Every once in a while I come across a passage in the Bible that makes me want to cringe. That was the case yesterday reading 1 John 2: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world — the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does — comes not from the Father but from the world.”
Then someone reminded me of something I hadn’t managed to retain in seminary — that in this context the “world” (kosmos) in Greek has more to do with an entrenched, systemic order of things in which “lusts” are in the driver seat. That term itself (“lusts”) can get misinterpreted by contemporary ears: we tend to think of it in exclusively sexualized terms; yet for the writer of John worldly lusts, cravings and “boasting” acquisition and achievement are so much more than merely entertaining naughty thoughts about one’s neighbor.
“Worldly Lusts” – What Are They Really?
Worldly lusts are more like the automatic inner drives or reflexes that condition us to act like we are only cogs in an existing system of how things are (and are fated to be). In America, that “worldly order” is likely a combination of the so-called American dream and its often endlessly workaholic pursuit and a hyper-consumerist culture that bombards our senses with an unrelenting, inescapable blitz of all we must have in order to be happy or to have arrived.
A life given over to these lusts is the modus operandi of acquiring whatever strikes one’s fancy in any given moment:
- The compulsive need to respond to the subliminal chatter of a Facebook feed that taunts you with your “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out), and which marketing consultants are said to be constructing an endless stream of new apps around
- The flash sales that seduce you with the promise of more stuff that’s going, going gone
- The endless appeals to everything we are yet to be, have yet to achieve and that will never ultimately make us happy
Maybe we laugh at those Dos Equis commercials about the most interesting man in the world for the very reason that they also strike a subliminal chord of recognition. Maybe we, too, want to be at the center of things, as masters of having acquired all that we lack.
“Learned Helplessness”: Is It a Spiritual Condition, Too?
Psychologists have used the term “learned helplessness” to describe how seemingly uncontrollable, inescapable events can trigger a state of passivity or paralysis that overrides a person’s natural “fight or flight” escape and survival mechanisms. Positive Psychology founder Dr. Martin Seligman initially coined the term after noticing how dogs that received repeated shocks over time became conditioned to do nothing to escape or protect themselves, even when the opportunity might present itself.
But is it possible that learned helplessness is also a a spiritual condition? When “worldly lusts” become the governing stimuli by which a human life operates and becomes accustomed to, does a similar phenomenon apply?
How Imagination Can Heal “Learned Helplessness”
Human beings who have experienced the psychological phenomenon of learned helplessness can often find healing via the exercise of their imagination. Replaying a past trauma from the safety of the present moment, and then introducing the perspective of what one would have done to exercise self-agency in that place of perceived helplessness, can help individuals heal from traumatic wounds and feel more alive in the present.
I wonder if practicing the use of the imagination can offer similar hope in answer to the spiritual equivalent of learned helplessness. Does Paul in Romans mean something similar when he challenges his readers to not be “conformed to the pattern of this world” but “transformed by the renewing of your minds”? Is it possible that for the American church at least, our main problem is one of a lack of imagination? If “inspiration” in its most basic sense is to breathe, isn’t imagination, as the direct byproduct of inspiration, central to life itself?
Could it be that learned helplessness — as a conditioned response to “worldly lusts” — is what feeds the victim narratives that afflict many quarters of the American church today? Is the main root of this problem that we’ve lost our imagination? Perhaps healing begins by asking God to stir our imaginations so that we can “be the change” that we “wish to see in the world,” as Gandhi once put it. Maybe that’s where more abundant life starts — because we don’t have to be helpless cogs in a system that tells us we’re the sum of our lusts.
At least once a week he runs several times around the full perimeter of our local neighborhood park. And he’s always carrying that damn Confederate flag. That and then the white beard, white T-shirt and slow, deliberate running gait are always easily recognizable.
Today I saw him there again as I was driving the kids to school — and then again on my way home.
On the way home, the man in the Lexus SUV in front of me was another school parent who happened to be black. Before getting in our cars, he and I and another parent had just finished talking about the sorts of things over-educated, solidly middle-class parents of elementary school-aged children talk about on a Friday morning after morning assembly, when the temptation to linger and chat is rewarded. His license plate read “University of North Carolina,” and there was a judicial court sticker to the right of the rear windshield.
What is he thinking and feeling when he sees that flag?, as we drive by. It has to sting: a visceral pang. I’ll ask him next time I see him.
