Spiritual Therapy

My husband Aaron has had back trouble on and off for years.  The pain is growing un-ignorable, the kind that begins to affect his daily life.  He finally went to see a doctor and then a physical therapist a few weeks back.

© Copyright Frank Olsen and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Frank Olsen and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

The physical therapist pinpointed his problem exactly.  She explained that it wasn’t the hurting muscles that were the problem.  Instead, those aching muscles were working extra hard to cover for a different, smaller, weaker, undeveloped muscle.  The pain came from the body adapting to the weak muscle’s inactivity.  A pattern set in, and over the years, the other muscles are strained.

The cure isn’t to relax those overworked muscles.  It’s to strengthen the weak muscle.  As the weak muscle’s capacity grows, the other muscles will relax and the body will begin to work properly again.

I was thankful for Aaron’s sake that these exercises might reduce his pain, and as I began to consider the underlying problem, I began to see the relevance for my own life.

In so many areas, it’s the symptoms of brokenness and sin that capture my attention.  The anxiety or fatigue, the surprising anger or fear that explode into daily interactions, upsetting me and those around me.  I don’t like it.  I want to fix it and root out the problem that’s causing such unpleasantness.

I try to manage my anxiety or rest more so I won’t be so fatigued.  I work to rightly express my emotions or fill-in-the-blank with whatever behavior I’m trying to counteract.  But Aaron’s physical therapy lesson brought new insight.

Ridding myself of the bad won’t necessarily strengthen the good.

Counteracting those negative emotional patterns may bring some short-term improvement, but it doesn’t get at the underlying problem.  My emotional being won’t function properly until the weak underdeveloped muscles can be brought into wholeness.

© Copyright Simon Eugster and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Simon Eugster and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

What does it mean to strengthen the good?  Scripture is full of this kind of theology.  It’s not just the “putting off” of the old, but the “putting on”of the new.  In fact the putting on of the new often forces out the old.  Clothing myself with Christ strips off the old tattered rags while simultaneously giving me His life.

I think about this in my struggle with fear.  If you’ve ever battled any sort of emotion, you know it’s not enough to tell yourself it isn’t rational or to try and not respond in that way anymore.  I can’t make myself unafraid.

I’m already learning that the primary offensive strategy is to act out of truth rather than emotional response.  To act according to what I know to be true without giving way to fear – to act in the face of it.  But I think this physical therapy approach gives me another angle on it.

 When I feed on the goodness of God, when I abide in the truth of his love, I am strengthening the muscle that enables me to trust him.  As that muscle grows, it undoes the damage done by the cramping fearful self-preserving muscles.

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.  Oh, Lord, may it be so.

© Copyright Dirk Beyer  and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Dirk Beyer and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

Democracy of the Dead – Gregory of Nazianzus

G.K. Chesterton once said that “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”  

To honor that sentiment and to stave off an easy chronological snobbery, today’s post comes straight from the mouths (or pens) of men and women who have died in the faith.

A Prayer from Gregory of Nazianzus

I am spent, O my Christ, breath of my life. 

Cross by George Wharton JamesPerpetual stress and surge, in league together, make long, O long, this life, this business of living.

Grappling with foes within and foes without, my soul has lost its beauty, blurred your image.

Did ever oak such buffeting from winds or ship receive from waves as I do now?  Labor to labor, task succeeds to task…friendship has bowed and illness wasted me…Do not forsake me, my Strength, I beseech you.

When the storms beat hard I may have betrayed you, but let me return to you now.

–Gregory of Nazianzus.

Jesus Loves Me

When I first taught my young sons Jesus Loves Me, I modified the words.  “Jesus loves us,” I sang, “this we know.”

© Copyright Nicolas Perez and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Nicolas Perez and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

I think some of this was pragmatic: the grammar stickler in me wanted the pronoun to be plural if the singers were, in fact, plural.

But part of it was my theology.  I was kind of pleased with my version, as though I was giving the cold shoulder to modern Christianity and its individualistic thinkingIt’s not all about me, I probably thought to myself.  And I don’t want my kids to think it’s all about them.

It’s like that old evangelism technique that goes: if you were the only person on earth, Jesus would die for you.  I don’t know why, but this always used to make my head explode.  Maybe it’s because I’m an American, from the country where everything is all about me.  Or maybe it was a pendulum swing against the evangelicalism that ignores the corporate identity of the church in favor of my personal Christianity.  Or maybe it’s because I swim in constant marketing that tells me I am the only person on Earth.

Or maybe it’s because the directness of Jesus’ love is uncomfortable. 

