The Stone Hearts

We all walked a little hunched against the broody gray sky, reflexive defenses against the raindrops that had not yet fallen. All thirty of us tumbled out of cars, lunches and rain boots akimbo. We made our way to the river where the second graders would wave goodbye to their tiny fish: Room 12’s watery nursery had done its work and the toddler-trout years were about to begin. The 8 years olds had supervised their sprouting from tiny, apricot, tapioca-like eggs to wiggly, wriggly alevin; and it was time for the little fishies to make their way to the big sea. My son upended his dixie cup of fishy hope into the raging river. I tried not to think about his high school graduation.

After several days of rain and the doppler threatening more, we took our chances and set off on the riparian trail. From the foot bridge, we could see the river was swollen and in a hurry. But in that beautiful way of children who slow down to wonder at the ordinary, one little girl pointed to the water: “Look! There are hearts! In the river!” I followed the line of her finger to just left of a sand bank in the middle of the stream, where someone had laid out stones in the shape of a large heart – perfectly positioned for viewing from the walkway above. The river was higher than it had been the day before and the stones were submerged; but yet not so deep as to be hidden from view or washed away. Yet. Weather.com seemed pretty sure more rain was coming, and I felt quite sure that by the next day, the stones would be gone.

 

But on that Thursday morning, they were there in all their glory; and I wondered a while about the stone artist. No doubt they had got their feet wet laying those out one at a time. No doubt it had been recent. And, no doubt, they knew as I did that their efforts would soon wash away. I imagined this person laying out the rocks: perhaps for a group

of friends, or a romantic gesture by a shy beau. And I imagined them enjoying the doing of it and enjoying the smiles of those who saw them. But there was no way for this person to know that hours or days later, a troop of giddy eight year olds would all stand above with delighted eyes fixed on the miraculous river sculpture below. God alone is witness to the joy the artist brings in the ripples of time.

And I thought about this blog, and how little I write on it these days, and how

Instagram seems to be the Place Where Its At and social media is exhausting and so much of life is spent shielding ourselves from it. So why write blog posts? What’s the point? And should I continue?

I’ve long used the metaphor that I see this corner of the web as a sort of online living room where I can extend virtual hospitality and talk about the kinds of things I talk about in real life: relationships and faith and the humour and the mess and how injustice breaks my heart and parenting brings me to my knees. My blog is full of bad puns and armchair advice and theological rabbit trails and notes about what I’ve been reading because, well, that’s what my life is like. And you are welcome here.

But more and more the dialog doesn’t happen on the blog, and increasingly it doesn’t seem to happen on Facebook either. The world of commenting online has become tinder-dry: ready to spark to flame at any time. And so: if it feels less like conversation, then why add my voice to the throng? Why keep this blog up?

If information is like a river, swollen and in a rush; here today and gone tomorrow… then maybe this blog is something of a heart of stones, laid in the current with precision and joy even though the clock is ticking. I enjoy the writing, and I hope that for a brief moment before it is buried by algorithms and calendars, it brings some good into the world. And perhaps, long after I’ve logged off, someone else will come across a page; and I won’t be there to see their smile but the smile still counts. I get emails from readers who find posts from a couple years ago: the first person to have noticed the hearts in a long, long time… but for them it made a difference. Perhaps tomorrow the current will wash everything away. But while it’s here, I trust in makes a difference to those who wandered past. And most likely, God alone will bear witness to any smiles brought in the ripples of time. And that’s okay.

Image: from Pexels.com and free images.com

A Hell of a Tone of Voice (Some thoughts on how we talk about what happens after we die)

A while back, I was asked to participate in a panel answering questions about heaven and hell. The group had spent a couple weeks in a series looking at what Scripture says about what happens after we die. They were asking questions about heaven and the various ways people have understood “hell”: is hell eternal conscious torment? Is it annihilation—a case where we are, and then simply are not any more? Is there a case to be made for Christian Universalism – where after a time of suffering, all souls are restored to God? What about Martin Luther’s idea that death was sleep? Was CS Lewis onto something when the faithful Taarkan (a Muslim-figure) is allowed into Aslan’s eternal Kingdom in The Last Battle (whereas Susan Pevensie, who wore lipstick, was not?And why would a good God allow for a place like hell, anyway?

