Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Closer Than They Appear

It's an interesting paradox...the way(s) some life events leave you very much in need of human companionship, compassion, and understanding yet also have a way of leaving you desirous of no such thing. You just want to be left alone...well...at least I do. 

Though I'm typically friendly and open when I encounter new people, my overall nature is extraordinarily introverted, so high levels of tension, stress, anxiety, or grief will drive me quickly inward. You will never see me at things like divorce care, grief share, 12 steps, life skills—nothing that involves putting my "stuff" or my inner life up for group conversation. Yeesh! Makes me bristle just thinking about it!

But when I think about my social circles of neighbors, co-workers, and even close friends then I can see the ways in which my tendency to withdraw—though it has some valuable benefits found 
only in the stillness of solitude—has a way of distorting how I feel and think...how I see not only my circumstances, but the people around me. When solitude slips into a propensity toward isolation, everyone and everything looks different to me...dangerous, intrusive, and untrustworthy. Distant.

It's a slow fade from solitude to isolation, but (for me) it almost always begins with a tendency toward negativity and ascribing questionable motives to even the people closest to me...perhaps especially the people closest to me. For example, if they are enthusiastic about something, then I am apathetic at best, and all out discouraging at worst. "Why do you want to go to that? You're not gonna like it." "Don't invite ____ _______. He/she is too _____ and then we'll have to _______." In sum, I turn even the simplest things into a burden and a criticism.

Of course, I don't realize I'm doing it at first, but by the time I do the darkness has settled in and I no longer care or have strength to combat it. In due time, everything is distorted, and I have all but completely lost not only my redeeming outlook on life and my interest in others, but also my hope and my joy in living. I have no expectations for anything other than a dark life of strife, sorrow, and betrayal in a world marked by sin. It's not pretty...unless you count pretty negative.

Plenty of people come to such a place in the midst of trying times, but as a woman of faith with a mission and a ministry, God keeps it impressed upon my heart that I have a responsibility to dig my way out and get back on the path of redemption. Sadly, that doesn't always mean I come quickly or quietly. Surrendering to God means vulnerability all over the place, and who can stomach that when they're already in a dark place? 

So I have learned how to let my sin and darkness fly under radar—saying and doing just enough of the right things to keep from arousing too much suspicion. But eventually even that breaks down. The "Enter At Your Own Risk" sign begins to flash above my head.

You can only imagine how these behaviors begin to inbreed...and the mutant products of conception they yield. My relationships with self, others, and God all become tenuous. Some ultimately grow troubled, and it is my fault. I'm ashamed to admit that everyone suffers the consequences of my isolation whether I realize it or not. And ultimately, if it gets bad enough, I don't really care.

I make this confession knowing full well that it exposes a darker side of myself—one that isn't very attractive—but I share it knowing with certainty that many other people struggle similarly. And anyway,at the end of the day, this pattern replicates the trouble that came with the first human sin...a belief in the lies that told to us in our darkness.

The best wisdom that was ever shared with me was four simple words: Don't believe the lies. These are the lies that erupt like weeds from the first moment I begin to converse with the darkness and discount the Truth. From that moment on, I begin buying stock in lies—creating options to purchase a full blown campground of lies where I put up my tent and 1 Corinthians 10:13 is left at the curb like trash.

1 Corinthians 10:13

New King James Version (NKJV)
13 No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.

The way out is always in the Word, in confession, and in repentance. The lies cannot stand in the light of the Truth found in Scripture. The Truth has much power in its confession/expression/profession, but most importantly in its movement in the opposite direction of the lies...repentance. A half turn will never cut it. What's required is a full sprint away from the darkness—a sprint where we are shouting the Truth the whole way, crying out to the Savior for rescue. He will always come.

