Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Apple of His Eye

I met with a client this week who is struggling to rebuild her life as she trudges through an ugly divorce.  Let’s call her Anna.

Anna believes that God has a plan for her life and a path for her to follow so that she can move forward after the end of her marriage, and she is doing everything possible to be faithful to both.  She is doing her best to raise her two teenage girls to be women of faith.  She is working hard to build the realty business she opened when she left her husband.  She is struggling every month to pay the bills but is determined to become financially secure so that she can stop relying on her ex-husband, who isn’t interested in being reliable or remotely honest when it comes to child support.  The thing that amazes me is that in the midst of all of this, Anna continues to give to others even when she doesn’t have much herself. She particularly likes helping low income families get affordable housing even though she doesn’t get much of a commission from that kind of work.  Anna and I both believe that she is doing everything she can to be on God’s path, and we can both very clearly see God at work in her life, so why isn’t it getting any easier?

That is the one thing that Anna just can’t get over: that no matter how hard she works to do exactly what God wants, her life is just as difficult now as it was only a month or two after she left her husband.  Anna sits in my office and cries, just wanting God to reveal to her what she’s supposed to do next. What is the next step on God’s path? Not knowing makes her anxious and fearful about what’s going to happen next.  It makes her fear that she has screwed up and has wandered off God’s path somehow.  In the end, despite her deep faith, she’s incredibly anxious, frequently exhausted, and always at the end of her rope, and she doesn’t think that a good Christian woman should feel the way she does.

I try to remind her at every session that no matter how perfect your life is otherwise, raising two teenage daughters will have you at the end of your rope every day, all the time.

Beyond that, though, I get where Anna is coming from.

My parents have always attended an evangelical, fundamentalist church.  They did when I was a child, and they still do now.  As a child, I remember learning about God’s will and God’s plan for your life.  God had a path for your life and you had better be on it. If you stepped off that path, even one tiny step off of the path, you were in big trouble.  Even more frightening was that stepping off the path meant that you were on your own, that God was not going to be present to you and your needs while you went on your little ‘jaunt’ off the path.  If you realized your mistake later and wanted to get back to a good relationship with God, you had to backtrack to where you left God’s path in the first place, and then get busy moving forward on God’s path because being off God’s path was unacceptable, sinful, and a good reason to condemn you to Hell for all eternity.

I suppose that makes some sense, especially to fundamentalists.  The thing is that it makes God sound awfully petulant and kind of like a narcissistic parent. You know, you better play by God’s rules or He isn’t going to play with you anymore.  He’ll just take His ball and go home and you will be All. By. Yourself.  Oh, and you’ll spend eternity in Hell.

I don’t believe any of that anymore.

I’m Methodist now, and I am a feminist process theologian.  That doesn’t mean much to anyone who doesn’t study theology, so I’ll just say that I really like the idea that my beginning (birth) is fixed in God’s hands and my ending (death) is also fixed in God’s hands, and the life that exists between those two points is a negotiation between God and me.  I believe that God will never leave me because God is not in the business of abandoning His children…not even the disrespectful, rebellious ones.  For me, it’s all the more reason to love Him and serve Him.

What does that have to do with Anna?

Well, Anna was raised in an evangelical, fundamentalist church just like I was.  Both of us learned early on that ‘true Christians’ had the peace that passes understanding (Phill 4:7) and that meant that you don’t get anxious if you really love the Lord.  ‘True Christians’ trust God and do not fear circumstances.  ‘True Christians’ wait for God’s leading and are patient because God always acts in God’s time, which is rarely early but never late.  God is all merciful and knows your needs; He has numbered the hairs on your heads, so you have nothing to worry about. (Lk 12:7)

What all that boils down to is that ‘true Christians’ don’t ever have unpleasant emotions like worry, fear, or anxiety.  Anger is pretty much unacceptable as well, unless it’s holy anger at the sin you perceive in the world (or in someone else, but that’s another post.) ‘True Christians’ sail through life so zen that nothing ruffles their feathers; after all, their Father in Heaven is looking out for them, so why worry?

I know devout Buddhists who that aren’t that zen and never will be.

