are you there, God? What do I call you?

Who is God? Or the better question may be, who do you imagine God to be?

I have a new favorite book, and luckily for me, it is required for my class, so I will most likely finish reading it. It is called Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer, by Ann and Barry Ulanov. It’s possibly the most personally impacting book I’ll read all semester. One idea I’ve been chewing on is that we all have “god-images” based on our early experiences. I know, I know: many people could rattle off a list of adjectives for what God is “supposed” to be like, or what they have been taught in church that God is like. God is merciful, God is just, God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient. God is good. God is loving. But what is your gut reaction, your first instinct, when you think about God? When you start to become aware of that, you can start to look your God (or perhaps I should be saying god) -image in the face and see if that’s really a true image of God.

So I started thinking. What do I really think about God?

Granted, I’m still trying to figure that out, and being in seminary sort of compounds the problem (though I was already good at compounding it before). I am theistic. I believe in a personal God who is still connected with people in their day-to-day lives. I believe God answers prayers. I don’t know why he doesn’t answer all prayers. I would like to know why, but I believe that there is an answer somewhere even if I am never given access to it, and even if the answer does not play itself out in this lifetime. These are things I must believe to try and hold the idea of suffering in this world together with the concept of a loving God who can interact with humans.

So with these nice mental ideas about God packaged up, I should be all set. But then why do my emotions betray me?

I don’t think I was spanked much as a child, but I have a clear memory of being afraid that I would get an unexpected spanking once when my dad walked by my backside. I still experience that feeling of wincing and dread sometimes when I think about God.

For instance, if things are going well for me, I rejoice but I also dread the moment that the other shoe is going to drop and my happiness will come crashing down. As if God was sitting up there plotting new ways to take away my joy.

When I pray for something, I still think I need to do something to deserve it. And I experience the feeling of “why would God want to give something to you?” Especially when I consider all the suffering in the world, where I wonder why God – whoever God is- is not giving relief and happiness to those people.

Apparently, buried beneath my beliefs that God is all good and loving, lies a belief- or a feeling- that secretly, God would really like to trip me up and see what happens. And that God either doesn’t like to or can’t remove suffering from others. The idea of that God scares me.

What do I do with these ideas about God? Does believing them in my gut really make them true?

My reading has been stirring and shaking my thoughts, with some productive ideas resulting. I would like to share:

“In prayer we must begin where we are, with the images of the divine that we project and find ourselves projecting onto the unknown… One of the first tasks in prayer is to face the process openly, to notice what images we have of God and to welcome them into our awareness.” (p. 29)

STOP PRETENDING. I really do not have it all together with my images of God. But God, whoever God is, already knows that, and God knows that my human limitations make me unable to really know God. And that somehow, that which makes me so human and limited also makes me so lovely in God’s eyes.

The beautiful thing about recognizing our projections– the images and faces that we put on God– is that in doing so, we are discovering more of our own core. There is less that separates us and the divine, because we start to see past the false images and walls between us. “Those images and names that entrap us will be loosened… [we will] bring our primary selves right up to God’s presence” (p. 33).

Wow. What an amazing idea. That by simply owning up to part of who I am, I can become closer to God.

Can I trust that if I face my questions openly and without fear, an answer may begin to emerge that I couldn’t even imagine before?

Care to join me in this? What are some of the ways that you think of God, if fear, shame, or denial did not keep you from expressing your real thoughts?

scratching the surface of Jesus – my own “quest for the historical Jesus”

Many if not most Christians take our ideas of Jesus for granted, assuming that what the churches have taught us about Jesus is true and historically reliable. I have been in churches that try to piece together differing accounts about Jesus’ deeds into one big, albeit clumsy, puzzle: multiple feeding stories, a long post-resurrection narrative (now was it one man, an angel, two men who met the women at the tomb?). Or we simply read one gospel at a time and manage to forget the details that differ by the time we find ourselves reading the next gospel. It is questions like these that led me to my own “quest for the historical Jesus.” I wondered, how much of the gospels are true? What is the most accurate way to learn about who this guy was and what he did? What can I believe, as an intellectually honest Christian?

Fear not, Christian. This quest is not a one-way street to losing your faith. It is fascinating, it is challenging, and it requires a great deal of honesty with yourself. It requires the willingness to lose what you thought you had to gain something new. I hope that what is gained leads you to a deeper communion with God, who has never left us and is always with us.

