(Christian) Family Dynamics

We all know Newton’s third law:  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Or, at the least, we know it in our relationships.  Family Systems theorists have argued for decades that a principle of polarization exists in families.  When one person acts extremely, another generally reacts to the opposite extreme.  Let’s take the Smiths.  When Mrs. Smith decided to take a day at the spa, Mr. Smith was angry.  As the breadwinner, he works hard for the money.  Frustrated and motivated by not-a-little self-pity, Mr. Smith decided to work longer hours that week.  In turn, Mrs. Smith bought a $150 pair of jeans.  Late that week, a fight broke out between the two.  Mrs. Smith was angry with Mr. Smith’s distance.  Mr. Smith was angry with Mrs. Smith’s selfishness.  An exercise in missing the point.

The two wanted intimacy, closeness, connection.  Their polarized argument may have revealed grains of truth (Mr. Smith does work too much and Mrs. Smith indulges too much), but missed the real point.

Our family dynamics as Christians are similar.  Our fights don’t often reveal our real issues.

Now, our polarizations may include real and important differences (I wouldn’t deny objective differences among, for instance, those who deny Christ’s deity and those who do).  But, healthy families talk about differences.  Sometimes, differences lead to separation.  But separation, itself, marks a commitment to the healthiest relating possible amidst difficult circumstances.

However, unhealthy families explode in the midst of difference, often clouding real issues and failing to talk about what is most important.  Factions polarize.  Smaller issues divide.  Mountains are made out of molehills.  And in our anger, it’s so hard to see the real struggle.  Let’s be honest, we’re all guilty of it.  Polarization began in the Garden.  “She did it!  No, he did it!”

Having taught courses in a conservative, evangelical and confessional seminary and also in a liberal, progressive, and constructive seminary, I see these features in both.  Caricatures dominate.  In the liberal seminary where I taught a course, I recall becoming very defensive when a student challenged the notion of “God’s Kingdom” as a patriarchal and inherently violent term.  Internally polarized, I reacted with some anger.  What did I miss, though?  I missed an opportunity to hear the student’s story.  Later, I checked in with her.  My student (who was a minority, herself) was not, in fact, opposed to the language, but to a religious philosophy that champions the dominant group over the minority group.  I validated that.  And then I explained that the Kingdom of Jesus is an upside down Kingdom, where the weakness of the Suffering Servant paves the way for the redemption of broken, needy, sinful men and women.  She teared up.  “I like that Kingdom,” she said.  A new journey began for her.

Likewise, a conservative student was flustered when he found out that I was egalitarian.  He began arguing with me on the data.  But this time I stayed centered, not giving in to my propensity to argue, caricature, polarize.  I told him my story, a story which includes influential conversations with my former professor, a great Reformed theologian who taught at Gorden Conwell and RTS named Roger Nicole, lauded even among ardent complementarians (clink on the link).  He saw that I studied the Bible, and that my journey was not guided by some “misguided feminist agenda,” as he called it, but by “thoughtful study.”  He relaxed.  And so did I.  Polarization AVOIDED.

What if our family could move in this direction?  What if we asked one another more about our stories than assuming some slippery slope, or some arrogant agenda? Let’s talk.

on self-compassion, inner critics, and becoming the beloved | 3

I heard an interview with a struggling baseball player the other day.  The radio personality interviewing him said, “It must be tough right now.”  The player said, “It’s always tough.  We work in a profession where succeeding 3 out of every 10 times is success.  We’ve got to learn to deal with frequent failure.”

The player was cut from his team a week later.

Former Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent once said, “Baseball teaches us… how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often — those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.”

It’s the strange paradox of Christianity that we, at times, take ourselves so terribly seriously while believing ourselves to be so terribly sinful.  To be sure, we ought strive like athletes reaching toward the goal, as St. Paul often says.  Yet, we’ll often stumble and fall.  John Calvin, who took life and theology very seriously, reminds us this is so, saying that each of us strive to “the measure of his puny capacity,” not despairing at “the slightness of our success.”

