Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Peter Scazzero, Pope Francis, Jesus – and The Big Bang Theory

Bob Newhart appears again as Professor Proton in the most recent episode of CBS’s the Big Bang Theory. In a private conversation with Leonard, Professor Proton decides to ask Leonard something he’s been wondering about when it comes to his roommate Dr. Sheldon Cooper – “Why are you and Sheldon friends?” It’s a natural enough question, but particularly easy to understand in this episode where others and Sheldon all agree that he can be very “annoying.” Sheldon’s “quirks” shine through in every episode.

Sheldon exhibits a strict adherence to routine, a total lack of social skills, a tenuous understanding of humor, a general lack of humility or empathy, and displays textbook narcissistic behavior. He also has a very hard time recognizing irony and sarcasm in other people although he himself often employs them.  … Despite speculation that Sheldon’s personality traits may be consistent with Asperger syndrome, obsessive–compulsive personality disorder and asexuality, co-creator Bill Prady has repeatedly stated that Sheldon’s character was neither conceived nor developed with regard to any of these conditions. (Wikipedia)

It’s in this context that Professor Proton wants to know, “Why are you and Sheldon friends?” When I heard Leonard’s answer, I was in a mild state of shock. “He’s broken, and he needs me”, he said, “… and I need him.”

Leonard doesn’t explain how or why he needs Sheldon. Is it because he’s broken too? Is it because of what he learns from Sheldon about himself? about life? about loving well? about what really matters?

Does he learn from their relationship how to look beyond the shell of a person? past the dysfunctions? past the brokenness? past the likely diagnoses? Does he learn not to insist, like so many of us do, that others ought to “be like me” or be “normal” in order for us to accept them? welcome them? truly love them?

If you’ve read much of what’s been written by Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, or Peter Scazzero  (among others) you’ve been reminded how much God means for us to learn from marginalized people (children, the poor, the dying, the elderly, the despised, etc.). If you’ve heard Pope Francis lately, or seen what he’s done, you’ve seen him living out the love of Jesus towards people like Sheldon who don’t fit in.

I remember early in my first year of Bible College, seeing one of the jocks – a really handsome guy, sitting and talking in the Snack Bar with someone who was a “reject” by most standards. You know – not attractive, not athletic, not particularly smart, not cool – not popular! I’m ashamed now to say that I still remember that incident because, at the time, I couldn’t understand it. “Why was he doing that?”

I’m sure that jock was not only more athletic and handsome than me, but also a lot more spiritually mature. Maybe if I would have asked him back then for an explanation, he would have said, “He’s broken and he needs me … and I need him.”

I hope I’ve grown enough since that day that I wouldn’t be so confused seeing something like that now. I want to be like that jock, and like Leonard Hofstadter in his love for Sheldon Cooper. I want to love someone who doesn’t fit in, who isn’t cool, who others ignore – or despise. I want to love someone who, as I love them, God uses to teach me about myself, about life, about what really matters – even simply about what it mean to love in the first place.

Richard Rohr On Downward Mobility

“The path of descent is the path of transformation.
Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.”

“The soul has many secrets. They are only revealed to those who want them, and are never completely forced upon us. One of the best-kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up. In Scripture, we see that the wrestling and wounding of Jacob are necessary for Jacob to become Israel (Genesis 32:26-32), and the death and resurrection of Jesus are necessary to create Christianity. The loss and renewal pattern is so constant and ubiquitous that it should hardly be called a secret at all. Yet it is still a secret, probably because we do not want to see it. We do not want to embark on a further journey (the second half of life) if it feels like going down, especially after having put so much sound and fury into going up (the first half of life). This is surely the first and primary reason why many people never get to the fullness of their own lives.”

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“Soul knowledge sends you in the opposite direction from consumerism. It’s not addition that makes one holy, but subtraction: stripping the illusions, letting go of the pretense, exposing the false self, breaking open the heart and the understanding, not taking my private self too seriously. Conversion is more about unlearning than learning. In a certain sense we are on the utterly wrong track. We are climbing while Jesus is descending, and in that we reflect the pride and the arrogance of Western civilization, usually trying to accomplish, perform, and achieve. This is our real operative religion. Success is holy! We transferred much of that to our version of Christianity and made the Gospel into spiritual consumerism. The ego is still in charge. There is not much room left for God when the false self takes itself and its private self-development that seriously. All we can really do is get ourselves out of the way, and honestly we can’t even do that. It is done to us through this terrible thing called suffering.”

