Driven vs. Desiring

For many years, others described me as “driven.” They typically intended it as high praise, and at the time I took it as such.

After all, isn’t it wonderful to strive for excellence, to persevere through repeated obstacles, and to find a way to keep coming out on top? Not necessarily – especially if it’s at the expense of the people I care about, not to mention my own dignity as a beloved child of God.

Desire and “drivenness” seem so similar, but they are radically different. Desire attracts us, allures us, draws us. It doesn’t drive us. Ultimately, all of our desires (even our disordered ones) are beautiful gifts from God. He never coerces. He always honors our dignity and freedom.

If we are “driven,” the real question becomes, by whom or by what? Where is that feeling of pressure or high expectation or coercion coming from?

In my case, there can be a felt sense of urgency: I have to, or else…

Or else what?

For years, I don’t think I slowed down enough to ponder what the “or else” even was. I was too driven, and sometimes still am. I can easily shift into a dogged determination, in which failure is not an option. When I do, if a person or situation suddenly stands in my way, my normally “calm” outward demeanor flashes with irritation, peevishness, or frustration – often surprising myself and others. Where did that burst of anger come from, that overreaction?

Now I understand a bit better. In mere milliseconds, my body mobilizes: first feeling shame; then feeling fear of exposure or abandonment; then feeling contempt toward the person perceived as a threat; then weaponizing that contempt; and finally, an eruption of anger, manipulation, or shaming behavior. All this happens in an instant – before my thinking brain has even realized that a reaction is happening.

I can’t stop such reactions from happening altogether, but I can notice and be curious and reflect. Kindness and childlike curiosity go so much further than self-contempt and a push into even more drivenness. My curiosity might go something like this: Huh – that’s interesting. I really reacted just now. What’s my body feeling at the moment? What is the intense warning trying to tell me? How old do I feel right now? When was the last time I felt like this?

I can listen to my anger, my fear, and my shame. Then I can start to notice what the “or else” is saying – even if it is irrational in the current situation. I’ve noticed in myself a fear of failing or of being exposed as not good enough. I notice a fear that others will leave me unprotected or all alone to navigate the hardest moments of life. As long as I somehow keep performing at an impossibly high level, maybe they’ll stick with me. Over time, this drivenness gets exhausting. It is not sustainable, and it definitely does not yield joy!

Hear me correctly – I’m not condemning being “driven.” It is one of the ways we human beings survive awful situations. Shame and fear are powerful motivators. They may even help us begin a journey of repentance. But only desire can abide, grow, and bear fruit. Fear and shame will never help us to have healthy, happy, and holy relationships. Fear of the Lord may be the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), but “perfect love drives out all fear” (1 John 4:18).

I’ve written before about Augustine of Hippo and his distinction between ducere and trahere. Appealing to John 6, he describes the way in which God the Father allures and attracts us (trahere) by means of our desires. He doesn’t demand or coerce like an earthly authority tends to do (ducere – from which words like “duke” derive). We are created for communion and love, and God desires us to desire him. He allures us without coercing, without “driving.”

This is a tricky matter, because outwardly, two different human beings can be doing exactly the same thing for quite different reasons. One is driven by fear and shame, while the other is motivated from within by desire and love. One is avoiding the pain of unhealed wounds and running away from the Cross; the other has experienced dying and rising with Jesus and is bringing an unshakable confidence into a broken world. For example, two different Christians passionately evangelize. One is terrified of hell and is driven to keep all others out of hell. The other has been transformed by an encounter with the risen Jesus and desires everyone else to encounter the risen Jesus in their own ways. Two pro-lifers engage in advocacy. One is driven to keep the right people in political power and views pro-choice advocates with total contempt. The other cares passionately about the dignity of unborn humans – as well as about the dignity of the mother, and of all human beings, including those she most disagrees with. She treats all of them with honor and respect.

This is where spiritual discernment comes in. Catholics have a tendency only to use that word only in asking massive questions such as, “Am I called to become a priest?” We don’t always realize that God intends discernment to be a daily practice for us. We can notice what he is doing and engage in a response of love throughout the day.

