Forgiveness is unnatural. I did it anyway.

a toddler boy is yelling and has his hands over his ears

Someone wrongs you, hurts you, not just once but over the course of many years, causing you serious pain and trauma, and you’re supposed to forgive them?

God says, yes.

Because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love Jesus or when I didn’t want to follow him, that idea didn’t feel strange or unnatural until I recently tried to explain it to a 4th grade boy. He looked at me like the whole idea of forgiveness was flat out nuts and I was crazy for suggesting it.

I didn’t manage to convince him (although I hope I planted a seed), but his flat-out rejection of the idea of forgiveness helped me. Focussing on it as a strange, crazy, un-intuitive act made sense of the struggle I was having with forgiving my ex-husband.

For many months after the implosion of our marriage, I didn’t even want to want to forgive him, so my prayer was, “Lord, you’re going to have to do the work to make me want to want to forgive him, because I’m fighting it.” The Lord was silent on that particular issue, but He began bombarding me with the message:

You are my beloved. And my desire is for you.

I’ve written before about the grief and the glory of that message, and how much I needed it (Beloved). It carried me through many waves of sadness and anger, and even brought me to want to forgive my ex–but no farther.

This winter, I was swamped by grief that I wasn’t a married person. I’d worked so hard for so long to remain so; it was a big part of my identity. I was proud of being married for over 20 years. And now I wasn’t. This wasn’t about my ex, because I most certainly didn’t want to be married to him, but about me and adjusting to my new reality.

And I got angry at him all over again. I liked my anger. It was satisfying to rehearse the wrongs, to re-argue my point of view, to tend to the nugget of ill-will in a corner of my heart, to write diatribes in my mind that I knew I’d never publish but that I relished. I didn’t want to forgive if it meant I’d have to give up my right to be angry about the wrongs done to me.

But the issue of forgiveness wouldn’t go away–in part because of two pastors and my counselor, who kept asking about it. In part because I want to be a faithful child of God, and that means:

If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive. (Luke 17:3-4)

If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)

 Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31-21)

No matter how right my anger felt, I couldn’t escape the clear call of God for me to forgive the one who’d caused me serious pain and trauma. My prayers on this matter were brief requests for God to bring me to the point where I could do it.

He was getting me closer when my minister preached a great sermon on forgiveness that was also about anger. He unpacked Ephesians 4:26a: “don’t sin by letting anger control you” (NLT), “Be angry but do not sin” (NRSV), and “In your anger do not sin” (NIV). He pointed out that the anger is not the sin, that there is a difference between being angry and sinning–that sometimes anger is the right response.

Sometimes anger is the right response.

But I would be sinning if I let that anger control me and turn my heart towards bitterness, which I was.

My minister put it this way,

“Bitterness is a sin because it’s a failure to forgive as God, in Christ, forgave you. An unforgiving heart is an unforgiven heart. And if you can’t forgive it’s because you haven’t sensed His forgiveness of you.”

That worked through the final knot of resistance.

I am beloved. I am forgiven. I mustn’t let my anger control me.

So I forgave my ex.

Even so, I didn’t rush into it. I’ve lived with my forgiveness of him for a week, and, as with so much, writing it through helped cement it.

In case this makes me sound like I was thinking all these things through like reasonable person, you should know that I was not. I was like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum, digging my heels in, going slack like a noodle, putting my hands over my ears and screaming. The ability to forgive my ex is a gift from God, and one that I am immeasurably grateful for.

So if you have a nugget of ill will and bitterness against someone who’s wronged you, I shouldn’t recommend acting like a toddler, but I will anyway. Toddlers rail and kick and scream against the thing their parent wants them to do that they don’t want to–and then run to that same parent for comfort at the state the tantrum has put them in. So kick and scream and run to your heavenly Father. He’ll know what you need and give it to you (even if it comes  very slooooowly).

Writing, writing everywhere

a fountain pen sits atop an open notebook

Except here 🙂

But I will not moan about it, and I will not give you lengthy justifications and explanations. I will, however, share some of the writing I’ve done recently, everywhere but here.

Other ministries

I love talking with pastors about the work they’re doing, about the passions that drive their ministry choices–which is good, because that’s a big part of the writing I do for Gatherings of Hope, a non-profit aimed at helping pastors and congregations in Grand Rapids. It’s extra good because I recently got paid to talk with a friend who had pastored me well for 9 years.

