What follows was supposed to be our first family Christmas letter in a while, but read on and you’ll see that’s not exactly what this is. I just don’t know if I (Robert) can easily produce those customary Christmas letters any more. Of course I would love to tell you what we’ve been up to during the pandemic, how we’re all blessed to be working and attending school from home and how the pivot to widespread use of video technology for as much of life as possible has led to a deeply renewed connection with our “home” church in Philly, to the point that we’ve rejoined their covenant and daily consider what next steps we might take, but I find that I just don’t have very many words to spend on all that right now. Instead, I find my gaze shifting outward, to you, dear reader, and to Jesus, whose Advent we’re celebrating as I write.
This Advent I picked up a devotional I intended to use, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, by our (figurative) friends at the Bruderhof. I’ll confess I haven’t made time to read it every day as the usual Christmas doldrums set in some time ago, this year multiplied many times over by the global pandemic we’re all still suffering through. But I read it today, and since doing so this morning I can’t stop thinking about it. Today’s offering was from that old ragamuffin, Brennan Manning. I was privileged to actually hear Manning speak when I was in college many years ago. It probably was around that same time that I saw Rich Mullins in concert, and the two probably belong together in my imagination, as their lives were intertwined in the fabric of God’s grace. One writer’s take on their relationship as depicted in a 2014 Mullins biopic can be found here. A year earlier, another writer described Manning’s influence on Mullins this way:
The first time the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins heard former Franciscan priest Brennan Manning on tape as he drove through the edge of the Flint Hills in Kansas, his eyes filled with tears. He steered the truck to the side of the road. There, as he later wrote, the message “broke the power of mere ‘moralistic religiosity’ in my life, and revived a deeper acceptance that had long ago withered in me.”
The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus
What is this acceptance that Manning helped Mullins recover? It likely has little to do with the usual niceties of a consumeristic Christmas. The piece from Manning I read this morning was titled Shipwrecked at the Stable and was originally published in his book Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. In this piece, Manning writes:
The spirituality of Bethlehem is simply incomprehensible to the advertising industry. The opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are being used to sell us pain reliever, and the prayer of St. Francis is being used to sell us hair conditioner. The Bethlehem mystery will ever be a scandal to aspiring disciples who seek a triumphant Savior and a prosperity Gospel. The infant Jesus was born in unimpressive circumstances, no one can exactly say where. His parents were of no social significance whatsoever, and his chosen welcoming committee were all turkeys, losers, and dirt-poor shepherds. But in this weakness and poverty the shipwrecked at the stable would come to know the love of God.
Manning goes on:
The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky but utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences—“Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!
I’ve been trying to move a bit more into contemplation this year. I’m finding more and more that meditation and silent, contemplative prayer are key to helping me calm my anxious body and traumatized mind and rediscover my own belovedness. Another Catholic priest, Father Martin Laird, has been a guide of sorts in this process. His book Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, has been extremely helpful. In it he talks about the passage from John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” and Laird adds that “to the branch, it’s all vine.” To the branch, there is no point at which the vine has ended and the branch has begun. There is only oneness and unity. I wonder if it might not be this acceptance that Rich Mullins found revived when he heard Brennan Manning for the first time. Could it truly be that all things were created in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ, and that in Christ therefore, “all things hold together?”
Here’s Manning again, talking about the shipwrecked:
All the time they were battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they were being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.
The shipwrecked don’t seek peace because they aren’t disturbed by the lack of it. By that I mean the subjective feeling of peace. Circumstances can play havoc with our emotions, the day can be stormy or fair and our feelings will fluctuate accordingly; but if we are in Christ Jesus, we are in peace and there unflustered even when we feel no peace. Meister Eckhart’s equation, “In Christ equals in peace,” is always valid. When we accept the truth of ourselves- shipwrecked and saved- our lives are henceforth anchored in the Rock who is Christ, not in the shifting sands of fickle feelings.
