Grateful for the Miracle of Life
It is Thanksgiving morning, around 5 am. I woke up early having gone to bed early the night before. I am less than two weeks out from quadruple bypass surgery. I actually feel pretty well and have clients scheduled for next week, so not too much disruption from having your chest opened, your heart stopped for four hours while it gets a plumbing job of rerouting arteries around blockages. I really have not paid attention to the details of the surgery, but my surgeon told me if I did not have the surgery I would be dead, again, within a month. There were precious few physical symptoms to indicate that I had such serious coronary heart disease. I take care of myself physically and I go to the doctor for annual physicals.
That’s right, dead again. Those words do not even look real. I have no idea I died Friday November 15 around 4 pm. I just remember collapsing on the trail and coming to as I was being transported down the trail. I had a sudden cardiac arrest while backpacking up a steep slope. I was participating in a Crossroads Church retreat for men called Man Camp. There were approximately 1000 men attending a weekend camping retreat near Richmond, Ky above the Kentucky River. I experienced what is called a ventricular fibrillation in the lower left chamber of my heart that vibrates so fast it can’t pump blood. It was not a heart attack; it was an electrical malfunction where the heart stops and there is no pulse. Only around 10 percent survive, and most of those are in health care settings.
I would not have survived if I were not hiking with two men who knew what to do and immediately sprang into action performing CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation, Eric Curvin and Shane Porter. Eric is an anesthesiologist and Shane is an Iraq veteran. They kept my heart and brain alive for at least 15 minutes until the camp “Medics” (volunteer medical personnel serving at Man Camp) arrived with an AED to shock my heart back into rhythm. I was then transported to a hospital.
I would not have survived but for the grace of God. I am told that men immediately surrounded me and began praying out loud, calling on the name of Jesus. One of my best friends, Lynn Buckles, tells me my skin was ashen and my eyes where open staring, like a dead man. I was a dead man and he pleaded with God to raise me from the dead, as did others. Another friend, Bryan Carter said, “I have seen dead people before” so he knew what a lifeless body looked liked. I can’t imagine what that was like for them, had to be traumatic; both of them have their own stories of dealing with death and near death.
So I am thankful this Thanksgiving, as are my wife, Carolyn, and children Seth, Danielle, and Isaac. As is my brother, Trip, who flew from North Carolina to be with us during surgery. His family is thankful for the gift of my life, as is my sister, and Carolyn’s family members, her sister, brother-in- law, mother, and father. As are the many people, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who responded with love, prayers, and now gratitude.
The gift of my life, to survive this, is a mystery. I could have just as easily died, as most do. I will die, someday, but why God allowed this is something to prayerfully and respectfully consider. There is more to this story, so many connections that cannot be explained as happenstance, and the telling of it will continue.
This past Lent session I worked through John Vanier’s The Gospel of John The Gospel of Relationship. It was and is a transformative experience. He presented a vision of Jesus that my soul longed for and literally gave me a way forward with faith. “Who do you say I am?”, Who is Jesus? The short answer is He is the Son of God, the Messiah, and Savior. John Vanier unpacked that answer with a kind of spirituality of attachment, that Jesus is joined with the human race in love: “The Word of God, who is God, who is one with God, becomes one of us: a fragile, vulnerable human being.”
This morning I read about a promising UK golfer who has been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. His coach said this: “Cullan (Brown) has always been full of faith, and hope and enthusiasm with everything in his life. He and God are going to whip this thing over the next year and it is going to be one sweet victory.” I am praying that is so for this young man, what a battle he is facing to overcome and it appears he has the full support of the UK community and its resources, medical and otherwise. We all want to see Cullan victorious, having the opportunity to live a long, full life where he can realize his potential. Dear Jesus, I pray that you heal Cullan.
