Archive for the ‘grace’ Tag

The Raw Edges of Life   18 comments

I read this piece in tears the day after my dad’s funeral where we were all dressed in black dignity, smelled of shaving cream and lilacs, and spoke in polite, quiet voices.  This story by Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors, is raw and real and connects with the deep places in my heart that long for grace in the messiness of living.  The truest bonds come from sharing our brokenness with one another.

Then I called my Jesuit friend, Tom, who is a hopeless alcoholic of the worst sort, sober now for 35 years, someone who sometimes gets fat and wants to hang himself, so I trust him. I said, “Tell me a story about Advent. Tell me about people getting well.”
He thought for a while. Then he said, “OK.”
In 1976, when he first got sober, he was living in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, going to the very hip AA meetings there, where there were no fluorescent lights and not too much clapping — or that yahoo-cowboy-hat-in-the-air enthusiasm that you get in L.A., according to sober friends. And everything was more or less all right in early sobriety, except that he felt utterly insane all the time, filled with hostility and fear and self-contempt. But I mean, other than that everything was OK. Then he got transferred to Los Angeles in the winter, and he did not know a soul. “It was a nightmare,”he says. “I was afraid to go into entire areas of L.A., because the only places I knew were the bars. So I called the cardinal and asked him for the name of anyone he knew in town who was in AA. And he told me to call this guy Terry.”
Terry, as it turned out, had been sober for five years at that point, so Tom thought he was God. They made arrangements to go to a place Terry knew of where alcoholic men gathered that night in the back of the Episcopal Cathedral, right in the heart of downtown L.A. It was Terry’s favorite gathering, full of low-bottom drunks and junkies — people from nearby halfway houses, bikers, jazz musicians. “Plus it’s a men’s stag meeting,” says Tom. “So already I’ve got issues.
“There I am on my first date with this new friend Terry, who turns out to not be real chatty. He’s clumsy and ill at ease, an introvert with no social skills, but the cardinal has heard that he’s also good with newly sober people. He asks me how I am, and after a long moment, I say, ‘I’m just scared,’ and he nods and says gently, ‘That’s right.’
“I don’t know a thing about him, I don’t know what sort of things he thinks about or who he votes for, but he takes me to this place near skid row, where all these awful looking alkies are hanging out in the yard, waiting for something to start. I’m tense, I’m just staring. It’s a whole bunch of strangers, all of them clearly very damaged — working their way back slowly, but not yet real attractive. The sober people I’ve met back in Berkeley all seem like David Niven in comparison, and I’m thinking, Who are these people? Why am I here?
“All my scanners are out. It’s all I can do not to bolt.
“Ten minutes before we began, Terry directed me to a long flight of stairs heading up to a windowless, airless room. I started walking up the stairs, with my jaws clenched, muttering to myself tensely just like the guy in front of me, this guy my own age who was stumbling and numb and maybe not yet quite on his first day of sobriety.
“The only things getting me up the stairs are Terry, behind me, pushing me forward every so often, and this conviction I have that this is as bad as it’s ever going to be — that if I can get through this, I can get through anything. Well. All of a sudden, the man in front of me soils himself. I guess his sphincter just relaxes. Shit runs down onto his shoes, but he keeps walking. He doesn’t seem to notice.
“However, I do. I clapped a hand over my mouth and nose, and my eyes bugged out but I couldn’t get out of line because of the crush behind me. And so, holding my breath, I walk into the windowless, airless room.
“Now, this meeting has a person who stands at the door saying hello. And this one is a biker with a shaved head, a huge gut and a Volga boatman mustache. He gets one whiff of the man with shit on his shoes and throws up all over everything.
“You’ve seen the Edvard Munch painting of the guy on the bridge screaming, right? That’s me. That’s what I look like. But Terry enters the room right behind me. And there’s total pandemonium, no one knows what to do.The man who had soiled himself stumbles forward and plops down in a chair. A fan blows the terrible smells of shit and vomit around the windowless room, and people start smoking just to fill in the spaces in the air. Finally Terry reaches out to the greeter, who had thrown up. He puts his hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Wow,” he says. “Looks like you got caught by surprise.” And they both laugh. Right? Terry asks a couple of guys to go with him down the hall to the men’s room, and help this guy get cleaned up. There are towels there, and kitty litter, to absorb various effluvia, because this is a meeting where people show up routinely in pretty bad shape. So while they’re helping the greeter get cleaned up, other people start cleaning up the meeting room. Then Terry approaches the other man.
“My friend,” he says gently, “it looks like you have trouble here.”
The man just nods.
“We’re going to give you a hand,” says Terry.
“So three men from the recovery house next door help him to his feet,walk him to the halfway house and put him in the shower. They wash his clothes and shoes and give him their things to wear while he waits. They give him coffee and dinner, and they give him respect. I talked to these other men later, and even though they had very little sobriety, they did not cast this other guy off for not being well enough to be there. Somehow this broken guy was treated like one of them, because they could see that he was one of them. No one was pretending he wasn’t covered with shit, but there was a real sense of kinship. And that is what we mean when we talk about grace.
“Back at the meeting at the Episcopal Cathedral, I was just totally amazed by what I had seen. And I had a little shred of hope. I couldn’t have put it into words, but until that meeting, I had thought that I would recover with men and women like myself; which is to say, overeducated, fun to be with and housebroken. And that this would happen quickly and efficiently. But I was wrong. So I’ll tell you what the promise of Advent is: It is that God has set up a tent among us and will help us work together on our stuff. And this will only happen over time.

