Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Lost Life of the Feeler

"...but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Against such things there is no law {...} Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit..."

On a wet, dirty and bleak New York morning in May of last year, my wife and I carried our then four-year-old daughter into an operating room and we laid her on a table. There, what seemed to be a million lights pointed almost accusingly in on one singular, powerful and beautiful point: her heart.

I say powerful because the daily working of this one piece of God's craftsmanship has immense hold on us as her parents. There is shattering power in the sound of our daughter's heart when one of us places our head to her chest these days... to hear it pounding and holding up her life on behalf of her Maker.

We feel terribly at its mercy.

That spring day, that moment we lay her down... as she lay screaming, terrified, looking at us past gloved hands and masked faces... her heart wielded more power over us than we thought anything in creation could. The torrent of emotion that hit us all at once... roaring waves of fear and anger all rolled into one... were simply beyond explanation.

Everything seemed uncontrollable. We had no handle on our emotions. No control on our feelings. After years of holding it all back, it all finally came rolling in. They  filled the room and it seemed the sky and rocked us all about. It seemed we were drowning, and I think it felt our own feelings and even our minds, were betraying us.

I know I personally was being taunted, accused and unraveled.

I felt lost in the past. I was beginning to feel that somehow in the grand scheme of God's cosmos maybe this was all my fault... that maybe my biggest regrets in life, no matter how long ago... are to blame for what is happening right now. If only I had been whatever... wiser... more righteous... maybe none of this would have happened. 

I was also lost in the future. My personal fears wrote terrible endings that broke my heart over and over.

At this point, even as I'm reading what I've written, please remember that as much pain as I know we were going through, this fades to nothing... in comparison to the fear, suffering and pain Moriah was walking through.

We knew it and this, in addition to all of our own raging fears, emotional and spiritual junk... this tide cascaded over and over on our hearts. It seemed there was nothing but fear. Nothing but pain.

I think sometimes the scariest place to exist is where there is nothing but raw feeling.

And I am ashamed to say that I used to be pretty judgmental about this kind of thing when I'd see it in the lives of others.

I'm ashamed because sometimes my thoughts have not been very gracious in the past when seeing people, whether on TV or in movies, collapse in emotional heaps, raging or tossing about in emotional pain. There was occasionally this tinge of, 'really?' and maybe a bit of either skepticism or judgmentalism... both of which reflect an a gross amount of ignorance, arrogance, pride and sin on my part.

But there in New York, in that series of dark moments in May, everything changed... and ushered in was a dramatic shift to my own thoughts, giving me a wider perspective on the power of feeling: because of the very real effect of what we were feeling, a nurse had to literally hold both of us up and walk us to the waiting room.

This perspective, to me, was no small thing.

Feeling cannot be taken lightly. It profoundly affects even the physical. Very real emotion = very real physical effect.

And it isn't just about being really sad and how this physically affects us. It's about living in a world where we are tremendously influenced every day by our own feelings... our own emotions... and those of others.

I mean it certainly impacts my every day. This may come as a surprise to you, but I'm somewhat emotional.

Kind of.
Sort of.
I mean a little teensy weensy bit.
(That is how you spell weensy by the way.)

I mean I only cry watching "Homeward Bound." Good grief... what kind of hardened criminal doesn't?

You call me wuss.

I call me, complex.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say I've been sort of tossed into the female salad by a lot of both men and women, by being labeled as such. (I mean by being labeled complex... I don't think anyone has actually labeled me a salad. If they did, I'd hit them with my purse.)

Being pretty emotional, I not only engage the world intuitively by how things 'feel', but its the language I often use in trying to articulate my thoughts on basically everything around me.

The problem is, I'm beginning to think that the church world isn't too friendly on feelings these days. I mean if ever. This poses to me all kinds of problems, considering so much of our lives, our day to day... our choices... are directly impacted by feeling.

Because sometimes it feels like our permission to feel has been removed.

I cannot describe the number of conversations I've seen within the context of Christianity where someone, through the way they speak with me or with others, will say something like, "Wow, it seems you're pretty emotional about this."

By nature of using this line, we've now de-legitimized whatever the other person is feeling or trying to communicate.

Because you've heard the sermons. I've heard them. I've even preached them.

