Pause! A key relationship skill

Our first impulse is likely to be self-aware, at least; self-centered, perhaps; self-protective, likely; selfish, at worst. Love, by contrast, is other-centered. Love doesn’t come naturally, and rarely first. It takes a pause to get there. I don’t often re-post others’ writings, but I think Richard Rohr (with whom I’m not always on the same page) describes this reality well as “The Second Gaze” in the following post.

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The Second Gaze Friday, January 1, 2021 New Year’s Day 

Contemplation happens to everyone. It happens in moments when we are open, undefended, and immediately present. — Gerald May 

Even after fifty years of practicing contemplation, my immediate response to most situations includes attachment, defensiveness, judgment, control, and analysis. I am better at calculating than contemplating. A good New Year’s practice for us would be to admit that that most of us start there. The false self seems to have the “first gaze” at almost everything. 

On my better days, when I am “open, undefended, and immediately present,” I can sometimes begin with a contemplative mind and heart. Most of the time I can get there later and even end there, but it is usually a second gaze. The True Self seems to always be ridden and blinded by the defensive needs of the separate self. It is an hour-by-hour battle, at least for me. I can see why all spiritual traditions insist on some form of daily prayer; in fact, morning, midday, evening, and before-we-go-to-bed prayer would be a good idea too! Otherwise, we can assume that we will fall right back in the cruise control of small and personal self-interest, the pitiable and fragile smaller self. 

The first gaze is seldom compassionate. It is too busy weighing and feeling itself: “How will this affect me?” or “How does my self-image demand that I react to this?” or “How can I get back in control of this situation?” This leads to an implosion of self-preoccupation that cannot enter into communion with the other or the moment. In other words, we first feel our feelings before we can relate to the situation and emotion of the other. Only after God has taught us how to live “undefended” can we immediately (or at least more quickly) stand with and for the other, and for the moment. 

It has taken me much of my life to begin to get to the second gaze. By nature, I have a critical mind and a demanding heart, and I am impatient. (I’m a One on the Enneagram!) These are both my gifts and my curses, as you might expect. Yet I cannot have one without the other, it seems. I cannot risk losing touch with either my angels or my demons. They are both good teachers. The practice of solitude and silence allows them both, and leads to the second gaze. The gaze of compassion, looking out at life from the place of divine intimacy is really all I have, and all I have to give, even though I don’t always do it. 

In the second gaze, critical thinking and compassion are finally coming together. It is well worth waiting for, because only the second gaze sees fully and truthfully. It sees itself, the other, and even God with God’s own eyes, the eyes of compassion, which always move us to act for peace and justice. But it does not reject the necessary clarity of critical thinking, either. Normally, we start with dualistic thinking, and then move toward nondual for an enlightened response. As always, both/and! 

Richard Rohr 

How to Pray for Those with Whom We Disagree

Sometimes it’s hard to pray for people, especially if we disagree with them, think they’re wrong, or consider them an enemy. We read Jesus’ words, “Love for your enemy and pray those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44) and wonder how to do that. Below is a method.

The beginning of love is other-centeredness. Step one is to understand another’s heart, mind, circumstances, and needs. Ask God for that understanding. Pray in light of what we come to understand. Pray for them, Jesus said (not against them).

Total Person Filter:   What is going on for them?

Emotionally

Physically

Intellectually

Socially

Spiritually

Basic Psychological Needs filter: What are their human needs? 

Security

Love

Recognition 

New Experiences

Freedom from guilt and shame

Concept from The Lifestyle of Healthy Leaders: Integrating Spiritual Formation and Leadership Development, by Dr. Charles Miller (also titled: The Spiritual Formation of Leaders), summarized here by Doug Burford. 

Feelings or Thoughts? Thoughts or Feelings?

 “Which is more important… feelings or thoughts?” That was the first question asked by my professor on the first day of the first class in my masters in counseling program. The silence of the class was telling. Which is more important? How does one choose? They’re both present. All the time. Can they be separated; is one really subordinate; possibly even dispensable? They both vie for attention; they both want recognition. And both want to lead. If the answer to the question, “Which is more important?” is “The one that gets to lead,” then the answer becomes clear. “It depends.”

Romance is arguably more about feelings than thoughts; engineering had better be more about thoughts than feelings. But then there are everyday choices and everyday relationships where both feelings and thoughts are at our feet like twin toddlers, both demanding to be picked up and have their way. In such everyday moments that are not matters of structural integrity nor mate selection, which gets to rule—thoughts or feelings? I’m tempted to again say, “It depends,” but I think you’d  stop reading.

