Tag Archives: Henri Nouwen

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.

Beginning steps toward feeling beloved

you are my beloved son

“There are many other voices, voices that are loud, full of promises and very seductive. These voices say, “Go out and prove that you are worth something.” Soon after Jesus had heard the voice calling him the Beloved, he was led to the desert to hear those other voices. They told him to prove that he was worth love in being successful, popular, and powerful.

—  Henri Nouwen, Return of the Prodigal Son

I have recommended Nouwen’s book many times over the years, especially to many people who struggle to see themselves as the beloved of God. You might sum up their struggle something like this: “That quote seems great but impossible. I haven’t earned it. My discomfort is related to the luxury of it. I am unworthy of something for which I did not work. I’m not saying that in regard to my salvation. I know I cannot work for that. I feel it in regard to the favor.  To declare victory over my need to work for the favor of God seems premature.”

Every human, regardless of their outward struggle in this unjust and unpredictable world, has an inner struggle with being loved – by others, by God and by themselves, usually in that order. I think the end of the struggle often begins with accepting love from another. And many people see accepting God’s love as a logical possibility as a result of human love. The problem with real liberation usually comes with loving ourselves — such love may seem unseemly or downright impossible, given all we know about ourselves.

The sound of genuineness

We may love others like the Lord loves us long before we love ourselves that way. Our first steps into love may be more faking it than making it. But such steps of love are better than no steps.  In Howard Thurman’s famous commencement address to Spelman College in 1980 he said:

You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.

It is good to be at the beck and call of your mates, your friends and your church. But it is best to answer their call from the genuine, the “I am” of you, the image of God in you, the spiritual gift in you, the conviction of the Holy Spirit in you.

It is good to listen to God’s voice, saving you in the word and work of Jesus, drawing and pushing you toward fullness. But it is best to respond genuinely, not just as an obedient child, but as a friend and partner, a lover.

Nouwen makes a point of reminding us that Jesus went into the wilderness to face the inner voices which told him he was not the one God named Beloved.  He needed that time and space because it takes contemplation to overcome the resistance we feel to genuine self love like God loves us. When I meet people for spiritual direction, their freedom often comes by telling the story of their inner journey. They often see how their past has trapped them and begin to imagine a future path to fullness.

Hate may be a surprising prelude to beloved

We sometimes think our present path is so despicable or hopeless we have a hard time imagining a future of living as God’s beloved, collaborating with our acceptance into the Family. In Jesus and the Disinherited, my favorite reread of 2020, Thurman says,

Hatred, in the mind and spirit of the disinherited, is born out of great bitterness, a bitterness that is made possible by sustained resentment which is bottled up until it distills an essence of vitality, giving to the individual in whom this is happening a radical and fundamental basis for self-realization…From within the intensity of their necessity, they declare their right to exist, despite the judgment of the environment. Hatred makes this sort of profound contribution to the life of the disinherited, because it establishes a dimension of self-realization hammered out of the raw materials of injustice.

I think Thurman would be fine if you related to this truth even if you are not descended from American slaves who still have a lot of glory to hammer out of the raw materials of injustice. It could easily be said that the best elements of Christianity unique to America is their ongoing work. You may or may not share their injustice, but you undoubtedly feel your own share.

I hope we are careful with one another as we help each other navigate to the self love which is often a final hurdle before freedom — the “love your neighbor as yourself” love that means you are beloved enough to love. Hatred of others and even oneself may be a beginning point for some people, but it is a self-defeating end point.

“Hate has no boundaries, and behaviors such as hypervigilance, suspicion, negativity, resentment, and bitterness will eventually spill over into other relationships,” even our relationship with God (see Adensanya). Eventually we need to forgive “the other,” God and ourselves. That’s moving toward “genuine.” Most of us won’t be able to meet such a demand at the beginning of our journey; there is hurt under that hate. We’ll need to be seen and heard, hopefully by a loving other, certainly by God and usually, finally, by ourselves.

Last week Gwen and I watched American Skin, which could serve as a parable for much of what I am trying to say.

The movie is a story in which hate propels an action against injustice, and in which people struggle to find forgiveness instead of vengeance, mutuality instead of constant warfare. It provides scant hope that the system is going to become less violent any time soon. But it beautifully shows how individuals and small groups, like your church, can experience another way. I think hating the “Great Other” of American racism makes sense. But I know loving God and loving my neighbor as myself makes more.

Devalued people devalue others. More tragically, they devalue themselves. They listen to the voices of condemnation and destruction that tell them they must fight for the right to be beloved. Each of us is on a journey toward liberation from that hell of violence with which we often collaborate. If some hater scares us, maybe we should light a candle of hope in their honor. Maybe that tiny spark of self-realization in their hate will grow into glory under God’s loving care. I think such an act of love might meet the definition of what Thurman calls “genuine.”

