Friday, August 29, 2014

When Anger is Sinful

Anger is an attack. It is a physiological response to a threat -- the "fight" part of the fight-or-flight response. I think this is important to establish because we tend to justify anger that there isn't much justification for.

I first learned this fact about the nature of anger in grad school when I had a baby at home, and it was very revealing to me. Many afternoons, my daughter would wake up early from her afternoon nap, and I would be so mad! I had so much I needed to get done during that nap! I didn't get even half of it done!!  #!%@!!!!

Then I caught myself and stepped back: anger is a response to a threat, so why is this a threat to me? What exactly am I defending myself against? When I sat down and examined the situation, my anger was ridiculous. She's fourteen months old. She sleeps when she's tired . . . she wakes up when she's not. It's not like she's conspiring to selfishly dominate my attention and keep me from ever achieving my other aspirations in life.

I also found this fact about anger enlightening when I looked at my reaction to other people's anger, because although I wouldn't have been able to articulate it, anger terrified me. Frightened me to my core. It didn't even have to be directed at me, and it didn't even have to be coming from people close to me, but when those two things were true, it was even more terrifying. When someone I loved got mad at me, in my gut, I was preparing myself to be destroyed. Destroyed. I have no idea why I reacted so strongly, but it was my reality.

I've learned over the years to control my fear, to trust the love of my loved ones despite their anger, to reason myself into reacting calmly and appropriately instead of with the torrent of helpless tears that my husband once confessed struck him as manipulative. I know in my head that somebody else's anger won't destroy me. But I've realized recently that in my heart, the fear is still there. I wonder if it always will be.

But today, I'm less concerned about my own destruction and more concerned about what I may be destroying in others . . . like my family. I don't know how my husband and kids feel inside when I get mad at them, but if it's anything resembling my own reaction, I NEVER want to be the cause of that kind of fear in them. Especially when, as I said at the beginning, most of my anger is not justified. Oh, I always think it is. Don't I have good reason to be mad when my kids don't do what I ask them to do? When they behave selfishly and irresponsibly?

Not when I realize that my anger is an attack. It is a response to a perceived threat from them, a response which, at its physiological core, is designed to squash them, to dominate them, to put them into submission and establish myself as top dog. We don't think that's what we're doing, but we're deceiving ourselves. Anger is a physical response to a mental perception of a situation. A fight response to a threat.

Anger isn't an appropriate training technique. Anger doesn't teach -- or when it does, it teaches that you are a threat to me, to my comfort, to my agenda, to my sense of self, and I won't allow you to be that. I'm in control. I will stop you. There may be circumstances where such a response is appropriate and necessary, but not in the daily life of your typical family. Anger may often be more selfish that the selfish behavior that provokes it.

But we don't think of it this way because it's just so natural to get mad -- and natural is always right, yes? Trying to subvert our natural impulses just messes us up. Right?

Pfft. Lies from Satan. We are by nature sinners,and we are emphatically instructed to stop sinning.

But let's do it right. We don't want to stuff our anger after it rises; we want to stop getting angry in the first place. We want to "be transformed by the renewing of our minds" so that we stop seeing other people's faults as a personal threat and don't have the instinctual response to attack them to protect ourselves. We can't really stop ourselves from getting mad about something as long as we're perceiving it as a threat; we have to change the way we're thinking about the people and situations in our lives -- then our bodies won't turn on that fight response to squash our "enemies" who threaten us.

So, yes, I believe there are times when my anger is sinful -- or, more accurately, when it is a sign of sin in my life. When it is selfish, when it hurts others, and when it is clearly a sign that I don't trust God like I claim to. We don't need to sit around feeling guilty about being sinners . . . but we don't need to sit around indulging in our sin either. Be transformed by the renewing of our minds. God, teach me to think the way you think.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


