Category Archives: Fear

And She Kept Dancing

Several years ago I worked with a client who was dying of stage 4 colon cancer. Cynthia** came to me because she was afraid of dying, and as a Christian, she felt that she shouldn’t have to be afraid of death. I promised to help her the best that I could and agreed to meet with her weekly.

To begin our work, we examined our inner images of death, because the mental images we have for death provide a vivid picture of how we conceptualize death and how we feel about death. Images of skulls and coffins came to mind for Cynthia, which both of us thought was kind of hackneyed and meaningless—and therefore not very helpful. I on the other hand, found myself immediately flooded with images of skeletons holding guitars, dressed in mariachi clothing.  I get it: I live in the Phoenix area, and Halloween is closely followed by Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations; there are sugar skulls everywhere. Still…when did Death go all Mexican on me? When I told Cynthia how I couldn’t shake the image of a guitar-playing skeleton in mariachi clothing, she and I laughed for a good five minutes.

Counseling is much like a winding road, and Cynthia and I ended up spending a lot of sessions talking about the clinical trials she had joined in hopes of extending her life. We talked about her family’s fear that she would die before she got a chance to live a full life, as Cynthia had never married or had children. At this point, Cynthia had given up on those dreams and was just trying to live long enough to help her family accept her impending death.

One of the tricky things about counseling is that the longer you work together, the closer the friendship becomes. A client once described me as “a paid friend who helps me cut through my own BS and get real” and this is actually a very good description of the counseling relationship. But sometimes there is no BS to cut through, and then your counselor is the paid friend who encourages you to say out loud all the stuff the rest of your friends are afraid to hear. I did my best to be that kind of friend for Cynthia, and we spent many of our sessions saying a lot of very scary things about life and death and terminal illness.  We did a lot of good work in the first few months that we met, but we struggled to achieve the goal she set when she came to counseling: to stop fearing death.

Cynthia and I had been working together almost six months when the inspiration of the Holy Spirit spoke. An image came to me of two women in the late 1940s, close friends, dressed to the nines,*** and heading to a dance, both hoping to meet the man of their dreams. When I say they are dressed to the nines, I mean the whole enchilada: hats, gloves, dress coats, elegant beaded purses, high heels, stockings, fancy dresses, pearls and jewels. I pictured two absolutely stunning women who were ready to dance the night away. I imagined them arriving at the party; very quickly one of the women meets an incredibly handsome man and begins dancing. Seeing her friend dancing so happily, the other woman quickly realizes that her friend needs help; she approaches her and says “Hey! Give me that purse! You can’t keep dancing holding on to that purse. I’ll hold it for you.” The dancing woman hands over her purse gladly so that she can keep dancing the night away. A few songs later, her friend approaches again. “Hey! You’re going to melt if you don’t take that coat off.  You can’t keep dancing in that coat!”  And so the dancing woman hands over her coat, and then later her hat, and then her gloves, and then her high heels, each time relinquishing them so that she can keep dancing, so that she can keep savoring every moment of this spectacular experience.

Keep that image in mind, because I want to remind you that in life, there are many moments—we usually call them milestones, or rites of passage—that are one-way doors. Once you pass through them, you can never go back. For instance, graduating high school is a one-way door. Graduating high school is the official entry to adulthood; never again will the entire community you live in collude to help you succeed. Once you graduate, the community considers you are an adult and in many ways, you are on your own; your success or failure is up to you. Likewise, getting married is a one-way door. Once you are married, you will never be single again. You might be divorced or widowed, but you will never be single ever again. The same is true of parenthood: once the baby is born, no matter what happens to your child, you will always be a parent.  Though we mostly fail to recognize the gravity and irreversibility of these moments, one-way doors represent the death of our old self—a self that is lost to us forever, a self that can never be regained.  In this way, death has been with us from the very beginning of our life.  We experience hundreds of little deaths as we pass through the various phases of life; as we age, we lose parts of ourselves that can never be regained or retrieved, except in memory. Strangely, it was graduation from college that revealed this truth to me, as I realized that I would probably never again have the luxury of being so self-focused.  The previous four years of my life had been focused on gaining knowledge and skills, preparing for my career, and developing close friendships that would sustain me as I moved on to the next phase of my life. I felt that I would never have another period in my life that would be this self-focused and uncomplicated, and as excited as I was to graduate, the moment was soaked with bittersweet sadness because graduation marked the end of this part of my life forever.

