Archive for the ‘fear’ Tag

Fixing Sandy Hook   Leave a comment

My first feeling was horror, quickly followed by outrage, and then a creeping sense of helplessness: horror for how many and how young the victims; outrage for the unprovoked, extreme violence; and helplessness because it was inexplicable and unpredictable.  As a red-blooded, American male with an overblown sense of responsibility, my powerlessness is the most frightening of these emotions, so I try to get passed it as quickly as possible (though I would not have admitted this even to me most of my life).  The way I protect myself from horror is to let my outrage stir me to resolve, to make sure such a terrible thing never happens again.  In other words, the quickest way for me to escape those wretched feelings is to jump passed them into problem-solving mode.

My gut response to natural disasters or unavoidable accidents is quite different, much simpler and cleaner.  I move easily into grief and solidarity with everyone since we are all in it together.  There is nothing to examine and correct.  I am responsible for nothing, and can simply feel. This acceptance is typical in fatalistic cultures, even for calamities that are preventable, but that seems like a defeatist attitude to us Americans.

As a nation carved out of the frontier by pioneers, we are very gifted at overcoming adversity with our “can do” spirit.  We are independent, pragmatic, self-confident, and creative… so much so that we see everything in the light of problem-solution.  We are able therefore to use action to largely override any feelings that crop up.  In fact, feelings themselves are often seen as part of the problem that needs fixing.  We tend to deal with insecurities by taming the situation.  We are a nation of controllers.  We take charge of ourselves, others, and our environment.

Within hours of the Newtown massacre, some of us were demanding solutions: better school security, more gun control, better ways to identify and fix those with emotional issues (or just as vigorously rejecting these ideas).  “We can stop these killings;  we can fix this,” we told one another.  No.  We can’t.  We can limit violence in various ways, but we really are not in control of what happens on this old earth.  The most we can do is influence it for the better.   Malicious, unprovoked, random violence is an inescapable part of our broken world, and embracing our sense of vulnerability and fear might be a good place for us to start.

I am a particular kind of controller.  I gain a sense of security by figuring things out.  I am at my most vulnerable when I am confused or stymied.  I often “resolve” my feelings of powerlessness by sorting, categorizing, and explaining the situation–intellectual escapism.  (I guess this blog is exhibit A.)  When I am lost in the maze of life, I fall easily into depression.  But choosing a sense of helplessness rather than avoiding it can be my way into grace.

So in my next blog I will get out of my head and into my feelings.

Posted December 18, 2012 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Look Who’s Talking Now   2 comments

listening“Is it God’s voice I hear in my heart or my own voice mimicking God?  How can I tell the difference?” I asked Kimberly tonight as we stared at the candle flames.  It was more a doubt than a question.  “Even if it IS God talking to me, I may hear it all wrong, just like I do with you,” I continued.  God’s voice may be in my head, but it is hardly the only voice there.  In fact, as a boy I assumed dad was God’s mouthpiece. I still have trouble telling apart their voices inside me, not because they sound so much alike, but because the mix-up was so long standing.  Over the years I have internalized more inflections–preachers, authors, teachers, Christians.  So who’s talking now?  I am learning to distrust those messages that do not harmonize with grace.  God’s heart-songs are always the cadence of love–even if it is a hard scrabble love.

spring-waterWhen I have  a friend with me, it colors all that I do, how I do it, and how I feel about it.  If he is critical by nature, I will be cautious and inhibited, tense and doubtful.  If my daily companion is God, what kind of God is he?  If my hours are spent with a God who is focused on fixing my flaws, I will live out of fear and shame.  I will be worse off for all my spiritual intent.  It is crucial for me that the God I chat with over the dishes and in my car is the God of all grace.  It is not only his presence I need, but his compassionate presence.  I have enough harsh voices in my brain without adding Sinai to the cacophony.  “Perfect love casts out fear.”  May we all drink from that stream of redemption.

