What if we’re not broken?

On thing we’ve embraced as a culture (and that I have wholeheartedly embraced personally) the last few years is the beauty and the power of brokenness. Here’s a quick roll call of some artists of the broken that come to mind for me:

I could go on and on and on. You know that, because I’m sure you can immediately think of someone, too. Pick one you’re familiar with, your favorite story about someone who is broken but/and okay in their brokenness. Think about the person who wrote it, what you admire about them, what is compelling about their story.

Is broken a word you would use to describe them if they hadn’t used it themselves? So many of these stories are about breaking a facade, showing what’s going on behind the scenes. “Because I’m famous/good at something, you may think I have it all together. I don’t.” If they came to you with their stories and didn’t take call it brokenness, would you say they’re broken? Or would you say, “Dang, that’s some messed up shit you went through.”

What IS broken, anyway? What does it mean? Something that is broken is fractured or damaged or no longer in working order. I think of these women, and I think, “Yeah, ok, fractured, damaged… they’re wounded. I suppose you could say that’s being fractured or damaged…” It’s the “no longer in working order” part that catches me. If you think about what they’ve been through… would you expect their bodies and brains to have responded any differently? 

The next logical question is this: If admitting that they’ve had a natural (if difficult) response to horrible things in their lives means people are “broken,” what’s the fix? What does working “correctly” look like? Is more resilience to messed up shit really what we want for ourselves as a species?

Why is an acceptance of that messed up shit so deeply ingrained in us that we swallow this narrative of personal brokenness without so much as a hiccup?

Is it because we need to believe that the best we can do about the messed up shit is to get some therapy (if we can afford it) and set boundaries and hope we have the power to enforce them?

Ah, but life is just difficult, you say. Life is hard. Yes, yes it is. There are things that crush us and the reason they happen (if there is one) is lost to mysticism and philosophers. Accidents, earthquakes, hurricanes, deadly viruses. Death is universal, and it sucks.

If you’re old enough, you’ve probably experienced something that left you feeling broken. Fractured, damaged, no longer in working order. If you feel broken, was it one of those things? Or was it something less mysterious in purpose? A human being behaving according to the ways of power and not the ways of love?

What kinds of hurts more naturally fed into a stronger sense of your own purpose, of urgency to live life well in joy? Which hurts gutted your sense of yourself, left you reeling and unstable, sank into your flesh and stayed there festering?


It is true that we only have control over our own actions. I cannot make someone else want to be a good person. Yes, the way of the world is power and injustice…


Do I expect more of myself? Do you? What if there are more people expecting more of themselves than people who do not?

If it’s okay to acknowledge that we’ve been shredded by the machinery of this world that runs on the fuel of power and privilege… Maybe it’s time to be okay with talking about the machine itself, the one that fractures and damages with its working order. Maybe it’s time to do more than look for therapy and gratitude for healing. Maybe sharing our vulnerability and weakness isn’t an end goal but a starting point for something new. Maybe it’s time for something else to give.

Love Never Fails: Part 1

I want to tell you a story. Stories are how we see the unseen. Truth is something that is written so deeply in our hearts that we have to carve away chunks of ourselves to find it. It is something that we often uncover much more effectively through living and storytelling than through logic or a well-turned argument. 

This post is part one of a story about a collision of love and beliefs in my life. Please check back soon for part two, or click here to subscribe to the Trivial Circumstances email list to get a notification when I publish it.

I have a dear friend. A great friend. The older I get, the more I realize she is a once-in-a-lifetime friend. (And that’s only if you’re lucky enough to have a lifetime that includes a friend like her. Most people aren’t.)

Vicky and I spent our preschool years joined at the hip. She was born six months after I was. She came home from the hospital to the little brick cape cod house across the street from my family’s white cape cod house.

I don’t remember meeting her. She was just always there–since before the beginning of memory–to play dress-up, to swim, to watch movies, to share bath-time, to write stories with me.

She is still my best friend, even though today we live thousands of miles from each other on opposite coast, in Boston and in Anchorage. She is never not there. Right now, this year, we text pretty much every day. We send each other memes and news articles. We tell each other stories about our families and reminisce about past years. There have been years when we’ve talked less frequently. Growing up, we faced new communications challenges each time we moved farther apart. From our neighboring cape cod houses, she moved to the other side of town, then I moved to another town, then to Guatemala and back. This was back before the Internet, when long distance phone calls were charged per minute and our parents wisely decided not to leave it up to two chatty best friends to determine how long was a reasonable conversation. We wrote oodles of letters, on actual paper. Those letters are now our prized possessions. Vicky keeps her half of the letters in her freezer because it’s the safest place in case of a fire.

There have been years when we haven’t shared everything with one another as openly as we did as kids or as openly as we do now. Even though we were born neighbors, we were born into a divided country and into families at odds with each other politically. We joined the world a few short years after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision declared abortion legal. Her mother was an adamant and vocal supporter of abortion rights who volunteered at Planned Parenthood and at the Democratic Parthy. She inspired my mother to join the Pro-Life cause and to eventually found two pregnancy care centers focused on helping women find alternatives to abortion. 

One moment in our childhood that our families still laugh over was me telling Vicky in 1984 (when we were 5), “It’s okay, maybe Mondale will win next time,” after he carried only one state out of 50 in his race against Ronad Reagan for the U.S. presidency. At 5, I couldn’t have known much about Democrats or Republicans or what they stood for, but I knew my best friend and I were at odds over something when we stood with our families.

Vicky on the left, Amy on the right

We are from different religious backgrounds as well. She went to Catholic parochial school, my family had our butts in the pew of an evangelical church every Sunday morning and evening. Wednesdays, too, and often on vacation. I will never forget the look of horror on her face or my confusion when I grabbed her rosary for playing dress-up once. I never did it again. In a world where we are familiar with the ins and outs of so many religions all over the world, it’s hard to imagine the deep division we saw between Catholic and Evangelical in the 80s. It certainly wasn’t the level it was when wars were fought over it centuries earlier, but it was there. Many evangelical churches didn’t (and many still don’t) see Catholics as Christians.

We have both had our share of doubts over the years. How could we possibly have a friendship so close when our beliefs in the Things That Matter were so different?

This paradigm was reinforced by what I learned at church. As an evangelical Christian, the way to see the world around me had a clear division: people who knew Jesus, and everyone else (AKA my personal mission field). Everyone else, of course, included Catholics. We were built to go into the world and preach the gospel. The awesome responsibility of being saved was to help save other people.

I remember telling her at least one time (and I suspect it is more than once) that we couldn’t be TRUE best friends because we didn’t believe the same things. Jesus was my very best friend, and if you didn’t know him, how could you really know me? As a Christian, I knew the Truth in ways other people didn’t, and I was expected to fight for it. That was my Purpose. Other Christians shared that purpose. Close friendships with people who didn’t threatened to compromise my Purpose and Mission since they could not possibly understand or support my priorities. Worse, they might tempt me away from the Straight and Narrow path. We were called to love everyone, but friendship with people who also loved Jesus was what we aspired to most.

