I saw a meme on Facebook the other day. It showed a map of the United States that tracked the outbreaks of Coronavirus in comparison to Sanctuary Cities. What was/is this meme trying to communicate? How does that message define one's understanding of God?
We speak about a God of love but often characterize God's actions by violence and judgment defined by our own bias. Due to our inner system of judgment, who is right and who is wrong, we categorize who to exclude. Those who we consider on the outside are rebuffed from God's care through our messaging.
I recently read a book, How God Changes Your Brain, which shared a Baylor study that found that 74% of Americans view God as authoritarian, distant, or critical. Only 23% saw God as benevolent.(1) In fact, 20% viewed God as aligned with a political party.(2) This analysis is a sad state of affairs and doesn't represent the God I have come to know through contemplative prayer.
Newberg continued to share through this study that research showed a person's view of God aligned with the way they understood and related to the world. For example, those who viewed God as authoritative (32%) also firmly believed that God punishes people. These same participants supported the death penalty.(3)
I believe this punitive understanding of God and the world correlates with our theology - the way we understand God, salvation, and why we are here. When we view God as violent and judgmental, casting those on the outside out, we can do so ourselves. When we look at the gospel accounts, the Jesus we read about doesn't cast out who the religious deem as outcasts. Jesus continually sees these outcasts and invites them back into community.
When we fight for black and white answers, we limit not only our own but others' experience of God as a God of love. We see this in the gospel accounts, and we see it today across our political and social landscape. But how do we move forward from here?
One of the gifts of Newberg's book is the description in his study on those who participated in spiritual contemplation. He tracked, through studying people with different doctrinal understandings, the changes in their brains as they followed their contemplative practices. They became more open to subtle experiences by strengthening the neural pathways that enhance social awareness and empathy. Also, he found that hard and destructive emotions were subdued.(4)
He continued to discover that those, Franciscan nuns, for example, who spent time contemplating God, became less self-focused and felt more of a union with God experience. This intimate experience opened them to greater compassion for themselves and others. They became more tolerant of those who were different from them, and this was validated as the researchers tracked the nuns' brain activity.
These findings are interesting and line up with what Paul tells us in 2nd Corinthians: to take our thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. The problem with using this verse is defining what the "obedience of Christ" means. Often, Scriptural texts are understood within our own cultural bias and allow us to cast people out. We prove ourselves right in our preconceptions.
Some would say that this verse would be understood by what I rationally know, forcing myself to not think about harmful things and only thinking about "good" things. It comes down to behavior management. Others consider this text as an invitation to contemplative prayer, letting go of our thoughts, and being aware that we are in God's presence. Recognizing these two understandings show us the same thing - what we believe about God influences how we read Scripture. It can create an unbreakable cycle of condemnation.
Can we trust God to break into our judgmental understandings, this unbreakable cycle of condemnation? We can, and it usually comes through great suffering. It takes being in a place of disorientation to allow that process to begin. Currently, we are in that place globally. We are all experiencing it differently, but things are not how they once were.
Some people are blaming others and fighting for things to be normal again. We also see displays of kindness and collaboration taking root in our communities. Both are visible, sometimes in the same people, even ourselves. The breakdown happens when one side judges the other as being less godly or right. But what if the opposing sides worked together to form a solution instead of working against each other. Can we set down our entitlement or need to be right? Can we value and hear all sides?
According to Newberg's understanding, contemplation is a space that opens up that kind of space in us. So, how do we practice spiritual contemplation? One of my favorite ways is to walk in nature. I invite you to do so, given social distancing criteria, and spend time in Creation. I've written a previous blog on a practice, I have found helpful: http://www.boldlyloved.org/blog/among-the-trees
Then I will invite you along with myself to take notice, do my words and actions represent what I believe? Do my posts on social media speak about what I hold true? Or better yet, what do my postings, words, and actions say about what I hold true about God, myself, and others.
1 Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings From a Leading Neuroscientist, 1st ed, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009) 109.
2 Ibid., 107.
4 Ibid., 3, 14.
It seems that stating we are in an unprecedented time is an understatement. How do we faithfully walk through a time like this? Do we visit stores and restaurants offering take-out to support local businesses? Do we wear face masks and visit people online instead of in-person? Coronavirus is changing the way we live life, and we have no way to know when it will get back to normal. Really, what is normal?
It seems that instead of doing things the normal way, living our life as we always have is changing. As we adapt, it makes doing the ordinary things that make up our life - relationships, going to the grocery store, working, education - take more time to consider how to do differently. It slows me down. I can’t live on autopilot. I can do less.
We are globally experiencing a disorientating time in which life is radically different from what we have known. Some would call it a liminal space, where things are different, and we do not know when we will get to the other side of this experience. I attended the Gathering Time with Dr. MaryKate Morse through the Companioning Center this last week. She shared an image of a bridge to illustrate the journey we are all undertaking. We have left what we knew, and we do not know how long it will take to get to the other side of this experience nor what it will look like when we get there.
She offered an opportunity to lament over what we have lost and to embrace the transitional journey of navigating the bridge. It is in this place of disorientation where transformation happens. We want to escape the uneven ground we feel underneath our feet. We do not like suffering nor seeing those we love experience suffering. This doesn’t feel normal.
For me, I sense the unsettled energy in the air. I’m less patient and less focused than usual. Part of this is the family concerns I am holding, and the other is the conversations I am hosting. When we listen to others in their disorientation, often, our own struggle resonates with theirs. We are all in this together, even as we experience it differently.
So how do we embrace the journey that feels so disorienting? The invitation given in the Gathering Time was to lament - what have I lost? I miss hugging my daughters and my grandchildren. I’m concerned for one son-in-law who is immune-compromised and the other who is on the front lines as a paramedic. I admire my daughters in mothering during this time because I know the weight of being with children 24/7 and can’t imagine homeschooling them too. I miss not being in physical connection with people even at the same moment being thankful I live in community. My college classes have gone online, so I will not be able to host in-person courses this summer, a gift I genuinely enjoy.
I don’t need to negate these unsettling emotions of sadness - as I recognize them, name them, and share them with others; the sorrow and grief transform. It transforms into something not as big or overpowering, and it transforms me as I hold them. The sadness and grief honor the relationships connected with each of these instances. These hard feelings aren’t something to escape or negate.
These are hard realities to hold. If I push the hard emotions away, I also push or numb out the positive ones. As I hold both, I am thankful for living in community and how my family is holding up in this current situation, and I can lament the suffering I see around me. Together both the positive and negative emotions are beautiful and create beauty. To listen in these places reminds me to recognize the gift of the ordinary.
From a place of holding both the positive and negative emotions, I can host my own self with compassion. Listening to my desires and needs that I am experiencing so I can notice and meet those needs. What I recognize is my need to connect so I can do so differently than before. I also discover that too many hours meeting with people virtually is tiring - so the invitation is allowing more space in-between and finding different ways of meeting.
The invitation, at least for me, is to be present in my experience while listening to my own process through the experience. When I can listen to my inner self, then I can have compassion not only for myself but for others, this is really living in community through the isolation. Community can be defined with me and myself, me and God, and me and those either physically around me or who are virtually present. Living intentionally in community allows me to be in the ordinary even though it isn’t very normal.
I wonder how you find the ordinary in the loss of the normal. Recently, we brought a new puppy into our household, and his invitation to me is to always play before work. I find that he helps me to remember to pause and just be in the present. May you also find a grounding space in the ordinary way of living that may be ordinary, even if it doesn’t feel normal.
You can hear Dr. MaryKate Morse's Gathering Time here.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!