Archive for the ‘relationship’ Tag

Why Worship Scares Me   Leave a comment

It was the last straw.  Pastor Rick had already cancelled the men’s group, just because, and it was the only reason I was attending his church, the one touch of real grace.  Without that solace, I found myself struggling to survive the Sunday service, trying to keep my soul intact under a less than gentle preacher.  Then last month he cried out, “I can’t STAND negative people!  I won’t have anything to do with them!”  That flash of accidental irony pushed me out the door.  I can’t listen to a preacher who hates others, publicly, in a sermon… especially when his contempt may be directed at depressives like me.  That was not a slip of his tongue, like dropping an F-bomb, but a slip of his mindset spilling out in the open, a thought so comfortable that he didn’t flinch to hear himself say it, out loud, in the pulpit.  Perhaps I’m too sensitive… but if so, I need to stand up for that vulnerable part of myself.

This morning I sat in a different worship service and felt the singing stir my emotions, but I ducked tightly inside myself like a threatened turtle.  In the stadium or theater, my emotions splash out with abandon, so why does it feel unsafe in church? Because my feelings about basketball are incidental, but my feelings about God are deep and core and private.  In the genteel South of my upbringing, only real friends were invited from the living room into the kitchen, but God alone got into the bedroom.  Shared intimacy requires safety, because the deeper in you go, the more power you wield for good or harm.

I realize that many folks have a public persona to protect their true hearts from danger: polite banter, chumminess, faux cheerfulness and interest.  They invite you so warmly into the yard in order to divert you from the house.  But I was born with a glass facade–you can see everything from the yard.  If I don’t feel safe with you, I will give you a tight smile and a polite nod before averting my eyes because I’m no good at using politeness as a shield.  I can go for about three sentences before tripping into a genuine heart issue.

However, the real vulnerability for me comes not from reporting about my feelings, but actually showing my feelings.  I can emotionally keep folks at arms length while talking all about my feelings, but to express my feelings directly is the real risk, allowing them to react to my heart rather than my words and thoughts, which are my own protective layer against the harshness of others.  For me intellectual validity has always been an escape, but emotional validity a pitfall.  If you invalidate my ideas, I made a mistake, but if you invalidate my emotions, I AM a mistake.  Showing my feelings invites you into my heart, and once you’re inside, I’m no longer safe.  A new church is a new challenge emotionally, especially for those of us who aren’t good at shallow connections.

Posted July 13, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Killing Me Softly   1 comment

This afternoon Kimberly and I were listening to an NPR Fresh Air interview of musician Sam Baker.  He was the victim of a bombing in Peru by the communist group Shining Path, which prompted one of his striking lyrics: ‘Everyone is at the mercy of another one’s dream.’  Yes, we daydream of weddings and families, homes and careers, but our plans collide:  mother and daughter over weddings, husband and wife over child-rearing, homeowner and banker over late mortgage payments.  If we can’t agree over a music station driving to Walmart or where to hang wet towels, how can we compromise our deepest, longest held dreams.  Must I abandon my dreams to fulfill yours or do we each halve our hopes?  Does relationship shrivel potential?

Group goals differ from personal goals, and each has advantages and disadvantages over the other.  Choosing relationship changes dreams, but if we are innately social beings, then purely individual plans are misguided and incomplete.  We can only be our true, whole selves and fulfill our potential within the context of relationship.  It is in togetherness that our richest dreams are shaped.  With God’s help even difficult relationships can enhance our journey; we can turn the barricades thrown up by our enemies into stairsteps to the stars, just as Sam’s devastating injuries gave him a new and better purpose, to write songs on albums titled Mercy and Say Grace.  I want to live in such a way that those who cross my path, even briefly, find help on their way rather than hindrance, encouragement rather than pain.

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After the interview I told Kimberly I like NPR anchors.  They are nice people.  Even when they disagree with their guests, they are polite and respectful.  On his website, Sam reflected about his interaction with (NPR’s) Terry Gross, “I talked to her last week in Philadelphia at WHYY.  I am a long time listener and a fan and was nervous (and a bit intimidated) to talk with her.  She is gracious and charming and I am deeply grateful.”  Kimberly replied to me, “Those gentle people are the only ones I want as friends.”  I said, “That’s funny because you didn’t marry one!”   Mind you, I try to be gentle.  I’m just not very good at it, like a lumberjack with a bone china teacup, and I often feel deeply flawed as a human being for not being nicer.  So why would Kimberly choose me?

