In 2016, John Lewis led a sit-in on the Senate floor to demand common-sense gun-control. He did not get what he wanted, but he never gave up. And he never gave up his remarkable love as he did it.
I watched almost all of his funeral last Thursday. I was repeatedly moved by the saint being honored in Martin Luther King’s church.
I even praised George Bush
I was flabbergasted by George Bush’s tender speech. In the spirit of John Lewis’ “love first and let the rest follow” Christianity I ventured a rare Facebook entry to be amazed about Bush. I just felt like saying something not-quite-nice-but-good about a man about whom, Lord knows, I have said about a million extremely negative things. I was taken up by the way of love.
I am not sure how people found this FB entry, since they did not comment on my next entry about St. Ignatius (who has plenty to criticize, as well). But they countered my little love with quite a bit of hate for Bush. In their defense, the bombers who flew over my Facebook page were probably just standing up for what they believe in. I think they were trying to make sure George Bush was not exonerated by being likable, which is his go-to. I did question their love, but they also reflect my hero in their stubborn refusal to give in to the lies that are destroying the beloved community. I’m not sure they are building such a community with their judgment, but at least they are on some frontier shooting at its enemies.
The better way of John Lewis
John Lewis had a better way and it made me cry to hear about it, even from George Bush. Lewis let his little light shine right to the end. When he knew he was dying, he asked the NYTimes to print his final words, and they did. Obama essentially riffed on Lewis’ exhortation in his eulogy. Here’s part of his parting words:
I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself
I have no faith in the American state. And I think democracy based on capitalism is absurd. But I do know what Lewis is saying when he says “beloved community.” And the fact that he wouldn’t give up until the godless American government reflected it is beautiful. I have given myself to a much smaller goal: that the church of Jesus Christ would be a beloved community that contrasts with the world as it demonstrates the heart of its alternativity. One would think I have a much easier row to hoe than Lewis was given. Some days Facebook mocks me for my hope, but I don’t think we should give up. Lewis didn’t:
In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.
I wish he would have mentioned Jesus in there. But MLK and his crew did not want to leave anyone out — and everyone is made in the image of God, after all. Their relentless love and their nonviolent pressure had core values that everyone could understand, whether they were committed to Jesus or not. I think it is clear that their values require resurrection power to implement and sustain, since John Lewis died in the same year as George Floyd. But ascending into generous inclusion is a lot better than the usual descent into our present hate-filled particularity.
Thank you Jesus for John Lewis and thank you John Lewis for being Jesus among us. I hope people listen to you even more, now that you have received a lot of media attention. The church should lead the way to truth and justice as it lets love guide it. In Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, Lewis said:
“It was no accident that the movement was led primarily by ministers—not politicians, presidents or even community activists—but ministers first, who believed they were called to the work of civil rights as an expression of their faith.”…“Religious faith is a powerful connecting force for any group of people who are working toward social change.”
I am grateful for his example. Love is the way. As he demonstrated, it didn’t even matter if the society changed, since it did, but it also didn’t. Self-giving love will always be the core value of the way of Jesus no matter what we face next, right up to the end.
A few days ago I was talking to Eliza Griswold. She is writing a book about Circle of Hope — along with other churches on our wavelength and the future of the Church in general. She was recording me.
When we got to the part about turmoil in our church (there is a little), which makes for a better book, after all, and turmoil in the larger Church (there is quite a bit), I looked at the phone for a second. “Am I going to say something dumb?”
I took a deep breath. Our turmoil is all for the best. Most of the controversies we face are about causes that should cause turmoil. Some of them are either over the tipping point or about to go over the tipping point into full scale change, which would be worth a lot of trouble. For instance, a school in Virginia just got a name change from Robert E. Lee to John Lewis last week – so things could be looking up (and I mean looking “as God sees things” in the case of that school, not IMO).
Eliza lamented in her inquisitive way about some of the strident discourse she was hearing in our church. It scared her, since she is well acquainted with church controversy. She tagged the young ones as responsible for most of it, I think (I didn’t record her). And the phrase “social justice warriors” seems like it was used, although I’m not sure either of us said it. The angry-sounding, division-threatening dialogue made her wonder if we would even survive! So she wanted to hear what an old head like me would say about it.
I told her (I guess she could check the tape about this) I thought old people should be the last to judge the young. My job is to help everyone get into a sustainable stage in their faith so they are not run over by the deceitful world – otherwise, what is the point of walking with Jesus for 50 years — so young people can look dumb in comparison? People don’t start where they end up, even if they think where they are now is a fine achievement. I want to affirm their achievements and help them get into what is next, since none of us is going to stop developing, in one way or another. It was something like that.
Janet Hagberg and her inspiring books
Janet Hagberg is all about development and she has been influencing me again, lately.
When I was in my twenties I heard Janet Hagberg speak. As I recall, she was testing out some material she was collecting for how to implement James Fowler’s seminal work on the Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. Later on I read Hagberg’s book Real Powerand it made so much difference to me, I basically installed it in Circle of Hope. I was so impressed with Real Power, I went back and read James Fowler, the basis, which was tough but productive sledding. After that, I laced the “stages of faith” into most of my thinking about growing in faith: I put it in workshops, I blogged about it, and I engineered a version of it, with the pastors, that became the outline for the Way of Jesus site – when you go to it you’ll see me ready to talk about the stages of faith right there on the intro page.
Just lately, I found a book that had been languishing on my selves for a long time, undiscovered, until I took it out of a packing box to reshelve it. It was Hagberg’s book The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith. God drew her into a deeper rendition of Real Power later on in life. Real Power was for the corporate world; and though spirituality is present, it isn’t focused on Jesus, per se. The Critical Journey is for Jesus followers (and anyone who wants to follow along with them). I think she might say this book “ruined her life” – at least it “ruined” the previous life that was headed for success in the corporate world.
Instead, Hagberg became a spiritual director and a mentor to many disciples. Last week I wrote to her with a question about the spiritual stages inventory in her book and she wrote back! That was unexpected, as it always is for me when a hero notices me. (That desire to be seen might be why I always get so choked up when cast members in the Disney parade break ranks to come over and wish my grandchild a “magical birthday”). I am pondering whether to accept her invitation to travel with a small group she is forming for next year as a means for spiritual development.
Time to grow and time for social action
I was fresh from reading The Critical Journey when I sat in the heat with Eliza (who has a Wikipedia page BTW). And she was wondering about what twentysomethings would do to the church. I started formulating my feelings into a theory in their defense.
I think young people should get involved with the power struggles of the world to express their undeserved powerlessness (stage one) and fully explore the energizing experiences of exercising power in stage two. Many derisively-labeled “social justice warriors” are criticized for being one-way know-it-alls who will cancel someone who does not agree with them. People do dumb stuff at every stage of life. I think stage two people often act like they know it all because they just learned a huge amount of meaningful material that is forming their future. Unlike a lot of burned out old people, they think life is important and they are going to make something out of it. Any twenty-something who is not on some bandwagon in the name of great causes should catch up. Their cohort is fueling some wonderful development in themselves and the world, whether they know what they are doing or not!
The observations of the stages of faith usually place most twentysomethings in stage two of their adult development, as humans, but also as people of faith.
One of the main characteristics of people in stage two (whenever they get there) is finding meaning in belonging. They may like a denominational way of being the church, but they are more likely to attach to a local church, and even within that church they are most likely to find a small group of people to whom they belong. Pastors may not like this, but that’s how people are. The group shapes our identity, we find power in association with others.
No one comes out fully formed, so in stage two people connect to a leader, a system or a cause, sometimes many before they zero in. The sense of enlightenment from sharing the leader’s/author’s/system’s wisdom is intoxicating. The same experience can be found by having a cause be the leader and not a person. A sense of being right, now that they have found the right stuff, often breeds a feeling of security –- which can sometimes come off as too secure, and exclusive of others who aren’t at the same place, or stage.
Calling something a stage implies that we are moving through it. Thus Hagberg calls our development a critical “journey.” People can get stuck in stage two for a number of reasons. The major reasons are
They get rigid: legalistic and moralistic. When someone complains about getting taken out by a “my way or the highway” SJW I can acknowledge the danger of people acting that way, but I am just so happy they have gotten far enough in life to find something outside themselves to care about! Audacity is underrated.
A sense of belonging can end up with being part of a closed, paranoid, “us against them” group. America, in general seems to have regressed into this trap,
A group can end up not being as attractive as expected so people can keep switching groups and doing the same thing over and over. They don’t move forward, just move around.
People who have been injured in groups, especially in churches, can spend a lifetime searching for a group that won’t hurt them. They need to move inward — that was the invitation when the leader, group or theory proved faulty, instead they blame the group and move on to have a similar experience, quite often, in the next one.
How does one avoid getting stuck in stage 2 or get unstuck? Moving on usually means becoming a producer instead of a product. When it comes to life in Christ, that movement is sort of inevitable. People joke that if you have a good idea in Circle of Hope, you’ll probably end up in charge of it. That’s not necessarily so, but maybe it should be. We formed cells and teams so people could be in charge of something and grow up in faith. Jesus wants friends, not slaves who only do what they’re told. In Ephesians 4 Paul tells us not to be infants, but grow up into Christ!
A lot of us find this need for development satisfied at work and in our own family. That’s where we take on responsibility and produce something – like offspring, a mortgage and profits for the company. The movement from Stage 2 to 3 in the Spirit is deeper. Women risk to be valuable. So-called minorities insist they matter and deserve a voice in the dialogue. Young people seek responsibility the old guard thinks they don’t deserve. We discover our gifts and are moved to enact them. We rejoice in the fact that we can develop and become all we are called to be.
I rejoice. I vividly remember being in stage two. At that time in my life, a 70something elder in the church I was serving took me aside one day and said, “Rod, you have great ideas, but you have terrible PR.” He went on. I listened to him. But I essentially thought, “The hell with PR! I don’t see Jesus taking cues from his media advisors!” I was right, but I later realized that I wanted to build something, not spend my life rebelling against what someone else built. I got some new skills, eventually. I’m still grateful for people like Janet Hagberg and that fed-up elder who cared enough to open up the possibility of development in critical ways — in both the positive and negative senses of that word.
The metaphor for my life this week has been scraping the mineral deposits off my new counters in my newly-rehabbed condo. We noticed when the light shines just right we can see stuff left on the counter we just wiped off. Come to find out, if we leave water or juice to dry on the counter, it will leave a crust that cannot be dissolved by a cleaner! One of the ways to be rid of it or diminish it is to scrape it with a razor blade. Some advisors say, “Just get used to it (and have a life, already!).” So far, I guess I am not the “get used to it” kind of guy. I’m scraping, and meditating as I do.
Now that the nearly-year-old rehab project and move is nearing some finality, I am finding some blessed room for feeling my post-transition life. Scraping my counter is an activity that slows me down and teaches me lessons. I’ve been scraping paint residue from floors and now mineral deposits from counters and it feels like my soul is getting a good scrape, too.