When we flee from what is evil and cling to what is good we begin to see God's love, and the people and circumstances He brings into our lives, as much closer, safer, and truer than we see them when we looking at them through the side view mirrors. We use the mirrors to avoid collisions with people and feelings that want to know us. But these are also collisions with love and grace...truth and peace...hope and joy, so...don't believe the lies.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Trouble with Forward

While I was driving to work this morning my thoughts turned to a number of people and situations in my life that might be best categorized as stuck. Each stuck scenario I considered had its roots in some very deep grief. Grief for past wounds. Grief for abuses suffered. Grief for betrayals. Grief for broken marriages. Grief for broken relationships. Grief for wayward children. Grief for deceased parents, siblings, family, and friends. And, what I consider to be the absolute worst grief of all, grief for children who have died. So many wounds to the soul.

"No wonder so many of us seem to be stuck, or operating in a sort of surreal, frame-by-frame slow motion," 
I thought.There's a heck of a lot of grieving going on."

It's not like me to be prescriptive when God gives me an insight, so I don't claim to have a cure for stuckness. In fact, though it may just be me protecting my own "right" and propensity to be stuck, I can't help thinking that getting unstuck has more to do with a combination of things coming together at just the right time, rather than any single action or determination of the will. But if I were to make any valuable contribution to the pool of wisdom on unsticking and moving forward, I'd have to say that a significant part of the trouble we have (or at least I have) with moving forward is really our perception of what forward is and entails.

When we're stuck we often create unwittingly an inaccurate pathology of forward. The smallest steps away from an uninterrupted relationship with grief—pulling away from grief's perpetual hold upon our thoughts, decisions, actions, reactions, relationships, spirit, soul, health, energy, etc—seem to trigger a belief that forward means, among other things, fast forward. And the thing is, fast forward anxiety makes a TON of assumptions and presuppositions that do more to add weight to the pain and suffering of grief than to help us see the next step, take the next breath, or face the next day. Fast forward anxiety propels the vortex of fear that whirls so violently when we come face-to-face with precisely how much in this life is out of our control.

Fast forward anxiety operates under the assumption that something beloved, important, incomplete, or necessary will be left behind and cause us more trouble and pain later. It presupposes how we will feel in each yet-to-be-experienced moment, and says that all painful feelings, thoughts, and experiences MUST be avoided. Fast forward anxiety also presupposes that all the new (and probably normal) anxieties that emerge will make things impossibly worse and hinder a more timely effort to disentangle from grief later. 

For example, fast forward reasons that if someone sees us enjoying ourselves they will believe we are "over it" and fully able to participate in "normal" life again. What fast forward anxiety doesn't tell us is that we have the ability to say, "Hey, I'm just trying this out today. It's exhausting. I can't promise you I'll feel like doing it again soon."  Fast forward anxiety decides in advance to tell no one about its assumption because it doesn't want to be questioned or challenged. Fast forward anxiety says that if we expose it to others they will trip some sort of mine that makes everything worse. I would venture to say that fast forward anxiety tells the greatest lie of disempowerment: If you move forward, you will lose control.

Of course, the irony is that the situations that lead us into the deepest griefs are very often the sites where we learn that so little of life is ever fully within our control in the first place. The situations and occurrences that trigger the most disabling griefs are very often a tangled web of things that operate from both within and without our control. A spouse cheats. Health fails. An abuse takes place. Someone dies. Someone leaves. Something ends. The lies of grief speak fragments of truth into a network of reality that has many complex contributors operating outside our control. Fast forward anxiety, then, is birthed out of that same flawed system where bits of truth are caught up in half-truths and all-out lies of the mind, and the darkness of the spirit. It draws us away from God and love and hope and people...life.

Real "forward" is probably best characterized as something other than linear progress. Real forward is more like journeying. Whenever we journey we never travel entirely alone, no matter who or what we choose or do not choose to take with us. We can push away from the people and places that trigger our pain, but the fact is that memories—faces, places, histories, events, etc—tag along with us anyway. So does God. And because God is our constant companion, even amid our most profound grief—a time when He seems most veiled—we can put fast forward anxiety in its place...behind God, not ahead or instead of Him. Over and over and over again in the Bible, God tells us not to fear. Anxiety and God don't mix.

