Category Archives: Spiritual Discipline

Joy in one hand and suffering in the other

“As we move along our pilgrimage through this life, we learn to carry joy in one hand and suffering in the other.” I heard that truth in one of the many enriching events I experienced last week. Then our Daily Prayer entry reinforced it as our pastors got us started on our Lent journey:

The experience of God’s love and the experience of our weakness are correlative [they move together like a team]. These are the two poles that God works with as he gradually frees us from immature ways of relating to him. The experience of our desperate need for God’s healing is the measure in which we experience his infinite mercy. The deeper the experience of God’s mercy, the more compassion we will have for others. – Thomas Keating in Invitation to Love

It is so true! Read the quote again and let it sink in — just like we were doing at the Lent retreat last Saturday.

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St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass CO — Keating’s home for many years.

They make Lent sound so easy

Father Keating’s words seem somewhat obvious, don’t they? — that is until we move from his great teaching and into the next moment of our day! In that next moment someone or something is very likely to jostle our hold on joy in one hand or and kick us into the automatic, suffering-grabbing reactions we’re holding  in the other.

If I were on retreat in Snowmass, Colorado (as I intend to be someday!) with a beloved leader like Father Keating and other privileged people who could afford such an experience, the correlative experience of love/joy and weakness/suffering would undoubtedly make as much sense as it does right now as I am writing about it in the quiet of my study. But I must add, when I was driving to the Sunday meeting not long ago, feeling late, I suffered another of the million potholes in Philly right before someone pulled out in front of me. That moment exposed my weak hold on joy and my hyper-awareness of the injustice I suffer.

While Father Keating and other luminaries have been invited into my spiritual home for a long time, their light is easy to dim.  They make spiritual disciplines like Lent, seem kind of easy. But they aren’t. So I am writing today to see if I can encourage you to give it all another go, like I am. It would be lovely to always stroll along with a nice awareness of carrying correlative things that God will use to grow us up. But I admit that is not always my immediate post-pothole response. I expect Lent to be just as challenging. It is a call to experience the potholes and cutoffs of life as opportunities to gain resurrection, as invitations to love. Stick with me a bit longer and maybe you’ll feel like that invitation is more likely than it seems.

Psalm 63 makes Lent look a bit harder

Spiritual maturity takes time and effort. It’s the journey of a lifetime. In Psalm 63 [our song] the anxious psalmist says, “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” As he turns to prayer in his desperate condition he feels joy and love. That’s one hand. But at the end of the psalm he is back to facing the weakness and suffering of being threatened by  someone who seeks to destroy him, who he has to fight for his life! That’s the other hand.

No one is seeking my life (except maybe the dismantled EPA); other than that, my prayers are a lot like Psalm 63. For instance, just this past weekend the plumber was at our Pocono home (our personal Snowmass). On the one hand that retreat place brings me endless joy and is often filled with love. On the other hand, the plumber discovered a rock from our symbolic mountain had dislodged a sewer pipe! The foundation of our house is threatened and it will cause unknown suffering to fix it. Can we carry such joy in one hand and suffering in another and trust God to grow us up through the journey?

I think we will make it again, just like I think you will make it through Lent again. That is, unless some crisis breaks your sewer line and you keep pouring crap under the house. A lot of spiritual teachers seem surprisingly unfamiliar with crap. I think that’s because, unlike a lot of us, we’re hearing from them after they’ve already got the pipe fixed. My pipe has to wait for a thaw to be fixed. I hope I am helping you thaw in relation to Lent, so you can get started.

Some days of this Lent WILL be easier

Happy lottery winner.

I think it is easy for all of us to feel weighed down by the suffering we are carrying. When I go into a Sunday meeting, sometimes it looks like we are all kind of hunched over to one side, some of  us almost dragging our knuckles on the ground, weighed down by the weaknesses and suffering in that hand. But then something happens that reminds us that we have another hand waiting to be filled.

Things happen like this. Last week NPR reported how Mike Weirsky, who is unemployed and recently divorced, purchased lottery tickets at a QuickChek in Phillipsburg, N.J., right across the Delaware River from Easton, PA. Then he was distracted by his cellphone and left the tickets on the counter. He said, “I put the tickets down, put my money away, did something with my phone and just walked away.”

As the time for the drawing neared, he looked around his house for the tickets for hours. He could not find them! So he went back to the store to see if they had them. To his surprise, he somebody had handed them in the day before. The cashier “made me explain what I bet and what the tickets were, and she handed them to me, and I walked out.”

