Does God Need Us To Worry?

I spoke at a conference this weekend. The college students in attendance were Christians and seekers dealing with all the things you’d expect; relationship worries, grades/jobs worries, sex worries……lots of worries and anxieties overall. One topic of discussion that I’m still kicking around is how we are often duped into thinking that by worrying or being consumed with something that we are doing something productive or even spiritually important.

What I learned from students this weekend is that they can buy into certain mindsets that are a particular draw for Christians, and I wonder if the same holds true for people from other religious traditions. The mindsets go something like this:

  • If I am consumed with thinking about ________, God will know how much I want that thing. If I am NOT consumed with worry about ________, then God may think I don’t care about it any more and then God may not give it to me!!!!!!

Some of us actually function as if our worry alerts God to what we want or need. We remain in utterly unhelpful cycles of worry because are worried about the spiritual implications should we stop!  If we are honest, each of us in our own way is tempted to think that our worry has some value. The outcome of this thinking in relationship with God is a sad and subtle attempt to manipulate God with our own suffering. What if God knows us so well and so intimately that our wants and needs are clearer to him than to us? What if God will hold our wants and needs with great tenderness and care whether we worry or not? If God were compelled by our worry, then wouldn’t we be commanded to worry in the Bible?

Worry is a mental process that is largely unhelpful to we humans. After we have assessed what we can do about any given situation, worry becomes an anxiety-provoking and distracting practice. It takes us out of our actual lives and into a future-looking possible outcome that scares us to death. Bringing that fear into our relationship with God looks very different than worrying. While worrying spins us inside our own thoughts, prayer regarding our fears involves a relational process of requesting, confessing, surrendering, and ideally, some listening too. Let’s get real about what we are really doing when we are worrying, because sometimes it is a practice that enables us to avoid bringing the deeper feelings more squarely into our relationship with God.

Tranquility at Risk

How would Jesus have handled having an iPhone? Would he have ever turned it off? Would he have been accessible at all times? Would his withdrawals to quiet places included words with friends or the not-so-subtle buzz indicating a new text? Would he have thrown it across the room out of frustration about the iOS7 update? Would he have had alarms that reminded him to pray or practice the presence of Jesus? Oh, wait….

I read a good article in “Conversations” magazine recently written by Dr. Archibald Hart. He speaks to my way of thinking because he addresses issues related to both spirituality and neuroscience. And from the way he writes, I believe he is a bit worried about us.  He actually goes so far as to state that many standard practices in our current lives increase our risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Some include (all on page 19 of the article):

  • Hurrying: Hurrying to do too much and too little time leads to adrenaline addiction and cortisol flooding.
  • Multitasking: As much as we love the idea of it, there is no validity to the idea that the brain can do a zillion things at once. (Rosen, 2008)
  • Being too digitally connected/addictions: Taking work everywhere and near constant access to addictive temptations like gaming and pornography.
  • Perpetual fatigue: Coming home exhausted, waking up exhausted, not sleeping well….some researchers are looking at the ways that our emotional states are being rewired as the digital world is rewiring our brains.
  • Perpetual restlessness: did I get an email?—check the phone. Did that client text back?—check the phone. Is someone out there thinking of me?—check the phone.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that every one of these actions creeps into my life on a regular basis. For example, I’ve been preparing to speak at a conference recently and have had to remove my phone and close my email window on my computer to wrangle my full attention on the talks I’m writing. I even needed to set a timer to build the discipline of staying on task and refraining from checking other things until the bell sounds. For me, I’m looking for that small injection of stimulation to fire my brain chemicals and help me perpetuate my need to feel connected at all times.  Without concerted effort, I can slide into all of these behaviors.

If we want to guard a life of peace and tranquility, we have to be radical.

“Studies have shown that the average person…..can only tolerate about fifteen seconds of silence” (p.21). When I read this, I did a double take. Didn’t the writer actually mean 15 minutes? But no, apparently, if you have any sort of discipline of silence in your life, you can count yourself far, far outside of the bell curve. Hart promotes regular spiritual practices that support regular times of quiet and stillness. I was particularly intrigued by the way he described silence as a “Sabbath of the mouth” and solitude as a “Sabbath of involvement” (p.21).  If we truly view ourselves as creatures in the care of a Creator, then perhaps we ought to lean in to the idea of slowing our pace and letting our bodies rest from the continual input, interruptions, and stimulation. What would this look like for you?

 

 

Dr. Archibald Hart, “Anxiety in our Digital Age: Creating a Tranquil Spirituality” Conversations, (Fall/Winter 2013)

Christin Rosen, “The Myth of Multitasking”, New Atlantis (Spring 2008), 106.

