We’ve been packing up our house for quite a while. Now we are at the last moment before the move this week. So that was disorienting enough!
Then Covid-19 stole the best together-times of the year: the sunrise meeting for Resurrection Sunday and the parties afterward. Gwen and I usually have a party. I was sad enough about moving and missing things until family and friends started telling us how much they were missing things with me! So on the most joyous day of the year, I was sad, too.
Angie sent over a video that made me cry for joy and tear up for sadness because a flash mob was praising God in the mall but we can’t do that together right now.
So that’s how it is this year. The lockdown finally got to me on Easter. But it feels kind of fresh, too. On Good Friday, I wrote the poem that follows. I thought I’d put it out there again, now that I know even better how we all have a bittersweet taste in our mouths: sweet from Easter candy and bitter from Easter coronavirus. Things may never be the same for us this year, because of joy or because of sadness, but Jesus will be our joy and ever with us in our sadness.
On Friday, my thoughts turned to the terror and ecstasy of birth. I’ve got a feeling we are all being cleansed in a way by this strange, communal experience of “social distancing” and the threat of catching the virus. I know I feel like something new is being born. It made me think of another notable birth I experienced.
My wife was as big as a barn.
Her water broke with a flood
and the twins rode the river.
The birthing room was a bedlam:
our household peeking in,
a class walking through gaping.
Crazy, wondrous — jolt after jolt.
The first twin came out blue,
The next surfed out, tubing it.
Grief — surrounded on the table.
Joy — held by a slimy ankle.
I was suspended between.
The blue baby pinked up enough,
the flying one tucked up next.
And the birth-threatened love lived.
All was well again.
Awake at 3, the night bird sang;
I’m awake to listen.
And then the siren sounded.
The song of love met the tragic:
a tulip pushes up,
a loved one moves through the veil.
Our grief is budding out this year
like an unknown blossom
in a dystopic garden.
Our birthing room is a bedlam:
Peeking, pushing, pinking.
We are suspended between.
“As we move along our pilgrimage through this life, we learn to carry joy in one hand and suffering in the other.” I heard that truth in one of the many enriching events I experienced last week. Then our Daily Prayer entry reinforced it as our pastors got us started on our Lent journey:
The experience of God’s love and the experience of our weakness are correlative [they move together like a team]. These are the two poles that God works with as he gradually frees us from immature ways of relating to him. The experience of our desperate need for God’s healing is the measure in which we experience his infinite mercy. The deeper the experience of God’s mercy, the more compassion we will have for others. – Thomas Keating in Invitation to Love
It is so true! Read the quote again and let it sink in — just like we were doing at the Lent retreat last Saturday.
They make Lent sound so easy
Father Keating’s words seem somewhat obvious, don’t they? — that is until we move from his great teaching and into the next moment of our day! In that next moment someone or something is very likely to jostle our hold on joy in one hand or and kick us into the automatic, suffering-grabbing reactions we’re holding in the other.
If I were on retreat in Snowmass, Colorado (as I intend to be someday!) with a beloved leader like Father Keating and other privileged people who could afford such an experience, the correlative experience of love/joy and weakness/suffering would undoubtedly make as much sense as it does right now as I am writing about it in the quiet of my study. But I must add, when I was driving to the Sunday meeting not long ago, feeling late, I suffered another of the million potholes in Philly right before someone pulled out in front of me. That moment exposed my weak hold on joy and my hyper-awareness of the injustice I suffer.
While Father Keating and other luminaries have been invited into my spiritual home for a long time, their light is easy to dim. They make spiritual disciplines like Lent, seem kind of easy. But they aren’t. So I am writing today to see if I can encourage you to give it all another go, like I am. It would be lovely to always stroll along with a nice awareness of carrying correlative things that God will use to grow us up. But I admit that is not always my immediate post-pothole response. I expect Lent to be just as challenging. It is a call to experience the potholes and cutoffs of life as opportunities to gain resurrection, as invitations to love. Stick with me a bit longer and maybe you’ll feel like that invitation is more likely than it seems.
