The letters before your name, the letters after your name, the books published, the awards won – all that is just commentary. What we really want to be is good people. ~ Harlan Coben
I have a dumb job. That’s what I say sometimes – just to my friends and family.
I used to have a smart job.
I had a job where people took copious notes when I spoke and stood up and applauded when I finished. It made me feel important. It made me feel like what I was doing mattered. Over time, I think it made me feel like I mattered.
No one applauds me now. Working the night shift as a gate guard on an oil rig is lower than the lowest rung on the ladder. Sometimes I mix up what I do with who I am and I wonder if I matter at all anymore.
Last week my friend died. He was driving to a rig when a truck crossed the center line and plowed into him. He was only 45. To be honest, I didn’t even realize how very much we’d become friends until after his death. The persistent ache in my heart is a tangible testimony now.
Lee didn’t have any letters after his name. I don’t know if he finished high school. I don’t think so. Maybe. I’m pretty sure he never had a room full of people stand up and applaud him. He didn’t need applause to feel important. I don’t think feeling important was particularly important to Lee.
But he was important and he did matter. He was kind and fair and unassuming. He brought me chicken at midnight and I miss him. I’ll probably miss him for a very long time.
I learned a lot from Lee about what important people do. Important people are generous. They extend grace. They go out of their way to be encouraging. They don’t think too much of themselves or too little of others.
My life was better because he was a part of it.
Lee, with no awards or extra letters, reminded me that all the rest is just commentary.
Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken”. ~ C.S. Lewis
Before listening, before doing anything or saying anything to the hurting person, we have the task of keeping our own attitudes in check.
We won’t always understand another person’s struggle. We won’t always agree with their choices. And we certainly aren’t called to be their fixers. If our approach to the hurting person is to fix them, we’re likely to do harm, however well intended. God heals. We’re just here to lighten the load.
A few things to try;
- Listen – Listen without assumption. Listen like you’ve never heard or experienced anything like this before so that you really hear what’s being said, not what you expect to hear.
*Caveat – Not everyone wants to talk. And even if they do, you may not be the person they choose to share with. There’s a difference between being an attentive listener and going in with a crowbar.
- Touch – Sometimes a touch on the arm, holding a hand or a hug conveys caring in a way that words can’t.
*Caveat – Some people don’t like to be touched. It’s not up to you to decide that what they need is a good hug. If a person stiffens or pulls away from your touch, honor their physical space without disconnecting emotionally.
- Pray – If you have a shared faith, you may want to pray out loud with them.
*Caveat – If the individual doesn’t share your belief system, praying can be construed as preaching. Your lips don’t have to move for God to hear your heart.
- Act – Look for practical ways to lighten the load. Give a gift a certificate for a pizza, do yard work, run an errand etc…
*Caveat – We often say, Please call me if you need anything and almost no one does. If you know there is a need (and the need isn’t always for yet another casserole) assist or enlist another to assist when you can’t. Don’t expect the hurting person to ask. That said, it’s important to be certain that the hurting person is OK with your help. Honor their boundaries.
Above all, remember that it takes immense courage to be vulnerable. When someone trusts you enough to truly let you in, tread softly because you will, without a doubt, be leaving footprints.
We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. ~ C.S. Lewis
We’re often at a loss when it comes to coming along side someone who is hurting. In this post, and the next, I’ll share a few suggestions. Sometimes it’s helpful to look at what comes naturally that doesn’t help before moving on to some ideas that might be more useful. Here’s a partial list of things not to do if we want to encourage a person who’s experiencing emotional or physical pain.
- Don’t view pain as a teaching moment.
Be sensitive and compassionate in your use of Bible verses and exhortations. We are very hard of hearing when we’re suffering. Leave the megaphone to God.
- NEVER say: I know how you feel
Of course you don’t. Each person’s pain is unique.
When you’re hurting, I have no idea how you’re feeling no matter how similar I may think our experiences are because I’m not you.
It’s tempting (and often preached) to try to understand how someone else is feeling by walking a mile in their shoes; putting yourself in their place etc… In other words, I should try to understand how you’re feeling by thinking about me. But I’m not you!