Failures like mineral deposits on my soul
It feels like a failure to have mineral deposits on the brand-new counters! Quartz is expensive. Finding out quartz is not really indestructible hurts. It all begs a lot of questions: Why didn’t I read everything on Google about quartz counters before I messed them up? Did I buy substandard stuff and get ripped off? Did I saddle myself with a maintenance job I will never do? Am I just the world’s worst consumer and should have stayed on a lower level of American household splendor, since I can’t get enough obsession going to take care of things?
I was telling Rachel last week that my life seems like a series of failures. I feel like a poster child for Falling Upward at times. My spiritual gift might be getting myself into trouble, or in over my head, or in a situation that will require reconciliation at best or miracle at worst. As I scrape the counter I have a familiar choice: am I going to meet Jesus on this counter or get back to him when I feel a little better after fixing the problem? – if that ever happens.
Scraping my life has also been a meditation on race, like for many of us these days. I have certainly been committed to failing at racial reconciliation in many ways since I moved to Philly. My dried up relationships are like mineral stains on my past. In a certain light they make me wince a little.
The passing away illusions of the perfect present
While I am scraping the counter I am tempted to damn the counter and condemn myself for having one. “Why did I buy this nice thing to oppress me, anyway?” I have a very strong inner Franciscan. The other argument goes, “Why are you worrying about scraping the counter? Just do it. Be in the moment of this scrape. Or don’t scrape and be there.” That’s the side that usually wins (thus this blog post).
We were talking over successes and failures the other night with some friends (with whom we were not successful at social distance, so I’ll add “catching Covid-19” to my failure list, shortly) and began to ponder the reality that we can’t understand the next stage of our development, spiritually, until we get into it. The tipping point moment of development usually feels like we’re in the fog, upended, even headed in a wrong direction. The future feels like an illusion, maybe even an apparition – something to be feared. Sometimes we get so scared we won’t even go, even though we are ready for what’s next.
Scraping my life right now feels like part of that kind of foggy transition. I begin to see the deposits on my counter like deposits of the past on my soul, dried up relationships that feel like scars, dried up work that left a mark, memories of goodness that are fading. For some reason, the old slogan of the much-maligned Robert Schuller keeps coming to my mind. He used to preach “turn your scars into stars.” The illusion of the perfect counter and successfully buying just what I want in a new home is a new scar in the night sky of my development. Every time I look at that counter, and myself, in a certain light, I need to get saved.
Gratitude really is the beginning and end of seeing clearly
I am scraping, scraping, scraping my condo, which was supposed to be all perfect long before the pandemic started. It is tempting to have my only prayer be, “Oh my God!” That is a prayer in the spirit of, “Now what?” as if I were Job, or something – albeit a Job scraping in his high rise looking out over a shining city. Eventually, my loving friend, Jesus, gets down on the floor with me, or sits at a barstool fingering a water stain and says something like, “Isn’t it great you are healthy enough to do this?” or “Remember that pilgrimage we took to Africa and were invited into some homes?” If I resist temptation, my prayer graduates to “Thanks.”
Gratitude is a good scraper. I keep talking about my recent experience with some wonderful people in my small-group “hub” connected to the Jesus Collective. The getting-to-know-you time was a blessing. One of my takeaways from our first meeting, however, was to get a better picture of the church in which I live. The leader of our group offered us some of the recent development in his spiritual life to use in our prayer together. It was a nice gift and I used it. But it was at a level I thought our pastors and all of our Leadership Team, maybe most of our cell leaders, had probably surpassed. I shouldn’t compare people, but I thought I knew maybe thirty people in our church who were much better prepared to lead this “hub,” which was culled from great people from all over the world! Like Paul, the “scales” fell from my eyes — the dried-up residue of not seeing my situation with a Jesus lens (or maybe seeing it with a Covid-19 lens). I was grateful. Maybe I should say I was reduced to gratitude.
Even pop stars tell us they are learning gratitude. It is not just a cliché; gratitude makes everything better. If we are grateful, we exercise humility and don’t fall prey to the dark side of our reality: the hubris of autonomy and rapacity of greed. Some time ago, I decided to start every day in my journal with a list of thanks. It is often amazing how hard it is to settle in to the blessings of my life. Often, especially in the depressing time of the virus, I need to force myself to see the wonders in and around me. I try not to wait for Jesus to open my eyes, or for the weight of creation to tip my scales. I need to be honest about what I feel. But I also need to be honest about what God feels. I need to go through a process of confession and restoration. But I also need to learn how to do that in the presence of Love, with trust and hope. Dwelling on the good with gratitude is a very effective soul scraper.
I think I’m learning. How are you doing? Got any scraping going on in your territory? Or what is your metaphor of the week? I would love to hear some more of your story about how Jesus is leading you through your troubles.
Next month the pastors are calling the church to consider our “rule” of life as followers of Jesus. You might like to pick up Ken Shigematsu’s book, My God in Everything, and start reading now. I love it when postmodern people rediscover ancient patterns to grow healthy faith. They give me hope for the world. And we could use some hope right now.
Americans are having a tough time living by any rules at all when it comes to the pandemic. As usual we’re dividing up over something as simple as whether wearing a mask is necessary. I know what I am about to say might not be true about you (at least I hope not), but as a society, the individual freedom to kill seems to be trumping our responsibility to save. As a society, the Americans perfected the world’s largest killing machine — their arsenals and armed “services;” I don’t think anyone would dispute that violence is a core characteristic of the U.S.A. But that trait characterizes the people as individuals, too. The society is debating whether policing means the right to make split-second decisions to kill Black people, especially, and whoever else challenges state-sponsored violence. We’ve been debating whether everyone should be allowed to carry weapons into Walmart. The wild Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is more popular in the U.S. than the NHL or NASCAR among 18-34 year-olds. All this goes to say that Americans lean toward lawlessness when it comes to relating to anyone but their small circle, and white people, especially, tend to think death is “collateral damage” when it comes to protecting their way of life.
Contrary to Disney’s decision to open Disney World, the coronavirus crisis is not over. But some things have changed. To start, lockdowns are ending because cases are low or falling in some areas or because state leaders decided to move ahead despite the risk. Testing has increased, giving us more indicators of community health. Plus we know a lot more about how the virus behaves, how to treat it, and what activities pose the highest risk.
Since life on permanent lockdown isn’t sustainable, public health experts are beginning to embrace a “harm reduction” approach, giving people alternatives to strict quarantine. These options — like forming a “bubble” with another household or moving social activities outdoors — don’t eliminate risk, but they minimize it as people try to return to daily life. We need to have some new rules about how to go about the week.
Nobody knows exactly what will happen as communities open up. The most likely scenario is that virus cases will continue to surge and fall around the globe for the foreseeable future. In the middle of that uncertainty, churches, in particular, are dividing up over when it is safe to do things in person (as are thrift stores and counseling centers!). Will our church and its enterprises survive the pandemic? Will our friends and children know more about harm reduction strategies than Jesus in a year?
5 rules for life in the pandemic
It is a blessing that Jesus can hold your hand as you figure out harm reduction. It seems we have learned to live with masks and social distancing, as well as new rituals of hand-washing after handling packages and touching surfaces. We need some basic rules to minimize risk and still have a life going forward. Here are some ideas for the church culled from public health leaders [thanks to Tara Parker-Pope] that might give us tools to make our own decisions about being the church in person.
We need to know the present health of our state and community
Gwen and I are considering a trip to Vermont in the fall. When I started researching places to stay, I was informed there was a criteria for entry into the state. I would need paperwork to prove I was not infectious and sign a self-certification! That was sobering. Philadelphia county does not presently make the cut for numbers of cases allowed in one’s home territory to prove I am not too great a threat to Vermont.
To gauge our risk of coming into contact with an infected person, we need to pay attention to two important indicators of Covid-19 in our area : the percentage of tests that are positive, and the trend in overall case rates [Philadelphia] [SouthJersey]. When the percentage of positive Covid-19 tests stay at 5% or lower for two weeks, that suggests there’s adequate testing to mitigate transmission and you’re less likely to cross paths with the virus. The lower the number the better, of course. Right now PA has a 5.4 rate but Philadelphia County has about 1500 active cases compared to Vermont’s sense that 400 is the mark to meet.
We need to decide the extent of our “corona bubble”
After three months of being locked up together (or alone!), the safety zone of our apartments or family circles is driving quite a few of us “mad.” We’re widening our circles to include the extended family and friends. The prime minister of New Zealand started calling this extension a “corona bubble.” Now we need to agree on safety guidelines for our bubbles. The arrangement requires a high level of trust and communication.
Some cells are already experimenting with being a bubble and negotiating the level of social distance their meetings require. More anxious members want to know the number of “leaks” their bubble has — such as trips to the store or office, play dates, children and teens who see friends, or housekeepers and nannies who may visit multiple homes. Others don’t really care, or are unaware of the dangers.
Communication is the key to these arrangements working out. If a person is not going to face instant judgment about leaks they are less likely to hide them. Our activities are going to change all the time — schools are on the way to reopening, there should probably be more protests. So our arrangements need to be flexible. Is the church important enough to us to learn how to have this level of dialogue? Or will we wait and see what we’ve got when the powers-that-be sound the “all clear?”
We need to think of ourselves as managing an “exposure budget”
During a pandemic, every member of the household should manage their own exposure budget. (Think Weight Watchers points for virus risk.) You spend very few budget points for low-risk choices like a once-a-week grocery trip or exercising outdoors. You spend more budget points when you attend an indoor dinner party, get a haircut or go to the office. You blow your budget completely if you spend time in a crowd.
The initial crisis response is over, if some states ever had one, and we’re moving into long-term management. There is a lot of work on a vaccine. But it is unlikely to be ready by January, even if people keep promising it. We need to have a long-term plan about how to limit our exposure and still have a life. Gwen and I want to see the grandchildren. But it might make sense to stay away from Home Depot as a trade-off. It makes sense to go over the week and assess what the budget should be and how many risks we are actually taking.
We need to keep higher-risk activities short
We need to be together and will be together again. Let’s not forget. Until then, we are blessed with any number of ways to connect: phone, the dreaded Zoom, the now-expensive Marco Polo app, email – and people used to write letters and feel close to people at a distance. Budget in connecting, however possible or inadequate, before depression makes you even more isolated.
When you are going out into some risky territory, it might be a good rule of thumb to ask, “If an infected person happens to be nearby, how much time could I be spending with them?” It takes an extended period of close contact with an infected person, or extended time in a poorly ventilated room with an infected person, to have a substantial risk of catching the virus through the air, it is said. Keep indoor events brief. For a few more months we can move social events outdoors. Wear a mask and practice social distancing. Here’s some guidance about time of exposure.
Brief exposure:Brief encounters, particularly those outside — like passing someone on the sidewalk or a runner who huffs and puffs past your picnic — are unlikely to make you sick.
Face-to-face contact: Wear a mask, and keep close conversations short. We don’t know the level of exposure required to make us sick, but estimates range from a few hundred to 1,000 copies of the virus. In theory, you might reach the higher estimate after just five minutes of close conversation, given that a person might expel 200 viral particles a minute through speech. When health officials perform contact tracing, they typically look for people with whom you’ve spent at least 15 minutes in close contact.