Psalm 63 makes Lent look a bit harder
Spiritual maturity takes time and effort. It’s the journey of a lifetime. In Psalm 63 [our song] the anxious psalmist says, “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” As he turns to prayer in his desperate condition he feels joy and love. That’s one hand. But at the end of the psalm he is back to facing the weakness and suffering of being threatened by someone who seeks to destroy him, who he has to fight for his life! That’s the other hand.
No one is seeking my life (except maybe the dismantled EPA); other than that, my prayers are a lot like Psalm 63. For instance, just this past weekend the plumber was at our Pocono home (our personal Snowmass). On the one hand that retreat place brings me endless joy and is often filled with love. On the other hand, the plumber discovered a rock from our symbolic mountain had dislodged a sewer pipe! The foundation of our house is threatened and it will cause unknown suffering to fix it. Can we carry such joy in one hand and suffering in another and trust God to grow us up through the journey?
I think we will make it again, just like I think you will make it through Lent again. That is, unless some crisis breaks your sewer line and you keep pouring crap under the house. A lot of spiritual teachers seem surprisingly unfamiliar with crap. I think that’s because, unlike a lot of us, we’re hearing from them after they’ve already got the pipe fixed. My pipe has to wait for a thaw to be fixed. I hope I am helping you thaw in relation to Lent, so you can get started.
Some days of this Lent WILL be easier
I think it is easy for all of us to feel weighed down by the suffering we are carrying. When I go into a Sunday meeting, sometimes it looks like we are all kind of hunched over to one side, some of us almost dragging our knuckles on the ground, weighed down by the weaknesses and suffering in that hand. But then something happens that reminds us that we have another hand waiting to be filled.
Things happen like this. Last week NPR reported how Mike Weirsky, who is unemployed and recently divorced, purchased lottery tickets at a QuickChek in Phillipsburg, N.J., right across the Delaware River from Easton, PA. Then he was distracted by his cellphone and left the tickets on the counter. He said, “I put the tickets down, put my money away, did something with my phone and just walked away.”
As the time for the drawing neared, he looked around his house for the tickets for hours. He could not find them! So he went back to the store to see if they had them. To his surprise, he somebody had handed them in the day before. The cashier “made me explain what I bet and what the tickets were, and she handed them to me, and I walked out.”
Then, during the snowstorm Sunday before last, Weirsky got around to checking his numbers — and realized he was holding the winning ticket. He’s going to take a lump sum payout of $162 million, buy a new truck, and then listen to his lawyer. Snowstorm, divorce, unemployment and who-knows-what-else in one hand; in the other hand, winning lottery tickets. I’m not sure his winnings will provide all the joy he desires, but I am still happy for the guy.
I think Lent is also a bit like winning the lottery. On the one hand, Lent accentuates the suffering, of course — the whole season ends with a crucifixion! But in that big other hand, Lent also leads to resurrection! I heard a couple of stories from the retreat last Saturday that were like stories about winning the spirituality lottery. I’m still feeling like I found my lost ticket myself. After some encouragement from Gwen to try imaging prayer, I returned to the interior “spiritual landscape” that was so important for me 30+ years ago, expecting that my ticket to that joy was unrecoverable. But, to my surprise, the Spirit gave me an encouraging little gift that raised my sights away from my dry and weary land and into the stars. That’s a handful I am carrying with me on my Lent journey.
I’m praying you can also feel God with you as move along into your true self: joy in one hand and that pesky-but-redemptive suffering in the other.
Our character is tested every day. We need wisdom to survive.
Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. — Proverbs 4:6
Wisdom is hard to find. If you talk to social scientists they will tell you it is a combination of IQ, EQ and personality and toss in a description of brain research to verify what they say. That’s all fine, but while we are trying to apply their science, we are being tested. We are dealing with toxic relationships, maybe a dead-end job, or a struggling marriage or family issue. Whatever the challenge, Jesus calls us to see things through a new lens, take confident action and keep moving in the wisdom God provides.
