Sunday, June 23, 2013

Pain, Progress, and The Scarlet Pimpernel

In all great epics, some tragedy of immense proportion is required in order for the hero or heroine to achieve their final victory. In fact, it seems as though the greater the loss and trial that the protagonists face, the greater and sweeter is their reward in the end.

This was my consolation this afternoon as I was musing upon the grief that has come to steadily visit me in regular intervals over the past two months or so, a grief that continually causes me to beg the questions, "When will this end, and why is it so darn hard?"

I was reading The Scarlet Pimpernel earlier today, the classic novel upon which my all-time favorite musical of the same name is based, and as I was reading and pondering the difficulties that Percy Blakeney must overcome, it was as if God spoke to me, saying, "All great heroes experience a crucible of soul and spirit, and it makes for a better story in the end. So also with you."

Do I presume to be a hero? Well not yet necessarily, but I will say that with my romantic notions of the world and my place within it, I have always wanted to be a hero and aspired to lead a revolution which brings freedom to many who are suffering at the hands of injustice, be it cultural, personal, or otherwise. I want my life to truly count for something, to live an epic adventure and to lead others in securing victory on behalf of others, much like Percy and his valiant league in The Scarlet Pimpernel. But that requires risk, and with risk, loss...and with loss, the hope and tenacity to press forward.

Is the pain always worth the favorable outcome that may not come 'til the very end of the story? Is the chapter of suspense, mistaken understandings, or downright despair worth the pages of glory and valor that are to follow? I must believe it. I do believe it. What we stand to gain must be worth the pain. Sometimes the pain we endure in a tough situation is the only way to enlarge our capacity for what's coming next...or what's coming forth.

This has certainly been true in my life. In my five years of living in Chicago, I have experienced some of the most remarkable victories, and the intensity of joy that I experienced was matched by the intensity of pain that I felt either before or after those victories were had. Two of them were

-Relocating from a smaller (albeit healthy) theatrical climate in Houston to a much larger theatrical city, Chicago, with far more opportunities for me as a playwright.

-Producing the world premiere of my original musical, "Master of Dreams," as work seven years in the making.

These two victories were the hardest feats I have ever accomplished, the strains of which tested the mettle of my very soul to show me what God has made me of...and where I am still in dire need of his assistance. Yet in all of the prodding, testing, and stretching, they added to me skills and strengths that will make me even more effective for larger feats to come. This was certainly true when producing my first professional show, a kids musical entitled "King David: LIVE!" While I came up to Chicago wanting to produce Master of Dreams first, I could never produced a show of that scale without first cutting my teeth on a smaller production (a cast of 3 versus a cast of 7, very little set and budget compared with a larger set, theatre, and budget, and so forth). I'm confident that God knows what we need to get to the next thing, and we can't skip out on what's in between. This often includes pain.

If there is any doubt remaining in regard to the worth of present and necessary pain to produce something greater, Jesus' words to his disciples in a time of their grief seem relevant:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy. Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you."
-John 16:20-22

I love that. Who can relate to the rest of the world rejoicing while you weep? And to times of grief finally turning into joy? The day always comes. The pain has the potential to enlarge one's capacity. And in the best cases, something new and eternal is born which brings a joy that will not be taken away like the rest.

In the words of The Scarlet Pimpernel,

"Someone has to face the valley,
Rush in, we have to rally and win, boys!
When the world is saying not to,
By God, you know you've got to march on boys!

Never hold back your step for a moment!
Never doubt that your courage will grow!
Hold you head even higher and into the fire we go!"

(From The Scarlet Pimpernel: The New Musical Adventure,
Words by Nan Knighton, Music by Frank Wildhorn)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Summer's Winter: Seasons of the Soul

What happens when the season around you is not the same as the season within you? How are you to proceed when it's winter outside but springtime in your heart, or summer outside but winter within?

I am experiencing such a juxtaposition in this current season of my life, and I've had a discovery which I hope will be helpful to others in navigating the seasons of their life.

