Obligatory end-of-year musings

bleeding heart image courtesy of freeimages.com, TDingess
bleeding heart image courtesy of freeimages.com, TDingess

My theme word for 2014 was soft-hearted, which came on the heels of the not-on-purpose 2013 theme of compassion. A soft heart is a spiritual condition, which means that my heart should be softer/more open towards God, and because of God, which should come out in how I am with others. And you know what, I think my heart is softer.

I know I’ve been listening more than talking; my sporadic presence here on the blog reflects that. I’ve been more alive to the fears that lie behind so much human behavior, which has made me less judgmental. I’ve been slower to anger. My starting an anti-depressant this spring has something to do with that, but I’ve also been using my imagination in a disciplined manner, creating backstories for people who annoy me, until I reach the point at which I’m no longer annoyed. Mostly I’m not perfect at it, but I’m sure better than I was a year ago. I’ve been less irritable and more gentle with my family. I no longer try to compete in my mind with my husband on who has more stress, on who has it tougher.

There has been a related sub-theme that emerged throughout the year: acceptance.

In January, I went through all the family boxes of papers, including every letter and card ever sent to me, including notes left in my locker in high school. As I sorted and categorized (and tossed some stuff), I read what people have written me over the years. It was a revelation. Normally, I think of myself as kind of a bad friend. I rarely reach out and make contact. I’m too much of a hermit. I so frequently fail to follow through on things I’d like to do for my friends (most of which they don’t know about because I didn’t do them). I’ve let people I loved just fall through the cracks until I’ve entirely lost contact. All of those things are true, but the letters and cards let me round out that picture: I am an accepting friend. Over and over in these letters, friends from across my life said some version of the words, “I can always talk to you about things and know you won’t judge me, that you’ll still accept me.”

That was huge. It took awhile, but I let those words wash over me and seep into my heart. Because they’re true. I may not be a great friend, but I am an accepting one. So I took that on as an important part of my self image, and my life became crazy rich with variety of people to love this year. I am now friends with a woman who survived years of drug addiction and sex trafficking. I have more non-religious friends than I’ve had, possibly, ever. I stood on a sidewalk and talked with strangers about praying for girls and women who’ve survived abuse and trauma. And I’ve been more real, more courageous, more risk-taking than ever before. Which has only brought about more connection with people. It’s been a glorious cycle. And one I intend to keep going.

So what is this year’s word?


It was going to be show up. But as I was writing my prayer this morning as I prayed it (for only the second time this month, tsk, tsk, tsk) it morphed into practice. Both in the sense of the things I want to work on: prayer practice, writing practice, dance practice. And in the sense that “we call it practice because we’re not that good at it yet” (something a dear friend who is a spiritual director said once, a couple of years ago, and I can’t get out of my head). So I will both go harder after my various practices, and be accepting of myself when I’m not that good at it. I will practice both patience and impatience, simultaneously (something one of the presenters at my November writing conference said).

Because this is going to be a big year.

  • I am independently publishing my David and Saul novel series this year — all three of them!
  • I am going to work on two series for my blog that I’ve been wanting to do but have avoided: my diaries project (which I abandoned right before I got to the long-form diaries of high school), and an interview project. Through a few writing jobs I had this year, I discovered that I love doing interviews. I want to interview people about times of unsticking, times of pivoting in their lives. So be warned, I do not plan to talk to famous people. I plan to talk to my friends and ask all the deep questions we don’t normally ask of each other in our brief interactions. So be warned: I may contact you (you can always say “no” and know that I’ll accept you 😉
  • Within a month, my husband and I will be credit card debt-free. I cannot fully express how much I’m looking forward to having that burden lifted.

So how about you? Any musings, either looking back or looking forward, that you want to share? Do you do the word of the year thing? If so, what’s your word?

Compassion for Jesus?

In 1988, I did a bad thing. Well, I didn’t think it was bad, but the fact that other people did made it all the more delicious.