The truth is that we can’t avoid these losses. I mean, really, who wants to be a high school student for the rest of their life?  Many of the one-way doors we pass through in our lives are based on our deep desire to move into another phase of our life; most of the time we choose to step through that doorway on purpose. In order to embrace the parts of life that are coming towards us, we have to let go of what needs to pass. We cannot be young forever. We cannot be a carefree child and still have the rights and privileges of an adult. Basically, if you want the good stuff of life, you have to let go of the old and move forward into the new. Our lives are one long list of little deaths, one after another, mostly gladly accepted so that our lives can continue to grow and change and evolve.  Without these little deaths, abundant life isn’t actually possible.

And now we are back to the two women at the dance. The dancing woman is YOU, loving every minute, cherishing the dance of life.  And Death is your close friend, coming to you again and again, prompting you to let go of what you no longer need, to let go of what must pass from your hands. And once you hand something to Death, you can’t have it back. Let go of that coat, and you will never have it again; Death will hold it for you so that you have it as a memory, but you will never have that coat again.  Death comes to take these things from you, not because she is a cold, heartless, witch (you understand me) but because Death knows that this is the only way that you will be able to keep dancing. Don’t you understand? Death votes for life, every single time!  One thing after another, Death comes to take things from you so that you will go on in the dance, continuing to enjoy all that life offers as you pass through milestones and birthdays, marriages and children, careers and retirement, aging and disability.  Death stands there, waiting for the next moment when you need to let go, to let something pass from your life. She comes to you gently, encouraging you to let go and keep dancing.  Death waits on you and never leaves you, just so that you can go on dancing. Death is not the enemy! Death votes for life every time.

At the very end, Death comes to take her friend to the dressing room. After all that dancing, Death knows that her friend is sweaty and exhausted; it’s time to get out of those clothes and shed that stupid girdle that has been made her flesh ache more and more as the dance went on. That ache was almost unbearable by the time they left the dance, and Death is eager to free her friend from her pain. And there they are, Death and her girlfriend, in the dressing room pulling off the sweaty clothes and that damn girdle. Any woman who has ever had to take off her tight foundation garments knows what this is like: you pull, and you tug, and you huff and puff and it seems hopeless and yet you and your friend are laughing so hard you can hardly breathe. And outside the door of the dressing room is the woman’s dance partner and all of her friends from the dance.  And they knock on the door and they call to her: “What are you doing in there? Are you okay?  Are you sure that you’re okay?!”  But the woman can hardly answer anymore, or maybe she does but not in words that her family and friends can hear with human ears. Death finally helps her friend shed all those clothes and her earthly flesh that was becoming so uncomfortable…and that beautiful woman opens the dressing room door, and all her friends are gone.  She finds an entirely different group of people waiting for her; it’s everyone who left the dance before she did. And Death…Death doesn’t follow where she is going, because she is going on to an entirely new life; she is joining the dance that never ends. Death doesn’t get to follow…she hangs behind, holding on to everything her friend used to be. Death says to her friend, “Don’t worry about me. Go on! There’s so much more where you’re going.  I’ll be fine.”

Death votes for life every time, here on Earth and again in the next life.

Death votes for life every single time.

Death is not the enemy. Cancer is an enemy. Heart disease in an enemy. Addiction is an enemy. There are plenty of enemies that must be fought, but Death is not one of them. God sends Death with us to be our lifelong friend when we are born, because Death votes for life every time, and only Death can usher us back into His arms in the end.

