We go to the movies so rarely now, it was odd to choose an animated Pixar movie for our “date” on Dan’s day off this week. Inside Outwas the best movie we’ve seen in a long time! What a wonderfully creative way to imagine emotions, memory, hardship and growing up, all inside the head of 11- year old, Riley. I loved the image of memories as colored balls – much like the ball pit in many fast food “playlands”. Each primary emotion is personified with a color and an attitude—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust along with an imaginary friend, Bing Bong.
“Sadness” seems to ruin everything and suck all the fun out of the room, but “Joy” learns that once Sadness is felt and expressed – healing begins. We discover that the real danger is not sadness, but apathy—feeling nothing at all. Far from ruining our memories, acknowledging and expressing our pain and melancholy in a good cry can help us begin again.
Continuing with this theme of entering into loss, another poignant moment if the film is when Joy and Bing Bong fall into the abyss of forgotten memories (this is below the realms of core memories, long-term memories, and the subconscious—I love the map of the mind this movie portrays!). After 2 valiant attempts to get back to the emotional headquarters to help Riley recover from a traumatic cross-country move, Bing Bong purposely falls out of their wagon-rocket so Joy can make it safely out. Leaving childhood comforts is a painful, but necessary stage in growing up. It reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s reflection in 1 Corinthians, 13:11: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
This scene also teaches us again what Scripture, religion, myths, stories and fairy tales have conveyed for centuries which we often resist with Herculean effort: that the way up is the way down. The way to healing and growth is achieved by going through pain, difficulty, loss, failure, and sacrifice. Much like Hercules going down to Hades to save his true love and become worthy to live among the gods, Cinderella disappearing and being lost before she’s found, Aslan, the Lion and true King of Narnia sacrificing himself to save Edward in The Chronicles of Narnia, and of course in Christian faith, where the death of Jesus is the only way to new life and eternal power, Riley must feel the depths of loss and let Bing Bong die in order to grow and experience new relationships in her young life.
Richard Rohr in his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life makes it clear that we usually don’t enter these stages of loss and renewal, death and new life, going down to go up, unless it is forced upon us by tragedy or circumstances of loss beyond our control. I suppose this is why a mentor of mine told me that 2/3 of adults don’t actually grow up; many remain stunted by refusing, for whatever reason, to not enter the emotional growth into which life’s difficulties invite us.
Watching this movie and inviting our “inside out” is a great way to continue the journey for us as adults, as well as children.
“Good for you!” “How fortunate!” “How enviable!” This is what Jesus proclaims in The Beatitudes with the word, “Blessed!” "Good for you when you are poor in spirit! How fortunate that you mourn! How enviable are the meek! Good for you when you are persecuted. How fortunate are the merciful! Blessed!"
WHAT? What on earth is Jesus saying? He seems to affirm everything we avoid. We could call The Beatitudes, “How to not be an American,” “How not to win friends and influence people.” The Beatitudes will not be found in the Self-Help section of our local Barnes & Noble.
Our society encourages us to avoid the painful experiences of life. We live in a consumer culture that bombards us with products that can assuage our pain and try to make us happy. We are constantly tempted to avoid all feelings of grief, insecurity, sadness, rejection—if we can just consume enough to fill that empty painful space inside. Some fill this emptiness with shopping, others avoid painful feelings with alcohol or drugs, still others with exerting control over others, some use food and sugar to bring a sense of comfort (my personal favorite) and others, with a feverish pursuit of goals in the race up the ladder of income, status, success, or power. Consumption and Busyness can be great antidotes to feeling any of the hurts that Jesus cheers for in The Beatitudes.
Yet, we are not getting any happier. A Harris Poll a year ago, reported that only 1/3 of Americans report being “Very Happy” which is a decrease from previous years. Our strategies aren’t working, but relentless consumerism tempts us to try again with the next new and improved party drink, fashion style, sugar-free super snack, or the latest life hack for career success. We never get off the merry-go-round because the emptiness, despair, grief, meekness, fear, or rejection doesn’t go away. It’s the true nature of addiction: once the rush wears off, we need another fix of whatever helps us ignore our pain and temporarily feel a little better.
