Hello 2016

It’s been a crazy year… But haven’t they all been crazy recently?

When 2015 dawned, I was bowling with my mom, brother, stepdad, and stepfamily. It’s a long-standing family tradition. I celebrated six months with that handsome guy in January, turned in my first real resignation letter in March, and began the process of moving to a new state. During a Sunday morning sermon, our pastor explained that sometimes we don’t see the next step. We don’t see point C when we’re standing at point A. We have to step out in faith to point B and follow God’s leading. He said: “Jesus is standing on the waves, calling you to step out of the boat in faith,” referencing Peter’s walk on water. At that moment, I realized God was asking me to follow Him to my next place, which involved moving closer to the guy who would soon become my fiance. So, I took a new job, moved to a new city with new roommates in a new apartment, and fell deeper in love with the handsome guy I’m marrying in less than six months. He proposed in October, and it was perfect.

In 2015, my OneWord was love. One single word to focus on for the entire year. That’s three hundred and sixty five days of one word. One. Word.

But y’all… It works. I learned so much about love. When 2015 began, I was celebrating six months with my first and only boyfriend. When 2016 begins, I will celebrating less than six months until we say “I do.”

When 2015 began, I was learning how to continue to love a Buddhist co-teacher. When 2016 begins, I will be learning how to continue to show love to 60 sweet and crazy teenagers.

When 2015 began, I was praying for the future service opportunities I would have to show love to others. When 2016 begins, I will move from assistant to teacher roles in the toddler class at church.

Above my desk in my bedroom hangs a quote from Ann Voskamp:

You love as well as you are willing to be inconvenienced.

So much truth. Love is not easy or convenient or simple. Love cannot be an afterthought. The beautiful thing is we get another shot each day. I’m not the best at showing my fiance that I love him, and sometimes I find it difficult to accept his love, but I know that he’s not going anywhere. He loves me, and we are willing to try again if we didn’t do such a great job of showing that love this time around.


 

As we move into 2016 in the next few hours, I wanted to take a moment to announce my OneWord for this year. In a world of smartphones and commercials and social media and pushy waitresses, I want to focus. I want to be in the moment. Like the quote: “Wherever you go, be all there.” I want to be mentally aware where I am physically existing. I want to be connected to my body, my soul, my emotions, and my Savior. I want to be real with people who are actually in the same room with me. I want to pray with passion because God and I are actually having a real and meaningful conversation. I want to give and serve and love it. I want to invest into people and I want to be invested in. I want to go and meet and dream and love. I want to be present.

OW2016

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Not Easy

Well, I’ve come full circle. Again. I have a project due tomorrow for the first year teacher’s program at my school and I am cleaning, organizing, and blogging in a feeble attempt at procrastination. This reminds me of college so much, except that I am listening to rain instead of Mumford.

I’m also coming full circle in a different way. This summer, I will be moving. Again. With a doubt, I am overjoyed to be moving. I landed my dream job with an amazing support system. I have a potential housing situation lined up. I will no longer be living 3.5 hours from my amazing boyfriend… I am so excited about what is to come.

The existence of excitement does not preclude the existence of fear, exhaustion, uncertainty, uncomfortability, insecurity, or difficulty.

In fact, excitement and uncertainty have often gone hand in hand for me. Excitement and exhaustion are two words that describe my overseas travel impeccably – often at the same exact moment. Excitement and fear define my first year of college in a nutshell.

So here I am, putting on my big girl panties and moving to another state. For a boy. For a job. For a better living situation.

I know, without a doubt, that this is what God has for me. I know that it is good. It know that it is His plan. I know this because it has worked out perfectly in only the way that He can work things out. I know this because the guy who lives there loves me with safe, sacrificial, challenging love that blows my mind. I know this because God has proven himself again and again. I know that it is God’s plan for me to move to this new state and city and community.

Regardless, I am still afraid. I am still tired, uncertain, uncomfortable, insecure, and preparing to face difficulty. “Being in God’s will” (whatever that means) does not mean that everything is peachy. Following God does not make your problems disappear.