I bought into it, sometimes. But in a way that don’t think I could have articulated as a kid, that dichotomy always felt a bit uncomfortable for me. Here was someone I was close to, who I trusted with my life (and more importantly, my heart). Yet the main purpose of our presence in each others lives was for me to teach her, to help her understand what I already knew so well… It felt weird, but it was all I knew. Every so often I would attempt to convert her, to bridge that gap. I was elated when she came to my church’s week-long summer Bible school with me two summers in a row. Her mother was less thrilled when Vicky learned about hell there at six years old.

Eventually, it wasn’t just beliefs that were at stake. When we were eleven, Vicky’s parents divorced. It was heart-rending, and it happened while I was thousands of miles away, helpless not only to stop the divorce, but without any way to give my friend real consolation.  I heard about her family falling apart from Central America, devastated for her but separated from her.

My parents credited their faith with the success of their marriage. They had obeyed the rules God set forth in his law. The law was like gravity: when you followed it, your life fell into rhythm with the universe. If you tried to go against it, chaos and misfortune ensued. Of course, we knew and believed that everyone sins. But part of our freedom in Christ was ever-increasing freedom from the inertial pull of sin in our lives. Even though I wasn’t comfortable with that us/them dichotomy that seemed to go against the grain of my friendship with Vic, here was the truth of it playing out right in front of me. Here was sin hurting one of the people I loved most in the world while my own family remained happy and intact. Jesus was the only solution I knew. I continued to try to win her in what I thought were subtle and casual ways, and her devastation after the divorce cemented my belief in the way that only hard life experience can.

Our friendship persisted, year after year, and our love and appreciation for each other grew out of childhood into adulthood. I went off to a college known for its political conservatism, left a graduate program to get married, and followed my husband to California to support his career. Vicky went to a renowned party school, partied less than I did at my strict college (which wasn’t much), discovered her own feminist voice, and got a job as a journalist in Virginia. Our lives couldn’t have been much farther apart, or more different. We saw each other and talked to each other less in those years. Our letter writing slowed, but it was never really replaced by email or phone calls, even though we finally paid our own long distance phone bills. Even so, our love for each other continued into our new adult lives and we saw each other when we could.

One day, Vicky came to visit me in California. I picked her up at her friends’ house in San Diego, and before we got back to my apartment, she hesitantly told me that her classmate Jess who had moved to Virginia with her was more than a friend.

I wasn’t really surprised. I’d kind of suspected for years, the way I’d suspected her mom’s long-term roommate after her parents’ divorce wasn’t just a roommate.

What came next, though, shocked me:

She asked if she was still welcome to stay in my home.

To this day, every time I think about that moment, tears come to my eyes. For all of our differences, for all that I tried to casually win her over to loving Jesus the way I did, for all of the wondering how we could possibly be friends when our beliefs were so different, there was no question in my mind that we WOULD be friends. I didn’t always understand how it could work, but what was even more inconceivable was a world without our friendship. It had existed since before our memories began. There was no decision required to continue it. And there was certainly no question in my mind that she would always and forever be welcome at my house. After all, her friendship was more of a home to me than any place I could rest my head.

I reassured her. Of course she was welcome at my house. We tried to brush it off. We enjoyed each others’ company despite the awkwardness—we were used to disagreeing, after all. Our friendship grew closer again now that she felt like she could be open with me. Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t ask what made her think she would not find a warm welcome at my home. But I didn’t. I just wondered. I assumed she misunderstood me. And I sat in the pain of that for years.

I stayed in that state of self pity over the misunderstanding until life circumstances and my friend pushed me to look outside of myself for a better answer…

Note: I am publishing this story with Vicky’s permission. Well, not just permission. She helped fact check it (her memory is so much better than mine). And she has helped edit this and much of my other writing. She has yet to give me hard time for my poor grammar, considering I was an English major, but she certainly could. Any errors are probably things I wrote after she looked at it.

Check back soon for the next installment of the story. Better yet, be lazy and subscribe to my email list. I’ll let you know when the next post is up.

One in Spirit

I don’t usually read my alumni magazine, but the cover of the spring issue caught my eye. It arrived a few short weeks after I began working from home due to the pandemic, and it has stayed within sight through the months since, on my couch, on my coffee table, my kitchen counter, my bed. Now it’s tacked up on my cork board along with a few other quotes I can never get tired of: “Say big dreams out loud,” “An idea that is not dangerous is not worthy to be called an idea at all…”

The quote on my magazine cover is this:

The question before us is how to become one in spirit, not necessarily one in opinion.

One in spirit. Not necessarily one in opinion.

I certainly have opinions. Strong ones. Who doesn’t right now? When our collective decisions about how we go about our normal lives have life or death consequences on a massive scale, it’s hard not to sweat the injustices, even the petty ones.

But then again, have our collective decisions ever been inconsequential?

I have opinions. Opinions about mask wearing. Opinions about how the police should do their job. Opinions about how protesters have a right to behave, or at least an opinion about how far my empathy with them stretches my ideas about right and wrong one day to the next. I have opinions and I like to write, so kicking up the blog to rail against opposing opinions feels as good as a glass of wine after a difficult day at work.

Even so, when I sit down to do it, something just doesn’t feel right, and I remember the cover of my magazine. One in spirit, not necessarily in opinion. I think about the dear friend who walked through divorce with me whose opinion about Black Lives Matter sets my teeth on edge. About the social activist writing partner whose opinions about containing Covid—or even what’s true about the disease—are so wildly different from mine that I nearly fell out of my chair when he started talking about them. I think of my lifelong best friend, whose opinions have almost never been aligned with mine in over 40 years, but whose love is life and breath to me.

I start to write my opinions, hesitating when I remember how much they have evolved, even in just a few years. I think back on my radically changed beliefs about things that I once thought were concrete and readily apparent Truth. I think of the book I am reading about the history of racism, and the wars that have raged in our country over things that we think are ridiculous now.

I am forced to admit that we do not understand each other well as people. When we wax philosophical, we usually get relationship wrong. And in less than 250 years as a country, we still know very little about governing ourselves in freedom and fairness. And religious opinions, well, I bet everyone has a story about how those opinions have failed us at one point or another. And that’s the best case scenario. Religion has a unique power give life or to divide and destroy.

I remember these things, and the opinions that made my backbone straighten moments earlier start to seep to the floor through my feet instead of flowing to the keyboard through my fingertips.

One in spirit. I think of my lifelong friend again, and how, in the face of everything that told us our friendship was implausible bcause of our irreconcilable beliefs, we persisted. We’ve known each other since before we could walk, and there is simply no question of our love for one another. Well, there was once, and I reshaped my opinions in favor of love.

In spite of the high stakes I build my opinions around, I begin to wonder if they are really what matter. Ideas have consequences, but are consequences the biggest thing we have to worry about? I will die someday. Maybe later, maybe soon. Regardless, I have lived long enough to watch my opinions change drastically, and what’s to say it won’t happen again? Ideas, beliefs, opinions all fail us at some point, but if they were any good, they stretch us closer to love and unity and freedom before they collapse. When I am done, I suspect I will care more about the love in my relationships—all of them, family, work, romantic, friendship—than I will care about the specific ideas that got me there.