If this is where we end up, then how can Jesus call being “poor in spirit, mourning, hungering for justice, being merciful, persecuted, and rejected, “blessed” “enviable,” “fortunate” and “good for us?!”
Last summer, the director of the childcare center at the church I serve asked me to give a Bible lesson once a week to the kids. She thought maybe I could start with The Beatitudes. So I stood before the elementary aged kids and asked this same question: “why would Jesus say, ‘good for you’ when you are sad, ‘good for you’ when you are grieving or lonely, ‘good for you’ when people reject you?” A third or fourth grade girl shot her hand up in the air and said, “Because then God can help you!” No wonder Jesus said we had to become like a little child to enter God’s kingdom! (I asked if she could come and preach this sermon for me today, but she had to go to Sunday School!)
Because then God can help you. Isn’t that true? When things are going well, when we’ve got the world by the tail, when we’re planning our work and working our plan as if we were the author of life and creation, and we’re wrapped up in our own ego, we’re not paying attention to God’s presence and love and help in our life.
But when our plans don’t work, when we’re plunged into crisis or grief, when we’re lonely or rejected, and life just isn’t working, we become open. A space opens up in us that wasn’t there before, for God to enter our lives and bless us, strengthen us, comfort us and help us. When we can remain in that openness when life falls apart—and hold off going on that shopping spree, or pouring that beer, or diving into that bag of chocolate: God can slip in where wouldn’t let him go before. God invites us to really feel the pain in order heal it and have it lose its power over us; God is there to embrace us with deep love (often through another person), fill us with a peace that passes all understanding and surround us with God’s healing presence.
These gifts are there all the time of course—we’re just not available to receive them often times, until things fall apart. Even psychology affirms this process. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a University of California psychology professor and author of The Myths of Happiness, explains: “It’s often negative experiences that help us grow and learn, which is vital for being happy.” Or in the language of faith, negative events are the doorway for experiencing the blessedness of Jesus and the peace of Christ.
Franciscan Priest Fr. Richard Rohrsays it this way: “the way down is the way up.” Or he says, you can say it the other way, “the way up is the down.” Rohr writes, “There is a cruciform shape to reality it seems, and loss precedes all renewal, emptiness makes way for every new infilling, every transformation in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous “form.” Nothing in the human psyche likes this pattern.” This is why we try so hard to avoid it!
But we can’t and don’t get to peace, contentment, or blessedness without grappling with whatever form of suffering life gives us. And that is the way of the cross. The way to new life and resurrection is through suffering, where God claims power over all of death, and makes it evidently clear that love consumes and supersedes all of it. Resurrection means that love and life win in the end, no matter what! Richard Rohr continues with, “Love is the energy driving the universe forward.”
Jesus embodies this all-encompassing love of God which drives the universe forward. Because didn’t Jesus become and embody all of these Beatitudes in his life? Jesus was poor in spirit, for he humbly acknowledged he had nothing and was nothing apart from God—and he inherited the kingdom of heaven. Jesus mourned over Jerusalem and wanted to take them under his wings like a mother hen, and he wept at the death of his friend Lazarus—and he was indeed comforted. Jesus was meek—not weak—in the face of Pilate and his accusers. He grounded his identity in God and in God’s dominion, so he remained calm and centered during the trial and did not shift with the circumstances—and the earth and all that is in it belongs to him. Jesus was merciful, most powerfully seen in his words from the cross when the rest of us might seek vengeance, he uttered, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”—and he did receive mercy.
We could go on with each of The Beatitudes. Instead of giving in to the limits of human experience and emotion, Jesus embodies for us what it looks like in the midst of hardship, to be at one with and fully defined by God—to be blessed, and enviable and fortunate, no matter what. Retired Theology Professor Sr. Carla Mae Streeter calls the Beatitudes “the revelation of Jesus’ own mature spirituality.” She describes that in Jesus we see the “total life of a person whose consciousness is permeated with God" (from the book, Foundations of Spirituality)
Jesus begins his ministry with The Beatitudes in Matthew so that the disciples and us, understand from the outset, that Jesus calls us to live with this same consciousness—one that is permeated with God. Jesus calls us to allow the difficulties and grief of this life to push us to seek our own mature spirituality. It’s a spirituality that enjoys the good things and the blessings in this life—like a smooth glass of wine paired with apples and cheese, or a cold beer at the Super Bowl Party, a suit that makes us feel like a million bucks, a dark chocolate truffle after a family meal, a clear plan to meet our goals—without these things becoming hindrances or addictions that get in the way of our deepening relationship with God. Instead, these blessings become celebrations of our spiritual maturity as a person who is permeated with God’s presence and love.
