“If You are Willing to Laugh at Yourself… You’ll never run out of material.”

“I refuse to join any club that would have me for a member.”                                                                   Groucho Marx
All the days of the afflicted are bad,
but one with a cheerful heart has a continual feast                                                                                Proverbs 15:15

I believe that if we are willing to laugh at ourselves, we will never run out of material. Yes, it is true, and it is a principle of good mental and emotional health. Learning to “not take ourselves too seriously” is a key to contentment, and a tool for continual renewal.

Laughter at ourselves is healthy, refreshing, and it takes the edge off of trying to be perfect. It is far better to be aware of our own mistakes, foibles and quirks than to be blind to them, only to have to have someone else point them out to us. If they do, we might become defensive- especially if at the core we know it is true. Don’t you just hate that?

Sometimes anxiety says to us- (remember, I said in an earlier blog that anxiety is our traveling partner, so we might as well get used to it)- “you should have thought of that”; or “that’s not gonna work”; or “this project will be a disaster”; or “if people find out how incompetent you are…”

I remember telling my interns a story when I was supervising students.

Many years ago, I had just taken a new job at Miami County Mental Health Center, having come from work at the state hospital as a social worker. I realized that I had a huge learning curve in working in a community mental health setting.  My work at the state hospital had been difficult, but it was a very different challenge in this new setting. I thought to myself “If they have any idea how incompetent I am here, they will surely fire me”. And I laughed. It was not true, really. I mean, I was incompetent, they would just never get the chance to find out!

My interns usually laughed, and also felt great relief. Because that is exactly how they felt too at the time. My willingness to laugh at myself, and then share it, gave relief to a common anxiety- “I will be found out as a fraud”.  The truth was, we weren’t frauds, just inexperienced, and we knew it. But laughing about it defused it, normalized it, and we could get on with the business of learning, not worrying.

So, laughter is good, especially when we can see it in ourselves. Like I said, we’ll never run out of material.

Prayer: Thank you Father for the gift of laughter. It is healing to our body and soul, Amen

Effective People

Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”
 The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?  Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”                                                                                                                                           Exodus 4:10-12

Today we look at the other part of being safe and effective in helping others- being effective.  Having the right attitude, being safe, is a necessary component of helping others. However, it is not sufficient to simply have the correct attitude. One needs some tools to be effective in the helping process. I have found, and research confirms, that asking questions in a meaningful and sincere manner, is important in the healing process. Coming alongside the person who needs some support is best achieved by interest in learning the space where someone is at that time. It is not our job to take someone where WE think they need to go. It is our job to get to know their journey well enough, and earn the right to involve ourselves with them in that journey. This can take time and patience, and that is at times a sacrifice.

Genuine interest is, in itself, healing. Questions about background, interests, desires, and hopes are important in establishing rapport and credibility. This is not a feigned interest. If it is not genuine, let someone else be the helper.

Questions then can open up the areas of discussion which need to be pursued. A small sample of questions might be- “What would you like to do in this situation?”; “What is stopping you from doing that?”; “What have you tried?” ; “What is your biggest fear?”; “Who do you usually talk to about such things?” Such questions are just an example of ways to get at deeper issues which may be weighing on the person in need.

I believe that the best kid of ability is availability. Showing up and being available is critically important. Questions are the ways to unlock the best resources for the person we are helping. That is, letting them know that they possess the answers to their own problems- we are just facilitating the help.

Warmth is a key in gaining rapport. I define warmth as effective non-verbal communication. We are seen as being warm through our non-verbals, mostly. That is- eye contact, smiles, nodding our head to let people know we are with them, and body posture that is open and welcoming.

I loved the response that God gave to Moses at the burning bush when Moses, so unsure of himself, believed that he was not the right person for the job of leading the Israelites. In the passage from Exodus, above, God essentially told Moses, “You be available, I am able”

That is the approach I like. We just need to be really available, and God can do his work through us.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for giving us the privilege to serve others. You are able as we submit, Amen.

 

Safe People

A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for a time of adversity                                                                                         Proverbs 17:17

Today, a few thoughts on ways to be helpful to people who are struggling with some emotional response in these stressful days. Yesterday I wrote about how stress affects us in all ways- physically, spiritually, and emotionally. So, I want to give just a few thoughts on how to reach out to one another. Encouraging words, as I discussed, are healing to both body and spirit. However, to go a bit deeper, I will share some considerations about helping others.

