Archive for the ‘Growth’ Tag

Happy Tears   9 comments

name tag“What do you do?” is the lead-off question when you’re introduced: first your name, then job title, because in this society our work defines us, and our productivity determines our worth.  I spent most of my life desperately chasing success to prove my value, and my failure drove me into despair.  So for more than a decade I have been reorienting myself, trying to settle into a worth independent of accomplishment.  It has been painful and frightening and crushingly hard, but God gave me no choice, thwarting my every attempt at meaningful work.  And I think I have finally come to the point that I’m okay with that.  He can impact this world through me or not as He thinks best.ConanTheLibrarian

Over the last dozen years my ambitions have dropped from saving the world as a missionary to saving a city as a pastor to saving an organization as a social worker to….  putting library books in call number order.  Still I was trying to eke out some sense of personal usefulness from my job.  When I was furloughed every Christmas and summer break, my depression deepened  because I didn’t even have that thumb tack on which to hang my value as a human being–my existence was pointless.  Like a drowning man clutching at flotsam, I would gasp in relief when work started back.

Yesterday my forced holiday ended, but for the first time in four years I was not flailing for some scrap of self respect from a dead-end job.  I am grateful for work, I enjoy my colleagues, and I prefer a set schedule, but I no longer feel worthless when I’m jobless.  I seem to have finally crossed a watershed in emotional freedom from this lifelong compulsion to find purpose in work.  This is huge for me.  This has been my most fundamental personal issue, and I’m sure it still has plenty of kick left, but its emotional grip has been loosened.  The arc of this healing has been so gradual that I didn’t even realize it was a benchmark until I wrote this paragraph, and as I read it back to my wife just now, I got all choked up.


Posted January 18, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Rethinking Burnt Toast   4 comments

burnt bagelI burned my bagel in the toaster this morning, but I ate it anyway.  “Waste not, want not” as my mother used to say.  She was constantly tossing out snippets of received wisdom from the past, shaping her life by principles she never stopped to evaluate.  “If the shoe fits, wear it.”  Like Tigger, she bounced through her days with little self-reflection, driven to stay busy without knowing why, making up her mind and changing it again in a flash: “Don’t let the grass grow between your toes!”  Her hands never stopped or paused.  “Make hay while the sun shines,” she’d declare with gusto, and she pulled us into her vortex: “Many hands make light work.”


Introspection II by Helen Burgess

Whether or not we use ready proverbs to frame our worldview, it is still a cliche we’ve settled into, the unseen backdrop of our lives, relationships, and decisions… unless dissonance interrupts.  So my introspective personality, as it found no footing in my family, was forced to forge itself a different path, but my mother’s frugality stuck fast to me, unnoticed, and it is very tenacious even now that I’ve spied it.  It makes me scrimp, snap judge those my mother would consider wasteful, and economize to a silly extent.  I don’t realize how it undermines other far more important values, robs my time and thoughts, and hurts my relationships.  It seems we are all in the salvage business with a lifetime of self-discovery and recovery, of unlearning our many false or skewed or damaging assumptions.  As a start, maybe I should toss my burnt toast.

Posted January 13, 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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A Thin Ribbon of Grace   6 comments

Delayed by confusion, Anne at last flung herself from her seat just as the ski lift lurched into its ascent.  The five foot drop stunned her, and so a kindly hand helped her into a small lodge to recover.  Unfortunately, the kerosene stove inside increased her nausea.  But as she lay there, a whiff of fresh, pine-scented air brushed her face.  It trickled in through the cracked windows just enough to keep her from smothering under the acrid fumes.  She called it “a thin ribbon of grace.”

Berly and I read this Lamott story weeks ago, but Sunday stumbled across her retelling it in a Youtube interview, and this time the phrase popped.  When I am lost and broken and sick to my soul, I want God to fling open the windows of grace, but what I get is barely enough to keep me coherent, like a drowning man who is chucked under his chin just enough to keep his nose above this moment’s wave and then dropped again… like a malnourished child fed a few crumbs above a starvation diet.  Survival grace.  For those of us wishing for life to end, this frayed ribbon of grace seems less like love and more like torture.  Why is God so tightfisted with His goodness as though He’s worried He’ll run short or we’ll fritter it away?  What present consolation can we suck from the ending “happily ever after” if life’s story is “miserable until death.”