So, I'm gainfully employed now, and this job thing is cutting into my Facebook time. I've turned off my mobile data on my phone so I won't rack up time without realizing it when I'm away from home – that means I don't get Facebook notifications while I'm at school. And when I'm on my laptop there, I'm doing schoolwork and, frankly, don't even think about checking Facebook (and when I do, I feel guilty doing so while I'm on the clock).
And you know what? I don't miss it that much.
I really don't. No offense, my beloved Facebook friends, but I can get through several hours without wondering what you might be doing, or reading articles you might be linking, or liking pictures you might be posting. I realize this shouldn't be astonishing news, but judging from my computer behavior this summer, you'd think otherwise.
And you know what else? I actually feel better when I'm not on Facebook so much. I thought FB was a way for me to relax and veg out, but I feel MORE relaxed when I haven't been on. My brain feels better. I feel more in touch with the world when I'm not all virtually connected.
But you know what else else? When I get home and sit on the sofa to rest a minute, I still immediately get out the laptop, click into Facebook, and waste more time scanning my newsfeed than I'm willing to admit here.
Is that not crazy? What the heck's wrong with me?
A friend posted a blog the other day (yes, on FACEBOOK – sue me) that really hit home. The author wrote about her coming to realize that “me-time” is actually more bad for her than good. One reason: it put her in a frame of mind where the activities of her everyday life were a burden that she deserved a regular escape from – not the way you want to feel about the place where God has placed you. But another reason was, she realized that her activities of choice for her me-time (social media, primarily) actually didn't relax her at all.
I think that's what I'm discovering. The things that I do on my laptop to "unwind" don't actually do a good job of that. Social media, games, none of it.
Now, that doesn't mean I need to give up Facebook entirely. As I've said in an earlier post, there are other valid reasons for me to do the social media thing; it has more to offer me than relaxation or entertainment. But I think I need to be more honest with myself about why I'm getting on when I get on, and then stick to that purpose. I need to kick the habit that makes it my automatic go-to when I'm feeling a little stress, because I now realize that Facebook does not relieve that stress, as much as I deceive myself into thinking it does.
And my first step may be to delete the Facebook app on my phone so I don't get notifications all day long that pull me in. Deep breath. I can do this. And you can do it with me, friends. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

How to View Like a Christian

Our youngest is struggling with a decision. This summer, in her copious free time, she began watching and loving a certain TV show, a show with great characters, excellent writing, witty humor . . . but with very inappropriate storylines. (I wasn't sure about her watching the show either, but I didn't stop her. I freely confess my failure in this area as a mother: over the years, I have done a terrible job of policing my children's TV time, and I still do.)
Now, she is feeling convicted that she shouldn't be watching this show. And let me start by saying I'm incredibly proud of her hearing and responding to this conviction completely on her own without her parents' interference at all. But she has come to me for advice on the matter, and I'm trying to figure out how to advise her. The easy answer, of course, is to tell her to turn it off. But the easy answer isn't always the best answer. I don't just want her to obey me today; I want her to develop wisdom and discernment on this issue that will carry her throughout her life.
The reality is, there is very little around in the way of video entertainment in our day that has nothing objectionable in it. If we eliminate everything that doesn't conform to our Christian beliefs, we are, for all practical purposes, eliminating everything. I know people who have taken that route and would promote it to others; I just don't think that's realistic for our family. Cocooning yourself from the world is cozy, but your salt and light are trapped in your cocoon with you.
These concerns came up as I assembled my reading list for my Freshman English class this year. Most of the classics one needs to read in high school English classes are not “Christian” literature, and they include decidedly unchristian elements. Odysseus cheats on his wife. Shakespeare's comedies have a lot of bawdy humor. The violence and cruelty in A Tale of Two Cities is painful to read at times.
But part of our being made in the image of God is that we approach life in terms of narrative, and Story is a necessary way of making sense of our world. One of the complaints I have about most “Christian films” I've seen is that, in a well-meaning attempt to not glorify sin, they have sugar-coated the stories to the point of making them unreal and therefore meaningless. They are just as bad as the shows that DO glorify sin. None of them are real, and so none of them serve the purposes that God intends narrative to serve in our lives.
I'll be teaching my students this year that almost all of the stories we read will have an element of truth in them – but it is always incomplete truth, truth that needs to be informed by scripture. We can't avoid storylines with ungodly elements because the world we live in is an ungodly world; we have to learn how to read – and view – with a discerning mind.
Which brings me back to my daughter and her new favorite TV show. To watch or not to watch? The truth is, I have watched some very ungodly shows that have drawn me closer to God because they depicted the reality of sin and made me all the more grateful for a God who loves me enough to rescue me from that reality in myself. I've also watched some ungodly stuff that really messed me up.
So here's the advice I think I will give her: ask yourself, when I watch this show, does it bring me closer to God or further away? Do I find myself making excuses for the behavior of the characters I watch, or do I find myself sorrowful for the pain they don't realize they're causing themselves (like I would for a friend in that situation)? Do I see my standards changing for the better or for the worse because of watching this?
And in the end, really, is there something else that would be a better use of my time?
I am becoming increasingly cautious of ever using television or movies as “mindless entertainment”. We do need mindless entertainment on occasion, but unfortunately, we can't afford to rest our minds while we allow the world's images and stories to enter them.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sleep . . . Again . . . Please