I had several other teaching commitments that week and so declined the invitation, but even if I hadn’t been busy I possibly would have said no, anyway. My sieve-like memory knows that I studied this stuff  before, but the content is mostly gone. It’s been a long time since I read up on the various theories of eternal punishment, and I would have had to brush the dust off some of my theology books and do some serious reading.

But the invitation itself got me thinking: what have I believed about this? And, are there reasons to revisit this topic now? I certainly grew up believing that hell was a place of eternal conscious torment, but some of the Bible scholars and teachers I have learned from don’t agree. And certainly, given how upsetting and offensive the idea of eternal conscious torment is (It’s the ultimate version of “my way or the highway”, isn’t it? Even for people who never got a chance to hear about God’s way…), I resonate with the desire to understand this in a way which reflect God’s goodness and mercy and compassion , which annihilation and christian universalism both seem to allow for.

I was a little surprised to find myself thinking: it doesn’t matter what conclusion I come to on this.  Not really. God-fearing people have come to different conclusions on what the passages referring to Hades and Gehenna and punishment mean, and I don’t know that I can sort it out with a new, independent rigorous study of my own. But what matters more to me is this: the tone of voice we discuss this in. Because even if I’m not sure what Jesus meant by the all the hell talk, I’m sure of this one thing: whatever he meant by it, he considered it VERY important to avoid, and a VERY good reason for people to trust in him instead. It’s better to suffer egregious bodily harm in this life (lose an eye! or a hand!) than to have two eyes and two hands and go to hell. Whatever hell means (and Jesus would know), he warns people to go to ANY LENGTH to avoid it. He went to hell himself to keep us from there. Whatever hell means, he assures us it’s not somewhere we want to be. Weeping and gnashing of teeth sound awful, even if they’re hyperbolic.

So even if it is true that we are annihilated, or we suffer a while and then are reconciled to God (and maybe this is the case, I don’t know), Jesus doesn’t seem to think that those options should be something which, when explained, we should feel we are comfortable with. If anything, one of the ways we might know we’ve come to the right conclusions about hell is that we respond the way Jesus says we should respond: with urgency. with grief. with seriousness.

I remember Dave, one of my campus pastors, teaching a few of us students twenty years ago about how to prepare and teach a small group bible study. We were discussing the passage in 1 Thessalonians about the Lord’s coming, and someone in our group got a little “firestone and brimstone-ish” in his conclusions. Dave commented that even if everything my friend was saying was true, he’d missed an important thing in the passage: 1 Thessalonians was written to comfort believers, not to threaten them. And so, whatever we made of the content of the passage, the tone of our conclusions on the paragraph should be wrapped in the comfort of the letter’s context.

I’ve carried those words with me since: we need to pay attention to the tone of voice of the speaker. I still don’t know what exactly happens after we die: how our spirits and bodies might be separated or joined again at resurrection, how conscious we’ll be, what the first and 2nd resurrections might look like, or what hell is like. But I’m sure about Jesus’ tone of voice on which I want for me, and which one I definitely don’t want for me or anyone else. And that is sobering as hell.

 

Photo credit: free stock photos from Pexels.com

The Surprising Thing about Strength in Weakness

I’ve been thinking a lot about weakness lately. Weakness, failure, and the terrible gap between how we hope things will turn out and how they actually do.  Motherhood and ministry—while both brimming with blessing—have also been relentless teachers that keep pointing out my weakness…

… how I can do all the research and try all the methods, and still not know how to get my kids to sleep/eat/potty train/make good choices.

… how having a kid of my own has made me realize how uncompassionate and judgmental I’ve often been towards others.

… how getting less of anything (sleep/opportunity/the nice things) reveals my jealous, score-keeping nature.

