Sunday, October 15, 2017

Rejoice? Don't Worry? That's Easy for You to Say

This sermon, based on Philippian 4:1-9 was first presented at First Baptist Church, 
Nashville, Tennessee at the "Word & Table Service"
October 15, 2017

I have a newsflash this morning; Life is hard.  As I get older, I keep learning new ways that this statement is true.  In the movie, “The Princess Bride”, the character “Buttercup” says to “The [masked] Man in Black”, “You mock my pain” and the man in black responds, “Life is pain, highness.  Anyone who tells you different is selling something.” 

Indeed, life is filled with pain – both physical and emotional.  Through life we each have to deal with losses, both big and not so big.  We deal with traumatic events, personal struggles, disappointments and strained relationships.  We are hurt by illness, injury, betrayal, anger, abuse, addiction, depression, and on and on.  I don’t really have to name all the things that hurt us because you know them…well. 

When we experience difficulty and hurt, we each respond in a variety of ways.  We want to avoid feeling the pain of loss, so we try not to get too close to people.  We want to avoid disappointment, so we avoid letting people get too close to us.  We have difficulty trusting, so we are always looking for ways that others are trying to take advantage of us.  When we are hurt by someone, we may try to hurt them back.  When we have suffered great loss or other great pain, we may try to just numb the pain through frantic activities or drugs and alcohol.  In short, we focus on what has happened, we worry about what might happen and we try to control the outcome or consequences.  The result is a disconnect from ourselves, a distance in our relationships, and a loss of who God is.  We construct a God who will help us maintain our defenses and give us the means to be safe rather than connecting with God who calls us to abundant life and the adventure of deep connection. 

Paul’s words to the church at Philipi that we read this morning are a challenge to us in our lives of hurt, difficulty, loneliness, and disappointment.  Beginning in vs. 4, Paul says to “rejoice” and then he says it again.  Rejoice.  We might hear this and ask, “What do I have to rejoice about?  It is easy for Paul to say, ‘Rejoice’ because he doesn’t know what I’ve been through!”  If you said this, you would be partially right.  However, Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians from prison.  He had been beaten and arrested and was being held under a form of house arrest.  So, he did know something about suffering, but I will admit knowing that one person suffers in one way does not mean that your suffering feels any better.  People often say, “I shouldn’t complain about what I am going through, because someone else has it worse.”  Someone else having it worse does not mean that your pain or suffering is diminished.  It might give us a different perspective to realize others are suffering, but it doesn’t alleviate our pain. 

Notice, however, that Paul does NOT say, “Be happy no matter what and again, I say be happy about everything that is going on.” No, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord”, which seems to be something altogether different?  Too many times we as Christians reduce these words to some kind of syrupy superficial expression of happiness no matter what is going on in our life.  We go through a terrible experience, but somehow show up to church on a Sunday morning, slap a smile on our face, pretend like we are doing fine and think we are living up to Paul’s encouragement to rejoice all the time.  This cannot be what Paul is encouraging us to do because what follows seems to be direction on how to live more authentically and fully and to pretend things are ok when they are not does just the opposite. 

One of the first things that Paul says is, “The Lord is near.” While there may be more than one understanding of what this means, it most definitely includes the idea that God is near to us and God cares for us.  Paul then says, “Do not worry about anything.”  Again, I think this is an idea that we have abused as Christians.  It is normal to worry.  When faced with uncertainty when we don’t know what is going to happen or how things are going to turn out, we have concern.  I have known people who are going through difficulty who cannot say that they are concerned about an outcome because they fear it is a sin to worry.  This passage does not say it is a sin to worry.  Paul is encouraging the people of Philippi  and us, not to worry, but he gives us a different strategy.  Rather than worrying about what will happen in any given situation, Paul suggests that we let our requests be known to God with prayer and supplication with thanksgiving.  Note that there are several components to Paul’s suggestion.  Prayer is simply the act of addressing God.  Our prayers need not have particular words or be in a particular place.  Anything we do or say in our lives that we intend to be a communication with God can be a prayer.  When we are worried, our prayers should contain supplication, which literally is just asking for something.  We should offer these prayers in a spirit of thanksgiving. 

There are many thoughts on this and I am not offering mine as a counter to any of the other, but as one way of thinking about these things.  When we worry, we are generally afraid of a particular outcome.  We are worried about being adequate.  We are worried about what we cannot yet see.  We are focused on what has not yet happened.  For us to step outside of our worry and to make an honest of assessment of what we really need, takes perspective.  It involves setting aside our need to be in control or try to manipulate the outcome we think is best.  Being able to report to God our needs is an opening of ourselves to the reality that we, in and of ourselves, are not sufficient to control anything.  For us to try to control something is to suggest that God cannot handle what is going to happen or that God cannot bring about something that will bless us.  Admitting to God that we have needs is to admit that we are not complete in ourselves and we are in need of God.  To admit we have needs is a stance of humility.  But Paul says we should also have a perspective of Thanksgiving. 

