Bumped

I got bumped yesterday. Emotionally, not physically. In general, I consider myself to operate on a relatively even keel. Steady. Unflappable. But over time, I am coming to realize that as stresses pile up, I feel shaky and uncertain.

Like many people, the uncertainties of COVID-19 has had a significant effect upon me. I have been aware of a simmering anxiety for a couple of weeks now, a whispering shadow that lurks in the cobwebbed corners of my mind. It hasn’t devolved into full blown panic, yet its murmuring is incessant.

Even after nearly 25 years as a trained counselor, I continue to learn new lessons about my emotional life. One of the things that I have more recently discovered is that anger is my prime emotion, what those who are familiar with the Enneagram might call my core passion. But my anger rarely boils over, it simmers. When we were first dating, my wife would often say “Jason got so angry about that.” Not coincidentally, I would get irritated when she said that because I truly did not believe I was an angry person. I didn’t blow up or yell. Twenty-five years together and I’m beginning to understand she was right. I am continuing to work on understanding the complex interplay of my emotions, but one thing is becoming more obvious to me: I am likely to experience a variety of emotions as variants of anger. When I get anxious, it may come out as irritation. When I feel sad, I can feel resentful. Shame leads to self-deprecation.

COVID-19 and all of the changes it has brought in its wake has made me anxious and sad, but I am also discovering that those emotions are spilling out as anger, resentment, or irritation. Two mornings ago, I felt irritated that my son was breathing too loudly and I told him to breathe more quietly. Yesterday, a friend shared a political position that was different than mine and I could feel irritation boiling up within me. It spilled over as I expressed how tired I am of all of the divisiveness. My gut reaction was to view him as guilty, but I quickly recognized those same tendencies within myself, Paul’s words in Romans 2:1 (NIV) flashed through my mind, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

I long for serenity regardless of circumstance. I want to develop an internal stillness that remains steady even when I am bumped. If my cup runs over, I want it to overflow with the love of Christ and not with anger.

I want to conclude with the text of this prayer from Reinhold Niebuhr, a prayer that was adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous as the “serenity prayer.” My friend Perry, a fellow pilgrim who has been helping me to see the impact of my anger, shared this version yesterday.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

What is Reconciliation?

He [Jesus] was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.-Colossians 1:18-20, The Message

It has taken ten days, but I am finally writing about “reconciliation.” I started by writing about integration on March 16 and then followed up writing about wholeness on March 20. As I indicated, these concepts are important and how I think about life, and, they are in many ways connected, though I do think about them in slightly different terms.

Reconciliation, in my thinking, is closely tied to integration and wholeness, but implies a broader understanding. In the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, there is a magnificent description of the “preeminence of Christ” in verses 15 to 20. In the final verse, we discover that in Christ, all things are being reconciled. What are those things? As Eugene Peterson suggested, “people and things, animals and atoms.” Redemption goes beyond the forgiveness of individual sins or restored relationships with people. In reconciliation, God is making all things new.

Yet God does not exclude us from this process. According to 2 Corinthians 5:18 we, as Christ’s ambassadors in the world, have been given “the ministry of reconciliation.” We have been invited to become agents of integration, wholeness, and reconciliation by pointing people to the love of Christ and the hope of reconciliation, which is so much bigger than the forgiveness of sins.

It is no less than God making all things new.

What is Wholeness?

Be whole as your Father in heaven is whole.-Matthew 5:48

A few days ago, I wrote a post, “What is Integration?” My understanding of integration is grounded in the field of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), which has been championed by Daniel Siegel. To pursue integration, from an IPNB perspective, is to pursue health.

Wholeness is a related concept in my mind, an attempt to look at who we were created to be, but rather than starting from a neurobiological vantage point, when I am thinking about wholeness, I tend to think more theologically or philosophically. Of course, integration and wholeness are highly overlapping ideas, but can also be understood from different angles.

Not long ago, a friend asked me when I began to think so much about the concept of wholeness and honestly, I don’t know. I suppose like many ideas, it emerged from a confluence of things I had been reading and thinking about. I am certain Eugene Peterson had an influence. And Curt Thompson and Neal Plantinga. But in a favorite book of mine, Wholeheartedness, Chuck DeGroat mentioned that Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested that Matthew 5:48, which is typically translated “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” would be better translated as “Be whole as your Father in heaven is whole.” The Greek word telios can be translated perfect, complete, or whole. Perhaps it makes no difference in your mind, but for me, trying to be perfect versus seeking wholeness makes all the difference in the world. As I consider the biblical story line, I see that God created things good and whole, but early on in the story, wholeness was fractured. In fact, most of the biblical narrative tells of humanity’s fragmentation and sin and the call to return to wholeness, or telios, or shalom.