I write this for my friend who is ready to begin this final journey. Cancer is her enemy and I hate cancer more than I can tell you. I am doing my best to make my peace with Death because Death is doing the best she can to help my friend to her eternal home. I pray that Death takes her time with my friend because so many of us are not ready to let her go.  I pray that God grants her a little more time in this dance, because while it is nothing compared to what is coming, this dance is sweet beyond words.

 

**Cynthia is her real name. She died in 2010, and tell this story to honor her life, our friendship, and the work we did together.

***For you youngsters, ‘dressed to the nines’ means dressed in your very fanciest clothes.

Advertisements

The Full Catastrophe

It’s family disaster week.

Actually, there is nothing “family disaster” in what I’m about to say; in fact, what I’m about to say probably reflects the same family life most people have in their fifties. Some days are good, some days are bad, some days are both good and bad, and some days feel like Murphy moved into your house, took over your bank account, and decided that he personally has a vendetta against you.

I hate that Murphy guy.

This will serve as your one and only trigger warning: if you are already overloaded with family drama, I’ll see you next week. Otherwise feel free to read on.

So…the mom brag moment!

My oldest daughter called me and told me that wonderful things are happening at her job. Since she hasn’t told the world yet I won’t give you details, but let’s just say that the money is getting significantly better, she’s about to become very happy with her job and her commute, and she hasn’t felt this valuable to a company in a really long time.

It was so surprising that she was a little stunned and overwhelmed, but I’m here to tell you that she totally and absolutely deserves all of it.  Yes I’m her mom but dang that girl is bright and capable!

To put the icing on that cupcake, she told me that her partner (who is a professional photographer who does mostly BMX races) has been marketing himself a great deal in San Francisco because she travels there twice a month for work…so why not fly there together, you know? Well, after showing his work around town he got hired for a 3 day commercial shoot for a major fashion designer!!  Seriously, when I heard this I squealed out loud and he’s not even my kid.  Again…they haven’t told everyone yet and so I am keeping some details under my hat, but OMG a major (MAJOR) fashion designer!

After our phone call was over I was so excited that I danced all around my house as I got ready for my Zumba class, where I danced rather exuberantly and with great joy.  I had to let the energy out somewhere!

It has been a good couple of weeks for my girls. My youngest passed her certification exam and now is a certified Pharmacy Tech (hello, big raise!) and my son-in-law got a great job at an airport with benefits and everything.  Considering that he is thinking of going into aircraft maintenance, this is a good job to have.

Some days are good. Some weeks are good.

And then…

I have written previous posts about the challenges of aging and how important it is admit and accept that you are going to require someone else to take care of you. I have written about the importance of working through the emotions of becoming more and more disabled before you come to that point, and understanding that aging doesn’t have to be about loss.

Yeah, my parents don’t read this blog.

My dad is 76 years old and has dementia; my mom is 70 years old and chronically ill.  Both of them are slowly losing their ability to be independent, although neither of them wants to admit it.

My dad is unwilling to admit that his dementia has reduced him to the point where he cannot live independently and needs a caregiver. My mom has been filling the caregiver role for eight years, with increasingly less and less physical ability to do so, and more and more emotional and mental stress related to my dad’s decline.

I feel like we are at the breaking point.

I talk to my dad and he unloads about his frustration and overwhelming confusion in combination with his anger with my mom.  You see, he still believes that he is capable of independence, and he keeps trying to live his life the way that he used to. He thinks that it’s my mom’s anxiety that causes her to stop him from doing maintenance around the house or driving. Sadly, my dad’s dementia has made it impossible for him to evaluate his own functioning, or lack of it. And he does keep trying to function, despite the fact that the results are consistently bad.  Over and over he’ll try to “be of use” and do the things he used to do around the house, but since he no longer remembers details or how things function he ends up breaking or destroying clothes, appliances, fixtures, you name it. He has lost or destroyed so many things that my mom is at her wits end, so she tries to stop him or she ends up criticizing him because he is doing it wrong and refusing to receive instructions on how to do it right. This causes him to become belligerent and angry and then he becomes aggressive and things just keep escalating until there is a huge confrontation.