But Anne’s phrase whispered across my thoughts, enticing.  Is it enough, this thin ribbon?  I want a bank full of grace to draw on for my needs, but I am only given enough for this moment… sometimes barely enough.  It’s true that I haven’t drowned yet, but every time the finger holding up my chin drops away, I’m sure the next wave will take me under.  After all, I’ve been left spluttering for air many times.  It’s a fact that I haven’t starved, but this is my last bowl of soup, and the cupboards are bare.  Living hand-to-mouth is so precarious, so uncertain, so constricting, whether the shortage is literally financial and physical or the deficit lies deeper still, a hole in the heart.

In the desert the Israelites were completely dependent on God, and in spite of dining on a daily miracle, hunger was always just one day off, for forty years running.  A thousand winters later, not much has changed for the children of God as they prove in their principal prayer: “give us this day our daily bread.”  What is this addiction God has for pocket change allowances?  Surely He doesn’t make us suffer needlessly.  If He is truly a loving God, he must think this arrangement is a real windfall for us.

But as Berly points out, many of God’s children are jobless and friendless, homeless and hungry; some die agonizing deaths.  We are not promised health or happiness or even sanity.  Exactly what does it mean to claim that His grace is sufficient if it is not even sufficient to keep us breathing?  From somewhere the thought drifted into my mind–His grace is sufficient for our hearts, the one thing that matters above all to us.  In spite of life’s miserable suffering, we cannot deny that our hearts have not only survived, but grown.  We are blossoming into the ones God created us to be.  We have faced into our fears and discovered new strength, challenged shame and found love.  We opened our hearts, and truth came in with insight, wisdom, and freedom.

But we are still tormented by depression.  Something seems very wrong with our chosen path when we end up here.  If we follow God as best we know how, should we not find peace, joy, rest, and fulfillment?  Isn’t that what grace looks like?  We want a life plan that works, that makes us feel good, accomplished, confident, whole, and if that’s the goal, our plan is clearly broken.  But we tried other popular strategies, and they gutted our souls.  Perhaps we’ve been measuring grace by the wrong scale.  If our personal growth is the better gauge, then God has been truly lavish towards us, and if it comes to us through pain, we will welcome it gratefully.  He sends a thin ribbon of consolation to keep our hearts from breaking, but his grace is not limited to this meager thread.  His grace towards us has proven to be a river, not a ribbon, even if we cannot feel it or understand it.

Posted May 1, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Care for the Wounded Self   5 comments


Forgiveness 3: Postponing Blame

“Why can’t we learn our spiritual lessons over a box of chocolates instead of through suffering?” a friend once asked me.  Unfortunately this fallen world is thick with pain, especially relational pain, but there’s a flower in the nettles: it’s the hard stuff that grows me personally in patience and courage, and it’s the tough stuff that deepens and strengthens my friendships.  When we brush up against others, our tender nerves jangle us alert to something in our interaction that needs tending.

If I feel the arrows, I snatch up my shield to defend myself, which is natural and healthy—self-protection by flight or fight—but it hurts me if I use that to dodge rather than pursue growth in myself and my relationships.  My emotions yelp when some wound needs my compassionate attention, a wound that may be decades old.  My friend (or enemy) may be the occasion for my pain without being the cause of it.  Her soft words may strike against a sharp emotional edge in my past.  On the other hand, her innocence does not invalidate my pain.  My feelings are what they are regardless of her role.  They carry within them their own legitimacy and don’t need outside validation.  They speak the truth, not about her but about me, about the cuts and bruises on my soul.


When I am hurt in some interaction, I need to slow down and pay attention to the ache, and I need to provide enough emotional space to tend to my injury.  Sometimes, at least initially, this may get messy for the relationship.  I may withdraw for a time or push back, but the goal in padding my emotions is not to avoid, but to embrace this opportunity of self-discovery.  So when I have cleared enough emotional room, I slowly disentangle my pain from her actions and take ownership of my pain.  I do not mean that I blame myself for my pain! If I barge accusingly into my soul, it will duck for cover.  The wounded need compassion, not condemnation.  By taking ownership I mean identifying the agitating source inside me and not outside me (so I can take charge of the healing process).  The diagnosis starts with a caring “Why?”  Why do I feel bad, especially if my feelings are more intense than others would be in this situation.  If I try to fix the relationship before I understand my own heart, things are apt to get more twisted.


