Category Archives: Authenticity

It’s A Conspiracy!

Can we discuss “the peace that passes all understanding”?

I have heard that phrase for years. I remember hearing it as a child and wondering what it meant and how I was supposed to get something that I didn’t even understand.

Don’t get me started about trying to understand something that says, in its title, that you will not be able to understand it.

But I digress.

“The peace that passes all understanding” turns out to be one of the Christian code-phrases we hear about when millennials and agnostics write about the Church; words and phrases that appear to have no context for meaning if you are not already faithful.

I’ve got news: I grew up in the Church and accepted Jesus as my personal savior when I was only five years old, and I still did not understand lots of those Christian code phrases.  It isn’t because you’re young or seeking or simply unfamiliar with the Church; you don’t understand the code phrase because…well, because we Christians hardly ever take the time to define what the heck we are talking about and we pastors can be even worse.  We just throw the phrase out there like it means something and expect everybody else to understand it intuitively.  The evangelical movement has a ton of these phrases:

“Walking in victory with Jesus”

“Growing in grace”

“Die to self”

“Washed in the blood”

“The peace that passes understanding”

“Pray a hedge of protection”

There are plenty more but I figure you’ve probably gotten the point by now.  I remember hearing these phrases and wondering what they meant but never really asking for an explanation. Even when I did ask for clarification, the answer I received was often just as baffling as the code phrase itself.  “Walking in victory is when you have grown in grace enough that you are able to ignore the attacks of the Enemy and follow the will of God wherever it leads you.”  Okay, so how do you ‘grow in grace’ enough to ‘walk in victory’?  “You grow in grace when you ask Jesus to wash you in His blood and help you die to self.”

The explanations were kind of circular in nature.  After a while I just gave in to the thought that perhaps my experience of faith would explain these concepts to me and I would finally understand what no grownup seemed able to fully explain to me.

Don’t get me started on why I thought growing up would cause me to understand what other grownups were incapable of explaining despite their advanced age.

But I digress.

The problem with these Christian code-phrases is that they can lead to a conspiracy of lies around what it is to experience the Christian life.  It makes it sound like good Christians don’t experience fear or anxiety or depression…after all, they have the peace that passes all understanding!  And of course, they don’t struggle with finances or with adverse situations, because they are “walking in victory with Jesus” and victors aren’t losers! Only losers struggle.  If you’ve truly ‘grown in grace’ then you probably ought not to curse or lie or speak unkind words…in fact you can’t be even remotely sinful…because growing in grace implies that you are continually becoming more holy and holy people are squeaky clean!  And goodness knows that those who ‘die to self’ don’t act selfishly since their ‘self’ no longer matters.  Those who have ‘died to self’ just give and give and give and never get tired of giving because they receive all they need from Jesus…

Really?  Because that’s a bunch of BS.

Christian life is full of struggle and fear and pain and failure and sin and self-focus and self-care and prayer and reflection and growth in grace…

There! I said it!  One of those Christian code-phrases makes sense to me!  I understand growing in grace, because I came to understand grace when I became a Methodist.  Grace is an unmerited gift from God that helps me become all that God created me to be, by drawing me deeper and deeper into a relationship with God, which slowly changes me until I am conformed to the image of Christ.

Oops! I just used another Christian code-phrase.  In fact I used several.

The truth is that these phrases do have meaning.  Some are symbolic (since no one really bathes you in blood, thank goodness) and others are more representational of Christian life and faith as it is actually experienced, because I really should become much more like Jesus Christ as my relationship with Him grows deeper and stronger. To me, becoming more like Jesus (more Christ-like) means that I should be more loving and accepting of those on the margins of society and that I should actively seek social justice and equality for all people.  The Jesus I know is a bit of a rabble-rouser.

I want to get back to the conspiracy of lies.

In all honesty, the conspiracy of lies starts as a conspiracy of expectations. I grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical faith tradition that emphasized orthodoxy (right belief).  We were taught that orthodoxy would lead to orthopathos (right experience). In other words, believe the right things and you will experience the right things.

