Intellectual Depth – Healthy Rhythms pt. 3

(This is part 3 in a series on healthy rhythms that I began before Jeff’s surgery. I’m continuing it now. Part one, where I introduce the series is here and part two, where I write about the value of good conversation is here.)

Thinking deeply is a bit of a lost art. It is not that people don’t think about big topics or devote large amounts of time to personal study anymore. It is just that it is so easy in our culture to take in lots of information without digesting it. There is so much of it out there. Something is always next and competing for our attention. And our schedules are so full! There is little time to fully grasp all that comes across our radar.

In the course of a normal week, a Christ-follower might hear a sermon (maybe 2 or 3 if they listen to podcasts), maybe a small group lesson or discussion, maybe an outside book and reading the Bible for themselves at least, hopefully, a few times a week. That alone would be a lot to process. (And I’m not saying most Christ-followers should intake this much by the way. But some do.)

But then throw in the normal diet of news, texts, YouTube, surfing the internet, Facebook, email and hours of tv and entertainment. Then there is the daily visual and audio onslaught of living in our world. There is always a screen in front of us. Traffic to navigate. An advertisement tempting us. Background noise filling the void. And I haven’t even mentioned the more important time-consuming practices of building and maintaining family and friend relationships that takes time every day. What about the normal chores like laundry, dishes, helping kids with homework, shopping or maintaining things that occupies hours of our lives every day?

All of it competes for our attention and intellectual bandwidth.

We are busy people, taking in a lot of information. It is so much in fact that a lot of it marches in the front door of our minds and walks right on out the back. We don’t have room for it all to stay a while. We remain acquaintances with people we just say hello to and we become friends with those we spend time. It is true of people and it is true of ideas.

Therefore, it can be a healthy thing to set aside time, to narrow the scope of our intake and to challenge ourselves intellectually with one topic, rather than many. To slow down and focus, to think deeply about one topic. To intentionally choose what gets our intellectual attention rather than letting the world, culture, our smartphones or twitter choose for us. To intentionally read a challenging book, not rushing past it, but digging deep into its contents until we feel like we own it. To explore something off the beaten path of the everyday and mundane. To do some research, reading and pondering, instead of wasting our thought time by not really thinking. 

I’m not sure the topic itself is what is important, but the discipline, the rhythm of kicking my brain into gear and choosing what I think about, is. And periodically, I need to exercise the practice of not moving forward to whatever is “next” intellectually, until I feel I’ve fully digested whatever is “now”. 

This can look different depending on the person, their learning style, the season of life, the interest and/or the reason for consciously deciding to take one’s intellect deeper rather than wider for a while. For some, it may look deciding to turn off the tv for a weekend and using that time to read. For others, it may look like figuring out a hole in your education or the practice of your faith and deciding that you want to shore that up with some study 0r seeking out a conversation with someone who knows more about it than you. Maybe it is a trip to a museum or historic site.  It could even be reading your facebook or twitter feed more slowly and actually clicking on a link or two that a friend recommended – and then dialoguing a bit with them on why the topic is important, challenging or thought-provoking. Or maybe it just involves paying attention to when you might need to park and get of the intellectual car instead of just driving on by.

For me, sometimes my study time feels like the equivalent of eating a bag of potato chips while watching tv. I ate it, but don’t always remember doing it, perhaps feel a bit queasy and I’m not entirely sure I would do it again if I were paying closer attention. I don’t like it when I do this, either with chips or reading…so I am learning to practice a rhythm of greater intellectual challenge.

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Meditations On Loneliness

(Continuing my series of meditations on particular emotions. I’ve tackled pain, grief and now, loneliness.)

Sometimes, loneliness is not about the absence of people. I know this because I’ve never lived alone and I’ve still been lonely. I’ve never not been connected to my family, to my surrounding community, either of believers, of neighbors or co-workers, and I’ve still been lonely. I have lived my entire life in the presence of many people, many of whom knew my name and liked me, and I’ve still experienced terrible loneliness. How is it possible to be lonely, but never having been alone? While I know some people whose loneliness is a direct result of lack of contact with people, (those who live alone, are housebound, who are new to an area or culture, whose work or geography isolates them, whose life circumstances are tragic, etc) there is another form of it that I am more familiar with. It involves being disconnected. Let me explain.