This morning in church, my pastor explained that with good couples, one partner has strengths where the other has weaknesses. The opposite is true as well. In moments of alignment, they complement each other. In moments of misalignment, they complain: “We’re so different from each other! Why are we even dating/engaged/married?!?” But that’s just what makes couples work. We’re supposed to be different from our partners. They complement us.

If we take difficulty (like the example of the complaining couple) to mean that we’re in the wrong place or God is punishing us or we should leave, we’re understanding difficulty inappropriately. Sometimes we are in the “wrong” place, and God makes that clear to us while calling us to a new place. But we should not run away from difficult situations. We should work through them, only leaving if proven necessary. That’s why we should not break up relationships or get divorced over difficulties. We should work through them and figure out the real issues.


One reason I am afraid is that I don’t do “new” very well. I am a hardcore introvert who loves dependability. That’s one reason it’s hard to be around a lot of people. Other people often do things that are unexpected, and that leaves a lot of newness and inconsistency to deal with in a group setting.

However, I have realized that I need people. Shocking, I know.

I was reading an article from Donald Miller that discussed introversion and extroversion. One person commented: “…it takes me several days of complete solitude to recover [after a big social engagement]. I used to apologize for it, but now I just plan for it.” I think that summarizes the introvert’s needs perfectly. It would be wrong of me to constantly apologize for the weird things I do because I’m so introverted. However, it would also be wrong of me to pretend I didn’t have a need for “recharge” time. Like the commenter said, I should plan for those things and give myself grace to work through them.

It is great to acknowledge and utilize an understanding of personal traits like introversion and extroversion, but we cannot let the labels dictate our lives. Introverts cannot eliminate community time any more than extroverts can eliminate solitude time. It’s necessary to have experiences that shape and stretch us, and both community and solitude are essential for spiritual growth. My old youth pastor used to tell me that ministry (and a lot of life) is 80% what you want to do and 20% what you don’t want to do.

As I think about moving and making new friends, developing relationships, seeking mentors, exploring a new city, and learning a new job, I know there will be difficulty. I know that a lot of the tasks I must accomplish as I move are challenging for someone who is 98% introverted like me. But life is not about “easy.” It’s about becoming more like Christ, which is anything but easy.

I’m ready for it. I know I will feel afraid but I also know that God is with me. I know I will feel insecure, but I also know that he has brought me here. I know I will face difficulty, but I also know that this is where he wants me. I’m ready for this new adventure because I am taking my adventures one step at a time.

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

Love is Kind

In the summer of 2013, I worked at a summer camp for girls in the mountains of northeast Alabama. It was an incredible experience and I did many things I considered impossible for me, such as lead a troop of 11-14 year olds, teach six year olds how to knit, or work a ropes course.

I struggled with many of the ropes course tasks because, for one, my hand-eye coordination is not as high as some people’s. I never was good at kickball or basketball or football or P.E. in general, for that matter. Another reason is that while heights are thrilling for me mentally and emotionally, my muscles tend to shut down that high up. My hands would get all sweaty and my fingers would lock up. My arms would go numb. My legs would stop holding me up. It was nasty. Needless to say, they eventually resigned me to the on-ground positions, like belaying climbers up a rock wall or helping little girls off the V-swing. Sometimes I got up in the air on break times just to keep on top of my game, which was always fun.

Of course, even though I was usually assigned to the ground, I had to be trained on all the elements, even the up high ones. This mean hours of training, running the same elements multiple times as both a facilitator and a participant, which always led to uncomfortable wedgies. On one of these days, one of the trainers (a girl named Ali), remarked on my ability to stay calm and patient during the stressful parts. She said, “You’re really patient with yourself.” I think back to that experience quite a bit, and I resonate with her words. That experience was how ropes taught me patience. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that patience is the first characteristic of love in 1 Corinthians chapter 13.

This morning at church, it hit me that I am in the midst of learning the second characteristic from that passage: love is kind.

If you’re like me, you may have had a difficult experience (or several) in your formative years or even since then that has affected how you view yourself. Many times we don’t acknowledge or deal with these experiences – we just know that we are affected in some way, even if we don’t know how. Other times, a counselor, a traumatic event, or a faithful community brings these issues to light and we have to work them out in God’s timing. I once worked with a lady whose uncle told her she had ugly knees and since then she has always worn pants, even decades later. It may be a slightly humorous example, but it was extremely painful for this woman nonetheless.

