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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Embracing Brokenness

Once a year a friend and I head to the mountains for our annual retreat. One year, he will come to Colorado, and the next year I will go to Seattle. We will hang out, ask questions that poke around in each other’s lives, laugh, and compare notes about teaching and relating to students in our respective universities (his is Seattle Pacific, and mine, of course, Colorado Christian), and a large “helping” of talking about the changing landscape of technology. Over the last week we have been “holed” up in Granby, CO. At breakfast just yesterday, he asked a curious question that got me thinking. He asked, “So to wimageshat do you attribute your effectiveness with students and teaching?” I looked him square in the eye and said, “I think I can sum it up in two words — embracing brokenness.” I added, “If you
were to look at the all the various aspects and presentations of dysfunction today in people, I think you would find that a lot of the heartache and difficulties that people face is attributable to their unwillingness to embrace (accept) the brokenness they find or see in themselves.” Which suggests the fact that we are all very prone, and even committed to denying what actually exists in our hearts that scare us. It is an inherent human quality to “hide” from things that scare us. It is a long-standing pattern that reaches all the way back to the Garden of Eden, when God called out to Adam and Eve and they hid. It’s not really as if God didn’t know, but (as He does today) He invited them to meet with Him. When they hid, it was apparent that something was “up.” Ever since then, we have been hiding not only from ourselves, but from each other.

Clearly, we all know how futile it is to “hide” from God, just as Adam and Eve did then, but that doesn’t stop us from deluding ourselves into thinking that we can’t be seen. I’m reminded of a little one who covers his face, and insists that you can’t see him! In addition,Unknown we do that with one another. Unfortunately, the depth of our relationships with one another suffers because we seem to have made a silent agreement(known as “collusion”) that if I don’t ask you about your broken places, then you won’t ask me about mine. By agreeing to such a contract, we make ourselves more and more unknown, and then complain how superficial “other” people are! Furthermore, we criticize the church for being shallow and superficial as well because it is filled with people who are acting one way, and living out life another — otherwise known as “the church is filled with hypocrites” meme. The only alternative we see to confronting honestly the things in our hearts that we don’t like (usually despise or hate), is to create an image with whom others interact rather than our “true” selves about whom we are convinced others will hate just as much as we do.

So, what about this? What if we considered the possibility of doing what I entitled this blog. What about embracing our brokenness? For some, there is the reflex assumption that “embracing” means “being okay” with these parts of myself. Yet, that is a straw man we erect so we don’t have to take on the real issue… we are downright petrified of the conclusion that if we embrace these parts of ourselves, we will never be free of them. In other words, if I embrace my brokenness, then I will be defined by it, and I will never be any “better” (whatever that means). No one, including myself, is making a case for “being okay” (in other words, giving tacit approval) with these broken places in our hearts. Often they are created by our own bad choices, and sometimes they are created by others’ bad choices and actions falling on us. This sense of brokenness is a reality that exists in our lives, and only reminds us the wholeness we were actually designed to enjoy. Given that fact, perhaps the strategy we haven’t considered is learning to live with our brokenness with grace and truth. Unfortunately, we are strong on the truth side, with little to no grace added in. It was intentional when Scripture described Jesus as full of truth and grace. Truth without grace is vicious, hypocritical, and downright mean serving only the purposes of the speaker of the truth. On the other hand, grace without truth is little more than what many would call “winking at sin.” Grace without truth ends up granting permission to avoid the consequences of our choices and behaviors. Truth reveals justice, and grace calls for mercy. It’s a “both-and” instead of an “either-or.” That’s actually the key of embracing the brokenness we find in ourselves. It is “living with” our brokenness rather than “approving of” it. The strange but incredibly powerful irony of living with this difficult tension is that we find more people who are trying to live the same way. As a matter of fact, there is something about people who are not “held hostage” by their brokenness that draws us to the sense of freedom they seem display. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they are “proud” of the brokenness with which they have wrestled in their lives, but at the same time they are also not shamed by it. And, that is the punch line… in order to be present to others and live life with them, we can either live in a community of actors, or we can live in a community of people who are willing to run the risk together of living in grace and truth, and all that that means including getting messy, enjoying the thrills of victory, and weeping with those weep.

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How or where?

I was listening with great interest to our lead pastor as he continued to take us through theUnknown Sermon on the Mount. As he was talking, it occurred to me that the questions we ask when presented with the truth is actually quite telling of what we are trying to do with the information that is presented. There have been many times as I have been talking with people whether in counseling , or in an “ordinary” conversation (whatever that is), he or she will almost inevitably drill down to the question, “How?” It’s quite understandable actually. Whatever we are hearing, we want to know how to implement it into our lives. In other words, what does it look like when I try to apply a principle or concept that I have heard. We have been taught that truth is only as good as what I choose to do with it. Yet, I would suggest that asking “how” too soon often reveals what we think is the most important thing to look at in our lives. Let me explain.