Emotions are untrustworthy.
Emotions are carnal.
They will mislead you.
They are fickle.
They are dangerous.
Maybe to you.
Your relationships.
Your marriage.
Your career. Stability.

And I guess I'd still, even now, say, "Well yeah."


Since when was the logic of the human mind any different, or all that reliable? Since when did all of our stopping and thinking give us some sort of glowing track record?

Human logic is just as vulnerable to the gravitational pull of brokenness and self. The way we think is just as wielded by the "gods" of lust (et al) in our lives as our hearts are by the impetuous tangle of unfettered emotion.

Emotion isn't some sort of physiological jewelry or icing on the cake of humanity. There is real, intrinsic and I believe spiritual function behind the ebb and flow of feeling and our emotions' impact on us. God guides us just as much through them as anything else.

And, by the way, how many people do we know who have been rationalized into becoming fully devoted followers of Christ?

There is this lost life of the feeler when we command people who have the capacity for nearly incomprehensible masses of passion to just... ignore it. To dam it up, to put it under lock and key, to consider themselves maybe just a little less mature in Christ, or maybe a little less stable, if they cannot do so.

I used to say that maturity was the ability to control your emotions, to not let them control you.

And to say this isn't true isn't true. You absolutely cannot trust your emotions sometimes. You absolutely cannot trust how you feel sometimes.

But sometimes you can.

Sometimes God is guiding you, through passion, into something. Sometimes its unexpected, scary and beautiful all at once, and sometimes, yes... it defies all logic. There is a relationship between not only faith and logic, but faith and feeling.

So maybe it's just incomplete. Maybe the only way is through His Spirit.

Maybe we are closer to maturity when it isn't our emotions controlling us, it isn't our minds controlling us, but it is God's Spirit controlling us, by way of speaking into both our minds and our hearts, and the way we do life accordingly.

I know, I know. Duh.

But take five minutes and look at your life and how often you fall back and forth between the two, overcompensating in either direction, because usually, you try to muster balance on your own. At least this is the case for me. One day I'm all logic. Another I'm Joe Emotion. It seems impossible to find balance on my own.

But this is doable.

Not perfectly, as we are still on this side of Heaven.

But doable, nonetheless. You can literally walk "In the Spirit."Or maybe a smarter way of articulating this is that you and I can lean into walking "In the Spirit"... because I know that in the broken shell of humanity, at best we're working it out in fits and spurts.

But He does want us to lean into this.

One of the manifold miracles of an unending God is that He goes beyond saying, "Yeah, I love you" and He goes even further into saying, "Oh yes... I can and I will live through you."

Through your gifts. Through my gifts.

Through this person, whose cup overflows in the area of the mind, and maybe through that one, whose cup overflows in this powerful heart. Or maybe that person whose cup is decently filled in both. This is good too.

I fear being so afraid of the heart that we would lose our ability to feel and sense God's movement in real time; in the here and now.

And further, I'm afraid we'd begin believing that God is only logical. Not passionate. Not unbridled. Not reckless and raging in His love for us, as Rich Mullins would have put it.

And yes, for those of us whose hearts are at times devastated... maybe physiologically, maybe externally through some sort of series of traumas... maybe through the simple fact that the climate gets dry, stretched out, cracking and empty... there will be times that balance has to be chosen through our minds walking in and reminding us that on this side of eternity, there will be times we still have to white-knuckle pieces of life.

But never forget the beauty of what even your broken heart offers. Never forget that sometimes the most fragile hearts, the most wounded have often been the most softened to hear His voice. Not always, I know. But sometimes... particularly when we invite Him to the scarred and calloused rooms there.


Feel on.

May you pay attention to your heart, (and yes, guard it) for it is the wellspring of life. Through the movements of your heart and emotion, God may be giving you the eyes to see and the ears to hear the movements of His own untamed heartbeat.  Do not let go of a listening and passionate heart for fear of making unwise choices and crazy illegitimate decisions in your life.

May we just get wise about it.

Grab this heart of yours and all that you pour into it, and all that pours out from it, and wrestle it... have the courage to lay it at the feet of the Only One who can help bring you balance, speak into your mind, heart and life, and may you let Him guide you in the every step of today. Of tomorrow.

