Less than

When I was in a mood a couple of days ago, the BFF texted me not five minutes after the blog had gone live. She’s good like that.

She told me in her very BFF way, which doesn’t leave me a lot of wiggle room and always forces me to tell the truth, that she was praying for me and proud of me and saw holy in the work that I’m doing. And I had no choice but to confess that I’m struggling every darn day with feeling less than, like sitting in coffees shops and tinkering at my laptop and fighting every day to find just a few words to make life make sense isn’t enough.

Even now, I’m not sure what I mean by enough. I just am sometimes (all the time) plagued by this idea that I should be doing more.

A lot has changed for me in the last couple of years for sure, and I’m doing way less now than I was in my late twenties when I was in graduate school, interning at a counseling center, and teaching at the small church. This does not mean that my plate isn’t full, because it still is because I don’t do less well. (Jesus and I are working on this. Ugh.) But, it’s a different kind of full. It’s a slower full. Where my time in coffee shops usually meant chatting with my girls, now means I’m alone with my crazy thoughts and Microsoft Word. And when you’re used to going, slowing down can feel an awful lot like monotony.

In my clearer moments, I know this isn’t true. In my clearer moments I know that being obedient and surrendered is the most holy work, whatever that may look like. I know that every day that I get to be creative is a good day, because it’s one that honors our Creator God. I know that making friends with my baristas is no small thing, because I’m putting in the time to get to know my neighbors. And I know that writing and publishing in blog and in book is brave.

But, I have a lot of muddy moments. Because there a lot of people I know that are doing important things. I have a friend who started a company that creates medical devices and they’ve figured out a way to help people with diabetes not have to lose their limbs anymore. Or at least, I think that’s what he’s doing. Either way, that’s important work. I have several friends who work as engineers and mathematicians at the nearby Army post, and they’re figuring out ways to improve gear and armor so that these soldiers who have to go fight these heinous wars can come home to their families. That’s important work. I have mom friends who are making tiny humans and teaching them to be kind to people and to love God. That’s important work.

It’s all important work.

And it is when I think about those people and all the important things they’re doing in the world, I feel less than. Less than important, less than clear, less than brave.

Anne Lamott, patron saint of nutty writers, quotes Mother Theresa a lot and talks all the time about doing small things with great love. Saint Anne says that this is probably how God’s going to use us to make the world a better place, and if nothing else it’s what stops everything feel so nutty. And when she was at the writer’s conference I went to back in April, she said that she starts by returning phone calls and getting thirsty people glasses of water.

Okay, Saint Anne. I hear you.

I want to do important things (don’t we all?), but when did I get to the place where I think that important things have to big things? When did I start thinking that having coffee with my girls or getting to know the baristas was less than important? When did I start believing that telling stories about what God’s teaching me through my friends was less than brave? When did I start living like following God down the path He’s laid out particular for me was less than holy?

Blergh. Being human is hard sometimes.

But, I wonder if hard is the great human connector sometimes. The BFF reminded me of this the other day, after I made my confession and she reminded me that the important work of motherhood is holy and hard too. She told me in her very BFF way that I was feeling similarly and that was because I was in the middle of it, and then she reminded me that being in the middle of the hard stuff isn’t less holy. And then she said that we need to let that knowledge carry us through the middle. “It IS holy work,” she says.

That BFF. She’s good like that.

I wonder if when we find ourselves in the middle of the hard work of whatever it is that we’re doing, there’s a way to remind ourselves over and over that what we’re doing IS holy. And that it’s true whether we’re married or single, or raising kids or writing books, or visiting with old friends or making new ones. I wonder if we can take to heart what Mother Theresa and Saint Anne say, and remind ourselves over and over that doing small things with big love IS important. In fact, it’s the most important, and that’s true when we’re getting water or returning phone calls or engineering armor or creating medical devices or mothering tiny humans or having real conversations in local coffee shops. When whatever we’re doing reflects grace and God and love and light, there’s nothing less than about that.

Now…only to remember that.

Right in front of me

After I wrote the turdface post, my friend Marilyn sent me an email filled with a lot of grace and a lot of wisdom and a lot of gentle challenging. Marilyn is one of those people that I haven’t known that long, but I feel like I have. I think it’s because our friendship found ground in hard places, and has been for both of us a constant source of grace and wisdom and gentle challenging.

My friend Marilyn said that when she finds herself in those moments when writing is hard and she’s sitting down with all her psychiatric issues, she thinks it’s probably because she’s not writing what’s right in front of her.