One in spirit, not opinion. Does that mean we shrug our shoulders and decide that, if opinions do not matter, we do not fight? Humanity is hopelessly flawed and ideas fail, and there are good and bad people holding any given opinion, and even the best-intentioned people get it wrong in some ways? Maybe the best thing is to accept our tragic fate, lay down our weapons, and hug everyone within reach? Isn’t that what it means to love your enemy?

No. There is a fight that is even more critical.

I’ve lost faith in opinons, in rules that seem to show me how to live life successfully, in divisions based on ideas. But as I have done that, my faith in other things has grown exponentially:

  • Dignity
  • Respect for another’s God-given right to struggle to the meaning of life in their own way.
  • Freedom—of mind and heart as much or even more than situation
  • Self-governance and self-knowledge
  • Truth (not to be confused with facts)
  • Perseverance toward one another
  • Joy
  • Love

Any law or opinion will stand or fall based on its ability or inability to uphold those truths. Even the same opinion could be used for or against them, depending on how we wield it. Any institution or government, regardless of its bylaws, beliefs, rules, statutes can serve people or be turned against them in pride and destruction. Even the best do both at some point. Many of us find ourselves camped in belief and opinion with people whose intentions toward those basic deep truths of our humanity are the opposite of ours. The person sitting across from us, the friend speaking our language, may be using the same ideas to actively dismantle the very things we are trying to build. The person whose opinions are abhorrent may be our secret ally.

We are at war, but we are on the wrong battlefield. We fight each other and draw and redraw the line between the sides endlessly, basing it on beliefs and opinions, countries and creeds, hoping this time we will get it right and eradicate the truly bad people and put the good ones in charge.

We cannot win our real war on the battlefield of opinions.

We are in a war for our lives. Not our physical lives (although they are often at stake in this war), but the inner, sacred life of each individual person. That battlefield is hidden under endless layers of ideas and argument, but it is the thing on top of which everything else that we CAN perceive turns.

Like it or not, there is no “in” or “out” group for humanity for this war, we are all in this war for one another’s lives.

We cannot win our real war on the battlefield of opinions

Sometimes we will have to fight our friends to save them. Anyone who has watched a loved one’s inner life be devoured by lies or addiction understands all too well that destructive people are tearing themselves up as much as they tear into others, and we must fight them even while we fight FOR them.

We cannot win until we are one in spirit, fighting the things that are truly tearing us apart.

For the sake of those things—dignity, respect, freedom, self-governance, Truth, perseverance in love, Joy, Love itself—for those things, with those things at stake, my fingers cannot and will not stay still and my voice will not be silent.

When My Words Fail

I had been planning to reboot my blog right about now. As I write this, I’m staring at a whole outline of things I had been planning to say. They seemed good. And then a pandemic arrived.

As if that is not enough, every week since I shut myself in my house, death has taken another bright, shining star from my community, near and far. These aren’t even people who have died from Covid-19. These are victims of murder, suicide, heart attack—all three were in their prime years.  We haven’t had many cases of Covid here on the West Coast yet, so, along with everyone else, I am bracing for even more bad news. With the news of the first and second deaths, the words I had been putting together for the blog disintegrated. Meaning became elusive, and I retreated with my creativity to the kitchen to cook myself some distraction, find a way to chew the impossible and swallow the unspeakable.

I heard about the third death yesterday, and I decided to come back to the blog to write grief for a bit.

When my Grandma passed away several years ago, I had the privilege of saying a few words at the funeral. My family tells me I said something articulate and meaningful, but I don’t remember a single word I spoke. I remember the weakness of my face and my gulping for air as I cried uncontrollably in front of a roomful of people who had come to honor her. I remember telling stories that were half-empty, stories that had been home for both her memory and mine, now empty of the presence that gave them life. With family you’ve known since birth, memories are like living in each other’s skin. The hours in the garden, the marmalade toast, the sun tea sipped on the patio, the hugs, the smiles, the way her favorite soap felt when she washed my face, the smell of her hair. It feels empty and silly to say that someone “lives on in your memory” when her presence with me in it was what made the memory alive to begin with. Words fail.

There are plenty of things being said about our current situation, words to use. How to avoid getting sick. How to avoid getting other people sick. What the economic impact will be.  There are the symptoms, the shock and grief of those of us left behind. There are people helping and people fighting, doctors, scientists, millions of people dusting off sewing machines to make masks. There are the refrigerator trucks for bodies, there are the funerals we cannot hold, the absence of anyone to hold us in our grief. But those are matters of the living, of life, of coping and continuing in the face of…

In the face of… nothing. Void.

No, no, spare me the afterlife for a minute. I’m talking about death itself. It is like staring into what I would imagine a black hole to be. Blackness so deep that your imagination cannot even create ghostly outlines. Darkness so dark that if you stare at it too long, you will go blind. Emptiness so vast that if you yell into it, it swallows the words as if they never existed.

Really, though, why should there be words for death? Words belong to the the life we know. They are our creation, our salvation, our day and night. To speak is to exist, to exist is to create, to hear is to be present. We have words for destruction—Plants die and return seasonally. Animals become food. Even fire produces heat as it consumes. The economy of mass and energy defy the reasoning of death, of total and utter disappearance. It is no wonder that, even in the absence of an afterlife mythology, our minds would probably spontaneously create one—We do not have words for oblivion.

It was a few years after my Grandma’s death that I had my first opportunity to sit with someone as she was dying. Grandma Sue was my ex-husband’s grandmother. We were close—I loved her stories, and we had spent hours one-on-one talking about her unique and intriguing personal history. I planned to write it all into a book one day. With my own Grandma, our shared experiences created memory. With Grandma Sue, remembering was our shared experience.

I will tell you now that someone who is dying looks very different from someone who is sick. Unable to digest food any longer, her already petite frame was getting smaller every day. But in the way that a personality can fill a room, who she was seemed to be growing even as her body shrank.

We’d chat for a few brief minutes, then I sat in the dark while she slept. She’d wake again and talk, and then we sat in silence for awhile. If grief after death guts words of the presence of meaning, in the moments before death, they positively burst with presence. Grandma Sue was THERE when she slept and when she struggled to say a few things, present in a way that she had never been in all of our conversations over tea and sour soup. There were so many stories left unshared, but they were set aside in the face of being with each other. The essence of Grandma Sue-ness so thick in the air of the room I could almost see it.

There was one moment I will never forget. Grandma Sue woke suddenly and gestured at something in front of her, at first I assumed at the drawings from her geat-grandchildren that were hanging where she could see them:

“Should I do what the paper says?”

“Which paper, Grandma Sue?” Words came out slowly, each carrying the fullness of presence I felt in the room.

“This one,” she shook her raised hand. I looked closer and saw she had her fingers pinched together as if she held a piece of paper pinched between them. I got goosebumps.

