Spiritual Cumulonimbus, Depression & Another Way to Pray

Because Britain is a relatively small island over which the jet stream constantly oscillates, the weather changes all the frigging time.

A soggy morning might turn into an absolutely heavenly afternoon, which could then give way to a twilight drizzle, only to be followed by a cloud-free starry night.

That’s just how it goes. Rain is a periodic companion.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the children’s book “Hello, Moon!” Since I moved to the UK, I’ve been contemplating writing a companion book to be called “Goodbye, Sun.”

One of the things I love about Brits, though, is that they just get on with it, regardless of what’s happening outside. For example, a couple of Saturdays ago it poured down all day long, but six hundred runners still showed up in the morning for a weekly community race at the local park, and the afternoon storming was no match for the swells of cheers coming from the football field across the street.

They may obsess about it, they may whine about it, they may talk on and on about how “in Britain, you can have four seasons in one day!” but rarely do they let the weather stop them from living their lives.

Let’s just say that my cultural response to meteorological drama is still quite un-British.

I remember one time when I was living in Chicago when I had a morning flight to catch, and I woke up to an absolutely miserable weather day. I walked with my bags through the rain to the subway, got drenched even with an umbrella, made it to the airport, made it to the gate, found out that the flight was overbooked and, of course, delayed due to weather, eventually boarded the plane and sat down wet, frustrated, fluctuating between a low pressure system of vague depression and a high pressure system of slight anxiety, worried about whatever I was worried about. I looked out of the plane window from my cramped middle seat only to be greeted by abject gloominess.

Finally we took off, hurtled down the runway into the sky, and immediately we were right into the thick of the clouds, layers and layers of them, and the windows were an unflinching grey, like a Brutalist cement wall. And then, a couple minutes into the flight, there was a flash and the wall was suddenly gone, replaced by radiant morning sun. We had broken through the top shelf of clouds, thousands of feet above the ground, and what had felt so oppressive when we were in it looked so beautiful when we were above it. If you’ve ever flown on a day like that, you know what I’m talking about.

As the sun’s brilliance filtered into my cramped middle-seat lack-of-space, I felt the morning’s emotional doldrums lift a bit, and I thought: Which of these two conditions is more true? The clouds or the sun? The quasi-depression or the relief from it?

There’s a biblical proverb: “Do not rely on your own insight” (Proverbs 3.5). I wonder if its point is not that your insight is unimportant or necessarily bad or sinful, but that it is always provisional. Your insight is necessarily incomplete. Because you are one person. Because I am one person.

So, which “reality” is more true? Is it cloudy or is it sunny? Is it both? Is it neither?

Depression & Spirituality

Anthony deMello, an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist who explored the contemplative resonance between the East and the West, wrote in Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality: “Before enlightenment, I used to be depressed; after enlightenment, I continue to be depressed. But there is a difference: I don’t identify with it anymore.”

(To any fellow Christians reading: please don’t skip over deMello’s wisdom simply because he uses a traditionally Buddhist metaphor. Either substitute in the Christian vocabulary word “salvation” or, even better, consider the places where the processes that the words refer to might meaningfully intersect. For example, what do you make of the Gospel according to John 1.9: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world”?)

As we undergo God, the stormy weather does not disappear. I think that’s basically what deMello is testifying to. As we deepen spiritually, we don’t completely stop feeling sad or anxious or depressed. We are not altogether freed from doubt or uncertainty or fear.

As we grow in faith, we begin to understand that these conditions are not only a part of life; they can also become a part of faith, particularly as we learn how to receive them and treat them when they arise.

Instead of (on one end of the emotional spectrum) hyper-analyzing and agonizing about them or (on the other end of the spectrum) ignoring and potentially repressing them, we can learn to notice these conditions, to name them, and then let them be, even let them do what they do. We can learn to stop resisting them: “Ah, there you are again, anxiety. I know you that show up from time to time. Not gonna lie, I’m not thrilled to see you, but since you’re here anyway, welcome, I guess.”

As we learn not to freak out when these emotional weather systems brew, we become less “run” by them, whether they’re with us for only an afternoon storm or they sock us in for a whole monsoon season. Very slowly, we begin to let go of the idol that “being spiritual” equals “being sunny.” We realize that, while still in our depression or anxiety or fear, we are becoming enlightened: we are being saved. Whatever the weather, we are being freed to live.

