Faith is Not a Pillow at Cracker Barrel

The last thing I thought I’d have rolling around in my head this morning is something that is probably a quote on a pillow at Cracker Barrel.

But there it was, flashing through my mind as I tried to fall back asleep.

Sometimes I act like faith is “shooting for the moon and hoping I land amongst the stars”.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but stick with me, we’re going somewhere.

It’s like I aim as high as I can, at what sounds really good, hard, noble, important. That’s usually when I think “yeah, that’s probably God” and force myself, no matter how awful, to do it.

Faith, when I’m trying to do it on my own, is like this awful combination of running a marathon and eating endless bowls of kale. “It’s good for me,” I groan. I try to force it down, hand it out, all the while I think people can probably see that I’m bent over looking nauseated and angry.

Following God is nothing like that.

Sometimes I treat him like my professor. Like he’s the guy handing out the syllabus who pushes up his glasses and says, “My grading rubric is really not that hard” but is actually just keenly unaware of how uneducated the rest of us are.

But that’s not Jesus. When He said that line about the load He gives being “easy and light”, He wasn’t this out-of-touch guy who thinks we’re further along than we actually are.

Right after that, He tells us He is gentle and humble in heart.

Which brings me to yesterday, when I told multiple people that I have a really hard time thinking Jesus is gentle.

I think He’s good. I think He’s patient. I think He is a lot of really wonderful things. But I think He’s about as gentle as a hurricane in a blazing oven. I don’t even know if that can exist, but regardless, it’s unfortunately how I often see Jesus.

“I am gentle and humble in heart,” If I’m perfectly honest, I kind of wanted to throw something across the room as I thought about that line this morning (because clearly, I am the picture of gentleness).

Gentle and humble in heart. Like a scorned housewife, I poured my coffee and tried not to roll my eyes. Well, your actions say differently, dear!

This is where you have to be really glad we serve a super gracious God who doesn’t send lightning bolts in these times. Because that’s when Father God was probably up there miming the sign for the cross and turning up the volume on “Amazing Grace”.

But there I was, slinging my breakfast around and judging his gentleness and boasting in my brand of Cracker Barrel pillow faith.

And Jesus just kind of stood there in the kitchen with me, “I didn’t tell you to shoot for the moon.” He says those kinds of things, loud and clear if we’re willing to stop ranting and listen for a second.

There is a list of things that I’ve got rolling around in my brain that I think sound noble, noteworthy, healthy, “good for me”.  There is also a list of things that other people “need” and demand, that I’ve picked up along the way. They sound really good, they even sound like they could be God. But they also sound a lot like me trying to be the best version of myself. They sound like me trying to shoot for the moon and hoping I hit something that resembles a star. It’s striving for an A, hoping I get a B, and worse case scenario, thinking I’ll at least probably pass.

But faith isn’t a project, a paper, or quiz. It isn’t this throwing out your best attempt and hoping you “do alright”.

It’s mornings in the kitchen slinging around your coffee and asking Jesus if he’s gentle and waiting around to find out.

It’s digging through the questions and realizing that even if you’re getting it all wrong, He’s still there. He isn’t holding a syllabus and he isn’t going lash back when you try to start an argument over breakfast.

The first part of that verse, the one where He talks about being gentle. Where he talks about how the load He gives is easy and light, He doesn’t say “shoot for the moon”.

He says “Come to me.”

And when He says “Learn from me, my load isn’t heavy”, I don’t think He’s the out of touch professor saying, “Go figure it out, it’s not that hard!”

I think it means something more like, “You don’t have to aim high and hope. I’ve already done it. I know right where to go, right where to aim. I’ll help you, walk with you the whole way.”

