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Ink Blots (Part 1 of 3): The Art of Focusing

Ink Blots Ink blots

It is suggested that when we are born, our visual acuity is about eighteen inches. This focal capacity is quite significant, since that is approximately the distance from a baby’s gaze (as they are cradled in someone’s arms) to the face of the one holding them. Not until a few months old, does a baby develop the ability to focus on something farther. Is there really a need to see long distance any sooner? Babies are completely dependent on another to keep them alive, fed and not alone outside of the womb – focusing on the face of someone who is ensuring their success to thrive (up close and personal) seems pretty intuitive. If you have ever held a newborn, you may be well aware of how they stare at you, as if peering into your soul. Maybe they are. Babies have been documented to prefer looking at soft lines of facial features, loving expressions and gentle emotional cadences. Every culture has been observed to care for their infants in similar manners – with sweet sing-song voices and tender glances. A stern or even apathetic facial gesture equates, for the infant, a relational disconnect has occurred. Babies will either look away to search for a more comforting focal point or initiate their own gestures directly to elicit reconnection. It may seem ironic for me, a visually impaired person, to be discussing focusing facts. Yet, whether fully sighted or not, we are all wired to focus. All of our senses have the capability to perceive things – visible and invisible. At least, our senses want to, including our “sixth sense”.

Within the womb, we were already trying to make sense of sounds and movements – what seems pleasant, harsh, safe and unsafe. Throughout our life, this interpretative art becomes either stunted or more sophisticated, influenced by environment, experiences etc. We consciously and unconsciously focus our attention on the world around us and within us to create an identity that includes not only our own self-concept but also a social construct that then dictates how we think and behave. It’s all quite complex to explain here…but then again, it can be very simple. In the 1920s, Herman Rorschach developed a tool to simplify this process of understanding who we are and how we “see’ the world. His Inkblot Test became a methodic means of determining the well-being or psychosis of someone’s mental status. Projection is one of many ways we assign meaning to life. How we see, hear, feel, taste and smell something outside ourselves can reveal dynamics occurring inside of us. Our memories of prior experiences can become relevant to current happenings. The past can persuade us to accept or dismiss something not based on its present authenticity but on our prior experiences with something else and may continue to impact future encounters. It becomes necessary to learn how to focus on the big picture as well as the scene playing out in front of us. This is easier said than done. It’s like listening to a symphony and trying to pick out each individual instrument while the song swoons along with all sorts of melodies and harmonies. What’s more important to focus on – the part or the whole? Is it even possible to focus on both “A” and “Not A” at the same time?

In this age of a gizllion buzzing signals and 24/7 access to worldwide information, ADD is inevitable. Our attention is practically sabotaged to malfunction and disengage quickly. Looking away is not only our knee jerk reaction, it is expected. Social psychologists are discovering that despite our constant bombardment of social media resources and connections, failure to thrive is not just a condition reserved for infancy anymore. Our brains and souls are looking at abstractions and charactures of life and so desperately trying to make sense of the mess we are faced with. Fatigue to keep trying sets in. We want to give up, shut down our senses altogether. We forget that we have the freedom to re-focus our attention on something/someone consistent and life giving. Amid the din of this world, God is still speaking to us, showing us visions of joy, offering us a banquet table to feast at and be held by eternal arms of love. The beauty of this kind of attention is that God knew how easily distracted humanity got a long time ago – that‘s why He sent Jesus in the form of humanity. Jesus provided our whole being with the ability to regain our focusing skill by becoming part of us. God’s Spirit now remains with us to guide, discern and redeem all that we experience. It can seem absolutely over-whelming, over-stimualting at times; but God is the ultimate resource to restore our strength to endure. When the apostle Peter walked on the water with Jesus, he began to sink when he looked away. His focus on Jesus was his life line, perceiving that it was completely because of Jesus that such miracle could occur. As Peter sank, Jesus attended to Peter immediately, hearing Peter’s cry and grabbing his hand. Now that is focus! Though we look away, God never does. And He is an arm’s reach away. He reaches for us and holds us up even when we can’t. We are no longer infants, but there is still an intimate embrace that can occur for us to know that we are cared for – “knowing”, not in the intellectual sense, but in the primitive place inside us that is looking for something/someone to trust to keep us alive and thriving.

References:

  1. Jamie dresses up as a psycho-therapist; photo by Sylvia Martinez 2002 (Halloween)
  2. Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn by Penny Simkin
  3. Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: A Comprehensive, Developmental Approach to Assessment and Intervention by Stanley Greenspan
  4. The Inkblot Test; Herman Rorschach

It’s Not Fair

Not Fair

“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I don’t think it’s possible for any kid to make it through childhood and adolescence without voicing, at least once, the infamous assessment of life: “It’s not fair”. These three little words sum up so much. Saying this seems to be a rite of passage or developmental milestone that proves an accurate awareness has taken place of what the world is like, what we are like. This declaration of injustice seems to be further articulated by asking questions that begin with “Why?” For the average youngster, it may be as benign as asking “Why is his piece of cake bigger than mine,” or “Why can’t I stay up later?” And at some point for the conscious child, pouty faces and stomping feet accompany the experience of realizing how life is filled with disappointments and disenfranchised existence. As we grow up, we focus our attention on more intense areas of suffering and inequalities. Our outbursts of emotion can also become more intense. We wage wars to fight what’s not fair and to right the wrongs that we observe have occurred for ourselves and/or others. Is that the best way to respond?

