Thursday, January 31, 2013

Why So Afraid?

(These are some thoughts that I have been chewing on this week, related to our new life as puppy owners)

Why am I so afraid? I became aware today that I’ve been dominated by fear since Scout (our new Beagle puppy) has joined our home on January 19, 2013. I realized this week that I haven’t been able to relax or embrace the routines that are familiar to me. I try to, but I do so hurriedly and distracted, feeling anxious and restless. When Scout has trouble with something, especially during the night, I spiral in terror inside. Why am I so afraid? I pretend to do my routines, but tiptoe on eggshells praying that the bottom doesn’t fall out from under me. The night of crying and barking she had last week still haunts me. I got up from barely any sleep to a dog covered in her own crap and a future of chaos before me, seemingly unremitting chaos.

I feel broken, exposed. Ashamed at how deeply this dog is affecting me (for the worse, it seems). How in the world can something so cute provoke something so dark in me? She is precious, and I love her! Clearly something deep is stirring that requires attention. I’ve been trying to hold up this brokenness to the Lord, and I think he’s saying something.

As I’ve
noted before, our first dog (Daisy) was symbolic to me of the life I never chose but felt forced to receive. I’m discovering that Scout is symbolic too - perhaps of a new stage of life, perhaps something more. Indeed, with the weight loss I’ve experienced in the past 5 months (65+ lbs) I am literally a different person, so maybe that’s it.

As I continued to listen for what the Lord might say, I sensed that Scout represents (at least in part) what is chaotic and broken inside me, and how this makes me feel out of control. To someone who associates strongly with an orphan perspective, who knows the deep pervasive loneliness of abandonment and rejection, a lack of control is one of the most terrifying experiences you can have. If it’s all up to me, control is the only hope I have in attaining peace.

Let me unpack this some more. When Scout appears to be having trouble with something, or if training seems derailed, I feel compelled to read puppy books and comb the internet looking for help. I leave desperate messages for our vet, asking for advice. In actuality, Scout’s behavior and training issues are relatively minor. She is doing very well, considering we’ve only had her two weeks. My response to her struggles is far more extreme than the actual situation warrants, so it forces me to ask, “why?”

What am I afraid of? I know I am terrified of screwing Scout up; I’m terrified of messing up her training and never being able to fix it.

This feels familiar.

As this relates to my own soul, I realize that I am terrified of screwing up my “recovery.” I view my 10+ year long bout with depression and a profound lack of purpose as chaos requiring control. I live in almost a constant state of my “orphan” being provoked. I am desperate for a quick fix - some principle, quote, book, relationship or experience that will catapult me into the world of glory and healing and out of this day-to-day muck that is my daily life (speaking in extremes here!). My “false selves” are threatened deeply here. My fixer is terrified. My controller is anxious. The orphan rages.

Control is an illusion though; chaos is part of life in this world. It is the “stuff” of relationship, the place God meets us. Scout is far from perfect (sorry, Cesar Millan), but she loves us deeply and we love her. It reminds me of how we love broken people, sinners who rarely respond to our efforts to control or fix them. The only thing to do is love, and let God take care of the chaos.

Ultimately, the greatest chaos in history was not the time before time when “the earth was without form and void” (Gen 1:2 ESV), but when Jesus bore all the chaos of our sin and rebellion on a Roman cross. So it is here that I must find relief. I cannot find it in principles or experiences. I can only find it as I embrace chaos, feel it fully, and allow it to lead me to the cross, where chaos, disorder and horrific brokenness find healing and peace.

My next question is, how might Scout be an invitation to rest in the love of God in the midst of my brokenness?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Spiritual Discipline of Anxiety

If anyone strives to be delivered from his troubles out of love of God, he will strive patiently, gently, humbly and calmly, looking for deliverance rather to God’s Goodness and Providence than to his own industry or efforts.

But if self-love is the prevailing object he will grow hot and eager in seeking relief, as though all depended more upon himself than upon God. I do not say that the person thinks so, but he acts eagerly as though he did think it.

Then if he does not find what he wants at once, he becomes exceedingly impatient and troubled, which does not mend matters, but on the contrary makes them worse, and so he gets into an unreasonable state of anxiety and distress, till he begins to fancy that there is no cure for his trouble.

Thus you see how a disturbance, which was right at the outset, begets anxiety, and anxiety goes on into an excessive distress, which is exceedingly dangerous.

. . . Birds that are captured in nets and snares become inextricably entangled therein, because they flutter and struggle so much.

Therefore, whensoever you urgently desire to be delivered from any evil, or to attain some good thing, strive above all else to keep a calm, restful spirit,—steady your judgment and will, and then go quietly and easily after your object, taking all fitting means to attain thereto.

Francis de Sales (1567-1622): Introduction to the Devout Life, 4, 11 (Quoted on Enlarging the Heart blog)

When I read this I thought immediately of a frequent soul dynamic of mine that occurs when my “devotional” time is not as fruitful as I had hoped. When my quiet time results in greater frustration and anxiety rather than peace and joy, I get angry. I experience this occasionally in my daily quiet times, but even more profoundly when I go on weekend silence and solitude retreats. My most frequent “retreat experience” is of angst, frustration and anger.