An attitude of Thanksgiving turns our focus from the struggle currently before us and the fear of what might be to a focus on the good that is present and the blessings that we have received.  Several years ago, I was suffering from a short-sighted way of living life in which I wanted things in my life to be a certain way.  I got frustrated when things were not the way I thought they should be.  I suffered from the idea that I somehow deserved to have the outcome I wanted in things.  I was often frustrated that life was not what I thought it was supposed to be and what I thought I deserved.  I had an epiphany one day that I did not “deserve” anything.  I realized that my expectations were killing my ability to enjoy and appreciate what I had.  I made a conscious decision to seek to be more grateful.  I began to thank my wife, Lynda, for doing things that she was already doing around the house because I realized that she didn’t “have to” do those things for me.  I tried to expect less from others which on the surface, sounds bad, but I realized that if I expected nothing, then when others offered to do anything with me or for me, I felt genuinely grateful rather than being angry or disappointed that what I got was not what I expected or thought I should get. 

To go to God in times of hurt and uncertainty with that kind of attitude of thanksgiving and to acknowledge that I, by myself, cannot control everything in my life, and I have needs, opens us up to see God’s presence and blessings in ways we had not imagined.  We truly have peace because we trust that God is near and God will be with us no matter what happens in the worrisome scenarios of our life. 

I wish we had time to continue to unpack versus 8 and 9, but I want to note that these verses also require a shift for us.  Too many times Christians are known for what we are against.  We seem to look for the negative and look for the bad and we love to point it out, but Paul suggests that if we shift our perspective and seek to see things as God sees them, we find the beauty, the good, and the honor in others.  I recently heard a story of a young man that visited this congregation that came dressed in shorts.  As he walked down the hall, he heard an older adult make a condescending comment about his clothes.  The young man did not return to our church because he did not feel welcome or loved.  He did not experience the joy of the Lord in that moment.  That adult in our church failed to embody this way of thinking that seeks to see what is good and build up rather than focusing what they thought was the bad and tearing down. 

If you are a person who struggles with worry, you are not living in sin.  In fact, there may actually be some biological reasons why that is true and there are medications and talk therapy that can help (I have utilized these things myself), but each of us worries in some way.  We are, however, called to make an honest assessment of ourselves.  We are encouraged to share our need with God, not because God needs to hear it or God needs us to beg, but because sharing our needs with God opens us up to looking for God at work in our lives.  Sharing our need with God reminds us that we do not and cannot control every outcome, but that when we look for God at work and let go of trying to make things happen the way we want, we open ourselves to the peace of God that does not make sense to anyone else.  

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Wilderness of Deep Emotion is the Path to Individual Healing

Maybe you have heard people say, “Suck it up” when something difficult happens.  There are certainly times when we jokingly say, “Rub some dirt on it” after a minor incident, but too many times we are encouraged to “not be affected” by life’s events and to “move on”.  It seems to be mantra of the rugged individualist who says, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get on with life.”  Not too long ago, I met a person from another country who noted their country’s own version of this mentality that says, “Keep Calm & Carry On.” The problem with this way of thinking is that it is contrary to our human needs and frustrates the very path to healing. 

When difficult things happen to us, when we are exposed to traumatic events, when we suffer a loss, we generally have feelings.  After the news of yesterday’s mass shootings (and even the death of Tom Petty) there were those who described a multitude of feelings ranging from shock to anger and sadness to despair.  All of these are natural and normal responses.  It does not feel like an efficient use of time to sit and take stock of those emotions.  Sometimes, it seems self-indulgent or silly to allow yourself time to cry or experience the deep sadness you feel after a tragedy, but as difficult as it may be there is no path to healing that by-passes these feelings.  Any attempt to by-pass the experience of deep emotions will lead to difficulty in other areas of life, heightened emotional responses to other events, behavioral or compulsive behaviors.  Trying not to feel has consequences. 

The process of healing leads through difficult emotions and pain and never around them.  