That’s a powerful draw to faith!  Think about it—according to that concept, believing the right things will lead me to experience the “right” things: peace, prosperity, happiness, success, achievement…you name it, whatever this culture deems “right” is what I will get if I believe in the right ways.

Here’s a few things that our culture does not deem “right” despite their frequency in the general population:

Poverty

Domestic Violence

Divorce

Having children who commit crimes or use drugs

Addiction

Mental illness, including depression and anxiety

Unexplained or chronic illnesses that are difficult to manage

Wow.  Just wow. Can you imagine what it’s like to grow up believing that none of these things should happen to you if you have “right beliefs”?  And it doesn’t help to acknowledge that (of course) these things ‘happen’ to Christians, it’s just they don’t persist and (of course) Christians count on their faith to give them “victory in Jesus” over all these circumstances.

This is how you end up with a conspiracy of lies.  If right belief means right experience, then I better not let anyone know that I am having the wrong experiences, and if I do tell the truth for a brief moment, I better not let anyone know that my wrong experience is persisting.

The funny thing is that Jesus told us that He is “the way, and the truth, and the life”. (John 14:6) He also said that if we continue in His word, we are truly His disciples and we will know the truth and the truth will make us free. (John 8:31-32).

Does the “truth that will set us free” include telling the truth?  I think so. I also think it means that we will stop fearing the truth as if it will destroy us and invalidate our faith.  Get real people! We worship a Savior who cried out “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me?” as he hung on the cross, dying.  Jesus didn’t say that to quote a Psalm and look impressive. Jesus said that because it was His experience as He died a horrific death.

If Jesus didn’t lie about His pathos…and I don’t think we should either.

Skip the conspiracy…both the conspiracy expectations and the conspiracy of lies…and stick with the Truth.

It’ll set you free. Trust me on that one.

Here Comes The Truth

Honesty.

I always tell my clients that honesty is at such a premium in this world that being a truth teller is a skill worth developing. People thirst and hunger for truth, for words that are plain and simple, without sugar coating or gentle couching or even padding. Basically, there is so little honesty in this world that we are starving for it.

Don’t believe me?  Just think for a moment about how many times you have talked to one of your friends and had them read you a text or email to see what you think it means.  We have been become experts at analyzing words and phrasing in texts and emails, hoping to decipher what the person really means, what they are actually saying…which makes it painfully obvious that we don’t trust people to speak the unadulterated truth.

I mean it when I say that truth is so rare that we are starving for it.

However…I have to distinguish being truth-telling, and beating someone with the truth.

Sadly, I have heard plenty of people speak sentences full of barbed words, swinging sentences like a bat aimed at the other person’s head. After they finish speaking, these people all say the same thing: I’m just telling the truth, that’s all.  And they are, kind of, but not really.

You see, the truth—if you want it to be heard and accepted—needs to be spoken in love.  The kind of truth that sets you free is truth that is given as a gift, delivered directly and bluntly without sugar-coating…and without any barbs or knives.

I call it the open-handed truth.

Basically, I tell my clients to hold out their hand, palm up, whenever they speak the truth. This is to signify to them and their listener that the truth they are telling is offered as a gift. The listener is free to take that gift or leave it, but there it is: honesty and truth, offered to them as a gift.

I ask them to do that because any move away from giving a gift to delivering a barbed truth will cause their hand to suddenly shift from an open palm to a pointed finger. You know what I’m talking about: that finger-shaking, “I’m going to give you a piece of my mind” gesture that we use when we are slapping someone across the face with our words.  I tell my clients that the difference between an open-handed truth and a finger-shaking truth is the difference between honesty as a gift and honesty as a 2×4 upside the head!  It’s an effective metaphor, because who the hell wants to speak the truth as a 2×4 to someone’s head?

The answer to that question is: any member of the media when speaking to Donald Trump, but that’s another blog post entirely.

Why am I busy talking about the truth?  Well, when I started as a counselor, I found it very hard to speak certain truths to my clients, especially if the truth was particularly ugly. I also shied away from telling my clients when they were engaging in unhealthy behaviors, even when they were engaging in unhealthy and unwise behaviors right in front of me.

In short, I have been an incredible wuss for years.