Like a lover wooing his beloved, God is always stirring up desires in our heart. We have the freedom to grow in those desires and bear fruit. Unfortunately, our deepest and most intense desires are often buried beneath our fear and shame. That actually makes sense! The evil one HATES our God-given desires, and wars against them early and often.

The only way to uncover our deepest desires is to welcome the healing and transformation that Jesus brings. And the only way to experience that is (~gasp~) to die and rise with him. Can you see why so many of us prefer to be “driven” by fear and shame?

Are you “driven”? If so, are you ready for a change?

Purity Culture – Lie #3

Few would deny that we live in an age of unhealthy and dysfunctional sexuality. The “purity culture” we’ve been discussing is an understandable reaction to a real threat. But those engaging in the fight often act as though sexuality is itself the threat. That is quite a contrast from John Paul II’s description of the fruitful one-flesh union of husband and wife as an icon that makes visible the eternal love of the Trinity!

Lie #3: We have to protect our children against sexuality.

Christian families and churches vary in their messaging around sex. Some are prudish and puritanical; others openly proclaim sex as a good and beautiful gift of God. But few have healthy and helpful conversations.

It’s not merely the message that matters; it’s the modeling of the message. A family may have snappy Christmas postcards and impeccable social media posts. They may seem to have it all together. But those who have eyes to see can tell when a married couple is healthy and joyful in their relationship (including their sexuality). You can tell when they are merely pretending, when there is strain, and when there is shame and contempt. Children have fully operational right brains, and as such, they are incredibly intuitive and insightful. If their parents feel shame around their bodies, their desires, their fantasies, or their behaviors, the children will be impacted significantly. Parents who are unhealthy in their own sexuality will invariably transmit their dysfunction to the next generation – especially when they don’t admit it or talk about it.

When the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses healthy sexuality (n. 2339), it offers the image of apprenticeship in virtue, particularly in the virtue of chastity. Rather than warning against a loss of purity or advocating a posture of protection, the Catechism speaks of gradually growing into the virtue of “chastity” – a virtue that leads to human flourishing in our expression of love and sexuality. Chastity here is not synonymous with celibacy; it applies to everyone. Chastity is a free, joyful, wholehearted, and creative giving and receiving of love – in the way that best suits the place we find ourselves (married, single, celibate, dating, engaged, elderly, prepubescent, adolescent, same-sex attracted, sick, disabled, divorced, widowed, etc.).

Our sexuality is a stunningly beautiful gift from God, one that affects all dimensions of our existence. In his intentional design, he has created us as sexual beings, male and female. He declares us “very good” in his own image and likeness. He invests us with a spark of creativity that none of the other creatures receive. Thus empowered, we are intended to be the stewards of the entire cosmos.

Christian scholars as diverse as C.S. Lewis and Pope Benedict XVI describe this divine spark of creativity as eros – the Greek word for “love” as an intense or erotic desire. Far from seeing eros as a threat, they see it as God’s greatest natural gift to the human race. The creativity of eros shows up in sex, for sure, in the amazing gift of procreation. How many mothers and fathers have held their newborn infant, marveling that this growing child came forth from their very bodies, from their one-flesh union? But eros, when directed in virtue, also fuels every other shining achievement: poetry, music, art, architecture, scientific research, discoveries, and inventions. Celibate individuals tend to be even more passionate and even more fruitful. Consider the public ministry of Jesus, the missionary zeal of Paul, the brilliant philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas, or the intense and alluring joy of Francis of Assisi.

Our sexuality is a precious and powerful gift. As such, it requires ongoing maturing through slow and steady growth. This process only happens well through apprenticeship. Think of a lumberjack or a blacksmith teaching his trade to children, or of Mister Miyagi teaching karate to Daniel LaRusso. They train their youth to wield something powerful – harmful if misused. It’s all the more reason to teach patiently, step by step, how those tools and methods work. Growth and mastery happen through thousands of small moments – including setbacks, conflicts, mistakes, and failures. Nor is the maturing involved simply a matter of skill or technique; it is a style of relating and a way of life.