Indoor exposure: In an enclosed space, like an office, at a birthday party, in a restaurant or in a church meeting, you can still become infected from a person across the room if you share the same air for an extended period of time. There’s no proven time limit that is safest but it is best to keep it less than an hour. Even shorter is better. We went to Michael’s to get some framing done the other day then I was appalled that my 70-something brother went to get a haircut! I find it difficult to figure out what is appropriate! Dr. Erin Bromage suggests we consider the volume of air space (open space is safer than a small meeting room), the number of people in the space (fewer is better) and how much time everyone is together (keep it brief). His blog about timing and risk has been viewed more than 18 million times.
Circle of Hope’s mapping process is helping us decide how we want to live as the people of God in a pandemic. If you read every link in this post, your personal decision might be better informed. But I doubt you would be certain about what is the right thing to do. As the Bible teaches us so well, our behavior is going to be a mixed bag and we’ll need to accept one another. Read Romans 14 and 15 again and learn to accept the one who stays quarantined too long and the one whose behavior seems to risky. I am learning to accept that I am at risk as an older person (albeit a fairly healthy one) and I might die. I have friends my age who have already survived an infection, but I am preparing not to survive, as well. Businesses and churches are in the process of dying. It all feels terrible. But along with physical risk management, I am also managing the spiritual risk I am facing. I will live forever, but I would like to be living that eternal life now, not when the pandemic is over.
Unfortunately, we need to keep up the precautions and make some rules
I’m surprised how many disparaging remarks I have heard about Florida this week. (Well, half of them might have been from me). My friends skipped their beloved month down south (but my pastor went south to enjoy the tropical storm!), since the whole state decided the President had the power to declare the whole pandemic a hoax. Thus, they are setting infection records.
Here’s the common sense about precautions, so far:
Keep your mask handy. Wear a mask in enclosed spaces, when you shop or go to the office and anytime you are in close contact with people outside your household.
Practice social distancing — staying at least six feet apart — when you are with people who live outside your household. Keep social activities outdoors and keep indoor activities brief.
Wash your hands frequently, and be mindful about touching public surfaces (elevator buttons, hand rails, subway poles, and other high-touch areas). Gwen put hand sanitizer in my van, since I touch my face all the time.
Adopt stricter quarantine practices if you or someone in your circle is at higher risk.
When will precautions allow us to “open” the church? Actually, if you have any decent theology at all, you know the church is open 24/7 if it is filled with God’s Spirit. We can’t be closed because we are it. But it sure would be great to have meetings and to serve people face to face in the community! We need each other. We don’t know how to do more than online meetings, at this point (so don’t miss them!!).
But before we start thinking about when to get in a room together (or outside, as we might), would you start thinking about how Jesus wants to you take care of his church? What rules your life? What is your rule of life – the desires and disciplines that form your behavior and fill your schedule? Your rule matters more than ever to protect our lives and our church. We need each other to take some precautions in regard to our tender faith — our own and one another’s. We are not subject to the pandemic in such a way as it defines us – that is, not really. We need to help one another get through this with our faith, hope and love intact, not just our bodies.
The pandemic makes everything more clear. As Pentecost promises, the old men and the rest of us are dreaming dreams. Daughters and sons are prophesying and seeing visions.
The unraveling United States is spawning a new social order which I pray is more just as we ponder and protest George Floyd, smothered before our eyes by powers cloaked with impunity while the unimpeachable president eggs them on. Even deeper, the church, denuded of its meetings and routines by the virus, is forced to look at itself in the mirror, naked, and consider whether it will pick up the radical mantle required in the next era.
I’ve been pondering the metaphor of “taking on the mantle” for quite a while, since our church decided I should bestow mine on our pastor team in an incremental and deliberate way. Even more, I have been watching clients and friends struggling to feel comfortable in the spiritual and psychological clothes they are wearing in this tumultuous time when we rightly suspect we will never get back to whatever “normal” was.
It seems strange to me that I just recently noticed how the Bible regularly records people using the symbol of the mantle/cloak/robe to mark the life-change a person is making. In the Bible, taking on the mantle marks the special character or gifts someone is called to offer in a time of trouble. Now is that time.
Pictures of taking on the mantle
You may have these pictures of being enrobed from the Bible already collected in your mind, but I think they bear repeating – at least I’m trying to feel them like a tongue of fire wrapping me in possibility.
In Genesis 37 we meet Joseph at seventeen, the same age I experienced my crisis of faith. His father, Jacob/Israel, loved him “more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a coat of many colors.” This robe caused Joseph lots of trouble. I can relate. The “coat” my Father gave me in Christ, has also caused me trouble, along with joy like Joseph’s as I was also called to feed people in our famished world.
In 1 Kings 19 right after Elijah defeats Jezebel’s prophets and hears the voice of God up on the mountain, he receives a vision to anoint his successor. It says he “found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him.” These wild prophets wore a distinctive cloak of animal skins, which John the Baptist adopted later on. They both struggled with terrible leaders and did their best to keep the knowledge of God alive among people under pressure. Someone may have tapped you to do more than plow; maybe it was God.
Then in Luke 15 Jesus uses the symbol, as well. When the prodigal son returns home, what does his father do? “The father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him.” I feel delighted, if also unworthy, to wear my robe. I consistently meet people who can’t put it on, or who chafe in the false robe they wear, or who long for the parental experience of the Lord’s parable to cleanse their blocked or stunted feelings like fire.
I would never pretend to systematize these Bible readings into a principle of mantle-receiving or pretend I know all they mean. But I do feel them, and I think we can wear our new clothes in Christ with some confidence. Today I feel like I’d better make sure I’m receiving my robe and wearing my mantle.
Put on the new self
The New Testament is full of the image of being clothed with newness. Paul calls us to remember we are clothed with Christ. Our new relationship with God is like being born naked into the world again and given the mantle of our mentor, Jesus — a distinctive robe that communicates how much our Father loves us. Paul shows many facets of this gem of truth but I’ll just mention two.
Clothed with new creation. Paul teaches, “For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” ( 2 Cor. 5:4). This is a great reading for Pentecost, since the whole scene of Acts 2 is a picture of the disciples being swallowed up by life.
As the powers force people into the arms of virus in order to protect the interests of the corporations, I think the whole world may be finally fed up with facing the ravenous exploitation that comes with the materialist worldview they’ve been sold. We’re all like Jesus now, in that the powers would auction off our clothes if they could find a way to get them off us. People can’t escape the sense there is a “heavenly dwelling,” or at least can’t overlook how the present is terribly flawed. So we are yearning, like Paul, for the new creation. [Ever watch the The Robe? Victor Mature helped show it to me].
Clothed with a new character. The story of Pentecost continues in Acts 2 and the whole book, to show that once touched by fire, the new church immediately expresses their new life with new behavior. Paul sums up the change like this in Ephesians 4: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” We always hear a challenging voice somewhere inside us saying, “So what are you going to do?”
These days the challenge is even more urgent. For many people, this year is the first time they have experienced real danger in their lives. Previously, it has been easier to live behind the walls of the American Empire. This uncertainty has caused them to see how many people have experienced trouble every day their whole lives. As a result, more people are reading the Bible as more than moral guidelines they could apply to their situation. They see it for what it really is: a guidebook for being an alternative to the evil and madness. As Paul tells the Romans, who live in the belly of the Roman Empire beast, “The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
So what do we have to do to wear a Jesus “mantle?”
Given what we face right now, knowing it is too large to look at it specifically and too unknown to make unchangeable plans, what do we do to take up the mantle and live into our new selves? In Christ we are a new creation and live according to a renewing character. If we want to live out this new life, what do we have to do? I don’t know for sure, when it comes to you, but here is what I have been thinking.
Take it on. — New life in Christ does not just happen to us, we take it on like a coat, we receive it as a gift, we conform to it like a person shipwrecked on a foreign shore adopts the local language. The disciples were waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit. The day of Pentecost did “happen” — but they had to wear the newness. Joseph had this knack as a teen; maybe you did too. Even after he infuriated his brothers with his dreams and was thrown into a pit, he kept at it the rest of his life.
Nothing in the Christian life is singular, so we need to take on this character as the church, too. The body of Christ is not happening without us, but we are not happening without it, either. I think my appreciation for us sometimes blinds me to what Jesus is really calling us to be. For instance, I just said it “takes all of us” to be the church. But I know I’m talking to a small fraction of us right now and most people manage to never “take on” Circle of Hope and our unique calling in a meaningful way. Imagine how lively we will be when we all take on the mantle — we’re amazing as the fractional picture we are!
Take the time. – This daunting world seems like an even more urgent project right now than it always is. But, to be honest, I am who I am, with a limited amount of goodness to express. What’s more, I rarely know just what to do in a given day; I need to listen to God and others — and that takes time. I’m an organism who decides, not a decision that gets expressed organically. Elisha had the authority, but it took time for people to accept it. After he hit the Jordan River with Elijah’s cloak and parted it, people took notice. But even then, it is surprising how much resistance he got. Don’t give up.
Nothing happens instantly in the church, either. We’ve taken a long time to build who we are at this point. We tried to build in flexibility so we would be ready for anything that came along; and I think we are facing what came along pretty well. But we’re always frustrating someone because we are not yet all we ought to be. Perhaps they see the future so well, they have trouble relating to people who aren’t there yet. Sometimes it feels like we really shouldn’t take the time to “sit around” waiting for something to grow. But I think the message is that we really don’t have another option.
Trust your spiritual instincts. — The prodigal son famously came to his senses. We assume the dutiful son in the story eventually did too, but Jesus leaves that as an open question for his listeners: “Are you going to come to your senses and join the party?” For most of us, the answer is, “Yes. I’m feeling bad, but I definitely want to come.”
Right now, I think we are wondering who we are going to be and what we are going to do next as individuals and as the church. That is, we are wondering if we are just waiting to get back to normal or if this is our chance to trust our best thoughts and desires. Almost every day when I pray, the temptation to wait until it is all over presents itself. Am I going to put on my new self and live, or am I just going to wait until it doesn’t seem so necessary to do that?
Some things have been reinforced for me that I think should be characteristic of us as a church if we are going to offer an alternative to this uncertain and frustrated world. My spiritual instincts keep telling me, in spite of my resistance, to
Embrace first and trust God to bless the best I have to give as well as trust God to work out the worst that can happen. I want to fearlessly love.
Jump in and figure out how to do it rather than getting all the ducks in a row before proceeding. Actually ducks instinctively get in line because they automatically follow their mother’s voice. I want to stop asking so many questions as if I deserve an answer. I know enough to get started.
Be frank instead of doubting every word until caution eliminates creativity. I want to ask for forgiveness rather than avoid needing to ask because I avoid trusting people. I can’t control all the troubles I imagine. We need more truth and less fear.