I am slowly learning, but I still habitually jump past this necessary groundwork when I feel stung.  I quickly assume blame—either he’s at fault for hurting me or I’m at fault for feeling hurt.  But if I blacken the other guy in order to justify my feelings or in order to get him to take responsibility, I overlook what my wincing heart is telling me about my own wounds and need for support, compassion, and healing.  I’m not suggesting that we should deny our feelings about the other person.  That anger, doubt, and fear is the very emotion I must identify, feel, and discern, but I make sense of my feelings by listening to them with gentle care, not by blaming the other fellow.

When I make the other person’s behavior the focus of my attention, I undermine my own self-support, even when he is clearly at fault.  He has leveraged power against me by his hurtful acts, but if I continue to focus on what he’s done, I keep myself his prisoner.  Even if I induce him to apologize and make amends so that I feel better, I will be worse off for it because my good feelings are still dependent on his response, and so I am still under his power.  Whenever I make someone else responsible for my feelings, I lose control of my own emotional life.

I don’t mean to suggest that I have to sort out my own stuff by myself.  We often need the help of a friend who knows us well and accepts us as we are… not someone to “side” with us against the other, but someone who helps us understand ourselves better.  If the issue is not a powder keg, then I may be able to talk it through with the person who upset me, but the focus should really be on discerning my own wounds and needs, not on venting or “correcting” the other person.  The apology I want so much to hear may dull the sting but will not heal the lesions in my heart.  My heart needs comfort, acceptance, embrace—love that is enduring, unquenchable, unconditional, inescapable, unbridled, and passionate.


The Tarnished Golden Rule   5 comments

On my way to work tonight I turned from our winding, unlit street onto Hawkins Mill Rd, and an oncoming car flashed its brights.  I looked down, saw the blue square on my dash, and flicked off my high-beams while responding with a surprised, “Oh, thanks!” to no one in particular.  My mind flipped back two nights to our drive home from a school play.  The guy behind me had on his brights, too intense even for the night-time position of my rear-view mirror, so I shoved it up against the roof and leaned right to avoid the glare in my side mirror.  In less than a mile I was so irritated I wanted to pull off, get behind him, and power up my highs… just to teach him a lesson.  I didn’t mention this to Kimberly.



scales of justice

My grace period for dumb driving is short.  If the nuisance behind me had dropped his floods within a few blocks, I would have been grateful; within a quarter-mile, my “thank you” would have been sarcastic; after that, the dumb stamp would stick fast.  Notice that I am even-handed.  If I had kept my highs on tonight for another 15 seconds or a second flicker-reminder, I would have said, “Oh, sorry!” instead of “Oh, thanks!”  And if I accidentally went a mile as a high-beam tailgater, I would have slapped my forehead with an idiot label.  My good Christian conscience insists that I treat everyone equal before the law.  It’s the golden rule in reverse: I only disparage others to the extent I disparage myself.  Perhaps we could call it the iron rule.

Kimberly likes to keep things fair too, but her scales are those of grace rather than justice.  She sees mistakes as a daily, inevitable occurrence and wants us all to live in acceptance of one another’s shortcomings.  Wow, I think, no societal norms, no expectations, no standards?  Ignore the stop signs and traffic lights; it’s every man for himself.  I’m going to need an SUV.  No, she says, just lowered expectations…  sometimes people are late for meetings or forget to return a phone call or leave their high beams on, and that is okay.  No one shoots 100% of their free-throws (she didn’t actually use the b-ball analogy).  I agree with her.  So how do I reach this new high standard of grace?  After all, a 50-year rut is not overcome quickly, even by a perfectionist… especially by a perfectionist… or maybe ever by a perfectionist.  Now that I think about it, perfectionism seems to have a Teflon grip on grace–the harder I squeeze, the quicker it squirts away.  Grace falls into the open hand of acceptance  It’s a gift, not a conquest.

metal puzzleSuch wise sounding words, but what do they mean?  Like those twisted metal puzzles I got as a kid–it looks simple, but I don’t see how to solve it.  I can either work at being more gracious or not work at being gracious.  So I set goals and standards and work hard to be nice and patient and accepting.  Now I have a new standard by which to judge myself and others–instead of criticizing the late and forgetful, I criticize the impatient and demanding.  Wait, something went wrong.  So I stop working at it and just keep living as I’ve always lived, as a curmudgeon… hmm.  Why can’t my spiritual journey be as uncomplicated as everyone else’s seems to be?  I’ve  sorted out this grace puzzle before, but it seems I have to re-learn it every time I stumble on another facet of my deep-seated legalism.  So here we go again.