Anyone who reads their Bible…heck anyone who has seen the movie The Passion of The Christ knows that Jesus sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and was so distressed that God sent angels to comfort Him.

Seriously? Jesus sweats blood, but somehow our faith in God is going to insulate us against the icky feelings that we don’t like?

No, that’s not how it works. Faith in God is not a magical pair of rose-colored glasses that will make our lives all sunshine and puppies.  Faith in God is not an extended release Valium for the soul.

Don’t get me wrong. Please, seek God’s will in your life and then do your best to live by it.  And when following God’s will leaves you exhausted, disappointed, and anxious, know that you have stumbled onto all the things that Christ experienced as he led the disciples for three years and then walked the path to His own crucifixion.  Definitely check in with God daily to make sure that you are following the path He has set before you, but plan on a few nights where you sweat some blood and need some supernatural help to make it through to the morning.

And if you are going to trust in something, trust that the God who delighted in creating you also delights in watching over you, because His son has made it clear that this is a difficult world to live in and we need all the help we can get. The God who created you loves you beyond what you can ever understand and will never leave you because it would break His heart to do so.  You are, in so many ways, the apple of His eye and He adores you.

If that doesn’t make you love God, I’m not sure what will.

That’s My Resume?

Self-esteem is such a dicey thing.

When you’re a child, most of your self-esteem comes from your parents and how they treat you. If your parents are kind and loving, you come to believe that you are deserving of love, deeply worthy of time and attention, and that your potential is unknown and therefore you are capable of almost anything!  Sadly, if your parents are unkind and unloving or unavailable, you learn the exact opposite: that you are unlovable, unworthy, and your potential is meaningless.

I was blessed with loving and kind parents and I came away from my childhood deeply aware of my own lovability, worthiness, and potential.

As a teenager, you start putting more faith and weight into the words of others, and your parent’s opinion of you comes to mean less and less.  This is why the teen years can be such damaging years. It doesn’t matter if you are utterly geeky or unbelievably popular, there is always someone in your peer group who is glad to tell you how worthless, stupid, and disgusting that you are. It’s during our teen years that we learn to hide ourselves lest we become open to criticism and character assassination.  Some of us discovered that no matter how much we hid, that we become the target of people whose need for power and attention drove their need to belittle and harass others, and we become the target of bullies.  That’ll kill your self-esteem for sure.

If you aren’t careful, you can come out of your teen years with no self-esteem left at all, believing that you are utterly worthless with nothing to offer and no one who cares enough to challenge your self-evaluation.

It can take years to stop believing in the opinions of others and regain your self-esteem.

I spent plenty of years learning to care less about what other people thought of me and more about what I thought of myself.  I learned to ask myself crucial questions: Would I trust me if I was my own friend? Am I honest? Am I genuine and kind? If I met myself coming down the street would I want to be my own friend?  If I met myself and took an hour to talk to me, would I respect me when it was over?

These questions changed me and how I behaved, because I could no longer betray myself in the interest of getting other people to like me better.  With only myself and my God to judge me, I became less beholden to the opinions of others and more free to be authentic in all my interactions.

This whole experience led me to share what I learned with my clients.  I tell them to be themselves all the time, no matter what anyone else is doing, because at the end of the day there is only yourself, the mirror, and your God to evaluate you.  God will always love you, but…if you met yourself coming down the street, would you want to be your own friend? Would you respect you?  Would you trust you?

Sometimes it is painful to discover how little respect people have for themselves, how untrustworthy they feel they are, and how disgusted they are at the thought of being their own friend.   It breaks my heart.

Over time you learn not to believe what other people think about you because of the damage it can do.  You learn to create your own self-esteem lest you find yourself at the mercy of others who don’t care how their opinions take you apart and render you worthless.

But what do you do when what other people think of you…is amazing?

This week I led a two-day meeting that was supposed to be led by a friend of mine.  It was a last-minute change brought on by a severe illness that he could not control.  He was so sick that I wasn’t even able to get direction from him; I couldn’t call him and ask me what he wanted me to do.

In my own evaluation of me, I was irritable, exhausted, freaked-out and barely functioning.