This would be the kind of story many love to tell to encourage the faithful and spur the seeker to accept Jesus. It is the kind of story I needed to hear at one time in my life, to believe in the overcoming power of Jesus. And yet, Jesus became one of us, fragile and vulnerable. Who do you say we are? Mostly we say that we are strong and powerful, or want to be. But Jesus joined us in our fragility and vulnerability, and Jean Vanier’s life experiences and studies taught him that it is in our fragility and vulnerability that we know and meet Jesus, and each other.
Jean Vanier reminded me that believing in Jesus is not always about victory and overcoming, a theme many of the evangelical churches and groups I have been associated with promote. I don’t think they mean to do this, but it risks setting up an individualistic perspective that Jesus is like a kind of religious Me Too movement that leaves us empowered but not fully connected and whole. And then when Jesus doesn’t deliver the victory we pray for, all hell of confusion breaks out and we’re doing theological contortions to explain it, or just ignore it, passing it over as some kind of aberration. And some just give up believing.
Jean Vanier, Saint Francis and others, provide an alternative. Stop self protecting; enter into relationships and embrace situations where you are powerless; accept your fragility and vulnerability; that is where you find Jesus.
Living into Contemplative Rhythm
"From the beginning, Jesus’s ministry modeled the interplay between prophetic utterance, public theology, and intense spiritual renewal. He launches his three-year ministry from the desert wilderness, a place that will be the home of latter-day desert mothers and fathers. After an intense time of fasting, testing, and submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit, Jesus returns ready to fulfill his calling. These rhythms of activism and contemplation, engagement and withdrawal resonate throughout his life." R. Rohr
Looking to live into this, 3 day retreat of silence and stillness at the Abbey of Gethsemane this weekend.
We need contemplative communities within the evangelical church who practice this rhythm. Most of us are activists who value doing and results. I wonder if we really trust the Holy Spirit.
Every Tuesday night at my office, 6:30 pm, meditative bible study, period of silence, meditation and listening.
There is a fascinating convergence with neuroscience and tradition rich spiritual practices. Neuroscience, the study of how the brain works, is confirming what contemplatives (those who meditate and seek solitude and silence) have known for centuries, the mind can shape the physical structure of the brain. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity, something they denied was possible as little as 10 years ago and yet every one that prays, counsels, preaches, and teaches knew that transformation was and is possible; we can literally reshape the neural pathways of the brain, even significant mental health disorders like OCD. Healing happens and science is agreeing with spiritual traditions; how cool is that!
This is fascinating on several levels. I would recommend you listen to any of Dr. Jeffery Schwartz’s M.D. You Tube videos. Here is a link to one: https://youtu.be/S0-NmxR3Lcg. Dr. Schwartz is part of the exploding Mindfulness movement, a secular version of contemplative practices, especially meditation. He is also a believer in Jesus and got there from a Jewish heritage, to practicing Zen Buddhism, to following Jesus. I don't know the details of his spiritual journey, but the exciting and encouraging thing is that there is language developing that crosses all spiritual, secular, and scientific lines. If we look rightly, we can see how everything is connected, just like Jesus prayed in John 17:21: “May they all be one as you (God) and I are one.”
What is this language of connection? For those who practice meditation they know there is a presence that is not physical that shapes the physical brain. Believers in Jesus call it by many names, the Holy Spirit, the helper, the counselor, the comforter. I think it is our spirit working with His Spirit (Romans 8:16). Scientists call it the mind, focused awareness, other spiritual traditions call it enlightenment. There is significant healing going on with these practices and it is not just in Christian circles. God’s healing is not limited to Christian belief. He is a compassionate and loving God who brings His Love to all of us.
I believe something powerful is happening in all of this and we need to look “with eyes that see and ears that hear” to understand. Do not let your belief system get in your way of seeing and hearing what is going on; be open and trust, God is bigger than our fear.
For the past several months I have immersed myself in the writing and teachings of a Franciscan friar named Richard Rohr. I have been “captured” by the idea or practice of contemplation. I highlight captured because that is what it feels like. I am compelled to explore contemplation and I have been fascinated by Richard Rohr’s particular perspective on it. I have been inspired by his writings and also challenged and disappointed. I am obviously seeking something, and hopefully that something is truth and how to live with integrity and maturity within truth. My hope is that this leads to freedom.
