Category Archives: Authenticity

Reality?

Today I found myself discussing something I know very little about.

Reality TV.

I was with my girlfriend, sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting for them to call us back to the examination room…and wouldn’t you know it? They had a copy of US Magazine in the waiting room. It was full of coverage of the Real Housewives of (some urban area in a city that I don’t live in).

You know that show, don’t you?

Okay…I have to admit that I have never watched a Real Housewives of (any city) because I don’t have cable TV and I am unwilling to pull it off of Hulu or Netflix.  I have never, for one minute of my life, compared my life as a housewife in Phoenix to anyone who considers themselves a ‘Real Housewife’ of anywhere else.  I don’t know that I’d survive the comparison.  First of all, I love my husband, but we are NOT that kind of rich.  Second, I love my husband, but being an engineer at Boeing does not make you any kind of famous. Finally, I love my husband, but he did not marry a woman who can be classified as “hot” housewife…not even remotely.  Then there’s the problem that neither I or my friends look good in designer gowns.

So there it is. I may be a housewife, but I’m not very ‘Real’.  Bummer, man.

Even so, my girlfriend and I looked at the pictures in US Magazine and were like WTH???

They had pictures of a lavish baby shower, a party of such epic importance that thousands of dollars were spent decorating the room where the baby shower was held; thousands more were spent on the catering and designer cake/cocktails/party favors.

I was incredulous.  Every baby shower I had ever attended was held in the conference room at the company where I worked. No lavish decorations. No interior designer. No custom cupcake flavors. No epic surprise gifts that had to be wheeled in while I closed my eyes.  The truth looked more like this: cake from Costco. Balloons from Party City. Pizza from Dominos or Pizza Hut. Gift money loaded onto a gift card by a motivated coworker who organized the entire party because they really, really liked me, or at the very least really, really wanted to be an event planner.

I was grateful for the gifts and the attention, and I considered it a bonus that my company allowed us all to slack off our work for 30 minutes or so to eat pizza and cake and celebrate something as obnoxious as impending maternity leave for a critical team member (that was me!)

It was nice to be considered ‘critical’ even if it meant that I couldn’t take the full twelve weeks of maternity leave.

As I sat there, waiting in the doctor’s office with my friend, I found that I didn’t know how to process all the slick pictures of balloons that were color coordinated to the theme of the baby’s nursery. I had no idea what it must be like to be a mom famous for being married to someone, enjoying a party for a person who isn’t yet born, eating catered food from a famous chef and a cake that cost more than I earn in a month.  I was a little disgusted by the excess and frustrated that I was expected to be deeply interested in gratuitous displays of wealth and privilege that have little to do with the event being celebrated.  Basically, the entire event spoke volumes about the wealth of the parents, the wealth of their friends, and the fame they had for being wealthy. There really wasn’t much to be said about the unborn child who was supposedly being celebrated, unless you count the sterling silver Tiffany rattle and the  top-of-the-line diaper service given as gifts, because doesn’t every newborn need precious metals to chew on and the softest, whitest diapers made of sustainable bamboo fibers washed in ecologically safe, non-sulfate detergents?

For a moment, can we admit that ‘Reality TV’ is an oxymoron? If you are watching TV, you are only accidentally (if at all) observing anything approaching reality.

I am not saying that TV never portrays reality. I have seen actual reality on television more than once. In fact, I can think of several instances when I watched actual reality untold on TV in real time.

I remember watching Harry Reasoner lose his composure in the hour after the news broke that Ronald Reagan had been shot. Reasoner, having lived through Kennedy’s assassination, was desperate to know if Reagan was alive or dead, if he was announcing the mourning of a nation or the failed attempt to assassinate the symbol of American power.

I remember watching the newsmen running away from the Alfred P Murrah building in Oklahoma City after they suspected a second bomb had been found. The chaos was terrifying as cameramen and reporters frantically ran from the site of the initial bombing and the bodies of hundreds who were massacred by Timothy McVeigh.  Later on, I watched reporters cry as they announced that McVeigh had bombed a building with a daycare onsite, and that children were among the dead.

I remember listening to the horrified reporters who watched as victims jumped from the upper floors of the burning World Trade Center buildings. The shock was evident in their voices; they were unable to contain their sorrow. I listened to the stunned silence of those same reporters as we watched the twin towers collapse in plumes of smoke and debris.

I have seen reality on television and it isn’t pretty or polished; it is never color-coordinated. It has nothing to do with the rich and the powerful. Reality on TV has always had to do with tragedy and sorrow, when editors had no time to polish the report before it was put on camera, when no political spin could be achieved because the news was too bloody and fresh to be politicized.

