Responding to the Sex Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church (Workshop Notes)

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Against the background of the still-unfolding sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church, the Ignatian Spirituality Network offered a workshop last month called Hope Does Not Disappoint: Spiritual Direction in Challenging Times for the ChurchThis workshop did not – as did a recent missive by former Pope Benedict – address causes and remedies – but rather was aimed to help spiritual directors as they both reflect on their own vocation in light of the crisis and create space for directees to respond during direction sessions.

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The two main questions wrestled with in the Ignatian Spirituality’s workshop were these: What is our calling as spiritual directors in the midst of the sex abuse crisis? How do we accompany people who are rightly suspicious, hurt, angry, and grieving by the shocking failure of their beloved church — people who are betrayed by leaders they literally trusted with their souls? The workshop was not necessarily focused on directing either survivors or perpetrators of abuse, although those subjects did come up, but more on how we as directors can understand and carry out our vocation in light of everything that has and continues to happen.

Although I am not Catholic, as someone trained in the Ignatian tradition, I consider myself “Catholic adjacent.” I also have seen firsthand that abuse, willful ignorance, and systemic corruption and institutional failure are not limited to the Catholic church. I won’t go into details here, but it doesn’t take much beyond curiosity and a search engine to confirm that the Protestant church has got plenty of its own problems.

During the workshop several themes emerged:

  • Each one of us has a basic calling as a Christian to discipleship. That calling exists within the larger “Christ project” – the redemption of all people and all creation. For directors, our calling as disciples is primarily lived out within the space of direction. We may or may not have a voice within the larger power structure of our institutions, but each of us can live every opportunity we have to take part in Christ’s work to the fullest.
  • It’s important to keep our eyes on the risen Christ and the presence and action of God in our lives. Ignatian practices help us continue to discern and stay attuned in the moment.
  • One of the speakers explained a revelation he came to, in contemplative prayer, of the sex abuse crisis as a continuation of the crucifixion today. We are standing as witnesses, much as Mary and John did at the foot of the cross, to the suffering of Christ in our time. The abuse crisis, like the crucifixion, is a deliberate rejection of God’s love. This is an especially poignant thought to reflect on at Easter time. It neither minimizes the pain experienced by those victimized – pain that, as both speakers affirmed, will be with them for all of their lives – nor leaves all in desolation. We are journeying, slowly and surely, with God towards the full restoration of all humanity.
  • The “bloodletting” among the ranks of priests and bishops is a right and necessary purification of the church.
  • As we offer spiritual companionship to those who are rightly struggling with the institution of the church, and who may leave or already have left in response, we can ask a few questions:
    • What are the ways you are nurtured by the institutional church and what are the ways that you’re not? Where you are not, where can you go to find nurture? Where can you discern an invitation to deepen your relationship with God even during these times?
    • What are you feeling? What is it like for you to feel those emotions?
    • What are your interactions with God like? Who is God to you at this moment?

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As we accompany those who are hurting and also deal with our own emotions in the space of direction, we continue to look, listen, and pray for the presence, love, and healing of God in our lives and in the life of the Body of Christ.

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*On a much lighter note, while I was writing this blog post — blissfully sipping my warm cocoa oolong bubble milk tea — I overheard the following statement from a black-leather-clad woman talking loudly on her phone:

“Oh, I am much more evil than his exes. He just doesn’t know that yet. He’s about to find out.”

She looked like she could flatten that boy with her hands tied behind her back, using only her pinkie toe and the force of her malice. I hope he’s a better runner than he is a boyfriend.

Find me on Instagram! @ravishedbylight. 

Image credits:

Christ Image

All Saints

Listening to the Voice of the Beloved: Praying the “Beloved Prayer”

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*In Henri Nouwen’s book, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith, he reflects on Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:17, when the Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove,

And a voice from heaven said, “And a voice from heaven said, “This is my  dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”

 

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Nouwen writes that Jesus’ core identity came from this moment of knowing he had his father’s total, lavish acceptance and approval.  He goes on to say that the same is true for each of us. We are all God’s beloved children and our core identity – our center – comes from knowing we are God’s beloved and that he is well-pleased with us.

Building on this definition of each of as God’s beloved, Nouwen explains that

I have come to define prayer as listening . . . to the one who calls you the Beloved. 

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Is that you, God? (Also, the face I make when my teenagers are in charge of Spotify.)

In our noisy, pixelated, distracting world, it’s not easy to listen for the voice of the Beloved. It can be hard to distinguish God’s voice from all the others clamoring for our attention. And once we do listen, it can be just as hard – if not harder – to accept the truth of God’s love for us. That’s why regular, intentional prayer is crucial.

The discipline of prayer is to constantly go back to the truth of who we are [God’s beloved children] and claim it for ourselves . . . We must go back to our first love, back regularly to that of core identity.

According to Nouwen, our acceptance of our belovedness is the journey of our lives – “the origin and fulfillment of life in the Spirit.” Through prayer, we come to understand that God loves us, as we are, in both our “limitations and glory.” God’s voice calling us his beloved silences our self-condemnation and our self-rejection; listening to this voice coming from God – as well as through other people who show us love and acceptance – is what enables us to feel at home in the world.

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Living out the truth of our belovedness is another way of saying that Christ is being incarnated in us.  As a way to let this truth sink in, Nouwen recommends “The Beloved Prayer,” a three-part, thirty-minute prayer that can be done individually or as part of guided meditation in a group. “The Beloved Prayer” begins with quietly praying the phrase, ‘”Jesus, you are the Beloved,” then moving onto “Jesus, I am the Beloved,” and then concluding with “Jesus, we are all the Beloved.”

