Lenten Series – Part 6: Fear of Failure

We are in the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter when Christians traditionally lament over their sins and then, in response, choose something to give up such as chocolate or Facebook or alcohol. The idea is to daily turn away from what distracts us or derails us and turn back to God.  Instead of giving up something for Lent, this year I encourage you to let go and let God.

Until I was in my mid-fifties, I lived in a world of fear.  Most that fear was based on the conviction that failing was not an option. I protected myself from any experience that I thought would make me look foolish, incompetent, or just plain stupid. I wouldn’t go in grocery stores I wasn’t familiar with.  I wouldn’t drive anywhere if I didn’t already know how to get there.  I preferred to not make telephone calls  – period.

My fear of failure derived from a false story demonstrated by my parents and grandparents: In order to have worth and value I needed the approval of others. The counter false story was that if I had the approval of others I  would have a happy life. How confusing to someone like me then to read in the gospels that the first must be last and the last must be first.

Recently I read an interesting discussion of failure by W. Paul Jones. Jones says that “the church has consistently ministered to the unintentional victims of failure. It has found it much harder, however to accept intentional failure as central to the gospel itself. Yet Christianity is for losers—so much so that winners must undergo failure to become Christian. Against a lifetime of socialization, there remains the firm insistence: “Whoever would save [one’s] life will lose it, and whoever loses [one’s] life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25, RSV).

“The central image for failure is the desert. It runs from Adam and Eve’s exile east of Eden through John’s exile on Patmos. It is in the desert that our primary temptations become exposed—those of power, status, and security (Matt. 4:1-11). These temptations are the precise marks which our society identifies as success. Thus for the Christian to be faithful is to fail—intentionally.

“But the process through which we refuse to embrace the driving values of the surrounding society is not a teeth-gritting self-denial. By breaking the craving for these “values,” the desert becomes our honeymoon with God (Jer. 2:2). It is where God forms God’s people. Without this desert honeymoon, Christianity is too easily reduced to a justification of questionable winning, or solace as sour grapes for failing when we really wanted to win.

“In time, the search becomes the goal, the longing becomes sufficient unto itself, and the perseverance transforms the meaning of success. Then some quiet evening, perhaps by full moon, it becomes strangely self-evident that we would not be searching had we not already been found. And the desert blooms when we find ourselves willing to be last—not because the last may become first, but because the game of “firsts” and “lasts” is no longer of interest.”*

In order to really change my “fear of failure” behaviors I have to spend time in the desert. I have to release those values that stand for success in the world and jettison the false narratives I have been taught. I have to accept the narrative Jesus taught and modeled of a loving God who isn’t influenced by my attempts to gain approval but freely gives mercy and grace when I surrender to God’s love. And in each surrender, the desert blooms and the game of “firsts” and “lasts” is no longer of interest.

* (From “Intentional Failure: The Importance of the Desert Experience,” Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Vol. VII, No. 1 (Jan/Feb 1992)(Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1992), 16-21.)

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Lenten Series – Part 5: Nagging

We are in the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter when Christians traditionally lament over their sins and then, in response, choose something to give up such as chocolate or Facebook or alcohol. The idea is to daily turn away from what distracts us or derails us and turn back to God.  Instead of giving up something for Lent, this year I encourage you to let go and let God.

I was sitting in an Al-Anon meeting when Philip said something that changed made me sit up straight in my chair. He said, “When you say something once, it is information.  When you say it more than once, it is an attempt to control.”  He was describing the nasty and dangerous habit of nagging.

The word nag means to pester, badger, harass and to annoy by scolding. It likely comes from a  Scandinavian source meaning “to gnaw” – which is a pretty good image of our behavior when we nag. It is probably the most annoying way to try to control someone’s behavior and perhaps the most counterproductive. I was raised by nagging parents and learned by example. When Philip made his comment, he turned a spotlight on my “go to” behavior to get someone to do what I want.

What do we nag about in families?  Leaving all the lights in the house on, hanging dirty clothes on the floor, texting at the dinner table, storing left-over food under the bed, getting hair cuts, doing  homework, cleaning out the litter box,  taking the trash out. These are normal (though ineffective) attempts to control in many homes. But we also nag and scold about important things: Get up in time to go to church. You’ve had enough to drink! Get a job! Find a new boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend. Pay attention in school! Come home on time!  Pay attention to me!