So, good for you when you are poor in spirit! How fortunate that you mourn! How enviable are the meek! Good for you when you are persecuted. How fortunate are the merciful! For you are open and receiving all the blessings God has for you. Such blessedness is being loved, embraced and consciously living in the peaceful, comforting and empowering presence of God no matter our circumstances. Blessed are you!
If you are a woman like me, you probably heard subtle and not-so-subtle messages growing up that your desires and interests were unimportant at best, and bad and wrong at worst. On the contrary, helping and serving others while you denied yourself, was not only expected as a female in this culture, it was faithful. We learned that God wants us to sacrifice ourself, our needs, and our desires in order to follow Jesus. If we ever did let our desires and wants slip out, we might have been told that we are selfish, pushy, bossy, or God-forbid, a “bitch.” At the Enneagram conference I attended two weeks ago, we learned that girls today as young as second grade are being labeled a “bitch” when they express their desires and demonstrate leadership skills so often admired in boys the same age (they are probably just an 8 on the Enneagram with a particular set of strengths, skills and weaknesses, like the rest of us).
I had been a pastor for over twenty years when a therapist said to me, “God works through your desires.” I was both surprised and comforted since for so much of my adult life, I have had an on-going internal battle with feeling selfish for having desires and aspirations. I don’t believe anyone intended to give me this message, but I received it, loud and clear. In the book, Holy Listening; The Art of Spiritual Direction, the late Episcopal priest, Margaret Guenther wrote, “women’s distinctive sin is self-contempt, a self-hatred often centered on the body. A lack of healthy self-love means that women can neglect their own inner growth because they are so busy serving others—as culture, society, and religion demand” (128-129). Does that strike a chord in your soul? It sure did in mine. Author Susan Rakoczy, writing in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, adds, “Self-sacrifice freely chosen leads to self-transcendence; serving others because of cultural and religious norms leads to self-naughting” (Vol. 20.2, June 2014, 50).
How much time and energy have we, as women put into “self-naughting”—shutting down our inner aspirations and hopes because others’ needs (whoever that ‘other’ might include) are more important than ours? I would agree that mature spirituality leads us to self-denial and transcendence of the ego-self as we deepen our life and identity in God. But many of our spiritual and religious traditions have encouraged our self-denial before we have achieved “self-possession” (Rokoczy, 50) or ego-strength and identity. Fr. Richard Rohr identifies building this ego-self as the task of the first half of life (see his book, Falling Upward).
Despite it feeling selfish or myopic, our first spiritual task is to achieve self-possession. We might ask, “How is God working through our desires, our passions, our aspirations, and our hopes? What kind of contribution to the world do our skills and strengths lead us to offer? How is God calling us through our desires and skills?” We need to walk through this conscious self-development before we have anything to sacrifice or transcend in service of the reign of God.
I have felt this tension in the process of writing and publishing, Motherhood Calling: Experiencing God in Everyday Family Life. I felt a deep desire to write and communicate about God’s daily presence; yet it felt selfish to seek a publisher, and it still feels self-serving and “braggy” to tell others about it. But, if I don’t share it, how can it be used to help others see God in their daily lives--the whole purpose of the book? Even using this as an example feels uncomfortable! Aaaargh!
I don’t think this internal battle is what God hopes for in any of us! Today, I live in the tension while praying for how God desires me to resolve it, and trying to practice healthy self-love in the mean time.