That’s when I get frantic, emotional phone calls from my mom telling me just how bad it is, how agitated and aggressive my father is becoming, how exhausted and overwhelmed she is…and I gather resources and try to offer help to her…which she refuses most of the time.  Recently she revealed to me just how aggressive my father becomes when he gets agitated, and the last time I was at their home she had me take pictures of the bruises. It broke my heart to think that my father has become that guy and that my mother feels trapped in the situation.

Disaster.

Believe me, I have tried all sorts of things, and I have gathered all sorts of resources including an elder law attorney. Nothing is getting either of them to realize how explosive this situation is becoming.

I was up until almost 2am last night running it over and over in my mind, furious with both of them for the choices they have made and are making. I have a huge list of fears, with each one more terrifying than the other until the final one involves such a horrible occurrence that I would lose both my parents at once: one to death, and the other to the criminal justice system.

All morning I have been trying to interject more logic and less fear and anger into the discourse in my head, and I have realized that no matter how much I want to, I cannot make their choices for them. As much as I love and want to protect them, every attempt to help them make a decision that would admit that they need help because of their increasing debility seems to create a backlash of resistance and petulance out of my dad, which only serves to increase my mother’s anger with him.  I don’t want my desire to “fix things” to become the reason they end up in the next screaming, violent confrontation.

I fear that the best course of action is to sit back and let their choices drive what comes next and hope that none of my fears comes true. But I’m telling you, I’m going to get a hold of that elder law attorney and get papers that would allow me to file for conservatorship and get them filled out in advance. I’m also going to ask her for a referral to an attorney that deals with criminal charges against compromised adults. I can’t save them from themselves, but I can arm myself with information, prepared paperwork, and referrals.

And then I am going to sit back, close my eyes and meditate on raises, promotions, new jobs, photo shoots, and the incredible joy I feel when I think of what amazing women my daughters have become and what amazing men they have chosen as their partners.

In the movie Zorba the Greek, one of the characters gets asked if he is married and he says “I have a wife, children, house, everything…the full catastrophe.”

Life is a catastrophe, indeed. A wonderful, excruciatingly painful and beautiful catastrophe. I would complain, but then I think of Jesus’ life and all that He went through and I realize that even my Savior lived the full catastrophe, even if he never had a house and may not have had a wife and children.  It turns out that this is the nature of incarnate life, and I don’t know that I would honestly want it to be any other way.

 

My Broken Heart Serves Me Well

Two weeks ago I wrote about feeling afraid. I was genuinely afraid that I had helped set two people up for utter failure.

To fill you in: last week the Desert Southwest Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to commission two openly gay clergy.  Commissioning grants them the title “Reverend” and begins a time for formation where they will walk with other newly commissioned clergy as they experience the joys and disappointments of ordained ministry and church leadership.

The votes were without incident and no one spoke against their entry into the clergy of the UMC.  I sat amongst the assembled clergy of our conference and cried.  I cried again when we celebrated our service of  commissioning and ordination, because I believe that this is a concrete step towards justice and inclusion that has been a long time coming.

The joy was overwhelming!  Our Jurisdiction elected an openly gay Bishop last July, and now my conference (smaller than a Jurisdiction) has commissioned two openly gay clergy.

JUSTICE AT LAST!!!

It took me several hours to stop grinning like an idiot.

And then I got home after five days of holy conferencing and I started thinking…and worrying.

I worry that not one concern was raised. Not one clergyperson spoke against their commissioning…and there are plenty of conservative clergy in our conference who are not thrilled with allowing LGBTQIA persons into the clergy.

So why wasn’t there discussion?

You’d think I’d be thrilled, but I’m not. Discussion would have been difficult and maybe even emotionally painful, but at least everyone’s opinion could have been heard.

I fear that we’ve silenced the conservatives in our conference, and that isn’t a good thing. It isn’t a good thing at all.