Posted December 1, 2012 by janathangrace in thoughts

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If God Is Here…   4 comments

Most evenings before supper Kimberly and I light some candles, listen to a word of grace, and invite God into conversation with us.  Tonight I told him frankly I don’t know how to include him in the quagmire of my life.  All through the day I talk to him and wait on him, but hear no answers for my doubts, feel no healing for my pain, see no clarity for my path, find no energy for my tasks.  When I bring God my suffering and weakness and lostness, why do I find no comfort or strength or direction?  Why does he leave me sunken in misery?  Faith grows haggard without tokens of hope.

I wrote that paragraph last night and sat thinking for a long time.  If God is not in my life to fix me, then why is he here?  Somehow, all my theology seems to circle back to relationship… where it should start in the first place.  It took me years to learn this with Kimberly–what we both need from the other in our brokenness is compassionate presence, not problem-solving.  But God is different from Kimberly–she can’t fix me but he can.  He knows exactly what I need and how to provide it.  So why doesn’t he?!  oh… maybe he does… maybe what I truly need is his compassionate presence.

This is so counter-intuitive for me.  If he loves me, doesn’t he want to remove my pain?  If he can heal me and doesn’t, is he not callous and unloving?  Imagine a doctor with wonderful bedside manners who refuses to cure his suffering patient.  And perhaps here is the answer to my riddle.  When I treat God as my doctor, I forget he is my friend, my dearest friend who holds my broken heart in his tender hands.  My focus locks on my disease instead of our friendship.

I woke up this morning with a nameless dread which slowly distilled into a sense of the pointlessness of my life, and a fear that nothing will change.  What did I do this week?  I stained the wooden borders around our yard, but in a couple of years I will have to do it again… and to what end?  I exercise, clean, shop, cook…  a meaningless round of repetition.  I enjoy my job in the library, but what difference does it make in the world?  Well, it provides me a salary so that I can repair  appliances, buy groceries, pay bills… and then do it all over again.  When will I find real purpose and direction for my life, something meaningful?  As I lay in bed, the thoughts of last night drifted into my mind.  So instead of asking God for a fix, I simply shared with him my anxiety.  In the end, what if the great purpose of my life is not something, but Someone?

Posted November 29, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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The Gift of Life   6 comments

Kimberly woke me at 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning.  She felt uneasy, restless, and her heart was racing.  I couldn’t find the pulse at her wrist, so I tried her neck–boomboomboomboom–the staccato thumping of a quarter-mile sprinter, probably 200 beats a minute.  That scared me.  We were at her aunt’s home and I had no idea where the hospital was… I didn’t even know our address.  “Should we go to the ER?” I asked.  She said, “We can’t afford it, we don’t have insurance.”  I quickly answered, “That doesn’t matter.”  She responded, “I don’t want to sit there for hours in the waiting room.  By the time we see a doctor, I will have no symptoms to check.  Let’s look it up on the internet.”

WebMD called it “Supraventricular Tachycardia”– her heart’s electrical system was misfiring–and we should go to the emergency room if it “persisted”–how long is that?!  Her veins had been drumming for 10 minutes, but she had none of the listed signs of heart failure, so we kept reading.  It offered some home fixes–cough, gag, or shove her face in ice water to shock her pump steady.  She tried some dainty coughs, afraid of waking up others.  I told her to cough hard as I kept my finger on her jugular.  Within minutes the beating slowed.

So, tell me… what are you grateful for this Thanksgiving?

Posted November 27, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal, Story

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Finding Grace By Doing Less   4 comments

I have been fighting with fear for a month now, and a sense of being overwhelmed.  It partly comes from my anxiety of having to survive this summer on my lawn-mowing income (along with my inability to pick up sufficient regular clients) and partly from forgetting (as a result) my 2012 commitment to rest.  It has made me think afresh of the Biblical command, not to keep the Sabbath, but to remember to keep the Sabbath.  Apparently I’m not alone in having fear and busyness crowd out the vital place of rest for my soul.   I notice that, remarkably, I accomplish less, not more, when I neglect the rest my soul needs… the fear and drivenness drain away my energy.  This has not always been the case.

