This is among the first posts I ever blogged. I am on vacation (again) this week, but I thought I would repeat this, since it still makes sense.
The other day when we were reading Psalm 109 during noon prayer, we understood it completely wrong. We heard verses 6-19 like they were the psalmist pronouncing a long curse on someone. It was hard to take thirteen verses of curse! Sometimes the Psalms get a little rough for us, since we’ve all been taught to keep our emotions subject to our theories and politics. We’ve had to get used to all that angry talk and wild reactions in the Psalms jarring our sensibilities a little – this one, however, just seemed over the top:
“May his children become orphans
and his wife a widow.” (v.9)
Who would say such a thing?! We were uncomfortable reading it.
The prayer starts off in a way we could relate to more easily:
“In return for my love they accuse me,
though my prayer is for them.
And they offer me evil in return for good
and hatred in return for my love: (Psalm 109:4-5)
That we could pray. We’ve all been abused and misunderstood. I’m not very good at seeing it — but I am sometimes hated. I’m usually shocked when I find out about what someone feels about me or says about me, but sometimes I do find out I have an opponent who doesn’t mind taking me out behind my back. In return for my love, they hate me.
No, the curse is coming at me!
We thought what came next was the Psalmist pronouncing a long curse on the people who returned hate for love:
“Appoint a wicked man over him,
let an accuser stand at his right…
Let his days be few,
may another man take his post….
May his offspring be cut off,
in the next generation his name wiped out”
It was going on and on. One of us finally said, “Whew!” Because we usually think – “If it is in the Bible, then it is an example for us.” If the Psalms are a prayer book, this is a wild prayer! We were a little hesitant to say the prayer.
We didn’t understand that vv. 6-19 is a quote of what someone else is saying about the psalmist, not what he is saying about them. The prayer is about being taken out, being hated, being attacked by an evil person. He ends up crying out for mercy:
“And You, O Lord, Master,
act on my behalf for the sake of Your name,
for Your kindness is good. O save me!
For poor and needy am I,
and my heart is pierced within me.”
Out of touch with the forces against you?
My realization from a few days of using this Psalm and studying it is I get surprisingly out of touch with the forces that are coming against me! Evil and its allies want me destroyed. You may have the opposite problem and think I am kind of nutty, since you’re effectively paranoid all day — so have some mercy. I had such a resistance to pronouncing a curse that I didn’t see the curse coming at me — even in the safety of my own prayer book!
In Celtic Daily Prayertoday, it says “Our society teaches us to be suspicious of what is good, and to listen passively to whatever is evil.” We may not even be aware that evil is coming at us! When it does, we may invite it in for a drink because we are committed to being nice, or at least committed to appearing nice. I want to love and trust first, but I don’t want to be nice to evil. Even worse, I don’t want to impassively stew in what’s wrong until it cooks me.
So I recommend some appropriate drama today. Let’s pray it together: “I am surrounded! I am needy! Save me!” Let’s be appropriately concerned that we might be mean to someone. But for those of you like me, let’s be appropriately aware that we have opponents. We’re doing good things and they will be opposed. We are made good in Jesus and we, because of that good at work within us, are dangerous, as far as the Lord’s opponents are concerned. They will try to take us out.
Some of my clients are especially adept at honestly describing their motivation. In couples therapy, one marriage partner said it was important to be the kind of mate who could pop an inflated ego. So their mate has to endure coming home with a story about some victory or blessing only to have their partner sift out some fault or problem to criticize. I could relate. I grew up with parents who were sure they should “take me down a peg or two” when I needed it and told me so. They thought criticism was an important way to develop me.
This “peg” thing appears in literature starting in the 1500’s, but no one quite knows where it came from. It might be about someone hoisting their own flag above another on a ship. Its appearance coincides with the rise of individual freedom and responsibility in Europe and the new scientific examination of everything that is now the basis for most thinking. By now, “taking people down” or even “taking them out” is seen as a virtue, as if expertly examining someone is a favor to bestow. Everyone is a critic, like grumpy old Muppets in the theater box taking down Miss Piggy a peg, or Jerry Seinfeld teaching us to take down everyone.
So it is not unusual to have a couple committed to criticism as if it were a right or an obligation! One partner may not always be as vocal as the other. But their resentment and withdrawal as they “try not to be critical” still gets the point across.
Criticism infects love like a virus. Through their enormous research, the Gottman’s identified the “four horsemen” of marriage apocalypse. Criticism is the first one on their list. On their blog they say,
Because criticism is the first horseman, fighting off your urge to criticize can hold the other horsemen (defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) at bay. And behind every complaint lays a wish, a longing. To work towards constructive solutions and mutual fulfillment, you must both make an effort to let go of grudges and bitterness. You must give your partner the opportunity to try to “fix it” or to make a repair attempt. Instead of attacking with “you” statements and immediately putting your partner on the defensive, you must allow them to do something that may make a positive difference.
Many of my clients are not deeply Christian, but it would help them fight off the urge to criticize if they were. Marriage is a wonderful laboratory for personal development if you see it that way — as opposed to a constant affront to justice and proper thinking. When Paul talks about marriage he sees it as the same kind of relationship Christ has with the church – a relationship of unwarranted submission to the self-giving glory of love.
Pastors are run out by criticism
I am happy this did not happen to me when I was a pastor (maybe I was not listening), but, like in the churches Paul planted, people in the church judge each other mercilessly these days, often in the name of righteousness. The poor pastors, and other leaders, are like lightning rods for the storms of criticism that sweep over communities in the United States like an aspect of some kind of spiritual climate change.
Tom Ranier who has been writing about church leadership for decades, now, says in his blog
Criticisms against pastors have increased significantly. One pastor recently shared with me the number of criticisms he receives are five times greater than the pre-pandemic era. Church members are worried. Church members are weary. And the most convenient target for their angst is their pastor.
Just like you might want to stop taking down your mate instead of building them up, you might want to love your leader and the members of your church like Christ loves you.
My clients who are professionals working in the church or Christian nonprofits often complain about feeling like fish in a barrel getting injured by someone taking an easy shot. Their critics should be out changing the world, but they abuse the easy intimacy of the church to vent their angst on people who love them. There is an ongoing debate about whether criticism motivates people in the workplace better than praise. But I think most therapists see how criticism mostly causes entrenched defensiveness and silences people. It is best used for coercion, not liberation. Church leaders don’t want to quit, but if someone shoots at them every day, they probably will.
It is often a projection of the inner critic
Several times I have heard of a client’s dream in which there was a plot going on to murder someone. One good man said the message they got from such a dream was that they really needed to “step up their game” and stop being so critical. They were killing people with words! I thought that was a good takeaway. But I also thought they could see their dream as an interior process by which their unconscious thoughts were getting sorted. It was possible that they were considering killing unaccepted elements of themselves!
In fact, an inner critic is hard at work in most of us all day (and night) telling us our flag is hoisted too high or too low, or maybe both. The feelings caused by that voice are so intolerable we often “project” them on some situation or person. We can’t stand it, so we put it on someone else. We can’t stand the blame we feel so we blame someone else. We don’t want to need forgiveness, so we produce a logical justice issue we think we can work out without it.