That’s not the feedback I got.

Certainly people sensed how taxed and exhausted I was.  Many of them asked if I was okay and I was honest with them: I was so anxious that I wasn’t sleeping well at all.  No sleep leads me to be cranky and brainless. I admitted that I was overwhelmed.  Why lie?  It’s not like they couldn’t see it on my face.

But still…when all was said and done, the praise was effusive and more than kind.  After the meeting was over I led a training that ended with even more praise and kind words.

I was stunned and didn’t quite know what to think.

What do you do when you discover that others think you are better than who you think you are? Do you believe them? Do you disagree with them openly and tell them that they are wrong? Do you secretly discount their opinions and ignore what they say?

My daughter is in a 12-step group where they teach that “what others think of you is none of your business.”  It can be daunting to live by the opinions of others, and when you have no self-esteem you can find yourself seeking the approval of everyone, yanked hither and yon as you try to please each and every person that matters.  I get that.  I have it in me to be a people-pleaser, and it has taken years for me to get comfortable with people who are angry with me or people who think I have failed.  I still beat myself up when I have genuinely failed another person because I have trouble forgiving myself for being human.  I am still growing as a person and I hope that by the time I am 60 years old, I will have mastered the art of forgiving myself after I genuinely disappoint someone else. You think that I’d be disgusted with myself for still being this sensitive after 52 years on the earth, but the idea of still growing as a person as I move through my sixth decade of life is actually an exciting thing for me, so hey…I guess I’ve got to be failing somewhere or I’d have nowhere left to grow.

The funny thing is that I struggle with praise almost more than I struggle with criticism.  When others criticize my failures, I find myself agreeing with them most of the time.  It’s not like I don’t know where I have failed.  But when they praise me, I feel…

Terrified.

There. I said it.  When other’s praise me, I am terrified that I am not who they think I am. I fear that I am much less than they say I am; I fear that they will trust in my skill and my fidelity and that I will fail them terribly.

I guess that’s because I’ve had people trust me before and I’ve failed them so badly.  I can tell you each and every person I’ve failed because I never let myself forget.  NO…I’m not saying that I don’t forgive myself for being frail and human and incapable.  I just try to remember where my weak points are and how I have failed others in the past, because the past is a great predictor of the future, and I want to do so much better next time.

So why does praise terrify me so much?   Honestly, I don’t know.

I could say that it’s fear of failure or an acute awareness of my own frailties.  Maybe I still don’t have enough self-esteem, but honestly, I doubt that.  I know what I’m worth, and I know what I am good at.

I think the truth is that I struggle to accept how much impact I have on the lives of others.  It’s so much easier to believe that I could fall off the face of the earth and only the people who love me would notice.

I think I struggle to trust in my own worth because my creation is much more magnificent than I can understand, and my potential is so much greater than I am willing to believe.

I truly believe that God created each of us with the seed of greatness already planted inside of us.  I guess that I just want to believe that my seed is smaller than yours and therefore so much less meaningful then yours.  It’s easier for me to see what you are worth and why you have that worth than to actually step back from myself and admit that I have the ability to do great things over and over and maybe even the ability to make a difference.

I think that I struggle…just like everyone else does…with what I’m capable of, and I mean that in all the best ways. And so I’ve come to believe that everyone struggles with praise and positive feedback the way that I do.

I think we struggle with the image of Jesus within us because we think we cannot possibly be that kind, loving, and self-giving.  We like to forget that Jesus was also irritable, occasionally wrong, and short tempered. Lest you not believe me, let me remind you that Jesus went a little off the hook, braided a whip out of cords (wow that’s so loving!!) and then turned over tables, screamed, yelled, and beat people while he chased the money changers out of the temples.  Do something like that in the food court at the mall and you WILL get arrested no matter how much you talk about zeal for your Father’s house.  You can zeal all you want and you’re still going to end up in the back of a patrol car.   Jesus may have been sinless, but perfect in all things?  Not so much.

My point is that we think we are so NOT like Jesus, so not loving, and not patient, and in the end, not capable.

Wrong.