Anything glibly called ‘Reality TV’ today is actually nothing more than TV, filmed on location with minimal script. I’d like to say that it has little political agenda, but Reality TV has always tended to show  Americans as people who either fight to survive in some competition (thus showing our physical prowess and strength of will) or as people of wealth and finesse (thus showing our financial dominance and well-deserved opulence) which means that reality TV is rife with political agenda. In essence, American ‘Reality TV’ shows are nothing more than an advertisement for the American dream, selling the world on the idea that we are stronger, richer, smarter, and more powerful than everyone else. It’s a slick lie that we foist on ourselves and on anyone who chooses to consume the propaganda of American wealth and dominance.

I normally don’t disparage our nation or our broadcasting networks quite this much, but today I am disgusted by what the media feeds us (and the world) about our country, when the best nature of the people in the United States has always been illustrated in the midst of ‘actual reality’, which tends to be one damn disaster after another. Americans display our best qualities when we are busy doing anything and everything we can to help one another despite whatever disaster has overcome us at the moment: natural disasters, financial disasters, terrorism, wars, you name it. The best qualities of US residents are always found in our response to the uglier realities of our day-to-day existence, no matter what we glorify on television.

Did you notice that I tried to include all persons living in the US? That’s because living in the US tends to draw us into a sense of common good, whether we are immigrant or long-term citizen, no matter our skin color, no matter our ethnic ancestry, no matter our current identification of citizenship or belonging. To live in the US is to slowly join in the hope that we truly can become ONE despite our differences, that there really is a great melting pot. To put a fine point to it, the diversity of this nation is its strength and its greatest gift. As a melting pot, we are deliciously wonderful, and I couldn’t be more pleased with my actual nation…far more pleased with its messy reality than the glorified version of it that is sold in the media. I know that much is wrong in the US and there is much to be addressed before there can be peace, safety, and equality for everyone, but I have faith that love is stronger than fear and that we are stronger than the hatred we were taught by culture indoctrination. Let me assure you: the struggles and tragedy that we all live with make us one homogenous mass of people in need, and in those moments we transcend our fears and serve each other in the most beautiful ways.

And that, my friend, is real REALITY. It isn’t pretty, but it is everything that I value: committed, selfless, and absent of artificial boundaries.

May God make it so, and soon.

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Always Be Yourself, Unless You Can be Batman…Then Be Batman

I was getting a massage today when my massage therapist asked about my dad.  I’ve told her quite a bit about the situation with my father over the last six months because it is such a major source of stress.

Yes…I talk during massages, which I know is odd, but I fall asleep if I just silently lay there and I’m not going to sleep through something I paid for, so…

Did you notice the title of my blog is …because it’s hard to shut me up?

I talk…a lot.

But I digress…

My massage therapist asked about my dad and I told her all about my last visit with my dad, which was really good, and my mom’s last encounter with my dad which was not good at all.  My dad became very agitated and began demanding to know why he can’t live at home with my mom. We’ve explained this to him multiple times and he never remembers, and while explaining it again really isn’t a problem, he doesn’t want to hear it. No one wants to hear that they are so demented and feeble that they require more care than their loved ones can provide, let alone that they can’t come home because they are violent and uncontrollable.

My heart breaks for my mom, who bears the brunt of his anger. At the same time, I am beginning to wonder if frequent visits, originally meant to keep my dad from feeling lonely, are actually making him agitated and uncomfortable.

Mom and I discussed the situation earlier this week after he yelled and cursed at her for refusing to take him home. My mother worries that he’ll never get out of the behavioral unit at his memory care facility. I worry that we’ll never manage to find the right balance of visits and absences, which will force us to stop visiting just so that he can stop having episodes of agitation and violence.

There are times when I genuinely fear that I will never get to see my father again.

I realize that there is nothing preventing me from visiting my father. It’s not like the Lord posted an angel with a flaming sword at the door. (I mean, the memory care facility is nice, but it’s not that nice.)*  The thing is that I want my father to be happy, to have some modicum of joy in his life, and I am willing to give up my visits with him if that is what will make his life the most joyful.  If my mother’s visits are what is causing his agitation, I am willing to be the only one visiting him even though that increases the amount of time I will need to spend visiting him. And I am committed to supporting my mother in her partial or total withdrawal from my father because no one deserves to be pummeled with verbal abuse and threats of violence.

I explained all this to my massage therapist, and that is when she got a bit teary eyed and said very nice things about me. She called me thoughtful and compassionate and a whole lot of other very nice things.  I appreciated her words, but that has very little to do with my thoughts and feelings about visiting my dad.

What does?  Authenticity.

What does that have to do with my dad?

Let me explain.

Being authentic is about constantly embodying who I am and who I want to be in the world. I know who I am, both good and bad, and I know who I want to be as a pastor, counselor, friend, wife, mother, and daughter.

When I am trying to decide what to do about my dad and how I want to be with my dad, I ask myself: Who am I in relationship? Who do I want to be as a daughter? What do I believe that good daughters do and how should I express that?

