Category Archives: Spiritual Stuff

Failure to Adult

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I was “bequeathed” a few of my father’s writings, which are precious artifacts to me. Some were written for publication; others are more personal. One of the more personal ones dealt with a simple home improvement project that went wrong. In addition to feeling frustrated, my dad began hearing his own father’s voice in his head, berating him for not knowing how to do something so simple. The louder the voice got, the more my dad tried to hammer away at the problem, making it worse and worse, literally knocking holes in the wall in his shame. No matter how he tried, he could not silence the voice: You should know how to do this. What kind of man are you?

The people involved are all deceased, which is one reason I feel I can share those bare-bones details. The other reason is this: Don’t most of us struggle with shame scripts from time to time? Brené Brown wouldn’t be a bestselling author if we didn’t.

Even if your parent didn’t speak this language, you have probably picked up some of the basic messages of shame. Brené articulates them as:
Not good enough.
Who do you think you are? 

Robert and I have been slowly making headway on some long pending home projects. (Long pending.) Sunday morning I went on a long run and when I got back I decided to take advantage of my already-sweaty status and tackle the garage. Over the next several hours I sorted a bunch of items for donation, boxed up little-kid toys for the attic, and collected all the outdoor toys into a single place in the garage. As I left for Goodwill with the back of the van piled high with stuff, I proudly announced to Robert that we were probably one weekend away from being able to park our van in the garage for the first time in James’s life.

It was an amazing feeling.

Late in the afternoon Robert and I set about putting the boxes of Christmas decorations back in the attic. (Yes, mid-April… and that’s not even our record. June 25 is the magic day on which the next Christmas is closer than the previous one, so why bother putting the boxes away?)

As I started to hand up boxes of ornaments and ceramic figurines, I heard him say “Umm… hold up a second. Yeah, stand back.”

Then down through the hole came a shower of debris: empty box after empty box, large styrofoam pieces–old storage for computer monitors, desktops and other household appliances we don’t even own anymore.

I began to hyperventilate, and it wasn’t from the dust.

Here I had spent the entire day getting the garage in order, and we were trashing it out again! This wasn’t a rational response, of course. I knew intellectually that one trip to the recycling center would do it–and that’s exactly what happened. And it’s great to have more space in the attic.

But with each cascade of boxes came this voice in my head: You call yourself a competent adult? Look at this stuff you haven’t dealt with… for years! You will never conquer the chaos and clutter in your life. There will always be more–more than you can ever handle. 

I realized that keeping up with the Joneses can take many forms. Some people are lured by the Joneses’ shiny new toys, or the Jones children’s impeccable manners and shelf full of trophies.

My trigger is competence. I often feel like there’s this body of knowledge about adulthood that I somehow missed. Our dishwasher recently started leaking and it turns out we needed to clean the seal from time to time. Where in the heck were we supposed to pick up this information?

As the Internet leaves its infancy and adolescence, we’re seeing more and more studies on the effect of social media on happiness. I’ve read a lot of it and it’s a mixed bag–there are net positives and net negatives. But I do know that Facebook and other sites have given us insidious new ways of comparing every one else’s outsides to our insides, which is never a formula for a wholehearted life. Our real-life messiness will always lose out to everyone else’s carefully curated personas. Blessed be those who will post the graphic like the one above. Blessed be the pockets of radical honesty where a super capable person I know can say, “It’s April 18 and my taxes are a mess. I have done nothing. Help.”

I talk to many friends and colleagues recently who struggle with some version of impostor syndrome: If people found out how screwed up I was, I’d be fired/ridiculed/judged. A woman and pastor colleague who serves a large church told me several years ago, “I feel like I’m always fifteen minutes away from complete embarrassment.”

Not good enough.
Who do you think you are?

As I continue to reflect on Sunday’s experience of cascading boxes, I’m trying to confront those messages in my head as the shame-poisoned lie that they are. Yeah, life is chaotic, and I’ll never have it figured out. But I’m trying to practice radical kindness toward myself in the process.

Last week at The Well, one of my colleagues quoted that beautiful line from Ram Dass: We’re all just walking each other home. That’s what I’ve been trying to hear over the din of not good enough.

