Good writing changes me

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Shauna Niequist is my new favorite author.  Alright, to be fair, in my life that’s a not a very bold statement; I have a lot of favorite authors: Donald Miller, Lauren Winner, Rachel Held Evans, and now Shauna Niequist.   I loves these authors, they’re my favorites, because they’re who they are on paper.  They’re people with authentic hurts and authentic joys who share their experiences in their books, well, authentically.  They’re real people who aren’t afraid to be real in print.  I aspire to be one of these people, the kind of person who from the first sentences of their work is saying to you who read it, “This is the story God and I are writing together, and I just want to share it with you.  Because I think maybe it’ll help you share your own story. And I think God’s pleased by this exchange.”

I think really good books are written from this place, this want to share an honest story.  I think that books like that change lives. Or if they don’t change lives, at least they cause us to think differently about our own lives and the stories our lives are telling.

Shauna Niequist’s book, “Cold Tangerines,”  is changing my life.  Its met me in a season of great transition, and it’s causing me to think differently.  Sidenote, I also think that’s the mark of a really good book, that it makes you think differently.  How this particular book is making me think differently, though, is that it’s inspiring me to live in the moment.  Shauna (who I just can’t call “Niequist,” as I would ordinarily address an author, because her story has now had too much of an impact on my own) challenges her readers to celebrate.  Essay by essay, she shares the significant moments that she’s experienced with significant people in her life, and by sharing these moments she’s encouraging readers to challenge themselves to see God at work in those moments, to see Him in the vibrant red of a tree as it changes colors in the Fall, or to see His grace working in the friends we interact with and community we create, or to see His redemptive nature in the action of turning left-over turkey bones into soup.  At least, that’s what she’s encouraged me to do.  And she’s encouraged me to do it right now. In this very moment.

Today is Memorial Day, and I am where I have been for many Memorial Days, at my oldest friend’s house with her family, who is my family too now, eating burgers and hot dogs and watermelon and corn.  To prepare for this event, this morning my oldest friend, Beth, and I ran out to the grocery store  for her mom, and that’s an errand we don’t get to run together anymore because Beth lives in Scotland and isn’t usually around to run to ShopRite with me.  And in any other day I would hate this errand because I hate the grocery store.  I hate being banged into with shopping carts, and getting stuck behind that Extreme Couponer who has a wallet full of what she’s clipped from the newspaper that will save her 48 cents on canned peas, which I also hate.  But this morning, I loved going to the grocery store.  Okay, to be fair again, I still hated that we were going to the grocery store, but I loved that I got to steal an hour of solo-time with Beth. I loved that we laughed on the way to the store about our friends having babies and the way this weirds me out.  I loved that we fought like the sisters 15 years of friendship has made us because I thought she was taking way too long picking out an onion. And I loved that when I was talking to her about what God and I are working through at this juncture of my life that she reached over and rested her hand on my arm and told me that she thinks I’m an even better version of myself than I was when she was home a year ago.

I think this is the kind of thing Shauna was talking about through her book.  I think that this is what she hopes people do, that they “suck the marrow out of life,” as another favorite author of mine, Henry David Thoreau, would say.  I read “Walden” in high school and I have carried that phrase with me since my sophomore year, but I think 12 years of life and a thousand added experiences have given it new life and new meaning.  To suck the marrow out of life is to find joy in an errand that you hate.  And for the rest of the day, it’s for me to laugh with these people who aren’t my blood relations but who are my family.  It’s to eat corn and watermelon and enjoy the flavor of these simple summer foods.  It’s to be all in, where I am now, with these people.  In this moment, it’s about embracing the ways that I’m changing, and to praise God for them…and for good writing and good books that have the power to make me think differently.

Graduation: A lesson in stability

Joy Wildfong, RAW Photography

I feel like I should’ve been warned about the post-graduation “crash.”

I woke up Monday morning feeling totally disoriented.  My routine was all out of whack.  I didn’t need to be up at 5:45 to leave my house by 7 to be in Philadelphia by 9.   I didn’t have to put 7 hours into my internship, then sit in class for hours, to get home at 11, to wake up the next morning to do it all over again.  I had to take my friend to the airport, but then I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted with my Monday. No obligations. No appointments. Nothing scheduled.   I met a friend for lunch and met another friend for a chat, and I did so basically on a whim without feeling guilty.  Mostly.