I went to see the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Kind of funny now, I know, but back then, during the height of the furor around the movie, it felt naughty. It wasn’t playing in the conservative city where I attended a Christian college, so a friend and I drove for an hour to see it, giddy with anticipation of the blasphemy to come.

The movie did not disappoint. A Jesus who waffled, unsure of who he was and what his message was? Check. Sexual overtones with Mary Magdalene? Check. Extensive fantasy scene in which he comes off the cross, doesn’t die for our sins and even confronts later Christians with his physical, non-dead presence? Check.

I giggled in glee at the prospect of writing my review for the school paper.

But then there was one scene that didn’t go for shock value, and that one scene made me reevaluate not just the movie, but my appreciation of Jesus’ story.

The Garden of Gethsemane…

Please click here for the rest of this post, part of the Stations of the Cross series hosted by Emily McFarlan Miller.

we are all struggling children

I am gaining new appreciation for how painful it is to be my heavenly parent.

The vast majority of the time, it is truly not that difficult to make righteous choices. Yet, so often I choose my own vortex of fears, needs, obsessions, shames, distractions, and irritations over the peace, love, comfort, and challenge my heavenly parent offers and promises. Mine is not an utterly hopeless case. I often manage to act in accord with that peace and love. I do. But the chaos of my vortex is always spinning, beckoning me. I’m always fighting the pull. With varying degrees of success.

I’m appreciating how difficult this is for my heavenly parent to watch because I’m an earthly parent who is watching one of her children struggling. Making the same mistakes. Over and over. Getting it together in fits and starts, only to lose the thread again. It hurts. Physically and emotionally. Partially because I sense my child’s frustration, lostness, confusion. Partially because I can’t snap my fingers and make it all better. Partially because it isn’t all that hard to do what needs to be done. I am doing everything I can to point in the right direction. In every way I know how, I’m letting the child know I will give whatever support and encouragement necessary. But I can’t make change happen. As hard as I try, and as many systems as I might set up, and as loving and accepting as I may be, it’s not up to me: it’s up to my child.

Do I cause this much anguish in my heavenly parent?

Oh, how deaf and blind you are to me! Why won’t you listen? Why do you refuse to see? Who in all the world is as blind as my own people, my servant? Who is as blind as my chosen people, the servant of the Lord? You see and understand what is right but refuse to act on it. You hear, but you don’t really listen….Will not even one of you apply these lessons from the past and see the ruin that awaits you?    (Isaiah 42:18-20, 23)

The prophets are full of God’s frustration with his people: he’s given them everything, yet they still cheat their neighbors and break their vows. They do not give justice to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the debtor, let alone give them mercy. All this while they continue with their feasts and sacrifices as if that’s all that was required.  Which are all symptoms of the real problem: their hearts are hard. They are stiff-necked, refusing to turn their head to see that they’re on the wrong path.

Even so, and in almost the same breath (Is. 43:1-2):

But now, O Israel, the Lord who created you says: “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.”

They are God’s beloved, his special treasure who he delights to show mercy to.

We are hard-hearted, stiff-necked people, God’s beloved, his special treasure who he delights to show mercy to.

We are God’s children.

They say, “Who does the Lord think we are? Why does he speak to us like this? Are we little children, barely old enough to talk? He tells us everything over and over again, a line at a time, in very simple words!” … God’s people could have rest in their own land if they would only obey him, but they will not listen. So the Lord will spell out his message for them again, repeating it over and over, a line at a time, in very simple words. Yet they will stumble over this simple, straightforward message. (Isaiah 23: 9-10, 12-13)

Yes. I’d say God gets the anguish of watching a child struggle with the same things over and over.

Speaking of which, did I somehow think that my own fabulous/dubious parenting of my children would somehow exempt them from having a set of issues (based on personality and brain chemistry) they’d struggle against repeatedly, possibly their whole lives?

You know, like I do.

Not even God gets that deal, and he offers perfect love and redemption.

So what do I do with this reminder that God is my anguished parent?