I think we need to consider the two factors that we always use when we hear about therapeutic medications- safe and effective. Pharmaceutical companies typically advertise that their products are “safe and effective” . By that, they mean that the drugs will not produce undue harm, and that they have been shown to have some level of actually working to solve the medical problem for which they were developed.

So, helpers also need to be “safe and effective”. That means that we are “safe people”. In this case, safe means that we are trying to be helpful and available to help the other person, not to get our own needs met. That we can be non-judging and accepting. That we will not add to the burden already there for the person we help. That what they tell us is confidential, and will not be spread to others.

I recognize that I am discussing informal, friendly interventions, not professional counseling. Friends are not legally held to standards of confidentiality, however, there needs to be a discussion about where the information can go. The general rule is that the helping person is not the owner of the information, and has no right to share it without permission.

Finally, if possible, the helper should consider pointing the friend toward other safe people, who can be of help. Isolation is the thing that can get us in trouble during times of stress. Having a group of people who care is a tremendous help in our collective efforts to handle stressful times.

Tomorrow, we discuss “effective”. In the meantime, “be safe out there”! 

Prayer: Lord, help us to be strong and safe as we go about helping one another in hard times, Amen.

 

 

Stress and Response

Pleasant words are a honeycomb,
Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.
Proverbs 16:24

 We are all familiar with the concept of stress and the damage that chronic stress can do to the body. It was however the work of Hans Selye in the 1930’s that verified that there is a significant reaction by the body to stress. Selye was working on experiments with the endocrine system when he found that the body has some responses to chronic stress that are not good. Not that the body reacts poorly to stress- on the contrary. Our body, with its “fight or flight” syndrome, prepares us for conflict and danger by sending a flood of signals to prepare us to run, or to fight a threat. The body signals the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands in response to those threats. However, once the threat is gone, the body typically responds by clearing the excess cortisol. A chronic state of stress, the threat of danger all the time, even at a lower level, keeps those cortisol levels high, and this wreaks havoc on all the body systems.

We are living in very stressful times. Yes, every generation has said that- life is stressful. But the presence of COVID-19 these past months has raised the stress level for a sustained period of time, and it is wearing on everyone’s system to some degree.  So, what to do? Well, we know that we must do things to protect ourselves from virus exposure of course. But there are other things we can do to help emotionally.

The one I suggest today comes from Proverbs. When a pleasant word is spoken to someone else, there is a physiological response, as well as an emotional one. When we hear a good word, a word of encouragement, it literally is healing. I was so fascinated by this verse from Proverbs because it connects healing to our bones with the concept of “honeycomb”. Did you know that the inside of our bones looks like a honeycomb? That is where, in the marrow, blood cells are formed. Healing to the bones is healing to the entire body.

I am not a physician, and the above description does not come from an expert. However, God’s plan for healing IS the expert one. A kind word in these stressful times heals both the speaker and the listener.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for the amazing way that we are made, as well as your plans for healing, Amen  

 

Today We Celebrate America

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”                                                                                                                                                               Winston Churchill
“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing- after they’ve tried everything else”    Winston Churchill
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.                                                                                                                                                                  I John 1:9

Yes, it is the 4th of July, and who better to quote from than a former English Prime Minister! Okay, but he did have an American mother.

As you know, I like Winston Churchill, and yes, he was a deeply flawed individual. I challenge us to find any leader who has a past unblemished. All have words or deeds which he or she regrets or had some shame over.

This is true of countries too. We have a beautiful country, one born in ideals of freedom. Despite the criticisms and ranting by many throughout the world, America is still that place held up as an example of freedom, opportunity, and yes, justice.

I have clients who have regrets and failures (yes, of course, we all do), and I often talk with them about not being defined by our failures or sins. We own those deficits and ask forgiveness, then we use those failures to become who we are trying to be. Indeed, that is who we are- the person we aspire to be.

So, we are going through an intense look at American culture right now, and that can be a very difficult thing- and a good thing. In reflecting, we see some painful failures and injustices. A reasoned look at past failures is the way that we grow. The object is to not get stuck in the look at the failures. The goal is to learn the effective and right measures to remedy them.

