Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Let’s Not Drown Today   5 comments

Today is my eighth day at work without a break and, unfortunately, the first day of our annual paint sale that brings out the hoards.  Old timers tell me there will be long lines of impatient customers as we all work madly to mix the colors.  This is not my idea of fun.  Performance expectations are my kryptonite.  When there are only two customers waiting for me, I begin to grow anxious and tense.  I dash from one station to another–product shelf to paint mixer to shaker to dryer, prying open one can while tabbing on the computer for another.  I tend to make mistakes, which cranks up the volume on my anxiety, and my self-condemnation meter starts to vibrate.

So here I am preparing to go to work, knowing my core issues will be flayed for the next eight hours.  I hate that my only path to greater health is an emotional gauntlet right smack through the middle of my issues.  I’d much prefer to avoid them–get a less demanding job for instance.   I’d rather read about how to overcome them in a book, and even take a test.  I’m a good test-taker.  I’d probably score 100%.  Why is it always on-the-job training I need?  At least if I could get a breather to center myself… but taking a break while long lines wait for my colleagues would only make me more stressed.  And, Lord, don’t over-estimate my capabilities–I’m not ready for someone to call out sick today!

It seems the challenges to my issues keep pace with my growth, always one step harder.  My prayers as I flail in the rising waters of customer frustration devolve from, “help me be peaceful” to “help me just survive” to “Help!”  If maintaining my peace is an “A” for the test, then making it through without growling in self-defensive anger may be a passing grade?  I’ll take what I can get at this point.  The wise teachers try to calm me down by saying, “It’s all a process.”  Yeah?  Well, so is drowning!

May you all have a blessed, trouble-free day… at least may it be better than mine.

Posted May 18, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

Tagged with ,

Apologies That Fail   Leave a comment

He phoned in hot about getting the wrong color paint, kept interrupting, and demanded that I make him more paint–the right paint–NOW so he could pick it up the same night or the morning after.  It was the kind of treatment that sears the soul, and it ruined the rest of my night.  He came in the next morning and apologized.  The gray-scale photocopy he used to select his paint was inaccurate.  He felt bad for getting angry and blaming me when it was his own mistake.

I have been in that situation many times–angry and blaming someone else for my own faults.  Sometimes I discovered my error too late to apologize, and I think back on those occasions with deep shame and sorrow for the wounding I caused.  But humble apologies can’t fix everything–the wounding for which I apologize can keep festering, hurt the relationship, and spread out to harm others.  I feel just as wary of my apologetic customer today as yesterday, and that wariness spreads over onto other customers who might also lose their temper.  I now feel an unhealthy degree of anxiety about making mistakes, and that makes me more likely to judge the mistakes of my colleagues.  It is a subtle change, often subconscious, but it taints the air.

On their face, apologies seem to be expressions of grace, but they can just as easily come from legalism and will then often spawn further ungracious ripples.  My customer was primarily chagrined about his wrong evaluation, not his anger.  If I really had mixed the wrong paint, he would have felt justified in being angry–I wasted his time and money with my carelessness.  In other words, he was following a strict legal code–fault deserves anger, the greater the fault the greater the righteous anger.  He saw his failure as misapplying the legal code, in this case his anger was unjustified.  In contrast, grace says we all fail so let’s be patient with each other’s mistakes.  Just say no to anger, even when the other person really is at fault.

So many times I have been chagrined in this same legalistic way.  Instead of learning to be more gracious and less angry with other’s mistakes, I take home the lesson that I need to be more accurate in assigning blame.  In other words, faced with a challenge to my legalistic ways, I become more entrenched in them.

A few days ago I was passing a long line of cars backed up in the exit lane.  Just ahead two cars in my lane had slowed to a crawl, trying to merge into the stopped lane.  The traffic to my left was going too fast for me to shift over.  It seemed clear to me that the two blocking my lane had decided they didn’t want to wait in the long exit lane and had sped ahead to cut in line farther up.  Because of the unexpected jam, I was running late for work, and getting irritated at the lane cheaters, I lay on my horn.

