Love After Love

This poem, Love After Love by Derek Walcott, is one of my favorites.

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

strive for peace

Beloved, ponder this: My wisdom is countercultural. I want you to be undiluted by selfishness and worldliness. Strive for peace in your relationships, even when it gets hard. The world says that it is okay for you to be rough around the edges, but I want you to practice gentleness. I have made you rational and capable of reason. I want you to think carefully, knowing that my Spirit dwells in you and sharpens your thought. Listen to others with interest. Rather than beating others down with your arguments, build them up with gentle curiosity. When you find yourself disagreeing with others, be patient and merciful, just as I am with you. Do not just pretend to love, be sincere. Do not merely pretend to be fair; judge with impartiality. You will be amazed how much righteousness and serenity flow from your willingness to treat others with peace and gentleness. 

-James 3:17-18, Letters to the Beloved

dark corners

As darkness presses in
filling the corners of our minds
we long for your light, O God.
Frantically, we cry out,
“Where are you?”

Do not let the Great Sadness overwhelm us.
Remind us of your enduring goodness.
Reveal your tender mercy.

Help us to understand
that there is neither form nor beauty
without both light and shadow.

Open our eyes
to see your presence
even in these dark places.

There is nowhere we can go
that you have not already gone.
There is no darkness
where your light does not shine brighter still.

tempest

I am afraid.
I seek control
though I am powerless.

Waves crash
rip currents carry me
further into a sea of dread.

I do not know
what dangers lurk
in the depths.

I row harder
oars nearly snapping
under the strain.

Breathlessly, I cry out
Lord, don’t you care
that I am drowning?

In the deafening storm
I hear you whisper
Peace, be still.

Are you speaking to me
or the tempest?
I cannot tell.

The same hurricane
feeds the turbulence
within and without.

Close your eyes.
Breathe, beloved.
Breathe.

the boy who cried wolf, reimagined

The Shepherd Boy and the Wolf is one of Aesop’s best known fables. In the parable, a young shepherd was bored, so to make life interesting, he ran into the village crying out that a wolf was attacking the flock. The villagers were rightly concerned and came running only to find the boy laughing at them. He repeated the pattern until one day, a real wolf attacked. This time, when the boy “cried wolf,” the townsfolk did not believe him and the wolf killed many of his sheep.

As I watch the world today, I wonder if this retelling of Aesop might be more accurate.

There once was a farmer who owned many sheep who needed someone to watch over his flock. After interviewing several potential shepherds, he settled on a boy who was well-known in the village. Everyone knew that he was rough around the edges and had a reputation for telling tall tales. Several of the farmer’s friends raised questions about the boy’s character, but the farmer said, “I only want him to watch over my sheep. I care nothing about his character so long as he can manage, and maybe even grow, my flock.”

Time passed and the shepherd boy seemed to be doing a good job. The flock appeared healthy and the boy’s confidence bolstered the farmer’s faith in him. In the village, people often heard the boy boasting that the sheep were the healthiest they had ever been. Nevertheless, some of the villagers were concerned. They had gone out into the hills and the sheep did not appear to be doing as well as he bragged, and they were also concerned about his farming methods. Whenever they raised their concerns, however, the shepherd boy insisted that they were lying and were jealous of his success.

Eventually, the farmer’s flock began to dwindle and the farmer also became concerned. When he confronted the shepherd, the boy blamed the villagers who had previously raised concerns about his character and methods. Though the farmer was uncertain, several of the boy’s acquaintances said, “He’s right. It’s the villagers.”

As time passed, more sheep disappeared. The shepherd continued to proclaim that his accusers were at fault and that he had proof, though he never produced anything to support his accusations. Still, more people began to believe his claims because he stated them with such frequency and confidence.

Finally, the farmer had enough. He went to the shepherd and said, “You are ruining my flock. You keep saying that a group of jealous villagers is at fault, but you have never given any proof. In fact, I even have evidence that refutes your claims. How do you expect me to respond?”

Without missing a beat, the shepherd boy looked at the farmer and said, “Do you want proof? Nearly half of the villagers believe me. Nothing you say will convince them otherwise. You can cry wolf all you want, but they all know the truth.”

