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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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:
“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
Psychologist, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dreams are a handy, important doorway into our unconscious process. During the pandemic many people have been sleeping more. As a result they are remembering their dreams more, too.
Most people don’t typically remember their dreams. Living through the coronavirus pandemic might be changing that due to heightened isolation and stress, influencing the content of dreams and allowing some dreamers to remember more of them. For one, anxiety and lack of activity decrease sleep quality. Frequent awakenings, also called parasomnias, are associated with increased dream recall. Latent emotions and memories from the previous day can also influence the content of dreams and one’s emotional response within the dream itself. (National Geographic)
Some of these dreams are as frightening as the pandemic and as anxiety-provoking as societal and economic changes that have accompanied it. But all of them are instructive and help us use our wakeful times to learn about ourselves and grow deeper in grace.
Inner Work provides a useful approach
I think I have been remembering more of my dreams because I decided to do so. I have often gone to bed and told myself, even prayed, to remember a useful dream. This month I read a new book that deepened my capacity to explore my inner life in this way. The book is by one of my favorite authors: Robert A. Johnson’s Inner Work. I recommended it to a friend with two caveats: 1) It is Christian-adjacent, but sympathetic enough to orthodoxy for me; 2) It is a book on DIY Jungian dream work and active imagination and such work should never really be done on one’s own. It would be best to work with a partner.
That being said, I think this book is about as practical as a book on dreams can be. It provides a simple (but deep) approach to understanding one’s dreams and applying their meaning. It also details the process of active imagination (which I might outline for you next week). There are many ways to cooperate with our transformation. We can hire a professional to help us with most of them. Among the many ways, I think dream work is an important element. I have enjoyed my own version of it for many years and Johnson has improved my understanding greatly. I highlighted so much of Inner Work, I will be reading most of the book again when I look at my notes — that might be a good thing.
You should read the book for the full treatment, of course. But I want to outline his steps for you so you can get started. There is no cut-and-dried approach to interpreting dreams, internet summaries notwithstanding. The true meaning of our dreams is mainly in how we personally interact with them. That relationship is changeable and ongoing, since our dreams contain elements as vast as our unconscious experience. We have to do our own work. But it is pleasant work.
Before I get to the four steps, I think it is important to repeat that reading books and interpreting dreams is best done with someone who loves you while holding Jesus’ hand. Do-it-yourself is not the same as being personally responsible. So imagine the following steps happening in a community in which Jesus is the center, not in your own personal universe with your ego in charge.
Four steps toward understanding your dreams
Johnson’s four step process is
Step One: Associations
Step 2: Dynamics
Step 3: Interpretations
Step 4: Rituals
You will note right away that this looks like a process you have encountered in different areas when teachers were helping you take steps into depth or wholeness (like the Flow Questions our pastors offer cell leaders or the 2PROAPT method for personal or group Bible study). The process starts with observing without judgment. Then it moves to relating to what is “on the table” so to speak. Then it brings the process to an interpretation that is the main take away. Finally, it leads us to doing something about it, like we always remind ourselves to “do the word.”
Step 1 – Associations
The first step begins with writing out the dream and thinking about it. Many dreams will be quite short, not a movie script. They are essentially a series of images connected as a story which doesn’t need to be rational – some of us fly, or swim like fish, or experience mayhem in our dreams. So write out the dream and then go through it again, noting every association that comes to mind for every image. Each image is a symbol of something occurring in the unconscious. A dream may contain persons, objects, situations, colors, sounds, or speech. Each of these, for the purpose of step one, is a distinct image and needs to be looked at specifically for its symbolic value.
Write down the first image that appears in the dream. Then ask yourself, “What feeling do I have about this image? What words or ideas come to mind when I look at it?” Your association is any word, idea, mental picture, feeling or memory that pops into your mind, anything you spontaneously connect with the image. (Inner Work)
You can see why this is called dream work. It takes a bit of effort but it bears a lot of fruit. Collect as many associations as you can before you sort them out. The first one or most likely one might not be the most relevant. In the next step we will be looking for the energy of the dream, the association that “clicks.”
Step 2: Dynamics
In the second step we connect each dream image we have identified with the parts of our inner self it represents. In our dreams we meet our many selves. This concept is a major Jungian viewpoint that trips some people up. They sometimes think seeing different parts of oneself as different people turns them into a scattered mess. Maybe for some people that could happen! But for most of us, it is a short trip from seeing how we have internal conversations within ourselves all the time (“That was stupid, Rod!” Or “If you do that you will be sorry” to “Why did you never learn the piano?”) to dialoguing more consciously with “selves” who are less conscious and making themselves known in our dreams.
God may meet us in our dreams, but most of the time our dreams are contained within our nightly brain-ordering process. So when we see each image we ask things like “”What part of me is that? Where have I seen it functioning in my life lately? Where do I see that in my personality? Who is it, in me, who feels of behaves like that?” (Inner Work) First we gathered the facts, now we add the feelings, the relating to the dynamics, or energies. (See 1 Cor 12 – our bodies work like the Body of Christ). There are dynamics surging in us – an emotional event, an inner conflict, an unloved personality, and attitude or mood.