Since I can remember, my dad has always offered the same response to my whiny utterances of what felt unfair. He’d say something like, “Not fair? Jesus died for our sins. That’s not fair”. Huh? As a kid, I would wonder what Jesus’ death had to do with me not getting more cake or not getting to stay up later. Yet, the profound simplicity of the statement “Jesus died for our sins” had its intended impact and instilled in me as a wee lass that my life is abundantly blessed because of the mere fact that Jesus died for our sins. Who cares that I didn’t get extra cake or an extended bedtime – I didn’t get death for not following all the rules all the time! The rules (or boundaries) God put in place for life were for our benefit to protect us from what is really not fair. The worst kind of injustice was resolved on the cross; and Christ’s resurrection empowers us to help others who are overwhelmed by the injustice that sin has wrought in the world.  God’s victorious gift of grace has often quieted my restless spirit and enabled me to willingly share my blessings with others, not just materially but also mindfully. Sure, in my early years, there were plenty rolled eyes at my dad, slammed doors and huff and puff mumblings about how mean my parents were. Though, as I’ve grown up, I’ve come to an increasingly deeper appreciation of this redemptive reality – Jesus died for my sins.

The implications of this kind of redemption, knowing that Jesus died for our sins, mean all of us possess an equal existence of needing grace. When Jesus preached about the golden rule while he walked this earth, he spoke to the core of his own mission – love others the way you would want to be loved, the way you have been loved, despite whatever you’ve done or have not done to deserve it. Can I love someone even if it is unfair? More specifically, can I love life even when I don’t get what I want? It is fair to say that there is much injustice in the world, in each other’s lives, that requires us to at some point let go of what is comfortable or coveted so that the discomfort and debt of others can be relieved – to more accurately reflect the shared value we all have. This is what it means to love as Christ loved us. Easier said than done though. But, the more I can comprehend the grace God has given to me, the more I am capable to extend it to others. I wonder what the world would be like if we all lived this way – what kinds of suffering would be eradicated; what hunger would be satisfied; what wars would cease? Alas, life is filled with injustice everywhere I look – this merely means there are always opportunities for me to love. I have no excuse – I only have grace to rely on to work in me and through me to prove how we are equally and eternally loved by God.

References:

  1. It’s not fair; pen and ink drawing by Jamie Wasson 1990
  2. The Cost of Discipleship; Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  3. The Jesus I Never Knew; Phillip Yancey

I do and I will

My Family1984

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”  Matthew 7:24 – 25

This week my parents celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary. They still hold hands when they walk together, and when they sit on the couch to watch TV. They still pray together while sitting at the breakfast table and after dinner, pretty much every day. They are still googly gaga in-love, not only with each other but with Jesus – to whom they credit their happily ever after status. They see love as a choice as much as a command. “Love God and love the people God puts in your life” (Matthew 22:37 – 39) has been the baseline of what I was taught and how I have chosen to live, whether I’m married or not. Though, love seems most tested and best lived out within the walls of a marriage and a family. My parents’ marriage and my family experience has been an amazing story of love…and it is still being told.

I grew up in a house that my dad built, by hand and heavy machinery. Our house was situated on a high hill that was comprised of almost solid rock. Living atop such a firm foundation helped boost feelings of safety and serenity, especially during storms. Some of my most cherished memories growing up was during a snow storm. Our house had a big picture window that offered a panoramic view of the neighborhood. Often, my family (my parents, myself, my younger and older brother) would gather by the window and simply watch it snow. There were times we lost electricity and heat; but then the portable kerosene heater was set up in the middle of the room. A tea kettle was then routinely placed on top of the portable heater, ready to whistle. The winter wind could howl all it wanted. I felt safe; and there was a palpable comfort in having my family near me. Our collective seclusion inside our humble home made us relate to one another in positive ways that we may otherwise have not. This sense of peace has become a significant solace throughout my life. It’s not just a memory. It was a privilege that has become a responsibility.

I am keenly aware that this is not every family’s experience. But it was mine. Let me be clear, my family is not perfect or even picturesque. I am fairly certain, among my parents, myself and my siblings, we have faced our unfair share of just about every difficult aspect of life. We can also easily point out each other’s faults, and at times we do (for better or for worse); but at the end of the day, we are a functional family – functioning according to faith, hope and love. Yep, we believe that the way we interact with and react to one another impacts both the unity of our family and our life pursuits. We collectively choose to love each other the way Jesus loves us – always.  My sense of security and resilience that was established in that house built on a foundation of rock became a tangible and symbolic touchstone for me to endure the storms of life. Because of this, my life’s mission is to be a lighthouse to others seeking a safe haven. I know such a place exists. I know how to build them, too. They can be hard to find and can take time to construct, especially in the darkness of life’s journey – but that means any little bit of light and effort can prove significant to see one’s way and experience respite. It is well worth the search and perseverance.

Growing up in a household that was built on a firm foundation of faith (i.e. believing God exists, is good and loves us more than we could ever imagine) was an essential part of how my parents constructed their marriage and our family. I was encouraged to pray, not as a ritual of holy living, but as a relational method of understanding what life is about. I was taught I could openly bring all my doubts and fears hope and plans to God – and He actually was listening to me and had important things to say to me as well. I learned at an early age that the Bible is not a boring book of rules, but a gracious guide for how to experience peace – within myself and with every relationship I encounter. My parents’ relationship with one another exemplified what it is to honestly communicate with grace and kindness and, at times, to unconditionally serve others without words. If you ask them what makes their marriage work so well, they will tell you – it’s about loving God first and loving each other the way God loves us. They will tell you how life is all about relationships and selflessly serving others. They will tell you that it is hard; but they will tell you that it is harder not to.

I do believe every day offers us opportunities to experience and express love. For some, it is less familiar to know how and where to start. And for some reason, I was born into a family where practical demonstrations of love were a daily occurrence. How we talked to each other, who we invited into our home, what we did with our time, where we invested our money and energy revolved around proving that love (Jesus) is the cornerstone that upholds the reality that the same grace be extended to everyone – no matter what’s happened. This legacy has served me well and has compelled me to pursue the professional work I do. If we are honest about life, we all have experienced moments of defeat – unable to keep fighting, keep hoping for something better. We need someone to fight with us, for us. Psalm 23 is filled from beginning to end with how God provides victorious support. As a Jesus follower and child of God, I believe He does this for me and, likewise, calls me to do the same for others. Sure, I have made a career of helping people find rest, healing, reassurance that they are not alone in the dark, that they can have courage and find sustenance to keep going; but the living I have chosen to make was cultivated a long time ago in a home built by my parents. They insist that love (the Lord) holds the blueprints and utilizes whomever is willing to help be part of building an eternal kingdom. All are welcomed to be part of God’s family!

