Archive for the ‘Growth’ Tag

Organic Spirituality   Leave a comment

All my life I have tried to pursue God and his ways.  I’m just now waking to the possibility that this was working against my very nature.  A rose does not set out each morning doing rose exercises, studying rose botany, planning how best to scale the trellis at its leafy tips. It has within itself the seed of becoming, God has placed it there, and it simply becomes, living out of this true center until it slowly grows into the fulness for which it was designed.

My approach to spiritual growth was far more rational, organized, and disciplined.  I analyzed God into various character traits–patience, discipline, purity (a long list)–and then, seeing that I came up short, I worked to gain those virtues, add them to myself like so many prosthetic attachments.  Instead of understanding my own impatience and what drove it and why and how and discerning the particular shape patience might take were it to grow naturally from my own sanctified perceptions, inclinations, history and personality, I tried to adopt wholesale the patience I saw in others, force it on myself.  But like transplanted organs the body rejects, my soul did not know how to incorporate these foreign traits.

I didn’t realize that the meekness in Jeremiah is dramatically different than the meekness displayed by Moses or David, so I kept trying and failing to squeeze my soul into a shape not my own, find a champion of each virtue and imitate that rendition.  Learning to play another musician’s song is quite different from finding one’s own song, even when they are both acoustic ballads about love.  I can certainly be inspired and instructed by their example, but I must find my own voice.

I always understood Paul as saying, “Be not conformed to this world, but be conformed (to godliness)” and never noticed that his change in verb not only changes the goal, but changes the means to that goal: do not be conformed, but be transformed.  And this is effected not primarily by force of will (discipline), or miracle of faith (prayer and hope), but by a renewed understanding or insight (Romans 12:2).  Surely it takes focus and work to refine who I am and scrape off the accretions of sin that deform my true, God-given self, and it takes faith since I am completely dependent on God’s intervention to bring my soul to fruition, but this process integrates with who I am as a unique creation of God.  It is an affirmation of who I truly am, not a rejection of it.  I am discovering that spiritual growth is about becoming rather than adding, understanding my true self and setting it free into God rather than squeezing it into a virtuous mold.

Posted June 17, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Dreams of Being a Cowboy   Leave a comment

A video on bullying I watched today sparked memories of my own childhood spent running from troublemakers at recess.  Only once was I seriously punched and had to go to the emergency room for stitches (my right eyebrow still has a slight split on the outside corner).   But harassment was constant during gym class and recess–I was pushed, punched, threatened, chased, tripped, mocked.  There were other danger zones as well: the lunch room, the hallway, the breezeway waiting for our school bus, and the bus ride itself was tormenting, bad enough that I started riding my bike the 10-mile round trip to middle school.  Among boys, the only mark of prowess was aggression… and girls were liked for their looks.

Kids reflect the values of a culture with a clarity unobscured by the social camouflage that adults master.  That’s why I like children’s books–bold, plain, and real.  Because of family values, I admired intellect as a boy, but that was the stuff of nerds, not heroes. The lead actors from all my favorite TV shows punched and shot and muscled their way into glory… and they always got the pretty girl (first prize).  Of course, their violence was validated by the justness of their cause, though that cause was usually self-defense, an arguably selfish motive were it not juxtaposed against the villainy of the other.  The “other” was evil, right down to the color of his clothes.

Aside from the cowboys and cops and colonels, we had a few “nice guy” actors, but no one aspired to be Andy Griffith–you liked him but didn’t want to emulate him.  Pacifists were cowards, courage was in the fists.  The hero never picked a fight, but always finished it by beating his opponent into submission. Be it kung fu or fighter jets, we all admired the warrior, not the lover, who was just a wimp if he showed up without his six-shooters.  The ultimate virtue was conquest, not love… even love was gained by conquest.

And so I set about life as a loser determined to fight my way into the trophy circle.  My goals slowly shifted from physical prowess to spiritual prowess, but success was still my path to prove my worth.  I focused all my energy to become a champion for God, which is to say, having a wide impact on others.  Success is just as strong an addiction as gambling, even if you’re not a winner… especially if you’re not a winner.  But unlike other addictions, it reaps praise, not shame, and moral validation, not warning, both from the world at large and from the church itself.