It would be nice if science helped, but it doesn’t, because science is objective and “important” is subjective. Science can tell us which comes first, but “first” is different from “most important.” First just tells us which toddler is quicker. Just as we would not disregard one twin because the other was quicker, neither do we go with one part of the brain’s activity to the exclusion of the other because it fired first. To exclusively choose one over the other would require removal of either the prefrontal cortex (thinking center) or of the amygdala (feeling center). This would make things easier by eliminating the competition, but it would make us less complete as humans. Still, it’s helpful that we know which will get our attention before the other, every time. Feelings. Feelings come first, with one clarification—the “feeling” that comes first is somatic—or bodily. 

The cerebellum is the first to react to anything, and does so with a somatic response. Our physical bodies respond first to stimuli; then the limbic system—of which the amygdala is a part—kicks in with an emotion. Then the cortex kicks in, thinking about what to make of the stimulus. Knowing that the brain fires in this order is helpful in sorting out our reactions. The Enneagram (of which there are nine personality, or temperament, types) differentiates those personalities that are led by head, heart, or gut. The ancient temperament analysis correctly distinguishes the brain’s processing – somatic, emotional, and cognitive. But knowing our temperament type, and that our brains fire in that order, does not mean that we are led only by our head, heart or gut. It merely tells us which influence will be the strongest, and thus need to be regulated by the other two. 

Balancing feelings and thoughts is easier for some temperaments than  others. Personality assessments all sort people according to their primary tendency to process things cognitively or emotionally—head or heart. It’s not that feelers don’t think or that thinkers don’t feel; it’s a matter of which part of one’s brain tends to grab the steering wheel and which is relegated to the backseat. Regardless of tendency, it is wise on a long journey to switch drivers according to conditions and weariness. Life is a long journey. Thinkers and feelers must trade off and work together as circumstances dictate. Too much time in the driver’s seat can exhaust a person’s capacity; too much dependence on one part of the brain can exhaust its aptitude. Wise traveling companions know who is better suited for which driving conditions, and switch off accordingly. Feelers thus learn to let thinking drive decisions at times, and thinkers thus learn that feelings should at times overrule what is “logical” (due respect to Mr. Spock). Family pets serve as an example. Unless one is getting an animal for security, hunting, handicap support, or rodent control, the decision to get a family pet is likely emotionally driven. Despite this, parents put thinking in the driver’s seat for a while. They reason with children about the responsibilities of pet ownership, securing agreement to feed, walk, water, and clean up after the animal. Feeling and thinking both get a turn at the wheel. Both are important. Both should be drivers in those areas for which they’re best suited. If this brain balance applies to pet selection and maintenance, how much more to mate selection and human relationships. 

Truth is, a healthy human life can’t be lived on emotions alone, nor can it be lived on intellect alone. The engineer must let thinking rule over feelings, to be sure. But even engineers often take into consideration things like aesthetics and intuitiveness – things barely cognitive, but real and relevant. Romantic relationships in our modern, less pragmatic culture are typically feelings driven. We tend to laugh at, or feel sorry for, those in past ages who married for political  alliance, or by parental arrangement, or because one had cattle and the other had land. Few of us would be excited about a marriage that is logical, but devoid of love. At the other extreme, becoming romantically involved with an addict who is abusive and serially unemployed is to dismiss reason from the mix and operate solely on emotion. When everyone around us is telling us that a particular relationship is a bad idea, it may reveal that the amygdala has staged a coup and locked the cortex in the closet. The romantic whirlwind may be exhilarating, but the end result is not likely to be a satisfying relationship for both partners. 

Maturity is about learning to acknowledge the emotions, while making a wise choice. This is the difference between a child and an adult… at least a mature adult. Infants are all amygdala. They feel. They feel deeply. They laugh freely when amused or feeling joyful; they cry freely when hungry or uncomfortable or sad or if demanding what they want. There is no check and balance to whether expressing the feeling is appropriate under the circumstances, or likely to produce a desired result. Feelings come first, so feelings get to lead, and whatever impulse a feeling dictates is that which gets expressed. Of course, we don’t remain infants. The apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put childish ways behind me.“ (1 Corinthians 13:11) To be childlike is to live impulsively—by the gut alone, or making important decisions based on emotion alone. We worry for people who live this way, or pity them, or get angry with them if we have to clean up their mess (be their parent). Reliable adults don’t make important decisions based on feelings without intellectual restraint. Life after preschool is all about acknowledging our feelings, deciphering what needs they are pointing out, and subjecting to intellectual scrutiny how to meet legitimate needs wisely. This is maturity; responsibility. This is how life works. No one gets to live by feelings alone; that can literally be life-threatening. On the other hand, no one wants to be married to someone for logical reasons alone; a house soundly constructed does not make a home—homes need love, and love involves emotion. Balance is learned through the maturing process.