While we may have gone through similar situations, every other experience that has led you to this moment has shaped you into who you are and how you experience emotional or physical pain.
In our eagerness to show empathy, we often share our story, inadvertently changing the focus of the conversation from the other person to ourselves.
- Toss the cliché’s
Time heals all wounds. Time isn’t magical.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Blatantly untrue. What doesn’t kill you will change you but it may or may not make you stronger.
Other’s have it so much worse. Comparing pain is minimizing.
You need to be strong. Why? For whom? What does that even mean?
Take care of yourself. Don’t tell a hurting person what they need to do when they’re already doing all they can to hang on.
Your loved one wouldn’t want you to be sad. Completely irrelevant (and may or may not be true). This moment is about the hurting person, not someone else.
I’m sorry for your loss. This isn’t all bad, but the word loss is problematic and once again, minimizing. Try just I’m so sorry (leaving off the loss). It’s genuine and doesn’t sound like you picked it up on Law and Order.
In the next post I’ll share a few thoughts on ways to help and encourage someone who is hurting.
We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions. ~ Brené Brown
I grew up in a climate that was greatly shaped by clichés. Two had a particular impact on me: Think before you speak and If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything. As I got older, I added the principle of taking every thought captive (2 Cor 5:5).
Times have changed. We’re socially evolved. Every thought/action/reaction is # without a ponderous thought.
But I put those original principles together and charted a life course. I tried to mitigate all of what I perceived as potentially negative by not talking and by taking my thoughts captive and burying them alive. I grew up with no template for working through ‘negative’ emotions/reactions - mine or others’.
I didn’t confront, argue, defend or even engage. I just kept digging more holes and waited for time to suffocate the feelings.
Prisoners, by definition, are subjugated to some kind of authority. Clearly taking every thought captive doesn’t mean to bury, it means to subjugate to God. I didn’t subjugate, I annihilated.
I thought this was holy and right but I was wrong. I not only buried feelings, I buried relationships and I buried bits of myself. I buried those bits that may or may not have been acceptable to others, I’ll never know. They weren’t acceptable to me.
When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.
I don’t hash-tag my feelings. I’m a selective sharer but I’m learning to value offering something to others that carries emotional risk.
I want to be the real deal. Wholly engaged people share real thoughts and real feelings that span the spectrum: love, fear, hurt, joy, disappointment, anger, hope, pain….
God, who is very into real, leaves His mark everywhere: # Grace.
God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be. ~Brennan Manning
Fake it ’till you make is a popular catchphrase in successful sales programs and some good recovery programs. It hasn’t, however, worked well for me as a spiritual practice.
I took a special math test in 7th grade. I scored high enough to be in the small group that were ‘fast-tracked’. That meant skipping 8th grade math and going straight to Algebra. I was a good student. It would have been great except I really didn’t get math.
From Algebra all the way through Calculus, I was completely lost so I faked it. It’s tricky, faking math. There aren’t any subjective Blue Book exams. There was a right answer, period.
Mr Huth, who sang at weddings and taught all of the advanced math classes, had only one struggling student (me) and one solution. I’d ask a question after class (not during because everyone else got it) and he’d send me home with his Teacher’s Guide. We did that same dance for 5 years.
I had the problem. I had the solution. I had no idea how to get from one to the other so I memorized everything. I memorized pages and pages of sample work and applied it well enough to maintain a B. I tried. I listened. I took notes that I didn’t understand and I faked it.
The same a + b = c happened to me when I was on the spiritual ‘fast track’. I’d have (a) problems and (c) The Answer Book. I tried so hard. I listened. I took notes. I memorized Scripture. Still, I often didn’t (b) know how to make real life equations work.
Everyone else seemed to be getting straight A’s so I faked it. I didn’t fake my faith – that was real. But I substituted what I truly thought and felt for how I thought I should think and feel. I gave all the right answers until I was numb.
