Friday, November 8, 2013

The crazy comfort of faith

I call myself a Christian. To me that means that I believe in a story that says that God created the world,  he made man and woman to live in his lovely world, and they broke it's perfection. Before it broke, God was very close to the man and woman, and they were very close to him. When the world broke, that relationship changed, and the man and woman didn't want to be seen by God, nor was it possible for them to be close to him, because the brokenness was such an affront to his beauty, character, and perfection. God immediately took action to insure that men and women wouldn't be broken forever, and that there would be a way for them to be close again. Lot's of time passed, and the world continued in its broken state. All the while God made himself available to his people. The people would draw close, and then get scared, and back away. Trusting was so hard. Believing that God was who he said he was went against everything the culture believed. It felt too out of control to trust and believe in God alone, so the people did whatever made them feel safe and in control. That's a lot like it is for me--scared, not wanting to trust, wanting to feel in control. 

The story continues . . . . More time passes and God himself came to this earth he made. He placed himself among the people who rejected him. He told them that he was the only way of being close with God again. All they had to do was believe that he was God, and that his death would make up for all of the brokenness in their lives, so that they could be close to God again. They scoffed at him, mocked him, tried to find ways to trick him, and then manipulated the government into having him killed for supposed blasphemy. Here's the kicker: he didn't stay dead. He came back to life. He appeared to his friends, informed them that he couldn't stay with them, but would send his spirit to be with them, within them. Then he left and went back to where he originally came from, promising to return again to permanently deal with the brokenness and restore his created world.

Some believed that he was who he said he was--God. They believed that their brokenness no longer condemned them, but was paid for by his death. They believe that some time in the future, Jesus will come back, and take away the rest of this brokenness. This is the camp to which I belong. The story seems crazy, especially if you don't call yourself a Christian. That's why it takes faith on my part to believe. Having faith is about being sure of that which from appearance doesn't seem certain. I choose certainty in the face of what seems like a myth. I believe the story. To me its not fiction. That would be because I believe by faith.

So, that's just an introduction to what I really want to say here. I was reading my bible this morning (the book that tells the story). I was reading from a letter written by one of the people who believed that Jesus was God, named Paul. I was struck by what he wrote, so much so that I found myself weeping. He said that in the midst of my being weak, of my being broken, in my being an enemy of God, that he still chose to die for me, so that I could be near him, close to him, no longer in a position where my actions to not trust, my continual betrayal, my fear and need to be in control were held against me. He died for my brokenness, and it made me worthy of relationship. 

One of my biggest fears is being rejected by others. I work hard to be witty, competent, intelligent, helpful, generous, and kind. I think I must earn my friendships. It's not enough to be myself. Jesus made it clear that that's not the case with him. He is so committed to me that even the ways I betray him in the future, probably sometime today even, will not result in me being cut off from him. I'll need to fess up to my betrayal, but I can be assured that I will not be stonewalled, given the silent treatment, or criticized. I will be welcomed.

My culture tells me to be afraid. My faith tells me I'm free and that I belong. I think it's imperative that I choose to live by my faith, by what I can't help but believe to be true. My faith doesn't guarantee that I won't get hurt or disappointed, or even angry, but it does assure me that I will one day see all of the brokenness disappear, all of the insecurity, all of the judgement and comparison, all of the cynicism--it'll all be gone. I choose to live out what I believe to be true, usually far from perfectly, but I know I will not know joy if I ignore what I believe in order to feel in control. I choose to move close to the one who moved towards me when I was weak, broken, and an enemy; God who forgave my ugliness and evil wrongdoing, paid off my relational debts, and is transforming me towards being glorious.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Practicing What I Preach or Intentionally Pursuing Beauty

I find myself asking many of my clients to intentionally seek out beauty in their lives, whether it be via nature, good food, music, art, playing, etc. My clients and I spend our times reflecting hard on the darkness of their lives by looking at the past and present, and how much they've been harmed, wounded, betrayed, written off, neglected, abandoned, abused, etc. There is often a lot of anxiety and sadness in the room. However, at other times I am the one who feels the most sadness, and my clients feel nothing. They have taught themselves to feel nothing, because as young children the risk of feeling anything would have been too costly. Neurologically speaking (roughly), they have learning to listen only to the left side of their brain. When I ask them to pursue beauty, I am asking them to do two things: engage the right side of their brain, and confront darkness with light.

I try to live by the counseling rule of not asking my clients to do something that I have not done or would not be willing to do. Today I listened to spring and summer of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. I teared up more than a few times as the beauty of it invited me towards something good and lovely and hopeful. It hurt to listen to it, but what poignantly wonderful pain it was. I sat in between the grind of insurance billing (really, it's true, boring left brained stuff) and a perfect, grassy, sunny meadow that had a slight cool breeze blowing through, and there were butterflies and clouds and I was free.

