Room at the Table for the Ungrateful

We finally had too many ornaments to put on the tree this year. The family tradition is to decorate the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. Since 1998, my dad has given my sister and I each a blown-glass ornament that usually represents something significant from the past year. Mom, not one to be left out in the fun, joined in the tradition a year or two later, and we have been lavished with beautiful ornaments for the past 18 years.

This year, for the first time, we took some of our sparkling glass memories with us to decorate a tree in Nashville. A few random puzzle pieces of my life glitter on display. There’s the piñata that represents my love of all things Mexico. A tiger cub balances on a high branch, indicating my love of animals (especially cute baby ones). A s’more snowman wearing a cabbie hat and sporting an Irish flag hearkens to my study abroad trip in Ireland. Snoopy and Woodstock rock out with electric guitars (they
would actually play music, if I changed the batteries).

Typically, I get pretty excited about Christmas. This year, my attitude towards it has been borderline Scrooge. I never listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving, but I found myself wanting to skip the music entirely for a year (an impossible goal). My excuse was that I wanted to be able to appreciate the holiday classics more when I finally heard them again the next year. But really, though I’ve already been swept into the Christmas cheer by default, I am not ready for Christmas. My heart is not ready for all of the joy.

I wonder, is there room at the table for me?

My list of things to be thankful for are countless. Just glancing at the three-foot Christmas tree reminds me of some of my blessings. Not to mention the greatest gift of all: God become man to provide a way for an eternal place at His table.

But this year, though there have been poignant, undeniable moments of joy and awe of God’s goodness, has ultimately been one of wrestling, struggle, and doubt. And here I find myself in the midst of the season of expected gratitude.

At church last night, I felt surrounded by people who seemed full of inexplicable joy and peace. I felt a lot of emotions, but joy and peace were not either of them. I sang “Good, Good Father” half-heartedly. I listened to the special solo piece, “He Wants it All”, in bitterness and exasperation that I would never be able to give everything to God, no matter how much effort I put forth. I found myself lamenting that I cannot love Him with my whole heart. If He wants it all, He is going to have to take it by force and how can I praise Him for being a good, good Father if it comes to that? I prayed multiple times last night for my heart to be turned from ungratefulness to worship.

It didn’t happen.

The service continued.

Worry and faith in God cannot abide together, was a main point of the sermon. My frustration increased as a chorus of amen’s followed this statement, because my life has been one permeated with worry. I felt further thrust into an isolated experience. In my reality, worry and faith must abide together. My life has been one of near-constant anxieties. However, my faith has been right there with me through the darkest moments, too. I longed for someone to say from the pulpit: “I worry so often. In fact, I’m worried right now. I’m glad God is with me, but I’m in a lot of pain right now.” That is something to which I could honestly have said “amen“.

Again I wondered, is there a space for me at this table of Christ-followers?

Someone wise once said that comparison is the thief of joy. Yesterday, I unfairly measured myself up to everyone in that sanctuary. I saw all their gratitude and their joy-amidst-pain and metaphorically flung up my hands in despair and had a pity party. By comparing, I not only did a disservice to myself and my own heart. When I unfairly project judgments on people I love and who I know love me, I am sure that my attitude reveals itself in subtle but hurtful ways.

Still, I wonder.

Is there room for the thankless at the table of thanksgiving?
Is there room for the hurting at the table of healing?
Is there room for the worried at the table of trust?

I sure hope so. Because I am thankless, hurting and worried. I am wrestling with God. I am bitter and angry. I am full of sorrow. I don’t want to sing His praises. I don’t want to celebrate His birth. I’m sick of all the the Kingdom of God is bigger than your problems talk. I’m fed up with church-as-school. I need church-as-hospital.

Still, I will come, though I am far from being neatly tied up in a bow of hope and peace. I come to the table because deep down I know what is good for me. I know that I will not find sustenance anywhere else. I decorate the Christmas tree, I sing carols, I sit at church in my judgmental, fearful, angry, bitter, sorrowful and prideful inclinations, because Jesus tells me that yes, there is room for me. Whatever season you find yourself in, Jesus says there is room here for you too.

Be Kind to Yourself

Humanity, individually and collectively, has countless sorrows in this life. A few particular griefs that stand out for me are the waste of loss, the weight of loneliness, and the intensity of pain. These things live side by side with our joy, love, and connectedness. Do you feel the tension? Our hope peers down into our cavernous longings and shudders. Our love does not know how to live with loss. We are in the midst of a lifelong tug-of-war between joy and despair. If either dropped their end of the rope, we would be living a lie.

To fight against being overcome with despair, we shout into the ravenous discourse of social media to feel some kind of connection. We fall into the arms of friends to feel known. We look for affection and romantic love-even sacrificial love-to throw themselves into our voids. We sedate ourselves binge-watching sitcoms or scrolling through pornography. We bury ourselves in work to feel some semblance of purpose. We starve ourselves to feel beautiful and drown ourselves in alcohol to escape the hurt. We look for sub-par saviors to supplement the Savior of our souls.

This is not a guilt trip.

This is an acknowledgment: life is hard.

I want you to know, because I am right in the thick of it myself: your own unique, personal methods of self-medicating deserve compassion. Your deepest desires for love, connection, intimacy, peace, affirmation, etc. echo of heavenly realities and a fulfillment yet to come. You’re not alone. You are loved. Don’t give up.

