Anything But Empty

"Let your words be anything but empty."

When You Work With Youth

Something started happening to me when I started working with youth.

A lot of things happened, a lot of things changed, but one specific areas of my life changed, because working with youth, more than most things, helped unearth the disconnect that existed between what I said and how I felt internally.

I’ve written on here a bit about becoming comfortable in my own skin, the journey to finding my honest voice, asking for what I need, and what it has meant for me to be confident in God’s calling in my life, without apology.

A lot of that came through long, hard work; from long conversations with friends, from mentors, and from counselors.  But so much of the way those truths settled into my soul and absorbed into my thoughts without my even knowing it.

Because I work with youth.

Because I sit across from teenagers who can’t imagine someone would see them as worth loving. I tell them that I love them so much (and I do), and how deeply they are loved by Jesus (they are)- but that week I verbally assaulted myself because I kept dropping the same ingredient while I was cooking dinner.

Because I sit across from exhausted students, who stress themselves sick over sports, GPA, homework, family, and relationships.  And I work with them on how they can make space in their lives, how they can leave room to breathe-  but that week, I laid in bed hyperventilating and crying because I felt so overwhelmed.

Because I hold young girls who are crying because they look in the mirror and don’t like what they see. I talk to them about confidence, self-love, beauty-standards, and about how, yes, they are beautiful, but not as much as they are kind, brilliant, strong, resilient or funny-  but later that day I wore a t-shirt over my bathing-suit, not because I wanted too, but because I hated how I looked.

Because I watch young men struggle through with asking for help, showing their heart, or engaging in anything that may be seen as “feminine.” I tell them about how the manhood that Jesus shows them doesn’t require ego, or false bravado, but is daringly vulnerable and humble- but that day my feelings were hurt and I needed to talk, but I didn’t want to look needy, so I ignored it and pretended everything was okay.

But soon this starts to change- it was slow and I didn’t even notice it at first.  But when this is so much of your day, it can’t not change who you are.  It can’t last for long as just something you tell people, without the truth of those words coming full circle on you.

Because when I work with youth and I am sobbing in a dressing room because something doesn’t fit right, I think about my students, and how I would never want them to feel like this, and I would fight tooth and nail until they believed how beautiful, and worthy they were.

And I am finding the beautiful truth that when so much of your job is to speak love and the honest truth of God’s heart for people, it’s hard not to start internalizing it yourself. The more life we speak into the people around us, the more we find ourselves being resuscitated and newer, better versions of ourselves are brought to life.

And that is happening slowly in myself, when negative self-talk creeps up, I start thinking of my youth, and how I want to be a person of integrity when I am teaching them how to reframe their thoughts.  When I feel the anxiety rising, I remember the grounding and coping techniques I have shared with the youth, and how important it is for me not be preaching about making space for quiet and rest when I’m tearing my own hair out trying to be busy.

I’m not done. I haven’t arrived by any means- my self-esteem can range from this:

to this:

pot

And it’s exhausting sometimes for the people that I stumble clumsily over requests for help.

Sometimes I still internally thrash myself when I leave my lunch at home, even though I placed it by the door and set an alarm to remind me to grab it.

But I’m learning. I’m learning to be gentle with myself.   And I’m so much more aware of it now (even when awareness doesn’t always make it go away), now when I start down that road the names and faces of students I love are a big part of what keeps my feet firmly planted in the reality of who I am in the eyes of God.

Fragility and Trust

We are such fragile and sturdy creatures; we are delicate, easily broken, and so many things can leave impressions on our being, sometimes without us even knowing…until we do.

It amazes me, when I look around at all the people living, breathing, moving, and I think how easily we can be knocked out of orbit and sent spinning into oblivion, and it takes my breath away that so many of us are here.

And, sometimes, when I am not too distracted or annoyed with whatever else is happening in my day, I am bowled over by how brave they are, the people in the pew beside me at church, the ones waiting behind me at the supermarket, or the one running next to me on the treadmill at the gym.

We come into this world with trust knit into the deepest parts of who we are. We have no choice but to trust because we are utterly, completely desperate and dependent. We have nothing but tears, screams, and cries to say what we need, so we have no choice but to trust that someone will love us.  All of human history is contingent upon the assumption that that trust is not misplaced. We trust that we will be kept alive, and wanted.

Because we are fragile beings, even if we live, if we are not wanted that too can have profound impact on the people we become.

And, again, sometimes I am astounded that we make it, because we start out so soft, and so many things can leave marks on; so many things can happen to us that echo so much further forward into our lives.

Sometimes that trust, we are so obligated to give when we enter the world, is given to the least deserving person possible. My heart has been broken at seeing the rage, anger, sadness and sickness pour from the lives of children because the ones who brought them into the world so utterly and completely failed.  Even children who are given new families, with people that love them inexhaustibly, they still so often are crippled from that trust so early broken.