Step 3: Interpretation
This step is the end result of all the work of the first two steps. We put together the information we have gleaned and arrive at a view of the dream’s meaning when taken as a whole. Like we skim much of the media we encounter and find shortcuts for our video games, it is tempting to take our first impression of a dream as a decent interpretation – “That was a bad dream!” But that is like taking our first impression of a person as all there is to them. It is not a very respectful way to treat your inner process by just making a snap judgment about yourself. If you are listening to your dreams well, your dream journal could end up with quite a bit of process on the way to coming to a “simple statement of the one, main idea that the dream communicates. Ask yourself: ‘What is the single most important insight that the dream is trying to get across to me?’” (Inner Work) Johnson has a LOT more help to give, but that gets you started.
Step 4: Rituals
This step is a physical act that affirms the message of the dream. A ceremonious action makes the dream more conscious and imprints its meaning more clearly in the here and now. The action could be very practical: “I will restrict TV to an hour a day,” or it could be symbolic: You buy a hamburger that represents your “junk-food relating” and bury it in the backyard. You can see that we are taking ourselves very seriously if we do this. Some people might be afraid they would be mocked if they were caught being this heartfelt – like some people never take communion for similar reasons.
“Keep you physical rituals small and subtle, and they will be more powerful. The ritual is a physical representation of the inner attitude change that the dream called for, and it is this level of change that is requested by the dream…It is also a not a good idea to try to make a ritual out of talking about your dream or trying to explain yourself to people. Talking tends to put the whole experience back on an abstract level…Instead of a vivid private experience, you wind up with an amorphous collective chat. The best rituals are physical, solitary, and silent. These are the ones that register most deeply with the unconscious.” (Inner Work)
Yesterday I spontaneously decided to remove the last vestige of our two-month sojourn upstairs at Circle Counseling South Broad. It is a blessing to have one’s own private homeless shelter, when needed. Our house sold and we needed to move out. The contractor at our new place had to be fired because the contract reached its six-month end and no finish was in sight. Chaos, Covid-19 and anxiety ensued.
Now that we are a couple of months settled in our new place, which was somehow finished, infection-free, under exemption from lockdown restrictions, we are feeling better. So I felt enough energy to drag our old mattress to the street for disposal and take apart the bed frame in our former shelter.
All the time I was doing that I was on a deadline and few of my errands were working out as planned. For instance, the libraries reopened, but not the one to which I was headed. The next closest one at 59th and Baltimore did, however, face the glorious front yard above. By the time I was putting away my bed-removal tools, I was getting a bit nervous about navigating around whatever road closures I would encounter on the way back to more screen work. But the Lord shows up in remarkable ways — in a way that I find profound enough to share with you even though my blog is on hiatus. It is my own little parable.
For some reason I had a little plastic container of pins in my tool box at the counseling offices. As I hurriedly reassembled the items in the tray I hit the container and it fell to the floor, scattering pins everywhere. I just sighed and thought, “Of course.” But as I bent down to hold the dust pan, I thought, “You need to slow down and be more careful.” It was my mother popping up to provide her instruction! Once the pins were in the dust pan, I took the lid off the trash can and there was no liner. I thought, “See. We think ahead and stay prepared because we are going to need things later.” There was my father!
I went over to the open door where the lone therapist in the building was typing. I told her my tale to affirm our work with clients when they have inner voices from their parents stuck in their brains. My voices were amusing. They were only a bit shame-inducing — I did scatter pins everywhere, after all! They are probably stuck under the baseboards and ready to gravitate under bare feet that shouldn’t be uncovered to begin with and likely to contract tetanus — or so my inner parent would predict. I told my colleague about what I named “the wisdom from the plains” and she said, “Rod, Stuff happens.” It was the wisdom from the city!
I love the Lord’s parables. They are about everyday life where we are most likely to see the glory of God. They are so profound and so well-considered over centuries that they all have many layers of meaning. I have been pondering my little parable ever since it came to a pleasant ending. My friend tried to comfort me and release me from my shame.
Jesus might tell it in just a few lines. The kingdom of God is like an old man dropping pins from his toolbox. As he swept them up, the voice of his parents came to him, scolding him for his haste and carelessness. When he spoke of this to his younger friend, she led him to not care at all. “Stuff happens,” she said. But he went away rejoicing over the transcendent love that peeked through the clouds of their wisdom.
My friend’s encouragement might have been the best thing to offer when I was much younger and definitely run around by my shame. I felt like I was in charge of making sure nothing wrong happened. And I did fail at that quest every day and didn’t want my inner parents or my true self to know about any of it. But at this point I am more amused than anxiety-ridden when mom and dad show up randomly. And as I look back on the pin drop, I actually miss them more than resent their intrusion into my thoughts.
The traumatizing move and project, the sojourn in the upper room, wrestling the mattress to the street, dropping the pins and having loved ones, past and present, older and younger, interpret the moment all happened in Christ. All were touched with love, if my ego was porous enough to receive it. As it turns out this time, it was.
