When Change is Scary: Finding the Courage to Turn the Page

When Change is Scary: Finding the Courage to Turn the Page

I’m in the middle of a big transition and it’s scary. It’s anxiety producing and I have no idea how it’s all going to turn out. It’s a magnified version of that feeling I had as a kid reading “There’s a Monster At The End of This Book.” Pages and pages of Grover doing all kinds of creative things to keep me from turning the page, from getting closer to the monster at the end of the book. Only to find out, at the end, the monster is Grover himself! A funny, blue muppet staring back at me.

Click here for a free download of “Tending Angels”,  how I found the courage to turn the page.

I find myself thinking about what I’m leaving behind a lot. The security of a regular paycheck, a job I know how to do well, a community and not to mention the factor of being a known person with networks of trust. I am leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, the known for the unknown, all because I’m on a journey of becoming who I am meant to be here on planet earth and sometimes, that requires risk. I know this intellectually, but the reality of it is something else altogether. It’s just plain scary.

Of course, as always, I am given a text this week to deal with in light of my current anxieties. The Israelites wondering in the wilderness and telling Moses that they’d really rather go back to a life of slavery, because at least there they had something to eat! At least they had four walls and a bed to sleep in. That panicked awareness that being broken out of slavery isn’t what they thought it would be. Sure, they were elated at first, but now that they’ve had time to reflect, they feel cheated. They expected that freedom would mean something more than starving, more than the endless wandering, more than having to feel their feelings of fear, anxiety and the ever looming presence of self-doubt.

So Moses, the epic, archetypal leader, once again speaks to God and hears what seems like a way forward. They don’t really buy it, but God comes through anyway, in yet another spectacular way, I might add. Sending bread and meat from heaven in the form of manna and quail.  A fire by night and a cloud by day, the equivalent of an ancient, wilderness compass. Quite creative. But it’s still not enough. Even though God has proven God’s ability to meet their needs, even in a hostile wilderness, the children of God are still riddled with doubt and they continue reluctantly, impatiently, full of anxiety and fear. Like Grover, trying to do everything to prevent the turning of the page.

Still, day by day, God feeds them, gives them water, leads them with signs and wonders, promises them a new life and a promised land. They go on, grumbling, dragging their feet, making huge mistakes but still moving forward, inch by inch. It’s painful to observe and know that this is the same journey I’m on, too. A wilderness journey into the unknown, fighting the urge to build daily barriers that would keep me from turning the page into what I know is my truest life.

The Israelites weren’t just learning to trust God, they were learning to trust themselves. Somehow, these two things go hand in hand. In a world that teaches us that we must be the masters of our own destiny, create a super hero, artificial version of ourselves to conquer our fear, win friends and influence people, build wealth and look good while we’re doing it, the wilderness journey strips all of those things away. On the wilderness journey, we are forced to look within for the resources to make it through. It’s incredibly disorienting at first, none of our usual tricks seem to work on the journey to true freedom.

But over time, we learn on the wilderness journey that there are other resources we knew very little about, and these resources are very powerful because they are connected to God, to the eternal and to our truer selves. These new resources we find are the created ones that were given to us as the image of God within. Only in the emptiness of the wilderness journey can we learn to draw them up, like water from a deeper well, and use them to create life. A true one, not an artificial one. All of this takes time, a long time. For the Israelites, it took forty years. My mentor likes to say, “the story says Moses led them in a circle for forty years because they weren’t quite ready for their freedom.”

We are re-programming our brains, and it takes time. Richard Rohr and Eckhart Toile teach that about 90% of our brain’s thinking is spent either re-processing the past or worrying about the future. We certainly see this in the story of the Israelite journey. They say it is almost impossible for us to think ourselves into the present, we have to learn to think with our hearts. To make this impossible thing possible, we have to be put in situations in which we learn to rely on something deeper than our magnificent brains, the heart itself. Beyond the physical task of pumping our blood, the heart is also the place of our connection with God, it’s where the word “courage” comes from. The root of the word courage is “cor,” the Latin word for “heart.”

I have to remember that although change feels like a death, there is some pretty amazing birth going on inside of me. It is during this period that God is re-ordering the chaos within, creating new pathways by revealing what is stored in my very own heart. Some old ways of thinking will pass away. During this incredibly awkward and uncomfortable time, I am making some pretty major leaps, moving from self-doubt to self-confidence. From all my stored anxiety God is re-creating peace and serenity by providing my needs as they arise and as I am willing to take the next step, to turn the next page on my journey of faith. God is breaking me free from the thinking that has enslaved my heart. God is parting the impassable obstacle before me so that I can enter into the journey I must take to build the tools I will certainly need to become my truest self.