References:

1.      The People I Love; drawing by Jamie Wasson 1984 (age 7)

2.      Instruments in the Hands of the Redeemer by Paul Tripp

3.      George Mueller by Faith Bailey (An Orphanage Built by Prayer)

Face Forward

Lost and Found

 “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  Luke 22:31 – 32

The heavy sound of old rusty metal scraped along the ground as the gate opened. The high tone of intersecting locks clinked and harmonized a dissident refrain, as the latch closed the gate behind her. She silently stood there and waited. It was almost noon and the summer sun made no apologies about its heat. Sweat had already formed on her brow.

“Face forward,” the guard instructed. These two words merely informed the prisoner what to do, not who to be. Today was different, though. This phrase had been repeated so often in her ears – years of hearing it instinctually made her react. She turned. But instead of seeing the long narrow hallways of the prison that had led her in and out of her cell block or day room or showers, she saw in front of her a parking lot and the big stone main gatehouse. The highway was accessible just a mile or so from there. She had entered through that gate to where she stood today, eighteen years ago – to remove her from the world as she knew it…or to remove the world as she knew it from her? It was a coin toss. She thought about this irony and smiled slightly, knowing her pockets were empty. She spent her last penny on the outfit she currently wore, which she had bought to wear for her release day.

She sighed, as the flashbacks started to fill her mind. She knew those memories would remain with her as long as she lived. Yet, she was determined to keep learning how not to let them haunt her. Something, indeed, was dead the first time she entered through the gate into the prison compound. She was found guilty for a capital crime that she did not deny committing. She was sentenced to twenty-five years. Her prison time was calculated according to her age and offense. She was tried as an adult; after all she had just turned eighteen. Ironically though, she had felt so childlike, but the courts didn’t care about that. She had no family to care about her either back then; at least, not the healthy kind that could solve problems without making more of a mess. She closed her eyes and sighed again. As she inhaled, she thought about the fresh air she breathed. She heard the swooning sound of the cicadas, and thought about them trying to find their mates to ensure something about them would live to another season. What was this new season for her going to look like? Did it matter that she was free now? She felt so alone. The air she breathed today was the same air that surrounded the prison the day before. The locusts in the trees were the same locusts she had heard yesterday, as she laid in her bunk thinking about how hot it was, just like today’s temp.

Then she opened her eyes and saw a car drive through the main gate and make its way around the perimeter of the parked cars to pull up to the place where she stood. The restless feeling inside her chest eased a bit. She sighed a third time, smiled widely and her eyes began to tear.

“They came,” she thought. Had she doubted? Maybe a little. The triggers were real and heartache would always be part of her life, regardless of whatever side of the prison gate she found herself.  Her parents pulled up a few feet from where she stood. Her dad was driving and put the car in park, leaving the blinkers on. Her mom got out first. These folks were not her birth parents. Her birth parents had died while she was in; though they had abandoned her before she ever went in anyway. The people that came to greet her now had helped give birth to her spirit. They started visiting from the local church a decade and a half ago, and an important connection was made – the kind of love and attention she had never known, always wanted to know. As her “mom” stepped out of the car and walked towards her, she felt a foolish blush come over her, as she thought about her doubt that they would come for her.

Her mom seemed to sense her moment of weakness and smiled as any loving mother would. “Did you think we forgot about you?” her mom noted, less as a question and more as a reassurance that her fears were not un-noticed. “We got stuck in traffic for whatever reason. But here we are!” her mom announced. Her mom embraced her tightly and they lingered in that pose for a few moments. They were allowed to now; since during visitation, quick hugs were mandatory.

Her dad, she had come to appreciate, was the strong silent type. He simply stepped up, put one arm around her, kissed her on the forehead and said, “Let’s go”.

She turned back to look at the guard. It was such a reflex. He nodded and said “Walk on”. Then he added, “God bless”. Her eyes scanned the concrete facade of the correctional facility that had been her home for what seemed a lifetime.

“Yep,” she thought, “what a blessing it’s all been.” She wasn’t just thinking about her parole that she had prayed would come for the past five years, but her entire incarceration experience was its own blessing in disguise. She had arrived there so long ago, dead inside and feeling like she was being buried. She was initially convinced that any sort of “living” was not possible within those walls. But she would soon come to find out what resurrection really meant. Feeling dead, discarded and alone were lies; and she had learned, while she was imprisoned, what it meant to be alive for real, loved unconditionally and acknowledged as something special. She committed her time in to learning how to serve others with the same compassion that was shown to her. How would she show it now? She was still committed to finding the right path to serve best.

She got in the back seat of her God-parents old Buick and belted herself in. Her dad looked at the center rear view mirror at her.

“Ready?” he asked.

She looked at him and then shifted her gaze to look through the windshield towards the gatehouse. “Yes,” she said. She did not look back. This intentional gesture felt significant.

“I think taking the back roads will be best, rather than the highway,” her dad said. “We’ll take the scenic route,” he added, looking back at her via the mirror again.

She faced forward and replied, “Okay”.