Next month the pastors are calling the church to consider our “rule” of life as followers of Jesus. You might like to pick up Ken Shigematsu’s book, My God in Everything, and start reading now. I love it when postmodern people rediscover ancient patterns to grow healthy faith. They give me hope for the world. And we could use some hope right now.
Americans are having a tough time living by any rules at all when it comes to the pandemic. As usual we’re dividing up over something as simple as whether wearing a mask is necessary. I know what I am about to say might not be true about you (at least I hope not), but as a society, the individual freedom to kill seems to be trumping our responsibility to save. As a society, the Americans perfected the world’s largest killing machine — their arsenals and armed “services;” I don’t think anyone would dispute that violence is a core characteristic of the U.S.A. But that trait characterizes the people as individuals, too. The society is debating whether policing means the right to make split-second decisions to kill Black people, especially, and whoever else challenges state-sponsored violence. We’ve been debating whether everyone should be allowed to carry weapons into Walmart. The wild Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is more popular in the U.S. than the NHL or NASCAR among 18-34 year-olds. All this goes to say that Americans lean toward lawlessness when it comes to relating to anyone but their small circle, and white people, especially, tend to think death is “collateral damage” when it comes to protecting their way of life.
Contrary to Disney’s decision to open Disney World, the coronavirus crisis is not over. But some things have changed. To start, lockdowns are ending because cases are low or falling in some areas or because state leaders decided to move ahead despite the risk. Testing has increased, giving us more indicators of community health. Plus we know a lot more about how the virus behaves, how to treat it, and what activities pose the highest risk.
Since life on permanent lockdown isn’t sustainable, public health experts are beginning to embrace a “harm reduction” approach, giving people alternatives to strict quarantine. These options — like forming a “bubble” with another household or moving social activities outdoors — don’t eliminate risk, but they minimize it as people try to return to daily life. We need to have some new rules about how to go about the week.
Nobody knows exactly what will happen as communities open up. The most likely scenario is that virus cases will continue to surge and fall around the globe for the foreseeable future. In the middle of that uncertainty, churches, in particular, are dividing up over when it is safe to do things in person (as are thrift stores and counseling centers!). Will our church and its enterprises survive the pandemic? Will our friends and children know more about harm reduction strategies than Jesus in a year?
5 rules for life in the pandemic
It is a blessing that Jesus can hold your hand as you figure out harm reduction. It seems we have learned to live with masks and social distancing, as well as new rituals of hand-washing after handling packages and touching surfaces. We need some basic rules to minimize risk and still have a life going forward. Here are some ideas for the church culled from public health leaders [thanks to Tara Parker-Pope] that might give us tools to make our own decisions about being the church in person.
We need to know the present health of our state and community
Gwen and I are considering a trip to Vermont in the fall. When I started researching places to stay, I was informed there was a criteria for entry into the state. I would need paperwork to prove I was not infectious and sign a self-certification! That was sobering. Philadelphia county does not presently make the cut for numbers of cases allowed in one’s home territory to prove I am not too great a threat to Vermont.
To gauge our risk of coming into contact with an infected person, we need to pay attention to two important indicators of Covid-19 in our area : the percentage of tests that are positive, and the trend in overall case rates [Philadelphia] [SouthJersey]. When the percentage of positive Covid-19 tests stay at 5% or lower for two weeks, that suggests there’s adequate testing to mitigate transmission and you’re less likely to cross paths with the virus. The lower the number the better, of course. Right now PA has a 5.4 rate but Philadelphia County has about 1500 active cases compared to Vermont’s sense that 400 is the mark to meet.
We need to decide the extent of our “corona bubble”
After three months of being locked up together (or alone!), the safety zone of our apartments or family circles is driving quite a few of us “mad.” We’re widening our circles to include the extended family and friends. The prime minister of New Zealand started calling this extension a “corona bubble.” Now we need to agree on safety guidelines for our bubbles. The arrangement requires a high level of trust and communication.
Some cells are already experimenting with being a bubble and negotiating the level of social distance their meetings require. More anxious members want to know the number of “leaks” their bubble has — such as trips to the store or office, play dates, children and teens who see friends, or housekeepers and nannies who may visit multiple homes. Others don’t really care, or are unaware of the dangers.
Communication is the key to these arrangements working out. If a person is not going to face instant judgment about leaks they are less likely to hide them. Our activities are going to change all the time — schools are on the way to reopening, there should probably be more protests. So our arrangements need to be flexible. Is the church important enough to us to learn how to have this level of dialogue? Or will we wait and see what we’ve got when the powers-that-be sound the “all clear?”
We need to think of ourselves as managing an “exposure budget”
During a pandemic, every member of the household should manage their own exposure budget. (Think Weight Watchers points for virus risk.) You spend very few budget points for low-risk choices like a once-a-week grocery trip or exercising outdoors. You spend more budget points when you attend an indoor dinner party, get a haircut or go to the office. You blow your budget completely if you spend time in a crowd.
The initial crisis response is over, if some states ever had one, and we’re moving into long-term management. There is a lot of work on a vaccine. But it is unlikely to be ready by January, even if people keep promising it. We need to have a long-term plan about how to limit our exposure and still have a life. Gwen and I want to see the grandchildren. But it might make sense to stay away from Home Depot as a trade-off. It makes sense to go over the week and assess what the budget should be and how many risks we are actually taking.