How do we sort this out in important human relationships, friendships, dating, marriage and parenting? Answers emerge from many realms, often converging. We’ve noted how understanding our temperament can reveal our tendencies, and clue us in to what needs to be reigned in. In the psychological world Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) offers tools for balance. And from the spiritual world Scripture provides sound principles to guide our thoughts and the Holy Spirit speaks a silent but clear voice to guide our feelings.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is targeted at the very dilemma we are addressing—dialectical, or opposed, interests—such as thoughts and feelings; self-interest and the interests of others; saying or doing what we want versus saying or doing what is wise in the long run. In fact, a “wise mind” is the goal of DBT… a mind able to wrestle with strong urges from opposite directions and make a decision that is effective in interpersonal relationships. To get there, DBT strengthens four skills: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness. 

• Mindfulness is about having our mind in the “here and now.” It includes focusing our senses on what we are hearing, seeing, touching, thinking, and feeling. It includes voicing in our heads or out-loud what is going on within us and around us. Mindfulness keeps our minds, emotions, and somatic feelings from carrying us away. We train ourselves to notice what is happening in and around us, without yet making decisions nor acting on impulses. This postpones our response until we can make effective decisions based on more information. 

• Distress Tolerance is about learning to tolerate frustration. It’s being able to recognize, allow, tolerate, and endure stress, distress, frustrations, disappointments, pain, crises, loss, and drama. It is holding it together rather than coming unglued; it is getting through a bad day rather than quitting our job; it is managing ourselves in unpleasant circumstances, rather than those circumstances managing us. 

• Emotion Regulation is learning that the limbic system has both a brake and an accelerator. We are in control of how much fuel we give our feelings; we get to regulate how fast we let them take us. Just because the amygdala says “Floor it,” doesn’t mean we have to. We can even respond by pressing the brake. In fact, there is a DBT Skill called, “Opposite Action;” it is choosing to do exactly opposite what our emotions tell us to do. Yes, the emotional toddler screams loudly and is most likely to shove its way into the driver’s seat, but there is a parent in the brain and you’re it! Emotion regulation is about parenting the emotions; driving with wise control of the accelerator and the brake.

• Interpersonal Effectiveness is about being effective in relationships. This is the skill of balancing self-protection with the protection of others with whom we are in relationship. It replaces reactions based on assumptions with effective communication based on mutual listening and confirmation of understanding. It is the skill of choosing behaviors that effectively balance our own interests and the interests of others. 

Moving on to the spiritual world, it is arguably unequaled in its power to bring change. Larry Crabb, who authored Connecting and many other titles, recognized after years of counseling that people who got better under his therapeutic care were disproportionately those people who were also cooperating with the Holy Spirit and yielding to Scriptures in God’s ongoing transformative work. That says something. Not that people can’t get better without Christ, but that cooperating with His Word and Spirit is consistent with mental health. (Yes, this spiritual work may be different from, and even in contrast to, what some teachers, leaders, and religious institutions impose upon people. But Jesus himself does good work.) 

I love the fact that self-control is mentioned over and over again in the New Testament as a manifestation of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23), a mandate to believers (Titus 2:6,12), and a mark of the follower of Christ (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8, 2 Peter 1:6). Self-control is exactly what’s needed as we parent the two toddlers at our knees. What a relief that we don’t have to muster self-control out of thin air; it is given to us as a gift from the limitless empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We can let Him do in us what we don’t have the strength or patience to do ourselves. Face hardship? He’s enabled it. Withstand persecution? He’s enabled it. Endure the cross? He’s enabled it. Keep our cool at work, or in traffic, or in those most difficult of relationships? Yes, He can enable that, too. Not by magic; we are still human. Hunger, anger, loneliness and weariness call for relief in the the Christian just as they do for anyone else, and self-control will be difficult without such relief. But the Power that created us and all things invites us to let Him help us regulate dialectical dilemmas. Why wouldn’t we? 