One day I had rolled down my window and feigning some polite cluelessness asked the man about the flag and why he was carrying it.
“States’ rights,” he said without blinking as he kept on running. “The war isn’t over.”
The line sounded like one he had probably rehearsed many times before. I guess maybe he wanted me to roll down my window and ask…
And yet the American Civil War was over. Most people accepted that fact — even if some still argued about the war’s cause. They, too, were outliers.
Once when our car was parked at a light and the man with the flag was running by, my husband had been less polite: he had angrily yelled something along the same lines — about how the war was long over and it was time to get over it.
This time the man with the flag kept right on going. He seemed not to hear.
Some things you literally have to take in stride, I guess.
And there are so many things that one can live for in this life. Some of these things are worth living for. Others are lost causes. Some things you just take in stride.
For so many reasons, I’d like to think I’m not like that man with the flag. (And yes, I’m not a self-professing white supremacist convinced that a war which ended in 1865 should be fought again in 2016 and its outcome any different.)
But when it comes to life, isn’t so much of what it means to be human about navigating loss — and about choosing what’s worth recovering and what isn’t? What’s loss counted as gain — and what’s not? What’s worth every fiber of inner resistance and what’s counted as “rubbish”? What’s a lost cause, and what really isn’t and never should be?
I suspect these questions are rarely as easy to answer as we sometimes assume they are…
“Pick your battles” goes the popular adage. It’s also a slice of popular wisdom that those in recovery from addiction and mental illness are familiar with. But picking one’s battles first requires being able to weed out lost causes. These aren’t always as viscerally clear as a Confederate flag bobbing around the park.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. – “Step 12″ of Alcoholics Anonymous
The trials of single parenting and a full-time job have kept me away from this intersection. But in between bedtime wake-up calls, soccer and swim practices, and work deadlines, I’ve been thinking about the “T” in our 12-Step-inspired series, “REST for Restless Souls.”
First, a quick review of where we’ve been in this five-part series. We asked what “rest” for restless souls looks like as a lived daily reality, and suggested it’s “recovery” — recovery of the joy, peace and freedom God wants for us. That’s when we explored how insights from the recovery-based “12 Steps” of Alcoholics Anonymous might help in getting us there.
The acronym “REST” has laid out that path:
- “R” is for “Recognize.” We recognize our spiritual restlessness for what it is, much in the same way that those in recovery for addiction must first admit to their powerlessness over drugs or alcohol.
- “E” is for “Evaluate.” We evaluate why we are spiritually restless. This exercise requires probing and unearthing the origins of our restlessness with the same spirit behind AA’s call for a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
- “S” is for “Surrender.” We surrender our life, including our restlessness, to the care of God as we understand God. This form of surrender is freeing: it frees us from living our lives disingenuously, according to someone else’s prescriptions for what to believe or how to live. If, for example, we can’t understand God as others may have portrayed Him for us — as a stern drill sergeant who could care less whether we’re miserable all the time — then we really don’t have to surrender to that God.
And, last, “T” is for “Try.”
Step 12 reads: “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
Finding rest — recovering joy, peace, freedom and wholeness — also means trying to serve others. It means trying to share the rest God gives us with those who need the same. This also depends on trying to practice the daily, 12-Step recovery principles of self-honesty, humility and forgiveness, so that what we are sharing with our neighbor is a real and genuine faucet of who we are, not just pretense.
The insertion of “try” here is key to entering into rest. “Try” implies that we won’t always succeed. In fact, there will be times when even our very best looks like fall-on-our-face failure, both to us and to those around us.
We will fail at loving and serving others.
We will also fail to live by the very principles we affirm to be true and that bring God-given rest to our souls.
The reality is our best may not be good enough for others. It may even fall short of what we expect from ourselves. But so long as we’re trying — so long as we’re doing the best we can at any given moment — that is enough for God.
“T” is for “Try.”
NPR ran a story the other day that brought me to tears. About a former mortgage banker Ray Jackman, who now works full-time with kids with severe disabilities. About those kids — kids like Robbie McAllister, a teenager with cerebral palsy — who live and learn at the Massachusetts Hospital School, a pediatric care facility and school for those with severe, long-term conditions. And, about the exhilaration of trust.
