to be productive through a transition rather than just cutting me loose to see what happened. I expect to keep being helpful. And I have personally been inching toward clarity about where God is leading me next as part of our body.

Here is how clarity happens for me, and maybe for you. Last weekend Gwen and I were with dear friends who are a little older than us. They helped to create an atmosphere where deep thinking is welcomed. I began to see where some activities that have been very dear to me in my life are about done. I am not “dead to them” like I am sick from them or of them, but they are withering. They are decreasing so new things can sprout – sort of like the forest outside my window right now, whose floor is littered with toppled trees feeding the saplings right next to them. We watched a new movie together called  The Wife, with Glenn Close, and it aroused even more of what I had been thinking.  She has such an urge to give her gift of writing. It was interesting to see trees topple in mysterious ways to offer her a new blank page. My blank page is beginning to get a few sentences and that gives me hope for how the Lord is leading each of us, you included, as we keep listening. Let’s pray.

Re-begin the Beguines: True alternativity we’ve just barely tried

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For 300 years, from the 1200’s to 1500’s the Rhine River Valley in Europe experienced an astonishing revival of Christian experience among regular people. One of the great expressions of it was the founding of many communities of “beguines” and their male counterparts “beghards.” These communities were part of a huge spiritual movement that stressed the imitation of Christ’s life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion. {Check out the best seller of the time]

I am praying for a  new flowering of similar discovery and passion in our own time. If you read this blog, you probably stoke my hope. Many younger Jesus-followers, in particular, are trying on the basic Christianity their recent ancestors in faith have abandoned for political fights and empire thinking. Circle of Hope is a good opportunity to try on some beguine-like radicality. So can we re-begin the beguines? We are in the process of refining our church in many ways, these days, could the beguines lead us?

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Priest lectures a group of beguines

What is a “beguine?”

No one knows for sure where the word “beguine” came from. It could be a derivation of “beige,” since many of these people were heavily involved in the flourishing new cloth manufacturing trade in Europe and wore simple tan clothes. Maybe they’d be called “denims” today. But “beguine” could also be a pejorative nickname that stuck, like “Christian” — no one really knows.

I admit, when I remembered these inspiring people the other day, I passed over the great mystics among them and went straight to Begin the Beguine by Cole Porter (who may be as obscure to some of you as the 13th century!). In the Creole language of Martinique and Guadeloupe a beguine is not a Christian lay woman living in a religious community without formal vows. The term came to mean “white woman” in general, and then it came to be applied to a style of music and dance, and in particular a slow, close couples’ dance. Cole Porter popularized this dance wherever people were cool in the 30’s and 40’s. There is not much connection between Cole Porter and my spiritual heroes, which goes to show how spiritual movements flourish, get co-opted or corrupted and are lost on some dance floor. But I persist.

According to the famous mystic, John of Ruusbroec, the beguines’ religious and political opinions were similar to those expressed by anarchists of later centuries. Religious authorities believed their members had heretical tendencies and sometimes tried to bring disciplinary measures against them (Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in Paris on charges of heresy in 1310). The Beghards were even more public about their reforms; during the 14th century, they were repeatedly condemned by the Pope, the German bishops and the Inquisition. Before the close of the Middle Ages, the communities were in decline, diminished by institutionalization, persecution and the waning of the textile trade. But some beguinages kept going for 800 years until the last beguine died in 2013.

They weren’t trying to build a legacy, anyway, much the opposite; they were just trying to have a life in Christ. When radicals like the Franciscans started speaking the gospel outside the church and its power structure, in the vernacular and not just in Latin, it led to thousands of people acquiring a genuine relationship with Jesus, which ultimately led to an intimate oneness with God. This spiritual progression was ultimately known as “mysticism” [link to posts on “mystical hope“].

The last intact Beguinage, at Antwerp, Belgium
An intact Beguinage, at Antwerp, Belgium

Part of a great movement of the Spirit

Responding to itinerant preachers before the year 1200, women by the thousands flocked to various convents. The communities did not have room for all of them. So they joined together in their own communities for spiritual growth and pooled their resources to buy  large houses to live in (above), or whole sections of a city. Initially, the beguines were widows and single women, but soon married women found ways to connect. They were devoted to the poor. Some of the first houses formed around infirmaries where many volunteered. They bought the new Bibles being translated into local languages and studied together. They wrote their own devotional books, music and philosophy. Some of the earliest books in Dutch and German were written by Beguines, such as Hadewijch of Brabant and Mechthild of Magdeburg. Radically in love with Jesus, these women saw themselves as brides of Christ and gave their lives to the pursuit of knowing Jesus and serving his cause.

