Spiritual Tensions

A couple of nights ago, as I laid down to sleep, my soul was not at peace. I asked God for help. I don’t like how I’m feeling about other people. When I see how selfish people are and how indifferent they are to violence or pain and suffering, it makes me angry. Even if I don’t outwardly express my disagreement, I feel conflicted inside. I feel distressed. It’s a feeling of discord and I don’t like it.

In the book of Psalms, I find another soul who cried out to God in his distress. In Psalm 31, I read, “Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.” In Psalm 55, I read that David’s thoughts were troubled, he was distraught and his heart was in anguish.

I feel conflicted about my own feelings of discord because Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” How can I be a peacemaker if I am not at peace? How can I be at peace when the world is so broken?

Surely God understands my distress. My heart breaks for at least some of the same things that breaks his. But I am not nearly as loving and merciful and forgiving to the people who disappoint me as God is. As the Casting Crowns song (Jesus, Friend of Sinners) puts it, I am

Always looking around but never looking up I’m so double minded
A plank eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided

My heart is not at peace because it is divided. I am motivated by a desire to make the world a better place and that’s a good thing. But I also want people to conform to my expectations and I swing a sword that was never mine to swing.

I am learning to change my expectations of people. In Falling Upward, Richard Rohr wrote, “Don’t expect or demand from groups what they usually cannot give. Doing so will make you needlessly angry and reactionary. They must and will be concerned with identity, boundaries, self-maintenance, self-perpetuation and self-congratulation.”

This is so true. People who get their identity from belonging to a group will circle the wagons and shut down anyone who tries to get them to think differently.

So here is my prayer for today: God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the person I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.




Chains He Shall Break

This Christmas season, I found myself feeling so discouraged about the state of human hearts, mine included, I knew I needed to stop and reflect on my reasons for hope. On Christmas Eve, I went to church and sang carols, then came home and looked up the lyrics to one my favorites: “O Holy Night.” Not only does this song have an interesting history, the lyrics give me much food for reflection.

  1. Long lay the world. These words remind me that the world waited for the Messiah for a long, long time. It was hundreds of years between Old Testament prophesies and the birth of Jesus. Now the world groans waiting for Jesus to return. Sometimes I get impatient waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled and have to remind myself that God’s timing is not mine. With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some understand slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)
  2. In sin and error pining. The world is enslaved by sin and longs to be set free. The lonely soul pines for the presence of God. Many people don’t know what they’re missing, they just know something is missing. The world chases money and success and attention and adulation, but in the end, finds an emptiness that this world cannot fill,
  3. He appeared and the soul felt its worth. All who have been saved know that there is no gift more precious than knowing that despite your sinfulness and failings, Jesus loves you. When Jesus appears in your life, the soul feels its worth as a precious child of God, one worth dying for.
  4. A thrill of hope. One of my friends doesn’t like it when people of faith use the word hope. I think she equates hope with wanting something to happen or wanting something to be true. But I see hope as the expectation of something good. Hope is trusting that God’s promises will be fulfilled. The thrill of hope is being uplifted by God’s promises, by the expectation of good things to come.
  5. The weary soul rejoices. The soul becomes weary from its struggles, with too many burdens to carry on its own. Jesus brings comfort, peace, and rest, in all our trials born to be our friend. Which reminds me of another old song, What a Friend We Have in Jesus (James Scriven, 1855). When we are sad, weak and heavy-laden, we can rejoice because he shares our sorrows.
  6. Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace. When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he said love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.
  7. Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother. And in His name all oppression shall cease.O Holy Night‘ was brought to America by John Sullivan Dwight, who especially loved this verse because he was an abolitionist. The song was written in the 1840’s by a French poet, Placide Cappeau. A Jewish composer, Adolphe Adam, wrote the music. The song quickly became popular in France but the French Catholic church didn’t approve of Cappeau and denounced the song as not being in the spirit of religion.

Fall on your knees. Oh hear the angel voices. Oh night divine, oh night when Christ was born.