The call to fearlessness tells me that the one who knows me best of all because He "formed my inward parts [and] knitted me together in my mother's womb" knows that He has made a way for me to be unafraid.

He has given us the best and most immutable motive/reason to be unafraid...because He is with us. His very presence in our lives—with us—means that there is no basis for buddying-up with fear...in fact, it's kinda disobedient and adds to our troubles. (And I'm not just talking to my sisters and brothers here, by the way. I'm talking to me...the Disobedience Cover Girl (ok...middle aged woman...Ugh! Whatever!).

At the end of the day, the trouble with forward isn't really trouble at all; it's a plain fact. Whether we stay stuck, move backward, move forward, go in circles, rock side-to-side, jump up and down, or roll over and play dead, the one earthly life that we have been given continues on its linear progression, and (like it or not) we go with it. The sights we see are the variables that we can and must influence by fleeing from fear, because fear is about punishment and imprisonment, not reconciliation and freedom.

What a waste, then, to give fear the reins and allow it to entrench us in all the angriest, darkest, loneliest, and most misbegotten sites of grief
rather than the inexpressibly beautiful ones— the places where we find that we can love God and enjoy Him forever in the here and now, by loving others and by forgiving and reconciling with both the living and the dead, and all the skeletons in our closets. 

Whatever we grieve and lose, God also provides us with a treasure trove of healing gifts and comforts and people to help us access the realms of gratitude, peace, and  joy that make the journey forward a journey that is safer, more tolerable, often interesting, and nearer to the Savior than if we pitch our tents in fear and camp among the people who allow us to live there rent-free, and without responsibility.

1 Corinthians 10:13

Amplified Bible (AMP)
13 For no temptation (no trial regarded as enticing to sin), [no matter how it comes or where it leads] has overtaken you and laid hold on you that is not common to man [that is, no temptation or trial has come to you that is beyond human resistance and that is not adjusted and adapted and belonging to human experience, and such as man can bear]. But God is faithful [to His Word and to His compassionate nature], and He [can be trusted] not to let you be tempted and tried and assayed beyond your ability and strength of resistance and power to endure, but with the temptation He will [always] also provide the way out (the means of escape to a landing place), that you may be capable and strong and powerful to bear up under it patiently.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Indispensable. Non-disposable.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

New Living Translation (NLT)
Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. 10 If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.11 Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? 12 A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in human relationships, maybe most particularly in our harried, 21st century lives, is appreciating the people God brings into our lives--those who are absolutely indispensable...NON-disposable

Most of us don't wake up in the morning planning to discount our fellow human beings, but with so many demands upon our lives, so little time, and SOOOO much popular wisdom (even in evangelical circles) encouraging a "me first" way of life, it's easy to let some of the most important, yet often invisible, people in our lives go unnoticed, unappreciated--perhaps casually thanked, but essentially dismissed. None of us wants to admit it...but we all do it. And THAT really is NOT OK!

Some of us don't have to do much thinking about who the under-appreciated people are in our lives, because conscience throbs at the sound of their names. But even if we can call them to mind before reading the end of this sentence, it's worth performing a little gratitude test to get a complete picture.

I stumbled upon the appreciation test while my job was in jeopardy some time ago. My boss at that time--someone whose methods of encouragement and inspiration required a good bit of imagination--was holding my job in the balance and challenging me to prove myself indispensable to the organization so that I would not become disposable...unemployed. Let me say that my self-esteem absolutely plummeted as I tried to process the fact that I'd been deemed dispensable and so the most disposable among an already skeletal staff.  It wasn't until God intervened, in ways I could not have predicted, that I gained the insight and the confidence I needed to fight for my job.

