Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On Being Transparent

[what's brewing: would you like a dark or light roast?]

There have been so many significant comments coming through these past few weeks. I suspect I am not the only one who has enjoyed reading the many perspectives that were collectively presented by you all. I am certainly not the only one who made a connection between the discussion on transparency and the being vs. doing dilemma .

If we weren’t so convinced that we needed to do all the right things in order to be valued, surely we wouldn’t be so threatened by living transparently before others.

Certainly there are elements of our culture that teach and reinforce the belief that we won’t be respected or accepted if we are flawed. Transparency contradicts what comes naturally to us as fallen creatures – hiding. Genesis 3 reveals that the first human response to the realization of their reality was to hide. Scripture recounts many more stories of sinning and hiding, and today we are confronted with the same response in ourselves and those around us.

While a shift towards valuing authenticity may slowly be happening, by and large our culture (both secular and Christian) continues to praise perfection above authenticity – doing above being. The varied responses here on this blog confirm that vulnerability and transparency are a clearly perceived threat to respected leadership.

I think part of it is that our culture teaches us that people won't respect leadership if they see it as weak, so it is very difficult to learn how to intentionally lead a group while also intentionally being vulnerable. - kacie

In looking at the role of being transparent and sharing a burden with those around us, it seems that many people feel that the primary purpose of doing so is whether it would benefit the other person. Will they be encouraged to endure because of what I share? Will it help them to understand themselves more if I share a past burden (or a current burden disguised as a past burden)? While I certainly believe that God does use our difficult experiences to comfort others in similar circumstances (check out 2 Corinthians 1:3-5), I also believe that this is not the primary reason we are to live authentically.

We don’t simply benefit others by allowing them to see the real us – we benefit ourselves first and foremost by stepping out of the darkness and choosing to live in the light.

James tells us that we are healed by confessing our sins to one another. As I read through the comments over the past few weeks I began to wonder how many of us truly believe that statement. Do we really see ourselves as the ones who gain from sharing authentically with others, or do we see it solely as an opportunity to benefit those around us?

As I allow my "true" self to be revealed, I will not only have a greater revelation of who Christ is but I will have a much greater ability to build relationships with other believers and non-believers. – kara

What I appreciated about so many of the comments that affirmed the value of being and of living transparently with others is the acknowledgement that it doesn’t come naturally; it is a choice. We allow it to happen. Our fear of revealing who we really are is a driving force behind our belief that our DOING is more important than our BEING. We must actively fight against that if we are to build a life characterized by humility and honesty that contradicts our desire to be liked and respected for what we do well.

We begin to feel other's acceptance of us is then because of our usefulness and not because of them liking us. It leaves room for the fear, "if they really knew who I was...." – ellie

I have been challenged by the comments and discussion over these past few weeks. I’ve been pondering the reasons behind my decisions to share or not to share, to spend time being rather than doing, to step into the light or to hide in the darkness. It is no surprise to say that the primary motivation behind the latter options is self protection, or more specifically, pride. I’ve tried to envision how my life would be different if my motivation to gain approval from others were eliminated.

And I’m wondering, what would the impact be on your life if you were no longer motivated by the approval of people around you?

Think of how much longer missionaries would last on the field if they weren't having to work so hard at just being "good missionaries"! – junglewife

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Quote from the Road

[what's brewing: something for the road]

This week I am on the move – away from home and the many things that fill my days. Being away from usual things often frees my mind up to contemplate other things, even if my hours are quickly filled, just as full, with different things. Before boarding my plane, I came across this quote and jotted it down in my journal. I thought I’d share it with you today as it seems to reflect the tension we are all faced with in a life of ministry: being vs. doing.

Thomas Merton said:

We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have - for their usefulness.

What would you say to him?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Coffeegirl Book Club

Chapter 10 - Epilogue: The Second Death

I have often thought of going through this book and pulling out the various passages that talk about grief because Vanauken has detailed the experience so well – making distinctions between loss and grief, developing a holistic view of the lost person, grieving for specific things as well as their general presence, acknowledging the reality of simply being sad. And this chapter adds to those thoughts as his grief comes to an end – the stated ‘second death’ of the lost one.