We all have two worlds – our inner and outer world. The outer is very familiar to us, it is that which is outside of us, which we present to others and which all can see. Our outer world includes our physical selves, what we choose to post on Facebook or social media, our accomplishments, our words, our body language, our conversations, our attendance, our appearances, our choices…etc. It is the part of us that is open for everyone to interact with and see. But it is our inner world that is most truly who we are. In our inner worlds are those parts of us only we and God see – our memories, preferences, emotions, the stories we choose or are not able to share, our dreams, our fears and doubts, our character, our internal monologue, our thoughts about things, events, people…and this is the part of us that we sometimes (often) choose to hide from others for a variety of reasons. Maybe it isn’t safe or we aren’t comfortable with who we are on the inside. Perhaps we’ve figured out that people prefer a different self than who we are, so we pretend to be the preferred person. For some, what is going on inside of us is such a mystery to us (and maybe so powerful as to make us afraid of it) we can’t even explain it to others. Maybe we are ashamed of what is in there.

And so, when we choose to relate to others through our outer world, if it isn’t aligned properly with our inner world, our deepest, truest self, we can feel disconnected. Deeply misunderstood – and how could we not? People are relating to a part of us that isn’t authentically us. Our bodies may be one place, but our hearts are somewhere else.  It is like being very hungry, yet eating potato chips. Or having an itch on your shoulder blade, but your friend scratches your nose. It just doesn’t satisfy. And it can feel kind of awkward. This practice means we can be painfully lonely on the inside, even when our outside has a very full social calendar: because we are trying to connect with the wrong part of us.

This can hurt because…

Disconnection is one of the most painful of human experiences. We are wired for connection. In fact, God said it isn’t good for us to be alone. (Gen. 2:28) Even a cursory reading of scripture and observation of how the world works and how humans thrive indicates we are meant to be in community with each other. We are not solitary creatures. When we are forced into cultural forms and patterns that deny us connection with people, it produces loneliness. And a whole lot of pain.

I sometimes explain to my visiting non-American friends that America is what happens when you get everything you want. We wanted bigger houses, more stuff, bigger yards and privacy. So we bought them with our time and relational bandwidth. We don’t have time or energy for other people anymore. Not the way we were meant to anyway. We rarely live near our friends and family, and we are too busy working and driving to see them significantly. As a result, we are now a very lonely people, sacrificing the daily interaction people historically had with their communities in pursuit of our wants. How else to describe a society that is so affluent and materially blessed with all we could ever want, yet is so depressed, overweight, anxious, fearful of the future, angry and lonely? We are disconnected from each other.  And it hurts.

Disconnection/loneliness has one of its roots in unshared experience. We don’t just want to be connected to anyone. We long to be connected to people who like us, who are like us and who understand us. This means that often, we are looking for those who have similar experiences to us. Yet, how to find those people if our experiences are locked away in our inner worlds and we don’t share them with others? This is a conundrum. And it can become more complicated if we are in pain or experiencing loss (I wrote about this in more detail a few days ago in Meditations On Grief). Not everyone has lost a parent, has a spouse with a cancer diagnosis, has a chronically sick child, is infertile, has been betrayed by a loved one, etc. We need to find those people we can connect with around our pain. When connecting points are missing, either because we haven’t shared our experiences or because we don’t share the same experiences, we feel alone and lonely as a result.

Disconnection has another of its roots in shame. Shame is the powerful feeling of being unworthy of connection. (Daring Greatly by Brené Brown) We feel that there is something so wrong with us that if someone else knew it, they wouldn’t want to relate to us. The girl who was told, implicitly or explicitly, that it is her body people want, not her. The boy who struggles with a porn addiction he can’t control. The couple whose marriage is in shambles. Abuse victims with tragic stories tucked away in their hearts. While the circumstances are different, we all feel shame. WE ALL FEEL SHAME – which again, is the feeling that if others really knew us and our inner worlds, they wouldn’t want to connect with us. So we hide. We disconnect from the world around us. We become lonely. Gen. 2:25 describes how God intended for mankind to live. It says, “The man and woman were both naked, and they felt no shame.” We were made to be seen and known, with no hiding and no shame. Connected to others. Just a few verses later however, man and woman sinned, are flooded with shame, are now disconnected from God and each other and begin to hide.  We’ve all been lonely ever since.

