Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Good Samaritan: A Gestalt Reflection

Luke 10:30-37
Chris O’Rear, M.Div., M.M.F.T.
Service of Healing
Belle Meade United Methodist Church
Nashville, Tennessee
Wednesday, November 29, 2017

My counseling work is informed by two primary psychological theories.  However, there are other theories that I can draw on when I feel it is appropriate for a particular client.  One of those theories is GestaltTheory.  Gestalt theory has a unique approach to interpreting dreams that involves looking at every element of a dream as if it represents some aspect of the dreamer.  For example, a client of mine recently told me of a dream in which he was explaining God’s grace to another man.  In a Gestalt-kind of reflection on that dream, we noted that the ideas of grace that he believes in his head and can offer others do not always translate into giving himself grace for things he has done.  So, we wondered if in the dream, one part of him needed to teach another part of him about grace. 

In preparing for this service, I realized that the same way of thinking might be applied to Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan.  There is always a bit of risk in pressing any analogy or story too far, but I decided to try it. 

As you recall, In Luke 10, Jesus is having a conversation with a man who asks Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus asked him what was in the law and what he saw there.  The man answered that we should love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus said that this was true and if the man would do this, he would live.  Just to be sure he was on the right path, the man asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”    

30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[a] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

If we are to examine this passage with a Gestalt-like lens, then it seems we must first look at the man who was robbed and beaten.  Perhaps you have known the horrible feeling of literally being robbed of your belongings, but it is more likely that that many of us can identify with being robbed of trust we had in another person or having certain dreams taken from us.  We might feel beaten up by difficulties at work, financial struggles, physical issues, or perhaps we have suffered the woundedness of literally being assaulted or taken advantage of.  Life can be very difficult and there are times when we can feel “half dead” and wonder if we can go on.  Depression, anxiety, grief, betrayal, and losses of a many kinds can all rob us of hope and joy.  We may, at times, feel as if we have been left by the side of the road and wonder who will come to help us? 

In our examination of this passage, we might suggest then, that the Priest would represent our religious tradition or our faith. Surely, if we just have enough faith or if we pray the right way or pray long enough, things will get better.  At least people say these things to hurting people way too often and it is like the person just passes us by.  They don’t understand what it is like to hurt the way we do.  Religious platitudes and clichés are rarely what hurting people need. 

The next character we encounter is the “Levite”.  Though the descendants of Levi were set apart as a priestly tribe, not all were priests.  Others of the Levites were set apart to assist in worship in various ways.  They would have also been scholars of the Jewish law and would have sought to keep themselves ceremonially clean.  It is in this vein, that I imagine the part of us that views our emotional hurts and woundedness with contempt.  When we think about hurts, we might think of ourselves as weak or we might hate that we can be so vulnerable as to be hurt by another.  We can too often judge our hurts.  We might try to make sense of them by thinking that we deserved what happened to us or that they were part of God’s punishment for us.  In the same way that we might not offer help to a person in need if we think their situation is their own fault, we can also be judgmental of our own situations and feel like we don’t have the merit to warrant attending to our needs.  Like the Levite may also have felt, we might be concerned about how much time it will take if we try to address the need.  People sometimes think that if they really allow themselves to look at their hurt and feel their feelings of sadness and anger that those feelings will take over.  There is a fear of opening a wound that we are afraid will never heal.  We are sometimes afraid that if we seek help for our brokenness that it will take too much time or be too expensive (emotionally or financially), but the Samaritan is our true example here. 

The Jews and the Samaritans were not friends.  There was great tension between them.  In the same way that we might feel dislike or hatred for our hurts.  We sometimes want to reject the parts of us that can be hurt and the parts that cause us pain, but our hurts are not our enemies.  They should not be strangers to us.  The Samaritan of the story is moved by compassion, puts aside his prejudice and decides to treat the wounded man as a person instead of a problem.  The Samaritan goes over the hurt man and investigates his wounds.  He takes the time to tend to each one.  The man on the road was not going to get better by being ignored. He was not going to heal by treating him like a problem.  He could only heal when someone took the time to compassionately examine and evaluate the wounds and to provide treatment as he was able. 

There is one last lesson we take from the Samaritan man.  He did as much as he could by himself, but when the hurt man required more than the Samaritan could do, he asked for help.  He did use some of his own resources to pay the innkeeper, but he could not stay in the town and just care for the wounded man.  So, he enlisted help.  Too often we feel that we should know how to take care of all our problems.  We think we should be able to heal ourselves or fix everything ourselves.  We may even see asking for help as sign of weakness, but this story of Jesus demonstrates that we can only do what we can do and then it is ok to ask someone else to help who can do more than we can by ourselves. 

