17
Apr
22

Buried by Life

Three days in a dark, quiet cave? Sign. Me. Up.

I’m serious.

Not about the death part—I very, very much enjoy living. But three days in a dark, quiet cave, with nothing to do except lay still, order my thoughts, and sleep? That sounds heavenly. Although, I would probably prefer at least a few candles so I could read. And a stack of books. And, of course, a basket of delicious food delivered outside the cave three times—or more—a day. So maybe it’s not the perfect scenario—but it is awfully close.

Why, you ask, does spending three days in a dark, quiet cave sound so blissful? Well, let’s make a list. There are the personal factors, of course: the endless to-do list; the children that seem to need to talk, play, eat, and bathe all on a regular basis; the relationships that need tending; the house that needs cleaning. You get it. But the factors that contribute even more to my desire to hide in a dark, quiet cave for three days are the global ones. The climate crisis. The war in Ukraine. The pandemic that is now at that low-level annoyance stage that is sometimes even more frustrating than all-out panic. The political discord. The inflation rates and gas prices. The systemic racism I see and read about all the time. The ever-surfacing stories of women being treated as second-class citizens around the world and also here. The brokenness of our immigration system. Need I keep going? Just scroll the news—the actual news—for ten minutes, and it’s enough to make eyes grow big and hearts grow heavy. It’s enough to make anxiety rise and exhaustion right with it.

And I don’t think I’m alone. When I ask people how they are doing—when I ask you how you are doing—I rarely get anything remotely close to “awesome.” You are busy. You are stressed. But more importantly, you are burdened. Weighed down. Struggling under the load of all that you carry. You are dealing with any number of things in your own lives and families. And the incessant bad news available to us via our 24 hour news cycles just adds to the overwhelm. It’s exhausting. And things have been so bad for so long—that it’s hard to care anymore.

The clinical name for this is “compassion fatigue.” The term came into being after researchers discovered that doctors and nurses and therapists—people in helping professions—were likely to experience secondary trauma simply by hearing or seeing the first-hand trauma of others. In the last few years, though, a closely related term has come to the fore: “empathy fatigue.” Empathy fatigue is something we can all experience, regardless of our profession. Empathy fatigue is for everyone. (yay!)

Empathy fatigue kicks in when we have no more energy to care. Or when there are competing priorities of what we should care about or pay attention to in any given moment. Our empathy is a limited resource, and things like repeated stress, constant change, exposure to fear and loss—they all reduce our levels of empathy. We have experienced these things in abundance recently, so our stores of empathy are getting used up faster, due to greater demand.

When you see the news and instead of being outraged or moved to action you are ambivalent, thinking “meh…another wildfire,” or “meh, more people died in Ukraine,” or “meh, another month that was the warmest on record,” you might be experiencing empathy fatigue. It makes us say things like: “what’s the point?” or “Why should I bother?” or “I don’t have the energy for this right now” or “I’ve got enough on my plate.” And we’ve been saying these things a lot recently.

Which is why my initial statement still stands. Three days in a dark, quiet cave? Sign. Us. Up.

I wonder if Jesus felt some of this, too. Was three days in a dark, quiet cave some sort of sweet relief for him, also? Was death—exiting the world and its troubles—a welcome experience after all he had been through?

I’m not being glib, here. I am not taking death lightly or life lightly. But think about it. Jesus would have been exhausted from all the brokenness he encountered. He walked among people who were so sick they had been cast out from their communities. He ate with people who were so lonely because their profession or their upbringing meant that they weren’t good enough for polite society. He saw humans try to stone other humans. He saw humans take advantage of other humans and conspire against other humans. He experienced the oppression of the Roman Empire and the abuses that government imposed on its people. He was ridiculed and not believed. He was abandoned and betrayed. He was physically beaten and strung up on a cross to be executed. His empathy? It had to have been gone.

Three days in a dark, quiet cave must have appealed to Jesus on some level. Leaving humans to their own broken and painful devices must have appealed to Jesus in some way. Leaving the world to degrade into chaos and madness must have appealed to Jesus in some capacity. He must have thought, at some point, “alright, humans. I see you. I really, truly see you. And I’ve had enough. That will be all, thank you.” With all he had seen and experienced, Jesus could have stayed in the cave. Jesus could have continued to hide from it all. Jesus could have remained dead.

But he didn’t. Jesus didn’t stay in the cave. Jesus didn’t continue to hide from it all. Jesus didn’t remain dead. In spite of everything he had seen about the world and us as human in spite of his chronic empathy fatigue, in spite of several very good reasons to stay away forever—Jesus didn’t stay dead. He didn’t stay dead!

What a nonsensical thing! What an amazing thing! Jesus didn’t say “why should I bother?” or “what’s the point?” He stayed in that dark, quiet cave for three days and then he chose to return to life. To return to the world. To return to us.

In breaking free of the cave—in saying no to death—Jesus is victorious over ambivalence. His resurrection makes it very, very clear: we are worth it. The world is worth it. We are forgiven. And we are so unbelievably loved. Despite our brokenness and our ability to hurt one another and our instinct to be selfish and our poor treatment of the world around us—Jesus wants to be with us. Jesus chooses us. Jesus has hope for us.

When Jesus walks out of that cave, he has power and boldness and purpose. When Jesus walks out of that cave, he leaves behind the past and everything that has happened in it. He has been made new—and his new life changes everything. This is why he is alive, back from the dead—because he has news his disciples need to hear. He has news the world needs to hear. He needs to proclaim the confidence and love and forgiveness that is the power of resurrection. He needs to make it known that his death and new life provide hope and joy and assures that death is not the end. Life, forever, and life, abundant—that is the end. Jesus needs to proclaim this, because we need to hear it.

