Shelve Your Shock

Rebecca Conry

You know what the hardest response to see and hear is when I tell someone something personal or sensitive is? It’s not anger. I can see that coming a mile away and change course. It’s not judgment; those people are easy to ignore. It’s not even apathy, though that can sting, because apathy leads to nothing.

The most painful response is shock.

I tell someone a story of some really bad decisions I made in the past and they gasp and say “are you serious?” I explain a sin I’m struggling with and they stare at me, mouth agape. I’m honest about how hard marriage is and the bumpy road my wife and I are going down and they lean back and blow hard through pursed lips in that overwhelmed way. These are the responses I fear most. They are the ones that make me feel like and idiot, a six-inch tall moron.

Shock feels like judgment even if it’s not intended to. It seems to express a lack of empathy; the listener simply can’t understand me otherwise he wouldn’t respond like I said I had a third arm under my shirt.

In church circles this is especially true. Many church people grew up sheltered from real ugliness. For many, the moralistic and legalistic upbringing made many sins seems both distant and unthinkable (not all bad). They are out of touch with the difficulties so many people face. Many Christians have the prevailing attitude toward a lengthy list of sins of “I could never do that.” Well, that attitude splatters all over someone who shares their story of sin, mistakes, pain, crime, sex, substance abuse, divorce, infidelity, or whatever. The Christian’s subtle surprise or overt shock speaks volumes of judgment.

The remedy to “I could never do that” is twofold. First, we need to remember that one sin is not more damning than another. The hierarchy of sins we have in our minds has more to do with perceived societal damage caused than anything else. Your self-righteousness needs a savior just as much as someone else’s fornication. Second, we need to be honest about our own propensity for sin. It’s not that we would never do certain sins; it’s often that we’ve never been given the chance. We use the phrase “but for the grace of God there go I”, and much of that grace is the circumstances God gave us as protected church folk.

I could have had that affair. I could have cheated or stolen my way out of a job. I could have become an alcoholic or drug abuser. I could have been such a rotten husband that I drove my wife to divorce me. I am more than capable. So is everyone. If you deny it you need to repent for lying to yourself and everyone else.

If we recognize our own sin and our potential for sin the playing field is leveled. More importantly, we stop being shocked when someone admits to something horrible. Of course they did it. They are human, in the line of Adam, the moron who ate the fruit and started this mess. And you and I would have or could have done the same in their place or his. So shelve your shock and realize you are just like the person sharing.

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God Is “I Am.” You Are Not.

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In the movie Hitch there is a scene where Will Smith’s character is making suggestions to another character of how he should dress for a date. The other character says “I’m just not sure these shoes are me.” Smith looks at him and says “Right now, you is a very fluid concept.” It’s a trite moment in a light-hearted movie, but that phrase “you is a very fluid concept,” is actually profound and profoundly counter-cultural.

Too often we think of ourselves as “me”, a static person, unchanging and unpliable. This is to limit ourselves to our own detriment.

“That’s just who I am.” We’ve all heard people say it and very likely said it ourselves. It’s that ubiquitous explanation (read: excuse) for an action or attitude that strikes someone else oddly or even offends them. Sometimes it’s innocent, like when we’re explaining our accent, clothing choices, or cultural peculiarities (hugging, being loud, talking fast, hurrying, running late, etc.). More often, though, we say it to justify ourselves when we are offensive or hurtful. We brush away our missteps by blaming them on our own identity. “I can’t help it if you’re hurt by that; it’s just the way I am.”

“That’s just the way I am.” “That’s not me.” Well, that’s just arrogant.

Thinking this way smacks of faithless fatalism. It assumes a certain achievement and superiority in the status of “me” and “I am”. We are created from dust; we are clay. Only God can rightfully be described as “I AM”. The rest of us are becoming.

We ought never to be satisfied or limited with who we are. It should never remain the same for long. Yes, God did give us tendencies and personalities through our genetic code and our familial and cultural upbringing. But God also gives us grace to grow those in positive directions or overcome them. “Who I am” is much less relevant and meaningful than who I am becoming.

If you are a person who hides behind the mantle of “me” you are choosing conflict, disappointment, and frustration. You are risking alienation from those around you as you plant your flag in one place and they move on. You will be a stationary obstacle in their way as they travel on the path to who they are becoming.

