Archive for the ‘thoughts’ Category

Reading the Heart’s Braille   Leave a comment

I woke up today with a sweet dog snuggled up to me and a loving God looking down on me with a good-morning smile. I lay there talking with Him for some time, and then sat up and all the good feelings drained away like cascading water. This is a regular occurrence, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

I’m like an emotional preschooler, unable to understand my own emotions–what I feel and why I feel that way. I have the emotional theory down pretty well, but like passing a written driver’s test, knowing the answers on an exam doesn’t help much behind the wheel. Trying to interpret the principles into practice is still largely a conundrum for me. I’m not sure approaching it like a science is the best route anyway. If I thoroughly studied gravity, balance, muscular response and tried to apply that knowledge to learning to ride a bicycle, I think I would find it more a hindrance than a help.

But that analogy fails to capture the complexity and variability of emotions, and the experiential feedback I get is not like falling off a bike—it is not immediate, clear, and simple. Occasionally I know straight off that I got it right–that my gentle response to a harsh retort came from a healthy place and felt emotionally rewarding. But that immediate and clear reading of my heartbeat is rare and comes after a great deal of struggle, trial, and slowly growing insight into some facet of my heart. Often my response is partially unhealthy (which part, and how?) and my emotions are conflicted–a dash of fear, a sprinkle of false guilt, a slather of confusion, a pinch of hope.

We all ride bikes the same, but our emotions play out uniquely for each of us. So we learn basic principles about emotions, but using them to understand ourselves (and others) is a complex skill that must be learned the long, hard way by practice, regularly skinning our knees and running into things in the process. It takes fearlessness, tenacity, and commitment.

Had I been taught as a child to notice, validate, understand and respond affirmatively to my feelings, I think I would have learned the process and developed the skills by now. In our inescapably fallen world, I was rather shaped by society directly as well as through its influence in my family and playmates to ignore, judge, and control my feelings. Anger was forbotten, sadness was curtailed, fear was mocked. Meanwhile love, hope, and joy were pushed as the acceptable feelings to manufacture and share. And in turn I too became a spinner of these lies. In short, a great deal has to be unlearned and long-ingrained reflexes untaught, in the process of discovering what is true and good for our hearts. So we misplace our true selves early in life and get further lost with our borrowed and faulty compass and map.

What might come naturally, like learning to walk, now requires much deeper insight to untangle our confused legs, clear up our bleary eyesight, and reorient our backwards direction. Unlearning is far more difficult and involved than learning fresh from scratch. The whole outlook must be re-oriented before individual bad habits can be addressed and a healthy direction taken, and all of this must be done in the face of constant opposition from the world around us.

Society says, “Don’t worry, be happy!” and ostracizes us when we frown. The church agrees with “Worry is a sin against faith!” and judges us if we share our fears, especially tenacious fears. How then can we find a way to validate our own experience and feelings, to be understanding and empathetic with ourselves? It often feels as though we are on our own, swimming against a very strong current.

So I write this to those of you on this long journey with me because it is so easy to get discouraged and lose hope. The road to recovery seems to be so hard and take so long. Weariness and doubt and confusion drag down our resolve and steal our hope. Let those of us who wish to take this way encourage one another. I believe in you!

Posted July 17, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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The Emotional Complexity of Father’s Day   Leave a comment

Wherever father’s day is celebrated, it is packed with emotions, sometimes simple and straightforward (at either end of the spectrum), and often a complex swirl of thankfulness, regret, delight, anger, pain and comfort.  Relationships are always complex, wonderful in a hundred ways and awful too because our flawed humanity leaks out on everyone around us and distorts even the good that comes to us from others.  There is no “right” way to feel about any relationship, so do not demand of yourself or others some prescribed emotion.  Today is culturally designated as a time to think of the good in our fathers, and if you are able to do so honestly, then by all means join the festivities.  For those whose heart is not in the celebration, that is okay too.  Be gracious to yourself and others as best you can.

Healthy emotions are mixed emotions–it is okay to laugh over some memory of a loved one whose funeral you are planning and it is okay to be somber at a birthday party, even your own.  Feelings ebb and flow, mingle and separate, clash and fuse. Try to foster a context of safety for your feelings to find a voice within your heart, even if not expressed outwardly.  Giving them a space of their own is especially difficult on occasions when certain feelings are assumed, expected, or even demanded because we have a false notion that feelings must compete and the right one must win and and squash its rival.  Those who are happy feel threatened by sadness in others, those at peace feel threatened by the fearful or angry (and vice versa), and so we try to coerce or barter or cajole them into having feelings that agree with our own (or at least pretending to).  We even do it to our own feelings.