There are two possibilities: they were innocent or guilty.  If they were being selfish, my anger was justified, but if innocent, then I was at fault.  Simple math: the guilty are punished and the innocent are not… until we add in forgiveness which ruins the equation. We all need forgiveness, repeatedly.  It is the oil that smooths our many faults in relating to each other.  Grace is not only sweeter than law, but far more powerful to transform us, both those who give it and those who receive it, because it works to change the heart, not the behavior.  Since grace defines our motivations, not our actions, it can reveal itself in tough as well as gentle ways, but it is always an act of blessing… and anger is usually not.

 

Posted March 27, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

Tagged with , ,

Screwing Up   10 comments

Two weeks ago, having failed to find another job, I moved from a part time position in appliance sales at Home Depot to full time in the paint department.  I was stacking paint last night on a high shelf and dropped a gallon can of shellac-based primer.  It crashed to the floor, covering my shoes, my pants, a six-foot stretch of aisle, and splattering all the products on the bottom shelf.  Herbert, an assistant manager, came to help me clean things up, and as we soaked up the puddles, the rest of it dried hard.  It was well past closing time by then, so we had to stop, leaving a note for the morning crew.

I hate to make a mess that I can’t fix myself, especially if someone else is then forced to deal with my mistakes.  It’s especially hard when others are resentful or critical–their feeling is understandable, even justifiable, and I have no means of rectifying it.  Today I have a low-level hum of dis-ease as thoughts about it keep circulating up to my consciousness and then subsiding again.  It is my day off, so I can’t even apologize in person (although I did in the note).

What strikes me as especially sad is my tendency to feel bad even when the other person seems gracious, as everyone at my job has been.  I find it so hard to trust grace.  I’m sure they’re just being nice outwardly but have ticked a black check by my name.  They think, “He owes me,” or “He can’t be trusted,” or some such ungracious reaction… probably make wry comments in the break room.  I feel so much safer with others when I can skirt my need for grace and just prove myself by hard work.

But “safer” here is a feeling based on good performance reviews, which is a legalistic trap.  It means that I continue to value myself (and others) by our effectiveness and only turn to grace as a last resort, a “grace of the gaps.”  But when legalism is the daily currency, it shapes our whole mindset and relationships.  If grace is only the fall-back, we are still operating out of a legalistic mindset in which only the failing require grace.  I don’t realize how easily I slip into this mindset until I am the one screwing up and in need of grace.  My failures become an invitation into a worldview of grace.

So often I respond to others’ failures with this stop-gap grace.  I reflexively judge their failing because gracious thoughts do not come naturally to me.  So when I realize my unkind thoughts, I try to force myself to think differently, push away the critical thoughts and talk myself into being accepting of their faults.  “They don’t know any better,” I say, or “They aren’t good at planning ahead.”  The underlying assumption is that “good” people like me don’t need grace, at least not much, but these unfortunates need grace.  I only pull out the grace card when it is needed, but am quite content to otherwise live with a legalistic mindset.

But true grace knows no hierarchy or proportion, giving itself fully to everyone.  Certainly exercising grace is more difficult in some situations and with some people than others.  It is much easier to give grace to an apologetic person than an angry one, but both are in equal need of grace as is the person who did not mess up at all (though grace may present itself differently in each case).  In fact, it is the the one who rarely screws up that is probably in “more” need of grace than the others, for she is much more likely to be blind to grace and her need of it.  Either grace is the lifeboat we only use when someone falls out of the ship of a performance-based worldview, a way to accommodate misfits and failures, or grace is the ship in which we choose to sail.

I want more and more to learn to see the world with a grace mindset.  When I am challenged by my own failings or by my judgmentalism of others’ failings, I don’t want to apply grace like a bandaid to help us through that moment, but I want it to be a reminder of the worldview I wish to wholly embrace where grace is the engine and the rudder and the compass.  I have a long way to go.  May I use my blunders as stepping stones to grow in my commitment to grace and not see them as challenges to try harder to earn my worth.

