Friday, July 27, 2007

A is for Attentiveness: Grace Happening People are Attentive

This is the seventh installment of a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram “GRACE HAPPENS,” each letter representing a quality that equips us to be “Grace Happening People.”

“To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.”

Douglas Steere, Quaker leader and author of the above nugget of truth, captures what I believe is the essence of what I do as a therapist—and what each one of us can learn to do, with patience and practice. It never ceases to amaze me how healing and empowering it is just feeling listened to. To have someone sit quietly, eyes focused on you, encouraging you to say more is an incredible gift of grace.

Steere identified four essential qualities of a good listener: a willingness to be vulnerable and risk being wounded; an agape acceptance that appreciates the other person “as is” and resists the temptation to force him into a mold of our own choosing; hopeful expectancy, seeking to find God in the messiness of life; and constancy, the ability to stand alongside and not abandon the person in need of our attention.

In the eighteenth century, following a rebellion, Quaker, John Woolman, attempted unsuccessfully to communicate with Chief Papunehang through a Moravian missionary. At a loss, Woolman simply prayed aloud without the benefit of translation. Communication happens on many levels and it was obvious that they had connected deeply when Papunehang commented, “I love to feel where words come from.” Just imagine what it would be like if we could hear each other from that place where words come from! The Bible refers to Jesus as the Word. Thus, to connect from that place within me where my heart meets God, and to hear who you are, free of my own baggage, and know you in that place where your heart meets God, is a transformational and spiritual encounter.

We all know how to listen, right? Well, I hate to split hairs, but there is a significant difference between hearing and listening. We all have selective hearing that attends to what we want to hear and ignores that which we don’t want to hear. And often our selective hearing is governed by self-preservation. If I feel threatened by your thoughts, feelings, or opinions, then I’m going to turn down or turn off my hearing aid. Or maybe worse, I may put my own spin on what you are saying, and mishear you through my faulty filtering system. Hurtful life experiences deform my heart’s ear and, unconsciously, I may confuse you with someone else who hurt me in the past. As we grow spiritually and heal emotionally, our listening abilities vastly improve.

“In every experience of true listening...there is a mysterious moment in which the one who listens steps out from a fortress of self-concern and dwells silently in the truth of the one who speaks. This is a moment of great risk and great courage, for it ushers us into a different way of being in the world.” (John S. Mogabgah) Perhaps this explains why sometimes it is painfully important to me to rigidly maintain my grasp of reality rather than allow myself to be impacted by the thoughts and feelings of others. Is my fortress so fragile, my own grasp on reality so frail, my fears of change so immobilizing that I must tune out and turn off? Yes, sometimes. But when I feel safe enough to truly be attentive, I am graced by intimate moments of knowing someone in a deeper way and, in turn, knowing myself more deeply as I am enriched and invited to grow and heal by hearing your truth.

I invite you to practice “listening another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery,” and in so doing, risk the transforming touch of God. The art of listening comes with growth and healing and practicing your listening skills can pave the way. Turn off the TV. Make eye contact. Bite your tongue. Stay out of your noggin (I see you in your noggin, planning your rebuttal!). Suspend judgment. Open your heart.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"H is for Humor: Grace Happening People Have a Sense of Humor

This is the sixth installment of a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram “GRACE HAPPENS,” each letter representing a quality that equips us to be “Grace Happening People.”

Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not;
A sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Sir Francis Bacon

I am a constant source of laughs for my family. Gullible and na├»ve, I believe everything my husband and kids tell me. I’ve learned to watch the corners of my son’s mouth, which often clues me in that he’s pulling my leg, but even this is not fool proof. While frustrated when they have to explain yet another joke to me, they think it’s hilarious that I am so clueless. I am happy to be such a handy source of entertainment.

Fortunately, I’ve learned to laugh at myself—in most circumstances. I embrace the belief that people are laughing “with” me, not “at” me. This may be a form of denial, but it works for me! Max Eastman (American author and journalist, 1883-1969) wisely said, “It is the ability to take a joke, not make one, that proves you have a sense of humor.” Isn’t that the truth!