We’re often in a tragic cycle. We criticize ourselves for having an overactive inner critic! We end up in charge of dispatching this malady, or hiding the fact that we only appear to have done so. One of my clients said, “I feel like I am cheating if I stop criticizing myself.” Jesus did not say from the cross “You’ve got to step up your game.” I am surprised I have to make an argument that the cross represents self-giving love, that forgiveness is a gift which cannot be deserved, that resurrection is the final statement that the powers are not in control and neither are you.
The internet is an echo chamber of criticism
Why has this period of relentless criticism come upon us? It is connected to COVID-19, of course, but the pandemic just accelerated trends already in place. We would have likely gotten to this point in the next three to five years regardless.
Maybe when we started ordering all that take out food and as we read even more Yelp reviews it became that much more evident to us that we, personally, might be liable to negative reviews ourselves if we made ourselves known. It is what people do. Maybe our inner critics were at work harder than ever. We were more likely to anonymously get ourselves out there and project some blame on Facebook. Some of us got canceled and most of us talked so much about people getting canceled the Republicans made “cancel culture” a campaign issue.
I ran across The Geeks Under Grace talking about the spread of internet criticism. They are Christian gamers and into everything about computers and the internet. On their blog they were trying to get meme warriors to stop raking over every presentation of Christianity in media for evidence of inaccuracy they should criticize. I appreciated their obscure (for some of us) reference to Dwight Schrute:
I do understand the temptation to offer criticism to everything you see. It can come from a virtuous heart in wanting to ensure the God we love is accurately portrayed. In our minds we sound intelligent for (what we perceive is) correctly understanding theology, but when we do this with insignificant details, we come across looking like Dwight Schrute from The Office. We all love to watch Dwight for his quirkiness and how he interacts with problems created by his coworkers, but I hardly think many of us want to be perceived as Dwight.
For those who don’t watch The Office, the Christian Dwight would be the one who comments on everything pertaining to Christianity with rhetoric that they’ve heard from others. Any misuse of anything must be corrected at that exact moment. “False! There are basically two schools of thought.”
An 8th grader friend recently took themselves off Facebook altogether because they just could not stand all the criticism. Some people have stopped watching the commentary on MSNBC and Fox for similar reasons. The internet makes everyone an expert and no one an authority. The criticism floating around in it is not grounded in relationship or community and feeds on words like cancer. I think that is another aspect of the left-brain bondage that has overtaken us.
What to do?
This piece is not another call to “step up your game.” It is mostly a call to stop killing yourself. If you follow Jesus and you think God is looking at you critically, I think you might need to look at the cross more closely. You are the beloved of God, not innately an object of contempt. Not cooperating with your inner critic would be a good first step to releasing everyone from your criticism and gaining some resistance to the waves of criticism the society delivers daily.
When Philip told Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth, he responded “What good can come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)
That response probably made it into the Bible because Philip never let Nathanael forget the look on his face when Jesus, the Nazarene, revealed who he was with a scripture-filled personal introduction. The fact is, Nazareth, where Jesus lived, comes from the Hebrew word for “branch.” Jesus is the Branch growing out of the stump of the Kingdom of Israel just like Isaiah prophesied. Amazing things grow in surprising places, it would seem.
Nathanael did not see the possibilities resident in the out-of-the way Nazareth. The glory in Jesus had not been revealed to him before he dismissed it. And, as I suspect he soon found out, the faith and character Jesus called out in him that day, although they were hidden under his initial scornful response, could be found in the outlying and hidden places in him, and could be chosen and lived.
Finding living water
Many of my psychotherapy clients and friends are not living out great faith in Jesus, but they can certainly dip their toes in living water if they don’t scorn the unlikely places it can be found in them.
Apparently, one of Karl Jung’s favorites parables touched on this truth. It is about the water of life and how it made itself known, bubbling up from a deep well in the earth without effort or limit. People drank the clean pure water and were nourished and invigorated. But humankind did not leave it at that. Someone eventually fenced the well, charged admission, claimed ownership of the property around it, made laws as to who could come to the well and put locks on the gates. Soon the well belonged to the powerful and the elite. But the water stopped flowing. The thieves were so engrossed in their power systems and ownership that they did not notice the water had vanished. But some dissatisfied people longed for it and searched with great courage until they found where the water bubbled up again. Soon that well suffered the same fate. The spring took itself to yet another place – and this thread winds through the story of humanity. It is a sad story, but the wonder is that the water can be found if one searches.
My clients, and probably you, are on the search. Usually, what quenches our thirst for life and love dries up and we become dissatisfied. Or maybe we have been cordoned off within some fence around a dry well, waiting for a bubbling up that never happens anymore. Or maybe we have been fenced out from someplace which might have what we need by some powerful elite or thieves. Our angst usually intensifies after we have found our place in society and come to the end of the left-brain logic that makes it such a prison. We feel there is more. But we just can’t get to it.
Many people are like Nathanael who can’t imagine that “more” they crave coming from some “Nazareth.” Many people fail to find their God-given living water because they are not prepared to search inside, especially in the parts of themselves they disown. Nathanael heard “Jesus of Nazareth” and was sure nothing good could come from there. Jesus looked at Nathanael and saw his heart. This is not always the case, but, as a result, Nathanael quickly looked past his ignorance and scorn and saw who he was meeting, and in that meeting met himself.
The Nazareth within
Psychotherapy is not the only place this happens, of course, but it is one place in which people can begin to explore that “Nazareth” place in themselves, even that place that seems as dead as a stump, and see what might be sprouting.
Most of the time were are looking outward with a face that allows us to fit into our family and society. We’re also looking out because we are afraid of what people might do to us if we don’t! When we look in we often retain the same fearful outlook and just find the elements in us that don’t fit in or don’t make us lovable. The fear we have of others also makes us afraid of what the hidden things in us will do to us if we let them get up into consciousness. In some sense we look at the deep places in us as a “Nazareth” — and what good could come of that? You might not think that way, but a lot of people do. It is easy to hear the rattling of skeletons in our closets. We scorn that Nazareth in us.
During Easter week in 1916, Teilhard de Chardin, the famous Jesuit priest and scientist, was in the middle of the Battle of Dunkirk as a medic. He said as he suffered with the casualties, and as he trembled with the earth when bombs blasted out craters, he felt the Presence of Love being wounded. This would certainly be a strange “Nazareth” in which to meet up with living water! But one of his famous prayers was first prayed at Dunkirk: “I love you, Lord Jesus. You are as gentle as the human heart, as fiery as the forces of nature, as intimate as life itself.”
That moment when you tasted living water
Not all of us could be compared to a psychological Dunkirk! But we have suffered. We carry the wounds of personal conflict and the corporate memory of all the violence that mars history. It is stuffed into places in our hearts and minds we never want to visit. We also have desires and gifts that have also been relegated to “useless” or “despicable,” since they live in the “Nazareth” we are. It hard to accept the wonder at work in us — to see the wells where the living water irrepressibly bubbles up, and drink it.
