Category Archives: Psychological growth

Change is possible: And worship can loosen stuck memories

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.

Jesus & the Samaritan Woman (sermon) — Saint John's

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!

Temple (anatomy) (PSF).svg
All too often true of our worship experience

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 matter: The terrible, wonderful I AM

do i matterI 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:

  1. You don’t matter because you are more powerful.
  2. You don’t matter because you are better.
  3. 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.

Float Therapy for Anxiety, Stress and Sleep - Milwaukee Therapist ...

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.

Askers vs. Guessers: Where is Jesus on the spectrum?

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.

Identify Askers and Guessers to Request Favors More Effectively

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.
File:The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, from The Story of Christ MET DP855490.jpg
The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes — Georg Pencz (1500-50)

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!

Zoom is terrible: If you hate it, you have good reasons

zoom-privacy
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

We had another nice Zoom gathering as our cell last week. When we began to pray, a person finally said it: “I hate Zoom!” He might have said “Zoom sucks!” or “Zoom is terrible!” I can’t remember. But I’ve heard exasperated people say those things too, lately. What do you say about Zoom, Skype, Hangouts, etc.?

You are probably saying something by this time, or just wandering away from the screen in an irritated daze. Scientists know why we are irritated and it might help if we did too. Whatever we find out, or not, we Jesus followers have the stuff to adapt and thrive, since we have plenty of life beyond the screen.

Our cell was talking about how great we thought our pastors were doing with our online meetings. But one of our members noted that even though she liked experiencing the meetings together as a family, her nine-year-old no longer wanted to be in the room when Sunday night came around. Watching the screen just reminded him of how much he wanted to be with his friends. Then my wife chimed in with how irritated our four-year-old granddaughter is by Nana on the screen. She refuses to participate in online meetings, too. The gist of what she said is, “I just want to hug you and if I can’t then I don’t want to see you.” Zoom is terrible and the children know it. So maybe we don’t need the scientists to confirm what our inner child already knows.

Zoom life has issues

In March the global downloads of the apps Zoom, Houseparty and Skype increased more than 100 percent as video conferencing and chats replaced the face-to-face encounters we  all miss (see this NYTimes article). Most of us have had our faces arranged in a grid by now like the old game show “Hollywood Squares.” (And you may be the Paul Lynde or Whoopi Goldberg of the group — thanks). I know people who have attended virtual happy hours and birthday parties. Many of us have been learning in virtual classrooms and holding virtual business meetings for a long time. Now I am even doing virtual psychotherapy and your doctor is doing telemedicine.

But even the kids are reporting that something is not right – especially with Zoom. Along with security issues, psychologists, computer scientists and neuroscientists all say the distortions and delays inherent in video communication can end up making us feel isolated, anxious and disconnected (even more than we already felt). We might be better off just talking on the phone — no facial cues are better than faulty ones. The absence of visual input on the phone might even heighten our sensitivity to what’s being said. This could be why Verizon and AT&T report average daily increases of as much as 78 percent in voice-only calls since the start of the pandemic, as well as an increase in the length of these calls.

The problem is the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized introduces blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio. These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble the subtle social cues we rely on to connect. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.

I use a computer to write, research and communicate for hours a day. I have my laptop screen open and a bigger screen attached to it. If you put me on a Zoom call I am even more distractable. It is very tempting to complete a project, fill in a chart or look up youtube videos that correlate with what is being said while people are talking. If I am on a zoom call for more than an hour, the deterioration tends to escalate. This is consistent with research on interpreters at the United Nations who report similar feelings of burnout, fogginess and alienation when translating proceedings via video feed. Studies on video psychotherapy indicate that both therapists and their clients also often feel fatigued, disaffected and uncomfortable with their process. I haven’t read all the studies, but I have listened to my comrades describe the disease. If you want to really communicate with someone in a meaningful way, video can be vexing.

Photographs by Guillaume Duchenne in 1862. Through electric stimulation, he determined which muscles were responsible for different facial expressions.

Here’s the main problem

Human beings are exquisitely sensitive to one another’s facial expressions. Authentic expressions of emotion are an intricate array of minute muscle contractions, particularly around the eyes and mouth, often subconsciously perceived, and essential to our understanding of one another. But those telling twitches all but disappear on pixelated video or, worse, are frozen, smoothed over or delayed to preserve bandwidth.

All those glitches, sound problems, and background clatter mess with our perception and wreak havoc on our ability to mirror. Without realizing it, all of us engage in facial mimicry whenever we encounter another person. It’s a constant, almost synchronous, interplay. To recognize emotion, we have to actually embody it, which makes mirroring essential to empathy and connection. When we can’t do it seamlessly, as we can’t in video chat, we feel unsettled because it’s hard to read people’s reactions and, thus, predict what they will do.

“Our brains are prediction generators, and when there are delays or the facial expressions are frozen or out of sync, as happens on Zoom and Skype, we perceive it as a prediction error that needs to be fixed,” says Paula Niedenthal, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who specializes in affective response. “Whether subconscious or conscious, we’re having to do more work because aspects of our predictions are not being confirmed and that can get exhausting.”

Video chats have also been shown to inhibit trust because we can’t look one another in the eye. Depending on the camera angle, people may appear to be looking up or down or to the side. We noted this at our cell meeting the other night. It is funny to see someone point at you, even though their screen may be arranged in a different pattern than yours. Unless you know people well before they get on the screen, they may seem uninterested, shifty, haughty, servile or guilty. Zoom might, ultimately, be undercutting the trust system we use it to maintain.

The whole online thing wears out fast. We meet up with family and friends, but many of us secretly find the interactions terribly unsatisfying. Some people feel like the box that lights up around us when we speak is like an interrogation lamp switched on. The conversation can default to drivel because people don’t want to take risks in a Zoom environment. The delay in people’s feedback or the awkward cross talking make some people feel it would not be rewarding to share a good story anyway.

Will Zoom kill all the relationships it touches?

There has never been a tool that couldn’t prove dangerous. Martial arts weapons all have a history as a farm tool. I would likely hurt myself with nunchucks, so it would not be surprising if I didn’t know what to do with Zoom, as well. We will have to think about what we are doing and practice to do it well. At the same time, we’ll have to admit the limited utility of the tool and use it for what it is worth, not assume it can do everything we might need. Zoom, and things on screens in general, have such powerful machines in back of them, we often feel helpless and just go along with wherever they drive us. But we need to drive them and get somewhere with their limited utility.

As our cell considered how our church was doing during the lockdown, we had a lot of positive feelings to share. But it wasn’t long before we shared how tired of screens we have become in a few weeks time. We miss the random connections we can make in our meetings, where even a glance across the room restores connection. We were concerned about fragile and isolated people who don’t or can’t even Zoom. We’re hungry and we know they are too.

I have made several new relationships with clients in the teletherapy era. They are not so bad. Spiritual direction can also  occur via Zoom. My cells have actually been deep and one of them has been dramatically easier to gather via the screen. In one meeting last week, we had a deep conversation about forgiveness. In the other, we could talk about how we deal with anger. So we can make great use of the Zoom tool, even if it is an irritating tool. In my sophomore summer during high school I got a job that mainly used a scythe to cut weeds around bomb depositories. The scythe is also an irritating tool. But it needed to be used in an environment where stray sparks might be dangerous.  I like Zoom when it is the best tool I have — in the same way I can relish a peanut butter sandwich when I am starving.