This is a point of capital importance for those who would fully experience the grace of Christmas. When we are in right relationship with Jesus, we are in the peace of Christ. Except for grave, conscious, deliberate infidelity, which must be recognized and repented of, the presence or absence of feelings of peace is the normal ebb and flow of the spiritual life.
Manning continues, invoking the passage from Colossians I alluded to above:
The shipwrecked have stood at the still-point of a turning world and discovered that the human heart is made for Jesus Christ and cannot really be content with less. They cannot take seriously the demands that the world makes on them. During Advent they teach us that the more we try to tame and reduce desires, the more we deceive and distort ourselves. We are made for Christ and nothing less will ever satisfy us. As Paul writes in Colossians 1:16, “All things were created by him and for him.” And further on, “There is only Christ: he is everything” (3:11). It is only in Christ that the heart finds true joy in created things.
To the clotheshorse fretting about what to wear on Christmas Day, the shipwrecked say, “Put on Christ.” To the merchant whose Bible is the Wall Street Journal and who pants down the money-making street, the shipwrecked say, “You have only one Master; serving him is incompatible with any other servitude.” To the power-broker dealing strength to get things done, the shipwrecked say: “However powerful you are, the most you can do is change the décor of a world that is collapsing into its own death.”
The shipwrecked stand on firm ground. They live in truth and are rooted in reality. They do not allow the world to order them around. Kneeling at the crib they find the vanity of the world ridiculous, bloated, preposterous…
Do you hear what the shipwrecked are saying? Let go of your paltry desires and expand your expectations. Christmas means that God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ. Be unwilling next Christmas to settle for anything else. Don’t order “just a piece of toast” when eggs Benedict are on the menu. Don’t come with a thimble when God has nothing less to give you than the ocean of himself. Don’t be contented with a ‘nice’ Christmas when Jesus says, “It has pleased my Father to give you the Kingdom.” Pray, go to work, play Trivial Pursuit, eat banana bread, exchange presents, go caroling, feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, and do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Stripped and Filled
I’m 45 years old this Christmas, and so much of my life has been spent clinging to my paltry desires, somehow believing them to be the best that I might hope for. I fret about not just what I’ll wear, but about so much more. Far too many of my worries, of course, are sadly about myself, about whether or not I am okay in any number of ways. This is very much related to the complex trauma that I endured as a child, but this nagging self-concern is likely a temptation we all must face, in one way or another. Manning asks in this Advent reflection: “As Christmas approaches, an honest question is: do I want to be or merely appear to be a Christian?” And then Manning begins to answer the question by telling a story about a conversation between St. Francis and Brother Leo about how to be pure of heart. Soon into the conversation, St. Francis says:
“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire him. Rejoice that he is what he is—your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with him.
The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble distracted, insecure and uncertain, they are able to release it into his peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled—stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.”
After a long pause, Leo said, “Still, Francis, the Lord demands our effort and fidelity.” “No doubt about that,” replied Francis. “But holiness is not a personal achievement. It’s an emptiness you discover in yourself. Instead of resenting it, you accept it and it becomes the free space where the Lord can create anew. To cry out, ‘You alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord,’ that is what it means to be pure of heart. And it doesn’t come by your Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions.”
“Then how?” asked Leo. “Simply hoard nothing of yourself; sweep the house clean. Sweep out even the attic, even the nagging painful consciousness of your past. Accept being shipwrecked. Renounce everything that is heavy, even the weight of your sins. See only the compassion, the infinite patience, and the tender love of Christ. Jesus is Lord. That suffices. Your guilt and reproach disappear into the nothingness of non-attention. You are no longer aware of yourself, like the sparrow aloft and free in the azure sky. Even the desire for holiness is transformed into a pure and simple desire for Jesus.”