The other day I thought I remembered leaving the keys to my office in a door as I went to get something from my car. I went and looked and could not find them — not left in any doorknobs, not in my car, my bag, my desk or anywhere in the office! I began to think I was a fool who had let my keys get stolen by someone who would rob the office later in the night (What good can come out of Nazareth?!). So I sat back and prayed, “Lord please help me find my keys.” I immediately scorned my babyish prayer but stuck with it anyway and retraced my steps. I was back out on the sidewalk when someone called to encourage me. As I stood there talking, I looked down and there were the keys in a very unusual place! Should I really see Jesus loving me via an infantile prayer, through a coincidental phone call, in such a Nazareth? Sure! I am searching for the next place the living water is going to bubble up.
That little example is like what my clients are experiencing as they see into what is buried in them looking for something they know is lost but have little hope of finding and feeling a lot of fear about what will happen if they don’t. The little encounter of Nathanael and Jesus shows the disciple getting a good taste of living water even though he initially had no hope in who Philip had met. He thought Jesus was a nothing and it turned out that Jesus showed him how he was not a nothing. May you have such friends who let your scorn pass and turn around and bless you.
Jesus upended Nathanael’s view of himself by naming the wonder in him, also coming from a Nazareth-like place like him! As a result he saw the wonder in Jesus. When we look in ourselves with sadness or shame, we do well to keep looking. In unexpected places we can find light in our darkness. It is very likely in the sadness and shame we will find Living Water looking for us!
I had an odd reaction to a frightening situation the other day. The more I think about it, the more of a parable it becomes.
It was simple, actually. I had struggled to pedal up the steep park path adjacent to Ford Rd. I got back on my bike after walking a bit, still panting. I slowly rode through the crosswalk on Chamonix. The truck I thought was certainly far enough away to see me was coming up to the stop sign. It slowed but apparently intended to run the stop sign, as usual. I yelled. The driver stopped whatever else he was doing and braked in time for me to push myself off his hood. I wobbled over to the far curb, gave a look back and almost toppled onto the sidewalk. I was furious. The driver paused then sped away.
In her book, Dear White Peacemakers Osheta Moore, who will speak more later, quotes a psychologist, Leon F. Seltzer, talking about my initial response:
“When you experience anger, it’s almost impossible not to feel like a victim, for virtually all anger can be understood as a reaction to what feels threatening or unfair to you.” — like when you expect personal care and community spirit to protect you in the sidewalk but someone runs the stop sign. Seltzer goes on, “In such instances, you feel unjustifiably attacked, taken advantage of, betrayed, violated or powerless. And your anger, essentially retaliatory in nature, serves the function of restoring to you a sense of righteousness and control, even dignity and respect.”
It is a steep road to no condemnation
True. We get angry. Then other feelings kick in. After I composed myself, I rode the short way I had left to go and my anger turned to shame. I didn’t want to tell anyone about what happened. They would say, “You should be more careful! (Stop trusting people in any way).” And I thought they might think but not say, “You might be too old to be left alone on a bike.” And one or two might say, “Did you go over and ball the guy out? You just gave him a dirty look from behind your sunglasses?” A religious voice got in there, too, “Why are you upset? You’re fine.” (Or maybe that was my mother).
I had to pause my self-condemnation to shout, basically, “The truck almost killed you!” I had another near-death experience and I condemned myself for not preventing it and for even feeling something about it. I hope you don’t do such things, but I suspect you do.
Parables don’t have morals, but the lesson I get out of this one is, “If the truck almost kills you in the crosswalk, it is not your fault.” I am prone to react as if I should be some god-like being impervious to assault and responsible to prevent evil. I’m not. A lot of Christians think they should never get angry and go directly to the shame. Sometimes I am angry and do not sin by condemning myself for what made me angry.
Osheta Moore helps us get to Beloved
My story and similar stories got applied in various ways this week.
If Bill Cosby is released on a technicality it doesn’t mean you lied about what he did to you or your abusers have a right to abuse.
If your boss installed self-interested leaders to compete for your power in the office it doesn’t mean you are a terrible executive.
If your wife keeps telling you you are a loser, it does not necessarily mean her feelings should be your feelings.
And, if you feel like every time you open your mouth about what you think or feel in this polarized society someone is likely to hold you in contempt, that does not put them in charge of your destiny.
“There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. We are free from the laws of sin and death.”
That last truck brings me back to Osheta Moore. Thanks to the Jesus Collective for introducing us to this interesting new prophet among the many writers who rushed to their keyboards while Derek Chauvin’s case wound its way through the system. I think she may be the best to blossom from all that sowing.
She is certainly taking on the question, “What does one do when the truck runs the stop sign?” It is a live question for Black and other people of color living under White Supremacy enacted by slave-creating capitalism. That semi’s a proven killer. I hope that truck is becoming a reality which more and more “white” people can see, as well, since it is about to run over their souls every day if they don’t dodge it (or don’t stop driving it!). OK, the parable may be getting a bit too stretched. But we are all threatened by this evil construct. Osheta Moore speaks to the White peacemakers to whom her book is written about the anger and shame associated with it:
“I don’t call anyone racist. I think for too many of you, you have worked hard to heal from toxic self-identities: fat, stupid, ugly, poor, lazy, not enough, too much. I began this book with an exploration of Belovedness and practices to help you settle into your Belovedness because I believe that only when you know you are Beloved – simply because you are human – only from that grounded place can you do anti-racism. If you believe you are a racist or you take on all the emotional, historical, and societal baggage that comes with that word, then you’re prone to unhelpful thought patterns like “I’m the worst” and “What’s the point, I can’t change anything on my own” and “I can’t believe my White pastor, friends, family members are still stuck in racist thinking, thank God I’m not like them.” None of these help you be a peacemaker.
When I think about your fragility in anti-racism, I choose to think of it as a fear response. Are you like my daughter who uses humor or bravado to deflect? Are you like my middle boy who gets quiet, retreats, and stonewalls? Are you like my oldest who ignores his anxious energy by barreling ahead, running from the trigger?”
Condemning oneself or others or absorbing condemnation will not solve the problem. Truth in love, yes. (That’s terrifying enough!). Condemnation, no. (Can’t/won’t deal). When the White Supremacy truck threatens to run me over I blame the truck. Even if I was in the way, there was never a good reason not to love me.
We needed Osheta’s book a long time ago
I wish Osheta Moore had written her book a long time ago. I wish Gerry West and I had written it (Gerry was Circle of Hope’s first Black pastor in 1997). We were writing in terms of white repentance and black forgiveness as a way into reconciliation. We couldn’t see the way into community without those rare actions. We were probably too focused on relationships when the real truck was the system. I wish the CERJ group I trained with had written it (Christians Enacting Reconciliation and Justice); they were mediators and negotiators, Black, Hispanic, Korean and White. We might have been too focused on technique when we needed mercy. I wish the Damascus Road trainers had written it: the Mennonite trainers and consultants who pioneered anti-racism awareness and deeply influenced our foundation as an anti-racist church. They were probably too focused on curriculum and filled with good, old middle PA shame. We’ve all grown a lot over the years. When Gwen and I first named our conviction anti-racism, we usually quickly added, “That’s a project we will probably die trying to complete.”
