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.

The best yes

When I was asked to teach the youth girls Sunday school at my home church, I was 23, newly back to the area, starting a graduate program in counseling psychology, not sure if I even wanted to be at my home church, and had absolutely no idea what I was saying “yes” to.

I thought I was saying yes to an hour a week on Sunday morning, plus whatever time it took to prepare the lesson – which, honestly, in the beginning wasn’t much.  I’d read the plan from the book, read the verses, check the cross references, come up with a couple of questions and call it a day.  I thought it was going to be an easy ride that I totally had a handle on before I even got into it.

It took approximately four minutes after Sunday school ended that first week for me to realize that I had a handle on exactly nothing. Turns out,  I had said yes to giving out my cell phone number, being friends on Facebook, and picking girls up from school to take them out for cups of coffee or frozen yogurt. I had said yes to questions about whom I was dating or why I wasn’t dating, about what I was like in high school and college, about whether or not I thought their gay friends were going to hell. I had said yes to chaperoning other events, teaching even more Bible studies, and counseling in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

Turns out that when you say “yes” to working with teenagers, you say “yes” to being someone in their lives pretty darn quickly.

And hands down, it remains the best “yes” I’ve ever given in my life.

A whole pack of beautiful.
A whole pack of beautiful.

I haven’t been actively involved in youth ministry in over a year. I haven’t chaperoned camp, or retreat, or a Friday night game night in more than twelve months. I haven’t prepared a lesson, or made notes on a white board, or shushed someone for talking too much.  But, I don’t think I’m any less their teacher. And I think they still have a thing or two to teach me too.

I tell my girls, most now in college, that the time we had in youth group was special – a gift from God that He used to grow us all up. And it seems to me that He’s not done with that particular task just yet.

Because the texts messages I get from them wanting to tell me a funny story about their days haven’t stopped.  They still want to get together for coffee to talk about the boys they like, and the fights they’re having with their friends, and the ways they are or aren’t seeing God moving in their lives.

Because I still pray for them all the time, their names always on the tip of my heart.  I still always want to hear their funny stories and boy dramas. I still want to sit with them as they’re figuring out who they are in their relationships, and who they are in the world.  And I still want to know what they’re thinking as they think about God, and church, and this whole faith thing.

Some of my girls helped me get old.

Seven years ago in that Sunday school class we built a little community. And God’s still showing up in it.

He’s showing up even though we’re in different churches, and in different states, and in different life phases.  He’s still using us to encourage each other, and to pray for each other from the deep heart places, and to prod each other forward in this race that is life.

Seven years later, they’re not teenagers anymore, but they’re still my girls. And I can’t think about them without crying, because apparently part of my growing up is becoming mushy and because I’m so grateful for the gift of our little community.

I’m grateful for the questions they ask that challenge the things of God I accepted just because I was taught them as a kid. I’m grateful for their abilities to laugh easily and loudly, and I’m grateful that they’ve taken it on as a kind of game to make me laugh until I can’t catch my breath.  I’m grateful for the wide open way that they love, often expressed in hugs that are more like flying into each other. I’m grateful for their honesty, and the ease with which they ask for help.  I’m grateful that they know me well, and I’m grateful that even after all these years they know sometimes I just need time all to myself. I’m grateful that they blow up my phone with text messages and tweets, and I’m grateful that as they move into adulthood that they still want to include their old Sunday school teacher.

Mostly though, I’m grateful that when I said “yes” seven years ago that they said “yes” to me.

Yes, we have things to learn together. Yes, we want you here. Yes, you’re welcome here.

Now, I’m just thinking out loud here, but…

What if the church at large starting saying a similar “yes” to the world at large?

I think maybe that would be the best “yes” ever.

Lean on your people

“This isn’t working,” he said as he dropped me off after our date on Friday night.

We’d been out for coffee and were having a perfectly normal time…until we weren’t.  He fed me a lot of lines about how I was nice person and he wasn’t opposed to hanging out in the future, but it definitely felt like he was trying to save face as the nice guy as he left. He had decided that things weren’t working, and that was that.

The details of it all aren’t really the point.  The point, I think, is that this weekend I was dumped, and I cannot recall a time that I felt more loved.

