Navigating the Night (3 things to do when you have no idea what to do)

I used to want precise answers to all the questions, and I used to think I could actually obtain precise answers to all the questions. But I’m learning that the straight and narrow sometimes isn’t, and that God might in fact be OK with that.

Sometimes, in our efforts to make so many things absolute and perfectly perfunctory, we skid sideways off the bigger, realer, absolutes.

What does God want me to do ten years from now? I have no idea. I have a slight idea of what God wants me to do a year from now, but even that’s pretty hypothetical.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Sure, we act like we know this road, but I think we’re all just trying to figure out what to do with the rest of our lives.

I tested this theory with a group of about four hundred expats. I had everyone over thirty stand up and I said, “Think back to when you were eighteen years old, finishing up high school, maybe preparing for some travel or a gap year. Now, let me ask you a question, ‘Are you where you thought you’d be, doing the thing you thought you’d be doing? If so, please sit down.’”

Two people sat down.

The rest of us had no idea we’d be here doing the things we’re doing.

But walking in the dark can be scary, especially when everyone looks like they know exactly where they’re going and what they’re doing. We’re walking in the dark pretending we see. And so is everyone else.

If you find yourself in the dark today, not sure of what to do or where to go, I’d like to give you three pinpoints of light. Three true stars by which to navigate the night.

On whatever continent you find yourself, across whichever sea, whatever generation you claim, and whatever country claims you, may these three reminders illuminate your today.

 

1. Adore God
Maybe you started off adoring God, but it wore off. Maybe you started off really valuing Him and loving him with everything. But maybe that was a long time ago. Maybe you started trading.

In the historical Psalm 106:20, the Psalmist writes of God’s people: “They traded their glorious God for a statue of a grass-eating bull.” It’s one of the saddest verses in the whole of Scripture. They traded God for a statue. Of a bull.

And sometimes, we do too.

We must stop the trade. We must begin to see the bull for what it is.

But rather than pointing out the bull’s obvious cheapness, let’s point out our God’s obvious and immense value.

He is amazing. Pause and ponder this…

The smartest surgeons use their hands to fix bodies.
God uses his hands to make bodies.

The most brilliant psychologists understand the brain.
God wires the organ, connecting neurons and synapses,
washing it all in neurotransmitters.

Skilled poets use words to create feelings.
God uses words to create constellations.

Master artists paint with a thousand colors,
but have you ever seen the sun on fire,
sinking into the ocean?

This is our God. Adore him. Never ever exchange him for a cow.

 

2. Love People
We follow a guy who loved people really well. When he was popular and when he was persecuted, he saw what people needed, and he cared. He still cares.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to violate all sorts of cultural norms and rules to love people. He did not always act like a normal, proper, culturally appropriate, religious Jew. Often, he offended the religious people to love the hurting people.

Some of you have traveled half-way around the world to love people, but you’re finding it really hard to love the people you live with. You want to change the world? Start by loving the folks closest to you.

Loving the people of your host country more than the people you live with is hypocrisy. Loving the people you’re serving more than the people you left is hypocrisy.

Traveling abroad to “love on” cute little nationals while you can’t stand your family or the messy toddlers (or teenagers) in church is hypocrisy.

Yes, love all the people in the world. Start with the person in front of you.

Here is a truth about love: to love someone with your heart, you have to be OK spending some time down in there, and frankly, many people aren’t. The heart is where we store our pain, and if there’s a lot of pain buried in there, it’s going to be scary. It’s going to hurt. But, if you really want to love people, you’re going to need to get down into your heart and see what’s there.

If you find pain there, take that pain to Jesus and let him heal you in the deep places. Because the more whole and healed your heart is, the more you’ll be able to open it to people and really love them.

[If you’re looking for a safe place to start this journey, check out Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and/or Finding Spiritual White Space.]

 

3. Walk Boldly
Here’s what’s so cool about following Jesus and being adopted by God: If you are a child of the King, YOU ARE A CHILD OF THE KING! You are loved and adored by the highest. So walk boldly.

hubble deep field

If you put a tennis ball 100 meters away from you (about one football field, for our American readers), the ball would be covering up about 3,000 galaxies. And since scientists believe the universe is pretty uniform, if you put that tennis ball 100 meters away from you in any direction (including underneath you), behind it would be another 3,000 galaxies. For reference, nearly all the stars you see in the night sky are in one galaxy, the Milky Way.

And assuming all those galaxies have roughly the same number of stars as the Milky Way, then behind that tennis ball, 100 meters away from you, there are 600,000,000,000,000 stars. (That’s six hundred trillion.)

One tennis ball covers up that much stuff, and the One who spoke it into existence knows you. And loves you. So walk boldly.

But boldness without humbleness is just jerkiness.

Boldness by itself can be really annoying. In Cambodia, some folks drive boldly in their big cars. They’re not afraid — they have power, and they know it. In America, we say “Lights on for safety.” In Cambodia, they say “Lights on ‘cause we’re more important and you need to get out of my way NOW!”

Boldness must sleep with Humbleness to give birth to Christlikeness. And if you can figure out how to walk boldly and humbly, you will change the world.

Be bold because you know who God is.
Be humble because God knows who you are.

Walk boldly because you know Jesus.
Walk humbly because Jesus knows you.

 

Conclusion
I don’t like the dark. I never have. I like to know exactly where I’m going, when I’m going to get there, and how many McDonald’s there are along the way. But life doesn’t seem to work like that. So, when I find myself unsure and blind, I remember these three flashes of truth.

I might not know where I’ll be a year or ten from now, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got enough light for now. I can navigate the night when I remember these three burning callings: Adore God, Love People, and Walk Boldly.

It may not be much to offer you today, but when you’re walking in the dark, a little light goes a long ways.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Originally published at A Life Overseas on November 10, 2015.

When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t

My parents had their life all mapped out, and then their baby was born with chromosomal abnormalities and died at home, surrounded by tubes and oxygen tanks, only a month old.

As a teenager, I had my life pretty well planned out (get my pilot’s license, be Nate Saint). But then my mom got cancer and died. And the path of God darkened.

The “plan of God for my life,” the path I was following with full confidence and youthful arrogance, disappeared. Because sometimes the straight and narrow isn’t.

God doesn’t always lead in straight lines.

He is the God of fractals, making beauty and order out of lines that look like a drunk man was drawing during an earthquake. Left-handed.

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God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform.

He plants his footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

The paths of God meander. But somewhere along the way we got this idea that we should be able to sit down, especially in January, and map out THE SPECIFIC WILL OF GOD FOR OUR LIFE AND MINISTRY FROM NOW UNTIL FOREVERMORE. I’m sorry, but my life’s just not working out like that. But if yours is, then hey, more power to you.

Don’t mind me, I’ll just be hanging out back here with all the folks who are a wee bit confused by God sometimes.

Deep in unfathomable mines

 Of never-failing skill,

 He treasures up his bright designs

 And works his sovereign will.

I’m a fan of vision and purpose and alignment. I’ve read tons of books on leadership and vision. Really. My personal “Vision & Mission” statement is taped to the tile on my office wall, and I read it several times a week. However, I’m beginning to wonder if these ideas are more suited for a corporation than my life.

Perhaps God has a higher purpose than us coming up with a goal and then perfectly implementing it. It really seems to me that few people, even the heroes of the faith, saw the whole plan of God for their lives, and then developed perfect action steps that they then enacted flawlessly. Mission accomplished.

Perhaps the Kingdom of God advances less militaristically and more organically. Less checkbox-like, and more with an ongoing awareness that God’s plans seldom travel in a straight line (at least from our perspective).