You have been created in the image of God Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth.  Jesus Christ dwells within you and guides you with His wisdom.  The Holy Spirit fills you and produces fruit like love, patience, kindness, and humility deep within you when you aren’t looking. Don’t be surprised when other’s see the fruit of the Holy Spirit growing in you before you can see it in yourself.

Give your life over the One who created you and you will discover that your potential is limitless. Your worth is beyond measure. Everything you are is all that God intended you to be and nothing about you is a mistake.

Maybe it’s time to start listening to what other people say about you…and believe them.  Not because I want you to become a people-pleaser, fearful of angering those whose approval you seek, but because there is no way to step outside yourself and objectively see all that you have become in the Father’s hands.

Maybe it’s time to start listening to what other people say about you so that you will understand just what good you are capable of, what potential the Lord has given you, and the exact ways that you reflect the image of God.  You have an impact on others and you should know what it is.  Let them tell you.

What other people think about you still isn’t your business, but it might be your resume.

Are You Listening?

This election has been frustrating for me, mostly because of the rash of evangelical faith leaders who have spoken out in favor of Trump. Recent revelations about Trump’s behavior have caused a number of them to withdraw their support but there are a few, especially Jerry Falwell, Jr., who continue to endorse Trump, even to the point of saying the allegations don’t matter. If I think about it for very long I get so angry that I am almost boiling hot because I cannot understand how a faith leader can support anyone who openly admits to sexual misconduct, and when I say sexual misconduct, I mean sexual assault, unwelcome sexual contact, and voyeurism (Trump has admitted to walking in on Miss USA pageant contestants while they were changing clothes and partially or totally nude.)

While Trump’s behavior disgusts me, Jerry Falwell Jr’s continued endorsement of Trump infuriates me.  Does he not perceive how his continued support for Trump also endorses the idea that women are objects to be used? Does he not understand the message he sends to victims of sexual assault? Does Graham not perceive that God calls ministers and priests to be the protectors of the weak and defenseless, not the yes-men who kowtow to the rich and powerful?

The saddest part is that I know, intimately, the power of a preacher’s words. My own story and my recovery from sexual abuse was heavily impacted by the words of a preacher.  I want to share my story with you because I believe that we need to fully understand how our words (both spoken and unspoken) have a profound impact and the power to change lives.

Shortly after I found out that I was pregnant with my first child, I began to have memories of being sexually abused.  My abuser molested me sporadically from the time I was approximately 3 years old until I was 8 years old.  Trying to deal with the memories was very difficult because the emotions were overwhelming and the memories so disturbing that they impacted my ability to function on a daily basis.  I no longer felt safe in the world and every man (except my husband and my father) seemed threatening. I was always on the edge of tears and struggled to not fall back into the eating disorder that I had struggled with as a teenager.  I was so consumed with fear and overwhelmed emotionally that I had difficulty thinking clearly and focusing at my job became almost impossible.  Combine all that with the hormonal fluctuations that go with pregnancy and what you get is a hot mess, and let me tell you that I was a hot mess every day for months on end.

Despite the difficulty I had functioning, I did my best to maintain my routines and one of those routines was going to church on Sunday mornings. As worship began that particular Sunday morning, a woman in the back of the Sanctuary rang a hand bell.  The sound of the bell resonated through the room and then we stood for the call to worship.  I forgot all about the woman with the hand bell until she suddenly rang it again in the middle of the announcements, which was odd because she rang it while the pastor was speaking and the pastor didn’t seem to notice.  She continued randomly ringing the hand bell throughout the service: once during a hymn, once during the Scripture reading, and even several times during the pastor’s sermon.  It made no sense and I was rather jarred by the sound even though the sound of hand bells is normally soothing to me.

The pastor’s sermon was a bit odd as well.  He was preaching on a passage from the Old Testament: 2 Samuel 13:1-22, the story of the rape of Tamar.  Who preaches on that?  And considering the hot mess that I had been for several months by that point, I didn’t really want to hear about sexual violence against women. I had enough to deal with just trying to deal with the sexual violence done to me.