… how close I’ve come to shaking my baby at times. Didn’t know I could be that angry, or that dangerous.

… how, no matter how well I teach and explain the Bible (or try to), I can’t effect real change in people’s lives, which is really just a small subset of the bigger issue:

… how, no matter how hard I try, or how nicely I phrase things, I can’t control people’s choices or situational outcomes. Not my family’s, not my friend’s, not my church’s.

I have no power over these things. At the very most, I can hope to influence them. But the relationship between my input and life’s output is not causal. It’s correlated… at best.

Again and again, I come up HARD against the limits of my ability, knowledge, and character. And that’s just the weakness part… then there’s also the failure layer: where I try hard, and I get it wrong. Or I didn’t try hard enough. Both my wholehearted fully engaged efforts and my half-baked, lazy efforts often disappoint and frustrate.

I was talking with some friends about failure recently: situations in which we’d been overwhelmed and overloaded, and had honestly done our very best in the situation, and still… it wasn’t enough, and we received criticism (or “feedback”, if you’re in a professional setting). And I don’t know about you, but getting negative reactions or zero results when I’ve done my best just makes me want to crawl up under a rock and quit. I want to get into bed, pick at the scabs on my wounded heart, and sing “nobody loves me, I’m just going to go eat worms.” Just me? Worms, anyone? Weakness and failure feel so crushingly yucky.

But what then, we asked, about the verses in Scripture that promise that in our weakness, God is strong? Why did the apostle Paul “boast in his weakness”? And what do I make of those who say (as I have at times!) that we felt at the end of ourselves, and we prayed, and we felt a surge of energy or a help that came from beyond ourselves: such that we could only attribute it to God? If we’re feeling weak, and we ask God to be strong in that situation… will it FEEL any different?

I think sometimes, the answer is yes. Sometimes, I have asked God for wisdom or help or peace that passes understanding or the ability to not-shake-the-baby or bite-my-husbands-head-off, and I know he has provided strength-in-the-moment that I have felt at a soulful and cellular level.

But, friends, sometimes, I haven’t. Sometimes I’ve felt weak and asked God for help and I HAVE STILL FELT SO CRIPPLINGLY WEAK. Sometimes my weakness still feels like weakness to me and quite obviously looks like weakness to most everybody else. So I’ve been reflecting on that. Where did I get the idea that God’s promise of “strength in weakness” would mean that he would mask our weakness? or overcome it? Why did I have the idea that I would know God was being “strong” in my “weakness” only because I didn’t feel weak anymore?

I’ve been going back to Scripture with that question, and am realizing that God’s promise of his gracious strength and presence in our weakness doesn’t mean our lives won’t often look and feel like pitiful failure. Despite God’s help and empowering Holy Spirit, Paul still experienced being hard-pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. He was disbelieved, disrespected, kicked out, spat on, and near killed. AND YET he trusted that despite all the external evidence to the contrary, inwardly God was up to good, hopeful work.

Paul took his cue from Jesus, who is the primary model and mentor of faith such as this. When Jesus went to his death on the cross: everything looked and felt like complete weakness and failure. He was at the mercy of the criminal justice system: condemned and mocked, beaten up and nailed to a piece of wood to demonstrate his shame to the world. His entire ministry of investing in 12 people for three years appeared to have been for nothing: they scattered like buckshot, denying him at the first opportunity. He had no reputation, a crowd cheering for his death, no assets, no title, and – in a very real way – he even got the silent treatment from God. The final words from his lips tell us what he felt was weakness: he felt forsaken.

And YET. In that moment of ultimate weakness, God was doing something wonderful. The sins of all mankind were being dealt with, and God’s new creation being birthed. The paradox and mystery of the cross is that the strongest work God EVER did for mankind was in and through the weakest moment for him in the flesh.

Reflecting on this is giving me hope, in a season where I feel so acutely aware of my limitations. One seminary professor described the human condition this way: we are fallen, fallible, finite and foolish. In other words, we are hot messes, and we know it. But being painfully aware of the limitations and liabilities of me being me in my oh-so-human condition does not mean that God is unable or unwilling to work.

