on first choices

I haven’t always gotten what I’ve wanted. Indeed, some of the best things in my life have happened because I didn’t get my first choice.

After graduating from Northwestern College with a degree in psychology, I wanted to get a PhD in psychology. I applied to several doctoral programs and one master’s program as a fall back. I didn’t get in to the doctoral programs, so I went to Mankato State University 27 years ago, which is where I met my wife.

After finishing my master’s degree at MSU, I again applied to a number of counseling psychology doctoral programs, but I really wanted to go to the University of Notre Dame or Virginia Commonwealth University. My undergraduate mentor had gone to Notre Dame and I had seen the movie Rudy, so it was one of my two top choices. VCU was my other top choice because Ev Worthington, a renowned forgiveness researcher, was a professor there and I wanted to continue my work studying forgiveness. I was admitted to neither. However, I did get into the University of Iowa, which is one of the top counseling psychology programs in the United States. It wasn’t my first choice, but my training was top notch. More importantly, I was exposed to, and then immersed in, neuropsychology, which became my chosen field. At the other two places, I would not have had that opportunity, but at the University of Iowa, the neuropsychology tradition was among the best.

When I applied for internship, my first choice was the University of Florida. I even bought a Gators hat because I was sure that I would get in, but UF chose other people. Instead I went to the Ann Arbor VAMC/University of Michigan, and again the training was top notch. I was able to work with a number of great mentors, but I was especially grateful for Kenneth Adams, who was not only a top notch neuropsychologist, he was an exceptional clinical psychologist and was board certified in both. He taught me the importance of a broader psychological understanding in my work as a neuropsychologist.

Finally, my first choice for residency was a functional imaging fellowship at the University of Michigan. It would have allowed me to pursue a research career in functional imaging, and to stay in the Ann Arbor area, which I loved. But I didn’t get it. Instead, I was accepted into the neuropsychology residency at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and I cannot imagine having had better training. The strength of the faculty, the breadth of opportunity, and the friendships developed were second to none.

Looking back, I am grateful for each and every “second choice.” I cannot imagine what my life would be like if I had always gotten my first choice. My life is proof that the Stones were onto something when they sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

truth as a “thing” versus a process

First, regarding the left hemisphere:

From everything we know about the hemispheres, we would expect that, in the left hemisphere’s world, truth would be conceived as a thing, rather than a process. Truth, this thing, would be conceived of as existing in the realm of subjectivity (in the mind) as a suitable representation of something conceived of as existing in a realm of objectivity (outside the mind). From this point of view the way to approach truth would be to start with a secure set of facts, and then work upwards by rules of logic, to a series of other facts, putting one secured item on top of another, to build the pyramid of (represented) truth.

The Matter with Things, 382

Regarding the right:

So how would the right hemisphere conceive truth? Rather than conceiving it as a thing, it would experience it as a process, one that, in this case–not just for now, but in principle–has no ending. More importantly, it would see that truth is a relationship. Instead of seeing a subjective realm and an objective realm which should as near as possible mirror one another, it would see a constant reverberation between two (never completely distinct) elements within our consciousness–thoughts and experiences–whereby they ‘answered‘, or co-responded to, one another; this even better accord, or attunement, would be the evolving truth. It would be intrinsically incomplete, but constantly in the process of completing itself; and uncertain, though constantly approaching nearer to certainty; incapable of being grasped except through embodied being, through a consciousness that is in the fleshed and engaged in the world. We would find out what was true only by testing it on the pulse of experience–whether it corresponded with the totality of our experience, not just with one (cognitive) part of it. Because of this it would be unique and necessarily many-stranded.

The Matter with Things, 384

What might be the implications of McGilchrist’s thinking about modern theology, and especially regarding notions of the Trinity?

hemispheric processing and western thought

I am about 50 pages into McGilchrist’s latest book, The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. He is expanding upon the hemispheric thinking he so eloquently described in his book The Master and His Emissary.* Much of our modern thought is dominated by left mode** processing, which is thought to be logical, linear, and reasonable, but it is poor at appreciating the big picture.

McGilchrist writes, “The left hemisphere is aware of much less of what surrounds it–‘sees less,’ in all senses, than the right. It is less tolerant of ambiguity and tends towards exclusive ‘either/or’ thinking; the right hemisphere is more inclusive, inclined to ‘both/and’ thinking” (p. 44).

The implications for this thinking seem relatively obvious in much of western thought and, by extension, western (primarily evangelical) theology. As good as the left hemisphere is at analyzing details, it is exquisitely unaware of what it does NOT know, which is problematic. The same is true of much of intellectual and theological certainty.