“What does it say?”

“It says I should say, ‘Lord Jesus, come take me.’” I was surprised—Grandma Sue had grown up in a cult and had little use for religion. She hadn’t really found she wanted to deny God’s existence, but she’d kept an arm’s length most of her life.

“Well… do you want to do what it says?”


“Then I think you should go for it.”

She nodded and went back to sleep.

That was so like God, I thought. The One whose constant presence is so near at hand that, if you embrace it, it can be like having someone sharing each moment of your life from the inside. The One who spoke life into existence, the Word made life, writing Life for Grandma Sue on a slip of paper she could hold in her hand. The One whose whisper into the void exploded into Life that continues to roll and expand across the universe and time. The One whose words are carried on the breath of life, who speaks dirt and water and sunshine into infinite flowers. The One whose Presence is awesome because its power does not obliterate, it makes us more ourselves. Love personified, offering presence, patiently, because, well, what is love if it’s not a choice?

If I ever write Grandma Sue’s life into a book, a hundred pages of words could raise projections of a life long gone by in the screen of our minds—a large immigrant family crowded into a small California bungalow, the shared neighborhood steam bath where they cleaned up by whacking their skin with eucalyptus branches, little Sue conspiring with the neighborhood kids to steal from a barrel of homemade pickles. But without her presence with me, my words stop at the void. I can only write the life I know, and my grief belongs in a void that swallows them before I can even speak them. Why seek her in my words? The life in my words is past.

The life written in a few words on a slip of paper that only Grandma Sue could see… I imagine those words igniting her. The Grandma Sue I knew and shared life with, the Grandma Sue who I could write, was potential energy stored in a little body. The glow of her presence in that dark room was the silent flash at the beginning of an explosion, one that would incinerate her frame in its outward expansion into… the void. Roaring into the unspeakable, rolling past paper words, expanding beyond what my memory can say. Life, recreated. Existence erupting. Not life here where we know it, life in the void where there was none.

Some day I hope to know, to speak those words of Life that fill the void. In the meantime, I will write shadows around it in the language of the living. I will chew the seeds of grief and swallow the unspeakable. I will store their energy, waiting, to erupt.

A Few Unfinished Thoughts about Gratitude

I’ve had quite a few people ask about my blog, since I haven’t posted since September. The reality is that most of what I post here is pre-writing for my book. I put up ideas I’m having trouble hashing out on my own, and your responses help me see where I’m going. Lately, the book hasn’t required much pre-writing, plus it is taking up all of my writing energy. That’s a good thing for the book! Once I’m out of this rather intense overhaul of my book structure, I will probably get back to more frequent blogging. In the meantime, here are some back-of-the-napkin scrawlings about gratitude.

I used to think that gratitude was about being thankful for the small things, about shrinking my desire to fit what I have in front of me. That’s not gratitude at all. If I love someone, I don’t just give her ONLY small gifts. But I do sometimes give small gifts. Imagine if I gave that friend a small gift, and she immediately assumed that, since the gift was small, she should stop wanting the larger gift she’d had her heart set on. Would you call that gratitude? I wouldn’t. In fact, I might even call it ingratitude. It feels… minimizing to me as the giver. There’s no joy in it. No joy in receiving a gift and letting it disappoint me for any subsequent gifts. No joy in giving a gift only to have the person think I’m capable of less than they had hoped rather than more.

Gratitude doesn’t want less, it wants more.  It simply doesn’t expect more of what’s in front of it because it knows the real, ongoing needs of life are more than any one thing or person or moment can fill. It loves the thing in the moment for being the thing in the moment, but may continue to long for other, greater things.

Abundance and loss both grow a space in me for more. More joy, more love.

I went shopping for a dining room table this weekend. I went to the fancy furniture store to get ideas, and I promptly fell in love with this stunning oval walnut table with a beautiful architectural pedestal under it. It’s a work of art. It also costs almost as much as I paid for my car. I’ve been daydreaming about this table for 24 hours since I met it, imagining how I thought it might look in my dining room, thinking about how it would feel to sit on it.

I didn’t measure my dining room until a full 24 hours after my little shopping excursion. Not before, not even immediately after I fell in love with the walnut table. As it turns out, the oval table is about 6” longer than my current table. Not a lot, but enough that I’d have to get rid of my bar stools by the counter and even then the whole thing would be cramped. I put my existing table where the oval table might realistically go, and it makes the whole space (living room and kitchen included) feel cramped and cluttered. I don’t care how beautiful the table is, if it makes the space around it feel more cluttered and noisy, it’s not good for my dining room.

I thought, “Well maybe if I move the book case out of the dining room…” And then I’m moving other things to find a spot for the rather large book case that I actually really like in the dining room. Worst of all, if I move my dining table away from the window, I lose one of my favorite features of this home—a spot to sit at the table where I have a view of the mountains. I don’t want to lose the beautiful view I already have, no matter how pretty the table is.

The beautiful walnut table is a no-go. But the only reason I know that is because I know my dining room better now. It took longing for the walnut table to get me to really SEE my dining room, what its potential is and what its constraints are. I’m grieving the walnut table a little bit. It just felt so RIGHT when I saw it. The urgency to capture something so beautiful and hold it in my life can sometimes be mistaken for a feeling of destiny or fate. It feels like the right thing, so it must be. But the truth of it is that sometimes finding something more beautiful than what I’d hoped for isn’t about grasping onto the beautiful thing but about growing my imagination. It’s hard to let go of the beautiful thing that is better than what I had imagined before. It is easy to think that, since it has stretched my imagination beyond its previous limitations, there is nothing conceivably better. It’s easy to fret that giving up the beautiful thing means going back to my old dreams. When, in fact, the whole point of the beautiful table may have been to stretch the dreams to begin with, to give me eyes to see the potential, to really see the space I have ready to receive the beautiful table.

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 5): A Love that Breaks

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… unconstrained, for lack of a better word.

Today it has been exactly three years since my divorce hearing. Before I left for the courthouse that day, I changed my Facebook profile photo to one from our wedding day that I had always particularly liked. I posted it because it reminded me of what I was grieving, of the days when I remembered being happy together.

Facebook has done its Facebookly duty and reminded me of this photo every year since. I don’t remember which year I noticed—maybe last year, when I was realizing some hard truths about our marriage?—I noticed that Josh didn’t actually look happy in the photo. I’d already begun to notice sadness in more recent photos—the tense eyes and drawn lips in face I knew so well from thirteen years of marriage and five years of friendship and dating before that. But heavy photo documentation of our relationship only went as far back as Facebook, and, in my mind, only back to the point when things turned. I assumed he looked happier before that, although I don’t think I bothered to look. A story I’d told myself was that almost every marriage goes through the “seven year itch”. Some survive and some don’t. Ours had gone into a slow death spiral around then, and the photos I see all the time were a reflection of decline.

