Saturday, April 8, 2017

Status Update Style

I realized I often see God as an inanimate object: a nutcracker that's lost its magic and fallen asleep into its immovable and lifeless form.  

How easily I forget.

God is by His very nature animate.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Harvest and the Holidays

Yesterday I went to a small group held by an old church of mine, Crossbridge. Many lessons have been learned in this group, many personal pitfalls uncovered, and many friends made. I find both my patience and my pride surface when I'm forced in good company to confront how the Gospel impacts my daily life and heart. It's a good thing I have people around me confronting the same pitfalls and prides, cause I wouldn't sustain such intense self-reflection on my own (grad school, anyone?).

Anyway, during this small group, we were talking about Jesus being our peace, our unity, our tranquility, our confidence. Ephesians 2:14 says "For He, Himself, is our peace." Specifically in Ephesians, God has displayed his peace in His personhood by breaking down "the dividing wall of hostility" between the Jews and the Gentiles. He enacted his peace by taking the spiritual and physical enmity of two groups and reconciling them to be not just separate and tolerant, but reconciled and whole: one new entity from two hostile enemies. 

I think of this peace through a similar lens as the Kingdom of God: both here, but not yet. God's kingdom reign is imminent and unstoppable and good and whole, but simultaneously patient and growing and on its way. Similarly, God's peace is both here and not yet. We are at peace with God through unlimited and unrestrained access to the Father through the Son by the Spirit. And yet.... this peace that gives me unconditional love and relationship with my Heavenly Father, is still finding and trying to take root in my marred love and fickle human relationships. His peace is here and not yet.

It's a difficult thing to experience the peace of Christ in the brokenness and injustice of the world. I often find myself either "blind" to the world's pain, or bitter toward God's peace. As if world peace and the peace of Christ are mutually exclusive. As if I can't experience God's peace while the world is in chaos. Black and white thinking is most often a scheme of the Devil to cause quarrels and maim peace. C.S. Lewis notes this point in his Mere Christianity when he says the following:

"He [the devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them."

This is how it is with the two errors of peace. The one says "peace with God means that there must already be peace with the world, so the pain that people are telling me about and the pain that I'm experiencing must not really be pain because God's peace is greater than it." This first error is an error of minimizing pain and oversimplifying peace. The second error is the opposite: "peace with God must not be possible on earth because there is so much pain and injustice that I can't experience the peace of God while living on the earth." This error mocks peace and magnifies pain. As C.S. Lewis states, I have spend much time analyzing the two errors, the two pairs. The true nature of peace is to stroll between the two pairs, a nod to each perhaps but a quick stride to the fullness and richness of peace with pain and in pain.

Peace does not take away pain. Pain does not take away peace. They are not mutually exclusive, nor strictly at odds with each other.

I think this is important for me because my pursuit of peace often lapses into a pursuit of comfort.

I think this is important for me because my sensitivity to brokenness often lapses into an aversion toward peace. 

It seems that peace is not a war that is won, but a seed that is sown. It is planted by Christ and harvested by His people. James hints at this idea when he says "a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace" (3:18). Justice, then, is peace fully-grown and matured.

I don't have a closing thought or send-off, but I'm glad to get some of what I'm thinking down onto this format. I'm still eager to develop and sow peace in a world where justice is an endangered species. Justice and peace are not mutually exclusive, and in fact one requires the other in order to be fully realized. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Fill in the Blank

I thought I would take the 20 minutes I have between clients (thank you, no show) to write about something that is on my mind. My clients truly do more for my personal growth than any class, friend, or church service I've been to. They keep me motivated and they keep me ever-open to new possibilities. My client this morning got me thinking about the double-sided coin of the blank page: the analogy of opportunity as well as uncertainty. I've always considered a physical blank page to be an exciting element. It strikes me as new territory: completely available to be explored, molded, and changed to reflect whatever I want at the time. However, this excitement quickly turns to fear when you ask me to draw on the paper. Some days, more than others, I cling to the excitement and can attach to the idea of creating something from nothing. Yet, the idea of creating something that would be considered "ugly" or "bad" is worse than leaving the paper blank. After all, if I'm going to put my heart into it, I want it to stand the best chance of being loved.

As I thought about this more and more (still thinking, for the record) I began seeing some of what my client is going through as a blank page of sorts. For them, putting pen to paper (making a choice to pursue their happiness) seems worse than leaving things how they are. For similar reasons as I listed above, they don't trust their ability to put down something good, so they're afraid to put down anything at all. It's scary to think about being seen and rejected. This client is stuck holding the pen, wanting to use their talents and opinions, but paralyzed by the fear of failing, being seen as a failure, or simply "not succeeding" (which makes neutral performance akin to failure).