References:

  1. Lost and Found; oil painting by Sylvia Martinez 2015
  2. Prodigal God by Tim Keller
  3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  4. Cain’s Redemption by Dennis Shere
  5. Learn about Face Forward Re-entry Program; Volunteers of America

Blood, Sweat and Tears (Part 3)

“Planet Earth looks blue and there’s nothing I can do.”  David Bowie’s Major Tom

I listened to a podcast by Paul David Tripp recently. He spoke about our identity. He noted how “tears reveal what our hearts care about most deeply”. I’ve cried countless tears throughout my lifetime – about all sorts of things: boo-boos, broken hearts, defeats, victories, comedic timings and joyous moments, to name a few themes. The synthesis of these themes is that I’m aware (or feel like) something good or bad is happening. Tears are proof that we are cognizant of what is going on around us and inside us. When we feel heightened moments of pain/hurt, fear, sadness, love, joy, relief, grief, anger, exhaustion etc., tears emerge as well. Tears also protect outside harmful materials from invading our eye space – like dust, bugs, allergens and noxious gases. Our eyes must always stay a bit teary to guard against dry eyes, which can be detrimental to our vision. Tears manage worlds inside and out, and specialize in cleansing our bodies and souls. If we don’t cry (or produce tears), we are not healthy human beings.

Our sympathetic nervous systems respond to events, emotions and our mind’s interpretations of it all in a holistic effort to keep us safe, secure and sensible. Our blood, sweat and tears are a team of messengers that communicate with our conscious brains about our present state of being. Who am I? Who are we? Tears continue to baffle even the best experts, because of their mysterious solidarity to show up during both joyful and sorrowful moments. Practically speaking, tears seem to sum up that we are connected to what matters…or we want to be. Our internal capacity to deal with life on our own has its limit, and when too much life wells up inside, our eyes well up and the overflow spills out. Social psychologists have suggested that tears signal to others that we, ourselves, are in need of another’s solidarity – either to celebrate an aspect of life or mourn it. We cry because we care – others cry with us because they care about us. Is it that simple?

The shortest verse in the whole Bible is found in the Gospel of John, and it’s all about Jesus’ tears. John didn’t originally scribe his gospel verse by verse, but as a continuous narrative. Scribes over the centuries sought to make it easier for us to navigate the Scriptures, so they divided thoughts and stories into chapter and verse. Something about John’s observation of Jesus crying caught their attention, too. John documented that Jesus wept, as he stood by his friend Lazarus’ tomb. John 11:35 simply reads “Jesus wept”. Talk about solidarity – Jesus cried, as did others that day over the loss of a dear loved one. Research suggests that women cry five times more than men in an average year. I have to admit that when I see a man cry, it immediately gets my attention in a way that deeply moves me – something must really matter for them to emote in such a way. It obviously impacted the people who stood with Jesus by Laz’s grave. They commented to each other, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36). But was that the only reason why Jesus wept? When Jesus saw Lazarus’ sister, Martha, by his grave, Jesus assured her that her brother would live again. Martha didn’t get his meaning. It seems Jesus wept, not just because Laz died, but because humanity doesn’t get how loved we are by God and how we can love each other (and life itself) the same way God loves. I confess, I cry most about not feeling loved and feeling like life is too hard, and isn’t turning out the way I had hoped.

Ed Underwood, a pastor and cancer survivor, details his understanding of how God loves us in his book, When God Breaks Your Heart. Lying in a hospital bed, Underwood doubted if God was there with him as he anticipated his death. But then he re-read the story of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus with new perspective. In the story, Martha and her sister Mary sent for Jesus to come heal their brother who had become very ill. Jesus received their message and seemed to dismiss their dire call for help. Even his disciples were confused by his seemingly indifference to the crisis. They urged him to act fast or else Lazarus would surely die. Jesus purposefully waited for a few days to pass, ensuring Lazarus’ death, and then responded to the sisters’ request. When Martha heard Jesus was on his way, she rushed to meet him and angrily accused him of not coming soon enough. She emphasized to Jesus that ‘if only’ he had come sooner (John 11:21). Mary didn’t even bother accompanying her sister to confront Jesus. She stayed home (John 11:28); I’m sure clutching a box of ancient Kleenex, overwhelmed by grief. Underwood writes that he deeply struggled with the same emotional and intellectual experience as Martha and Mary did. However, reviewing the Biblical story in full brought Underwood a new and profound comfort. Underwood defines how ‘comfort’ literally breaks down to mean “come forth”.  He underscores that these are the exact words Jesus declared outside of Lazarus’ tomb, after Jesus first ordered the grave seal to be broken (John 11:43 KJV). Martha winced at breaking the tomb’s seal and reminded Jesus that doing so would release a bad stench since Laz had been dead a few days (John11:39). Thanks, Martha, for pointing out the obvious – death stinks. Do we need to be reminded of that?  The answer is yes. Does God? The answer is no. God was already aware of this fact. That was the reason why He came to earth in the first place. When the seal of Jesus’ own tomb was broken, God completely removed the stench of death. His resurrection is the best thing to cry about. Jesus proved Himself Lord over life and death.

In Dan Allender’s book The Cry of the Soul, he strategically provides insight into how our emotions (and tears) don’t just reveal what is going on in our own hearts, but also reveals God’s heart for us. He writes, “God’s passion is to rig the world so that we are compelled to deal with whatever blocks us from being like His glorious Son.” Our tears are like a bridge that allows love to flow in a two way direction – not simply between me and someone else here on earth but between me and the God of the universe. God sees every tear that falls. Whatever the reason, each one matters. The psalmist David wrote “You keep my tears in Your bottle” (Psalm 56:8b). Why would God do that? Because everything about us means something to God. Our lives matter.