We nag when we think someone hasn’t heard us or is ignoring us. We nag when we are embarrassed by what someone is doing (particularly a tween or teen) and it reflects on us. We nag when we don’t know how to communicate or don’t dare to say what we really mean. For example, “Stopnagging 2 drinking” means “I’m afraid; your drinking is ruining our family life.” Nagging is a sign of an unhealthy relationship, a power struggle where love and courtesy and respect are non-existent. Nagging almost never works; if it does, it means the other person has given up or given in or is manipulating the nagger.

If nagging is soul-sucking and ineffective, what can we do instead? First, stop denying that this is inappropriate behavior and choose to let it go. Second, recognize that we are attempting to control another person and find other ways to communicate our needs and wants. Look at how Jesus interacted with people. He loved people into relationships; he did not try to control them. Third, stop focusing on the other person, search out your own shortcomings, and give them to God. Once we let go of trying to arrange the outcomes for all the people around us, they may take responsibility for their own lives.  (Even if they don’t, it’s not our business to try to change them.) Finally, and most difficult, fear less and love more. Controlling behavior is all about fear.

The next time you hear yourself saying the same thing over and over  (“Don’t forget to call the plumber today!”), stop nagging and scolding and have a conversation.  You may learn that it’s better for you to call the plumber yourself.

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From My Reading – March

“By contemplation, we mean the deliberate seeking of God through a willingness to detach from the passing self, the tyranny of emotions, the addiction to self-image, and the false promises of the world. Action, as we are using the word, means a decisive commitment toward involvement and engagement in the social order. Issues will not be resolved by mere reflection, discussion, or even prayer, nor will they be resolved only by protests, boycotts, or even, unfortunately by voting the “right” way. Rather, God “works together with” all those who love (see Romans 8:28)” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, January 17, 2020).

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“Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company”  (Rachel Naomi Remen).

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“Saint Basil the Great articulated the goal of Christianity as “Likeness to God as far as possible for human nature.” Everyone of us—because of God’s presence and action in our world—can partake in the divine-likeness (2 Pet 1:4). Christianity is not about going back to the garden, it’s about going forward. It’s about cultivating, by grace, the divine-likeness. And that’s the symbolism of the Garden of Eden—cultivation, not completion. The garden was not meant to be the pinnacle but the prelude of human civilization. A place of infinite possibility—a starting point—a genesis” (Jonathan Bailey@jonathan bailey.com).

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“Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against justice” (Martin Luther King).

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“[Jesus] never announced to his disciples: “Hey folks, we’re going to start a new, centralized, institutional religion and name it after me.” Instead, he played the role of a nonviolent leader and launched his movement with the classic words of movement, “Follow me” (see Matthew 4:19, for example). He used his power to empower others. He did great things to inspire his followers to do even greater things [see John 14:12-14]. Rather than demand uniformity, he reminded his disciples that he had “sheep of other folds” (John 10:16). . . . He recruited diverse disciples who learned—by heart—his core vision and way of life. Then he sent these disciples out as apostles to teach and multiply his vision and way of life among “all the nations” (Matthew 28:19) (Brian McLaren).

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“Ring the bell that still can ring. Forget the perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen).

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Lenten Series – Part 4: Anxiety

We are in the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter when Christians traditionally lament over their sins and then, in response, choose something to give up such as chocolate or Facebook or alcohol. The idea is to daily turn away from what distracts us or derails us and turn back to God.  Instead of giving up something for Lent, this year I encourage you to let go and let God. This material was first published in 2016; you can see how much worse the problem has gotten in 2020.

She was anxious, that’s for certain!  She was eager to fly to another state for a weekend visit, but the weather forecast was promising several inches of snow. She was worried about the flight being canceled or delayed and about missing her connecting flight.  And everyone who came in the room added to her apprehension with their own weather-related flight disaster stories – including me. And yet no one, least of all my friend, could do anything about the situation. She would just have to wait until the next morning to see how much snow had fallen and where and then make her decisions.

We all experience anxiety and its first cousins:  uneasiness, apprehension, fretfulness, dread. We know the feeling of  “butterflies in the stomach” and we are pros at pacing back and forth. Intellectually, we know that our inability to set aside a worry about an imminent event or about something with an uncertain outcome will only make our lives more difficult. So where does all this inner turmoil get us?  Nowhere!

Anxiety is different from fear. Fear is a response to a real or perceived immediate threat and provokes the famous fight or flight reflex. Anxiety is the expectation of and usually an overreaction to a real or imagined future threat – a discomfort that is hard to set aside. We can choose to dwell in the world of anxiety, or we can look at what our Master Trainer, Jesus, did. We don’t read about him pacing the floor or even expressing verbal concern – except in the Garden just before his arrest. And then what did Jesus do with his anxiety?   He let go of it and gave it to his Father.

