Capture the Flag

Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s no ordinary Lamb! He is the conquering Lamb, the victorious Lamb, the Lamb who overturns the devil’s kingdom of death and sin. The meekest of creatures becomes the mighty champion. He who willingly allowed himself to endure the humiliation of the Cross now bears the banner of victory, and makes a mockery of the devil. Jesus is victorious in a decisive and definitive game of “capture the flag.” We have been rescued from the kingdom of darkness. Our ancient foe has been defeated and despoiled.

Yet the fervor of our response tends to be more like the animations in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “And there was much rejoicing… yay.”

We’ve all seen the Easter images of the lamb and the flag. In Christian circles, these depictions are so quaint that they carry little meaning or force. There is always a danger of our symbols and practices becoming so familiar that we lose any sense of the newness and the power of the Gospel. In this case, we are also hindered by the paradox of the Cross, and the utterly unexpected way that Jesus took the fight to the devil. His weapons are rather unconventional.

It is in John’s Gospel that we hear Jesus proclaimed as the Lamb of God (John 1:29). It is also in John’s Gospel that Jesus willingly embraces his “hour.” He knowingly and freely enters suffering and humiliation (John 10:18), not as an optionless victim but as one very much in charge. He confidently declares, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). Jesus’ meek and humble death, his becoming sin for our sake, becomes the permanent undoing of death and the definitive removal of sin.

Lambs don’t exactly instill terror. I’ve yet to hear someone shriek, “It’s a lamb! Run for your lives!!” It’s imaginable only in the world of Monty Python (if I can dare taunt you with that film a second time).  Consider the famous scene with the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog. It’s so hilarious because it’s so incongruous. The thought of a fluffy bunny turning into a ferocious fighter is laughable. Some of Arthur’s hapless knights discover their mistake only too late.

So does the devil.

The devil’s seeming moment of triumph was actually the moment of his undoing. We can easily miss the brilliance of Jesus’ stratagem. Gentler than the gentlest dove and more cunning than the ancient serpent, Jesus brings unimaginable weapons to the fight and secures the victory over the ruler of this world, a victory that can never be undone.

We speak of the “glory” of the Resurrection, and rightly so. But in John’s Gospel, the glory of Jesus is especially revealed on the Cross. It is there that he casts out the ruler of this world. It is there that he wins the permanent and irrevocable victory. And the devil knows it.

The Cross is the victory. The Resurrection is the beginning of the victory parade. The artistic images of the lamb and flag don’t typically do it justice. We might be better served imagining the victory parades at the end of World War II, which are often depicted in film. We see the faces lining the streets and cheering – recently released prisoners, liberated townspeople, or relieved citizens who never thought this day would come.

But there is more. The Paschal victory parade is a mockery of the devil. That’s exactly how the apostle Paul describes it in Colossians 2:15. Jesus disarms the rulers and authorities (the evil spirits) and makes a public spectacle of them.

You have perhaps seen Roman victory arches, such as the ancient one near the Roman Forum or the more modern Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The ancient practice was for the victorious general to parade through the arch, openly showing off the prizes of victory taken from the enemy, and putting the losing generals on display.

In Jesus’ case, it is the ultimate reversal. In his Passion and Cross, he willingly embraced humiliation and shame – all the things done to him in the moment as well as all the shame ever experienced by you or me or any other human. What sadistic delight that must have brought to the demons! But their aroused revelry becomes their utter undoing, and the beginning of their eternal humiliation.

It’s common to find devotional reflections on Jesus’ physical sufferings in the Passion. Such reflections are not wrong, but they miss the deeper point. A clever critic could point to other forms of torture that would have been far longer lasting and more intensely painful. The Romans themselves had such methods. But Jesus was crucified. Crucifixion included plenty of torture and torment, but the core of crucifixion was utter humiliation. It was a form of execution that invited and encouraged mockery and degradation.

What is fallen human nature like when soldiers or prison guards are given a free pass to mock and degrade a captive? What kinds of dark behaviors emerge (particularly when the captive is stripped naked as part of the mocking)? We don’t even like to think about it. We sanitize and pretend that such atrocities don’t happen. Scripture mentions only a few particulars in Jesus’ case. There may have been more. Either way, the Gospel writers focus far more on the mocking and humiliation than on the physical torment. The evil one and the humans who were seduced by him went to no end to shame Jesus as much as possible.

I have written often about shame. I have studied it in depth – sometimes in books and podcasts, but mostly by studying myself, by exploring my own story, or by accompanying others into those places in their story. I find that toxic shame is perhaps the most unbearable of all human torments. I’ve met many people who tolerate an enormous amount of physical pain in their daily lives. I’ve met far fewer who are willing to linger in places of intense shame. It is in those places that we are most easily bound up by the powers of sin and death.