These conversations need to leave the quiet moments behind closed doors. I hate that our culture doesn’t reward this kind of truth telling. But you know what? We are culture. We have the power to move toward greater authenticity with one another. I hope we will.

~

This one’s for KB.

 

No, God Doesn’t Have a Plan. But That’s OK.

Last week was Spring Break, and I’d promised the kids I’d take them to the local trampoline park. They love the place… though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the National Association of Orthopedic Surgeons is a major shareholder.

Anyway, the morning we were going to go, a Facebook friend posted a 50% off coupon. I had actually opened my laptop to find the trampoline park website, Facebook was open, and the coupon caught my eye first.

I was tickled and felt a jolt of gratitude.

And God had nothing to do with it.

That may seem like an obvious statement to some, but there’s a strain of theology out there that claims God is guiding the large and small details of our lives. That’s what many people mean when they say that God is sovereign, that nothing happens outside of God’s providence and plan.

John Vest recently wrote about this view of theology:

In my experience as a pastor, the most commonly held theological belief among both youth and adults is that everything happens for a reason. For most people, this means that God has a plan and that everything somehow fits in it. We long to believe that our lives and human history are not a series of random coincidences. We want to trust that God is in control and that deep within every situation—good or bad—some kind of meaning can be found.

He ultimately can’t go there, and neither can I.

3654636770_3b1a5d470bSome people find comfort in the idea that someday the curtain may be pulled back and we’ll see how everything fit together, like some cosmic Rube Golberg device. I don’t know. If God really is all-powerful, surely God can work God’s purposes out in ways that don’t involve children getting cancer or thousands perishing in a tsunami.

If God has a plan, I don’t think it’s being petulant or faithless to hold God accountable if that plan doesn’t correspond to who we know or believe God to be.

Instead, I don’t attribute bad things that happen to God’s will. But there’s a problem there too: we end up giving God none of the blame and all of the credit. When something good happens, we thank God. When something terrible happens, we say God grieves with us and can make good come from it. That makes it sound like God has a plan for the good stuff, but washes God’s hands of the bad stuff. This is unsatisfying too.

Instead, I believe life isn’t a matter of plan—God’s or ours—but of improvisation. The basic rule of improv is “yes-and,” to accept what’s offered and build on it. Like this recent StoryCorps piece on NPR. Jeff Wilson accidentally hit Tammie Baird with his car when they were both young adults. The experience had a major impact on them both, as you would imagine. He ended up becoming a surgical technician who does a lot of orthopedic work. She became a stuntwoman, of all things, and has been “hit” by countless cars since that first collision 30 years ago.

Plan, or yes-and?

The former may be comforting to some, but the latter more accurately reflects a world in which drivers just get distracted sometimes. And cells grow uncontrollably. And plates shift under the oceans, creating massive waves.

Plan has the virtue of rationality, but yes-and has the virtue of creativity. It also reflects our lives. We improvise all the time. We work within constraints. We are called upon to be flexible and creative. And if we are created in the image of God, I think improvisation is part of God’s nature too. I certainly see it in scripture all over the place.

So if God doesn’t have a plan, what does God have? A direction. An orientation. God seeks to move, and seeks to move us, in the direction of love and wholeness, no matter what the circumstance. All of this reminds me of Martin Luther King’s arc in the moral universe, bending towards justice.

In fact, if God is love, maybe it’s not accurate to say that God has a direction or an orientation or an arc. Maybe God is those things.

This idea of an improvising God makes people uncomfortable. Isn’t God supposed to be all-powerful? What kind of God isn’t capable of dramatic intervention? Answer: the Christian God. Folks, we just went through this last week. An improvising God, working within circumstance, isn’t a heretical idea. In fact, in the crucifixion, God voluntarily puts on human weakness and shame. Herod and Pilate and the high priest and the rest of that corrupt system come after Jesus and seek to silence his message about the kingdom of God here on earth, not because they’re doing God’s bidding according to The Plan, but because that’s what powers and principalities do.