Posted March 5, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal

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Spiritual Virtigo   14 comments

confusion boxMy mother in her quirky way used to make us Christmas gifts of various kinds.  This  Christmas I noticed my dad is still using a bathrobe she made for him 30 years ago.  She must have made it out of upholstery material, because it is soft and warm on the outside and stiff and scratchy on the skin-side.  My older brother David once unwrapped a gift from her and responded graciously, “I love it!  What is it?”  Indecipherable love.  God’s been putting together a special gift for me this year as a resource for my spiritual growth, and it looks like a box full of confusion, without an instruction manual.   God, you know I’m already depressed, right?  What the heck do I do with this?

Hundreds of years ago St. John of the Cross descended into “the dark night of the soul” and left a consoling account for those who followed.  The Christian psychiatrist Gerald May describes his own experience of it:

[This spirit of virtigo] seems specifically designed for people like me, people who refuse to relinquish the idea that if only I could understand things, I could make them right.  Having lost the old willpower and its satisfactions, we desperately try to figure out where we have gone astray.  “What’s happening here?  Where have I gone wrong?  Maybe my problem is this… No, maybe it’s that… Perhaps I should try this… Or that….”

Every effort at soul-diagnosis and cure fails.  We are left in the dark.  And that is for our salvation, May says: “Sooner or later, there is nothing left to do but give up.  And that is precisely the point, the purpose of the ‘dizzy spirit.’  In each relinquishment… reliance upon God is deepened.”   I’ve been mapquesting God for directions to my soul’s healing and taking every turn He signaled.  Apparently I’m in the Slough of Despond not from getting confused and careening off the road, but from following His bullet points.  He drove me straight into the bog.



There are some advantages of sinking into the quagmire.  No worries about getting lost if you’re already there.  No wrong turns to make if you can’t move.  No real expectations to fail if there are no goals.  If it’s God’s move; all I can do is wait… and trust.  That’s always the tough part, especially for us hard-working, self-reliant types.  “Be still and know that I am God” is a much deeper concept than I realized–not simply self control in quieting myself, but learning to patiently accept God’s time-outs for my soul, letting something work which I cannot see or measure and over which I have no control.  Who knew being out of control was a sign of spiritual progress?

boy and teddy

Posted February 1, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal

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Escaping The Vicious Cycle   12 comments

Usually when I am absent from this blog for a while it indicates that I’m fighting to keep my head above the water.  For the last several weeks, melancholy has been dragging down my spirit.  I think I am beginning to understand the cycle.  Many folks suppose that depression comes from current external circumstances.  Certainly there are trigger situations that fire up an emotion, but if the emotion is more than brief and reactive, if it hangs on for some time, then something else is at work.  The feelings were awakened by the situation, but they are being powered by old, deep wounds of the heart.  A  pinprick will make little effect on a flat balloon; it is the balloon packed with the tension of air pressure which the needle will explode.  The power is from the balloon, not from the needle.  My melancholy comes from within, not from without.  It is my soul purging the muck from within.

The balloon analogy would suggest that all melancholy is from a single source, a single wound, but I have discovered countless wounds  in my own soul, a multilayered mosaic of pain.  It is a web of entanglements, and I can only work on a bit of it at a time.  Thankfully, life seems to bring these to my attention consecutively, activating the same emotional struggle repeatedly and so giving me plenty of opportunity to work through the issue involved before moving on to the next concern.  I say “life” because it is the stimulating events that activate the feelings, but I am realizing now it is my own soul that directs the progress.  I cannot reach the feelings below and behind until I have unpacked the ones above and in front of them.  My issues seem to come in layers, and a fear cannot be identified (for instance) until the anger or defensiveness covering it has been understood and worked through.

Unfortunately, I can’t figure out the basis of my current melancholy.  It has been very disheartening.  But even as I write, I am realizing a pattern.  When a new emotionally charged issue crops up, I cannot sort it out easily.  It has been silenced for so long that it takes time for it to develop a clear voice… or I could say that because the sound is new, my soul does not recognize the language yet.  The melancholy feels so repetitive, the same old misery cropping up again, stuck in an endless repeat cycle.

But the truth is quite different–as I work through each issue, it really does slowly heal and the next wave of depression arises from a different wound that also needs the healing touch of grace.  Perhaps I will never reach the end of this progressive redemption, in which case my depression will be life-long, but it is a great encouragement to know that I am on a path of hope and healing and not trapped in an inescapable morass.

That thought gives me the patience and hope to deal with my present depression.  It is not my failure or stupidity that blocks me from quickly identifying the source of my depression, and it is not a meaningless melancholy, suffering without purpose or benefit.  My soul is doing its vital work, and it will just take time to come to more clarity and resolution.  I have hope again.  Thanks for being there to listen!

