Tag Archives: Spirituality

Becoming an Instrument of Peace

Last week, I stumbled upon an opportunity to join a Zoom book club in South Africa in which famed Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf, agreed to participate. I’ve admired Volf for years, beginning with this interview in which he expounds upon some of his ideas about religion, genocide, and violence. I ultimately featured many of his insights in this piece I wrote about Christianity and the Holocaust.

To my surprise and delight, there were only a handful of people in the zoom call, which gave me stunning access to Volf. My daughter joined me over lunch, and we ended up discussing themes raised related to Christianity, genocide, racism, and social justice.

Miroslav Volf

What most struck me during this discussion was a comment Volf made, in passing, which I paraphrase to the best of my memory here: “Every time I post to social media, I pray: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.‘” The thought was that, if the message to be sent didn’t line up with this prayer, Volf would change it, but if it did line up, the prayer was for the message to have this intended effect.

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The Need for Sacred Moments

“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

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The year 2020 will go down in history as a year of public health, economic, and societal crisis. Much less acknowledged, however, is the profound emotional and spiritual malaise* many people feel. In fact, in the United States, emotional distress is three times higher than previous years and happiness is at a near 50-year low.

For many of us, something seems “off.” Perhaps this feels like a sense that something is vaguely “missing,” or maybe we “long” for something more or different. Probably many of us have grown “numb” to these feelings over the past several months – without fully realizing it. We may not understand why we’re feeling the way we do or appreciate how much our inner lives really have changed.

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It’s with all this in mind that I’ve been reflecting on some new research published this week in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

In this study, 2,889 participants were asked about the frequency with which they generally experience “sacred moments” in their everyday lives. Specifically, individuals were instructed to rate, on a scale of 1 (never / not at all) to 5 (very often), how often they experience:

  • “a moment that felt set apart from everyday life,”
  • “a moment… that was really real,”
  • “a moment in which all distractions seemed to melt away,”
  • “a deep sense of connection with someone or something,”
  • “a sense of uplift,” and
  • “a sacred moment.”

Results from this research show that individuals’ experiences of sacred moments predicted “higher levels of positive emotions and greater presence of meaning, as well as lower levels of perceived stress, depressed distress, and anxious distress.”  

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What is it about “sacred moments,” as defined and measured in the above study, that might be most essential, that might be most involved in predicting higher well-being? When I consider the scale items mentioned above, the one that stands out most focuses on moments of deep “connection with someone or something.” I imagine that deep experiences of connection drive the sense that moments feel “set apart from everyday life” and “really real,” for instance.

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“Done” with Religion?

My core identity remains deeply Christian. However, after 48 years of attending church at least once per week (almost without exception, even during college), I am – at least temporarily – “done” with the local church.

Part of this stems from the era of COVID-19. At the same time my family and I try to do what we feel is responsible in preventing further spread of the virus, others in our area see no problem with in-person worship, contributing to a new sense of disconnection.  

Even if COVID-19 never happened, though, I still might be “done.” For years, although I earnestly joined with others in my local church community to recite the same creed and prayers of the Christian faith and to pour my heart into collective worship and service, I often – ironically enough – had the sense we didn’t share the same worldview or many of the same values. I never felt comfortable attending the men’s Bible study because I believed my questions or divergent thoughts would not be welcome. Maybe this is an aside – or maybe not – but my kids never significantly connected with anyone in the church’s youth program either. As time passed, I realized we didn’t really have a place at that table.

I’m not happy about being “done.” I feel failure… isolation… and profound loss. I’ve described this split as being like “divorce.” And, yet, in my brokenness, I also feel some degree of new freedom.

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The first time I heard of a religious “done” was when I was in a meeting with my colleague, Josh Packard, Sociologist at the University of Northern Colorado, Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute, and author of “Church refugees: Sociologists reveal with people are DONE with church but not their faith.” The term “done” is a play on words, referencing the more common term religious “nones,” the broader, growing group of individuals in the developed world who express no religious affiliation.

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What If We’re Not Waging “War” Against COVID-19?

As the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to increase in our region, I continue to think of this excellent article from Christian Century. It challenges the presumption that the most productive metaphor for what we’re doing as a society is “waging war against the virus,” and instead raises some very thought-provoking questions:

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Christopher Sardegna | Unsplash

“What will it mean for our country and world to live well with this pandemic?”

“Will we be patient and kind?”

Will we be able to truthfully accept and faithfully bear this tragedy, even as we try to conquer it?”

“How will we care for those who cannot be cured – a question made painfully difficult by the six or more feet of space that separates the dying from their families?”

