Archive for the ‘Expectations’ Tag

Superman Complex   6 comments

SI grew up believing that I was superhuman, that I could and should have every quality admired in others.  After all, my grandfather’s biography was titled “Always in Triumph,” and I was cut from the same cloth.  So I inherited a Supersaint cape, but not the genes, expectations without the abilities.  Every attribute in others turned into a goal for me, and every weakness of mine must be muscled into a strength.  Without asking how a basketball player would fare in a saddle or why marathoners and sprinters had such different builds, I was determined to be a complete spiritual athlete, equally good at figure skating and weight-lifting.

different-racesI did not realize that my qualities as a gift to the church were unique, that my strengths supplied the lack in others’ weaknesses and that their gifts filled in for my inadequacies.  None of us were designed to do it all, but rather each is to be a vital member of a team, offering his unique perspectives, abilities, and traits.  Someone who is good at sympathizing is shaped differently from someone who is good at challenging.  The cheerful and friendly are not usually given to reflection and quiet.  Often we assume that maturing makes us all alike, good at all aspects of spirituality.  But if each of us is designed uniquely, becoming more mature may well make us more distinct, though each a beautiful aspect of God’s character.

We are God’s orchestra, and the drums are not in competition with the flutes or the trombones fighting the violins.  Each has its own music.  We can delight in one another’s contributions and seek to find the flow of harmony in concert.  I can be inspired by their dedication and enthusiasm, discipline and creativity because we have the same values and shared goals, but my score is my own.  May I take satisfaction and pleasure in the instrument God designed me to be.

be yourself

Posted January 30, 2014 by janathangrace in thoughts

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New Year’s Welcome   Leave a comment

appleNew Year’s resolutions feel more like chains than wings to me.  I want freedom to become rather than strictures to conform.  I would follow my heart’s inclinations rather than set a behavioral agenda, unsaddle my soul from demands and expectations and deadlines.  I hope to be open and welcoming of each day, to receive what it brings, rather than insist that it yield rewards for my labors.  May I rather grow like a tree: when the rain falls, suck it up; when the spring pushes up sap, sprout leaves; when obstacles crowd me, shape myself around them.  Our backyard black walnut has no limb-growing, root-digging schedule, but it blossoms out well into its true self.

intertwinedI think we have less control over our journey, our growth process, than we realize, and if relationship is foundational to our development, then growth is necessarily interactive and intertwined and cannot be a simple matter of my own choosing and acting.  An organic, inter-relational spirituality looks more like a tree than a construction project: much more vulnerable to change, but also much more adaptive; much less structured and predictable, but much more expansive and potent.  Both methods of development have set principles, but a plant has far more freedom of expression in living out those principles.

So I welcome 2014 and whatever it might bring, not because ours is a safe and good world, but because I have a loving and gentle God who promises to be with me in all the coming uncertainty.

kid with dad

Posted January 8, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Feeling Good about Christmas   2 comments

xmas tree outBefore realizing what I had done, I started a post with the title “Holding onto the Good,” and the good referred to Christmas spirits.  I was falling into the American error of confusing the good with good feelings, when truly the good often comes with the worst feelings possible. One of my fundamental life commitments is this: embrace the hard to gain the good, regardless of how it feels.  But culture sucks me back into assuming that good feelings are the reward for good choices, that I can measure my spiritual pulse by how positive I feel, and negative feelings are a mark that I’ve slipped up somewhere.  No wonder I want to leave up the tinsel and lights and stretch out this season to push back the bleak winter.  That, and it just feels better.  Who doesn’t want to feel good?!

For my LOTR friends

For my LOTR friends

I affirm that desire: feeling good is not all bad.  A sense of well-being gives me more energy to make the world a better place.  It is a great blessing and resource.  Like all resources, however, it can be turned to self interest.  It can make me balk at choosing the hard or painful or costly. It can make me less patient, understanding, and sympathetic towards those who are struggling… even wanting to shove them away to insulate and save my positive vibes.   Good feelings are emotional cash, which can be spent well or poorly.  I’d like to have a big stash, but that’s not necessarily what’s best for my soul.  In my experience, suffering has much more potential power in shaping me for good, true good.

Still I instinctively avoid it and wish it away.  Pushing ahead through pain is like walking up to my knees in mud–it takes all my energy, gives no pleasure, and progress seems dismally slow.  Perhaps my New Year’s resolution should be: learn to slog, which no doubt means adjusting my goals, expectations, and evaluations.  Sometimes the measure of triumph is simply taking one more step.

truck in mud

Posted January 4, 2014 by janathangrace in thoughts

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New Year’s Irresolutions   2 comments

I went to bed early tonight and slept through the preliminary fireworks, but the midnight burst woke me enough to chase away the sandman.  So here I sit against the pillows, thinking.  Before today, each new year piqued some fresh aspect of soul-building, but life (with God’s apparent cooperation) seems to have slowly drained me of a future focus and left me living day-to-day.  All ambition, any hopes I had for some meaningful role in the world, has been pushed far away so that I am reduced to waiting… indefinitely… perhaps till the end of my days.

