Life Is More Like Take-Out…

I started writing this from a hotel restaurant that overlooks the city, after a week that could easily be classified as one of the most exhausting of my life.

I kept thinking back to a morning a few weeks ago. After waking up, I drug myself upstairs to find my roommate brewing a fresh pot of coffee and wiping down the countertops.

I plopped down on our little stool that sits next to the refrigerator and let out a deep sigh, “I don’t like my life.” I said it so casually, as if it were typical words for a person to spit out first thing in the morning.

She turned with a raised brow, “Why?”

I leaned my head on the fridge and closed my sleepy eyes, “Because I’ve let everything and everyone else build it.”

She waited, like she always does, knowing I had so much more to process.

“I’ve lived most of my life basing my decisions off of other people. I live my life reacting to people and circumstances. I can’t remember the last time I made a decision simply because I wanted to and not because I felt that I had to!”

And she gave me this look, that without her even saying a word, I knew she was asking me “So, what are you going to do about it?”

All of that led me to this moment. This moment of eating fries in a hotel restaurant and making decisions that I’ve been afraid to make for a very long time.

I’m moving my feet and going places that I couldn’t have imagined because I woke up one day and realized that I needed to own my life and take responsibility for my decisions.

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that I am not a fan of making decisions. I am the person who thinks multiple-choice tests are cruel and unusual punishment. They are the one kind of test that continuously makes me doubt myself because it presents me with so many options, with things that could be right. But if I choose wrong, it could lead to utter failure.

And that’s how I’ve lived my life: like a multiple choice test. One of these four answers is God and I’ve got figure out which one is Him or I’m going to fail.

And I’ve been taking this test like a contestant who is always trying to phone-a-friend. Even when Regis is yelling at me and telling me that I don’t have any lifelines left, I’m over here trying to pawn this decision off on anyone but me.

Because choices and options have always made me bleed doubt. Life often feels like a big test where I can’t just write a paragraph based on what I know and possibly get lucky with a professor who will believe the nonsense I just presented. No, for me, life feels like this concrete question that is going to give me choices that are all close together and could be the right thing, but could just as easily be wrong.

 And so I’ve waited. I’ve waited for people and circumstances to happen to me so I could respond appropriately. I’ve needed a cause for every effect; I’ve needed a good and logical reason for every decision I’ve ever made. I will choose the correct answer once I’m able to rule all the other ones out, or until I’ve run out of time and am just forced to circle something.

But when you live that way, sometimes you just wake up and realize that you built a life compiled by reaction; a life that isn’t full of passion, drive, ambition, or dreaming. You stifled all of your dreams because they might have been the wrong answer.

I do it at restaurants. I have three or four options in my head and I wait until the waiter is staring at me and then I blurt out a decision. I rarely know what I’m going to choose until that moment. The only way I choose is because I am forced to react to a deadline, to a frustrated stare, to someone expecting me to answer.

But life isn’t like a waiter; life is more like take-out. You have to pick up the phone and make the call whenever you’re ready—no one is going to force you to do this thing, to decide who you are and what you want. When it comes to the big things, no one is going to scream in your face and tell you to let go, move on, or make a choice.

It’s like we’ve been waiting for someone to walk by with a script that will lead us to our happy ending. We just want someone to tell us what to say, where to live, what career to have, who to marry.

But this isn’t a multiple-choice test and God isn’t a teacher with a big red marker waiting to write an F on your paper. He isn’t a waiter who is glaring at you, tapping his toe with impatience while you wring your hands over chicken or steak.

God’s the one you call when you are ready make that decision. He’s given you a menu and He’s happy to recommend the best choices, but He loves you and will stay with you whether you choose soup or salad.

Stop waiting to see what everyone else is going to order. And stop waiting for God to force-feed you the better choice. The choices of life are yours and refusing to make them or putting it off are only going to keep you hungry.

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To Be Honest

My breakfast yesterday morning was a sleeve of saltine crackers in the Publix parking lot.

I woke up with a headache that could make a grown man cry. I swallowed three Advil before crawling out of bed and slapping Icy Hot on my forehead. That isn’t something I would normally do, but desperate times and all that…

I finally managed to take a hot shower, throw on my worst outfit and drive to the grocery store. I entered with wet hair, baggy basketball shorts, and a tight grimace on my face.