After a recent trauma, a friend asked me how does one make sense of life and find meaning again.  The path is definitely different for each person. One person’s journey will take turns that another person’s journey may not take, but the journey must go through the depth of emotion.  Healing involves telling the story of loss.  It involves allowing yourself to feel the deep feelings and to enumerate the losses.  Even if there is hope that things will ultimately get better, you cannot skip to the part where things get better without going through the wilderness of pain.  Despite what some people fear, eventually the pain becomes tolerable.  We don’t forget what has happened.  We don’t pretend things never happened, but we begin to learn how to live despite what has happened.  In the wake of a tragedy like the shooting in Las Vegas yesterday, others will write about what they think people ought to do politically or socially and those activities may be helpful for some in their recovery process (and absolutely necessary to prevent future events, etc. ), but in the individual process of emotional recovery and meaning-making, there is no substitute for moments of stillness, time of expressing feelings, and reflecting on the meaning we make of events within our own faith understanding and worldview.  This process can be done with a trusted friend or a member of the clergy, but psychotherapists, and particularly pastoral psychotherapists, have professional training to walk with people on these journeys.  Some offer different tools and methodologies, but there is a somewhat common understanding to the process of healing that leads through difficult emotions and pain and never around them.  

Take time for the emotional work in your own life.  It is not waste of time, but a path to wholeness.  

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Why Should I Pay to Talk to You?: Reflections on the "Process" of Psychotherapy

A recent conversation prompted me to revisit this question. This post is an edit of a 2013 post on "Content vs. Process" in psychotherapy.  

When meeting new clients (and others), I encounter a variety of comments that reflect common misconceptions about psychotherapy.  One is that the focus of therapy is for me to evaluate the client and tell them what to do.  Many people start their therapy a bit defensive because they are fearful of my judgment or correction.  Some people have mocked the process of therapy by saying that therapists never tell you what to do and only “Listen”.  Others have said to me, “Why am I paying you to listen to me when I could just be talking to a friend or family member?”  The difficulty with all of these assessments is that they assume over-activity or inactivity on the part of therapist.  People have experiences with other "advisers" in their life in which they seek advice and receive a plan on what to do for their particular problem and they expect therapy to be like that.  There are also distortions of the therapeutic process portrayed in film and television that perpetuate misconceptions.  Unfortunately, there are also a number of people in the world practicing some type of counseling who contribute to these stereotypes by their methods of practice.  The very terms we use for this type of care are also confusing – counseling, therapy, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, etc.   (In a previous post, I commented on the technical differences in these various terms).  Many people think that seeing a therapist is helpful because the therapist is supposed to be a neutral third party.  However, what makes the process of psychotherapy different from talking with a friend or other type of helper is the attention to the process of therapy. Because this part of the relationship is often managed in subtle ways, people often perceive that the therapist is not doing much, but the reality that is that the process is rich with reflection.
Fundamentally, what makes any type of counseling or psychotherapy beneficial is the quality of the established relationship and this is true regardless of the therapist's theoretical orientation.  However, attention to this "process of therapy" is particularly meaningful to those who practice psychoanalysis, psycho-dynamic psychotherapy, and traditional Pastoral Psychotherapy. In these types of therapy, the therapist is mindful of the dynamics of the relationship, monitors these things, and uses them (hopefully) for the client’s benefit.  These types of dynamics can exist in other relationships with friends, etc, but it is more rare.  Psychotherapy is, by definition, a relationship between two (or more in the case of couple or family therapy) people for the benefit of one of them.  Everything the therapist does or says should be for the benefit of the client.  In order to do this, the therapist must be aware of many dynamics that are simultaneously at work in the counseling office.  Friendships are generally more mutual in nature.  

What is the "Process" of Therapy? 

When a person comes to therapy, the issues they wish to discuss and the struggles they have with these issues constitute the “content” of the session.   However, the forces that motivate a person’s behavior are also important.  The therapist should be reflecting on the selection of material presented and the content of the material.  After a particularly painful session of dealing with something like grief, a client may come in the next session and talk about more mundane or superficial issues.  The therapist’s job is to note the shift in tone and help bring to awareness the change.  When a client presents a memory of events, the therapist is focusing on how the person was affected and how they behaved in the events presented, but he or she is also focused on how the person seems to be feeling as they are presenting the material.  The therapist should not make assumptions about what the client felt, how they are feeling, or why they behaved in a certain way.  The job of therapist is to note that such feelings and motivations exist and to ask questions to raise the client’s awareness.  This is why it has become cliché for a therapist to ask questions like “How did you feel when that happened?”

The Therapist should monitor his or her own feelings during a session

Completely out of the awareness of the client (at least it should be) is the therapists’ reflections on another set of dynamics in the room – his or her own.  As the client is sharing, the therapist is also monitoring his or her own feelings about what is being shared.  He or she is monitoring the experience of the person and noting what they observe and hear.   The therapist is monitoring how his or her own story is connected to the client’s story.  The goal for the therapist is to be able to separate his or her own experiences from the experiences of the client.  In order to do this effectively, the therapist should have done sufficient therapy for their own personal issues and to receive adequate supervision and/or consultation on their work. The therapist becomes less effective when he or she assumes what the client will or should feel instead of allowing the client to discover what they actually feel.