Every week Jackman takes a few of these kids out to ski. The skiing lesson is no ordinary operation. In McAllister’s case, Jackman has to hoist the 19-year-old out of his wheelchair and into a funny-looking, neon chair contraption. There are some seriously intimidating seat belt buckles to work with, too. Then Jackman and a volunteer together manage to lift McAllister and his seat onto the ski lift.
At the top of the slopes, Jackman launches into his lesson. “Let’s fly down that mountain at 100mph. I want to beat that able-bodied person,” he says.
Learning to Trust
For a kid like McAllister, who has little to no control over his muscles, the ensuing exercise is a lesson in total trust: in order to ride at breakneck speed down a mountain, he must first leave the safe confines of his electric wheel chair — his “comfort zone.” And he has to put his trust fully in the care of Jackman, who on the ride down is six feet behind him, using two tether lines to direct their downward descent and brake when needed.
All the way down you can hear the loud, garbled sounds of one teenager’s terror and excitement at the exhilarating rush of sudden mobility. At the bottom of the slope, he’s beaming after the ride of a lifetime. That smile is the only reinforcement Jackman needs to know that his Herculean efforts were worth it.
In the constant, often frantic push and shove of life’s many responsibilities, I can find myself forgetting to breathe. To clutch tightly and anxiously on the reins and to hold my breath — to assume my rightful control in these situations — is a default practice. Maybe it’s an automatic reflex for many of us. (Is it distrust or mistrust or a combination, I wonder?)
But the image of a kid who, locked in a wheelchair, can beam widely back at the world in a condition of helpless, courageous trust on a risky and breathtaking joy ride … that’s what exhilarating trust looks like in answer to the sometimes heart-stoppingly scary enterprise of being human. Existentially, we’re all that kid in the wheelchair. We’re all bound in some form of paralysis. None of us can cheat death or ultimately control our destiny. God knows this.
But we can trust. We can exhale. We can beam back at the world in surrender.
“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” – Step 3
Back at this intersection between God and life after a leisurely week in Tulum, Mexico, I’ve been thinking about why it’s hard to surrender my life to God — or at least to do so consistently, daily, and moment by moment. According to Step 3 of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, recovery entails a “decision to turn one’s will and life over to the care of God as we understand Him.” This decision, I suspect, must happen more than once for most of us. It must happen over and over again. The word I give it is “surrender,” and can sound like a bad word in a culture that trades in the more familiar language of self-entitlement, self-expression and self-promotion. But why is this surrendering to God so hard, so much so that our very nature rebels against the very notion of surrender? And what does this surrender entail?
Why Surrender Is So Hard
Part of the answer to that question comes to me from an unlikely place: the pages of a book by my favorite mystery novelist, PD James. In her novel A Taste for Death, a sweet, church-going, God-fearing woman by the name of Miss Wharton is the first to happen upon a grisly murder scene in her home parish. In the wake of that trauma, she tries to find comfort in a favorite passage from Scripture — it’s the one from Luke, about the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep — but “this time,” James writes, “[Miss Wharton] had read it with a sharpened, perversely questioning mind. What, after all, was a shepherd’s job? Only to care for the sheep, to make sure they didn’t escape so that they could be branded, sheared and then slaughtered. Without the need for their wool, their flesh, there would be no job for the shepherd.”
I’d never thought about that before in relation to this passage, but the fictional Miss Wharton has a point. A good shepherd doesn’t take exceptional care of their sheep out of pure altruism. A good shepherd watches over their sheep because those sheep are a source of food on the table, either literally or in the form of income. And from now on, I’ll never be able to read this sweet parable again without that lingering recognition.
But maybe, then again, that’s precisely the point of this passage. Jesus doesn’t protect us from losing our lives. Jesus wants us to let go of our lives with the understanding that our lives were never ultimately ours to hold on to in the first place. And yes, the sheep do usually end up branded, sheared and then slaughtered, and their wool and flesh do usually service the needs of others. That’s pretty grim-sounding alright. Still maybe that’s better than being the dumb sheep who runs off, gets lost and has a terrible time of it, all because they thought that they really didn’t need a shepherd and could fool pain and death without one.
In other words, it’s hard to surrender to God, because it’s hard to trust that a God who will let us go through pain and death ultimately really loves us and ultimately will do what’s best for us.