This Christmas, I suppose I feel a little more shipwrecked this year as we approach the stable. I’ve long resented the emptiness I’ve felt inside, and have tried to fill it with Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions, not to mention with tinsel trees and religious experiences. Unsure of where I stand with God, which is to say nothing of where I stand with my long-deceased mother or even with my own self, I’ve settled for paltry desires and lowered expectations, desperately praying that the next city, the next job or church, or mentor or friend, will finally fill me and meet my needs. But of course they cannot, and thank God for those who will not. No, no longer will I settle, not if Christmas really does mean that “God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ.”
I will accept the emptiness inside me, and let it become the free space where God can make something new. I will remember that I am a branch on the vine, and that therefore the vine is always with me. I will put on Christ. I will serve no other master. I will pray and work and play and eat, give and receive and nourish and comfort, and I will do it all in Jesus’ name. Advent and Christmas mean God-with-us, and in the free space inside me I’ve known as my emptiness, something new is being born. God’s very self is being born, and his name is Jesus Christ. May Jesus find a home with you and yours this Christmas too. Amen.
Note: I wrote this post almost four-and-a-half years ago. I was reminded of it the other day, and find that it’s as relevant as ever as Christmas in this pandemic year fast approaches. These days, I’m still choosing between consumption and community, between Mammon/Mars and Jesus. I’d like to think I’ll finally make my choice for good (no pun intended) and be done with it, but that may not be how it works. I suppose some days we’re more faithful, and some days less so. Thank God there’s very little, my own fate least of all, that’s really finally up to me. Meanwhile, beloved community beckons like a song, and a song rises in my heart in response. Together, may we join the heavenly chorus, the same chorus that greeted those shepherds so long ago to announce to the world that peace had finally come to earth. Peace be with you and yours this Christmas.
We were out on a hike yesterday in our old N. Minneapolis neighborhood. There’s an amazing trail there through the North Mississipi Regional Park. As we entered the Webber Park portion of the trail, which is across from our old apartment building, we came across this bridge where local artists had obviously been encouraged to decorate the bridge with positive words and images. Here are some pictures of the bridge and those words/images:
It’s a pretty cool bridge, encouraging us to “work to save planet earth” and to “imagine peace.” One panel, a larger view of which is at the top of this post, also has the words “community” and “one love.” Those who know me know that the pursuit of (meaningful and sometimes “intentional,” even occasionally “Christian”) community has been an enormous part of my adult life. I’ve written about this pursuit frequently on this blog before, but several formative experiences have served to root this ideal at the center of my yearnings for the kind of life I want to be a part of. I suppose my first experience of (something like) “real” community occurred as an undergraduate at Gordon College. This continued in a hyper intense setting during my Kingdomworks experience, and then, not much more than a year later, was cemented as I was immersed as a newlywed in the just started Circle of Hope.
It was through the teaching and more importantly, the experience of community through Circle of Hope that I first came to understand that the Christian life is a communal one, or it is no life at all. Shane Claiborne, peripherally connected to Circle of Hope in the Kensington neighborhood of Philly since its early days, would later pose the question in his seminal book, The Irresistible Revolution, “What if Jesus really meant what he said?” It’s a basic, but powerful query that distills much of what I now strive for as someone who purports to follow Jesus. At 41, I’ve come to believe that I no longer have time to “mess around.” If following Jesus won’t make much of a difference to me as I live my life, much less to anyone else, I’m not interested because it’s simply too hard. And the thing is, I want it to be hard. I wrote about this years ago in both my undergraduate and graduate thesis, but it’s hard to put the energy into doing something that isn’t perceived as being worthwhile, and part of the perception of worth is wrapped up in notions of difficulty. I would hope I’m not naive or reductive enough to think that any hard thing is a thing worth doing; obviously there’s a little more to it than that. But if Jesus “really meant what he said,” what a life we’ve been invited to participate in and help create!
