Archive for the ‘relationship’ Tag

The Self Made Man Deflects Grace   1 comment

We Americans are strikingly individualistic, even inventing self-contradictory proverbs to make our point.  “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” we say as though sheer effort can somehow overturn the law of gravity.   This outlook even molds our view of spirituality, which we see as something personal and private, between me and God.  We turn what is quintessentially a collective, integrated, synergistic  venture–the church–into a gathering of individuals, largely disconnected personally.  Henry doesn’t know that John’s marriage is crumbling or that Karen’s fifth grader is desperately struggling with depression.

This individualistic mindset is especially detrimental to grace.  Grace, like patty-cakes, is not something we can do on our own.  It is not something we “claim,” but something we are given… there must be another to offer us grace.  Gifts are never earned or won or conquered or they would cease to be gifts.  It is true that all grace originates with God, but his primary means of delivering that grace to us is through people.  We are all bearers of his light of grace, sharing our small, flickering flame with those whose wick has whiffed out.  God came down to us once in flesh that could touch and hear and comfort us, but that was 2000 years ago, and since then, his body has taken on the form of our fellow humans.

This it at once a great responsibility and an amazing privilege–to be the voice and hands and heart of God to our fellows, and them to us.  None of us do it perfectly, perhaps not even particularly well, but we each have an indispensable role to play in the redemptive journey we are all on together.  We depend on each other for our core heart needs to be met, and we suffer deeply when we cannot connect in mutually supportive relationships.  Failing those redemptive relationships, we must do our best to welcome with hope those small tastes of it, the little gestures of goodwill that come our way.

Posted June 26, 2017 by janathangrace in thoughts

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The Rare Gift of Loving Well   Leave a comment

At my dad’s funeral, my sister Amy shared how dad planned great trips for his children and grandchildren, taking them on real adventures that created memories for a lifetime.  Pop took me on a trip to Washington D.C. when I was twelve, and it was truly memorable. For Amy, this “extravagant love” was the epitome of her recollections of a loving father.

Yet true love may not show itself in extravagant gestures or great sacrifices.  Sometimes the power and glory of love infuses the mundane.  In fact, the grand display can easily be a cover to hide our unwillingness to love as we should.  There are foolish and useless sacrifices… even selfish sacrifices.  A mom can pay dearly to send her boy to college in an effort to run from the shame of her own inadequacy.  A father can give everything up to make his son a great athlete.. but is this love for himself or his son?   The ultimate sacrifice of true love is not in giving to the other, but in receiving them into our hearts, inviting them in to reveal their real selves, delighting in their oddness and mystery, allowing them to shape the very direction of our soul’s growth.

We tend to be so self-oriented that we equate our view with what is normal and right, even reading Scripture with that lense.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” does not mean that we treat others as copies of ourselves, assuming that what pleases or saddens us, what excites or frustrates us is the same for them.  Each of us is unique in our experiences and perceptions.  True love is not simply making room for the differences of others, but valuing those differences, trying to see and understand the world as they see it, gaining a new perspective and value system and appreciation for life that we did not have before.  I cannot truly love without being personally transformed by it.

This is especially difficult for parents because they have responsibility for teaching and training a child, helping them mature into kind, insightful, responsible adults.  But if the child is not given the freedom and encouragement to find out who they really are apart from, in distinction from, in contrast to their parents, then their lives will be hollowed out, learning good behavior but divorced from their own hearts.  Is a parent able to learn profound truths from their little ones, a new outlook on the world, a new way of being?  A real relationship in contrast to a coercive one empowers each other’s uniquenesses, especially when those differences are a source of conflict since those are the secret keys to unlock our own spiritual insight and growth.

The beauty and glory of true love is that it enriches the giver far more than the recipient.  It is the pathway to our own daily salvation.

Posted August 3, 2016 by janathangrace in thoughts

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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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My Wise Wife   3 comments

Kimberly spoke at length with a friend today by phone and afterwards sent her an email.  I found the email so insightful, I wanted to let you in on it:

