What You can Learn From a Cat

Miss PriscaAfter an eight-year hiatus from cat ownership, four-month old Prisca moved in late last June. A refugee from some hardship, Prisca and I met at the local animal shelter where more than four hundred cats awaited adoption.

Then named Sarah, Prisca was the smallest and youngest of the fifteen cats living in a separate room. Frisky and curious, she started a meow conversation when we were alone in the “meet and greet” room that hasn’t stopped. At this initial encounter, a mysterious bond formed. Though I’m her owner, I can’t fully explain why I chose her.

After one week, it was hard to remember life before the cat dish under the kitchen window and the litterbox in the basement. As much as I loved her and her antics, it was apparent that for this to be a livable arrangement between me and her, a somewhat domesticated feline, rules were necessary. Her licking the salmon filet on the kitchen island ready for the grill or slurping yogurt out of a cereal bowl on the table weren’t acceptable to me though natural for her.

Prisca doesn’t understand why her freedom and free will need any limits. She can’t understand why two paws on the kitchen island is the same as four paws on the island or why the kitchen table is off limits and the bedroom nightstands are fine for running across. She can’t understand that vaccinations and eye drops are better than rabies and blindness. I do, but it’s hard to explain these intricacies to a cat. Plus we don’t speak the same language.

Life with Prisca varies widely. Some days she proudly lays her toys at my feet, other times she hides them. Tuesday she might wake up in a rebellious mood, and Wednesday want to snuggle and use the scratching post instead of the upholstered chair. Whatever her frame of mind or fancies of the day, hopefully she knows I love her unconditionally because she’s my cat, and not because of good behavior.

When she turns on the clock radio at 4:00 a.m. or climbs horizontally across the sofa back or knocks canvas prints off the fireplace mantle or chews Romans 8 in an opened Bible, I ask myself why I thought living in close quarters with an animal would be a good thing. When she curls at my knees on a cold night or chases puddles on the shower floor or relishes the shaft of sunlight slung across the carpet or looks like a gymnast in pursuit of a flying Japanese beetle, I marvel at her relish for simple pleasures.

Will she one day decide to stay off the kitchen island for good?  Will she keep all the cat litter in the litter box next week?  Will she know it’s Saturday and let me sleep in? No. She’s a cat, and all that comes with loving her. But when she cuddles on my lap, purrs, and does the slow blink, her misdeeds are forgotten.

After four months of life with Prisca, I’ve thought more about my heavenly Father and how we relate. Though not a perfect parallel, my love, patience and desire to shape Prisca’s habits mimic God’s heart for me. His ways will remain beyond my understanding, but I am thankful he has redeemed me from the pit and loves me unconditionally.* Now I want to follow Prisca’s example and learn to rest securely in his presence and enjoy his gifts hidden in the mundane.

Today is National Cat Day. Celebrate yours. A dog lover? National Dog Day is August 26.

*Isaiah 55:8-9, Psalm 103:4, Romans 5:8.

A Story from Savannah: Where Legacy and Tradition Fell Short

Christ Church Episcopal on Johnson Square, Savannah, GA

Christ Church Episcopal on Johnson Square, Savannah, GA

For nearly three hundred years, Christians have met for worship at a church on the eastern side of Johnson Square in Savannah, Georgia. Known today as Christ Church Episcopal, the church’s lineage is a long and illustrious one filled with notables.

On a recent Sunday morning my voice blended with the liturgical responses of those whose spiritual if not actual ancestors had listened to John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church and the church’s rector from 1736-1737. He came from England at the behest of Savannah’s founder, James Oglethorpe, who wanted him to evangelize the Native Americans. While there, Wesley started the first Sunday school and published the first English hymnal in America.

George Whitefield also preached from the pulpit. Considered the most prominent preacher in the 18th century, this British Anglican helped spread the Great Awakening revival throughout the colonies. In 1738 he served as a parish priest in Savannah before he returned to England to raise money for an orphanage.

Until 2006, the congregation at this “Mother Church of Georgia” remained united through the traumas of a civil and two world wars, multiple fires, economic disasters and the construction of three edifices on the same property. Then a theological rift diverted this stream of Christian unity that predated the nation.