Let “you” be a fluid concept in the hands of God. Have the humility to recognize needed changes and to appreciate outside input. Yes, God gave you tendencies and a personality. But God is I AM. You should become.

Facing off with Bullying

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Bullying is real. It’s also really exaggerated. Somehow collective “wisdom” has decided that any time one person is mean to another it’s bullying. That’s not bullying; that’s being a jerk. People have been jerks since Adam and Eve got a hankering for fresh fruit.

Bullying is more than simply an insult or a fistfight. It is the consistent or systematic targeted abuse of someone vulnerable by someone (or someones) stronger. A bully is the guy who always steals lunch money from the same kid or the group of girls who decide to start an online smear campaign of a classmate by spreading rumors and posting embarrassing photos.

What we call bullying is a monster of our own making. We call all every mean person a “bully.” My kids would be horrified by my casual use of the word bully; to them it’s like a curse word (three cheers for public schools). We make bogeymen and misfits out of so-called bullies. They wear the scarlet letter and are marked by the black spot. It is horrifying and shameful; they must be dealt with!

Sometime back we forgot that conflicts are to be resolved, matters settled. Instead, the bullying mantra creates a division by labeling one person as evil and the other as victim. No longer can the “victim” stand up for him or herself with voice or fists. One child can’t pop a bully to defend another. Just as bullying is the bogeyman, confrontation is the Black Death. And so there isn’t any resolution.

The best way to eliminate bullying is to stop emphasizing it. The same wisdom that decided all meanness was bullying decided that the more we point bullying the less it will happen. That’s garbage. Bullying isn’t just a bad action like selling drugs or stealing cars. It is psychological warfare and thrives on fear. The fear in the bully drives him to make others even more afraid. And the more we “see” bullies hiding behind every insult and under every conflict the more we feed the fear. We must be aware but not paranoid.

What would happen if we raised kids who won’t stand for injustice? We don’t want vigilantes and bullies who bully the bullies, but neither do we want tiptoeing tattle-tales who won’t look a bully in the eyes and tell her to knock that crap off. We need to teach our kids to stand up for those who are vulnerable. We need to give them the support they need so when they face the attacks they can be strong then come home for comfort and encouragement then go do it again the next day. Our kids don’t need to be fighters (although that’s not so bad); they need to have conviction that picking on the weak is unacceptable. Some will be strong and silent and others will hit back. Either way, it is this conviction and action that will put bullying on its heels.

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My Brush With Death

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photo credit: ‘Ajnagraphy’ via photopin cc

The knowledge of death brings a certain clarity to life. Coming close to death makes the beauty of life and the reality of eternity stand out in stark, blazing colors.

Several weeks ago, Jen and I were driving on the highway in the midst of a snowstorm. We were traveling at an appropriately slow speed, crawling along, simply trying to make it home. But sometimes driving slow isn’t enough. The laws of physics can do serious damage, no matter how slow you are going. As we went around a turn, our van began to simultaneously slide sideways and drift toward the median. We slid until we were perpendicular to the road, then hopped up onto the median, and ground to a stop on top of the concrete median. We were in such a position that we easily could have been hit by cars coming eather direction.

But we didn’t get hit. And we didn’t blow out a tire or rupture a fuel line. God had sovereignly arranged the traffic patterns of the night in such a way that when we lost control, no one was there to hit us. We were able to pull back onto the highway and drive home.

As we drove home, we loudly gave thanks to God for sparing our lives. We could have died, leaving our three little girls with no parents. When we got home, we hugged our girls tight and kissed them and simply delighted in them. We rejoiced in the wonderful gift called life. Yes, our girls can be crazy and whiny and refuse to poop on the toilet. Yes, our girls can push us to the breaking point. But when you come face to face with death, everything else seems inconsequential.

Why do brushes with death have such a positive impact on me? In Psalm 90, Moses wrote:

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)

Getting close to death reminds me that my days are numbered. My life is painfully short. A mist. A vapor. I have a few, short years on this earth. A few short years to cram full of love for God and love for others. A few short years to treasure Jesus, treasure Jen, and treasure my kids. Spinning out on the highway gives me a heart of wisdom. It reminds me of what is important and what my priorities should be.