Why are we Christians so obsessed with our successes?  It’s as if it’s all up to us, despite the fact that our theology tells us it isn’t so. Again, there’s no shame in trying.  However, sometimes we’ve got to get over ourselves before our trying and striving become redemptive and helpful.  Sometimes, our striving gets in the way of our own ‘salvation’, as the poet Mary Oliver writes.  We hear the many needy voices around us, and feel the world’s redemption is dependent on us.  “Mend our lives,” the voices around us cry.  The world shouts to us with its needs.  But sometimes we’re not healthy enough to help.  Sometimes, our helping is more a reflection of our deep distraction from God rather than our deep consecration in Him.

And, if we’re fortunate, we awake to this reality when we’re younger rather than older, when the damage we’ve done is less than it could have been, and when we realize that our successes are not so much a product of our expertise as much as God’s providence in using our “puny capacities,” as Calvin said, for something we couldn’t imagine.  And then, a poet like Mary Oliver bowls us over with her extraordinary truth, a truth gleaned from her observation of the theater of God’s glory and his people’s stumblings, as she writes

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver, The Journey

And, we realize that we’re the ones drowning.  Enamored with our supposed successes, we’ve been the one in a slump, swinging and missing over and again in the game that really counts.  Perhaps, we’ve been selling posters and signing autographs.  But, we’ve used this as a distraction, too afraid to look at our own-the-field failures.

In this game, though, God doesn’t cut players.  It’s the only game in town where this is so.  You’ve been listening to other voices which are not your own, and he knows it.  And so he invites you to listen to the voice that you recognize as your own, the voice that will keep you company as you strive deeper and deeper into the world.  There is not retreat for the stumbling Christian.  Only redemption.  And so, he says walk on.  Play on.

And perhaps, in time, you’ll recognize that the “voice you recognize as your own” is, indeed, his voice, which speaks when you are most authentically you, his beloved child.

On Self-Compassion, Inner Critics, and Becoming the Beloved – Part 2

I love this poem by Fleur Adcock.  Take your time and read it.  I’ll share some thoughts after it…

Weathering

My face catches the wind
from the snow line
and flushes with a flush
that will never wholly settle.
Well, that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young forever, to pass.
I was never a pre-Raphaelite beauty
and only pretty enough to be seen
with a man who wanted to be seen
with a passable woman.

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake,
my waist thicken, and the years
work all their usual changes.

If my face is to be weather beaten as well,
it’s little enough lost
for a year among the lakes and vales
where simply to look out my window
at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors
and to what my soul may wear
over its new complexion.

What strikes me about this is that Adcock has found a place beyond the “metropolitan vanity” of looking young forever.  She has discovered a place that “doesn’t care how I look and if I am happy.”  We aren’t told much about this place, but it seems as if it is without expectation, forgiving, accepting.  And perhaps the most vivid image is one that strikes us at the core of our narcissism:

where simply to look out my window
at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors.

Adcock has encountered a beauty which has so captured her that her own vanity is pointless.  Once obsessed, she is now “indifferent.”  And she is happy.

happy is how I look and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake,
my waist thicken, and the years
work all their usual changes.

Vain, obsessed, and narcissistic, a part of us longs for her freedom.  We are curious about this place she’s found where her waist can thicken.  It must be a place without advertising billboards and rampant pornography.  She can grow grey, a feature of distinction in men but not so in women.  Ask any actress over 40.

In our vain world, the Inner Critic shouts its harsh message. It comes in different packages:

Fat. Ugly. Unsightly.

Old.  Irrelevant.  Yesterday.

Unwanted.  Worthless.  Stupid.

Failure.  Useless.  Expendable.

Which is your loudest critic?

This place Adcock has found comes in many names and with many different descriptions.  But it is the safest place one can find.  I find it in the embrace of the father in Luke 15, the moment where the prodigal son is welcomed into the open arms of a father whose love is unbridled, unleashed, undignified.  To his own embarrassment, the father risks social ostracism to embrace and welcome his outcast son.  The son is safe – loved, welcomed, celebrated, empowered, covered.  If only this display of reckless love was characteristic of today’s churches.  Perhaps, fewer would experience the power of the Critic.

To live in this internal and external world dominated by the Critic, we need to find this safe place.  Adcock found it.  I struggle each day to live in it myself, as the day is often marked by loud voices that demand, expect, require, demean, and devalue – and most are within. Many who I see for therapy report the same battle.  Life has conspired to create many challenges to our wholeness, to our self-compassion, to our enjoyment of being the beloved.