I know there are people out there who relish that kind of unstructured existence, that like to come and go as they please and feel boxed in by life when they can’t.  I am so not one of those people.  While I love those people, and even envy them to some degree, generally they drive me bananas.  Because I’m a person who likes structure and routine and predictability.  I feel sane when I have a framework to operate in, and these days that framework equates to the appointment book held in my Blackberry.  I see a week without appointments, as last week was, and I start to think that I’m unproductive, and then start to feel about as useful to the planet as a stinkbug.   I guess that’s something that I’ve learned about myself in the post-graduation crash: I crave stability.

Seriously.  I crave it, like my very pregnant friend craves cheese and pickle sandwiches.  It may not make a whole lot of sense to anyone else, but I feel satisfied when I have it.  The part of myself that is pyschodynamically trained to analyze people has turned inward on this point.  What I’ve come up with is probably glaringly obvious to anyone who knows me, but…

I was raised an Air Force brat. I was in 9 schools in half-a-dozen states by the time I was 12.  If I were my own client, I would say, “Oh. Well, sure. You spent the most pivotal years of your development in a state of total upheaval.  It’s no wonder that your adult self wants stability so badly.”  It just makes sense.

This gets a little tricky when it plays out in my relationships, though.   And it feels like I’ve had to navigate a lot of “tricky” over the last few weeks.   The relationships I have with the people closest to me, those people that I count on, haven’t been very stable.  Family, friends, friends who are my family – it’s all been shifting.  And it’s work for me to hold on to hope that everything will settle again, and that those relationships will be better for the shifting.

But, hope I do have.  Hope in Christ.   Hope that He is sovereign. Hope that He can be trusted. Hope that He is Love. Hope that He wants for my good and the good of the people I’m in relationship with.  Hope that He’s stable, even when it feels like nothing and no one else is.

One of my favorite verses comes out of  2 Timothy.   Paul’s writing to Timothy, a young guy he’s mentoring and discipling, and Paul’s writing this letter to encourage Timothy to stay the course, to hold hard to God and to maintain faith, because following Christ means sharing in His suffering.  It means facing hardships that are going to want to make us chuck our faith altogether, because it’s going to feel like the pain  just isn’t worth it.  It means that sometimes we’re going to face situations where we’re going to want to waver.  It’s an inescapable piece of being human.   But, Paul – knowing these things to be true because he’s in the midst of the hardship of being in prison for his personal following of Christ – says to Timothy, from prison,  “If we’re faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

…”He cannot deny Himself.”  Faithful. Steadfast. Stable.  This is who God is.  I waver. I change my mind, and my feelings change based on my situation.  I have moments where I want to chuck it all.  But, God never wants to chuck it all.  He’s never going to get so frustrated by my neurotic analysis that He needs “space,” and  He’s never going to operate without a plan.  All the things I fear most in this world, He’s got covered just by the nature of who He is.

So, maybe I wish someone had told me about the post-graduation crash.  But, I think Paul, through Timothy, gave me what I need to know to start to dealing with it: “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:1).

Disagreement vs. Disunity: Thoughts from a youth leader


I’m a youth leader at my home church now.  I moved to the church when I was in 6th grade, went to every youth event until I left for college, and now I’m back in my hometown leading and teaching Sunday school to the same youth group I was a part of all those years ago. And I love it.

Being a youth leader is one of the most favorite pieces of my life. And I never saw it coming. When I was in youth group,  my heart’s desire was to move away for college and never look back. I wanted my own life, away from the walls of church and home and family that felt like they were closing in.  I wanted out of the drama, chaos, and frustration and I wanted to find adult relationships.  As an adult, though, I’m finding that many of my most favorite relationships are the ones I’ve formed with the youth that I teach, and lead, and mentor.  Some of my most favorite relationships now are brimming with drama, chaos, and frustration. And I love it.

As a youth, I would often rant to my mom after a particularly drama-filled event, “How did we get here? I don’t understand!” As a leader I now find myself saying to my youth, in much calmer tones, “Well, how did we get here?” when drama, chaos, and frustration rear their ugly heads in our group dynamics.  Recently, our little groups has faced the drama-to-end-all-dramas  that every youth group in every denomination faces: a break-up. It’s messy and unpleasant and has made things awkward.  It had left the girls and guys feeling like they need to pick sides, like they can only really be friends with one person of the disunified couple. But, as a leader and an adult who’s been in a similar situation that my kids are facing in the very same room that they’re facing it in, I know that the disunity that’s plaguing the split-up couple doesn’t have to disunite the entire group.