And then recently I decided to try something for my stress. Being a counselor is very stressful. Clients can be very demanding, and the need to help them can leave you feeling like the weight of the world is resting on your shoulders. It can be overwhelming, and it does overwhelm me occasionally. It really wouldn’t matter that much, but I have chronic health issues, and stress makes them worse. I am at a point where something has to change or I am not going to be able to keep up with my practice. I am not willing to let stress derail my health…and I’m not willing to let my health end my ministry.

The thing was that no matter what I was doing, nothing was reducing my stress level.  Exercise was helpful, but not enough. Diet changes were helpful, but not enough. Hobbies, vacations, meditation…all of it was helpful, but not enough.

Then I remembered something I learned from watching my daughter get sober. The 12 Steps are powerful and deeply spiritual, and without them people often fail to overcome their addictions because the biggest problem in addiction is that we keep trying so hard…instead of relying on a God who is so much more powerful than we are.

And that was my epiphany.

I began reciting the first three steps (as best as I could remember them) in relation to my clients.

I admitted that I am powerless over my clients—powerless over mental illness and trauma—powerless over my client’s lives—and that trying to be a healer is becoming unmanageable.

I remembered that there is a Power greater than myself who can restore both me and my clients to sanity.

And then I made a decision to turn myself…and my clients…and their problems…and their healing…over to God’s care.

I cannot tell you how liberating that felt. Every time I’d start to get stressed about my clients or my practice, I’d remember that I am powerless over mental illness and trauma, and utterly incapable of healing anyone. Then I’d remind myself that God is more than capable of handling all that and is willing to use me along the way to bring that about…and I’d calm back down and my stress level would drop and I’d start to feel less overwhelmed and exhausted.

But there was this funny side effect of all this: I’m not a wuss anymore!

All of a sudden, I find myself saying things in session that are blunt, open-faced truths that I was unable to say before.

Dare I say…I have become strangely bold?  And I’m not talking 2×4 bold, either. This is calm, open-handed truth that is popping out of my mouth without hesitation or even the slightest twinge of guilt.

Jesus said that the truth would set us free, and the truth I discovered is that I am powerless, and when I accept that powerlessness…suddenly I am far more free to share the truth with others.

The truth about me became the truth recognized by me and spoken to others becomes the truth that sets them free.

If this is powerlessness, sign me up. And we will all be free together.

Amen.

God in the Grocery Aisle

I spend a lot of time with anxious people.

Some of them are anxious because they have anxiety disorders. Some are anxious because they are dealing with PTSD and trauma. Some are anxious because they have an addict in their household and they are exhausted from trying to save that person (and their entire family) from the consequences of addiction.  These folks have really good reasons for their anxiety, and learning to deal with the anxiety is about learning to accept what can’t be changed and address what can be changed (usually the answers to those two questions are ‘other people’ and ‘your own behaviors and attitudes’…but that’s another blog post entirely.)

Lately though, I have been seeing a woman who is anxious because…well, because…

Of life. She is anxious because…career, boss, bad friends, what now?  She is anxious because of life.

She’s a great lady and I love working with her. She’s really serious about the change she’s trying to achieve and actually remembers what we talk about and tries to work on it between sessions. She is what we counselors call a YAVIS client: young, attractive, verbal, intelligent, and social. Personally, I’m guessing she’d be really thrilled to know that I label her as a YAVIS client, first because she’s a little older than I am, and second, because YAVIS clients are usually there to see a counselor because they are having an existential crisis instead of serious mental health issues.

existential crisis:  a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether this life has any meaning, purpose, or value.

During our last session, my client brought me a list of what she thinks she needs to be working on in counseling.  One of her goals was to work on finding a purpose for her life, a larger reason for being. She felt like her current career, while it earned her a good living, was not very meaningful and did not provide her with sufficient purpose.  She wanted to find her purpose in life so that she could get busy living out her purpose.

That was when I put on the brakes.

You see, what I heard my client saying was that God’s purpose for her life was something other than what she was doing right now and that she wouldn’t really be living out her God-given purpose until she found that purpose and then began to fulfill it, daily.  In other words, “I’m not doing what I need to be doing and my life has no meaning or purpose until I do the thing I need to be doing.”

