The curse of the gap

Dr. Kitty Harris of Texas Tech University teaches that in order to mature emotionally and feel “normal,” people need these basic needs met:

  • Physical safety – I need to know I’m safe.
  • Emotional security – I need to know I’m heard.
  • Identity – I need to know who I am.
  • Competence – I need to know I’m capable.
  • Belonging – I need to know I have a place.
  • Mission – I need to know I have a purpose.

All these things are found in the Garden of Eden. Place. Purpose. People. All there.

We, of course, live east of Eden (way east), on the fallen side of things. That means any of us looking at the above list will discover gaps or barriers between our “real” and our “ideal.”

Something is missing. I struggle to feel safe. Or I struggle to feel like I’m heard. I don’t really know who I am. I don’t feel competent. I never quite feel like I belong. I don’t know my purpose. These are all fallen feelings. And that gap between where we are and where God made us to be – the gap between real and ideal – can create all kinds of pain and frustration.

That gap led to the original sin. The enemy of our souls got Eve to notice the gap that exists between imperfect people and a perfect God. Then, once she was focused on the gap rather than God, he said, “Isn’t that gap … painful?” And while it hadn’t been in the moment prior, it became so the moment she began to focus on it.

That’s the curse of the gap. The more we look at it, the bigger it seems. We become more and more aware of this nagging sense that something is missing. We develop a compulsion to focus on that feeling. To make the feeling go away, or to “feel normal” as Kitty Harris would say, we work too much, become needy in our relationships, get addicted to things that ease the pain (which then create more pain) or do other compulsive things we hope will “fix” it. None of these things will span that gap but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Well-meaning Christians tell us “Jesus fixes the gap.” And in one sense, yes, he does. In the most basic sense of providing a path back to God, Jesus is our bridge. But slogans like “Just give me Jesus” don’t change our circumstances, don’t take the pain away, don’t erase our compulsions. Jesus doesn’t magically fix gaps. Reducing the power and presence of Jesus to a bumper sticker makes most of us feel less normal, more shamed.

Jesus does not offer instant pain relief, gratification or escape from bad circumstances. He does offer another way of seeing the world. Jesus introduces grace into the conversation about gaps and he challenges us to learn the difference between mercy and sacrifice. He offers holiness as a pathway to “normal” as God has designed it. He calls us away from our self-centered focus on the gap so we’re able again to focus on the power and provision of a mighty, loving, good God.

In other words, Jesus doesn’t make the ideal happen, but he makes the real safe again.

Hallelujah.

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Triggers, Urge-surfing and the God Who Heals Us

I have triggers. When I hear an ice cream truck, something in me immediately goes back to 1205 Eisenhower Drive, my childhood home. When I smell popcorn, I’m in National Hills Theater and in my happy place. The picture of a margarita will send me a craving. I haven’t had a drink in 25 years, but the picture of a margarita still sends me back. What are your triggers?

Think of an emotional trigger like a little internal tether. It links us emotionally to something behind us. Sometimes that thing is good (like the smell of coffee in the morning) and sometimes it is not so good.

I often equate triggers with the struggle of the Israelites out in the desert, with Egypt on one side and the promised land on the other. They seemed to live in a constant internal tension, trying to press forward while Egypt called them backward. That seems to be the human condition. We tell ourselves little lies all the time that head us back toward Egypt. We romanticize slavery. That other life was simpler, less stressful. Or maybe it wasn’t so fun, but at least we didn’t have to work as hard. And those tiny internal justifications stir us to head back toward things that enslave us.

Once in the midst of Israelite complaints, God did a miracle. He turned bitter water sweet and then gave them this revelation: “I am the LORD who heals you.’” They named that place “Marah.” It became the place in their story where God spoke the kind of healing that turns bitter things sweet.

That makes Marah an important place on the spiritual map. It is the place we pass through that is hard, like the bitterness that settles in after the initial shock of divorce or the loneliness that follows rejection. Or the emptiness that follows loss. It is that place after a blow or temptation when we don’t quite know what to do next. When we aren’t aware of what is going on inside, we will struggle to press forward. We’ll long for Egypt, for old familiar territory. Virginia Satyr says that most people prefer the certainty of misery than the misery of uncertainty. We’d rather head back to Egypt than learn to live as healthy people, but Egypt is diseased while “I AM the God Who Heals You.”

Out in the desert, God explains to the Israelites what they are dealing with. “When you begin to do holy, you will tempted to go backward but there is no healing for you in Egypt. And there is no healing for you in the place you’re headed if all you do is drag your enslaved mentality with you to that new place. Freedom is in the God who heals you” (see Lev. 18). The trick, God seems to tell them, is to understand their triggers so they can get control of them. 

