Words, words, words

fishhookI often make the comment that, “words matter.” You’re probably saying (in your head), “Way to go, Captain Obvious! You appear to have a firm grasp on reality.” I don’t say that because I’m kind of a geek about words and what they mean, but because words have an immensely powerful impact on our relationships with one another, and with ourselves. As I have said in past posts, words “frame” our understanding of the world around us, and even within us. We often live in our own little fantasy land of “shoulds” and “could be’s” that allow us to shape reality according to our purposes – which is usually to do what we want to do without consequences. For example, I may perform a task (fill-in the blank here), and when I don’t perform according to my exacting standards, I begin a ruthless and unforgiving rant about what a failure I am. Unfortunately, the bar always rises higher than what I have accomplished, thereby making me always a “failure.” Of course, the moment that I label myself a failure (“failure” is a trait, “failed or failing” is a matter of performance) then only failure will be what will be produced into the future. Almost instantaneously, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy producing the same results over and over again.

Now, I don’t want you to conclude that if you just change a few words, then everything will change. Hardly. But it’s important to remember that we have been engaged in an active program of indoctrination for a very long time without any resistance to the ongoing commentary and monologue that going on in our heads. Resistance? What does resistance mean? Actually it’s pretty simple, but incredibly difficult to do mostly because we want to extinguish the commentator (a little like judge, jury and executioner) rather than inject doubt into his/her assertions about our failure. What’s crazy is that it is two very simple words… “maybe not.” That sounds incredibly powerful, right? (I’m being facetious, of course) Sometimes, okay maybe often, we overlook the more obvious things that would make a tremendous difference in how we can change things. We (I) get ourselves convinced that I have to “stop” something from happening to get things to be better rather than building up another area in our lives that will make that struggle less powerful in our internal commentary. Ironically, when I take this “maybe not” approach, the commentary gets less and less powerful because it has been invalidated rather than completely “shut down.” Of course, the “shut down” approach is simply applying the same approach that we have used in all the other situations which only makes me more of a failure. If I keep doing the same thing over and over again, I will keep getting what I’ve always gotten.

Wow! I realize that the above paragraphs are a very long “set-up” for what was really rolling around in my head about the power of words. However, the table needed to be set before we move into the next “course.”

Another aspect of words with which I have recently been struck is the nature of what we do with them. You might be thinking, “What we do with them? Don’t we use them to convey our thoughts, beliefs, feelings and stuff like that?” Yes, we do, but there’s more about our use of words which we need to be aware. The reality is that I can use words to convey meaning and to reflect the state of my thoughts to others. It needs to be said (a little psychology “weeds” for a moment) that words in the purest sense are symbols for something else. The hieroglyphics in Egypt are “words” except that they are pictures of what was meant at the time. Over the course of time, humans have developed more and more economical ways to communicate meaning which has eventually resulted in alphabets and language and exceedingly complex communications. The result of this “evolution” of language is that words carrying meaning, and we depend on them to do so. In the purest of our relationships with others, words have meaning and they convey important things about ourselves that others simply wouldn’t have unless we revealed them through words. In many ways, that is exactly how words should be used – to carry specific, clear, and truthful information about whatever the topic.

Unfortunately, there is another way words are used that is equally important to recognize. Actually the reality of words is contained in the last sentence. Instead of being “used” to convey meaning and revealing the truth about ourselves to others, they can also be “used” to hide who we really are, and can be “used” as a trade. Let me put this into a relationship in order to make it clearer. If I’m talking to someone and I’m describing how I feel to him/her, I have a choice to either describe what actually is, or I will “use” words to trade with that person for something of value to me – like closeness and intimacy. Therefore, in that case, I will say something that will draw him/her closer, and they will respond. The hitch in all that is that the words I use may or may not be truthful about how I’m actually feeling. For the person who uses words functionally to accomplish some end that he/she desires, the truthfulness of the words he uses doesn’t really matter. In this case, words are used to accomplish something rather than reveal the truth.

I often have people ask me how they know whether or not they are part of an unhealthy relationship. One way to figure that out is the role that words play in that relationship. The complication is that people don’t purely use words to manipulate outcome, or purely to convey truth. They do both, and it’s up to us to figure out which is which. I once heard Rick Warren (Senior pastor at Saddleback Church in Mission Viejo, CA) say something that is applicable here. He said, “ A half truth is a whole lie.” The bottom line is that we can use our words to convey truth, or we can use our words to manipulate to get what we want. In an unhealthy relationship, words are “traded” for some future desired outcome. They may or may not be an accurate reflection of truth. In many ways, it doesn’t matter to the person “using” words like that. The only measure of the so-called “veracity” of the words he uses is whether it accomplishes the ends he desires.

In healthier relationships, words matter. Words convey meaning that are binding to the person using them. They are not used to trade for some commodity. They are meant to reflect reality even though we can’t seem to find adequate words to do that. Now, that doesn’t mean that when people are true to themselves and communicate that to me, that I will respond in kind and it draws us closer. But, it isn’t an “if…then” thing. In other words, a person who uses words to manipulate reasons using the “if… then.” An guy may think, “If I say something nice to her, then she will respond to me the way I want her to.” Unfortunately, that state of affairs is what I see way too often in young adult relationships to which I am a witness on CCU’s campus among other places. Words are used to accomplish some end. Words aren’t use to reflect something essential about ourselves with an invitation to the other person to do the same. It’s an invitation, not a demand. If we have any hope of having healthy, Godly relationships, then we must seek to institute what God has in His relationship with us. He invites us into relationship, it’s not a demand. Freedom is the key. If we respond, we do so out of freedom not obligation. If we don’t respond (which is equally available to us although not as beneficial), we suffer the consequences accordingly. We must do the same in our relationships with others. It’s important that we develop the language of freedom and invitation rather than demand and manipulation. Is it risky? Of course, because then the person has the freedom to say “no!” But, the depth and beauty of the relationship grows in freedom not in demand and manipulation. If someone has the freedom to say “no,” then the same person has the freedom to say “yes.” And when important people in our lives do say “yes” it means so much more because they have truly chosen freely.

Words words, words… words have the power to free and the power to enslave. If you want to know where you land on that point, watch your behavior, not your rhetoric. If you really want to know where you land, ask people you interact with regularly and see what they say (as long as you give them the freedom to be honest without retribution or punishment). There is a spiritual reality here that anchors the temporal reality that we experience everyday. Words are probably the most powerful weapon we have in our arsenal. How will you use them?

Posted in Family Life, Forgiveness & Reconciliation, Masculinity/Manhood, Redemptive Community, Relationship with God | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Grief 2.0 – Acceptance

There probably no more debated and resisted subject of discussion within grieving than acceptance. Because of this, allow me to focus specifically on the area of grief first, and then later I’ll look at this subject in other areas of living.

So, what exactly does acceptance have to do with grief? Before, answering that question, we need to spend some time exploding some myths that have grown up around the use of imagesthis word. Amongst all the people that I have had the opportunity to talk, this word is probably the most vexing. In most peoples’ minds, acceptance is a synonym for approval. In other words, in order to accept something, or some state of affairs (e.g., the loss of someone we love) means to approve of what happened or even condone it. So, when I lose someone to death, I am often told by the various approaches to grief that I will eventually come to a place of acceptance of the person’s absence and death. Of course, this being said to someone who has freshly experienced this loss is downright cruel. The people who say something like this are usually uncomfortable with the intense feelings that come along with loss, and therefore are searching for something comforting or profound to say, so they uncork this little jewel of wisdom. The worse part about this phrase is the fact that there is a germ of truth to it. Indeed, in time, this acceptance will come into one’s experience of loss … just not yet. The problem that most people have is captured in the phrase “in time.” That doesn’t mean, “time heals all wounds,” but it does mean that I do need some time to continue to process and work through my grief in order to come to this place of acceptance. Therefore, acceptance isn’t approval. Acceptance isn’t condoning of what has happened. Acceptance is learning to live with the reality of what has happened. This word, “reality” is so much bigger than word conveys. The small nooks and crannies of “reality” simply can’t be anticipated. Acceptance is experiencing the profound sense of absence during anniversaries and special moments that were usually shared with the person.