Maybe we grow up hearing we don’t matter, or we don’t hear anything at all. Maybe we have people who love us dearly, but are still imperfect people desperately trying to love us as perfectly as possible. It can be something as simple as the way parents love each other, or don’t love each other, or fight with each other. And we grow up, and we don’t realize how deeply impacted we are until…we try telling someone what we need, or we feel that crippling anxiety that builds in conflict, or the desperate request of a spouse to just tell them what we are feeling, or what we are thinking.

We experience the loss of those we dearly love, and insist, maybe even believe, we are fine now, it’s over, or, at least we manage, only to find at the worst possible moments, or in the deepest places of their hearts, we are not fine.

We offer our hearts to people, in the trembling hope that they will treat it well; we profess love, seek friendship, and confide secrets, only to have the most tender of places in our beings wounded and bruised and picked apart.

We can go into a night club, to live and to dance; or we can go to a church to hold hands and pray, we break no rule (except in these cases to be black or gay), and a stranger can walk in at any point with a gun and decide who should live and die.

But we are such brave and fragile creature.

Because we still live. We still dance. We still hold hands and pray.

We have so much power to destroy one another; yet we continue on, inviting people into our worlds, with glimmers of that trust we were born with, except this time, knowing full well the opportunities we are giving to people when we do.

Do you realize that?

What an act of defiance, what a force of will, how strongly we push back on the darkness when we do that?

When we go on.

When we speak.

When we hold on.

When we let go.

When we give birth and trust the world with this new tiny life.

When we open our hands to people.

When we lay in rest beside the one we have chosen to love.

When we put pen to paper, or brush to canvas, and pour our heart and soul into something to be offered up to the scrutiny of others.

When we do something that makes our spirit come alive, no matter who tells us “no.”

When we fail.

When we whisper, trembling, barely formed dreams and hopes to someone, for the very first time.

What beautiful, brave and fragile creatures we are. Because these things can destroy us, either momentarily to be rebuilt or for much longer.  We know a single moment can break us, and completely change the trajectory of our lives, but we continue to chase those moments because we hope against hope that the trajectory is a good one.

And recently, more than usual, I have found myself amazed by that.

Amazed by you.

A New Thing

I spent this week at a youth ministry conference at Princeton Theological Seminary- the theme was “All Things New” from Revelation 21:5.  We attended several seminars, workshops, and lectures about the innovative spirit begging to be tapped inside in the church, what it looks like when churches have responded in obedience when the Spirit moved them somewhere new and different; not for the sake of what is new and different, but for the sake of love.

“Love made me an inventor.”

These words were spoken in a clip we watched featuring Marguerite “Maggie” Barankitse (here is more about her work in Burundi http://www.maisonshalom.org/) and how what her church looked like was formed from a deep love of Jesus and the great needs that she saw around her.  Because, as our speaker Kenda Creasy Dean said, “We will spin straw into gold for the people we love.”

There was a lot here that I am still unpacking and processing. But initially, walking away from the conference one of my favorite things about the conference was how it’s very shape and form reflected this image of “making all things new.”  There were Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed, women, men, white, Hispanic, Asian, African, African-American and so many more besides.

I saw young people, like me, in places of ministry, with new ideas, innovations, excited about the future of the church. And my heart felt so hopeful and alive and excited, not just for youth, but for the young adults who are, through the Spirit, ushering in a new (with flavors of the very old) way of being the church.

My heart felt hopeful as we spoke of innovation and the future, and older generations were listening, encouraging, partnering, and seeking alongside us. There was no scolding or accusations of cynicism or “acting like teenagers mad at their mom”, there was no condescending moaning about the state of young people in the church. There was excitement as a woman in her 20’s took the stage to talk about the unique ways her church is meeting the needs of the community through baking pies! No one questioned her right to be there and to speak. There was only a deep love for Jesus, each other and the youth we walk alongside back home.

Just people standing together and asking, “What is this new thing happening? What is this new thing stirring in the hearts of these people who love Jesus?”

I admit it, I’m a little sensitive to the widespread criticism of my fellow millennials in the church, accusations of laziness, selfishness, and entitlement are leveled at them daily, and the church is no exception- as if we are the first imperfect generation that ever existed in the church, the first to, at times, misunderstand and misuse Scripture.   Maybe it’s because I really do love them; I love their courageous spirit, trembling questions, the bittersweet combination of desiring rootedness and connection while desperately needing to move and breathe in fresh horizons. I love the way they create; with words, with music, with protests, with Twitter, with numbers.  I love that they are simultaneously so cynical but so hopeful and sincere. I love them and I am not worried about the church and faith that Jesus is teasing from that odd mix of liturgists, poets, leaders, activists, charismatics, musicians, writers and coffee-lovers.

Sure, we aren’t perfect. There are missteps from us imperfect people in need of Jesus’ grace. There is, and will continue to be, plenty of places of change and growth as we are being sanctified and molded into the people Jesus has called us to be.  The faithfulness of the Spirit, and the faith of our grandmother’s, sitting in the front pew of the church she always has, faithfully pouring over the words of her tattered KJV Bible, singing with hands raised from red hymnals, praying from the bottom of her heart for her grandchildren, these things are carrying us forward well.

