Category Archives: Spiritual Direction

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.


23 August 2022

Following Jesus into the Broken Heart of God. An audio teaching on Acts 17:24-21:16

God removes hindrances to faith in Christ. An audio teaching on Acts 12-15

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

Jesus sends power to love: an audio teaching on Acts 2

A New Kingdom: an audio teaching on Acts 1

That They All May Be One: An Audio Teaching on Romans chapters 12-16

God is Faithful: An Audio Teaching on Romans 9-11

Living in the Holiest of All: an audio teaching on Romans 5-8

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