Jul 22, 2016

Being Vulnerable, Part 1

It began with a common question: “How are you feeling today?”

“Really good,” she replied. “And you?”

Throughout the week, my heart had felt tossed about by an agitated sea. I was tired from struggling to stay afloat in uncertain waters, to draw air of hope—of confidence. Should I reply honestly about that, vulnerably?

I hesitated, compelled by the notion that I must exude an indomitable will to secure a friend’s trust. After all, such resolve demonstrates stability of character, garners respect. Being hardcore is attractive. Right?

Or does such a demeanor sacrifice approachability?

My compass has long been defined by perfection[1], even though I know that it cannot be attained. For only God is perfect.[2] Therefore, remembering one friend’s recent words that “beauty must be flawed, [that human] perfection is the idealism of the devil who aspires to be God,” I decided to stop fighting the emotional current for a moment, and see where it might carry me. After all, I live for adventure, which pertains to the heart, faith or inward truth as much as it does to action or outward truth.

Beauty in Imperfection
"My heart has too often felt heavy this week,” I began, but then faltered again, unable to let go of the idea that I needed to exhibit control, strength. Therefore, I added, “But I am trying to let go of the burden—the distraction or confusion, maybe—to be fully present.”

I thought the conversation might end there, for it seemed I had said enough: identifying the problem and promptly addressing it. Besides, entering the waters of my doubts would require endurance—a courage and compassion that is rare, even among friends. I did not want to pull her into the depths with me. Moreover, my uncertainty felt trite. It would be better, simpler, to move the conversation along. Yet at the same time, I knew that I no longer wanted to feel alone in the struggle. I desired an extension of grace—to be allowed to be weak.[3] It was risky. Still, at the same time another voice told me that such longing was selfish.

“What burdens lay on your heart?” she asked.

Was compassion possible in this instance? I treaded carefully, skeptical that she really wanted to know my answer. So I wrote about my discouragement from searching for a third job, which I suspected would lead to a predictable outcome for our conversation. That was safer.

Yet I was also curious. There was courage in me yet: a willingness to prove that my jaded attitude was misguided. Thus I dared to reveal the heart of the matter—well, at least introduce it. I eventually shared that I was realizing how many sensitive relational scars I still had, how many had not healed as much as I thought or would like to convey—how utterly humbling that was. “The vulnerability can feel overwhelming at times, though I feel as though I am supposed to fight hard to overcome it because . . . I don’t know, for some series of reasons that I have long doubted, but struggle to shake off because they persist in trying to frame new experiences.”

Vague, I know. But it was a beginning.

“When it comes to healing, you do not have to fight hard to shake it off because it then makes it harder to shake it off. The more you acknowledge your scars and accept them, love them even, the more they will heal. And those vulnerabilities rise to the surface because they want to heal and be acknowledged, they’ve been bottled up for far too long. Healing is the most loving and gentle experience we can have for ourselves. And just being with it, crying, laughing, whatever it is, allows the heart to mend. It’s ok to feel vulnerable. Surrender to it.”

She was right, of course. I knew that, and know that. I am just not entirely sure how to surrender—beyond the idea of surrendering to God, which is certainly a journey of mystery.[4]

She continued, “Just know that only growth and beauty can come from the pain we feel in our heart. Our soul purposefully lets us have these experiences so that we choose love again. It may even change whatever limiting belief we had held so dearly in our heart.”

I think I understood, but reached a bit further. “Do you believe that relational scars can only be fully mended alone in the company of oneself or that there is also a need for another person or people’s influence to help provide the final healing touch(es)?”

“I believe both.”

As do I.

“Yet even in healing,” I admitted, “I am conscious of the presence of fear or insecurity that tells me my love is trapped in a cycle; that it will be pounded down again and again by wave after wave, slowly exhausted to either drown or become numbed to the point of not feeling anything. The heart is resilient, but the mind is skeptical.” I thanked her for caring, for encouraging, for welcoming me to share a part of my rawer self. I confessed that I was unsure of the appropriate time to open up more in a friendship.

“It’s hard to let your heart open, especially if you have had heartache and pain. But the love is worth it, trust me; well, you don’t have to trust me, but trust love. You can always talk to me about these things. We are friends and that is what friends are for. We all go through this and people need one another. We need to connect. We are human and also beings of love. So don’t feel like it’s ever too soon. A good friend recently reminded me that time does not exist in the heart.”

