Anything But Empty

"Let your words be anything but empty."

Trauma and The Book of Esther

esther

Growing up, I loved the book of Esther. This isn’t unique to me, even now as I am walking through Esther with my high school youth, a few of the girls have said it’s one of the books they have read over and over again, a consistent go-to when they check out during one of my lessons.  You don’t have to search too deeply as to the reasons for Esther’s popularity with girls, the fact that it is one of two books of the Bible named for a heroine gives it an initial draw, but beyond that the story itself is a compelling one; it’s exciting, and scandalous, and darkly ironic and humorous. And when I was a child, it was romantic- a rags to riches story about how a low-status girl entered a beauty pageant and becomes queen.  Kind of like The Bachelor meets Cinderella! What’s not to love?

As I grew, both in my faith and my ability to read with a greater comprehension of context, history and purpose, Esther remained one of my favorite books, but it took on quite a different flavor when I revisited it as an adult.

I was amazed to find that the characters that I thought I had known so well, had changed dramatically.

The King was no longer a romantic suitor. Rather, he was an oblivious, easily-manipulated drunk who embodied an intensely fragile masculinity- so much so that he was, with little prodding, convinced to sign off on a genocide; and I wonder how often were ancient rulers so terribly weak?

And Vashti! I found myself wondering so much about this woman; what was the cost of her no? What made her think she could say no? Had she done it before, would it have mattered if the King’s drunk loutish friends weren’t present to see his ego wounded? What happened to her? Was she banished? Was she downgraded from queen to one of hundreds of women in the harem?

Esther was no longer a beauty queen with a perfect pageant wave, suddenly she was a scared little girl, no older then the girls I love in the youth group.  The face in my minds-eye moved from that of a Disney princess to something much more akin to a victim of human sex trafficking. I found myself lingering on that verse that was so innocuous to me as child:

“When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace…”

And I wonder what did that “brought” and “taken” look like for the young Esther? Was she frightened? Did she wonder if she would ever see her home again? What of the other girls snatched from their homes and their families to be painted up and offered on a silver platter to a king?  Or, perhaps, they felt very little because this was one of the best outcomes a woman could hope for? Is it that same Western Lens that sanitized the story originally that also breaks my heart for the trauma of the characters now?

At a conference I attended recently, one of the ways identified that oppressed people respond to trauma is to take on the habits of the oppressor. And I wonder, as I read of the months of beauty treatments and the way Esther dazzled everyone in the kingdom, how true this was of Esther.  Was it just that she had a sparkling personality? Or was there something else entirely behind her fair façade? Did she smile with gritted teeth? Did she hang upon the words of the attendants as a matter of survival?  Did she, at times, find herself enjoying it and then feel guilty?

And when it was Esther’s turn to ‘go before the king’ what did she feel? Was she scared? Was she wishing she could be somewhere else, or had she convinced herself that this is where she wanted to be, and, if so, I wonder if that is a habit passed on from generation to generation of occupied peoples as  way to cope?

Obviously, we aren’t given answers to most of these questions that I now ponder as I read through Esther. And I know, that even the questions I ask are framed with a Western privilege that is far removed from the culture. But, despite the distance in time and culture, I can’t not imagine her as profoundly human. I have to assume she felt; and she felt and felt strongly. And, despite my perspective shift in the book, the deep resilience and humanity of Esther was clearer than ever.

This could be said of many books in the Bible, but this was a significant book for me because it was the first one to challenge how my western lens sanitizes Scripture, much to the detriment of its potency. I found that Christ spoke much louder to me in his word when I was able to lay aside a western, modern, and even at times “Christian” view of Scripture.

And that’s the power of Story. That’s the power of sitting with the weight of the lives that were lived and recounted on the pages of the Bible; to feel it deeply in my heart and my bones that I believe in a sacred holy text that is wrapped up in the flesh, blood, life, choices and trauma of real people.

If I can let the story speak to me, before I bring any subsequent theology to it, for me, that draws me closer to the heart of God in the story. When I can stop looking so hard for what God was trying to teach me, and just let the story God gave me speak on its own, my humanity starts to change in profound ways, the root of who I am changes, not just theology (all though that necessarily is impacted too).

I change, the way I see people changes, and the way I see God changes. God reveals himself through his word, which is comprised so much of story, and that changes how I see him.  And when I sit with the overwhelming trauma of it all, when I don’t hurry towards redemption, when I wonder and ask and cry over the fear and uncertainty of the people in it, I feel myself anchored in the story even more.

