The Master Gardener

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This fall has been rough. After months of neck and shoulder pain I finally got the diagnosis I was hoping not to get – arthritis. When the Lord knit me together, he planted inside me a thorn that would raise it’s head this year – a malformed collar bone. It’s just a hair too short, which means my shoulders aren’t supported well and my joints are wearing down very fast.

Every morning my body tells me it hurts and begs me not to move. But, I know from experience now that after forcing it to move and stretch it feels much better. A few minutes of pain yields greater capacity and flexibility.

To stay active and healthy for the second half of life, I have to live very differently then I have been. I have to exercise every single day to strengthen my back, core, and arms as my shoulders can do less and less. I have to do dishes, laundry, and carry things more thoughtfully. I have to sleep differently and drive differently and even hold my choir folder differently. There’s hardly an area of every day life that hasn’t required some change.

These physical changes and new rhythms have been transformational. I’ve been ushered into a new and in many ways healthier existence. I’m more grateful for every movement that doesn’t hurt. Instead of being mad at my body, I find myself extending a lot of love toward it. I found myself thanking my legs this morning as I walked to the coffee pot, and I laughed.

For me, the spiritual connections have been crystal clear. If I desire to continue to mature, transform, and live well in the second half of life, I’ll need to submit myself to a very similar process.

If I allow the potential for pain to limit by spiritual growth, I’m done. I have to place my faith in what I know comes after pain and do the work. It’s not time to settle into ways of believing and thinking. It’s time to stretch and move – as painful as that is.

Its time to rearrange ways of being and living in the world that reflect new information that comes with knowing God better and longer and deeper. My years with God will mean I continue to change – my mind on topics, and the way I contribute. It’s not time to spiritually calcify.

The old adage, “be careful what you wish for,” is so true. After so many years of praying for spiritual growth and fruitfulness, it’s funny to be experiencing so much of it in the midst of something challenging and frustrating like arthritis.

Whatever God is using today in your life to awaken you to Himself, I pray you’ll let whatever it is do it’s work. The master gardener prunes skillfully and tenderly, making us beautiful and fruitful in ways we couldn’t manufacture ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worry or Anxiety?

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In preparation for an upcoming workshop on recognizing and navigating anxiety on the campus – I’ve been on a deep dive researching some of the differences between “worrisome thoughts” and “anxiety.”

Most professionals describe anxiety as a spectrum with worry being on the lower end and anxiety disorders being on the extreme high end with a middle area called “anxious.”

Anecdotally, that seems accurate. Still, I think we overuse the word anxiety. I’m finding it helpful to try and describe my own experience of it more accurately.  For example, instead of saying, “I’m so anxious about funding right now,” I can say, “I’m concerned about where my funding is right now.”

It’s a very small way of honoring people I love who experience significant anxiety. It may be dishonoring or at least discouraging for someone with more severe symptoms to hear so many of us saying we are anxious when in reality we are temporarily worried or somewhat stressed by a situation we know will resolve.

One difference between worry and anxiety I’ve been thinking a lot about is our ability to be present to ourselves in it. When we are worried, we can usually articulate what we are feeling, what we are thinking, and how our bodies are responding. Worry, in a sometimes helpful way, triggers our problem solving skills. When we’ve addressed our worry, our brains release our bodies from it’s fight or flight response and we experience a greater degree of calm.

A person with more significant anxiety cannot address themselves objectively to the same degree. They don’t always understand why they feel the way they do, they are often flooded with thoughts and images they can’t connect to specific circumstances, and they are sometimes deploying a lot of energy managing physical symptoms.

In the middle of these two spectrum extremes is that middle place, called “anxious.” That’s where it’s a little fuzzy. It’s tricky to know if we are worried, really worried, or tipping towards a state where we have lost our capacity for course correcting without help. But this capacity for self-awareness and presence is a helpful indicator.

In our relationships with others, if we can be empathetic to the fact that a friend experiencing anxiety can sometimes not address their thoughts and feelings objectively, it seems obvious that advising them to think better thoughts or pray more fervently, is counter-productive.

Both of those are coping mechanisms we employ when we have the capacity for self-reflection and inner-work. Metaphorically, we can’t tell the people we love to eat better food to feel better if their mouths are duct-taped shut.

In my own relationships with loved ones and friends who experience more severe anxiety, I’m learning a ton about how to get a sense of the severity of their emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms before speaking to, touching, or offering to help them.

In my relationships with loved ones and friends who are working through worry, I’m enjoying equipping them with coping skills and strategies they can deploy against worry. Prayer, meditation on God’s Word, scripture memory, the Enneagram, and other helpful tools are all incredibly powerful in combating worrisome thoughts.