One of the most frequently asked question with this idea of acceptance is, “Yeah, but what do I do to accept something?” The emphasis here is the basis of the question. There must be something I can “do” to accept this reality by the force of will. Without confronting our definitions of acceptance, it really doesn’t matter (mentioned above). Our beliefs control our reactions and decisions about this idea of acceptance. If I fundamentally believe that acceptance is approving of what has happened, then the answer to that question is, “Nothing, you’ve already decided your response.” On the other hand, if I have been able to jar loose my belief about acceptance, then the question may be asked in a different way. It may be asked instead, “what do I have to cultivate to develop acceptance in my life?” Now that is a different thing entirely. Instead of talking about lists of things to do to accomplish acceptance in our lives, we are now talking about a lifelong process of seeding the soil of our hearts with trust, obedience, and a willingness to risk failure.

Let me start with trust. I am often heard saying in many of my classes that, “trust and control can’t coexist.” If I trust someone, then I am letting go of my bent to control them. What exactly does that mean though? Whenever we think of a “controlling person” we tend to think of someone who is overtly controlling — doesn’t take “no” for an answer, expects others to do it the way that he/she does it, or is just overbearing and dominant. What we miss in that way of thinking about controlling behavior, is that we miss looking at the “covert” controlling behaviors in which many of us engage. What’s covert, you ask? Well, if I tell you I’d have to kill you… just kidding — I couldn’t resist. Covert ways of controlling others is usually seen in how we think instead of what we do. In other words, our tendency is to play out the scenario in our heads about how some situation is going to go down including what the other person is going to say, and fashion our response on that little gaming scenario in our heads. The other person, of course, has no opportunity to respond in real time. We are interacting with the person in our heads rather than in reality. It is on this basis that we construct what we do. The additional piece of this puzzle is all the effort that is directed toward withholding behaviors that would give the other person an opportunity to react. In other words, we manage others’ reactions to us by not saying what we really mean or feel. Thereby assuring ourselves the outcome we desire. The key to remember here is that controlling behavior is all about the outcome that is desired, not the process that it takes to get there.

So, in light of cultivating a spirit of acceptance in our hearts, rejecting our attempts and grand schemes of controlling the world around us is planting a seed of trust. I am not suggesting for anyone to be gullible or ridiculously vulnerable. We still need to use our common sense in order to discern when it is safe to trust because there are many times where that is simply not true — it is not safe to openly trust. But, with all those qualifications out of the way, trusting what God is up to, and His character in the face of the evidence before us is the “stuff” that acceptance is made of. Far from easy, I more than realize the difficulty, since this has been an area of my own wrestling and struggle. It often takes more discernment than most have, but that doesn’t remove it from the areas that we cultivate if we are going to have a willingness to accept the way things really are authentically and with integrity. Accepting things as they really are authentically means that I make no efforts to diminish the importance of what has happened, and neither do I attempt to inflate it’s importance either. It’s living with the reality that confronts me (e.g., a loss, or a flaw that I see in myself) without pride or shame. I don’t make it more than it is, and I don’t make it less than it is.

How about obedience? What does that have to do with acceptance? After all, one might reason, obedience is about a list of things to do, right? Well, actually, one can’t have obedience without trust. Actually, we can obey, but not trust. But, that kind of obedience is not really obedience at all because it is coerced. It certainly looks like obedience, if we focus on the behaviors, but it doesn’t reveal the heart behind it which is guarded and protected. The kind of obedience I’m speaking of here is an obedience that is birthed out of trust and even hope. In spite of the fact that I can’t see the future of what might happen if I obey, I do so anyway because I trust the heart of the one asking me to “obey” or follow his/her instruction. That’s what I mean that trust is the central concept of obedience, and acceptance. I might not accept the trusted person’s view of reality, but I do trust him enough to follow his/her direction. That’s the stuff of the obedience God desires from us. As a matter of fact, in the Old Testament, He spoke of a day when His people would respond from their hearts instead of the avoidance of punishment in the Law when He said to the prophet Jeremiah,
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.” (Jer. 31:33)

This is not a coerced obedience… this is an obedience that is borne out of love and, by implication, trust.

Okay, one last one… risking failure. Of course, this topic could take an entire post worth of consideration. Yet, when it comes to acceptance, the crowning obstacle is risking failure. Again, as so many times before, one must define our terms here. What exactly is failure? When it comes to acceptance, is it even possible to fail? Of course, the answer to the last question is, “yes!” Yes, one can resist acceptance by living in denial and refusing to adapt to the changing reality in which he or she is living. Many people have done that, and will continue to do so. However, if we want to cultivate acceptance in our lives, it requires a willingness to live with falling short not failure. The moment we cast this into “all-or-nothing” terms will be when we refuse to adapt and accept the reality we have. Everything else we do, short of denial is part of the journey of acceptance. When I actually accept the reality in which I find myself, and trust another to help me, and even obey his/her direction even if I can’t see the outcome, then falling short will always be a risk. The bottom line is that there is no trust, or obedience without risk. When we try to remove risk we are also removing the opportunity for growth and even intimacy (with God and others). The reality is that when we are hard pressed, that’s a pretty easy trade until we review and look back and suffer some measure of regret over what we may have missed. It happens to everyone. It’s the plague of being human, limited, and bent on controlling our world so that we don’t suffer any further losses. When our agenda is to reduce our losses (no matter what kind – losing a person to death, or losing a relationship, or losing our sense of competence), we will not attempt such things as acceptance, trust, obedience, and even risking failure. It’s a defensive way to live life (like defense in football), rather than an “offensive” way of living life. It’s the difference between engaging life and allowing it to happen to us.

All of this is exactly why acceptance is so important. It assails our need to be in control, and pushes us to once again practice trust. Acceptance isn’t a demand on us. It’s an invitation to intimacy. One last thought. Think about the reconciliation on the road between the father and the prodigal son in the story Jesus told. Imagine for a moment how that reunion would have went if the father hadn’t accepted his son. Taking one look at him, said to his servants, “get this kid cleaned up!” That reunion is a powerful picture of what acceptance looks like. Was the father in denial of his son’s condition? Of course not. After all, he surveyed the boy, and said instead of “get this kid clean,” he said, “cover up his filth with my finest robe (probably the father’s), and restore him to his position as my son with a ring, and most importantly give him some shoes to wear.” I daresay if the father had been in denial somehow about his son, he wouldn’t have been nearly as detailed as he was about what needed to be “covered.” That is not only a picture of what we are to do with others, but also what we are to do with ourselves. Rejecting and condemning ourselves is only more law in our hearts. Accepting the grace that is given us, and treating ourselves with that grace describes the path of acceptance that empowers us to do the same for others.