Jesus went fully and completely into the shame-bound places of the human heart that we can barely tolerate, even with the best of support. He plants the flag of his Cross and declares victory. He pulls down the devil’s banner. He manifests in his risen flesh that death and sin do not get the final word.

I described his methods as “utterly unexpected,” but that’s not entirely true. It’s exactly what God promised, even in the first moment of shame in the garden. There would come “the woman” who would be a total enemy of the devil, and her offspring would crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Jesus is that offspring. He is the long-awaited Messiah. He is the glorious “Son of Man” described in Daniel and in other writings (like the Book of Enoch) that are not properly part of the Scriptures – but which were quite familiar to both Jesus and his followers. In that same Book of Enoch there is a prophecy of a conquering lamb, who will grow strong horns and bring the fight to God’s enemies, who have scattered his people like sheep. Jesus is that conquering Lamb.

Even his weapons were foretold, elsewhere, when Isaiah describes the Suffering Servant. But that vulnerable means of fighting was so unthinkable, so scandalous, so foolish that no one besides God made all these connections. Jesus helped his disciples connect the dots after the Resurrection, seeing how all these prophecies and commandments find their fulfillment in him (see Luke 24:27).

His mercy endures forever! God’s mercy, his kindness, his covenantal love (hesed in Hebrew) combines the meekness of the Lamb of God with the ferocity of the Lion of Judah. And let’s not forget that lions are predators. On the Cross, Jesus meekly and innocently suffers. On the Cross, Jesus cleverly lays a snare in a manner far more cunning than the most cunning predators. And the devil takes the bait.

In the Catholic world, we celebrate the Easter Octave – eight festive days of rejoicing in this victory. We begin with the Sunday of the Resurrection and conclude with the Sunday of Divine Mercy. Jesus overturns the ancient powers of death and sin – “powers” here in the biblical sense of evil sprits who pretend like they get to hold us captive and torment us in our powerlessness.

Left to ourselves, we are indeed powerless to overcome these unstoppable forces. They seduced Adam and Eve and us, and we gave our authority over to them. They won’t willingly release it. God knows that, and willingly sends his own Son to upend the powers of this fallen world in a way they could not imagine.

Like those at a victory parade, we can feel the liberation and the joy of the rescue that has just happened. We can be confident in the victorious Lamb who has torn down the enemy’s banner, and who puts the enemy and his impotent claim to power on public display. He has no such power over us. Not anymore. With the apostle Paul, we can boldly proclaim:

O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law – but thanks be to God who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No! in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-39).

And there was much rejoicing!

Fatherhood and Subsidiarity

God is our Father. Jesus presents himself as God’s own Son. He speaks of God as his Father who desires to become our Father. All fatherhood derives from God the Father and has its meaning from him (cf. Ephesians 3:14-21).

And what do we see in God’s Fatherhood? He is radically different from the counterfeit versions of fatherhood that are far too common today! In the Trinity, all three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are equal in dignity. Jesus is from the Father (not the other way around), yet they are coequal in dignity and majesty. There is no “greater than” or “less than.” God shows us that fatherhood is not meant to be about power or privilege. Fatherhood is about pouring blessing into others and lifting them up to be secure in their own identity.

Children look to their fathers to discover their identity, to discover and know securely who they are. In the Old Testament (even amidst the dysfunction!) the concept of fatherly blessing is a recurring theme. Adam is given authority by God over the whole cosmos and gives names to all of the animals. Had he exercised his stewardship well, the entire cosmos would have flourished under God’s Fatherly blessing. In Genesis 27, Isaac bestows his blessing upon Jacob, and not upon Esau. Flooded with envy, Esau desperately aches for that fatherly blessing. In the next generation, Jacob names and blesses his sons in highly descriptive and specific ways (see Genesis 49).

In the New Testament, after calling many disciples to himself, Jesus inaugurates his public preaching with the Sermon on the Mount – beginning with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10). Each one promises Fatherly blessing – not because we strive for it or earn it, but because we allow ourselves to be open and receptive to a Father who is eager to bless us.

Ultimately, only God is fully a Father. Any earthly fathers (whether in our families or in our churches) are called to be icons of God’s Fatherhood. But too often we are distorted caricatures, in which his true Fatherhood is barely recognizable.

Perhaps that is why Jesus cautions us against calling anyone on earth our “father” (Matthew 23:9). There are even some evangelicals who have used that verse as a stick to bash Catholics for calling priests “Father” – while simultaneously protecting patriarchal structures that allow white males to be leaders in their families and churches who somehow have more power and privileges than the rest. The fact is, all Christian traditions (including Catholicism) are prone to an abuse of fatherly authority. Any time fatherhood claims power or privileges for its own sake, it becomes oppressive and harms those who are meant to be served.