Notice I didn’t say “What do good daughters do?” because that question gets answered with a lot of BS from culture, society, church, and all the other systems that I participate in that want to lay claim on the role of ‘daughter’. I am not interested in what other people think. I want to be a good daughter to my father, and that means that I need to remember what matters to me.

Again, let me explain. Society tells us that good daughters visit their dads regularly because not doing so means that you are abandoning your parent in their old age. Society says that good daughters encourage their fathers to eat healthy and exercise so that they live a long life.

I believe that good daughters love their elderly fathers enough to attend to their father’s needs, even if that means that things are not the way the daughter wants them to be. If that means that we visit weekly, so be it. If that means we only visit once a month, so be it. If that means that Daddy lives in his PJs and eats cookies for every meal, so be it. My vanity and my needs for things to look or appear some certain way is meaningless. My desire to have my dad be healthy and live as long as possible is meaningless. What matters is that my dad needs to have a little joy in his life again before he dies. He hasn’t had much joy for quite a few months now, so a little joy before he dies is my goal as a daughter, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else (except my mother) thinks ought to be happening.  And when it comes to my mother, I encourage her to think about her own needs and not just my father’s needs, because she has spent the last nine years as a caregiver, putting Daddy’s needs first, and that has to stop. My dad is in a memory care facility now. Someone else takes care of Daddy’s daily needs and my mom needs to return her primary interest to herself so that she can have a little joy too. My mom needs to find a meaningful life alone, separate from her husband, whom she has served for 54 years.  My mom and dad have differing needs, and I—as their daughter—need to be mindful of both so that I can be a good daughter to both of them.

Does all that sound exhausting? Sometimes it is, and many of you may be thinking that I have bought into the cultural BS of the ‘Good Daughter who Sacrifices for her Parents’. Of course, you are free to think that. Personally, that’s not where I am.  I want to know that when I look in the mirror at the end of the day, and it’s just me, my reflection, and my God, that I have been who God created me to be in this world. My job here is to be authentically me…and for me, being a good daughter to both my parents matters a lot, just like being a good mom to both my daughters matters a lot.

Thank God I only have one husband!

So for this week, being a good daughter means that I call the social worker at the memory care facility and discuss what to do when visitation seems to be the cause of agitation. I’m betting that the social worker will have some suggestions and that together we can figure out a plan to help both my mom and dad find a little joy in every day.  If not, well, at least I tried my best to do what I believe a good daughter would do. And at the end of the day, that’s all the comfort I have to give myself.

So far, it works for me.

And as for being a good Christian, I take my comfort from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus appears to be cranky, impulsive, emotional, and irascible.  If the goal is to be Christlike, I do believe that I am almost there, which is probably a blog post for a different day.

Until that day…

*  Remember the Garden of Eden?  See Genesis 3:23-24.

Quack!!!

So here we are…it is Holy Week again, and this year I am not quite ready.

The last two months have been really hard on me. I lost a very close friend to cancer after spending months doing everything I could to take care of her and her family. And then on 1/29/18, my father fell and broke all the bones in his face, advancing his dementia in ways I never imagined. He will not be allowed to live at home with my mother in his home ever again, and he will never be the man he was on January 28th, 2018.

I am grieving in more ways than you can imagine.

But this season, while grief-filled and painful, has been truly good for me.

I needed to remember that God resurrects everything to a new and different life, to a life that couldn’t be imagined before death, to a life that only Heaven owns.

My grief is so overwhelming that I cannot seem to see beyond the grief and the pain. I look at my friend’s family and at my own family and wonder how we will ever go on. I don’t quite understand how we are supposed to smile again, to laugh again, to feel like life is good again.

And then, out of the blue, someone reminds me of what it is that God lends us to deal with all our pain.

I went to see my massage therapist this morning because my last appointment, only a week ago, revealed that my body is telling the tale of all the stress I’ve endured since Christmas. She asked me to book another appointment with her as soon as possible, even though I normally book an appointment with her only once every three weeks. After her recommendation, I booked another appointment only 7 days after I’d last seen her, knowing that it would be 14 days after that before I could see her again.

She and I talked this morning about all of my stress and everything that was weighing on her heart, since she has children and children always weigh on our hearts.  Her sons are becoming teenagers, and I found myself sharing all I learned when my daughters became teenagers and so much went wrong. I shared about the group of people that saved my daughter, my relationship with my husband, and my entire family.

My massage therapist fixes my body and improves my life, and I do what I can to give her tools to heal her own body and fix her life. Our gifts differ just enough that we are able to help each other at the same time.

During my massage, as I related all the things that have happened with my mother and father since I last saw my massage therapist I realized something really crucial.

I have lost my sense of humor when it comes to my dad.

My family deals with almost everything with humor, even when we have to use black humor that other people would frown on, just so that we can get through difficult times.

