August 14, 2019No Comments

Never Done

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to [others], and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I resent dirty dishes. It doesn’t matter how many times I clean them, there they are again, sitting like little sassholes in the sink all dirty and expectant. What, pray tell, do you want from me? 

My parents have an arrangement that began when my brother and I were wee tots. My dad would clean up after dinner; my mom would bathe the babies. What a team. Even though my brother and I presently bathe ourselves, the tradition of my dad washing dishes persists. I love cooking. But being single means that I also have to be the one to clean the dishes. If you grew up in a home where you had to do household chores, this possibly hasn’t been a rude awakening for you. However, as I grew up doing farm chores and manual labor, I find the monotony of standing over a sink night after night wearisome. After I cook and eat, I set my bowl in the sink, miffed at the injustice of the fact that I must also clean. 

To be clear, washing dishes is not a difficult task, nor is it particularly time consuming, particularly the dishes created by one human. And even more particularly when that one human has a dishwasher. 

I am told that this tension of reality meeting our idea of how things “should” be is common in marriage. Each person brings their own customs and ideas of how a marriage works into their new life. If each party grew up in vastly different households, this can cause a lot of friction as they are confronted with these deeply ingrained "rules." Each party likely thinks that their upbringing is the normal and right one. My indignation at the dirty dishes I made makes me think that it is not only married people who run into this issue. I don’t have roommates or a spouse, so there is no division of labor. If I don’t do them, they won’t get done. Unless I hire someone to do them, but what am I, made of money? No, no I am not. 

One of the beautiful things about the Twelve Steps is that they are never done. Another is the community aspect. The supposition of AA is that sobriety is impossible in isolation. I think spirituality works the same way. Heck, almost all of life works the same way. We need support in order to continually come back to work that is never done. And unless you’re a straight up narcissist, you will find that there is joy in being part of someone else’s support system as well. Mutuality in relationship keeps them healthy, aka the presence of both give and take from each party, or an equal interest in the well-being of each other and the relationship. 

There’s this idea of transformation all up in the Bible, especially in the New Testament where there’s talk of baptism, death to life, and being born again. Based on stories I heard from Christians, I thought I was supposed to have had this big, dramatic moment of transformation. I thought it meant that, once that happened, I would never struggle with doubts and I would magically become this sunny, bubbly person. But I don’t think it works like that most of the time. I was working off of a perfectionist’s assumption: that faith is something to be achieved. I didn’t take into account the habits and expectations that we bring into our faith, which as we have previously discussed don’t die easily. 

There’s a phrase I love in 2 Corinthians 3:18, that we are being transformed “from one degree of glory to another.” I know that glory is a really religious word and I try to steer clear of exclusive lingo here. But basically, the idea is that it is a continual process. Like the 12 Steps suppose, the implication of spiritual awakening is a new radiance that comes from having our wounds slowly healed and our missteps constantly forgiven. 

When I get overwhelmed by the monotonous slog life can be, and more specifically, a life of faith, is it generally because I forget that I do not have to do any of this alone. I have a God who has promised to never leave me. I have a group of humans who care about me. What if there, in the unglamorous moments of washing dishes, writing blogs, and ordinary catch-up chats, that is where the miraculous happens? What if in the small moments of our lives we are transformed the most deeply? 

I hope you have enjoyed this series as much as I have. It's been humbling to wade into the 12 steps and wrestle with them on the pages of this blog each week. I'm going to leave y'all with the serenity prayer, which is said at the end of each AA meeting.

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

What do you think?

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August 7, 2019No Comments

What Is Possible

Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

The stinging pain of the needle repeatedly poking into my skin had dulled. After the first ten minutes, it had become a temporary unpleasantness between me and my third tattoo. My friend Abby sat near me in "The Iron Rose," a tattoo shop in Tampa, Florida. It is apparently a new tradition when we are together, me getting a tattoo, as she and I had ventured together to a mall on the outskirts of ChangMai, Thailand where I got my second tattoo. The timing for each was practical. In Thailand, I paid the equivalent of 50 USD for what would have easily been a $100 endeavor in the states. In Tampa, I avoided being charged almost double for the privilege of being tatted up in New York. What a town.

The trip to Tampa had been somewhat spontaneous. I was in Grand Rapids at my very first writer's conference. It was the end of April and, in true Michigan fashion, an ice storm grounded every plane and trapped us in the airport for 12 hours with the empty promise of take-off times that would never happen. When the voice over the intercom finally admitted that our flight was cancelled and we would be booked on flights the next day, I called Abby to see if I could crash with her. It was during this unplanned time that she suggested I spend a week with her and some family at their beach house in Tampa.

The tattoo was somewhat spontaneous as well. When I booked my plane ticket, I reasoned that if I was going to get another one, Tampa seemed like a better place than New York from a cost stand point. If the stars aligned and I found a good shop with an artist I liked and could come up with a design, might as well. I googled "best tattoo shops in Tampa" and found a list. After looking through the websites, I found the right man for the job.

We arrived at the shop and I showed him my derpy drawing/approximation of what I wanted. He googled "Ebenezer stone" and sketched a few options. We went through the fonts until I found the line between messy and legible that I was looking for. Not fifteen minutes later, I was lying face down on the table being stabbed repeatedly by an inky needle.

I first learned what an Ebenezer was at a youth retreat called Happening, outside the context of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, of course. Ebenezer means "stone of help," and comes from a story in the Old Testament. I'm not going to get into it here. If you want to read it, head to 1 Samuel 7. The story is bananas. Basically, the stone was set up as a marker, a reminder to remember how God had helped in a particular situation. As someone who hates asking for help, I need the reminder to remember everything that has been done for me, that God is trustworthy.

That being said, I do a fair bit a gripping to God about how he's not coming through for me on any number of issues. I don't know why God doesn't recognize that my time table is the best one. Something about God being omniscient, I guess. It's interesting, though, if I'm only going to God to complain, or demand something, or as a last resort, am I just treating God like a vending machine or a genie?