What is this place for you?  How do you experience moments of self-compassion, of happiness, of being the beloved?  How do experience this extraordinary space in which Adcock can declare:

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.

On Self-Compassion, Inner Critics, and Becoming the Beloved – Part 1

I’m beginning a new series of blog posts on self-compassion, recently requested by some friends and clients.  It’s an odd concept, particularly if you’re a Christian.  In fact, it may ring of a kind of secularized bastardization of God’s love.  I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time arguing with those who’d desire a theology of self-compassion and self-love though, complete with lots of Bible proof texts.  Rather, I’m writing as a psychologist interested in the inner workings of the human spirit, concerned with how God gets his love deeply rooted in us, and concerned about broken human beings.  It’s a bit like a doctor writing on the complex process of healing from a broken bone.  The Healer is identified in Scripture, but the specifics of healing are not spelled out.  As Christians, we ought to be unafraid to explore what Calvin called the “theater of God’s glory,” this vast and complex world (and inner psychic world) shrouded in mystery, but in need of God’s gracious love.  So, let’s explore.

When I think of self-compassion, I’m reminded of the loud Inner Critic most of us wrestle with.  This intimidating inner voice attacks us with harsh messages – “You made a fool of yourself in that meeting,” “No one really cares what you think,” “Everyone sees that you’re not as smart as you try to be.”  At worst, we say, “I hate myself.  I hate how I look, who I am, what I’ve become.”  This often condemning voice is something we’d rather see go away.  Rather, I think God longs to love even our Inner Critic.

The Critic plays a role within.  At its best, it’s our conscience, reminding us when we’ve crossed a line, or prompting us to consider drinking one less drink.  At worst, it’s a 10 foot tall monster within, attacking us with accusations, and no doubt prompted by the Accuser himself.  But, it’s a part of us no less loved and in need of redemption.  And if God won’t turn away from even the scariest or darkest parts of us, who are we to do the same?

I’ll often tell my clients to imagine gazing compassionately on their scary Inner Critic.  I’ll say, “What if your Critic just wants a bit of love?  Seems like an angry grinch in need of a hug.”  Many can believe God loves them and wants them redeemed.  I’m speaking of the unique instances when WE are the obstacle to love, when we say, “No matter what, I can’t get past this feeling of self-hatred.”

Let’s be honest.  We can argue psychological and theological semantics here, but we can’t deny the experience of the addict, the cutter, the binge eater, the purger, the chronic exerciser, and the gender mutilator.  Our self-hatred drives us toward acts of cruelty to ourselves.  I’ve seen it time and again.  Our broken psyches play vicious games within.

But here’s what I find.  When people turn toward their Inner Critic with compassion, what they begin to see is that this 10 foot monster is just a little thing, trying to keep a frantic inner powerless and pain in check.  In fact, the Inner Critic’s role is to manage the countless inner contingencies that lie underneath – your propensity to get a bit too wild, to drink a bit too much, to harm yourself, or to harm others.  With an eye of compassion, the Critic becomes a beloved friend, shrinking in size from monster to mouse.  Stripped of its power to self-condemn, it can be a powerful ally – a sanctified conscience.

In the next post, we’ll talk about why the Inner Critic is so loud.  What is it protecting us from?  What fears motivate it?  And how can we begin to indwell God’s Spirit so deeply as to become our truest selves, capable of profound self-compassion and bold self-sacrifice, in the likeness of Christ?

But before I end, I’m going to introduce you to a poem of self-compassion.  This comes from Mary Oliver, an East Coast poet who has clearly had to contend with her own Inner Critic. Ask yourself, what is she saying when she says, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves?”  What parts of you betray your First Love?  What false selves clamor for security, attention, approval, acceptance, and more, only to fall under the vicious knife of the Inner Critic?  What would it mean to “find your place in the family of things”?

WILD GEESE, Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Pastors and Depression

In just the past month, I’ve spoken with three depressed pastors.  Consider this startling data from Barna, Focus on the Family, and Fuller Seminary:

  • Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
  • Fifty percent of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.
  • Eighty percent of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastor.
  • Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • Eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.
  • Seventy percent of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • Almost forty percent polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.