Trust in Love
I was left wondering what “trust love” really meant. Are any of us sure?  

I mean, I can begin to unpack the idea based on the love of Jesus Christ, of a personal relationship with God, the “I am” of love. I already know love intimately because it dwells in my heart as God’s love, His Holy Spirit, the Spirit or Word of Jesus. It is indeed about trust. I believe that God desires good for me; that He daily offers to fill the infinite well of goodness in my heart. Yet I do not think that I struggle with trusting God so much as I struggle with trusting people. This is the result of numerous relational wounds. Most are now scars, but some are still tender to touch.

So what are my real burdens? What am I afraid of, unsure of? If confusion conflicts the flow of goodness to and from my heart, if therein waits or prowls the devil, what needs to be exposed to the light—cleansed by living water?[5]

These are questions that each of us must try to answer, first alone, I think—with God—before they can be adequately addressed with another person.

Gazing into the mirror of one’s heart with eyes unaverted is intimidating. It requires honesty, which needs courage. But the result of facing that reflection can be such a centering sense of freedom. What is more, it can ease the soul into a place of rest, of peace. Vulnerability can be a posture of the body, mind, or heart separately examined. It can be all of them together, holistically—a unity of self: the soul.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines vulnerable as “capable of being physically wounded; open to attack or damage.” Vulnerability. For a few years now, again and again, most palpably starting with my journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, God has directed me to meditate on and explore the idea of frailty:

Frailty, thy name is Man 
Filled with wonder and heartache,
Bright bonds that stir passion on
Shattered past spirit drowned;
Wash memory devour remorse,
Color each blessing and curse
To deny, embrace, let go?

As a word, frailty connotes struggle in weakness, particularly moral weakness in the face of temptation. I have examined my fallibility as holding the potential for distraction, even suffering. Perhaps I am meant to now take some time to mediate upon its potential for tenderness.

Exposing the scars of my heart, the imperfections, to another person is being vulnerable. Any relationship with another person makes me vulnerable to being wounded further. But is that not an aspect of what love is? No matter how scarred, how calloused, how accustomed to pain I am, the path toward lasting love will get no easier. Love has the power to swell within each of us. It is gorgeous, captivating. But it is also dangerous. That is the nature of adventure.

Beauty in Healing
“Beauty is fundamental,” writes Eugene Peterson in The Jesus Way.

“It is evidence of and witness to the inherent wholeness and goodness of who God is and the way God works. It is life in excess of what we can manage or control. It arrives through a sustained and adorational attentiveness to all that we encounter on the way . . . Beauty does not impose anything that makes either God or us, God’s world or our circumstances, look better or seem better. The beauty is already there: by means of prayer or love or worship (all mysteries) we perceive truth, reality, goodness, salvation—God. . . . It doesn’t explain anything. It reveals what is implicit in every detail of creation and salvation, what has been there all along . . . We recognize it as organic to who God is and the way God works—not an intrusion, not a violation . . . [but reveals] what is right there before us, the inside and outside, the there and the here so that we can be participants in it. Beauty. . . . Salvation is not escape from what is wrong but a deep, reconciling embrace of all that is wrong. . . . Sin is not rejected, it is borne, carried in an act of intercession. . . .

“There is far more to seeing than a functioning iris and retina. Imagination is required to see all that is involved in what is right before our eyes, to see the surface but also to penetrate beneath the surface. Appearances both conceal and reveal: imagination is our means of discerning one from the other so that we get the whole picture. . . . Memory is required to make sense of even the simplest sentence. Language is vast and intricate and living. Memory is our means of keeping the complexities of syllables and syntax coherent, of bringing together the voices of the entire membership, of getting the whole story, of hearing the voice across the room but also the voices from across miles and centuries. . . .

“Without imagination and memory we are reduced to surface and immediacy, we live in a cramped prison cell of the five senses and of the immediate moment. But when imagination and memory are healthily active, the prison door springs open and we walk out into a large, multi-dimensional world that continues to expand exponentially. ‘Beauty’ is the word of witness that we use to identify this world, this world that is both outer and inner, both present and other.” (181-187)

God, empower me to be patient. Guide me. I need discernment to navigate my doubts, my history. I need to be reminded that you do not expect me to be perfect; that perfection is only you, Jesus. Thank you for beauty. Help me to see it further, to have eyes to see and ears to hear. Help me to remember that it is foundationally you who I trust, you who I worship and follow. Help me to stand.