Yeah, that’ll preach.

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The reality is that I haven’t just been in a bad place, I have been in an anxious place. And more days than not the anxieties have been winning. I know what a panic attack feels like now, and I know how super scary it is when you’re driving your familiar hometown roads thinking of nothing in particular and then your chest feels tight and your breath doesn’t catch and you have to pull off into a Wawa parking lot and wait for the crazy to pass.

That, my friends, is my big ugly truth.

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Shauna Niequist says that it’s not hard to figure out what you want your life to be about, and that the hard part is figuring out what you have to give up in order to have that life. I hear Shauna, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with her right now.

I think sometimes it is hard figuring out what you want your life to be about. I think sometimes it’s really hard to sort through all the things that other people tell you are important, and I think sometimes it’s hard to figure out what are your own wants and what are someone else’s.

The hard part for me right now is admitting to myself and saying out loud to everyone else that what I want now in my thirties isn’t even a little bit what I wanted in my twenties, and the harder part is being okay with it.

Because when I was in high school and college, I wanted to go to grad school, and I wanted to work as a therapist, and I wanted a BMW, a small one, so I had some status but not too much because that would be prideful. So, I went to college and I studied psychology, even though I think God was wooing me with Lit classes and a writing minor. I went to grad school and studied counseling because I was good at it and it came easily and everyone I encountered in the field told me I was good at it and to do anything else would be a waste of my skills, all while working in youth ministry and teaching teenagers that following God probably meant leaving the easy road.

At thirty years old, post-grad school and post-youth ministry, I’m leaving the easy road.

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If I wanted to be a therapist, I would be a therapist. I don’t want to be a therapist anymore.  And it’s hard to tell you that because I’m afraid of what you will think. Maybe you’ll think I wasted money and time on my degrees, and I’m not sure I can convince you otherwise. But, studying psychology and counseling for as long as I did made me a better person, and I don’t think I’ve wasted time or money on that. I think God really used that, actually. And I think I helped an undergrad or two along the way, and I can definitely live with that.

But, I don’t think working as a therapist full-time is going to get me those things that I want my life to be about.

Hang with me, I’ll explain.

I want my life to be about more than work that impresses people. I know that having credentials and letters after my name is cool, and I really like signing papers with letters after my name. But, I get a fat head about my skills and talents, and I stop being humble and gracious when I sign my name with my letters. And I don’t think God’s very impressed by my letters. I think He’s impressed when I get into a moment with someone and listen well and respond with presence instead of a advice, but…I don’t think He’s impressed by my letters.

I think maybe there’s a different way for me to get into a moment with people and listen well and respond with presence.  Anne Lamott says the gift of writing is that it makes you pay attention. She says that writers are people who are here, who are present and accounted for, and who are taking notes. That’s what I want my life to be about – paying attention and taking notes.

I want to pay attention to people and places and experiences, and I want to pay attention to what God is telling us all about who He. I want to make notes about these things, and I want to share them. Because I think Jesus is the best person ever, and I think He’s gotten a pretty bad rap lately, and I think maybe I can be someone who tells a different story.

I think maybe if I give up being a therapist and start being a writer, then I’m going to tell a story with my life about taking a risk with Jesus, which isn’t really a risk at all. Because I think if I do this, then my faith will be really real. I think that God won’t be the guy that I taught the teenagers to follow, but I’ll actually be following Him.

I think that if I start chasing after the things I really want my life to be about, then God will probably surprise me and it will be awesome. And I think that maybe I just might have a shot at the abundant life He offers, instead of buying into the lie that anything less than will be at all satisfying.

And, guys, the thing is that this is what my anxiety has always been about. For me, anxiety is not about the fear in taking a risk. For me, anxiety is about dragging my feet about taking it.

This is what is and what has been right in front me all along.

Finding courage: When the only way forward is open

I’ve been challenged over the last couple of weeks to be more honest in my writing, to share more of the hard pieces, not just the “God lessons” that are coming from these stories that comprise my life. Although the God lessons are good and necessary and keep me moving forward, do I have the courage to tell a story that I don’t know the lesson of yet?

What about a story that doesn’t show me at my finest?

I’ve been long impressed with Addie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire. And while so much of what she writes resonates with me, because she confronts the things about growing up in the evangelical church that rub raw in the adult world, I’m most impressed by the honesty with which she asks her questions and tells her story.  She shares the pieces that don’t show her at her finest.  Six months later, I’m still asking myself if I have the courage to do the same.