Strength in weakness doesn’t always feel strong. Sometimes weakness still looks and feels pitifully, painfully weak.

But the same God who raised Jesus from his weakest place is powerfully at work in us, says Ephesians 1:20. It’s true that he’s at work when we’re feeling energized by Him, with that joyful energy of feeling gifted and called and excited to partner with him in the world. But this is just to say: he’s no less at work when we’re in a heap on the floor, wishing we could eat worms. My weakness is not an obstacle to him, it’s an opportunity.

This is part of the Christian hope: believing that the God who began a good work in me will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6). He is faithful, and he will do it (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

I love you, friend, but I don’t want your essential oils (or leggings, or mascara…)

If you’ve been around church women for any length of time, chances are you’ve been invited to some kind of product party: a “no pressure, just-a-bunch-of-girls get together” with food and a presentation of jewelry, essential oils, makeup, leggings, cleaning products, accessories, nutritional supplements, skin care miracles, or (fill in the blank) on display.

Or, you’ve been invited to an online shopping party to buy books or mascara that will Change your Life.

Or, (and this might be my least favorite), you’ve been added to some FB group you did not ask to join and now have live videos appearing in your feed of someone applying their makeup.

Church life, it seems, is a hotspot for business. Multi level marketing (the I-sell-to-you, you-sell-to-your-friends, your-friends-sell-to-their friends model) is a 34 billion dollar a year industry, according to Christianity Today’s feature article on the topic… and a vast proportion of those sales are by and to women, and church ladies are at the forefront of the salesforce. There’s a reason your facebook feed is filled with church contacts selling stuff.

I used to think it was just me who got an icky feeling every time I got one of these party invites. I don’t like shopping at the best of times (I can feel my soul leaching out of me with every step I take deeper into the mall), but I’ve been wrestling for months on what it is about this particular type of shopping that makes me so antsy, and more and more I’m realizing it’s not just me… and getting closer to articulating what it is that bugs me.

So let me start out by acknowledging the good things about this trend. Targeted primarily at women who cannot engage in the workforce full time (because they’re caring for kids or parents) and women who need additional income because they’re in lower-paying jobs (I know multiple teachers and medical assistants who are keep ‘consulting’ businesses on the side for this reason) – these businesses do something wonderful: they acknowledge the talent and leadership potential of women, and give them opportunities to use their gifts in a significant way. The trainers invest time in developing women’s gifts, and they encourage them and build community among their participants.

Let me say from the get-go that I FULLY believe in acknowledging, developing, and encouraging women as able and ready world-changers. The world has come a long way in the last fifty years, but office space and church life still remain places where women sometimes aren’t fully welcomed as adding significant value. These companies SEE the incredible power and potential of women in the pews in a way we could learn from.

I also want to acknowledge that for a handful of women, these stay-at-home businesses have provided significant income opportunities, allowing women to help put their kids through college, or pay off student debt. That’s a wonderful thing. They work hard. I’m thrilled for them. And yet, I know a much bigger number of women who landed up investing more than they earned, and for whom the hours invested and nights away from home hosting parties have yielded very little. So, there’s that.

So why do I feel icky about it? Is it that I loathe the free market so much that I can’t bear to see people sell stuff? Nope, that’s not it. Is it that I am jealous of others’ success? Nope, that’s not it either (I wrestled long and hard about this.) I think, when all is said and done, the unease I feel about this phenomenon is for two main reasons:

First, it muddies the waters of friendship. True friends are one of my chief life lines as I cope with the stresses of this life stage (I wrote about it for Christianity Today this month here, if you’re curious.) Knowing that there are people whose care for me is genuine makes the world of difference, and it feels yucky to doubt overtures of friendship from other Christian women: am I a friend to them? Or just a potential customer they’re being friendly to? When someone who’s never been active on social media all of a sudden becomes highly active, liking all my posts, and posting highly hashtagged pictures of herself “living the dream” after years of never posting a thing…. I smell a rat. If the first time you message me after ten years is to “connect” and ask me about what’s up in my life and oh-just-breezy-sharing that one of the things you’ve been up to is starting this or that business… it doesn’t feel like friendship to me. 

