A Time to be Encouraged

I went for a run today, for the first time in way-too-long. The temperature was perfect, the sun slowly sank beneath the horizon line, and everyone littered the streets to enjoy the reprieve from the sun. I’d had a wonderful Bible study, and felt compelled to run. Even though I argued with myself about it the entire way home (“it would make more sense to go tomorrow,” “you have writing to do,” “it will keep you up too late) I eventually allowed myself to put on my workout clothes, tie up my running shoes, and hit the pavement.

I don’t run fast. I don’t run far. My running these days is often in spurts. Four or five minutes running, two walking, three more minutes running, one walking, in a weird patchwork run-walk-jog pattern of my own making. Regardless, I ran. I ran to a nearby park and began the trek around the track. About finished with my first lap, a gentleman came up beside me. I expected him to lap me, but instead he fell in alongside and asked if he could pace me. I said sure, why not, expecting him to dwell there for a time before he’d take off again.

Instead, he remained by my side and we began to chat. He revealed to me that he was a former Marine, served overseas, and was getting back into shape to run an obstacle course 5k. Even though he could have easily outrun me, and lap me multiple times, he pointed out that running with someone was always more enjoyable. He informed me that talking while running actually helps strengthen the lungs (though I would say it was more ‘gasping’ than ‘talking’ on my part), so we talked. I mentioned my brother’s brewery, he mentioned his wife, and his recent graduation. He slowed and walked with me when I couldn’t take the running anymore, and then encouraged me to pick the pace right back up after a rest. I ran further, faster, and longer than I had intended and what was supposed to be an easy round trip mile turned into over two.

Eventually, we parted ways. I failed to make one final lap without stopping, though he still high fived me and congratulated me on the progress, and he said his goodbye and took off running. I watched him disappear down the street as he headed toward what I presumed to be his home, and then I began my own trek homeward, sore but with a happy heart. As I walked, I pondered what it was about the whole ordeal that struck me so, and it boiled down to this: it’s been a long time since I’ve experienced this kind of encouragement.

Weird, I know. There’s been other kinds of encouragement, but there’s something about the outright, blatant encouragement of a stranger that is more touching than the rest. It confirmed experiences I’ve been having lately, where I’m finding God everywhere, especially in my daily interactions with people. The kindness and openness this stranger demonstrated were a rarity in this world and I treasured every moment. He could have left me in the dust, trotting along, puffing and panting, but instead he came alongside me and encouraged me to go a little further and push a little harder.

A mentor of mine quoted a mentor of his, in a strange game of telephone, when he pointed out that the fruits of the spirit are valid whether they come from a faith based situation or not. Charity, joy, peace, patience…these things occur and I believe they are always a reflection back to God. Even if that stranger didn’t know it, he helped fill a cup that’s been running on fumes for the past couple of months and in doing so, demonstrated exactly what I believe God asks of us in our daily relationships.

I think the runner I met was also a solid example of the way God always comes to encourage his people. Whether it was smoke by day, or fire by night, whether he came alongside them when he delivered the Law, or sent his Judges to help bring Israel back to him. God encouraged his people when he gave them a King, and sent them Prophets, and when he sent his only son to walk alongside the people he loved so dearly. He could have lapped us, just like the runner I met could have easily lapped me. God could run circles around us and leave us hopeless and helpless.

Instead, he slows down. He comes alongside his people, his creation, and encourages them onward. One more tree, one more bench, just past that garbage can over there, he pushes us to keep moving forward even when we’re gasping and struggling to breathe. And when we cannot handle it anymore, when our legs are about to give out and we have to stop, he stops. He waits. Not because he has to, but because he loves us.

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I can be a jerk but I’m learning to apologize

I’m not really good at apologizing. I’m great at saying “sorry” in the heat of the moment when it is obvious someone is upset, but not at truly sitting down with someone and apologizing for my behavior. Apologies are more than just saying “sorry,” in response to someone’s hurt. Apologies are sitting down and owning up to my own end of the confrontation.

