Archive for the ‘burden’ Tag

Why Is Grace So Hard to Grasp?   5 comments

My constant refrain this year past, muttered or sighed or groaned: “I am SO tired!”  Many times every day and out loud to myself–in the kitchen, on walks, at work, and even in my mind as I spot tasks that stare grumpily at me, like the window air-conditioner sitting on our coffee table that I brought up from the basement two days back.  I’ve barely managed to keep up with life: washing clothes and then leaving them in the laundry basket to fish out for work, while I dump dirty clothes on the floor next to it; watering plants just before they die, or not; cooking raw meat just before it rots.  I’ve dropped other things after dragging them around mentally like a ball and chain, such as the $8 rebate from Ace Hardware that expired… well I actually didn’t give up on that, it just ran out before I mailed it in.  Unfortunately, I never give up on things.  I just accumulate them like sandburrs on bare feet.

I could sit here on the living room sofa and write a discouraging list of tasks that I can literally see from here: A dvd player to take to Goodwill–it’s been sitting accusingly at the end of the loveseat for two weeks; an old external hard drive to process, walnuts in a coffee container that need shelling, now practically buried behind accumulating paperwork, books, and other stuff that needs to be sorted and resolved; a briefcase full of files and lists neglected for many months; a dime-sized food stain on the sofa arm under my wrist that needs cleaning–it has been there for two months; and the latest addition–insulation that arrived yesterday, now propped against the wall, that needs to be hung in the attic.  I’m not even mentioning the things that are in the room but just out of sight–I am fully aware of them–out of sight out of mind is a laughable proverb for those with a mind like my own.  I haven’t even touched on the cars, yard, basement, shed, office–a thousand obligations wrap like Lilliputian threads around me.  I could cut off the least important hundred tasks and make no difference to the overall affect.

Mind you, I go to work every day, pay my bills and mortgage on time, walk the dogs, take out the trash, shop and cook enough to keep us fed adequately, mow the lawn, exercise, wash my clothes.  In other words, I am a normally functioning human, which seems enough for most folks.  I’m amazed at the ability others have to simply ignore their overflowing in-boxes.  Something needs to change in my outlook on life, somehow to live under the flow of grace in a way that releases me from this constant weight of obligation.  For all the work I have put into grasping this principle over many years, one would think I would have found freedom by now.  Even learning grace seems to be such an arduous, long-term effort–my thoughts, my habits, my feelings slide so easily back into my old ways.  That sounds so wrong-headed even in saying it… shouldn’t grace be easy by definition?  Law is so deeply engrained in my soul.  It stains every thought to the roots.  Well, let me celebrate each baby step and not add insult to injury by condemning my lack of growth in grace.  It will come, it will take time, and this post is one more reminder to myself to re-orient my soul in line with God’s unconditional acceptance.


Posted May 7, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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You Can’t Handle the Truth   1 comment

Last night Kimberly and I watched Beyond the Gates, a movie about the Rwandan genocide when 800,000 men, women, and children were hacked to death as the world looked on and did nothing.  It was terrible.  It was real.  It was a small window onto the depths of human depravity which ravage our world daily.  If you keep your peace of mind by sweeping darker parts of reality into a seldom-used corner of your mind, perhaps you buy happiness at too great a cost.  If the evil filling this earth does not burn in your heart and shape your daily decisions, you may be living in a fantasy world of your own making.

Frederick Buechner tells of his professor, James Mullenberg:

“‘Every morning when you wake up,’ he used to say, ‘before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again.’

He was a fool in the sense that he didn’t or wouldn’t or couldn’t resolve, intellectualize, evade, the tensions of his faith but lived those tensions out, torn almost in two by them at times. His faith was not a seamless garment but a ragged garment with the seams showing, the tears showing, a garment that he clutched about him like a man in a storm.