I believe we were created for wholeness–psychologically, relationally, societally, and spiritually–and that one day the wholeness of all things will be restored.

May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!-1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

What is integration?

A few days ago, I promised that I would attempt to explain why phrases like integration, wholeness, and reconciliation have become so important in my thinking. Although these three words describe similar concepts, in my thinking, they are distinct in certain ways.

Let’s start with integration. Although it can mean different things, my understanding of integration has been deeply shaped by interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), a transdisciplinary field described and developed principally by Dr. Daniel Siegel. IPNB deals with the brain, mind, and relationships.

The brain is our body’s control center and it is deeply connected with the entire body. It processes all modes of sensory input and also facilitates both simple and complex responses with regard to both our internal world and our external world.

Although you may have heard the terms used interchangeably, the mind and brain are different. Siegel defines mind this way:

A process that regulates the flow of energy and information within our bodies and within our relationships, an emergent and self-organizing process that gives rise to our mental activities such as emotion, thinking, and memory.

Siegel, Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, 1-1

In other words, the concept of mind is broader than what we typically think of in terms of brain.

Relationships are the third component important to understanding IPNB. We cannot be fully human outside of relationships with others. Looking again at Siegel’s definition of mind, there is a flow of energy not only within a person, but between people, so understanding who we are in relationship to others becomes an important developmental task–one that continues throughout our lives.

So what does all of this have to do with how I understand integration? Well, a core task of health and human flourishing is integration, not only within, but between people. Healthy integration is grounded in recognizing one’s individuality (differentiation), but also that we are deeply interconnected, even with people we have never met (linkage). Disintegration is the route to unhealthiness. In fact, Siegel suggests that “When we examine various mental disorders, what is revealed is that virtually all of them can be described as clusters of chaotic and/or rigid symptoms that we would say are examples of impaired integration” (Pocket Guide, 16-3).

It is these concepts from IPNB that inform my thinking and writing about integration. I believe that God created us for intra- and inter-personal integration, but that in a fallen world, each of us operates with various degrees of disintegration. So one of the things I am most interested in is understanding how we become more integrated in our relationships with God, others, ourselves, and creation.

What do you think it takes to become more deeply integrated?

What is happening in Christianity: My thoughts

This week, several people shared John Cooper’s impassioned plea about Christian “leaders or influencers who were once ‘faces’ of the faith falling away,” most publicly, Josh Harris and Marty Sampson. First, let me say that in most respects, I agree with him, particularly with regard to his perspective on Christian celebrity. I have had a deep respect for Cooper’s witness and the music of Skillet for many years.  

I wrestled with writing anything, but there is more that needs to be said.

Continue reading “What is happening in Christianity: My thoughts”

All-American Boy: A Parable

Fair warning: This post deals with bullying and the language may be hard for some of you to read.

Tommy could do no wrong. He was the Golden Boy and everybody knew it, especially Tommy. His parents were the richest in town and they were all too happy to share their money with their son. He wore the best clothes, drove the nicest car, and always had the latest iPhone the day after it was released. They traveled all over the world. To say that the other students were jealous of him would be an understatement. He looked like he had it all.

Tommy was self-assured and had confidence beyond measure. He would tell anybody who would listen about his greatness. On any given day, Tommy could be overheard saying “I am the best athlete this school has ever had.” To be honest, he was good at sports. His performance at the state basketball playoffs was celebrated by the students and teachers alike. Yet Tommy also insisted that he was the best dressed, the best spoken, the most likeable, the most attractive, and the most compassionate person in the school. He said it often enough and with enough conviction that people began to believe him. After all, he and his family had done some good things for the school.

Not surprisingly, Tommy hung out with other popular students. In fact, if Tommy invited someone into his circle, their reputation was made. They became the cool kids by virtue of association with him. Tommy also dated widely. It was no secret that Tommy enjoyed “playing the field.” He would date a girl until he became bored with her and he would move on to someone else. He would routinely regale his friends with tales of his conquests, telling them how the girls would “beg for it” with him. The other guys came to believe that how Tommy treated girls was how it must be done because, after all, he was the golden boy. The girls, on the other hand, were hurt and confused. A few tried to speak up about how Tommy had forced himself on them, but were told they were exaggerating or overreacting. Tommy was just an all-American boy with all-American needs, after all. The staff and teachers had heard tidbits about Tommy, but they overlooked them because if they were to speak out against him, there would be hell to pay with his father.