And for those of us who are in relationship with people in the middle zone, or who hover there ourselves, this self-awareness, or presence piece, has been a helpful barometer to me.

 

 

 

What in God’s Name – A Response

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Many of you undoubtedly noticed a post flying around Facebook a few weeks ago penned by Skillet front-man, John L. Cooper. The raw and emotional post included this graphic with the words, “What in God’s Name in Happening in Christianity?” I’ve read the post several times now and have interacted personally with friends who re-posted it to share my concerns regarding it’s tone and content. (To read it, simply search John L. Cooper on Facebook and scroll.)

I found the article deeply unhelpful – but it did help paint a somewhat chaotic but truthful sketch of a “Christianity” in crisis – collapsing under the weight of it’s own celebrity culture and the fruit of platforming charisma over hard-won transformation for way too long.

Cooper lays the blame for much of the church’s problems on 1) Leaders inside the church who use their influence to express their personal faith struggles, thereby leading people astray and 2) Christians who make the mistake of listening to and following leaders who have been lead pastors and culture-shapers the greater Christian culture has platformed for years.

Laying the blame at the feet of people who show up on Sunday in an attempt to exercise faithfulness and commitment to Jesus seems unfair. “Hey – you shouldn’t be eating what we are feeding you,” doesn’t make sense.

While I don’t think Cooper wags his finger in the right direction, let’s use this moment to address what his article so ironically highlights. The church has placed the Bible in the hands of “experts” for too long. We have all read too many Christian books, listened to too many sermons, enjoyed too much Christian music, attended too many conferences and retreats, and built a “Christian Culture” we claim is “biblical” all the while reading and wrestling with the Bible personally as little as possible. Even our Bible “study” materials are short-circuited to provide the “right” answers in as many fill in the blanks as possible.

I can’t tell you how many students I’ve met over the years who have read shelves full of books by Christian authors but who have never actually read a book of the Bible in it’s entirety. I can’t tell you how many I’ve met who have strong confidence in their understanding of the Bible, and what is most important to God but have never personally wrestled with a difficult passage of scripture by themselves. I can’t tell you how many I’ve met who enter adult life completely unprepared for the difficult work of interpreting their own times with the help of the Bible, only to have their catch phrases and favorite quotes wither in the face of reality and suffering.

Like never before, I believe so strongly in the work of helping people individually discover the very practical and mundane tools of the spiritual life. It’s not flashy. It takes a lot of time. It happens in the midst of messy circumstances and relationships, and requires patience and a commitment to the long-view with people.

It requires absolute belief that the Holy Spirit is actually a real teacher and guide and that immaturity leads to maturity over time when conditions and healthy input exists. It means asking people in many cases to set aside what they think they know, to engage with the words of the Bible critically, and to think about the whole world and all it’s people as they do so. It means listening to very discouraging conclusions at first. (I would burn my own earliest journals if I didn’t find them so reassuring of the very process I’m describing).

But, it also means watching in actual real time spiritual muscles working out for the first time. It means watching spiritual transformation spread like a wave invading more and more of a persons mind, heart, spirit, and life choices. It means three steps forward and two steps back, over and over again.

And anyone can do this kind of work. That’s the beauty of it. No fancy equipment or context required. But it does require a commitment to life-long learning and sharing. It means allowing other people to know where you struggle and what you don’t know. It means modeling for other people the intimate process of relating with the Bible and wrestling with it (and that means tears, frustration, disconnection, doubt, with the occasional insight.)

I know I’m preaching to the choir here most likely, but the article was a powerful reminder to me that it’s easier to let someone else mature and for me and glean in someone else’s field and if we allow that to be the norm in the Body of Christ – we’ll be flavorless salt, rotten yeast, and a dim and fading light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solo

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Haven leaves tomorrow for her first solo trip to Missouri to work and ride with her barn family. We’ve dropped her off to stay before, but tomorrow she’ll make the 4.5 hour drive solo. For whatever reason, this feels like an enormous step forward.

My mom is fond of calling these steps forward “cutting apron strings.” Mom, I hate when you say this – even though it’s a pretty accurate description. It does feel like a severing of something – the sharing of physical space, along with control and many other things.

I’m aware that to stay “close-knit,” we’ll need to tie those strings back together intentionally. None of the “knowing” that we share now will ever be quite as organic and casual as it is now.

It’s hard not to focus on how this whole process feels for me. I can be moody. It takes all my emotional strength to refocus on how this feels for her, and smile at her instead of pulling her in for a clingy hug.

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Haven is naturally very outgoing and courageous, which has meant all her steps toward independence have come on the early side of the spectrum. She walked before she was a year old. She rides enormous horses. She can talk to anyone. She has a very strong sense of herself and what is right. These are all wonderful qualities that I know the world will try and squash. I don’t want to squash them too by begging her not to go, which is what I desperately want to do.