The second death seems to be an indication of adjustment to me – when the loss (whatever it may be – a physical death or a move away from home) starts to feel somewhat normal and the emotions are not delicately tied up around the issue. I have certainly experienced a similar shift in the experience of grieving the losses that were left behind when we moved here, and I do believe that every loss, no matter how big or small, follows a similar pattern to what Vanauken described so well as he faced his grief head-on.

Both the dream of Davy’s visit and the walk in Lincoln when her presence felt so real were touching to me. Whether he and Lewis’ thoughts on the possible presence of the departed are indeed right, the experience of a very lifelike dream or a special moment of sheer contentment and comfort in the midst of a loss is quite powerful. Shortly after arriving here, I dreamt that I was waking up in my parents’ home with the sunlight pouring into the bedroom. The sense of comfort and security I had in that dream as I tucked under the sheets, soaked in the sun , smelled fresh-brewed coffee, and heard the voices of my family coming up the stairs was so very real that I awoke feeling as if I had really just been with them. My heart was full. The disappointment of realizing where I actually was brought me to tears moments later, but even now, that feeling of comfort returns when I think of that dream because that dream was so very real.

One of the excerpts from Lewis’ letters made me smile as he recounted the many prayers that had been said for Joy’s recovery. “I sometimes tremble when I think how good Joy and I ought to be: how good we would have promised to be if God had offered us these mercies at that price.” I found it comforting to think that even a man of Lewis’ intellect and faith would find himself promising many things to God if he would only answer this one prayer…

I loved the final passage of this book and thought it summarized a point that we have come back to time and again during these past 10 weeks: eternity.

But in my thoughts of her I come back again and again to that foretaste of eternity on the decks of Grey Goose: the timeless beauty and closeness of the night of the sea-fire. An image, not of the past but of what is to be.

With this week’s post focusing on the last chapter of the book, I would like to plan for one more “meeting of the book club” to post some reflections on the book as a whole – what you liked / didn’t like, what you learned, how God might have used it to challenge or encourage in your present circumstances, etc. I will be traveling this week and would like to have some extra time to think about the book as a whole, so let’s plan our last meeting in two weeks time. See you then!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Getting Real

[what's brewing: anyone gotta spoon 'cause I'm ready to stir it up!]

The comments on the topic of sharing a burden were fantastic, and if you haven’t had a chance to read through them yet I would encourage you to do so. I have gleaned something from each comment that is helpful as I’m thinking through this issue of transparency and sharing with the people we are ministering to.

The discussion on that topic has naturally led me to consider another related issue – sharing openly and transparently with teammates (or fellow Christians ministering in your area, etc.).

(Is anyone thinking, “Is she crazy?!” just yet?)

I have experienced some very supportive, open relationships with other ministry teammates. I have heard very positive stories from some friends in ministry about the strong and supportive relationships they have with fellow Christians in their area. But I have to say that by and large, the primary impression that I have been left from missionaries over the years is this:

There seems to be an intense fear lurking within many missionaries of what other Christians may think if a struggle (or, dare I say, a sin) were to be revealed. Subsequently, many have chosen to retreat into silence, striving to maintain the appearance of perfection,while suffering and struggling alone.

I trust that we are all too familiar with the reasons that support this fear of revealing sensitive information to others: being judged and treated poorly by other Christians, having confidences broken, information being used against you (even as ammunition and/or blackmail, as it was stated last week), or losing the respect of people around you (a response that only affirms the initial belief telling you to keep quiet because ‘they won’t respect you anymore’).

These are real and understandable reasons for being hesitant, even opposed, to sharing personal struggles with other believers around you. But the fact is that these wounding responses, though they may have come from God-fearing people, are ungodly. They encourage a life of emotional and spiritual solitude and self-sufficiency that is contrary to the fellowship that God intends among His people.