It sounds easy, but it isn’t.
Spiritually wise people find a way to see and act that allows them to go a different way from the self-destructive crowd. Where others see impenetrable barriers, they tend to see opportunities for faith, hope and love or they see challenges to overcome trouble with the strength Jesus provides.
Too many people fall prey to the mistaken belief that inner strength comes from natural, unteachable traits that belong only to a lucky few. It’s a common misconception. In reality, faithful, available and teachable people can grow in spiritual wisdom and grow in effective application of it. Social scientists helpfully label various quadrants of our being and define common experiences and behaviors that we can watch to good effect, but spiritual wisdom goes deeper.
Getting wisdom mystifies a few of us because it is somewhat intangible. But we can learn it from people we know who have it. Like Paul tells the Corinthian church:
“Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. “ — 1 Corinthians 11:1
If you’re up for it, start with these twelve things that spiritually wise people are careful to avoid. Each of these categories started, for me, with a category an EQ salesman concocted. I quickly realized that his science had led him back to the Bible! So see what you think. Wisdom from social sciences agree with the Bible that we should consciously avoid these behaviors because they lead us to destruction.
They don’t stay in their comfort zone.
For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. 2 Timothy 1:7
Let’s just say spiritually wise people no longer think their comfort zones define reality. They live with God in a comfort zone that does not depend on their circumstances working out according to plan. This makes them brave enough to look into eternity and to look into the depths of themselves – neither being immediately comfortable places. But one does not become wise unless they dare to look at someone and something outside themselves.
They don’t give in to fear.
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. – Isaiah 41:30
They say that bravery is being scared to death to do something and doing it anyway. Many times, that’s true, even when it comes to one’s career, or marriage, or spiritual experience. The fear doesn’t have to come from facing something extreme like rushing into a burning building; it can be a fear of public speaking or going out on a limb to try for a promotion or expressing your needs and desires. Spiritually wise people are as afraid as anyone else, probably, they simply trust God, respect their gifts and fight on regardless of the fear.
They don’t stop believing in their potential.
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. – Romans 5:3-5
Spiritually wise people persevere. They don’t give up in the face of failure, and they don’t give up because they are tired or uncomfortable. They are focused on their goals, not on momentary feelings, and that keeps them going even when things are hard. They don’t take failing to mean that they’re a failure. Likewise, they don’t let the opinions of others keep them from fulfilling their calling. When someone says, “You’ll never be able to do that,” they check that opinion out with God.
They don’t beg for attention.
I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. – 1 Corinthians 4:3
People who are always begging for attention are soaking up energy they should be distributing. We are tempted to rely on the attention of others to form an identity – we are what others see in us, or say we are, or allow us to be. Spiritually wise people do not make relationships like that. They do what they want to do and what needs to be done, regardless of whether anyone is protecting their fragile self-image. They find their main source of attention by attending to God and finding God’s love and hope in those who follow Jesus.
5. They don’t act like jerks.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32
Acting like a “jerk” is a relative term – being mean is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. But you probably have an idea of what I mean, and may have some opinions about when you are acting like a jerk. People act like jerks when they act out of the things that make them unhappy and insecure. They act like jerks because they don’t have the strength to be nice when they don’t feel like it, to forgive as they have been forgiven. Spiritually wise people place high value on their relationships, which means they treat everyone with respect, regardless of the kind of mood they’re in. They love like Jesus.
They don’t hold grudges.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. – Ephesians 4:31
Spiritually wise people know they are not just looking out for themselves when they overcome evil with good. But not doing self-destructive things, like holding a grudge, is actually good for them, too. The negative emotions that come with holding onto a grudge are actually a stress response. Holding onto that stress wreaks havoc on one’s body and can have negative health consequences over time. Researchers have shown that holding onto stress contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease. Grudges not only wreck the body politic and the body of Christ, they wreck our own bodies.