For now, she’ll have to settle for smiles and cheers tomorrow morning along with tears (and heart palpitations) –  all at the same time.

 

Process

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This fall I’ll be spending some time with students in our ministry who have agreed to facilitate Bible study groups for their peers. It’s brought back very fond memories of my own early Bible studies groups, several of which I’m certain I nearly derailed with off-topic “urgent” tangents.

What I enjoyed and valued so much I could only give words to years later. I grew up spiritually inside of a culture that valued transformation above information. In my years as a student in a Navigator campus ministry, I experienced a community that valued process over right belief.

Like anything else, it was understood that my early attempts at reading and studying the Bible would likely not only be clunky, but yield questionable conclusions. My early Bible study leaders gave merit to what I was attempting to build into my life – a process of asking the Holy Spirit to help me understand what the Bible meant. They overlooked mountains of skewed conclusions, but also deeply affirmed insights when they occasionally presented themselves.

They didn’t offer their own opinions and convictions, but offered instead the tools they used to acquire them. These tools included super practical things like cross referencing, concordances, Bible dictionaries, but also the important practices of meditation, memorization, and praying the Word. There was a humility before the Word – an undercurrent that didn’t translate to “believe whatever YOU want to believe” but an understanding that there could always be more, and that we should expect to expand and change based on the natural process of maturity and growth.

We memorized the Word not to keep track of what we already knew, but we believed that having the Word in our hearts was like taking a spiritual vitamin – it would do some unseen work within in us that would yield fruit. We spent time studying the Bible not just to understand it better, but because we expected that we’d be different because of the actual minutes and hours we spent with it. We believed the process would change us even more so than the conclusions we reached.

That emphasis on process, patience, and growth is what I hope I’m able to keep our students focused on as they lead. No one knows better than I do how hard it is to keep your mouth shut when someones says something that isn’t “right,” but the ability to stay focused on offering tools to improve the process rather than correcting the information is key. We want students to fall in love with studying the Bible, not fall in the love with knowing all the “right” answers.

Of course, Jesus did this better than we ever will. Talk about having the long-view with people. He loved people as they were, all the while calling them toward something more and deeper and better. He frequently chose the more nuanced route of parables, questions, and time with people, over direct teaching and explaining. I think He did this because He understood the value of what Paul would later describe as “the working out of our salvation.” The working it out bit is the best part. The prize is a process by which we continue to mature over the course of our whole lives.

Love is the Variable

Anyone else have a hard conversation this weekend? Yah. Me too. #metoo, #believewoman, #confirmkavanaugh and all the other hashtags…

For those of you who live with teenagers, this is our lives all the time. My children agree with me 35% of the time and that number is totally influenced by whether or not we are at home or enjoying Steak and Shake Happy Hour together.

It is a daily occurrence to say the thing I’ve always said about this or that and all of sudden I get called out, challenged, and asked to explain myself. When it’s about why Brown Sugar Pop Tarts are delicious or disgusting, it’s fun. When it’s about the #Metoo movement, it’s different.

I have absolutely changed my mind, grown in my understanding, and found myself to be wrong more than once recently and I’m very grateful. It’s not easy. No one likes to give ground on important matters, but there is a flexibility in my Spirit where they are concerned. Because I love them. Because I know them. Because I can appreciate how differently they are experiencing the world. Because I value staying in relationship with them, come what may.

Flexibility of Spirit is not the same as, “Whatever you say.”

It means I’m willing to travel down the road with them for a long, long, while before I decide whether or not I want to live where they live on some issue. It means doing the emotional and intellectual stretching it takes to understand something from the perspective of someone 25 years younger than me.

It means not dismissing their opinions as simply immature, because sometimes their opinions are creative and intelligent new connections I simply can’t make quickly because of well-worn paths in my own spirit and mind.

Sometimes they are wrong and immature. No doubt. My two oldest left for school today wearing matching Bob Ross t-shirts and floral bandannas on their heads. My youngest prefers the new Voltron animated series to the vintage, 80’s series, (I mean, obviously.)

A lot of times, just the process of sorting out where there is natural concensus and where there is sometimes surprising differences in our thinking and in our values is just good work. We obvioulsy don’t always agree, but I hope we are growing in demonstrating respect and love even in our differences.

I’m just challenged by how willing I am to go there with them and how unwilling I can be to go with other humans, even for just a few steps into their perspective.

Love is the variable.

 

 

 

Stings

This poem stings.

Possible Answers to Prayer

Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.
Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.
Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.
Scott Cairns, “Possible Answers to Prayer” from Philokalia: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2002 by Scott Cairns.