On a recent visit to an unidentified person is quoted as saying, “the most valuable sense of humor is the kind that enables a person to see instantly what it isn’t safe to laugh at.” On The HUMOR Project, Inc. website, Cliff Thomas wisely points out that, “When someone blushes with embarrassment… when someone carries away an ache… when something sacred is made to appear common… when someone’s weakness provides the laughter… when profanity is required to make it funny… when a little child is brought to tears… or when everyone can’t join in the laughter…IT’S A POOR JOKE!!” Humor is a double-edged sword—and there is a very fine line between friendly “cutting up” and painful “cutting down.” Grace Happening People learn to discern the difference.

On a more positive note, “A keen sense of humor helps us to overlook the unbecoming, understand the unconventional, tolerate the unpleasant, overcome the unexpected, and outlast the unbearable.” (Billy Graham) Laughing Matters magazine, a publication of The HUMOR Project, Inc., highlights these benefits of humor:

“Jest for the health of it” to improve respiration, circulation, and oxygenation of the blood, to suppress stress-related hormones in the brain, and to activate the immune system.

Use humor to prevent “hardening of the attitudes.”

The HAHA-AHA connection: humor is a jump-start for creativity, enhancing the ability to think outside the box.

The laughing-learning link: humor is a great way to capture and maintain attention, while freeing up tension, and leading to improved retention of information.

Resilience Quotient: “S/He who laughs lasts.” Humor helps build resilience so we can get better “smileage” on life’s journey.

But what about those times when we find it impossible to find the humor in life’s conflicts and crises? Years ago, a young woman from my church was awaiting a liver transplant. During the long wait, her mom, Paula May, devised a creative way to cope with the stress by inviting friends and hospital staffers to guess the day on which Lynsie would receive her new liver. It cost a dollar to enter the pool and guesses were recorded on a big calendar. Granted, the humor bordered on the macabre, but appropriately so, during a time when we all felt so helpless and were fending off hopelessness with furtive prayers and gifts of food (what else could we offer at such a time?). I guessed April 23rd, my Mom’s birthday, and I won! Lynsie, hanging on by a hair’s breath, received a new liver—from a young man who, sadly, lost his lifes. Joy and sorrow go hand in hand, never straying too far from one another.

Paula is a Grace Happening person, if there ever was one. The pool was a prayer from all of our hearts, buoyed up by the Holy Spirit, via Paula’s humor.

"He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy." Job 8:21

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

“E” is for Empathy
“There but for the grace of God go I.”

This is the fifth installment of a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram "GRACE HAPPENS," each letter representing a quality that equips us to be "Grace Happening People."

Empathy has been described as the ability to “walk in another’s shoes.” If you’ve ever literally walked in another’s Reeboks, then you know how uncomfortable it can feel. The shoes have taken on the shape of their owner’s feet—they feel great to them because their shoes fit like a glove. But on your feet, they never will feel comfy. Figuratively speaking, walking in another’s shoes is a difficult fit as well, but it’s vital that we develop the ability to imagine and understand the perspectives of other people.

When I was a child, I remember how upset my mom would get when people were being judgmental of someone’s “bad” behavior or making fun of people because of the way they dress or talk. She tried to cultivate in her children a state of compassionate humility fostered by the realization that it is only by the grace of God that I am not the object of criticism or ridicule for something I’ve done or for who I am as a person. Mom would say, “There but for the grace of God go I”, and this phrase echoes in my head even today, reminding me to be empathic rather than judgmental or ridiculing.

