Tolerating Tragedy

Get caught up here.

 

 

Element of acceptance #2:  The willingness to tolerate tragedy (in both a global and personal sense) without trying to pinpoint its source

 

 

Once we got the news about Brittany’s health, we had basically two options: try to adopt, or accept life as non-parents.  We knew there was a good chance we would not be able to fundraise the money for adoption and, if that happened, we would have to orient ourselves to a completely different vision of our future together.  We did not want to live as a childless couple. But, we understood, life does not often give you what you want.

 

 

As people of faith, there are complicated questions that arise as a result of being confronted with that painful reality:  Does God love me? Does God care how I experience my own life? Does God truly provide for his people? Why is this happening?

 

 

Now, the temptation in hindsight is to say, “Of course he does!  Look how he provided for you and made you parents!” Yes, he did, that is true.  However, it is also true that there are plenty of people in this world who love God, and want to become parents, who do not become parents.  Do we think God does not love them and did not provide for them?

 

 

I personally do not believe that.  I believe God’s love for us is steadfast and present regardless of whether or not Brittany and I became parents.  It is not easy for me to believe that. It is not some kind of unwavering confidence. It is shaky and filled with doubt.  Yet, this is my attempt to tolerate tragedy without pinpointing its source. What I mean is, I’m intentionally trying not to try to figure out why this happened.  


More on this tomorrow.

(Some) Elements of Acceptance

In these past few days we’ve discussed a few strategies that help us avoiding living as contemptuous people.  One is seeking out both a skilled therapist and a trusted spiritual advisor or mentor or whatever word you want to use.  This helps us deal with the source(s) of our contempt. The second thing we did was attempt to reframe how we perceive other people’s lives.  Contempt can be the product of comparing what we have to what other people have.  The reality is, we have no clue what other people have or do not have in their lives.  And so, comparisons are foolish, though we can’t help but do it, can we? It’s only natural, even though we know it isn’t particularly good for us.  

 

 

The third “strategy” (if you can call it that) I want to mention is acceptance.  What do I mean by acceptance? I personally think that acceptance is a rather expansive, multifaceted topic and I plan to take a few days to address just a few of the many ingredients that lead to acceptance.  I’m surely going to leave some things out. I’m going to give you my list in no particular order as I have no idea how to rate the importance of each of these aspects of acceptance. I’ll unpack these over the coming days so, if the sentences are not immediately clear, they soon will be (I think).  

 

 

Without further ado, here are my elements of acceptance:

 

 

  1. The willingness to live within the boundaries of life’s natural constraints

  2. The willingness to tolerate tragedy (in both a global and personal sense) without trying to pinpoint its source

  3. The willingness to resist idealizing alternative ways in which life “might” have gone

  4. The willingness to trust that, on the aggregate, God steers creation in a hopeful direction

Contempt

This morning I stood in line behind a guy in a coffee shop who was super rude to a barista.  This is NOT how I wanted to start my day off. He was insufferable. Maybe it was because it was early and I hadn’t actually experienced my day off; maybe it was the cowering look and flushed cheeks of the sweet clerk on the receiving end of his abuse; maybe I was just in a feisty mood - I don’t know.  But I could NOT stop myself.

 

 

“Sir, I gotta tell you, if I were being talked to like that, it would really be upsetting.  This woman is trying to do her job. It seems like you are causing her distress. With all due respect, please stop raising your voice at her.”  

 

“Well, lady, we live in a contemptuous world.  Get used to it.” Interesting. I didn’t suggest that he was being contemptuous - though I think he was - he came up with that on his own.  He handed over his five bucks for his specialty coffee drink that I thought only teenage girls ordered and stomped off to wait for it to be prepared.  (I am being catty. Contemptuous even.)

 

My computer dictionary says this about contempt:

  1. the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.

  2. disregard for something that should be taken into account.

 

According to this guy, this is the world we live in.  It is a world where we can act on a feeling that springs up in our teeny tiny hard hearts that convinces us that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.  It is that capacity to disregard another - and even the dictionary agrees that “something that should be taken into account” should not be held in contempt.

