a prayer written upon my arms

Yesterday, I got my 7th tattoo. When I got first tattoo a few years ago, I asked the artist about the weirdest tattoos he had ever done. Two stood out to me. The first was a model who had a stack of pancakes tattooed on her butt and the second was a person who had a waffle recipe tattooed on her arm. People get tattoos for many different reasons, I suppose. I have given considerable thought to each of mine and to the messages they send, first to me and then to others. They are intended to deeply reflect the things that I value.

  • שָׁלוֹם (Shalom)
  • חָפְשִׁי (Chophshi)
  • be who you are
  • truth, goodness, beauty, strength (King, Sage, Warrior, Lover)
  • LUDIO-Love Up, Down, In, Out
  • integration, wholeness, reconciliation
  • fiat lux (Let there be Light)

I will happily talk your ear off about any of these things, but this morning, I decided to write these into a prayer.

God of heaven and earth,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,
At the beginning of all things,
you created all that is by the word of your mouth
uttering “Let there be light.”
You gazed upon your creation
and you called it good,
the cosmos was precisely as you intended.
Holy shalom.

Yet infective darkness slithered in,
the world became fragmented
by sin and shame,
all creation disintegrated and hopeless.
In your love and mercy
you saw fit to send a redeemer,
your son Jesus.
In him, I have been set free
from sin’s bondage,
but so often, I forget who I am
and I wander back into dark places.
God, remind me who I am,
over and over.
Let reminders of your grace
constantly ring in my ears.

You have created me in your image and likeness,
giving me the capacity to love all things
with my whole being,
heart, soul, mind, and strength.

God, the world is torn asunder,
I see it every day.
Help me to remember that I am
an ambassador of integration, wholeness, and reconciliation.

Where there is darkness, let me bring light;
where bondage, freedom;
where deception, truth;
where vileness, beauty;
where evil, goodness;
where weakness, strength;
where hatred, love;
where disunion, integration;
where fragmentation, wholeness;
where division, reconciliation;
and where rupture, shalom;
always remembering
who you already say that I am.

What does wholeheartedness look like?

Yesterday, my friend Mark asked me, “What does it look like, feel like, to be wholehearted? How can you tell if you are or if you’re at least moving in that direction?” I spent the day thinking about it. Here were my initial thoughts.

Wholehearted people are present to the moment. They are not overwhelmed with feelings of shame about things they have done or not done, nor are they consumed with anxiety about what has not yet come. They realize that all they have is the present moment and they stay settled in it.

Wholehearted people have ballast. They don’t get easily blown off course when life gets tumultuous. Some call this equanimity. I think in terms of what they “feel” I would say a sense of peace. They are not overwhelmed by emotional shifts, nor are they numb to them.

Wholehearted people are aware of a deep sense of interconnectedness—to God, others, themselves, and to their place in creation.

Wholehearted people are able to consistently live from their true self and not as people pleasers whose identities depend on circumstance. They are free to do things that others may look askance at because they have a profound sense of who they are.

Wholehearted people show up as lights in the world, bearers of truth, goodness, and beauty. They are free from the burden of judgment—of themselves and others. They recognize the humanity and value in others and themselves.

How do we know? I think experience an increasing sense of peace, of shalom, of radiance, of solidity.

What do you think constitutes wholeheartedness?

Those People

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Yesterday, my cousin posted a news article about a woman who had repeatedly punched a 12 year old who was carrying a Trump sign while riding his bike. Thankfully, he reported what happened and it is currently being investigated. I wish I could say something like this crime surprised me, but it doesn’t, at least not anymore. Sadly, I also was not surprised at the comments. People were quick to write that this sort of behavior is “typical” of democrats and we “only hear of democrats doing crap like this.” I don’t know about you, but this sort of animosity fills my Facebook feed every day. I routinely have to resist rushing in to defend “my side” and I am not always successful.

Here’s the thing: The problem isn’t those people. It’s you. It’s me. When we physically attack people for carrying Trump (or Biden) signs, we reveal the evil within our own hearts, not theirs. When we say this sort of behavior is “typical of democrats” (or republicans), we convict ourselves, not them.