Wow…that’s a troublesome idea.  And I’m betting that my client is not the only person who has this idea.

The problem with this idea is the way we tend to define purpose.  Purpose is a big, weighty word that implies something deeply meaningful, something incredibly impactful…our purpose is supposed to be the thing we do that makes a difference in the world.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? And for most of us, our purpose is tied in pretty heavily with our careers or our daily jobs.  I’m guessing that any job that helps us fulfill our God-given purpose is going to be something impressive, like a teacher, a civil rights lawyer, or a doctor; a trauma counselor, or a pastor or maybe a person who works with the disabled.  There are plenty of careers that will fill our lives with purpose and give us a chance to make a difference in the world.

Actually, it doesn’t matter what you are doing as your career or as your current job…if you are out there, living your life, doing your best to be good human being then you are fulfilling your purpose right there, where you are, and that’s all there is to it.

Personally, my favorite job that makes a difference in the world is…

The cashier at the grocery store.

Yep…you read that right. The cashier at the grocery store.

A couple of years ago, I went grocery shopping and was just overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff I needed to get done that day. I was harried and in a bad mood, wishing that I could clone myself so that the work would get done quicker.  When I got to the front of the checkout line I immediately started writing out my check (okay…it was probably closer to 20 years ago) and didn’t even look at the cashier. He greeted me with a casual “How are you today?” and I answered truthfully “Harried.”   He immediately replied “I know! Doesn’t it make you feel really alive when you’re busy like that?”

That was when I looked up at him, thinking I was going to find myself face to face with Happy Elf, or The Grocery Unicorn, or some other mythical creature of that sort.  Instead I was greeted by a man obviously going through chemo. He didn’t have a strand of hair anywhere on his head and he was bone thin and pale.  He was grinning at me, genuinely happy to be ringing up my groceries and talking with me. He radiated joy.

It was an instant attitude adjuster.

I didn’t feel guilty or shamed. I didn’t feel like a bad human being. I just suddenly recognized how profoundly lucky and blessed I was to be standing there, totally healthy, buying groceries for my growing family. I was blessed with sufficient funds to feed my children without worries. I had a list of tasks as long as my arm because my children were healthy and active, and because both my husband and I had full-time jobs which meant that I had to do all my errands and shopping on the weekends.  I was very busy…and it did make me feel alive. Burdened, but gloriously alive.

Talk about making a difference in the world!  This guy had his purpose nailed and he was living out that purpose, right there, ringing up the groceries at the Albertsons.

The key to fulfilling your purpose to know, first and foremost, that you are able to fulfill your purpose in life exactly where you are, doing what you are doing…right now.  You don’t have to wait until you finish your degree or until you change careers or until you get married or get divorced or…anything.  You are valuable where you are right now, doing whatever you are doing.

If you want to fulfill your purpose in life, start by being yourself…be who God created you to be, all the time, and give your gifts to the world whenever you can. Be the best version of you that you can, and do your best to draw out the best in others.

And if God calls you to a bigger purpose, or to express your purpose in a different way, know that you have been living a meaningful, purpose-filled life every minute until now and are about to go on an adventure to see what other great things God can do through you.

Enjoy your adventure!

I’m sure enjoying mine.

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.

Ragamuffin Me

When my oldest daughter Alex was 5 years old and in kindergarten she finally had her first “best friend”.  Her friend’s name was Jessica, and Jessica was a beautiful little girl.  Black hair, bright blue eyes, big smile…Jessica was truly gorgeous.  She was popular too, and sometimes Alex competed for Jessica’s friendship and approval.  Some days Alex won and she came home from school feeling on top of the world.  Some days then other little girls won Jessica’s attention and Alex came home from school sad and quiet.  Then there were days when Alex came home sullen and silent, refusing to eat or be cuddled.  I finally got her to tell me what was going on: sometimes, when the other little girls won Jessica’s attention, Jessica would be mean to Alex and tell her that no one wanted to play with her.  She would tell Alex that her clothes were ugly and that she was stupid and that no one liked her.  And then Jessica and her friends-of-the-day would go off and play.