Cultural values that co-opt religious faith are the most pernicious and blinding of our defects.  When church and society link arms, escape is nearly impossible, and far from looking for an exit, us losers are desperate to launch ahead.  Unfortunately, as success grows, it clogs up the opening for grace. Success would have obviated my need for grace, a pitfall of all self-made men, even those who ostensibly credit God.  But grace blocked my chase after success.  It shackled me to loser-hood until I was forced to admit that my accomplishments don’t validate me.  Apparently God doesn’t need my efforts any more than a father needs the help of his 3-year-old to change a tire.  The toddler is not valued because of what he does, but who he is–a son.

Success still holds a little place in the corner of my heart–just in case–sort of like the spot reserved for a Porsche convertible that someone’s rich uncle might give me.  Both daydreams would likely be a burden rather than a blessing.  I trust God’s path for me, and I’m content just to hold his hand… most days anyway.

Posted June 15, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Running from My Feelings   2 comments

“Our inward winters take many forms- failure, betrayal, depression, death. But every one of them, in my experience yields to the same advice. ‘The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.’ Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives. But when we walk directly into them- protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship or inner discipline or spiritual guidance- we can learn what they have to teach us. Then we discover once again that the cycle of the seasons is trustworthy and life-giving, even in the most dismaying season of all.” Parker J. Palmer

Truth. Running from our fears, or even our depression, is not a long term workable solution.  It keeps us trapped.  Palmer even adds the one important caveat.  We can only face fully into our fears or depression to the extent we have sufficient internal and external resources, and since our cupboards are never fully stocked, there are always limitations on what we can fully face and for how long without some reprieve.  It is far more like tacking into the wind than sailing a straight course forward, and at times we simply must let the storm blow us where it will.  Those with meager resources have the least ability to leverage their way forward.  As with our calf muscles, we can overtax and strain our psyches and end up worse off for our excess efforts–more vulnerable and weak than before.  In that sense, it is the overall direction we set that is life-giving, but we must keep close watch on our resources so as to live within our emotional means or we will run a deficit.

I so appreciate the truth Palmer expresses.  I spent most of my life fleeing depression–not in diversions as some do, but in desperately seeking for solutions, cures, answers.  Desperation rarely opens the best way forward, and so I stilted my progress, narrowed my options, scrambled down false turns.  Kimberly taught me to slowly become accepting of my depression, to embrace the feelings and be sympathetic to myself in my suffering, to wait patiently for answers to come in the slow process of deeper self-understanding.

This is not at all the same as “giving-in” to feelings–allowing them to control me and take me where they will, which is a dangerous road to travel.  We seem trapped by a false dichotomy: to either capitulate to our feelings or subdue them.  We see it as a blatant power struggle, and there is no good way for us to respond from that perspective.  Feelings are like a road map–they inform us, they do not control us–and if we fear their power, the solution still lies in understanding them more fully in a self-compassionate way, not in pushing them away in fear or shame. Feelings that are denied have far greater control over us than those which are acknowledged.  They may control us by forcing us into the opposite choice–risk rather than safety, fight rather than flight–but they still control our decisions, only now more obliquely, beyond our awareness, making us far less able to recognize and resist their impact.

We accept our feelings into our lives as friends, not as dictators… or as captives.  How would you compassionately embrace your fearful friend?  You would acknowledge her feeling, show understanding for that feeling, legitimate her feeling as a feeling.  Wise and mature counselors will not try to “fix” the feeling (judge it, correct it, change it).  Feelings are always true and right as feelings.  They tell us something important about ourselves (not necessarily about our situation).  Because emotions are complex, they are often clues rather than direct assertions about our inner world (our anger may mask fear, our pride may cover insecurity).  We must patiently listen and learn over many years to slowly gain fluency in their language, but if we do, a whole world of self-understanding and healthy responses are opened to us.

