Perfect Love Casts Out Fear: First Thoughts on Therapy

So six months after realizing I want to be healed, I finally visited a therapist. I climbed the stairs to her office on the upper floor of an old blue house. I drank the tea she offered me and filled out paperwork. She asked me why I was there, and I admitted it: I don’t know how to live the simplest commandments. How can I love God and my neighbor when my ideas about love have flourished misshapen, like a tree cramped and dwarfed by structures around it? She nodded, asked for details, took notes unobtrusively, while I struggled to articulate the things that seem to be holding me back from loving with my whole heart.

I was afraid, climbing the stairs to that room, afraid of a lot of things. I was afraid the therapist I’d chosen wouldn’t understand my faith. I was afraid she would understand it and would judge me. I was afraid she would decide it was the root of my problems. Most of all, I was afraid this would be a waste of time, or worse, that it would somehow cause me to be less loving, that what was meant to heal me would only make me worse. I feared that therapy would encourage me to be selfish, that instead of learning to love others better, I would stop at loving myself. All these fears had held me back from this moment: I’d shopped for the “perfect” therapist for months, delayed making an appointment, convinced myself I didn’t have the time or money to do this after all. But I made it: I fought through that naysaying crowd to say, “I need help.”

It all boiled down to this: I was afraid when I walked into that office, Jesus wouldn’t come with me. But even after just a few visits, I know that’s not true. Although my therapist doesn’t share my faith, she’s already started to shine the light of truth on my life. And the truth is, it’s been really dark in there for a long, long time.

For instance, already I’m starting to ask myself where all these fears came from, anyway. Not from Jesus, who says over and over in the Gospel not to worry about anything. I can hear Paul’s voice booming, “It is for freedom that Christ set us free,” but I let myself be shackled and ruled by anything I think will keep me safe from judgment, criticism, ridicule, disrespect, abandonment. I soften my opinions, hide my true self, the self that is my gift from God, because I fear rejection. But Jesus didn’t do that; Jesus knew exactly who he was, spoke bold words with love and without fear.

Perfect love casts out fear, so the Bible says. I have to not get caught up in the word perfect. I can never make my love perfect, and neither can my therapist, no matter how many hours we spend in her homey little office. The only perfect love comes from God, and it’s only God who can perfect me, make me complete. But I believe God can use this therapy thing, and I believe I need to go forward with it, with all the bravery I can muster. Once and for all I want to break that yoke of fear I’ve been living under for so long, the one I convinced myself I didn’t really mind. God wants me to be light on my feet, ready to help carry another’s burden without being crushed by the weight of what I’m already dragging along.

What do you think is holding you back from being healed? What is helping you move toward healing?

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Where Is God in the Boring Bureaucracy?

I think everyone fears working in an office that looks like mine. I know I used to. Gray institutional carpeting, dull fluorescent lights, and not a single window. The dingy off-white walls (painting them is against company policy) are ornamented only by motivational posters with sayings like, “Go over, go around, go through, but never give up.” Every cubicle wobbly, every chair uncomfortable, it’s designed to make you wish for Friday.

In this environment I answer my headset about a hundred calls a day, most of them about the same thing. But worse than the decor, worse than the monotony, is getting caught in a seemingly endless loop of bureaucracy. Customers laboriously give me the number of each item they want to order, like I’m some kind of robot who can only understand numbers. I call my boss with a client’s urgent problem to be told brusquely that we can’t help them, leaving me to wonder who can. I’m constantly telling people we need it in writing, they should have put their authorization on file ahead of time, and that my company is not responsible for postal snafus. Sometimes I’ll snap out of half-asleepness thinking, Where am I? Did I wake up in Kafka’s brain today?

Today was that kind of day. I stole out of the call center and tried to hide in a break room and read my Bible, preferably something heartily encouraging about God’s pure love for me, or maybe about chains falling off and everyone getting along in Heaven. But the joke was on me. I was in the middle of Ezra.

The Book of Ezra, if you didn’t know, begins with nothing but red tape. First, King Cyrus of Persia is going to let the Jews go home and finally, finally rebuild their temple. But of course it cannot be that simple. In Ezra 4, some adversaries convince King Artaxerxes, King Cyrus’s successor, that the Jews are up to no good and are just going to plot against the Empire if they get their temple back. The king listens and halts the construction project. Then, when the next guy (King Darius) is in power, the Jews submit a petition to start rebuilding again, encouraging him to look up the decree King Cyrus wrote back in the day (on the ancient equivalent of microfiche, one imagines). King Darius grants their request, mostly because he wants God’s blessing for himself and his empire. (Good one, Darius. We all know how God feels about kings in general. But hey, you’re in good company. God bless Persia.)