I've been debating this morning whether I should write about this. There's some freaky part of me that feels like if I tell the world, it kind of solidifies the problem and makes it more real (as if it isn't real now). And another part of me just feels like I'll be whining all over my blog in an unattractive manner. But another part of me thinks, maybe people will pray. And I feel like I need prayer.

I can't sleep.

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have probably read about my sleep saga in the past. If not, and you're dying of curiosity,  you can get caught up here. Suffice it to say, I've seen many doctors and sleep specialists over the years and tried many things to sleep and sleep well. I finally reached a point where I was sick of sedating myself every night and went cold turkey -- then I spent many nights trying to train my brain to turn off.

Things have gone pretty well in this arena for a while. I still keep Ambien around for the occasional difficult night, because my sleep is apparently light enough even when I do sleep that losing just a little can knock me for a loop for several days.

That's why this week has frightened me. Sunday night, I was wound up and knew I wouldn't go to sleep easily, so I took an Ambien. Nothing bothering me -- just wound up. It's the first week of school, and I suppose deep down, I've probably been anxious about that, but I really don't think that's the issue here. I promise you, I'm not laying awake worrying.

Monday night was a repeat of Sunday night, and I promised myself I wouldn't take any more Ambien this week -- I'm not about to get dependent on sleep meds again. But Tuesday night, 1:30 hit and I growled at the heavens as I got up to get a pill.

And again on Wednesday night . . . although Wednesday night the pill didn't even work. I still sat in my bed until 3:30 or so, desperately tired, but awake. Once I'm thinking about how badly I need to fall asleep, there's no going to sleep. Have you ever tried to consciously let go of consciousness? It doesn't work.

Last night, I refused myself the Ambien. I dozed some . . . woke up every hour or two most of the night . . . and never went back to sleep after 4:45. I think the last two nights, I've gotten about three hours of sleep each.

Folks, this is not sustainable. I can't function very long like this. I'm already a bit nervous about driving the carpool thirty minutes to Boerne and back today. And I don't know what to do. It's like my brain has forgotten how to let go.

I don't want to be back "there". I don't want to fight this battle anymore; I have too many other battles to fight right now. Forgive me if you respond with well-meaning advice and I seem dismissive -- I really doubt you can suggest something I haven't already heard and tried. Prayer. Please.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Quick Soak in the Frenzy Chemical Bath

Pride goeth before a fall, they say. I've felt proud of myself lately. We've had two weeks of teacher workdays to get ready for school starting tomorrow, and I've seen a lot of teachers in a mental frenzy, not sure how they're going to get everything done. Yet, I've been calm -- relatively calm, at least, for me. I'm one to only feel secure and confident when I've overplanned, especially in a new situation, so I expected to be in  a frenzy myself this week.

But I haven't been. Still relatively calm. Until about 7:30 last night when I realized that none of the laptop chargers in the house were working on my computer -- that the problem was in my computer, not the chargers. My brain quickly flashed through the last time this happened to my laptop: it was too expensive to fix . . . we sent the laptop back to the manufacturer to be replaced because it was still under warranty . . . took a few weeks . . . is this one still under warranty? . . . and then the warning icon flashed on the low battery icon and it hit me.

I have only a few minutes left to access all my school files, and then I have no idea when I'll see them again.

That's when the panic set in.

