The Power of No: Freedom and Self-Will

When we assume that freedom means doing whatever we want, whenever we want, we become slaves. By allowing ourselves to go with the flow of internal and external promptings, we find ourselves driven by the capriciousness of self-will, the blind dictates of emotion, the tyranny of compulsions, and the despotism of mere routine. A life unrestrained by critical reflection and the ability to tell ourselves “No” quickly becomes a life of hardship and anguish.

As unchecked selfishness and pride lead to misery and darkness, some eventually reach a point of surrender. A desire to renounce willfulness is born out of pain as we long for a transcendent power to liberate us from ourselves. This is the first and most important step in spiritual transformation, which is accompanied by a life-giving insight: there is a difference between self-will and genuine freedom. True liberty is the power to say “Yes” to the good, the true, and the beautiful, but it is also the power to say “No” to the seductions of the selfish, the counterfeit, and the destructive. If you cannot say “No” to yourself, you are not free. Unrestrained freedom is simply another form of slavery.

Challenge: Meditate on Romans 6:15-23.

[This reflection emerged from lectio divina on Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation,  Chapter 26: “Freedom Under Obedience.”]

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Loving People in Pain: Humility and Compassion

Sometimes we are impatient with the weakness of others. When those closest to us exhibit neediness, it’s easy to recoil in judgment. Their vulnerability triggers our fear: fear of being blamed, fear of unreasonable demands, and fear that our own neediness will become visible. The result is distance, leaving the other person feeling abandoned in their pain. While this reaction may provide a fleeting sense of control, over time it erodes trust and makes intimacy more difficult.

When people experience weakness, their soul cries out for compassion and support. They need trusted loved ones to draw close, to empathize and tell them that they are still loved. Deep down inside, most of us want to offer these gifts, but fear and pride compel us to withdraw. If this results in shame, we can justify our callousness in the name of tough love or healthy boundaries, thereby increasing the disconnect and adding insult to injury.

The cure is humility.

Humility is a misunderstood virtue in our culture. It is usually associated with impotence and confused with humiliation, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Genuine humility is about self-awareness. It’s about knowing, showing, and embracing our strengths and weaknesses, our beauty and brokenness. It’s an affirmation of our common humanity (our imperfection), which counteracts the tendency to elevate or degrade ourselves in relation to others. Humility teaches, “The weakness that I see in you is the weakness that resides in me.”

When clothed in humility, our response to neediness can be supportive. Instead of compulsively withdrawing in fear and judgement, humility empowers us to connect with the pain of others through empathy, and in this way humility is the gateway to compassion.

Contrary to popular opinion, humility and compassion require enormous strength. It is easy to react in fear, defensiveness, and judgment, leaving others feeling abandoned and bereft. It is difficult to enter someone’s pain and hold them there. In fact, we cannot muster enough courage to love in this way without drawing on a power greater than ourselves, without grace.

So, let us pray for that which makes love possible: humility, compassion, and patience. And let us practice these virtues as others trust us enough to show their weakness and pain.

Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or hating gay people. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.

 

Helpful Resources:

Fundamentalism and Mainline Christianity

I’ve recently been telling different groups of people that the United Methodist Church is a mainline, not fundamentalist, denomination (although some of our pastors prove to be unfortunate exceptions). I assumed that people knew what I meant, but they didn’t understand the terms I was using. I tried to remedy this problem in an email to a friend, and my wife suggested that others might be interested in my response. What is written below is the beginning of a sketch outlining some main ideas. I know it is limited, but I’m also hoping that it will be helpful.

Fundamentalism is grounded in a specific view of scripture. Adherents typically embrace (usually unwittingly) a theory of divine inspiration developed by a Presbyterian Princeton professor named Charles Hodge in the 1800s. The technical name of the theory is Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and it basically teaches that every word of the Bible is historically, scientifically, and factually infallible or inerrant. In the imaginations of some, it’s as if God dictated the Bible and human beings served merely as passive secretaries. This view erases the humanity of the biblical authors and focuses almost exclusively on God giving us a perfect and divine book. Furthermore, according to fundamentalists, a strict literal reading is the only correct way to interpret the Bible (and some would say that they are not even interpreting but simply reciting the Word of God). In this way, the Bible is pitted against modern science and historiography, and being a “real” Christian means rejecting what science teaches about cosmology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, etc.