We need to keep higher-risk activities short
We need to be together and will be together again. Let’s not forget. Until then, we are blessed with any number of ways to connect: phone, the dreaded Zoom, the now-expensive Marco Polo app, email – and people used to write letters and feel close to people at a distance. Budget in connecting, however possible or inadequate, before depression makes you even more isolated.
When you are going out into some risky territory, it might be a good rule of thumb to ask, “If an infected person happens to be nearby, how much time could I be spending with them?” It takes an extended period of close contact with an infected person, or extended time in a poorly ventilated room with an infected person, to have a substantial risk of catching the virus through the air, it is said. Keep indoor events brief. For a few more months we can move social events outdoors. Wear a mask and practice social distancing. Here’s some guidance about time of exposure.
Brief exposure:Brief encounters, particularly those outside — like passing someone on the sidewalk or a runner who huffs and puffs past your picnic — are unlikely to make you sick.
Face-to-face contact: Wear a mask, and keep close conversations short. We don’t know the level of exposure required to make us sick, but estimates range from a few hundred to 1,000 copies of the virus. In theory, you might reach the higher estimate after just five minutes of close conversation, given that a person might expel 200 viral particles a minute through speech. When health officials perform contact tracing, they typically look for people with whom you’ve spent at least 15 minutes in close contact.
Indoor exposure: In an enclosed space, like an office, at a birthday party, in a restaurant or in a church meeting, you can still become infected from a person across the room if you share the same air for an extended period of time. There’s no proven time limit that is safest but it is best to keep it less than an hour. Even shorter is better. We went to Michael’s to get some framing done the other day then I was appalled that my 70-something brother went to get a haircut! I find it difficult to figure out what is appropriate! Dr. Erin Bromage suggests we consider the volume of air space (open space is safer than a small meeting room), the number of people in the space (fewer is better) and how much time everyone is together (keep it brief). His blog about timing and risk has been viewed more than 18 million times.
Circle of Hope’s mapping process is helping us decide how we want to live as the people of God in a pandemic. If you read every link in this post, your personal decision might be better informed. But I doubt you would be certain about what is the right thing to do. As the Bible teaches us so well, our behavior is going to be a mixed bag and we’ll need to accept one another. Read Romans 14 and 15 again and learn to accept the one who stays quarantined too long and the one whose behavior seems to risky. I am learning to accept that I am at risk as an older person (albeit a fairly healthy one) and I might die. I have friends my age who have already survived an infection, but I am preparing not to survive, as well. Businesses and churches are in the process of dying. It all feels terrible. But along with physical risk management, I am also managing the spiritual risk I am facing. I will live forever, but I would like to be living that eternal life now, not when the pandemic is over.
Unfortunately, we need to keep up the precautions and make some rules
I’m surprised how many disparaging remarks I have heard about Florida this week. (Well, half of them might have been from me). My friends skipped their beloved month down south (but my pastor went south to enjoy the tropical storm!), since the whole state decided the President had the power to declare the whole pandemic a hoax. Thus, they are setting infection records.
Here’s the common sense about precautions, so far:
Keep your mask handy. Wear a mask in enclosed spaces, when you shop or go to the office and anytime you are in close contact with people outside your household.
Practice social distancing — staying at least six feet apart — when you are with people who live outside your household. Keep social activities outdoors and keep indoor activities brief.
Wash your hands frequently, and be mindful about touching public surfaces (elevator buttons, hand rails, subway poles, and other high-touch areas). Gwen put hand sanitizer in my van, since I touch my face all the time.
Adopt stricter quarantine practices if you or someone in your circle is at higher risk.
When will precautions allow us to “open” the church? Actually, if you have any decent theology at all, you know the church is open 24/7 if it is filled with God’s Spirit. We can’t be closed because we are it. But it sure would be great to have meetings and to serve people face to face in the community! We need each other. We don’t know how to do more than online meetings, at this point (so don’t miss them!!).
But before we start thinking about when to get in a room together (or outside, as we might), would you start thinking about how Jesus wants to you take care of his church? What rules your life? What is your rule of life – the desires and disciplines that form your behavior and fill your schedule? Your rule matters more than ever to protect our lives and our church. We need each other to take some precautions in regard to our tender faith — our own and one another’s. We are not subject to the pandemic in such a way as it defines us – that is, not really. We need to help one another get through this with our faith, hope and love intact, not just our bodies.
Whether you are a psychotherapist, a worship leader or a loving parent, the new brain science has good news for you. Those seemingly indelible memories that haunt us from our youth to old age are not as permanent as we thought. We can cooperate with God, who provides us transforming, mismatching experiences, and hope to bring healing and new life.
At the recent CAPS Conference, I kept hearing about a book that has people talking: Unlocking the Emotional Brain by Bruce Ecker, Laurel Hulley, and Robin Ticic. They assert that intense emotions generate unconscious predictive models for all of us. These models tell us about how the world functions and about what caused those intense emotions. We don’t question them, just react to them as the brain uses those models to guide our present and future behavior. When we experience discordant emotions and feel stuck in irrational behaviors they are likely generated by these implicit “schemas” (models for how the world works) which we formed in response to various external challenges. These mental structures are ongoing, working descriptions both of the problems that move us and the solutions we have accepted.
