TURN YOUR ALARM SYSTEM OFF!

Two women, worlds apart, are talking.

“It is hard to listen to me?”

“It’s not hard. I have my alarm system turned off.”

On Being with Krista Tippett, interview with Arlie Hochschild

You know the feeling. My alarm system is on almost all of the time, so much so that I don’t even realize I have an alarm system. My hackles get raised when Fox & Friends plays on the gym’s TV during my morning workout, or when I think people are going to speak derogatorily about immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community, Millennials, etc. Such things are my alarm system finely tuned to.

Our church is doing a book study called “Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism,” by Carolyn Helsel. Talk about an opportunity for alarm bells! “Anxious” is an appropriate word: we can be anxious that we will say something offensive, anxious that the conversation is going to devolve into politics, anxious that someone else is going to say something that really gets under our skin and our face will flush and we will try and talk honestly about systemic racism without being written off as a naïve, bleeding-heart liberal (oh whoops, was that just me??).

What would happen if we could just listen to people without alarm systems going off? With the understanding that others will say things we don’t agree with, but that we don’t have to let this hurt us. They got to their positions and beliefs somehow, just as we got to ours.

Don’t think I’m suggesting we just roll over and play dead when the “other side” starts raising its voice. Not at all. I firmly believe in the importance of truth-telling, honesty, and objectivity. But I’m also aware that facts do little to change people’s opinions when their emotions point them a different way.

Sometimes giving facts to emotion-driven people is about as useful as this dog is presently being.

Our brains are ruled by confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is not exactly objective: it feigns objectivity while really just reinforcing what we already believe at an emotional, gut level. We want so badly to understand the world we live in and make it a safe, habitable place. We make it safe by making it small. Once we think we understand something, we try and fit in all new pieces of information into the systems we have already worked out for ourselves. This has been our survival strategy for millennia upon millennia: we had to quickly learn how to categorize stimuli into “safe” and “not safe,” so we could, you know, act quickly and not get eaten by bears or stomped on by wooly mammoths.

Admit it. You don’t want to be stomped either.

So what can help us increase our capacity for feeling safe – and also for helping others feel safe?

There are many routes to do this. Just being aware of our own hyperaroused alarm system is a step. I would add in cultivating qualities of curiosity, compassion, empathy, and openness.

Cultivating openness.

Retrieved from www.pickthebrain.com

For me, spirituality helps inform the approach to the “other.” In non-dualistic ways of being (which I would describe, in part, as the place God dwells), the distinction between “self” and “other” is a false dichotomy. We are somehow deeply interconnected even with those who feel like enemies. Yes, that means I’m even connected with Trump. My ego may throw a little fit about that and my surface-level skin might crawl, but the deeper part of me has compassion for the both of us because we’re just human, trying to get by. Our wounds are different. He has a little more power (in the traditional sense) than I do. He has more of a temper than I do. But a belief I hold is that we are both image-bearers of the divine, muddled as that image may be.

I thought about inserting a pic of Trump instead… but I like this better.

Perhaps one of the hardest tasks of spirituality is navigating the path between the contemplative knowledge that we are all connected and everything is, ultimately, okay — with the reality that we are in a world where real-life issues need to be addressed, people’s rights need to be protected, where the poor, broken, and wounded receive real-life healing. I’m not saying I have the answers. But I believe we need both parts to be fully human. Hating the perpetrator while tending to the victims does not actually bring about the beloved community.

These are hard words to swallow. I write them and I want to believe them, but it is so difficult to live into. But if we can, we find the alarm system is suddenly a relic. We don’t have to hate and be alarmed by the other. And then, maybe then, will our world start to become the place we so desperately need it to be.

A new tagline; a clarified mission

My best friend and her wife were in town this weekend when we had the happy coincidence of a big, gnarly snowstorm holding us all hostage in our house. This meant we were trapped inside with them, forced to play multiple games of Carcassone and Sequence, eat copious amounts of cookies, cook hearty Southern food, and talk shop about the Enneagram. I know. Rough times, right?

Having them around gives me the chance to have long conversations about topics of interest to me (I love my husband dearly, but he’s more of a doer, not much of a conversationalist…). One realization I had (am having) is the surprisingly little amount of insight I sometimes feel I have into myself. For instance, although I know the Enneagram pretty well, I have the worst time knowing (or staying on) what type I am. I’ve been very good at persuading my listener that I am really a certain type, only to change my mind a couple months later. What that means to me is that sometimes I identify so strongly with an idea of what/who I am, that it is hard to step back and see the stable, unchanging Self that lies underneath all the preconceptions I hold about myself.