My mother and I have watched my father lose his wits, his mind, his sense of self, and his self-control. He has threatened my mother and assaulted his caregivers (medical and otherwise) until we had to resort to extreme measures to help him. After 3 weeks in a psych ward and much medication, we thought we might have finally recovered my father…the man we all miss, the person we wish were with us instead of the violent, unruly, mentally unwell man who woke up after breaking all his facial bones.

Nope.

Not. Even. Close.

The situation has broken my heart and strained my relationship with my father. There is only so much hatred and threat that I can listen to before the child in me wants to run away. I cannot hear my father threaten my mother…not for long. I was so excited, anticipating the man that we would receive when he came home from the psych unit medicated and peaceful; for a hot minute it seemed that we had found the man we knew and loved and then…disaster!

It was during my massage, talking with the woman who restores my body, that I realized that I had abandoned the coping mechanism that restores my mind.

Humor.  I have lost my humor when it comes to my father’s behavior.

I could argue that there isn’t anything funny about physically assaulting my family or the nursing staff. I could swear that there is nothing to laugh at when you are facing horrific levels of liability for the damage done to some tiny woman who chose to provide care to those who are aged and losing their memory.  And there is nothing funny about a man who thinks his family has abandoned him, that we have left him to die when he needs us most, despite the fact that we are making the best possible choices for his care that we can, even when the care we choose comes at considerable cost and sacrifice for the family.

The situation isn’t funny at all.

And yet…

Why aren’t I allowed to laugh? Why aren’t I allowed to be silly, unreasonable, unaccepting of the tragedy that I cannot escape?  My mother laughs at the tragedy of her chronic illness. I laugh at the tragedy that I inherited from that illness and the fact that I get sicker every day. I laugh with my daughters when they report that they also inherited these illnesses, since we have only once choice: laugh, or cry. We laugh about what we cannot change, or instead we choose to weep daily, soaking in our tragedy.

I. Choose. Laughter.

No matter how much it all hurts, I choose laughter. No matter how much the whole situation sucks, I choose laughter. Laughter has gotten me through so much loss in the past that I know it will not fail me now.

God invented laughter, and I truly believe that just before he committed his spirit to God, that Christ looked down on all the Centurions gathered at his feet and laughed.  Those foolish children believed that they could kill the one and only son of God; they believed that they would win and that Jesus had no chance of succeeding. What a disappointment…and what a blessing!

When I look at the history of my Savior, I choose laughter.

When I visit my father and he is fixated on his anger at my mother, I have decided to start quacking like a duck to distract him.  When I quack like a duck I am going to remind him that I cannot change my mother’s choices and that I really want to know about him, about his new life, about his new friends and his new domicile. I want to tell him about my own life, about my own children (that he doesn’t recognize anymore) and my ministry.

I may have to quack like a duck every 10 seconds to keep him focused on something other than the life he has lost; the life that makes him angry and violent. I’m good with that. I’ll quack as often as I need to in order to unsettle him, to distract my dad from his fixation on my mom and his beliefs about her unfaithfulness and bad behavior. In the end, all I want is a father that I can relate to, separate from his beliefs about my mother. I cannot hear his hatred, anger, and judgment about my mom anymore. It is toxic to my soul, since his thoughts are all based in fear and delusion.

I am going to quack like a duck because it makes me laugh, and it just might work.

Please pray for ducks to assist me, and for God to make mercy for my father out of ducks and humor.

By the way, I found an awesome shirt that refers to raccoons as “Trash Pandas”, bears as “Death Floofs” and bunnies as “Boople Snoots”. I need that kind of humor, and so I am choosing to quack like a duck and smile when I think of “Boople Snoots”. I’ll let you know how it works.

Thank you for your prayers for my family. I know that you are praying because there is no such thing as Christians who read about pain and don’t pray. I appreciate you more than you know, even when I don’t know your name.  Blessings!

Sing Along With Me

Last week, as I was leaving a family dinner at my parent’s house, my Dad hugged me and said quickly “We need to talk.”  He sounded concerned, and so I decided to take him out for coffee later that week so that we could have some privacy.  My Dad is retired and has dementia, so he is home with my Mom 99% of the time; because he can no longer drive, his life has become limited to the things he can do with my mother.  I figured that my Mom could use some time alone, and my Dad could use an excuse to get out of the house, so we set a date to go out for coffee.

By the time I could get to my parent’s house to pick up my father, he had already had two cups of coffee and really didn’t feel like having more caffeine, so instead we opted for a late lunch.  I gave him several options, but his dementia kept interfering with the conversation.  After about three rounds of asking him to pick what kind of food he wanted for lunch, I finally blurted out  “Tacos or salad?” and he quickly replied “Are you crazy? Tacos!”  I’m still learning how to effectively communicate through the fog of his dementia.

While we were still on the way to our lunch, I asked him what he wanted to talk about, and he opened by saying “You probably don’t want to hear this.”  My standard response to anyone who says such a thing to me is “It doesn’t matter what I want to hear, if what you’re saying needs to be said.”