For years and years, my LGBTQIA brothers and sisters have sat in silence, closeted, unable to be their true selves for fear of the rejection they might receive and the losses they might have had to endure.  They could be clergy, but only if they effectively passed for heterosexuals.  Until recently, the authentic voices of Methodist LGBTQIA persons were silenced by the Book of Discipline that stated that being a LGBTQIA person was against Christian teaching and therefore disqualified you for ordained ministry.**  The tide has slowly turned and more and more Methodists now support the full ordination of LGBTQIA persons, but that can never undo the years of silence and forced invisibility they endured. What the Church has done over the years to non-heterosexual persons who felt called into ministry breaks my heart.

My broken heart serves me well.  I am unwilling to participate in that kind of silencing and forced invisibility a second time…not even when I disagree with the voices of those who I’m silencing. Not even when I believe I stand on the side of justice. I cannot participate in silencing my conservative siblings and consider myself righteous, because all I have done is swap one kind of oppression and discrimination for another.

If discrimination is wrong, then discrimination is WRONG even when the discrimination silences your opponent or even your enemy.

I am not advocating for a return to hate-speech about gays and lesbians. There is no need for hate speech on either side of any debate, nor is there any need for condemnation or negative labeling.

The bottom line is that in the middle of all my joy and celebration, I am watching to make sure that we don’t simply turn the tables on the conservatives, rendering them silent and invisible.

If you are reading this and you are one of my conservative siblings in the UMC, know that I am thinking of you and praying for you. Don’t be silent. Your voice is crucial to maintaining balance in our denomination. Moreover, I keep hoping that one day both sides will find themselves gravitating closer and closer to the middle of our theological seesaw…until we can simply hold hands and declare ourselves unified.

Then no one will have to be silent and invisible, and wouldn’t that look just like the Kingdom?

** The United Methodist Book of Discipline hasn’t changed in this regard; our conference has decided that questions regarding sexuality are not relevant to readiness for, or effectiveness in, ministry and therefore will not be discussed as a part of considerations for commissioning or ordination. Any information about sexuality that is revealed in the course of the interviews and theological examinations will not be held against the candidate.  We don’t engage in ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ but instead in a policy of ‘Why is that important?’ and ‘Don’t be skanky (promiscuous) if you’re going to be a minister!’

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.

The Morning After the Mourning After

This morning I went to a yoga class.  I was exhausted and anxious and needed to let go of some stress. My daughter is getting married this evening and all that anxiety has built to a peak of anticipation.  I figured a little stretching and sweating would do my soul some good.

The instructor, Jeff Martens, is a great teacher. He speaks softly during class, reminding us of proper posture and breathing techniques.  He also speaks words of wisdom, meant to guide us into greater relaxation and greater submission to the spiritual process of yoga.

Today he reminded us that every posture is a prayer that we pray with our body and our soul. He reminded us that prayers are not requests; prayer is more than asking for things. The prayers we make with our body are affirmations of all that is already ours: health, peace, communion, joy…or conversely, they can be affirmations that we believe we exist in a state of struggle, discontent, and FEAR.

There has been a lot of fear this week.

I told you in my last post that the days after the election were particularly difficult for LGBTQ persons, minorities, and women.  Many were consumed with fear that they would lose their civil rights, their safety, their nation and their home.  This week wasn’t much different, and I had plenty of people who cried their way through their session, worried about the future and wondering what they should do next.

One of my clients yesterday was particularly upset, and nothing seemed to comfort her. We talked about the allies that are all around her; people who love her, people who are not willing let her be re-victimized or denied safety.  I reminded her that I will always be an ally.  And then I told her that my greatest hope is that there are many good people in powerful places, people who are not willing to silently stand by as millions are denied their civil rights and human dignity. I said that I believe those people will slowly reveal themselves as Trump’s plan unfolds; I believe that one by one they will stand up and say “Not in my America!” and they will be our allies as we fight against a rising tide of bigotry, sexism, and homophobia.

It won’t be as simple as the split between Democrats and Republicans. I told her that we will probably all be disgusted to discover bigots, misogynists, and homophobes among people we thought were our allies.  I’m betting we will also be stunned at the number of staunch Republicans who stand up for civil rights, equality, and justice.  Neither side has a monopoly on righteousness; in the long run, I believe that this will be a great blessing that will work to our advantage.