And then I went and sat in my car. I sat there pitifully eating a sleeve of saltine crackers, drinking a Coke Zero, and telling God that I had officially hit an all-time low. 

I haven’t figured out what it means to have order in my life. That’s just the raw and honest truth of it. There was a time in my life that I had order, I had peace, I had a schedule, a plan, a routine.

For weeks my phone has blowing up every five minutes with demands, questions, events, meetings, plans, and I’ve been on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

I’ve realized I don’t know what it means to be honest.

Part of this comes from growing up in the South, where being blunt is somewhat forbidden (especially for little girls). It can often be labeled rude, and does not make you appear hospitable or agreeable.

You must aways find the perfect way to send your regrets, which means– the only acceptable reason for not going to something or doing something is because there is another life-or-death commitment/event that you cannot miss.

So, from a young age I learned not to say no because I didn’t want to do something, or do not have the capacity for it. I believed you must only say no if you’re saving orphans or helping old ladies at the grocery store.

And the church did very little to help me with this. There’s a notion of always having to do the Christian thing. There’s the right thing and then there’s what the church calls the Christian thing and they, I’m quickly learning, do not always coincide.

So, here I am, a bold and blunt individual who very clearly understands where she stands on most things, but who has been muzzled by “polite” southern culture and doing the Christian thing.

This is where chaos and being covered in cracker crumbs comes in. Rather than realizing that honesty will always trump presentation, I find myself making the dumbest excuses and telling everyone “I’ll get back to you” as a way to give myself ample amounts of time to figure out what the polite and Christian thing to do would be.

And then, begrudgingly, I will do that. Even if I hate it. I will inwardly whine the entire time. But at least I’ll have the false feeling of comfort that comes from believing that I did the polite and Christian thing (and knowing that Dolly Parton would be proud).

However, killing your honesty in order to make others happy is poison. One day, you’ll look around your life and see nothing but piles of perfectly formed excuses, all of them lies.

Saying I can’t or I don’t want to is not rude and not un-Christian.

This is a truth that I’ll probably wrestle with for the rest of my life. I’ve spent twenty-four years of believing the opposite, so it will probably take a while to re-learn a different way.

Neglecting our health and sanity and refusing to be honest about where we are is what breeds chaos in our lives. We find ourselves unable to say yes and no to things because we sacrifice what is necessary for what is acceptable to others. We can frequently find ourselves lying, but convinced that it’s for “the good reason” of not hurting someone else.

I’m terrified to disappoint people, to hurt them, to let them down. I am terrified of being bad at commitment.

This became clear to me when I was in a season of attending three churches in the same day. I would go to a 10 am service, drive twenty-minutes and go to a noon service, and then eat lunch and then drive thirty-minutes and go to a 6 pm service.

This went on for months. I spent so much money on gas and so much time sitting on pews that it’s a miracle I didn’t end up homeless and in a back brace.

All because I didn’t know how to disappoint people. I didn’t know how to accept my limits. I didn’t know how to be human. I didn’t know how to say I can’t…”

What I’m seeing is that running away, making excuses, and just being polite aren’t my only options and they’re certainly not the best ones.

Learning to be honest, humble, and human is what’s required of us. We are to be loving in our responses, but that doesn’t mean lying to spare feelings or to make others happy. It means sometimes simply saying, I can’t or I don’t want to and knowing that our reasons won’t always expand beyond that.

I’m also realizing that all the hiding and the time spent making up excuses will drain you from actually doing the things you need to do.

I’m trying to become a person who answers honestly. Knowing that it might not get praise, it might be disappointing, and it might not be agreeable, but I’m learning that loving people by granting them my honesty truly is the best policy.

It’s Easy to Lose Ourselves

I’ve pretty much been in a car for the last week.

I’ve done so much driving, traveling, last minute road-trips that I’ve had lot of free time to think, a lot of free time to ask myself some really hard questions. I’ve had a lot of free time to examine all the good, bad, and uncertainty that I see in myself.