I should have kept my mouth shut.

For the next 10 minutes, I had to fight to overcome the urge to put my fingers in my ears and loudly sing “LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!”

What is it with older parents who suddenly start revealing deeply personal things to their children?  For several years now I have thought perhaps my parents were just unusually candid, but recently a colleague told me that her father has been making similarly shocking (and occasionally unwelcome) revelations to her.

It must be one of the provisions of joining AARP: Once you get over 65, you must overshare with your adult children.

The funny thing is that until recently, I thought that my parent’s habit of oversharing was simply an extension of their honesty with me when I was a teenager. My parents never hid the truth from me about their own teenage mistakes, challenges, and outright failures; my parents believed that I could learn from their life lessons without having to repeat them myself.  Even back then, before I realized how rare it was to receive such a gift of honesty from my parents, I greatly appreciated their candidness.  Please understand, I was not one of those saintly teenagers who never gives their parent’s any problems.  The truth is that I was an obnoxious teenager (especially during my freshman year of college) and I know that I tested the limits of their patience many, many times. Despite that, I valued my relationship with my parents and respected them. Hearing stories about their struggles with self-esteem, or the social cost of refusing to go out drinking with their friends, or the ways they were singled out as nerds because they valued learning…it made it easier for me to believe that high school only seemed like it would last forever. It made it easier for me to believe that one day I would find my group and discover that I was perfectly normal.  The idea that I would one day ‘fit in’ was balm to my incredibly nerdy, chubby, over-achieving, academically-focused self.

Let’s not discuss the fact that I am still nerdy, chubby, and a notorious over-achiever; the only reason I’m not currently academically focused is because I’m not in school anymore. I have, however, found my people and feel like I am relatively normal.  The fact that I found a husband who is almost exactly like me…except for the chubby part…has made a huge difference as well.

Back to my parents.

So there I was, in the car with my Dad, listening to him say things that in all actuality I did not want to hear. Let’s just say that his sharing was intensely personal.  All I could do was listen, because I didn’t have any good advice for him; I’ve never experienced anything like what he’s experiencing right now.  I’m 53 years old and in relatively good health. My father is 76 and he has vascular dementia; the stroke that brought this on happened eight years ago.  He has been slowly losing himself ever since, and the loss gets greater and faster every day.  That’s what dementia does: it steals your “Self.” You think you know who you used to be and who you are now, but what you think you know keeps shifting and changing and getting lost in the haze that fills your memory.  Dementia steals your ability to observe yourself and your performance; it keeps you from honestly admitting to all that you cannot do and from understanding how your deficit impacts those around you.  Consequently, my father cannot drive anymore and he blames my mother for that even though he failed to pass a driving evaluation designed to evaluate people with dementia. My father cannot travel anymore because he becomes disoriented and afraid in unfamiliar places, but he swears that he and my mom don’t travel because she doesn’t want to go anywhere. He doesn’t remember his own behaviors towards my mother over the last few years (or months, actually) and so he can’t understand why she reacts to him the way she does when he raises his voice.  Dementia has stolen the life my father imagined that he and my mother would have after he retired, and now dementia is even stealing his past.  During our lunch together I was stunned to discovered that my father is forgetting key details of his parent’s lives, which tells me how advanced his dementia has become. Any attempts on my part to jog his memory and try to remind him of the history that I remember (especially the things that have occurred in his family since I became an adult) only serve to frustrate and anger him.

I sat in the car, listening to all my Dad had to say, feeling helpless to relieve his emotional distress and helpless to stop things from getting even worse.

Just as we got to the restaurant my father turned to me and said “I know that I shouldn’t tell you these things, but I feel safe telling them to you.”  He could barely look at me.

So I looked at him and said “Daddy, you tell me anything you want to tell me. You get no judgment from me, no matter what.  I’ll always be here to listen to you.”

This is all my father has to give me now.  He can give me his truth, no matter how twisted and ill-remembered it is.  He can’t help me fix things around the house anymore because he can’t follow instructions.  He can’t give me good advice because he can’t keep his own wisdom from getting twisted up with vague memories and everything comes out wrong.  There is so much that he can’t do for me, and so many, many things that I cannot really do for him either.  But neither of us needs the other to do anything, really.

Maybe all that is left for us to do is to listen.

My Dad can tell me things that he knows I don’t want to hear because he knows that I am safe, and that word means more to me than I can tell you.  My Daddy trusts me, and that is the greatest gift he could possibly give me.

My prayer today is that God grant us each someone safe to share our truth with, and that God make us a safe space for someone who needs to say the words they know that no one wants to hear.

Amen.

Epic Fail Birthday

This has been one of those weeks when I feel like an epic failure.

