Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Can You Choose Your Hard?


I have seen this posted several times in the past few days. It has floated around as a meme so I don't know who the original author is. I understand what he or she is trying to say but this is a very simplistic, black-and-white view of life. To be fair, these words may encourage some to be more intentional with their choices and not let the hard just happen to them. I get that. But SOMETIMES it just isn't quite that cut and dry.


Marriage is hard. Divorce is hard. Choose your hard. 

Obesity is hard. Fitness is hard. Choose your hard.

Being in debt is hard. Being financially disciplined is hard. Choose your hard. 

Communication is hard. Not communicating is hard. Choose your hard. 

Life will never be easy. It will always be hard. But we can choose our hard. Pick wisely. 

The truth is that you can try your best to choose the right "hard" and still end up with the other, or with both.
You can work your hardest to have a healthy marriage and still be abandoned or abused or betrayed.
You can work your hardest to be physically fit and still be obese, often for reasons others don't see or understand.
You can work your hardest to live a frugal life and still go into debt when an unexpected expenses or tragedy come your way.
You can work your hardest to communicate clearly and still have your words misunderstood or twisted to mean something you never intended.
No, life is not that simple. We don't always have control. We don't always get to pick the hard we get. Sometimes the hard picks us.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The New Beginnings Shower

Most of us have been to them or at least invited to them. Wedding showers. Here is a couple, often a young couple, setting out on a life together and somebody throws them a party to "shower" them  (or shower her, since it is customarily female only) with gifts for their new home together. It makes sense. I get it. 

Best I can tell, the custom started as an add-on or substitute for the dowry system, a time when the bride's father was expected to provide financial assets or property to the groom at the time of the wedding. An ancient custom for sure but Target and Bed, Bath, and Beyond and, if you are more posh, Williams Sonoma sure aren't complaining. 

Even today the wedding shower makes some sense. Couples who marry young, perhaps before or just out of college, may have never lived on their own. And even those who have may have been making do with household items from Goodwill or dog eared hand-me-downs from Mom. And even those who have lived a bit higher on the hog, so to speak, may want items that are not "yours," or "mine," but "ours." 

That said, there are certainly situations where the wedding shower is less of a necessity and more of a formality. A tradition. Professional couples who have lived together may not need anything at all. The showering of gifts is really more of a celebration. 

I'm not complaining at all about the existence of wedding showers. They are certainly needed at times and almost always wanted, to some extent. But I want to propose that weddings aren't the only time to shower people. And there are times when we need to shower people even more. 

One is when a single person is setting up her (I'll use "her" for simplicity's sake) own household. She needs all the things, too. I'm sure the thinking is that she can make do until she gets married and then she'll get showered, but there is no guarantee. And why wait? Why should a single person on a single income have to make do with what she can scare up when her friend over here who is getting married gets all the goods? 

You're getting married? Congratulations! Let's give you MORE! You are setting up a home on your own? Nothing here to celebrate. The reality is that most people want to get married. And it is hard when those who are getting what they want most, get more, while those who, for whatever reason, have not found the right one, stand back and watch, making do with what they have. 

The other time is when a marriage ends. This is a time when emotional encouragement and financial assets are even more crucial. 

Divorce is a death. The death of a marriage. The death of a dream. The death of a family. The death of a household. And with that death comes a division. It's called Equitable Distribution of the Assets. What was ours becomes yours and mine. And even what stays mine can often be saddled with hard, hard memories. Mine may end up being the dishes I was showered with at the wedding 18 years ago. Mine could be the Pyrex I baked his favorite cake in. Mine are the sheets we slept on. Together. Before he slept with her. While he slept with her. 

At the time when she may be having to set out on a new life, a single life, perhaps with children, she has fewer resources than ever. She may be going from a two to a one-income household. She may be taking a job for the first time since she had children, typically meaning her income prospects are considerably lower. She may have used up all her savings (if she has any) on attorney fees. She can't afford the luxury of replacing household items. She may not even be able to make ends meet. And then, all too often, there is the shame. 

While the universal wedding shower pours out support in the form of good cheer and material goods to the lucky couple, what if we had a divorce shower? If you don't like the sound of that (you are afraid it sounds like a celebration of divorce), we could call it a New Beginnings Shower, not necessarily a party but an outpouring. We could shower her over time with gift cards and offers of babysitting. We could fill in the gaps left by the loss of so much. 

I have watched so many people that I love dearly enter into the New Beginning with grace and courage. It is incredibly hard. It takes guts to stare the great unknown in the face and move on. It takes stamina to work day in and day out, helping your children navigate the tumultuous world of shared custody. It takes resilience to put one step in front of the other while mourning the death of what you had. I say we ease that burden just a bit. Let's be the cheering section for the New Beginning. Let's shower her with love and support, both emotional and financial, and celebrate the New Beginning. 


Friday, October 9, 2020

Spiritual Privacy

 A few years ago now I came across something on Facebook that really troubled me. For whatever reason that Facebook does what it does, the powers that be put into my news feed a post that a distant friend commented on. A father posted photos of his grade school son at the pinnacle of some mountain, praying, with the commentary of how proud he was of his son who "prayed to receive Christ." I was shocked and quite troubled. I wasn't troubled because this boy was at perhaps a critical point in his spiritual life, I was troubled because this father felt the need to document it with photos, post it on social media, and then brag about it. 

I have seen this a lot over the years, parents applauding their children's spiritual accomplishments and apparent godly choices and character. And while there is nothing wrong with encouraging your children and sharing about them, there are a couple of things that concern me here. 

One problem is that parents whose children are no so overtly Christian or do not wear their spiritual lives on their sleeves can feel like they are doing something wrong. In a world of "if you do it right" it is easy to compare and find yourself coming up short. The guilt and fear is multiplied exponentially when your child's spiritual condition is a supposed result of your performance as a parent and your failure as a parent could impact the state of your child's soul for all eternity and whether or not your child is playing in the youth group worship band or memorizing the catechism is evidence for all to see. 