The kingdom of God is to be marked by grace, love and forgiveness – a sharp contrast to the self-focused world around us that uses weakness and suffering as a chance to further individual interests. We are to celebrate the gifts and blessings that are given by God’s hand and to be His hands in caring for others in dark times.

If this is what we are both called to and proclaiming, then why is this not what so many are experiencing on the field? Why does a sense of competition seep through the tiring efforts of so many as they try to appear whole, holy and perfectly happy? Why are teammates and other believers often seen as competitors rather than fellow sojourners?

The clear answer to this is that we are saved by grace, yet corrupted by sin and still very capable of hurting one another. But I come to you again looking for a discussion on the specific reasons that many missionaries are experiencing competition and isolation with those around them. I am seeking your honest and vulnerable insights, even if it means leaving an anonymous comment in order to do that. Let’s talk about the issues that contribute to this. Let’s share the real struggles (as well as the real victories) that surround this issue, not simply reciting the truths should solve the issue.

Let’s get real.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Coffeegirl Book Club

Chapter 9

"I came to wonder whether all objects that men and women set their hearts upon, even the darkest and most obsessive desires, do not begin as intimations of joy from the sole spring of joy, God."

After the whirlwind pace of the preceding chapters, this week’s reading felt like a chance to catch a deep breath and look back over the many things that had happened. I was pleased to see many of the passages we’ve pulled out for discussion in previous weeks be revisited by Vanauken himself, and I enjoyed considering them again in relation to the other events of the book.

Vanauken’s comments about the residual feeling of “incompleteness” that remained even in the most fulfilling moments of enjoyment intrigued me. I have pondered that feeling many times, wondering why even the most splendid of experiences can leave me feeling somewhat unsatisfied, as if I could’ve experienced it more deeply, but not knowing how. He captured it perfectly , saying, “…there was something more, something still deeper, that we hadn’t time enough – world and time enough – to reach. We didn’t at all feel that we were unable to reach it, only that there wasn’t time enough.” This added a level of humanity to Van and Davy’s experiences that I hadn’t seen expressed in any other chapters, and I found it refreshing.

One of my favorite parts of every book I read is the portion where the reason for the title is explained, so this chapter was a natural highlight for me. Vanauken’s reflection on the condition of his own will towards God, the implications this had upon the event of Davy’s dying, and the possibilities of how things would have been had Davy been healed really helped to craft the idea of “a severe mercy” – a mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love.

Lewis’ sharp but trusted critique of the Shining Barrier articulated so well the discomfort that we expressed early on with the exclusivity of their relationship. I was glad to hear him comment so directly on the misplaced priority in the relationship, best stated by Lewis himself: One flesh must not ‘live to itself’ any more than the single individual. It was not made, any more than he, to be its Own End. The realizations this honest critique allowed Vanauken to develop about his own jealousy of God and the condition of his own heart even during Davy’s final months were good for me to read. I particularly loved this quote:

It took her death, ironical as it must seem, to make me content in her turning her gaze from me to the Eternal Fountain.

That summarizes so many things from the preceding chapters and highlights the real focus of the book – not the love story between Van and Davy, but the ultimate breach of the Shining Barrier by God’s hand in order to turn Vanauken’s eyes to the Eternal Fountain, as gently as he could. I love it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sharing a Burden

[what's brewing: help wanted to serve this up]

In one of my recent postings for the Coffeegirl Book Club I wrote that I usually find it easier to bear the burdens of others than to let others bear my burdens with me. I have been considering the reasons behind this, and here are some of the thoughts I’ve had thus far:

- It’s easier for me to be trusted than to trust.

- People open up to me quite easily, so I am often entrusted with the burdens of others.

- The risk of being misunderstood is the primary reason I refrain from opening my burdens to others.

- I’m an ISFJ – caring for others comes more naturally than caring for myself.

- I sought a graduate degree in counseling because I find fulfillment in walking alongside others during difficult times (an extension of my ISFJ-ness).

- I generally process difficult things internally for a long time before I am ready to verbalize them to someone else.

