driving on a flat tire

One morning a few weeks ago as I headed out to meet a friend at our local coffee shop, I noticed that my car seemed really loud inside.  

Really loud.  Hmm.  

I kept driving.  

Then I changed lanes and when I ran over the reflector bumps in the middle of the road, it was super-super loud.  

Again, hmmm.

I kept driving.  

Wondering why the car was so loud.  Driving a little slower, in case it was going to blow up or something.  

Then I tried running over the bumps with the other wheels, and it wasn't loud.  So then I started thinking that maybe I had a flat tire.

Guess what?

Yup.  I'm sorry to say it, but it's true:  I kept driving.  

All the way to the coffee shop.  Then I got out of the car, looked at the tires, and sure enough, one of them was flat as a pancake.  

Whereupon I did what I always do when something mechanical or technical malfunctions:  I called Andy.  And he did what he always does:  he came and fixed it.  

I would say "no questions asked" because he never makes me feel bad about fixing whatever it is I've broken.

But actually he did have questions like, "When did the noise start?" and "Exactly how far did you drive on this tire?"  Those were legit questions, trying to ascertain the possible extent of the damage.  

My answers, unfortunately, were pretty vague, because I just sort of didn't know.  I don't pay much attention to the mechanical and technical things in my life.  Maintenance doesn't cross my mind.  I just roll along, expecting everything to work.

 photo:  Michael Bruner

photo:  Michael Bruner

I was thinking about that this morning, because my first experience with anxiety and depression years ago was a lot like that flat tire.

I was rolling along in life, when some bothersome symptoms began to appear.  I had repetitive nightmares.  I would wake up in the night with racing thoughts, and have trouble falling asleep again.  I was unhappy and tearful and down about myself and other people and life in general.

There was a lot of emotional noise, but I didn't know what it meant.

So I kept going.

And going.

And going.

Until the day I just literally could not function any longer.  In fact, I may have been just the teensiest, tiniest bit psychotic every now and again.  

It was only afterward, when I looked back with the wisdom of hindsight, that I realized how long I'd been driving on an emotional flat tire.

I don't know that we deliberately set out to ignore the emotional symptoms of life and make ourselves completely crazy, but sometimes it just works out that way.

First of all, we may not really understand what's going on.  When I started waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep, I had absolutely no idea that I was experiencing the most common type of insomnia associated with anxiety.  That had never happened to me before. I didn't know what it was.

And then, who wants to pull over and change a flat?  Not me, friends and neighbors.  I have places to go, people to see.  As long as that sucker will move forward, I'll drive it.  The reality is, when we stop to work on our emotional stuff, it can make a mess of our plans.  It can be really complicated.  Really.  Reallyreallyreally complicated.

Besides all that, some of us have gotten the idea that having emotions other than joy and peace means that we aren't very spiritual, so it's pretty hard to admit that anything at all might be wrong.  

Sometimes when we've tried to talk about what's wrong, people have said things like, "Cast all your care on the Lord, because He cares for you" and "Take every thought captive" and "The joy of the Lord is our strength."  

And we retreat into our alone and broken selves, because we've tried that.  For a while now.  It just doesn't seem to be that simple, but everybody says it is, so we just don't know what to do.

So here's the question:  how do we STOP AND CHANGE THE TIRE?

Sometimes it's a medical issue, and we need meds.

  • Honestly evaluate your functioning.  If you're struggling to do what you're supposed to do every day, then it might be time to look for medical help.  I know it's hard to go there.  Meds do have side effects, and sometimes it does take time to get the right meds working in the right way.  And sure, Jesus can heal you without meds.  But most of us these days would take antibiotics for pneumonia, and say "Thank God" when the fever lifts.  If you're not functioning well, if you're not able to sleep or eat like normal, if your moods are seriously out of whack, and especially if you've got thoughts of suicide, please talk to your doctor.  Modern medicine is a gift.  Take it as needed.

Sometimes it's a social issue, and we need to make changes in our world.