*Most of the pop-psychological literature and thinking about hemispheric (left brain/right brain) differences is, frankly, BS. However, McGilchrist is no pop psychologist and has spent a lifetime exploring the science behind hemispheric asymmetry and the implications.

**I prefer the term “left-mode” to “left-hemisphere” because it seems to me that it is the processes, rather than the anatomy, that matter.

wretched theology

Earlier, today, I posted the following thought experiment on my Facebook page.

Do you believe it is a good parenting technique to tell your children they are wretched and that it is a damned lucky thing that we are such loving parents that we accept them anyway? Or that everything they do is bad, and the only good thing about them is that we love and accept them?

Some of the first comments suggested that people may be questioning my sanity, or at least my psychological stability. Regardless, let me be crystal clear–I do not believe these ideas represents good parenting, nor do I say them to my children. I proposed the scenarios as a reflection on how a theology grounded in depravity understands God’s parenthood, what some have referred to as “worm theology.” Briefly, according to this theological understanding, what is truest about us after the fall (see Genesis 3) is our sinfulness. According to the doctrine of total depravity, everything we do, think, feel, or say is tainted by sin (though to be clear, it does not say that we are as bad as we can possibly be). Unfortunately, this theological understanding often skips past the deeper truths of Genesis 1 that say that all people were created in God’s image and that God called his creation very good.

The dialog on my thought experiment was rich (Really, you should go check it out here) and overwhelmingly, people thought that the scenarios I described were unhealthy and even abusive. Even when people acknowledged helping children to understand that they are sinners, or that their behaviors or character need correction, no one agreed with the questions as I presented them. And yet…and yet, many of have no trouble with assigning this language to God, whom we allegedly believe is infinitely loving. As Christians speak or sing about God’s love, it is common to refer to themselves as “wretched sinners.” When we use that language for ourselves, at what point does it begin to negatively affect our understanding of who we are as God’s beloved children? How does it affect how we begin to treat others?

How might things be different if we started from an earlier place? What if we believed that the truest, most essential thing about us is that we are God’s beloved children, regardless of anything else? What if, in light of a more compassionate self-understanding, we were comfortable acknowledging the brokenness in our lives, but realize that it is not our sin that defines us? What if God is absolutely, relentlessly wild about us? What if God’s anger is about those things that damage and disintegrate God’s image bearers and not about people themselves?

every cell

In me, everyone has an identity. You are who you are because I AM who I AM. Because I am gracious, have faith that I will strengthen you by my Spirit who dwells in you. Even your trust is one of the many gifts of my grace. In my Son, you have everything you need. In his love, I have placed you exactly where I want you to be. I have given you my Spirit so that you can begin to see how high, how wide, how deep, and how vast my love is for you. My grace has broken your heart wide open to know the love of my Son, which is infinitely greater than anything you could imagine. By my Son’s blood and my Spirit’s power, I have infused every cell in your body with my fullness.

Ephesians 3:15-19
Letters to the Beloved

love fuels God’s kingdom

So now what? You are utterly free. Because of my grace, there are no demands on you. You may do whatever you wish because the law has no bearing on your salvation. If what I say is true, does that mean you should continue in self-centeredness and pleasure-seeking? Beloved, if you choose to live that way, I will love you no less, but my Spirit will continue the work of changing your affections. As you internalize my message of grace, your motivations will begin to change. You are already moving from self-centered hedonism to other-centered service. Servanthood is the fruit of my love growing in you. Do you want to know how to follow every rule and regulation written in my word? Simple. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.. Love is the fuel that runs my whole kingdom. When you are stuck in self-centered living, do not be surprised when you are the one who loses it all.

Galatians 5:13-15
Letters to the Beloved

come to the river of mercy

Beloved, you are blessed by the work of my Son on your behalf and blessed by my Spirit’s presence with you. I know your journey is long, and you get tired. The grime from life in a broken world covers you. Come and wash up in my river of mercy and be refreshed by my love. I welcome you in my kingdom. My Spirit invites you to eat as you wish from the tree of life and experience eternal life exactly as I intend.

Revelation 22:14-15, Letters to the Beloved

the beauty of generosity

My Son quickly dealt with their words, saying, “Why are you trying to cause trouble for this woman? What she did to me is lavish and beautiful, flowing from a heart of love. There will always be poor and needy people among you, and even if you have all the money in the world and give it all away, you will still come up short. Mary loved me right in the present moment, and trusting what I said about my impending death, she was getting a head start preparing me for burial. Wherever the good news is shared, people will hear about her because she is such a good example of other-centered love.”