My heart broke.  I wanted Alex to hate this girl, to reject her, to refuse to have anything to do with her.  But that’s not how it works.  Alex desperately wanted to be her friend, and so all I could do was encourage my pretty little girl to stand up to her friend and tell her that she was being mean.  I told Alex to tell her that there is never any excuse for being mean.  But Alex refused to stand up for herself. Alex was terrified of what would happen, fearing that Jessica would reject her for good and never play with her again.  I told her that it was her choice, but that it made me sad to think she was friends with someone who made her feel so badly.

The funny thing is that I was having my own private battle with Jessica.  Actually, it was with Jessica’s mom.

You see, when I would take Alex to Jessica’s house for play dates, I would show up looking like the harried mother of two children who were both under six years old.  Because I was a full-time student in graduate school, I spent most of my days with my hair in a ponytail, wearing very little makeup and a t-shirt and shorts.  I’d get to Jessica’s house and there was Jessica’s 24 year-old mother, beautiful and young, wearing designer jeans and a delicate blouse, with her hair styled and spiked to match the latest trend. Her house was spotless. Her car was a Mercedes.  Her husband drove a Mercedes as well, and he looked just as perfectly dressed and styled as she did.

I’d walk into their home and instantly feel like an old rag: dirty and crumpled.

I’d sit and make conversation with Jessica’s mom…after all, that’s what moms do.  I’d be polite and ask her questions about herself and her spouse, about Jessica and their plans for other children, about her plans for her own life and career.  I’d shared with her that I was in school…in seminary, actually, and on my way to becoming a minister…and then I’d talk about my former career and how nice it had been to actually have money back when I was still working. We’d chat for a few minutes when I dropped Alex off to play, and then I’d head home only to make a return trip later to pick Alex up and bring her home.  I tried as best I could to be friendly and kind to Jessica’s parents, and to be patient with Alex’s desire to be Jessica’s friend.  I really understood her pain: Alex felt ‘less than’ around Jessica, and I felt ‘less than’ around Jessica’s mom.

One day Jessica’s parents came by our house to pick up Alex.  They were taking Jessica and Alex out for dinner and a movie to celebrate Jessica’s 6th birthday.  Jessica’s mom stood at my breakfast bar, watching me cut vegetables and meat as I prepared dinner for the rest of my family.  She stood there in silence, watching me, and then suddenly she proclaimed:

“God I wish I could be like you!”

My brain came to a sudden, screeching halt.

“You…want to be…like ME? Why?”

She looked me in the eye and spoke what appeared to be a very painful truth.  “You always know what you’re doing. You have a purpose and you’re doing things with your life.  I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.  You know who you are, and I have no idea who I’m supposed to be.  I look at you and you are so comfortable in your skin. You know what you’re about and why you’re here. I wish that I could be like that.”

Suddenly I realized that I had felt inadequate because I had been comparing my outside to her outside.  What an idiot I was!  She looked at me and looked right past my outside and through to my inside, where things actually matter.  It made me sad to realize just how empty she felt, especially in comparison with what I felt inside. The truth is that she was right. I knew exactly who I was and what I was about. I may have felt fat and kind of ugly when I compared myself to her, but the rest of the time I was truly comfortable in my own skin. I had a purpose and I knew where God was leading me.  I felt solid in all of the major choices in my life: my marriage, my children, and my choice to give up my career and become a minister.  In her eyes I had everything wrapped up in a neat little package and it was the perfect package.  I had everything she wanted to have and didn’t know how to get.  In her eyes, I had it all.

That was such an epiphany for me!  I wish I could say that I never compared my outside to anyone else’s outside ever again, but that would be a lie.  I did, however, learn to value and find greater joy in being me.  I had to learn to let being me be enough to establish my worth, no matter how I looked on the outside. The other lesson I learned was that being flawlessly beautiful doesn’t grant you any peace in this world. I should have known that intuitively, and I guess I knew it at an intellectual level, but I had never really accepted that truth all the way into my heart.  After that, I found myself looking at beautiful people and wondering if they felt like Jessica’s mother on the inside.   How horrible and painful it must be to feel empty, to feel no comfort in your own skin, no love for your innermost self.