But here I am, year after year confronted with a photo from the very beginning of our marriage where I look happy and he does not. How did I not see it before? A lot of soul searching has led me to one conclusion—I didn’t want to. And, to be completely fair, I don’t think he wanted me to, either. He did propose, he did say “I do.” There were always assertions of love and affection and a desire for marriage (and physical chemistry that I thought backed it up.) Hindsight being what it is, of course I now see that there were other signs of his unhappiness besides his smile on our wedding day. But he did say that he wanted the same thing I did.

Sometimes I get angry about that. It was, after all, a lie to tell me he wanted something that he didn’t. I get mad that he let me continue to believe in a marriage long after he’d lost faith in it (if he’d ever had it to begin with). I get angry that he looked for ways to be happy outside of our relationship when I should have been enough without telling me the truth of it. But the fact is we both looked at problems in our marriage without seeing each other.

I faced the problems in our marriage by trying to make it a better place to be, by making myself into the best wife possible. I read all of the books. I did everything everyone said to do to try to be the thing he SHOULD want. I worked my tail off to help him through grad school. I learned to be a “keeper at home”, keep house better, cook better, be watchful of what he said he wanted. I built this artifice of what OUGHT to be, and squeezed myself smaller and smaller to try to fit in it, hoping to give him room to join me there.

What I didn’t do was learn to see him as a human being. To see his hurt where he was. To see when he was unhappy without fearing what it meant for “us”. To continue to be his friend even when I was his girlfriend and his wife. I learned a model of marriage built on “shoulds” and “ought tos” that ignored the person—the people–both of us, him and me. I built my palace of obligation and hoped he would come live in it with me.

He never did. It’s no surprise to me now that it wasn’t very enticing—I wasn’t happy there myself. He escaped in his own ways. And the end I burst through the shell I’d built trying to make myself into something I wasn’t, someone I thought would be more lovable. Ironically, burying myself more and more in my desperation to be seen.

In my fighting for marriage and his running away and hiding from it, we missed what should have been essential: We missed each other. Focusing on what the relationship was (or was not), neither of us saw the person right in front of us.

I have every right to be angry over things he did and how he treated me, and often I still am. But more and more, when I see this photo, I’m just sad. He was my friend before he was my boyfriend and then my husband. In trying to fit marriage into our relationship, we stopped being friends to each other. In trying to squeeze into a box that promised happiness and God’s blessing, we squeezed out our best opportunities to connect.

Unconstrained love is so simple. Love the person AS THEY ARE. No preconditions. Not based on what they do, but who they are. Love their motives more than their actions, believe in their best selves. Remind them that you still believe in their best selves even when they fail, but love the failed person as they are, where they are.

Unconstrained love is simple, but it is not easy. It sticks its neck out beyond the safety of convention and social norms, beyond what I want out of the relationship, pushing everything out of the way to see the person as they are. It doesn’t shy away from the pain that’s inevitable with relationships because it knows the the love and true knowledge of the person there is worth it.  Unconstrained love looks absolutely treacherous until you know that once you get past the fear of what could and maybe even will happen, real life begins where love flourishes.

When I look at that picture, I remember that it comes down to this: unconstrained love for my husband would have meant setting aside my fear that our marriage would end so I could see him where he was. He was hiding, but I could have seen it anyway if I’d wanted to. (That’s the beauty and the curse of marriage–you really can’t hide.) I couldn’t handle that, I kept pushing what I thought ought to be, and it did end. Now I’ve been through it: I sacrificed relationship to feed my fears, then I saw my fears become reality anyway. Next time I hope I can do better. Next time and every day.

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 4): The Ghost in the Gap

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… the other kind. I’m not sure what to call it yet. Last week I wrote about my difficulty in speaking hope.

There was another divide I believe prevented my ex from hearing my hope. Sure, I didn’t speak hope often enough. But even when I did, there was often something in between us that filtered what I said and did before it got to his heart. That thing was the story he was telling himself about our interactions.

My ex was in grad school for most of our marriage. I remember once when I was frustrated by how long it was taking him to finish, he told me, “But I’m doing this because YOU WANTED ME TO.”

Now, I never once dreamed up a scheme for him to go to grad school. I have no recollection of wanting him to get a PhD. Or, rather, I wanted it because it was his dream. But it was never something I would have dreamed of asking for myself or for us.

They are strangely strong, the stories we tell ourselves about what people think. As a deeply spiritual person, it makes sense to me that these stories originate from an entity the Bible calls the Father of Lies and the Accuser. If there is someone out to destroy our souls, what better way to do it than by whispering lies into our minds about ourselves and each other:

“You are not enough and this person knows it.”

“You’ll never be enough until you can [fill in the blank: Lose more weight. Keep your house clean.]”

We are really adept at repeating those lies to ourselves ad nauseum until they become part of our identity. I never really recognized my own negative self-talk until my life hit the skids during my divorce. I mean, as a good, supposedly self-aware citizen of the 21st century, I was aware of the concept. But I didn’t recognize it in myself. One day I began to notice that I told myself stories about things people would think of me that almost never became reality. “Better sweep up the dust bunnies or your dinner guests will notice and have a bad time because they won’t be able to think about anything else.” Or, “Everyone is noticing that stupid thing you do at work and thinking about it all day.”

I kept track once and I had a thought like that every seven minutes on average. That’s nearly ten times an hour, every waking hour of the day. And of course 99% of these thoughts never amounted to anything. But that 1% is a bitch. It’s enough to make me feel like the other 99% is right. “I was SO RIGHT when I suspected Joann would hate my hair. And that’s just the one time she happened to SAY something. I bet she’s thinking it all the friggin time. And I bet Jim-Bob and Matilda are too.” Suddenly, being right 1% of the time makes this self- talk essential to my survival. I learn to lean on it to anticipate bad things people might say and protect myself from them.

If I see my negative self-talk as a worthwhile protective instinct, I’m bound to use it to protect myself in the relationships closest to me. And it’s in my closest relationships where I are more likely to have it reinforced by the occasional snippy comment or “constructive criticism”. If I’ve already talked myself into believing people think I’m worthless, any negative comment can send me reeling.

I’ve heard that it takes seven positive interactions to make up for one negative one. And it’s no wonder. Most of us are working overtime to convince ourselves that we’re not enough. We’re operating at a deficit before our loved ones even open their mouths.

I never asked my ex to go to grad school. But the facts of what I actually wanted don’t matter that much. He told himself a story that I wanted him to go to grad school, and he heard everything I said on the subject through that filter. Every complaint, every criticism, anything I did that touched on this sore spot for him was augmented by this idea that he was only trying to do what I wanted him to do. There’s a gap, and then there’s the inadequacy-whispering ghost who lives there, telling us lies about ourselves, lies about our loved ones, amping up our insecurities until they’re the only thing we hear.