“How well will we grieve – privately in our own homes, locally in shifts of ten, and collectively as a human race?”

Lessons from the Monks for the COVID-19 Pandemic

When people ask me how I’m doing in this time of “shelter-in-place,” I sometimes will make an attempt at humor and respond: “I’ve always thought I could have been a monk.” 

I’ve long been intrigued by monks and by monastic living.

Whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve tried to learn what I can about monks and monastic living and to incorporate those insights into my daily life. Many years ago, for instance, I participated in the sunrise chants of the Benedictine monks living at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and this taught me something about the vitality of intentional prayer, particularly early in the morning. Since it aired 13 years ago, this On Being interview with Shane Claiborne about “a monastic revolution” has challenged me to be a “real Christian” and follow the sometimes very straightforward and radical teachings of Jesus. Similarly, I’ve been struck by this publication of “the Monk Manifesto” a few years ago, particularly principle #3: “I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.”

As I think about this, I wonder if part of the challenge many of us are facing right now is this: we’re living sort of like monks as we “shelter-in-place,” but without the knowledge of tradition, support, or intentionality that typically comes with monastic living. 

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Holy Saturday

I have always loved what Christians historically call “holy week.” Part of this is because, as someone raised Catholic, I remember this week as the time in the year when church services follow a different rhythm. That is, rather than repeating the same basic structure of the Mass like most Sundays, holy week consists of services for Holy Thursday and Good Friday that feel unique, more soulfelt and dark. But, then, I’ve long believed Catholics practice sadness better than Protestants.

Interestingly, as my theologian friend, Deanna Thompson, points out in her book “Glimpsing Resurrection,” most Christian churches do not mark “Holy Saturday.” She writes:

“It is a day that is attended to only briefly in the Biblical story, a space where meaning is elusive and hope can be hard to see… This day between cross and resurrection seems like a nonevent, a time of waiting in which nothing of significance occurs and of which there is little to be said.”

And, yet, this is the day that marks how, as the Apostles’ Creed acknowledges, Jesus “descended into hell.” It is, as Deanna mentions, “a story of abandonment and separation.” 

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The Science of Happiness during COVID-19

Yesterday, I participated in a webinar on “The Science of Happiness During Covid-19” (the discussion begins at 16:14 below). In this program, Marina Tolou-Shams (Director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital) interviews my first Psychology mentor, Dacher Keltner (Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Berkeley and founder of the Greater Good Science Center) about happiness during this time of pandemic.

Dr. Keltner summarizes much of the literature on the science of happiness by discussing three important areas of individual practice: (1) coping, (2) gratitude, and (3) awe. Each of these may play a critical role in helping individuals through the various stresses we encounter during this pandemic.

Recently, I’ve written several posts about coping with this difficult time, including one the discusses much of the stress and coping literature, one that deals with self-worth, and another that discusses the theology of Christian suffering, in particular. Given this – and reflecting more of the emphasis of yesterday’s discussion – I’ll focus a bit more here on the importance of self-transcendent experience during this time.

As Dr. Keltner notes, there is an impressive research literature on the benefits of gratitude, some of which I discussed in this post about thanksgiving. Practicing gratitude during a pandemic is not meant to be pollyanna, but rather an acknowledgement that, even though the world is in crisis and we may be experiencing many difficult emotions, there also are aspects of life for which we can be thankful. Taking a moment everyday to talk or write about these good things can help shift us toward better emotional balance. For example, my family and I are taking a moment at every dinner together every night to discuss our “highs” and “lows.” The “lows” help us to express times of struggle or dissatisfaction, but the “highs” help us to be more aware of what is good, and also to look for patterns of behaviors that might be helpful for us to be intentional about implementing in the days, weeks, and months ahead. For instance, last night, all four of us had a “high” of exercising in one way or another, and this says something about how important exercise is for our well-being now.

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Finding Self-Worth in a Pandemic

I feel like I’m finally settling into a bit of a rhythm during this time of “shelter-in-place,” and most days, I start with some kind of spiritual meditation. One that has particularly struck me came from a podcast by Krista Tippett, host of one of my favorite programs, “On Being.” (I’d encourage you to listen. The podcast is about 10 minutes long.)

What initially made me pause was how Krista referred to how individuals typically gain a sense of self-worth, and how this time of pandemic is sometimes proving to be a mental health challenge because of that. In fact, research in Social Psychology by Jennifer Crocker shows how people use many strategies to find worth, some of which are more steady and healthy than others. Krista points out that in our individualistic, modern world, many of us have been taught to believe our worth comes from achievement and activity, and how this source of worth is now being threatened because we are not as able to achieve and be active as we might prefer. Others, in contrast, may find worth through their relationships with others, and that, too, may be challenged now during this time of physical distancing.

