Same Spot…Different Day

It was one of those moments when, the only appropriate response was for my heart to squeak out an exhausted, “Really God? Really?”
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Context…

I am prone to bursts and gusts of despair and darkness. They blow up, sometimes unexpectedly, and sometimes very expectedly, with a ferocity that at times is crippling. Fortunately, with years of experience, with wise counsel, with some gentle and profound healing in the areas of my heart that generate the pain… for the most part… I am learning how to ride out the storms. I know they won’t last (even if they feel like they will never end), and I am often able to realize that there is an alternate perspective on my situation… that if I can just hang on for a while…I will eventually find the safe harbor of clarity. I am able to speak to my heart with words like, “This will pass. It isn’t the end of the world. There is hope. There is much to be grateful for in the middle of it all. Darkness precedes dawn. Jesus can be trusted with this.” I can usually find a storm cellar to climb in, just as the dust kicks up, the atmospheric pressure drops dramatically, and the funnel cloud appears on the horizon.

And…

Sometimes my life’s experience hasn’t felt like a day-long ferocious blizzard, but more like a prolonged winter that goes on and on. We’ve all experienced seasons of life that, if they were a color, would fall into the muted, bland shades of gray and brown and weak yellow…those seasons when stuff just happens…and keeps happening. And just when you think you will get a moment to catch your breath…along comes another punch to the gut. The result is that some days (some weeks, some months), it can be a titanic struggle to get my body and heart to muster enough energy and momentum, to engage, to initiate, to smile, to care. Of course, I am describing depression. In the past few years, I’ve wrestled with both emotional/spiritual weather systems – seasons of depression, sprinkled in with bursts of despair, for variety.

Into all of this…

I was walking in Chattanooga recently, and enjoying a beautiful evening. I was praying, being present to my heart, eating some amazing ice cream, and resting in the quiet and joy of exploring a fantastic city, all of which I love to do. It was golden and I was happy. And then, out of nowhere, on a relatively smooth section of pavement, I stepped into the one dip, and twisted my ankle. One moment, I was enjoying a needed respite from my turmoil, and the next, I was on the ground, one knee bleeding, the other ankle swelling like a grapefruit, far from home, wondering what in the world had just happened.

And while sitting on my backside, experiencing the rush of sudden bodily pain, my heart uttered the words, “Really God? Really? With all I’ve been through, You couldn’t smooth my paths and protect my ankles from turning for one night?” Without going into the details, I spent the rest of my evening…trying to figure out where in the world I was in my relationship with Him.

The next day, I got up early to take another walk. Because I wanted to see a sunrise, because I wanted to exercise before sitting in class all day, because my time in Chattanooga was limited and I wanted to make the most of it, because walking is good for a swollen ankle, and because God and I had some unfinished business between us. I am a kinesthetic pray-er – He and I often talk while I’m moving.  So I went for a walk. Again.

And, without thinking too much about it, I inadvertently ended up in the exact same spot where, the night before, I had been hurt. This time however, the Chattanooga track club was there, handing out water.IMG_5612

One day, this place caused me pain. Twelve hours later, it was where I received a cup of cool water.

Same spot, different day.

It was a powerful picture for me of some of the ways that God works in my life:

…He takes the same things that hurt me, and eventually uses them to bless me, teaching me to not fear the dips, but to learn to reframe and eventually welcome them.

…Sometimes pain stops me in my tracks because I need stopping in my tracks…because it starts different and more meaningful conversations with God than I would often choose on my own… because He wants me to pay attention to Him or my heart in a way I can’t when I’m busy with my own agenda…because what He wants to give me is infinitely more valuable than what He takes away from me while I hurt.

…There are times when God mercifully repeats experiences for me. The first time, things may not go so well. Something gets squeezed out from the inside of me that I need to see, or need to own. But the second or third time… there can be a different outcome. I learn or grow or change. By repeating an experience, He allows me to see the progress I’ve made. It allows me to see more of Him, parts of Him that may be hidden the first time around, but revealed with repeated laps around the same places. And it blesses me with what we call in the counseling world “an emotionally corrective experience”. The first night, my pain revealed something of my go-to impressions of God. I experienced God as One who callously hurts me. The next morning, I saw and experienced Him as One who lovingly provides for me. The second experience was a healing one, correcting a bit of something that was broken deep inside of me, that was actually causing me much more soul-level pain than a sprained ankle.

…And when I keep showing up for our walks, even when I’m limping…when I keep engaging, even when everything in me wants to isolate and quit, He accepts my walk with Him as an offering. He takes it and does something with it. Something for my good. Something that I would have missed out on had I slept in, or decided that my ankle was too swollen to walk on. The conversations with Him about how He uses the “same spot, different day” dynamic to bless me continues to be a powerful shaping dynamic in my relationship with Him.

