Author: joy and matthew steem

Selfish Solitude

Harrowing of Hades, an icon by Dionisius, from the Ferapontov Monastery.

Harrowing of Hades, an icon by Dionisius, from the Ferapontov Monastery.

The label “heretic” has such an interesting draw to it doesn’t it. It holds a special charm for a variety of reasons I think: it’s generally anti-conformist, anti-populist, and anti-status-quo. That makes it unique, and unique can be quite attractive. Since everybody wants to be unique – especially in a culture of conformity – what’s not to like about heresy. Plus, it’s not all bad either. T. S Eliot spoke of it more than once and in some cases of it as a good. Anyway, all that to say that a label of something being potentially heretical makes it … could I use the word “hot”?

So when I heard that one of the popular Inklings other than Lewis and Tolkien had it suggested of him that it would be understandable to have him burned at the stake, I was quite taken. “Cool,” I thought to myself. But then, because I was young I had a difficult time in reading Charles Williams. However, some years ago I came back to him and was most heartily surprised. And sure enough, the heresy claim isn’t too far off. So of course I read him all the more. Now it’s not all that un-orthodox, but there are some interesting thoughts he brings up.

Just recently I was re-reading his second last novel, Descent into Hell, and found something interesting concerning his thoughts on Sodom and Gomorrah. Nope, it’s probably not what many others might be thinking (we here at Relief are a clever bunch). These two cities are connected for Williams with un-neighbourliness (which for Williams was a form of sterility in that it doesn’t contribute to generating life) and solitude, and their direct association with hell.

Now, since I have tendencies towards introversion, I was not just a little annoyed at the strong connection with solitude and damnation. Plus, have you ever read what early psychological theory – Jung was a little kinder – said about those who were essentially introverted? It was basically pathological narcissism. However, as I continued to read Williams I was quite taken with his ideas and began to have self-to-self conversation/conversion. (Ever have a conversation with yourself and afterwards noticed that your view changed – it’s cool right? It might be difficult, but I think we actually can change our own bias.) I was persuaded that Williams had made a great point about solitude being the pathway to damnation when it is mixed with selfishness. Thomas Merton, who spoke a great deal of the importance of solitude, went to great lengths to clarify that while solitude is exceedingly important, it cannot be practiced for the sake of the self. If self is the primary concern, then this solitude is actually wicked. And the reader is lead to seeing selfish solitude as the ultimate undoing for anybody when practiced fully as William’s work depicts. I won’t spoil the ending of Decent into Hell, but I think the suspense factor would have Stephen King green with envy.

Back to solitude as selfishness though. I once remember hearing a respected minister say something to a largish crowd that s/he just didn’t have much time to spend chatting with friends and others when invited out because the time would be better spent with God. You know how Jesus was known to be meek? Yah, I wasn’t at that moment. I didn’t know how to voice it, but it felt, well, selfish. I mean I get separating yourself from the hordes from time to time – Jesus did that too, after all – but Jesus also spent lots of time with people. I think there should be a balance. Holiness that excludes itself from public life – from being human – might not be as holy as it thinks.  We were made to live in communion with each other: which means both, sharing and imparting life with each other. So, of course we need alone time – I demand it regularly – but I was gently warned by Williams cautionary tale that solitude can’t be mixed with selfishness. Because that is real heresy – and it’s not cool.

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Food for Thought

Still_Life_with_Cake - Raphaelle_Peale

Still Life with Cake – Raphaelle Peale (1818)

“It tastes healthy,” my friend benignly replied to my increasingly inquisitive gestures in the church potluck dining hall. The substance before us had the color of chocolate mousse; it had the consistency of chocolate mousse; it certainly felt like chocolate mousse on the tongue, but upon taking a mouthful, it immediately introduced itself with that telltale vegan, no sugar added, and nutrients aplenty sensation. It wagged its tongue at the sweet sultry flavor that chocolate offers—no sir, this stuff boasted dates, avocados, and coconut milk!