Most of my life I lived by overriding my own needs.  I thought I was meeting my soul’s needs by spending hours in prayer, meditation and Bible study, going to church, self-examination and the like.  But in fact these were just more activities to which I drove myself.  They were not “means of grace,” but means of accomplishment, of spiritual advancement.  In those days I measured success by how much I changed the world for the better, not realizing that I was denying with my life the very gospel I preached.  It is hard for the fruits of grace to spring from the drivenness of legalism.  I was getting more tasks done (being successful) because of my unceasing labor, but grace would have had so much more space to work had I learned to do much less while acting from a spirit of unconditional love (in both receiving it and sharing it).

My conception of success has changed so drastically since those days.  The ghost of ‘failures past’ still haunts me at times.  I have not been able to fully shake off those old definitions (mostly because the whole world seems to speak that language), but I realize now that my soul’s health and thereby the health of the hearts around me is my new measure of success.  It has little to do with numbers of tasks completed or people fixed.  I would rather accomplish one thing a day graciously than a dozen without grace, and because of my unhealthy proclivities, the more I try to fit into the day, the more likely I will shortchange grace.  As I grow in grace, I believe I will be able to do more good, but for now I must live within my limits and refuse the shame that shouts at me for doing too little, learning to trust more in God’s grace.

Posted June 10, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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My Problem with Shoulds   Leave a comment

The law is good, as Paul says, and it has several beneficial uses.  One use is to teach us what God is like, and provide insight on how we might be like him.  Of course, all of Scripture (not just the commands) is designed to help us in this way whether history, teaching, prophecy, or the like.  For those who want to be intimate with God and be shaped into his beautiful likeness, it doesn’t really matter whether a biblical teaching is grammatically in the command form.  The only question is whether it will help me grow personally and relationally.

The word “should” has close links with law, and it carries several connotations.  First, it suggests an evaluative role.  It is telling us what would be a good or better course of action.   This may have no moral connotations, such as: “You should  try Ben and Jerry’s New York Fudge Chunk.”  Second, and closely connected to the first, is an implication of pressure to act in a certain way.  We could place it on a continuum to demonstrate this: Can—–Should—-Must.  Again, this need not be concerned with morality: “You must try this app!”  The third connotation of should, like the word law, is one of potential personal judgment.  Even if this regards simply a choice of wrenches, the person who fails to do what he should is faulted.  Something is wrong with him.  He is defective or weak or stupid or belligerant.  Finally, because it is poised to judge, should appeals to a particular motivation.  It is not a positive motivation (as the first two connotations might be); it does not attract by the beauty or benefit or health of the choice.  It rather motivates by the fear and shame of being bad, unacceptable, dis-graced.

I do not want to live my life being motivated by fear and shame.  I want to be motivated by God’s love for me and my echo of love for him and others, in other words, grace.  Sometimes the should of law is necessary to shape external behavior to curb the harm a person may do to herself or others, but as long as the individual is acting from fear or shame, it is only her behavior which is affected.  Her heart is not growing in grace.  It may even be shrinking.  I think the primary judgment role of law and should is to help us recognize our real inadequacies and faults, not in order to shape our behavior but to awaken us to the gospel.  Some folks think grace has no power to motivate, but I have found it incredibly powerful… that must wait for another post.

Posted April 5, 2012 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Can Grace Go Too Far?   13 comments

Given a couple of negative responses to my recent posts, I apparently need to explain what I mean by grace.  I think there are some common interpretations of grace that can really take us down the wrong path.  One of the most common misunderstandings of grace is to equate it with freedom of action while equating law with restriction of action.  freedom and restriction of action are about method and context, while grace and law are about motivation and direction.  Grace does not play the high notes or the low notes on this freedom/restriction continuum, but plays the whole keyboard.  That is to say, it confines or releases as directed by love.

EVERY NOTE IS A GRACE NOTE

Law motivates by fear, shame, and guilt.  These are very legitimate motivations, because they point out how screwed up we really are, but if we try to remedy our fear and guilt by making better choices, we are doomed by our imperfections.  The fear and shame are not intended to drive us to work harder at being good, but to awaken us to our need of the grace of God (forgiveness, love, acceptance, strength, hope, blessing, in short, the gospel).