I thought I’d share the things I was reminded of during our conversation today:
1.  Growth doesn’t offer immediate rewards in terms of good feelings. In fact, it usually feels worse at first! Humans don’t like going into unknown territory, especially areas they’ve been avoiding their whole lives! So it feels bad at first, which makes us think we are doing something wrong. But be encouraged. Difficult feelings don’t mean bad things are happening. Growth is very challenging to our comfort levels, and often other people don’t like it because they are comfortable with the old ways, too.  Which leads us to #2.
2. Being a good Christian doesn’t mean everyone will always be happy with us.  We do have to be responsible, and that means for our own well being as well as others. We cannot always choose to make others happy over ourselves. That is a way to create toxic and dysfunctional relationships that don’t honor God…but instead make others walk all over you and become selfish because they always get what they want. God doesn’t want us to enable others, but often asks us to challenge them by being honest about our own needs. Then it offers them the chance to grow by having to think about being more generous themselves!
3.  Anxiety usually means we are entering new emotional territory. We all have fear and times of being insecure, but when anxiety becomes a regular and strong experience, it does mean something new is happening and it is so important to learn what it is and nurture the growth aspect. But again, anxiety doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong. It actually means your spirit is open in a new way that makes something new possible. We aren’t anxious when we are doing the same old comfortable thing. So think of it as being pregnant with new life. Anxiety…the “labor pains” of growth… comes when we are ready to give new life to something in us.  Something is trying to get born…like labor pains…and it hurts! So we need to go with the labor pain and encourage it  to come. In your case now, I think that is being willing to make a decision that others aren’t happy about (being willing to choose your own needs even when you know someone else won’t like it) and also allowing for grace when something you decide turns out to have a negative impact on people you love.  Yikes! Hard stuff!
These are all my own issues, also! I am still trying to get more comfortable with the idea of challenging others rather than always trying to make them happy. Challenge is a part of love, we need to remember. People need the chance to make better choices, to become better than they are by coming up against the needs of others. They do need comfort, too, which you and I are good at… but our growth area is challenge.

Posted April 25, 2016 by janathangrace in Guests

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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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Saved by Our Differences   5 comments

In case you haven’t noticed, my wife and I are different.  She prefers being nice and I prefer being blunt.  She likes the familiar, I like the novel.  I like competition, she likes cooperation.  She wants to plan ahead with lots of cushion for mishaps, I want to postpone decisions way past their due date.  We aren’t completely different: we both like eating on the sofa instead of at the kitchen table, me with a pile of spicy, fruity, sweet and salty foods and her with bland food groups neatly separated into equal shares on her plate and eaten proportionally throughout, washed down with water… her with a dainty napkin and me with a protective towel (from her) which ends up scrunching down between the seat and arm while food spills on my shirt and pants. and sometimes on the couch. The dogs follow her back into the kitchen for the fat and gristle they won’t find left on my plate.  While she’s on her second bite, I’ve finished my dinner, burning my mouth on food I can’t wait to cool… unless I’m in the middle of a project and eat dinner 3 hours late, in which case we don’t eat together (given all her promptitude), but we both eat on the sofa (which was my point).
… unless I eat without a plate while leaning over the sink.  Hey, it prevents food stains!

So like most couples we have our similarities and differences, and the differences tend to cause problems, like when we went phone shopping this week.  We finally caved to the pressure of buying smart phones since Kimberly’s work situation seems to require it.  We’ve been talking about it for a few months and Kimberly had marked her mental calendar with a personal deadline, mentioning the expectation now and again so we would be on the same page.  Same page, different books.  Finally the time had come and I wasn’t ready–I was still in volume 1 “Thinking About Being Ready to Start to Plan for New Phones” and she was finished with volume 2 “Making a Decision About Which Phone to Buy” and was now on the last page of volume 3 “Buying a Phone.”

You know the whole thing about my postponing decisions for the greater good?  Well this goes into overdrive when it involves spending money.  The longer you can hobble along without spending cash, the better off you are–the lazy man’s savings account.  I’m all for quality of life improvements as long as they’re free–who needs to fix a leaky roof as long as you have pots to catch the trickles?  Being a default foot-dragger for any decision, I become a butt-dragger over money, a sit-down protester with placards shouting “Just Say No!”  As I explained the conflicting viewpoints to my wife, “Every day delayed is a victory for me but a defeat for you.”  She came home with a smart phone.  I’m sticking with my same dumb phone, even though I’ve hated it for two years.  How can you argue with free?

Procrastination requires no thought.  Thoughtlessness is actually rewarded because you win the game effortlessly, avoiding the stress of decision-making while accumulating points for not spending resources needlessly.  But it has finally dawned on me after eight years of marriage that what works under sole proprietorship does not work in a partnership.  Now when I leave a matter undecided, it does not prolong my freedom to choose, but forfeits that choice to Kimberly.  She is going to cure me of my procrastination without even trying, by just being herself in this relationship.  And that life lesson is free–who can argue with that?

Posted January 14, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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