Often, a situation has affected us for years. Maybe divorce; death of a loved one; abusive elder, peer, or romantic interest; absent parent; constant bullying; lifelong and/or mishandled medical condition; mental illness in ourselves or those around us; unfaithful friend; moving many times as a young child… There are any number of issues, and each person responds to these issues in a different way. A cross-country move may be a traumatic event in one child’s life, while his or her sibling may enjoy the move and make new friends easily. It doesn’t matter what the situation is… What matters is how it affects us. When we struggle with issues today, we may not realize that they are often directly linked to a difficult situation from earlier.

Personally, I struggle with negative self talk. There are a variety of places it could have come from, and I believe it was a combination of all of them. To deal with this struggle, I sought out the only thing I could that made it seem better… Accolades. I figured out by high school that I could take on responsibilities and lead or co-lead something and enter my writing pieces into contests and make A’s in all my classes, and I could run off those accolades like gas in a car. When I felt my self-esteem dropping, I would just remember that my teachers and peers (no more P.E. classes by this point, thankfully) and parents thought I was smart and good at what I did, and I would reign that negative self talk back in. Yeah, sometimes it got to me, and fluctuating teenage hormones did not help a bit, but I was able to be in control enough to be a happy and busy person. I was constantly busy. In college, it was the same way: busyness, good grades, ministry of various types, part-time job, leading and co-leading, staying up late and waking up early. Listen: There is nothing wrong with any of those things. Those are very good things. But when we use them to gain the approval of others, we are neglecting the God who has already given us His approval. I lived on the accolades and approval of others. I also lived for the feelings of success when I accomplished something – sometimes not as pride in a job well done, but as a more haughty, looking-down-on-people-who-couldn’t-do-it pride. Of course, I would have never said that back then, but I began to realize that’s the way it was when I got into the “real world” and people were not constantly giving me accolades and approval. Professors loved me in college, but my boss in the “real world” thought I was okay. And there’s nothing wrong with that… With time, I will get better at what I do, but I’m still learning. It’s okay that I’m okay. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it that way at the beginning of this “real world” adventure.

When the feelings of not measuring up and not meeting standards took its toll on me (from new my job, my new dating relationship, my new living arrangement… see a new pattern here?), I let that negative self talk have its way. It was not pretty. I’ll just sum it up by saying that almost a week ago, I had a horrible night. I was crying nonstop, I couldn’t sleep, my stomach ached, and I could not stop the demeaning thoughts. If it wasn’t spiritual warfare, it was pretty darn close. I couldn’t pray, I couldn’t remember or read Scripture, and I couldn’t calm down enough to think rationally. The negative thoughts had had their way with me. I had listened to them for months now and I could not take it any longer.

But grace found me and I eventually fell asleep. A few good talks with godly people, worship music, and a restful breakfast date with God later, and I am doing much better.

The point I’m making is that I have a propensity for negative self talk and low self-esteem due partially to difficult experiences when I was younger and partially to being a hormonal young woman in multiple new situations at the same time. Regardless, I was faced with the reality that I wasn’t loving myself when I let that negative self-talk into my head. Love is kind, and I was not being kind to myself. When Paul talks about taking every thought captive, he means more than staying away from sexually impure thoughts – he also means avoiding thoughts that put yourself down. You are a child of the Most High God, created in his image to do the good things he has prepared in advance for you to do. Why would you ever put yourself down? Later, in Philippians 4:8, Paul urges us to “fix your thoughts” on things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Can you focus on those things while at the same time telling yourself that you are worthless and inadequate over and over again? Can you focus on true, lovely, and honorable things while dismissing your God-given gifts and dwelling on your human weaknesses? Can you focus on right and excellent things while ignoring God’s strength and staying in a place of self-deprecation?

As Christians, we are called to love, and I believe that this command extends even to ourselves. How can we love others if we don’t love ourselves? It’s a difficult balance to find, as we don’t want to become inflated and prideful, either. However, I believe that a positive understanding of God’s sacrifice and grace for us combined with an appropriate conceptual grasp of our teeny-tiny but nevertheless significant roles in his grand plan will help us to find that balance.

