Sneetches and Love

I became familiar with National Dr. Seuss day when my mom was a principal.  I thought it was weird that local celebrities or leaders in the community would drop in on an elementary school classroom to read a Dr. Seuss book to a bunch of kids.  Then this year, Ellia participated in her first National Dr. Seuss day.  And I was asked to come and read to the greatest and most energetic first grade class that has ever existed.

I read The Sneetches—a book about a group of creatures who were divided by the star or lack of star on their bellies.  I figured it would be a good time to address any bullies or pint-sized racists that might be in the room.  The inferior Sneetches pay money to try to look like the esteemed Sneetches by either getting a star stamped on their bellies or having a star removed.  In the end, all of the Sneetches are exhausted from using all their resources to try to be better than each other.

I don’t know why I couldn’t just read the book like a normal person.  Instead, I took it upon myself to interject social commentary.  I wanted to make sure the 6 and 7 year olds understood the implications for their own interpersonal relationships.  It’s obvious I shouldn’t work with children.

I finally left after launching a lengthy monologue about how no one is better than anyone else and our differences are to be celebrated.

On the way home, I thought about our efforts as parents or people over 12 to build a generation that disdains intolerance.

But tolerance is a small goal.  Tolerance is an okay starting place.  It keeps us from saying mean things or ostracizing the other, but tolerance is not love.

Accepting people’s differences—this is a bit better.  We can argue that acceptance would diminish unnecessary conflict or the deep wounds we inflict.  But it’s still not the full picture of love.

Love includes tolerance and acceptance, but the work of love reaches farther than walking side-by-side those around us. Loving requires us to see others.  Loving people doesn’t mean blindly engaging in relationships.  Love asks that we truly see the people standing in front of us or behind us or next to us.

Our culture doesn’t need more people to tolerate others—it needs more people who are willing to see others.

To see a person is to value that person.  When we see others, we not only accept them but we also affirm them.  It’s a move away from self-centered acts of love so we can free people to be who they were created to be.

The people I encounter every single day are people who are desperate to be seen.  They want to know what it’s like to be known.  It’s a shame-busting, courage-giving kind of love.

Seeing people offers them an invitation to shine—it’s making room for others’ gifts and talents and passions to push through concrete and grow in the light.

And we can only do this as those who are seen.  We have to agree to embrace the reality of our identity as those who belong to the God who loves.  The God who loves us is the God who sees us.   We’re not tolerated.  We’re not just accepted.  We’re loved as those fully known.  Our failings and flaws are no threat to this love.

Loving people doesn’t mean we look past the mistakes, the addictions, the bad decisions or annoying personalities.  It means we see people as more than that with which they struggle.  And when we do this, we invite others to do the same.  We invite people to look beyond their fears and sin and recognize their deep value.

When we love others, we don’t necessarily give them anything.  Instead, we draw out the light that’s already within—we fuel a flame that already burns.  Our love reminds people that they have great worth and that today can be different than yesterday.

This is something tolerance will never do.  Tolerance can’t impart bravery.

But seeing people can.

Hagar was Abraham’s mistress.  Sarah, Abraham’s wife, forced Hagar to sleep with her husband in an attempt to gain a child through Hagar.  When the child was born, Sarah abused Hagar and she ran away.

God found her by a well.  He spoke to her as one who knew her—he knew where she’d come from and why she was crying.

And she said to this God, “You are the God who sees.”

God is a seeing God.  He knows where we’ve come from and he knows why we’re crying.

And to love others means we’re willing to do the same.

 

The freedom of rejection

Somewhere around age 13 I solidified a growing belief that a happy life could not be achieved without the approval of everyone around me. I began to live out of an unspoken mantra: Never give people a reason not to like you. Don’t mess up. Don’t make mistakes in relationships. Be perfect and people will like you, and if people like you, life is going to be ok.

As a result of this deeply rooted belief, I poured my energy into being a good friend. Whenever I failed, whenever I wasn’t perfect, whenever I was caught in my own self-absorption or lack of compassion, I fell into paralyzing self-deprecation. How could I let this happen? I’d replay the scenario over and over again in my mind, thinking about how if only I’d made a better decision, I’d have removed the chance for someone to reject me.

To say I was insecure is an understatement.  But “insecure” is just a euphemism for “self-absorbed.” I thought the word was more spiritual and made it seem like I was healthily addressing my issues, when in reality, I was completely preoccupied with myself—my flaws and failures and missed opportunities for perfection.