What about Moses? He had the great call and purpose of freeing the people of Israel. However, a good chunk of his life looked very much NOT aligned to that goal. How would we look at a person in Moses’ position, whittling away time in a faraway land while the people of Israel languished in slavery? Was that out of alignment? Do we just blame it on the fact that Moses didn’t follow God’s plan, so he got banished for DECADES? I sure am glad I obey God perfectly. All the time.

Or David, anointed by God, but residing in pastures. Where was the alignment? Where were the action steps? He didn’t even kill Saul when he had the chance! That’s like minus one action step to ruling the Kingdom.

And then there’s Jesus, who knew at age 12 specifically what the Father had called him to do. However, up until the age of 30, his day-to-day jobs and activities did not LOOK aligned to the call or mission of God. What a failure.

His purposes will ripen fast,

 Unfolding every hour.

The bud may have a bitter taste,

 But sweet will be the flower.

Who’s Flying This Plane?
David says in Psalm 23:3, “He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.” I’m no farm kid, but I’m pretty sure the farmer gets to decide the “right paths.” Which is a bummer if you’ve already got the straight and narrow completely sorted.

For each transition in our life, Elizabeth and I have tried to listen to God, we’ve tried to discern his path, and we’ve been mostly sure (about 83%) we were heading in the right direction. However, in each case, we did NOT have any idea what the step AFTER that step would be. But we pretty much knew what we needed to do to obey today.

Fullscreen capture 12302014 34709 PM

Have you ever noticed that pilots are dumb? I mean, really, who gets from Chicago to Korea by flying north?! It’s like they’ve never looked at a map. Oh, that’s right, they didn’t look at a map, they added a dimension and looked at the GLOBE. The flight paths of giant airliners look really dumb if you’re stuck in two dimensions. But add that third dimension and everyone starts shouting, “O Captain, My Captain!”

I imagine God’s kind of like that too. Sometimes, I want to get to Asia and God says, “Um, you know, that’s great, let’s fly over Santa Claus.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s stupid, I need to go STRAIGHT west and then a bit south.” And God says, “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Would you like kimchi or chicken fingers?”

God deals in dimensions we know nothing about. And I believe he will sometimes lead us along paths that look wrong, that look out of alignment, that — get this — require faith.

If God leads you “off target” or out of alignment, will you follow Him?

There are more parameters, more dimensions, more curvatures of the planet, than we will ever know. If God’s plans really are more wonderful than we could imagine, why do we strive so hard to imagine and define them? Can we rest in a loving Father? Can we continue to move forward in obedience, even if we don’t know where that obedience will lead?

 

Bonhoeffer (Because, Why Not?)
The dude had guts. And I think an uncanny ability to see from a height that helped him understand things. So, after his life deviated from his own plans in a BIG WAY (think Nazis and prisons) he was able to write:

“I’m firmly convinced – however strange it may seem—that my life has followed a straight and unbroken course, at any rate in its outward conduct. It has been an uninterrupted enrichment of experience, for which I can only be thankful. If I were to end my life here in these conditions, that would have a meaning that I think I could understand; on the other hand, everything might be a thorough preparation for a new start and a new task when peace comes.”

In other words, he knew his life looked out of whack. It looked grossly misaligned and greatly off kilter. But, he pulled out that pesky thing called faith, got comfortable with some intellectual dissonance and the tension of unknowing, and believed that God had it under control. No matter what.

How could he say these things? Because He knew his God.

Blind unbelief is sure to err

And scan his work in vain.

God is his own interpreter,

And he will make it plain.

The longer I serve abroad, the less I desire to do great things for God and the more I desire to just be with Him. I feel less ambition and more Peace. Less like I’m racing the buzzer, and more like I’m being pursued by a Lover.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll work less, caught up in some heavenly romance. It means that I’ll work closer. Closer to the One my soul desires. Closer to the One the world needs. Closer to the heart of God.

And frankly, I don’t care how straight or how twisted the path is, if it leads farther up and farther in, I’m so there.

 


photo credits: flightaware and unsplash
Originally published at A Life Overseas on January 1, 2015

A Lament for the American Church (or how I’m processing my codependent relationship with the church)

I love the church, and I have loved the church for a long time.

I’ve led worship 600+ times in local congregations. I’ve preached dozens of times across several countries. I served as an overseas missionary in Southeast Asia for 8 years. I’ve been in “church work” in one capacity or another for over 20 years.

In fact, I still serve with a church planting mission organization, providing pastoral care and coaching to missionaries around the world. My day job is walking alongside of hurting people who also love (and are serving) the global church.

I still love the church, but I’ve got a problem.

Watching the American evangelical church for the last several years has been devastatingly hard. Initially, I watched as a sort of outsider, living and ministering in a developing country that had a proud and boisterous autocrat as a leader. And now since COVID led to an early repatriation in March of 2020, I’ve watched from a more comfortable spot in the rural Midwest.

Has it been devastating for you too? Have you grieved at how some elements of the American church have responded to racial issues, to politics, to the Capitol siege, to the ongoing global pandemic that’s killed over 660,000 people in our country alone? Have you lost friends and maybe even family?

During all of this, I’ve desperately wanted to change the church. I’ve shared articles and written Facebook posts trying to convince people to behave differently, to care differently, to love differently.

I’ve needed the church to behave differently so that I would be ok, so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed, or ashamed, or angry. As it turns out, that’s not very loving or healthy.

I’m beginning to realize that there’s a difference between loving the church and being enmeshed with it. There’s a difference between being grieved at her sins and being so emotionally devastated by her sins that I want to scream at people. One is healthy and vital, while the other is evidence of codependency.

 

Definitions & Caveats

Codependency is “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction.”[1]

In unhealthy systems like this, talking about things openly and honestly can get complicated; silence is of paramount importance, and silence helps to maintain the status quo. One writer described it this way:

“One fairly common denominator seemed to be the unwritten, silent rules that usually develop in the immediate family and set the pace for relationships. These rules prohibit discussion about problems.”[2]

I have felt this. I have felt the urge to sit down, to shut up, to stay silent. But I can’t anymore.

The real-world impact of codependency is complex, but at least in part, a codependent person will seek to control the ill person (or addict) so that the codependent will remain psychologically intact.

This was me. And it’s made me bone-weary.

My identity was so wrapped up in the church that a threat to the church (even if it was from inside the church) felt like a direct threat to my core self. I don’t want to live that way anymore.

Is the American church a functioning alcoholic, drunk on power and patriarchy? Yes, some of it is. But “the church” is a pretty large entity to lump together in an accusation like that. So please hear me when I say this: there are parts of the American evangelical church that really are sick. Those parts need to be honestly assessed and truthfully addressed. But that doesn’t mean it all needs to be burned to the ground.

Eugene Peterson spoke plainly about the tensions of living in (and serving) a community of believers. It was not all rosy. But even while admitting the challenges, he wrote, “I have little time for the anti-church crowd who seem snobbish and who have little sense of the lived way of soul and Christ.”[3]

C.S. Lewis would have agreed, I think. A generation before Peterson, Lewis wrote this in a letter to a friend: “The New Testament does not envisage solitary religion. Some (like you – and me) find it more natural to approach God in solitude; but we must go to Church as well.”[4]

I can’t “do faith” on my own. I’ve gained so much from my involvement in local churches. It has been good for me, spiritually, emotionally, and even psychologically. My family has found a local body of believers in our new town in the Midwest, and we are jumping in to community and fellowship.

I am not anti-church, but I am anti-pretend, and I can’t act like things are OK in the American church.