How far can we go with similar intent? It would be great if some of our good businesses became means for people to pray together, then go work on their common business. It would be amazing if people saw our cells and congregations as distinct parts of the city where people protected one another’s relationship with God. It would be wonderful if we managed to care for the poor in new ways that did not rely so much on corporations and government.  It would be wonderful to incorporate more of the feminine and fluid theology of the era of the beguines. It would be great if we unleashed our creativity even more to give voice to the movement of Jesus among us. It would be miraculous if our sense of alternativity blossomed into another movement of the Spirit in our time.

I know we are in the process of trying all these things right now. So miracles could occur! Some of us just have a toe in the water, some of us are kind of over “radicality,” some of us are on the other side of Christ-centered faith, many of us are just beginning to walk with Jesus. As the beguines demonstrated, it doesn’t really matter who one is or where you are on the faith journey; renewal and inspiration are all about the Spirit of God — and the Lord’s Spirit is not bound by who we are right now. Where could we go? And who might we become? We have courageous examples from the past who suggest exciting ways to develop.

Lilias Trotter: And how the higher life doesn’t need to kill you

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“Lilias Trotter” c.2014 by Austin Blasingame

I have been thinking a lot about Lilias Trotter lately. She was the subject of a 2015 movie which made her a bit more notorious — it is great when Christian discover an interesting spiritual ancestor and tell their story! As a history buff who loves finding interesting characters from the past, I am happy and cautious about such stories. I think it is safe to say that one often finds what she is looking for in history — the stories that get told often end up looking strangely like the autobiography of the historian!

Nevertheless, Lilias Trotter, presented by her admirers or suspected by her detractors, has had me thinking ever since she appeared in Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body last week. I love her even as I think she might have been a bit deluded. And I respect her, even though I know remembering her has the capacity to drive certain Christians to despair.

In case you didn’t read the blog entry, Trotter was an English socialite in the Victorian era who committed herself to the “higher life” in Christ and ended up being a missionary in Algeria. She was so sickly, the missionary board would not send her. But she and her friend, having resources of their own, struck out for North Africa and spent 30 years trying to help Muslims meet the living God, risen in Jesus. That would be an inspiring reason enough to remember her, but it is even more inspiring to know she left her very promising art career behind to serve Jesus. She was so talented that no less than John Ruskin told her she might become one of the greatest English artists if she applied herself. But she left her development as an artist behind to follow her calling. Fortunately, she still did a bit of art, but she could never give her heart to the pursuit, since her heart belonged to Jesus.

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El Oued desert 1895 — Lilias Trotter

When I brought Lilias Trotter into our cell dialogue last week, I started with the quote from Jesus with which the prayer blog started: “…unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Jesus – Matthew 5:20). I will not attempt to unpack all we had to say about that piece of scripture; we just scratched the surface, anyway. What we started discussing is the fact that we, like the Pharisees, tend to get stuck in a “box” of our own making that we consider about as good as it gets (or as good as we can do) and we become satisfied with it, or defensive of it, or stuck within the confines of it, or unable to see beyond it. We are all prone to the frailty of mortals, even if we are trying to be as righteous as the Pharisees were trying to be. We need the Lord, in our case the risen Lord, to tell us, “Your ways will not get you into the kingdom of heaven; you must join me where I am. I will show you the way, personally.”

Lilias Trotter was at the beginning of a movement among Christians in Europe and the United States that heard the call from Jesus and immediately looked around at their boxed-in lives and boxed-in religion and made every effort to get out of the box. It has been called the “higher life” movement. Trotter learned of this higher life in the Spirit and about died seeking it, all the while thinking death would be fine, because she did not want to be in the box when Jesus returned; she would rather have died than to miss out on her highest calling. She gave her utmost for the Lord’s highest.

Several people in our cell grew up in environments where word of this higher life was the constant message of their parents and elders. They constantly heard, “You need to get out of wherever you are and go further. You need to make sure you are not missing your highest calling. Ordinary people filled with the Holy Spirit do extraordinary things.” So they were always quite sure that there was a further place to go and they had not made it yet.