Now, while there is much to talk about here, my interest right now is depression.  It’s often when pastors hit their early to mid-30’s that they report some form of depression, described with words like “tired,” “discouraged,” “fatigued,” “burned out,” “unmotivated,” and more.  Some wonder if they’ve ‘lost’ their call to ministry.  Others share feelings of suicide, temptations to act out sexually, or a desire to quit ministry altogether.

While I do believe some form of clinical depression may be at work, I’m also quite convinced that the 16th century mystics like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila have something to say too.  Seeing many of these same symptoms, what John and Teresa found was that something deeper was going on, a phenomenon John called “the dark night of the soul.”

I saw this recently in a 38 year-old pastor who called me for advice.  His church wasn’t growing.  His praying lacked passion.  Previously helpful spiritual practices no longer delivered.  And growing temptations to look at pornography or lose himself in Fantasy Football were worrying him and his wife.  Feeling inept and despairing, he wondered if he’d hit a ministry wall.  I told him that I sensed an extraordinary moment of grace and growth.

As I often do, I told him that he needed to see a psychologist to talk about medications and to evaluate therapeutic issues.  While St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila first envisioned the dark night with both its purgative and illuminative spiritual qualities, they were by no means dualists who discounted psychological difficulty.  Though they did not have modern categories or insights, they were some of the most adept psychological minds of their day, and ours.  St. John specifically counseled men and women that melancholia, or depression, would often accompany the dark night.  For him, it wasn’t an either/or, but more often a both/and.  The spiritual and psychological are interconnected.

One lesson we learn from the sixteenth century Spanish mystics is that moments like the one the pastor experienced are not problems, but opportunities.  This may be the key distinction, one that moves us beyond the question “How do we fix this?” to the question “What might I learn in this?”

In our North American context, failure and struggle is often viewed as a problem, a jagged detour on what is supposed to be the straight road of life.  It’s a uniquely American phenomenon, but one that subtlety impacts our Christian perceptions.  Thus, pastors feel as if depression, doubt, or distance from God amount to obstacles to ministry, rather than opportunities for it.

When that pastor called me, he was worried for himself, for his family, and for a congregation that expected him to be ‘on’ each week.  As I listened, it was clear he’d benefit from some therapy.  He had never explored his family-of-origin before, and a few questions showed that Dad’s high expectations manifested in self-criticism and a fear of failure.  That was clear enough.  But was his issue a family-of-origin problem to be fixed?

St. John of the Cross would say No.  And I’d agree.  Most psychological issues parallel real spiritual issues.  And what we call difficulty or failure or even “issues” afford us moments of awakening.  I suspect St. John would see this pastor’s prayer difficulty, or his lack of passion, and even his pull toward pornography as signs of the dark night.  The purpose of the dark night, of course, is to strip us of our futile attempts to find God on our own terms, and to awaken in us a much more simple desire for intimacy with God.  And what I find in my work is that time and again, pastors tell me that they’d just like to know God…more purely, more simply…beyond the complexities we create as the neurotic men and women we are.

What we often find through this process is that we’re stripped of what we thought God to be – our theological certainties, our moralistic practices, our emotional highs – and drawn into a more pure, simple, and substantial intimacy.  However, pastors who fail to see this opportunity often devote themselves to working harder and succeeding more, all in an effort to cast out their demons of depression and despair.  It doesn’t work.

However, if we’re willing to listen in to our lives a bit more closely, we might find that God is looking for us, even in our darker moments.  The mystics were convinced God works even when we’re asleep.  And if we’re ready and willing, we may even awake to the dawn’s fresh light, more convinced than ever that God speaks not only in our successes, but even in our difficulties.

Practicing Wholeheartedness

A personal theme for the past 2 years or so has been living with wholeheartedness. If you’ve read my blog, you’ve probably noticed the theme coming up time and again in different contexts.  The launching point for it, of course, has been David Whyte’s excellent thought that “the antidote to exhaustion is not rest, but wholeheartedness.”

This is always challenged in practice, however.  So, as I prepared to vacation this summer, I was thinking about how getting away might impact me.  Would I find myself, as I typically have, depressed on the last day of vacation?  Might I find that I really didn’t rest as I had hoped to?  Would my vacation be a long-awaited respite only to bring dread as the end approached?

