This Christmas (is not what I expected it to be)

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The other day I was attempting to finish up my Christmas shopping. I had just returned home from a long drive back from college and wanted to try and avoid the day-before-Christmas crowds. Frazzled, tired, and going through a transition I set out to find a hooded sweatshirt since it was on my mother’s Christmas list. It had to be a zip-up sweatshirt with a hood that was in a lighter color than black. Should have been simple enough, right? Wrong.

After four stores, three parking lots, and a lot of sorting through jackets I was unable to find what I was looking for. Wandering aimlessly through the jackets at Sports Authority I was almost in tears because I could not find this impossible gift. A few hopeless minutes later I found myself in a store that sold calendars and purchased an NCIS calendar instead of a sweatshirt.

As I was buying the calendar I thought of something: the tighter I held on to my narrow set of expectations, the more frustrated I became. I was so caught up searching for something within such narrow, impossible parameters that I missed out on the bigger picture. I nearly walked past the calendar store because it was not in the plan. I let my unwillingness and, frankly, inability to think out of the box drag me down to a frustrated, sad place.

I feel like this series of events describes my holiday season. My dad had a stroke on Thanksgiving which threw everything off. To make matters worse, my mom managed to sprain her ankle pretty badly not long before he was supposed to be released from the rehab facility. I moved from Southern California back to Oregon which was an ordeal in and of itself as it left me home merely two days before Christmas Eve. Needless to say, I was not feeling the holiday cheer. Everything seemed to be falling apart around me. A state of frustration became my default as I found myself overwhelmed and disappointed. Nothing was turning out right.

Really, my definition of “right” was what was throwing everything off. My expectations of what Christmas was all about were wrapped up in the state of my family’s health, my own stress level, the presents I could purchase, and all of the things that I could do. Christmas became about me. Christmas was not what I wanted it to be and was therefore wrong.

Yet as I stood at the shopping counter buying that calendar I realized that I was missing the entire point of the holiday season. Somehow in the midst of all of the insanity I forgot the real point of Christmas. Christmas is not about me, or my family, or what I can possible do to make it a shiny, perfect holiday.

 It is about living in the light of a Messiah who came to earth as a baby and conquered through sacrifice.

When that becomes the center of the holiday suddenly everything else seems to work. I don’t know how it works. I don’t know how my sister managed to find a hoody the morning of Christmas Eve for a good price. I don’t know exactly how all the food got made or how my parents managed to be well behaved and cooperate with all of the family around. It all worked out.

The holiday wasn’t about everyone being in perfect health, or the food being gourmet, or all of the decorations being up, or even all of the gifts wrapped. It was about being together as a family to rest, if even for a moment, in the peace of Jesus Christ who came and died so that we could live.

Find peace in the love of Christ and let that be the center of your holiday, because when we do everything finds a way to fall into place. 

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The lie of loneliness

I am a student worker in two departments at my university. The first one I was hired in, and where I have been working for two years, is the Department of Learning Technology. It is the department that nobody really knows about, but everyone needs something from at some point. It is a funny little department but I love it with all my heart. Tonight we went out, the five of us, to happy hour in order to celebrate my boss’ new job (even if it means leaving us). As we sat around the table laughing, eating, and being merry I realized something that should not have taken me this long to realize:

The biggest lie I’ve ever told myself is that I’m alone.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve isolated myself from people. There are a lot of factors that play into it, including part of my upbringing, but the bottom line is that I have consistently chosen to be alone. Perhaps I didn’t have those founding relationships that are so important to children and I never learned to really talk about what was going on in my head, but that does not excuse the fact that I have always had a choice to speak out. I have always had the choice to accept kindness. Yet I so rarely do because I have somehow convinced myself that no one could understand where I’m coming from and even more so, there is no way anyone could love me as I am.

Oh how wrong I have been. Twenty two years and I’m still figuring it out.

Tonight at dinner it hit me: Every time I’ve struggled, every time I’ve had a bad day, every time I’ve hidden away and avoided people, and every time I have needed someone there have been people within arm’s reach. If I needed to sit in my boss’ office and vent it would not have been a problem. If I needed to sit in a co-worker’s office and cry, any of them would have sat with me in it. These people that I have been able to laugh with, play with, work with, and enjoy life with are not just in it for the good times but would be there for the bad ones as well.

Why? Because that is what family does, and these people are definitely family. Of course we all have our imperfections, our unwillingness-es to reach out, and our own insecurities that leave us feeling threatened and isolated, but they pale in comparison to the love and affection we have for one another.

For all the times I’ve told myself I’m alone there have been people waiting at arm’s length, ready to be there for me if I would just ask.

So to anyone who feels alone, you’re not. To anyone who feels like their problems wouldn’t be understood, they might not be right away, but with time even the most complicated problems can be understood. To the reader out there who feels like their problem is too big, too scary, too dark…it isn’t. People care. It is hard to believe it and even harder to reach out but I have found that sometimes we just have to push through the difficulty, do what doesn’t come naturally, and allow ourselves to be surprised when it works out in our favor.