Stare into your sorrow for a while and you’ll find the terrified shell of a human being that is you at your most vulnerable, your most honest state. Eight months ago in coming face-to-face with the most hidden parts of me, this is the journey I began . . . it was the worst and best decision of my life so far.

We must learn to be kind to the parts of ourselves we do not like. It is time to take our darkness gently by the hand and walk with it into the light. I’ve seen glimpses of the goodness to be found. Will you press on with me, in courage and kindness?

Holy Collages

 

IMG_3621.JPGToday, a few friends of mine hosted an event called “Vision Quest”. Transport yourself back to middle school, arm yourself with dozens of magazines, scissors, cardboard and glue, add a delightful assortment of breakfast food (and a random serving of magical sweet potato fries), and surround yourself with godly young women who have beautiful hopes and dreams. That was the real-life collage happening as we all cut and pasted, spoke and were silent. Some of us wept and rejoiced in our individual hearts as we saw our longings piecing together into something that echoed of deeper realities.

I have the great sense that today, for four (or more) hours, we were all on holy ground.

These eternal beings that I have come to love as my sisters in Christ, who I am honored to share life with at least for a time in this life and also on the other side of eternity, expressed their hearts imperfectly and IMG_3622.JPGhonestly. We were all wrapped up in visually expressing our own individual stories, but the physical togetherness provided a palpable sense of each of us contributing hope to each others’ lives in meaningful ways.

Though I felt as if I was in soul-therapy heaven, I found myself unable to verbalize even a little of what my own collage meant to me. Ironically, I have the words “a story worth telling” quite prominent on the cardboard representation of my hopes.

Do you believe your story is worth telling?

Do you believe your hopes and longings and pain and joy are all worth pasting into the collage of an insane but beautiful world? I pray you’ll believe it, because:

I want to be touched by your present story and your future dreams, by your brokenness, your strength, and your honesty.

Lately, I’ve made important steps in telling a part of my own story to myself and to a few friends. For a long time, I hid an entire underlying story theme from my own heart because it was far too scary. Bringing it into light is I believe, in some mysterious way, is breaking my heart in order to re-make it into something more whole.

A heart crushed and made whole in a life full of tension and danger. . . what a (painful, exciting, frustrating) adventure! And so, my collage is largely a representation of what I long for my chaotic internal world and slightly less crazy external journey to reflect. They are the things I preach to myself when no one else is around to preach them to me. They are the truths with which I want to embrace God and humanity.

There is much more I could say about the images I chose, but I will leave that for times and places which are more appropriate and helpful and good. For now, I rest in the reality of the shared experience of a humanity who longs for meaning in the madness, and who creates beauty in the midst of an uncertain future.

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Four (out of approximately one million) things I have wondered lately:

1. Why am I in the situation I am in?
2. Why do I feel alone?
3. Why am I still awake?
4. Why are there no more Cheez-its? (answer: my sister ate them)

I’m about to tell you a story, without telling you the whole story. The past six months or so, I’ve been going to counseling (I cannot recommend this enough) and have been on an agonizing, confusing, frustrating, eye-opening journey through something I had done my very best to avoid my entire life up to now.

I cannot begin to list off all the resources that have been at my disposal during this ongoing struggle. Books, articles, interviews, podcasts, good friends, counseling, writing songs, writing stories . . . oops, I guess I did try to list them all. Seriously, my mind has been consumed by this journey for months on end.

In sifting through all of these words and trying to piece things together to reach a livable conclusion, I’ve noticed something . . . these resources and people are wonderful and clearly God-given and absolutely imperative to my journey, but I’ve been looking at them the wrong way.

I’ve selfishly been trying to save myself from pain by living vicariously through other peoples’ stories. Instead of accepting all these things primarily as encouragement that I am loved and not alone, I subconsciously count each conversation, songwriting session, testimony, etc. as another piece of armor to shield me from personal pain, as another weapon that I am supposed to use to win the war. What I’m finding is that all this armor and all these weapons I thought would keep me away from experiencing brokenness in my own story has in fact stockpiled into a storage center as large as Yankee stadium (or should I say Wrigley Field, Chicago Cubs fans?) that has nearly driven me crazy.cloud-of-witnesses

I take great solace in my cloud of witnesses, but perhaps for the wrong reasons.

I’ve been trying to turn my cloud of witnesses into an army of warriors. But what else are “witnesses” but people who watch you and cheer you on and who testify to the reality of your experience? The most avid fan at a baseball game is not going to suddenly run out into the field during the bottom of the 9th to take their turn at bat. However, witnesses do make a difference! Imagine the World Series without any witnesses…I would think that the players would feel a little discouraged that no one cared to show up. There is SO much more motivation to play well and play hard with so many people cheering you on! My cloud of witnesses encourage me tremendously, but they cannot prevent me from making mistakes and messing up and falling flat on my face. I should not expect myself to do everything perfectly just because I “know better,” just because I am aware of others’ failures and victories.

I must live my own story.

I must accept my own brokenness. I must persevere by looking to Jesus and to the joy set before me that comes from choosing to walk through suffering in order to follow Him.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:1-3