trying hard

To all my fellow members of the try-hard club,

trying hard this Monday morning

to love,

to serve, 

to help,

to understand,

to be responsible,

to make it better because it desperately needs to be better,

or just to make it through the day.

We all need to remember this:  we are not in charge.

And that is okay.

It really is okay.  We know that deep down.  

We need to bring our not-in-chargeness to the front of our minds,

and hold it there like a hug.

Let it relieve us and set us free.

We are not in charge.

Love is in charge.

Love is in charge, and we are not.

 photo:  Michael Bruner

photo:  Michael Bruner

Let the knowledge of Love, the experience of Love,

fill us up every minute of today, and bring us

courage,

strength,

serenity,

and the hope to remember that

no matter what happens,

we are safe,

in Love.

We are safe, and all of ours.

So hold my hand, and I'll hold yours.  

Hold on tight.

We'll walk through this day together.

Safe in Love.

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the embracing cross

This past February, Andy and I went to Italy.  We walked, we ate pasta, we drank wine, we looked at lots of art.

We went to Florence:

 "David" by Michelangelo, at the Accademia

"David" by Michelangelo, at the Accademia

We went to Venice:

 "Paradise" by Tintoretto, at the Doge's Palace:  the largest canvas in the world

"Paradise" by Tintoretto, at the Doge's Palace:  the largest canvas in the world

We went to Rome:

 Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo, at the Vatican

Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo, at the Vatican

Now, I love art.  Going to museums and art galleries is absolutely my idea of a good time.  But, in Italy, after one whole day, I was overwhelmed.  

We were in Florence, and we'd been at the Accademia to visit David at 8 a.m., then walked around a town where there's an elaborately decorated church on every corner and sculptures tossed into every nook and cranny.  

We wound up at the Uffizi Gallery that afternoon, looking at the work of one master after another.  Botticelli, Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo--all stacked in, floor to ceiling, because there just aren't enough walls to mount everything side by side.  Oh, and over in the corner there?  That angel was painted by da Vinci.

I felt like my eyeballs were going to explode, bludgeoned to death by art.  

There was JUST SO MUCH OF IT.

Lately, I have felt bludgeoned by religion, too, because in my world, there is just so much of it.  

Now, I love God.  Thinking about God and his grace and how He loves and redeems is absolutely my idea of a good time.  I care deeply about my faith and how to live it out.  

But honestly, I get overwhelmed with religious stuff.  Think this, believe that, put your hand up for this, keep it down for that, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? 

Sometimes I think it's a good thing that the disciples didn't have social media.  Imagine the "who's going to be greatest in the kingdom" Twitter blood bath.  

I don't care too much any more about anybody's perfectly parsed 24-hour-day antifluvanomian justifisanctional middispensationalism.

I've gotten to the place where I just look to see how somebody's great theology ends up treating people.  

You say you're speaking for God?  

Here's my one question:  how do you treat people?  That's all I want to know.

If you treat people badly, I'm not much interested in what Scripture Clearly Says to you.

Jesus said it this way:  "You'll know the Real Deal by the Real Fruit."  (Matthew 7:15-20)

If God is love, and we're the branches of that vine, then we have to be love, too.

Pretty simple, I think.

So, a week after that day in Florence, we were in Rome, at the Vatican.  I was pretty wigged out on art and religion by that point, but there was no way I was going to leave Italy without taking a look at the Sistine Chapel.  

The Vatican, though, is like IKEA.  They know you only want that one chair from the kitchen department, but they are going to make you walk past every cushion and pillow and floor lamp in the place, just in case you find something else cute on the way.

Like this fabulous camel.  Totally on the wish list.

By the time we finally got to the Sistine Chapel, I could completely understand why Michelangelo had painted himself into the Last Judgment as a flayed skin.  I felt like if I saw another 8-foot-tall cherub or embalmed Holy Father, I was going to shriek. 

Then we came around a corner and found this, in a little alcove, all by itself:

 Vatican Museum

Vatican Museum

The Embracing Cross, it's called.

It's Love.

Simple.

Direct.

Unadorned.

The ultimate statement of theology:  God loves us so desperately, that He is willing to die for love of us. 

While we are sinners.  

Before we get it all just right. 

Before other people have gotten it just right, He loves them, too.

And when I don't know what God wants me to do about all the pain and suffering and insanity of the world?  

This, I think, is the cross I'm called to carry:  the embracing cross.

To know this one thing:  God loves me this much, and so I must love others.

Most days, I don't know anything more than that.

And, strangely, it seems to be enough.

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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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