Many of us my age and older received zero instruction from our parents around our sexuality. At best, there was “the talk” – as though one awkward conversation would yield a lifetime of virtue and holiness in one’s sexuality. When it comes to the single most beautiful gift God has given us, we offer the least guidance. Effective apprenticeship means that children trust both the teaching and the example of their parents. It means they readily go to them when they are struggling.

Perhaps the most helpful thought experiment is what happens if a child stumbles across pornography. These days, sadly, it is not a matter of “if” but only of “when.” It will almost certainly happen before the child reaches 18, and quite possibly before he or she reaches 10.

The normal instinct of the young (both mammals and humans) is to run to their parents when they unexpectedly stumble on something big or unknown or powerful. You don’t have to teach them – it happens automatically!

Why is it, then, that so few children go to mom or dad when they stumble upon pornography, or have an unexpected sexual encounter? Something has happened in their experience that warns them that it will not be safe. The more shame that mom or dad feel around their bodies and their sexuality, the less likely the children will be to go to them. It is one thing to call the body a temple of the Holy Spirit; it is another thing to treat it like one!

Early and often, children need help in understanding their bodies and what they are experiencing in their bodies. The more attuned parents are to what is really happening in the hearts and bodies of their children, the more helpful those conversations will be.

In those rare cases that children run to their parents and receive good care, they will not suffer lasting trauma. Good care includes helping them understand how normal and healthy it is to feel aroused and to feel curious, and to offer guidance on why God created us to feel that way. Then any shame involved in the experience melts away.

As well-meaning as it is to “shelter” children, we need to train them instead. Ask yourself this simple question: would you rather that your children get information and answers from you or from google?  There are real threats in the culture (internet pornography, sexual predators, and human trafficking). Truly protecting children means having healthy and helpful conversations early and often, equipping them and training them. It means apprenticeship!

Our children are as God created them to be: sexual beings with developing bodies, natural curiosity, and capacity for arousal.  That means talking with them, gradually over the years, about their bodies, their body parts, and pornography – using the correct words for all of them and an explanation that makes sense to the children at their developmental stage.

I find that parents who have had the courage to engage their own story and heal from their own shame become the most comfortable and confident at mentoring their children in chastity. Obviously the parents themselves are called by Christ to continue maturing. In many cases, there is a need of remedial mentoring. There are stories of harm or neglect from their own past that have not yet received the healing of Jesus. As parents heal from their shame and recover the glory of their own sexuality, their growth in chastity will attract and guide their children. We cannot expect our children to grow in ways that we have not grown ourselves!

“Purity Culture” – Lie #2

Last week, I began this multi-part series questioning the messages of the “purity culture.” For at least two generations, its representatives have claimed to speak with the authority of Jesus and his Church. But in many cases, they have been fueled more by fear than by love, fighting a protective war against the menacing culture, and shaming those who disagree.

We saw last time how damaging it is to consider purity as a prize to be lost.

Unfortunately, there are other lies and distortions that also need to be named and corrected.

Lie #2: Marriage will rescue me from my struggles.

Many evangelical congregations or stricter Catholic priests and families have upheld “purity” as a falsely exalted virginity. Those who enter marriage with their purity intact are upheld as mighty champions. They made it! On the surface, it seems like a great message. After all, fornication is a sin, because marriage is the God-given context for sexual intercourse. But is it really true that bringing virginity into marriage automatically makes you a champion? And does that make everyone else a loser?

In the very same Christian homes or extended families, children are often abused or neglected (physically, emotionally, sexually, or spiritually). They repeatedly see mom and dad not honoring and delighting in each other. They see aggression and contempt – whether the more active kind (interrupting, shouting, swearing, name calling, pushing, throwing objects, or hitting) or the passive kind (sulking, silent treatments, disengaging, avoiding, undermining, or gossiping). Such children only feel loved when they fit the prefabricated mold their parents impose. When mom or dad treat each other or the children with contempt, the same parents pretend afterward as though nothing happened. They may even talk about how amazing or wonderful family is, stirring up a spirit of dread about “those people” in the world who are threatening family life.