When Jesus walks out of that cave with power and boldness and purpose it should not be lost on us that he does so only after spending time away. After escaping the chaos and experiencing renewal. He is only able to shed his old attitudes and ambivalences—to become a new creation—because he was restored through quiet and rest. We, too, need to escape the chaos of this world from time to time. We, too, need to experience renewal and give ourselves the time and space to shed our attitudes and ambivalences. To become a new creation. To be restored through quiet and rest.

But we can’t stay there. We can’t let our empathy fatigue win. We can’t let the burden of the world and the brokenness of humanity win. Jesus could have stayed in his dark, quiet cave. He could have stayed dead. But he didn’t. And we can’t either. There is too much at stake.

When the realities of life feel like they are burying you, when the overwhelm is too much and ambivalence is your primary emotion, go spend three days in a dark, quiet cave.

And then, empowered by the same boldness as Jesus, follow him and walk out of that cave, confident in your purpose: to join with the living Christ in proclaiming the life changing news of the resurrection our world needs so badly to hear:

that we are worth it.

That the world is worth it.

That we are forgiven.

That we can start again.

That all is not lost.

That we—and all people—are so unbelievably loved.

That there is hope and joy, life forever and life abundant, for all.

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03
Feb
22

Encanto: The Movie We All Need

If you haven’t yet seen Disney’s latest movie, Encanto, stop reading this right now, and go watch it. Seriously. It’s not just for kids. It’s for you, too. I’ll wait…

…Okay. All done? WASN’T IT AMAZING?

I could write pages and pages on this movie, and how it tackles such important, yet difficult topics. The film—about a magical family in which every member (but one) has an extraordinary gift they use to support one another and the broader community—provides opportunities to explore generational trauma, family systems, the sickness of family secrets, the pressure to be perfect, the expectation to achieve, the importance of community, and so much more. The fact that the film-makers were able to wrap all of these powerful themes up in a colorful, ridiculously-catchy animated musical is impressive, to say the least.  

Encanto will wow you with its diversity and inclusion. It will surprise you with its real-life backdrop: the displacement and conflict experienced by many in Columbia. It will fuel your dance parties with its clever and rhythmic music. But it will stick with you for reasons beyond these. It will stick with you because you will recognize yourself in its characters and their struggles. It will stick with you because it gets at one of the most fundamental problems in our culture today.

This movie will stick with you because it will remind you that we live in a world where we are constantly—and only—measured by what we can achieve and what we can produce and what we can create and what we can provide. It will stick with you because it will hold up a mirror to your own insecurities and anxieties: who am I if I can’t support my family? Who am I if I don’t make the soccer team? Who am I if I don’t get a great job right out of college? Who am I if I am not what others want me, or see me, to be?

Throughout the film, members of this magical family wrestle with the gifts they have been given, and what might happen if they can no longer do what they’ve always done, or if they simply choose not to. Louisa, who has been given the gift of incredible strength, wonders “I’m pretty sure I’m worthless/if I can’t be of service…who am I if I can’t run with the ball?…who am I if I can’t carry it all?” She allows herself to dream, just for a moment, about a life in which she did not have to be so strong. She sings “but wait/if I could shake/the crushing weight/of expectations would that free some room up for joy/or relaxation/or simple pleasure?” Isabela, who is perfect in every way, says “I make perfect/practiced poses/so much hides/behind my smile…what could I do/if I just knew/it didn’t need to be perfect?/it just needed to be?/And they’d let me be?”

These characters and their songs stick with us because we know how this is. We know what it feels like to be of value only because of how we can help, or what we can do. We know what it is to believe we need to be perfect in order to exist because that’s the only way we are worth it. We know what it is to be burdened and overwhelmed by the mounting expectations others have for us.

Encanto is a movie for our time—the perfect movie for our time—because it shines a light on this pervasive way we view ourselves, and how we fear others view us, too.

But it is making us sick. The constant pressure, the constant anxiety, the constant need to make our lives look perfect—it is making us sick. The American Academy of Pediatrics has declared a national emergency surrounding children’s mental health. And adults are not exempt, not by any means, as 19% of American adults live with a mental illness of some kind.

We have created a society in which doing is more valuable than being, achieving is the primary purpose of life, curating social media to give the illusion of perfection is the norm, and being useful is how we prove our worth. It is madness. It has to stop.

If only there was something we could offer this world, this society, this cultural norm. If only there was an alternative, something we could provide instead of the pressures and anxieties that make us sick.

Oh wait. We have the very thing. We have a God who looks at us and says “it doesn’t matter what you produce, I love you.” We have a God who looks at us and says “you are not perfect, so don’t pretend to be.” We have a God who looks at us and says “I have created you—you are fearfully and wonderfully made—and that is enough.”

We have a message the world needs to hear: that we have worth and value for no other reason than that God created us and loves us. That we have worth and value simply because we exist.

Encanto does a great job of communicating this message. But we shouldn’t need Disney to share such an important truth. As the church, we should be sharing this life-changing, utterly-transforming reality: you are valuable because God created you and loves you. Life is not about what you can produce, but about who you are. And who you are is this: beloved child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, God’s masterpiece. Full stop.  

11
Jan
22

Home: An Acquired Taste

I moved around a lot as a kid. You know this, if you know me—or if you’ve been reading my blog as consistently as I’ve been writing it (which is to say, not very!). By the time I entered 6th grade I had lived in 4 states, one of them twice. The longest I had spent in any one state for a consecutive stretch was 5 years. As I said: I moved around a lot as a kid.

But that ended the summer before I entered 6th grade, when my family moved to a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, and—blessedly—stayed there until I graduated high school. My “how long can I live in one place?” record was broken! St. Louis was officially the place that felt like home. I spent 7 years there, during the most formative time of my young life. It was home, and as far as I was concerned, always could be.