She smiled at me and said it was a lovely idea, but she wasn’t sure it was realistic.

I told her that I am counting on it.

I never thought it would happen so soon!

Today Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton made an announcement in response to President Elect Trump’s decision to begin deporting undocumented immigrants.  The mayor stated:

“Phoenix is an incredibly diverse and welcoming city where we endeavor every day to protect our community while treating residents with dignity and respect, no matter who you are, who you love or where you come from.

Our diversity is our greatest strength as a community, and our strongest selling point as an economy. It says much about who we are as a people that Phoenix is considered one of the safest and most welcoming cities in the United States for those seeking refuge from the violence of war-torn countries.

That will not change, regardless of who is president.

Residents and visitors can be assured we will professionally and steadfastly uphold the laws of our city. But that does not mean that Phoenix will fall victim to discourse that is openly antagonistic and hostile to members of our community.

The Phoenix Police Department will never turn into a mass deportation force, even if the new government in Washington, D.C., threatens to revoke federal dollars. This is something worth fighting for, and we will not be bullied into taking backward steps on civil rights.

I cried when I heard it on the news, and I cried when I read the article online, and I am still crying as I write this right now.  There are things worth fighting for: our deepest values and dearest morals, but most important is human lives.  These things are worth standing up for, no matter what the cost.

Today the Phoenix mayor (along with mayors in Boston, New York, and Chicago, as well as the police chief of Los Angeles) took a stand against bigotry, hatred, and fear.

This morning I heard that every posture is a prayer, an affirmation of what we have.

Today powerful people in a number of major cities struck a posture of resistance to injustice. They still have some stretching to do before their posture can be firm and true, and we need to join them. We are only beginning to understand just how deeply our privilege (white, straight, male, educated, etc.) has stepped on the necks of our brothers and sisters. As a nation, we need to change our posture to a prayer that affirms freedom for all, justice for all, and welcome to all who would live in peace.

Today I stand in a posture that breathes a prayer of willingness to stand for others, and gratitude for allies in the struggle.

And I am going to stay in posture for as long as I possibly can.

For more information, use the following links:

ktar.com/story/1362041/phoenix-mayor-greg-stanton-vows-city-police-will-stay-deportation-process/

www.azfamily.com/story/33729670/mayor-stanton-phx-pd-will-never-be-a-mass-deportation-force

For more information on yoga or on Jeff Martens http://www.innervisionyoga.com/

Finally, congratulations to Katie and Phil!  I could not be happier for the two of you, and wish you a long life of joy together.  Phil, Michelle, Dan, Jason, and Arianna…welcome to my family!!

The Apple of His Eye

I met with a client this week who is struggling to rebuild her life as she trudges through an ugly divorce.  Let’s call her Anna.

Anna believes that God has a plan for her life and a path for her to follow so that she can move forward after the end of her marriage, and she is doing everything possible to be faithful to both.  She is doing her best to raise her two teenage girls to be women of faith.  She is working hard to build the realty business she opened when she left her husband.  She is struggling every month to pay the bills but is determined to become financially secure so that she can stop relying on her ex-husband, who isn’t interested in being reliable or remotely honest when it comes to child support.  The thing that amazes me is that in the midst of all of this, Anna continues to give to others even when she doesn’t have much herself. She particularly likes helping low income families get affordable housing even though she doesn’t get much of a commission from that kind of work.  Anna and I both believe that she is doing everything she can to be on God’s path, and we can both very clearly see God at work in her life, so why isn’t it getting any easier?

That is the one thing that Anna just can’t get over: that no matter how hard she works to do exactly what God wants, her life is just as difficult now as it was only a month or two after she left her husband.  Anna sits in my office and cries, just wanting God to reveal to her what she’s supposed to do next. What is the next step on God’s path? Not knowing makes her anxious and fearful about what’s going to happen next.  It makes her fear that she has screwed up and has wandered off God’s path somehow.  In the end, despite her deep faith, she’s incredibly anxious, frequently exhausted, and always at the end of her rope, and she doesn’t think that a good Christian woman should feel the way she does.