And then they can finally, finally, finally build the thing.

I read about this in that sad, gray, windowless break room, and I could relate. Nothing is ever simple, it seems. Where is God when your heart’s desire lies buried in paperwork and practicalities, when people delight in squelching your dreams, when you have hope that you can be healed, really, but you’re getting so tired of the waiting room?

I believe, I know, that God is there. God is there with us in the waiting, undaunted by the mountain of mundane details that seems so insurmountable to us. God cares even when the voice on the other end of the phone does not. Even when justice gets buried in paperwork, to be locked away until the next administration or maybe even longer, God never forgets a promise.

Today I found some joy in that dismal room, its air hazy with distant how-can-I-help-yous. I could know joy because I can read the whole story. I know the waiting didn’t last forever in the book of Ezra: that fragile temple was built again, and they celebrated the Passover there, beautiful festival of making it this far. I read, “With joy they celebrated the festival of unleavened bread seven days; for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.”

God made them joyful. God can do that. God can take the garbage of our lives, the boring and mundane, and he can make it beautiful. Yes, even that. God wants to reconcile everything to himself, meaning everything. Even my awful, gray-carpeted, windowless workplace can be his temple, if I’ll invite him in.

Do Whatever He Tells You

The five little words are printed on a card that leans against my computer monitor. We’re in our busiest season here at work, fielding call after call with mere seconds between, and this is the best way I can think of to get a good word into my day. My eyes rest on it in those tiny moments with nothing to do, and I try to burn it into my brain, let it remake my heart.

There are twelve cards in the series I printed out, twelve bite-sized bits of Scripture from the Gospel of John. Some of the early ones feature lofty language for a tiny piece of paper, talking about the Word that was God in the beginning, full of grace and truth. And then there’s today’s little offering: “Do whatever he tells you.”

That’s weird, I thought when I first flipped it over. Seems like such a mundane, everyday quote when stacked against the gorgeous language of John’s high theology. Just something Mary said when she and her son were at a wedding. “Do whatever he tells you,” she said to the servants who had just run out of wine to pour. Why memorize that line? Why not the actual facts of Jesus’s miracle, the glorious aftermath?

Still, my eyes kept returning to it throughout the day, my mind turning it over like a river spinning a rock. Do whatever he tells you. I like to think she said it with a smile, like, Come on in, the water’s fine. This woman hardly hesitated at the thought of having God’s baby. I mean, really, after that, what wouldn’t you say yes to?

It starts to dawn on me slowly, this meaning I’ve always missed before. Those nameless servants who listen to her simple words get to participate in a miracle. The very first, in fact. They didn’t know Jesus was special yet. They didn’t know Mary knew anything about anything. But they listened to her. They did what he said, and they ended up in the middle of a miracle.

They start to thrill me, these five words. They start to leap off the page. I answer the phone with a joy that goes beyond forced customer service cheer. I wonder what he’ll tell me to do today. I wonder at what moment I can take that plunge.

Am I a Joyful Girl?

With apologies to Ani DiFranco…

Sometimes, giving really does make me happy. I’m thrilled when people give to charity in my name. I give blood whenever my schedule and hemoglobin levels allow. I love hand-knitting baby blankets.

And that’s not bad. I should love giving. Freely giving is a Godlike instinct. God showers gifts on us – the evil and the good nourished equally by rain and sunlight. God loves to give good gifts to those who ask.

And yet, sometimes I see all too clearly that I don’t take joy in the giving itself. I love the thought of being known as a giver. I want that sticker that says, Be nice to me. I gave blood today. I save thank you cards forever. I want people to find them when I die and get all misty about my great personality. I’m only sort of joking.

But Jesus doesn’t want me to give for the sake of brownie points. When people look good for the crowds, he says, they have already received their reward. He says anyone can do good to someone who loves them for it, just like it’s easy to loan your money to someone you know will pay you back. To give when you know it will be totally unrewarded, even misunderstood? That’s much more like God, whose love never fails even in our worst moments.

I’m not going to stop giving blood or knitting baby gifts. But let’s face it: that’s the easy stuff. The hard stuff is choosing not to get offended when someone speaks to me in the same rude tone they have used every day since I’ve known them. Laboring away in my tiny gray cubicle to brighten the lives of cranky strangers I’ll never speak to again. Listening generously to people talk about problems I’d feel lucky to have.

This is when I start to space out. There is no photo op, no thank you card. There are no memories to be made. This is when my life starts to feel gray and useless and not precious to God. This is when I pay lip service to serving, but really I am checking my email. This is when I pretend to listen, but I’m really thinking about what I wish I was doing instead.

