I Can’t Sleep

I can’t sleep. Well, that isn’t completely accurate. I go to sleep quite easily. I just don’t STAY asleep. I wake up several times during the night. Most of the time I will wake up one final time, around 3AM, and stay awake until I get out of bed to do my morning workout before work.

It’s been like this for a few weeks now. I’m not at all surprised. This has happened before. There have been several periods in my life that I would go through a phase of this exhausting and annoying sleep pattern.

What’s wrong with me?

We all have signs that pop up, like “check engine” lights on the dashboard of our cars, when something is wrong with us. I’m not talking about a disease or physical injury…although those show symptoms as well. I’m actually talking about something being wrong inside of me.

Dr. Charles Solomon teaches the interpretation of Scripture that we are made up of three parts: spirit, soul, and body. When something is wrong in our spirit (our interaction with God), it directly affects our soul (mind, emotions, and will)…and then the physical body. The physical manifestation of my inability to get a good night’s sleep is only a sign of something awry deeper inside of me. I can treat the insomnia directly, but without getting to the root, the problem persists. It WILL reveal itself in other ways until it is exposed and resolved.

Something is going on deep inside my soul.

Our souls are made up of mind, emotions, and our will (our ability to choose). When I take a closer look, the first symptom I noticed, insomnia, is not the only sign of a problem. This goes deeper than just a problem with my physical body. When I take time to think about it, there are soul problems as well. For instance, I have shown signs of emotional distress. I have experienced a sizable amount of anxiety lately. Also, I have noticed irritability (anger). When I dig a bit deeper, I notice fears are creeping up on me (the usual fears of failure, rejection, etc.). But these are all just feelings. They are what they are. I don’t need to suppress them (which will only make things worse down the line), but I cannot control them or change them.

Capturing thoughts is a must.

In 2 Corinthians 10:5, Paul encourages the readers of his letter to capture their thoughts, examine them closely, and see if they are true or false. Paul understood just how powerful our minds are. Our thoughts directly impact what we do and how we feel. If I am thinking negative thoughts, my emotions will eventually follow suit. However, Paul was not encouraging mere positive thinking. He was asking for us to exercise discernment to see if our thoughts agree with God’s Truth. Any thought that does not line up with Truth is a lie. If we are actively believing lies, what we do and what we feel is determined by lies…not truth! That is a sobering realization. My insomnia, anger, anxiety, and other symptoms are the product of faulty thinking. And what keeps this cycle going is the fact that it is all hidden.

Hiding is not the answer.

I can choose to keep it all hidden by ignoring it, denying it, trying to handle it myself, or blaming it on someone else. However, living with things hidden (or “living in darkness”, as it’s called in other parts of Scripture like 1 John 1), perpetuates problems in all aspects of our lives: mentally, emotionally, behavioral, relationally, and physically. To really take a step towards healing, we must take a step into the light. It’s scary to be exposed, but we must be willing to be vulnerable in order for our deep heart issues to be resolved.

We cannot handle our sin, and we cannot handle issues related to our sin.

We live in a broken world. Sin affects us all the time. We commit it ourselves. Others commit it towards us. We are left feeling guilty and hurt. The Enemy works through the brokenness to distort the Truth in order to hurt us even more. And we cannot handle any of it. We cannot resolve not one part of sin or any of its effects on us or others….not on our own, anyway.

The resolving of my issues comes through trust.

After much experience with my own struggles in life, including the symptom of insomnia, it seems clear to me that there is one word that is crucial to real healing and resolution of any issue that we may have. That word is “trust”. I rarely can examine myself enough to really see clearly what is going on. I need a mirror, but not a cold lifeless one. I need a person I am willing to trust that will listen to me and eventually speak to me about what they are seeing and experiencing with me. When I choose to trust another person with myself, I get to experience God’s presence. Through my vulnerability, which is a sign of humility, I get to experience His Truths that shine a light on the dark lies.

For example, insomnia shows up in my life. I fight it, but eventually realize I need to stop and let God free me from what’s really causing it. I choose to trust someone, usually my wife, with myself. I open up, tell her about my anger, my fears, and what is going through my head. We take time to examine those thoughts. This is what we discover going through my head: “Neil, you have to figure all of this out on your own. You cannot trust or depend on anyone. They will let you down. Do it yourself!! All of it!! You probably will fail, anyway, but if you work hard enough…maybe you won’t!”

Ultimately, this lie is revealed: “God is not doing anything, so it’s all up to you.” That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I know better. However, my insomnia…caused by anxiety and frustration, my fears, my busyness, and my being miserable all say that I believe that ridiculous lie. Once exposed, it begins to really lose its power over me.

