thomas moore

Hard Work, Sincere Grief, Profound Laughter

Soul care requires hard work, sincere grief, and profound laughter.

Hard Work


York Minster Cathedral in York, England, is one of the world's architectural wonders.  It's also one of the longest building projects, taking over 250 years to complete.  The result is breathtaking.

The Cathedral is not only a beautiful and enduring work of art, it's a physical space where its builders can commune with each other and with God.  And without burdening the point, sacred spaces like York Minster are meant to give the people inside an understanding of their very identity (i.e. Church is the place where Christians learn who they are).  And this is why I describe soul care as hard work.

Placing one's self on the gurney of personal growth is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting.  It should be.  We, too, are building a cathedral of sorts.  We are designing and constructing, tearing down and rebuilding, learning and unlearning.  We are lifting heavy things.  We are exercising (literally) and eating in new ways.  We are using all of our senses: listening more intently, looking for attentively, and touching more intentionally (I have on multiple occasions recommended massage therapy for clients who have not known human touch to be a safe experience).

Like a 9 to 5 job, soul care demands from us effort that may not come naturally.  It asks us to turn around and swim upstream from our default strategies for living and relating.  Perhaps this is why my clients at Journeys remark- and I've experienced this in my own therapy- that they sometimes leave sessions physically weary from “just talking.”

Soul care is hard work.  The result?  A beautiful, enduring work of art... a human masterpiece.  In a sense, we become Cathedrals, places of worship where identity is formed, and communion is enjoyed with God and others.  The difference between York Minster, and us, is that we don't have 250 years.

Sincere Grief

Grief is perhaps the primary example of the hard work that soul care requires.  The tears that build York Minster take an enormous toll on our human resources.

Nevertheless, (effective) soul care always, always involves grief because grief and soul care are both interested in the same things: movement, change, and transformation.

G. Roualt

G. Roualt

Sincere grief moves us from naivety to wisdom by helping us approach death, inherent in every life, with an appropriate (truthful) response.  In other words, we grieve in soul care because there is death in the world and to do otherwise would make us dishonest, or, at the least, completely out of touch with reality.

Author and Psychologist Thomas Moore, one of my favorite writers, in his wonderful book “Care of The Soul,” calls grief a gift of soul care, saying that, to resist sadness in everyday life is to set up one's self for a major, debilitating meeting with depression later on.  More than this, to resist grief is to resist its unique vision of the world, full of darker colors, that ironically moves us away from cynicism towards age and wisdom.

Another author, and an Anglican priest, Mike Mason, also makes this connection between sadness and transformation of the soul.  “Sadness signals change,” he writes.

...It is an intermediate emotion, a feeling that is going somewhere.  Like a seventh or a ninth chord in music, it is rich in subtle tones that tend toward resolution, lean toward home.  This is what distinguishes sadness from moroseness, self-pity, or depression, all of which have a feeling of stuckness.  Sadness is always in motion in the backfield.  You will know the real thing by this sense of movement toward happiness.  In photographs, crying and laughing are hard to tell apart.

Sadness is like that moment in a rainstorm when the rain has not yet stopped, but there is a perceptible brightening, and there comes that subtle change in the atmosphere signifying the imminence of a rainbow.  Sadness is hopeful.  Anger feels hard in the body, fear feels alien, and depression is like a dull poison.  But sadness is at home in flesh and blood.  It is a soft and relaxed presence, a comfortable garment for the heart. - Mike Mason, Practicing the Presence of People

Soul care invites us to reconsider the role of sadness and other so called “negative” emotions in our lives.  Instead of seeing them as problems, we can see them, perhaps with the help of a therapist, as sign posts of healing and growth.

Soul care is hard work.  It is sincere grief.  And it is also, thank God, laughter.  Soul care is profound laughter.

Profound Laughter

My wife, Mindy, loves to watch YouTube videos.  There's one video she could watch a hundred times in a row without getting bored.  And she's not alone because this video is one of the most watched in YouTube's history.  Any guesses?  See for yourself:

Author Frederich Buechner has written a lot about the significance of laughter in his own life and in the human experience.  He even attributes his conversion to Christianity to hearing the great preacher, George Buttrick, speak of salvation as great laughter:

And then there came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words that somebody sent me more than twenty-five years later so I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last minute and ad-libbed it—and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all. Jesus Christ refused the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness, Buttrick said, but he is king nonetheless because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, "among confession, and tears, and great laughter." It was the phrase great laughter that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hiddenly in the doing all the years of my journey up till then. It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon. - Frederick Buecher, The Sacred Journey

That conversion involves great laughter points to its necessity in soul care which is, in a sense, daily conversion.  And that soul care requires laughter should not surprise us even though it does.  For instance, if you stopped by Journeys Counseling Center in Orlando, where Mindy and I have an office, you probably wouldn't believe the amount of laughter sneaking out from the otherwise soundproof counseling rooms.  I don't mean to imply that soul care is amusement.  It's much deeper.  It's the laughter that Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee share at the end of their journey in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of The Rings" trilogy.