And here we go. Donald Trump is still unleashing a powerful defense of the White Supremacy on which the U.S. is founded and with which we are all infected, even the Beloved Community, the church. Osheta Moore stares right back at it, standing on the Sermon on the Mount and teaching its third way between the polarities of the world:
“Jesus teaches that those who try to save their lives will lose them and those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Anti-racism peacemaking is an invitation to interrogate your defenses, know your fear responses, and respond with nonviolence. White peacemaker, my prayer is you’ll do this nonviolent work within yourself, first by calling yourself a Beloved and then by acknowledging your fragility. Fragility needs to be an idea that’s neutralized. We all have our fragilities….
What would it be like to know, White Peacemaker, that you have emotional tools and reserve to attend to all the uncomfortable feelings that anti-racism brings up? You see, of all the most grounded and generous White Peacemakers I’ve encountered, they have all done one thing: they have, through therapy, dialogue, spiritual direction, meditation, and study, embraced self-compassion and cultivated self-awareness. They have practices that center them and have loving accountability. They’ve laid down the swords and shields that belong to their inner critic and inner skeptic. They’re not thinking of anti-racism as a battle; they are anti-racism peacemakers who engage with curiosity and mercy.”
That’s good theology and generous relating! I still think standing with Jesus grounded in the Sermon on the Mount is the best hope I can offer the world. Being and building the Beloved Community and pushing into the darkness with light together is the deep, deep work the church does in alliance with everyone about to get run over and with anyone ashamed of how meager their resources appeared when death rolled up.
Life caught in the clutches of the left-brain world
Several of my psychotherapy clients this year have, again, taught me to take the Bible seriously. I keep pondering this verse when they are talking to me: “Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (John 8:58 NET)
This assertion scandalizes the people with whom Jesus is arguing. The theory-bound, principle-following, control-oriented Jewish leaders of the time, who, in their own way, reflect the power-mad, bureaucratic Roman Empire which dominates them, are flabbergasted by this no-account Rabbi. He has powers beyond their imagination, he reframes their history in a way they can’t see and, most of all, he lives at home in love with a sense of his endless uniqueness over which they have no sway. Their arguments still seem comical and sad in the face of the Lord’s “I am.”
My clients, my comrades in the church and everyone, really, are caught up in a similar drama. The pharisees of our day are winning. The sense and assertion of our own endless, unique “I am” is very hard to hold onto, even when it feels “right there” and ready to grasp.
I have just been schooled by McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World [Summary in The Atlantic]. In that book he makes a fascinating case for why the world works like it does these days, dominated by the limitations of the “left brain.” As a result, the church, in general, and my clients, in particular, are struggling against significant odds to come to a sense of their true selves. We’re having a hard time having a whole-brain experience of life in the here and now. We seem to have lost our appreciation for our intuition about life beyond our present understanding. I applied some of my new insights a couple of weeks ago in my post Is there anything that does not meet the “eye” of the left brain?
McGilchrist is having similar troubles. He “admitted in private that his text is heavily religious in inspiration. Yet if this were highlighted, he warned, many scholars would not bother to read it” (First Things). We are all under significant left-brain/scientific/
bureaucratic/legalistic/materialistic pressure all the time. We often try to find ourselves within a left-brain view of self and that world that is not big enough for what we experience and intuit.
In the conclusion of his book, McGilchrist summarizes how the “master,” the right brain, has been betrayed by her partner, the left. Here is a taste:
The right hemisphere, the one that believes, but does not know, has to depend on the other, the left hemisphere, that knows, but doesn’t believe. It is as though a power that has an infinite, and therefore intrinsically uncertain, potential Being needs nonetheless to submit to be delimited – needs stasis, certainty, fixity – in order to Be. The greater purpose demands the submission. The Master needs to trust, to believe in, his emissary, knowing all the while that that trust may be abused. The emissary knows, but knows wrongly, that he is invulnerable. If the relationship holds, they are invincible; but if it is abused, it is not just the Master that suffers, but both of them, since the emissary owes his existence to the Master. [Lecture on Youtube]
He has a lot of science and history to back up his conclusion. I offer a snippet to note how similar his argument sounds to the one Jesus is having with his detractors in John 8. Jesus is God delimited, submitted, and risking trust. The quote also sounds like an argument many of us are having in our minds and hearts about how to be incarnate as a being with endlessness built into all we experience.
Approach the left-brain world as I AM
Two experiences this week pointed out some common challenges we are all facing as we bump up against the domination of left-brain thinking.
I watched members of the Floyd familylast week and marveled at their adaptation to the crazy world of law and media into which they decided to enter. How they became spokespeople for the worldwide movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd has been painful, if inspiring, to see.
As they spoke at the sentencing hearing for Derek Chauvin, talk about justice by the court and media was reduced to minutia about sentencing guidelines and chances for further justice when the case goes to another territory of the bureaucracy about which no normal person really knows. The judge made a point to say that emotion was not going to be part of his judgment, as if to say the outrage and grief of the world did not finally put a murderous policemen in jail. He pointedly diminished the courageous vulnerability of the family as they faced a worldwide audience and an abusive legal system into which racism is deeply baked.
I think many of us who care about eradicating racism face similar problems with the left-brain problems that need right-brain solutions. The consultants guiding our church’s leadership team through a process of racial awareness has spawned a host of conversations about how this new way to monetize equality has invaded almost every setting we inhabit, at least those who work in a bureaucracy that can be ignorantly racist. Analysis and principle-driven reorientation offers a left-brain solution to a left-brain problem — as if a bureaucracy could gain some self-awareness and a better abstraction would right its evil ship. Jesus was using the circumstance in which he found himself with his characteristic sense of being “I am.” He was present. He refused to relate on their terms.
I had several conversations with clients and acquaintances who do not intend to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and its variants. I realized my condo tower, mostly inhabited by Black people, is not lifting the requirement for masks because many people are not vaccinated and don’t intend to be. Twenty-three states have vaccinated less than half the eligible population. In the Congo there is no vaccine to be had at all, I heard last week from MCC workers.
Talk about health is reduced to suspicion about the genetic tinkering of the vaccine. I am amazed at the research people have done! I continue to find a mistrust of science I have not seen, first-hand, until recently. I mistrust science because it trusts itself so completely. But many people mistrust it because they know it does not love them. Black families in Tuskegee were used as experimental animals and many people feel they dare not forget that. I heard, “What’s to prevent them from using the whole population as an experiment with an untried methodology?” My clients show some breathtaking logic as they are constantly make arguments which make them more and more anxious, trapped in their immanent frame.
