Archive for the ‘thoughts’ Category

Breathing Again   3 comments

My spirit opened up last week like a hiker breaking into a wide, sunlit meadow after a steep, shadowed ascent.  Room to breathe, to get my bearings, to feel freedom from the hedged in trail.  I was inspired by the kindness of an author I read and began imagining myself living from such a generous spirit.  I journaled about my new inspiration to speak and live kindness into the world.  As I read back to Kimberly those two pages, I felt the shadows swirling back in.  The inspiration was sucked into the undertow of obligation.  The joy of it turned into duty, a gauge to measure my adequacy.

What had seemed life-giving was now a tick on my to-do list, and I couldn’t restore the magic.  Goading myself to be kind only deepens my legalism, and forced smiles are creepy, not uplifting.  But spotting the problem did not deflate it as usual, so I had to shake off the shackles by backing away from this new prospect.

On Wednesday my therapist led me through an enlightening self-reflection: I was raised to believe that the task is more important than the person, that the one who shirks obligations is of little worth.  When my worth is on the line, duty becomes a crushing weight.  These were not conscious thoughts, but the underlying tint, the blue shade of light by which I see my world.  My subconscious outlook shapes the way I feel about myself and God–in this case, I felt devalued.  Tearfully realizing that, I embraced once again the God of grace, and the dark curtains shrouding my soul were pulled back.

But haven’t I known about this for a long time now?  Why does it feel like a new revelation?  As Kimberly and I drove to the mountains yesterday for a hike, I tried to focus the blur.  After years of personal work, I no longer think my worth depends on fulfilling my duties.  So God was not judging me, but he still needed me to complete the to-do list.  That stuff mattered, mattered a lot, mattered more than me.  His focus on the task devalued me as a person, one who is of great worth apart from anything I do.  “Work before pleasure” was a core family value of ours.  We took care of the work before we took care of ourselves because duty mattered more–studies over sleep, devotions over breakfast, clean-up before rest.  Finish the task at all costs, then we have the right to consider our own needs and pleasures.

This turns truth upside down.  A task has no worth except as it helps us–we are what matters, the object of God’s whole heart.  We do not compete with tasks for his attention.  When I think that God wants to use me for his purposes, seeing me as a means to his goal rather than seeing me as the goal, I lose sight of his love and objectify myself (something God would never do).  Living under the weight of law ruins myself and the good I’m trying to do.

Then, instead of good work flowing from a deep rest in God and a discovery and joy in my gifting and beauty, I ignore my needs and belittle my worth, working against myself to fulfill a task that has now become not only meaningless, but damaging both to me and to the one I hope to bless.  I do little good to others with my forced virtue, while I do serious harm by reinforcing belief in an uncaring God.  Our impact on the world flows from our core beliefs, not from our carefully crafted behavior.

If my singular role is to spread God’s love as demonstrated in Christ, I can only do so by believing it for myself wholeheartedly.  “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).  May I rest in that truth more each day.

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Posted August 8, 2018 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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My Unstable Spiritual Compass   2 comments

I’ve been out of school for a month, leaning into rest and trying to forget the emotional crosswinds of this past school year that lashed my skiff.  When the storm blew passed, I fell on the deck in relief.  It took a couple of weeks to shake off the built-up stress, followed by two weeks of resisting a truck-load of “shoulds” that clamored to come on board.  “Sorry, my boat’s not ready for that yet.”  It has been surprisingly restful.

From childhood, duty was my slave-master, barking at me to meet its demands by sacrificing myself.  With a harsh and uncaring voice, it claimed to speak for God, but if God cares more about a task than he cares about me, I’m lost.  When that theology nearly killed me, I woke to a God who was full of unending love and grace.  But shame and fear keep playing me, yelling about the dangers of self-compassion.  When stress floods in, I easily fall back to the false safety I learned as a child–the salvation of self-discipline and hard work.  From that view, grace only works as a reward for maximum effort: “God helps those who help themselves.”  It is the American gospel.

