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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i need you

 Y'all know I'm a good girl.  So I don't think we're ever going to have a day here on the blog when I confess something that makes people hyperventilate and pass out.  That cussing thing is about as bad as my behavior ever gets.  Well, and there is that margarita at the Veracruz Cafe.  But really.  That's it.  I am just not all that interesting in the sin department.

But what plagues me is my deep, deep disagreements with God regarding my own value to Him.  I have a hard time being the Beloved.  I grab onto it for a while, and I really get it.  But then something comes up out of the dark and takes a swipe at me, and I'm struggling again.

 

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the call: whose voice was that, anyway?

I've been thinking about The Call lately.  The one I heard as a teenager, that set me on the straight and narrow path to missionary life. I've been asking myself this:  whose voice was that, anyway?  Was it God's voice, or was it my dad's?

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3 reasons why vulnerability doesn't work

 

I am a huge fan of Brene Brown's work on vulnerability. I've put it up here on the blog, I've recommended it to clients, I've talked about it with friends.

But then sometimes people will come back to me and say things like this:

  • "I tried being vulnerable all week long, and he didn't even notice."
  • "I'm being vulnerable, but nobody else will be vulnerable."
  • "This whole vulnerability thing doesn't work.  Also it hurts.  What's the point?"

And that made me think about why vulnerability doesn't always have the results we hoped for.  Here are three things I can think of.

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the 6 gifts of failure

Ten years ago, our marriage failed.  The way we had designed it was a disaster, and it collapsed.   In the aftermath, we were able to build something completely new together, and that's been amazing and wonderful.  I love the relationship we have now. The happy ending is great, but lately I've been thinking about what God did in the mess itself.   He didn't just wave a magic wand and make it go away.  He used the mess to teach me, and He gave me these gifts through failure.

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blood on the floor

"If forgiveness is easy, there's not enough blood on the floor."  Brene Brown Wow.

I heard that this morning, and it just resonated with me.

I have always said that the way out of our marriage hell was a long, slow crawl over broken glass.

Before the crawl over broken glass, I was mostly trying to hold things together.

I forgave quick and I forgave easy and I tried to forget about it.

I never admitted how much I hurt, or how bad my marriage made me feel.  That wouldn't be nice.  It wouldn't be sweet.  It wouldn't make any difference anyway.  And maybe if I just submitted more, that would take care of the whole thing.

Looking back, I realize.  Before the crawl over broken glass, there was just never enough blood on the floor.

And a lot of the blood was going to need to be mine.

We lived, at the time, on a little island in the South Pacific.  And since we had medical supplies at our house, I became the de facto clinic in the village, and I dealt with a lot of tropical ulcers.

I found this picture on Wikipedia, and they say it's from 1952, but I think the color is too good, and I swear I could have taken this myself.  I can name the patient.

Tropical_ulcer

OK.  That's nasty.  I know.  I feel a little faint myself right now.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Scroll down.  There's a reason I'm showing you this, so hang with me a minute.

When somebody came with one of these sores, I couldn't put antibiotics on top and hope for the best.  Much as I wanted to, believe me.  I would have to clean it out, down to the bleeding flesh, where the medicine could actually work.   This was absolutely no fun at all.  There would be a lot of blood on the floor.

And here's the thing.

A lot of us have emotional stuff that is just this ugly, just this putrefied, just this life-threatening.

We're taught as little kids to say "I'm sorry" and "I forgive you" as a rote exercise.

And there's nothing wrong with that.  It's a good first step.  It works pretty well when you're dealing with sharing a truck in the sandbox.  It's like learning your ABC's so you can read Plato someday.  You've got to start somewhere.

But as adults, forgiveness becomes complex, difficult, and confusing.

  • What is my responsibility?
  • What is the responsibility of the other person?
  • What about difficult or addicted or abusive people, who never seem to get it?
  • What about all this pain I still have, even when I thought I'd forgiven?

I've written about all this before.  And we can think about it properly, and get all our theological ducks in a row, and go to therapy and whatever.

But eventually, all the gunk has to come out of there.

And the gunk is not just in our heads, in how we think.  It's in our hearts, with all the pain and disappointment and loss and grief that we just don't want to feel.

Everything we use to block the pain.  The work and the ministry and the food and the exercise and the shopping and the admiration and the drama.   It has to go.

God can only work with our living flesh.

Brennan Manning said that we can go into the dark places of our lives with Jesus, knowing that we're safe there with Him.

No matter how dark and ugly our gunk, His love never fails.  He always knows how to heal and redeem.

It's not easy.  It hurts like crazy, down in there where the light don't shine.

The stuff that's down there, down deep, that's the real stuff.  That's where I need to bleed, much as I hate to.