It’s amazing how quickly this inadequacy-whispering ghost travels from person to person. Nothing trips feelings of inadequacy like feelings of inadequacy being directed at you (or even blamed on you). If I see a loved one hurting, I immediately blame myself: Was it something I did? Something I said? And if they’re up in my face telling me it was, that seals the deal. The only thing that will get me spun up faster than suspecting I’m not enough is someone TELLING me I’m not. I don’t know about you, but this is the source of the majority of the arguments I’ve had with friends and loved ones. It’s not about the toilet paper roll facing the wrong way, it’s not about whether you called when I wanted you to, it’s about what it MEANS about how you feel about me. I start voicing that, the person I care about says those things don’t really MEAN what I think they do…And around we go.

The lying ghost in the gap is adept at pitting us against each other when our fight is not against one another but against the lies he is telling us. (Ephesians 6:12)

Was it fair to me that my ex thought I was the reason he was in grad school? Not at all. And I put most of my energy into arguing with him about how unfair it was. But his belief in it was a fact I needed to face when I related to him. And it’s that belief that I butt up against over and over in my relationships with other people. I can focus on the unfairness of the story they are telling themselves, or I can help re-narrate the story. Constrained love insists on my right to be understood (which is a real thing. And valid.) I believe unconstrained love can set that aside and fight the ghost in the gap alongside the person I care about. Which do you think is easier in the moment? Which do you think is more powerful? And ultimately, which do you think most effectively paves the way for me to be truly and deeply heard, anyway?

It is NOT WRONG to insist on what you know to be true, to defend yourself. In some cases people’s self-deceit is so strong that you cannot come alongside and help them re-narrate the story. There is a time for digging in your heels. But that is a final battle time, when you’ve realized that the person is so lost to the ghost in the gap that you cannot pull them back. It is not the the starting point, and it cannot be the day-to-day operation of relationships. Day in and day out we are built to fight the ghost together, side by side.

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 3): Hope May the Hardest Thing I Know

This is the third in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love, A Tale of Two Loves. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… the other kind. I’m not sure what to call it yet. 🙂

The day we decided to divorce, my ex-husband said something that has stuck in my head despite my best efforts to forget it. He told me that he knew when I asked him to move out that I’d already given up on him.

I didn’t respond when he said it. But if I had, I might have said something like this (and yes, I’m definitely this eloquent in real life):

“I didn’t give up on you when I asked you to move out. I did it with the hope and expectation that you could do better. That you would fight for our marriage, fight for me. And you didn’t. In spite of your friends and family encouraging you to. You gave up on us long before I did, and I couldn’t pull you back. We’re here because I could only believe in you more than you believed in yourself for so long.”

Looking back, I don’t remember saying any of those things. Not then, not ever.

I’m not rethinking my divorce. I still think it was the inevitable choice. I’d tried everything I was capable of at the time. But I would be a fool if I didn’t think about what I could have done differently. What I should have done differently because it was the right thing to do, even if it might not have been enough to save my marriage. What he said has stuck with me because his heart was in it. And because, in spite of what I tell myself, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that he wasn’t wrong.

Of course, let me be very quick to point out that I wasn’t wrong either. I did have hope, in spite of what he thought. I still do. I have hope for who I know he can be. I still believe in what we could have been together.

So where was the disconnect?

What I’m learning has everything to do with the flavor of hope, and what I did with it.

Last post I wrote about fear being like a rock in your shoe. It hobbles hope. It hobbles love.

Hope with fear in it isn’t shared. I keep it to myself.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t trust people.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t stick its neck out.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t talk about the hope itself. It sees the gap between what is and what could be and describes that.

Hope with fear in it looks for people and things to blame for not being fulfilled.

Hope with fear in it is so fragile that I don’t trust anyone else to help me hold it.

Hope with fear in it looks for anything BUT people to trust. Believe in the institution of marriage. Believe in conventional relationship roles. (Or believe in NOT marriage. Believe in eliminating gender roles. Anything but relying on the person.)

Hope with fear in it tries to control behavior.

Falling in love is an interesting phenomon. A lot of people talk about the foolishness of it. Don’t lose your head over someone who doesn’t check the right boxes, or you’re asking for trouble. Don’t lose yourself in your emotions. You’ll regret it.

I’m not advocating throwing good judgment out the window, but I’m starting to think that what happens when you first fall in love is a gift to the rest of the relationship, not a weird lapse in judgment. In those early days, our eyes aren’t clouded—they’re clearly seeing what we hope for the person, what we know they can be. Early love is when we catch the vision for what could be. Our heart sees without hurt. When things get harder later on, it’s not necessarily because we lacked good judgment to begin with but because we’re encountering the inevitable gap between what we are and what we could be. Our gaps are where we hurt each other.

Hope with fear in it thinks the gap is the trajectory.

Fearless hope thinks the gap is an obstacle we overcome together.

Hope with fear in it talks about the pain points.

Fearless hope talks about the goal.

Hope with fear says, “You’re not the same person I fell in love with.”

Fearless hope says, “I see your potential even when you’ve lost sight of it.”

Hope with fear in it builds walls and convoluted workarounds to avoid the same pain twice.

Fearless hope knows to expect the same pain several times in the healing process, and counts it as worthwhile.

Brene Brown writes that she and her husband have an old subway sign hanging in their home: “Mind the Gap.” Fear with love in it screams about the gap. Fearless love knows that it is a pain point for everyone involved and treats the gap gingerly, focuses on where we are going.

My ex wasn’t wrong. I had hope for him, but I didn’t speak to him about it. When I thought I was, I wasn’t talking about the goal but the gap. I held hope but blamed him for not fulfilling it. What good is hope when you keep it to yourself? Or worse, isolate yourself in it to protect yourself from the pain when it goes unfulfilled? Or worst, fight against someone over your hope for them?

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13:7) 

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 2): Love in the Age of Fear

This is the second in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. I’m currently writing about the first kind, constrained love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to.

A few weeks ago, a friend recommended a New York Times Op Ed called “Motherhood in the Age of Fear.” She describes the constant fear that mothers are expected to live under, fear that any little thing could lead to catastrophe for their kids. Or fear that they’ll be judged for their lack of fear. The layers of fear over motherhood are thick and complex.

Two things stood out to me. The first is the label, “Age of Fear”. It is such an apt description of our era that I went looking to see other people using it—they must be. But apparently they’re not, or at least not yet. So let me be the first to echo it. I think that phrase “Age of Fear” will resonate far beyond the scope and moment of that OpEd.

The second is that fear is seen as a facet of love. And not just a biproduct or a sadly necessary part, but something so critical that if it’s not therein sufficient quantities, people call child protective services. ‘I don’t know if I’m afraid for my kids, or if I’m afraid other people will be afraid and will judge me for my lack of fear.’

I think the Age of Fear and what I’m calling Constrained Love go hand in hand. When I first read the phrase the Age of Fear, it resonated because I recognize that I’m a citizen of the Age of Fear. I’m a born and bred citizen, not naturalized. It’s not something I adopted deliberately, and it’s not something with its roots in the last few years. When I first read about the Age of Fear, I thought, “well of course—9/11. This is the result of the constant threat of terrorism.” But I don’t think that’s it. I remember the roots of the Age of Fear being there when I began having thoughts of my own, back around the time the Berlin Wall fell, when the Internet was being born. If anything, it should have been the beginning of a more optomistic, hopeful time. But hope with a grain of fear in it is a different animal.