Apologize more often and more easily, to God and to others.

Take the long view. My job is not necessarily to help my children overcome their various tendencies once and for all. It’s to work with them to find tools that will help them identify and deal with their personality and brain chemistry issues, to hold them accountable for their choices, to embrace them through both failure and success, to let them know how deeply loved they are. As is.

Waste less time and emotional energy on “we have to deal with this … again!?!” Of course we do.

Have more compassion — for myself, my children, the others in my sphere. I am not the Expert on Overcoming. I am not the Maker of Pronouncements of What Must Be Done. We are strugglers together, helping each other, figuring this out as we go, loving each other through it all.

At least that’s my hope. After all, thinking I know What Must Be Done is one of my perennial issues.


When Fear and Avoidance Mean You’re On the Right Track

sometimes your fear tells you that you’re crazy; sometimes it tells you when you’re on the right track. this was an example of the former. read on for discussion of the latter.

So a few months ago I got the impression that I needed to pray for compassion for my husband. I don’t remember exactly how. But I knew it was right because I stopped reading the Bible and writing my prayers for two weeks.

I’d prayed for tons of other specifics for my husband and for our marriage, but never for me to have compassion for him. Because compassion goes beyond understanding, or sympathy, or kindness, or patience, or tenderness, but is all of those wrapped up together with a big dose of “this isn’t about you.” Maybe I’m particularly skilled, but I’m able to pray for and practice all those other things while somehow keeping myself as the center of the emotional landscape.

* Look how understanding I’m being. Aren’t I doing a good job of not adding to his stress although I’m really angry?
* I’m gritting my teeth and acting sympathetic although I’m losing sleep and my general friendliness is suffering.
*  “God, you’re going to have to give me some of your patience and kindness, because I’m all out.”

Compassion is different, which is why I was so afraid. Compassion busts through the self-righteousness that can give this gal a great big Martyr Complex. So after two weeks, I couldn’t avoid my devotional time anymore. Couldn’t avoid the call to compassion. And I wrote/prayed this:

I pray for the thing that has made me avoid coming to this forum: please, Lord, give me compassion to [my husband] — not lack of anger, not sympathy, but compassion. I have no idea what that will look or feel like, but you led me to pray that and I’ve been avoiding it, but no more. Please give me compassion for [him].

The difference it made was startling. And not at all what I expected.

I talked more about the situation that was plaguing us. Yes, more. Before that, I’d been biting my tongue so I wouldn’t make an already stressful situation even worse by constantly bitching about it (although I sure was in the privacy of my own mind).

And why did I talk about it more? Because I wasn’t complaining about my difficulties, I was outraged for him, on his behalf. I won’t go into details, but I will say it involves a work situation, so it’s nothing I have any control over, and my husband doesn’t always feel he has control over, either. But compassion for him gave me the courage to apply my analytical mind to the situation. The topic was no longer ostentatiously ignored, so it no longer kept us captive in its shadow. Compassion for him gave me the courage to shine light on the situation regularly, which helped him talk through some of the issues, which may have helped him take action.

I told him about this recently, although that first prayer for compassion took place 3 months ago. I told him because I’d used the prayer for compassion again. It was 3 a.m., and I was fuming about something (Big Nagging Issue showing its ugly face again), my mind self-righteously whirling, when I asked myself this question: “What would the compassionate view be?” No surprise, it was very different from what I’d been thinking. And led to an utterly different conversation about it in the morning.

He pointed out something later that afternoon: compassion is related to passion, and while passion can be great, unchecked, it can blind us to the other. As a prefix, com means “together; with; jointly.” I so quickly get all heated up and passionate about my point of view, throwing my arguments at him. Compassion forces me to look away from my agenda and look at him. After all, we are in this together, jointly. I’m with him in this struggle. It isn’t me vs. him. It’s us.

Are there any prayers you’re afraid of? Any prayers you’re avoiding? Pray them anyway.

What Do You Do When Someone Lies To You?

