The World-Saving Power of Inner Work - Reservoir Church
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Prophetic Living

The World-Saving Power of Inner Work

Steve Watson

May 19, 2019

We’re about half way through our spring series on prophetic living, where we look at the lives and words of some of the great ancient prophets from the Bible and try to see what it looks like to live boldly, wholeheartedly as if what we hope to be true about God is real. So far we’ve talked about speaking encouragement and affirmation as people who are learning to love a God who speaks life to us. We’ve talked about looking for and magnifying deep, inner beauty as a way of honoring a beautiful God who loves shaping beautiful stories among us. And we’ve talked about learning to ask for help, in a world where a good God is glad to help us and to to shape communities of mutual help.

Maybe the most memorable thing I’ve heard so far, though, was Ivy’s description last week of prophets as people who burn stuff down and then die. I listened to Ivy quoting her kid about prophets as people who burn stuff down, and I thought – we like people these days who burn stuff down, don’t we?


Dramatic, angry people with a serious beef are in.


On both sides of the aisle, we’re voting more for politicians who promise to burn stuff down. And in that, the US isn’t taking the lead, but following something of a global trend. Demagogues who channel popular anger against a common enemy are in right now, in many places in the world. Burning it down is trending.


Even in fiction, we have Game of Thrones coming to a close tonight. I actually haven’t watched a single episode, but I read some of the books, and I ask my wife to give me all the spoilers now, and I gather that last week, even that universe chose to give us a leader who decides to burn it down.


At some level, this is in fact what prophets do. And it’s why we’re both drawn to them and also kind of frightened by them. Through the pages of the Bible’s great prophets, we get lots like this, from Amos, who spoke to the Northern half of ancient Israel, in the 8th century BC.


Amos 2:6-8 (CEB)

6    The Lord proclaims:

   For three crimes of Israel,

       and for four, I won’t hold back the punishment,

   because they have sold the innocent for silver,

           and those in need for a pair of sandals.

7     They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,

       and push the afflicted out of the way.

   Father and son have intercourse with the same young woman,

       degrading my holy name.

8     They stretch out beside every altar

       on garments taken in loan;

   in the house of their god they drink

       wine bought with fines they imposed.


Here are some of the many fiery words of the prophet Amos, saying not just, “Burn it down,” but God is gonna burn it down.


For three crimes of Israel, and for four, I won’t hold back the punishment. So which is it? Three or four? Just how many crimes?


That’s not the point. It’s a poetic device in Hebrew for a list – to say, there are so many things coming. Can we even count them all? It’s two, no three, no, maybe four – so many crimes. And not just crimes against law, but crimes against humanity, crimes against justice, crimes against decency.


Economic exploitation, sexual exploitation, religious practice that instead of coming to grips with these problems, just papers them over.


Amos calls out ot the nation and says: You are sick. And unless you change, unless you reckon with your sickness, you’re gonna get it.


Burn it down, Amos says. God doesn’t want to prop up a system, a country, a people full of sickness, full of injustice.


Now, we could imagine that ancient Israel was very different than any other nation, that somehow this small 8th century rural, tribal nation was a Game of Thrones-like land of unparalleled violence, abuse, greed, and corruption. But this strikes me as unlikely.


And a tremendous scholar of the prophets, Abraham Heschel, has a different way of understanding the prophets’ burn-it-down take on their society’s sickness.


I love the prophets, and knowing that, over 20 years ago, my wife Grace gifted me with a copy of Rabbi Heschel’s beautiful and important book The Prophets.  Early on, he’s asking what kind of people these prophets are. Why such burn-it-down intensity?


And he writes this:

“The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world…. The sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.” (The Prophets, Abraham Heschel, pgs. 3-4)


The prophets know that people matter – not just people in the collective, what can be captured by studies and statistics, but each person, each human being, even each living creature matters.


A single child born into a family of crushing debt is sold into bonded labor for a bit of silver, just enough to buy a pair of shoes. In our global politics or analysis, that’s a footnote. But to the prophets it is a disaster, a deathblow to existence.


A wealthy person enjoys a possession that is linked to the suffering of the dispossessed. In our age of global capitalism, this strikes me – I’ll be honest – as inevitable. What Heschel calls an episode. But to the prophets it is a catastrophe, a threat to the world.


Prophets burn with fiery passion because they know that each person matters to God, and because they tell the truth as well.


Prophets see sickness everywhere. They see it in their public economy. And they see it in the places where the so-called public and the so-called private meet. There’s that vivid line in Amos about the father and son, and the same young woman. This is sexual abuse. This is rape, that Amos is decrying. In his context, this would have been a teenage family servant, hired for poverty-wages, or perhaps living in slavery. No rights, no status, no recourse, and so she’s used by other people, just as people today without rights, status, and recourse get used by the rest of us.


