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.

 

 

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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.)

Healthy Rhythms pt. 1

“For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made so that men are without excuse.” Romans 1:20

I’ve been thinking recently about rhythms. God obviously loves a good beat. He spun the earth to the rat tat, rat tat of morning evening, morning evening. Then He threw in some swing with winter spring summer fall, winter spring summer fall. On top of that, He layered 6 days on, one day off, 6 days on, one day off. He sprinkled in the steady repetition of monthly moon phases and tides. One of natures most soothing sounds is the whoosh, whoosh of waves meeting the shore, one after another in a steady rhythm. He threw astronomical bodies into elliptical orbits, almost as if they were dancing with each other. Electrons and quartz rocks pulse so regularly we keep time by them. In our bodies He gives us life with the lub dub of heartbeats and the in and out of our breathing. Animals and women follow reproductive seasons that come and go predictably.  Sex is all about rhythm. When we hold our babies we can’t help ourselves: we rock back and forth to a rhythm only mothers hear. Who doesn’t get sleepy on a boat rising and falling in gentle swells? We clap when we are happy. Some people sneeze in threes. We don’t teach our children to dance. They just know to wiggle and move their bodies in time, as do all people throughout history and across all cultures.

There is a rhythm, an underlying beat woven into the very fabric of creation that speaks of order and harmony. It points to a Creator who loves to clap, dance, move and paint His portrait on the canvas of nature and into the most intimate places in our lives. Everyone sees it. Everyone feels it.

I think about this and begin to wonder about other rhythms in my life. External rhythms of what I do and how I express my faith that determine so much of the quality of my life. Internal rhythms that invite the Creator deep into my soul. I tend to live by a calendar and a schedule, which is sort of rhythmic, but doesn’t feel nearly as life-giving or enjoyable. Could it be that there are some things that fall naturally into an organic and gentle rhythm, like waves on the shore or seasons passing over the course of a year?

Rhythms of rest, study, prayer, disciplines, community. Rhythms in healthy relationships and the practicalities of being a Christ-follower. I’d like to explore this theme with a few blog posts.

The Dilemma of Saddling A Horse


While I am not a regular horse rider, I have on occasion over the years found myself on a horse’s back. And I’ve learned something that I think even horses know.

A horse reaches its true potential only when it is saddled properly – when it is capable of carrying someone – who knows, loves and wants to go places with him/her.

Getting a horse to wear his saddle properly can be a bit of a challenge, however. I know this because one time I rode a horse whose saddle was too loose. Let’s just say, it didn’t end well for me. I began tilting to the side till I was almost parallel to the ground and then…well, at least the ground stopped the tilting.

I’ve seen a number of folks attempt to saddle a horse and evidently this is a common problem. Most horses don’t want a saddle to fit as tightly as it needs to in order to support the rider. And who can blame them? It squeezes. Evidently, the smart ones  (which, I’ve found, is most of them…) will hold their breath to spread their gut. Then, as they walk away and can relax, the saddle fits looser.

How to solve this dilemma? I’ve seen two strategies. A saddler can repeatedly ram his knee into the horse’s side, forcing them to exhale, while they tighten the straps. The first time I saw this done, it looked exactly like it sounds – harsh. The horse and the person did not appear to have a very personal relationship. It was definitely a working one.

There is another way though.

The saddler can tighten up the saddle as much as it will go…and then stay close and wait. When they hear and see the horse exhale, they pull the straps a bit. Then they repeat this until the saddle fits properly. This method takes a bit more time. It requires the person to be attentive, patient…compassionate. In touch with the horse’s natural rhythms. To be willing to wait till the time is right and not force the issue. And the horse must learn to trust the saddler, that he has her best interests at heart.

Of course I’m painting a picture here of something of how God works in our lives. We, like horses, are created beings with great potential. And that potential must be harnessed. Saddled. For us to go places, we need a rider. And the rider needs a place to sit, a place to be close and in sync with us.

Discipleship is the process where we learn to wear our saddle properly. The spiritual disciplines are ways in which we give God a place to ‘sit’ in our lives. To lead us, to speak to us, to be present with us, to empower us to go places and do things we couldn’t or wouldn’t on our own. When done well, it enables us to become who we were created to be. It brings joy and relationship.

And yet, our first response to the process is usually resistance. We spread our gut and stubbornly refuse to cooperate. We don’t naturally like the squeezing that is required.

Which presents two options to God and the spiritual leaders in our lives, whose responsibility it is to help us learn to wear our saddle. A swift kick in the gut…or a relationship based on proximity, trust, affection and common purpose. In my experience, God almost always uses the gentle method. He even assures us that His yoke is easy and that He is gentle.

I’ve worked in discipleship ministries for a number of years and I’ve seen His people use both strategies. I’ve been the recipient of both. In my experience, banging on people may work for a little while, but it only breeds more resistance. Distrust. And this usually prefaces some sliding and an eventual crash of some sort.

And I’ve had a number of older women come alongside me for a season and love me. Encouraged me to trust them. Our relationship wasn’t always easy, but it always had an element of affection to it. I knew they had my best interest at heart and I was willing to go along with them because of that. They have been some of the most profound influences in my life – they are the reason God sits in my life like He does today.

Discipleship works best from a place of relationship, proximity, trust, affection, gentleness. For both the disciples and the disciple. 

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matt. 11:29