Meanwhile, these same children and adolescents receive little to no real guidance about healthy sexuality. They discover pornography at a tender age and know instinctively that mom and dad would shame them if they knew about it.  They commit one “impure” act and secretly fear that they must be one of the losers, not one of the champions. Even worse, they feel intense shame that they are somehow experiencing arousal and pleasure amidst their “impurity.” It feels as though their body is betraying them, as though their body is not gloriously working exactly the way God designed it to. Neither family nor church are truly there to help them make sense of what their body is experiencing, lifting the shame and coaching them toward true maturity.

Unwanted behaviors deepen and intensify, fueled by shame and secrecy. In desperate attempts to salvage their “purity” before marriage, humans begin to draw strange lines in the sand. Over the years, I have spoken to teens and young adults who have done just about every sexual act except for vaginal intercourse – because they didn’t want to lose their virginity before marriage. “At least I’m still a virgin.” “At least I never did ________ like those people” (can you hear the contempt and shame here?).

Within this purity culture of our families and churches, how many millions of Christian young adults have sincerely believed that once they were married all these unwanted behaviors would melt away. SPOILER ALERT: they don’t.

Each of us brings our whole personal history into our present-day relationships. We bring our heartache and heartbreak, our unresolved trauma, our toxic shame, and our self-protection. In a fallen race that still bears the divine image, family is typically both beautiful and broken. Amidst the brokenness, we have all learned ways of surviving. We know how to get through hard stuff without exposing ourselves to even more wounds.

There is a brilliance here – using our God-given creativity to survive and even find some scraps of delight. How sad, though, when most or all of our human creativity is diverted into sheer survival. We are created for abundance, to be fruitful and multiply. We are created to receive and give love, with intense delight and joy.

Over time, our survival skills block our capacity to be vulnerable and to receive in healthy relationships – especially within marriage (or within priesthood, or within any other vocation).

I think C.S. Lewis put it best:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Without vulnerability, without a capacity to receive the love of another as free gift, how can sex be healthy? When authentic emotional expression is stifled, or when sexual arousal is instantly associated with shame, how can marriage or family life flourish?

By overemphasizing “purity” before marriage, the purity culture has lost sight of the pinnacle of human love and sexuality: praising God with delight, in our very bodies. That worship is only possible when we receive and give love, freely and wholeheartedly. Healthy and holy marriages are precious indeed! They slowly and steadily emerge as two distinct children of God learn how to keep growing in maturity. Then they can (more and more) share from the fullness of their own heart, rather than use or manipulate, assault or punish, isolate or hide, guard or protect.

Maturing means both husband and wife must keep engaging their own personal story – understanding where they have come from. It means resisting the temptation to glamorize (“I had an amazing childhood!”) or minimize (“Others had it much worse…”). It takes enormous courage to tell the full truth about just how hard it was, just how alone I felt, or just how desperately I still ache to be loved as I am. If parents refuse to see that painful truth in their own story, they will transmit their pain to their children. To the extent that parents still feel contempt for their own bodies and their own sexuality, they beckon their children to carry the same contempt into the next generation.

There are parallel truths for priesthood and celibacy. It is impossible to make a fruitful gift of one’s sexuality without an ongoing willingness to become a whole person capable of receiving love. I will soon be talking with several other priests about our need for affective and relational maturity if we want to live well the gift of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus promises a superabundant fruitfulness with this gift (Matthew 19:12; Mark 10:30).

As a Church, we have so much work to do in naming our own dysfunction – both in our priests and in our marriages. Certainly, there are problems “out there” in the culture. But the transformation always begins within our own minds, our own bodies, and our own souls.

Hoarding vs. Hope

Advent is a season of hope. During these darkest days of year, we watch and wait.