Then, during the snowstorm Sunday before last, Weirsky got around to checking his numbers — and realized he was holding the winning ticket. He’s going to take a lump sum payout of $162 million, buy a new truck, and then listen to his lawyer. Snowstorm, divorce, unemployment and who-knows-what-else in one hand; in the other hand, winning lottery tickets. I’m not sure his winnings will provide all the joy he desires, but I am still happy for the guy.

I think Lent is also a bit like winning the lottery. On the one hand, Lent accentuates the suffering, of course — the whole season ends with a crucifixion! But in that big other hand, Lent also leads to resurrection! I heard a couple of stories from the retreat last Saturday that were like stories about winning the spirituality lottery. I’m still feeling like I found my lost ticket myself. After some encouragement from Gwen to try imaging prayer, I returned to the interior “spiritual landscape” that was so important for me 30+ years ago, expecting that my ticket to that joy was unrecoverable. But, to my surprise, the Spirit gave me an encouraging little gift that raised my sights away from my dry and weary land and into the stars. That’s a handful I am carrying with me on my Lent journey.

I’m praying you can also feel God with you as move along into your true self: joy in one hand and that pesky-but-redemptive suffering in the other.

First Reformed: Is it the perfect movie for Lent 2019?

Ethan Hawke plays the disintegrating Pastor Ernst Toller of First Reformed.

Like other screenplays Paul Schrader has written (like The Last Temptation of Christ), part of me wishes I had never seen First Reformed. But I also can’t get its questions out of my mind. I think it might be the perfect movie to start off Lent 2019.

That is, it is perfect if you want to make the best use of your snow-covered Pennsylvania landscape for its stark shadows, deep cold, and demanding requirements. That landscape would be a perfect setting for the feelings of this movie, especially when the piles of snow get dirty. First Reformed is a trip to the dark side of one man’s spiritual journey — and your spiritual landscape may have a hint of his journey, as well. There is no music here, just the unnerving hush of the sound design. The camera seems to be looking for ghosts all the time, exploring some metaphysical absence. One reviewer said it reminded them of a poem by Robert Lowell recording an 18th-century preacher’s feeling that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller stares into the same abyss.

The perfect movie for Lent 

This film might be perfect for Lent if Lent is about discernment — about listening for God’s call, about waiting for God’s presence, and about an irrational hope for resurrection. Even though the austerity of the film’s vision wore me down, I could not help but worry whether Toller’s disintegration was leading to an ecstatic awakening or abysmal despair. Schrader is better at despair than hope, but he apparently wrested the script out of his hands before he cut us off from hope completely.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because it is so odd to see a film about the church as it is. It is a scathing but also sympathetic and realistic view. We have craggy Ethan Hawke with his bad haircut grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt — an alcoholic punishing himself with self-examination in his empty-but-historic church building.  On the other hand we have Cedric the Entertainer playing Joel Jeffers, his plump, well-dressed counterpart — the pastor of a megachurch called Abundant Life Fellowship that owns the First Reformed building and calls it “the gift shop.” He is sunny, unreflective, pragmatic and caring to Toller’s suffering, self-condemning, wild and isolating. Together they are the church. Schrader wants us to learn how to hold joy and despair in each hand.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because the reality that loosens Toller’s grip on the unreality he is trying to maintain is global warming. What would Jesus actually do in the face of something that needs action or faces humanity with death? It is the first-world problem that cannot be solved with a clever advertising campaign or an updated OS. Schrader writes film-school screenplays so discussing what happens in the movie is not the same as a spoiler alert, so I will tell you a bit.  Toller is mourning the loss of a child and the end of a marriage. An affair with the Abundant Life choir director has ended awkwardly. His physical health is deteriorating along with his mental state. Then, right when I was tempted to switch to some more amusing Netflix offering, a young woman named Mary is introduced into the story and asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael, who is an environmental activist recently released from prison in Canada. Mary is “great with child” (of course), and Michael (as in the leader of God’s angelic armies, of course) can’t bear the thought of raising a child in the face of ecological catastrophe. I know many people who are finding or losing faith in the face of a pile-up of tragedy and crisis in their lives like snow drifts from a changing weather pattern.

One of the reasons the film stuck with me (like I can remember what happened, unlike after I enjoyed The Incredibles) is that there are many ways to describe what is happening to Toller after Mary and Michael push their way into his isolated life.