Seeing Is Believing — and Surrender to God
That’s why the insertion of a God “as we understand Him” is a kind of merciful relief. And here I take heart that the only God we can hope to understand is the One we’ve caught partial glimpses of somewhere in our lives, maybe a bit like Moses on Mount Sinai: Moses can’t see God’s face, only God’s posterior. I love the humor there. It’s also a picture, I suspect, that many of us can identify with. We, too, many of us, have caught glimpses of at least the equivalent of God’s “backside” at discrete points in our lives. That has been enough to spur our search for More, even if that search at times has manifested itself as a heightened sense of God’s absence and our own emptiness.
Ultimately the only God we can surrender to is a God who has revealed Himself to us. A God who has submitted Himself to the risky enterprise of human understanding. A God, in other words, whom we have in some way “seen.” Upon that seeing, surrender (however seemingly transient this side of eternity) is, I suspect, irresistible.
In the second chapter of her first book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes that there are two kinds of seeing. The first, to quote author William Deresiewicz on Dillard’s work in this month’s Atlantic, “is the sort of seeing that produces perceptions, and phrases, like twiggy haze.” But in Dillard’s words, “there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” Deresiewicz elaborates: “You do not seek, you wait. It isn’t prayer; it is grace. The visions come to you, and they come from out of the blue.” This kind of seeing is more like perceiving that one has just been seen by God.
Surrender that’s as simple and grace-filled as this second kind of seeing implies makes me want to lower my reflex-like defenses to the very notion of letting go and letting God. Surrender that invites me only “to see,” with the assurance that the rest of the work — the release and the transfiguration — is God’s, gives my soul rest. It’s surrender to God as I understand God: the beginning of recovery for at least one “restless soul.”
Torture is acceptable and even commendable. That seems to be one of the takeaways from last night’s Republican caucus in New Hampshire. And Donald Trump’s decisive win on the heels of Ted Cruz’ victory last week in Iowa has me seeking to understand what just happened and why. Not only did New Hampshire Republicans get solidly behind a candidate who has made (some would say) racist, xenophobic, chauvinistic, impulsive and ill-informed statements throughout his campaign; they also voted in a candidate who has no compunction about using torture as an interrogation method — this after the debacle of the Bush-Cheney years is still fresh on many minds. And New Hampshire Republicans were not alone. Iowans tacked a similar course in electing first Ted Cruz, then Trump. (Cruz, like Trump, defends the use of torture in a campaign that’s heavily directed to the prayers of evangelical Christians.)
In other words, New Hampshire and Iowa Republicans seem to be in agreement about at least one thing: that the U.S. can and should use torture in its repertoire of intelligence antics, and, more significantly, that the U.S. shouldn’t feel in the least bit bashful about that. On “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, Trump was quoted as saying he’d “absolutely use something beyond waterboarding,” with the explanation that our enemies were cutting off the heads of “Christians and plenty of others.” The implication? That a “Christian” nation like ours is justified in using torture — the very means by which the One we Christians worship suffered — in order to protect itself.
Meanwhile Cruz has insisted that waterboarding does not meet the legal definition of torture. The semantic acrobatics are eerily familiar, yet something very new has happened here. Republican voters, many evangelical Christians, have now issued not once but twice a mandate for a president who will explicitly thwart long-established international human rights laws against torture, a president who will be doing so with little thought, zero self-consciousness and near bravado for the whole world to see. In the case of the Bush administration’s torture protocol, the American public knew very little — George W. Bush was not running on a campaign platform that included an open endorsement of torture as an interrogation method.
As of today, it’s possible that our next president will authorize waterboarding and potentially other forms of torture as part of his campaign platform. In turn, he will be redefining what it means to be America; and the bulk of his followers, a large percentage of them evangelical Christians, will be announcing to the world what it means to be a “Christian nation.”
Why is this happening? (And here is where I can disarm my mother’s great alarm that I’m actually “a liberal” in an independent’s clothing.) Contrary to what those on the left might say, the Trump Phenomenon is not happening because Republicans have a monopoly on extremism and are alone the folly of our nation. No, the civic responsibility for the disturbing rise of Donald Trump extends beyond any one political party. There’s plenty of angry outrage and extremism on the left as well. A case in point? The current tenor of student protests against racial inequality now sweeping college campuses nationwide. Consider, for example, the following incident from my own alma mater that went viral after being caught on tape: a female protester unleashed an angry tirade on a college administrator who, in attempting to hear her demands, suggested other people have rights, too. At that, the woman went apoplectic, cussing him out and saying a host of angry, hate-filled things.