In a cut throat world where violence, hatred, jealousy and competition rule, I am becoming part of a community that is ruled by a covenant and ethic of love. It’s not some idyllic vision of a utopian world, it’s learning how to love in the midst of suffering, uncertainty and anxiety. That love becomes my cloud by day and my fire by night, it becomes my guiding force.

The Israelites didn’t somehow just stop being human beings, they still grumbled, lost their way, hurt one another, and took their own sweet time to get where they were going. But the important thing is that they continued to turn the page, take another step, and even though grumbling, learned to trust their hearts and live from that center where love ruled. At least, they gave it their best, and that is all we are asked to do, that is all I can do on any given day.

Sometimes my best is just showing up, being present in the moment. I don’t have to do the re-programming, I have a Higher Power that can lift from me the old patterns of re-hashing past pain and freaking out about the future. I’m discovering another way to live, in the present, trusting my heart, trusting the wilderness within that has been created by a greater hand. Trusting that God is building order out of the chaos, day by day, one day, one moment at a time. Giving me the courage to turn the page, even when it’s scary.

 

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The Greatest Story Ever Told is the One Inside of You

The Greatest Story Ever Told is the One Inside of You

A recent article by Harvard Business Review connects the influence of stories with behavior. It is called “experience taking” – we become like the characters in the stories with which we interact. Honest or dishonest, It’s how our brains work, we mirror. We become the stories we believe.

According the neuroscience of narrative, inspiring stories not only make us feel cozy, they cause us to trust the storyteller through the release of oxytocin, a chemical that helps us bond with one another. Often, the kinds of stories we immerse ourselves in become a larger story that holds us together, a narrative glue for our experiences. As storyteller Michael Meade says, “stories hold the world together.” Our brains are built to navigate the way forward by adapting to stories. Poets, storytellers and writers have known this since ancient times, that some of the most important information we need to develop can only be comprehended through the use of poetic and story language.

This is because, as John Truby explains in his book, Anatomy of Story, stories unlock a “dramatic code” that is unique to human nature. Through the use of characters, ancient archetypes, images, challenges and problem solving, stories help us interface with our own unique character and learn how to live out our stories in the world. The stories that we attach to have the effect of helping us to discover the story inside of ourselves. Without guiding stories, we seem to be lost.

Storyteller Michael Meade says that these days we are living in such chaos because we have fallen out of any larger story that would hold us together. When we fall out of a story, whenever we cannot perceive that there is any larger guiding narrative of our lives, we tend to lose hope.

The time of falling out of stories, he explains, is also a dangerous time, because not all stories send positive messages. In these times, people tend to grasp for any story that makes them feel powerful, in control and less anxious. So much of our cultural conditioning focuses on how to “control the narrative.” But the stories that lead us to our own, unique story within will help us learn that we don’t control the narrative, many great writers will quickly tell you that good storytelling is more about asking the story what it wants to be rather than trying to control what it will become. We grow as we learn to trust in a story that is true.

If we are to learn to trust our story, we need storytellers who are capable of pointing us to our true character, teaching us how to navigate the obstacles we will certainly face in our lives and let our story live authentically in the world.

Jesus understood this, he came from a culture of trusted storytellers who perfected the art of telling stories about God. He felt that he had come into the world at a time of chaos, when many people had fallen out of their story, been pushed out  or simply had lost faith in a larger story. The spirit of the people had been conquered by many forces, including the force of institutional religion. He felt a particular mission to call back the “lost children” of God to live out their story in the world.

He became a trusted storyteller by so many because he spoke from the world of his own heart. He called it the kingdom of Heaven. He was approached over and over again to tell stories of what this realm of God is like. He used images that people from an agrarian and fishing culture could relate to:

It is like a tiny seed, a weed seed, that is planted in the ground and grows into a large tree that becomes a shelter and shade for all who need it in a hot and dry land. 

It is like yeast buried in the dough of bread that makes the whole loaf rise.

It is like this, a master pearl salesman finds the one true pearl he’s been searching for all his life and he throws away all the others which seem to be only imitations of the real thing.

It is like this, too, a man finds a treasure hidden in a field. He goes and sells all his possessions so he can buy this one field where that treasure is buried.

The point is, we don’t have to chase a story in the world or control it in order to find our way. We don’t have to settle for a story in which we feel we are worthless or just cogs in a wheel. We don’t have to force ourselves to believe in a story that just doesn’t ring true.