But sometimes I feel, in the midst of articles and declarations of despair about the state of the church, young adults leaving or disrupting, I want to look someone in the eye and say, “Don’t be afraid. Jesus makes all things new.”

The gates of Hell can’t prevail against the Church, nor will the listlessness of commitment-phobic millennials, or the at times culturally irrelevant programs, language and endeavors that some hold so tightly in a clad-iron grip.

So make space, make space for young adults, millennials, for singles. It’s okay to pause in nostalgia for what you have had, and perhaps what you may lose, but make room for them.  And please, don’t wonder why they leave when you’ve only opened up a tiny bit of space that will let them slip in just enough to be there, but not enough to move, to wiggle, to change, to breathe. Don’t say “we want you” if you truly only want them to be exactly as you were, and are.   Don’t say “come serve” but only in the ways we have always done it.

Want them to be like Jesus, but realize that may look different then you.

If you do you may be surprised; by the sincerity, the passion, the loveliness, the thoughtfulness, the depth of thought, the deep love for Jesus and Scripture, for studying, for challenging, and questioning.

Take them for what they are, humans that will fall over and over again, but who love Jesus, maybe even as much as you do. Partner, mentor, love, encourage, and listen closely with them, to that voice, whispering lovingly to his bride;

 

“Don’t be afraid. I’m doing something new.”

 

Little Ash Crosses

Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Lenten season in the church.

And once again I am excited to find myself at a church where there will be an Ash Wednesday service, where time and space is given to reflect, and observe this practice.

I grew up in a tradition that gave me many beautiful things- a love of Scripture and a commitment to studying and setting it in my heart and memory, encouragement of daily prayer and walking with Jesus, emphasis on a very real, and very personal relationship with Jesus, and beautiful hymns that I have found myself returning to for whatever reason over the past month.

But the church calendar is still something very exciting and strange to me.

It is so delighting to see the rhythms and movements of the Church, not just in the present, but also the past.

It fascinates me, the idea that Jesus is so deeply imbedded and part of our lives that he changes the way we mark the passing of a year. We don’t center our lives just around the days of the week, or time of the day, but on the significant and history changing events in the life of Christ.

The chance to be oriented this way is such a gift. And it’s all still new to me, and there are thousands of people who know it backward and forward and I’m sure could find my reflections on it to be riddled with inaccuracies and missing the point. But it still means something to me.

There’s something both comforting and sacred to think that when the Ash is spread on my forehead tonight, that I am sharing that moment with thousands of Christians who I may never even meet.

It’s intimate and tender, like my head is nestled in the chest of the Body of Christ, and I can hear its heart beating, like I get the chance to put a finger on that pulse and feel the lifeblood pumping through it.

I love the thought that we are joining together in the sorrows and victories of our faith, the death and the resurrection.

Because we have so much of both in the life of Jesus, between birth and resurrection. And that we have a faith that makes room for that, a faith that makes room for our shared frail humanity.

“Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

There is so much wrapped up in that little Ash cross, that goes beyond the gesture, the outward motion and movement and actions. We are reminded today that without the inward orientation toward Jesus, the outward expressions fall flat.  Without the rending of our hearts as we seek forgiveness and repentance in those places where we have not loved our enemy, where we have seen and treated image bearers of God as less then fully human, where we have failed to keep God’s command to “seek justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God”, all of our ceremony is for nothing.

We move forward after Ash Wednesday and look toward the Cross, we orient ourselves toward that space in Jesus’ life when he was moving toward that looming shadow, we make room for the grief and darkness and pain. And we are humbled.

So we continue in the beautiful, upending, radical walk of following Jesus, we pause, we observe, we gather, we practice letting certain things go, and stepping into disciplines that draw us closer to Jesus; we commit to praying daily, or maybe fasting weekly, or memorizing a chapter of Scripture. Or maybe we practice being generous with people, or listening to the people that don’t look or think like us. It’s not big or glamorous, and we try and fail or forget, but we look back and remember, we have space for that too. We have space for the falling and the flailing, and we repent of our sin, and we come open-handed back to Jesus.

 

 

 

Uprooting Lies

When I first got started in youth ministry, as an intern not too long ago, one of the things that surprised me was how much reorienting was a part of my job.

Yes, at the heart of my job is always Jesus, but it was the some odd student for whom the heavy lifting rested at a table with open Scripture and heavy exegesis (not that that there is anything wrong with that student J).

The heavy lifting, the hard work of youth ministry as so often been the work of uprooting lies- the often subtle, subversive lies that have so wormed their way into hearts and minds with such tenacity and depth that the work of removing them is so exhausting and long that the temptation is to turn away and pretend like they aren’t there, to accept them as “well, that’s just the world we live in.”

These types of lies can be so sneaky that you have be looking carefully just to catch a glimpse. You will catch them in the all too familiar “phishing for compliments.” We write this off as pathetic, attention-seeking behavior, but more often than not, I believe these are the “cool” “non-needy” ways we learn to make it known to someone, anyone, that we need truth to be spoken to us.