As an alternative to these sources of self-worth more likely to fluctuate – particularly in this time – Krista discusses how, at her best, she finds worth in simply “being human.” This idea is heavily referenced in Humanistic Psychology and particularly the writings of one of my Psychology heroes, Carl Rogers, who basically argued that all humans have dignity by birthright. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this kind of inherent worth is thought to stem from the fact that we are “children of God,” “made in God’s image,” or possessors of a “Divine spark.” That means we don’t need to strive for worth; we already have it, if we’d just accept it as ours now.

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Paul Tillich

In a passage that has become one of my spiritual touchstones, theologian Paul Tillich put it this way:

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness… Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.'”

Seeking Control in a Pandemic

Few of us have ever dealt with a situation that feels as uncertain, unpredictable, and uncontrollable as the novel coronavirus pandemic. At this early stage, we don’t possess good information about how people are doing psychologically, but many behavioral scientists wonder how individuals are thinking, feeling, or acting differently.

Some insight may be found in a seminal research article from 2008, in which Aaron Kay and his colleagues write:

Imagine a glass that only when full represents a given individual’s preferred level of perceived order within his or her environment. As one way to fill this glass, this individual might rely on his or her perceptions of personal control over his or her outcomes: To guard against perceptions of randomness in the world, that is, he or she can affirm the belief that whatever happens, good or bad, will be due to his or her own actions and therefore not random. Often, however, such perceptions will only partially fill the glass because levels of perceived personal control, for a variety of reasons, tend to fluctuate. Much of the time, therefore, to fill the glass completely, he or she will need to complement these beliefs in personal control with one or more external systems of control.

anna shvets - pexels

Source: Anna Shvets | Pexels

In other words, we all desire a certain amount of order and control. When that is lacking in our environment – such as in a time of pandemic – we look for ways to find it. We do what we can to personally increase feelings of order and control to compensate for what’s happening around us, sometimes in some interesting ways (hoarding toilet paper). The reality, though, is we humans only have so much control over what happens in life, and when that becomes evident to us – as is the case now – we depend more on secondary sources.

Kay and colleagues interestingly studied two such sources of secondary control in their research: (1) the government and (2) God.

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Suffering in a Pandemic Age as a Christian

A few weeks ago, when the novel coronavirus was just starting to spread in the Western world – and along with it, many people’s fears – I became aware of an essay by C. S. Lewis: “On Living in an Atomic Age.” The entire essay can be found in Lewis’s collection “Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays,” but the following excerpt has been most circulated:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

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C. S. Lewis

As noted by Aaron Earls in this response, many people seem to be misinterpreting Lewis’s thoughts here. As he suggests, Lewis would not tell us to ignore the coronavirus, to just go on with our lives by “doing sensible and human things” (in fact, that wouldn’t be “sensible”). Experiencing a daily threat of the bomb is not the same situation as experiencing a global pandemic, and our actions need to fit the situation. As the top scientific and public health experts are telling us, it’s key that we adapt our behavior to stay home and socially distance to decrease the spread of the virus to the fullest extent possible.

When I first read Lewis’s essay, I felt strangely comforted. Humans have lived through epic tragedies before –  such as during the days when there was significant threat of the atomic bomb, the great wars, and the plague – and the novel coronavirus falls in that long line of global crisis. This has helped me to connect with ancestors – including my dad who fought in World War II and likely had to deal with a lot of the same feelings as I am now – as well as many more before me. Many did not survive, but this crisis is helping me to connect with a sense of humanity common to all people across ages, races, religions, genders, etc., and that feels really important. If we are learning nothing else from this pandemic, I believe, it is that we are all far more interdependent than we previously realized.

I think Lewis’s main idea comes in his obvious point that we all are certain to die, many of us in rather unpleasant ways. Most have not really seriously entertained that thought or worked through how to deal with it. We have not yet prepared ourselves for suffering.

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What If It Was Alright Now?

“So here is my little nugget of gospel truth for you to take home. The truth is not that it is going to be alright. The truth is, it already is.” (Fredric Evans)

I’ve been chewing on this quote for the past week, and I’m still now sure what I think about it.

Of course, we need hope that this global pandemic, too, shall pass. And it eventually will. And we have responsibilities for making this happen and preventing as much suffering as possible by staying home, staying connected with each other, and caring for those in need.

But, on the other hand, from the perspective of my Christian faith, there is something deeply profound about realizing that, below the surface, some really important things are already settled. Some things are alright now and no matter what may come.