According to the authors, the key for updating worn-out and often-troubling schemas involves a process of memory “reconsolidation,” which can be verified by neuroscience. They claim our more conscious emotions are usually locked out of the area of the brain where more basic memories reside, like the ones that form our predictive models for the world. But once an emotional schema is activated, it is possible to simultaneously bring into awareness knowledge contradicting the active schema. When this happens, the information contained in the schema can be overwritten by the new knowledge.
What this means is that people who are trying to help troubled loved ones can help create different, healing experiences and hope people can change. If we have mismatching experiences that contradict what we have previously experienced, new models can be formed. This science validates what most Jesus followers know. We can experience transformation that goes against the fatalistic sense of indelible identity and inevitable destiny that colors so much of the popular imagination of humanity these days. For instance, the trailer for Assassin’s Creed. [Warning: violence]
If you don’t want to just go with your ancestral memory for assassination, you can hope your pastor (or therapist, or friend) can be present enough and perhaps creative enough to provide or affirm an alternative experience. We’re not alone, flawed, stuck or doomed!
We need mismatching experiences for deep change
It is tempting for Christians to “humbly” allow their words or their programs to serve as a stand in for their personal and relational cooperation with God’s Spirit. But people need more than logic that only hits their upper brain. They need real, live experience of goodness and love they can see, then feel and then integrate. In brain-science laden psychotherapy talk: You can’t throw words at the limbic system. I often shorten that to “don’t should on me!”
What we need in order to reconsolidate those intractable memories are “mismatching experiences” that allow our schemas to be contradicted in a good way and reformed in line with new experiences. This is one reason God did not send a book to us, she came personally in Jesus to provide many such experiences that don’t match the experiences which subverted our memories, and that is why Jesus left the body of Christ to create an environment for an alternative process – because transformation takes place deeply in such an environment.
You can see Jesus creating mismatched experiences repeatedly, notably with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). When he begins to make a relational environment with her, he starts in a dependent position to make a connection and quickly manages to touch the shame that is basic to how she sees herself in the world. She stays with him and enters into a surprising intimacy across racial and gender lines – she calls him a Jew, then a prophet and eventually “sir.” Her mismatching experience reaches a peak when Jesus notes what she has done but stays with her, unlike all her husbands and all the people who have left her alone fetching water at noon.
John later teaches from this experience: “If God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!” (1 John 4). We experience transformation at the level we need it. Our good thinking alone rarely seeps into the places we need to experience the love of God and so rarely makes us people who begin reacting according to a new model of love.
Our worship can be a transforming environment
I am mainly writing to encourage pastors and the rest of us Jesus followers who want to cooperate with the transformation of humanity. One thing cooperation means is that worship should be a mismatching experience, not a lesson, and should mainly be focused on the present, not function in reference to the past or future. Our times of worship are hardly the only places we create an environment for transformation, but they are certainly a good opportunity!
Unfortunately, our worship is often not a mismatching experience. It is often not hitting our emotions at all, but is stuck in the upper reaches of the brain. So it has little hope of getting to the deep seated schemas that reside close to the spinal cord. Ironically, we had a decent example of brain-bound worship in the CAPS Conference itself. A very talented man from Charlotte (I believe) led us in a song we also sometimes sing in our worship times called Build My Life led by Pat Barrett with the Housefires, originally from a church network centered in Atlanta. [Here’s a link if you are not familiar.]
I do not mean to insult the integrity of anyone who wrote or uses this popular song. They probably mean well and appear to be good-hearted Jesus followers on screen. I would just like to tweak their lyrics to provide for a present time, real experience of God-with-us, rather than a mental process in line with our self-protective schemas.
Worthy of every song we could ever sing Worthy of all the praise we could ever bring Worthy of every breath we could ever breathe We live for You
The lines above seem more like a statement of identity formation than worship.
“I am naming your traits.
I live for you.
That process of self-identification is what the song is mainly about. It is a bit akin to the Assassin’s Creed — an ancient-seeming fictional set of rules bent on creating a freedom that never quite arrives.
The lines of the song could be a statement of having been transformed if we were not then led to sing:
Open up my eyes in wonder And show me who You are And fill me with Your heart And lead me in Your love to those around me
This seems like the song of a “buffered self” (see description in this post) singing from the inside of their painful impermeability. This is not a real time experience, yet: “Open me up. I need to see you.” It might be better to sing
“I open my eyes in wonder
and see who you are.
I am filled with your heart
and see the fields white for harvest.”
Those tweaked lines would be more suitable for entering a mismatched experience in which we are not far away or alienated from God, but are one with Jesus. Being honest about our needs and feelings is good, but singing about ourselves in worship might be more matching worship with our schemas than being transformed. So many of us are in a perpetual state of aspiration, more interested in making a choice, once our eyes are opened to the options, rather than accepting our invitation to enter into spiritual reality. If we were the woman at the well talking to Jesus, we might keep arguing instead of relating to who is with us. The song goes on to repeat, like a mantra:
And I will build my life upon Your love It is a firm foundation
So many Evangelical songs are in this future tense, for some reason. Making a promise is a good thing. And the promise above is a great place to stand. But making it in worship may not provide the mismatching experience in the present that unlocks the memories that form the schemas of the person who is singing the song. It is something that will happen in the future, apparently. I found myself singing,
“I am building my life on your love;
I feel its firm foundation.”