Posted June 13, 2016 by janathangrace in Reading

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Rescued   1 comment

Sometimes I feel truly overwhelmed.  Hope drains away and the future becomes dark… and then meaningless… and then too weary to even consider.  Days are reduced to a zombie-like stumble, a daily routine on endless repeat like a scratched album.

This fall I faced Mount Everest when I finally agreed with Kimberly to move to Asheville, NC.  Relocating is a huge effort, and just getting our house ready to sell formed an insurmountable list: patch and seal the driveway, repair the stone wall, replace the doorbell, finish remodeling the bedroom, paint the deck and porch and windows and basementandbathroomandkitchen… the tasks filled a page, single-spaced and two columns long.  I felt myself sinking under it.

But in my desperation God sent a guardian angel, my sister Mardi, who suddenly decided that she would take several days vacation-leave to come help.  Driving across three states, she dropped her bags on the floor and said, “Hit me with your list.  I’m going to work from 5 in the morning till 10 at night to get this stuff done.”  Kimberly and I had to tag team just to keep up with her pace.  Her energy flowed into my spirit and lifted me over the shoals so that I could keep going even after she left.  There is still a lot to do, but it no longer overwhelms me.  The wind she puffed into my sails keeps blowing me forward so that her sacrificial gift did much more for me than finish some tasks.

She made the difference for me by giving from her heart, without expectation, which is a pure expression of grace.  When I help others, I often expect that they will help me in return when I need it or that they will join with me as I help them or that they will at least be encouraged and feel better.  If nothing else, I expect them to be sufficiently grateful.  A gift that comes wrapped in expectations is really just a transaction, a trade, and can feel more like a burden than a blessing to those who receive it.  But Mardi gave without expectation, freely, and such grace is an artesian spring, filling our hearts and overflowing into others, the gift that keeps on giving.

 

Posted February 1, 2016 by janathangrace in Personal, Uncategorized

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My Life as a Legalist   Leave a comment

This article is worth your read.  It doesn’t offer a path forward (how to learn to love yourself), but it is a very good description of well-meaning legalists like I was most of my life and the consequences in myself and my relationships that I am still working to overcome.  The grace of God is key in this process of recovery, but it takes faith, time and perseverance.

