Archive for the ‘thoughts’ Category

The Self Made Man Deflects Grace   1 comment

We Americans are strikingly individualistic, even inventing self-contradictory proverbs to make our point.  “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” we say as though sheer effort can somehow overturn the law of gravity.   This outlook even molds our view of spirituality, which we see as something personal and private, between me and God.  We turn what is quintessentially a collective, integrated, synergistic  venture–the church–into a gathering of individuals, largely disconnected personally.  Henry doesn’t know that John’s marriage is crumbling or that Karen’s fifth grader is desperately struggling with depression.

This individualistic mindset is especially detrimental to grace.  Grace, like patty-cakes, is not something we can do on our own.  It is not something we “claim,” but something we are given… there must be another to offer us grace.  Gifts are never earned or won or conquered or they would cease to be gifts.  It is true that all grace originates with God, but his primary means of delivering that grace to us is through people.  We are all bearers of his light of grace, sharing our small, flickering flame with those whose wick has whiffed out.  God came down to us once in flesh that could touch and hear and comfort us, but that was 2000 years ago, and since then, his body has taken on the form of our fellow humans.

This it at once a great responsibility and an amazing privilege–to be the voice and hands and heart of God to our fellows, and them to us.  None of us do it perfectly, perhaps not even particularly well, but we each have an indispensable role to play in the redemptive journey we are all on together.  We depend on each other for our core heart needs to be met, and we suffer deeply when we cannot connect in mutually supportive relationships.  Failing those redemptive relationships, we must do our best to welcome with hope those small tastes of it, the little gestures of goodwill that come our way.

Posted June 26, 2017 by janathangrace in thoughts

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My Angry Legalism   2 comments

I am not a gracious person by nature.  Among other flaws, I have a strong undertow of anger that side-eyes anyone who steps outside the bounds.  Just yesterday I accelerated from a stop light and then slowed into the left turn lane when a car darted out from a gas station to my left, forcing me to swerve.  He was trying to beat the traffic coming the opposite way, no doubt expecting me to keep accelerating so that he could swing in behind me.  He stopped, straddling lanes in both directions, and as I passed, I raised my hand at him and mouthed “WHAT?!”

As much as I treasure grace, it is not my default.  My go-to is still legalism and anger and judgment.  They are reflexive both in me and at others, and I have to talk myself out of it, like explaining for the hundredth time to a child why he shouldn’t chase the ball into the street.  It takes hundreds of explanations not because he misunderstands or disagrees, but because in that moment he’s fixated on the ball.  Unfortunately, some undercurrents in us are more complex or more rooted or more hidden.  Anger and blame were a moral right in our family when I was growing up so I don’t even have that self-conscious check in my spirit–it doesn’t feel wrong.  It wasn’t baked into my conscience as guilt inducing… or rather it was baked into my conscience as legitimate and righteous, unless it is excessive.

But if I conclude that my problem is simply an excess–that irritation is okay, but not spitting–then legalism wins.  I reduce everything to behavior and never bother to ask the vital question, “Why do I feel so angry?”  My anger or my expression of it is not the real problem, but the symptom, like a check engine light.

In this case, the diagnosis is complex.  I have bought into a legalistic system in which we all live within certain parameters, and we keep one another in line by penalizing line-breakers: shirkers, cheaters, moochers, and bad drivers.  I work hard to stay within the lines, knowing the whole system will collapse if we don’t all conform, so I am heavily invested in everyone following the rules.

I’m not curious about why they cross the line.  Perhaps they lay down the lines differently or they are dodging the opposite line or they don’t prioritize this line.  Maybe they are struggling too much to care about lines.  All of that looks like so many bad excuses to me–get back in line and then we’ll talk about your issues.  This overriding sense of legalistic suppression comes out against myself also in self-condemnation for crossing lines, especially if it hurts or inconveniences others.

I absorbed my dad’s view that it was personally insulting for someone to cross the line in a way that blocked our goals or intentions.  It showed that they disrespected us, not caring how their behavior impacted us, which poked at our insecurity in our behavior-based worth.  Since we were unaware of our anger except under occasional provocations, we blamed the other for “making us angry” as though anger came from outside and not from within as self-defense against a perceived slight.  Seen empathetically, my anger is a cry of fear that my very worth is being threatened by every assumed mistreatment–I must judge you to deflect my own sense of inadequacy.