I resonate deeply with Beattie when she writes, “[C]odependency is called a disease because it is progressive. As the people around us become sicker, we may begin to react more intensely.”[5]

Is that what’s happening to me? To us? Have we been in a codependent relationship with the church? Is this why now, as her behavior appears to become sicker and sicker, so many of us are reacting more and more intensely, getting either angrier or else just running away? I think so.

 

Churches Love Codependents

Codependents make great church members. They’re sacrificial. They’ll do anything. They’ll go anywhere. And they’ll defend the leaders and the system if they have to. They care a LOT about the church.

Many church-growth strategies look like a playbook for making people codependent. Encourage strong identification with a specific church/leader/group. Call it branding. Teach a lot about the uniqueness of this church and church culture. Create a very strong “us vs. them” motif. Emphasize teachings on authority and respecting spiritual leadership/headship. And if our “family” is ever in crisis, circle the wagons. And God forbid, but if anyone from without or within criticizes the church, take it personally, react vehemently, and DEFEND.

As it does in the world of codependency and addiction, these strategies quickly lead to a persecution complex, and American evangelicals thrive on a persecution complex.

 

Local Church, Hope of the World?

The now-disgraced pastor and author Bill Hybels used to say regularly, “The local church is the hope of the world.” I used to quote that statement regularly. But you know what? I’ve learned it’s not true. In fact, that message causes a slow but steady trend towards deep dysfunction: Hide flaws. Silence survivors. Conceal abusers (or transfer them somewhere else). Don’t let those on the outside see reality.

Codependents always protect the addict.

But protecting the reputation of the church is a fool’s errand, and it typically ends up meaning, “We need to protect the reputation of our leaders.” If the leader is leading the church that is the hope of the world, or at least the city, then we must protect him, along with the system he leads.

And if a narcissistic politician promises to protect our churches and our “Christian rights,” then we must protect him, too, and hold him above reproach. This is so wrong and harmful for our nation, but we learned it in our churches first.

To put it more bluntly, if the local church is the hope of the world, then the leader of the local church is the hope of the world too. Chuck DeGroat, clinician and pastor, writes about narcissistic church leaders. These leaders are more than happy to be seen as the hope of the world. He writes, “The grandiosity, entitlement, and absence of empathy characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder was translated into the profile of a good leader.” In these systems, “Loyalty to the narcissistic leader and the system’s perpetuation is demanded.”[6]

This is not healthy.

 

Next Steps

The last few years have revealed some of the addictions and illnesses of the evangelical church: patriarchy, white nationalism, a fervent and enduring embrace of narcissistic, abusive leaders, and a disregard for the truth.

During all of that, we were also taught to love the church. And we did.

I did.

What many of us learned, though, was that we needed to love the church as the prime thing. Nobody said it, but I think we gained more identity from our churches than we did from our Christ.

We desperately need to work on de-centering the church (and politics) and re-centering the Christ, the hope of the world. Karen Swallow Prior recently wrote about this in her article titled, “With this much rot, there’s no choice but to deconstruct.” She says,

“We must make Jesus the head of his bride again. We can no longer put the church — its name, its reputation, its money, its salaries, its staff, its programs, its numbers — before Christ himself.”[7]

Enmeshing ourselves with charismatic Christian (or political) leaders is tempting. It helps us feel like we belong and like we’re on the inside. But if our core identities hinge on our churches or our political parties, we have erred terribly.

 

The Church Called TOV

This article is not a book review. However, I believe a truthful review of Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer’s book, A Church Called TOV, would be this simple: A Church Called TOV is a textbook for walking out of religious codependency.

It’s that good.

The authors compare unhealthy, dysfunctional dynamics, with gentle, Christ-honoring pathways forward. Here are the main ideas:

Conclusion

I don’t want to love the church in a codependent way anymore. I will still love her, but I don’t want to be enmeshed with her, where her good (or bad) behavior alters my own sense of self.

I want to nurture empathy and grace. I want to put people first and tell the truth. I want to pursue justice and honor humble service. I want to grow into Christlikeness.

I will continue to be a part of my local church, but I don’t want my core identity to come from her. It can’t. I can’t be enmeshed any longer with the American evangelical complex.

The local church (even a great one) is not the hope of the world.

Jesus Christ is the hope of the world.

Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

A Lament for the Church: a prayer of letting go

The path to healing from codependency often involves an emotional detaching. That does not mean you care less for the person from whom you’re detaching. It just means you are detaching from “the agony of involvement.”[8]

This lament, patterned after the material in Mark Vroegops’ book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, is my attempt not to care less, but to care healthier.

God of the Church, the one who sees the end from the beginning, hear my cry to you today. You established the heavens above and the Church below, and one day you will invite your Bride, your people, to feast with you in the New City, the golden city of God.

But here and now, O God, your Bride seems sullied. More to the point, your Bride seems to be chasing after the wind, pining away for other lovers who promise power and a seat at the table. Your people are damaging people. They have turned on the least of these, preferring instead to join in with mockers, to stand with sinners.

You will not be mocked, and you will not endure their sins forever. So do something! Stop this madness! Bring light back to our eyes. Make compassion great again! Do not stop your ear to the cry of your people. No! Listen to their fawning over false prophets, see their bowing before every lying hashtag and would-be tyrant. Open their eyes and break their hearts!

You alone know, O God, the depths of the deceit, and the depths of your love. I yield the floor, trusting that this is your case to make, and believing that you will. Your ways are too complex and masterful for me to comprehend, so I yield.

I trust you to figure this out and respond appropriately.

And I rest in your promises to forgive me too.

Amen.


[1] Oxford English Dictionary

[2] Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie

[3] As quoted in the book, A Burning in My Bones, by Winn Collier

[4] The Quotable Lewis, by Martindale and Root

[5] Codependent No More

[6] When Narcissism Comes to Church, by Chuck DeGroat

[7] https://religionnews.com/2021/08/04/with-this-much-rot-theres-no-choice-but-to-deconstruct/

[8] Codependent No More

Originally published at trotters41.com

Winter ripe for birth

What a winter we’ve had.
The pandemic, the politics, the panic.
Jobs lost, and family members too. Too many hopes (and people) dead.
And somehow, spring reminds us that winter is ripe for birth.
Winter is always ripe for birth.
As Lewis writes, the seed, myself, that which is deep-buried, may not die, if He is.
And He is.
And though I forget the sun, He remembers.
And though I forget the spring, He remembers.
There is beauty still.
There is hope still.
For He is, still.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The Naked Seed
by CS Lewis
My heart is empty. All the fountains that should run
With longing, are in me
Dried up. In all my countryside there is not one
That drips to find the sea.
I have no care for anything thy love can grant
Except the moment’s vain
And hardly noticed filling of the moment’s want
And to be free of pain.
Oh, thou that art unwearying, that dost neither sleep
Nor slumber, who didst take
All care for Lazarus in the careless tomb, oh keep
Watch for me while I wake.
If thou think for me what I cannot think, if thou
Desire for me what I
Cannot desire, my soul’s interior Form, though now
Deep-buried, will not die,
—No more than the insensible dropp’d seed which grows
Through winter ripe for birth
Because, while it forgets, the heaven remembering throws
Sweet influence still on earth,
—Because the heaven, moved moth-like by thy beauty, goes
Still turning round the earth.

The Day We Didn’t Go Home

We were supposed to go home on August 6th. We had tickets and plans, we had dreams and ideas. But when we left Cambodia back in March, we did not have an awareness of how COVID-19 would turn the world upside down.

So we’re not flying home on August 6th. As a result of passport issues, visa issues, entry requirements, finances, and a whole host of reasons (everyone has them), we’re staying.