In our human experience of suffering, we abide and keep a sober vigil. In moments of powerlessness, frustration, anguish, agony, or grief, we cry out for a redeemer and savior. We feel the depths of our emptiness and need, and we hope. We feel the ache acutely and cry out with heartfelt longing, Come, Lord Jesus!!

That’s the ideal, anyway. But let’s face it, hoarding can feel safer and easier than hoping.

At the mention of “hoarding,” we immediately visualize particular people, places, or things. I’m not talking about the medically diagnosable condition of hoarding. I am using the word in a broader, all-inclusive sense.

Most of us are hoarders in one way or another. It’s something we do to protect ourselves against feeling powerless, or against feeling grief. It gives us a sense of power. It props up the illusion of being in control.

Sometimes we hoard physical objects. We cling to what we no longer need; we clutter our living space. Throwing things away means feeling grief and loss. It is a death, and we don’t want to die. Keeping an open and inviting living space feels naked and vulnerable. We don’t like feeling powerless.

But we also hoard by cluttering our schedules with unnecessary commitments. We feel less like a failure because of the things we say “yes” to – even though we inwardly resent all the things we “have to” do. We avoid the pain of conflict and live with the clutter and chaos of too many commitments.

We hoard by only tackling the tasks we feel confident about, while repeatedly avoiding the ones that would risk failure or expose our weakness. We may even push those undesirable tasks onto others, shifting the blame onto them, or criticizing the failure of their valiant attempts.

We hoard when we hold onto comfort and ease, resisting needed changes. We want our churches to feel familiar to us, to be our own little nest. First-time visitors may feel uncertain, ashamed, or intimidated. We wouldn’t know, because we talk to the same familiar people, ignoring what others are needing or feeling.

We hoard when we suffer in silence rather than humbly reaching out for help and risking rejection. We cling to others, expecting them to meet our needs without actually asking. We do things for them in “service,” calculating that now they have to give us something in return. If I am entitled, then no one can reject me, right? In all these behaviors, we might even style ourselves a “martyr,” but the real martyrdom is happening in the people around us who have to put up with our behaviors!

We hoard with our addictive behaviors. We soothe ourselves with our screens, with our sugar, or perhaps even with impulsive cleaning and organizing – which may seem the opposite of hoarding. But it depends on why we are doing it. Is it a kindness to self and others, or is it avoiding and numbing what I don’t want to face or feel?

We hoard when we surround ourselves with busyness, noise, or talking. We resist silence and stillness. We cannot stand to slow down and actually feel our loneliness, our grief, or our anger. We would rather pretend they are not there.

But then how can we hope?

Every human heart holds the capacity to hope. As Augustine of Hippo said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Within each of us is an insatiable desire, an intense longing for the living God. But will we allow ourselves to feel it?

Hope can really hurt. To hope is to desire and not yet possess. That means that hope will include suffering. Hope will include grief. Hope will include vulnerability, even feeling powerless. We don’t like those experiences. And we hate to wait!

Thankfully, God is a good Father who delights in us as his children. He sees our struggles and loves us as we are. He knows our tendency to hoard; he gazes lovingly at us even as we repeatedly and relentlessly protect ourselves against him. We are so often like the dog hiding his head under the blanket. God smiles, and calls us by name.

Yet God honors our freedom. He desires us to desire him. He will not force or coerce. Like a lover, he pursues and woos us. He gently prods us, inviting us to admit how naked, blind, and miserable we actually are (cf. Revelation 3:14-20). We desperately need Jesus, but we do not like to feel the depths of our need.

Jesus’ coming brings true comfort, lasting peace, and abundant joy. Even in this world, he helps us to taste and see the goodness of the Lord. He blesses us with an abundance of love. Our hoarding hearts keep crying out, “It won’t be enough!!” and Jesus keeps assuring us, “My grace is enough for you; my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Will we surrender our supposed control? Will we set aside our pseudo-comforts? Will we allow ourselves to grieve and mourn? Will we remember that we have here no lasting city, that we are pilgrims passing through? Will we abide in hope?

