"Inside Out" Helps us all Grow Up

blogpic insideoutWe go to the movies so rarely now, it was odd to choose an animated Pixar movie for our “date” on Dan’s day off this week. Inside Out was the best movie we’ve seen in a long time! What a wonderfully creative way to imagine emotions, memory, hardship and growing up, all inside the head of 11- year old, Riley. I loved the image of memories as colored balls – much like the ball pit in many fast food “playlands”. Each primary emotion is personified with a color and an attitude—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust along with an imaginary friend, Bing Bong.

“Sadness” seems to ruin everything and suck all the fun out of the room, but “Joy” learns that once Sadness is felt and expressed – healing begins. We discover that the real danger is not sadness, but apathy—feeling nothing at all. Far from ruining our memories, acknowledging and expressing our pain and melancholy in a good cry can help us begin again.

Continuing with this theme of entering into loss, another poignant moment if the film is when Joy and Bing Bong fall into the abyss of forgotten memories (this is below the realms of core memories, long-term memories, and the subconscious—I love the map of the mind this movie portrays!). After 2 valiant attempts to get back to the emotional headquarters to help Riley recover from a traumatic cross-country move, Bing Bong purposely falls out of their wagon-rocket so Joy can make it safely out. Leaving childhood comforts is a painful, but necessary stage in growing up. It reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s reflection in 1 Corinthians, 13:11: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

This scene also teaches us again what Scripture, religion, myths, stories and fairy tales have conveyed for centuries which we often resist with Herculean effort: that the way up is the way down. The way to healing and growth is achieved by going through pain, difficulty, loss, failure, and sacrifice. Much like Hercules going down to Hades to save his true love and become worthy to live among the gods, Cinderella disappearing and being lost before she’s found, Aslan, the Lion and true King of Narnia sacrificing himself to save Edward in The Chronicles of Narnia, and of course in Christian faith, where the death of Jesus is the only way to new life and eternal power, Riley must feel the depths of loss and let Bing Bong die in order to grow and experience new relationships in her young life.

Richard Rohr in his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life makes it clear that we usually don’t enter these stages of loss and renewal, death and new life, going down to go up, unless it is forced upon us by tragedy or circumstances of loss beyond our control. I suppose this is why a mentor of mine told me that 2/3 of adults don’t actually grow up; many remain stunted by refusing, for whatever reason, to not enter the emotional growth into which life’s difficulties invite us.

Watching this movie and inviting our “inside out” is a great way to continue the journey for us as adults, as well as children.

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Chipping Away

blogpic unbecoming quotationWhen asked how he carved David, Michelangelo said, "I just chipped away whatever was not David." Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for becoming our true selves. We don't need to keep adding more and more layers, but rather to let go of whatever pulls us away from or crowds out our inner self.

This can be a difficult task because first our parents have an idea of who they want us to be and they chip away at whatever is not consistent with their desires. In turn, this is true of friends, mentors, our spouse, society, the media and so on. We are shaped by a plethora of carvers, chipping away to find their desired image of us. We feel pressured to do and be more and more, when in reality we may need less and less.

Becoming is not about adding layers, but of shedding—of releasing fears, failures, hang-ups, false expectations. It takes courage and the embrace of God's love to let go of others' images and expectations of us. But when we ask ourselves, "In God's eyes, who am I created to be?" we can gain new perspective and the freedom to listen to our inner voice rather than react to external pressure. We can release outward behaviors that do not match our inner identity. We can see any circumstance, whether positive or negative, as an opportunity to become closer to God and allow him to be the master carver.

This perspective has given me a new way to understand my current health challenges – they are an opportunity for shedding. I can use this time to allow God to chip away at whatever is not in line with who God wants me to be.

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Success Through Surrender

Single Golden Leaf FallingThe only way I know how to change behavior is to change behavior: make a different choice in the moment. This is difficult in a culture bound by addictive patterns fed by self-reliance. Addict Nation author Jane Velez-Mitchell asserts addiction is not just about the usual—alcohol, drugs, and gambling, but that top addictions in the US include prescription pills, technology, shopping, and food (fat and sugar). Dr. Mark Hyman argues that sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine because of the way it lights up the reward center of the brain. We probably all have some kind of addictive behaviors, making it challenging to change any unhelpful habit.

In my experience, the harder I try to change my behavior on my own, the more difficult it becomes. We live in a culture that idolizes hard work, never giving up, pushing oneself beyond previous or reasonable limits. When I exercise on the eliptical machine at the YMCA and stop to sip water, the digital read-out urges me, "keep climbing." We live in a "keep climbing" culture, which is why it's hard to accept that often times, success is found not in trying harder, but rather in letting go.

