Renewing My Mind and Spirit

On Sunday, I realized that I have been feeling kind of low – not exactly depressed but certainly discouraged. When I am not at work or out running or hiking, I am unmotivated and uninspired. I have not written a new blog post for more than a month. All I seem to want to do is read news stories on social media. And I think that is the problem. When I read too much about what is going on in the world, I worry about the state of our country.  I am disgusted by the propaganda and hatefulness but there is little that I can do about it.

In church this week, my pastor started a new sermon series on the Holy Spirit. He said that we all have a spirit though many people suppress it. The nonreligious allow the body, emotions, and mind/will to dominate the spirit. But for those of us who have been given the Holy Spirit as a guide, the Spirit can transform the other parts of us.

The sermon could not have come at a better time for me. I am not at peace. I let myself worry too much about politics. I hate what is evil, as I should. I certainly don’t want to become complacent or ignorant but I can’t let my spirit be overcome by the wickedness I see. Too often, I let myself be tempted into reading the comments below the articles I read – and find a cesspool of insults and untruths. There I get a glimpse into the hearts of the worst sorts of people,  many of them claiming to be Christians. It’s like watching a train wreck.

Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  Today, I am committing myself to spiritual renewal. Instead of plugging into the power of social media, I will plug into the power of the Spirit.

With the words of Romans 12 as my guide, I will put love into action:

I will cling to what is good

I will be joyful in hope

I will live in harmony with others

I will be patient with others

I will be kind

I will be humble

I will share with those in need

I will be faithful in prayer

I will not repay evil with evil

I will not let my spirit be overcome by evil, but will overcome evil with good.

Romans 8:5-6 (NIV)

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

 

 

A Woman of Faith, Pondering the Nature of Man

In The Road to Character, David Brooks wrote about people who demonstrated “eulogy virtues” as opposed to “resume virtues,” drawing on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s essay about the dual nature of man. I was intrigued by the rabbi’s take on human nature so I decided to read the essay myself. The rabbi wrote The Lonely Man of Faith as a confession of the inner conflicts experienced by a person of faith, particularly his feeling of estrangement and separation from the secular world. He offered no solutions to these conflicts but hoped to grow in self-knowledge by sharing his experiences. The Lonely Man of Faith was published more than fifty years ago but as a “lonely” woman of faith, I find it still relevant today.

One Man Engaged in Self-Confrontation

The rabbi noted that there are two different versions of man’s creation in the book of Genesis. The differences have led some to question whether they were written by the same person. The rabbi believed the accounts were different because the author was describing different aspects of human nature, one part that is focused on achievement (doing) and one part that is focused on spiritual growth (being).

Genesis 1 says that God created mankind in his own image, both male and female, to rule over all creatures on earth – animals and fish and birds. The second chapter of Genesis says that God formed a man from the dust and breathed life into him so that he became a living being. God put the man in the garden of Eden to take care of it and cultivate it. Later, God decided that the man needed a helper so he put him to sleep and created a woman from his rib.

The second account of man’s creation does not say that man was created in God’s image; it says he was created from the dust of the ground, a much more humble description. The first account speaks of male and female as if they were created concurrently; the second account says that Adam was created first. In the first account, man was given dominion over all creation; in the second account he was put in charge of tending the garden of Eden.

The rabbi called the two conflicting versions of man Adam the first and Adam the second. Created in God’s image, Adam the first is himself creative and intelligent. He dominates creation and lives to achieve. He wants to know how things work. He expresses himself outwardly, with actions and words. He doesn’t just create things. He also creates laws and rules to govern creation because there is dignity in being orderly. Adam I is motivated by a desire for dignity and respect. He gets his sense of human identity from being noticed by others for his talents. He is very conscious of his status relative to others and wants to impress people with his importance.

The rabbi described Adam the second as a seeking, inquisitive man. He wants to know why the world exists. He wants to know what it all means. What is the purpose of our existence? What gives life meaning and purpose? Who is the mysterious One who follows me like a shadow yet disappears when I try to confront him? Who is the revealed and hidden God? Adam II sees God in nature – “in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the stillness of a starlit evening.”