The other problem is this public bragging treats your child's spiritual life like a performance. We all know that children want more than anything the approval of their parents. If your children know that you want them to look like Christians and act like Christians in the most Christiany sense of the word based on the standards your particular culture has set up to measure such things, they are likely to try to live up to those standards, whether that is what is going on in their heart or not. This is a grand setup for all sorts of hypocrisy or internal conflict (with perhaps self-medication) or out and out rejection of any and all of it. 

My concern is that kids won't have the opportunity or feel the freedom to discuss their needs and desires and questions and doubts and frustrations and fears and will stuff them all down in lieu of looking like they are supposed to look and making their parents proud. 

One of the things I regret most as a parent is not emphasizing with my kids that it is OK to have questions and doubts and not understand why God calls them to a certain kind of life. I regret that we didn't have the opportunity to grapple together some of the legalisms and expectations put on us all. 

I read recently about the concept of Escalator Christianity, where we are expected to go from level to level, always improving, always getting better, always getting more spiritual and ever closer to God. That doesn't happen in life. Not in an adult's life and certainly not in a kid's. The spiritual life is not a serene ride up the escalator but more of an amalgam of every carnival ride ever with highs and lows and twists and free falls and sometimes dark, dark tunnels (this past year I ended up on a slow moving ride through the bowels of the earth). 

Expecting our children to take spiritual steps at certain times and then bragging about it and even patting ourselves of the back (or patting others on the back) for doing such a good job is just incredibly damaging, as they will often do what they think they are expected to do. This is not the National Honor Society or Eagle Scouts or Bible Verse Memory Award. This is a relationship and God works in each kid's life in a different way. 

Our kids get so little privacy on social media as it is. Let's keep their relationship with God something they can wrestle with in their own way and in their own time and not use it as an occasion to toot our own horns. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

More Than Objects

An article came out today in Relevant Magazine adapted from the book Talking Back to the Purity Culture by Rachel Joy Welcher. It mirrors a number of other articles I have read lately from therapists such as Andrew Bauman and Jay Stringer, who work extensively with men and sexual addiction. Their message is this: the current strategy of dealing with pornography addiction and sex addiction and lust is only making matters worse by turning women into dangerous objects of lust and seduction rather than creatures of value. 

My husband will say that most men know that women are not the danger. Men are. And yet it is the women getting punished by this method of managing desire. 

Last week a friend heard a sermon where the pastor acknowledged the huge problem of pornography addiction within the church and how incredibly destructive such addiction is to relationships and marriage. Good enough. And yet his advice to men was to "stay far away from the opposite sex." 

Gulp!

That mode of managing desire may work for an alcoholic (just don't go where they are serving alcohol) or an ex-smoker (avoid people who are smoking) or a member of Gambler's Anonymous (stay the heck out of the casinos). But women aren't alcohol or cigarettes or one-armed bandits. We are people. Real, live breathing beings with minds and hearts and souls. 

For the past 37 years of my life I have been in churches that hold to the view of male only leadership. This complementarian view says that, while men and women are created of equal value, they have different roles and, per certain passages of scripture, men are the leaders and the heads of churches and families. Some hold a "loose complementarian view" while others are much MUCH more hardcore. But every church I have been in has had only male pastors. Only male elders. Only male deacons. Any questioning of this becomes the "I didn't create this order. God did." 

I am not a Bible scholar and certainly not versed in the hermeneutics of scripture. But I am a woman in this system and I will ask you this: 

What do you think happens to women in the church when you combine 

A.) a complementarian, male headship only ideology and 

B.) "avoid members of the opposite sex"? You get 

C.) Women lose. Women lose out on it all. 

You cannot on the one hand set up all sorts of restrictions against interacting with women and then on the other insist that only men are allowed in leadership positions within the church without women really, really, really getting a raw deal in the process. The women get no real care and have no voice because the men in power have to keep their distance. 

I have experienced this over and over and over again. Other women share the same story. And it is absolutely heartbreaking. 

I know some men try to remedy this in different ways. I have had plenty of pastors who will meet with me (upon my request) but insist that my husband come along. Do you know what happens? He ends up talking with my husband and I am left out of the game. My voice is lost. My story goes unheard. My ideas count for nothing. I no longer matter. 

My husband says by way of observation that it could be that men are just more comfortable talking with other men. If that is the case, then they either need to learn how to talk with women (practice is always good) or they need to have women in leadership positions who can talk to women. But you cannot hold to the ideals of male-only leadership and avoid the opposite sex without more than half the church suffering from neglect and, quite often abuse. 

(Yes, abuse. I need to save this topic for another post because so many women, suffering abuse at the hands of their husbands are not listened to or believed by the leadership in their churches and are quite often excommunicated or disciplined for seeking to leave their abuser and is a tragedy that deserves to be addressed separately.)

What is so interesting is that Jesus was continually moving toward women. Not away from them. He approached the woman at the well and didn't end the interaction when she drew him water. He didn't send Mary back into the kitchen as she sat at his feet, in fact he said she chose the better way. When a prostitute washed his feet with her tears, he saw her heart and dealt with her so gently, while the leaders wanted to send her away.

It is passages like these that give me hope that I am something more than a collection of cooties or a walking death trap. That I am not invisible. Or dangerous. 

So many women I know long for healthy, encouraging interactions with men. And men need healthy, encouraging interactions with women. 

As Welcher says, "If women are to be viewed as whole person, the male gaze must be addressed holistically. The problem of male lust is not solved by looking away from women, but by looking at them correctly--as more than their physical bodies, the temptations they pose or the sexual satisfaction they provide. They must learn to see them as sisters, image bearers and coheirs of the kingdom of God."If women are to be viewed as whole persons, the male gaze must be addressed holistically. The problem of male lust is not solved by looking away from women, but by looking at them correctly—as more than their physical bodies, the temptations they pose or the sexual satisfaction they provide. They must learn to see them as sisters, image bearers and coheirs of the kingdom of God.