Unfortunately, this process feeds an unhealthy loop–assuming emotions are competitive, we feel threatened by the “wrong” feelings and push for conformity, and in so doing we create even more tension between feelings that could otherwise peacefully coexist, not only within a group, but within a single heart.  Life is complex, people are complex, and so we should expect a complex mix of emotions.

I have many, very deep reasons for being grateful for my father and his impact on my life.  I have issues around that relationship as well, but the very fact that I am honest about those with myself and those close to me gives me the full emotional resources to set those aside for a time and simply celebrate my father, who is a good man, flawed (like all of us) but good.  It is the practice of listening to my own feelings compassionately that builds my emotional security and maturity so that my heart is able to embrace other flawed humans with compassion and understanding.

So today I celebrate with you or grieve with you, whatever your heart needs.  We are in this together, this crazy dance called life.  We often get it wrong, even with the best intentions, and that has to be okay.  Let us give grace to ourselves and to our fathers on this day and find ways to celebrate the broken beauty of who we are.

Posted June 21, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Organic Spirituality   Leave a comment

All my life I have tried to pursue God and his ways.  I’m just now waking to the possibility that this was working against my very nature.  A rose does not set out each morning doing rose exercises, studying rose botany, planning how best to scale the trellis at its leafy tips. It has within itself the seed of becoming, God has placed it there, and it simply becomes, living out of this true center until it slowly grows into the fulness for which it was designed.

My approach to spiritual growth was far more rational, organized, and disciplined.  I analyzed God into various character traits–patience, discipline, purity (a long list)–and then, seeing that I came up short, I worked to gain those virtues, add them to myself like so many prosthetic attachments.  Instead of understanding my own impatience and what drove it and why and how and discerning the particular shape patience might take were it to grow naturally from my own sanctified perceptions, inclinations, history and personality, I tried to adopt wholesale the patience I saw in others, force it on myself.  But like transplanted organs the body rejects, my soul did not know how to incorporate these foreign traits.

I didn’t realize that the meekness in Jeremiah is dramatically different than the meekness displayed by Moses or David, so I kept trying and failing to squeeze my soul into a shape not my own, find a champion of each virtue and imitate that rendition.  Learning to play another musician’s song is quite different from finding one’s own song, even when they are both acoustic ballads about love.  I can certainly be inspired and instructed by their example, but I must find my own voice.

I always understood Paul as saying, “Be not conformed to this world, but be conformed (to godliness)” and never noticed that his change in verb not only changes the goal, but changes the means to that goal: do not be conformed, but be transformed.  And this is effected not primarily by force of will (discipline), or miracle of faith (prayer and hope), but by a renewed understanding or insight (Romans 12:2).  Surely it takes focus and work to refine who I am and scrape off the accretions of sin that deform my true, God-given self, and it takes faith since I am completely dependent on God’s intervention to bring my soul to fruition, but this process integrates with who I am as a unique creation of God.  It is an affirmation of who I truly am, not a rejection of it.  I am discovering that spiritual growth is about becoming rather than adding, understanding my true self and setting it free into God rather than squeezing it into a virtuous mold.

Posted June 17, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Dreams of Being a Cowboy   Leave a comment

A video on bullying I watched today sparked memories of my own childhood spent running from troublemakers at recess.  Only once was I seriously punched and had to go to the emergency room for stitches (my right eyebrow still has a slight split on the outside corner).   But harassment was constant during gym class and recess–I was pushed, punched, threatened, chased, tripped, mocked.  There were other danger zones as well: the lunch room, the hallway, the breezeway waiting for our school bus, and the bus ride itself was tormenting, bad enough that I started riding my bike the 10-mile round trip to middle school.  Among boys, the only mark of prowess was aggression… and girls were liked for their looks.

Kids reflect the values of a culture with a clarity unobscured by the social camouflage that adults master.  That’s why I like children’s books–bold, plain, and real.  Because of family values, I admired intellect as a boy, but that was the stuff of nerds, not heroes. The lead actors from all my favorite TV shows punched and shot and muscled their way into glory… and they always got the pretty girl (first prize).  Of course, their violence was validated by the justness of their cause, though that cause was usually self-defense, an arguably selfish motive were it not juxtaposed against the villainy of the other.  The “other” was evil, right down to the color of his clothes.

Aside from the cowboys and cops and colonels, we had a few “nice guy” actors, but no one aspired to be Andy Griffith–you liked him but didn’t want to emulate him.  Pacifists were cowards, courage was in the fists.  The hero never picked a fight, but always finished it by beating his opponent into submission. Be it kung fu or fighter jets, we all admired the warrior, not the lover, who was just a wimp if he showed up without his six-shooters.  The ultimate virtue was conquest, not love… even love was gained by conquest.