We long to know the grace and mercy of God in our lives but we find ourselves tripped up by failure, by temptation, by ambivalence. Fearing disappointing others and the ensuing pep talk (usually a scriptural exhortation) and the have more faith talk. Or worse, that internal voice that says you (and you alone) aren’t getting it right, compelling us to continue to fake it ’til we make it.
The message of grace shatters our fake facade. Grace says:
(a) God loves us as we are + (b) not as we should be = (c) because no one is as they should be
Grace frees us to love each other as the Father loves us. We can weep with those who weep because real people weep. We can rejoice with those who rejoice because we’re freed from self-obsession.
No grades, just grace.
Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace. ~ Philip Yancey
I was slow to believe in the level ground concept.
For most of my life my thinking was something like this: I’m not perfect but at least I’m not like ______. I may sin (you know, just the small stuff) but I would never ______.
I lived a fill-in-the-blank spirituality. As long as I could find a sin worse than my sin, my sin didn’t really need grace, it just needed a good excuse.
Mixed in with my self-righteousness were days of self-recrimination when I felt hopelessly less than. That was equally un-level ground sloping in the opposite direction.
Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.
When I finally found my footing, grace became both my comfort and my counsel.
I learned that I need grace.
And I learned that no one has ever needed it more than me.
That’s level ground.
I’m a long gone Waylon song on vinyl.
I’m a back row sinner at a tent revival.
She believes in me like she believes her Bible.
She loves me like Jesus does.
I’m a left foot leaning on a souped up Chevy.
I’m a good ole boy drinkin’ whiskey and rye on the levee.
But she carries me when my sins make me heavy.
She loves me like Jesus does.
All the crazy in my dreams,
Both my broken wings,
Every single piece of everything I am.
She knows the man I ain’t,
She forgives me when I can’t.
That devil, man, he don’t stand a chance.
She loves me like Jesus does.
~ Casey Beathard/Monty Criswell
If they could only use one phrase, what would you like folks to say about you? I found my phrase in a country song playing on the radio on a one and a half- laned road in Texas.
I was channel surfing stations while driving my souped up Chevy (it’s a Silverado with duallys so I guess that’s only semi-souped) down miles of really far back, back roads. Channel surfing in southern Texas means Classic Country, Hot Country, My Country, Top Country, Hit Country or Talk Radio.
Talk Radio was out. I don’t much care for Talk Radio. Talk Radio seems to be mostly a mash-up of shtick and insults. So the only choice was which kind of Country and I’m rusty on that one.
I mostly listen to Vivaldi and Rachmaninoff at home, not because I’m sophisticated, but because I can’t do two things at once anymore. If there are lyrics then I’m listening, which means I can’t read or write or talk much. But on the road, with no other words streaming in, I can drive and listen to music that has lyrics.
The Seek button stopped on Hit Country. The song that was just beginning was Loves Me Like Jesus.
If I hadn’t been halfway lost on my way to the dentist, I would have pulled off the road just to listen and maybe pray. This is what I want people to think when they think of me, to say when they talk about me.
She forgives me when I can’t.
She carries me when my sins make me heavy.
She loves me like Jesus does.
I’m not there yet, but that’s my one phrase. That’s love wrapped in grace.
I’m including a YouTube video for those of you who want to hear the rest of the lyrics and the beat behind the message.
Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. ~ Walter Anderson
It’s a common question: Why do bad things happen to good people? I watch the news with a broken heart as one gut wrenching trauma replaces another like a slideshow, clicking from disaster to disaster.
I watch and pray and, if I’m honest, there’s a small part of me that’s relieved that this time it didn’t happen to my family or my friends, or to me. Not this time. But something will, sometime, because bad things happen to good people.
There’s a second question: Why do good things happen to bad people? Where the first question saddens, the second challenges. It’s easier for me to grieve for the sorrows of the good than to be glad for the blessings of the bad.
When I focus on experience and expectations, rather than the exegesis, both questions have the same answer. Life here, on this side of heaven, isn’t fair. Thank God it isn’t!
An eye for an eye, that’s fair, but there’s nothing fair about turning the other cheek. There’s nothing fair about forgiving 70 x 7. Maybe the injustice of it is why it’s so hard?