And at his words, the pack descended upon the farmer and tore him limb from limb.

delusion

“Delusions are defined as fixed, false beliefs that conflict with reality. Despite contrary evidence, a person in a delusional state can’t let go of their convictions.”

Very Well Mind

Delusion is a term that has left its clinical origins and entered the general conversation. The oft-repeated phrase “delusions of grandeur” from the Star Wars movies has undoubtedly influenced its use. I suspect that most people understand from the context that delusions have to do with distorted thinking but fail to appreciate the complexity or pain of delusional thinking.

As a neuropsychologist, delusions are among the most fascinating things I have encountered and some of the most troubling. Some delusions are considered “bizarre” because they cannot happen in real life. My patients with schizophrenia have shared a variety of these. One person believed he was Napoleon’s bodyguard. Another indicated she had been murdered several dozen times. In a condition called Capgras syndrome, people think that an identical replica has replaced a loved one. Sadly, no evidence will convince them otherwise.

People can also have non-bizarre delusions, which could happen in real life, even though there is no evidence to support them. As a psychologist, these are particularly tricky. Over the years, several dementia patients have believed their spouses have been cheating on them, again without proof. I remember consoling an older woman whose husband of six decades was utterly convinced that she was having an affair with a repairman in his twenties.

I also met a middle-aged gentleman following a brain injury who shared tales that seemed plausible but unlikely. He told me how he had built considerable wealth and that his children were now trying to steal it from him. I have seen children taking advantage of parents often enough to know this was possible. However, as he continued talking, his stories felt less and less grounded in reality, but again, they were difficult to prove. Ultimately, he told me that he had developed a close friendship with his attending neurosurgeon. I was able to confirm my suspicion that the gentleman had a delusional disorder.

The malleability of delusions is also incredibly challenging. When presented with objective evidence of their false beliefs, delusions adapt to incorporate the new information. These misconceptions do not arise from willful ignorance but an inability to think otherwise.

I feel powerless and frustrated when I encounter such distorted thinking, especially when it comes to people I know. No matter how much objective proof is provided, the delusional thought system either rejects it or reinterprets it. For the person suffering delusions, they consider those who challenge them to be deluded, misinformed, or even enemies. Why does this happen? Because they cannot think otherwise.

I suspect we are witnessing mass delusion right now. For four years, there has been insurmountable evidence that our president has been routinely deceptive and divisive. Over time, more and more people have come to understand the dangers associated with Trump’s presidency. Yet, the beliefs of many have become more deeply entrenched. In the past four years, their thinking has devolved from “never Trump” to “we will hold our noses and vote for him” to “he is the greatest Christian president in history.” Despite overwhelming evidence that no election fraud occurred, some continue to believe it. As former Trump allies have publicly disagreed with the president, some have taken their dissent as evidence of the “deep state” rather than accepting what is plain to most of us, Trump is wrong. Some public figures have even expressed their willingness to fight and die for him, and to oppose him is Satanic.

I pray that the truth is revealed. I hope that people will be able to honestly ask, “Is it possible I am wrong?” Yet from what I know about delusional thinking, it will take a miracle.

seeking clarity

2020 was supposed to be the year of clarity. Many of us began the year with the hope of “twenty-twenty vision,” right? Yet, 2020 has proven disorienting and depressing for many of us. We have become lost in the dense fog of COVID-19, social distancing, Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, MAGA, impeachment, the election, and murder hornets. These events are just the tip of the iceberg.

This morning, I was thinking about clarity. I asked, “Are there things that, despite this year’s sufferings, are clearer than ever? In confusion and uncertainty, what has emerged as essential?”

It is more obvious to me that I relish time alone. For most of my life, I thought of myself as a strong extravert and yet this year, I have rarely found myself longing for large social gatherings. At the same time, I miss the deep relational connections that I have fostered with a few people over the years. I haven’t really gotten together with anyone in the past several months, which has been hard sometimes. I have especially realized that little boys can still miss their moms something terrible, even when they are 48 years old.