So, when you’re stuck alone with yourself for several hours every day, you really start to figure out how you see yourself. What you think about yourself starts to come out in the strangest ways (especially on Valentines Day). 

One thing I’ve realized is that I wince a lot when I think about the raw truth of who I am. There are truths, ideas, desires, dreams that I’ve carried since I was a little kid and the moment they come to the surface, I notice this tight grimace come over my face and my hands tense up.

I’ve done it so many times over the last two weeks that I’ve lost count. Every time I catch myself cowering, I force myself to sit up straight and shove down whatever that shameful feeling is.

My denial was going well until God got involved.

“Stop apologizing for all the things that you love.”

I took a deep breath and whispered under my breath, “Is that what I’m doing?”

I knew the answer. I didn’t need Him to respond. I needed to admit that I already knew He was right. I had become so accustomed to being reprimanded by floods of people in my life. I was scolded for not being mild-mannered, for not being quiet, for being a little too stubborn. There were many times I was condemned for not staying silent when someone really needed to stand up.

Today, I caught myself wincing in a really passionate conversation about something that I love. I was looking carefully around the room, afraid that the scolding would soon come. When I deeply love something, I get loud and I get feisty. I go back to the eight-year-old Ashlin. But then, almost immediately, I start to cower and prepare for the punch.

It was today that I realized how easy it is to lose ourselves, to become walking apologies. We start to be so afraid of our differences that we live miserably trying replicate everyone around us.

“Well, people like her and sing her praise, so maybe I should be more quiet and reserved like she is.”

“People seem to really respect him, He seems so indifferent about everything, so maybe I just shouldn’t care so much.”

We are constantly looking around rooms and trying to figure out how to stop standing out, or how to stand out in a way that will get us applause .

But what if we just stopped looking around?

Because if we stopped looking around, we would stop noticing whether or not people clap. We wouldn’t be broken by whether or not their face has a scowl, and we wouldn’t be made prideful if they are enchanted and can’t look away.

Maybe if we stopped looking around, we would stop finding a million reasons to apologize. Maybe we would stop giving up the things that make us come alive.

Maybe we’d stop trying to fit in a suit, a sweater, a pair of shoes that we don’t even actually like.

I guess what I’m getting at is this: stop apologizing for your heart. 

Stop worrying about if everyone else approves.

Ask yourself if other people’s approval is worth a lifetime of being a watered down, cardboard-cut-out version of yourself. Ask yourself if the opinions of people are worth wearing clothes that don’t fit or having a career that steals your joy.

Stop worrying about how many likes you get on Facebook or Instagram. Stop putting it all on scales and wondering if you are too much or if you are not enough.

Start asking yourself what’s going to matter when you’re in that car alone and no one’s there to approve or disapprove. Start asking yourself if you’re okay with living a life that makes you cringe because you’re afraid someone else might be a little uncomfortable. Will it matter if everyone else likes you if you don’t like yourself?

Ask yourself what’s worth trying, what’s worth loving–even if you fail. Ask yourself if you’re willing to do those things even if God is the only one who ever approves.

When My Neck Is Sore and My Feet Are Tired

The whole thing started on a blue piece of construction paper. I was sitting in the lobby of one of my favorite places and furiously scribbling for my next blog post.

I kept getting distracted. Something that has been grabbing at my heart lately kept pulling on me. I would write a sentence, pause and let my mind wander. The next thing I knew I was playing a long and tiring round of “what if?”

Suddenly, I would remember that I was supposed to be focusing.

I leaned my head back against the wall, “Did they look down, God?”

I was thinking about The Wise Men. The ones who had direction, but no details. They knew what they were headed toward, but they didn’t know what it would take to get there. Follow the star and you’ll find the one who will save your life, that’s all they’d really been given.

Did they look down? I wondered if they ever got tired of holding their heads up and looking at that star.

“Did you use it, God?” That was my next question to Him.

“When their heads got tired of looking up and they felt the need to make a plan, to figure out places to rest, to find food. When they stopped trusting and tried to figure it out, did you use it?” 

When trying to figure out the timing of their journey and when they would arrive, did God factor in all the stops along the way? Did he plan for all the moments they’d get in an argument about whose turn it was to feed the camels?

