Are You a Chess Player or a Poet?

Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram. . . . Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 16-17.

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Why Some People Hate Pastors

I’m gun-shy of people who like me too much. I like compliments, but when someone starts treating me like I’m the best thing since indoor plumbing, I step back.

They get this look in their eyes when they say thank you. It isn’t adult gratitude or childlike delight. It isn’t a fair exchange of human love. They’re thanking me, but their eyes are focused past me. They’re thanking someone or something else. Maybe an ideal I’ve resurrected. It’s unreal.

The relationship can appear normal. Then, without warning, it shifts. Their talk gets contradictory. They thank Jesus but give me the credit. Their speech is thick with spiritual lingo, but they treat me like I’m their savior. I don’t think they’re talking about me or Jesus. They’re talking to someone or something I symbolize to them. Psychologists call this transference.

Psychotherapists recognize that their relationship with patients run on a “double track”:

All feelings in relationships as we know understand them run on a double track. We react and relate to another person not only on the basis of our conscious experience of the person in reality, but also on the basis of our unconscious experience of him in reference to experience with significant people in infancy and childhood–especially parents and other family members. We tend to displace feelings and attitudes from these past figures onto people in the present, especially if the person in the present has features similar to the person in the past.

Pastors like therapists, evoke feelings in people that go way back into people’s pasts.

Feelings toward the therapist therefore stem not only from the real, factual aspects of the therapist-patient interaction, but also from feelings displaced onto the therapist from unconscious representations of people important to the patient early in his childhood experiences. These displaced or transferred feelings tend to distort the therapist, making him appear to be an important figure in the patient’s past; they create in one sense an illusion.

Pastors are special candidates for transference, since they are authority figures. “Although transference reactions occur in all relationships, they occur most frequently and most intensely in relationships with authority.” It is of no little consequence that in some traditions pastors are called “Father.” We are authority figures with love, so like it or not, we symbolize parents to people. For adults who have had positive relationships with their parents, this creates little problem. They have respect and love for their parents. Likewise, they have a natural respect and love for pastors.

But in cases where the relationship with the parent was deeply faulted, people develop something like an ideal parental construct and transfer this to anyone like a parent–and especially someone who gives them love as their parent should have in the first place. Parishioners can superimpose this ideal parental figure over the pastor; they “fall in love”–not with the pastor, but with the pastor as the incarnation of their ideal parental figure. Then they shift the monumentally important childhood desire to please their parent, which was never satisfied by their natural parents, onto the pastor.

The compliments come fast and thick, and they express a strong and unreasonable desire to “help out any way they can.” They try to work harder than anyone else–and make sure the pastor knows it–to earn the pastor’s love. They want the pastor to appreciate them more than all others.

Parishioners caught in this unconscious process may undergo “conversion” experiences. They may experience romantic changes and testify that they have been touched by God (never forgetting to add that it was through the pastor’s ministry). In psychotherapy this is called a “transference cure.” They do experience dramatic change, but it is motivated by the desire to please the pastor. The results of these “conversions” diminish with time, especially once the period of intense positive feelings toward the pastor wanes.
And those feelings do disappear. Alongside the deep reservoir of childhood desire to please the parents there exists a deep reservoir of anger at parents for all the hurt they caused. This anger has no fixed object. It is anger at parents, but children are not psychologically able to be angry at their parents for long. Children cannot divorce themselves from the parental love they desperately need by showing or even admitting that they are angry. But they can cut loose on someone who represents their parent.

Things can do along for quite a while, even years. These people are accustomed to forgiving parental figures, so pastors can fail them now and then and they will forgive. In fact, they will vehemently defend their pastor to others, even when the pastor is dead wrong. Until something snaps. There is no way to predict what will set it off, but suddenly, without warning, the pastor violates some code. The pastor must pay. These people’s anger at their parents is unleashed on the pastor.The pastor still symbolizes the parent, but now the parent being symbolized has shifted. The pastor is no longer the ideal parental figure the parishioner loves. The pastor is now the failed parent the parishioner hates. Without warning, the pastor who yesterday represented all that was right in the world today represents all that is wrong in the world. From Jesus to the devil in one hour.

David Hansen, The Art of Pastoring, 137-140.

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What is God’s “Glory”?

So much of Christian faith and practice hinges on the concept of the glory of God. But what is that?

The theology books struggle when they try to define it. I believe it is because the glory of God is actually the combined attitude of all God’s attributes and qualities put together. The glory of God means what can be called his infinite beyondness. He is not a “tame” God, a God at hand. He is not someone you can always figure out, or expect to figure out. This is a God beyond our comprehension, and it is one of the aspects of the biblical God than modern people dislike the most. We are always saying, “I can’t believe in a God who would do this” or “I can’t believe in a God who would judge people.” One of the things that may mean is that we don’t want a glorious God, one beyond our comprehension.