In that same vein, this weekend I realized that the tagline I had for my blog is misleading. Not intentionally, of course, but rather because I thought it was what I was about – or what I was supposed to be about. My tagline was “thoughtful explorations of spirituality, psychology, and their intersections,” as you may recall. After all, I’m a counselor, and I feel myself to be spiritually inclined and want to write about it. So that’s what I do, right?

Actually, no. When I take a cursory look at the podcasts I listen to, the books I gravitate to (currently just dived in to Karen Armstrong’s A History of God), and the things I often write about on here, I have a different inclination. I unabashedly enjoy writing about theological issues. I particularly enjoy looking at those issues through a lens of culture: both our modern culture, and the culture in which ancient texts were written.

I have a passion that cannot be extinguished (at least it hasn’t been, yet) for the urgency of not letting constricting theologies and religious views lead society around like a bull on a nose ring. My heart quickens when I think about helping free an enslaved Christendom from its patriarchal, colonial, xenophobic, unbridled capitalistic chains, and help restore it to the justice-for-the-oppressed, freedom-for-the-enslaved, dividing-walls-broken-down, grace-filled emancipator that Christianity was meant to be.

Retrieved from Stock Photos

That is what I feel called to write about here. Sure, I might say things that some perceive as polarizing, or too political, in ways that writing about psychology would not have me do. But look at our world around us. Is the time not an urgent now?

What about you, dear reader? Have you ever felt you were “supposed” to do one thing but realized your heart was drawn toward another? Have you ever realized your conceptions of yourself were really misconceptions – and humbly chose your new way? Have you ever felt you must speak, but were afraid to, but maybe you did it anyway? My heart extends toward you, anonymous you, because I know your struggles to do so are probably greater than mine. This is no easy work. My hope is we push toward truth and emancipation together.

May we courageously step out into the unknown.

and Jesus was moved by her faith

There’s no way around it. I am a pastor’s wife. (I suppose I might also say that I have a pastor husband, but either way, my life is becoming deeply intertwined with the church). We have moved from the big city to a small town, to be an integral part of the life of the church. I’ve never lived in a small town. I’ve never been a pastor’s wife in this way. I am finding myself drawn more deeply toward spirituality in general, and Christianity in particular, in this new life phase. (If this seems obvious of a pastor’s wife, read early blog posts and note that I’ve had a long period of deconstruction of faith and have been to many a locale on the theological map). Christianity is calling me, perhaps necessarily (what can one do in a small town besides attend and participate in the life of your husband’s church?); perhaps because it is, itself, compelling.

***

The story of the Syrophoenician, or Canannite, woman is calling to me in particular. Coincidentally, Kevin preached on this very passage (Mark 7:24-30) the same morning I encountered it in the memoir I am reading. My mind continues to mull over it days later. In the story, the woman begs Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter to heal the child. Jesus is not from the same social group as this woman. His people conquered her people (the Canaanites) long, long ago, and they still look down on the Syrophoenicians with disgust. Jesus – son of God, right? – goes so far as to call this begging woman a “dog.” You filthy, disgusting, scavenging creature. Try to allow yourself to ponder that, Christians. It’s right there in the Bible. The woman is undeterred, however. “Even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs,” she retorts. Andrea Lingle points out, “The Canaanite woman claimed her place at the table or under it.” And Jesus is moved by this. The woman’s child is healed by her faith.

Jesus is moved by the woman’s faith. Jesus actually moves his position, his beliefs, because of this woman who refused to back down and be seen as undeserving of the graces and healing he had to offer. Christians who need to see Jesus as always, only fully divine, never saying or doing anything questionable, will see this differently. They likely see Jesus as purposely testing the woman to get her to demonstrate her faith. They might downplay the fact that Jesus actually gave this woman a terrible insult. To me, this seems to be a case of making the story fit the pre-existing theology.

But let’s not sugarcoat things. Let the text speak. If we read the story and interpret it based on the context and what it actually seems to be saying – not interpreting it to try and squeeze a particular meaning out of it – Jesus seems to be prejudiced against this woman initially, but is moved by her insistence that she, too, belongs in the realm of grace. It seems that Jesus, a Jewish teacher, believed initially that he was here to minister to the Jews. He is here for the children of Israel. And then the beliefs he thought were certain shift. This woman will settle for crumbs, but she will not settle for less than that. And then Jesus’ eyes are opened and he sees that she too belongs. She receives full healing for her daughter because of her faithful insistence that healing is for her, for them, for everyone.