That student is probably one of a number of protesters who if asked would be quick to say they stand well within a tradition of civil disobedience inherited directly from the great civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King. Yet King’s dream was of a day when his “four little children … would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That dream found enduring livelihood among both whites and blacks precisely because it called forth the very best of our shared, God-breathed humanity. And that dream discovered the beginnings of its realization only because of the great courage it called forth in blacks and even whites who, through peaceful and prayerful civic protest joined their voices in unison to protest racial injustice. Sadly, that picture is not the one I largely see in America today in opposition to the ills and injustices that beset us. In its place are the often angry, hostile tones of a country now besieged by a rising tide of angry identity politics on both the left and the right that plays to the lowest common denominator.
No, if Trump wins this election and torture becomes a feather in our cap, one we’re not in the least bit embarrassed to show off to the world, it will be the fault of all of us — and maybe most especially those of us who call ourselves Christians. We all bear responsibility, a responsibility that begins with the recognition that the One we worship and who was tortured on our behalf was God’s Incarnate Word. God’s Word came to us at no small cost. In Jesus, God says we, all of us, right or left, black or white, are free beyond our wildest imagination to use our words for good. Our own words and our freedom to use them as we choose are something to be cherished, both because of their power and because they also came at a cost. They, too, can enlist the very best in one another and in our shared humanity — or they can tear others down, to the extent that torture itself can become as banal and everyday as a trip to the drug store.
How I’ve often failed to cherish my words and their power to build up rather than tear down. With yesterday’s news from New Hampshire fresh on my mind, I’m going to try again. It’s Lent after all, and I could use a new Lenten discipline. Besides, November’s presidential election isn’t that far off.
We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. — Step 4 of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
“E” is for “Evaluate.” After we recognize our restlessness for what it is, we then evaluate the nature of our restlessness, by undertaking a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Rest only follows after a brave and honest assessment of our restlessness and its origins.
- What’s at the root of my restlessness, really? What, in other words, am I really seeking? Am I seeking financial security? Status? Sexual or relational gratification? Or am I seeking the Way, the Truth and the Life who is God Himself?
- What keeps me from finding spiritual belonging? Do past hurts and suspicions about organized religion and its power plays? Do fears of intimacy — that if other people really knew me, they’d judge or dislike me?
- Where have I experienced spiritual rest, if ever? What was it like? Have I found it since?
- What does spiritual rest look like for me and why am I not finding it? Is guilt or regret about past mess-ups standing in the way? Is an inability to forgive those who have hurt me?
- What am I afraid to see in myself that’s keeping me from finding spiritual rest, in the form of surrendering to God’s purposes and belonging to a community of people seeking the Way, the Truth and the Life?
We’re used to making evaluations of various kinds in just about every other realm of life: at work at least once a year with that dreaded performance evaluation; at school; in sports; on boards; in relationships.
Iowa voters made their evaluation in last night’s caucus — and the morning after, the candidates (both the winners and the losers) are undertaking their own evaluations with the recognition that their circumstances are probably not solely the result of dumb luck, regardless of the coin tosses. Even Donald Trump is uncharacteristically speechless on Twitter — for 13 hours the Republican candidate reportedly stopped tweeting to the dismay of his 6 million followers. Even his concession speech was remarkably gracious. A lone moment of self-evaluation from a candidate seemingly lacking this form of humility? Maybe.
Heck, even the polls that spelled a certain win for Trump must be doing at least some soul searching, asking how it was they got their predictions so wrong.
Each week, I reckon we make dozens of evaluations, right or wrong, about all sorts of things, both big and small — and we don’t even realize it.
Simply living in this world, not to mention making progress of any kind, requires making evaluations. Why, then, do we find it so foreign or difficult to evaluate our spiritual life, I wonder? Is it our knack for self-deception? Or fear about what we might find when we really do stop to look more closely at the inner workings of our soul? Maybe it’s a combination.
I’ll be honest: what can often stop me from embarking on a “searching and fearless moral inventory” is the fear my list will be so long that I won’t even know where to begin in asking God for help — and that, in turn, is only a hop, skip and a jump away from spiritual despair. I’m afraid to end up in despair.