Even while I felt the Frenzy Chemicals starting to flood my brain, I had the presence of mind to scramble to transfer as many crucial school documents as possible to my google drive, where I'd have access to them from a different computer. I didn't get them all there before the screen went black. But when I tried to pull them up on my daughters' computer, they weren't there. It didn't synch.

And at that point, my brain was in a helpless, panicked fog, and I was on the verge of tears for about an hour.

For over a year after my youngest's birth and my mother's sudden death, I suffered from some serious depression. One of the symptoms I saw in myself that forced me to get myself to the doctor was my inability to make decisions or to prioritize. I would start unloading the dishwasher, then see clothes in the laundry room that needed to be folded. So, I'd go fold, and then see books lying on a table that needed to be put away. I'd get those books into the next room, and I'd set them down when I saw a loose thread on an afghan that needed trimming. I'd go to get the scissors and just get the drawer open, then I'd notice . . . something else. And it would go on and on. At one point, I stood and looked around and saw at least a dozen tasks I had started and left dangling uncompleted. Everything seemed urgent. I couldn't filter and think. (I've thought about that a lot when people describe how people with autism can't filter out background sounds . . . that would be unlivable.)

That's kind of how my brain felt for an hour last night. I couldn't think what to do next. Somehow the logistics of finding a computer repair place and getting the work done quickly without breaking the bank and still being ready for school Thursday and still getting to my dentist appointment today and getting the kids to Schlitterbahn like I promised and getting the youngest back in time for her evening rehearsal . . . I simply couldn't put it together in my head.

My eldest's boyfriend is in town, and he got online and found a repair place that was still open at 8:45pm, so I called. Talking to this man calmed me. He may be a disreputable, fly-by-night huckster that will take advantage of me, but the boyfriend said he had good reviews, he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, and more importantly, he soothed and pacified me. The Frenzy Chemical bath my brain was soaking in began to evaporate. I needed to be soothed and pacified.

You know, the Bible talks about walking in the Spirit vs. walking by the sinful nature -- but the real translation of that is walking in the flesh. I sometimes think that's a more accurate term than we realize.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Magic Words

Let's say you're a coach, or a teacher. Your job is to help young people get better at performing a certain task -- running, singing, writing, whatever. And there's a particular young person in your keep who needs feedback from you today.

Wanna learn a secret that will increase his effort by 40%?

A team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale, and Columbia did research on how to give helpful feedback. "How" because as we all know, how you give such advice is as important (if not more important) than what advice you give.

They discovered a secret phrase, a phrase that, when used, increased the effort among white students by 40% and increased the effort among black students by 320%. (They didn't go into the reasons for that discrepancy, so I won't either, though I have my thoughts.) Here's the magic sentence:

"I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them."

Let's dissect that a bit.

"I have very high expectations." No soft-pedaling here. No dumbing down to what they can do easily. You have to have high expectations and own them, without apology.

"I know you can reach them." Confidence in the student's abilities. No doubts. You have to have the vision of the student succeeding and then communicate that vision to the student, because their vision is hazy.

The article about this research brought out another important factor here: "The secret is to understand that this feedback isn't just feedback. It's a vital cue about the relationship." When you build a connection with your students or trainees, and build a sense of teamwork in the group that identifies them as special and capable of great things, then words like these become "authentic, clear signals of trust, belonging and expectation."

A key word there is "authentic". You can't manufacture this kind of faith in your kids; they'll see right through that.

This was awesome for me to read, because I already feel this way about one class I'm teaching this fall. I already have a vision for each of them; they already are on their way to this kind of bond. Now, the other class, I don't know as well . . . and I suspect they will need some building up.

But more than that, I see application here for every relationship we have in our lives -- particularly in our families. Our children need to catch our vision for them. Our spouses, too.

Nineteen magic words. The trick is to believe them when you say them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Embracing Your "Faults"

I am an Initiator. That's something I've learned about myself over the years.

A mentor-friend identified that in me early on: "You seem to be an Initiator -- you're good at getting things started up, like this drama ministry. I'm not an Initiator; I'm a Maintainer. I'm good at taking something someone else has started up and keeping it going long-term . . . tweaking as necessary, all that." At the time, I just chalked that up as an interesting observation about life; I wasn't sure that her description of me was accurate. Only after many years of adult life experience did I realize how right she was. I'm an Initiator. I get the ball rolling.