The Gift of The Ask: Deepening Ministry by Growing Connections is my profile of Pastor Denise Evans, and her work with the Kingdom Life Ministries Community Development Corporation, in particular, about her work as the community liaison for The Deborah Project and The Deborah House. She’s the connector who finds organizations and people who want to help her church provide temporary housing and services to young single mothers and their kids. It was such a thrill to talk with her about her important and necessary work.

And to talk with one of her conspirators, Pastor Doriane Parker-Sims, the visionary behind those projects. She is doing deeply good work in Grand Rapids, and I was so glad she took the time to talk with me about it. When the Needs Are Deep, the Vision Gets Deeper: How one Grand Rapids church went from giving away backpacks to providing housing.

Favorite analogy

This isn’t terribly recent, but it’s a piece of writing I love: Leading From the Middle: Pastor as Shepherd. I got to take the research I did about shepherding for The Giant Slayer and apply it to the image of the pastor as shepherd. I highlighted how the image of the sheep streaming after the shepherd and respectfully following him in a neat line was lovely and romantic … but it doesn’t reflect the ministry reality. Rather, shepherds lead from the middle, they do intimate, one-on-one work that gets messy, but they also provide direction and take the long view. I even like my ending, mostly because I’d been trying to write an article that the quote from Khary would work in for close to a year.

So why would anyone take this on? Especially for the bi-vocational pastors who do this all-consuming work during their non-paid-work hours.

Of course, as pastors, you are called and equipped to this work by God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. But Khary Bridgewater, Senior Program Officer for Gatherings of Hope, points out that something else is true of you:

“Let’s start with you not being normal because you like sheep and most people think sheep stink.”

You love those sheep.

That doesn’t make the job any easier or less messy, but it does help explain how you can not only keep going, but even long to be with those messy, wandering creatures. You’re not normal — and we thank God for that.

My Writer Unboxed debut

I’ve been reading Writer Unboxed in a daily basis for close to ten years. I’ve been part of their Facebook group from the beginning, I’ve gone to their two Unconferences, and I’m a moderator of the WU Breakout Novelist Book Dissection group. I admire all the writing gurus, published and unpublished, who I read there. And last week, I got to join them–not as a writing guru, but as a reporter for the novel dissection group. I got to write about a book I loved, and about a discussion I loved being part of, for a site that is a crucial part of my life as a writer. It was a big deal. Dissecting A Man Called Ove:

Don’t worry, no men called Ove will be harmed and no physical guts revealed in this post, but we will expose some of the techniques Frederik Backman used to craft his breakout novel, A Man Called Ove:
* he told a compelling “domestic” story without An Antagonist
* he made omniscient point of view feel as intimate as first person.
* he masterfully wove past and present.

Getting political without getting nasty

I’m doing something new: writing about politics. I’ve normally steered clear of that, but I am concerned about my adopted country of the U.S. of A. So I’ve joined a group blog called Letters to Trump. Once a month, I’ll write a letter directly to our current President. Here are my first two attempts at getting political without getting nasty:

Day 3

Dear Mr. President,

I am worried about you. Not for your personal safety—the Secret Service will protect your body. I am worried about you. As a person.

You seem obsessed, not with doing the best, but with being seen as The Best Ever. Those are very different things.

Needing others to laud you as The Best Ever gives them the power to determine your worth and value as a person, which is a very insecure position to be in. Even though millions of people think you are great, it’ll never be enough—your need is a swirling beast that will never be satisfied.

Day 38 — Remember what you said about Flint?

…You’re doing what you said you would. I wish you were [not], but I have to give you credit for being a man of your word.

So I’d like to remind you of something else you said on the campaign trail, in hopes that you’ll follow through on it.

On September 14, 2016, you came to Flint, Michigan, and you said this: “We will get it fixed and it will be fixed and effectively and Flint will come back. Most importantly, we’ll bring jobs back.” Later, at a rally in Canton, Ohio, you said, “I’m running to bring hope to Flint.”

Well, Flint still needs hope.

Obnoxious?

