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Back in the pioneer days, oranges were a rare treat.  I remember reading in the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories how they would be overjoyed if they got a single orange in their stocking for Christmas.  It was hard for me to imagine what that was like.  In my lifetime, oranges have been only a grocery store away.  Every week I buy a bag of big juicy navel oranges and eat them most days with my breakfast.

But I have never enjoyed them as much as I have in the last month.  They may be commonly available in our day and age, but that doesn’t make them any less of a treat.  For me, they have become a daily reminder of the power of gratitude. 

I know that gratitude is a topic that most of us have heard taught on, preached on, expounded on, lectured on, or any other kind of verbal spouting you can imagine – probably more times than we can count.   And, at the end of the day, it’s probably not a bad thing.  It’s an incredibly important topic that we have a tendency to forget, especially when we are hurting. 

But there are a couple of angles to gratitude that may not be explored quite so often and that is what I want to talk about here.   I think that they are directly related to our emotional grounding. 

The first is that it causes us to recognize value.   Looking at the world through grateful eyes causes us to see value around us.  Why am I grateful for the orange?  Because I appreciate its intrinsic value.  It tastes good.  It’s refreshing.  It’s healthy.  Why am I grateful for the flowers that are coming up in my garden?  I value their beauty.  Why am I grateful for the car I drive around town?  Because I value its functionality, and yes, its speed and good looks too. Why am I grateful for the people I love? Too many reasons to count. When we practice being grateful – when we look around and say, “What am I grateful for, or what can I be grateful for?” we are practicing the art of finding value.  THAT is a powerful tool in our emotional grounding. 

In the last blog, I explored the process of finding purpose in powerlessness as a way to prevent feelings of futility.  This is another facet of the same idea.  When we are tried by all that is going wrong, we can find some emotional stability in the discovery of value.  It is most effective when we can find it in the situation itself – such as the purpose of the trial.  But we have to learn how to think that way first.  Those pathways in our brain need to exist before we get to the situation that will try them.  Otherwise, we will be far more inclined to focus on the pain, the wrong, the hurt.  How can you build those pathways in advance?  One way is through gratitude.  Find and appreciate the value in life around you every day, all the time.   Then, when the hard times come, you will have an onramp to finding the value that God has wrapped in the package of pain. 

Another facet of gratitude is that it reminds us of the transitory nature of our lives.  I know.  How does THAT help with emotional grounding?  Words like “transitory”, “temporary”, “fleeting”, are not particularly helpful when we are already feeling unstable.  But in reality, to strengthen ourselves, we need to disrupt our human tendency to depend on life’s continuity.  We have to find our anchor in the nature of God alone – His continuity is the only thing that is truly dependable.  The disturbance of things we never considered disturbable can cause us the most turmoil. 

On New Year’s Day, 2020, did anyone imagine that by March, all kids would be doing school from home for the rest of the school year?  Or that nearly every dine-in restaurant in America would be closed?  Or huge festivals and sporting events shut down?  I doubt it!  These are things that click by without us giving them a second thought. 

Gratitude reminds us in a thousand small ways that it is not a guarantee that we will have access to the things we value forever.   It builds in us, in the context of appreciation of the gifts of God, a durability against changes in our world.  The shock of violent change is mitigated by the regular, conscious choice to recognize the uncertainty of life.    

I am grateful for the orange I am eating today because I see value in it and maybe, I won’t get to eat an orange tomorrow.  I’d like to, but who knows if tomorrow will be what I expect it to be.  So, thank you, God, for my orange today.

Let me tell you, this is not a practice that I particularly enjoy.  As a Mercy, I want stability.  My hard wiring is to create an ecosystem and DRIVE IT INTO THE BEDROCK, thank you very much.  Gratitude as an act of worship and appreciation of the value around me, yes, definitely.  Gratitude as a reminder of the uncertainty of life, not so much.  But I think it is an important exercise.  I think that we practice a dangerous game of brinkmanship by allowing ourselves to mindlessly expect things to be a certain way all the time.  Those are pathways that are being built too.  That’s a way of thinking and directing our emotions, even if we don’t realize it.  And those pathways aren’t going to help you or me very much when the world turns upside down. 