It wasn’t just the girls. Tommy had it in for Wayne. Wayne was Tommy’s polar opposite. If he wasn’t the poorest kid in the class, he was close. He only had two pair of jeans. They were two seasons too short and the stains were ground in to them. His shoes had holes and he wore the same torn jacket every day, regardless of the weather. Everybody knew he was on the free lunch program. Where Tommy nearly glowed, Wayne was shrouded in shadow, always looking at the ground, wanting to become invisible. Everybody knew his father was an out-of-work alcoholic. Wayne became a punching bag for his father on the worst nights. Despite all of these things, Wayne tried to be kind if anyone actually addressed him.

Tommy was disgusted by Wayne when he first noticed him. He wondered how someone could be so pathetic. It didn’t take long before Tommy began to throw comments Wayne’s way, always in the hearing of his entourage.

“Wayne, you’re pathetic. You’ll never amount to anything.”

“Wayne, I drove past your house last night. What a shithole! Why don’t you burn the whole thing to the ground?”

“Hey Wayne, if I were you, I’d kill myself, if your father doesn’t do it first.”

“Wayne, are you a fag? I’ve never seen you with a girl.” Then, looking around at his friends, he would laugh and say, “Watch your asses around this one guys.”

Over time, Tommy’s crew joined in the name calling. One of them would make a derogatory comment and they all would laugh. It didn’t matter how many times Wayne asked them to stop, their jeers became all the more intense. Eventually, Tommy’s friends got physical. They would trip him when he was walking by and then laughingly say, “Oops!” If he was carrying a stack of books, you could be sure one of them would knock it out of his hands. At one point, the teacher heard that some of Tommy’s gang were mistreating Wayne and he said to Tommy, “Take it easy on Wayne, okay?” With a twisted smile, Wayne simply responded, “Hey, I never told them to get physical.”

The interactions kept getting worse until one day, Wayne had enough. Tommy and his gang had surrounded Wayne and were chanting “Shithole! Shithole! Shithole!” Wayne lost it. He screamed out in anger and hurt, and took a swing at Tommy. Luckily, for Wayne’s sake, the principal came around the corner just afterward, because Tommy’s gang would have torn him apart. The principal said sternly, “Wayne. My office. Now!”

Trembling with rage, Wayne went to the principal’s office. Sitting across from him, the principal said, “Now, son, tell me what that was all about?” Wayne began to detail the daily abuses he endured—the name calling, the tripping, the attacks. After Wayne finished pouring out his heart, the principal responded, “Well Wayne, I know you’ve had some conflict and Tommy can be a little over the top sometimes, but overall he’s a good kid. Look at all the good he’s done for our school. He’s the one who got his father to fund the new football stadium! Here’s what I want you to do…I want you to practice turning the other cheek. Just ignore Tommy and the others. Don’t retaliate again or I am sad to say, you’ll get expelled. Meanwhile, I’ll talk to Tommy.”

Later, the principal called Tommy into his office and recounted some of his conversation with Wayne. He asked, “Did you and the others really call his house a shithole?” Without a hint of remorse, Tommy said, “Sir, you’ve seen his house. It is a shithole. I’m just calling it like it is. If his dad would get his shit together, they wouldn’t need to live there, but as it is now, Wayne lives in a shithole and he looks like he lives in a shithole. I am just trying to help him better himself.”

Having listened to Tommy, the principal responded, “I know. I know. Just try to keep the comments to a minimum.”

Tommy and the principal shook hands.

The next day, things hadn’t changed at all, for Tommy had managed to convince them all that what he was saying and doing were for the good of the school’s culture because he was, after all, an all-American boy.

I wish…

I shared this on my Facebook feed this morning. I hope it might bless someone here too.

I’ve been slowly journaling through the early years of my life and for the past few days, I’ve been writing about middle school. I don’t have many positive memories from that time. This morning, I was writing about how mean kids are to one another.

In the 7th grade, I dressed differently. I had a rat tail, and I would wear an old Army jacket and sometimes a Harley cap (ironically, kids in my school thought Harleys were stupid back then). I vividly remember being chased for several blocks by a half-dozen of the popular 8th grade boys who always hated me, though I never knew why. I think it boiled down to the fact that they could not tolerate that I existed. They caught me near the football field and pinned me to the ground, pulled out a scissors, and told me they were going to cut off my rat tail. They didn’t, but the rat tail was incidental. The fear and pain I felt that day were damaging enough.