In our Catholic Tradition, we have an important (and little practiced) teaching called “subsidiarity.” Authority of any kind is called to assist, support, and empower those it serves, rather than to replace them. Typically, this teaching is applied to governmental structures – and rightly so. Those in office have a duty to be solicitous for the common good and to intervene where others are struggling (whether than be parents, local governments, or state governments). But in intervening they are called to support and empower rather than to usurp or replace.

Sadly, we don’t seem to apply subsidiarity to fatherly authority! Whether we are fathers in a marriage and family or father figures in a church family, our fatherly authority is never meant to be about power or privilege! Remember – in the Trinity, Jesus and the Father are totally equal. There is no “greater than” or “less than.” Jesus is absolutely secure in his identity precisely because of his relationship with his Father. Any human form of fatherhood is meant to be a true icon of God’s Fatherhood – helping those who are fathered to become secure in God’s Fatherly blessing.

Fatherhood has been under fire for a long time. Some Christians see this trend as a liberal secular threat that needs to be fought and suppressed. But in their reactivity, they are not listening well to the grievances! We need to name the many ways in which fatherhood has harmed rather than blessed. We need to empathize with the grief and anger of those who have been abused or oppressed. We need to examine our structures and how they operate – asking humbly and honestly whether the authority there is ever exploited for power and privilege rather than lifting others up into secure identity and delegating to them their own proper authority. We need to toil tirelessly to arrive at the day in which women and children don’t have to fear being used or harmed by the men in their families, communities, and churches!

Many males in authority have been resistant and reluctant to needed reform. Is it any surprise that many others rebel against any and all forms of patriarchy? Rather than seeking to reclaim authentic fatherhood, many today want to name it as evil.

As often happens with rebellion, this rejection of fatherly authority will only lead to greater problems. A void of authentic fatherhood is worse! As harmful as it is when fathers use or oppress, it is even more harmful when fathers abdicate their fatherly authority. Those under their care remain unblessed and insecure in their identity. They go unprotected. They live in chaos and disorder.  There will only be more self-indulgence, exploiting of others, and aggression against others. All the while God’s Fatherhood, his fierce and tender embrace, remains a distant and forgotten dream. Is this not the story of Simba’s fatherhood in The Lion King? In his fear, shame, and woundedness, he flees his true calling and true authority, and many suffer disorder and oppression until he reclaims it.

As we approach another Father’s Day, we can remember that God has truly revealed himself as our Father, and that fatherhood is a gift from him. The greater the gift, the greater the devil’s envy and attacks as he attempts to distract or distort. We can reject all distortions of fatherhood while challenging ourselves to bring blessing to others in a way that truly allows all God’s children to be secure in their identity.

The Embrace of the Father

In Luke 15, the Pharisees and scribes are seething with suspicion and envy. The problem? Jesus is hanging out with sinners – welcoming them with kindness, dining with them, and curiously getting to know them. The Pharisees feel a conviction that those sinners need to know the truth! How can they stop sinning if we don’t tell them clearly the difference between right and wrong?

Jesus responds by telling them three stories. God the Father seeks out the lost sheep, seeks out the lost coin, and seeks out his lost sons. In each story God’s desire is not to scold or to punish, but to pursue what had been lost, to embrace with delight, to reconcile, and to restore. In each story, God’s deepest desire is to celebrate the heavenly wedding feast with all his scattered children. He wants all of us at the table, where we can celebrate the one-flesh union between his own Son and all those human beings who dare to desire so much delight.

The younger son (the “prodigal”) comes to his senses and begins to tell the fuller truth to himself – not just about the legal rules he has violated, but about how much harm he has caused in his relationships. He has sinned against heaven. He has sinned against his good father. He rises and returns to the house of his father.

As much as the son desires to return, the father’s desire is infinitely greater. He sees his son from afar, rushes out to meet him, and embraces him.

Here is where the Pharisees and scribes have it so wrong. The Father’s embrace comes first. In his eternal love and kindness, he eagerly seeks us out. He embraces us with delight – while we are yet sinners! Full conversion will come in due time – gradually, and always in a way that keeps inviting us to come further up and further into the infinite vastness and intensity of his delight.

If we are not secure in the Father’s embrace, there is no way we will keep choosing our journey of conversion. If we are like the younger son, we will (sooner or later) return to the familiar smallness and squalor of old and familiar behaviors that cause harm to self and others. If we believe ourselves to be unlovable, and to be lacking in dignity, it’s only a matter of time before we start behaving that way!

