Category Archives: Psychological growth

Criticism is undermining relationships like never before

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.

Crítica, engraving by Julio Ruelas, ca. 1907

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.

The living water bubbling up in the Nazareth of you.

Nathanael Under the Fig Tree — James Tissot

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 missing keys

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!

Osheta Moore: When White Supremacy runs the stop sign

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.”

Members of Patriot Front, a white supremacist group, marched through Center City late Saturday into early Sunday morning looking for recruits.

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.

Assert right-brain solutions to left-brain problems — like Jesus

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.

Left brain ascendancy

I wrote about Jesus teaching us to have our own sense of “I am” last year: I matter; The terrible, wonderful I AM. But lately I have so much more evidence to support my intuition since I became an Iain McGilchrist fanboy!

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 family last 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.

Isle of Skye

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.

Wrestling for the blessing and becoming one

“Jacob Wrestling the Angel” (2012), Edward Knippers

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.”

The way Frederick Buechner tells the story, after he was made lame Jacob says,

“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.

Help for processing the pandemic: Our mental health has taken a hit

Click pic for Forbes article by Jessica Gold

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.

View of the sunset from the cave inside in Thasos, Greece.

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.

Back to the workplace and back to church meetings: Thoughts on re-entry

Everyone is talking about going back to work. For a lot of us, “going to work” during the pandemic has meant going to a newly-repurposed room in the house or to a card table in the living room. For many others, like nurses and delivery people, nothing changed except to become harder.

Now things are beginning to change. One of our friends suggested we give a workshop on returning to relationships, now that they are vaccinated. Connecting feels awkward. And we feel awkward about feeling awkward. So here is a first attempt to add to the conversation about re-entry.

Avoidance

The social anxiety many of us are experiencing, even when we see grandma again, has to do with overcoming the avoidance we installed during the shut down. We avoided getting sick for a long time. We were told to avoid people, so we arranged our lives to do so. We hid ourselves behind literal masks — normally we just use psychological masks to stay safe. But we adopted a further barrier between us and what could hurt us. That deliberate avoidance is not going away instantly.

When we want to overcome anxiety, it helps to “sneak up on” the thing we are avoiding. We can gently approach the situation or thought that scares us and undo the fear step by step. When we feel anxious about seeing someone we can take a deep breath, remember what we want, and note what we fear. Then we can do that behavior we decided ahead of time we would like to do, like hug someone, or shake their hand, or tell them we are still fist bumping, or wave to them and tell them we will call them later to catch up.

Robin Ware will tell you all you need to know — for a price.

What about church meetings?

Pretty soon, we will be asked to meet in person, again. All our congregations have tried it at some level. Being asked to attend a meeting will call on each of us to have an opinion, make a decision, and enact a behavior we have been avoiding. Religious gatherings were one thing the government could easily point to as exactly what should not be happening if we wanted to avoid spreading the coronavirus. I think the following understandings will help us all make it back into face-to-face community.

Leaders need to get some buy-in. Sorry for the capitalist metaphor (we’re deeper than that). It describes the emotional and time resources we need to commit to “re-open” the church (as if you could close it). The leaders need to demonstrate their  understanding that while all of us have experienced this crisis, we have not all experienced it the same way. Some of us have conditions that increase our risk of serious COVID-19 infection and will still be reluctant to return to the meeting. Others may be eager to leave online church meetings, but have caregiving responsibilities that make it difficult or impossible for them to do so. Sensitivity to this reality is a must. Quite a few people are reluctant to get the vaccine and their reasons are not all political. While we can’t expect our leaders to come up with a uniform agreement or a set of behaviors for us, we can expect them to consider all of us who need to come together in love as we are. We’ll need to help them.

We need time to adapt. Our buildings have changed while we were gone from them. Our habits have changed. Our outlooks have changed. The pandemic year may seem relatively brief, but it had a traumatizing impact. Responses to trauma embed themselves deep in our brain. It takes time to re-order mental habits [a favorite video about that]. We were forced to adjust one way, now we will be invited to adjust again. I did not say “adjust back” since that is not going to happen. Faith, hope and love survived the pandemic, but the ways we express those traits will never feel the same as they did. It will take time to figure out how to express them now. We will need to rebuild. Rebuilding will be advanced after we get back into our buildings. We can help the church adapt by participating in our dialogue with faith, hope and love and not with further fear and avoidance. The church cannot really be responsible for how fearful we are. We will need to walk with Jesus ourselves to overcome that.