It was devastating to learn that part of my thinking was right—people did reject me when I made mistakes. My failures and shortcomings did create chasms in relationships. When I wasn’t perfect, there were times people stopped liking me or took back their approval.

But part of my mantra is deeply wrong—having the approval of others doesn’t lead to a happy life. Or, better said, I don’t need people to like me in order to be fully alive.

Shame taught me to fear rejection or the negative reactions of other people. I’d avoid creating conflict at any cost to myself, my integrity or my values. I would lie, manipulate and put myself in dangerous situations just to please others.

But one day I endured a particularly awful friendship breakup, in which a benign mistake on my part created such deep misunderstanding that my friend refused to reconcile. And after a night of snotty, panicked crying, I woke up and realized to my shock that I was still alive. I was still breathing. I had survived rejection. Somehow, even with my biggest fear realized, I was still moving and loving and living.

The awful feeling of shame can come with rejection, and it begs me to focus on my failure and the approval I seek but didn’t achieve. But the truth is, as long as we’re breathing, we’re going to let people down. No matter how much I try, I am going to make mistakes. I can’t cover all my bases. I’m a flawed person and eventually, each person in my life has found out.

And while people did turn from me, hurt me and shame me, there were still people in the world who loved me. There were still people in the world who didn’t see me through the lens of my failures. People still relied on me or appreciated me or saw me and refused to walk away.

It sounds simple and obvious to say that I can live without the approval of others, but there are moments and days where I still fight to stay in this reality. The past drive to perfectionism calls to me and offers comfort and familiarity and an irrational sense of control.

People will reject me. No matter how much I don’t want them to, no matter how much I try to avoid it, no matter how much effort I invest in relationship after relationship after relationship.

And there is freedom in this continual experience. I don’t have to feed a bear that wants to eat me. I don’t have to try to placate a monster who chases me with the agenda of destruction.  I don’t have to waste my effort running after something impossible and unattainable.

The question is not will you let people down—the question is how will you respond when you inevitably do. It’s not about having tough skin or toes that aren’t easily stepped on.   It’s about the spiritual discipline of moving from self-centeredness to a deeper reality—that my worth has nothing to do with what others think. That somehow who I am can’t be dictated by a world as broken and flawed as I am. It’s a spiritual discipline to raise my head above the shame and say yes to the continued opportunities to love. And this includes love toward myself.

Be kind to yourself. Be patient with your flaws. Be willing to forgive yourself as you forgive others. And keep breathing and living and loving even in the face of inevitable rejection.

apathy and grace

I’ve heard that the people who are more likely to succeed aren’t those with natural talent—they’re the ones who have to work hard and study and learn and develop talents and skills.  Those with natural skills tend to coast—they rely on what they already have instead of reaching for more.  Those for whom the task is a challenge know how to work—they know how to keep developing. They know how to grow.

I’ve stopped growing, in some ways.  I’ve chosen a nice plateau with God.  I’ve been hoping that last year’s devotion reading is enough for today and I’m hoping just because Lent is happening that it will gather me up into all-inclusive arms without me having to work.

I have natural belief.  I have natural faith.  And lately, that level of mediocrity has been enough for me.

I want grace to wheel me around as if I’ve forgotten how to walk.

Dallas Willard said it best: “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”

It’s a truism I’ve recently forgotten to remember.

There are times when I’ve needed to be carried, when I’m too weak to hang on to God so God hangs on to me.

But this time in my life is different.

My current struggle is equal to the villainous legalism, yet different.  It’s apathy.

It’s not about how hard I work to earn spiritual favor, it’s about how little I care to live in grace.  Either way, legalism and apathy are the same—a disregard for grace.   A blatant slammed door in the face of deep love—a love which must be accepted, must be taken, must be acknowledged in order to be lived.

I think one day, after a lot of personal struggle and situational disasters, I felt like discipleship didn’t fit me.  It was an uncomfortable high school band uniform I couldn’t wriggle out of.  My life was tanking, I watched it happen instead of jumping in to fight.  And I finally wriggled out of the uniform—free from acknowledging and taking and living in the grace.  I disconnected from what I needed in order to live.

I became disenchanted and disengaged.   I read words I wasn’t sure I believed.  I cut a lot loose during the dark times, and my communion with God sank with the rest.

I kept thinking about whether or not I want my life to go this way, this sterile disregard for a living union with God.  The question lit up in neon when I had kids.  What would they see mommy do?  Is God cultural?  Is belief in God inherited and dead?  Or is there something about it we are meant to live?  Could this relationship with God be the crux of what it is to be alive?

