Last year I read Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. I got bogged down in the first few chapters, but found the rest of it interesting, very challenging, and potentially very hopeful. The basic gist is that if we really think Jesus is the Son of God, we ought to pay attention to what he has said, and try to live by it — and that doing so doesn’t mean legalism, but something more like supported habit-training.
One bit that came up a few times was the idea that the universe is an utterly safe place for us to be, because God is there — here — all around us like the air. And that God is utterly full of joy — not unfamiliar with sorrow and all, but that his joy is so firmly founded that his sorrow can be fully itself in the midst of his irrevocable joy.
I don’t live in this utterly safe and joyful universe.
I would like to. And I am open to doing so more and more, and looking for and practicing that supported habit-training.
I have written before, I think, about Tim Cornwell, the youth pastor I volunteered with when we lived in Virginia, and how he dealt with wiggly distractible middle schoolers. He was able to invite them to step out into the hallway to take a break, get their wiggles out, get their bodies ready again, and then return to the group — in a way that was not a threat, had not a hint of shame, but was a sincere, dignified invitation, an acknowledgment of a legitimate need and an appropriate way to meet that need.
The same exact invitation, same words, everything, can be and often is issued with exactly a note of threat and shame in it — the expectation is that the kid recognize how badly they are behaving and pull their act together, without having to go to the extreme of stepping out of the room.
In the same way, it is easy to take such an invitation, even if delivered the way Tim did it, as a threat, scornful and shaming. I think we are used to it. Threats and scorn and shame are often delivered in phrases that sound polite, perfectly correct, with words that ought to indicate a real opportunity but are really intended as an ultimatum or a “don’t you dare.”
Amy is quick to get on the defensive. Quick to feel attacked, rejected, dismissed, disliked, enslaved, oppressed, shamed, etc. Sometimes no matter how well I think I am delivering certain information — warmly, calmly, lovingly — she will take it defensively. Sometimes she’s right; sometimes my chosen, intentional words and tone of voice can’t cover the fact that I am feeling irritated and scornful. And of course there are also times where I can’t or won’t control words and tone of voice.
And, what seems both odd and perfectly understandable, is that I am the same way.
Coming from a peer, a lot of the things Amy says and does when she is unhappy about something would be serious threats, insults, attacks, and just plain rude — not to mention the unfairness of turning everything back on me (“well YOU shouldn’t / did / etc”). But Amy is not my peer. She’s a little kid. An extremely clever and articulate little kid, but still a little kid. That doesn’t make it okay for her to treat me badly, but it does mean she’s not deliberately malicious — more likely afraid (of not being good enough, of facing her own sense of remorse, of being rejected) or frustrated (having to do what she doesn’t want to do, unable to do what she wants, not meeting expectations internal or external) and her loud and defiant expressions just happen to be the way it comes out.
It also happens that loud and defiant are really really hard on me. As are rude, personal attacks, getting in my face… and even persistent argument and negotiation, and even more, limp sullen resistance.
If I lived in the utterly safe and joyful universe, all of these things could be, without unnerving and provoking me quite so much.
I could handle what Amy dishes out without taking it personally, without being manipulated or cowed or worn down by it, and could respond in ways that would be helpful to her — to provide reassurance against her fears, hope and acceptance and confidence against her frustrations, and guidance to develop habits of expression that will serve her better in her relationships. I could see my own irritation and scorn with compassion and grace, hold them kindly and tenderly, let go of them more easily, with less sense of self-condemnation and pressure. I could see my own depletion earlier, and take steps to replenish myself. And if I could do all of that, perhaps Amy would grow less prone to fear, frustration, and her own defensive scorn.
What does scorn do? It protects against vulnerability to being wounded by rude attacks, including the scorn of others. It withers the opposition, to something unworthy of notice, something inferior, shameful, wrong, betraying frustration. It bolsters pride and a sense of security; betraying fear.
In utter safety and joy, there is no need to fear the scorn of others and no need to resort to scorn ourselves. In Willard’s chapters on the Sermon on the Mount, he talks about the call to abandon habits of anger and contempt and threats and manipulation.
“Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt…” (Ps 123:4)
I suspect I have written this post before.