God moves from being one caught up in mere theology and faith systems, and becomes a God entrenched in the mucky story of his people.  He is a God who chose to reveal something about himself in the story of a young girl, living under a foreign power, who is trafficked from her home.  And, even as I write that, as I come to that truth once again, I cry. Because the stories that God chooses to reveal himself in are not so far away from me as I once believed; they are not all wrapped in power and untouchable wordly strength, but wrapped in abuse, trauma, pain and powerlessness.

He reveals himself through Scripture like this, and calls it holy and sacred revelation. And this, more than anything else, makes me hunger for the rest of God’s story, and makes me believe that I have a place in it.

I Know Who You Are

moana

*SPOILER ALERT* *SPOILER ALERT* *SPOILER ALERT*

Big Spoilers for Moana ahead! If you haven’t seen it and want the ending to remain unspoiled for you do that! Nothing I have to say is as beautiful as the movie itself anyway!

 

Anyone who has spent any time with me over the last few weeks probably know I am REALLY REALLY into a couple of things right now- Moana and Hamilton. Now, obviously, I’m not alone or original in this (but I’ve always prided myself in being decidedly okay with going with popular opinion on many things- I like top 40’s, Harry Potter, and Disney, probably more then I like Indie anything).

And really, who isn’t into Hamilton? And who DIDN’T love Moana? And who DOESN’T love Lin Manuel Miranda, the beautiful, wonderful human being who birthed the gorgeous music in both of these masterpieces?

linmanual

I have yet to fulfill my now deeply felt goal of seeing Hamilton (but this hasn’t stopped me from listening to it on repeat for several months, listening and watching every youtube video, television spot, or podcast interview with Miranda, and everything in between). However, I did see Moana twice in theaters, have included that in the circulation of soundtracks in my life (all two of them), and now have received a special addition DVD for my birthday!

My point is, I like the stuff I like, and I like it with all of my heart. But the things I like the most, the ones I come back to over and over, are the ones that make my heart ache, the art that subtly yet forcefully draws me closer to the person I want to be, the ones that make me immediately want to share so that I have someone to talk about it with, the ones where I immediately go online to find out what has been written, discussed or dissected about this piece of art.  A few things have done this for me; X-Men, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Fullmetal Alchemist, Hamilton and, most recently Moana.  After many of these pieces of art reached their conclusion, it was almost like losing something (even if I could go back to it again and again), there’s an absence that is very keenly felt.  I can’t imagine there isn’t a book lover alive who doesn’t relate to that feeling.

I could go on and on about why Moana most recently joined the list: the tension of respecting what has been done while looking toward what can still be done, a centering of a non-romantic mutual cross-gender friendship where both learn and grow from the other, the portrayal of three generations of women empowering and affirming one another’s calling, and the list could continue.

But the place where I can continually go back to, the truth that the movie so beautifully and cleverly reminded me of, was the way that the hero triumphs. Ultimately it isn’t otherworldly powers, it isn’t physical strength, it isn’t being wittier or stronger, it is ultimately through Moana’s deeply felt humanity that the evil is vanquished, through the power of naming, of reminding, of seeing and being seen.

It is through the ability to look at another being’s pain, and anger and rightful rage, and breathing the truth of someone’s identity into that.

Moana has crossed the ocean, risked life and limb, to restore the stolen heart of Te Fiti. But when she arrives, she finds that the island is gone; there is a moment of panic before Moana looks down at the green, glowing heart in her hand and back at the horrific lava monster she had to do battle with moments before. Moana is staring down the fearsome monster, her enemy and then realizes the truth; that this is who she came to save.

“Let her come to me,” she says, beckoning the creature.  Moana walks confidently out to meet the villain, singing:

“I have crossed the horizon find you.
I know your name.
They have stolen the heart from inside you.
But this does not define you.
This is not who you are.
You know who you are.”

moana1(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3rITxmLFq0)- this the whole scene since my description can’t do it justice)

It’s one of the most beautiful moments I have ever seen in a movie. The music is gorgeous, and visually it is breathtaking. But more than anything, I was struck by how this movie, for children, in such a small moment captured such as sacred truth of being human.

We are delicate, and in a wild world so many things can turn our hearts to stone. So many things can make us bitter, and dangerous. So many things can change how we see ourselves, and then, slowly we become that, and the rest of the world sees us that way too, and the truth of who we were made to be is a whisper that we can’t hear for all the screaming.  Sometimes, even as children, we learn that the world will take things away from us, and we can feel as though it’s our very heart being ripped from our chest.

And we wonder, in the midst of pain, sadness, confusion, disbelief, depression, rage, grief, if we will ever be who we really are again- maybe we even start to just believe that this IS who I am.