I

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Listen

 In her book When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd writes:

At my darkest moments I did feel as if my heart was groaning. As I write about those terrible sounds, I do so with that odd kind of trepidation that comes from being human in public. Recently I received a letter from a reader who was "surprised at me" because I'd written an article expressing some of my midlife feelings, "Christians shouldn't feel that way," she said. (The implication was pretty obvious.) But the truth is Christians have all kinds of feelings. Their hearts groan in many ways. And frankly, I believe we'll all be better off when we take off our religious masks and become more human. Then we can get on with what really matters--the act of cupping our ears to one another's hearts with compassion.

It is time, people. It is time to take off the mask. It is time to quit pretending that "good Christians shouldn't feel that way." Stop putting people in a box. A tidy, pious box. That box may make life more comfortable for you but it is suffocating to your neighbor. And it looks nothing like Jesus. Take off your own mask and quit insisting other people wear one. And listen. Listen without an agenda. Listen without judgment. Listen with compassion. That is what really matters. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Where Are the Single Moms?

I have been wanting to say this for about eight years and have never really had the courage to do so but life is so weird now people are doing and saying all sorts of things and so, hey, there's no time like the present. 

As most of you know, back in 2012 our then 20 year-old unmarried daughter gave birth to our granddaughter. I realize that for much of society a 20 year-old giving birth isn't a big deal, even an unmarried 20 year-old, but in the communities we were in, it was, well, an event. One to be talked about in hushed tones. One to be handled with care. 

Knowing how badly our daughter would need support and knowing that likely the best support would come from other women who had been in her shoes, I began asking around to friends if they knew of single moms in their churches. What I found was shocking. While many knew of a few single in their 30s and 40s who were divorced with older kids, almost nobody knew of a woman in their church who had been in our daughter's shoes. 

People, this is a demographic anomaly. For the past decade or so approximately 35-40% of the babies born in our country have been born to unwed mothers which leaves one to ponder WHERE THE HELL ARE THEY? Well, they certainly aren't in church. 

But why not?

Interestingly enough, a few months ago my husband and I were visiting a church nearby and I asked one of the men there about single moms in the church and his reply was shocking and disturbing. He basically said that single moms probably don't come to church because they feel so much guilt over the sin that got them in that situation in the first place. And I thought, no WONDER there aren't single moms in the church. If that is the attitude of those who are so unsullied as to not have to live forever with the consequences of their actions, then no wonder single moms make themselves scarce. 

I did, by the way, educate this man. I let him know the reality is that single moms are left out everywhere they go. They have no place to fit in. They don't fit in with the singles, because they have a child to care for, and they don't fit in with the families, because they aren't a couple. I watched my daughter attend two different churches and regularly get left out of things, not necessarily intentionally, but left out nonetheless just because she didn't fit. I would imagine that she is not alone in this experience. (For the record I know that my friends who are single moms via divorce have often had the same experience.)

I really don't get it. For all the pro-life talk out there, the support for women who choose life, so to speak, is pretty pathetic. A while back I saw somebody cooing over an article about how wonderful it was that a group of pro-life college students had donated some large number of diapers to a crisis pregnancy center. And while that is great and babies do need diapers, the help has to, HAS TO go beyond diapers. Babies don't stay babies. 

What single moms need more than anything else is community. People there to take up the slack. To give them a break. To notice them out there on the fringes. To invite them into community. To listen even when their words might be impolite and their honesty jarring. To listen without lecturing or fixing. To me it is really sad that this doesn't seem to happen in the church because that should be the place where it happens most of all. 

In the first church my daughter attended as a very young single mother, she tried to be involved with the other singles. And yet she would be crushed over and over again when she saw photos of the others in the group doing activities to which she was never invited. When she was struggling and went to the pastors they told her she had not been trying hard enough. One, that was royal bull***t because she lived with us during this time and I watched and watched as she tried to fit in. We even hosted the young singles Christmas party at our house. Don't tell me she didn't try. But more importantly, since when did church become the survival of the fittest? You can only get your needs met if you do all the right things and fight your way in to the core? 

Jesus, after all, moved toward, not away from, the marginalized. He knew something of the shame society heaps on people. He knew that the hearts of the least of these mattered more than all the programs and agendas in the world. He told his disciples to not get in the way of the little ones coming to him. 

Throughout scripture we are called to care for the widows and the orphans. I think unwed mothers and their precious children are the widows and orphans of our day. 

James tells us this: 

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress

I realize some people are completely at a loss for what to do. If and when you encounter a woman at church, here are a few ideas:

-Don't assume that she is married. Don't ask her where her husband is or what her husband does. 

-Invite her to do things with your family and/or friends. 

-Listen to her when she has had a bad day, without trying to fix it. 

-Ask her what she needs from you and from the church. 

-If you are a leader in the church, go to her. Ask to hear what life is like for her. Check on her often.

-Be the hands and feet of Jesus. Pour out on her grace and mercy, not accusation and judgment. 

Notice that none of these suggestions have to do with diapers. Not the diapers aren't important, but they are temporary. They meet a physical need, but not an emotional one. Not a spiritual one. Diapers don't raise a child. A village does. This is what single moms need and it is too hard to find it in the church. Let's change that. 




Friday, September 18, 2020

The Canyon

I feel bad for Matt sometimes. He is a positive, upbeat, glass-half-full kind of guy. He wants to believe the best in everybody. He is a consensus builder.  He wants to bring peace. People love my husband for that. They love his brains and his reasonableness. His kindness and his wit. His cool head and steady demeanor. And yet he is married to me. 

I am a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) who feels things intensely. Many people would say too intensely. It is like my radar is always on, noticing the dynamics between people, the unspoken messages, the heartache behind the smiles. Matt calls me the canary in the coal mine. He says that is useful. I say that things rarely turn out well for the canary. 