 

The guy never said another word as he grabbed his girly drink (oops there I go again) and slammed his way out the door.  My Lord, I prayed, if this is the world we live in - we are in big trouble. I paid it backward and gave that teary eyed teen a 100% tip and knew that I could have given her a puppy and it would have done little to ease the pain associated with being treated with contempt.  As if she were beneath consideration. Worthless. Deserving scorn. Disregarded even though she was created to be taken into account.

 

The guy is right.  We do live in a world where contempt is normative.  But does that mean we have to buy into it as a lifestyle?  I, who have spent a good bit of time writing about the concept at various points in my life, find myself holding the guy in this story...in contempt.  How in the world are we going to change this contemptuous dynamic - a dynamic I hate AND practice?

A Simpler Approach to Spirituality

I’m going to close with a simpler way to process your spirituality if looking at all the individual puzzle pieces (as we’ve done the past few days) isn’t all that interesting to you.  

What constitutes a good day?  Do you ever ask yourself that question?  What do you need to do today, that you can (in reality) do, that would contribute to experiencing a meaningful day?  

It tends to be that we’re so bogged down trying to get done the things that need to be done that we don’t think about building meaning into our day.  Or, we don’t consider what it would take in order to create space to create meaning in our day.  

Of course, building meaning into our day such that we spiritually flourish requires a little bit of planning.  But it’s not just about planning- it’s about intentionality.  Intentionality is at the heart of a flourishing spiritual life.  

Are you living as you intend to be living?  

Spend some time with that question.  It’s not an easy one to answer.  And, the answer will always be a little bit yes and a little bit no.  

Life will be more spiritually enriching if we’re living as we intend to be living.  This means we regularly evaluate how we’re living and intentionally seek to adjust the areas where things aren’t going well.  This process allows our lives to become more full, more spiritually enriching, in part because we confidently know that we're approaching our lives wholeheartedly.  That requires courage.    

If we’re living intentional lives then we will experience ourselves as being more whole, or unified, persons because there will be, over time, fewer discrepancies between our desires and our actions.  There will be less hypocrisy, less internal tension, and the joy that comes from knowing we’re doing the best we can.  

Every Moment Holy

Every moment is holy.  Or, perhaps, every moment has the capacity to be holy.  Holiness is about distinctiveness, it’s about being “set apart.”  God called Israel, in the Old Testament, to be His people, meaning, they were to live with by a unique set of values that pointed others towards God.  

We lose track of individual moments quickly.  They pass us by while we’re looking elsewhere.  But each individual moment grants us the opportunity to be kinder, gentler, more patient, more gracious, more attentive versions of ourselves.  The world is not a gentle place so even a small, seemingly insignificant display of compassion can dramatically impact another person’s day, or life.  

Perhaps we miss these small, significant opportunities to fulfill the call to be a people “set apart” while we anticipate grander opportunities to put our goodness on display.  Or perhaps we (wrongly) assume we have no goodness to display, and give up the fight.  Whatever the case may be, focus on the smallest possible way in which you can exercise your distinctiveness.  

If we can “focus small” then we will be far less likely to miss grander opportunities.

Confession

16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  
James 5:16, NRSV

Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs

Confession is a term that points us in the direction of a number of spiritual practices.  We can’t confess until we’ve done rigorously honest self-reflection, for instance.  We can’t confess without surrounding ourselves with community who are willing to hold us accountable to our certain way of seeing, who we, for our part, trust to do so.  

The 12 steps provide us the mechanics required to carry this process out (in step 5 and its surrounding steps).  We take a moral inventory, we share it with God and a trusted accountability partner.  

The Bible casts a more obviously spiritual vision for confession (though, of course, the 12 steps are profoundly spiritual), a vision which includes healing, forgiveness, acceptance, redemption, restoration, and community up-building.  That's a powerful list.  We can't over-emphasize the importance of confession.  

Imitation of Christ

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
 
Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV

We could just as easily title this day, “Character Part III.”  

The idea here is that our spirituality, our participation in God’s spirit, doesn’t happen just so we feel good, or calm, or peaceful (though those things are good), but so that we become people who embody God’s values, such as humility and obedience to God’s way of seeing.  The idea here is that participating in God’s spirit creates within us the capacity to give up on the rat race of striving for power and, instead, being willing to be people who find meaning in a life defined by service.  