For those of us who don’t have thirty minutes in their day or who are building up to longer contemplative prayer sessions, praying one phrase at a time is an option. Follow these steps.

Praying “The Beloved Prayer”

  1. Find a quiet, still place. You may choose to set a timer if you have a limited amount of time for this practice. Begin to breathe slowly and deeply, relaxing your body and clearing your mind.
  2. Become aware of God’s presence with you. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your prayer time.
  3. Choose the phrase that seems to most resonate with you at this moment: Jesus, you are the Beloved; Jesus, I am the Beloved; or Jesus, we are all the Beloved. The last phrase will lead you to meditate on a group of people – perhaps family or friends – the Body of Christ, or on all of God’s creation.
  4. Begin saying it to yourself, quietly aloud, or only in your head. You may choose to close your eyes. Try to gently merge the rhythm of the phrase with the rhythm of your breathing. Say it slowly, without hurry, until every other thought seems to fall away. As distractions inevitably show up, don’t worry about them. Simply acknowledge them and refocus the words of the prayer.
  5. If you have not set a timer, you may find your prayer time comes to its natural conclusion. You may feel rested and replete, or you may simply find a bodily demand can no longer be ignored. Come slowly back to your normal awareness and sit for a moment in silence. If you feel led to do so, end with a brief prayer of thanksgiving and a request for continued awareness of God’s presence throughout your day.

You may find that one phrase claims your attention for days or weeks, or you may feel drawn to a different phrase each day. Either way, trust the Holy Spirit to affirm your belovedness and bring you back to that place of core identity.

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* Part of my Spiritual Practice of the Month series of posts.**

** Yes, I know. It is practically April! I’m a “9” with a strong “1” wing on the Enneagram and the legalistic part of my soul is simultaneously embarrassed and proud that I’ve snuck in this post just under the wire.

Find me on Instagram at #ravishedbylight

Photo credits

Jesus’ baptism: https://www.ravenfoundation.org/whats-jesus-john-baptist/, original source unknown

Baby: http://www.discoverenglish.com.au/blog/exams/english-listening-resources-online

Dove image by Gerd Altmann, pixabay

Write a 5-word Mission Statement: Spiritual Practice of the Month (February)

Create a 5-Word Mission Statement

So far – except for the Great Northeast Polar Vortex, in which some places in the country got colder than Antarctica (Antarctica!) – my New Year hasn’t seemed all that new. I’ve been trying to catalog the actual novel and unprecedented things I’ve tried so far in 2019, and all I’m coming up with is:

  • Put chia seed in my smoothies: Great for the digestion. Although they tend to clog up straws.
  • Used a new ointment my allergist recommended.* (Side question: Does the word “ointment” make anyone else cringe? It just sounds like only smarmy people in smarmy situations should say it. I have the same feeling about “lubricant.”)

Basically, I am an old person whose body needs help. Any day now I’ll be tottering around braless in my pastel house dress, looking for my false teeth.

Meanwhile, my friend had a new baby! That’s the best kind of newness.

However – and I do think this is typical for the new year – in many of my conversations lately – with my directees, with church members, with my college-bound daughter – the question of purpose has come up. How do you find your purpose? Once you have, what do you do about it?

A few of us at church have been reading a book called One Life by Scott McKnight. I think it’s especially helpful for young people but also for anyone who feels like exploring – or refining – their understanding of why God has put them on this planet, and how to begin to live out God’s dream for them.

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A few insights that I thought were important:

Jesus didn’t expect perfection or surround himself with it. He gathered around him a bunch of raw, untrained, and at times petty and self-aggrandizing individuals. He loved them, taught them, corrected them, and empowered him with his Spirit to carry out his mission. Whatever you choose to do, allow yourself to be discipled by Jesus. Allow yourself to be flawed, to fail, to be taught and loved and empowered over time. Most growth doesn’t happen overnight.

If we love Jesus, we are on his mission, too!  The how and the what will be different – we’re not all called to be evangelists or healers or teachers or artists or accountants or grocery checkers – but the why is the same: “When you give yourself to Jesus, your life becomes the Kingdom life” (118). Your life becomes part of Jesus’ stated goal to reshape humanity and all creation to God’s original vision: one of wholeness, health, harmony, joy, and unity with God.

Once you’ve committed to the why – to Jesus and the furthering of his Kingdom – you can begin to discern the specifics of how his dream for you as an individual fits into his dream for the world.

One exercise I’ve learned of recently to help in this discernment process is to write a five-word mission statement. For example:

To facilitate people experiencing God.

Teach others to live well.

Live creatively in all things.

Use business to end poverty.

Feed people, body and soul.

Compassion for self and others.

Five words aren’t a lot! You’re not going to get down to the granular details of your calling. (That might come later.) But these words can function as a kind of guiding star. For example, if the person whose mission is to “Use business to end poverty” is making a decision about a potential partnership, he or she could ask these questions: Do this company’s values align with mine – and the Kingdom’s? Do they pay their employees a living wage? Do they make use of materials that are responsibly sourced and made without slave labor? Do their executives make out-sized salaries to the detriment of their workforce?