Yet the lesson of the 12 Steps is that our despair is God’s birthing place, our “end” — God’s “beginning” (to put a new twist on the familiar line by T.S. Eliot). 12-Step recovery thus begins with a willingness to lay all these fears and obstacles aside and look squarely at the ways we fall short, are misdirected, or fail to live up to our ideals, so that God can begin to heal us.
Similarly, when it comes to our restlessness, it’s not enough to recognize we are restless. We must take the next step of examining the roots of that restlessness. We must evaluate our spiritual condition with the assumption that we will come up short somewhere in that inventory process. And, I suspect that it’s precisely in those places where we’ll most benefit from the rest that only God can give.
“R” is for “Recognize.” It’s so basic it may sound obvious — but the obvious isn’t always easy to acknowledge when so many of us live in denial. Our restless souls only begin to find rest when we recognize our restlessness for what it is. In the same way that recovery from an addiction starts with admitting one’s inability to control one’s drinking, finding rest for our restlessness starts with recognizing (admitting) that we often are wandering aimlessly in a sea of many distractions, looking for the More yet also finding ourselves far from It.
And the distractions themselves are one reason we live in denial. I have to believe that today the human soul faces extinction more than at any other time in human history. The constant aerial bombardments of a rabid advertising industry and its seductive images threaten to keep us from ever staring at the void which is our own spiritual emptiness. When Smart technology now commands daily existence, it is far too easy to succumb to the interruptions of ceaseless texts, e-alerts promising last-minutes sales you’ll regret you missed, or trending conversations on Facebook and Twitter. (By the way, I just checked what’s hottest on Facebook, and with some 4 million followers, it would have to be the fact that this Valentine’s Day, instead of the same old boring red roses, you can now get a Star Wars bouquet, thanks to retailer ThinkGeek. Think nine cuddly Star Wars characters on a bed of tissue paper and wrapped with a bow that you can quickly transfer to a vase on your dining room table and not have to worry about ever replacing.)
But I digress, as I’m often inclined to do in a world of endless digressions. Just the other day during an out-of-town business trip, I was attempting some quiet morning meditation from the confines of my hotel room. I thought I’d try a devotional on my phone, being away from my Bible and having not discovered the Gideon one tucked away in the nether parts of a bathroom drawer. In the course of just a few minutes, having begun to read the day’s passage, I was responding to texts about the Madonna concert. Could I come? Of course! But I had to get a sitter.
In a few moments I was texting the sitter.
Here is the irony: today’s world enables, abets and amplifies our restlessness while also anesthetizing it, so that we can go through life with a severe case of spiritual ADHD and never realize it.
Pope Francis gives voice to this capacity for distraction in his latest encyclical on climate change, which is as much, I suspect, a sobering commentary on the state of our own souls. In fact, I suspect the same denial that (the pope observes) feeds global paralysis on climate change is also at the heart of our spiritual restlessness. To paraphrase this papal appeal to protect “our common home,” we are stuck in a harmful cycle of consumption in which getting and getting more have become the easy, unquestioned mantra of our capitalist system.
Last night we watched the movie “The Walk” about that crazy French guy, the high-wire artist, who in 1974 tightrope-walked between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. At one point during his shock-and-awe act, he dares to look down and face “the void” below, as he terms it. The full, dramatic reality of the present moment and its transformative impact sets in.When we allow ourselves even for a few moments to stare into the void of our soul, we’re able to recognize our spiritual restlessness for what it is. We’re able to exit denial, if only temporarily. That’s when “rest” becomes more than a mirage, and our capacity to receive rest a real possibility.
“R” is for “Recognize.” By recognizing our spiritual condition of restlessness, we begin to enter in ever so slowly to the rest that is ours, a rest that comes only from God.
Join me again next week for our ongoing series, “The 12 Steps for Restless Souls,” as we unpack the acronym “REST.”
We’re kicking off a new, five-part series, “The 12 Steps for Restless Souls,” with the following question: Is there such a thing as ‘recovery’ for the restless soul, and if so, what does it look like? The short answer, I believe, is “yes,” because “recovery” matters to God, or at least the Bible would say so. Over the next weeks we’ll unpack how the “12 Steps” might take us there.