Scripture tells us secrets one can only expect to find in a manual written by the Designer of our souls. It’s instructions rightly understood are dependable guides. I’d never work on a modern car or appliance without a manual; too many things are solved in non-intuitive ways. “Turn the ignition key to accessory while simultaneously pressing the power button on the radio and the sliding door will reset.” Right. I’d have disassembled the door five times and never have come up with that solution. The reliable guidance in Scripture as Life Manual is often non-intuitive; we’re not likely to come up with such wisdom on our own. And we’re not likely to hear it from someone who is not reading the Word and listening to the Spirit. Its mandates sound odd; yet, oddly, they work. Things like, “it is to a man’s glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11); “Humble yourself before the Lord and he will lift you up” (James 4:10); “Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not prideful, it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) 

Many books have been written on the process of sanctification that is our maturing in Christ as enabled by the Holy Spirit and guided by the wisdom of Scripture. Suffice to say that in the matter of sorting out thoughts and feelings, discerning the important needs our emotions are screaming about, and deciding how to act wisely in nuanced self-protection that is also protective of others, the scriptures give us reliable principles to guide our thinking and the Spirit speaks to our heart a calming voice to guide our feelings.

So, what is the answer to the question, “Which is more important… feelings or thoughts?” It depends. If the question is, “Which comes first?” then the answer is feelings. Somatic feelings, then emotional. If the question is, “Which gets to drive?” the answer is, both are important. Both are needed. Both should be allowed rule in different circumstances. Both get to drive. It depends on the context and terrain and which is best suited. Some decisions are simply right or wrong, smart of dumb. Emotions must then be told to get in the back seat; we’re going to do what is wise, regardless of how the emotional toddler feels about it.  At other times, love means telling logic to get in the backseat. My wife and I decided to get married within days of crunching the numbers and figuring out we couldn’t afford it on our incomes. Emotions ruled, not logic. It was love! We also had to let the thinking toddler drive after that decision. Bills don’t get paid on love. 

We’re human. Thoughts and feelings will be with us always. Together. Both toddlers will scream at the same time for attention and want to drive. But you’re the parent in the car. You get to decide. The loudest toddler doesn’t get to decide. Circumstances don’t get to decide. Your gut, heart, or head doesn’t get to decide. You are in control. With your understanding of your temperament, the help of DBT skills, the principles of God’s Word, and the voice and power of the Holy you can have what you need to accelerate, steer, and brake wisely.

Ready, Set… Resist Re-setting

Funny what a pandemic can teach us: 

  Outdoors is restorative. 

 Screen-time will consume all time if we let it.

 Relationships give meaning to life.   

 Togetherness requires yielded-ness. 

 Electronic entertainment isn’t, after a while.  

 Face-to-face, not FaceTime or FaceBook. 

 We can live by computer alone, but who wants to?  

 Variety really is the spice of life. 

 We can get almost anything we want online, except what we want most.  

 We need each other. 

 Touch is irreplaceable.

 There is a void filled only by the Spirit.

 If we don’t move, we won’t move. 

 What stressed us before the pandemic need be reduced. 

✚ What calmed us during the pandemic need be increased.

EUSAw

How can longed-for time together not lead to “Cabin Fever,” before long? (Yes, this is being written during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic.)  

“Cabin fever” originally referred to Typhus, but came to describe “the need to get out and about” after days of being trapped in a cabin by harsh elements. 

There are so many things that could be focused upon, from the need for time together and time apart, to the need for sunlight, exercise, nature, restorative music, reduced screen-time, good nutrition, solid sleep, and fasting from news and social media. But this article will assume that one shares a cabin—and thus a fever—with other humans, and will treat a key component to interpersonal communication. 

The main thing that challenges relationships in close quarters is that we lose autonomy. Things that we used to decide ourselves, without debate—even automatically—suddenly become agenda items for a cabin committee that is  always in session. Pre-lockdown, we’d worked out our routine of home-to-work, work-to-home, time with others and time alone. We knew our place and others knew theirs. Such routines and fairly independent patterns are a fading memory as a new routine is worked out, not independently, but with perpetual consideration for our cabin-mates. Those quick autonomous decisions—when to shower, what to eat, where to work or study, what is playing on what screen or speakers and how loud, what rooms to be in and when, who to be around, when to take breaks and where—all become dyadic discussions, group debates or hostile negotiations. It can be stressful for everyone as something so simple as turning a dial becomes a turf battle. So, what makes the  difference between a home filled with peaceful vacationers and a cabin filled with fever-ridden adversaries? 