Except, it wouldn’t be. I graduated high school, and it was time for my family to move again.

And this move was worse than all the others. This move was more complicated than all the others. This move sucked, big time.

This move was the worst because:

  1. Our house went on the market it in the early summer following my high school graduation, and it sold quickly, which meant that we had to spend the last month of summer living in a Residence Inn. I repeat: we had to live in a hotel for a month! And…
  2. It coincided, directly, with my departure for college.

Now, you might be thinking: “Ashley, if it coincided with your departure for college, why was it so bad? You were moving anyway, creating a new life anyway, and had a lot of exciting things to look forward to! That doesn’t sound too terrible.”

You’re right. It doesn’t sound too terrible when put that way. But think about it this way: you are about to start a new, exciting, and also anxiety-producing chapter of your life—going off to college. You are pulling up your roots and starting over in a new town, in a new state, where you know no one. It’s a big change. One that requires a sturdy safety net. You can’t do it without one. When things get overwhelming, or too new too fast, you can always go home for a weekend. You can always go back to the place you love. You can always meet up with your friends—the people who know you and share history and memory—over breaks and weekends. You can always go home, making the new life you’re creating at college a little more bearable. Home is the safety net you need as you start this new journey.

And you have no home.

So yeah…that makes it hard.

If you want to go home for a weekend, you have to MapQuest directions, because you’ve never been there before. If you want to go home for a weekend, you’ll have to unpack first, because your stuff is all in boxes. If you want to go home for a weekend, you better enjoy hanging out with your parents, because they are literally the only people you know.

Having my family move at the exact time I started college was the worst because it felt like I had no home. Iowa City (which, for the record, is amazing) wasn’t home, because I lived in 200 square feet with a stranger and only for 9 months out of the year. Chicago (where my parents moved) wasn’t home, because I didn’t know anyone and had never actually lived in the house my family had there. St. Louis wasn’t home, because I no longer had an actual home there. I was an 18-year-old kid, in the midst of one of the biggest transitions of my life, with nothing stable to cling to. Nothing familiar to ground me. I had pulled up all my roots, but hadn’t found a place to re-plant them. It was hard. So hard.

This season of over-lapping transitions meant that I spent years thinking about what it means to call a place “home.” It meant that I spent years longing for this idea—real or not—of home. Of a place to belong. Of a shelter to protect me. Of a community to hold shared memories. Of a feeling or sensation of contentment. Of the ability to be truly known.

The concept of home was so muddled and confused for me for so long, that even while I longed for it, I spent years never staying in one place long enough to create it. To test the concept of home and see if it held. I took a job in a different city each summer during college, studied abroad for a semester, and didn’t really begin re-potting my roots until I moved to Minnesota for Seminary.

And yet, home is such a vital need, in every way you might define it. We need to feel protected and sheltered. We need a community to surround us and uphold us. We need a history and a connection to earth and to place. We need to feel content and loved and truly known. Home does all of these things. Home is all of these things. And these things are central to our ability to thrive. A sense of home is central to our ability to thrive.

In these conflicted, transient years of my life when it felt like I had no home, I was forced to make my home in God. Well, forced probably isn’t the right word. I chose to make my home in God—the one never-changing thing in my life. The place where I felt loved and known and safe and connected. I made my home there, in the loving arms of God, because I didn’t know where else to make it. Psalm 91 says:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
    who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
 will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
    my God, in whom I trust.”

This Psalm gives us beautiful imagery for God: God as refuge—God as fortress—God as shelter—God as shadow—God as home.

This life is transient and ever-changing. We move and move and move again. Or even if we stay in one place, the people and things around us move and change. Friends, family, jobs, health. It is hard to keep up, hard to know where you belong, hard to find a community that knows you deeply, hard to feel a sense of contentment. All of these things—everything that makes up this concept of home—are hard to hold on to in a world that moves as fast as ours.

But when our roots are planted deeply in the shelter of God, when we dwell in the cool shadow of God’s grace, when we find our belonging and contentment in the refuge of God’s love…

We are home.  

17
Jun
21

An Acquired Taste: Growing up in Church

A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from an old friend. He was someone I knew from my church youth group—someone I haven’t seen for at least ten years, probably more. The message was a picture of a cup of ice cream. Well, actually it was a cup of frozen custard, from the custard shop in St. Louis, MO, where I worked as a teenager. The image was of a perfect scoop of vanilla custard, covered in rainbow sprinkles, nestled in a bright yellow cup. Along with the image, he said, “remember that time…?”.

“Remember that time.” With those three words, he transported me back to my adolescent years, back to St. Louis, back to youth group, and back to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church—the faith community that nurtured me and raised me and provided more “remember that time” moments than I can list.

You might remember that my family moved a lot when I was a kid. We moved for my dad’s job, but my mom was always the CMO: the Chief Moving Officer. Each time we moved—before we even arrived in our new city—my mom had scoped out two things: the schools and the churches. Those were her two biggest priorities for her family when relocating. Good schools and vibrant churches.

When we moved to St. Louis, she nailed it. Not only were the schools my sister and I attended excellent academic institutions with fantastic music programs, but the church we joined was phenomenal. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, (no church is—it’s run by humans, after all!) but it was formative for me in a way that no other community has ever been.