Now, I actually have a pretty strong affinity for quirky health-filled kitchen concoctions. Pinto bean brownies, dessert hummus, beet breakfast bars with chilli peppers and cardamom, gingered lentil goji berry cereal: these are things that find their way into my edible creations. Someone might call my concoctions bizarre, but most nutritionally minded people I know would call them wholesome, or guilt free, or maybe even innocent: and they would mean it as a compliment. Still, though, there is no denying it, sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free food generally has that healthy taste about it. And to be honest, as a metaphorical concept, the whole healthy food versus yummy food dichotomy deeply troubles me. I struggle against the thought because as someone who aspires to a spiritually enriched life, I feel that the polarization relegates my pursuits to the healthy tasting section of the potluck table: the brownish, runny bland dish in a homely, well-used crockpot that people look at probingly before quickly darting to the next dish.

Several years ago I found it quite convenient to partake in an exclusively strict superfood laden regimen. I had some spare time on my hands so I figured taking the effort to prepare really healthy stuff would be a good experiment in how it made me feel.  For months I ate sprouts, beans, kale, spinach and tofu—it was a banquet of nutrition packed awesomeness. And then a friend of mine, who happens to be an excellent cook, came to stay with me.

During the week together we feasted on homemade buttery shrimp bisque, Greek pasta salads that luxuriated in feta cheese and oil, crème brulee and cake so delightful that I could have written romantic odes to it. Meal after meal I quietly moaned to my friend, “I didn’t know food could taste this good.” Every meal was like a Dionysian festival betwixt my lips.

When my friend left and the culinary expedition ended, I felt as though I had two stark choices for restocking my refrigerator: sprouts or stroganoff.  I approached my food choices as I sometimes subconsciously approach life: I could make the healthy and responsible choice or the delicious and enjoyable one. My mouth, accustomed to the sweet joys of butter, sugar and cream howled for satisfaction, my body, slightly sluggish but staunch, quietly demanded some veggies. I had to make a choice, there was only room for one.

What I am seeing more of is that, as a general concept, enjoyment and responsibility are not necessarily as dichotomous as I sometimes have been led to believe though. Surprising as it is to me, my pursuits can’t quite be compacted down to the category of a vegetable or a cake. This is particularly applicable to a nuanced spiritual perspective. In an excerpt of Miroslav Volf’s book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized Worldposted in Christian Century, he says:

In choosing between meaning and pleasure we always make the wrong choice. Pleasure without meaning is vapid; meaning without pleasure is crushing. In its own way, each is nihilistic without the other. But we don’t need to choose. The unity of meaning and pleasure, which we experience as joy, is given with the God who is Love.

This is truly magnificent news, for it tells me my dichotomy is off. Love personified has constructed a world in which, when approached from a spiritual lens, proffers things both beneficial and satisfying. Our spiritual awareness, far from making us and our world the unappealing undercooked onion puree in the potluck of life, enhances flavor.        

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Guest: Limited Access

Flickr photo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Flickr photo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I have a friend who was once viewing an article on Mother Theresa. Somehow, the advertisements on the webpage were not set to “Catholic approved,” since, alongside the picture of the now saint, was an ostentatious full screen ad for Plan B. Seriously. It was a perfect example of “what’s wrong with this picture.”  Recently, as I was merrily skipping/clicking links that looked interesting, I came to a well-known religious leadership publication. Maybe it was the devil, because he knew it would assuredly annoy me, but the thing my eye caught under the name of the journal was the two words placed next to each other. It looked like this:


Now, I know this sounds prideful, but as someone who has a handy prime college access, one thing I rarely see when spending time in online journals is “limited access.” Mine isn’t limited, it’s full—at least in academic journals. And yet here I was being called a guest, with “limited access.” I was instantly offended. Then I felt guilty about being offended. Here is the thing though, nobody wants to be knowingly excluded to the outer regions of power. This got me to thinking.