If we are like the older son (or the Pharisees or the scribes), we will self-righteously cling to “the truth” – which is really just a list of propositions that allow us to feel good enough about ourselves. If we can control and manage our behaviors, we can style ourselves to be “good” and not like those other people who disregard the truth.  But what we are calling “the truth” is only a very partial glimpse of the living God. Without the relationship, it becomes a caricature and a distortion.

Yes, morality matters. Yes, moral relativism is a problem and a threat. When each person gets to define for himself or herself what is true, good, or beautiful, then innocent people will indeed suffer!

But the answer is not the answer of the scribes and Pharisees. It is not the answer of the elder son. They are fixating on the rules while ignoring the covenantal relationship that is the foundation for all those rules! Jesus teaches us that every single law hinges upon the two great commandments of loving God and loving neighbor.

This past spring, I was chaplain at a priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center. Bob Schuchts asked us to consider what the experience of the younger son would have been like if he returned home and was greeted, not with his father’s embrace, but by his older brother.

What a question! And it’s not an abstract question. In our church families, heartbroken humans emerge, month after month. Desire is awakening in their hearts, even though their lives are a mess. They are trying to find their way back to the house of the Father. And what do they encounter here? The Father’s embrace and an invitation into deeper relationship? Or a checklist of expectations for how they are to behave if they want to belong to our club?

Truth-telling is important, but I find that many of us Christians today (like those Pharisees and scribes) are more interested in comparing, categorizing, and condemning. We want to tell “the truth” about particular moral issues while ignoring the deeper and fuller truth about who God is and who we are as human beings.

God tells the truth with kindness, never with contempt. His pursuit of us and his embrace of us communicate to us the Truth of our dignity and our destiny. He reminds us of what we are capable, and emboldens us in our desire. THEN we begin to grow and mature and bear fruit.

The contempt of the older son is a symptom of his underlying shame. I’ve learned to watch for that connection. Whenever contempt for human poverty shows up – whether it’s the poverty of “those people” or my own poverty – it’s a symptom of shame. It’s a symptom of seeking to earn love by performance rather than receive it as gift.  It’s a symptom that we may not truly believe the amazing and foundational Truth of the Gospel – that God makes the first move, that he is always eager to embrace, and that he desires to share everything with us.

We all desperately need to hear that Good News proclaimed to us – usually more than once. We are shattered by sin, and there are many shards of our heart that still don’t know this Truth. The more fully we receive the Gospel, the more we grow and mature and bear fruit.

The saints are those who keep growing into the Father’s embrace. Their deepest suffering is an increasing realization of the infinite gap between themselves and God.  The more they grow, the more they realize how far they are – no longer in shame or discouragement, but in a loving longing that aches for union and realizes there will still be a wait before all fullness comes.

As a result, authentic saints exhibit an incredible kindness to sinners – because they feel a kinship. The gap between God and the saint remains infinite. The gap between the saint and the sinner is miniscule. The saint begins to share in God’s desire for every sinner to be embraced, reconciled, restored, and celebrated. The saint begins to share God’s delight in human dignity, treating self and others with honor rather than contempt – especially when human poverty shows up. Here we find the truer and deeper meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself” – to welcome human poverty in self and others and allow God the Father to embrace with honor and delight.

Will we allow the Father’s embrace to change our own hearts? Will we desire the same embrace for others – even those we dislike or despise? The Father desires them and us to come into the feast! His embrace is all-transforming. But he never pressures or forces. The decision is ours.

Fatherhood – Part II

How do we reclaim authentic fatherhood without succumbing to counterfeit versions of it?

The only way we can discover true fatherhood is to go back to its true source: God the Father and the eternal communion of love that is the Trinity. The Father is the source, the eternal font, without being “greater than.” The Son is from the Father, yet they are coequal in dignity and majesty. The Son eternally receives from the Father; he has his very identity from the Father. Yet he is just as fully and perfectly God as the Father is God. All that is the Father’s is his. The loving communion between them, the eternal delight they share IS the Holy Spirit.

I have been relishing Jacques Philippe’s new book entitled Priestly Fatherhood. He rejects all abusive forms of fatherhood while gently but firmly inviting his fellow Catholic priests to be icons of God’s Fatherhood. Icons are not God; rather, they draw us into the divine. Priests are invited to be loving shepherds, loving in a fatherly way as we accompany the flock into the heart of God the Father. How beautiful it is when we Catholic priests embrace our ordained identity as “another Christ” – one who manifests the love of the heart of Jesus so that others can come to see the face of the Father in heaven.