Live with a Jesus-lens instead of being whatever you are against. The world needs to live in Christ as a result of Jesus living in the world. Following Jesus is always a self-giving, creative act, not an argument about what right living means.
I’m trying to trust what I hear just like the first disciples had to wake up the day after Pentecost and live new lives. Will these kind of character traits lead us to wear the radical mantle needed in this era? I hate to wait and see, but I will have to do that. And I imagine I could write more tomorrow after I learn what God and you teach me next.
Whether you are a psychotherapist, a worship leader or a loving parent, the new brain science has good news for you. Those seemingly indelible memories that haunt us from our youth to old age are not as permanent as we thought. We can cooperate with God, who provides us transforming, mismatching experiences, and hope to bring healing and new life.
At the recent CAPS Conference, I kept hearing about a book that has people talking: Unlocking the Emotional Brain by Bruce Ecker, Laurel Hulley, and Robin Ticic. They assert that intense emotions generate unconscious predictive models for all of us. These models tell us about how the world functions and about what caused those intense emotions. We don’t question them, just react to them as the brain uses those models to guide our present and future behavior. When we experience discordant emotions and feel stuck in irrational behaviors they are likely generated by these implicit “schemas” (models for how the world works) which we formed in response to various external challenges. These mental structures are ongoing, working descriptions both of the problems that move us and the solutions we have accepted.
According to the authors, the key for updating worn-out and often-troubling schemas involves a process of memory “reconsolidation,” which can be verified by neuroscience. They claim our more conscious emotions are usually locked out of the area of the brain where more basic memories reside, like the ones that form our predictive models for the world. But once an emotional schema is activated, it is possible to simultaneously bring into awareness knowledge contradicting the active schema. When this happens, the information contained in the schema can be overwritten by the new knowledge.
What this means is that people who are trying to help troubled loved ones can help create different, healing experiences and hope people can change. If we have mismatching experiences that contradict what we have previously experienced, new models can be formed. This science validates what most Jesus followers know. We can experience transformation that goes against the fatalistic sense of indelible identity and inevitable destiny that colors so much of the popular imagination of humanity these days. For instance, the trailer for Assassin’s Creed. [Warning: violence]
If you don’t want to just go with your ancestral memory for assassination, you can hope your pastor (or therapist, or friend) can be present enough and perhaps creative enough to provide or affirm an alternative experience. We’re not alone, flawed, stuck or doomed!
We need mismatching experiences for deep change
It is tempting for Christians to “humbly” allow their words or their programs to serve as a stand in for their personal and relational cooperation with God’s Spirit. But people need more than logic that only hits their upper brain. They need real, live experience of goodness and love they can see, then feel and then integrate. In brain-science laden psychotherapy talk: You can’t throw words at the limbic system. I often shorten that to “don’t should on me!”
What we need in order to reconsolidate those intractable memories are “mismatching experiences” that allow our schemas to be contradicted in a good way and reformed in line with new experiences. This is one reason God did not send a book to us, she came personally in Jesus to provide many such experiences that don’t match the experiences which subverted our memories, and that is why Jesus left the body of Christ to create an environment for an alternative process – because transformation takes place deeply in such an environment.
You can see Jesus creating mismatched experiences repeatedly, notably with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). When he begins to make a relational environment with her, he starts in a dependent position to make a connection and quickly manages to touch the shame that is basic to how she sees herself in the world. She stays with him and enters into a surprising intimacy across racial and gender lines – she calls him a Jew, then a prophet and eventually “sir.” Her mismatching experience reaches a peak when Jesus notes what she has done but stays with her, unlike all her husbands and all the people who have left her alone fetching water at noon.
John later teaches from this experience: “If God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!” (1 John 4). We experience transformation at the level we need it. Our good thinking alone rarely seeps into the places we need to experience the love of God and so rarely makes us people who begin reacting according to a new model of love.
Our worship can be a transforming environment
I am mainly writing to encourage pastors and the rest of us Jesus followers who want to cooperate with the transformation of humanity. One thing cooperation means is that worship should be a mismatching experience, not a lesson, and should mainly be focused on the present, not function in reference to the past or future. Our times of worship are hardly the only places we create an environment for transformation, but they are certainly a good opportunity!
Unfortunately, our worship is often not a mismatching experience. It is often not hitting our emotions at all, but is stuck in the upper reaches of the brain. So it has little hope of getting to the deep seated schemas that reside close to the spinal cord. Ironically, we had a decent example of brain-bound worship in the CAPS Conference itself. A very talented man from Charlotte (I believe) led us in a song we also sometimes sing in our worship times called Build My Life led by Pat Barrett with the Housefires, originally from a church network centered in Atlanta. [Here’s a link if you are not familiar.]
I do not mean to insult the integrity of anyone who wrote or uses this popular song. They probably mean well and appear to be good-hearted Jesus followers on screen. I would just like to tweak their lyrics to provide for a present time, real experience of God-with-us, rather than a mental process in line with our self-protective schemas.
Worthy of every song we could ever sing Worthy of all the praise we could ever bring Worthy of every breath we could ever breathe We live for You
The lines above seem more like a statement of identity formation than worship.
“I am naming your traits. I live for you. That’s me.”
That process of self-identification is what the song is mainly about. It is a bit akin to the Assassin’s Creed — an ancient-seeming fictional set of rules bent on creating a freedom that never quite arrives.
The lines of the song could be a statement of having been transformed if we were not then led to sing:
Open up my eyes in wonder And show me who You are And fill me with Your heart And lead me in Your love to those around me
This seems like the song of a “buffered self” (see description in this post) singing from the inside of their painful impermeability. This is not a real time experience, yet: “Open me up. I need to see you.” It might be better to sing
“I open my eyes in wonder and see who you are. I am filled with your heart and see the fields white for harvest.”
Those tweaked lines would be more suitable for entering a mismatched experience in which we are not far away or alienated from God, but are one with Jesus. Being honest about our needs and feelings is good, but singing about ourselves in worship might be more matching worship with our schemas than being transformed. So many of us are in a perpetual state of aspiration, more interested in making a choice, once our eyes are opened to the options, rather than accepting our invitation to enter into spiritual reality. If we were the woman at the well talking to Jesus, we might keep arguing instead of relating to who is with us. The song goes on to repeat, like a mantra:
And I will build my life upon Your love It is a firm foundation
So many Evangelical songs are in this future tense, for some reason. Making a promise is a good thing. And the promise above is a great place to stand. But making it in worship may not provide the mismatching experience in the present that unlocks the memories that form the schemas of the person who is singing the song. It is something that will happen in the future, apparently. I found myself singing,
“I am building my life on your love; I feel its firm foundation.”
The passage from 1 John and what Jesus demonstrates with the woman at the well teach that love present in the moment unravels and reconsolidates. The woman at the well went back to town and told everyone how she met a man who revealed all her shame and it did not kill her, or she him. I think that means she had experienced worship in Spirit and in truth! So much of what we do is sanctioned by the upper brain, but true worship impacts all our emotions and those rigid memory systems that run us.
I take heart that the Spirit of Jesus will do a lot more with the Housefires’ song than I would think just by looking at the words. That may be the case in your experience. But I also think the opposite could be true, that our shallow thinking and schema-bound reactions might quench the Spirit and consign people to a painful struggle with the uneasy feelings they get about how false worship can be.
I have talked to clients, both in psychotherapy and spiritual direction, who look me in the eye and say, “I am sorry for wasting your time.” That’s always interesting to talk through, but still tragic whenever I hear it. It’s like they spent enough time in a safe place to realize they don’t think they matter – mainly because they have a hard time accepting they matter to me. They don’t have enough evidence our time together matters even though I think it does. They don’t think they are changing enough to deserve therapy or coming up to a standard that deserves direction. What is their “I am” statement? – “I am a waste of time.”
We all have a lot of messages roaming around in our inner dialogues, don’t we? A lot of them tear us down, even convince us we do not matter: “I am weak. I am the worst. I am found wanting for what I lack.”
Those messages need to be countered:
You don’t matter because you are more powerful.
You don’t matter because you are better.
You don’t matter because you can demonstrate how effective or successful you are.
You are a unique “I am” connected to the terrible, wonderful I AM.
It is hard to hear the voice of God for most of us, but in many ways Jesus is delivering a new message about who we are — and how who we are right now matters. That message is terrible because it makes us so much more than we can imagine and so responsible for our frailty and glory. It is wonderful because it makes us safe in our true home.
You matter because God made you and called the creation good. You matter because you have always been loved by God and by many others, too. There are other things I could note, but I want to concentrate on one verse in the Bible, especially, that has helped me remember I matter.
You matter because you ARE.
The “I am” of Jesus is a revelation to us, but it is also an example.
When Jesus says “Before Abraham was, I am” in John 8, he gives us an example of mattering, among many other things that famous statement reveals. He is having a public debate about who he is and where he comes from. The ancestors-honoring Jews of the time are understandably irritated that he says they are not truly descended from Abraham, as they say, but are descended from the devil. Jesus insists Abraham looked forward to the day the Savior would appear, but they reject him appearing before their eyes speaking the truth and backing it up with signs. The Lord’s detractors are incredulous when Jesus implies he has known Abraham. Then he says it: “Before Abraham was, I am.” He’s saying, “I existed in God’s dimension, about which you know little, so I am revealing it to you.” Most people assumed he was putting himself in the burning bush, where God told Moses, “My name is I am. Tell them ‘Who I will be sent me’ when you get to Egypt.” That made them want to stone Jesus for making himself one with God.
I think what Jesus said makes a big difference to our theology. But His action in the face of what pushed him to hide himself is deeper than the words. Jesus asserts he matters.
Likewise, there is a movement in me to declare “I am,” to attach to eternity backwards and forwards. In that one moment Jesus is before Abraham, honors Abraham and is greater than Abraham. In every moment Jesus is purposely subordinate to God as he identifies with us and eternally one with God as the risen Savior. Jesus takes his rightful place in the Abraham story and encourages me to take my rightful place in the story of how grace is being revealed now.
I matter because I am. All through the Bible you can see God calling us to rise up and be our true selves — God the ever-humble Lord, who keeps insisting he makes a difference while people debate whether she even exists! Likewise, we face pressures that push us toward meaninglessness. We can be convinced we don’t matter, that we shouldn’t even exist, that we shouldn’t be wasting the time of people who love us, or use the body we have. Among the many things Jesus is teaching us with this one wonderful chapter in John is to keep insisting to ourselves and everyone else, “I am.”
Feeling the truth about me
We have to acknowledge that some people have been deluded and believe they are Jesus. We can assert a fantasy “I am” as well as a reality; we’re humans and creative in good and perverse ways.
But even with the danger of feeling inauthentic in some way, I think Jesus is calling us to assert, like he does, “I don’t need to show that I am more powerful so you will worship me, although I could. I don’t need to prove myself a better moral person or better arguer than you, although I am that. I don’t need to demonstrate how effective I am or successful I am in all the ways you judge important in order to have value. I matter because I am. My connection to my Father makes me someone and we can move on from there, but I don’t need to go farther, just because you love lies.”