What you think of marriage….

….will shape how you approach marriage. What is a metaphor that comes to mind for marriage?  A unity candle? A battleground? Iron Sharpening Iron? Peas and Carrots? Peanut Butter and Jelly? Oil and Water? And when you think of these metaphors, whose marriage are you imagining? Your own or someone else’s?  One of my favorite spiritual writers from the Catholic tradition suggests these images for a good marriage:

  • A good marriage is a warm fireplace. The love that a good marriage produces is felt by the two in the marriage but also by those who come near it. A good marriage warms beyond itself.
  • A good marriage is a big table, loaded with lots of food and drink. A good marriage feeds more than just the two in the marriage. It is a banquet that has an abundance that overflows to others.
  • A good marriage is a container that holds suffering. Having a partner in life helps each in the marriage bear suffering. But not only that, the good marriage helps others bear their suffering as well.
  • A good marriage is an image of Christ’s body or God’s presence among us. This image goes deep into Christian theology of the incarnation. Just as Christ was on earth to bless the world, a good marriage “is a constant source of moral, psychological, religious, and humorous nourishment” (Rolheiser, p.89).

What Rolheiser does in this reflection is challenge us to understand marriage as a blessing both for the individuals and into the greater community and world. Marriage is a covenant meant to be a blessing! We rarely contemplate this. In fact, with the individualistic pulls in our culture, we tend to ignore the invitation to a greater purpose. What would it be like if this were the dialogue around the meaning of marriage in our society today?

How does this understanding of marriage line up with your own conscious and unconscious metaphors? And how to Rolheiser’s images challenge you personally? Is your marriage or your contact with others’ marriages a place(s) where warmth is felt and radiated? Where blessing is feasted upon and shared? Where suffering is born and held for others? Where others are loved and nourished as if by Christ/God? I hope so! If not, let’s work to internalize these images into our hearts and relationships.

Ron Rolheiser’s book that I’m referencing and quoting is Against and Infinite Horizon: The Finger of God in our Everyday Lives.

For a challenge to those whose marriages lack some of the above, check out my colleague, Elise Rittler’s, blog this week; Predicting Divorce.

Letting Go for Life Beyond Easter

Most people who seek psychotherapy expect at least a certain amount of change to take place, or at least relief. But I think that sometimes clients don’t expect enough. The Christian framework through and beyond Easter is a helpful framework for the process of true transformation for all people. Spiritual writer, Ron Rolheiser has helped me see this and I have applied it to the process of life-change that I want for myself and for my clients.

Passion and Death: the loss of life, or a type of life

            The death of Jesus is reflected in our lives through crisis and loss and is often what brings people in for therapy. An affair has been discovered, a job has been lost, depression has become unbearable, a child was born disabled, or the life one expected has not panned out. Whatever it is, it is the life-shattering crisis. People in this state often cannot imagine surviving or are fighting the reality of the loss.

Resurrection: the reception of new life

            Jesus’ resurrection can be reflected by individuals often getting used to the new reality or even embracing the new life. Things slowly normalizes and the individual experiences a kind of wonder at himself or herself for surviving. And rightly so! I’m always amazed at the resiliency of the human spirit. What at one time seemed unlivable becomes the new life—the new normal, so to speak.

BUT FAR TOO MANY PEOPLE STOP HERE. For the deepest transformation, more can happen…

Ascension: the refusal to cling, as ascending beyond the old life

            This is when the individual is in the new life and is able to resist the inextricable pull back to the habits, patterns, and reactions that were a part of the old life. This is our human mirroring of the resurrected Jesus leaving Earth and ascending to Heaven. When ascension does not take place, folks find themselves in new circumstances doing the exact same things that they did before. The payoff is not always immediate. There can be a type of desolation when the old patterns are refused that leaves one feeling empty and lost. The temptation to give up can feel nearly unbearable. But….

Pentecost: the reception of a new spirit for the new life

…If one persists through Ascension, then Pentecost eventually comes.  Pentecost was when the Holy Spirit came to the early believers in a distinctly new experience. For us, it is in the space of absence and refusing the old ways, that something equally mysterious happens. In the void, there is a unique openness and receptivity. This is when the spirit for something truly different comes. And it looks different for each person, from a prayerful “aha” to a radical vision. At this point, people can really say that they would never go back to the old life the way it once was. They are changed, refined, and transformed.

Does this resonate with you? Or have you stalled your own process of growth at the point of resurrection? I look forward to hearing your stories.

Shattered Lantern is Ron Rolheiser’s book in which he shares the outline above.