We’ve had this discussion many times.  In spite of warming up to nice, she keeps choosing real instead, because (as it turns out) you can’t really have both–no one can always be sweet and still genuine.  When we let our insides out, the shadows appear.  Kimberly was raised on nice, and didn’t discover her anger until she met me.  She fearfully buried that part deep inside from everyone, even herself, and it was killing her.  The folks who keep the ugly locked inside not only hurt themselves, but short-circuit their relationships.  If I trust you only with what’s admirable, then you don’t know me and can’t love me for who I am.  To truly connect at the heart level, we have to share more than happiness.  As it turns out, I’m very good at real, both in being vulnerable and accepting others in their vulnerabilities, and that is what Kimberly needs most deeply.  When she committed to our relationship, she gave up on her safe, carefully crafted dream and woke up to a reality far better.

Some dreams are in fatal conflict, and pursuing them tears everyone down.  Surprisingly, fairytale endings often fit this mold because they are unrealistic, delusive, and usually selfish, and they depend on everyone involved having precisely the same unchanging vision.  Trust me, after the credits roll, the sheen of Prince Charming dulls quickly as he wipes his mouth on the kitchen towel and forgets to replace the TP roll, and if Cinderella enforces her Hollywood dream, everyone else is going to be living a nightmare pasted over with smiles.  May we all learn to dream together, to find the richest, fullest expression of ourselves in the symphony of relationship.

Go in peace, go in kindness,
go in love, go in faith.
Leave the day, the day behind us. Day is done.
Go in grace. Let us go into the dark, not afraid, not alone.
Let us hope by some good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.

–Sam Baker–

Somebody May Need This Today   2 comments

For 18 years now I have been struggling with depression.  It gets worse or better suddenly and without reason for unpredictable periods of time.  My latest downturn came in winter.  I’ve tried so many different strategies to lift my spirits, pushing myself into things I’d rather avoid, but the fixes never hold.  The last few days have been crushing.  For two nights running, I bunkered down in my office instead of sitting at the reference desk, coming out only when someone needed my help.

Yesterday Berly emailed me a link to a TED Talk video about community, and I watched it this afternoon.  It was very touching, especially the story of a crippled elephant cared for by her herd.  Like that elephant I am broken, but in ways no one can see.  My depression is far more debilitating to my life than a wheelchair would be.  But that 15 minutes shared by a South African storyteller sang some relief into my tortured day.  It made me think that maybe I can make a small difference for one person by sharing life on this blog, perhaps a spark of connection, a sense that you are not alone in your struggle.  I don’t need to be clever or poetic or memorable.  Just being myself, sharing my little scraps of hope and discovery, struggle and pain, may lift someone’s flagging soul, even for an hour.

May we somehow, across the distances, touch one another with compassion and understanding and find a little relief in our shared stories.

Posted April 17, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Scary Road of Grace   2 comments

Some of my flaws are more fundamental than others, more pervasive and enmeshed, more demanding and persistent, more hidden and stubborn, like my deep rooted legalism.  If I voiced my intentions, I would say I’m a recovering legalist, but my progress seems so glacial that that might be unfairly congratulatory, like a daily drinker claiming to be a recovering alcoholic.  As I think about it more, I really have improved a great deal over the years, but all that thrust has not lifted me above its gravitational drag.  Legalism remains my default in so many situations, a judgmental sinkhole out of which I must crawl, talking down my critical reaction to others.  Trying to be gracious is a very long way from actually being gracious.

My soul is resistant to giving grace because it makes me feel so vulnerable.  In a disagreement, if I can dismiss them as being stupid or unbiblical or biased, then I don’t have to give any weight to their idea, which threatens my own perspective, a perspective around which I have built a safe world for myself.  If I label them untrustworthy, I can justify my suspicions of them and guard my heart against their potential betrayal.  If I mark them as selfish, I can depend wholly on myself… for fear they will refuse my request for help and so prove I am not worth helping.  It threatens me at my core.  As C. S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.”  A closed heart is a safe heart.  Thinking generously of others, trusting them, and opening my heart to them is dangerous.  Giving grace opens me up to assault from every quarter.

bird-in-a-gentle-handLiving in a world full of potential aggressors is frightening and lonely, so I am drawn to nice people, safe people, people like my wife.  They have helped me slowly build trust, creep towards vulnerability, discover genuine connection.  Once I develop a close relationship, I find that grace flows naturally… until I feel threatened.  That is when my grace muscle is stretched as I claim grace firmly enough to support myself and then extend it to the one challenging me. Berly has been the perfect companion for this journey into fear and grace.