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(Side note to any of my girls or any other woman in your twenties or thirties reading this that is single and dating and making the decision not to have sex: I’m proud of you.  Making a commitment to anything is bound to cost you something, and making a commitment to this is probably going to cost you a relationship or two along the way, and it’s going to hurt. And it’s probably going to make you question why you made the commitment in the first place. Go ahead and ask yourself again, because I think what you’ll find is that trading in your conviction on this is not worth it, however great the guy might be.  Your friends may not understand why you’ve made this decision, and that’s okay too. Because this is between you and God, and you have your reasons, and that’s really all there is to it. I know it’s not an easy conviction to hold, but I know it’s worth it. From me to you, by the grace of God, you are strong and you’re going to be okay.  )

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Late Friday night, once I was inside my house and had sent BJ on his way with the assurance that we would indeed not being hanging out in the future, I called in reinforcements.  I leaned on my people.

Cristina and Meredith_lean on your people

Two of my people are my parents. I told them what happened, what he had said and how I had responded, and they told me they were proud of me.

Thank God for supportive and affirming parents.

I called Danielle, and she said all the things that I pretended I didn’t need to hear, but really did – about how being my friend is a gift, about how great I am, about how walking away from me was really his loss.

Thank God for girlfriends who know what to say.

I crashed at Danielle’s on Saturday, and we ate fried pickles and drank margaritas, and she let me talk as much or as little as I needed to.  And her mom made a pot of tea and lemon-poppyseed scones, because they are warm and comforting, and I ate three of them. And when I was falling asleep on their couch at 8:30 that night, they sent me to bed in the guest room and told me to get sleep.

Thank God for friends who take you in and treat you exactly like family. 

I called Joy, my college roommate, and she told me how sad she was that she was so far away. She quoted that line from Sex and the City about how your girlfriends maybe can be your soul mates, and she told me that she loved me. And she made me laugh in spite of myself.

Thank God for girlfriends who keep you laughing.

While I was on the phone, Nickie texted with a slew of questions which I didn’t get to answer before her last message came – “Forget it. I’m on my way over.”  And at a little after 1 AM, she rolled up in front my house and we sat in her car for two hours, plans to find a still-open coffee shop abandoned as I told her about what had happened.

Thank God for girlfriends who come with listening ears at all hours.

At 5:45, I got a text message from Jesse assuming correctly that hadn’t slept, and the offer to come over right then if I wanted it. I did, and so at 6 AM, I walked into the BFF’s house and she hugged me hard, and we sat on her couch drinking coffee and eating leftover apple pie right from the tin.  And she told me how proud she was of how I was handling myself in this, how different it was that I was letting people in, how much good change she had seen in me over the years.  And when Amy showed up later in the morning, without knowing what Jesse had said, she affirmed the exact same things.

Thank God for girlfriends who stay in long enough to see changes.

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I told my mom Friday night that I figured I had two ways I could deal with this break-up. I could do what I always do, allowing this to be something that pushes me deep into darkness and builds walls to keep people out. Or I could do something different, looking for the ways that God was showing me love and grace in the mess.

This was a moment of a relationship ending, and I had put myself all in the relationship, and it would be easy to believe that I am worth walking away from, because this is one of my greatest, ugliest self-thoughts.  BUT…

I have this community that happily counters that lie at every turn.  They tell me that they love me, and then they show up to prove it.  They feed me, and they listen to me, and they affirm and challenge me.  They invite me into their homes, and they let me sleep in the guest rooms, even though I’m not a guest anymore, I’m family.  And in doing these things, they remind me over and over, at every turn, that I am deeply loved.

And their love is grace.

This is why we need to be in community. This is why we do the hard work of friendship.  Because there are people who will let you down and bail on you or break up with you, but…there are people who will show up.  And these are the people you lean into.

Because their love is Grace.

Once in a lifetime people

I’m writing this quick, scarfing beef stew and trying to get out the door because I have to be somewhere in less than an hour.  Um…yeah….I’m going to be late.

Because just a few minutes ago I got a great text message from one of “my girls,” and it made me think so many great things that I had to tell you about it.  HAD. TO.

Text message: "This made me think of you"
Text message: “This made me think of you”

I call them “my girls” because I’m not sure what else to call them.  They’re all in college, and they’re mostly in their twenties, and now we’re trying to figure out exactly what we are to each other.  I’m not their teacher, they’re not my students. I’m not their leader, they’re not my youth.  We’re not peers, but we are friends, and we matter to each other. We care deeply about one another, and we’re all better when we’re in together than when we’re not.

Shauna Niequist writes about her girls in Cold Tangerines and she calls them puppies, because in a season of teenage turmoil (for the girls) and twenty-something angst (for her) they found a place in their small group that felt as safe as being curled up in a box with all their puppy-friends.  This makes sense to me, so sometimes I call my girls “puppies”, and sometimes we woof at each other, and always we send the doggie emoticon over iMessage.