Soul care looks like this: my dad walking in from a rare snow in Tennessee.  I love this picture of my dad.  I keep it in my phone and look at it occasionally.  He is a fairly quiet man but the emotion on his face here- the laughter- is worth a million words.  I can only imagine what crazy joke my mom has told him to provoke such a free smile.  Look at his face.  Can you hear the sound of a quiet man turned into a laughing child because of frozen water flying through the air?  This is what soul care both requires and produces.

As Mike Mason already mentioned, laughter is interesting in that it’s hard to tell the difference between the face of someone laughing and that of someone crying.  In fact, laughter is at its best when it includes tears!  The English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray said: "humor is the mistress of tears."  This is why laughter is more profound than amusement.  And why the fly on the wall of the counseling room never knows whether the client and the therapist are laughing or crying.  We're doing both at the same time.

One final word on laughter and soul care: I think of them both in the context of redemption.  For Christians, redemption is given metaphorical form in the wildly colorful vision of heaven found in the Revelation of Saint John.  Heaven, John says, is a place where there will be no more darkness, crying, or pain.  In their place is the presence of the Trinitarian God.  And when I think of this place I wonder what our faces will look like- in the light of God.  I picture us laughing.  I picture our faces like that of my dad's.

-Josh Bales

10 Quotes & A Song About (Sweet) Forgiveness

"Sweet Forgiveness"


I was surprised to see you in the store recently.  And after all this time, the tears still welled up in my eyes.  (Chorus) I do forgive you with all that that means.  Though the wounds and scars you left still bleed.  And who can say if I’ll ever forget, all those things you did without regret.  But there's still forgiveness- sweet forgiveness, yet.  You don't know this but we've talked.  I've begged you for answers with no response.  I've searched for peace. And all I want is to be free.  (Bridge)  Some people say that forgiveness is the key.  It opens the door and sets you free.  (Final Chorus)  I do forgive you with all that that means.  Though the wounds and scars you left still bleed.  And I will not live a life of regret, when I could live with love instead.  But there's still forgiveness- sweet forgiveness, yet.

Download a free PDF of the lyrics and chords

Buy the song at iTunes



Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen. – Words of Absolution from The Book of Common Prayer

“Don't you want to be there/don't you want to cry/when you see how far you've got to go to be where forgiveness rules/instead of where you are?” -Songwriter Jackson Browne


We forgive people not because they deserve our forgiveness, but because we want to be free. – Author Mike Mason

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” – Author and Ethicist Lewis Smedes

“The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world, is division, opposition, separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness: the return to unity, solidarity, love. To forgive is to put between me and my ‘enemy’ the radiant forgiveness of God Himself. Forgiveness is truly a ‘breakthrough’ of the Kingdom into this sinful and fallen world.”  - Fr. Alexander Schmemann

When you forgive, you release yourself as well as the other person. You allow life to go on, to bypass your exaggerated sense of virtue and your worry about being offended. As long as you sit on your power to forgive, you suppress your joy in life. You also limit yourself: If you keep those you love within tight boundaries of behavior, you have to bind yourself as well lest you be a hypocrite. – Author and Psychotherapist Thomas Moore

[The Bible] does not say ‘Forgive everyone, unless they’ve said something rude about your child.’ And it doesn’t even say, ‘Just try.’ It says, If you want to be forgiven, if you want to experience that kind of love, you have to forgive everyone in your life- everyone, even the very worst boyfriend you ever had – even, for God’s sake, yourself. – Author Anne Lamott

 [Divine forgiveness] demands of me that I step over that wounded part of my heart that feels hurt and wronged and that wants to stay in control and put a few conditions between me and the one whom I am asked to forgive. This ‘stepping over’ is the authentic discipline of forgiveness. –Author and Catholic Priest Henri Nouwen

 To forgive somebody is to say one way or another, "You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you've done, and though we may both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend." …Our unforgivingness is among those things about us that we need to have God forgive us most. – Author Frederick Buechner

...Whoever has been forgiven little loves little. - Jesus Christ


Orthodox Christians would commend to us their annual observance and celebration of “Forgiveness Sunday,” the first service of Lent where congregant and priest alike kneel before each other during worship for to ask forgiveness one for the other. Beautiful! Alexander Schmemann has written a short piece on this Christian Orthodox tradition HERE.