  • Is he having a midlife crisis? It certainly looks like one, but that seems like too weak a description.
  • Is he having a psychological breakdown? Some unhinged things definitely happen – like a surreal out-of-body experience in which Mary and Ernst are flown from bright stars down to an overflowing tire dump.
  • Is it a political awakening? He can’t help but agree with Michael that the country and the church are completely missing the point as they refuse to fight the oil companies and persist in turning faith into a fantasy.
  • Or is it a religious reckoning? Toller’s merciless journal and his awakened displeasure in being part of a church for which he did not sign up would lead us to think that.

Mr. Schrader doesn’t suggest that these elements are mutually exclusive. Instead, he shows how they are the barbed wire the pastor wraps around himself in the end. What we don’t know is whether the scourging cleanses or just kills.

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Cedric Kyles (the Entertainer) as Pastor Jeffers of Abundant Life Fellowship

I have hope in our alternativity

Schrader’s relentlessly hopeless view of humanity is always hard for me to bear.  In some way I don’t want to be talking about his movie at all, lest some poor refugee from the land of fundamentalism or Calvinism might watch it and the film ends up being like barbed wire piercing their already-tender spiritual flesh. Be careful!

But it may be the perfect movie for Lent this year, since the writer, ultimately, is calling us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith, which has always been a basic use for Lent. It is a call for alternativity to a Church that succeeds at marketing and succeeds at laundering the ill-gotten gains of post-capitalism but which can’t stomach actual spiritual struggle and can’t stand up in the face of climate catastrophe, among other things. It can’t even talk about reality without folding into political camps or dividing up according to the ways of the world. It is so interested in self-preservation it would never go to the cross, lest that adversely impact its market share. And that is just a bit of how the film calls for alternativity, just like Lent.

I did not want to have the dialogue with the movie. It is just too hard. Then I realized I probably did not want to face Lent again, either. It is also rather hard. And part of the hardness of it goes back to the terrifying observation from Robert Lowell that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” I don’t want to face the reality or even the possibility of that. But that is exactly the kind of observation Lent calls for, isn’t it? So I think I’d better observe it.

If we aspire to alternativity and not merely to Cedric-the-Entertainer-like Christianity designed mainly for people committed to consumerism as their primary faith, then we need to start with the ashes of our empire dreams and personal salvation fantasies. Lent may not do that for you yet because you have never considered Lent seriously. I usually follow a sentence like that with, “And that’s OK if you haven’t considered it,” because I wake up every day with hope in God’s goodness, and you may yet consider it. But it is objectively not OK if you do not consider the loss of everything. Because not considering the death and resurrection of Jesus and not heeding the call to leave death and enter life could kill each of us and kill the whole world, which we might be quickly accomplishing.

Shame: What we can do about it.

soul of shame

People are secretly preoccupied with the topic of shame. Sometimes it is a secret even to themselves until someone confronts them with it! 25 years ago in Christian circles, John Bradshaw wrote Healing the Shame That Binds You and sold over a million copies. [Well-known PBS speech]. Now Brené Brown comes out with Daring Greatly, sells a million copies, and is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. [Famous TED talk]. One would think we’ve never heard of this topic before! In 25 years, someone will probably discover it again for the first time.

The pastors have been reading The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson, whose hand I was pleased to shake after a great presentation a few years ago [A summary video]. Thompson is a psychiatrist interested in the intersection of neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation who has studied how the brain reacts to shame—and why we struggle to move on from it. His favorite verse of the Bible is probably Hebrews 12:2: [We must fix] our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

 Jesus “disregarded, scorned, thought nothing of the disgrace of” the shame of being stripped naked and killed in the most brutal, public way the powers-that-be could devise. At that moment, God effected the ultimate turnaround in history, and humankind’s future was reopened to its past, in which Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed.” The Trinity performs the ultimate remix when Jesus scorned the scorn of the Cross.

What is shame?

Most of us probably think of shame associated with that embarrassing public event, the humiliation of which lived on — like the time I lost my prized baseball cap down the outhouse and, with tears, pleaded with my Mom to retrieve it. The truth is, most shame takes place inside our heads dozens of times every day, not in the public events we fear. It’s silent, subtle, and characterized by the quiet self-condemning conversation that we’ve learned since we were kids. It even crops up in our dreams. For instance, my final dream of last night had me climbing up a wall of some kind and perilously walking on top of it toward an important destination only to look back after I had made it to notice someone going out a gate. I felt a little embarrassed even in my dream!