For our family, August 6th is now Stay Day.

Does your story include a Stay Day? Perhaps for you it wasn’t a Stay Day as much as a Leave Day. Do you have a day that marks when life quaked and plans tumbled? Do you memorialize a Stay Day or a Leave Day? Should you?

We hope to remember our eight years in Cambodia on this August 6th, and every August 6th afterwards. It will be a sort of anniversary; a blend of stories and laughter and tears.

Like so many memorials, it will be a funky mix of mirth and merry.

On Stay Day, we’ll remember the day we didn’t go home.

Sure, America is home too. Or at least it was. And it will be again. I’m speaking for myself here, of course, because my children will have their own stories, and they’ll need to tell them. Their relationship with America (and Cambodia) always was and always will be unique. Different than mine.

But some things we shared.

Like the eight years around a thick, Khmer-style round table. Well, more like seven. The first year we had a cheaper wooden rectangular table that got eaten up by termites so big you could hear them feasting: lightning-bug-size table chompers.

We’re shipping the Khmer-style table to America, so every Stay Day we’ll gather around it and remember.

We’ll remember the scent of frangipanis, and we’ll probably try to buy some. We’ll feel the feel of traditional kramas, the checkered scarves Cambodians (and my daughters) use for everything.

We’ll probably order Indian food and remember Mount Everest, the local restaurant in Phnom Penh that taught us to absolutely adore Nepalese and Indian food.

We’ll look at old photos of a younger family riding tuk tuks, playing on the street, trying to figure out cross-cultural living.

We might search YouTube for Khmer dance music, and we will probably laugh about the incessant, LOUD, and DRUNK karaoke that permeated our house during wedding season.

We’ll watch old videos of moto rides through our neighborhood, and we’ll remember the kind old man who laughed at the four white foreigners driving a moto through flooded streets and belly laughing. I wonder if he knew how much it reminded me of riding a jet ski.

Maybe we’ll check Google street view and meander past friends’ houses.

On Stay Day, we will remember. And we will pray.

We’ll pray for Cambodia, for our friends there, and for the Church that’s blossoming into its identity.

And Lord willing, we’ll do this every August 6th: the day we didn’t pack up, weigh all suitcases to 49.9 pounds, quadruple check passports, and jet across the Pacific.

August 7th won’t find us staggering out into the scents and smells of Phnom Penh. We won’t un-mothball our house and turn it back into a home. We won’t schedule reunions with local friends. We won’t visit favorite haunts and coffee shops.

Instead, we’ll mourn what was, and we’ll be grateful for it too.

Mourning is a wetter way of expressing gratitude, after all. 

And we’ll move on, whatever that means.

God remains the God of the past. He will always be the God of the past, and he will always care enough to ask the same question he asked Hagar, “Where have you come from?”

He is the God of Stay Day, August 6th, but he is also the God of August 7th and 8th. And if he’s true, if he’s real, he’s got us, and he holds us in his strong right hand.

And he will hold us on every Stay Day, and every day after that too.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

Do you have a day like this? A Stay Day, or something like it?

Do you need one?

Here are some more thoughts about creating shared meaning and the importance of family rituals. As folks who regularly celebrate “shared meaning” through Sacraments, I hope these ideas will resonate and inspire.

May our families be places where we remember our stories, together.

 

An Empty Ocean and the 10 Things We Must Remember About Grief

Walking alone at a park, a friend of mine saw a woman busily walking towards her, dictating something into her phone. The woman looked earnest and concentrated.

She came closer and closer, and as her words became more distinct, my socially-distancing friend heard these slow, simple words:

“Sadness is an ocean with nothing in it. Period.”

Oh how I want to know that woman’s story. I recently googled those words and came up empty; apparently, she hasn’t published them yet. In any case, I’m guessing you resonate with her sentiment.

These are hard times. Whether you’re still abroad, whether you’ve had to leave the field and stay gone, whether you’re hoping to return, or returned already, or whether the future is murky, my guess is that at some point over the past several months, you could have written, “Sadness is an ocean with nothing in it. Period.”

Or perhaps you would agree with Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry’s famous barber of Port William, who said one bone-soaked evening, “It had been raining, and it was still raining. It was going to rain.”

It feels like that to me sometimes. “It had been raining, and it was still raining. It was going to rain.”

And so we come to this: Ten things to remember about grief.

I hope that you find something helpful here, whether a thought or a link or two seconds away from the folks you’re quarantined with.

Whatever you’re grieving, it matters: whether it’s a job, a family member, or the future you had planned. In each case, loss singes, and grieving matters.

So, shall we?

1. Grief is a process
It is messy, unpredictable, and gnarly, but whatever else it is, grief is a process. That means it is not its own ending; it’s going somewhere, leading to something. Author and theologian Dan Allender doesn’t mince words when he writes:

“Grief is similar to vomiting. At its deepest convulsion it exhausts, nauseates, and relieves. It empties us, weakens us, and prepares us for food that in due season will strengthen us. But in its immediate aftermath, we need rest.”

This meme pictures the “process” well.

 

2. Grief might not feel like grief
It might feel like discomfort, or generalized sluggishness, or even anxiety. Grief expert David Kessler describes our current situation:

[W]e’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

Read the full interview from the Harvard Business Review here: That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.

 

3. You don’t have to be sad all day to effectively grieve
Therapist Kay Bruner recommends the evidence-based time limit of twenty minutes. She writes:

“This is a research-based number:  journal 20 minutes per day when you’re working on a specific issue.  I recently had an adult TCK client tell me how much the 20-minute exercise has helped.  She’s not stuffing down her emotions any more, and the 20-minute limit helps her contain the feelings so they aren’t as overwhelming.”

Read her full article here: How do we process loss and grief?

 

4. The Dual Process Model allows for oscillations
It is pretty normal to bounce back and forth between “I’m OK” and “I’m not OK and I’ll never be OK and why would you even think I’m OK?!”

Researchers Stroebe and Schut described this as “The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement.”

It is totally normal to oscillate between the two, and actually, getting stuck on either side might be an indicator to get some outside help from a pastor or counselor.

 

5. People grieve differently, even if they’re in the same family
Some people grieve in giant waves. Some don’t. Some people show ALL.THEIR.GRIEF. Some don’t. Some people are vocal and some aren’t.

Some extroverts want the crowds to know all about it. Some introverts don’t.

The danger here is that you expect others to grieve the right way (read: your way), and instead of allowing them their own grief process, you try to stuff them into your box and they end up resentful or detached, finding solace far away from you.

 

6. Even if the loss looks the same, it isn’t
It’s just not. The loss I experienced when my dad died was terrible. It was also very different from the loss experienced by my younger siblings.

The hubris that says “my experience of loss is the gold standard by which all others shall be measured” is disgusting and antithetical to the heart of Christ.

 

7. Things will never be the same again
This is an indelible part of our story now.

And the grief of this season will bleed through the pages of our lives, marking the pages and stories that follow. Failing to acknowledge the COVID-19 chapters is to censor. To edit out. To delete plot twists and main characters. To murder history.

So we leave the pages as they are, splotched and imperfect. Because on every single ink-stained page, He remains. Comforter. Rock. Shepherd. God.

He remains the God who grieved.
He remains the God who understands.
He remains the God who comforts.
He remains. And He is enough.

So we keep feeling. We keep sketching out these life-pages, confident that He knows our stories. He loves our stories. He redeems our stories.

And we keep trusting that in the end, our stories are actually a part of His story.

And He’s really good with words.

 

8. Hope and despair can coexist in this space
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on prophetic hope, even in the midst of legitimate despair. He writes,

“Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. Thus…it is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously.”