Step 11 guides its participants to improve their conscious contact with God, focusing more on God's will than our own. This is a totally different practice than asking God for what we want. I will say that is an important type of prayer, but prayer has more potential than trying to get God to give us what we want. Richard Rohr writes,

For many, if not most, Christian believers, however, [prayer] became a pious practice or exercise that you carried out with the same old mind and from your usual self-centered position...Prayer was something you did when you otherwise felt helpless, but it was not actually a positive widening of your lens for a better picture, which is the whole point. (Breathing Under Water, pg 95)

I spend a lot of time on my own. This is great for introverted me. But it also means I spend a disproportionate amount of time in my head. And what comes along with too much time in my head? Tunnel vision. I get so focused on what I think God owes me I forget to look for what God has already given me. Not only that, I am limited in how I believe God will answer my prayers. I can't imagine any scenario other than the one I have come up with, and so when it doesn't happen, I am disappointed.

There are, of course, times in our lives when we will be more needy and petulant than others. God isn't surprised by this. In fact, Steps 4-10 focus on becoming more honest with ourselves, our needs, and the harm we have caused. But think back to steps 1-3. We admit we are powerless, come to believe that God could restore us, and make a decision to turn our lives over to God. Asking for help is the catalyst for all of the other steps. But traveling through those steps, we arrive at a place of greater maturity when we are ready for more, and God is ready to show us more. One of the nice things about the steps is that they allow for relapses and derpy moments. In recovery, you're never really done with them, whether you go through them repeatedly or it takes you years to master a single step.

There are countless stories in my life where God has come through for me in ways I could have never imagined. Having a friend in Grand Rapids when I was stranded by a freak ice storm who was able to host me in spite of a hectic work schedule then invited me to Tampa, for example. And yet, it is absurdly easy for me to forget. It's easy for me to start to think I am above God's help. But in the moments when I have the audacity to believe that God is exactly what God claims to be, that God might even love me and want the best for me, my picture of what is possible broadens. And I remember.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

What do you think?

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July 31, 2019No Comments

Not This Again

Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Between my first and second years of grad school, I participated in a summer program called Greensboro Light Opera and Song. The stories from those six weeks are legion and could fill an entire book. In this intensive program, my anxiety reared its head whenever I walked into a rehearsal or class. One day I worked with this coach, whomst we shall call Dr. Henry. In the classical singing world, coaches help with language, stylistic choices specific to certain composers and time periods, and performance decisions, whereas voice teachers focus on vocal technique.

I went in ready to sing a difficult piece called “Mi Tradi” from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The first thing one generally does in a coaching, after some small talk and introductory information, is sing the piece all the way through. I was nervous, having never worked with Dr. Henry before and generally having more than my share of performance anxiety. So to try and keep myself loose, I started swinging my arms. Anxiety causes tension, and tension is no bueno for singing.

I made it all the way through the piece and looked at Dr. Henry. He asked why I was swinging my arms. I explained about the tension. He replied, “Are you aware that as the song went on and got more difficult, your arms moved faster and more rigidly?” I don’t know if y’all are good at forcing yourself to relax, but I approach it with the Type A manhandling posture that I use for virtually every task. OK, Marebs, I think, You’re going to relax. Here we go. OK NOW STAY EXACTLY LIKE THAT AND DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING DON’T EVEN BREATHE. Healthy? No. Effective? Also no.

Dr. Henry proceeded to tell me about his own struggles with tension as a young pianist. He said that he was so nervous, his right quad would seize up and his leg would start bouncing. It got to the point where he was unable to effectively use the piano pedal because he couldn’t control his leg. Then one day, he let go of his obsessive perfectionism and his leg loosened up.

I used to believe I would have that moment as a singer. And maybe I would have, had I stuck with it full time. I’ve generally found that, for me, unlearning anxiety and its physical manifestations has been gradual. I have a monthly voice lesson, during which my voice teacher and I work to undo the habits of fear. It is painfully slow, but it is there. Because for me, it’s about trust, trust of my voice that I will have to build. My voice is like an enraged toddler whom I must coax to come out with the promise that it is safe to do so, possibly even fun. Like a defiant toddler, it responds with a metaphorical screech of I don't believe you and proceeds to lock itself in its room and throw things. Bless it.

This fear is not limited to my singing life, it’s just the most obvious place it manifests right now. It goes much deeper than that, and so the recovery process has been as much spiritual and emotional as it has been physical and mental. As much as I would like to have a one and done moment of epiphany where I magically no longer struggle with performance anxiety, I don’t think it will work like that. It’s something that pops up all over the place, and I’ve had to learn to identify and call it out. It is not only detrimental to my well-being and flourishing, but also to my relationships.

Step 10 is about continuing to take an inventory and promptly admit when we are wrong. I’m not going to discount the dramatically miraculous here, but I will say that, for most people, spiritual and emotional habits are not unlearned in a moment. At my church, we just finished a series on freedom, looking at the Exodus. Each week, the pastor reiterated, “It took 40 days to get Israel out of Egypt, but it took 40 years to get Egypt out of Israel.” While Israel had been physically taken out of bondage in Egypt, they didn’t know how to live as freed people. They had to learn the habits of freedom.

On the AA website, the reflection on Step 10 states, “For the wise have always known that no one can make much of his life until self-searching becomes a regular habit, until he is able to admit and accept what he finds, and until he patiently and persistently tries to correct what is wrong.” Remember from Step 4 that this inventory process is done with the full knowledge of God’s love and acceptance, and is therefore fearless. There is a saying in AA, progress not perfection. We can’t work this all out on our own, then emerge into our relationships with all of this perfectly sorted out. I wish it worked like that, but it doesn’t.