And so I set about life as a loser determined to fight my way into the trophy circle.  My goals slowly shifted from physical prowess to spiritual prowess, but success was still my path to prove my worth.  I focused all my energy to become a champion for God, which is to say, having a wide impact on others.  Success is just as strong an addiction as gambling, even if you’re not a winner… especially if you’re not a winner.  But unlike other addictions, it reaps praise, not shame, and moral validation, not warning, both from the world at large and from the church itself.

Cultural values that co-opt religious faith are the most pernicious and blinding of our defects.  When church and society link arms, escape is nearly impossible, and far from looking for an exit, us losers are desperate to launch ahead.  Unfortunately, as success grows, it clogs up the opening for grace. Success would have obviated my need for grace, a pitfall of all self-made men, even those who ostensibly credit God.  But grace blocked my chase after success.  It shackled me to loser-hood until I was forced to admit that my accomplishments don’t validate me.  Apparently God doesn’t need my efforts any more than a father needs the help of his 3-year-old to change a tire.  The toddler is not valued because of what he does, but who he is–a son.

Success still holds a little place in the corner of my heart–just in case–sort of like the spot reserved for a Porsche convertible that someone’s rich uncle might give me.  Both daydreams would likely be a burden rather than a blessing.  I trust God’s path for me, and I’m content just to hold his hand… most days anyway.

Posted June 15, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Star-Crossed   6 comments

“Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.” –Elizabeth Alexander

That is profound.

The greatest pain arises from the profoundest joy. To eliminate loss, one must abandon love since in this broken world suffering and death are not simply a risk, but a certainty.  Love inevitably leads to sorrow.  As C. S. Lewis so powerfully explained:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Elizabeth Alexander originally wrote to mourn the loss of her young husband to sudden death.  “The story seems to begin with catastrophe,” she wrote, “but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story.”  She is no Christian, but her personal journey reflects powerfully the great story of which we are all a part. Anywhere we open our book, we find tragedy–brutality, abandonment, hatred, violence, suffering–so that we must go back and back to the very start to discover that all this pain springs up from the love that inspired creation, and to understand that all of our suffering is borne in the great heart of God himself, who willingly embraced all our agony to gain the inexpressible joy of loving us.  The cross is a tragedy, but it is more fully and deeply and finally a love story, and the end will be glorious.

Posted June 12, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Running from My Feelings   2 comments

“Our inward winters take many forms- failure, betrayal, depression, death. But every one of them, in my experience yields to the same advice. ‘The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.’ Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives. But when we walk directly into them- protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship or inner discipline or spiritual guidance- we can learn what they have to teach us. Then we discover once again that the cycle of the seasons is trustworthy and life-giving, even in the most dismaying season of all.” Parker J. Palmer

Truth. Running from our fears, or even our depression, is not a long term workable solution.  It keeps us trapped.  Palmer even adds the one important caveat.  We can only face fully into our fears or depression to the extent we have sufficient internal and external resources, and since our cupboards are never fully stocked, there are always limitations on what we can fully face and for how long without some reprieve.  It is far more like tacking into the wind than sailing a straight course forward, and at times we simply must let the storm blow us where it will.  Those with meager resources have the least ability to leverage their way forward.  As with our calf muscles, we can overtax and strain our psyches and end up worse off for our excess efforts–more vulnerable and weak than before.  In that sense, it is the overall direction we set that is life-giving, but we must keep close watch on our resources so as to live within our emotional means or we will run a deficit.

I so appreciate the truth Palmer expresses.  I spent most of my life fleeing depression–not in diversions as some do, but in desperately seeking for solutions, cures, answers.  Desperation rarely opens the best way forward, and so I stilted my progress, narrowed my options, scrambled down false turns.  Kimberly taught me to slowly become accepting of my depression, to embrace the feelings and be sympathetic to myself in my suffering, to wait patiently for answers to come in the slow process of deeper self-understanding.

This is not at all the same as “giving-in” to feelings–allowing them to control me and take me where they will, which is a dangerous road to travel.  We seem trapped by a false dichotomy: to either capitulate to our feelings or subdue them.  We see it as a blatant power struggle, and there is no good way for us to respond from that perspective.  Feelings are like a road map–they inform us, they do not control us–and if we fear their power, the solution still lies in understanding them more fully in a self-compassionate way, not in pushing them away in fear or shame. Feelings that are denied have far greater control over us than those which are acknowledged.  They may control us by forcing us into the opposite choice–risk rather than safety, fight rather than flight–but they still control our decisions, only now more obliquely, beyond our awareness, making us far less able to recognize and resist their impact.