The truth is…

God loves me. He is most definitely at work in and around me. I see and experience it best through relationships with trusted people in my life. The best example I can offer is how I have experienced grace from my wife. I can most assuredly tell you, I do not deserve her love. However, she gives it to me anyway, because she wants to. She sees something in me that I don’t even see much of the time. I get to experience this only when I trust her with all of me…even the stuff I feel the most ashamed about. Grace is what I experience, and that helps me connect with my Father. He is the ultimate source of it all.

I CAN trust Him. I CAN trust the Truth, which will cause me to act on it…eventually causing my emotional and physical problems to reside. I’ve been here before. I will probably be here again, but I will not be here as long as I was this time…or the time before that. God is maturing me. That’s how this relationship with Him works. I’m already saved, secure, loved, and accepted. He’s just helping me to experience that reality…one step of faith at a time.

-Neil

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Telling Our Secrets

For over a year, I have been bombarded with a truth that escaped me for much of my life. It’s not that I didn’t KNOW it was true. I just didn’t fully EXPERIENCE it in my life. Here is one way to describe this truth…

God desires that we not hide from Him…or each other. He wants us to live in the light rather than darkness (wordage used in 1 John 1).

Hiddenness is a disease that plagues most of us on a daily basis. It eats at our souls and skewers our relationships. Adam and Eve hid in the Garden of Eden when they put on the fig leaves and refused to take responsibility for what they had done. We hide when loved ones ask how we are, and we say “okay!” when we are anything but. We struggle with things we feel shame about and keep it all a secret, hoping no one ever finds out, only to find out over and over that we continually lose the battle we attempt to fight on our own. We get discouraged. We feel hopeless. But we keep on keeping on…with our “I’m okay” or “he made me do it!” masks on.

Another couple of verses popped up at me, suggesting that secrets are no good for us.

In Ephesians 4:25 (ESV), Paul says this: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”

It’s easy to misinterpret this line as a command to “tell others when they are doing wrong”. We tell ourselves we are “loving them” when we tell them about their bad behaviors and suggest that they do something about it. Some of us may even feel a little more righteous having done so. We couldn’t be further from the truth.

What if this verse was more about telling the truth ABOUT ME to others, rather than telling what I see as the truth about them? This would line up more with other passages such as 1 John 1 which tells us to live in the light (with nothing hidden), in order to have healthy relationships (fellowship).

What is visible can be resolved and transformed.

Ephesians 5:11-14 also speaks of the importance of exposing the things we keep in the dark to the light that “exposes” and makes it all “become visible” so that it can be transformed into light itself. I can work hard to keep my struggles a secret, and I can work hard to handle them myself. However, according to Bill Thrall, “Heart issues do not get resolved in isolation”. We need God’s power to handle what we cannot handle, and we cannot handle our own sin…let alone the sin of others!

Once our dark deeds are exposed to the light, which often means confiding in someone who loves and cares for us, the humility that it takes for us to do so becomes the avenue by which we experience God’s grace (James 4:6). This grace is what resolves sin issues, whether we’ve been hurt by others or whether we’ve done something to hurt others (which results in guilt that eats away at us if left in the dark). Gifts of grace such as forgiveness (that resolves hurt and shame) and repentance (that resolves guilty feelings and shame) are thrown around as common words in Christian circles, but we often fail at engaging them seriously in our relationships. If we are hiding stuff, we aren’t embracing these gifts of grace!

Tell your secrets and experience grace.

When I live out of who God says I am (a new identity in Christ, forgiven, accepted, and above all else…LOVED), I am able to step out of the darkness and into the light with God and others. I can share myself, the good and the bad….openly. I can be authentic!

Everyone does not get to share in our deepest struggles, but someone needs to. We need to trust someone. We do not even get to experience the act of being loved outside of trust, so this is very important stuff! If we leave an “I’m okay” mask on, the best others can do is love that stupid mask! We don’t need our masks to be loved. We need to be loved for who we are, even in our worst moments…not praised for who we pretend to be.

I’m engaging this truth myself.

I sense it is important for me to say this. I am fully engaged in this truth right now. I’m not perfect…just ask my wife or my son or my parents or anyone else that really knows the true Neil. However, refusing to hide anything about myself from those I trust and love is doing something in me. It is wonderful. Mind you, it is painful and difficult at times, but it is worth it. I can say I’ve personally experienced this and the freedom that comes from it. The authenticity it produces is amazing. God truly loves to work through humility (defined as “trusting Him and others with who we really are”).