As part of my quest, I read a book called The Historical Jesus: Five Views. For the full summary / essay of it, click here. For the purposes of having a post you might actually read, however, I will summarize my summary and describe some of the key assumptions and issues of the historical Jesus quest.

  • Scholars acknowledge that we are very limited in what we can know about history in general, and Jesus for these purposes. They use sources like the New Testament (considered to have historically reliable details, though not everything in it is true), data points from other non-canonical sources (like the gospels of Thomas, Peter, or Judas, which are not considered to be as historically reliable but help inform us about other theologies of the time), and the treasured non-Christian historical source (Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, written in the first century, is considered important and a valid outside source).
  • Scholars often try to tease apart the “historical Jesus” from the “Christ of faith.” The assumption is that after the church encountered Jesus after his resurrection, their theology and beliefs about what he did before his death shifted. Essentially, scholars think the church reshaped historical events and added sayings of Jesus in light of what they ended up believing about him after his death. Scholars often think that Jesus was “deified” here: that after his death, the church believed he was the Son of God or God himself, whereas Jesus wouldn’t have said that about himself while he was alive.
  • Figuring out how the Gospels were written is a mystery that has teased scholars for centuries. The common view is that Mark was written first, followed by Matthew and Luke, who used Mark’s gospel when writing their own. Many scholars believe in the existence of “Q,” a document of Jesus’ sayings (probably orally passed down, at first), which is the material that both Matthew and Luke include that is not found in Mark. Another theory is that Matthew was written by using Mark, and that Luke used both of those gospels when writing his own. Those three gospels are called the “Synoptic Gospels” because they are so similar. John is not very similar, varying greatly on style, order of historical events, and theology. John is considered to have been written later, after the theology of the church had been evolving for some time.
  • There are countless ideas about who Jesus thought himself to be. Many Christians (unknowingly, perhaps) assume Johannine (meaning, from the Gospel of John) theology, which emphasizes Jesus’ deity and being part of God. I find that John can be read in different ways, especially if you read it with mystic glasses on, or a belief in present connection to the transcendant/God. Some (fringe) scholars believe that Jesus never existed (see post). Some think of Jesus as a social revolutionary who hung out with the marginalized and despised of the day, much like Luke portrays Jesus to be. Some see Jesus as a special Messiah-type figure, firmly planted in a Jewish context but with a message that applied for all.

The puzzle has two parts: first, trying to figure out what, in the sources, originates with Jesus himself, and second, what that means, as well as what the parts that were perhaps literary additions can still tell us about the character of Jesus and the impact he had on his followers. Practically, what does that mean for us today? I can’t say I am anything of an expert, but I am an earnest seeker and want to give valid perspectives a fair shot. I don’t want to craft a “Jesus in my own image,” that is, just one that is easy for me to understand and to follow. I feel lucky to feel rooted in belief in God, who is beyond comprehension but also trustworthy, even as the particulars of my beliefs in Jesus (and thoughts about God) change. This is what gives me the courage to challenge my theology because I feel I still have a center to hold on to. I hope that you may do the same.

I would love to hear the thoughts, perspectives, or insights of any seekers on this quest with me! Let’s be part of the conversation of trying to understand who Jesus was and what we should do about it.

jesus in movie image

*We, like filmmakers, may consider ourselves at liberty to imagine Jesus in his context… 🙂

“Who do you say I am?” Summary of five scholars’ views

Summary of The Historical Jesus: Five Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy

Much as it would be convenient, history is not something that we can go back and neatly uncover, as if it were a very dusty shelf or a frog’s insides. Rather, history can perhaps be approximated using the best data we have available, and interpreted based on the various viewpoints presented from the data that we can gather. The same goes for “uncovering” Jesus. There has long been a so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” in which scholars use information from sources like the Gospels, the other letters of the New Testament, non-canonical gospels, and the rare non-Christian source available to make their best guess about who Jesus was and what he did. However, scholars ought not to be the only ones on this quest. It is vital that people of faith with a desire to be intellectually honest also engage in this pursuit. One’s notions about Jesus may necessarily change in this process, but if the end result is being more informed and hopefully closer to the truth, it is a good change. I also believe that Jesus will not disappear as a result of this study, but that the student may come to a deeper and more complex appreciation of the man and his works on earth.