Right now I am starving for our rich community life. Zoom, and other vehicles, help us sustain that life in an uncertain time. If you are walking away from the screen because you are irritated, we can all understand that. But it would be great if you could recognize your irritation for what it is and press beyond it to connect in whatever measly fashion we can. We need each other. And we need to use this time to not only sustain our community in Christ but to build the next one that can thrive in whatever mess we wake up to when the present nightmare is over.

Listen to dreams: They might show the way out of this mess

dreams.
“The Way Home” by Shaun Tan (2011) – click for background

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.

Oprah
Chainsaw sculpture of Oprah. (click for background)

Oprah with a chainsaw

That heading is part of the title of Alfred Lubran’s article from the April 23, 2020 Inquirer.

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.

Tarot: Where is your reading leading?

Tarot has been having a “moment” for a few years. I wandered into the moment when I watched an episode of something in which an old, dying woman read the cards for her new, young friend. It was a movie moment reflecting the present tarot moment — watching an old story using the old deck-full of stories to draw us into the drama of a life unfolding — and normalizing the latest emergence of this mystical method for finding guidance.

I hope this is where the tarot moment is leading. According to Liz Worth, a Toronto card reader and astrologer, “The point of tarot isn’t to use tarot forever. The point is to use it for a little while, until you’ve learned you don’t need it anymore, because that means you’ve learned to listen to yourself…It’s about creating a sense of empowerment and independence in people: helping them find their way back to themselves.” Hopefully, it is like a mirror that can lead to deeper reflection which opens up clogged or burned spiritual pathways so people can ultimately see Jesus for who he is.

8409
Paul and Silas in Philippi drive the devil out of a woman possessed of a spirit of divination — Pieter de With, ca. 1650

There are many Christians who are sure meeting Jesus is not what is going to happen if someone gets into tarot. The practice is associated with divination—unlocking the secrets of the future by occult, supernatural means. Divination is prohibited in the Bible, even when people in the Bible are doing it! Paul exorcised a woman used for divination!

Tarot cards were originally just a deck of cards, but some mystics, psychics, and occultists began to use the cards for divination. Many people still use them this way, and that is how they are popularly understood. You can meet diviners on YouTube. They promise to access spirit beings to find out things about one’s life or future. Usually, the practice of reading tarot cards starts with the questioner cutting the pack of cards or sometimes just touching it. The psychic or card reader then deals out some cards, face down, into a pattern, called a “spread,” on the table. As the cards are overturned, the psychic or reader constructs a narrative based on the cards’ meanings and their position on the table. The narrative has always placed heavy emphasis on fate and “hidden knowledge.” Jesus has a better way.

Image result for christian tarot deck
From Tarot de Marseille by N. Conver, 1760

Writing a new story

People are looking for a new story, their own story, in an age when making new stories from old ones is a primary industry – at least in the dying Western empire. So tarot is very intriguing, since each tarot card is a story in itself. The experience of a reading is like connecting one’s story to one in progress. And reflecting on or telling about the experience is an interesting story in itself.

There are so many apps for tarot! Using them results in many stories. One woman downloaded Galaxy Tarot and casually got to know the esoteric deck by virtually pulling a daily card and reading up on its symbolism. One day she was killing time before a phone interview for a job and flipped over the Two of Pentacles: a portrait of a man dancing on the balls of his feet, juggling two large coins in the air, forming a swirling infinity sign between them. “It’s all about adaptability, change and nimble movement. What really jumped out at me was the bit at the end of the interpretation on this app that said: ‘This card may be telling you to follow the money. You may need to travel or even move house to take advantage of material opportunities.’” She went into her interview feeling confident, and when she got the job, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. “It definitely took some nimble movement and adaptability to make it work, but I just pictured that character on the card juggling his two pentacles, and it kind of gave me that confidence I needed.”

The apps meet a need — and people will pay to have it addressed. The “metaphysical services” industry, which includes tarot reading, was estimated to be worth $2.2 billion in 2018. Cartomancy (fortune-telling using decks of cards) has entered the swirl of influences that create culture, according to Goop, #wellness.

Another woman said, “I’m 32, and I caught the bug a few years ago from a Californian friend who was raised on the stuff. I kept it up because I like anything that involves stories and because my basic state is one of being desperate for advice. But I don’t really know what I’m doing with tarot, by which I mean I’m an amateur and I only partially understand the nature of my own interest. I’m actually a pretty skeptical person—I just apply that skepticism so widely that it can look a lot like credulity (makes sense; I’m a Libra). I was raised faithless, with a general distrust of dogma, and plenty of what passes for virtuous or rational or normal looks totally bananas to me: capitalism, organized religion, air travel. Ask me if I ‘believe’ in tarot cards, and I’ll tell you, truthfully, that I don’t know what that means. In the case of tarot, I think the more apt question isn’t so much about the belief as the habit: Does the practice feel meaningful or useful? Does performing the ritual bring you closer to being a better version of yourself?”

Another said: “I feel like I have trained myself not to listen to my intuition over a lifetime. It feels so refreshing to tune back in.” Another said tarot helps her access “things I may already know intuitively but which haven’t made their way to the surface of my brain yet.” If you’ve been socialized to believe your experience has no purchase, it takes work to reappraise the value of what you already know—to learn how to hear yourself think. Some see it as empowering for traditionally disempowered Christian women. Which is why it can feel both personal and political to turn to something as frivolous-seeming as tarot cards.

The Guardian notes the increased popularity of tarot is part of a wider trend towards mindfulness. “There’s a real sense of community in using it, particularly among younger women.  People think it’s about predicting the future, but it isn’t. It’s about the present, and it can be very empowering. It’s no surprise that a lot of the online communities are driven by queer people or people from minorities, segments of society where people feel as though they’re not seen or heard, because tarot allows you to consider a problem, give a voice to it, work it through and see where the blocks might be. It can give voice to problems or fears.”

A brief history of tarot

Tarot didn’t start out as an occult thing. The cards can be traced back to late-14th-century Italy and a card game called tarocchi, played with suits of swords, cups, coins and batons, likely images copied from playing cards that originated with the Mamluks (slaves who became sultans) and made their way into Europe by way of Turkey. The Italian aristocracy would soup up their basic four-suit decks by commissioning artists to create additional sets of “triumph” cards featuring elaborate allegorical illustrations and figures of people you’d likely see in a Mardi Gras celebration..

Sometime between 1750 and 1800, French occultists reimagined the cards as holy relics from Egyptian priests. For them, the cards combined multiple belief systems: base notes of medieval Italian allegory and Mamluk, an infusion from ancient Egypt, light layers of Greco-Roman and Celtic, with a strong top note related to the Kabbalah. These decks were the first tarot decks designed for divination rather than play.

Image result for tarot cards origin

When you think of tarot cards, what you probably have in mind is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which was published in 1910 by Anglo mystics, who were inspired by their earlier French counterparts (above). The cards are divided into two sections: the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana in suits of wands, cups, pentacles and swords, and the 22 Major Arcana, which include the familiar cards: Death, the Wheel of Fortune and the Fool. Instagram is full of beautifully shot tarot spreads, with cards showing the High Priestess or the Wheel of Fortune often prominent.