THE FACE OF THE LAW

Here is where confusion and misgivings easily catch us.  We know that fear and shame are powerful motivators, they have profoundly molded our behavior and the behavior of others towards us.  If you remove law, what will keep me in check?  We think fear and guilt make us good, when they really only change our actions, not our hearts.  Still, if  this motivation is removed, what will inspire us to go in the right direction.  If there is therefore now no condemnation, won’t I just act like a spoiled brat, won’t others “take advantage” of grace?  No.  It is impossible to “take advantage” of grace.  If you try, if you decide to fulfill every “forbidden pleasure,” it will leave you more empty, lost, broken, and even farther from the blessings of grace–not because grace resists you, for it always has open arms, but because you resist grace, which is the way of true peace, fulfillment, joy, love.  The only way to take advantage, full advantage, of God’s grace is to throw yourself whole-heartedly into his embrace.

Let me quote a reply I gave a questioning friend: In my mind “doing as I please” is a serious misunderstanding of grace, and is profoundly different from doing what my soul needs. The differentiation in my mind is not that the first matches my desires and feelings and the second matches my duty, but that the first matches superficial desires and feelings often at odds with my deeper feelings (e.g. choosing sex as a replacement for love), while the second is discovering my true feelings and true needs and seeking to meet those.  At this point in my understanding of God’s grace, I believe that my soul’s truest needs are never in conflict with God’s will, and if they appear to be, I misunderstand one or the other.

SAFE HANDS

Posted April 3, 2012 by janathangrace in 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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Addicted to Effort   1 comment

The strange path to freedom.

I have many coping mechanisms to protect me from the prickly world, a combination of defenses unique to myself.  I was a compliant child, a trait sometimes mistakenly referred to as “good” or “obedient,” so I responded to my insecurites by trying to make the grade (measured by my approval ratings).   This was my basis for self-worth: scoring a 10 on my performance.  When I was judged as inadequate, my deeply ingrained, almost instinctive reaction was to rachet up the effort.  I proved my value as a person by doing more, better, faster, by never repeating failures or mistakes, by meeting or exceeding every expectation that appeared worthy.

CHASING SUCCESS

Perhaps the hardest coping mechanisms to overcome are those which are inescapably tied to the necessities of living.  Every addiction has its unique power of control.  Bulimics, unlike alcoholics, literally cannot live without the substance to which they are addicted, and that significantly complicates their deliverance.  In the same way, I cannot live without doing.  I cannot abandon all tasks in order to break free from my addiction to effort–I am forced to keep succeeding at a job, at finances, at relationships, and all the other tasks essential to life.  They say success breeds success, but in my case, success breeds bondage (and unfortunately so does failure). 

For me, at a subconscious level, every task accomplished inevitably feeds my sense of worth and every task unfinished feeds my shame.  I don’t knowingly tell myself, “See what I have done. I am a good person after all.”  The telltale sign of this malady may only be a sense of satisfaction, which is natural enough, but the reason for my satisfaction is largely a sense of worth based on my work. 

In short: I have an addiction to effort as a means to gain worth, I cannot live without doing, but each time I do something and feel better as a person, I subconsciously strengthen my addiction.

Let me give an example.  I have said something that has hurt my colleague Mike.  I am afraid of what he now thinks of me, especially because his evaluation of me feeds my doubts of my own worth.  Since love is the best motivation, I tell myself to reach out to him in love and concern for his well-being. These are my conscious thoughts, but underneath, my very value as a person depends on his renewed approval of me.  My fear escalates as I ask for a minute of his time.  Why fear?  Because my worth is at stake.  If he is reconciled by my apology, my fear turns to pleasure.  “See,” I tell myself, “love works!” when in fact I have just succeeded in strengthening a false basis for my worth as a person–I am worthy because of what I do, in this case reconciliation. 