When I “find out” or rediscover something about myself through someone pointing it out to me, or through what God may be revealing to me. My first impulse to ask a question. Whatever that question is typically betrays what I believe about what has been revealed to me. Let me give you an example. I grew up as an only kid, and actually came to believe (how horrifying) that I was the ‘center of the universe.’ For my parents, I really was, and when my dad passed away, I literally was the center of my mother’s universe. Yet, I was done a disservice in spite of the intention that was behind believing in me the way they(she) did. It was a blind faith and not really predicated on a composite picture of me that included my flaws and strengths. No matter what I attempted to do, my mom believed that I would simply be the best. Unfortunately, as life passed, I was constantly reminded that wasn’t the case. There was always someone better. God has been at work in that particular area of my life throughout my 50+ years always reminding me… “you know, it’s not about you!” Ouch… really? Ugh, okay. My first question often is, though, “Yeah, but how can I change it?” Makes sense, right? That’s the only responsible thing to say when confronted about something we don’t like about ourselves. The “problem” with that approach that it completely bypasses other things that we need to understand about ourselves before we attempt to correct the issue. I would assert that the “how” question is actually our “inner pharisee” speaking. We don’t really care about the internal conditions that produce the behavior that is pointed out to us, but instead we are only interested in the solution to the “problem.” The actual Pharisees had codified “laws” and “traditions” that were meant to address whatever the problem a human might face in order to put him/her in right standing with God (a.k.a. “righteousness). After asking “how?” the Pharisee always had an answer or an encyclopedia of solutions that would correct his “relationship” with Yahweh. Now, before you get your nose out of joint by asking, “Wait, what? Are you calling me a pharisee just because I ask the question, “How?”” Actually, I am so go ahead and put your nose back in joint. The reality is that we all are, and sometimes that streak runs pretty strong in us (me). The reason is that I simply don’t want to take the time (it’s not because I don’t have the time) to explore the landscape of my heart to get a better understanding of the “what?”, the “where?”, and even the “why?” That would simply take too much time. Of course, when I do that I’m just dodging the issue and settling for the solution first. If I can put the solution in place, and the behavior or belief temporarily abates or even disappears, I can rest on my laurels of conquering another “bad habit.” I did it!

Now, lest you run ahead of my questions above and make the quick conclusion that I’m going to propose Christian navel gazing – which many people see counseling or even self-exploration as being. Yet, I would say at the outset that I can’t give to God something that I haven’t taken the time to “own.” In other words, I have taken the time to know this landscape (no matter how familiar it might be) well enough to cry out for God’s help (his “how”) to walk into a way of being that makes the troubling assumptions or behaviors unnecessary. This all sounds pretty idealistic and utopian. Yet, we are not talking about a destination, we are talking about a journey. Let me take each question in turn, and unpack it. Let’s start with “what?” No matter what I’m confronting in myself, I have to ask the question, “what is going on?” Or, “what am I actually doing?” Both are pretty difficult questions since it requires self-exploration, and even an invitation to others to help me discover this. Yet, all change starts with identification. The real envelope-pusher is asking those with whom I’m in a relationship what they have seen me do that betrays this issue. With the issue I mentioned above, it shows itself in my jealousy of others getting what I think I deserve. It may take different forms for everyone, but the real risk is inviting others to hold up the mirror for us. Now, that doesn’t mean that someone who has taken it upon himself/herself to hold up the mirror for me without my request is legitimate (although it might be). Asking others to hold the mirror up for us flies in the face of our designs to manage others’ perceptions of us. When we ask someone to give us this kind of feedback, we will actually find out what they are thinking/concluding that we haven’t been able to control. Yet, the people who are safest in our lives, are the ones who have the courage to tell us the truth in the face of our reaction. These same people have been in relationship with us, and we have given them permission to take this liberty. In spite of it all, I’m not so sure that I want to undercut my sense of control over others in my life by making such an invitation.