Posted March 22, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

Tagged with , ,

Understanding Depression   4 comments

I awoke yesterday feeling depressed, before I had done or thought anything.  It was the misery into which I opened my eyes and over which I had no control, as tangible as the rumpled sheets under my body.  I still meditated on my morning verse and wrote down my thoughts about God’s deep grace, but unlike the several days before, it was academic and cold.  The ideas were true, I knew they were true, but they did not warm my heart.  Life continued to feel like a heavy burden that I longed to cast off.  A tasty breakfast was no better than cold oatmeal.  Simple tasks, like paying bills, felt insurmountable, so I put them off for another day.

This morning I awoke with a sense of contentment.  The sun was shining and fresh snow coated the trees on which a cardinal perched.  It is my day off, so I lay back on the reclining loveseat drowsing–naps always feel good… if I could just figure out a way to make it through life comatose, I believe I could be happy.  Just now I read over my Scripture reflections of yesterday, and they uplifted my heart.

Let me say here very plainly that the sun and snow did not change my feelings.  Rather, my feelings were in a better place and so I could appreciate the beauty of the day.  If I had awakened with the same misery as yesterday, the snow would have looked like so much shoveling and scraping to do.  And though I feel better right now, I know that depression is just under the surface ready to push up through the thin crust covering it.

If you do not know depression first hand, let me dispel a common and damaging presumption: “happiness is a choice.”  A depressive cannot “count your many blessings” into a better place.  Negative thinking is not the source of our misery, so positive thinking cannot resolve our misery.  Positive thoughts may cure grumpiness or self pity or minor losses, but it cannot fix depression any more than a screw driver can fix a tree through the roof of your house, and to suggest that it can feels heartless to the one suffering.

Please listen to this next sentence very carefully and thoughtfully, because it is the key to understanding us.  Depression does not come from negative thinking; negative thinking (and feeling) comes from depression.  Depression springs from genetics or biology or PTSD or some other deep source, and putting it on a diet of positive thoughts will not cure it anymore than dumping a gallon of clorox in a river daily will un-pollute it.  In fact, it can make things much worse, since it suggests (even unconsciously) that the one who is depressed is somehow at fault for it or has the power by sheer will to overcome it.

For the most part, I do not know what makes some days (or hours) better than others.  I cannot predict it or control it since I don’t have direct access to my subconscious mind.  I know the general sources from which it originally springs in my genetics and childhood, and I work deliberately to remedy those root causes, but it is a very long journey and likely will not be resolved this side of the grave.  Like a missing arm, it is a condition which affects everything, and I must find a way to live optimally within those limits.  The patience and understanding and empathy of friends goes a long way in helping me cope.

Posted March 12, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

Tagged with ,

Father’s Day Reflection   3 comments

Every father’s day I wrote Dad a long email about what I appreciated about him.  He had many good qualities: his commitment to God and  Biblical teaching and virtue, his discipline and pragmatism and organization, his handiness with tools and giftedness in communication and leadership.  The one attribute that was especially beneficial to me was his analytical mind and  commitment to honest, rational thinking.  It took me half a lifetime to discover that others are not like him but make decisions based on unexamined emotional responses and use logic, if at all, to justify conclusions ex post facto.

Everyone including Dad has biases and faulty assumptions and blindspots that hinder rational processes, but he was remarkably honest in his search for truth.  He told me that Moody Press had turned down his book, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics, because it was not sufficiently conservative.  I thought at the time that he meant not sufficiently dispensational, but later I noticed such things as his very limited critique of abortion–basically saying that we can’t know if a fetus is a human soul, so we should err on the side of caution, a stand at clear odds with current inflammatory claims from the right.  He followed the truth where it took him rather than follow the prevailing winds.  His logic was not always accurate or unbiased, but it was as honest as he could be, and in that example I found an invaluable source for my own search for truth, although I have learned, especially from Kimberly, that I must temper logic with truth gained in non-logical ways such as intuition.

It is the tools we are given that shape our life much more than the specific patterns that are handed down, and this was perhaps the most unique contribution Dad gave me.  His commitment to God was more valuable, but fairly typical among believing families.  His analytical mind was a pure gift to me, one that was passed on without being weighted with baggage, and by that I was profoundly shaped and am deeply grateful.