We see them in those glib and often self-deprecating comments that a young person will throw out about how they are “losers” or “ugly” or “don’t care anyone thinks.” And in those moments, if you look, you can see a flicker of desperation, a longing that someone will contradict them and tell them that this isn’t true, affirm their worth and loveliness.

A girl I worked with once made the comment, with a laugh in her voice, “I doubt any guy would ever want to marry me. The most I could probably hope for is to end up someone’s dirty mistress.”

It was a joke, she laughed. But I stopped her and asked her, “why would you say something like that?”

What followed was a long talk about self-worth, respect, gentleness and how much she is valued by Jesus.

———————-

We see them in off handed comments and behaviors and beliefs about the world.

“I’m not like other girls…”

“Boys will be boys…”

“Girls are so much drama.”

“Stop crying. Be a man.”

The movement away from a certain race on the bus.

The quick aversion of eye contact from the other standing on the corner with a sign.

The side-eye at the man in the pew in front of you who smells, or the girl whose skirt is just way too short. These tiny, seemingly private and harmless ideas, that build up over so long and dehumanize us    and the people around us.

I grew up believing that girls were drama. That the high-maintenance girl was the worst thing you could be. I believed that lie. I heard it in every movie, song, and in the words of the people around me. I was thrilled every time a guy friend would tell me, “you’re not like the other girls.”

But what happened was I grew up into a woman that to this day struggles so much with being honest about what I need.  Because that temptation to be perceived as “no drama” and “chill” and “low-maintenance” is constantly at the back of my mind.

So I fight that lie now with the youth I work with, because it’s much easier to start uprooting those lies now when people are still trying to figure everything out, then when you’re an adult and think you’ve got it all figured out.

Not in a mean or bullying way, not in a shaming way, not by going off on a rant or tirade that would leave them shaking. But by asking questions, promoting dialogue, challenging ideas with humor, honesty and affirms the worth of our humanity.

This doesn’t mean you don’t have a sense of humor, or you are too sensitive, it means discerning between harmless jokes between friends and comments that come from a seed that was planted, that on some level they believe to be true. A seed that if left unchecked could grow into an entire outlook on life.

So, when a youth group kid made the joke that, “If Harry Potter were a girl he never would’ve gotten anything done because he’d be worried about breaking a nail,” I don’t jump down their throats with a feminist tirade but instead took the moment to talk about the beautiful story of friendship and support and respect that unfolded in the books, and how Harry Potter would’ve died in the first book if not for Hermione😉

It’s the long hard work of reorienting people toward the truth of their value. And I have found it to be long hard work.  It has seemed to me that people are much easier to convince that they are trash then it is to convince them that they are valuable.

At the heart of this goal is always Jesus.

He is in that business too, the work of not just saving our souls for heaven, but changing us here and now, of taking the way we see the other, the world, and ourselves and turning them right side up.

The Stories We Make

In her book, “Rising Strong”, Brene Brown makes a fascinating observation about story. She cites research that claims that the desire to create a story is in our DNA, that when we connect the dots to create a discernible beginning, middle and end progression, our brain rewards us with dopamine.  We naturally seek to assign meaning, and a reason behind the things that are happening around us and when we do we feel the rush that comes with an “a ha” moment.

And this is a good, beautiful, and unique part of our humanity. This desire to see connection and pattern is a huge part of how we function and even survive.  However, Brene goes on to describe how this natural pattern, when unchecked and when attempted in the midst of moments of emotional upheavel, hurt, conflict or shame, can cause us to create stories that support our own assumptions or perception of the situation. We can be so desperate to figure out the meaning, and the pattern behind someones words, glances, or interactions, that often we arrive at the wrong story. Brown wrote that:

“Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them.” He goes on to say that even with a half story in our minds, “we earn a dopamine ‘reward’ every time it helps us understand something in our world—even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.”

Even when the explanation is incomplete or wrong, we experience the same reward as when the story we come up with when the story is accurate. It doesn’t matter that we fill the holes in the story with fabrications or incorrect assumption.

This way of coping with conflict and emotions, struck me, perhaps because I know how often I am guilty of this. Guilty of reading into an email, a conversation, a text, or conflict, and filling the holes in the story with my own baggage, uncertainty and insecurities.

What are the stories that I tell myself that keep me from appropriately communicating, that allow me to assign blame, and how do those stories come to be what I default to in those moments of frightening insecurity and uncertainty?

I’m not enough.

This is a story I’ve rehearsed many times and when I suspect that someone is coming close to realizing it, the story I make up is that I am not enough.

I’m not smart enough.

I’m not creative enough.

I’m not talented enough.

I’m not beautiful enough.

Honestly, there have been many moments where I have looked at some of the amazing and best people in my life and thought, “When’s the other shoe going to drop, when will this person get tired of me/annoyed with me/find that one thing that lets them know that I am not enough for them to stick around.”

This is not a unique story. But a story that I assume many of us provide in those spaces of tension and insecurity. And I suppose I am not the only one who will mull over a flippant comment, or innocent instruction and wonder if this person is picking up on that horrible, haunting truth that we are not enough.

And I imagine what happens next is not unique to me either.