The first thing is a mind-shift—we’re not in this alone. Autonomy is easier; relationships are harder. Relationships require consideration, empathy, understanding, and mutual support (unless you’re an adult whose cabin-mates have still-forming brains; then your expectations must be checked against developmental reality). This takes doses of patient listening, self-control, gentleness, servant-heartedness, sacrifice, yielding and love. It takes conforming to one another rather than trying to transform one another into ourself…. “Do things the way I do; have the same preferences I have; want what I want, feel what I feel, think what I think, and share my opinion on everything.” That’s not gonna work; better pitch a tent in the back yard.  

Relationships are about adjusting to each other, and adjusting peacefully means listening more than talking and wanting to understand as much as wanting to be understood. Preferably more (see separate blog on Dynamic Tension). The following illustration may help. 

EUSAw

EUSAw – You won’t find it in a dictionary, and I wish it meant something from a borrowed language, but it doesn’t. It is, however,  an acronym for what is very useful to keep minor differences from becoming major battles. 

  • Empathize
  • Understand
  • Support
  • Affirm
  • wonder

The first thing we must do if we want connection, not contention, is to recognize what emotion is in the driver’s seat of the other’s brain at the moment (see the movie, Inside Out). Note whether the other is feeling excited, irritated, sad, hurt, prioritized, scared, put down, important, overwhelmed, unloved, appreciated, liked, etc. Notice it. Name it. Empathize. That is, get in the passenger seat alongside them. “How frustrating.” “I’m sorry.” “How exciting!” “That must have been disappointing.” “That had to be painful.” Empathy connects us; don’t skip it. Especially don’t minimize someone’s feelings or try to talk them out of what they’re feeling. Especially, especially don’t skip empathy in favor of fixes, criticisms, or repeating over and again your different point of view. Any of those will bring contention, not connection. Empathize first. 

Secondly, understand—and voice your understanding—of the other’s perspective. Voicing  does not mean agreement, it means you listened; you heard. That’s love. That’s caring. That’s being there for someone. That’s friendship. That’s marriage, and family. If it helps, pretend you are writing someone’s biography for them and you’ve sought to get their perspective on something. After listening, you read it back to them: “So, you’d rather participate in planning something fun than be surprised, even if the surprise is fun. Is that right?” Ideally, the other will affirm what you got right, and maybe modify what you said a bit, if there was something missing. Now we’re in a position to argue them out of their perspective and into ours, right? Wrong! Perspectives will differ; that’s relationships. Why would two people with differing temperaments, different upbringings, maybe different genders, different life experiences, different tastes, different paces, different ideas about what’s recreational and what’s restful, have the same point of view on anything!?! Our goal isn’t to talk someone out of their point of view into ours; it’s to understand their different point of view so that we can be of support to one-another; yielding to one another as we share life, space, food, time, and decisions. 

Support is best achieved through mutual yielding. If both are yielding to the other, then neither has to be fighting the other for right of way. It’s like an uncontrolled intersection in the country where two roads meet amid nothing but fields. No stop sign. No yield sign. It’s just understood that the two drivers approaching the intersection at the same time will seek to understand each other and yield to each other. They will read and gauge each other’s speed, given one another’s distance  from the intersection and—understanding what space and time the other needs to pass through the intersection safely—will yield to one another so that everyone in both vehicles ends up alive and unhurt. That’s the win. It’s not a contest; it’s consideration. For the driver further from the intersection to gun their engine in a challenge to overcome his greater distance and pass through the intersection first would be a pitiful display of immaturity. Mature drivers yield to one another. So it is in relationships. If you like arguing, competing, and winning, go find a job or recreation where that is a skill; in marriage and families, it is not. In marriage, spouses are there for each other, not against each other; they are the best of friends. In families, too, the idea is of a unit there for one another, not pitted against each other. The goal of marriage and of family is to be safe for one other. Empathic. Understanding. Supportive. 

And affirming. People like being around people who make them feel good. In fact, research shows that good relationships have a very high ratio of feel-good to feel-bad interactions. People like being built up rather than being torn down. People like being celebrated for what they did well, rather than criticized for what they did wrong.” Instead of criticizing what someone did “wrong” according to your subjective opinion (it didn’t meet your standard, match your preference, accord with you style or pace or something else), can you instead affirm when they did it “right?” That is, can you paint the picture of what success looks like, rather than run the game film of their “mistake?”  Can you affirm what the other has done in the past, or on a regular basis, or affirm something about their character trait that you appreciate; something that meets your preference of the moment? For instance, instead of  criticizing with a statement like, “Why can’t you ever pick up your own stuff!?! What am I, your cleaning staff?” Instead, notice when things are clean and picked up and affirm it. Thank the other; tell them how nice it looks, or how peaceful the house feels when it’s in order. Be grateful, not critical. If that’s not your style, learn it. We know how. We do this with people we regard as important. 

