Category Archives: Life Coaching

Neediness vs. Needing

That all of nature is interconnected is a given. The symbiosis of pollinators and flowers, aspen groves, climate and weather, and gravity and planets remind us that what affects one affects all.

That no person is an island is equally obvious. We are interconnected in thousands of ways. Others are typically responsible for growing our food, generating our power, fixing our broken bodies, and teaching our children. None of us is gifted enough, wise enough, talented enough, or skilled enough to be independent. We grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually in connection with others. We need each other for physical survival and emotional wellbeing. There are tasks too big to be accomplished alone. I may perhaps provide some assistance to a homeless person or two; but united, we could, if we really cared, eliminate homelessness. 

It is good and essential to care for, respect, and nurture the natural world and one another. United we stand, divided we fall. E pluribus unum.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 

own were; any man’s death diminishes me, 

because I am involved in mankind. 

And therefore never send to know for whom 

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.[1]

On the other hand, there is a negative kind of need. When need becomes neediness, codependence, clinginess, a sense that I am not whole without a particular other, it is counterproductive and harmful. The essential distinction between healthy interconnectedness and dysfunctional dependence lies in the source of life. 

There is, in my view, only one ultimate source of life and love, and that is God. God is perfect love, the author of life, the source and destination of all that is eternally and essentially good. When I am connected to that source, drawing my deepest need for love, light, life, truth and wellbeing from God, I can in healthy ways love nature, others, and myself. The connectedness to others and nature flows altruistically from me. It produces a sense of deep peace and wholeness; whereas, if I am trying to suck life and love out of a sense of codependent neediness, I will always feel drained, manipulated, and underappreciated.

A telos, a destination of concerted contemplative prayer is to bring us to a place where God is all we need, our singular source of unconditional love and life, where, ultimately, God is the only one we couldn’t live without. We will know we are approaching that destination when we discover growing empathy and compassion within us for all other people, for all living things, for all of creation – an empathy accompanied by deep grounded peace.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the more we relax and let go, the closer we become to others. The less we strive, the more our relationships thrive. The less we cling in neediness, the more we can love in wholeness. The less we “need” someone in the negative sense, the more we can mutually enjoy them.

Contemplative prayer opens our hearts, expands our beings, so that the divine life-affirming love can flow untrammeled into us and out of us to others.


[1] John Donne, MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

A Few More Thoughts on Evil & Suffering

Bad stuff happens – cancer, war, floods, fires, racism, betrayal, poverty …

Two questions are often intertwined in the problem of evil. 

Why is there evil? 

Why doesn’t God do something about it?

The first is answerable. There is a kind of freedom in all of creation. Humans (and, according to the Bible, angelic beings) have the ability to consciously make choices. We (and they) at times make bad choices. Some bad choices are malicious, like invading a peaceful country, designing red-lining laws, or separating children from their immigrant parents. 

Other decisions inadvertently cause harm. George Washington’s physicians honestly thought they were helping by bleeding him regularly. Some missionaries sincerely thought they were doing God’s will by replacing indigenous culture with occidental ideals. 

Whether accidental or intentional, we humans have created quite a mess. We destroy the environment, produce disease-producing processed foods, oppress women and people of color, alter the climate, create wars, and build injustice into our systems of government, education, and commerce. 

In another realm, some angelic beings chose to become forces of evil, the powers and principalities that lie behind much of the greed, selfishness, and hatred in the world.

There is also a form of unconscious freedom built into nature. Viruses are not living – they have no ability to reproduce on their own – but they are life forms that mutate in astonishingly complex ways. Most viruses are beneficial – without them bacteria would take over all life – but others cause pandemics and kill millions. They are not sentient, but make choices to survive. 

Why is there evil? Why is there suffering? Choice. Freewill. Evolutionary freedom.

The deeper question concerns God. If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, all powerful and all loving, why doesn’t God step in and keep babies from getting cancer, send some rain to put out the forest fire, or stop the Hitlers, Stalins, and Pol Pots?

That question came to prominence in the 17th century. The Enlightenment brought Deism, the belief that while God exists, God does not intervene. Deists propose an absent God. God created everything like a watchmaker creates a watch, then left it to run on its own. 