References:

  1. Sense and Sensibility, motion picture 1995
  2. Major Tom by David Bowie
  3. Who Is Worthy? Podcast/sermon by Paul David Tripp
  4. Why we cry Blog post by Dr. Nick Knight
  5. When God Breaks Your Heart by Ed Underwood
  6. The Cry of the Soul by Dan Allender

Blood, Sweat and Tears (Part 2)

Wood carving

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summers day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” To Kill A Mockingbird

I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in ninth grade, as so many ninth graders do. Something about the first lines of this renowned novel, noted above, captivated my attention immediately. Harper Lee painted such vivid word pictures of the reality of sweat. Her words have lingered in my ears and mind’s eye, much like humidity hangs on the skin and soul on a steamy summer day. I have never forgotten that introduction. The way Lee’s words foreshadowed her book’s strenuous tale of human struggle deeply impacted me. I have thought of these lines often throughout my life. Incidentally, when my best efforts to remain calm and cool are futile and sweat takes over my appearance and attitude, I remember her vivid depiction of southern climate. I’ve never been to Alabama nor Louisiana or even Mississippi. There’s always been something illusive to me about the deep south – the way people have had to manage not only unbearable hot temps but brutal hot topics. As a northern ninth grader, I wondered how people in the midst of such oppressive heat still made a daily effort to press their collars and powder their cheeks, knowing it would all come undone at some point during the day. Sweat seemed an enemy and any effort was fighting a losing battle. Why bother? Yet, as an adult, my perspective on sweat has changed to welcome it as a companion to help me overcome the mundane as well as more serious challenges of life.

Even as recent as the other night while walking along a river path near my house, it was insufferably hot and the sweat quickly formed a shiny sheen on my skin’s surface. I wiped the hair away from my brow more than a few times, which kept sticking to my face like pasted threads. I felt ugly and depressed, but then the wind started gently blowing and I quickly felt amazing. As the wind touched my wet skin, I felt a cooling effect and even had a chill or two. That wind was such a gift, but I also receive sweat as its own gift – wind and sweat work together to cool me down. There are many reasons why we sweat, but it all boils down to our body’s cooling and cathartic attempts to keep us alive and well. Our pores open and release moisture that is evaporated by the air, cooling us down when we get overheated. Hormones can also be included in our sweat, as our body’s method to release and regulate emotional and/or inner-physical intensity. Sweat is a signal for us to understand what is happening inside of us and around us. It’s a metabolic miracle. It certainly doesn’t feel good to sweat; but it can tangibly clue us in to how we definitively don’t feel good inside or that something around us is not okay. It signals for us to respond accordingly, to find ways to either weather the storm or improve conditions.

Sweat can also be the palpable proof that something good is happening in us and around us. When I exercise or perform manual labor, I often sweat a lot (TMI, I know, but it’s reality. Thank God for deodorant, showers and clean clothes!). As sweat pours out of my pores, I feel like it proves I am accomplishing something. I want to believe that hard work pays off – that as I toil day in and day out, my efforts are not in vain. Sweat can offer me the satisfaction that I am working towards something; or at the very least, it offers me an opportunity to evaluate whether or not my work is leading me in a beneficial direction. My body may be telling me that I am exerting too much energy and it is, in fact, time to rest, catch my breath and refresh resources to either carry on the same course or change trajectories altogether. Contemplation is its own worthwhile effort, though it is not easy work. Just as any hot day or labor intensive task exhausts me, so can considering how my efforts are empowering or dis-empowering myself and others. I need help to discern and confirm this process. The Holy Spirit is a sacred wind that restoratively blows across my weary and worn soul, especially when I feel the heat of life’s stressors.

At the end of Jesus’ journey here on earth, He promised that the Holy Spirit would come to “guide us to all truth” (John 16:13). Throughout all Scripture, the Holy spirit is defined as a “Counselor” and “Comforter”. This description is most meaningful to me. As a licensed professional counselor, I and my colleagues often ask “who counsels the counselor?” When I am sweating it out, overwhelmed by difficult or puzzling situations, the Holy Spirit counsels me.  Initially, He simply says “I counsel you…even during the night” (Psalm 16:7). Such declaration quiets my restless soul. During the day or, especially, as I toss and turn at night, He says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10a). There are other times when words seem nebulous and He simply grieves with me and places my exhausted heart on secure rock to find rest and joy (Psalm 40:2, Romans 8:26). God, indeed, is my breath of fresh air. Every time I feel the temperature rise, He revives and refreshes me. In my restored state, I am better equipped to help others who are, themselves, in need of refreshment. I can point the fan towards them, and pour them a tall glass of sweet tea to sip while they rest. Many times, they are the ones, inspired by the Spirit, to offer me a rejuvenating cup of cheer. The best is when I can share such sustenance with someone. Then, no matter how oppressive things get, we can lift our glasses together to celebrate that we are alive, loved and not alone.

References:

  1. Wood carving sculpture in process by Jamie Wasson 2013
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  3. Human Biology by Starr & McMillan
  4. Forgotten God by Francis Chan

Blood, Sweat and Tears (Part 1)

“Reach out your hand if your cup be empty. If your cup be full may it be again. Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men. There is a road, no simple highway. Between the dawn and the dark of night, and if you go no one may follow. That path is for your steps alone.”  The Grateful Dead

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia has a one-of-a-kind exhibit that offers a larger than life model of the heart. It’s one of my favorite things at the museum – it invites you to walk through the whole heart, experiencing the inner workings of how blood flows. There are narrow steps that lead you up and down and all around through atriums and ventricles to playfully act out how blood is oxygenated and pumped in and out of the heart to the rest of the body. “The Giant Heart” is one of the features in the vascular exhibit, which is its own grand gallery in the museum. It’s like a romper room of real deal cardio-activities. You can crawl through arteries, or see how blocked arteries do, in fact, inhibit passage because they are filled with various amounts of plaque. It’s quite sobering. You can also step on a giant scale attached to a giant flask that fills with red liquid to display, based on weight, how much blood is coursing through your veins. It’s all so mesmerizing. Blood is a remarkable thing. I’ve stood on that scale more than a few times over the years and watched the flask fill up, topping off at about four and a half liters or so;  and I’ve realized I have little clue about what is really going on inside me at any given moment.