I would be wise to consider death more often. To number my days. To remember the brevity of my life. I’m not trying to be morbid or overly fixated on death. I don’t want to live my life gripped by fear. But remembering my impending death also helps me to live more fully.

When was the last time you considered death?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to dispense some hugs.

Are You Faking or Trying When It Comes To God?

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“So you want me to fake sleep?” my daughter asked me. She tends to lie awake at night for hours, and I had just told her that she needed to close her eyes, be quiet, and rest until she fell asleep. My words apparently meant to her that I wanted her to pretend to sleep. My intention was to tell her to try to sleep by taking the steps toward actually sleeping. What is the difference, though, between pretending and trying?

Faking and trying often look quite similar. Both require going through the motions of something we either don’t know how to do, or have no intention of doing, well. When I’ve gotten dragged into soccer games on various youth group or missions trips I look like I’m playing because I’m running around and kicking the ball when I have to, but I’m faking it because I really don’t like soccer. When I’m stuck in a meeting I don’t want to be in I look like I’m making the effort and engaging because I’m writing stuff down (usually emails or iMessages) and occasionally nodding at a point someone makes, but I’m pretending.

On the other hand, when I took a new job which required learning new systems and skills no matter how hard I tried I still felt like I was a fake because I was doing unfamiliar actions and it felt unnatural. It didn’t matter how good the results were; my discomfort made me feel like I was just fooling people because I knew I wasn’t really adept. I remember feeling the same way trying to learn how to shoot a left handed lay up. Even when I succeeded it didn’t feel real because it was just a set of unnatural actions. (Actually I never really learned how to use my left hand in basketball, so it still feels lucky when I manage to do anything good with it.)

The difference between faking and trying isn’t in the actions for the most part; it’s in the motivation. Am I attempting to merely look like something or to actually get better at something, to mislead others or accomplish a goal? Pretending never has any goal in mind other than to fool people until one can escape the circumstance (like me on the soccer field). Trying is entirely focused on the goal of success. My daughter felt like I was telling her to pretend because she didn’t want to sleep. Her goal wasn’t to succeed at sleeping, so any sleep-like actions would only be for the purpose of fooling me.

I was asked once by a friend about what someone should do when their heart was cold toward God. I responded with the suggestion to keep putting themselves in God’s way; keep reading the Bible and trying to pray even the heart wasn’t in it. His response was “Oh, so fake it ‘til you make it?” Nope, not at all. That’s just hypocrisy. Instead, try until it pays off. If the motivation is the encounter God then its not faking even if doesn’t feel real. The motive makes it real.

Plenty of people fake it in their spiritual lives. They want to look like healthy Christians or to make it through church without anyone looking askance at them or asking a personal question. That comes from a heart of pride and deceit. Trying until it pays off is different. It comes from a heart of need and an eye on the goal of growth in holiness. Both faking and trying might feel like we are going through the motions, but the end result of one is emptiness and exposure. The result of the other is closeness with God

The Boring Stuff Makes the Story

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What makes a story good? What makes it move? Action, conflict, suspense, character development, plot twists – absolutely, all of the above. And also all the stuff that we can’t see: the mundane, the rote, the grunt work, the daily tasks and habitual actions. A great story isn’t made of people brushing teeth, showering, packing a lunch and heading to work to create pivot tables. World-class novels are not composed of email responses and traffic jams and grocery shopping. But without such things the characters would never get where they needed to go and be who they need to be.

It is the mundane that allows the excitement to happen. Normalcy is the network of bridges which connects the islands of excitement. Without the boring we could never get to the good parts.

And it is the same with our stories. Much has been written about living a good story and about how we are part of a grand narrative. God is the author and we are characters. My story intersects with others to make a massive, intricate, incomprehensible plot line which only an omnipotent author could understand and direct. And so we are encouraged to “live a better story” and to “make the most out of our stories.”

But what is it that makes my story good? Describing a good story in general is easy enough, but when it’s my story it becomes complicated. For some it’s making memories. For others it is strong relationships with God and man. Or it could be acts of nobility and service. Or maybe it’s risk and thrills – living for the “experience.” Likely it is the unique combination of these which leads to peace and happiness for each individual.