Thompson has some fascinating research to describe how shame activates the parts of our brain at the deepest level: the flight or fight system. Stress tells our system to slow down. Shame does that even better, activating circuits in the right hemisphere and temporal lobes, where we perceive emotion. That’s why a simple roll of the eyes can have such a powerful impact on us whether our intimate says anything or not. The smallest communication might shut us right down! Shame dis-integrates us from others. When our connective systems go offline, they are often quite difficult to reboot. [I wrote about this]

We all experience this disintegration. It is probably the experience we fear most deeply: our horrible, deserved aloneness. Evil promotes our temptation to take that feeling to its horrible end, until we are devoured by it. That is why it is so significant that Jesus scorned the shame, was again naked and unashamed in the face of the most contemptuous way he could be treated, and demonstrated how a new creation could begin.

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Stations of the Cross at St. Paul’s on the Green Episcopal Church, Norwalk, CT, Tenth Station by Gwyneth Leech

What can we do to allow God to heal our shame?

Ultimately, we must learned to scorn the shame with Jesus. Taking up our cross daily means talking back to the stories shame nurtures in our head about our flawed, despicable selves who are unloveable. For instance, I often encounter people in counseling of one sort or another who deflect a compliment. Sometimes I stop the dialogue and ask, “What just happened?” My friends can often identify a “scorn monitor” in their head who rejected the compliment because it did not correlate with their low opinion of themselves. I often take the place of the rest of humanity by affirming that “we” don’t agree with the scorn monitor and Jesus undoubtedly doesn’t. We have to at least doubt the shame, if we cannot stop it from talking.

The best way to break the power of cancelled sin is by telling our stories, including our shameful ones, in community. The first verse of Hebrews 12 alludes to that “great cloud of witnesses” from chapter 11 that allows us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Who is this “great cloud?” It is not only the great examples  from the transhistorical body, it is the people in my cell and the trusted friends in Christ I develop.

If we name things we can tame things. Shame makes us feel an array of emotions we don’t like to acknowledge, let alone put words to in others’ presence. But when we do, we reduce our anxiety and open up the possibility of feeling love, joy and hope. Real community helps my true self get out of shame prison. I allow others to say, “Pay attention to this. You are the beloved of God.” This is not an easy process. But every story helps convince me that God loves me. Every time I expose my shame and the worst does not happen, I believe salvation is possible a little more.

It is what we do about shame that matters

The real issue is not whether we experience shame or whether we can stop it. We can alleviate our suffering with understanding and new behavior. But we are always going to experience shame, on some level. The question is what will we do in response before it leads us to disintegration?

We need to stay vulnerable. Evil is given no oxygen to breathe where vulnerability has the  opportunity to live in a safe, predictable space. That’s why we long for Circle of Hope to be a “safe place to explore and express God’s love.” The cell is a shameless attempt to learn how to share ourselves without fear. I wish each meeting were like a magic pill so people would not flee back to their aloneness. But, over time, the discipline of building community fends off the reactions that deprive us of giving and receiving love. A cell even prepares us to overturn the shame that Jesus scorned on the cross! We often scorn the cells capacity to do that even when someone tells us it just succeeded! The church has a shame monitor too!

Shame’s nature is to divide, separate, isolate, just as evil intends. The healing of shame is not first about healing shame, but about becoming more integrated, more connected, move loving of one another; shame’s healing is the byproduct. In this healing and increased connection, we allow for greater, even more powerful creativity through connecting in community. We need others in order for our shame to be healed and for us to have the chance to move past it—and we can move past it, even if some remnant follows along behind.

See an interview with Thompson in Christianity Today 

Read his book: The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves by Curt Thompson {recently added to Pastors Goodreads]

The second half of life: Encouragement for creative suffering

The other day I was watching International House Hunters, where I learn a lot about life these days. In the episode, an apparently divorced mom was ready to send her one son off to college. She appeared to be nearing fifty years old. Although she did not have a lot of money to spend, she decided to quit the job she hated and move to Merida, Mexico. She bought a fixer-upper outside of town and started her life over as the only Anglo in her whole village. She said life was too short to wait until one was ready to live it. Hers is a second half of life story.

Also last week, my fiftysomething friend said on Facebook:  “I was reunited with some old friends this weekend to celebrate a birthday. I am also thinking about a sweet brave friend in Philly who we lost last week. Life is short. Don’t sweat the small stuff. LIVE.” That represents some second half of life philosophizing.