But I want to be healed.  I want to be whole.  I want to walk free.

And this is the way.

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the summer of being-with

This has been the summer of being-with. Being with my children.

Being with my husband.

I planned it that way on purpose.  My nest is emptying, and I want it to empty well.

The best way I know, to do things well, is to spend time together and build connection.

So being-with has been Priority 1 all summer long:  to laugh together, to be in awe of beauty together, to work on projects together, to have important conversations together.

To celebrate the now, to wear around the truth that we can still be connected, even when  we don't live in the same household any more.

To get a glimpse of what lies ahead besides uncertainty and goodbye.

Today, 10 days before college move-in day, this prayer of St. Augustine resonates with me:

I behold how some things pass away that others may replace them, but Thou dost never depart, o God, my Father, supremely good.  Beauty of all this beautiful, to Thee I will entrust whatsoever I have received from Thee, and so I shall lose nothing.

But in the summer of being-with, there's also a sense of waiting for the quiet that will come at the end of summer.  When we drive back up the trail of tears (aka I-35), when the new uniforms are donned, and the front door slams, and it's me and the dogs again, most days.

I have a feeling that I'm going to need what Anne Morrow Lindbergh says:

Sinking down through the upper layers of articulateness--leaving them behind--through thoughts--through emotions--down to where everything is dark and still and formless.  I feel I must sink to the bottom of the well before I can be renewed or creative again.

Because, while it's been a great summer, and pretty much the summer I planned and hoped for, it's also been an extrovert's summer, all this being-with.

And at the end of it all, I'm looking forward to another kind of being-with.

Being with me.

I need to be with myself.  

To be still.  To breathe.  To listen to love.

To process things in the ways that make sense uniquely to me.

And in the end, to be grateful for all I have received, and to trust for the goodness yet to be.

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i'm not helping

Every once in a while, a client will tell me that therapy hasn't done them one 8@!#&** bit of good. And when this happens, often the circumstances are a mess, and it feels good to zero people in the room.

And this is a sticky point in therapy for yours truly.

Before I became a therapist, I'd heard that the most successful therapy happens when the client and the therapist have a good, supportive relationship.  And I thought that meant that if the client trusted me, then I would be able to give my fabulous advice and she'd listen, and it would work and we'd all go home happy.

Then I went to grad school.  And what I got out of it ($30,00 later) was this.

The relationship IS the therapy.  

For me, anyway.  That's how it works.  We get hurt in relationships, we get healed in relationships.  All our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our disappointments.  Our questions about whether we are enough, whether we can be loved and accepted, whether there is meaning in our lives.  All those deep, existential questions of life.  They are held in relationship.

And what I personally have to offer you, as a therapist, is a relationship that (I hope) can grow strong enough to contain those things.

So when I have a client who says I'm not helping, that is not a good moment for me.  I start to question whether the relationship is working the way it should.  And it's really, really hard for me not to flip into fixing.   I'm an eldest child, such a good girl, emotional over functioner, blahblahblah, pick one.  Fixing is a nasty old habit of mine.

Usually the client desperately wants to have a to-do list, instead of having to trail tears and snot all over the room.

And I would like to do more than  take up space and emit carbon dioxide.

But I have learned that fixing is an emotional disconnect waiting to happen.  

No matter how much both of us want the fix, it's badbadbadbadbad for the relationship.

Fixing is all on the surface.  It depends on perfection and performance and approval.  (And you know all those things are on my icky list.)

Fixing believes that good circumstances make a good life.  And while good circumstances are nice (nobody likes comfort better than moi), "when I get x, y, z in place, I'll be happy" is a big fat lie.   And we all know it.  We need to dig deeper than good circumstances, to find the emotional connection that's going to get us through the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Fixing all goes along well for a while, especially when everybody is in try-hard mode.  But the day will come when it doesn't work any more.

She (gasp) stops following my fixing plan.  At that point, she will feel guilty and ashamed.  And disconnected from me.

And then I can blame her in my head, for ignoring all my fine suggestions.  And I will feel disconnected from her.

Now we're separated by shame and blame and we can't have the kind of relationship that supports and heals.  

The connecting (and scary and difficult) thing is to offer myself and a relationship, without fixing.

That's vulnerable for me, and I think it's vulnerable for my clients, too, because they're being asked to hurt for however long the hurting lasts.

When I say to somebody, "I think we just need to grieve through this," it is not a happy moment.  This is generally not what they wanted when they came to therapy.

And I get that.  I hate pain.  I want to feel better as soon as possible.

But I've learned the hard way that what I really need is to BE better in deep, healing ways that will lead to deeper connection, and greater capacity in preparation for the day when life takes the next whack at me.