How do we get to the place where thinking things like that, and even saying them, doesn’t seem strange to us? The people Jesus argued with in John 8 were angry and defensive. The story is so brief, we don’t come to understand all the reasons they ended up that way. But you are angry and defensive, and I often am, too. It is no surprise that our hearts get hard to the love and truth Jesus keeps bringing every day.
I think feeling comfortable as our true selves is mostly bolstered in silence, where we meet with God spirit to Spirit. Study, worship, relating to loved ones in the Body of Christ are also crucial. But at some point we need our naked “I am” to meet God’s “I am.” And then WE are.
We get invitations, every day, to reimagine ourselves as part of the story Jesus is telling. Here are three moments that recently helped me take hold of the life that has taken hold of me and be who “I am.”
1) The moment I let “I am” be central. I keep telling the story of singing “I am” as a breath prayer during the meeting in March we named “Move through the Pain.” That “breath song” was one of my favorite moments. We invited everyone to slowly sing “I am” and sink into the moment with God. Then a couple of people started speaking into our silence: “You are the beloved of God” (We sang, “I am”). “You are loved by God as you are right now” (We sang, “I am”). “You are being welcomed into eternity, right now” (We sang, “I am”). They piled up elements of our true selves and could have gone on all night. It went on long enough that my heart remembers to sing it.
2) The moment I did not let criticism define me. This past week I got a couple critiques of some teaching I did. The responses were not uniformly positive and I felt defensive. I think I was already worn down from the lockdown, so I felt myself getting a little depressed. Criticism can be deadly, if it is wielded to injure. But most of the time it is instructive. I need to change and grow from it. But what I did not need to do is let the criticism taint the sense that I matter. I was tempted not to teach at all and deprive people who want to receive my gift. I was tempted to list all the ways I blew it and color myself as a flawed, bad person. Being who I am often means changing my mind about me and usually means rejecting lies that condemn me.
3) The moment I let the anxiety float away and rested in grace.Gwen and I have been living in one room for a month as our new home is rehabbed (after over 8 months of trouble with that project!). The trouble feels like a dark cloud is following me, ready to cover the sun and chill my heart. So every day I tend to wake up to the anxiety that has arisen from my unconscious during the night. When I go to prayer, I take time to let it go, consciously, and experience my heart. It is not always easy to get there, but it is always wonderful. When I say experience my heart, I’m not sure all that means, but it feels like light shining through water, like a story that brings tears to my eyes, like the truth of what I mean to God invading resistant territory, like gentle pressure to surrender to goodness. Silence broken by prayers softens me to Jesus and others – even the ones who abuse me. I think we need to spend enough time to let the realization of who we are rise naturally. Often we gulp God’s love like we’re parched. But prayer is more savoring grace like a connoisseur, knowing we’ll have another meal.
I hope the time this took you to read it allowed you some rest in a safe place to ponder how you see yourself and how you see God. The story of God’s love in Jesus, fighting to be himself to us in John 8, should convince us we matter. Maybe more important, I hope this brief time gave you another moment to say “I am” to the terrible, wonderful “I AM” and feel love and truth making you you.
A dialogue about Ask culture vs. Guess culture has been going around the internet for about ten years, now. I finally caught up with it when one of my friends posted a note about it on Facebook. The material kind of hit me like a brick. As more of an asker, I have been having misunderstandings with guessers for a long time! It would have helped to name these distinctive ways to relate earlier. So I hope my lesson helps you, in case you also missed the dialogue.
Ask and Guess Culture
The dialogue got started with a web posting by Andrea Donderi which achieved “legs” and still maintains a following. We are raised, the theory says, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favor, a pay raise, an overnight at your house – fully accepting your answer may be no. “There’s no harm in asking” would be their proverb. Or maybe “Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” People who are assertive like this can seem aggressive or careless to guessers.
Because in Guess culture, one avoids putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. A key skill in Guess culture/families/relationships is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer – like when I enter the room with a banana and my granddaughter says “I like bananas.” Even if one gets an offer that requires no request, the offer may be genuine or pro forma. (“Oh,” I say. “You would like the banana I got for myself.”) So it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept what might be an offer. “Don’t ask and you won’t be disappointed” might be the guesser’s proverb. Or maybe, “I shouldn’t have to tell you to be considerate.” Less assertive people can seem passive-aggressive or critical to askers.
Binary comparisons are more fun than accurate. So let’s avoid forming too many conclusions and let the reality sink in. We are all probably leaning into one of these camps most of the time. My mother was a committed guesser. She drove down the road shouting at cars, “Couldn’t you see I was here? How inconsiderate!” Lack of consideration was probably the first deadly sin on her list. She thought we should have imagined how she would react before she entered the living room and saw a frosty glass making a ring on the end table. I think I am considerate until I run into Mennonites (and I love them so I do!) and maybe Canadians, I’m finding out.
An asker won’t think it’s rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a guesser will probably hear such an ask as presumptuous and resent the agony it causes them to say no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may actually be an overdemanding boor, but maybe they are just an asker who’s assuming you might decline if you need to. If you’re a guesser, you might hear many requests as a demand. You can tell already that it would be a mistake to make this trait either/or. We’re likely all on a spectrum. You can see how true that is when you look at the varieties of cross-cultural awkwardness we feel. Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because Japan is a Guess culture, yet they often experience Russians as rude, because they’re diehard askers.
I was speaking to a therapist friend about this dialogue and we pondered whether the “pursuers” in a marital relationship are usually askers and the “withdrawers” are more likely to be guessers. Neither way needs to be labeled “wrong.” But either way usually feels wrong to the other way. Self-help writers try to solve the problem by insisting we all become askers, training us to both ask and refuse with relish. The mediation expert William Ury recommends guessers memorize “anchor phrases” such as “that doesn’t work for me.” They think everyone needs to figure out a key transaction in all relationships: what do you want and how much is someone willing to give? So, to them, Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration. Why should the rest of us be waiting to see what guessers think or feel about us without them telling us? — a good percentage of us are not that emotionally intelligent, so we are often wandering into a minefield of awkwardness and rejection set up by guessers.
The distinctions need to get some nuance to be helpful
The general categories: askers and guessers, resonate with me. But the application of the traits vary, according to one’s context.
Maybe we ask strangers and close friends.The polite indirection of Guess culture is a way of preserving a deliberate ambiguity. We preserve ambiguity in social relationships when there’s an intermediate level of intimacy. Relationships at the poles, with either close friends or strangers, tend to be governed by more direct asks. We do this precisely because those intermediate relationships are ambiguous. We need to make a “bid” and see if we are bidden. Like animals circling one another, we need to negotiate where we fall on the intimacy gradient. To ask too directly before we know where we stand can seem rude because it effectively demands a final verdict on a work in progress.
Like I said, it is not so black and white. Perhaps we should have a more situationally-fluid approach. The problem with assuming one way is better than another is it ignores that in almost everything “it all depends.” The “requester” (whether of asker or guesser type) is more in need of a “yes” or “no” response from the “requestee” (again, of either type) at some times more than others. I’m not sure how you asked for your first formal dance date, but I blurted it out like the asker I am. Likewise, a requestee is more likely to say “yes” or “no” at some times more than others. If I find out someone just lost their cat I won’t be bringing up the personal issue I called to talk about. It makes sense that for some things we’ll need to be an asker and a guesser at other times. Sometimes I need to act and sometimes I need to wait, whether it feels right to me or not.
Sex tends to complicate the dialogue. With sex there is a lot more guessing. People do small things that are “bids for connection.” John and Julie Gottman coined that useful phrase to describe how we attempt to get attention, affection, and/or acceptance. These bids are rarely direct “asks.” Maybe it is just human or maybe it is society shaping us, but we are often hesitant to ask for our emotional needs to be met in an open and vulnerable way. Sometimes we are more direct than other times. But most of the time we might share a story to see if our partner is listening, or say “Hey, look at that!” to see if we are on the same page, or say, “Hey, look at what I just did or am doing” like your child going off the diving board. Maybe the bid is sending a text or giving a “like,” or reaching out for a hug or a squeeze, or talking about a common interest, or expressing a concern. These are all very subtle asks, guessing (and hoping) our loved one will respond favorably. Maybe we are all doomed to be askers while our hearts are always guessing.
What does Jesus say? Ask or guess?
I think Jesus is with us all along spectrum, from assertive askers to passive guessers, as usual. But he’s moving us toward ASK. On the one hand he definitely commands us to “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matt. 7:7). But I know he is not telling us to ask out of our natural capacity. For most of us, in one context or another, being vulnerable enough to ask for what we need feels like we’re risking our lives. If Jesus wanted to condemn us, he would tell us that the criteria for receiving his love is to ask for it, and ask properly. But Jesus does not want to condemn us. In his grace is the place we become askers, because we come to believe we are safe enough to ask.
Because, on the other hand, Jesus operates a lot in Guess culture fashion. He asks a lot of people who have given up: “Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6) and “What would you like from me?” (Mark 10:51) And he says to those who don’t think they need to ask for anything or wouldn’t dare ask, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:40). But for most of us Jesus hangs out with us all the time putting out one subtle bid after another which do not confront us or scare us into being defensive. The askers are often up in front of the church asking Jesus to return quickly and asking us to do something. Meanwhile the Spirit of Jesus is moving through the rows comforting resistant and doubtful people with hope that what they fear will not be required of them today. The askers think they are waiting on Jesus; the guessers are more likely to appreciate how Jesus waits on them. And since we are all askers and guessers at times, isn’t it great that Jesus will wait just long enough to bring everything to right?!
I think I am more of an asker, but that’s because of Jesus. I still roll around the freeway irritated with inconsiderate people, like Mom did. And I am fairly resolute in waiting for my intimates to accept my tiny bids at connection, even though I don’t approve of myself for not trusting their love! I think Jesus is frank about calling us to boldly ask because our true selves are especially underdeveloped in that area. We either don’t ask or we ask with wrong motives. Like prodigal children the best we can think to ask is to be God’s day laborer, the lowest worker there is, not a restored child. So we have a lot to learn and a lot more to feel about these distinct movements in our hearts and the interactions that tend to trap us every day. What a blessing that Jesus asks us to follow Him and then follows us along our way, guessing our every need, as we learn to do it!
When I call you “Mother,” Lord, I don’t often think of my mother. She seems to have kept her spirit locked away. At least she never revealed it to me: Rebellious, willful, resigned to being bad, Bravely sailing on her own path with her sailor.
I should take another look And find you in her nature and love. I seem to have missed you as I turned away And left her wondering where my faith took me: Rebellious, willful, resigned to go new ways, Bravely sailing on my own path with my Sailor.
But You were in my own backyard As well as in the endless dawn — In her laughter, optimism and perpetual pluck, In her courage and friendships and hospitality, In her wonder, curiosity and righteous fury: Making a cake, talking to the dog, Loving a game, having a chat, Keeping the peace, playing a prank.