The anxiety, the worry, the wondering, the hours, maybe even days or weeks of being cold, withdrawn, or insecure. That feeling building in the pit of your stomach as you feel connection, communication and intimacy being eroded by that story. In those moments I feel this deep and terrible tension in my heart, as I crave that connection but I cling to that story, and either wait until enough time has passed until I let it go, or it just builds and builds into a moment of emotional upheavel, either in the privacy of my own heart or in a conversation that is more filled with tears on my part then actual conversation with the person who I feel hurt by.

In her book, Brown shares a time when she was telling herself one of these stories after feeling blown off by her husband after opening up to him. She began her internal struggle of trying to figure out what was wrong, what was happening, and filling the holes in the story. She explains how usually this would lead to a “cold war” of  withheld affection. But instead she decided to be brave. And she opened up again, and told her husband, “This is the story that I am telling myself in my head…”

And there are so many times when I begin assuming and assigning motivation and meaning in my head when I know that this would be so much easier if I just said what I was thinking, shared the story that I was telling myself, and ask for what I needed, how much hurt, and worry and anxiety would be resolved.

If I trusted the people that I know love me with the truth of the story I was telling myself, how much easier would it be to resolve that instinct to jump to the story I have made up to explain the intentions and actions of others.

But it’s hard.

The stories are safer, because we are in control of those. Because, if those stories ARE true,  if our worst beliefs about why a person is acting a certain way is right, then we don’t have to go through the painful work of trusting someone to care for our hearts and our insecurities, the painfully vulnerable process of sharing what we need with another human being.

And that is scary. We want to be cool, and unbothered. We fear being perceived as needy or high maintenance or weak. So we protect ourselves with those stories.

So what do we do?

First, there’s the importance of knowing what are the biggest stories you have created to explain why people act the way they do.  What stories have you learned either through past interactions, biases and wounds. This is the first and most important step, being able to identify the difference in true and well-informed insights, and what are the stories that you have created to protect yourself.

And what are the emotions that trigger that story?

For me it, it is the feeling of not being loved. When I feel insecure in my worth in the eyes of someone I love, when my love language is not being spoken to me consistently, it causes that story of not being enough begin to surface.

And I am learning to battle it; to discern the difference in accurate observations and judgements, and stories stemming from that feeling from fear and insecurity.

I’m learning to recognize those moments that I know will lead to that story rearing its head. And continuing to practice living bravely, and looking someone in the eye and saying, “Here is the story I am telling myself… I need you to tell me something different, and fill the holes that I am missing, because this is what I am seeing.”

Because that really is the solution to battling the stories that we have made up, that prey on our deepest insecurities, to bypass those anxieties and hurt feelings.

Like with most things, vulnerability and trust, can change the story all together.

 

 

 

 

Dancing and Daring Together

This past weekend I had the opportunity to head to the Oregon Coast for a retreat with a wonderful group of kids and fellow youth leaders. The focus of the retreat was on community, walking together and enjoying each other.

This is something that comes with time, with space, and with the slow hard work of building trust and intimacy.  It’s something I am learning how to do, because for the first time in my life, I am starting from scratch. I am rebuilding my community and my people from the ground up, and it’s with amazing people, who have welcomed me and loved me, who are praying for me and with me.

And it’s really hard to teach something when you’re in the middle of it; it can be all the more beautiful, and powerful  and potent, but

But it is hard work, it is hard work still leaving your people, and finding new people.  It’s an exercise in continual trust; trust in God and trust in the people around you.

Because we need it. We need the people around us who laugh with us, cry with us, and walk with us. The people who make us brave, the people we don’t mind looking silly in front of, or making a misstep with.

We need that because that is where we change, where we are transformed into the people that God is making us into.

More than any mega- conference, or expensive speaker or expert, I am going to be changed by the person who brought  the dessert for the potluck, or the woman who handed me the wine and the bread, or the middle school student who I take out for icecream. The people who 99% of the world doesn’t even know their names, those are the people who make us who we are.

At the retreat, we took the students to the beach. On the beach we passed a group of women; barefoot, different ages and races. They were in a circle dancing on a crowded beach and laughing.

Later a student turned to me and asked, “Did you see those women dancing?”

“Yes.”

“What do you think they were doing?”

“I don’t know.”

“Should we go dance with them?

Some of us made our way to the group of women and asked them what they were doing. One woman, in her 50’s, with a beautiful smile and flowy peasant skirt and head scarf told us they were worshiping Jesus.

“Would you like to dance with us?

So we did, for 20 minutes we held hands with strangers in a dancing circle; these women who knew each other, who had been coming to the beach for the past 14 years for their worship retreat, with the same women. They didn’t need someone to come and give lecture on worship, they just needed each other, open-hearted and brave, and worshiping together.