What if your mission is to “Teach others to live well?” First of all, you’re probably a teacher, even if that isn’t your mode of gainful employment! And encapsulated in this phrase is probably a lot of unspoken beliefs about what living well means. As you unpack those beliefs, you’ll be able to use them to shape your decisions about who to focus your teaching efforts on. Who do you see that isn’t living well? What skills or mindsets can you offer that will help them? What skills or mindsets might you need to learn in order to help others?

I confess that I haven’t quite nailed down my own five-word mission statement yet, although I have some candidates, like “Do what brings you joy,” or “Be fed by God’s hand” (both things that God has said to me in prayer at one time or another).** Part of the problem is that I struggle with focus. I do a lot of things, but I’m not necessarily sure all that energy is productively used. I sometimes feel like an octopus, flailing my arms in all directions. Maybe – I hope – writing a mission statement will help me!

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Here is a prayerful process to go through as begin writing a personal mission statement – remembering that (to borrow a phrase from feminism) the personal is the Kingdom! Your life is a Kingdom life! The process is essentially a modified Daily Examen, but looking back at your life instead of a single 24-hour period.

First, ask Jesus to come and shed his light on your prayer time. Ask him to show you who you truly are and how you fit into his dreams for you.

Second, ask yourself: What gifts, talents, dreams, and drives are constant in your life? Which ones bring you life, and bring life to those around you? Which ones help bring all created things just a little more into alignment with the Kingdom? Ask Jesus to help bring to the forefront current or past experiences, or words from other people, that show you working/playing/living most completely in your “Kingdom” zone. Pay attention to those memories and experiences that make you feel light and free, relaxed, hopeful, joyful and loving.

Third, ask yourself: What are the things in your life that do not bring life to you and to others? What dreams might not come from Jesus and the Kingdom? What false messages and ambitions may be claiming your attention? Ask the Holy Spirit to show you clearly lies that you may have believed or desires that are at bottom empty and will lead to destruction rather than life.  Consider asking the Lord for forgiveness and freedom.

Finally, ask Jesus to help you look back over this prayer time and put what you’ve noticed into words! Perhaps ask the Holy Spirit to highlight key words, phrases, images, even smells or sounds, from your prayer time. Pay attention to which seem to have the strongest hold on your imagination or emotions. These will be the building blocks for your mission statement.

It may take several tries and some tinkering, but see what you and Jesus come up with together!

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*Vaniply – Actually awesome for winter-dry facial skin. Works better than my staple for the rest of the year, the much more outrageously priced Dermalogica Active Moist, which I can only justify (kind of) because it lasts forever and because every other lotion I’ve tried makes me break out, burns my skin, or both.

**Here are some of my discarded mission statements:

Limit procrastination to Netflix only.

Poison no one with cooking.

Beat writer’s block into submission.

Make a living wage . . . someday.

Just use your Ph.D. already.

 

 

Octopus image credit: https://drawception.com/panel/drawing/nqkg6336/confused-octopus/

Get Centered in the New Year with Centering Prayer: Spiritual Practice of the Month

One of the things that makes me laugh when I read love stories, whether adult or YA fiction, is that moment when the boy and girl or man and woman kiss for the first time and the woman’s mind just . . . empties. All those fizzing synapses get burned out by the sheer electric power of the meeting-of-the-mouths, and all thought ceases. Not just all rational thought, but all thought. Period.

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This is in some ways a lovely fantasy. The problem is, I don’t think this is the way it actually works. At least not to most women I know of. And this is not a drag on the guys we’ve been kissing. It’s simply to point out that, anecdotally speaking, women are capable of thinking of many things at once and even the most mind-blowing kiss does not negate this ability. Perhaps it’s our more bilaterally-symmetrical brains and the fact that our two brain hemispheres talk to each other more.

I remember an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Data the android gets a human girlfriend. It’s doomed to fail, of course, but the death knell of the relationship tolls when she kisses Data and asks what he’s thinking. He matter-of-factly reels off a laundry list of about 15 things, including the limit of pressure he can put on her lips without caving her face in with his superhuman robotic strength. Her face falls and she walks away. She knows what it means that she doesn’t totally occupy his thoughts: he doesn’t love her.

When I watched the show a teenager I thought this storyline was romantic and star-crossed and bittersweet, even if more than a shade past believable (specifically, actor Brent Spiner’s pasty shade of pancake makeup, back when extreme pallor was supposed to indicate “android” and not “hot teenage vampire”). Poor girl, always falling for the unavailable guy! Poor Data, longing to be human but unable to understand love.

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The skin tone dreams are made of.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it was a lousy idea for Ensign-of-the-Week to try to date a robot, and I have no idea whether it’s true for guys that physical contact makes your brain spontaneously combust, but I know for a fact that women can be kissing their significant other and enjoying the experience while simultaneously running through their grocery list, their best friend’s relationship woes, that upcoming project deadline, the sale at Zulily, and whether they have clean unmentionables for tomorrow. Sure, the kiss works better – a lot better – when your attention is undivided, but generally speaking, that single-minded focus happens because you decide you want it to, not by some sort of hormonal fiat over your gray matter. You can tell your brain to shut up, if you want, but you’re still giving yourself over to the moment with the full assent of your thought and will.

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Remember Ghost? I don’t care what the CGI and camera angles are telling you, Demi’s character is perfectly aware she’s kissing a dead guy borrowing the body of another woman. (For a gender-swap variation on this plot, read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.) She might not care, but that’s different from her brain turning completely to mush and disconnecting her from reality. Even if Patrick Swazye’s lips are literally glowing with light from heaven. (Which would give most anyone trouble, I think.)