Even when they tried to be as good as they should be they secretly felt guilty for not being  good enough.  In the name of spiritual freedom they felt completely condemned! This may not have happened to you, but a couple of people experienced such anxiety and depression they felt even more faulty, since an extraordinary day for them might be getting out of bed and actually going to work! Having the devotion of a Pharisee in a righteous box might seem like success! So when Jesus appears to say such limited righteousness is not enough to get them into heaven, it is devastating. They’d never even gotten into a religious box yet, much less would they have the wherewithal to get out of it!

They were glad our church was so gracious to accept them where they are, even though it is filled with “higher life” types (like me) who are rearin’ to go most of the time. Our church is, essentially, a radical kind of place that, by nature, might not seem like the best place for someone who feels successful if they make it to the Sunday meetings a couple of times a month. We are often blasted with messages from people who would have loved to follow in Lilias Trotter’s footsteps to Algeria. And yes, she and her type will be celebrated as admirable ancestors in “our transhistorical body” while we appear to overlook the millions who no one remembered much after they died.

I ended the dialogue in our cell like I am going to end this blog post, with this question. Why can’t Lilias Trotter be celebrated for who she is and each of us be celebrated for who we are? If she is greater, why not love her for it? If you aren’t, why not love you for it? Isn’t that the gospel, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and we are all saved by the redeeming work of Jesus? As soon as the Lord made us all equal in his love as he died for us on the cross, do we immediately need to turn around and create a hierarchy among us according to how much glory someone is reflecting, or not?

I know being loved as we are and feeling hope for a higher life is hard to accept when we are depressed and anxious, or when our parents and associates have made us feel like we are not worth much, or sin at work in us has warped our view of self and God so much we can’t see straight. I freely admit that many Christians have been a menace, acting all holy and doing terrible things in the name of their righteousness. In spite of their sin, we need to receive our new self in Christ whether it lives in a messy, yet-to-be-perfected box or not! It is the crucial act of putting on the new self of God’s beloved that leads us out of every restrictive box and onto the unusual ways of faith in Jesus.

Say a little prayer with Aretha Franklin

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Last week I was sitting on my porch at 1pm on a Thursday eating an ice cream sandwich, all of which are rare. A car rolled by with the windows down, playing I Say a Little Prayer by Aretha Franklin, one of my favorites. It was still playing in my mind when I went inside to my computer. As soon as I sat down, a chat screen popped up and Jonny told me Aretha had died — he knows I am a fan. So I will probably always remember the day Aretha Franklin died because of that serendipity. And because she has been a companion along my way since I was fourteen. I suspect I have played her album of Atlantic hits 500 times and said a little prayer with her a few times, too.

I was fourteen in 1968 when Respect won two Grammys and Aretha Franklin became a feature on the Hi-Fi stationed in my family’s living room. There were no personal music players or earphones back then so music was a communal experience. My parents did not like Aretha  in their communal experience (just like they hadn’t liked one of her mentors, Mahalia Jackson). For one thing, she was black and they were vocal racists, especially my father, who had competed for sharecropping jobs with black men and jealously guarded whatever shred of white privilege he could muster. What’s more, she sounded aggressive and loud. Even if they didn’t listen to the words and didn’t get it when she spelled it out: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, they could feel her demand when she sang. She threatened the living room. Her blackness invaded my parents’ sanctuary.

I did not get all this completely when I was fourteen. I’m a product of racism just like we all are. So it merely felt like a like a guilty pleasure to rebelliously listen to Aretha, and to allow someone but Perry Como to define music for me. Aretha liked Perry Como, too (I read the interview),  just like she enjoyed all kinds of good music. But my parents did not know that, mostly because she was black and it betrayed their worldview to listen to her. Nevertheless, my relationship with the Queen of Soul grew and my appreciation of her talent and passion deepened.

As it turns out, the famously private Aretha Franklin was hiding all the trauma that would have appalled my parents and supercharged the disrespect they were eager to pour on her. Her parents were separated. She was a teen mother at 12 and 14. Her first husband purportedly abused her. She had two divorces. She was often overweight. She was known for idealizing her life, not even publicly admitting to the pancreatic cancer that eventually killed her as late as last year.

At the same time she was using the gift God gave her to make a huge difference. Had she just given us the pleasure of listening to her great musical talent, however she used it, that would have been enough. But her music became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement for African Americans and women both. And her insistence on doing things that were beyond the labels under which she labored and the track on which her previous success directed her is an example for all of us who feel underestimated or pigeonholed.