I’m not so sure that I do, at least not yet. But, after a not stellar weekend in which I had one of my not finest moments, I’m realizing a couple of things.

First, that even asking if I have the courage to tell those hard stories is the first step in finding the courage to tell them.

Second, that what my friend Beth said a couple of weeks ago when I was recounting a moment from another hard weekend is true – “The only way forward is open.”

Beth, over the course of a twenty year friendship, has earned the right to call me on my stuff.  We sat again at our favorite coffee shop, laptops open but no words being typed because the conversation was more important. She told me that in the aftermath of this recent breakup that she was afraid for me.  She was afraid that I would let this be something that I used to justify building back up the walls that I had worked so hard to take down. She was afraid that I would become angry and isolated and depressed, as I had after every breakup before.  And she grabbed my hand, and looked me in the eye, and she said, “For you, the only way forward is open.”

I’m realizing that this is a life lesson, a God lesson actually. (Sometimes figuring that out comes simply as I write. Funny that.)  C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves,

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

I keep thinking about this, about how right Lewis is – “To love is to be vulnerable.” It sounds a whole lot like my friend telling me – “The only way forward is open.”

This is how I want to move forward, from this not stellar weekend and from my stupid decision and in my life in general.  I don’t want to be ashamed to tell my stories, the ones replete with God lessons and the ones that are just ridiculously human.  I don’t want to live so worried about what people are thinking about me, about what they’re holding against me every time I have a drink or get a tattoo or pierce my nose.  I want to lean into the people who hold me accountable without casting judgments.  I want to figure out what forgiveness is really about, as others offer it to me and I offer to others and I offer it to myself.  And I want to remember on my not finest days that tomorrow is another day to try again.

Because the only way forward is open. And probably a little bit more honest.

A mustard seed and a miracle

'Mustard Seeds' photo (c) 2013, Veganbaking.net - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/New Year’s Eve has been my least favorite day of the year for many years, but this year I was resolved that it was going to be different.  I was going to a party with a group of friends I like a whole lot, with a boy I like a whole lot, dressed to the nines and wearing the heels that make my feet hurt, but that always make me feel feminine and pretty.  Indeed, the morning of New Year’s Eve, I had determined that this was going to be a good year, that I was going to leave cynicism behind…or at least I was going to try really, really hard.

I didn’t know, of course, how quickly that resolve would be put to the test.

My phone rang a little after 10 on the morning of December 31.  My friend of ten years was on the other end, sobbing before she even got a word out. Her mom had been at the doctor’s to receive word on whether or not the mass they had seen in her stomach was cancerous. It was, and the prognosis was not good.  Six months if they did nothing, a year if they only did surgery, hopefully five years if they did chemo after surgery.

“I’m going to need you next week when Mom’s in the hospital,” she spat out in broken breath.

“I’m there,” I choked back.

And when we both had gathered ourselves again, she continued, “And I need you to go to your party tonight and I need you to have a really great time.  I need you to do that for me. I need to know you’re having fun.”

At that point, I didn’t want to go to my party anymore.  I wanted to jump in my car, get myself to Delaware and to my friend, and hug her and her mom. But, that’s not what she needed.  She needed me to go to a party, because she needed to know that someone she loved was going into the next year having fun.

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I had lunch with one of my Bible study girls the day before I left for Delaware. Over burgers and fries in a bar booth at Chili’s, I admitted that I was angry because cancer had taken so much from my family over the last two year, and that it couldn’t have someone else I loved, as if I had any kind of control over it, and that I worried my resolve to not be cynical was going to crumble before January even really started.

My friend didn’t say anything.  She just sat and listened, her eyes filled with such compassion. Borrowing from her calm, I took a breath and found myself saying out loud, “I have to believe for a miracle this time.”

In that breath and in that moment I knew that my faith was so small, and not in the mustard-seed-way that we’re supposed to believe.  When I say that my faith was small, I mean that it was limited, that I had limited God to moving only in ways that I could conceive. He could do anything really, but His means had to be conventional. He could change the course of a whole country, yes – but only if the right people were in the right political positions.  He could change dire financial straits, yes – but only if the person accepted a job with a big salary, and it probably wouldn’t hurt if they tithed every week too. And He could heal, yes – but only through medicine.

This is small faith, but this is not mustard-seed-faith.

Mustard-seed-faith knows a mountain will move if it were so commanded. Mustard-seed-faith knows a mulberry bush could flourish planted in an ocean.  Mustard-seed-faith knows the Son of Man was killed and rose again on the third day.  (Matthew 17 and Luke 17 have kicked me in the face.)

It seems to me that mustard-seed-faith has some unreasonable edges to it every now and again, that it leaves room for God to move against convention, that it hopes and it surprises. Mustard-seed-faith, I think, believes in miracles.

And sitting in that booth in Chili’s was my mustard-seed-moment.  Either I believed for the miracle, against all reason, against the doctors’ diagnosis and prognosis, or my faith stagnated where it was.

I prayed desperately and expectantly for the first time in my thirty years, and I knew, even for just a moment, what it was like to have faith the size of a mustard seed.

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I was sitting at the dining room table reading one of Aesop’s Fables with my friend’s ten year old when her husband came down the stairs having just gotten a call from my friend at the hospital, her mom out of surgery.

“It’s benign,” he said. “There’s no cancer. And there’s no sign that there ever was cancer.”

We put down the Aesop’s Fable, pushed the pause-button on home-school for the day, and did a happy dance in the kitchen.  I stole off to another room to call my mom, and we cried together – for the miracle that had just happened, for the loved one that cancer did not take from us this year.

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I know that not everyone gets a happy ending to their mustard-seed story. I know that cancer wins sometimes.  I know that bad things happen to good people.  I know that just believing for a miracle doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.

But…

Sometimes you do get the happy ending and sometimes you do witness a miracle.  And maybe when you do, you have to talk about it. Because maybe, like my friend needed me to know I was having a good time at my party, when things seem at their worst, we need to know that God is moving in good ways in the world. And because maybe knowing that God is moving in good ways is what keeps the cynicism at bay.

2014 has already taught me that it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Grace. (Hopefully.)

Anne Lamott FB quote

This afternoon I posted a quote from Anne Lammot’s Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith on my Facebook page. Of course, I’ve read Anne’s work before, and I’ve let her writing settle things in my heart because it helps to know that someone else is out there is imperfectly following Jesus, and writing about it with honesty and vulnerability, and helping me take a breath in the “okayness” of who God is.  Things are messy, but it’s okay. God is God, God is here, God is helping, and it’s going to be okay.

What strikes me about what I posted today isn’t so much the quote itself, but the title of the book I pulled it from. Grace (Eventually).

I’ve been craving grace lately.  Craving it in tangible ways, like I have to read about it, have to talk about it, have to write about it, and have to think about it, be aware of it every day.  And it doesn’t take a psychology degree to figure out why –

Because it’s been the thing that’s been missing for the last year.

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I haven’t written much in the last few months.  And I think I’ve finally figure out why; it’s because everything’s felt false. Everything that I think about community and friendship, about dating and partnership, about God manifesting in our relationships with each other – it’s all felt false.

Too many people who’ve claimed to be rooted in Love Himself have responded with hate and anger. Too many people have been treated unkindly.  Too much gossip has been spread.  Too many insults have been hurled.  And for me, the truth of the Gospel, and the Love and Grace that set it apart, has been buried behind the insults, gossip, lack of empathy, and inability to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

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These days I’m thinking that really maybe that’s what grace looks like on this side of heaven – giving each other the benefit of the doubt.

That’s all I really want, anyway.  I want to be given the benefit of the doubt when people look at my years youth leading at the small church – that I was trying my very best every week to model something good for my students, to point them to Jesus and how He’s moving in their own lives.  I want to be given the benefit of the doubt as a friend – that I’m not going to get it right all the time because I’m human and I get tired and discouraged, but I’m trying every day to love well and show up where you need me.  I want to be given the benefit of the doubt as a single person – that I may not be partnered with anyone right now, but my life has value and meaning and God is somehow using my singleness to make Himself known.

And you know what else I really want? To be conscious of the ways that I can show a little bit more grace too.  I want to give you the benefit of the doubt. Because I do think there’s truth in the Anne Lamott quote I posted on my Facebook page – that we’re all really just trying to make sense of things, find love, and be less afraid – and if this is true, then I understand your struggle because it is my own, and what other choice do I have but to offer what we’re both looking for?

Grace. (Hopefully.)

Coming down from the high horse

“But, it’s what you blog and tweet about most.  She probably felt like you were getting on your high horse.”

The funny thing about being a blogger is that I forget people are reading sometimes.  Not that I forget that I’m sharing publicly or anything, I just forget that people are putting pieces together on the outside that I can’t see because I’m too inside my own thoughts and feelings and experiences.

My friend is right though, I do write about the same themes a lot – community, friendship, the Church, singleness.  I think that happens to most writers.  You find a passion and you sink your teeth into it and the words just kind of appear, because it’s what you’re thinking about all of the time, and often all that you’re thinking doesn’t make sense until you sit down and put the words on paper.

But, the reality is also that I write about what’s close to my heart.  I write about my friends because I love them, and they’re tangible examples of God’s love, and I think everybody should have those kinds of people in their lives.  I write about church because, as much as it frustrates me sometimes, I love the Church, and I think we can do better by each other than we are right now.  I write about community because, I think, that’s where friendship and church blur together to create the place I’m living right now, and I love this place.  And I write about being single probably because it’s my biggest point of wounding right now.  I write about being single not because I love my singleness, although most days I do, but because I’ve been made to feel small in my community because I’m single, and I don’t think people meant that to happen, and I hope that by writing about it we can start to talk about how we can love each other better, regardless of ring status.

I don’t ever want to sound like I’m getting on my high horse, but I suppose when you’re a blogger, writer, speaker, or any kind of someone who puts their thoughts out there in a way for a people to interact with, you’re going to have high horse moments.   We’re going to have those things that so drive us  to communicate that we’re going to not always get the tone right, or we’re going to be too pointed, or…I don’t know…something.  We’re just not always going to get it right.  For this, I am terribly sorry.

But, I think that’s why we writers and communicators value so desperately the honest feedback of the people who are reading and listening.   Please don’t stop. You are sharpening our thoughts, and challenging us, and making us better people and better writers.  And I promise to listen, and interact with what you’re offering, and come down from my high horse. Or at least, I’ll try.

And I suppose really what I’m asking for is a little more grace between us, a little more space for understanding, a little more hope that we can figure out a way to love each other better.

A praying person

I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer lately. Actually, no, that’s a lie. I’ve been praying a lot more lately.

'Pray' photo (c) 2012, RelaxingMusic - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/One of my favorite authors talks about how she’s prayer-ish. She says that she’s prayer-ish like she’s yoga-ish. She wants to be a person who’s all calm and centered and does yoga, but by the time her sweats are on her kids are crying, or something is burning on the stove, or her editor’s calling, or something else comes up and she never quite makes it to the gym. So, yoga is nice in theory but very hard to follow through on. She says that’s how she is about prayer. She wants to be a person who prays, but at best she’s prayer-ish, if she’s honest.

If I’m honest, I’m prayer-ish too. I have the best of intentions to pray and I want to be a person who prays about…well, everything…but I’m easily distracted and something always comes up.

I’m thinking now, though, that sometimes things come up that kick you right into being praying person. Your marriage falls apart, or your boyfriend gets sick, or you lose your job and money gets tight. You get into fight with a friend, or your church, or your boss and everything starts to feel just a bit unhinged. Or maybe you start to feel unhinged. Whatever it is, all of sudden, you find yourself driving, or showering, or running on the treadmill AND praying.

And then you get an email or a text or a phone call, and you find yourself talking to God about whatever it is, like He’s sitting right next to you, with the same kind of language you use in your everyday life with your everyday friends. You’re just being you, spending a little time talking to Jesus.

And then you sent out a text, or an email, or a phone call, and you find yourself asking other people to pray for you, or your husband, or your boyfriend, or your friend, or your boss.

And you begin to realize that prayer changes things. Maybe it doesn’t change the situation, maybe your marriage falls apart or you lose your job or your friend, even though you’re praying. But, you start to realize that prayer is changing you. The spending time with God that you’re doing is shifting your head out of dark places and bleak beliefs, and you’re starting to feel hopeful. Hope in spite of the situation, hope in spite of stacked odds, hope in the midst of feeling really sad. And maybe you begin to find that this little band of friends who you’ve called on to pray for you are becoming “your people,” and they’re shouldering pieces of the situation that you can’t. Maybe you find that their fervent belief that you are going to be okay actually helps you feel okay. And in the midst of everything, you’re just really glad for this little band of friends who love you and are in the mess with you.

And maybe, just maybe, this is how you find yourself all of a sudden a praying person.

Not that I’m saying this is how it’s worked out for me or anything. Except that I’m a lot more about prayer and a lot less about “ish” these days.