To love a hurting world is to suffer with it.  Do you see this world as God sees it?  There is a reason the prophets of old, the seers, were mostly melancholy men and why the Messiah was called the Man of Sorrows.  Some of us by nature are more touched by the shadows.  It is not only the deep fissures in the ghettos and war-crushed countries, but the cracks in my own heart that torment me.  My own little hatreds and conspiracies, defensive moves and fear-driven words awake in me an understanding of and identification with history’s villains.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

But I realized something today.  I am not big enough to absorb all that pain.  I can’t handle that much truth… I have to shut some of it out so that it does not capsize my little boat.  I want the brokenness of the world to inform my outlook, but not to cripple it.  I instinctively have known this all along and have protected myself from those things that have pulled me too far down, especially when my emotional reserves are low, but I felt cowardly.  When I dropped Facebook friends because their posts or comments were too disturbing or I avoided confrontation with family, my love seemed limited and weak.  Well, since I am not God, my love certainly is limited and weak, and I cannot demand of it more than I am able to give.   I must live within my means not only financially, but emotionally, because if I have too many overdrafts, I will crash.  My heart will always be touched more profoundly by the tragedies around me–it is how I was designed–so I need to soak my bruised soul more deeply, more often in the pools of grace away from the harsher sides of reality.

Posted February 11, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Sucked Empty by Goodness   1 comment

I did not mean to suggest in my last post that our long, long lists of good behaviors are not in fact good.  I simply want to point out that they are not paramount.  Brushing our teeth, paying our bills on time, making soup for our sick neighbor are all good things, but the phrase, “the good is (sometimes) the enemy of the best,” comes to mind.  This aphorism is usually used to promote even higher, more taxing behavioral standards for ourselves, but I would use it to change the value scale altogether, to set a higher value on heart issues than behavior.

When I stop to compare how I treat friends with how I treat myself, I am often dumfounded at how disrespectful, rough, and unsympathetic I am to myself.  I would never tell a friend what I tell myself.  If a friend called me and said, “I’m really hurting right now, do you have time to talk?” I can’t imagine responding, “I’m not free right now, I have to cut the grass,” or “Really the only time I have to talk is Thursday 6-7.”  But that is exactly what I used to tell my own soul many times every day.  By the way I treated it, I was basically saying, “Shut up!  I don’t have time for you!  The dishes are more important.”

Over the last several years, I have worked hard at sloughing off responsibilities that made my soul feel it was of less value than some task.  Of course, this list is unique to each person.  For instance, skipping a meal in order to finish a project was never a sacrifice for me–but I did often suffer by driving myself to grind through a project when my soul was weary of it.  To each his own.

Many of you would be surprised at the things that distress me, and perhaps shocked at some of the things I have chosen to offload from my list of duties for the sake of my spirit.  Filing my annual taxes is always troublesome, and while I was still single, sometimes distressing.  As April 15 drew closer, my distress increased, but I had no emotional energy to force myself to complete them.  So in an effort to give my soul breathing room, I chose several times to file my taxes late and pay the resulting penalty.  Poor stewardship?  Of my money, yes, but not of my soul, and my soul is more important than money.  In fact, what more valuable investment than supporting my soul…so I guess it was financially good stewardship as well.  Thankfully, that spring dyspepsia is now eased with the presence of a life partner.

God gives us the strength to fulfill his call, but does he give us the strength to fulfill the calls of social norms or family expectations or friends’ needs?  I have too often assumed that my soul’s cries for help were the voice of temptation rather than the voice of truth, the voice of God calling me to rest.  Pain is the body’s signal that we should stop.  If we listen to it as a practice, then sometimes choosing wisely to override it can actually benefit the body, but if we typically ignore the pain signal, we will tear down our bodies.  I believe the same for our souls.  It knows better than our brain when something is amiss and needs addressing, and if our inclination is to ignore it, we tear it down.


Posted April 1, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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The Spiritual Exercise of Shirking Duty   2 comments

Continued from “Addicted to Effort” 

As a boy I believed my worth depended on being good, on meeting expectations, especially God’s expectations.  So when my worth seems challenged, I try to rescue it with redoubled effort driven by a sense of should.  As long as I keep feeling this weight of duty, I know that below the level of conscious thought, my heart is entangled in fear, and by acting from fear, I strengthen its power over me.  It is no use to tell myself, “Okay, regardless of how I feel, I am now going to act out of a security in God’s grace instead of from obligation.”   Motivations are deeper and more complex than that, often tied to subconscious beliefs, and so they can’t be controlled directly by an act of the will.

Every time I “do right” from obligation, I feel better about myself and more secure in God’s love, but it is a false security based on my good behavior.  Each “good” choice then strengthens my belief that God’s love depends on what I do.  As long as law and grace agree on what is best to do, and I conform (successfully meet the expectations), I assume my trust in God’s grace.  Just as a rich man can trust God’s provision easily, so I can trust God’s love when my cache of good behavior is full.  But an empty account reveals the source of my trust, and failure forces me to face my fears.  If failing is my door into self-knowledge and grace, should I aim for it, shirk my duties in order to grow in grace?