I have for a while wondered over the seeming insatiable lust which seems to be incited over positions of leadership. Maybe “lust” is too strong a word; perhaps positions of leadership are more of a thing “craved” than lusted over … but that would be a hard call. It doesn’t matter what setting these leadership positions are in either: be they at a university, church, community, in politics or whatever, the desire to be in a location of leadership seems to be fairly intense. As if to confirm this, more than ever before, I am seeing leadership courses being taught at public libraries, colleges, universities, and even churches. They are popping up everywhere. You can take them in-class, online, or over Skype—whatever method is best for your busy schedule.  And such courses fetch good money, too. If you’re worried about your job, don’t; you can even get a Masters in Leadership while working full time!

Now, I am not dissing people in positions of authority at all: we need profs and pastors and presidents and prime ministers. Neither am I picking on leadership courses, from what I hear, they bring in much needed funding for places of education. However, I am curious: why the upsurge in interest over leadership? I wonder if the interest is driven by advertisers—like the craze over teeth whitening products. Or is it driven by average Janes or Joes who are suddenly realizing that they would like a title or a position of respect?

Here is the question churning inside my head though: are people becoming more curious about getting into leadership because they feel that it is the primary way they will actually be heard? I.e. that the only way to be listened to, in whatever place they happen to be in, is to be a leader? I realize that there are a few more possibilities than that, but I do wonder if being heard is one of the main reasons.

And if that’s the case, isn’t it saying something about our culture? Like, maybe we haven’t been willing to pay attention—literally!—to people around us because we assume they don’t have something of worth to say? And if we all think that, then one seemingly reasonable way to get other people to listen to us is not to be an everybody, but a somebody—specifically a leader. After all—leaders have to/must be listened to, right? Again, I am not implying that those in leadership don’t have worthy things to say, I just wonder how many times I have contributed to another person not feeling listened to, and thus unwittingly encouraged him or her to seek more formal routes to not only speak, but ensure being heard.

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Christmas Gifts

 "ChristmasEveOhio1928" by Father of dok1 / Don O'Brien - Flickr photo Christmas Eve 1928. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons -

“ChristmasEveOhio1928” by Father of dok1 / Don O’Brien – Flickr photo. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

You have probably heard the over-used saw, “tis better to give than to receive.” Now aside from the advertisers who glibly employ it for entirely selfish reasons (may they be sent for a week to the 8th circle of Dante’s hell) here is my annoyance: a gift with a motive is no gift at all, unless it’s to make the receiver thrilled to their booties. Romantic friends with pure intentions know that warming glow felt deep in their hearts as the beloved opens up some carefully chosen little treasure. Parents also know a similar feeling – or so I am told, not yet partaking in parenthood – of watching a twinkly eyed tot ogling over their gifts. I rather doubt that the parents were secretly plotting in the corners of toy department how best to psychologically manipulate their children into being better behaved, or quicker memorise their classical education. If they did, the gift would cease being a gift.

And so, I find myself troubled when one of the greatest Deific gifts offered is seemingly proffered with a large string. Maybe it’s just me, but so often during the holidays I hear, often performed with beautiful voices in song and hymn, that the Christ child has been given to the world as God’s heavenly priceless gift. I feel the tingles now just thinking of it. In the second breath coming from the preacher though, we are told that we owe this divine sovereign something in return. I am bothered.

Sure. I suppose that is the truth. I guess the tot who has just received the gift from pleased parents should feel indebted to her or his familial guardian. (Though, isn’t it funny how often the parents look happier than the child!)  And yet despite that being the case – maybe – I think if we were to ask the gifting parent whether their child should primarily feel obligation, that parent would suggest that we had never been a parent, or at any rate a true parent. They might even give us a rude look from over a shoulder as they left us standing by the punch bowl.