Lastly—and this is where your own perspective and needs come in—wonder out loud about options and ideas that might be a mutual win. You’ve already listened first to understand one another, including  the feelings that are driving the moment; now wonder aloud about ideas for supporting one another. “What would you think if I worked in the kitchen and you took the dining room, or vice-versa? Do you have a preference?”  Or, “Yes, I’d love to unwind after dinner; I wonder—instead of a movie, what would you think about watching something short?” The idea is a soft volley, not a hard edict. It’s an irenic idea brought to the table. It’s negotiation by offering what the other needs, not demanding what I need. It’s considerate and protective of the other. It’s voicing our consideration in an other-centered proposal. It’s friendship. 

So, EUSAw… a prescription for fever reduction when brought about by chronic human interaction. 

What the Heck is “the Gospel?”

The word “gospel” can conjure up images of a judgmental preacher in a bad suit waving a Bible overhead and hatefully denouncing sinners. Ironically, in contrast to that picture, the literal translation of “gospel” is “good news.”  That good news can be illustrated, in part, by the Venn diagram in the header.

The good news is that God has met in Jesus Christ the spiritual longing that every human feels and may try to fill with things incapable of occupying it. Financial, social, physical, intellectual, relational, emotional, and recreational pursuits—as important and satisfying as they can be (witness Kansas City’s Super Bowl win)— cannot fill the spiritual longing shaped like Christ. The gospel is the answer to that stubborn  emptiness that refuses to be filled by worthy pursuits or worthless distractions. 

To be clear, that interior void is in the shape of Christ, not religion. Religion is man’s  attempt to draw near to God, while the ” gospel” is the good news that in Christ God came to us. Religion properly focused on developing our spiritual closeness to Christ can help, but is itself not the focus, nor was religious practice Christ’s focus while on earth. Listening to and heeding his Father was his focus. 

When people offer reasons for not liking church or religion, I can almost always agree with their reasons. The institutional church has not always represented Christ well, and often does not still, today. But those reasons don’t change who Jesus is. Most people—even people who eschew religion—admire, respect, or even love Jesus. And it is Jesus as he is who fills our spiritual longing. That said, a church focused on him can offer a supportive community essential to growth in mutual relationship with Christ.

So, back to the question, “What the heck is ‘the gospel?'” The gospel is that in Jesus Christ, God entered human form so that people could understand God; the gospel is that Jesus suffered hardship, temptation, and death, just like ourselves, yet was without sin, unlike ourselves. Since he had no sin to separate him from the “godhead” (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), the grave had no hold on him and he took up his life again. (This is why the disciples who abandoned him at his arrest went to their deaths refusing to deny him  as risen Lord and God-incarnate (Immanuel) (Matthew 1:23). Christ then transferred his payment for sin (of which he uniquely had none) to us who need it (1 John 2:2). Acceptance of that free gift of forgiveness secured by Christ’s atonement for sin on our behalf is what it means to be or become a Christian. It is that dependence (faith) on Christ’s forgiveness through no merit of our own that fills that spiritual void and gives us identity and purpose other areas of life cannot. 

As a counselor and pastor, I know this by experience. Therapists, psychologists, doctors and psychiatrists have good things to offer hurting or struggling people. But, therapy, insight, interpersonal skills, and even medication can not bring peace with God. Christ does. The Sinless one meets the sinful and welcomes us into a living relationship that fills our deepest longing. He says, “Come unto me all who are weary and heavily burdened and I will give you rest.” If life seems empty at its center, or its dimensions out of balance, Jesus invites:  “take on my yoke and find a secure fit. Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.”  (Matthew 11:28-29; John 10:9-10) 

The gospel is thus an invitation… an invitation from God to come to Jesus to come to life; it is an invitation to satisfy that deep interior longing, not with religion, but with a relationship. The gospel is not about us seeking after God, it is about God seeking after us. The gospel is that in Jesus Christ God came near, in order that we might know closeness with him; that we may know a love we’ve never known and be able to love others in a way more selfless than our own. 

God runs to us in Christ like the father in  Luke 15 ran to the prodigal son who had cut himself off from his father, but later turned back. In his father’s embrace the prodigal found welcome, not punishment; he found love, grace, peace, and life anew. That’s the reception that God gives through the gospel. Jesus Christ came to give us new life; life that completes us at our core. That infilling relationship can be found by accepting Jesus’ invitation, “Come unto me and find rest for your souls.” 