There’s a whole metropolis and countryside underneath my skin’s surface. All sorts of things are moving and grooving along highways, byways and rural roads; and I’m hardly aware of it. My heart is always at work, ensuring vitality from my head to my toes. It occurs involuntarily. It has to. It’s too important for me to be consciously in charge of it. I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. There are times when I do (and need to) become conscious of my heart’s activity. During physical and/or situational stressors, my heart can start racing or pounding the pavement at an unsustainable or arrhythmic pace. I need to voluntarily respond with mindful repose (and possible cardiac consultation) to resume cruise control. My body’s vascular system has miraculous ways of not only clueing me in to step up and take action, but also calming me down to reconsider how to best continue the journey. Deep breaths are the first steps to refuel my heart with fresh perspective to carry on. My lungs assist my heart to do this; however, there are moments when I must metaphorically reach for the oxygen mask dangling in front of me to restore body and soul homeostasis. It’s like there’s this cardio-community inside me (and around me) that is always cheering me on, whether I’m aware of it or not. “Take heart” is more than a cliché to me. It implies that there is a force inside me (around me) that keeps me going, despite how stuck or shut down I feel. Am I willing to accept this reality? How consciously connected I am with this life force inside me (surrounding me) directly influences how intentionally grateful I am to be alive and to cheer others on to love their life as well. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament summed it up similarly in this way:

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

A professor in grad school once challenged my class to consider why women seem most attuned and willing to acknowledge heart issues. We speculated about a mother’s need to provide nurturing support for her children. “Think more primitively”, he said. We discussed aspects of birth, then pregnancy and still he shook his head, noting not all women experience such things. He provocatively prompted us to consider every woman’s forced relationship with herself every month. Ironically, a man helped me understand how menstruation is a primitive process that involuntarily volunteers me to attentively and compassionately relate to life. Not just physically but mentally and emotionally, as a woman, I have to consciously contend with waiting, timing, discomfort, catharsis, clean-up and resolution. I don’t mean to be crass in discussing this, but to underscore how life is constantly proving itself to be something that is capable of enduring, overcoming and thriving throughout the journey. Men are not excluded from connecting to life with compassionate notions – although this may be one of the notable reasons why God provided Adam a “suitable helpmate” in designing Eve (Genesis 2:18). Eve was formed from Adam’s rib, a bone closest to the heart (Genesis 2:21). There is a heart-to-heart connection among all of us. If we go deep enough, we will find it. Our internal and external functions do not always run smoothly and, at times, are more dysfunctional than we’d like to admit or deal with. We need help. I recently worked with a birth client who lost a large amount of blood during delivery that caused her blood pressure and platelets to drop to dangerous levels. She received a transfusion of one and a half pints of blood, which help a bit; but soon after that intervention, another transfusion was required to ensure healthy equilibrium. She received an additional two pints, which significantly stabilized her status. The Red Cross diligently facilitates blood drives to ready reserves for just such purposes. Hmmm, I know another cross that provided a much needed soul transfusion to ensure that we could keep living and loving.

For eons, the symbolic relevance of the heart has signified an emotional and/or spiritual reality that exists inside us and between us. The true essence of a person has often been believed to dwell in a person’s heart. When renown Scottish medical missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, died in 1873 in Africa, the African nationals buried his heart there before sending his body back to Britain for formal burial. Dr. Livingstone had dedicated his life to serve the African people. They were keenly aware of how much he loved them, so they wanted to keep his heart near them. This may seem gruesome, but it is a tangible tale of how we experience life, specifically love. Whether we will it or not, our hearts are designed to perpetuate life and even love. Our hearts are as scientific as they are sacred. They are part of an essential network, inside and out, that motivates us onward to keep going and even enjoy the ride. And we do not trek this journey alone. I find comfort in being part of this collective effort.

 

References:

  1. The Bloodmobile by They Might Be Giants (video featured at the Franklin Institute)
  2. Ripple by The Grateful Dead
  3. Visit the Franklin Institute Science Museum
  4. Human Biology by Starr & McMillan
  5. Lost Women of the Bible by Carolyn Custis-James
  6. How to donate blood
  7. History of Dr. David Livingstone

Acorns of Hope

Jesus Meets Zachaeus

“Redwoods reach their incredible height because they grow very close to each other. Redwoods are always surrounded by other redwoods! Because the 100 plus inches of annual rainfall leaves the soil with few nutrients, the trees rely on each other for their vital nutrients. Only redwoods have the strength to support other redwoods. The root systems of redwoods are very shallow. The roots grow no deeper than about ten feet and yet they support a tree that is the height of a football field. It seems impossible but in reality, the roots of the redwood tree graft and interlock with the systems of the trees surrounding it, creating a vast interlocking root platform. This prevents the toppling of even the tallest and most massive trees when soil layers become fully saturated and soggy during prolonged flooding. Baby redwoods actually sprout from the roots of the parent tree. This is a very common sight in a redwood forest. The baby tree gets its nutrients from the parent tree until its root system has spread and intertwined with the root systems of the trees surrounding it.”  Secrets From Redwoods About Creating Powerful Teams

I walked with my client from the waiting room into the therapy room to start our weekly session. He lay down on the sofa and stretched out on his back. He folded his arms behind his head and stared up at the ceiling in quiet reflection. I sat in a chair across from him.

I asked, “How’s it going?”

“Not good”, he replied.

“What happened?” I inquired.

“My heart hurts”, he answered matter of factly, still staring at the ceiling.

“What do you mean?” I asked, starting to feel like Anna Freud. I should mention that this psycho-analytic moment was occurring with a five year old boy. I had been working with him since he was three. He was referred to me for therapy to help resolve behavioral and emotional difficulties. He was separated, around age three, from his parents due to their difficulties of providing him a safe and supportive home. He had experienced a high level of distress in his few years of life; and though he was in a nurturing foster/adoptive home, he still struggled to make sense of why his birth parents didn’t/couldn’t love him in healthy ways. During my work with him, he had made incredible progress in verbalizing his thoughts and feelings rather than acting them out. This conversation was proof of that progress.