Come, Lord Jesus!!

Spiritual Bypass

This summer marked the 15th anniversary of the animated film Cars. The movie breathed life and personality into dozens of vehicles, including the cocky and arrogant young racecar Lightning McQueen, who unexpectedly gets stranded in the rusted and rundown town of Radiator Springs. Initially seeing no value in this long-forgotten place, he undergoes a deep conversion and learns many life lessons. He also comes to appreciate the story of the town, once great, then sliding into decline with the introduction of the I-40 bypass. Whereas travelers along Route 66 used to take their time to linger and enjoy this scenic stopping point, these days they just zoom on by along the bypass.

As many of you know, I am currently going through a few trainings for pastoral ministry to God’s beloved children experiencing unwanted behaviors or addictions. In them, I’ve come across a strikingly similar metaphor, encapsulated in the term “spiritual bypass.”

Spiritual bypass happens when you or I use our spirituality as a way of avoiding difficult experiences or undesirable emotions. In the name of being spiritual, we can actually evade and avoid the most difficult aspects of discipleship! When we do so, our bodies and souls suffer in much the same way as the town of Radiator Springs. Through chronic neglect, little by little, things begin to crack and crumble. The more this decay happens, the more we prefer to avoid, and the more alluring spiritual bypass becomes. And so the vicious cycle continues.

You can see how these cracks offer fertile soil for the weeds and rotten fruits of addictions. But addictions are only one of many such weeds. The great spiritual authors over the centuries remind us that sins of the flesh (lust, gluttony, drunkenness, etc.) can actually be less serious than envy, passive aggression, gossip, self-righteousness, or pride. Think of the story of the repentant tax collector versus the proud Pharisee (“thank God I’m not like _______”). Think of the story of the younger son and older son in Luke 15. Both are far from the heart of their father; both are avoiding his love; both are miserable.

Spiritual bypass often gets woven into the very fabric of our families and our church communities. For example, we from the upper Midwest are notorious for being “nice” – and thinking ourselves kind. Niceness is not the same as kindness! Niceness avoids conflict. Niceness pretends not to be angry. Niceness does not know how to sit with sadness, but tries to minimize or fix or anesthetize the pain of the situation. Kindness, by contrast, can be intense and messy. It takes great inner strength just to be with someone who feels deeply sad, angry, or ashamed.

In my personal journey, the Lord has definitely been inviting me and teaching me how to stay present in the face of awkward or painful situations. Historically, I did one of two things. Most of the time, I got small, hid my true self, or took the “nice” path out and compromised things that were deeply important. Occasionally I powered up, perhaps shifting my tone or raising my voice, perhaps making a subtly shaming comment that shifted the burden onto the other person. I regret those moments and the damage they caused.

But I am learning to be patient with myself as God works repairs in my heart. Healing and recovery is incredibly hard work. It’s tempting (like Lightning McQueen) to think I can re-pave the neglected and damaged street in a short time. It takes much patience and consistency – not to mention much help and encouragement from true friends. After nearly five years of diligent work walking my own healing path, I am beginning to discover that I can stay present and stay my true self even in challenging situations – without taking the bypass. Every inch of reclaimed pavement is worth celebrating.

I simply wasn’t capable for a long time because I was bypassing my own heart – including neglected streets that were crumbling in sadness, loneliness, fear, and shame. If present interactions caused me to begin feeling those things, it made sense that I would react instinctively and either flee or fight. God made us with survival instincts and defensive capacity.  For a time, we probably need these defenses. We may need, for a season, to be in a state of spiritual bypass. We can’t face everything all at once. We’re not ready until we are ready.

My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready. So sings the psalmist. After years of preparing my heart, the Lord gently and kindly showed me how very much sadness and loneliness I had stored up. For me, the experience of coming out of spiritual bypass has been amazing, intense, and painful all at the same time. Sister Miriam James Heidland compares the experience with someone coming in from the cold with frostbite. To be in one’s heart and feeling again is both good and intense.