Jesus tells us there is buried treasure inside of us all, and once we find it, everything we have chased after in our lives seems insignificant in comparison. We find it by living the story he shows us how to live, by trusting that the story he is telling us is true. As we do, we begin to see our lives bloom, we begin to see the impossible become possible. We become living parables in the world.

The greatest story ever told is the one inside of you.

 

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Learning to See in the Dark

Learning to See in the Dark

We all begin in the dark. A tiny seed of life potential sewn into the body of a mother in total darkness. Somehow, remaining in this utter darkness for a period of time is a very important element in becoming what we are created to be.

Jesus compares the children of God to a good seed planted into mother earth. (Matt 13:24-43) In our spiritual journey, we are like a seed with great potential, planted underground. If we are to become who we are created to be, that image of ourselves that God has imprinted upon our very souls, at some point along the way, we have to learn how to see our way forward in the dark.

Just like a tiny seed bursting into life underground, growing roots in the deeper darkness as it shoots its tender, life bearing limbs towards the light of the surface, we also must risk becoming in some very dark, uncomfortable, maybe even claustrophobic spaces. In the darkness, we learn to depend on something we cannot see with our physical eyes, Spirit. Spirit becomes the light we move towards, what we yearn for, need and require in order to grow.  In this darkness we develop our spiritual intuition.

We all experience times in our lives when there seems to be no guiding light whatsoever. Times of seemingly unbearable pain, grief, sadness, loss, disappointment, disaster, times when we feel trapped by life’s circumstances. We may feel overwhelmed and think that there are no answers or solutions. St. John of the Cross called this period of spiritual trials, the “dark night of the soul.” It is the time between a major life disruption, a time of darkness, and the place where we have not yet reached a spiritual stabilization or awakening. It can last weeks, months or years. He wrote volumes of poetry about his own “dark night” experience while imprisoned for his radical religious beliefs in a cell with hardly any light. During this time, he learned to see light in the darkness and it liberated him from his suffering. It was to be the critical passage of his own spiritual journey. His writings of learning to see in the dark have inspired millions to perceive the value of a life passage through a dark time and have words and images to navigate through it.

Just as our eyes use light to produce images that send information to the brain about what to think and do, our hearts need to discern a spiritual light within to find the way forward in dark times. The darkness has work to do in us if we allow it.  But so often, we avoid the kind of emotional pain we might risk feeling in the dark times of our lives.

We have developed a very strong pain numbing culture and become dependent upon all kinds of artificial light. Most of us spend our days staring at a computer screen and then go home to stare at T.V. screens and go to bed with the bright, electric lights from the outside burning through our windows. This is just modern life. The point is, we need to take some time to turn off the kind of light that distracts us in order to fully experience the work of the darkness within.

We are all packed with painful information inside that we need to feel, process and turn over to a Higher Power in order to grow. If we continue to numb it and ignore it, the darkness cannot do its natural work in us, our emotional life becomes stagnant and expresses itself in negative ways. It seems that if we cannot grow into a spiritual maturity, the kind of soul birth and journey that Jesus proposes, then we go the opposite direction, we decay.

In our culture, we have all kinds of ways of making death look like life, but we are smart people. God has equipped us all with great internal sensors. At some point along the way, we get tired of our own tricks. We reach a point when we can no longer sustain the patterns of anxiety, addiction, co-dependence and all kinds of artificial ways of dealing with internal pain. This crisis point is often where the dark night begins.

Jesus points to a pathway that enables us to become real, authentic, and grow into what we are created to be. To find a higher strength and power that enables us to flourish, even and especially in a dark and darkening world. He tells us that the children of God are meant to shine like the sun, but only after we learn how to bloom in the darkness. (v. 43)

The faith journey is about learning to see in the dark and sharing the hope we find there with others. We bring jewels out of the caves of our dark times and share them with the world. We help others find the way in the darkness. In my own experience, these times of the dark night are when God sends the angels, God in human skin, to point the way forward, a thing that is perceived with spiritual sight. (v. 41) Apparently, the dark night of the soul is where they like to hang out. Perhaps in that kind of utter darkness, they can really shine.

We often have to go through dark times in our lives so we can learn a new way of seeing, through the eyes of God. In these times we develop deeper roots, our sense of what we are created to be grows ever stronger, we surrender more of our own will to God, we become more refined in our faith journey and we learn to trust an inner truth. Eventually, God brings us to the other side and we reach a new level in our faith. We even look back on our times of suffering with a sweetness, a fondness for how we fell ever more deeply in love with God, with people and with what we were put here to do on this earth.

So have faith in your dark times, embrace them, walk through them, know that God is doing something very special in you and will bring you through it to the other side, a place of joy, sweetness and growth. Sometimes we have to sit in the darkness until we learn how to see the light. When we develop this way of seeing, we begin to burst into new life.

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Jesus: He’s Not Just For Christians Anymore

Jesus: He’s Not Just For Christians Anymore

The question is, was he ever?

Even Jesus said that he didn’t come for the people who already claimed to have found the way, but for those who were lost, wandering, without the great shelter and shield of the religious institution.

Even though I’ve had a “sketchy” relationship with religion, (some would say that’s healthy) I became a pastor of a Christian church. Somehow, because of all my searching, I discerned that religion, at its core, held a mystery within that defied the human desire to control everything unknown. I discovered that religion shared some of the same snares as politics or patriarchy or any system that has a hi-er-archy. Religion can be used, just like any other system, as an avenue for greed, power and corruption. I just got caught up in that net.

In my own long, circuitous journey of healing from religion-induced pain, I learned that God is pretty wild and untamed, regardless of how we feel about it, and very often defies any container that religion (or anyone– agnostic, spiritualist, new age, etc.) seeks to squeeze God into or out of. That makes the pastorate quite adventurous and also quite freeing to know that (on my best days) I get to play in the field of this wild and untamed God.

The other thing I have learned recently in my travels is that we live in a Christ haunted world. As Richard Rohr says: “Christ is just another word for everything.”

I ended up in United Methodism, not that it’s better or worse than any other brand, it certainly has it’s faults, but we do have a unique relationship with Native Americans. We have an entire Native American division devoted to exploring that unique kinship between our faiths. Last fall, this curiosity led me, by way of invitation, to a Lakota Sundance ceremony in New Mexico. On the side of a very high mountain in the “Blood of Christ” mountain range, wearing my long skirt and arms covered, I danced to the songs of the singers. In Lakota, they sang out “Wakan Tanka, Tunkashila” around a cotton wood tree. I felt like an eagle.

Early the next morning in the woods, feeling the chill of the air in that liminal space between sleep and waking, still in a half dream state, there came into my mind an image of Christ on a cross.

I continue to have similar experiences, always to my surprise, everywhere I go.

I visited Cherokee, NC, recently, doing some research for a book and was talking with some Cherokee women. It seems it is a common legend among various tribes that Jesus made an appearance around the time of his death over on this continent. The women told me about the Cherokee version. The legend goes that the “little people” (the spiritual beings of Cherokee lore that live in the woods) cried tears when Jesus died and these tears ended up in the form of little crosses at the bottom of Fontana Lake, hundreds have been found. Of course, there’s a scientific explanation for this but the legend is much more interesting. There are various versions of this story in other tribes.

An African woman in my church tells me that in Sierra Leone where she is from, the Muslims and the Christians all consider themselves part of the same family. The Muslims pray to be with Jesus in death, the keeper of eternal life. There is also a legend that Jesus and Mohammed had an actual conversation.

Jesus has been out in the world for a very long time, doing lots of things Christians may not even approve of very much. Alongside the mother struggling with addiction, with the young man feeling compelled to join Isis, the refugee, the immigrant, the homeless person, the rejected war veteran, the traumatized Native American. Jesus is, in fact, right there beside them, having been hung on the same cross.

We miss the whole point of Jesus when we try to pin him down and make him exclusive. Jesus simply belongs to everyone. “In him, all things hold together,” and he is the “image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1)

The goal of religion, in its purest form, religio, is to bind the spiritual “word made flesh,” Christ presence on earth into a form we can participate in with one another. Divine love needs not only the human vessel but the vessel of the beloved community that doesn’t exist just for itself alone, but for God. With rituals and practices that make it safe for us to experience, to bind, what is unfathomable, God, if only for a brief hour or two.

I’m glad I didn’t abandon the path, because I would have missed out on all of this, the sweetness of communion, the chance to help the homeless find homes, all of us wanderers. I would have missed out on my very own healing, and the opportunity to be part of this massive healing that is taking place in the world around the hurts done in the name of God.

What would happen to a faith, or wonder of wonders, even a religion, that understood Christ as another word for everything? It might shift our understanding of the work of Christ in the world from dominance to infusion, from conformity to love, from rules and laws to simply presence and being. From scarcity to enough, from certainty to curiosity, from death to life. What if Christ really is in all and through all and another word for everything? What then?