God has a heart for the lonely. Ps. 68:6 says, “God sets the lonely in families…” God says that He will be with us always. (Jn 14:16, Matt. 28:20, Ps. 23:4) One of the primary things He longs for His children to learn is to abide in Him – to be with Him. (Jn. 15:4) If we can learn this, we will never be alone. He knows our hearts (Ps. 33:15) shares our experiences (Heb. 4:15), knows what it is to be lonely (Matt. 27:46, Matt. 26:40) and frees us from our shame (Rom. 8:1, Ps. 34:5).  He also longs to restore us into healthy relationships and connection with others. (Jn. 13:34-35) God has a heart for the lonely and wants to meet our need with Himself. If we can learn to open ourselves to Him and let Him love us, He is a most satisfying friend. 

But sometimes, we still need friends with skin on. While God indeed is great, and He loves us and wants to be with us, it is still possible to be painfully lonely, even with Him in our lives. Because we are made for connection. With more than just Him. With each other. We’ve been hardwired for it. So, part of relating to Him means we learn to relate to others better. In more healthy ways. We learn to not hide our inner selves from those in our relational circles. To share our experiences and stories, to really and truly listen to the experiences and stories of others and connect around them. To learn our shame is a liar, telling us things about ourselves that aren’t true. To create places for others, if they choose, to lay their shame down in the presence of safe people who love them.  These are most powerful spiritual skills, not often taught and often not learned. We often prefer the spiritual skills of Bible study and prayer, because they are safe in the realm of our outer world – and we can do them alone. But if we can learn to practice the subtle and messy skills of community, they invite us to relate more healthily to others and to God at the same time. They hold the potential to ease our loneliness.

Meditations On Grief

(Earlier this week I wrote Meditations On Pain. Now I turn my attention to grief.)

Grief is the heart’s and body’s natural response to loss. It is God’s gift to us, allowing us to experience, process and survive things we weren’t meant to endure in Eden. It enables us to eventually go on – even when we aren’t sure we will ever recover. In light of my experience with loss over the last few years, that include my mother’s passing, death of some very precious and personally defining dreams, several heart-wrenching moves and the overflow of years of unresolved grief that finally made its way to the surface, here are some of my thoughts on it:

Grief is universal – One of the unifying experiences that all humans share, regardless of culture, generation, economic or educational status or health is that we all grieve. (Pr. 14:10) We all lose things: People we love. Seasons of life we hoped would never end. Precious relationships. Prized possessions. Opportunities we really wanted. Futures that are robbed from us. No one on planet earth escapes unscathed. (Eccl. 3:4) This is important to remember because…

Grief can be isolating – The world doesn’t stop moving, even when our individual worlds do. In the face of loss and the resulting grief, we often still have to go out there and keep operating and interacting. This means we that often, we have to create a public face that is very different from our private heart. When people ask how we are doing, we answer, “Fine,” even if we are feeling the opposite of fine. We still have to go to work, small talk with acquaintances and rub shoulders with those in our relational circles. Because of social convention and practicalities, we can’t (and shouldn’t) share our heartache with everyone. And this can make us feel very, very alone. (Job 7:11-19) Many have had the experience of walking into a room with others, yet carrying great pain, caring about such different things than what others are talking about and with their mind and heart being a million miles away from where their bodies are. It is the feeling of being misunderstood. Unseen. Unknown. Not present. Because what we must present to the outside world in the situation is so far from who we really are. And it makes us want to disconnect, disengage and judge others for their lack of depth, compassion or awareness. It isn’t other people’s fault that their lives are in such different places at the moment… but still. It is so ironic that grief, what should be a most unifying experience, can also be a most isolating one.

Grief has no master – Many describe the experience of grief as waves of emotion. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you most likely understand this metaphor. It is like the emotion within you bubbles to the surface – maybe at random times or maybe with a specific trigger – and it washes through and over you. When someone you love hugs you and shares your grief with you. Looking at a photo or smelling a familiar scent.  And few can stop it. No one can say to their grief, “Go away!” and it obediently tucks its tail behind its legs and goes to the corner. Grief demands its say. It comes and goes when it wants, stays in our lives as long as it wants and with a magnitude of its choosing. In those moments when grief rises, some can squash and conquer it, swallowing it and denying its expression. But this is only temporary. The grief doesn’t really go away. Unresolved grief is a most dangerous thing to carry in our lives. (And so many of us carry A LOT of it around – because we’ve never given ourselves space to fully and healthily process the loss that has come our way.) If our grief doesn’t eventually surface and make its way out of our bodies the traditional way, it finds a place in our faces, in our muscles, in our backs. In our unhealthy relational patterns, our tempers, our inability to control our emotions in different places. Grief will have its say one way or another. This is why…

Grief should have the freedom to show itself – People grieve differently. It is individual. It is cultural. It is generational. Some people wail and sob and beat themselves. Some grieve silently. Some need others. Some want to be alone. Some post things to Facebook and some want privacy. Some people create works of beauty and art and others want to destroy things. Some people grieve in the moment. Others need time to pass before they can let it go. The common thread? People should have the freedom to grieve in the way that makes sense for them, that brings relief to the immense pressure in their inner worlds and that helps them make sense of and resolve their pain. (Pr. 32:3) When we tell people things like, “Don’t cry,” we are trying to deny grief its say. This hurts people.