In the book Historical Jesus: Five Views, five biblical scholars present their diverse viewpoints, ranging from the claim that Jesus never existed at all to an evangelical who reads the Gospels as though they had unique access into the inner workings of Jesus’ mind. While these five do not represent the full possibilities of theories about Jesus, and none of them, in my opinion, present a completely satisfactory option, they at least serve to expand our thinking about Jesus.

Robert Price writes the first essay (Jesus at the Vanishing Point), holding the view that Jesus is not a historical figure but that he was invented as a mythic hero, similar to Greek and Roman gods of the time. He claims that there is no real historical support outside of Christian sources for Jesus’ existence, and describes how Jesus’ characteristics (e.g., born of a virgin, reputed to be the son of a god, goes to a future kingdom) fit the mythic-hero archetype. Thankfully, for all of those who were worried that maybe Jesus was going to disappear as a result of this study, the other contributors dismiss Price’s ideas fairly easily, as this is quite a fringe idea even in scholar-land. The first-century writer of Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, is regarded by scholars to be a legitimate non-Christian source that mentions a Jesus who performed “unusual” (miraculous?) deeds. Also, one cannot ignore the enormous effects of Jesus’ legacy, quite a feat for someone who would have supposedly never existed. The strongest part of Price’s essay, I found, was how thoroughly he combed through the Gospel of Mark and demonstrated how much of the book is a midrash (that is, written interpretation of Hebrew scriptures) on the Old Testament, like Joshua and Psalms. It is fascinating to see how passages we might just skim over as being original Markan echo passages that we, as New Testament-focused Christians, may have never even read in the Old Testament.

John Dominic Crossan, a co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, writes the second essay (Jesus and the Challenge of Collaborative Eschatology). The Jesus Seminar is essentially a group of scholars who gather together and vote on which sayings of Jesus are historically true. They often use the “criterion of dissimilarity” to determine this. This means that among other things, the Seminar is looking for sayings that do not just reflect the “post-Easter” Jesus or the “Christ of faith” (they believe that ideas about Jesus changed after the church experienced him after his resurrection. They would say the church essentially made up a bunch of events and sayings about Jesus before his death to suit their post-resurrection theology). Bear Crossan’s setting in mind is light of what he writes. In his essay, Crossan emphasizes that we must understand Jesus in his setting: a Jewish peasant living in Galilee under the rule of the Roman Empire, which profoundly impacted Jesus’ mission. He theorizes that Jesus started out as a follower of John the Baptist, who preached that the Kingdom of God was coming but not here yet (“imminent”), but that Jesus split off from John and began preaching that the Kingdom of God was actually here, right now. The kingdom simply requires us to bring it in (hence the term collaborative or participatory). Crossan summarizes Jesus’ main program points as: healing the sick, eating with those whom he healed, and announcing the presence of God’s kingdom through doing both of those things. However, Crossan seemed to say that Jesus’ healings were more of the spiritual or emotional variety (not miraculous or physical), which I have a hard time buying based on how well Jesus was known for his healings and exorcisms. Crossan believes Jesus was trying to demonstrate that this world was owned by God, not the Roman empire, and that much of Jesus’ actions were non-violently anti-imperial in this way. He cites Pilate’s killing of Jesus, but not Jesus’ followers, as proof that Jesus was rebellious enough to be considered a threat, but that his non-violence made it unnecessary to put his followers to death as well. I appreciated his inspiring take on a Jesus who was bold enough to challenge the ruling empire of his day all while remaining peaceful and even sacrificing himself for this cause. The weakest part of his arguments is what we can humorously think of as crafting a “Jesus in our own image,” that is, we modern-day folks love the idea of a liberal Jesus standing up to the powers that be, defending the poor, and attempting to subvert the oppressive systems of his day. Crossan acts as though he has privileged insights into Jesus’ motives, thinking, and how he perceived himself compared to other messiah-types of his day.