In his book The Good and Beautiful Life, (p. 184-5), James Bryan Smith recommends this soul-training exercising for letting go of anxiety:

  1.  Set aside ten or 15 minutes each morning
  2.  Reflect on the things you are anxious about.
  3.  Write each one in a journal or notebook
  4.  Ask yourself what you can do about each of the situations.
  5.  Make a note to yourself to do the things you can do
  6.  Turn everything else over to God.
  7.  Write your request to God and be specific.

The answer to anxiety is to turn your cares into prayers.  Seeing your Anxiety 3worries from God’s perspective will put your concerns in a new light. Remember, too, that you live in the unshakable Kingdom of God; no matter what happens you are safe. Remember that God’s strength and power are available as you pray.   Remember that you do not have to be burdened by anxiety.  You can choose to walk away from anxiety  and leave it with God who will bury it in the farthest sea.

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Lenten Series – Part 3: “Watch Your Mouth”

We are in the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter when Christians traditionally lament over their sins and then, in response, choose something to give up such as chocolate or Facebook or alcohol. The idea is to daily turn away from what distracts us or derails us and turn back to God.  Instead of giving up something for Lent, this year I encourage you to let go and let God. This material was first published in 2016; you can see how much worse the problem has gotten in 2020.

“Watch your mouth” was a clear statement that someone in our family said something out of line (except the parents, of course).  And the parents who said it meant it.  I distinctly remember the horrible taste of brown Lava soap as my mother “washed my mouth out” when I said a forbidden word as a young teenager.  I thought of that incident often during the years when I was a volunteer reading teacher in the county jail and walked the hallways or sat with an inmate and heard language I had never heard in my life – and, unfortunately, began to absorb by osmosis  into my vocabulary.

namecallingBut I never thought I would see the day when candidates for the highest office in this land would throw around insults like school boys in a playground as they are arguing who is the best person for the job.  Talk about counter-intuitive!  But here we are in 2016 listening on TV and radio and hearing offensive language sliding off the tongue like butter from one candidate and rolling out less confidently from others who want to win the competition for biggest bully in the campaign.

I thought about this ugliness when I dipped into Calvin B. DeWitt’s book, Song of a Scientist, The Harmony of a God-soaked Creation again.

“. . . Human beings have a special honor of imaging God’s love to the world that bears with it a special responsibility. God is love and we should image God’s love.  Imaging the Creator’s love and care for the creatures sustains us as their appreciative beholders , prevents us from abusing them or their kind, compels us to have compassion for the biosphere. . . “

Of course, DeWitt’s subject matter is care for creation, but I think his words are just as applicable to how we are to care and communicate with each other. When we fall to the level of demeaning the way someone looks, talks, thinks, or believes, we are no longer communicating. We are bullying. Bullying in any form is dangerous as well as ineffective. It’s time for Americans to watch our mouths!

Watching your mouth involves other tasks than just editing offensive language. “Little white lies,” exaggeration, not speaking up when we should (as in when the whole group around us is gossiping) are all examples of lack of integrity of speech. In his book, The Good and Beautiful Life, James Bryan Smith recalls a time at a dinner party when he was asked about his opinion of Hawthorne, a writer Jim had never read.  He reports that the conversation lasted an awkward ten minutes, during which he responded with  “carefully crafted lies.” Why did I persist in the conversation?” he asks.  Why do any of us hide behind lies? His answer is that we all have “a deep need to think well of ourselves.  ‘I am important and my well-being is my main mission. There will be times when I need to lie in order to gain what I want or prevent something that I do not want.  That is why lying is okay.’  It is an ends-means justification.”

Every time I teach this material I am brought up short. How often have I pretended to know something that I don’t, to save face? How often have ugly words escaped unbidden?How often have I shaved a little truth from an excuse,  such as “Sorry, I’m late. Traffic was bad,” when in reality I had tried to cram too much into too little time and was just rudely late?

How often do I exaggerate?  For example, I often say, “I’m starving!” I have never been in danger of starvation, but many people have been and many more still are. When I exaggerate, I diminish the impact of the word starvation. How often have I kept still in the face of mean gossip or just plain misinformation?