The power of this mash-up of the ancient, modern and fanciful isn’t so much in the unlikely mystical origins as it is in the cards’ ability to wallop you with elemental symbols. Each card is like a scene ripped from a fairy tale, with fragments of allegory, history, drama and myth. The cards are crowded with detailed, eclectic references and allusions. They elicit stories that are dense and theatrical but also suggestive and fine-grained, begging interpretation. The characters and stories in the tarot are both familiar and strange. The archetypes are primed for remixing, and there are now literally hundreds of varieties. The classic decks have been reimagined and updated again and again, turning up with different social, political and pop-cultural inflections. You can find intersectional feminist tarot, flora-and-fauna eco-tarot and tarot featuring The Simpsons,  RuPaul’s Drag Race and Game of Thrones. Young Adult author, Maggie Stiefvater, has created her own tarot deck, the Raven’s Prophecy Tarot, which references her bestselling Raven Cycle YA novels.

How does the church relate?

“I don’t believe the cards themselves are inherently magical tools,” says Liz Worth. “Over centuries, people reinvented it as something we can use to find answers, to divine, to connect with some kind of higher power or whatever name you want to call it. But tarot is still an invention, and we can read patterns and elements in it the same way we can read them in anything.”

This truth does not mean people will use tarot in a mature way and not be drawn into harmful connections with spirits who hate them. But it does mean people can find ways of discernment in a myriad of ways. We (meaning Circle of Hope) affirm seekers of all kinds, coming from all the corners of the earth and have a wide view of how we each find the truth and our personal way along the Way.

“The internet explains how millennials have turned to the occult – but not why”, says Amelia Tate. “My reading came at a time of uncertainty when I was making big life decisions. Millennials’ economic, professional, domestic and romantic lives are so far removed from those experienced by baby boomers that we can no longer look to older generations for advice (avocados weren’t even invented back then, right?). Where else do we go? We’re the most secular generation yet. “ She quotes an expert saying, “’Older generations are more likely to seek consolation and a sense of order through religion,’ says Stuart Vyse, a behavioural scientist and author of Believing in Magic: the Psychology of Superstition. Vyse has found that liberal millennials in particular are drawn to divination.”

People who feel they are alone in the world to find their way have an even more anxiety-provoking path ahead than everyone else.  If they are separated from family and the church, or the past in general, then practices that promise a spiritual moment and some mystical direction which don’t require too much thinking or relating can be very attractive. Jesus offers an immediate connection, too, but it is not as controllable as tarot can be. A connection with Jesus, though filled with wonderful moments, also requires an ongoing relationship with God and his people and a lifelong openness to spiritual growth and service. So it might seem very demanding, if immeasurably deeper. It is possible that people are drawn to divination because they never met a Jesus-follower who loves them and is not the stereotype they fear. Our cells have repeatedly been easygoing places to make relationships that undo their prejudice and make a difference.

Amelia Tate ended with, “Yet despite my scepticism and cynicism, I can’t deny that lighting a candle and reading the tarot cards was comforting. It was enjoyable to hand over a big life decision, however fleetingly, to some ancient illustrations. I recommend it. And I don’t believe the answers are true – but I believe in them nonetheless.”

I can feel what Amelia is saying. And I can imagine how she would feel totally out of place anywhere she can imagine as Christian. I do not have a conclusion that can encompass everyone who is navigating the perilous seas of our time like she is. But I think a lot of them are alone on a raft of their own making. Our community, loving and accepting, is a safe place to explore their yearnings. A lot of people are permanently skeptical, or so they feel. Hopefully, our teaching maintains our dialogical  character and our love provides an invitation to imagine with us, not withdraw into suspicion.

For some, tarot is a comfort and a way to know themselves and their direction better. For most it is a moment, a stepping stone into what is their deepest and truest self. I think it would be better to skip it altogether, especially if you are prone to depression, anxiety or other illness – you’ll get a better “reading” from your therapist or cell group. What’s more, the practice could be dangerous, since it has been connected to divinization for centuries; delusions abide there, as well as spirits who are out to harm us. People have recovered from such entanglements, but it is probably best to avoid being entangled to begin with, since we all have a path laid out for us by Jesus.

I was surprised by how much is out there about this subject! Maybe the fad is already waning, since even I am aware of it. My exploration encouraged me nonetheless, since I uncovered many good-hearted people searching for love and meaning as well as many people trying to provide wisdom for starving people.  I don’t think the cards have easy or clear answers for them. But neither do I, as a Jesus follower. I tried to think of some “card” from the Bible for all the seekers I uncovered that might inform their search. I landed here:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:14-17).

The greatest truth and love are found in the Father’s lap. Life is not revealed in the cards. If you use them to meditate on your journey or to find direction, listen for the Spirit bearing witness that you are God’s beloved child with Jesus leading your way through whatever you face.

Just listen: We hear love better than words

The book of Job in the Old Testament is the story of a man who lost almost everything – his children, his house, his possessions and his health. Early in the book, we read about three friends who came to support him. If you re-imagine the scene, it could be a small cell group, or a spiritual direction group or our pastors’ weekly meeting. Any one of us might be Job at a given time, and any one of us might be one of his friends struggling to help – and failing.

Before we get to the failing, notice what the friends did right. They were intentional. They went to some effort just to show up. They managed to sit with Job for seven days and seven nights, without saying a word (Job 2:13). Some commentators say they were just respectfully “sitting shiva” in mourning for Job’s loss. Others see those silent days as an amazing act of restraint that most of us would have interrupted in some way, like, “I know I shouldn’t be talking, but let me just say…” Regardless, these are good friends coming alongside their friend in his distress.

Job's friends listen
Job on his dung hill

Eliphaz: “Listen. Here is what I think”

Eliphaz was the first friend who spoke after the seven days. “If one ventures a word with you,” he said to Job, “will you be offended? / But who can keep from speaking?” He apparently had been given enough time to think and could no longer contain himself. He goes on to “comfort” Job with his observations, which he is sure will relieve his suffering.

  • As I have seen… (Job 4:8)
  • Now a word came…to me…(Job 4:12)
  • I have seen…(Job 5:3)
  • As for me, I would…(Job 5:8)

He capped it off with “See, we have searched this out, it is true / Hear, and know it for yourself” (Job 5:27). In other words, “Here is our message. Apply what we think to your situation.” Sounds a bit like a sermon, both formal and informal.

Last week I had a reason to talk to almost all our staff in the course of a few hours about a particular project I was concerned about. Maybe I was not looking like I was sitting on a dung-heap enough, but almost everyone spoke from their own experience to solve my problem and a couple actually argued about what I said before they even understood where I was coming from. There was much truth in what they told me, but their comments didn’t always speak to where I was at the time. It was an educational couple of hours, since I am often unrestrained myself, when among my intimates, and offer my perspective on someone else’s experience before it is asked or required. Listening long enough to respond well is quite an art form!

Bildad: “What did you do to deserve this?”

It is possible that Bildad blew any chance he had to be helpful as soon as he opened his mouth. “How long will you say such things? / Your words are a blustering wind” (Job 8:2). It is never great to be blamed for your problems. Bildad was sure that if Job shaped up, God would relent and reward him: “If you are pure and upright, / surely then [God] will rouse himself for you / and restore your rightful place” (Job 8:6).

Most of us probably don’t come right out and say such things, but it wouldn’t be surprising if we looked over someone’s sufferings and counted the many ways they are to blame for them. If only they hadn’t done something or would get busy and do something else, all would be well. We’re all set up for such a reaction, since most of us feel totally responsible to avoid pain and have all sorts of strategies to do just that. We apply our strategies, no matter what they cost us!