This is when I forget God is present, that these moments are sacred too. This is when I forget I’m supposed to be loving and giving. I feel like because I’m not getting kudos, I have implicit permission to phone it in.

So I need to pray for joy in giving, just for giving’s sake, not because anyone knows or compliments me or because I get to feel good about myself. I can choose to give like God gives: just because. Just because it’s love’s nature to give. Just because I want to.

Monastic Value of the Month: Shared Economics

This January I’m reflecting on the principle of shared economics (for those of you who are just joining us, check out my post on why I’m doing this Monastic Value of the Month Club). As Common Prayer says, shared economics means choosing to pursue “a vision of an economy different than the empire’s economy.” As the Church, we are called to “bear each other’s burdens, fulfilling the law of Christ.” A striking characteristic of the early Church was that there were no poor people in it. Those who were rich gave all they could to the community, even selling their greatest assets, so those who were poor could be cared for, uplifted, embraced.

What would that even be like in our own time? What would it be like to have a church that truly took care of people’s economic burdens and gave all it could to eliminate poverty? What if people could come to the Church and find a haven from the dog-eat-dog world of the American empire? What if we could lay down our addictions to work and shopping and entertainment because we were part of a community that would care for all our true needs?

The Church would be a lot more popular, I’m pretty sure, if those things were what we were known for.

Unfortunately, we pretty much suck at sharing these days. Although there are definitely parts of the Church that care for the poor and fight the systems that perpetuate poverty, most Christian individuals and communities have very little imagination when it comes to economic matters. We don’t know how to truly care for others. We don’t trust them enough. We’d rather hold the poor at arm’s length and show them charity than get involved in their lives and truly take up their burdens.

I am very much guilty of this. I know that compared to many, I’m rich. On the other hand, when I budget my money and my time, I tend to think of myself and my family first. My burdens, such as they are, feel heavy enough without picking up someone else’s. And the thought of surrendering more resources to the Church and trusting God to take care of me via my fellow Christians? I don’t know, it feels so risky.

The more I reflect on this, the more I conclude that the key word here is shared. In our individualistic society which praises self-sufficiency so much, it feels crazy to carry another person’s burdens. We don’t trust that it will be reciprocated. We fear burnout or bankruptcy. We need the support of community, a culture of shared burdens, to set us free from our programming. That’s one advantage the Church already has: we already share a part of our lives, and together we can grow to share more.

So let’s join together, young and old. Let’s dream dreams and see visions of a world in which poverty does not exist, a Church where people who are hungry can be fed and people who carry around too much stuff can lay it down. Let us pray and work for a world in which we can all feel safe laying our burdens down.

What dreams do you dream about shared economics? What would a Church and/or world without poverty be like, and what can we do today to help create it?

That Broken, Beautiful Jesse Tree

Georges DelatourWe light a candle, turn on the twinkle lights, and open up the Bible. This isn’t a usual thing at my house; I’m the one obsessed with the Word, inclined to spill all these words about it. But during Advent, it’s somehow different. We have this tradition of the Jesse tree, Jesus’s family tree. We read about prophets and patriarchs and promises and wayward Gentile women and other weird relatives of the coming King of Kings. We remember that the Christmas story is actually part of a much bigger story.

Sometimes she asks questions that just floor me, like why God didn’t send Jesus before the flood. If Jesus was around in the beginning, was always part of the master plan, why the waiting? Why not send him right away and save all those people and animals from drowning?

Like lots of people, she wonders about Abraham and Isaac. Why would God ask a man to sacrifice his only son? And what man would try to do it? What in the world is such a story trying to tell us?

But the story that really sticks in her craw is Rahab. What is she doing on this Jesse tree? It seems she saved her family but doomed her town by cooperating with the Israelites. How could she sleep at night?

We talk it over, around and around. I argue that Rahab was doing the best she could, that she was positive the Israelites were going to sack the city anyway, that she was not a powerful player, couldn’t escape the game being played by the men around her.

Across the table, in the candlelight, my loved one shakes her head. My words do nothing to quench the fire of anger in her, anger at all this needless violence. And I have to say I respect that in her, her utter intolerance for all this war surrounding the newborn Prince of Peace. She raves about it like a prophet. I wish injustice shook me up that much.

Maybe I find it easier to reconcile all this ugly stuff in the Jesse tree because it’s a lot like my own family tree. People I love, people who did unspeakable things, people who suffered unspeakable things: they’re the same people. Even my little nuclear family was full of genuine love and twisted love, love that helped and love that hurt. My parents tried their best, but they weren’t good for each other. I can’t say I regret they’ve parted ways, but how could I wish they’d never met? Out of that twistedness and brokenness and yes, real love, I was born.