Too Much of a Good Thing Is a Bad Thing

That sounded wrong.  So I kept meeting all the demands of duty while constantly identifying and challenging my underlying legalism.  It was a long, slow process in which my choices to satisfy the should seemed to continually pull me back from grace.   Then I started realizing that my perceptions of responsibility were largely shaped by my insecurities and the expectations of others, present or absent.  Those who promoted these duties tried to anchor them in Scripture as divine law, but the great majority came rather from culture, family, tradition, personality, and the like—a prescription of what good people do.

Good people get up early, make their beds, take a shower, eat a healthy breakfast.  They mow their lawns, wash the dishes, exercise, change the oil in their car every 3,000 miles.  They limit their TV viewing, work hard at school and office, live within their means, answer emails and phone calls in good time.  They don’t cut folks off in traffic or spend too much on luxury items or make others wait for them.  I could go on for 1,000 pages.  If I don’t conform, my sense of worth languishes.  I spot it in my tendency to deny my own needs in order to meet these obligations, in my embarrassment (i.e. shame) if others find out what I have or have not done, or in my need to find an excuse for my behavior—I didn’t have the time, money, strength, opportunity, support.  I could never appeal to my own needs, desires, or feelings as a legitimate reason to ignore these expectations, for that was simply selfishness.  Perhaps no confusion has done more damage to us all than equating self-care with selfishness.

Since my (faulty) conscience cried out against me if I chose my needs and desires over these duties, I found a huge opportunity to face my own shame.  I really could “shirk my duties” as a means of spiritual growth!  I could choose for myself against these demands, feel the sting of shame, and then apply grace to this fear.  The question stopped being “What would people think?” or “What should I do?” and became “What does my soul need.”  Unfortunately my soul was so long ignored, that it had no voice.  I often did not know what it needed.  But I knew one thing for sure–it needed fewer demands placed on it.

Posted March 29, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal

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Be Still My Soul   4 comments

The truth is that my soul asks for very little.  It mostly just needs to be heard and affirmed.  It is sad that I have spent my life denying it this small benefit, that my automatic response is still to shame it into compliance.  My Lenten fast from haste has inclined me to be gentle with my soul, and with the support of my wife, it seems to be making a real difference.  I think I may make this my year’s resolution, “be gentle to your soul, listen to it and affirm it.”

This afternoon with many tasks pressing for attention, my soul said, “I need a little care.”  So I left the tasks aside and followed my heart.  After an hour with a soft puppy, a soft pillow, soft music, and gliding birds on our wide-screen, my spirit relaxed and set me free to be “productive” without choosing against my own needs.  Forcing my soul to comply to the demands of duty tears at its very fabric.  My soul is far more important than the leaky faucet, dirty living room, or ragged lawn.


My heart is even more important (dare I say it?) than satisfying others with birthday gifts, a lift to the airport, or help painting.  If I wound my soul by caring for someone else, I not only harm myself, but prevent God from using alternative means to meet that need (or get in God’s way of teaching them an even greater truth).  My giving to others must come from genuine resources that I have to offer.  If it is squeezed from me by obligation, fear, shame, or the like, it will hurt both me and the one I am intending to help.  Giving sacrificially is a part of genuine love, even to the point of giving my life for another.  But God forbids me to sacrifice my soul.

This year I really need to give up my role as Savior of the world… or even of this particular situation or person.  I need to learn to trust God with others’ needs and respect myself even if others blame me, reject me, or try to otherwise manipulate me to meet their expectations.   That is a very tough thing to do without strong human backing, especially since my emotions are quick to agree with their evaluations.  Thankfully, I always have Kimberly’s support (not on every occasion, but always in the set of her heart towards me… I think she is more supportive of me than I am of myself).

If I feel pressured by the expectations of others, I will try not to protect myself by minimizing their need (shaming or blaming them in return).  Their need is legitimate and significant whether or not I can meet it.  Caring about their need does not mean I must care for their need.  What a heavy yoke I have been dragging around most of my life.  In spite of how I imagined it, Jesus did not say, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you more to do,” but he said to the weary, “I will give you rest.”