Doggie emoticon
Emoticons can say so much.

And this is what I HAD TO tell you — Youth ministry is awesome! Teenagers are awesome!  This is  the 1 Peter kind of mentoring/shepherding that we’re supposed to be doing, and it’s is no joke.  It matters.  It matters to the girls (or guys) you’re investing in, and it matters for you.  Because it honors the relational God who set it up in the first place.

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Mrs. Jean was that “once in a lifetime person” for me.  She taught my eighth grade Sunday school class, and she chaperoned the first mission trip I ever went on, and on that trip she ended up being the only other person from my church in the group painting houses in small-town Tennessee.  I was a smart-mouthed thirteen year old and she was a snarky woman my grandmother’s age, and we got along as if there were no age gap between us.

And long after I’d gone to college and she’d stopped serving in the youth ministry, we’d catch up on Sundays, sitting in a pew after service, and she would always ask me, “Are you staying out of trouble?” and I’d always say, “No,” and she’d always say “Good for you, Ornery.”  She always called me Ornery, as if it were my name, and I think sometimes that she understood me better than I understood myself.

Mrs. Jean saw me.  She saw past my thirteen year old awkwardness and anger, and she saw me. And she believed in me and she loved me in spite of myself, and being loved by her made all the difference.  Her love for me helped me grow up into someone who believes that God is good despite how bad the world may seem, and who seeks to find things to laugh about.  And she loved me right into being a youth leader myself, because I experienced what it is to have someone see me and believe in me and love me right into the person she always knew I was.

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Now I’m sitting on the other side, with my own girls whom I love and believe in, and am watching become exactly who I always knew they were.  And I’m full to bursting tonight because I know God is really happy for all of us.  Because it’s exactly what He wanted all along —

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 1:1-5)

A year’s worth of lessons

It’s been just about a year since everything changed. A year since a youth minister was fired and arrested, a year since a church experienced the kind of hurt no church should have to experience.

It’s been a year of paying attention, a year of learning.  There are some lessons that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and others that I wished I hadn’t learned at all.

For good or for bad, this is what this year has taught me:

1. Loving two people on two different sides of an argument can be heart-wrenching.  But, it is not impossible.

2. Sometimes you’re going to feel like you have to pick sides. You don’t. Not really.

3. Just because someone is in a position of authority does not mean that they are a leader. Or that you should be following them.

4. Sometimes following Jesus means disappointing people who claim to care for you. It’s just part of it, and it’s okay.

5. People can walk with you for years, even through some of life’s messiest messes, and they still may never see you.  This is okay too.

6. When the bottom falls out, true character is revealed.  Make sure what people are seeing in you is integrity. And Jesus.

7. Real friends have real fights.  And they love each other through them.

8. Relationships are organic things; they need room to grow. So, sometimes there needs to be distance even in the best relationships in order to foster healing. This doesn’t mean the relationship is over. Take a breath, you’ll find even keel again.

9. Sometimes, though, you’ll bank on the wrong people and you will hurt and you will be disappointed. But, you will be better off without people who only take from you and/or who don’t let you be exactly who God designed you to be.

10. Pray.  Pray all the time. Pray about everything.

11. Don’t get so angry that you lose hope.  Hope is what sets us apart.

12. You may not end up where you expect. This might throw you into an existential and spiritual crisis.  And it’s okay.  Because once you’re done spinning, you will nonetheless see that you are someplace good.

Grace is a party.

'Scotch in solo cups' photo (c) 2010, Kevin Galens - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/I talked about craving grace last week, about wanting to find ways to accept it and extend it. And then this weekend, a situation that required more than I had.

A party, a borrowed house, a 1 AM phone call to break up said party at said borrowed house while the owners were away on vacation.

I’ll tell you this much, nothing makes you (or the friend who’s with you) feel more like an adult than yelling at incoherent teenagers phrases like, “It doesn’t matter how I found out, this party is over!” and “I can call the cops or I can call your mom!” and “I don’t care if you can’t get a ride, are your legs broken?”

I’m not at my most gracious at 1 AM.

But then I think about cleaning puke out of the kitchen sink and I think, maybe I am.

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After the kids had been sent home to be someone else’s problem, I stood at my friends’ kitchen sink scrubbing pots of burnt spaghetti and dumping solo cups of a some kind of red alcohol-based punch.  I shook with anger and prayed for calm.

A party. A borrowed house.  Lots of alcohol.