I am fortunate to have in my arsenal a rude therapist. By rude, I just mean uncomfortably accurate in his assessment of my true motivations. He calls me on my bologna, aka the nice stories I tell myself that keep me in the same patterns that brought me to his office in the first place. Sometimes it's hard to assess my motives and actions because I'm too close to them, and more often than not, my ego is mixed up in there. Just like Dr. Henry was able to notice my arms swinging at manic speed, I can't always clearly perceive my actions and motivations. Good friends and trusted mentors can help us here as well.

Even though our path to recovery starts with a moment of epiphany, our old patterns and temptations often follow us. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the patterns are symptoms of something deeper and more basic: fear, loneliness, anger, pain. It takes time for our knee-jerk reactions to change. As much as I want to manhandle my way into immediate change, it's about as effective as forcing myself to relax. Maybe I can imitate the behavioral change for a while, but the old spirit still lives inside of me. So I have to keep going back and looking for those same dusty patterns. Maybe the more we do it, the quicker we are to admit when we are wrong, and the more humble we become.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

What do you think?

Leave a comment below or use my contact page to shoot me a message. Looking to join the conversation? Sign up for my newsletter to get an exclusive, thought-provoking message from me every other Wednesday plus recommendations for content I think you'll love.

July 17, 2019No Comments

Sorry, Not Sorry

Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

We pick up the tale of Mr. Goose this week at the moment of making amends and telling my parents what happened. Every week, our main teacher sent us home with a folder that had graded assignments and a page that held our conduct grade from that week. Catholic school, am I right? My conduct grades at my Catholic elementary school were not great. I couldn’t sit still and I couldn’t not talk to whoever was sitting next to me. Middle school was different. I mean I still couldn’t sit still, but I could at least keep my mouth shut. Mostly. So my conduct grades up to this point had been stellar… or at least better.

Every week, we took the folder home and one of our parents had to initial that they had seen it. I had gotten a zero once before, after being accused of plagiarizing a current events report when I couldn’t define the word “ruse.” In my defense, I could, I just got nervous when the teacher put me on the spot. In the teacher's defense, my mom had a substantial hand in the writing of the report, so I couldn't qualify it as fully my work. This was the second time I had taken a zero home and I wasn’t about to make the mistake of giving my parents time to punish me.

Punish is a strong word. I have never been grounded. But any time I got in trouble, I received a seemingly endless lecture in which the situation and my actions were thoroughly dissected and analyzed. For me it was worse than losing computer privileges, or whatever happens when one is grounded. My punishment was always of a psychological nature.

In order to curtail that specific type of hell, I held onto my folder all weekend, waiting until the moment my mom dropped me off at school on Monday morning to thrust the folder at her. “Oh, I almost forgot; you need to sign this.” She, of course, noticed the zero and asked what had happened. I said, “Oh nothing, it was really dumb. I hid the answer book from Mr. Goose so he would actually have to teach us. Just sign; I’m going to be late.” And for the most part, that was that.

If you've been tracking with me for this entire series, the former is an example of how NOT to do step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Walking into Algebra that day was one of the most profoundly awkward moments of my life. And that’s saying a lot. I was to make direct amends to Mr. Goose for something that I was not sorry for. I was, of course, sorry that I had gotten caught and couldn’t talk my way out of it. Passive aggressively hiding the answer book was one thing. Saying to his face that I thought he was a bad teacher was another thing altogether. I was thirteen, not a sociopath.

I dragged my feet and moaned and complained every step of the way to that bless-ed classroom with the closet that betrayed me. Susan and I walked into the classroom and went up to Mr. Goose. I hung my head in shame and said, “I’m sorry we hid the book, Mr. Goose.”

“Why would you do something like that?” he asked.

I took a deep breath, glancing at Susan and said something along the lines of, “Well, we wanted you to teach us not just copy from the answer book. We thought that if you didn’t have it, you would be more confident.”

This conversation happened over fifteen years ago; it might not have gone down exactly like that. But I basically wanted to cover my bases, make myself look good, and somehow come out of that with Mr. Goose not hating me. I may have painted myself as an endearingly cheeky rebel in this story. I can assure you that I have an existential need to not disappoint authority figures.

This is possibly the best formula for an insincere apology that’s out there. As far as my apology skills go, I either go for this method or the groveling, I-am-the-worst-and-most-pathetic-worm-on-this-planet-please-affirm-my-self-loathing method. According to AA, neither of these are on the money. Making amends should be “straightforward and generous.” And they should not cause harm to the recipient of our amends.

Humans have a hard time letting go of our pride and our agendas, and never more so when confronted with wrongdoing. And yet a genuine apology requires humility, and is mutually beneficial. As the AA guidelines on Step Nine state, “While we may be quite willing to reveal the very worst, we must be very sure to remember that we cannot buy our own peace of mind at the expense of others.”

It's a compelling thought. I wonder how many times I have apologized to make myself feel better, or out of obligation, or to control the other person's perception of me. How many times have I apologized in a way that genuinely sought the well-being of the wronged party? Perhaps that is why making amends is so far down the list of the steps to recovery. Without space and a clear head, I am liable to make the apology about satiating my own guilt, as opposed to promising changed behavior.

I read a quote somewhere that said an apology without change is just manipulation. In Christian speak, we call a genuine apology that includes a change of direction "repentance." Biblical repentance calls for a complete change of direction toward God's mercy. This separates shame from repentance. Shame leaves us where we are. Repentance offers us a way forward. 2 Corinthians 7:10 states, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death."

With Mr. Goose, I was apologizing for several reasons, all of which benefited me and only me. I wanted to avoid further trouble. I wanted to look good in spite of my wrongdoing. I wanted to justify myself. I wanted to assuage my guilt, guilt that came from getting in trouble and not from my vindictive motives and actions.