In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown describes what that kind of love, what that kind of community does:

“I remember a very tender moment from that year, when Steve and I were lying on the floor watching Ellen do a series of crazy, arm-flinging, and knee-slapping dances and tumbles. I looked at Steve and said, “Isn’t it funny how I just love her that much more for being so vulnerable and uninhibited and goofy. I could never do that. Can you imagine knowing that you’re loved like that? Steve looked at me and said, “I love you exactly like that.” Honestly, as someone who rarely risked vulnerability and always steered clear of goofy, it never dawned on me that adults could love each other like that; that I could be loved for my vulnerability, not despite them.”  

That’s what community is, the same people in and out, the people we don’t see once a week for an hour, but the people who are part of the daily rhythm of our lives; and all the boring that comes with it. The people we are so comfortable with that we can dance with them, even if we don’t know all the steps, because we don’t care if we look ridiculous with them.

They are the people that will teach us more than anyone else, because they know who we are, and what we need. They don’t give us broad concepts or theories, distant from our own experience, because they are in those experiences with us.

And while I was dancing on the beach, breaking into one community, briefly, with another, all of us apart of the Body of Christ, I remembered why we go through what we do for community, all of the hard work, the hard words, the pain that comes with knowing and losing and giving and taking.

We do it because it’s holy. It’s sacred and shared, and gives us moment where we can dance barefoot and laugh on the beach, because we know we are loved, and when we are loved, when we know we are loved, when we are certain we are worthy of love, it makes us brave.

 

A Defense of Selfies, Fall and Lattes

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It’s fall, the time of year when people wear ugg boots, scarves, and leggings; Instagram and Facebook will be filled with pictures of Pumpkin spiced latte’s and declaration of how much they love sweater season; which is fair, because leggings are comfortable, pumpkin spice lattes are delicious, and sweaters are cozy, I can’t wait to break out my cat sweaters.

But despite these perfectly legitimate expression of things they enjoy, social media will also be flooded with people who have nothing better to do with their days then make fun of girls for wearing leggings, posting pictures of the Starbucks, and taking selfies.

basic

 

Okay, I get it. When girls aren’t filling our timelines with selfies and statuses about fall, I am sure those timelines are usually filled with gems and life-changing nuggets of wisdom so it is a big sacrifice, but you know what, I really think we can handle it.

In fact, I bet we can handle it for more than just the fall season, I think making fun of people for harmless things that they enjoy and mocking them for expressing excitement about it is something we can handle retiring all together.

Sure, there is a wider conversation we could be having about authenticity and the immediacy of social media culture, the competitiveness and comparing it can cause, and how we at times are too focused on sharing the memory then having the memory; but I promise you selfies and food pictures are not to blame for that.

We lament how social media has turned a generation of people into self-indulgent, entitled, vain brats. And maybe that’s true, but I think we are pointing our fingers at the wrong ones when we say that. We point at the selfie takers, the Instagram users, the people who post about things they like, we say “Ugh, I don’t care about your lattes.”  But really whose the one who thinks everyone’s interests and posts should be about them?

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(Meme made by insecure people who think they have a monopoly on a fandom and have a conniption when someone not like them expresses interest)

I remember when I was 16, I had a hoodie that had a character from my favorite movie. Maybe it was a little obscure, a cult classic of sorts, and I didn’t really look like the type of person who enjoyed the movie, and I was labeled by a young man who saw the hoodie as a poser. Never mind that I had the special addition DVD, watched it with commentary, owned a signed copy of the screenplay, and performed a monologue from the film for a drama class, the real question was why did he care so much about my hoodie and whether or not my interest in the film was superficial or geek to the max?

A high school girl I know, loves a particular band with a fun, beautiful and exciting passion! This band makes her happy, and she has expressed how she has seen the way people will rip into that fandom just because they don’t like this band.  What do we gain from that? What do people get from trying to get her to enjoy something less?

Why do we care why the girl who posts selfies on Facebook does it? I may not know the motivation, but I can say with relatively certainty this isn’t her way of saying “I’m the center of the world.” Maybe it’s because she wants likes and compliments, maybe someone made her feel like crap last week and now she wants some affirmation, or maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with you, and she knows her curls are on point today.  I don’t know, and frankly it doesn’t matter.

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(Yeah, sure, because those two things ARE mutually exclusive after all)

 

Maybe that filter she used on Instagram is pretty or cool to her, and makes her picture look better. Maybe she’s not trying to make you think she’s a professional photographer or trying to make you think she is flawless.

 

Maybe she really really likes fall, and crunchy leaves, and yoga pants, because they make her happy, and warm and fuzzy and comfortable. Please tell me what you gain by coming a long and mocking her for it.

I don’t want anyone to read this and think I don’t have a sense of humor. I enjoy self-deprecating humor as much as the next person. And my friends and family make light hearted jabs at how invested I get in the X-Men fandom and I can laugh with them.

But from what I  have seen, I do  think that this has gone beyond a simple internet memes to an actual shaming and labeling and predatory ownership or rejecting of certain interests, fandoms, and hobbies.  There are articles and essays that float around with the purpose of making someone feel bad about their leggings or selfies or the fact that they wear a Batman shirt without having read a comic book. And I can only speculate about the cause, whether it’s from sad little lives that have nothing better to do, or a concern for how ‘self-centered’ and entitled this generation is. I don’t know.

