In Search of a Spacious Place

He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. Ps. 18:19

Image result for stars at nightAren’t we all longing for a spacious place? Aren’t we all longing for a place to run free, to breathe deeply, to spin round and round with our arms wide open? Don’t we all desire relationships where we’re known and loved unconditionally and wholeheartedly?

When I was a teenager on Long Island, I used to drive to the marina in West Sayville late at night in order to catch the vast expanse of the starry heavens. When I felt constricted and closed in, that dock became my thin place, and my soul would expand.

This longing for a spacious place was the instinct years ago behind my first book Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places. Egypt is called Mitzrayim, a narrow place, the kind of place that will suffocate you if you stay there too long. You know those narrow places – the abusive relationship, your couch (after binging cable news for 5 hours), the inner mental state of constant suspicion or comparison. There are many mitzrayim’s in our lives. For some of us, constriction is a daily, burdensome reality. I longed to paint a picture of that winding journey to freedom.

Years ago I got 5 minutes with NT Wright. No, I won’t call him my close personal friend “Tommy.” But intuiting my interest in psychology, he turned me on to the work of psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Through masterful research, McGilchrist demonstrates the unique influences of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Even more, he shows how each has the capacity to create reality, impacting how we live and process daily life. What is most striking is his argument that the world we live in today operates primarily according to the left hemisphere. While the right hemisphere prefers mystery, covets connection, sees wholistically, and thrives in the “spacious places,” the left slices and dices, polarizes, and judges with sharp right/wrong, either/or thinking. The left knows only in part, but speaks with certainty. The right sees the whole, and stands in awe. I think Wright was hinting at the right hemisphere as a key to a Kingdom imagination.

The sad reality is that while both hemispheres are necessary for their healthiest contributions, you and I probably live most of life according to the left hemisphere. And that’s exhausting. It’s like living life in a perpetual Game of Thrones or House of Cards episode. We are constantly measuring, comparing, sizing up, scheming, and climbing. Think about left brain influence in our politics, our theologizing, our tweeting, our leadership, our church strategizing.

But we can’t shake the longing for something more. In early August, our family swam DAY_water-37and snorkeled with dolphins and sea turtles in the wild. As I peered below, more than 40 dolphins swam freely, rhythmically, and playfully, sometimes pairing off to dazzle us with an improvised dance. It was another universe below the waterline. I felt like I’d entered a dreamscape.

Every so often I evaluate what generates left hemispheric activity and what generates right hemispheric activity in my life. I can feel it in my body. I evaluate my work and relationships, social media engagements and projects through the lens of what cultivates spaciousness. You can do this too. But you’ve got to tune in to a deeper intuition, a bodily intuition which whispers more than shouts. You’ve got to pay close attention to the gradual revelation of capaciousness in your being. This counsel from Rilke to his young apprentice in 1903 may help:

…just keep on, quietly and earnestly, growing through all that happens to you. You cannot disrupt this process more violently than by looking outside yourself for answers that may only be found by attending to your innermost feeling.

I long for a spacious place, these days. I’m beginning to believe that if it’s not expansive, it’s not worth it.

While left hemisphere influence is crucial for everyday living, McGilchrist has convinced me that a fundamentally different inner orientation is necessary for real transformation. The kind of generative imagination needed amidst our current polarization won’t arise from our slicing, dicing, and scheming side. But because we’re literally swimming in the waters of left-brained addiction, real intentionality is required for a new way of living, a more spacious way of living.

I’ve led and now I train leaders, and my sense is that while I can equip them with knowledge and tools, there is a spacious consciousness, a curious silence, a non-anxious patience that I need to nurture within them. They need to plunge beneath the waters for a while to gaze at the dolphins or venture out late at night to peer at the starry sky so that awe and humility take root. They need to go on the wilderness journey where dark nights cloud the sight of their gods of certainty, purity, ego, and power, revealing one who is True.

Rumi once said, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” My sense is that is the spacious place where Jesus is Lord, where the broken are blessed, the mourners comforted, the hungry and thirsty satisfied. If McGilchrist is right, God has truly set eternity in our hearts. And perhaps, freed from constriction and opened to capacious connection, we can live as ambassadors who’ve tasted and seen a new and spacious land, and who long for others to taste it too.

 

 

 

a reminder to take care of you

The older I get, the more the old saying of Jesus “Physician, heal thyself” makes sense. I’ve spent more than two decades doing a lot of caring. But the more attend to myself, the more sadness I find, the more anxiety I feel, the more trauma I notice. The more I realize that I desperately need to take time to slow down, to feel, to notice the places of pain and, more importantly, the places of sacred presence, remembering that Jesus dwells amidst it all, loving each and every weary and wounded part. 