Fast forward fifteenish years, and I am a pastor in a congregation, responsible for the oversight of the ministry to families and to youth. In fact, I had 8 kids at my house last night for a bonfire and a game of Balderdash. I want, for my kids, what I had. So I work hard to facilitate that. I truly believe, given my own experience and my pastoral training, that congregations are poised to provide young people with important, unique opportunities that can’t be had at school, or with other friends, or through other clubs. Churches can meet the needs of students in a way that nothing else can—but it’s often the last place we look. Here are six things my congregation provided me as a teenager, and six things I hope my congregation, today, provides for it’s teens:

  1. Friends. So. Many. Friends. And not just casual acquaintances. I am talking good—even best—friends. Friends that show up at your house to surprise you on your 16th birthday with balloons and cake and diet coke (one of your favorite things). Friends that drive through the frozen custard shop where you work just because they know you are working and want to see you when they get to the window. Friends who become family. Seriously. Through church, my family met three other families with kids similarly aged, and we started celebrating holidays together. This continued until we started getting married, with families of our own, and it got too complicated. Growing up in a faith community connected me to my tribe—those people who had my back, challenged me to grow, and always made me laugh.
  2. Unique experiences. I traveled with my church a lot. We went to summer camp, and on winter retreats. We traveled to West Virginia, Minnesota, Michigan, and Oklahoma for week-long mission trips, repairing and repainting homes for those in need. We spent a week in Atlanta, Georgia for the ELCA’s National Youth Gathering, hanging out with 30,000 other youth and exploring the city. We traveled to Ecuador and Africa, coming alongside local organizations to help build needed facilities for the community. If it weren’t for my congregation, I wouldn’t have gone white water rafting, spent dozens of nights sleeping on an air mattress, visited an Atlanta Emergency Room (there’s a story there!), gone on safari, or climbed to the highest turret of a huge cathedral. I have seen the diversity of the world because of experiences my church gave me.
  3. A place to talk about tough stuff. Being a teenager is hard, and the world is even harder. Put them together, and those years can be a doozey. But I always had a safe place to talk through the really difficult parts of life. When a kid from one of our schools committed suicide, we talked about it. When it was election season, we talked about it. When we were wrestling with our faith, we talked about it. When we had questions about how science and the Bible hold together, we talked about it. When we were frustrated with our parents, we talked about it. When we didn’t know what the future would hold, we talked about it. We had safe, reliable people and places with whom and where we could talk about anything and everything.
  4. A place to explore my passions and gifts. Growing up in the church gave me a place to try new things, and still be loved when I failed (or sounded bad on my French Horn). It provided leadership opportunities that I wouldn’t have had in other places. I led a small group of my peers that met a few times each month. I planned aa 30 Hour Famine retreat with the help of my youth minister, and discovered my dual loves of event planning and social justice. I led worship and even preached my first sermon as a high school senior. I returned to my home church as a college student trying to discern how God was calling me, and they created an internship so that I could try on being a pastor for a summer. The space to try these things, and the encouragement, affirmation, and coaching that came with them helped me to develop a sense of self. It helped me to hone my skills and spark my passions.  
  5. Belonging. In my faith community, I was known. Really, truly known. Not just by my friends, who knew that I got grumpy when tired and cried when I laughed, but by others, too. I had a handful of adults— probably two handfuls, actually! —that knew me well enough to be safe places and to speak truth into my life. These relationships were so critical for me, as they are for all kids. Kids need around 5 adults who aren’t their parents to be active participants in their lives for optimum flourishing. I had way more than that. The families I mentioned above, who we celebrated holidays with? Each time we gathered, they would call kids to the grown-up table one by one, and pester us with questions about our lives. We hated it at the time, but looking back—it was awesome. Because they knew us well enough to ask about specific things in our lives: boyfriends or girlfriends, band or lacrosse or our jobs. And more importantly, they wanted to know about us. They wanted to be invested, to understand. The adults in my life growing up—the adults in my life because of church—made knowing me a priority. They checked in, questioned, teased, hugged, and encouraged. They provided a safe, stable structure I could count on.
  6. A narrative to root my life. Perhaps most importantly, growing up in the church provided me with a narrative in which I could root my life. A story I could place myself in that provided meaning and hope and purpose and value and love. A story that was better—and truer—than the other stories around me: the stories of popularity and greed and consumerism and beauty and teenage angst. The stories of violence and hatred and vengeance and resentment. The story of Jesus is the better, more fulfilling story, and it has guided my life since it was first introduced to me. There is no denying: we all exist in stories. They are the water we swim in. They shape us and mold us. Growing up in the church allowed me to swim in the waters of forgiveness and love, mercy and justice, equity and equality, hope and joy. This was the story I knew—the one I was taught to love—and it is the story I have built my life in and around.

I’m sure there are more things that growing up in a faith community and participating in a congregation taught me or provided for me. But these are the most important ones. These are the reasons why it is important for you, today, to participate in a faith community. These are the reasons why it is important to encourage your kids—or force them!—to do the same. To find a community of people who knows you and values you, to get opportunities to serve others and see the world from a different perspective, to learn about and hone your values and gifts, and to sink deeply into the story of Jesus—a story that will change your life.

So next time your kid doesn’t want to come to church? Share these reasons why they should. Better yet? Share your own reasons. Why is it important for you to participate in a church? Why do you want them to do the same?

If you can’t come up with anything else, (and if you really can’t, call me—I will help!) at least  tell them this: “I want you to go to church so that someday you can say these three little words: “Remember that time…?”.

08
Apr
21

An Acquired Taste: Childhood

Childhood is a magical time of becoming. A magical time when we are free to explore and learn and grow. A magical time when friends are formed instantly and everything can be turned into a game and mistakes may have consequences, but not life-altering ones. A magical time when whimsy is a gift to be celebrated, coloring outside the lines is commendable, and we can talk to ourselves for hours without being looked at askance. Childhood is a magical time of becoming, when we are simply raw ingredients just waiting to be turned into something delicious, each experience we have and person we meet adding to our flavor profile and the “finished” product.  

As a fully-functioning adult (mostly), I know this to be true. As a parent of young kids (several of them), I know this to be true. As someone who reads books on development and brains and trauma for fun (I’m so cool), I know this to be true. Our experiences in childhood shape us and mold us and prepare us for all that is to come.

