Archive for the ‘truth’ Tag

Death Has Many Faces   11 comments

Dad died a year ago last Friday.  His passing was not an emotional jolt for me since I had spent a decade grieving the loss of our relationship.  My father could not follow me on my journey of genuine self-discovery over the last twenty years.  He tried as best he could to understand me, but always on his own terms, trying to fit me into his mental constructs with slight alterations–a more melancholy and ardent version of himself perhaps.  He instinctively knew, I think, that really opening himself to see things from my perspective would require a complete re-orientation of his own perspective and that was too radical for his carefully organized worldview.

His is a common human problem.  The first year of marriage was a huge struggle for me for the same reason–that my worldview made sense and Kimberly’s did not.  I tried listening to her and incorporating aspects of her perspective–trying to be more gentle and supportive, less critical and angry, tweek my worldview with cosmetic changes without moving any load-bearing walls.  I kept listening to her explain her struggle in our relationship, and I kept trying to adapt my behavior and avoid or use certain words while hiding certain attitudes.  I was basically saying to myself, “My worldview needs no adjustments, but out of love I will accommodate her weaknesses.”  It didn’t work.

Relational accommodation, making room for someone else’s differences, is much more loving than rejecting them as somehow “wrong,”  but it is a truncated love. When I continue to see others from my own perspective rather than trying to see with their eyes and understand them from within their experience, I cannot understand them in any deep way.  The relationship cannot be fundamentally supportive or transformational, but only touches the surface.  Our interdependence “being members of one another” is so much more than sharing our spiritual gifts.  Our interdependence goes to the core of who we are.  We need the corrective of the other’s point of view.

Most of us are willing to tweak our life map, add a street or railroad that is missing.  “Oh, I didn’t know that,” we say.  It is the natural process of learning.  As long as no one fiddles with the major features of our map, we won’t feel too defensive when they suggest changes because we basically have the “right” orientation.  But if the differences in our maps are profound–mine shows a grid of city streets where yours shows winding country roads–then we have no easy solution.  My initial reaction, emotionally and intellectually, is to reject your map, to assume you are wrong, confused, or misguided. When my father first heard I was struggling with depression, he was concerned and sent me a book that stated in the introduction, “Depression comes from a lack of faith.”  Thankfully, he did not stick with that perspective.

The next step in a positive direction is for me to stop rejecting your map as defective and simply assert that our views are incompatible and so we cannot understand one another.  The third step (with a smidgen of humility) is to see how I might learn from you, fit some features of the your map into mine, add a river here or a corner store there… but a river going through the center of a city, polluted and obstructing traffic, is very different from a river that is bordered by meadows.  When I squeeze this element into my map, the whole essence of it is changed.  I have distorted your view to fit my own, and though I may speak of a river, we see it so differently that we still cannot understand one another.  How you experience that river is completely shaped by your overall map, and until I can see that, I am blind to who you are.  “Okay,” I say to myself, “He likes pollution and traffic jams.  To each his own.”  Dad came this far with me on my journey, acknowledging that it was possible to be full of the Spirit and still suffer depression, though he could not conceive how that fit into his own theological framework, he at least allowed for it, a kind of exception to the rule.

But he was never able to get past this stage with me.  I spent years trying to explain to him my own experience and how I was coming to realize that his map of life did not work for me, but he always saw my experience as an aberration from the norm.  He was convinced that his theology and spirituality and values were spot-on and needed only slight tweaking to accommodate people like myself, maybe add a mission hospital to his map for that small segment of broken people like myself.  He instinctively knew that to open his worldview to my experience–using it to challenge his worldview instead of adding it as an addendum–would mean a complete revision of his thinking, a worldview that he had spent a lifetime perfecting and promoting through his preaching, teaching, and writing.  And thousands of testimonials proved that his worldview worked… at least for those who found it beneficial.

So I spent the last years of his life slowly accepting the painful reality that my own father would never know me, that our relationship would never get past the superficial.  In many ways it was like my mom’s slow decline into Alzheimer’s when she eventually did not know who I was or even that I was in the room.  Trapped inside her own mind, she could not relate to us.  That long grieving process seems to me more gentle on those left behind than a sudden death of an intimate.  Truly here “we see in a glass, darkly.”  We let them go with the joyful expectation that when we embrace them again all the obstacles to our relationships will be gone, and we will “know even as we are known.”