If we are tired of running into the same victimization that has plagued us for what seems like forever, maybe we can see that fatigue as the last gasp of control before we give up our struggle to be proven worthy and trust in God’s name for us. If we have experienced the love of others and understand the love of God on our behalf in Jesus but still run into our self-condemnation, maybe we can see that experience as a sign we are very close to more of the freedom we crave — at least we see and hear ourselves! Now we can turn into another step of trusting the One who calls each of us, “My beloved child,” and love that child ourselves.

Take 6: Learn how to use daily prayer

I think this makes sense in almost everyone’s head:  We can’t follow Jesus, really, if we aren’t into prayer. That truth may be in our heads, but how do we get it in our hearts and in the schedule? That is the chronic issue.

I’ve been trying to get people to start working with the issue by using Circle of Hope Daily Prayer. We create two blogs that change every day and feed our discipline so we can create new patterns and get some encouragement from outside our somewhat narrow experience.

Daily prayer is an easy way to cooperate with our best interests. It is best approached as a child being taught the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer by their babysitter, or as an enthusiastic disciple being taught the “Our Father” by their Teacher.

Click the pic to go there. Check out more resources at  our Way of Jesus site.

How to use Circle of Hope Daily Prayer

We have two blogs that provide new content every day. I am mainly talking to WIND people who are new to Jesus or new to Circle of Hope. The WATER blog is for people moving into the deeper places of faith.

The idea is to use the blog posts as a tool — it is not an obligation. If you make prayer more religious and less relational, it becomes a chore rather than a joy. If it is like eating broccoli and you only feel power when your throw your plate off your high chair, you’re missing it.

The idea is to use it daily. The Pew research people recently noted that fewer people reported they prayed daily when they asked. Circle of Hope’s gift to you is a discipline that encourages daily prayer, on the way toward unceasing prayer.

The idea is to take the steps to connect with God. Like Henri Nouwen said, “Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God.”  So we take concrete steps. The day by day, step by step habit of prayer makes us new right now and opens up a way into our future. We know we aren’t already home yet, but we are as there as we can be right now and we are moving closer. The place to show up and move on is in prayer.

Using Daily Prayer is like running the bases

Let’s use the old bases diagram to help us think about using Circle of Hope Daily Prayer. We often say “If you want to know things related to God (and what isn’t related to God?) run the bases.” We were made to run and we are called to get all the way around and back home and start again deeper. Daily Prayer reflects this basic metaphor.

  • First base is “Today’s Bible reading”

We always start off with a Bible reading that elicits our entry into prayer. God speaking to humankind is recorded in the Bible. Often reading between the lines in the Bible is more important than what the words actually say – we’re experiencing the truth and love, not just thinking about it. The Bible is first-level meditation if you go slow and are listening, not just processing data. If you just prayed through each day’s Bible reading with the rest of us, that might be enough.

  • Second base is “More thoughts for meditation”

We already got thoughts from God via our spiritual ancestors, thoughts that have been chewed and re-chewed for centuries. Now we get some more thoughts from one of us who draws us to reflect on, respond to, re-examine, restore or renew what was just taught in the Bible or somewhere nearby the Bible. We’re listening for God in her people. People get very creative here and help us open our minds and hearts to listen to God and mentalize about who we are and who God is and what we should do today. We’re in a prayerful dialogue with Jesus and his people.

  • Third base is “Suggestions for action”

We were drawn to prayer by the transhistorical church in the Bible and by the living body of Christ in our own church and now we are called to be moved, spirit to Spirit, by God. This last part of every entry is usually the part most directly about verbal or silent prayer. Sometimes the author gives us a prayer to use and maybe to memorize so we can use it  later. Unless I just don’t get it, I pray that prayer and take it with me. And sometimes we pray it because we don’t get it yet.

Daily Prayer is about learning to pray daily and doing it in light of the Bible and in league with our brothers and sisters, Spirit to spirit. It is doing something. The doing moves us toward home, as one of God’s beautiful creations being recreated. Then we start again deeper.

The wind blows as it blows

So let’s say you opened up the screen. You read the three parts and tried to connect with a lot of material. It might seem like too much to immediately do something about it. That’s OK. Rest in Jesus and listen.

Sit and wait. Look around for what you have been given, not for what you don’t understand yet. Be still. I need to be composed to hear from God. Prayer is not that easy. The daily discipline of being still and knowing God is always met with resistance and opposition. It will take every day of the rest of our lives to get comfortable.