Part of growing up is becoming aware, and at least a part of this is choosing to feel your own pain and the pain of the world around you. Of course, in typical either-or ways, some choose to bury their heads in the sand while others choose complete immersion in the pain. It has always interested me that Jesus chose neither extreme. How many people in pain did Jesus walk by during his earthly sojourn? Many. How many could he have healed with a better time-and-ministry management strategy? Many. But neither did he refuse to engage the pain – he absorbed the sin of the whole world into his own body!

Somehow, we engage – sometimes at great cost – but we might also take the counsel of St. Teresa – to measure our efforts so as to not exhaust ourselves.

I weighed this over the past weeks as I grieved the untimely death of my father-in-law, just months after my mother-in-law. I felt a confusing array of emotions in me – sadness, anger, relief. We also celebrated my birthday, our 25th anniversary, and my daughter’s high school graduation with a hastily planned and wildly providential trip to Hawaii, made possible because my father-in-law’s passing caused us to cancel a long-planned trip and opened up substantially cheaper rates for flights to Hawaii. How could I hold joy, sadness, gratitude, anger, joy, relief, and confusion in this moment?

But then, the pain on the world doesn’t pause when you take a vacation. Each day, our family would process what seems to be a daily torrent of sad, confusing, enraging, and demoralizing stories. My daughters – 18 and almost 17 – are of a generation of information deluge. I don’t know how they can possibly process everything they take in. I want them to choose to hold the particularly painful stories with some kind of sanctity. And I know they wrestle with the obvious tensions. They feel, in their own young bodies, the weight of Christian school classmates who’ve told fellow students of color to “go home.” Like me, they struggle with the daily moral contradictions of political leadership. I’m a student of narcissism and trauma and a counselor to many – hell, I’ve got a book coming out on narcissism -and I barely feel capable of psychological and spiritual resilience myself, at times, as I witness this daily decomposition of human dignity and character. Somehow, each of us must assess our own threshold of trauma tolerance, and do the careful work of engaging, but also appropriately disengaging (without dissociating).

Physician, heal thyself. In other words, take care of you. Guard your heart. Even Jesus stepped away from the crowds for silence, for intimate conversations with friends, for a meal. Rest. Eat. Exercise. Vacation. Be silent in prayer. Breathe. Listen.

At least a part of what it means to be “in Christ,” I suspect, is to recognize you’re in Christ, not Christ himself, not the savior of the world. Don’t hesitate to enter the painful world and speak truth. But don’t be fooled into thinking your participation is the hinge upon which everything swings. The older I get, the more I realize that there was pain before me, that there is pain today, and that pain will outlive me. All of creation groans, longing for redemption. I do want to be present to it, but I also do realize that I’m limited. If I’ve learned anything from studying narcissism, abuse, and trauma, it’s this – if our wounds go unhealed, we will distribute our woundedness to others. Pain that isn’t healed is hurled in every direction. 

Take good care, these days. Invest deeply and passionately, and rest wholeheartedly. Pay attention, not just to what’s on the news, but to what you need. And always, rest deeply as the beloved one, held in unfathomable love forever.

Peace.

Too far to fall: The pastor’s worst fear – Failure

Failure. It’s a f-word of pastoral ministry. It’s the worst fear, the deepest dread. “I’d rather be diagnosed with a fatal disease than fail,” one candidate wrote on his psychological assessment. “Failure – that’s just too far to fall,” said another.

I was fired in 2003. It was my greatest vocational humiliation. After serving a church for six years, I was invited into a brief elder meeting after teaching my regular Sunday adult course and told that reconciliation and relationship with the lead pastor would be impossible, that my termination was the only recourse. Sara found out as I walked through the front door of our home in tears. Our two babies were there. We’d recently put a deposit on a new home build. There was no goodbye, no thank you. I was not even allowed to keep my own Rembrandt painting – The Return of the Prodigal Son – the one Sara had gifted me after framing it. The prodigal wasn’t being asked to consider a return, I suppose.

It took years to reconcile this – to forgive, to bless that church, its pastor, and the leaders I’d grown to trust and love. But the sting of failure and rejection stayed with me for a long time. I had failed. At least, that’s how I narrated it. It was my worst fear as a pastor. Perhaps, even more bitter for this tender Enneagram 4 was that I felt utterly misunderstood. The short blurb in next Sunday’s program didn’t acknowledge the tears I’d cried for people in that place, the above-and-beyond care I offered, the new initiatives I started, the relationships we forged, the promises not delivered. Never before for me had rage and shame kissed in this way. Image result for shame

Failure.

It’s 15 years later, and the sadness still lingers. Each time a pastoral candidate answers my question “What is the worst thing that can happen to you in ministry?” on a psychological assessment, I hear my own voice in their responses. I hear the terror of potential failure. One pastoral candidate said, “I can never imagine it and I’d never recover from it.” Another said, “It would be so humiliating letting down myself, my extended family, my church.” Still another said that the question provoked so much anxiety that answering it was impossible.

In those days after, I wondered if we would make it. I vacillated between rage and self-contempt. I dreamed of payback. I felt the sting of my Presbytery’s silence in the face of what I considered an injustice. I scrambled to launch a counseling practice, hoping that I’d be able to pay the bills before our severance was done. I had little trust that the God I called sovereign and loving and gracious could hold all of this. My contemplative practices died on that day I was fired, replaced by frantic efforts to do the job God had failed to do for me.

I realized that my heart was bitter, and I was all torn up inside. (from Psalm 73, NLT). 

It’s 15 years later. Another young pastor asked for a Skype call this week, and as we talked he said something I hear quite often, “How have you managed to “make it” unscathed in ministry? Everything you do I want to do.” Honestly, I’m not sure who I’d be today without it. What if that first call was a “big win,” in which I was celebrated and sent? What if I wasn’t thrust into a dark night where my smaller box for God was exploded? With what credibility could I have written Finding God in the Wilderness Places (Leaving Egypt)? Would I have gotten the therapy I needed? Been called out on my own stuff?

What if I didn’t fail?

Richard Rohr titled a book Everything Belongs. I turn 48 in a few short days, and while I thought I’d have things figured out at 40, I now know that 50 will not likely deliver either. I do sense that it all belongs, though. Each detour on the journey was beyond my control or prediction. My girls have endured two cross-country moves and seven different houses. I’ve shifted denominations. I’ve been given tremendous opportunities to be at the forefront of new initiatives. I’ve faced shadow sides of me that frightened me.  I’ve chosen to make some unorthodox moves that I sensed would grow me – risks I’m not sure I would have taken without failure.

I titled a little Lent devotional I wrote a couple of years ago Falling Into Goodness. It was my way of theologically reconciling what I’d come to terms with emotionally. God wasn’t at the top of the ladder but in the dust. Jesus wasn’t waiting on the altar with an award, but embracing me as I wept and wept and wept. When I went to places of self-sabotage, I felt a mysterious presence. When I succeeded, I felt gratitude and a decent dose of humility, knowing that I’d fallen so far. As Augustine might put it, “God was more near to me than I was to myself” all along. Or as the father said to the older brother, “Everything I have is yours.” Just breathe. Just relax into the arms of Goodness.

I got a text from a student yesterday who is scared to fail. I wondered how to respond. I thought – maybe experience is our only teacher. I wanted to say something wise, even proverbial. And then, I knew. I had only the words of one deeply acquainted with suffering, a saint of the dust, Lady Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

 

God is always present. We’re not.

I had one of the those soulful conversations today you have with someone who can finish your sentences. My friend Josh is a spiritual director, and he and I share a conviction some might find outlandish. We feel like we’re on pretty solid ground, though. After all, the venerable St. Augustine said it first.

God is more near to you than you are to yourself.

Let that sink in for the next 50 years. God is home. But we are away. God abides. But we wander. God pursues. But we drift.

When I was younger, I had a strong theology of God’s sovereignty, God’s omniscience, even God’s judgment. But I must have missed the best news of all – God has made his home in me. And in you. And God is infinitely and unfathomably delighted in you.

I shared this while teaching a group of twenty-somethings at a large evangelical church this past week. They’re sincere and passionate. They pray hard. They circle up and call upon God to show up, to be present, to come near. But then they blow it. They drink a little too much, or click on a pornographic website that links to another and to another, all-the-while wondering what God must think. They raise their hands in praise, but five minutes later find themselves gossiping about the person who hasn’t shown up for a few weeks. In other words, they’re like you and me.

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.

And then the guilt and shame sets in. Damn it, God. I’m sorry. You feel so far away right now. And I’m so bad. How can I make it up to you? Guilt…that’s it. I’ll just feel worse about myself. And really wallow in it this time. But seriously…you’re so far away. So, I’ll do my best to deserve you. 

Like the prodigal, we wander. But God is at home all-the-while, residing in the very depths of your soul, not-at-all surprised by your restless spirit, smiling at your silly attempts to win approval. Did you think you could wander away from Love? Do you think I’m that fickle? 

God is more near to you than you are to yourself.

Let that sink in.