There are times my insides hurt so bad I feel I am imploding in on myself or breaking in two. There are times I want to scream at the top of my lungs that what I am seeing is wrong or dangerous or toxic, but that is rarely received well by those who want peace at all costs or only want to hear nice, tidy sentiments. 

We are an odd pair. We've been an odd pair for over 32 years now. 

Thirty-two years was a goal of mine. My parents marriage lasted 31 years and 11 months. For some reason I felt doomed. How dare I think I deserved more of a marriage than my mother had? I was nervous and eager to get the the 32 year mark as if somehow hitting that line would break me free from the knapsack of toxic family dynamics I had been carrying my whole life. 

Our 32nd anniversary fell on a Thursday in May when everything was still shut down so we opted to celebrate pandemic style with Okie Dokie's BBQ in our front yard. Our daughter, Mary, was there as well to witness a surprise. My dear friend Hannah Kaminer showed up to provide music for our evening. But not just any music. 

A while back, Matt commissioned Hannah to write a song for us. Hannah is a fellow HSP and knows how deep my valleys can go. She knows that my heartfelt and honest words aren't always received well by those who wish for a papered-over world. She knows that sometimes I feel like I am a liability to my husband more than an asset. That he should have married a well tended garden. 

So Hannah wrote this song. From Matt. To me. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. 

The Canyon – for Matt & Ginny

They say that you’re deep

A canyon of need

A bad taste in their mouth

‘Cause you say what you think


They say that I’m kind

Just because I’m polite

I’m just slow to react

and taking my time


And people, they can be wrong,

As much as right


But if you are a canyon

And your walls have gotten steep

And the question marks are all 

that other people seem to see

Then I will be an echo

Calling back your mystery,

Wild beauty is a canyon

Just like she’s meant to be


They say it’s a shame

How you feel everything

They say you’re a grief-catcher

And it’s no way to be


They say I’m a steady current

A river of calm

I must be your grief-catcher

I must be your balm


But people, they can be wrong,

As much as right


So if you are a canyon

Well that’s where I want to be

Without you I’m only water

In a still and stagnant stream

Please don’t flatten out the landscape

I still want your mystery

Wild beauty is a canyon

Just like she’s meant to be


(Instrumental)


People, they can be wrong,

As much as right.


So if you are a canyon

Then that’s where I want to be

When the question marks are all

that other people seem to see

Then I will be an echo 

Calling back that mystery, 

“Wild beauty is a canyon, 

Just like she’s meant to be”


Please don’t flatten out the landscape

I still choose your mystery

Wild beauty is a canyon, 

Just like she’s meant to be Here is the beautiful song.

https://soundcloud.com/hannahkaminer/wild-beauty-if-you-are-a-canyon


Monday, September 7, 2020

Beauty for Ashes

Beauty for ashes. This seems to have been the theme of my life. Not so much experiencing beauty for ashes, but wanting it. Longing for it. And rarely finding it. 

We all want a good redemption story. That is why we so often pass by the pain, minimize it, paper over it, in our hurry to get to the good stuff. The happy ending.

We tell the Ruths in our lives that God will bring a Boaz. We tell the Jobs that God will double what he has taken away. We trot out Romans 8:28 that God will work it all out for our good. We may rob those amid the ashes of the very thing they may need the most, our presence, all the while making promises that may not pan out in the end. 

It's not that God can't bring a Boaz. It's not that he can't give back in spades what he has taken away. It's not that he won't work things for our good. It is just that the beauty may not look like what we are looking for. 

It is well known that our society has a screwed up standard of beauty. We women, especially, know the pain and frustration and heartache of not measuring up to an impossible standard, a standard that may not even exist in the real world, given makeup and Photoshop. When those who love us tell us we are beautiful, we don't believe it because we long to be THAT kind of beautiful. 

What if...what if we ARE getting beauty for ashes and we just don't see it because we have been told that beauty only comes in one shape and size? What if beauty isn't in the Boaz but in the camaraderie of dear friends who know the loneliness well? What if beauty isn't in the getting back the goods but in sharing with one another when you have so little? What if the beauty is actually sitting with the mourning in the ashes and watching your heart of flesh soften and embrace the heart of your neighbor? 

What if we are missing the beauty all around us because we are looking for the wrong thing: a makeuped, Photoshopped, papered-over life that really is no life at all? 

Maybe it is time to rethink what beauty for ashes really looks like after all. I wonder what I've been missing. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Be the Village

One of the things that I think has been most tragic about the pandemic has been the loss of the village. The village in our western culture was never much to begin with. Some people didn't want it at all. 

I remember hearing the phrase "It takes a village to raise a child" back in the early nineties. It may have been from the mouth of Hilary Clinton and because it came from her it was vilified as socialist ideology and the intent for the state to take parental rights away from parents. Sigh. How quickly we turn anything into a political agenda. 

The truth is it DOES take a village. Some parents, those who are highly competent or uber self-sufficient or just plain paranoid, may not agree. But I think the rest of us see that we NEED each other and we need each other even more when we are doing the hardest task on the planet: raising a tiny human to adulthood. 

Parenthood is hard. Parenthood can be lonely. And no parent has all of what it takes. 

In times past parents could depend, if they were so fortunate, on family members, on friends, on neighbors. On teachers and coaches. On pastors and the church. But not everybody had these connections. For them the village was too small. Or nonexistent. 

But now, now, so much has changed. For almost six months parents have had their kids 24 hours a day with little to no support from the outside world. No school to go to. No soccer games to attend. No playgrounds to let off kinetic energy and meet other moms. No coffee shops to serve as mini therapy sessions with another weary soul. No church gatherings. The village has all but evaporated. 

And while life as kids know it has changed dramatically, the demands of life, work, responsibilities, obligations of parents have not. No wonder parents are just.so.done. 