Re-acclimating is not just a job for the leaders. We’ve been away from one another for a long time and a lot has happened. The people in my cell experienced a ton of change. The cell itself changed to one that included people from three states! Is it even possible for that cell to start meeting face to face? The leaders are going to come up with a communications strategy that allows us to share a common page for re-entry and considering who we have become. But they can’t think of everything. We are all going to have to do our best to speak up and to speak up for others. Just imagining how we retain the remote connections we have made online and organize public meetings is quite a task! We don’t want to wear out our pastors as we demand they “wait on our table,” even though we put it in Oregon! Jesus will maintain our love, but we will all need to exercise it.

We’ve always been about what is next. I hope we have a leg-up on people who might be tempted to restore what the pandemic stole from them. Personally, I am working on starting from here. Like any other year, I have losses and I have gains. I am messed up and I am a lot wiser. I had some failures and had successes. Unlike people who have no hope, we Jesus followers don’t just inventory our years as if they were investments. We tend to bloom where we are planted. Circle of Hope quite consciously accepts that we are the presence of the future, not a retread or an improvement on the past. I think I have learned a thing or two about myself and the world during the pandemic and will probably learn some more from it. I believe Jesus will use it all for his glory. Another round of resurrection is imminent.

The way of the heart: Doubting the primacy of the mind

Several of my clients have told me they have a broken heart. Others said their chests pound with tension. They lay awake in bed feeling like they will burst. Others feel like they are going to have a heart attack and possibly die. One said crying uncontrollably works a lot better than the breathing techniques I suggest.

Let’s spend a few minutes letting our hearts and minds be at rest; we need it.

heart vs mind

We have heart problems.

At the recent CAPS Conference, Eric Johnson revealed how unacquainted with our hearts most of us have become. The modern and postmodern eras became increasingly subject to the “mind” as the central feature of human psychology and experience. Scientists thought they were overcoming many centuries of describing the heart of us with the word “heart” by asserting “mind.” But “heart” persists, since that common-sense description of our core experience is built into all the languages of the world (except for scientific language, for the most part).

  • Take heart.
  • Follow your heart.
  • She has a heart of gold.
  • He wears his heart on his sleeve.
  • We had a heart-to-heart talk.
  • He is heartbroken.

We all know what these things mean.

The brain scientists tend to ignore the “embodied metaphors” we learn as children in favor of their “more adult” cognitive bias. Psychology is supposedly the “science of behavior and mental processes.” If you use the everyday term “heart” to describe psychological dynamics it makes you look quaint and scientifically naïve, if not just a bit stupid. But just looking at the fact that stress is related to heart attacks would argue for a whole-body approach to wellbeing, even one centered on the 40,000 neurons clustered around the heart.

The way of Jesus is heartfelt

the heart has its reasonsThe dominant psychological term in the Bible is “heart.” It occurs over 800 times. For instance:

  • “Be wise, and direct your heart in the way” (Proverbs 23:19).
  • “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33).
  • “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
  • “Love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

The psychology of the way of Jesus has been shaped by how we see the heart:

  • “The heart is restless, O Lord until it finds rest in You” (Augustine, Confessions)
  • “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God” (Martin Luther, Larger Catechism)
  • “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know” (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, #277)

Since psychology aligned itself with the modern scientific method many critics have argued it leads to a truncated and reductionistic view of human beings. We are uniquely constituted by our beliefs about ourselves. So a distorted sense of our psychology can, and does, impoverish us. Psychology might malform us in the name of science. So when my client tells me his chest feels heavy when we talk about his anxiety and shame, I don’t tell him, “It’s all in your head.” His feeling also reaches back to his first experience of himself as a child and how he has related and considered himself and God ever since.

The way of the heart

the way of the heartPsychologist, priest and spiritual director, Henri Nouwen, consistently used the word “heart” to mean our access point to God through contemplative, listening prayer and active obedience. His little book on the desert fathers and mothers, The Way of the Heart, has been a foundation for prayer for many of us.

The way of the heart helps us come to God with all we are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame; our sexual fantasies; our greed and anger; our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes; our reflections, dreams and mental wanderings; our family, friends and enemies – all that makes us who we are. With all this we listen to God’s voice and participate with God speaking to us in every corner of our being.