I’ve been trapped here for a year or maybe two.  The good news, I think, is that my sense of worth has been slowly stripped free of its bondage to accomplishment.  It feels odd—why am I still on earth if I have no purpose for being here—but it no longer feels painful or shameful or condemning, like I’ve been benched for screwing up.  My life perspective has devolved into “It is what it is.”  I’m ready to get back in the game if I’m called on, but I’ve put my sweats back on, and I’m okay to just sit and watch the action from the sidelines.

So here’s to a year without resolutions… or plans… or expectations.  That’s a first for me.

Posted January 1, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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A Truth Learned Late   1 comment

I’m glad I finally realized the truth stated here by Parker Palmer: “Let Your Life Speak.”  His description could be the retelling of my pre-grace life.

Like many middle-class Americans, especially those who are white and male, I was raised in a subculture that insisted I could do anything I wanted to do, be anything I wanted to be, if I were willing to make the effort.  The message was that both the universe and I were without limits, given enough energy and commitment on my part.  God made things that way, and all I had to do was to get with the program.

My troubles began, of course, when I started to slam into my limitations, especially in the form of failure.  I can still touch the shame I felt when, in the summer before I started graduate school at Berkeley, I experienced my first serious comeuppance: I was fired from my research assistantship in sociology.

Having been a golden boy through grade school, high school, and college, I was devastated by this sudden turn of fate.  Not only was my source of summer income gone, but my entire graduate career seemed in jeopardy, the professor I had come to Berkeley to study with was the director of the project from which I had been fired.  My sense of identity, and my concept of the universe, crumbled around my feet for the first, but not last time.  What had happened to my limitless self in a limitless world?

The culture I was raised in suggested an answer: I had not worked hard enough at my job to keep it, let alone succeed….  But that truth does not go deep enough…. I was fired because that job had little or nothing to do with who I am, with my true nature and gifts, with what I care and do not care about….

Neither that job nor any job like it was in the cards for me, given the hand I was dealt at birth.  That may sound like sinfully fatalistic thinking or, worse, a self-serving excuse.  But I believe it embodies a simple, healthy, and life-giving truth about vocation.  Each of us arrives here with a nature, which means both limits and potentials.  We can learn as much about our nature by running into our limits as by experiencing our potentials.

Despite the American myth, I cannot be or do whatever I desire–a truism, to be sure, but a truism we often defy.  Our created natures make us like organisms in an ecosystem: there are some roles and relationships in which we thrive and others in which we wither and die….

If I try to be or do something noble that has nothing to do with who I am, I may look good to others and to myself for a while.  But the fact that I am exceeding my limits will eventually have consequences.  I will distort myself, the other, and our relationship–and may end up doing more damage than if I had never set out to do this particular “good.”

When I give something I do not possess, I give a false and dangerous gift, a gift that looks like love but is, in reality loveless–a gift given more from need to prove myself than from the other’s need to be cared for.  One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout.

Posted June 12, 2012 by janathangrace in Reading

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God’s Love Letters #5   Leave a comment

Matthew 1:2 Abraham fathered Isaac, Isaac fathered Jacob, Jacob fathered Judah and his brothers. 

Finally brothers!  Until now this family, chosen to be a great nation, barely survived with one child of promise per generation.  The world must wait until Abraham’s great-grandchildren before the redemptive family tree grows more than one branch.  I know that feeling well—-waiting.  When God’s promises to redeem my situation seem long overdue, I begin to doubt God’s love.  Why is he taking so long to respond?  Doesn’t he care?  For instance, why is God taking so long to fix my depression?

Peter throws out an intriguing idea, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you.”   God is not distracted, uncaring, or negligent about my needs.  It is not we who are waiting for God to act, but God who is waiting for us to be ready, who watches our progress with sympathy, not disappointment.  His patience is not a bridled impatience, but genuine good will.  He knows it takes time.  He is okay with it taking time.  In fact he plans for it to take time.  He is patient.  In my urgency to reach the resolution, I want to hurry the process, but God’s focus is on the journey, his grace is at work in the process itself.  Too often I miss his grace for today in my anxiety for the bigger deliverance that is farther down the road.  My impatience is really towards myself rather than God.  I blame myself for not growing faster, for bungling his stream-lined plans for me.  But should we suppose that if Abram had had greater faith and faithfulness, he would have had a dozen sons at 39 instead of one at 99?  Why have I always thought that God was in a rush?

I think I have long been under the impression that God’s attributes are somehow in competition with each other.  In this instance, his righteousness is at odds with his sympathy.  He wants to hurry me into holiness, but he is being “patient” with me, which basically means he is holding himself back from chiding or nagging or otherwise showing his frustration at my slow growth.  He is impatient, but hiding it.  I guess that is how I have always pictured his so-called patience, and why I am so prone to agree with “God’s” condemnation of me.  I need a new God, a good God, a God who is truly patient, not just pretending to be patient.

Posted April 14, 2012 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

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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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