Love or Fear?

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.                                                                                                                            I John 4:18

We are soon coming up on May 18th. That day happens to be my brother’s birthday (Happy Birthday Ed!), and it is also the anniversary of an infamous Supreme Court decision known as Plessy v. Ferguson. I am currently reading a book titled The Great Dissenter, which tells of the life of John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenting Supreme Court voter on that fateful decision.

In light of the recent racially motivated shootings in Buffalo, New York, we note once again that racial strife is still very present in our society. The Buffalo shooter evidently was obsessed with a racist trope called “The Great Replacement”. This theory has had many iterations over the years, but it has gained a more recent hold in the United States by far-right extremists and neo-Nazis. The theory plays on fear and hatred, the lifeblood of racist groups.

Many people believe that the Plessy v. Ferguson decision opened the door for legally sanctioned Jim Crow laws, which for decades eroded the American character. It affirmed a belief that White people and African-Americans could not, indeed should not, have truly equal access to the amenities of the country. When the law sanctions poor behavior, such behavior flourishes. It took 58 years for Plessy v. Ferguson to be essentially struck down by the equally auspicious decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. That decision affirmed that “separate but equal” is not a valid argument concerning the education rights of citizens in the United States. Rather, it explained that Plessy v. Ferguson was an excuse to be racially divisive.

While legislation is important, it does not change the hearts of people who live by fear. Christians are called to have the love of one another as the signal tenet to live by. If one believes that people of different color, different faith, or different culture constitute a threat, then they will be doomed to a small and painful life of clinging onto a belief that never will work- one that is ultimately destructive. They will be ruled by fear, not love.

So, May 18th might be a good day to reflect on the beliefs which guide us. Do we live by fear, or are we guided by love?

Prayer: Lord, give us the strength and wisdom to be guided by love, not fear, Amen

Acceptance

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”                                                  II Corinthians 12:7-9 (NIV)

I recently spoke with a client who has a chronic physical problem, and she has been frustrated for years regarding its effects on her life. It is not a life- threatening problem, but it is certainly a “life-limiting” one.

We discussed her frustrations about living with this condition, and then she asked me, “Will I ever get over these feelings of anger and resentment? Will I ever get to the place of acceptance?”

It made me think about what acceptance really is. Paul in the Bible struggled with a “thorn in the flesh”, a phrase that has worked itself into our culture as an example of chronic suffering for which there may never be a complete remedy.   

Paul took the occasions of such reminders of suffering not to curse the condition, but to have it be a reminder to him of God’s ability to be sufficient even in our suffering- that God’s power is displayed when we are at our weakest.

I told my client that acceptance is “honest ownership of what we are feeling”. The question is not  “Will I ever stop feeling this way”, but rather, “what will I do when I recognize that I am feeling this way?”

My client has the tendency to condemn herself when she gets angry or frustrated about her situation. I suggested to her that frustration is a pretty normal response to her suffering, but honest appraisal of the unwanted feeling is the freedom she needs. Acceptance is not becoming complacent with how we feel, or ignoring how we feel, or even liking what we feel. Acceptance is honest ownership of that feeling. It is only then that we can be aware of the power that God can give us to transform the suffering into something that can enhance our human experience.

No one likes pain, and we try very hard to avoid it, naturally. But when we respond honestly to our feelings about it, we can start to redeem the pain into something of benefit to ourselves or to others.  

Prayer: Lord, give us the strength to honestly look at our responses to suffering, and to look to you for redemption of it, Amen

“Thinking Our Way Out?”

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.                                                                                                                                      Matthew 6:33-34

I had occasion recently to talk with a client who had a traumatic event in her family which triggered an anxiety reaction in her. In speaking with her about developing her “anxiety tool kit”,  I explained that making a list of behaviors she could employ in times of anxiety was the way to deal with her anxiety. I told her that she would not be able to “think her way out” of anxiety. This struck her, because she was used to having a “wrestling match” in her head when anxiety struck. When I challenged her idea of thinking her way out of a thinking problem, she paused and said, “I never though of that- that makes sense!”

