Spiritual Sobriety

blogpic.wheelofemotionsLast Sunday I was getting ready for the high school graduation party for our youngest child. Everyone else was either at church or asleep. As I rushed around the house, I began to feel nauseous. I knew I wasn’t physically ill; my body was bearing the symptoms of emotions I was ignoring. I wanted to do anything but feel my feelings—could I busy myself and ignore them? Could I eat something sweet and shove those uncomfortable feelings back down?

What do you do to avoid feeling your feelings and to escape experiencing the height and depth of all your emotions? Some turn to alcohol or drugs to feel better; others shop, gamble or become control freaks; still others exercise, work or busy themselves compulsively. It’s no accident that the naturally occurring chemicals in chocolate make us feel better; it has phenylethylamine which is the “love drug,” serotonin which is a mood lifter, and it releases endorphins in the brain. Alcohol can relax and numb us while controlling others enables us to externalize our discomfort and blame someone else. This all seems far preferable to dealing with guilt, shame and fear, which, as I learned from 12-step programs, are the primary reasons people drink. We all do something to avoid uncomfortable feelings whether or not we’ve developed a full-blown addiction. The problem is that the relief is only temporary, and the cruddy feelings remain. Feelings unexpressed come out some other way--often in hurtful, destructive ways.

While I contemplated what to do with my nausea, it occurred to me that sobriety from any addictive substance or pattern of behavior means the willingness to feel my feelings, especially the uncomfortable ones. This is the only path for those who want to be spiritually healthy and whole. Plus, my body was not letting me off the hook.

I sat down to pray, journal and get in touch with what was really going on. I wrote out feelings of anger at the changes in my life, and was left with a deep feeling of sadness that an important stage of my life was ending. Once I acknowledged my emotions, felt them, and received the wisdom they were sharing, I felt so much better. I was still sad, but no longer nauseous. I was both grounded and freed, releasing new energy for the tasks at hand. I also became emotionally available to enjoy the party and everyone who came to celebrate our daughter’s success. It was better and longer-lasting than a chocolate high and it wasn’t followed by guilt and shame.

This experience made me wonder why it’s so hard for me to lean into my feelings and listen to them rather than indulge the compulsion to avoid and cover them up. Part of the reason is taking the time to listen to my inner self and believing I am worth this attention. Part of it is fear that my emotions will become all-consuming (and then overcoming my resistance to asking for help from a friend or therapist!). Part of it is letting go of the illusion that I’ll feel better if I just ignore uncomfortable emotions. Part of it is the irrational fear that I won’t be loved if I’m honest about what’s going on inside me. I’ve actually found that the opposite is true. We become much easier to love when we’re honest and engage in our own self-care.

Two days later, we came home from our last high school graduation ceremony. Again, everyone was either out or asleep, and there I was, in the house alone with these feelings of loss and sadness, plus I was overtired to boot. I didn’t handle it as well as I did before the party. I found the dark chocolate bunny my kids left untouched after Easter, and I ate the whole thing while watching Netflix. At least I got some extra antioxidants since it was dark chocolate!

A big part of spiritual sobriety is also forgiving myself when I don’t handle my feelings well.

Image: Roger Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions: By Machine Elf 1735 - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13285286

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When God Says, "No"

blogpic.NoHeartWhat do you do when God says, “no"?

I have been praying, hoping, wishing and asking God for our life to go in a specific direction—or more accurately—to remain the same. I don’t want to move, leave my house, lose the beautiful creek in our backyard, work in a different Synod, or say goodbye to the congregation I am currently serving. More importantly, I want to keep our home base secure for our son, who’s changing colleges and our daughter, who is starting college in August. My parents moved my freshman year of college, and while I survived and learned important life lessons, it was extremely difficult. Why would God ask me to do the same to my own kids?

I have been like the persistent widow in the parable Jesus tells in Luke 18, who, as Dan’s Dad once described her, “blackened God’s eye with her prayers” in order to receive her preferred outcome. Jesus doesn’t tell us who is her opponent, nor what justice she sought; perhaps my prayers don’t rise to the level of justice required for God to give me the satisfaction the widow receives.

Or maybe God wants me to let go of fear, resistance to change and trying to control my children’s experiences based on my past.

Shoot. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

A wise person once said that what we fear is not change, but loss. How true. I don’t want to lose all that we have built in our life in St. Louis over the last 18 ½ years. Yet, this seems to be what God calls us to do. Last Sunday, Dan was unanimously elected to be the Pastor of Legacy Presbyterian Church in Frisco, TX (about 30 miles north of Dallas). He will begin in mid-July, and I will stay in St. Louis until after our house sells and we move our daughter to college (perhaps early October). One silver lining to this move is that we will be close to my Dad, who lives near Ft. Worth, and to one of my sisters, who lives in Dallas.

Has God said, “no” to my prayers? Yes; God has said “no” to my preferred outcomes. But God also has said, “yes!” to me. More than graceful grieving, God wants me to be more than I am right now, to trust more deeply than I ever have, and to embody my faith with more courage than I can muster on my own.

God calls us to trust that what she has in store is much greater than what we can ever ask or imagine. In fact, I’m counting on it.

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A Kidney Stone Does Not Equal Childbirth

blogpic LTYM 2017An essay performed at the 5th Annual Listen To Your Mother Event - St. Louis; Saturday, May 13, 2017

I farted while walking out of a fancy Indian restaurant after having enjoyed a very nice lunch with my husband. It wasn’t one of those SBD farts—you know, silent but deadly that anyone could have let slip out. Had it been, I could have discreetly walked out and no one would have been the wiser. Fortunately, I was walking toward the door, so I just kept on going and marched down the street like the businesswoman I appeared to be.