Learn your triggers. Folks who have dealt with addictions and messy lives find they are much more successful in recovery when they learn what their triggers are. Heather Hill, once an addict and now free from that life, gives some powerful advice about triggers:

Being triggered does not make me a bad Christian. It doesn’t mean I lack faith or that I am somehow less than. And the moment I start believing it does, I am that much closer to giving in to it. Triggers are simply remnants of my old self hanging on for dear life, because the old me doesn’t want to die. They are my thorn, reminding me of who I once was and reminding me how much I will always need God. My triggers are not in control. They don’t drive the bus. The most dangerous thing about a trigger is the urge that follows. And it’s tough, because it usually includes a physical reaction I cannot control.

The urge that follows my trigger only last about three minute. It used to last longer. I have found that the harder I fight the urge, the longer it lasts. When I rail against it in anger or disgust (because I believe the above point), I am thinking about it harder than I ought. When I am triggered to the point of an urge, the best thing to do is absolutely nothing. Pray it out. Wait it out. Don’t DO anything. Focus on God and pray until it is over. In rehab, we called it “urge surfing.” Because it comes in like a wave, peaks, and rolls out again.

There are practical ways to avoid my triggers. There are the obvious ways, like avoiding people, places and things. But when that isn’t possible (like when my family member is a trigger), the best way to overcome them is to understand them. Understanding why someone or something triggers me is the best way to move towards healing.Understanding removes the aspect of fear and confusion from the equation. And it gives me a point of focus for my prayers. I am triggered because I am a broken human being who needs healing.

Understanding my triggers helps me understand my brokenness. My best defense against triggers has always been gratitude. Remembering what God has done for me, how far he has carried me, all he has redeemed in my life, keeps me moving forward.

Healthy, life-giving relationships are key to recovery. We may always experience triggers, but we never have to face them alone. We are surrounded by a community of people who love us and want to see us healed. God is for us. His people are for us.

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The Tyranny of Tweaking

Funny, the things we can learn from friends who do drugs.

In the world of meth users, tweaking is a thing. That’s the term users use for the frantic and compulsive behaviors that tend to surface when you’re strung out on meth. Tweaking is obsession with an activity — any activity — like cleaning or searching through drawers or picking the skin off your face or cleaning tools in a toolbox. A user will become obsessed with making some thing perfect, which is kind of crazy since even if he gets it perfect he is still a meth addict.

I want to throw stones at addicts who do pointless things like this until I’m forced to admit I do it, too. I can spend a whole afternoon making the chairs into perfect rows at church while I ignore the message I am called to preach to the people who will sit in those chairs. Or I’ll spend hours working on a graphic or an agenda for a meeting (or writing a blog …), while things like hospital visits or time with a teen get set aside. Whatever it is that really needs to be done is often ignored in favor of whatever it is I’m obsessed about.

It makes me think of the Samaritan woman who tried to press Jesus into a discussion about where real worship happens. On this mountain or that one? Which is it, Jesus? And he replied, “I’m not sure it matters for you. Until you deal with the fact that you’ve been married five times and are living with a guy now, what’s it matter where worship happens?”

Or what about those religious leaders who came to Jesus upset because his friends didn’t properly wash their hands according to custom before eating? To them, Jesus responded, “Good point, actually. And here’s an even better one: why don’t you take care of your own parents, rather than obsessively letting the rules steal all your compassion and sense of responsibility?”

I can hear Jesus asking me that question when I get all tangled up in some detail or another, in some rule or another, in some judgment or another. “Until you deal with the fact that you use details to avoid the big dreams being dreamed over your life, what’s the rest of it matter?”

Much to my discomfort, my recovering meth addict friends are teaching me that small mindedness can have big consequences. I may not be addicted to a substance; to the contrary, I may very well be addicted to the absence of it.

What if God has a big honkin’ plan for your life? Something much bigger than you’re thinking, and something you won’t discover as long as you’re tweaking?

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Relapse and recovery (or, how to get back up when you fall)

Recovery is characterized by relapse.

I wish someone had told me this a long time ago, before I lost patience with people who desperately need my patience. Relapse is what happens when people give up a powerfully magnetic addiction only to find themselves at some point giving into the temptation to try it again.

It happens.

Relapse doesn’t mean a person has failed at recovery, that recovery isn’t happening or that recovery has failed. It means that person is human, still recovering, and learning from both successes and failures how to be whole.

What it means is that we are sunk without grace.

Think of it this way: You’re one of twenty people racing around a track. The gun goes off and allrecovery-and-relapse2 twenty of you set off running. Somewhere around the turn, you fall down. Do the usual rules of a race demand that you go back to the beginning and start over because you fell? Nope. You don’t limp off the track and quit, either. To the contrary, the unofficial rule for any competitive runner is that whatever else happens you finish the race. You stand up, shake it off and start running again even if it looks as if you’ll finish dead last.

Falling down isn’t the point; finishing is. And one day you’ll find you can make it around the track without falling at all.

