Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

The list

This morning I found another piece of God’s answer for me — and found he started answering me before I ever asked him anything.

Over the weekend I was doing some rearranging on my Kindle, and pulled down a book I forgot I had ever downloaded, “When Panic Attacks,” by Dr. David D Burns. I don’t think I ever finished reading it, or at least I don’t remember having finished, and I put it back on my Kindle to see what it was.

I promptly forgot about it again, because while I was paging through my list of books this morning on the treadmill, I was surprised to see it there. It took me a minute to remember what it was and why it was there. I opened it up to read a bit and see what’s in there.

At the very place where I left off reading, years ago, was a thing I needed to remember: thoughts determine feelings. Distorted thinking is at the root of much anxiety and depression. In short, we believe lies about ourselves. We lie to ourselves about our own worth, our achievements, how other people “must” see us. We don’t see the world for what it really is. We don’t see ourselves for who we really are.

I am driven to seek out truth in the outer world; it’s harder, but I will seek it inside myself as well. I’m not going to let a pack of stupid evil lies ruin my life.

I am going to break open that undifferentiated ball of “lonely” and “unloved” and “unhappy” and “depressed” that I wrote about yesterday, and I will see what’s really in there. I will root out the lies and plant truth, about myself and the people I know and my world. It’s scary to face, and I don’t care. I will do it anyway.

The very first thing I will acknowledge is that I am loved. I know the basic fact of this is true. I’m not negating my own emotional reactions sometimes, I just know they’re somewhere based on a lie. The truth is, I am lovable and highly loved.

To prove it, I opened up my scribbeldy notebook this morning and made a list of all the people who I know I am loved by, people I have positive connections with. My mom and dad, my brothers and their families, all my close family are at the top of the list; it continues with friends I’ve made online, friends I’ve made at my taiji school, at church. I’m sure I haven’t caught everyone (in fact, I made a couple of head-smacking additions at the very end, wondering how I could possibly have missed them earlier), but I listed everyone I thought of.

There are 72 people on my (incomplete) list. Seventy-two people who would disagree with my emotional wailing — that I feel unloved and unlovable.

In honor of all of them, I will find a way to root up that lie and kill it.

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Answer

Last night I spent a long while in brooding. I’ve been tired and downcast for a long while, with brief reaches up into the sunlight, but I can’t find my way back up to live there yet. In the end, I yelled at God.

I told him I don’t understand why I didn’t get to grow up feeling loved and and accepted, just for myself. I don’t understand why I don’t get to experience love now. I don’t understand, and I hate it. I want to experience love for once, to have it be more than a brittle fact that I’m “supposed” to know and feel, and don’t. I want to know that I’m loved and feel it and be at rest and happy in that. I want to feel this from God and I want to feel it from other human people, and I don’t. I hate that this is true. I don’t understand what God is doing with this life he’s made for me, and I hate experiencing the pain of it.

There were tears and yelling and more tears. In the end, I left the answer up to him, because I have to. I can’t command God to do anything. I told him, you can heal this pain and let me experience love, if you want to. If you don’t want to, then you won’t. Either way, I will serve God: I will honor him and serve him for the sake of having given me life and redeemed it. Honor is due for that, and I will honor him, regardless. But honor isn’t love, and I can’t generate love out of nothing. I will serve, but I can’t promise to love.

I went to bed downhearted, and got up the same. I lifted myself partway up out of darkness by following the morning routines that take care of my body, and by deciding that I must learn to love myself, whether or not anyone else does.

After breakfast, God showed me his answer, or what may be the start of an answer. First by a thoughtful writer in my RSS feed, and then in a TED Talk by a “researcher-storyteller” named Brené Brown. (It’s 20 minutes long, and well worth watching.)

There are two things in it which explain to me why I don’t experience love:

The primary difference between people who experience a great deal of love and acceptance, and people who always struggle to experience any of those things, is the belief that one is worthy of being loved and accepted. I have never really believed this. I don’t really believe it now.

The key to making connections with other people (which is what we human people are designed to do) is to courageously risk vulnerability. I never risk real vulnerability. Nobody gets to my insides, in any significant way. I will not let anyone have the opportunity to ridicule or reject me, based on the things I hold dearest.

I don’t experience love because I close off the possibility, myself. I starve myself of what I desperately need, and then wail to the heavens in my misery.

But I have been answered by God, when I cried out to his heaven. I must hope he has more in mind. Are these things able to change? Even in me, can I believe the possibility of change? The alternative doesn’t bear thinking of: a long, cold life of joyless duty and loneliness. That isn’t in the least what I want. I just don’t know how to change the things that would take me there.

Maybe God still has more in mind. Maybe even yet he does, even for me.