Often, we falsely exalt priestly fatherhood – putting priests up on a pedestal, pretending like we are not truly human. Our fatherhood is genuine, but it is only a sharing or a participation in God’s Fatherhood. It remains a heavenly treasure held in vessels of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7-11). When we priests forget our humanity, we begin abusing power and harming people. When people expect us priests to be superhuman, they will wear us out. Both happen far too often! God is the true Father people seek, and that means renouncing any idolatrous versions of priestly fatherhood.

Jacques Philippe names well some of the distortions of fatherhood. I would like to consider three of them: severity, absence, and chumminess. I think they are the most common abuses – not only for shepherds and spiritual fathers, but also for dads in family life!

Severe fathers harm their children, who live in fear of missteps or mistakes. The children feel like their efforts will never be good enough; they will never measure up. Sometimes the abuse is blatant: name calling, belittling, yelling, screaming, interrupting, or assaulting through physical violence. Other times, the abuse is subtler – not loving the children for who they are, expecting them to fit a certain image or mold, only showing them love or affection when they behave a certain way or play their proper role, reacting with anger or fear if they somehow bring shame on the family or expose the family’s problems to others.

Absent fatherhood is every bit as damaging, perhaps even more so. Fathers who abdicate their authority leave their children alone to face the harshness of a fallen world, to figure things out for themselves. When children feel alone, unseen, unheard, and uncared for, it doesn’t take much for them to internalize a lie of worthlessness. Something must be wrong with me.

What Jacques Philippe describes as “chumminess” is a third failure of fatherhood. Yes, it gives lots of attention to the children. Perhaps they even like it – much of the time. But it becomes a using and an exploitation – meeting the emotional needs of the father in a way that ultimately sucks the life out of the children rather than strengthening them, holding them accountable, and helping them discover their true identity.

As I read Jacques Philippe, I found myself immediately thinking of another favorite book of mine, Unwanted by Jay Stringer. It is, to date, the single best book on unwanted sexual behaviors, why they happen, where they come from, and how real transformation happens. Jay conducted research with 3,800 individuals and found some common denominators in their family of origin: rigidity, disengagement, and triangulation.

“Rigidity” is another way of describing severe parenting, just as “disengagement” is another way of describing emotional absence or lack of connection. The term “triangulation” is unfamiliar to most, but we need only turn to Genesis to find examples. Isaac and Rebekah are in a marriage covenant, but Rebekah prefers emotional intimacy with her son Jacob, while Isaac prefers their twin son Esau. Jacob continues the pattern into the next generation, choosing his own favorite son Joseph.  Joseph, at first, rather enjoys the power and privilege of this special relationship with daddy – which incites much envy and violence from his brothers. They make him pay by selling him into slavery.

Fatherhood, in its authenticity, is a humble exercise of authority that helps children to know who they are. Consistent and loving fatherhood allows children to be secure in their identity. If you read the writings of John Paul II on Theology of the Body (please do!), you will discover that our identity and our sexuality cannot be separated from one another. God created us male and female in his own image. The devil immediately and furiously assaulted that identity, seducing us into a ruptured relationship with God, others, and ourselves. We have been wounded ever since, both in our sense of identity as children of God and in our sexuality – which, more broadly speaking, includes how we relate to anyone and everyone. Most of us struggle to some degree in having healthy and holy relationships. We wear masks and hide parts of ourselves; we resist vulnerability and true intimacy – because we are wounded.

Only God the Father can restore us in our true identity, through Jesus his Son, in the Holy Spirit. Earthly fathers (both dads and priests) are given authority for the purpose of helping the children to experience God’s Fatherhood. Earthly fathers harm, but we can repair the harm. We can recognize and confess that we have been severe or rigid, that we have abdicated or abandoned, or that we have used others to meet our own needs. We can become authentic fathers who are truly icons of God the Father. We can shine the love of the Father in a world that needs it.

But how?

To be concluded…

Fixing vs. Facing

What is your reaction when confronted with human heartache?

Do you feel the urge to fix it? To prescribe the right book, the right prayers, the right slogan, or the right regimen? Or maybe you crack a joke to lighten the mood; maybe you put things in perspective with a comparison: “Well, at least you’re not like ____________________.”

Fixing feels good at the time. We tell ourselves that we are “helping” the other person – but we are probably helping ourselves. We don’t like that feeling of heartache, and we definitely don’t like feeling powerless – so we back away from the abyss by trying to fix it.

When Job’s friends arrived, they found him sitting on a pile of dung, scraping at his scabs with a shard of pottery. They sat with him for a time, but couldn’t abide his heartache for very long. They shifted to analyzing and fixing, and thereby abandoned him in his pain. Indeed, they blamed him for it!

Giving advice is easy – and not nearly so helpful as we like to think. In some cases, it is our way of backing away from solidarity with the suffering person. In others, it is an arrogant way of saying, “If only you were more like me, your problems would go away.”