And yet… Holy Week is full of yes-and.
Yes is “she has anointed me for my burial.”
Yes is “put away your weapon, Peter.”
Yes is standing there when Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
Yes is “Father, forgive them.”

And the resurrection? I don’t know what the resurrection is. Except that it’s the ultimate And.

~

photo credit: COBOL Rube Goldberg by Phil Manker via photopin (license)

I Am Neither Slow Nor Fast.

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Not long ago I was speaking to a group of pastors and church musicians. The focus of the conference was on small congregations–their particular gifts and challenges.

It’s easy sometimes for small churches and their leaders to feel down about themselves. They often feel an abundance of the family vibe, but a scarcity of resources. They may have lots of down-to-earth authenticity but lack the programs and “flash” of larger churches.

After the presentation a man came up to me, thanked me for my comments, and handed me a small piece of paper. “This quote has really helped me keep things in perspective,” he said.

Here it is:

Avoid adjectives of scale. You will love the world more and desire it less.

This is former poet laureate Robert Hass, paraphrasing the poet Basho. And I can see why this colleague has been carrying it around. It’s been working on me for the past couple of months. I love the distinction between loving the world and desiring it. To love the world is to love what is, to experience contentment and joy. But desire… desire is insatiable. We are never satisfied.

Love is a hand, relaxed and open. Desire is a clutching fist.

Through the lens of this quote, I’ve been seeing anew how much of consumer culture centers around comparing ourselves to others—usually in a way that draws us up short.

Too fat.
Too old.
Not wealthy enough.
Not white enough.
Less popular.
Not as talented.

Or we compare ourselves to our past selves:

I wish I had that body back.
Look how many more wrinkles I have! 
My marriage was more romantic back then. 

Of course it’s fine to want to better ourselves. Last year I had only one running goal: to get faster. I didn’t have specific time goals, I just wanted to improve. And I did: I achieved PRs (personal records) in three recent races of various distances recently. There’s lots more room to grow, and I hope to finish the Marine Corps Marathon faster than I did Disney, even though it’s a tougher course.

But why? If I’m pursuing these goals out of desire, I will never be satisfied. I will always be slow compared to someone. But if I set goals out of love for the sport and for discovering what this 43 year old body can do, I can’t lose.

The running group I belong to uses Facebook to set up group runs and share running successes and challenges with one another. Without betraying the confidentiality of that space, we constantly check each other when using words like “slow.” Slow, compared to what? To whom? Everyone’s slow compared to Shalane Flanagan. Everyone’s fast compared to someone sitting on the couch.

Part of what adjectives of scale do is put us in our place. Many of you know Brene Brown, professor of social work, writer, researcher on shame and wholeheartedness, and big sister I wish I’d had. She told Krista Tippett not long ago that shame hinges in two basic thoughts:

1. Not good enough.
2. Who do you think you are?

 

I wonder whether these messages are at work when the mama runners (including me) share a happy milestone, but feel compelled to add a qualifier: “I hit a great pace on this run–for me.” “I ran X miles this month—but I know others are running even more.” It’s the tendency to downplay our own belovedness and to be much kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Other people’s achievements are celebrated. Our own come with an asterisk.

Much better to say, “I felt strong on the hills.” “I’ve improved a lot.” “That was a crappy run, but I’ll try again tomorrow.” “I’m running X miles at Y pace this weekend; who wants to join me?” Much better to see ourselves as we are, and to describe that as faithfully and graciously as we can.

Captain Obvious: I’m not just talking about running anymore.

Sooner or later, whether due to age or other physiological factors, I will plateau and decline. And that’s as it should be. Continuous growth is not sustainable for our planet; continuous improvement is not sustainable for a body, either. So I’m working on embracing the spirit of Gandalf, whose cheeky comment to Frodo (above) feels a lot like radical contentment. I am neither slow nor fast. I am the speed I am meant to be right now.

Speed, Haste, Popsicles and Earthworms

“Mommy, you ruined my savoring.”

For a few years I was what you might call tri-vocational: I pastored a church, I wrote books and spoke to groups and retreats, and I parented three elementary-age children along with my husband. Life was a wonderful crazy-quilt of scheduling: writing an article at the library down the street from the piano teacher, finishing a sermon in the bleachers at swim practice.