Service looks many different ways (though it does not look like codependency, for instance) but it seems to take place where presence meets humility.  When presence and humility meet, we are free to simply be available for a difficult conversation, or show up to a meeting when you know you won’t benefit from either.  You may not benefit, but presence plus humility gives us vision to see that other people benefit from learning that showing up to meetings is meaningful and impactful.  When presence meets humility we are prepared to do things that we don’t need to do (for our own benefit), or things that may actually be beneath us, so that someone else may benefit.  

I don’t want to sound too legalistic.  This humility plus presence stuff is about a mentality, not a certain set of right actions.  Situation and context always inform our actions.  This is about learning to become people who desire to live in ways that benefit others, and then learn to act on that desire.  

Character Part II: Character in Community

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  
Galatians 5:22-26, NRSV

From yesterday: If we aren’t paying attention to our character then we may have meaningful spirituality.  

It’s important to note, though, that character is also communal and not simply individual.  When Paul writes about character he is telling groups of people who they need to bind together to be.  And, our character is not something we’re solely responsible for creating.  It is a gift that comes to us as a consequence of life in the spirit which is, in part, shaped by our spiritual disciplines.  

I hope what’s becoming clear is that a well-rounded spiritual life is like a kaleidoscope.  There are multiple parts that come together to create a whole, but it’s not totally clear where the beginning of the image is.  It’s not totally clear which piece does what.  Spirituality is the product of drawing on a number of different thoughts, practices, and ideals and trusting that God weaves them together into a meaningful whole as he shapes us, as people, into a group that embodies His character and will.

Character: Part I

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  
Galatians 5:22-26, NRSV

Spirituality is life in God’s spirit.  Whenever Paul writes about life in the spirit he is casting vision for Christian spirituality.  Additionally, whenever Paul writes about life in the spirit,  he discusses character.  Almost without fail.  He writes very little about prayer (although I haven’t done a formal analysis of this- I’m sure someone has).  Interesting stuff.  

So, we can’t talk about spirituality without talking about character.  In the days on humility before God and the communal mindset, we wrote that spirituality asks us to consider who we are to others or, in other words, our character.  Spirituality and character are not separate entities.  I probably haven’t been clear enough on this before, so I’m going to be bolder than I’m normally comfortable being:  One does not shape the other, one does not inform the other.  They are inherently intertwined and cannot be separated out and studied separately.    If we aren’t paying attention to our character then we must question whether or not we are pursuing any meaningful spirituality in our lives.  

Prayer

14 And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 1 John 5:14, NRSV

Prayer is one of the “obvious” spiritual disciplines, but can look many different ways.  We talked in earlier days about how prayer can be a more active experience, one in which we are talking to God (whether out loud or not), or a more passive experience (such as centering prayer’s focus on sitting in God’s presence).  

Rather than saying anything about “how to pray,” that’s a separate conversation, I want to offer a few practical thoughts on prayer.  I know most people struggle to pray at all.  I am one of these people.  If this is you- find the style of prayer that you can do.  In an ideal world we would all have wildly exciting and diverse prayer lives.  We don’t live in an ideal world.  Don’t think about time or frequency.  Focusing on those things is just shame attack waiting to happen.  Spend your energy discovering a form of prayer that you enjoy (or can at least tolerate) and do that when you can.  It’s easier to stick to it if you schedule it and make it a habit but, if that’s not happening, do it when you can.  Any amount is valuable, there is no minimum.  

There is no right or perfect way to pray.  Some people use acronyms or other tools as guides.  That’s fine if it helps you.  Centering prayer is no more correct than a more active form of prayer.  They are all strategies and approaches, they all have value, and they will speak to, or connect with, different people differently.  Find something you enjoy- but be willing to try uncomfortable things.  It took me years to be willing to experiment with centering prayer- now it is my go-to.  So, don’t be afraid to revisit something you’ve previously rejected.  We change.  