No Pain, No Gain

Consciously choosing any kind of suffering is something we all are faced with in some capacity in our lives, and many of us are loathe to endure it. With the start of Lent this week, people in the Christian tradition are beginning fasts of different kinds to help them, in some small way, identify with the frailty of human life. They are choosing to endure something painful in order to stretch a personal or spiritual muscle. When are you willing to do this? Steven Hayes says this in The Confidence Gap,

 

“There is no such thing as a pain-free life. But we do have some choice about the type of pain we experience. The pain of stagnation or the pain of growth.”

In therapy, people come for treatment because the pain of stagnation has become too great to bear, but sometimes they are still ambivalent about embracing the pain of growth. They just want the pain to stop!

I relate to this. I have to really be sick of my stagnation pain to want to actually do anything about it! There’s something very healthy about the liturgical calendar for just this reason. It builds in a rhythm that presses us to engage the suffering that we think might be good for us.

Where do you feel an invitation to move from the pain of stagnation to the pain of growth?

Inner Healing with Benefits

I served on a crisis intervention team for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Urbana 12, a 16,000-delegate conference, last month. There were 7 of us, all therapists, and we intervened when we got calls about anyone dealing with extreme anxiety or other emotional upheaval. We also interacted with the prayer ministers, who prayed for a whopping 2,500 people over the course of the conference! I was so impressed with the model that InterVarsity has developed for this team to interface with the ministry of inner healing prayer. Those doing prayer ministry were introduced to the crisis team and were instructed to call us into their prayer sessions with folks if the person had experienced certain kinds of trauma, if they felt the person might need counseling, or if they were just confused by the person’s presentation.

Having experience coming from both perspectives, I appreciate this type of interface. At conferences like this, it isn’t unusual for students coming for prayer ministry to be confessing long-held secrets for the first time; sexual trauma, damaging choices, and abuse are often brought into the open with a prayer minister before they are confessed to anyone else. This critical first discussion, at its best, is a tender confession that is deeply healing for the recipients as they experience both human and Divine reception of their stories. But obviously, for many, should the journey end there, the processing needed for integrating the past wound into their current understanding and behavior would be cut short. For dozens of students who received prayer at Urbana this year, they also received a consultation with one of the crisis team individuals about how therapy could benefit them, and that the spiritual and psychological process could work together.

Another wonderful part of this cooperation was catching some complicating potential diagnoses that confused the prayer ministers. For example, one student had alarmed her prayer minister by sharing recurring thought of hitting/hurting people, including her prayer minister. When I was called over to consult, I was able to suggest the student get an evaluation for OCD, which sometimes manifests in obsessive thoughts about harming another individual. The student nearly melted with relief, as her own explanations had been much more sinister.

I’m hoping that many organizations are and will follow this model at huge conferences like this when young people are far from home. When inner healing prayer and psychotherapy can come together, we all benefit from a more holistic paradigm for healing and transformation.

Sandy Hook and the Incarnation

The night after the school shooting in Connecticut, I had a dream of a family walking through the paces of losing a child in the massacre. In my dream, I watched the parents telling their other children, I watched them receive the body of their child, and I watched the family sit in different parts of their living room, shocked and grieving, each taking their turn to touch and hug the body of the dead child. I woke with the palpable grief of this dreamed family weighing on me. It was as if my psyche needed a closer process of identification with those suffering this nightmare.

When things like this happen, we wake up to the human experience of suffering in a new way. It could have been me, our school, my child, our neighbors, my friend…and we imagine or remember the nearly unfathomable edges of pain. How can they bear it? How could we bear it if it were us? Is our pull towards an experience of identification an innate expression of God in us? The Christian tradition teaches that God’s idea of how to connect with humanity was to identify with the human experience first hand. I feel that pull in me….the pull to identify and to imagine the experience of that community. I wonder at the mystery of that innate drive as I ponder that God concluded that identification was so central to the human-Divine relationship that God became a baby.

My dream was a gift to me because it took me deeper into human grief and also deeper into Divine mystery. If Christmas means nothing else this year, I pray that all of us, and especially those in Newtown, can grasp the mystery that God wanted and wants closer identification with us. Jesus’ birth is the evidence that our God reaches out to us to the very edges of our human experience; even into our darkest sorrows.

May God have mercy on those who are in their darkest sorrow now.

 

Growing our Wonder

One of my former professors from my counseling program asked his students to reflect on my blogs this semester and then invited me to visit the class. Returning to Loyola drew me into a sense of wonder about all that has happened in me since I first sat in the very seats of the students I met last Thursday. I remembered what it felt like to be in the midst of preparation for something new. To see these students in that place, talking about my blog as a now practitioner on the proverbial “other side” filled me with a sense of wonder. How delightful and humbling to talk with them about how my thoughts today were intersecting with this season of newness for them!