And I hate feeling like a bad Debbie-Downer-Doubting-Thomas mashup about friendship. I think one of the most precious resources we have is our friendships, and I cannot shake the feeling that these billion dollar industries are muscling their way into sacred spaces they have no right being in. Especially when the language of the company is such that purchasing their product is seen as “supporting your friend’s business”. I don’t want a price tag imposed by some third party on how well I support my friend. I don’t want the first time I’m invited to your house to be for a sales/pampering/shopping party… that doesn’t feel like friendship, either. I love and believe in girl’s time, but I don’t want to be on my guard when someone invites me to spend time with them: will I have to resist a sales pitch? do I have to rehearse my awkward excuse? How many polite refusals can a friendship endure?

I feel some real grief for women wanting to build a business in these models: they are gifted and talented and I know they are trying to make an honest living in a way that supports their family… but the relational cost to have to look at a significant part of emotional support base all as potential clients has to be something that weighs heavily on them. It is no small wonder that I see friends engaged in these businesses bonding more and more closely with other women in the same business: new communities beyond the church where no-one has a before/after comparison on how their friendships are now.

My second big concern is this: these companies make us spend our invitations on a product instead of on Jesus. The model for sales is actually eerily evangelistic: consider the way we are encouraged to share our faith..

Be such a great friend, and live such a good and flourishing life among people that they will be drawn to you. Pictures of radiant smiles, testimonies of how your life is different, celebration of community and change all help show this.

Invite others to share in the joy of what you’ve found.

But do so with gentleness and grace.

And if anyone asks you for a reason for your hope, do so with gladness. 

Invite others to join the “family”, and hope that their joy will be contagious, too.

But what’s the source of the joy? My feeling is you can’t say “It’s Jesus. Oh, and also my amazing product,” in the same breath.

The evangelism model above works for the gospel… and remarkably well also for Tupperware, Young Living, Pampered Chef, 31 Bits, Doterra, Arbonne, LulaRoe, YouNique, NorWex, Beach Body, Premier Jewelry, Rodan+Fields, Urborne Books, and fill in the blank. Perhaps I also need to add here that the quality of the products that are being sold is often really great (such cute leggings! and necklaces! And your skin really does glow!) But the question remains: what do people associate with you, when they imagine you completing the sentence, “__________ has made all the difference in my life.”

Often we only get one chance to invite people into our lives, and one chance to share the story of what’s made the difference. My deep concern is that person-to-person sales leverage relationships for the wrong purpose: it uses our opportunities to build relationship in service of a product and not the Person.

I don’t ever want to be a person who has their overtures of friendship met with suspicion. No-one wants to be friends with the person who “just wants to evangelize them”. Whether for God, or their product. I think I have a way to go (we have a way to go, really) in learning how to develop and believe in women. I believe women can lead. I believe there are ways of developing and supporting income-generating projects. But I don’t believe the model we have on offer from companies that make their billions by exploiting my friendship-list is a healthy one. I know a handful of women who manage to walk this line of friendship and business remarkably well (and I should say, most of these are involved in justice-motivated ventures to support entrepreneurial women in developing countries)… but these women are exceptional in more way than one.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to buy your product. But I really, really do want to be your friend.