A good song has the power to move me emotionally. O Holy Night reminds me to not get so caught up in the worries of this world that I fail to see that God’s light is brightly shining just as it was long ago. It reminds me to be patient with God. He’s doing amazing things in the lives of ordinary people – stories that don’t get the big enticing headlines I see on my news feed. It reminds me that Jesus is on the side of the oppressed. It reminds me that the Good News is still the Good News. The words give rest to my weary soul and fill me with the thrill of hope once again. Yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

† † † † † † †

O Holy Night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming
Here come the wise men from Orient land
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

Renewing My Mind and Spirit

On Sunday, I realized that I have been feeling kind of low – not exactly depressed but certainly discouraged. When I am not at work or out running or hiking, I am unmotivated and uninspired. I have not written a new blog post for more than a month. All I seem to want to do is read news stories on social media. And I think that is the problem. When I read too much about what is going on in the world, I worry about the state of our country.  I am disgusted by the propaganda and hatefulness but there is little that I can do about it.

In church this week, my pastor started a new sermon series on the Holy Spirit. He said that we all have a spirit though many people suppress it. The nonreligious allow the body, emotions, and mind/will to dominate the spirit. But for those of us who have been given the Holy Spirit as a guide, the Spirit can transform the other parts of us.

The sermon could not have come at a better time for me. I am not at peace. I let myself worry too much about politics. I hate what is evil, as I should. I certainly don’t want to become complacent or ignorant but I can’t let my spirit be overcome by the wickedness I see. Too often, I let myself be tempted into reading the comments below the articles I read – and find a cesspool of insults and untruths. There I get a glimpse into the hearts of the worst sorts of people,  many of them claiming to be Christians. It’s like watching a train wreck.

Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  Today, I am committing myself to spiritual renewal. Instead of plugging into the power of social media, I will plug into the power of the Spirit.

With the words of Romans 12 as my guide, I will put love into action:

I will cling to what is good

I will be joyful in hope

I will live in harmony with others

I will be patient with others

I will be kind

I will be humble

I will share with those in need

I will be faithful in prayer

I will not repay evil with evil

I will not let my spirit be overcome by evil, but will overcome evil with good.

Romans 8:5-6 (NIV)

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.



A Woman of Faith, Pondering the Nature of Man

In The Road to Character, David Brooks wrote about people who demonstrated “eulogy virtues” as opposed to “resume virtues,” drawing on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s essay about the dual nature of man. I was intrigued by the rabbi’s take on human nature so I decided to read the essay myself. The rabbi wrote The Lonely Man of Faith as a confession of the inner conflicts experienced by a person of faith, particularly his feeling of estrangement and separation from the secular world. He offered no solutions to these conflicts but hoped to grow in self-knowledge by sharing his experiences. The Lonely Man of Faith was published more than fifty years ago but as a “lonely” woman of faith, I find it still relevant today.

One Man Engaged in Self-Confrontation

The rabbi noted that there are two different versions of man’s creation in the book of Genesis. The differences have led some to question whether they were written by the same person. The rabbi believed the accounts were different because the author was describing different aspects of human nature, one part that is focused on achievement (doing) and one part that is focused on spiritual growth (being).

Genesis 1 says that God created mankind in his own image, both male and female, to rule over all creatures on earth – animals and fish and birds. The second chapter of Genesis says that God formed a man from the dust and breathed life into him so that he became a living being. God put the man in the garden of Eden to take care of it and cultivate it. Later, God decided that the man needed a helper so he put him to sleep and created a woman from his rib.

The second account of man’s creation does not say that man was created in God’s image; it says he was created from the dust of the ground, a much more humble description. The first account speaks of male and female as if they were created concurrently; the second account says that Adam was created first. In the first account, man was given dominion over all creation; in the second account he was put in charge of tending the garden of Eden.

The rabbi called the two conflicting versions of man Adam the first and Adam the second. Created in God’s image, Adam the first is himself creative and intelligent. He dominates creation and lives to achieve. He wants to know how things work. He expresses himself outwardly, with actions and words. He doesn’t just create things. He also creates laws and rules to govern creation because there is dignity in being orderly. Adam I is motivated by a desire for dignity and respect. He gets his sense of human identity from being noticed by others for his talents. He is very conscious of his status relative to others and wants to impress people with his importance.

The rabbi described Adam the second as a seeking, inquisitive man. He wants to know why the world exists. He wants to know what it all means. What is the purpose of our existence? What gives life meaning and purpose? Who is the mysterious One who follows me like a shadow yet disappears when I try to confront him? Who is the revealed and hidden God? Adam II sees God in nature – “in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the stillness of a starlit evening.”