I'm not so good at Maintaining -- at keeping the ball rolling later. I get restless and want to move on. For years, I (and other significant people in my life) saw this as a fault. I'm such a quitter. I should be able to stick with something longer than I do. It took a long time to realize that this fault of mine was actually a flip-side of my strength . . . and that this strength is something to be valued. Not everybody can initiate things well, and it's a necessary task in the world.

This weekend was our SCA teacher's work retreat. We spent a good amount of time talking about this new high school we're starting up this fall with a Freshman class of five students. It was weird to me to hear other teachers talking about how daunting an idea it is, to start something this big from scratch. Weird because I am so darn excited about this I can hardly stand it!! This is me in my sweet spot! I love it! I have no illusions about the difficulties here; I know there will come a time (many times, probably) when things aren't going well and I am tired and aggravated and want to throw in the towel on the whole idea. But I expect I will have less of those moments than others will . . . and I expect that's one reason God placed me in this school For Such A Time As This.

It occurs to me that, of all the important and valuable things I need to teach my students in their four years of high school, this may be one of the most valuable: your biggest faults are often the flip-sides of your greatest strengths. That impulsiveness that always gets you into trouble? That's the negative side of the boldness God has planted in you, which He will use in a mighty way.

Your over-sensitivity that causes you to get your feelings hurt all the time? That's a gift God has given you to sense when others are hurting and to sympathize with them when the callous world won't.

Your bossy, demanding ways that turn people off and lose you friends? That's your leadership qualities getting out of hand.

Now, some of our faults are just sins that need to be eradicated. But more often than not, the personal qualities that cause the most problems in our lives are actually gifts that just need to be tamed and brought under control. And it's important that we recognize and value those gifts. Knowing I'm an Initiator doesn't mean I'm excused from situations that require me to maintain (I'm a wife and mother -- I have a household to maintain at all times). But it does mean that I don't feel like a failure in life when I'm struggling in that area. It also means that I can seek out positions where I am needed to do what I do well and feel good about that. God made me this way for a reason -- I have to choose to honor the way God made me rather than letting the world tell me I'm lacking somehow. And so do my students.

"Know thyself", Socrates advised us. I love these kids I'm teaching this fall. I can't wait to get to know them and help them know themselves.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

You're Too Comfortable

"It's the same in coaching we do the basics and fundamentals over and over then when it becomes second nature for them we throw a wrinkle in and it disrupts their rhythm in turn makes them focus and challenges them. I'm sure the same would happen in vocabulary you have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable if that makes since, a challenge always makes you better"  
The above quote came from a fellow student in the online class I'm taking this summer. For now, I'm not going to comment on the run-on sentences and the huge misspelling that screamed at me when I first read it (other than to say that such errors were typical in the comments made by these graduate-level students who all teach in American secondary schools, which depressed me).
No, I want to focus instead today on the flash of brilliance that this PE teacher shared here: You have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Not original, but brilliant.
I think I should make this my life motto. It seems to be the answer to so many problems.
If you want to have a healthy body, you have to become comfortable with that gnawing feeling you get in your gut when you want to eat but you know your body doesn't need food. 
If you want a strong body, you have to become comfortable with the little aches and pains and the feeling of exhaustion that come with a good workout.
If you want to learn how to play golf, you have to become comfortable with the awkwardness of swinging the club wildly for a few weeks while your limbs figure out how to make it work.
If you want to speak a new language, you have to become comfortable with sounding like an idiot until the syntax becomes more natural to you.
If you want new friends, you have to become comfortable with the uncomfortable situation of approaching prospect and starting up a conversation.
If you want a healthy marriage, you have to become comfortable with the possible awkwardness of bringing up difficult issues that need to be dealt with.
In his book Addiction and Grace, Gerald May says that one of the keys to dealing with addiction is learning to live with the empty hole in your soul that your object of addiction is filling. Get comfortable with the gap. Don't stuff it with something else that just becomes another addiction.
You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
We're a spoiled race, we Americans. Young or old, rich or poor, white or black or brown, we don't deal well with discomfort, even in the short-term. We smother it with food . . . drown it in beer . . . cover it up with a new dress and adorable pumps . . . distract from it with Candy Crush and Youtube. Sometimes, you just need to sit there and appreciate the feeling. It's the feeling of growth.
During the several months of transition during our move last year, in the midst all the little problems that continually cropped up (and the big problems, too), I found myself saying over and over, "This is not a tragedy; this is just an inconvenience." 
Discomfort is not a tragedy; it's just an inconvenience. And one that, sometimes, we need to welcome. Life begins at the end of our comfort zones.
That's not original, either. But it's brilliant.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Sharing Our Riches and Our Poverty