Posted June 21, 2016 by janathangrace in Personal

To Know Others, I Must Know Myself   4 comments

I’ve been muddling over a question for several days: why did Dad’s inability to understand himself so significantly affect his own children and his relationship with them.  I finally settled on a typical childhood scenario to sort it out in my mind:  being late for church.  In stark contrast to Dad, Mom was a spontaneous, disorganized soul who was not very good at time management.  Sunday morning she was inevitably running late.  Dad would finally stump out to the Oldsmobile and sit fuming, eventually honking the horn to try to hurry things along.  He hated being late.  It made for an icy car ride which suddenly transmuted into a smiling hand-shake with church folk, because Dad took charge of all our emotional exchanges, and he’d decided it was time to move on.  Yes, he was very organized, even with his emotions, and very take-charge, even with our emotions.

While Dad was in our driveway tapping his fingers against the steering wheel, Mom would be in the bathroom madly trying to finish fixing her hair and putting on her make-up.  Of course, traditional roles exacerbated this situation–Dad only had to get himself ready while Mom had to make breakfast, feed the clan, and make sure all us kids were presentable.  But she still would have accomplished all this punctually if she’d had the same personality and value system as Dad.  And since her promptness depended largely on certain unreliable munchkins, she would have had to heavily impose those time values on her children.  There would have been as much impatience, tension, and condemnation inside the home as in the station wagon outside.  Instead of a kind “where did you last see your shoes?” it would have been, “How many times have I told you…”  And we children, fearing that condemnation, would have worked very hard to conform.

When two people have similar values, perspectives, personalities and emotional responses, conflicts are drastically reduced, but when these vary in important relationships, such as with Dad and Mom, some sort of system must be worked out for negotiating the conflicts.  Those like my dad who have a behaviorist approach to life and relationship see growth as a process of adapting one’s behavior and language to avoid conflict rather than discovering a deeper understanding of oneself and the other. In other words, the underlying perceptions and dynamics remain the same, but one’s actions and words are tweaked to avoid offense–speaking more softly when angry or driving separate cars to church (my dad’s final solution).  Being late is clearly wrong, so either she fixes her behavior so he’s not mad, or he tries to be patient with her as the failing one.

At first glance it would seem that the first approach is somewhat legalistic and the second somewhat gracious… except in both cases the late person is in the wrong.  There is no option available for non-judgmentally trying to discover why this value is so important to one and not to the other–for instance that Mom put more value in accepting her kids than rushing them, that her immense creativity was enabled by not having a highly organized life, and so on.  Instead of differences leading to deeper self and mutual understanding, they lead to the slotting of behaviors (and individuals) into good and bad.

Clearly, if there is a disagreement and Dad was unwilling to reconsider his own position, then he could not in any meaningful way make room for the legitimacy of the other person’s perspective of herself.  If he was right, then she was wrong, and even if he is kind and sympathetic, that judgment sticks.   It is not possible for someone to come to a truly gracious acceptance and understanding of the other person without questioning his own underlying perspective about himself and his views.  In a remarkable way, lack of self-understanding prevents us from understanding others because we cannot shake free from our own blinders and so we distort our own perceptions.

Now, being over-zealous about lateness is a small issue that can be overlooked.  Everyone has their foibles and it is part of grace to overlook them.  The amazing thing I have discovered is that differences, even on small matters, can open the door into a huge cache of personal information that has never been discovered.  Our inner selves are well integrated, so that one concept enforces another in a web that makes up our worldview.  Punctuality is a small corner of the much bigger idea of efficiency, which is in turn a portion of the worldview that puts a premium on accomplishments.  I have struggled my whole life with a sense that my value as a person depends on what I accomplish, that God values me for what I do for him rather for me.  Most of my life I didn’t know this was at the root of my relationship with God–I thought all my zeal was out of my love for him.  Or I could follow punctuality down a different trail, one that leads to the importance of meeting a wide array of standards and how perhaps I am not loveable unless I pass a certain moral bar (while naturally holding others to that bar).  Or I could follow punctuality down a different path that connects it to respect, and what makes me feel respected or disrespected and how I respond to those feelings in my relationships.