Only one couple remained in the restaurant. Maybe they thought it was the server who was straightening a table near the exit. I hoped so, because I talked to that woman in the hallway near the restroom, and I got her phone number so I could give her a makeover with my Mary Kay business.

I looked so sharp that day, too. I wore a bright blue suit, matching scarf, and coordinated jewelry; my curls were coiffed to a professional, yet fun, look. Until my heel hit the ground a little too hard, and there it was—the fart that announced my departure.

I didn’t even know it was there, lying in wait, like a leopard waiting for the precise moment to pounce on its prey. Little did I know that my put-together-having-a-fabulous-day-getting-new-names-for-my-business-having-a-rare-lunch-out-with-my-husband-looking-great-self was the prey this secret fart was after.

I never called that woman to book her facial because I was afraid she thinks I’m the lady in the blue suit who farts. It’s a good thing I didn’t sneeze, or I would have peed, too (it’s the post-partum form of multitasking). If I would have dropped something and bent over, all hell would have broken loose.

My husband thinks that because he had a painful kidney stone that landed him in the emergency room, he has experienced the equivalent of childbirth. This argument doesn’t wash with me. He was given drugs that knocked him out. He got to sleep through it. When it came time to pass the stone, all he had to do was pee into a strainer. The stone was like a large grain of sand (oooooh! Congratulations! Let me order the balloon bouquet!).

This is nothing like a nine-pound baby or the two eight-and-a-half pounders who followed. I like the late Robin Williams’ suggestion that, “Guys who want to experience childbirth can ‘open an umbrella up their ass.’”

But let’s say for the sake of argument that the pain of a kidney stone is equivalent to the pain of labor. My husband does not live with the long-term effects of childbirth on his body. Passing a tiny pebble has not stretched out anything. I don’t hear his gastrointestinal tract ambushing his professional image. I don’t see him leaking when he sneezes. In fact, I don’t see him multitasking at all.

I discussed this loss of lower extremity control with an OB/GYN at a dinner party. I asked if Kegel exercises would help—you know—suck up the farts. With her hands dancing in the air above our plates, like finger puppets in the shapes of vaginas and anuses, she explained that Kegels would not help the back-end, but that surgery could repair all of my stretched or torn parts.

Her personal and medical conclusion was that we each have to decide what our limit is, what is tolerable for us and what is not. She herself had bladder-repair surgery. Her deciding moment was when she and her husband were at a party and she had had a little too much to drink. They were dancing the polka and laughing, and she was peeing across the polka floor.

Another friend shared that jumping on a trampoline after two beers also produced similar, unexpected results. My fart didn’t seem so bad after hearing these stories!

So, ladies, we could decide to polka under the influence, trampoline after two beers, and just put up with the inconvenience and embarrassment, as we gush about how these beautiful children make it all worth it. Or, we could decide to have surgery to repair it all.

My husband doesn’t live with any of these problems. Drinking enough water solves his problems; drinking too much creates mine. Peeing solves his problem; peeing creates mine.

Which brings me back to my original point: a kidney stone does not equal childbirth!

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Congregational Transformation

blocpic congregationaltransformationwordcloudI am working on Certificate of Spiritual Direction at Aquinas Institute of Theology and am writing a research paper on Spirituality and Congregational Transformation. In part, I am wondering what spiritual practices enable traditional church folk to become open to change in their congregation, and engage in relevant mission with Millenials, the “spiritual but not religious”, and others who are disenchanted with institutions in general and organized religion specifically. I interviewed two pastors who have led successful transformations in a congregation, and also worked as consultants to help others do the same.

Both consultants said that the lay leaders, as well as the pastor need to be engaged in their own spiritual practices on a daily basis. There are a whole variety of spiritual practices across denominations and cultures, but the most important ones include some form of the following:

• prayer
• living in the Word or Bible study
• living in community—like a small group—where honesty and vulnerability are expressed, and genuine love and active care for one another is experienced.

When the pastor is willing to be appropriately vulnerable in sermons and teaching about his or her own challenges, the lay leaders are more willing to do so in their small groups, committees and teams. This kind of heart-to-heart culture in a congregation is what fosters authentic community, which is the basis for a mission focused on sharing God’s love with others.

These spiritual practices and the genuine community that grows from them, help people realize that the church is not an institution, a building, a certain way of doing things, a power structure, a place where we consume services, or a place where we get what we want, but rather, the church’s purpose is to share the life-changing love of Jesus Christ in and with their community and the world.

When congregations are asked what they want in pastor, they usually list off skills: preaching, leading worship, pastoral visitation, teaching, administration, and so on, but they never mention spiritual practices or depth. After hearing this list of non-spiritual functions, one consultant then tells church boards that they are missing the most important question to ask a pastor or pastoral candidate: “What are you doing to deepen your relationship with Jesus, so you can help us do the same?” The board members’ response usually is, “isn’t that assumed?” And the answer is, “no!” Pastors spend a lot of time doing the tasks to keep the institution functioning rather than focusing on their own spiritual life and equipping the laity in deepening their relationship with Jesus.

It turns out that the only path of congregational transformation is the same as it is for personal transformation in the faith: spending time with Jesus in prayer, in Bible study, and in community so that we are continually drawn out of our self-focus into the love of God, and the mission of the Gospel to transform the world.

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.