Rather than calling them Adam I and Adam II, I prefer to think of the conflicting versions of Adam as the Striving Self and the Seeking Self. Both parts of the self embrace being human but to be human means something different to each. The Striving Self seeks dominion over his environment. His goal is to glorify himself and demonstrate his worth to others. The Seeking Self believes there is “another mode of existence through which man can find his own self.” He seeks a path of redemption. He is humble enough to see that he is not always good. He admits failure and defeat. He opens himself up to being confronted by God and being overpowered by him.

I agree with the rabbi that the creation story is symbolic. We weren’t literally created in God’s image but have divine attributes. We weren’t literally created from dirt but we certainly act like it sometimes. But I think that in describing the dual nature of man based on the book of Genesis, the rabbi left out a significant part of the creation story – the part that explains why man struggles so much.

  • Why is there a void that nothing else can fill? Not money, not fame, not status?
  • Why does the Seeking Self feel the need for redemption?
  • Where did we get our sense of right and wrong, the knowledge of good and evil?
  • Why does God feel so far off?
  • Why does it feel like our very existence is cursed?

The answers are in Genesis 3, the story of “the fall.” When God created the first man, he told him that he could eat from any tree in the garden, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve was tempted by the serpent to disobey God’s command and she talked Adam into it as well. They ate the forbidden fruit and their eyes were opened. They became aware of their nakedness. For the first time, they knew shame and fear. Before this act of disobedience, man had a personal relationship with God. But because they disobeyed, God banished them from the garden and cursed the ground from which they came. For “dust you are and to dust you will return.”

The personalities described by the rabbi are one person engaged in self-confrontation. The rabbi noted that the process of redemption does not have to be acted on externally, rather, it is process that happens inside the self. By exercising self-discipline and self-control, a person develops feelings of self-worth. In contrast, the Christian faith teaches that redemption comes through repentance and faith in the redeemer, Jesus Christ. Being virtuous can certainly make you feel good about yourself. But knowing that you have worth in the Creator’s eyes, even as a sinner, is even better.

The rabbi described the person of faith as a wanderer, oscillating between two worlds – the utilitarian, external world of Adam I and the redemptive, inner world of Adam II. In seeking a transcendental experience – a relationship with a higher power – the person of faith feels like a stranger in the modern world. Modern man often seems self-centered and even narcissistic.  The person of faith seeks meaning in something outside the self – in a higher being.

I think that we are all spiritual beings whether or not we practice introspection, regardless of whether we open up ourselves to being confronted by a higher moral power. Many people do not want to examine themselves closely. It’s not comfortable. Sometimes it is even painful. We resist criticism and judgment. We are too proud to admit failure and too independent to submit themselves to the authority of a higher being.

The rabbi noted that one of the struggles a person of faith faces is the fact that he cannot prove his beliefs are true. He can’t prove that God created the world. He can’t prove that the invisible God is here. But his beliefs are central to his identity as a human being. For the person of faith, to be human is to believe in something more powerful, intelligent and glorious than the human mind can imagine. The inability to communicate this experience to people without faith leads to feelings of estrangement. It enhances the feeling of uniqueness and separateness. For the rabbi, this feeling of rejection and disconnection is a form of loneliness. It is an awareness of your inability to connect on a deep, intimate level.

Today, I think it is even more difficult for a person of faith to feel like she belongs in the secular world. The world is even more driven by technology than it was in 1965, when Soloveitchik’s essay was published. Social media encourages self-centeredness and narcissism. It connects people in ways that are largely superficial and keeps people from engaging in a deep and meaningful way with people who are physically present. This is a “look at me” kind of world where people believe that their worth is somehow determined by the number of “likes” they get.

Over the past few decades, people of faith have become troubled by the decline in morality, a perfectly understandable concern. However, in the quest to gain moral control of a world that at least figuratively seems to be going to hell, many religious people abandoned the true purpose of evangelism – spreading the good news of salvation. The religious right became like Adam I, striving for power and dominion, and lost sight of the ways we should be relating to others – with love, forgiveness and mercy. They also forgot that humans were not created to have dominion over other human beings.

The Meaningless World of the Striving Self

The rabbi was certainly not the first person to feel estranged from the world. King Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes as a reflection on his experience as an Adam I type of personality, striving and toiling “under the sun.” He was a wealthy man. He accomplished a lot. He built houses and planted vineyards and gardens. He acquired livestock and flocks, gold and silver. He denied himself nothing. But he was conflicted about the meaning and purpose of life.