Hopefully this link-y post all about me wasn’t too obnoxious. It’s been more challenging than I’d thought to combine fiction writing, paid freelance writing and editing, two paid mini-jobs, and keeping up with my blog. But I’m working it out.

And I hope you keep working out what you need to work out, and that you don’t give up on things you enjoy doing, even if how you do it winds up changing. We’re in this together!

sometimes you are wrong

The words "I'm sorry" have been typed on paper in a typewriter

Or, more to the point, recently I was wrong.

I was talking with some friends and I said something that stereotyped a group of people, and one friend called me on it. Did I handle it well? Not in that moment. The hot flush of shame rose up my neck and I defended myself. Because I knew my intentions, and I knew my love and respect for the people I’d stereotyped. My words hadn’t been mean-spirited. So I justified my behavior. And the friend and I parted for the evening.

It took all of 10 minutes for me to realize that I’d been wrong.

I immediately sent her an apology for bungling what I’d been trying to say, but by the time I saw her the next day, I was grateful to her for calling me on my words. It would’ve been so easy to just get mad and leave the conversation and then express her frustration to other people. But she didn’t, and because of that, I was given the opportunity to hear my words from another’s point of view: I couldn’t hear the stereotyping until she revealed it to me. I asked for her forgiveness, she gave it, and our friendship deepened.

So why am I sharing this story that doesn’t put me in the best light?

I am concerned about my Christian brothers and sisters, both as individuals and as institutions: we are too concerned with justifying ourselves, our words, our actions. When other people point out how wrong, how hurtful, how against our own principles our words or actions are, we don’t get past the initial flush of shame and self-defense. We do not take the prayerful time to see whether God might be telling us something through the critic, something we need to pay attention to. We seem to have lost the inclination and ability to ask for forgiveness from people we’ve hurt and wronged. And seeing that we’ve been wrong and asking forgiveness is basic to our faith.

There is biblical precedence for God using someone else to tell us what we need to hear. There is the famous story of the prophet Nathan getting David to see the wrongness of his behavior with Bathsheba and Uriah, causing David to confess his sin (2 Samuel 12:1-13). There’s another interesting story about David. After he’d been king of Israel for some time, he chose to flee Jerusalem when his son Absalom staged a coup. This happened when they were on the run (2 Samuel 16:5-13):

As King David came to Bahurim, a man came out of the village cursing them. It was Shimei son of Gera, from the same clan as Saul’s family. He threw stones at the king and the king’s officers and all the mighty warriors who surrounded him. “Get out of here, you murderer, you scoundrel!” he shouted at David. “The Lord is paying you back for all the bloodshed in Saul’s clan. You stole his throne, and now the Lord has given it to your son Absalom. At last you will taste some of your own medicine, for you are a murderer!”

“Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king?” Abishai son of Zeruiah demanded. “Let me go over and cut off his head!”

“No!” the king said. “Who asked your opinion, you sons of Zeruiah! If the Lord has told him to curse me, who are you to stop him?”

Then David said to Abishai and to all his servants, “My own son is trying to kill me. Doesn’t this relative of Saul have even more reason to do so? Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it. And perhaps the Lord will see that I am being wronged and will bless me because of these curses today.” So David and his men continued down the road, and Shimei kept pace with them on a nearby hillside, cursing and throwing stones and dirt at David.

It would certainly have been within the culture of kingship to give his nephew, Abishai, the nod to cut off Shimei’s head–the man was insulting and lobbing weapons at him. It might even have satisfied a frustrated urge to lash out, since David was choosing not to fight against his son. But David didn’t choose that. He was a man after God’s own heart, and he recognized that God’s way is not always the comfortable way, that sometimes God is in the person telling you that you did wrong things. Now, David didn’t repent of taking over the kingship of Israel, but he did accept it when God told him that he wouldn’t be the one to build the Temple because he had shed much blood (1 Chronicles 28:3). Perhaps Shimei’s actions prepared him to hear that message.

And then there’s the story about David’s first attempt to bring the recovered Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The Ark was carried on an oxen-drawn cart amid a grand parade of soldiers and people, with singing and playing of musical instruments.