So, our Gestalt reflection kind of works, I think.  We are all subject to hurt, disappointment, injury, illness, loss, betrayal, and more.  Ignoring the hurts and feelings we have, doesn’t make them go away.  True healing comes when take the time to live out of love, even for the parts of ourselves that we don’t like.  Healing comes when we take the time to examine our hurts, identify them and allow ourselves to experience whatever feelings they bring.  We have to remember that healing is not something that just happens with time and it is not something we can always do all by ourselves.  It is not a weakness, but a sign of courage and wisdom to ask for help when you need it.  Jesus said if we offer compassion to the one in need, as the Samaritan did, we will live.  Of course, we are to offer that compassion to all we come in contact with as well, but we must also learn to love ourselves and have compassion for ourselves.  Because Jesus also said, “Love your neighbor in the same way that you love yourself.” 

How can you offer yourself some compassion? 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Streets of Bethlehem or the Shed Outback?

This  was originally posted on the "Pastor's Blog" at Belle Meade United Methodist Church, Nashville, TN
(10 Ways to De-stress Your Holidays)
Because the familiar story of Jesus’ birth reports that He was laid in a feeding trough because there was no room for them in the inn, I often imagine Bethlehem as being over-crowded and hectic. The inns were full of all the descendants of David returning to their hometown to be registered for the census. It had to be difficult to wind a way through the packed streets.
Though there was no room in the inn, I imagine that the serenity of the stable on that night provided the perfect contrast to the city outside. For many of us, the holidays are more like the bustling streets of Bethlehem with our overscheduled calendars, exhausted credit cards, and unrealistic expectations of happiness and perfection. So, how do we have a holiday season that is more like the peacefulness of the secluded barn than the insanity of the Bethlehem streets?
1.     Plan ahead, but stay flexible – During the holidays you can avoid being overwhelmed at the last minute by planning out when to accomplish certain tasks. However, things will come up that you do not expect. Expect that and try to adjust as needed. It is okay to grieve for what you hoped things would be, but keep yourself open for what you didn’t expect.
2.     Be realistic – Maybe this should be said before the previous, but the holidays don’t have to be a certain way or “just like” anything. Know what is realistic for your time and situation. Be open to changing traditions or adjusting schedules when it will rob you of your joy in the moment to insist that things be a certain way.  
3.     Stick to a budget – Related to realistic expectations, it can be easy to think that Christmas cannot be happy unless we have a certain number of gifts or that someone special gets just the right gift, but before shopping for gifts and food, assess what is realistic for you in your situation.  
4.     Learn to say no -  The holidays will provide ample opportunities to attend events and parties and you will have your own baking, shopping, and other activities that you want to participate in. Prioritize these things and learn to say no (or, “I am sorry, we won’t be able to do that on that evening.”)
5.     Don’t ignore yourself – Holidays often stir deep emotions as we remember lost loved ones or have to deal with unpleasant family experiences. Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Allow yourself time to express those feelings by yourself or with a trusted person in your life. Don’t ignore or abandon things that you normally do to care for yourself like exercise, prayer, or adequate sleep. People often indulge in too much food or drink at this time of year, but perhaps set expectations and have a plan for that as well.  
6.     Pick your battles – The holidays are a time of a lot of family gatherings and kids are out of school and at home all day. With fatigue and stress, it can be easy to react to situations with quick biting words or irritable responses. Decide which things are truly worth your time in setting boundaries, enforcing consequences, or talking through. The holidays don’t last forever (it just can feel that way sometimes).
7.     Take 5 (or like 15-20) - Just 15-20 minutes alone can be sufficient to refresh you. Sitting in quiet, meditating or praying, getting a massage, taking a walk, listening to music or reading a book are a few things you can do during this time. Make time for this during the Holidays.
8.     Stay in the moment - The pressure we put on ourselves to get things just right, the hectic schedules we try to keep, our rush and worry can cause us to just do things just to cross them off a list and then move on the next thing. If we are thinking about where we have been or worried about where we are going, we are not able to be right where we are. Schedule yourself so that where you are, you can just be in that moment. There is such beauty in the holidays. The holidays offer opportunities for true joy and hope, but if we are checking boxes on our way to the next event, we probably won’t see it.  
9.     Don’t be afraid to ask for help – Despite your best planning and effort, you may still find yourself persistently overwhelmed, sleepless, hopeless, sad, anxious, or irritable. You may experience conflict with family or disconnect from God. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it. Have a trusted friend, a staff member, or therapist (I know one of those) that you can talk to. It is ok to ask for help when you need it…really.  
10.     Read the list again – Go back and read this list again substituting “Life” for “The Holidays/Holidays”. The lessons pretty much still hold true.  