My response as a youth was always to pick sides, to choose a friend, to stand by that one person at the expense of relationship with the other.  I didn’t think I had a choice.  But, I’m not a kid anymore.  I’m a grown-up. I’m a leader. And my role is to teach them how to navigate conflict and disagreement well, because disagreement doesn’t precipitate disunity, and to teach them that they have a choice. My role is to talk to them about how they’re handling their conflict, and question them on whether it fits with the teaching of the Scripture.  Admittedly, such conversation is nuanced and complicated, but at least it gets them thinking about it.  Perhaps more than that, though, my role is also to model for them in the relationships that I have with other adults how to handle disagreements well, so disunity doesn’t happen.

See, these kids listen to the same pastor I listen to on Sunday mornings. They hear him speak against tattoos, and they see the tattoo I have on my wrist almost every Sunday when I roll up my sleeves to get into the Word with them as their Sunday school teacher.  They know that our pastor would probably like to sand-blast the ichthus from my flesh, and they know that I love my tattoo and that it’s meaningful to me and that I wouldn’t change having gotten it.  They know really clearly that this is a point of disagreement between my pastor and I. They know that we both have personal, vested reasons for the opinions that we have, and they know that we both get kind of passionate when we talk about things that are personal.  But, they also know that he shakes my hand every Sunday morning and asks me how I’m doing.  They know that I have a good relationships with his children, and that I’ll visit with him and his family in their home. They know that we disagree, but aren’t disunited.  We are in community together, loving Jesus and trying to share that love with the world.  And I love it.

More than that, I think God loves it too.

“Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.”  -Hebrews 12:14

*This post was written as part of Rachel Held Evans‘ RALLY TO RESTORE UNITY. Check out her blog to see other like posts.

17 things I wish I’d known at 17

(C) 2010/Justin Brokie - via Wylio

I’m very close to yet another graduation.  May 14 will mark my third.  It’s easy to assume that because I’ve spent so much of my adult life as a professional student that I’ve learned a lot.  If that’s what you think, well…you’re right.  I do know a lot.  At least, I know a lot more than  I did 10 years ago when I was counting down the days until my high school graduation. Now, I’m counting down the day’s until I graduate from my Master’s program.  All the counting (77 days!) and the random Facebook messages announcing the coming together of my high school reunion have left me ruminating on what it is exactly that I have learned  over the last 10 years.  So, specifically to any of my youth who may stumble upon this blog, I offer a compilation of those things: the 17 things I wish I’d known at 17.

1.  I wish I’d known that I really would use math later. (I should have paid attention in Statistics class.)

2.  I wish I’d known that the high school friends that you still know 10 years after high school may not be the people that you expected to know.  The friendships that become the most meaningful are the ones that surprise you.

3. I wish I’d known that the seasonality of those other friendships didn’t devalue them.  It actually made them wonderful and good.

4.  I wish I’d known that  I’d value my college experience more for the friendships formed and the lessons I’d learn living with people than for what I actually learned in the classroom. (But, I’m glad I did known to take my college education more seriously than I did high school.  I actually learned something in that Stats class.)

5. I wish I’d known that “the good Christian boys” can still break your heart.

6. I wish I’d known that the dissolution of of friendships over the seasons of life can feel like the same kind of heart break.

7. I wish I’d known that it’s really easy to make really stupid decisions about how to deal with the heart break, even if you pride yourself as someone with their head on straight.

8. I wish I’d known that the heart break, though painful, wasn’t actually the end of the world.

9. I wish I’d known being honest with my friends and leaning on them even just a little bit would help ease the deepest of hurts and enliven the deepest of joys.

10. I wish I’d known that it was actually okay to talk to my parents about…everything.

11. I wish I’d known that I didn’t have to look like I have it together all the time.

12.  I wish I’d known that it’s possible to find a job that’s more than just a job IF you’re ear is consistently turned to hear from God about it.

13. I wish I’d known that having your ear turned to God sometimes means following in a way that looks foolish and feels risky…and it’s okay.

14.  I wish I’d known that other people’s approval didn’t actually provide fulfillment or lead to feelings of success.

15.  I wish I’d known that having questions about my faith didn’t make me a bad Christian.  I wish I’d known that having the courage to ask those questions, with a heart truly seeking to known God through them, could draw me closer to Him and strengthen my belief.

16. I wish I’d known not to waste so much time trying to be “right” all the time.   I wish I’d known that it could get in the way of building relationships with people and therefore serve to actually get in the way of my witness.

17.  I wish I’d known that at 27 I’d be writing a list of things I wish I’d known at 17 much more of aware of what I don’t actually know.  And I wish I’d known that would usher in a feeling of…freedom.

How about you? What do you wish that you’d known at 17?