I want life.  So badly.  Real life—the kind that pulsates with purpose and vision and intimacy with God.

It’s daily before me.  Will I move toward it, or will I stand in the same place and stare at the potential?

I think a wasted life isn’t one that digresses—a wasted life is one that stays in the same place—a life that never goes anywhere, good or bad.  A wasted life is one that hunkers down and waits for the end to come.

And I want more.  I’d rather engage in a living union than lifelessly assenting to a system of beliefs.

Theologically, I’m not as certain as I used to be about so many things.  But I am certain that tomorrow can be different from today.  I’m convinced that the potential depth of our connection to God has no limit.  Next year, I don’t have to sit in the same place with the same issues and the same disbelief where I wallow today.  I can say yes to peace and liberation.

Grace always extends a hand.  And for my own life’s sake, I’ve got to get better at taking it.

pain, pain, go away

I hate pain and I’ll do anything to avoid it.

Moby was a little mutt puppy that showed up on our front porch when he was six weeks old.  He was the cutest thing I’d ever seen, but even his unimaginably soft fur didn’t turn me into a dog person.  As an adult, I’d never wanted a dog.  It wasn’t the amount of work they’d require or what to do with a pet when we left town—it was the risk involved.  I didn’t want to have a pet because animals die and I didn’t want to be sad one day when the unavoidable became reality.

One of the worst but truest things I’ve learned in my time on earth is that pain is.

Pain exists and it doesn’t know there are people it’s not allowed to affect.  It doesn’t regard demographics or financial brackets.  Pain slides through the cracks of even the most well-constructed fortresses we can build.

But pain’s reality doesn’t make me hate it any less.  I want to shut my eyes, plug my ears and emotionally disconnect whenever possible.

At Starbucks this morning, my friend and I had a conversation about pain.  What do you do with it?  How do you fight it?  What’s the best solution? Grow callouses so you don’t feel it?  Escape it with self-destructive habits?  Wallow in hopelessness and defeat?  Or try desperately to fix what might inevitably be unfixable?

I casually mentioned to my Starbucks friend how I’m afraid to watch the movie “Blackfish” because of my deep emotional connection to orcas.  I’m afraid I’ll feel too sad, too angry and cry too much.  My friend responded that she won’t watch it, either.  And she won’t watch “Schindler’s List.”  And she won’t watch anything that actually happened or reflects a difficult truism or stabs a happy ending right in the chest.

I feel the same way.  I’d rather run away from pain than look it in the face.  I’d rather not watch “Saving Private Ryan” or read the newspaper or listen to NPR when the stories don’t turn out too well.

Ironically, we live in a culture full to the brim with pain, yet we’ve spent our life’s resources trying to avoid it.  I know I have.  I’ll do anything to protect myself from an inevitable onslaught of difficulty.

We’re afraid.  We’re afraid of what pain looks like.  We’re afraid of how much it can hurt and how much it can cost us to lose what we love or what we think we need.  We’re afraid of a reality that includes challenges and failure.  But, pain will always find us, even if it corners us where we least expect it.

The question is not whether or not we’ll experience pain but what to do when it comes.  We all have shelter we take, places to which we run, ways we escape, or walls we hide behind.

The creek in Boulder, Colorado runs through the whole town.  It runs alongside parks and buildings and under bridges and through a college campus.  And under the bridges, there are signs that read, “In case of flood, do not take shelter here.”

You can’t always escape the rain.

I’m afraid I’ve developed a habit of taking shelter from pain in the silliest of places.  I want to hide or run or wait for things to change.

I disconnect from others.  I move into denial.  I turn toward unhealthy behaviors.

But it will rain.  It will flood.  Where will we go?

My friend argues that we have to fix it—stop the rain, close the skies, make some slight atmospheric changes.

But what if, even for a moment, we stop avoiding pain?  What if we learn to sit in it and actually feel the frightening raw emotion?  What if we stayed for a second and faced what we’re most afraid of?

This doesn’t mean we wallow in hopelessness—but maybe it means we stop our attempts to outrun our own emotional response.

I’m not sure I can make real life changes or significant forward movement unless I’m willing to sit in my pain.  I’m not sure I can fully engage this world unless I’m ok watching an upsetting documentary or reading a heart-wrenching article.  I’m learning that running from pain means running from maturity because I’m running from the chance to love, to connect, and to contribute.

It may, in fact, be irresponsible not to face our emotional responses.