But when they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah reached out his hand and steadied the Ark of God. Then the Lord’s anger was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him dead because of this. So Uzzah died right there beside the Ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7)

I don’t really get this story. I don’t like it. Uzzah was just trying to make sure the Ark didn’t wind up in the dirt. Surely that was a good thing to do. But God’s earlier directions to the Israelites were clear: only certain people could carry the Ark, but even they could not touch it, and the penalty for doing so was death (Numbers 4:15).

The only way I can approach this story is to hear this message in it: our good intentions do not excuse the action. If our actions or words are wrong, that is more important to God than our intentions being right.

Our belief in our good intentions keeps us from being open to the idea that we may have said or done something wrong, something sinful. It keeps us from moving beyond the hot flush of shame and self-defense. It blocks us from the blessing of forgiveness.

It’s my prayer that we lovers of Jesus grow ever more able to move past our good intentions and towards the ability to not only see when we’ve been wrong, but also to admit it, and even to ask forgiveness for it. It would be a glorious witness.

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes you have to toss the curriculum

a little boy is stretched out on his stomach, reading a big Bible

This past Sunday was one of those days. Instead of talking about the Apostle Paul, I taught my Sunday school class (4-year-olds through 5th-graders) about lament and then we wrote our own.

Here’s what I said:

Normally in Children’s Worship and Sunday school we tell stories about great things God has done and great things people have done because they had faith in God, but there are other parts of the Bible. In some parts of the Bible people are really angry, and really sad, and they’re even angry and sad at God. And they wrote about it. There are a bunch of what we call Psalms of Lament, where people tell all their strong feelings to God.

Now, I may have made a tactical error in the psalms I read. The kids (6 boys, 1 girl) were a little too enamored with Psalm 3:7:

Arise, O Lord!
Rescue me, my God!
Slap all my enemies in the face!
Shatter the teeth of the wicked!

Not to mention Psalm 58:

Justice–do you rulers know the meaning of the word?
Do you judge the people fairly?
No, all your dealings are crooked;
you hand out violence instead of justice…
They spit poison like deadly snakes;
they are like cobras that refuse to listen…
Break off their fangs, O God!
Smash the jaws of these lions, O Lord!

I apologize to any parents who were wondering where their kids got those images from. I did attempt to point out that the writers were asking God to do these things, not giving them license to, but one never knows how much that sinks in compared to the high drama of slapping faces and breaking off fangs.

After I read a few Psalms, I unrolled a big piece of paper and told them that we’d write our own Psalm of Lament about what was going on in their lives. There is a general structure among many laments:

This is what’s going on in the world and in my life
It makes me feel
AND YET, I know this is true about you, God
BECAUSE OF THAT, I will
O God, please

We followed that structure, and amid silliness and kid squirminess, they were vulnerable and wise and dear, even those who sat quietly, watching with wide eyes. When they were answering what they would do, they got on a roll talking about what they’d eat (strawberries and sandwiches featured heavily), so I interpreted that as taking care of themselves–since we often forget to do that when we’re mad and sad. And the teacher in me couldn’t stop from contributing the last line.

Here’s what was on these kids’ minds and hearts this weekend:

PSALM OF LAMENT

This is what’s going on in the world and in my life
Donald Trump became President
Somebody got in a car accident
Cancer
My friends get me in trouble
Diseases–they are strong
Blustery winds that made trees fall down
Hurricanes
Ungrateful people

It makes me feel
mad
sad
angry
angry at people
sick
scared
like moving to Canada
not happy

AND YET, I know this is true
God be helpful
God is caring
God loves other people
God carries you
God can help people become better people
God helps people get through hard things
God has helped me learn
God has a son named Jesus

BECAUSE OF THAT, I will
Help stop cancer
Help people get through what they’re going through even though I’m going through something bad, too
Keep taking care of myself
Get out and vote
Tell my friends to stop busting me for no reason

O God, please
help stop hurricanes
convince people to go out and vote
help us to love each other better

From troubles with friends to health issues to natural disasters to troubles in our country, kids have a lot going on. It was a privilege to help them put it into words and express it to God and to each other.

I may be directionally impaired, but I can still get where I’m going

Last weekend I went on a road trip with my daughter. I love a road trip.

A gif of Kermit and Fozzie singing in a car.

I load up with books on CD and snacks and we’re off. We went to Toronto, the city of my birth, the city I left at the age of 19, the city I never drove in. I did not have cell service in Canada.