The final step is to say, “Our way of understanding inspiration and how to interpret the Bible is the truth, and, therefore, the only legitimate way of thinking.” Do you see the subtle shift? They slip from biblical infallibility into assuming that their theory about infallibility is infallible! Furthermore, these truths are to be protected at all costs from any competing theories or interpretations, which are invariably seen as corruptions or heresies. People who hold different views (and there are many) are to be corrected, converted, or excluded. Fear of false teaching leads fundamentalists to study apologetics from other fundamentalists so they can mount what they believe to be incontrovertible arguments, and the only proper response to these arguments is, “I have seen the light and you are right!” Any push back leads to more forceful arguments, sometimes buttressed by the threat of eternal hell, in a last attempt at conversion. If the person with a different view does not convert, then they are excluded from the community of true Christians (if not physically then theologically and/or socially). So the key elements are:

1. We have the only true understanding of the inspiration of scripture and the only proper way of interpreting the Bible. All other views are necessarily wrong.

2. If you don’t agree then you must be corrected with arguments, converted with threats of hell, or excluded as a corruptor of the true faith.

In stark contrast, mainline Christians believe that God inspired human beings to record the words of scripture, but didn’t erase or bypass their humanity in the process. God worked in, through, and with their humanity to communicate what is necessary for our salvation. This means that the divine message of the Bible is communicated through the human words of the authors, and these words emerged from their own personal and corporate experiences of God. In short, God does not need a perfect, inerrant, infallible book to effectively communicate with us.

Mainline Christians often point out that the Bible is not the Word of God—Jesus is the Word of God (John 1), and the reason the Bible is important is because through its words (in the power of the Holy Spirit) we encounter the risen Christ. Given the ways that fundamentalists erase the humanity of the Bible, some mainline and liberal Christians accuse fundamentalists of “bibliolatry” (turning the Bible into an idol).

Once you acknowledge the humanity of the biblical authors and the Bible itself, you can also see that it is not a single author book. It is a library of books written by many people, living in different cultures, who spoke different languages, and wrote in different genres over the course of 100s of years. Instead of insisting that every letter of every word of the Bible is literal and factual (in terms of history and science), we can begin to discern different genres, and different genres warrant different interpretive methods. So we read the historical parts differently than the poetic parts (e.g. the Psalms), and we read the poetic parts differently than the gospels, and we read gospels differently than letters, and we read letters differently than apocalyptic, etc. In all of this, we realize that the Bible is a religious text, not a modern historiography or science book. A fortunate consequence is that Christianity does not have to be an enemy of the natural and social sciences, but can engage them as conversation partners from whom we have much to learn.

Finally, another significant difference between fundamentalists and mainline Christians is that mainline Christians uphold intellectual humility as a virtue. We insist that we are not saved by our interpretation of scripture or by having the right theory of inspiration. We are saved because God loves us and offers the gift of reconciliation through forgiveness. This means that we are not required to have all the answers, that we can hold our theories and interpretations loosely, acknowledging that we could be wrong. At the end of the day, God is greater than anyone can conceive and we are all rendered speechless before the divine mystery. Part of faith is learning to be comfortable with the fact that we don’t have all the answers, which allows us to trust God and relax into God’s mysterious and active presence.

Consequently, we don’t feel compelled to proselytize and convert people. Only God converts people, and this usually happens over a long period of time. All that Christians are called to do is live like Jesus and share their stories, allowing people to draw their own conclusions as the Spirit leads. All of this happens in the awareness that creation is floating in a sea of grace and that God is working with us on God’s own timeline.

For an accessible introduction to a United Methodist view of scripture, see Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. For a more academic read, see the articles on my website under the heading, “Course in Understanding the Bible.”

Thank-You Lou Riley: An Unexpected, Powerful Spiritual Experience

“Are you Lou?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Pastor Mark, from First Methodist Cocoa Beach.”

“You’re the new pastor?”

“Yes.”

“Well, come in!”

Within forty-five minutes of this awkward introduction, I would have an unexpected, powerful spiritual experience.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I don’t like scheduling visits to shut-ins, hospitals, and nursing homes. Don’t get me wrong, when I’m actually spending time with people during visits, I’m always blessed, but it’s really hard to motivate myself to do it. It takes time to map out all the addresses, estimate travel times, and to call the day before to make sure they will be home when I’m in their area. Getting around to see everyone takes all day, and there are a hundred other things I would rather do. It’s easy to find excuses to put it off another week, and then another week, and then another week—saying to expectant family members and friends, “I really want to go visit your loved one, but things are just really busy right now.” Eventually, guilt and obligation motivate me and I drag myself out the door. Today was one of those days.

This is what brought me to Lou’s house.

Prior to this morning, I’d never met Lou. Our only contact was two months ago, when I called to set-up a visit. Despite my yelling into the phone several times, “I’M PASTOR MARK!” she couldn’t hear me and eventually just hung-up! Now I was standing at her door, wondering if she’d even invite me in.

Knock, knock, knock.