I kept encouraging Alex to stand up for herself when Jessica was mean to her and one day she came home and told me exactly how she did it.  It was one of those days when the other girls had won Jessica’s favor and Jessica was busy telling Alex how stupid and ugly she was and how one liked her.  Alex said that she marched right to Jessica and told her that she was being mean, and that there was no excuse for being mean and then Alex said that she wouldn’t accept that behavior out of Jessica anymore.  She told Jessica that she could be kind and they could be friends, or Jessica could be mean and find her friends elsewhere.  I was so proud!  Then I asked Alex what happened, and she said that Jessica admitted to being jealous of Alex, specifically of how comfortable Alex was with playing by herself or sitting alone and reading a book.  Jessica admitted to being afraid of being alone, and Alex promised that if she wasn’t mean anymore, she wouldn’t have to be alone because Alex would be her friend.  Like mother, like daughter I guess.

I could tell you never to compare your outsides to someone else’s pretty, shiny outside, but I know that you will anyway.

Instead, I’m going to encourage you to spend time making your insides beautiful. Feed your spirit!  Spend time finding meaning and purpose in this life.  Spend time becoming comfortable with who you are as a human being, accepting yourself for both good and bad.  Do all you can to increase the good, and limit the bad.  Know who you are and what you are about, and invest in this.  Spend time cultivating yourself and your personality like a lovely garden, because once people look past your skin, they will see the garden that is you and want to wander inside that garden for hours and hours. They will find peace and refreshment in the garden that is you, and you will become a haven for everyone who loves you.

Never underestimate the power of a beautiful soul, and the allure that it has to others who need a little beauty in their life. And just as birds of a feather flock together, a beautiful soul tends to draw other beautiful souls to itself. What a way to find your friends!

I wish you beauty on the inside.

Random Jesus

Today a friend and I were working in one of the classrooms at church.  After several hours of working together, she looked up and said “Wow…I really like random Jesus.”

What??!

Actually, she was referring to the décor in the room, which was traditional Sunday School décor: a poster advertising an event that happened over a week ago; a map of the world in Biblical times; lots of chairs stacked against the wall; a whiteboard; and the word “Jesus” spelled out in shiny cardboard letters above the window.

Random Jesus, indeed.

The funny thing is that my first thought when she said that was “I really like random Jesus too!”  And I mean that.

I was standing in the parking lot talking to a friend who is a colleague after a meeting this week.  As we walked towards our cars, I realized that she had a new vehicle and commented on that…only to have her burst into tears.  The only reason she has new vehicle is because her son was in a horrible car accident that totaled his car and took the life of his girlfriend Ashley.  After many months of healing and grieving, life had to return to normal and that meant her son needed a car to get to school and work, so my friend gave her son her car because he couldn’t afford a new one.  She and her husband bought a new vehicle…and every time she drives it she is reminded that Ashley is gone and her family will forever grieve her loss. Every time she sees her new car she is reminded that her son was badly injured and easily could have died, leaving my friend and her husband to grieve that loss for the rest of their lives.  We stood in the parking lot crying and admitting that tragedies like this take a long time to stop hurting, and then we prayed.  We blessed Ashley and her family. We blessed my friend’s son and his healing. And then we prayed God’s blessings upon my friend, her ministry, and her car.  I have never prayed blessings onto a car before, but it sure felt like the right thing to do at that moment.

I found myself praying again this morning, getting ready for a meeting.  I got a call from Joe who didn’t have good news to share. The cancer is back and it doesn’t make sense because things were going so well until now.  All I could do was listen to the bad news and then sit alone and pray that God would do the same miracle this time that God did for us when the cancer was first diagnosed. Not long ago, Joe told me that he has stopped praying for himself and has chosen to pray that God will answer the prayers of everyone who prays for him simply so that they will know that God hears them, loves them, and answers their prayers…and so this morning I prayed for everyone who was praying for Joe, asking God to strengthen their faith and show them that their prayers are effective.