Prophets tell the truth, and so Amos says his nation is sick. And sick things that don’t get healthy die.


Often, though, prophets make people angry before they make them healthy, because people don’t always like the truth very much, right?


Through our partnerships team, that gives out 10% of our church’s tithes and offerings, our church supports International Justice Mission – the world’s largest anti-slavery organization. And their founder, Gary Haugen, often says that people who perpetrate violent injustice have two tools really – violence and deceit. Oppressors use force, and they lie. Which is why IJM mobilizes and equips better, public force through rule of law, and why IJM documents and tells the truth. Because to get justice, we need truth.  


Last Thursday, in our community organizing class at Reservoir, we were learning about different ways to gain people’s consent to change. We talked about how violent force is some ways the weakest means of consent, because as soon as the threat or power of violence is removed, no consent. And we talked about how strong relationships are the most powerful means of consent, because we want to live and work and make agreements together with those we love and respect.


But we had some debate about lies and manipulation, which in our training was labeled slanted information. Because we agreed that we we’ve seen a precious lack of truth-telling in our education, in our politics, in so much of our public discourse, and we felt that many of our public habits of deceit and manipulation have been a toxic and potent force for ill in our public lives.


So prophetic living believes in the healing power of telling the truth.


When I was younger, I’d read stuff like this and cheer. Stuff it to them, Amos. Speak truth to power! We like the angry truth when people tell say it about our enemies.


But over time, I realized what should have been obvious all along. The prophets of the Bible aren’t primarily criticizing their foes, they’re speaking truth about themselves. They’re diagnosing the sickness in their own nation, among their own people, in their own communities.


It’s hard to hear the truth about ourselves. It’s hard to grapple with the truth about our lives.


This week I learned a phrase I’d never known about a dynamic that has long troubled me. The phrase is “spiritual bypassing.” I read about it in on a blog from a rabbi, Rachel Barenblat, and it turns out there’s a whole body of work on this.


Spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism where you use spirituality to avoid uncomfortable or painful feelings. A spiritual community is troubled by an accusation of abuse, and if they cover it up or try to rush people toward healing before reckoning, that’s spiritual bypassing. People that have a hard time with anger or conflict or suffering and use religion to avoid or explain these things away, that’s spiritual bypassing too.


I don’t know about you, but there’s a fair bit of this in my spiritual and religious past. Big pushes toward forgiveness, healing, the power of faith to make all things better before really reckoning with what’s gone wrong. Too many of our so-called faith leaders are people who don’t like to reckon with their own mistakes and pain. And too many of us have rushed past hard truths in our experience, truth that needs reckoning and rumbling before it can change.


I think this is part of why my therapist last year was go goofy, over the top, encouraging, whenever she saw me compassionately reckoning with truth about myself. I’d tell her a story about the littlest thing, about being stuck in some way – but instead of distracting myself or pretending I could change it, asking someone I love for help. Or I’d talk about someone I love or respect speaking their truth in a way that was hard for me to hear, and just trying to sit with that, to stay engaged, and really be present, and she’d be like: Steve, this is so great – you’re saving the world!


And I’d be like you’re crazy, I’m not doing anything. Maybe like marginally moving toward sitting with the truth about myself and those I love with compassion. A little bit of inner work.


And she’d say: I know. But that’s where change comes from. People seeing and reckoning with the truth, and doing the inner work to sit with that without judgement. That’s where connection and curiosity and compassion and so many other good things are born, things that as they scale do amazing things.


Jesus, in his prophetic living, said this too. Near the end of the most powerful collection of his prophetic words – what’s called the Sermon on the Mount in the good news of Matthew – Jesus says,


“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. 2 You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you.3 Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? 5 You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.


Jesus tells us to use truth the way we want it used on us – generously, fairly, compassionately. And he says if you want to be a truth teller, if you want to live prophetically, make sure you’re doing your own inner work.


Jesus turns the “burn it down spirit” inward. To use another cryptic phrase of Jesus, salt yourself with fire. Let holy truth do its work in you. Commit to the kind of inner it takes to be be healthy.


This is where real prophets are different. Prophets don’t just go around burning other people’s stuff down, they don’t just call out truth about others. Prophetic living welcomes the truth about ourselves and our own groups and loyalties. Prophetic truth welcomes the gentle fire of change where things are not well within ourselves.


Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we can only tell the truth about ourselves. And I am not saying that all public anger is judgmental or uncalled for. I heard Rev. Lucas Johnson talking about this just this week. Johnson is a community organizer and pastor and now the executive director of On Being’s Civil Conversations project.


