Our Soul Pandemic

Our country is in the midst of a pandemic, a plague that is crippling both citizens and society. I am not talking about COVID-19. The virus that I am thinking of has a much wider reach, but it is not our bodies that are getting sick, but our souls.

In light of COVID-19, our world has drastically changed. Nearly everything that we do has been touched by the virus–our economy, our social lives, our religious observances, our mental health. As the weeks pass, our fragmentation becomes more obvious. As stresses build, those dark parts of us rise to the surface and they play out not only in our homes, but across social media which, it seems, is now our principle form of connection.

This pandemic of divisiveness and hatred dwarfs COVID-19 in both its effects and its reach. Although many of us may not get COVID-19, if my Facebook and Twitter feeds are any indication, many of us have been showing symptoms of hatred and division, more and more each day. Unfortunately, we are a whole lot better at seeing these things in others than in ourselves. We are much more capable of justifying our anger and name calling in the name of justice. When we have no doubt that we are correct, everything is permitted.

Just in the last few days, I’ve seen people I love calling Governor Evers an idiot or, alternatively, President Trump. I wish I were immune. I’ve seen boatloads of misinformation disseminated, but we believe these “facts” because they come from “our side’s” media outlets and experts. We use this misinformation to justify our righteous indignation. Suddenly, it seems that all of us are experts in virology, epidemiology, economics, and constitutional law.

Friends, this hatred, animosity, and division is killing us. Anger can make us feel alive, but too often it is stoked by toxicity. Many of us are thoughtful about the food we consume, trying to keep our bodies healthy, but we allow these viral thoughts to take hold and our souls get sicker and sicker. I pray we begin to wake up to the effects this soul pandemic is having.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Galatians 5 recently, which is one place where Saint Paul contrasts flesh and spirit. In each of us, there is this battle between flesh and spirit and they do not lead us to the same outcome. Starting in verse 19, Paul identified a number of “works of the flesh,” which are opposed to a Spirit-filled life. I won’t mention all of them, but I was struck by “enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions.” Sadly, this list seems to characterize so much of what I read every single day. Paul is clear that these things do not represent the Kingdom of God. But he also said that when we are walking by the Spirit, there are different evidences in our lives. A Spirit-led person shows love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, not perfectly, but I believe in increasing measure.

I invite each of us, myself chiefly, to regularly ask ourselves, “Who am I? Are my thoughts and actions characterized by fits of anger and division, or am I increasingly gentle and peaceful?” This soul pandemic has a cure, love.

God,
The evidences of fragmentation and division are growing day by day,
both without and within.
You call us to peace, but we are in turmoil;
you call us to grace, but we are full of judgment;
you call us to love, but hatred consumes us.

We are a double-minded people.
How can we be for peace when this war rages within?
We do spiritual violence to others and ourselves
when this plague of strife takes hold.

We are afraid.
We are angry.
We are confused.
Too often, we let our flesh lead,
forgetting both who you are
and who we are.

Forgive us.
Heal our hearts.
Make us whole.

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

Why Wholeness?

Every weekday morning at 5:45, I have the opportunity to be on the radio with my friend Mark Halvorsen for the “best five minutes of the day.” Although we discuss a variety of topics, our principal purpose is a connection between friends and putting love on display by how we relate. On Monday of this week, Mark asked me about a T-shirt I made with this graphic:

Concepts like integration, wholeness, and reconciliation have become the major focus of my thinking over the past few years, I believe because several different streams have converged powerfully. As an avid reader, several books that have fertilized my thinking about wholeness. I cannot mention them all in this post, but a few come immediately to mind, including Wholeheartedness by Chuck DeGroat, Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson, A New Heaven and a New Earth by J. Richard Middleton, and The Hidden Life: Awakened by Kitty Crenshaw and Cathy Snapp. A growing love for creativity and artistic expression has also fueled my interest in wholeness.

Additionally, I have been trying to do my own inner work, albeit sometimes reluctantly. A few good friends provide safe space as I seek to sift through my fragmented inner life. Some of us also meet for lunch weekly to discuss what integration means and how we put it into practice. Ultimately, it seems to me that as each of us seeks to understand what it means to be fully human, we all must wrestle with these disconnected parts both within and between us.