I’m delighted to say that I’m back, refreshed, and rested.  But I’m also delighted to say that I didn’t crave this vacation like I have in the past.  Nor, did I dread its end.  In fact, many things were different.  Here are a few reflections:

First, I’ve tried to live with more of a sense of presence and wholeness daily, rather than working busily and exhaustingly up until that ‘salvation’ called vacation.  Strangely, on the day we left, I told my wife that I really wasn’t excited to go, that living in the present felt so good that I was a bit afraid to lose this sense of presence in the busyness of our packed two weeks of activity.

Second, I didn’t take 10 books on this trip, hoping to read what I hadn’t gotten to in my busyness.  Rather, I had only the books that sat on my iPad Kindle, which were opened just a few times.  My goal was to stay connected, to God, to my own heart, to my wife, and to my kids.

Third, I prepared well in advance not to run away.  In other words, when you live without wholeheartedness, as divided and fragmented and ‘not yourself’, you can’t help but want to get away to ‘find yourself.’  No doubt, rest and solitude is necessary, and aids this process.  But everyday American life affords little opportunity for real, daily solitude, especially for those of us with children.  Therefore, I wanted to live more wholly daily, mindful of the fact that it would mean that I had to confront my patterns of escape, numbing, and coping which have stifled me spiritually and relationally over the years.  Preparation helped me to live more wholly throughout the year, enabling me to leave for vacation rested already, in one sense, and able to really enjoy the time with others.

Finally, I found that living this way was not merely self-help.  This has enabled me to live more missionally, more mindful of others and more engaged with my family, my neighbors, and my world.  When I live a fragmented existence (busily working to achieve, to gain approval, to meet demands, to avoid my own issues), I live disconnected from others.  Paradoxically, the need to meet everyone else’s needs disconnects me from those who I am called to love and serve.

This experiment in wholeness has been fruitful, particularly over the past two years or so.  It’s an oasis in the desert, but I’m also aware of my own propensity to manufacture disaster in my own life, amounting to even more fragmentation, self-sabotage, and more.  I pray for God’s grace to continue in the way of wholeness, knowing that I can be extraordinarily creative at practicing dividedness, as well.

what’s love got to do with it?

As Pentecost Sunday approaches, I’m reminded again that Jesus had to leave for us to experience the more intimate, the more intense, and more personal union with the Spirit that God promised and that, perhaps more important, that God knew we needed.

Yes, God knew we needed the Spirit.  We needed close, intimate communion.  A principle or precept wasn’t enough.  A law wouldn’t cut it.  Relationship alone would bridge the gap.

The Bible doesn’t begin with Jesus.  It begins with God the Trinity, in relationship – Father, Son, and Spirit.  And it doesn’t begin with a problem to be solved.  It begins with a God of Love, existing eternally in intimate relationship, perfect communion.  It begins with our deepest longing.

The Bible’s message, from Genesis to Revelation, is a message of re-union.  God’s pursuit of Love’s restoration defines each moment of redemptive history, even its darkest moments.  God’s anger is defined by Love.  God’s absence is understood only in and through Love.  And God’s ultimate redemption, though judicial, is ultimately a Love Story.

As Pentecost Sunday approaches, I’m reminded again that Jesus had to leave for us to experience the more intimate, the more intense, and more personal union with the Spirit that God promised and that, perhaps more important, that God knew we needed.

Facing the Fraud

At some point in life all of us, no matter our vocation, feel as if we’re frauds.

It often emerges as a battle to be an authentic human being.  By authentic, I mean wholehearted, integral, one.  And it’s precisely when we feel unable to be ourselves, fully ourselves, in our work, in a relationships, or even in our prayers, that we feel fraudulent.

I often feel as if I’m most myself in the counseling room.  It’s there where I can connect to others in a way that ‘public’ life rarely affords.  It’s behind the closed doors of my office where pretense and politeness dissipate.  The roughest sessions, of course, occur when pretense is confronted head on.  Some part of us resists being known, and therefore becoming whole.  We all know this inner battle.  It’s an everyday battle for even the greatest saints.