I’m almost comforted by it, actually, the fact that Jesus wasn’t born into perfection. He was born into a war-torn world, a people and a family that did crazy things to keep themselves from getting torn apart.

But I can’t find anything to censure about Jesus in these pages. Not a single thing. And the grace Jesus gave extends backward too, back to all the dubious ancestors who helped bring him into the world.

We read the story of Joseph back in Genesis every year, and there’s one phrase that sums it all up for me. At the end of Joseph’s story, his brothers, who sold him as a slave and faked his death back at the beginning, are worried he’s going to take vengeance now that he’s in power and their father has died. They send him this nervous message, like Guess what? Before he died, Dad definitely said you should forgive us for all the stuff we did. Really.

Joseph starts crying when he hears this, which freaks them out even more. They throw themselves at his feet and beg for mercy. And then Joseph says this to them:

It’s okay. You tried to hurt me, but God meant it for good…

I’ve heard it said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past. And I know, from what I’ve gone through with my own family, that you can get to this place. The place where you realize God can do anything with anything, can take the stupidest things you’ve ever done and the cruelest things people have ever done to you and work it all out for good. Just like with Jesus, out of the twisted stump of your past can sprout – of all things – a new life.

It takes a long time for the story to get there, of course. And I can’t explain why suddenly Jesus bursts on the scene after all that carnage and darkness, any more than I can tell you why one day I could call my mom after not speaking to her for over a year. But I need to wrestle with the why. I love when she asks me these questions, because I need to remember what the questions mean. When you can ask questions, it means you feel safe, you feel loved, you love enough to want to get to the bottom of things. Her questions remind me this is not some Sunday school story: it’s real and messy, just like mine.

So we keep reading in our tiny circle of light, unable to see the whole room, unable to see the whole story yet, our own or anyone else’s. But in the questions, in the long, dark shadows cast by the candle as it lights up our faces, there is beauty too.

When I Don’t Want to Be Saved

My friend Rob once saved me from a speeding bus. I was about to blithely step into the street and he said, “Look out, Rachel!” and shoved his arm in front of me so I couldn’t move. Only then did I see the bus, now passing inches from my face, going so fast I was caught in a whoosh of air as it departed.

What was my immediate reaction? Did I thank my friend for potentially saving my life? Did I burst into happy tears that I was still here and whole?

No. When the shock of the moment wore off, I turned to him and said crankily, “That wasn’t necessary, you know. I would have seen it coming and stopped.”

In a more private moment later that evening, tears did come, and they still weren’t tears of joy. I cried because I wasn’t sure I would have seen the bus coming and stopped. My tears were tears of anger at myself – I didn’t want to be the kind of person who could die in so stupid a way. I wanted to believe I was the kind of person who could take care of herself, who was too smart to walk in front of a moving bus, but deep down, I didn’t think I was.

I still struggle with not wanting to be saved. You would think I’d be happy about it, since we Christians love to proclaim we’ve been saved by Jesus. Central to my religion is the belief that salvation is a gift of God, not something you could ever earn, but pure breathtaking grace.

But the thing is, sometimes I still don’t want to be the kind of person who needs saving. I don’t want to have to depend on God so heavily. I want to be the kind of person who naturally does the right thing for the right reason, who is always getting wiser and better without having to ask for help.

But I’m not that person. I don’t have it all under control. My motives are mixed at best. I’m really selfish and really easily floored by suffering.

Sometimes this realization hits me anew like the proverbial speeding bus. For two years in a row now, I’ve been excited to start a new year on the right foot: make lots of goals, get my life on track, bring all my productivity and energy to the table. And for two years in a row, I’ve woken up sick. This year, I also strained my shoulder first thing in the morning. Was I doing aerobics? No, I was attempting to get out of bed.

Needless to say, I didn’t live my ideal day today. I wasn’t super productive. I didn’t get a lot of planning done. I took a lot of naps and popped a lot of ibuprofen. And I didn’t bear the pain well, either – I prayed for patience, but in the same breath, I also whined about having to spend a vacation day in bed.

I think Someone may be trying to tell me something, namely, that I am not a self-sufficient being. I can have all the ambition and great plans that I want, but ultimately, my life can easily be altered by forces outside my control. And that’s okay, because I am not my achievements. I can learn this now, or I can learn it when I start to get old and lose my ability to achieve in the conventional ways, along with my marbles and/or my mobility (if I make it that long without getting run over).

My job is not to be in control of everything. It’s okay to be small and weak and need saving. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who know how perennially messed up they are and suck at hiding it. Because when you realize that you don’t run the world, it frees you up to live in the Kingdom of God.

Oh, and Rob? If you’re reading this, I guess it’s time to finally say thank you.