We accept our feelings into our lives as friends, not as dictators… or as captives.  How would you compassionately embrace your fearful friend?  You would acknowledge her feeling, show understanding for that feeling, legitimate her feeling as a feeling.  Wise and mature counselors will not try to “fix” the feeling (judge it, correct it, change it).  Feelings are always true and right as feelings.  They tell us something important about ourselves (not necessarily about our situation).  Because emotions are complex, they are often clues rather than direct assertions about our inner world (our anger may mask fear, our pride may cover insecurity).  We must patiently listen and learn over many years to slowly gain fluency in their language, but if we do, a whole world of self-understanding and healthy responses are opened to us.

Posted June 2, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Singing in the Dark   1 comment

We need good stories, stories of courage and generosity and unexpected kindness.  In this dark world, we need to share stories of endurance and empathy and reconciliation–not to falsify reality, to romanticize the present or expect fairytale endings here, but to remind us that there is some good still, some glimmer of light to warm our hearts.

Bubblewrapping ourselves with comfortable lifestyles to avoid this broken world may bring picket-fence peace, but is not living by faith.  Faith is never a denial of the bad.  The very reason we are called to live in hope is that our present is rife with heartbreak.  The tintinnabulations of good that we catch are echos of a future yet to be.  So we tell those little stories of good to recall our coming deliverance, to remind ourselves that the infinite and eternal glory of God that surrounds this dark closet of our earthly days is the far greater reality, though it only reaches us through the cracks of our prison.  Those glints of good we share with one another makes our suffering more endurable though it may not lighten our present pain.

So come let us sing to one another in the dark and encourage our hearts with hope of redemption.  God is good, and one day we will see it and feel it and breathe it, but until then let us cheer ourselves with the little sparkles of good that we daily encounter.

Of the many heart-warming stories out there, here is a good one.

Posted May 29, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Catching Myself in Faux Forgiveness   2 comments

Oliver Sacks is dying.  This brilliant and eloquent neurologist is one of my favorite authors, and reading excerpts from his autobiography this morning reminded me of one large reason–he is a man of profound, lived, empathic grace.  I have often tried to forgive others by brute force, knowing it is the right thing to do and willing myself into a gentler mindset, but without off-setting any of the blame I levy against them.  This “forgiveness” requires no understanding, empathy, or reconsideration of my valuation of them and their behavior. They are bad; I am good–so good that I even forgive their sin against me. Instead of using their failure to reflect on my own shortcomings, on how we are similar, I use their faults to contrast with my virtue so that I understand neither them nor myself any better than before.  I “forgive” from a place of moral superiority rather than from a humble view of our mutual sinfulness so that my very forgiveness becomes a source of distancing and shaming rather than true reconciliation.   Their role is to humble themselves, admit how bad they are, and then I will magnanimously agree with their estimation–“Yes, you are bad, but I forgive you.”  As long as I don’t hold a grudge or wish them ill, I can claim to have forgiven them even if I continue to think badly of them.

But Sacks, by just being himself in relationship to others, showed me how inadequate my supposed grace is.  He not only forgave those who had deeply wounded him, but showed his understanding of their human struggle.  He could see why they reacted to him as they did and could empathize with their situation and viewpoint.  He did this without devaluing his own pain or pushing himself to engage more deeply in a wounding relationship than his soul could well maintain, but he found a way to protect himself without maligning those who injured him.  To understand and empathize with others does not require us to then subject ourselves to ongoing harmful behavior.  In fact, it is when we keep healthy boundaries that we are most able to empathize freely with those who behave in hurtful ways.  I learned first from Kimberly that the justification for my boundaries lies in my own needs, not in the other person’s faults.  Assigning blame is an entirely different consideration than what boundaries I need for my own well-being.  Taking full responsibility for my own boundaries frees me up to give grace with much more abandon because my love is no longer an opening for their hurtful behavior.  Forgiveness is not a moral power struggle, it is an acceptance of our mutual frailty and fallenness.

Posted May 26, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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The Spirituality of Confusion   7 comments

I was raised on clarity like Iowans are raised on corn—it was the staple that nourished our grip on reality, giving us security and power, confidence and perseverance.  Dad gave me all the answers before I had even stumbled onto the questions, saving me the trouble of sorting it out myself, and he shared his take on life with a degree of certainty that silenced doubt before it even had a voice.  My parents, being deeply religious, anchored all this clarity to God himself so that doubt was not only foolish but dangerous, a personal affront to the Almighty.