Cleanse my thoughts. Heal my wounds that I might revel in the scars[6]: a map of where I have been. I surrender. Show me what that means. Help me build the stamina to swim past the breakers; and once there, to ride the waves in grateful celebration.

May your love overflow from my heart. Soli deo gloria. Amen.

[1] This vision being influenced by Jesus’ words as recorded in Scripture like Matthew 5:48: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Curiously, the Greek word, teleios, which is often translated as “perfect”, really means “mature (full grown), complete in all its parts” (biblehub.com/greek/5046.htm, accessed 22 July, 2016). So for the Christ-follower, perfection has more to do with maturation or growth than flawlessness.
[2] For example, “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). “This God—his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him” (2 Samuel 22:31). “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). It is important to note that the Hebrew root word for “perfect” here is tamim, which essentially means blameless or without defect (biblehub.com/hebrew/8549.htm, accessed 22 July, 2016).
[3] “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
[4] I begin to address the idea of surrendering to God in “Is God Patient (Part 3)” and “We Will Overcome
[5] “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Or as Jesus answered the woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10), latter adding, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38). Finally, the hope of Christ: “For the Lamb [who is Jesus] in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).
[6] “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10b).

Jul 15, 2016

On Cohabitation

You can be physically naked, but emotionally you hold back, fearful of losing someone whose only real tie to you is mutual affection.
Drew Griffin

The following is in response to the article, “The Majority of Americans Recommend Cohabitation.

From the outside, it seems straightforward: marriage is motivated by faith—in God, in the other person, in the tradition of community—while cohabitation is motivated or justified by more isolated practicality and uncertainty, even fear—a lack of willingness, even courage, to risk commitment without first trying to determine or control its outcome.

Based on various personal conversations, however, this is such fragile, humbling subject because—regardless of what authors like Drew Griffin may attest (and there are many like him in the Church)—the reality is that marriages collapse under the weight of insecurity about as much as cohabited relationships. That intimacy is not a guaranteed end for either path. That it is purely a gift.

Yet can that gift be acquired through our human effort or can it only be received from a source beyond us?

Regardless of whether you believe in God or not, I am not sure that intimacy can be acquired purely through human will. At least it does not seem to be so from what I have observed. That does not mean, however, that the two people do not share a very tangible responsibility to foster the space in their minds, hearts and lifestyles to receive that gift; and, after receiving it, to work daringly to cultivate and grow it for the rest of their lives.

No path toward intimacy is easy.

So where does the frail nature of this conversation leave one who still wants to believe in the power of marriage?

It is a power that I believe was orchestrated and affirmed in the beginning of time as “very good” by God, Yahweh, the “I am.” Despite my questions and uncertainty, Yahweh asks that I trust His promise to me—His Word. The Bible is foundationally the story of the covenant between Yahweh and Mankind, between Yahweh and you, me, each individual in the world. To trust in Him, in His love—the intimacy promised by committing to a relationship with Jesus Christ by the mysterious and active affection of the Holy Spirit—is to ground myself on faith. That faith is rooted in what He proclaimed as good. It is gratitude demonstrated through obedience to His guidance: that marriage is the path to the deepest and most stirring kind of intimacy.

That is probably not enough to convince the skeptics, but for me it is enough to nurture an inspiration that is both meaningful and purposeful. More so, I feel it deepening my capacity for love while also filling it with an overwhelming sense of passion.

May you discover that wellspring of love within your own heart, and may its goodness inspire your passion to new breadths of holistic expression. Soli deo gloria.

Jul 11, 2016

That Infinite Well of Goodness

Even though I lived four years in Santa Barbara, California, as well as six years of childhood and five of my most recent years in San Jose—a short drive away from Santa Cruz—I had never surfed. Having snowboarded half my life, being drawn to the exhilaration of gliding across a snowy mountainside; for some reason I hesitated to introduce such passion to glimmering ocean waves. The lack of initiative was mostly rooted in fear, I think—in uncertainty. Fear so often stalks the unknown. The shadowed depths of the ocean, the wildlife dwelling within, and my sense of helplessness in it—that Mankind was created for land—had perhaps dampened my ambition.