Gideon’s miscalculation

The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”

“But Lord,” Gideon asked, “how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (Judges 6:14-15)

That same night the LORD said to him, “Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.  Then build a proper kind of altar to the LORD your God on the top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering.”

So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the LORD told him. (Judges 6:25-27)

Gideon has this blind spot about himself.  When the Lord first came to him, he calls himself the least of the least important.  You’d think he was a poor, resourceless man. But when he goes to carry out his first assignment, he takes ten servants with him.  Ten!  Clearly Gideon has at least some standing, if he has so many servants — and the text implies he has more.

Gideon judged himself against the other powerful men of his time and found himself lacking.  He judged himself against what he thought it would take to beat the Midianites and found himself really lacking. But in objective terms, he was better off than his words imply.  And in terms of God’s plans, he had exactly what was needed — faith in God’s power.

Some of us find it so easy to catalog our faults and limitations, and so hard to see our gifts and potential.  I don’t think every human is like this, but some of us are.  I for one find it so easy to say “but Lord, I have so little going for me, how can I be important to anyone?  How can I possibly matter?”  But that’s not just selling myself short, it’s denying God’s handiwork, God who designed and made me, and also God’s resourcefulness — that he can bridge my limitations and move me into the perfect places in the world, where my talents and faith can be of the most use to him and do the most good for the world.

Gideon learned to trust God in spite of his self-doubt.  I’m working on this lesson too.  I’m far from perfect, far short of ideal, but the world needs people who work for good.  I don’t want to waste time doubting myself when God wants me to be one of them.

What I want

I’ve been of so many minds lately about what I want and what I chase.  It uses up so much energy, always chasing something different and never making progress in any direction.  Tonight I sat with my scribbeldy notebook and thought hard about what I really want.

I want to work with awesome people, like Coach Jose and Carolyn and everyone at the school.  Like Gilbert and everyone at church.  I want to work with awesome, encouraging, supportive, positive, intentional people.  People who care about other people and about their work.

I want to solve practical problems.  Stuff that makes life tangibly better for folks.  I want to hear on a regular basis “thank you for that, it really helped me.”

I want to keep writing and keep having things to write about.  I want more people to read what I write.

I want enough money to not be worried about money.  I want an income I can live on.  I want to support my church with money.  I want to be able to keep paying for taiji classes.  I want to be able to eat out now and then and buy books now and then and new yarn now and then.

I want to keep growing and learning.  To keep being stretched, but not stressed.

I want my employment situation to stop being a source of worry for my family.

I want a degree of respect regarding how I spend my time.  That time does not equal work, and that I will get my work done.

I want to grow into bigger responsibilities than I have held before.  I want to learn how to be decisive and always move forward toward getting good things done.

I want not to get too comfortable and lose the trust in God this hard year has forced.  I don’t want hard lessons to be for nothing.

I want to live aware of God’s presence.  I want him to be more pleased rather than less by the choices and actions I make.

The Essential Energies: Intention

My taiji class is at the point with our latest form that we’ve learned the basic choreography, and now we’re refining details and asking questions. This is the part where I usually get annoyed because some motions lack life and energy, and I can’t figure out what’s wrong. This time around is no exception.

One of the most annoying movements for me is called “Curved Bow Shoots the Tiger” in Sun style, and similar things in other family styles. This is the third time I’ve met this movement this year, with minor variations, and I still don’t feel like I get it. When I come to this bit, I feel like I’m just waving my arms around for no apparent reason. No sense of energy or flow. It’s aggravating.

One evening, after getting to spend a lot of time on the section of the form that includes Curved Bow Shoots the Tiger, I walked to my car after class, still thinking about this movement. I thought about the step, the shift of weight, the forward-stretching arms, and suddenly realized: I have no idea what this thing is for. I have no idea why I’m stepping this way or standing this way or moving this way. The basic shape of Curved Bow Shoots the Tiger doesn’t convey anything to me, inexperienced martial artist that I am. If I don’t know what it’s for, then of course I can’t feel any energy in it. I’m not directing any energy sensibly through it. I don’t have a point of focus. I can’t possibly know what’s right and wrong about it.

All through my study of taiji, I’ve been told that intention matters. When I finally realized my problem with Curved Bow Shoots the Tiger, that understanding clicked a level deeper. I’ve been trying to think of questions regarding the “what” of the movement, to help me perform the details of it better, in hopes that would solve the problem. What I really needed to ask first was about the “why” — why does this movement exist? What is it intended for? Asking that question has done so much more toward helping me understand this movement and find the energy that was missing. I needed to learn the “what,” the simple basics of how to move, but I also need the “why” in order to give that movement life, to fill it with purpose and energy.