Rubbing up against someone who experiences the world differently than I do is a great opportunity for that soul-searching.  But if I default to my unshakeable worldview, I not only fail to understand myself better, but fail to understand the other, having placed us both as characters in a world of my own assumptions.  Being blind to who I am inevitably makes me blind to who others are–their gifts, insights, and beauty.

 

 

Disappointing Everyone but God   16 comments

It took years for me to accept my own ostrich-ness without embarrassment, recognizing and not running away from the disappointment others held towards me.  I was sharply reminded of this at my dad’s funeral as I re-connected with acquaintances from long ago, the many who stood in line to offer me their condolences and politely inquire: “Where do you live now?” and “What do you do there?”

The simple answer is, “I work at Home Depot.”  There is nothing simple about that response.  It is freighted with cultural and religious baggage, and I immediately saw it in their faces when I answered, sudden flickers of questions and doubts tugging at their cheeks and blinking their eyelids. The middle-aged son of a college president working a minimum-wage job?  Should they leave it alone and move on or ask me for clarification… and how could they do that circumspectly?  Since I wasn’t sitting down with them for coffee, I started adjusting my answer to relieve their discomfort.

I understand their consternation.  When I started working at Home Depot two years ago it took me a couple months of building courage to share the news on Facebook.  As a culture, when we hear of a college-educated person in mid-career working an entry level job, we feel sure there is a tragic story behind this mishap.  Selling hammers is one step above homelessness.  I was going to say one step above unemployment, but actually an unemployed professor ranks far above a working stiff–he hasn’t given up on himself yet.

Of course the heavy cultural implications are double-weighted with the religious ones.  It is true that Jesus himself worked with hammers and saws, but that was in his youth, just an apprenticeship for what really mattered, we think.  The highest accolades in my family and alma mater go to missionaries, secondarily to pastors, thirdly to those in non-profit work, but instead of working my way up that ladder, I slipped down it, one rung at a time.  Oddly enough, my soul was gaining depth and strength and wisdom with each lower step.

It seems the Kingdom of God is much less predictable and straightforward than I assumed most of my life.  I guess that is why we walk by faith.

Posted June 11, 2016 by janathangrace in Personal, Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

My Dad Died a Hero to Many   16 comments

My father’s mind began to wane several years ago, and friends encouraged him to give up writing and preaching.  He acquiesced begrudgingly since losing his public ministry made him feel useless.  When visiting him, one of those friends  would ask, “How are you?” and dad would always say, “Terrible!”  “Why?”  “Because I’m still alive!”  He was ready to “go home” and last week he finally did.  I expect he was greeted with my mom’s loud, raucous laughter echoing through the halls of heaven.

Family, friends, and colleagues remembered him with admiration at his funeral.  He was a good man and a gifted leader, a hero to many.  Years ago he asked me if I had any heroes, anyone I admired and sought to emulate.  He expected me to point to him and was sad when I didn’t.  Though I respect him, I cannot emulate him any more than an ostrich can emulate an eagle.  An ostrich hatched by an eagle would simply be lost and confused and self-condemning as long as he tried to imitate the eagle, and all the eagle’s encouragement, advice, and example on how to be a better eagle would only make matters worse.

To his credit, dad eventually made room for my way of being, though he couldn’t understand it.  He tried to understand, but he was stuck in his own framework of thinking, as though the eagle saw his ostrich son running and interpreted it to be “low flying” or “slow take-off.”  His efforts to accommodate my way of being were inspired by love.  Instead of treating me like a deformed eagle, he accepted me as a mystery (because he was unable to grasp the idea of an ostrich).  I’m forever grateful that he did not condemn me for who I am and how I live.  For that reason, although our viewpoints were so contrary, we were never estranged.

And yet we drifted apart.  As I slowly discovered my true self and tried to share it with him, I could not make it comprehensible to him.  He could not see outside his own box, and so our relationship devolved into general, disconnected niceties because real relationship requires mutual understanding.  Over the years, I have grieved the loss of that relationship as I think he did, and so his home-going was only the final step in that loss.  It is sad, but the tears have long since run their course.  When I see him again, he will see me for who I am, and that is cause for rejoicing.

