When Worlds Collide

How do you react when your worlds collide?

For those not familiar with the phrase, it’s that moment when two previously compartmentalized “worlds” in your day-to-day existence suddenly meet each other. Your church friends unexpectedly chat with your college roommate. Your business partners walk in on you while you are jamming out to your favorite song. Your 5-year-old daughter overhears a conversation with your golfing buddies. You get the idea.

The expression goes back to a 1995 episode of Seinfeld. Every episode follows the self-absorbed escapades of Jerry, Kramer, Elaine, and George. This time Jerry decides it will be a great idea to introduce Elaine to George’s girlfriend. Kramer immediately declares, “That’s gonna be trouble.” When Jerry expresses bewilderment, Kramer explains, “Jerry, don’t you see? This world here, this is George’s sanctuary. If Susan comes into contact with this world, his worlds collide. You know what happens then?” For dramatic effect, Kramer brings his hands together and then “explodes” his food all over the floor.

Sure enough, the moment George discovers this new development, he is terrified and enraged. He screams at Jerry, “Anybody knows – ya gotta keep your worlds APART!!”

Scene by scene, George comes unglued as his carefully compartmentalized worlds collide or collapse.  More than once he cries out, “You’re killing independent George!!”  At one point he rattles off all the different versions of himself: independent George, movie George, coffee shop George, relationship George, liar George, bawdy George.  His conclusion? A George divided against itself cannot stand!!

Thankfully, most of us are not so narcissistic as the Seinfeld characters. But we do tend to compartmentalize our lives, don’t we?

I often experience discomfort or outright dread when people get curious and start to know intimate details about me. Even though I desire to be known and understood, it feels safer carefully curating what this or that group of people know about me. It’s more instinctive than intentional. It just happens.

There are actually reasons why it happens!

On the one hand, there is the reality that not everyone can be our intimate companion. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wisely declared that “he who has many friends has no friends.” Authentic intimacy takes much time, effort, and mutual work. It is both practical and fitting that only very few people in our life truly know all of us.

Moreover, there is the reality that some people do not deserve our trust. They will use us or manipulate us; or they will bail on us when things get hard. In the words of Jesus, it is wise not to cast our pearls before swine. It would be masochism to share vulnerably with those who will trample on us afterward. Choosing companions carefully is prudence and wisdom! But some of us are so careful that we never actually choose!

Is there anyone who knows all of us? Many of us hide parts of ourselves even from those closest to us! Why?

As human beings, we are true sons and daughters of Adam and Eve – in all their beauty and all their brokenness.  We continue to harm each other – especially in our own families. Each one of us has suffered far more harm than we care to admit!

The greater the harm, the more we become like George Costanza. Shattered by the ways that others have used us, abandoned us, or taken out their contempt on us, we brilliantly create “worlds” for ourselves. We learn how to manage and control each one, creating the illusion of safety and connection. It really seems to work – until our worlds collide or collapse. Over time, what once helped us survive begins to ruin us.

George spoke more prophetically than he knew: A George divided against itself cannot stand! Juggling dozens of separate worlds becomes exhausting – not to mention lonely. We are created for communion – to know and be known, to love and be loved. If no one truly knows and loves all of us, we will be as empty as the characters on that show!

The New Testament speaks of our Christian existence as one of koinonia. It can be translated as communion, community, sharing, participation, or fellowship – and includes all of them. By his dying and rising, Jesus reconciles us to the Father, to each other, and to ourselves. Authentic communion and community become possible. But it is hard to find – especially in our churches!

I’ve enjoyed reading the works of Curt Thompson: The Soul of Shame and The Soul of Desire. He names four characteristics of healthy Christian community, what he calls “the four S’s.” When we truly belong in healthy community, we will feel Seen, Soothed, Safe, and Secure. Do we not all ache for those four things?

George Costanza looked at his group of friends as his safe space, his sanctuary. To a certain extent, they were. None of them expected the others to be perfect or to be someone else. But they all still felt the need to compartmentalize; they all ultimately lived selfish and empty lives. None of them truly felt safe or secure; there was no authentic vulnerability or intimacy.

As most of you know, I spent my three-month sabbatical doing intensive trainings to help provide more resources for those harmed by trauma or struggling with unwanted behaviors. I have noticed a glaring lack in our churches today – authentic Christian community is exceedingly hard to find!

In our struggle with sin, with addictions, or with emotional and spiritual sickness, we will not get well without authentic community. There have to be at least a few people who know and love ALL of us; there has to be a place in which we can truthfully say I belong here. Here I do not have to pretend or compartmentalize. I don’t have to hold things together or keep worlds apart. I just get to be. I will be seen; I will be cared for; I will feel safe and secure. These companions will neither condemn me nor excuse me. They won’t see me as a problem to fix; they won’t abandon me; they won’t reject me. They will speak the truth about what they see and it will feel great because it is deep and full truth. Like Jesus, they will see me in my wholeness; they will desire all the pieces of me; they will care about ALL my “worlds.”

Again, let us listen to the “prophetic” words of George Costanza: You’re killing Independent George!!

When our worlds collide, it feels like a death threat. In our brilliant survival amidst human harm, we get seduced into the illusion of “independence.” We think we can control and manage all these self-created worlds and not need anyone else in the process. It’s so much safer that way – or so we think.