Would you turn away someone you know who needed you in a moment of vulnerability? No?

Odds are the people in your life won’t turn you away either. 

You are Wanted

I haven’t been blogging because I have been blessed with the chance to be in Oregon and spend time with my family. It is wonderful and I would not trade it for the world.

That sentence makes me smile because it shows how much I have changed, and a part of me deep down is proud. There is joy in healing.

So since I’m happy as a clam spending time with family, and cooking up some posts for another day, I thought I would simply leave you all with a song. It is a reminder that you are wanted, by God, by friends, by family, by the world. Even when you feel like the least desirable thing in the world, there is someone out there who would love to sit by your side and talk with you.

I’m sure of it (because I’m one of those people who is here to sit by you and listen).

Enjoy.

The Dreaded Question

What are you going to do after you graduate?

I’ve begun to dread this question.

It seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue whenever I bring up my December 2013 graduation date. If I had been asked this question last fall I would have been able to give a long-winded, five-year plan for my life. As it stands today, my only answer is this: I don’t know.

You see, I’ve learned that my life seems to work in two-year increments. I try to plan further ahead but those plans never see the light of day. In high school I was sure that I was going to go to a four-year state college and study English. Plans changed my senior year when the local community college offered free tuition for two years to any graduating high school student with a 3.5 GPA or above. I put in two years and in those two years I graduated with my associate of the arts degree, switched my major to psychology, and had grown a lot as a person.

My next plan had been to go to a state college and finish out a degree in psychology, but even those plans fell by the way side. The Dean of Students at my community college encouraged me to apply to at least one school in Southern California on the off chance that I would be accepted. You see, I’d fallen in love with Southern California after a few vacations and it was my dream to go to school there…but I nipped that in the bud because it seemed so impossible.

I found Hope International University and instead of going to a state school like I had planned, I packed up all my stuff and moved. It is a decision I have yet to regret. Yet my tendency to plan did not stop there. By my second semester at Hope I had decided that I was going to eventually apply for a 5-year PsyD program. I would put in my time and then figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

Then last December happened and I realized that planning away five years of my life was not what I wanted, nor was it what God had in mind. I think I’m finally beginning to understand why my life has to work in two-year increments. When I get caught up in the plans I have for myself I forget to live, to serve, and to love. I begin to cling to my plans instead of to God. I begin to pursue my own desires instead of the paths that will bring me closer to God and refine me into a more loving, mature individual.

So when people ask me what I’m going to do after I graduate and I say “I don’t know,” what I really mean is, “I’m leaving my future open because I can’t predict where I’m going to be spiritually and fiscally, where my family is going to be, or what opportunities might arise if I just wait for a while.” It is hard for me to proceed without knowing exactly what is in store for me but I know this: It is going to be good.

Family Ties

I miss my family.

The fact that I can say those words and mean them is really a testament to how far I have come. Two years ago I don’t think I would have been able to honestly say that. When I first began my out of state college experience I was ready to be out of the house. I was ready to be away from the relationships that I had struggled in for a good portion of my life. I wanted to be away from the dysfunction, from the reminders of past hurts, and from the town I grew up in.

I was ready for a change and I do not regret taking the leap to get in my car and drive to Southern California to attend some little barely-heard-of Christian school.

Nearly two years after this journey, though, I’ve come to realize that I miss my family.

Relationships have been repaired and are at the best point they have been in recent memory. I enjoy my family. I enjoy late night conversations with my dad and going places with my mom. I enjoy eating dinner at my sister’s, having a beer with my brother, and playing with my unbelievably adorable niece.

Had you told me, as a recently graduated high school student, that there would be a time that I would miss my family I probably would have laughed at the thought. I was not in a place mentally, emotionally, or spiritually to understand the concept of missing my family. At the time I wanted to get as far away from them as possible, so why would I miss them if I had been able to get away?

Healing happened, though. God happened. People in my life happened. Suddenly I was dreading getting in my car and heading back to California for the fall. The moment I crossed over the Oregon/California border I felt tears in my eyes as I realized I really was leaving them again. After a summer of healing and rebuilding relationships I realized as I pulled up to the fruit check point in tears, trying to compose myself so that the fruit Nazis wouldn’t get suspicious, that I was going to miss my family.

The thought of not going home for Thanksgiving was unbearable, so I bought a plane ticket and left. It happened again over spring break when I realized that I wanted to surprise my parents and be with them, so I bought another plane ticket. I had changed from an angry, damaged, hurt young woman who wanted to get away from her family into someone who grew up and realized that repairing family relationships and getting over old hurt is worth the work.