And so back to the well-meaning religious types who proudly proclaim God’s best gift to humanity ever, ever in one breath, but then in the next espouse how unrighteous we are if we don’t hold up to our end of the gift.

Did you see that? The last word shouldn’t have been “gift,” it should have been “deal.” But is that what we humans were given at Christmas, a deal?

G.K Chesterton speaks very fondly of Christmas and of gift giving and goodwill, but also of the nature of the grandest giver of them all. He cleverly uses the name Santa, but all the adults will know exactly of whom he is talking. During the holidays, he says,

[As a child]  I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them…. I had not even been good— far from it. And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus … was [a] benevolent agency… [that gave us] toys for nothing. Of course, most people who talk about these things get into a state of some mental confusion by attaching tremendous importance to the name of the entity. We called him Santa Claus, … but the name of a god is a mere human label. … [As a child] I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet … Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it.

So why did “Santa” give him the gift of existence? “It was,” says Chesterton, given in “a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.” No strings attached. Except maybe thankfulness.

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Cat Dish Leadership

Steems November post

Photo by Zboralski / CC BY 3.0

My first introduction to Anne Lamott was her statement, “I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” There was something about this punky comment that wooed me.

I admired and appreciated her honesty; her lack of pretence made me feel like this was an individual I could share camaraderie with. This is not to say I don’t sometimes sniff about for the dangers of false authenticity: the idol our culture has made of “being authentic” when “keeping it real” can just be another façade. Still though, I can’t suspect everybody and Lamott feels like somebody worth listening to, perhaps even a leader of sorts.

I admire her for her truth telling ability: for her willingness to expose her faith, foibles and failures. She articulates the exhausting degree of vulnerability required in giving ourselves to loving and being loved. Her discussions of life drip with gore and hope, and help me see beyond the brute side of mortality. She hints that some interactions and memories and experiences can be processed in so many different ways that we may not be as tied to personal history as it sometimes appears. The food of our souls, like the food of our mouths, can be fermented and stewed or boiled and roasted or chopped and salted. In short, in Anne I hear echoes of something that is flesh and soul affirming. And, the invitation to explore both the heights of Love’s radiance and the grass betwixt my toes engages me.

But even with all this, I inwardly tense up a little on the idea of Lamott as leader. A companion on this life’s journey? Sure. A leader? I have an uncomfortable time with her informality; her willingness to expose her inward processes and come right out and verbalize her struggles. Perhaps my discomfort is rooted in one idea of what separates leaders from followers.

Several years ago, Christian Century ran a post by Adam J Copeland. In his article, “Why Lead,” he suggests that we might do well to reinvigorate our current conceptions of leadership with a bigger emphasis on “followership.”  Leaders, then, are faithful followers on the path of love, wisdom, humility and self-sacrifice. For Copeland, leadership is a lot less about accomplishment, power, innovation or public relationship potential; it is about openly and heartfully following the one who is Love. But what does that look like in practical terms?

Henri Nouwen depicts leadership in very personal terms. For him, leading is the ultimate act of vulnerability. He understands the mantle of leadership as one that requires the laying down of one’s life: the complete abdication of ego,  individualism, control and power. That is,  “making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life” (In the Name of Jesus)

I wonder if Nouwen’s profound insight on leadership has something to do with the feeling one gets in rehabilitation groups. I’ve briefly glimpsed their power myself, and I’ve heard others comment on the same phenomenon. Being in the presence of people with such intentional honesty and openness about physical, emotional, social and spiritual struggles has a lasting impact. Pursuing the path of wellness requires honesty, both with others and ourselves. We do not grow when do not examine our hearts, hurts and hopes. A social worker who I am privileged to call my friend has commented on the potential of some workers to fall in love with their clients. The reason? Honing the vocabulary of honesty is deeply attractive. Most of us recognize that we all have proclivities to certain types of destructive behaviors, but not all of us have the courage to examine and voice them and seek guidance and share our hearts with others.