Grief carries a deeply spiritual component to it – With loss can come the terrifying awareness that we aren’t in control. We couldn’t stop the cancer, the runaway car, the economy, that person’s choices, the timing of events, etc. And we can’t make things reset to how they were. Life is forever changed. In these places, we are faced with the reality that God is in control – and sometimes He makes choices for us, or allows things to happen to us, that are not anything we would choose for ourselves. Loss confronts us with God’s God-ness and our humanity. When we awaken to this reality (if we do…and not everyone does), grief presents a beautiful opportunity for us. (Is. 61:3) We can lean into our experience and ask God the really tough questions. We can grab a hold of Him and wrestle with our faith until He answers or gives us peace in our hearts that He is good, even without the answers. Or not. When we choose not to, we multiply our grief. Not only do we lose something or someone, we lose a bit of Jesus at the same time. (for Christ-followers that is.) We may not walk away from Him directly, but we may trust Him less. We may hold a grudge and deal with Him, not lovingly, but out of a sense of duty. When we do this, grief becomes exponentially destructive. Loss piled upon loss. Because of this…

Grief appreciates honesty – When we allow our emotions to surface as they truly are, when we give ourselves permission to grieve honestly…not as we think we should or how others think we should…grief responds. It moves through us. It deepens us and our faith. It strengthens us for the future, showing us that we can survive things we never thought we could. It links us to other people. It invites Jesus to come in and be our Healer, Counselor and Friend, knowing Him in newer and richer ways than ever before. It allows our broken hearts to heal. Part of the problem however is that grief can surface some pretty raw emotions. Things we are afraid to admit to ourselves, let alone to other people.  Maybe we are secretly relieved by the death of someone because it makes our lives easier . Or ashamed by how we respond to the loss. Or guilty because the role (real or perceived) we think we played in something happening – or not happening. When we deal with our grief honestly, not hiding the potentially ugly and dark things that pop out of us, we get the emotion of it out of our system. Denying it or glossing it over can be like leaving a bullet in a wound. It may close itself up and eventually look ok from the outside, but it is going to get infected. When we face our grief head on, deal with it honestly, welcome it to stay in our lives for a while and lead us to wherever it wants to go, it allows us to work through our loss. (Ps. 142:1-7) Then, we have the potential to recover.

Meditations On Pain

After the last few years we’ve had, with loss and disappointment piled on top of grief, sadness, shock and lots of spiritual banging our heads against a wall…I’ve been thinking a lot about pain. About what it does in us. About how God uses it and how we respond to it. Here are some of those thoughts:

Pain reveals what is in our hearts. Pain not only squeezes our bodies to their limits, it squeezes our hearts too. And when pressure is applied to our hearts, just like when a tube of toothpaste is squeezed, whatever is on the inside comes squirting out. Bitterness? Optimism? A tendency to hide or deny? Pain numbing behaviors?  A love for others and Jesus? Willingness to endure? A love of easy outs? Self-discipline? Joy? Relational patterns of hiding, using, blaming…or healthy communication and expression of emotion? As Solomon said, our hearts are indeed deep waters. (Pr. 20:5) And what is in there, is complex. It takes an awful lot to get what is hidden in there to show itself. But once we get a glimpse of what it is…then we have a starting point of where Jesus might want to do something in us. And if we are willing to pay attention to what comes out of us during the darkness, and deal with it honestly…well…this has the potential to be a very good thing for us.

Pain is unique to each of us. What hurts me may not hurt you to the same extent. Loss of a job may be a bump in the road for one and the end of the world for another. A three-year old loses a beloved stuffed animal that is her best friend. A wife loses her husband of years to a terrible accident. Both are in pain. It isn’t fair to compare and rank it because it is so unique to each one of us. (Pr. 14:10) Let me clarify – I don’t think all pain is equal. Some pain is definitely more…well…painful. But what I am saying is that I think everyone should be allowed expression of their pain, whatever it is. Each individual has value and each person should be allowed to feel and process their hurt as it is for them, not as someone else thinks it should be. And the rest of us should offer compassion – or a graceful distance so that the person can work their way to recovery.