The third essay (Learning the Human Jesus), is by Luke Johnson. He holds that historiography (trying to understand events in the context of changing interpretations about them) leaves us limited in what we can know. He suggests that we try reading the Gospels literarily instead, with an eye to what the literary elements that have been included can tell us about how the writers interpreted Jesus. He acknowledges that Mark, Matthew, and Luke are dependent sources (general consensus is that Matthew and Luke used Mark when they set out to write their own gospels), but then he asks what, considering all the points at which these writings diverge, the points of convergence can tell us about Jesus. Based on this, he gives a modest list of what we can be pretty sure we know about Jesus: he proclaimed God’s rule as connected to his own words and deeds, he performed healings, he taught in parables and interpreted Torah, he associated with the marginalized in Jewish society, and he chose 12 followers. Johnson also says Jesus probably was baptized by John, performed some kind of prophetic act in the Temple, and perhaps interpreted a final meal with his followers in light of his coming death. Johnson was my favorite contributor, because of his moderate approach to the Jesus inquiry and the accessibility of his approach to the layperson: all you need to do is open a Bible and read and compare the gospels. I was inclined to do that before I ever read Johnson’s essay, and it has been a fruitful endeavor even with limited background information. The weakest part of his essay, I found, was that he did not acknowledge enough the literary dependence of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and so may have made more of the significance of the “convergences” than he really has liberty to do. Given the evolution of theology and emphases even within those three gospels, and especially between John (generally thought to be written later) and those three, how much may theology have been shaped in the period between Jesus’ life and when Mark was written?

James Dunn is the fourth contributor (Remembering Jesus), writing about how he thinks the current quest for the historical Jesus has lost its way. His three main points of contention about the quest are: they assume that faith clouds judgment and historical reliability; that they focus almost entirely on the literary dependence of the gospels, disregarding the oral tradition; and that the “criterion of dissimilarity” is greatly overused. I agree with him that Jesus somehow evoked faith from his followers and that this is a genuine point of evidence that we must take into account when trying to uncover the historical Jesus. Somehow, as well, a quester of faith will perceive different things about the Jesus tradition than one without, but having faith does not make you wrong about your findings. I also agree that the criterion of dissimilarity is given too much emphasis, in that scholars are trying to find a Jesus who is different from his contemporary messiah-type figures and the Christ of faith, as if the real Jesus couldn’t possibly be similar to either of those. However, I did not find his argument about the oral tradition to be particularly strong. Indeed, it was an oral culture and very few people were literate then, but if, as he pointed out, you can account for nearly every variation in the gospels through literary editing, then why spend so much time trying to defend why an oral tradition accounts for these variations? Even if there was a strong oral tradition, it seems more logical to me that the written tradition of the gospels was passed down in just that stream: literarily.

The final contributor is Darrell Bock, who presents an evangelical view on the historical Jesus. He argues that the historical Jesus study can only give us a “gist” of Jesus, but that this gist sketches the same person that the gospels outline. Most of his essay is spent outlining themes of Jesus’ ministry and the vindicating events showing that Jesus was who he (or the Gospels) claimed to be. However, although he carefully outlines a Jesus well-supported with details from the Gospels, it is not done in a historically critical way. He seems to have the assumption that the Gospel writers had privileged access into Jesus’ thoughts and intentions, instead of reading the books neutrally and carefully, with an eye to what might be historically accurate and what might be a literary modification. Thus, it is hard to read his essay with much academic respect. In the field of biblical scholarship, one must honestly engage the Gospels in a historically critical way and let the chips fall where they may, requiring faith on the part of the Christian that there is still a Jesus to believe in and follow once the dust settles.

Glossary:

Canonical/non-canonical gospels: Canonical gospels include Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The church was in agreement about which books were canonical, or belonged as Scripture in the New Testament, by/in about the 4th century. Non-canonical gospels include the Gospels of Peter, of Judas, and of Thomas, among others.

Midrash: commentary on the Scriptures. Often a Jewish method of interpreting and rewriting scriptures with modified or added theological meaning.

Eschatology: Having to do with the end times: regarding death, judgment, and what happens to the world/souls.

Historiography: The study of how history has been written (leaving room for changing interpretations of history).

the_historical_jesus

street corner

I see you standing on the street corner

January chill, old cardboard sign

While Boulder passes you by

My heart cringes every time,

Guilt grips my stomach and I, too

Avoid your eyes

Small offering, ziploc of granola

a few words exchanged

To appease my conscience, like I’ve somehow helped

But I want to do more than that-

I long to acknowledge your humanity,

And when I don’t meet your gaze,

It’s me, not you, that I’m avoiding

I long to make a small moral movement

On this stage we’re acting on

To say “this is what I believe in:

Human dignity, connection, compassion”

To stop wounding our souls with inaction

In denial of our brothers and sisters

Who at core are no different from us.

hope

Faith is hope deferred

and sometimes deferred, deferred, deferred

Do I play the fool in holding on

Or is it pride speaking in refusing to let go,

Refusing to admit I am wrong?

