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.

 

 

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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.”

 

 

 

 

Pausing to Celebrate the Joys of Life

I am guilty of thinking and worrying so much about the bad things that are happening in the world today that I often fail to think enough about the good things. Yes, I live in a world where meanness, selfishness and dishonesty abound, but I also live in a world full of people who are kind, generous and honest. I want and need to take a break from my worrying and pause to reflect on what is good. I’m going to start with the word joy, an emotion that reminds me of Christmas season, a time of celebration. But joy is an emotion that I can experience everyday, even during troubled times.

What does the word joy mean to me?

Joy can be defined as a feeling of great pleasure or happiness but the word that comes to my mind is delight. I spend most of my time in a state of contentment – not too high or too low. So when I experience joy, it is a special treat, an emotion that fills me with gratitude for the little pleasures of life. Joy is exponential; it is happiness squared.

What brings me joy?

One of the things that brings me joy is nature. I absolutely love wildlife and wildflowers and beautiful landscapes – mountains, rivers, lakes, the sky, moon, sun and stars. I see mountains in the distance every day but I don’t get to see wildlife every day. So when I can escape from the suburbs and I see deer or elk (which doesn’t happen every time), it fills me with joy. I like to photograph the wildflowers I see on the trails and have learned to recognize and name dozens of them. I am always delighted by the blooms, especially if I find a flower I have never seen before.

Another thing that brings me joy is small children, which might be surprising since I never had any of my own. I love their cuteness and innocence and sweetness. I love seeing their personalities develop and seeing how they resemble their parents. I love seeing them discover something for the first time. I also find joy in the love I see in a mother or father or grandparent who thinks that child is the most precious and special thing in the world.

Learning and discovery something new bring me joy. Figuring out something difficult brings me joy. Overcoming obstacles brings me joy. My faith brings me joy because there is nothing better than knowing I am loved and forgiven as imperfect as I am.

How can I celebrate and share joy everyday?

I get a lot of articles in my Facebook news feed. Many of them are dire news stories about things I cannot control. It is tempting to share them because I want people to be aware of what is going on and I want to resist injustice. But when I share these articles, I spread doom and gloom and I risk alienating people that I care about. So controlling the temptation to share negative news is important if I want to spread the joys of life to my friends.

I also get news feeds from  other pages that are not negative – pages that celebrate things I love like nature and pets. I follow a few religious pages that encourage me with uplifting scripture. I follow a page that promotes having a positive outlook. I can share and increase joy by making sure that these kinds of posts outweigh the negative ones.

I can also celebrate joy by being grateful for the good things in my life and by focusing on the good I see in ordinary people every day. I cannot take for granted the people who are kind and merciful and generous. They bring me joy.

Rejoice, rejoice, again I say rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!

 

 

 

Going Where Compassion Leads Me

When I graduated high school, my grandma wrote a note on my graduation card. She said we wish you great success and hope you will become famous. The second part of the sentence was a puzzle to me. What kind of life did Grandma C.  envision for me, a smart but shy kid? Why did she think I could or would ever be famous and why did she want that for me? I never asked so I will never know. If grandma were here today, I would tell her that my own dream is to be even half the kind, gentle woman of faith that she was. I don’t need fame, I don’t need a fortune. I just want to love and accept people for who they are just like she did.

My grandpa had been feeling sick the May I graduated and soon found out he had pancreatic cancer. He died just a couple of months later. Grandma saw me graduate from college and start my career in accounting. She was proud of me even though I chose a behind-the-scenes career that fit my introverted personality. I know that she would be proud of all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, regardless of how big their circle of fame.

A lot has changed since my grandparents’ day. In my second job out of college, I was introduced to the internet for the first time. That would have been in the mid 90’s, somewhere near the end of my grandma’s life. Since then, the internet has revolutionized the way we work, the way we socialize, the way we communicate and for many people, the way to pursue fame and followers.