There’s a gentleness in someone who bears the weight of the load. In someone who goes first, maps it out, tears down all the limbs, patches up all the dangerous holes, goes ahead, walks it out and then comes back for you and guides you through the whole thing again. Doesn’t get weary when you complain. Doesn’t throw up their hands in frustration when you whine about the heat or the little thorn you got, when they had the worst journey imaginable before you. They just keep going, keep walking, keep laughing. Letting you take the easy path, fixing your wounds and making good jokes and being a good shoulder when you get distracted by something and fall over your own feet. That’s about as gentle as they come.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.”-Matthew 11:28-30

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How to Catch the Light

I hope the fireflies show up for you.

Like they did for us when our feet ran through the damp grass of my grandparent’s backyard on summer evenings. When we reached the walkway, the little pebbles would dig into our heels. I still have a scar on my left hand from the branch that snapped during one of our adventures through the woods.

I used to think that their back porch would always be there, that those same faces always around the table to greet me, playing cards in hand. That I would spend all my years running through and slamming that screen door.

I sometimes still wonder if the fireflies wait for us there, think we’re coming back and scoop them up in our little mason jars. But time doesn’t stand still, the light of fireflies fade, and not everyone who used to sit around that table could still be there if we went back.

But I’ve been realizing even after all those people are long gone, the thing that will be stuck with me, is all the light they left. Those are the fireflies still hanging around when we’re all grown up and the tables have changed.

What I remember most is the way those people loved me, the way they kept me laughing. I remember how my Great Uncle took us outside and bent down close, taught us how to gently guide the light into those jars. He taught how to hold onto it, but then how to set it free. When the world was busy, he stepped outside with barefoot children and taught us how to catch the light.

Last week I met a stranger while buying a book. I laughed harder that day than I have in a long time. We didn’t change the world with political ideologies, theological debates, lengthy equations, chemical experiments. We simply found ourselves laughing over something inconsequential. We left one another with beaming smiles and kind words.

I drove around that night telling God that sometimes I feel like I’ve been missing the point.

Inside of me sits a little girl who remembers standing in the hallway of her elementary school, hearing the whispers of other kids, “Why does she always stare at the ground? Someone told me she was mute.”

I remember learning back then, what I am learning now: I don’t want to waste this voice. Or try to give God the excuse that that using it is harder than it is.

Because really, I think it is just fighting to become brave enough to open our mouths. It’s just looking up from the ground and saying something kind, something intentional. I don’t want to live with a mouth, voice, a chance and only ever use them when it feels easy or convenient, or when I deemed the opportunity or person worthy of my effort.

Sometimes it takes getting over the hurt, the fear, the things that followed us for years. It’s knowing that value is not always the big things that everyone applauds. Sometimes it is learning how to make someone else feel like they’re funny, interesting, worth listening to, a good storyteller.

It’s just teaching little ones how to catch fireflies. It’s just making a joke with a stranger. It’s just love. Teaching someone else how to catch the light.

Sometimes that seems so small, so insignificant and yet, if that were the case I don’t think it would be so hard. But when confronted with the challenge of loving difficult people, strangers, sometimes even those closest, it’s hard. It’s hard to put down our phones, clear the schedule, say the apology, reach for the hug, sit with someone in grief, knock on their door, be inconvenienced, feel awkward. If it was so small, or easy, more people would do it and the world would be different.

It matters. And every time you do the thing that feels so incredibly uncomfortable and insignificant it changes them and it changes you.

One day you wake up and you realize that saving your words and efforts for bigger and better things, waiting for more, waiting for that one big bright moment was just a trap to stop you from all the light surrounding you right here and right now. It just takes catching all the little moments right there in jars. Because all of the little chances, if you grab them, make a great big light.

 

 

 

Fear and All His Friends

“You’re like a potted plant—you take your roots with you.”

Suddenly I felt like a sturdy, hefty, bright and nourished pillar that someone could turn toward and say “look at that, doesn’t she just brighten up this space?”

After years of everything feeling temporary, transient, impermanent, her words made me realize that no matter how much I’ve moved, it doesn’t mean I haven’t been growing roots, or haven’t been healthy and thriving.

Fear is a liar. He knows nothing about gardening, but he memorized a few words in a Botany textbook and tried to spin them to convince me he is an absolute expert.