Her soulful talent helped me move out of my racist bubble. Thank God. I remember another moment of transition related to the song that came to me through the car window on her death day. I got started with I Say a Little Prayer with Dionne Warwick in 1967 before Aretha recorded it in 1968

I loved Dionne Warwick’s version. But when I heard Aretha’s, I realized that Warwick’s was something of a sanitized version which was more about the cool, cerebral music of Burt Bacharach than about Dionne Warwick. She was just a vehicle for the notes. When Aretha got a hold of it, it was full of passion that transcended the notes and most of the words. At the end of the song, she turns it into an actual prayer and we are all invited into a place that is a lot bigger than pop. So-called white people used so-called black people to carry their assignments long before I learned as a child to think of that as normal. Aretha broke me out of that normality when she led me someplace bigger. She was a leader. And even wounded, she was just bigger than most of us.

I suppose that is why I was particularly moved when she died. Like many other people I eventually tuned into the news channels to see what people were saying about her and to invite her into my living room again, this time to celebrate her with freedom. I found myself shedding a tear with President Obama as her Kennedy Center Performance was repeatedly replayed.

As I listened, I had another revelation that led to this blog post. I loved A Natural Woman when I heard it on Carol King’s Tapestry (which I had on vinyl and basically wore out with many plays). But when Aretha got a hold of it, she added a spiritual dimension that took it beyond the great feeling of a man seeing his partner as the woman she is and calling out the best in her (which I hope we all get to experience many, many times). I honestly think she took the song where we can all sing it to God.

Maybe this seems strange, but when I sing “You make me feel like a natural woman” along with Aretha, I feel God making me feel like my true self, even when I sing “natural woman!” Again, she brought someone larger to the music. It seems like Aretha did not have too many people in her life to make her feel as safe and real as the song sings it. So I think she must have gotten her power in the secret place she kept beyond fame, pain, addiction and racism where Jesus reminded her she was his beloved. May she rest in God’s arms.

Spiritual life on the edge and in the center: Joseph and my mentors

I don’t know how old I was (jr. high?), but I do know this: I was too young to be the Sunday School teacher for the 5th grade boys. But the church was desperate and I was their boy, so the coach put me in. I am not sure what the class learned except how clever they were to discover that I could be nicknamed “Rod White and Blue.”

"the Servant Of Joseph Finds The Cup In The Bag Of Benjamin" French School 19th, Oil/paper
Not exactly how the 5th grade boys staged it

But I learned quite a few things. One of them has stuck with me ever since. In order to keep these boys occupied I decided to have them enact the story of Joseph for the church (Genesis 37-50). I have no idea why the pastor let us do this in the Sunday meeting, since it was a uniformly terrible production. But the parents put everyone in a bathrobe and the servant found the communion chalice in a gunny sack and the whole thing. Perhaps the kids still remember the epic story as a result. I do. I have been pondering it my whole life (and I’m not alone).

Edge and center spirituality

Recently, I learned a new twist to the great story after I read a book about discerning life transitions. I have offered an entire series of messages about life transitions based on this great saga about Joseph and his family, since all the stages are all there and vividly portrayed. But this new book taught me that, in the course of moving through the stages of spiritual development, there is another theme to follow and the author used Joseph to demonstrate it. Ernie Boyer called it “edge spirituality” and “center spirituality.” Boyer’s idea sees two spiritual ways in life, reconciling them in the image of a circle, in which the “edge” is our traditional sense of spiritual discipline and the center is a renewed spirituality of everyday concerns. His idea brings Mary and Martha back to living together in the same house, perhaps Mary returning from her hermitage or Martha moving into the monastery.

Boyer encourages us to explore life “on the edge” (following the lead of our apostles, prophets, and artists) — like the edge of a wheel, feeling all the highs and lows, coming into contact with the rough surface of the earth, and rolling into what is next. But he also, realistically, encourages us to stop neglecting life “at the center,” which we often despise for its repetition and domesticity, and find the Spirit in what is already established. These two spiritualities are often side by side in the New Testament, though the edge is often considered the better way. You can see how this is a nice metaphor for meditating on our individual and communal lives. Individuality lends itself to a heroic search for the edge. Community leads us to look for ways to develop the sacrament of our routine and the blessings of living as part of the Lord’s body. There is always a balance of individual calling and caring for others, of looking at our personal career goals and caring for our family, both biological and spiritual.