If we hope to actually listen to someone, we need to start with compassion, not judgment (and that includes listening to our own inner dialogue!). We must acknowledge both the pain and mystery of human suffering. And we must support people as they seek to believe there is some grace in the midst of their trouble. “My grace,” God said, ‘is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is so hard for anyone to hear that, we may need to sit a long time with them. We certainly don’t want to derail the process with condemnation – exercising ours or solidifying theirs.

In a group session I recall, a man was particularly angry and some members were becoming tired of him lashing out. He even criticized them for being uncaring while they were, in fact, caring for him at that very moment! He eventually talked about the disrespect he felt. He talked long enough to discover that he had always carried this feeling and it came from a deep, family-rooted place. His problems were not solved that day, but they were not heightened by getting blamed back when he blamed. He had friends who would listen.

Zophar: “Cheer up, I can tell you what God wants”

Job’s third friend continues on the track laid out by the others. He pontificates on the mysteries of God and then says if Job devotes himself to God he will soon forget his troubles: “Your life will be brighter than noonday; / its darkness will be like the morning” (Job 11:17). In other words, “I know what God is thinking, and I predict that if you think like me, things will improve.”

A long time ago, a great number of Christians gave up following Jesus for getting Christianity right. Part of the “rightness” was to never suffer, since, the logic goes, if you are suffering, you must not be right, or right with God. When I lived in the homeland of such “entire sanctification” thinking, I would greet my bishop with “How are you today?” And he would invariably say, “I’m on top of the world.” Now that I am as old as he was then, I find that even harder to believe, since he must have at least awakened with a few aches and pains. But he was living a Zophar life, denying his troubles and presenting a faithful life brighter than noonday.

Once we were in a meeting together and I did not resist questioning this theology, since I could not get Jesus, the Suffering Servant, out of my mind. One fellow pastor was quite upset at my lack of orthodoxy. As I kept arguing my point (probably not too gently) he got angrier and louder. I finally said, “You are angry, aren’t you?” He got my point, but I did not get his friendship. Arguing someone out of their spiritual bypass rarely works. Like God, we need to stick with them in their suffering, supporting the, and perhaps finding a way to challenge them, until they get over their impossible task of being on top of the world.

Circle up to listen

Just listen!

Job finally got fed up with his friends. “All of you are worthless physicians. / If you would only keep silent, / that would be your wisdom!” (Job 13:5) In chapter 21 he says, “Listen carefully to my words; / let this be the consolation you give me.”

Don’t we all feel like this quite often? We will ask when we need answers. Most of us will ask when we want help. But before we get to either of those places, we mostly want someone to listen to us. Being heard, even more, understood, is like a balm for our wounds. Listening breeds trust and intimacy.

When I first moved to Philadelphia, I had a spiritual director who was not quite my father’s age, but he was old enough to feel parental. He listened to a lot of my father issues. I can still remember the few times he offered some advice on how I could address them. But I was never ready to take his advice and it would not have been good to do so; I knew that. But mostly he listened; even more, he was just there as a fatherly figure who cared about me. His listening presence was what I really needed.

“Just listen! When you’re tired of listening, listen deeper.” At least that is what I need to keep telling myself. I make the mistakes of all of Job’s friends, even when I feel like Job himself! We all have a lot to learn about grace, and how the silent attentiveness of God is the basis of most of the healing we need. God is best known in love, the words can come later.

8 ways to work with your limitations

Image result for michael phelps 2008"

In 2008 Michael Phelps published No Limits: The Will to Succeed. Here is a quote:

So many people along the way, whatever it is you aspire to do, will tell you it can’t be done. But all it takes is imagination. You dream. you plan, you reach. There will be obstacles. There will be doubters. There will be mistakes. But with hard work, with belief, with confidence and trust in yourself and those around you there are NO LIMITS.

That mentality certainly paid off! He is the most medaled Olympian of all time. Plus, he makes about $9 million a year, even today, at 34 years old.

But there was another side to the great athlete. After each Olympics he experienced a major episode of the general pattern of his life. After the 2004 Olympics he experienced a major depression for the first time, and that year he also got his first DUI. After 2008 he was photographed smoking marijuana.  He said about that much later, “It would be just me self-medicating myself, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was I was trying to run from.” After he retired the first time after 2012 he considered killing himself. He finally sought treatment. Now, he says he has learned it is, “Ok to not be OK.” He agrees that while mental illness still “has a stigma around it,” things are beginning to improve.  “I think people actually finally understand it is real. People are talking about it and I think this is the only way that it can change.”

Americans are a “no limits” and “freedom” society. We all seem to want to grasp the first quotes from Phelps and ignore the realities of the second set. Many Christians are the worst examples of denying any kind of limitations, because they think it would deny God’s sovereignty and the power of the Holy Spirit to do so. The only limitations many Christians  acknowledge are due to their own poor faith.

I think many people have given up their faith altogether because it just wasn’t working out as perfectly as they were promised. Their loss is especially tragic during Advent when we see God purposely limiting herself to become Jesus to join us in the limitations of being human and then demonstrating the fullness of being resurrected humans.

Working within limitations

While we all dream of having ultimate freedom to be and do anything and everything we want, the hard truth of the matter is that we all face some limitations, large or small. Limitations may be things you’ve dealt with all your life, or they may come upon you suddenly through an accident or change of circumstances. The older one gets, the more real limitations become, as I well know.

Limitations are not the same as a jail sentence. Phelps obviously perfected his swimming within the limits of a regulation-sized pool and mastered various prescribed strokes. Even in art, where complete freedom can be glorious and expansive, sometimes the most innovative ideas come from solving a problem. Having boundaries forces us to use our resources in imaginative ways, and a limitation viewed as a challenge can inspire us to create something completely unexpected.

Limitations can take many different shapes. The most obvious are health or physical disabilities and limited financial means. Others are limited time or energy; lack of skills, knowledge or credentials; and reduced opportunities due to age, gender and/or racial bias or economic background. A change in status due to divorce or job loss can also be a limiting factor.

We also experience “perceived” limitations. Feelings such as fear, self-doubt, feeling you’re not good enough live in our minds, but can stop us just as effectively as physical limitations. No doubt we all had an experience in our childhood where someone told us we were a quitter or bad at math or would never amount to anything that imprinted itself on our psyche and kept us from achieving our potential, at least for awhile.

But limitations can be overcome, or at least stretched, and you can probably find numerous examples of people in your own life who have done so — maybe even yourself. Here are a couple of famous examples:

  • Irish painter Christy Brown, born with cerebral palsy, painted with the only limb over which he had control. His story is told in the film My Left Foot.
  • Oprah Winfrey, a woman of color who grew up with poverty and abuse, is one of the richest and most successful people in the world.
paul's limitations
Paul in prison

Gently push the boundaries

So, what can you do to push back your limitations? Paul told the Philippians, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). One of the main things Paul thought he could do was face his present prison sentence and possible execution. He wrote one of the most encouraging and beloved books of the New Testament while under the extreme limitations of house arrest by the ruthless Romans! People from the U.S. empire often have expectations commensurate with their own ruthless society, so they might totally mistake Paul’s “I can do all things” for Michael Phelps’ “There are NO LIMITS.”

Contrary to a lot of American sensibilities, we all have boundaries to what we can do. I Believe I Can Fly is still kind of silly. If we can’t handle our limitations, we are Michael Phelps needing a hit.