What I am working up to saying, in a roundabout fashion, is that, contrary to years of received wisdom from Danielle Steele, Hollywood, and Team Edward, it’s hard to shut off your brain. It’s hard if you’re a woman. It’s hard if you live in a city, especially one of loud-talking, fast-moving overachievers like New York. It’s hard if you have any kind of stress in your life. It’s probably hard if you’re a guy, too, but I don’t have the same kind of personal experience with that situation.

So how to quiet all that noise in your head and just . . . be present? Especially during the first days of the year, which are – let’s face it – kind of like the hangover to the just-concluded holiday season. You know what I mean. Christmas and New Years are over but their detritus is still with you – your dried up Christmas tree, shedding needles faster than your Uncle George’s scalp is divesting itself of its hair, needs to be hauled to the curb (or, in the case of my tabletop Charlie Brown-esque model, smooshed back into its box and schlepped to the basement), the ornaments returned to their packing, and those peppermint bark and champagne-induced love handles need to be melted posthaste by some New Year’s juice cleansing and Soul Cycle. Oh, and you’re back to work and the kids are back in school, but the government is still shut down.

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How, amidst all this bustle and chaos, can you find time to be with God, to invite him to step through your busyness and defenses and consent to his presence the way you would to a kiss?

One way is to practice centering prayer. This ancient practice is designed to shut down distractions from inside and out, to help you become completely open to God. Here’s how it’s done:

First, find a quiet place and get comfortable in a seated position. Then, breathe. Slowly, in and out, becoming aware of your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Feel the rise and fall of your chest, your breath slowing, your body gradually loosening, your thoughts slowing down to the pace of your respiration.

Now, choose a focus word or phrase, something that will help anchor you in the moment, a word that resonates with you and where you are with God. For me, the word is often “Holy.” Begin to repeat the word in your head as you breathe, so that the word falls into place with the rhythm of your body.

Then – and this, for me, is the hardest part! – try to empty your mind of thought. You’re trying to achieve inner silence, a total openness to God and God alone. This takes practice! Almost certainly a billion little thoughts will zoom in like industrious bees. Rather than trying to swat them away with your mental fly swatter, simply notice them, without guilt or frustration, and go back to your anchor word for a time. Repeat it until you reclaim your focus and inner stillness. When you’re ready, let the word go and try to empty your mind again and simply be with God. Pray as long as you feel able to sustain your centered state.

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If you need a bit more support, there’s a Centering prayer app! You can use it to frame your practice with music and scripture or to set a timer. The organization that created the app, Contemplative Outreach, also offers online communities and workshops for those interested in centering prayer.

Title photo credit: Ilya Naymushin / Reuters via theatlantic.com

Find me on Instagram @ravishedbylight.

Take Your Meds For Jesus: How to Turn Any Daily Routine into a Prescription for Contentment (Spiritual Practice of the Month)

 

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This post is part of my ongoing series on monthly spiritual practices. I’ve adapted this practice from friend, fellow spiritual director, and glowing newlywed Kimberly Malone. Her original suggestion was to turn taking your daily medication into an opportunity to relinquish control to God.

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I’ve always aspired to be a shower and go kind of gal: Throw on some leggings and a comfy shirt, run a comb through my hair, slap on some sunscreen, and run out the door looking as glowy and pure as a Dove commercial. (Except clothed. Clothing is good.)

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The ideal. (*Not what I look like in the a.m. Or really ever.)

Unfortunately, God had other plans for me: a DEFCON-threat level assortment of allergies and skin issues including year-round eczema that ranges from mildly irritating to infuriatingly itchy. As a result, I have a twice-daily routine that includes oral medications, nasal spray, and smearing various over-the-counter and prescription creams on myself. By the end of all this, I’m about as greasy as an arctic seal dipped in Crisco, but my skin will still be dried out within a few hours.

Then, I have to add in the time it takes me to deal with contact lenses, the allergy eye drops, and the retainers I’ve worn since high school. At bedtime, I kick my routine up a notch by adding in the nightly warm compress that keeps my tear ducts from backing up and swelling my left eyelid up to the size of Jupiter. I didn’t know you could have both oily tears and dry eyes, but, hey, I’m a complicated woman.

 

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The Reality: Hot Mess Barbie (Except Asian. And itchy. And not a 5’11” Double D.)

Basically, by the time I get myself to bed in the evening, my husband is already having a cigar with his BFF the Sandman over scotch, a cheese platter, and a roaring fire.

(Does scotch go with cheese? I actually have no idea, since I think scotch is a gustatory experience somewhere between cough syrup and drinking gasoline.)

But back to the spiritual part of this whole mess. Although that’s a misleading statement, because the truth is there is no division between the spiritual part of our lives and all the rest of it. God is in all of it, from the mundane to the awe-inspiring.

That’s why I love my friend Kimberly’s suggestion to turn your medication routine into a time of giving up control to God. And it’s why I am adapting it into this month’s spiritual practice. Medication is not usually something I approach with surrender. It’s something I do grudgingly – because I have to. I dislike the time, the expense, and most of all, the daily reminder that my body is flawed and that I am literally physically uncomfortable in my own skin.