 

 

 

The Lord is my Shepherd, it’s going to be okay (A Psalm for weary women)

Remember playing hide-n-seek as a kid, and after a countdown the seeker would shout “Ready or not, here I come!”? Lately I’ve been feeling like I want to hide away somewhere, too, but my calendar is shouting “Ready or not, here I come!” at me. It’s a crazy season, and sometimes I feel a rising sense of panic about all there is to do.
In the midst of this, I sensed an invitation to lay down my COO-Of-The-House mantle, and spend some time reflecting on being a sheep. The sheep in Psalm 23, particularly.My talented artist friend Corrie (who illustrated my poetry series and the trafficking awareness posts) knows the stress of a family calendar and the invitation of the good shepherd, too, and so together we want to share a virtual cup of tea and an invitation to God’s rest to you.
Psalm 23 for the Weary Woman
The LORD is my shepherd, he will take care of me.
He has me sit down, drink tea, and breathe a while,
     He restores my soul.
He helps and guides me in making decisions, because he cares about how his daughter is faring in this world.
Even though I stare down the shadowed valley of an overloaded calendar, 
     I will not freak out,
     for you are with me;
Knowing you’ll guide and guard me in this mayhem comforts me.
You provide ways for me to be nourished and flourished, even in the midst of life’s demands
You have chosen and called me your own;
       you’ve promised an abundant life, rich with your presence.
I know it’s going to be okay,
       because your goodness and kindness will be with me every single day in this life and this home,
       and for all the days in the next life in your home, too. 
Amen.

Still Flying

I just returned from an incredible week at the Harvest Island Wilderness Workshop: a week with 15 others on a remote island, learning about writing from Leslie Leyland Fields (a masterful writer, as you can see here), and Philip Yancey (!!!). I’ve wanted to go from the first time I heard about it, if we could wrangle the time and money. But there was one more concern: the question of the travel, since I am pretty much the most motion sick person you’ve ever met. In one of our writing exercises, I tried to explain….

A storm is coming in, they said, so we would need to be at the float plane six hours earlier than expected. I reached behind my ear to finger the dime sized patch—scopamine for coping with my ever-queasy-belly. Float plus plane. Two words more scary to me than biological plus warfare. Or kale plus anything. Please, merciful God, let these drugs work.

Before… (also pictured, the lovely Aleah with her trusty GoPro)

“It looks to be a pretty clear day,” our pilot says. The plane roars to life, and I aim my phone at the creamy flare of water fanning up from the fins. I am eye level with the black birches, with the eagle, with the clouds. I breathe in deep. I am okay.

“See in the river bend to our left?,” says Josh, “those are bears. A mama and her two cubs, I think.” I permit myself a smile, surprised to be able to look, to see, to enjoy. Mossy green mountain tips point up at us, mirroring our fingers pointing down at golf courses, at glaciers, at mountain dandruff I am told are actually goats.

The plane lurches and my stomach scoops deep into fear. My knuckles whiten. I swallow and wait. Look at the mountains. See the fjords? Are there any bears? Where’s the barf bag? How much longer?

At first it feels like heat, a sweat slick under my jacket, a longing for fresh air. I unzip a little, willing something cooler onto my body. But this is a well-worn path into the mire of nausea, and I know the stages well. Sweat. Cough. Cough again. Wipe my clammy hands on my knees and focus on the horizon.

Two inlets later, I reach for the baggie behind the seat. There are six people on this plane, four of whom will see and smell everything that happens next. We will live together for a week, and I would love them to think something of me other than “the one who threw up”. Years later, in a crowded conference hall with nametags obscured, perhaps I will say hello, and be met with polite pause as memory is scanned for association. “I’m Bronwyn, we met in Alaska. I’m the one who got sick on the plane.”

But there is no controlling this. I will be remembered as I am, not as I’d hoped to present myself. Humbled, I tumble my pride into the baggie. Once, twice, and once more for good measure. The clamminess abates and I see the island on the horizon.

And we are flying still.

Feelings are our Friends

I spent some time recently talking with a friend who was a hot mess over a situation. I recognized the symptoms of hotmessery fairly quickly, having been there myself just days before: the big feelings, the confusion about what to think and what to do, the desire to make sense of the bits of the story and respond well, the feeling-stuckness in the complexity of it all. And perhaps worst of all, the sense of disorientation about why this issue, which was admittedly not a big deal, loomed at the forefront of their mind all day. “I feel bad that I can’t get over this,” my friend said, “I know that my reactions here are much bigger than the situation warrants but I just can’t figure it out.”

Yep.