You found me on my mother’s path And I met you in my mother’s fashion — In all the playful ways you have turned to me, In the way I see you finding me funny: Rebellious, willful, we resist the ways of the world, Bravely sailing on everyone’s path to fullness.
I don’t know Mom’s destination. But I have seen your destination in her, And mine. And I give thanks.
I woke up with a vivid dream Saturday morning after a good night’s sleep away from the troubles of the rehab project that has made me a vagabond for the last few weeks. As it turns out, many other people have been dreaming more lately, too — having “coronavirus dreams” now that the stay-at-home has given them more time to get some rest. It’s possible that whole communities or even societies may wake up to something new after we’ve processed what is happening to us during this strange time. I hope it is like waking up to healing and new possibilities.
My dream was full of symbolism and used situations reminiscent of my binge-watch of Sanditon. My memory of the dream begins with saying goodbye to a young protégé as she hops on the bus. I’m worried about her. But she is looking to her future and so interested in what is happening on the bus she doesn’t even wave goodbye.
I go on to my own train, standing in line to go underground. I realize I am in the wrong line and need to run across the street to go the other direction. As I go down the stairs, I have to ask a young man behind me to keep his social distance. I say I will get my mask out and wear it. Then I realize I do not have it because I do not have my briefcase.
I go up to street level and vainly look around until I see a briefcase across the street where I had been in line. There is a collection of them there, but none are mine. Now I am afraid I will not be able to get home, since my briefcase is the “command center.” But then I realize I took my wallet out and it is in my back pocket. At that point I realize I did not even bring my other bag with my clothes. I feel better after I comfort myself with the thought that I won’t need anything in the bags, since it was all worn out and I was intending to replace it, anyway.
My unconscious needs a long sleep to help me process my confused feelings about the period of change I am in! I’d like to be home. In my case, it is my actual new home that is not habitable yet. But it is also a new home for my next life, to which I am traveling. Dreams about going home are often the signs of spiritual development going on. We are built with a longing for Home that keeps reminding us we are on a journey through time. At this point on the journey, I am saying goodbye to attractive parts of me. I am negotiating with ignorant parts of me. I am dealing with anxious parts of me. I am comforted by the sense that I am carrying the most important part of me as I move into what is next. What’s more, I already feel I can let go of much of what I am losing.
In a person’s dream, Oprah Winfrey deploys a squad of bruisers into the streets to scare up an audience for her show. Her studio is a giant warehouse transformed into a hospital, with mattresses placed six feet apart. Opening the program with upbeat patter, Oprah offers a special surprise: She revs up a chainsaw and cuts off the heads of everyone in the audience.
The Oprah dream was one Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher from Harvard Med School, collected by surveying 2,000 people throughout the world regarding Covid-19 since March 23. It reflects how we are living now: the feeling of being imprisoned that derives from being quarantined; the fear that something unspeakably bad is happening; the endlessly uttered admonishment to maintain six feet of distance from everyone else. I had a few of those themes in my dream, too!
Since the pandemic hit, we’ve been funneling anxiety into our dreams. Even though we’re asleep, thoughts of the coronavirus continue to spark in our brains. “COVID-19 is worrying our dreaming mind like our waking mind,” Barrett says. “Dreaming is thinking, only in a different state. It’s more emotional, less linear.” Our unconscious process is not censored for logic or appropriateness in the same way our conscious process is.
Joannie Yeh, a pediatrician from Media, had a virus-linked dream not long ago set in the Conshohocken IKEA, a favorite spot her family visited for hours on Saturdays.
In her dream, the store was closing, and she suddenly realized no one was wearing a mask or standing six feet apart. “It was strange because I was concerned, yet I was so happy to be there,” she said. “It felt nice to be among people again.”
A couple of elements didn’t add up in Mark Berman’s dream, either. A South Philadelphia graphic designer, he has a fear of heights.
Yet, in his subconscious, he was hiking along a snowy cliff — and smiling. Suddenly, he fell, but he caught hold of a ledge that saved his life. Soon enough, Berman found himself harnessed, first being yanked upward, then learning how to climb on his own. He accelerated as he ascended the cliff, which turned into the balconies at the Academy of Music. “A voice in my head was saying, ‘You’ll get through this,’ ” Berman said. “ ‘Just pull yourself up.’ ”
More sleeping means more dreaming
What Barrett is learning from her survey is that people are recalling more dreams than they ever have, and that the dreams seem more emotionally charged. Because many of us are sheltering in place and not working, we sleep longer. The longer sleep means more dreams and more memories of them. Dreams are loaded into sleep later in the night. We dream every 90 minutes when we go into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Each REM period of dreaming lengthens the more hours we sleep. So, if we sleep eight hours, the last REM period (the sixth or seventh overall in the night) is the longest, and can last for 30 minutes. “Typically,” Barrett said, “our last REM is when we have the most vivid dreams. The longer we sleep, the more intensively we’re catching up on our dreams.”
In her survey, people had either literal dreams that depicted precise aspects of the virus, or metaphorical ones that reflected the panic and chaos people are experiencing. She heard from dreamers who saw themselves get infected, then become unable to breathe. They sought medical help but couldn’t make it to the hospital. The biggest cluster of metaphoric dreams was about bugs, Barrett said: writhing worms, advancing cockroaches, grasshoppers chomping with vampire fangs. “We use the word bug to describe an unseen sickness,” Barrett said. That’s likely why we dream of them attacking.
By far the worst dreams Barrett discovered were endured by health-care professionals: “They were full-on, classic trauma nightmares.” Doctors and nurses were unable to slide tubes down patients’ throats. Ventilators choked to a halt. Injections became impossible as every needle broke. In some cases, patients turned into zombies who attacked anyone with a face mask. Other virus victims had to be chained to beds to keep them from killing neighbors. Doctors felt huge guilt in their dreams, as though they’d infected patients.
In one of the worst images, Barrett said, an Italian physician trying to get a better angle to intubate a patient stood on the hospital bed and lost his balance. He fell out the window, grabbing the patient who plunged with him. On the street, the doctor emerged without a scratch, but the patient had been beheaded.
“Healthcare givers’ dreams look as bad as a wartime population’s,” Barrett said. “They were uniformly horrible, and there was not a single mastery dream among them where they helped the patient live.” It is no wonder that many healthcare workers are already imagining a time “after the war” when they can get out of uniform for good!
The gift of dreams
Dreams can feel horrible or wonderful, or both in the course of a few minutes. It helps to discuss them. Parents will help their children if they take the time to listen. Instead of dismissing “bad” dreams or saying, “Don’t pay attention to them,” it is better to share them. Sharing in a safe place can defang them, if needed. The more we talk about our dreams, the better we understand them and the better we can deal with the stress they often represent.
In the Bible, as you probably know, dreams are often the place where people are given prophetic words or direction in the middle of distressing situations. Think of Joseph in prison (waking up, above) or Joseph and the holy family about to be hunted by Herod. Sometimes people wonder why no one seems to get these spiritually-supercharged dreams anymore. For one thing, they do get them. For another, Deirdre Barrett might remind us, people don’t sleep like they used to sleep. Their mindspace has been colonized by Dreamworks.
Lately, our pastors have been dreaming about who we are as the church in the new era that may follow the lockdown. These six distressing weeks, and counting, have also provided some space to dream as a whole community. As in my dream, I think we are seeing what we have that is most important. The pastor team and our other leaders and staff have been gelling in new ways and seeing the future in new ways. Our businesses got clobbered and will re-emerge in new ways. I hope the whole society feels chastened and comes back with a new look at reality after we see what callous capitalism has done to the poor, the sick and the imprisoned, and we see what our incompetent and strangely uncaring leaders are really doing in Washington, while the local and state leaders come through for us.
Maybe you are not privileged to start dreaming positive dreams yet. Your dreams may be more filled with trauma than with a bright future. I can certainly understand that. I hope you are finding a place to talk them over in your cell, your family, or with your pastor or therapist. The final end of the virus nightmare is uncertain, but that end will surely come.
If you feel unsuccessful at turning into a new mindset or dealing with your anxiety you can still have moments when you join in the community’s dreams. There is something new forming among us (maybe even in the whole country). I don’t think anyone is left out of it. Even if parts of us seem to be going in all sorts of directions and the cityscape of our insides is full of threats, the message to me was that the riches I need are still in my back pocket. We’ll make it home if we stay on the way of Jesus.
Each personal defense system was built to avoid or alleviate suffering inflicted by our family and then inflicted by the world, as soon as we stepped into it. When I called my contractor the other day, his kids were sheltering in place in the background and beating one another up. He said, “They hit each other one minute and love on each other the next until you can’t tell the difference.” One of them had just come up to say, even though dad was on the phone, “But Dad, he hit me!” We feel powerless to defend ourselves against our suffering but spend most of our time trying to access enough power to stop it and get through to love. Something or someone is always supposed to be fixing the injustices and afflictions of the world so we can get loved.
Or so we think. My friend’s dad got drunk every week for who knows why. It would seem it was because he felt bad about his life and had found a way to get relief. But his sons experienced his relief as terror, since he often came home angry. Their lives were uncertain when the thing they needed to feel most was certainty. Now that they are older, they struggle with anxiety, since everything feels uncertain and they feel left alone to get it under control.
Or so they think. The pandemic threatens to push them over the edge. As they are hypervigilant to avoid the disease, feelings from their deep memories are triggered. They’re trying to keep off or clean off the latest manifestation of the dis-ease they have faced their whole lives!
How do I feel OK with suffering?
Now that these friends are Christians, it seems even more evident that God should be taking care of them and helping them to avoid suffering. God should be that something or someone who is supposed to be fixing the injustice of the world. The logic seems clear, “If God loves me, shouldn’t he be a better father and spare me this pain?” Sounds good to me.
But Jesus plainly says: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). I don’t think he meant to speak only to his first disciples when he said that, either. He meant to speak to you and me, too.
People want peace in the middle of their mess and they can’t get it. One of the reasons is because they have always been certain that their brother should stop hitting them! (And he should!) But he probably won’t. And the 1% probably won’t stop trying to make the economic depression we are headed into be anything less than as profitable as possible for them, either! There will be trouble. And there you go. Do you say, “But I don’t like trouble; trouble triggers my deepest fears; is Jesus going to save me or not?”
The Greek word thlipsin is translated a number of synonymous ways in John 16:33: trouble, tribulation, trials and sorrows, suffering, oppression, distress, and affliction. We can’t go one day without feeling these things. I called to cancel Direct TV – it was trouble; I forgot my mask when I went out; the contractors broke a ceiling fixture in the hall; the microwave fell off the wall and broke the stove; I hurt my back – and that was just one day! Then there is the perennial stuff: my friend was going to call and they forgot, my mother won’t speak to me, my father lost his memory – and I lost my job when they made us all shelter in place and then the unemployment compensation system crashed.
“Be of good cheer,” Jesus says, “be en-couraged, be filled with courage.” Other translations say, “Take heart, cheer up, be brave, have confidence,” because, Jesus says, “I have overcome the world.” Well, that is the problem! People believe Jesus when he says that but they don’t always feel it.