Posted February 28, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Valentine’s Day for Depressives   5 comments

On Valentine’s Day while Kimberly was at the doctor’s, I stomped my heart out on our front lawn to surprise her.

snow valentine's

It was spontaneous, with little forethought, because I love my wife and want to express it, but when I am bowed down with depression, my energy is used up on today’s survival, not tomorrow’s plans.   This is how depression often plays out in a committed relationship–with what little energy we have, we give, and we appreciate the gift, however small.  It may look meager and haphazard, and to be honest, sometimes it feels that way, but in a cold world with thin blankets what we need most is a close friend.

The substructure of our relationship is good, very good, but the frills are often missing.  Far from being a problem, this is a sign of our marriage’s strength.  Many couples count on the frills to smooth over their stresses.  To mollify an angry outburst, he brings home a bouquet or she whips up a banquet instead of sorting through their feelings with empathy and honesty.  They’ve tried that and it doesn’t work.  They begin with “Let me be honest,” and it goes downhill from there.  So they opt for the smooth-over.  But when frills become the primary language of love, flubbing it can threaten the relationship.

Depression strips Kimberly and me of many of these emotional bonuses, so we cannot use them as a substitute for the honest, hard work of sorting out our differing views, feelings, and thoughts.  Of necessity we learn to make room for one another’s weaknesses and limitations, trust one another’s hearts, accept one another’s efforts.  Without frills to fall back on, our relationship becomes deeply grounded, and our small offerings of love become far more meaningful.

The first thing Kimberly saw each morning as she left for work last week was the heart I stamped out in the snow.  And for her it was not just a romantic gesture, but a symbol for what beats behind the image, a heart she knows intimately and feels safe in because she courageously shares her true self and is embraced for who she is.  Hallmark and Whitman’s can never compete with that.

Posted February 25, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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No Easy Way To Love   6 comments

I was a 45-year-old bachelor when I started dating Kimberly, and my friends, assuming I was girl-dumb, insisted I romance her with flowers, fancy chocolates, and fru-fru gifts…  take her to see a chick-flick…  say “I love you.”  I smiled and nodded to placate their eagerness, but I knew they were wrong.  For starters, Berly prefers cheap chocolate and is ambivalent about gifts.  They might have known “women,” but I knew Berly.  The problem with our romance pop-culture, and much of the marriage enrichment industry, even many Christian seminars and books, are the notions that all women are alike, that men cannot understand them, and therefore that husbands should simply learn some basic rules for marriage maintenance.  Men regularly come home from a weekend retreat with a checklist to follow: kiss your wife goodbye when you leave for work, tell her you love her, have a weekly date night, and for goodness sake drop the toilet seat after peeing.  And those are the better men, the ones who are really trying.

It’s a deep sadness that our most intimate relationships are held together with stock routines because we’re convinced we can’t understand each other.  The gender gap might as well be an intergalactic separation, after all, women are from Venus and men are from Mars… and we’re apparently lost in space.  It’s certainly a nice gesture to take a quiz on our five love languages and task oneself (say) with giving three daily encouragements to a spouse, but how much does that help in understanding one another deeply and thoroughly, which is what the relationship truly needs.  It is almost as though we’ve given up on real relationship (vulnerable sharing, open listening, trusting, understanding, accepting, valuing, empathizing) and reduced love to what we do for one another.

Mutual understanding between the sexes is not easy or quick.  It takes a lot of time and energy, not to mention fear and pain, and perhaps for that reason our culture has largely abandoned the effort as hopeless.  “It has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried” (as Chesterton said of true Christianity). But nice words and kind behavior can never substitute for the gritty, real work of heart connection.  The first is comfortable and functional, like a pair of old shoes, the last is revolutionary.