In the throes of my self-pity, self-righteousness, and despair, I'd failed to be my own best advocate. I'd already discounted the long chain of mostly unseen contributions that I'd taken on and sustained throughout the course of my employment. My contributions ran the gamut from crafting executive level documents, to forging connections with other organizations, to taking on jobs no one else was interested in, to actually cleaning the bathrooms! And there were a whole host of small things I was doing on an individual level for other staff members--things for which I sought no public acknowledgment, but believed to be valuable because they were investments of time, talents, and treasures that enabled them to deliver their best work.

Throughout my Christian walk, I'd been consistently taught the importance of selflessness, humility, and un-lauded service and generosity as hallmarks of Christ's likeness. So in an effort to truly live as one willing to be a suffering servant, I'd learned to swallow my pride more often than not--finding myself again and again on my knees repenting of anything that appeared to me as the desire to be recognized and appreciated.

As noble (or martyred...?) as that might seem, I was failing in one extremely important way. I had no confidence...no genuine assurance of my significance through Christ, or sense of any real value that my work and ministry added to the lives of others.  I'd been silently and unwittingly choking to death on the reality of being human...the daily assaults upon my dignity, worth, and purpose by others struggling in the same tangled web. Where was the line, I wondered, between Christ-like humility and and my unavoidable humanity?

While endeavoring to live my faith and be like Jesus, I lost the confidence I needed to walk tall in my job, share my ideas with conviction, and demonstrate my worth to the organization. I didn't know how to fight for my job when the time came, so all I had was a  prayer closet filled with the brittle bones of my pride, and the raw flesh of my perceived insignificance. I'd forgotten to bring out of that closet the confidence that comes with knowing who I am in Christ. I forgot to carry the words of Jesus out with me from the closet into the workplace and all my relationships.

Luke 12:6-7

English Standard Version (ESV)
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

But the reminder of my worth to Jesus was not the only lesson I'd learned when I'd suddenly been shoved to the threshold of looming disaster and unemployment. I also had the chance to think about the invisible, indispensable people in my own life--the folks who never ask for my time, treasures, or talents, but continuously gave me theirs. I had to take a good hard look at how much appreciation and gratitude I'd expressed (and genuinely felt) for people who were invisible...the ones who pray regularly for me and my family, who are the first to jump in and help with some time-consuming, unrewarding, and unglorious chore again and again and again, the ones whose greatest demands upon my life are the hope for simple acts of listening, and who keep secret their longing to be included in meaningful parts of my life and assured that their contributions to my success, safety, and well-being are meaningful.

I discovered that I'd developed my own casual habits of dismissive and ungrateful behavior. And while I'd never said to someone, "Prove to me that you are indispensable, or I will dispose of you," I certainly found that I'd treated some pretty indispensable people as if they were entirely disposable. My gratitude was scarcely measurable in relation to what I'd been receiving. I was no more generous or inspiring than the boss who'd left me feeling so worthless.

I'm not here to lay on the guilt, but I challenge you to do two things the next time you're feeling unappreciated. First, pray for insight and revelation as you search the scriptures for evidence of your value and purpose in life. Do you truly find your greatest worth and sense of significance in Christ? Or are you depending mostly upon the assurances of your worth from others whose good opinion you seek? Next, dig deeper and ask God to show you the invisible people in your life...the ones you treat as disposable, but who are part of an important, invisible network of support that God has crafted to keep you from falling.
It isn't enough to simply drop them a note of appreciation (though that's a start). Create opportunities for them to enjoy some of the first fruits of your time and talents. Share your treasures...most of those treasures are things like your confidence, vulnerability, and family. Overlook the ways in which they may not fit in with your other friends and fans. Forgive their weaknesses, short-comings, awkwardness, and mistakes, and focus on their consistent contributions. Build them up and allow them to become visible and equal among the important people in your life. Whether you realize it or not, these people are indispensable to your success, your safety, and your well-being. They are non-disposable.