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“Some have called this principle of going down to go up a “spirituality of imperfection” or “the way of the wound.” It has been affirmed in Christianity by St. Thérèse of Lisieux as her Little Way, by St. Francis as the way of poverty, and by Alcoholics Anonymous as the necessary First Step. St. Paul taught this unwelcome message with his enigmatic “It is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Of course, in saying that, he was merely building on what he called the “folly” of the crucifixion of Jesus—a tragic and absurd dying that became resurrection itself. You will not know for sure that this message is true until you are on the “up” side. You will never imagine it to be true until you have gone through the “down” yourself and come out on the other side in larger form. You must be pressured from on high, by fate, circumstance, love, or God, because nothing in you wants to believe it, or wants to go through it. Falling upward is a secret of the soul, known not by thinking about it or proving it but only by risking it—at least once. And by allowing yourself to be led—at least once. Those who have allowed it know it is true, but only after the fact.”

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Adapted from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,
pp. xxiii-xxiv and pp. xviii-xix, and from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 46, day 49
(Available through Franciscan Media)

The Daily Meditations for 2013 are now available
in Fr. Richard’s new book Yes, And . . . .

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Downward Mobility and Ego

“I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul.
I want you to notice
When I’m not around
You’re so f—— special
I wish I was special.”
“Creep” – Radiohead

“And after each performance
People stand around and wait
Just to tell me that they loved my voice
Just to tell me that I’m great.”
“Opera Singer” – Cake

“If you do not control your ego, your ego will control you. If you do not have a plan for your ego, your ego will have a plan for you. You can be the master of your ego, or you can be its slave. It’s your choice.” (Vincent M. Roazzi in The Spirituality of Success)

Can you picture this: Three men standing around in the lobby after church talking about how “ego” sabotages our relationships – and even it’s impact on our conversation right then?! I was interested, but even more, I was convicted. So much so that God seemed to give me this prayer.* I wrote it down so I can return to it often (like daily):

“Lord, I come to you to confess that I am powerless over the domination of my ego. Instead of me controlling it, it controls me. Help me to subject myself to you first, and in doing so to learn to subject myself to others. Help me to be quiet before you first, and in doing so to learn how to be quiet before others. Help me to attend to you first, and in doing so to learn to truly attend to others.

Deep down I know that
… since you are in control, I don’t need to control others
… since you have heard me, I don’t always need to make myself heard by others
… and since I am loved and have favor with you, I need not strive to win the love and favor of others.

Help me to act according to the promptings of your Spirit instead of the compulsions of the flesh –
… waiting for permission from you before I act or speak
… and practicing doing “small things” for “nobodies” when no-one is watching.

I pray these things Lord, because in these ways I am “so far from the kingdom of God.”

“So what could I say?
And what could I do?
But offer this heart, Oh God
Completely to you?”
“The Stand” – Hillsong

*with special thanks to Steven and Vic, whom God used to minister to me in an unexpected moment at The Bridge Church

Marital Conflict and Downward Mobility: “The Best Fight Ever!”

Actually, it’s wasn’t a fight, but it would have been any other time. It wasn’t an argument either, since we weren’t doing that. It was us talking about something very painful I had done to my wife. And it was the “best ever” because in the past, this never would have happened. We would have argued and fought, and most likely, nothing good would have come of it. Instead the outcome would have been only greater misunderstanding, pain, and distance between us. Here’s what I think made for part of the difference. (And it definitely relates to “downward mobility.”)

I gave up any right to defend myself. This is huge for me, since I’m known for my defensiveness. It’s a big part of how I’ve been for decades. (Being wrong would not have kept me from defending myself, nor made it any easier to renounce such self-defense.) I gave up my right to defend myself because I knew I had to. I knew what was natural and familiar to me was counterproductive. It’s just not possible to demonstrate love to someone you’ve hurt while mounting a defense strategy. (In my times with God, if I’m learning the power of relinquishing my rights – think here of the example of Jesus in Philippians 2 – then I will be better prepared to do so in this kind of situation.)

I gave up any right to be understood. Obviously, it’s important to understand and be understood, but timing is everything. When the other person is hurting, it’s not time for explanations that sound like excuses – or may actually be excuses. I have to approach my wife in her pain, and wait for another time – which may or may not come – to hope to be understood. Obviously, none of this comes easily.

In the midst of most arguments, it’s common for both participants to relate how their partner “always” or “never” does a certain thing. Motives are judged, and many times, because of the hurt, the very worst interpretations are placed upon innumerable actions of the distant and recent past. It can feel very unfair, and it can be very unfair. It can also be a painful time when God reveals some unpleasant “stuff” about you through your spouse. Selah. Either way, it’s natural to want to explain yourself. One hopes that doing so will create a more informed, forgiving environment. This is precisely what must be given up. The urge to be understood comes naturally, but in the presence of great hurt, progress requires another approach. My focus must be my wife and her hurt, not my self-protection. (If I’ve learned not to make excuses to God when he reveals my dark underbelly, that will be training of use to me now.)