Article "Searching and Fearless: On Doing A Fourth Step"

“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” – Step Four, Twelve Steps, The Dark Night

In The Dark Night Of The Soul, author Gerald May writes “Some A.A. members call themselves 'grateful alcoholics' because their addiction finally brought them to their knees. It was only because of the addiction that they discovered the true depths and longings of their souls."   If addiction brings us to our knees and procures gratitude from our hearts, I would suggest that the fourth step is addiction’s counterpart in this glorious work.  Whether one takes a moral inventory as officially delineated by a local twelve step program, or one merely takes seriously Jesus’ words to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” doing business with the evil that one has both endured and perpetrated in life must be understood as crucial to any kind of growth: spiritual or relational.

Excavating A Ghost Town           

Perhaps this is why the fourth step has been called “the heart of the program.”   Doing a fourth step is the equivalent to unearthing years of negative emotions.  It’s like excavating an abandoned ghost town where traumatic events lay motionless and still, left precisely as they were, in the moments after their trauma.  Here the fourth-stepper, like a soul archeologist recently equipped with his tools of powerlessness (step 1 in the twelve step program), humility (step 2 in the program), as well as renewed responsibility and volition (step 3), now returns to the ghost town of his soul, hunting for buried treasure that no adventurer has ever willingly searched for.  His work is dangerous and, by all normal human accounts, absurd.  Nevertheless, this is the work of the fourth step: soul excavation.  At risk if the work goes undone? A ghost town that remains dead.  A soul that remains quiet and forever haunted.

The Three Steps of the Fourth Step

The impact of taking a moral inventory of my life could best be described as a three-fold process.  In the first part of the process, I encounter grace in a new way.  Let’s call this “Step 4.1.”  Grace precedes and follows my intentional soul searching.  In fact, it is grace that proves to be the essential catalyst for the next part of the process, “Step 4.2” which is the shining of a light on what author Richard Rohr calls my shadow self.  Or, as author Brennan Manning puts it, grace enables me to name my “imposter (Manning, Abba’s Child).”   Finally, in the third part of this fourth step transformational process, “Step 4.3,” I  move into the heartbreak and humor that come from accepting the truth about who I am.

Step 4.1: An Encounter With Grace

The kind of honest, life-reflection required in doing a fourth step opens the door of my heart to experience more of God’s grace.  Grace creates a foundation for open self-discovery.  In the light of grace nothing within me needs to be overlooked, because grace is more powerful than whatever evil I may stumble across in my heart.  Moreover, grace not only provides me the ability to see the bad in me, it also helps me see the good.  In other words, without grace I condemn myself for the bad and take false pride in the good.

What if evil, addiction, and sin were more like a disease that invited God’s sadness and compassion, rather than a behavior met only by God’s anger?  Author Richard Rohr writes this: “How helpful it is to see sin, like addiction, as a disease, a very destructive disease, instead of merely something that [is] culpable, punishable or ‘[makes] God unhappy.’”   Rohr backs this up with a unique perspective on Jesus as portrayed in the gospels, pointing out that “it is really shocking how little Jesus is shocked by human failure and sin. In fact, it never appears that he is upset at sinners. He is only and consistently upset at people who do not think they are sinners (Rohr, Breathing Underwater).”  I would suggest that it’s only this kind of perspective on sin that makes it possible for me to make a complete moral inventory of my life.  Only the knowledge of a gracious and compassionate God could lead me to risk stumbling over evil in my heart; evil that I did not previously see.  Doing a moral inventory invites me to revel in the grace of God.  It pushes me to encounter grace in a new, fresh, way.

Grace & Christian Worship

One accompanying observation is found in the arena of Christian worship.  In worship we encounter God’s grace on a weekly basis through the liturgical ritual of confession and assurance.  This worship ritual is nothing less than an intentional, weekly, corporate, step four enactment!  One manual for Christian worship describes confession and assurance as follows (notice the almost explicit connection to the heart of the fourth step):

“The prayer of confession invites us to speak words that are remarkably honest about our own sin, words that do not come naturally in our relationship with God or with our fellow human beings. Such honesty, perhaps more than we could ever generate in our own strength, becomes remarkably liberating when we sense the immensity of God’s grace. In this way we can think of the prayer of confession (and of the assurance of pardon that follows) not as an onerous obligation but as a gift of grace (The Worship Sourcebook).”