Chris O'Rear

Sunday, October 29, 2017

What Other Commandment Would We Need?

This sermon, based on Matthew 22: 34-46 was first presented at First Baptist Church, 
Nashville, Tennessee at the "Word & Table Service"
October 29, 2017

Last week we looked at the story of the Pharisees seeking to trap or trick Jesus by forcing him to pick a side on the controversial issue of paying the Roman tax.  After that, in a story we did not read, the Sadducees sought to trick Jesus on the issue of marriage after the resurrection. Today, we once again see the Pharisees back to trick Jesus.  Tim Wildsmith did a great job reflecting on this passage in the sanctuary service last week – as he always does.  I will do my best to keep up this week. 

In our reading from Matthew this morning, we see the Pharisees trying to discredit Jesus by revealing what they assume will be his lack of knowledge of the law.  The name, “Pharisee”, literally means “Separatist” and it alluded to the fact that the Pharisees had as their purpose to separate themselves from ritually “unclean” people and things.  Beyond that, the Pharisees were serious students of the Jewish law.  They had studied the entirety of the Hebrew scriptures (our Old Testament) and could tell you that they found 613 laws – 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commandments.  The Pharisees had studied each and every one.  They had created sub-rules and ancillary laws that were designed to make the existing laws clearer.  For example, the Sabbath was to be remembered as a day of rest and kept holy because that was one of the ten commandments that God gave Moses.  The Pharisees would have discussed and collected rules about what it meant to keep the sabbath holy; what could be done and what could not be done in order to honor that day as intended. 

Part of the discussion that Pharisees, and those like them, would have had, would be to take those 613 laws and rank them according to weight.  The would have considered all the laws to be important and would have sought to keep them all, but they would rank them as which would be the most important or first among the laws.  The Pharisees had already agreed that Deuteronomy 6:5 (that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might) was the most important of the laws.  So, their question to Jesus was to test and see if he would also say the same thing or find out if he had studied sufficiently to know what the “right” answer should be. 

Jesus answers the Pharisees well and he adds the bonus question of what is the second most important, which is to love your neighbor as yourself.  This was not radical for Jesus to say this, but Jesus would have had a very different understanding of what this meant than those who were questioning him.  Jesus says that the entirety of the law and prophets hangs on these two commandments.  Which is to say that every rule given by God in the old testament could be summed up in Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself.  While the Pharisees would have still been seeking to obey all of the 613 laws and their additional counterparts, Jesus is saying all you really need to know is love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself. 

As Tim Wildsmith pointed out last week, these commands sound pretty straightforward as presented.  Do I love God?  Yes.  Do I love other people?  Well, not ALL the people and not necessarily ALL the time, but I try.  So, I am doing pretty good.  So, end of sermon.  I love God.  I try to love other people.  I’m doing pretty good.  And that is probably what the Pharisees thought.  They certainly were trying to prove their love for God by obeying all the commandments.  They would have also said they were seeking to love their neighbor.  However…

I told you a minute ago that the name, “Pharisee” means “separatist”.  However, that name is not what the Pharisees called themselves.  “Pharisee” was a nickname used by people who were not Pharisees to describe this group.  The Pharisees actually referred to themselves as “Haberim” which means…Neighbor.  For the Pharisees to love their “neighbor” as themselves was pretty easy if they considered their “neighbor” to be the people that thought like them and lived like them, but Jesus demonstrates again and again that this is not what he means. 

Earlier in Matthew (Chapter 5) Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? …And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Jesus’ story of the compassionate Samaritan man in Luke 10 is in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus flips the question and does not say who is the neighbor but asks “who was a good neighbor to the man in need?” indicating that the importance is not on who to love, but how we love.

These greatest commandments would indicate that love originates with God, for the bible says that God is love. We must love God with our whole being. Jesus says to love God with your heart, soul, and mind. Deuteronomy says, “heart, soul, & might”. Other gospels include “Strength”. We could analyze each of these words and it would be interesting and enlightening (Tim did a bit of this last week and did a great job), but the point of including all these qualities (heart, soul, mind, might, strength) is they are inclusive of the whole of our being. They represent our intellect, our spirit, our feelings, our relationships and should encompass everything about us. The point of the commandment is to love God with your whole being and everything you have and everything that you are.