-Neil

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Stigma Attached to Counseling

Melissa and I visited with a friend recently at lunch. She is a fellow Christian Counselor (visit her page by clicking here) in the Dunn area. In our discussion, we shared some with each other about the stigma that we often see being attached to counseling. It made me think back to my personal experience with counseling, when I was a client myself.

I avoided counseling as long as I could.

Back in 2004, I was having multiple panic attacks a day. These attacks were coupled with constant anxiety that robbed me of my ability to enjoy just about everything. I tried everything to cope and/or fix my problem. I tried prescription drugs, a lot of willpower, avoiding triggers, and other remedies. Nothing worked for me. I was determined to deal with it my way…on my own. I was told to seek counsel multiple times, but I rolled my eyes. At times, I would get desperate and actually consider looking into finding a counselor. When I did, I got very scared of what it would mean for me to go down that path. Was I so messed up that I actually needed a “shrink”? Would I be labeled crazy by others? WAS I crazy? Would I be wasting my time and money? Shouldn’t there be a better, less vulnerable way to fix this mess I was in? I put off the decision as long as I could…until one day I gave in. I was miserable and did not see a way out. I made contact with a counselor and set up an appointment.

Counseling was not what I expected.

I had expected this counselor to direct me to lay on a couch and whine as he jotted notes and discretely ate a sandwich behind me…occasionally saying, “Uh huh, and how does that make you feel?” However, it was nothing like that at all. My counselor was personable. As I began to trust him (which is a slow process for me), I shared more and more about what I was experiencing. He was great listener, and did not rush to give me pat answers. I had no idea at the time how badly I needed to be heard. Really heard. I realized a need to open up and share about me and what was going on inside and out. When he did speak, it was genuinely in response to what he was hearing me say. He did not treat me or my circumstances as “weird” or unacceptable.

Counseling taps into something natural and healing.

When our hair is messed up, we need a mirror to fix it back (well, not me…I’m bald, but I need a mirror to shave my head and not miss any spots!). Counseling serves many purposes, and one of them is acting like a mirror for us. When I shared with my counselor, he was able to offer reflections about me and my situation that I could not see myself. Without him, it was like I was trying to fix a cow-lick in the back of my head without a mirror. Reflections from a caring, trained counselor were foundational in the resolving of issues that I didn’t even know I had. Those issues were playing out in the physical and psychological manifestation of anxiety and panic attacks. My counselor was able to help me piece all of it together.

Counseling is not for the cowardly and weak.

One of my hesitancies about seeking counsel was that it meant I was weak and pitiful…like less of a man. I realized fairly quickly in the process that I was mistaken. And after nine years of counseling others, my thoughts are even more emphatic: PEOPLE WHO SEEK COUNSELING ARE MUCH BRAVER AND STRONGER THAN THEY REALIZE. It takes courage to be vulnerable with someone and to face the unknown or perhaps things we’ve been avoiding. It takes bravery to remove the “I’m okay” mask and say, “You know what, I’m NOT okay!” It’s a healing process, but it is not effortless. I have an immense respect for all people that seek counsel.

The counseling experience can be both comfortable and life-changing.

I hope to help others hurdle over the stigma that has been associated with counseling. For me, counseling is very relational. I am committed to real, authentic interactions with people I meet with every day. Yes, I’m trained in my profession, but I minister out of a foundation of trust in the healing power of God’s grace that we get to experience together in a safe counseling setting. I realize it can be scary and uncomfortable, especially at first, but I also know how it can become an experience in which God brings marvelous outcomes of hope, healing, and freedom.

-Neil

If you would like information about S.A.F.E. Counseling and Coaching services, please click here to contact us. We’d love to hear from you and see if any of our services are right for you.

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The S.A.F.E. Counseling and Coaching Office is Open!

Our Office is Open!

Melissa and I are happy to announce the opening of S.A.F.E. Counseling and Coaching in Dunn, NC. We are grateful to the good people at Hood Memorial Church who are providing us with a beautiful office space.

Location

Our office is located on the 3rd floor of Hood Memorial Christian Church at 300 E. Cumberland Street, Dunn, NC 28334.

Hours

As of right now, our hours are by appointment only (with counseling and coaching generally being scheduled between 5:30PM and 8:00PM Monday through Thursday).

Browse the Website!

If you’ve not already, please take a look around our website, where we have shared our passion, perspective, mission, vision, services we offer, and more. If you have any questions or would like to schedule an appointment, please contact us.

-Neil and Melissa

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Relationships for an Introvert

I am an introvert. This may come as no surprise to some, but a big surprise for others who know me. This is because I can be quite talkative in the right environment. However, I can blend with the wall pretty well in other situations. I find that I am more apt to get involved with conversation when it is about something I am passionate about. If I’m not interested, I will let others do the talking all day long.

I don’t hate people.

Being an introvert, do I dislike people? No, not at all. In fact, I actually like most people quite a lot. The misperception of introverts, many times, is that we simply do not like to be around people. The truth is we only have so much energy for socializing. After our battery is used up, we need time to recharge. The only way to do that is…alone time! Without time by ourselves, anxiety, frustration, burnout, and even depression could set in at some point.

I need relationships.

Introverts like myself may need time away from people, but we are still built FOR relationships. Extroverts, like my son, simply have more energy for more socialization, as they are recharged when they are around others.

I put a lot into my close, personal relationships.

As an introvert, I put a lot of energy into the personal relationships God blesses me with. I may not have a bunch of extroverted energy to spread around, but I make the most of what I have with the handful of others I am very close to. For most introverts, that winds up being a small number of people (family and close friends). As a counselor, I see myself also being able to dive in with clients in a one-on-one or one-on-two setting.

When I get hurt, it takes a while to heal.

Because we introverts put so much of our energy into the relationships that are dear to us, when we are hurt by them, the wound is very deep. In fact, the hurt is so severe that some of us find ourselves wanting to pull away from everyone. It feels like we need to do that in order to protect ourselves.

I am unable to self-protect without self-inflicting myself with more wounds.

The problem with self-protection is that often leads to isolation for an introvert. Isolation prevents us from getting some of our most crucial needs met. Although we need time away from people, it is very unhealthy for us to be without others in our lives. This is a truth that I have only recently embraced fully. For a very long time (much of my life), I told myself “I don’t need anyone”. I have even told myself, “God can meet all my needs, so being around others is not vital to me”. This sounds very “Christian-y”, but it is far from what God wants for me, or any of us.

God made many of us introverts. He also made us a part of His family.

It is a bold-faced lie that we do not need others. God is very relational. As believers, He calls himself our Father. He “adopted” us so that we have become His children. Scripture tells us that, as His children, we are each other’s brothers and sisters. Christ is like our elder brother. It’s all about relationship, which glorifies and pleases God abundantly!

We have a need to trust our Father…and others.

This is another truth I have only recently embraced deeply: I need to trust others with myself. The part about trusting God? Sure, I was cool with that. But trusting others? Not so much. As an introvert, it often gives me the heebie jeebies to think about opening up to others. I’d rather just let them know what I want them to know. The problem with that is that I wind up with a mask on and receiving no acceptance or love from anyone…which are two crucial needs we all share. The most I can get with a mask on is, “Hey man, nice mask!” The masks come from not believing the truth about who God says I am. Instead of believing the truth that I am a saint who is forgiven, loved, accepted, and significant, I fall for the lies that I am messed up, broken, not enough, a failure, rejected, and stupid. That false identity screams for me to keep my face covered.

Trust in relationships opens the door to our destiny.

When I choose to trust others with the real me, both the good and the bad, I open the door for others to offer me grace and unconditional love and acceptance. Yes, I risk getting hurt when I trust others with me. However, I also risk developing relationships that God works in to restore me, heal my wounds, and give me the confidence to move forward into the good plans God has for me (my destiny!). Those kinds of relationships are a direct reflection of how God relates to us. We come to him, trusting Him with the real us, and He offers His grace, His love, and His unconditional acceptance. We have the awesome opportunities in this life to experience all of that with Him…AND others, but we must allow ourselves to be open to letting others into our lives.

-Neil

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Are We Acting Crazy?

When I was around seven years old, I told my parents that I wanted to talk to the preacher about salvation. I cannot recall exactly all that was going through my mind at the time. I do remember being very nervous. Rev. Bobby Tew (one of the coolest and funniest men I’ve ever known) sat down with me and had a conversation with me about what was going on. It led to me embracing Christ.

I bought into a lie after I came to know Christ.

Something happened to me after that. I bought into a gigantic lie that made my walk with Christ seem like I was carrying 1,000 lbs. on my shoulders. As I grew older and became a teenager, the stress of being a “good Christian” was overwhelming. I fluctuated between the two polar opposites of trying really hard to please God and giving up when I felt like I had failed Him. Sometimes I would watch my behavior closely, trying not to sin. Other times I would act out in rebellion, doing whatever I wanted because I felt my efforts to please Him always fell short anyway. At those times, I would say to myself, “Why even try? I will fail anyway. I might as well do what I want and enjoy myself.”

Many of us buy into this lie that led to me struggling so much. The lie may come in different forms, but it always communicates the same thing. It says, “Sure, you are saved from hell, but you are still only one false move away from the chopping block. You’d better get to work. God may love you, but He doesn’t like you very much. You still have a lot to do in order to rid yourself of that dirty sin you keep committing. You know the one I’m talking about! And God does too! He’s waiting for you to prove you are the Christian you ought to be.”

Maybe my ancestors were from Galatia.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he addressed the fact that the people there were believing the same lie that I struggled with (and still do at times). He began Chapter 3 by saying, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1, ESV). In other words, “You crazy Galatians!…Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it’s obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives.” (excerpts from Galatians 3:1, The Message)

The Galatians had started their walk with Christ by trusting God’s Grace to be sufficient. They trusted themselves, with all of their sins, hurts, and shame, with the Lord as they knew they could not bring themselves to the point of being worthy of a relationship with Him outside of His Grace. They knew they could not perform well enough to please Him with their own self-effort. However, after a period of time, Paul noticed that they had fell for the lie that they could somehow live their lives as believers differently than how they first embraced that new life in Christ. They were trying to, in self-effort, manage their sin and please God with their performance.

We cannot please God by relying on our moral striving, even on our best day.

Why do we do this to ourselves? We are acting crazy if we think we can somehow “be a good Christian” by focusing on each other’s sins and managing them better. Sin is actually in control of us if we ever think we are in control of it! And we actually start to feel crazy after a while of living like that!

The fact is, God is not asking us to do the impossible…which is: train ourselves to “do more good works that are pleasing to Him” and “sin less”. He does not want us to “do things for Him”. Instead, He wants us to enter into what He does for us. Ephesians 2:8-10 tells us, so beautifully and simply, we are saved by Grace through faith (trusting Him with ourselves and trusting what He says is true) and that salvation has nothing to do with our self-effort. The same goes for our walk as believers after salvation. Just as much as we needed to rely on Him in the beginning, we also need to rely on Him now. It’s the only way for us to mature. We do not become something different by working hard to become something different. In fact, we are already different. In Christ, we have been reborn…a beautiful, new creation in Christ. We are loved, accepted, secure, special, redeemed, and significant. He is already pleased with us. Nothing will change that. Now, we are able to act out of that new identity when we trust Him.

His Grace never stops.

He will continue to shower His love and Grace on us until we release our grip and let it in. That is what Paul was trying to convey to the Galatians around the years 54-55 AD, and that is a message we all need to hear now. As my friends at Trueface say, “Grace changes everything.”

-Neil

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Experiencing Joy

Joy is a word that I have passed over many times as I have seen, heard, and even said it. This is kind of odd, seeing how joy is mentioned over 150 times in Scripture, depending on which translation you read. This morning, the word jumped out at me as I was reading the book “Lay it Down” by Bill Tell. It seemed the Holy Spirit was nudging me to take a closer look.

I remember, as a child, frequently being told to smile. I wasn’t necessarily sad, I just did not automatically have one on my face without thinking to put it there. I definitely realize a tendency to be serious much of the time, which produces a somewhat stoic look to my facial expression. Often I have heard that I look downright angry when I am actually just thinking seriously about something!

What are the signs of a lack of joy?

The lack of a smile and the propensity to take things very seriously are not 100% indications of a lack of joy. However, they could indicate it when coupled with other signs such as a sense of hopelessness, overall dissatisfaction and pessimism, or persistent anger or frustration with life in general. I have experienced periods in my life like that. During those times, I was missing the joy that is mentioned so much in reference to those of us who follow Christ.

What is Joy?

A quick google search of the definition of joy brings up “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” John Piper defines it as “…a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.”

We often look for joy in the wrong places.

So, how can we get this joy? First, it might be good to identify a couple of ways we CANNOT experience true joy. It is not experienced by working hard to find, earn, or deserve it. God is pleased when we trust Him (Hebrews 11:6), not when we work really hard to impress Him. Our self-effort to please God was and is never enough (Ephesians 2:8-10). Likewise, our efforts to please others or even ourselves is never quite enough either.

Second, joy cannot be acquired by pleasures of this world. There are so many things that can make us happy in the moment. Even sin delivers on its promise to make us feel good for a while, even though that feeling doesn’t last and guilt and shame kick in later. Joy is something that is lasting, and it can be experienced even when our circumstances are not what we wanted them to be.

Joy is a gift that comes from only one source.

But, back to the initial question. How exactly can we tap into this great joy that is so frequently touted in Scripture? Joy is a gift that we must receive. I want to point to two quick verses in John 15, but I encourage you to read the whole passage.

In John 15:9, Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” This love that Jesus has for us is a done thing. He HAS loved us. It is ours because He has given it to us. In fact, it now defines those of us who are God’s children. We are loved. That’s who we are! The fact that we are loved will never change, no matter what!

The second sentence in John 15:9 is crucial. We are loved, but Jesus wanted us to know we must now abide in it. Abiding in God’s love is the key to experiencing joy. According to John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” We do not lose it when we don’t abide in it, but we fail to experience it. It’s kind of like the fact that I own weightlifting equipment. It’s my property and nothing will change that. I can brag about it, share pictures of it on social media, tell people how cool it is, and feel good about owning it. However, I don’t get to experience the benefits of it unless I “abide in the weight room”.

We experience joy when we abide in His love.

John 15:10 tells us how we abide in His love and experience joy: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

This verse can trip a lot of us up because of false doctrines we may have been taught that are contrary to the Gospel. Jesus is not telling us to strive in self-effort to keep a bunch of rules. That would contradict everything else Jesus has said in John 15. Rather, He is pointing to doing that which pleases His Father and allows us to fulfill the commandments. Jesus perfectly obeyed His Father and experienced His love because He trusted Him. Now we have that perfection in us as new creations in Christ. We abide in His love when we trust Him. As a Christian, faith is all about believing what God says is true about who He is and who we are. Then we are able to experience His love in our relationship with Him and each other. Joy is found in those trusting, loving relationships and nowhere else.

-Neil

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Giving and Receiving Love

Since it is Valentine’s Day, I guess I will post something on the theme of love. How corny! 🙂 Just kidding. Seriously, with today being a holiday that focuses so much on the topic of love, here are some thoughts on the subject.

We often accidentally hide from love.

When we’ve done something wrong, we hide. When we’ve been hurt, we hide. The reason for this is that hurt and guilt lead to something called shame. Shame tells us there is something wrong with us. Shame causes us to want to hide ourselves like Adam and Eve did in the garden. When we hide, we essentially isolate ourselves. No one gets to know the real us because we don’t let them. It’s scary to open up. If we do, we might get rejected again. But something else happens in isolation that is very sad. We fail to receive love. The reason for this is simple: if we do not let others know the real us, they only see our masks. Masks can be admired and even rewarded, but they can never get us love. Love can only be received when we trust others with who we really are.

True love doesn’t get sidetracked by imperfection.

When we know that someone truly knows us, the good and the bad, then we are able to receive the love they offer to us because it is offered to us unconditionally. This is a reflection of our relationship with God. He loves us, all the time. His love is purely and perfectly unconditional, so it is not based on our behaviors and good performances. Instead, He offers Grace and Love to us because that is who He is and He has adopted us as His children, never to be rejected and left alone. However, although His love is always available, we do not always experience it. We cannot receive it when we are not trusting Him with ourselves. Humility can be defined in this way: trusting Him with me. When I act out in faith in that way, I am relying upon His Grace to be more real and present than the shame that tells me I am not good enough.

We are loved and we desire to love others. That’s who we are.

Residing in His Grace, my identity is founded upon a powerful truth: I AM LOVED. When I am living out of that reality of being loved, I am flooded with so much of it that I naturally want to share it with others. We cannot hoard God’s love. It’s impossible. There is no love received, and therefore none given, in isolation. We can certainly hoard the knowledge of it, but we cannot hoard the real thing when we experience it in a trusting relationship. It’s just so wonderful and freeing that we are driven to want others to experience it also. Getting and giving love goes hand-in-hand. It’s almost simultaneous.

When we fail to love others, we need love ourselves.

So, if we are having a difficult time loving others today, or any day…perhaps we need to consider that our tank is empty because we are failing to receive it ourselves. Maybe, just maybe, we might need to come out of hiding, open ourselves up to God and/or a trust person in our lives, and allow ourselves to receive the love we so desperately need. Loving others will come quickly after.

Giving and receiving love requires a safe place.

Of course, everyone is not safe to open up to. Some of us are so hurt and broken at times, we reject others who share themselves with us. Likewise, when we are ready to open up to others, they sometimes do the same to us. Thankfully, God is always a safe place to collapse into, allowing all of our hurt and guilt to be resolved in His Grace. He also provides special people in our lives to extend His Grace to us so that we can experience His love through them. Identifying these people can be difficult. It takes courage to risk being real with someone, but worthwhile. We internally long for moments when we find a safe place and that person loves us with nothing hidden. When we have those experiences, we become a safe place ourselves, loving others when they act less than perfect…just like us.

-Neil

-Neil

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Doing What You Love

A couple of months ago, Melissa and I traveled to Phoenix, Arizona for a week. We planned to spend time with friends in the Trueface ministry, as well as doing some site-seeing and hiking in and around Phoenix. We thoroughly enjoyed it. One of our stops was a local farmer’s market. Melissa loves those things. We had some unbelievably good tamales. They were so good, in fact, that we bought extras to put in our hotel fridge for another meal.