“How lovely,” you may be thinking. “No nagging emails or texts or anything to pull you away from where and who you were with.”

Sadly, no.

Chris Farley driving along all happy, but gets scared as he realizes something.

Because I am directionally impaired. I do not have a N-S-E-W grid in my head that I can use to orient myself any place I go. Even with step-by-step directions, I will make a wrong turn.

A cartoon stork struggles with a paper map and declares, "Definitely lost."

So without my blessed Google maps, there was no yellow arrow telling me what to do and where to turn, no distance calculator counting down the miles and feet to where I need to make a transition. I had only the three sets of directions I had printed out before I left, which didn’t prevent me from veering off the Gardiner once I got into to Toronto and taking the Lakeshore at the first opportunity, instead of at the last opportunity (this was exacerbated by my renting a Canadian car that operated under kilometers, and having directions that were calculated in miles).

The dad from Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs is driving his boat, suddenly his eyebrows lift and he says "Nope."

I still got to where I was going, but I was worried the whole time that I’d done the wrong thing and I’d have to backtrack and I didn’t know enough about that part of the city to wing it and I couldn’t call my cousin because I had no service, and on and on.

My cousin believed me when I told him of my affliction, and took me on a Google street view trip to get to his dad’s condo, which was glorious. But later that day, when I had to follow instructions in reverse, I still managed to turn the wrong way–during rush hour–and added 30 minutes onto what should’ve been a 20-minute trip.

Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth, looks around her surroundings in confusion.

And on the way home, I missed the turnoff to the 402 and wound up in Windsor instead of Port Huron. I toyed with heading back to London and continuing on as I normally did, but I went with my mistake and took the tunnel, had a super-short border experience, and The Blessed Phone Worked Again, so I was able to find my way out of Detroit and onto I-96 and home.

Michelle Obama does a happy dance with two muppets.

So what might I have learned from this slightly silly story:

  1. When I make a wrong turn, I can correct it.
  2. When I feel lost, it doesn’t mean I’m irredeemably lost.
  3. It may not be perfect, but I CAN DO IT.

You know what? Those are good things to know about myself and about life in general.

Do you have any good getting lost stories you want to share?

  • All gifs courtesy of the very fun-to-browse giphy.com.

But does it have to be this hard?

a woman looks up, questioning

Just because my hand is on you, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

These are words I believe God spoke to me as I was raking leaves in my front yard several years ago. They didn’t come out of the blue: I was pouring out my heart about my disappointments and rejections, mainly to do with my writing and (lack of) publishing.

There were three things I took away from this message:

  1. My hand is on you.
  2. It’s not going to be easy.
  3. Things being easy is not the sign that my hand is on you.

Number 1 was powerful and moving to hear, and #2 wasn’t exactly encouraging, but #3 got at an assumption that hadn’t yet made its way to my consciousness: I’d been thinking that when God was with me, all paths would open up before me and I’d skate right through to success.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with this assumption. It comes out in positive comments when things go your way, “God is really blessing you.” I heard it recently from a child of friends who, when thing after thing went wrong, asked, “Is God against us?” My complaint that day went along the lines of, “I thought this project had your blessing. You’ve energized and grown my writing and my faith so much through it, why isn’t it finding a home?”

Where did this assumption come from? Maybe a bit from Old Testament passages where God is begging the people to obey and they will have peace and rain and good harvests. Job’s friends certainly ascribe to the math of you are righteous = God’s blessing comes in the form of tangible success; therefore, lack of success = lack of righteousness.

Maybe a bit from my old fixed mindset: some things are easy for me, which means I’m good at them, I must be bad at the things that are difficult (or even, that something is difficult means that I’m not worthy).

And maybe a lot from the very simple human preference for things to be easy.

So those words that day changed me. Once that assumption came into the light, it was revealed as a sham, as something that was getting in my way.

These days, everything is hard. Getting published was a ton of work and risk and learning new things and tears and yelling at the computer, and there’s only more to learn and more to risk and even more work to do to make the book a success. This week is just really tough. Three days from now, it would have been my 22nd wedding anniversary, and as luck would have it, I have to be with my ex-husband that day; I’ve had a constantly simmering panic attack for over a week. I had a job set-back, so now I’ve got some employment decisions to make that could impact my availability for making the picture book a success. And I’m scared and grieving for my adopted country that is so divided, and so in love with guns.