Unlike church splits over worship styles, carpet color, or budget issues, this split was over issues considered foundational to orthodox protestant faith. In 2006 Episcopal Church leaders wavered over the meaning of Jesus’ claim in Mark 14:6, that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” Long interpreted to mean that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and that salvation comes no other way, a Savannah priest from the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia wrote in a letter to the local newspaper editor that this verse has nothing to do with salvation. Later an Episcopalian Bishop interpreted it to mean that belief in other faith traditions can also lead to salvation.

A second issue was whether the Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God rather than merely inspirational. Historically the Episcopal Church held to the first position as evidenced in the catechism Q and A which declares the Holy Scriptures to be the Word of God “because God inspired their human authors”, but shifted in the 21st century.

When the Christ Church vestry (akin to an elder board) decided to disaffiliate with The Episcopal Church and align with the Anglican Communion in 2007, a legal brouhaha with multiple lawsuits wound through the court system for six years. The Episcopal Church won the property dispute, and those dissatisfied with the theological shift established a separate church, Christ Church Anglican.

Christ Church Episcopal in Savannah, GA

Ascension Window

Surrounded by Early American history, architectural beauty, and the tradition of faithfully preaching the Word, the rift haunted me. For nearly three hundred years this body of believers had held tightly to core doctrine, then shifted. The congregation split a year later and fought legal battles for another five.

Legacy is a wonderful treasure, but it offers no guarantees. When essential tenets of faith are altered like music styles and flooring preferences, a rift may be necessary to protect the core precepts. Even when that means the once-unified stream now flows through two channels rather than one.

A Look at Liturgy: When Confession Shifts from “Me” to “We”

Confessions. Police officers interrogate suspects to try and get one. Counselors wait for the counselee to see their role in the problem and make one. Priests enter one half of the confessional booth to hear confessions of sin by individuals on the other side of the partition. Christians pray them to receive forgiveness (I John 1:9). Usually conducted in private, what happens when we confess corporately?

The Anglican church I attend allots several moments in the weekly service to conduct the Confession of Sin. In the silent portion, seated with bowed heads, the Deacon charges us, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.” While familiar language, there’s a twist like that of plaited hair in a braid in the “us” and “our”.

In previous experiences, corporate confession occurred silently and without direction alongside monthly or quarterly communion with the focus on the individual. The liturgy in my head was, “Let me confess my sins against God and my neighbor.” Though physically present with others, the corporate sense was lost in my private ruminations and prayers.

The Confession of Sin then continues after the silence, and we repeat together, “…we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” There’s the twist again; first it was “us” and “our”, now it’s “we”.

With this language, I am folded into a community admitting together and out loud that we made of mess a things last week. We are a motley crew admitting that none of us managed to keep the two commands Jesus named as the greatest (Mark 8:36-40). I can’t pretend I got it all right, and neither can the person next to me.  As a friend likes to say, “It’s a level playing field at the foot of the cross.” There’s comfort in that.

Next we recite, “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”  Along with individual sorrow and remorse over our failings, there’s a sense of shared grief. As I know the pain of having sinned, I can empathize with yours. We can mourn together as we profess a common desire to turn around and go in a different direction. 

We continue in an attitude of humility as we ask for God to “have mercy on us and forgive us.” Kyrie eleison. Here’s the crux of the confession– though we are completely undeserving of God’s forgiveness, he has promised he will be just and forgive us when we confess. Not to become better persons for our own good, but that “we may delight in [God’s] will, and walk in [God’s] ways, to the glory of [God’s] Name. Amen”

The truth of this confession wouldn’t change if “I”, “me” and “my” replaced “we”, “our” and us”, but its power and comfort would. In Protestant theology no mediator is needed to confess directly to God (I Timothy 2:5) so we usually go solo. But in doing so, we miss the richness found when brothers and sisters in Christ confess together aloud.