Friends, our self-righteousness and divisive attitudes are literally killing us. We make sweeping assumptions about the hearts and motives of people who think differently than we do. We presume that those people are evil, so by extension, we must be good. The consequence of this way of thinking is division, not love, and every single one of us is guilty.

Let me offer a few thoughts:

  • When you feel compelled to share an article critical of those people, pause for a moment. Ask yourself, “Am I honoring their humanity?”
  • When you feel angry about what those people have said or done, ask yourself, “In what ways do I do similar things?” Consider not only your actions, but your words and thoughts, which have a greater effect than you might imagine.
  • When you want to respond to someone who thinks differently than you do, whether online or in person, practice the pause. Ask yourself, “Have I stopped to listen to what they are trying to say?” When we don’t try to listen and understand, we contribute to the hatred.
  • Resist the urge to call those people names.
  • Pray for peace, within the world and within yourself. If you have a hard time praying, consider reading the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi every day.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

Be a Voice for Wholeness & Human Flourishing

A few weeks ago, Andrea Wenburg interviewed me for her Voice of Influence podcast on the topic of wholeness and human flourishing. We talked about neuroscience, spirituality, and creativity. If you want a short overview of why I speak and write so much about the ideas of wholeness and integration, this would be a great place to start. Andrea is not only a great interviewer, she is a great thinker too. I would encourage you to check out her other materials as well.

Above all, do no harm…

I have been thinking about ethical principles for the past few days. Most professional organizations have a code of ethics that their members are expected to observe. Although the specifics may vary from organization to organization, there are often overarching principles that apply more universally. For example, ideas like beneficence (seek to do good to others), non-malfeasance (do not harm others), autonomy (do not infringe upon the freedom of others), and integrity (promoting honesty and truthfulness) are common. These principles work well on paper, but in real life, ethical decisions are sometimes less obvious.

The typical American citizen is not beholden to these same ethical standards; however, I suspect a large majority of us would agree that these are useful ideas to uphold. Doing good to others while avoiding harm to them, respecting their freedom, promoting justice, and living with integrity are all good things. But how do we make decisions when these principles appear to conflict, especially when our decisions feel infinitely complex? We are faced with questions such as: who defines what is good? How do I decide when insisting upon my freedom may bring harm to other people? How do we resolve the dilemma when something that is beneficial to one group of people may be harmful to another group of people? Most of us would also agree that these choices are not easy.

Thus enters primum non nocere, rendered, “first, do no harm.” This phrase is often attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates, though it is not actually found in the physician oath bearing his name. Regardless, non-malfeasance is a good place to begin. If I am able to reasonably determine that my action or inaction may harm others, it then behooves me to choose an alternative if it is possible. Assuredly, beneficence is closely related to non-malfeasance. Seeking the good of others is virtuous. I would further suggest that for Christians, beneficence is central to our understanding of Christian love.

What has concerned me for some time is what appears to be a tendency to elevate autonomy above both beneficence and non-malfeasance. In other words, we often seem to be more committed to our personal freedom than we are to the well-being of others. We will loudly proclaim “What about my rights?” while seemingly overlooking or discounting the potential harm to others that might come from insisting upon our own way. Too often it seems, at least in 21st century America, our motto has become primum sui iuris (first, autonomy) rather than primum non nocere. I am doubtful that America’s founders saw autonomy as the highest good, although they clearly valued freedom. I am certain that Jesus did not value autonomy as the highest good.

How have we as Christians come to this place where our principal value, stated or unstated is not, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” but rather “Don’t tread on me”?

I suspect some people will read my words as rejecting autonomy. I’m not. What I am suggesting is that it appears, to me at least, that our values have gotten turned upside down. Jesus came and showed us how to live as citizens of God’s kingdom in this world, intentionally seeking the good of others and the glory of God. In fact, he went so far as to tell us, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NLT). This does not mean accepting the possibility of dying for your faith at some later date, but rather seeking the good of others even when it may cost you something. It means that when we are asked to do something that could benefit others, even though it means setting aside our rights, we will do so if it is reasonable.