Posted in Forgiveness & Reconciliation, Grief and Grieving, Redemptive Community | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Judge, jury, and executioner: A modern parable (pt. 2)

Gayle sat in the chair to my right, and beyond her was the Sheriff’s deputy who we found out was named Jerry.  He sat down rather uncomfortably adjusting his sidearm so he could sit in the chair.  Once everyone was seated, the judge cleared his throat to indicate it was time to begin, and looked at the people gathered before him.judge_jury_executioner badge

“Well, you’re all probably wondering why I asked for this conference, especially you, Greg.” Greg looked up at the judge still white as a sheet.
“Let’s review the facts of the case which both you, Gayle, and Jerry should have gotten by email.”  They both nodded looking straight at the judge.  Neither of them had made any eye contact with Greg, and seemed to ignore him altogether.  I was beginning to get a little irritated for my friend since he, at least, deserved to be recognized for coming at all.

The judge continued, “We are here to consider the case of Greg Smith and the many failings he has exhibited over the last 20 or so years of his short, pathetic life.”  Finally, with the pronouncement of the last phrase both Jerry and Gayle turned on my friend, and looked at him as if he was some lower life form not deserving to live any longer.

For my part, I was completely taken off guard by what the judge said at the end of his statement.  I was expecting something more professional, sterile, even clinical in his description of the charges against Greg.  But, there was nothing of the kind.  It was completely subjective and incredibly degrading even ruthless.  If you’ve ever been in a courtroom you will understand what I mean when I say that I was a bit hesitant to object to the judge’s wording of his so-called “charges” against Greg.  I mean, after all, judges have the final say, right.  Needless to say, I was getting a little (okay, a lot) uncomfortable about what was going to come next.

Additionally, I was heart-broken for my friend, and as I looked over at him, he seemed to be shrinking in size as the proceedings continued.  His head hung lower and lower, and he didn’t utter any defense of himself.  It appeared that he had resigned himself to what was coming, and was bracing himself to “take it.”

“So, let me continue,” the judge said as he began to look over a ream of paper.  “So, Greg, do you remember when your brother was playing out in the street, and you didn’t protect him from almost getting hit by a car?”  Greg nodded slowly as if he was struggling to remember the incident.  He looked up, and said weakly, “yeah, but that was at least 10 years ago, and he didn’t get hit did he?”

“Did I ask for your defense?”  DID I???” the judged hissed.

“No your honor,” Greg said duly chastised.

“Let’s continue…” the judge cleared his throat once again.  “Also, there has been a clear, and definable pattern of behavior by Mr. Smith to let people down in his life by pursuing his own needs and desires.  As a matter of fact, he appears to be driven to make sure that people understand that he is better than them.  Sometimes he will do this by acting like he is so humble and undeserving of their attention or applause, yet secretly he has nurtured the belief that he deserves their accolades, and this serves to fuel his infantile fury that he isn’t getting the attention he deserves.  On the other hand, he will also pressure himself into performing better than anyone else, and cultivates the pattern of behavior that is designed for people to notice and applaud him.

I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, and looked around to see what the other players is this cruel drama were doing.  Jerry and Gayle seemed completely disengaged and were only intent on staring daggers into the back of Greg’s head since it was almost in his lap.  I finally couldn’t take anymore of this mountain of insults, remembrances of failure and incompetence, so it was my turn to clear my throat and raised my hand rather timidly.

The judge turned his lethal attention on me, and looked at me as if I had just committed a cardinal sin of some sort.  “What do you want?” he said through his clenched teeth.

“Uh, judge, I’m a little confused (unfortunately I wasn’t being very articulate or convincing).  This seems to be a cruel, hellish version of “This is your life.”  I don’t see how any of this matters in a court of law.  This list you have are the kind of stuff that can only be known by people closest to Greg, and even only him.  How is it that you can do this?”

The judge resettled into his chair, sat up straighter, cast a withering look at me and said, “You are only displaying your ignorance about such things, Mr….?  Do you have a name?”

Before I could answer, he continued, “oh, it doesn’t matter, you’re only here because Mr. Smith decided he wanted one more person to listen to his list of failings.  I can’t for the life of me understand why, but so be it.  Just for your satisfaction, we have been supplied this information by Greg himself.”

For the next hour, the judge continued to go down the list of Greg’s shortcomings, failures, and examples of his incompetence both socially and emotionally.  He recounted old relationships, opportunities to perform both athletically and interpersonally at high levels that were “less than stellar,” grades in school, and concluded during the last paragraph with instances even in the last week that Greg had done at missing a deadline at work, and ignoring the new receptionist who was clearly lonely and needed some encouragement.

When he stopped the silence was stifling, and felt like a load of emotional garbage had just gotten dumped into the room.  All the while this was going on, Jerry and Gayle seemed to be waiting for something and eagerly soaking up the beat down Greg was experiencing at the hands of the judge.  He looked around, and then looked at Gayle first, and nodded.  “Gayle you have anything to add?”

Gayle looked at Greg with the kind of loathing that I had never seen between people before except maybe in the movies, but who believes that would be possible?  But, here it was, and it was breath-taking.  She finally spoke, “Since I am a member of this jury, judge, and I would be considered the “fore-woman” of the jury with the responsibility to speak for the jury, I’ll save you some time.  I find Greg Smith guilty of and forever branded as a man who will “never be enough” for anyone.  His ongoing and continued pattern of selfishness, ignorance, and stupidity garner for him this sentence.”  She looked at the judge and nodded with satisfaction.

“Jerry?” the judge nodded to the deputy.  Jerry, much like Gayle, looked at the judge with a frightening level of smugness and self-righteousness, and said, “Well, given the sentence pronounced by the jury represented here by Gayle, it is my duty (and desire I might add) to inflict judgment and on Mr. Smith.  I will gladly take on the job to accompany Mr. Smith wherever he goes and remind him on an hourly basis of all that is held against him.”

“How the heck are you going to do that?” I had just had about enough of this charade of a trial, and had decided that if Greg wasn’t going to speak up for himself, I would for him.


While the deputy and Gayle were talking, I noticed the judge rummaging around in a drawer of his desk, and then finally pulled out another legal sized folder and laid it on his desk.

“Yes, that is right, deputy.”  He locked his gaze on me, and said, “Tell me again your last name.  Wait, isn’t your last name Riordan?  Yes, of course it is.  I thought I recognized you, and sure enough I have a file right here with your name on it Mr. Scott Riordan.”

Have you ever been driving on the highway, and suddenly a set of red and blue lights appear in your rear-view mirror?  It is all you can do to keep your heart from leaping out of your chest  into your throat until the lights pass you and head into the traffic in front of you.  That was how I felt at that moment.  Questions flew into my head like, “How did he get that?  Or, who told him?”  At that moment, I knew that I had nowhere to go to help my friend, or I would be the next one on trial and I didn’t’ think I was ready for that.  I had a choice to make either protect my friend and face my own trial, or be quiet.

While I was mulling over my options, Greg looked at me with tears in his eyes, and said, “Scott, don’t sweat it.  It’s okay.  They’re right, and there’s nothing you can do.  There’s nothing I can do.  I will never be enough, and the judgment has already been made.  It’s just the way it is.”

The judge got up from his massive chair, and moved to the front of the desk.  He looked at the deputy and nodded.  Immediately the deputy left the room, and returned with a silver case, and snapped open the clasps of the case.  Inside, he pulled out what looked like a massive syringe that was made for a horse, but at the end was a hollow tip with what looked like a multi-pronged cylinder with a small light blinking.

“Get up!” the judged shouted at Greg.

“Wait, wait, what the heck is going on?” I shouted trying to slow down what looked like was going to happen no matter what I did.  “What is that thing?”