People who know me know that I return over and again to the theme of wholeheartedness.  I’ve often quoted the poet David Whyte, whose spiritual advisor once told him that the antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness. What he meant, of course, is that no amount of rest or sleep can cure our inner divisions, our extraordinary capacity to show up each day as a caricature of our very selves in order to please, to succeed, or to climb the never-ending ladder to approval.  Eventually, we need to face the fraud.

I often think that the most basic message of Jesus is that we are the beloved, loved for who we are and not who we pretend to be.  Pharisaism, after all, was an exercise in pretense.  For all its obvious theological problems, it was a psychological problem in the end, a problem of fraudulent living as “whitewashed tombs.”  The question all of us, and particularly those of us who make our living as ‘the religious’ must ask is, Am I a whitewashed tomb?  Am I a fraud?

What Jesus confronts is a religion that desires sacrifice and not mercy.  In other words, his chief complaint is reserved for those of us who say and do the right things, but live without integrity, without wholeheartedness, as…frauds.  Mercy emerges from the heart that knows its messiness and corruption, and seeks to love those who are just as messy and corrupt.  A merciful heart knows no pretense or judgment.  It basks in humility.  It enjoys its status as the beloved.

Wholehearted living is illusive to most of us, particularly those of us plagued by fear.  Coming out of hiding is a difficult thing.  It cannot be done by willpower alone.  I’m convinced that its only in the context of knowing that we are the Beloved, deeply and intimately, that we can enjoy the freedom to be ourselves.  The Cross and Resurrection, in the end, is not simply about some objective transaction.  It is the greatest act of Love offered for those of us who wake up each day feeling exhausted, divided, and fraudulent, working tirelessly to fight back that part of us that is convinced that today is the day we’ll be found out for who we are.

Receiving this love may be the hardest thing Christians must do.  And its perhaps because it is so hard that we major on the minors, avoiding our greatest internal fear and shame by clinging to agendas that we can control and areas in which we feel some sense of power or certainty.  I confess that I do this more than I know.  Living in integrity, to be sure, is much, much harder.

And so we wake each day to face the fraud.  But, the larger question each of us must face is this:  will the fraud, once and for all, receive the love it so desperately longs for?

Love at the Core :: Loving our Enemies

Of the many quotes and Bible verses being tosses around the Internet and Twitter since the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death, one has risen to the top.  It is actually an incorrect quote of Martin Luther King, Jr., but close enough to the real thing to warrant attention (thx to @Merobinaa for this.)  The real quote is just as powerful, and might be dismissed as activist jargon if they were not hauntingly reminiscent of Christ’s words.  MLK, Jr. writes

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” (from Strength to Love)

On September 11, 2001, I tried in vain to call my sister Kathy, who still lives where we grew up on Long Island.  An executive at Motorola, she would often drive into the city to visit her Manhattan colleagues.  When I finally reached her, I was comforted that she was safe, but experienced her tears for friends and colleagues who were lost in the attacks.  We reminisced about our times in the city as kids, and I fought back tears every time I considered going back, which our family did only last year.  It was a very emotional experience visiting Ground Zero.

It’s tough to imbibe the ethics of Jesus.  It’s tough, particularly, in a political climate where words like “good” and “evil” can be tossed around loosely to describe whole nations and even regions of the world.  Bible verses are called upon to justify whatever emotions we’re feeling.  Our very basic and raw desire for revenge is satisfied in the death of one man.  Facebook updates and ‘tweets’ talk of justice and jubilation.  And it’s very, very difficult not to feel even a bit relieved, or perhaps even thankful, that a man who could plot something as evil as the World Trade Center attacks can no longer perpetuate evil.

And then we’re faced with Jesus.  Jesus frustrated the ‘Zealots‘ of his day.  Even Peter experienced this frustration.  A reformed Zealot (or so we thought!), Peter cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant in a seeming act of noble Messiah-security.  But Jesus quickly restored his enemy’s ear, rebuking Peter instead.  This was not merely a Messiah who waxed eloquent about loving one’s enemies.  When his life was on the line, he actually did it.

These things, of course, cannot be easily transformed into political policy, nor are they meant to be.  But the actions of Jesus do get you thinking.  For centuries after Jesus, Christians would succumb to the sword instead of taking up the sword against Rome.  Why?  It makes little sense.  But then again, Paul would remind us that the Gospel is “foolishness.”