 

Steps to Take to Avoid Unhealthy Churches

The harsh words laden with angry flew from the preacher’s mouth, flowed through powerful overhead speakers and dripped on the thousands seated in the church. This wasn’t the first time he’d used guilt to promote godly behavior; it wasn’t the first time he’d remonstrated his listeners for their failings, but it was the first time I decided something was wrong. With me.

I’d experienced shunning over a book selected for study in an unofficial small group in a previous church, and now I was listening to an equally angry pastor—at least this one didn’t know what I’d read.  What in me was attracted to another judgmental pulpit thumper? I cut myself some slack as this pastor wasn’t the one that attracted me to the church; he had left the staff about a year ago. But I was in another unhealthy environment and wanted to understand how I got there.

At the start, the process appeared to be quick and painless. Several years, multiple counseling sessions, not a few books, and reams of Kleenex later, the process continues. What I’ve gained is understanding about myself and others that will better guard me against the pull of toxic leaders.

steps across waterThe first protection is self-awareness. While we become new creations at conversion (2 Corinthians 5:17), there remains much within us still in need of transformation. We must acknowledge these wounded places and the protective measures we employ.  Each of us is charged to continue to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13) and stay in the growth process. For it is in the process of uncovering these wounds and letting God heal the pain that we become less susceptible to following or becoming an unhealthy counterbalance for our weaknesses.

Second protection: study the life of Jesus and how he conducted himself. Then examine your church leaders. In my setting I asked, “Can I envision Jesus saying the words coming from their mouths? Would Jesus demean those who are immature in their faith or hold back those who ask questions and seek intellectual understanding? Would Jesus prey on people’s emotions and wounded places to advance his ministry?” Learn how the authentic Shepherd calls his sheep and cares for them, then you’ll recognize a powerful but misguided voice when you hear it.

Third protection: study the New Testament’s accounts of the first-century churches. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians emphasize the oneness and equal value of each member of the body of Christ. Read through Acts and see the deep love Paul had for the churches he planted, particularly in Ephesus and Philippi. Does love characterize your pastor’s relationship with his flock?

In Galatians Paul reprimands them for falling back into legalistic practices and forgetting the grace which saved them. James scolds Christians for favoritism toward the rich and powerful. Paul challenges Timothy to choose godly leaders, deal rightly with false teachers and care for the widows. Treasure the Bible’s honesty about problems in the first churches, then find out how your church deals with them.

If we do the work necessary to raise our self-awareness and protection, we’ll be less likely to step into a toxic situation whether for the first time or the third. The work to know ourselves and God’s ideal is a continuous venture that bears rich rewards like greater discernment and knowing a healthy church when you see one.

We Need to Know We’re Susceptible–Damage and Wounds Can Turn Toxic

bandaged hand“God loves damaged people” is great news since we’re all damaged. There are deep wounds within us, some self-inflicted, many other-inflicted. We’ve all sinned (Romans 3:23) and made mistakes, and the sins and mistakes of others have harmed us.

The life of his Son, Jesus Christ, is the embodiment of this truth about God’s love (Romans 5:8). As Jesus attracted the sinners, tax-collectors, demon-possessed, prostitutes, poor, sick, crippled, leprous, mentally ill and abused of his day, so does the church today.  In a mysterious, incomprehensible manner it is now the body of Christ in the world.

All these wounded and damaged souls gathered together can foster an environment where the damage turns toxic; meaning it becomes poisonous, dangerous and harmful. While harmful, toxicity is not inevitable nor is it necessarily intentional. Often it’s an amalgamation of over-used defense mechanisms, blended with Scripture, and infused with a desire for power and success that multiplies like mold in a forgotten Tupperware container in the back of the refrigerator.

There are multiple combinations of propensities, character traits and theological teachings that lead to dangerous, toxic, even cultish church situations. Rob Asgarh in “How Toxic Followers Enable Toxic Leaders” names one of these combos– the narcissist/codependent confluence. Several of the recent situations of spiritual abuse by celebrity pastors in megachurches fit this dynamic.