The second half of life

What is the second half, maybe we could call it our second act? It is a discernible transition in life that people all over the world note. Mid-life has significant characteristics. We sometimes call the entry into that part of life a “mid-life crisis.” Richard Rohr, who wrote a book about it, calls it the time to “fall upward.” The transition into the second half is the time when we face the limits of our capacity, now that we have tested it and probably failed to achieve our idealization of ourselves, and must face the limits of our lifespan, now that our bodies start to tell us we’re definitely not twentysomethings anymore.

The term “second half” implies some kind of dualism: a before and after, this or that, obsolete and improved, foolish and wise. But that’s more of a “first half” way to see things. The second half is more about embracing our inevitable development and not avoiding the suffering that will lead to our wholeness. We had to build the house, so to speak, before we could consider leaving it. We had to learn to drive the car, so to speak, in order to ask Jesus to take the wheel.  We could miss the beauty of our second half altogether if we avoid the necessary suffering of entering it. But we will be pushed hard to give in to maturity, regardless.

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Signs of the “mid-life crisis”

As a result of this inevitable transition, we either solidify into a withered caricature of the unique self we have been building, or we become more spiritual, more self-giving, more of a leader, and more comfortable with the ambiguities and joys of being our true selves. Dolly Parton is an interesting mix of both possibilities. I saw an interview with her in which she boldly said she was committed to the caricature that is her trademark, be it ever so withered, as you can see, above. She even had surgery to maintain what she could of the persona she created. But she has also developed her spirituality. She’s not just being a country music legend; she is also a champion of early childhood literacy, through her Imagination Library. Every month, that nonprofit program mails a free book to more than a million children — from infants to preschoolers. In 2018 they reached 100 million books donated.

however we navigate it, we are going to grow into a new season of life. The pressures we face at the beginning of that season are so well known, we can make a list of typical feelings or reactions, such as:

  1. Desiring to quit a good job.
  2. Unexplained bouts of depression when doing tasks that used to make one happy.
  3. Changing or investigating religions, churches or philosophy.
  4. Change of habits. Activities which used to bring pleasure now are boring. Unable to complete or concentrate on tasks which used to be easy.
  5. Excessively buying new clothes and taking more time to look good.
  6. Wanting to run away to somewhere new.
  7. A desire or obsession to get into physical shape.
  8. Irritability or unexpected anger.
  9. Leaving family (mentally or physically) or feeling trapped in current family relationships.
  10. Looking into the mirror and no longer recognizing oneself.

Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises. At some point we will face loss; we will encounter a “stumbling stone” — that we cannot power, finesse, or manage our way through, that we cannot fix, control, explain, change, or even understand. It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering. There is going to be some kind of suffering, regardless.

At midlife, our suffering, inside or out, helps us leave “home” — that stationary place where we are most comfortable — and drives us toward the necessary encounter with the self and with God, who loves to walk through our suffering with us. That suffering helps us deconstruct the persona (or the person we wish we were and want others to see), and to acknowledge and welcome our shadow side into the dialogue. As a result, we have the hope of emerging into later adulthood and blossoming into our full, true selves in Christ. In the second half, suffering becomes more of a friend than an enemy, if we are going to plumb the depths of our new capacity. Richard Rohr says, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day.” That kind of prayer is taking the example of Jesus seriously:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:5-8

There are good examples who show us how to suffer creatively

A great example of moving into the second half, albeit not entirely successfully, is King David. The painting by James Tissot, above, captures the moment of his midlife transition, just before his dissatisfied boredom is distracted by the sight of Bathsheba from his upstairs portico. Tissot, himself, is another interesting example, since, at age 49, he was caught up in the revival of the Catholic church in France, changed the focus of his art, and spent the rest of his life creating the paintings of  Biblical events I love so much.

After David unified the land of Israel under his rule, he grew discontent. He had done most of what he set out to do. He’s king. He’s got power and accomplishment, influence and comfort. He feels sure of his identity as God’s chosen king. He sits back. Is that all there is? Here we go.

In the spring he sends off his army under the command of others to complete military campaigns. This tests his faith, since in the past he had lived on the edge as a general and learned to trust God for every breath. He came far trusting God. Now how does he trust God? His “shadow” is lurking in the recesses of his success.

Usually in our forties, we are ready to face a similar struggle, but we may not get to it until we are older (or the children we bore in our late thirties are older), or we have retired, or we get divorced, or we lose our job. Laura Ingalls Wilder quit teaching when she got married and helped her husband on the farm. Their first half was very difficult, including the death of a son, the partial paralysis of her husband, loss of the farm buildings through fire and the great depression. She was well into her second half when her daughter, Rose, encouraged her to write a memoir about her childhood. She spent many years improving it. It wasn’t until she was 65 years old that “Little House in the Big Woods” was published. She wrote other “Little House” series, including the last one that came out when she was 76.