He clarified his statement. “My heart is broke.”

“Broke?” I questioned.

“Yep, broke.” he said.

“Well,” I replied, “You’ve come to the right place because I can help broken hearts feel better.”

“No. You can’t. You can’t fix it. It’s broken forever.” He emphasized.

“Forever? Wow, that’s a long time.” I said. “ Are you sure I can’t help?” I added.

“No one can help. It’s too broken.” he said.

This may all seem a bit melodramatic; but any five year old is a pro at seeing things in all or nothing terms. Especially when the majority of those formative years were fraught with chaos and discord, it can seem impossible to understand what wholeness is.

So being a good art therapist, I asked him to draw a picture of his heart to show me how it was broken. He drew an outline of a heart, one line connected to form the shape. This is information to me that there is a sense of wholeness inside him; we just needed to work together to highlight it more consciously. He scribbled inside the interior of the outline for a while, emoting his energy in a seemingly controlled manner. I was proud of him at how he was expressing himself. Then suddenly he became agitated and started ripping the picture up into small pieces and tossing them hap-hazzardly on the floor.

“Oh my”, I thought.

“See!” he exclaimed, “It’s all broken. It can’t be fixed!”

We both stared at the pieces of paper on the floor. I asked him what he wanted to do with them and he said he didn’t know. He stood in the midst of the torn pieces (the pieces of his broken heart), as they lay on the floor. He started crying and was visibly very upset. I asked him if he wanted his “mom” (foster mom) to join us in the room to help figure things out. He nodded. She joined us and noticed the pieces of paper on the floor. She asked what happened, in a tone that was quite consoling. He explained the situation; then immediately after his report, he scrambled under the desk in the room and hid. He said nothing, but reached his arm out and grabbed a few of the pieces nearby the desk. His foster mom gave me a concerned glance and I responded with a reassuring smile. I gently told my client to come out when he was ready and assured him that his mom and I would wait. He grabbed a few more pieces and pulled them into his hiding place. After a few moments, he poked his head out from underneath the desk and asked for a pen. His mom handed him a marker and he retreated back under the desk. After a few more moments, he emerged and handed his mom one of the pieces and stared at her. She responded to his gesture by looking him in the eyes and saying, “I love you, too”. He had written “I love you” on the piece of paper. She held the little note in her hand and then held him in her lap and he was visibly peaceful and calm.

I looked at the two of them. At first glance, I saw her hold the torn scrap and heard her re-read it aloud a few times. I watched the boy, whose life felt so broken, smile and rest his head against her. I then thought about how the shred of paper was like a seed. Yes, his heart was experiencing fractured reality and he was desperately trying to make sense of his world, his own worth; and yet, in that brokenness, there was wholeness in the most profound way. The words he wrote on that torn piece of paper (his broken piece of heart) define a relationship.

We are designed for relationships because our Designer fashioned us after “their” likeness (Genesis 1:26). Though God also instructed Moses to teach that “The Lord our God is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). That Oneness is not singular exclusivity. Rather, God is to be understood as a united whole. We possess that same wholeness because of God’s design, God’s identity in us. Our awareness of feeling broken suggests that we are aware that something is, indeed, wrong. Even five year olds can understand that. However, regardless of what feels broken (and is broken), we still possess the imprint of that wholeness on every broken piece. The reality of community lives in a single seed and can be planted to reveal it. Such seedling is dependent, in kind, on other seeds that have been planted to form an intertwined network of community – a crop of interdependent relationships. Those three words my client wrote on that piece of paper embodied a holistic declaration of his attempt to connect with something/someone as much as it symbolized the reflection of what God declares to all of us. We are created for community because we were made by community.

I love holding a newborn. I often refer to them as “acorns of hope”. They possess the reality of what God intended. They represent our humanity so humbly. They need the nurturance of a social system to survive and thrive – and I think we need them to remind us that we all began in such form. Life requires times of reforming and transforming our awareness to reconnect to this original purpose. It’s hard, but we have a lifetime to figure it all out. And we can figure it out together. We have to or we truly fall apart and miss out on experiencing what it is to be truly human.

References:

  1. Zacchaeus Meets Jesus; drawing by Jamie Wasson 1983 (age 6)
  2. Secrets From Redwoods About Creating Powerful Teams: Dr. Karen Wolfe
  3. Art Psycho-therapy by Harriet Wadeson
  1. Life of the Beloved; Henri Nouwen
  1. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life by Catherine Lacugna

My Beautiful Vision

joy

“It is only with the heart that one sees rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.” The Little Prince

Once upon a time in my early thirties, I visited the Camden Aquarium in New Jersey with my then three year old nephew. We stood in front of the expansive glass walled aquarium that housed and showcased numerous sea creatures. Watching them swim and swirl before my eyes, I pressed my hands and forehead against the glass to get as close as I could to look. So did my nephew. And soon I realized other children stood in solidarity with me in the same pose to see the majesty of what swam on the other side of the aquarium window. I also soon realized that I was the only grown up in this line up of awe struck admirers. I glanced over my shoulder and saw adults a few yards away milling around, presumably parents and/or caregivers of the children standing next to me. The adults kept their distance while keeping a close eye on their kids, who unabashedly smushed their faces against aquarium glass. I instantly felt a foolish blush, as I considered what a goofball I looked like, the only adult with such obvious wide eyed wonderment amongst giggling youngsters. So I stepped back. Though as soon as I did, my feeling of foolishness shifted to sadness. Truth be told, I’m legally blind.  Thus, I often position myself in such apparent poses to see things. Because I want to see – I really want to see. And yet, even in my efforts to ‘see’ something as it is, my observations are still limited to blurry glimpses, undefined detail and even misinterpretations. However, such shrouded encounters seem to offer a more enlightened perspective of what, how and why imagination is so essential to any of us really ‘seeing’ anything.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus emphatically proclaimed that the Kingdom of God belongs to children, that we must have faith like a child and that anyone who hurts a child is better off sleeping with the fishes (Luke 18:16, Matthew 18:3, Matthew 18:6). What do children possess that we as adults must not lose in our maturation process? How does being childlike help us understand God? Why are children always asking why?! I think the answers to these questions are less about infantilizing ourselves by discussing the value of vulnerability or the importance of remaining innocent and even being naive. I think Jesus is referencing imagination as an essential method to truly ‘seeing’ ourselves the way God sees us and, more significantly, seeing God as God really is. At the very least, imagination seems to be about trying to see beyond what is right in front of us. According to the dictionary, the concept of imagination is “the ability to form new images and ideas that are not perceived through sight, hearing, etc.”. In other words, imagination is that sixth sense of making sense of things. According to Jesus, imagination is not about pretending. It is about expanding our ability to perceive {to see} the big picture. Jesus’ descriptions of God’s kingdom throughout the Gospels invite us to look past the dust and rust of what surrounds us and be part of transforming ourselves into something divinely everlasting. This process requires imagination. Imagination requires risk in creating and re-creating, considering and reconsidering – looking at something in a new way. In practical Christian terms, this is referred to as the redemption process.