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But what if I approached taking and applying my meds not with tolerance at best, resentment at worst? What if I spent that time giving thanks for the ways that God is present to me each and every day, and especially in my body? What if as I took a pill or slathered on a cream, I offered up control of my body and my life to the Holy Spirit? If I was less focused on the way my body falls short and instead marveled at how I am fearfully and wonderfully made? How God used my hands and my feet over the course of the day? How he might choose to use them tomorrow? What if I used this Thanksgiving season to be thankful for all the ways God is present in my life, even those things I’d rather avoid? How might God turn my grumbling into gratitude? My discontent into contentment?

While I’m going to apply this practice of surrender and gratitude to taking my meds, it can work in any daily routine you have, anything you might normally do by rote: Drinking your morning coffee, getting dressed, brushing teeth, tying shoes, folding laundry. Once you’ve identified the routine you want to invite God into, here is a simple, basic three-step prayer to follow on a daily basis.

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As you practice this discipline of relinquishing control and giving thanks, may God bring you new awareness of his gifts and grace in your life. And may your Thanksgiving season be blessed!

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Come find me on Instagram @ravishedbylight.

Fighting for a Win-Win in Dating and Marriage: Tips for Handling Conflicts from the Gottman Institute (Book Review)

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This coming week, my church’s Biblical Dating in the Digital Age series will focus on “Dating and the Church of God” – or how a love relationship between a man and a woman that starts with dating will eventually become, in marriage, a visible sign of the invisible grace of God: the relationship between Christ and his bride, the Church.

At the same time as the series has been running, my husband and I have been co-leading a premarital counseling course for several couples that are approaching marriage. The bulk of our course is based on research from the Gottman Institute. Researchers there have been taking a scientific approach to the study of marriage (and divorce) for the past twenty years. Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, is based on those insights, which include an over 90% ability to predict a couple’s eventual divorce simply by the way they react to each other over the course of a normal conversation or day spent together. Many of these insights, though discovered in the context of marriage, are also applicable to dating.

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One of the most helpful insights Gottman uncovered is this: Couples are going to argue. Expect it. In fact, 69% of conflicts between even happy couples are what he terms “Unsolvable.” In other words, they are issues that may appear surface and temporary, but at root are core differences in temperament, values, and beliefs that are not going to go away. Ever. What’s key is not whether you fight, it’s how.

So what’s a dating or married couple to do when faced with the billionth fight over the same topic, whether it’s the frequency of date night, someone’s inability to buy good gifts, or who gets to wield the remote?

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etsy.com/shop/bitterwhimsy

Simple. (Sort of.) You realize that you, buddy, are not going to win this one. Neither is your partner. Not completely. You recognize that you are two people who think differently about what’s important and you agree to disagree.

Let’s say, either while you are already married with kids, or while you are projecting your dating life into its possible future, you begin discussing holidays with the parents.  You think it’s important to spend every Christmas with your parents, and your partner wants to take vacays to Disney with the kids. You are adamant that your family is the most important thing in your life and you want your kids to spend time with their grandparents. Your partner (who is as not as close to his or her parents) is equally adamant that getaways for your nuclear family will help cement your bond and create lasting memories. At the core, the two of you are fighting not about a holiday, but about definitions of family and priorities that you’ve been forming since childhood. Neither of your experiences or values is going to change.

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You could fight about – or sweep under the rug – both the surface and the deeper issue every Christmas for the rest of your lives, and let the bitterness of the perpetual conflict – or perpetual repression – seep into the rest of your relationship. Or, you negotiate. You compromise. You find a middle ground in which neither of you is right, neither of you is wrong, and neither of you gets completely what you want. But both of you win.

You win because you’ve stopped an unsolvable disagreement from spilling into those areas of your life where are in accord. You’ve drained the toxin from a conflict that has the potential to poison your marriage. Now, you agree to spend most Christmases with the grandparents, but every third year you see them on Thanksgiving instead and head to the Magic Kingdom for Yuletide. Is either of you getting exactly what you want, every time? Nope. But both of you are getting some of what you want. Both of your needs and concerns are being valued. And you get to keep a healthy relationship. That’s the definition of a win-win.

(Just know that for me this is an imagined scenario only. In reality, I think I’d commit seppuku with a rusty nail clipper rather than be anywhere near Disney on Jesus’ birthday. I’m not anti-Disney, exactly. Just anti-peak holiday crowds, interminable lines, and exorbitant prices for a stupid sipper shaped like Mickey’s head that, btw, is both creepy and bad for the environment. Let me tell you: it’s exhausting to spend a whole day on your feet while feeling morally superior to the people you are elbowing out of your way.)

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Remember, it’s a beautiful castle, but the wicked witch and her spinning wheel are hiding upstairs. (image from disneytouristblog.com)

That’s just one example of how couples might begin practicing the art of the “win-win” while they are still dating. Whether it’s who pays for those Broadway tickets or how many evenings you need to spend with just the two of you vs. hanging out with friends . . . find a way to negotiate. Give a little to get a little. It sounds manipulative, but it’s not. It’s practical. And it’s loving. You have a perspective that your partner needs. And your partner has a perspective that will help you grow into a fuller, richer person.

I’m not saying don’t have non-negotiables. I’m saying be realistic about how many you have. And ask yourself: If I bend on this a little, what am I losing? What am I gaining? What might my partner lose or gain?

You might gain years together. You might get a marriage as it was meant to be: two people who are willing to mutually sacrifice for the other’s good.

Or, on the flip side, you might decide your non-negotiables are exactly that and save yourself years of fruitless friction in a relationship that doesn’t allow you to express your authentic self, nor appreciate who your partner truly is.

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Either way, it’s a win for both of you.