Enlightenment philosophy maintains that that the Creator has left humans in charge. It is our responsibility to make a better world. The most influential founding fathers of the United States were deists heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. 

Deism cuts Jesus out of the picture. Thomas Jefferson took a scissors to the Bible and created his own version, sans anything miraculous. For a deist, Jesus becomes a wise teacher, on the level of Socrates or Confucius, but nothing more. Without realizing it, most Americans operate in an Enlightenment-Deistic mindset. We tend to be steeped in individualism, all about the freedom to do whatever we want to do, and trusting in human advancement to solve problems. Our common view of God is of a God who is “up there,” or “out there” someplace. We pray to a distant deity to zap our loved ones well. Then God can go back to God’s business.

I do not disparage the Enlightenment – it gave us science, medicine, information technology, a deeper understanding of human nature, universal education, and liberal democracy. But it also pushed Jesus aside.

A biblical worldview puts Jesus and the Cross at the center. Everything in the cosmos changed on Good Friday. God in human flesh absorbed all evil into himself. Evil imploded and killed him. In the process, evil destroyed itself, death died, and Jesus rose from the dead. He subsequently poured out the Holy Spirit on all humanity. 

By that Spirit, God lives among us, with us, in us. God is here now. Emmanuel. God is not distant, off sitting on a throne in a remote place called heaven. God is with us, which means God is suffering with us. 

Where is God when the hospitalized child or the elderly nursing home resident cries in pain? Where is God when the floods sweep away houses and people? Where is God when a powerful nation invades its neighbor? 

The answer is that God is right there crying with the one in pain, drowning with the flood victim, grieving with the bereft, sheltering in the subway with the bombed. When we are in pain, God feels it. When we suffer, God suffers. One day, as I was standing at my son’s graveside sobbing, I felt the divine presence. With his arm figuratively around my shoulder, Jesus wept with me. Elliott’s death hurt Jesus as much (perhaps more) than it hurt me.

Jesus is the perfect reflection of God. “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. I and the Father are one.” If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. God weeps with those who weep, is incarcerated with the prisoner, sleeps under the bridge with the homeless, wails with the bereaved parent, feels the same pains as the patient, aches with the hungry. “If you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.”

The question is not, “Why doesn’t God fix this?” The question is, “Will we join God in making all things new?” Evil in the world is our invitation to do something about it. It is our call to activism, to justice. 

That activism can take many forms. I think of the sacrifices of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy HeightMalcom X, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Joan Baez, Bayard Rustin, and Mary McLeod Bethune. I think of Jimmy Carter building houses with Habitat for Humanity and Shane Clayborne forging weapons into garden tools. But I also think of James Baldwin and Thomas Merton. We can join God in many ways. We can enter solidarity with those who are suffering by using our individual gifts and talents. Prayer and writing fit me better than marches and vigils, although I applaud both.

Rather than cutting Jesus out of the picture and wondering why an all-power distant God doesn’t fix stuff, we’re invited to enter into solidarity with the suffering and use our personalities and abilities to stand on the side of peace and righteousness against injustice. 

Evil is our invitation to do good.

LRT

23 August 2022

What is God inviting us to do? (an audio teaching on Acts 5-8)

Good News for the Universe! An audio teaching on Romans 1-4 with Dr. Larry Taylor

Precious Death

I.

My name is Ahyoka. In Cherokee, that means “she brought happiness,” but I have known no happiness. We tried to accommodate, to live like the white man. We dressed in the clothes of the white man, learned his language. We built houses in villages with stores and shops; we tended farms and sold our crops in the market. We had art, music, and culture, religion, and language for centuries before the white man came. The white men called themselves “Christians.” We lived peacefully in what the white man calls “Georgia.”

Then they said an order came from Chief Andrew Jackson. Our homes, shops, and lands were stolen. My mother was one of the women raped. They stole all our belongings. We children hid in the woods, eating roots and berries until they found us. In rags we walked the trail of tears. Our grandparents died on the way. We were “given” land where crops would not grow, and left in squander to starve.

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful ones.

II.

In my native Ghana, my name, Nyamékyε means “gift from God.” I was given that name because my mother was long childless. I was the answer to her prayers. I grew strong in our village. My father was a mighty hunter. I was given in marriage to a handsome man who was also a hunter. The entire tribe rejoiced when I gave birth to Quaashie. Quaashie means Sunday. We often name our children after the day of the week they were born. Quaashie was a strong, healthy boy. 