Posted March 16, 2012 by janathangrace in thoughts

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When Joy Is Out of Reach   Leave a comment

This morning NPR interviewed  a man with catalepsy, a cousin of narcolepsy.  During REM sleep, our bodies release a certain chemical which tells all our muscles to relax (so we don’t literally act out our dreams).  Unfortunately for a few folks, this chemical is released while they are awake, causing all their muscles to let go and thus paralyzing them.  The release mechanism for this chemical is the person’s emotional response, and for the man on NPR (Walter?), it was especially triggered by his pleasurable emotions: excitement, happiness, love.  

You can imagine the impact this would make on relationships, especially family relationships.  With his wife, think of not only sex, but kissing, holding hands, talking about the children… engaging in any emotional connection.  Walter described collapsing at a grandchild’s birthday party and on phonecalls with his children.  He spent the whole time at his daughter’s wedding propped up like a bag of potatoes against the wall.  Not just happy events themselves, but simply looking at photos of happy events can paralyze him.  There is no cure, but he takes a medication which slows the attacks, so it now comes on at a pace which he can recognize and respond to.

On the radio he spoke slowly and with no inflection in his voice, trying to speak of emotional things while blocking out the natural emotions.  His speech became slower, with more pauses, he remarked that his eyelids were feeling heavy, and then the NPR interviewer told the audience that Walter had to go lie down because he was slipping into paralysis.  The show host went on to describe how Walter could only function in life by avoiding happy occasions, turning himself more and more into an unemotional machine.  For Walter, happiness is not a good thing nor is connecting with others emotionally.  Such a heavy burden to bear through life.

My struggles in life are much smaller than his, but his experiences had an echo in my own.  Those things that once gave me pleasure in the first half of my life–whether great or moderate, exciting or fulfilling–are beyond my reach now.  I am always tired, so tired that doing something enjoyable feels like a burden rather than blessing.  When I have emotional energy I get great pleasure in so many things–reading, writing, conversing, celebrating, creating.  Those are mostly a dim memory now, and I only eke out small, brief pleasures.  The more taxed I am, the less ability I have to experience the good.

For the last few weeks, my heart is starting to recover from its latest downspike.  The telltale sign of my recovery is that imagining the joys of life feels good rather than painful.   Merely the thought of blogging, for instance, has  been lead to my heart, but imagining it these days feels more like a little red balloon… even if I still have little energy for actually doing it.

Posted February 25, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal, Story

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The Dark Road   1 comment

This is a powerful picture by a poet/author of the struggle of depression.

It’s the other pole of life, the negation that lives beneath the yes; the fierce chilly gust of silence that lies at the core of music, the hard precision of the skull beneath the lover’s face.  the cold little metallic bit of winter in the mouth.  One is not complete, it seems, without a taste of that darkness; the self lacks gravity without the downward pull of the void, the barren ground, the empty field from which being springs.

But then, the problem of the depressive isn’t the absence of that gravity, it’s the inability to see–and, eventually, to feel–anything else.  Each loss seems to add a kind of weight to the body, as if we wore a sort of body harness into which the exigencies of circumstance slip first one weight and then another: my mother, my lover, this house, that garden, a town as I knew it, my own fresh and hopeful aspect in the mirror, a beloved teacher, a chestnut tree in the courtyard of the Universalist Meeting House.  They are not, of course, of equal weight; there are losses at home and losses that occur at some distance; their weight is not rationally apportioned.

My grandfather, whom I loathed, weighs less to me in death than does, I am embarrassed to admit, my first real garden, which was hard-won, scratched out of Vermont soil thick with chunks of granite, and a kind of initial proof of the possibility of what love could make,  just what sort of blossoming the work of home-keeping might engender.  Sometimes I seem to clank with my appended losses, as if I wear an ill-fitting, grievous suit of armor.

There was a time when such weight was strengthening, it kept me from being too light on my feet; carting it about and managing to function at once requred the development of muscle, of new strength.  But there is a point as which the suit becomes an encumbrance, somthing that keeps one from scaling stairs or leaping to greet a friend; one becomes increasinglly conscious of the plain fact of heaviness.

And then, at some point, there is the thing, the dreadful thing, which might, in fact, be the smallest of losses: of a particular sort of hope, of the belief that one might, in some fundamental way, change.  Of the belief that a new place or a new job will freshen one’s spirit; of the belief that the new work you’re doing is the best work, the most alive and true.  And that loss, whatever it is, its power determined not by its particular awfulness but merely by its placement in the sequence of losses that any life is, becomes the one that makes the weighted suit untenable.  It’s the final piece of the suit of armor, the plate clamped over the face, the helmet through which one can hardly see the daylight, nor catch a full breath of air….

