6/20/2018

Joey

I wrote this 7 years ago, but never published it. It was just a short, chance encounter but it really touched me and I still think back to it sometimes. I find something beautiful about the humanity and brokenness in Joey.


Joey came and sat down next to me, on a park bench during lunch. He likes to talk. He has been in prison most of his life (for theft among other things). He was released two weeks ago, and is homeless and hungry. He slept in the park last night, but he was woken up early by someone looking for drugs ("I don’t do that shit, man. I’ve been an alcoholic, but alcohol is a misdemeanor. That shit’s a felony"). His wife committed suicide ("You see that big tree over there, behind the bathrooms? That’s where she hung herself"). He still loves her, and misses her, he treated her well and never beat her and the restraining order was completely unjustified. He has a daughter, living with her grandparents, but he can’t go stay with them because they’re afraid he’ll steal from them. He would never do that. He shows me the scar in his stomach where a large black man stabbed him in prison ("he stuck me real good"). He’s on a first-name basis with the girl at the police station.

He believes in God, a vengeful God who punishes people. We talk briefly about sin and forgiveness. It is hard to get a word in.

Lunch is over. As I’m getting ready to leave, I tell him I’ll pray for him ("Right now, man? Are you down?"). I’m down. He scoots over next to me and takes my hands in his – the hands of a thief and alcoholic. Violent hands that may have beaten his wife. He asks me to pray for her, too. When I’m finished, to my surprise he starts praying for me ("Bless him, God. He’s a good man. I know he’ll do right, trust me").

Say a prayer for Joey.

5/29/2018

Breath Prayers and Anxiety

Just about anyone who has reflected on it knows that they only have a small amount of control over their thoughts. They seem to wash over and past us like a river, and we more or less unconsciously latch on to one or the other as an object of focus. This is often the case even when you are actively trying to think about something else: your mind wanders away to another topic, and then when you notice you bring it back, and then it wanders away again, on and on. So there’s a real sense in which your own mind is wild and untamed and not listening to your own will.

Many years ago I read through Richard Foster's book “Prayer” with my brother. He told me much later that the only thing he remembered was the chapter on breath prayers - and, as a matter of fact that is also the only thing that I remember. A breath prayer is a way of focussing your attention on a short phrase or sentence, meditating deeply on it in order to internalize a particular point - to move it from something you know in your head to something you feel in your chest. The most famous of these is the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”, but just about any verse of scripture that speaks to you will do. Mine lately have been “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) and “I am at rest in God alone, my salvation comes from him” (Psalm 62:1).

Maybe you can tell from my two examples above that I’m trying to capture a sense of quiet and calm in my spirit that isn’t there. The mind is like a person in a small boat on the open sea of the emotions, and anxiety is like a storm. Or, anxiety is a response to the storm, gripping the boat with white-knuckle intensity in a search for stability and safety that can’t be found (“Save me O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck”). Meditating on a breath prayer is a way to invite God to speak “peace, be still” over the storm.

(as an aside: the storm seems to be located in the stomach area. In many cultures the seat of the emotions is the gut rather than the heart for this reason, and I think it is why so many people eat to try to feel better. It can be very illuminating to start asking yourself where you feel certain emotions, they are quite localized in your body. This is a motivating observation for the spiritual disciplines, but that would take us too far afield.)

Most people report that their mind wanders when they pray so that it is very difficult to pray for any extended period - more than just a few minutes. This is especially true in the midst of a storm. Focussing on a short memorized phrase removes most of the mental burden and makes it easier to both maintain focus and regain it when you lose it. The idea behind a breath prayer is to repeat it to yourself, again and again and again. Stressing each word in turn provides a focus for the repetition: “I am at rest in God alone”, “I am at rest in God alone” “I am at rest in God alone”, etc.

Because your mind and body are interconnected, it’s also important to slow and deepen your breathing while you do this. Part of what you’re trying to accomplish is bring about a physiological change in your body, and slow deep breathing will facilitate that.