  • Most of us have a front door on our house, rather than a big open space where anything and anybody can run in and out at any time.  A lockable door is a normal part of a house.  Sometimes, however, we have a hard time believing that it's an equally good idea to get some boundaries against the emotional chaos that wants to intrude.  Unhealthy stuff sneaks in over time, and other people get used to us being like we are.  Change can be tough.  And it can be so, so, so good.

Sometimes it's a psychological/spiritual issue, and we need to process through gunk from the past that informs how we think and feel and believe today.

  • Some of us believe that there are rules for acceptability:  we have to achieve great heights, make others happy, be wonderfully nice, be successful in ministry, be thin, be the perfect parent.  We don't actually live in Love, believing deep down that It Is Finished.  We have to keep going and going, and life is just one long, exhausting performance.  That's a lie.  But there is truth.  And it can set us crazy-free.

A whole bunch of times, it's all three--medical, social, and psychological/spiritual--all mixed up together.  

Changing that flat tire can be a whole lot of work.  Like Westley says in The Princess Bride:  "Life is pain, Princess,and anyone who says otherwise is selling something."

But I want to tell you that it's worth the work.  And I want you to know that there is help.  God has not left us here alone to struggle through things by ourselves.  

There are doctors.  

There are friends.  

There are therapists.  

Most of all, there is Love and there is rest for our souls, when we'll stop and let Love help us.

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feedback: take it seriously

I recently saw a meme that went something like this:

Feedback:  take it seriously, not personally.

I like that a lot.

I recently completed my counseling internship.  Wait, you say, haven't you been a counselor for ages already?

Well, yes, but, here's how it works in Texas.  You do your master's degree, then you take the state board exam in counseling and get a provisional license.  Then you do a 3,000 hour internship.  1,500 of those hours, you have to be sitting in a room doing therapy with a client.  

Additionally, you explain yourself in detail to your counseling supervisor for one hour each week.

My internship took 4 years.  If you figure 50 weeks a year and a supervision session each week, that's about 200 hours of putting yourself out there for feedback.  That's kind of a nerve-wracking process, especially in the beginning.

I'm a recovering perfectionist, and it was incredibly good for me to be less than stellar (sorry clients) some days, and to have my supervisor say, "I wonder what would happen if . . ." which was supervisor-speak for "Go back and try it again this way."

The sky did not fall, the sun did not stop shining, and I got to be better at what I love to do.

Here's what I learned:  to take feedback seriously, but not personally.

In order to take things seriously but not personally, I need to live daily with the bone-deep assurance that Love lives in me and loves me all the time, even when I screw up.

I need to have the emotional chops to take new information on board, and assimilate it when I need to.  

Not every single piece of feedback is worthwhile and true, of course.  

But even the feedback that's not true gives me a chance to look deep, think and process, and understand any number of things in new ways.

Knowing that God loves me, no matter what, gives me the capacity to examine feedback with less anxiety and more brain-space so I can evaluate it accurately.

Here's a funny thing.  

When we take feedback personally instead of seriously, it may FEEL like we're taking it seriously.  Because we're so hurt, so devastated, so demolished emotionally.  Surely we've taken it seriously.

But when we allow emotion to be our only response to feedback, we may actually block vital information we need.  

We can block feedback by being so scary or so fragile that nobody would ever dare to tell us anything.  

We can say things like, "They're so mean" and "Satan's attacking me" and "I feel so bad for people who need to be negative."

But when we block feedback that way, we miss out on an opportunity to examine the feedback for truth, to know ourselves and others better, to change, and to grow.  

So:

  • How do you handle feedback?
  • What's the most difficult feedback you've ever gotten?
  • What's the most helpful feedback you've ever received?
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In

no man's land

This year has been tough for me so far.  

I'm not ready to tell all the stories yet.  I'm not sure I'll ever be ready to tell all these stories.

But I can tell you how I feel.  

Tired.

Sad.

Scared.

I wonder.  

I grieve.

I pray to see the goodness of God in the land of the living.

That's just kind of how it is right now.