But I do know this, if your daughter or friend or sister is taking selfies, enjoy it. Don’t lament for a generation that is self-involved, or thinks they are the hottest person in the world, because usually that’s not what is happening. Enjoy that she thinks she looks good that day, enjoy that she feels good about her appearance, because I promise you when she comes to you crying because she feels ugly, or fat, or someone made fun of her, you’ll be wishing for that happy smiling girl in the selfie who just knew she looked fabulous that day. If you want someone to take down that selfie girl a peg or two, no worries, sadly, someone will, and next time she may think twice before daring to put a selfie in your timeline. But let’s delay that as long as we can.

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And if I ever have a daughter, I hope that she can go to a coffee shop, or a comic book shop, and enjoy whatever look, drink or shoes she wants without being turned into an internet meme. I hope she can wear a shirt with a superhero emblem on it, whether she likes the movies or not, and not be ripped apart by rabid fans.  I hope she can shamelessly selfie with her friends (or whatever space-age technology is available from Apple at that point), whether it’s in bright red lipstick or a dirty, sweaty pony tails after a soccer game.

And yes, I will have had the conversation with her and will continue to have it, that the world is bigger than just her, that where she lives has luxury and first-world problems that can’t compare with some of the rest of the world, that her value is in so much more then how she looks, that another person’s opinion of her is not nearly so important as her own opinion of her, and that unhappy, unimaginative, unexcitable people will resent you when you love something, and will do whatever they can to tear it down.

So honestly, you do you. You want to Instagram your pumpkin spiced latte, go ahead, if you want to wear leggings as pants, and ugg boots you do that. If you don’t that’s okay too, scroll right on past and I promise you you’re day will not be worse for the wear.  If your hair is on point and you finally got that perfect wing tip with your eyeliner, snap a selfie. You can’t please everyone, if you post silly stuff you’re shallow and fake, if you post a problem you are having you are “sharing your drama on Facebook”, the world doesn’t know what it wants from you and it probably won’t stop judging you,  so no reason you should feel guilty for looking fabulous while they do it.

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#BacktoHogwarts

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Today, the Internet exploded when JK Rowling made this announcement on Twitter:

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And she demonstrated to all of us Muggles, that despite the beloved series having ended 8 years ago on page, and almost 4 years ago on screen, that she still calls the shots when it comes to our emotional stability. No matter how long it has been, with every post, Tumblr theory, meme, and even spoof, the story continues to wreck us in the best possible way.

Today, watching the outpouring of love and excitement over the mere announcement that one of Harry’s children is beginning his first year at Hogwarts, I was reminded again about the power of story. I picked up my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and returned to the place that was still, clearly, so near and dear to the hearts of many.

I remember vividly when the Deathly Hallows came out. I was on a mission trip in New Orleans and as we were driving home, the last night of the journey, the book was released. When we arrived back at the church, I got to my car, bleary-eyed and exhausted from the drive and found, sitting in my front seat, the book my parents had waited in line at midnight for, along with a poster and silicon bracelets bearing the symbol of the different houses. Despite having spent all night on the bus, I locked myself in my room for 15 hours, took a brief hour power nap, and then continued with Harry on his last great adventure.

Today, I looked again over the pages that so many people had cried over in their own copies, and it reminded me of the beautiful connection that can come with just a piece of literature. To know that two people who have never spoken, who maybe go to the same school but never noticed each other, may have both cried when Dobby made his last brave stand on behalf of his beloved Harry.

I glanced again on those familiar bits of dialogue that are plastered on posters, FB walls, and even as tattoos for those more ardent fans (yes, I’m looking at you Jessie Long with your 3 Harry Potter themed tattoos).

Take them…

Always.

I open at the close.

I’m about to die.

Don’t pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living. And, above all, those who live without love.

And so many more, from so many books.

And I am once again reminded why I love stories. Why I love this story. Stories connect people, they make worlds possible which are entirely impossible, they make us love people that are completely different then us, they can reveal our deepest capacities to love, hate, and identify with others. We cheer, and weep, and laugh, and fear with those who do not even exist in the same time and place that we do.

Rowling has done something uniquely beautiful by creating a story that has us caring for the characters long after the story is finished. She has joined with her fans in this magical world where we engage with the imagined. Even with the best stories I have read, the ones that I love deeply, the ones where I feel emotionally drained after having read them because I care so deeply for the characters, it ends. Perhaps there is a movie adaptation, but there is still that strong divide. I feel that is over.

In another popular piece of fiction, The Fault in Our Stars, there is a scene where an embittered author tells the protagonist who longs to know what happened after the book ends that “nothing” happens, it’s over, they cease to exist. And, for most stories, this is probably true.

But the magic of Harry Potter is that today, fans, educated, sane, stable, working adults, heard that James Severus Potter was going to Hogwarts, and we wished him well.

Because there is something special about this story.