Rather than calling them Adam I and Adam II, I prefer to think of the conflicting versions of Adam as the Striving Self and the Seeking Self. Both parts of the self embrace being human but to be human means something different to each. The Striving Self seeks dominion over his environment. His goal is to glorify himself and demonstrate his worth to others. The Seeking Self believes there is “another mode of existence through which man can find his own self.” He seeks a path of redemption. He is humble enough to see that he is not always good. He admits failure and defeat. He opens himself up to being confronted by God and being overpowered by him.

I agree with the rabbi that the creation story is symbolic. We weren’t literally created in God’s image but have divine attributes. We weren’t literally created from dirt but we certainly act like it sometimes. But I think that in describing the dual nature of man based on the book of Genesis, the rabbi left out a significant part of the creation story – the part that explains why man struggles so much.

  • Why is there a void that nothing else can fill? Not money, not fame, not status?
  • Why does the Seeking Self feel the need for redemption?
  • Where did we get our sense of right and wrong, the knowledge of good and evil?
  • Why does God feel so far off?
  • Why does it feel like our very existence is cursed?

The answers are in Genesis 3, the story of “the fall.” When God created the first man, he told him that he could eat from any tree in the garden, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve was tempted by the serpent to disobey God’s command and she talked Adam into it as well. They ate the forbidden fruit and their eyes were opened. They became aware of their nakedness. For the first time, they knew shame and fear. Before this act of disobedience, man had a personal relationship with God. But because they disobeyed, God banished them from the garden and cursed the ground from which they came. For “dust you are and to dust you will return.”

The personalities described by the rabbi are one person engaged in self-confrontation. The rabbi noted that the process of redemption does not have to be acted on externally, rather, it is process that happens inside the self. By exercising self-discipline and self-control, a person develops feelings of self-worth. In contrast, the Christian faith teaches that redemption comes through repentance and faith in the redeemer, Jesus Christ. Being virtuous can certainly make you feel good about yourself. But knowing that you have worth in the Creator’s eyes, even as a sinner, is even better.

The rabbi described the person of faith as a wanderer, oscillating between two worlds – the utilitarian, external world of Adam I and the redemptive, inner world of Adam II. In seeking a transcendental experience – a relationship with a higher power – the person of faith feels like a stranger in the modern world. Modern man often seems self-centered and even narcissistic.  The person of faith seeks meaning in something outside the self – in a higher being.

I think that we are all spiritual beings whether or not we practice introspection, regardless of whether we open up ourselves to being confronted by a higher moral power. Many people do not want to examine themselves closely. It’s not comfortable. Sometimes it is even painful. We resist criticism and judgment. We are too proud to admit failure and too independent to submit themselves to the authority of a higher being.

The rabbi noted that one of the struggles a person of faith faces is the fact that he cannot prove his beliefs are true. He can’t prove that God created the world. He can’t prove that the invisible God is here. But his beliefs are central to his identity as a human being. For the person of faith, to be human is to believe in something more powerful, intelligent and glorious than the human mind can imagine. The inability to communicate this experience to people without faith leads to feelings of estrangement. It enhances the feeling of uniqueness and separateness. For the rabbi, this feeling of rejection and disconnection is a form of loneliness. It is an awareness of your inability to connect on a deep, intimate level.

Today, I think it is even more difficult for a person of faith to feel like she belongs in the secular world. The world is even more driven by technology than it was in 1965, when Soloveitchik’s essay was published. Social media encourages self-centeredness and narcissism. It connects people in ways that are largely superficial and keeps people from engaging in a deep and meaningful way with people who are physically present. This is a “look at me” kind of world where people believe that their worth is somehow determined by the number of “likes” they get.

Over the past few decades, people of faith have become troubled by the decline in morality, a perfectly understandable concern. However, in the quest to gain moral control of a world that at least figuratively seems to be going to hell, many religious people abandoned the true purpose of evangelism – spreading the good news of salvation. The religious right became like Adam I, striving for power and dominion, and lost sight of the ways we should be relating to others – with love, forgiveness and mercy. They also forgot that humans were not created to have dominion over other human beings.

The Meaningless World of the Striving Self

The rabbi was certainly not the first person to feel estranged from the world. King Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes as a reflection on his experience as an Adam I type of personality, striving and toiling “under the sun.” He was a wealthy man. He accomplished a lot. He built houses and planted vineyards and gardens. He acquired livestock and flocks, gold and silver. He denied himself nothing. But he was conflicted about the meaning and purpose of life.