Probably not by accident, at this same time, I've been working on final revisions of The Book.  

You know The Book.  

The memoir of my breakdown and healing and all the grace found in strange places along the way.

The memoir where I talk about how God takes the stinkiest, smelliest, worst manure piles of life and redeems.

That book.

 photo:  Andy Bruner

photo:  Andy Bruner

If there was anybody who needed to read that book through 157 times this spring, it was me, I guess.

Because in that book I've written about all the times when I was just at The End, and how God met me in every one of those places, and how his love carried me through.

There are many days right now when I feel like I am at the end of myself again.  

I just don't know what to do.  I can't make things better.  I just have to wait.

And somehow, God continues to meet me in those places and carry me through this strange and scary no man's land.

The other night, I heard this song on the radio, and I fell in love with these words:  

Life can be hard, and hard can be good.

Because that is a truth that I know in my heart.  Hard can be amazing.

Some of the hardest things in my life have been redeemed into the best things in my life.

And the Owner of that process loves me and mine and you and yours with an Everlasting Love.

I cling to that. 

And I wait, like we wait for the roadside wildflowers in Texas every spring, for beautiful things to happen in no man's land.

He took his chances and he ran 
Out from the hills to no mans land 
Oh my lord life was hard, back then 

Oklahoma sky was his roof. 
Tore into the earth it brought him food 
Oh my lord, life was hard back then 

He said oh, 
Life can be hard 
But oh, 
Hard can be good 
So he built his home where no one else would 

I follow in his footsteps in my dreams 
Memories of my old bedtime stories. 
Oh my lord, life seemed good back then 

He said oh, 
Life can be hard but 
Oh, 
Hard can be good 
And he built his home where no one else would 

I felt my heart beat! 
I filled my lungs deep 
In no mans land 
And then like my forefathers I took a chance

credits

No Man's Land, from Darkest Hours, released 14 January 2014 

Songwriter: Wheeler Sparks

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so your faith community is unhealthy? now what?

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite authors.  His books are a mix of masterful story-telling and fascinating sociological insights.  The man makes everything interesting.  

(Case in point, this TED Talk about spaghetti sauce.  I kid you not.  Spaghetti sauce.  Watch and be amazed.  That's your bonus gift from me today.)

A few years ago, Gladwell wrote a book called Blink, exploring the power of intuition.  

But, oops, I've used a word Gladwell doesn't like:

"You could also say that it’s a book about intuition, except that I don’t like that word. In fact it never appears in Blink. Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings–thoughts and impressions that don’t seem entirely rational. But I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It’s thinking–its just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with “thinking.” In Blink I’m trying to understand those two seconds. What is going on inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition? When are snap judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better? ...

"One of the stories I tell in Blink is about the Emergency Room doctors at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. That’s the big public hospital in Chicago, and a few years ago they changed the way they diagnosed heart attacks. They instructed their doctors to gather less information on their patients: they encouraged them to zero in on just a few critical pieces of information about patients suffering from chest pain–like blood pressure and the ECG–while ignoring everything else, like the patient’s age and weight and medical history. And what happened? Cook County is now one of the best places in the United States at diagnosing chest pain.

"Not surprisingly, it was really hard to convince the physicians at Cook County to go along with the plan, because, like all of us, they were committed to the idea that more information is always better. But I describe lots of cases in Blink where that simply isn’t true. There’s a wonderful phrase in psychology–”the power of thin slicing”–which says that as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience."   

http://gladwell.com/blink/blink-q-and-a-with-malcolm/

I'm referencing Gladwell here partly just because he just makes my brain happy.  But mostly because my last post was about feeding our good judgment, improving our "powers of rapid cognition," when it comes to deciding if a faith community (or family, organization, or friendship) is healthy or unhealthy.  

We don't need to hang around for years and have a bunch of terrible things proven in a court of law.  

Last time I talked about the work of Dr. Diane Langberg.  Langberg finds that abuse victims are routinely silenced, isolated, and made to feel helpless.

I think our faith communities should be the exact reverse.   