What about the question, “where?” This, too, is an interesting one. Because we are moving beyond the what, to the where. In other words, where does this “stuff” come from? It may be an indirect way to answer the question, “why?” too. The one thing that needs to be clear is just because we know where such behaviors and assumptions come from doesn’t mean that they will be addressed or even changed. In other words, knowledge understanding (see video below). In spite of those qualifiers, knowing where some issue or behavior

comes from might give me some insight into how to tackle it. Interestingly, Jesus had the same interaction with a group of people who had surrounded Him to hear his first “sermon.” This is often referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Given the length of so many sermons today, I can’t help but wonder just how many people stayed for the entire sermon. Most sermons today are often no more than 45 minutes tops (an average concluded from experience not anything scientific). Our attention span for truth is pretty

brief (see clip above). Okay, enough of my soapbox… Back to the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus made a number of statements that began with… “you have heard it said…” and then followed that up with “I say to you…” One way to look at that in light of this question, “where?” is that the tradition said to focus on changing your behavior, but Jesus calls us to look at our hearts instead. Why? Because, a little like buttoning a shirt, if you get the first button right, you will be able to button the whole shirt. It’s about our hearts, and what emanates from them. That’s the focus of the Sermon on the Mount. It isn’t about “doing the right thing;” it is about looking in the right place to understand from where change comes. If we start with our hearts, then the change will take care of itself. Easier said than done, to be sure. The biggest difference between what Jesus was talking about, and the Pharisees had everything to do with the heart. For the Pharisees, they were still living from Jeremiah 17:9 which says that the “heart is desperately wicked.” For them, then, the way to deal with the “wicked heart” was to whip it into shape with a tome of traditions and laws developed to contain it and punish it into goodness.

For Jesus, the things He was talking about highlighted the hopelessness of the human condition without some major surgery. It wasn’t about managing the sin, it was about the desperate need for a heart transplant. What is even more amazing was that Jesus was promising a heart exchange first based on faith in Him rather than proposing a trade between “righteousness” in exchange for an improved heart based on all the work I do. In other words, I am given a new heart, and then I’m called to live out life based on my new heart cultivating its health by making  life choices according to it. Of course, it doesn’t mean that I lose my “old heart” – it can either be nourished and lived by, or it can be diminished by living out of my new heart.

Allow me to “put some flesh on it.” If I know that my “trust issues” comes from some specific relationships in the past, then I can begin to explore these relationships in order to understand my patterns (not the other person’s behaviors) within my relationships that contribute to the present-day behaviors, attitudes, or assumptions I am making. On the other hand, there may be relationships in which I had no part to play at all other than being an unwilling participant or caught in the fallout from someone else’s choices and behavior. Even in these instances, since that event/relationship happened, I’ve been making choices based on powerful assumptions and conclusions I have made about myself and these beliefs have shaped how I “do” relationship today. I will grant you, it’s a little more difficult “split” to make between being a victim or part of what we glibly call “collateral damage.” Yet, it’s important to examine more closely. We are belief-producing beings — we make conclusions all the time based on the data we have before us. This is particularly true about conclusions we make about ourselves. In psychology, we have discovered a principle known as the “confirmation bias.” In a rather innocuous way, we do this/it happens to us when we are thinking about buying a particular car, or we have purchased one. The moment you are out on the road, you begin to realize just how many people have the car you’ve just purchased! Because we have been designed to pick out patterns and data, we will do the same thing based on what we believe about ourselves. If I have already made the conclusion that I’m not worth of being loved, then it’s likely that I will find “evidence” everywhere that that assertion/conclusion is true. This is where the “where?” question and the “why?” question merge. Where the behaviors or conclusions come from answer the question “why do I do that?” The ultimate answer lies in what is happening in our hearts that is betrayed by what we believe about ourselves, the world, and even the future. These beliefs are not what spiritual/religious beliefs are made of, these beliefs are the ones we form over time from our life experiences including relationships.

Okay… I’ve probably held you off long enough, and probably the “how?” question is just waiting to burst onto the scene. In many ways, the answer to the “how?” question is embedded in the foregoing discussion. If the answer to the questions of “what?,” “where,” and “why?” are found in a relationship with God (the searcher of all hearts) and others, then the means to deal with it is also found in relationships. Unfortunately, for those of you who are looking for a specific formula to follow to change yourself or even others, you are not going to find it here. If we are going to seek change, then we have to start from where it emanates… our hearts. Now, I realize that may not present an immediate solution or steps to follow, but perhaps it’s more obvious than that. It’s in our relationships that heart change can be experienced. It’s not immediate, but that’s point. It’s about the journey, not the destination. When it comes to personal change, we would much prefer a jet pack, than a journey through the mountains and valleys of life. When it comes to our relationships, though, we do have some measure of influence and choice. The people you choose to have in your life is going to be even more important if it’s about our relationships. We are responsible for the condition of our hearts, and because of that, we need to make active choices about the people who will populate our lives. Some people we will not have a choice (e.g., workplace and family), but some we do have a choice. Choosing who to be part of our journey is our decision. Just because people present themselves into our lives doesn’t obligate us to include them. We can choose, and that is our responsibility not someone else’s. Now, I know that this discussion opens a can of worms about safe people and boundaries which I’m not prepared to open up (just yet), but let it be said that Scripture makes it painfully clear that the condition of our heart is our responsibility, and if we are seeking change we are going to need to make some decisions about who will accompany us on that journey.  Enjoy the journey!