He talked about the criticism leveled at Michael Brown’s stepfather who screamed out “Burn it down!”, after the acquittal verdict of the officer who killed his son, after revelations of years of systemic violent racism in that city’s law enforcement. And he asked: what’s more dangerous? What’s more inhumane? The destruction of property, or the mass incarceration and violence toward my people. Johnson was like, that Burn it down impulse carries truth. He said most of us don’t wrestle enough with the real grief and anger that is natural to feel in the face of injustice.


But then Johnson said: “This is where my spiritual practice comes in, where I have to find another way of accepting and dealing with grief.” What he’s saying is that even righteous indignation isn’t potent and it isn’t safe without inner work.


When Jesus reckons with this old prophetic territory of truth-telling and righteousness, he insists upon this inner work. Take the log out of your eye. Be healthy. Let truth change who we are, and see what change and power flows from that.


Jesus begins this Sermon on the Mount material that moves toward judgment and logs with other words, long words about inner work. Citing the great 10 commandments about health and righteousness, he intensifies their truth-telling force, and turns them toward inner work, not just public compliance .


Matthew 5:21-26 (CEB)

21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. 25 Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.


Jesus knows that in our public and private relationships, a lot of us are prone to this violent, so-called “truth telling” about everyone but ourselves. We’re defensive, we’re reactive, we get fired up angry. All of which is human. Parts of which are even healthy. Not to mince words, but Jesus says when you’re angry with brother or sister, you’ll be in danger of judgement. The anger itself doesn’t put you in a bad place, it puts you in a risky place.


When that anger is channeled toward making things right, making things right in regards to those who have done us wrong, making things right when we realize we’ve done wrong, that can be a constructive, healthy force. But when that anger turns toward contempt, judgment, violence, it turns dangerous and toxic for everyone around us, and for ourselves.


Jesus asks us how are we in ourselves with other people? Are we mostly defensive and reactive in our anger? Or are we mostly self-aware, present, and  giving energy to the making of peace?

Last week our staff team at Reservoir were talking about the many amazing stories of great things happening in this community of Reservoir Church – all the stories of the love of God, the joy of living, and the gift of community. And then we got talking about some of the big forces in the world, stuff way beyond our control, that threatens our community, that threatens Reservoir’s mission and flourishing. And one of the things we talked about was the reactive world we live in, love of burning it down in our times, and the difficulty many of us are having living in peace and making it right with people that can provoke our anger. That’s real, I’m not judging that challenge we’re facing. But it’s tough. That we live in times of awareness of deep, systemic, painful injustice. And we live in times where it can be difficult to relate constructively with people who see the world differently than we do.


And in the context of this discussion, in the context of this work on the prophetic living of truth-telling, including about ourselves, and the prophetic living of inner work, I saw a quotation in the social media of another person our church partners with. He’d posted this line: “I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.”


I saw with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.


I found that powerful. And I was thinking about where a lot of anger comes from, thinking – given that I’m a man – about a lot of male anger too. Now, hang with me here. I’m not harshing on men. You may be aware: I am a man, and proudly and securely so. And women, or people who don’t find gendered conversation helpful, I hope you can hang with me for a minute here, and consider what’s helpful for you.


But I am that factually, most of the world’s domestic violence, most of the world’s sexual violence has its roots in male anger. Most of the world’s violence, period, is connected to the anger of men. The priest, Father Richard Rohr, has often written and talked about how so many difficulties we have relating to God – all of us – have to do with our experience of angry or emotionally shut down fathers and father figures.


And I’ve thought about how much male anger comes from unrecognized, undealt with shame.


I had my own experience of this the other day. I was biking through Harvard Square, and there was weird and messy road construction going on, as there is everywhere, all the time around here in the spring. And it was kind of confusing to me where I could safely proceed on my bike, and there was no traffic coming the other direction, and for a minute, I rode on the wrong side of these orange pylons that made the new, improvised center of the lane.


And after I had already found my way back to the right edge of the road, I biked past the police officer on traffic duty who yelled at me, forcibly, about where and how I should be riding my bike. And out of habit, I said something like: Thank you, I got it.


But within seconds, I felt this incredible anger starting to boil in me. Some part of me felt violated at being yelled at. I was growing really defensive about how dangerous that bit of road was, how often I’m on the edge of being hit by a car in situations like that.


There was certainly no part of me that had compassion on how stressful that officer’s day was, directing bad drivers and bad cyclists like me, and bad pedestrians around a dangerous stretch of road, in a dangerous job that he has. There was certainly no part of me that could welcome the correction I’d been given, and turn that toward the reinforcement of safer cycling habits.