5 Toxic Things That Will Happen If You Don’t Learn To Love Yourself

 

Posted January 29, 2016 by janathangrace in Reading

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Finding Peace within Pain   4 comments

“Be gentle and kind to yourself” I blogged two weeks ago.  “Take full measure of your pain and with compassion find a way to give the help your weary, struggling heart needs.”  Great advice, and as it turns out, useless.  I was suffering acutely, but didn’t know why.  How could I relieve a pain that I could not locate?  Loneliness may be remedied with a friend, loss may be resolved with healthy grieving, but the phantom pain of depression is often untraceable to any source.  I was completely stuck.

For a long time now I have been struggling to find relief from my pain… or at the very least find the best way to cope with it.  Should I follow a plan or be spontaneous, should I read or write, should I sleep in or get up early–what would be best for my soul?  I kept taking my emotional temperature, trying to figure out what helped or didn’t help, but the solution was a will-o’-the-wisp, dancing just outside my insight and control.

“And then somehow it came to me,” I journaled the next morning.  “What my heart needed was not support to find and apply a solution (friends, good job, insight, etc.), but just support as an end in itself. What my heart needed was simply that gentleness and kindness, for me to have an attitude of constant gentleness and kindness in how I saw myself, thought of myself, felt about myself. I needed self-compassion for my own pain and struggle and fear and confusion and sense of worthlessness—not to find a solution, but to just be on my own side through it all.”

I am a fixer from way back.  When I see others in pain, I want to help, give them suggestions, offer them a way to find relief.  This often backfires, unintentionally causing more hurt.  Kimberly wants me to listen with compassion, understanding, and empathy rather than solutions, but I’m a very slow learner.  I keep defaulting back to problem-solving even though I’ve discovered through her how greatly I also need to just be heard and not fixed.

If the best a friend can offer is not to stop my pain, but to hold my hand through it, then why have I never thought to practice this with my own heart, to be my own best friend?  What if I walked through each day with a tenderness towards myself, an empathy for my struggle, an awareness and responsiveness to the fluctuations of daily events and how they impact my heart?

I feel as though a new way of being has started to open up in my mind. I’m just learning the initial steps, but it seems to hold real promise for the next leg of my spiritual journey.  It does not mean my misery will lighten, but that I will be sensitive and caring about my ongoing pain.

Posted January 19, 2016 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Death of a Good Man   Leave a comment

This is the kind of eulogy I would wish for myself–not to be remembered for my intelligence or talents or accomplishments, but for a sweet spirit.  I think it will take another couple decades of fermenting to become what I wish to be.  Here is Daniel Radcliffe’s (Harry Potter) remembrance of Alan Rickman, the late actor:

 Alan Rickman is undoubtedly one of the greatest actors I will ever work with. He is also, one of the loyalest and most supportive people I’ve ever met in the film industry. He was so encouraging of me both on set and in the years post-Potter. I’m pretty sure he came and saw everything I ever did on stage both in London and New York. He didn’t have to do that. I know other people who’ve been friends with him for much much longer than I have and they all say “if you call Alan, it doesn’t matter where in the world he is or how busy he is with what he’s doing, he’ll get back to you within a day”.

People create perceptions of actors based on the parts they played so it might surprise some people to learn that contrary to some of the sterner(or downright scary) characters he played, Alan was extremely kind, generous, self-deprecating and funny. And certain things obviously became even funnier when delivered in his unmistakable double-bass.

As an actor he was one of the first of the adults on Potter to treat me like a peer rather than a child. Working with him at such a formative age was incredibly important and I will carry the lessons he taught me for the rest of my life and career. Film sets and theatre stages are all far poorer for the loss of this great actor and man.