The passage from 1 John and what Jesus demonstrates with the woman at the well teach that love present in the moment unravels and reconsolidates. The woman at the well went back to town and told everyone how she met a man who revealed all her shame and it did not kill her, or she him. I think that means she had experienced worship in Spirit and in truth! So much of what we do is sanctioned by the upper brain, but true worship impacts all our emotions and those rigid memory systems that run us.
I take heart that the Spirit of Jesus will do a lot more with the Housefires’ song than I would think just by looking at the words. That may be the case in your experience. But I also think the opposite could be true, that our shallow thinking and schema-bound reactions might quench the Spirit and consign people to a painful struggle with the uneasy feelings they get about how false worship can be.
I have talked to clients, both in psychotherapy and spiritual direction, who look me in the eye and say, “I am sorry for wasting your time.” That’s always interesting to talk through, but still tragic whenever I hear it. It’s like they spent enough time in a safe place to realize they don’t think they matter – mainly because they have a hard time accepting they matter to me. They don’t have enough evidence our time together matters even though I think it does. They don’t think they are changing enough to deserve therapy or coming up to a standard that deserves direction. What is their “I am” statement? – “I am a waste of time.”
We all have a lot of messages roaming around in our inner dialogues, don’t we? A lot of them tear us down, even convince us we do not matter: “I am weak. I am the worst. I am found wanting for what I lack.”
Those messages need to be countered:
You don’t matter because you are more powerful.
You don’t matter because you are better.
You don’t matter because you can demonstrate how effective or successful you are.
You are a unique “I am” connected to the terrible, wonderful I AM.
It is hard to hear the voice of God for most of us, but in many ways Jesus is delivering a new message about who we are — and how who we are right now matters. That message is terrible because it makes us so much more than we can imagine and so responsible for our frailty and glory. It is wonderful because it makes us safe in our true home.
You matter because God made you and called the creation good. You matter because you have always been loved by God and by many others, too. There are other things I could note, but I want to concentrate on one verse in the Bible, especially, that has helped me remember I matter.
You matter because you ARE.
The “I am” of Jesus is a revelation to us, but it is also an example.
When Jesus says “Before Abraham was, I am” in John 8, he gives us an example of mattering, among many other things that famous statement reveals. He is having a public debate about who he is and where he comes from. The ancestors-honoring Jews of the time are understandably irritated that he says they are not truly descended from Abraham, as they say, but are descended from the devil. Jesus insists Abraham looked forward to the day the Savior would appear, but they reject him appearing before their eyes speaking the truth and backing it up with signs. The Lord’s detractors are incredulous when Jesus implies he has known Abraham. Then he says it: “Before Abraham was, I am.” He’s saying, “I existed in God’s dimension, about which you know little, so I am revealing it to you.” Most people assumed he was putting himself in the burning bush, where God told Moses, “My name is I am. Tell them ‘Who I will be sent me’ when you get to Egypt.” That made them want to stone Jesus for making himself one with God.
I think what Jesus said makes a big difference to our theology. But His action in the face of what pushed him to hide himself is deeper than the words. Jesus asserts he matters.
Likewise, there is a movement in me to declare “I am,” to attach to eternity backwards and forwards. In that one moment Jesus is before Abraham, honors Abraham and is greater than Abraham. In every moment Jesus is purposely subordinate to God as he identifies with us and eternally one with God as the risen Savior. Jesus takes his rightful place in the Abraham story and encourages me to take my rightful place in the story of how grace is being revealed now.
I matter because I am. All through the Bible you can see God calling us to rise up and be our true selves — God the ever-humble Lord, who keeps insisting he makes a difference while people debate whether she even exists! Likewise, we face pressures that push us toward meaninglessness. We can be convinced we don’t matter, that we shouldn’t even exist, that we shouldn’t be wasting the time of people who love us, or use the body we have. Among the many things Jesus is teaching us with this one wonderful chapter in John is to keep insisting to ourselves and everyone else, “I am.”
Feeling the truth about me
We have to acknowledge that some people have been deluded and believe they are Jesus. We can assert a fantasy “I am” as well as a reality; we’re humans and creative in good and perverse ways.
But even with the danger of feeling inauthentic in some way, I think Jesus is calling us to assert, like he does, “I don’t need to show that I am more powerful so you will worship me, although I could. I don’t need to prove myself a better moral person or better arguer than you, although I am that. I don’t need to demonstrate how effective I am or successful I am in all the ways you judge important in order to have value. I matter because I am. My connection to my Father makes me someone and we can move on from there, but I don’t need to go farther, just because you love lies.”