When he looked back at what he had achieved in his lifetime, he found it all meaningless. What good does it do to acquire wealth if you have to leave it behind to someone who did not labor for it? Solomon understood that much of our striving and ambition stem from envy of our neighbor. We want what other people have and we want to impress people with what we have. It is like “chasing the wind.”

Solomon also realized just how temporal life is. People come and people go. Those who are yet to come will not remember those living now. Who knows what will happen when a man is gone? Solomon said that God “set eternity in the hearts of men” yet we cannot understand what God has done. Even as a very wise man, Solomon could not comprehend exactly what we humans are doing here on this earth. Time and chance happen to all of us. Death is a certainty for humans just as it is for animals. Ultimately, even as Solomon saw purpose in enjoying what you do on this earth, he concluded that the duty of man is to fear God and keep his commandments.

Lonely but not alone…

I can understand why Rabbi Soloveitchik described the faith experience as a lonely one. I have experienced rejection and ridicule for believing in what I cannot see. I have learned to expect this. But I can honestly say that I have never felt more estranged from the larger faith community than I do today. I see evidence of hearts that have become hardened. I am reminded of what Jesus said when asked why he spoke in parables (Matthew 13: 13-15):

This is why I speak to them in parables:

Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
'You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

One final thought on Adam II, the seeking self. A person of faith has no choice but to live in the world of Adam I. But we’re not supposed to conform to the patterns of the self-glorifying world of Adam I. We’re supposed to be transformed by God. When we are truly transformed, we understand with our hearts.

Jesus came into the world to show us how to live, to show us how to tend the garden. He said, “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.” “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

 

 

 

 

Thanks for my free lunch…and more

I have a mushy memory from kindergarten about the little half-pint cartons of milk. I wanted to have milk at snack time like the other kids. If memory serves, Mrs. Knowles said, “I thought you didn’t like milk.” I’m guessing we hadn’t paid for it. She told me if I wanted milk, I needed to bring money to school with me. We had just moved to Kansas from Indiana and were living with my grandparents at the time. I went home and said I needed a nickel or whatever it was for my milk. It all got straightened out and I did not have to do without the rest of the year.

We were always poor when I was growing up so I have many memories of doing without. I learned to not ask for much, even things I needed. I remember doing without school supplies, like in the first grade when I didn’t have an eraser. I remember walking home looking at the ground, hoping I would find a piece of rubber or something else that would work better at rubbing out my mistakes than a wet finger.

As I got older, I learned what it was like to sit on the sidelines and not participate in sports or other activities because we couldn’t afford it. There was the time that my class was taken down the hall to look at music instruments. I would have liked to have chosen a clarinet but I knew it was not an option for me. In the fifth grade, on the annual play day, one of my sneakers literally fell apart when I was running because it was ripped from front to back.

When I was twelve, I got my first babysitting job. For fifty cents an hour on Saturday mornings, I watched three kids while their mother cleaned at the hotel. I opened up a passbook savings account and saved what little I could from that job and others. As a teenager, I tried to help out by paying for some of my own things. As a teen, I remember asking Mom to take me shopping to Topeka so I could buy a winter coat with my savings. I didn’t choose something fashionable; I chose a simple, cheap one. As a senior, I paid for my own pictures and graduation announcements with the money I had saved. Poverty taught me the value of frugality and self-sufficiency.

I did without a lot growing up but I got to go to a public school whether or not my parents could afford the school books. I had free lunch every day. There were many times when we did not have enough food at our house. How would I have performed in school if I hadn’t had that dependable, balanced meal every day? I will never know. What I do know is that I was a good student and I am grateful that there are people in the world who thought I should eat.

As a kid, I was well aware that there were people who looked down on us for being poor. I heard the whispers and saw the dirty looks. I knew that people resented us because their tax dollars contributed to our welfare. I write about what it was like to be a poor kid because I hope that people will have mercy on the children who will be harmed by proposed cuts to school lunch programs, the Pell grant program and after school programs that help poor students.

So let me take this opportunity to say thank you, taxpayers, even those of you who resent the poor, for paying for my free lunch. I didn’t ask to be poor any more than you asked to feed someone else’s kid, but thank you, because you did the right thing, even if it was against your will.

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney defended cuts to school programs with his claim that there is no demonstrable evidence that programs that feed poor kids help them do better in school. He believes that hard-working taxpayers should not have to pay for welfare programs that help the poor without proof that it makes a difference. He is one of those people who would have looked down his nose at me and resented me for being what Paul Ryan calls a “taker” and not a “maker.” But again, I was just a kid. I didn’t ask to be poor.