All this to say, if you have time on your hands or an extra batch of energy in your soul, reach out to a parent and offer to help. Offer to come over and assist with online school or take a child for an ice cream treat or a bike ride. Offer to come sit and be another adult presence in a house of 24/7 frustrated kid chaos. Offer to bring a meal that isn't chicken nuggets or yet another frozen pizza. Offer to listen the the exasperated, exhausted cries of a mother  (or grandmother 😉) who can't do it all. 

In the craziness of life that is 2020, we need the village now so much more than ever. You can make a difference. You really can. 

Friday, August 28, 2020

Healing, Not Healed

 Earlier today a friend asked me what I had been learning. After spewing out a verbal volcano of old struggles and fresh insights, I hit upon this. 

A few months ago I was yet again beating myself up (one of the few things in life I really excel at) because I am 56 years-old and not yet fixed. (When you see your first psychiatrist when you are eleven you really hope to be fixed by the time your hormones have evaporated and your hair has turned the color of a smoldering campfire.) 

It seemed that some of the lifelong struggles were barnacles on my soul that wouldn't.let.go. On top of that, new and improved experiences were cropping up right and left, causing me to cave inside myself emotionally, feeling incapacitated and hopeless of ever having the maturity level greater than that of a frightened five year-old. 

Then, out of the blue (because blue is my favorite color and that is where most of my insights come from even though it is likely this came from God but God created the color blue in the first place) it hit me. We call them "recovering alcoholics," not "recovered alcoholics." Alcoholics know they are always recovering. They are not a finished product. Never will be. 

So here I am. A "healing Ginny," not a "healed Ginny," because that is not going to happen this side of heaven. 

What that realization did for me is that I was able to take the energy I spent beating myself up for not being healed and funnel it into finding new pathways for the ongoing process of healing. 

We live in a solutions-oriented, task-accomplishing culture. It drives us crazy to not be able to fix a problem and move on to the next. But the souls of people aren't automotive transmissions and life isn't an assembly line. It is a relief to understand that always healing is as good as it gets. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Exponential Damage

Hurricane Laura just blasted ashore in Louisiana and one of the reporters reminded me of something. An increase in wind speed can result in not more damage, but exponential damage. Exponential meaning it doesn't add to, it multiplies. 

It seems like life can dish out a lot of hard things. Sometimes the hard thing can flatten us or sometimes we can handle it with grace and finesse and land on our feet (there seem to be people like that). There are so many factors that play into how well we can weather a hard thing. Too many to mention. But add hard thing to hard thing and then another hard thing to hard thing to hard thing and almost anybody can begin to flail. Add the hard thing to the hard thing to the hard thing onto the hard thing that happened five years ago that drained your emotional resources, and the hard thing can hit like an tsunami. Add the hard thing to hard thing to hard thing to perhaps a highly sensitive personality or a brain wired for anxiety and depression or to childhood trauma and you can get a real, excuse the language, clusterfuck. 

There are ways to measure hard things and their damage, such as the Holmes Rahe Stress Inventory, but those things are measured via addition, not multiplication. And I think multiplication is where it is at because, like a hurricane, the increase in another 10mph of wind speed doesn't add to the damage, it multiplies it. 

So think of this year. We have a pandemic with huge amounts of uncertainty. Life as we know it has been wholly interrupted. It has brought changes in work. It has brought changes in how we educate our children. It has brought changes in home life. It has brought changes in our ability to connect with our support systems. For some it has brought a huge change in our ability to make a living, with job loss and potential eviction or foreclosure. It has brought changes in our local landscape, with some of our favorite restaurants and stores, perhaps many of them, closing for good. It has brought fear. It has brought division. It has brought anger. Some of these things cannot even be measured. 

Then we have the racial strife with justifiable outrage over horrific, race-motivated deaths, followed by protests followed by again the division between the Black Lives Matter and the All Lives Matter people followed by the further polarization of the issue. 

Add to that the political landscape of an election year. I can't even begin to describe this level of tension. 

This is just what EVERYBODY is dealing with. And then some people have additional hard things. Death. Divorce. Estranged family members. Loss of some kind. Job stress. Family stress. Physical health challenges. Mental health challenges. You name it. 

And then there are those who, on top of all of this, are grappling with hard, hard things that have followed them from the past into the present and where do you even start? Where do you even begin the cleanup process? 

You begin, I think, by understanding that damage is exponential so you aren't surprised or shocked or ashamed of the mess around you and inside you. The last thing anybody needs is adding shame to all of the brokenness in life. 

I am dealing with this right now. I am looking at exponential damage and trying to understand it. It helps to see how the damage happened and why, even seemingly minor things, had such a huge impact. I am working through the process of identifying and naming damaging events as part of the cleanup. Normally the fact that there has been so much damage would have keep me focused on my own inadequacy to handle hard things, but I have found that understanding exponential damage to be so freeing. Whereas my energy used to be used up by beating myself up over the damage, it can now be used to weather the storm and plan the cleanup. 

It has been a hard year for everybody. There is no shame in being flattened by the Category 5 Hurricane of 2020. No shame at all. 



Tuesday, June 2, 2020

True Leadership

I want to say something about leadership and this applies to anybody in a position of leadership or power: parents, teachers, bosses, pastors, elected officials....presidents. Leadership...true leadership...does not dominate or control. It is not obsessed with self-interest or looking good. It is not "do this or else." It is not about making people in your own image. 

True leadership is not about coercion and control but about empowering the powerless and marginalized. True leadership requires knowing those you lead: their hopes and dreams and strengths and weaknesses, their trauma and sorrows. 

True leadership means coming alongside the wounded more than charging the hill to be the biggest or the best. True leadership means a lot more listening than talking. True leadership seeks to understand more than be understood. True leadership means asking what does this person need more than what do I want.

True leadership isn't always convenient or efficient. It doesn't feed the ego. I can't always be measured in ways we want to see. True leadership requires humility. Compassion. Empathy. Conviction. Courage. It requires laying aside the personal agenda for the greater good.

Come to think of it, true leadership looks a lot like Jesus.