But it goes against our true nature. We are created to depend totally upon God our Father and to become interdependent, existing together as one Body and one Spirit in Christ. We long for that communion, even as (like George) we feel threatened by it! In fact, he’s right – there is a real dying that precedes our becoming truly alive! We are terrified of losing what we have so carefully crafted. Even when we are ready, we still want to know what will remain on the other side. Will anything of me be left?

God understands those fears – yet it is the only way. When we are ready to stop compartmentalizing, Jesus is ready to lead us to authentic connection and communion. It will be the end of our worlds as we know them, and the beginning of the new heavens and new earth.

Failure IS an Option

FDo you ever experience a fear of failure? I know I do!

Sometimes it’s a stew of anxiety, simmering throughout the day. Other times it’s a sudden eruption of panic or peevishness amidst what had seemed a moment of calm. When I pay attention and reflect, I can see that there is a significant fear of failure. It doesn’t drive or dominate me nearly as much as it used to, but it still shows up.

I already shared with you some highlights of Fr. Jacques Philippe’s recent book Priestly Fatherhood. Perhaps his greatest insight for us all (priests and laity alike) is when he connects our fear of failure with the rift in our childlike trust in God as a fierce and tender Father. God is a Father who will unfailingly provide for our needs. He will never reject or abandon us. But in our woundedness it often doesn’t feel that way! From the very beginning of human history, the evil one has been tirelessly at work to rupture our relationships – with God the Father, with each other, and with ourselves. Shame is the devil’s single greatest weapon. Through the lies of shame, he enticed Adam and Eve to hide from God and to protect themselves from each other.

I see shame as the shadow side of communion. It’s not inherently evil (after all, the devil can’t create!). Shame actually helps us and many other mammals to survive. If they get cut off from their pack, they will die. If we humans are on the verge of a rupture of communion, shame will speak up! Unfortunately, that shame signal is so easily exploited by anyone who would manipulate (the devil being chief among them!). We are created for the purpose of sharing intimately in joyful communion. We are meant to belong and to experience that safe connection with the Father and with each other. Shame blares its alarm whenever there is a threat of rupture. It does indeed feel like a matter of life or death!

The problem is that what initially serves our survival ultimately leads us into a wasteland of isolation and ungodly self-protection. Our survival becomes exhausting! As Fr. Philippe puts it, modern man, no longer looking to God as a Father, is “condemned to success.” There is no room for failure because there is no longer a loving Father there to give us protection, freedom, encouragement, and space to keep learning and growing from our mistakes.

How do you handle it when you fail? Or when others around you fail? Are you both able to go closer to the failure and talk about it? Why or why not?

When I feel like I have failed or am about to fail, I have a tendency power up or withdraw, depending on the situation. Both are ways of distancing my shame from the other person. Both isolate rather than heal and repair.

If I listen attentively and notice in God’s presence, there are two main messages to my shame. It either warns me against being seen and exposed as a failure, or it warns me that others will flee from me and leave me alone to face it all. When both show up, it can be a challenging push-pull in relationships – inviting others to come closer, and then pushing them back away when they get too close. In both cases, it’s not so much a conscious strategy as an instinctive reaction. In both cases there is an ongoing invitation to trust God the Father and begin maturing as I abide in healthy and meaningful relationships.

Fear of failure was familiar to the twelve apostles. Just think of how they handled the Passion of Jesus. When Peter first heard of it, he swiftly forbade his Lord to speak any further of it – prompting Jesus to respond, “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23). Nor did Peter have it figured out during Holy Week! He, at least, stays close(ish) to Jesus – rather than running and fleeing like the others. But he denies him three times. When Jesus begins surprising each of them on Easter Sunday, they are downcast, discouraged, and afraid. They were not yet ready to handle the “failure” of the Cross.

If God is not a loving Father who is faithful and true to his promises, then the Cross is indeed both a scandal and utter foolishness. Jesus willingly faced the Cross – though not without sweating blood first and begging the Father for another option! How did he do it? Ultimately, Jesus was secure in his identity as the beloved Son of the Father. He trusted his Father’s promise of Resurrection. The “failure” of the Cross was ultimately a great victory. It was truly “Good” Friday as Jesus crushed the head of the serpent. The very moment in which the evil one grasped at his triumph was a singular moment of human love and trust. It was the moment in which Jesus invested meaning and hope into what otherwise truly would be a hopeless and miserable human existence following the Fall.

Jesus is Lord and Savior and Messiah – not in a way that erases human sin or suffering, but in a way that transforms it. He opens up a healing path for us. When he says to Peter, “Get behind me,” he is not saying “Get out of my sight!” Rather, he is inviting Peter (and us) to take up our Cross and follow him.

For us who are redeemed by his blood and in the process of being restored and sanctified, taking up our Cross and Jesus often means failing and learning, failing and growing, failing and repairing. As Winston Churchill once put it, “Success in not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Will you and I have the courage to fail? Will we allow space for failure – in ourselves, in our families, in our workplaces, and in our church communities? Will we meet failure with both tenderness and truth-telling? In the person of Jesus, we see that God is clearly drawn towards our failure and our littleness. He enters into it, neither shaming us nor excusing us. He helps us to trust and to grow. May we receive that gift and learn to do the same!