I was sitting on a log by the river outside our village nursing Quaashie one warm afternoon when they threw a net over us and we were trapped. They beat us and packed us into a large boat. We lay chained on shelves with others inches below and above us. From above, the excrement fell down on us. We were covered in dung and sweat. The white men took us out of chains every few days, brought us up on deck, dumped salty water over us, then raped us. My vagina bled and my belly hurt. We ate horrible tasting swill. When we finally reached shore, they stood me, holding Quaashie, naked on a block wearing chains. White men stuck their hands in my vagina and squeezed my breasts. They spoke strange languages.

I wailed when they ripped Quaashie from my arms. I never saw him again. I never saw my husband again. I never saw my mother, or father, or villagers again. Chained, I was thrown in a wagon and taken to what they called a “plantation” that was land stolen from native people like me. The white people are Christians, but not like what our preachers tell us. The one they call “master” rapes me every week. I have born three babies by him. They have all been sold away. And here I must pick cotton under the overseer’s whip until I die.

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful ones.

III.

I am Adinah, which means “gentle delicate one” in my native Poland. We are Jewish. My daddy was a professor of literature at the university. My mother was a concert violinist in the symphony. I had a little brother named Aleksander. Our home was filled with fine art, books, and music. Daddy’s library had tomes from floor to ceiling. His big mahogany desk always covered with papers. A large globe sat on a stand in the corner. A baby-grand Steinway sat in our drawing room. We all played it. My mother practiced her violin for hours every day. The sunlight streamed through curtains and danced off the crystal chandelier. 

There were screams in the streets the day the Nazis came and kicked open our door, seized each of us, then looted our house, stealing all of value. They threw us into trucks, then packed us like cattle onto trains. I never saw my mother, father, or little brother ever again.

The camp had barbed wire and men with guns who called us names and said we were not human. They were Christian and called us “Christ-killers.” They said we drank blood at our feasts. Women in tan uniforms yelled at us, beat us, kicked us. We were packed into drafty wooden buildings. We slept on shelves like slaves on a ship. We dressed in rags. Most of the girls and women in my bunkhouse died of cold or starvation. Others were taken for “medical research. We never saw them again. 

A foul-smelling smoke wafted continuously from chimneys and ash fell on us all. I remember the nauseating feeling I got when I learned it was the ash of humans like me.

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful ones.

IV.

The brutal Russians and the helpless Ukrainians are Christians. My name is Yuriy. I am Ukrainian. I am 14-years old. Invading Russian soldiers stopped my father Ruslan, and me when we went out for humanitarian aid. We raised our hands. We were unarmed. They shot my father dead. He was shot twice in the chest, right where the heart is. Then he fell. They shot me in the arm. As I lay on the ground, they shot at my head, but the bullet went through my hood.

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
    our God is merciful.
The Lord protects the simple;
    when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest,
    for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,
    my eyes from tears,
    my feet from stumbling.
I walk before the Lord
    in the land of the living.

    
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful ones.

LRT 9 April 2022. Scripture is from Psalm 116, NRSV. The story in section IV comes from the BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60989121

Running into Resting: A Study in Hebrews

Joining with God in God’s Work. A study in Hebrews

What is a person?

An elephant named Horton said, “A person is a person, no matter how small.”

But what is a person? What is personhood?

At the urgent request of the mother, I (the hospital chaplain) was called to into the operating room to be present during a cesarian section. The fetus was severely brain damaged. Doctors knew it could not survive outside the womb. In fact, though it was moving, it had no brain activity even inside the womb. The mother was overwhelmed and distraught and wanted the baby to be baptized as soon as it was born. 

I could have gotten into all sorts of theological arguments about who should be baptized and how, what this or that theological tradition permits or doesn’t, or what baptism is from a biblical perspective. I chose to ignore all that. This mom needed assurance that her baby was safe. I administered the ancient ritual and prayed for and with the mom.

That baby had no ability to think, act, reason, or (according to the pediatric neurologist) experience pain. Her brain was so malformed, it could not even direct the little lungs to breath or the tiny heart to beat. 