Like the prodigal, this means turning from imbalanced or false pursuits, to him who alone can fill the center of our being. It is trusting in his forgiveness and entrusting our lives to his leadership.

Pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, take your place in my heart and life; fill that central place reserved for you. Forgive whatever separates me from you and lead me in life anew.” 

____________________ 

(Find videos of celebrities and of less celebrated people who have found their center in Christ at IAmSecond.com.)  

Evicting Christ from our Marriages?

Followers of Christ have an advantage in marriage. We have the gift of knowing universal truths in a relativistic world that thinks people can decide their own truths and that these will work as well as the instructions of our Designer and Maker. 

Followers of Christ have the two-fold guides of Scripture, which gives mandates for the practice of trust-in-Christ in practical behavioral terms (do this; don’t do that), and of the Spirit, who transforms our hearts and minds from within through Christ’s ongoing work of sanctification. By these two powerful forces, followers of Christ conform toward Christlikeness of heart, mind, and behavior. 

Yet, even self-identified followers of Christ can grow relationally weary to the point where circumstances or marital history or stress or negative influencers can lead us to abandon Christian praxis when it comes to the treatment of their spouses. Some husbands and wives might find themselves resorting to unkindness, name-calling, profanity, selfishness, rudeness, impatience, immorality, harshness, unfaithfulness, lying, abandonment, insults, and slander toward the one they profess to love and with whom they want to strengthen their marriage. 

The above—where not born of individual wounds or personality disorders—can be desperate acts of self-defense fueled by feeling unprotected by one’s spouse (whether or not that is actually the case). The tragedy is that when we abandon the practice of our Christian faith in our human relationship that matters most—the one that mirrors our relationship with God (Ephesians 5:21-32)—we leave our marriage without the two most powerful forces toward positive life change. It is making the decision to not apply scriptural truth nor sanctified nature to our most important human relationship. We apply them in other areas of life, but not to our marriage.

Should we be surprised that this does not help? I’ve never heard of, nor seen, a marriage healed by the abandonment of love, respect, kindness, gentleness, service, protection, virtue, and encouragement toward one’s spouse. Christians who act un-christianly toward their spouse have no advantage over those who are not followers of Christ. What good is it to call him, “Lord” and not do as he says? (Luke 6:46) To walk according  to the Spirit in other areas of life (Galatians 5:16-26), but according to the flesh in our marriage, is to make our faith worth less in marriage. It leaves our relationship of oneness at the mercy of the prince of this world (John 14:30), whom Scripture describes as the deceiver, destroyer and father of lies. (Revelation 12:9; John 10:10; John 8:44). That’s tragic, and predictive of tragedy in marriage.

Rather, let us “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25), and “let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Instead, let us clothe  ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, making no provision for the desires of the flesh.” (Romans  13:13,14) 

This article runs the risk of sounding preachy, as if the solution were a matter of quoting an entire chapter of Scripture.  Let me meet that risk head-on by quoting the preacher, Paul, and all of chapter 3 of Colossians: 

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” 

Did you win this Christmas? 

So much is going on around Christmas and the holidays, that competition is created. Competition for time, how money gets spent, what gets our attention, who is heard, what influences are yielded to, what activities are engaged in and which are postponed or eliminated altogether. At the end of it all, we wonder if we handled it well, especially as we head into a new year resolute to do better. What’s the measure for determining “success” at crazed times with so many factors in competition? 

Consumerism tells us that success means having gotten the best deal. Productivity measures success by how much we got done. Process orientation measures success by how efficiently we got it done. And a competitive drive measures success by how our purchases and productivity compare that of to others. All of these are objective standards that invite a determination of success by what is measured. 

But, what matters most in life is subjective, resisting measurements by quantifiable data.  At the end of the day, life is about relationships. And relationships are measured by fuzzy criteria like how people feel; whether they feel prioritized and important; to what extent they feel accepted, protected, liked, and enjoyed. Relational success is fueled by laughter, love, smiles, and caring touch. Relationships are about kindness, patience, gentleness, generosity, virtue, integrity, tenderness, grace and mercy. Relationships win when—amid all the competition—people experienced that their needs and feelings were more important than getting a great deal, getting a lot done, or doing things “efficiently.”

In God’s economy, wins are measured in relationships, and relational wins aren’t counted; they’re felt. 

May you have a winning new year. 