“Given Greg’s sentence by the jury, and carried out by Mr. Jerry here, he will be implanted with a small device that will be lodged at the base of his skull.  It really doesn’t hurt that much, but it will repeat over and over in Greg’s thoughts (I know it sounds weird, but I was beginning to believe anything was possible at this point) all the failures, losses, ignorance, incompetence, his inability to perform at satisfactory levels so that he will never forget the sentence pronounced on him today, NOT ENOUGH!“

As I began to shake my head and scream, “WAIT!  WAIT!” I felt my shoulder being shaken over and over again, and in the distance I heard someone saying, “Scott, wake up!  WAKE UP!”  It was at that moment I realized that I had been sleeping and opened my eyes.  There was Greg stifling a smile as he seemed to be amused at my nightmare.  “Dude, what the heck were you dreaming?  Wait, wait for what??”

“Nothing, never mind… I must have fallen asleep when I got home from work.  I didn’t think I was that tired. “


As frightening as a situation like this would be (in spite of how improbable), it happens every day in many (if not all) of us.  We all fight with the lurking, and what seems to be, the undeniable sentence of judgment on ourselves that we are simply not enough.  Why is it that we feel so compelled to forgive ourselves?  We have become our own “judge, jury, and executioner” who are equipped with all the worst “inside” information they can have with which to convict us.  We have an internal “kangaroo court” designed to pronounce this judgment no matter how competent, “perfect,” or high-performing we might be.  In the posts to follow, we will endeavor to journey into the origins of such a court of condemnation, and consider patterns or principles we can practice to mute the voices of our judge, jury, and executioner.

Posted in Forgiveness & Reconciliation, Masculinity/Manhood, Redemptive Community | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Judge, jury and executioner: A modern parable (pt 1)

The silence was shattered as your cell phone shouted at you as if to say, “Hey stupid, il_570xN.699022659_rxgrpay attention!” You jump like you’ve never heard your cell phone before. You’re so engrossed in what you were doing, the cell phone seems like a brutal and abrupt interruption.

“Hello?” you answer with a tone of suspiciousness and irritation. You’re waiting for it to be one of those telemarketers on the line. The caller id is blocked so you have no idea who is on the other end of the line and you’re more than a little suspicious.

“Hey, how’s it going?” the voice on the other end responds. It’s a familiar greeting by your friend Greg, so you relax a little when you recognize his voice. A sense of curiosity arises as you hadn’t heard from Greg for a long time –6 months to be exact, which wasn’t really like him. Your relationship with Greg reaches back to college days when you would study and hang out while you were commiserating about the professor du jour that you jointly despised and blamed for all your life miseries at the time. Little did either of you realize just the kind of miseries that life could serve up.

“Greg! It’s been a long time. To what do I owe the pleasure of hearing from you, my friend!”

Greg clears his throat, and stammers out, “I…I… was wondering if you had some time, if you could go with me to court next week?” He exhaled like he had been working up his courage to ask someone for quite some time. “I mean, if you have the time, and I would understand if you weren’t up for doing something like this. I know that it’s not every day that a friend calls you up to ask you to go to a courtroom.”

There was something peculiar about how Greg was talking about his request, and immediately my mood changed to match the obvious seriousness of the request. It really wasn’t like my friend to stammer and stutter asking for anything since he was the king of “schmooz” getting me to do stuff I really didn’t want to do.
“Yeah, sure, I think I can go with you. When and where is the courtroom that we will be going?”

“Oh, man, dude, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you doing this for me. We can leave at 10am on Wednesday, and we should get there by 10:30 for everything to start. It’s actually in the judge’s chambers and not technically in the courtroom. I know it sounds a little weird, but it will be the judge, a member of the jury, and a sheriff’s deputy who I’ll be meeting with. The summons said I was allowed one other family member or friend to attend with me. I couldn’t think of anyone better than you to go with me.” Greg was clearly relieved, and his tone was already more relaxed and sounded more like “himself.”

“Geez, Greg, that does sound weird. Have you consulted an attorney or anything? I mean, they can’t just haul you up to a hearing, if that’s what it would be called, like this without some kind of representation.” The more I listened to my friend the more suspicious I got for him. What could possibly convince him to put himself through something like this? I mean, we had watched “CSI” and the other crime shows to know that the suspect always has a right to an attorney.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, I was suspicious too. But, after opening the summons, there was another letter in the mail that was handwritten, and the return address was from the judge. When I opened it, I found a personal note saying that because he knew my family and dad, he was making an exception and providing me with a “special meeting” in order to help him make up his mind whether to simply dismiss the charges or to move forward. It’s not technically a hearing in the legal sense of the word. It is all clearly unconventional, but I don’t see how I can refuse since you and I both know how I’ve jacked things up in my life. Maybe it’s from something stupid I did when I was “younger.” You know, that kind of thing.” Greg’s voice had returned to the strained and anxious tone with which he had begun the phone conversation.

“Okay… I’ll help you out but I can only be moral support. You realize that, right?”

“Oh yeah, completely! I understand and that’s all that I’m looking for. Thanks so much! He hung up with little more than a “good bye,” and I was left to the swirl of my own thoughts as to what was going on. I had never heard anything like this before. It sounded downright underhanded and the kind of stuff that consumers are always warned about because it leads to some kind of identity thievery or something like that. For some reason, Greg felt some measure of compulsion to go in spite of the all the warnings and suspiciousness.

Wednesday rolled around, and Greg texted me that he was ready to go, and was out in front of my apartment. When I got into the car, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a dread in Greg that felt like he was getting ready to go before a firing squad. So, I tried to lighten the mood.

“Hey my friend, how’s it going? I mean, I didn’t mean that question. That’s kind of obvious, right? Did you catch the Stanley Cup playoff last night? The Blackhawks were playing unconscious, particularly their goalie. He was stopping everything the Lightning threw at him.” “Good save, I suppose” I thought to myself.

“I missed the game last night, sorry.” Greg responded. The dread seemed impenetrable.

For the rest of the ride, I resigned myself to a quiet trip. “I just want you to know that I’m behind you all the way, friend. No matter what, I’ve got your back, and if you need me for anything to get through this, I’ll do whatever you need me to do to help you.” I smiled weakly. Not a rousing pep talk, but was enough for now.

Greg looked over at me and pasted on a superficial smile, and kept driving. “Thanks, that means a lot to me.” We drove the rest of the way in silence.
Once there, we walked up the steps and took the elevator to the judge’s chambers. Unfortunately, the chambers were as stereotypical as you could imagine in your worst nightmares. Dark wood, massive desk, and a man who was sitting in the massive judge’s chair was on the phone. He gave us a glance, and waved us into the leather upholstered chairs in front of him.

As I sat there with my friend, I began (as everyone does) to take in the chambers. One wall lined with massive legal books. There were a few that caught my attention, “Rules of Evidence,” “Rules of Civil Procedure,” and “Compensation Law.” Very impressive, and the kind of library that screams, “experience, professionalism, and don’t mess with me.” Eventually my attention was drawn to the judge himself as he was finishing his conversation. It was freakish, just how much like Greg he appeared. As a matter of fact, as I listened even his voice sounded like Greg’s. Granted, the mannerisms were a little different, but not by much. He could have easily been Greg’s twin.

There was a soft knock on the door, and the judge looked up and waved the person into the room. This was clearly the sheriff’s deputy who was going to be part of this little conference. In spite of the fact that he didn’t look as much like Greg as the judge did, he could have easily been one of his family. The family resemblance was strong with the timbre of his voice being very much like that of Greg’s family. I had been around his family enough to grow accustomed to what their voices sounded like, and it was eerie how much this person seemed to hail from the same family tree.

Greg’s face was increasingly draining of color with each passing moment to such a degree that I thought I was going to have to reach over and prop him up. He had taken one look at the judge, and it was like he had seen a ghost. He didn’t utter a word, but he didn’t have to. He was clearly shaken. Now, when the sheriff came into the room, he looked about ready to keel over in a full-blown swoon.