In the 8th grade, I was met at the end of my road by two Sheboygan County sheriffs. They insisted that they escort me home. When my mother arrived, they interrogated me for about an hour, demanding that I confess to stealing another kid’s wallet. I had left wrestling practice angrily that day and two of the guys, again who seemingly hated me, called the police and falsely accused me of stealing a wallet from one of them. The police were unrelenting. About 45 minutes in, my mom asked for a break. We went into my bedroom and I told her, “Maybe I should just tell them I did it so they will leave me alone.” She asked, “did you?” and I told her no. Thank God she told me to stick to my story. Finally, the police left and miraculously, those guys “found” the wallet the next day.

These were the two examples that came to mind this morning. There are many more. Yet I was not innocent. I bullied others as well. That same 8th grade year, I threw one of my classmates into a mud puddle because he refused to give me a piece of gum. I am loathe to think of how many people I hurt with my words or the inappropriate comments and actions directed toward the girls in my class.

I have no doubt kids are facing these same things today. Many of them suffer in silence. As adults, our bullying looks different. If you have spent any time on social media, you know what I am talking about. Twitter and Facebook are playgrounds, complete with bullies of every stripe. We demean one another. We call each other names. We delight in expressing our opinions, we don’t listen. We demand, we don’t ask. Self-righteousness prevails in every corner.

I wish gentleness and kindness were more cherished values. I wish we saw every person we meet as a divine image bearer, deserving of dignity and respect. I wish we would devote ourselves to building up rather than tearing down. I wish…

Goodbye, Old Friend

Yesterday, I was returning home from Rice Lake, a weekly drive I have made hundreds of times over the past dozen years. Time and repetition have created familiarity. For all its seasonal changes, the contours of the landscape have become a part of me. Just north of Chippewa Falls, I always look at a certain field, a shallow bowl protected on two sides by a ridge of mixed hardwoods. I once saw a black bear sitting in that field eating corn. I have hoped to see him again, though I never have.

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Further north, a horse farm is nestled in the hills. I often wonder, how many horses do they have? I have never been able to count, but each season, new foals join the group. They chase the older ones through the large pasture, sparsely dotted with large round bails.

I cross three rivers. Typically calm and unassuming, when bitter winter air presses down upon the water, they breathe blankets of fog into the atmosphere. Though a visible reminder of the cold, these low clouds are welcomed beauty.

Although I have come to love each of these scenes, they have been casual companions. Not so this barn; she has been a true friend. Whether driving north or south, I have always looked at her. On the rare occasion I have had others ride along with me, I have always pointed her out with fondness. My office wall features a watercolor I made of this barn. Though I never shared this with my wife, I once toyed with the idea of finding out if this homestead was for sale. Okay, more than once.

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Yesterday, as I drove home, I saw a pillar of gray smoke rising through the raindrops. I suspected it was the burn pile that is often smoking in the afternoons. Yet, as I rounded a curve on 53 South, I saw what was left of the barn–my barn–smoldering on the ground. I knew it was coming. The house has been gone for several months, yet I was filled with sadness and a sense of loss. My old friend was no longer.

How does one develop a particular affection for something inanimate? Why had this barn, a skeleton really, had such a hold on me? Why this farm, and not another? I cannot truly say. Partly, I believe, it projected wisdom, strength, and beauty. It represented for me a lifelong love of farms, but more importantly, for the farmers I have known and loved–my grandfather Wilfred, my uncle Paul, my uncle John–many of them, like this barn, now passed on.

We don’t love generalities, we love specifics.  We cannot love creation without recognizing that we live in a specific place. We cannot love humankind without loving particular people. We are embedded in specific families, communities, and cultures at a particular time in history. This farm has been a part of my story over the last dozen years and has been imprinted upon my heart. Other people and other places, some known only briefly and some known for a lifetime, also exist there. They are a part of me.

And so I say goodbye, old friend. Thank you for being an important part of my life.

enCOURAGEment

A couple of weeks ago, a friend challenged what he perceived to be my lack of courage. He suggested that fear was the driver for a recent decision I made. Historically yes, I told him, I have lacked the courage to do hard things. As a natural-born people pleaser, I have historically avoided conflict. I’ve done whatever was necessary to not kick the hornet’s nest, but sometimes the hornet’s nest needs to be kicked. He was right in identifying that fear has been one of my primary motivators, and I told him so.

What I did not tell him was that the decision that he thought lacked courage was probably the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

This morning, I was thinking about encouragement and it dawned on me for the first time that the root word for encouragement is courage. I don’t know why I never realized that before. So  I began to ask, what then is the process of encouragement? Who is an encourager? Encouragement is the process of telling others that you believe in them; it is communicating that yes, you believe they can do something difficult. That you have faith that they can step bravely into the unknown.