At the time of this writing, it is mid-June, and I find myself still at the beginning of a beautiful, Chicago summer, with its blissful sunbeams and the perfect combination of cool and warmth blended in the breeze boasting of promise and long-awaited rest. Everybody in Chicago loves the summer. It's what keeps so many of us here to endure what often feels like a never-ending winter (and a sometimes brutal one at that). So why is it that this summer I couldn't be happier for summer to be over? I daresay it has to do with my internal season.

If you have read any of my previous posts from the past few months, you may be able to infer that the earlier months of this year, those of the winter, actually, were quite a marvelous season for me, given the abundance of life and fulfillment that I was experiencing in the gifts that God had provided for me. Aside from the fact that I have a special place in my heart for snow, I am convinced that my experience of the physical season of winter was tempered by the incredible springtime bursting with new life and hope within my soul and spirit. The springtime (or summer) of my soul brought the flowering of new love, and with it, several new experiences through which God brought immense fulfillment and healing to some very deep parts of me.

As with all seasons, however, some plants survive, while others do not. Externally, winter was turning to spring while whispering wistfully of the summer that would come. Internally, I felt a swift cold front and all that naturally follows.

I was crying to God recently, lamenting all of the pain that I have been experiencing both with the death of this relationship and the ebb of other friendships and landmarks that have been very life-giving to me during my time here in Chicago. I was reckoning the fact that I am going to be leaving this place in a matter of months to begin a new journey in New York City, and while excited for the implications of that new journey, I was keenly aware of the deep loss that will accompany such a relocation. I experienced such a relocation 5 years ago, moving from Houston, TX to Chicago, IL for further pursuit of original theatre work, and while the rewards have been many and worth the cost, the loss and pain preceding the prize was immense. What was adding to my grief and frustration in the midst of my lament before God was the acute awareness of summer, with its festivals, its light, the myriad of joy in fellowship that it always brings...and the fact that my internal temperature was incongruent.

That same night, not long after, God spoke to me gently, saying, "David, this is a winter for you. You just came out of a glorious season, and it was beautiful in its time. Even so, this is a different season characterized by things dying so that other things can grow in their place when the next season begins. Embrace the season, knowing that it is not going to be easy, nor is it supposed to be---death and goodbyes are not fun---and you will experience greater peace in the midst of it."

Was God being morbid? No, I don't think so. He speaks often of the joy that we can have in the midst of abundance or lack and the joy that his presence brings whatever the circumstances. Just see the Psalms or any of Paul's writings for such descriptions. No, it wasn't morbidity that God was after when speaking to me about this season of death, but rather a mature, face-to-face look at the reality as it stood (and stands) at the present moment. This is not going to be easy, and my life is slowly shutting down in this place, so I should proceed in a manner appropriate to the season. You don't plant new seed in the middle of winter or expect a harvest in the middle of a snowstorm. (Yes, anything is possible with God, but I am speaking generally right now.) Funny enough, I did have more peace after recognizing this season and accepting it. Did I receive comfort in that moment? No. But I did receive some peace...and a bit of hope.

Accepting the season as a winter released me from feeling guilty about my lack of festivity and gaiety over the season of summer. It's summer on the outside, and while I will try to enjoy of it what I can, I need not feel bad about wanting it to be over. What I am experiencing is a normal progression, and God is with me in that, not expecting me to be in a place that I am not.

Here is the main reason this gives me such hope. If I am currently in a winter, that means that a springtime is coming soon when ice melts and new life bursts forth with the brilliance of a sunrise after a long, cold night. Ironically, my internal springtime will come in an external season which has always been so life-giving to me, that of the fall--also coinciding with my birthday, celebrating my third decade. What a perfect picture of death and rebirth, the ending of one year and the beginning of another.