When churches, not just ours, are considering how to “reopen” now that restrictions are lifted, they are often thrust into a left-brain argument about justice and equality in yet another way. What about the people who are not vaccinated? Can you really insist that someone get get the shot to be accepted? These endless arguments we have are often subject to the limitations of the left brain. Wisdom is not respected. Community is not an instinct. Love seems unreasonable, since the left brain is only about rationality. Jesus faced some thorny questions all the time, it seems. He usually answered them by being someone acting in grace as he was speaking. He was never a theory.
Asserting I AM
Jesus keeps teaching us about how to be ourselves in the grace of God in the face of a world in which the powers mostly believe in themselves. I think the pendulum might swing back, as it has in the past, toward right-brain awareness. And I hope the church, presented by us and millions around the world, will push that pendulum hard by being ourselves in truth and love. Iain McGilchrist seems like a good person with whom to team up in that cause.
He lives on the Isle of Skye off the western coast of Scotland — very trendy, but also still off the beaten path. I imagine him as a tweedy philosopher lighting his pipe with a twig from the fire. I think his sensibilities reflect Robert Louis Stevenson’s lyrics to the Skye Boat Song:
Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
Like I think McGilchrist does, my clients often have an old, unnamable tune emanating from their right brain that gives them a feeling that something has been lost. They are on the boat to someplace unknown looking for their lost selves when they come to therapy. They soon recall how their soul imagines sailing over the horizon to someplace better. They can’t help it.
As soon as they let their imagination sail, their left brain often kicks in with innumerable obstacles to why they can’t embark. These days it is all about the “economy” (a left-brain invention assumed to form the parameters of possibility). Then it is all about their own incapacity (often scientifically verified on the internet). Then it might be their situation (racial or education challenged) and their unbelief. The last one is probably primary.
Like the Pharisees degrading the uniqueness of the Son of God, so many dear people I know degrade their own uniqueness as a child of God. Unlike Jesus, they do not matter-of-factly assert it and confront all the other challenges from that basis. Their brain is out of balance with their out-of-balance society. But they know that something more is possible; they can feel it, and they press on.
Before she ever met Loretta Lynn or sang Willie Nelson’s song “Crazy,” Patsy Cline was in a head-on collision. Last week marked the 60th anniversary of that rainy day in Nashville when she was riding with her brother John on a two-lane road when a passing car came roaring toward them as they topped a hill. Cline was thrown through the windshield onto the hood, while John, who had been at the wheel, ended up with a puncture in his chest and cracked ribs. In the other car, a woman and her six-year-old son were killed. Unaware of how badly she was injured, Cline told the EMTs at the scene to take care of the others.
The admitting physician said she was a “gory mess” when Patsy arrived at the hospital. Her scalp was peeled back; she had a deep gash across her forehead from temple to temple, crossing her right eyebrow, the bridge of her nose, and her left eyebrow; she also had a dislocated hip, a broken wrist, and enormous blood loss. Twice, the doctors thought they lost her. She told a visiting minister about her near-death experience, “All my life I have been reaching for God and today I touched him.”
Looking beyond despair
Patsy Cline had a complicated relationship with God and everyone else, as most people do who have been sexually-abused by a parent and raised by a raging alcoholic. Singing seemed to save her, even though she put some distance between herself and Jesus. She loved to sing gospel music as a child and recommitted herself to it after the crash.
I have often found her music to be something of a spiritual experience. The pain in her voice keeps me grounded and her perfect-pitch genius transports me. Long after her death in a plane crash in 1963 (a bad year: Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, JFK, and Patsy Cline), I bought her Greatest Hits album on vinyl in 1992 and about wore it out. That album camped at No. 1 on Billboard‘s chart for 165 weeks. In 1995, along with Peggy Lee , Henry Mancini, Curtis Mayfield, and Barbra Streisand, Patsy Cline was inducted into the Grammys Hall of Fame.
The other day I recorded her first hit, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” on the international karaoke app, Smule, and have been singing it ever since. I realized the way she sings it turns a clever little song about a lost romance into her own song of longing for love and even searching for God in the mysteries of the night. I think fans love her because they yearn like her, at least I do.
You can get a worship song out of most pop love songs — or at least a song of salvation or damnation, because most of us have jettisoned God and put our poor love-mate in God’s place, which often works out rather poorly. I think Patsy moves the other direction; she puts a little gospel into whatever she sings. You probably do too.
We’re all wandering around in the dark
Right now, the world is definitely “out walkin’ after midnight!” Many of us still feel anxious and bereft – it became a habit last year. We can’t sleep. We are still desperately searching around in a lingering darkness. I can’t talk to anyone without feeling their palpable loss of 2020. One in four of us are mourning the loss of a loved one or acquaintance. The U.S. has lost 600,000 people to the virus! The number of deaths will likely surpass the previous record of loss to the Spanish Influenza. All over the world the stats tell a terrible story, but the grief gives us the true picture. We lost a year, kids lost school, we lost jobs and we lost each other. The church was shown to be a crucial community, since many of us lost Jesus without it.
So this little Patsy Cline song turns out to be a good God song to sing as we are walkin’ after the midnight of the world.
I go out walkin’ after midnight,
Out in the moonlight,
Just like we used to do. I’m always walkin’
After midnight searchin’ for you
I just want to affirm your search. Yes, it feels dark for a lot of us. People are piling into restaurants, but we still feel depressed. It comes in waves. We got disconnected. We’re searching. God sees.
I walk for miles along the highway.
Well, that’s just my way
Of sayin’ “I love you.” I’m always walkin’
After midnight, searchin’ for you.
We’re on a new journey. I love the faith of taking a step in the dark as a way to say, “I love you.” I am taking many steps in just that way since I ended my long work as a pastor in my beloved church. We are all stepping out into what seems at least a foggy future every day. God hears. Jesus is searching for us.
I stop to see a weepin’ willow
Cryin’ on his pillow.
Maybe he’s cryin’ for me.
And as the skies turn gloomy,
Night winds whisper to me.
I’m lonesome as I can be.
I love the picture of the willow crying on his pillow! Night winds are whispering in the gloomy, dim, moonlit skies. We’re lonely. I often feel lonely after a day of seeing people! I’m carrying some residual loneliness from my isolation and I sometimes feel like a stranger in the new place of the summer of 2021. I don’t think we can underestimate how long our recovery from the pandemic might take. For one thing, people are still dying of the latest coronavirus all over the world! What’s more, there are after effects which are yet to be seen. We’re grieving. We’re afraid. God knows.
I am glad Patsy Cline gave me a song to help me sing out all this trouble before I tried to control it all or just distract myself from it. Maybe she will bless you too on your way into the dawn.
Western Culture has slowly been taken over by the ascendant features of our left brains. The left hemisphere is the powerful home of language and so analytic thought and so science. The sometimes-maligned “right brain” is the brain’s home for the “big picture” as well as the “right now;” it is also, apparently, where our music, empathy and religion are generated.