About five years ago, the internet became a way for me to try out my long-suppressed desire to write. Even though I don’t talk a lot, my mind is full of thoughts that I long to express. I have learned a lot about myself along this blogging journey. I learned why it is so much easier for an introvert to communicate in writing. I learned that I have a strong social conscience. I learned that I have a deep, unshakeable faith. I learned that it is sometimes easier to share myself with people I don’t know. And I found an outlet for sharing my love of nature.

I learned that no matter how many thousands of words I’ve arranged on the screen, no matter how many people have told me they like my writing, no matter how much I learn about myself, I can’t seem to shake my self-doubts. I always hold myself back, afraid to share myself fully and authentically because I expect to be criticized and rejected. Henri Nouwen understood this. He wrote that perhaps “the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection.”

Time and time again, after publishing my thoughts on the great blogosphere, as I think about sharing my latest post with friends and family, I instead listen to that dark voice in my head that says I’m not good enough. Somebody won’t like it. I deserve to be ignored.

I learned a long time ago that the easiest way to avoid being rejected by other people is to reject myself first. I am my greatest spiritual enemy. Henri said, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the Beloved.”

Vulnerability comes with a great deal of risk. I will be rejected and cast aside by many people; I take that as a given. But if sharing a bit of myself with other people can make a positive difference to even one person, just as my grandma did for me, it is worth it. I am flawed. I am weak. But I am also beloved by One far stronger than me. His compassion moves me to go where it hurts, to share my brokenness, my fear, my confusion and my anguish with others.

So at the start of a new year, I continue on my spiritual journey, seeking truth in my innermost being, going where Compassion asks me to go, immersing myself in this imperfect condition of being human. On my new Innermost Being blog, I write using my grandma’s maiden name to honor the quiet, gentle woman of faith that I aspire to be. Grandma has been gone for many years, but her compassion lives forever in my heart. I hope that she would be proud me even though I’m not famous and not nearly as nice as she was.

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. – Henri Nouwen

Joy Unsinkable

I am a stoic person, not showing a lot of emotion or excitement. I usually keep my emotions to myself. When I do openly express how I feel, I second guess myself or feel self-conscious. Should I have been that upset? Did I look silly when I got so excited? Inside, I experience joy and sorrow and everything in between, but normally maintain an even keel – not too happy, not too sad. When I feel those deeper emotions, something always brings me back to even – a state of contentment and acceptance. How is it that I can be in the depths of despair one week and back to normal the next?

A few weeks ago, I was so shell-shocked by the results of the presidential election that it felt like someone I love had died. I lost trust in my fellow-man, even in the people I should have so much in common with – fellow Christians. I mourned for those who have much to fear from the president-elect because of his intolerance – immigrants, Muslims, people of color. I lost something precious – hope in my country’s future. I lost confidence that the moral arc of the universe, though long, bends towards justice. It’s clearly bending the wrong way now.

I still mourn. My world is becoming meaner and more divided before my eyes. I still can’t bear to watch the yellow-haired braggart on television. Everything about him repulses me. I still can’t stomach political news. But I will guard my heart against bitterness. That means shutting out the ugliness that I can do nothing about and focusing on what I can do – act justly, love mercy, and see to it that no one misses out on the grace of God.

In my innermost being, I am still joyful. My joy in the Lord is unsinkable. No matter what happens, the Lord is my rock and refuge. He walks with me through hardship and adversity. He comforts me when I mourn. I remain in Jesus and his love remains in me, just has he promised. Jesus is still the light of the world. Those who follow him will never walk in darkness (John 8:12). No matter what happens, my Father’s glory and love will be magnified.

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Psalm 16:11 (NIV)

We are  now in the season of joy, a time when people are more generous and kind. I sing Joy to the World and Tidings of Comfort and Joy. No matter who resides in the White House, God rules the world with truth and grace. Come Lord Jesus, come!

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy