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A Formation Practice for Unsteady Times: Invitation to Pendulate

 

In his poem If, Rudyard Kipling puts words to what most of us would like to be able to say is true of us today; “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” Despite all that is happening around us, we want to be a steady, non-anxious presence that brings calm to the chaos. I know that is my desire.  However, actually living out that desire is another story.

 

Two Poles in a Crisis

In times of crisis, we often find ourselves conflicted between two poles.  On one hand, we experience difficult emotions such as frustration, fear, sadness, anger, worry, impatience, and anxiety, which are to be expected and are normal. On the other hand, to ease the discomfort caused by these emotions, we often turn to distractions. Social media, gaming, over-working, television, shopping, cleaning, surfing the internet, and losing ourselves in books. Sometimes we find ourselves consumed by darker habits such as pornography, drugs and excessive alcohol. The problem is that while distractions feel good for a moment, they inevitably wither the soul.  We can distract ourselves to death.

 

When I’m in crisis or uncertainty, I usually feel frustration, anger, and irritation.  Eventually, these emotions hurt people around me and become fatiguing and destructive to my own soul.  So I distract.  I get on the internet, search for the latest and greatest motorcycle and all the gear that goes with it. I plan a weeklong trip, and I imagine what it would be like to ride off into the sunset!  That feels good for a little while. Eventually though, my soul begins to shrink.  Neither end of the spectrum is a healthy place to live.

 

Lop off the Extremes of the Poles?

When we get to this place in our desire to be a steady, non-anxious presence, we can go sideways.  We think the only sensible thing to do is to cut off both extremes.  We lop off the uncomfortable emotions on one hand, and white-knuckle ourselves away from the distractions on the other.  We try to stay steady in the middle.  Except we can’t.  At least not in a healthy and sustainable way.  The unintended result of this strategy is that we block Jesus out of our lives and give off a mere illusion of steadiness.

 

Invitation to Pendulate

So what are we to do?  I want to suggest that we learn to pendulate.  The dictionary defines the word as, ‘To swing as a pendulum.  To oscillate between two opposite conditions.’  We see examples of this in the Psalms. Asaph spends the first nine verses of Psalm 77 in anguish, crying out to God.  Then he pendulates in verse ten and spends the remainder of the song reminding his listener that God is big enough to handle any problem. The psalmists teach us that being a steady non-anxious presence doesn’t come by avoiding the extremes and living in the center. Instead, we must tend both sides.  The invitation to pendulate is to pay attention to both the uncomfortable emotions and the distracting behaviors.

 

Formation Practice to Pendulate the Emotions

In regards to uncomfortable emotions, if you feel anxious or afraid, allow the pendulum to swing the other way and welcome love. Soak in the peace, patience, kindness, goodness and gentle strength of God’s love for a few minutes.  Then, pendulate back to your fear or anxiety, and welcome those emotions.   Allow yourself to feel both the unsettling emotions and the settling reality of God’s love. Invite Jesus to be with you in their midst.  Stay there for a few minutes.  Listen to what Jesus may want to do or say to you in the fear or anxiety.

 

If you are feeling sad or discouraged, begin by welcoming beauty. Swing from the debilitating emotion to one that is lighter and more positive. Recall a beautiful place you that you have been or seen before.  Imagine yourself in that space with Jesus.  Stay there for a few minutes.  Then pendulate by welcoming sadness or discouragement.  Allow yourself to sink down into them.  Picture Jesus with you and stay there for a while.  Notice anything He wants to say or do with you in your sadness or discouragement.

 

This is how tending the uncomfortable emotions works itself out in my life.  Being that I lean towards anger and frustration, I first pendulate by welcoming Christ’s love.  I rest for a few moments in his kindness and goodness.  Then I pendulate back by welcoming the anger and frustration.  I try to invite Jesus into that space with me.  I imagine him sitting across from me as I listen for him to speak.  When I do, he usually reveals a bit of fear underneath my anger and irritation.  As I remain in that space with Jesus, I experience his comfort and he reassures me that he is in control, so I don’t have to be.  By visiting these unsettling places, we give Jesus access so he can tend to them.

 

Formation Practice to Pendulate the Behaviors

While the need to be with our difficult emotions is important, staying with them for too long will fatigue and overwhelm us.  This is especially true when our circumstances trigger a steady stream of uncomfortable emotions.  Therefore, we must pendulate again.  This time, we pendulate from the spiritual work of dealing with our uncomfortable emotions to the spiritual work of dealing with our coping behaviors. There is nothing wrong with healthy distractions. However, unless we are intentional, we can get lost here as well.

 

Remember, the goal of pendulating is to visit both sides, not live in either one of them. Rather than a destructive behavior, seek something that is naturally life-giving for you. This might be gardening, or going for a walk, exercising, watching a show, reading a good book, working in the garage, or laughing with a friend. Then set a timer to give yourself an hour or so to engage it.  When the timer goes off, reengage the normal routines that make up most of your day.

 

Giving yourself permission to pendulate, both in feelings and actions, is critical in times like these.  As you do, I suspect you will find yourself with Christ becoming a steady, non-anxious presence. God might then use you to impact others around you who are struggling with these chaotic, challenging times.

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