My mind was all over the place and and I was feeling really guilty because I knew that if I had been on that journey, I would have tried to make maps and schedules. 

I would have tried to make sure all our needs were met, the camels were rested and fed, the path was safe, the other guys did their share of helping out.

I wouldn’t have always believed the star was enough. I would have looked away to draw my maps and make my plans. I get so easily distracted because I so desperately want details.

“Do you use it, God?”

Do you use the moments that I think your guidance seems vague and distant? The moments where I’m just stumbling around out in the desert and trying to figure out if I’m actually any closer than I was yesterday?

“I knew the men I had chosen.”

Suddenly, I felt really free. I didn’t feel Him scold me to rip up all my plans and maps. I just felt Him smile and let me in on an ancient little secret. Yes, He uses it. He uses even my distractions, my moments of distrust, the days that I get tired of looking up at the star and complain that my neck is sore and my feet are tired.

Though wise, those men were not perfect and God had always known that. He didn’t choose the The Perfect Men. He chose the worshippers, the ones who were willing to seek Him out, those willing to offer Him something they valued.

And when they left, God made sure He told them which way to go. He gave them a dream, He made sure they heard Him.

He knew the men He had chosen.

The Wise Men weren’t just wise because of their title, or even because they perfectly followed the star. They were ultimately wise because when God needed them to change the path, they were flexible to change their plans, they were ready and listening. They didn’t just trust the star, they trusted the One who put it up there in the first place.

He chose you and He knows you.

Just come, exactly as you are.

With your arms full of maps, schedules, poorly wrapped gifts. Just come. With your holiday frustration, your to-do list, the feelings that the star isn’t enough and that you’d like a few more details. Come, just as you are and bringing whatever you have.

Just come looking for Him. Keep coming, even if you yelled at Balthazar this morning for not brushing the camels.

Keep walking even without all the answers, and know that the proof of your trust is not in your perfection, but in the way you keep coming.

I am Tired of Praying for Things

“It matters where you stand.”

Ironically enough, I remember exactly where I was standing when God said that to me. I was about to go into a meeting that had me wringing my hands and fidgeting with loose threads.

I had no idea that meeting would alter the course of my life. I was also entirely unaware of how that one sentence from God would continuously save me over and over again.

“You are a person who gets what you pray for, but not without a cost.”

When a friend said those words to me, I knew they were the truth. I’m always asking for bold things, for specifics, and many times God grants them. But then He shows me what all the things that I’ll have to say “no” to in order for Him to say “yes” to that thing.

There’s a price for big prayers. It isn’t because God is punishing us, or because His love isn’t free. Answered prayers aren’t proof of God’s love or affirmation, they’re just a door that leads our heart to see how much we have always been loved.

I wish I’d understood that when I asked Him for that one thing. He gave it to me, but only for a season. He didn’t give it to me because it was the best thing for me, but because it would break my heart in a way that would cause me to become the best version of myself I’d ever been.

It was never about the thing, it was about the process that led to a permanent and beautiful change.

It’s not about the thing.

We want all these things, all these blessings, but it’s not about the thing.

It’s about who we are when we get the thing, while we have the thing, and when we lose the thing.

Believe me when I tell you, it can never about the thingBecause things are just things, they aren’t stable, they aren’t constant. They can be right in the winter and wrong for the spring.

Things change.

The way a heart beats,  the weather, the strength of your bones… they all change. Nothing stays the same here on earth. The thing you’re so desperately begging God for, if it’s a thing, it won’t last.

Maybe you’ll have it for eighty years. Maybe you’ll have it for a day. But at the end of it all, the thing was and can never be the point.

What it points you toward, how you grow, the person you start to become, your focus: those are the point.  The thing is just the door that takes you to those rooms, that shows you why God ever gave you breath to start with.

How that thing builds love in you, and the truth it helps you echo, that was always the point.

I don’t always get what I pray for, but either way, I’m learning to pray less for things and more for processes, for truths, for God to make me who I need to be. As far as the things, well it seems best to let God choose the ones most suited for the process.