There are a lot of reasons we don’t get the peace
Most of the reasons we don’t get the peace Jesus promises have to do with how we see things. Jesus makes statements like the famous line above to his disciples because they fundamentally have to change their view of the world.
We have to admit the world is a problem every day.
We have to accept the world, including myself, is not a problem I am condemned to fix (or not) every day.
We must come to feel mysterious, beautiful and loving forces beyond our control and even understanding are at work on our behalf. We we can trust Jesus to bring things to right.
How you see yourself, others and God starts out as part of the problem. But Jesus says, “Cheer up! You are going to overcome with me!”
Changing my point of view is all there is to getting peace? No. But if the “eyes of your heart are dark, how great the darkness!” If we follow around the anxieties of our unen-couraged selves and overlay them with habits of control or aggression or despair, we are going to prove impervious to peace. Saying it is God’s fault my brother hit me, or making sure my Dad knows it is not my fault, or just accepting being hit won’t end up in peace. We have to live the new life that comes with overcoming the old:
Don’t rely on the passing away world,
Bring what you have to the dying world and let your truth and love bear whatever fruit in bears
Don’t just see, but trust the goodness of God Jesus has won for you.
Part of the big trouble we will always have in the world is not getting moved along by the trouble — getting used to trouble instead of suffering it. We’ve got to respond to Jesus when he is teaching us, not just know about his teaching. We need to overcome with him. In his memoir Albert Schweitzer recounted hiring doctors for his hospital in the jungle of Gabon. He said he never hired anyone who thought he was doing something grand and heroic. He knew the only doctors who would last were those who thought what they were doing was as ordinary and necessary as doing the dishes: “There are no heroes of action — only heroes of renunciation and suffering.” He heard what Jesus was saying. The Lord’s own suffering overcomes the world, not just his resistance to it and surely not his resentment of it.
We need to train for peace
We may not suffer with Jesus because we can smell hardship a mile away. But to get peace we will need to train ourselves to change our views and our habits to match the way to peace that leads through suffering. Sticking with Jesus in peace is not a spontaneous flowering of good character or the fruit of excellence, it is doing what we are trained to do. It manifests not in those whose training spared them hardship but in those whose training embraced hardship and taught them to overcome it. Gwen and I have been doing some reminiscing this week as our house is sold and our stuff is moved. The house itself taught us to overcome, since it was a constant problem to master. But, even more, it represents an era in which we both took on the suffering and trained to be our true selves. Gwen’s quest is represented by her education for psychotherapy and my quest is represented in spearheading the planting of Circle of Hope. Facing the troubles has been a sweet suffering all along the way, and it has been accompanied by an ever-deeper peace.
Some people are happy this moment in history, marked by coronavirus, may launch a change in the way we raise and train all our young, at all ages. It may exorcise the tide of “safetyism,” which has gone overboard. The grandiose people of the empire float on their high tide thinking they can control their destiny and prevent anything that can go wrong. They are either in denial and a menace to others, or deep in guilt and a menace to themselves. The virus is another reminder that hardship is woven into the warp and woof existence. Training a young person is training her or him to master hardship, to endure suffering and, by building something new from the wreckage, redeem it.
That’s a big part of what Jesus was saying when he said, “Be of good cheer!” You are OK whether there is trouble or not! On the one hand, you have strength beyond yourself to create goodness out of rubble. Even more, on the other hand, Jesus is a living promise that your suffering is not useless, even if it is just reminding you that you need to be saved. Like the Lord’s suffering resulted in new life wherever he walked and resurrection after he died, so will ours.
That piece of logic might not help you feel peace even if it works wonders for me. One of my friends texted me: “If I can learn to trust an uncertain promise from the Lord I might just be saved.” I replied, “Yes. You may come to know another certainty that is free of the former manacles. You’re on the way.” At this point in my life, I don’t think it would be great if Jesus prevented all my suffering. I don’t blame God for the uncertainty of every day. Even at my age, I am looking forward to the unpredictability of what will happen next in love. I will have trouble, but it is trouble that is being redeemed, and then the fullness of overcoming!
We’ve been packing up our house for quite a while. Now we are at the last moment before the move this week. So that was disorienting enough!
Then Covid-19 stole the best together-times of the year: the sunrise meeting for Resurrection Sunday and the parties afterward. Gwen and I usually have a party. I was sad enough about moving and missing things until family and friends started telling us how much they were missing things with me! So on the most joyous day of the year, I was sad, too.
Angie sent over a video that made me cry for joy and tear up for sadness because a flash mob was praising God in the mall but we can’t do that together right now.
So that’s how it is this year. The lockdown finally got to me on Easter. But it feels kind of fresh, too. On Good Friday, I wrote the poem that follows. I thought I’d put it out there again, now that I know even better how we all have a bittersweet taste in our mouths: sweet from Easter candy and bitter from Easter coronavirus. Things may never be the same for us this year, because of joy or because of sadness, but Jesus will be our joy and ever with us in our sadness.
On Friday, my thoughts turned to the terror and ecstasy of birth. I’ve got a feeling we are all being cleansed in a way by this strange, communal experience of “social distancing” and the threat of catching the virus. I know I feel like something new is being born. It made me think of another notable birth I experienced.
My wife was as big as a barn. Her water broke with a flood and the twins rode the river.
The birthing room was a bedlam: our household peeking in, a class walking through gaping.
Crazy, wondrous — jolt after jolt. The first twin came out blue, The next surfed out, tubing it.
Grief — surrounded on the table. Joy — held by a slimy ankle. I was suspended between.
The blue baby pinked up enough, the flying one tucked up next. And the birth-threatened love lived.
All was well again.
Awake at 3, the night bird sang; I’m awake to listen. And then the siren sounded.
The song of love met the tragic: a tulip pushes up, a loved one moves through the veil.
Our grief is budding out this year like an unknown blossom in a dystopic garden.
Our birthing room is a bedlam: Peeking, pushing, pinking. We are suspended between.
Now the quarantine seems like it has gone on too long, and April 30 may not be the end of it! People with jobs are longing for them. People without jobs might be getting more anxious all the time. And the children don’t know what to make of it all. People even report disoriented pets who have trouble finding their own space with everyone home all the time!
Hopefully last night’s soothing music and meditation helped.
The breath prayer in today’s Daily Prayer has many applications: (inhale) Cause me to see (exhale) beyond the cross. We are definitely getting better acquainted, every day, with the “cross” and more of us are literally facing death in our relationship circles. Resurrection may seem like a long way away and it might seem silly to mention it. But hanging on to the life we were given and the life we’ll be getting is the core of health.
People are saying lots of good things that Jesus followers can use to help their families cope. Here’s a bit of advice adapted from the New York Times.
Build on the foundations you have
What the parents bring to this situation is what the children will get. Doing fun things and having a creative, consistent schedule is important. But the most important thing is you, the parent, and you all, the marriage, and everyone, the relationships beaming in on the screen and nurtured in the imaginations.
“The most important thing is for children to have caring adults that they’re engaged with.,” — Sherrie Westin (president of social impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street)
Children who are prone to anxiety may find this period especially challenging. But all the experts emphasize that stable routine and simple affection make a lot of difference. Even in the healthiest families, “You’re probably going to see increased tantrums, challenges with sleep or behavioral issues as folks acclimate to a new normal for a while,” said Dr. Rahil Briggs (Psy.D., national director of Zero to Three’s HealthySteps program). But, we need to “trust in the foundation we’ve built with our children,” she said. “It will help us to ride this out.”
Dandelion and orchid
You are probably familiar with the “dandelion and orchid” metaphor to describe children. It was developed by Dr. Thomas Boyce, M.D., a pediatrician and researcher. labels are always dangerous, but they can help us consider how to love our child as they are and not according to who they should be. The theory says the vast majority of children are “dandelions” — meaning they are pretty resilient and able to deal with stress as it comes. So worrying about them too much might actually diminish their resilience and make them overly dependent on you. The balance takes discernment, so we might need to help each other see how we parent.
Dr. Boyce estimates about 20 percent of children are “orchids.” As he described them on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2019, “the orchid child is the child who shows great sensitivity and susceptibility to both bad and good environments.” They may be more sensitive because of a combination of biological and environmental reasons. No one really knows why we turn out how we do, everyone needs the Savior.
If you are caring for an orchid (and some of them are fully grown and you married them!) he or she may be struggling more than usual right now, with all of the changes this pandemic has wrought on their daily life. Plus they are watching inspiring dandelion stories on TV all the time. Dr. Boyce’s research shows that orchids thrive on regular routines — routines that have had to be rejiggered considerably in the past month or two.
Help for the orchids that helps dandelions, too
Experts have some common sense ideas to help your anxious children right now. Though these methods are geared toward orchids, they can work on your upset dandelions as well (and maybe your mate!).
Label what’s happening.Just acknowledging the recent changes to your children’s lives can feel validating. With young kids, you can keep an ongoing list of things that have changed and things that have stayed the same. Brainstorm this list verbally with your kids — for example, “You used to go to a school building, that has changed, but you still have Mommy tucking you in every night, that’s the same.” By doing so, it will make them feel less alone in their feelings, because they’ll know they’re not the only one noticing that things aren’t the way they used to be.
When we were zooming with the grandchildren the other day. I wondered how Paul was doing with all these changes. Not only did his day-to-day get disrupted, he actually moved to a new apartment in the middle of it all! That is a lot for a six-year-old to feel. I thought he seemed a little tired and it took a while for his ebullient self to emerge. Seeing his grandparents (with whom he had been living) and being with his cousins was good tonic. Dad needs to help him label it all.
Resolve your own anxiety.This is ongoing, good advice. It needs to be said again because parents’ anxiety can make kids feel unsettled.
“Our kids are brilliant emotional detectives of their parents.” — Abi Gewirtz (Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, and the author of the forthcoming book, When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids)
Teach children to meditate. Basic mindfulness techniques can be learned at a young age. Progressive muscle relaxation — where you tense and then release individual groups of muscles — can be helpful for anxious kids. The University of Washington has a progressive muscle-relaxing script just for little ones that you can read to your children. Here is a YouTube video that does the same.
Some people have been actively including their children in the Holy Week offerings, including the breath prayers. If they don’t get the prayers intellectually, they can probably get the breathing physically. Learning how to consciously breathe deep is helpful in itself. Having Jesus with you as you do is much better. Try teaching them, “I am loved…by God and my family.”
Create a schedule with pictures.Predictability is very important for anxious children. One way to soothe kids who don’t read yet is to make a schedule that has images depicting the routine of the day. Really detailed schedules are not necessary or even helpful. We’re all overwhelmed right now, so don’t worry about making some elaborate plan that would be impossible to execute.
The schedule can be as simple as, here are four things we do every day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, cuddles. You can add in special events like walking the dog, watching another episode, playing a game, Zooming with Papa (A must! He’s feeling stuff too!). We want to have a simple life. Here is our chance, for a bit. It is OK to slow it down.