These diary entries circle around a drama in the life of a friend at my high school, a girl I met either through the Inner School Christian Fellowship or at camp. There’s a twist at the end, which I didn’t chronicle, but I remember it clearly. I’m just going to get right into it, so I’m not tempted to foreshadow the ending. I apologize, in advance, for how often I use the word “neat” in the first entry.

Saturday, Mary 17, 1984  EK is in town, she called me today and we had a talk. She told me about S, at her request. Her mother and her mom’s live-in boyfriend Tom both serve Satan. The two of them will move to B.C. when they get married and they want to send S to Jewish foster parents in Ottawa. When she said no way, Tom beat her up and she was put in the hospital. Nobody believed her. S also has cancer in her knee. Nice life, eh? Well, I think God is finally giving me something to do and someone to help.
I made a pair of pants today. I wore them to the coffeehouse I went to at AJ’s Pentecostal church. It was different. The music was OK. During the break some guy came and talked about temptation. That being tempted was a blessing because them Satan thought that you were worthwhile to tempt. That was neat. There was some more music 🙁 and then this neat guy Claude talked for 40 minutes: “Why sit we here ’til we die?” It was about the spirit and works of a church dying out. It was interesting. J and H were rather shocked because of the spontaneous Amen’s and Praise the Lord’s. I loved it. It was not the sort of coffeehouse that I expected but it was neat.

Sunday March 18, 1984  Last day of freedom 🙁  Dad was gloating about that after church. NERD. Young People’s tonight was a riot! We went over the to JJ’s for a social. I was playing snooker and I was doing really well. I was proud of myself. JP was nice to me today, so was JJ. I was pretty happy. Later on JP and M teamed up against P in hockey on that game. He was beating them 7-1 until I started playing goal. Then he beat us 9-2. It was a scream. Then all the girls except me went upstairs to sing. Someone up there couldn’t. I was left down with the guys minus N and D. We had earlier played coffeepot. I made a few funny remarks. The action was showing and JJ asked if you could do it in front of other people; they said yes. I said, I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t coffeepot in front of anybody. I made a few more remarks as well. The real story was on the way home. JP’s alternator and battery were shot in his Bessie. It took us 20 min. to get the car started at JJ’s that lasted us without lights or anything to Bayview and Soudan. We tried roll starting, push starting and we flagged down a car and tried jump starting. M was with us. We walked to the [minister’s house] and they were still up. [M’s parents] were there! They took care of M and the rest is too complicated to explain. I got home around 11:20.

Monday, March 19, 1984   S called me tonight to talk to me and I found out some more stuff. E has thought about killing herself! She almost did try once! I’m really shocked. I knew she didn’t like school at all but I didn’t know it was that bad. I’m meeting her tomorrow morning at 8:15. I met S and E this morning at 8:30. S still goes in for chemotherapy for her secondary cancer. It’s really hard knowing how to treat her. I called C and she gave me lots of good advice about not just sitting passively but actively doing something. Both of us feel that some disaster is about to happen: I don’t like that feeling. But I also do feel that God will somehow work through me. I hope. S needs all the help she can get. She went with her Mom and Tom to that group last night: she didn’t know she was going there. They tried lots of different ouija boards on her but none of them worked! Praise God! A whole bunch of them grabbed her and put “Satan” on her arm with red nail polish. She just barely got it off for school.
H skipped today because L wasn’t feeling well. I called their house at lunch. It took them a few minutes before they realized that it would be either me or N so they answered it. The didn’t even invite me!

 Tuesday, March 20, 1984   Several big things happened today. We found out this morning that Mrs. Denny, the quiet nervous gym teacher died last night of hepatitis. I still can’t believe it. The flags were flying half mast. I’m glad. It shows that the whole school mourns her. The thing with S is also part of the way to being resolved, I pray. Her Young People’s leader called the Children’s Aid, and they called Mr. S at school. They came over and she talked to them and she has an appointment next week. Praise God! She had to tell them about E because she had been called down earlier for her absence on Monday and had told Mr. W about her. Tom and S’s mom had to come down and were really angry but I still praise God that something is happening. That’s about it, because besides that the day went as usual. I loved the discussion in English; we’re doing poetry. I love poetry! I should start to write some more; I think I will.