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“I Just Don’t Need You Anymore,”Breaking Up With Shame

“I Just Don’t Need You Anymore,”Breaking Up With Shame

Shame. It’s a feeling in the pit of the stomach, a burning sensation. A  rupture in the belly, a spiraling inward, shrinking, feeling inferior at the core. Shame makes us feel that our very identity is under threat of erasure.

At one point or another, shame takes us all hostage and calls the shots. Under extreme shame, we may even feel as if we are not the ones running our lives. Shame is a hostile dictator, suffocating us from any sense of freedom. Without realizing it, we often hire shame as the micro-manager of our lives.

We may feel paralyzed by shame because we live in a shame culture. It’s a force that is very real. Since we are enculturated to locate our self-worth in performance, this sets us up for an extreme sense of shame when we are not able to perform according to the (perceived) expectations of our peers or superiors.

But, we need to realize that we are not primarily performers, we are people. As the Native Americans say, “we are real human beings,” and this is our core identity. We have good days and bad days, good years and bad years. What is often missing and what it means to be a “real human being” is to have a sense of continuity between the ups and downs. A feeling that we are simply the same person regardless of what successes and failures come our way.

But the state of shame is often exacerbated by a lack of intimate and honest friendships. Without this shield of human love, shame can isolate you. It is often hard to find a community of friends that will love you no matter what. We are often judged so harshly by our performance that even our friendships are based on status and prestige. If you have ever lost a job, significant relationship or marriage and witnessed most of your “friend” community drift away from you, then you understand this. But, we have to look at our own choices here. We often become friends with the people we think can get us to the next level in our lives. If we crave authentic friendships, then we need to become willing to examine our own motivations. When we are able to get shame out of the equation, we tend to make better choices.

But swimming out of shame, I’ve found, at least, begins with acceptance, self-acceptance. Because shame will continue to send messages such as “you’re not good enough, worthy enough, smart enough, beautiful enough,” simply, “you’re not enough.” This leads to an inner conflict. The authentic self wants to love, cherish, express joy, compassion and empathy for the self and others. But shame is like a stun gun, sealing us off from access to the authentic self. When we can accept how things are, where we are in our lives, our jobs, our relationships, our bodies, then we can begin the long journey of leaving shame behind. One day, we just say to shame, simply, “I don’t need you anymore.” We break up from our long, sordid, dysfunctional relationship with shame.

Becoming real to yourself, learning to love yourself today, where you are, how you are, this is respect. This is what authentic women and men model in the world for one another. This is what Jesus brought out in all of those who believed, freedom from living in the paralysis of shame and a restoration to living life from the true self. This often restored people to a sense of community as well.  The Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, Mary Magdalene and her seven demons, Peter in his constant self-doubt. Jesus even loved Judas, the betrayer himself. Jesus knew the great power of shame, that it belonged to the realm of the shadow, it was a tool of separation from God, from the Divine image of the Creator. With love, Jesus created a bridge to the sacred, the realm of God and gave people the power to walk away from shame. He did this through love.

When our stomachs are burning with shame, it makes it difficult to focus on the heart. In fact, as we receive shame into our bodies, it is so strong and has such a grip on us that we usually over react in anger, binging, compulsive behaviors or isolating. We live life in the extremes, vacillating from anger to feelings of self-doubt, shame keeps us running the spectrum of emotional intoxication, cranking down on the lever of control all the while feeling completely out of control. Insanity. If we are to be done with shame, we need a power greater than ourselves to lift us out.

In the image of Jesus on the cross, we see an open and vulnerable heart, a Spirit that even the cruelest enactment of shame could not kill. Focusing on this image in meditation can often bring us to a ground zero where we can accept ourselves and begin the long journey of walking away from a shame culture, a resurrection, a healing.

Letting go of shame can be scary, because it has often been the driving force of our lives for so long that we have come to rely upon it as our primary motivator. But it is possible to live life from a different center. A Divine love can stabilize us as we become willing to be done with shame.

We find a true identity, a wholeness we never knew before is waiting for us at the core. As the poet Rumi says, “beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” In this field, we meet our true selves, beyond the fighting and the wronging and righting, we meet the joy given to us from the beginning of time. We take the hand of our Creator and begin the long journey home.

Don’t let shame take you off your path today. Who you are is enough, find the center of you and begin living life from that center. You can ask God for the courage to break up with shame and help you find a community to sustain and nourish you in the journey.

 

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