Joseph learns his relationship with God and his unique calling out on the edge: in his dreams as a teen, in a pit in his twenties, way on the edge in Egypt in his thirties, in prison in his forties (the timeline is subject to interpretation of course). Then in his older years, he ends up in the center of Pharaoh’s household in the center of the whole kingdom and in the center of a famine that gives him the capacity to save his family, bring them to live with him and end up at the center of them again. There is an interesting dance of these complementary spiritual ways in the story. Joseph’s family upheaval spins him out on the edge. Then his great spiritual journey on the edge makes him fully capable of nurturing the center. You can also see this idea worked out from the beginning to the end of the Lord’s mission. At the beginning, Jesus is pushed to the edge by his mother, at a wedding no less. Then at the end, as Jesus turns back toward home, both as a man and God on the cross, he looks to his mother and provides her a home with John, then turns to the Father and says, “It is finished.”

How the two spiritualities go together

As I look back over my faith development, I can see how these two spiritualities often felt like they were in competition, but usually ended up in a balance – or at least a truce! When I got out of high school, and the kind of Baptist Church that would make me a Sunday School teacher (!), I became an actual Christian. My first mentors in the faith were all people who had great faith “on the edge.” I loved Anthony in the desert, Patrick on his hill, Francis in his cave and Wesley on horseback. It was a real question whether to become a Franciscan or marry Gwen. I just could not get God to let me be a Franciscan — and since you may know my wife, you can see why I did not argue too much with the good given to me in her! But my mentors in history made me feel a bit guilty about my choice. Since an “edge” spirituality often despises anyone who ties themselves to the “center” of the wheel.

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Francis on the edge

Thank God I had the flower-child-recasting of St. Francis in Brother Sun, Sister Moon to encourage me. Here is a bit of wisdom stuck in my memory, straight from the script:

[Giocondo] I can take all the rest, the cold, the hunger, but there are days and nights when I’d gladly face eternal damnation for one moment of love. I’ll ruin everything you’ve tried to do, Francesco. I can’t go on.

[Francesco] But, but you don’t have to. We’re not a regiment of priests for whom the sacred vow of chastity is a discipline. We’re, we’re just a band of men who simply love God, each according to his own capacity. But if Giocondo finds the lack of a woman distracts him from loving God,then he should marry and breed to his heart’s content.

[Giocondo] You didn’t cut my hair before. You knew I was weak. You knew this would happen.

[Francesco] If everyone took the vow of chastity, the human race would end. Be fruitful and multiply, but with a wife, remember.

Dwight Judy says, “Most of us are not living the highly individualistic life of early hermits in the desert. We live in society, in communities, and in families. Yet the resources from Christian spirituality largely reflect the individual quest for purity of soul before God. Even when engaging in a communal living situation, such as monastic life, our spiritual legacy of prayer and attention to the inner journey helps us primarily with the task of solitary communion with God.” Francis had to assure Giocondo that making love is great. For many of us it is one of the most spiritual things we do. And watching a child born is usually the closest sense of incarnation we ever witness.

The spirituality of the center is the hub of the circle where we live in community and family, doing the daily routine in grace. The turning of the wheel and the bumps in the road usually push us toward the edge, where we meet God in our unique experiences, gifts and troubles. The rarified experiences we have out on the edge then inform our return and refresh the center. The two spiritualities are woven together in a “coat of many colors,” just like Joseph’s.

Being conscious helps with the balancing

I have a great affection for St. Francis whose “out there” spirituality also built a community who still love to call themselves the “little brothers,” just like he taught Giocondo. I know my balancing act of the two spiritualities, though somewhat conscious, has often careened from one extreme to the other. This blog post arose in a day of retreat out on the edge. But I will be into the community life of Circle of Hope later in the week and August is full of family and friends — and I am still married to my lovely wife! But as much as I long for my solitude with God and the pure joy of revelation and comfort I find there, it is really no less joyful, I think, than having my grandson climb up on my lap as I am lounging, put his little nose on my big one and ask me one of his profound questions. So odd, isn’t it, that we might despise one revelation in comparison to the other, or ignore one and specialize in the other, or fear the edge while we cling to the center or fear the center as we look beyond our edge.

I take heart in the story of Joseph, since it begins and ends with impossible grace. He never knows what is going to happen next, but he apparently knows where he is going. He’s rolling along with God, not assessing whether he is experiencing “edge” or “center” spirituality! He receives whatever comes along. He even tells his brothers. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen. 50:20). But if you are learning how to have a disciplined spiritual life, the point is: Don’t mistake the edge for the whole wheel. Don’t despise the hub as if it were mediocre or mundane. It is all one life energized by God’s Spirit. From wherever you start today, perhaps clinging to the center too much or aspiring to an impossible edge too much, we all have the assurance that God keeps developing us, just like Joseph developed, by the seemingly unpredictable or even troubling experiences we face. It is all a wonder and God intends it for good.