We typically do the same things over and over in order to deal with our problems. Novel approaches are seen as risky, often times. The truth is, anxiety is a travelling partner -an unwanted one to be sure- and we need to accept the fact that anxiety will rise up at various times. The approach we need to take is that, when anxiety strikes (not if, but when), we have the tools to deal with it. We can pause, pray, then employ our behavioral strategies which can break the hold of anxious thoughts.

 We can take control of the situation by preparing behavioral responses to it. Our “anxiety tool kit” includes those activities, such as controlled breathing to start the list, which we can actively employ to deal with the irrational thoughts we call anxiety.   

We can remind ourselves that avoidance of anxiety is not the key, but rather when anxiety rises up, we can employ effective tools to deal with it. We can exercise control over anxiety as long as we don’t start to assess self-blame which just compounds the problem.

The list of small practical behaviors we can employ when feeling stressed or anxious allows us to take an active, controlled behavioral approach to dealing with anxiety.

We are not going to “think our way out of anxiety”. However, we can be effective in dealing with anxious thoughts by using good, practical behaviors which give us control of a situation which feels out of control.

Prayer: Lord, give us the pause to be able to reach out to you when we are anxious, and to see that you have made provision for us, Amen

Go Toward the Good

Candidates for public office are littering the airwaves with blistering attacks on their opponents during this primary election season. For my readers from around the world, election ads in the United States are opportunities to have candidates lie more and more about their opponents rather than talk about their own record. Lies about their own record come much later when they try to justify their own seat.

In case you haven’t picked up on it, and I’m sure that you have, I am pretty jaded about campaigns for elected office. You see, when I observe vicious attacks on an opponent by a politician, I assume that they do not have enough positive things to say about themselves. Negativity does not move the needle for me on candidates. I look for their own accomplishments, abilities and plans for improving things for their constituency. If all they have to offer is poison about their opponent, I assume that they are incompetent, and that they believe the voters are also incompetent.

If you have been a reader of my blog over these years, you know that I have a principle of “It is better to go toward the good than avoid the bad”. This holds true in mental attitude, business and leadership decisions, and with how people are motivated in general. We get energized in seeking the higher good. We get worn out running from the negative and hurtful.

This is true in all dimensions of life, so in political races it also holds true. Don’t try to get me to vote for you if all you have is poison, negativity and even lies about your opponent. Tell me what good you bring to the table, and I might listen. Otherwise, save your advertising dollars.

I am not naïve either. Research seems to bear out that negative advertising works. Yet, just because the tactic works does not make it right. After all, one of the candidates is going to win, and our opinion of them is already tainted with months of attacks and often falsehoods about them. How does that help us to gain respect for our elected officials?

So, consider this when you are trying to size up the candidate for whom you will cast your vote. Consider those candidates (if you can find them) who promote their own ideas and their own qualifications for the office- not those whose only plan is to poison the well on your opinion of the opponent.

Feeling Good

You’re addicted to thrills? What an empty life! The pursuit of pleasure is never satisfied.

Proverbs 21:17 (The Message)

Early in the days of laboratory exploration of the brain, there was an experiment with rats. The experimenters hooked up these rats with electrodes that were connected to a machine that would give a very mild stimulation to the area of the brain we call the “pleasure center”. When the rats pressed a lever, they were given a mild brain stimulation which resulted in an experience of pleasure. The rats would press this lever endlessly, foregoing food for the stimulation. Later, in other experiments, intravenous cocaine was offered at the same time as food was presented, again based on pressing the lever, and the rats consistently pressed for the shot of cocaine over eating the food.  

The point here is that anything that produces immediate pleasure is addictive. Think of those potato chips, or those Hershey Kisses, or maybe those peanut M&Ms. You name your addiction (I just named mine with those peanut M&Ms). If it gives immediate results, that is, makes you feel good right away, it has the potential to be addictive.