Another Way to Pray

I love nature — some Christian mystics refer to the creation as “the first Bible” — and so my former spiritual director gave me a natural image for prayer. She said to think of God as a great mountain, and you’re on the mountain, you’re on God, you’re with God, you’re rooted in God. Some days on the mountain it’s luminous and feels like a perfect day. But on other days the clouds roll in with their rain, wind, sleet and snow.

Prayer is simply the practice of remembering the mountain beneath your feet. And while not ignoring the rain (or the sun, for that matter, which is no more divine than the rain), learning to see it for what it is, which is just weather. Weather that is temporary. Weather that will come and go, and come again, and go again.

Don’t get me wrong: when crappy weather rolls in, it sucks. It really does. Depression is not to be romanticized: it’s frustrating, uncomfortable, and — in my past (and future?) experience and the current experience of many whom I love — often downright painful.

But in contemplative prayer, meditation, and conscious contact with God, we slowly receive more reliable insight than our solitary capacities allow: insight to perceive that the bad weather (or good weather) is not the mountain itself. And, since we are ourselves on the mountain, that the weather isn’t our truest reality either.

Whatever the forecast, our truest reality is the mountain itself.

As the old hymn sings: “Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it, mount of God’s redeeming love.”

A Suggestion

To experiment with some different forms of prayer similar to the one described in this post, check out these resources on Centering Prayer. There are a couple of short videos and a detailed brochure about the method.

Advertisements

How to Recover from a Case of Control Freakery

I have always been a “type-A overachiever,” which is just psycho-business babble to describe, in me at least, a pretty severe case of control freakery.

For as long as I can remember, my default approach to tackling life has been to work on projects and to deal with problems by myself. A theology professor of mine once called me “the child who was always playing by himself in his own tree house.”

So in my late twenties, when I began to begin to own up to the truth that I had developed a complicated relationship with alcohol, my predominant thought was “I’ll sort this out on my own.” And for a few years I tried all kinds of solitary solutions for self-mastery: personal improvement books, combative mantras, prayer and journaling, cleansing diets, intense exercise, a self-styled replacement therapy of cigarettes instead of cocktails, and incessant resolutions to swear off, followed by periods of abstinence that would sometimes last the entire week, or month, or even the whole season of Lent (okay, once) — but not usually.

Since none of those solutions ultimately worked for me, in my early thirties I checked out a community-based program of recovery that helped me eventually get sober and stay sober, but with my raging case of control freakery, at first I tried to do the program without the community-based part. That is, I tried to do it by myself.

Veterans in recovery advised me to take it day by day, and step by step, and to seek a sponsor to guide me through the challenging exercises of discovery and transformation that are crucial not only for stopping drinking but for staying stopped, and for staying stopped with a sense of freedom and serenity instead of a “dry drunk” paralysis that is alcohol-free but anxiety-intense. I let them know that I would be fine to take care of everything myself. “Thanks for the information, though. It’s really awesome. Y’all have been so helpful.”

I took some of their recovery literature home and decided that I would set aside a whole weekend to work through the exercises, understand how it all worked, and sort out my alcohol problem. I figured an intense two-day silent retreat would do it. And so with very good intentions, first thing one Saturday morning, I started working through the book at a fast pace, underlining key concepts, making notes, and feeling in control. By the end of the morning, I was somewhat distracted, but I willed myself to carry on. By early afternoon I was fatigued and not a little overwhelmed. I decided that maybe I needed a little help after all. So I cracked open a bottle of gin, you know, to accompany my self-exploration.

I wish I could say that I wised up after that weekend, but I ended up repeating the pattern a few more times. Ironically, the idea that I could heal myself was the very thing that was preventing me from being healed.

Asking for Help

Lucky for me, a guy who I’d exchanged emails with at one of the first recovery meetings I attended reached out to let me know that if I ever wanted to talk, he was open to it. Meeting up with him was the beginning of the end of my independent study of sobriety. He quickly became my sponsor — a sort of combination teacher, guide, confessor, and fellow journeyer who interpreted the information for me, shared his own experience of alcoholism and recovery, and asked me questions that cracked me right open.