Intention is the “why” behind an action. You need to have the “what,” the basic action itself, in order to make anything happen. But in order to focus the “what” in any kind of purposeful way, you also need a “why.” The “why” changes the “what” in important ways — sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, but always important.

Consider an example my coach has used. In a class of taiji students, there may be a wide range of goals and reasons for why people are studying taiji. One person may be training to compete, wanting to win medals at the highest possible levels of competition. Someone else may be trying to learn how to relax in the midst of a stressful work or family situation. Those different intentions should inform each student in how they approach their practice. The person who wants to learn how to relax may not be best served by training and thinking like the person who wants to compete. The competitor needs to have a serious focus on details; the stressed person may need to let go of details and just move. Two people can perform the same sequence of movements, without a ton of external differences, and yet what’s happening inside those movements and those people can be completely different, because of intention.

So I’m learning to ask “why” more often about my taiji practice, and I’m starting to also ask “why” about other things, especially any part of my life that seems to have a faltering or wandering energy, anything which doesn’t have a sense of purpose or isn’t moving forward toward success. I need to think about my intentions in addition to my actions, as a way to tune my actions and fill them with purpose, as a way to choose my actions wisely and not waste energy. I only have so much time and energy; if I don’t know why I’m using them, a lot of them disappears without much to show for it. That’s not what I want the sum total of my life to be, so I need to get intentional about understanding my intentions.

Crowns

I dreamed a lot this morning on the way to waking up. Most of it is gone now, but at the end, the very last thing, was a crown: I remember holding a crown in my hands, a jeweled filigree circlet. I looked carefully at how the light shone through it and reflected from it, glinting on faceted jewels. And then I woke up.

A couple of days ago I revisited the movie adaptation of the first book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” (If you don’t know the story, go read that instead of this. It’s very good.) The main characters followed by the story, the Pevensie kids, are promised crowns too. They are told their kingdom is already present, and in fact is waiting for them to save it, with many people already gathering to fight under their command. The kids (who have been in this strange land for less than a full day) receive this news incredulously. Their first impulse is to leave, but events conspire to make them stay and keep moving toward this impossible, prophesied destiny.

I think about my dream of a crown, and this story about kids who are promised crowns, and am reminded of another story promising crowns. The book of Revelation is full of the imagery of crowns. 1 Peter calls the children of God a “royal priesthood.” Jesus himself speaks about the Kingdom of God. I am sure he means a kingdom ruled by God, but I’m also thinking about the Narnia story again, in which there is a High King who crowns the four kids as kings and queens to rule under his authority. This is not unlike what the Bible says — starting at the very beginning of the story, when God made a man and woman and gave them dominion over the world they lived in. That dominion has never been revoked. Whether or not we consider ourselves royal, humankind has been given authority to create and shape our world.

Today, thinking about crowns and all of these ideas regarding royalty and authority, I find myself identifying a lot with the Pevensie kids, specifically at the point in the story where they discover they’ve tumbled into something much bigger than they expected, with other characters already treating them like avenging royalty when they can barely comprehend the idea. All along their story, they find more is expected of them than they knew, and the people around them take it as a given that these kids will rise to the situation — and in the end, they do. Not without fear, uncertainty, and pain, but they also discover bravery and faith within themselves that they never expected either.

I feel rather like that, thinking about the Bible’s promises. I don’t know to what degree these promises about royalty are literal and to what degree they are metaphorical, but I know for certain that I don’t feel worthy of them. I feel neither like a princess nor an acolyte. I don’t have the grace of a good queen or the devotion of a good priestess. I don’t live up to those roles. But the Bible already treats me as though I do.

God doesn’t wait for any of us to live up to these standards. He adopts us into his own royal family immediately, and then gives us situations in life that train us up to this identity or show us where we fall short of it. But when we fall short, we are royal children who fall short. We are never working to earn our crowns, we are trying to learn how to grace the crowns that are already being forged for us in heaven.

I don’t know what I think about this truth. I am grateful I’m not expected to earn this impossible thing; that’s very good, because I don’t think I could. I wonder why God would give me this gift, but he’s wiser than me and I have to credit him for knowing what he’s doing. It makes me want to live better, to live in a way that’s more worthy of what I have been given. The best kings and queens know their position is actually one of service, to take the best care of that which is in their trust. That’s the high standard we are called to grow into, following the lead of our own High King.

Paradox

“Perfectly free
Dance if you wanna be…”

This morning when I got to my kitchen and turned on my iPod, the first track it pulled on shuffle was exactly the song I needed this morning: “Church Music – Dance(!)” by David Crowder Band.  I think there must be a tiny little angel who slips inside my iPod sometimes to program the song I need to hear next.  Or maybe the Spirit of God juggles the bits himself, for fun; regardless, I’m always grateful when the exact thing I need rises up out of apparent randomness, especially when I didn’t know I needed it.