But every day I go to meet with Jesus, I feel the wind of the Holy Spirit. Even when I am not that comfortable with what is going on, inside or out. Maybe it is just a breath, maybe just a memory, maybe a breeze that blows away my troubles, maybe a blast that redirects me. In prayer I am moved toward home and eternity becomes more at home in me. Ultimately, I don’t think you should just use the daily prayer blogs. I think you should show up every day to meet with Jesus in such a way that he and you both know you are showing up

We can’t be Jesus followers if we don’t pray like Jesus, can we? If we don’t connect with the Spirit, what are we doing?  Why don’t you make a commitment to do it? Maybe Circle of Hope Daily Prayer can help. Try thinking this: “Tomorrow will be the first of six straight days (weeks/months) that I use the discipline of Daily Prayer:WATER if you’re experienced, WIND if you aren’t. And nothing prevents you from using both, like many of us do — at least the  hungry and connectable ones. See how it works and how it could be a gift to you.

Nonconformity– a doorway to eternity

When the November wind and waves threatened to capsize my little kayak on the Great Egg Harbor, I wondered if I could be taking nonconformity too far. Sunday was not the usual weather for water sports. But I enjoyed it. As Elbert Hubbard said, “Conformists die, but heretics live forever.” As the wind pelted me with spray off the bay, I pondered a weekend full of realizations about how God has opened eternity to me.

nonconformity

Flab rebel

One doorway turns out to be my rebellion against flab. Mind you, I was on a little vacation this past weekend, so I can’t vouch for my present weight. There is almost nothing to eat down-the-shore that is not designed for maximum calorie intake, and I did not search for health-food. But until I get on the scale today, I can report a very successful diet plan that came to fruit last Friday. I called it my “tenya for Kenya” diet. I got the idea that I might lose the last ten pounds I never lose to get to the top of my BMI if I promised myself that for each pound I lost I would get to send $40 to “Kenya”  — a symbol of sub-Saharan Africa (that rhymes with tenya) where deadly hunger is exploding this year.

It seems immoral to weigh more than I need to when others are struggling to stay alive at all! Now that the global downturn has rich people scrambling to preserve their huge wealth from further erosion, they are not as engaged with relief. That alarms me. Vanity is not motivating enough for me; personal health does not move me enough; shame is not even that activating. But I discovered that morality could keep me focused (who knew?). I liked earning my donation with pounds. Even more, I found a lot of joy in finding another way to express my nonconformity practically.

I am a fat heretic. I mean, I am a nonconformist when it comes to the national adoration of food. I don’t usually (like ever) watch morning shows on TV. But on vacation Gwen likes to see if Matt Lauer has hair so she turns on the Today show. It is Thanksgiving week so everything was about food and weight loss. The Today show had a segment on how to eat less interrupted by four minutes of commercials about food – I did not time that, but I don’t think I am exaggerating! It is not easy to be a nonbeliever in eating like a rich person – a person who’s main challenge is to figure out how not to eat too much from the dump truck unloading calories onto their table. Seriously, I like an evening watching the Eagles fumbling around while I eat fried things followed by Dibs followed by caramel corn followed by nachos; throw in some carrot cake and Dr. Pepper to top it off. My usual diet consciousness is drinking Diet Pepsi!

Blab rebel

The other doorway to eternity turned out to be my rebellion against blab (this blog notwithstanding, apparently). Over the weekend I heard from a couple of close   evangelical friends who make their livings off being influential writers and speakers. They were excited about their opportunities to be read and heard by large numbers of people. They were doing their thing on large anonymous stages. I love them personally, but I am not always sure about the images they create for themselves (but then, I don’t really know their images). They seemed to be talking about ideas they did not embody and situations they did not inhabit. Even though their message was theoretically Christian and, thus, basically nonconformist, their lives were obviously part and parcel of the media machine that runs so much of what we do. They were an awful lot like the Today show, saying one thing about eating with a medium bent on selling another option.

Even though they are great people, I admit to feeling a little embarrassed by my friends – I seem so small, in comparison, like I have not made much of myself, like my blab machine takes up too-small a share of the airwaves. I had just come from my cell meeting when I met with them, totally jazzed about what suddenly looked like a motley crew of sinful, disabled, foreign, faithless, unsuccessful outcasts. I realized I had never thought of them that way at all, until I started making comparisons with my well-accommodated friends and their tall tales! They’d just spent exciting times with people who could afford to go to conferences and make large donations!

Suddenly, I looked like a heretic again. Resisting the blab machine. Unaware of the latest evangelical stuff. Into unmarketable causes — still smarting over the ill-treatment of Afghan women (and other things I’m often surprised to discover are odd), good friends with recovering addicts, leading a strange little church out of a rented space over the check-cashing store and feeling grateful to survive — not even over eating!

To top it off,  I realized that one of my favorite moments of the week had been enjoying Henri Nouwen’s unusual translation of Romans 12:2, “Do not model yourselves on the behavior of the world around you, but let your behavior change, modeled by your new mind. This is the only way to discover the will of God and know what is good, what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do. Nonconformity, not just for the sake of being myself, or being different, but for being God’s, is a doorway to eternity.