My friend Larry wrote a book on Encouragement. It’s a book about coming alongside other people, entering their battle. But encouragement is not simply telling others nice things about themselves. It is not simply saying, “everything will be okay” because maybe it won’t. Perhaps encouragement is saying, “I know this is hard. I cannot do this for you. You may be entering into a space where you will be hurt. You are walking into the unknown. There may be traps and pitfalls and difficulties. Perhaps even death. But I believe you and I am for you.” Encouragers ask “Would you rather die on the right battlefield or live comfortably on the wrong one?” Courage involves entering into places and situations that we would rather not. An encourager says, “I am with you.”

Encouragers ask “Would you rather die on the right battlefield or live comfortably on the wrong one?”

Life is not made up of pleasantries, pleasures, and constant positivity. God never said it would be. Life here can be filled with pain, hardship, and relational breakdown. Despite our titan efforts to avoid pain, or to pretend it away, it still comes. It is unavoidable. The question that each of us must face is “will I step into the pain, into the darkness, into the battle?” Will we follow God into the unknown? Are we willing to do it afraid? Are we willing to be called cowardly even in the midst of the most courageous thing we’ve ever done? Are we willing to be told we lack character when it is from a place of integrity that we are acting? Are we willing to go it alone if necessary?

Thankfully, encouragers never leave us to ourselves. Even if we must step into the confusion on our own, encouragers are behind us whispering, “I am for you.”

If we are honest, the way ahead is unknown for all of us. No one knows what tomorrow may bring. We are all faced with confusion and uncertainty. That is a necessary part of life under the sun. But when we’re afraid, we must notice the encouragers grabbing our hands and reminding us, “You’ve got this. I believe in you.”

Are you grateful?

I awoke at four. My internal timekeeper has recently decided the day begins then, even when I have the day off. After a shower, coffee, and some time with Jesus, I looked at my schedule for the day. I smiled at the words “Jason Off.” My only other responsibility for the day was to transport my dear brother and sister-in-law to the Ice Age Trail. They were beginning a three day, 26 mile hike.

At about 8:30, Derrick called and we agreed to meet in Cornell, a small town northeast of Eau Claire. They would leave their vehicle sit and I would transport them to New Auburn where they would begin their eastward journey. As the oldest sibling, I could not resist parenting them once more. “The heat index is going to be 110 degrees. Are you sure?” “Yes,” came the confident reply.

We loaded their gear into my non-air-conditioned F250 and caught up some. We talked about tattoos as they celebrated my recent acquisition, and we talked about kids, and art, and bed-making. I explained that research demonstrates that unmade beds are healthier, because they are not incubators for cooties. Bridget wasn’t buying it.

We also talked of gratitude, a virtue many of us fail to practice regularly. It is easy to devolve into a rhythm of complaint. Our lives become minor chord progressions that never seem to resolve. Negativity becomes what it hates. Thoughts continually focused upon what is bad give way to depression.

Yet, there is so much for which we can be grateful if we are willing to open our eyes. As I drove the country road north into Cornell, fields mostly of green surrounded me. I passed by one field still dressed in brown and I wondered whether the farmer chose to leave it fallow for the year. At full sprint, a well-muscle coyote darted in front of my truck. It seemed on mission, though I saw no roadrunner.

When I dropped Derrick and Bridget off at the trail head, we stood in a grassy field. There were purple flowers, and white, but the orange ones stood out. Only a single plant, flaming brightly like a campfire in the midst of a large clearing. I hugged them goodbye and began the trip home.

Along the way, I saw a thrift store and yard sale sharing the same parking lot. I had already driven past when it captured my attention, so I reversed course. Selling out of the back of an old trailer was an even older gentleman. His kindness was palpable. He frequents estate sales, but he only likes the ones that are handled by the family. I learned that when companies run them, they are too expensive. Although several tables held treasures untold, only one item captured my attention: a nondescript 12-string guitar. Its only marking was a small green tag, which read

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I looked again to be sure. I hadn’t mistaken the price. Together with its brand new soft-sided case, I didn’t even hesitate. The man had never seen a guitar with twelve strings and he wondered if I played. I told him, “Yes. A bit, but not as well as my son.” I had no desire to barter, but he said to me, “how ’bout an even 35?” I smiled and handed him three crisp bills, eager to share my find with my family. IMG_1856

As I drove the 30 minutes home, I was reminded of God’s goodness. He is everywhere present–in the generosity of an octogenarian, in a blossom’s flame, in the speed of a coyote, and in the embrace of a brother.

If we were willing to pay attention and stay present to the moment, we could fill a notebook each day with the things for which we are grateful.

How about you? What are you grateful for today?