I have noticed that subtle message in myself and others – both at the individual and the collective level. I think of Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II – an orphanage in Peru founded by Fr. Joe Walijewski, a saintly priest from our diocese. I have been there five times, usually with a group of young people. The thought process at home is almost always the same – Isn’t it great that we are sending down some of our youth to go and help those poor people? We assume that our affluent (and white) American ways are so much better than theirs. We assume that we have the power, wisdom, and resources to solve their problems. If only they were more like us…

Fr. Walijewski actually saw it the other way around, dreaming of a “mission in reverse.” The mission is not our people going down to Peru. Rather, we go to Peru so that the children there can teach us what it means to be human!

And they have taught us – every time. Amidst material poverty, amidst government corruption, amidst heart-wrenching stories of loss or betrayal, we have encountered stunning beauty and joy. It exposes our own deeper poverty – what Mother Teresa called “the poverty of affluence.” Every single trip I have witnessed the shocked realization in our youths’ faces and tears: How can children possessing so little, children who have suffered so much, be so joyful? How can they love so tenderly and so vulnerably? How can we who possess so much be so joyless?

Jesus invites us to be with each other in communion – both in the agonizing sorrows of life and in the intense joys. As Paul puts it, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). That means that the human heart of a saint is never far from tears and never far from laughter. Those who are the most open to tears are also the most capable of joy. That is because, in the Paschal Mystery, Jesus has redeemed human heartache by investing meaning into it. He invites us, not to bypass suffering and the Cross, but to follow him through it to new and abundant life – to follow where the brave shepherd has gone before.

It is only when we face the fuller depths of our humanity – in all its beauty and brokenness – that we can die with Christ and rise with him.  It is in such human encounters that the newness of the Resurrection breaks in. Those who learn to abide in the midst of heartache, staying vulnerable and receptive to God and others, will experience the surprise of the Resurrection and the joy of the Gospel. Jesus assures us that his Father blesses those who are poor, those who grieve and mourn, those who are willing to be vulnerable, those who hunger and thirst. Facing heartache allows us to receive the Father’s blessing. “Fixing” it closes us off and diminishes our receptivity.

Let’s face it – facing heartache is hard! As the great poet T.S. Eliot put it, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

I think that is why, when Jesus died on Good Friday, he said “Behold – your mother!” – not just to John, but to every beloved disciple. Mary was often in situations in which she intuitively understood that God was doing amazing things. She did not at all know how it was going to be okay. I am thinking of the Annunciation, Jesus’ birth in a stable, the flight into Egypt, the cryptic words of Simeon in the Temple, the losing and finding of 12-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem, his torture and execution, and the awful watching and waiting on Holy Saturday. Again and again, mother Mary faced heartache. Again and again she waited with expectant hope and was surprised by the marvels of the Kingdom of God.

The last time the Bible tells us about Mary is in Acts 1. Following Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, yet again she abides in uncertainty and messiness. She prays with the apostles every day in the cenacle – nine days in all. It took those apostles many years and many failed attempts, but they learned to abide and receive. The Jewish feast of Pentecost arrives – the day to bring first fruits of the harvest to God. In a stunning and joy-filled reversal, God gives the first fruits to his Church in the person of the Holy Spirit. Mary recedes, and the early Church comes to birth, set on fire with the Holy Spirit.

The Church is intended by God to be a community that faces heartache vulnerably, open to the Father in holy receptivity and open to each other in true communal fellowship. Rather than trying to fix or advise others so that their story can fit into the preconceived mold of our own story, we expect the Holy Spirit to show up. We expect the Father’s blessing. We expect that the new life of Resurrection will surprise us. Fixing is too constrictive to allow space for God to do his work.

Do we have the courage to face our humanity together, and to abide together in Hope?

Hosting An Unexpected Party

Have you noticed during this pandemic that some of your “old friends” keep showing up uninvited? I think you know who I mean – those behaviors so familiar for so long that you naively thought you had left behind. Maybe it’s procrastination or sluggishness. Maybe it’s peevishness or fault-finding. Maybe it’s fretting or freaking out. Maybe it’s binging on food or alcohol or YouTube. Maybe it’s slipping back into pornography or masturbation, after doing “so much better.” You get the idea.

I remember having that experience back in 2008, during my first year of graduate studies in Rome. My first oral exam approached, and lo! My inner procrastinator, whom I had killed and buried (or so I thought) was suddenly alive and well. There I was, at 32 years old, back in the old ways of avoiding studying and wasting hours upon hours of my time – not in deeply satisfying or fun connecting with other people, but in escaping and numbing that left me feeling more and more like a failure.