In Step 5, we talked about admitting the exact nature of our wrongs, about revealing them to ourselves, God, and another person. If my first repentance is to God, then I can pour the weight of my needy soul there. If I heap it onto the person I have wronged, I only add to their burden and my own. But if I can first air the exact nature of my sin before God, I receive mercy, love, and grace and so I don't need to look for these soul-level needs from the other person. I free the other person to receive and respond to my apology however they will.

This is really hard and we aren't going to nail it. Our humanity is always going to butt in and make us needy and uncomfortable; it will cause our brains to short and before we know it a justification is pouring out of our mouths. I am almost guaranteed to get at least a little defensive more often than not. This makes me want to take several thousand steps back for fear of saying the wrong thing or causing more harm. But the irony is that we learn to love God and others by loving God and loving others. I can seek advice from relationally wiser friends and mentors, I can humbly present my requests before God. But at the end of the day, if I want intimate relationships, I have to take the risk.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

What do you think?

Leave a comment below or use my contact page to shoot me a message. Looking to join the conversation? Sign up for my newsletter to get an exclusive, thought-provoking message from me every other Wednesday plus recommendations for content I think you'll love.

July 10, 2019No Comments

The Answer Book

Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

In the eighth grade, I had this math teacher whomst shall be known as Mr. Goose. Well, I had four different math teachers that year, but Mr. Goose was particularly memorable. How I managed to pass the end of year Algebra test when I had a different teacher each quarter I will never know. I went to a small, Catholic school and was in the advanced math class with three other classmates. Due to lack of rooms in the middle school building, we used one of the empty elementary school rooms. We immediately thought Mr. Goose was a weirdo. Mainly because we were vicious thirteen-year-olds who hated everything, but also because he said things like how he wanted to attach a hose directly to a cow's utter and get the milk, "straight from the teet." Come on dude, I feel like that's on you.

We also hated Mr. Goose because he didn't teach us so much as he made us do practice problems and then copied the answer onto the board from the small, red answer book that corresponded with our textbook. He couldn't explain any of the concepts or how he got from one step to another, so we had to figure it out for ourselves.

As you can imagine, this was quite frustrating. My classmate, whomst we shall call Susan, and I hatched a plot. Ok it was mostly my idea, but she was definitely complicit. I decided that we needed to get Mr. Goose to actually learn the material, so he could, you know, teach us. We needed to hide his answer book. There was a locked supply closet in the back of the classroom that had a four-inch gap between the door and the floor. Mr. Goose would let us get colored construction paper from that closet all the time, so it wouldn't be unusual for us to ask for the key. And thus, Operation Goose Down was born. Ok, we didn't actually call it that. But that would be a fun thing, wouldn't it?

One day, Mr. Goose assigned us some practice problems then excused himself for a few minutes and Operation Goose Down was a go. I raced up to the front of the room, grabbed that little red book, sprinted to the closet, and slid it under the door. If I had just left it at that, this story might have ended differently. Part two of my plan involved going into the closet for more construction paper and, at that time, putting the red book on one of the shelves so that it would blend in. It took him most of the class time to realize that the book was missing, and when he started looking for it, I gave my best doe-eyed imitation of innocence. "Huh, wow, Mr. Goose, that sure is weird. I don't think we've seen it in a while, right, Susan?"

A few days later, they found the book. Somehow they put it together that it had to have been either Susan or me who had put the book in the closet. Perhaps the minor detail that we were the only students who went into that closet gave us away. The world may never know. But they got to Susan first. She was called into the principal's office during P.E. and my stomach sank. I thought, Come on Susan, keep it together. Just play dumb and we'll be fine. She came out fifteen minutes later, the truth written all over her tear-stricken face. She had snitched.

I still thought I could talk my way out of it. I strode into Mrs. Piatras' office with the confidence of an innocent with nothing to prove and sat down across the desk from her. "Look what we found," she said, holding up the red book.

"Oh, that's great," I replied cheerfully, "Where was it?"

"You don't know where?" she asked incredulously. I shook my head, my eyes wide and my eyebrows poised quizzically.

"It was on a shelf in the supply closet... the locked supply closet that only you and Susan open."

And just like that, I was caught. There was nothing left but to grovel with all the penitence an Episcopalian at a Catholic school could muster. After apologizing, I explained our logic, because if I was going down you better believe I wasn't going down alone. When I finished my tale of the diligent students who only wanted their teacher to do his bless-ed job, Mrs. Piatras nodded, asked a few follow up questions, then outlined the terms of my punishment. I was to get a zero as my weekly conduct grade, meaning my parents would find out. I was also going to apologize to Mr. Goose.

You'll hear about that next week for Step 9, making direct amends. This week is about making a list and becoming willing to make amends. I was zero percent willing to make amends. If anything, my thirteen-year-old brain reasoned, I was trying to help this dude be better at his job! Never in the history of the world has a person been so misunderstood, I thought.

And yet, if I'm honest, my action was more than a little vindictive. I wanted him to be humiliated and have to admit that he didn't know the first thing about Algebra. There were at least eighty-seven less cruel and more effective courses of action I could have taken if I was legitimately trying to help.

It gives me pause to think about it now that I can be more honest with myself. How many people have I injured all the while convinced I was showing the utmost care and consideration? My brain wanted to believe I was right, that my decision was reasonable, and so I found a story that reinforced that idea. I was doing it for the sake of my classmates. I was helping Mr. Goose learn how to teach Algebra. Maybe there was a sprinkle of altruism in my actions, but mostly nah. And if I think about it, how many smaller moments of twisted philanthropy can I come up with? Maybe I am wrong far more often than I believe.

There's this mystery series by Canadian author Louise Penny about a homicide detective named Armand Gamache and a tiny village in Quebec called Three Pines. Chief Inspector Gamache teaches all of his new recruits four statements that lead to wisdom. "I don't know. I need help. I'm sorry. I was wrong."