Sadly, it is this very judging that maintains the legalistic system that keeps me running from my shame and away from grace.  Not only when I am mean, but every time I do something stupid or careless or off-kilter, I shame myself into better efforts because I am sure that doing it right is the measure of my worth.  And with that system, I judge the worth of others by what they do.  We are all trapped, and keep each other trapped, like crabs in a bucket that keep pulling down the ones trying to escape.  Grace is all of a piece–we all get it or none of us do.  When we start measuring out who is “worthy” of grace, we have slipped back into legalism again.  So giving grace to other drivers (or neighbors or colleagues), real grace, not forced and grudging but free and affirming,  is my best path to accepting grace for myself as well.  Let grace reign.

Posted June 24, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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12 Steps for Growing True Relationships   Leave a comment

  1. Establishing an environment of grace.  Unless someone feels safe to share and explore their own viewpoints with a non-judgmental and supportive listener, they cannot be honest even with themselves, and especially not with the other person.  This is quite tricky in close relationships because we get enmeshed in our own issues, are blind to our underlying assumptions, and confuse support with other problematic responses (such as the tendency to ‘fix’ or rescue or diagnose).  It can get messy–sometimes the focus must switch from the original topic to the current hurtful dynamic–but if we keep flailing towards the goal, we will learn a little through each encounter.
  2. Sharing vulnerably.  We can only share vulnerably in an environment made safe by grace, but unless we share the things that we guard most closely to our hearts, we cannot go very deep in relationship and mutual understanding.  It is our fear, often stoked by self-condemnation, that prevents us from sharing at the level that breaks through the surface to the core of ourselves.  Sometimes this fear leaks out as sarcasm, blame-shifting, or other ways of self-protection.  Vulnerability is especially hard if the listener incites these fears so that they react to our sharing in self-defense.  Sometimes a third-party can help in “translation.”
  3. Supporting ourselves.  We cannot make the other person responsible for our safety or support, which is a subtle form of co-dependence.  This means I must go at my own pace in self-revelation, not risking more than I can bear in vulnerability.  Of course I can be aided in this effort by the listener, by their gentleness, affirmation, and support, but ultimately I must stand up for myself by establishing healthy boundaries and a pace and level of vulnerable sharing that is sustainable.
  4. Sharing responsibility.  It is not possible to go deep in relationship with someone who is unwilling or unable to respond in kind.  Vulnerability must match vulnerability, depth match depth, grace match grace.  Of course any of these may come more easily to one party, so it is the effort or commitment of each that is matched, not the content. A person may value self-discovery enough to share in a one-sided way, but if it is not matched, it does not deepen real relationship.
  5. Giving mutual respect.  When one position is privileged over the other, it becomes very difficult to find any insight that does not simply support and expand that perception.  If one person is presumed to be “right” because of greater experience, insight, knowledge, etc. or because of accepted norms, the process will be undermined.  The experiences, feelings, and viewpoints of both parties must be accepted as equally valid–after all, the key does not lie in these perceptions, but in what underlies them, and we cannot reach these hidden roots unless we are sympathetic to what is shows above ground.  This is as true for ourselves as for the other–out of hand dismissal or critique will kill the process.  (We also have no basis for judging without understanding these foundations). This openness is not easy to do, especially if one is more assertive than the other, but real understanding depends on it.
  6. Discerning Subconscious systems.  The focus is always on deeper understanding, discovering the root system beliefs that establish our conscious behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.  This means working to understand the subconscious presuppositions from which our feelings and views flow, otherwise we are stuck on the surface, unable to grow personally and relationally in transformational ways.  The question “Why?” repeated (like two-year-olds!) at deeper and deeper levels is key to this process until a whole integrated system is revealed: values, priorities, fears, safety nets, and the like.
  7. Identifying family-of-origin values and dynamics.  This is a huge asset in self-discovery.  The most profound and opaque engine of our viewpoint is how we were raised, not the actual teaching of values (though that also counts), but the unspoken and unrecognized values out of which the relational dynamics were formed.
  8. Placing our role in the family.  After we begin to discover the overall picture, we begin to see how we fit into that schema–were we compliant or rebellious?  Over what issues?  Did we take more after our mother or father?  Regarding which values and with what impact on ourselves and our family relationships?  How did our siblings impact us and the family dynamics?  What did we hide from our families and why?  Who were we closest to (or fearful of) and why?
  9. Understanding our personalities.  Our families’ values are filtered into and out of us through our unique personalities.  We may be confident or doubtful, introverted or extroverted, pensive or active, cautious or adventurous, and each aspect causes us to respond to family values in different ways.  Our personality has a huge impact on our belief structures, self-perception, and relational patterns.
  10. Being patient with the process.  The more foreign to our minds or objectionable and threatening to our thoughts and feelings, the more the effort required and the longer the time frame to reach a new level of discernment.  All explanations are tentative until a system begins to form through repetitive confirming discoveries.  Our hearts can only go at a certain speed and to push them to go faster will undermine the process. It is the most difficult conflicts in our relationship that touch our most important beliefs, so these are key, but we may have to gradually work up to them.
  11. Using coping strategies in a healthy way.  Our coping mechanisms (people-pleasing, controlling, withdrawing, etc.) are crutches to help us heal.  They protect us from too much vulnerability that would set us back in our growth process.  But if we use them to avoid growth, our spiritual muscles atrophy, our personal and relational growth is stunted.  We need to push ourselves into what is uncomfortable, challenging, even scary, but not so far that we injure ourselves by pushing past our sustainable limits.  Most importantly we should recognize when we are using coping mechanisms and why–be conscious, deliberate, and strategic in their use rather than slipping into them by default without noticing.
  12. Finding support.  There are many sources of support and direction for this process: books, podcasts, friends, counselors, self-reflection, exercises, etc.  Support may come from the relationship in question, but often there is so much tension there when discussing conflicting feelings and views that outside support is needed. Pseudo-support is especially dangerous, posing as “for your good,” but ending up making us feel worse about ourselves (or feeling better like an opioid).  With less support, the process will take longer.