7. They don’t hang around negative people.
Do not associate with a man given to anger; or go with a hot-tempered man, or you will learn his ways and find a snare for yourself. – Proverbs 22:24-5
“Negative” is a judgment we need to apply judiciously. Because people act in ways we label “negative” because they can’t solve problems and can’t focus on mutual solutions. They often try to draw people into blaming others for their faults and failures so they can feel better about themselves. We often feel pressure to listen to negative people because we don’t want to be callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear to someone and getting sucked into their downward emotional spiral. Spiritually wise people avoid getting drawn in by setting limits and distancing themselves from negative people when necessary; it is possible to judge a situation without being judgmental.
They don’t feel entitled.
For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? – 1 Corinthians 4:7
Spiritually wise people know that the world is a gift. They soberly assess what they have been given and freely exercise it without competition. They do not worry about their earning power and are not subject to the meritocracy. Yet they are also free to work hard and deserve what they earn. They live in a world that has love behind it, so they can love it back, not fight over maintaining a locus of control within themselves or be solely responsible for their successes or failures.
They don’t close their minds.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. – 1 Corinthians 2:14
When people close their minds to new information or opinions, it’s usually because they find them threatening. They think admitting someone else is right means they’re wrong, and that’s very uncomfortable for people lacking spiritual wisdom. Jesus followers are not threatened by new things; they are open to new information and new ideas, even if it means admitting that they were wrong. Their wisdom is based on following their Guide into what is next, eternally, fearlessly.
They don’t let anyone limit their joy.
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. – 2 Corinthians 10:12
When our sense of pleasure and satisfaction are derived from comparing ourselves with others, they have become our masters. When spiritually wise people feel good about who they are or what they have done, they don’t let another’s detraction or a comparison with another’s accomplishments steal their joy. Even when they need forgiveness or have failed, they still have a kernel of joy inside that comes from being the beloved of God. We are free to listen to others and learn from them, even when they hurt us or just barely know what they are talking about. But our main interest is how God thinks of us. The Lord’s view is incisively true but overwhelmingly kind.
11. They don’t get eaten up by jealousy and envy.
For you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? – 1 Corinthians 3:3
Spiritually wise people understand that the happiness and success of others doesn’t take away from their own, so jealousy and envy aren’t an issue for them. They see grace as being in unlimited supply, so they can celebrate the successes of others. They are not clawing their way to get a piece of a limited pie anymore, so they can share with others and rely on someone else to care for them, as well.
They don’t live in the past.
For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord. – Jeremiah 29:11-14
Failure can erode our self-confidence and make it hard to believe we will have a better outcome in the future. Most of the time, failure results from taking risks and trying to achieve things that aren’t easy. Spiritually wise people know that success lies in their ability to “rise from the dead.” Jesus followers, of all people, know their past is forgiven and their future is bright. So they are free to take risks to be true selves and loving members of humanity because they know that their past failures as a human cannot stop them. When you live in the past, that is exactly what happens—your past becomes your present and prevents you from moving forward.
So what do you think of this recasting of thoughts from the EQ community? Maybe you would like to add further things to the list. What DON’T spiritually wise people do?
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There is far too little tribal dancing in the church. That is my critique for the day, so if your train stop is coming up, you can stop reading, you’re good.
I think we may have finally “got it” the other night on Mardi Gras and “did the word”:
“Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp” — Psalm 149
We did not have specialists interpreting with dance or waving flags and such (which is fine too); we just got out there and shook it as the common good we are.
We even had a flash mob moment in honor of Ben/Gwyn and Nate/Jen — which made Gwyneth teary over Uptown Funk.
Of course we did that! It’s in the Bible!:
Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” — Jeremiah 31:13.