The motivation for what I do is the key.  I can act out of a place of grace or a place of should and shame, though that makes it sound dichotomous when really my motives are always mixed to some degree.  If I complete a chore more out of fear than of grace, I strengthen my doubt in God’s love.  If I act more from grace, I strengthen my faith in God’s love.  But if I am pressured by ‘should,’ how can I respond out of grace?  For me at least, operating out of a sense of should is really responding from a doubt of God’s acceptance, from a sense that his love depends on my behavior, from a fear of being unworthy.  I find that if I do not first challenge the should, face it down, call out its lies of conditional love, then I feed my doubt and insecurity with each task I complete.  I feel better, but am worse for it.

Back to Mike.  If he is unwelcoming, I become defensive–I try to “explain” more clearly, I express my hurt at his response, I point out his matching faults.  Unlike my successful attempt, my failure to win him over suddenly reveals my real motivation.  It was not love, but insecurity. Insecurity will always be present, but if it predominates as my motivation, it will harm me and my relationships.  It may feel better to both of us  if it “works,” but it is a sugar high that eventually leads to diabetes.  I am most aware of my insecurities when my coping mechanism fails, when my “right” actions for self-redemption flounder. If at first I don’t go to Mike, but sit with my insecurity long enough to find saving grace, to believe my worth has no basis in what I do, then I can go to Mike in a way that leads to wholeness for us both.

In certain situations, this time of processing is effective, but often, the longer I delay acting, the more anxious I become.  I am constantly being pressured by a “should,” and this crowds out the emotional space I need to find grace.  In the past I often had to go ahead and complete the task (and so remove the pressure), and then try to deal with the shame-based motivation.   My grasp of grace was not firm enough to escape self-condemnation if I failed to act, but at least being aware of my true motivations was a fundamental step to addressing them.  

To be continued…

Posted March 26, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Hope in the Storm   Leave a comment

For the last few days things have been looking up, I have felt more positive than negative, more times of calm than of anxiety.  I would even say I have been happy.  But I have been reluctant to share for fear that folks will suppose me “back on my feet.”  We all give a break to those who are going through a hard time–we give them more patience, gentleness and concern, and a lighter load.  But once they have “recovered,” we suppose their strength has returned and put them back in the harness.  My personal experience is very different from this picture of energy simply lost and regained.

I once  had armor so thick nothing could touch my soul, including real and deep love.  Those defenses by which I kept the world at bay I laid aside to seek my true self and connect vulnerably with others.  And once I stepped into the wind of my fears, the wounds that had been festering for decades were exposed.  I have been attending to them now for ten years, but they are forty years deep and my soul is still quiveringly sensitive to any scrape against them.  

Kimberly and I talk about our personal and marital “bubble.”  When I am in my own bubble, untouched by the storms of life, I can eventually come to a place of peace as I have in the last few days.  When Berly and I are on the same page, which is most of the time, we share a bubble and reinforce that sense of security.  I can nestle into God’s love.  But the bubble is easily burst as the wind and sleet dash against our nest–a phone call or email, a memory, a bill, a frown… even a sunny day (like yesterday) can depress me, reminding me how dependent we are on lawn mowing jobs that I have no energy to hunt down.

FROM THE NEST LOOKING OUT

I can be content and even happy inside our bubble, but it is a very fragile peace, constantly threatened and often breached. Without some refuge from the world’s criticisms, disparagements, impatience, and harshness, I am simply battered relentlessly. And my spirit can find no air to breathe, no space to move, no pause to rest.  I am reduced to emotional survival.  So I withdraw to my nest to build up strength to face  the next nor’easter.  This, to my mind, is the biblical “fight of faith.”  Unfortunately, the storm can reach inside my little knothole, and often does.  Sometimes all my energy is used to keep it out.  It is always threatening to strike, and the closer it gets, the more difficult it is to find a place of peace, a gentle space in which to rest and heal.

But in the last few days, I sense a change. an ability to keep the storm outside and God and me inside the bubble of faith that keeps the shame and doubts at bay, a potential to respond in healthy ways to shame-driven tasks of the past.  I am able to see God as on my side regardless of my weaknesses, blunders, myopia, and erratic progress.  Perhaps I am finding a new way through the hurricane, though it is a strange direction to take as I will soon share.

Posted March 20, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal

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