For example, I was having a pretty bad week when a co-worker sent me a text letting me know that I would be running the financial office the following day. I’m not really fond of working the financial office. Numbers aren’t my thing and I’m always worried that I’m going to mess up somewhere along the way and get into trouble. I was already stressed from the events of the week and I took it out on my co-worker.

I laid into her, telling her she should have given me sooner notice than eight in the evening the night before. I told her it wasn’t fair to me and that with my anxiety problems, dropping bombs like this on me isn’t okay. I expressed that I wasn’t happy and reacted altogether poorly toward her. She was sick and had worked all evening to find someone to cover the phones for me so that I could help people in financial. She was sick as a dog and I was passive aggressively texting her about how upset I was.

I’d made it all about me, and while there may have been justification somewhere in there, I hurt her feelings. I was rude, I was unprofessional, and my actions were completely uncalled for. Yet I felt like I had been wronged and the world needed to know about it. In short, I’d been a complete asshole to someone who definitely didn’t deserve it.

The following Monday she came in and asked if I was “over Friday,” and that reopened everything. I tried to justify my actions to her and said it had to do with my anxiety, and blah blah blah. All of my justifications fell on deaf ears as I saw the anger in her eyes. She snapped at me and told me she had expected better. She had been sick and needed me to cover for her, just like she would cover for me whenever I needed it. She stormed out of the room and I sat there stewing in my own angst.

It was her fault, wasn’t it? If she weren’t so sensitive, if only she’d see my side of things, if only she would listen. Then as the afternoon went on I began to slowly realize that I was angry at her for the same thing she was angry with me about. I hadn’t seen her side of things, I had been overly sensitive, I hadn’t listened. Instead I’d been an asshole. I’d yelled at her and then proceeded to follow-up with ridiculous justifications instead of apologizing. I was the one in the wrong.

So I did the uncomfortable thing. I called her that evening and apologized. I left a voicemail because she wasn’t taking my calls and I told her that I realized I’d been an asshole and she didn’t deserve it. Regardless of what I had been going through, my reaction to the news that I’d be working financial was unprofessional and uncalled for. I was in the wrong, I was sorry, and I hoped she could forgive me.

She did. We talked it over the next time she worked and our relationship was strengthened because of it. It was a lesson learned, and one I’ve been thinking a lot about. Growing up I never really received real apologies. Most of the confrontations I entered into where I was hurt were just swept under the rug and everyone pretended they had never happened. I’d taken this model and applied it to my own confrontations. Except when healthy, functional people are involved? We can’t just sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened. Pretending it never happened harbors resentment and resentment straight out sucks. It is better to apologize and admit, honestly, that sometimes I can be wrong. Even if I can justify my actions, justification isn’t worth the price of a broken friendship.

Bob Goff says we should give ourselves three tickets every year for three big mess-ups. They’re our ticket to let it go. However, there’s a caveat – we can’t just let it go if the mess-up hurts a relationship. If someone else is going to be hurt then there’s no get out of jail free card. There’s just admitting I can be an asshole, owning the hurt I’ve caused, and moving forward in the light of forgiveness.

Louis CK says, rather profoundly, “Self-love is a good thing but self-awareness is more important. You need to once in a while go ‘uh, I’m kind of an asshole.’”

We’re all going to be jerks in our lives, and there’s no weakness in sitting down and admitting it. If anything, it opens up the lines of communication with those we may have hurt. Personal justification is not worth the destruction of personal relationships. Be quick to apologize, but do so meaningfully. I have a feeling it will change your relationships for the better.

When it all falls apart

What do you do when you’ve let yourself slide back into who you were?

What do you do when the supports you were used to vanish and you feel like you’re failing on your own?

When you’re drowning, when life is uncertain, when everything feels like it is falling apart, what is it exactly you should do?

You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and remember that it is a new day and another chance to make a different choice; a better choice.

In the end, I’ve learned that I am my best advocate and when I stop advocating for myself and allow myself to fall into a hole, the hole just gets deeper and deeper. Even the people who reach out, who notice I’m digging the hole, who throw down a rope and say, “hey, grab on!” can’t do anything more than wait for me to take hold and pull myself up to the level where they can assist.