How do we get to the place where thinking things like that, and even saying them, doesn’t seem strange to us? The people Jesus argued with in John 8 were angry and defensive. The story is so brief, we don’t come to understand all the reasons they ended up that way. But you are angry and defensive, and I often am, too. It is no surprise that our hearts get hard to the love and truth Jesus keeps bringing every day.
I think feeling comfortable as our true selves is mostly bolstered in silence, where we meet with God spirit to Spirit. Study, worship, relating to loved ones in the Body of Christ are also crucial. But at some point we need our naked “I am” to meet God’s “I am.” And then WE are.
We get invitations, every day, to reimagine ourselves as part of the story Jesus is telling. Here are three moments that recently helped me take hold of the life that has taken hold of me and be who “I am.”
1) The moment I let “I am” be central. I keep telling the story of singing “I am” as a breath prayer during the meeting in March we named “Move through the Pain.” That “breath song” was one of my favorite moments. We invited everyone to slowly sing “I am” and sink into the moment with God. Then a couple of people started speaking into our silence: “You are the beloved of God” (We sang, “I am”). “You are loved by God as you are right now” (We sang, “I am”). “You are being welcomed into eternity, right now” (We sang, “I am”). They piled up elements of our true selves and could have gone on all night. It went on long enough that my heart remembers to sing it.
2) The moment I did not let criticism define me. This past week I got a couple critiques of some teaching I did. The responses were not uniformly positive and I felt defensive. I think I was already worn down from the lockdown, so I felt myself getting a little depressed. Criticism can be deadly, if it is wielded to injure. But most of the time it is instructive. I need to change and grow from it. But what I did not need to do is let the criticism taint the sense that I matter. I was tempted not to teach at all and deprive people who want to receive my gift. I was tempted to list all the ways I blew it and color myself as a flawed, bad person. Being who I am often means changing my mind about me and usually means rejecting lies that condemn me.
3) The moment I let the anxiety float away and rested in grace.Gwen and I have been living in one room for a month as our new home is rehabbed (after over 8 months of trouble with that project!). The trouble feels like a dark cloud is following me, ready to cover the sun and chill my heart. So every day I tend to wake up to the anxiety that has arisen from my unconscious during the night. When I go to prayer, I take time to let it go, consciously, and experience my heart. It is not always easy to get there, but it is always wonderful. When I say experience my heart, I’m not sure all that means, but it feels like light shining through water, like a story that brings tears to my eyes, like the truth of what I mean to God invading resistant territory, like gentle pressure to surrender to goodness. Silence broken by prayers softens me to Jesus and others – even the ones who abuse me. I think we need to spend enough time to let the realization of who we are rise naturally. Often we gulp God’s love like we’re parched. But prayer is more savoring grace like a connoisseur, knowing we’ll have another meal.
I hope the time this took you to read it allowed you some rest in a safe place to ponder how you see yourself and how you see God. The story of God’s love in Jesus, fighting to be himself to us in John 8, should convince us we matter. Maybe more important, I hope this brief time gave you another moment to say “I am” to the terrible, wonderful “I AM” and feel love and truth making you you.
A dialogue about Ask culture vs. Guess culture has been going around the internet for about ten years, now. I finally caught up with it when one of my friends posted a note about it on Facebook. The material kind of hit me like a brick. As more of an asker, I have been having misunderstandings with guessers for a long time! It would have helped to name these distinctive ways to relate earlier. So I hope my lesson helps you, in case you also missed the dialogue.
Ask and Guess Culture
The dialogue got started with a web posting by Andrea Donderi which achieved “legs” and still maintains a following. We are raised, the theory says, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favor, a pay raise, an overnight at your house – fully accepting your answer may be no. “There’s no harm in asking” would be their proverb. Or maybe “Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” People who are assertive like this can seem aggressive or careless to guessers.
Because in Guess culture, one avoids putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. A key skill in Guess culture/families/relationships is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer – like when I enter the room with a banana and my granddaughter says “I like bananas.” Even if one gets an offer that requires no request, the offer may be genuine or pro forma. (“Oh,” I say. “You would like the banana I got for myself.”) So it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept what might be an offer. “Don’t ask and you won’t be disappointed” might be the guesser’s proverb. Or maybe, “I shouldn’t have to tell you to be considerate.” Less assertive people can seem passive-aggressive or critical to askers.
Binary comparisons are more fun than accurate. So let’s avoid forming too many conclusions and let the reality sink in. We are all probably leaning into one of these camps most of the time. My mother was a committed guesser. She drove down the road shouting at cars, “Couldn’t you see I was here? How inconsiderate!” Lack of consideration was probably the first deadly sin on her list. She thought we should have imagined how she would react before she entered the living room and saw a frosty glass making a ring on the end table. I think I am considerate until I run into Mennonites (and I love them so I do!) and maybe Canadians, I’m finding out.
An asker won’t think it’s rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a guesser will probably hear such an ask as presumptuous and resent the agony it causes them to say no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may actually be an overdemanding boor, but maybe they are just an asker who’s assuming you might decline if you need to. If you’re a guesser, you might hear many requests as a demand. You can tell already that it would be a mistake to make this trait either/or. We’re likely all on a spectrum. You can see how true that is when you look at the varieties of cross-cultural awkwardness we feel. Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because Japan is a Guess culture, yet they often experience Russians as rude, because they’re diehard askers.