Despair seems to be the crusty soil from which hope itself is born.

We need this reminder.

We need to remember that true hope is not just optimism. True hope is not a flimsy, fluffy thing. No, true hope, Biblical hope, sees it all. It sees the bad, the hard, the pain. It sees the depths and the darkness. It sees the world’s sin and my own sin.

And it keeps on seeing…all the way to Christ. In the end, deep hope must be securely grounded in the character and love of God.

For more thoughts on this theme, including links to a 21-minute podcast/sermon, click here. Or listen to the audio of the message here.

 

Magnanimous Despair alone

Could show me so divine a thing…

~Wendell Berry

 

9. While loss is personal, it’s not novel
Many faithful believers have walked hard roads before us, and many will after us. On its face, that’s not good news. But it is.

I wrote more about this idea in my article, What C.S. Lewis, Paul, and the Sword of Damocles can Teach us About Living in Terrible Times. In it, I quote my best friend, Elizabeth Trotter, who echoes C.S. Lewis’ call to do sensible, human things:

So what can we do when we’re confronted with all the darkness within, and all the darkness without? I mean, we know the end is good. We know the Bridegroom is coming back for us. But our eternal hope doesn’t always translate easily into our everyday moments and hours.

I think we need to chase the light. To DO something to help scatter the darkness. These days this is how you’ll find me chasing the light. . .

Singing a worship song.
Kissing my husband.
Chopping vegetables and preparing a meal for my family.
Reading a book to my kids.
Laughing at my husband’s jokes.
Going for a walk.
Drinking coffee with a friend.

These are the things that are saving my life right now. The small, menial acts that remind me that I’m still alive, that I’m not dead yet, and that the world hasn’t actually blown itself up yet.

No matter how sad I feel about everything on my first list, I can’t change any of them. But I can live my tiny little life with light and joy. With passion and hope. I can chase the light.

I chase the light, and I remember that this life is actually worth living, even with all the sadness in it. I chase the light, and I remember the Giver of these little joys, and I give thanks in return.

I refuse to let the griefs and evils of this world pull me all the way down into the pit. I will revolt against this despair. I will chase the light. I will grasp hold of the ephemeral joys of my itty bitty domestic life. And I will remember — always — the Source of this light.

 

10. Grief can be a gift
Grief is a gift that the Church needs to learn to deal with. Grief has the potential to refocus us on the Eternal, if we’ll let it. Grief and loss guard us against the temptation to degrade Heaven into a distant and entirely non-applicable theory, instead of the life-altering reality that it is.

“When hints of sadness creep into our soul, we must not flee into happy or distracting thoughts. Pondering sadness until it becomes overwhelming can lead us to a deep change in the direction of our being from self-preservation to grateful worship.” ~Larry Crabb

Grief can be an oxygenating reminder of Eternity. Grief is often the mechanism for drawing our hearts and souls back to God and the eternal intimacy he’s promised.

Read more on the gift of grief here and here.

 

Through it all, Jesus remains
Man of sorrows, giver of the Comforter. Holy.

He is still preparing a place for us, and if he’s still preparing a place for us, then we know he’s still planning to usher us in, one day, to paradise.

The future remains brighter than the past, more glorious, and more real.

Indeed, we live in the “now and not yet Kingdom.” And in this time, and in this space, it is right to mourn, it is normal to feel the pain, it is holy to burn for justice.

It is also good that we remember: he is coming back.

Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.

New Podcast Episodes: Marriage, Conflict, and Sex

Elizabeth and I recently carved out some time to go sit in a van in a park and talk about marriage. As a result, we’d like to share with you three new episodes of our Trotters41 Podcast!

This series on marriage is not specific to cross-cultural folks, although some of it is.

It’s also not specific to COVID-19, although some of it is.

We wrapped up the first part with A Marriage Blessing, and that is still our deepest prayer for marriages everywhere, whether you’re abroad or not, whether you’re quarantined or not. We had a lot of fun recording these for you all and we hope they’re an encouragement!

You can listen to the episodes at the links below, or find our podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. The links below will also lead you to each episode’s show notes, with tons of outgoing links to recommended books, articles, and resources.

In the first installment, we talked about marriage in general, discussing a theology of marriage and what the “5 magic hours” means. Listen to Episode 4 here.

In the second installment, we talked about how we conceptualize conflict, as well as some evidence-based tools for approaching conflict, including what to do if one or both people get “flooded.” Listen to Episode 5 here.

Lastly, we talked about sex, and well, you’ll just have to take a listen to that one here.

The End of All Things

Darkness and grief, shadow and death
The Hope that had been
Sags low without breath

Weak and alone, absorbing the pain
The one who was Love
Endures for my gain

“Forgive them,” he prays,
“Jews, Romans, all!”
Redeeming us from our sins and the fall

“It’s finished!” he yells
For his sons and his daughters
His life and his mission now lead to his slaughter

Giving it all, keeping naught in reserve
The Lamb takes my place
Taking all I deserve

The darkened sun hiding, the women are weeping
The earth loudly cracking, the curtain now ripping
Blood and water are dripping

The death of the Lamb is obscene, but predicted
The fog of great evil begins to be lifted
But first, the end of all things

The son of God dies.

“He left us!” they cry, confused and alone
“Our friend and our brother, terminated by Rome!”
“Our hopes have been broken, our dreams have been pierced.”
Disciples sit trembling, ashamed of their fears

Three quiet days come and go without Word
The King is nowhere and faith seems absurd
But behind the scenes now, the deep magic stirs
The plan before time finds its time and occurs

The broken world groans, the stone starts to move
Rome’s power now fractures, the Light’s breaking through
The splinters that pierced, pierced more than just flesh
They tore holes in despair, pushed back the darkness

Ascended!
Enthroned!
The King wore his crown
Taking authority, striking Death down

Conquering sin, the grave, and all hist’ry
He gave up his life so all souls could see
The dawn of new life and eternity

The Kingdom has come!
The Lamb has been slain
Our sins have been wiped
Along with the stains

The Kingdom has come!
Christ is risen indeed!
Right here and right now, the
Beginning of all things

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You can listen to the poem here or below:

 

Furlough is Coming

 

‘Twas the day before furlough and all through the house,
Everybody was crazy, even the mouse.

With kilograms counted and carry-ons packed,
The dad will get asked, “Can I fit this last sack?”

With Ma on her IG and Pa on his Twitter,
They’ll update their close friends through one last newsletter.

Frazzled and frayed, the start of a furlough,
The family boards early with one last cold Milo.

Onboard entertainment will probably help
Pass the time and the sadness, and the little one’s yelp.

The children will sleep, if they’re any the wiser;
Jet lag comes for all, the great equalizer.

Arrival with greetings and baggage galore!
“Now pick up the kid sleeping on the floor.”

A welcome is waiting at somebody’s house,
Along with green grass and a bed without louse.

Selah

Awakened and rested, two weeks have now passed.
It seems like a dream the term that was last.

No VPNs needed! No guards at the gate!
And Grandma and Grandpa let parents go date.

“Another world that.” They’ll say to each other,
Debriefing and telling it all to the Mother.

Then shopping will start, making up for lost time,
Enjoying the produce and actual lines.

“The stores are so huge!” They’ll gasp and they’ll stammer,
With carts made for tonnage like fridges and jammers.
“All the things in one place?” A small child’s amused;
A TCK so he’s often confused.

The church is so clean, inviting and nice!
It’s also, turns out, surprisingly white.

The parks are amazing and so well maintained;
The trash is discarded and canines restrained.

Folks think that they’re on an extended vacation,
Relaxing and soaking up big adulations.