There is something special about literally grown up with a character, to experience a new stage of life with a different year at Hogwarts. I remember how much it meant to me that the last book came out the summer after graduating high school. And I felt the pain and joy of one chapter in my life ending while reading a book that had been with me from the time I was 8 years old. The final movie came out the summer after graduating from college, and with all the bitter sweetness, I bid farewell to another part of my life.

It has stayed with us because so many people can see places of heartbreak, love, loss, joy and sadness for Harry, and identify with it in their own lives. Of course you’ll get the condescending Willy Wonka types who will say: “Oh you see yourself in Harry Potter? Tell me more about the time Voldemort hit you with an unforgivable curse but you survived.”

But that’s not really this point is it?

We needed a book like this. Because so many times we have to choose between sickening optimism or crippling cynicism. Stories that sugar coat everything or the ones that make you feel like no one is good, everything sucks, and we all just live and die and that’s the end of it.

But not here. Anyone who has read the book knows that the cost of good is extremely high, that hate is strong, that the fight against evil is not won without casualties, that innocence can be a fragile thing, that families can be broken and destroyed, that the world can chip away at your humanity until there is nothing left, children can be left orphans, and that sometimes, loving someone, can cost you everything.

But anyone who has read the book also knows that even the smallest spark of good in someone can be fanned into something heroic, that hope is not a foolish a thing, that who we decide to be is so much more important than who we are expected to be, that friendship can, and will, save your life, that love, even in the smallest places, can make a coward brave and redeem a heart, and, these beautiful words from Albus Dumbledore:

“His knowledge remained woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.” Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, pg 710

And maybe this is one of the most valuable lessons that Rowling taught us by giving us this world.

That we will never be too old for children’s tales…

That we will never be to mature, or too smart for the imaginary.

That we will never need to be ashamed of returning to those pages and finding comfort in them once again.

That we will never be too good for those simple themes of love and friendship, and, in fact, as we grow up, we may need to return to those over and over again to remind us.

So, happy sorting James; try making friends with a Slytherin, stay away from the Whomping Willow, watch out for the stairs, they tend to move and remember, your father casts a big shadow, don’t bother trying to get out of it…. Sorry!

Abuse and Throwing Stones

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“Let he who has no sin cast the first stone…”

This is one of the most comforting stories in the Bible. People go to this story, the picture of Jesus stooping in the dirt with the woman caught in adultery, surrounded by the men caught throwing stones, and they feel comforted that they have a Savior who advocates for them. We can move beyond managing shame and guilt to a place of know that Jesus speaks equalizing words of forgiveness and grace on our behalf.

But sometimes this verse is lifted out; lifted out from the heart of Jesus for the hurting, marginalized, abused and voiceless. I’ve recently heard this verse used specifically in a Christian abuse context in order to expedite the story of redemption and forgiveness, while bypassing the work of true healing that is often necessary in the face of abuse.

I’ve heard Christians say in the wake of abuse from fellow Christians that we cannot condemn because we have all sinned and have no place to throw stones; as if speaking out against injustices, even against our own brothers and sisters, and leaving room for the abused to confront their abusers, is the equivalent of throwing stones.

These words must never be used to excuse not calling out injustice when it occurs. God forbid we use these words to do the very opposite of what Jesus did when he spoke them.

Return to that picture once again; the picture of Jesus stepping through the throng of accusers encircled like vultures around the woman, the woman with no one to speak for her, the woman without an advocate, a woman who had lived her life in the hands of a patriarchy where she may have very well been seen as a commodity, whose voice meant very little in comparison with her accusers, the men who twisted the words and heart of God in order to suit their own desires.
Jesus spoke those words as her advocate.

God forbid we use those words to shame the voiceless, to shame the advocates who speak for those who are abused and harmed.

How dare we accuse them of throwing stones when they speak against an abuser or a predator, even if the abuser is a brother or sister in Christ.

How dare we call it evil work, and commit the same sin of the Pharisee’s attributing to Satan the work of Jesus, when abuse is uncovered and truth is brought to light.

How dare we be more ready to call the revelation of abuse evil and criminal then we are to call the act itself evil and criminal.

God forbid we use the words of Jesus to enable abuser dynamics.

God forbid we use these words to recast the abuser as victim, and victim and advocate as a thrower of stones.

“Let he who has no sin cast the first stone…”

Yes, this speaks to the unimaginable grace of God. This speaks to the fact that, yes, grace is sufficient for the covering of sins, from a liar to a child abuser. They should provide comfort to those who have committed the most egregious of sins, knowing that Jesus’ heart still beats love for them and a longing to redeem and save.

We can believe that Jesus has the power to restore all people, but this does not mean that in order to protect our own brothers and sisters in Christ that we encourage victims to “hush,” “take it to elders first”, “keep it in the family”, “don’t indulge in bitterness.” And it certainly doesn’t mean when abusers are caught and expected to face justice that we accuse their victims of “throwing stones.”

Yes, these words speak to the fact that there is no place for a high horse in regards to our standing before God or deserving of grace; but one doesn’t need a high horse to speak out on behalf of justice and the victims of abuse.

Our place is first and foremost in the dirt with those who are wounded, those who are in the margins, encircled and trapped, fending of the predators.

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