Solomon had it right when he said that there is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the sun. I encourage you to consider what season you may be in right now and to ponder how you might work with that season, not against it. Would you wear a wintercoat in the heat of the summer? Or shorts in the winter? Check your soul...and if you can't figure out what season you're in, there is One who knows the weather of your life much better than you or I ever could. He can calm a storm in an instant, calling for peace until you current passage ends and a new one begins. Just ask Jesus. He might even invite you for drink of chai...and chai is good for every season. ;-)

" A Time for Everything

3 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace."
-Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Imposter Emotions or How to Walk on Water

Imposters...What comes to your mind when you hear that? An image of unwanted guests breaking into your living space? Somebody hacking into your private information on a computer or other electronic device? How about an emotion?

Yes, you read correctly. Have you ever thought of emotions as imposters? I don't mean all emotions of course, as we all know that emotions are a normal and healthy part of the human life. But what if some emotions that are valid some of the time are, in fact, not valid all of the time? What if some are not actually ours to carry when they come? This is what I want to explore today, as I have had a recent discovery in this area that may be immensely helpful for anyone reading this. Sound interesting? Read on!

The modern (or post-modern), Western society of which I am a part seems to have gotten a very good grip on diagnosing emotions as a normal, healthy part of life as we know it, whereby the more we can be honest with what we are feeling, the better we can assess what is going on and how to move forward. Feeling joy? Be joyful! Feeling sorrow? Perhaps it is time to embrace that sorrow and grieve so that the emotion can have its proper place and joy can come again. But what of times when we feel something like sorrow, grief, or immense fear, seemingly out of no where and are suddenly ambushed by a barrage of negative feelings? Have you ever felt yourself crushed like this, and the more you flailed, the deeper you began to sink in the emotional quicksand, with what felt like little hope of getting out? I have. It is times like these that I think the imposters have come in, and the more sudden the relief, the greater the sign that it was an imposter emotion in the first place. Let me explain.

Two days ago, I read an email that triggered some negative emotions for me. Normal right? Yes, emotional triggers can be quite normal, especially when we are in a process of healing and some of our heartstrings are still tender in areas. However, the intensity of the emotions that I was feeling after being triggered was way beyond what felt appropriate given what I was reacting to and the real scenario at hand. It was as if I had taken a medical cocktail from Dr. Jekyll's personal stash, with sudden, swirling side effects of extreme pain, fear, and an incredibly intense desire to escape with little hope that anything I could do woud help. Sound crazy? It was. I had no reason to feel those intense emotions at that time, especially given what I was reacting to and the reality at hand. Soon enough, I realized that these emotions were not valid for those moments, as opposed to other difficult emotions that I had worked through in a previous grieving period. These, unlike those healthy emotions, were what I am calling the imposters; emotions that make us feel they are in their rightful place yet have no right to enter or stay where they have intruded.

You may now be asking, "How is he so sure that these were lying emotions? Sometimes we just feel what we feel."

Sometimes, yes. But sometimes, no...not at all. Here is part of why I think these were lying emotions and how we can expose them for what they are, towards removing them from where they are not welcome.

1. Healthy emotions, those in their rightful place, are productive. Whether joyful or painful, when we are experiencing emotions in the right way, I have found that they lead to something worthwhile. For instance, if the valid emotion is sorrow or deep grief, experiencing the grief and processing through it (whether through crying, ruminating, or whatever else) typically brings one to a place of release where what's necessary has been felt and the next wave of positive emotions like joy can enter again. Imposters, on the other hand, are not productive at all. They simply keep one stuck in an extreme with no promise of progressing towards something on the other end. This experience that I had the other day was just that.

2. Imposters exaggerate reality and twist it into something much larger than it actually is, making us feel small in the midst of whatever is being imposed upon us. These imposters are often fed when we give into speculation, feeding imaginations of what could be in a scenario (often negative) and what might have happened or will happen, versus looking at whatever facts are known. Healthy emotions, in my experience, often interact with what is known. Imposters, by contrast, offer heaps of the unknown, often presenting worse-case scenarios to partner with our imagination in one of the most destructive of ways. (I am speaking mainly of imposter emotions that mirror the negative. Those which mirror the positive would be best served by another discussion.)

