Although it isn’t a common colloquial phrase in contemporary culture, navel-gazing is something we ought to consider bringing back as a practice of spiritual formation. That may sound rather odd to our modern ears, given that we commonly associate this phrase with self-absorption and self-centeredness. If someone is labeled as a navel-gazer they are considered to be guilty of being consumed with their own thoughts, preferences, desires, and concerns without any regard for others. Oddly enough, the original meaning of this phrase had the exact opposite idea in mind.
The ancient Greeks practiced the art of navel-gazing, which they called omphaloskepsis. And no, I did not just bang my hands on the keyboard to produce that word. It is an actual term in Greek that literally means navel examination. But it wasn’t about entertaining thoughts of one’s self. On the contrary, the practice of navel-gazing was a way to contemplate and reflect upon the divine.
In his book Curiosities of Medical Experience, the 19th century British army surgeon John G. Millingen described the Greek practice of navel-gazing in this way. He said the Greeks “…fancied that they experienced celestial joys when gazing on their umbilical region, in converse with the deity.” It was believed that concentrated reflection on the navel would induce deep communion with the divine. Building upon this strange ancient practice, Kelly Kapic has this to say in his outstanding book You’re Only Human.
“The belly button” Kapic suggests, “has a profound theological importance. It is our body’s way of reminding us that we are not self-made people. We are not separate islands. We are not merely rugged individuals. Instead we are inevitably and necessarily bound together with others. It has been so from the beginning and will always be. Each of us is someone’s child whether we know their names or not. All of us owe our existence not simply to God but to other human creatures.”
If we just pause to consider this for a moment it actually makes a great deal of sense. What is our belly button? It is evidence of the fact that our lives are derivative. It is the anatomical reminder that our very existence is wholly tied to and predicated upon the existence of another. And that person’s existence is predicated upon the existence of another, and so on. This pattern of life should then naturally lead us to wonder and explore the source and beginning of all life, namely God.
When we properly practice the discipline of navel-gazing, it should forge within us a godly gratitude that recognizes all that we are, all that we have, and all that we do is given to us from God. Or to put it conversely, it should form a holy humility that admits there is no such thing as a purely self-made person. There are two places in Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church that captures these truths perfectly.
1 Corinthians 15:10
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
Notice that Paul is not denying his agency and responsibility to work and fulfill his calling. However, he does so with a keen awareness that every ability, skill, and resource he possesses is ultimately traced back to the provisional hand of God. Similarly, he declares these words in chapter 4 regarding our need to refrain from arrogance and boasting.
1 Corinthians 4:7
For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
These words from Paul express a similar sentiment that is often repeated in the book of Deuteronomy by God to His covenant people.
Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.
This is a timely word for us because we live in and contribute to a culture that celebrates things like independence, individualism, and ambition. Those aren’t inherently poisonous things, but when they become paramount values they can end up eclipsing God’s gracious provision in our lives. When this happens it can lead us to conclude it is our power and the might of our hands that have produced all of our successes.
Referring back to the work of Kapic, he not only warns us of this, but also shows us how futile it is to fully know ourselves and seek the good life with such an independent and individualistic mindset.
“Any attempt to live as my own center shows that I need others to understand myself and I need them even more to be a healthy and thriving human creature. This is how God made us. Because we have our being in relation and not apart from it, knowing one’s self rightly can only occur in the context of being known, of being in relationships, of being loved. The self alone, the isolated ego, is a contradiction in terms. Pursuing that contradiction leads not to life giving knowledge but to suffocating loneliness and unending self doubt.”
When we slow down enough to consider the sermon that God is preaching to us through our belly buttons (which is admittedly the strangest sentence I have ever written) it should cause us to see and savor the beauty of His design for our lives. Not just in the way we are deeply connected to God, but also to one another.
Again, Kapic has a helpful word for us on this matter.