My prayer life has definitely shifted amidst this process. It is more tender and vulnerable, more about a love relationship with the Father, and more about receiving again and again all that I need. Ironically, I pray far more consistently. It’s less and less of a “should.” I simply need it. I need prayer. I need Jesus. I need the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And I desire all these things. I ache for them. I long to see the face of the Father. That, for me, has been the very best part about ceasing spiritual bypass. Returning to my place of heartache also opens up the freedom and capacity for my heart to ache for God. It renews and deepens faith, hope, and love.

Perhaps the best discovery of all has been to realize the stunning beauty of the human heart – my own heart and that of others. Yes, there is sin there. Yes, it’s a mess. AND we are beloved children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, “very good” in his own image and likeness. You can’t appreciate the beauty of the town from the bypass. You have to slow down and spend time there. Then it captivates you. The beauty God has poured into the human heart is absolutely stunning – if we are willing to abide there amidst the mess.

I invite you to consider your own journey of following Jesus. In what ways do you take the bypass? Does it feel easier to avoid anger, sadness, fear, loneliness, or shame? How do you react when others around you feel or express those? How do they experience you? Do they feel safe and find it easy to open up to you about the deep things of their heart? Why or why not?

Does it feel easier to “say prayers” to open up in a tender and vulnerable relationship? Do you let yourself feel the ache of longing and desiring without yet fully possessing?

Jesus reminds us that the road is wide and easy that leads us to destruction. Taking the spiritual bypass is so appealing because it is wide and easy while pretending to be deeply spiritual. Engaging our story in the town that is our heart involves a dying and rising.

Above all else Jesus commands us to love the Lord, our God, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. Yes, we may need to use the bypass for a time in our life, especially if we do not have the support and the resources to face the hard work that will be involved. But so long as we stay on the bypass, there are parts of our heart that are not being consecrated to the Lord, and therefore not receiving his blessing.

Wholehearted discipleship is certainly challenging! But it is worth it. You and I are worth it.

Latin Lessons from Augustine

Today I invite you to learn some lessons in evangelization by reflecting with me on three Latin verbs: docere, ducere, and trahere.

I love Latin – its elegance, its symmetry, its adaptability, its precision, and its breathtaking capacity to say so many things with so few words. Above all else, what I love about Latin is how it opens a window into the hearts of so many amazing men and women – whether ancient poets like Virgil or Horace, or brilliant philosophers and theologians like Augustine or Boethius. You cannot truly learn a language without beginning to think and feel like the people who thought and spoke and wrote in that language. Latin may be a dead language that was uttered by women and men who long ago left this veil of tears, but to me some of them feel like old friends, brave companions, and wise mentors. I am grateful to have known them, and to have gained a glimpse into their souls.

Regarding the current Latin lesson, please don’t take it as a definitive discourse on the actual meaning of Latin verbs – it’s not. Rather, it’s a brief tour into the heart of Augustine of Hippo (a heart with huge desire). It’s an invitation to each of us to be open to what was so transformative for him.

I recently felt transported into “Augustine Land” while participating in a pastoral ministry workshop. The presenter drew a distinction between docere and ducere (if you are reading out loud, you can pronounce those as dough-CHAIR-eh and DOO-chair-eh, and call it close enough).

Docere means “to teach” and ducere “to lead.” The workshop invited us to examine ourselves and the methods we have used in ministering to others.  Have we have tried to operate from a posture of docere (teaching) without actually leading others? Have we given eager advice, or “talked at” the person we are ministering to, seeing ourselves as having right answers and readymade “shoulds”? Have we measured success or failure on whether or not we convince the other person?

Any outstanding teacher knows that this method of teaching will not work – except for a few who follow out of fear. Fear may be the beginning of wisdom; it may motivate us to start a journey. But it never keeps us going when the going gets rough. Only desire can do that – the desire that leads to Love. Perfect Love casts out all fear.