3. Imposter emotions can be rid of quickly when they are dealt with as such. When we expose imposter emotions for what they are, we can readily kick them out, and the result is an expedient, marked shift in one's emotional atmosphere. The quick sand is suddenly dry ground, the tempestuous sky once riddled with dark clouds is surprisingly clear, and the light that has penetrated makes way for clarity of thought and vision. What was overwhelming moments before now seems preposterous, out of place, unnecessary.

How are we to deal with these imposters? As with many of my posts before, I would like to draw upon the wisdom of an age-old text here, one that has proven fruitful in helping me navigate life's complexities on multiple levels. The truth is that the way I got out of the clutches of the imposters I spoke of was by calling out to others and to Jesus in prayer. I have found Jesus to be very effective at driving out imposters, which in my belief sometimes equate with evil, harassing spirits, and other times turn out to be simply lying emotions. More often than not, I think it is a combination of the two. Regardless of what you believe the source of of imposter emotions is, here are two things that I did, both of which are based on practical, spiritual principals from the Bible.

1. Reach out for help. Isolation is a great envrionment for imposter emotions to continue their assault. King David, who experienced a great deal of hardship both before and during his kingship, wrote this in one of his songs to God:

"I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken." -Psalm 16:8

Rather than isolating and looking inward, David would remember to look outside of himself to the presence of the One who was with him, even at his right hand. Sometimes this looks like reaching out to others to pray for us or encourage us as an extension of God's presence in our life.

2. Expose the lie, cast it down, and declare what's true. Remember what I wrote earlier about speculation and how imposter emotions often feed us heaping spoonfuls of the unknown? It's the equivalent of chewing on gravel; it hurts our teeth, can make us choke, and does nothing good for our digestive system. Speculative rumination is not productive. So determine what the speculations are, declare instead what is known and what is true, and tell those speculations to leave, that they no longer have any power to dominate with their phantom truths. Truth always overpowers the lie when truth is upheld. Often it is helpful or even required to have someone else work with us in separating the truth from the lies in a situation. Jesus is immensely helpful in this. Check out what he did for his friend and disciple Peter when Peter and the other disciples were taken aback by the sight of Jesus walking on the water:

"But Jesus immediately said to them: 'Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.'

'Lord, if it’s you,' Peter replied, 'tell me to come to you on the water.'

'Come,' he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, 'Lord, save me!'

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. 'You of little faith,' he said, 'why did you doubt?' "
-Matthew 14:27-31

There is so much to mine from this, but for our purpose here, I will simply point out that Peter was in a risky situation, allowed imposter emotions to get the better of him, and Jesus remedied that by catching him when he was sinking...IMMEDIATELY. Isn't that great? For those who look to Jesus, he will immediately catch us when we cry out to him. Often, he does bring us into situations that can naturally bring doubt, fear, or other difficult emotions. But none of these remain valid when Jesus is leading us into a situation as he was here, because we are safe with him. Jesus is king over fear.

Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament and experienced hardship after hardship, also knew the power of speculation and the greater power of bringing speculation to Jesus:

"We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ." -2 Corinthians 10:5

Once again, there is an emphasis on contrasting the unknown with the known, "speculations" versus "knowledge," and bringing speculation under the authority of one who can do something about it. That's what I did, with the help of my brother as we prayed on the phone the other day. The shift that took place was remarkable.

Wherever you are approaching this from, whether a purely naturalistic standpoint or including the spiritual as I have done (which I believe is the more holistic and complete route to full freedom in these areas), I would like to ask you, what imposter emotions might you be allowing in your life right now? What is valid for the present, and what is no longer necessary for your current emotional journey? And who is there to help you to expose the imposters? Who can you call out to? Might you see Jesus out there, seeking water-walkers like himself?

See you on the water.