Safety and Relationships

September 17, 2016

 

castle

In the 12th century, a man built this castle because he needed safety.  It’s up high on a hill.  It’s walls are thick and sturdy.  But it has two problems.  It can form a prison for its inhabitants walling in as much as it walls out.  This leads to the second problem of isolation from relationships.  So where do we turn to find safety from things that threaten our well-being while at the same time enjoying rich and vital relationships with others?  I think we find the answer in deeper connection with other people and in deeper honesty with God.

Sometimes people are like that castle.  Their body carries the memories of trauma and wounds that are painful.  So they build walls to keep themselves safe and comfortable.  But secrets breed sickness of a kind.  Bottled-up emotions carry an internal heaviness and private pain.  Then the people try to numb the pain by overwork or many other soothing behaviors.  They distance themselves from internal awareness because what’s inside isn’t very pleasant.  Externally, they distance themselves from close relationships because relationships are complicated.  They wall in their own vitality.  Something dies and becomes unresponsive.  In short they wall out and wall in.

Next to the castle is a retreat center here in Interlaken, Switzerland, where I’m one of 12 counselors providing counseling and encouragement for over 55 men working cross-culturally around the world.  Many of them serve in very unsafe places.  Many of them have never had a safe place where they can openly talk about some of their wounds, their struggles, their frustration without being judged.  We’re hearing phrases like “loneliness, pressure-cooker, isolation, and no one to turn to.”  The goal of “Traction” is to provide care and refreshment to fuel these men for the work of their calling.  In addition to worship, teaching, outdoor activities and personal reflection these men allow themselves to “open up.”  The counseling we offer is a tangible way of experiencing safety and relationship together.  As the men risk trusting another human being, they are motivated to trust God more.  And, of course, as they trust God more they can entrust themselves to other people better.  That’s what makes their ministry more effective.

Susan Johnson, an expert in the area of intimate relationships, writes:

“A secure bond is the launching pad for our going out and exploring the unknown and growing as human beings. It is hard to be open to new experiences when our attention and energy are bound up in worry about our safety. It is much easier when we know that someone has our back.”  p. 24

 

In Old Testament times, David experienced the combination of safety and relationship which he expressed in Psalm 61 and 62:

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer;
from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I,
for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. So will I ever sing praises to your name as I perform my vows day after day. For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.

As these verses become more experientially real, we find ourselves closer to God.  How is it for you?  Let me know what part of this you struggle with.  Let me know what has been helpful to you in realizing this i n your life.


Common Ground?

April 10, 2016

 

images-2The issue of transgender identity polarizes opposing camps so vigorously that we seem to prefer warfare and judgment rather than understanding and compassion. Everybody’s yelling and no one’s listening. Everyone is right and everyone else is wrong. Most people take a hard position defending their conclusions and no one is learning anything. I am concerned about the stagnation that this polarization creates. How do we soften the impasse that locks up human dialog, as though listening might cause us to compromise our most fundamental beliefs? We tend to hurl critical stereotypic slogans across a chasm of division emphasizing the virtues of our own position along with the disastrous aspects of those who differ with us. Do we need to compromise the principles we hold firmly in order to listen to those who differ with us? I don’t think so. But what we desperately need to do first, before we judge and conclude anything, is to search for and find some common ground between to opposing sides. It’s not finding a midpoint and it’s not finding a compromise. But it’s about finding some points of mutual agreement before we discuss points of disagreement. This is how we start resolving differences while maintaining a measure of dignity as we grow. This is how we begin to learn how to be respectful, loving and kind to the people with whom we differ.

My own identity is based in three camps, none of which are doing a very good job of clarifying issues or trying to find any common ground. I identify with the scientific camp, having a couple of engineering degrees and enjoying the objective aspects of the scientific method. I also identify with the psychological camp, having spent the past 40 years as a counselor and having earned a Ph.D. in that specialty. Most of all, I identify with the theological camp which emphasizes timeless and universal Truth (with a capital T), which is primarily relational and absolute in a way that promotes humility and grace rather than arrogance. OK, let’s see what each of these camps present.