It is more clear to me now than ever that I feel politically and theologically homeless. I have considered myself to be a Republican since I could vote. In 2016, I was a never-Trump conservative. In 2016, when the field of GOP primary candidates remained relatively large, most of my conservative friends agreed, though as Trump became the presumptive nominee, it seemed to me that principled conservativism was a myth and I was shocked that I was in the 19% of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump. Watching 2020’s election and post-election antics have made it clear that I am not only never-Trump, but that I cannot imagine voting GOP again unless there is some cataclysmic change.

Unfortunately, partly due to the enmeshment of Trumpism and evangelicalism (81% in 2016 and similar numbers this year), I also no longer describe myself as an evangelical. I have good friends who are not ready to throw out the evangelical baby with the nationalistic bathwater, but I have been unable to disentangle these two things in my own mind. I have doubts about beliefs that once felt immovable.

Furthermore, I have long surmised that there is a link between the outcome of the 2016 election and the increased awareness of religious abuse. I will not take the time to share my reasoning here, but if you are interested, ask me sometime. Over the past five years or so, it seems that hardly a month passes before another high profile Christian leader is credibly accused of abuse. Unfortunately, Christians generally do not wield power well…perhaps because Jesus never encouraged us to pursue power or status.

My doubts have sometimes found their way into my writings and I am certain that many people have wondered about my faith. One beloved friend asked me directly if I still believe in Jesus. However, it is also clear that I am not the only one who is feeling unsettled. Many people have reached out to share their own confusion and I have been grateful for a fellowship of strugglers. Many of us are asking questions important questions about what it means to be a Christian in 2020. Sometimes, I fear they want me to give them satisfactory answers when all I can muster is helping them ask good questions, so we commiserate (from co-misery = suffer together).

Still, in confusion, we find clarity. In darkness, we look for light. In fragmentation, we desire wholeness. This year has taught me that faith and hope matter, but that if St. Paul was correct, it is clear that love matters most of all.

Top 10 books–2020

I have put together a top 10 books list every year for over a decade. Although I have read fewer books this year than any since I began consistently keeping track in 2014, I had no trouble finding ten eleven books to recommend. You should also have plenty of time to order some of these for jolabokaflod.

Honorable Mention: God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath (2020) by N.T. Wright. God and the Pandemic receives an honorable mention because it is particularly relevant in 2020, but hopefully its relevance will soon diminish. Regardless, Wright, addressed many of the concerns raised by Christians about how to live in this time, finding a reasonable way between the extremes of denial and obsession. He helps us, as readers, to think about what it means to be Christians in the world today.

10. Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation (2008) by John Philip Newell. I read several books about Celtic spirituality this year, including three from John Philip Newell. Newell writes like a poet, which is part of my draw to him, I suppose. My attraction to Celtic spirituality is related to its connection with how I see and understand the world, with attention to things like creation, wholeness, interconnectedness, and creativity.

9. Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline. When the Ready Player One movie came out in 2018, I saw it in the theater and I loved it, perhaps because I am a child of the eighties. I often return to the movie when I am looking for entertainment. Although Cline’s book has the same basic premise, there is a much greater richness and depth to the storytelling. I began with the audiobook, which is narrated by Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but because I am impatient and could not wait for my son to finish the audiobook with me, I purchased the paperback and quickly finished it. You cannot go wrong with either.

8. Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse–and Freeing Yourself from its Power (2020) by Wade Mullen. In the past few years, I have read several books about spiritual abuse and Something’s Not Right is among the best of them. Mullen writes from years of experience and research, yet does so in an accessible way. I particularly appreciated his discussion of how abusive organizations often use “impression management.” If you want to learn more about systemic abuse, I could not point you in a better direction than Something’s Not Right.

7. What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism (2017) by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner. The past four years in America have felt increasingly divisive. Deception and vitriol ravage political decency and we have lost sight of what has made America great. Dan Rather, together with his colleague, Elliot Kirschner, put together 15 essays about America that filled me with hope. Drawing from his nearly nine decades as an American citizen, Rather addressed topics such as voting, the press, science, the arts, and the environment. As I listened, I wondered how I can foster the sort of vision Rather and Kirschner have of and for America.