The reality is that though we say that we love God, we do not always show it with every part of our life. We have the parts that we hold on for ourselves out of fear, insecurity, materialism, lust, anger, among other reasons. Demonstrating our love for God with everything we are and everything we have is hard. We may desire it, but we rarely accomplish it. It is a good thing that our loving God perfectly is not a pre-requisite for God loving us perfectly. Our grasp of God’s love for us is the beginning of our ability to love God, love ourselves and love others. When we have aligned our whole being with the God who is love, then we, in turn, can love well.

The command is to love your neighbor as yourself. It is clear that this love of neighbor also grows from our love of self. It seems perhaps the implication would be that we already love ourselves. We already seek what is best for ourselves. We already try to get what we want or what we think we deserve. We are concerned about our rights and our freedom. We want to be sure we and those we love are taken care of. If this is the interpretation, then the encouragement is not just look out for your own interests, but look out for the interests of others as much as you look out for yourselves. It would be impossible for us to be completely selfish if we are considering others as important as we consider ourselves.

But many of us have been taught that we should not love ourselves at all. We have associated love of self with self-indulgence or selfishness. We don’t want to be selfish or self-focused and so instead, we focus on how we should be loving and serving others. However, this verse does not say Love your neighbor instead of yourself. It doesn’t even say love your neighbor more than yourself, but as much as you love yourself, love your neighbor that much. There is some love of self that is involved. I have thought a great deal about this passage through the years because my experience has been that in trying to live out different understandings of this and other passages in the bible, so many people have felt that they have been called to be doormats in the world to be walked on by others. In trying to live this out, some have tried to avoid arrogance and potential conflict and have limited their own abilities, diminished their own gifts, and denied their own wishes and will. In trying to always put others first and in the name of trying to keep the peace, many become “burned out” and exhausted because they are always giving and giving to others and never taking care of themselves. For many of us, to always deny ourselves and put others first without any conflict means we seek a kind of watered down conformity that does not allow for a genuine expression of our personality. For some it means limiting ourselves, not expressing our opinions or developing our own interests in order to make others happy. But I do not believe that this way of thinking about this passage captures healthy love of self either. If we are not practicing a healthy self-love, then we can assume that we are not practicing healthy love of others either.

There are two truths that form the foundation of healthy self-love. You have gifts and abilities and you are imperfect. You have gifts from God. These gifts are a combination of your genetics, your life experience, your influences, and more. Our personal calling and our source of fulfillment is often found, as Frederick Buechner said, “…[in] the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” We should follow our passions and gifts and seek to cultivate those things within us.

As we seek to cultivate our giftedness, we strive for excellence, but we must also acknowledge that we are also flawed and broken. Again, our genetics, our life experience, our psychology and other influences are always at work in us as well. Too many times when the evidence of our “failure” is exposed, we feel flawed. We are embarrassed, and we try to hide from others. We can beat ourselves up and we are hard on ourselves. However, if we are seeking to love God with our whole being, we might seek to accept that God loves us every day, all the time. The things we see as our failures are not game-changing incidents. They are merely setbacks in our effort to be all that God has created us to be. So, we accept that God loves us. We acknowledge that God is with us. We seek to learn from our setbacks and we get up each day and try again.

Loving ourselves is seeking to be all that God has created us to be in cultivating our gifts and passions and seeking to learn and grow from our setbacks knowing that God’s love is steadfast. Caring for ourselves, also includes caring for our physical and emotional selves. We seek to eat healthy, we exercise our body, and we seek to get adequate rest. It may mean that we do not waste our time trying to do things that others are more gifted at doing because our job is to what we do, as best we can.

Our healthy love of ourselves says that we do not think too little of ourselves because we are all loved by God and we are all gifted, but we cannot think too highly of ourselves because we are all flawed and broken. So, we are honest about our struggles and we encourage others when they struggle. We cultivate our gifts and we encourage others to cultivate theirs. As we seek to be all that God has called us to be, we help others become all that they are called to be. In our relationships we sometimes have difficulty because we are afraid that another’s success means that we might not get enough. We sometimes feel jealous of other’s gifts. However, the greatest commandment we have is to love God with all of what is in us, let the love of God inform how we love ourselves and, in turn, love others in the same way. What other commandment would we need? Is not everything we need to know wrapped up in these two great commandments – to love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself?

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.