Posted January 14, 2016 by janathangrace in Reading

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Purple Trunks and All Saints’ Day   3 comments

Clothes are like mud flaps to me: functional, not decorative.  Each morning, without thought, I pull out the slacks that happen to be closest to hand and grab a shirt that doesn’t clash.  I wear stuff till it gets holes and then I throw it out, buying more from the frumpy racks of pants and polos at the local Goodwill for $3 a piece.  Everything in my closet and drawers is relatively meaningless and disposable except a pair of purple swim trunks.  The color is garish and the pockets are ridiculous–not made of mesh, but solid cloth, scooping air as I dive and ballooning up around my waist like two neon jellyfish.  But the trunks are irreplaceable, bought as a gift for me ten years ago on a Florida vacation by a dear friend who was my last hope in the world.  He offered not only true friendship, but life purpose in an organization that mirrored my own core values of the shared grace of God embracing our mutual brokenness.  And then he died suddenly of a heart attack.  I miss him.

The organization wandered away from his vision and I found no one else in town with those core values, so it was quite literally my last hope.  For a decade I have been treading water, without any speck on the horizon of meaningful friendship or life focus.  Kimberly is with me here, so I am not alone, but we feel adrift in a sea of disconnection and pointlessness.  My life before was rich with friends and fruitfulness, so Vince and his organization were not unique in that sense, except in being the last on a journey that has since seemed remarkably barren.

A loud swimsuit speaks to me not only of absence, but of presence, for Vince represents to me all those of good heart still in the world and my hope of finding a few more on the long journey home.  When I grow weary in waiting, I remember the past winds on which God blew fellow travelers my way.

Those whose voice once sang love, courage or patience into our hearts sing still to this day, renewing us by their memory. And lest we forget and the echoes of their refrain grow distant, we have been given this special day of the year on the church’s calendar to call us to reach back into this treasure chest of our past and run our thoughts over the contours of their impact, tracing in our minds those deep and abiding impressions that continue to shape our lives for the better.

Posted November 1, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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Welcoming Grace   Leave a comment

Whispered words of grace are a spiritual balm seeping into my soul, whether they come from liberals or conservatives, Christians or Hindus, teetotalers or alcoholics.  It pulls at me from the gritty, raw, tattooed welcome of those sand-blasted into goodwill and entices me with the sweet, gentle, well-worn embrace of those battered into softness.  It reaches me from every surprising image of love that pulses through each grace-stippled heart.  I want eyes to see it in the face of all I pass, for grace misses no one, but leaves its mark on each, however hidden from the casual eye.  May I be one who sees it, values it, makes room for its timid step.  Grace often expresses itself most deeply by receiving rather than giving, by being blessed from the life of another, by delighting in the goodness leaking out between the slats of their tightly guarded hearts.  Perhaps grace in my life, and even in my relationships, is increased most by welcoming it in rather than mustering it out.

Posted September 8, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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A Visit from My Boyhood Self   Leave a comment

Caroline came to me at work yesterday with an apology, “I’m sorry I was hard on you yesterday.  I was slammed with a lot of issues I had to sort through and was feeling stressed.”  I said that I understood.  But she was not finished with her apology which rather quickly worked around to her frustration at me, still evident in her look and tone of voice, because I was apparently inadequate at my job.  Tears had started pooling in my eyes when she finally finished her lecture and turned to leave.

Having no customers to attend, I had some space to reflect.  Why did this exchange feel so bad to me?  I was better than most at handling displeased customers and angry colleagues, able to be courteous and sympathetic without taking it personally.  I felt the powerful emotional tug and followed the shame back to my childhood fears. This dynamic was very familiar, the sense that I was fundamentally flawed because I was too slow or stupid or inattentive.  It was not simply that I had failed in this one thing as everyone does, but that I had failed in a way that others did not, at least not responsible ones.  As a boy I figured dad would be patient with average mistakes, the kind he too made, so his frustration proved some deeper flaw in me.  Children who paid more attention, who got it on the first explanation, who didn’t repeat the same mistake earned approval.  I just had to try harder… but I could never quite overcome that achievement deficit.  I was stuck in a permanent sense of inadequacy.