That is the thing with those immediate “feel goods”. We end up paying a heavy price if we are not aware of the potential that lies therein. Food, sex, gambling, alcohol, drugs, etc. make us feel good right away, as soon as we “use”. The key is awareness of what we are actually doing. Denial says that “I can handle it”, or “just one more time”, “I’m not like them”, or whatever particular line works for you.

Again, moderation in things that give us pleasure is important. God gives us good gifts, receptive senses, and a host of things that are available to give us pleasure. Our job is to be aware of what we are doing, and honestly look at our behaviors over time. That is one of the truths that set us free- literally.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for good gifts you provide for us. Help us see them as gifts and use them wisely, Amen.

Easter Traditions

He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.               Matthew 28:6

When I was growing up, the celebration of Easter was surrounded with some beautiful traditions. Midnight Mass on Saturday night before Easter was an experience of anticipation. The Resurrection was celebrated with ceremony that had been centuries in the making. The statues  of the saints in the church had been covered in purple drapes ever since Ash Wednesday- a mark of sorrow and sobriety anticipating the coming sacrifice of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday.

At Midnight, the bells, which had been silent all during the Lenten season, pealed out all over the church. The purple drapes fell from the statues, and the choir broke into joyous songs such as “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”. The joy and atmosphere was electric in the celebration!

Much liturgical richness has been lost, I think. Certainly, in many Mainline Protestant churches, such majesty has been absent. Yet, as I read social media, and speak to many Christians in several venues, I think that many in the younger generations long for the rich liturgy of formal worship that has been largely stripped away in the past two or three decades.

Informal worship and seeker friendly services may not be as inviting as once thought. Many people long for their churches to have a more formal, participant-engaging experience in worship. Long beloved liturgies that embrace some predictability and comfort enhance the beaty of collective worship.

Formal choirs, familiar recitations of prayers by the congregation, and a predictable pattern of service are often very comforting in a world of incredible unpredictability.

I am not saying that we throw everything out. I am just positing that people yearn often for their church to be a place of comfort, so that when we are out in the world, living the Resurrection message, we can have the solid footing that we need every weekend.

Just a thought.

The more important message is that however we celebrate the miracle of Resurrection, we recognize that we stand in a line of centuries of believers who expressed joy at this marvelous Easter celebration.  

Happy Easter, my friends!

Prayer: Lord, how can we even comprehend fully the miracle of Resurrection? You have provided for us that which we cannot do on our own, Amen

Forgiveness

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8


Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”                                                                                                                               Luke 11:4

Forgiveness. This concept, so essential to the Christian faith, is really a foundational principle of human interaction. Often, I discuss with my clients the need for forgiveness. Forgiveness of others, as well as ourselves. As the Easter season draws close this week, the concept of Jesus dying for the sins of the world is celebrated.

Just think about what forgiveness is. It is the act that frees us from guilt. It is the tool that allows a fresh start. It is the healer of broken relationships. It is the act that frees both the forgiver and the one forgiven.

Frederic Luskin wrote a book titled Forgive for Good (what a great title, right?), and in it he discusses the dynamics and process of forgiveness. He talks about how we tend to build up “grievance narratives” in our mind, and how this tends to make our case for why we were “wronged”. We can then begin to nurture a sense of entitlement to hold resentments. Such resentments, over time, become bitterness, and eventually, they rob us of joy.

All of us at one time or another have held on to our own little grievance narratives for some period of time, and at some point (hopefully) we have seen the futility of such thinking. Those narratives, if held long, lead us into a victim mentality, and there is only one thing that can come of that- if you think you are a victim, you become one.

That, of course, is a very bad plan.

So, this week is a good time to consider that we have been forgiven of our sins by Jesus. What better way to express our gratitude for such forgiveness than to make sure that we forgive others who may have wronged us?