I was wrong. To a know-it-all, those words are costly. And yet, they free me from my pride, from the voice that tells me that I am nothing if I don't know everything. In 1 Corinthians 8:16, Paul writes, "Knowledge puffs up while love builds up." I don't think Paul is saying we shouldn't learn and grow; I think he is warning us against a disembodied knowledge that makes us a brain on a stick disconnected from our humanity. Paul would know the difference, considering he used to be a Pharisee. He knew the Law and upheld it with zeal. But when he met Jesus everything changed. It would seem that all his knowledge did not get him any closer to the heart of God, which is perhaps why he hates on it so much (Phil 3, 1 Cor 13, 1 Cor 2, just to name a few).

When I decided to hide the answer book from Mr. Goose, I was puffed up with the self-righteousness of my decision and the knowledge that I was unequivocally in the right. But at age thirteen, I didn't have the wisdom to accurately assess my motives or come up with a strategy that didn't involve humiliation.

And that, I think, is the difference between wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge keeps us up in the clouds and fills us with pretense and hot air. Wisdom frees us to accept how wrong we can be and how much we can miss the mark. Wisdom can admit a mistake. Knowledge thinks it doesn't make mistakes. And when we begin to see that, when we turn the corner and realize how wrong we were, that's where freedom and healing are waiting for us.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

What do you think?

Leave a comment below or use my contact page to shoot me a message. Looking to join the conversation? Sign up for my newsletter to get an exclusive, thought-provoking message from me every other Wednesday plus recommendations for content I think you'll love.

June 26, 2019No Comments

Honest to God

Step 7: Humbly asked [God] to remove our shortcomings

My prayers sound super holy. My out loud, in-front-of-others prayer, that is. And by holy, I mostly mean sincere and humble with all sorts of Christian-y words. My by-myself prayers? Much less impressive, and depending on the day, far more swearing than I'd like to admit.

I remember sitting in community group one time (that's our church's word for Bible Study) and we were individually out-loud praying for the person to our right in front of the whole group. There were probably eight people in the room that evening. I was praying for a friend in medical school who was struggling with the rotation he was on at the time (read: the specific field he was learning about in action in a hospital), and I started with my customary deep breath and casual "Hey Jesus," because we're old pals, me and that guy.

I started in with a series of effusive thank you's before laying my request before the Lord, as I was taught. I then proceeded to wax rhapsodic about the wonders and beauty of the human body and prayed for my friend to be filled with awe at the... and I completely lost my train of thought. Not only that, I started thinking back to the words I had been saying and thinking, "Wow I sound mad pretentious," so any hope I had of continuing had been drowned by self-conscious incredulity. I stumbled through the rest of the prayer, tacking on a "in Jesus' name" to cover my bases, and the next person in the circle mercifully took over.

I would like to think that out-loud prayers are a good practice and that mine might even be earnest. But how much of it is me trying to game the system, thinking that the exact right phrasing is all that is keeping me from getting God to bend to my will? Do I really believe that the quality of my prayer, the amount of Scripture I reference in said prayer, or the amount of affirmative sounds I get from the people listening is what will wrestle the begrudging "yes" from God's lips? And I wonder, am I praying to sound impressive and clever, or out of a humble desire to draw near to God?

I touched on ideas of control, honesty, and surrender over the last couple of weeks: getting to the point where we can admit the exact nature of our wrongs, then becoming entirely ready to have these defects of character removed. Now we have made it to the action step, and it is maddening for the task-oriented among us.

Step seven states that we humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.

It's hard for me to think about humbly asking for anything. If I do any humble asking, it is a last resort. I will do absolutely everything I can to figure out and fix on my own before even considering an ask, and even then it is rarely humble. I have always wanted to appear impressive and put together, as if my life depended on it. But I suppose I wouldn't be so interested in these steps if my manhandling, steam-roller method actually worked out well for anybody.

A humble ask means surrendering the timing and the means and the method of the answer. Anne Lamott writes that grace is being all out of good ideas. The humble ask isn't predicated on good behavior or strength of will or having a solid strategy. The humble ask says, "I'm out of good ideas." It requires a great deal of honesty. Luckily, the prior steps serve to increase our honest self-awareness. But it also requires that we be gentle with ourselves. Brennan Manning writes, "...the more fully we accept ourselves, the more successfully we begin to grow. Love is a far better stimulus than threat or pressure."

We can only humbly ask something of someone we trust, someone we know will not hold the favor over our heads or use our vulnerability against us. When it comes to the intimate act of removing shortcomings, I find it difficult to trust anybody that much, even God. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that building trust is like dropping out bread-crumbs of vulnerability and honesty. If it goes well, then we can continue to drop crumbs until we are certain that the person is trustworthy.

I tend to do the same with God, measuring God's trustworthiness by my standard of whether or not God plays by my rules. Fortunately for me, love is patient, and if God is love, then God is also patient. There is a phrase that is repeated several times throughout the Old Testament that describes God as, "gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." Or, as Richard Rohr describes, "God is humble and never comes if not first invited, but God will find some clever way to get invited."

Just as I drop breadcrumbs of trust for God, God also drops breadcrumbs of faithfulness for me. I think that the humble ask is more about honesty than agenda. Sure, something happens, but it isn't a fear and shame-based obedience. It is a transformative grace and presence, a steadfast love that proclaims over and over that God is faithful and trustworthy. But it's not like the clouds part and God magically makes us perfect with the snap of a metaphysical finger. The humble ask is about saying the out-loud prayer knowing that the answer isn't up to your phrasing or your good ideas. It is finally agreeing to the honest invitation that God has set before us and saying, "Alright, then. Let's do this your way."

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

What do you think?