I gave up any right for things to make sense. My training and life experience makes me a very analytical, cerebrally-oriented person. I’ve been trained to “distinguish the things that differ” and, almost like a lawyer, to avoid logical fallacies and press hard to win the case. For irrationally to prevail, or go unchallenged, seems a senseless and hopeless approach. After all, Jesus himself said, “The truth will set you free.” (I suppose this is just a subset of “needing to be understood” above, but it’s helpful to me to separate it out.) It’s counterintuitive to leave illogic unchallenged, and that’s the point. The counterintuitive way must be chosen. Trusting in the power of logic and reason demonstrates misplaced trust – as if hurt could be healed by logic and reason. (Again, if I’ve learned in God’s presence, to trust in Him whether it makes sense or not – and here we could think of Job – then I’ll more easily remember the limits of logic here.)

I gave up any right to control the outcome. I’ve mentioned already what I can‘t allow myself to do. The question remains, what will I need to make myself do? What specific change to promise? What sacrifice might I need to offer up? What do I have and what do I love that may be required from me as part of moving forward? And even the relationship itself – what will become of it? Will this be a “full moment” (Nouwen) that works for painful but powerful transformation and growth in the relationship? Will this represent the entrance into an unprecedented time of pain (the “for worse” of the marriage vows)? And when things are really bad, there is always the unspoken question, “Will this be the end of the relationship?”

I have some control over the outcome, of course – and that’s what I’m writing about. Ultimately though, I can only submit myself and my partner – and the final outcome, to God. I can’t approach God in this process as if striking a bargain – “I”ll give up these rights of mine, if you’ll give me what I want or feel I deserve in my marriage.” The Psalmist says, “With all that I am, I wait quietly upon God, for my hope is in him.” To “wait quietly” is to submit. We submit because we confess that we don’t know what is best. We don’t know what God is doing. And to “hope in him” is to depend on my relationship with him more than anything else. I need to trust him, and I can trust him. I need to have hope in this process, and I can have hope. I can have hope because of his unfailing love for me and for my spouse. I can hope because the God of the Resurrection and the Exodus (the two great saving events of the Bible) is exceedingly more than sufficient to save. But to hope in him also means a release of anxiety about the outcome, a refusal to bargain with him or to manipulate my spouse. It means stepping out into the great greyness of “unknowing” – and “waiting in expectation” (Psalm 5:3) upon God.

Postscript: I don’t have any illusions that I did a great job in this conversation of ours, and I don’t want to give that impression. My point is that I did much better than in the past – and that my taking a different approach allowed my wife to do much better too. (My friend Tad would explain that when I changed, the family “system” was changed.) More conversations and work must follow, and that’s why I wanted to remind myself of what to do. In forcing myself to think it through, and write it out clearly, I’m developing a Rule of Life for times of conflict. I know the only good strategy will focus on being changed myself. I also know that only God can change me – and I know that’s a big order. I’m counting on the fact that He is a very big God, and on that, although I’m tempted to do so at times, I’m not giving up.

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“My life is a mystery which I do not attempt to really understand, as though I were led by the hand in a night where I see nothing, but can fully depend on the love and protection of Him who guides me.” – Thomas Merton

Using Failure to “Trigger” Patient Waiting

“Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” Simone Weil in her book Waiting for God

Prayer is the “… receptive attitude out of which all of life can receive new vitality.” Henri Nouwen in Reaching Out

“To be a believer is, by definition, to be one who waits.”  Ben Patterson in Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent

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I’ve been trying to develop a “next steps” approach to supplement Nouwen’s more conceptual  approach to “waiting on God.” My goal is to train myself to see failures in my day as “triggers” to bring me back to a place of waiting.

Hopefully, after I’ve “waited quietly before God” (Psalm 62:5,6), I head back into the world with a renewed sense of equilibrium and peace. But as soon as I do, it’s guaranteed that many of my circumstances will conspire against me and try to spoil the peace and sense of preparation in my heart. The following are reminders to me of what to do when this starts to occur. Hopefully, these further reminders clarify the idea of “waiting” and made it practical in a different way. Here are my examples:

ANGER – I practice waiting as I refuse to … take matters into my own hands (like revenge). I wait upon God to do as he sees fit. (cf. the Psalms!)