But if we practice remembering that we really don’t know what might change in a moment’s notice …   

Anything could change. 

Except the nature of God. 

Thank you, Lord, for the orange I ate today, for I don’t know if I will have one tomorrow.     

Purpose

I remember hearing a story about the men in Nazi concentration camps having to dig a ditch one day and then return the day next day and fill it back in.  They were forced to do this over and over again, and something about the nature of this task was cruelly efficient in breaking their spirits. 

Arthur summed it up well in a recent seminar.  He said:  “Powerlessness plus futility is lethal.”

Powerlessness is anathema to our human psyche.  We were wired for dominion, and we know it, so any kind of powerlessness causes a reaction.  A sense of futility can quickly follow, even if it is not forced upon us like it was on the men in the concentration camp.  It is where our emotions go.  When we can’t change the situation, we begin to feel like there is no point, no reason to fight, nothing we can do.  We have to choose to guard ourselves against it. 

There is worldwide powerlessness going on right now.  For many of us, it is on more levels than we have experienced before.  The situation is made worse by the fact that we have no idea when it will end or what the world will look like a year from now.  There is powerlessness and uncertainty. 

How do we sustain ourselves against the futility? 

By finding purpose. 

We are in a snapshot of life right now.  Granted, it is proving to be a much longer snapshot than any of us would like, but it is still a snapshot.  The first thing we need to do is take a step back and look at the continuum.  We need to find some threads from the past that will help us see the purpose in the present.  That is how we can partner with God as He builds into our future. 

First we look at our own lives.  A major thread of the continuum of life is the exercises God takes us through to build something into us or develop our design.  When did He take you to the gym?  What did He build in you that you needed somewhere in the future?  What did it tell you about your design?  Is it possible that He is doing the same thing now?  Perhaps you can identify a process leading up to now and the particular challenges you are facing.  Maybe you can connect the dots or ask Him to help you connect the dots so that you can see the gym you are in right now.  Ask Him to show what He is building, and why.  And if you still don’t know, can you trust that there is something?  Can you look back and see that He did it before, and you needed what He built, and now He might be doing the same thing?  He doesn’t always tell us what the future will hold.  But we can still look for the opportunities to leverage the present as a way to grow, or learn, or develop. 

A second thread that you can look for is revelation.  What new thing could He want to show you right now?  Something new about Him?  Something new about yourself, or your family, or your relationship with the created world?  I just recently had an opportunity to practice that kind of purpose finding exercise.  We had a tornado in the town where I live and it ripped up several trees in my backyard.  I rent the house I live in, and the landlord was frustratingly slow in responding.  I couldn’t do anything about it – other than grieve over the damage and the mess.  But yet I could!  I realized that the delay created a scenario I hadn’t experienced before, and that is processing new trauma on the land.  Processing it with the land.  This was an opportunity for a new experience, new revelation.   Even though I was still powerless to change the condition of the backyard, I could push back against the futility by partnering with God to receive new revelation that was, essentially, available to me BECAUSE of the situation. 

So, instead of focusing on what isn’t flowing or isn’t happening, look for the new.  What new season of your journey is God wanting to take you on right now?  What does He want to show you now that you will need in the future?  How can you mine every possible new gem out of the circumstances of the present?

We can also use the continuum to emotionally engage with our past experiences with Him.  What about His nature is a point of stability to you?  Zoom out of the moment where everything feels like a washing machine turned on high speed, and savor those past experiences.  Remind yourself that HE is the same God now that He was then, regardless of everything else around you.  Accessing the past emotions can help stabilize how you feel in the present.  

You might take some time to look back on some other challenging seasons in your life and see what value God brought out of them.  I know that you are looking with 20-20 hindsight, but it can still give you confidence that He is doing the same thing now, even if you don’t know what He is building it for.