Around the time of doing my fourth step I was writing songs for the Count The Stars EP 2013.  In light of what I was learning about myself and about grace, I wrote a song loosely based on Brennan Manning’s book Abba’s Child, called Isn’t That Amazing Grace.  The words encapsulate this idea that doing a fourth step, as a Christian, brings one face to face with God’s grace in a deep way.  The words are as follows:

“Underneath the countenance of God we all try to hide.  We forget how he loves us so, we forget we’re Abba’s child.  So when the lies are loud, let the gospel drown them out.  Come out, sinner, from those shadows, every corner of your shame.  Don’t you know you’re his beloved?  You don’t have to hide your face.  Isn’t that amazing grace?  But there are other voices in our hearts.  They’re imposters in disguise.  And they tell us we can’t trust his love- that on our selves we must rely.  But when the lies are loud, let the gospel drown them out.  Don’t believe the lies.  You’re beloved, Abba’s child.  No more guilt and shame, ‘cause isn’t that amazing grace?”

Step 4.2 Light For The Shadow Self

The second thing that happens as a result of doing a moral inventory as seen in the fourth step, is the naming, identifying, exposing, and welcoming of what analytical psychology calls the shadow self.   The shadow self is the part of us who turns to addiction, who lives by what we do and not what we are, and who thrives on pleasing others, demands their approval, and lives for their applause.  The term “shadow self” is important because, in light of the paradigm of grace discussed above, doing a moral inventory means caring for, not destroying, the hungry, thirsty, needy, destructive part of ourselves.  In one of my favorite books of all time, Care of the Soul, author Thomas Moore contends that until we pause to hear what our shadow self needs, we will never be able to heal it, and incorporate it into our identity as a whole person.  In other words, doing a moral inventory is a way of discovering what our souls most long for, through the lens of our destructive behaviors.  When we encounter grace, we are given the freedom to care for our shadow self.

Step 4.3 Laughing and Weeping

What do we do with this shadow self once we’ve discovered it?  Authors Russ Hudson and Richard Rohr have given a series of lectures on the Enneagram, an ancient and profound personality assessment.  Their lectures are called “Laughing and Weeping.”  The title itself is significant in that it points to what we ought to do with our shadow self.  That is, on the one hand we must grieve and weep for its evil, our sin.  On the other hand, we must accept, embrace, and thus “laugh at” and thereby accept our humanity and weakness.  The work of Hudson and Rohr on the Enneagram has been a powerful tool in helping me do this.

Here is an example: Personality type four on the Enneagram (the romantic, individualistic, artist) uses emotion- particularly negative emotion- to manipulate those close by.  Type fours often live in fantasy world, discontent with present reality.  Type fours are emotionally sensitive and can be ruled by passing emotional experiences.  As a type four, I’ve learned to weep for my sensitivity and discontentment, and the way they push people away from me, isolate me, and lead me to reactive behavior.  These characteristics of my shadow self must be grieved.

Nevertheless, weeping should not be my only response.  Grace changes, not obliterates, the shadow self.  So with the weeping comes the laughter of acceptance and welcome.  Yes, my personality type has brought great pain.  But it has also brought me the gift of intuition, creativity, independence, and a fully orbed emotional life.  I should laugh with enjoyment and gratitude that my curse is also my gift!  Maybe this is part of what St. Paul means when he tells the Corinthians that God’s power is perfected in his weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

Final Thoughts: Redemption, Theosis, and Observance

Okay I admit it: My hope was that, after doing a fourth step, I would never have to make a searching moral inventory again, I would magically and dramatically change for the better, and my shadow self would be forever exposed and accepted.  But this isn’t reality!  Such an outcome neither reflects the reality of human sin nor the reality of Christian redemption!  The goal of life after a fourth step is not the removal of evil.  It is evil’s redemption.

Is this not the way God deals with evil in the scriptures?  Apart from some notable exceptions, sinners are rescued rather struck by the lightening bolts of an angry God.  Creation itself, contrary to some theologies, is not wiped out, it is recreated.  It isn’t removed, it is redeemed.  And so it is with us.  Salvation is not the evaporation or obliteration of our imposters and shadow selves.  It is the completion, integration, and wholeness of ourselves.  Hans Rookmaaker famously said, “Jesus didn't come to make us Christian; Jesus came to make us fully human."  Similarly, St. Irenaeus noted, “the glory of God is man fully alive."  Eastern Christians helpfully talk about the goal of salvation as “theosis,” a word meaning “to become divine.”  They don’t mean divine in the same way God is divine, but, as the scriptures say, Christ has saved us that we might be partakers of the divine (1 Peter).  Salvation is not becoming a different person, it is becoming the truest, deepest, most redeemed versions of ourselves!

I’ll close my thoughts with Thomas Moore’s wonderful insight on how we steward this life long process of redemption.  Moore calls it observance:  “Observance is a word from ritual and religion. It means to watch out for but also to keep and honor, as in the observance of a holiday. The -serv- in observance originally referred to tending sheep.  Observing the soul, we keep an eye on its sheep, on whatever is wandering and grazing --the latest addiction, a striking dream, or a troubling mood (Moore, Care Of The Soul)

- JB