Therapy is meaningful when the therapist is NOT giving advice

While the therapist may provide some education on common dynamics of interaction or personal development, their primary goal is to allow the client to discover how he or she plays out these dynamics in their own life.  Any intervention or action on the part of the therapist should be in the service of this self-discovery or to help provide an environment that contrasts the clients’ previous hurtful experiences.  By observing the clients actions, monitoring feelings, and dealing with the dynamics of the client’s relationship with the therapist, the therapist creates the opportunity for growth and healing.  The client’s experience of the resulting relationship between therapist and client can then grow beyond the walls of the therapy office to the other parts of the client’s life.  The goal for the therapist is to create independence for the client and not to foster dependence.  Advice-giving and such activities, while helpful, only keep the client dependent on the counselor.  When the therapist helps the client discover his or her own ways of dealing with things, then they are able to apply that understanding to novel situations.  The experience of this growth within a therapeutic relationship is generally experienced by client and therapist as deeply meaningful.  In pastoral psychotherapy, this growth and self-reflection will often include reflections on faith, God, and spiritual development and the process of the therapy itself can be experienced as quite spiritual or holy. 
So, far from doing nothing or doing everything for a client, the therapist works with the content of the client’s issues while monitoring the internal and relational process of therapy. The therapist should maintain a calm exterior, but should always be actively reflecting internally.  I have found this process personally, professionally, and spiritually enriching.  For most events in life, the support of a good friend or trustworthy family member is invaluable.  A good friendship can have wonderful therapeutic value and can be very helpful in many of life's difficult situations, but for me, there is no true substitute for a meaningful therapeutic relationship.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Easy Answers

The members of the Sunday School class I teach and other friends that know me, know that when it comes to my faith, I do not accept easy answers for tough questions.  I am a skeptic by nature and faith does not come easy to me.  I have lived enough life to have suffered a little and struggled a lot.  The seemingly trite explanations of suffering or the traditional answers to biblical questions are not always easy for me to accept.  When I sit down with my Sunday School Class on Sunday mornings, I want us to wrestle with meaning of difficult passages.  I don’t want to skip over the unpleasant or difficult passages of the Bible.  When it comes to the familiar passages, I want us to slow down and not just accept traditional understandings.  In short, I take the bible and faith seriously, but it is not “easy”.

On a recent Sunday Morning, one of my longtime class members asked, “Just out of curiosity, is there any “easy answer” that you accept?  The class laughed and I blushed a bit.  I did not think of an answer right off, but the question stayed with me all week.  I reflected on the basic tenants of our faith.  I thought about various “truths” I have been taught through the years.  Ultimately, I came to the answer that I usually come to when thinking such thoughts – God is Love (I John 4:8).

I was eating lunch with a new friend this week and we were sharing the respective stories of our lives and how we came to be the people we are and do the work that we do.  I was struck, as I often am in hearing other’s stories, that though my friend’s story was nothing like mine on the surface, what we shared was an overwhelming experience of God’s love.  In my own story, I talk about a time in my life when I felt unloved and unloveable and a friend reached out to me and offered me love.  This act was followed by other friends demonstrating love to me – not wholesale approval of where my life was, but love and acceptance in the place that I was.  I have also experienced incredible love from my wife, Lynda.  This love demonstrated to me by friends has become an internalized experience of what I had previously professed as God’s love, but did not truly understand.  This love has become a living reality for me and the experience has been so profound, I want only to help others have such an experience. 

In a training I recently attended, I heard Richard Rohr say, “I am better at talking about love than doing it.” That sentiment immediately resonated with me.  Having had an experience of transforming love and having done study on the power of love, I am woefully aware of the times that I fail to provide it to others.  At times when I am tired, insecure, frustrated, hurt, anxious, fearful, among other feelings, I can let those other emotions cover and smother the desire to be loving.  Each day I pray that God would make me more loving; that I would live out in my life the love that I have experienced from God through others. 

All of that to say, while I may have questions about some of the fundamentals of my own faith tradition, I cannot just walk away from my faith because there is an experience of love that I have had that literally changed my life.  When I read the bible now, I see that love in the pages.  I desire to love others because I have experienced the love of God.  I desire to be an embodiment of that love for others.  There may be one or two others, but I know that the one “easy answer” that I accept is that God is love and God loves me (and you).  The journey to understanding that and learning to live that out in every circumstance of life is not all that easy, but I can imagine no other truth that is greater for me.