The fact that good and virtuous traits like turning the other cheek don’t come naturally to me, leads me to ask a third question. Am I really a very good person who occasionally experiences bad things or am I a very flawed person who often experiences undeserved blessings? The sick don’t need a doctor. The good don’t need grace because grace, by its nature and definition, is entirely unfair and unmerited. I need grace, daily grace, so there’s the answer.
Jesus was direct: … love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who insult you and persecute you.
Bad things happen. Love, bless, do good and pray (for the good people and for the bad people). Those are the responses that will define my character and my quality of life.
To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, “A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.”The gospel of grace nullifies our adulation of televangelists, charismatic superstars, and local church heroes. It obliterates the two-class citizenship theory operative in many American churches. For grace proclaims the awesome truth that all is a gift. All that is good is ours not by right but by the sheer bounty of a gracious God. While there is much we may have earned–our degree and our salary, our home and garden, a Miller Lite and a good night’s sleep–all this is possible only because we have been given so much: life itself, eyes to see and hands to touch, a mind to shape ideas, and a heart to beat with love. We have been given God in our souls and Christ in our flesh. We have the power to believe where others deny, to hope where others despair, to love where others hurt. This and so much more is sheer gift; it is not reward for our faithfulness, our generous disposition, or our heroic life of prayer. Even our fidelity is a gift, “If we but turn to God,” said St. Augustine, “that itself is a gift of God.” My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”~ Brennan Manning (Th Ragamuffin Gospel)
Brennan Manning died yesterday, Friday, April 12, 2013. Brennan Manning once helped save my life.
I first read The Ragamuffin Gospel several years after it was published in 1990. Before Brennan, I thought grace was a nice word used in a benediction. I also thought that I was less raggedy than the average muffin.
As the years passed and the cracks in my veneer began to spiderweb, I no longer thought I was a such a fine person. I didn’t see grace as a priceless gift from a loving Father. Grace had become something you fall from and I’d fallen far. And I remembered Brennan.
Re-reading The Ragamuffin Gospel as a broken person was like reading an entirely different book. It became my Life 101 book: God loves you as you are and not as you should be… Abba loves you very much…
My life is a witness to vulgar grace — a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wage as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party, no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request — “Please, remember me” — and assures him, “You bet!”…This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try and find something or someone that it cannot cover. Grace is enough… ~ Brennan Manning (All is Grace)
I would say Rest in Peace, Brennan, but I don’t think he resting. I think the Father has wrapped His arms around him and is throwing him a party!
There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing. ~ G.K. Chesterton
Listening is hard. Hearing is even harder.
Years ago, I was the Counseling Supervisor at very busy Crisis Intervention Center in a mid-sized city. We had a 24 hour crisis line along with a steady stream of walk-in clients.
I was the only one in the center late one Saturday afternoon when a 36-year-old client I’d met with often, walked in, clearly agitated. He picked up a bottle of glue off a desk, squirted it in his Coke, shook it and sprayed it all over the walls.
As I began to try to gently talk to him, he grabbed me and held a knife to my throat for the next 45 minutes. He was strong and I was at a loss. Regardless of what I said, he heard something entirely different. Stan was a paranoid schizophrenic who rarely took his meds and often heard voices. On this particular Saturday he thought he’d heard my voice making fun of him.
Stan couldn’t hear what I was really saying. He only heard what he was afraid people said about him. His deteriorating mental health made hearing impossible.
Stan’s focus was entirely on himself. And in that way, he and I aren’t so different. A memory or my opinion or reaction to a remark can shift my focus in a conversation off of the person I’m with and back onto me. When I’m listening to you but thinking about me, I don’t hear what you’re saying.
We all have mental chatter to tune out. We may listen to voices from our childhood or school or church. They may even be tapes we’ve made ourselves – voices that distort the sound-waves so that we add our own spin to another’s words. There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.
It’s the same with God. Sometimes I talk and talk and then I’m done..
I skip over the listening all together. When I’m praying and I do all the talking, I become hard of hearing.
With God, and with others, playing my own tapes too loudly can lead to hearing loss.