Moving back home is hard, working two jobs that include taking care of other people the entire time are tedious, having uncertain hours and a weird schedule that sometimes includes working overnight is exhausting. Add in the fact that old supports were left in Southern California and the new supports I fashioned out of scraps I’ve managed to unearth are actually not that sturdy in the long run and I find myself living in a world of instability. My environment acts against me and foils me at every turn but the worst thing I did was give into it.

I began consuming the negative, I became a victim of circumstance, I began to blame the universe for something that was ultimately my choice.

Then I had a moment of clarity, a breath of fresh air, and it hasn’t changed anything; it has empowered.

I can change. I can self-advocate. I can engage in self-care and I can do this.

Because I am stubborn and strong and willful and by golly I have a purpose and I haven’t been doing a great job at living it out lately.

Time to pick up, dust off, and get back to work.

The Saturday In-Between

There is an awkward Saturday situated in-between Easter Sunday and Good Friday. In previous years I’ve greatly associated with Easter, or I’ve greatly associated with Good Friday, but this year I’m strangely content to relate most to the Saturday in-between the two big events.

A church I attended once referred to it as ‘dark Saturday’ which I think fits. It is the day after the crucifixion, the day where all of Jesus’ followers would be in mourning. I think along with the mourning they probably asked, “what’s next?” The man they’d followed for years, a man who had performed miracles, healed the sick, and cared for the poor, who promised them heaven and for God to be restored as king, was dead. Crucified at the hands of the Romans. Their Messiah, the chosen one, was gone and I imagine their faith was probably at a standstill.

After all, when your everything ended up hung on a cross and killed for the public to see, it might be hard to imagine moving forward.

They didn’t know that Easter would come the next day. They were oblivious to the fact that the stone would be rolled away, the tomb would be empty, and they would have the chance at new life. Jesus would resurrect and a new point in history would begin.

Saturday was a day of isolation. Loneliness. Uncertainty.

So this year I think Saturday is the day I associate with, because since I’ve moved back to Oregon I’ve felt like I’m in some sort of black hole. Yes, I’ve managed to find work. Yes, I get to be with my family and play with my niece, yes, I’ve been given some awesome opportunities and cool experiences…but it still feels oddly empty. Where things of the world abound in my life, God is strangely absent.

Though I guess absent isn’t the word as much as muted is. God is muted. I attended a Christian school for two and a half years and had God in every aspect of my life. Classes were based in faith, friends always wanted to have faith based conversations, my work was in an environment surrounded by people always challenging and pushing me to pursue Christ. In that time God was a high definition bluray with surround sound.

Now He’s more like a gurgling brook I can hear but can’t see.

I feel like the disciples in that I understand the reality of what happened on the cross, and unlike them in the fact I know that resurrection came, but somehow I still find myself resting in the middle ground. I’m sitting between death and resurrection wondering where exactly I’m going to go next or what I’m supposed to do next.

How can I continue to pursue a resurrection relationship when I feel a strange disconnect from my surroundings?

I have a lot of questions and not really many answers. I will celebrate Easter tomorrow and accept the fact that grace saved me. But I will still meditate on the meaning of the Saturday in-between and keep seeking what comes next.

An Open Letter to the Struggler

Dear Reader,

I have friends who struggle and it breaks my heart. I’m sure you struggle too and my heart goes out to you as well.

I know it is normal to empathize and yearn to help my fellow strugglers but sometimes I want to get on my knees and scream with frustration because I can’t make it better. I cannot miraculously get the strugglers of this world to believe that they are beautiful, that they are worthy, that they are a necessary part of this world, and that they have purpose. I can tell them these things until the world ends but it won’t matter until they begin to actually believe those things about themselves.

Above all else I want to help the strugglers because I have been there. I’ve been in the pit of despair and on my last leg. I’ve felt the world weighing down from above as it crushed me. I have felt the soul sucking pain of loss, abandonment, of being forgotten. There are still nights where all I want to do is crawl under the covers and never wake up because in the midst of it all I feel too tired to move on.

The thing that keeps me going, though, is the fact that I’ve tasted hope.