In many ways, our world is blowing up in around us. We need to be kinder, gentler, and more compassionate than ever. We need to work hard to learn the truth. We need to work harder to speak the truth and just as hard to distinguish the truth in others’ words. We need to choose our candidates out of respect and trust, not because we’re angry and they speak our anger louder than we can or dare.  We need to be Christ-like in our care with words. We need to watch our mouths!  Let’s let go of speaking, listening to, and relishing in and approving angry discourse. Let us let God give us our truths to speak.

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“Bright Flows the River of God”

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” (Annie Dillard)

My husband and I have been in a peculiar time of helplessness for a few weeks.  He has a new diagnosis of too much protein in his heart which causes the heart muscles to thicken and not do their job of delivering oxygen to the rest of the body. That plus Stage 4 COPD makes his breathing very difficult. I have added a mean-looking crop of shingles to my back, chest, and up and down one arm to my back pain and diabetes.  We truly are quite a sight to behold as we try to  navigate through life.

In the last week I have learned a deep lesson about the community that the Holy Spirit creates from Christ followers of disparate personalities with different interests, different personal traits, different abilities . . . but the same God.  

M. offered me cleaning coupons given to her by her son when she had a hip replacement. When I finally accepted her offer, she told me she would meet the cleaning lady at my house – which seemed strange. When they arrived, she marched in behind the cleaning lady and announced that she was going to vacuum and dust and K. would clean the bathrooms and the tile floors – and wash the front windows, and clean the microwave and wipe off the top of the refrigerator. I argued a bit and then finally sat back and watched the Dutch heritage go to work.

B. called to say that she had an errand near me and asked if I needed anything.  I sheepishly acknowledged that I hadn’t visited the lock box in the apartment complex to pick up our mail for several days. She came to the house, picked up the key, and then delivered the mail as well as a steaming box of potato wedges – something I always order when we are out for lunch (which she usually pays for).  She also stayed to visit and we talked politics (passionately) for a while – a real treat for me.

S. (the same person who brought me the lamp described in an earlier post) came over and blessed me with the honor of asking my thoughts about some concerns in the church. She also shared her wonder at an exciting interpretation of a familiar scripture verse. I learned that my endless care-giving had not robbed me of the ability to think and share deeply with  others.

Another B sent me a newsletter containing a story that she said reminded her of what I had taught her years ago:  “God does not love us because of what we do but because of who we are.” She thanked me for what she had learned in my classes. She also included a bookmark with the words “Sending a Prayer” to remind us that she and her husband, whom she also serves as a caregiver, always include us in their prayers.

S. (my sister-in-law) heard some of the panic in my voice as I described Fred’s new diagnosis and the frightening struggle he has to breathe. I mentioned trying to find a nebulizer paid for by insurance. She volunteered to research the issue and called in a few hours with the names of two companies in Holland that provide that service and a description of how the whole process works.

My favorite verse in my favorite Psalm (23) teaches that “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of our lives and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  The traditional meaning of this verse is that God will be with us forever.  I think that phrase also means that we will leave our own trail of goodness and mercy all the days of our lives. Surely these women have perfumed our home with goodness and mercy this week.

And in addition to the help these women provided my family, their simple service taught me the truth stated above by Annie Dillard: “how we spend our days” (giving to others) demonstrates “how we spend our lives” (in compassionate service).

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Lenten Series – Part 2: Take an Inventory

We are in the season of Lent, a holy time when Christians focus on the meaning of the life and death of Jesus. This series of posts was first published in February/March, 2016. It focuses on the concept of “letting go and letting God” rather than the traditional  tradition of “giving up something for God.”These posts are the product of lessons hard learned and freedom hard won in my life. If they are new to you, I pray that they will light your path for the next several weeks. If you have read them before, I pray that you will see the growth in your life since Lent of 2016 and renew your attention to “letting go.”

One important concept of any 12-Step program is to “take a fearless and searching moral inventory” of our lives. This Step 4 adventure is rooted in Lamentations 3:40: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.”  The purpose of this life-long spiritual practice is to become aware of defects or shortcomings in our character and to eliminate them by letting go of them and turning them over to God.

In Galatians 5: 13 – 21, the apostle Paul gives us a useful and brutally honest inventory of “what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time.” Read the list below as described in The Message. Do any of these descriptions of life hit home?  Which one (s) do you want to root out from your life?  Which one (s) do you want to let go and let God

◊  repetitive, loveless, cheap sex;

◊  a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage;

◊  frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness;

◊  trinket gods;

◊  magic-show religion;

◊  paranoid loneliness;

◊  cutthroat competition;

◊  all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants;

◊  a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved;

◊  divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits;

◊  the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival;

◊  uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions;

◊  ugly parodies of community

But Paul doesn’t stop there. He provides another inventory in verses 22-23, one that describes qualities we that will appear when we prune our ugly defects, give up our addiction to control, and live life in God’s way. These qualities appear as gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard.