I was starting to boil. But maybe because this talk was on my mind, maybe because I try to practice daily inner work with Jesus, another thought came into my consciousness, and that thought was that I was ashamed of myself. I was ashamed that I had been caught doing something wrong, however small, and ashamed that meant that a man had yelled me. I realized some part of me was still there that was ashamed by the times my dad had yelled at me when I was a kid, even when I was a young man. Some part of me was still ashamed by times other people – teachers, bosses – had yelled at me or criticized me.


And still on my bike, only half a mile, just a couple of minutes from the birth of my anger, I started asking a different question. I started asking: what can I do with this shame, that’s making me so reactive right now?


And I thought: a living, loving God is not and has never, ever been ashamed of me. The God I’m coming to know in the person of Jesus Christ is never ashamed of me, is always compassionate and kind with me, even in my weaknesses. And I thought: I may have made a mistake back there, but I don’t need to be ashamed. And things starting getting clearer.


Which was important for me, not just because I didn’t want to carry rage or contempt over that little interaction in traffic. But because I had an important day ahead of me. All our days are important. I had a difficult conversation ahead that day, it turned out, and I wanted to be present and compassionate with the truth of that conversation, not reactive.


Men in the room in particular, there is powerful life in examining any places where unrecognized, undealt-with shame fuels our anger. Let me know if that strikes you and you want to talk more about that. This feels important to me.


And all of us, to accompany our anger, and our reactivity, with an inner work that just asks: where is this coming from? And what do I want to do with it? That’s powerful stuff. That’s prophetic living, to be compassionate truth tellers to ourselves.


Jesus goes on from anger, to also talk about desire on the same terms. And I think it’s interesting that Jesus really hones in on misdirected, or toxic anger and desire. Because toxic anger and toxic desire are at the root of all kinds of bad in the world. Or put positively, a therapist whose work I follow, Dan Allender, says it is a dangerous person for good who doesn’t lust after power or people.


That kind of freedom from toxic anger and toxic desire – especially for power and people – is a good kind of dangerous.

But hey, inner work wherever you find your life can go off course, is sweet prophetic living that Jesus would commend. I heard a Buddhist teacher the other day saying that the Buddha taught that there were five types of people. Five ways that we tend to be reactive in the world.


There are people prone to anger.


There are people prone to worry.


There are people who lose heart, and are prone to discouragement.


There are people are always looking to blame somebody, especially themselves.  


And there are people who need sensual soothing – food, sex, whatever

stimulates us.


Five fallback modes of reactivity – not evil, not something to judge ourselves over, but something to be aware of, a truth that invites inner work.


Does that resonate with you? Do you often find yourself in one of these 5 fall-back reactive modes?


Angry, worried, disheartened, blaming, or looking for sensual soothing?


I found that very self-aware, very consistent with Jesus’ prophetic teaching about inner work, about compassionate truth-telling that starts with us.


Just as our inner life can profoundly guide us off course, the human spirit and the Spirit of God can, through truth telling, bring profound, growing health to our inner lives.


My inner work is deeply rooted in spirituality of the Christian faith that I love. I think of my spiritual practice as my best set of weapons in the world, the roots of anything good and just and valuable that I become and that I do. For me, that involves particular weekly rhythms of rest and learning. It involves my participation in this faith community. It involves trying to cultivate honest friendships, and an honest prayer life, where I speak the truths of my life to Jesus and welcome Jesus’ compassionate, encouraging, truth-telling to me.


Other people I know have had seasons of inner work that focus on mindfulness – practicing more awareness in the moment. Others have really focus on emotional literacy, emotional awareness in particular.


Today’s talk isn’t on the mechanics of inner work, and spiritual practice so much, though, as on the prophetic living of telling the truth to ourselves, and making sure we find a set of practices of inner work.

What is your practice? Where, when, and how do you do your inner work to become less reactive in yourself, less reactive in the world?


As my therapist said, this is not just a matter of private piety, but of saving ourselves, and saving the world.


The Talmud, in the Jewish tradition says: Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.


Echoing this wisdom, the Islamic Quran says:

“We ordained … that if anyone killed a person or spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.”


Jesus says: take the log out your eye, make things right. Welcome God to grow health, good fruit within – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control.


Then even your anger, even your truth-telling, will be safe and good.



Shift the beginning of this to LOVE and TRUTH…

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

Fuel up in the morning with love, and look for who and what in your community and work is in your power to heal, build up, and make right.


Spiritual Practice of the Week

Get to know your default reactivity. If you don’t have an inner work practice, ask someone you respect what theirs is.