 

Postlude: Kimberly tells me no one will understand what I have said without an example.  So let me very briefly point out one serious difference in our maps.  Dad, being a choleric, grounded spiritual growth in behavioral choices and made God responsible for his subconscious mind–if he was not aware of it, he was not responsible for it.  As a result, he tended to see emotions as secondary to our spiritual lives.  This might work for people who are less self-reflective, but it is a scheme that is largely unworkable for us melancholics who are in touch with a great part of the tides of our hearts.  If dad had been able to fully accept this discrepancy, he would have had to rework his whole paradigm of spiritual growth, either suggesting different processes for different people or working out a new approach that fully incorporated the processes of those different from him.  This is a very tall order for anyone, especially in the latter part of our lives, so I do not mean to fault him for it.  He quite possibly did the best he could with what he had–and we cannot ask for more.  I only share this as an encouragement for us all to work at broadening our viewpoints.

Posted June 7, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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Disappointing Everyone but God   16 comments

It took years for me to accept my own ostrich-ness without embarrassment, recognizing and not running away from the disappointment others held towards me.  I was sharply reminded of this at my dad’s funeral as I re-connected with acquaintances from long ago, the many who stood in line to offer me their condolences and politely inquire: “Where do you live now?” and “What do you do there?”

The simple answer is, “I work at Home Depot.”  There is nothing simple about that response.  It is freighted with cultural and religious baggage, and I immediately saw it in their faces when I answered, sudden flickers of questions and doubts tugging at their cheeks and blinking their eyelids. The middle-aged son of a college president working a minimum-wage job?  Should they leave it alone and move on or ask me for clarification… and how could they do that circumspectly?  Since I wasn’t sitting down with them for coffee, I started adjusting my answer to relieve their discomfort.

I understand their consternation.  When I started working at Home Depot two years ago it took me a couple months of building courage to share the news on Facebook.  As a culture, when we hear of a college-educated person in mid-career working an entry level job, we feel sure there is a tragic story behind this mishap.  Selling hammers is one step above homelessness.  I was going to say one step above unemployment, but actually an unemployed professor ranks far above a working stiff–he hasn’t given up on himself yet.

Of course the heavy cultural implications are double-weighted with the religious ones.  It is true that Jesus himself worked with hammers and saws, but that was in his youth, just an apprenticeship for what really mattered, we think.  The highest accolades in my family and alma mater go to missionaries, secondarily to pastors, thirdly to those in non-profit work, but instead of working my way up that ladder, I slipped down it, one rung at a time.  Oddly enough, my soul was gaining depth and strength and wisdom with each lower step.

It seems the Kingdom of God is much less predictable and straightforward than I assumed most of my life.  I guess that is why we walk by faith.

Posted June 11, 2016 by janathangrace in Personal, Uncategorized

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The Spirituality of Confusion   7 comments

I was raised on clarity like Iowans are raised on corn—it was the staple that nourished our grip on reality, giving us security and power, confidence and perseverance.  Dad gave me all the answers before I had even stumbled onto the questions, saving me the trouble of sorting it out myself, and he shared his take on life with a degree of certainty that silenced doubt before it even had a voice.  My parents, being deeply religious, anchored all this clarity to God himself so that doubt was not only foolish but dangerous, a personal affront to the Almighty.

As a child I was handed the blueprint for life, the map and compass, and I followed it faithfully each step, landing in Calcutta as a missionary at 30 years of age, having somehow escaped the indignity of adolescent questioning.

Unfortunately, life is not so neat and tidy, but constantly pokes through our carefully boxed up constructs, threatening the whole structure. “You can do anything if you try hard enough.” Really? “Thankfulness leads to contentment.” But if it doesn’t?  Reality seems to stubbornly resist fitting into our prefab structures, challenging our paradigms. So we fight back—pretend there’s been no breach, or try to block up the gaps in our worldview by tweaking the architecture, or construct awkward explanations for the exposed holes, the received truth that doesn’t play out as we’d expected.  But for me to make substantive changes, to move around the support beams, would force a complete rethinking of reality as I knew it, a stroll into insanity, so I clung to my views, blaming myself for failing to make it work. It took four years of unrelenting depression to shake my grip on my framework of truth.