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What kind of community do you create?

A recent talk I gave to CCU chapel about community:

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Voices from Silence – Retreatant 1

Hearing God in the Silence

Going into this past weekend, I had planned, expected, and hoped to see and hear God in a more obvious way than I have in a very long time. Since beginning a season of grieving and wrestling with God a few months ago, I have been yearning to go deeper in my relationship with Christ. I long to feel that I know and understand His character as much as humanly possible so that I may also better understand who I am in Christ as well.

Thursday night after we arrived at Sacred Heart Retreat House and left our first group-debrief, I felt somewhat frantic. I didn’t know what to do. My life has always run on a schedule. A very tight schedule often planned out to the hour or even minute on my busiest days. After wandering around the retreat house I decided to try and read in my room for a while before deciding to simply go to sleep.  The next day, I began my day with a run not quite sure how to release the tension and discomfort I felt from needing to stay in silence. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of running when the only soundtrack I have to pace myself is the pounding of my feet and heavy breathing. After my run I found my way to one of the spaces I would return to throughout my time in silence. A wooden swing looking out upon the mountains where I would begin to dive into the Word and also later argue and wrestle with God to a point of complete frustration. After relaxing in His Word and prayer for a while, I made my way to my next spot where I read a book that made me feel like I got socked in the stomach. I had begun to hear God saying to me, “Let Me heal you…” To which, I very stubbornly said no. I struggled through the idea that while God does not will bad things to happen to us, we can still trust He is present. I felt if He was even present, then bad things shouldn’t happen. But they did, so why would I think He was there? And this had to mean He had left me and allowed me to be sexually assaulted. He left me in a place to be vulnerable and hurt emotionally in a way that I have yet to heal from. And yet, I continued to hear Him whispering to me, “Let me begin to heal you…” I could almost see His face looking at me with sad but overwhelmingly loving eyes, outstretching His hand to me. It was almost as if He was pleading that I take His hand and let Him lead me to freedom from the chains I have worn for too long. Yet I still refused. Like a stubborn child I would draw back from Him. I continued to choose to walk in my desert of hurt, anger, bitterness, fear, and confusion. When I realized the inner turmoil I was having in this moment, I began to cry with every tear carrying the weight of my sadness but also my longing to be able to accept His helping hand.

Through my reading I also began to realize how long I have trapped myself in my own safe but far too small dungeon. I had made my home in a place that is not meant to be a place of prolonged residence for a heart. The dungeon I have inhabited is a place filled with control, distrust, fear, and the inability to see myself for who I really am. Obviously nothing about my dungeon is too appealing except for the safety of staying within what I have known and survived in for the past two and a half years, maybe even longer in some ways. My dungeon has also trapped me in silence and denial. Silence had become the norm whenever I would feel or think things that I didn’t believe anyone would want to hear, especially in regard to my sexual assault. A code of silence had been pressed upon me and has weighed me down to the point that I physically struggle to get myself to speak out about my feelings and thoughts. This exact code of silence closed me off to sharing in our group meeting Friday night until the very end of our meeting, when with a little poking, my emotions erupted from within me. I cried harder than I have in a very long time, releasing my hurt, anger, frustration and confusion with God that I had been experiencing all day. The emotions overwhelmed and consumed me, and I became raw and vulnerable.

Saturday I woke up the next morning with a looming headache from the night before when I was hijacked by emotions I had long been holding in. I began my day somewhat similar to the previous morning, beginning my day with a devotional and reading the Word while gazing out at the mountains. But I knew I was already emotionally distant and closing myself off to hearing from God. Yet there was His voice, continuing to pursue me almost begging now, “Let me heal you…” I became even more determined to read and hope that somewhere in the pages of the books I was skimming would be a bit of hope so that I could heal myself. I believe God knew that this would be my response, so He spoke to me again through the words on a page that basically called me out for not allowing Jesus to heal me. Reminding me that right now He is only a few yards away yet I am refusing to feel His healing touch. I was broken again, but still decided to turn away both figuratively and literally. I left the spot I had been sitting in raging with anger and frustration. Why couldn’t I simply say okay to Jesus’ healing touch?