Months after this trip, one individual that we met continues to find his way into my thoughts frequently. His name was Albert. He rented a booth at the farmer’s market. He sold baklava and spanakopita that he prepared himself. After stopping to chat with him, we learned quickly that selling and making a profit were not his top priority. Albert’s wisdom was something I had not expected when I first encountered him. I actually remember thinking he was “just another salesman”. Nothing was further from the truth. He wanted to get to know people. He loved his conversation with us. As we passed by later, I saw him enjoying conversation with someone else that had stopped to see what he was offering. He had so much more to offer than pastry.

Albert wasn’t just another salesman.

There are a few things that I learned or was reminded of in my experience with Albert. First, relationships are important. Very important. In fact, they are of the upmost importance. In his 90 years on this planet, Albert had learned that authentically engaging people in order to do nothing more than to get to know them would provide much satisfaction.

Albert also desired to pass something special on to those who were willing to stop and converse with him. He encouraged Melissa a great deal, making sincere eye contact with her as he offered her some recipes that she might would enjoy making for herself and me later.

Last, but certainly not least, Albert encouraged me with a piece of wisdom he had obtained during his lifetime. “If you don’t love what you are doing, go find something you do love and start doing that!”, he said. He said this with enthusiasm and assurance, which I believe was due to the fact that he had discovered this through personal experience. He found that he enjoyed making baklava and spanakopita, so he started making them more often (at the advice of his son). He enjoyed people, so he found a way to be around people and enjoy them. He was genuinely one of the happiest people I have ever met, even though I know he had had his share of hardship like the rest of us.

Finding our true passions is important, but we must first know ourselves.

I have struggled a great deal, as I’m sure some of you reading this have, in finding something I love doing. In this fast-paced life, it is so often hard to find the time to even look for something we might enjoy trying out and experiencing. Albert’s advice didn’t lead to me quitting my job, or at least not yet. And it did not push me to jump into something on a whim. However, his words have resonated with me as I have considered what it is that I truly love doing. What is my passion?

Our passions have strong ties to who we really are (who God created us to be). If we know who we really are, we are much closer to discovering our true passions. God had helped Albert discover who He was. He was a people lover and enjoyed making pastries. Once he embraced those truths, he was on his way to be able to do those things in the settings God would take him into. That didn’t mean that things wouldn’t be tough sometimes. However, as Jim Carrey once said in a commencement speech, ““You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.” Essentially, we can risk failure while doing something we love or we can try to avoid failure while doing something we hate. Failure, hardship, and hurt are inevitable parts of our journey in life, regardless of what path we choose. Why not risk a path we might actually enjoy going down?

When we continuously give into the pressure of this world to wear masks, we miss opportunities for God to reveal to us the desires He has placed in our hearts. Albert shared of times in his life in which he had not been himself and done things that, quite frankly, made him miserable. Our true desires are the passions that, if pursued, open up the doors to peace and satisfaction. As Paul said in Ephesians 2:10 (ESV): “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

God wants us to be able to live out of who He created us to be. That’s how we get to experience the great things He has planned for us.

Our Father doesn’t want us to burden ourselves with pursuing things that have no eternal value. He would love to see us free from the trap of pretending to be something we were never intended to be. See, God doesn’t really want us striving to be something different, despite what we may have been told. If that was the case, what’s the point in Grace, and Jesus, and faith??? Instead of self effort, He wants us to trust Him and embrace the truth of who He created us to be. He knows that when we trust Him with ourselves, we can be led into those good works (passions) that he has instilled in us from the beginning.

But this “trust” is not easy. It feels very, very risky. We must not over-spiritualize it to the point that we just say “we will pray about it” and not practically engage it in everyday life. One of the most difficult but rewarding things I’ve learned is that my relationship with God and others is intertwined. If I am trusting God with myself, I will be trusting others with myself as well. That is the most practical way to live out my faith that I know of. The act of opening myself up to someone does something in me that I could never do myself. It’s the true definition of humility. One thing humility offers is the opportunity to zero in on who I really am and be able to live passionately out of my true identity.

-Neil

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“No-See-Ums”: Sneaky Relationship Issues

If you are reading this and you are from Central or Eastern North Carolina, you likely know what I am talking about when I say “no-see-ums”. I was bitten by quite a few when I visited Saint Simons Island, Georgia recently, so I know they inhabit that area as well. I read on Wikipedia that these creatures are more formally referred to as ceratopodonidae, which I cannot pronounce. In other locations, they are known as biting midges, sand flies, and punkies. They are these little aggravating flies that are so small you can barely see them, and they are even more aggravating to get rid of. They are pervasive and hard to kill. Being practically invisible makes for a formidable opponent (hence the name “no-see-ums”). Without being able to see the source of a bite (which feels almost like someone jabbed a pin in you), I am sure some are left wondering what in the world is causing the pain.