Call him out. That’s my advice to you about Fear when he shows up and goes on endless rants that try to shut you down and make you feel helpless and hopeless. Bring someone else into the conversation and call him out, find out if he knows what he’s talking about. Because chances are when bring some other people to the table they’re going to see through the facade and they’re going to prove it’s absolute nonsense. Fear is going to be the loser, the one walking away in defeat.

I’ve been carrying this lie around for so long now, and Fear had me convinced it was true. I kept thinking I’m just wanderer—a flaky nomad and people with white picket fences and strollers just see me passing by and think “Oh, that poor drifter, there she goes again rootless and barren…” 

But then I got sick of it. So I grabbed Fear and drug him by the ears to one of those white picket fences. We rallied the neighbors and called his bluff. That’s when they called me a potted plant: growing, healthy, rooted, but still moving. And then Fear ran back home crying; his friend Comparison had to scoot along too.

Sometimes you just need to rally, to grab someone else, to stop listening to the thing that sounds true, but that shuts you down leaves you voiceless, helpless, restless. Pull someone else in to say the thing you cannot see, the thing that Fear and his friends just keep talking circles around.

Because Fear wants you to believe he’s smarter than you, wiser than you, more experienced and better equipped. But really he’s just long-winded and loud-mouthed. He knows most of the headlines, but none of the substance.

Don’t let Fear dominate the conversation, be the center-of-attention, steal the show, stifle the party. Fear and his friends are the house guests I give you permission to always show the door. And if and when they’re rowdy, grab some friends, some experts, (maybe some moms with strollers) and kick them to the curb. If for a second you see him or hear him speaking up, he has overstayed his welcome, go tell him his time is up.

 

 

 

California: Letting Go of the Blueprints

California.

I thought it would be all sunshine, warmth, orange-hued days and lightweight laughter.

But the air had a chill, the clouds were heavy with rain, the days thick with prayers and an ache for something more.

From the moment the plane drifted below the clouds and I saw the sun setting over the land full of big dreams, I thought to myself, maybe this is a place I can believe for the impossible.

Tucked away in those California mountains was a cabin. For a few days, I found myself squeezed in between its walls with a group of strangers. A million times I had been in this same scenario, but with different paint colors and couches; rooms with strangers, Bibles in our laps, hoping that after a few days we would have a handful of good stories and memories to look back and remember when God sifted through some dirt in our hearts to remind us of the gold.

But something felt different. Something felt entirely offbeat inside my chest that first morning after breakfast and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. I’ll never forget my feet running up the stairs, my knees hitting that carpet, my hands clenching into fists. God shook me right in those first few hours. There was a moment coming—something that was going to change everything.

That night God showed up in a way that only He could. He came barreling through that basement door, arms full of everything we were so desperately in need of.

Sometimes I think we are like children with Santa Claus, terrified that if we go He isn’t going to know where to find us. We’re so tied to plans, people, callings, dreams, years, the things we’ve spent using to build our lives that we can’t imagine what God would do if we were shoved inside of a basement somewhere unfamiliar. Because we have all these plans we’ve made and promises we are begging Him to keep.

But He did more than I expected, asked, was even prepared for. And right there, just after I let out a sigh of relief, thinking He had emptied His arms and I’d seen it all, He leaned against the wall and whispered the very thing I was least expecting. He pulled out from behind His back the best thing, the only thing that could have knocked the wind completely out me.

And all the years and months of fighting, drowning, begging, came racing across the country and crashing right there at my feet. He put the nail in the coffin of the thing that has nearly caused me to lose it all, over and over again. When I looked at it, in my tiny hands, I realized how many times I’ve gone searching for those same words in the office of principals, guidance counselors, in the arms of my parents, sister, friends. God said to me the only thing that ever really mattered to me, the thing that has driven me from birth, in every decision I’ve ever made. Its kept me from sleeping at night, made me terrified and paralyzed to make nearly every choice. In a simple little sentence, He said the thing that I’ve looked for in the voice of every other person I’ve ever known.