The glory of God also means his supreme importance.  The Hebrew word for “glory is kabod which means “weight”–literally God’s weightiness. Fortunately, we have an English word that has the same lexical range and that functions in the same way–it is the word matter. Matter means “as opposed to the immaterial, something solid, something substantial,” but it can also mean “importance.” And therefore when the Bible says that God is looking glorious, it means that he should matter, and does matter, more than anything else, or anyone else. And if anything matters to you more than God, you are not acknowledging his glory. You are giving glory to something else.

It is one thing to love somebody and get a lot of joy out of that relationship. But if that person breaks up with you and you want to kill yourself, it means that you have given that person too much glory, too much weight in your life. You may have said in your heart, “If that person loves me, then I know that I am somebody.” But if that person then takes the relationship away, you collapse and melt down because you have ascribed more glory and honor to him or her than to God. If anything matters more to you than God you are placing yourself and your heart into something external. Only if you make God matter the most–which means only if you glorify him and give him the glory–will you have a safe life.

There is one more thing to say about God’s glory–it is his absolute splendor and beauty. The word for “glory” in the Old Testament means importance, the word for “glory” in the New Testament (the Greek word doxa) means “praise and wonder; luminosity, brilliance, or beauty.”

Jonathan Edwards once said: “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by it being rejoiced in.” It is not enough to say, “I guess he is God, so I have to knuckle under.” You have to see his beauty. Glorifying God does not mean obeying him only because you have to. It means to obey him because you want to–because you are attracted to him, because you delight in him. This is what C.S. Lewis grasped and explained so well in his chapter on praising. We need beauty. We go to lengths to put ourselves in front of beautiful places, or surround ourselves with beautiful music, or hang out with beautiful people. But these will leave us empty if we don’t learn to see all of these things as mere tributaries and God himself as the fountain, the headwaters of it all.

So to see God as glorious is not only to admit his incomprehensibility and beyondness, and make him the thing that matters the most, but it is also to work your heart so it finds him the most pleasurable and beautiful thing you know.

Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering,168-170.

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Has Prayer Become Boring?

As we mature in our prayers, we often feel disappointed or perplexed that our prayers have changed–particularly when we find that they do not seem as intense or emotionally satisfying as they once were. Perhaps we do not feel the deep comfort of Christ with the same kind of immediacy that we had when we were younger in the faith. Perhaps the Scriptures, while still very much the Word of God to us, do not jump out at us with the same power that we felt when we were first beginning in the Christian life. This could well be what spiritual writers like Teresa of Avila speak of when she comments on the “dry well,” or what John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the senses.” These are powerful images that profile something that merits our attention: that as our prayers mature, they often if not always become less sensory. There is a quietness or a dryness that emerges. And often we are confused and wonder if something is wrong–if perhaps we have “lost our first love” and if we need to do something to “get the feeling back.”

A wise director plays a critical role here, assuring us that this is the natural course of our prayers, the sign of God’s gracious acceptance of growing maturity in prayer, where God no longer needs to pamper us or make us feel good. And in the end, this is not a loss; as both Teresa and John stress, our feelings can so easily get in the way of the deep work of God in our lives. The dryness in our prayers is not a sign of the absence of God but, perhaps, an indicator that God is actually very near at hand. In times like this a director needs merely to stress–to remind us–that we need to continue in our prayers and not dismiss them because they seem no longer fruitful. They remind us to test the quality of our prayers not by how we feel in prayer but by the fruit, the awareness of God’s grace in our relationships and and in our work.

When we are in the “dark night” in our prayers, we have two temptations. The first is to misread the situation and assume that something is wrong. The second is to run–to find some kind of emotional anesthetic, something to distract us from the deep work of God, whether it be television or anything that in effect renders our experience superficial. In both cases, a good spiritual director can bring our attention back to the necessary place of letting God do what only God can do when we learn to wait, even if it means learning to wait in the darkness.

Thus a spiritual director can play a key role in our lives and specifically in our growth in prayer. Without good direction, sincere people can so easily assume that if God does not feel immediately present, that if they do not feel–and that is the operative word, feel–the immediate presence of God, then something must be wrong. And because they are sincere, they blame themselves. Since as a basic conviction of their lives they know that God is good and merciful, if they do not sense this immediate comfort from God it can only mean, they think, that they are not faithful enough in their lives and in their prayers.