In I John 1:9 we are told that:

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

So, that is the remedy for every sin, and that is the formula for recovery. We own our failures, ask forgiveness, learn from them, and aspire to the greatness that we are designed to have.

So, we say “Happy Birthday, America”, you’re still looking pretty good at 244 years old.

Prayer: Lord, we are grateful for the blessings we have in America. We turn to that motto and yearn for it to be true- In God we trust, Amen.

 

Upon Further Review…

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth                                                                                         Matthew 5:5 

I have always been drawn to the meaning of the word “meekness”. We have typically made the word synonymous with “mild” or even “weak”. One of the definitions I found for the word was:

MEEKNESS- NOUN

  1. the fact or condition of being meek; submissiveness

However, upon further review, I think the meaning is actually quite different than this. Some Bible expositors define meekness as “power under control”. I think this is the sense that Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount. Those who are meek really will inherit the earth, because the meek have power and use it with great discretion. Those who have the attribute of meekness recognize that they do not need to bully others, or intimidate others in an argument. They have enough self-assurance that they need not explain to others that they are powerful in their reasoning.

Like a strong horse whose power is under control by the bridle, it can summon great strength when it is directed properly by the rider. The key is to understand that the power is available, and it is not used recklessly, but for a purpose.

Do not underestimate the power of a restrained response. Especially in these days of conflict, anger and social media confrontation, those who demonstrate meekness, may be seen as weak, but their discretion is so important. The restraint that we need these days will be modeled by the meek.

I hope they do inherit the earth.

Prayer: I thank you for the depth of Jesus’ amazing teaching. His are truly the words of life, Amen.

 

Daily Bread

After this manner therefore pray ye, Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done even in earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen                           Matthew 6:9-13

 

I used the very old translation of this venerable prayer, because there is a poetry to it in this form. We memorized the prayer as children, and it was typically in old verse like this. There is some comfort in reciting the Lord’s Prayer in the old style, but we need to remember that there is no magic in the words. It gives us comfort to recite, but what do the words really mean?

As I was thinking about this, I saw that this was the model for how we should pray every day. Each morning back in the day that Jesus taught this prayer, people had to find and make their bread for the day. They would go to the community oven to bake bread, or they would daily lay a flat matza (or matzah) on a hot stone to bake it. Bread was a daily staple, but there were no preservatives (not much shelf life), and daily bread was just the way of life.

Just like the bread needed to be daily, so did forgiveness, fleeing from temptation, and deliverance from evil.

Daily disciplines strengthen us. I have found that I take comfort in the predictability of my daily disciplines, especially as we are living in a world that is so far from predictable every day. So, take control of your daily disciplines- prayer, reading, exercise- whatever things you do daily to make sense of the world in order to keep your body and mind healthy.

We still need Daily Bread.

Prayer: Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done even in earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen                           

Whose Burden Is It?

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ                                      Galatians 6:2

 The whole discussion about “Codependence” really revved up in the 1970’s although the concept had been around since Karen Horney’s work in the 1940’s. The essential elements are about the dysfunctional ways that people try to make relationships work. We are called to “bear one another’s burdens”, but not to carry the ones they should and can bear themselves. In other words, we don’t do things for people that they can or should do for themselves.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with helping people out of our sense of love or generosity. The question is, what is the motive? Is it to ensure that the other person will love and accept me? Is it out of fear of rejection? Or is it simply that I want to see the other person’s joy, satisfaction and growth?

None of us have perfect motives, but it is important, as I have suggested often, to be aware of my real motives in an honest reflection of myself.

We are called upon to bear one another’s burdens but not to meet our own ego needs of being “the helper”. We must always answer the question “Whose needs are being met here?” Co-dependents tend to lose themselves (or run from themselves) by “caretaking” another person.

In teaching care-pastors at church, I used this concept to help them to see what good care-giving is. The bottom line was: Our goal is empowerment, not caretaking

That is, we give tools and assistance at the time to people in order to help them do what they need to do for themselves. Our job, I told them, was not to solve another person’s problem, it was to get them to the One who can.

 In some relationships, ones that tend toward being unhealthy, one partner is dependent on the other person’s poor functioning to satisfy their own emotional needs. We find this, of course in addiction situations, as well as abusive ones that may end up in domestic violence.