The Culture War we are in has a lot of wacky features, often personified by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. But the “red” side may have more substance to it, all over the world, than it is usually credited in my “bluer” territory. Science is great, but people feel pushed around by science. Language is the essence of human connection, but when it is forced into the service of making boundaries and punishing people for saying (or thinking) the wrong thing, it does the opposite of connecting. My clients who don’t want to be vaccinated because they don’t trust science or any of the authorities trying to talk them into it (like their therapist!) are often characterized as ignorant fools. I think they may be throwing out their health baby with their rebellious bathwater, but there is a lot of dirty bathwater to consider. They have a feeling that more is behind what is going on than meets the eye.
Is there more going on than meets they eye?
The book I am slowly reading, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World is doing a great job of convincing me that my own unease with the way my betters have presented knowledge and have made laws in service to only half our brains. [Click pic for summary]. There is, indeed, more going on than the left brain can see, when it is left alone to dominate.
I want to engage the other half of my brain, the fundamental right half, which has generally been sublimated for the sake of human, materialist achievement. My clients of color and all those lovely, impoverished people I have visited all over the world, even the ones who made it clear I represented “The Great Satan” of the United States (which I did not!), operate in a much less one-side-of-the-brain fashion. They rarely make superb weapons, but they are more in touch with what it means to be human and, as a result, more accessible to God. Do you also feel that you are having endless arguments with people instead of relating? Are you tired of pastors telling you to “Get out of your head and into your heart” even as they make a careful analysis of scripture?
Albert Einstein said there is more than meets the eye of science — and rationality, in general:
“The supreme task of the physicist is the discovery of the most general elementary laws from which the world-picture can be deduced logically. But there is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance, and this Einfühling [literally, empathy or ‘feeling one’s way in’] is developed by experience.” *
Einstein accepted his left-brain task of logical deduction and discovered things scientists are still unpacking. He never told anyone how to make an atomic bomb, but his famous equation E=mc2 explained how the energy could be released in one. Sure enough, an atom bomb became the logical extension of his brilliance in our left-brain-boundaried world. This happened even though the revered Einstein led people to see beyond the limits of science and to feel their way back into the intuition and other wonders that mainly reside in the right-hemisphere of each of our brains.
The Bible had this argument before we needed to argue about it again
Ian Gilchrist, the author of The Master and His Emissary, spends a lot of time piling up the science that demonstrates how a system enclosed within the structure of the left brain might get trapped into thinking it was complete in itself. Try on this quote:
“The existence of a system of thought dependent on language automatically devalues whatever cannot be expressed in language; the process of reasoning discounts whatever cannot be reached by reasoning. In everyday life we may be willing to accept the existence of a reality beyond language or rationality, but we do so because our mind as a whole can intuit that aspects of our experience lie beyond either of these closed systems. But in its own terms there is no way that language can break out of the world language creates – except by allowing language to go beyond itself in poetry; just as in its own terms rationality cannot break out of rationality, to an awareness of the necessity of something else, something other than itself, to underwrite its existence – except by following Gödel’s logic to its conclusion. ** Language in itself (to this extent the post-modern position is correct) can only refer to itself, and reason can only elaborate, “unpack” the premises it starts with. But there can be no evidence within reason that yields the premises from which reason must begin, or that validates the process of reasoning itself – those premises, and the leap of faith in favour of reason, have to come from behind and beyond, from intuition or experience.“
Political “progressives,” like those with whom I travel, are often just making a left-brain argument in honor of Jesus. They are just moral agents within the domination system of rationality.
But their justice-loving Bible clearly says:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:20-21)….”What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, [is] what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:9-10).
That is a splendidly intuitive, right-brain piece of poetry debunking the wisdom systems of the world (like modern science) whenever they masquerade as ends in themselves.
You can hear Paul undermining the primacy of language, as well, whenever it creates a closed system. As he says above, his “foolish” message about God’s work in Jesus can hardly find a place to rest in known lexicons! Later on, in Chapter 14, he teaches about speaking in tongues, the language that is “out of the left brain’s mind,” a right brain expression in direct connection with God which short circuits the left-brain control system and logic making.
For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also (1 Cor 14:14-15).
When my “conservative” brothers and sisters want to stick to the letter of the Bible, they are really just surrendering to the worldly project of Europeans who got caught up in themselves and decided they were the central feature of the world, armed with their arguments (and weaponry) to subdue the earth according to their godless logic, describing everything in black and white, including people.
I just wanted to give you a taste of the education Gilchrist is giving me. I suspect as you read his book you would also feel like your gut feelings were being verified. After all, you studied the Bible, experienced things unseen by human wisdom and may have spoken in tongues! The church is all about music, art, poetry and experiencing all the wonders the right brain is organized to facilitate.
Life in Christ is being squeezed from within the church and without. When Hildegard of Bingen was doing her science, art and philosophy in about 1133 — and leading as a brilliant woman, it was a right-brain outburst that almost got her thrown out of the patriarchal church, which was just starting to get a rationalistic ball rolling. That ball barreled right through the pious Rene Descartes who concluded “I think, therefore I am,” and it rolled right down to the very religious Joe Biden who quickly hung a portrait of Benjamin Franklin in the Oval Office when he got there to signal that science would guide him. I think a lot of people, many of whom are Jesus followers, feel they’ve been run over quite a few times, themselves.
If any of you resonated with any of this, what do you think and feel? This might not be the best place for a dialogue, but we certainly need one.
* Planck, M. Where is Science Going? (with a preface by Albert Einstein), trans. J. Murphy, Allen & Unwin, London, 1933.
** Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that are concerned with the limits of provability in formal axiomatic theories. These results, published by Kurt Gödel in 1931, are important both in mathematical logic and in the philosophy of mathematics. Wikipedia
One of the best stories in the Old Testament is told in just seven verses of Genesis 32. It begins:
So Jacob was left alone.
You might relate. Most of us feel alone and the feeling torments us.
What’s more, the pandemic weaponized the loneliness built into our society. Our “freedom” to be “independent” turned on us. We need to feel connected.
Then a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
Jacob fled his home and his brother at sundown. He returns at daybreak. The point of this post will be, “I hope you also lean into your dawn as you wrestle.” Each of us is changing all the time and the process often, if not always, feels like “wrestling.” Now the whole world is struggling toward a post-pandemic life. We’re all wrestling.
When the man saw that he could not defeat Jacob, he struck the socket of his hip so the socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated while he wrestled with him.
When they heard this story, people started setting apart the hip ligaments of slaughtered animals to honor the unknown, supernatural being who humbly wrestled with Jacob all night, even though he could have killed him with a touch.
Robert Alter says this being with whom Jacob wrestles is the “embodiment of the portentous antagonism in Jacob’s dark night of the soul. He is obviously in some sense a doubling of Esau as an adversary, but he is also a doubling of all with whom Jacob has had to contend, and he may equally well be an externalization of all that Jacob has to wrestle within himself.” [Strangely good price on Alter’s translation]
So many of us are furious with God for our dark nights and the wrestling that seems “forced” upon us. We think of our limps as signs of shame. But Jacob, whose original name could be construed to mean ”he who acts crookedly” is permanently bent by his wrestling match in order to stand before his betrayed brother in truth and stand (as you will see if you finish the story) in unexpected grace. If you are not marked by wrestling in the dark, you probably have minimal spiritual awareness and you are likely bound up psychologically. Wrestling does not always come to good, but no good comes without it.
Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.”
“I will not let you go,” Jacob replied, “unless you bless me.”
“I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.
He said, ‘Let me go.’ The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching. He said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’
Only then did I see it, the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills. I said, ‘I will not let you go.’
I would not let him go for fear that day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy. I said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
He answered, “Jacob.”
“No longer will your name be Jacob,” the man told him, “but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.”
Jacob’s prevailing, and ours, means taking the risk to be alone with God in the dark and staying with the process of transformation, no matter what, until the day breaks.
Then Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.”
“Why do you ask my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, explaining, “Certainly I have seen God face to face and have survived.”
He did not get the power of handling the name. And we won’t get the power we crave, which does not belong to us, by defining and labelling things and people, either. But he did get the blessing of being named and having an experience that ended up with a face-to-face glimpse of God that felt like coming from death to life.
Unlike when Abram becomes Abraham, the story continues to primarily use “Jacob,” not “Israel,” when he is named. In subsequent poetry, when the nation is named, it will often be called Jacob in the first line and Israel in the second. I love how the Bible is so honest about who the people of God are! We are all Jacobs who limp with the memories of our sin and stumble with the death that stalks us in the night. We have all betrayed those we love and have been afraid we would be killed. We wrestle. But, if we prevail, we are also all Israels who get to the dawn with a new name and an astounded outlook. We face God and gain enough courage to get across the next river and so welcome the miracles that accompany intimacy with our Creator and reconciliation with others.
Lately I have felt like I am again wrestling on the other side of a “Jabbok,” my crossing-over place. In the darkness I have yearned for a blessing and resisted the necessity of becoming one in a new way. I can feel both movements in my heart at the same time, of course. I am likely to fear what is on the other side of the river even as I am delighted with how Jesus is leading me through it by the hand!
Today I am glad to receive the gist of the story of Jacob coming home as a call to stick with the process. Don’t think you know everything about what all this wrestling is about. And don’t be too surprised when you realize it is already dawn. Those touches of pain are usually the very places God is suffering with us to make us fit to be a blessing in whatever is coming next.
At the Partner Summit of the Jesus Collective we were sent off into Zoom groups (God save us!) to practice “community discernment.” Nothing could be more countercultural and more appropriate. We did not have the capacity and environment to do it (it was Zoom, people) but we did have the audacity to try it! We zeroed in on what it means to see the Bible and the whole world with a “Jesus lens.” This is a primary characteristic of the Jesus Collective movement – not just seeing through the lens of theology, politics or personality, but seeing our way to life as the living Jesus show us, alive in our midst. Sounds like the Bible and sounds unlikely, right? I was glad to be there.
Searching for a Jesus lens
I thought many people provided good, left-brain, conceptual arguments for their views on the Bible. Others came with other views, so we had quite a few views. We were mostly practicing discernment. It is not that easy! We were not assigned to come up with a definitive piece of theological and relational understanding via Zoom. But I imagine most people were as stimulated as I was.
After all the input, I came away thinking a Jesus lens is not going to be much use unless it is derived from being born again into Christ, living in Christ, and seeing the whole world encompassed by the love in Christ. Here is a key verse for me.
“In Christ Jesus
you are all children of God through faith,
for all of you who were baptized into Christ
have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” — Galatians 3:26-28
I think the common, simple New Testament phrase “in Christ” is a forgotten starting point for mutual understanding. In the portion above, Paul is speaking to the Christians in Galatia, reminding them of their new identity since they placed their faith in Jesus Christ. To be “baptized into Christ” means that they are identified with Christ, since they left their false selves and are putting on their true selves in Christ. When we respond to the Holy Spirit’s drawing we are baptized us into the family of God — “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13).
I think many people with whom I travel are often missing their sense of identity “in Christ.” They aspire to go there, but it is not where they come from. They conceptualize it, but they are suspicious of feeling it. They love Christ in the Bible, but don’t seem to have the Bible’s sense of loving Christ in the here and now. The New Testament is filled with references describing Jesus followers “in Christ:” 1 Peter 5:14; Philippians 1:1; Romans 8:1. NT Wright can tell you a bit more
Now is the time to live in Christ
I am talking about a theme that interested me in a Zoom discussion, not making a report on data. So don’t think I am coloring the Jesus Collective, please. I just think many of the people to whom I was listening may have struggled with finding a common Jesus lens because we could not agree where Christ is outside of ourselves, individually, from “my personal point of view” or “in my opinion.” I think most of the group were sincerely coming from a place where Christ is, in them.
In this age, most of us practice identity politics by habit, even though the idea didn’t really enter our societal imagination until the 1980s. So we present ourselves according to our sense of identity, usually based on our place in society: gay, Black, white, Canadian, Goth, engineer, etc. Nowadays the idea of identity is refined by the academics until no one feels safe until everyone has tagged themselves as a “cis white male he him his,” or whatever labels you.
It is easy to apply such hyperindvidualism to the Bible. You could read it this way:
To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery,
which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom,
so that we may present everyone mature
in Christ. — Col. 1:27-8
Many people see one important thing in Paul’s statement: Christ in me is my hope of glory (that is, my hope of sharing God’s life and eternity). Meanwhile, the “mystery” Paul is talking about was made known to a group, not just me. What’s more, Paul is teaching “everyone.” And the goal is maturity “in Christ” not Christ maturing in me. I am not the mystery even though my right brain, at least, is organized to receive it.
I’m making one of those binary distinctions: is it Christ in me or is it me in Christ? It is both. But I think the mystery that was revealed is that we are welcomed to live in Christ. If you are tracking with me, I hope we are meditating on living in Christ together, so we can see with a Jesus lens and create environments where Jesus is known, not just thought about or turned into morality that looks like our present set of principles.
What is being in Christ?
The immediate “mystery” Paul was talking about in the previous passage is this: the Gentiles are also included as fellow heirs of God with the Jews. The ultimate mystery is this: everyone living in Christ experiences hope as life wells up in us. (More from Pete Enns on mystery)
One could read the following portion individually: “Christ dwelling in me is the mystery revealed to me.” But, more accurately, we could read, “Me living in Christ is the mystery.”
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,
so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,
may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people,
to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—
that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. – Ephesians 3:14-19
Being in Christ is being restored to one’s place in the family of God, the Creator of familiness.
Being in Christ is sending down roots into love, the humus of reality that grows humans.
Being in Christ is being one of God’s people as a primary identity
Being in Christ is entering the spacious environment of grace that is beyond human understanding
I need to kneel, I need to be strengthened in my inner being, I need power to grasp the gift I have been given, I need to be filled to my fullness. But none of this happens unless I am in Christ. Christ is in me because I am in Christ. That is the mystery of my remaking.
Jesus followers do not have different mental health issues than everyone else. They may be more likely to use spiritual bypass to defend themselves, but they are mostly experiencing the same kind of trauma everyone else has been experiencing during this endless pandemic.