For anyone who is on a genuine spiritual journey, and I do not think there are many in our culture or maybe in any culture or time who are genuine seekers of truth and freedom, one major obstacle is our personal ego, our small self or our false self. Whatever it is called it is caught up in its own perspective, agenda, and self protection. Contemplation is a spiritual practice that can help gain perspective on this self protecting, defensive, frightened and controlling self that really can’t see anyone else in the room, including God.
Dr. Gerald May, a psychiatrist and spiritual director says: “Contemplation happens to everyone. It happens in moments when we are open, undefended, and immediately present.” Why is this important to our spiritual life? If your spiritual background is evangelical as mine is, you will question what this has to do with Jesus or the Bible? This statement of Dr. May is not typical of an evangelical perspective on spirituality, there is no mention of Jesus, just undefended presence. Sometimes we evangelicals think there is no other perspective than ours and we need to be careful because it begins to look like we have all the answers. What can subsequently happen is that we close off to any other experience if it does not fit our formula of proper or true faith. I think some of my seeking has to do with how tiresome and small the practice our faith can seem. It is sometimes too neatly packaged.
If you read most of the discipleship books on how to grow in the spiritual life they are more like formulas that are applied in an experiment than an experience that is lived in the midst of life. There is no mystery only answers and anyone who has lived life honestly and long enough to suffer knows that there are not always answers or solutions or resolutions and living in the tension of not having answers, with hope, might be the spiritual life. Jesus rarely if ever gave direct answers to questions, he spoke in parables and paradox. This frustrated and maddened the scholars and teachers of his time as it does ours. I just do not think we realize how obsessed with and maybe desperate for control we are. It is such a part of the fabric of our lives that we do not even see it. We must gain perspective to see it and contemplation can help.
The contemplative life seeks union with God and being present in the moment, this moment, the only time we have, is central to experiencing God’s presence. This is why being open and undefended is so important because God is now, He is the “I am that I am” and as long as we live only in our heads with our theories and formulas and doctrines and creeds we miss seeing the bush that is burning right in front of us.
The Path of Transformation
There is an oft used phrase in EFT, an attachment based approach to healing marital distress, “catching bullets”. I use this phrase in my counseling sessions with couples to help them (and ourselves) work on not being reactive to their partners negative comments. This helps couples learn to stay out of, stop or slow down getting into a fight cycle. This takes an amazing amount of restraint and self control and one most distressed couples find very difficult to do. It is very challenging to manage our impulse to self protect when we are being criticized, attacked or generally on the receptive end of someone’s fear and hate. The reason it is especially difficult in marital or love relationships is because this is the person we expect to love us, to be there for us, to understand us, cherish us, and certainly not criticize or attack us. We feel betrayed by the one we have trusted the most.
A powerful example of “catching bullets” is seeing the work of Jesus on the Cross. Richard Rohr says this:
“The significance of Jesus’ wounded body is his deliberate and conscious holding of the pain of the world and refusing to send it elsewhere. The wounds were not necessary to convince God that we were lovable; the wounds are to convince us of the path and the price of transformation. They are what will happen to you if you face and hold sin in compassion instead of projecting it in hatred. Jesus’ wounded body is an icon for what we are all doing to one another and to the world.”
This is a powerful image (what an icon is) of love, one that will change marriages, and the world. I hope you will ponder and reflect on this, that Jesus shows us a way to follow, a way to be, by “holding one another’s pain” and “face and hold sin in compassion instead of projecting it in hatred”. This changes everything in human relationships. I see it everyday in couples who are learning to see that their partner’s angry or rejecting comments are more than bullets being fired to hurt and wound and by refusing to send it back, the door is opened to reconciliation.