Posted June 2, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Dangerous Misdiagnoses   2 comments

Monday I was hiking with my doggies in the Blue Ridge Mountains and noticed my neck cramping on one side.  To stretch out the kinks I started rolling and rotating my head, wondering what I’d done to my neck.  And then it dawned on me.  instead of pulling ahead as usual, Mazie and Mitts had fallen in behind me, and as the path was narrow, I held both leashes in one hand.  My right arm swung freely, but my left arm was pulled back by the leads, and over a couple of miles that tension worked its way up to my neck.

I spent decades paying little attention to my body, and so harming it.  I have only learned in the last few years to listen to this complex, integrated structure–I would never have guessed that a sore neck could come from an arm slightly skewed.  When an injury’s throb is felt in a separate body part, it is called “referred pain.” Those are the trickiest to self-diagnose and so misleading that the real problem often escapes us.

During those years I listened no better to my psyche than my body.  I shouted down my feelings and became emotionally deaf, unable to decipher its most rudimentary language. Emotions were to be embraced, vanquished or transmuted according to an accepted moral code.  I thought every feeling was a straightforward response to external stimuli.  My anger was incited by “stupid” drivers.  My anxiety was the result of critical bosses.  My shame was the direct product of my tardiness.  Emotional “referred pain” was not even a speck of consideration… until the conventional interpretations became so convoluted in the telling that even I recognized something was fishy.  They rang false, though I couldn’t detect the crack in the bell.  It was my indecipherable, unrelenting depression that forced me to finally admit my emotional cluelessness and rethink my psychological map.

I discovered that my pride was tangled up with fear, my affection enmeshed with insecurity, and a seeming calm and patience was simply an emotional disconnect to protect myself.  I realized that my anger ignited from inside, not outside, that it was a cover-up for shame, and my shame was grounded in a legalistic denial of grace. It was all so much more complex than I realized, but this self-reflection, softened by grace, opened me to a remarkable level of integrity and clarity and personal growth.  My whole sense of spirituality and relationships was reorganized. I finally had the tools I needed for fundamental transformation instead of the spiritual strictures of a flawed system.

I have been working for years to learn my emotional ABCs.  Slowly I untangled the knots so that patterns stood out in relief and dynamics materialized.  What is the real reason for these feelings?  What leads me to freedom and understanding rather than fear and blindness?  What does my soul need in the way of support?  What pulls it down or picks it up?  I wonder–do any cultures teach their children to be heart-interpreters rather than heart-controllers?

Posted May 4, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Facing My Fears   Leave a comment

“GIT YER DOG OFF MY MAILBOX!”  The angry shout came from 100 yards up the hill, from the shadows of the house, and it slapped me back into awareness from my mental meanderings.  He was pissed that my dog had peed on the wooden pole of his mailbox by the gravel road we were traipsing.  “Sorry!” I called back, but he was not mollified.  “YER LUCKY MY PIT AIN’T LOOSE!” he hollered, a veiled threat to sic his pitbull on us if it happened again.  His anger seemed excessive to me.  Dogs pee on everything, especially anything vertical, and I’m quite certain the neighborhood dogs, all of which run loose, regularly mark every roadside post within miles.  Since my dog Mitts had been piddling for the last 5 miles, his tank was empty, so his lifted leg was entirely for show, but that made no difference to the hothead up the hill.

That was yesterday, and even as I write, the feelings seep back in–fear and defensiveness towards a world where even pastoral, peaceful spots now feel unsafe–and other nameless feelings flow through, shadows that settle in from being unfairly misunderstood, misjudged, belittled, chased off.

Moments before I had been reflecting on my spiritual journey, and many thought streams had unexpectedly merged into a sense of direction for 2015, summed up in the word “courage.”  My 2014 focus was “gentleness,” first to myself and then as an overflow to others, and though the visible changes are small, my outlook has started to shift fundamentally.  Being gentle with myself has given me some emotional resources for choosing courage.