Advent, at its best, ought to bring a similar sense of wonder. We have been here, in this season before, many times! But this year we are on the other side of whatever challenges that faced us one year ago. So much of the wonder of Advent is seeing how the miracle of an incarnate God is felt and experienced in our own year-to-year living. The discipline of noticing (a.k.a contemplation) helps us grow our sense of wonder and astonishment.  “When we recover our capacity to be astonished within ordinary experience, we will again be astonished.”  (p.71)

Take a moment to reflect on what you were facing last year during Advent. What have you come through? What resolved differently than you expected? What is still undone? What have you seen grow in yourself that you never thought you’d see? Could this exercise cultivate your sense of wonder this Advent? I would love to read the ways your wonder swells as you marvel at how far you’ve come, how surprised you’ve been, or how you’ve endured or finished something you never thought you could. My visit to my former school helped me remember sitting in my first classes and wondering what it would feel like to actually be a therapist. Now, I marvel at the amazing fact that I decided one day to do this new thing and NOW I’M DOING IT! I’m on the other side! Visiting the class punctuated a happy full circle for me, especially as I remember the fulfilling joys and the excruciating pains that the journey held.

Please share your own reflections and fuel a growing sense of wonder in us all!

The quote is from Ron Rolheiser’s The Shattered Lantern.

The Perfect Gift

My son wasn’t sure what he wanted for Christmas this year. After a great deal of thought, he came to me and said, “for Christmas I’d like something different than anything I already have. Something that’s really cool, really fun, that really suits me. And I want it to be something that will really surprise me.”

No pressure, right?

What my dear one doesn’t realize is that this is precisely the annual torture I go through every year. He doesn’t know the agony and deliberation behind the scene of our delightful Christmas mornings! He has no idea the web browsing and Facebook inquiries and conversations with other moms that happen in secret.

He has no idea how much I think of him.

Could part of our Advent wonderings involve us pondering how deeply and carefully God thinks about each one of us, his beloved children? The Advent season is intended to hold us in anticipation of the best gift that God could conceive. This effort involved careful knowing and pondering about every one of us. What an exquisite mystery!

We have no idea.

Tis the Season to be Frantic

Has your recovery from Thanksgiving sufficiently prepared you for Christmas?  Interestingly, Advent is meant to be a time of fasting and preparation for Christmas, which is intended to be a feast celebrating the birth of Jesus. Over time, we have shifted the time of Advent into a time of feasting and frenetic activity in preparation for another feast that leaves us in an exhausted heap! A writer I have grown to love, Ron Rolheiser, suggests that we have forgotten the joy of feasting because we have forgotten how to adequately fast. And while advent in this generation retains a feeling of preparation, what is that preparation for? There is no expectation that we would fast in any sense as we prepare. After all, how can one fast when you’re running a 29-day sprint? Most of us complain of gaining weight over the holidays because of the many pre-celebration celebrations. Rather than refraining from work or activity, I hear more talk of lists and checking things off during this season than any.

Working with my clients during the holidays is a fascinating mix of increased cancellations due to the holiday frenzy by some and increased frequency of appointments by others due to stress! People tend to treat the season as a time of suspension from their real lives—I’ll start that later—that will have to wait until after the holidays—. It is as if the entire season of Advent is a time of unreality and December 26th marks the imagined beginning of the life we’re meant to have. It’s a type of trance if you think about it. Speed up, eat more, drink more, run more errands, bake more, send more mail, and go to more gatherings. There is almost nothing that SLOWS DOWN. If you work for the church, many of these dynamics are exacerbated exponentially. The leaders we hope will walk us through the season are sometimes the ones running at the highest speed!

Everybody writes about making the Christmas season special, meaningful, slower, and less expensive, but what does it mean to face Advent as a contemplative person? As someone craving an Advent fast to help prepare us for the Christmas feast in the truest sense? Consider Ron Rolheiser’s words:

“To be contemplative is to be fully awake to all the dimensions within ordinary experience. And, classical spiritual writers assure us, if we are awake to all that is there within ordinary experience, if our ordinary awareness is not reduced or distorted through excessive narcissism, pragmatism or restlessness, there will be present in it, alongside everything else that makes up experience, a sense of the infinite, the sacred, God.” p. 23

What will it look like to be fully awake in this sense during Advent? How do we avoid slipping into the trance of excess everything?

 

The quote is from Ronald Rolheiser’s The Shattered Lantern.

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