Our formative childhood experiences teach us things like resiliency (or not), problem-solving (or not), empathy (or not), and much more (or not). And even more so than the formative experiences, the formative people of our childhood impact who we will become. It is from the people around us—our parents, mostly, but also siblings and friends and other family—that we learn how to manage our emotions, process our feelings, cope with hard things, and discern our role(s) in the systems around us. No pressure, parents!

But seriously. If you are an adult and you are reading this, you are the product of your childhood. If you are an adult and you are reading this, your childhood is, in some way, the product of your parent’s childhood. It takes A LOT of intentionality—or many years of therapy!—to sort through all of this. It takes honesty and time to look back at your childhood, and to look at your parents, and see how all of it impacted and shaped your own becoming. But it did. It absolutely did.

I’m living proof.

For all intents and purposes, my childhood was blissful and privileged. I grew up in upper-class neighborhoods, attended outstanding schools, went on more than one vacation each year, and had a million other opportunities afforded to me. I lived on quiet streets or cul-de-sacs where I was safe to ride my bike until it got dark, I always had friends to be silly with, and I had the chance to try my hand at literally every sport or activity in order to figure out what I was truly good at. Seriously. EVERY. ONE. I took figure skating lessons and ballet lessons and did soccer and basketball and baseball and took piano lessons and started playing in band in 5th grade and was a girl scout and in the yearbook club and active in my church and oh-my-gosh-I’m-exhausted-just-thinking-about-it-all. Eventually, of course, I dropped almost all of these activities until my life mostly revolved around music and church. By the time I graduated high school, I was well-traveled, well-educated, and had the life experience my parent’s economic status could provide me. I had incredible opportunities, good friends, an exciting education, and two parents who loved me. Sounds pretty sweet, right?

It was. I’m not here to deny that. But it wasn’t all sweet. Almost nothing ever is.

In between all those activities and vacations, we moved a lot. By the time I was in 6th grade, we had moved 5 times to 4 different states. Moving as a kid sucks. You have no control over the situation, and no say in where you are going or when. My sister and I would be told that we needed to have a “family meeting,” and after a few of those we knew the drill—at the end of the school year, we’d be moving. Saying goodbye to everyone and everything we loved and starting from scratch. Or mostly.

Moving so much shaped me in some pretty significant ways. I learned to make new friends quickly. I learned to “bloom where I’m planted.” I learned that external circumstances can change, but you can still feel loved and safe. I learned what it feels like to be the new kid, so I learned to welcome other new kids. Moving so often as a kid has given me a lot of fodder for job interviews and college essays—and it has shaped me undeniably. In good ways, for sure (see above). But in not-so-great-ways, too.

The problem with learning to bloom where you’re planted is that you never establish roots. You don’t develop long-term connections to a place or long-term relationships with people. Your friends get allocated by location, none of them truly carrying over from place to place. You put up walls and protections and always put your best foot forward, because you never know when the next family meeting is coming, and maybe if people don’t know the real, true, vulnerable you, it won’t be so hard to leave them.

So no, my childhood wasn’t all sweet. Overwhelmingly so, absolutely. But not entirely. It was sour, too—each move like biting into a WARHEADS candy. Remember those?

As an adult, looking back, it’s interesting to wonder who I would have been if we hadn’t moved so often. Who would I have been if we had stayed in California, where I was born? Who would I have been if my best friends in 1st grade were still my best friends in 7th grade and still my best friends now? Who would I have been if my dad (whom I love) wasn’t so hell-bent on providing for his family in a way his father had never been capable of, and thus was singly focused on climbing the corporate ladder which led to move after move after move? What would my childhood have been like if my dad had adequately come to grips or processed his own?

We’ll never know. Those are all alternative universes I have no access to. What I do know is this: I am who I am because of my sweet and sour childhood. I am who I am because of my sweet and sour childhood that was, in part, driven by my own father’s very, very sour childhood. I told you—parents are so freaking important to a child’s development. The decisions parents make, and their motivations for making them, all contribute to who their child will become. (As a parent, this terrifies me and makes me pee my pants a little just thinking about it.)

Jesus thought childhood—those formative years of becoming—were important. Jesus thought they were so important that he once said “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[1]

There are a lot of ways to interpret this, but maybe Jesus meant to encourage us to return to that free, true, whimsical, coloring-outside-the-lines version of ourselves. That version that hasn’t been coopted by someone else’s expectations or goals or dreams or experience. That version where there are only raw ingredients—no final product in sight. If we could do that—if we could shake off the cultural norms and the parental expectations and the coping skills that served us for a time but no longer do—maybe entering the kingdom of heaven would be easier. We’d have fewer walls built up, fewer pre-conceived notions, more wonder, more joy. We’d be excited to see what the kingdom can offer us—this unending, divine playground of delight—instead of concerned about all the baggage we might have to leave behind.

What where the big experiences of your childhood that shaped you into who you are now? What connections can you make between your parents’ lives and your own—how did their hopes and dreams and fears spill over onto you, shaping your becoming? What of your adult self—those learned behaviors or unrealistic expectations or precisely built walls—might Jesus be asking you to set aside in order to fully delight in, and enter, the kingdom of God?

It’s worth thinking about.

And trust me—thinking is cheaper than therapy.


[1] Matthew 18:3

22
Feb
21

An Acquired Taste

Do you remember, when you were a kid, learning about the five senses? And when it came to learning about our sense of taste, do you remember the taste map? A picture of the human tongue, with different portions segmented out and labeled with the kind of taste that particular section was capable of discerning? Each part of the tongue, neatly labeled with a taste sensation: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.  It looked something like this:

You’ll see that each part of the tongue has been given a flavor, or taste, it is able to detect. So, when you eat that delicious piece of cake, your “sweet” section is activating with delight. When you have that glass of poorly made, oh-so-sour lemonade, your “sour” receptors ignite and your lips purse. The cup of black coffee you choke down because the conference doesn’t have any yummy creamers makes the bitter section come to life. The residue from your favorite potato chips—the salt on your fingers you satisfactorily lick? The tip of your tongue recognizes the goodness and begs for more. And the steaming hot bowl of ramen that is so warm and savory and delicious—that’s the center of your tongue identifying umami. 