In our culture, courage is a force marshaled against fears, taking a beachhead at first and then slowly conquering more territory.  You bravely take the stage to speak or you ask your overbearing boss for a raise, and gradually you become less fearful and more in control of your life.  But I’ve discovered a very different take on bravery–my real fears are not out in the world so much as in my own soul, and I need courage not to conquer my fears but to embrace them.  In other words, instead of trying to override my fears and silence them, I try to understand them compassionately.  Fears are my friends, not my enemies–they are clamoring to tell me something important about myself which I ignore to my own peril.  My journey has been completely in reverse of the norm–starting out fearless as a young man (because I was in denial), then learning to recognize my fears, and finally growing to welcome those fears as helps along the way.  We are most controlled by the fears we least recognize.

As I trudged, I pondered.  I have been dodging certain fears, leaving them unaddressed until I had enough emotional resources to open myself to feel their punches without crashing my heart, a truce of sorts instead of a lasting peace of mind.  I am finally ready, I thought, to address some of those dark shadows within.

Then that loud, angry shout yanked me back to the present and opened a psychological fork in the road–how should I respond to these feelings?  As I turned out of sight around the bend, I wondered how to pick my way through the mental debris.  Should I try to brush aside his words by changing the subject or argue with him to prove my innocence or castigate myself and resolve to do better?  What internal dialogue will protect my heart when it feels under attack?  And this odd solution came to me: rather than defend myself, I open myself to feel the sting and understand it with self-compassion.  That is the courage I am choosing this year as I support myself with gentleness.

This is the next leg of my journey: to sit with painful and scary feelings, to let them course through my veins and pound in my heart, to let them tell me all they wish to say about my own struggles and wounds and skewed perspectives, about my subconscious self-judgments, crazy expectations, and harsh demands, and to lovingly listen and feel sympathy for a boy that has always tried so desperately hard to find the right way and walk it against all obstacles. I need to gently open myself to feel and understand how this world’s edges cut my soul, to follow the contours of each gash with my fingers and trace its origins from the tender vulnerabilities of my early years.  Wounds need the gentle touch of sun and air to heal.

Posted January 21, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Key Role of Self-Compassion   Leave a comment

The true spiritual journey leads into the depths of our hearts, an excavation, really, since it is a constant breaking through to new levels of realization.  That effort takes great courage in facing the intense fear and pain that have held us back, keeping us blind to our true selves.  Each new layer of self-realization opens wounds that have been hidden safely away by our mind’s defensive strategies, but we must drop our guard and feel the sharp edges of our suffering if we want our bruised hearts to be truly embraced.  The path of growth is strewn with the barbs of truth that pierce our feet each step of our journey home.

Here is where self-compassion rather than self-blame is crucial in working our way through.  Healthy transformation is always grounded in grace.  Nowhere is grace more needed than at this point of freshly acknowledging our brokenness.  This is not avoiding responsibility, but embracing responsibility, since our primary duty at this stage is receiving grace, a bedrock belief that we are loved unconditionally by our heavenly Father.   There will come a time to focus on giving others grace–of understanding and forgiving the wounds they have inflicted–but this is a second step.  We can only give what we have first received.

To give others grace before it has settled into our own hearts is to try to pour water from an empty pitcher.  You will lose sight of your own suffering if you jump too quickly into defending others, which is a reaction forced on you by guilt or obligation rather than a gift offered to others freely from an overflow of grace in your heart.  This shortcut is unsustainable and will lead to a cycle repeated over and over of wounding, reaction, and return to the status quo.  This quick fix is often accompanied by “forgiveness” or compromise, but the underlying issues are never resolved and so they keep returning without leading to deeper mutual understanding and acceptance.  True forgiveness springs from grace, not obligation–ask any child forced to apologize–and grace must first be received before it can be given: “We love because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).

Self-compassion is nothing more than seeing ourselves as God sees us, agreeing with Him that we are deeply and fully and unshakably loved.  When we open to, welcome, embrace, trust, relish this love of God for us, we are living by faith, faith in God’s grace and love.  We live in the reality that we are supremely loveable because God himself declares us to be, and none of our failings makes Him value us less than his own eternal and perfect Son.