In fact, as C.S. Lewis wrote: “Humility is not thinking less of ourselves. It is thinking of ourselves less.” Self-hatred and self-pride are both examples of selfishness, as they are both thinking of ourselves more often than thinking of others.

There is a beautiful place in the middle there where we are at peace with our identities in Christ and we can humbly love others without hidden agendas. It may take an entire lifetime to get to a point of consistently walking in that place. In the mean time, we must deal with our own difficult memories and painful issues in order to love ourselves well. And we must keep loving others, and extending to them the same things we are extending to ourselves, especially when it is difficult.

Love is patient, love is kind… I wonder what God will show me next? (Read 1 Corinthians 13 to find out!)


 

P.S. Let me just stick a postscript in right here… Even as I’m learning about this incredibly important aspect of agape love, I’m realizing that I very often treat those around me with a lack of kindness, even people I claim to love. Why is it so easy to treat those close to us (family, significant others, close friends) with the least love? For this, I apologize, and want to remind those closest to me that this is a learning process for all of us. Thank you for your forgiveness and acceptance, even when my words, thoughts, and actions do not convey love.

Deeper Than My View of Grace

Sunrise over the soccer field

I will never understand His grace.

God has this crazy plan to do things completely opposite of the way I think they should be done.

For example, today is the last day of my college’s Fall Break. There’s, like, 20 people on campus max. Even though I live close enough to go home, I chose to observe at the high school on Thursday and Friday to earn hours for my Teacher Ed classes. I thought for sure that no college students would be attending my church (or singing in the worship band) this weekend because they would all be traveling, so I almost dreaded going. All I could think of was 64 verses of Just As I Am.

Of course, God works differently from how I think He should.

I got to church this morning to see more people than we usually have on a Sunday morning, including a college student who, of all things, led worship. It was no “Just As I Am” worship set, but it included a variety of genres.

Blended with “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” was “Your Love is Deep”, a song I hadn’t heard before. The verses declare that God’s love is “deep, high, long, and wide” and the chorus elaborates. The verse first of the chorus reads: “[Your love is] Deeper than my view of grace.”  His love is even deeper than how big I thought it was. His grace runs much deeper than my impression of its depth. Wow, what an awesome concept.

When the very thing I desired, prayed about, asked for advice about, and felt peace regarding did not come to fruition, I felt like God had refused me my dream. I couldn’t think of any reason His will would not include my will. After I heard him say “No,” I stopped listening to him. I did not want to hear what He would say.

I am a proud INFJ on the Meyers-Briggs, and my F (for Feeling) and T (for Thinking) are both very strong. So strong, in fact, that I sometimes score as an INTJ on the test. Anyway, I came away from this situation in thinking mode: Well, that doesn’t make any sense, but I guess that is what’s best. It took several weeks to process it as a feeler: I’m very disappointed. 

And I came to God with my heart full of disappointment-to-the-point-of-anger and I demanded to know why and how and what was He planning instead and God was like “Woah. Wait.” It was Job 38:2 all over again: “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words?” Questions His wisdom. With ignorant words. Why would I question the wisdom of my great God? I mean, He created the entire universe – why do I doubt his provision in my life?

His ways are much different than mine. And, dare I say, better?

His love is deeper than my view of grace. This implies that my view of grace is inadequate. I wonder if I will ever be able to understand His grace. I wonder if my view will always be inadequate. We do not worship that which we understand completely, so I wonder if I will always be wondering about God and his incomprehensible ways.

See, even in my moments of misunderstanding, of blaming God, of being furious like a teenager denied her wishes, God still loves me and he still lavishes me with an abundance of grace.  Even in God’s justice, he is kind. Even in his righteousness, he is forgiving. I can fight him and argue with him, and he takes it like a faithful father and welcomes me into his arms.

This is not a license to be angry with God. This is not an excuse to argue with him about the smallest of things. I don’t want to take advantage of his grace. But this is a realization that even in his refusals, he provides. This is a realization that he knows what he’s doing. This is a realization that his grace and his ways are pretty much incomprehensible to my finite mind.

And yet… His ways are good. His grace is new every morning. His ways are right. His heart is kind.

His grace is more than enough.