A healthy community is a place of voice, value, and vitality for all its members.  

And I think, like Malcolm Gladwell might say, that we can make a good decision about the health of a community pretty quickly, with just that thin slice of of experience.  

 photo:  Michael Bruner

photo:  Michael Bruner

Just to review:

Voice means that everybody is invited to speak and be heard.  

We don't get our own way all the time, because that would probably mean we're bullying others, but we get to speak, we listen to others, and we cooperate together.  That's how voice works in  a healthy community.

  • Adults attend to the needs of children.
  • Spouses value the opinions and input of each other.
  • A pastor is open with and accountable to parishioners.
  • The system for feedback is transparent, easy to navigate, and open to all.
  • People with varying opinions and ideas are welcomed and encouraged to share.

Value means that we are invited to be in honest relationship. 

  • We don't have to pretend.
  • We can be ourselves.
  • We can tell the truth about what we think and feel and want and need.
  • Our story will be respected.
  • We will find strength to help in time of need.

Vitality means that I am invited to be a powerful, contributing person in the community.

  • I contribute according to my gifts, not according to arbitrary rules and regulations.
  • I can have ideas and be celebrated for bringing new life to the community.
  • I'm encouraged to grow and mature.
  • I feel hopeful, motivated, and energized in my community.
  • When I am worn out and discouraged, I know where to turn for help, and I'll actually get help.

So, what if we are NOT experiencing voice, value, and vitality in our faith communities?

What if our community is a place of silence, isolation, and helplessness? 

I'd say the first step is this:  give it a whirl.  We need to be responsible, and do our part.  So try a quick experiment.  

Try speaking up.  Try being really honest.  Try offering to contribute, according to your gifts.

See what happens.  

Community health probably falls on a spectrum, rather than into a simple dichotomy.  Perhaps your system just needs some healthy people to speak up and jolt some life into the thing.  Maybe you could help make it normal and safe to speak up, to be real, to exercise your gifts and grow into maturity.  Communities can grow in health, and it's exciting when that happens.  By all means, try!

But, if you try out your voice and you get silenced, if you tell your story honestly and get isolated, if you try to contribute and are told "no thanks"--then let me pass along the advice a wise friend gave me years ago.

When you find yourself in an unhealthy system, you have three options, and three options only.

  1. Stay and conform.  Be a part of the unhealthy system.
  2. Stay and work for change.  Be a reformer.
  3. Leave.  Shake the dust off and move on.

Stay and conform is what we most often do.  It doesn't even seem like a choice.  We're already in the system, committed for ministry or fellowship.  We stay and conform without thinking, because if we thought about it, we'd have to do something about it.  

But conforming is a choice, and if we make that choice, let's at least make it honestly:  "I'm going to stay here in this unhealthy system and be unhealthy for a while longer."  

Maybe you can't go just yet.  I understand that life is like that sometimes.  But even being that honest about your own choices is a step toward health.

Stay and work for change seems like a good option, except that most often I have seen that circle back into conforming.  Maybe you're a great reformer.  Awesome.  Just keep a check and make sure that change is actually happening.  

Deeply unhealthy systems often work on a bait-and-switch basis.  You're offered a little piece of pacification, in the hopes that you won't notice that you're back to conforming again.  Just keep an eye on that.

Honestly, I think leave is a really good option if a faith community is unhealthy.  

To me, the point of community is that I give and I receive.  Others give and receive.  And if we're in an unhealthy faith community, how can that giving and receiving actually take place?  I don't think it can.  

An unhealthy faith community is like this.  You are working so hard to plant a beautiful garden.  But every time the seeds start to sprout, someone comes along and sprays weed killer over everything.  Eventually the soil is toxic and nothing grows any more.  It's just a barren patch of dirt.

I think we have to ask ourselves:  why are we here?  What are we accomplishing?

As for all the children trapped in unhealthy faith communities, my heart breaks.  And let me put this in capital letters, bold and italicized:

IF WE KNOW OF ABUSE OF A CHILD, OUR RESPONSIBILITY IS TO REPORT THAT ABUSE TO THE APPROPRIATE CIVIL AUTHORITIES.  