And so, at the age of 40, I stumbled into the adolescence I soldiered past in my teens. Discovering my basket was full of unworkable answers, I set about looking for the right ones. I still wanted certainty, just not a defective set. But honesty is a bitch, fertile though she is. Once you let her in, she barks at every discrepancy and won’t be shushed. Each fresh answer I uncovered brought more questions. I was in a fog of confusion that I could not escape, stuck, unable to follow a path I could not see. I kept walking, but I seemed to be going in circles. I kept praying for clarity, but she had abandoned me and obscurity had firmly grasped my hand.

Facing confusion with calm is a plus, and parts of Christianity outside my heritage even find obscurity beneficial, oddly enough. Books like the fourteenth century “Cloud of Unknowing” and “The Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross warned against leaning too heavily on reason and intellect, which could obstruct as well as open the path to insight. Just this morning I read two psychologists discussing a client in that conundrum:

“You know, that’s the thing about intelligence. It can really get in the way of wisdom, the mind being such a good place to hide from all the messiness that comes with our feelings. Maybe what your patient needs to do is get out of his head and get into his heart. Stop thinking so much and let his feelings get the better of him, let loose with a good cry or a fit of anger, whatever it is that’s stirring down there at that mysterious place he’s afraid to go to.” (Eric Kolbell in “What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life”)

The thing is, I don’t mind feeling my feelings, but doesn’t my progress depend on then understanding them in order to resolve them? For me the key was still clarity. But what if it wasn’t. What if clarity at this point was the problem instead of the answer. It was just this discovery John Kavanaugh made in my adopted city.

When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at “the house of the dying” in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life.  On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa.  She asked, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked.  He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: “Pray that I have clarity.” She said firmly, “No, I will not do that.”    When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”  When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust.  So I will pray that you trust God.” (Brennan Manning in “Ruthless Trust”)

Fear or desire may drive us to demand answers, but Pandora learned that trying to pry open life’s box of secrets leads only to trouble. God has his own time frame for sharing his insights with us, and patience is the truest mark of trust. I have not yet found my way through the fog, but often the way has found me, working into my soul silently, healing and growing me on the sly, startling me with its results: humility, patience with myself and others, empathy, sensitivity, endurance, faith. Obscurity comes with a sleigh full of good, though it doesn’t feel like Christmas. As a friend once opined, “It’s too bad life’s lessons don’t come in a box of chocolates.” The best work is often the hardest work and longest to complete, but it is the most rewarding.

I’m not completely in the dark. I find some general directions to take, the fog sometimes lifts, but lack of lucidity can be freeing, opening up options I would otherwise avoid because I was locked into an inflexible clarity—rationality that blocked thinking, faith that hindered trust. The grace of God is so much bigger than I ever imagined.

Posted May 20, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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You Can’t Handle the Truth   1 comment

Last night Kimberly and I watched Beyond the Gates, a movie about the Rwandan genocide when 800,000 men, women, and children were hacked to death as the world looked on and did nothing.  It was terrible.  It was real.  It was a small window onto the depths of human depravity which ravage our world daily.  If you keep your peace of mind by sweeping darker parts of reality into a seldom-used corner of your mind, perhaps you buy happiness at too great a cost.  If the evil filling this earth does not burn in your heart and shape your daily decisions, you may be living in a fantasy world of your own making.

Frederick Buechner tells of his professor, James Mullenberg:

“‘Every morning when you wake up,’ he used to say, ‘before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again.’

He was a fool in the sense that he didn’t or wouldn’t or couldn’t resolve, intellectualize, evade, the tensions of his faith but lived those tensions out, torn almost in two by them at times. His faith was not a seamless garment but a ragged garment with the seams showing, the tears showing, a garment that he clutched about him like a man in a storm.