We can also take a step further back and look at the larger continuum of human history.  We are in the Mercy Season of the church.  Is God working to restore intimacy with people who have come to depend too much on themselves?  Is He working to restore families?  What is He doing regarding creation – specifically our bodies?  Is there some kind of paradigm shift He is bringing?  Or you can zoom still further out and look for patterns in different cultures, or throughout Scripture – or even just to anchor yourself in the reality that God is still in control and on the throne.  This may be revealing some weak moorings in us, but He hasn’t budged an inch.

Fundamentally, and unchangingly, God is a God of purpose.  THIS we know from Scripture and millennia of evidence.  He is not capricious or cruel.  Powerlessness will come and go in our lives, but we don’t have to fall prey to futility.     

What is Portable?

Most of us are in slightly less than normal circumstances right now – to put it mildly.  My heart goes out to those living in small apartments in big cities that are on strict lockdown.  I’m an introvert and can fill long hours with my own entertainment, but to be caged up day after day would even get on this bookworm’s nerves.  And what about the families that are suddenly thrown together to try and do work, life, and school all at the same time – while wondering what is going to happen to the economy and their paychecks? 

So much can change in our external circumstances that can have a huge impact on our quality of life – in reality and in our perception.  What can we do to strengthen ourselves against the emotional destabilizing that can happen as a result of that?  

In my last blog, I shared about identifying and savoring our anchor truths.  These anchor truths take the form of well-traveled neurological pathways that ground us to the facets of the nature of God that we connect to most deeply. 

In this blog, I want to explore the concept of the things in life that are portable.  Things that are not dependent on outside circumstances, not people, or the economy, or leaders, or governments or anything.  When much of life is uncertain and stressful, it gives us some emotional fortitude and stability to focus on the things that are untouched and unchanged.   Wherever you go or in whatever circumstances you find yourself, what do you have? 

An Intervening God
Whether you have served the Lord for three months or three decades, you will have experienced some degree of His intervention, else you wouldn’t be following Him.  That proof of His attention to your life goes with you everywhere.  Take a moment to look for the patterns.  He is so eager to show Himself to us, that I don’t think it takes years of relationship to develop patterns we can identify.  We just don’t take the time to do it.  Yet, He does intervene, over and over again, personally, intimately, and THAT goes with us anywhere. 

Your Identity
The circumstances of the world you live in can throw you into a whirlpool of crazy.  Maybe you are so limited and so bogged down, even oppressed, and very little of your design can be expressed.  I agree that your life circumstances CAN limit the expression of design, but it CANNOT negate the existence of it.  You are who you are, whether you can ever lift a finger to show the world.  So, you are thrown off balance right now, you are in a milieu that forces you to do whatever everyone else needs instead of doing what you like.  Instead of focusing on what isn’t, celebrate what IS, and always will be.  God’s fingerprints on your DNA are unchangeable.  What do you know about how He has wired you?  What can you savor with Him, even if it is put on the back shelf for now?   

Your Journey
Friends, ain’t NOBODY gonna take this away from you!  You have lived some portion of your life already.  There have been ups and downs, good days and bad days, good choices and bad ones.  Those experiences are yours – whether you are at the pinnacle of all that is good or the depths of despair.  Look at what you have gained.  Take the time to identify your resources.  What fruits of the Spirit has God worked in you?  Where have you developed character?  What spiritual and/or moral authority have you gained?  What is the experiential wisdom that lives inside of you?  The treasures of your journey are immeasurable and utterly impervious to the changing environment.  You could lose all you own, even your loved ones, and all that you have gained through your journey would still be yours.  In fact, I’m willing to bet there are some of those resources that will stand you in good stead right now!

Memories
The emotional imprint of memories is one of the strongest ties to the continuum of our lives.  Over and over again, God admonished the Israelites to remember.  It was so important to Him that He instituted feasts and ceremonies to keep the generations connected to His interaction with them.  Our memories serve as both a reminder and as a doorway into the emotional reservoirs that can revive us. Someone recently shared a story about pioneering families that had to survive long periods of absolute isolation during the bleakest weeks of winter.  We think we have it bad now!  And the impact on the emotional sanity of the families varied.  Those who fared the best were the ones who combined memory with imagination and would set aside an evening just to talk through all the process of having the Smiths over for dinner.  That exercise helped anchor them in the present by revisiting memories of the past, and it gave them an exercise for their mind.  Both of those things helped keep them emotionally stable during the long winter season.  Not every situation has that predictable an end, of course, but I think that we can use our memories in a variety of ways to help sustain us in the present – not to escape it, but to augment it and to keep our minds from being locked into too small of a grid. 