This wasn’t my house, this wasn’t my sink. This was my friends’ house and it had been violated. And I couldn’t make it okay that it happened, but I could make sure their pots and counters were cleaned.

A party. A borrowed house.  Lots of opportunity for grace.

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I realize in this moment that what makes this whole grace thing complicated on the human side of things is…well…the human side of things.  We go with what’s easy, and more often than not avoid what’s hard.  When our friends suffer at the hands of a  teenage party, the grace to clean the puke in their kitchen is easy to find. But, grace for the puker or for the kid who threw the party, that’s harder to come by, maybe even that takes a little bit of work.

My friends’ whose house was violated found grace for the kid who threw the party quickly.  They, of course, issued appropriate consequences, but they also expressed love.  I asked them how they did it, and they answered, “Prayer.”

Prayer, it seems to me, is the work of grace.  And it is only through prayer, through being connected to God Himself, that you can look at a kid who puked in your sink after trashing your kitchen and partying in your house and say, “I love you.”

And maybe, because you’re praying, you’re able to clean the sink at 1 AM after a party in a borrowed house.

But, maybe the point is that both are grace.

Hard conversations and safe spaces

'' photo (c) 2010, Jessie Jacobson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

She’s been one of “my girls” for the better part of her time in high school, and I’ve lost track of the hours we’ve spent together and the coffees we’ve shared. Somehow over the last three years we’ve become an integral part of each other’s lives, and last week was a huge celebration for her as she collected her diploma and marked the end of high school. And I was on vacation…again.

Yesterday, she told me with a shocking amount of bravery and honesty that I’d hurt her feelings because I wasn’t there for her graduation or her open house or the recognition service at the small church. She told me that she understood I was traveling, that she wasn’t exactly mad at me, but that she felt like she wasn’t important to me anymore, since everything happened in August.

And I had no choice but to match her honesty with my own. I admitted something I’ve known but haven’t said out loud – “I keep running away because it’s too damn hard to be here.”

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I was in Michigan at the end of April for my goddaughter’s baptism. I really only “needed” to be there for a weekend, but I had the time, so why not stay a week?

My friend called a week before I left for that trip needing someone to dogsit in another state for ten days. Ten days is a long time, but I like those dogs and I’d be helping my friend, and I had the time, so why not say yes?

My mom called on day 4 of the 10 day dogsitting trip and said that she and my dad were going to visit my aunt in Ohio over Memorial Day weekend and asked if I wanted to go. There were things going on that weekend that I could’ve have stayed for – barbeques and the graduate recognition service – but, I hadn’t seen my family in a while and I love a good road trip and I had the time, so why not go?

And then it was family vacation, and we hung out in Maine for a week, eating lobster and drinking hot coffee because who knew Maine in June would be that cold?

I wasn’t keeping track, but people in my world were, and in the last two months I have been at home a grand total of two weeks. 16 days to be exact. And I was gone with a lot of good reasons, all family stuff, but the undercurrent to all of it, if I’m being honest, is that I have been running away. Because being here is too damn hard right now.

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My friends lately have been so busy being moms and raising kids and having jobs and serving in ministries, and I have been so busy running away, that we haven’t had a whole lot of time to chat lately. No cups of coffee. No lingering dinners. No catch-up lunches with kids in tow. We’re just moving from one thing to the next in a flurry of activity. And it occurs to me in this moment that I’m probably not the only one that thinks it’s just too damn hard to be here right now.

We’re all struggling to hold it together, to figure life out now that this is the new normal. We’re trying to be kind to one another, but the latent hurt and anger and disappointment and sadness is hard to ignore most days. We’ve lost something, and most of us are still in mourning, and probably will be for a very long time. We’re all dealing in different ways, with different coping strategies in place, and not all of them healthy.

And maybe this is where I am, after being called out by my newly graduated friend, begging all of us to find healthier ways of coping. And maybe part of how we do that is by trying to believe the best in one another again, and having real conversations that beg the hard things to be said. Maybe part of how we do this getting healthy thing is by hurting together, inviting to say the things that haven’t been said in almost a year, like “I keep running away” and “It’s too damn hard to be here right now.”

And maybe even, “I’ve been so busy taking care of everybody else for the last nine months that I’m only now feeling my own hurts in this mess, and I’m not handling them well.”

I mean, maybe something like that needs to be said. I don’t know, I’m just guessing. But, how about if we start creating safe spaces to say these kind of things anyway? Because I can’t speak for you, but I know I sure need it.