Posted May 12, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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God’s Love Letters #3   Leave a comment

Matthew 1:2

“To Abraham was born Isaac.”

Those five words are packed with dramatic history.  The first seed in the family tree of salvation was barren.  I think I would have written it, “To Abraham….  was……. born…………….Isaac.  Abram had reached the end of a century with no son by his wife.  He is known as the Father of faith, the Father of the nation of Israel.  His very name meant father, from the Hebrew Ab, and if this were not enough, God renamed him Abraham, father of a multitude!   No wonder he and Sarah laughed, though it was a bitter chuckle I’m sure.

God does not set his watch by the earth’s revolutions.  He is unhurried, sometimes maddeningly slow.  “Patience” is one of the major Old Testament virtues, and it is not primarily an exhortation to longsuffering with our fellow men, but with our God!  That is why it is often used as a synonym for faith.  We usually think of faith as the courage to confront great odds, when in fact, it refers more often to doing nothing at all, to simply waiting on God to act.  For most of us the second takes far more faith than the first, and far longer faith.  It is not God who is impatient with our progress, but we who are impatient with His.  We cry, “How long, O Lord?!” and he says, “Trust Me. Wait.”  Especially in our hurried day, slow is a 4-letter word.  I wonder if we have lost our peace because it couldn’t keep up with our quick pace.

This is a wonderful word of grace to those of us who fear that God is disappointed, tapping his foot in impatience till we get it right.  It is the direction we are going rather than the length of our stride which keeps us in step with God.  He is not waiting for us to catch up, running after him with our little legs.  He is here for the relationship, not for the performance.  He wants the journey to be full rather than the destination to be reached quickly.  Slow is a word rich with peace, wisdom, and power.

Posted April 11, 2012 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

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God’s Love Letters #2   6 comments

Matthew 1:1  The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:

 Both Abraham and David understood God’s plan as universal rather than solely Jewish (as the calling of each clearly states).  Therefore, this is the history, salvation history, of the world, not just of one small nation.  Both men are seen here primarily as avenues of salvation rather than centers of political control.  Jesus, being the denouement, becomes the lens of interpretation for all of history.  He gives to both Abraham and David their historical and spiritual meaning, so, as the first verse states, this family tree is about Jesus, not just (for example) a rehearsing of Jewish history.  The history of the world (and of Israel) can only be understood by seeing all through the person and work of Jesus.  He is the defining point of history.

 Even though the focus is entirely on Jesus, it is not “the record of Jesus,” unconnected to history, as though God let the world wander on its own and then finally sent a Savior.  The whole history is part of a closely laid plan from the beginning of time, the beginning of man and his fall, the beginning of Israel.  It is the record of the genealogy of Jesus.  History—factual events that really occurred—is fundamental to the Christian faith.  Existentialism, much as I like it, tries to de-contextualize Jesus and personal faith, but faith must always be firmly rooted in our reality and past.  Theology, as much as each individual life, cannot begin in the middle in dismissal of the past. 


We are not controlled by our past, but we are at every point a direct outgrowth of our past (though every present moment is an opportunity for re-directing our future history).  Every step of a journey takes you to a very specific location.  You can change direction at any point, even radically, but you cannot change the previous steps taken which have brought you to this place.  If you have walked to Central Park, you cannot take your next step from Times Square, you can only take your next step in that direction.  Even the greatest redirection in life, spiritual regeneration, does not suddenly change your personality, biology, total sum of a lifetime of thoughts, family and friends, skills and talents, likes and dislikes, or even your character.  It gives the power to change in ways never before possible, and it begins to change everything, but we all start that journey with the first step.

It is because every present moment is so weighted by our past that it takes a lifetime and more to be restored to the persons we are meant to be.  You cannot wake up tomorrow and live as though you had no past or precedent… even if you had amnesia.  Who you are is a continuous flow, not disconnected states of being.  Some truths can have profound impact on the flow of our lives, but being transformed by a given truth is a process.  This is very frustrating for many of us.  It all seems to take so long, especially when the embedded lies are still wounding us and our relationships.  But this forces us to fall back on grace for ourselves as well as for one another.  The quality of our relationships is not determined by our goodness (thankfully), or even our maturity, but by grace to us, in us, through us.  And the source of this grace is Jesus who is just as much a part of our life’s history as he was of Jewish history.

Posted March 22, 2012 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

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