In psychological literature, it is well-documented that people with strong narcissistic tendencies attract codependents in marriage relationships. Visionary, driven, confident leaders in any sector are appealing. When a preacher or evangelist embodies these traits, people jump on board convinced that God has specially gifted this person to accomplish great things for the Kingdom. Their personal magnetism attracts followers who want to be where things are happening, will settle for a small role in visionary plans, and won’t make waves.  A perfect job description for codependents.

Codependents often loyal to a fault, will stay in a hard situation too long, doubt their own opinions in favor of someone else’s, set aside their dreams for another’s, have low views of themselves, and a strong desire to feel needed. These proclivities promote a nascent leader’s aspirations and complement those of an already established one.

Bolstered by verses that establish their unquestioned authority, such as Hebrews 13:17 –“have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority” or give them license to remove people who disagree with them (Titus 3:10-11), toxic pastors gradually expand and cement their authority. Codependents prone to submission, accept this teaching without questioning. As in a marriage, the leaders and followers gradually become enmeshed in a symbiotic, yet untoxic waste insidehealthy relationship.

Other combinations attract and can turn toxic. Those damaged by abuse—sexual, spiritual, emotional, financial, psychological, or physical—will think abusive pastors or church leaders are normal. Those from rules-filled backgrounds will find comfort in a legalistic church. Those attracted by worldly success will feel be comfortable in a church with a similar focus. Those raised by emotionally distant parents may be drawn to churches with severe leaders or to overly-communal gatherings.

Powerful when it’s healthy, dangerous when it’s toxic, the church is the place for damaged souls to gather and experience God’s healing. When that doesn’t happen, we need to examine the dynamics and our part in them. When it does, we can rejoice.

Next blog post we’ll look at steps to guard against damage turning toxic in ourselves and our churches.

 

 

#WhyIStayed? – A Question for Followers of Toxic Leaders*

After the release of the hotel elevator video of NFL player Ray Rice striking and knocking out his then fiancee, the #WhyIStayed hashtag trended on Twitter for days. Evidence of physical abuse is often visible, but evidence of emotional, sexual and psychological abuse usually lacks video substantiation. Spiritual abuse falls in that category, but the recent video and online apologies by celebrity pastors for their spiritually abusive behavior broke the pattern.

In a marriage or ongoing adult relationship there are two parties involved, but spiritual abuse involves more. A pastor has congregants who follow and give to fund their salary; fellow leaders who serve alongside, and elders or denominational leaders who support their authority. After allegations of abuse have been made, all associated parties need to examine #WhyIStay.Staying Put

I’ve asked myself the question. Spiritual abuse came in the form of shunning and disciplinary action for a small group of six who read a book by an emerging church writer. Considered nearly heretical by the senior pastor and several outspoken elders, the remainder of the board concurred. The controversy languished for nine months; I stayed for six more after the shunning ended.

My friends, my church family, my involvement in ministry, my optimism that things would improve, and my hope for healing kept me at the church. Until details surfaced of the pastor’s use of anger to manipulate and the elder board’s acquiescence to these threats. Until other damaging conversations came to light. Until the trauma to my psyche and soul manifested in physical symptoms. Until I could name the behavior as sinful and regard my continued presence as complicity.

In the book debacle I was a victim of the abuse of spiritual authority and without culpability. When further situations came to light, I thought that support of this pastor through ongoing attendance, giving and ministry involvement removed that shield of innocence. Instead, I became an enabler in the harm he was doing to others.

Yes, the pastor did good things. He preached the gospel clearly, ministered to parents of prodigals, upheld high moral standards, visited the housebound, and administered the staff. Yes, we are all sinners and in need of God’s grace. Yes, the local church is the body of Christ and each part is necessary. Yes, the real head of the church is Christ and the pastor is imperfect. Yes, the sanctification process never ends and transformation is ongoing. Yes, people can grow and change. But aren’t those statements eerily similar to the reasons why women in situations of physical domestic violence stay? Isnt the rationality of this type of thinking routinely questioned?

The sincerity and depth of remorse of pastors Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald for their roles in spiritual abuse will be demonstrated in their future conduct and the status of attempted reconciliations. Those thrown under the bus, excommunicated by video or catapulted out of the church parking lot will be the ones to ask.  If the abuse begins again, if more allegations are made public, it’s time to leave. Abusers often change enough to remove the heat without a true heart change and without breaking the cycle of abuse.