I looked over at him, “dude, are you okay?”, I whispered.

He looked over at me like a convicted man who already knew that he was being sent to the gallows. “I’ll be fine,” he said. Color me skeptical, but I didn’t believe him, and readied myself to bolt out of my chair when he slumped over.

We heard another knock at the door as the judge was finishing up his conversation, “Yes, that will be fine. I will let you know the outcome of this conference when we’re done.”

He looked up again to see who was at his door. A flash of familiarity crossed his face, and he waved again, “Gayle! I’m so glad you could make it today. Thanks so much for coming. Please, please sit down.” He was smiling broadly as if completely oblivious to the condition of the “defendant.”

(to be continued…)

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Insights from LOTR

I’ve been a fan of the Lord of the Rings for more than a couple decades, and I’m always struck by some of the interactions between the key characters in the story.  During my last reading, I was struck by something that Elrond said as the “fellowship of the ring” was about to leave Rivendell. What caught my attention were the parallels to Unknownmy (our) life that is embedded in this “charge” that he gave to the members of the fellowship.

Here it is:
‘The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid: neither cast away the Ring, nor to deliver it to any servant of the Enemy nor indeed to let any handle it, save members of the Company and the Council, and on then in gravest need. The others go with him as free companions, to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows. The further you go, the less easy will it be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road.’
‘Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,’ said Gimli.
‘Maybe,’ said Elrond,’but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.’
‘Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,’ said Gimli.
‘Or break it,’ said Elrond. ‘Look not too far ahead! But go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine upon your faces!’

Of course, the underline is mine… but as I reflected on this last charge by Elrond I was struck how much it is like any one of us… or me. I’m not a Ring-bearer, but I am an “imagebearer.” And, I am on a journey through this life to my heavenly home. The first question that came to me had to do with this notion of me as an image-bearer of the “imago Dei;” bearing the image of God and what I am to do with that. I don’t often think about what I am doing to (or with) the image I bear of God within me. What I do with how I see myself is very much tied up with the imago Dei. My embrace, or lack thereof, of my own sense of being God’s beloved is inextricably woven into how I think about myself, and behave with others. But, like Frodo, it is the thing I am charged to bear throughout life. A thing of great value. Something that Scripture refers to as our hearts, and we are “guard” it as something exceedingly priceless.

But what of the others? It’s fascinating that the rest of the “fellowship” were completely free to travel with him as far as they chose. Elrond was extremely specific that they could “tarry, come back, or turn aside” as chance allowed. Isn’t this so like the people who are on our journey with us? They, too, are free to walk with us as they may, and that is a profound wonder and grace that they do. The members of the fellowship of the Ring would have done nothing else but walk with Frodo to the ends of Middle Earth. They placed themselves under compulsion to walk with him. It’s the next statement that was so profoundly true to me… “The further you go, the less easy will it be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will.” How true is this of our relationships with one another… the further we go, the less easy it is to withdraw because of the entwining that occurs as we journey through life together. Yet, just as it did in LOTR, it does happen… the fellowship is separated by circumstances, by attack, by doubts from within, by any number of things.

The other thing that caught my attention was the interaction between Elrond and Gimli. Gimli reminds me of those people who have a tendency to say something that I refer to as big “T” truths. What Gimli says, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,” is a big “T” truth — no one will debate the fact that the person who bails when things look the worst is not much of a friend, but Elrond reminds Gimli of the realities of what I have also referrred to as small “t” truths — there are many things that assault us as we travel through life, and no one intends to be faithless, but circumstances occur that make it appear as such if one were looking from the outside in.

That is what Elrond referred back to when he said, “…but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.” We often “vow” to walk with others in a way that we cannot possibly do because we can no more see the road ahead of us than the fellowship could see what would befall them as they journeyed toward Mordor. All we can do is walk while we may, and trust the God who dwells within us and in whom we exist to do what He will to work his redemptive story out through the journey.

The challenge is to “enter in” to each others’ journey with trust and awe of what God is up to in the other person’s life. This entering in is the stuff of “small t” truth… the bloody realities of where we live. Clearly, we need the “big T” truths to intersect with the “small t” realities of our lives. They anchor us, and calibrate us to the way things “should” be. At the same time, though, we must not move too quickly to the “big T” truths too soon, or the other person will only conclude that he or she isn’t “good enough,” or “smart enough,” or “spiritual enough” to live that way. Entering in is the power of being “with” someone. It’s not being “with” them “for” some outcome. It is simply being with them. It is in that moment that I believe and have seen God move. It is also suspiciously familiar to the description of Jesus that Isaiah gave us… Emmanuel … God “with” us.

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Voice? What voice?

Being trained as a psychologist has its share of weird perks (I’ll explain in a minute) and moments that inevitably bring a smile to my face. If I had a dollar (it used to be a penny, but inflation and all — if you’re over 40, you’ll know what I mean) for every time someone asked me upon finding out that I was a psychologist if I was “analyzing” them, I would be a moderately rich man. That same experience occurs when I hear people talking about the “voice in my head” that is telling them a variety of things about themselves, the world, the past, and their future. When we talk that way, more often than not, most people are afraid that they have “slipped a cog” in their heads and they start looking over their shoulders for the men in “white coats” (which by the way doesn’t even exist anymore today). In spite of all that, when we admit the presence of that voice, we are sure that the people listening to our account of the debate that rages in our craniums are concluding that we are hearing auditory hallucinations. Let me put this myth to rest… it’s not a “voice” like it is in the psychological sense, but clearly most people will admit that there is an ongoing stream of commentary running in the background of their thoughts.

This commentary is often a stream of poisonous negativity that is slowly leaking into our thoughts and contaminating each as we form them. While many might ask, “where does that come from?”, that answer will have to be postponed for a later post. Furthermore, the “where?” question only serves to distract us from two very important things: What is it saying? And, what do I do about it? That “where?” question might be important to consider as long as it doesn’t distract us. Clearly, what happens “upstream” from where I am in my flow of thoughts is important only as long as I’m willing to consider the whole picture of how my thoughts are poisoned… the “where?” The “what?” And, the “what now?” Too often, we stop our self-examination once we have figured out from where our problems originate. Using the stream-of-water-and-the-spring analogy, it’s as if we feel comforted to identify that the spring from which the water is coming is contaminated. That way, when our irritability or sarcasm rains down on someone and he/she protests, we can say… “yeah, but the spring(my upbringing, my abuse, bad relationships or whatever else you can blame your behavior) is contaminated… I can’t help it!”