Was that baby a person? Is she in heaven with God? Will her mother see her someday? If so, what age will the baby be? Do children who die grow up in heaven, or wait for their parents to raise them? Do all who die before whatever is the age of accountability go to heaven? Is baptism a ticket to heaven? Is it salvific? Are those who were forced to be baptized against their wills Christians? 

Does personhood start at conception? How do we know? Scripture doesn’t say. “Natural law” all depends on your definition of “natural.”  The majority of fertilized ova never implant in the womb and are washed naturally out of a woman’s body. Are all of those fertilized eggs persons? Are they in heaven? Is heaven filled with persons who never even lived? Is heaven only for persons?

The baby in the operating room looked like a baby. Had you seen it, you’d have said, “That’s a baby girl. Sadly, a dead baby girl.” You might hesitate to say the same thing about a cell the size of a pencil dot.

Plato defined persons as beings with souls temporarily housed in bodies. True freedom lies in escaping the body, liberating the soul. Care of the soul is paramount. That view (sadly, in my opinion) became blended with Christian theology from the time of Augustine. Is the physical body, which God at creation declared “very good,” unimportant? Is this life merely a rehearsal? Is escape our goal?

John Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers tended to define persons as beings with rationality – the ability to think, make choices, and reason. But, what about a human being who has lost the capacity of moral choice, or the ability to reason and communicate because of birth defect, brain damage, or disease? Are they, as some have suggested, humans but not persons?

I was there at her side, whispering encouragement in her ear, telling her she was loved. Fully gowned, I stood next to her in the operating room holding her hand and thinking about my own children, including the one who died in his teens. 

The young woman had been in a car accident and subsequently declared brain dead. Her grieving parents donated her organs for transplant. She was breathing on her own; her heart was beating without the aid of medications. Her brainstem was working but the rest of her brain was not. A set of physicians and nurses attended her waiting for her heart to stop. Once it did, the organ procurement person started the official clock. 

Seven minutes later, all those present rushed out and a team of transplant surgeons who had flown in from another city rushed in to harvest her liver, lungs, pancreas, heart, and kidneys. They would then pack them in ice chests, rush out to a waiting ambulance that would emergently hurry them to the airfield where the private jet was waiting. Back in the city they came from, patients waited in operating rooms for those organs. 

This young woman was clearly a person before the accident. Did she cease to be a person when her upper brain function stopped? When her brain stem could no longer keep her heart beating? When the waiting physician pronounced her dead? Seven minutes later when the state said she was dead enough for her organs to be removed? Is a person still a person without a body? 

I was visiting patients in a small hospital that specializes in the care of humans who are so damaged they cannot do anything for themselves. Some are entirely comatose, unconscious, but breathing, hearts beating. Others could thrash about and moan. The attending nurses assumed all of them could hear and understand them. They spoke to them, joked with them, put up pictures for them to “look” at, and had running one-way conversations with them. That’s all as it should be. I was proud of those nurses. I admire them deeply. And who knows, maybe some of their patients did hear and understand a bit. Something intuitive tells me those are persons lying in that hospital – persons loved by God and worthy of being treated with dignity.

The psychology of warfare involves dehumanizing the enemy. They are no longer men, women, parents, spouses, or children, but “Japs,” “Krauts,” “Gooks,” or “Rag-heads.” Xenophobes dehumanize immigrants. They become “bad hombres,” or “illegals,” rather than refugees. Homophobes call homosexuals “fags” instead of men. The person who commits a crime is a “perp,” not a woman. Pseudoscientific Nazis decided Jews were not persons. The majority of whites in the antebellum south believed Africans were subhuman. It is far easier to kill, enslave, rape, abuse, deport, or dismiss a subhuman. It’s (hopefully) obvious that that is profoundly wrong. There are no “others.” There’s just us. 

We tend, I think, to associate personhood with bodies. The baby in the OR had a body. The severely damaged people in the specialty hospital had bodies. The comatose patient has a body. We assume, therefore, that they are persons, created in the image of God, loved by God, worthy of dignity and care, and destined for eternal life.