All these years later, one of the foundational things that recovery from alcoholism continues to teach me about life in general is that any truly transforming practice or discipline requires asking for help from other people. A set intention, an inspirational moment, even a divine mountaintop experience will rarely be sufficient for long-term change if there’s not a community of other people to help model, support, and integrate the change. Without a community base, any change will likely remain at only a superficial level. To learn anything well — or to unlearn anything well — requires other people, both teachers and fellow journeyers. And better yet if they are one in the same: if the teachers are fellow journeyers, if they themselves have undergone and are still undergoing the thing they purport to teach. This is true not just for long-term sobriety from addictions, but for most, if not all, life-giving disciplines, from yoga to crossfit, piano to painting, distance running to driving safely on the left side of the road in a foreign country, to prayer. The first followers of Jesus couldn’t figure out by themselves how to pray; they had to ask Jesus to teach them. It’s not that they were stupid. It just seems that for anything worth doing, help is required.

Don’t Go It Alone

Tomorrow, many Christians will observe the beginning of Lent, a 40-day season of intense self-examination, fasting, and prayer, all with the goal of aligning more closely with God. I know from personal experience and others’ testimonies that Lent often devolves into just another season of solitary solutions for self-mastery.

What if, instead of going it alone, we sought out help from others and offered help to others who share our common problem? What if we found or formed mutual communities of recovery? You don’t have to observe Lent or be a Christian or an alcoholic to try this out, because the truth is, as Richard Rohr puts it, we’re all addicted to something. Our addictions, our control freakery, and our other freakeries “out” in different ways, but perhaps a common solution is to tell the truth about ourselves to other safe, trustworthy people who get it because they have the same “problem,” and to ask for help.

In my experience, this solution works in part because it moves the problem from the territory of secret shame — and the subsequent mentality of “if I can’t tell anybody about it, I’d better fix it myself or just repress it” — into the territory of honesty, which provides access to buried levels of the human heart, soul, and mind and therefore significantly increases the potential of true change and deep freedom.

Beyond “White Knuckling”

Perhaps because only a small percentage of people are alcoholics, there are lots of stereotypes about alcoholics, even alcoholics in recovery. For example, even though I’m now in my early forties and have been sober for some time, non-alcoholics often worry about having a drink in front of me. I let them know that it’s totally fine and they should go ahead and order the wine at dinner or the pint at the pub. “But I wouldn’t want you to be tempted,” they respond, which is super compassionate but reflective of a misunderstanding of long-term sobriety. “I don’t know how you do it,” they say, because they think that recovery is about increasing self-power to be able to repeatedly face off against the temptation to drink, and to win the battle at every restaurant, bar, wedding toast, or convenience store for the rest of your life. In recovery speak, that’s called “white knuckling” — depending on your own strength to resist temptation. Which, if you have a strong will, may work for a while — a week, a month, maybe even the entire season of Lent — but if you’re like most other human beings, the odds are that your willpower will break down from time to time. You can’t do it by yourself.

For deeper-than-superficial change, something else is needed. Increased personal focus and a new set of coping skills to resist your addiction are helpful, particularly at the beginning of recovery, but to move beyond the constriction of white knuckling, only an existential shift will do: something else (or Someone Else) to actually remove the compulsion to use. I can tell my friends that it’s fine to drink in front of me because I no longer crave alcohol. Our complicated relationship is over; it’s no longer a temptation; I don’t desire it anymore. I don’t technically understand why that is or how my compulsion to drink was lifted, especially given my obsession in previous seasons of life, but there we are. I don’t understand a lot of things. The only thing I do understand is that I didn’t do it. If I participated at all in my own healing, primarily it was that I finally realized that I couldn’t heal myself and asked for help.

Only the Beginning

Now before you think I’m trying to prove that I’m some sort of spiritual giant, let me confess that my being healed of the desire to drink has uncovered all kinds of other subterranean addictions that I hadn’t realized were there before: addictions to work, to body image, to what other people might be thinking about me, to abject lust for attention and success, to judgmentalism. The program of recovery that I follow says wisely that alcoholic drinking is but a symptom of a deeper, underlying condition. It turns out that what I’ve been healed of so far is just the tip of the iceberg, just the first symptom of a whopping case of control freakery. But the good news is that I’m not alone in my lifetime supply of things to let go of: there are others who share my predicament, others who I can ask for help, others who I can offer help — a community of people who share the truth in every sense of the phrase. There is more on offer than I could ever imagine.

