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.

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Go and do

There are days when I’m very critical. I get mad at the world, angry at political commentators, frustrated with the general state of our country and other countries. I sit around and fuss about the government and about people and I come up with a list a mile long of all the things everyone is doing incorrectly.

The government shouldn’t have to be the one we turn to in order to help the poor, people should.

Controversial words slapped on pictures hold way too much sway on the current generation.

No one fact checks.

Everyone hyperbolizes.

The rich don’t give enough.

The poor don’t do enough.

See? I could go at this all day, pointing out everything that other people are doing poorly. I could probably create an entire game plan on how to fix everything and submit it to the President if I wanted to. There’s a problem though: sitting on my rear end being critical doesn’t do a single thing. Nothing is going to change because I sit around complaining all day.

It comes down to a phrase that the Christian writer, activist, and hugger Bob Goff uses and I always come back to:

Love does.

The love I have for this world isn’t going to be expressed through a detailed critique of everything other people are doing incorrectly. The love I have for people isn’t going to come through the more I sit around yelling at the government or yelling at the wealthy to help people. My love isn’t even truly expressed through writing these words and posting them on a blog. The love I have for this world and all of the people in it can only be expressed in doing.

Maybe I write well, maybe I’m good at pushing through logical fallacies and calling people out on their bull, maybe I’m really clever and smart and can humiliate those who disagree with me. Ultimately none of these things matter because I’m not actually doing what I’m called to do. See, I’m not doing and that is the key.

So instead of lobbying for a certain political position or piece of legislation, maybe I should put that money and time toward helping families. Instead of complaining about the failing education system in this country, I could jump into it and reach into the lives of kids who are struggling. Maybe instead of condemning young women who have had sex and are pregnant and looking for an escape, I can come alongside them and walk them through the process and whatever process they choose let them know that they are loved through it all.

Why do all of this? Because Jesus has walked with me through my hardest times, through my darkest patches, and continues to pick me up when I fall.  He does. His love manifests itself through the people that step into my life with encouraging words, who come alongside me and tell me that it is okay to not have a job and that God has a plan, who tell me I will kill it in graduate school, and who insist that I can be a powerful force in the world if I just let myself be.  

I don’t think my life has ever been genuinely impacted by anything less than the people around me doing something. Actions speak louder than words and I believe actions carry the message a lot further. 

Graduation Reflections

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Yesterday I graduated from college with a BA in Psychology. Of course this has left me rather thoughtful as I look back over the past five semesters.

I did not graduate when I planned to, but I think I graduated when I needed to. That is the first thing that sticks out to me. I remember the moment my advisor told me that it was not going to be possible to graduate in May of 2013 unless I was willing to take 18 unit semesters and take courses outside of the University I was attending. I was mortified. I felt like my plans were falling apart and that I had somehow failed to achieve my goals.

In reality the timing worked out better than I had expected because I don’t know what I would have done without this last semester. If it were not for my December graduation date, I would not have gotten the chance to spend a summer living in Southern California. I would not have been able to take a trip to the Grand Canyon, invest in a new church family, or get as connected with my university as I was able to.

It continues to astound me that God’s timing really beats mine every time…and for the better.

I’m grateful that my family let me chase my Southern California dream, and thankful for everyone who encouraged me to leave. I cannot imagine who I would be if I had not packed up my 2001 Buick Century and left for a tiny little private school in the middle of Orange County. The people I have met, the friends I have made, the things I have gotten to do, and the things I have learned have shaped me. Walls were torn down and better, healthier, more functional walls were built up. I made friends and met mentors who will continue to walk with me through this crazy life even when almost the entire state of California is between me and them.

You see, post-graduation I am sad because I am going to be leaving all of these wonderful things, but at the same time I take joy in the fact that I get to leave wonderful things behind.

When I came down to Southern California I was running. I was running from my family, from my past, from the clouds, rain, and cold. I wanted a fresh start, something new, something different, and a place where I could hide from everything that had surrounded me for so many years. Instead of hiding I found a home, and in that home I found people who have taught me that I don’t have to run anymore.

There is nothing I have to try to escape. I’m free.

I am free to live, be joyful, sing, laugh, form new friendships, and continue with old ones. I do not have to separate myself from my Southern California life because it is just as much a part of me as my life in Oregon will be. Slowly but surely I have managed to become an integrated person. My life is no longer a series of separate little boxes, with each one having its own expectations of who I am supposed to be and how I am supposed to act. I am me, a dynamic, living, breathing person who is the same in Southern California as she is in Oregon and will be anywhere else I end up.

I’m just me and I’m okay with that, because somehow God still uses me to do cool things. That last statement, more than anything else, is worth more than my college degree ever will be. 