Talking to the abuser so he can "repent" is colluding with a criminal.  

Reporting it to church leaders is NOT enough.  

The report needs to be made to the police or to child protective services. 

Just this morning, I was encouraged to read that the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) has issued a strong statement about how to deal with the abuse of children.  

Let this be an example of good health to other faith communities.

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voice, value, vitality: the face of healthy community

There's so much stuff that's wrong in the world today.  

I guess that's always been true, but with the explosion of social media, the amount of wrong seems overwhelming at times.  

I mean, I used to live on an island in the South Pacific.  No TV, no internet, no phone, snail mail every two weeks if the ship happened to stop by.  

Mostly we got our news by listening to the Voice of America.  The.  News.  In.  Easy.  English.  

I'd be twitchy by the end of the first sentence.  In-depth reporting it was not.  I missed out on both of Bill Clinton's administrations that way.  With all that blue dress stuff, I count myself lucky.

 Makira, Solomon Islands,  Photo:  Andy Bruner

Makira, Solomon Islands,  Photo:  Andy Bruner

Now I live in Dallas.  I have unlimited access to media, and with the overwhelming flow of endless information, I sometimes wish myself back on the island.  (Until dinner time.  Then I want to call for pizza.)  

I wonder this:  what am I supposed to do with all this information?

I find I am just too old and too tired to sustain a great level of outrage for every single thing I find outrageous.  

Believe me, I find many, many things outrageous.

I'm often tempted to throw something up on the blog here and rant.  

But mostly I pray the prayer that Anne Lamott taught me:  "Help!"

However.  

Today there is something I need to write about.  Not just to be outraged, although the story is pretty outrageous.  

But so that we can all learn to look with open eyes at our communities of faith, and asses how healthy or unhealthy they are.

If they are healthy, oh happy day!  If they are unhealthy, it's time to get busy.

Here's the nutshell of the story:  Bob Jones University, a very conservative Christian college, has brought in the nonprofit organization, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), to investigate how the university has dealt with sexual abuse.

(Hint:  when the GRACE team gets called in, sexual abuse has not been dealt with very well.)

According to this news article, released yesterday:

"More than 100 people have come forward to GRACE investigators, and the report is due out in the next few months.  Boz Tchvidjian, the head of GRACE, believes Christian organizations across the country have failed victims in similar ways, and that the Protestant world could in fact be 'worse' than the Catholic Church."

Did you get that?  It's not just BJU.  The whole Protestant world needs to take a good hard look at itself.  

That's not THEM.  

That's US.  Anybody who sits in a Protestant pew on a Sunday morning.

While only a few people are the actual victims in a situation like this, many times there are systemic patterns that make the environment a safe haven for potential abusers.  

And while only a few people are the actual abusers, many of us can blindly participate in the patterns that create the unhealthy environment.

Edmund Burke famously said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Too many times in unhealthy Christian environments, good people do nothing.  

The problem is, we don't know what to look for.  What's healthy?  What's unhealthy?  

As I said a couple of weeks ago, I am not much interested in the nitty gritty of theology.  I'm mostly interested in how people get treated on the other end.  

How people get treated is the biggest clue to me in whether a theology, whether a system, is healthy or unhealthy.  

Jesus said it this way:  "By their fruits, you shall know them."  (Matthew 7:16)

So here's how I judge healthy.

Diane Langberg is a Christian therapist who works with the victims of sexual abuse.  She has identified three key components of healthy personhood:  voice, relationship, and power.  These, she says are our gifts from God, and these are the things we find devalued in abusive situations.

When we honor the personhood of ourselves and those around us, we are honoring God's loving intention for healthy community.

Alliteration helps me remember better, so I'll call these elements of personhood voice, value, and vitality.

Voice:  we should be able to speak up, ask questions, and have our story be respected.  When we are told to sit down and be quiet, when our questions are dismissed, and our story is devalued, we are not in an environment of Godly truth.  Simple as that. 