Friday, May 15, 2020

May 15, 2009

(I wrote the following ten years ago today. It marked the one-year anniversary of my mother's death. There is so much more that I could write. Ten more years of processing and pondering things like motherhood and loss, life and death. But I think that, for today, these words will have to suffice.) 

All day I have struggled for the words. I knew today would come and it would be a milestone and
milestones are supposed to mean something. But I'm not sure what.

My mother was 85 when she was hospitalized on March 9, 2009 with atrial fibrillation. She was not real
happy about the situation and really in no mood to die. The prospect held very little appeal. An
attempt to correct the atrial fibrillation resulted in a perforated esophagus and near death. From
there her condition played out like a long, sickening carnival ride. I will spare the details. I can say them but I don't know if I can spell them, those details.

I left home on Friday, May 15, for yet another trip to Chattanooga. Two days earlier her condition had worsened. She was retaining vast quantities of fluid. She hadn't been able to swallow for 8.5 weeks. She was looking ahead to a long and seemingly impossible road in rehab. She had lost all strength. Her oxygen levels began to drop. And she decided that she had had enough. On Thursday she spoke with her doctor who encouraged her to be strong and not give up. Very confidently and by the grace of God she proclaimed, "I have been through hell. I am ready to go to heaven." Her doctor encouraged her not to make a decision about anything until he returned on Tuesday. She signed a Do Not Resuscitate order anyway.

So Friday I left to go down and spend the next few days with her, discussing the possibility of
discontinuing treatment altogether and likely making a decision come the beginning of the week. From the moment I left home the day took on a surreal quality. As I drove through the Pigeon River Gorge I was taken aback by the beauty. The sky, barely visible between the mountains, was a deep, storm cloud blue. The vegetation was a brilliant, almost Kermit the Frog green. But it was the water. Every few yards was water cascading down the rocks. I have been driving the Pigeon River Gorge for 24 years and I had never before and have never since seen anything like it. It was as if God was giving me a small glimpse of the beauty that was in store for my mother.

About 30 minutes outside Chattanooga, near Cleveland, TN, Bonnie (my sister) called and said, "You'd better hurry. She's dying." I told her she had to tell my mom that she could not die until I got there. As I walked into the hospital room my mother looked up at me and said, "Ok. Now who else am I waiting for?". She had made her mind up, knew she was going and was ready to make the trip. Once everyone was there (minus my family, which was still in Asheville) she wanted her oxygen mask removed so that she could go. We fumbled around in a Three Stooges-esque sort of way until I finally took her orders and removed the mask, forever branding me, in a bizarrely humorous way, as the child who killed her mother.

Probably my favorite quality of my mother's, and certainly the one that I connected with the most, was her sense of humor. With the oxygen mask removed she began to labor in her breathing. But at one point she stopped laboring, opened her eyes, and asked, "Am I dead yet?". Bonnie's humorous and yet honest reply was, "I think we'd all look a whole lot better if you were."

It wasn't long, only a few hours. I had never seen anyone die before. None of us had. But it was quiet and peaceful and heartbreakingly beautiful to watch someone step from this life into the presence of God.

It has now been eleven years today. Her house is sold, the new owners moving in this weekend. Her estate is settled, for the most part. But in so many ways I find myself living that day over and over again, much the way I relived the births of my four children. I guess in some ways they are similar, birth and death.

They say it gets easier as time goes on, and I'm sure it does. But some days are just hard. Today was one of them.

Friday, February 21, 2020

On Lament

Yesterday my friend Katie Billheimer shared these words:

Lamenting. Something our culture doesn’t really know how to do. Grief makes us uncomfortable. When someone is going through something and they have questions we can’t answer, we try and fix things, force a positive spin on it, tell people not to be sad or angry as if it’s a switch to turn on and off. In the book of Psalms, 70% are songs of lament where the writer cries out to God out of fear, sorrow, and frustration. It’s not wrong to feel this, even if it is scary. We were made to feel. Made to question. Made to yearn for something better. We’re not going to have the answers for all the struggles in this world—if we did we would be God. But this lack of knowledge is nothing to be ashamed of. We should never make people feel less for being low or like there’s something wrong with them. Just be there. Listen. Hold their hand and don’t say anything. Your presence and the knowledge that you won’t run away or ignore them is enough.
Her words are wise. Timely. I have spent the past few months taking as much time as I can nab to be alone and sit and ponder and acknowledge the loss and the brokenness and cry out to God and ask him lots of questions and then let go of longings and dreams and unmet needs. It is been very good.

In his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Mark Vroegop says this of lament,
The space between brokenness and God's mercy is where this song is sung. Think of lament as the transition between pain and promise. It is the path from heartbreak to hope. 
 He goes on to describe the key elements of lament:
 1.) an address to God, 2.) a complaint, 3) a request, and 4.) an expression of trust and/or praise....turn, complain, ask, and trust....the heart is turned to God in prayer. Complaint clearly and bluntly lays out the reasons behind the sorrow...the lamenter usually makes a request for God to act--to do something...nearly every lament ends with renewed trust and praise.
What struck me about this is how little lamenting we do. Maybe lament doesn't look good. I would imagine some might think it a bad witness, a wallowing, so to speak in your pain. We are so often told, taught, chided, commanded, exhorted to trust God in our pain, leapfrogging from turn to trust and skipping entirely the complaining and asking part that is absolutely crucial and the very heart and soul to lament.

Why are we afraid to lament?

Perhaps so much of it is our Christian culture. We are encouraged to do, do, do, do, do. To be studying our Bibles and praying and evangelizing and discipling and raising up our children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" and so often are told exactly what that all should look like. And, of course, we should at all times and in all places have that "attitude of gratitude" (insert sing song-y voice and syrupy smile here.) Stop gazing at your navel and get on with the show.

Perhaps so much of it is our theology. We have a theology of sin, but not of suffering. We think the whole of the Christian life, the whole of it, is about sin and repentance. So any suffering requires not complaint, but confession. Any suffering is your own damn fault.

