Apologies That Fail   Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted March 27, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

Tagged with , ,

Screwing Up   10 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted March 22, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

Tagged with , ,

Understanding Depression   4 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted March 12, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

Tagged with ,

Where’s the Map?   1 comment

Kimberly has been struggling for months with her job at an Asheville animal shelter.  The physical labor is too strenuous for her, and the lack of structural support forces her to constantly fight for resources that should simply be allotted to her–and that is directly contrary to her nature.  She has been looking for a new job and saw an ad for an admin assistant at a Presbyterian church.  Wanting a better look, we went to visit this last Sunday.  We both liked it a lot, and she applied for the job on Monday.  She would be great at it.  Unfortunately, 50 people have already applied for that opening through only one job website, which was posted just 5 days ago.

What should we hope for, plan for, invest in?  Which is the best path to take through this jungle of life?  Sometimes discernment feels more like reading tea leaves than weighing pros and cons and finding a clear way ahead.  The confluence of situations at times seems to suggest the way forward, but that has often led me into deadends–jobs I had to quit for my own sanity, relationships that ended up worse instead of better, decisions that lost time and money with no benefit.  When two people’s dreams and fears, gifts and weaknesses must be accounted for, it makes that process so much more difficult.  So we pray and leap… and sometimes end up in the ditch.  At that point we can either decide that God wanted us in the ditch (we made the right choice) or that he’s teaching us a lesson about making better decisions (we made the wrong choice).  Which is it?  Hindsight is rarely 20/20.  Sometimes it’s straight-up blind.

Our approach to guidance feels very haphazard to me, and I haven’t found a solution for that.  Looking back on past choices and their results gives me very little confidence in my ability to find the best way through this tangle called life.  If we eventually stumble out of the jungle near the right spot, I will be as surprised as anyone.  In the meantime, if we go in circles because we can’t read a map, let me at least be a good travel companion.  A good friend in the swamp is better than a bad friend in the penthouse suite.

Posted March 8, 2017 by janathangrace in Uncategorized

New Beginnings!   Leave a comment

I started this blog to share about my own personal journey.  Recently I have taken to writing reflections on Scripture, and it threatened to take over this blog, so I moved it to its own page, but making the page longer and longer became cumbersome (pages are not designed to have multiple entries, archives, etc. like blogs), so I have started another blog for just my Scripture reflections.  You can find it at scripturegrace.wordpress.com  I hope you can draw a blessing from those readings as I find a blessing in thinking and writing them.  (you can also sign up for email updates if you wish).  Sorry for the administrative confusion!

Posted March 7, 2017 by janathangrace in Uncategorized

  5 comments

I continue to write my reflections on Genesis because it is a personal blessing to me to keep mulling over these thoughts, and I’m happy to share them if it blesses others, but I realized it was filling up my blog with these daily posts, which was rather intended to be about my own experiences, so I have transferred them to a separate page (as you can see above).  Let me know if you find them beneficial.

Posted March 5, 2017 by janathangrace in Uncategorized

The Best Magic Is Always Invisible   1 comment

Today between the rows of stoves in Home Depot’s appliance department, I asked a couple if I could help them.  They told me they had just moved from out of town, were buying a new house, and needed appliances.  I soon discovered he had jumped mid-life from the business world into repairing musical instruments, which is his first love.   They had moved here two weeks ago, and he had a fully functioning business up and running.  I was astonished—how did he build up a clientele so quickly?

“Oh,” he replied, “a local man was retiring, and I saw his ad—a full shop of tools and a full client list of customers.  That’s why we moved here.  I didn’t even have to pay for the business.  The man was retiring and just handed it over to me!”

He had been looking all over the country, but this shop just happened to be in the town where his wife grew up, so the couple was staying with her father until they could buy a house.  I asked if it was hard to get a loan for the house since he was self-employed in a new business in a new location, which might seem risky to a bank.

“No,” he said, “my wife has been working an internet job for 15 years (which she can do from anywhere) so the bank gave her the loan.”

Having recently moved here myself, our contrast was sharp.  I have a part-time job for which I have no love, which doesn’t pay enough, and which can’t possibly support a bank loan for a house.  Everything fell into place magically for this couple while Kimberly and I struggle to make ends meet in jobs neither of us want, making do with an over-priced, under-sized rental in a bad neighborhood, and without friends or family with whom to connect.   Where’s our magic?

Such sharp contrasts do not make me angry or bitter, but they often make me hopeless and depressed.  I don’t know how to make life work for us.  But this time I knew God was punking me.  He’d set me up for this by giving me just the insight I needed this morning to trust him in what he was dragging me through.  I knew that our tough road was creating a unique work of God in my soul.  His magic wand was out, not pointed at my circumstances but at me.  I was the magic he was making, and sometimes a magic brew calls for frog toenails and lizard poop.

Posted February 12, 2017 by janathangrace in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

Discovering New Spiritual Paths   4 comments

I grew up with a father who believed in systems, in order and method.  It’s an effective approach to face this world as the modern industrial movement has proven.  This pragmatic and efficient outlook found a perfect petri dish in American society, leading to a remarkable level of productivity.  My dad’s books all reflect this approach: a system for Bible study, a system for ethics, even a system for living the Christian life.

Dad was drawn to this approach because of his personality.  He felt most comfortable and safe here, and his sense of value was deeply rewarded as a choleric:  someone who thrives on activity, goal setting, and accomplishments.  He transfused this outlook into me, and it helps me organize and plan, to feel some sense of security by means of order and control.  But since I am not a choleric–the personality that fits so well with this approach–his emphasis led me to a great deal of internal conflict and turmoil.  Order and action works well for minds already tame, but they could not corral the forceful questions that galloped through my heart and mind.  I tried repeatedly to make his solutions fit, and felt myself a failure when they didn’t “take,” only to slowly realize that his sums were not for the problems in my book.