Value:  we should feel valued and welcomed in relationships.  When we are isolated and rejected, accidentally or on purpose, this is not an environment of Godly truth.

Vitality:  we're supposed to be powerful people, growing more and more into the image of God.  When we feel powerless, helpless, hopeless and ignored, this is not a place of Godly truth.

Langberg says this:

"Again and again throughout history, whenever one human beings acts toward another in a way that is not rooted in the truth of God, the same results occur: silence, isolation, and helplessness.  this devastation can occur in milder forms, as when one person speaks sharply or critically to another.  We have all know the experience of being rendered silent in the face of a cutting remark.  Severe destruction occurs whenever one human perpetrates an atrocity against another.  It is here, in our understanding of the nature of personhood, that we can begin to grasp the evil perpetrated in the life of a human being when trauma occurs."  (Diane Langberg,  Counseling the Survivors of Sexual Abuse)

Whenever we have a system or a family or an organizational culture that produces silence, isolation, and helplessness in its members, we've got a problem.  It may not necessarily be a sexual abuse issue yet, although it's an attractive environment for abusers, because it is a place that essentially does not function in the truth of God.

A healthy faith community is a place of voice, value, and vitality for all its members.

He is the Vine, we are the branches.  All necessary, all valued, all growing together.

How do you feel in your faith community?  

  • Do you have a voice, and is your voice welcome?  
  • Are you honestly, openly, truly valued in loving relationships?  
  • Are you experiencing an emotional and spiritual vitality that leads to love, joy, and peace in your life?

Remember this as you evaluate:

God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.  2 Timothy 1:7

(Next time, I'll talk about what to do when you find yourself in an unhealthy community.)

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knowing what you know

I am a little bit addicted to TED Talks.  I liked them on Facebook, and now they send me all these high-octane, deep dark chocolate morsels of wonderfulness for my brain.

So yesterday I watched this talk by Margaret Heffernan, called Dare to Disagree.  She says that good information is not enough, because all too often, we're willfully blind to what we already know.  

We're too afraid of conflict to let ourselves know what we know.

But disagreement and conflict, Heffernan says, is the way we know more and get better.  When we allow ourselves to keep doing things the same old ways, without questioning, without stirring the pot, we can actually end up causing harm.  

(Think about the days when doctors didn't wash their hands.  Eeesh.)  

She says that we have to let ourselves know what we know.  And then we need the will, the talent, and the moral courage to use what we know in the service of good.  

Heffernan's field of expertise is organizational culture, but what she has to say applies to where I live, in the world of counseling therapy.

Because an awful lot of what I do is giving clients permission to know what they know, and supporting them to have the moral courage to create conflict if necessary, to live in the truth of what they know.

And, if you've read my Manifesto, you'll know that I won't ask my clients to do what I won't do myself.  So I have to know what I know.  And I have to have the moral courage to create conflict at times, to live in the truth of what I know.  God help me.

 photo:  Michael Bruner

photo:  Michael Bruner

When we don't allow ourselves to know what we know.

When we live in willful blindness.

When we live in fear of conflict, in dread of disagreement, enslaved to What Everybody Else Will Think.

Then we base our life on lies and the truth slips away, far from us.

God's gift to us is power, love, and a sound mind.  (2 Timothy 1:7)

The Truth sets us free.

Not lies.

Not fear.

Not slavery to What Everybody Else Will Think.

So, today.  

Let us all know what we know, fearlessly, powerfully, lovingly.

Let us live in freedom and truth.

And let us be a haven of freedom and truth to those around us.

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."  Nelson Mandela

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the cure for the common optimist

True confession:  I love kids' movies.  And my sons, bless their hearts, will still go with me, scrunching down in their seats so their six-foot-plus frames don't block the whole screen from all the grade schoolers surrounding us.  

On spring break (at my college son's determined urging, in fact) we went and saw the Lego movie, which was incredibly clever and hilarious, with scenes from all the classic Lego sets.  Superheroes, pirates, movie characters, oceans, deserts, cities, giant machines, space ships--you name it, the Lego movie has it.  