The mental health impact of the last year is a topic on the minds of many people. Especially health-care providers! Leah Blain (who inspired this post) came up with a checklist for the Inquirer last week – all the news outlets have to have one. Because our poor mental health is big news. People who do research keep verifying the troubling reality. During the pandemic depression and anxiety have increased – a lot! More people have sleep problems. Intimate partner conflicts and violence have grown. Alcohol and substance abuse have increased. And the new addiction on the block, screen addiction, has taken over territories it was just influencing before. All these issues are not going to disappear overnight.
We hope this is really getting over with
The pundits were wringing hands and blaming people for less job creation than predicted last Friday. We’re all taking the pulse of the country because we suspect more shoes are about to drop and more loved ones and loved things are about to die. At the same time, now that the age for vaccine eligibility is going down, many of us are looking forward to a post-pandemic life without masks and social distancing. I flew out to see a relative in Seattle already and went to Disney! I’m an early-adopter. I’m ready to visit friends, hug loved ones, have meetings in person, and much more.
Jumping into change injects some hope into our daily lives. But it is tempting to focus on the positives even when true recovery from the deadly 2020 is going to take some re-envisioning of the future and some processing of the past. We’re not there yet and we’re not even sure what “there” is or even sure what just happened! I try to help people emerge from trauma and trouble every day and it only seems “easy” in theory. In fact, change and recovery takes quite a long time for most people. As we emerge from the valley of the shadow of death, it will be important to consider how our experiences over the last year might be sticking with us and recognize when we or our loved ones need help.
It will take some time to emerge
We all need support every day. But then there are days when we really need support. Those days are now. The full impact of a major stress event or trauma usually is not felt until weeks or months after the initial event. I often hear from clients that the grief they did not process in the brief time they were given right after the death of a loved one rose up later in disguised ways. It often appeared as part of the collection of distressing feelings that brought them to therapy. The pandemic is still stressful; it has been traumatic; we are suffused with grief (or avoiding it).
The particular stressors that came along with the pandemic resemble the kind that come with a military deployment more than resemble those that come with a onetime blow like a natural disaster or an act of violence. The prolonged stress, uncertainty, separation from loved ones, and, in many cases, trauma, kicked many of us into “survival mode.” We adapted. Most of us will need time to transition out of our high anxiety gear. For others, “survival mode” kicked us out of gear and we will need time to transition out of our depression or dissociation.
I think everyone with a soft enough heart will be dealing with the massive massive impact of massive loss – and not just the loss of time and maybe livelihood. As many as five million people in the United States are estimated to have lost at least one close relative or friend to the coronavirus! Loss and grief are everywhere. As of January, 60% knew someone who has tested positive, 33% had a family member or close friend who had become seriously ill, 19 percent knew someone who had died. Those numbers continue to increase. That is a lot of people experiencing grief or hardening their hearts against it. Grief often comes in waves and can take time to work through, even under typical circumstances. The profound impact of so many of us being forced to grieve in isolation, often not able to say farewell to loved ones who died alone, is as incalculable as it is heartbreaking.
And let’s not forget that all this stress, trauma, and grief is occurring alongside racial trauma, political unrest, and other pandemic-related stressors that affect millions worldwide such as food scarcity, unemployment and the loss of schooling.
It will take our whole “village” to recover. You can get things started by considering what you need to do to process your experiences. Just experiencing something happening to you is not necessarily “processing” it; it is more likely being processed by it. As we are coming out of this terrible season, it would make sense to go to your journal, if you have one, or just get a piece of paper and write down some ideas you think would help you to transition into post-pandemic life. You are probably wounded in some way; what would it take to heal? Just suggesting that process may have spurred some of us to look on ourselves with compassion. That’s important. Answer the question: “What steps can I take to get started on this new life we are all making?”
How could a professional help?
Many of us don’t feel like we have a lot of capacity to do much for ourselves, right now. We’re hopeless and helpless — and so tired! Professional support could help. But a bit of courage to address emotional and behavioral difficulties in our cells, families, friendships, and marriages would also help.
If you notice any of the following changes in yourself or a loved one, consider seeking professional help:
Anger, irritability, or difficulty getting along with others. I’ve heard from a number of people that driving in Philadelphia has become even crazier than it used to be. The roadways seem to be one place where we are angry and can’t get along.
Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much. The pandemic has a way of exacerbating what was already present. Your unhealthy sleeping habits may have become more pronounced and now you have a chance to see them. For some people sleeping is a way to avoid mental pain, so it indicates some need for action.
Social withdrawal. I can note this in myself. I had a day full of phone calls from friends and relatives the other day and I felt a bit bored and wanted to go back to being alone. I relished those phone conversations, but they overwhelmed my underused capacity to connect! People, like me, keep talking about how we all acclimated to forced avoidance and it will take time to get out of it. Sex with partners has dropped off during the pandemic, too, even among married partners, as pornography and other solo sex practices have increased. It is worth taking steps to reconnect in intimate ways, too. It will take time.
Mentally beating yourself up. Being left alone, actually or philosophically, this year put us under a lot of personal responsibility. A lot of us have been subject to a great deal of self-criticism. I think you can see our self-loathing projected onto our unkind politics in small groups and nationally. We are not kind to ourselves or each other and we are out of touch with our loving God.
You probably note some of these troubles at work in yourself. They are like an atmosphere in which most of my clients are experiencing their journey toward awareness and healthy choices these days. Given that the social contacts that help us solve our problems are frayed right now, you might like some professional help. For some of us, some brief therapy to help us change our minds and behavior might be great. For others, a deeper season of working with the realities that surfaced in this bizarre year might be in order. Most providers are providing teletherapy, which is an effective alternative to the more organic and deeper office visits (Circle Counseling website).
Take care of yourself.
I wish that good-bye phrase above would begin to replace “stay safe.” I’m toying with the idea of committing to saying, “God be with you, till we meet again” like our ancestor incorporated into the language. We’ll see. Regardless, it would be great if we have a season of reaching in and out, and reaching to God for an outbreak of renewal. Let’s have a mutual project of taking care of ourselves.
If you’ve stopped showering, habitually eat comfort foods that don’t comfort, have stopped calling people who love you, etc., pick one thing you can change over the next week. Then build on what changes one step at a time. Start small. Get dressed and/or get out of the house each day. Or add fruit or veggies to your meals. Make a list of people with whom you’d like to connect and call one. If you’re vaccinated, what prevents you from going out to dinner?
Social support is probably the most important predictor of recovery after a trauma. Now is a great time to tap into your support networks, check in with friends and family by Zoom, text, phone, or in person. Make the church come alive again! Invite other reluctant people to get into your cell and begin in-person meetings – we can do them outdoors for the pre-vaccinated. Re-introduce yourself to the neighbors. Consider how to get back into the office.
Most of all, don’t do anything that is not drenched with the grace of God, if you can help it. Cooperate with Jesus in how you treat yourself — you are the beloved of God. It has been a long, tough year, and it’s going to take time to reemerge and recover. But we will get there. We’re even more likely to get to renewed mental health if we do it together, with Jesus.