It’s a nice visual. It’s neat. It’s tidy. It’s organized. Everything is compartmentalized, not a sensation or flavor or taste is out of place. It’s compelling.

And it is totally wrong.

Yep, what you learned about your tongue and how it recognizes taste is totally wrong. It turns out that your tongue and, well, almost everything—isn’t quite as neat and tidy and compartmentalized as you thought. It’s much more complex.

Scientists now know that “all regions of the tongue that detect taste respond to all five taste qualities.”[i] There isn’t one section for sweet and one for sour. The same taste receptors pick up sweet notes AND sour notes. There isn’t one section for salty and one for bitter. The same taste receptors pick up salty notes AND bitter notes. It’s all more messy, complicated, and intertwined than we’ve been led to believe.

Isn’t that just the way with life? It’s so much more messy, complicated, and intertwined than we’ve been led to believe?

As I reflect on my own life, it’s impossible to section it off into good moments and bad moments, sweet moments and sour moments. My moments of joy find grief lurking just around the corner, and my sorrow is always accompanied by hope. Life is complicated like that. Life is messy like that.

But we rarely, if ever, talk about it.

That ends now. For me, at least.

In the last decade of my life, I have experienced so much of what it has to offer: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami. Beautiful, painful, heartbreaking, devastating, wonderful.

I know what it is to live with someone in addiction. I know what it is to feel like your body is betraying you. I know what it is to be wandering in the wilderness, wondering what is next for you and your life and your career. I know what it’s like to be divorced and to be an adult child of divorce. I know what it’s like to find love, have it all burn to the ground, and then find love again. I know what it’s like to single-parent and step-parent and oh-my-god-I-hope-this-works-parent. Through it all, I have become more resilient, more hopeful, and more empathetic, which is why it’s time to tell my story, a bite at a time. Because maybe, through telling my story, you will be able to give voice to your own.

It turns out that life is more like our tongue than we might care to admit: the same taste receptors picking up a wide variety of flavors. Life is not neat and tidy. Life cannot be categorized as good or bad, ugly or beautiful, easy or hard. Life is much more complex than that. Life is an acquired taste.   


[i] https://www.brainfacts.org/thinking-sensing-and-behaving/taste/2018/do-different-parts-of-the-tongue-taste-different-things-010319

30
Apr
20

Exhaustion

My daughter, Emery, turned 3 on Monday. As part of the celebration, we took a picture together in our matching Frozen-themed tee-shirts. It was probably the first picture taken of me since my birthday, in early March–just before the world as we knew it ended. Upon seeing the picture, I turned to my husband and said, “is this what I look like now?” And what I heard him say in response, which was probably much kinder in reality(!), was this: “Tired? Yes.”

I look tired. My eyes don’t open as wide as they did, there are dark circles under them, and if I’m honest–a little sparkle gone from within them. I look tired. Because I am.

I am exhausted. And it’s not because I’m doing too much–I honestly don’t think that I am. It’s just that everything–EVERYTHING–about living in a global pandemic requires more energy, demands more thought and intentionality, and carries with it emotions that need acknowledging and managing. And all of that is exhausting.

Adapting to new technologies at work is exhausting. Coming up with creative idea after creative idea is exhausting. Re-writing almost everything is exhausting. Constantly thinking about how others are faring is exhausting. Deciding to postpone or cancel events, then making all the arrangements for postponing or cancelling events, and then communicating the postponement or cancellation of events is exhausting. I’m doing my job, but I’m having to do it in new ways, which requires a lot more energy than just doing things as I had originally planned. And the mental and emotional weight of making decisions about summer trips or thinking about how we can begin gathering again when it is safe to do so–it’s burdensome. Everything is just a little harder. Everything requires just a little more thought. And all of that is exhausting.

Managing new routines at home is exhausting. Even if it is going smoothly, and kids are behaving, they aren’t physically at school, which is different. Now my husband and I, instead of just thinking about what we need to accomplish in a given day, are forced to be thinking about what the kids need to accomplish, as well. Luckily, my partner is incredible and manages most of this–but their school work is still something on my mind in a way it wasn’t when they were able to attend school. I worry more about too much screen time and not enough outside time, and the constant checking in (did you do your reading? did you do your math? did you email your teacher for attendance?) is draining. It is exhausting. I am not even bearing the brunt of this, and I feel it acutely.

Running errands is exhausting. It used to be that you would just go where you needed when you needed. But now, the decision to go to the grocery store requires 900 other decisions: do we need enough to warrant a trip? which store will have the most items in stock? do I wear a mask, even though it isn’t mandatory? The decision-making is exhausting. Then, once in the grocery store, I put my head down and go as fast as I can. I try to steer clear of other people. I try to pay attention to the directional signs on the floor. I try to not go in for tomatoes when someone else is rifling through them. I try not to touch my face. I try to stay 6 feet away. It’s exhausting! The mental games we are playing and the physical decisions we are making are exhausting.

Figuring out how to care for myself is exhausting. My moods change regularly from contentment to despair to happiness to discouragement to joy to sadness. Checking in with myself, discerning how I am feeling and why, and then communicating that to the people around me is exhausting (for me and for them!). Then, trying to decide how I am going to take care of myself? It feels like an exercise in futility. Typically, in order to unwind and take some time for myself, I would get a pedicure or a massage. I would go to the gym or out with friends. I would enjoy a quiet day at home, all by myself. These things are simply not accessible right now. So, in order to take care of myself, I have to think harder and make more decisions, all while juggling 5000 emotions. It’s exhausting.