The rest of the day I spent my time trying to shut down and turn off my emotions so that I wouldn’t have to wrestle with God anymore and feel the tension within me resulting from my defiance to accept grace and mercy. I spent the next couple hours of the afternoon trying to avoid anything and anyone who might be able to get me out of emotionless, thoughtless void I had put myself in. I was once again back in my dungeon attempting to not just shut the door behind me, but lock it and not allow anyone to gain entrance. But this is not what God wants of His children, to be locked away and hidden in a place that they cannot be seen or known by others. A community founded in Christ refuses to let another child of God sit in lies and discouragement, so He used two people to poke and prod and speak truth into me while I dug my heels in trying to refuse to be moved. Even after having truth spoken into me for almost two hours, I was still somewhat discouraged by how upside down and backwards everything felt and appeared to me. I even began to wonder if I was truly going to get anything out of my time spent at the retreat. Going into group talk that night, I was discouraged feeling like I hadn’t heard from God and hadn’t “made any progress” in my relationship with Him or in my relationship with learning the land of my own heart.

Little did I know that my giving up in a sense of trying to make progress on my own, by choosing to go climb trees the next morning instead of trying to read and look for God with an intensity and determination to hear something, would lead me to experiencing Him more than I had all weekend. Deciding to no longer adhere to the “silent” aspect of the silent retreat, I explored the land the retreat house sits on while climbing trees along the way with two women I now consider very cherished friends. This time produced conversations that gave each of us deeper understandings of who each other are as people, and where we have come from in life. The three of us finished our adventure all squeezing onto one of the wooden swings gazing out at the mountains, enjoying each other’s company and our last bit of time in a place that had already become so impactful on our lives. As we walked back to the retreat house for our last group debrief before we were to leave, I had all but thought my time hearing from God was already way past over. But, as usual, God had amazing plans for our last time together as a group.

The beginning of the meeting went as all the others had, with us sharing our final thoughts on our time spent at the retreat house over the weekend. Then, Dr. Mitsch had one final challenge for us before we would take communion together. We were to speak truth into each other after observing and listening to the things each of us shared and experienced in our short time together. As we began to single each other out one by one, I experienced so much joy listening to the things that were being said to each person, as well as getting to express my feelings and thoughts about the people I had spent time getting to really know over the past couple of days. When it came time for people to speak into me, I felt an even greater shift within myself, within my own heart. It was almost overwhelming at first, not in a bad way, but in a way that I had never felt so affirmed, encouraged, and appreciated before by a group of people. Having prior difficulties with accepting and believing words of praise and kindness, I made myself focus on truly believing and embracing every word that was spoken to me. So much emotion ran through my body in those moments; appreciation, gratitude, joy, excitement, love and the feeling that I was worthy and more valued than I have felt in a very long time. This was God’s greatest gift to me over the weekend. This was where I saw God and His love more profoundly than I had expected or even hoped I would see during my time on the silent retreat. This was the moment I decided I didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t want to ever lose the community that had been created in such a short time. This was the turning point where I heard God saying, “You may have tried to shut me out yesterday, and doubted my presence, but I am here. I am showing you my love. I am showing you who you are, what you are worth, and what you mean not just to your fellow believers, but to Me too.” And how beautiful, freeing, and amazing is that.

I left my weekend on the silent retreat with more than I could have hoped or prayed for. I left feeling rejuvenated, encouraged, uplifted, hopeful, and one step closer to understanding and accepting the heart God has for me; that I am His Beloved. I am one step closer to knowing who I am, and truly being proud of the things I can say I know myself to be. I am a loving friend who will come running the moment I see a friend in distress, ready to embrace them and shower them with love. I am a compassionate person shown by the heart I have for others, especially women who share in similar experiences as me. I am someone who has the ability to be real, to be honest, and to share openly my Unknownexperiences, knowing that I just might speak the words that express someone else’s feelings too, giving them the power and permission to feel and relate. I am unwilling to give up; I am a fighter. No matter what curveballs life throws at me, I will not stay down for long before brushing myself off and trying again. I am stronger than I know; I have the capacity to withstand even the fiercest storms and come out on the other side better and stronger for weathering them. I am a force to be reckoned with; I carry power through my
emotions and my words and I live for a purpose to use them for the glory of God. I am appreciated, valued, and cherished by others; I am a delight and I am loved. Not only by my friends and family, but by the One who gives the word love its greatest meaning.

As Henri Nouwen put it, once “we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are… Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do.”

From now on, I am determined to face the call to become who I truly am and to live out my life claiming this truth. I am His Beloved.

Editor’s note:  For more information about CCU’s Silent Retreats just click here

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