I really want to pass that experience of deep healing on to my clients.

So.  When it comes to fixing, I'm sorry, but I'm not helping.

I would still love to be with you, even though I can't fix it.

Would that be enough?

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it's a wonderful life. i'm depressed.

"Real depression is being sad when everything in your life is going right."  So says Kevin Breel, a young man with everything going for him--except debilitating depression, which brought him to the brink of suicide in his teens.  (His TED Talk is well worth watching.)

And I think the kid is onto something.

We are OK with being depressed when something terrible happens, or if life is generally awful.  It's no fun, but it makes sense to be depressed in bad circumstances.

But how can you possibly be depressed, when it's a wonderful life?

Well, I think there are lots of ways that can happen.

You can be depressed in the middle of a wonderful life, when you've been running too hard for too long.

When you do too much for too long, you'll exhaust your body's chemical capacity to cope, and you'll end up depressed.

Listen to Tommy Nelson, pastor of Denton Bible Church.

This is a guy who, by his own admission, believed that if you just prayed, read your Bible, and trusted God enough, you could get through everything just fine.  And then he started having panic attacks.  And now he has a new understanding of what it means to be a human being with finite limits, who has a need for real rest, and help from good meds when necessary.

When I was depressed, this was part of the problem.  We had a stressful life overseas.  Even though we wanted to be there, and there were many good things about it, it was still stressful.  And then extra things kept happening and happening and happening.  And eventually, my body and my brain chemistry just couldn't keep up with the demands anymore.  Kind of like a diabetic.  Too much sugar, not enough insulin.  Danger, Will Robinson.

You can be depressed in the middle of a wonderful life when you've got unresolved grief and pain.

I can't tell you how many people come to me and say, "I wasn't abused as a child.  I don't understand why I'm depressed."  Somehow, we have collectively gotten the idea that child sexual abuse is an OK reason for adults to be depressed, but that's pretty much it.  You're only allowed to have grief and pain if certain truly terrible things happened.

Unfortunately, nobody got the memo to the toddlers of this world.  "Hello, kiddies, I know you are terrified right now and it looks like your world is coming to an end, but don't worry, there are kids who have it way worse than you do, so you have no right to be upset."

As adults we look back and rationalize, "Oh, it wasn't that bad."  But when you're little, it is that bad.  The grief and pain of our childhood is legitimate grief and pain.

And, when I was depressed, this was part of my problem, too.  I had grief and pain, but I had no permission to have grief and pain.  I could never work through anything, because I wasn't supposed to have anything to work through.  I looked strong, perfect, and invulnerable.  But I was really lonely and sad and broken.

You can be depressed in the middle of a wonderful life when you have bad boundaries.

Because your wonderful life isn't yours.  It belongs to the expectations others.  You're a slave to the expectations, to the demands, to the guilt, to the shame.  You can't say no.  Your life is fake.  It's a lie.  Even lies that are told to be nice, so that other people will be happy, are lies.  

And ultimately, lies belong to The Bad Guy, y'all.   The roaring lion is tearing you up inside with lies, and that's why it feels so bad.

I have lived with bad boundaries for most of my life.   When I have bad boundaries, everybody else gets to say what's best for me.  I don't listen to God.  I listen to whoever yells the loudest, and I try to stop them from yelling.  And living like that makes me wonder, "Why am I even here?  I have no voice, I have no meaning.  I don't matter."

Mostly, I think, we get depressed in the middle of a wonderful life because we start depending on our wonderful life to define us.

We all say that the interior life is what matters.

But really?  Really, truly?

We believe that being beautiful and thin will make us happy.  We believe that being recognized and applauded will make us happy.  We believe that more money will make us happy.  The right house.  The cutest kid.  The best college.  The most meaningful job.

And we get a little adrenaline bump from somebody telling us how fabulous we are, so we keep doing it, because it seems to work.

Until we find ourselves in a far country, behind of wall of glittering garbage, surrounded by people who all believe we are something we are not.

The truth is far from us, and we don't know how to dig out of our mess and find our way home again.

Here's what I think needs to happen.

We get real.

  • We get real about how many hours there are in the day, and what we can reasonably do.  We stop trying to save the world, and let God have His job back again.  We go to the doctor and get medication if we need to.
  • We get real about our grief and pain, and we let ourselves feel it and work through it.  We talk to our nearest and dearest about what's in our hearts.
  • We get real about our close relationships and we work on our boundaries.  (Boundaries, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.)
  • We get real about our wonderful life, and we get willing to let go and let God.  (Celebrate Recovery is nation-wide, and a great place to go for support.)

Most of all, we learn to do what Brennan Manning says:

"Define yourself radically as one Beloved by God.  This is the true self.  Every other identity is illusion."

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