Many believers are suspicious of extravagance and beauty because it seems to be an unwise use of resources. Child, you saw evidence of these conflicted attitudes after the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned. Some generous donors came forward, offering hundreds of millions of dollars to help the rebuilding efforts. Still, people were quick to criticize, saying, “They could use that money to feed the poor.” Beloved, I care about each image-bearer and every church, but do not begrudge the generosity of others. There is far too little charity in the world, and there is far too little beauty. Together, beauty and charity give you a glimpse of my generosity.

Matthew 26:11-13, Letters to the Beloved

2021 top 10 books

The annual tradition of posting my top 10 book list continues. As of today, December 17th, I have read 93 books, so I will certainly finish the year under 100. As usual, the majority of the books I read dealt broadly with the topic of spirituality. I read disappointingly few fiction books this year. Apart from favorites that I read every year (i.e., the Harry Potter Series, the Wingfeather Saga, and The Great Divorce), I only read two fiction books–The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Dear Evan Hansen. I also read Letters to the Beloved, the book I published earlier this year, no less than four times, but I probably should not include that book in my top 10 list; however, feel free to include it in yours.

Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision by Randy Woodley
Woodley’s book was a welcome addition to my library in my ongoing study of wholeness and shalom. He explores the similarities between the biblical concept of shalom and the Native American “Harmony Way.” I have so much to learn from those outside of my limited background and this “indigenous vision” is a beneficial invitation.

Grounded: Finding God in the World. A Spiritual Revolution by Diana Butler Bass
In Grounded, Diana Butler Bass provides a well-integrated understanding of science and faith to explore why many people leave traditional religious beliefs and practices. Using metaphors like soil, water, and ground, she weaves a compelling tale of faith.

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
One of the common themes you will discover in this list is how much I enjoy “memoirs of faith,” stories about how people come to understand God and themselves better. In Leaving Church, the author described her journey into the priesthood, pastoring in the church, and her journey away from it into a more expansive faith. She has proven to be a great storyteller in each of her books, and Leaving Church is no different.

Rage by Bob Woodward
Although I primarily read books about spirituality, I also have an unhealthy compulsion to read books about politics. Woodward is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written best-selling books on the last nine presidents. Rage is Woodward’s second book about President Trump and deals with his relationships with key staff members and world leaders and his unconventional ways of leading a nation.

No Cure for Being Human: And Other Truths I Need to Hear by Kate Bowler
Bowler is a witty professor of Christian history at Duke University. In No Cure for Being Human, she tells the story of being diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at age 35 and reckoning with life and mortality as a wife, mother, and female professor. However, her book is, not surprisingly, about being human. It is a readable memoir that will stir you.

After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity by David Gushee
After Evangelicalism was the first of three books by David Gushee that I read this year. One of the foremost Christian ethicists globally, Gushee has been a reasoned voice for sincere Christian faith in a post-evangelical world. I have been uncomfortable with the label “ex-vangelical” and “post-evangelical” more accurately captured my self-understanding.

Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans
In 2019, Rachel Held Evans died following an allergic reaction to a medication for an infection. She was 37 years old. The author of four books before she died, she was a robust online presence and capable communicator. Before her untimely death, she began Wholehearted Faith, and her friend Jeff Chu finished it. It is a beautiful exploration of spirituality and wholeness. Before this year, I had never read any of her books, but the two I have read are on my top 10 list this year. I guess I will need to find the other four.

What God is Like by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner
The second posthumous book on my top 10 list by Rachel Held Evans is the first children’s book I have ever included in my top 10. It is a wonderful, delightful, beautiful invitation into the presence of a gracious and welcoming God. *By the way, it is not only for kids.

Faith After Doubt: Why Your Faith Stopped Working and What to Do About It by Brian McLaren.
McLaren is one of those authors Christians warned me about. For many years, I understood that McLaren and those like him represented “liberal Christianity,” which I further came to believe was not “real” Christianity. However, in Faith After Doubt, I found a spark of hope that I haven’t had for a while in the writings of a person who shows a deep understanding of the spiritual journey and a willingness to say provocative things to encourage his readers toward growth.

In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World by Padraig O Tuama.
Hands down, In the Shelter by Padraig O Tuama was my favorite book this year. O Tuama is an Irish poet and theologian. He also advocates for peace and inner work, which clearly and beautifully comes across in this stunning work. Pieces that give me a glimpse into the inner work of the writer are profoundly inviting. O Tuama discusses his journey and his relationship with God and himself.

follow the children

Until you turn from self-glorification, you will not find your way to heaven’s kingdom. Follow the children instead. They know their dependence. If not for the provision and shelter provided by their family, they are hopeless. They live with openness and curiosity in my kingdom. They do not seek to manage every circumstance because they cannot. Embrace your status as my child, living vulnerably before me, with openness and curiosity about where I have placed you.

From Matthew 18
Letters to the Beloved