There are “talking” prayers and “silent” prayers.  There are also other options.  You can get the Book of Common prayer, for instance.  You can read these prayers, and take them as your own.  You can do the same with Psalms, or Lamentations, or even the Prophets.  Or you can simply pray the Lord’s Prayer.  Or the Serenity Prayer.  You can use pre-written prayers as guides so you do not have to form your own words.  This can be one of the simplest ways to get started.  

Prayer is our conscious contact with God but, don’t forget our communal mindset.  Prayer is also one of the ways in which we serve our community and our world.  It’s far bigger than us.  Community is always first!

A Sense of Wonder

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
    or the world’s first bits of soil.  

Proverbs 8:22-26, NRSV

I’m not sure I’m totally equipped to write about “wonder.”  I’ll begin with three recommendations.  Two books:  Sacred Sense by William P. Brown and Beauty by John O’Donohue.  One film:  Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.  

Wonder is the combined sense of the complexity of creation and the knowledge of our inability to comprehend it.  In it’s most potent form, wonder is a kind of gut-level joyful glee in response to something rather shocking and rare (but we can have this experience over simple and common things in life too- this is, perhaps, wonder at its best).  

When we were in Texas back in the fall, a group of us saw a shooting star almost too large to believe.  The only way I can think to describe its size is this:  Imagine holding a ruler up above your head at arm’s length, pretending it was far off in the distant sky, and not in your hand.  That was roughly the size and shape of the shooting star, only it WAS way up in the sky (millions of miles away???) and not just a couple of feet from our eyes.  

In Texas, at night, you can see all kinds of shooting stars.  We stood around for a while and saw several small ones, and we were amazed (To use the same exercise:  imagine holding a small blade of grass above your head at arm’s length.  Nothing in comparison to that ruler.).  And then came this bad boy.  We started shouting and jumping up and down.  For those of us who hadn’t seen shooting stars before, we found a sense of wonder in the small ones, and that sense of wonder grew exponentially when the giant one flew across the sky.  That is a sensation you just don’t want to find yourself too distanced from.  

Wonder is ever-present in scripture.  It can be a positive or negative experience.  The people sometimes maintain a sense of awe over their disappointment in God (Job 38 or so).  There is wonder over creation (Gen. 1-2), wonder over sex (Song of Solomon), wonder over the meaning of life (Ecclesiastes), wonder over the incarnation (John 1), wonder over the scope of God’s plans (Colossians 1).  

Wonder is connected to humility.  It is the reminder that there are forces far greater than ourselves operating in the world, but it also carries with it a sense of appreciation for these forces.  I believe “wonder” is what happens in the moments where we experience joy as a result of how small we are.  This is a very odd and bizarre kind of joy.  It makes us appreciate the little things in life, fleeting moments of awe that pull us out of our worries and grant us the privilege of perspective, however briefly.  

I don’t know why this strikes me as being one of the “top 8” aspects of a well-rounded spiritual life.  It just does.  

A Communal Mindset

13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.  Colossians 3:13-15, NRSV

A communal mindset is, well, what it sounds like.  We learn to see ourselves as part of a group- God’s family.  We understand our responsibility for living as a reflection of God’s image and character to be a group responsibility.  We cannot shoulder this burden as individuals.  This is good news- there is no alternative universe that exists where we, as individuals, live perfectly.  It’s never been asked and it’s never been expected.  Part of living as a holy community means seeking God’s way of dealing with imperfection.  By responding to challenges with gentleness and loving concern, we represent God.  We assume, perhaps, that we only represent God when we avoid temptation and imperfection altogether.  Not so.  

This means we will sacrifice some personal wants, desires, dreams, or goals in order for the community to operate as a collective unit.  It means there will be disagreements and conflicts and hurt feelings.  It also means we are committed to doing the difficult work of resolving those conflicts and hurt feelings because we are spiritually connected (literally, by God’s spirit).  It means we’re committed to voicing the ways in which we have been harmed so as to give the community the opportunity to respond with love.  

The good news is, this communal mindset also means we will benefit from the “goodness” of others.  We are spiritually linked, and the community’s work reflects on the individual and vice versa.  When we are not doing well in life, we are carried by the community and still get to take credit for the work of the community as a result of this spiritual link between us.  

God works in the world primarily through people.  This is a great responsibility.  Yet, at the same time, it also means we have many opportunities to see God visibly on display, at work.  