And this is another truth about being human; we need each other. Sometimes people can be the ones who help turn us into the worst version of ourselves, but sometimes, the right ones press their forehead to ours, unflinchingly face all of our ugliness, and speak that truth loudly: “This is not who you are.”

There is so much power in that simple truth when we hear it, it holds the beginnings of a trembling hope; a hope that your heart isn’t lost for good, that restoration is possible.  And this is a truth I want to transform me, and how I see the people around me.

“I have crossed the horizon to find you…”

I want to be someone that loves with a dogged, patient kind of love; the ones who fight for someone time and time again.

“I know your name.”

I want to be someone that can look at a human and know that they are living into an identity that isn’t theirs, someone who knows they had a name before the world told them what it thought it should be.

“They have stolen the heart from inside you.”

I want to be someone who can recognize that there has been hurt- that something was stolen; maybe all at once, maybe a bit at a time. Someone who recognizes that, even when someone speaks and acts out of those damaged parts, and there are actions that cannot be excused, I can still affirm the grief of that loss.

“But this does not define you.”

I want to be someone who can call out the lies that we let define us; lies that devalue and dehumanize, that accuse without hope and punish without reconciliation.

“This is not who are you are.”

I want to be someone who can look into the eyes of hurt and pain, and not walk away. I want to be someone who walks beside others in the journey to having their heart healed and restored; the journey of reconciling what was lost, who they became and who they want to be. I want to be someone who holds that truth as a sacred duty; to know, to name, and to help others remember.   I want to be someone who can speak that truth over and over into the lives of those who have forgotten:

“I know who you are.”

Dear Body:

Dear Body

I have not been gentle with you.  I have not treated you softly, or dealt with you kindly. The words I have spoken about you could tear flesh and the thoughts I have had about you could bleed you dry.

I am sorry I learned to hate you. Hate you for the space you take up, when that space was more then I wanted to be. I am sorry I have cursed you, monthly, at the reminder of the unique ability to carry life that I have been given, whether I choose to do so or not.

I have cried in front of mirrors; in dressing rooms; over pictures; at night as I feel the rounded stomach as I lay on my side. There have been moments where my wildest dreams and best hopes rested on changing you.

I am so sorry. I am sorry that I thought that the best way to get me to a place of loving you, required teaching myself to first hate everything about you; to hate it so much that I would change it. I am sorry for the twisted logic that made me think that hating you into being beautiful enough would ever work.

I am sorry I learned to be so ashamed of you. I am sorry for church camps where we were told to raise our hands, spins around, and bend over to make sure you were covered enough. I am sorry that I got used to never having to see you.  It’s amazing the distance that can create between too things, isn’t it? I pretended you weren’t there- covering you with T-shirts and wearing jeans to the beach. I treated you like a disease that you hope if you ignore long enough it will go away.

I have hated you, I have starved you, I have denied you sleep and exercise and water. I have run you into the ground, and forced you to move forward when you were screaming at me to rest. And I have refused to go outside and breathe in fresh air when you were begging me for sunlight.

But through all this; through seasons of neglect and scrutiny, you have always stood by me. You have patiently waited for me in this slow long journey of becoming. I had to grow into you, to be as strong as you are.  To be as sturdy and loyal as you are. We have come along way, and have further still, but I am learning to be as incredible as you are; to look at this bone, and muscle, and hair, and skin and everything in between that and see a beauty being forged; a whole person made in the image of God.

You are becoming beautiful to me.  I take notice now, when you do something amazing. When you hold people well with those arms. When your fingers hold on as I struggle up a rock wall. When your legs carry me just a bit further in a run.  When the mind, that belongs to both of us, that can only work while you are healthy and nurtured, births a sentence that feels as precious to me as a child. When your mouth speaks words of love, comfort or encouragement. I notice and catalogue moments where I feel closest to you, most happy and comfortable with you. I notice who I am with, what I am eating or drinking or doing or wearing. I am looking for ways I can take care of you. And I am glad you are patient with me when I fail at it; when I stumble still to love you.

You are becoming beautiful to me. Or maybe, I am becoming something else because you have always been beautiful.

Love,

Me

 

(There are several other beautiful examples of this on the internet. The idea is not mine but is an exercise I picked up from blogger and author Sarah Bessey,  you can find her love letter to her body on her blog.)

 

On Grief

Grieving is one of the most exhausting things we human’s experience. Nothing speaks to the way our heart, body and soul connect- nothing so completely breaks us open and lets us see how nothing about what we feel, or how we act, exists in a vacuum.

Before it happens, you think “heartbreak” is a metaphor; something we say to describe an indescribable feeling. But when we feel it so deep, the pain and the loss, you do feel it; you feel your heart crack open and you feel the cold grip your chest, making it hard to breathe, and you realize heartbreak isn’t just a metaphor.