As people have become vaccinated in the past weeks, I have repeatedly heard them describe a “weight being lifted.” As the George Floyd murder trial grinds on, mass shootings hit the news and attacks on Asians become known, many people feel deeply infected. Our hearts ache. It is no wonder we describe our experience that way. The “heart” is the secret place in us where our spirit, soul, mind and body come together in a unity of the self. There is no such thing as a disembodied spiritual heart. Our joys and sorrows happen in time. We are restored in Jesus so we can love God, neighbor and self with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength (Luke 10:27).

The way of the heart sends us on a quest with a lot of questions. The main one is “Who am I? What is at the heart of me? Can I trust my heart? Will Jesus really give me a new heart?” Even if we are quarantined we only need to look at the TV to live a very challenging life.  Nouwen says the greatest trap in life is not success, popularity or power; it is self-rejection, doubting who we truly are at the heart of us – the beloved of God. When we believe the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, or define us as a series of chemical reactions, or condemn us to whatever society labels us, then we might be steered any old way.

Johnson and Nouwen have encouraged me to sink into that scene at the Lord’s baptism when God demonstrates how she feels about humans bearing sin and death as he says, “You are my beloved, on you my favor rests.” It is that heart-to heart moment we continue to incarnate as we also come to God as we are in our own time and dare to open our hearts.

Take care of the common good: Meritocracy is a sham

I am going to end up at the stop sign above in a minute. But I am going to start by listening in as the elites have a belated chat about ethics.

Some academics are talking about the “meritocracy” — the idea that people rise and should rise to the optimum level of their value in the system. That is supposedly how things work in a capitalist democracy from being accepted to college to being promoted on the job.

What became of the common good?

The debate about whether meritocracy is a real thing (or moral if it is) mainly comes down to assessing what people think freedom means. Americans have a long infatuation with the idea that freedom means individual autonomy, just “doing your own thing” [Theme song] as long as you “do no harm.” But they waking up to the reality that such freedom is directly related to the lack of solidarity in American society. It has occurred to many people (long about when the Capitol was being stormed, perhaps) that a society with no shared ideals or mutual affection isn’t the happy place they once assumed it would be. If people think freedom means independence at any cost rather than a sense of worth and connection that allow for self-determination, we are in trouble. And we are in trouble.

I was there for the cultural revolution of the 1960s that spawned identity politics. I decided to follow Jesus so I have endured the increasing hostility to religion since then. I became untraditional, so I had to note how I added to the general contempt for tradition. I’ve lamented the market deregulation that created a whole layer of entrepreneur cowboys and megarich predators (I admit learning a lot from them). All these factors, combined with Reagonomics (which beget Trumponomics), legitimated greed, widened inequality and encouraged Americans to forget their collective identity. And all this development was certainly a shot at Jesus, who had been tempering the godless instincts of the country all along.

So I am happy I ran into Marty Moss-Coane interviewing Michael J. Sandel about his new book: The Tyranny of Merit: What Became of the Common Good?. I always love it when elitists catch up with Jesus. The gist of the book is in his Ted Talk video below. But here it is in a few sentences.

We live in an age of winners and losers, where the odds are stacked in favor of the already fortunate. Stalled social mobility and entrenched inequality give the lie to the American credo that “you can make it if you try.” The consequence is a brew of anger and frustration that has fueled populist protest and extreme polarization, and led to deep distrust of both government and our fellow citizens–leaving us morally unprepared to face the profound challenges of our time.

If Sandel were speaking as a Jesus-follower his book would be great preaching. He’s focusing on truths which much of the church has forgotten along with much of the society. But these truths have been in the Bible all along.

You have value as yourself

You are not what you produce or whatever fame or notoriety you achieve. You are not worth what your bank account or economic rung on the long climb up the stratospheric ladder toward the 1% might imply.

My clients need to be instructed never to look up “celebrity worth” on Google. Otherwise they might find out that Mark Wahlberg is worth $300 million while they can’t afford a new phone. Moreso, they need a constant push to turn away from the voices in their heads that accuse them of being of no value. Christians, especially would do well to consider it a sin to feel unworthy of the Lord’s free gift of life and grace, as if Jesus were stupid to die for them.

You do your work for the common good

Dr. King famously said the refuse workers in Memphis were just as important as doctors in the prevention of disease. Our newly-named “essential workers” are not paid like they are essential but we are at least recognizing that the whole ship goes down if they don’t make it float. We all help build whatever there is, or we are in the process of tearing it down.

In the church, that must be one of the top ten pieces of truth that make us the salt of the earth. The gifts of the Spirit are given for the common good and every part of the body of Christ is indispensably worthwhile. We need each other.

You did not get where you are because you deserve it.