As fall semester ramps up, I need to realign myself with the gospel of grace, but it is such a messy process.  At what point is rest overdone, moving from restorative to deadening?  If I push into the straits, will I get free or get stuck? Is it fear or love driving me, or a tangle of both?  Can I ignore the fear or do I need to confront it?   Reorienting from fear to love is slow and messy.  I hate messy.  It feels wrong.

Without clarity, how do I know which way to turn?  Do I just set out and hope for the best?  But that’s how I lose my way–get confused, and end up hurting myself and others–which proves I’m off track.  Or does it?   I stubbornly presume that a good heart leads straight to clarity and comfort.  I keep forgetting that the way of love is rocky, that it uses uncertainty to grow faith and pain to grow blessing.  To run from either is to short-circuit the divine process of grace.  Uncertainty and pain are not the goal of love, but they are evidently the path to reach it in this broken world.  “Now we see through a glass dimly.”  Perhaps that should be my life verse.

 

Posted July 24, 2018 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Breaking Good   Leave a comment

Our closest relationships are the source of our greatest longing and deepest pain, so we armor-plate our souls against the danger. The only access is through the chinks in our armor where both arrows and salve can reach our core, and we martial all our defenses to these vulnerable spaces, blocking out both suffering and compassion. It is a terrifying dilemma.  For love to touch and heal our wounds, we must reveal them and face possible rejection.  The closer our relationship, the more power it carries to heal and to harm.

We all hide our so-called weaknesses with our individual schemes: humor or dominance, popularity or withdrawal. The better our defense mechanisms work, the safer we are from pain but the farther from deep relationship.  My major defense was over-achieving, stuffing the gaps of failure with redoubled efforts at success… until the whole structure imploded.  My greatest sacrifices and determination could not stop failure.  And out of that ruin, genuine life began to grow.  Those of us with broken defenses suffer most, but are closer to genuine connection and healing.

Kimberly tried to find safety by making everyone around her happy.  She was good at it.  They called her “Sunshine.”  But inside she was dying as she stifled her own feelings and views to make room for everyone else’s.  Both of us were too wounded to keep our shields up, but we found in each other a tenderness that invited deep connection.  Our shared brokenness created a level of intimacy that few experience.

Posted February 26, 2018 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Is There Room for Me?   Leave a comment

Mazie, our white spitz mix, sat on the floor in front of the love seat, wistfully eyeing a narrow spot between Kimberly and me.  Mitts likes to sit on our laps, which makes room for both dogs, but he sometimes spills into the gap, and he guards his personal space with warning growls.  Kimberly pulled Mitts over a bit, slapped the empty space, and urged the timid Mazie, “There’s room for you!”  Then turning to me she added, “That’s our family motto: ‘There’s room for you.’  It may feel uncomfortable or even scary, but we always make room for each other.”

When I make room for others in my space, I have to adjust.  Their preferences, priorities, viewpoints, and feelings all stick out in odd shapes that don’t fit well with mine. What they say or do may upset me, and in defense I may push back, growl to make them stop.  We make relationships “work” by excluding the parts that are at odds–go silent about politics and religion and the morality of disposable diapers.  After repeatedly hitting the same potholes of conflict, we learn to steer around them, thinking that smoother relationships are better relationships.  But this dance of avoidance hides our true selves, and our deep need for connection goes unmet.

Family and marriage is the quintessential formative ground for these dynamics.  We are most vulnerable here, with the greatest potential for harming or healing.  And the redemptive way forward is no Hallmark movie.  The “precious moments” of marriage, the things that make it rich and rewarding and powerful, are not warm fuzzies but cold pricklies.  It is not romance that makes a marriage great, but the frustrations, fears, and foolishness responded to with stumbling grace.  We build a marriage by the messy process of learning to embrace our real selves with all its brokenness.  This shared grace is the foundation of trust on which every deep relationship is built.  Because the two of us are weak and fearful, we sometimes fail, but we always return to this core value: “There’s room for you.”

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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