Prayer: Lord, help us to extend to others the forgiveness you freely grant to us, Amen  

Gotta Do Something…

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

James 2:14-19

I have written in this space in the past that “good behavior beats bad thinking”. It is one of my mantras because it really does make sense- at least to me. What I mean about that mantra for today’s blog is the elephant that has been sitting in our national living room for over a month now. The evil Russian invasion of Ukraine stares at us from across the globe. We feel helpless, angry, stunned- well, you can fill in your own blanks here. Those are just some of my feelings.

Today, our church took up a special offering to go directly to help the suffering people in Ukraine. I am so glad that we did this. You see, praying for the Ukrainian people is right, proper and appropriate- but it is also not enough.

By digging deep into my pocket, I felt like there was something I could actually DO. By taking action, I did not feel quite as helpless. There was a tangible way to provide help, care and support to these suffering people. Yes, we find numerous ways to help others, and that again is simply the right thing to do. But in this case, by taking an action, I could focus my thinking away from anger toward Vladimir Putin and his lengthy list of war crimes and atrocities. I could make an action toward help rather than decrying evil. You know the old adage- “It is better to light a candle than to curse the dark”. Yes, that old adage is eternally true.

So, my dear readers, continue to pray for Ukraine, but see if you can put some feet to those prayers and get involved in a project or program that gets resources to the Ukrainian people. I think you will feel a little better then too.

Prayer: Lord, we plead for your mercy grace for the suffering people of Ukraine, Amen.

Team Effort

Several days later he returned to Capernaum, and the news of his arrival spread quickly through the city. Soon the house where he was staying was so packed with visitors that there wasn’t room for a single person more, not even outside the door. And he preached the Word to them. Four men arrived carrying a paralyzed man on a stretcher. They couldn’t get to Jesus through the crowd, so they dug through the clay roof above his head and lowered the sick man on his stretcher, right down in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw how strongly they believed that he would help, Jesus said to the sick man, “Son, your sins are forgiven!”                                                                                                                                      Mark 2:1-5 (Living)       

 The story of Jesus healing the paralyzed man in Mark 2 is powerful for many reasons. The faithfulness and tenacity of his friends is remarkable. They stopped at nothing to get help for their friend who was hurting. Their commitment paid off, because Jesus healed that man, and he did it simply by telling him that his sins were forgiven. Yes, another example of physical, spiritual and emotional connectedness.

However, the theme I am picking up on today is the actions of the ailing man’s friends. I often tell clients that they need to identify their “team” as the people that they can turn to in time of trouble. They need to be able to name that team, and also communicate with that little team that they are part of his/her healing and recovery. I have never seen a situation where a potential “team member” was not honored to be named as a part of the helping team for the client.

The first step is the hardest one- to ask people to be part of your recovery team. Mental health and addiction recovery is a team effort, make no mistake about it. Once the team is in place, like the group we saw in Mark’s gospel, the power of their help is remarkable.    

Prayer: Thank you for the plan that we go about this journey in life in teams, Amen

Speak it into Existence

I am posting a blog today as an additional entry. Just because I wanted to…

and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

John 8:32 (Living Bible)

I was speaking with a colleague recently about the privilege we have as counselors to be able to help people to speak their truth into existence. What I mean by that is, sharing a difficult experience, or letting go of a shameful experience, into the light of day with another human being is freeing. Often, we as counselors have the privilege of being that “trusted person” to whom a client relates a deep, painful part of their life so as to free them from the bondage of secrecy.

Once we can release that deeply held information, perhaps hidden due to shame or guilt or some other reason, we become free of the shackles of the secret. I call that speaking truth into existence so that it is no longer the shameful darkness which needs to be hidden. Rather, the unburdening process becomes the fact of life that makes us human.

Everyone has some kind of darkness in them, large or small. Sharing deeply held beliefs, or even traumatic events, frees the mind and soul. To the extent that we can bring such events into the light of day, there is freedom for all.

It does not need to be a counselor with whom people share such closely held parts of us. A safe, trusted partner, friend, confidant is essential for maintaining a healthy soul.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for the plan to give light to chase away darkness, Amen.