Spirituality as Meditation and Inner Peace

In the last few years, Christianity has re-discovered the wisdom (or spirituality) of the Desert Fathers and their practices.  Those who are unfamiliar with the Desert Fathers probably see these practices as being “Eastern.”  Christians have a long tradition of silent prayer, centering prayer, meditation, and the like, though many people don’t know that and tend to call these practices “buddhism.”  Buddhism does, of course, practice similar techniques, though with a different emphasis.  These practices are known to have calming effects, among many other things.  There are a couple key differences between this view and the “Spirituality as Privacy” view.  One is that the “privacy” view is pretty much limited to scripture reading and explicit, spoken requests to God.  In fact, the privacy view would probably be skeptical of people who practiced prayer techniques that emphasized silence, nature, and a mere “resting” in God’s presence.   The second as that the more meditative group tend to speak about spirituality as if it's about finding a piece of yourself that has been lost.  

There are a couple of dangers here.  One is that spirituality isn't necessarily about finding something we've lost, it's about gaining something new.  Spirituality is about receiving a new version of yourself through participating in God's spirit- which is transformative.  Second- any retreat into solitude has the potential to be a retreat from the world; it can be (though it doesn't have to be) a desire to remain unaffected.   The other danger comes in seeking internal peace for its own sake.  Living faithfully in a world that does not typically value faith’s values means living with a great deal of tension both internally and externally.  Seeking internal peace for the sake of internal peace is a way of denying the reality of what is.  It is escaping difficulty simply because we do not feel up to the challenge.  

However, earnestly seeking God through a certain discipline and finding some peace in that process is a beautiful thing.  This is one of the great benefits of meditative practices, including physiological benefits such as stress reduction.  Yet, these practices must be grounded in a deep engagement with all aspects of life (and community) or else they are comfort and little more. 

If we are not deeply engaged with life, then meditation becomes entertainment.  

Humble Submission to God

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Colossians 3:12, NRSV

Spirituality begins with the confession that there is a God and we did not get the job.  As such, we do not interact with God as if equals.  This does not mean we cannot be honest, that we cannot question, that we cannot challenge, it just means that we do so with the awareness that our vision and understanding are limited.  It also means that our plans and purposes and desires are secondary to God’s if (or when) they are not aligned.  

It means that whatever life throws our way, we (perhaps gradually) learn to accept and live with those circumstances, trusting that God has structured creation in this way intentionally (with all of its chaos, injustice, and suffering).  God does not exist to answer our questions or solve our problems; we exist to witness to his grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love.  He may choose to engage our questions and our problems and, in fact, He probably will at times, but we do not live with this expectation as if it’s something we “deserve” or something we’re “owed.”  This is when we cross over into pride.  

And, spirituality is not just between us and God.  It is just as much about our relationship to the people and world around us.  Living in humble submission to God means that we refuse to manipulate or cajole the people and circumstances around us such that we can create whatever we imagine might be the ideal version of life.  Humble submission to God means we accept the life God gives with all of its warts.  We refuse fantasy living and give up the desire to force others to conform to our fantasy.  

Footnote: This does not mean we do not exercise responsibility in our lives- it just means that manipulating, controlling, or dominating others is not a form of responsibility.

Spirituality as Privacy

The second camp of spirituality that I mentioned a few days ago is the group that views spirituality as something that happens when we’re appropriately isolated.  It is private, above all else.  No other person may inquire about it nor will I mention what happens there.  It tends to be this view comes with certain rules about what happens in the private space, namely, scripture reading and prayer, and they must be done for a long time or else you’re wasting your time.  (As a youngster I was given the mantra, “15 minutes a day…No way!  Gotta have more to be hardcore.”  In other words, 15 minutes or less of spiritual discipline may as well be zero.)

The danger in this view is that we become disconnected from the fact that all spirituality is, first and foremost, communal.  Spirituality comes from God’s spirit and it comes upon the whole group of God’s people, and individuals benefit from that, but spirituality is not primarily about personal, private experience.  If we ignore the communal aspect of spirituality, we gain little from spiritual privacy- it becomes more like spiritual isolation.  Our spirituality, as individuals, is both led and informed by what has first come upon the group.  