“Once we start to ponder it, we realize that our whole lives, from our food to our shelter, from our health to our incomes, all of it involves the interdependence of human beings. Why? Because we are finite creatures. And the gift of these relationships with God, others, and even the earth is meant to provide the matrix for self understanding, giving our lives meaning and purpose no matter what our socioeconomic status. Ironically only when I stop thinking of myself as chiefly an isolated center of consciousness and begin to consider my identity in terms of my relationships to others can I start to see clearly who I am.”
We live in an age where the false narrative of the self-made person is the heroic tale we want our lives to tell, and where the vain value of independent individualism is contributing to our increasingly lonely world. God wants to free us from these destructive ways of thinking and living by directing our hearts toward Him who is the giver of every good gift.
Do you want to see the hand of God at work in your life? Start by looking at your belly button.
Before I could say anything in response, my family member was on Google earth exploring the countryside of France pondering what this means for her and our family.
She was searching, but for what?
Searching for who we are
Maybe you or a relative has gone through this process. In a world filled with uncertainty, we long for rootedness. We long for history. We long to belong. This is partly why DNA and ancestry services are exploding. Our anxious world is seeking to know who we are.
But like a mirage, when facts and figures land in our hands, it still doesn’t fulfill that deep thirst. This is because we don’t just want to know our history and get the nuts and bolts of the where/when/what. We want to hear stories about our people and find out something specific about why we are who we are today.
We want to learn, grow and not feel so alone. But to do that, we need to go further back than a few centuries. We need to go back a few millennia to the stories of our faith family in Scripture.
As Christians, we come to the Scriptures with the belief that God is telling a story that is true and relevant to life today although it is anchored in history. This informs why we come to Scripture looking for answers. We come seeking guidance, but what we may miss is that it is here that we also find belonging.
The role of storied memory
Imagine an oral culture, which is the primary context when Scripture was recorded, and the primary mode of communication is story. In a collective society, it is these stories of God’s people that shaped not only their understanding but also their identity. Under the stars around the fire Grandma or Grandpa, the keeper of the stories, would tell of Joseph and his envious brothers, Moses parting the Red Sea, or David being anointed by Samuel.
In these stories, generation upon generation not only learned about their ancestors, but they learned about who they were. They would understand “this is how we do things as God’s people,” and simultaneously embody hatred of practices that went against “who they were.” The stories of God working through their ancestors helped them make sense of what God was doing among them as His people in the present.
Remembering is NOT an option
This is why the most common command in all of scripture is NOT: “fear not” or “love your neighbor.” While both are crucial, the most common command is to “remember,” because in these stories recorded and passed down for generations, we find belonging and behavior that is in accordance with being God’s people.
Since all of Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for our growth and maturity (2 Timothy 3:16-17), that means when we forget our family — or when the stories of God’s people throughout Scripture escape our imagination — we forget a portion of ourselves. We forget who we are supposed to be today.
Therefore what we need on our journey toward wholeness is less akin to a baby shower or a birthday where both celebrations have their eyes set forward. Rather we need something more akin to Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday, that looks back and remembers our ancestors of the faith to see how their stories continue to speak into who we are, and connect with us today.
Rewards of remembering
In our Forgotten Family series, we’ll explore overlooked stories in Scripture. But this isn’t just for Bible knowledge. Studying some of the forgotten stories of our faith family will provide at least three assurances:
We’re not the first. When we hear stories of our faith family who have gone before us, we rest assured that we aren’t the “first” of God’s people to face challenges in our faith (1 Corinthians 10:11). The Christian life is a path worn by many who have walked before us.
We’re not alone.As we remember stories of forgotten family, it’s a reminder that we are not “alone” in our battles. There is a beautiful mystery of those who have lived, died and are with Christ, who also make up this great cloud of witnesses cheering us on in our faith (Hebrews 12:1). We aren’t the first to walk this way, and we aren’t alone.
We’re not without guidance.By listening to stories of our faith family with God’s commentary in Scripture, we gain clarity in understanding “who we are” and thus greater understanding of how we as “God’s people live out who we are in various circumstances.”
The more we learn about those who went before us, the more we understand how our family history is a window into who we are today. When we forget our roots, we are less equipped to bring our whole selves to the opportunities and challenges of our lives.