The sermon focused on Tamar’s rape for quite a while.  The preacher highlighted the ways that Amnon (the rapist) treated his sister Tamar as an object to be possessed and used for his needs and his pleasure without regard to the consequences for Tamar.  He stated that not much has changed since then and pointed out the ways that women are still objectified, possessed, and used by men. He preached about the ways that society devalues women and children, counting our lives and our experiences as less valid than those of men.  He especially focused on how society silences women and children when we speak up against the violence done to us because it’s just so unpleasant to hear…and then how they ask how we came to be alone with the man who abused us, as if his choices were our responsibility.   The whole time he spoke, the woman in the back of the sanctuary kept randomly ringing the bell.

The preacher highlighted to us the many ways that the Church has silenced victims of physical and sexual violence by insisting that we need to stop complaining and forgive our abusers, often before we have actually had a chance to recover from the abuse.  He became visibly angry as he spoke, accusing the church of refusing to be a refuge for victims because dealing with their suffering makes us uncomfortable and God forbid the Church should have to bear a little discomfort in the face of human suffering and exploitation. He reminded us that our demand for the victim’s silence was nothing more than another act of violence against the victim.  The bell rang again.

By this time, I could hardly contain myself.  I was doing everything I could to remain seated and hide my tears.  Then the preacher explained the bell ringing in the back of the room; it had rung every six minutes since the service had begun because every six minutes another woman or child in the USA becomes the victim of violence or exploitation.  He said that the worldwide statistics were much worse, and as he said that, the bell rang faster and faster…

I ran out of the room and into the church restroom where I hid in the stall sobbing and trying to breathe.  It was close to twenty minutes before I could calm down enough to sneak out of a side door and sprint to my car.

Later that day I called the preacher at home.  When he answered the phone all I could choke out was “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” and then I hung up.

Years later I found out that he was called before the leaders of the Church and heavily criticized for his sermon.  They told him that nobody needs to hear a sermon like that.

I did.  I needed to hear that what happened to me mattered, that it mattered to God and that God expected it to matter to the Church.  I needed to know that the Church was supposed to be a refuge for me, a place where I didn’t have to hide the mess I had become because of the abuse.

That day, that one sermon…that sermon saved me more than I can say, and I have never forgotten the power of the pulpit to welcome someone into the safety of the Sanctuary or to shackle them in silence and shame.  The words spoken in the pulpit are so powerful that they can even lock someone outside the door of the Church and make it clear that they will never be welcome.

Franklin Graham Jr, are you listening?

True Love Waits

I spent the last two days at a conference called “Why Christian 2016”. The speakers at this conference answer the question as to why they are still Christian in a world that seems to be so filled with hate and sorrow, in a Christian climate that is so filled with division, in a Church that seems to judge everyone that they can’t fit into their tiny little description of what Christians should be.  Every speaker had a different answer and every answer was meaningful and valid.

As I sat listening to the speakers, I became determined that my next blog post would be my answer as to why I am still a Christian. I was certain that I knew exactly how I wanted to answer the question, but this evening when I sat down to write it felt like everything had changed.

The conference started on a high point and I was thrilled to be there with a friend.  The longer the conference went on, however, the more pain I felt. Each speaker seemed to stir up more and more of my past, touching the painful places until I was raw. By lunch on the second day of the conference I was aching, crying, and emotionally exhausted. My colleague in ministry left the conference early, emotionally overwhelmed from hearing so much about pain and loss when so much of her life and her ministry has been colored by pain and loss (her own and that of others.)   I felt alone and rejected after she left (silly, I know) and at the same time certain that I needed to stay and see the conference out to its end.

After the final worship was over, I headed back to my hotel, determined to have a quiet evening. I decided to catch up on my reading and order room service, since I had no one to accompany me out to dinner.  I got my email…I read for a while…I tried to watch TV to no avail…and then I found myself googling an old friend’s favorite Chicago restaurants.  She had grown up in Chicago and had recently been back to visit; she had raved about returning to favorite restaurants and I was determined to taste the heaven she had described in her Facebook posts.  A few minutes on Google and I discovered that Lou Malnati’s, famous for its deep dish (Chicago style) pizza was close enough to my hotel that I could walk there, so I headed out to snag my dinner.  So what if I was alone for the night? I took a book and I figured that I wasn’t enough company for myself I’d just strike up a conversation with a stranger.