“Please Father forgive them, they just do not see,
The pressures and burdens of this ministry.”

The family will travel in borrowed van and,
They’ll tell all their stories and hope that you can,
Listen and care some, then get on your knees,
And join them in this work, their Life Overseas.

~~~~~~~~

Sex and the Married Missionary

We don’t talk about sex very much. Sure, we might joke about it (the first working title for this article was The Missionary Position), but we don’t actually talk about it very much. Truth is, most folks are scared to death to have an honest, non-joking, realistic talk about sex. Maybe with a good friend, but with their spouse? Gasp. But the truth is, it matters. It’s not the biggest deal, but it’s a real deal.

And it comes up all the time in my role as a pastoral counselor to missionaries.

A healthy, mutually enjoyable sex life is a good thing and is worth pursuing. It won’t make everything rainbows and butterflies, but it is a great mediator for the hard times, making things a little less awful.

That being said, it’s even more important to talk about this in the context of non-satisfying love lives. Turns out, the power of a non-functioning sex life to taint everything is stronger than the power of a healthy sex life to improve everything.

Dr. Barry McCarthy, researcher and writer, says,

“A core concept is the paradoxical role of sexuality in the lives of individuals and couples. Healthy sexuality has a 15-20 percent positive, integral role. Dysfunctional, conflictual or avoidant sexuality has an inordinately powerful negative role. Clinicians underestimate the impact of sexual dysfunction and conflict. Sex needs to be dealt with directly—sexuality is more than a symptom.” [1]

In other words, a healthy, satisfying sex life contributes, at its maximum, to about 20% of a person’s happiness and well-being. But when things aren’t so great, when a couple is “demoralized and alienated,” McCarthy says that “sexuality has a 50-75 percent role of subverting intimacy and threatening marital stability.” [2]

He further clarifies that he’s not talking about a problem that is acute or new, but a problem that’s been festering and has become “chronic and severe.”

It would be great if cross-cultural couples didn’t wait until their sexual issues were chronic and severe. It doesn’t have to be so difficult so often and for so long. But we must be willing to talk about it.

Discussing sex openly and honestly is crucial to having sex openly and honestly.

Writing for The Gottman Institute, Kyle Benson writes:

“Let’s talk about sex, because it turns out the most important part of cultivating a healthy sex life is talking about a healthy sex life. Only 9% of couples who can’t comfortably talk about sex with one another say that they’re satisfied sexually.”

Elizabeth referenced this statistic in one of her articles, explaining,

“If you can’t talk about sex with each other, the likelihood that you’re having mutually satisfying sex is pretty low. But talking about sex can be risky. You might find out something about yourself that you don’t want to know. You might feel rejected.”

So let’s talk about married sexuality on the field. Let’s figure out how to have healthier conversations about sex with our partners, conversations that are filled with safety, mutual trust, and deep attunement. Men, consider starting here: 3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Wife.

But before we go any further, a word to our friends who are single:

Of course, single people are sexual beings too, and we need to talk about Sex and the Single Missionary, and not just in the negative “don’t do this and definitely don’t do that” manner. I hope somebody writes that article, but for now, that’s beyond the scope of this piece. Seriously though, if you write it, send it to me and we’ll see about getting it published here. It needs to be written.

Complicating Factors
Sex is really complex, and the opportunities for it to go sideways are many. Sex in marriage is often a place of deep insecurities, unmet needs, fear, shame, anger, and even grief.

And that’s in your passport country.

For the cross-cultural couple, challenges start before you even arrive. Pre-field training and fundraising might have you traipsing all over, living in spare rooms, sharing space with kids, camping out in hotels, etc. These things do not necessarily lead to a vibrant and exciting sex life. They don’t have to kill it, of course, but they don’t necessarily help.

Once you arrive on the field, you may discover local taboos that impact your marriage (no touching in public, for example) or a climate that’s way too HOT for warm bodies. Sweaty bodies under a mosquito net may look romantic in the movies, but that’s because in the movies you can’t hear the neighbors’ chickens, there aren’t giant lizards (or rats) squirming throughout the ceiling, your kids didn’t just throw up, you’re not in language school, and you don’t smell like this.

You might lack access to regular showers (or water in general) and privacy might be harder to come by; even if no one can see you making love, you might live in a place where people can hear everything. If that’s different than where you came from, chances are it’s not an aphrodisiac.

Conjugating verbs all day might not leave you with enough energy to conjugate anything else.

People often begin their cross-cultural service with a young family, or they start having kids while they’re on the field. Across the board, this is a challenging time for couples, with sexuality necessarily changing. This season always requires a couple’s sexuality to pivot. That doesn’t mean it has to be worse, but it will change. If that change is happening at the same time as all sorts of other stressors, you may not have enough bandwidth to address or deal with things.

I was discussing a draft of this article with my wife, Elizabeth, and she so eloquently put it like this, “Basically, everything in the world is conspiring against your sex life.”

But again, there is hope!

Lots of folks have written about sex, and it’s not all slutty. In fact, much of it is very helpful, and even researched. There is help available!

If this is an area of your life that is not going well, check out some of these ideas, get a book or two, and begin talking about it. If this is an area of your life that is going well, check out some of these ideas, get a book or two, and keep talking about it!

 

Ideas:
Talk about it, but not right after it. Analyzing a sexual experience right after you’ve had it risks all sorts of negative things, so DO NOT DO IT. Set aside a time that feels private and safe and talk about it. If you feel like you can’t talk about sex with your spouse, find a trusted and confidential person and begin to explore why talking about it is so hard. This does not mean you shouldn’t talk about sex during sex. In fact, learning how to state your needs and desires clearly (and kindly) during sex is one of the skills many of the books linked below deal with.

Prioritize it. Do you need to schedule it? People think that scheduling sex is not romantic, but we schedule other things that we enjoy or that we think are healthy for us. So why not this? Also, I find this reasoning compelling:

“It could be argued that the importance of spontaneous touching is one of the most overrated aspects of intimate connections, particularly in the context of a long-term relationship. As we have suggested, to have a successful party, one must plan ahead. That doesn’t mean anything about the spontaneity that may happen once the party is underway.” [3]

Plus, if you have kids and you live abroad, NOT scheduling it is nearly the same thing as PLANNING to never do it. Are hotels cheaper where you live? Get a room. Even if you only use it for an afternoon. It’s probably cheaper than dinner and a movie where you come from.

Recognize that women have desire too. If you’re a woman who has a sex drive or whose desire seems stronger and more frequent than your husband’s, you’re not a weirdo or a freak. You’re actually pretty normal. It’s time to put this damaging myth to rest. Elizabeth wrote about this:

The fact that sexlessness was primarily dependent on the man was news to me as women often get slandered in culture for being “frigid.” This mischaracterization seems key to common “Christian” teaching that women want affection and connection, while men want sex. Research shows that this traditional approach is unhelpful in the sexual arena: women want good sex too.”

Get a Do Not Disturb sign (or a pink thing). Many of us live in places without central air conditioning, meaning the door is closed when the air’s on, whether or not we need privacy. Years ago, we decided to tell our kids that they can knock on our door unless we have “the pink thing” on the door. For us, “the pink thing” is just an old pink hairband; it’s also a fantastic sex aid. We have four kids, and we want them to know they can knock on the door without making us mad or irritated — unless the pink thing’s on the door. When the pink thing’s present, they can only knock if someone’s bleeding or if the house is on fire. It might not seem like a big deal, but having a lock on the door AND the pink thing provides a zone of safety that is very helpful. And if my kids ever read this article, Hi. We also use the pink thing when we just want some privacy to talk or read the news or browse Facebook. It’s not always sexy time, so don’t freak out thinking “Whoa. That thing was ALWAYS on their door!” I mean, sometimes…