The story doesn’t end with a single chapter

Through the years I have looked at the phases of my life and considered them chapters. When one chapter is done it is time to close it out and move on to the next one. Yet tonight I’m staring down my college graduation date and have realized something: I’ve been working off of a misunderstanding of chapters.

You see, I like to package everything up in a nice little box, stick a bow on it, and call it done. When one chapter ends I move on to the next and try to conceal what happened in the last. I finished high school and then started college as if high school never happened. I ignored the events of four years of my life simply because I had considered the chapter to be complete and believe it to be the only way to move on with my life.

Tonight, though, I’ve realized that chapters are not about endings and beginning. After all, if each chapter of an overarching novel were its own contained book, the story would not make much sense. Rather, chapters are connected by lessons, memories, and character development. They are woven together by relationships and meaningful conversations. The things that happen in the last chapter often carry over into the next. So why, for so many years, have I boxed up each season of my life and tried to separate myself from it?

What am I running from?

As I prepare to go back to the Oregon drizzle and leave sunny Southern California in my rearview mirror I have realized that this chapter is not over, it is just going to be continued in the next. I do not have to run away and separate myself from everything and everyone I have learned to love in Southern California. I do not have to ditch the memories and seal them away never to see the light of day again. The end of a chapter does not mean the end of the story, and I still have a lot of pages left to fill.

My story is a finely woven tapestry and each chapter blends into the next as I grow, change, mature, and learn.

When I leave Southern California I will take with me all of the things I have treasured up in my heart. I am a different person than the one who showed up on my university’s doorstep that first, fateful August day. That different person does not end here. Rather, the person I have become will go with me to the next destination, and the next one after that, and even the next one after that one, and along the way my chapters will continue to be woven together to create a beautiful story filled with all of the things that make good stories.

The chapter is ending but the greater story isn’t, and God and I still have a lot more to write.

A Man Named Chris

As I was walking out of church and toward my car I saw a ragged looking fellow sitting on a bus bench surrounded by all of his belongings. I had seen him there before, in the parking lot behind the bus stop, but hadn’t ever paid attention. I noticed him, would think to myself ‘maybe one day I’ll offer to help him out,’ but nothing more than that.

Tonight though, as I walked to my car I realized I wanted to go talk to him. I put my purse in my car, took out my wallet, and stood by my car for a few minutes wrestling with myself. He seems to have food, maybe he is taken care of. After all, there was a food bag near him. I know I have been praying that I would reach out to people, but maybe there will be another chance. Then I looked up, took a deep breath, asked God for strength and the next thing I knew my car was locked and I was walking over to this strange man.

It took a moment to get his attention and I asked him a simple question: Do you need anything?

Little did I know those four words would lead to an hour of me listening and learning about this amazing individual.

He told me that he did not need anything. He had his little stove, he had a new coat he had picked up for $1.44 somewhere, and he had coffee. His name was Chris, and for an hour he shared a lot about his life and what it is like to live on the street day in and day out. He told me that he was forced out onto the street because housing was too expensive, but said that he did not blame anyone.

He gave me advice, too. He told me that sometimes people have to make the hard decision even if it means giving up achievement and success. People get stuck going in one direction and they never stop to look around or see if it is really worth pursuing. They pursue success, but sometimes success is not all it is cut out to be. He said even animals know to not head in the same direction all their lives and that even though he had chosen a difficult direction he would figure out a way to get back to a good place.

Chris mentioned that he did not like Starbucks coffee; he was a Folgers guy, but that the lemon loaf was delicious. He then offered to give me money to go buy one for myself to try. I said if he wanted to buy one for me, then he should come with me and we’ll go enjoy some together. He then told me about life on the street, about how he could not just leave all of his stuff because people would come and steal it. He said rarely gets a good night’s rest because he always has to be half awake in order to protect his few possessions.

The most amazing thing, though (really everything that came out of this man’s mouth was amazing) was his willingness to forgive those who stole things from him. He told me that he tried not to dwell on it, that he often hoped whoever stole something of his really needed it, and that one day he will save up money to replace the things that were stolen so he would have no reason to ever hold a grudge. It was just stuff.

Did I mention that this man told me he was over 80 years old? He was born and raised in Texas, moved to Santa Ana where he lived and worked for 42 years. He did not explicitly mention that he was a veteran, but he kept mentioning his various visits to the VA hospital so I suspect he was. He told me his brother was the most decorated black man in the Army during the Korean War and that he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Chris also told me about the restaurants that turn him away when he asks for a cup of ice or even when he has money to spend and tries to buy food.

I spent an hour at that bus stop talking with him and by the time I was ready to walk away, I could not believe the encounter. He told me that there is a church in downtown Orange where he gets dinner a lot of nights and he would be happy to have a sandwich and another conversation with me. I told him where my church was and invited him to try it out one Sunday night. I figure if nothing else, he could sit in the warm lobby and maybe have a nap before he had to face the evening.