But at least I know that none of these are signs that God is not with me, that God isn’t blessing me.

Just because my hand is on you, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

I said that to a friend about her situation on Sunday, and, as it often goes, I needed to be reminded of it, myself. Maybe you do, too. Let’s go forth and do hard things, secure in the knowledge that Jesus’ promise below is given in the present tense: I am with you.

“I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:20 NLT)

In suspense and incomplete

a rock climber suspended on the rope at Moab

Only God can say what this new spirit gradually forming in you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.  – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

The prayer above — that starts, “Trust the slow work of God” — has always just slayed me. There has never been a time when it didn’t speak to me about the deep things I was going through.

I have a printout of the whole thing tucked in my prayer journal, so I often return to it … when I’m using my prayer journal. But since my marriage imploded, I haven’t been writing my prayers. I’ve been praying. Oh, yes, I’ve been praying. But I let that longtime spiritual practice go. In its place, I’ve been resting.

Starting last summer, references to resting in God have come to me in waves. I did a silly post about it (Apathetic Prayer), but then they kept coming, which I experience as God trying to tell me something. So I’ve payed attention.

It’s not easy to come to God without an agenda, whether that’s a long list of prayer requests or the need for spiritual insight and practical assistance, but the truth I believe is that God loves me without any striving necessary on my part. It’s easy to get hung up on the striving, to get all into checking things off lists and feeling like I’m doing all I can to move forward, whether that’s practically or spiritually.

But for this time, God clearly wants me to rest in Him.

I’ve had some powerful experiences in prayer in the last six months. The 90-minute Garden Prayer on Maundy Thursday at The Revolution. And the contemplative prayer time at the Renew and Refine mini-retreat before the Festival of Faith and Writing. There have also been plenty of walks in the Calvin Nature Preserve when I let myself feel God’s pleasure. Plenty of times I’d breathe slowly in and out and ask God to be with me. Any word/impression I’ve received during those times has fallen into two categories: “You are my beloved,” and “Rest in me.”

So instead of berating myself for letting the practice of writing my prayers slide, I’m seeing this time as learning to experience the love of God independently from anything I may try to do to “earn” it or “deserve” it. Because God loves me. End of sentence.

It’s my way of trusting the slow work of God, and of “accept[ing] the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” Because anxious and incomplete and impatient and suspended between old and new is definitely how I’m feeling. I’m trusting that a new spirit is gradually forming in me.

***

In case you need it, too, here’s the full prayer:

Above all, trust the slow work of God.
We are, quite naturally,
impatient in everything to reach the end
without delay.
We should like to skip
the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on
the way to something unknown,
something new,
and yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability–
and it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually–
let them grow,
let them shape themselves,
without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time (that is to say, grace and
circumstances acting
on your own good will)
will make them tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of
feeling yourself in suspense
and incomplete.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

 

I do my best negotiating against myself

Photo by Drew Hays of a woman with her hands blocking her face; illustrating the blog post, "I do my best negotiating against myself."

I’ve been doing the 30 Day Yoga Challenge, and yesterday’s practice was a challenge — not because of the physical moves, but because of the emotional ones. Every day there is a different statement/theme/mantra for the practice. Some of them are peaceful and lovely: I Accept, I Release, I Am Alive, I Am Present. But yesterday’s was a doozy:

I Respect.

Because the phrase that came to me to complete that sentence was

I respect myself enough to ask for what I need.

This may come as a surprise to people who know me as a strong, confident, opinionated woman, but in my most intimate relationships, including with myself, I tend to negotiate myself out of my needs.

A silly example first. After my marriage imploded in August, I couldn’t eat, so I lost weight. Then I discovered that exercise was a major mood/mindset stabilizer. Since I had all sorts of free time in the evenings now that I wasn’t keeping myself available for a moment of connection with my husband, I got really into Youtube yoga and Pilates and bought a treadmill from a lady on Craigslist, and lost a little more weight. When my pants became too loose, I bought new-to-me ones right away (hooray consignment and thrift stores!). But there was one item I really needed that I put off and put off and put off: new bras. The old ones not only didn’t fit anymore, but they each had one crooked hook that jabbed my back — and had been jabbing my back for at least a year. So I’d needed new bras for a long time before I lost that weight. Still, I didn’t do it. I’d make deals with myself, “When I finish this project, I’ll do it,” and not follow through. Until finally I did. It felt important all out of proportion to the actual act of buying myself underwear, because I’d negotiated myself out of it for so long.