Often the mid-life struggle percolates up because we are bored or burned out – maybe even too accomplished or too settled. We can, like David, lose touch with the very essence of what made our lives fulfilling. We might still be perfecting the outside, like Dolly Parton, unable to give up the rush and power of performing. We might meet the dark side of what made us a brilliant young person, like Columba. We can drift from a present-tense relationship with God and lose touch with what is sacred in our day-to-day routine. It’s time to move into the second half with some consciousness, or maybe fall upward.

When David comes to the shocking revelation of what his reactions mean, he reconnects with God. He reconnects with holiness in the everyday routine of his world. Psalm 51 reveals the restoration of David’s relationship with God. It shows his tenacious hold on his belief that God is present; God is good; God redeems.

Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise. – Psalm 51:15-17

The psalm shows a crucial acceptance of paradox:  “I am king and I am powerless to save the baby. I have committed an unforgivable sin yet I can be forgiven. My former life-sustaining pursuits and way of faith were a prelude to this deeper, contradictory, way of life.” Mature adulthood includes anxiety, doubt, and paradox. In the face of all this newness, sometimes shocking and often unwelcome, the second half of life is the time when our creative suffering comes up with our deepest contributions to the Lord’s cause.

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Some of us may be “early bloomers” like Martin Luther King, who summed up the challenge of maturity well in his famous “I have a dream” speech. Right before he gave the ringing conclusion about his dream, he said,

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation…You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive….Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

King was only 34 when he wrote that and he only had a few more years to brilliantly live out his creative suffering. But in those years, he showed Jesus-followers, especially, what it means to pay attention to the promises of wholeness in Christ. Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises – most likely, we will be on an interesting journey during our “mid-life.” It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering, so when we leave the home we had to build for ourselves in this world, we will be welcomed into the home Jesus has prepared for us in the next. In Christ, suffering is redemptive. As we can see all around us, immaturity is common and cheap. The costly wholeness of life in Christ, becoming our true selves, is a gift worth whatever creative suffering we endure to receive it.

Depression season: Hope for the bleak, SAD midwinter

Christina Rosetti (1830-1894) became the premier woman poet of her day in her mid-thirties. I love her for providing this stanza, which describes the season into which Jesus entered our time and place.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Jesus may not have been born in winter and he certainly was not born in England! But He definitely needs to be born every February in Pennsylvania. We are in the “bleak midwinter” right now. People are sick, pipes are freezing, cars are crashing and many of us are facing our yearly depression.

Around this time of year many people in the Northeast are sick of winter.  We’re sick of the short days, the lack of sunshine, the cold temperatures, and being forced indoors because of the horrible weather.  Winter gets old — fast. If you have brought out the yearly fantasy of moving to Florida with your relatives, we hear you.

In the 1980s, research at the National Institutes of Mental Health led to recognition of a form of depression known as “seasonal affective disorder” (shortened to SAD, appropriately). Seasonal affective disorder was categorized under major depression to signify depression with a yearly recurrence, a condition far more debilitating than the average “winter blues.” Mention of SAD in research and books peaked in the 1990s, and today SAD is considered a diagnosable (and insurable) disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines SAD as “a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons,” beginning and ending at about the same times of the year.  Symptoms include a loss of energy and moodiness. More recent studies suggest the whole idea is suspicious, but now we are used to idea and you may have diagnosed yourself, already.

Whether we have a major disorder on our hands or not, the bleak midwinter excites bleakness. Every time I look at Christian Rosetti’s picture (above), I don’t wonder why she could write such a descriptive SAD scene in just a few lines. She had a few drifts of permanent snow on her feelings, I think. So when the winter comes around and we get sick, grumpy and joke we have SAD it makes sense not to brush off our yearly feeling as simply a case of the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk that we have to tough out on our own.  It is always good to follow our feelings around a bit and see what they are up to.

There are ways to keep our mood and motivation steady throughout the year. If you’re the Mayo Clinic you’ll recommend that SAD sufferers try light therapy (replacing lost sunlight), psychotherapy, and/or medications. All might be useful, more likely if used together. If you (or your therapist) think you have SAD right now, or you are just grumpy and unmotivated, here are a couple of thoughts and some faith-based counsel that could help you figure out what to do next.