I realized at that moment that until God Himself spoke the words I needed to hear, and I finally heard them from Him, I would never be full, never be entirely free.

When I left for California, I figured that a southern girl out west was going to feel unknown, off-balance, a little out of place. But isn’t that just like God? To stick you in the middle of strangers and show you just how much He knows you, sees you, can say the thing you need to hear in the most unexpected and hidden place?

It was about letting go of plans, people, and the way I’ve held God to His promises. The way that I tell Him that He has to do it the way I always expected. That He has to shout those words through a certain microphone, say them through a certain mouth, in a certain place, through a set of circumstances. That He has to fulfill it how I always thought He should. Humbled and grateful, that He didn’t do it the way I demanded. That I didn’t get those words the way I expected, begged for, from the people that I argued with or demanded them from. That when I stopped fighting, clawing, stomping my feet, painting the town with instructions on how to fulfill my hopes and dreams, that God picked me up and put me on a plane and did it his way, a better way.

When I got home, slept in my bed, filled up a coffee mug, drove around this town, I heard Him whisper again: let go of the blueprints.

Because when our hands are filled with rolls of our blueprints, we can’t hold any of His. We can’t see the thing He wants to build. And what I’m starting to realize is how often His plans have elements of the things I’ve asked for, prayed for, hoped for, but His blueprints are so much bigger, more efficient, better planned than mine could ever be.

California, it was the place I thought maybe I could learn to believe for the impossible and the place where He did exactly that.

 

 

 

 

Heartbreak Was Inevitable

My back slid down the wall of that hotel lobby, tears streaming down my face. The knife in my heart dug deeper as I stared at the monotonous opening and closing of the elevator doors.

It was happening all over again.

The grief of repeated patterns. The pain of I’ve been here before and somehow I’ve gotten stuck reliving this same nightmare.

I started replaying every single detail of choices that got me to that filthy floor. I started plugging plans in place of the variables and wondering if there was any way to change the outcome of what was about to happen.

Every option led me to the conclusion that complete heartbreak was the inevitable end result.

I peeled myself off the ground, limped to the elevator, wiped my face, and forced myself to press the button. I shoved all those painful feelings into my pockets. I guess I was saving them for a day when I had more time and fewer eyes watching.

My pockets were already stuffed with things from the months before, it was all piling up.

There is a hallway that holds the truth about desire and wisdom. It was where I learned how to sink my feet into the painful choice of not doing the thing I wanted to do for the sake of doing the thing I knew I needed to do.

Because there is an ever-present cry inside of me that tells me to avoid heartache at all costs.

-It tells me to storm into the room and say what I want to say.
-It tells me to avoid the hard conversations.
-It tells me to hold on longer than I should.
-It tells me that I deserve better than crying on the floor of a hotel lobby, to make choices that might leave someone else crying there instead.
-It tells me to put myself first.

That was how I knew heartbreak was my inevitable result because every other option would have led to someone else, besides me, crying on that floor.

Am I willing to break my own heart for someone else? It’s a question that I wrestled with in the days that followed. I continued to be confronted with the reality that there are some pains so much worse than not getting what you want, one of them is getting what you wanted only to realize you sacrificed every other good thing along the way.

So while I wanted my prayers to be answered, justice to be served, my heartbreak to end—I wasn’t willing to get those things by breaking everyone else around me.

We live in a world that tells us we deserve happiness and “better”, but really I’ve stopped asking what I deserve and just started choosing love. Sometimes that means crawling to the elevator silently, sometimes it means having a hard and truthful conversation knowing it may break my heart if they walk away. But it has to mean putting others first—even if it results in not getting my way or getting the thing I thought I wanted.

Throughout these months I have been unloading my pockets. I’ve been pulling out all the things I stuffed in there: the words, the laughter, the tears, the things I didn’t say, the prayers, the timing, the day on the couches, questions that only God might ever have answers to.