I remember my dad (who spent a year in Germany in the 70s) reminding me every so often that if the Third Reich could happen in Germany, it could happen anywhere. I remember arguing with Vicky (my childhood best friend) about whether people are inherently good or evil. Vicky loved the optimism of Anne Frank, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” How could she think that, after what people had done to Anne Frank? Anne and my friend both seemed naive. Whatever peace we found seemed tenuous, fragile, in need of protection from evil empires, maybe even from ourselves.

Like so many people in my age, I looked to ideology to protect me. To protect me from myself and from other people. So much of my faith and the way I interacted with life was shaped by the compulsion to acknowledge the evil at our core and to fear it.

Fear does strange things to hope, turns it into something different. It makes hope conditional. I hope that if I do things just right, I can avoid or eliminate the things I fear. I can shelter myself and my family from crisis by avoiding the mistakes of the past. We can put up a fence so high that the creeps won’t get to us. When Faith, Hope, and Love change to Fear, Hope, and Love, they all end up warped. Fear is the little bit of sand in the shoe that can drive us to take the wrong path. The leaven in the dough that I’ve seen wreak destruction in my own life.

When fear is the root, we protect ourselves from our selves and from each other. Last week I read a book by Rebecca Manley Pippert, who in some ways was before her time when it came to acknowledging vulnerability. She was all about recognizing our faults. It was published in 1989, when I was 10. But looking back at the book through the lens of the last 30 years, I can see the grain of fear. It’s worth quoting Pippert at length because she captures the spirit of the time in a way that I can’t do retrospectively:

“There is something truly wonderful and remarkable about us all. We have a capacity for love, an appreciation of beauty, and moments of genuine courage. But unfortunately, that’s not the whole story. We want to believe that the essential ‘us’ is who we are in our best moments, when everything is going our way, when nothing is thwarting or threatening us. We want to believe that we are what we project to the world: nice, respectable, competent people who have it all together. Fortunately or unfortunately, life doesn’t let us get away with our charade. Sooner or later, whether through a difficult relationship with a berating boss, a demanding spouse, a difficult child, or simply through overwhelming or infuriating circumstances, we are confronted with our darker side.

“Has it ever struck you as odd that, for all our sophistication, we modern people have a remarkably naive understanding of human nature? Living at the end of history’s most murderous century, we flatter ourselves that we are basically good people who occasionally do bad deeds. The founders of our nation were not so naive. The very political institutions they contructed for us, founded on concepts like ‘checks and balances,’ are testimony to their assumption that human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions. People with power cannot be trusted too far. History hardly indicates that our problem has changed—rather, that it is we who have developed short memories. We are struggling the the symptoms of an age-old disease, which we have lost the capacity to diagnose.”

Do you see what I see? The idea that to get to the good, we have to contain the evil? The idea that our bad selves dominate and that our main line of defense is fierce PROTECTION? I hardly mean to pick on Pippert. Honestly, I may be reading fear into it because it had such a strong mark in my own life. It was a view so pervasive that 10-year-old Amy unquestioningly and enthusiastically repeated it. It’s really subtle. So much so that it may just be me displacing my own thoughts onto what Pippert is saying. But I see the idea that the answer to this darker side of ourselves is in our institutions and our traditions. And while they certainly need to protect us, I think we (I?) leaned on them entirely too much. And I suspect this: that there is a bright and direct line between what I remember (and the subtle thing I see in Pippert) and the Age of Fear we find ourselves in 30 years later.

Think about the Late 80s. We were decades past the world wars and Vietnam. We were inches away from winning the Cold War. The Berlin Wall fell the same year Pippert published that book. We had used the power of our military and our culture to dominate evil in the world. The world never seemed brighter than in the late 80s and early 90s. But I think in our victories, we were scared. Scared of one another and of ourselves. Frightened of the creeping immorality in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in ourselves. We had seen the end result of letting the evil in human hearts run rampant, and it was terrifying.

We kept looking for the seeds of evil so we could protect ourselves before the problem got dangerously big. We became proactive. Preemptive.

The news outlets built for war turned the same camera onto car accidents, kidnappings, plane crashes.

The government institutions that had helped us battle evil on an international scale were repurposed for pre-emptive war. And for war on evil within our borders—The War on Drugs. The War on Crime. The War on Poverty.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

I am definitely not the first person to point out this repurposing of militaristic approaches to international problem-solving. But I see another layer of it. This didn’t just happen on international and national levels. It happened in our schools, in our churches, in our homes. We looked inward, we looked deeper, we saw the darkness within and decided to make sure we were battling it preemptively. Leave no room for evil at home. Or else… or else we might become the next Nazi Germany? Or else… [insert bad thing here] might happen again.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

On a macro level, laws are used to govern conscience. We outlaw things like straws and suicide. We address tragedy with more laws. (How many laws are named after people who have been kidnapped or murdered?) We look for the kernel of evil and fence it in, building bigger and stronger fences every time the barrier is breached. The children are our future, we need to show them our love by making the world a safer place. World war: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

We’ve amped up our medical technology. We’ve found vaccines for any conceivable virus. We’ve honed our cancer treatments. We’ve mapped the genome. We’ve started talking realistically about eliminating death. We show our love for our ailing family members by throwing every dime we have (or don’t have) into their care. Long hospital stays and prolonged deathbed agony: Never again!

Without big wars, death on a much smaller scale terrorized us. 17 years after 9-11, we are still plugging gaps in our borders where terrorists could trickle in. Almost every large building in the country has cement barriers to prevent someone from driving an explosive-loaded car into the bottom floor. We love our country and our businesses and institutions. Terrorism: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

On a family level, protection becomes a weapon of love. We put up internet filters. We learn to watch for signs of child molesters in our schools, churches, and families. We hover over our kids as they wander the neighborhood, as they walk to and from school. We acknowledge (not incorrectly) that evil can go undetected, can even flourish within the confines of our homes, so we watch for it diligently. We love our children, so we must do ANYTHING we can to prevent these bad things from happening to them. Kidnappings and sexual abuse: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

And on an individual level, we protect ourselves. This I the most obvious to me in my own life. I’m constantly on the lookout for patterns of behavior that led to my divorce. I remember this paranoia hitting a fevered pitch when I spent some time speculating whether the cute guy I’d met on the trail was a homeless drug dealer. When fear reigns, every possible risk has to be accounted for or eliminated. I show my love to myself by vigilantly watching for any sign of repeating the same mistake twice. Divorce: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

Because we love, and because we have learned to express love as fear, we protect our loved ones from the evil outside and the evil within themselves. The effectiveness of my belief system (in my case, evangelical Christianity, but that is certainly not the only example) is evaluated based on its effectiveness at stopping evil, at protecting me from others and from myself.