Shortly after I took that call, I met with two people from my church, Beth and Troy, so that we could prepare the cardboard testimonies for this coming Sunday.  I thought it might be a good idea to have some folks help me get the signs all lettered and prepared…legible handwriting is a gift many of us do not possess…and then we could photograph the testimonies so they can be projected on the screens during worship.  As we worked we told the stories of how we became Methodist, how we all came to worship at our particular church, and how our faith histories formed us.  After Troy left to help his girlfriend welcome a brand new grandbaby, Beth and I continued discussing our own personal challenges, especially the challenges we have with our kids and our jobs.  We unloaded our hearts and our worries and all of our fears onto one another.  It’s always an anxious thing to talk about those places where things aren’t going smoothly, those places where you feel like you are falling short or should be doing better. We spent a lot of time looking at what we were working on instead of looking at each other because it was hard to say the words we had to say.  Still, it was really good to speak our peace and finally get things off of our chest knowing that we could trust each other; knowing that we were speaking with someone who would listen and not judge; knowing that we were with someone who wouldn’t minimize the struggle or the fear or the pain.  Friends like this are truly friends in Christ and they are priceless!

Random Jesus.  This is Random Jesus.  Those amazing moments when Jesus pops up unannounced and unexpected in the middle of things to make the mundane holy, to create sacred space in the middle of nowhere, to consecrate words and emotions and tears.

One friend sharing her grief.

One friend sharing bad news.

Three friends sharing the story of how they got here.

Two friends sharing their fears and their failures and all the places where they don’t feel like they stand on solid ground.

This is where Jesus shows up and sits with us and gives us ease and peace where formerly only fear and pain existed.  This is how Jesus begins the healing and promises us that we don’t have to do anything alone, and then proves that by providing people to be with us, hear us, sit with us, and walk our journeys with us.  Jesus—his life, his death, and his resurrection—are the promise that we will never have to walk this difficult journey alone, ever, because God likes to show up in flesh.

Blessing a car.

Finding the strength to move forward in the face of death.

Knowing that you are exactly where God wants you to be.

Realizing that we are not enough but we are more than enough through Christ who strengthens us.

Random Jesus.

I really, really like that guy!!

 

A Light In The Dark

Last weekend I went to a conference in Minneapolis.  It was a Christian conference called WhyChristian 2015 (or WX2015) and it featured a number of progressive Christian speakers.  Just reading what I just wrote makes me think “BORING!” but the conference was anything but boring.  Actually, it was more exciting than seeing my favorite band, mostly because one of my favorite preachers was leading the conference: Nadia Bolz-Weber.

I quoted Nadia in one of my previous blog posts because her preaching really moves me; the things she says resonate with me quite a bit and she reaches me in a way that many other preachers do not.  When I read what I just wrote (something I do frequently so that I don’t end up sounding stupid) it sounds very academic and logical.  But the truth is that I am an unabashed geeky-ass fangirl when it comes to Nadia.  Like, jump up and down, squeal like a teenager, fangirl.

There.  I said it.  I am a fangirl to a preacher.  Cue the geek music and the horrified reactions of my readers.

It’s embarrassing to admit that one of my biggest heroes is a tattooed preacher woman who curses like a sailor, sometimes while she preaches.  Admittedly, I also have a mouth like a sailor, sometimes to my detriment, but I do my best to avoid using any foul language while at the church, even more so when preaching.  I guess that means that I admire Nadia for having the guts to curse in the middle of a sermon when I am simply unwilling to be that bold.  I totally sound like a middle schooler admitting this (‘Wow…she said a bad word.  In Church.  She’s so….COOL!’)  But there is more to it than that.