So yes. I’m exhausted. Aren’t we all?

 

Today, I’m cutting that lady in the picture (me!) some slack. And I encourage you to do the same. Cut yourselves some slack. Give yourself some grace. Never before have we had to endure so many changes to our lives so rapidly. Never before have simple tasks become minefields that require expert navigation. Never before have such mundane things arrived with such emotional strain. Everything–every single thing you do–is embedded in this global crisis and the fear that comes with it. Which means everything–every single thing you do–is harder.

Be kind to yourselves. And be kind to others. We are all figuring this out, and we all have different ways of coping. It is not easy. None of it is. Which is why it is so exhausting. Everything is different, everything is harder, everything requires more decision-making and intentionality, and everything is heavy laden with emotion. So take a deep breath. And acknowledge the difficulty. Acknowledge the exhaustion. And know that it is okay. There is nothing wrong with you. You are not defective. It is real.

 

And above all, trust that this will pass. We don’t know when and we don’t know how, but it will. The sparkle will return to our eyes. The bags underneath will slowly fade. And once again, we’ll recognize the person staring back at us in the photograph.

 

 

16
Mar
20

Pandemic

**Please note that I am taking all suggested precautions as regards Covid-19. I am taking the virus seriously. I can do that and still have strong feelings about it all, which is the purpose of this post.**

 

I am mad. And I am sad. And I am worried. Perhaps you are, too.

You probably have your own reasons. But here are mine. Perhaps they will resonate with you.

 

I am mad because there are things I have been working really hard on, at work and at home, that will not be coming to fruition. That feels like time and energy wasted, which really pisses me off.

I am sad because I have a calendar full of concerts and dinner reservations and other exciting events that are being postponed or canceled outright. With each thing being taken off my calendar, I feel more and more hopeless.

I am worried that things will never return to normal. That three weeks will turn into six, will turn into eight, will turn into twelve. I can do just about anything for two weeks—but beyond that?

 

I am mad because I sense that we are confusing social distancing with social isolation. I am a relational being and need to be in connection with others. Internet-only connection is a needed stand-in for large, unsafe gatherings, but not sufficient for me. As an extrovert, this is painful.

I am sad that the overwhelming sense of uncertainty is uprooting my sense of normalcy.

I am worried that businesses and restaurants and churches, even—any place that depends on the generosity of others—will be faced with closures or staff reductions. I am worried for people’s livelihood and the long-term effects of all that is happening. Things might be sustainable as is for a few weeks, but at some point, they will no longer be.

 

I am mad because my favorite part of my job is the people and the relationships I get to foster and form. I didn’t become a pastor to sit at my desk and not talk to anyone all day!

I am sad because our long-awaited, much-anticipated honeymoon to Italy is being jeopardized.

I am worried that we will forget our sense of connectedness and our deep need of one another.

 

I am mad that I can go to Target or Hy-Vee, and that I receive countless emails each day from businesses about how they are taking extra precautions to clean their stores (so please—keep coming in!) and yet I can’t worship in my faith community. I understand, yes, that the issue is large gatherings and I think that it is important to follow the guidelines given by the CDC, but it still makes me feel icky.

I am sad that churches—the very place where support and community and lament and hope are practiced so well—are struggling to discern how to continue providing these necessary things while still being safe and hygienic.

I am worried that we have forgotten that there is an element of risk in all human relationships. That there is an element of risk in all of life. That to be in relationships and community is to be vulnerable. That to be human is to be vulnerable.

 

I am mad because the myth that our world is a safe place has been debunked. Ignorance is bliss, and I like thinking that as I go about my life, my normal, regular life, I am safe. I like thinking that there are not dangers everywhere, that there are not risks everywhere. I like thinking that I can control my environment and so much more. And all of that has been stripped away.

I am sad that life—as I want to live it—has been cut off to me. My choices are being taken away (more and more each day, it seems), and that is demoralizing.

I am worried that somehow, even when it is safe to resume normal activities and re-engage with life fully, we won’t. We will continue cocooning and burrowing out of fear or out of habit. That instead of having a massive dinner party where food and drinks are shared abundantly at the end of all of this, we will continue to isolate. That this will become our new normal. That we will say “well, it worked while we were dealing with coronavirus—it could keep working!’ instead of saying “it was a needed change, but let’s get back to community. To connection. To life.”

 

 

I am mad. I am sad. I am worried. And it’s important to give voice to these feelings. It is important to have a safe space to grieve what is being lost and all that is changing. It is vital that we are able to share what we think and how we feel.

I am, with my body, doing all of the safe things. I am washing my hands more. I am trying not to touch my face. I am staying away from vulnerable populations and large group gatherings. But just because I am doing all the right things, doesn’t mean I am happy about it. And that’s okay.

Which means it’s okay for you, too. It’s okay for you to voice your frustration and your anger and your grief. It’s okay for you to share your worries and concerns. It’s more than okay—it’s necessary.

 

These are rapidly changing and very strange times. It is okay to name and claim that. There will be time for hope and joy and love and gratitude and silver linings in the days and weeks to come, I have no doubt. I will do my best to provide them here.

But for now…this sucks. And that is okay to name. So find someone who can handle hearing your feelings, and share them. Know that “I volunteer as tribute,”[i] if there isn’t another human you can turn to.

At the very least, share your feelings with God. God can handle your anger, your pain, your frustration, your worry, and your sadness.

Seriously. Share them. You’ll feel better.

 

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” –Jesus, in Matthew 11:28

 

 

[i] A Hunger Games reference!