Jesus has saved us and made us his people. We’re happy. That’s a good enough reason to dance. So if you are getting off the train now, feel free to stop reading. You probably have what you need.
We have good reasons to dance
But I do want to point out that there are some more very good reasons to dance. I’m glad we exercised a few. Yes, people showed up for our party! –- and they even danced with nothing lubricating their system but fastnachts and root beer!
Dancing makes trust.
For most of us, it is hard to get out on the dance floor. Ra begged Gwen and me to get out there and get the party rolling, since nobody will dance at a dance for the first half hour. She reminded me of jr. high when I was in dance class and the teacher would taunt us boys to walk across the multipurpose room floor and ask a girl to waltz. Terror.
Being pushed out on the floor was threatening. It reminded me that people love looking at dancers and talking about how they dance. A couple of my dear friends were, indeed, rating the best COH dancers the other night. That’s scary. Some men, in particular, refused to dance all night and stood off to the side like the kids in the Lord’s quote: “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance’” (Luke 7:32).
But when you get out on the floor and realize we are all in this together, heedless of the fear, forgetting the judgment, and despising our shame, it loosens the place in us that trusts God and works trust into our very bodies! And getting out there does wonders for trusting others, too. Dancing with someone is pretty intimate, pretty vulnerable – its trusting someone because you think they love you enough to do so. We need that. Dancing is a trust system and we want to live in one.
Dancing commits us to joy
Very few people can dance with the tribe without a smile on their face. I suppose that’s why the Baptists I worked for were against it. Actually these Baptists were privately pretty fun and happy, but publicly they were straight-laced and sober because they thought that was being holy and they didn’t want anyone to know they were secretly a lot less perfect than they appeared. For quite a few years my dancing instincts were squashed by the Bible lovers who ignored all the dancing in the Bible.
They were like Michal watching David dance when you’d think everyone would want to be as out-of-control holy as David was: “Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets. As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart” (2. Sam 6). I don’t know, for sure, why Michal despised David, but she sure was not increasing the joy in town that day!
There cannot be too much joy, even when things are bad and people are bad and they don’t deserve to be joyful – or insert any Michal-like judgment you feel here____. The fact is, most of us are not Michals and it makes us happy to see you dance. It probably makes you happier too.
Dancing represents a common good.
One time, a long time ago now, a close-knit church I was in realized that they felt really good whenever someone got married and the whole church got our on the floor at the reception and danced like one big group, partners notwithstanding. A few times they made such a positive impression with their happiness and togetherness that it became the talk of the rest of the guests and the bride and groom were proud of their cool, Christian friends. So we decided to hold a dance for All Saints Day. The one glitch was that the Brethren in Christ also thought dancing was not a holy thing to do. So we asked the bishop to give us a special dispensation. He did not think we would fall into sin, so he dispensed with the policy. I’m not sure he had the power to do that, but we went ahead.
In a communal group like the BIC, dancing is a great visual aid. It is an incarnational demonstration of being the visible body doing what Jesus does. At least it represents God’s mindset as Jesus describes it in the story of the lost son. The father says, “Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing (Luke 15).
You could have “heard” our dancing a long way off on Mardi Gras! — stomping, hooting, Cyndi Lauper wailing about girls and fun. It drew quite a few people into our common good. Near the end I was dancing with a group of men who were finally into it. One of them came in mentally worn out and for a while got some relief. He could feel his spirit rise. That’s what Jesus does. We hope to dip people in the music of his body to share some happy resonance.
Everything else we do builds trust, joy and the common good, as well. But I really like it when we dance — even though it is kind of silly for me to dance. We don’t hear about Jesus dancing (I bet he did, though) –- but we do hear a lot about people thinking he was silly, and we still hear that directed at us whenever we act like Him, too. His whole life was kind of out on the dance floor, wasn’t it? — asking people to dance, making people know joy, demonstrating a different way to live. Our Mardi Gras party was a good training.