Jesus inaugurated his ministry by declaring the fulfillment of the proclamation of “good news to the poor.. freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” of setting “the oppressed free” and of proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” In this election year especially but in every year, who wouldn’t want good news for the poor to be a reality? Aside from the powerful corporations and politicians that benefit from the prison-industrial complex, who wouldn’t want prisoners and the oppressed in USAmerica and around the world to be set free? Who doesn’t want to see the blind recover their sight? This is a political platform and agenda for life that I can get behind. This is, of course, all about reconciliation. It’s about reconciling and pursuing right relationship not only with God but with one another and with the beautiful world God made. It’s about right relationship within our own broken hearts, with our own fractured selves. Thus, Jesus invites us to join him in his ministry of reconciliation, but this is a profoundly difficult task, and it was the experience of Christian community through Circle of Hope that taught me that in no small part because this is such a difficult task, it’s one that can only truly be undertaken together. As I came to learn, all those “you’s” in the Bible that address how we are to live as Jesus followers are largely plural; they’re addressed, to you, the community of Christ followers. If we are to have any hope of living a life devoted to delivering (tangible, practical) real good news for the poor and imprisoned and oppressed and blind in the world; if we are to have any real hope of living a reconciled life, we must attempt it together, because we need each other.
We need each other to resist the temptation to pursue the American dream. It’s an enticing dream, after all, one that has captivated the imagination of large swaths of the world. It’s tempting to think that hard work and determination can get you every(material)thing you want out of life. It’s tempting to think that material things are the best of what can be had in life, and even simply that having is what life is about. To the extent that the “American dream” (not to mention the USAmerican economy) whatever it once might have been or been about, has now been reduced to one centered on consumption and the acquisition of goods, it can rightly be said to be more of a nightmare. Don’t we all know by now that “money can’t buy you love,” after all, and isn’t love what we really want? Love requires work, though, and involves reconciliation. Thus, “stuff” can often be a tempting, if unsatisfying, substitute. The “American dream” is more of a nightmare, however, for many other reasons, including notably that it’s simply unsustainable. It’s not possible for all the world to live like middle class USAmericans, we who consume such disproportionate amounts of the world’s resources. The planet is already damaged, perhaps irreversibly so, now, in large part due to our exploitation of its resources so that we can afford our middle class lifestyle. If everyone lived as we do, there would be nothing left. I believe at some level the most powerful in our society know this, and care not a whit. So long as some can achieve this way of life, though largely as a result of the circumstances of their birth (too customarily as white USAmericans), then the allure of the “dream” can continue to be held out as a hope for all both here and abroad. Thus the system is perpetuated with a few (we white middle class USAmericans, largely) benefiting a little and fewer still (the much talked about “1%”) benefiting a lot, to the detriment of everyone else.
And yet even I find this “dream” all too captivating much of the time. Absent a community of like-minded (and “Spirited,” dare I say) Christ followers around me to help me live the life I know I’m called to- a life marked by the pursuit of good news for the poor, freedom for captives and the oppressed, in short, a reconciled life- I fall too easily into the pursuit of that lesser “dream.” My Amazon cart is full of “saved for later” items I’m ready to purchase the moment I can, and for good measure I even have an Amazon “wish list” of (high-minded, how ironic) books I’d add to my cart and would buy if I could as well. The Ikea catalog adorns my bathroom shelf above the toilet, and I spent much of this past Sunday morning communing not with God and his church but with my own consumptive desires as I refined the list of items I want to buy when I can. This is the life the corporations that run our (consumption based) economy and largely our “democracy” want me to live. They even know I’m on to them and I suspect without a hint of irony play into this meager self-knowledge by subtitling that Ikea catalog with the words “designed for people, not consumers.” It’s only people-as-consumers that buy their products and keep them in business, however; so let’s be honest.