 

 

Navigating The Terrain Of The Heart

The heart can be challenging territory. Exploring its depths is alternately a beautiful, sometimes terrifying and ultimately mandatory endeavor for those who want Jesus to be at home there. It is the core of who we are – not just what we feel, but the seat of our identity and life’s vitality (Pr. 4:23). God created us with hearts at the center of our being (Ps. 33:15), speaks to us through them (Heb. 3:7-8), longs to make them whole (Ez. 11:19), and blesses us with His presence in them (Eph. 3:17).  Who we are and were made to be is contained within it (I Pet. 3:4). And in certain seasons of life, He invites us to slow down (or stop), look around and see what lurks and lies hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) there (Pr. 20:27). simple heart map

Romantics, counselors, artists and poets often know its terrain well, as do those with relational gifts of mercy and compassion. Over the years I’ve met some people with such emotional health and warmth – they know how to love, be loved, relate well, be honest with and communicate their feelings, understand something of their motives, confess their sin and still know they are forgiven and wanted by the Savior and others. I love these people. I would like to be one of them some day. Sigh.

Intellectuals though, those who lean into their heads, often think spiritual maturity is found in books. In knowledge. In idea acquisition and mastery. I know this because I have spent much of the first part of my life in this camp. While the intellect is a valuable part of each individual, a head with out a heart is incomplete.  Those of us with this bent sometimes try to  justify and differentiate ourselves from our ‘heart-informed’ brethren by saying rather ignorant or arrogant things like, “Well, I’m just not emotional.” (Um, really?) Or, “I prefer to use my brain more than my heart.” (Implying that they are mutually exclusive, or one is better than the other.) Or, “I don’t have the gift of mercy.” (As if that makes it ok to be an insensitive jerk – because you know, God made me that way.)

So, recognizing my inherent weakness in this area, I’m making this a topic of prolonged study. (ha ha – intellectually studying the emotional heart…yes, humorous, I know…) In doing so, I’m learning some interesting things about the process of digging into this vital and life-giving part of my life. I thought I’d share them here in bullet point form.

Navigating The Terrain Of The Heart:

  • Brutal honesty is a key navigation tool. There are days I really like to lie to others and myself. Oh, I do it subtly enough. I usually cloak it somehow, under humility or self-effacing humor. Sometimes I prefer to blame others and point fingers, or claim ignorance, but the result is the same. I am trying to minimize that which I am responsible for and make me look less bad than I actually am. What I’ve found is that I’ve got to be brutally honest about what is going on in my heart. Am I angry? Sad? Disappointed? Is there some sin in there that is ruling over me? If I don’t name the emotion or sin properly, no matter how embarrassing or revealing it may be, then what I do with it will almost always be wrong. Which leads me to my next point…
  • Find a travel buddy. Just like you should never swim alone, you shouldn’t really go in to the heart for extended periods completely alone. Sometimes looking at things of the heart is like looking at clouds with a friend and trying to find shapes in them. “I see a bunny!” And your travel buddy says, “Are you sure? Because, to me, that looks kind of like a tiger that might want to eat you.” The equivalent might be, “I’m angry!” And your friend says, “Are you sure?  Because to me, you look terrified.” My point is, having another point of view can open your eyes to things you would never see on your own. And back to the first point, it doesn’t do any good if you lie to your travel buddy. We need their honest evaluations, which means they need to work with accurate information.
  • Jesus gets to lead the exploration. Unfortunately, I think many folks approach their hearts like they do most other things in their lives: with their agendas, expecting Jesus to join right in and follow their lead. Yeah, about that…Jesus doesn’t follow our lead. And the sooner we drop our expectations, our right to choose our speed, route, destination, etc. the sooner we actually get somewhere. It is sort of like when my 7-year-old sits behind the wheel of our parked car. It is sort of cute, but we aren’t going anywhere till she takes her actual seat. I know this because as I’ve dug in to my heart, I know I’ve said things like, “Jesus, let’s talk about my anger issues.” And He’s said, “Actually, I want to talk about your idolatry. And until we deal with that, we aren’t going anywhere.” I have the choice at that moment to get out of the driver’s seat and hand over the keys…or not, and stop all potential progress.
  • Pack some snacks. I suggest this tongue-in-cheek because the journey to whatever is going on in your heart can be a glacial, circuitous one that can take a long, long time. I’ve seen Jesus show up in some people’s lives and bring heart-healing rather quickly…but that has not been my typical experience. Instead, the sanctification process in my life is often much slower, messier and more unpredictable than I like, am comfortable with, or would choose on my own.

(originally published in a slightly different form 12/8/11.)

Um, This Would Be Fascinating If It Wasn’t…You Know…Me

A year and a half ago, our lives changed forever.  In the morning, we suspected Jeff had an ulcer.  By the evening, he was in emergency surgery to remove a blockage in his colon.  It was cancerous.  When it was over, I was talking with his surgeon in one of the little rooms off to the side of the waiting room.  It was then, she asked me a question.

“Are you squeamish?”

Because, looking back, I was clearly in denial…and because I had no experience yet in what exactly a surgeon might possibly mean by this… I told her I was a former biology teacher who had done numerous dissections.  I had a pretty strong stomach.  So when she asked if I wanted to see a picture of Jeff’s intestines,  I said in that enthusiastically optimistic way Davises do, “Sure, I’ll take a look.”