I get this. I live this.

Anyway, the best thing to get over the fear of messing up is to practice on something that no one else will see, or that doesn't matter that much. When I first started writing, I used journals and notebooks that I knew no one else would see. I used prompts instead of coming up with my own narratives. Now, I write for whomever and don't care what they think about it, because I like what I do. I think I have something important to say, and I also see my writing as my personal way of engaging in the Gospel's creative process of redeeming, making things new, and drawing people to the love and wisdom that is God, my Maker, my Father.

Anyway, I thought about this for my client, for myself. When I feel performance anxiety, what blank page is being put in front of me? What do I think I'm adding to it? Can I loosen fear's grip on the process? Can I practice on something before it goes viral? Can I lean on my creativity and passion to push me through the fear and paralysis?

Lots of questions, but also lots of ideas.

What is your blank page? What do you want to say with it? What is fear getting in the way of? How do you practice and hone your creativity and your purpose?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Me that is Left

“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others... but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it, but there may come a day when you can no longer. Then, there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God "sending us" to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud. ”

C.S. Lewis
This quote has been a companion of mine for about a month now. It haunts me, it inspires me, it becomes me, it destroys me. I'm in the thick of my abstinence assignment now, where the end of the semester is in sight but ruthlessly out of reach. I have a choice to make: is giving up grumbling a class assignment, or a lifestyle change? It pains me to realize I've been seeing it as an assignment. I know this because when I fail, what gets me back  on track is not forgiveness, but cheer-leading. I don't think "It's ok, Rachel, it takes time to make a genuine change in your attitude and heart." Instead, I find myself thinking, "You can do this, Rachel, you only have a month left." Spoiler alert, the "you're almost done" attitude is the lesser motivator. 
Plus, it's not what I really want. In my heart of hearts, I want to find the balance of feeling my feelings, trusting my instincts, and optimism. I want this. I need this. I'm not the person to shirk my negative thoughts for positive ones. I have to acknowledge the negative ones before my brain gives me permission to let the positive ones in. It's like taking a guy home to meet my parents before I say yes to his proposal: it makes sense in my mind as "just the way you do things." It's like tradition. I don't really want it to stay that way. I don't want my negative feelings to determine whether I get to be happy or not. What I want is for my natural bent to be toward shalom: completion. Toward some semblance of satisfaction and happiness. Only after setting this foundation, do I want grumbling to get an invitation to dinner, and I want him to leave at the end of the night. He is supposed to be a guest in my house, not the owner of the building. I want this mindset to be a lifestyle, not just an assignment. 
At the same time, this assignment and project has taught me what I'd known but hadn't experienced for awhile: I really am a natural pessimist! It comes so easily to find the wrong, to point out the flaws, to find the holes. While this has pushed me in many ways to improve myself and my circumstances, there comes a point at which I cannot assume I know best, nor can I assume responsibility for fixing everything about myself and the world. In these moments, my capacity toward growth became poisoned with grumbling and complaining. I'm still discovering the blind spots left in my life from thinking I know best, and I'm ignoring some blind spots because I still think I know best! It's a funny thing to try and be humble while holding onto pride. Spoiler alert, it doesn't work very well. 
While this post lacks inspiration, vibrancy, and color; it contains heart. My heart: the broken, open, eager mess that it is. This is the me that is left, but it's still me. It's enough. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

So You Wanna Be A Counselor?

I found myself in the shower thinking about what makes a good counselor a good counselor? This is a thought I've had off and on (mostly on) for the past year. It pops up occasionally in predictable places (like the shower) and in unpredictable places (like chipotle). It's an idea I apparently have open for renovation almost constantly, it's little dust particles falling in front of my eyes whenever something rattles its frame.

I'm going to pretend I have to answer that question right now, as if my life depended on it. As if I were running for president and my candidacy depended on me answering this questions (except in this case, the answer to the question would actually influence my presidency, which we all know isn't the case this run... yeah I went there).

"Rachel," the moderator begins, "first, let me welcome you to the arena this evening."

(Arena?!?! Where are we, The Hunger Games?)

"Thank you, kind human, I'm happy to be here. I'm also tired. I find myself saying that a lot lately."

"Haha, yes. Tiredness is the dickens."

"True dat, homie."

"Shall we get to the first quesion?"