If our primary citizenship is in the kingdom of the world, we will doubtless prioritize autonomy; however, if our first commitment is to the kingdom of God, we will seek to do good to others even when it means setting aside our own preferences or comfort.

A Prescription for Wholeness

Spread kindness like wildfire. Ask questions. Cross bridges. Pick up a piece of trash. Say hello. Say thank you, to God and others. Go for a walk. Make eye contact. Consider the lilies. Mend fences. Plant wildflowers. Sit in the grass and watch a bumblebee—it will teach you there is no need to rush. Pay for someone’s coffee. Bake two loaves of bread. Give one away. Pray for those who belittle you. Be kind to yourself. Shed tears when you are sad. Sing show tunes, preferably with someone else. Draw a tree; even a stick tree will do. Savor an orange. When you are angry, breathe deeply and exhale mercy. Listen to “the gift of a thistle” by James Horner. Visit somewhere new. Light a candle; in fact, light three, or a hundred. Play with a toddler. Drink a cup of tea. Read a poem by Mary Oliver, or perhaps Rumi. Write a letter to someone, with real paper and ink. Send it through the mail. Look for goodness. Celebrate beauty—it is everywhere. Listen with curiosity. Sing loudly in your car. Hold someone’s hand. Pet a dog. Bike to work. Buy original art, anyone local will do. Always stop at a lemonade stand and always overpay. Breathe. Do it again. Do you realize what a miracle it is that you are alive?

Toxic Versus Healthy Skepticism

Earlier today, I shared an article written by David French on my Facebook page titled Coronavirus, Conspiracy Theories, and the Ninth Commandment. He offered us a lot of food for thought regarding political theology, conspiratorial thinking, and the connection with the ninth commandment, which tells us not to spread falsehood about others. The article stirred some great conversation and questions amidst my friends. My friend Tim offered some great push back and I suggested that it is good for us as believers to differentiate between healthy and toxic skepticism. He wrote, “I ask for you to help me differentiate healthy skepticism and toxic skepticism within myself.” I thought, “yeah…how do we differentiate?” So let me offer a few incomplete thoughts about how to recognize toxic skepticism within ourselves.

First, I think it is always good to start with ourselves, though so much of our culture invites us to look externally when things go wrong. I frequently encourage people to ask the question “Is it possible I am wrong?“, though I suspect that for many of us, our initial motivation is to question the truthfulness of others when there is disagreement. It is easy to assume that our assumptions and influences come from a pure heart while consciously or subconsciously assuming that others are motivated by evil, emotion, or ignorance.

The second suggestion relates to the first. We need to get in the habit of asking “What are the costs and benefits of accepting a viewpoint?” For example, 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. There have been substantial costs to those of us in the 19%, especially when we have continued to express our dissent. For me, the most notable cost has been relational. Yet, there has also been benefit including finding a community of like-minded people who have a vision for what can be.

Third, I think it is good to ask how outlandish a perspective is? For example, known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones once said that the Sandy Hook school shooting that left 26 people dead was completely fake and was staged to promote stricter gun control policies. Jones was not merely offering an alternative viewpoint, he was spouting evil falsehood yet some people believed him. We need to ask ourselves, “Is it possible?”, “Is it plausible?”, and, based on the preponderance of the evidence, “Is it likely?”

Fourth, if we are considering rejecting the majority, or consensus, opinion, it is good to ask ourselves why we would do so. If the majority of epidemiologists, infectious disease doctors, and medical organizations suggest that wearing a mask represents current best practice in regard to COVID-19, it is good to ask ourselves, “Why am I willing to reject the majority in favor of minority opinion?” Some people are skeptical of scientists because they seem to change their recommendations, which fails to acknowledge that best practice in science allows for adaptation as new information comes to light. They were not lying to us; they were offering the best evidence at the time. Scientists are not only willing to ask, “Is it possible I am wrong,” it is crucial to the scientific method. I agree that it is frustrating when recommendations change, but it should not lead to the logical conclusion that we should then ignore them altogether.