Posted June 8, 2017 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Driving Myself Crazy   2 comments

I drove to work after my last blog with my soul percolating in anticipatory tension.  Patience on the road is not my strong suit anyway.  I was gunning, braking, and swerving my way down the freeway, muttering about all the stupid and pigheaded folks who drove in the left lane as if they were the lead car in a funeral procession, when I realized my adrenaline rush was going to turn the workplace into a war zone.  I pulled into the right lane to settle down and set my heart in a better direction to cope with the fire-sale crowds at the paint counter.

Fearing the impatience of my customers made me defensively more impatient with my fellow drivers.  When I accept impatience towards me as legitimate, internalize that criticism as justified and blame myself as inadequate, I become a shareholder in a legalistic system, and with that system, I justify my own impatience towards others.  Slowness, incompetence, and bungling are never in themselves cause for incrimination.  We tend to see these as willful negligence, an intentional disregard, because we are frustrated and looking for someone to blame.  But the court of our mind cries out for consistency so that we must also blame ourselves when our missteps impede others’ plans.

In this way results, not intentions, become the basis for judgment, and we buy into a distinctly American morality that sees success as the inevitable reward of diligence and hard work.  Mistakes, especially repeated mistakes, are the sign of moral decay or personal defect.  We offer “grace” for a certain level of deficiency and stuff down our impatience, but cross that line and we pull out our corrective ruler to slap your hand for not living up to our expectations.  Yet grace that fits within a quota is not real grace, which is endless, and its goal is not meeting expectations, but giving us the fullest life possible.

Unfortunately,  like all forms of legalism, impatience used by us or against us is all of one piece, mutually reinforcing.  My impatience towards others forces me to accept their impatience towards me and vice versa.  If I do not live in a world of self-deception in which I am the definer of what expectations are legitimate (namely the ones I meet), then I live in world in which I am always trying to validate my worth.  I am driven to perfectionism in which I am my own worst accuser, and my only defense is to pull others to my level by pointing out their failures.

Our society is constantly reinforcing this legalistic worldview.  Each time I make a mistake in mixing paint, I feel like I need to somehow justify myself or prove to my supervisor that I have constructed a system to avoid that mistake in the future.  But I am human.  I get distracted or confused.  In the hubbub I forget to take necessary precautions.  I will keep making mistakes, and I need to find a way to support myself in my own mind, to be patient with myself.  Remarkably, I find that leaning into grace for myself helps me lean into grace for others as well.  And when I use my impatience of others to confront my own legalistic worldview and push myself back towards a grace perspective, it rebounds to an easier grasp of grace towards myself.

I think I need to spend more time in the slow lane.

Posted May 24, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Playing with Mud   Leave a comment

So God made us out of dust and breathed life into us, which I suppose makes us dirt balloons (and he clearly puffed more into some of us than others).  Poetic souls try to inflate our worth by calling us “star dust,”  but that Disney image is just lip gloss smeared on mud bubbles.  If we are made from star pieces, we didn’t get any of their sparkle and shine–they kept that for themselves–so at most we are the burned up stuff, star effluvia.  Yes, we are star poop if that makes you feel any better.  We’re just mud pies, which makes us a few grades lower than gingerbread men.

Clearly God wanted to keep us humble, to show us where we came from so we wouldn’t be putting on airs and instead realize the air that animates us is from God’s breath, not our atoms.  I mean, the angels must elbow each other watching us mud clods strutting our stuff until we all get swept out the back door together.  “For you are dust and to dust you will return.”