When he looked back at what he had achieved in his lifetime, he found it all meaningless. What good does it do to acquire wealth if you have to leave it behind to someone who did not labor for it? Solomon understood that much of our striving and ambition stem from envy of our neighbor. We want what other people have and we want to impress people with what we have. It is like “chasing the wind.”

Solomon also realized just how temporal life is. People come and people go. Those who are yet to come will not remember those living now. Who knows what will happen when a man is gone? Solomon said that God “set eternity in the hearts of men” yet we cannot understand what God has done. Even as a very wise man, Solomon could not comprehend exactly what we humans are doing here on this earth. Time and chance happen to all of us. Death is a certainty for humans just as it is for animals. Ultimately, even as Solomon saw purpose in enjoying what you do on this earth, he concluded that the duty of man is to fear God and keep his commandments.

Lonely but not alone…

I can understand why Rabbi Soloveitchik described the faith experience as a lonely one. I have experienced rejection and ridicule for believing in what I cannot see. I have learned to expect this. But I can honestly say that I have never felt more estranged from the larger faith community than I do today. I see evidence of hearts that have become hardened. I am reminded of what Jesus said when asked why he spoke in parables (Matthew 13: 13-15):

This is why I speak to them in parables:

Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
'You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

One final thought on Adam II, the seeking self. A person of faith has no choice but to live in the world of Adam I. But we’re not supposed to conform to the patterns of the self-glorifying world of Adam I. We’re supposed to be transformed by God. When we are truly transformed, we understand with our hearts.

Jesus came into the world to show us how to live, to show us how to tend the garden. He said, “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.” “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”





Pausing to Celebrate the Joys of Life

I am guilty of thinking and worrying so much about the bad things that are happening in the world today that I often fail to think enough about the good things. Yes, I live in a world where meanness, selfishness and dishonesty abound, but I also live in a world full of people who are kind, generous and honest. I want and need to take a break from my worrying and pause to reflect on what is good. I’m going to start with the word joy, an emotion that reminds me of Christmas season, a time of celebration. But joy is an emotion that I can experience everyday, even during troubled times.

What does the word joy mean to me?

Joy can be defined as a feeling of great pleasure or happiness but the word that comes to my mind is delight. I spend most of my time in a state of contentment – not too high or too low. So when I experience joy, it is a special treat, an emotion that fills me with gratitude for the little pleasures of life. Joy is exponential; it is happiness squared.

What brings me joy?

One of the things that brings me joy is nature. I absolutely love wildlife and wildflowers and beautiful landscapes – mountains, rivers, lakes, the sky, moon, sun and stars. I see mountains in the distance every day but I don’t get to see wildlife every day. So when I can escape from the suburbs and I see deer or elk (which doesn’t happen every time), it fills me with joy. I like to photograph the wildflowers I see on the trails and have learned to recognize and name dozens of them. I am always delighted by the blooms, especially if I find a flower I have never seen before.

Another thing that brings me joy is small children, which might be surprising since I never had any of my own. I love their cuteness and innocence and sweetness. I love seeing their personalities develop and seeing how they resemble their parents. I love seeing them discover something for the first time. I also find joy in the love I see in a mother or father or grandparent who thinks that child is the most precious and special thing in the world.

Learning and discovery something new bring me joy. Figuring out something difficult brings me joy. Overcoming obstacles brings me joy. My faith brings me joy because there is nothing better than knowing I am loved and forgiven as imperfect as I am.

How can I celebrate and share joy everyday?

I get a lot of articles in my Facebook news feed. Many of them are dire news stories about things I cannot control. It is tempting to share them because I want people to be aware of what is going on and I want to resist injustice. But when I share these articles, I spread doom and gloom and I risk alienating people that I care about. So controlling the temptation to share negative news is important if I want to spread the joys of life to my friends.

I also get news feeds from  other pages that are not negative – pages that celebrate things I love like nature and pets. I follow a few religious pages that encourage me with uplifting scripture. I follow a page that promotes having a positive outlook. I can share and increase joy by making sure that these kinds of posts outweigh the negative ones.

I can also celebrate joy by being grateful for the good things in my life and by focusing on the good I see in ordinary people every day. I cannot take for granted the people who are kind and merciful and generous. They bring me joy.

Rejoice, rejoice, again I say rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!