Fifth, I think we need to be careful about confusing anecdotes with evidence. All of us hear counter-examples that stir skepticism. In my mind, that can be a healthy skepticism, but if we ignore mountains of data because someone we know said something different, it can be toxic. For example, if I know someone who developed COVID-19, had mild flu like symptoms, and recovered, it does not follow that I should then assume that that this coronavirus is not a big deal and ignore the recommendations from the scientific community. I must also consider the world-wide reporting about its seriousness.

Sixth, for those of us who are Christians, there are a whole host of questions that humility and prudence demand we ask of ourselves.

  • How do my theological presuppositions affect my understanding of the issue at hand?
  • Is it possible my theological presuppositions are wrong? How did I come to believe the things that I accept as true? Does my viewpoint line up with the Jesus’ moral teachings, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7)? Is my understanding of politics (or whatever issue is currently at hand) informed by the Bible, or is my understanding of the Bible informed by my politics?
  • Does the way I communicate my skepticism reflect the manner of Jesus? Let me suggest that smugness, pride, vitriol, and name calling do not reflect the manner of Jesus. I anticipate that some of you will bring up Jesus turning over the tables in the temple or calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers, but remember that in those cases it was religious people he was confronting. As believers, we are called to gentleness, patience, respect, love, and truth.
  • Am I more likely to believe religious leaders or news personalities than experts? If so, how did I come to those conclusions? Is it possible that I am susceptible to propaganda? Too often, I am afraid, well meaning Christians accept as true information they hear from people who claim to be Christian. It seems to me that the apostle Paul’s greatest concern regarding falsehood and deception was inside the church.

Seventh, it is good to ask whether we are adopting an adversarial mindset versus a cooperative mindset. I have elsewhere written about the difference between an “against mindset” and a “with mindset.” When we approach others from an “against mindset,” we view them as our enemy, which shapes our presuppositions about their motives. When we approach them from a “with mindset,” we recognize that we are interconnected and we become less likely to assume that they are out to deceive, manipulate, or control us.

Skepticism in and of itself is not evil; indeed, I think a measure of skepticism is good and healthy for believers who are encouraged to be as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents (Matthew 10:6). However, let’s not reserve our skepticism only for those outside of our camp. Instead, let’s be willing to ask:

  • Am I presenting this story or idea as incontrovertible fact and, if so, is there sufficient support for doing so?
  • Is my skepticism grounded in an honest wrestling with all of the facts or because “my people” told me what is true?
  • Have I done due diligence in confirming whether something is true?
  • Am I honoring others as people of value even if I disagree with them?

This world is not as it should be. Let us live as Christ’s ambassadors, committed to the truth and love he revealed to us.

Is it a difference of opinion?

Recently, I have been thinking about the phrase “difference of opinion.” In disagreements when we are seemingly at an impasse, we might say to another person, “Well, I guess we have a difference of opinion.” But here’s the thing: differences in opinion apply to subjective choices. If I like tulips, but you prefer lilies, we have a difference of opinion. Because each of our opinions are based upon our individual preference as “subjects,” neither of us is wrong.

On the other hand, there are objective truths. The earth is objectively round. It does not matter if it is your opinion that the earth is flat. It doesn’t even matter if you believe it with all of your heart. The earth is still round because the truth is based upon the object (earth), rather than the subject (you or me).

This implies that if you and I are in a discussion about the shape of the earth and I insist that it is round, but you insist that it is disc shaped, only one of us is actually right. We can actually verify it. If you say to me, “well, I guess we’ll have to chalk it up to a difference of opinion,” that phrase carries no meaning because we are discussing something that is either true or not true independent of our preference, opinion, or whim.

Obviously, some things are more clear cut. If you say that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United states and I say he wasn’t, we do not need to do much digging because I am clearly wrong. But every day, we face issues that seem less clear cut, for example around issues like global warming or the benefit of social distancing and wearing masks for COVID-19. When it comes to these issues, we may have “differences of opinion,” but our opinions do not determine what is actually true. We may not completely understand what is true, but it does not then follow that truth is relative.

It becomes even more murky when we get into interpersonal issues. Consider abuse. People may have radically different interpretations about what transpired in a relationship or an organization, but it still does not come down to difference of opinion because there are again objective facts to account for, even if those facts seem murky.