Paul talks about spiritual relapse in his letter to the Romans. He writes (Romans 7:15-20), “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

This is the language of relapse and the anatomy of human nature. Inside every person, there are two sides that war with each other, and sometimes the side that works against our design wins a battle and we do things we don’t mean to do. God gets that. He gets that sometimes we’re going to relapse and do the things we hate and promise ourselves we’ll never do the thing again. We tell God, “Never again,” and then something happens and there we are, doing the very thing we hate … again. Because we fear death or fear pain or fear failure or fear being seen as a failure …

Paul teaches us that we are all in recovery, all of us recovering from “self addiction.” We are all struggling to conquer a weak nature. We are all prone to wander and we all have triggers that set off the war within.

So what is that thing for you? What is it that you battle against, that turns your head and keeps you from confidently moving forward? Is it lying or lust? Food or alcohol? Some other substance? Is it the way you treat people? Do you have anger issues, or childhood wounds that have created adult dysfunctions you can’t seem to shake?

For Abraham it was the habit of self-protective lying. He told Pharaoh that his wife was his sister in order to protect himself. It wasn’t exactly a lie (his wife was his father’s child), but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. His motive was purely selfish. Abraham allowed fear to make his decisions for him, not once but twice (he said the same thing to Abimelech, and it didn’t go well then, either).

Abraham’s lie morphed from an event to a habit. His habit compromised his influence. His lack of integrity destroyed trust.

And that is the problem with our addiction, whatever it is:

  • The practice of it makes a habit.
  • The habit of it ruins your influence.
  • The persistence of it destroys trust.

And it all begins with letting fear make our decisions for us.

So … where are you allowing fear (a self-defensive posture) to breed an addiction or send you backward into spiritual relapse? Or physical relapse?

If yesterday was the day you fell apart, don’t limp off the track and quit. Make today the day you stand back up again and finish the race.

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Pigs don’t fly.

A passenger on a recent U.S. Airways flight boarded a plane carrying what other passengers are saying resembled a duffel bag thrown over her shoulder. Her assigned seat was next to Jonathan Skolnik who realized, as she got closer, that this was no duffel bag at all. “We could smell it. It was a pig on a leash. She tethered it to the arm rest next to me and started to deal with her stuff, but the pig was walking back and forth … I was terrified, because I was thinking I’m gonna be on the plane with the pig!”

Skolnik was greatly relieved when the woman and pig were asked to deboard, not because the pig was illegal but because he became unruly. Classified as an emotional support animal, he actually became emotional himself so he and his owner were escorted off the plane.*

Which now gives us empirical proof that pigs really don’t fly.

I found this story while mediating on another one. In Mark, chapter 5, the story is told of a demon-possessed man who meets Jesus and gets exorcised. He admits to being possessed by thousands of demons, all of which Jesus casts into a nearby herd of pigs, who then (all 2,000 of them) run madly off a cliff and drown. The story of this healing miracle ripples quickly through town. Our demon-possessed guy is healed! Oh, and also … our pigs are all at the bottom of the sea!

The townspeople find Jesus and beg him to leave. They want nothing to do with this kind of power, nor do they appreciate the loss of their pigs.

Why would normal people be put off by a display of Kingdom power? From the story, you get the sense that while they didn’t much like the demons, they weren’t so put off by them that they were willing to give up their pigs. It seems that what bothers them is how Jesus chooses to solve their problem.

Let me say that again this way: What so often bothers us is how Jesus chooses to solve our problems. It is as if we get our demons and our pigs confused. What we want is for our demons to disappear but for our pigs to fly. In other words, we want the issue to go away without us having to change anything.

But as it turns out, pigs don’t fly.

Which means that if I have an addiction and want to be delivered of it, I also have to be willing to let go of whatever triggers kick my cravings into high gear. If I’m dealing with depression and want healing for it, I may have to let go of my bias against medicine or therapy. Or I may have to find room and discipline in my life for exercise. Or I may have to figure out my limits and live inside of them so I don’t continually toss myself into the darkness by ignoring good boundaries.

If childhood wounds have created adult dysfunctions, I may have to let go of unforgiveness, or anger. I may have to find healthier ways of dealing with debilitating feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy. If I want healing from the wounds, I also have to let the scars go.

It makes me think of that woman carrying a pig onto an airplane for emotional support. Maybe it works for her (I sure don’t want to debate the therapeutic benefits of emotional support animals). But where the rest of us are concerned, I wonder if we might be guilty of carrying our “pigs” around for emotional support when Jesus wants to see both the demons and pigs destroyed. When the demons go, the pigs have to go, too.

Here’s the moral of the story: Pigs really don’t fly. Don’t hang onto them hoping one day they will.

*Source: http://abcnews.go.com/US/proof-pigs-fly/story?id=27222136

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