A director will listen carefully at this point and, as I previously suggested, potentially play a critical role in responding to this dryness or darkness in our prayers. Perhaps, indeed, the problem is from our side: we have neglected our prayers, or the fundamental disciplines of the spiritual life. Perhaps, indeed, we have succumbed to pride and self-centeredness. Perhaps. And a director can gently call us back to an orientation of faith, hope and love and toward greater generosity in our disposition toward others and in our work. But as often as not, the genius of good direction at this point is the assurance that indeed God is present, but he is inviting us to live by faith and not by sight–calling us to be less dependent on the immediate sensory awareness of God’s presence. The good director can assure us that all is well and that we can continue in our prayers and in the disciplines and service to which we are called, confident of God’s love and providential care. A director can assure us that God’s work continues in our lives, even if we do not feel this ministry of the Spirit quite like we did when we were beginners in the Christian life.

Gordon T. Smith, Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving and Receiving Direction, 56-58.

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Satan-Crushing Sermons

As a witness to Christ, the sermon is a struggle with demons. Every sermon must overcome Satan. Every sermon fights a battle. But this does not occur through the dramatic efforts of the preacher. It happens only through the proclamation of the One who has trodden upon the head of the devil. We usually do not recognize the devil anyway. We do not find him; Christ finds him. The devil departs from him. Satan waits nowhere for his prey as where the congregation gathers itself. Nothing is more important to Satan than to hinder Christ’s coming to the congregation. Therefore Christ must be preached.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 2/10 Lecture on Homiletics, Works, 14:535.

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Waiting . . .

It’s amazing how the powers-that-be keep moving Christmas, particularly Christmas shopping, earlier and earlier on our calendar. They can’t even wait, nor can we, for Black Friday. The leftover turkey is thrown into the refrigerator, the dishes are still stacked in the sink, and the last bite of pumpkin pie is scarfed down in a rush to get in line for the deals on Thanksgiving night.

Christmas, if we’re not careful, becomes more about presents and busyness than about anticipating the Birth of Jesus. Instead of longing for Christ to come, the world is eagerly anticipating iPhone Virtually Video Glasses and the Remee Mind Control Dreaming Mask.

Advent begins the “New Year” in the liturgy of Western Christian Churches. That’s right, Advent not Christmas is the beginning of the Church’s annual rhythm. It seems that by giving in to the cultural ideals of Christmas we could be missing out on a rich experience in waiting, longing, and anticipating the arrival of Jesus.

Advent comes from a Latin word that means “coming.” It refers to the coming of the Messiah. It also refers to the Second Coming of Christ.  It is a time of longing, anticipating, and preparing for Jesus’ coming into the world.

Imagine being there in the time of Christ’s birth. Israel longed for the Messiah. Besides the general anticipation of His coming, they also found themselves in a time of drought. Not a physical drought, but a long period of time where God was silent. There were no prophets speaking to the world. Nothing. Silence. What would it be like to anticipate and await the coming of the Messiah in this time?

I can identify with these times of God’s silence. In these times, there is a deep longing for God that isn’t always there in times of comfort and prosperity. My prayers become more raw and primal. I’m more desperate to hear from Him and seeing Him come near.

I think that this is the gift that Advent gives us. It allows us to enter into a time of waiting, seeking, longing, and preparing for Christmas. In order to do so, we must abstain from Christmas for a time and be present fully in the Advent experience.

The hymn, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” leads us in a spirit of longing…

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Advent begins Sunday, November 30, 2014 and ends Sunday, December 21, 2014. I would invite you to participate in Advent this year. One way to do this is to clear some space in your life to do a daily reading that prepares you for Christmas. Here is a link that will guide you in your waiting.

Artwork:  “The Dream of St. Joseph,” Georges de la Tour (1593-1652)

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Eternal Separation As Eternal Selfishness

The lost spirits will persist, according to the degree of their permanent self-willed defection from their supernatural call, in the varyingly all but complete self-centeredness and subjectivity of their self-elected earthly life. But now they will feel, far more fully than they ever felt on earth, the stuntedness, the self-mutilation, the imprisonment involved in this their endless self-occupation and jealous evasion of all reality not simply their
own selves.

Friedrich von Hugel, Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion, 216-17.

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Do You Have Peace in Your Soul? Part 2

When we examine even briefly the origins of our inner conflicts, we readily see why only the saintly person enjoys a full peace. Until we are purified, all of us are beset with a network of disorderly desires, or, as St. Paul would call them, illusory desires. And they who think they have the least most likely have the most. These illusions stem in turn from disorderly passions: avarice, lust, laziness, pride. To take the last as an illustration: in how many ways we suffer inner conflicts because of our vanities of a hundred types, our refusals to be corrected by others, our tendencies to dominate others, our unreasonable ambitions (“I must be first, the best . . .”), our self-centeredness (which others are constantly frustrating), our envy, our human respect. We suffer inner discord from our clashing pursuits. We try to serve God and mammon, and our resulting dead-end desires bear witness to the impossibility. Some of us learn the lesson, and some do not. Those who do learn are the spiritually mature, the virtuous. They are at peace.