Me too.

As we talked, a couple of things began to crystallize for me: fragments of books I’d been reading and random notes in my prayer journal came together to form something of an 3-D picture, and I finally found the words I’d been scrambling for for a couple weeks:

Feelings are our friends.

There are times when we feel swamped and confused by a swirling mass of thoughts and feelings, and in times like that, it’s helpful to remember that these feelings can be our friends. Perhaps this is obvious to you, but it hasn’t always been obvious to me. For much of my life I’ve thought of feelings as powerful, but unreliable bandits: things to be quashed or, at the very least, treated with deep suspicion. But the idea that feelings could be friends and allies (rather than foes) in figuring out life and truth is something relatively new to me.

Feelings make frighteningly terrible masters: it is a terrifying thing to be at the mercy of one’s emotions (friends with anxiety and depression, I hear you). Feelings also make frustratingly terrible servants: which of us was ever able to stop feeling worried simply because we told ourselves to do so? But feelings—like our bodies—sometimes can give us information and tell us the truth about a situation which our rational minds cannot (or will not) attend to.

For example, we might be walking down a dark road and tell ourselves that we’re not scared and there’s nothing at all to be scared of… but our pounding heart and clammy hands tell the truth that we are, in fact, terrified.

Or, as happened with my friend and I, we might be sitting in a coffee shop and telling a story and saying “it’s fine, it’s no big deal,” but our churning emotions and the lurking sense of anger or shame tell us that there’s more at work here than we’ve admitted.

This is what Brene Brown so compellingly invites us to do in her (incredibly helpful) book Rising Strong: to notice our feelings and get curious about them. What is this feeling we’re feeling? Is it anger? Is it fear? Is it disappointment? Is it envy? And then she encourages us to get curious about those emotions themselves without rushing to judgement: what is it about this situation that is making me angry, and what does that tell me? She writes:

“The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”
Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I have a couple friends who are reliable mirrors to me as I share stories about my life: they reflect what they’re seeing back to me, and it helps me to be curious about what’s really going on beneath my emotions. They say things like “you seem angry about that” when I’m telling a story, and then will sometimes gently ask whether I’ve done any thinking about why I might be angry about that. If, instead of just telling myself to “not be angry” about a thing, I can take the time to be curious about why I got so angry, it can give so much good information about the desires and beliefs that simmer so much deeper in my soul.

I may say, for example, that I don’t care about a promotion or a salary increase… but if I’m incredibly angry that Joe Bloggs over there got a raise, that anger might be a clue that I care more about money, or being recognized, or knowing that I’ve made a contribution (or whatever) than I recognized. My wise friend Jen calls this “sifting our desires”, and she’s right: I can do a devilishly good job of deceiving myself that I don’t care about certain things and do care about others – but my feelings (of gloating, envy, schadenfreude etc) will sometimes tell the truth despite me, and a little bit of courageous digging can reveal hurts or deep longings or idols or dreams that I hadn’t faced squarely before.

I re-read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead this month, and fell in love once again with the tender and wise heart of John Ames, the elderly pastor whose voice tells the story. Writing of how he came to process grief and disappointment, he says this:

“I have never found another way to be as honest with myself as I can be by consulting with these miseries of mine, these accusers and rebukers, God bless them all. So long as they do not kill me outright.”  

He was a man who had befriended his feelings, even the miserable ones. Especially the miserable ones – for by consulting with them he learned to be honest with himself, just as I’m learning to be honest, too. I want to be a joyful, gracious, generous person; but then I have days when I’m grouchy and angry and irrationally mean-spirited. To dismiss those feelings and say to myself: “that was a bad day, I’ll try again with kindness tomorrow” is not a terrible route to walk; but there’s a better route still: to hold my grouchy, angry, irrationally mean-spirited feelings in my hand and look on them as allies: “well, hello there, little feelings – what has got you so upset? and how can we learn from this together?”

It’s messy, brutal, humbling work. But its truthful, and good, and the journey all the richer for the companionship of my hotmessery of feelings.