Whenever you find your mind wandering, bring it back. I find it helpful to be active while you are doing this - go for a walk, do the dishes, etc. It can be done along with any kind of manual labor and, according to The Way of A Pilgrim, you can even internalize it to such a degree that it stays with you even in mental labor.

By the way, the concept of breath prayers has a much wider application than I’m giving here. A much more authoritative exploration rooted in the monastic tradition can be found in The Way of a Pilgrim, which introduced this concept to me before Eugene Peterson’s book.

I remember once, before a very stressful meeting, Emily heard me singing “It is well with my soul” softly to myself. And she smiled at me and said “no it’s not, you’re a mess”. Which was true enough, my gut was a storm of distress. Intentionally trying to cultivate a peace in your spirit isn’t magic, it doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you feel totally normal. But you can train yourself to feel a sense of stability that sits on top of the storm and isn’t perturbed by it, as you hear Jesus speak: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

5/04/2018

Love Never Fails

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (I Cor. 13:7-8)

What does it mean to say that love never fails? Surely the designs of love are often frustrated. The goals unmet, the desires unfulfilled. This is true even of the pure, self-emptying love that Paul is describing here. Because to love is to seek another outside oneself, it necessarily requires a relinquishing of control. It is risky.

So if it is true that love never fails, it must not mean that love is always returned, or that the good which the lover desires for the beloved always comes to pass. Indeed, it often seems to be the opposite. Broken relationships are more the rule than the exception.

There are a few ways that love might be said to never fail. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, a character tuned to love triumphs over self-righteousness and judgement and hate. Love is transcendent. Perhaps more to Paul’s point here, love is the one theological virtue which is forever. Prophecies, tongues, knowledge, even faith and hope are goods for this time. But love is for today and tomorrow and always.

Paul’s “all things” phrases cannot but pierce someone reflecting on how they have loved. Love never despairs, it never gives up, it doesn’t grow disenchanted and fade away. The words carry their full force only as we meditate on the failures of love in our own life. This is the love that God has for us - “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”.

But it is Paul's contrast of love with knowledge that strikes me the most. Surely real, objective truth will endure? But that is not the kind that we have: “now I see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am fully known” and “when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part shall be done away”. To claim that love is greater than knowledge is to accept the hazy limits of our own knowing, and our own judging, and our own discriminating. And when we depart from love, that is what we use our knowledge of people for - as a weapon, as an argument, as a way to place people in groups, as a stand-in for the full knowing which we don’t and can’t have. Love would be easier if we had that kind of full knowledge.

This kind of love is otherworldly. It rises above all of the power-seeking and jockeying for position and self-serving that characterize human relationships. Most of us only catch glimpses of it here and there. But to glimpse it is to know that it exists, and that is enough to seek it.

4/02/2018

Death and Easter Resurrection

You can’t really feel the force of Easter and resurrection without first feeling the force of death. This year those two were particularly juxtaposed for me, as I attended my Aunt’s funeral on Holy Saturday and along with that sorrow reflected again on the still-recent death of my own father.

When I stare death in the face I’m struck by two things. The first is the ugliness and, really, wrongness of it. Stretched, gaunt, wasting, expiring - all the good and vitality and health in a person stolen away. And it’s not as if life itself is a picnic either. Aunt Leslie had a hard life - unmarried, struggling to make ends meet, lonely, dreams unfulfilled. But with hope and a church community and family that she cared for. Death is a final end to all of her suffering, but also a final end (here, with us) to those goods.

And that finality is the second thing. Death is a horrible, crushing weight that we can’t escape, for ourselves or those we love. I don’t know how you can look it in the face, really look, and not despair at the end, the finality that cuts us all off from the world. How can we stand up under such a terrible burden? How can we know, really know that we and our children and all the goods that we love in the world are passing away and will be gone, gone, gone - and probably sooner rather than later?