Or is this hope real

In a year, five years, ten

Can I look back and say

“Your best decision was never giving up”?

Hope springs forth eternal

Longings of our hearts acted out in our lives

Unquenchable desire for something beautiful

Even if we only see the bottom of the quilt now.

We are messes of men, but

I am compelled to believe

That out of mystery and chaos

Comes beauty and order

And meaning

And that all manner of things shall be well.

 

Flowers on the Altar

Yesterday I went to the wake for my stepgrandmother. The house was crowded with family and friends celebrating my stepgrandmother “Deenie’s” 82 years of life and mourning her absence in our lives. In a book I’ve been reading (about depth psychology and pastoral counseling), an article stated that most of the parishioners the pastor encounters leave flowers on the church altar not on the death anniversary of their loved one, but on the loved one’s birthday. It is a celebration of life, not mourning your own loss. Thus, here is my own Flowers on the Altar.

My stepbrother delivered the eulogy and did a fantastic job. Deenie was an elegant and hardworking lady – comfortable hobnobbing with the oil executives as well as plucking chickens and starting campfires. She married the man who would be her best friend at the age of 17, a relationship started by a dollar bet on her being able to get a date with him within a week. They were married for over 50 years. She could make something out of seemingly nothing, and did so many times through countless moves following her husband’s work while raising their three children. She believed in all the members of her family, which made them believe in themselves.

The most striking theme to me about her life was the sense of welcome and acceptance that she exuded to everyone in her life. Whether your relation officially included a “step,” an “in-law,” or just a “boyfriend of __,” you were considered an important member of the family in her house. As the crowd shared memories of Deenie, my dad expressed to the crowd what I had been thinking. She enveloped him, my brother, and me into the family when we showed up as a husband of remarriage with an 8 and 6 year old to the family gatherings at Deenie and Papa John’s house in the Black Forest woods, and we are forever grateful. Despite having no history with these people, my 8-year-old self never felt like I was missing out on some family inside joke when I was at her house. I was simply present, and that made me family. I was startled when, at the wake, people I barely knew or actually didn’t know (having to trust my faulty memory that I don’t really know them) greeted me by name and asked about Boulder. “How do they know I live in Boulder??” I queried my stepmom. She smiled. “Deenie just talked about her grandchildren a lot!”

Aging Well is a book that’s impacted my thoughts on growing old a lot, or even just growing up. Whether you fully intend to grow old or if the thought of growing old scares you, it’s a good read. It’s about the stages of life (based off of Erickson’s stages of development, slightly expanded) that we pass through in the aging process, with a focus on adulthood. We all, in our own ways, work our way through stages of Identity, Intimacy, Career, Generativity (whether through raising your own children or somehow contributing to the next generation), Keeper of the Meaning (whether one is involved in passing on culture and values to your society), and Integrity (how one is able to face death). The book also emphasized how being in significant relationships, or “letting someone in” (to our inside selves) as the author puts it, has an important impact on one’s overall health. Deenie devoted herself to her husband and raising her family, later expanding to grandchildren and even 5 great-grandchildren. When Papa John died, her love expanded and she let others in to her heart, particularly her current adventuring partner with whom she went gallivanting all over the hemisphere. To me, Deenie is a prime example of someone who has aged well.

My stepaunt reminded us that Deenie had so much left that she wanted to do and adventures that she wanted to go on. She was not ready to go yet, but maybe because of that, she faced her last days with courage and undying optimism. Her health went so fast, and we all felt a little bewildered at what had just happened. However, in a way, it means that there is more left of her life for us to carry forward on her behalf.