Now whether my dad was too impatient or I was too sensitive is beside the point… or rather it completely leads us down the wrong trail.  The point is not to identify blame, but to identify dynamics–this is what happened and this is how it made me feel.  And seeing that dynamic clearly, and being the melancholic that I am (tending to self-blame), I immediately noticed how I treat others in a similar way, especially those I supervise.  My mind flashed back to the previous night when I had given an exasperated look and tone to a new student I was training because she wasn’t getting it.  I could see her face fall, and realizing what I had done, I quickly changed into a non-judgmental re-explanation.  But it passed through my mind as a common interaction, not something that called for further examination, one of those things I see as a flaw in myself that I need to work on, but with such a minimal focus that I make only incremental changes.

Okay, that is unfair to myself.  I have actually grown a lot in this area.  I just have a lot farther to go. If I’d had a little boy when I was my father’s age, I might have been much harder on him than my father was on me.  It is nearly impossible to break out of family dynamics without a great deal of reflection and understanding… and grace to myself, not just to others.  Given my temperament, I could easily turn this insight into self-blame, castigating myself for being hard on others and trying to scold myself into being more patient.  But shaming myself just makes me feel even more inadequate, leading to further dysfunction in my life.

For me, this is where reflecting on my childhood becomes so powerful.  When I find a reason for a deep-rooted unhealthy tendency in myself, when I can locate the pain I felt that I’m passing on to others, I can see myself with compassionate eyes, as the wounded one.  I can grace myself into healthier interactions instead of criticizing myself into being better, a stick I used my whole life that simply drove me into deep, unremitting depression.  I find that grace must begin with myself before I can pass it on.  We live in a fallen world, we have all been wounded deeply, and tracing that injury back to its roots can give us the insight and self-compassion we need to finally begin healing under the gentle touch of God’s grace.

Posted September 3, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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When Grace Exposes Our Sin   2 comments

Matthew 1:7 “David fathered Solomon by Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah.”

The story of Bathsheba and David is a royal cover-up that almost succeeded as they pulled all the strings in the shadows to hide their lust, betrayal and murder.  A successful subterfuge would have rotted out their own hearts as they ran from grace.  Grace can do amazing, unbelievable things, even with what is worst in us, but it must begin with the truth about us.  It cannot work with the fog of self-deception.  Whenever we do wrong and hide it from ourselves and others–make excuses, minimize it, compare it to worse sins in others–we trap our shame inside our hearts like a festering wound, and the pathogen slowly seeps throughout our souls and stains our relationships.  God rips off that wrapping, exposing the gore, not to repulse us with our wounds, but to heal us.

Shame is to sin what pain is to injury–an alarm to wake us to crippling harm and push us to act.  It is the blinking light God designed for our inner dashboard.  Unlike God, we tend to use shame against ourselves and one another as leverage to force (or stop) change just as someone might use physical pain (or threat of it) to coerce others.  In our society, shame is a weapon that parents use against children, preachers against congregants, and friends and spouses against one another to force compliance just as a bully might use his fists.  It is psychic assault.  I am often guilty with accusing frowns or glances that say silently, “You are an idiot!”  My message is “Be different so I can love you.”

The divergence between the use and misuse of shame lies precisely in grace.  We turn shame into coercion, weaponize it, by anchoring it to conditional acceptance.  I will show you love (sympathy, support, companionship) or withdraw love based on whether you yield to my expectations.  I may even get God on my side, so to speak, spiritually legitimize my demands by arguing that they are actually God’s demands and prove it through reason or scripture or a tangle of both.  But bad methods ruin good goals.  Though God has given us guidelines on how to live in healthy ways, he doesn’t force our hand and never uses love as leverage.  He loves us fully at all times regardless of what we do or don’t do, even at our worst… even when we are unrepentant, he loves us with all his heart.