During the previous five years, in my bustling ministry as a high school chaplain and teacher, I totally thought I had overcome procrastination. I truly changed many habits and discovered the joy of being tidy and organized and responsible – or so I thought. During those five years, I rarely procrastinated because I simply couldn’t afford to. But given the opportunity once again…

Hello old friend.

He made himself at home in my heart as though he had never left.

I now understand that there was so much more going on than procrastination. This was not primarily a matter of discipline or a lack of discipline. The deeper truth is that I was not very connected to my emotions, nor to the deeper needs of my heart. I was feeling lonely, sad, and disconnected. I was fearing failure and struggling with shame. I was feeling very much like I felt when I was 10 or 11 years old.

A wise man I once knew always liked to say “old pain, old solution.” If I am feeling like an emotionally vulnerable 11-year-old, then it’s easy to begin acting like one.

Unfortunately, when we act like 11-year-olds (or 8-year-olds or 3-year-olds) we have a tendency to be frustrated or disgusted or self-shaming. Why do I have to be this way?? What’s wrong with me??

Children in distress need comfort and care, not shaming. We can learn to be kind to ourselves in those moments.

A year ago I was reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. I was moved to tears as he described a trauma treatment called Internal Family Systems therapy. It really resonated with me. IFS describes the all-too-common human experience of having many voices and movements within our hearts at any given time. It’s almost like each of us has multiple personalities within us. We have an assortment of character roles that we can quickly assume, without even thinking about it: the procrastinator, the perfectionist, the fault-finder, the binge eater, the gossip, the worry wart, the hider, the flirt – and so many more.

Internal Family Systems suggests that our deepest, truest self is an integration of all these different “parts” of ourselves. I will give a caveat that there are (unfortunately) some very New-Age versions of IFS that risk turning us into narcissists or Gnostics or worse. But Christians like Chuck DeGroat (author of Wholeheartedness) do a marvelous job of describing the wholeness and integration that Jesus came to bring. All of these inner characters – some of them deeply familiar to us – are good parts of our good hearts, created in the image and likeness of God. Some of these “parts” are still stuck in childhood, still playing the same old role they began playing all those years ago. And they are tired and exhausted. They long to hear the Good News of Jesus.

IFS divides these inner parts or characters into three main groups: exiles, managers, and firefighters.

Often when we experience serious trauma or neglect in life, our survival instincts kick in, and we discover ways to protect ourselves and endure. We instinctively find ways to lock away the most tender and vulnerable parts of ourselves. These become the exiles.

The exiles carry heavy burdens such as shame, fear, loneliness, sadness, anger, or resentment. They also carry our deepest human potential – for trust, vulnerability, dependence, relationships, connection, creativity, innovation, fruitfulness, and self-gift. As long as they stay locked up, we will only be a shell of our true selves. But letting them out feels so scary. It seems so much safer to keep them locked away.

That is where the managers come in (sometimes called the “protectors”). They receive a commission at a very young age – work vigilantly and relentlessly to keep guard over the exiles. Make sure they do not escape!

The Hider

For myself, at a very young age, I learned how to hide myself. Better not to let my true self be seen. That is probably my oldest manager/protector. Many of my other inner characters are variations on how to hide myself – even in plain sight. I learned early and often how to dissociate from the present moment, how to daydream, how to be shy, or how to procrastinate.

The Perfectionist

Around age 11, I somehow hired an entire crack team of new managers – headed by the perfectionist.  Working for him were other high-performance managers like the “A” student, the athlete, the achiever, and the Pharisee. Performing and achieving somehow felt so safe – indeed, I stayed in that mode for about 30 more years!

The “A” Student”
The Achiever
The Athlete
The Pharisee

These characters served me so well – until they didn’t. It sure seemed like, with them working so hard, they could somehow find a way to make sure I never make any mistakes and therefore would never be unloved or rejected. It turns out that Love doesn’t work that way. But 11-year-olds still have a lot to learn about Love.

There are many manager or protector roles that we can take on – the worry wart, the future tripper, the planner, or the control freak. And then there is everyone’s all-time favorite: the inner critic – that almost undetectable whisper within that tells us we are going to fail, that we’ll never be good enough. Even that inner critic is a good part of ourselves that means well – trying so hard to protect us from the pain of feeling rejected or unwanted or unloved. Probably there was a time when that voice helped us survive. Eventually, it becomes a torment.

It’s so easy to let our managers be in charge – or live in the illusion that they are in charge. For long periods of time it feels like success! Life seems so great.

Then something truly hard happens, and it begins to feel like our cozy little life is slipping away. We notice that one of our exiles is escaping; we begin feeling bodily sensations or emotions that (according to past experience) are a stern warning of imminent danger – a serious threat is at hand.