Since their formulation in the 1930’s by recovering alcoholic Bill Wilson, who sought a spiritual program for recovery emanating from his Christian beliefs, the 12 Steps have become synonymous with successful recovery for millions of people around the world, as evidenced by an overwhelming proliferation of 12-step groups for just about every form of addiction one can think of. The Atlantic’s merciless exposé last year notwithstanding, evidence-based research suggests participation in a 12-step group does improve one’s chances of long-term sobriety. As the late David Foster Wallace observes in the course of an especially comedic description of a fictionalized Boston AA group in the national bestseller, Infinite Jest, “the shocking discovery is that the thing [the 12 Steps] does seem to work.”
One premise, then, of this series and of my newly published book, The Recovery-Minded Church, is that not only does the 12-Step approach work, but it can work as a tool for spiritual transformation regardless of one’s place on the addiction spectrum. Another premise is that “recovery” isn’t some niche minority ministry. Recovery, I suspect, is actually central to God’s mission to the world in the person of Jesus Christ — so much so that you can’t really talk about what Christians call “the Gospel” (a.k.a. “The Good News”) without talking about recovery, even if you use a different vocabulary:
“Being born again.”
At heart, these terms are code for recovery: God is recovering what’s been lost and refashioning a whole world into what it was meant to be from the very beginning, with the implication that this cosmic picture necessarily also includes us, restless souls, saints and sinners alike.
The Christmas story maybe best encapsulates this theme of recovery that runs throughout Scripture. The birth of Jesus is the culmination of Israel’s hope for a Savior, a Redeemer who will restore Israel as God’s people. The prophet Isaiah foretold of this Messiah whose kingdom would usher in a return to Eden of sorts. And Jesus is “The Way”: He is the way back to God and the way back to the garden where predator and prey are finally and completely at peace with one another. This original paradise not only precedes original sin but is also a reminder we were made for More and that God wants to lead us there. For restless souls, there is a twofold assurance here: if we’re looking for More, it’s because we were made for that More; and, if God is the very origin of our pursuit for that More, God is also The Way there.
And I suspect that if both the means of travel and the end destination (both “The Way” and “The More”) promise recovery for restless souls, that recovery will most look like REST. REST is also a helpful acronym for unpacking “The 12 Steps for Restless Souls.” Stop by next week to learn how.
Happy New Year! Over the years I’ve stopped making ambitious resolutions at this time of the year, since I manage to break most of them by the second week of January … but I am resolving to up my presence at this intersection despite the limitations of this way-too-wacky year of single (substitute “desperate and hanging by a thread” here) parenting while my husband finishes up a nine-month, NEH research fellowship in DC. I’ve dubbed it “The Year of the Crockpot and the Hairy Armpits.”
The fact that these days I rarely have time to shave my armpits is also not a good enough excuse for being a recluse of late — now that my second book, The Recovery-Minded Church: Loving and Ministering to People with Addiction, by Jonathan Benz with Kristina Robb-Dover (InterVarsity Press) is hot off the press and available on Amazon. (Right now IVP is offering a 20%-off sale at their site.)
A really cool tidbit that I never knew until now: if your book generates at least 20 positive reviews on Amazon, Amazon starts to market your book for you at no charge. Since my full-time PR agent is currently occupied with JK Rawlings’ latest bestseller, I figured I’d try this strategy out. (Kidding, about the PR agent.)
But there’s another reason why I’m back at this intersection between God and life. It’s because I’ve genuinely missed you and because I’m really excited about the next two blog series we’ll be undertaking, themed around recovery:
- “The 12 Steps for Restless Souls” — If you’ve been around here long enough, you’ve probably noticed I’m writing for “restless souls” who “still haven’t found what they’re looking for,” to quote Bono, and they’re both in the church and out. As I described in first introducing this blog, they’re those of us “for whom an experience of ‘church’ has left us wanting and searching for more. More depth. More honesty. More trust and authenticity. More grappling with real questions. Without the judgment. More room for the grays.” How does 12-step recovery speak to our spiritual restlessness? What might the lessons from a world that, for many of us, may at first seem restricted to a mysteriously anonymous niche of chain-smoking addicts with a gift for jittery, confessional gab about their darkest secrets and a love for bottomless black coffee in styrofoam cups, teach us in our quest for “the More”? Or can it teach us anything?
- “The Recovery-Minded Church” — The series that follows takes its name from the book (fancy that) and will feature churches around the country that in various ways are seeking to become more “recovery-minded.” What does it mean to be “recovery-minded”? That’s a question we’ll unpack more with some practical examples from churches that are on the front lines of this transformation.