But we can do all the things God calls us to accomplish with the strength we are given. Here are eight practical things to think and do if we want to gently explore the far reaches of our limitations with hope, not perfectionism, both as individuals and as the body of Christ.

  1. Be realistic about who you are and what you can do. You can accomplish more by accepting your limitations and starting from there, rather than depleting your energy wishing you were somewhere else. Self-pity and giving up are the biggest obstacles you’ll face.

As a church, we need to be realistic about who we are and what we can do. That’s why we map our future together and try to discern just how far we can go with what we have been given.

  1. When you feel limited by your circumstances, come up with as many alternatives or options as possible. Be imaginative. In the brainstorming process, you’ll open up new possibilities for yourself that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

As a whole church, a team or a cell, we keep the dialogue about where we are and where we are going fresh, so we can imagine with God. We should always have a Plan B (and C,D, etc) when we are committing to a course of action.

  1. Challenge your limiters. If you were given only 3 colors to paint with, what would you do with them? Keep pushing the envelope. Make it a chance to play, not a reason to diminish yourself or your abilities. Boundaries give us something to push against. While those boundaries may sometimes be constricting, they can force us to be more focused and productive than we might be without them.

In the church, we need to be grateful for what we have, not listen to the critics (inside and out) who try to damn us for all we are not. We are saved, not flawless.

  1. Change your expectations, or let them go altogether. Sometimes, when you try something you don’t think you’re good at, you can release your expectations and just go for it.

As a church, I think we are pretty good at this, since we love it when people try things and honor people when they fail. We know we are a miracle; we live by grace. We are not merely the predictable outcome of our own efforts.

  1. Value the talents and abilities you do have, and leverage them. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. The gifts you have may not be the ones your family or friends value. Understand your own value, rather than restricting yourself  to other people’s expectations, and use your gifts fully.

I also think our church is pretty good at this. Even among the society of churches, we allow ourselves to be our alternative selves, without worrying too much about how others look at us.

  1. Use your limitations to help you focus and use your resources efficiently. If you have $20 to pay for groceries for the week, you’ll think more carefully about what to buy than if you had an unlimited amount. Alternatively, you might starve yourself for fear of scarcity. Efficiency is about determination to meet a goal (like surviving, in this example!); it should not be about being a well-oiled cog in the machine of someone else’s unrevealed goal.

 As a church we are always walking this balance, too! We seem to err on the side of risk and it often pays dividends. When we bought 2007 Frankford Ave, it seemed like a huge investment, but it has paid off repeatedly in saved lives and social action.

  1. Do what you can when you can. Modify or adjust your dreams to suit your own parameters, not according to how it’s “supposed” to be done. Every path to fullness is unique. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other, but we’ll have to apply what we learn uniquely.

As a church we are into this mentality. I think we are mostly committed to not really knowing how everything is supposed to be done. That way, we have freedom to trust God to use what we express. No small seed of faith is planted fruitlessly.

  1. If your limitation comes upon you suddenly, through accident, trauma or loss, be sure to deal with the grief and all the other feelings, so that you can move on.

As a church we do so much for each other as cells, we often provide a safe place for people to experience calamity. We welcomed Circle Counseling as a partner from the very beginning of our mission to help us face what has come upon us.

Challenging our limitations can be scary. We’ll feel discouraged at times. But if you feel drawn to doing something despite the challenges, your successes will be that much sweeter. Giving up can lead to boredom or depression or that great denial of our true selves Phelps described.

I don’t know anyone who’s ever regretted trying. Paul also wrote this to the Philippians: I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. He thought pressing on was his re-birthright, not some pressure-filled obligation. He pressed on because he was saved, not because he needed to succeed at being saved. He could press on even if he was in jail!

We always have a choice because we are chosen. God reached into our limitations in Jesus so they would not stop us. The Lord is such an inspiration that billions of people now follow Jesus all over the world. Jesus handled his limitations with love and demonstrated achievement so deep and high that we are all inspired to believe we can follow him with our own variation of his example.

Integration: The work of harmony in the Spirit

When Hallowood Institute holds its first seminar at the end of the month, participants will experience a top-notch teaching on the signature topic of the institute: integration. The presenters are primarily interested in the sweet spot pulsing between psychology and Christianity.

The more specific topic for the session: “spiritual bypass,” is all about how Christians unwittingly use their faith as part of their psychological defense system instead of experiencing it as transforming. Many Jesus followers experience internal rigidity or chaos, but not a life-giving faith. Psychotherapists help such people integrate their many selves and the kaleidoscope of stimulation they encounter every day into a sweet harmony — within themselves, with God and others.

Integration is the key to well-being

Dan Siegel calls “integration” the “key mechanism beneath both the absence of illness and the presence of well-being. Integration – the linkage of differentiated elements of a system – illuminates a direct pathway toward health” [Mindsight review]. Siegel is not a Christian, as far as I know, but he travels with them. His definition of integration resembles the key scripture on which we focused last month as we explored spiritual gifts:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).

Paul could have said, “The Lord integrates the many unique manifestations of the Holy Spirit for the good of individuals, the body and those they touch.” Siegel describes the natural properties in the brain, body and society that allow for integration; Paul names the integrating force beyond our natural capacity: the Holy Spirit. We are all in need of the integration that leads to health. Our linkages are restored and maintained by the presence of Jesus.

The rigidity and chaos we witness in the lives of our friends and loved ones is disintegration: the incapacity to “keep it together” characterized by the automatic thoughts behind “that thing you do” and the divisive reactions of “going it alone.” The people in “Choir! Choir! Choir! have a nice approach to fighting the disintegration that characterizes urban life all over the world.

When we sing together, we are integrating

Siegel’s example of how integration happens, or not, is an activity we experience every week as the church: singing. The work of a choir transforms individuals into an integrated whole and helps people find a deeper integration within themselves. Here’s what he does at his seminars:

1) He asks brave volunteers to come up on the stage and form a choir. He gives them a pitch and asks them to make a uniform sound. After 30 seconds he hold up his hands and stops them. Because once you’ve got the pitch, singing it gets old fast.

2) Then he asks the choir to cover their ears so they can’t hear one another and then individually launch into whatever song they’d like to sing. The audience laughs as they start, but after a minute they want him to stop them, so he does. The sound is kind of irritating.

3) Finally, he asks the singers to sing a song most of them know, however they are moved. It is always amazing how this pick-up choir finds a song: Row-Row-Row, or maybe Oh Susannah, and more than half the time Amazing Grace.  Once the melody is established, individual voices emerge providing harmony above or below the tune, playing off one another, “moving intuitively toward a crescendo before the final notes.” The faces of the choir and audience light up as a palpable sense of vitality fills the room.

As the choir sings, everyone is “experiencing integration at its acoustic best.” Each member of the choir has his or her unique voice, while at the same time they are linked together in a complex and harmonious whole. The balance between differentiated voices on the one hand and their linkage on the other is the embodiment of integration.

Coming to harmony takes at least a weekly effort

Siegel’s first two exercises expose disintegration. The single note humming is unchanging and rigid – in a short time it is dull and boring. The initial risk and excitement of volunteering gives way to the monotony of the task. The singers are linked, but they can’t express their individuality. Without moving toward integration, systems move away from complexity and harmony into rigidity. One-note faith that is all principle and routine and one-note religion that is all about the group and never the individual is not only boring, it can be deadly.