My stepbrother said that Deenie’s spirit continues to live on, partially through all of us. I am pondering that in my own heart. To me, her most important characteristic was that she was welcoming and embracing. My personality is nothing like hers – she was gregarious and talkative, I’m reserved, sometimes even shy. She was a hard-core conservative, I’m… not. She dressed with pizzazz and chunky jewelry, I just try to make sure my colors match okay. But we can share values. When I die, I want to have lived the kind of life where people look back and say, “I am grateful that we knew her. She loved much, she worked hard, and we always knew that with her, our presence was welcome and we were special to her.” It’s because of models like Deenie that I can have an idea of what a life like this would look like. Thanks, Grandma Deenie, for being that lady, for welcoming us, for nurturing a family that was the kind I had longed to be a part of. I will do my best to carry you forward.

Aging-Well image

reasonable expectations = not being crazy (or driving yourself mad)

My “editor in chief,” as I like to call him (reader of essays, emails, and occasionally even texts, for when I’m trying particularly hard to sound like a polite and sane person) took issue with the second-to-last line of the previous (okay, and only) post. To save you some time, I’ll re-quote it: “I can never live up to my expectations, because they are not made to be lived up to.” This was even softened from my first version on Facebook, which read: “I always, always let myself down.” I decided not to change it, because I was expressing how I felt. But the point he raised has stuck with me: You cannot be content, and therefore have good mental health, if you insist on maintaining unreasonable expectations for yourself. If my expectations are, as I say, “not made to be lived up to,” that inherently makes them unreasonable. Moreover, I also translate the unreasonable expectations for myself to others, who of course cannot live up to them either. I get caught in a cycle of setting unreachable standards for myself, judging myself, projecting this anger onto other people while setting unreasonable standards for them, watching them fail to meet my expectations, judging them, getting angry at the cycle …

As usual, I reach out to what I have read to help me work through these issues. Annie Lamott is an author I enjoy – her books are my few “pleasure reading” books that I read simply for relaxation. Besides being outrageously quirky and funny, she is very insightful about herself and the human condition. Annie is an ex-alcoholic and ex-drug addict and a single mom, and though I am neither of those things, I connect deeply with her insights. She understands and expresses that even when life does not seem particularly hard, it still can feel like it. Living is an ordinary task, but the ordinary tasks can challenge us, frustrate us, make us sad or angry or disappointed. And that the next day, we may turn around and feel joyous and content… and then back again. Here’s some of my favorite lines of recent:

“I don’t know why the most we can hope for on some days is to end up a little less crazy than before, a little less down on ourselves. I don’t know why we have to become so vulnerable before we can connect with God, and even sometimes with ourselves.” (Plan B, p. 28).

“It’s so hard to get quiet enough, free enough of the bondage of self, to hear the voice in the wilderness that Job heard. There’s always so much shouting going on in here [in her mind]. It’s a cacophony of sounds from my childhood– parents and relatives and teachers and preachers and voices distilled into what has become my conscience. But I don’t think the still small voice is my conscience. Maybe it’s God, maybe it’s the true unique essential me– and maybe those are the same thing. It’s so hard to hear it though, and sometimes when I think I hear something in my own true voice, I’m so nuts that I’m not sure if it’s me or someone pretending to be me. It seems like when it’s really you, the voice doesn’t even have to talk.” (Operating Instructions, p. 158-9).

We grew up being told to listen to our conscience to know the right thing to do. However, I find our conscience (or at least mine!) can often be overbearing and full of the noise of the world and our past experiences, constantly yipping at us and tell us what we “should” do. Our minds, our false selves, our consciences – whatever you call it -often get in the way of listening to that true self.

 “I tried to drop my attention from my head to my heart, which is actually an ascension of sorts… still, my mind chattered on, as if the spider monkey had taken acid. My mind is the main problem almost all the time. I wish I could leave it in the fridge when I go out, but it likes to come with me. I have tried to get it to take up a nice hobby, like macrame, but it prefers to think about things and jot down what annoys it.” (Plan B, p. 259).

I feel the same way. When I regain a moment of sanity, I realize that all these expectations I build around myself are like a fortress to protect against the awful, dooming sense of meaninglessness. When I am able to trust for a moment that the expectations just make a crepe paper fortress – that they do not truly protect against anything – I try to settle down into my heart. I attempt to meditate, to do centering prayer, and release the anxiety in my chest and instead rest in the Divine Presence. It’s so hard though to “wake up” from that time (if my mind was able to stop its chattering at all) and feel like my same old self once I am challenged with interactions of any kind. When will these changes come?