Pain has a work to do. Nothing opens a heart, revealing what is inside quite like pain. Nothing opens us up to the possibility of change, asking for and accepting help like pain. Nothing opens our hearts to the realization that the truth of a situation might be much different than we’d ever imagined quite like pain. Nothing opens us up to the realization of the pettiness of what occupies so much of our time and affection like pain. (I Pet 4:1) Nothing drives us to the place where we need Jesus and want Him more than anything else like pain. If we don’t run from it, numb it or insist it can’t be God’s will for us, pain has the potential to do something beautiful and deep within us. (Rom. 5:3)

How God views pain and how we view pain is so very different.  It is an amazing experience to take off in a plane when it is overcast and rainy and ascend through and over the precipitation to what is above. Because the topside view of a cloud is so amazingly different than the underside view. I suspect the experience of how we view pain (from down below) and how God views it (from up above) is a similar one to a plane ride. We hurt and think, “Ow! This is so horrible! This can’t be God’s will for me.” Or, “I’ve got to avoid this, ease it, minimize it, deny it or medicate it.” Or, “God, how could you let this happen? If this is Your plan for me, I’ll handle things on my own from here on, thank you very much.” And maybe God sees us experience pain and He sees…the potential it holds…for soul-deep healing, for awakening to spiritual truth, for greater reliance on and intimacy with Himself. Maybe He leans forward a bit, catching His breath, knowing that the potential fruit of pain is eternal, while pain itself is temporary. Maybe He grabs a hold of our hands, speaking to us and granting us greater dose of His presence and love – hoping we will slow down long enough to notice.

We have some say in what we do with our pain. I know that sometimes, our pain is so great or our resources to manage it are so stressed that sometimes, we just react. We don’t really have the option to respond. But sometimes we do. God gives us the dignity to allow us to choose much in our lives. When pain comes, as it does for all of us, we have some choice what we will do in response. We can run. Avoid. Numb. Medicate. Deny. Minimize. Descend into despair. Pretend it isn’t happening or doesn’t matter. Create two lives – one we present to the outside world and the reality we live with in our inner worlds. Blame. Grow bitter. Or. We can let our pain turn our hearts to our Healer. Open us up to relationship with others. Invite us to grow from the inside out and find, with Jesus, we are capable of so much more than we ever thought possible. Show us the depth of His love by meeting us deep in the mess. Our responses can be as varied as we are. But the one constant between us all is the choice – what will we allow our pain to do to us? What will we allow our pain to do in us?

I Meant It, Even When I Didn’t Know What It Meant

(Written Friday night in ICU at Jeff’s bedside, after his surgery)

Jeff,

When I said, “For better or worse,”,  “In sickness and in health,” I meant it. Even when I didn’t know what it meant.

I'm wearing his ring, since he had to take it off for surgery.

I’m wearing his ring, since he had to take it off for surgery.

On that cold November day in our mid-twenties when I spoke those words…you were so humorously nervous about becoming a husband. Me, so in love and so oblivious to just how hard marriage could be. We were so sure we had it all figured out. The older couples around us must have looked on with a curious mixture of fear for us at our ignorance and joy with us at our enthusiasm. The same way we look at young couples now. Years in together, three kids and many adventures later, we are finally all grown up. Or at least significantly on the way.

And look at where we are tonight. You just out of another surgery to deal with the damage cancer is doing to your guts. Me weeping at your bedside, my guts all knotted up too. Who knew this was coming?

Really, no one knows what their vows mean until they have to keep them. I guess we know something about it now.

I look at you laying in ICU. Again.

I see you sleeping, exhausted and pale, attached to beeping machines with tubes running everywhere. Again.

I feel my heart ache, literally, with a visceral spasm that rolls through me from the inside out. My soul must look like angry waves on the front end of a hurricane. Again.

And I know I will have to do all of this again.

And I will.

Because I love you. Because just like on our wedding day, I am choosing to love you. I didn’t know what it meant then. I sort of have a clue what it means now. And I’m still in. Even though I don’t know what we will both have to do in order to keep our vows. I will try my best to love you with all I’ve got, even as it breaks my heart, even as it leads me to places like this. I will hold your hand and kiss your face and honor you until it is time to hand you off to the One who loves You infinitely more than I do.

And that must be a lot – because after all these years together, I’m learning to love you quite a bit.