6. 11/22/63 (2011) by Stephen King. There was a time in my life when I read books by Stephen King, and little else. In high school, I wrote a paper about him and I remember going to the Mead Public Library in Sheboygan, Wisconsin to ask the librarian to obtain a copy of the Playboy magazine interview with him for my paper. My friend Jordan turned me on to 11/22/63, which he described as one of his favorite books. I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Craig Wasson, and I was captivated once again by King’s ability to craft a story.

5. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (2020) by Kristin Kobes DuMez. Jesus and John Wayne may be the most provocative title on my top 10 list. When I posted a picture of the book cover on my Facebook page and expressed my eagerness to read it, a family member commented, “Give me a break!” I suspect the author has heard far worse. Briefly, the author traced the often parallel paths of rugged masculinity and 20th century evangelicalism, identifying the fallout. If you been trying to make sense of evangelicalism in post-Trump America, you cannot do much better than Jesus and John Wayne.

4. Exclusion and Embrace, Revised and Updated: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (2019 revision) by Miroslav Volf. My friend Perry, who often has great book recommendations, suggested Exclusion and Embrace and I was not disappointed. Volf is an accomplished theologian, but more importantly, he was raised in Croatia and a witness to ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. He has an exceptional understanding of confronting oppression, neither dismissing hurt nor the hard work of reconciliation. My copy is filled with underlines and marginalia, which is typically a sign of a book that engaged me deeply.

3. Art + Faith: A Theology of Making (2020) by Makoto Fujimura. I think a lot about topics like goodness, truth, and beauty and their connection to becoming whole. In his previous book, Culture Care, Fujimura introduced me to the term “maercstapa,” which is a border stalker. Maercstapas explore what is possible and bring it back to people. I was equally pleased with Art + Faith, which is just a few weeks old. Fujimura built upon ideas introduced in his former books in developing a thoughtful “theology of making” as he described it. I especially appreciated his connection between the work of creativity and God’s new creation. Weaving in examples from several of my favorite artists and writers solidified its position on the top 10 list.

2. Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making (2019) by Andrew Peterson. I read Adorning the Dark in January and knew that it was going to be a good book year. It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that Andrew Peterson is my favorite singer. He also wrote one of my favorite book series, the four volume Wingfeather Saga. Over the years, I have appreciated his thoughts on beauty and the creative process, so I welcomed having his thoughts condensed in book form. Like Art + Faith, Peterson’s book stirs my love for wholeness and beauty.

1. An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943; and Letters from Westerbork (1981) by Etty Hillesum. As soon as I began reading this book, I knew it would be on my “must read” list, not to mention my 2020 Top 10. I first heard about Etty Hillesum from the writings of Chuck DeGroat, the author of Wholeheartedness, which is another favorite book of mine. Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jewish woman living in the Netherlands at the beginning of World War II. She kept a series of self-reflective journals from 1941 until 1943, when she was sent to Auschwitz. She demonstrates an uncommon spiritual depth, no doubt sharpened by her experiences.

let it be

And Mary said, “Behold, I am a servant of the Lord; Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.-Luke 1:38 (ESV)

This morning, my friend Mark and I started working through Luke’s gospel. Our plan is to read one chapter each day, and discuss it. Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel stood out to me. Gabriel told her that God’s Spirit would overshadow her, and she would become pregnant with the Messiah. She responded by saying, “I am God’s servant. Let it be as you say.”

In the chaos of the world, I become frantic and try to control my circumstances. If I am honest, I want to control everything, yet the harder I try to manage the world, the more hopeless I can feel. The truth is that I cannot fix COVID-19, or politics, or Christianity. Most days, I cannot even govern myself.

Mary’s prayer, “Let it be to me according to your word,” seems risky. It asks me to trust that God is loving and that he knows more than I do. It requires me to admit my powerlessness. It obliges me to let God be God.

God,
Every day, the world seems more and more fragmented.
My internal controller tries to hold it all together,
rather than allowing you to run the universe.
In a disintegrated world, trust is hard.
In the midst of pain, hope is harder.

In this moment and the next,
let me echo Mary’s simple prayer,
“I am your servant.
Let it be according to your word.”