Hiding behind the words Jesus loves us reveals my inability to receive his love. The truth is that Jesus does love me.  Me, all by myself.  Standing there vulnerable and alone.  Me, who knows what I’ve done or thought about doing.  Who knows how un-lovable I am.  Me, if I was the last person on earth.  He really does.

And Jesus does love you.  You, all by yourself.  Standing there vulnerable and alone.  You, who know what you’ve done or thought about doing.  You, who know how unlovable you are.  You, if you were the last person on earth.

© Copyright J J Harrison and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright J J Harrison and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

That kind of piercing, knowing love can make us squirm.  We are naked and we want to cover up.  To joke or push it aside.  To jump in a group where we can breathe a sigh of relief and shove aside the compulsion to respond to His love.

It’s a self-awareness my children don’t have.  Several months ago, I taught them the original words, and they sing it with gusto.  “Jesus Loves Me,” they shout, dancing around the living room.  Sometimes we insert their names.  “Yes, Jesus loves Elijah,” we’ll sing when it’s his turn, and he beams.

I learn from my children.  They don’t have to parse childlike faith.  They breathe it.  So join us.  Dance around your living room if you’ll let yourself.  Let’s sing it together: Jesus loves me, this I know.

Democracy of the Dead – Dorothy Sayers

G.K. Chesterton once said that “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”  

To honor that sentiment and to stave off an easy chronological snobbery, today’s post comes straight from the mouths (or pens) of men and women who have died in the faith.

From Dorothy SayersCREED OR CHAOS

The problem of sin and evil is, as everybody knows, one which all religions have to face, especially those that postulate an all-good and all-powerful God.  “If,” we say readily, “God is holy and omnipotent, He would interfere and stop all this kind of thing” – meaning by “this kind of thing” wars, persecutions, cruelty, Hitlerism, Bolshevism, or whatever large issue happens to be distressing our minds at the ever large issue happens to be distressing our minds at the time.  But let us be quite sure that we have really considered the problem in all its aspects.

Cross by George Wharton James“Why doesn’t God smite this dictator dead?” is a question a little remote from us.  Why, madam, did He not strike you dumb and imbecile before you uttered that baseless and unkind slander the day before yesterday?  Or me, before I behaved with such cruel lack of consideration to that well-meaning friend?  And why, sir, did He not cause your hand to rot off at the wrist before you signed your name to that dirty little bit of financial trickery?

You did not quite mean that?  But why not?  Your misdeeds and mine are nonetheless repellent because our opportunities for doing damage are less spectacular than those of some other people.  Do you suggest that your doings and mine are too trivial for God to bother about?  That cuts both ways; for, in that case, it would make precious little difference to His creation if He wiped us both out tomorrow…

The Church, at any rate, says that man’s will is free, and that evil is the price we pay for knowledge, particularly the kind of knowledge which we call self-consciousness.  It follows that we can, by God’s grace, do something about the pattern.  Moreover, God Himself, says the Church, is doing something about it – with our cooperation, if we choose, in despite of us if we refuse to cooperate – but always, steadily, working the pattern out…

The Church asserts that there is a Mind which made the universe, that He made it because He is the sort of Mind that takes pleasure in creation, and that if we want to know what the Mind of the Creator is, we must look at Christ.  In him we shall discover a Mind that loved His own creation so completely that He became part of it, suffered with and for it, and made it a sharer in His own glory and a fellow worker with Himself in the working out of his own design for it…We find God continually at work turning evil into good.

The Good Shepherd

I like to sing the hymn, “This is My Father’s World,” because it helps me recollect that courage is my birthright.

© Copyright Hansueli Krapf and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Hansueli Krapf and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

Sometimes I get frustrated with the slow process, the way my head-faith doesn’t match up with my emotions and heart reality.  Some days the brokenness and self-absorption, the underlying this-is-not-the-way-it-is-supposed-to-be is overwhelming and I just want to hurry up and be sanctified already.  Faith-filled because of insta-healing.  Done with the struggle.

You and I both know that rarely happens.

The good news is that Jesus sticks fast.  He doesn’t leave us to ourselves or abandon us.  He doesn’t even wait for us to realize that we’re broken and self-absorbed.  It’s like parenting a young child.  You don’t tell a two-year-old to quit being so self-focused.  It’s just the way he is at two.  It’s just the way we are in sin.  We’re a mess.

We really are terrified sheep.  See that one over there?  The one who is frenetically racing around the sheepfold, quaking in fear?  See the joyless one?  She’s rushing from one thing to the next, harried by circumstances and hounding memories, and fears of the future.  She’s got raw wounds and infected flesh.