It is a significant divide we walk here. I am well aware of that. I acknowledge there are multiple ways to interpret this story. You may disagree with how I read it. It is an interpretation that is compelling to me. 

If Jesus is only, fully divine, then he’s either “just testing” her, or he’s not really insulting her, or God thinks it’s okay to insult people like that. A solely divine Jesus would not need to be moved by this woman to give justice to all, would he?

A Jesus who is, who needs to be, moved by others is a Jesus who is also fully human. Catch your theological breath and just play with ideas here. As my pastor husband quoted in his sermon, Karl Barth says we need not try to reconcile two beliefs seemingly at odds to try and make one cohesive belief system. We can just hold them both up together and let the rest be a mystery. Jesus Christ, divine. Jesus Christ, fully human. Jesus, God’s agent, divine, full of mercy and grace. Jesus, human, forgetting sometimes that all meant all. Jesus discovering through an encounter with the “other” that he is here not just for some – for his own people – but to heal and reconcile the whole world together.

I find this to be deeply moving. I generally do not feel full of grace, though I believe grace profoundly belongs to all. I go to the sheriff’s office to get fingerprinted so I can minister and be a counselor to those who are hurting. A man walks in and willingly cuts in front of me and another woman who have been waiting for a ridiculously long time in an empty waiting area so he can get fingerprinted for his concealed carry permit. He reinforces stereotypes I have of people like him. He feels entitled to get what he wants despite the needs or rights of others, and he does not even know it. And I confess: I have some hate for him in my heart.

But I know Jesus’s gospel isn’t just for people like me, the kind do-gooders of the world (who still have secret hate in their hearts). His gospel is for gun-toting Make America Great Again hats, for bleeding heart liberals, for desperate immigrants crossing borders and crossing deserts under cover of night, for families with loved ones killed by illegal immigrant gang members. His gospel of reconciliation and grace is for Jews, Canaanites, and even Romans. His gospel is for Israel, Native Americans, and even the United States. And in this story of the Canaanite / Syrophoenician woman, I see Jesus making the profound discovery of this as well. Perhaps there is hope for all of us.

 

Featured image credit goes to the Junia Project: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwifiZmYtMXdAhUvUt8KHcF-CdcQjRx6BAgBEAU&url=https%3A%2F%2Fjuniaproject.com%2Fcaring-marginalized-jesus-canaanite-woman%2F&psig=AOvVaw22ej_O-oyaCQ6iAu80yQKJ&ust=1537389314168444 

Mosquitoes, monks, mysteries, and the Milky Way: Are you there, God? Part 2

I have been pondering lately about God, or the idea / being / [what word is even adequate to describe that which?] we call God. One of the questions I went into my retreat with was about conceptualizing “God out there versus God in here, in me.” Maybe you know what I mean … or maybe this question makes no sense. What I’m trying to describe is a God-image of Outside, transcendent, Other (the God-image I grew up with) versus Inside, mystical, Self. Even with mystics, there is a similar difference mystical union (person’s soul can be united with God, but they are two different entities coming together: more commonly found in Christian mystics) versus mystical identity (person’s deepest self, it is discovered, is God … and right there, some of you probably will stop reading, as it sounds a lot like heresy to you. I hope you keep reading anyway.).

I tended to bounce between outside versus inside. When I was in need of help, or asking for something, I tended to direct my question or thought toward “Outside God.” “Oh God oh God, please let me get to work on time, oh God, please heal this patient, oh God, our world is falling apart, please help!” However, when talking about my beliefs, or meditating, I tended to think of things in terms of “Inside God.” I would tell my CPE group, “God is everywhere, God is in everyone. There is no where God cannot be, and God is not “out there.” (This concept of God is also known as “panentheism,” which is different from “pantheism.” Basically, panentheism says God is in everything. Pantheism says that everything is God.) And one of my biggest spiritual practices I developed this summer was trying to sit quietly, reflecting inside, and listening to the truths that were coming out of me … not any outside source. Yet it felt that in practice, my prayers belied my stated beliefs.

So what does this have to do with mosquitoes and monks… and the Milky Way?

While camping, I was reading Wherever You Go, There You Are, and was really looking forward to practicing mindfulness and being in the moment and being still while enjoying the great Kentucky outdoors.

Ha ha ha.