The pizza was delicious and my book was more than enough to keep me occupied during dinner.  I had them box up my leftovers so that I could head back to my hotel.  In the dark I got confused and failed to turn on Walton Street.  When I realized that I had missed the turn, I simply headed east on the next street I could find, knowing I would have to backtrack a little to get to my hotel.  It was the best thing that happened to me all night, because if I hadn’t missed my turn, I wouldn’t have been on Delaware Street at all!

As I headed down Delaware Street I encountered the best dressed homeless woman I had ever seen.  She was obviously homeless, holding a cardboard sign and cup to gather donations.  As I passed her, I suddenly turned and asked if she would like my leftover pizza.  Her eyes lit up and she said “Yes!”  I pulled my book from the leftovers bag and handed everything else over to her.  I told her that I was glad to share with her since I was plenty full; I let her know there a half of pizza left and told her I hoped that would be enough to fill her up.

“My name is Patricia” she blurted out.

“Hello Patricia! My name is Tina!  If you don’t mind my asking, how did you end up homeless?”

I stood with her and listened to her story.  I sat down so she could eat her meal while she talked to me, but she told me that her knees wouldn’t allow her to sit easily, and if she sat she wouldn’t be able to stand again for quite a while.  I stood back up and she told me that her husband left her, taking pretty much everything she owned.  She told me that she ended up homeless when he left.  I told her that she seemed to have gotten a raw deal in the divorce.  She agreed.

After she told me her story, I told her that I was in town for a Christian conference.  She revealed that she had accepted Christ into her life at the age of eleven, but that she had struggled with her faith since then. “I’m a backslider” she confessed.  She said that confessing her sin was incredibly important to her, because she knew that she couldn’t be forgiven until she confessed.

I remembered a quote from one of the preachers earlier that day in the conference.  “Do you remember when we were young women?” I asked, “Remember how they used to say that ‘True love waits’??  I know they were talking about sex and all” I told her, “but one of the preachers today said that he realized that it means so much more than that.  Patricia, God doesn’t leave us when we backslide.  God stands right behind us, saying ‘I’m right here when you’re ready.’  True love really does wait…because God waits for us to return to Him, and He never leaves us, no matter how hard we work to leave Him.”

“That is such good news!”  Patricia was starting to cry.

“That sounds like good news to me, too.”  Then I asked if I could pray for her.

We spent a good 10 minutes together, holding hands and praying as people passed us by.  I prayed about her past and all the pain she had endured. I prayed that God would help her know that she is His precious little girl, and that nothing she can do will ever make Him leave her.  I prayed that God would help her find a safe place to sleep this night, and that God would help her find a safe place to stay so that she could have a bed and roof every single night.  I prayed that God would reveal her next steps to her.  And then I thanked God mightily that my circumstances, which I had thought were unfortunate, had led me to this encounter with Patricia. I thanked God for allowing us to meet, and for blessing me with some time with Patricia.

When I finished my prayer I realized that both Patricia and I were crying.  She hugged me and I hugged her back.  We talked for a few more minutes and I shared some of my cash with her so that she could take care of her personal needs.  We talked a little more and then we hugged again.

I know that you might think I got taken advantage of, that I gave away my money to someone who will only drink it or smoke it or shoot it into her veins.  I realize that you may feel I was foolish or put myself in harms way.  It doesn’t matter to me.

I met Jesus on the street tonight in the body of a beautiful black women who was hungry for human contact and love and prayer.  Before she let me go she looked me in the eyes and said “I love you!” and I smiled at her and said “I love you too!”    I really meant it, and I know that she did too.

I met Jesus on the street tonight.  I shared some of my time and my resources with Him and then I praised Him as I finished walking to the hotel, because I am blessed, so blessed to have been allowed to share that moment with Patricia.

Some people say that they are Christian because Jesus loved them first. I like that idea, but that’s not my reason.

Why am I a Christian?  Because Jesus will meet me in the strangest places, just to share dinner with me when I feel a little alone.  And if that isn’t love, I don’t know what is!