The moment of surrender is the weakest moment for a human being– an emptiness that admits, finally, that I cannot of my own will and power, do something different, create something new, change my behavior or become a deeper more whole person on my own. Ironically for Christians, this moment is also our most powerful for we become open to the movement of God. As the Apostle Paul says, "For whenever I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10). We surrender to a power greater than ourselves, allowing this power to work through us to effect changes, newness, and behavior beyond what we can do on our own. This is the basic first step of any 12-step program. I visited an AA meeting 14 years ago, and what the speaker on Step 1 said still sticks with me: it's not about trying harder; it's about admitting that we can't do it all.

On our own, we're stuck in unhealthy behavior, be it eating or drinking too much, using technology to avoid intimacy, and other cyclical patterns hurtful to ourselves or others. Surrendering our weakness to God, we are more powerful than ever through the great I AM, allowing God, the universe, the creative Spirit and power of life to work through us, fill us, use us, change us.

How does one do this on a daily basis—moment by moment? How does this God-consciousness permeate our being so that discernment of a power beyond us is ever-present on our mind and heart directing our thoughts and actions? The answer is the same as the joke about the pianist rushing down the street asking a New Yorker for directions: "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" New Yorker: "practice, practice, practice!"

How do we develop a daily God-consciousness? Practice, practice, practice. It's why we call prayer, meditation, and other disciplines Spiritual Practices. We're always practicing, we never arrive. Time with God in prayer each morning sets the stage for the day. The actors are Jesus and the Spirit, the props are the circumstances of my life, the script is revealed as I move through the day as I continually listen to God the Director feed me my lines. It's a relationship with the inward presence of God; a listening inward to the voice of the Spirit, rather than outward. It means a slower pace, a response not a reaction, a thoughtful, measured, centered pace to life.

Through such practices, a God-consciousness can become our daily companion, our daily script, our daily desire. Listening for God's voice and direction in the quiet of the morning enables me to hear God's voice in the noise of the afternoon. That the day is not up to me is pure freedom when I let it go. I am not side-lined, but through Christ I then become a valued actor who gives voice to the Spirit. Indeed, God's grace is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Photo Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_tuchkay123'>tuchkay123 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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Images of God & Self: From Doing to Being

"Our image of God and our image of self are two sides of Taking Mary Moments in a Martha Worldthe same coin" said Dr. Hsin-hsin Huang, the leader and trainer for  Spiritual Companions to retreatants who go through a 9-month experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. As we each shared our prayer and spiritual experiences, Dr. Huang continued to pepper our discussion with more spiritual insights on the path to spiritual maturity.

Our image of God relates directly to how we view ourselves. Our first image of God often arises out of our relationship with our parents. Our early images of God can be rooted in several dynamics: fear of punishment, expectations of perfection or hyper-responsibility, an experience of abuse, absence or unreliability, and maybe even one of love and forgiveness. Just as our relationship with our parents changes over time to a more equal relationship between adults, so also can our relationship with God. We move from fear of God to love of God as we mature.

If we fear God as a judgmental moralist who demands right behavior, then we see ourselves as an unlovable, bad person who has to do better. We consequently live with a lot of guilt and shame that leads not only to low self-esteem, but also to judgmental attitudes toward others. There are a lot of burned-out Christians today who can never behave exactly the right way for their demanding God, and others in society are also judged for missing the mark.

The less we fear God, however, the more grateful we are to God for all God does for us in creation, in daily sustenance, in relationships, in talents and abilities, in forgiveness through Jesus. The less we fear God, the more we can love ourselves because God loves us. The more forgiving we believe God is, the more we are able to forgive ourselves and our own brokenness and imperfection. Such self-love, grounded in God's love, enables us to also love and forgive others, letting go of perfectionistic expectations.

This is the hope of pursuing a spiritual path – that we mature from an belief about God to the felt experience of God loving us. There is a difference between intellectually understanding God and affectively experiencing God's intimate, powerful love for us. We see this most clearly in the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus invites Martha to move from doing to being – from doing for God to being loved by God in the presence and person of Jesus.

I have always been a "Martha" – with a hyper sense of reasonability to and for the well-being of others. When I began the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in the fall of 2013, the first prayer exercise was to "behold God beholding me and smiling." For the first 56 days, I did this exercise, but it was an intellectual exercise – I held a picture in my minds' eye. But on day 57, I felt a physical shift in my body from my mind to my gut – I felt loved. I was a little startled and said out loud to God, "you really do love me, don't you?!" And I smiled. (I had been ordained as a pastor for 24 years and had been serving a God with very high expectations of me).

Dr. Huang offered another exercise to help us identify childhood images of God that affect our relationship with God today: write about each of one's parents, describing them in about a page. Take a break and come back 30 minutes later to notice what, if anything you have written about your parents describes your image of God. What brings you deeper in your relationship with God and of what can you let go that hinders you from experiencing how much God loves you? Then practice "beholding God beholding you and smiling - a Mary practice in a Martha world.

Visit The Bridges Program to learn more about how you can experience the Spiritual Exercises!

Photo used with Permission - https://vimeo.com/41702334 2012 Awaken Church Pastor Nate Witiuk, Clarksville, TN 

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

 

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