Pastors who abuse are guilty; followers who choose to stay after the abuse is made public and unsatisfactorily resolved are complicit. Still buying the books, worshiping with them, and sitting under their teaching? Please ask #WhyIStay.

*The phrase “toxic leaders” was used by Forbes online contributor, Rob Asghar, in his piece, “How Toxic Followers Enable Toxic Leaders”, posted on September 16, 2014 which looks specifically at Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill churches. 

The Flower Pot Saga

For the last several years I’ve kicked off the gardening season with a renewed resolution, “This year the flower pots by the front door will look stupendous.”

club flower pot

Flowers at health club entrance

Ever the student, each well-designed pot I come across before heading to the garden center gets analyzed. Here it’s obvious the designer selected plants of varying heights, some vining, some squatty, some tall and elegant to create this mélange of interest. Or there, the gardener picked a color theme, like a triangle on the color wheel, and carried it through. Or here, herbs and vegetables are mixed in with the flowers adding practicality to the pot. Or there, the variety of textures is the focal point.

Several friends annually create pots that rival those at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and I call them for advice. Unfortunately this frou-frou pot planting is second nature and they can only suggest, “Grab what you like. It will all blend together by the end of the summer. There aren’t any secrets.” Since this talent and my DNA didn’t combine, I snap photos of the best arrangements to use as templates.

Around May 15th, the average date of the last frost in Chicago, I stride confidently into the greenhouse where stacks of blooming possibilities overflow their containers and tempt me like siren songs. Surely they won’t fizzle part-way during the summer or expend all their growth in the first few weeks. No, these are plants that will start strong and finish stronger.

Based on the size of my pots, the roving horticulturalist suggests two or three of a filler plant, a center tall plant, and then three or four plants to provide color throughout the summer.  I place the small plastic pots in my cart arranged like they will be when planted. Moving them around, closing one eye and then the other, substituting and then changing my mind, I walk to the check-out with  seedling-sized confidence .

front door pot 2_web

Flowers at my front door

Fast forward to September. Rather than the vision of outstanding color and texture statements framing the front door, the filler plants have gone wild. Small streaks of color gallantly reach for the sun like a dandelion pushing through a crack in the sidewalk, but the green fillers overflowing the pot have won.

Before the artsy designers showed what professionals could do with soil and terra cotta, my container gardening aspirations were simple. Where the drive and desire to create floral statements on my front step came from eludes me. My master gardener mother focused on perennial flower beds and wouldn’t bother with pots were she still alive. Not competing with her. My house is on a lightly trafficked street. Not out to impress the dog walkers. My house isn’t on the market. Not out to entice a buyer.

Maybe it’s the Scottish stubbornness in my DNA. Maybe it’s the “I can do anything if I put my mind to it” mindset that snags me. Maybe it’s perfectionistic thinking ensnaring me. No matter which shortcoming has germinated and grown, it’s time for a wise and mature response. I will uproot this silly obsession, admit people are gifted in different ways, and aim to exercise my strengths instead of trying to emulate those of someone else.

Next year, it’s back to geraniums.

The Pilgrim’s Journey

Lately I’ve been reading, thinking and writing about the spiritual maturation process in the second half of life (SHOL). Underneath the discussion lies a fundamental question: why make the effort?

If you’ve walked with the Lord for a while, your spiritual journey has a rhythm. Like the basketball player who unconsciously dribbles down the court, your habits are second-nature. Likely they include weekly attendance at a worship service, bi-weekly small group meeting, devotions, prayer, and Christian books on the nightstand. Throw in a service project, a retreat, a Christian concert or two, and the rhythm deepens like ice on a pond.

Such was my rhythm until David Benner in The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, and M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. in The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self, and Saint John of the Cross in his “The Dark Night of the Soul” poem disrupted it.

My habits were scripturally based: Jesus taught his disciples to pray, Psalm 119:11 said that knowing God’s word would prevent sin, and James admonished his readers to prove their faith through actions and words. But when calamity came, suffering struck, and disappointments mounted, like many SHOL’ers, I found my rhythm was missing a beat.