To love a hurting world is to suffer with it.  Do you see this world as God sees it?  There is a reason the prophets of old, the seers, were mostly melancholy men and why the Messiah was called the Man of Sorrows.  Some of us by nature are more touched by the shadows.  It is not only the deep fissures in the ghettos and war-crushed countries, but the cracks in my own heart that torment me.  My own little hatreds and conspiracies, defensive moves and fear-driven words awake in me an understanding of and identification with history’s villains.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

But I realized something today.  I am not big enough to absorb all that pain.  I can’t handle that much truth… I have to shut some of it out so that it does not capsize my little boat.  I want the brokenness of the world to inform my outlook, but not to cripple it.  I instinctively have known this all along and have protected myself from those things that have pulled me too far down, especially when my emotional reserves are low, but I felt cowardly.  When I dropped Facebook friends because their posts or comments were too disturbing or I avoided confrontation with family, my love seemed limited and weak.  Well, since I am not God, my love certainly is limited and weak, and I cannot demand of it more than I am able to give.   I must live within my means not only financially, but emotionally, because if I have too many overdrafts, I will crash.  My heart will always be touched more profoundly by the tragedies around me–it is how I was designed–so I need to soak my bruised soul more deeply, more often in the pools of grace away from the harsher sides of reality.

Posted February 11, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Do Differences Divide or Unite?   2 comments

WHAT LANE?!

Kimberly has a conjunctive view of life and I a disjunctive, she responds to input by assimilation and I by differentiation, she creates a unified mosaic and I a careful pattern.  We are very different and we are blessed, enlightened, and expanded by that difference, but it often shapes up into an emotional disagreement where we both feel the other is rejecting our viewpoint.  This happened again on Monday when we were reading about Sabbath rest on the seventh day of creation, and I was inspired by the thought that we were called to imitate not only God’s rest, but God’s creativity, to express our true selves to the world as our gift and offering during the first 6 days of the week.  I was excited about that image and wanted to explore its potential.

I heard Kimberly respond that many jobs (such as an assembly line) had no room for creativity.  I sensed she was objecting to my idea and countered with illustrations of how creativity is possible even in dull jobs.  She heard my resistance to her input and needed to defend her own view.  This is a very common conflict between us.  Thankfully, this time I was not too emotionally invested in the topic and we were able to explore the conversational dynamic itself dispassionately.

Berly receives new ideas with openness, assuming they fit into her worldview.  She is inviting, embracing, inclusive.  This not only goes against my personality, but my brain.  I simply cannot understand an idea unless I can differentiate it from other ideas.  As I am faced with new ideas, I evaluate them so that I can determine how they fit into my worldview.  If I cannot fit them in, I reject them.  Kimberly understands her world relationally and I understand mine logically… this does not mean that she is illogical and I am antisocial, but that she is intuitive and I am analytical.  (In fact, I just had to edit that sentence, because I originally wrote “Kimberly organizes her world relationally” which is biased towards my view… you can see our problem!)  I grow constantly by listening to her perspective.

In the case of my creative approach to occupation, Kimberly was feeling the need to support those who had no space for fresh ideas.  Because of a harsh boss, family crisis, emotional distress and the like, many people at work just hang on to their jobs, barely fulfill their duties, and my pushing for creativity would be oppressive, something for which they had no emotional energy.  She suggested that there might be many other ways of improving one’s work situation which would trump creativity as the next important step.  In other words, creativity is always a possible play, but it is only one card in the hand.  I agreed with her.

Kimberly was not challenging my view as wrong.  She was not disagreeing, but supplementing, trying to include those whom my view seemed to ignore.  She works under the assumption that when she proposes a different point from mine, there is room for both views; whereas I am inclined to see incompatibility and competition in something that is different.  Over the last couple days reflecting on this dynamic of ours, I realized how often I create conflict in discussions where there need be none.  Inclusive thinking does not come naturally to me… I lack imagination and motivation for that exercise.  Kimberly’s idea did not restrict mine, but added to mine.  I can still fully explore the possibilities of bringing creativity to my occupation while also exploring other facets of growth and engagement at work.  I realize now how often I fail to learn from those with whom I seemingly disagree and build a block for them against my own view by assuming incompatibility.  Interaction is about understanding one another, not simply understanding ideas.

Posted June 28, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal

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Who Writes My ‘To Do’ List?   2 comments

This is not a thought topmost on my mind these days… I wrote it some time back.  But I thought it was worth sharing.

