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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Embracing The Bright Sadness

“Our mature years are characterized by a kind of bright sadness and a sober happiness…” Richard Rohr.

It is an interesting tension that older followers of Jesus are asked to hold. In one hand there should be hope and joy. It is the positive sunny perspective on life that gets us out of bed in the morning, looking forward to tomorrow.  It reflects our trust in and belief that Jesus is indeed more powerful

Clouds and sun, all a part of the journey. A beautiful journey.

Clouds and sun at the same time… all a part of the journey. A beautiful journey.

than this world and that He is indeed making all things new, restoring, rebuilding and blessing. Our tomorrows can be better than our todays – this is part of the birthright of children of the King, of those who have been saved and now have the Savior living inside of them. Our faith should allow us to smile.

Yet,  in the other hand we hold a sadness and a darkness that comes with living in a broken world where sin has had its way. It means we don’t pretend all is ok. Because, sometimes, things most definitely are not all ok. This awakening to the presence of pain can be a weight that at times threatens to topple us over in its direction.  As we age, most of us bump into a most sobering, and at times, depressing reality – that this life can really, really hurt. That sometimes things don’t always work out well or even good. Sometimes evil wins and we lose. Sometimes we can’t stop the suffering, especially of those we love. Sometimes life descends into a nosedive of despair that can be difficult to pull out of without medication, unhealthy coping mechanisms of some kind, or a very, very deep and complicated work of the heart and faith. (Phil. 2:2) And not everyone has the time, inclination or stomach for the heart work or faith that surviving such a nosedive into pain requires.

People who have walked with Jesus for a while are able to embrace both sides of this. Joy, while at the same time, sad. Light and dark co-existing side by side in our hearts. Grabbing hold of the two truths at the same time, “It will all be ok. It won’t all be ok.”  As Richard Rohr puts it, “…a kind of bright sadness…”. I suspect you’ve met people like this. They have a weight to them. A gravity. An internal spaciousness about them that allows them to hold two such full and complex experiences at the same time, negating neither, and embracing both. A bright sadness. St John of the Cross, author of the term, “dark night of the soul”,  called this mystery a “luminous darkness”.

And because of the internal and theological stretching required to hold all this, these people are able to hold more of Jesus in the created space.

As a younger believer, I never would have guessed this. Maturity in Christ means being familiar with sadness. Sadness is not a bad friend to have either. It can open doors – to heart things, to spiritual truth, to intimacy with Jesus, to great depth and wisdom. It can be a companion who knows things and shares them with us.

Willingly walking through the doors of sadness holds the potential to lead us to the doors of joy we are looking for, are wired for. But it is not a happy clappy, Hallmark card blurb, easy Sunday School kind of joy. Instead, it leads to the deeper kind that gets us out of bed in the morning when just that takes all we’ve got… knowing that even in the midst of pain, it is still worth it all. The kind of joy that says to despair, “I’m not afraid of you because you have something to teach me about Jesus, about truth, about me…and I’m willing to sit with you, walk with you for a while, in order to learn your precious secrets.” (Eccl. 7:4) Walking through deep sadness leads to the kind of joy that doesn’t blot out darkness, but overcomes it. A greater joy. The joy Jesus promises us.

The path to joy may meander first on the path of sadness. Sometimes for a long time. Being able to hold joy most fully requires that we first learn to hold sadness. And this is a most stretching thing to do. Which is why it is almost always older people who are able do it. It takes a long time and a lot of life to learn to do it properly.

Over the years, I’ve found that Jesus loves the simplicity of a child’s faith, the primary colors, the basic foundational vocabulary, the straight lines, the innocent faith and reckless trust. And I’ve also found that Jesus loves the deep and multilayered complexity of an adult’s faith that involves a lot of blurred edges, uncomfortable uncertainty, endless shades of gray and more questions than answers.

Jesus invites us to know Him from both places if we want.

But we have to be willing to go there with Him. The journey isn’t a short or easy one.

Jn. 17:13 …but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.

Phil. 2:12…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,

Phil 4:12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Eccl. 7:4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

(originally published 10/12/13)

“I Want My Heart Back.”

I was watching an episode of Chuck of all things, when my insides spoke up and broke my heart.

If you haven’t seen Chuck, I refer you to Netflix. It is a sweet and funny tv show from a few years back that, even with a silly plot, has these great characters you grow to love. The heart of the show is, Chuck Bartowski, who is an adorable chuckfinale_350120127155713underachiever, underemployed at the Buy More, a Best Buy rip-off. Part of a bigger story than he knows (aren’t we all, really), Chuck ends up with a spy supercomputer in his head. (Stay with me here.) He ends up with the very skilled and amazingly talented CIA agent Sarah Walker as his handler.  And together they grow. Sarah is incredibly driven, successful in her field and practically invincible. But, because of a broken past, she has chosen to shut her heart down. She is cold, calculated and unable to truly connect with those around her. Chuck on the other hand, while a slacker and goofy, knows how to love and how to be loved. He has friends and family that he is deeply attached to, and a real life – beyond just a mission. As time goes on, Sarah realizes that being connected with those you love is worth the risk, and she opens herself and her heart up to love. Over the course of their story, Chuck wins her to his way of doing life. She does not win him over to hers.  It is a great love story – a broken heart meeting a healthy heart… and the contact leads to healing. 

This is how all healing takes place by the way.  (Minus the spy supercomputer, in most cases.)

I don’t even remember the scene I was watching, but as this theme was playing out in front of me, I heard from deep inside me, a voice cry out “I want my heart back!”

And it was my voice.

It can be a powerful moment, when your insides tell you something is broken, without you even asking. (I actually think this happens much more often than we realize – we just have to be paying attention.)

It has been one of those seasons of life…experienced by us all…when what was color has turned gray.  When the joy that normally bubbles up goes flat. When external circumstances conspire to divert valuable attention and energy away from the care of my internal condition. When busyness takes the place of being known by others. And it seems like I either consciously or unconsciously decided that thinking about how I feel is easier than actually feeling how I feel.   I’ve spent years living from a head that was trying desperately to control and minimize my heart. This is why watching Sarah Walker stumble through an emotional learning curve moved me so. It is so familiar.

One of the great problems with this life strategy, which is very common by the way, is that when you attempt to shove bad emotion in the closet, all the good ones go with it too.  We may be aiming for “no pain”, but what we get along with that is “no love”. The cost to maintain such an arrangement is much more than most of us are willing to pay.

There’s a reason why Solomon teaches us in Pr. 4:23,  “… to guard {our} heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Because, when we lose our heart…we lose pretty much everything else along with it. 

We all do it you know…return to what is familiar in the midst of stress and pain.  Some people indulge their anger. Others medicate in whatever way makes them feel better. Some hide and withdraw. Some compensate with achievement. When he got overwhelmed, Peter returned to fishing. I tend to watch a little too much tv…and this time, both God and my heart came looking for me.

The question open to us all then is…how do we find our way back? To joy. To the whole-heartedness Jesus intends for those who love and follow Him? 

When we take our turn on the very human part of the journey that leads through darkness…

When we fall away from what we love…

When we end up on a road we didn’t intend to take…

When powerful emotions like fear and anger and sadness and disappointment stand so front and center in our lives that we will do anything to get them to sit down…

When we lose touch with that part of us on the inside that breathes life and gives color and taste and vitality and passion to our daily existence…

How do we find the way back?  The way back is the same for us all…we get our broken heart next to a healthy one…

We get ourselves next to Jesus and those who love Him.

And then we let the contact lead to healing.

Ps. 34:18 The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

(Below is a little clip from Chuck that pretty much sums it all up.)

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.)

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.