Teaching without leading is the way of the scribes and Pharisees – for whom Jesus saved up his strongest and sternest warnings. There is little vulnerability in that way of cultivating disciples, and therefore little Love and little joy.

I appreciated the presenter’s point, and then found myself suddenly back with my old companion Augustine, with whom I spent hundreds of hours with during my doctoral research in Rome. He offers us a third Latin verb to consider: trahere [TRAH-her-eh]. Over the centuries, it can mean many things: to draw, to drag, to pull. But for Augustine it has much more the sense of attracting or enticing or alluring. God the Father wants us to want him; he stirs us through our holy desire in a way that allows us to grow into his fullness.

Augustine is answering the objections of the Pelagians, who like the scribes and Pharisees overemphasized human responsibility and discipline – to the point of concluding quite wrongly that we humans take the first step in our salvation, that God helps those who help themselves. Augustine quite strongly condemns the notion, insisting with Paul the Apostle that we radically depend upon Jesus as our savior. From the very first moment of the gift to its tender growth and development to its final flourishing and persevering, all is God’s gift; all credit goes to him.

But – the Pelagians object – how does that leave space for real human freedom? Do we not become mere puppets of God?  That is where Augustine quotes Jesus to offer a profound answer to the Pelagians.  “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

God the Father draws us, attracts us, entices us, allures us – in a way that leaves us totally free to respond (or not). He sows the seeds of desire in our hearts and aids our growth – if we are willing. We are invited to become receptive soil, weeded of the obstacles the hinder us, capable of receiving and growing and bearing fruit; to be branches abiding on the vine; to be living members of his Body.

Augustine uses the verb trahere to describe God’s agency in this process – not at all “dragging” or “pulling” like a stubborn pet, but in the sense of attracting, motivating, and enticing. Just as “teaching” (docere) can become self-righteous or condescending, “leading” (ducere) can become manipulative or controlling. Augustine rejects any sense of ducere that violates the dignity and freedom of the subjects.  God does not coerce; he does not make us do things! He is a loving Father who places holy desires in our hearts and deeply desires us to become fully ourselves. He honors our dignity and freedom – even when we choose to dishonor him.

I wrote last month about religiosity as a counterfeit version of religion. Instead of freely inviting others into relationships, into joyful communion in Christ, too many of us (myself included) have resorted to pressuring, shaming, fear-mongering, or manipulating to try to convince others to follow the right path. God the Father does not operate in that way.

Each of us can consider what this means for evangelization – for inviting others to follow Jesus as disciples. If we look at him in the Gospels, we see an example of the best meaning of all three verbs: docere, ducere, and trahere. Because Jesus is truly connected to God his Father, abiding vulnerably in love, he teaches as one with authority, and not as the scribes and Pharisees. He leads without coercing or manipulating. He allows his followers to stumble, to make mistakes, to misunderstand – yes, even to betray him. He speaks deeply into the deep desires of the human heart – noticing our needs, listening attentively, attuning, and affirming. He encourages and comforts, awakens and allures. Many follow him, discovering within themselves a profound hunger and thirst they had not realized was there – a longing that God himself had placed there. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

Teaching, leading, and attracting in this way can be unsettling! We feel quite powerless and vulnerable when we do it – we honor the freedom of the listener and open ourselves to the possibility of rejection. We open our minds and hearts to notice what God is doing – willing to be surprised if he takes us in a new and unfamiliar direction; respecting the God-given uniqueness of the person in front of us and that his or her path might be quite different from our own.

Augustine learned these lessons precisely because of his profound conversion. He finally and deeply allowed God to captivate his heart, to go into his places of shame, and to transform him.  He learned that desire is so much more powerful than fear or control. He came to experience the love of God the Father, and was magnetically effective in attracting others to it.

What about you and me? Will we allow our own hearts to surrender vulnerably to God the Father’s way of attracting human beings to the heart of his Son? Will we allow our churches to become places in which God easily attracts his sons and daughters, and they feel safe and confident coming alive in our presence? God, good Father that he is, will not force us to change our behaviors– but the invitation is there!