The shame he built into our bodies is a warning light, not a threat–he tells us what bad things sin will do to us (tear us and our relationships apart), not what bad things he will do to us.  (Of course, in the Old Testament where law prevailed as a system, God seemed to be a punisher to force compliance while grace lingered in the shadows, but then Christ came to reveal the face of God in the full glory of grace.)  God always acts in grace, though grace sometimes is hard and painful rather than pleasant (like setting a broken leg).  He designed shame to wake us, not to coerce us.  When we use shame to drive us to change our behavior, it simply feeds legalism: the idea that if I try hard enough, I can live in such a way as to rise above shame.  God wants shame to drive us to despair in ourselves and turn instead to his grace.  The healthy remedy for shame is always grace, never more effort.  You cannot earn forgiveness, even with godly sorrow; you can only open yourself to it as it is freely given.

And so David and Bathsheba were caught by grace, their attention riveted by a dying newborn and their betrayal and murder called out by a prophet, exposing the shame that leads to salvation.  They were rescued from being lost in the darkness of hidden sin and becoming a tragedy rather than a story of redemption, actually the story of redemption through their son, the Redeemer Jesus, born many generations later.  No sin is too great for grace to resolve into beauty and goodness once it is brought into the light of God.  We avoid the light, thinking that when God sees our failures, he will love us less like others do, but it is our spiritual wounding that draws out his love and concern even more.  He cannot love us less because his love is completely independent of our goodness.  In a miraculous twist, he can even leverage our sin into greater intimacy and spiritual depth, and like Bathsheba, our darkness can be turned into light to show others the way out of the shadows for many generations to come.  Not only hers, but every redemption story of ours is inextricably connected to the redemption story, making us not only part of redemption, but of redemption history.  By receiving his grace, we become channels of God’s redemption for the world.

Posted July 6, 2015 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

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The Emotional Complexity of Father’s Day   Leave a comment

Wherever father’s day is celebrated, it is packed with emotions, sometimes simple and straightforward (at either end of the spectrum), and often a complex swirl of thankfulness, regret, delight, anger, pain and comfort.  Relationships are always complex, wonderful in a hundred ways and awful too because our flawed humanity leaks out on everyone around us and distorts even the good that comes to us from others.  There is no “right” way to feel about any relationship, so do not demand of yourself or others some prescribed emotion.  Today is culturally designated as a time to think of the good in our fathers, and if you are able to do so honestly, then by all means join the festivities.  For those whose heart is not in the celebration, that is okay too.  Be gracious to yourself and others as best you can.

Healthy emotions are mixed emotions–it is okay to laugh over some memory of a loved one whose funeral you are planning and it is okay to be somber at a birthday party, even your own.  Feelings ebb and flow, mingle and separate, clash and fuse. Try to foster a context of safety for your feelings to find a voice within your heart, even if not expressed outwardly.  Giving them a space of their own is especially difficult on occasions when certain feelings are assumed, expected, or even demanded because we have a false notion that feelings must compete and the right one must win and and squash its rival.  Those who are happy feel threatened by sadness in others, those at peace feel threatened by the fearful or angry (and vice versa), and so we try to coerce or barter or cajole them into having feelings that agree with our own (or at least pretending to).  We even do it to our own feelings.

Unfortunately, this process feeds an unhealthy loop–assuming emotions are competitive, we feel threatened by the “wrong” feelings and push for conformity, and in so doing we create even more tension between feelings that could otherwise peacefully coexist, not only within a group, but within a single heart.  Life is complex, people are complex, and so we should expect a complex mix of emotions.

I have many, very deep reasons for being grateful for my father and his impact on my life.  I have issues around that relationship as well, but the very fact that I am honest about those with myself and those close to me gives me the full emotional resources to set those aside for a time and simply celebrate my father, who is a good man, flawed (like all of us) but good.  It is the practice of listening to my own feelings compassionately that builds my emotional security and maturity so that my heart is able to embrace other flawed humans with compassion and understanding.

So today I celebrate with you or grieve with you, whatever your heart needs.  We are in this together, this crazy dance called life.  We often get it wrong, even with the best intentions, and that has to be okay.  Let us give grace to ourselves and to our fathers on this day and find ways to celebrate the broken beauty of who we are.

Posted June 21, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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