Recognize the impact of sexual assault or abuse. If abuse or assault is part of either spouse’s history, and if you feel like there’s any chance that it’s having a negative impact on your sex life, I highly encourage you to figure out a way to talk with a trained therapist who can walk with you through whatever needs to be walked through. I also realize that ongoing sexual harassment is common in some contexts. If that’s the case, again, make sure you are regularly processing with someone who can help bear those stories. You don’t have to hold those experiences alone, and you’re not weak or faithless if they leave a mark.

Deal with porn. Porn use by either spouse will change the sexual relationship. Andy Bruner wrote this:

Recovery is possible. It’s a ton of work, for sure. But it does happen. Kay said for years that when she wrote her memoir, it would be called Pornography Saved My Marriage, because that was our experience: after going through the pain together, after healing together, our marriage was stronger than it had ever been before.”

Read his full article here.

 

Resources to continue the conversation
Here’s a list of sex books I recommend all the time: On Making Love

Three fantastic articles from Elizabeth:

What I Want to Teach My Daughters About Married Sex

What Christians can Learn from a New York Times Article About Sleeping with Married Men

Women Have Desire Too: The Thing we Overlook When We Talk About the Billy Graham Rule

 

I know that one article can’t fix anything, but maybe many can. So check these out, read some books, start talking.

A woman with decades of experience in living abroad and serving cross-cultural workers recently said, “Here’s to sexually satisfied and great missionary marriages around the globe!”

 Yup, that’s my prayer too. God bless, and have a fantastic day!

— Jonathan Trotter
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

[1] McCarthy, Barry. Sex Made Simple: Clinical Strategies for Sexual Issues in Therapy (p. 5).

[2] Ibid. (p. 31).

[3] Weiner, Linda, and Constance Avery-Clark. Sensate Focus in Sex Therapy (p.118).

Gandalf’s Scream, Love, and Why We Need More Anger

Anger is a wonderful, powerful, amazing, informative, life-giving, protective resource. Or at least it can be. Anger can be a redemptive sword, when it’s wielded by love.

 “Anger is a surgical weapon, designed to destroy ugliness and restore beauty. In the hands of one who is trained in love and who can envision beauty, the knife of righteous anger is a weapon for restoration.” – Allender & Longman

We’ve too often seen anger as the enemy, while all along it was begging to be our teacher. We’ve loved to pray and sing emotional ballads like, “Break my heart for what breaks yours,” but have we dared to sing, “Enrage my heart for what enrages yours”?

That sounds crazy, right? And scary.

As Christians, as cross-cultural workers, we’re way more comfortable with holy sadness than holy anger. And that’s not without cause; sadness is safer. More tame. Anger can destroy. Anger can harm deeply. Anger is like electricity — or fire. Both have tremendous potential to destroy, and even kill. But they also reveal, energize (literally), and make magic.

Have you flown on the fire of a jet engine, propelled through the night sky like a populated comet? Have you ever activated a dozen tiny suns with the flip of a switch? These miracles are astounding, and possible due to the power of white-hot fire and lightning fast electrons flowing on demand.

To be sure, arsons exist, but so do steel magnates. They both harness fire for their own purposes; one to destroy, the other to build. I’ve seen the burns and tissue damage wreaked by a lightning strike, but I don’t scream and run away every time I see an outlet.

Again, anger is just energy. It’s an emotion, neither good nor bad, neither healthy nor dysfunctional.

“Feelings are information, not conclusions.” – Greenberg

“Feeling angry or annoyed is as human as feeling sad or afraid.” – Greenberg

We have to be careful, at the start, that we don’t moralize some emotions as good, others as bad, some as holy, others as sinful. That’s not accurate, spiritually or scientifically. [See The Gaping Hole in Modern Missions.]

It’s also important to distinguish between the feeling of anger and the actions of aggression. The two are not the same thing. Greenberg offers this helpful reminder:

“Anger should not be confused with aggression, which comprises attacking or assaultive behavior. Feeling angry does not mean behaving aggressively, and people can be aggressive without feeling any anger at all.” – Greenberg

Chances are you’ve been hurt by someone who acted aggressively. Perhaps their anger/aggression left wounds you’re still recovering from. Chances are you’ve hurt someone in similar ways. So I understand if all this talk about the goodness of anger feels like bile in the brain.

In my ministry as a pastoral counselor in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I hear all the stories. I hear terrifying stories and sad stories. I hear stories that make me livid and stories that make me hug my kids a little tighter.

Early on, I assumed that my main job was to help angry people feel their sadness. After all, I feel sadness early and often; it’s my default setting, and it’s easy. But now I realize that just as often, my job is to help sad people feel their anger.

Accessing the motivating, informative energy of anger has been pivotal in my own journey of healing. It has propelled me to have HARD conversations, it has steeled me for necessary conflict, and it has helped me surface on the other side, grateful. I am grateful for the gift of anger; without it, I fear I would have gotten stuck in my own depressive hole.

I used to think that anger and love were separate things, but now I realize that anger can be separate from love, but it doesn’t have to be. Anger is sometimes the energizing force that results from violated love.

In his book on extra-marital affairs, pastor and clinical counselor David Carder goes so far as to say that the partner who was cheated on MUST get angry:

The language of anger is never pleasant; however, it is not only OK to say it with intensity and force, but it is absolutely necessary for true recovery to occur. People do not get better until they get mad.” – Carder

 

Anger as a Sword (that we desperately need)
Tolkien understood the strategic use of anger, and when the Fellowship needed salvation, he gave it to them, in the form of a furious wizard. When faced with an ancient evil from the deepest shadows, the men, hobbits, dwarf, and elf fled for their lives. There was no escape until an old man with wisdom and anger stood firm.

The scene unfolds on a bridge under the mountains, with enemy hordes on one side, the Fellowship on the other:

“The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring [his sword] gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm.

You cannot pass,‘ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.

The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly onto the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.

From out of the shadow a red sword leaped flaming.

Glamdring glittered white in answer.

There was a ringing clash and a stab of white fire. The Balrog fell back and its sword flew up in molten fragments. The wizard swayed on the bridge, stepped back a pace, and then again stood still.

You cannot pass!‘ he said.

With a bound the Balrog leaped full upon the bridge. Its whip whirled and hissed.”

In the film, the emotion of the scene overwhelms. Gandalf stands between the darkness and his charges. He is fighting with all his might, not for his own honor or power or kingdom; he is fighting for his friends.

He looks back at his friends, slowly and compassionately, fully aware of what he must do. He raises his staff and sword, slams them into stone, and screams at the fiery evil, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!

At that point,

“A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog’s feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness.”

Oh that more leaders would have the courage to stand firm, full of love and anger, willing to protect the helpless, and to speak to the Shadow!

These are the times when we need the sword of anger. What a dangerous shame to reach that point, to need the power of a bright sword, and to leave it in its scabbard. Anger is the sword that we keep sheathed because we have no idea how to wield it. We’ve only seen people hurt by it. But if we could figure out how to use it, to wield it sparingly, but well, we might realize how much good it could do.

When we lose access to flaming, holy anger, we lose access to so much. We need a revolution in how we as the Church think about, talk about, and experience anger.

“Righteous anger warns, invites change, and wounds. True anger is paradoxical in that it has the strength to inflict pain, but it burns with the desire for reconciliation. It is bold, but it is also broken.” – Allender & Longman