It is not too much to ask God to be with you in the every minute. It may seem too much for you, but it is never too much for Him.

It's then that we've regained the lost life of the feeler.

    Saturday, June 11, 2011


    "...the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy {...} Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."
    - a fictional elder-demon training a younger one in C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters.

    "... I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. {...} You have persevered and endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you. You have forsaken your first love.- a message from God to His church revealed in Revelation 2

    The Cross-Bronx Expressway runs through some incredibly dense areas of New York City. So ambitious of a road construction project, within its stretch of concrete, there is one particular mile that is considered the most expensive mile ever constructed in a road... to the tune of $40,000,000. It cost that much, even back in the day, to put an interstate through such an urban area.

    It is very populated. So you can imagine, it gets busy.

    Very busy. Many folks in New York differ in opinion on what the worst roads are, but there is no debating that if you go through the Cross-Bronx at the wrong time of day, you could lose hours instantly. Though it doesn't feel all too instant!

    Nothing quite brings out the jerk in me like traffic.

    There is suffocatingly little room, and what seems to be a million vehicles competing with you. There is this frantic aggression contained in very little space from thousands of people... each with their own levels of patience, anger, schedules, emergencies and who knows... maybe even malice.

    Here, in this place, everyone knows that if they don't look out for themselves, no one else will.

    No one wants to be there. And I don't know what's scarier:
    • The insane speeds at which the mass of large steel objects are (or aren't) moving.
    • How quickly people default to anger.
    • How little it takes for us to de-humanize a person in our heads, to where they are nothing more than an obstacle to us.

    Doesn't take much, and all of the sudden they are no longer someone to us. They are an object... a hindrance to what we want. Because, let's be honest...

    We want what we want when we want it.

    I do not want to sit in this lane any longer than I already have, and you... this object to my left, are clearly working to hinder me from getting to my destination. My goal.

    Forget the fact that you are a person too.
    Forget the fact that approximately one six-billionth of this is about me.

    The one thing everyone has in common is that they'd rather not be there.

    Okay so let's shift gears.

    Well, maybe a little more than shift gears. Let's change the subject entirely. But don't you worry your head; we'll be back to the Cross-Bronx and its joy-stifling traffic before you know it.

    Here is my awkward subject change: I have some really great friends pastoring in a crazy variety of churches these days. Friends who are pastors in:

    • Churches of less than 100 people. 
    • Churches of well over 5000 people. 
    • Churches that are under a year old. 
    • Churches that predate the Industrial Revolution. 
    • Extremely traditional churches. 
    • Highly orthodox churches. 
    • Churches that would wig many of you out. 
    • Churches that would wig ME out!

    And obviously when we connect, we talk about, well... church. While some of you would rather have a frontal lobotomy, or you feel as if you are having one when talking about church, this is what we do. But these days I'm noticing a trend in our conversations.

    We're always talking about one of two things: vision or division.

    Sometimes its both. Vision is this direction we are looking for.. this momentum-oriented push to God's future for us... a future of hope for what could be. It's positive. On the other hand, division seems to be the opposite; this friction, this resistance and stuck-ness(*any resemblance to a real word, living or dead, is purely coincidental). And between the two there is this yin and yang, this happy/sad theater mask, this back and forth, push and pull of the tides... the ebb and flow of church. They seem to feel opposite.

    It seems to me that the two of them are thoroughly related... linked... and not just because they lace pastoral conversations everywhere.

    This is what I am beginning to believe.

    I think that the way we look for spiritual vision and set our spiritual directions is often the reason some people, families and/or churches find themselves stuck, shipwrecked, or in a place they don't want to be.

    Here's the gist, whether we're talking about individuals, families or churches: man-made goals, directions, vision, desires, preferences and/or precepts are simply that... they are man-made. And coming up with our own vision and convincing ourselves that it was from God is to walk along a very slippery slope.*

    (*Calling something a 'slippery slope' makes me feel so spiritual. I may have to use it more often in my every day vernacular. But something tells me that would be a slippery slope.)


    Back to the whole following-our-own-directions-and-pretending-they're-God's-vision thing.

    Forget the "vision" itself for a second. Think about how you found it. The way you came upon it reveals way more about your vision and direction in the first place, not to mention, it creates a flow that is nearly impossible to stop.