When we are all autonomous, we are each condemned to make it on our own. Many of my clients are so condemned. Their parents did not want to bother their uniqueness by influencing them too much or even parenting them. They come to me as free-range children. Or their parents made it plain that it was crucial that they live up to their potential and rise to the top like the cream of the crop they are: “You can make it if you just believe and keep trying.” Now they are failures or fakers to the core.  How many TV ads tell us we need some shampoo or Cadillac because we deserve it? Most of us know that is not true, but we go with it anyway because that is common sense to Americans.

In the church many people let the elite run the place because that’s what’s supposed to happen. Sometimes they feel unworthy to speak — won’t talk to the pastor because “They are probably too busy.” Or they won’t get involved because it would take them too much time to be important and they can leave it to someone better suited. So even in the new, pluralistic, untraditional churches (like Circle of Hope) the idea of meritocracy organizes us and people feel the need to honor success.

I’m not saying there is no value in monitoring whether we meet our goals; I’m just saying we must not monitor them in service to shame or fear based on some strange sense born in the godless “economy.” Anything we might call success is a gift of God like everything else; and any goodness I enact is just a fraction of who I might become in Christ.

Our better angels

The other day I was nearly hit in the crosswalk while I was on the last leg of my please-get-me-out-of-the-house walk (I’ll be looking like Marky Mark in no time!). After I was not hit, it hit me. Abraham Lincoln has been quoted to death recently for a good reason. Just like Lincoln, Joe Biden is talking about the common good all the time. Barack Obama liked to talk about the rule of law. Donald Trump liked to talk about Donald Trump. But Biden is a breath of fresh air to me because he thinks Americans can build something together and take care of each other.

If Biden is wrong, that’s the right way to be wrong. He even has the Chinese talking about our mutual “better angels.” The reason you stop at the stop sign isn’t because the police are going to catch you if you don’t or because you need to dominate the intersection instead of those other losers. Stopping is always a nod to the common good right there in the middle. We all pass through it and leave it safe and sound — or wreck it (and squash me!). Stop signs assume people are decent enough to stop at them. I may run a few of them before I am done. But I dare not forget that such an act runs over the common good when I do.

The meritocracy, while being a sham in reality, has a thin layer of logic to it covering a core of self-condemnation waiting to be realized. The Apostle Paul realized the great merit he had achieved as a law-keeping Jew had no value; it was his partnership with Jesus that made him someone. Any merit we have will eternally start there. Any difference we make will start with acting out our common love in Christ for the common good.

Active imagination can deepen your life: A four step process

L’atmosphère Météorologie by Camille Flammarion, ca. 1888

Most of us could use a tool (or twelve) to deepen our spiritual awareness. What I mean by “spiritual awareness” is the ability we all have to experience the Spirit of God. If you don’t relate to God personally, then I mean your ability to experience the “numinous,” the outside-my-understanding events that stay with us throughout our lives, even after we’ve tried to explain them away. You may have been ordered to repress or deny that capacity for a variety of reasons. For instance, one genius-of-a-friend reported for med school at Jefferson U. and was quickly told his faith had no place in the upper realms of research for which he was headed. The order to squash his spiritual awareness was direct and not implied! You may have been squashed too!

So most of us could use a tool to help us deepen our spiritual awareness. We’ve all got it, but we have a lot of reasons we have not been using it. Active imagination is such a tool (much like dream work last week). The idea is fairly easy to understand, since it relates to the fantasies that regularly run through our head. We may entertain or dismiss our fantasies, but most of us rarely take their energy seriously, try to harness it, or learn from that common experience of what is going on inside.

According to Robert A Johns in Inner Work:

Active imagination is a dialogue that you enter into with the different parts of yourself that live in the unconscious. In some ways it is similar to dreaming, except that you are fully awake and conscious during the experience. This, in fact, is what gives this technique its distinctive quality. Instead of going into a dream, you go into your imagination while you are awake. You allow images to rise up out of the unconscious, and they come to on the level of imagination just as they would come to you if you were asleep.

Active imagination is a common experience in the Bible

Before you Christians get nervous about being self-centered and lost in a perpetual search for elusive meanings in your inner world, let me remind you that people with the most active of imaginations wrote the Bible. At least that is what Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) told Krista Tippet that time during On Being. If you cannot ponder metaphor, or cannot see yourself in the Bible, or cannot imagine how the Spirit of God is relating to the part of you that is also beyond your ordinary awareness, you might be religious but you’ll be a dissatisfied Jesus follower. Our imagination is a beautiful part of us and is a doorway into the deep realms of the Spirit into which God calls us in Jesus. And let’s not forget God calls all sort of people who don’t know Jesus, too, who begin their journey by knowing their own capacity to be aware of spiritual things.