The following story epitomizes the concept of empathy:

Once a monk and his apprentice traveled from the abbey to a nearby village. The two parted at the city gates agreeing to meet the next morning after completing their tasks. According to plan, they met and began the long walk back to the abbey. The monk noticed that the younger man was unusually quiet. He asked him if anything was wrong. “What business is it of yours?” came the terse response. Now the monk was sure his brother was troubled, but he said nothing. The distance between the two began to increase. The apprentice walked slowly, as if to separate himself from his teacher. When the abbey came in sight, the monk stopped at the gate and waited on the student. “Tell me, my son. What troubles your soul?” The boy started to react again, but when he saw the warmth in his master’s eyes, his heart began to melt. “I have sinned greatly,” he sobbed. “Last night I slept with a woman and abandoned my vows. I am not worthy to enter the abbey at your side.” The teacher put his arm around the student and said, “We will enter the abbey together. And we will enter the cathedral together. And together we will confess your sin. No one but God will know which of the two of us fell.”

Grace Happening people realize that we all “fall from grace” from time to time. And like the monk, we need to gracefully extend an arm of support and a heart of compassion to others when they make poor choices.

There are other scenarios when empathy is needed as well. For example, I want to turn a blind eye to the pain and poverty and loss surrounding me. I don’t want to look at these realities, let alone slip into those shoes, even if only in my imagination. It just takes me too close for comfort to the “there but for the grace of God go I” of disease, divorce, the death of a loved one, the devastation of natural disasters, depression… I’d rather offer a quick prayer or send a donation than to get the galoshes of my tender heart muddy.

And in the little dramas of daily life— a pesky sibling, a traffic jam, an itchy mosquito bite, a critical boss, a gossipy neighbor—an empathic response acknowledging the feelings of your resident whiner can work wonders. So before you blurt out, “You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill!”, “cloth yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12) and step forward shod in the soft soled shoes of empathy.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Grace and Humor

I'm currently working on my article for July 14th, "Grace Happening People Have a Sense of Humor." Humor is a muscle that I've had to develop. As a child and adolescent, I was often told, "Linda, you're just too sensitive!" I took things so personally and seriously and got my feelings hurt easily. My sensitivity and low self esteem was a recipe for insecurity and a high need for approval. I tried so hard to be what I thought others wanted me to be, and, of course, I never felt I measured up. In time, I learned to value myself and realize that God loves me, and with this came the ability to laugh at myself.

With emotional and spiritual healing came a new laugh--one of those belly laughs that other people find contagious. My kids and husband get such a kick out of how I laugh at my favorite movies scenes, like when Mrs. Doubtfire caught her boobs on fire and when Patch Adams mooned Dean Walcott at his graduation from medical school. I never used to laugh like this -- my laughs were restrained, although I didn't realize it. I thank God for the gift of belly laughs. They remind me that I am loved and that I've healed from hurts of the past.

I love to poke fun at myself in my column. I have lots of stories of my fallability that humble me and give me cause to laugh at silly me. For example, I have a very bad habit of running late, which drives my husband insane (which is not at all funny because my tardiness causes him true distress). He tells people that we've always thought that people at church are so pleased to see us that they stand up and sing when we arrive (which is often well after the announcements have been made and as the first hymn begins)!

One Sunday, upon arriving home after church, while still sitting in the car. I reached down to grab my shoes that I had kicked off. I found two shoes, but they were not what I would consider to be a "pair." The two shoes were different colors and the heel heights and contours were different. Figuring that I must have left a pair of shoes in the car at an earlier time, I continued my search, thinking I'd be carting two pair of shoes into the house. But there was no second pair--only the mismatched pair. That's when it struck me that in my rush to get ready for church, I'd donned two different shoes! After my initial embarrassment, I wondered if the man sitting next to me in church had noticed my mistake. As I crossed my legs first to the right and then to the left, showing off my collection of footwear, did he smile and swallow a laugh, so as not to cause a distraction during the sermon? I'll never know, but I've always been able to laugh at myself over this. I just may try it again some Sunday and watch peoples' reactions!

Do you have a story you can tell on yourself? If so, I'd love to hear it. I promise I won't print itin the paper--without first getting your permission!

Monday, July 2, 2007

Grace Happening People - "C" Stands for Christ in Others

June 30, 2007

This is the fourth installment of a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram “GRACE HAPPENS,” each letter representing a quality that equips us to be “Grace Happening People.”