Okay, back to the voice in our heads. Often, this “voice” is negative, foreboding, and even ruthless. It doesn’t let up under any circumstances. As a matter of fact, it is quite versatile because whether the situation I am in is positive or negative, it always has something to add. If it’s positive, it will chime in with “just wait, this is too good to be true, it’ll go south because it’s you!” Or, there’s the ever popular, “You don’t deserve something this good, so get out now before the other person finds out what a fraud you are.” On the other hand, there’s also the negative situations I find myself in where I have let someone down, or I’ve “failed” (by my exacting and ruthless standard, of course), or I simply haven’t performed to the “high” (a.k.a. perfectionistic) expectations I have of myself. In this case, “the voice” is sure to capitalize on it and amplify the messages I’m concluding myself. I do all the heavy lifting for the voice in my head; it just cranks up the volume to make sure that’s all I hear. The thing to keep in mind here is that this commentary is not necessarily “facts” in the truest sense of the word. Instead, this stream of commentary is actually the conclusions we have made about ourselves, about the world around us and how it works, about our past, and our future. How are conclusions formed? Usually conclusions are formed based on a relatively confined set of facts that have been collected over time about a variety of topics. The conclusions I make about myself are generally the “therefore” part of the formula to create a conclusion. What do I mean, you ask? wpid-Unknown-1-2015-08-9-09-09.jpeg

Let me play Toto from the Wizard of Oz for a minute and pull back the curtain on what’s happening with the “man behind the curtain.” We are designed to collect information. As a matter of fact, we are wired to notice differences in our environment, particularly novel differences. The longer something in our environment(whether our external environment or our internal environment) stays the same, we develop something called “change blindness.” We simply don’t see it anymore because it’s the same as it was a minute ago. We collect bits of information, as I said before, about ourselves, the future, our worth, the “world” and how it works, and even about what the future might hold for us. So, when we collect information about ourselves we go into the “stack” in the library of our minds labeled “me” and start to go through the information found there. There was the time that I failed a test (Fact 1). There was that time that my (spoken generically here, not specific to me) dad yelled at me for being so stupid. (Fact 2) There was that time when I was in a relationship with another person, and he/she left because “it didn’t work for him/her.” (Fact 3) And the stack continues ad nauseum, and virtually ad infinitum. Then, here it comes… THEREFORE… I don’t deserve to be in a good relationship. THEREFORE I will never accomplish anything. THEREFORE, I can’t do anything right. Get the picture?

Given this process, these conclusions are so well-rehearsed that before long, we simply don’t see them as flawed or built on flawed information. As a matter of fact, the “voice” in our heads just keeps the process going, and continues the cruel and ruthless rehearsal. That’s the “voice in my head” that we are talking about here. Yet, we would never admit that we have one of those, because we don’t want to “be crazy.” So, the beat goes on. The wizard stays safely hidden and pulling his knobs and levers trying to convince his audience that he really isn’t what those conclusions are asserting.

Which, leads us to, “So, what can I do about it?” Before we can answer that question, we Unknown-2have to take a close look at how we are “flying.” Dallas Willard in his book, “The Divine Conspiracy” gives the example of a fighter pilot who was conducting high-speed maneuvers. “She turned the controls for what she thought was a steep ascent — and flew straight into the ground. She was unaware that she had been flying upside down.” (pg. 1) It seems to me that all too often we are just like that pilot… flying upside down, and not aware that we are. As a matter of fact, we have been flying upside down for so long when it comes to listening to the voice in our heads, that we actually believe that we are flying right side up. Therefore, when we try to make a correction, or “do something about it” we end up crashing and burning. First and foremost, we have to examine whether we are flying upside down or not. At least when it comes to flying (of which I’m not even a novice) it is my guess that we have to have some outside measure to establish if we are flying right side up or upside down. That outside measure might be the instrument panel, or it might be a trusted observer (sooner or later this metaphor is going to collapse!), but whatever the case is we are going to have to first figure out how to fly right side up. Once that is accomplished, then and only then, can we begin to address the issue of “doing something about it.”

In the upside down flying world, the way that you deal with the voice is you attempt to shut it down. You can’t tolerate hearing it another moment longer, and you look for ways to silence it. Makes sense, right? Yep, in the upside down world it does. Brute force, “willpower,” “positive thinking,” or denial are all methods of the upside down world. It’s going straight at it, and vanquishing it. For most of us, we have attempted these strategies over and over again, and end up with the same results (hmmmm… sounds familiar), the same levels of discouragement, and the voice only seems to get louder and more persuasive.

In the right side up world, the way to deal with the voice in our heads is terribly counterintuitive. Whenever I have the opportunity to talk about this, and I suggest the solution, I will get a look from the other person like I had just grown horns and was fast friends with Satan! It simply doesn’t make sense, but what is critical to understand is that it doesn’t make sense when you are flying upside down. What’s the solution? Nothing! Yep, that’s right nothing! Let me explain. When I assert doing nothing about the voice in my head, I mean that the voice in my head is not nearly as important as many think. What’s more important is what I do to cultivate different beliefs in my way of thinking about myself, the world, and the future. Instead of focusing on getting the voice to stop, the more important strategy is to make the kind of changes about my basic assumptions about life that the voice becomes more and more irrelevant. Needless to say, that is by no means an easy assignment, but in many ways, it requires a different focus of my attention. Either I attend to the voice, or I turn my attention to a chorus of other voices (perhaps) of friends, loved ones, and even co-workers that communicate a very different, maybe even opposite, message to the “voice” in my head.

Interestingly, Jesus had something to say about that in the gospel of John. In John 10, Jesus talks about the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. He focuses on the voice of the shepherd as the compelling reason why the sheep follow him. Because the sheep recognize his voice (hmmm… sounds familiar), they will follow him. If they hear the voice of a stranger, they run away. In the right side up world, I listen to the voice of the good shepherd who knows me by name, and no matter how messy I am or how stumbling I am I keep my attention focused on His voice (which is echoed by other “good” voices in my life). Any other voice (and what it’s saying to me), I RUN!

Let’s take a quick look at the upside down world again. In this world, I focus my attention on the voice of the “thief” who only comes to “steal, kill, and destroy”, and I run from the voice that knows me by name, and calls me his own. It’s all backwards. Unfortunately, like the pilot, if I try to “pull out” I’ll crater myself because I’m flying upside down. On the other hand, in the right side up world, the voice doesn’t stop, but I’ve focused my attention on the truth, and when I pull out, I run away from the voice that is only there to steal, kill, and destroy.

A story is told of the great reformer, Martin Luther. While I think that it is a pure fabrication, it does serve to make a point that supports my assertion about the “voice” in our heads. The story is told that Martin Luther was pestered by demons, evil spirits, and Satan himself which was common for people of the late Middle-Ages. Apparently, Martin Luther was sleeping and he was awakened by a sound in his room. When he turned over to look what was causing the sound, he realized that Satan was sitting on his desk nearby. He looked at Satan, and replied, “Oh, it’s you…” and turned over and went back to sleep. It’s not that his enemy wasn’t important or even dangerous, but in Luther’s mind that night, he was thoroughly irrelevant. What was relevant (to use the example of the good shepherd) was listening to the voice that called him His.

So, to what voice are you going to listen?

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Powerful Prepositions

Okay, so call me a geek, but lately I’ve been curious and sensitive to the power of certain prepositions in our language, and what they signify to us. No, this is not going to be a lesson in grammar or English, but there is something that has been gnawing at me of lateUnknown regarding the prepositions “with” and “for.” Let me give you an example. Just yesterday I had the opportunity to have lunch with a former student of mine (thanks Rachel!). It was such a rich, sweet time of connecting and talking. What caught my attention as I reflected on our time together was the very topic of this entry. When we were talking there was a richness of being “with” each other. There was a certain simplicity in it. Few expectations were held other than the joy of sharing a brief moment in time with another sojourner – sharing stories, laughing about life, and inspiring each other for the journey ahead. That “with-ness” was an amazing window into the marvel of human connection.

What changes that, sometimes for good or ill, is the powerful preposition “for.” “For” as a word carries a powerful change in position between us (and God as well). When I do something “for” someone else, I am acting on their behalf. Often I do so because they are unable to for a myriad of reasons. In this way, when Paul speaks of carrying each other’s burdens(Gal. 6:2) inspired by what he calls the “law of Christ,” he seems to be suggesting “for.” My understanding of this verse has been that the “burden” Paul speaks of in the original language (Greek) conveys the image of a “boulder.” Something so massive, so crushing that it incapacitates the people effected by it. We are called to carry it “for” them. Are we to carry it “with” them? Most certainly, but we are called to do it in their stead because of their inability to do “for” themselves. In like manner, Jesus did something “for” us that we simply couldn’t do for ourselves – reconciliation with God.