Francis de Sales counsels us to watch our hearts during these times, for it is self-love and not love of God that produces frustration and angst. Perhaps that is the purpose of such times, to reveal our hearts?

His image of a bird trapped in a net, getting more and more entangled as it tries to break free is similar to the dynamic I feel when after a frustrating quiet time I resolve to try harder next time, to find that magical “spiritual reading” or biblical text that will bring me peace. There must be a key somewhere!!

Sigh. My only hope in such times is to let go of control. I must surrender these times and my own heart to God, and trust that these times of frustration are helpful in revealing what is in my heart. What is there is not consoling, but troubling, so it is only natural that I feel anxiety! Peace can come (not guaranteed) as I let go of my works, my efforts to “manage my spiritual life” or “work harder to discipline my soul.” In such times I have lost the rhythm of the Spirit and replaced it with the oppressive beat of the taskmaster’s drum.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Beagle Named Scout

We drove down to Cattletsburg, KY on Saturday (about 3hrs away from Louisville) to meet with a breeder who raises Beagles for hunting. He had two pups left from an unexpected litter, and with a few pictures in hand, we were given the opportunity to meet with each of them and decide which one would best fit our family.

What a hard choice! They were both adorable. We ended up choosing this one and naming her Scout (from the adventurous female character from To Kill a Mockingbird).

jan 2013 & puppy Scout 012

Our drive home was uneventful. It was good for each of us to hold Scout for a while and bond with her. She seemed relaxed for the most part.

jan 2013 & puppy Scout 029

jan 2013 & puppy Scout 032

Our first challenge was getting her out of the car and into our back yard. She was obviously overwhelmed with anxiety. We had hoped to walk her slowly into our back yard, letting her sniff her way there on her own. She wouldn’t have any of it, and just sat trembling in the parking lot. After 10-20 minutes of gentle coaxing, we gently picked her up and placed her on the edge of our back yard. Our goal was to help her establish this little yard as a place where she can play and go to the bathroom.

We were all a little disheartened by how timid she seemed. Though the breeder had warned me that she had never been inside a house, never even felt grass, I expected her to warm up a bit more by this point. Our fears were alleviated though as she started to relax and within an hour or so she was running around, clumsily playing!

jan 2013 & puppy Scout 058

We then introduced her to her main area for the coming days, our kitchen where her new crate was set up. This slow, gradual process seemed to help her immensely deal with this radical transition.

jan 2013 & puppy Scout 059

We slowly introduced her to several other areas in the house that she would need to frequent in these early days. We were amazed at how quickly she relaxed and even began to connect the back yard with her bathroom area. She’s only had a few accidents in the house so far, and most of those times it is because we are still learning to read her cues and were not quick enough to respond to get her outside.

The first night she slept well, but her second night (last night) was much more of a challenge. She was so exhausted her first night that she slept most of it. We need to find some ways to increase her exercise before bed and decrease her food and water intake close to bedtime!

Overall, she is turning out to be a delightfully perfect pet for our family. There have been only two points, for me at least, where in discouragement and weariness I questioned whether or not we made the right choice in bringing a puppy home and not an adult dog. I felt at the end of myself, ready to give up during these times. I’m so thankful for the family to help carry the burden though, especially Cheri to get up with me in the middle of the night to deal with Scout! I have hope that she will continue to learn and adapt to our home.

I know so much more about training dogs now than I did with Daisy! We made so many mistakes with her. Cesar Millan’s books have been a big help, though taken with a grain of salt (his idea of a “perfect dog” is not one that I share). I am reminded of how important boundaries, authority, rules and submission are in order for puppies (and humans!) to feel safe and cared for. I am reminded how my own kids need these things, and how I need them in my relationship with my heavenly Father.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Daisy

Daisy 1

In light of the prospect of acquiring a puppy (hopefully this weekend!), I felt compelled to finally write down some thoughts on saying goodbye to our dog Daisy, who passed away on December 27, 2012. She had suffered a neck injury that she could not recover from and was in a great deal of pain so we finally had to put her down.

Daisy’s journey with us was riddled with symbolic meaning, at least for me. She was a Christmas present from my Dad and step-Mom about 7 years ago. We were told at the time that she was a Beagle mix, around 3 years old (her shelter name was Sabrina!). She had been picked up off the streets with a litter of puppies. Who knows what harsh realities she had to face in those 3 years before we rescued her! She was relatively stable, though increasingly terrified of thunderstorms, a regular occurrence in our area. Her fear was annoying at times, especially to my wife who Daisy would often wake up by nuzzling her nose under her arm for comfort when the thunder rolled through. Though things like this about her were annoying at the time, I see them now as part of what made her unique, her idiosyncratic, neurotic self! They are things I think back on with fondness and some regret - regret that I didn’t appreciate her more.