DESPAIR – I practice waiting as I refuse to … indulge in despair or cynicism. I choose to look with hope for God’s present and coming Kingdom.

HURRY – I practice waiting as I refuse to … forge ahead as if I know what to do. I admit my limitations and really try to slow myself down.

LETHARGY – I practice waiting as I refuse to … do nothing. From the outside “waiting” may look like “doing nothing”, but it’s not. Waiting is giving God space and time to do things his way.

TEMPTATION – I practice waiting as I refuse to … give in to temptation. I “refer the problem” to God, and instead of insisting on what I want, or feel I need, I wait for what he wants to give me or do in me.

COMPLAINT – I practice waiting as I refuse to … complain bitterly (or worse) curse angrily. In my anger over the fact that things aren’t going as I planned, I remind myself that things aren’t necessarily supposed to go as I planned. I can wait to see what God wants.

SADNESS – I practice waiting as I refuse to … make my happiness my primary motivation for the day. God undoubtedly has better things planned for me – and it’s not about me anyway.

WORRY – I practice waiting as I refuse to … worry. I remind myself that he is at work for good. My worrying won’t add anything to that, but my patient waiting can keep me from messing it up and creating needless anxiety for myself.

I find these pairings helpful because succumbing to revenge, despair, cynicism, arrogance, lethargy, complaining, cursing, temptation or worry become “triggers”, reminding me that something is happening –  I’m drifting away from waiting and into some type of nonsense. I started my day well, and with the best intentions, but it’s beginning to get the better of me – and it’s guaranteed to drag me downhill from there. These unproductive behaviors (sins) can act as triggers, ministering to me, reminding me to return to my original and best intentions.

Why work so hard at waiting? Let me offer one more quote from Ben Patterson: “What we become as we wait is at least as important as the thing we wait for. To wait in hope is not just to pass the time until the wait is over. It is to see the time passing as part of the process God is using to make us into the people he created us to be. Job emerges from his wait dazzled and transformed. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah.” As we wait, we will be transformed also.

The Examen of an “Overachiever”

Years ago someone called me an overachiever. I suppose it’s true in the sense that I have distinguished myself at times in spite of my limited gifts and natural abilities. Early in life I learned that I could compensate for a lack of natural talent by hard work. I ran cross country in high school rather than being a sprinter – and I set a new school record. In Seminary I wrote a thesis that was more than twice as long as necessary (Have I mentioned about my OCD tendencies?) – and I won an award. As a pastor, when I became convinced of the importance of prayer, I preached several series on it – one must have been 16 weeks long, and started praying with people from the church for hours and hours each week. For me, success has always meant working harder than the other guy. More was always better. Faster was better too. There was definitely no time to waste. “Daylight”, as they say, was “burnin’.”

I’ve been in recovery now for some time, but it’s tough going. I recently wrote out a prayer for use as an “examen.”* I need to pray this like I do the Lord’s Prayer – “daily”, and I find it helpful when I do. If you can find something useful in it, that’s great too. Here it is:

“In the morning O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.” (Ps. 5:3,2)

Today I leave to you …
what I do or don’t accomplish
what others think of me
my comfort and my pleasure
my health and my happiness
my sense of satisfaction and my success
my impact and my importance.

Today I will hallow your name by  …
leaving enough silent spaces to hear from you
living in calmness of spirit, not in haste
looking for transformational moments in the events of the day
waiting for my turn to speak
talking less and listening more
acting and speaking only out of love
remembering the poor and marginalized
depending on you rather than myself for success, and working to further your agenda and enhance your reputation, not my own.

May I do this by your grace and Spirit, desiring to experience and increase your kingdom rule. May I persist in all my weakness, and in spite of all my failures, as I depend on your unfailing love to see me through. Amen.

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* “The Daily Examen is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.” My version involves using this morning prayer at the start of the day, and then returning to it at the end of the day for the “prayerful reflection on the events of the day” that is the essence of the examen.

I have posted other resources on the interface between overachieving and the examen elsewhere for those who are looking for more help.

“Go Ahead. Shake Your Fist At God”

“For they shake their fists at God, defying the Almighty.”   Eliphaz in Job 15:25

By the end of the book that bears his name, Job has repented, apologized to God, and quieted himself before God. It’s instructive to ask “Why?” Why the big switch from his questions and criticisms of God that fill up most of the rest of the book? Here’s why: (1) Not because God answers his question, “Why me?” He doesn’t.  (2) Not because God explains to him why the righteous suffer. He doesn’t.  (3) And not because God reveals himself in awesome majesty and power, which he does (Job 38-40), because Job knew this already as some of his monologues make plain. The reason that Job repents is (4) that God appears to him – He sees God “with his own eyes”, and that was enough.