If I understand Nouwen correctly, it is the calling and duty of a leader to bare his or her heart and soul: to be a leader is to lay down facades in the hopes others will find their way to faith through that act of sacrifice. In this perspective, I hope that one day my own followership can mirror a meagre degree of honesty that Lamott has revealed to multitudes.

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Don’t Worry, it’s Not Religious


We have to react against the heavy bias of fatigue. It is almost impossible to make the facts vivid, because the facts are familiar; and for fallen men it is often true that familiarity is fatigue.
G.K. Chesterton

If you don’t mind, visualize a short little mental clip for me.

A friend and I have just been walking for 35 minutes to get to every booklover’s Mecca, Powell’s City of Books in Portland. One square city block of bookish awesomeness. Despite the heat and slightly sweaty state of our sandals—when book hunting, comfy feat are important—we are hugely stoked about beginning our four-day Powell’s event. Just as we are coming close to our destination, we see two peddlers nearly blocking the entrance to the bookstore. One peddler is a dude with dreadlocks, and the other is an easy-on-the-eyes hippie chick—flower print dress, dark flowing hair, and all. We creep closer. (We are introverts, and thus can creep super well, trust me.) As we get closer, we notice that they have a sign in front of them that says “free.”  Turns out, they are giving away a thick book and a CD in a shiny cellophane package. No cash is exchanged.

Odd, right?

Now, despite my country mouse nature, I am intrigued: one of the objects is a book. After watching cautiously, I finally accrue enough courage to approach Mr. Dreadlocks and ask what they are handing out. Just as my friend and I get to him, and he starts to point to the book in his hand, flower-dress girl coos to a passersby in a reassuring singsong kind of voice, “Don’t worry, it’s not religious.”

Turns out it was a free novel, and true to flower girl, it wasn’t religious. But here is the thing: why did I immediately sympathize with the passerby? I even laughed. And then I caught flower girl’s eye and she laughed with me. And then my friend joined in, and we shared a tripartite moment of mirth in that shared though unspoken understanding—that secret, but not-so-secret knowledge that people don’t even want something for FREE … if it’s religious.

Here is something of a bit of a play on words: when someone wants our attention (a seller, a student, a lawyer, a preacher) what do we do? We “pay” attention. There is a kind of transaction that takes place.

So the idea that something religious is of so little value that no one wants to pay attention to it, even when it is free, is a problem. At least it seems this way to me. And while I was thinking about this, I remembered G.K. Chesterton, and something pertinent he said about how we think about Christianity. He offers that Christianity has the problem of everyone being—or thinking they are—familiar with it. And this, he calls a “bias of fatigue.”

He goes on to say that it is nearly impossible to present vivid facts to a person suffering from the bias of fatigue. Chesterton’s advice is that in order to meaningfully convey information about Christianity, a change in imagery may be helpful. In The Everlasting Man, he says:

I am convinced that if we could tell the supernatural story of Christ word for word as of a Chinese hero, call him the Son of Heaven instead of the Son of God, and trace his rayed nimbus in the gold thread of Chinese embroideries or the gold lacquer of Chinese pottery, instead of in the gold leaf of our own old Catholic paintings, there would be a unanimous testimony to the spiritual purity of the story. We should hear nothing then of the injustice of substitution or the illogicality of atonement, of the superstitious exaggeration of the burden of sin or the impossible insolence of an invasion of the laws of nature. We should admire the chivalry of the Chinese conception of a god who fell from the sky to fight the dragons and save the wicked from being devoured by their own fault and folly. We should admire the subtlety of the Chinese view of life, which perceives that all human imperfection is in very truth a crying imperfection. We should admire the Chinese esoteric and superior wisdom, which said there are higher cosmic laws than the laws we know.

I have heard the statement “Jesus needs better PR,” but the only problem is that we (people) are it. And, maybe, just maybe, the problem of the bias of fatigue is that we are tired, too?

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