Be careful about a quick SAD diagnosis

SAD is more about observing people than testing data. Recent studies that do plow through a lot of data can’t really find a seasonal increase in depression. If you feel depressed right now it may be more about how you are personally ordered rather than about being subject to a seasonal disorder, as if you caught SAD and need a chemical remedy. The seasons of the year often excite things in us that were going unnoticed. That’s normal life, not a disorder.

People experiencing feelings associated with SAD might want to get a couple of opinions before they treat their feelings with medicine. Even WebMD notes that “What we are observing is that Americans are increasingly viewing psychiatric medications as a solution for a wide range of social and interpersonal problems and for dealing with daily stress [and] general medical providers appear to be going along with this trend.” Depression has physical, psychological, social and spiritual components. Just taking a pill may make a difference, but might not solve the problem – and a drug-based-only solution might make things worse.

Image result for philadelphia arctic blast
Here is a seasonal disorder.

Jesus arrives when the winter is bleak

The winter is often the best time to lay low and listen to how the seasons teach us about our feelings and all they mean.

  1. Winter is not a curse.

A lot of good things are happening to the earth and to us, when we are “depressed”  In winter. An obvious, if underappreciated fact, is the land has a forced rest from being cultivated, giving soil time to regenerate its nutrients and moisture to be ready for the next planting season so that we can have food to eat. Being fallow is good (Isaiah 55). Your depression might be a time for generating something new.

The ground recuperates its moisture content through the melting of the snow.  Seeds get ready to sprout. (Psalm 147).  You may have a seed that’s been trying to sprout since childhood.

You may be moving into a new season. That is often depressing, but good. The Creator built mercy into winter, too. We can rely on that love (Job 38.22). We often need to keep reframing our sense of our situation when we feel God is not in the bleakness.

  1. Winter is part of our growth process

Even though the seasons change every year, many of us still feel winter like a slap in the face every time. Then when we move to Cabo San Lucas to escape it, we miss it and complain that it is too hot. We’re like that.

We talk about the stages of our faith development (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water) because we want to learn to move with natural elements that sin and death have made feel like enemies. The changing seasons are another set of unchanging realities that can teach love and truth. Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter each show us God in unique ways, over and over, until we learn to move with them instead of resisting or dominating. The changing seasons demonstrate how God’s care never changes, despite our changing seasons of life (Malachi 3). Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 3).

  1. Winter will end. 

I can hardly wait until this winter is over, I admit it. Winter is often a challenge for me. (But then it rains a lot in May. Summer can get humid. And Fall is full of allergens). The Christian life can often be characterized by a time of waiting.  Waiting is good.

We exist in this broken world, in broken bodies, longing for the time when the earth and our bodies will be remade (Romans 8).  We are waiting for the “winter” of our sinful, painful existence to come to an end, and for the glorious “spring” of the resurrection.  We comfort ourselves when we suffer with the promise that the age to come is not that far off. The day is coming when Christ will return and create a new heavens and new earth, where pain, sickness, death, or tears will no longer kill us.  We have hope for a new beginning.

This hope and period of waiting defines the Christian life (Romans 5).  Christians are waiters.  So we can  get through the few months of bummer-weather that we have to go through each year.

If you swallow the “spiritual pill” I just offered, will you be guaranteed a happy winter? Will changing your mind bring all your painful feelings to an immediate end?  Maybe. But not inevitably.

In the bleak midwinter — waiting for the thaw that never seems certain, trying to see single-digit temperatures as a growth opportunity, fighting off the strong sense that it is all an example of how we are cursed — Jesus comes to bring us hope.

Thank God I am not in charge of the seasons, or responsible for saving myself from them! I think Christina Rosetti ended her poem very well and I need to keep singing it throughout every bleak day:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

How much time is there?: Does that question make a difference?

Lagetha and Heahmund run out of time

The Vikings series is one of the most Christian shows on television. The whole thing is about Norse religion/culture bumping up against the  Christian church/state in Wessex, among other territories, and vice versa.

As a result, in Vikings this season, Bishop Heahmund and Queen Lagetha have a religious problem. Lagetha is not interested in deserting her gods, but the supposedly-celibate priest, Heahmund, falls in love with her when he is taken captive to Kattegat (actually filmed in Ireland on a lake owned by the Guiness family).  The deposed queen falls in love back.  Before a crucial battle, Heahmund has a vision of hell and renounces his illicit connection to his pagan queen. Spoiler alert, he is killed (above).  But his last words are “Lagetha.”

Good TV, right?