I am a believer in Jesus Christ so everything that touches my life is passed through the prism of Jesus. This is often a troubling or bothersome process. It would be so much simpler just to accept things like theories on human behavior, social trends, and of course lifestyle choices on their own merits without having to filter them through the prism of Jesus. It's not so much that the bother involves “what would Jesus say” like a child wondering if Mom of Dad would approve, though there might be an element of that for certain things. It is more a question of what is real and true. This can become rather complicated, and at least for me a convoluted process, especially if the subject matter involves the sciences and empirical data.
Most people might not even know what “empirical data” is much less care but it dominates much of what our society considers “real and true”. Of course this data is only able to approximate a percentage of what is real and true because everything is measured in a statistical expression so we only get what is likely or unlikely to be true. We have polling for who will be elected, how soon we might die, or when the polar cap will melt, or how effective this or that method is, all expressed as statistically significant or not. I guess it is comforting to know with a such and such certainty that this or that will happen or not, although I usually think about the fact that the unlikely can still happen. There is no guarantee with statistics so it comes down to playing the percentages. The interesting thing is how certain these things seem to become when the likelihood is greater than or less than....
We seem to have become a culture that relies on statistics to guide our lives. It is almost as if we can never really know or trust anything unless we can measure it. This is what empiricism or materialism is, only that which can be observed and measured is real and true. We can only trust our senses and our instruments and our calculations to guide our way. These are things we can be certain of because we can touch, taste and see and measure them.
My profession of counseling is of the social sciences like psychology. There are many, many theories in this field so research and statistical analysis are important to help determine which are the most practically effective. This is very helpful for practitioners like me to help decide the best practices for helping clients. The problem is that sometimes the theory that stands up to statistical analysis because it is very effective becomes something greater than a statistical advantage for helping someone, it begins to make claims that it has discovered the truth of who we are.
Take for example an approach to marriage therapy that I have been trained in, Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT. The research results are amazing, 75-80% or couples experience a successful outcome. This is a very powerful method for helping couples stay married, and happily so. I am thankful for EFT because it has enabled me to help hurting couples bond to one another, even ones who have been unfaithful. Where I struggle with EFT and Sue Johnson, its founder, is her claim that EFT, and the theory it is based on, attachment theory, is the science of love. In other words, she is claiming to know the truth of what love is, and how it works. This is where my prism of Jesus begins to kick in.
God is love and I know the love of God and it cannot be reduced to attachment. We humans love to explain things and believe we have the power to understand everything, if not now at some point in our progression. Attachment, while integral to human development, is primarily about how humans need and care for one another so attachment as love is a safe haven, a place of soothing comfort where someone is there for us. This is vitally important and certainly love includes a haven where we are cared for, accepted, and understood. But this is not all love is and it is not all that we need, which is what Sue Johnson seems to believe. This is humanistic reductionism that does not account for a Creator God. In her perspective, we are all there is; no wonder fear is considered the primary emotion of attachment.
So what else is love if it is more than attachment? It is transformational power that says “Behold I make all things new”(Rev. 21:5). In the words of C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles: “ In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created. But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.” Love is the power of God moving in and through us to lift us up out of muck and mire of fear based living: “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear for fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18). This love is more than the love which humans have for one another, our human love is but a shadow of the power in the love of God that not only makes us feel safe, accepted, and secure but transforms us into different beings, something real and true.
My wife Carolyn and I try to get away to be with each other every three months or so. These “getaways” often coincide with a birthday or anniversary but not always. We usually arrive around noon and leave the next afternoon. We always hope to arrive sooner but necessities and demands prevent that. This does not sound like much time away and we would prefer longer but we always seem to leave feeling refreshed, renewed, and reconnected; not a bad outcome. The place we visit is a retreat house called “Quiet Place” in rural Garrard County near Lancaster, Ky. We have been doing this for several years now and we are so thankful for this place of retreat that Rick and Teresa Jenkins provide for ministers, pastors, and other Christian care givers. Rick and Teresa serve the servers. I don't know where they retreat but Quiet Place has become an invaluable tool for reconnection with the Lord and one another.