A Suggestion

Maybe you’re starting Lent tomorrow or maybe you’re not but you’re still longing for wholeness, for honesty, for recovery, for internal freedom and joy. Here’s a suggestion for the beginning of a different rhythm than “do-it-yourself,” even than “super spiritual do-it-yourself”:

  • Take some time to admit to yourself what your “problem” is. Remember what Rohr says: we’re all addicted to something. Is your addiction a substance addiction — to alcohol, Tylenol PM, tobacco, prescription drugs, food, porn? Or is it a process addiction — to work, working out, judging other people, sex, gambling?  Maybe you have more than one addiction; maybe you have a whole troupe of addictions. Don’t fret. Welcome to being human. Just begin to write them down. Be gentle with yourself. It takes compassion and humility to begin being honest.
  • Take some time to find a group of people who share your problem, who are in it as fellow control freaks (or fellow doormats) and fellow journeyers, who will be with you and for you, and will ask you to be with them and for them, as you live into a new way of being. (There are many different ways to seek recovery, but you can start your journey by checking out this list of groups).

Remember: there is more on offer than you could ever imagine.

Teaching Christianity as a Second Language

In early January, I moved from Chicago to Birmingham, England, after my spouse got a job here. Since then, I’ve been regularly embarrassing myself during simple acts of conversation.

  • Sitting back in my chair at the end of a dinner party and saying, “Wow, I’m stuffed!”
  • Asking the cashier at a local bakery if they had a “biggie” version of the pastry I wanted.
  • Mentioning to a group of teenagers that I liked my crumpets buttered.

All of these earnest comments brought forth unexpected silence, disgust, or laughter from my conversation partners. You can check out Urban Dictionary to find out why.

It’s often said that the US and the UK are two countries “separated by a common language.” The “same” word might be spelled or pronounced differently depending on your location. A conversation-bubbles-illustration-970x450_28517standard phrase on one side of the Atlantic might make no sense at all on the other side, or might make a totally different impression than the one intended, as I continue to discover. So these days I find myself constantly trying to translate between one version of English and the other. And while it’s not as exhausting as the translating I’m doing from English to my barely conversant French for an upcoming talk in Paris, it still requires a heightened attentiveness.

First Language Speakers

Since I’m new to the UK, I’ve also been visiting a lot of different churches, in part because I’m personally searching for a community of people to share life with, but also because, as a pastor, church planter (in the UK, a “pioneer”) and ministry coach, I’m professionally interested in what I can learn from diverse expressions of church. One of the things I’ve been struck with in many of the wonderful places I’ve visited so far — from evangelical church plant to established high church liturgy to mainline worship to Pentecostal prayer meeting to fringe missional collective — is how thoroughly the words and practices of their services assume that Christianity is the first language of the people gathered there. Words like sin, grace, gospel, atonement, salvation, offering, tithe, communion, etc., are used, often with little or no description or interpretation. (This is certainly not a UK-specific condition).

On one hand, I know that many of these and other words are particularly beautiful and beautifully particular, and there are few adequate synonyms to convey the richness they point to. So don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that we should jettison our ancient vocabulary; instead, we should teach it compellingly and as early as possible — as a first language.

Linguistic studies demonstrate the tremendous advantage that children and young students have for learning languages. Apparently the brain’s plasticity to internalize new constructions and the mouth’s flexibility to make new sounds both begin to diminish after puberty. Learning the Christian faith is of course different from learning another language, but there are still resonances to pay attention to. For example, most Millennial (Gen Y) and Gen X people who attend church services today have had some point of contact with Christianity in their childhood. The early formation makes a significant difference. So when I meet with parents who are considering not raising their children in a faith community so that “they will be able to make their own religious choices when they’re old enough,” I compare learning Christianity to learning a first language and challenge them to give their children a deeply-rooted spiritual communication system that they will be able to employ intuitively throughout their lives. If at some point their children want to learn a second religious language — Buddhism, say, or atheism — or to abandon their first language altogether, then they will be able to make that choice then. (Interestingly, linguists say that knowing a first language really well — how it’s structured and how it works — makes it much easier to learn a second language later in life). But the risk of waiting until some future age when they can “decide for themselves” is that they won’t learn any faith language at all. So, again, let’s teach Christianity as a first language, and let’s teach it early.

Teaching Christianity as a Second Language

On the other hand, I worry that many existing faith communities don’t have the willingness to learn how to connect with people for whom Christianity is not a first language, which is an increasing supermajority of human beings. Unless the Church accepts that Christianity will be for most people a second language, and then learns how to translate Christianity into the secular vernacular, there will be little potential for real engagement with those who are investigating spirituality and faith with no prior religious language or experience. To be relevant requires at the most basic level the capacity to communicate effectively.