This is what resurrection means: it means that death is not the most powerful force in the world. It means that life is stronger than death. If this is not true, if death really is ultimate, then we are all doomed - there is no hope, no point. The Biblical taunt - “O death, where is your victory? O grave, where is your sting?” - is the taunt of a fly in the face of a nuclear weapon. It sounds crazy. But sanity really is what is at stake. If we can be allied with a force greater than death, if we really can know that life, that Christ, that God will bring us through death to a new life forever beyond its reach, then and only then can we really stand up.

3/29/2018

Some thoughts about Jordan Peterson

I’ve been listening to some Jordan Peterson after that interview came to my attention. He is a really interesting thinker. He gets the problem of human nature almost exactly right - the evil within all of us and the temptation to locate it “out there” rather than “in here”, the grounding we need as individuals and cultures, the imperative of living well. What makes him so surprising and (to me) interesting is that he can start from broadly Christian premises and then veer suddenly off the reservation, and at other times start from a very secular place and arrive at something that sounds basically Christian. He’s not easy to categorize.

He clearly has a deep respect for Christianity, but it seems mostly to be because he is in love with the West and Christianity formed the West. He realizes you can’t just remove it without the whole edifice crashing down, and he thinks it would be a very bad thing for the edifice to crash down. He sees a deep transcendent significance in the Bible and the way it’s shaped the culture. But when he says “transcendent” what he really is referring to is a kind of ancient, shared wisdom that embodies tens of thousands or millions of years of our trying to understand who and what we are. He has a real awe for the deep complexity and mystery and hiddenness of consciousness and for the tenuous grasp that we have on ourselves, for the way we stumble around in the dark just trying to understand who we are, never mind anything outside ourselves.

He knows that man has a nature (a point first brought to my attention by Dallas Willard), that we aren’t infinitely malleable, that there is an enduring wisdom about who we are and how we ought to live that stands like a rock above the tide of individual self-determination. He has a great respect for the wisdom of the past and rejects the chronological snobbery that thinks it can discard all that came before and build something new and better (his critique of Marxism is central here). He has some good critiques of the popular atheist dismissals of religion on this point.

He is not an ivory-tower academic. He’s been a practicing psychologist, he’s worked with people in their messiness rather than just imposed theories on them from above. And if you’ve ever seen one of his lectures he clearly cares about his students. He speaks with a passion and an urgency, because he knows that how you live your life matters and you could very easily get it wrong and if you do the consequences could be catastrophic.

His ideas about how we form maps of the world to understand it, and the descent into chaos when we find some of our fundamental assumptions violated, sounds to me mainly correct. One thing that continues to strike me about people is that when describing their dark times they will often say they didn’t think something like this could ever happen to them - “I didn’t think I’d ever get divorced”, “I didn’t think that relationship could disintegrate”. There is a part of us that gets stuck in disbelief that such things could have possibly happened. And that seems to fit with his ideas about what happens when our maps fail us.

But for all that, the solutions that he offers fall short. The advice he gives is often based on Niezschean power dynamics or evolutionary psychology rather than anything resembling traditional western/Christian morality. His appreciation of the Bible centers on its status as an ancient repository of human attempts to figure out who and what we are, there is nothing transcendent (as I use the word) about it. His attempts to psychologize basic Christian doctrines more often than not left me groaning in frustration; for example this on the trinity: “The idea of the trinity is something like the spirit of tradition, the human being as the living incarnation of that tradition, and the spirit in people that makes relationship with those two possible”. Now, I certainly think there are deep spiritual truths in the stories of the Bible. But Jordan Peterson as often as not just sounds like he’s eisegeting his own Jungian psychology back into the text.

All in all, he’s an eclectic mix of right-on and totally off-base. But he’s one of the more eloquent voices pushing back against the progressive turn that society is taking, and his unconventional approach is thought-provoking and fascinating even when it takes him to obviously wrong places. For that, he’s worth listening to.