While making tea and oatmeal, this repeated line tugged on my ears.  “Perfectly free.”  We people forgiven by God are perfectly free; the Bible says this over and over.  Perfectly free.

Except it’s not true.  I look at how my week has gone, full of stress and unhappiness, and I am most definitely not free.  I’ve got obligations to people and businesses and myself.  I get trapped by my own body: hunger, hormones, pain, loneliness.  Not free.  Not in the least free.

Except it is true.  Jesus himself says so, and says he himself made it so.  He knows more than I do, and he doesn’t lie.  I’m free, all of us are free.

Except it’s not true.  Seriously, look at how we act.  Look at how we treat ourselves, let alone how we treat others.  We are not a free people.  We’re all stuck by the crappy parts of this world we’ve built.  Watch 30 minutes of news on any given day, and then tell me I’m wrong.  We’re not free, and we mostly don’t know what to do about it, except be unhappy.

This is the paradox every Christian lives inside: we are free, and we are not free.  God’s grace and gift to us is freedom, and our lives and choices and the world around us show us unmistakably that we are trapped.

The argument to untangle this usually goes, “We are free, but we don’t live out of the freedom we have.”  Or, “We are free, but we don’t know how to claim it.”  What good is a freedom you don’t claim?  Or one you don’t know how to claim, or know how to “live out of” (whatever that means), or one you don’t even know you have?

What good is freedom if you can’t experience it?

It makes me think about a very sad analogy.  Imagine a dog belonging to a very evil person, which spends its life either locked in a very small kennel, or pulled out to be abused.  It is trapped, in every sense.  Horribly unfree.

And one day the evil person is taken away in handcuffs, and a very kind person unlocks the kennel and opens the door.  What does the poor dog think?  Is it free?  How does it know?  Will it come out?  Chances are it stays put, right where it is.  If the kind person pulls it out, chances are it expects more abuse, and either cringes or attacks.  How would it know any differently?  It can’t experience the freedom it has been given.

This is the part where at least some people will say “but the feeling of being trapped is only in the animal’s mind.  It’s really actually free.”  Not so fast.  Only in the mind?  The strongest prison is the mind.  The mind is what keeps any of us from experiencing freedom.  It’s the mind that keeps us all locked up, even when all our kennel-doors are wide open, with Jesus bending down to peer in and say “seriously, you’re free.  Come out here.  Really, I mean it.  You’re free now.  Come here!”

It seems to me that a lot of people never listen to him.  They’re “free” but not actually free.  They stay inside their little boxes, happy that Jesus opened the door for them, but they don’t actually go out there.  Are you nuts?  Who knows what could be out there?  My life is pretty good, just the way it is.  My door is open now, so Jesus can come in my box and make it better for me here, right?

Right.

Some of us don’t get to stay in our boxes, even if we want to.  Jesus takes some of us by the scruff of our necks and drags us out, with us flailing and yelling, crying and kicking, saying “don’t beat us anymore!  Let us go back where it’s safe!”  Jesus brings us out into our freedom, and we hate it.  He wrecks our old situations and familiar patterns, and we get terrified and angry and yell at him (or want to yell at him).  All the while, he’s trying to heal us up and make us better and set us loose in a wide, awesome world.  And we hate it.  Sometimes we hate him for it.

Not free.  Perfectly free, and so not free.  Terrible, incredible paradox.

The real truth is that we are free.  Jesus made that true himself, and he doesn’t lie: we are free.  Our unfreedom is the lie, but one with sharp teeth that lives right inside of us, and we keep listening to it.  It takes time to learn how to stop listening, time and hard, painful work, and the patience of Jesus who keeps nudging us forward, even when (especially when) we don’t want to.  It takes time to learn how to trust our liberator and believe him above and beyond the familiar, intimate lie that gnaws on us.  In the meantime we don’t experience all our freedom; we live the paradox, inside our mind-prisons where we jealously clutch the keys that lock us in.

Right now I’m living in the teeth of the paradox, and I have to remind myself of it so I know where the truth is.  I still remember my small box, with a few comfortable rags and a bit of dry bone to gnaw; sometimes I think it wasn’t such a bad old life, and I’d like to go back now, Jesus, please.  But I’m trying to look around at where I am now, and see that it’s good here.  I’m trying to listen to the one who says “it’s a wide, awesome world, and I made you to run in it.”  I have to remind myself, out here in the scary open, that Jesus didn’t bring me out into it to beat me.  He’s trying to heal me, and make me strong enough to run with him.