The Scientific/Medical Camp is beginning to weigh in on the issue with facts, opinions, and proposed solutions. Scientific American  featured an article in the January 2016 issue entitled “Young and Transgender: How Best to Help Them Thrive.” The American Academy of Pediatrics  led off their statement with a clear declaration of their conclusions: “Gender Ideology Harms Children.” Here are the highlights of what they said:

Lost and Confused Signpost

 

  • Believing that someone is something they are not is a sign of confused thinking.
  • Human sexuality is an objective biological binary trait
  • Everyone is born with a biological sex.   Gender awareness is a sociological and psychological concept and is subjective by nature.
  • Puberty-blocking hormones can be very dangerous. As many as 98% of gender confused boys and 88% of gender-confused girls eventually accept their biological sex after naturally passing through puberty.
  • Rates of suicide are 20 times greater among adults who use cross-sex hormones and undergo sex reassignment surgery.
  • Conditioning children into believing a lifetime of chemical and surgical impersonation of the opposite sex is normal and healthful is child abuse.

 

The Psychological/Sociological Camp position is best expressed by and article in my favorite journal in the field, Psychotherapy Networker. In their March/April 2016 issue, they featured “The Great Escape: Welcome to the World of Gender Fluidity” by Margaret Nichols which paints a clear picture of the current views of this camp.  Here are the highlights of what she said:

  • Beginning in 2013, the diagnosis “Gender Identity Disorder” no long exists. The DSM-5 renamed the diagnosis “Gender Dysphoria.” Thus, distress is now the salient feature of the diagnosis rather than identity.
  • Social intolerance, not gender diversity, is the basic problem. Thanks to the Internet and television, great progress has been made in providing a tribal sense of belonging for transgender individuals. More forward-thinking therapists, as well as more permissive parents, now create a healthy atmosphere of acceptance and advocacy for these individuals.
  • There is no such thing as “the opposite sex.” More accurate new terms are coming into existence such as a gender continuum, a gender spectrum or a gender web.
  • Mental health professionals have the responsibility to affirm the self-determination of transgender clients. Parents should take their minor children only to gender specialists for help.
  • It remains to be seen if there will be an increase in surgery and hormone treatment. As society changes, our view of what is normal will change and we must all come to terms with this change.

20150115_144132-1

 

The Conservative Theological Camp

Bryan Fischer, American Family Radio host, took a strong position against transgenderism as though there is nothing more to learn. Like many of my Evangelical, Bible-based friends (and conservative politicians) the strong rhetoric is primarily what is wrong, bad, detrimental, and evil. This position not only polarizes people but also fails to offer well-informed positive alternatives to the problems. Thus, good people with whom I agree theologically tend to marginalize and isolate the bigger and deeper Christian perspective on issues. We are inclined to emphasize what’s wrong with other people more than what we have to offer them to make their lives better. Here are the highlights of what he said:

  • “Accepting transgenderism is child abuse.
  • “No nation that truly loves children would allow this alarming and disturbing trend to continue for another day.”
  • “The biblical truth about gender identity is confirmed by biological science. Human sexuality is binary by design.”
  • A person’s view of his/her own sexuality that differs from biological truth is a delusion.
  • It’s a criminal act in four states to help a gender-confused teen reconcile his sexual identity with his biological identity. If this trend continues, it will be a blight on the health and strength of our nation.

So what is a guy like me to do? I tend to think analytically like the scientific camp; I treasure the richness of interpersonal relationships like the psychological camp;  I am grounded in a biblical worldview so strongly that I’d be willing to die for my faith. Rather than emphasizing the superiority of my point of view and harshly condemning others for their ignorance or evil, I simply ask, “Is there any common ground?” This is not “compromise.” This is not finding a midpoint between positions. Perhaps if we pause to find some common ground, we could stop hurling insults across a chasm of ignorance and begin a more respectful dialog as we discuss our differences.

Here are some of my suggestions of where common ground might exist where all sides could agree as a starting point.

  1. Life is difficult. Every human being struggles with some internal issue(s).
  2. Compassion toward other human beings should guide our attitudes more strongly than judgment and condemnation.
  3. Many issues, like gender identity, are complex and difficult to understand. This should motivate us to seek more understanding of why some people believe differently than we do.
  4. We have choices in life, which result in both positive and negative outcomes. Some things are not a matter of choice, like what period of time in history will we be born, in what country, to what parents?
  5. In addition to standing firmly on issues on which we disagree, it’s beneficial to offer some solutions to the problems that we see.

Would you join me in looking for additional common ground between these warring camps? Then we can clarify our contributions in light of our worldview (which also needs to be clarified). Only then can an intelligent discussion result which might contribute to our edification and dignity as human beings?

PS: If you are interested in an intelligent response to those who object to “binaries” (i.e. polarized right-wrong points of view), click here and listen to a 3/14/2016 message by Tim Keller in New York City.


									

Want Wisdom? First, LISTEN!

November 9, 2015

Version 2This page from the Rule of St. Benedict, written 700 years ago sits in a showcase in an Abby in Melk, Austria.  For the Benedictine monks, their Rule of Life begins with “Ausculta” which in German means, “LISTEN”.   For centuries, those who seek wisdom have realized the importance of listening.

Rewind another 2900 years to hear Moses teach the Israelite people that before they enter the Promised Land they need to listen to God. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  It’s a timeless wisdom; before we do anything of significance, listen to God.

When Peter, James and John stood on the Mount of Transfiguration, telling Jesus about their great idea of building tents to house Jesus, Moses and Elijah, a voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!”  Once again we see how important it is to listen before doing anything.

But listening goes against our basic nature. On October 18, 2015, Reverend Chad Scruggs, one of our pastors, gave a sermon on the book of James showing us how we need to grow up.  We need to discipline ourselves to listen quickly (because we are naturally slow to listen) and to slow down our natural tendencies to speak and to express anger quickly. Perhaps James was thinking of the Proverb: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” (Prov. 18:13)

Why is listening so primary? What does it accomplish? As I look through the Bible at all the references to “listen,” I find that most of them have to do with listening to God. In those passages, we could just as well replace it with the word “obey.” For example, Proverbs 8:32-33 or Isaiah 46:12.  So listening to God is almost equivalent to obeying God. What do we accomplish when we obey God? We achieve oneness with Him and out of that unity comes wisdom.   But when we listen to other people, we’re not always instructed to obey. Listening well helps us create harmony and builds up others.  For example, Ephesians 4:29  In our church choir, our director often reminds us to listen carefully to the other singers around us and to the other sections. When we sing in tune with others, the result is harmony.   In our regular interactions with friends and family, we listen to understanding them more clearly and to respond constructively rather that react destructively. We minimize conflict, we contribute to a harmonious relationship, and we might even build intimacy. When we listen to someone else, we communicate respect and concern. We tend to trust others more easily when they are good listeners.

I’m beginning to understand why listening is more important than anything else we might be inclined to do. It contributes to unity and harmony. When we are one with God (through obedience) and one with others (through understanding), we begin to demonstrate wisdom in dealing with life.


A Good Person Doing Good Things

October 29, 2015

Why don’t we hear more about good people doing good things in our communities? This bothers me, so I keep my eyes open for noteworthy people who aren’t in the news. Dr. Michelle Woody strikes me as one of these people. I’m getting to know her as one of my LPC Interns and here’s what I see:

Michelle Woody PictureMichelle specializes in counseling children and youth from families experiencing domestic violence, substance and/or sexual abuse. She is a ‘first responder’ for families in deep trouble and people who encounter multiple forms of misery. She has tough skin. But through her toughness comes a very sensitive and compassionate spirit that reveals her genuine caring. She takes seriously the Bible’s directive to “Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless! Vindicate the oppressed and suffering.” (Psalms 82:3)

Often, highly educated people operate at a lofty theoretical and abstract level. Not Michelle. She communicates effectively with young people who have very little sophistication but whose needs are very concrete. Did I mention she has a Doctorate degree from USC in Educational Psychology? Her dissertation was entitled, “Evidenced Based Practices in two Juvenile Detention Centers in Los Angeles County.” Wow. While in LA, she was the Executive Director of a residential treatment facility for adolescent boys who had substance abuse and legal challenges. She is able to see the world from the both kids’ point of view and the academic and professional view.

Often, individuals who are highly educated and skilled in Psychology are not very spiritual. Michelle, however, sees herself as a broken person in a fallen world who needs to constantly abide in her Savior for wisdom, courage and direction in life. As a Professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, she teaches Master’s level classes in the Biblical Counseling Department.

In Michelle we see a highly educated woman who chooses to serve those in serious trouble with the wisdom and grace only found in Christ. It seems to me that she has chosen to develop her most important character traits at a high level while maintaining a practical effectiveness with those who are without resources and who want to transition to a better life.

This is some of the good news about a good person. Are you looking for help? If you would like her to help you, your kids, or your whole family, call her at 310-923-6824. I’m very impressed by the character and competence of this woman.