It was time to face such a fear, to become familiar with the unfamiliar—to broaden the potential for adventure.

It would begin on the shore of Pacifica, a leisurely town nestled on the western coast of the San Francisco Peninsula. I would not be venturing out alone.

* * *

Sometimes I pretend to be an academic.

For example, a week ago I spent five hours studying the word goodness, which was only an introduction, really. Illuminated by many colors, it is a difficult word to concisely define. Still, I was determined to at least peek beneath the surface.

Disclaimer: I was and still am wary of letting the beautiful and somewhat subjective gift of a word drown in objectivity. Therefore, more than any technical definition I can offer, I hope the heart of the pursuit recounted here brightens a way toward fuller understanding.

A Definition
Aside from connecting it to the root word, good, the New Oxford American Dictionary identifies the synonyms of goodness as “decency, excellence, friendliness, generosity, good will, grace, honesty, integrity, kindness, mercy . . .” Used as an adjective, noun, and adverb, good is defined as moral virtue, especially in helping others; giving pleasure (enjoyable or satisfying); attractive (pleasant to look at); a restoration from damage; or fulfillment of a promise.

Thank you for a kaleidoscope of a definition, New Oxford American Dictionary.

As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am interested in noting how a word is used in the Bible. There are as many variations in the Hebrew and Greek lexicons of the Old and New Testaments as there are with the English translations. The Hebrew term, tôwb, the one most commonly translated as good, connotes beauty in the widest sense, but also suggests “better, bountiful, cheerful, at ease; graciously joyful, kindly, loving, merry; pleasure, precious, prosperous, ready, sweet, wealth, welfare . . .” For example,

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31a). “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8)! “The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble” (Nahum 1:7a).

Intrinsic & Extrinsic
In the Greek New Testament, two root words are most often translated as good. The first, agathǒs, essentially means intrinsically good (good in nature). For example,

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good” (Luke 6:45a), the thought of which is expanded in Galatians 5:22-23a: “But the fruit of the [Holy] Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” “[God] who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6), which can be connected to Paul’s letter to the early church in Rome: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (8:28); “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2); and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21).

The second Greek root word, kalǒs, is also often used, which principally refers to an outward sign of an inward good (e.g. beautiful by appearance). For example, Jesus said,

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27b-28). “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Or as Paul wrote, “But as for you, O man of God . . . Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith” (I Timothy 6:11-12a).

In a way, goodness is all that is inherently beautiful, whether tangible or intangible. And according to my Faith, its prime mover is God.

How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.
—William Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice)

* * *

One can only learn so much about surfing on dry land, even with a friend or surf instructor (a.k.a. “Smurf Sensei”) as a guide. Therefore, snug in a wetsuit with a foam board grasped more confidently than I felt, it was time to step into the waves to practice what had been taught on shore.

The waves of Pacifica State Beach are relatively tender tutors. To help me focus on the most difficult aspect of surfing—the stand—Smurf Sensei held the back of my board while I crawled onto it amidst churning waist-deep surf. The most exhausting aspect of the process would not be falling off the board in failed attempts to stand so much as rising from the water only to be slammed under and off balance again and again right after. I felt as graceful as a turkey, surprised at how awkward it was to just center my ribs while lying on the board.

It was not long, however, before I managed to stand and ride my first small wave. And then another.

Conscious of my limits, however, I eventually surrendered to the need for a break on the unmoving sun-warmed beach. Meanwhile, Smurf Sensei took her short board out to model what is possible with happy years of experience.

The learning process often draws the most energy from a person. In kinesthetic learning, for example, there is usually an overabundance of body tension with each movement as muscle memory and balance are sharpened for the specific action. I was tired, and knew I would be sore later, but was also filled with the vigor of having entered a new sea of possibilities. So I soon retrieved the foam board and paddled solo toward the larger waves.