I’ve seen the brighter days. I’ve overcome exhausting obstacles. I have experienced the light of forgiveness, of letting go. It sure as hell hasn’t been easy and I really hope that I never come off seeming like it is anything short of life’s work to overcome the crap we carry with us every day. But the tastes of joy, of peace, of love, and friendship, they keep me motivated. They keep me fighting. Even when I’m stuck in a valley I know somewhere up the hill there is something worth pursuing and I have the strength to get there.

The crux of it though is the hardest thing to admit and that is this: it’s on us. It is on the individual to make the choice as to whether or not they are going to pursue a new path. It is up to the person to decide if they are going to fight or continue to live with the status quo. I will always remember so clearly the day I was sitting in my chair at church and realized that if I kept doing what I’ve always done, I’d keep getting what I’ve always got, and I was tired of what I was getting.

It wasn’t a friend who made the decision for me. Not my parents or my siblings, and it wasn’t God’s decision on my behalf or any other sense of divine intervention. It was my choice and mine alone and once I made it, everything else could fall into place.

I was sitting in church, during my first year in Southern California, and the pastor got up to speak. He told a story, something he was very good at, and I listened eagerly. He spoke about therapy, how he went to meet his therapist one day and they sat down and started talking. As their conversation went on there came a point where, after the pastor shared his story, the therapist looked at him and said four words,

“It is your fault.”

As a psychology student I was mortified. I felt myself tense up. I wanted to fight for my pastor, and more than that I wanted to fight for the little girl inside of me that objected vehemently to those words. How could the pain I felt be my fault? How could the circumstances of my upbringing which so heavily influenced me be my fault? The bullies, the people who tore me down, how could their actions be any fault of mine?

The pastor continued.

You see, he wasn’t upset about it. He had been at the time, but what the therapist said after the fact made sense. It came down to this: You have to choose to move on. Crap happens. Crap happens every single day of our lives whether it is happening to us or happening to someone else. We can allow the crap to bog us down and make us victims. We can blame the people who have hurt us for our bad habits or our terrible thought processes. We can even blame society for its part in our misery.

But in the end blame isn’t going to change a damn thing.

Waiting for everyone else to change, to apologize, to repent, is stupid. Hoping to control other people’s outcomes and get what is owed to us will just leave us bitterer in the end. As the saying goes, unforgiveness is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.

Your parents can never parent you the way they should have. You can’t go back in time and change what that boy said to you on the playground that made you feel like you were worthless. It is impossible to erase the harsh words of a teacher who said your work wasn’t good enough, or wash away the feeling of betrayal when a friend left you high and dry when you needed her most. Society will never stop telling you that you aren’t rich enough, smart enough, thin enough, or fashionable enough.

The only thing you can change is how YOU see yourself and others. And that starts with owning up to the fact crap happened but you’re no longer willing to rent out your headspace to it. Tell your father to get the hell out of your head and cover his lies with truth. Tell the image of the bully at school that sits in the back of your mind and laughs at your flaws that he’s done, he’s being evicted. Unfriend the kid on Facebook who makes status updates that make you uncomfortable in your own skin.

Choose to move on. That’s the first step. It has to be the first step. Because anything else we try to do before we choose to really move on is going to fall flat on its face because we’re still clinging blame and bitterness and ignoring our own power to change our status quo.

I’ll end on this note: there are pains that far surpass choosing to move on and I highly encourage people who have been abused, neglected, or otherwise hurt to seek out professional help. Yes, everyone still has to make the choice to change but once the choice has been made you do not have to do it alone. Also find strength in the fact that making the choice to move forward gives you back some of the power over your life that has been taken from you along the way.

Flip those voices in your head the bird and choose to stop letting them be the ones that dictate who you are and how you act. 

The Thinker of Tender Thoughts

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Shel Silverstein was a favorite of mine when I was a child. “Where the Sidewalk Ends” seemed to always be checked out of the library growing up. Yet after all these years I let him slip by the wayside; I forgot about him and his images and his poetry. I forgot about the whimsy in his work and the way it used to speak to my very core.