As my 22nd birthday steadily approaches I’m once again realizing just how much I miss my family. I want to wake up to flowers on the table from my parents. I want to get to see my sister and get a hug from my niece. I want to share a beer with my brother and rejoice in another year of life completed. I want to be with my family because for so many years I took spending my birthday with them for granted and now that I can’t have it I realize just how much I have loved it.

That’s healing, and it is beautiful. 

Thoughts on Memorial Day

Today I’m glad I get to celebrate life even as I remember those who have fallen while serving their country.

Honestly, Memorial Day makes me a little bit emotional just because of my connection to the armed forces. My brother joined the Marines straight out of high school and served two tours in the Middle East. It was hard on my family, hard on me, and of course hard on my brother, but he made a sacrifice to serve his country in one of the riskiest ways possible. He put his life on the line to defend and protect.

So I’m very glad this Memorial Day that he came back from those two tours and that I can have a beer with him when I visit in June. I am blessed.

I know other families out there, however, do not have stories with happy endings like mine. My heart goes out to them. My heart goes out to those with new wounds and old wounds alike. I can understand the sacrifice these families made when they gave up their sons, daughters, husbands, and wives to pursue their passion to serve their country but I will never be able to understand the loss they’ve experienced. God bless the families left behind.

My final thoughts go out to those who have returned, but not without paying a price. As a psychology major I’ve learned about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I understand the basics of it, the symptoms, and the damage it can cause, but nothing compares to the fact that I have seen it up close and personal in people I love. PTSD is a serious problem for the men and women who come back from serving their country and I hope that our country continues to address the problem as it arises.

I also know there are those who come back from war with physical wounds, and my heart goes out to them and their sacrifice too. In the end, I hope people can come to understand just how much Memorial Day really means and what serving in the armed forces is. Young people leave their homes and their families to fight for something greater than themselves and rarely return unscathed, if they return at all. So this Memorial Day I pray that there would be a solemn awareness of the lives that have been put on the line so that we could have BBQs, parties, and a day off of work.

Don’t ever forget that.

If you’d like to help those who have come back from battle hurt and scarred, please consider donating to the Wounded Warrior Project. This is a great organization that works with returning soldiers and their families to help them acclimate to civilian life after an injury.  

The Prodigal Daughter

Over Spring Break I had the chance to do something I’ve never done: Surprise my parents.

I’ve visited home (Oregon) pretty consistently since I moved down to Southern California for school. Nonetheless, I have yet to make it up to see my family over spring break. This past spring break, however, I decided to change this.

The scheme began when I realized I could afford airfare home for spring break. I called up my sister to tell her the news and that is when the plan was hatched: She would front me the money, I’d pay her back with my tax return, and my parents would be none the wiser.

This surprise was made all the sweeter when my mom called me a few weeks before spring break to ask if I would like to fly home. She was even offering to pay! It took all of my self-restraint not to spill the beans and tell her that I already had plans to fly home and see her. I told her that I had agreed to work over Spring Break, just like I had the previous year, and that it was not a good time for me to take off and fly home.

The disappointment in her voice killed me, but I knew it would all be worth it.

A few weeks later and I was on a plane and touching down in Portland, OR. My amazing sister picked me up and took me to her place where I said hello to our dog, played with my niece, and spent a not-so-restful night on a less than comfortable couch. Finally, I woke up on Friday morning ready to put our plan into action. My sister had already arranged for our mother to take the child for the day so that she and her husband could have a day out to themselves without worrying about a toddler.

We had decided that they would take the child in and get settled while I waited a few minutes in the car. Then I would walk up to the door, ring the doorbell, and wait for my mom to open it.

The plan went off without a hitch and the moment my mom realized it was me standing on the porch a look of pure joy took over her face. Her eyes widened and brightened, she smiled, and then she embraced me. We hugged for a couple of minutes as she rambled on about how she had already sent off my Easter basket, and that she had really believed me when I said I couldn’t come up, and she told me how glad she was to have me home.

Now I’ve heard stories like this all through my life and have listened to people tie them in to the story of the prodigal son. It seemed like a tired and worn out comparison…until I experienced it myself. Then I realized why surprising a family, or returning home unexpected after a long journey, is such a significant experience. It gives us as Christians a little taste of what it is like whenever we turn back toward God after we’ve wandered away from home for a while.

If my mother, in her state of imperfect humanity, could show such pure joy over her daughter returning home for spring break from a University only one state down…think about how much joy God has when one of his children who has wandered from the fold finally turns back to him. Turns back home.

So I challenge everyone, myself included, to figure out where we are right now in terms of God. Are we home? Or is there something keeping us away from returning to the one who loves us more than we can ever comprehend? Is there shame, guilt, or fear? The prodigal son probably felt all of those things as he slinked back to his father’s home to beg forgiveness. Yet he went and found that all of that shame, guilt, and fear was for nothing because his father was just glad to have him home.

In the same way, God forgives in a way we can hardly understand and in his presence there is no more shame, guilt, or fear. There is just love, joy, grace, and forgiveness. So go home, whatever that looks like for you.