Find more resources for couples from the Gottman Institute on gottman.com

To follow Vineyard One’s Dating and God series, watch the sermon series on Facebook Live at 10:30 am EST, or at any time after the live stream concludes, or visit vineyardone.nyc.

Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from “Bachelor Nation” (Book Review)

dating

In tribute to my church’s current series on God and Dating, I’m continuing to review some of the books I’ve read relating to love, romance, dating, and marriage.

Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure isn’t really about dating, in the sense that it’s not a “how-to” primer, the way The Four Man Planwhich I wrote about last week, is. But entertainment journalist and author Amy Kaufman definitely uncovers some of the secrets to making people feel the pulse-pounding onslaught of love (or maybe just lust) – whether or not they’re there for the “right reasons.”

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Let it be said, right off the bat, that the Bachelor producers come off in this book as beyond Machiavellian. They make the author of The Prince, the scourge of the Medicis, look like a rank amateur. They are manipulative, scheming, ratings-grubbing, and drama-mongering. And they are obviously geniuses at what they do, because, well,  we’re still watching.

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An Actual Bachelor Producer

Well, I’m not. Anymore. Mostly because it’s faster for me to skim the recaps.

What were my “right reasons” for beginning to watch the voyeuristic marvel that is the Bachelor franchise? Way back in 2002, my husband and I had a new baby that Would. Not. Sleep. After four months of stumbling around like zombies on Ambien, we gave up and sleep-trained her – an esoteric process otherwise known as “let the baby cry herself to sleep, already!” The problem was, we were in a very small apartment and had nowhere to go away from the crying. So, we turned on the tv, and lo and behold! Like a light shining out on our desperate existence, there was Chris Harrison! And the Bachelor! And 25 Bachelorettes!

Reader, it was the distraction we needed. We were hooked like big, bug-eyed catfish and stayed hooked through the second season, when the lovely former cheerleader Trista graced our screen and flitted out with a proposal from Fireman Ryan, he of the sweetly terrible – I mean just horrendous – poetry. We watched their wedding, when the couple bizarrely decided they only needed to recite thirteen-and-a-half out of fourteen lines of Elizbeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

People, you just cannot truncate a sonnet of its final couplet. It becomes a painfully unfinished thing.  It’s like . . . if Pygmalion hadn’t wanted to bother with styling Galatea’s hair and just left her brainpan open. IT CANNOT BE DONE.

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Etienne-Maurice Falconette, The Walters Art Museum
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Trista and Ryan, ABC

Sorry, had to get that off my chest.

Anyway, back to the book. Here, in no particular order, are the 10 secrets to falling in love a la Bachelor Nation. (Have no fear, I will also list more broadly applicable secrets for the rest of us who like to visit Reality TV Land but wouldn’t want to live there.)

  1. Alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol. So much alcohol. Because people without inhibitions can be coached to do anything!
  2. Sleep-deprivation. Also not known to promote rational, self-protective behavior.
  3. Isolation. You know all those women can’t leave the house, right? Not even to run to CVS for toothpaste.
  4. Complete lack of privacy. Cameras everywhere! Eventually, contestants can’t keep their guard up all the time any longer and that’s when things really get rockin’.
  5. Ruthless editing. By manipulating camera angles, cuts, and voice-overs, and splicing together exactly the words they want someone to say, the producers can make a perfectly pleasant one-on-one date seem like an encounter between Attila the Hun and the Roman army. Or vice versa.
  6. The same interrogation techniques used by police when they’re trying to get someone to confess to murder. “Oh, come on, Ashley. You know you’re for falling for Justin. We’ve been in this room for 15 hours without daylight or water or even those little 100 calorie cookie packs from the vending machine. Why don’t you just cry a little and say you’re ready to marry him and we can all go back to our tequila?”
  7. Pursuant to numbers 4, 5 and 6: An iron-clad contract. Everything you say and do can and will be used against you in the court of reality television. Even if you didn’t actually say or do it.
  8. Boredom. There is nothing to do in the Bachelor/ette mansion. No books, no tv, not even jenga. Eventually, there is nothing to do to entertain yourself except fall in love, form Survivor-like alliances, and acquiesce to whatever cunning narrative the producers want to tell the viewing audience. They want you to wear a tiara and a ballgown? Sure, what else have you got to do?
  9. Using women’s biology against them. Did you know that when a bunch of women stay in the same place for an extended time, their menstrual cycles start to sync up? The Bachelor producers sure do. Mass outbreaks of crying, moodiness, and exhaustion make for must-see-tv!
  10. The producers conspire against you. They cultivate your friendship and then they lie, lie, lie. Say Rudy tells Tania – to her face! – that he doesn’t know how he feels about her but he does think she’s great in the sack. The producer whom Tania trusts the most will then assure Tania that Rudy is a deep, sensitive guy who is already halfway to the altar.
  11. Did I mention the alcohol? Because I think they might fill the swimming pool with it.
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The Bachelor Pool: Powered by hormones, mixed drinks, and impaired decision-making.