- After years in various ministry positions, the posture of receiving others’ burdens has become more natural than the posture of offering my own to others.

- Our current ministry role has further reinforced this and has me feeling that my posture should be one of almost exclusively receiving others’ burdens.

I am very interested to hear your thoughts and opinions on that last point because it troubles me in many ways.

It troubles me primarily because I never thought I would say that. For many years I have rejected the idea that leaders should refrain from sharing their challenges and burdens with those whom they are serving. This is largely due to the fact that the most meaningful relationships I have had with ministry leaders in my life were marked by transparency on both ends of the relationship.

I learned remarkable lessons from Sunday school leaders who were vulnerable enough to share prayer requests for their marital challenges and doubts about God’s character in the midst of crisis. I was blessed by personal relationships with several professors who allowed me to know them as they got to know me. I thrived in a Bible study where the facilitator exposed her personal struggles that were being stirred up by the text we were looking at.

Conversely, I dried up in a small group where the leader poured herself into the group and drew out meaningful times of sharing, but never extended her own heart with the group. I have been downright put off by pastors and missionaries who spend so much emotional energy stifling their personal struggles to keep up the fa├žade of being “practically perfect in every way.”

In my own ministry experience I have sought to be transparent with others as much as possible, seeking to affirm the truth that no matter our titles, positions, or spiritual depth, we are all broken creatures and reliant upon God’s lavish grace. I have sought to reject and actively break down the tempting lies that would suggest Christian leaders should be perfect, and (a less overt message) should keep from exposing their failings in order to be a good example to those around them.

Suffice it to say that I have stepped down been pushed off my soapbox in these past 8 months. Whether it is the cross-cultural dynamics, the taught beliefs about Christian leaders that we have inherited within our congregation, or the disparity between our struggles that keeps me from sharing my burdens, I often feel that the people around me want me to be perfect.

I can argue this issue from both sides very well because it’s been spinning in my mind for months, but I’m most interested in hearing from you. Tell me, dear readers:

1 – Do you feel that you can share your burdens with the people you ministering to in cross-cultural service? (By “share your burdens” I mean be genuinely transparent, not just sharing controlled portions of yourself)

2 – If no, do you think that’s how it should be or have you just ended up in that situation? If yes, has that been an intentional choice, and did it come naturally?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Coffeegirl Book Club

Chapter 8: The Way of Grief

" We always told each other…and now this huge thing was happening to me and I couldn’t tell her. Someone speaking of the pain of stopping smoking remarked: If only I could have a cigarette while I suffer! I sometimes thought I could bear the loss and grief if only I could tell her about it."

I found many of Vanauken’s observations about grief and loss to be insightful, noting many things that I expect are often experienced but unnoticed by many who are facing a similar grief. I identified closely with his thought when he writes, “How could things go on when the world had come to an end?” It is difficult to see the world carry on normally when my world has come to a halt due to a crisis or deep loss.

I remember marveling that fellow airplane passengers were able to enjoy a peaceful journey while I attempted to swallow my tears and divert my thoughts from the security of my home being left behind – the end of my world as I knew it. It is a reminder for me that there are people walking past me each day whose world has come to a proverbial end; it is far too easy for me to forget that reality.

I loved his statement of amazement that in the midst of his grief “the sky was still blue and a steak still tasted good.” As shocking as it is to see the world around us go us in the midst of tragedy, it is even more shocking to realize that our own satisfaction from pleasurable things like blue skies and steak does not wane in the face of grief.

As Vanauken set out to bear the full impact of his tragic loss, I was overwhelmed by the depths to which he was opening his heart up to re-experience the heights and depths of his life with Davy. His determination to “find the meaning of it, taste the whole of it” reminded me of his resolution at the beginning of the book to choose the “heights and depths” of life, rather than taking the safe and cautious middle way. It allowed me to reflect on the ways I live in a self-protective posture rather than opening myself up to the depths (it’s far easier to open myself up to the heights) for fear of the impact it would have on my heart. It was inspiring to see his commitment made long ago, then demonstrated in his life with Davy, now carried over into this period of deep grieving.