It is really hard to be a leader in the Church.  People expect you to be holy…holier than they are.  People expect you to be patient and kind no matter what mood you’re in.  People expect you to be some sort of spiritual powerhouse who thinks deep thoughts and says meaningful things and constantly contemplates Jesus and God and all that spiritual stuff.  And I do those things…sporadically and mostly poorly.  I do my best to be patient and kind but am just as often crunchy, bitchy, and difficult.  I complain about the crappy moments in life—loudly—to the point that even I get sick of listening to me. I pray and read the Word, but no more than any other human being and sometimes less than is really healthy for anyone who claims to be a practicing Christian.  I occasionally think deep thoughts, but just as often I am thinking about miniscule crap that is not even remotely spiritual and is actually mundane and kind of stupid.  It’s really hard to be spiritual while spot treating the laundry, you know?  I would love to be really deep and spiritual.  It would be great!  I imagine myself, standing there at the sink doing the dishes looking all contemplative and holy, the angels singing in the background.  And then I imagine my husband rolling his eyes, sighing deeply, and shaking his head at me. Seriously, I’d expect my husband to divorce me if I behaved like that.  I’d divorce me if I behaved like that.

The bottom line is that it is really hard to be yourself everywhere you go, all the time, while being a leader in the church.  It’s a constant choice between being authentic and acting like your less-than-holy self, or being “appropriate” to the setting and acting like your “supposed” to.  Most of the time when I’m at the Church, I monitor and edit myself in an attempt not to offend anyone or make them question if I’m fit to be called a spiritual leader. I try to be as authentic as possible while attempting to behave like a ‘good girl’, although I have sworn to be my fullest and truest self with any person who extends their relationship with me beyond the front doors of the Church. This means that some of my parishioners know that I have a potty-mouth.  Actually, the associate pastor at my Church knows all about my bad language because he was at my last birthday party.  I invited him and his wife to the party because I was pretty sure that they would be chill with me being myself in front of them and I was right, although he was the one who labeled me a “potty-mouth.”  I figured I’d own it since, after all, that is what I am and it’s a fun label.  Also, here in Arizona there aren’t too many Navy guys around, so saying that I curse like a sailor just doesn’t have the same impact as it did when I lived only 15 minutes from Great Lakes Naval Base.

Back to the point: since I have spent so many years monitoring my behavior and editing my speech in an attempt to behave like a proper minister, I have a great deal of respect for anyone willing to risk being truthful about who they are while simultaneously claiming their role as a leader in the Church.

The reason that I idolize Nadia Bolz-Weber is because she risks being honest even when that makes her look a little less holy, a little less put-together, a little less capable and self-assured.  She risks being honest when that honesty might give others cause to judge her and reject her for being less than what they want and/or need her to be…if what they need her to be is perfect, holy, and a spiritual powerhouse.

I don’t need someone who is a perfect, holy, spiritual powerhouse.  I already have that in Jesus Christ. What I actually need is someone who I can follow…who is mired in being an imperfect, less-than-holy human and who is doing their best to be a spiritual nightlight. (I couldn’t think of something smaller than a powerhouse…maybe a backyard generator? Oh hell, I’ll settle for a nightlight.) I need someone whose example I can follow, realistically.  Sure, there are people like Mother Theresa, Father Thomas Merton, or Father Henri Nouwen who are more recent examples of something close to a spiritual powerhouse, but when I look at their lives I just get overwhelmed and feel badly about myself. I wish that I could be that spiritual but most of the time I can’t.  When I look at Nadia I see someone that I can imitate.  When she drops the f-bomb, when she admits to being less than charitable in her thoughts, when she writes about how she doesn’t read the Bible on a regular basis, or how she struggles with anxiety, I think that THIS is someone I can emulate.  This is a woman that I could try to grow up and be like.  This is a pastor whose example I can follow and still be who I am on the inside, because who she is on the inside is not all that different from me.  When I listen to her sermons and read her books I feel like I have found a path I can follow, and the idea of following Nadia’s example makes me look at her like she’s my hero. And so I jumped up and down in excitement after buying my tickets to the conference in Minneapolis because I was going to get to see Nadia in person. I found myself staring like a moron when I was only a few feet away from her as she signed my copy of her latest book.  And I sat enthralled as I listened to her preach during morning worship and again at closing worship, when she spoke words that reached down deep into my soul, words that gave testimony that maybe in all my error-prone ways that I am good enough for God to use me in ministry; good enough to actually lead others who feel like I might be the nightlight they are looking for to lead them on the path towards Jesus.

Here’s to the idea that one day I might grow a bigger bulb.

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” 1 Corinthians 11:1