After years and years of resisting, of reaching toward affirmation, of figuring that there must always be a findable path, a possible means of negotiating against despair, my heart failed.  Or, to change the metaphor, we could say what quit was my nerve, or my pluck, or my tenacity, or my capacity for self-deception.

Posted November 3, 2011 by janathangrace in Reading

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Who Is Responsible for The World’s Needs?   4 comments

I lived the first 40 years of my life with the assumption that if someone had a need I could meet, I was obligated to meet that need.  No matter how much I gave, I was still being selfish if I had any resources left for myself.  Such a view leads to spiritual and physical self-destruction.  In grad school I knew that 12,000 people a day starve to death (no doubt that figure is higher today), so how could I spend any more than the absolute minimum on my own needs?  If I used resources for myself that would cause one more person to starve, was I not killing them?  Was I less responsible because they were half-way around the world instead of on my doorstep?

With this thought I calculated the cheapest possible way to survive so as to give more money to relief agencies.  Since  tea or coffee had no nutritional value, I thought drinking it was simply a sin… so was jelly on toast (although it was so dry  I used  margarine sparingly, or rather a cheaper margarine substitute, and felt guilty for it).  I must eat nutritionally, for which my mother gave me the simplest advice as I left for grad school , “Eat one green and one red or orange vegetable a day.”  I knew I also needed protein, starch and fruit.  The cheapest fruit was to drink orange juice each morning with a piece of toast (starch).

I prepared my dinner one month at a time.  The cheapest protein was a chicken whole fryer (39 cents a pound), and the cheapest green and orange vegetables were beans and carrots.  At the beginning of the month I would cook one whole fryer, one bag of string beans and one bag of carrots.  I then mixed a bit of each into golf ball size clumps, twisted six into a row inside my used bread bags, and froze them, making a month’s supply.  I would warm one of these up to put on rice each evening when I came home from school.

I saw time as another resource to share, limiting my sleep to a bare minimum.  I lived in Chicago for six years and never visited the famous sites, which seemed an unconscionable waste of time.  But I could not strip myself of every resource, so I lived with a pervasive undertone of guilt for not living on less and giving more.  That person’s need constituted my responsibility, and the needs of the whole world lay before me to meet at whatever cost to myself. 

Something was deeply wrong with this picture. Whose needs am I responsible to meet?  If I shave it down to the bare minimum, I would say I am responsible to meet my spouse’s needs… but is even this true?  Doesn’t my wife have many needs that I cannot fulfill?  After all, no individual has all the spiritual gifts for meeting another’s needs.  The problem lies here–whether I took on the needs of the world or of only one other person, I was still trying to play the role of God, and it was crushing me.

Over time I came to the conclusion that if someone has a need, it is God’s responsibility to meet that need, and he may or may not use me to do it.  He is not dependent on my help.  It is not the other person’s need which constitutes my responsibility, but the invitation of God to become involved (and he does invite, he doesn’t force).  If I choose to live by grace rather than law, then someone else’s need is a potential opportunity rather than an obligation.  But whether or not I get involved (and to what extent), it remains completely God’s responsibility to meet that person’s need.

My own wife must ultimately look to God and depend on him to meet her needs.  If she makes me the final point of responsibility for her needs, then her needs are going to regularly go unmet and she has no recourse.  She is trapped in a life that is unworkable and has no means of escape because she is dependent on me, and I am a flawed creature.  She and I must receive the grace of God for ourselves, either directly or through whatever channel he uses.  We cannot restrict his grace for us to one channel, not even our spouse.  No human relationship was designed to bear such a burden.

Over a long time, I was able to shift the weight of the world (and every individual in it) onto God’s shoulders and off my own.  I still struggle to let the burden go, and tend to blame myself if another person’s needs go unmet, but I now know that to carry such a weight will break me.  I discovered that I can care without taking responsibility, that mourning the loss of another does not require me to jump in and “save” them.  In fact, when I am always in “fix-it” mode, I tend to be distracted from loving and caring, especially if I am pushing myself with obligation rather than letting my involvement flow from a deep settled nest of God’s grace.

Posted September 1, 2011 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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