Resistance — Was it your fault or their struggle when they left the church?

This post started because I sensed my own resistance to the changes happening in my life. In the middle of prayer, I said right out loud, “You really don’t want to do anything today, do you?” I picked up a good book I want to finish and the first page was about the resistance a man felt to accepting a call he felt from God. I immediately put down the book and said, “I just can’t do this.”

I was becoming more aware of my innate resistance to my journey deeper with Jesus. To be honest, it seems like the deeper I go, the more resistance I face! So I got up to do some more research on the concept and experience of resistance in people who are going deeper into themselves and, more important, deeper with God – which always includes going deeper into oneself. After I wrote the first line of this paragraph, I impulsively flipped open a news aggregator website I like. I really didn’t want to concentrate on this issue! So if you are feeling similar things, I suppose this blog post might be hard to finish. You might be about ready to click the Facebook icon right now.

The resistance people feel might not be your fault

As a church, we often feel ashamed of ourselves when people leave one of our many expressions of our tight community. There are many good reasons people leave, no doubt — we do things wrong and their lives just change. But one factor we often overlook is that they leave because of their resistance. They don’t want to go deeper: with God, with others or in their own sense of self and mission. You can often see resistance brewing before they hit the road. Here are some symptoms: perfectionism, criticism, contempt, being self-critical, preoccupation with appearances, social withdrawal, need to be seen as independent and invulnerable, or an inability to accept compliments or constructive criticism.

This resistance and its symptoms is a phenomenon psychotherapists have been talking about for a century. They kept experiencing the paradoxical experience in which a client who came for relief and help would resist their own treatment.  A main reason is they were ashamed to need treatment! They wanted to change and grow, but the uncomfortable journey into health was hard to bear.   This probably sounds familiar to you. The resistance your therapist is noting in your session is also happening in all our health-giving, loving relationships, — we even experience it in our families. Toddlers who love french fries inexplicably won’t eat them! Did you somehow taint french fries? I doubt it. Why did that person drift out of the cell, dismissing it as inadequate or annoying? Were you really that inadequate and annoying (perhaps!) or could they be facing the need to change and they are resisting it?

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Motivation is not really enough

When people are facing resistance to their life of faith (sometimes displaying those annoying symptoms I just listed), they are often condemned (usually by themselves!) for their lack of motivation. Just tweet the picture above to one of them! They could easily read it as: “Why are you so uncommitted to Jesus and his people? Why aren’t you super?”  But, for most of us I think, we are rarely consciously resisting anything. It is automatic. Want to hear Freud talk about it?

“The discovery of the unconscious and the introduction of it into consciousness is performed in the face of a continuous resistance on the part of the patient. The process of bringing this unconscious material to light is associated with pain, and because of this pain the patient again and again rejects it…If you succeed in persuading [them] to accept, by virtue of a better understanding, something that up to now, in consequence of this automatic regulation by pain, [they have] rejected, you will then have accomplished something towards [their] education…Psychoanalytic treatment may in general be conceived of as such a re-education in overcoming internal resistances”

Want to hear it from the Bible?

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

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. — Hebrews 12:1-4

Hebrews 12 is often trucked out as a motivational jolt. “Come on, get over yourself! Get into the game! Look at all these great people who have already done it! You can endure your suffering and tirelessly move ahead. You’ve still got blood in you, don’t you? Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” The verses can can be made to sound like the Oprah channel, and it does have some overtones of good self-talk. [This Oprah moment is not the worst thing ever said, it just needs Jesus]

But it can also be read as very sympathetic to the resistance the readers are facing. I think it says, “The most dreaded thing in us is suffering and pain. Face the entanglements and sin you are discovering and move beyond them. Fix your eyes on Jesus, who so vividly faced the dreaded shame of dying on a cross! He certainly understands what it is like to face opposition, inside and out. It won’t kill you to do it, even though it feels like it, at times. Don’t let your resistance steal your rightful place by God’s side.”

Motivation or positive thinking are good to have, but they are not enough when we need to go deeper to go farther.