Religion tackles questions about time

Obviously lust, greed, war, etc. etc, are also big, religious problems everyone ought to be having in Vikings, and they do. But I want to talk about time.

Lagetha and Heahmund are both getting up there in years (especially for the 9th century!). Heahmund has a young new king with ideas that will be new for a generation, as it turns out. Lagetha has step-children who have become Christians and farmers, while her oldest son is ready to leave for mayhem-yet-to-be-determined. Times are changing and time is short. So what do we do with our time? Should Heahmund hang on to this surprising love he relishes and forsake eternity? Should Lagetha try to regain her youth and take back Kattegat? Is Valhalla a good enough reason to risk death today? Is Jesus really on our side forever and is that promise enough to die preserving a place where he is Lord? I love this show.

I wish we would ask questions with similar passion and not merely watch others ask them. And we often do ask them. Actually, it is hard not to ask, since time is running out and we are not getting any younger (well, especially not me).

I had a question about time early on in my faith when I ran into a job description in the annual report of the Baptist church: Flower Arranger. A woman’s whole job was to make sure there were flowers on the communion table under the pulpit each week. Her job made me indignant! I thought it was a waste of money and time to be concerned about furniture and aesthetics when people were dying of hunger! (I still pretty much feel that way). But I am a little softer now, realizing that some people are suited for arranging flowers; plus, gratuitous beauty looks more like God than most things; and the simplicity of wasting time on something one can do with a pure heart of grace is sweet.

She must have asked, when she heard I was asking questions, “Is what I do with my time of any value? Do I have time for this? Am I wasting my time?”

We are all asking that, along with Bishop Heahmund and Queen Lagetha. It is a strange place we find ourselves, as time-bound creatures. We have been made for the age to come, as well as this one. We have a taste for eternity, no matter how much science tries to convince us we are just material.  Our day to day life, and its brevity, leads us to think about our own time contracting and stretching simultaneously. And so many things in our experience seem to have leaked over from eternity, it is hard not to believe there is another dimension we only see as though looking through frosted glass. Is time short or long?

So busy, ambitious people, in particular, have trouble on both sides of the question.  Do I have enough time to give the church a lot of time? If I am responsible for my time, that is a tough question. If I have all the time in eternity, isn’t that a great gift that I dare not waste?

A flower arranger takes her time

I am going more for questions than answers today. But here are two Bible verses on both sides of the main question that help us figure things out.

Make the most of your time

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. — Ephesians 5:15-16

This is Paul with his second-tier thinking. He’s very practical about what people taking first steps to follow Jesus should know. He says, “You can easily see people wasting their days as if their hours did not mean anything. As long as the sun shines, there is a chance for transformation. Time is about changing the world, not spending it on whatever makes you feel something in the moment.”

I have taken his words very seriously since I first memorized them way back when. Sometimes I think I was TOO serious and missed some flower arranging.

The time you have is a gift.

For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God — 1 Cor 3:21-23…. What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you!  — 1 Corinthians 4:7-8.

I learned this section later in life, when Paul’s first-tier, deeper thinking starts seeming reasonable.  He’s saying, “Surely you do not believe what you know or have achieved as of today is the raw material of meaning? It is all a gift! You already have all the time in the world and in eternity. There is no scarcity, as if time were something you could hoard away and should protect with all the power you could acquire.

The other day I took a day off and ended up watching an episode of Vikings in my robe about 10 am. At times I felt like the second hand might be watching me! But I let myself waste the time it took for my imagination to wander. Come to think of it, the ministry of the Baptists grew and the flowers were also arranged!

Unwise people in this evil day want to steal our time. At best, they commodify it and buy it from us for work as if that makes any eternal sense. We need to fight them and make the most of our time, carefully living as the body of Christ — with all the hard work that requires in a hostile era.

But we probably won’t make the most of our time unless unless we have a deep sense that the beginning and end of our time is the gift of God — and every act we do, whether we judge it large or small, is made good by the touch of the Spirit, reaching into our time with love and truth. If we are open to receiving everything from the hand of God in Jesus Christ, we receive eternal life. That’s the place we start to answer all our other questions about how to use, or spend, or waste our time. Having a receptive heart is a crucial place to start when planting the church, or the process just seems like it demands a lot of time, as if it were a scarce commodity.

Poor Bishop Heahmund! He was right in the throes of deciding how he would spend his time when a Viking put a sword through his back. The show leaves me wondering if he ran out of time or just went to prepare for the age to come. Good question, History Channel!

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!]

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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.

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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.