“C” is for Christ:
Grace Happening People See Christ in Others.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:27

I have always been intrigued and inspired by the life and ministry of Mother Teresa. When asked how it was that she could minister, day in and day out, to the dying and destitute, she replied that she simply would seek to see Christ in each individual she ministered to. It was this ability to see Christ in others that gave her the strength to minister in the worst of conditions to those suffering from the worst of what life has to offer. Her unique “vision” called forth her deep, Christ-like capacity for compassion.

As a therapist, I embrace another unique viewpoint that sharpens my ability to see with the eyes of compassion. John Bradshaw made popular the theory that we each possess an “inner child,” that part of us that came into this world innocent and bursting with potential. But growing up in an imperfect world, we all are spiritually and emotionally wounded along the way, causing us to lose sight of the person God created us to be. If we take God at his word—that we are created in God’s image—then our view of ourselves and others should reflect this.

In therapy, I strive to help clients reconnect with this creative, resourceful, Christ-like part of themselves. Buried beneath woundedness and sin, shame and regrets, fear and loneliness is a unique and precious individual that I seek to “see.” I can be much more compassionate and patient with difficult people (whether they are family, friends or clients!) if I remember that they too, like me, are wounded yet wonderful children, deeply loved and cherished by our Maker.

This comes fairly easy for me—except when someone rubs me the wrong way or pushes my buttons. I can rally compassion for misguided, brainwashed young men and forgive them for their terrorist activities (although this might change if one of my own loved ones was a direct victim). I can pardon one who has sinned against me (especially if she’s confessed, shown deep remorse, and groveled for my forgiveness—and I’ve nursed my grievances to my satisfaction). I am long-suffering and patient with those less fortunate than me (but my tolerance and dedication are inversely related to a rise in temperature, humidity, hunger, boredom, fatigue…). I hate to admit that there are so many limits to my ability to see the imprint of God in others—but it’s true.

Jesus said, "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” (Matthew 6:22-23) Sometimes my spiritual eyesight is 20/20, but more often than not, my vision is impaired by a myriad of complicated and complex factors. I need special lenses to help me see Christ in others: lenses that filter out my sense of entitlement and air of superiority; lenses immune to the smudges of gossip and the scratches of hurt feelings; crystal clear lenses that are neither rose-colored (an unwillingness to see reality, preferring my own close-minded slant) or tinged green from envy, darkened by a negative attitude or clouded by poor judgment.

This week I hope you will join me in paying attention to which lenses you are wearing—you may switch them numerous times a day, depending on the circumstances—and make a conscious effort to slip off the distorting lenses and don the eyes of our Creator.

Grace Happening People - "A" is for Accepting and Affirming

June 23, 2007

This is the third installment of a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram “GRACE HAPPENS,” each letter representing a quality that equips us to be “Grace Happening People.”

“A” is for…
Grace Happening People are Accepting and Affirming

In a competitive, materialistic, get-ahead-at-all-costs world, it is important for Grace Happening people to provide the gift of acceptance and affirmation. Everywhere we turn, we get the message that we are not good enough, fast enough, smart enough, rich enough, or pretty or handsome enough. Everything seems to hinge on performance and production—fast and efficient, clever and high-tech, sleek and slim.

In the atmosphere of grace, however, we are affirmed, not just for our strengths and goodness, our talents and contributions, but for who we are in Christ. Our worth is not based on what we do—but rather on who Christ is—and who we are in Christ. In a grace-permeated climate, there is even an affirming of our flawed nature. According to Gerald May, author of Addiction and Grace, “our incompleteness is what draws us toward God and one another. If we do not fill our minds with guilt and self-recriminations, we will recognize our incompleteness as a kind of open space into which we can welcome the flow of grace. We can think of our inadequacies as terrible defects, if we want, and hate ourselves. But we can also think of them affirmatively, as doorways through which the power of grace can enter our lives. Then we may begin to appreciate our inherent God given loveable-ness.”