27
Feb
20

This One

This day.
This one.

This one, which starts with tosses and turns and the too-soon garbled radio voices
telling me to get up
get out
get on with it

This one, which delivers coffee with cream, enjoyed while my hair still drips
fresh out of the shower.
A clean start
A moment to myself

This one, where children squabble and rant and cry
displeased by an outfit, a meal, life, itself, it seems
I wipe tears and calm down
I close my eyes and try to breathe

This one, full of meetings and email and work that seems meaningful at the time
But is it?
Does any of it matter?

This one, which gathers up the family around an evening meal—
connection after the day-long diaspora.
Food shared for our bodies
nourishment for so much more

This one, with dishes piled high, laundry that needs to be sorted
litter boxes to clean and floors to sweep
Everything is spotless for a moment
exactly one moment

This one, which ends on a comfortable sofa with a good book, curled with a loving partner
quiet after a day of ceaseless noise
of divided attention.
Finally, there is peace
Finally, there is rest

This day, with its ordinary stressors and typical joys
its chaos and chores, its demands and disasters,
its moments of beauty and love—

This day
is one You have made
This one.

I will rejoice and be glad

05
Aug
19

Burnout

The World Health Organization has added “Burnout” to it’s compendium of illnesses that can be diagnosed by a medical professional.¹ This means that, while the sensation of “Burnout” has long existed, it is finally being recognized for the debilitating thing that it is. For the first time, you could see your doctor and be formally diagnosed with “Burnout.” Your stress, exhaustion, and apathy would be noted. The sensation that there is no more of you left to give away would be taken into consideration. The reality that your schedule is running your life and taking you away from other, more life-giving obligations or opportunities would be taken seriously. And perhaps all of it would lead your doctor to say…”Burnout.”

 

This summer, I find myself dangerously close to this diagnosis. And while I haven’t–and won’t–see my doctor about it, I know myself well enough to know that I am close to the edge. That a strong breeze or one more commitment might just push me over.

 

I’m trying to avoid that outcome.

 

But it’s hard.

 

I knew all along that this summer was going to be a busy one–that between my work commitments and selling a home and buying a home and moving and combining households and creating a new life and finding a new rhythm and figuring out a new normal I would be exhausted. But I didn’t think it would feel like this.

I kept assuming that in just a few more days, or in another couple of weeks, life would slow down. That things would ease up. That the calendar would magically clear off. But that wasn’t true for June. And it wasn’t true for July. There have been late-night council meetings and lingering pre-marital counseling sessions to facilitate. There has been a mission trip to lead. There have been ministry team nights and Vacation Bible School evenings. All of which are good, useful, important things. All of it. It’s my job, and I LOVE my job. There have also been swim lessons and baseball games and out-of-town guests and out-of-town trips and trivia nights and weddings and parades and concerts. All of which are fun, useful, important things. All of it. It’s my life, and I LOVE my life. But this summer, for whatever reason, the two together–work and life–feels like too much. The two together–work and life–has bred resentment and anxiety and stress and exhaustion and the deep desire to have just a single night with nothing happening. To have just a single day with nothing on the calendar. A brilliant, blank square full of…nothing.

It’s burnout. Or it’s awfully close.

 

And what I hate most is that I thought I was better than that. I thought I knew how to manage my time and schedule my life better than that. I’m the girl who has studied Sabbath and believes deeply in it as a Spiritual Discipline. I’m the girl who has a hand-crafted creed about time hanging on my bulletin board to remind me that I’m the girl who believes time is a gift and God wants us to say “yes” to things and to say “no” to things and to strike a healthy, life-giving balance between the two. I’m the girl who protects her family time because it often feels limited and crunched. I’m the girl who doesn’t keep work e-mail on her phone and takes her day off each week. I’m better than burnout.

 

But it turns out I’m not. This summer, I have not managed my time and scheduled my life well. I have said “yes” to too many things and “no” to too few. I have been going, going, going, my life the essence of this tweet I saw recently @amywhodigital — “Adulthood is just saying ‘if I can just get through this week’ over and over again until you die.”²

 

I don’t want to live this way. I don’t want to have such an over-crowded calendar that I start resenting the things and people I love. I don’t want to give away so much of myself that I have nothing to give the people I love most except for leftovers. I don’t want to mark my life, week by week, just trying to “get through.” I don’t want to wake up exhausted and go to bed exhausted and drink 19 cups of coffee in between. I don’t want to be snappy and sassy, which I can be when I’m overwhelmed. I don’t want, as Richard Beck puts it, to be “unable to carry the burden of love.”³ This is what he means by that: “Love asks us to share–our time, energy, and stuff–and when we feel like we don’t have enough–enough time, energy, or money to pay our own bills let alone anyone else’s–we struggle to share freely, joyfully, and sacrificially.”³

 

I want to share freely, joyfully, and sacrificially–at work and at home. I want to be present for the people I love–at work and at home. I want to be my very best self for them. I want to wake refreshed and find moments throughout each day to be still and to breathe. I want to be ruled by the calendar less and less. I want to feel like I’m in control and not it.

I want better for myself. I want better for my family. I want better for my church. And I want better for God–who created me, after all, and who has given me this life which I am so ridiculously grateful for. But I know I can honor God with my time and my energy and my body and my spirit in better ways than I have been this summer.

 

So that’s what I’m going to do. Honor God with my time and my energy and my body and my spirit. I’m going to step, slowly and surely, away from the abyss of Burnout. I’m going to say “no.” And I’m going to breathe.

 

Hold me accountable, will you?

 

 

 

¹ https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/27/health/who-burnout-disease-trnd/index.html

² https://twitter.com/amywhodigital/status/1093030166261944320?lang=en

³ Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch. Copyright 2016, Fortress Press. Page 155

 

 

 

 

 




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