As we practice social distancing, it’s a perfect time for you to comment below and engage in some virtual discussion.

What, for you, is “alright” now and no matter what may come? How have you been able to connect with deeper truths and greater peace in the midst of this storm? Do you have a faith perspective, and has that helped” If so, how? What are you doing to connect with a deeper and more peaceful perspective intentionally in your daily life?

Spirituality and Breast Cancer, Part 2

With so much going on regarding the coronavirus crisis, it’s really important to remember that some are suffering for other reasons, such as breast cancer.
In this follow-up to a previous blog post about spirituality and breast cancer, my amazingly talented and beautiful wife interviewed me and my brilliant and wise friend, Dr. Deanna Thompson, about the trauma of breast cancer. I’ve personally learned so much from Deanna about suffering over the years, and I’m really honored to be included in an article in which we engage in “virtual conversation.”

Being Moved by Story

In the past few months, I have become quasi-obsessed with the experience of being emotionally moved. I reported on new research about that experience a few weeks ago, and also discussed how someone sharing something “soulfelt” often might prompt a feeling of being moved or touched in others.

I suspect when one becomes more aware of an experience such as this, one starts to pay more attention to it. And so it has been with me.

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Jennifer Isaac

A few weeks ago, my beloved college celebrated its 50th anniversary with a faculty & staff talent show. My friend and longtime collaborator, Jennifer Isaac, shared a Moth-award winning story about her brother that moved everyone in my aisle to tears. I suspect storytelling – along with a few other major modes of expression, such as music – are particularly likely to move people. With Jennifer’s permission, I share her edited story below. It’s also available by video beginning at around 1:21:00

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Flying: A Personal Story
By Jennifer Issac

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Letter to a Middle School Student

Last week, I was delighted to receive this Letter from a Middle School Student asking for my thoughts about the meaning of life. My response is below. I think this brings together several elements of my thinking.

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Dear Jasmine,

It was a pleasure to receive your letter. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the great tradition of letter writing with you.

I share your interest in the meaning of life. In fact, probably most of us ask ourselves about the meaning or purpose of our lives at some point.

I think there probably are three ways to think about this. The first is about the Meaning of Life overall. Questions that fall into this category include: Why is there life at all? What are the origins of life? What happens after we die? What does it mean that we live in a universe where there is life? The second way to think about this is more personal. Questions include: What does my individual life mean? What is my unique purpose? What am I going to do with my “one wild and precious life?,” as the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver put it. The third way is to approach the question as a psychological scientist. Following this, we could ask ourselves how we might measure the perception of meaning in life, in general, and then consider how to perform scientific studies seeking to uncover what predicts the experience of more or less life meaning in a broad group of people.

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One Thing Among Many

I’ve been reading and discussing Parker Palmer’s new book, “On the Brink of Everything,” recently, and with great benefit. Many of my discussions seem to return to a portion of a poem, which I share below. Its insight requires no elaboration.

“Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.”

~Czeslaw Milosz

My Journey with the Bible

I’ve written some personal essays before – these on death and the relationship between science and faith are examples – but below is maybe the most personal essay I’ve ever written. It technically is a narrative essay – focusing on my lifelong experience with the Bible – and I developed it through the help of some amazing folks at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Our teacher at the Loft encouraged us students to submit our work to literary publications, and I sent mine to a very cool Christian literary magazine called Ruminate. I was so honored when they accepted!

Anyway, here it is. I’d love to hear your reaction.

My Journey with the Bible

 

Mary Oliver, Poem #4

This is Mary Oliver’s most famous poem, which ends with one of the most important questions we ever could ask ourselves. I love how she frames it.

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The Summer Day

“Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Mary Oliver, Poem #3

This part of a Mary Oliver poem deeply resonates, at least with me.

“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.”

Mary Oliver, Poem #2

This Mary Oliver poem reminds me how such a complex universe requires multiple ways of knowing, and how our preconceptions sometimes influence what is possible in our perceptions.

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The World I Live In

“I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.”

Mary Oliver, Poem #1

The older I get, the more I am (to my surprise) drawn to poetry. When I read the Bible, I spend more and more time in the Psalms. A few years ago, I shared my favorite poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Recently, I finished Mary Oliver’s book on “Devotions.”

Biography-Mary-OliverMary Oliver is best known for her nature poetry, and has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. For those who don’t know anything about her, here is a rare interview on my favorite radio program / podcast, On Being.

I’m tempted to comment, but over the next week or so, I plan to just share some of my favorites of Mary Oliver’s poems. They speak for themselves.

Here’s the first, called “Swan.”

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