While visiting there this time I read from Conversations (www.conversationsjournal.com), a Christian journal about spiritual transformation. They provide a forum of “spiritual accompaniment and honest dialogue for authentic transformation.” Living in a culture that offers mostly sound bites of phantom promises that disguise other agendas something solid like real change is appealing;we all hunger for the real. Consider the woman in the Gospels who met Jesus at the well; with several relationships she obviously struggled with figuring out who she was and what she wanted and when she encountered the real she immediately changed her life, now that is transformation.
An article by Michael Glerup, who writes on “ancient christian wisdom for a postmodern age”, discussed change as defined by Gregory of Nyssa, an Orthodox Bishop from the fourth century who lived in what is now Turkey. Gregory said that change happens in one of two directions, for good or for ill. Change for ill is that which is cyclic and repetitive so that nothing really lasts or satisfies. We reach a state of temporary satisfaction that depletes, like eating food, and we have to do it all over again and again and again. Change for good is that which helps us progress in capacity, in our ability to grow and receive more. It is something that satisfies, that brings a fullness that lasts. Change for ill leaves us always hungering for more, change for good leaves us satisfied knowing that there is more, and so we are content.
While there is much more to Gregory's view on transformation (Conversations, Vol.8.1) his understanding of the cyclic, repetitive, empty change is what we see in struggling couple's arguments (not to mention the stock market and economic cycles). Their argument cycle is a repetitive one and it is the same over and over again. They keep coming back to it because a deeper hunger is never satisfied, it is like playing a roulette wheel, the ball gets thrown and you watch it spin hoping it lands in the right place. It rarely does and with repetitive cycles it never does. The insanity is that we believe we are going to win next time.
Becoming aware of our deeper hunger(s) is critical to orienting our selves toward what is Good. The difficult thing for most us is to begin to trust, to believe that their really is something solid and real and good that can meet our deepest longing. Receiving an experience of that, whether during a counseling session or a meeting at the well gives hope that real satisfaction is possible. Couples that become aware of their own and their mates true longing and move to meet that is what breaks the repetitive argument cycle and brings peace to the relationship.
While the time at Quiet Place is never quite long enough for Carolyn and I and we leave yearning to stay in a place of rest and quiet and connection, we know this peace is real and we can experience it again. I think that is something like the hope of heaven.
Dr. Sue Johnson, one of the originators of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a very effective marital therapy approach, considers the approach to be a “practical theory of love”. EFT is based upon Attachment theory which describes how we care for and emotionally connect to one another, and how that affects our development as human beings. Attachment or bonding to one another in families is basic to our survival. Human life cannot survive and thrive without it. Humans take a long time to grow and become self-sufficient and a bonded caretaker(s) is required.
But what does it mean to attach to someone? Is it the same as loving someone? Are love and attachment the same? I think they are similar and related, interconnected but not the same. For sure love seems to assume attachment; you are likely attached to those you love. But I believe love is greater than attachment. Dr Johnson says: “The multitude of studies on adult attachment that have emerged over the last decade tell us that the essence of love is not a negotiated exchange of resources (so why teach negotiation skills?), a friendship, Nature's trick to get you to mate and pass on your genes, or a time-limited episode of delusional addiction. Love is a very special kind of emotional bond, the need for which is wired into our brain by millions of years of evolution. It is a survival imperative.” Without even considering the question of how we came to be hard wired for connection, it seems to me her view of love is reductionist, that love is nothing more than “a very special kind of emotional bond” whose primary purpose is survival. This is “the essence of love”? Okay, I don't know about you, but that doesn't really turn me on to go find a lover!