Our Thought Patterns
This is one that I think is particularly worth examining because it cuts both ways.  If we have established healthy and wise thought patterns in the times leading up to the challenging season, they will serve us well.  The world can go all kinds of wonky and the way we think remains stable, and quite portable.  If we have nurtured unhealthy, weak, or unwise thought patterns, well, they will follow us too, and the results won’t be anywhere near as nice.  So, what ARE your thought patterns?  Look first on the positive side.  What has God built in you?  Ponder how you thought about things ten years ago and how you think about them now.  Do you see some positive changes?  One of the big ones for me was a conversation I had with Arthur many years ago.  He had a rough day, and was spending the last hour before quitting time entering data into a spreadsheet.  I asked him why he was doing that when someone else could easily do it.  He explained to me that when he couldn’t achieve a $100 day, he was going to get at least $1 out of it.  In other words, he knew the day hadn’t gone the way he would’ve liked.  He didn’t get the $100 day.  But there was still SOMETHING he could leverage, and he did.  That changed my whole way of thinking.  Just because you didn’t hit the bull’s eye doesn’t mean you can’t make progress somewhere.  Such a wise strategy against powerlessness and defeat.    

Once you have identified and savored some of the positive thought patterns, take a look in the direction of the kinds that are not so very helpful in life.  Can you see any?  Perhaps you need to ask the Lord to shine His light and reveal them, since our own way of thinking is often too close to recognize.  One that He recently revealed to me was some prejudices I didn’t even know I had. I was shocked and horrified.  That set me on an intense and very productive journey to understand instead of judge, and to see the value where I can, even if I don’t share all the same views. 

These are just a few examples of things that are portable, I am sure there are many others.  I think that this is a golden opportunity to investigate, learn, and grow, because, hey!  We’re in the middle of it and have no idea when it will end. 

I am a big believer in making pain productive!

A decade ago I went to a firearm training course in the desert outside Las Vegas.  For three days I walked around with a pistol on my hip, as if it was perfectly natural to do so.  We alternated between teaching sessions and target practice.  And one of the concepts I remember well is that in the heat of the moment, you lose at least half of what your conscious mind knows.  If you do not practice enough to commit the skills to the subconscious, you will be at a severe disadvantage in an emergency.  Those neurological pathways have to be so well used you can access them in your sleep – which is exactly what you might have to do if your house gets broken into. 

More recently I had this concept demonstrated to me in the emotional realm. No house breaking or burglars, but my failure “in the moment” left me floundering. I was in an emotional meltdown after a massive inner healing discovery and just about to leave on an international trip.  I was flailing around for some part of God to hang on to.  It was in that moment that I realized it was too late to build my emotional superhighway.  I could think of many things I knew about Him, but couldn’t articulate a single anchor TO Him. 

I was totally rocked by that.  I had an emotional connection with God.  I experienced His intervention many times and in many ways.  But no path was wide enough or well-traveled enough to take me there without conscious effort.  I had never articulated and savored and pondered the things that anchored me most deeply to Him.  I failed miserably in the moment.    

I did make it home in one piece, but I tell you what, I did a whole lot of thinking while I was there AND when I got back.  I wanted a road that was so well traveled that I could find it even if I was blind, deaf, delirious and half dead.

I began with design.  I think that at least one, if not more, of our anchor truths come from the way we are wired.  Those are deep and so profoundly congruent that we may not even recognize them at first.  I started by looking for things that were so baked in that I had no choice but believe them.  Foundationally, for me, that is God as Creator.  I could believe untrue things about His nature before I could believe we came from a ball of primordial slime.  I just can’t go there. I think I would have believed in a Supreme Intelligence, even if I was a heathen.  But that was still too vague.  What about God as Creator gives me emotional grounding in hard times? 