But so many Christians fear grace, caution against its freedom, worry that self-love will lead to spiritual neglect or self-indulgence by those who think their screw-ups no longer matter.  In fact they matter even more because the relationship we now damage is one of supreme value and importance to us, our life-sustenance.  If true value comes from God, then our relationship with Him is our vital force.  Imagine a deep-sea diver saying, “Well, now that I know my oxygen comes to me regardless of how I behave, I can cut my own hose and it won’t matter.”  God does not turn off His grace towards us or close His heart to us when we turn from Him–the oxygen keeps flowing–but we can no longer access that vital source.  He wants to grace our relationships, but when we take advantage of others, He is blocked from gracing that relationship until we turn again to His loving way.  When we neglect or belittle others, when we are greedy and demanding, His grace is restricted from flowing into our daily interactions, and life sours around us and in our hearts, which are now being overgrown with the deadly effects of godlessness (having less of God).  Grace is the door into life and relationship with God, not an escape hatch from all that is good and beneficial.  If we seek for life by pushing God and His truth away in “selfishness”, it is rather an act of self-abuse–like a drug fix.  This does not spring from too much self-compassion, but too little; it springs from a doubt in God’s love, not a confidence in it.  Everything that leads us away from the supreme beauty and goodness of God into our own self-destructive way is self-hatred, not self-love.

Posted December 21, 2014 by janathangrace in thoughts

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“You’re Not Listening to Me!”   4 comments

Yesterday Kimberly and I were walking the dogs in our neighborhood.  My brain was stuffed with thoughts that were spilling out everywhere. (This is not as common as you might think since I’m an internal processor.)  Towards the end of my rambling monologue I commented that I was slowly coming to realize people are not very logical.  She responded, “That’s what everybody thinks.  Everybody believes their arguments are more rational than everyone else’s.”  With that short exchange our conversation slid into the ditch.  It is our most familiar, but still unavoidable, conversational pile-up.  We don’t see it coming, we don’t know how to avoid it, and once we’re off the shoulder, we don’t know how to recover.  The best we can manage so far is an autopsy after the talk has crashed and the dust settled.

In short, we each hear the other stating an absolute position that leaves no room for our own perspective.  In this case she heard me saying that I was smarter than everyone else and I heard her saying that everyone is equally logical.  My approach is to try to make some room for my view, in essence saying, “Will you give me this half of the room?  This end?  This little corner?”  It seems to me that I am negotiating for space for my viewpoint, smaller footage with each argument I propose, and after the third or fourth try, I give up, growing silent.  There is not even a cubbyhole in her outlook for my perspective (in this case, that logic is important but underused).  She, of course, hears something entirely different.  For her, every time I give a reason for my view, I am demanding her total capitulation.  It seems to both of us that the other one refuses to yield an inch.  On this occasion I tried to assert, “Logic is very important… logic is kind of important.. logic has some small role to play,” but each time, she hears me giving one more argument for why logic is king and I am his chief officer.

When the topic is minor, we just let it go.  It’s not worth the trouble to sort out.  But when it is a personal issue, touches a core value, or has significant practical implications, we are  too emotionally invested to welcome the opposing viewpoint.  So this conflict pattern that needs a clear-eyed examination arises when the fog is thickest.  Initially we don’t recognize it, but the deeper into the conversation we push, the more emotionally invested we become, so that ironically, the more obvious the situation grows the less possible it becomes to resolve it.

All our standard relational conflicts take this path of growth.  We start to recognize the pattern in hindsight and discuss it.  Then we begin to realize when we are in the middle of it, but we still can’t figure out a solution.  Then we take some baby steps that slowly grow more helpful.  After falling in the same ditch hundreds of times, we find a way to sometimes avoid the ditch, slowly becoming more adept.  We’re still at step one on this particular dynamic.  But we’ll figure it out.  We always do.

Posted October 24, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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