When the door open, I saw a reluctant elderly woman with obvious mobility issues. Although I too was a little reluctant, when I explained who I was, she immediately welcomed me in. My plan was to say up front, “I have many visits to make today, so I can only stay for about 15-30 minutes,” but she immediately began to talk and I didn’t have a chance to stage my quick escape.

Lou told me many stories about her life. I initially thought, “I’m going to be here awhile!” but as she reminisced about her life, I was drawn into her stories. She talked about her husband and children, proudly showing me pictures. She talked about her career, singing and dancing to entertain the troops during the Vietnam War. She explained how this provided her a chance to travel all over the world.

Excitement and joy bubbled to the surface as she reflected on her past, but then she looked at me and said, “Pastor, maybe you can help me with a question.”

“Why am I still here? I know that Jesus is keeping me alive for a reason, but I can’t figure it out. I pray all the time, but I can’t figure out why I’m still here.”

“I’m not sure, Lou. When the time is right, are you ready to go?”

“Why, yes! I want to go! But I don’t know why I am still alive. I can’t do anything anymore, other than walk around my apartment, touch all my things, remember the past, and say, ‘Thank- you Jesus.’ But I’m even a problem to my children. My daughter calls me a few times a day just to say something nice to me, and my son, Skipper, comes over all the time. But I don’t know why I’m still here.”

If you didn’t know, I’m well trained for these kinds for questions, so I started with good theology! “Well, Lou, the purpose of human life is a loving relationship with God. As we experience all of God’s good gifts, we grow in gratitude, and the more thankful we are the more we can praise Him. You have told me many stories, and I can see that your heart is full of gratitude. As you pray throughout the day, thanking God for all His gifts, God delights in you—your life is a blessing to God.”

I sat back in my chair thinking, “That was pretty good.”

She briefly pondered my points, talked a little more, and then repeated the question again: “Why am I still here?”

I leaned in to make another theological argument. “You said that you were a problem to your kids, but I think if they were here they would say that you are not a problem and that they love you very mu . . .”

“Well, yes, I know that!” she interrupted.

I jumped back into the conversation to complete my thought: “Well, maybe you’re still here because you bring joy to their lives and they still need you for some reason.”

While she was grateful for my efforts, my answers were not convincing. After an awkward pause, she abruptly said, “It’s probably your lunch time, so I should let you go.”

In that moment, I felt an opportunity slipping away. I took off my theology hat and said, “Can I tell you one more thing before I go?”

“Well, sure!”

I looked at her with complete sincerity and said, “You have really blessed me today. I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in, but listening to your stories has brought me joy.”

Her eyes welled-up with tears, and through a faint smile she said, “Well, maybe that’s why you are here. To tell me that I’m not worthless.”

I was stunned and broken hearted at the same time. “You are not worthless,” I insisted. “You are a bright light in this world, and you bring many people joy just by being here.”

“That’s it!”

She raised her hands in the air, slapped my leg, and look at me as if she had just won the lottery.

“Jesus sent you here to tell me that I’m not worthless! JESUS SENT YOU HERE! Jesus sent you here . . . to tell me that I’m not worthless! Thank-you Jesus! THANK-YOU JESUS! Thank-you Jesus.”

She grabbed my hands: “We have to pray now.”

“Thank-you Jesus for sending this young man to tell me that I’m not worthless. He is your messenger, and you have sent him to me today to cheer me up. I didn’t even know I needed cheering, but I did. Thank you for sending him to me. May his sweet face and gentle voice go and comfort others today. Thank-you Jesus.”

(Now I’m bawling like a baby.) She squeezes my hand and goes silent. That means it’s my turn.

“Thank-you Jesus for sending me to Lou. She has brought me so much joy in these few moments, and through her love you have reminded me of my calling. I didn’t know that I needed to hear it, but you have reminded me, too, that I’m not worthless. We are your children, you love us, and we have value. Thank-you Jesus. Amen.”

Still holding hands, we lifted our heads. As we looked into each other’s tear-fractured eyes, we both knew that we were beholding the face of Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit was so palpable in that moment that I felt the world shift under my feet. It was one of those rare times when eternity breaks through the mundane and grace floods into your soul. We both experienced resurrection.

The irony in all of this doesn’t escape me. While God may have sent me to tell Lou that she was not worthless, God was reminding me that I’m not worthless either, and that I have been called to be a messenger of love and hope, especially to the lonely and forgotten. God was reminding me that sometimes the biggest blessings come when we are doing things that we aren’t particularly excited about doing, and that Christ is most powerfully present when people share their brokenness in moments of honesty.

Thank-you Jesus for sending Lou to me!

(The picture above is of items that Lou gave me during our visit.)