When the singers close their ears and sing whatever comes to mind, there is cacophony. Such chaos tends to create anxiety and distress in the listeners. Now the choir has no linkage, only differentiation. When integration is blocked this way we also move away from complexity and harmony into chaos. Go-your-own-way faith that is only personal and private and go-your-own-way religion that is all about the individual and never the group is not only anxiety-provoking, it can be deadly.

Siegel proves with brain science and psychiatric practice what Paul reveals in 1 Corinthians. My mind, brain/body, and relationships are meant to be integrated in a harmonious whole. Paul says, in his extended teaching on spiritual gifts (chapter 12-14), he prays with his spirit and prays with his mind — and he does it all in caring relationships with other Spirit-moved people. He is cooperating with his transformation with his whole being; as a result he is made whole and he breeds wholeness.

Likewise, the body of Christ, as a whole, has a sense of mind, brain/body and relationships that draws us into harmony. To the Philippians Paul writes, “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” Then individuals who are like Jesus will form a body that looks like Jesus and the world will see the light and love of God walking around and inviting them into relationship. The very nature of the church should breed harmony in the world, not division.

a picture of integration
Steve A. Prince and friends, Prayer Works, 2019. A collaborative drawing completed at the 2019 CIVA conference at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Just like it takes a conscious effort to bring a choir of strangers into harmony, it takes regular practice to be a harmonious church living in love, able to worship together without fear or shame. We work on it every week in our Sunday meetings. Some people enter the room and feel bored by some rigidity they see or are overwhelmed with the chaos of meeting so many different kinds of people. It will take some time and some kindness to help them leave their disintegration behind and enter into the Spirit with us. Singing together is a big help.

Maybe it takes even more conscious effort to be the pick-up choir on the stage, bringing the whole “audience” of the world into a “palpable sense of vitality.” When we worship, or just meet in Jesus’ name anytime, we should be conscious of volunteering to create harmony. It is not just for ourselves, but for the world we love that we seek out that sweet spot of integration, where the Holy Spirit brings us into harmony in ourselves — our minds, spirits and bodies aware and cooperating with truth and love, and where the Holy Spirit brings us into harmony with others — our mind, spirit and body in Christ revealing the way of Jesus for people hungering for transformation.

Rather than just thinking about it, why don’t you put on the headphones and be a part of the choir right now? On our first album we specialized in real people doing what we do when we sing. One prayer kept appearing as the album went on, and each time it arrived it carried a call for integration at the heart of it: “Lord, bring your peace to this broken place of hurt and pain. Restore it with Your power and grace.” When we use that song, the leader calls us together from wherever we come from into a common tune on behalf of the world. Spend a minute to practice. It takes quite a bit of effort to get out of rigidity or chaos and into harmony. [Restore us, oh Lord!]

Exploring DBT skills with Jesus: Ever thought you’re an idiot? Read this

At the CAPS International Conference, Marcus Rodriguez treated our workshop to an entertaining, enlightening and encouraging gallop through Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, focusing on “radical acceptance” – one of the many skills DBT uses. This therapy is under the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) umbrella. It was originally created to help with borderline personality disorder. Now it is used to help with a variety of other conditions. It is a very organized way to teach people to change when their behavior is damaging relationships and even threatening to destroy them.

DBT teaches clients four sets of behavioral skills under the headings: mindfulness; distress tolerance; interpersonal effectiveness; and emotion regulation. But, whether we are ill or not, as Marcus demonstrated, we can all benefit from adapting and incorporating the skills into our lives.

Image result for dbt buddhism

Christians use DBT, Buddhist-leaning or not

For some people, applying DBT skills might seem sketchy, since many of the skills are straight from the Buddhist playbook. You might know that I’ve suggested elsewhere how Christians can be friends with Buddhists. But appreciating the strengths of Buddhist or DBT philosophy doesn’t mean we overlook the core elements that could undermine our faith in the name of reducing our suffering. There isn’t much in any psychotherapy models which a Jesus follower wouldn’t need to adapt.

DBT represents some of the real differences between Jesus and Buddha. The Buddha said, “Look not to me, look to my dharma (doctrine).” The Christ said, “Follow me.” The Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.” The Christ said, “I am the light of the world.” Yet contrary to the original intentions of both, some later Buddhists (the Pure Land sect) divinized Buddha. And some later Christians (Arians and Modernists) de-divinized Christ.

Peter Kreeft sums up the differences nicely. He says, “On this crucial issue—the diagnosis of the human problem—Christianity and Buddhism seem about as far apart as possible. For where Buddha finds our desires too strong, Christ finds them too weak. He wants us to love more, not less: to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Buddha “solves” the problem of pain by practicing spiritual euthanasia: curing the disease of egotism and the suffering it brings by killing the patient, the ego, self, soul or I-image of God in humanity.” No Christians using DBT think they are doing this, I suspect. But the modality comes from that playbook.

It is easy to say that many Christians are better Buddhists than they are Jesus followers, since they practice law-keeping designed to squash their desires before they result in sin, often at the cost of their soul. They kill their souls in order to not face the shame of needing new life. It would be better if they followed the Buddha’s example and sat under a tree until they were enlightened – that is, enlightened in the way Paul hopes: that

“the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:17-18).

In that same hope, I offer three DBT skills that everyone could practice that will increase our capacity to gain a spirit of wisdom instead of rolling around in our unquestioned behaviors that lead to sin and ruptured relationships.

Mindfulness

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. – Philippians 4:8

“Mindfulness” has a lot of definitions. For Marcus, it begins with stepping back from your normal thinking pattern and noting how you are enacting the pattern. That’s also known as mentalizing. Other teachers say mindfulness means living one’s life more in the present moment, instead of allowing oneself to be hijacked by the past and the future.

Marcus instructed us to bring to mind a situation about which we felt deeply, but which was not changing and not likely to change because of something we could do to change it. We closed our eyes, or stared at a focal point, breathed in and then breathed out the sentence we had constructed to describe the situation. We were told to simply note the fact when our minds wandered, thank ourselves for noticing, and return to our practice.

Our teacher was helping us to get a feel for how we could step back and look at automatic behaviors we need to change using this crucial DBT skill. For instance, if you’re entangled in your thoughts, you might think/feel: “Susan is really nice. She’s such a great person. I wish I were more like her. I should ask her if she wants to go for coffee sometime. I’d like to get to know her better.” Being mindful, you get some space to reduce the extraneous thoughts and observe, “There’s a thought that Susan is such a nice person.”

We would all like to pause, check in, identify our emotions and consciously make healthy decisions. Try it. It might surprise you just how little you are thinking and feeling about what you are actually thinking and feeling. This mindfulness is a lot like what Paul is suggesting to the Philippians, isn’t it?

Related image

Reality Acceptance

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. – Romans 15:5-7

This skill focuses on accepting our daily experiences and working to accept the more painful events that have happened. Marcus had many colorful examples about how fighting reality only heightens our suffering, like, “Beating up your pillow all night does nothing but make the bed sweaty.” He had a ready excuse to practice this skill during our workshop, since he needed a projector and was not provided one. That reality frustrated and embarrassed him. He said, “Instead of telling myself, ‘My life sucks’ I have to remind myself ‘It is what it is. I will get through it. Breathe.’”

This spirit of acceptance is what Paul recommends to the Romans as they face the divisions in their church. But it also applies to accepting the divisions we feel in ourselves. DBT requires a hard won discipline of living in whatever is materially real in the moment, free from desires and guilt. For Jesus followers, a grateful acceptance of being accepted by Jesus is required, but the results are similar, I think. Our faith is constantly accepting that God is with us in Jesus, and accepting that controlling our desire to control cannot really save us — although it is great cooperation with the One who can!