My favorite part, though, was Cloud Cuckoo Land, presided over by Princess Unikitty, whose world consists of "no negativity whatsoever."  Inevitably, the course of life does not run smoothly for Princess Unikitty.  As her world implodes, she starts to feel emotions which are not happiness.  

Princess Unikitty is hilarious to me because I have been Princess Unikitty.  

I have been the super-awesome, super-positive, super-functioning queen of my own perfectly constructed life.  

Then I have been the volcanically exploding nightmare whose emotions erupt and wreak havoc everywhere.  

And I suspect that I am not the only person who's ever lived on the swing of that pendulum. 

First we're optimists, focused on seeing the results we want.  We can keep control--or the illusion of control--for quite a while, as long as we're confronted with no negativity whatsoever.

But then the explosion comes, and afterwards we're left wondering what to do.  A certain number of us will pick ourselves up, and put the pieces of Cloud Cuckoo Land back together.  

Others will find ourselves inundated with grief and sorrow, unable to find a way out.  Painful pessimism becomes the answer, as we're cynically convinced that happy endings never happen, and it's better to keep our expectations low.

I know that when you've been in pessimism land for a while, it seems like optimism is the way to go.  

Optimism looks happy!  It looks positive!  It has purple and pink with rainbows!  It even has a theme song!

Here's the problem. Optimism and pessimism are just two sides to an old, tired coin.  Both are about circumstances.  Optimism is about believing in awesome circumstances, and pessimism is about disappointed circumstances.

This spring, I've been slowly reading through Tim Keller's book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.  

In the book, Keller quotes David Bentley Hart, a veteran relief worker, who speaks about the difficulty of constantly living among the worst disaster zones of the world.  Hart speaks of a sustaining faith in God, and he says this:

"It is a faith that has set us free from optimism, and taught us to hope instead."  David Bentley Hart  (Quoted in Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, by Tim Keller.)

That statement rang in my heart like a bell.

When my own life fell apart 10 years ago, I knew I couldn't be an optimist any more.  

Slowly, I learned to live with reality, and all my painful emotions.  

I think that to outsiders it looked like I was going to become a life-long pessimist.

But inside, I was learning to hope in the real world.  To be be deeply honest, deeply hurt, deeply sorrowful, and deeply okay anyway.  

Optimism wants to define and separate, to reject the bad, and accept only the perfect. 

Hope, on the other hand, lives in mystery, and receives all of life, trusting in redemption every step of the way down the road toward home.

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transition sucks (forever and always, i'm afraid)

With love to all my friends finding themselves in a season of transition:  here's a post from two years ago.  

 photo:  Michael Bruner

photo:  Michael Bruner

Transition sucks.

I have been thinking about this for several days now, and I'm not sure there is much more to say about transition than this:  it sucks.

I know people have written big long books about it.  And they're probably good books.  Of course information is a helpful thing--knowing what to expect, if there are different stages, if there are certain things you can do to manage it.

But essentially, transition is a grief process.  There's a lot of loss on the way to the new normal.  Loss, by definition, is going to be painful.  And you just can't completely control that.  Anybody who says otherwise is selling something.  Probably their book.

It's OK to be sad.  Even really, really sad. 

It's OK to be weak.  Even really, really weak.

I know sadness and weakness are horrible feelings.  I hate them myself.  But when God says, "My power shows up best in weak people"--well, I think there's something to that.

I remember having that experience, living overseas, when I was so DONE that I couldn't even get out of bed.  I was in a profoundly difficult transition between the way life used to be, and the way life would need to be afterward.  I just lay there in my grief and pain, and somehow knew that God was there, loving me.

I had no framework for the idea that I could be completely useless and completely loved.  But it happened anyway.  I had that experience that Ephesians 3 talks about--experiencing the love of God, even though it is so great I can't understand it.

And then...well, it still took a while for me to change the way I lived.  I think I have a tendency to be a human bop-bag.  Knock me down with the truth, and I will bounce right back up to be stupid with lies again.  I can look back over a 10-year period of my life and see that same pattern over and over and over again.