This habitual harmony is not emotionally felt (although the feelings may or may not accompany it). It is delicate, quiet, spiritual. It is not produced by human effort but is given by the Holy Spirit himself. A distinction mentioned by St. John of the Cross may be useful at this point. He differentiates active joy from passive. The first is humanly produced, can be controlled and is concerned with a clear object. It seems to arise from no detectable cause.

. . . the habitual peace of which we speak . . . is a facet of the experience of God. At one time it is a dark, purifying resting in God, at another it is joyous and loving. It can leave one with a sense of refreshment, a calm awareness of beauty, a tranquil joy in God. At another it may be a strong feeling of being engulfed in him, penetrated and embraced by him. This peace brings an experience of well-being, of silent power, strength, freedom.

Because this infused peace derives from God, it is not related to a particular object or cause. A humanly caused peace can easily be traced to a specific cause: the resolution of a conflict, the avoidance of a catastrophic evil, the attainment of one’s ambition, the reconciliation of friends, the solution of a problem. The peace given by the indwelling Spirit seems to well up from no cause. It is the result (indeed caused by God) of a person’s being whole with a wholeness received from the divine self-communication.

Thomas Dubay, Authenticity, 218-19.

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Will the Holy Spirit Lead You into Suffering?

“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) (ESV).

“Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) (NASB).

“At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild” (Mark 1:12) (The Message).

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What are the implications of Mark 1:12 for our understanding of the Holy Spirit? Let us begin by noting that Mark 1:12 is not a theological island. Other passages of Scripture support the general thesis that the Holy Spirit is an agent of transformative suffering. In the Old Testament, the prophets frequently speak a Spirit-inspired message of both encouragement and discomforting conviction that is aimed at the sanctification of God’s people. In John 16:8, Jesus promises that he will send the Counselor, who will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. We find this dynamic reflected in many sermons portrayed in Acts, most notably Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Peter’s listeners are “cut to the heart” and cry out in anguish, wondering how they can be saved. In Romans 8:13, Paul teaches that those who live by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh. Putting to death the deeds of the flesh is neither trivial nor comfortable.

Next we note the theological precedent Mark is establishing. Jesus is baptized, anointed with the Holy Spirit, and then immediately driven into a situation of deprivation, opposition, and testing. This sequence would be familiar to Mark’s readers. . . .  like Jesus, they too would be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, and be tested by a world hostile to them, often to the point of persecution. . . . Mark’s readers would know the sensation of being armed with power but then hurled into the fray immediately after being baptized. Therefore, Mark and his readers would need little help recognizing the parallels between Jesus’ testing and their own.

In a similar way, we can draw parallels between Jesus’ testing in the wilderness and familiar experiences we recognize in spiritual formation. To begin with, Jesus’ divine sonship is defined in the midst of temptation and testing. Christians who also desire to live as sons and daughters of God should expect the same. [The] description of salvation in Christ as a “participative journey” is helpful. It means our paths will wind through places familiar from the life of Jesus. We will walk in his footsteps.

While it is unlikely that the Spirit will expel many Christians into the physical wilderness, the principle conveyed in this verse is meaningful. When considered in a metaphorical sense, the wilderness is a place of temptation . .  . .

First, it involves testing that arises as believers deal with deprivation and uncertainty. Metaphorically, the desert represents a state in which one is brought to the existential realization that all of one’s sources of comfort and livelihood either have been or could be stripped away, so that one’s faith in God’s love and care are brought to a state of crisis. Whereas many believers are familiar with this state of being, they do not commonly associate it with the agency of the Holy Spirit, especially when the Spirit is understood to be our comforter, advisor, and inspirer. Nevertheless, this is where Mark 1:12 leads.

Second, temptation can mean active conflict with evil itself. When God the Spirit expels a believer into a wilderness where she is uncertain of her very well-being, the temptation is great to turn to some other source into which she may put her trust. Because the metaphors that dominate the field of pneumatology tend to center around comfort, nurture, love and renewal, it could seem scandalous to think that the Holy Spirit is capable of expelling God’s beloved into the wilderness. Notably, there is no significant discussion within systematic theology of the implications of Mark 1:12 for pneumatology. Nevertheless,connecting the sanctifying work of the Spirit to human experiences of alienation, deprivation, and testing is well-trodden ground for the spiritual masters.

T. David Beck, “The Divine Dis-Comforter: The Holy Spirit’s Role in Transformative Suffering,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, 2:2 (2009): 199-218. 

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