Not that everything has gone wrong this week. Far from it; in fact, many good things have happened this week. What has me feeling like an epic failure is that something went wrong with one of my clients—like wrong—and she quit therapy abruptly, which usually causes me to seriously question if I am burnt out, if I am in need of a tune-up of my skills, or if I am just slowly losing my mojo as a therapeutic person.

Obviously, I cannot share any specifics of what happened, since I want to (and legally need to) respect my client’s privacy. Let it suffice to say that we had a major parting of the ways over a religious issue; my client is very conservative and is an activist in this area, and I am a committed progressive that does not believe that my morals should ever dictate what other people are allowed to do. We have laws to dictate behavior; after that, my morals should stop with me.

I have to admit that I view this person as an extremist. I say that because she holds an ethical viewpoint that labels anyone who disagrees with this viewpoint as immoral and of lower personal character.  I also view her as an extremist because she spouts “statistics” and “facts” without really examining if those statistics and facts meet the test of simple logic, which means her belief is unexamined and also unchallengeable.  After all, how do you challenge someone’s viewpoint once they have chosen to simply accept whatever data they are fed by their ‘leader’ without any critical thinking?

This is where I got into trouble with her.  She was sharing her views and statistics, and I lost my ability to smile and remain silent.  And of course, that loss is why I feel like an epic failure right now. I’m not okay with losing my patience with someone and arguing against their opinion. I’m not supposed to speak sternly to a client, ever. I’m not okay when I act like this whether it happens with clients or just with people in general. Sadly, I find myself behaving like this often enough for me to be embarrassed to admit to it.

It’s my birthday today, and I keep hoping that my increasing age will grant me greater amounts of patience, compassion, silence (oh how I could use some ability to remain silent!), and wisdom.  While I often get really nice presents for my birthday, God has not yet chosen to shower me with the gifts of patience, silence, and wisdom.  I don’t know that I actually need to be more compassionate that I am, but I often think that I would be better at tolerating extremist viewpoints or just generally stupid behaviors and viewpoints if I was more compassionate.

Then again, maybe if I didn’t give a damn that would help too.

But I digress.

I keep waiting to grow up, to become more of all the things I thought I would become with age. It isn’t happening, at least not the way I want it to.  I won’t deny that age has granted me a number of characteristics that I didn’t possess at 22. I told my oldest daughter not long ago that the greatest gift of aging is that you calm the hell down. Actually, I think I said it more colorfully than that. Nonetheless, I have calmed down a great deal since my 20s. I have also become a bit more comfortable with having others tell me that I have screwed up. Sometime in my 30s I decided that being wrong isn’t as horrible as we like to make it out to be.  Discovering you are wrong is embarrassing and it hurts your pride a little, but only just a little, as long as you don’t act like you’re being accused of a capital crime and start defending yourself as if your life was on the line. The truth is that being wrong represents an opportunity to learn from someone, to thank them for their honest feedback, and to prove yourself to be a responsible and accountable adult. Oh yeah…and you get to be certain, at least for a moment, that you are now just a little ‘righter’ than you were a minute ago. Nice, huh?

Growing older has also granted me the wisdom of realizing that things are never as great or as bad as they seem, and that I need to step back and let things unfold, instead of going straight into freak-out mode. I used to freak-out over the slightest little thing that didn’t go well…now I moan a little and grump a bit, and then get on with dealing with whatever it was that just happened. I suppose that this could come under the heading of ‘Calm the hell down’ but it also contains a great big piece of ‘Look for the good to show up, because God always sneaks in a little good into everything’. God has a funny habit of blessing me even in the midst of the ickier parts of life, which has led me to start looking for the hidden blessings in just about everything.

You know, considering just how much aging has blessed me with already, I guess that it’s reasonable to hope that sometime in the next 30 years, God will sneak a little patience, silence, and wisdom into this hard head of mine. Maybe He’ll drop a little more compassion into my heart just for fun as well.  In fact, perhaps this particular epic failure will contain the seeds of great things…a few more hidden blessings from God.

So for my birthday, it appears that God has gifted me with hope that I’m still growing up and growing wise, and that is a very nice present indeed. Well played, God.  Well played.

It’s A Conspiracy!

Can we discuss “the peace that passes all understanding”?

I have heard that phrase for years. I remember hearing it as a child and wondering what it meant and how I was supposed to get something that I didn’t even understand.

Don’t get me started about trying to understand something that says, in its title, that you will not be able to understand it.

But I digress.

“The peace that passes all understanding” turns out to be one of the Christian code-phrases we hear about when millennials and agnostics write about the Church; words and phrases that appear to have no context for meaning if you are not already faithful.