It finally, finally got through to me a year or so later.  I was at this retreat at a church in Austin, bawling my eyes out in front of this pastor and saying, "When will it ever be enough?"  And this man looked at me and said, "It is enough already."  Words straight from God to me.

I think I had been in a process--probably my whole adult life--leading up to that moment to finally be ready to hear that I don't have to do one thing more.  God loves me.  And I can just be who I am, where I am, and He loves me.

Even if I have been in this place before.  Even if I should be able to look ahead and know that it's going to be worth it in the end.  Even if I feel like I should have this figured out so it won't bother me so much.  Even if other people think I should be managing it better, more gracefully, more spiritually.

Today, in my pain and in my confusion and in the constant transition that is my life, Jesus loves me, this I know.   I am weak, but He is strong.

Transition sucks. 

And God is good.  All the time.

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the illusion of control

I just read a really interesting article at psychologytoday.com. It addresses how human beings tend to respond to crisis and uncertainty.  

Essentially, we take control any way we can.  

And if we can't actually be in control, we'll give ourselves the illusion of control.

The research shows that in deeply troubled times--during world wars, for example--we'll join more authoritarian churches, invent more comic-book super heroes, and choose a German Shepherd for the family dog, over a Chihuahua.

It's fascinating to me that we human beings have such a need for control that we collectively do these things, pretty much automatically, to the extent that attack dogs become statistically significant.  

 My dog Petey.  He'll chew your leg right off, if he can bother to get out of the shopping bag.

My dog Petey.  He'll chew your leg right off, if he can bother to get out of the shopping bag.

That article made me think about all the other things that keep our illusion of control alive and well, whether it's

  • money in the bank
  • modern medicine
  • meteorologists and storm-tracking software on duty, 24/7/36
  • martyrdom to our ministry or career

But here is what we all know, in the dark of the night:  sometimes, no matter what, the bad stuff comes.

And at that point, you might need something more than Superman or an attack dog.  

Yeah, I know the Christian answer here.  You need a Savior.  And that's true.  But what I've found is that He's not a vending machine.  He doesn't save us the way we want.  There is very little pixie dust shaken over the problems I see in the world.

For every miracle I know about, there are 10,000 injustices still waiting For That Day.

Down the road, redemption.  Yes.  I know it's coming.  I believe it, I do.

Right now, it's a federal disaster zone, and that's what we have to deal with.

Honestly.  Painfully.

Here's one of my all-time favorite quotes on dealing with the aftermath of disaster:

"Don't get me wrong:  grief sucks; it really does.  Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit.  Mostly I have tried to avoid it by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible.  You can often avoid the pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession.  Martyrdom can't be beat.  While too much exercise works for some people, it doesn't for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering.  But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you.  A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart.  But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illusion won't hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion.  You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things:  softness and illumination."  Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies

The best thing is not protection or control or denial.  

The best thing is softness and illumination.

I think about the Prodigal Son a lot, running away with his life firmly in his hands.  I bet that even when he climbed into that pig sty, that kid still thought he could be in charge.  He still thought he was going to make it on his own.  It took him a while, like it does most of us.  But he finally figured out that the best thing was not more control or more denial.  

The best thing was softness and illumination.  The softness to remember love and the illumination to turn toward it.

When we run through all our other options, we may finally realize, like Larry Crabb says, that sometimes we need to look bad in the presence of Love.  Just open our real, true selves up to Love.

Love doesn't care how we look or what we've done.  

That's all taken care of.

Love just welcomes us home, every time, no matter what.

And that, in my book, is way better than any illusion of control.

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hello. my name is inigo montoya.

 

The Princess Bride is a movie full of fabulous lines.

"We are but poor, lost circus performers." 

"See!  The Cliffs of Insanity!" 

"Life is pain, highness.  Anyone who says otherwise is selling something." 

"You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles." 

Perhaps the most-quoted line from the movie is this:  "Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die."  

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