Today, I am demonstrable evidence that programs that help the poor pay off in the long run. Government grants paid for about a third of my college costs. I still had to work and I still had to get good grades to keep my scholarships. When I graduated with a degree in accounting, I made $21,000 a year at my first job at a CPA firm. That was three times what I could have made at minimum wage. Over the past thirty-two years, I have paid tens of thousands more in income taxes than I would have paid if the government had not helped me out when I needed a hand up. I’ve paid for my free lunches and free school books and college tuition assistance many times over.

The President didn’t ask me if I want my tax dollars to go towards increased military spending or towards building a wall or towards providing security for his second home or for his frequent trips to Florida. Believe me, I would rather pay for free lunches or Meals on Wheels or for taking care of our veterans. But I don’t get to choose where my tax dollars go and a shocking  quarter of every dollar goes towards military spending.

The sad thing to me is that even religious people who should care about the poor often don’t. I see more expressions of compassion from my atheist friends. One of my evangelical friends recently repeated what she heard a guy say on the radio about the difference between Christians and liberals: Christians believe that we should care for the poor with our own money but liberals want the government to pay for everything! Yet I have never heard an anti-government Christian explain just how the church or secular community would replace the government’s role in providing help to the needy.

So again, thank you American taxpayer for every bit of government financial assistance I received in the first twenty-one years of my life. I know there are people who don’t think I was worth it, but thank God someone did.

Reflections on Columbine

Eighteen years ago, two high school students plotted a massacre at Columbine High School, which is only about twenty miles from my home. On April 20, 1999, they killed twelve students and a teacher in one of the most deadly school shootings in U.S. history. I remember watching the events unfold on TV that day and how horrified I was that anyone could do something so evil, let alone two kids. Recently, I read Columbine, the book by Dave Cullen, and learned that a lot of what we had been told about the massacre was not true.

One widely spread myth was that Cassie Bernall was shot because she confessed her faith. A witness said that Cassie’s killer asked if she believed in God and she said yes before he shot her. There was some truth behind the rumor. A student was asked if she believed in God but it was not Cassie; it was Valeen Schnurr. While the martyr myth persists, the truth is more compelling to me. The purpose of professing faith is not to bring glory to yourself but to bring glory to God. Valeen seems to understand this. Although I don’t understand why Cassie’s mother Misty chose to write a book that perpetuated this myth, even after being told it wasn’t true, I can understand how desperately she must have wanted something positive and inspiring to come from her daughter’s senseless death.

Columbine was a spiritual turning point for me. In my grief I returned to church because I wanted to be with people who believe in goodness and love. Columbine reminded me of how much evil there is in the world. It was frightening to think that the world had changed so much in my lifetime that students who were bullied would strike out at their peers with hatred in their hearts. That’s not how we responded to bullying when I was a kid.

After reading Cullen’s book, I know that the motive was not retaliation for bullying. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not social outcasts – they had lots of friends. They did not target jocks or any other group for revenge. They wanted to kill as many random people as possible.

In the immediate aftermath, it became clear that Eric Harris was the more evil of the two killers. He wanted to outdo Timothy McVeigh, the primary perpetrator behind the Oklahoma City bombing. He intended to kill several hundred students by placing two bombs in the “Commons” area, timed to explode at the busiest time of day. He and Dylan planned to shoot at the bomb survivors as they raced for the exits. Fortunately, Eric was not a skilled bomb maker. Unfortunately, he was able to acquire guns easily by asking a fellow student to purchase them at a gun show.

Eric predicted that people would not understand his reasons for murdering. He figured they would say that he was insane or crazy. Based on the evidence, including the basement tapes and Eric’s journals, it is likely that he was a psychopath, though most are not violent. His motive for killing was twofold: to demonstrate his superiority over others and because he got a sadistic pleasure out of it.

Psychopaths are not insane but they do have a personality disorder. They lack empathy. Psychopaths do not have the depth or complexity of emotions that normal people experience. A psychopath’s emotions are primitive, a reaction to threats to their own welfare. They experience emotions like frustration, rage and indignation.