We long to have a more secure identity in our good God, and for that we need to remember who we are as God’s people on a deeper level. Our hope is that you don’t just join us as we remember what God has done before, but that in remembering, we better understand together who we are and join in how He is continuing to work through us today!
In the 4th century the city of Caesarea was reeling from war and famine that rendered its citizens and infrastructure vulnerable. The city’s fragility was compounded with a widespread plague that forced many to flee, leaving the poor and sick to fend for themselves. While many evacuated in panic there was one group of people who remained in the city to care for the dying. It was the Christian remnant of Caesarea who risked exposure to illness and death to stay back and care for their indigent neighbors.
The ancient historian Eusebius recorded the events that took place during this time and penned these words:
“All day long some of [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.”
In the face of great sickness, uncertainty, and even death, followers of Jesus risked their own well being to love and care for the most vulnerable in their midst. While many saw these events as an opportunity for self-preservation, apprentices of Jesus saw it as an opportunity for sacrificial love. This has been a hallmark of the church of Jesus Christ from the beginning. And she finds herself presented with another opportunity to be who she has always been.
This is quite an unusual time in our world as we watch the COVID 19 virus spread around the globe. It is unusual to see major sporting events canceled, churches empty on Sundays, and toilet paper in such high demand. If you know where I can score some please hit me up…I have 4 kids.
But these unusual times call for unusual kindness (Acts 28:1-2).
Yes, we need to take precautions to avoid the spread of this virus. Yes, we need to adjust our rhythms and habits to embrace a new normal for the time being.
While many are viewing this time as a reason to panic, the church of Jesus Christ should see it as a reason to persist in neighborly love.
Here are a few suggestions for us to consider as we seek to offer a counter-narrative to the Coronavirus by showing unusual kindness:
1. Check in on the vulnerable
The elderly and the chronically ill are the most susceptible to the virus. Odds are there is someone on your block or in your apartment complex who is living with a heightened and justifiable concern because of their increased risk of contracting the virus. Find ways to contact them to offer prayer, encouragement, and any assistance that is appropriate within the parameters recommended by the CDC and other public health officials. It could be as simple as offering to get groceries for them. If your neighborhood or apartment complex has a social media group or webpage then use it to contact neighbors and encourage others to do the same.
2. Put pen to paper
We may be limited in our face to face contact. What a great opportunity to dust off your ink pen and stationery to write some cards to friends, family members, and neighbors. When you consider our technological age and our impending quarantined lifestyle, receiving a handwritten card in the mail might do wonders for people stuck in isolation.
3. Redeem social media
Can we all agree that social media has been kind of terrible as of late? But it doesn’t have to be. With people more isolated due to the virus, let’s redeem this tool to connect, encourage, pray for, and serve others. Ask people how you can pray for them and just see who responds. Invite people to your church’s online worship service if they are offering one. Share encouraging words of Scripture that will buoy people’s spirits and remind them of God’s presence amidst the chaos.
4. Volunteer (if possible)
This may not be a viable or even permissible option, but if it is within your means to do so you may reach out to offer your time and resources to area food pantries, non-profit groups, hospitals, and nursing homes. We all know that medical professionals will be swamped during this time. We also know that there are many food insecure families who will be in greater need with schools closed for an indefinite period of time. Many families rely on the meals their children receive at school. Consider contacting the principal of your neighborhood school to see if there is any way to help.
5. Share the unusual good news of Jesus
It is during times like these when we are awakened to our need for Jesus. When we discover just how fragile, vulnerable, dependent, and fearful we actually are.
May the church of Jesus Christ be present and ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15) and to show how the unusual message of the cross of Christ is actually our wisdom and power (1 Cor 1:20-25).
This is indeed an unusual time in our history, but it is also a unique opportunity for the church to step up and reach out to our neighbors. As it is said, desperate times call for desperate measures. I think unusual times call for unusual kindness.
We are all storytellers. In his outstanding book, The Soul of Shame, Dr. Curt Thompson puts it this way: “We yearn to tell and hear stories of goodness and beauty, and this is the echo of God’s intention. We long for our stories to be about joy, not just reflections of what we believe but of who we are, who we long to be.”