I would have expected a different ending. I would have expected God to let Job know about the contest with Satan, and about why he was suffering (pretty much the same thing). I would have expected Job to be rebuked for his disrespectful, seemingly arrogant, bitter attitude towards God, and that his misguided friends would be more or less let off the hook. (They were just saying what everybody then believed – including Job, until recently that is.)

Instead, God vindicates Job and condemns his friends – in each case for what they “said about him.” This is important.

God has no problem with Job except that he has spoken beyond his knowledge. He rewards Job. The fist in the air that must have accompanied so much of what Job had to say was no problem. The fist in the air was a good thing. In fact, God condemnation of Job’s friends is really because they didn’t raise their fists with Job. Job himself warns them that they will be judged, and that’s exactly what happens. (I know you may be beginning to fume, but please stay with me.)

Let’s examine then, what both Job and his friends had to say about God (explicitly and implicitly):  Job’s friends agreed that (1) God rewards the just, (2) that he punishes the unjust, (3) that since Job is suffering at God’s hand, he is obviously unjust, and (4) that therefore everything made sense. There was no reason for protest. No reason for a fist in the air.

As for Job, he agreed on the first two points, but when it came to the charges against him, (3) Job insisted he was innocent and still being punished by God. He also said (4) that this made no sense, and that it was indeed reason for protest – and thus the fist in the air.

The theology of Job’s friends was untempered by compassion or empathy towards Job, nor did they seemingly even entertain the possibility that Job could be speaking the truth (even though they knew the kind of life he had always lived). Their worldview wouldn’t let them go there. They had no self-doubt, no sense of their own limitations, and that is how their speaking about God was not right. They looked at what seemed an obviously horrific travesty of justice, attributed it to God, and were content to leave it at that. No questions. No problem. No protest.

Like his friends, Job attributed all his problems to God. Unlike his friends though, he wasn’t content to just accept that the God of justice would torture a righteous man for no reason. (Job was completely unaware of the cosmic test that was transpiring.) Job wouldn’t be quiet or let it go. Nor would he agree to a world where God arbitrarily torments those whose hope is in him. Job had no explanation for his experience, but he repudiates the explanation that his friend’s worldview and theology implies – about God!

In a way, this brings us full circle to the beginning of the book. Satan says to God “Anyone can believe and hope in you when he has sufficient evidence to lean on.” God replies, “Then take away his evidence.” And he does! And in the end, Job passes the test! He loses his hope (at times), he rails against God, he accuses God of being a bad God, he reaches the point where nothing makes sense any more, and where he desperately wants to die. Even so, he refuses to believe in an ultimate way, that God is not the righteous ruler of the world.

When intuition and instinct lead us to struggle with something that God does or says, we’re not just to fold our arms smugly and say to ourselves or others, “If God did it/said it, it can’t be wrong.” No. That’s just the opposite of the message of Job. That’s just what Job’s friends did. What we must do is refuse to explain away the apparent injustice and cry out for answers. That’s what Job did. What Job did is a better thing. In the story, it’s the only acceptable thing. And why? Because instead of assuming that we always have the answer, it assumes we don’t. And instead of diminishing God’s glory and righteousness (as is implicit in the argument of Job’s friends), it insists upon it – even though at the moment it makes no sense.

Who had more faith, Job or his friends? You know the answer to that. And that’s what we’re called to – faith based on evidence (and Job’s faith was based on evidence – evidence left over from “the good old days”, but not forgotten), but also faith that persists when there is no contemporary evidence, no evidence that makes sense any more.

So, remember Job the next time your world is turned upside down and inside out. The next time it seems that God is your enemy for no good reason. The next time you cry out to him in desperation and receive only silence in reply. The next time a natural disaster wipes out a nearby community, or a murderous rampage takes out a whole classroom of children. Those of you who trust and hope in God, remember Job, and don’t be afraid to raise your fist.* You’ll be in good company.

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*I realize that nowhere in the text does it say that Job actually raised his fist in the air in protest, but Job certainly protests, and it’s not in an academic, emotionally detached manner. He calls down curses, he speaks rashly, he says that God is “beating him” and “grounding him down“, – even his friends could see that his suffering was “too great for words.” I believe that in a theatrical performance, anyone who played Job would be raising his fist in anger. How could it be otherwise? The words of Eliphaz express his idea of what “wicked people” do – “they shake their fists at God.” It’s clear that in his speech, he is talking about Job and to Job (cf. Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read, p. 57), but indirectly, as is common in the monologues of the three friends.