"Our image of God and our image of self are two sides of the same coin" said Dr. Hsin-hsin Huang, the leader and trainer for Spiritual Companions to retreatants who go through a 9-month experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. As we each shared our prayer and spiritual experiences, Dr. Huang continued to pepper our discussion with more spiritual insights on the path to spiritual maturity.
Our image of God relates directly to how we view ourselves. Our first image of God often arises out of our relationship with our parents. Our early images of God can be rooted in several dynamics: fear of punishment, expectations of perfection or hyper-responsibility, an experience of abuse, absence or unreliability, and maybe even one of love and forgiveness. Just as our relationship with our parents changes over time to a more equal relationship between adults, so also can our relationship with God. We move from fear of God to love of God as we mature.
If we fear God as a judgmental moralist who demands right behavior, then we see ourselves as an unlovable, bad person who has to do better. We consequently live with a lot of guilt and shame that leads not only to low self-esteem, but also to judgmental attitudes toward others. There are a lot of burned-out Christians today who can never behave exactly the right way for their demanding God, and others in society are also judged for missing the mark.
The less we fear God, however, the more grateful we are to God for all God does for us in creation, in daily sustenance, in relationships, in talents and abilities, in forgiveness through Jesus. The less we fear God, the more we can love ourselves because God loves us. The more forgiving we believe God is, the more we are able to forgive ourselves and our own brokenness and imperfection. Such self-love, grounded in God's love, enables us to also love and forgive others, letting go of perfectionistic expectations.
This is the hope of pursuing a spiritual path – that we mature from an belief about God to the felt experience of God loving us. There is a difference between intellectually understanding God and affectively experiencing God's intimate, powerful love for us. We see this most clearly in the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus invites Martha to move from doing to being – from doing for God to being loved by God in the presence and person of Jesus.
I have always been a "Martha" – with a hyper sense of reasonability to and for the well-being of others. When I began the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in the fall of 2013, the first prayer exercise was to "behold God beholding me and smiling." For the first 56 days, I did this exercise, but it was an intellectual exercise – I held a picture in my minds' eye. But on day 57, I felt a physical shift in my body from my mind to my gut – I felt loved. I was a little startled and said out loud to God, "you really do love me, don't you?!" And I smiled. (I had been ordained as a pastor for 24 years and had been serving a God with very high expectations of me).
Dr. Huang offered another exercise to help us identify childhood images of God that affect our relationship with God today: write about each of one's parents, describing them in about a page. Take a break and come back 30 minutes later to notice what, if anything you have written about your parents describes your image of God. What brings you deeper in your relationship with God and of what can you let go that hinders you from experiencing how much God loves you? Then practice "beholding God beholding you and smiling - a Mary practice in a Martha world.
Visit The Bridges Program to learn more about how you can experience the Spiritual Exercises!
After reading my “#MeToo” story, a friend asked whether I had forgiven the colleagues and professors I had written about. As a spiritual and religious person, I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had not thought much about forgiveness in the context of my personal harassment. So as we welcomed and celebrated the Incarnation of God in the human being of Jesus, I pondered this question. I’ve come to realize that forgiveness for those who failed me in various ways when I was a young female pastor had been a part of developing spiritual and emotional maturity; it rarely came as an intentional decision.
I saw that I’d overlooked forgiving my harassers, in part, because my anger at them was conflated with my frustration with the institutional church, which failed to listen, to take me seriously, and to help me seek justice; it failed even to require appropriate behavior from its male leaders. Further, the church had failed to provide much-needed support as I tried to serve my first two congregations.
The first congregation had longstanding internal power struggles. It was an inappropriate post for a first-time pastor of either gender, yet my requests for help and guidance from colleagues and judicatory staff went unheeded. Eventually I resigned and embarked upon eight months of therapy to put myself back together, spiritually and psychically. My next call, in a different state, was from an inner-city church in need of an urban ministry strategy. I turned to that judicatory staff for help with developing a cooperative vision and a plan for resourcing and supporting it; again, I was met with inaction. Independently, for four years, I formed partnerships there with other congregations where feasible, as I pastored a congregation in frequent crisis.
But then, after almost a decade of being a female intern and novice pastor seeking help from my church leaders and finding none, I resigned from the ministry and answered another call – to become a full-time mom and to heal an exhausted mind, body, and spirit. During my extended leave, I focused on my family and self-care. Not on forgiveness.