Empty Nest & Retirement Years as Invitations to Re-Create Shared Meaning

The apex of Dr. John Gottman’s “Sound Relationship House” – the metaphorical distillation of his decades of scientific research on marital success—is Shared Meaning. 

A couple’s Shared Meaning is established and reinforced by intentional habits and patterns of interaction that create and reinforce a couple’s friendship. Friendship is what Dr. Gottman’s research has shown to be the bedrock of a close, passionate, and enduring relationship or marriage. Friendship is comprised of the principles Gottman has named: Love Maps, Turning Toward One Another (connecting), and Nurturing Fondness and Admiration. More could be written on these, but suffice to say that Love Maps is partners having a detailed “map” in their head of their partner’s world; they are familiar with each other’s internal and external world, such that they know how to “be there for” each other.  Turning Toward One Another is the habit that satisfied and long-lasting couples have of connecting often in ways that keep the friendship alive. These are dates, regularized stress-reducing-conversations, weekly checkins, daily rituals around partings and reunions, purposeful celebrations, thoughtful considerations, etc. Nurturing Fondness and Admiration is the mental and verbal rehearsing of what we like, love, respect, admire, and are grateful for, concerning our spouse.  It is feeding a positive sentiment toward our husband or wife; it is spinning in a positive direction what could be spun negatively, but for our refusal to do so. It’s being thankful for who we have rather than making comparisons to the facade we see in others’ spouses. 

The friendship that is formed in dating is unlike the friendship that is re-formed in empty nest and retirement years. And that reformation is different still from the friendship that was honed in the fires of educational pursuits and career development, challenged and defended amid the chaos of raising children, or creatively protected in the lean years of our offspring’s education and career pursuits. At each stage, connection was (ideally) given the priority it deserved, afforded the creativity and resources due something of high priority, and enjoyed by both partners like a refreshing drink enjoyed by a parched traveler. The ways and means of connection was different at each stage, but hopefully valued, prioritized and defended the same. 

The empty nest and retirement years are not parched ground devoid of nutrients now that child-rearing and career-building have been accomplished; quite the opposite. They are another opportunity to redecorate the living space that is our marriage, like we’ve done before. It’s time to pick out new curtains (okay… window coverings), decide where we’ll sit and on what in our new environment, re-purpose the kids’ rooms in a way that makes sense for our life and lifestyle, and replace academic, league, and career-oriented calendar items with mutual and separate passions for which there had not been time, before. 

In short, the empty nest and retirement years are an opportunity to—indeed, a requirement to—redefine our shared meaning. What rituals, roles, goals, symbols, practices, routines, celebrations, and pursuits will define our lives together and individually as supported by one another?  This can even include anticipation of and preparation for medical decline and mutual care-giving. No need for ill health to come upon us as a surprise or morose experience. How can it be part of our “us” just as were the plans made during more active years?  

Before that time comes, are these the years we can finally go dancing, hold hands while walking in beautiful settings, go out to those restaurants that the kids never liked, play cards again if we can find anyone who knows how, invest in the lives of others, serve in altruistic ways once precluded by work and parenting?  

My wife and I have re-written our shared meaning to now include Saturday morning breakfast out. The waitress knows our name and our usual shared order.  Travel is always west… to the homes of one of our three children, where Nana and Poppy take on the cherished role of weekend playmates and caregivers, including giving our kids a night out with their spouses.  It’s one of the things we enjoy most. Also high on the list is leading marriage seminars every few months, whether in our own city or elsewhere, and leading or co-leading a topical or Bible study with a group of friends. We’re invested in the  ministries of our church and strive to correct on our block the cultural tragedy of neighbors not knowing neighbors. These are years in which I can finally write with more regularity and my wife supports me alongside as she pursues her own interest in shared space made warm, comfortable, nurturing, and life-giving to our marriage.  It’s a stage of oneness-building like every stage of marriage affords, but now with new ways to understand, prioritize, value and depend on each other. This time, with less hair. 

Finally, as with any stage of marriage, the measure of the above meaning re-creation and its practice is how we’re making each other feel in the process. The Gottman Institute’s identification of extremely high ratios of positive to negative interactions between Master Couples tells us that satisfying marriages are built in the intangible process more than on the tangible product. Whether it’s sipping coffee together over laptops, navigating cross-country or across-town travel, or managing a messy lunchtime with grandchildren, the invitation is always the same… to be for the other the safest place on earth; the greatest teammate; the most encouraging and affirming friend who is there for our spouse, as he or she is for us. That is both the product and process of shared meaning—at any stage—and the measure of any marriage.