What if we used anger to protect, not to control? With the aim of blessing and restoring relationships, not for revenge? What if anger were an expression of solid love, not malice or contempt?

“[Righteous anger] wounds for the greater work of redemption. It is full of a strength that is neither defensive nor vindictive, and it is permeated by a sadness that is rich in desire and hope.” – Allender & Longman

 

Our Incompetence Damages People (and the Church)
We don’t know how to wield anger, and we can’t fathom that someone else might. So we run away from it, we bury it, we criticize it. But just like outlawed grief, outlawed anger is dangerous.

“Anger that is driven underground eventually bursts out in uncontrollable and destructive ways.” – Greenberg

When you cancel out anger (your own or others’), you rob yourself of vital information. Information that could help you to see a situation or respond to a situation. Instead of denying or blocking anger, we need to get curious about it. What is hurting? When did it start hurting? As Greenberg says, we “should not be too afraid of receiving its message.”

“Each time people control or cut off a significant experience of anger, they not only cut themselves off from important information from within, but they also cut themselves off from others.” – Greenberg

Failing to give space for anger is terribly invalidating, and unloving.

“Invalidation of a person’s most basic feelings is one of the most psychologically damaging things one person can do to another.” – Greenberg

What would have happened if someone in those Catholic dioceses had felt a burning against the injustice of child abuse? Imagine if some leader somewhere would have pulled a sword on those pedophiles and screamed, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

It should not have taken an investigative journalist. It should not have taken decades.

What if someone at USA Gymnastics had heard about Larry Nassar’s perverse, ongoing sexual assaults of its gymnasts and, with fire in their bones, done whatever was necessary to communicate: “NOT ON MY WATCH!”

I’m so grateful for Rachael Denhollander and her tremendous courage as a survivor, to protest and advocate. But it shouldn’t have had to be her. It should have been some adult years earlier who got angry, and in their anger, determined to protect young women instead of an organization.

Gary Thomas, theologian and author, recently penned a powerful article about the church’s complicity in domestic violence in Christian marriages. The title of his article? “Enough is Enough.” He might as well have called it, “You Shall Not Pass!”

Calling on church leaders to stand with wounded women, to stand against abusive men, Thomas writes:

“Christian leaders and friends, we have to see that some evil men are using their wives’ Christian guilt and our teaching about the sanctity of marriage as a weapon to keep harming them. I can’t help feeling that if more women started saying, ‘This is over’ and were backed up by a church that enabled them to escape instead of enabling the abuse to continue, other men in the church, tempted toward the same behavior, might finally wake up and change their ways.”

Anger is present in our churches. Anger exists in our missions. But our anger is usually aimed at the people who are upsetting the status quo, threatening the “way things are,” and calling evil things by their true name.

But what if, instead, we were energized by a blazing love to protect the vulnerable, to defend the weak and the powerless?

What would that look like?

It would look like Gandalf, fire in his eyes, standing alone and sacrificing himself to save his friends.

It would look other worldly, because it is. It would look like the Kingdom of God among us, flipping the world upside down, giving honor to the weak, protecting the throw-aways.

It would look like the Church caring about the children on the outside.

It might look like offended religious men, sitting around a table trying to figure out how to solve this “problem.”

It would look like Bonhoeffer, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Martin Luther.

It would look like Paul, defending the magisterial beauty of grace.

It would look like a pastor calling the police as soon as he hears about abuse, refusing to keep things “in house.”

It would look bright, shimmering. It would look like hope to those bound in the darkness; a glimpse of the rising sun.

But to those who thrive in the shadows (religious or otherwise), it would terrify, reminding them that their reign will end. Justice shall be King.

It would look like all these things and more, for

It would look like Jesus.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Torn Asunder, David Carder

Enough is Enough, Gary Thomas

The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God, Dan Allender and Tremper Longman

Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings, Leslie Greenberg

The Gaping Hole in Modern Missions

For the Times When You’re Exhausted, Discouraged, and Tempted

Some truth is just worth remembering. These musings about discouragement and temptation spilled out six years ago; perhaps they can encourage people even still…

We moved to Cambodia about two years ago, and it’s been good. But it’s also been very hard. I’ve had my days of doubt, fear, and deep discouragement. I’ve looked around at the poverty, abuse, corruption, and I’ve despaired. I’ve heard that raspy, wicked voice taunt, “What can you do? Why are you even here? What about your kids, think of what you’re doing to them? You are completely ill-equipped for this. Did God really call you here?”

But on this mountain climb called Mission, there is a phrase that has been to me a strong foothold. When I’ve despaired, it’s grounded me, and when I’ve been near to giving up, it has given me rest and peace.

It’s what Jesus said when he came face to face with the Father of Lies, Enemy Number One, Satan:

I will worship the Lord my God. I will serve only him.

In Matthew 4, Satan attacks Jesus, desperate to win. At this point, Jesus has not eaten for forty days. He hasn’t talked with friends for forty days. He’s lonely, tired, exhausted. Hungry. And Satan himself shows up, on the prowl, to attack.

Satan won’t shut up. He keeps talking and stalking, “You want food, right? Nice, fresh-baked bread? How long has it been, Jesus? Eat.” “How about you prove God cares for you? I don’t think he does. Jump.” “OK, everyone wants stuff, power, and control. You want some? I’ll give it all to you. Bow.”

Jesus answers Satan and gives us a key.

When I’ve despaired, this key has given me hope.

When I’ve been tempted, this key has given me a way out.

When I’ve needed more strength for the climb, this key has provided it.

Over the last two years, when I could pray little else, I’ve stuttered, “I will worship the Lord my God. I will serve only him.” I’ve prayed it silently and I’ve prayed it out loud. When I’ve been discouraged, I’ve begged, “God, help me worship you. Help me serve only you.” When I’ve been tempted, I’ve declared it, as a reminder to Evil and myself; I’m with Jesus.

We sometimes imagine the Tempting of Jesus as if it were a nice chat between buddies. Satan tempts Jesus and Jesus coolly brushes it off with a simple, “Oh, Satan, you silly, the Scriptures say…” But these two were mortal enemies, the Prince of Evil vs. the Prince of Peace. These temptations were real and Jesus felt them.

So, when Jesus answers this last temptation, he was saying so much more than “No.” He was emphatically saying, “I will not listen to you, Satan. I will worship only One, and you’re not Him. I will not follow you, or obey you, or bow down to you.”

He was making a dramatic gesture towards the Father and shouting, “I’M WITH HIM!”

Anytime you wrestle with evil or temptation, you have to know Satan’s smarter than you. You do not “have this under control.” He’s stronger, has more charm, more experience. He has more time, more resources.

You can’t outlast him, outsmart him, or outcast him. But you can resist him. And you must.

How?  With this resolution: There is only One God, and I’m serving Him. Let this be your stake in the ground, your line in the sand. In stating and restating this truth, you disarm and deflate Satan, reminding him that he loses because Jesus wins.

What was Satan’s response to this declaration? He left. What was God’s response? He ministered to Jesus through his servants, angels.

Put another way, Satan responds by leaving and God responds by coming. And that’s a pretty good trade, I think.

Yes, there is temptation and despair and discouragement. And evil. But there is still Hope, and his name is Jesus. And I’ve decided that with everything in me, until my last breath, I will worship the Lord my God. I will serve only him.

I hope you’ll join me.

 

Jesus says in Matthew 4:10, “For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God; serve only him.’” When Jesus said this, he was in effect saying, “That’s what I’m doing right now, I’m honoring the Word and obeying my Father. I will worship the Lord my God. I will serve only him.” When we respond to the ancient command (originally from Deut. 6:13) in this way, we make a serious statement of intent, impacting both Heaven and Hell.