As an example, a key to his view of the spiritual life was to separate sins into intentional and unintentional so that he could clearly delineate between “defeated” and “victorious” Christians.  If a fellow knew something was wrong and chose to do it anyway; he was sinning intentionally, while the unintentional sins were those he did not “choose” such as a reflexive emotional reaction, a lack of insight, dispositional sins like pride and so on.  Of course, such a neat distinction can only be made by those who are outward rather than inward focused. For instance, when pride is recognized, it becomes an intentional sin, but cholerics may not notice themselves bragging or posing or pontificating unless it is quite blatant.  We who are sharply and constantly aware of our own pride are, based on dad’s system, defeated Christians living in sin.  I beat myself with his sin chart for 20 painful years before trading it for a spiritual path that worked better for me.

Hidden inside each of our strengths are our hidden weaknesses, blindspots, and distortions.  Our default is to offer everyone the solutions that have worked for us.  Dad offered everyone alike his well thought out action steps just as I tried to solve everyone’s issues with introspection and analysis.  But Sue may not need his strategy or my interpretation.  Perhaps she just needs a hug or a sounding board or a push.  We must constantly work to embrace the perspective of those who differ from us–to understand who they are, where they come from, and what works for them–or we will cause more pain and harm by the very help we give.  Even if the goal is the right one, we may take very different paths to reach it.  In this give-and-take, we may well discover their views challenging and correcting ours, a painful truth I have often realized.

Posted January 7, 2017 by janathangrace in Uncategorized

What Would Jesus Do?   6 comments

“The beauty of holiness” is a delightful and profound biblical thought.  We long for the clarity, simplicity, and certainty that comes from a paint-by-numbers spirituality, to know exactly where the lines are drawn and what colors we should use to fill them, and yet the Bible continually confounds our efforts to make all its truth fit in our neat boxes.  We think there is an ideal body weight, a best-practices study plan, one way to be a good Christian employee or manager, and we constantly measure ourselves against these perfect models, the WWJD approach to Christian living.

But from that mindset, “What Would Jesus Do?” is a trick question, making us think that Jesus would always do the same thing in the same situation, and that following him is just about identifying and imitating that action.  What if he wished instead for us to absorb his worldview and then shine that out in our own unique way with our own personalities and contexts, spins and quirks, under the individual guidance of the Spirit.

Holiness is not a flow-chart of right choices with everyone responding in the same way to the same situation.  From my perspective this would actually undermine God’s design for us as unique parts of the Body of Christ.  Some are good at encouragement, others at pointing out problems.  Some are gifted in counsel and others in comfort.  In this building of God, some are studs, outlets, or flooring, and each has a unique part to play.  Walking in the Spirit is organic and dynamic, often surprising and confounding, a constant learning and discovering process where even our faults and missteps contribute.

There is no simple and easy answer to predetermine my response to a neighbor that mows over my petunias or a kid who is afraid of my dog.  Love is always the answer, but love has a thousand ways of expressing itself, and if it is truly love, it will be beautiful in each of these expressions–a flowering cactus is just as thrilling as a prize-winning rose.  So let us become artists in our own unique way, painting our world with the love only we can give in our inimitable way.

 

Posted January 4, 2017 by janathangrace in Uncategorized

Waiting for Christmas   2 comments

Historical time frames in the Bible move so slowly that if we lived through those daily events, we’d notice no real progress except in rare moments of change.  Abram is promised a large family.  He must imagine spending his life watching the birth and growth of each child, raising them into men and women, and playing with his grandchildren.  Instead he spends his whole life waiting, childless, and at the very end, when he is an old man, he gets one son.  Israel is promised a new land, but that whole generation slowly drops dead one by one as they drag their tents through the desert over decades of splintered dreams.  Only their children see the promise fulfilled. “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” (Heb. 11:13)

For hundreds of years Israelis waited for the Messiah, passing their sometimes-wavering expectation on to their offspring.  They waited, grew old waiting, died waiting, as did their children after them.  The Old Testament is one long book of waiting.  And then he comes… only to leave his people once more with a promise.  Christmas, like communion, is a memorial of remembrance until he comes again.

It seems that faith is given to us less as a means to gain a promise and more as the strength to wait for the promise.  Daily grace is more about sustenance in the famine than the bounty that will one day come.  Our faith is not measured by how much blessing we enjoy, but by how much faithful endurance we keep without receiving the promised blessing. It is drought, not abundance, that drives roots deep into the earth where they tap into the true, undying water source and build an unshakeable foundation.  Grace refuses to settle for the short-lived, easy gains that we so often wish for and rather calls us to the hard road of long-term transformation, the kind of change that radically reshapes who we are.

So our patience is not passive and acquiescent, like a doctor’s waiting room, but active and willful.  “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  Those hills and valleys that need to be straightened are not the landscape of the world, but the topography of our own hearts.  He has not come (or we have not gone) because we are not yet ready for him.  When a bush pilot flies into the jungle to deliver supplies only to find no landing strip, his coming brings no benefit.    So let us be active participants in his grace, yielding our hearts for the Spirit to clear the brush and fill the holes, preparing for our coming King.  Waiting is one of the greatest acts of faith, determination, and diligence.

 

 

Posted December 22, 2016 by janathangrace in Uncategorized