I’ve got news: I grew up in the Church and accepted Jesus as my personal savior when I was only five years old, and I still did not understand lots of those Christian code phrases.  It isn’t because you’re young or seeking or simply unfamiliar with the Church; you don’t understand the code phrase because…well, because we Christians hardly ever take the time to define what the heck we are talking about and we pastors can be even worse.  We just throw the phrase out there like it means something and expect everybody else to understand it intuitively.  The evangelical movement has a ton of these phrases:

“Walking in victory with Jesus”

“Growing in grace”

“Die to self”

“Washed in the blood”

“The peace that passes understanding”

“Pray a hedge of protection”

There are plenty more but I figure you’ve probably gotten the point by now.  I remember hearing these phrases and wondering what they meant but never really asking for an explanation. Even when I did ask for clarification, the answer I received was often just as baffling as the code phrase itself.  “Walking in victory is when you have grown in grace enough that you are able to ignore the attacks of the Enemy and follow the will of God wherever it leads you.”  Okay, so how do you ‘grow in grace’ enough to ‘walk in victory’?  “You grow in grace when you ask Jesus to wash you in His blood and help you die to self.”

The explanations were kind of circular in nature.  After a while I just gave in to the thought that perhaps my experience of faith would explain these concepts to me and I would finally understand what no grownup seemed able to fully explain to me.

Don’t get me started on why I thought growing up would cause me to understand what other grownups were incapable of explaining despite their advanced age.

But I digress.

The problem with these Christian code-phrases is that they can lead to a conspiracy of lies around what it is to experience the Christian life.  It makes it sound like good Christians don’t experience fear or anxiety or depression…after all, they have the peace that passes all understanding!  And of course, they don’t struggle with finances or with adverse situations, because they are “walking in victory with Jesus” and victors aren’t losers! Only losers struggle.  If you’ve truly ‘grown in grace’ then you probably ought not to curse or lie or speak unkind words…in fact you can’t be even remotely sinful…because growing in grace implies that you are continually becoming more holy and holy people are squeaky clean!  And goodness knows that those who ‘die to self’ don’t act selfishly since their ‘self’ no longer matters.  Those who have ‘died to self’ just give and give and give and never get tired of giving because they receive all they need from Jesus…

Really?  Because that’s a bunch of BS.

Christian life is full of struggle and fear and pain and failure and sin and self-focus and self-care and prayer and reflection and growth in grace…

There! I said it!  One of those Christian code-phrases makes sense to me!  I understand growing in grace, because I came to understand grace when I became a Methodist.  Grace is an unmerited gift from God that helps me become all that God created me to be, by drawing me deeper and deeper into a relationship with God, which slowly changes me until I am conformed to the image of Christ.

Oops! I just used another Christian code-phrase.  In fact I used several.

The truth is that these phrases do have meaning.  Some are symbolic (since no one really bathes you in blood, thank goodness) and others are more representational of Christian life and faith as it is actually experienced, because I really should become much more like Jesus Christ as my relationship with Him grows deeper and stronger. To me, becoming more like Jesus (more Christ-like) means that I should be more loving and accepting of those on the margins of society and that I should actively seek social justice and equality for all people.  The Jesus I know is a bit of a rabble-rouser.

I want to get back to the conspiracy of lies.

In all honesty, the conspiracy of lies starts as a conspiracy of expectations. I grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical faith tradition that emphasized orthodoxy (right belief).  We were taught that orthodoxy would lead to orthopathos (right experience). In other words, believe the right things and you will experience the right things.

That’s a powerful draw to faith!  Think about it—according to that concept, believing the right things will lead me to experience the “right” things: peace, prosperity, happiness, success, achievement…you name it, whatever this culture deems “right” is what I will get if I believe in the right ways.

Here’s a few things that our culture does not deem “right” despite their frequency in the general population:

Poverty

Domestic Violence

Divorce

Having children who commit crimes or use drugs

Addiction

Mental illness, including depression and anxiety

Unexplained or chronic illnesses that are difficult to manage

Wow.  Just wow. Can you imagine what it’s like to grow up believing that none of these things should happen to you if you have “right beliefs”?  And it doesn’t help to acknowledge that (of course) these things ‘happen’ to Christians, it’s just they don’t persist and (of course) Christians count on their faith to give them “victory in Jesus” over all these circumstances.

This is how you end up with a conspiracy of lies.  If right belief means right experience, then I better not let anyone know that I am having the wrong experiences, and if I do tell the truth for a brief moment, I better not let anyone know that my wrong experience is persisting.

The funny thing is that Jesus told us that He is “the way, and the truth, and the life”. (John 14:6) He also said that if we continue in His word, we are truly His disciples and we will know the truth and the truth will make us free. (John 8:31-32).

Does the “truth that will set us free” include telling the truth?  I think so. I also think it means that we will stop fearing the truth as if it will destroy us and invalidate our faith.  Get real people! We worship a Savior who cried out “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me?” as he hung on the cross, dying.  Jesus didn’t say that to quote a Psalm and look impressive. Jesus said that because it was His experience as He died a horrific death.

If Jesus didn’t lie about His pathos…and I don’t think we should either.