The above is called ‘Thinker of Tender Thoughts’ and I think it sums up more in pictures than I could ever explain in words. It makes me think of my two year old niece and her unbridled personality. She is truly her own person and I marvel at it every day. As of yet she has been free of the cruelty of society. No one has laughed at her on the playground, she has never had her sense of self questioned, and in all of her childhood innocence she is beautiful. I wish with all my heart that she could remain in that state of pure, unhindered her-ness.

Yet as the image above shows, even as we develop ourselves, our personalities, and our thoughts, we are easily cut down by the words of others. The man in the wordless poem thinks and dreams and dances to the beat of his own drum. The flowers represent his thoughts and his divergence from everyone else. He is different, he is unique, he is himself, and from the look of it he is content with who he is.

Problems arise, however, when he is faced with the people around him. Across the page are men without flowers growing from their head, men who have torn away their own uniqueness in order to fit in to the societal standard. They think like they are supposed to think and ridicule anyone who believes otherwise. This leads them to ridicule the man with the flowers growing out of his head who has, until that moment, embraced his differences. In the face of societal pressure he caves and decides to fit in instead of standing out. He cuts off the symbolic flowers and steps in to join the rest of society.

It is utterly depressing to realize just how accurate this image is. When will my niece come home from interacting with her peers and decide to throw out things she loves because someone made fun of her and called her weird? How many times as a child did I give up something that was inexplicably me because my peers ridiculed me for being different? By the time we’re shaped and thrust into the world of adulthood, we’re left to either continue to conform to societal norms (whatever they may be) or fight to regain our sense of self, our sense of originality. We have to find ourselves again.

I can’t help but wonder if that is why so many young people find themselves in the midst of an existential crisis when they should be focusing on accepting themselves and living life fully.

To conclude, my one hope is this: that we will be able to find ourselves in the midst of the pressures, expectations, and obligations society thrusts upon us daily. 

The Lonely Church Hunt

Church hunting is one of my least favorite things to do.

It is oftentimes frustrating and always nerve-wracking. I had a great church experience when I was going to school in Southern California. I was finally beginning to understand the church culture down there and found an amazing family at a new church plant in Orange, California. When I found them I knew my time with them would be limited but I enjoyed every moment of it.

Being back in Oregon means I have to find a church again. The one I attended through high school and the start of college simply isn’t my home anymore. I wanted to find a church within the community I was living in, anyway, not one twenty minutes away in a town I was out of touch with. So Sunday after Sunday (on the Sundays I can manage to get out of bed which is a different topic) I try new churches and I walk out of them feeling strangely alone.

The past few years have taught me that ‘little c’ church is not the same as ‘big c’ Church. The Church, which is the culmination of all God’s people all around the world regardless of denomination, is different than the little church communities that meet in buildings on Sunday. They are all connected to the bigger idea of Church and I would think that would make it easy to slide into a community and find a home. After all, we believe the same things. Death, burial, resurrection and all of that. Yet it doesn’t seem to be the case in my experience.

A favorite author and blogger of mine, Rachel Held Evans, posted this on Facebook yesterday:

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I appreciated it. I appreciated the admission of loneliness because it finally gave me the description of what I felt as I left churches. The thing is the loneliness doesn’t come from a lack of a connection with God. It comes from a lack of connection with God’s people, with my Christian family.

When I started in at my University I would have said that church was about me and God. It was about me going and connecting with God and then leaving until the following week. My view of church was narrow and consisted of me and God. Sure, interaction with other people was nice but it wasn’t a requirement. As long as I was on good terms with God I was fine.

Then I learned something very important: church isn’t about me it is about connecting with fellow believers. It is about joining into something bigger than just me. It is about communion and collective worship. God is seen in his Church, where ever his people gather together he is there, and I think this is by design because He knows that we need each other. His people need to be with other members of the body in order to grow, mentor, flourish, and change.

So when I walk out of a church building on a Sunday and feel lonely it isn’t because I didn’t get something out of God, or that I feel my connection with Him is lacking. I feel lonely because I felt like an alien, a foreigner, and someone who didn’t belong in that particular church.

I won’t give up my search for a church family and already have an idea of where I will go from here, but I wanted to share because I think what Rachel said is important. Any person – Christian or non Christian – who walks out of a church feeling lonely isn’t alone in that feeling.

You’re in good company.