Bigger example: for twenty-one years, I negotiated myself into staying in a marriage in which I wasn’t getting some of my most basic needs met, because I was getting others met, so I talked myself into accepting things that grieved me on a daily basis.

For the last month, I’ve been deciding whether to ask for alimony in the divorce. On the one hand, I don’t want to because I’d rather be independent. On the other hand, we made decisions as a family for me to be a stay-at-home mom who worked freelance, which means that I’m not as employable as I would’ve been if I’d been working a regular job. So while I have work, I’m cobbling together a number of freelance jobs, and I make a quarter of what my husband did. My heart is racing and tears are burning behind my eyes just anticipating typing this, but I’m asking for alimony. Even so, I negotiated against myself, reducing the amount down to a fraction of what the state recommended for me, but it’s still really difficult to ask for.

So there’s my tale of three steps forward and one step back — one of my favorite dance moves for illustrating the Christian life. I wish it weren’t so much work to respect myself enough to ask for what I need. I’m hoping you don’t have that same struggle, but I know some of you do. I’m going to continue to work on this, and I hope you do, too.

I respect.

As Real As It Gets is getting very real!

My new best friend is command + shift + 4. Because that’s how you take a screen shot on a Mac while choosing exactly what image you want to steal … um, I mean share.

Back in October, I posted a lot about a Kickstarter project for a picture book about a boy who can’t help yelling, “You’re not my real mother!” We made the goal (hooray!) and the always-brilliant Joel Schoon-Tanis has finished the illustrations, so now the project is on to the photographer and the book designer. It’s getting closer!

As a writer, it’s unusual for me to be at a loss for words, but that’s where I’m at every time I look at these illustrations. My co-author, Amanda Barton, and I pounded out the story and shaped my words, and now here they are, given bodies. It’s moving.

So as a treat for us all, here are a few of the illustrations I screen-shotted from Joel’s Instagram feed. To see more of them, as well as other great paintings and images, follow him: https://www.instagram.com/joel.schoon.tanis.art/

If you weren’t part of the Kickstarter and you’d like to find out when the book is available, head over to West Olive Press and sign up.

Enjoy!

It's like a T Rex taking over my body, jaws opening wide for a prehistoric roar.
Some kid on the playground was going on about the monster under his bed. Hah.
I know where a real monster lives.
In my belly.
It’s like a T Rex taking over my body, jaws opening wide for a prehistoric roar.

 

Like a gas bubble, stretching me until I’m a balloon about to pop.
Like a gas bubble, stretching me until I’m a balloon about to pop.

 

The monster always thinks this will be the time it shocks my mother...
The monster always thinks this will be the time it shocks my mother…

 

She plops down with me. “Forever means always. Longer than you can imagine. Longer than even I can imagine.” My “okay” is kind of wobbly...
She plops down with me. “Forever means always. Longer than you can imagine. Longer than even I can imagine.”
My “okay” is kind of wobbly…

Hello, darkness, my old friend

A man on boat on dark water.

I recently finished reading Learning to Walk in the Dark, in which Barbara Brown Taylor pursues literal, physical darkness as a spiritual discipline. She explores the gifts of lunar spirituality to counteract the American church’s preference for full solar spirituality. There are things to learn in the darkness that you’re not going to find when you’re always trying to stay the bright light.

To my favorite biblical passage about darkness, “Moses approached the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21 NIV), I got to add this one:

And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lordthe God of Israel, the one who calls you by name. (Isaiah 45:3 NLT)

Brown Taylor goes for walks in the dark, spends a night in a cabin with no electricity, and reads about the Dark Night of the Soul, but the part of the book that is sticking with me the most is her discussion of wild caving (going into the parts of caves that are not nicely prepped for tourists). She quotes Barbara Hurd’s book, Entering the Stone:

When you’re stuck in a squeeze, the best response is to study the rock and pay attention to where you are and how your body feels.