As a child I was handed the blueprint for life, the map and compass, and I followed it faithfully each step, landing in Calcutta as a missionary at 30 years of age, having somehow escaped the indignity of adolescent questioning.

Unfortunately, life is not so neat and tidy, but constantly pokes through our carefully boxed up constructs, threatening the whole structure. “You can do anything if you try hard enough.” Really? “Thankfulness leads to contentment.” But if it doesn’t?  Reality seems to stubbornly resist fitting into our prefab structures, challenging our paradigms. So we fight back—pretend there’s been no breach, or try to block up the gaps in our worldview by tweaking the architecture, or construct awkward explanations for the exposed holes, the received truth that doesn’t play out as we’d expected.  But for me to make substantive changes, to move around the support beams, would force a complete rethinking of reality as I knew it, a stroll into insanity, so I clung to my views, blaming myself for failing to make it work. It took four years of unrelenting depression to shake my grip on my framework of truth.

And so, at the age of 40, I stumbled into the adolescence I soldiered past in my teens. Discovering my basket was full of unworkable answers, I set about looking for the right ones. I still wanted certainty, just not a defective set. But honesty is a bitch, fertile though she is. Once you let her in, she barks at every discrepancy and won’t be shushed. Each fresh answer I uncovered brought more questions. I was in a fog of confusion that I could not escape, stuck, unable to follow a path I could not see. I kept walking, but I seemed to be going in circles. I kept praying for clarity, but she had abandoned me and obscurity had firmly grasped my hand.

Facing confusion with calm is a plus, and parts of Christianity outside my heritage even find obscurity beneficial, oddly enough. Books like the fourteenth century “Cloud of Unknowing” and “The Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross warned against leaning too heavily on reason and intellect, which could obstruct as well as open the path to insight. Just this morning I read two psychologists discussing a client in that conundrum:

“You know, that’s the thing about intelligence. It can really get in the way of wisdom, the mind being such a good place to hide from all the messiness that comes with our feelings. Maybe what your patient needs to do is get out of his head and get into his heart. Stop thinking so much and let his feelings get the better of him, let loose with a good cry or a fit of anger, whatever it is that’s stirring down there at that mysterious place he’s afraid to go to.” (Eric Kolbell in “What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life”)

The thing is, I don’t mind feeling my feelings, but doesn’t my progress depend on then understanding them in order to resolve them? For me the key was still clarity. But what if it wasn’t. What if clarity at this point was the problem instead of the answer. It was just this discovery John Kavanaugh made in my adopted city.

When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at “the house of the dying” in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life.  On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa.  She asked, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked.  He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: “Pray that I have clarity.” She said firmly, “No, I will not do that.”    When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”  When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust.  So I will pray that you trust God.” (Brennan Manning in “Ruthless Trust”)

Fear or desire may drive us to demand answers, but Pandora learned that trying to pry open life’s box of secrets leads only to trouble. God has his own time frame for sharing his insights with us, and patience is the truest mark of trust. I have not yet found my way through the fog, but often the way has found me, working into my soul silently, healing and growing me on the sly, startling me with its results: humility, patience with myself and others, empathy, sensitivity, endurance, faith. Obscurity comes with a sleigh full of good, though it doesn’t feel like Christmas. As a friend once opined, “It’s too bad life’s lessons don’t come in a box of chocolates.” The best work is often the hardest work and longest to complete, but it is the most rewarding.

I’m not completely in the dark. I find some general directions to take, the fog sometimes lifts, but lack of lucidity can be freeing, opening up options I would otherwise avoid because I was locked into an inflexible clarity—rationality that blocked thinking, faith that hindered trust. The grace of God is so much bigger than I ever imagined.

Posted May 20, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Choked by Our Own Expectations   Leave a comment

We are often warned not to get stuck in the past, but it is just as common a problem to get stuck in the future. Both viewpoints can pull us away from living fully in the present. But unlike our past, our future is a mystery, which could drastically change in an instant. Since we have no control over our past, we feel our only security is in controlling our future, but those expectations can be miscalculated in a hundred ways and so can hijack our present. In this sense we can lose control of our present by the demands of our planned future, so that, ironically, in thinking to gain more control over our lives, we lose control.


The answer is not in control of our past (by trying to ignore its impact) or control of our future (by careful planning and decision making), but in learning to live in the present by faith. Good plans and decisions are worthwhile, but our security lies rather in the hands of God. As the Good Book says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”

–some words I shared on Facebook yesterday

Posted May 18, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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