In the end I do not really have anything to share except this encounter as it stands. I did not approach this man by my own means, but through God’s strength I overcame my fear, I overcame the pressures of conformity, I overcame everything I was ever taught about not talking to strangers and learned more than I had ever anticipated.

We ended the night with a fist bump and a promise to say hi to each other if we see one another again. 

God is wrecking my life

What is this, a scandalous title? The crazy thing is, it is true…God is wrecking my life.

He’s destroying the life I once lived and giving me a new life in the light of His glory.

Let me break that down for you.

I am shaped by my experiences. I have been shaped by my upbringing, my schooling, my friends, and my interactions with the world. For so long I’ve taken in what the world gives me and have considered it true. I had a less than ideal childhood, so I believed I was worthless. I struggled with depression through middle and high school and I believed that I was broken. I would hurt myself out of this profound sense of brokenness and believed that I would never be okay. From all of these things I carry with me a profound sense of anxiety that is always waiting to strike.

For so long I’ve lived in these things and have allowed them to define me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had little victories. I stopped hurting myself. I got medication for depression. I took all of the outward steps to try and fix myself.

The problem here is in that last phrase: I was trying to fix myself.

I still try to fix myself.

I look to other people to fix me, too. I look to professors for advice, friends to make me feel better, family to make up for what I was given growing up, and while none of these things are inherently bad the focus on was what I could do to fix me. The focus was on the fact that I was trying to control my life, and only once I felt like I had accomplished this or that I could turn to God and say, “now you can love me. Look at how smart I am!”

My life has improved but I’m still fighting to maintain control.

I still walk as the Gentiles do, “in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:17b-18 ESV). I continue to cling to my old self because it is what I am comfortable with. I know how to survive and get by in my old skin. Sure, it is miserable sometimes (most of the time), but at least it is controlled misery. I am a Pharisee, who in the face of Jesus performing miracles and changing the status quo thinks, “No, I’m okay with how things are right now thank you very much. I don’t need any of that.” I’d rather drink old wine and pass on the new, because at least I understand the old wine (Luke 5:39).

God offers me love, grace, and new life but I turn my nose at it because I’d rather be in control.

However, in the past week and a half it has become abundantly clear that when I’m in control things don’t work out very well.

When I’m in control I wake up dreading the day because I expect so much out of my time and know I will never be able to meet my own expectations. I go through my day avoiding relationships and avoiding deeper connections because I’d rather be safe and in control than put myself out there to be hurt. When I’m in control I ignore my needs, ignore God, and live an ultimately shallow life.

I live with a hardened heart.

God has been breaking that hardened heart wide open and I’m overwhelmed by it. I’m scared of it. Everything I’ve clung to is dissolving in the light of God’s healing glory.

God is wrecking my old life, my old expectations, my old status quo…

I’ve been made new. I’ve been created in the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

God has offered me a new identity, but it means I have to let go of the old and embrace it.

That’s where it gets hard.

Purpose in the Moment

As I was cruising down Yorba Linda Blvd today on my way in to work I heard a story.

Ryan Tedder, one of the founders of the band OneRepublic, had called into the radio station I was listening to. He was asked to share his 9/11 experience. He told listeners that on the day the planes crashed into the World Trade Center he was crushed. A few days later he went down to a Navy recruiting station with every intention of joining the military. They told him no. He was an only child and it was highly likely there would be deployments in the future (and there were, as I think we all know the story of Iraq) and Ryan’s family did not need to lose their only child.

Disheartened, Ryan left and in that moment probably felt pretty helpless. Later in life, after his band took off the ground and he was well into his musical career, OneRepublic was able to play for the combined armed forces stationed in Hawaii. After playing a show for them on the 4th of July a woman came up to him, explained she was a sniper and had just gotten back from a tour of duty, and that OneRepublic’s album had gotten her through that hard time.

When one door shut, another door opened, and it ended up helping another individual through a hard time.

I think there is a huge lesson to learn from this: Everything has a purpose; good times, bad times, open doors, and closed doors. We may be going along in life, doing what we think we’re supposed to do, only to find a door we thought would be wide open is closed, locked, and boarded up. It is disheartening and hard to stare at that closed door, wondering what happened. However, a closed door for us in that moment might mean a door opened for someone else who needed it a lot more than us.

We’re such a small part of life that what seems like a tsunami to us is really just a ripple that reaches someone else and changes their life. Ryan Tedder wanted to join the military, to make a difference in the world, and when that door closed he was crushed. Yet that door closing meant he would go on to produce music that would touch the hearts of millions. There was a purpose for that rejection, even if it stung in the moment.

A professor of mine once wrote this on an exam and I think it sums up my point, so I will leave you with this:

There is as much purpose in the present moment as there is in your future. Don’t wait for your life to be meaningful, it already is. Have you ever considered that you already have everything you need?