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We need to look at our resistance from many angles

As I began to let my own resistance be noticed, I had a whole array of ways to resist noticing my resistance.

  • I could repress it — suppress my thought and my desire to move with the change and leave the whole subject unconscious.
  • I could redirect the feelings to a substitute – I’m just feeling blue because Gwen is gone, the cat died and so-and-so disappointed me.
  • I could have called some therapeutic friend and got them to feel sorry for me so my resistance could actually get me something even though I did not really address it.
  • I could get up and clean the basement or watch TV and basically get myself deeper into my resistance by repeating all the behaviors that always cause the distress I have come to think of a “just being me.”
  • Or I could assuage the innate guilt I feel by punishing myself for my resistance or avoiding the shame I feel with inebriates, procrastination, comfort eating or worse.

It is no wonder Paul said in Romans 7

I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! — Romans 7:21-25

We have a lot of ways to defend our injured, tender selves against feelings of discomfort. We find it very difficult to attend to perceptions and ideas which we have disciplined our mind to avoid, or to  acknowledge impulses we don’t want to admit we feel. It would be great if we could hear a motivational speech, change our minds and so change all our ways. But being deep takes a lifetime. Being saved takes a moment, but transformation is a slow process of working things through with the Holy Spirit by our side and God’s people watching our backs.

One of the primary reasons that motivation, of itself, does not automatically lead to change is that we fear that the demands involved may be too costly. We may have to see our own role in the problems we are having and do something about it. In addition, we worry about how other people will react when our behavior patterns change; the move toward health can be surprisingly upsetting to those who are used to “the devil they know” (a person’s usual defensive style). Their partner’s change challenges them to change and they might be uncomfortable with that. Finally, seeing our own role in our problems does cause some negative reflection about the past and how much time we have wasted in behaving as we have.

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So be careful with people facing their resistance in the church

We might need to be careful with people who seem unmotivated, irritable, or wishy washy. They are undoubtedly dealing with their resistance to their own spiritual health. Surely you can’t be bad enough to deserve all the criticism or rejection such people redirect on you. Sometimes you even repent, don’t you? — and they still are not satisfied. It is probably more about their own struggle than you. Stick with them. You might even help them see what is going on by allowing them to explore it with you. But more likely, the Holy Spirit will be incrementally transforming them as long as they can stay close and not wander too far from the environments that help them.

There is something like an invisible wall that stands between aspiring Jesus-followers  and the true self they desperately want to put on. When Paul talks about it, it could sound like a pep talk.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. — Ephesians 4:22-4

It could even sound like a scolding, “Why are you walking around in that old self?!”  There is a place for that question.

But Paul’s letter is to people who are working with this new life they have and it is not that easy. When they get a glimpse of the wall they face, they can see how they have been corrupted and how deceitful their desires are. People continually bump up against this wall, get knocked back on their duff, get back up, and incomprehensibly repeat the procedure over and over. We don’t even know we’re bumping into a wall. We’re just left feeling confused, dazed, and disoriented, unable to make any sense of recurring self-defeat or self-sabotage. They know they have already been made new by Jesus, but living like it is a surprisingly difficult matter. We, like Paul, need to keep bringing it up and facing the resistance. It is crucial for our personal development. I need to admit that I have places yet to go. I am still developing “after all this time.” I think we should be careful with others too.

We are all facing the same kind of irrational fear. We prop up our resistance with a stubborn, largely unconscious determination to avoid the anxious or fearful feelings of being confronted with truth and reality. Our sense of self can be quite tiny. We may not want to feel disoriented by new self-knowledge. We might fear being overwhelmed by everything we’ve been holding back. We may have come to believe our own illusions and think we already know everything that could possibly be relevant or important. We probably think holding on to our conflicted self is normal and blame others if they don’t accept it as normal too.

The basic idea of going deeper with Jesus, even needing to be saved, asks people to  acknowledge their ignorance and neediness. Resistance combines with furious non-acceptance to debunk this humiliating new idea that I don’t know enough and am not OK. We might even falsify reality in order to accommodate our defenses, as the President demonstrates almost every day.

All liberating growth takes time. So don’t be surprised if our deep-directed community frustrates people who aren’t willing to endure the long journey. The “old self” pops up here and there in all of us. Eventually, our perverse defense system will probably collapse. But the process takes time. We have to keep “fixing our eye on Jesus” and listen, really listen, to others when they tell us to “consider him” so that we “do not grow weary and lose heart.” Our transformation is not taking “too much time.” We are eternal, after all. Time is just living, not some kind of  burden or obstacle. Once a person is pointed in the right direction, time is on her side.