I'm not a big fan of Dennis Miller. Even when I agree with his opinion on a topic, I usually think he is unnecessarily harsh and snarky in expressing his opinion. But he said something the other day that I liked.
He was saying that, if he's going to give all this money to the government to help poor people get by and get back on their feet, he wishes that all of his money could go to one person in particular – so that he could at least go out to dinner with this guy once in a while and shoot the breeze with him.
I think he meant it as a joke. In fact, if I remember right, he specifically said he was joking (but even then, with him, I'm not always sure).
But I would say the same thing and not be joking at all. I would love that. I would love for all of the money I pay in taxes that is going to be designated to programs to help the needy to be given to me, along with a name of a local person who is in need of help from that money.
I want to take this person out to dinner and talk about his situation. I want to hear his story – to know what his goals are, what his dreams are, what the obstacles are that are standing in the way.
And I want to tell him my story. How our family got the money we have, the struggles we've faced, the obstacles we've overcome, the lessons we've learned, the battles we're still fighting.
Then I want to come up with a plan together to use that money to get him out of his situation of need. A specific plan. A personalized plan that takes into account all the relevant factors that apply to him and may not apply to others.
And then . . . I want to walk through life with him. Not shove a check in his hand and walk away. I want to hear how school is going. I want to take his kids for an evening when he and his wife need to get out for a night alone. I want to pray with him over bad medical tests results. I want to rejoice with him over job promotions. I want to actually live in community with this person and have him live in community with me – see each other's struggles, hear each other's pains, commiserate with each other's failures, and celebrate other's victories.
I want us to each see each other as human beings made in the image of God and not simply as money-dispensers and money-devourers.
Somehow, it seems like that's more like what God had in mind when He said to care for the needy. A mutually caring relationship. 'Cause we all possess our particular brand of riches . . . and we all suffer our particular brand of poverty . . . and God designed things so we need each other

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Praises of the Street People

Whenever I'm worshipping God with the homeless congregation at Church Under the Bridge downtown, I'm struck by a few things.

I'm struck by the lack of body odor. For 150-some people who live on the streets in a hot July in San Antonio, they don't smell bad.

I'm struck by the respectfulness of nearly everyone present, whether they're there to genuinely worship or just going through the motions to get a meal.

I'm struck by the flood of people who go forward to put money in the offering plate during the last song. People living on the streets, who of their own choice -- no coercion involved -- give back to God some of the limited finances He's given them because they feel so blessed by His goodness and want to thank Him. It shames me.

And I'm struck by how loud the music is. Usually, I just suspect the mics and background tape are just turned up an extra notch beyond where I would set them (plus there's a little more shouting than singing going on). But last night, it wasn't the sound system. During the bridge of "Manifesto", the mics were turned off and only the voices of the people were heard singing through the words of the Lord's Prayer.


No discernable pitch. Much discernable emotion. Imagine an exclamation point after each word and a fist pump after each syllable. GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAI-LY BREAD AND FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES AS WE FOR-GIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US . . . 

And if you know the song, you know how it builds in intensity: . . . AND LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION BUT DELIVER US FROM EV-IL FOR THINE IS THE KINGDOM POWER AND THE GLORY FOR-EEEVERRR!!!!

People with no job, no money, no place to sleep tonight, standing with their arms raised, shout-singing their prayer to God: AAAA-MEN!!!!!!!

The musicality is horrid. The spirituality is glorious. And again, I am shamed. I need my homeless friends to teach me what worship is.