The other passage that I’ve been thinking about is C.S. Lewis’ writing on the loss of love:

I sometimes wonder whether bereavement is not, at the bottom, the easiest and least perilous of the ways in which men lose the happiness of youthful love. For I believe it must always be lost in some way: every merely natural love has to be crucified before it can achieve resurrection and the happy old couples have come through a difficult death and re-birth. But far more have missed the re-birth.
An interesting thought, the crucifixion of natural love in order to achieve resurrection. The idea of relationships deepening and being strengthened after enduring a crisis certainly seems true, but I had never thought of it in the way Lewis presents it.

Do you think love is lost in lifelong relationships before it can be resurrected? And what is if it is not resurrected after the crisis? Lewis’ reflection that many couples seem to have missed the re-birth of their love after its crucifixion seems accurate in many ways – perhaps this is why genuine ‘inloveness’ among older couples is so noteworthy. What does this idea of the inevitable death, and hopeful resurrection, of love mean to you? Have you experienced this in your own relationship?

There is much more to be drawn out of this chapter, and again, I turn it over to you. I always look forward to hearing the words, passages and ideas that emerge as highlights in the chapter for you, my fellow readers.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Four Little Letters

[what's brewing: steam or no steam?]

As hard as it is to believe that we are officially two full months into 2009, the fact is that 62 days have passed since I posted my New Year’s Resolutions . I have had some moments of success and many moments of disappointing failure in my quest to address the emotional depletion that leads to angry, hurtful reactions that surprise me even as they leave my mouth.

I am a firm believer in the expression, “All truth is God’s truth,” and in the past two months I have been learning from many truth-filled resources in addition to learning from his Word and through his Spirit. One of the truth-filled resources I’ve been encouraged by in the past 6 weeks is the Myers-Briggs personality type structures.

When I first took the Myers-Briggs I came out close to the middle on all 4 categories; after being married for a couple of years it became clear that I am an ISFJ*. It took the intimate exposure of living with another person to reveal some of the natural tendencies that I had self-regulated for so long that I almost didn’t even know they were there.

I find it somewhat unsettling to think that four little letters can describe me so accurately, but the profile of an ISFJ reads like an autobiography of my inner world. It captures many of my thoughts, motivations and challenges in ways I never would have been able to.

How is it that I am so easily quantifiable?

On the other hand, it is somewhat reassuring to realize that many of the struggles I face (and to be fair, many of the qualities that make me effective in my work) are natural outcomes of the way in which my personality is comprised. There is a structure to the way I’ve been created, and that structure is known by Him. He is glorified by certain elements of it, and He holds the power to redeem the broken pieces of it.

What has been particularly insightful recently has been the description of ISFJ’s in relationships with others. My mouth hung open for quite awhile when reading the description – I was reading verbatim excerpts of arguments Jason and I have had. And we found the same to be true when reading Jason’s description – verbatim accusations that I have thrown at him in moments of frustration.

In my quest to address my surprising outbursts of anger, I found great hope upon reading this:

It's a common problem for ISFJ's to not express their feelings until pushed to some limit, after which they explode in anger and say things which they later feel they shouldn't have said.
What’s hopeful about that, you ask? It was a moment of hope to realize that I may not simply be an angry missionary who can’t control her temper at the end of a day, but instead have a lot to learn about expressing my feelings earlier on to avoid reaching that point. This may seem like a simple task to many people, but for me it is a big step to start expressing my feelings early on.

Perhaps I have mistakenly believed that a “good Christian” can tolerate frustration, can hold her tongue indefinitely, or can selflessly endure disappointment without speaking up. Whatever the reason, I’m slowly learning to express my feelings as they come up. It doesn’t come naturally, and it doesn’t always go well. But it’s a step in the right direction for The Resolutions of 2009.

How are your resolutions coming along?

P.S. Interested in finding out your personality type? Try this free test and read more about your type here.

*Extraversion/Introversion; Sensing/iNtuition; Feeling/Thinking; Judgment/Perception.


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