An ingredient is missing from that combination, though: all the boring stuff. Without the mundane there are no “experiences” or relationships or nobility. So we must do the commonplace well. Work hard. Excel at details. Invest our minds and energy in our commutes, our cleaning, the forms we fill out, the children we bathe and feed, the meals we prepare, the teeth we brush, and correspondence we send. For, if you look close, this is really the stuff that makes the story good.

 

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We Should Do Away With “Should”

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“Should” is a word which needs to be relegated to the second string, a backup word which is used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. When we overuse “should” we build paper mache reality full of guilt, regret and unfulfilled hopes.

I should exercise more.

You should show up at work earlier.

I should have studied more in college.

He should have done his part of the project.

I should be able to get that to you this week.

She should be here soon.

We should be ok.

It should work.

Should, should, should. It’s a word of unfulfilled expectations, an indication that things are not as they ought to be but without certainty that they will be repaired. It leaves residues of guilt and pours on the obligations. It blame-shifts and hands out false hope. And it grasps at straws. When we allow “should” to be our circumstance we are left with the dissatisfaction of something incomplete.

Instead of “should,” as much as it is up to us, we ought to be people who are and who do. Let “am” and “is” describe our being and “must” and “will” describe our future. Such words are active and full of hope. Instead of passive and questioning they are present and urgent. “Should” allows us to shirk responsibility. Instead of committing and completing we vaguely allude to and never follow through. When we avoid should we leave less room for vacancies and voids whether it be in work, relationships, or personal growth.

In all, “should” is often more than just a word. It indicates a mindset or an unfulfilled reality. Only by an intentional choice can we move past it. It’s worth it. We should really try. But will we?

Let’s Rethink What It Means To Compromise

 “Compromise” is a dirty word. It’s not the kind of dirty word like cusswords or slurs; it’s dirty in the sense that it makes us feel dirty. The sense that compromise leaves is one of dissatisfaction, of things not getting worked out as well as we would have hoped. We gave up something we cared about and got less in return than we would have liked. In short, compromise feels like losing (especially to those of use who are competitive). Even if compromise is necessary, it feels, at best, like a necessary evil.

But what if we were to take the word “compromise” and replace it with “sacrifice”? Isn’t that really the best sense of the word – to lay down, voluntarily, something that matters to us even if the return isn’t great. Sacrifice is a noble thing and shows care for others. It is thinking of a good greater than my own. Compromise feels gross because we walk away feeling shorted, like we didn’t get all we wanted out of the deal whereas sacrifice is a good, if difficult, action to bring about a better end. And that is fulfilling.

Of course not all compromises are bad. And, yes, some things we hold dear cannot be sacrificed. We must never give up or waffle on the essentials of faith and the commitment to Christ. But could we be willing to sacrifice in how we communicate them? Could we forgo aggression or argumentation for civil discourse or personal conversations? And we must be willing to sacrifice when it comes to the peripherals and preferences whether it’s church musical style or political affiliation. Sacrificing in these cases doesn’t mean abandoning permanently or disavowing; it means laying down those things that matter to us for the love of other. If, in a given context, we willingly relinquish a preference or desire for the sake of restoring or reviving a relationship that is noble, not weak. It is no loss to willingly give something up for the good of a relationship or the good of another person.

We know this because of Jesus’ life. He was a man who did not compromise, not in the sense that makes use feel like we need a shower. He didn’t give a little to gain a little like the compromises we so often encounter. Instead He sacrificed. He never “lost” even when he gave up things that were valuable (like his place at the right of God and then His life). And He did it all for the greatest good, without ever letting go of the essential aspect of His life and mission to glorify God by saving the world.

You and I aren’t perfect. We won’t walk perfectly in Jesus’ steps, and that means conflicts will happen. That’s when mutual sacrifice — a more accurate and uplifting phrase than compromise — matters most. Instead of giving more than we want to gain less than we hoped for, we end up giving what we can to gain what the other person needs most. And in this new version of compromise we reflect the character of Jesus instead of the dissatisfaction of compromise as we now know it.

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Don’t Be The Smartest Guy in the Room

 

I love being the smartest guy in the room, or at least thinking I am. It’s an ego thing. And of course that means it’s not a good thing. It’s not good to be the smartest guy, and it’s really not good to think I am. In fact, all my worst decisions in life have resulted from putting myself in this situation — thinking of myself as the smartest. It has never ended well.