How can we make changes if we never have a visceral response to anything?  Can we really say we’re alive if nothing cuts us or wounds us or makes us cry?

Real change in ourselves and this world comes from a willingness to face pain.  Surface, flimsy changes may come through attempts to avoid pain, but walls are destroyed by hands that have been wounded.

I’m convinced we’ll learn transformation as people who first sit in pain.  Maybe we should stop shutting our eyes to loss and betrayal.  Maybe it’s time we learn to cry—the ugly, snotty cry that pours out our insides.

And then, we can see and make changes.  Then we move forward.  As people who don’t take false shelter, but as people who aren’t so afraid of rain.

 

 

 

 

 

VHS cases and paychecks

While I was in seminary, I worked as a resident chaplain for a freshman girls’ dorm.  I lived in a closet-sized apartment and attempted to pastor six hundred 18 year-olds.

Between school and an impossible job, I was busy.  I was too busy to worry about grad school or cleaning my apartment or filing taxes.  And I was apparently too busy to deposit my paychecks.

While preparing for our move to Boulder, Brett packed up my movie collection.  As he went through my old-school VHS tapes, he began to find handfuls of $20 bills stuffed in the cases. After we worked through the classics of “Tommy Boy” and “Rookie of the Year,” we’d found $4,000 in $20 bills.

Brett was astounded.  And I felt like an old lady who hides bundles of money in the freezer because she’s convinced the Great Depression will rise again.

It was embarrassing, but insightful.  My unwillingness to do something as uncomplicated as depositing a check at a bank was more than an issue of time management; it was an issue of identity.  I was obsessed with doing: counseling, praying with and listening to freshman girls’ stories of boys and classes and sororities.  Some days I’d meet with five or six people to discuss eating disorders, familial tension and roommate drama.

And I could never do enough.

My seminary work suffered.  I was even too tired to plan my upcoming wedding.  I didn’t prioritize sleep.  And I certainly didn’t have time to run a check to the bank.

I was afraid to rest.  I was afraid to take care of practical and seemingly unimportant tasks.  I didn’t value the mundane.  And it stemmed from a misunderstanding of who I was.

I thought my value rested in what I could accomplish—who I could love, what I could solve, and how many people needed me.  Instead of feeling alive, I felt exhausted and resentful.

When we’re motivated by obligation and guilt, we can’t take care of the important.  We think that too much rests on our shoulders.  Doing laundry is useless and time-sucking.  Sitting down or waiting in lines keeps us from real work.

Maybe some of us misunderstand discipleship; we think we’re workhorses who only get fed when we’ve accomplished every task.  If you want to be loved, you’ve got to earn it.

But when God came to earth in the person of Jesus, normal human work continued to exist.  Clothes still had to be washed.  People had to be fed.  Sheep had to be found.

I wonder if all too often we buy into the lie that the important can’t include the mundane.  Instead, we measure things that are important  by their impact.

But the kingdom is different.  The church is meant to contrast the world of accomplishment by offering a picture of faith.  We’re called not to a job but to a Person—a person to whom we listen and on whom we depend.

And there’s no place in life where this can’t be done.

We’re afraid to slow down.  We’re afraid to step down.  We’re afraid rest will strip us of our hard-earned reputations.  We’re afraid attention to the important job of rest will make us unimportant to others.

We step over our own mess to serve others or change the world.  We don’t acknowledge the condition of our own souls for the sake of a checklist.

One day, I asked a girl down the hall how she was doing.  I tuned out her answer because I was too busy thinking about all I needed to do.  Then she asked me, “What about you?  What’s going on in your heart?”

I stared at her like she’d caught me shoplifting.

I had no answer.  I had no idea how I was doing, what I was feeling, or the last time I’d connected with God.

I spent so much time ignoring my own soul so I could attempt to complete the impossible tasks of Super-Chaplain.

I took no time to sit, no time to connect with myself, and no time to feed my own heart and mind.

When I began to move from accomplishment to identifying myself by the love of God, I found meaning in the mundane.  I started to value quiet.  I attempted to let go of the boulder-sized burden of having something to prove.

And I became better at answering the questions in my own soul.

Discipleship isn’t a competitive sprint.  We’re just on a journey—a journey toward loving and learning to be loved by a God who is far more concerned with our hearts than our productivity.

There’s freedom to do the dishes, play freeze tag with your kids and take a nap.

Take 15 minutes to take your paychecks to the bank. Acknowledge your own mess.

And participate in a life and world whose successes and failures don’t rest on your shoulders.