She’s beat up and starved, because she’s so afraid she never sits still long enough to find true nourishment.  She will continue to run, until she actually dies, because she knows no differently.  Even if someone could explain to her why it really doesn’t make sense for her to be afraid given her reality, she would find no peace or rest in that perspective.

© Copyright Michael Gäbler and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Michael Gäbler and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

This sheep on her own will die.  She will die because of her wounds.  And she will die because she is so blinded by herself.

Perhaps someday this sheep will be able to root out the fear and feed in security.  Perhaps she will venture out to the wide-open pastures there for thetaking.  Perhaps not.  Whatever she ends up doing, whatever she does in this present moment, her only hope is to stick close to the shepherd.  She may still hover about his knees, quaking at imagined threats, but he doesn’t mind.  He will protect her from any true threat and give her exactly what she needs.

And do you think any passable shepherd will leave her cringing there at the edge of his cloak?  No, he will gather that wounded scared-to-literal-death sheep in his arms, and carry her close to his bosom.  He’ll do the same for you.  He tends his flock like a shepherd, and he gently leads those who have young.  He invites them to feast on His presence even when they are beset by enemies.  He is with them in the dark moments.  He will lead them beside still waters.  He will restore their souls.

© Copyright Jonathan M and  licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Jonathan M and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!  Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!  

Democracy of the Dead – C.S. Lewis

G.K. Chesterton once said that “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”  

To honor that sentiment and to stave off an easy chronological snobbery, today’s post comes straight from the mouths (or pens) of men and women who have died in the faith.

From C.S. Lewis’ PERELANDRA:

“As soon as you had taken away the Evil One,” [the Green Lady] said, “and I awoke from sleep, my mind was cleared.

Cross by George Wharton JamesIt is a wonder to me, Piebald, that for all those days you and I could have been so young.

The reason for not yet living on the Fixed Land is now so plain.  How could I wish to live there except because it was Fixed?  And why should I desire the Fixed except to make sure – to be able on one day to command where I should be the next and what should happen to me?

It was to reject the wave – to draw my hands out of Maleldil’s, to say to Him, ‘Not thus, but thus’to put in our own power what times should roll towards us…as if you gathered fruits together to-day for to-morrow’s eating instead of taking what came.

That would have been cold love and feeble trust.  And out of it how could we ever have climbed back into love and trust again?”

Finding Courage in Music

These past weeks, I’ve been reading with the Lectionary through 1 Samuel, revisiting all the stories of Samuel and David and Saul.

© Copyright Arpingstone and licensed for reuse under Wikimedia.

© Copyright Arpingstone and licensed for reuse under Wikimedia.

As I read, I look through the thoughts of the Ancient Christian Fathers on each text.  Not only is it fascinating to see how interpretations have varied throughout different periods in church history, but re-reading the early teaching on the Scriptures brings a refreshingly Christocentric interpretation.  For the ancients, every verse is always about Jesus.  I love it.

I’ve lately been puzzling over the ongoing conflict between Saul and David.  There are many layers to it, not least the early church’s teaching that David is a type of Christ, and Saul, his antagonist, represents the scheming of the enemy.  Recently I read 1 Samuel 16:14-23, which records how when David played the lyre, Saul’s spirit was refreshed, and the evil spirit that tormented Saul departed.

I’m not about to tackle what it means that the evil spirit “from the Lord” came upon Saul or how that contributed to Saul’s murderous intentions toward David.  But check out what the leaders of the early church had to say about music and our souls:

“Not that there was any kind of power in [David’s] harp, but, with its wooden frame and the strings stretched across, it was a symbol of the cross of Christ.  It was the passion that was being sung, and it was this which subdued the spirit of the devil.”  — Nicetas of Remesiana

© Copyright Mark Mcintosh and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Mark Mcintosh and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

“You, a man of the church, ought to be better instructed by the music of the church than by Pythagoras.  Think what David’s lyre did for Saul…” – Augustine

“So there is no doubt that sounds of music, at the Lord’s command or with his permission, have unleashed great forces.”  – Cassiodorus

I love how Martin Luther is said to have snagged his friend Melancthon to go out and “Sing the 46th!” when  his soul was discouraged.  There are so many great hymns and songs that give courage to our souls, and now that I’ve written this post, I feel as though I should link to the old, classic, theology-laden hymns (which I love in their turn!).  Instead, I’m going to link to this contemporary song I stumbled across last year that has so rallied my soul when it is downcast.  It’s worth a listen right through to the end: