Category Archives: Personal

What It Means to Have a Relationship with Jesus

One of the most basic – and yet for me, personally, one of the most confounding – aspects of Christian faith involves what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’ve always been confused by Christians who talk about their personal relationship with Jesus with total certainty, as if it was as obvious as their personal relationship with their spouse. To me, it hasn’t been obvious what it means to have a relationship with a Being I can’t directly perceive.   

In light of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about a story that appears in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 24:13-35). For context, this occurs after Jesus was said to have been resurrected.

“… two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them, but they were kept from recognizing him.

He asked them, ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, ‘Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do you not know the things that have happened here in these days?’

‘What things?,’ he asked.”

They then proceeded to discuss Jesus, particularly his death and rumors of his resurrection. They talked about the Scriptures.

After this discussion, “as they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them.

Later in the story, the two friends walking to Emmaus recognize Jesus (after which Jesus mysteriously disappears, raising other questions). But, at this point, the two friends don’t recognize him.  

So, here’s my question: Even though they didn’t recognize him, were they in relationship with Jesus?

It would seem to me the only fair answer must be “yes.”

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Remembering Why We Live in this Place

My wife and I have often told a pretty bleak story about the town in which we live. Common refrains include “there’s nothing to do here,” “it’s too conservative,” and “there’s nowhere good to eat.” Our kids have picked up on this. They share these sentiments with us and their friends as well, and actually have taken it a step further. They have sometimes wondered aloud: “Why do we live somewhere so flat? Why not live where there are mountains, or at least an ocean?”  

Most of our friends live outside our town, and we have been gifted with some great ones. Some of our dear friends live in the city, others live outside the state, and some even live in different countries.

One of the ways we’ve learned to connect with our friends is to share photos of our everyday lives. In particular, after recently spending a week with some dear friends from Scotland, we started trading photos back-and-forth as a quick way of staying in touch. After all, a picture’s worth a thousand words.

We really enjoy these friends from Scotland, so much so that we’ve tried to convince them to visit us in our town. Of course, it’s hard to convince someone from another country to visit you in a town you portray so bleakly. So, as we’ve shared photos, we’ve started to make more of an effort to feature locations and happenings in our town we’re pleased with or even proud about.

As we do this, we’re slowly coming to a realization: being intentional about sharing photos of the lovely and the meaningful in our town is turning our attention from what we don’t have to gratitude for what we do.  

There’s a small body of research exploring the effects of taking photos on personal well-being. Studies find that taking photos of the good increases positive emotions such as gratitude and overall life satisfaction. When these photos are shared with others, it tends to build connection. Other research shows that the task of taking photos increases engagement in the positive aspects of a situation. Furthermore, feeling grateful is tighly linked with overall happiness.

Andy Tix
View of the Mississippi River, taken with my IPhone SE

Sharing photos of the lovely and the meaningful from our town has helped us remember why we chose to live in this town in the first place. Very few towns the size of ours have the trails we do, giving us access to three beautiful rivers. There’s a charming vineyard on the outskirts of town that produces the area’s best wine and that features sangria and jazz every Sunday during the summer. We live on a quiet and safe street where we can sit at the end of a long day, kick up our feet, and enjoy each other’s company. In the winter, we have access to some of the region’s best winter activitieis, such as skiing and snowshoeing. The list goes on and on.

But, we couldn’t appreciate these good things until we started being intentional about taking and sharing photos with our friends. We needed an intentional activity to break us out of our pessimism.

So, you might join us in this practice. Think about someone you wish you were closer with, someone with whom you’d like to stay more connected. Start sending them a photo when you become aware of something positive and meaningful in your everyday life, and see if you can get them to reciprocate. You very well might find this creates a new perspective in you as well.   

The Ways of the Fundamentalist and the Mystic

For many people, being religious means being a religious fundamentalist. From the media, this is the impression often given. However, decades of thinking and research in the psychology of religion suggest there are multiple ways of being religious, with distinct pros and cons.

Let me elaborate with a few personal stories.

About 20 years ago, I happened to be visiting a conservative Christian college when I was somehow invited to a retirement party for a faculty member – I believe a Theology Professor – who had worked at this college for many years. At one point, this man took center stage and spoke about his long and distinguished career. The Professor’s speech started as you might expect – with references to the meaningfulness of his work, gratitude for colleagues, etc. – until he took a surprising turn and honestly reflected on some of his struggles. The Professor started crying. He had a difficult time finding his words. Eventually, though, he explained how he called himself an “Agnostic Christian,” someone who wasn’t certain about religious and spiritual truths but still felt like he knew enough to make a commitment to Jesus and his interpretation of a Christian lifestyle. He discussed how the juxtaposition of “Agnostic” and “Christian” was sometimes not welcomed by conservatives at this college, but how this self-understanding felt so important to him and to his identity that he was moved to tears in sharing it.

For me, the Professor’s presentation felt like a revelation, for a few reasons. First, and most importantly, this was the first time I had ever heard someone openly acknowledge how they were both deeply uncertain about religious and spiritual truths while still being deeply committed to a faith. There was a raw honesty in this confession, and the juxtaposition created a new way for me to start thinking about my own religious and spiritual identification as well. Second, the Professor demonstrated to me the importance of adjectives in the religious world. Apparently, some people don’t simply identify along the lines of “Christian;” some identify as “Conservative Christian,” “Agnostic Christian,” “Social Justice Christian,” or “Mystical Christian.” In these cases, which of the two words is the adjective and which is the noun also can be enlightening to consider.

Fast forward a few weeks, when I found myself in a large group discussion about religion and spirituality at my public college. People were sharing their diverse ideas about religion and spirituality, and I thought I would “float” the above story and how it fit with my own self-understanding. A few people I didn’t know had joined us from a conservative Christian student club on campus, and after I shared, they walked over to me. I will never forget what happened next. One of them bent down and whispered into my ear: “you can’t be Christian and not know.”

Many people do not seem to recognize there are different ways you can be religious.

Volodymyr Hryshchenko | Unsplash

Source: Volodymyr Hryshchenko | Unsplash

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A Poem of a Parent with Teenagers

“You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”
Maybe instead I should recognize:
“I hold you in my heart, in my thoughts, and in my prayers.”

As I hold you, I’m learning
Not to hold you so tightly,
As this only suffocates.

May I instead learn to hold you with open hands,
Allowing you to fly away as needed,
Hoping you know I’m always here and hoping you will return.

The Top 5 Posts for 2021

It’s been another year for the books. Somehow, in the midst of everything, more and more people seem to be following this blog.

As a way to review the year, below are my most-read articles that I wrote during 2021. If you haven’t had a chance to read these articles yet, you may be interested in checking them out.

5. Awe Decreases Political Polarization

In a time of great political polarization, this post explores new research on how experiences of awe may help bring people together.

4. Awe as a Resource for Coping with Stress

Based on new research, this post examines how awe experiences diminish the stress response.

3. Settling into Winter

Honestly, this is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. It explores how I try to experience the coziness of Winter.

2. The Science of Motivating Others

This blog post briefly went viral on Psychology Today. It relates to an old and new interest I have in the science of motivation.

1. Six Skills We Need as Citizens Who Can’t Agree on Scientific Facts

This was an opinion piece I published with the Star Tribune this Summer. It was born out of my frustration with people who can’t seem to accept facts.

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Contentment Whatever the Circumstances

No matter how people feel about Christianity, I imagine most would aspire to the place St. Paul arrived at when he declared:

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11)

I don’t know about you, but I was hoping for a better 2021 than 2020. If anything, for me personally, 2021 brought more problems, not fewer. Family troubles intensified. Work conflict increased. And, though we have vaccines to mitigate the worst outcomes from COVID-19, the pandemic has not faded.

I wonder what Paul meant when he said he was content whatever the circumstances. Based on other things he wrote, I don’t believe he avoided or ignored the awful parts of life. After all, Paul was in prison at the time he wrote these words. In general, avoiding or ignoring difficult circumstances seems like a recipe for only increasing one’s problems in life long-term. So, the question I’m left with is: how can we honestly face life’s struggles and still be content?  

Part of my prayer practice is to actively listen for God. Inspired by the Quakers, I set aside time regularly to be silent and see if any wisdom “bubbles up” or “reveals itself.” I also “listen for God” in other ways, such as in conversations I have with friends. Sometimes, if I can listen carefully enough (a big “if”), something does indeed “bubble up.” Sometimes, some of that “received wisdom” has stood the test of time.  

I don’t know if any of this does a good job of answering my question – and I surely have a long way to go before I get to the place Paul was at – but when I consider how to honestly face life’s struggles and still be content, I find myself continually returning to four points of inspiration.

1. “Accept and expect irresolution.”

This is something my friend, the author and peace activist, John Noltner, likes to say. I clearly remember many years ago attending a small workshop with John when I first heard him emphasize this point. Years later, in silence, these words came back to me and they have stuck with me since.

I think part of what makes it so difficult to find contentment is we often look for final and complete resolution of our problems. Then, and only then, we believe, can we really reclaim our contentment.

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Quake

I’m really honored to have Christian Century publish a brief essay of mine as a part of their ongoing series in honor of acclaimed spiritual writer Frederick Buechner. Once every two months, this series asks writers to submit a story including a particular word. This compilation focuses on the theme: quake.

You can read all essays on that theme, including mine, here.

Merry Christmas!

Today: The Day to Do Something

My friend, Dr. Robert Fisch, often reflects on his life by remembering an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Dr. Fisch’s “curse” included living amid the “interesting times” of the Holocaust, Soviet oppression, and the clinical challenges of working as a pediatrician with children presenting with the devastating disease of phenylketonuria (PKU). However, part of Dr. Fisch’s story includes rising to these challenges of his time. He resisted the Holocaust and Soviet oppression, and he found a way to help treat PKU. In these ways, Dr. Fisch ultimately contributed to a more humane and just world.

Dr. Fisch with my family, December, 2011

The past two years have clearly been “interesting” and maybe feel “cursed” as well. COVID impacted every facet of our lives from early 2020 to Spring of 2021. Racial tensions became more evident with the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed. Political polarization drove people apart and contributed to an insurrection on our democracy on January 6, 2021. And, now, within a matter of days, we’re learning we face a “different virus,” to quote Dr. Anthony Fauci, that has the potential to upend life again. Finally, we’ve faced a heat, drought, and regular bout of air quality alerts that awakens us, if we haven’t been awakened before, to the reality of climate change in my state of Minnesota.  

These are historic challenges. I can imagine a day when my children or grandchildren may look back at these times we’re living in at this time as if they presented a set of forks in the road. “We the people” and we individuals each have choices to make about what futures we will create, the sides of history on which we will stand. As Dr. Fisch has said:

“Yesterday is past. Tomorrow is a wish. Today is the only time in which to do something.”

Awe as a Resource for Coping with Stress

What do you do when you face a stressful life event? Strategies obviously vary, ranging from getting drunk to binging on Netflix to talking with a friend. Individuals differ in their habitual responses to stress, and these differences significantly impact well-being. 

I’ve realized as of late how I often deal with stress by seeking a source of awe, something vast that stretches the sense of what’s possible in the moment. The experience of awe seems so distinct from the experience of stress, but reflecting on the intersection between my life experience and some new research just published by the American Psychological Association, I’m realizing how this response contributes to the ability to successfully cope with difficult times.

For instance, a few weeks ago, while a loved one underwent a long and intense surgery at one of the Mayo Clinic hospitals in Rochester, Minnesota, my wife and I decided to go for a walk. Whereas our feeling inside the hospital involved fear, agony, and dread, the simple act of getting into the sunlight and seeing the nearby trees brought us some calm. We eventually came across signs pointing us to the Plummer House – former home of Mayo partner and founder Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer – so we walked in that direction, ultimately finding the breathtaking English Tudor mansion. We explored the grounds but came to a stop, transfixed, at one of the most unusual buildings we’d ever seen – actually the old water tower for the mansion – but which my wife and I referred to as “Rapunzel’s Tower.” The architecture of the tower truly “blew our minds” for what was possible with a building, and we were lifted out of our troubles for just a moment. When our attention came back to ourselves and the situation at hand, we returned with greater clarity, strength, and connection to face the difficulties to come. 

Watertower at Plummer House, Rochester, Minnesota

In a recent article, six studies demonstrated how awe experiences diminish feelings of stress. For instance, in one study, participants were brought to the top of a 200-foot clock tower on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Half were randomly assigned to the awe condition, which involved gazing out the tower upon the Bay, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge; the other half were randomly assigned to a control condition, which involved gazing upon the inside of the tower. Although both groups experienced less stress associated with the hassles they reported having than before being brought to the tower (consistent with research showing the stress benefits of taking a walk outside), individuals in the awe condition, in particular, experienced greater reductions in stress, compared with individuals in the control condition. In part because of this, participants in the awe condition also reported higher satisfaction with their lives.

Why does awe decrease stress? Based on their results, the researchers suggested that:

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Awe Decreases Political Polarization

As my wife and I walked from the front doors to the worship center of the exponentially growing church we used to attend in the mid-1990s, we often remarked how much relational tension filled the hallways. Young couples frequently walked together in silence, their faces sometimes providing brief glimpses of the irritation they felt toward each other. Moms and dads regularly yelled at kids to get them to Sunday school. Friends and acquaintances mostly kept to themselves.    

People had good reason for waking up early on a Sunday morning to pack the auditorium. The young preacher challenged us with mind-stretching insights that directly applied to our lives. The band led us into worship experiences that connected us with God in ways that melted our selves into something larger.

During these times of shared praise, in particular, emotion poured out of many. I often cried during songs, for example, tears pouring down my face. Sometimes, I’d be unable to continue singing, in fact, feeling so “choked up.” There were even a few times when I felt so overwhelmed I had to physically brace myself with the chair in front of me because I was literally “weak in the knees.”

When we left the worship space, my wife and I frequently commented how those around us seemed palpably different than when they arrived. Not everything was perfect, of course, but tension had lifted. Young couples looked more in love, holding hands on their way out the door. Families played. Others welcomed conversation over coffee and donuts.

If this had been a one-time occurrence, I may not have thought much of it. But, it was so predictable, it was almost comical. Pretty much every week, the same basic story unfolded: people were being transformed.

Maybe the most notable observation we made, though, at least in retrospect, occurred when we left the church building and walked back to our car. The parking lot typically was much fuller than when we arrived, and we often were struck by the range of political bumper stickers. Frequently, we’d see people part ways in the parking lot with a handshake or hug, only to enter cars with stickers suggesting different political affiliations.

As a young Ph.D. student studying Psychology at the University of Minnesota at the time, I wondered: what might help account for the powerful positive effects we were observing? Nothing in psychological science seemed capable of providing a good explanation.

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To Dust I Shall Return

“The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust.” (Thomas Merton)

On this Ash Wednesday – in the middle of a pandemic, where COVID deaths in the United States now easily surpass the number of American deaths in World War II – Merton’s words ring particulalry true. I don’t remember a year where my soul has been more ready for the 40+ day season of intentional contemplation that is Lent.

Remembering today that I am made of dust – and to dust I shall return – reminds me how often I cling to earthy attachments, and how this brings with it great suffering. The admonition of St. Ignatius to “hold things lightly” also comes to mind.

My tendency is to skip past Ash Wednesday, to quickly divert myself to my longing for more, for hope, for Easter. This year, I’d rather learn to sit in the tension, in the reality of hardship, to not push these feelings away, and to realize this is a vital part of being human as well.

The Emotional Benefits of Exercising Outdoors in Winter

Before this year, from December to March, I spent most of my adult life inside. During these months in Minnesota, where I live, high temperatures typically remain below freezing, and it’s not uncommon to wake up to a reading of below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, not counting “wind chill.”

Although I intentionally exercised several times per week, much of this time in previous years was passed in my gym where I watched old episodes of Friends while artificially bounding on an elliptical machine. This felt easier. When I considered going outside, images came to mind of my whole body shivering uncontrollably, my face becoming numb, my fingers and toes feeling like they might be seriously frostbitten, my nostril hairs freezing as I breathed in the cold, dry air.

With COVID-19 cases surging as we entered the winter months this year, I faced a clear choice: (1) continue the comfortable routine of previous years by working out inside my gym, knowing this would mean I would more likely contract and spread the virus, or (2) extend my summer and fall habits of exercising in the great outdoors. Favoring public health, I decided on the latter: I put my gym membership on temporary hold, and with some trepidation, I planned for a winter of outdoor adventure.  

I’m now a few months into this new lifestyle. Some days, I walk or hike on paths near my home, aided by the most marvelous invention I never knew to keep myself from falling on the snow and ice: Yaktrax. Other days, when I have more flexibility in my schedule, I practice my classic ski technique at a local park or snowshoe along the pine tree-lined trails of my favorite local nature center. Weekends provide opportunities for more extended travel or adventure, such as half-day trips to formerly unexplored or underexplored Minnesota State Parks.

A few insights have been essential to making this work. First, I have new appreciation for the Scandinavian saying: “there’s no such thing as bad temperature, only bad clothing.” Although it was an investment, purchasing high-quality outdoor clothing from REI has been well worth it in terms of comfort in the cold. (There is a point where I “draw the line,” though, and for me that’s 0 degrees Fahrenheit, below which I move my body inside.) Most importantly, I’ve needed to shift my attitude toward winter. Inspired by recent psychological research by University of California – San Francisco researcher Virginia Sturm and colleagues – showing increased positive emotions and decreased emotional distress when individuals engage in regular “awe walks” – I’ve changed my focus from efficiency in exercise to getting lost in wonder as I look for what is vast, unexpected, and unique outside. If the conditions are right, I’ll also sometimes bring my camera to see if I can photograph some of the beauty around me.

Carpenter Nature Center, Hastings, Minnesota
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Settling Into Winter

Sometimes, after dinner, the dishes washed and the kitchen reasonably cleaned, a window of time opens. My family disperses into their various corners of our home, allowing me to settle into the living room. I switch into comfortable clothing and I wrap myself in the soft, oversized blanket my wife gave me for Christmas.

Tonight, I look outside, into the darkness, where the only light comes from the faint glow off the newly fallen snow. I listen to the breeze shaking the trees, rattling the house, causing the chimney to whistle. 

Unsplash | Takemaru Hirai

During an awful pandemic that mostly restricts, in the midst of a Minnesota January, freedom can sometimes be found. There are options for what to do I don’t remember always having.

There are times when I light a fire in the fireplace and drink some herbal tea before settling into some pleasure reading, writing, or Netflix. Occasionally, a family member joins me for a game of Yahtzee or Quirkle. Some nights I go upstairs and settle into my tub, surrounded by candles, smells of lavender, and classical music played by Alexa.

In the past, I probably would have interpreted these unstructured, unplanned, unexciting nights as “boring.” However, I’m now finding power in reframing them as opportunities to “settle.”  

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Learning from 2020

One of the fresh perspectives I’ve appreciated this year is that of Sikh activist, best-selling author, and popular TED talk speaker, Valarie Kaur. A few months ago, on Twitter, Kaur asked:

“Over the course of [this year], what have you discovered is most essential to YOU?”

I posed this question (virtually) last week to a group of students I help lead through a Christian student club on my campus, and their responses were thoughtful. “Time outside in nature,” one said. “Being able to easily and physically spend time with family and friends,” said another. “Or just brief interactions with strangers at the store,” I added. “Hugs,” someone said, before following up by saying “and things to do outside the house.” “Moving my body,” added someone else. “Knowing that I am not in control and that I need a source I can ultimately trust,” reflected another.

Sometimes, what is most essential is what we have long taken for granted.

Unsplash | Ben White

As Frederick Buechner once said:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

The year 2020 was not a wasted year. It was a year ripe for listening to our life experience. May we learn from our life and intentionally create something new and better – for ourselves and our communities – in 2021.

Happy New Year.

The 5 Top Posts for 2020

It’s been quite a year. With all the losses of 2020, one plus has been more time for me to write. Many new people started reading and following the blog this year, and for the first time, I’ve published several excellent guest blogger’s posts. Along with everyone else, the COVID pandemic was top of mind for me, and that was reflected in the themes of my writing.

As a way to review this year, below are the top posts of 2020 on this blog. If you haven’t had a chance to read these articles yet, this might be an interesting time to do so.

5. The Need for Sacred Moments

Based on new research published this year, this post explores the human need for connection.

4. Lessons from the Monks for the COVID-19 Pandemic

In light of the pandemic, this post unearths insights from one of my favorite books: The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris.

3. “Done” with Religion

This is a personal confession with some of my struggles with church and religion, in light of new research published this year on people who are “done.”

2. Suffering in a Pandemic Age as a Christian

Featuring insights from my friend, Deanna Thompson, this post explores Biblical spaces for coping with tragedy.

1. Psychological Factors in School Success

This was, by far, the most popular post on the blog this year. It revisits themes of posts I wrote years ago, but seemed to find new popularity – particularly in South Africa – in light of students made to learn at home.

***

Unsplash | Immo Wegmann

Reviewing this year in writing like this makes me wonder about what themes and developments will arise in 2021. Hopefully one of hope!

Advent, 2020

In the Christian calander, Advent refers to the four Sundays and weeks leading up to the celebration of Christmas. In Latin, Advent means “coming,” and this season provides a window in time for Christians to intentionally dwell in a spirit of longing, hope, and patient waiting and anticipation. In a year of public health crisis, financial and work uncertainty, racial unrest, and political strife, this emphasis strikes a new resonance in our life experience and has the potential to impact us more powerfully than in the past.

As I seek to understand and live out my faith, I find I become consumed, from time to time, with different perspectives and voices. As I look on my bookshelves, for example, I am fondly reminded of times where I have been enamored by the insights of Frederick Buechner, Shane Claiborne, Kathleen Norris, Parker Palmer, Barbara Brown Taylor, and, of course, C. S. Lewis, among others. Recently, I have acquired a new hero: Kate Bowler.

Kate Bowler

Kate has put out a free Advent devotional, and I find I am profoundly drawn in by her thoughts, as she so beautifully and compellingly connects traditional Christian faith with the suffering of this year and this moment. Part of this ability surely stems from her own experience and struggle with as someone who suffers as a stage IV cancer patient, (which she discusses in her amazing TED talk). For example, in the “liturgy” she shared today, Kate invites us to pray:

“blessed are we with eyes open to see
the suffering from pandemic danger, sickness and loneliness,
the injustice of racial oppression,
the unimpeded greed and misuse of power, violence, intimidation,
and use of dominance for its own sake,
the mockery of truth, and disdain for weakness or vulnerability,
and worse,
the seeming powerlessness of anyone trying to stop it.

blessed are we who despair for our democracy,
and ask: what can we do to protect it?

blessed are we who ask: where are you God?
and where are Your people
the smart, sane, and sensible ones who fight for good?”

***

As I meditate on these words, I am stunned by the realization of how much pain this year I have consciously or unconsciously tried to suppress. I feel my perspective broadened and made more whole by inviting and welcoming “eyes to see” those who are sick, lonely, and oppressed. I recognize, afresh, the extent to which truth, weakness, and vulnerability are being mocked, and how that makes all the problems we’re facing worse. I appreciate the despairing concern for our democracy and world. And, I agonize over why “God’s people” so often are part of these problems, and why they are not more often involved in the fight for good.

This prayer validates my experience and urges me to have more empathy for those who are struggling right now and do what I can to help. As Kate concludes her “liturgy,” it builds a conviction to “take hold of hope, as protest.”

As we look toward Christmas this year, we do so with a realization that God doesn’t shy away from awfulness (like I tend to do). In fact, God enters in vulnerably – rejected, in the midst of a genocide, and in the humble form of a baby. Emmanuel remains with us, in suffering, and God calls us to be present, in suffering, as well.

Becoming an Instrument of Peace

Last week, I stumbled upon an opportunity to join a Zoom book club in South Africa in which famed Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf, agreed to participate. I’ve admired Volf for years, beginning with this interview in which he expounds upon some of his ideas about religion, genocide, and violence. I ultimately featured many of his insights in this piece I wrote about Christianity and the Holocaust.

To my surprise and delight, there were only a handful of people in the zoom call, which gave me stunning access to Volf. My daughter joined me over lunch, and we ended up discussing themes raised related to Christianity, genocide, racism, and social justice.

Miroslav Volf

What most struck me during this discussion was a comment Volf made, in passing, which I paraphrase to the best of my memory here: “Every time I post to social media, I pray: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.‘” The thought was that, if the message to be sent didn’t line up with this prayer, Volf would change it, but if it did line up, the prayer was for the message to have this intended effect.

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The Emotional Benefits of Sacred Moments

“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

***

The year 2020 will go down in history as a year of public health, economic, and societal crisis. Much less acknowledged, however, is the profound emotional and spiritual malaise* many people feel. In fact, in the United States, emotional distress is three times higher than previous years and happiness is at a near 50-year low.