These authors and other early mystics and current contemplatives like Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, Richard Foster, Thomas Keating, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, and Dallas Willard want to draw Christians into a rich relationship with God. For each of them, this came as their understanding of the riches of God’s love deepened and swelled.

Brenner concludes that the Christian’s security and significance comes from an abiding awareness that they are “someone who is deeply loved by God” (49), and sanctification is a lifelong process of “coming to know and trust God’s love” (51). Mulholland surmises that when we understand our true selves, the person God created us to be, we will find that self “clasped in God’s love” (73-74).

shutterstock_95411461The path to this deeper union with and awareness of God “passes through some pretty rough territory” even jungles, writes Mulholland. It will take one through dark forests like those Anodos travels in George MacDonald’s fairy novel, Phantastes, or on roads like Christian travels in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s a process of discovering and shedding the personas we’ve created to protect ourselves (Rohr), of releasing what we have, what we can do and what others think of us (Brenner) to be free to “know and rely on the love God has for us” (I John 4:16).

The few who’ve choose this route glow with an inner peace like saints in an icon and exude calm like a sleeping infant. They have surrendered in “loving abandonment to God” and have “a hungering and thirsting for the things of God” (Mulholland).  Their lack of pretension and God-centered focus are off-putting due to their scarcity, yet magnetic. To paraphrase Calvin, these are people who know who they are because they know God, and who know God because they know themselves.

Such are the riches that await the experienced travel willing to put more miles on their treads. Worth the effort? Try it and see.

View previous posts on  second half of life challenges such as  surrender, and spiritual bucket lists.

Suggested Resources:

Benner, David G. The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Keating, Thomas. Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation. New York: Continuum, 2010.

Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. Shambhala Library. Boston: Shambhala, 2003.

Mulholland, M. Robert. The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2006.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

 

When Surrender Means Winning

Surrender

Surrender

Surrender.  My mental image is a white flag. It is the universal symbol for surrender and signifies the desire for a truce. Woven into the fabric is a connotation of weakness, frailty, quitting, losing, of giving up the fight.  Those cheering for a white flag aren’t the ones waving it.

In our competitive culture we prize the athlete who finishes the game in spite of a broken limb or the student who overloads with hard classes and extracurricular commitments or the rescue worker who goes days without sleep when disaster strikes. The applause is for the individual who triumphs over the odds and never gives up.

In the first half of my life, this “don’t quit” attitude worked well. It does for most: study hard, get good grades, the best education possible; work long hours, climb the career ladder; buy a place, marry, have kids, and settle into life. If you’re a parent, you’ve spent time instilling these patterns of thinking and acting.

Richard Rohr in Falling Upward calls this “the loyal soldier” mindset .This  mindset helps restrain impulses and provides the boundaries necessary to shape “dignity, identity, direction, significance, and boundaries” (46). But for all these positives, “the loyal soldier cannot get you to the second half of life” because there you need to lose.

Unlike the straightforward, black-and-white, first half, the second half is marked by subtlety. Unlike the first half where you battle to win and prove your loyalty, in the second half you battle with God (47). In the first half, Rohr opines, you’re shaping the ego, in the second, the “battles defeat the ego because God always wins” (47).

For years I’d exercised faithfully, eaten a healthy diet, and watched my weight. I was proud of following the rules, and thought I was in control of my health. Then in 2007 I learned open heart surgery was necessary to repair a congenital heart defect that could suddenly end my life. With one phone call from my cardiologist, God knocked self-sufficiency out of my hands. For several hours I fought, wrestled and wept trying to get it back in my grasp.

I’d done everything right, how could this be happening? Why wasn’t it discovered before? I needed heart surgery? You’ve got to be kidding. My acquiescence to the truth that my life was in God’s hands, not mine, now exacted complete reliance. While lying on an exercise mat on the basement floor, I reluctantly waved the white flag and accepted my human frailty.