In my heart of hearts, though, I know I don’t want to merely consume; I want to commune. I want to know and be known, to love and be loved. I want my life to matter to myself and, if it’s not too much to hope, to others, to the world. So we need each other to resist the promise of the lie that consumption brings happiness. We need each other too simply to do the work of a ministry of reconciliation. The U.S. is rife with racial strife that has bubbled to the surface of the consciousness of white America. As I understand it as a white person, for people of color, that strife has always been at the surface because they’re daily confronted with the stress of institutional racism and oppression. It is only my privilege that literally affords me the opportunity not to think about this injustice on a daily basis, if I choose (not) to. Racial reconciliation, then, and the hard work of deconstructing racism and my own white privilege, is obviously very, very hard work. As W.E.B. Dubois said at the outset of the last century, “The problem of the…century is the problem of the color-line.” It’s likely true that this is no less the case for the 21st century than it was for the 20th, despite whatever progress may have been made in the last century. Again, we need each other to do this work.
I could go on, but I think the basic point has been made. As someone who wants to follow Jesus I believe that I and that all of us were made in and for love. We were created to exist in loving, right relationship with God, with one another, and with God’s good created order, the world. We are our best selves, I believe, when we live life with and for those around us, when we choose to serve one another, to esteem the other as better than ourselves, to put “the needs of the many above the needs of the few.” My family and I have experienced this type of community (or at least the meaningful, dedicated pursuit of it) most fully when we’ve been part of a larger faith community that puts this idea of love and peace with justice at the center of its understanding of what it means to have Jesus at the center of its identity. We hope to experience such community again soon, and will redouble our efforts to work at bringing it about.
I had intended for my next post to be about chapter 1 of Romans Disarmed. That post is still percolating in my brain somewhere, but I’m writing instead about my latest adventure in EMDR, the trauma therapy I’ve recently restarted in earnest, though now I’m doing it remotely. Trauma therapy, perhaps like all therapy, is interesting no doubt for many reasons, but one of them is just how repetitive it seems to be: “Really, we’re talking about this again?” “How is it even possible that I’m still dealing with that, all these years later, and after all the work I thought I’d done?”
Scorekeeping Produces a Loser
My most recent session was informed by how triggered I got this past weekend. It’s an age-old dance in my life and marriage, my struggle to live into my best self as a full and equal partner to my longsuffering spouse regarding how we divvy up our many household responsibilities. We try not to keep score, but I suspect she and I both know if we did I would lose, handily. It’s not that I don’t pitch in (and here’s where I would recite all the things I do do in a mostly conscious effort to balance the ledger, but you probably don’t want to read that, and I don’t want to write it). The fact is I could work from dawn to dusk on innumerable projects that better our life together as a family, and it would matter not a whit for one unavoidable reason- my wife has specifically asked me to share equally in certain household tasks as best I can- and obviously the “right” thing to do is to say yes, mean it, and follow through.
So why can’t I seem to consistently do this, two-and-a-half decades in? Of course, again, it’s not about the work. What often happens is I’ll often avoid those very specific tasks by instead taking on big projects that everyone benefits from, including my wife. Those projects often (but not always) involve more work, at least in the short run. And I’m keenly aware of our patriarchal and chauvinistic society and the ways that I continue to benefit from it; so I certainly don’t want or mean to perpetuate those stereotypes in my home, nor model it for my boys. No, there’s clearly something else going on. The truth is that these again very specific household duties invariably produce in me emotional flashbacks to the trauma of my youth. The mere thought of them can send my heart racing and make me flighty, and those thoughts- those neural pathways- are well-entrenched and hard to avoid.
That is, of course, the work of EMDR- not avoiding per se those entrenched, maladaptive pathways, but feeling what needs to be felt about the original trauma so that the brain scarring might heal, and then building some new pathways, a “workaround” to the damaged tracks that were laid. At least that’s how I understand EMDR these days. I have some vague memory of how my mother related to me over these very same household tasks when I was a kid: demanding that I do them from a young age while never lifting a finger to do any of it herself and then micro-managing, controlling, and second-guessing me every step of the way, eventually resorting to rage and screaming at me when invariably I didn’t get it right.