Unfortunately, the only way out is through, and meanwhile I must endure the roller-coaster merry-go-round cycle of holding on and letting go. Of remembering it all doesn’t matter, and at the same time it all does. I have hope that I will find release from this, but until then, I must wait patiently and let the work be done in me … releasing one small expectation at a time, until I can find contentment in things just the way they are.

I leave you with a quote from the Tao Te Ching, which was written in about 6th century BC in China by Lao Tzu. It is an essential text for Taoism, and later became adopted into the Zen Buddhism tradition. I have been reading it recently and find its contemplative perspective very profound. This quote is from Stephen Mitchell’s English “version,” but even though it is not a direct translation, I think it speaks to our culture quite well:

“I have just three things to teach: / Simplicity, patience, compassion. / These three are your greatest treasures. / Simple in actions and in thoughts, / you return to the source of your being. / Patient with friends and enemies, / you accord with the way things are. / Compassionate toward yourself, / you reconcile all beings in the world.

plan b image
operating instructions image

the undoing of overidentification with “normalcy”

As a substitute at a preschool, I wait around for people to get sick so that I can work. Winter break just ended and the preschool must have cleared itself of germs, so right now I’m waiting for germs to re-incubate so my source of income can return. Beyond just a source of income, the job – any job, really – provides a sense of purpose and duty. I notice that after a certain period of time, which is usually mid-morning, early afternoon, or both on a day of not working, anxiety starts to rise in my chest. What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with myself? Why am I here? More than worrying about money, my biggest struggle is that my distraction of feeling busy and important is taken away from me. I cannot hide behind a facade of doing-doing-doing because I am NOT doing anything.

I still try to hide, mind you: I occupy myself with reading, with my graduate school application, or things like writing this post. I try to spend time with friends who are usually busier than me, and I spend time with my boyfriend, who is currently not busier than me (which strangely, sometimes helps calm me down but often promotes even more anxiety – surely ONE of us ought to be DOING something!! My vicious superego, full of “shoulds,” can also be relentless on him).

None of those things that I fill my time with are bad, but when I am being honest with myself, I know that my activities are often serving the needs of what I call my “false self” (a la Thomas Keating). My false self wants to prove to my ego and the world that I am important because I am accomplishing things. My false self cannot believe that I am important simply because I am here, and that I am loved by God regardless of what I do or do not do.

My false self overidentifies with what the world considers to be normal. Normal (in our culture, at least) is to work a solid job, to earn a solid paycheck. Normal is to keep busy with social and community engagements. Normal is to have people nod approvingly when you tell them how you spend your time.

A book I have been reading recently is called Everything Belongs, by Richard Rohr. Rohr is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, located in New Mexico. He has also written a book on the second half of life, about when people realize their insistent strivings for achievement and success and looking good have not actually brought them meaning. Given that I am currently planted squarely in the middle of the first half of life, I’d say I am well in tune with these demands. But if I could have the foresight to realize that ultimately, it all does not matter so much as we think it does – maybe it doesn’t even matter at all – how would that affect my self-worth about everything that I attempt to do right now?

Here’s a couple of quotables from Rohr:

“Our shadow is failure itself. Look at what we scorn. We are desperately afraid of having no power and not looking good. We fear poverty, and we fear being ordinary. It looks like failure in a success-driven culture.”

“To achieve our resting place in “normalcy,” we tend to overidentify with one part of ourselves. We reject our weaknesses and we overwork our strengths… So we ignore our true character to accommodate to what society names as successful.”

(Secretly, sometimes I think I would enjoy mostly not working and having time to read and do other things and find my own meaning, were it not for the matter of a paycheck and my gigantic, noisy superego hanging over my head telling me that I’m not important if I’m not somehow being “successful”…)

“The utter powerlessness of God is that God forgives. I hold myself in a position of power by not forgiving myself or others. God does not hold on to that position of power. God seems to be so ready to surrender divine power. God forgives the world for being broken and poor. God forgives us for not being all that we thought we had to be and even for what God wanted us to be.”

I find this to be a beautiful quote altogether, but as it relates to this post: When I cannot hide behind busyness, I disappoint myself with not being all that I want to be. I can never live up to my expectations, because they are not made to be lived up to. But God forgives us already. Can we forgive ourselves?