I was speaking to a therapist friend about this dialogue and we pondered whether the “pursuers” in a marital relationship are usually askers and the “withdrawers” are more likely to be guessers. Neither way needs to be labeled “wrong.” But either way usually feels wrong to the other way. Self-help writers try to solve the problem by insisting we all become askers, training us to both ask and refuse with relish. The mediation expert William Ury recommends guessers memorize “anchor phrases” such as “that doesn’t work for me.” They think everyone needs to figure out a key transaction in all relationships: what do you want and how much is someone willing to give? So, to them, Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration. Why should the rest of us be waiting to see what guessers think or feel about us without them telling us? — a good percentage of us are not that emotionally intelligent, so we are often wandering into a minefield of awkwardness and rejection set up by guessers.
The distinctions need to get some nuance to be helpful
The general categories: askers and guessers, resonate with me. But the application of the traits vary, according to one’s context.
Maybe we ask strangers and close friends.The polite indirection of Guess culture is a way of preserving a deliberate ambiguity. We preserve ambiguity in social relationships when there’s an intermediate level of intimacy. Relationships at the poles, with either close friends or strangers, tend to be governed by more direct asks. We do this precisely because those intermediate relationships are ambiguous. We need to make a “bid” and see if we are bidden. Like animals circling one another, we need to negotiate where we fall on the intimacy gradient. To ask too directly before we know where we stand can seem rude because it effectively demands a final verdict on a work in progress.
Like I said, it is not so black and white. Perhaps we should have a more situationally-fluid approach. The problem with assuming one way is better than another is it ignores that in almost everything “it all depends.” The “requester” (whether of asker or guesser type) is more in need of a “yes” or “no” response from the “requestee” (again, of either type) at some times more than others. I’m not sure how you asked for your first formal dance date, but I blurted it out like the asker I am. Likewise, a requestee is more likely to say “yes” or “no” at some times more than others. If I find out someone just lost their cat I won’t be bringing up the personal issue I called to talk about. It makes sense that for some things we’ll need to be an asker and a guesser at other times. Sometimes I need to act and sometimes I need to wait, whether it feels right to me or not.
Sex tends to complicate the dialogue. With sex there is a lot more guessing. People do small things that are “bids for connection.” John and Julie Gottman coined that useful phrase to describe how we attempt to get attention, affection, and/or acceptance. These bids are rarely direct “asks.” Maybe it is just human or maybe it is society shaping us, but we are often hesitant to ask for our emotional needs to be met in an open and vulnerable way. Sometimes we are more direct than other times. But most of the time we might share a story to see if our partner is listening, or say “Hey, look at that!” to see if we are on the same page, or say, “Hey, look at what I just did or am doing” like your child going off the diving board. Maybe the bid is sending a text or giving a “like,” or reaching out for a hug or a squeeze, or talking about a common interest, or expressing a concern. These are all very subtle asks, guessing (and hoping) our loved one will respond favorably. Maybe we are all doomed to be askers while our hearts are always guessing.
What does Jesus say? Ask or guess?
I think Jesus is with us all along spectrum, from assertive askers to passive guessers, as usual. But he’s moving us toward ASK. On the one hand he definitely commands us to “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matt. 7:7). But I know he is not telling us to ask out of our natural capacity. For most of us, in one context or another, being vulnerable enough to ask for what we need feels like we’re risking our lives. If Jesus wanted to condemn us, he would tell us that the criteria for receiving his love is to ask for it, and ask properly. But Jesus does not want to condemn us. In his grace is the place we become askers, because we come to believe we are safe enough to ask.
Because, on the other hand, Jesus operates a lot in Guess culture fashion. He asks a lot of people who have given up: “Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6) and “What would you like from me?” (Mark 10:51) And he says to those who don’t think they need to ask for anything or wouldn’t dare ask, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:40). But for most of us Jesus hangs out with us all the time putting out one subtle bid after another which do not confront us or scare us into being defensive. The askers are often up in front of the church asking Jesus to return quickly and asking us to do something. Meanwhile the Spirit of Jesus is moving through the rows comforting resistant and doubtful people with hope that what they fear will not be required of them today. The askers think they are waiting on Jesus; the guessers are more likely to appreciate how Jesus waits on them. And since we are all askers and guessers at times, isn’t it great that Jesus will wait just long enough to bring everything to right?!
I think I am more of an asker, but that’s because of Jesus. I still roll around the freeway irritated with inconsiderate people, like Mom did. And I am fairly resolute in waiting for my intimates to accept my tiny bids at connection, even though I don’t approve of myself for not trusting their love! I think Jesus is frank about calling us to boldly ask because our true selves are especially underdeveloped in that area. We either don’t ask or we ask with wrong motives. Like prodigal children the best we can think to ask is to be God’s day laborer, the lowest worker there is, not a restored child. So we have a lot to learn and a lot more to feel about these distinct movements in our hearts and the interactions that tend to trap us every day. What a blessing that Jesus asks us to follow Him and then follows us along our way, guessing our every need, as we learn to do it!