We’ve been doing a good job at sharing our good ideas (leave some comments here of on the Parents List). But now the quarantine is losing its novelty and our first bursts of enthusiasm are growing thin. Now is when we develop that great patience God has with us all as we make our way through our natural lives. Faith, hope and love make it through the fire and into the age to come. Providing an environment for those core characteristics to develop, in the middle of a pandemic, when anxiety is rising, is something we can all do as we keep turning toward Jesus and His people.
I fired my contractors last week. They delayed the project three months and did not spend my payments according to the agreement. Even though the rehab is not done, we have to move (in the middle of a pandemic!), to make way for movement of movers pushing our buyers into our house.
So last night we said goodbye to grandmother’s table which has been such a good friend to our family and to community-building. And so I woke up early this morning worrying about how to cancel the insurance and get rid of the last loads of accumulated stuff before the new owners arrive. You can imagine the mess, I am sure.
I could barely remember what day it was last week. So it took me a minute to remember it was Palm Sunday, as I prayed yesterday. Once I remembered, it took me a minute to be there with Jesus. I said, “You are entering my Jerusalem and I am tempted to ignore you.” Then a wave of “remembrance” washed over me and I was present once again.
I did not mean I was completely ignoring Jesus. I know Jesus is with me, and even the turmoil of my prolonged transition this year has deepened my faith and gratitude. What I meant was, “I am as preoccupied as I imagine most of Jerusalem was when the Messiah made a symbolic entry into town, duly recognized as King by a minority, soon to go through his own mysterious transition through death into life to make a way for us all.”
As I continued to meditate, I had a few nice minutes thinking of someone other than myself and my distress.
I wondered what it would be like for Jesus to enter New York or Washington DC. The New York Times said of Trump’s latest briefing, “The president veered from grim warnings to baseless assurances in a single news conference as he predicted a surging death toll in what may be ‘the toughest week’ of the coronavirus pandemic.” On Palm Sunday, there were 1.2 million known cases, with 65.000 deaths attributed. China and Iran minimized statistics; the U.S. government dithered about how to proceed while New York continued to be clobbered.
Surely Jesus must be weeping over cities where people are stuck navigating this storm without any of his resources.
I ventured out with my mask firmly in place to borrow a truck from a loving friend so I could transport materials my contractor stored at his house. My friend’s kids were quarantined and stir crazy. His oldest had managed to string a pulley system between the neighbors and her upstairs window. I wondered what it would be like for Jesus to enter into that household and neighborhood. I know I had a hard time getting anyone’s attention. His phone did not work. His doorbell did not work. I finally had to interrupt the transport of cookies between third floors to get the keys. It is hard to disrupt total disruption
Surely Jesus is looked beyond the palm wavers and counted the hairs on the heads of all the shop owners along the way who were glad for a crowd because the wife and kids needed sandals. He also noticed the harried wife and her kids, one still nursing. Surely Jesus sees the sick or anxious people staring with little hope as another preoccupied parade goes by and they are left in the dust with their distress.
My mind often turns to Syria. It turned as I prayed on Palm Sunday. What would it be like for Jesus to enter there, where Covid-19 has just taken its first victim? We can only hope the worst does not occur. The war has left more than half of the country’s hospitals non-functional. There is a lack of drinking water, food, and medicine, and a shortage in healthcare personnel. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are living in overcrowded camps in unhygienic conditions, where it is impossible to think of washing hands to fight the spread of infection, according to the Vatican. Now the borders are closed. The humanitarian crisis had left the screens of the West before the pandemic began — so interest has dried up. The churches are shut down and agencies giving aid are severely hampered.
The big plan in the Lord’s mind as he rode on his donkey may not have been so clear in detail as it was crystal clear in intent. The Syrians are not left out of eternal life. But what if you did not have enough water for your children to wash their hands more than once a day or so? There has never been Purell on the shelves there. I can’t imagine. But I can imagine the miracle it would take to penetrate that trouble.
In my small distress, the Lord penetrated my trouble. And I decided not to feel guilty for how small a trouble it is, relatively. I decided not to push my feelings down, bad and blessed, because they seem silly compared to what others face. Perhaps I am a turkey vulture, not a sparrow, but the Lord still sees me fall. If my life could have been less of a mess with better choices, the Lord is still looking for eye contact. If I can’t even imagine what it is like for people much worse off than I am, the Lord can still imagine how worth His life is to resurrect me and fill my quarantine with hope.
The well known Psalm 91 seems to be placed in the Old Testament Book of Psalms to answer the last question of Psalm 90: “How long?” We all have that question these days, especially here in the beautiful Delaware River Watershed where the stay-at-home order is already getting to feel like a long time.
Psalm 91 can be a great comfort if you read it with a Jesus lens. But if you are reading it like every line of the Bible is a principle from the textbook of God, it could trip you up. With a Jesus lens, the psalm reminds us that our afflictions are temporary and every light in the darkness illumines our everlasting life. But read as a set of principles, it could be very discouraging, since most of the promises it lists are not likely to be specifically fulfilled for you and your loved ones any time soon in any verifiable way. Taking the theme of the poem seriously, the psalm reveals God, the Father of Jesus and the parent of us all, to be good, attentive and active on our behalf. As a result, we have something on which to build an anxiety-unraveling narrative.
The Jesus lens
Here is a summary of what Psalm 91 leads us to believe.
It starts and ends with truths that lead us into fullness. The thematic word is “shelter.” As you shelter-in-place, God is your shelter — that sums it up for now. God is your shadow in the desert. God is your hiding place from what attacks you. God is your fortress in the battle, and more. If you can’t do the poetry, now would be a good time to learn.
Whatever happens, nothing shall hurt you. Even though trouble and affliction come upon you, those bad things shall come to good. There may be grief right now as far as the quarantine goes, but there is joy in the eternal now of our heart-to-heart relationship with God. These are all the longed-for and debated promises Jesus-followers spend a lifetime grasping and grappling. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul teaches that the experiences of Israel with God “happened to them as an example,” and the stories about them “were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The risen Jesus told his disciples, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Jesus considered the book of Psalms to be ultimately about him.
Those who rightly know God, will set their love on him. In hope, they will call on her. In response, God’s promise is to deliver his loved ones out of trouble, and in the meantime be with them in trouble. We move through life in partnership with God for our given time. A person may die young, yet be satisfied with living. A wicked person will not be satisfied even with long life. In due time our conflict ends and we are done forever with trouble, sin, and temptation.
Under the thumb of principles
The problem with this psalm, especially for anxious people who are looking for that out-of-reach security they crave, is piled up in the middle. In that part the poet gives an extravagant description of what God will do for us in hard times – like when the nation is stricken with a virus.
It says she will do things like give us courage when “pestilence…stalks the darkness or destruction lays waste at noon.” It says “A thousand may fall at your side”…but no “plague” will “come near your tent.” Like the devil quoted to Jesus, it says angels will bear you up so you won’t even stub your toe.
I think most people know these are not verifiable principles to apply to the present plague. Even the good doctors are dying! So many say God is a fraud when Christians claim such statements are inerrant – and often pretend they are completely true, even when they are sick!
On the one hand, no one knows just how much God is personally sustaining us or angels are caring for us. I can’t measure God’s care but I shamelessly rely on it. All my hope is built on the love and truth demonstrated in Jesus.
On the other hand, like Jesus told the devil, we must not test God to see if we are being cared for according to our standards, tempt God to see if she fails us, prove God as if he were a theorem. The devil went for the obvious proof, “Show that you are loved by God by demonstrating God’s care as you throw yourself off this pinnacle.” How many of us dive off our mountain of anxiety, daily, and are daily disappointed at God’s lack of response! Jesus comes back with the deeper scripture, the more-personal and less-principle Deuteronomy 6:16. That verse recalls the Israelites arguing with Moses about water, as if the Lord had not provided for them every step of the way. Don’t keep testing God as if water couldn’t come out of a rock any moment, as if you weren’t thankful for the gift of life — and an eternal one, at that!
We might not be able to fix it
Anxious, controlling people want facts they can rely on, since they feel stuck in the middle of a mess they are consigned to fix. Americans, especially, might be effectively chastened, for once, by the present crisis and decide they aren’t the light of the world after all. We don’t live in the shelter of what we build for ourselves — at least not for long.
Psalm 91 shines a light on God, our shelter, from beginning to end. It starts
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
In Robert Alter’s more literal and immediate translation:
He who dwells in the Most High’s shelter …..in the shadow of Shaddai lies at night. – I say of the Lord, “My refuge and bastion, …..my God in whom I trust.”
It is a basic anxiety-reliever to adopt a preferred narrative and keep rehearsing it until one’s mind can conform to it. This post is like exposure therapy for people locked in principles that damn them or deprive them of a faith they can’t live up to or believe in.
This small part of Ps. 91 could be a new mantra to replace the rehearsal of fears that dominates one’s inner dialogue. In these verses, the names of God could provide a budding reassurance that might flower in the midst of trouble.
Where do I live? In the shelter of the Most High. The Hebrew word Elyon suggests a supreme monarch, one who is elevated above all things. It is first used in Genesis 14:18, describing Abraham’s encounter with the priest/king Melchizedek, “He was priest of God Most High.” Melchizedek gives us a picture of Christ in several ways (Heb. 7), Jesus the king and priest who did not fit the principles. Our shelter is greater than the umbrellas of our understanding.
How are my needs met?By the Almighty. The Hebrew word Shaddai primarily suggests a powerful God who is strong beyond our imagination and is more than capable to supply our every need. This is the God who parted the sea and moves in all creation. In the all-sufficient name of Shaddai, there is no need that cannot be met, and no circumstance that won’t, ultimately, be overcome. My physical needs lead me to spiritual needs which, when addressed, help me sort out my physical needs.
Who knows me and still loves me?It is the LORD. This personal name for God was considered so sacred in Judaism the original pronunciation is uncertain, only that it contained the letters YHWH (JHVH in Latin). It has been translated as Yahweh, Jehovah, and more often as the LORD (in all caps). This represents a relatable God who calls Moses from the burning bush and wants all of us to know her love. Every joy and fear in our hearts is important to the Lord. In Jesus, we see just what a friend we have. God calls my name and it is joy to respond. It is good to have the hairs of one’s head numbered, even if I feel my scalp itching.
Who can I trust?My God. The Hebrew word Elohim appears at the very beginning of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It is technically a plural word. The creator is one, yet plural (Father, Son, Spirit). The God we trust is the same God who creates all things, the first and the last, the God who is forever faithful to his creation. The creation is infected, but it is good. My first reaction may not always be trust, but I can get to a deeper place where I meet the author and protector of my faith.
God’s ways are higher than our ways, yet we can love her as a friend. God is unsearchable yet so very near to us. In His shelter, we find strength, comfort, and rest for our souls. If you are anxious, that assurance might seem like nice poetry meant for someone else. I hope this little piece shows ways to deconstruct such an unhelpful narrative in your inner dialogue and strengthens a new narrative informed and empowered by God’s Spirit, alive in you in perilous times.