When you’re grieving, the world is a minefield; and you feel like some days are nothing more than an exhausting attempt to not stumble onto anything that will cause an explosion (that’s why, when we grieve, so many of us stop moving all together- it feels so much safer).

Your bones feel bruised when you grieve. Your muscles become a knotted mess. Your jaw stuck in a tense clench.  Your face aches, and your nose, cheeks and eyes are so dry and chapped from snot and tears.

Your exhausted but your mind won’t let you sleep. And it’s exhausting to fall asleep, and then wake up and remember all over again.

It’s exhausting because the world keeps spinning, and you’re drowning, just kicking it to stay above water, but you still have to get out of bed, you still have to shower and show up. Because the world isn’t stalled in the same way you are.

So you have to fake it for at least a little bit, you have to fake it- because realities timeline is much shorter than ours- the one that makes it impossible to forget how sad you are for more than a short window of time.

And your body takes the toll.

And your mind carries the burden; the burden of wondering “will it ever go away?” Because you can’t imagine thinking about anything else; you can’t imagine any emotion, any feeling, any thought being stronger then the emptiness of what you have lost.

Nothing energizes like hope, and in the midst of grief, when you know it’s just impossible to hope that it will ever hurt less. When you know that the hurt is so loud and so deep that you can’t imagine anything will ever touch you so loud or so deep again, it is so hard to hope. It’s hard to hope you will ever breathe without it hurting. And it’s exhausting to cling to whatever little piece of hope you have that one day you’ll be able to laugh again.

Grief isn’t unique in that you feel it both mentally and physically. When you feel joy, your mind sees the world as brighter, there is warmth in your chest and you stomach, you are filled with a well-being that spreads from head to toe. When you are angry, you feel your hand clench, you hear the blood pump in your ears and the red flush across your chest and face.

But the thing is, grief carries with it this amazing staying power. You can be happy, or angry, or sad, and it could change in one moment. But that doesn’t happen with grief. You carry it with you, maybe not forever, but you carry it with you for some time.  Rarely does a moment or an instance snap you out of grief, but one moment or instance can plunge you into it.  When you’re in it, you never completely don’t feel it.   You may forget you feel it, because the dull ache is just a part of your life, but this is hard too; because you eventually remember why you are hurting, and it’s like punch in the stomach that takes your breath away.

Grief causes us to wrestle with long-sleeping parts of ourselves, and to grapple with our deepest questions and doubts about God, the world and our place in it.

Grief is powerful. Grief is necessary. It’s a part of loss, and you have to think that something much worse is happening inside you (which is hard to imagine) if you don’t grieve when you have lost someone or something dear to you. This is not to say that if it doesn’t last longer than another’s, you loved less or feel the loss less keenly, or that if it’s not expressed in the same more obvious way of another, you are heartless. But to not feel grief in the face of losing a part of who you are, that seems more unnatural then this terrible awful thing that seizes us and doesn’t let go.

And now in the middle of it. All I can do is feel it. Understand that right now, in this moment, it’s a part of my life.  And that’s okay.  The world can be a vicious place, and we grieve that even more when that viciousness touches us closely.

When memories are way too much to wade through, we don’t’ have too. When what we need is to remember her smile, or laugh, we do it, and we cry, and that’s okay. Or maybe we think we need it, but like dipping our toe into the too cold water, we realize we can’t, not now, not today, and we retreat. That’s okay.

When our bodies ache, we can get a massage or take a bubble bath. Knowing that the grief is still there, but right now maybe this is what we need to cope.

And that’s where I am at.

Calling my best friend to just describe what memory came to mind to make me cry; because I think if I get it out of me and let someone share it with me, it’s easier. And knowing that she wants to help me, and letting her do it isn’t a burden.

Smiling and nodding and saying “I’m doing good”, when some people ask me how I am, and bursting into tears when another ask me the exact same question in the exact same day.

Listening when my boyfriend tells me I don’t have to apologize for crying too much to put any makeup on or not having the energy to go do something fun.

Going on car rides with co-workers just to talk about everything in my head- and taking the list of grief counselors she gave me.

 

We keep people close by, to remind us to eat; to remind us to sleep; and, when we need it, remind us to seek help, because grief is hard. Sometimes our family and friends are enough to carry us in it, but sometimes we may need someone else, someone who is trained in navigating that terrain. And we don’t do this because grieving is bad. It’s not a way of saying “this thing your experiencing is an unnatural disease so seek help to get rid of it.”

It’s a recognition. That grieving is this unique, terrible, all-encompassing space; and we really aren’t built to carry that alone

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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