Choices

August 10, 2015

Kimbell Museum

I suppose everyone comes away from an art exhibition with different impressions.  My wife and I did.  We went to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth yesterday and slowly soaked in every painting in the special exhibition, “Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland.”  Then we went back through the floor and played our game: “Pick out one piece you’d like to take home with you.”  That’s were you realize what you value.  I had to select two, but they both had one theme to me: CHOICES.

Gauguin Three Tahitians

I’ve never been a big fan of Paul Gauguin’s paintings, but this one, Three Tahitians (1899), gripped me.  In it, the young man is faced with a choice. The woman on the right with flowers represents virtue.  The woman on the left, holding a mango, represents sensuality.   I think every human being faces this choice at some level every day. Do we opt for virtue or vice, worthwhile or worthless?

Vermeer_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_-_Google_Art_Project

I’ve always been a fan of Vermeer, but this one is a little different that his usual style. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655) depicts the New Testament narrative in Luke 10 in which Christ talks to Martha but points to Mary. Mary has chosen to worship the Lord and listen to what He has to say, while Martha is preoccupied with the worries of her actions and with serving. Certainly, nothing is wrong with serving others, but when we have a choice of good deeds (works?) versus worship, the latter is always the better choice.

In my more virtuous moments, I’m really interested in aligning my attitudes and actions with what delights God. I want my visible life to represent God’s work in my heart. I want a godly humility and gentleness to characterize my dealings with people. Sometimes it’s hard to be patient, showing tolerance for others in love.  It’s easier to be divisive and judgmental than healing and redemptive. In addition, since I tend to be a driver and a doer, I need to emphasize more of Mary’s attitude of worship and meditation over action. Way back in the Old Testament, God has made it clear that He delights in loyalty rather than sacrifice and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6) It’s hard for me to get past the notion of trying to please God or worse, to impress Him, with my hard work.

It’s hard to tell what any artist has in mind about the impact of his art, but when good art strikes a deep chord about what life is about, it transcends time and culture to stir many personal reactions. These are my reactions to these two pieces.


Truth, Falsehood, Fire & Water: An Ethiopian Allegory

February 15, 2015

pinocchio

I borrowed this allegory from Heather Forest’s book, Wisdom Tales from Around the World, but added my own conclusion.  At our monthly men’s group, we each present five minutes of our thoughts on the same virtue.  This month it was “Truth.”  So I share my five-minute contribution.  What are your thoughts on the value of truth and the virtue of seeking it?

Long ago, Fire, Water, Truth and Falsehood lived together in one large house. Although all were polite toward each other, they kept their distance. Truth and Falsehood sat on opposite sides of the room. Fire constantly leapt out of Water’s path.

One day they went hunting together. They found a large number of cattle and began driving them home to their village. “Let us share these cattle equally,” said Truth as they traveled across the grasslands. “This is the fair way to divide our captives.”

No one disagreed with Truth except Falsehood. Falsehood wanted more than an equal share but kept quiet about it for the moment. As the four hunters traveled back to the village, Falsehood went secretly to Water and whispered, “You are more powerful than Fire. Destroy Fire and then there will be more cattle for each of us!

Water flowed over Fire, bubbling and steaming until Fire was gone. Water meandered along, cheerfully thinking about more cattle for itself.

Falsehood, meanwhile, whispered to Truth. “Look! See for yourself! Water has killed Fire! Let us leave Water, who has cruelly destroyed our warmhearted friend. We must take the cattle high in the mountains to graze, out of Water’s reach.”

As Truth and Falsehood traveled up the mountain, Water tried to follow. But the mountain was too steep, and Water could not flow upwards. Water washed down upon itself, splashing and swirling around rocks as it tumbled down the slope. Look and see! Water is still tumbling down the mountainside to this day.

Truth and Falsehood arrived at the mountaintop. Falsehood turned to Truth and said in a loud voice, “I am more powerful than you! You will be my servant. I am your master. All the cattle belong to me!”

Truth rose up and spoke out, “I will not be your servant!”

They battled and battled. Finally they brought the argument to Wind to decide who was master.

Wind didn’t know. Wind blew all over the world to ask people whether Truth or Falsehood was more powerful. Some people said, “A single word of Falsehood can completely destroy Truth” and “Falsehood is easier to market to the masses than the truth.”  Others insisted, “Like a small candle in the dark, Truth can prevail and drive out darkness. After all, falsehood has no substance of its own. It’s simply the absence of truth.”