Posted February 23, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Rethinking Thankfulness   4 comments

As I wrote yesterday, I intend to chronicle my daily smiles, but let’s not confuse that with thanksgiving.  My focus is joie de vivre for me and those who share life with me, while thanksgiving, by contrast, is often seen as moral obligation.  So it is driven by duty rather than delight, aimed at someone else’s benefit rather than my own (except to exercise my virtue).  As a default response, giving thanks will actually weaken relationships rather than enhance them if it pulls us from gracious into legalistic connections.

At a human level, when I share my joy with the one who gifts me, she is drawn into my life and experience.  She connects with me and delights in my joy.  The focus is on a shared enjoyment of the gift rather than a shared esteem of the giver and her virtue.  When I approach thanks as duty, it distances me from the generous one and devalues her generosity down to a trade.  Then my gratitude becomes her due, even though paying it doesn’t reduce my debt for her favors.  And with big favors,  she becomes the benefactor, and I turn into the charity case.  Her virtue and strength is showcased, but only my lack and dependence. Mutuality devolves into hierarchy.

Even when God is the munificent one, I think it far better to share with Him my joy and invite Him into it rather than try to pay Him with gratitude, as though His presents come with price tags.  Of course, I can be self-absorbed, focused only on the gift and ignoring the one who gave it, a childish mistake (although God is not offended or hurt by this as we are).  The real misfortune in such a response is not the unfairness of it, but the loneliness that results.  We were created for community, for connection, for sharing our hearts, so isolating our attention on the gift desiccates our relationships.  The greatest good and core purpose of giving and receiving is to draw us into close communion through mutual care.

For a perfect illustration of the joy of shared celebration, see Susan’s comment.

Posted January 11, 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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Intimacy   3 comments

I have been encouraged a great deal in reading one of my favorite 17th century theologians, Thomas Traherne, and want to give you a taste of his thoughts on friendship, especially regarding friendship with God.  (I’ve modernized spelling and a couple words)

[Friendship is] kindness of behavior, a thorough and clear communication of souls, a secure reliance upon each others fidelity, a perfect discovery of all our thoughts, intentions, and [feelings], an ardent willingness to impart lives and estate for the benefit of our friend, the reposing of all our secrets in each others bosoms, to do all services, and suffer all afflictions, for each others sakes, to prefer the concerns of our friend upon all occasions above our own….

The greatest secret in its nature is, the mutual agreement of souls and spirits, the delight which either takes in the other, the honor and esteem they give and receive, the approbation and love of each others dispositions, the sense and admiration of each others virtues, the continual desire of being always together, peculiar ecstasy, which the beauty of either occasions in the other, when of all other treasures in the world their persons are the greatest to one another.  Either is the proper element and [consolation] of the others soul.  Their bosoms are the mutual receptacles and temples of each others accomplishments, whereinto they are received in all their desert, and have justice done to every degree and perfection in their nature; their hearts are thrones where they are exalted, and magnified, and live at ease, are honored [and extolled].

–though I often fall short, I want to dedicate these aspirations to Kimberly

friends

Posted September 9, 2013 by janathangrace in Reading

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The Best of All Things   3 comments

Today is our anniversary.  Since I come home from work after Berly is in bed, I was able to do some shenanigans to surprise her in the morning.  She woke up Wednesday to banners draped from the rafters reading “BERLY IS THE BEST”.  On Thursday she found a 3 foot paper flower I had made and a love poem.  This morning she came downstairs to see an 8 foot tall card I made her covered with a list of her attributes.  Here’s a snap of the card and the ten page list of attributes follows (I could have written hundreds more)–hey she deserves a lot more than a giant card!  I spent some time this morning selecting a few of her good points and expounding on them to her.  I was thinking to myself, “Hey, she’s married to me, so that wealth of goodness is all mine too!