For many of us, something seems “off.” Perhaps this feels like a sense that something is vaguely “missing,” or maybe we “long” for something more or different. Probably many of us have grown “numb” to these feelings over the past several months – without fully realizing it. We may not understand why we’re feeling the way we do or appreciate how much our inner lives really have changed.

***

It’s with all this in mind that I’ve been reflecting on some new research published this week in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

In this study, 2,889 participants were asked about the frequency with which they generally experience “sacred moments” in their everyday lives. Specifically, individuals were instructed to rate, on a scale of 1 (never / not at all) to 5 (very often), how often they experience:

  • “a moment that felt set apart from everyday life,”
  • “a moment… that was really real,”
  • “a moment in which all distractions seemed to melt away,”
  • “a deep sense of connection with someone or something,”
  • “a sense of uplift,” and
  • “a sacred moment.”

Results from this research show that individuals’ experiences of sacred moments predicted “higher levels of positive emotions and greater presence of meaning, as well as lower levels of perceived stress, depressed distress, and anxious distress.”  

***

What is it about “sacred moments,” as defined and measured in the above study, that might be most essential, that might be most involved in predicting higher well-being? When I consider the scale items mentioned above, the one that stands out most focuses on moments of deep “connection with someone or something.” I imagine that deep experiences of connection drive the sense that moments feel “set apart from everyday life” and “really real,” for instance.

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“Done” with Religion?

My core identity remains deeply Christian. However, after 48 years of attending church at least once per week (almost without exception, even during college), I am – at least temporarily – “done” with the local church.

Part of this stems from the era of COVID-19. At the same time my family and I try to do what we feel is responsible in preventing further spread of the virus, others in our area see no problem with in-person worship, contributing to a new sense of disconnection.  

Even if COVID-19 never happened, though, I still might be “done.” For years, although I earnestly joined with others in my local church community to recite the same creed and prayers of the Christian faith and to pour my heart into collective worship and service, I often – ironically enough – had the sense we didn’t share the same worldview or many of the same values. I never felt comfortable attending the men’s Bible study because I believed my questions or divergent thoughts would not be welcome. Maybe this is an aside – or maybe not – but my kids never significantly connected with anyone in the church’s youth program either. As time passed, I realized we didn’t really have a place at that table.

I’m not happy about being “done.” I feel failure… isolation… and profound loss. I’ve described this split as being like “divorce.” And, yet, in my brokenness, I also feel some degree of new freedom.

***   

The first time I heard of a religious “done” was when I was in a meeting with my colleague, Josh Packard, Sociologist at the University of Northern Colorado, Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute, and author of “Church refugees: Sociologists reveal with people are DONE with church but not their faith.” The term “done” is a play on words, referencing the more common term religious “nones,” the broader, growing group of individuals in the developed world who express no religious affiliation.

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On Living in the Age of COVID-19

For anyone who regularly reads this blog, you might remember me writing a post in March of this year about C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” from his book “Present Concerns.” As it’s become clearer to me that COVID-19 – particularly in the United States – is likely to continue to be a source of concern well into next year, and as my family increasingly exposes itself to the risk of contracting the virus (especially as school opens), I’ve continued to reflect on this essay as a way to come to terms with my feelings of anxiety.

Although I recognize the atomic bomb has substantially greater risk to humanity than COVID-19, I’m going to take the liberty to replace Lewis’s references to the atomic bomb with references to the COVID-19 pandemic to make the connections as clear as possible:

“In one way we think a great deal too much about COVID-19. ‘How are we to live in an age of pandemic?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night… 

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before COVID: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to catch COVID, let the virus when it finds us doing sensible and human things… Disease may break our bodies, but it need not dominate our minds…

What the wars and the weather… and COVID have really done is remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in and which… we were beginning to forget. And this reminder is, so far as it goes, a good thing. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities.”

There are three main insights I gain from this.

First is one of radical acceptance. In addition to the painful consequences of racism and job / financial insecurity that this year has brought to the forefront of our minds, COVID-19 teaches us how this world is broken.

This leads to a second realization, that I am in a state of mourning. And, I’m not the only one. In fact, Michelle Obama recently labelled her experience “low-grade depression.” I personally wouldn’t go that far, but there is a sense of loss I feel this year with my realization of the true state of the world. The more people I talk to about the state of the world, the more common I believe many people are grieving.

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