The benefit to what this view emphasizes is the fact that spirituality is truly, deeply personal.  We would be unwise to ignore that or to treat that as unimportant simply because we believe that the community does take precedence over the individual.  We can prioritize both the community and the individual, we do not have to choose.  This is a demonstration of an order of events as much as it is anything else.  

The group’s spirituality leads to the individual’s.

Well-rounded Spirituality

9 But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. 1 Corinthians 2:10-13, NRSV

Yesterday I wrote that I wanted to spend some time unpacking the key elements of a thriving spiritual existence.  I'm hoping that doing this will accomplish at least two things.  1. I'm hoping this list will open your eyes to things you already do that are profoundly spiritual.  I want you to be able to see your current life as one that is deeply meaningful and filled with God's spirit.  2. I'm hoping to help you find some new things to focus on that may renew your energy for spiritual matters.  So, here's a list of things to cover over the next few days.  

1. Humble submission to God
2. Communal mindset
3. Sense of Wonder
4. Prayer (all forms)
5. Character or virtue
6. Confession
7. Imitation of Christ
8. Every moment holy

What would you add?

What is spirituality anyway?

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  Romans 5:1-5, NRSV
 

We talk about spirituality a lot, but we don't often define it.  It's not an easy concept to define.  Our starting point, in a Christian framework, is that spirituality is fundamentally our participation in God's spirit.  God invites us into his community, he has gifted us his spirit, that spirit leads us, guides us,  and transforms us.  

Spirituality, as a reality, begins with God and travels down to us.  It does not originate somewhere inside of us, it ends up there.  Spirituality is not just a matter of spiritual disciplines- it is the lifeblood of a relationship between God and his people.  It does not merely bring us peace and calm, but character and hope.  

Over the next few days we're going to discuss some of the key ingredients in a thriving spiritual existence.

Banishment

Over the hours that this team sweated large and small stuff related to the recovery ministry woes they faced, they had to face a hard truth:  relationships are conditional.  Yes, yes, love is unconditional.  But healthy relationships have conditions.  This doesn’t sit well with our desires to be merciful and gracious.  Mainly I think because we have failed to fully develop our own deep and wide understanding of the concepts of grace and mercy.  But also because let’s face it - love is yummy.  Limits are sometimes challenging to accept. One afternoon we looked at two passages of scripture that dealt with banishment: 2 Samuel 14:14 and Deuteronomy 30:4.  We also hopped over to Jeremiah 29 and considered what God asked the Israelites to do while living as slaves in Babylon.  (Lest we forget, they were experiencing a GIANT timeout/banishment as a result of their own stubborn resistance to God.)  Here’s what we noticed:

 

  1.  No wonder Paul was ragging on the Corinthians!  They were proud of the "restoration" but missing the point of what restoration truly is.  Yes, God is ALWAYS finding ways for banished people to find their way back home.  Banishment isn’t intended to be punishment so much as it is a tool for restoration.  True restoration could not happen for the Corinthians without a "time out" to show the community that they were valuable enough to protect.  
  2. Banishment is sometimes necessary.  In this church's situation, they had to at least determine (see how they are progressing through the stages of change?!?) if it was the tool they needed to use in their particular situation.
  3. Even in the midst of suffering, God’s people are given a way to move through the suffering.  They accomplish this by keeping a rigorous eye on thriving.  Thriving is described in Jeremiah 29 as suffering AND continuing the work of building community.  Sometimes building community means protecting community.  

 

Part of our contemplation as a working team involved calming down and remembering our core values; next, we made a conscious choice to live by them.  This required us to practice making amends.  The guy who muttered the “too much estrogen” comment had to make amends not only to the female he poked, but he had to deal with the larger issue of gender bias.  The team then had to identify how their core values would change the way they were processing.  This took FOREVER!  They worked for several meetings just on how to have crucial conversations without decreasing safety in the room.  They had to learn about active listening.  Look, it’s possible to get really old and never acquire these skills.  But this team was willing and ready to learn.  This posture of humility helped them when the time came to analyze the failure of the staff person that caused all this mess to begin with.  Having had their own shortcomings exposed at times during this process, they were a gentler, kinder crew when they got back to tackling the original issue at hand. Are there skills that you lack that you need to go acquire before you can expect to see the fruits of your transformational labors?