Beauty stirs up longing. Longing stirs up hope. And, hope is scary stuff, because it points out what is true, and calls us to change how we live. It. Is. Not. Suppose. To. Be. Like. This. We are East of Eden, but not forever. I will numb no longer, but will affix my gaze to what is glorious and beautiful, and it's gonna hurt.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Addiction and Numbing

I had one of those fascinating conversations last week with my supervisor. You know the kind of dialogue that gets your brain humming, when both of you are trying to talk, because the ideas and thoughts being sparked are exciting and new. Yep, that kind of conversation.

We were talking about addiction. She's been in the field of psychotherapy for 20+ years, and has the perspective of one who has seen multiple generations wear out her couch cushions. Addiction used to be narrow, either booze or drugs to numb out. Sure, there were fetishes and such, but booze and drugs were easy.

Now, in a technologically saturated culture, there is an app to numb yourself. There is little need to check in with how we feel, because we can log everything into an app, or play a game on the iPhone, or surf Facebook,  pinterest, etc. The good apps give you feedback, usually positive. I have a running app that I used to tell me how far I've gone and at what speed. At the end of my run, it asks what the weather was like, and how I feel, using icons and emoticons. It's all very left-brained. I usually choose the emoticon in between the smiley-face and the grimace, and then I move on. I don't feel. Perhaps that is a weak example. Let's amp it up a bit.

I've started writing a book. I haven't been writing. It'll take a long time at this non-writing pace to produce a book-sized piece of work. I've felt more angsty than usual since I've stopped writing. I've been plagued by the feeling that I should be writing. I know I have something to say, but I question it's value, my value, my knowledge and intelligence, my worth. It's nearly unbearable. That is, until . . . I grab some carbs, the tv remote, and my ipad. This kind of numbing needs three addictions to work. Each addiction or coping mechanism works to change my brain chemistry, literally. Carbohydrate comas are lovely. Zoning out via tv or web surfing reduces the production of cortisol, which is what is being cranked out when we are feeling anxious or afraid. All I know is that when I eat carbs and watch tv, I feel better. I hate myself, but emotionally I feel better. And, I am alone and ashamed.

I'm not sure that my method of numbing is giving me much of a win. It's temporary relief, that leads to emotional self-harm. I will have to do it over and over again.

Psalm 131 speak of comforting the soul. The emphasis is mine, and the translation is ESV. To give credit where due, I have been re-spouting these thoughts after Dan Allender gave this Psalm new context for me, and Paul Miller talks about this Psalm in his book A Praying Life (I just read it this morning).

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

Addiction and numbing don't quiet or calm the soul, they redirect it. We don't know how to comfort ourselves, but we are quick to distract ourselves, and it feels better than anxiety. It seems like learning to address our anxiety more directly, which would increase our anxiety temporarily, would be a more honest and realistic approach to quieting our souls.

I get really anxious when there is a mess to be cleaned up in the kitchen. Part of my personal story contains a family history of being anxious about getting the dishes done ASAP, even if someone isn't done eating! I have  internally connected a clean kitchen with acceptance of who I am, and a dirty kitchen with rejection (shame, a gaping flaw in my character that will keep me from being loved). Yes, it goes that deep.

This past Sunday we had a lovely Easter gathering at our house. As the evening wore on, and I was enjoying some wine and friends around a fire pit, I began to get anxious. There were five tables, surrounded by chairs, covered in decorations, plates, cups, etc. that would need to be cleaned up. I didn't want them left overnight.  It might rain. It would be irresponsible of me to leave them. I leave for work by 8:30 the next morning. My anxiety was looming.

So, I went inside and disclosed my anxiety to a few of my roommates/friends. I was met with compassion, and some hard to bear insight into my anxiety. I numb by cleaning up, and my anxiety goes away. I will never have to test the rejection/acceptance hypothesis if I just clean up. I was even told by my friend that to not clean up would be healthier, but that my anxiety would increase. Yuck! She was right. In the end, my friends helped me put away all the tables, chairs, etc. before they left, and my roommates had already tackled the inside of the house. I think they did so, partially because they love me, and they accept me in the midst of my anxious struggle.

I think to quiet our souls in the midst of anxiety, we must begin by trusting someone, and not numbing. We must share our struggle, and believe we will not be turned away. This is the opposite of what our anxiety tells us. In sharing, we must share with someone who has proven themselves to be empathetic in the face of pain and struggle. We must trust in the goodness of God as well, but I'll not go further into that here. I feel like that's a whole other post, and an important one!

I wonder if those of you who have read this far would risk considering your own anxieties, how you numb them through addiction, technologically or otherwise? Might you think about unpacking your hypotheses that you will be rejected or accepted based on what you do and not who you are? Perhaps you'll think about the 1-2 people who you can count on to empathize and be with you in your anxiety, so that you can move towards quieting and comforting your soul.