Which is also good advice for those stuck in an emotional squeeze of grief and pain. The more you thrash against the constriction, the more you panic, the less able you are to see how you will get through.

It’s also the source of my new favorite phrase: The only way out is the way in. Brown Taylor also puts it another way: The only way out is through. In caving, you literally exit by backtracking. Emotionally and spiritually, it means that the only way out of the dark emotions is through them — not denying them, not burying them, not pretending they have no sway. But examining them, there in the dark, seeing what they are saying about you, about your circumstances, what they might be telling you about God. (Note that she differentiates between this process and depression: her book is not a suggestion to forgo medication if you need it.) Her final wish for us is that we get curious about our darkness.

I found this wonderfully freeing. I’ve always been a rather passional feeler of my feelings, and in the last five months, I’ve certainly let wash over me whatever the daily wave of feeling was: grief, sadness, pain, joy, determination. Not denying them. Not pretending them away. I appreciate Brown Taylor’s assurance that this can be a spiritually healthy practice.

***

So, of course, now I read about darkness everywhere.

***

In How To Live Life, John Vorhaus talks about facing a situation we’re sure is hopeless:

If this feeling is strong enough, it snuffs out all thoughtful reflection. Night descends and the spirit quails, brought low by the assumption of failure (p.30).

His solution:

You don’t need to fix a problem the minute you see it. (Yikes! I’m in a bad situation! Must flee!) And you don’t have to assume that it can’t be solved. You can choose to look at your circumstances frankly and gently, with acceptance….It’s so weird. We won’t look at ourselves honestly for fear of feeling worse, yet every time we look at ourselves honestly, we end up feeling better (p.70)

Vorhaus is so wonderfully blunt: ask yourself the big questions, dare to answer them, use your imagination and your curiosity, gather information to equip yourself with new insights, eagerly engage with the world and investigate any mystery it presents (including the mystery of you).

***

It’s even showing up in my fiction. I’ve been reading the last books of the City Watch books of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and Commander Sam Vimes confronts darkness, his and a mythic darkness, very directly. In Thud!, he becomes possessed by an ancient entity called the Summoning Dark — but not taken over. As a copper who’s worked the night shift most of his career, he knows all about darkness, both literal and internal. He knows the darkness in his soul, and he’s prepared to shake hands with it, use the zeal it gives him to pursue justice, but to not let it overtake him so that he ignores his values. This enables him to use the Summoning Dark, and to develop a relationship with it, without it possessing him. The S.D. leaves when it discovers how at home Sam is in his own darkness, but it gives him a scar, and gives him gifts: Sam can see in the dark, and converse with the S.D. when he needs to for a case.

This is the conversation from Thud! between the S.D. and inside-Sam (the first line is his):

“…Who watches the watchmen? Me. I watch him. Always. You will not force him to murder for you.”
“What kind of human creates his own policeman?”
“One who fears the dark.”
“And so he should,” said the entity, with satisfaction.
“Indeed. But I think you misunderstand. I am not here to keep the darkness out. I am here to keep it in.” There was a clink of metal as the shadowy watchman lifted a dark lantern and opened its little door. Orange light cut through the blackness. “Call me… the Guarding Dark. Imagine how strong I must be.”
The Summoning Dark backed desperately into the alley, but the light followed it, burning it.
“And now,” said the watchman, “get out of town.”

 I also love this one, from Snuff, about the distinction between being acquainted with the dark and being the darkness:

he wondered if one day that darkness would break out and claim its heritage, and he wouldn’t know … the brakes and chains and doors and locks in his head would have vanished and he wouldn’t know.

Right now, as he looked at the frightened child, he feared that moment was coming closer. Possibly only the presence of Feeney was holding the darkness at bay, the dreadful urge to do the hangman out of his entitlement of a dollar for the drop, thruppence for the rope and sixpence for his beer. How easy it is to kill, yes, but not when a smart young copper who thinks you are a good guy is looking to you. At home, the Watch and his family surrounded Vimes like a wall. Here the good guy was the good guy because he didn’t want anyone to see him being bad. He did not want to be ashamed. He did not want to be the darkness.

***

Don’t you just love it when everything seems to conspire to communicate with you about the same topic?

And don’t get me started on the other one — ASK. This post is already too long.