As it turns out, the Great Kentucky Outdoors are a sticky, humid, hot, mosquito- and gnat-filled mess in the middle of August. I couldn’t lay down in my hammock to read or just look at the leafy tree tops without feeling like my skin was being eaten alive by hungry blood-suckers. I couldn’t go on a hike in the woods without gnats buzzing in my ears, flying in my eyes [read here for a poem dedicated just to that experience], and creating such a nuisance that I couldn’t hardly look around me or hear the birds singing or the wind in the trees. And please don’t get me started on the spiders and the spiderwebs … I didn’t know I was afraid of spiders. Now I do know.

So because I had such a lofty goal that I felt I was completely not achieving, I did what any normal human does: I berated myself. “I’m feeling so miserable! Why can’t I just be in peace? Why can’t I use the difficult circumstances as an even better opportunity to practice mindfulness? And anyway, I still have it so good, I have an easy life, it’s my choice to go camping, and I’m complaining about bugs??? Really??” I did not feel very mindful, yet alone holy or in touch with my God-self.

Then I went to the Abbey of Gethsemani (where Thomas Merton lived as a monk!!) for a 5 day retreat. It was amazing! A shower, a toilet, and running water! Air conditioning, and a bed! A patio overlooking a garden! It was so pleasing to me, even while I smiled bemusedly at myself about how enthusiastic I was about human pleasures- luxuries, truly, for so much of the world- luxuries so many have never experienced.

As many probably are, I was fascinated by the monks, particularly the young ones: knowing that these young men were about my age, and were either exploring the possibility or had already committed to a lifetime of being single, of celibacy, of rising daily at 3 a.m., of prayer and study and physical labor and lack of electronics and communication. To turn your back on all that the world has to offer, to live a life of such simplicity (and to give up partnership and intimacy, for the rest of your life???), trusting that your asceticism will draw you closer to God? I understand in theory, but in practice, my emotions were in a state of disbelief while I was there.

After several days, I can’t say I fully understood, but I understood a little better. It was a beautiful thing, to slow down life enough to the point where my most natural inclination was to turn toward reflecting, prayer, and God. There is something so sweet in the stillness of doing nothing: nothing that will gain you any attention or notoriety, nothing that will make an impact on the world, nothing that seems to really “matter” to anyone else. Because that question, of course, is the biggest cry of my generation: “I want to do something that matters! I want to make a difference!” And we run about in a state of interior distress, like a bubbling ocean, desperately trying to find a way to matter in this world, all the while feeling quite uncomfortable in our own skin. Even while I was there, I still experienced that feeling of discomfort in my skin, of being quite sure that I did not deserve this sweet state of nothingness, of justifying my “nothingness” by reassuring myself that when I got home I was definitely going to do “something.” But when I was not occupied by those concerns, I had moments of just being, when I knew that just being really was okay… at least for this moment.

My most favorite routine while I was there was to get up early (which for the monks, is simply their normal routine, at 3 a.m.), sleepily listen to their chants and scriptural readings in the Vigils service, then pour myself a coffee that had been cooking in the carafe all night long, wrap myself in a blanket, and shuffle out to the garden. I’d find the darkest spot that still had as open a view as possible of the night sky and lay down on the sidewalk, still warm from the sun’s rays the day before. I would constellation hunt, which wouldn’t take long (I don’t know many constellations, and the sky was usually not that clear), then let my mind relax to be in awe of the universe.

I love the night sky. I don’t like being cold, and Indianapolis has much too much light pollution and cloud coverage, so I don’t view the night sky as much as I’d like. But when I go camping, I am in awe of stars, and the unimagined possibilities I behold.

There is so much wonder. So much awe. So much glorious vastness, and I am reminded that I am here, so small, that the issues that consume my day-to-day living are merely set here on Planet Earth, concerning me and a few others, and meanwhile this glorious universe goes on spinning.

I had an image, while laying on the warm, hard sidewalk, of my little heart bursting forth out of my body, seeking connection with All-That-Is that I experienced in viewing the night sky. And All-That-Is’s heart- its connecting spirit- was bursting forth from the night sky, reaching down to me. Our spirits connected in this vastness. I belonged, and I was part of this.

And I had what felt like a very profound yet incredibly “duh!”-like and simple realization. This glorious universe, this majestic night sky: I did not create this. And to go with it, I am not the only one in this world. I realized I had felt limited by thinking about
“God inside,” as if “God inside” had to be limited to only my inside. Instead, when I ask about “God Inside,” I need to remember I am asking about everyone’s God inside.

This question of God Outside versus God Inside is not an either / or question. The Spirit inside me is the Spirit inside you. It is also the Spirit that created – or that embodies – the galaxy.

So for a moment, as we were suspended in the night air as stars glimmered millions of light-years away, and I felt Presence beyond yet within me, I held my answer. Yes. God inside, God outside.