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June 19, 2019No Comments

Entirely Ready, Sort of

Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

My senior year of college, I suddenly found myself enamored with Coca-Cola, preferably of the Vanilla variety. It was weird because I have never been a sweets person. Sure, I enjoyed dessert, and as a true Southerner, I could down some sweet tea. I found myself drinking multiple sodas per day. I figured it was under control as long as I wasn't buying 12 packs. Then I started buying twelve packs.

I knew that all that sugar couldn't be good for me, but on a certain level I didn't care. I felt I should want to stop drinking soda, but I still craved it. So even as I tried to moderate my habit, I found myself daily giving in, then feeling like a failure. Because while I knew that this was a habit I needed to break, I couldn't get enough of the bubbly, syrupy goodness.

This lasted for over a year. I would go between loving the stuff and feeling content with it, to hating myself for loving it so much. It was just soda, what was the big deal? Plenty of people drink it all the time and they seem fine. I felt like I was under a lot of pressure, what with my senior research project and performance just around the corner. I told myself I could have this one vice. Maybe I would regret it, but that was a problem for future Marebs.

April of the following year, I was in Cambodia. I had gotten dengue fever during the hottest month of the year in a country without the medical resources to which I was accustomed. Basically, I had to take Tylenol to try to break the 104 degree fever and hope I would get better on my own. This isn't just a Cambodia thing; to my knowledge there isn't actually a cure or vaccine for dengue.

I did anything I could to try to cool down, including drinking cold beverages. The only cold beverage I could get was canned Coca Cola. As I was also constantly nauseous, it seemed like a God-send. I forced myself to drink water occasionally, but I basically lived off of Coca Cola for the five days my fever lasted. It seemed like one upside of this miserable disease was getting to drink all of the Coke I wanted and a solid reason to not feel guilty about it.

As soon as my fever abated, so did my taste for Coca Cola. To this day, I cannot drink full sugared soda. For the rest of the mission trip that took me to Cambodia, I would occasionally drink a soda, but it no longer created the same euphoric effect. Suddenly, I was aware that it was too sweet, the flavor artificial, and the experience no longer enjoyable.

Now, I can't even think about Coke without also recalling lying on a child-sized mattress on the floor of our tin-roofed dorm, body aching, unable to cool down, miserable and making everyone around me miserable. If you've ever watched the show House, I think I was only 2% more pleasant than Dr. House during that month.

Step six talks about being "entirely ready" to have our character defects removed. I'm not saying that liking soda is an issue of character or to shame anyone who likes soda. I think I knew, even in the midst of it, that for me it wasn't just about wanting to drink soda. It was like a switch flipped and soda suddenly comforted the place where my anxiety and fear live. That's why it was so hard to kick.

For the purposes of this discussion, let's define a character defect as a habitual response to stress, pain, or fear that is ultimately harmful to us and the people around us. Lying, arrogance, lashing out, isolation, [insert your thing here]. We may know that these things are not especially good for us or our relationships, and yet we still reflexively reach for them when we feel vulnerable. Have you ever, through sheer force of will, tried to get rid of one of these old habits? Were you able to or, like so many New Years Resolutions, did you slowly lapse back into your default?

Perhaps I couldn't initially kick my soda habit because deep down I didn't really want to. I was too enamored by the comfort and familiarity of the habit, and how good it made me feel in the moment. It felt empowering and satisfying to defy what I knew I shouldn't do. When given the choice, I just wanted to experience that indulgent feeling. So until my brain began to associate the experience of drinking soda with something neither positive nor comforting, I was always going to choose the soda.

If we put this into spiritual terms, we know that there are things we do, and can't seem to stop doing, that are harmful to our relationship with God, ourselves, others, and creation. Personally, I have this idea that, because I am a Christian, I shouldn't experience this tension anymore. After all, Paul writes, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Corinthians 5:17). I feel like I must be missing something. I should be a new creation, and yet I find myself falling back on my same old comfortable habits.

I think that becoming "entirely ready" is a process. Just feeling the desire to put aside unhealthy patterns in part of that process. In his book Bold Love, Dr. Dan Allender describes this gradual growth thus:

"The believer has been grafted into the vine, and over time, she will have the capacity to bear fruit... This implies a process--a development from the day of attachment to the vine to the day that her roots are embedded in the vine, then to the day that her branch buds, and finally to the day she offers fruit to the tender Gardener who grafted her to the vine."

I don't think that we can guilt ourselves into better behavior, especially when it comes to our most deeply ingrained and harmful habits. I think there comes a moment when, though we have been fighting for better habits and failing, we reach a sort of rock bottom, a moment when the behavior is no longer associated with anything positive, or the supposed positive no longer outweighs the negative. We move from shaming "should" thoughts and into the reality of true, deep conviction. And we understand, maybe for the first time, what it is to be entirely ready. It's that moment when we stand at the crossroads and we decide to turn the other way.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

What do you think?

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June 14, 2019No Comments

The Best Policy

Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

I am a serial confessor. In my life, I have whiffed it more times than I can count, and not because I can't count very high. Of course, as humans, we all make mistakes. But I get very paranoid about making a mistake and not catching it myself. God forbid I would ever trust anyone to actually confront me if they needed to. I know it's inevitable, but clammit, maybe this time if I just try a little harder, maybe I will know all things.

They say confession is good for the soul, and maybe that's true, but I'm pretty sure that neurotic confession to try and cover every possible base is not what they were talking about. In fact, I have occasionally created problems that didn't really exist by confessing something directly to the person I will wrong or inconvenience perhaps at some point in the next 20 years.

One such occurrence happened when I first met my best friend. We did not like each other, but ended up on a team together for this intense 11 month mission trip. I had told the person making the teams that I absolutely didn't want to be on a team with Sage because I thought she was immature and she wasn't going to take the trip seriously. Being a missionary is SERIOUS, and I wasn't about Sage's tomfoolery. When we were eventually assigned to the same team, aka we would be spending almost every waking and sleeping moment of the next eleven months together, my bless-ed conscience started nagging me. "Tell her," it said, "You need to come clean. This is a really good idea."