Nonjudgmental Stance

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God. – 1 Corinthians 4:3-5

Marcus was concerned that we learn the difference between a judgment and a fact. Negative judgments tend to boost our emotional pain. So when we’re angry, irritated or frustrated, we should pay attention to what judgment we are making or we will just make things worse. “I hate Philadelphia because it rains so much” is different from “I had hoped it would not rain today.”  “My partner is an idiot,” is different from: “I worked another long day and when I got home my partner asked me what I was making for dinner. I am angry about this and disappointed he’s not making an effort to help.”

Being less judgmental doesn’t eliminate our pain, but it might take it from an 8 to a 5. If we practice the “radical acceptance” Marcus was teaching us, we might move the needle from 5 to 3. Radical acceptance does not mean agreeing with what happened, or approving, excusing, absolving, allowing, resigning, or wallowing in suffering. Radical acceptance simply means we acknowledge the facts of our lives without judgment. We often fight reality instead, which only intensifies our emotional reaction. We might fight reality by judging a situation, saying “It should or shouldn’t be this way,” or “That’s not fair!” or “Why me?!” Fighting reality only creates suffering. DBT people say, “Pain is inevitable in life; suffering is optional.”

The idea we can choose our way out of suffering is where we see how much Buddhism impacts DBT. It leans toward shutting down the desires and leading us to find a place of nothingness where “should” or “want” is irrelevant. For disordered people, this ability is priceless — and most of us could use a dose.

But we do not need to adopt the core premise of Buddhism to make us of skills that help us pay attention to our reactions so we can manage to make the choices we prefer. I think all the Bible verses I quoted are teaching variations on that theme, among other things. We have to learn new skills to be new people in Christ. The big difference, as Kreeft pointed out, is always about how we see where we started, where God is in the process, and whether we actually think the joy and suffering we are experiencing only have the meaning we assign them in the moment, no meaning at all, or are doorways to eternity.

Shame: What we can do about it.

soul of shame

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

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

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

What is shame?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is what we do about shame that matters

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

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

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

See an interview with Thompson in Christianity Today 

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

The second half of life: Encouragement for creative suffering

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

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

The second half of life

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

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

Image result for Dolly Parton

Signs of the “mid-life crisis”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are good examples who show us how to suffer creatively

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for king i have a dream

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

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

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

Depression season: Hope for the bleak, SAD midwinter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be careful about a quick SAD diagnosis

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

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

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

Jesus arrives when the winter is bleak

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

  1. Winter is not a curse.

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

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

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

  1. Winter is part of our growth process

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

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

  1. Winter will end. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loss and Longing in Oscar’s Best Original Song Nominees

Image result for best original song 2019

This year’s original songs nominated for an Oscar have an unsurprising theme: loss and longing. If they are not downright sad, they are about sad situations, sad lives and a deep longing we can all relate to.

Sad songs are more popular than happy ones and have greater staying power. I wish Pharrell’s Happy would last longer than Adele’s Hello, but I would not count on it.

In a sad world, sad songs can be addictive.  So be careful; it is sad out there. Research suggests that sad music can play a role in emotional regulation — I think everyone knows the word “cathartic” by now; and everyone talks about “venting.” Music-evoked sadness helps us release emotional distress in a safe, beautiful way and provides some distance for reappraisal, and insight. Sometimes it gives us the chills, which feel good and soothe anxiety. Sad music teases out hormones like  oxytocin and prolactin, which are also associated with mom’s cuddles and falling in love. So the aftermath of a sad song can be a period of feeling not so sad. Of course we’ll need a another dose very soon – at least most of us seem to. But we like going back for more.

Jesus is acquainted with grief and full of joy

Jesus followers, contrary to what some of their teachers taught in the last century [like this], are encouraged to be sad in a hopeful way: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

We have a safe place in Christ to grieve fearlessly, knowing that we are not in danger of the deadly despair we dread. When we are wearing our true selves, we can sorrow without defeat and experience sadness without hopelessness.  We can aspire to true sorrow and true hope.

One reason Paul gives for this wonderful capacity is our knowledge that we grieve temporarily. We know our grief will come to an end. Like I said a couple of weeks ago, Jesus told his disciples: “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Paul highlights that hope by pointing back in time and then pointing forward: “For since we believe that [in the past] Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will [in the future] bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

This year’s songs are also acquainted with grief and longing for something else

The songs nominated for Best Original Song of 2018  are all longing for the hope Jesus instills in us (at least unconsciously). Take a look and see what you think.

All the Stars

Black Panther is a hopeful movie about a culture in hiding, its treasure masked by its contradictory camoflauge of poverty.

Kendrick Lamar and SZA sing a duet of the nominated song, All the Stars, during the credits. Here’s part of it:

Love, let’s talk about love.
Is it anything and everything you hoped for?
Or do the feeling haunt you?
I know the feeling haunt you

This may be the night that my dreams might let me know:
All the stars are closer, all the stars are closer, all the stars are closer…

How did it all go to feel good?
You could live it all.
If you feel bad better live your life
We were runnin’ out of time.

I do not know everything Kendrick Lamar is getting at. But I can tell he is longing, like the movie, for respect. Even deeper, he is trying not to let love slip away, even though he would like to stop feeling the pain of missing it. Maybe even deeper than that, he would like the moment when he feels the stars are closer to be a regular occurrence — he misses God, too.

I’ll Fight

RBG is a bit of hagiography about the lawyer-turned-SCOTUS-member who worked valiantly to put women’s rights into law.

The song is called I’ll Fight. And RBG can pack a wallop for someone as notoriously diminutive as she is. Here is a bit:

When you feel you’re taking all that you can take
And you’re sure you’re never gonna catch a break
And the tears are rivers running down your face, yeah
When your faith is low and you’ve got no strength left
When you think you’ve gone as far as you can get
And you’re too run down to take another step

Oh I will take up the struggle
Oh I know it’s a fight

So I’ll fight, fight that war for you
I’ll fight, stand and defend you

Saints have often been stand-ins for the Savior. So it is appropriate that Jennifer Hudson, the church woman, steps up to sing a testimony: “I was low but you rescued me, I was defenseless and you were my strength.” It sounds like a psalm!

The song longs for that person who meets us when the tears are streaming down our face. Ultimately, I met that person in Jesus. But Jesus has a lot of friends. Every Jesus follower keeps growing in Jesus-like empathy and conviction; so sing it, Jennifer! And plenty of humans who don’t follow Jesus have goodness and courage built right in as the beloved creatures they are; so stay alive, Ruth!

The Place Where Lost Things Go

Above is the songwriter singing his version. If you want Emily Blunt, here she is.

Mary Poppins Returns is a great remake of the original. It should be given an award for daring! Emily Blunt should win prizes for letting herself be compared to the icon, Julie Andrews. Like so many Disney movies, the drama centers around the death of a parent. In this case, it is mom who is lost — thus, this stanza of The Place Where the Lost Things Go:

So when you need her touch
And loving gaze
Gone but not forgotten
Is the perfect phrase
Smiling from a star
That she makes glow
Trust she’s always there
Watching as you grow
Hiding in the place
Where the lost things go

The theology of many movies teaches children that dead people are like stars that shine down on us from heaven. And if you don’t forget people they are still alive, at least in your heart. I have, indeed, imagined that loved ones I miss are still looking over me, and my memories of them comfort me, since I still miss them. So this is a sweet, if somewhat untrustworthy song.