Now, for those of us who have no designs on the Fantasy Suite, here are Bachelor-inspired dating insights for normal people:

Love is many things, but among the most measurable is a neurochemical state. The culprit is dopamine, “a stimulant that gives us motivation, energy and focus” (Kaufman 135). When you’re in love, dopamine floods your brain and you feel elation, drive, even obsession. The Bachelor puts its contestants in situations that prime them for dopamine surges. Maybe we can’t all have twenty-five people vying for the favor of our attention, but there are some things we can do to stimulate dopamine production on our way to finding that fairy-tale ending:

  1. Go looking for love. Just the expectation that you might meet someone drives up your dopamine levels. Proximity to other people looking for love can also increase dopamine production.
  2. Put yourself in novel situations. Combine your romantic quest with new experiences. Try new things in order to meet new kinds of people. And when you’ve met someone, try new things with them.
  3. It’s even better if the new thing is something you’re slightly afraid of. Conquering fear or facing imagined danger with a potential or actual romantic partner will bond you even more. The Bachelor calls these “adrenaline dates” (Kaufman 133) – rappelling down a cliff, zip-lining over a forest, swimming with sharks, dashing to Macy’s on Black Friday. The surge of endorphins on top of all the other hormones will increase your feelings of connectedness and euphoria.
  4. Keep your clothes on. Also known as the “Don’t Give Away Your Goodies For Free” postulate.* Why? Because when you’re in a state of heightened dopamine – which everyone at the beginning of a relationship is – it’s hard to distinguish between lust and love. The instant sex enters the picture, your dopamine system basically explodes your brain. It conspires against your reason, wisdom, and self-preservation. You can go instantly from a superficial interest in someone to feeling like he is the Romeo to your Juliet, the Lancelot to your Guinevere, the Jason Mesnick to your Melissa Mycroft. And we all know how well those stories turned out.**

 

*I heard a mom tell her teenage daughter this on the subway. It was probably the funniest #overheardinnyc moment I’ve heard yet, even if the daughter didn’t feel the same way.

**Also, because reportedly the number one reason would-be contestants get turned down for the show? Previously undiagnosed STDs.

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Want to learn more about love? Join Vineyard One NYC for our sermon series on “Biblical Dating in the Digital Age.” Find us at vineyardone.nyc or stream our services Sunday mornings at 10:30am EST on Facebook Live.

A Math Nerd’s Dating Manifesto: The Four Man Plan (Book Review)

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In the annals of crazy-pants things to do with your time, our church’s decision to have a sermon series on God and dating feels up there. For one thing, the Bible has no advice whatsoever about dating, although my husband did notice that wells seem to be a good place to meet your future spouse (Zipporah) or your future spouse’s marriage broker (Rebecca). Also, dating seems to be the kind of topic about which you can talk endlessly and come to very few solid conclusions or universal recommendations. There are too many variables at work: individual temperament, family history, cultural zeitgeist, shifts in gender roles and expectations, not to mention “the economy, stupid.” (Poor economic conditions discourage people from getting married, particularly women.)

Let’s get real: if there were a surefire way to find lasting romantic love, it would already be free to Prime members. (And the rest of us would have to save up our order for weeks or throw in extra q-tips until we reached the free shipping threshold, not that I’m bitter or anything.)

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Still, in the interest of research for said sermon series (and not at all for the pure entertainment), I’ve been reading books about dating. I’ll share my thoughts about some of them here in the next few weeks.

First up is The Four Man Plan: A Romantic Science, by Cindy Lu.

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First of all, Cindy Lu is an awesome name that reminds me of that time when the Grinch gave back Christmas. Just because of that, I’m tempted to believe anything she says.

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The Four-Man Plan is billed as THE BEST HOW-TO-DATE-BOOK EVER, which given the author’s wicked sense of humor, has to be at least somewhat of a joke, along the lines of “THE MOST DRAMATIC ROSE CEREMONY EVER” or “THE MOST PEOPLE AT ANY INAUGURATION EVER.”

Important to know: This book is only for heterosexual women. Women, according to Cindy’s own story and the case studies in her book, can successfully use the Four-Man Plan to date up to 16 men at a time on their way to finding their Three-and-a-Half man, or, in Cindy’s math, THE ONE. (You really have to read the book to understand the calculations.) Men, of course, have never needed much encouragement to spread themselves around. (See: All the Biblical patriarchs.)

The gist: Cindy says that by assigning men mathematical values (from 1/4 to 3 1/2) and keeping track of them on a grid with 16 squares, the odds for finding a fulfilling relationship are ever in your favor. In practice I can’t imagine having time for that many men – When would you sleep? Go to work? Binge-watch Netflix? – so it’s good to know that 16 is a ceiling, not a goal.

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Snow White’s 4MP grid (from the book and website)

By juggling suitors, all of whom are fully aware of your actions (no being a Sneaky Susie), and never sleeping with more than one at a time (the math won’t allow it), you will spur men’s innate competitive nature, which means they will invest more energy and thought in pursuing you; you will open yourself up to becoming simultaneously a more adventurous and more patient dater (because you will not be fixated on getting any one person to put a ring on it); you will not be ruled by your fickle and, frankly, not very bright, hormones; and by virtue of having lots of guys to compare to each other, you will begin to understand better both yourself and the kind of guy that will fit with you.

My husband’s response: This seems very empowering for women. But I don’t have the same opinions about what motivates men or what men are looking for as Cindy does.

My response: If I ever had to date again, I might try this method. It sounds like a way to reduce a lot of the angst and pressure, particularly for Christian singles who are feeling anxious about marriage. I’m all for formulas, and this one almost makes dating sound fun and confidence-building and not like something I would maybe do as an alternative to getting my bunions shaved.