Me and Berly

“A few of the hundreds of reasons I am glad you are my wife”

CAPABLE, ENDURING, FORBEARING, FORGIVING, GENTLE, LONG-SUFFERING, MEEK,

MILD, PERSEVERING, PERSISTENT, SELF-POSSESSED, SERENE, TOLERANT, TRANQUIL,

UNDERSTANDING, CONSIDERATE, CALM, COMPOSED, EQUABLE,

KIND, TEMPERATE, CONSIDERATE, RESPECTFUL,

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

MILD-TEMPERED, ACCOMMODATING, VALOROUS, ATTENTIVE, BENEVOLENT,

GLADDENING, COMPASSIONATE, KINDLY, MINDFUL, OBLIGING, SOLICITOUS,

SYMPATHETIC, TACTFUL, TENDER, LEVELHEADED, TENACIOUS, THOUGHTFUL,

UNSELFISH, WARMHEARTED, UNCRITICAL, UNDEMANDING, UNHURRIED,

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

DISCERNING, STABLE, STEADY, TOLERANT, FORGIVING, UNDAUNTED,

MERCIFUL, MILD, DILIGENT, STEADFAST, AFFECTIONATE, VALIANT,

APPRECIATIVE, BENEVOLENT, CARING, CONCERNED, EARNEST, EXPRESSIVE,

COMPETENT, FAITHFUL, LOYAL, SWEET, THOUGHTFUL, GOOD,

COURTEOUS, FRIENDLY, PERCEPTIVE,

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

GOOD-HEARTED, GRACIOUS, KINDHEARTED, LOVING, STRAIGHTFORWARD,

TENDERHEARTED, CONSIDERATE, RESPONSIVE, CONSCIOUS,

PEACEABLE, ENCOURAGING, HEARTENING, COURAGEOUS, INSPIRING,

ADMIRABLE, DELIGHTFUL, ENGAGING, ENJOYABLE, GRACEFUL,

DAUNTLESS, REFLECTIVE,

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

LIONHEARTED, STRONG, BRAVE, PEACEFUL, TRUE,

VALOROUS, HOPEFUL, SELF-RELIANT, SELF-SUFFICIENT, TRUSTING, WISE,

INTELLIGENT, TOUGH, REASONABLE, ASTUTE, AWARE, CAREFUL,

FRANK, CONTEMPLATIVE, INSIGHTFUL, PRUDENT, SENSIBLE,

TACTFUL, SOFTHEARTED, ATTENTIVE,

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

SUPPORTING, AWAKE, GROUNDED, RECEPTIVE, SENSIBLE, CLEVER,

ABLE, BRIGHT, DEEP, GIFTED, TALENTED, COOPERATIVE,

TRUTHFUL, CANDID, ABOVE-BOARD, AUTHENTIC, CONSCIENTIOUS,

DECENT, DIRECT, EQUITABLE, GENUINE, INTUITIVE, HONORABLE,

INGENUOUS, OBLIGING, OPEN, PLAIN, REAL, RELIABLE,

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

SINCERE, STRAIGHT, STOUTHEARTED, TRUSTWORTHY, TRUSTY,

UNFEIGNED, DIRECT, GENUINE, GUILELESS, UNCONTRIVED, UNPRETENTIOUS,

DEPENDABLE, COGNIZANT, RELIABLE, SOLID, SIMPLE, MINDFUL, THOROUGHGOING,

LOYAL, RELIABLE, CONFIDING, CONSTANT, ENDURING, HONORABLE, STEADY,

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

ACCOMMODATING, SOUND, AUTHENTIC, REAL, SOUND, STERLING, UNADULTERATED,

UNALLOYED, UNVARNISHED, PRAISEWORTHY, GENUINE, PROFOUND,

CONSCIENTIOUS, FORTHRIGHT, GUILELESS, COMMISERATING,

RESPONSIVE, SENSITIVE, SOFT, SUPPORTIVE, SYMPATHIZING,

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

EMPATHIC, RESOLUTE, HARMONIOUS, LISTENING, ACCEPTING,

ATTENTIVE, INTERESTED, OBSERVANT, ACCEPTING, DEPENDABLE,

AFFIRMING, TRUSTING, RESPECTING, AGREEABLE, EMBRACING,

COMPANIONABLE, SUPPORTIVE, ENCOURAGING, REASSURING, COMFORTING, GROWING,

DEDICATED, HARD-WORKING, FAITHFUL,

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

PURPOSEFUL, DETERMINED, ENGAGED, INDUSTRIOUS, UNFEIGNED,

SOFTHEARTED, SHARING, INTIMATE, PRINCIPLED, CONSISTENT,

UNBREAKABLE, BROKEN-HEARTED, EMPATHETIC, UNDEMANDING, WELCOMING,

WOUNDED HEALER, OPEN-HEARTED, WILLING, COMFORTER

AWESOME

Posted May 10, 2013 by janathangrace in Story

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