Some of the characteristics listed below are from the work of Friel & Friel (1988), and they are instructive on warning signs that may be present in codependent relationships…

My good feelings about who I am stem from being liked by you.                                              My good feelings about who I am stem from receiving approval from you.                            My fear of your anger determines what I say or do.                                                                        I use giving as a way of feeling safe in our relationship.                                                             My social circle diminishes as I involve myself with you.                                                                I put my values aside in order to connect with you. 

So, we are called to be responsive to the needs of others, and we should respond out of love, and the desire to bring people to health in all ways. That, I believe, is the focus of Galatians 6:2. We just need to be aware of what is going on in our own mind in that decision.

Prayer: Lord, we are all in need at one time or another. Thank you for the comfort of other people in those times, Amen.

Hold That Thought…

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.                                                                               II Corinthians 10:5

Writing our story, or beginning the idea of expressing our journey, does several things for us. As I mentioned yesterday, writing, or other forms of expression, such as speaking to others, art, etc. are ways that we get those ideas that are in our head out to the rest of the world. In doing so, we are processing those thoughts, that is, as the Bible calls it, taking our thoughts captive. To me, that is awareness, or mindfulness – being aware that we are aware. Sounds complicated, but we do it all the time if we take just a moment to reflect on “what am I thinking right now?” “how am I feeling right now? “what is my attitude right now?”

We need to slow down our thoughts, and that is not easy. For some people, it is extremely hard, especially during the “racing thoughts” times of anxiety. There are other clinical conditions such as Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, and others, where professional help and medication may be necessary to help deal with racing thoughts. However, I am discussing today, the typical flood of thoughts that sometimes makes us feel out of control.

The habit of being aware of those thoughts, then examining them in the light of truth is important. So often, the thoughts that we have are simply not true. We are capable of a lot of irrational thinking without really realizing it as being irrational. However, negative thoughts such as “I’m worthless”; “nobody really loves me”; “everything I do fails”; or “I know today is going to be terrible”- are examples of irrational thinking.

So, we need to become aware of our current thinking, then take the thoughts captive and examine them in the light of truth. Doing something external, such as expressing those thoughts and feelings, gives us control of them. We are forced to examine those thoughts and feelings in the light of expression which takes another part of our brain to be activated.

So, we need to step back and take our thoughts captive- to speak truth to them. God has made us in his image, he cares for us, and wants us to be in communication with him. Our own thoughts, unchecked, can lead us to places of despair. The truth however, sets us free. 

Prayer: Father, thank you for the gift of mindfulness. Centered upon your truth, it sets us free, Amen.

 

So, what’s your story?

You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.
 How precious are your thoughts about me, O God.
They cannot be numbered!
 I can’t even count them;
they outnumber the grains of sand!
And when I wake up,
you are still with me                                                                                                                                                        
Psalm 139:16-18

Everybody has a story- a unique one. The King James translation of the earlier part of the passage above uses the poetic phrase, “fearfully and wonderfully made…”. Indeed, how amazing we are!

One of the things I often give to my clients as homework (I always give homework!), is to write in a journal about their thoughts and feelings. I do this for several reasons, based on the situation. For one thing, I have this counseling philosophy that we need to get things “out of here” (pointing to my head) and “out to here” (pointing to outside of our body).  This is a way to take control of thoughts that seem to be out of control. Once we can externalize, we can find a way to manage things in our own creative ways.

For some this may well be writing, but for others, it may be painting, coloring, music, or a host of other creative outlets. The point is, once we express those thoughts and ideas, we can have a handle on them. We can name them, we can manage them.

As I said earlier, we all have a unique story which is worth sharing. Those journal stories, or artistic expressions can comprise a book or a portfolio of work which, taken together, becomes our story. I have had several clients come back to me with their book, usually self-published. That is an incredible outcome! They have redeemed the pain they experienced, and turned it into a product of their own creation- healing for them, and for those who view their work.

A few clients simply want the work to be private and never published, but it has become their story of healing. It has become tangible, written down, able to be passed down to children which I recommend if the client is willing to do that. Most are.

Our story is powerful and it is a chronicle of overcoming adversity, and of worthy achievement. I have been touched by so many stories of clients overcoming pain and abuse, and I have been privileged to have seen that work which clients have created.

I will speak more about this in coming reflections. Meanwhile, consider writing/expressing your story- it is good for mind and soul.

Prayer: Father, thank you for how you have made us as creative people able to express the value you have given us, Amen.