God has been generally banished from the movies, but we still need a Savior (Black Panther, RBG, and Mary Poppins) and we still need and still long for a touch of love and mystery in our sadness (strength in blackness, strength in weak old age, and strength returning to Dad in his deep, deep sadness). I hope Jesus appreciates how religious these movies are! He is still needed!

Shallow

I wasn’t much of a Gaga fan until this movie. As soon as I saw it, I forgave her for following Janet, JUDY and Barbra, she was just so talented! Plus, she writes evocative songs, like Shallow. Here’s a lot of it.

Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longing for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In just a few brief lines, this duet hits us where sadness meets fear: “Will I ever get to be who I feel I am? Is my longing doomed to go unmet?” I appreciate the clever image of crashing through the surface. It is on the other side of what seems to be the impenetrable surface that we find out we can’t be hurt like we feared quite so much.

For Lady Gaga, personally, the wall between men and women is broken down as the partners listen and empathize in this song. What’s more, the walls the misfits, like her, need to crash through is demonstrated for everyone needing to find courage.

I went back and listened to the words above as if Jesus were singing them, wherever that seemed right. It fit for me. I am blessed with people who crash through surfaces with me and for me. But when it comes to finding the place where they can’t hurt me, that comes with Jesus crashing into humanity and then crashing through death. My courage is too shallow to get where the song promises. Lady Gaga is worth about $300 million dollars — I know it does not buy her the great courage she has, but it surely helps. The rest of us probably need more.

When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a set of stories in which someone is going to die. It is a movie about death. The crack shooter, Buster Scruggs, sings the nominated song, When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings, as he is ascending to heaven. Here’s much of it:

When they wrap my body
In the thin linen sheet
And they take my six ounce
Pull the boots from my feet

Unsaddle my pony
She’ll be itching to roam
I’ll be halfway to heaven
Under horsepower of my own

Yippee-ki-yi-yay
When the roundup ends
Yippee-ki-yi-yay
And the campfire dims

Yippee-ki-yi-yay
He shalt be saved
When a cowboy trades
His spurs for wings

The final one of the film shorts that make up the movie: “Mortal Remains,” is the only one in which the characters are already dead. They are only marginally aware of this reality. They remind me of the spirits in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (MUCH recommended, if you haven’t read it yet). This final parable pulls the rest of the stories together. It is the story of how three people who would normally not be in the same stagecoach together find their souls being harvested.

As dead people they try to put things together. Each is very sure of their own point of view as to what is happening. With a nod to why sad songs and stories about death move us so much, one of the harvesters notes that “We love hearing about ourselves. As long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.”  Each person’s confirmation bias can’t save them; though different, each is just as dead as the other. It is a Coen Brothers parable. They seem to see a world full of swift repercussions, but one that is also random, in which the only certainty is death.

The humor that laces the Coen Brothers’ debate with the narcissism and nihilism of the postmodern era leaves room for love and hope, which their wacky characters often demonstrate. The whole, three-hour Oscar ceremony, complete with the often less-than-classic nominated songs it elevates, is a similar celebration. Beautiful, talented people celebrate, show honor, cry, praise people (and sometimes God), and showcase the best of humanity.

I feel for the attenders, all all gussied up for their stagecoach ride in the Dolby Theater, all with their longings, 80% of the nominees soon to experience loss. In many ways, as the nominated songs are performed,  they will reveal their sadness and longing.  Those beautiful people might experience that tingle we feel when something has broken through our surface and the Holy Spirit gets an opportunity to beckon us into eternity and our true selves.

What do YOU think? Is screen time damaging the kids?

I have been doing some thinking about technology again in prepration for the seminarians cohort meeting next Monday. We are inviting everyone to do some theology around the question: Should I buy the Playstation, Iphone, AI device for Christmas?

Image result for fortnite skins

Among the articles that stuck with me is one by Nellie Bowles in the NYTimes: A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley. I have grandchildren. She alarmed me, since they love their screens and I love to give them what they want.

Being avoidant is not enough

She says, “The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them. A wariness that has been slowly brewing is turning into a region wide consensus: The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high. The debate in Silicon Valley now is about how much exposure to phones is O.K.”

Christians have often been resistant when it comes to technological advances. Many of the people in our church, Circle of Hope, come from Mennonite stock and have relatives or acquaintances who are Amish. The Amish are still trying to keep progress stalled at the pre-industrial level! I admire their stubbornness. But the cool  Anabaptists I know are tired of legalistic ancestors and feel queasy about making too many rules that will stifle their own children like they were stifled. So the debate about information and communication technology gets them coming and going. They have an instinct for avoiding the temptations for the world, but they have no little revulsion for overdoing avoidance.

Sometimes I think they use their resistance to overdoing avoidance to avoid making decisions that might save their kids. They don’t want to be legalistic, so they don’t do anything to guide the family. So their poor, impressionable kids are rolled over by the tsunami of technology without much guidance, much less theology. So the wave consumes their imaginations and they adapt to the worldview stories that justify every new relationship with a machine that comes on the market.

Tech inventors are keeping their kids away from screens

The experts from Silicon valley are beginning to resist the technology onslaught for the sake of their children. Just listen to these quotes.

  • “Doing no screen time is almost easier than doing a little,” said Kristin Stecher, a former social computing researcher married to a Facebook engineer. “If my kids do get it at all, they just want it more.”
  • Some of the people who built video programs are now horrified by how many places a child can now watch a video. Asked about limiting screen time for children, Hunter Walk, a venture capitalist who for years directed product for YouTube at Google, sent a photo of a potty training toilet with an iPad attached and wrote: “Hashtag ‘products we didn’t buy.’”
  • Athena Chavarria, who worked as an executive assistant at Facebook and is now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”
  • Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company said about screens, “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.” Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve, he said. “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”
  • Those who have exposed their children to screens try to talk them out of addiction by explaining how the tech works. John Lilly, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist with Greylock Partners and the former C.E.O. of Mozilla, said he tries to help his 13-year-old son understand that he is being manipulated by those who built the technology. “I try to tell him somebody wrote code to make you feel this way — I’m trying to help him understand how things are made, the values that are going into things and what people are doing to create that feeling,” Mr. Lilly said. “And he’s like, ‘I just want to spend my 20 bucks to get my Fortnite skins.'”

I think we all know by now that online platforms, especially the games, are designed to be addictive. That’s how the inventors profit, by keeping us engaged and selling us virtual products. In case you didn’t know that, it’s no secret

I did not write this post to solve the problems we are all confronting. But I do think we Jesus-followers have the perennial solutions:.

  • A view of who we are and who God is appropriately contradicts the narratives the world offers.
  • Dialogue, like this, and like our meeting to do theology, helps break the power of manipulative lies that hook us into a track we later regret.
  • Questioning the strategies of our spiritual ancestors and having the courage to resist and restore in our own ways allows us the space to make decisions that have some discernment.

We do not need to bend the knee to whatever powerful force comes beaming into family life demanding we organize around it. Like many tech experts, we’d better figure out just what we are going to do about the invasion very soon, since the powers are grooming our kids for future profiteering and shaping their brains and their loves as they do it.

See also, from 2013: Screen time saps resistance

Other articles: How Does Screen Time Affect Kids’ Mental Health?