Of course, there will be some who are particularly gifted for ministries of translation — teachers, evangelists, and apostles, for example — but I believe that teaching Christianity as a second language is a missional calling of every Christian community and of every disciple of Jesus Christ.

Words Are Necessary

Teaching Christianity as a second language will require developing individual and congregational capacities to say something about the Gospel. Probably for most of us, this will mean learning how to say something about our own experience of the Gospel, which may be why some Christianity-as-first-language speakers are reluctant to embrace this ministry of translation, because it would require them to testify, in descriptive and narrative language, to what it feels like to undergo the Gospel in their own skin.

And for many (especially “mainline”) Christians, that is awkward territory. In fact, some of us find that prospect so uncomfortable that we have defaulted almost completely to non-verbal forms of communication and evangelism. “As long as we don’t have to actually say anything about God, we’re okay.” We’ve heard sermon after sermon, usually from first-language speakers, on that old chestnut incorrectly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” That’s a lovely quote and we should, of course, be concerned with letting the Gospel permeate all of our affairs, but in this day and age, especially when it comes to ministry with the next generations, words will be necessary most of the time. Quoting “St. Francis” as an escape from having to find words reflects not only a failure of nerve and lack of verve, but also potentially a kind of “first-language privilege.”

Tim Keller, one of the brightest contemporary church planters (and someone with whom I have significant theological disagreements) hits the nail on the head when he points out that nearly every time the word euangelion is used in the New Testament, it’s connected to a verbal expression of the good news. The Good News must be “en-worded” and not only that: it must be translated into a language that makes sense to hearers who don’t speak Christianity.

How Can We Practice Our New Language Skills?

Since corporate worship is still a primary gathering for Christians in many contexts, it’s a good place to begin to practice our new language skills and to shift the congregational culture toward a ministry of translation.

A few starter ideas:

  • Begin to fold in well-curated but non-pedantic descriptions of different elements in the service each week, such as a clear statement of the congregation’s relevant mission (reason for being), an explicit welcome to the communion table, some spiritual direction that actually teaches people how to pray, etc. (Don’t do this all at once; try maybe an element or two a week). This helps not only people who are just learning the language of Christianity but also some who’ve been sitting in the pews for years using language that they’ve maybe not fully understood.
  • When preaching, work hard to hold together didactic and narrative sermonic traditions. Dive deeply and intellectually into concepts and ideas and refuse to “dumb down” complex beauty and mysterious truths. But do it narratively, as Jesus did, pointing frequently to worldly things and weaving in human stories in order to convey the news.
  • Recover the practice of lay testimony. Please do this. (I’m looking at you, clergy: give up some of “your” speaking time in the service). There are very few panaceas in the ministry of church starting and revitalization, but for my money, this is one of them. Begin to incorporate the tradition of a different layperson standing up for five minutes in worship every week and sharing how God is moving (or not moving) in her or his life. Encourage people to be authentic and to tell true, unvarnished stories. See if things don’t start to change for the healthier in your community. As Proverbs 14.25 says, a truthful witness saves lives.

A Translation Homework Assignment

The mission of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is, in a word, recovery. Now that’s a big word that signifies many things, so AA translates it: “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” Then, in its “Big Book,” AA goes on to offer a thick description of what that process looks like, in 12 didactic steps and dozens of true stories of human transformation. AA is excellent at translation. It realizes that its language is a second one for most people, and so it works hard to make it plain. Again, to be relevant requires at the most basic level the capacity to communicate effectively.

For those Christianity-as-first-language speakers who want some extra translation practice, here’s a homework assignment. Try it by yourself and with leaders in your faith community.

  • Translate “Gospel” into 10-12 words of compelling secular language.
  • Extra credit: In the tradition of AA, break down “salvation” (Christianity’s translation of “recovery”) into a series of 3-5 steps, again using compelling secular language.

I’d love to hear your translations! Email me at trey@epicentergroup.org. I may ask to include your response in a future blog post.

So, let’s practice together, first and second language speakers with a myriad of gorgeous accents, all testifying to what it’s like to undergo God.

________________________________________

*This post was doubly inspired by Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Teach Yourself Italian” in the 7 December 2015 New Yorker and Bishop Sally Dyck’s introduction of a “Spanish as a Second Language” curriculum in The Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church.