So, I drilled it down to another facet of design.  Time.  The Ancient of Days.  The God who was and is and is to come.  My four favorite words in the Bible: “In the beginning, God”. El Olam.  The Everlasting God.     

Now THAT I can hold on to.  I can find security and stability in the emotional connection to this truth about God.  It’s a huge piece of solid ground when everything else is shaking loose.   And it comes from a deep, deep place in me. 

But that is grand and abstract and not very personal.  It gives me emotional stability about how God relates to the universe, but not so much to me individually.  So, I went back to my design again.

I think that the sense of emotional grounding is going to vary depending on what matters to you.  And this is where we have to differentiate between design and woundedness.  I discovered that knowing He is present mattered immensely to me.  And so, the passages in Psalm 139 give me language for just how comprehensive that “not aloneness” really is.  Even before Jesus paid the price of agonizing separation from the Father, David knew the reality that there was nowhere he could go that God wasn’t.  I may suffer all manner of evils here on earth.  I am not asking Him to spare me from that.  But in the midst of whatever comes, I will find great comfort in knowing there is no depth of the darkest sea that can block His entrance.  Even if He doesn’t speak to me, I can believe He is there. 

But design is not the only grid for articulating our anchor truths.  Our experiences are also an important grid.  Where and how has God shown Himself over and over again to us, proving some facet of His nature and His intimate knowledge of who we are? 

This is a topic worth revisiting from time to time – preferably NOT in the moment of pressure!  But we are here, now, in a challenging season, and some of us have more time on our hands than we usually do.  Is this an opportunity God is giving us to recognize where we are lacking our anchor truths?  Have we even thought about them before?  What emotional pathways already exist at a deep, primal level, and we’ve never put language to them? What can we do to widen the ones that already exist?  I am pondering and looking.   

Blind, deaf, delirious, or half dead – I want to KNOW where those pathways are!

Seas and Islands

“With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.  There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security.  It was all sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.”  – CS Lewis

Though I hope that none of us have recently experienced the death of our mothers, I think we may still relate to the impact the event had on Lewis.  For many years I identified with the description of hopping from one tiny island of emotional stability to another, with a whole lot of turbulent floundering in-between.   This season of life, with the myriad implications of Coronavirus, has given us ample opportunity to discover just how emotionally grounded we may or may not be. 

Most – if not all – of us have never experienced a scenario that impacts so many facets of our lives.  It’s not just staying out of the malls and restaurants, the kids are home too.  It’s not just disinfectant and hand sanitizers, it’s concern over whether you will have a job.  It’s not just cancelled appointments and travel plans, it’s not knowing if a loved one will get sick and possibly die.  And on top of all of that, we have no idea when any of this will become normal again, or if it ever will. 

There is a line from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” that has stuck with me.  It is towards the end of the movie when they have gotten to the grail site.  Donovan shoots Jones’ dad as an incentive for Jones to get the grail and its healing properties.  He says to Jones, “It’s time to ask yourself what you believe.”  No time for theories now.  His dad’s life was on the line.  He either believed in it or he didn’t. 

Times like these can reveal to us what we really believe.  What condition our emotions are really in.  Where our legitimacy really lies.  How much we can really trust and not be driven mad by not knowing.     

Some of the initial shock of the epidemic is wearing off, but we still have a lot of uncertainty ahead of us.  And prolonged uncertainty can eat away at us like a canker.   With that in mind, I decided I would revisit some tools and strategies God has given me over the years to help make my islands a lot bigger than they used to be.  As I go along, I would like to share some of those tools and processes with you, as sort of an ongoing dialog.  Perhaps they will land somewhere for you too, or you know someone who could benefit from them.  Be free to share with anyone you wish. 

By doing so, we can leverage some of the current challenges into value for God and the Kingdom.  The more grounded and stable we are, the more available our resources are to Him because they are not all used up trying to keep our heads above water. 

So, over the coming weeks I will post a blog every few days with something else to explore … until I run out of things to say or we have all reached sheer emotional perfection.   

Well, we can at least start.  ;D)