In the meantime I will give him his well-deserved honor.  God made him an eagle and he was determined to be the best eagle he could be and raise up a huge flock of eagles to follow in his flight.  He was admirably successful.  For that he will be remembered for a generation.  I am glad for those he blessed.

 

 

Struggling with Meaninglessness   2 comments

What makes a life meaningful?  I thrash this out every day without an answer.  Are we each born with a particular role to play, some important and unique goodness to offer the world, a vital and irreplaceable gift to this place and time?  Is it a natural result of our daily faithfulness or must we work to bring it about?  Can we see it in action or is it hidden?  If that remains a mystery to us, does faith call us to keep looking or to let it go?  What do I tell my aching heart as it faces disappointment day after day in finding meaning, usefulness, purpose?

Do I try to make a few small contributions carry the weight of a whole life lived? Does 24 hours of eating, cleaning, sleeping, thinking, and doing my job find its meaning in giving someone a brief smile mid-afternoon.  It seems like a huge investment for a very small outcome, something a cat video could do as easily, and for the benefit of thousands, not just one.  If the world is no better for my living in it, then why am I still here?

I wash the dishes and what does that accomplish?  I will be in the exact same place after the next meal, a sink full of plates and silverware.  Like one more step on the gerbil wheel, I shop, cook, eat, wash, sweep, water the plants, feed the dogs, shower, driving the wheel through one more cycle and the major result is being one day closer to death.  Being faithful feels more like meaningless drudgery, like digging holes and refilling them, than it feels like usefulness.  Sure my muscles are being strengthened, but to what end… to dig more holes?

In the meantime, the world oozes with needs, and I have gifts to offer that are log-jammed behind closed doors.  I only see one option–give a short smile to my next customer.

I share these thoughts to offer to others my honest struggles, not to offer answers, which I often do not find.  It is the sharing that I hope encourages others to know they are not alone.

Posted May 22, 2016 by janathangrace in Personal

Tagged with , ,

The Long March   8 comments

When we face life honestly, bravely, and resolutely, it slices us with a thousand little deaths: truths we are loathe to admit, securities that have blocked our growth, long-fostered hopes that end with a sudden blowout or gradual leak against every effort to re-inflate them.  As Kimberly and I prepare to move to Asheville, NC, we are “downsizing,” a smooth word corporations use to put a positive spin on frantically casting everything overboard to save a sinking ship–more like foundering than streamlining.

I had no trouble giving away excess clothes and unused dishes, but when I sold my weight set, it went out the door with my dreams of a buff body still draped over it.  To my wife it was a dust-collecting eye-sore, but when I sold that bench, I gave up on a promise and hope.  It was my final concession that this frumpy body is the one I will take to the grave.  I finally admitted honestly that it was a wasted dream, sitting idle for so many years because my real values lay elsewhere.  And that’s okay… it’s even good.  I want to live out my true values and not be distracted by false ones.  But the good road often forks away from the desirable one.  Being good and being happy are often incommensurable.

Stripping away possessions can be a stripping off of dreams and securities, groundings and trajectories, plans and expectations.  This morning as I drove my pickup filled with ministry books to donate to a local college, one phrase pounded through my head: “I hate my life!”  Those particular books sat in boxes in my basement for ten years, waiting, full of hope for a revived ministry of preaching or teaching or leading, some role to play in bringing God’s goodness into the world.  They hung heavy with past joys long gone: the delight in studying and sharing truth with others, the deep satisfaction of experiencing spiritual usefulness by sharing gifts to benefit others.

I have pursued the truth as relentlessly as I can, and it has brought me so much more insight and freedom, self-knowledge and character.  I know now that much of what I did before was streaked through with blindspots and immaturity and ungodliness.  I had a deeply flawed understanding of God.  I am in a far better place personally and spiritually because of all the breaking, but I had hoped to come to the other side of the struggle, to rediscover joy and peace and fulfillment at a new, fuller, more meaningful level.  But I am only tired, deeply tired, and crushed and broken-hearted.  I feel as though I am on a death-march, lifting one foot after the other in my hopeless, stubborn faith.

If this rings true for your own experience, may you be encouraged that you are not alone.  Let us call out to one another in the dark.

Posted April 4, 2016 by janathangrace in Personal, Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,