Gerald May is focusing on self-acceptance here, which I believe is essential to our becoming Grace Happening People. And in order to truly accept ourselves, we must first understand that “it’s not about me”; it’s about God. It’s not about my flaws; it’s about God’s perfect plan to save me, empower me, and use me. It’s not about how good I am; it’s about GRACE. My flaws and my goodness are neither here nor there; it’s about who I am in Christ. I am a one-of-a-kind creation of God, wooed into God’s love and grace by the Holy Spirit and saved by Jesus. I don’t comprehend it, but I believe it. I must admit, though, that the edges of my faith are frayed with doubt, because it’s just too good to be true and it so foreign to the way we humans think.

Acceptance does not come easy in many situations, whether that be acceptance of self, or others or, circumstances. I am a “recovering perfectionist” and I am never done putting the finishing touches on anything. I’ve got my husband pretty well the way I want him, but it’s taken thirty-four years to smooth out his edges. And life would be great if so-and-so would get their act together, and if they’d find a cure for arthritis, and if my middle would stop expanding, and if…

I know that I’m not alone when I ponder the “Serenity Prayer” given us by Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
and extremely happy with You forever in the next.

(Complete, unabridged, original version.)

If I can’t change things, I guess the next best thing to do is to find what I can to affirm—in myself, others, and circumstances—and affirm it!

Grace Happening people accept and affirm the flawed nature of themselves and others, recognizing the very presence of grace drawing them toward God and into fellowship with one another. Thank you, God, for our grace-filled flaws that lead us deeper and deeper into your love!

Grace Happening People - "R" Stands for Rascals

June 16, 2007

This is the second installment of a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram “GRACE HAPPENS,” each letter representing a quality that equips us to be “Grace Happening People."

“R” Stands for Rascals
Grace Happening People are Rascals

Rascals? Yes, you heard me right—rascals. In one way or another, at one time or another, we are all rascals. I suppose that if I’m going to call you a rascal I should define what I mean, lest you take undue offense. A rascal may be “a mean, unprincipled, or dishonest person (rogue), a wandering, disorderly, or dissolute person (vagrant, tramp, beggar), a dishonest, unprincipled person (swindler), a worthless fellow (scoundrel), or a pleasantly mischievous person.” (definitions courtesy of Merriam-Webster) I’m claiming “pleasantly mischievous” as my rascally persona and leaving the other descriptors to my readers to fight over!

If you’re having difficulty claiming your rascality, maybe it would help to remember the little rascals of “Our Gang” fame: Alfalfa, Darla, Spanky, or Buckwheat, perhaps. If you’ve no idea who I’m talking about, then you are too young to be reading this column (I’m kidding—keep reading!). How about Dennis the Menace, Bart Simpson, Calvin, Ernie, or Curious George? If you’re not familiar with these rascals, then you really are too young!

The Bible makes it clear that God loves rascals and even uses rascals to convey His grace to others. The rascal Moses was a murderer and a reluctant servant—in spite of his burning bush encounter— and well known for his infamous temper outburst when he broke the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. King David—noted to be “a man after God’s own heart”—committed adultery and then had his lover’s husband set up to be killed in battle. When Jesus selected members for his “gang,” he included Levi, a tax collector. Apostle Paul, was certainly a zealous rascal, responsible for the deaths of many Christians, but his encounter with grace on the road to Damascus was a “crosspoint” that transformed him into one of the most powerful agents of God’s grace.

While I’ve never committed murder—or literally broken God’s law (the stone tablets, that is)—I think I probably fall somewhere between these infamous yet revered Biblical rascals and Calvin and Ernie (although I see myself as more like Hobbs or Bert).

So, if we are such rascals, how do we get to the place where we can be Grace Happening people?
Max Lucado, in “The Grip of Grace”, states that “Mercy understood is holiness desired...Grace fosters an eagerness for good...” and “God’s trust makes us eager to do right. Such is the genius of grace. The law can show us where we do wrong, but it can’t make us eager to do right. Grace can.” When we really grasp the free gift of grace, goodness flows from our grace-filled beings. We become grace-givers, empowered by grace. In fact, our very “rascally-ness” can be the clincher in “selling” others on grace. If God can love a rascal like Moses, then maybe he can he can love a rascal like me. And if God can love a rascal like me, then maybe he can love you too!