We rightly value the body. It isn’t just a shell or a tent to be cast off some fine day. That’s Platonism, not Christianity. Scripture clearly teaches the value of the human body. It bears the imago Dei. It is the temple of the Holy Spirit. It will be physically resurrected to eternal life. Healthcare workers, those attending to the needs of refugees, visiting prisoners, and feeding the homeless are doing godly work.

Even if the body doesn’t work, even if the brain can’t reason or feel, there is still a valuable human being there. Whether or not there is a person depends on our definition of person. If “human” and “person” are synonyms, then the answer is clear – a being with a body is a person regardless of ability to reason or communicate. 

What about beings without bodies? The spermatozoa cell, the ovum? What about the dead person? The disembodied soul? 

And what about animals? Animals can clearly think. At some level, they can reason and make choices. Octopuses are mollusks with no skeletons, no spinal columns, gills, three hearts, and blue blood that can walk on land, solve puzzles and have both short and long-term memories. Dolphins talk to each other. Orangutans use tools. We treat our dogs like children. Even trees communicate with one another. Every strand of DNA carries messages. Many people are convinced that a fertilized ova is a person. Women have even been convicted of murder after a miscarriage. If multiplying cells are persons, why not all living cells? Are orangutans, dogs, and dolphins persons? The octopus reasons and displays high intelligence. Is it a person? Do we need to expand the definition of personhood to include all living things? Is personhood to be equated with life-force?

It seems reasonably clear that human beings are part of nature, connected with all of creation, part of a marvelous web of interdependent reality. It seems clear that the physical universe, including our bodies, is important. All that is physical owes its existence to God, is treasured by God, is being rescued and renewed by God. Our bodies are good. We will live forever in resurrected bodies in a resurrected cosmos.

I do not believe that God is simply another name for reality, or that God is an impersonal life-force (although God created reality and the life-force that runs through every living thing). I don’t pray to the universe. The universe is impersonal. Every mountaineer knows the mountain doesn’t care if an avalanche snuffs you out. Every sailor knows the sea feels no regret when it swallows a ship. The rapidly mutating SARS-CoV-2 virus that is causing the global COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t care who is President or what Q-Anon thinks.

I believe that God is a person. I believe God interacts with, cares for, expresses love towards, speaks to, listens to, and is profoundly interested in each of us. That does not imply that God is confined to a body. I don’t picture an old man in the sky. None of our pronouns really work for God. I believe God has personhood that is beyond the physical. And, I believe that God is perfectly reflected in Jesus, the Messiah. 

As I read the Bible, it also seems clear to me that humans are in some capacity special. We have the capacity to love and be loved. We have the capacity to know we exist and to study our own existence. Humans have self-awareness. We have the capacity to interact with our creator, to know and love God. I cannot say for certain that no animals have any of those capacities, or that there are not intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe with similar capacities, but we do. 

Humans bear the image of God. That has nothing to do with physicality or appearance, and even less to do with the made-up construct of “race” (which has no biological validity). Whatever else the imago Deiincludes, it involves the capacity to know, love, and follow God. Obeying God means reflecting God’s nature to the world around us. The teenage girl giving up her free time to sit next to a nursing home resident holding her hand and listening to stories is beautifully reflecting the imago Dei. But so is the silent Alzheimer’s patient, the derelict drug addict, the incarcerated killer, the child I tutored whose outer ears had been gnawed off by rats, and the comatose woman.

All humans are loved by God. Jesus died for all. The eschaton, the telos, the final consummation of history includes people from every nation, language, culture, and ethnicity. It includes the incarcerated as well as the one on the outside. It includes the poor as well as the middle class, the gay person as well as the straight. It includes people of every skin tone and background. Perhaps the glorious Kingdom will include all sorts of creatures as well.

I don’t know if it’s proper to think of octopuses and birch trees as having personhood. I do not know when a mass of dividing cells becomes a person. Lawyers and philosophers notwithstanding, I doubt anyone does. I cannot settle on a definition of “personhood.” 

Nevertheless, I know God interacts with me personally, talks to me, comforts and guides me, holds me and cares for me in a way that no mere force of nature could do. I know that I am, like all of us, unique, beloved, and bearing (albeit imperfectly) the divine image. 

Why is Philemon in the Bible?

Living Out Your Calling in this Stage of your Life — a look at 2 Timothy

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