Spoiler alert: 'Twasn't

For some reason, derpy brain told me I absolutely should confess my terrible first impression of Sage directly to her because it seemed vitally important that we start off with "honesty." It didn't occur to me at the time that Sage had absolutely no idea I felt this way and that maybe confessing that I thought she was super annoying was not the best way to start a friendship. But I thought that if I didn't, there would be a problem somewhere in the future and this seemed like the way to prevent it.

So I told her. And it was extremely off-putting. We became for real friends, but not until month 9 of this 11 month trip. Oops.

I relate to the Pharisees (they were the religious leaders of Jesus' time) a little too much. We are both "should" kind of people. You know, the kind who have very strong opinions about the "right" things to do and be and pretend we are those things. We are experts at appearing to be very good and holy, but in reality are just as derpy as the next yahoo. David Benner in his book The Gift of Being Yourself writes, "Focusing on God while failing to know ourselves deeply may produce an external form of piety, but it will always leave a gap between appearance and reality." Hello, it's me.

I feel like, as a writer and a specifically Jesus-y writer, I should have lots of answers, or at least more answers than questions. I feel like I should have very wise and profound things for you to read each and every week. I feel like I should be perfectly applying each and every thing I write about. And so I try to force myself to be all the "should" things by sheer force of will and completely without help. Recognizing that I am not those things, that I am not capable of being all of that and a bag of chips can be painful. Admitting it to myself, to another person, and to God is even more so.

In her book Never Enough, Judith Grisel explains that, "In fact, pain has two primary purposes: the first is to teach us to avoid dangerous stimuli or situations, and the second is to encourage recuperation after failing the first lesson." Sometimes this is a good thing, like if you break a leg or have a gut reaction to a dangerous person or situation. But for better or worse, our brains like for things to stay the same, even if that same is not good for us. So it signals danger. It tells us to stay away. If I get used to the "should" mindset and the self-reliance mindset, making an adjustment will feel like pain and so I want to avoid it.

But what if sometimes the abundant life promised to us is on the other side of the pain? What if sometimes the thing that feels like death is actually the precursor to new life?

Perhaps the most difficult part of step 5 is having to admit "the exact nature of our wrongs" to ourselves. We are a species who seems determined to see ourselves in the best light, to feel like we are reasonable people whose actions are always completely justifiable. I think that, for most people, if a particular action or word seemed "wrong" or "unreasonable" in the moment, we wouldn't do it. Or, at the very least, we know it is wrong or unreasonable, we convince ourselves we have a really good reason for doing it, that we are the exception. This is so instinctive, we often aren't even aware we're doing it.

It takes a great deal of courage to own our mistakes, to call them what they are, and to talk about them without making ourselves look like the hero or victim of the story. It's not a one and done process. The Big Book of AA talks about "progress over perfection." I think that means to put out little trust bread crumbs at first. As a neurotic over-achiever, my tendency is to just shove the whole bakery down someone's throat, because why not be efficient about it. But progress doesn't really work like that. There's always going to be that nagging desire to justify and rationalize and minimize. So we put out bread crumbs and we take one step at a time, one day at a time, one relationship at a time.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

What do you think?

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May 23, 2019No Comments

Search Me, I Guess

Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

If I had a nickel, as they say, for every time I've been told not to be so hard on myself, I would be able to invest in Manhattan real estate. If I were so inclined, that is, which I am not. I find myself almost constantly thinking about what I have done and how I can do better.

I'm always thinking about my decisions and my everyday habits from the perspective of "What do my actions and thoughts say about who I am and who I will be in ten years?" This is not a bad thing necessarily, but one can carry it too far. "Too Far" could be the title of my memoir. Maybe you aren't as hyper-vigilant as I am, but you might be able to relate to the idea of trying to "be your best self."

The problems that I constantly bump up against in my obsession with analyzing my every action and motivation? Exhaustion, discouragement, and limitation. So when I read step four, I experienced a combination of dread and relief. It's a weird combo. Dread because I live in the deep dive of self-analysis and I know where it leads: guilt, shame, and frustration. Relief because moral inventories are as instinctive to me as breathing. But the a word stuck out to me that shifted my perspective.


It will come as no surprise to you that there are things we have picked up over the years that are less than beneficial for our well-being and for our relationships. For the controlling perfectionist, the words "fearless" and "moral inventory" are antithetical. How could they possibly coexist? To dive deep and honestly confront what is inside means reckoning with everything that's in there, the admirable and the harmful. And to honestly recognize the harmful, I have to admit that maybe I'm not as capable of fixing myself as I think. And that maybe "fixing" isn't the point.

When I do moral inventory on my own, it is with the purpose of shaming myself into better thoughts and behavior. It has less to do with my well-being than making myself more palatable for myself, others, and God. And if I can't fix it, then I can hide it.

But what if my definition of this process is incomplete? Spoiler alert: it is.

There's a type of prayer called a Prayer of Examen. Richard Foster explains, "Examen comes from the Latin and refers to the tongue, or weight indicator, on a balance scale, hence conveying the idea of an accurate assessment of the true situation." The idea is to ask God to reveal moments in your day where he was present and moments where you chose either to engage with that presence or not. It's a way of evaluating how we spend our time and energy with the desire to be more intentional, more present, and more aware. "Without apology and without defense we ask to see what is truly in us" (Foster).

The difference between this and what I am accustomed to practicing is the presence of God, who is love, who already knows what is inside of me. When we invite God into this process, we are led through our strengths and our inadequacies and our unsuitability into God's embrace. It is not a self-serving, self-absorbed, or self-loathing process. It is a practice of continually being led to God, to grace, and to the image of God that exists in all of us. As Richard Rohr describes, "God has trapped us all inside grace and enclosed all things human in a constant need for mercy."