And before I get to my very-abridged summary of Johnson’s steps to practicing active imagination in service to our growth, let me add a couple of warnings. On the one hand, most of us will probably have a tough time getting the process of active imagination going. We’ve been “ordered” to repress it, after all, by secular and religious authorities. It may take some experimenting. On the other hand, and this is a real warning, some of us might go too far, get lost in the realm of purposeless fantasy and have trouble getting back to the here and now. If you suspect that is likely to be you, enter into the process holding the hand of Jesus and definitely holding the hand of a therapist or friend who can bring you back if you get lost. I compare this necessity to the rope people tied to the high priest when he went into the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple so they could pull him out if he got lost somehow, or died. The legend of that practice is not true; there is no evidence people really did that. But you get the idea. Active imagination needs to stay tethered to an real-time purpose, or it is something else.

Many of us are familiar with Ignatius of Loyola and his teaching on entering the Bible story as an active participant, especially when it comes to records about Jesus. Active imagination is a similar kind of exercise, only the context is not outside us but in us. We are entering into the interesting interchanges happening within us, walking and talking with the persons we find in our unconscious, confronting and arguing, making friends and probably fighting. We consciously participate in the drama of our imagination. You can see this is not passive fantasy, like worrying, or like repeating negative messages. We are acting as that observing and relating “I” we all are, getting to know all the territory of our unconscious, and so deepening communication among all the parts of us.

Four steps

Robert A. Johnson has some fascinating examples of active imagination in his book. They are all examples of personifying some content from the unconscious that arises to the surface, putting it into image form so one can dialogue and deal with it. For instance, when you have stomped off from a heated argument and sit sulking somewhere, you might turn to the anger, which likely comes from someplace deep, and ask it who it is. You might find some lonely child, or some power-hungry tyrant, or some confused priest. You wouldn’t judge them before you got to know them, just see who is there and honor their right to be you.

Here are the four steps. Like when we were talking about dreams, the explanations are abbreviated, but I hope they whet your appetite and give you and idea of what you might try. You might even read Johnson’s book.

Step One: Invite the unconscious

Invite the inner persons to start the dialogue. Take your mind off the external world and focus on your imagination and wait to see who shows up. When you let yourself rest in Christ, you might find yourself in what I call my “inner landscape” where my encounters often take place. Be patient and stay alert. If something comes up, don’t judge, just go with it. If it feels productive, hang with it. If it is just a fantasy, or you are not ready for it, move on.

Step Two: The dialogue

A helpful dialogue with personified images from your unconscious is very much like a healthy conversation with anyone. You demonstrate a willingness to listen and actively do that. This is best done with a journal. As I was in the process of writing this post I had a very useful time of active imagination in which I managed to turn into a feeling, ask who it was and listen. But when I went back to it this morning, it was a hazy memory. Writing out the main things being said and experienced helps to make the most of the process.

Sometimes we’ll have an argument and that might be when we are really getting somewhere. However it works out, a problem will be revealed, different viewpoints will be noted and a response of some kind will come. This could take a few minutes or days or even years.

Step Three: The Values

This step is important for everyone and especially for Jesus followers who are no longer alone and usurping God’s place. Johnson says:

Once the imaginative process is launched, once the primordial forces are invited to come up to the surface and be heard, some limits have to be set. It is the conscious ego, guided by a sense of ethics, that must set limits in order to protect the imaginative process from becoming inhuman or destructive or going off into extremes. (Inner Work)

Hold out for what is good. Don’t let one energy take over at the expense of the others. Nurture what serves human life, practical needs and healthy relationships. Do it all in Christ.

Step Four: The Rituals

We always want to incarnate our active imagination so it gets out of the abstract and gets connected to the earthbound. When we have an insight or a resolution, we do something to make it concrete. My active imagination often makes me feel better, but it is best when I do better. Remember not to act out some fantasy or project some inner conflict on someone else. We’re talking about integrating the essence, the meaning, the principle we have derived into our practical life.

I hope this brief intro (or reminder) encourages you to do some inner work this week. The world needs deep people. Plus, this activity is great for times of stress and confusion. We can gain a lot of confidence for what we need to do on the outside when we are in less turmoil inside.