    We're often very excited about our directions:

    • "She is what I need to aim for... to be that kind of person!"
    • "We need to be THIS kind of church!"
    • "I want to be known for the way I/we _________."
    • "No, no, no... let's do more ________"

    Its less about a direction being good or bad... its that the way we seek them might be creating a spiritual flow of humanity... which is not necessarily of God's Spirit.

    If you or I or we are coming up with these on our own and believing that we got them from God, it begins a flow toward ourselves and away from God. Did you see that? Flow toward ourselves is flow away from God.

    This is a spiritual environment that perpetuates itself. It's very easy to follow our own self-determined goals and directions and convince ourselves that we're leaning on God's guidance.

    We cannot be naive. The Bible is filled with the cries of people who thought they knew what God was telling them... and in the end it turned out they were dead wrong. In the end, they were missing (or ignoring) His Word and Spirit.

    That direction I just came up with for my life... it may be a good direction... it may be a nice direction... it may even sound Biblical. But is it the direction that God, through His Word and Spirit, is really calling me to?

    Or did I simply ask myself about direction in the context of God, assess the situation, and come up with my own answers?


    Be wary... the better you become at this, the more you will do this. It becomes second-nature.

    It's in the small and seemingly innocuous moments that God-sounding but man-made priorities come to fruition... and insidiously, they edge us inch-by-inch further from intimacy with God, and closer to our own man-made image of Him.

    Sometimes the flow away from God is so small, that its nearly undetectable.

    But it can lead to a monumental distance between where we are and where we need to be.

    Now I'm beating the dead horse: There is a difference between authentically seeking the direction God has for you and and letting God know the direction you'd rather Him let you go in. And only one of these works toward long-term and full-depth life fulfillment.

    So let's stretch it out beyond the individual to imagine what happens in a church setting when hundreds of people end up doing it, and a large scale flow towards hundreds of "selves" is created. What can this do to a church? (Now we're back to traffic and headed toward the Cross-Bronx.)

    The flow is so strong that its really hard to alter direction. Shifting course in a singular life can seem impossible... imagine trying to alter the flow of a gathering of people, each with their own man-made directions.  

    And remember, flow towards self is flow away from God

    People start out trying to share space, but it gets hard:
    • We bump into each another.
    • Or someone got ahead of me, out of turn.
    • Why do they always get their way?
    • Why are they always in charge?
    • Why am I never listened to? 
    It begins to feel like certain people are an obstacle to me and my Godly desires for this place. And that person too. Or maybe that pastor. Or maybe that Elder, or Director... or that team. 

    It begins to feel that if I don't look out for my goals around here, no one else will. 

    Anger flares. 
    Snide comments are made. 
    Calls are ignored.
    Emails are sent.  
    Conversations are had. 
    Tears might even fall; on all sides.
    People are judged.
    Some become and object and hindrance.
    Maybe even de-humanized. 

    Pretty soon, with enough people doing this, losing more and more footing on this slippery slope, caught up in the flow, it can become a place no one wants to be.

    Kind of like the Cross-Bronx. A bottleneck of people wrestling (at best) to get through to their destinations first. 

    So maybe before we go off in a direction, we just need to wait and listen.

    Maybe, before hitting the on-ramp to nightmare traffic and clamoring for our vision to be first in line, we need to stop and be desperate for the Who behind our directions before we try and determine the what.

    Maybe we need to ask ourselves some of the more basic questions before we get too caught up in exciting dreams and vision-casting coffee-talks:

    Am I praying out of intimacy, knowing that by

    being close to,
    hearing from,
    resting with,
    being comforted by,
    conversing with,
    being admonished or stretched by,
    learning through, and

    trusting in my great Author... that vision and direction come organically from this, and that by seeking Him in this way, I am turning the supernatural soil of my heart, from which His vision grows?

    Or am I praying for my own vending - machine god to give me what I am looking for?

    A spouse.
    A successful career.
    Financial Stability.
    A family.
    My kids to be ok.
    Me to be healthier.
    A successful church.

    Maybe we have to remember Who is supposed to be holding the steering wheel in the first place.

    After all, He is God.

    And He can probably steer us clear of the Cross-Bronx.