When these get connected, though, something in our way of thinking (and expecting) changes. So, when someone is “with” me “for” something I expect something to happen. Let me try to place this into context that is a little more understandable. When I met with the student I mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry, I was truly “with” her and her “with” me. Did I expect anything from her that would suggest a “for?” No, not really. I didn’t expect her to do anything “for” me at all. I simply reveled in being “with” her. Did she expect being “with” me “for” anything? I don’t know, she would be the only person who could answer that. Yet, something happens when we add a “for” in the mix of our relationships. Suddenly, or quite insidiously, we are not just “with” someone to be with them. Rather, we are with them “for” some desirable outcome. In other words, they cease to be a person, and become a method to accomplish some desired outcome. We move from the marvel of being “with” someone to the function of accomplishing some end.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, we do that to God as well. I often interact with God as a means to my desired outcome. I desire Him to be “with” me to accomplish something “for” me. For many circumstances of my life, that is perfectly appropriate because I am simply not able to bring about some hoped for outcome. It is simply out of my reach, or seems like an impossibility. In family relationships, how often do children approach their parents not just to be “with” them, but to gain some desired outcome? It makes sense, and is absolutely appropriate. Parents have the power to make things happen that kids are unable to pull off. Kids know that, and they approach their parents to “move heaven and earth” for them. It’s a necessary role, and a delight for most parents to be able to do something for their kids that their kids can’t do for themselves.

There are other times, though, particularly when they are young they just want to be “with” us. There is comfort and security simply being “with” us as their parent. Are  expectations present for something to happen? Not really, yet there is an indescribable comfort in being with us. Unfortunately, for some, this is not the case, but that is for another entry. What has been niggling in my mind lately is just how often I approach God for what He can do “for” me, rather than seeking just to be “with” Him. That seems, at the times of my most desperate need, so insignificant. Being “with” me is just not enough! What good is that if something doesn’t happen? Yet, I miss something if I reduce my relationship with God down to something like the old phrase, “What have you done for me lately?” God’s value, at least in this scheme of things, rests solely on what He can do for me not being who He is (the “with-ness”). I know that I minimize the magnitude of that “with-ness” because I have not cultivated an ongoing understanding of just what it means that the Creator God, Sovereign has chosen to confine Himself in such a way that I can actually call Him Abba. Literally, God help us if He broke out to be all He is! I would be undone, and yet, I’m stunned by the way in which God enters into my microscopic world and that it actually matters to Him. Does He change it when I want Him to? Sometimes. But, He’s in it, and “with” me. He has promised that, and faithfully delivers.

Now, let’s talk about us. Because it’s here where the “rubber meets the road.” This “with” and “for” stuff applies most powerfully in our relationships with each other too, and speaks to the drum that I will probably beat until I see Jesus face to face. That drum is the drum of what we can do to develop/cultivate/facilitate/initiate redemptive community in our midst. There is something in these prepositions that speaks to this thing called redemptive community. To put it simply: we will find and see a glimpse(s) of redemptive community (and God moving amongst us) when we figure out how to be “with” each other in powerful ways without judging the usefulness of these connections based on what someone has done “for” us. The one caution I would sound on the heels of the last statement is to say that we need to be careful not to paint an “all or nothing” picture when it comes to being with each other, but not “for” some purpose. We can’t empty ourselves of the functionality of our relationships with each other entirely. It’s important though that we remember that we connect in both ways — to be “with” someone, or to be “with” someone “for” something to be accomplished. Often, it seems, that we usually interact to accomplish something … I talk to my friend in order to communicate an idea to him or her. With this interplay between these prepositions, we forget the power of “with.” In other words, the power of our presence. All too often, I can feel useless because I can’t do anything to help a person for whom I care deeply. Yet, the power of being “with” them cannot be underestimated. Presence diminishes our sense of being alone in the midst of pain, suffering, and adversity. It’s important for us to remember this when we begin to experience disappointment with the people around us. Usually, it’s tied to these prepositions, and the implied expectation that comes when we append a “for” into our relationships.

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Of Trust, risk, & brokenness

How committed are we to the brokenness of which we so often speak? And to what kind of brokenness are we actually referring? Over the course of many years of examining my own heart, and listening the cries of others’ hearts (while in counseling), I have come to realize that our brokenness is not just a function of how badly we have screwed up. Our brokenness is more often tied up with what we choose to do with our trust.

Recently, I heard a pastor once make the following assertion: “God isn’t asking us to fully understand Him; He’s just asking us to fully trust Him.” I couldn’t agree more, but…. and there’s always a “but,” right? Usually it tells us that what is coming next will negate the agreement that has just been pronounced. Well, that is not the case in what I’m about to write. What I want to focus on for a moment is the issue of trust. In order to trust God, and for that matter trust each other, requires us to live with a relatively high degree of risk. While it may be true that you are nodding your head in agreement, I don’t think that we grasp how embedded it is in us to do everything we can to live lives committed to risk reduction. To be asked to “trust God” is to be asked to confront our tacit commitment to risk reduction. The fact of the matter remains that our brokenness is often the result of a broken trust whether that is from someone else, or even ourselves (breaking trust with ourselves to protect and “guard our hearts” which often we choose not to do). Therefore, as a result of these multitude of broken trusts, and the subsequent woundings that occur we conclude that all that is left for us in this life is to commit ourselves to reducing our risk of getting hurt(disappointed, abandoned, you can fill in the blank) again. This commitment leads us to develop strategies to remain in control of the world around us (including the relationships and people with whom we are engaged). This commitment even reaches to God Himself. That is often the reason why it is only in our brokenness or shatteredness when we have no resources left on which to rely we turn to God. Yet, to trust Him means to live with the risk that He will be as the animals of Narnia described Him: “Oh, no, he’s not tame… but He’s good.”

Unfortunately, I must admit that that is an unacceptable risk. I think I would rather have a God who is “safe” in regard to my commitment to safety and control, and I’ll deal with the “good” thing later. What’s fairly predictable is that we take this uneasy relationship with God into our relationships with each other (and vice versa). It is little wonder to me that I suffer from a lack of intimacy with the people I care about the most largely because of my commitment to risk reduction and safety. I don’t trust because I don’t want to live with the risk of being hurt or disappointed, or looking ridiculous, or being invisible, or … the list goes on. After all the people with whom I’m in relationship are just like me. They will disappoint, they will hurt me (whether intentionally or unintentionally), and they will eventually “leave.”

Part of the problem is that we/I don’t feel that I have many options with others if the relationship goes south. Do I have an equally committed partner who will engage me in the process of restoring the harmony to our relationship? Maybe. Maybe not. So, we come back to it again… since the predicted outcome is disastrous why go there? Why come out and live with the risk of trusting God in our relationships with each other? Because with risk comes an explosive potential for birthing the kind of community that our hearts long for. With trust comes risk. With risk comes the brokenness of living fully human in a world that is disappointing which, if we’re honest, prompts us to cry out for relief. And, that is where God meets us…

Psa. 34:18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted And saves those who are crushed in spirit.

But it doesn’t end there… thankfully. If we are willing to practice living with the risk of trusting God, our relationships might actually look a little different. We might control for the desired outcome (safety) less, and engage with each other more fully. Will it be messy? Absolutely. Will we know all the “right” things to say to each other in the mess? Probably not. Should we even try to say all the “right” things in that moment? No! Trust and risk go together, and place us in a position to catch a glimpse of God’s movement in each other’s lives.