Skip the conspiracy…both the conspiracy expectations and the conspiracy of lies…and stick with the Truth.

It’ll set you free. Trust me on that one.

Here Comes The Truth

Honesty.

I always tell my clients that honesty is at such a premium in this world that being a truth teller is a skill worth developing. People thirst and hunger for truth, for words that are plain and simple, without sugar coating or gentle couching or even padding. Basically, there is so little honesty in this world that we are starving for it.

Don’t believe me?  Just think for a moment about how many times you have talked to one of your friends and had them read you a text or email to see what you think it means.  We have been become experts at analyzing words and phrasing in texts and emails, hoping to decipher what the person really means, what they are actually saying…which makes it painfully obvious that we don’t trust people to speak the unadulterated truth.

I mean it when I say that truth is so rare that we are starving for it.

However…I have to distinguish being truth-telling, and beating someone with the truth.

Sadly, I have heard plenty of people speak sentences full of barbed words, swinging sentences like a bat aimed at the other person’s head. After they finish speaking, these people all say the same thing: I’m just telling the truth, that’s all.  And they are, kind of, but not really.

You see, the truth—if you want it to be heard and accepted—needs to be spoken in love.  The kind of truth that sets you free is truth that is given as a gift, delivered directly and bluntly without sugar-coating…and without any barbs or knives.

I call it the open-handed truth.

Basically, I tell my clients to hold out their hand, palm up, whenever they speak the truth. This is to signify to them and their listener that the truth they are telling is offered as a gift. The listener is free to take that gift or leave it, but there it is: honesty and truth, offered to them as a gift.

I ask them to do that because any move away from giving a gift to delivering a barbed truth will cause their hand to suddenly shift from an open palm to a pointed finger. You know what I’m talking about: that finger-shaking, “I’m going to give you a piece of my mind” gesture that we use when we are slapping someone across the face with our words.  I tell my clients that the difference between an open-handed truth and a finger-shaking truth is the difference between honesty as a gift and honesty as a 2×4 upside the head!  It’s an effective metaphor, because who the hell wants to speak the truth as a 2×4 to someone’s head?

The answer to that question is: any member of the media when speaking to Donald Trump, but that’s another blog post entirely.

Why am I busy talking about the truth?  Well, when I started as a counselor, I found it very hard to speak certain truths to my clients, especially if the truth was particularly ugly. I also shied away from telling my clients when they were engaging in unhealthy behaviors, even when they were engaging in unhealthy and unwise behaviors right in front of me.

In short, I have been an incredible wuss for years.

And then recently I decided to try something for my stress. Being a counselor is very stressful. Clients can be very demanding, and the need to help them can leave you feeling like the weight of the world is resting on your shoulders. It can be overwhelming, and it does overwhelm me occasionally. It really wouldn’t matter that much, but I have chronic health issues, and stress makes them worse. I am at a point where something has to change or I am not going to be able to keep up with my practice. I am not willing to let stress derail my health…and I’m not willing to let my health end my ministry.

The thing was that no matter what I was doing, nothing was reducing my stress level.  Exercise was helpful, but not enough. Diet changes were helpful, but not enough. Hobbies, vacations, meditation…all of it was helpful, but not enough.

Then I remembered something I learned from watching my daughter get sober. The 12 Steps are powerful and deeply spiritual, and without them people often fail to overcome their addictions because the biggest problem in addiction is that we keep trying so hard…instead of relying on a God who is so much more powerful than we are.

And that was my epiphany.

I began reciting the first three steps (as best as I could remember them) in relation to my clients.

I admitted that I am powerless over my clients—powerless over mental illness and trauma—powerless over my client’s lives—and that trying to be a healer is becoming unmanageable.

I remembered that there is a Power greater than myself who can restore both me and my clients to sanity.

And then I made a decision to turn myself…and my clients…and their problems…and their healing…over to God’s care.

I cannot tell you how liberating that felt. Every time I’d start to get stressed about my clients or my practice, I’d remember that I am powerless over mental illness and trauma, and utterly incapable of healing anyone. Then I’d remind myself that God is more than capable of handling all that and is willing to use me along the way to bring that about…and I’d calm back down and my stress level would drop and I’d start to feel less overwhelmed and exhausted.

But there was this funny side effect of all this: I’m not a wuss anymore!

All of a sudden, I find myself saying things in session that are blunt, open-faced truths that I was unable to say before.

Dare I say…I have become strangely bold?  And I’m not talking 2×4 bold, either. This is calm, open-handed truth that is popping out of my mouth without hesitation or even the slightest twinge of guilt.

Jesus said that the truth would set us free, and the truth I discovered is that I am powerless, and when I accept that powerlessness…suddenly I am far more free to share the truth with others.

The truth about me became the truth recognized by me and spoken to others becomes the truth that sets them free.

If this is powerlessness, sign me up. And we will all be free together.

Amen.