I try to remind her at every session that no matter how perfect your life is otherwise, raising two teenage daughters will have you at the end of your rope every day, all the time.

Beyond that, though, I get where Anna is coming from.

My parents have always attended an evangelical, fundamentalist church.  They did when I was a child, and they still do now.  As a child, I remember learning about God’s will and God’s plan for your life.  God had a path for your life and you had better be on it. If you stepped off that path, even one tiny step off of the path, you were in big trouble.  Even more frightening was that stepping off the path meant that you were on your own, that God was not going to be present to you and your needs while you went on your little ‘jaunt’ off the path.  If you realized your mistake later and wanted to get back to a good relationship with God, you had to backtrack to where you left God’s path in the first place, and then get busy moving forward on God’s path because being off God’s path was unacceptable, sinful, and a good reason to condemn you to Hell for all eternity.

I suppose that makes some sense, especially to fundamentalists.  The thing is that it makes God sound awfully petulant and kind of like a narcissistic parent. You know, you better play by God’s rules or He isn’t going to play with you anymore.  He’ll just take His ball and go home and you will be All. By. Yourself.  Oh, and you’ll spend eternity in Hell.

I don’t believe any of that anymore.

I’m Methodist now, and I am a feminist process theologian.  That doesn’t mean much to anyone who doesn’t study theology, so I’ll just say that I really like the idea that my beginning (birth) is fixed in God’s hands and my ending (death) is also fixed in God’s hands, and the life that exists between those two points is a negotiation between God and me.  I believe that God will never leave me because God is not in the business of abandoning His children…not even the disrespectful, rebellious ones.  For me, it’s all the more reason to love Him and serve Him.

What does that have to do with Anna?

Well, Anna was raised in an evangelical, fundamentalist church just like I was.  Both of us learned early on that ‘true Christians’ had the peace that passes understanding (Phill 4:7) and that meant that you don’t get anxious if you really love the Lord.  ‘True Christians’ trust God and do not fear circumstances.  ‘True Christians’ wait for God’s leading and are patient because God always acts in God’s time, which is rarely early but never late.  God is all merciful and knows your needs; He has numbered the hairs on your heads, so you have nothing to worry about. (Lk 12:7)

What all that boils down to is that ‘true Christians’ don’t ever have unpleasant emotions like worry, fear, or anxiety.  Anger is pretty much unacceptable as well, unless it’s holy anger at the sin you perceive in the world (or in someone else, but that’s another post.) ‘True Christians’ sail through life so zen that nothing ruffles their feathers; after all, their Father in Heaven is looking out for them, so why worry?

I know devout Buddhists who that aren’t that zen and never will be.

Anyone who reads their Bible…heck anyone who has seen the movie The Passion of The Christ knows that Jesus sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and was so distressed that God sent angels to comfort Him.

Seriously? Jesus sweats blood, but somehow our faith in God is going to insulate us against the icky feelings that we don’t like?

No, that’s not how it works. Faith in God is not a magical pair of rose-colored glasses that will make our lives all sunshine and puppies.  Faith in God is not an extended release Valium for the soul.

Don’t get me wrong. Please, seek God’s will in your life and then do your best to live by it.  And when following God’s will leaves you exhausted, disappointed, and anxious, know that you have stumbled onto all the things that Christ experienced as he led the disciples for three years and then walked the path to His own crucifixion.  Definitely check in with God daily to make sure that you are following the path He has set before you, but plan on a few nights where you sweat some blood and need some supernatural help to make it through to the morning.

And if you are going to trust in something, trust that the God who delighted in creating you also delights in watching over you, because His son has made it clear that this is a difficult world to live in and we need all the help we can get. The God who created you loves you beyond what you can ever understand and will never leave you because it would break His heart to do so.  You are, in so many ways, the apple of His eye and He adores you.

If that doesn’t make you love God, I’m not sure what will.