The twist

S was lying. She made the whole thing up: the cancer in the knee and the secondary cancer that had an amazing new kind of chemotherapy that didn’t make her extremely thick hair fall out too badly, the Satanist parents, the group of people writing Satanist stuff on her arms (she’d done it herself). All of it. Once school and other officials became involved, it all spun out. I found out from the school guidance counselor. I remember a hollow feeling in my stomach and disbelief, but not anger. There was even a little guilt in there because I hadn’t thought to talk to the guidance counselor or call Children’s Aid myself. My second reaction was compassion: she didn’t have to make up that story to get us to like her. I talked with her, either that day or the next, to tell her that, and to tell her that I wouldn’t drop her as a friend — my thinking being that she needed friends more than ever now that the story was out. We had a few intense conversations after this, and I was still friendly, but things weren’t the same and S soon drifted away. Probably to a fresh group of people to scam into pitying her.

Am I that compassionate now?

It depends on who’s doing the lying and who they’ve hurt.

I’ve written before about a woman at our prior church who was highly skilled in planting seeds of discord to distract us from the fact that she was stealing from us. She would give little reports of conversations with other church members that were racist or obnoxious in some way, or do little put-downs that were funny in how she said them. She got involved with someone who brought a great deal of drama that we were all compelled to help her out with — money, groceries, clothes, etc. She was my partner in dance and I’d thought we were friends. I gave her money, listened to her, prayed with her, had her pray for me. But she was stealing from us the whole time.

It almost destroyed the church — literally, I’m not being dramatic. Two-thirds of the church left in the aftermath, and those of us left had to deal with the trauma, except that we didn’t. We who remained all went to our corners to lick our wounds and treat everyone with suspicion for a while. I was stuck with some very large jobs when she left, that dictated the next eight months of my life. They were not good months.

It took several months of Spiritual Direction before I wrote a letter to her about what she did to me — the classic, unsent therapy letter. By the end, I felt profoundly sorry for her. Her life had gone even more to pieces after this: criminal prosecution, physical disability, no friends or church support system. I forgave her in absentia. That said, I could never be her friend again and if she came to any church I went to, I’d make sure she wasn’t given any position with authority over or access to money. I have no idea whether I’d hug her or ignore her if I saw her again. But chances are pretty good I’d make like I didn’t see her unless she forced the issue.

Then again, we had a situation this summer about which I will be vague, but a young person we’d trusted did something untrustworthy. My reaction: firm compassion. We forgave the young person immediately, largely because the person had been to our house hundreds of times with few problems, so the evidence weighed heavily in the person’s favor. It was firm compassion, though, because we analyzed the events that may have contributed to the untrustworthiness and don’t let things play out in the same way anymore. This is just as much out of compassion for the young person as for us.

But if a young person does something untrustworthy and I don’t have the long history with them, or if the untrustworthiness has to do with the personal safety of anyone in my care, they are not invited back. There are only three kids who’ve qualified for this, but my door closed to them quickly and decisively.

So now what?

Because of the lying church lady who so effectively used gossip to split up the congregation, I no longer listen to negative church gossip. If someone starts going on to me about what another member did or said to them, I stop them in the middle and tell them that I’m uncomfortable talking about this, but if they have a problem, to bring it up with the other member and the pastor. I’m not always in the loop these days, but that’s okay with me.

I also have a little core of suspicion that won’t go away when someone keeps bringing the drama, and that makes me a little sad. I’d like to treat everyone who needs help in a straightforward way, but I don’t know that I can anymore. I’ll have to find a way to keep myself from being gullible and yet remain compassionate.

Anyone else want to share a dramatic story about a liar?