The frightening thing about psychopaths is that they are skilled manipulators. They are able to mimic normal emotions easily – joy, grief, sadness, anxiety – and can be quite charming. They are proud of their ability to disguise their disregard for others and enjoy fooling people. It’s like a game to them.

Eric did not have respect for morality, justice, rules and laws. In his journal, he wrote that there is no such thing as true good or true evil, that morality is relative to the observer. He had no mercy or compassion for others. He held other people in contempt.

Dylan was not a psychopath; he was a depressive. He had been thinking about killing himself for two years and self-medicated with alcohol. Dylan was lonely and self-conscious. He was disgusted with himself. Dylan was also very smart and had a bright future ahead of him. He was introspective. He believed in God and an afterlife. Unlike Eric, he did believe in ethics and morality. He showed that he had the capacity for love, often writing about his crush on a classmate.

As I said, the Columbine massacre reminded me that there are truly evil people out there who are bent on hurting as many people as possible. But tragedies also reveal how much goodness there is in the world and how much healing is possible when people respond with love.

Cullen told the stories of many survivors and families of the victims – stories of struggles, resilience and forgiveness. Cullen was personally impacted by Patrick Ireland, a student who was shot in the head and foot. Although he had brain damage and had to struggle through rehab, his injuries did not define him or set the tone for the rest of his life. Val Schnurr is another example of a survivor who endured years of pain, therapy and counseling. She chooses to focus on the positive and is not consumed with understanding why the tragedy happened. She forgave the parents of the killers and bears no ill will towards Eric or Dylan.

For all of Eric’s contempt for his fellow man, his inhumane actions in fact revealed the beauty of humanity. Faced with physical trauma and pain, survivors demonstrated courage, persistence and determination to overcome. Faced with deep emotional scars, survivors demonstrated resilience, optimism and hope. Confronted with unimaginable cruelty, survivors showed an amazing capacity for forgiveness towards the monsters who wronged them.

In the years since Columbine, there have been many other mass shootings. After Columbine, I hoped that the national response would be to pass commonsense gun control legislation. With every tragedy, my hope wanes. In some cases, mental illness plays a role in the decision to kill others but most of the violence in America is not linked to mental illness, it’s a symptom of our violent culture. In two years, when America looks back at Columbine, how will we explain the fact that we have learned nothing?

 

Being Perfectly Clothed

Every day, whether I am going out or staying home and relaxing, I make a decision about what I’m going to wear that day. When I can, I opt for being casual and comfortable – blue jeans and a t-shirt are my favorite clothes. I’m not especially stylish and I don’t like to be fancy or ostentatious. The simpler the better. For work, I dress up a bit more – slacks and a blouse or sweater. I try not to wear the same outfit two weeks in a row. Sometimes I put something on and then change my mind about wearing it because the combination doesn’t look right. Sometimes my choice of what to wear depends on my mood or on the weather.

I know people who are always dressed to the nines, people who spend a lot of time and money on their physical appearance yet lack the beauty of a kind and gentle spirit. Ultimately, what you look like on the outside really doesn’t matter if you are dirty and ugly on the inside.

Yesterday, someone on Facebook posted a few verses from Colossians that explain how God’s people ought to clothe themselves:

Colossians 3:12-14 New International Version (NIV)

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Today at church, we read a few verses that also speak to the importance of being humble, gentle, patient and loving.

Ephesians 4:1-3 New International Version (NIV)
Unity and Maturity in the Body of Christ

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

The apostle Paul wrote both passages. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote that love binds the virtues of compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience together in perfect unity. In his letter to the Ephesians, he urged them to be humble, gentle and patient. He made reference to another bond that keeps the Body unified in the Spirit – a bond of peace.

Just as I don’t feel that I am clothed right if my blouse and pants don’t go together, I don’t feel spiritually right if I behave in a way that is not loving or peaceful. The clothes don’t fit; they dig into my sides and make me feel uncomfortable with myself. Being angry or holding a grudge doesn’t fit. Being mean doesn’t fit. Being selfish doesn’t fit. Being impatient doesn’t fit. When I act badly, I wish that I could take off my ugly rags and put on something that feels better.

The truth is I am never perfectly clothed. My wardrobe is often rumpled and stained with the mess of my selfishness. But just as I make every effort to clothe myself neatly and appropriately when I know I will be seen in public, I need to make every effort to be spiritually mature and to clothe myself with kindness, gentleness, humility and patience. And don’t forget to put on a coat of love.