Wind finally returned to the mountain and said, “I have seen that both Truth and Falsehood are equally powerful and one cannot prevail for long against the other. And it shall be that way forever.

Then Spirit spoke from a cloud on the mountaintop. No! This leaves people with no hope. The one that is more powerful is the one who will withstand the test of time. Take one away and see what happens to the other. Take away Truth and, over time, Falsehood will not stand. It will stumble over itself. But take away Falsehood and, over time, Truth will continue to stand like a light on this mountaintop. Truth will remain the same till the end. So the contest is not so much between Truth and Falsehood but between the wise man who seeks Truth and the foolish man who settles for momentary satisfaction.


Antithetical Complementarity

November 7, 2014

IMG_0039

Art does not often move me. I’m auditory; art is visual. But my son moves me and he is an artist. He recently commissioned a work by a Venezuelan artist, Rafael Araujo, and hung it in his office. My initial response at our family viewing/party was “l like it because I love him.” Then I kept looking. The more I looked, the more I saw. The more I saw, the more I was moved. Here’s what it stirred in me.

In the language of the artist, “Araujo creates an imagined mathematical framework of three dimensional space where butterflies take flight and the logarithmic spirals of shells swirl into existence.” What I saw was the stiffness and rigidity of the construction lines providing a realm within which the butterflies could flow along their patterned courses with fluidity. Rigidity and fluidity come together. Mechanical drawing all by itself is just that, pretty mechanical. A view of butterflies flying around by themselves is rather chaotic and, to me, pretty fluffy. Each has its own brand of “pretty” (or at least interesting) but when they merge in a complementary manner, mutually offering and receiving qualities to the other, they express a completeness that is fundamental to life. This concept resonates with my world of counseling.

I counsel couples. Often, one of them is very functional while the other is very aesthetic. So he leaves his “stuff” where things can easily be reached – in piles, in stacks, where he last used them. She objects to the visual clutter, the unsightly “mess” within which she cannot relax without putting it in order. The resolution of the conflict lays not in one side winning over the other, but in creatively finding ways for his functionality and her aesthetics to serve one another. Yes, to enhance and enrich the other so that the resulting unit thrives at a harmonious higher level.

Then, there’s the playful, spontaneous partner, tugging against the responsible, planned partner. One seems to be antithetically opposed to the other. Perhaps, with a little creativity, this couple can experience “planned spontaneity” or even “playful responsibility”. The goal is complementary enrichment.

Ultimately, beyond the possible myriad human experiences, I see a picture of the character of God himself! Is He a God of wrath or a God of love? Yes, perfectly! Is He just (executing justice) or merciful (granting grace)? Yes, perfectly.   God’s punishment of his people in the Old Testament was always accompanied with a compassionate plea to return to him so he could bless them. In his wrath, he never rejects his chosen people. He loves them. His holiness and justice require him to administer sanctions as consequences; his mercy and love require him to provide a way back to his caring arms and his blessings. So Paul can say

“ . . . that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”   (Romans 3:26)

and the psalmist can (without fully realizing it) anticipate how God’s complementary nature showed forth on the cross, where Christ took on the wrath of the Father and provided loving access to his eternal security.

Lovingkindness and truth have met together;
Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.   (Psalm 85:10)

My friend, Dr. Larry Waters, recently presented a talk at the Dallas Theological Seminary chapel in which he described the personal traits of that great man of God, Martin Luther. Listen to how he was described: “Rough and tender; poet and boxer; boisterous and devout; deadly serious and a possessor of keen wit; exquisitely sensitive and volcanic invective; and bold before men while humble before God.” I think that as we surrender our lives to God, we take on more and more of His characteristics even the blending of those characteristics that don’t seem to fit with each other.

Would that this goal of conciliatory complementarity would infect our political system. In the wake (wave) of last week’s election returns, I’m reminded of why I’m frustrated with politics. If God is present at all, the Republicans believe that their emphasis on balance budget, family values and small government is aligned with God’s priorities. But the Democrats believe that social need provided by the government is the priority that is closest to God’s character. Why can’t the answer be “Yes.” Then our work could be characterized by creating an enriched harmony of antithetical complementarity.

IMG_0040Back to butterflies. My son’s painting moved me because it pictures a timeless universal reflection of how the world ought to work. There is no winning in the war against one good thing versus another. There are no “trump cards” in the deck of antithetical complementarity. Real victory comes from rigid structure and free mobility integrating harmoniously in an organized fluidity.