Shame is a Spiritual Antagonist

I don’t know how to keep shame from creeping into a room. Heck, I don’t even know how to keep shame from eating away at my heart.  But because I personally have struggled with shame so much I have learned a few techniques that help me manage it, even as I work and wait for healing.  Shame is going to make merry anytime we are trying to improve our conscious contact with God or become more decently human or love others or treat ourselves and others with respect.  Shame is a condition many of us need to heal from AND learn to manage as we recover. 

 

The aforementioned church staff was simply a family system of sorts that was experiencing a team shame attack.  Before we could take meaningful action we had some work to do. 

 

As I sat, listened and learned from their family fight, I identified the group at the precontemplation stage of change.  There was no meaningful contemplation happening; they were ill-equipped in their whipped up stage to determine a direction and they certainly were NOT ready to proceed with action steps.  In precontemplation, they were reacting to the crisis.  These guys and gals were saying, thinking, feeling and proposing action steps that were more related to how they individually and collectively handled stress than anything more substantive and meaningful - like following their core values!  This stuff happens to me all the time, so I could feel their pain.

 

I saw a glimmer of opportunity.  Perhaps I could provide some much-needed calm.  Of course, me being me, this would require divine intervention.  But isn’t this where our hope always lies?  In recovery, aren’t we always called to admit our powerlessness and unmanageable parts, come to believe that a power greater than us can restore us to sanity, and turn our will over to God’s care and control?  Under duress, these were not the primary thoughts of the group.  Maybe I could remind them that we had a God who was ready to help us.

 

So we looked at 1 Corinthians, and then I asked them a question:  what do you see here?  At first, all they saw was what their shame wanted them to see - sexual immorality was super bad and it got people banished.   Look, this is true.  But it is an incomplete version of the truth and does not get us to the heart of the issue.  When we read a passage like this we're being dumped into the end of a story, and we miss the process.  When we miss the process we overlook some important dynamics that lie beneath the story itself.  

 

We have lots of contemplating to do before we just jump on the banishment bandwagon.  Because the truth is, God has many tools dangling from his belt.  Banishment is not the only option.  Plus, it wasn’t the thing I was hoping they would notice. 

 

To be continued….

Sneaky, Sneaky Shame

Everyone is quick to point out how much they hate being shamed but it rarely provides an automatic insight to help us not act as shamers.  Shame is sneaky and shows up sporting a bunch of different looks.  It can be kind of punky, aggressive and direct - attacks on others’ looks, character, ethnicity, etc.  It can hide out in silence - when we fail to speak up against wrongdoing.  It can really go stealth and try to mask itself as righteousness.  It can go underground and manifest as a critical voice in our heads.  It can develop strength and stamina for running and keep us from living our one wild and wonderful life.  Shame has mad skills of disguise.

 

When the group met to discuss the problem with their recovery ministry shame was in play big time.  The Senior Pastor looked serious and stern, but he was playing a game on his iPad.  The Care Minister was extremely emotional, crying and sobbing when discussion arose about staff termination.  The Missions Minister muttered that there was too much estrogen on display for the team to get much accomplished.  And the content of the discussion?  Wowser.  Brutal.  All of it.  Every stitch of it was completely unproductive.  Eventually people wore out or grew so frustrated that an uneasy silence emerged.  Soon folks were stirring as if waking from a nap; catching sight of me and our team the Senior Pastor suggested without much enthusiasm, “I guess maybe you should offer a couple suggestions for us to consider.”

 

“Glad to.”  I said.  And I asked them to turn in their bibles to this:  Everyone has heard that there is sexual immorality among you.  This is a type of immorality that isn’t even heard of among the Gentiles - a man is having sex with his father’s wife!  And you’re proud of yourselves instead of being so upset that the one who did this thing is expelled from your community.  1 Corinthians 5:1-2

 

Tomorrow I will continue the discussion on shame, but today do me a favor.  Read these verses as if you’ve never seen them before and see what you notice.