It is our inflated sense of self that God wants to prick by reminding us of our origins.  He values us immensely, but it has nothing to do with our inherent value, which is about $4.50 in chemical elements according to Mayo clinic.  As demeaning as all that sounds, it is actually amazingly freeing and safe.  We are not loved because we are wonderful, but because God is wonderful.  We don’t have to do anything to be valued by God.  He is not waiting for us dirt balls to become disco balls before he values us, but he loves us fully as we are, Pigpen as much as Linus, and that should make even Charlie Brown dance.

Posted March 29, 2017 by janathangrace in Humor, thoughts

The Rare Gift of Loving Well   Leave a comment

At my dad’s funeral, my sister Amy shared how dad planned great trips for his children and grandchildren, taking them on real adventures that created memories for a lifetime.  Pop took me on a trip to Washington D.C. when I was twelve, and it was truly memorable. For Amy, this “extravagant love” was the epitome of her recollections of a loving father.

Yet true love may not show itself in extravagant gestures or great sacrifices.  Sometimes the power and glory of love infuses the mundane.  In fact, the grand display can easily be a cover to hide our unwillingness to love as we should.  There are foolish and useless sacrifices… even selfish sacrifices.  A mom can pay dearly to send her boy to college in an effort to run from the shame of her own inadequacy.  A father can give everything up to make his son a great athlete.. but is this love for himself or his son?   The ultimate sacrifice of true love is not in giving to the other, but in receiving them into our hearts, inviting them in to reveal their real selves, delighting in their oddness and mystery, allowing them to shape the very direction of our soul’s growth.

We tend to be so self-oriented that we equate our view with what is normal and right, even reading Scripture with that lense.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” does not mean that we treat others as copies of ourselves, assuming that what pleases or saddens us, what excites or frustrates us is the same for them.  Each of us is unique in our experiences and perceptions.  True love is not simply making room for the differences of others, but valuing those differences, trying to see and understand the world as they see it, gaining a new perspective and value system and appreciation for life that we did not have before.  I cannot truly love without being personally transformed by it.

This is especially difficult for parents because they have responsibility for teaching and training a child, helping them mature into kind, insightful, responsible adults.  But if the child is not given the freedom and encouragement to find out who they really are apart from, in distinction from, in contrast to their parents, then their lives will be hollowed out, learning good behavior but divorced from their own hearts.  Is a parent able to learn profound truths from their little ones, a new outlook on the world, a new way of being?  A real relationship in contrast to a coercive one empowers each other’s uniquenesses, especially when those differences are a source of conflict since those are the secret keys to unlock our own spiritual insight and growth.

The beauty and glory of true love is that it enriches the giver far more than the recipient.  It is the pathway to our own daily salvation.

Posted August 3, 2016 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Waiting Is so Hard!   7 comments

If your life is working out reasonably well, I am happy for you.  It is not my experience, though I daily put my heart and will into doing my best.  I feel like a dog chained to a post and told to fetch.  Most of my life I thought the whole exercise was about figuring out how to get loose so as to fetch.  That’s what smart, resourceful dogs would do.  I tried various strategies–twist to loosen the chain or pole, pull to break the chain.  I was apparently doing it all wrong, because I was a failure at fetching.  I saw other dogs retrieving all sorts of things for their master.  They had various schemes for getting free of their chain, but none of those worked for me.  I don’t have a life verse, but Kimberly one day laughed at spotting my life meme: “Well, that didn’t &#%! go as planned.”

Finally I decided that I had misunderstood my master’s intentions, and he just wanted me to sit and wait.  But what should I do while waiting?  If I were eventually going to be let loose to fetch, perhaps I should practice the skills needed… except those skills were only relevant for a retriever, and maybe that was not my purpose after all.  I was waiting for something.  What?  Was I supposed to simply learn to be good at waiting?  What does that even mean?  Patience and trust, I suppose.

Okay, so that is what my attitude should be, but what do I DO while practicing that attitude?  Is there a better way to sit or lie?  Inside the doghouse or out?  Do I keep my eyes closed or look at something… at what?  I was sure there were better and worse ways to wait.  Slowly anxiety overtook my patience–I need to be a better waiter!!  Apparently the one thing I do really poorly is wait.  And I am so legalistic I can even turn doing nothing into a standard to meet.

But look at all those other dogs doing their thing!  Dogs have legs to jump and run and mouths to grab and hold… they weren’t designed to just sit.  Are these joys of life the rewards for getting good marks in waiting?  Or is waiting well its own reward?  It doesn’t feel rewarding.  It feels like being forgotten, or worse still being rejected, like I’m not good enough to fetch.  As you can see, I still have a long way to go in learning trust and patience. Doing nothing is really hard!

 

Posted July 2, 2016 by janathangrace in thoughts

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