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The power of shame

As I sat and listened to the story of Nicodemus once again, I was reminded of the effect shame has on me and probably most people when it comes to being reminded that we are less than we “should” be. Nicodemus was an interesting guy considering his position of power in the Jewish Sanhedrin (ruling body) of his day. Here is a gentleman of significant stature in his community stealing his way into a room where Jesus is teaching, hiding in the corner to not be seen, and then approaching Jesus with questions which seem so basic to many of us, but are of real importance to even many more. The question of the evening seemed to be: How can God love someone like me? Of course, added to this was the effect of watching the movie “Courageous” last night. In spite of the somewhat shaky acting, and less than robust story-line, I couldn’t help but be moved by the overall message of calling men “out” to be the fathers and men we are called to be; to come to grips with our humanity. Coming to grips with our humanity doesn’t mean condoning our mistakes and neither does it mean hiding behind them either. Which brings me to the topic of this article — shame. What I do with shame is a determining factor in whether I actually growUnknown or not.

Let me, as I am want to do, define my terms first. First of all, shame is the central term to this post, and is one of the most powerful motivators of our behavior. Whether we are attempting to avoid it, or to use it with others, shame defines the nature of our relationships. Allow me to explain. Virtually the first mention of this emotion in Scripture was on the heels of Adam and Eve’s conspiracy (Adam’s silent compliance, and Eve’s active choice) to disobey God in the garden. Their remarkable condition in the garden was summarized by the words… “they were naked and unashamed.” All of each person (Adam and Eve) was psychologically, emotionally, and physically available to the other without shame or fear. Of course, the basis of shame derives its power from fear. Look closely at what happened the moment they crossed the boundary God had set regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. First, they became aware of their nakedness, and shame resulted from their awareness of their condition. Interestingly, Adam names it accurately when God came calling — “GOD called to the Man: “Where are you?” He said, “I heard you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked. And I hid.”” (Gen. 3:9) He felt fear for the first time, named his condition of being exposed, and he hid. Unfortunately, both men and women have been hiding ever since in response to this fear and shame. Before this moment in time, both Adam and Eve weren’t afraid, and weren’t ashamed of their condition. Yet, we have been living this curse ever since that time. This is particularly true for men who with their silence powerfully demonstrate the fact that they have never been given the legacy of courage. This legacy (or modeling) would enable them to overcome their fear and speak the truth in love to those they love.

Shame is a “fascinating” and powerful emotion. For most people in my field of ministry (counseling and mentoring) who are journeying with people through a variety of life issues they face, shame is one step beyond guilt. Guilt is something we experience when we have done something wrong, or made a mistake particularly when it has harmed a person about whom we care. Shame is something altogether that is different and deeper.

Shame is the emotion that is experienced and demands the conclusion that not only have I made a mistake, but I am a mistake. It moves beyond a statement of guilt, to a statement of being. I have done something that is wrong, but I am also wrong in my being. In a sense, I am irredeemable, hopeless, and worthless. It’s one thing to have done something wrong, but it is something entirely different to be a mistake myself. Unfortunately, that is how many of us feel even when we have done nothing morally wrong. I recognize this in myself particularly when I have not lived up to the standards I believe I am to uphold, and by which I am to live as a man and a leader of my home.

What results is the kind of shame under which I collapse in a heap. What’s to be done? For so many people, including myself, we become paralyzed by our shame, and unfortunately this kind of shame isolates us further from any sources of encouragement or assistance. Unfortunately, or otherwise, we seem to strike such a pitiful display of self-loathing that those around us begin to feel sorry for us. As a result, before long the pain of resignation and shame abates, we shake ourselves off, and just keep moving without ever tackling the core issue from where this shame and guilt emanates. Therefore, the cycle continues.

There is another even more devastating effect of shame on many people that I have witnessed. This effect is something that not only isolates, but it also insulates us from ever changing. After all, if I am such an irredeemable and hopeless wretch, how can anyone expect me to change?  How can I expect myself to change?  As a matter of fact, this abiding belief is what sets in to insulate people from ever attempting to do anything different since the results will always be the same considering the main character is me! The results are devastating — not only are these people isolated from any source of support or encouragement, they tend to insulate themselves from any change since the results are always known.

Of course, as you no doubt have begun to recognize, this malady is pretty much universal for both men and women. It is an “equal opportunity” destroyer! Both men and women respond to these same emotions – fear, shame, disgust, resignation, and isolation. The only defining differences between the two genders is often simply the sets of strategies they each employ in order to ease the pain of such emotions.

Of course, the looming question is: What’s to be done? How does one overcome such shame even if it is built on an abiding fear that you will never measure up, and you will always end up in the same place no matter how hard I try? How do you accept yourself (otherwise known as “forgive myself”), release the demands of perfectionism, and live in both truth and grace with freedom? While I may run out of time rather than space, let me tackle each of these in order. Let’s start with: “How do I accept myself?” Or, as some would put it: “How do I forgive myself?” The first question is far more powerful than the second actually. Of course, upon some inspection, there is an implication that in order to function with any degree of health or wholeness, one should be able to accept oneself.

On one level there is much to not accept, right? After all, virtually every day we are reminded that we are not who we should be. Whether that is a self-condemnation, or whether it comes from others and only echoes what we are already thinking or suspecting, either is equally damaging. The key word in the forgoing sentences, specifically two sentences back is the word, “should.” The moral standards that “should” delineates for us are essential to our sense of “plumb.” In other words, when our lives are “plumb” or square with the moral standards set out in Scripture, we have set out for us something toward which to strive. But it isn’t the big “T” truths of the moral standards that are the issue here. Instead, it is in the internal absolutistic, demanding standards of the “shoulds” which command us to be something that we are not and probably will never be. This is so since the bar for this standard is ever rising, and rejects the limitations of being human or our finitude.

In the final analysis, the bottom line to finding the answer to this question lies in what we do with trust. I know, it’s probably a hated word for many reading this. On the other hand, while not hated, it is an issue with which we all struggle since it is in our DNA as humans since the first encounter with trust in the Garden of Eden eons ago. How can I say that with such assurance? All I have to do is look at the evidence of the degree of control we attempt to exercise over each other, and over ourselves. Inherently, the degree of control we see in ourselves betrays the lack of trust we have not only in ourselves, but in each other. It’s one or the other.

Ultimately, acceptance can only be built on trust. It’s the trust that what God proclaims about us is true. Trust that we can accept ourselves as we are, and find freedom.  With that freedom we can find the strength and courage to live in truth and grace. At heart, accepting the truth about who we are in our limitations and flaws can either condemn us or it can free us. Of course, it’s not as simple as “just accepting” is it? While, in some ways, it is that simple, but when it comes to a rigged judge, jury and executioner in our heads, the verdict is always the same. In many ways, it is transferring our “trust” from one to the other.

After all, we are trusting something, and that something ends up being the voice of the judge rather than the voice of our savior who paid the price for our sins and pronounces us free and loved. The bottom line, in my way of thinking, is that it all hinges on toward what am I going to aim my life? Am I going to act “as if” it is true every bit as much as I act as if the falsehood of my condemnation is true? If so, then I not only need to begin (at least) to make decisions predicated on the “as if” truth of my redeemed state if I expect to have anything to change.

Additionally, and here is where the true “rubber meets the road”: I begin to hang out with the kind of people who are walking the same journey as me. If I hang out with the Pharisees who spout off all the “truth” which only resonates with the Pharisee in me that continues to condemn me to shame and isolation. Or, I choose to hang out with the ragged rabble who desperately follow Jesus in the full recognition of their need for Him, and the full acceptance of what He offers them in the grace that sets them free. This is the same grace that frees us to reach for heights never seen before in terms of integrity and mercy. I guess, it’s a matter upon what are we going to build our case for life — trust or control?

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