In those situations, some of us tend to double down on our managers. I will try even harder, impose even more discipline, become blaming and demanding with others, cling desperately to control – you know the drill.

And then it fails.  The alarm goes off. Security breach. The exiles are on the loose.

Enter the firefighters.

They will put out the fire – whatever it takes. They tend to be “bad boys.” They don’t mind doing all kinds of property damage, so long as they save the exiles and get them back in their cages. Mission accomplished.

It very much reminds me of the hotel scene in Ghostbusters when they capture their first ghost – trashing the ritzy ballroom in the process. When the manager protests paying their fee, they say, “That’s okay, we can just put it right back in there…”  And the manager relents.

Within my own inner “family” of characters, I have more benign firefighters like the daydreamer or the disarming smiler or the jokester. I have more intense ones like the nail biter, the binge eater, or the drinker. Addictive behaviors of any kind definitely fall in the firefighter category.

The Binge Eater

Looking back to my teenage years, my inner perfectionist was in charge most of the time, but when he and his team got exhausted, I spent hours on end escaping into video games. The escapes changed and morphed over the years. Eventually, life got hard enough that none of them were enough. That is when I realized I needed to reach out in new ways for help. So I did. My life has been transformed by the new relationships and new adventures.

Yes, during this time of COVID-19, I have definitely had moments in which multiple managers or multiple firefighters began showing up unannounced – just like the dwarves at the beginning of The Hobbit.

If you are familiar with that delightful tale, you know how Bilbo Baggins (reluctantly at first) shows hospitality to his intrusive guests. That unexpected party ultimately opens an opportunity for Bilbo to embark upon an amazing adventure there and back again that forever changes his life. All would have been different had he driven the dwarves away in disgust.

Here we find an important lesson. These various “parts” within us, these characters or members of our inner family system are not our enemies. They’re sincerely trying to help us; they just don’t know how. This is true even for those parts of the human heart that act out in the form of sexual fantasy or lust or pornography. They are trying very hard to meet a legitimate (non-sexual) need in an illicit way. Human urges may need a lot of untangling but when we get to the roots we will discover something very good.

To be sure, like those dwarves in Tolkien’s tale, our firefighters and managers are not the best ones to put in charge. Their self-interest and narrow-mindedness will get in the way. But if properly led and rightly ordered, they are wonderful travel companions and fierce allies.

The first step, I have found, is gently noticing. Just notice that all these characters have suddenly shown up. Then wonder at why they are really there…

Some of the questions I find helpful in these situations: What’s going on? What am I really feeling right now? Is there something my heart needs right now?  I find when I slow down and truly allow myself to be in the present moment, I often begin weeping, not realizing just what a “party” my heart was having and I wasn’t paying attention to. I also find that it often helps to phone a friend and connect, to begin naming what is happening in the depths of my heart, describing the “unexpected party” of managers or firefighters who suddenly showed up.

In IFS therapy sessions, therapists will actually ask questions of these managers or firefighters. Why are you here? How old are you? What are you so afraid of? When these different characters within ourselves are seen and noticed, heard and understood, thanked and appreciated, then they behave like most real people would in those circumstances – they become more open and docile, willing to be led and guided by someone who is trustworthy. They step aside and allow the exiles to be truly cared for.

Truth is, they don’t actually like their job – it’s a crappy role they were forced to take on at a very young age. They would very much like it if a mature and wise person would step in to lead and direct. But they need lots of reassurance that it’s going to be safe – that the exiles won’t be hurt in the process.

That is why the self-loathing and self-shaming is so toxic. It increases the inner conflicts. Our managers will then become even more overbearing, and our firefighters become that much more sly and cunning. These inner characters are holding on to parts of ourselves that need to be saved. They are good and faithful servants in their own misguided manner. They need to be integrated and unified, not cast aside.

We may feel frustrated that old behaviors come knocking at our door, unwelcome and unexpected. But we can learn empathy and kindness. We can allow the Risen Jesus to enter the scene with his “Peace be with you.” Then the unexpected party can truly become a the beginning of a great adventure. The Paschal Peace of Jesus will begin to give direction and right order to our exiles, our managers, and our firefighters. He will gather and integrate and heal what had been scattered and divided and damaged.

Yes, sometimes this quarantine is really hard. But don’t let it get you down. See it as an opportunity to have tea with some old friends. Invite Jesus to the party and let him give his guidance and wisdom. Accept the help of other friends along the way, and don’t let the unruly dwarves get the best of you. It’s an invitation to a great adventure, one that will lead you to discover your deeper destiny, one that will heal your heart and allow the glory of Jesus to shine.