Many conservative Christians direct their lives by a long list of expectations handed down to them from various sources (family, church, tradition, culture, etc.), many of which purport to be fundamentally grounded in Scripture.  I know this is how I spent most of my life, but for me it was the letter that killed the spirit.

I was raised to believe and obey the Bible.  At a foundational level were direct and clear commands that seemed to make a lot of practical sense, saving myself and my relationships much grief: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t gossip (or in positive terms, be honest, be fair, be kind in what you say about others).  It doesn’t take much wisdom to understand the importance and relevance of these commands.

But along with these direct commands, I was taught to identify and live by biblical principles.  Here the footing got very unsteady, for who was to say what principles should be applied in this way by this person at this time to this situation?  Let me give one general principle, stewardship, focusing on one of its corollaries, efficiency, limited to one resource at my disposal, money.  The principle is: spend as little money as possible for the greatest good.  The Bible does not say this directly, but we all know this is what it means when it warns us against greed, tells us to be generous instead of self-serving and to be “rich towards God,” etc.  I said “we all know,” but some of us struggle with such a simple reduction of many passages to one principle.  Even if we agree that a given principle is worth following, we still find the devil in the details–a given application of that principle.  Let me list a few quandries:

1) How do the hundreds of other principles laid out by levels of priority interact with this principle, limiting it, redirecting it, even overriding it?  What kind of good should be done (for instance, is it more important to give Bibles or give bread); who will receive this good (for whom am I most responsible); what other resources will be used in the accomplishing of this good (will it be cheap but take “inordinate” time); may I consider my own interests, talents, vision; what positive or negative side effects may come from this expenditure; am I permitted to solicit money or borrow money for this goal; and I could go on for many pages.

Quantity or Quality? Brand or Generic? Organic or Inorganic?

2) How does this principle apply to purchases for myself?  What must I buy cheaply, and what may I take into account in deciding (the more expensive laundry soap that smells better, the fine quality suit, attending an ivy league school over a local state college?); what percentage must I give away (based on income, cost of living, family concerns, etc.); who decides and how does one decide what is lavish, normal, or frugal living; how much latitude (freedom) do I have; do my feelings matter in any way in making a decision.

3) What role do love and grace play?  Using this principle of financial efficiency, the disciples criticized the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume instead of giving to the poor, and they were rebuked.  It would seem the heart of the matter is the heart matters most, more than the behavioral choices we make, and that we need a level of freedom and faith to live out of  grace rather than law.  (I packed way too much into that sentence.)  As Augustine said, “Love God, and do what you want,” or as Paul said, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Posted April 29, 2012 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Scary Truth   1 comment

I love this photo.  The truths most crucial for my transformation are inevitably the truths that awaken me to my own personal terrors.  I find I cannot grow in freedom, understanding, acceptance, relationship and other facets of genuine spirituality without facing my fears.  To rescue me from my fears, grace leads me into them, or as John Newton sang, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved.”  Courage is gained slowly, one step at a time, and if I brave too much, more than my soul is ready to bear, I get knocked back a few paces.  We must be gentle with ourselves, have compassion for our quaking spirits, take things slowly and with as much patience for ourselves as the God of all grace has towards us.  Yet I must also find a way to pacify my tremulous soul, to discover the power of that truth which is embraced, trusted, fought for… truth about my wounded self and my infinite worth in God’s eyes.

When I step towards my fears, uncover them and open myself to feel them, to understand their deep hold on me, they increase and seem to gain strength.  I try to face them with a spirit of self-compassion and faith in God’s love, but I can only take so much stress before my courage wavers, and I need to take a break from the battlefield, withdrawing for a time from people and situations that provoke my fears–fears of rejection, inadequacy, shame.  I keep whispering the truth to myself and my trusted others until my faith is renewed enough to speak truth once more where it is unwelcome, resisted.  It is my truth.  You do not have to agree with me or consider this the right way to live your life (or even that it is the right way for me), but if you cannot trust me with my own life, then at least trust God with my life, in spite of my wavering steps, to draw me by grace along the way of growing integrity and harmony.

Posted March 11, 2012 by janathangrace in thoughts

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