And then the inevitable questions come today:

Should I tell a woman who has been emotionally abused in her marriage to love her abuser?

Should I counsel a victim of sexual assault to forgive, or even to turn the other cheek?

These issues require more space, and I’ve written on this before.  However, in this context, they’re worth revisiting, particularly among those who seek to follow Jesus, to become like him, to experience a life of self-sacrificial love.

As I’ve written this short blog series called Love at the Core, I’m struck more than ever by the centrality of love.  And with that brings the difficulty of love.  And it’s times like these that I’m quite happy not to be a politician, translating this difficult ethic into political action.  Sometimes, it’s easier pontificating as a pastor in the blogosphere.  What I do know, today and everyday, whether faced with OBL’s death or with the abusive spouse of a client, is that I’m compelled to wrestle with this ethic of love and forgiveness that Jesus presents.

That, I suspect, will take a lifetime to figure out.  I certainly haven’t figured it out yet.

Why Love is Core :: An Antidote to our Divided Selves

Blessed are the pure in heart, Jesus says.  And we assume that by pure he means ‘that really clean cut kid who doesn’t cuss in the church youth group.’  That’s what I used to think.  The ‘pure’ were the really, really good Christians.  And I didn’t measure up.

Purity, it turns out, is about so much more.  In the original language, the word Jesus uses gets at an inner division of heart, a war within, which manifests in outer appearances of religiosity and lacks any authentic core.  In other words, the people who look pure may not be so pure.  They may actually be quite divided, quite hypocritical.  They may live like the Pharisees do, waiting on others to stumble instead of looking at their own stumblings.

Don’t take my word for it.  Charles Spurgeon reflects on the “divided heart” with an indictment of those who look particularly religious.  He writes:

You know some men, perhaps, who are very stringent believers of a certain form of doctrine, and very great admirers of a certain shape of church rule and government. You will observe them utterly despising, and abhorring, and hating all who differ from their predilections. Albeit the difference be but as a jot or a tittle, they will stand up and fight for every rubric, defend every old rusty nail in the church door, and think every syllable of their peculiar creed should be accepted without challenge. “As it was in the beginning, so must it be now, and so must it ever be even unto the end.” Now it is an observation which your experience will probably warrant, as certainly mine does, that mostly these people stand up so fiercely for the form, because lacking the power, that is all they have to boast of. They have no faith, though they have a creed. They have no life within, and they supply its place with outward ceremony.

Purity, in other words, is about something much more subtle.  I’d suggest, as Parker Palmer does in A Hidden Wholeness, that love manifests in wholeheartedness, integrity, congruity between our inner and outer selves.  And, I’d argue that if we’re really honest, none of us are very pure.  We may try to keep our theological ducks in a row, but we’re full of contradictions.  We’re just talking “baby talk,” as Calvin says, quite a bit of the time.  We may even keep our behavioral ducks in a row, but truth be told…we’re quite repressed, and may even be setting ourselves up for a significant fall.

This, I believe, is why you find Love on the lips of Jesus.  This is why the religious are indicted, and the sinners are welcomed.  This is why those of us who have it figured out are in much more danger than those who are scrounging for bread.  Hell, it turns out, is a doctrine the religious must take very, very seriously…for we are the target of many of Christ’s condemnations.

Love cuts through our pretenses, and exposes our hypocrisy.  If only we’d be more honest with how little we have this whole thing figured out.

Love breaks through our inner divisions, requiring a kind of self-compassion – an ownership of our brokenness and our need for a greater Love – which can lead to a compassion for others.  Our best theologizing is provisional.  Our best behaving is likely mixed in its motives.  This is why great thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Lesslie Newbigin could be so ecumenical, so concerned about unity.  What brings us together is far more powerful than what divides us.

I’ll leave you with a letter C.S. Lewis wrote to a friend who had recently become Catholic.  This is an extraordinary example of Love:

Though you have taken a way which is not for me I nevertheless can congratulate you — I suppose because your faith and joy are so obviously increased. Naturally, I do not draw from that the same conclusions as you, but . . . I believe we are very near to one another . . . In the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are at the fringes . . . Let us by all means pray for one another: it is perhaps the only form of “work for reunion” which never does anything but good. God bless you.

(Letters to an American Lady, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967 — letter from 1953, 11-12)