Perhaps it is because we think if we hurt enough to need lament, we are doing it wrong. We have been fed a lie that if we come to Jesus he will clean up our house and tidy up our rooms a la Marie Kondo and pain and suffering and brokenness and the terrible messiness of life here on this earth will touch us no more. Or if it does, we will be so filled with the "peace that passes understanding" that we can just float above the fray in our Happy Jesus Balloon.

But the older I get and the more messy I see life truly is. The more broken I feel. The more pain and suffering I see in the world and in the lives of people I hold so dear. The fewer answers I have. And I find that all I can do is lament. And it is good for my soul.



Monday, February 17, 2020

Drinking the Kool-Aid

I remember the day they drank the Kool-Aid. It was November, 1978. I was in 9th grade and I watched, along with the rest of the country, as the nightly news played on our monstrous console televisions images of hundreds of people...adults, children, entire families...laid out on the ground, seemingly asleep. But dead. Dead from drinking a lethal concoction of cyanide and Flavor Aid. Brand names being what they are, the phrase was born: they drank the Kool-Aid.

The members of Jim Jones's People's Temple followed him and his ideology to their deaths. Well, some followed. Some were forced. Many wanted to leave and flee the abuse but were unable to. In the end there was no choice. Drink the Kool-Aid.

It's easy to do, to drink the Kool-Aid. It tastes sweet. Cold. It goes down easily. But that syrupy goodness masks the toxic taste of something deadly.

I've drunk the Kool-Aid. I've done it so many times in so many situations that I can't begin to count. I've believed something too good to be true. I've bought in to a system because it promises me something I think I desperately need.

I did that with parenthood. I drank the Kool-Aid, and in the the message that I should and I even COULD control the outcome. That if I did it right, my kids would make all the right choices, with right being defined by the standards of the community, and would make me proud and prove that I was a good mother.

Here's the hitch. Here's the terribly deadly thing about this particular pitcher of Kool-Aid. When you drink this up, you drink this cup, parenting is all about you. Your child's report card becomes your report card. His or her choices, your job evaluation. And if he or she fails to measure up, struggles to compete, or chooses a different path from the one you are told is the right one, you become the failure.

And what happens then? All of your energy is then focused on yourself. Beating yourself up. Or groping in panic to whip your child back into shape to fit inside the box.

I beat myself up for years. Not because there was anything wrong with my children, but because they didn't always make the choices I was told they were supposed to make and I was told it was my responsibility that they make. It was horrible. It was horrible for me because I felt that I had somehow failed God by not doing it right and it was horrible for my children because I became focused on licking my own wounds rather than what they needed from me.

I suppose it is easy now for me, years down the road, to see this. All four of my kids are well into adulthood and such incredibly wonderful, fascinating, and outside the box that it is a blast to know them as people, not just as offspring. But I wish I had known this then.

I wish somebody had told me that my job was not to ensure that they made it to adulthood as industrious, courageous, sharp, modest, ambitious, college-educated, Bible-verse quoting, smiling virgins but to love them as they are with all of their biology and brain chemistry and strengths and weaknesses and hopes and dreams and come alongside them and guide them, as best I could, based on who they were and what they needed. I wish I had spent my energy asking "How can I love him? How can I love her? Here. Now. In this situation. What does my child need?" Instead I spent my energy feeling intense shame and beating myself up every time I got a sideways look from another parent or a rebuke from a leader because my child wasn't marching to their orders.

I can only apologize to my children who I love more than life for not being there emotionally for them because I was too busy beating myself up.

I drank the Kool-Aid. I believed that my value as a person depended on my success (whatever that meant) as a parent. And even more than that, that my value to God depended on my success as a parent.

The truth is this: parenthood is not an accomplishment. It is a relationship. Anybody who tells you differently is putting something in your drink. Take note of what is in your Kook-Aid.







Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Numbers, Goals, and Things That Can't Be Measured

It is the time of year when people have set goals and are running out of the gate at breakneck speed to meet them. At the beginning of the new year we are so energetic. So eager. We have thrown off weariness of the old year and have set new goals to strive for.

The peoples out there tell us to make our goals tangible. Numeric, even. In business development. In physical health. In personal improvement. I get that. How do you know where you are without a mile marker? How do you know if you have crossed the finish line without a line to cross?

There are a few problems with these numbers, though.

1.) We can get competitive. And while that competition may be good at producing results, it rarely produces the inner growth and peace we are shooting for. Blow them all out of the water and you can perhaps think a little too highly of yourself when, in fact, the reason may be that you have better running shoes or a smoother path. Lapse behind and you can feel horribly inferior and like a failure, even if you made the best effort you can.

2.) We can begin to define ourselves and measure our value by our numbers. I know way too many people whose very identities are caught up in numbers of all kinds. What woman out there hasn't had her psyche crushed by the number on a scale? The number on the pants label? And yet we know that a number doesn't define something like health. An overweight person who exercises regularly and eats a reasonable diet is far more healthy than a super thin, smoker, couch potato who lives on Little Debbies and Mountain Dew.

3.) The numbers don't always measure the effort involved. In real estate we are told to set a goal for number of transactions closed in the next year. And I get that. You gotta shoot for something. There are, after all, bills to pay. But serving my clients well is not always reflected in more transactions closed. I think of the wonderful couple I worked with this past year who were trying to thread a very, very thin needle and, over the course of several months had two different homes under contract, only to terminate both contracts due to factors I had no control over. And then they decided to put off the entire purchase until this next year. I have no regrets for them. I have full confidence that I did my very best for them. But my effort cannot be measured by a number.

4.) Numbers can put quantity over quality. They represent the outside, not the inside. The surface, but not necessarily the core. The performance, but not the heart.

I got to thinking all this about numbers because of my own numbers game.

When I was a young mom with even younger kids I grew weary of the fact that nothing I ever did stayed done. A friend commented that when her kids were the age of mine, she got a lot of satisfaction out of crocheting for just that reason. It was the one thing in her life that stayed done.