I know you might be thinking “who cares?” I would agree this might be esoteric musings of an obsessed attachment focused marriage therapist who also cares about theology, specifically Christian theology. Love is a, if not the, central tenet of Christian faith, “God is love.” In the Christian tradition, marriage and theology are intrinsically linked. Marriage is one of the primary metaphors used to describe our relationship with God and God's relationship with us. In fact, as Pope Benedict says in his Cyclical on Love (I am not Catholic but Popes are usually brilliant and say very interesting things) love of neighbor is love of God so that loving one another is the same as loving God. How well we love our spouse (or neighbor), and the expression of that love is our measure of how well we love God. As Pope Benedict says “God's way of loving becomes the measure of human love”.
In our society today God is often dismissed as grounds for anything. If you begin with “what God says” you may be quickly considered intellectually inferior and out of touch with post modern thinking. You are likely to not be considered as part of a serious debate if you reference God as a source. Well, okay, but since I have been following Jesus I have learned and become a better lover of others than I ever was before, so it is hard for me to ignore or dismiss his influence. I know this is antedoctal, that my experience doesn't prove anything in an objective or scientific way, but you can ask my wife or kids or family if what I say is true. This is evidence that is difficult to dismiss; they know how well, or not, I love them on a particular day or for a particular week, just ask them.
There is a concept in the Christian spiritual life called “first love” that considers “Do I really believe that I am loved first, independent of what I do, or what I accomplish?”(Henri Nouwen) That is, is love freely given or do I have to earn it? Am I loved, totally, simply because I exist and therefore I don't have to worry whether I get something right. I have nothing to fear because it is not about what I do, Love simply loves me. The more we know, experience this Love, the better we are able to love others.(1 John 4:19) This is the measure God presents.
There is no doubt understanding how we attach to one another gives a language to discuss how well we care for and love one another. I practice EFT with my clients and find it very helpful and effective. Understanding how we emotionally connect to one another is very powerful and EFT helps couples do this. It breaks down the dance of connection so we can understand it and learn how to change the dance so to not lose connection with one another. But I think this connection, this bond of unity to one another serves a greater purpose, points to a greater reality, than simply survival; it points to God.
This is the week of Easter, what is sometimes referred to as Passion or Holy Week. It is when Christians remember in a variety of ways Jesus' death on the Cross, our Lord's answer to the problem sin. It is fitting that last week the Vatican released an expansion of the seven deadly sins (http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/wayoflife/03/13/new.sins/?iref=mpstoryview) that reflect our technological and scientific advancements like genetic manipulation or ruining the environment. It is a good time to reflect on and consider what sin is.
In one of the readings my wife Carolyn is doing for her daily devotional, something she is admirably faithful about, she commented on a sentence that struck her: "…all sin is, at its root, a refusal to love." (Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton). In today's relativistic, postmodern world where like trash, one person's sin may be another person's virtue, I wonder if "sin" is even a word that has any meaning. Significantly and thankfully, I am apparently wrong. According to Ellison Research (http://ellisonresearch.com/releases/20080311.htm) 87% of Americans, whether religiously involved or not, believe in the concept of sin defined as "something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective." In a list of thirty behaviors and activities ranked as sinful, adultery tops the list with 81% agreement. I wonder what kind of list would be formulated when sin is defined as a refusal to love instead of something that is considered morally wrong. I am afraid for me it would be a very long list of daily offenses.
I believe most of us think that we would never refuse to love. How could we imagine doing such a thing? It is not too difficult for me to think of myself as someone who can and has sinned but I do not like considering myself as someone who refuses to love. This makes me question what love is. It raises questions like what does refusing to love look like. When and where am I refusing to love? How do I know if I truly loving someone? What does refusing to love have to do with genetic manipulation or even adultery? If I am willing to love does that make me free from sinning?
The Bible tells us that Jesus' death on the Cross is God's love in action (John 3:16). It tells us that God is love and that Jesus is the perfect picture of love (1 John 3:16). And this same verse tell us what our love needs to look like, being willing to give up our lives for one another. This should sound familiar; this is what Jesus did for us on the Cross. Apparently, we are to do the same thing for each other. The root of sin, then is being unwilling to put others first. How simple and how difficult this is.