The takeaway for church folk: Not written from a Christian perspective – or any particular ideological or theological bent – but from a practical one. Cindy is concerned not with how we think men should be, but with how she has experienced them to be, which is why I think my husband had trouble relating to her portrayal of men. There are definitely Christian men who – like my husband was – are only looking to date one woman at a time with an eye towards marriage. The plan actually accommodates those men; it just instructs the woman to let the man initiate that discussion, not bring it up on her own.  (This aspect of the plan seems practical and smart and also kind of icky and disempowering, all at the same time. I’m not fond of it, but I can see why it might work.) Cindy also mentions that singles who are planning on abstinence til marriage can still use the plan. In fact, that person will have more space available on her grid for potential dates (because in Cindy’s schema, a sexual partner has a higher “value” and thus takes up more space).

Resources: You can go to Cindy’s website to find testimonials, blog posts, and (if you buy the book) a private Facebook group with 4MP coaches. Or join Vineyard One NYC on Sunday mornings at 10:30 am EST on Facebook Live to check out our sermon series, “Biblical Dating in the Digital Age: How Would Jesus Swipe.” (I’ll let you in on a little secret: The subtitle is a big misdirect. Jesus would totally be a Coffee Meets Bagel guy.)

 

Breath Prayer 1: Breathing with God Through Your Day

Breathe

This is the first installment of my Spiritual Practice of the Month series. Each month, I’ll post a description and a guide to a new spiritual expression meant to help us experience God and the freedom he desires for us in deep and fresh ways. You will also be able to follow this series on my Instagram account, ravishedbylight, where I will also be posting a new Bible Verse of the Week every Monday.

Breath prayer, like most contemplative practices, helps us become increasingly aware of God with us in every moment and circumstance of our lives.  There is more than one way to engage in breath prayer: one focuses on concentrated periods of prayer while another disperses the prayer throughout your entire day. For this post, I’m going to focus on the latter. It’s particularly good for busy seasons where stillness is hard to find or for people who may struggle with what’s typically thought of as prayer in evangelical circles (an unscripted conversation with God, eyes closed, while sitting or kneeling).

I’m going to shamelessly steal most of this post from my husband’s newsletter to our church earlier this week. He writes about his initial skepticism about spiritual direction as well as his encounter with God through breath prayer. I’ll follow with a step-by-step guide to experiencing breath prayer for yourself. (Use this link to skip the story and go directly to a printable breath prayer guide.) Here’s my husband’s story:

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I meet once a month with a Spiritual Director, Bill. He’s a man of wisdom, peace, and curiosity. He helps me explore my relationship with God, asking me to get specific about what God is saying to me and what God might be inviting me to.  Honestly, when I started meeting with him, I wanted to quit after about 2 sessions. At first, I didn’t get the point – I already read the bible, I pray, I try to obey what God is telling me – I thought, “Why do I need somebody else to do this with?”

Then God started talking to me.

During our times of discussion, prayer, and reflection, God began to show up and say things to me that were completely new and unexpected! It usually wasn’t Bill telling me “I think God is saying….” it was just us being quiet & reflective together, giving me space for God to speak his voice to me directly. Those things that God has been speaking to me have shaped the direction of my life and ministry.

Let me give you an example: recently, meeting with Bill, as we were talking about the kind of life that God desires for each of us, as we prayed, I heard the Lord say to me “A life governed by the Spirit.”

Romans 8.6

And that was it. It honestly didn’t seem like much at the time, but I could tell it was important. Bill asked me how I could explore that thought and we came up with the idea of “Breath Prayer.” Basically, I walk around all day and I pray a simple, one-sentence prayer under my breath wherever I go.

“Holy Spiritgovern my life.” I try to say it 100 times a day, reflecting on the meaning and letting the prayer speak to me and change me. In the days since I started praying this prayer, it’s meaning has exploded to me with implications I had never realized!

I work through it piece by piece – I’m asking my life to be governed by the Holy Spirit – not governed by my wallet (money), my watch (time & schedule), my will (selfish desires), etc. I don’t want my life to be governed by anyone or anything else by the Holy Spirit – that’s my prayer and declaration as I pray this 100 times a day.

As I ask the Spirit to govern my life, I’m asking him to rule, to make the decisions, to set the course, to provide for me, to protect me. I want his governing presence in the decisions I make myself, and in the circumstances that I find myself in.

When I ask the Spirit to govern my life, I’m submitting myself to him in every aspect of my life – my decisions, my interactions, my activities, my day-to-day life and looking ahead to the whole rest of my life. He gets to govern my body, my mind, my heart, my words, my actions – my whole life!

It’s a simple prayer – Holy Spiritgovern my life – but prayed over and over every day, it’s had a huge impact on me in just a short amount of time!

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Below is a guide to practicing breath prayer for yourself. You can also find the instructions in a printable pdf form if you click the link.

Breath Prayer

Ask the Lord for a simple word or phrase that encapsulates his invitation to you at this moment of your life. It may be a verse, a snippet of a song, something has said to you recently, or something entirely new from God.

Once God has spoken this word or phrase to you, commit to saying it to yourself throughout the day, during your morning routine, as you go to work or spend time with your family, as you do your household chores, watch sports, hang out with your friends, go on a date, brush your teeth. (You get the idea.) 

As you spend time with the prayer, be aware of how its meanings deepen and change. What happens if you emphasize one word instead of another? How is the prayer beginning to make itself known in different aspects of your life? Notice how God is changing you through the prayer.

Stay with the same prayer, even when you may experience boredom or resistance, until you sense God inviting you into something new.