This process is not always comfortable. It is even less so when we roll up our sleeves and manhandle our way into the depths of ourselves and try to arrive at grace on our own strength. I have the tendency to try to find grace and God, to wrestle and analyze and exhaust myself searching only to discover that I already had both. Even in light of God's mercy, there is plenty inside of me that I would rather hide from myself, the people around me, and God. Psalm 139 is all about searching and knowing. Verses 1-3 state, "O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways."

We can dive deep and see ourselves as we truly are fearlessly in light of the grace and mercy and love that have been abundantly lavished on us before we even had a thought of trying to earn it. This should be good news, but the type A perfectionist in me is skeptical. How many times have you learned that this is simply not how the world works? How many times have you been crushed by your expectations of yourself and others and even of God? If you're anything like me, it feels like too many to count. How could this be true when everything around and inside of me seems to be screaming the opposite?

I suppose this is why the steps are ordered the way that they are, why step one is to admit you are powerless and steps 2 and 3 have to do with surrendering to God (as we understood Him). Without these presuppositions, the dive inward for the moral inventory would inevitably lead to despair. If I continue to believe that it's all on me, then I will be overwhelmed and paralyzed. But if I can admit my powerlessness and understand God to be kind and compassionate, then the inadequacies no longer define me. I am defined by an innate need for grace and love, and so the qualities and habits that would have finished me are just things. They are true and real, but they are not the end. They are the beginning.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

What do you think?

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May 15, 2019No Comments

Sweet Surrender

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

I spent a few years training as an opera singer. Most of that process was attending grad school to study vocal performance in one of the most surprising doors that God has opened for me.

During that time, I had a few roles that were characters who had actual names. One of them was the only purely speaking role in the opera, Fleta the Fairy. One was silent.

The silent role was in an intense show called "Dialogues of the Carmelites," which is about a group of nuns who get beheaded during the French Revolution. It's actually based on a true story. The beheading doesn't happen until the very end, but there was another dramatic death at the end of the first act. The Prioress (aka head nun) is on her deathbed and sings for approximately eleven million minutes straight before surrendering to death.

At the beginning of this scene, my character, Sister Anne of the Cross, comes on stage to help, almost gets sick, is yelled at by the second in command nun, "Sister Anne of the Cross, you are not going to faint like a silly little girl, you should fall to your knees and pray! It'll do you more good than your salts."*

There are a few of levels of humility here. One, getting over the fact that second semester of my final year of grad school I had been given a silent role in the opera, and deciding I was going to be the best pretend barfer that stage had ever seen. I had to sit through several extra hours of rehearsal for those five minutes onstage silently fake barfing, which was truly a blessing as I was preparing for my masters recital and my comprehensive exams.

Two, not only was the role silent, my character was apparently some kind of weeny that fainted all the time (hence the reference to the "salts"). Why did I get the absolute lamest role in this entire opera? Your girl is farm strong. I mean, I know that's why they call it acting, but still. Get it together, Sister Anne.

From my time as an opera singer, I've seen and been part of many death scenes. The singer who is dying has to mimic all of the physical and emotional symptoms of the death process while also singing a beautiful legato line. The challenge is to make it look realistic while also sounding stunning and having perfect breath control and being heard over an entire orchestra without a microphone.

In case you aren't picking up what I'm putting down, it's really forking difficult. It also adds a romantic air to the whole death process. If I think about it, though, I'm not sure how many people are dignified or grandiose in their final hours. In fact, I would say it's one of the most vulnerable and humbling moments of life.

I know, I'm full of fun pep talks in this blog series.

Humility is crucial to the health of our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with God. In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes, "Although truth is not always humility, humility is always truth--the blunt acknowledgement that I owe my life, being, and salvation to Another. This fundamental act lies at the core of our response to grace."

You can probably tell how good I am with responding to grace by my reaction to playing Sister Anne of the Cross. The thing about being sick or dying or vulnerable in some other way is you can't pretend to have everything together. But when we encounter these moments, whether personally or second hand, it can be a sobering reminder that life and health are shockingly fragile.

Step three is all about surrendering ourselves to the care of God (as we understand Him). Richard Rohr writes, "Surrender will always feel like dying, and yet it is the necessary path to liberation." I've noticed this thing in church where we talk about spiritual renewal as going from death to live, which is apt imagery, but it is often discussed with a jubilant tone. And yet, if you've gone through this process, you probably know that it is painful. Even though we know that something better is on the other side, getting there is alarmingly vulnerable and undignified.

Knowing that, it can be hard to actually make the decision. What if God isn't trustworthy? Can I really believe that God knows and wants what is best for me? Maybe it's better to stick with what I know, what is safe and comfortable than risk something new. Jesus had his own qualms before his death. Luke writes, "And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on to the ground" (22:44). Mark writes, "And he said to [the disciples], 'My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch" (14:34).

In order to make this decision, we have to get to a point where we are out of good ideas, which is how Anne Lamott defines grace. Isaiah 30:15 says, "For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, 'In returning and rest shall you be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.'" In order for us to buy into this process, we have to understand God as better than we can imagine and more loving than we comprehend. It's that counter-intuitive for our can-do brains.

As much as we would like to picture ourselves effortlessly flitting into new life, grace is much grittier than that. It's in the God who is not too prim to get down into the muck with us, the one who knows what death is like and the anguish we can experience in life, the one who was mocked, beaten, humiliated, and murdered. He knows because he did it, and he made a way for us to come out the other side with him.

*Francis Poulenc, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Act 1. Shout out to my girl Shelby who looked up this quote while recovering from food poisoning like a boss.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

What do you think?

Leave a comment below or use my contact page to shoot me a message. Looking to join the conversation? Sign up for my newsletter to get an exclusive, thought-provoking message from me every other Wednesday plus recommendations for content I think you'll love.

Communicator. Creator. Coach.

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