From one rascal to another, I invite you to grab onto grace and stop trying to earn God’s love and forgiveness. Relax into the arms of grace and you will see God’s commandments as the secret to happiness and peace. Secure in God’s love, we obey out of our gratitude and desire to please our loving Heavenly Father who we know has our very best intentions in mind—not out of fear that we’ll be rejected because we’re too rascally. Then when we do mess up, we can turn to the law for guidance as to how to get back on track.

Grace-Happening people are freed and empowered to embrace their inner-rascal by accepting God’s forgiveness and love as a gift. Permeated with grace, we grow and thrive, and we radiate this love to others. Law and Grace—it’s a win/win situation—if you put Grace in its proper place. Grace first—and we are able to embrace the law as a gift of grace.
Rascals. Gotta’ love ‘em!

Grace Happening People - "G" Stands for Galatians 6:2-5

June 9, 2007

Today I begin a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram “GRACE HAPPENS,” each letter representing a quality that equips us to be “Grace Happening People.”

“G” Stands for Galatians 6:2-5:
Grace Happening People Bear One Another’s Burdens

Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
…each one should carry his own load.
Galatians 6:2-5

According to Galatians 6:2, we are to “carry each other’s burdens.” Conscientious Christians take this to heart and often wear themselves out helping others. The cycle goes something like this: Someone asks me for assistance at a time when I am already up to my ears in obligations. But I say “yes” because it is the Christian thing to do. Disappointed because my friend or relative doesn’t express appreciation or, worse yet, asks me to do yet another thing for them, I end up feeling bitter and resentful for being taken advantage of. Then I feel guilty for my unchristian attitude. This cycle repeats itself over and over again as I attempt to meet the needs of others, wearing me down and wearing me out.

How is it that my attempts to emulate Christ culminate with me feeling so many joy-robbing, energy-eroding feelings? Is this really what it’s supposed to feel like when I reach out or respond to someone’s plea with grace? Is this Christian charity—or is it codependency? Codependency is a state of being in which we continually overextend ourselves in “helping” others, and in so doing, ignore our own needs and responsibilities, depleting our physical and emotional energies.

The motive underlying codependency is to meet my own unmet emotional needs. If I don’t feel very good about myself, I will do things for others in order to feel appreciated, needed, loved, accepted, of value… In other words, when I do something for you out of my codependency, I am expecting something back, namely affirmation that you value me. My self-esteem and sense of well-being are dependent on how you feel about me and treat me.

When I am in tune with who I am in Christ—an individual who is infinitely loved and valued by God—I am able to make wise choices on when and how to serve others. Secure in God’s love and grace, I am able to discern God’s direction from my own vain attempts to meet my unmet needs.

One of the most helpful pieces of information I have learned along the way is to NOT do for someone else what they are capable of doing for themselves. Galatians 6:5 informs us that we each have a daily load—and it is our responsibility to carry it. When we do for others what they can do for themselves, we rob them of the opportunity to make a contribution and to enjoy a sense of competency.

Think of a time when you were overwhelmed by a burden and someone came alongside with advice, encouragement, tutoring, a loan, a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold during a nerve-wracking wait in a surgery waiting room or court room, companionship during chemo, childcare when you’re ready to pull your hair out… Think also of a time when you wanted someone to cover for you, take up slack when you slacked off, pick up after you, do your chores—while you goof off…

Grace Happening people learn to discern when to offer assistance with a burden and when to stand back and be a cheerleader, offering encouragement to someone in carrying their daily load. Picture in your mind a pair of oxen yoked together, walking side by side, sharing their load equally. Alone, the burden is unbearable; together it is doable.

Christ invites us to, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30) According to Matthew Henry, this yoke requires self-denial (not codependency), but “it is a yoke that is lined with love.” What better place from which to demonstrate and receive God’s grace!