Treasonous at first, surrender became oddly comforting. The code of control and confidence in victory over circumstances that had carried me through decades now had to be abandoned. Only then could my weakness could spotlight God’s strength, my mortality his immortality, my dependence his sufficiency.

After the challenge to surrender my health, God and I keep meeting on battlefields. The battle may rage for hours or months as decades of ingrained training make me loathsome to choose to lose–even to a holy opponent who perfectly loves me.

In the Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15), the loyal elder son battled with his father, but the outcome is unrecorded. The younger son, admittedly not terribly loyal, hit bottom and waved the white flag all the way home. While he enjoyed a fine feast and celebration, we don’t know if the elder brother joined them.

Jesus challenges those who want to be his disciples to prepare to lose, to even make it their aim (Mark 8:34-37). In a culture bent on winning, the choice to surrender seems wrong.  Yet the road to Christian maturity calls for it and demands it; white flags are required.

More thoughts on second half of life: spiritual bucket lists and wondering if it’s worth it.

What’s on Your Spiritual Bucket List?

shutterstock imagesFor the first twenty, thirty years of adulthood, life’s potential fans out to a limitless horizon. Your body still does what you tell it to do, and life’s vagaries haven’t rung your doorbell yet. The list of what you can accomplish is long, and the years ahead appear endless. Then comes middle age.

Whether you peg the start of the middle years at 40 or 50, the Over the Hill birthday party is a milestone.  About 10% of the population has a genuine crisis at this point while most spend time reflecting on where they are at in life. Has life turned out how they thought it would? (About 0% reply yes.)  What else might they want to do in the remaining years?

In common vernacular, a catalog of possibilities is known as a “bucket list”. According to Merriam Webster, the phrase was coined first in 2006 and comes from the idiomatic expression for dying–to kick the bucket. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman starred in the 2007 film, “The Bucket List”, which featured two terminally ill men who go on a trip to accomplish everything on their wish list.

With the internet, you can track your list online and see what others have placed in their buckets. List items cover the gamut:  humorous – cover someone’s car in post-in notes; serious – get a graduate degree; fun – dye your hair purple; adventuresome – climb the Matterhorn; healthy – train for a triathlon; helpful – volunteer at the children’s hospital; ambitious – write a book; dangerous – skydive; artsy – take a pottery class; educational – visit the capitols in all 50 states.

Many have found the process of thinking about the future and outlining goals invigorating. They remember things they wanted to do when younger, and crazy ideas they toyed around with but never got to.  Instead of seeing middle age as a marker for life being half over, they now see it as a doorway to an exciting second half of life.

If a bucket list for life is helpful and fun, why not a spiritual bucket list? The spiritual journey to maturity, the Christian process of sanctification, often has a similar halfway point. Richard Rohr in Falling Upward, and authors Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich in The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith examine the components for spiritual growth and the under-discussed spiritual challenges that come in the second half of life.

Rather than a birthday, both books point out that it’s often a period of suffering or hardship that marks the spiritual second half. After some soul searching reflection, maybe you realize God isn’t who you thought he was; the guaranteed formulas for parenting or marriage didn’t work; the programs that enriched before now seem dry and banal; and you’re on a spiritual plateau. Maybe the plateau would be comfy long-term, but thirty or forty years at this level could be boring.

What can you do to move further down the road to becoming more and more like Christ?

  • Travel –Take a spiritual pilgrimage vacation to the Holy Land, follow Paul’s missionary journey path, or visit the sites of the seven churches of Revelation in Turkey.
  • Adventure – join a short-term mission team to a majority world country, spend a week at a monastery.
  • Educational – enroll in classes at a local seminary or bible college, read academic Christian authors, listen to preachers you disagree with, study a theological tenet like baptism, map your spiritual journey.
  • Volunteer – lead worship at a nearby assisted living center, start a healing prayer ministry.
  • Serious – worship in a church with a different style, begin a new spiritual discipline, mentor someone, memorize a book of the Bible, participate in a silent retreat, delve into spiritual formation, discover your true self, work with a spiritual director.

The second half of life awaits, be intentional. What’s on your spiritual bucket list?

More thoughts on second half of life: winning through surrender and wondering if it’s worth it.

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