Right now, I still feel the seeds of my resistance ready to direct my day. Writing a blog post did not automatically cure me. But it did redirect me. A small decision to fix my eyes on Jesus and dare to look at myself made a difference. It wasn’t that easy for me, even though I am kind of an “old salt” when it comes to spiritual discipline. It is not that easy for you or for all those people bumping up against stuff in your relationship with them or in the church, or even with Jesus. Let’s be understanding and gentle with each other. The suffering often feels intolerable.

Why are you so responsible?

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You probably already believe this, you’ve been taught it so often.

I am listening to a troubled friend. They pause for a breath, and sometimes I can’t help it. I blurt things out.  These days, it seems like I am often blurting: “You are responsible for so much!” I feel so sorry for them – so much to control when they feel so out of control, so many wrongs to right when they feel so wrong (and wronged!), so many needs to get filled when they are surrounded by people who are not giving them enough.

Being over responsible may be why some of us do so little for Jesus.

Dutiful Christians can see what needs to be done; they are smart enough to see what would be required of them to get it done, and they resist getting started. They can’t see how they could do all that. What’s more, they resent being asked to do all that. Even more, they have a secret they rarely reveal: “I am not able to do what I think I ought to be doing and I don’t want you to think poorly of me when you find out. So I am going to keep looking like I am just fine, and tell you that every time you ask, even though we both know I am lying.”

A few parents reading this might think I do not know what I am talking about, since their children seem to be anything but responsible. They won’t even turn out a light or cook an egg for themselves. But they might be wrong about what is going on. Just because a husband withdraws because he is upset, does not mean he does not care deeply for the relationship. He probably feels scared to mess it up by presenting his unholy feelings. Likewise, if your child can’t succeed at cooking the perfect egg, they might rather starve. Likewise, if you are responsible for improving all the weaknesses of your mate and children, they are likely to be just like you, searching around for weaknesses in others and themselves and demanding something of others and themselves which is beyond their present capabilities. And on we go.

It is understandable how the world, in general, might get to this way of life. After all, most people believe they are alone. And many philosophies and a couple of religions, specialize in making the “reality” of being alone palatable. If one is the center of reality, they feel an overwhelming responsibility for themselves; they are responsible for the well-being of the planet, and the good or bad experience of each fleeting, precious day is squarely on their shoulders. The TV commercials last night included one about a young man advertising himself on a dating site – I wanted to cry. Even on a commercial he looked awkward and hopelessly hopeful that his grand gesture would result in love. He was being sold as one of the brave ones who take love into their own hands and get it.

I think many of us Jesus followers have a problem. We aren’t righteously responsible.

We are prone to carrying God’s responsibility in the name of God instead of accepting our actual responsibility. And it is killing us. We are often miserable failures who make everyone else feel like they have to be more than they are to be acceptable. We want to do great things, but since it mainly depends on us to do them, alone for the most part, we don’t even get started.

Why is it so hard to build a church? Most of the people in it love Jesus. Could it be because they are preserving their limited resources, since they know they will be responsible to make their small lives work out perfectly and they instinctively know that the call of God in the church would overwhelm their limited resources? They can’t be responsible for that; they are responsible for everything.

I have several friends I often need to stop in the middle of a paragraph to say, “I don’t need you to react to my feelings before I have them. Please stop taking care of me by not telling me the truth about what you think and feel. If I can’t handle what you are saying, God will help me.” I think they think it is kind to be responsible for my feelings. In some sense I guess that’s true, but I already have a Savior. They could be kind without being messianic.

That’s what I am getting at. We can only be responsible for anything because God is responsible for everything. God decided to need us, we are not responsible for making ourselves useful. We are accepted as who we are and as who we will become at the same time. I think I can say that it is a sin to be an aspiration who is responsible to become someone worthy rather than a beloved child who is deemed worthy right now. Children grow naturally in the light of love. Grandiose aspirations take what is good and wreck it out of their overwrought sense that they need to make something better out of it and so prove their value as a person worthy of their lives.

Jesus followers have plenty of responsibility, of course. We are entrusted with the Holy Spirit, after all. But, like Paul so clearly teaches, we carry our glory in “clay jars.” Our main responsibility is to let our light shine and reveal our splendid weakness as we fully trust Jesus to brings things to right. Isn’t is irresponsible not to do that?