Daisy 4

Another example had to do with her stubborn Beagle will. Her stubbornness was legendary in our household! She was clearly intelligent, but we gave up on leash training her because she was so stubborn and set in her ways! Perhaps we should have persisted, but I’ve since learned it’s more important to know and love a real dog with flaws than raise a perfectly obedient dog with all the rough edges shaved off. It’s more important because that’s how people are, how life is. Real people are like that - messy, complicated mixtures of chaos and order. Daisy always helped me remember and appreciate this.

Daisy was not our first choice in a dog. We had picked one out on a Saturday before Christmas, but they had to get permission from our complex office which had to wait until Monday. When Cheri and the kids went to pick her up on Monday (while I was at work), the dog we had picked out was already adopted and gone! Somewhat heartbroken, Cheri and the kids picked Daisy instead. Though she turned out great for our family, I always harbored a bit of resentment that we weren’t able to take home the dog we picked (and I wasn’t able to be present to pick out the alternate). Daisy was always symbolic to me of the life I did not choose, but was nonetheless given to me – symbolic of the limits placed on my life. Sometimes this led to bitterness, but often it forced me to deal with my feelings of regret and anger before God. So Daisy was a blessing in disguise for me specifically, reminding me that the life I did not choose is still a gift from God to be received and lived. What other life is there?

Daisy and I had a special relationship. To her, it was clear I was the “alpha male” and she sought my approval above all others. She was always most excited when I came home! Though sometimes this attention seeking came at inopportune times, most of the time it was welcome and I have many fond memories of cuddling with her. One of my favorite memories was our almost daily routine of cuddling during my back exercises (which I have to do 3x a day). She would come over and lay on top of my chest (back legs still on the floor) and nuzzle her long nose under my chin. I cherished those times with her, always trying to see how close she could get to my face! Sometimes she would just end up laying on my chest (though my chest is large, she could barely fit!). This is what I miss the most, and I deeply regret not having any pictures of this! I took it for granted that we would have many more years to cuddle.

Daisy 2

Daisy 3

I’m convinced more than ever that God especially created dogs to be companions to his image bearers, especially those of us with images that are cracked, scratched and badly stained. They intuit emotion and mood better than any other pet, and I have found deep healing in their presence over the years. Their loyalty and fiercely gracious affection overlooks far more transgression than humans are typically capable of. To me they will always represent the fierce affection of the Lover of our souls, the Abba of Jesus who gave up the world to rescue his people, to rescue me.

Thank you, Father, for Daisy the Beagle! We are better sons and daughters of God because of her presence. As we drive to Eastern Kentucky to pick up a brand new member, a Beagle only 10-11 weeks old, another chapter will begin in our family. I hope this time to take more pictures and learn to love more freely, without regrets, fully accepting the dog who freely accepts me. Maybe this will better help me give and receive God’s love too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What We Need When We Are Suffering

It’s been a dark busy few weeks for me (hence my lack of writing), but I am hoping to start back with a few snippets here and there (always fun to lower my expectations!).

I came across this interview in World Magazine with Joni Earackson Tada (one of my heroes) that gripped my heart. When asked what “helped” her in her suffering, she replied,

When I was a little girl, I remember riding my bike down a steep hill. I made a right-hand turn. My wheels skidded out on gravel and I crashed to the ground. My knee was a bloody mess. My dad comes running out. I’m screaming and crying. Although I didn’t ask why, if I had, how cruel it would have been for my father to stand over me and say, “Well, sweetheart, let me answer that question. The next time you’re going down the hill, watch the steepness, be careful about the trajectory of your turn, be observant of gravel.” Those would all have been good answers to the question, “Why did this happen?” But when people are going through great trauma and great grief, they don’t want to know why. They want Daddy to pick them up, press them against his chest, pat them on the back, and say, “There, there, sweetheart, Daddy’s here. It’s OK.” When we are hurting, that’s what we want. We want God to be Daddy: warm, compassionate, real, in the middle of our suffering. We want fatherly assurance that our world is not spinning out of control.

I shudder how many times I have been the cruel, removed Daddy in this story, especially to my own kids! May I learn to be quick to listen and slow to speak.

We all want and need safe people to sit with us in our suffering, because that is typically the only way we will consider that God is present with us too. When we suffer, we desperately need to connect with our suffering God. One of the most undervalued aspects of the Cross is the revelation it gives us of our God who suffers with (and not just for) us. When safe believers hold us in our suffering without giving advice or easy answers, we begin to connect with the suffering God who sent them and the whole event becomes an invitation to bring our wounds into the cavernous space provided for us in Christ’s wounds. We can experience there a relational knowledge and love of God that goes beyond needing to know “why.”

This reflection is juxtaposed for me by a very painful experience I had over the weekend, an experience of the exact opposite dynamic. I was in the midst of sharing a very painful and personal part of my heart with a small group of believers, and one of them had the nerve to interrupt me with a long diatribe of advice, politely scolding me for not being more biblical and disciplined (like her, of course). I was devastated. I’m still recovering, as I try to fight a parasitic skepticism that there any safe people left in the church.

I return to the Daddy who is there, and whose silent presence speaks volumes to my heart.