It’s funny (or not); I just said “right.” I’m right-handed, and here’s what virtual EMDR looks like these days. Instead of sitting in my clinician’s office with paddles in my hands that alternately buzz to stimulate each side of my brain (how EMDR works, and my preferred method for doing it- the paddles, I mean), I hear a “buzz” in my headphones during our virtual session as I sit with my arms crossed over my chest and alternately pat each arm, synced to the audible buzz. Today we were processing the time around my own conception, and I noticed along the way that the pattern with which I was patting my arms just felt wrong. I knew instinctively that I wasn’t doing it right, and ironically the “problem” was that I had starting patting my arm with my left hand and then was alternating from there. I stopped and started over with my right hand first, and it was better. Now, your guess as to what this means is as good as mine, but this was mine: I needed to start with my right hand because part of my entrenched trauma response is a perpetual effort to get everything “right.” It was simply too dangerous in the home of my youth to get something wrong, and I carry that felt sense of potential danger lurking behind every mistake around with me to this day, every minute of every day.
A Tiring Story
That wasn’t even the big revelation for today, though. Today’s big revelation was a feeling: resentment. It used to be that I could tell my story with all of its trauma and all the drama and get some sense of relief from doing so, some validation for my resilience and survival. For a while though, now, that has no longer been the case. Mostly now my story just makes me tired. I’m tired of hearing myself talk about it, tired of looking for external validation from every new person to hear it, tired of having to carry it around. It’s probably no coincidence that I’m tired generally– always tired, bone-crushingly so, but almost never restful. I do suffer from Complex PTSD after all. Take, for example, the graph of my sleep last night from my sleep app:
Now, I will admit that not every night is quite as bad as last night, but a night like this is not unheard of. Sometimes there’s a lot more green indicating restful sleep, but usually with frequent yellow restless interludes showing that rest just doesn’t seem to be very sustainable for me.
So during my most recent EMDR session when I became aware that I was feeling resentful about my own story, the story I was born into, I described myself moving from feeling “clenched” to feeling collapsed. At the time of my conception and ever since, there is a (metaphorical, maybe) sense in which I’ve always been clenched, knowing that pain is coming, and doing my best to endure it, to survive. So apparently I resent being born into trauma, and knowing that my very existence is evidence of the trauma of others. I’ve recounted elsewhere on this blog about my parents marrying very shortly after my dad’s first wife died, and my mother being a trauma survivor in her own right, having endured even worse trauma than she inflicted on me, and how her entrance into my dad’s existing family (in which he had three kids already) utterly devastated that family and sent the lives of my half-siblings on trajectories that they would not have chosen for themselves, certainly. Objectively, of course their lives would have been better had their mom lived, and if she had, I would not exist. I’ve known and wrestled with that for some time. In my most recent EMDR session, though, I realized that (shocker!) I have a feeling about this (aside from longstanding guilt)- I resent it. It probably makes me angry too, but I think the resentment is deeper. Realizing this, I felt a little less clinched, and moved to collapse from all the effort. Fatigue washed over me yet again, and I’m sitting with it today.
Plan to Fail
This being the season of Advent, an Advent unlike any other in my living memory at least, and one in which Circle of Hope is leaning into lament as an alternative to despair, I’m tempted to end on a hopeful note. I realized the other day that lament is a move toward hope, while despair is a move in the other direction. I’m not sure if I can make that move just yet, but I suppose it’s good that (with some therapeutic help) at least I came up with a plan for the next time I’m confronted with the need to engage in common household duties that sustain our life together and make me a good partner in it. In short, I plan to fail. I know with the wisdom of experience that I’m going to get it “wrong.” I’ll feel agitated. I may be tempted to metaphorically if not literally run. That’s okay. Feelings are just…feelings. They’re weather on the mountain. They’ll pass. I’ll try to build in some time to freak out about what I know I need to do, and I’ll try to do it quietly, and once I’m done, I’ll get to work. That’s the plan, anyway.