Pippert asks, “Does God make a difference?” If I can’t answer yes to that question, there’s not much point in engaging with God. But WHY I think God makes a difference matters so much. Is it because I think it makes me safe from the evil in me and those around me? My city on a hill is a place where children are safe, where the environment is pristine and the dolphins thrive, where terrorists can’t get in because we’ve eliminated all of their entry points with giant fences. Otherwise, what good is it? It is not only my right, it is my primary, God-given responsibility as a loving person to see the sprouts of evil in myself and those around me and root it out.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.” It’s everywhere, in all of us. The statement is not untrue, but oh, what have we done with it?

Fear is like a ghost whispering in our ears at every opportunity: “‘Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.’ Never again! Protect what you love! Evil will not pass the same way twice! If you’ve learned enough from your last encounter with it, you can and must move heaven and earth to prevent its like in other places!”

Fear is sensitive, it detects the evil around me better than anything I know. It protects me and the people I love. Fear is my friend.

Or is it? What if fear cannot live alongside what may be the two most powerful weapons we have? What if fear does not leave room for hope (or it’s close cousin, resilience)? What if fear isn’t a symptom of love, but runs love out of any space it occupies?

If you’re not on board with those questions, ask yourself this: what have we gained from letting fear rule? I know my answer to that question: Not safety, not happiness, not community, not love. When we plant fear, the only yield we get is more fear.

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 1): Constrained Love

I started blogging regularly back in January of this year because I was hot under the collar about how we in the church approach sex. (Not THAT kind of hot under the collar. Or not ONLY that kind. Yeesh.)  As I’ve wandered my way blindly stumbling to the unnamed core of what really unsettled me, I’ve gotten farther from sex and closer to–dare I even say it?—love. The deeper I dig, the more I realize that I have a lot to learn (and unlearn) about love. I’m not talking only about romantic love, but how I relate to every person or being around me—my family, my friends, my coworkers, even my cranky dog. That’s scary. Uncovering this has left me feeling so vulnerable it has taken me nearly a month to write this post—not because I don’t know what to write, but because I know that once I post it, there is no going back. There is comfort in the way I have done things for a long time, in the path that has grown wide because I’ve walked it again and again. But, well, we know what the Bible says about the wide path

I don’t think anyone who identifies as a lover of Jesus would argue that we should be identifiable as Christians by our love. We even sing songs about love—our love, God’s love for us. Love, love, love. Its depth, its unshakeability, its pervasiveness, its power… We read the “love chapter” of the Bible at weddings. But like a statue touched by thousands of hands, it may be hard to see the face of Love clearly after all the handling.

I’m not sure whether it’s the root or a symptom, but how we see Jesus lies at the heart of this. I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I think it is a problem that we see the end goal of Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross as saving us from our sins. Praise God, He has redeemed me from my wicked ways! I have power over my own sin, thanks to Jesus. I do not want to discount the powerful effectiveness of the presence of God to change lives. I have seen families made whole, addicts come clean, finances restored, hearts revived. It’s all wonderful. Miraculous, even. But is it the goal of Jesus’ great sacrifice and God’s work in our lives? And if we see that as the end toward which God’s love reaches, what does that tell us about love?

Let me put that another way: I think it matters deeply how we see the goal of the Great Act of love that we preach to everyone who will listen. If the “God so loved the world SO THAT” we might be morally perfect, saved from the power and destruction of our own sins—if that is its MAIN PURPOSE—what is the love that we are offering?

I have begun to see in myself (and lately it feels like I see it in every Christian book I pick up) a love with the goal of behavior modification. If I love someone, I want them to be who they’re meant to be. Their best selves. I show love by helping them toward that goal.

That doesn’t really sound so bad. Well, ok, “behavior modification” has kind of a nasty ring to it. But what’s so bad about the rest? Don’t we all want someone to come alongside us in our aspirations? To see us the way we want to be on our best days and to help us get there?

A dear friend who also grew up in the church said recently that she has had to learn the value of complimenting people because in her childhood church culture, it seemed like giving a compliment detracted something from the giver. That resonated for me, and it gave me a new lens to start looking at my own behavior and heart. I began to notice that compliments (given or received) often feel inauthentic to me. I am very quick to look for what is behind them. When people tell me things they like about me, I feel weird if I don’t take them as opportunities to improve the things I don’t lie about myself. Physical appearance is an easy example. My hair may look great today (thans for telling me) but I really need to work on my… Fill in the blank. Posture, eyebrows, smile… emails! I spent too much time on my hair and got behind on work emails before the day really even started! The list is LONG.

Turn that around. When I tell people I see something good in them, I sometimes have ulterior motives. Let me tell you this nice thing about yourself so that I can help you out of that really nasty habit I see in you. Doing this is such an ingrained habit of mind that it’s hard for me to even catch myself, but it’s there. The end goal is helping the person achieve a better state, so I think of it as a good thing, or at worst, a small thing. It is easy for me to minimize it myself because I don’t like to think about the ugliness of it. But think of it as a starting point, then draw a line from it into years of relationship. There’s a trajectory there that churns my stomach if I let my mind rest on it long enough.

WHY would compliments feel so inauthentic? What does that say about how I experience love? Thank God His love for me is unconditional. But if the nature of that love is correction, if I believe that the Great Being of the universe (the one who is the definition of love itself) shows love by fixing me for the sake of fixing me, if the end goal is just pulling me out of the actions and consequences of sin…

…I may show love in a new romantic relationship primarily by evaluating its moral status or value. Try having a conversation with Christians about a new relationship and time how long it takes to be asked if you’re having sex. Nearly every Christian book I’ve read on dating (or finding a spouse) has that as a starting point. Seriously, go check out the first few chapters of any Christian book on dating. After all, how can a relationship be good if its moral foundations are shaky?

…Stretching that into years of relationship, I may see my responsibility to my spouse and to myself in marriage as helping us stay on the straight and narrow. We are the light of God to the world. And if the message we are broadcasting is one of God’s goal of saving us from our sins, we’d better get marriage right. Marriage is a safe place where we’re meant to experience love and respect, but we may even twist those around to serve the end-goal of right living. The bestselling book, Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires; the Respect He Desperately Needs sounds promising. We recognize the need for both things in ourselves. We long for them. When I first read that book, the title was Love and Respect: Motivating Your Man God’s Way. It’s clear why the authors wanted to change that title, but the yeast of motivation is still there. Check out the very first sentence on the website home page: “We believe love best motivates a woman and respect most powerfully motivates a man.” Is that our goal? Motivation? To what? Why are love and respect for their own sake not enough?

…I may evaluate the value of the charitable things I do based on how effective they are at correcting circumstances and behaviors. If I’m helping women in crisis pregnancies, how many abortions have I prevented? If I’ve “adopted” a child in poverty, does she finish school? If I’m coming an addict, does he overcome the addiction?

… I may think that my child’s moral choices are so important that I will sacrifice my relationship with him or her for the sake of highlighting the destructiveness of their behavior. Drugs, sexuality…

Is the main way we experience and show love as help living within the bounds of what is Right?

What if we’re missing the real point and real power of Love?

To be continued…