What is your story telling?
Is it a story of goodness, beauty, and joy? It can be! We can experience a world where God’s eternal purposes are trusted. What then distorts our stories, corrupts our lives, interfering in our relationship with God and others? What cripples vocational flourishing and creativity and makes holistic healing (physical, emotional, social, spiritual integration) appear out of our reach? Shame is the culprit igniting disintegration of our creation design preventing us from growing in Christlikeness and becoming who God desires us to be.
Dr. Curt Thompson opens our eyes to what shame is and how it works.
Becoming vulnerable feels uncomfortable and at times too risky. Dr. Thompson asserts that shame shows up as that deep feeling that I am simply not enough, that I don’t measure up. Shame is “… the felt sense that I do not have what it takes to tolerate this moment or circumstance.”
Perhaps in your life shame is whispering or even shouting, “You are not enough.”
While shame is one of our greatest obstacles to joy, there is good news about shame. In Christ we can embrace our new identity as beloved sons and daughters of God who intimately know God and are intimately known by God. We are secure in His Triune love.
The gospel addresses shame and paves the way forward to redemption, healing, joyful creativity, and renewed vitality in endless ways. Identifying the presence and power of shame will enable us to experience the liberation to live as we were originally created to live. An integral life of joy we never dared imagine awaits every apprentice of Jesus.
Through the heartfelt lens of Dr. Curt Thompson’s personal story and professional expertise, we can gain greater understanding of shame by becoming more aware of the goodness and beauty in our relationships and vocational callings. Our transformation occurs in the context of a community of transparency, prayer, and connection. Shame unravels in the beautiful tapestry of close friendships.
Christ Community will host Dr. Curt Thompson for two special events in April, 2020. You are invited to join us as we learn more about this crucial subject.
Visit Dr. Thompson’s website and download a chapter from The Soul of Shame: CurtThompsonMD.com
Redeeming Shame: Vulnerability and Vocational Creativity
When: Thursday, April 23 from 6:30-8:15pm Where: Christ Community – Leawood Campus Cost: FREE (but registration is required) REGISTER for Thursday evening
The Beauty of Transformation (3 hour CEU training for healthcare professionals)
When: Friday, April 24 from 9:00am-12:00pm Where: Christ Community – Leawood Campus Cost: $90 REGISTER for Friday morning
It is not difficult to look at our families and see the influence of technology on our identities at all ages: toddlers asking Alexa to play Baby Shark, the viral influence of the bottle flip challenge, teenagers with Instagram selfies, the virtual note-passing world of Snapchat, and parents sharing their child’s first and everything on Facebook.
Technology offers us beautiful ways to be connected, to make life simpler, and to grow in knowledge. However, families need to be engaging in conversations about how identity is often silently being shaped by technology.
Andy Crouch, in his book Tech Wise, articulated these words,
“Technology in its proper place helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance.”
True identity grows in an environment built on trust, respect, and love where your behavior, words, and emotions can be shared with others face-to-face. Technology’s broad assortment of communities can deceive us into feeling known and lead us away from authentic relationships toward loneliness, isolation, and a loss of self.
Take time this month to pay attention to your family’s interaction with technology and how you are engaging with the growing smorgasbord of options in your home, on the road, or in your hand. Watch each other to discover how technology is being a positive or negative identity influence.
Is it helping with eating healthy, monitoring exercise, keeping you punctual, and encouraging learning? Or is it creating a disconnect in family relationships or promoting a lack of eye contact and respect and an increase in laziness?
Cultivate a culture in your home of regular unplugging from technology to turn away from the noise of society and the words of strangers to focus on the source of our true and everlasting identity.
God, you are…
Remember God’s character by creating a list of words from the Bible that describe Him.
God, I am…
We are image bearers of God. How do you see God’s image growing in each other’s lives?
God, we will…
Pray for God’s guidance to see where your identity in Him has been shaken. Ask Him to reveal a course to correct it.