Disquieting Amblings   Leave a comment

The air was crisp and cool this morning, which is odd for late May in the south.  The sun poked its head through the clouds for the first time in a week and invited me to come enjoy it, so I packed up the dogs and headed for the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Once the sun had tricked me outside, he decided his work was done for the day and tugged the clouds back over his head to get some shut-eye.  The first pull-off had only three parked cars (it often has 8-9), and since a passing trail  and gravel road offered four hiking directions, I figured the odds were good for avoiding folks, an introvert’s prerequisite for enjoying nature.  As I was leashing up the dogs, another car pulled up behind us.

They might take the trail or the gravel road either direction, so the odds were with us as we headed south on the road.  Even if they came our way, they might be mountain bikers or joggers that would soon pass us and be gone, but just in case, we set out at a brisk pace.  We were a block ahead when I turned and saw the couple following, also at a quick stride, and I could hear their loud chatter.  Oh, this is going to ruin our walk, I grumbled, and set off running down the road in my hiking boots to put a quarter mile of quiet between us.  That worked fine until Mazie went into search mode for the ideal poop spot.  After several failed forays and body positions, she found her sweet spot, but by then I could hear several low phlegm-clearing harrumphs followed by his partner’s high-pitched gossip.  We had just passed a fork in the road, so I stood waiting to see which direction they would take, and when they came our way, we promptly turned back to take the other fork.

Problem solved.  My soul just started to settle into the peace of nature when I heard the distinct “crunch, crunch” of feet on the gravel behind us, and a loud voice calling out, “Well, HELLO!” Like we were long lost relatives.  I half-turned to mutter “hey” at a volume I’m sure she couldn’t hear, and then it began, “Isn’t it great to be able to get out after all that rain?!”  This was said at our backs before she had jogged up to us, but as she pulled level she slowed her jog to match my quick walk, commenting on my cute dogs and the weather.  In desperation I slowed down and then stood still, and her momentum carried her forward enough to break the easy flow of her monologue.  She kept jogging, and I muttered, “I’ll never take this road again!”

For full-on extroverts, talking is the only real and meaningful activity and everything else, including nature’s beauty, is so much background noise… for the hard-core, even the other person’s voice is background noise.  Of course, it is only their vocalization which makes them differ from the rest of us who chatter incessantly in our own brains.  I’ve ruined enough of my solitary walks with an agitated spirit to recognize my own tendency to drown out the soul-nourishing present moment with my internal dialogue. It is hard enough to contend with the voices in my own head without adding the jibber-jabber of strangers.  This is why we introverts seek solitude.

Posted May 30, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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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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

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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

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

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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

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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

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