1/07/2018

Emotional Memory and Relationships

There are two kinds of memories. The normal recollections of past events that we commonly call memories, and also emotional ones. And of the two of them, emotional memories are the stronger. An emotional memory is when you feel again some emotion, usually a very intense one, that you felt at some time in the past. And it is caused by some circumstance that reminds you of the circumstances in which you felt the first emotion. Just a smell, a phrase, or a particular situation can cause all of the original emotion to come flooding back to you. These are pretty sneaky, because they happen without your conscious awareness. You might not even know what it was that triggered the feeling. And because of that, it’s really easy to mis-attribute such an emotional response to your immediate circumstances.

Here is an example: I had a traumatic experience in a swimming pool as a child - in fact my earliest memory involves a fear of the water. And I happen to be particularly risk-averse. One day when I was examining my panicky reaction when contemplating a major life change, I thought “huh, it feels sort of like drowning”. Like being tossed about in the uncertainty of change with nothing solid to hold onto or to be grounded in. I can look back and think of several times in my life when I let a promising opportunity go by, and I always had a reason I gave myself for not pursuing it, but really I was just valuing solidity - stability, certainty, and familiarity over opportunity.

You can see kids misattribute their emotions a lot. One of the things that surprised me about parenting was that one of my jobs was to know my kids better than they knew themselves. Most of the time they have absolutely no idea why they are upset! I had one child who would just give me an endless string of unrelated circumstances when asked why he was feeling that way; it was clear he was just latching on to whatever happened to be present before him, when really he was tired or hungry or etc.

Well, it turns out that it is not just children who do this. Most adults at most times have no idea why they are feeling what they are feeling. This is not an exaggeration. But adults are usually very good at providing justifications for why the present situation warrants their full emotional response, and such justifications are strongly persuasive to oneself. After all, we have a powerful motivation for believing them - otherwise we would have to admit that the torrent inside us, sometimes unleashed on another person, was ultimately the result of our history and not the fault of the person or circumstance which happened to push a particular button.

These emotional memories have a magnifying effect. They can turn some provocation which could legitimately be moderately distressing into the end of the f’ing world. This is why relationship conflict can go sideways so quickly; two people are arguing about the present issue with emotional responses imported from much deeper sources which fuel the conflict but remain unaddressed. I’ve heard it said that most conflict in marriages stems from an overreaction to an overreaction; emotional memories are where those overreactions come from.

I’ve learned a few strategies for surfacing and addressing these kinds of memories within the context of a committed relationship; I hope they can be useful to you as they have been to me.

The first strategy is to realize that your emotions are your own responsibility. Completely. No one can make you feel a certain way, no one is at fault or to blame for the way that you are feeling. You own your emotional response. This is the sort of thing that sounded obviously true to me when I first read it, but it seemed very difficult to apply because identifying an external cause for my emotions was such an ingrained habit.

The second strategy is to do some introspection about your own emotions. When frustrated or upset at work, home, church, etc. take some focussed time to examine the way you are feeling. Bring it before your conscious awareness and ask yourself “when in my life have I felt this way before?” Weaker emotions are easier, so start with “the guy who annoys me at work” over “the thing my spouse does that infuriates me”. You won’t always be able to identify a time, and even if you can’t it doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but if you are consistent with examining yourself in this way you’ll make some surprising discoveries about yourself.

The third strategy is to use a 1-10 scale as a way to find the deeper emotions lying behind a conflict. Use the scale as a measure of distress, with 1 being mildly annoyed and 10 being someone is about to die! Just asking your spouse where they are on the scale can be really illuminating. For example, “On a scale from 1-10, how important is it to you that I put the peanut butter back in the refrigerator after I use it?”. If the answer is “8”, stop talking about the peanut butter.

In case it is not obvious: this kind of knowledge is not for justifying your own behavior and explaining why you cannot change. Exactly the opposite! We tend to take our brokennesses, even when we recognize them, as givens and expect others to accommodate them. Now, to love another person and to see them for who they are, the good with the bad, really does require making allowances for the other’s faults. But often we communicate “I require you to change because I cannot” which is neither true nor helpful. Instead, walk together. You take a step toward me, and I’ll take a step toward you, and let us continue to love each other even when we fall down and to see in each other not only the depth of our brokenness but also the bravery of our tiny steps.