I have to be honest, I find that there has been no gold medal waiting for me. There has been no phone call from that hotel praising my “selfless act”. Many mornings I wake up, look at the scattered contents and say, “I’m not really sure where to put it all, what exactly the point of this was.” Nevertheless, there’s settledness in me that stays, it is present during my morning coffee and on my afternoon drives.

And isn’t that the great thing about love? That even when it breaks us, it builds us in such a way that we find ourselves steadier, settled, and willing to look at those scattered contents again? That even if we can’t understand it all, even if there are no gold medals, and even if no one saw the limping to the elevator, holding our tongue, or the hard conversation, that we eventually show up with something in our hands and say “it hurts, but I’ve got something to tell, something to give away”. I think that’s the gold. I think that’s the medal. I think the fact that we keep learning, keep showing up, keep unloading and trying again. I think that’s actually the point. That love shows up with a story to tell; that it says, I’ve learned what it means to give my heart for others and to show others what that means, even if I’m still limping. I think there’s so much gold in that.

Heartbreak isn’t the worst thing, I promise you that, but it isn’t easy and sometimes it is an inevitable result. Crying in hotel lobbies, well, that might just be for me. But love? That’s for us all. If we keep showing up, keep unloading our stuff, we will realize we’ve got more room for it than we ever thought possible.

 

 

 

My Problem with Perfection

As someone who has struggled with perfectionism, I started realizing about a month ago I am well on my way to ulcers and wrinkles if something doesn’t change.

I’ve been at a crossroads. I’m on the path to what could actually turn out to be my version of failure.

As someone who takes great pride in her academic career, I’ve met my match. I found a class that just might break my streak of success.

Not only that, I recently ended up at a spa with a lady who swore she understood something about skin and within a week I looked like a pepperoni pizza. I found myself bathing my face in apple cider vinegar, wondering about the meaning of life and if anyone could love someone who now smelled like rotting tree bark.

I woke up with the world’s most depressing thoughts on Valentine’s Day, which was totally abnormal for me because I love Valentine’s Day—like seriously love it.

So, I came home and put Maroon 5 on and started screaming it at the top of my lungs whilst wearing the manliest basketball shorts you’ve ever seen. Because in the interest of full disclosure, what happens when I am in the comfort of my own home is about as far away from perfection as one can get.

My struggle is that I need people (and even myself) to believe one thing—even if that one thing isn’t the biggest chunk of my reality and even if that thing isn’t my favorite part of the day. Because my actual favorite part of the day was those stupid basketball shorts and screaming in horrible harmony with Adam Levine, and eating wretched reduced fat Cheez-Its. But that’s probably not the thing I’m going to invite people into. I’m likely going to invite people into the less ridiculous, less weird, not as embarrassing version of my life because my name is Ashlin and I struggle with perfectionism.

But if I do poorly in a class, fail to eat a balanced diet, wear my dad’s clothes for pajamas, or have bad skin, I need to figure out a way to make that not the end of the world. Because making those things the beginning or end of anything makes them a level of importance they shouldn’t be. It makes them idolatry. It makes them more important than God’s heart, my vulnerability, my willingness to be honest about what my life actually is and what it isn’t.

So, I’m trying to figure out these days how not to throw out discipline, effort, excellence, while also knowing that sometimes you have just got to put on a sweatshirt that comes to your knees and have bad hair. Sometimes you’ve just got to let go of the GPA, hit submit on the assignment, and go give out-loud advice to the lady in the Hallmark movie who is about to ruin her life by chasing down that emotionally detached man in the ugly sweater vest. There’s a rhythm to this whole discipline and grace thing and I’m trying to grab the hand of God these days and ask Him to teach it to me. Step by step I am learning and perfectionism is lessening.

all the light that came after.

Shoes by the front door, a stone fireplace with stockings that looks sturdy enough to brace my shaky frame against.

I stand there half expecting myself to blurt out the words everyone keeps telling me not to say.

Because the words that pour out of the radio this time of year are, “let your heart be light” and as we know from last year, I’m a sucker for trying to figure out exactly what that means.