"Oh, of course, yes; go ahead."

"Well, our audience is concerned with your recent experiences as a professional counselor in mental health. In fact, every one of them wants to be a counselor some day. Not just any counselor, they all want to be good counselors; makes sense. A good president leads the people into growth and accomplishment. Can you lead this audience into the same thing? They want to know how to become good counselors, so how would you answer them?"

(gulp.... blankly stare at invisible speck on wall... smile, out of instinct... open mouth)

"Thank you for this invigorating question. I cannot tell you the countless hours I've spent pondering this exact conundrum. It's an important question, there's no doubt about it; and yet, the answer is simultaneously simple and complex. It is an aha moment and a lifelong journey. It is as obvious as the nose on your face while also being the mirage in the desert. I cannot ascend to answer this question once and for all, as it disrespects the nuance of the profession and of the people we care for. At the same time, I cannot turn my head and simply tell people to figure out along the way, as it disrespects the curiosity and bravery of the inquirer asking for help.

I like to think that my answer to this question is ever evolving. Like a recipe your grandmother is famous for. Imagine your grandmother makes amazing enchiladas—I know mine does!. Now, imagine her teachers showed her how to preheat an oven, how to operate a mixer, how to portion correct measurements, and how to read a recipe. Picture that she had all this instruction about the skills needed for cooking, but she had no recipe. This is how some counseling students may feel about their training. They have the skills, and they may even have an idea of what they want to cook; but they have no recipe, no ingredients!

The point is, a bad recipe is better than no recipe at all. Even a bad recipe can be used as a plumline for making a new recipe, an amazing recipe! Further, the way the individual makes the recipe and the conditions in which they make it also play roles. I know I can't make my grandmother's enchiladas even when I use the same ingredients and the same recipe! This is also how some students may feel about their counseling training.

Of course, this analogy doesn't account for the training we DO get as counselors: we do understand some of the ingredients, such as positive regard, empathy, and genuineness. Yet, these terms are often shrouded by psychobabble and expressed so differently from person to person. It's an incomplete recipe. I did just say a bad recipe was better than no recipe, so I guess I have to live up to that now!

To return to the original question, and what my audience wants to hear most, I'd like to offer my working recipe for effective counseling. It may not be my grandmother's enchiladas, but it's a start."

  • Love
  • Personal Flair
  • Presence (this means refusing to physically, mentally, or emotionally withdraw from the person sitting across from you)
  • Compassionate Curiosity ("I want to know more about this, not because it's interesting, but because it seems important to you and I care about the things you care about")
  • Practice
Optional Ingredients:
  • Choose a Theory - I know you don't want to, just try it. Start with the one that is least frustrating to you and ask, "What would so and so say about my client? What would so and so want to know about my client and why?"
  •  Choose a Space - make it the place you would wish you were in when an emotional bomb dropped. What would make you feel most you? Most safe? Most thought about?
  • Choose a Mentor - who in your life believes in you, no questions asked? Talk to that person.
  •  Choose a Motive - remind yourself often of why you love this work, why you chose it in the first place.
  • Choose an Emblem - what's one character quality you want to display in all of your counseling sessions, regardless of the content? Ideas: hopeful, peaceful, joyous, grateful, patient, kind, creative... Fill in the blank: I want to be the ______________ counselor.
  • Choose a Secret Identity - find something you can do that is completely unrelated to your career. Allow yourself to not be "the counselor" in all your friendships, relationships, and activities.
  • Preheat oven to hotter than Hell
(just kidding! Must be the grad school life talking!)
  • Clear your head. Seriously, your brain needs to breathe, so let it. 
  • Calm the heck down
  • Have a routine
A mantra that you tell yourself before and after counseling sessions, for instance. This is especially important as you're developing self-efficacy. I encourage a "five finger phrase" that you can repeat by counting off your first five fingers to the incantation. "I am doing my best" and "You can't stop me now" and "I am learning so much" are all possible examples! The words people use toward us are powerful, and that includes your own! Set yourself up for success! Routine can also include physical or mental habits you become accustomed to before and after sessions.
  • Ask questions
  • Stop asking questions
There IS such a thing as overthinking. Sorry to burst your bubble.
  • See it to Be it
Watch counseling sessions, role play!
  • Try it to Buy it
Pursue your own counseling and mental health
  • Keep Track of What Works and What Doesn't
  • If all else fails, return to the primary ingredient: love. 
And, as mentioned previously, recipes are made to be tried and changed, not tried and true.

(mic drop, am I president now?)