I am not a TMI writer and I don’t want to gross anyone out but…his guts were so sick…so inflamed and infected that it looked like balloon animals were exploding out of his abdominal cavity.  I could go on with the description, but… sit with that image a minute.

And in one of those moments of unintentional clarity, I blurted out words that have stuck with me ever since.  I said, “Um, this would be so fascinating if it wasn’t…you know… my husband.”  And then, as my intellect collided with my heart and life, the gravity of it all began to sink in.  Emotion began to rise and my stomach started moving in that way that let me know it was time to look away.

Who knew… I actually was squeamish.

A season of life has passed and now I am in graduate school studying marriage and family therapy.  I am on my way to becoming a counselor who, hopefully, will walk with people when their insides are hurting and need attention…or when they are in metaphorical waiting rooms of their own, wondering just what the hell happened to their world…

My days are often spent learning about the many ways people and families can be wounded and broken.   I love what I am studying and could read and discuss it till the cows come home.  For the most part, I can’t wait to get out there and enter the world of helping. (Did I mention I can be enthusiastically optimistic?)

Sometimes, I find myself flashing back to my waiting room moment…where the consequences of something  on a piece of paper became very personal to me.

I see all the more clearly now that these things I am learning about…Dysfunction.  Shame.  Fear.  Loneliness.  Grief.  Unhealthy boundaries.  Anger. Emotional woundedness.  Trauma.  Painful memories.  These topics aren’t just ideas in books.  They are real things that happen in people’s lives.  And not just to others, but to me.  These are the things that, if I were to make the right incision, just might pop like balloon animals out of me too.  I am more fully awakening to the realization that I am living what I am studying.  I always have been.  And in these moments when I glimpse the reality of the spiritual cancer that lies inside of me, inside of all of us, these words are echoing through my heart, “Um, this would be fascinating if it wasn’t…you know…me.”

Coming face to face with the depth and significance of one’s (read “my”) mess can be a weighty experience.  Coming face to face with Jesus, not just on the pages of a book, but as a Person who is with me…in the middle of all the emotion and pain…it is fascinating and horrifying… and so absolutely fittingly beautiful.

While the messiness of it all sometimes scares me, it seems to energize Him.  Thank goodness.

Hopefully, a counselor who knows Jesus as Healer for herself, is a better travel companion for one who is hurting, than someone who has just read about the process and the Savior in a book.   Hopefully, I am on the path to becoming both book smart AND experienced.  That waiting room a year and a half ago was an important stop along the way.

How Do You Not Get Emotional? (Being Human pt. 8)

Recently, I was on a tour of the CNN headquarters – a perk of hosting out-of-town guests. I got to spend time in the control room before a segment went live and briefly talk with a director of the news and some of her colleagues. She wasn’t a maker of the news, just an observer, gatekeeper and communicator of it. She has worked at CNN her entire career, doing almost every job behind the camera at one time or another. What a fascinating person! Question-asker that I am, I started with, “What was the biggest breaking story you were ever present for and got to cover?’ That was an interesting discussion, especially as one of her co-workers was present the morning of 9/11.

In light of that, the next question presented itself quite naturally. I asked, “How do you not get emotional doing what you do?”

Immediately, she and at least three different people in the control room answered emphatically, “Oh, we do!” Then, the director went on to point out something in the room I had missed. Boxes of tissue. Everywhere. She said they don’t get to look away from all the horrible things of this world. The child murders, natural disasters, injustice, tragedies… Yet they still have a job to do. Observing, gatekeeping and communicating stories. Often with tears rolling down their faces.

I’m getting a little emotional myself while writing this because…over the years I’ve ended up talking with a lot of young women. And some not-so-young. About stuff. Life. Their stories. Their pain. I wish I knew exactly how it happens. It isn’t that I want to stop this. Obviously it is a part of who I am – meeting people right where they are and walking with them a bit till they get where they are going. Wherever that is. But sometimes my life sort of feels like I’m in a great big control room, and all these screens are displaying what is going on in the world. And like the employees of CNN, I can’t look away.  I have to stay engaged, involved in the stories being played out not just before me, but in the lives of people I know and care about. And, like the employees of CNN, I am coming to the conclusion that not getting emotional isn’t an option. I just have to keep tissue nearby and handy.

Because I’m not unaffected by what I see.

I sometimes meet Vulcans out there – those people who try to disengage from their feelings. They have all sorts of reasons why their life-strategy is best: controlling their emotions lest they control them, leaning into rational analysis, embracing logic and rejecting the inner world of the heart, both in themselves and others. There most certainly is a place for some of this – and I’m speaking as a recovering Vulcan myself.

Yet…

Our humanity, where God chooses to meet us, is intricately connected to our emotions. Yes, it is messy. Yes, it is at times uncontrollable. Yes, it can make us vulnerable to pain, to the whims of others…to our human-ness. But to deny our inner world is to deny a basic part of our humanity… which denies Jesus a powerful place to meet us. 

Like the CNN employees, I am coming to realize that not getting emotional is not an option. Not a healthy one anyway.