Seeing how I had no skills whatsoever and seeing how I had been blessed with 10 thumbs instead of the usual two and a set of nimble fingers, I knew crafty handiwork was out. So I decided to do the only thing I knew I could do. I decided to read.

And so read I did. And every time I finished a book I wrote it down on a list. And at the end of each year I could look back and see I had done something that stayed done. Satisfaction at last.

But then I started counting. I would count how many books I read that year. Some years, especially the years when I was racing through the Newbery Medal winners, I read an impressive number of books. Other years, the number just wasn't quite up to snuff and I felt guilty. How unusual for me!

A few years ago I decided to set a reading goal. I don't remember what the original number was but for the past four of five years, my goal has been to read 25 books. For me that is a pretty manageable number to shoot for without being unreachable. Just enough push. Set obtainable goals, they say.  I am happy to say I reach that goal every year.

But I've run into a problem. Actually, a couple of problems. And they showcase the problems with numbers.

I can find a book I really, really want to read, but it is long. Really long. In fact there are three 600+ page books next to my bed right now. But I have lost the incentive to read them because they will only count for one book when I could be reading at least 2 for the same page count. And what if I get bogged down at page 435? I've spent all that reading time with nothing to show for it because I only write down books that I have finished. Remember?

The other problem is that I will often rush through a book just to finish it. So I can write it down. So I will be one more book closer to my goal. And sometimes I will read a book, a really, really good book. Perhaps a life-changing book. But I don't go slow. I don't ponder. I don't chew on the words and journal their implications. All because I don't have time. Because I have to move on to the next book.

Almost two years ago I wrote a blog post, The Numbers Game, where I fleshed out my thought on numbers. Two years later I have the same concerns. Only more up close and personal.

I've watched how I have chosen quantity over quality. I have wasted time reading a bad book just so I can write it down. I have avoided excellent books just because they are too long or too hard and therefor will impact my book count. I have read incredible books and stuffed them back on the shelf without giving them another glance because I have to move on to the next. The numbers are calling.

My point is, when we focus on the numbers, we lose something.

When I focus on how many houses I'm closing this year, I cease to focus on caring well for my clients. I've heard from teachers that the focus on test results takes away their time and energy to teach well.

When my mother was dying, I kept watching her numbers. What was her oxygen level. What was her blood pressure. I wanted so badly to know how close she was to death that the nurse finally came in and turned off the equipment. I needed to focus on my mother. Not the numbers.

We love the concrete. It tells us where we are. How we've done. Whether or not we can pat ourselves on the back.

But life is so much more than numbers. And so is the Kingdom of God.

Love, mercy, kindness, compassion, justice, These are things that cannot be measured. And yet I think if we aim for these things, the numbers will take care of themselves. Or they won't matter any more.

As for me, I'm not setting a numbers goal this year for my reading. I am going to read to learn. I am going to read to grow. I am going to read to relax. I am going to read to enjoy. I may not have as much to show for it at the end of the year, numbers wise, but I hope that the things that cannot be measured will prove to be worth it.



Thursday, January 2, 2020

Be Excessively Gentle With Yourself

On New Year's Eve, a friend on Facebook asked, "If you could tell your past self something a decade ago, what would it be?"

My heart raced. My breath shortened. The thought of going back ten years struck terror in my heart.

I did not end 2009 full of energy and optimism. I was exhausted. Earlier that year my mother had entered the hospital with atrial fibrillation and never left. She died there 9 weeks later. Along with grieving, I took up the task, along with a sister, of cleaning out the house she had lived in for 55 years. I made 13 trips to Chattanooga that year.

In December 2009 I had four teenagers. In case you've ever wondered, four teenagers means that there is never a 24-hour period without a crisis. Four teenagers means exhaustion.

And still. And still. And still....the hardest was yet to come.

I struggle to find the words that describe the decade from December 31, 2009 to December 31, 2019. Perhaps because much of the hard of those years is tender and private. Much of the hard involves people I care about.

And while there is much good that came out of the hard of the past decade, and I so want to take an inventory of all that I have learned and all that has changed in the lives of those I love dearly and of the beauty that has come from the ashes, right now I am just tired. Really, really tired.

I.just.don't.have.any.thing.left.in.me.

It seems the past couple of years or so people have added to, or replaced, the New Year's resolution with a word for the year. I do like this idea. Instead of just a goal for self-improvement, such as dropping 15 pounds or running every day or even, in my case, reading 25 books a year, a word is a reminder to focus on some aspect of life. Last year my word was "acknowledge."

I have been so exhausted and cast down I hadn't even considered a word for 2020. But in God's providence, I recently came across a poem by John O'Donahoe:

A Blessing For One Who Is Exhausted 

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,
The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laboursome events of will.
Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.
The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.
You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.
At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have travelled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.
Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of colour
That fostered the brightness of day.
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.
Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

"Be excessively gentle with yourself." Be excessively gentle with myself? I have never even been remotely gentle with myself. I have probably hated myself for as long as I can remember, always comparing myself to others and coming up short and wishing I could be something more. Something different. Something better.

My husband says I would never talk to a friend the way I talk to myself. I would never hold anyone else up to the same standards. I would never dare break out such a cruel yardstick for anyone else.

We live in a world of push, push, push. Challenge yourself. Discipline yourself. Reach for higher goals. Do the hard things. Set impressive goals and seek to attain them. Whether in professional life or parenthood or whipping your body into shape. I can't do it. I. can't. do. it. any. more.

My soul is so very weary. I need to slow down. I need to take time to ponder. To think. Or to do nothing at all. Like I said in my last post, perhaps this is just a season. But it is something I need so badly. I need to take time to be excessively gentle with myself.

And maybe this is what I would tell my past self a decade ago: buckle your seatbelt. You are in for a wild ride. Life is hard. Oh, so hard. Be excessively gentle with yourself.