In the days ahead, I want to begin to explore what I am thinking when I use words like wholeness, integration, and reconciliation and why I think they are important concepts to consider.

What thoughts, images, or feelings come to mind when you hear the word “wholeness”?

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?

Thoughts on a 9/11 morning

I was pondering 9/11 this morning. It is hard to believe it was 18 years ago. Since then, there has been more fear, pain, brokenness, and division. More disintegration. This is not the way it is supposed to be.

Let me invite you to do something today: put Jesus’s words into practice. He said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” How could you do this today?

1) Take 5 or 30 minutes to spend some time in prayer for those who anger you—terrorists, liberals, conservatives, foreigners, your kids, your spouse, etc. Take an inventory with God and ask him to bless them.

2) Before you share an article about why other people are wrong, slow down and pray. Ask yourself, “am I promoting love or hate? Wholeness or division?”

3) Show compassion for those parts within yourself that are not yet integrated. Thank God for his tender compassion toward you.

Wholeness or Harm?

Write 31 days, day 27
Writing Prompt: Whole

If you were to ask me what thoughts fill my head during the day’s mental pit stops, there would be just a few things I would mention. I think a lot about Jesus and I think a lot about the transcendentals–truth, goodness, and beauty. Wholeness is the other concept I give a lot of mental space. I also believe that these three topics are closely related. Jesus epitomizes truth, goodness, and beauty. Jesus is wholeness.

Yet when I look around at the world, I rarely see wholeness. I see brokenness.  I see division. I see hatred. I see dis-integration. I suspect you do too.  Just today, the news told us of another hate crime. This time, a gunman killed 10 people and wounded others at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh. Every time these attacks occur, we disintegrate further. But it’s not just these publicized attacks–it is every murder, every rape, every sexual assault, every physical assault, every action motivated by hate. Every hateful word, every time we use name calling during disagreement, we are contributing to this degradation.

It grieves me when I see my friends using name calling. I wish I could say that my Christian friends on social media rose above name calling and hateful invective, but from what I can tell, they don’t. In fact, some days it seems that those who profess Christ are more likely to engage in character attacks and name calling. Friends, it ought not be so. We are called to live lives of love…in everything (1 Corinthians 16:14).

Earlier I shared on Facebook:

Stand against hate in all its forms. Christians, we are called to testify to the truth and to do so lovingly. Every person…hear me…EVERY PERSON, bears the image of God. EVERY PERSON, regardless of creed, is to be loved, not hated. Yes, speak out against bombings of Jewish Synagogues, or black churches, or movie theaters, schools, and bars. But also speak out against the hateful words so often spoken against or about those who think differently.

Every day, we have an opportunity to use our words. Will we use them for wholeness or harm?

For reflection: What does your social media presence look like? How do you speak about those with whom you disagree? 

In the Little Things

Write 31 days, Day 10
Writing prompt: How

Each day, every one of us faces the question, “how will I choose to live today?” Some of us approach the question with intention, though most of us, I suspect, simply drift through our morning routines. Let me suggest, though, that even if we never have consciously considered this question, it still shapes us. We choose whether we will take a shower, surf the Internet, or greet our spouse with a kiss. We choose whether to walk with our shoulders back or staring at the ground. We choose whether or not we will think poorly of those who believe differently than we do.

For me, it has been beneficial to intentionally consider how to approach each day. Borrowing from Chuck DeGroat, I ask myself “how can I be an ambassador of shalom today?” or from my friend Curt Thompson: “am I living as an outpost of goodness and beauty?” I firmly believe that we can make the choice each day, indeed in each circumstance, to strive toward wholeness and peace or to degrade toward bitterness and division.

Last night, when I came home from work, I was irritable. Perhaps 20 minutes later, Heather asked me if I needed anything because I “seemed short.” She was right, and I told her so, but it was for no reason I recognized. It helped me to own that emotion and ask myself, “how does my attitude toward my wife, my son, and my dogs press toward shalom?”

None of us will get this perfect. We are all broken. Yet our imperfections do not disable our capacity to strive toward wholeness. I pray that more and more people will strive to embody truth, goodness, and beauty in their daily routines, and that those choices will push back a little bit of the darkness.

Reflection:
What daily rhythms help you to live toward wholeness?  How can you stretch toward deeper wholeness this week?