* * *

An Infinite Well
Goodness is transcendent, an extravagant aspect or gift of growing in the Truth. “You can never have too much goodness,” a friend texted in a conversation. “That’s the stuff that also inspires creative work.” It helps light the journey. Martin Luther wrote,

“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” (“Defense of All the Articles”)

It was the aforementioned text conversation that first nurtured this focused meditation on goodness. I had recommended a particular musician to my friend as a way to “add to that infinite well of goodness at the center of our hearts.” Thinking about it further, I later wrote, “I think by ‘infinite well’ I mean ‘infinite capacity to receive and ultimately draw from goodness.’”

I appreciate how she responded: “I like ‘infinite well’ it’s hearty, like a direct streamline. . . . we as souls have infinite access to our well but it’s common in our humanness to constrict the flow. . . . and even ‘evil’ or acts of ‘evil’ stem from the root of confusion, not knowing what is real . . . Truth.”

Later that night, as I considered the common tension felt between worshiping and being intimate with God who is both good (e.g. loving, merciful) and just (e.g. a holy judge)[1], I wondered if justice is necessary because we are all at some point collaborators with evil, willfully or not. The term evil is a somewhat complex term, which I will not delve into here. For now, I suggest that it is confusion contaminated with malice. Or that evil is that which distracts or disrupts a person or people from receiving, drawing from, and therefore extending goodness. That fear may be one of the most entrenching symptoms of confusion.

Hallelujah, such fear can be overcome:

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21agathǒs, intrinsically good). “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he who came . . . Jesus Christ . . . And the [Holy] Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth” (I John 5:4-6). “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

J.R.R. Tolkien writes, “In the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (The Return of the King).

* * *

The ocean is a wonderful element we get the opportunity to play with. It’s pretty magical when you allow yourself to just be with it. It has a way of awakening one’s soul.
—Smurf Sensei

I did not catch any of the larger waves that first day, but I did realize that the well of my heart was deepening. Even just sitting on the foam board, swaying with the waves as they rolled faithfully by, I finally understood the allure—how much goodness could be shared through something as uncomplicated as surfing.

I seized the opportunity to return the next morning.

This time Smurf Sensei and I would head out together. There would be no more lessons on the beach, only that which can be gained from actually going out and trying.

Fear had not departed entirely, however.

Insulated by our wetsuits, boards at hand, Smurf Sensei and I were about to step into the water when two other surfers stopped us. “Hey, we just saw a great white shark jump out of the water down that way,” one said, pointing northward about a quarter mile to where the cove curved westward.

After a brief interchange, Smurf Sensei thanked them and looked at me with brows raised questioningly. 

“What do you think?” I asked.

Gazing out to the cluster of other surfers in the water perpendicular to our position, and considering the relatively shallow depths where the waves were breaking, she thought we would be fine. I trusted her experience over my uncertainty.

This was it: another opportunity to face the unknown—to swim with fear.

Reinforced by a shark presentation at Monterey Bay Aquarium the Sunday before[2]—that sharks are productive members of the oceanic ecosystem—and the knowledge that many surfers have been in the vicinity of great white sharks without problem, I was resolved to not let a mild apprehension prevent me from drawing further from the well of goodness. That is not to say, however, that I did not occasionally scan the water for a sinister shadow or dorsal fin.

Paddling past the breakers, sitting restfully on the board, and even managing to ride a couple waves that day, I was reminded of the delicate balance of nature: that while it is dangerous, not to be underestimated with haughtiness, it is also immensely good. It reflects God’s order, His beauty.

Like in my relationship with God, I have spent years progressively reorienting false perspectives—such as the uncertainty elicited by a desert, forest, or mountain wilderness. I am grateful to have at last begun to do so with the ocean. I still have much to learn and overcome, and believe it will always be so; but am excited to keep pursuing the healing, courage, and inspiration that can nourish the soul when fears are overcome, when beauty is allowed to pour in. Perspective is widened from it. The heart is deepened, enlarging its capacity to hold and share the infinite divine love that desires to overflow to every heart in the world. Soli deo gloria.

May we all learn to live with more joyful resolve; and may we laugh with anticipation for other example of goodness yet to be revealed and celebrated.

If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don't bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he's a good man.
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

[1] For more on that tension between good and just, note: “The Damage of ‘Trust God’”.
[2] There are curious statistics about shark attacks. For example, I am more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by a shark. Or to die by the flu. Or to be injured by a toilet. (http://natgeotv.com/ca/human-shark-bait/facts. Accessed 7/6/2016).