It also wasn’t sustainable, I now realize. If you ask my kids, they’d probably tell you my two most common phrases were “Just a minute” and “Hurry up.” Ironic, eh? We still had times of Sabbath together, but they were shorter and less frequent than a few years ago. Part of that’s to be expected as our kids age. Part of it’s a by-product of a too-full life.

Now I’m bivocational, having left the sweet church I was serving. In the same time period, Robert adjusted his work schedule such that he’s no longer working in the evenings. Consequently, we have more space in our schedule, though I’ll let him speak for himself as to whether it feels more spacious. But for me, I know as I figure out a routine and my freelance work, the crazy quilt will be turning into something slightly more structured, geometric.

The problem is, I’m still in just-a-minute-hurry-up mode mentally. It’s like when you’re on one of those moving sidewalks at the airport and then you get ejected out the other side. Everything’s a bit disorienting when you take that first step onto solid ground; your brain hasn’t caught up to (or slowed down for) the new pace.

Which is why, the other night when the younger two kids were enjoying their popsicles after dinner, I hurried them along to bath time for no good reason. It wasn’t that late, and hey, these were the first popsicles they’d had since last summer… but I couldn’t help myself. That’s when the seven-year-old busted out with the quote that still makes me want to laugh and cry simultaneously.

Mommy, you ruined my savoring.

People ask me sometimes how the kids feel about the idea of Sabbath time. As if it’s something we’d have to drag them into. Are you kidding? Children get this stuff in a way adults rarely do.

Some years ago I read a quote about the difference between speed and haste. It’s long gone now, but my version is that haste is speed without mindfulness. Sometimes, life moves quickly, and speed can be healthy and appropriate. If I’m crossing the street and a car is coming faster than I’d anticipated, I’d better pick up the pace. But sometimes we are—or I should own it and say I am—in a hurry without purpose.

Our 12 year old is a bus patrol, which means she leaves the house about 5 minutes before my son and I do. This morning J and I left even later than usual because it was rainy and we had to find umbrellas. Still, when we got outside and saw C on the sidewalk, she was only about two houses ahead of us. She was also walking funny. I called out to her, “C, what’s up?” She whirled around in alarm: “Be careful! Look down!!”

There were earthworms everywhere.

We picked our way down the sidewalk, point out each skinny pink wriggling thing to one another so we wouldn’t squish it. I’m sad to say that “hurry up” was in my throat, trying to escape. But this time, it didn’t. This time I didn’t ruin the savoring of spring.

One of you posted this to Facebook this week:

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I’m glad of this—it means my kids will be in my life for a good long time.

Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.

53648f3a4db9210c5de15f61Oh my goodness. J J Baskin, a great man and a good man, has died.

Every now and then someone offers the gift of letting us witness their journey through illness, and their transition from this life to the next. Steve Hayner was one of those people. So was J J, though the tone of his public posts was different than Steve’s. He was defiant and feisty, evidenced by his invoking of Friday Night Lights’s signature slogan and the way he refused to dwell on medical details publicly. He fiercely kept private things private.

I didn’t know J J well. I write this not as an intimate friend but as a friend on social media and a fellow Texan/Presbyterian, which is a smaller tribe than you might think. This tribe knows well that God lives at Mo-Ranch and Montreat is at most her summer home. Like many, I was a proud member of J J’s Fight Club. Like many, I wore the shirt as a defiant F U to cancer.

A friend and I were texting back and forth this morning. This one hits hard. The last journal entry on J J’s CaringBridge site reports that the boys are doing OK; they were currently snuggled up with their mother watching Pokemon. No one young enough to watch Pokemon should be without their father today.

For her part, my friend said she couldn’t get “His Eye is on the Sparrow” out of her head.

That’s just right. Just right.

I can never think about that song without remembering this rollicking bit of audio by Anne Lamott, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Take 18 minutes and listen, or at least listen to Anne’s friend Renola sing it at the end. I post it in gratitude for J J and in hopes that Anne’s irreverent reverence would please him.

Rest in peace, rise in glory, and Texas forever.