My eyes scan pages and pages of my textbooks for final exams and I’m trying to cram in all this information about how the first stars came to be. The authors tell me about what happened when they exploded, about all the light that came after.

I keep thinking about God and how His first words of creation were “let there be light” and I know there must be something to that.

I keep wondering if I explode or speak if some kind of light comes after.

Because maybe the magic of this whole season, the reason that we’re all obsessed with Hallmark Christmas movies is that they are scene after scene of people saying a bunch of horribly strung together sentences of things we’ve never had the nerve to say.

I’ve never felt I lacked nerve, but I’ve hoarded silence in the moments that seemed to matter. I’ve felt like a lover of lost causes in moments when it felt improper to say the thing that sits heavily on my shoulders.

Timing. Timing has never been my strong suit and it always seems that Christmas comes at precisely the time in which I have an armload of things I need to say and a crowd full of people and thoughts saying, it’s probably not the best time.

Because Christmas is cozy, quiet, a soft piano in the background of a department store. It’s chunky scarves, rosy cheeks, passing babies, wondering why everyone doesn’t get together more often. It’s silent nights, holy nights, it is good words written and stuffed inside gold foiled envelopes.

But I am the last minute shopper, donkey locked out of the stable, little off-beat drummer girl. I once demanded to be the angel in the Christmas play holding a stuffed beagle. I am the Barbara Robinson novel come to life. I am the girl who once nearly cut off her circulation and had a purple arm trying to buy Christmas presents in a Christian bookstore.

All is calm, all is bright. I am not good at calm. Sometimes I get the bright, but I rarely get the calm.

I find that I’m so occupied these days with sewing up my mouth, putting on my Christmas best, and hoping that no one notices me leaning against this fireplace holding back all the things that Ralph and Hugh (the writers of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas) missed when penning that song. Like sometimes gathering faithful friends and dear ones do not make my troubles feel miles away or out of sight. Sometimes, it makes me have to bite my lower lip because I do not know how to let “the fates allow”. Who are these fates? I do not know if I want them to allow. I think maybe I want to step in and decide some things and say some things before these fates get tangled up in this whole thing.

How am I going to have myself a merry little Christmas when this whole thing is left up to these vague fates and I’m just supposed to be hanging some star and figuring out what it means to “let my heart be light”?

Let your heart be light? I keep going back to that. Is that up to me or those fates? If it’s up to me, I want to say all these things that people tell me not to say. But then again, what if that makes us all heavier?

So then I’m supposed to hang some shining star. Well, that seems possible. I read about God and how light was His first priority. My textbooks then tell me those first stars exploded into all these other stars (according to science).

Well, then I think maybe if I just start with one thing, just one bit of light, more will come.

So maybe this blog is just about hanging that one star. Maybe it’s about saying that one thing, throwing out that one light and hoping that it explodes into a thousand more little lights.

We all have heavy things weighing on us and we all want this moment, this time, this season to be magical. We want it to be healing, something that brings us hope and helps us believe in goodness again.

Maybe you’re like me and you’re a little shaky, holding some things that you wish you could say, fix, change, or make happen. Maybe you’re a little lonely, tired, terrified, broken, confused. Maybe you just wish you had more time or capacity to enjoy it and feel it all.

Whatever it is you’re holding, I’m not going to tell you that all your troubles are going to be miles away. Your troubles are where they are. I’m not going to tell you it’s “a bright time or the right time to rock the night away” (mostly because I don’t even know what that means). I’m just going to tell you that I don’t know if any light will come after we say things we wish we could say. But there was the best Light that came, that stayed, that’s still here. It was here before the first words of “let there be light” were ever even spoken. And I don’t know what fates Ralph and Hugh were talking about, but I can assure you of this, the Faithful one who gives us all this light, well He’s tangled up in all of it.

A couple thousand years ago, He hung another star and regardless of what our shoulders might hold, we have to remember all the light that came after. It allows us to all have ourselves a merry little Christmas, even in this, even now.