For my part, I think it is important to determine whether each “truth” being discussed is subjective or objective. If subjective, let’s celebrate one another’s preferences. If objective, let us treat one another with kindness and respect, but not write our disagreement off to a difference of opinion. We should also be willing to consider perspectives that are different than our own, while remaining committed to seeking after objective truth. Sadly a lot of the information we encounter on social media is neither science nor opinion, but propaganda posing as truth. Unfortunately, too many of us lack sufficient understanding of science, logic, and rhetoric to adequately determine whether or not information is trustworthy so we double down on our opinions, even if the results may be harmful to us or others.

I’m not a racist!

“I’m not a racist.”

I’ve heard or read multiple variations of this phrase recently. One meme stood out to me; it read, “We have some racists, but 99% of the people you meet are color blind and don’t have a racist bone in their body.” Even in that one sentence, there is a lot to unpack, though that is not my purpose today. What has been stirring for me has been pondering the impact of saying, “I’m not racist.”

Before I get to my thoughts, I want to say I understand. None of us wants to admit that we have biases and presuppositions, some of which are based upon race and some of which are negative. Racism is an ugly word because racism is ugly. If you are like me, hearing the word racist conjures up grainy images from generations past and we think to ourselves, I am nothing like those people. I was raised to treat everyone the same. A person’s color does not affect how I see them or treat them. I believe all lives matter. Therefore, I am not a racist.

But here’s the thing: Insisting that you are not a racist communicates several things. First, it communicates an unwillingness to listen to others and hear their stories. In every generation, people of color have been trying to reveal their pain and tell us their stories. They are saying to us, “Please listen! Even though slavery was abolished in the 1860s and the civil rights movement reached its peak in the 1960s, racism still exists. Let us tell you our stories.” Friends, when we say, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” what we are communicating is that we don’t need to listen. “I’m just fine and I love everybody, thankyouverymuch.” Let me suggest that is much more loving to say, “Tell me your story. Tell me about your pain” than it is to retreat to clichéd phrases that shut down conversations leaving people unheard.

Second, it shuts down dialog. I believe one of the greatest tragedies during my lifetime has been the increased polarization between groups of people. Perhaps we have always been this polarized and it only seems to me that it has been worse. Civility has been replaced with name calling, listening with assuming, and unity with division. We talk about those who think differently than we do rather than talking with them. We start with the assumption that the problem is other people, which short circuits respectful, fruitful conversation from the start.

Third, it communicates an unwillingness to examine our own hearts. We Americans, and perhaps especially those of us who are Christians, are great pretenders. We assume that because we believe in God, no darkness remains within us. I have been in the church long enough to know that our public image rarely matches the state of our hearts. It is not just our nation that is divided, our hearts are divided as well. In Matthew 23, Jesus confronted the Pharisees telling them that they were experts in washing the outside of the cup, but that their insides were full of death. In other words, their external appearance did not match their inner life. One day, the divisions both within and between us will be reconciled (Rev. 5:9), but we aren’t there yet. We still have a lot of heart work to do.

Jesus’s brother James encouraged us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). Friends, can we seek to listen? Are we willing to face the shadow that lurks within each of us? It is only in facing our shadow selves that we can begin to heal our divided hearts and the divisions between us.

Unencumbered

you began your life
unencumbered
breaking into the world
naked and needy
fully dependent

as you grew
you developed a curious mix
of freedom and dependence
you welcomed
creativity and exploration
emotions too
young children express
feelings unmasked

eventually
someone gave you a suitcase
you radiated excitement
because you felt
grown up

they told you
there was plenty of space
to put your anger
your shame
your curiosity
your creativity
so you began packing

as you grew
you kept your case with you
filling it with
dashed hopes
and relational wounds

year by year
your suitcase grew so heavy
that a child could no more move it
than she could lift a boulder
but over time you adapted
because that is what grown ups do

perhaps you will be one of the lucky few
who finally recognizes
that your suitcase
was not an invitation
to greater freedom
but a millstone
shackling you

toss it into the ocean
and step once again
into yourself