These little aggravating biting flies remind me of how we often experience things in life that “sting” but the source of the pain is really hard to see. Sometimes it’s practically invisible.

Shame can be a no-see-um.

Shame negatively affects us and can drive everything that we say, think, and do. Shame may come in the form of a past choice we regret. It may be something we feel so bad about that we do everything we can to keep it a secret. It may be the name an abusive parent or bully called us many years ago. Regardless of its source, shame typically forces it’s way into our personal identity so that we cannot see ourselves apart from the shame. However, we learn to hide it so well over time that others cannot see it. However, we and others can see the results of it…which may leave us all wondering, “What is going on here?” It’s like an invisible no-see-um that keeps biting us, but we cannot seem to kill it.

No-see-ums bite us in our relationships.

A husband comes home from work. He sees his wife preparing something to eat and waits for a hug and a kiss. It doesn’t happen. With little acknowledgement at all from her, he huffs and puffs and marches to the bedroom to spend the rest of the evening alone, sulking and angry. The wife, not knowing what is going on, is angered that he has no interest in the meal she has worked hard to prepare for him. She eats a few bites as her frustration boils. She gives up on the meal, dumps it all in the trash, and chases him down in the bedroom. An argument ensues with neither knowing what’s really going on with the other. They focus on their defenses and really get no-where in resolving the real issue.

The real issue is a “no-see-um”. In this case, the husband’s hidden shame became inflamed when he walked in and did not get what he wanted. For all he knew, he wanted a hug and a kiss or some other form of affection. It stung like the bite of a pesky midge when his wife did not comply to his unspoken request. Rather than seeing his underlying issue, he chose to withdraw to the bedroom…and away from his wife. Behind the painful bite of the “no-see-shame” was a childhood of loneliness. With two parents who did not know how to give or receive affection, this husband began to believe he was unloved and unaccepted. He sought the attention of women through physical affection to make himself feel more loved and accepted. However, he did not learn that his worth would never be found in that pursuit. Additionally, he never learned to pursue a relationship by trusting himself with others. Instead, he found it easier to wait for them to pursue him. If they didn’t, he would just withdraw from them until they did…like he did with his wife.

The wife’s shame was different, but no less invisible to the naked eye. Growing up as the middle child, this energetic lady learned early on that the best way for her to feel loved was to please others…mainly by doing tasks for them. That “helpful” approach caused her to stand out amongst her two siblings, while nothing else she did seemed to accomplish that goal. Over time, this turned into her identity: the helpful, dependable young lady who everyone could count on. Sometimes it would not work…like this fateful night when her husband came home. She had failed to discover her underlying issue: her worth was never truly in what others thought of her. She was not merely “a helpful, dependable young lady”. Although nice qualities, there was much more to her than that!

Although risky and difficult, we must choose to hold a magnifying glass up to the no-see-ums in our relationships.

Either one of the two spouses in the prior story could make a tremendous difference in the relationship. However, the difference will not be made in trying to fix each other. It will happen when one or both of them choose to own their part in the discord and allow a magnifying glass to be used to take a closer look at their own shame. But how does one take a step like that?

Trust is the magnifying glass that exposes no-see-ums.

What keeps the no-see-um of shame hidden is this: we hide our true selves from others. Over the course of our lives, we learn to distrust others when it comes to who we really are. We, then, hide those things we think will cause us to be unacceptable in some way. We then put on masks to portray what we think others want, or what we think we should be. In trying to be something we are not, we are blinded to the shame that brought us to the point of being an actor, rather than being authentic.

This is where it gets scary. To melt the masks…to truly address the shame behind the issues in our relationships…we must trust. Yes, it is risky. We may get hurt. We may get rejected. But…sometimes…we will be met with something amazing. It’s called Grace. God enjoys extending His Grace to us. We grab ahold of it through trusting Him and His unconditional love for us. In relationships, this act of trusting Him results in us having the courage to share our true selves with others. For the couple mentioned above, the man could be real with his wife about his desperate desire for her attention. The wife could be real with her husband about her desperate desire for his approval. And not with the expectation that the other person can actually fix all the shame behind their manipulative behaviors, but with the desire to share grace and love with one another in their brokenness. And also…with the trust that God Himself will work in their humble acts of authenticity to actually address the shame in their lives that has caused so much relational pain.

-Neil

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