◊  affection for others

◊  exuberance about life;

◊  serenity;

◊  a willingness to stick with things;

◊   a sense of compassion in the heart;

◊  a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people;

◊  involvement in loyal commitments;

◊  not needing to force our way in life;

◊  the ability to  marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Which gift do you want to receive and use in God’s Kingdom?

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Lenten Series, 2020 – Part 1: Let Go of Control

We are entering the season of Lent, a holy time when Christians focus on the meaning of the life and death of Jesus. This series of posts was first published in February/March, 2016. It focuses on the concept of “letting go and letting God” rather than the traditional  tradition of “giving up something for God.”

I am re-posting these weekly from February 26 to April 8, 2020. These posts are the product of lessons hard learned and freedom hard won in my life. If they are new to you, I pray that they will light your path for the next several weeks. If you have read them before, I pray that you will see the growth in your life since Lent of 2016 and renew your attention to “letting go.”

let_go_and_let_god

We have entered the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter when Christians traditionally lament over their sins and then, in response, choose something to give up such as chocolate or Facebook or alcohol. The idea is to daily turn away from what distracts us or derails us and turn back to God. Instead of giving up something for Lent, this year I encourage you to let go and let God.

What does it mean to let go of something?  Letting go assumes that there is something we are hanging on to.  Everyone chooses different things to hang on to – a girlfriend, a home, the dream of entrepreneurship, retirement funds, the hope of having a child, a trip to Hawaii or Paris, their good looks, the latest phone or iPad.

One thing we all try to hang on to is control; we keep the illusion that we are in charge in our tightly closed fist and run roughshod through life (and the lives of others) like a defensive lineman trying to sack the quarterback. Jesus had something to say to Christians about this tendency in Mark 8: 34:  “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message:  “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead.  You’re not in the driver’s seat.  I am.” He makes it very plain. If we want to be Christ-followers, we have to take ourselves off the throne and out of the driver’s seat. We have to let go and let God.  As the Twelve Steps say, we have to acknowledge that we are powerless and turn our need for control over to God.

Powerlessness, which also implies not being in control, has a bad rap. We associate powerlessness with weakness, helplessness, feebleness, or with being incapable, ineffective, or defenseless. We even call people who don’t like and don’t want to play power games “toothless.” We believe that power makes us right, and oh, do we love being right! No wonder we don’t like to think about losing the edge or the advantage or the best position – in any situation.

But what if we accept the fact that being powerless simply means that we recognize that the outcome is not in our hands. Think about that for a minute. What outcomes, small or large, do you actually have some power or control over? Can you control the weather, the stock market, the election of 2016? How about global warming, the water level of Lake Michigan, or forest fires in California? Can you control your child’s fears, your spouse’s faithfulness, your parent’s dementia, your boss’s temperament? Can you control when your neighbor mows his lawn or if he flies his flag correctly or if he weeds his flower bed? Do you have any power of what happens at a red light, or over your arthritis diagnosis, or over how quickly time passes?  Do you have any influence over gossip on Facebook or lies in the church or cover-ups by government officials?

If we are honest, we have to admit the outcome of anything is beyond our control. We truly are powerless. The truth that only God is in control. God is the Creator; we are creatures. Powerlessness is the reality of our lives. What if we admitted that the recognition of powerless opens the door to being empowered by Godopen hands 2? What if we admitted that we can learn to live safely and freely within the boundaries that God creates instead of constantly pushing the boundaries past the danger point? What if we accepted that God has tasks for us to do that the Spirit will enable us to carry out?  Why don’t we let go of the pretense of being in control of the universe and turn over that job back over to God?

What would it be like to open our fists and symbolically and physically and let go of control? What would it be like to turn our addiction to being in charge over to God? What if every day during Lent, we presented our open hands to God and said, “I let go of my need for control. I admit that my controlling nature makes my life unmanageable.  I turn over control of my life to you”?

Jesus is our Master and he did exactly that:  “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). We also need to let go and let God do what God wills. This submission will lead to peace and joy, even when the way is difficult. We need to say with Jesus, “Father, I place my life in Your hands!” (Luke 23:46).

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