That label “smartest guy” (or gal), whether it’s true or not, makes us vulnerable to our own weaknesses. When I think I am smarter than everyone else my respect for them almost automatically diminishes. I have made the valuation that I am above them, and this makes it easy to ignore their opinions and contributions.  Clearly any perspective but mine doesn’t matter. I become a council of one. And when this happens my weaknesses and blind spots are magnified because I have removed any checks and balances.

“Smartest” is a deceiving and nebulous term. It feels good to be called or to call ourselves, but it’s almost never true. We may be the most knowledgeable about a particular subject or the best at a particular activity, but we are never the best or most knowledgeable about everything. In any given room or on any given team there are people who have better insights, more knowledge, or greater skills than we do in different areas. To think of ourselves as “smartest” is patently false.

If we ever find ourselves “in a room” (a context) where we are the smartest, we should change it, and fast, either by helping others get smarter or by switching rooms. Which of these is the best solution depends on circumstance. When I’m with my two young daughters I’m probably smarter than they are (although the seven year old is giving me a run for my money), but my responsibility is to teach and share and help them discover so that they surpass me. But I also need to conscientiously listen to them; they have insights of their own that can correct and teach me, and if I am so content to be “smarter” I end up worse off.

If I find myself on a team at work on which no one is smarter than me I must do all I can to change that too. It could be assisting teammates to develop their skills and knowledge. Or it might mean that the team needs to change, either because I leave or others do. Much of this depends on circumstance, authority, and flexibility. But no matter what the situation cannot remain status quo.

To stay in a static situation where we are the smartest is asking for problems. No matter how smart any of us is, we will always still have weaknesses and blind spots, and the less resistance those around us put up — or that we accept — the more they grow and become problematic. In any context, no matter the intellect or giftedness of those around us, we shouldn’t resort exclusively to our own counsel. But we inevitably will if we think of ourselves as the smartest.

Thoughts Arising Out Of Nowhere, Like Moths….

Recently my wife and I noticed small moths in our home. They mostly appear in the evenings while we’re trying to watch important television shows like America’s Got Talent.

They seem to have arisen out of nowhere. I suspect the basement. When one flits in front of me, I try to grab it or clap my hands to crush it. If they don’t go away soon, I’ll have to try see where they’re coming from, though I don’t look forward to sorting through the bins in the basement.

Have you ever wondered where our thoughts come from? Sometimes it seems they arise out of nowhere, like my moths. Have you ever said Now where did that thought come from when some bizarre thought popped into your head? Have you ever suddenly caught yourself drifting along some train of thought and realized you didn’t want to be going there? Where do these thoughts come from? In Monday’s post we examined where our words come from. Our thoughts come from the same place. Proverbs 4:23 says:

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

Thoughts arise from our hearts, so we must be vigilant to keep watch over them. Why? Because what comes out of our hearts affects our life. If our heart is polluted, our life will be. If our thoughts about God are wrong, we’ll suffer for it.  If out thoughts are saturated with God’s word, we’ll be blessed.

What kinds of thoughts about God have been rising out of your heart lately?

Consider what these thoughts reveal about what you believe about God: I can’t believe this is happening to me. Oh this is just great. Wow does this stink. Why does this always have to happen to me? Why is it that every time things start to go good for me something bad happens.

In his book Spiritual Depression, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says:

The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. … Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problem of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been repressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you’….

…You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’–what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself…exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’–instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God’.

After hearing this years ago I began to try to build a habit in my life of giving thanks as soon as I wake up, saying things like, “Lord Jesus, thank you for the gift of sleep. Thank you for allowing me to wake up this morning. Thank you for your protection during the night. Thank you that your mercies are new every morning. Thank you that your steadfast love never ceases.” And as I stagger toward the kitchen, “Thank you for coffee.”

All of us suffer. That’s when we must really fight in our thought life. We must pray and fight to keep asserting Biblical truth in our thoughts. Keep talking to yourself instead of listening to yourself. Continually give thanks to the Lord, for example: Thank you Jesus, that you have promised to never turn away from doing good to me. Thank you that you are causing all things to work together for good. Thank you that you are sovereign, wise, good and loving. Thank you that you have promised to never leave me nor forsake me.

So keep watch over your thoughts today…Hey there goes another moth. Gotta go.