If you have ever spent more than ten minutes with a child, you may have observed their capacity to not simply tell a story but accentuating aspects of a story to create quite an interesting tale.  As an art therapist who has worked with children for over twelve years, I have no short list of such observations. Yet at times as an adult, I confess I respond to their ‘wild imaginations’ with patronizing aloofness – as if fantasy doesn’t play any role in developing a healthy sense of self and society. While pop psychology has veered away from any strict ‘study of the soul’ to pursue a more strategic neuro-scientific research approach, the practice of imagination cannot occur without body and soul working together. This cohesive relationship is reflected in the most primitive sense when a baby is born and placed on their mother’s breast. The baby can smell, taste, see, hear and feel their mother. Amidst these physical sensations begins the bonding process. Attachment theory experts suggest that within that embrace, imagination ignites for both mother and baby. The mother imagines whether or not she can be a ‘good enough’ mother. The baby imagines whether or not this source of care outside the womb is trustworthy. In this imaginative reciprocity, time seems to be a significant factor in not only determining the reality of reliability but also what makes such bond worth developing beyond childhood. In our spiritual development or redemptive process, imagination can help us maintain or even deepen the bliss we experienced when we were born again.

When God created mankind, let alone the whole world, imagination seemed to be both the cause of creation as well as the effect. In the book The Creators, the reality of mankind being made in God’s image is extensively reviewed. The creative genius of God is that He made us creative. God imagined a world, a relationship with mankind, that could be wildly experienced while always being good, never anything less than good. After the Fall of mankind, our imagination was altered to look away rather than stand in awe of God, fear rather than hope and deny rather than believe. But God never stopped imagining something good. Jesus, being both creative God and creative man, redeemed the power of imagination to be used for good and not for evil. Who would have imagined that being born in a barn, washing feet, dying and being buried in a stranger’s grave would be sequential elements in revealing the best idea ever imagined – resurrection. Jesus prepared his disciples ahead of time that such imaginative means to an end was coming But only after the fact did his disciples and followers begin to grasp the epic meaning. Some ideas are just too mind blowing to visualize all at once. They take time to sink in. Jesus’ follower Mary stood outside an empty tomb, overcome with grief not only because her beloved teacher was dead but now his body was missing. Did she ever imagine the alternative? Standing by his gravesite, she heard him say her name, turned and saw him. Then, she fully embraced the idea and ran to tell others. Wheels of re-imagining the world started spinning a new revolution. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost and history ever since seem to be the unfolding revelation of God inspiring us to see everything with a new pair of glasses. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us to do so. God’s Spirit in us, with us, is our lens by which we can truly make sense of what we see – what God sees.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what the Lord has prepared. But by His Spirit, he has revealed His plans to those who love Him” (1 Corinthians. 2:9)

Paul was reiterating encouragement from the prophet Isaiah, written and recorded in the Old Testament (Isaiah 64:4). Overtime, imagination bridges the gap between what is seen and unseen. Time, as does redemption, offer us the opportunity to engage with the reality of God’s idea being realized.  Like a craftsman uses blueprints to construct an object, the Holy Spirit uses revelation as evidence of what was imagined. Are we eager to see what the Lord is building? Are we willing to be part of that construction? The thing about children is that you do not have to press them to imagine. They do it so naturally, maybe supernaturally. There is an instinctual sense of non-pretense when it comes to their ideas about things. They also are uninhibited about wrangling you into figuring it out with them. They ask why. A relationship is established, maybe even expected in order to create meaning.

Paul also wrote to the Corinthians that love is the most important mechanism by which we live out our imaginative efforts of making sense of things (1 Corinthians 13:13). Loving God is the first step in the pursuit of seeing. Paul noted that at this time “we see through a glass darkly” but he reassured that “in time, we will fully see” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our ability to imagine becomes an essential part of our life span and redemptive process. The power of imagination children possess seems to be what Jesus prompts us to never lose as we become adults. The practice and protection of imagination become a spiritual discipline. As we mature, it may be useful for us to become more sophisticated in articulating what we are trying to imagine; but what is more advantageous is that we increase our care in creating something worthy of being called ‘a reflection of our Creator’s reality’. May I not be ashamed to press my face against the proverbial glass to see as much as I can. And what I cannot see, may I be inspired to take part in the creative process of revealing a new creation – in me and around me.

 

References:

  1. Joy: pastel painting by Jamie Wasson 2003
  2. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  3. Definition of “Imagination” – Google word search
  4. The Creators by Daniel Boorstin
  5. Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn by Penny Simkin
  6. Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: A Comprehensive, Developmental Approach to Assessment and Intervention by Stanley Greenspan
  7. Diary of A Baby; by Daniel Stern
  8. Childhood and Society; by Erik Erikson