Now, turning my attention to that left-behind matter, I find that something has changed, even without my awareness or intention. First, I found that I’ve often thought of forgiveness as something to offer when someone who has wronged me apologizes — forgiveness wipes the slate clean and erases a debt, giving the relationship a fresh start. Such reconciliation is essential in our close, on-going relationships with friends and family. I am grateful to have experienced this in one situation of harassment. The Bible, however, reminds me that I am called upon to forgive others simply because God has forgiven me (Ephesians 4:32). God’s forgiveness is free, unmerited, a gift of love and grace. God expects us to offer this same selfless mercy to others, whether or not it is requested, undeserved, or the hurt goes deep. This kind of forgiveness frees the other, but also frees us from bitterness, resentment, and the spiritual and physical illnesses that can result from hanging on to toxic emotions.
Still, forgiving does not mean continuing to put ourselves in harm’s way. Forgiving does not mean accepting or condoning a wrong-doer’s behavior. Forgiving does not mean that we do not pursue justice through administrative or legal channels. Forgiving does mean letting go of the desire for revenge. “Repay no one evil for evil … Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19). At its fullest, forgiveness frees us from giving those who have harmed us power over our emotions, choices, thoughts and self-identity; we stop giving them free rent in our heads and hearts. This can be done alongside an adjudication process, or without such a process. Each of us must wrestle with the healing path that is best for us.
Taking leave to raise my children was a first step in the forgiveness process — a decision to get myself out of harm’s way to heal. What I’ve learned over that time has helped me with other important aspects of forgiveness—forgiveness both for my perpetrators and the institutional church. That included looking at myself and confronting my own expectations. I needed to stop being surprised by sin and to stop expecting the church — or any human institution for that matter — to be free of sin and brokenness. Of course, the church and the people in it fail me and others on a regular basis — as do I, and all of us! My sin has been putting my faith and trust in something other than God incarnate in Jesus Christ (a wonderful reflection as we celebrate the Nativity).
It is freeing to understand that I am not to expect nor look to the church or anyone in it, to take care of me; that is my job through my relationship with God. I learned the distinction between asking someone to care for and about me in a healthy way versus asking them to take care of me and giving up my own personal power, volition, and responsibility. Without this shift, I would have been perpetually wounded and disappointed by the fact that the church and its leaders are all part of our fallen world. This realization opened me up to forgiving the church. This growing spiritual maturity has resulted in deeper emotional freedom. I have stopped giving my perpetrators power over my identity and confidence and, over time, I have stopped letting mistrust of male colleagues prevent me from exploring team ministry. The last step in this process has been to forgive myself, both for having unrealistic expectations and for hanging on to fear, even unconsciously. Reflecting on and writing about this has helped move me into this last step of self-forgiveness.
After nine years at home with my children and running a home business, in 2006 I returned to parish ministry. The ELCA (Evangelical Church in America) as an institution also had grown and changed over these years. For instance, there are more policies in place to make congregations safe for everyone, including children, and when pastors or other leaders commit boundary violations, there are procedures and ways to find help. In addition, it's thrilling to be part of a denomination that welcomes LGBTQ+ people into the full life of the church, its ministry, and its marriage rites! In fact, I can say that I love the ELCA now more than I ever have since my ordination in 1989. This reveals my own spiritual and emotional growth toward the freedom and fullness of forgiveness that includes my perpetrators, the institution, and myself.
This love leads me to care for the church – to help it be faithful when it fails, to seek the path of truth, reconciliation, justice, accountability, and forgiveness — but not to expect it to take care of me. I need to be okay at my core because of the salvation God freely gives in Jesus Christ, and that’s true both when the church and its leaders are faithful, and when we fail. For me, that’s the freedom of forgiveness that comes from a process of deepening my own spiritual life rooted in the love and mercy of God. Through God’s unmerited forgiveness of me, and love for me, I am freed to forgive others, and freed to love and serve as God calls me to today, regardless of what has happened in my past.
Image: Downloaded from quotefancy.