It matters where you stand. Maybe you’ll get some cool shoes while you stand there. Maybe you’ll have good stories about what passes by. But those things will never be the point. It matters where you stand simply because of who you’ll be if and when God asks you to stand somewhere else.

 

 

I Didn’t Tell Anyone

I didn’t tell anyone that I felt paralyzed with fear that we would all crash and die. Or that if we made it, I wouldn’t have anything to say that’s actually worth hearing.

I was terrified that entire plane ride.

But I didn’t tell anyone.

When the flight attendant asked if I wanted something to drink, I just accepted a water and smiled. I could have told her I felt afraid. She was a stranger I will probably never see again. She had a compassionate smile, I think I could have told her.

I could have said something to the people next to me, the guy watching the movie or the girl working on spreadsheets. I think they would’ve listened.

I could have told them that I felt really small. That I was pretty sure I was going to epically fail to help the broken people around me, because I felt like all my strength was pointed toward taking my next breath. My entire life felt like it was falling to pieces, I was more broken than I’d ever been and I didn’t tell anyone.

I sat through a six hour plane ride in silence. I got off, grabbed my bags, and pretended that I was just an ordinary passenger on a trip she had been planning.

I didn’t mention how I booked my ticket the night before. I didn’t tell anyone that I had not slept in over twenty-four hours, or that I had barely eaten. I didn’t admit that I was ashamed of how I’d cried in my friend’s arms earlier that morning when he instantly saw that something was wrong.

I feel weak asking for help.

And it seems pretty crazy to write that because I only said it out loud for the first time two days ago. Because in my eyes, the word “help” coming out of my own mouth has always sounded so disgustingly weak.

“It’s an amazing thing to ask for help.” She looked at me, her eyes serious, and full of love.

She was referring to the shirt I was wearing, one that says: I’m capable of amazing things.

“Maybe you are capable of doing a lot of things on your own, of figuring things out for yourself. But it’s an amazing thing to ask people for help. You can be capable of that too.”

I instantly thought about that plane ride, and how I felt so alone, even though I was sandwiched between two beautiful human beings. I remembered how I just sat there beating myself up for wanting to cry.

Then I thought about lunch the other day and how I talked about the hardest thing that’s happened to me in a long time. How I discussed it so casually, as though it doesn’t daily rattle my rib cage and continuously shatter my heart.

I’ve never known how to really say things that might make me appear weak. I can tell you hard things, but I’ve learned how to edit them, make them sound bravely vulnerable when the reality is that it requires nothing of me to share them.

To share something that hasn’t quite healed, or that I cannot figure out an answer for is rarely something I willingly do. If it comes out, it’s usually through a clenched jaw and with tightened fists. It’s usually in anger. Because for a long time, I didn’t think anger was weak.

“It’s a gift, to help another human being and you’ve been withholding that gift from everyone you claim to love.”

Being the lover of gifts that I am, those words snapped the last string holding up a lifetime of pride. Because if my bank account was bigger I’d buy everyone in my orbit a vase of flowers, a box of cereal, and a ticket to somewhere that would make them come alive. Gifts are precious in my world.

I used to cry every time I’d see a kid accidentally let go of a balloon and lose it to the strength of the wind and the height of the sky. I never knew why it was one of the things that could instantly draw tears.

But its because I know the pain that cuts you when a gift is stolen, broken or lost. And the thought that I have done that, am doing it, and could continue to do it makes me want to take a sledgehammer to every wall that says: DO ANYTHING OTHER THAN LOOK WEAK.

So, maybe that hammer gets its first swing here. I guess its a first step in saying, I’m sorry that I keep taking away chances for you to get the joy of stepping in, of giving, of offering me answers that you got with your own blood, sweat and tears. You’ve got some things to show me that I can’t figure out on my own. You’ve got things worthy of being heard, arms that I don’t want to push away when you offer to help carry the things that weaken my knees.

People are a gift in the times of pain, questions, and carrying heavy things. I’m learning that not letting others give you their hearts, hands, lessons learned and words of truth is really pushing away something amazing…something you could never be capable of getting on your own.

When Something is Over

“For me, when something is over, it’s over.”

She paused, taking a sip of her latte.  “I think we’re always looking for some kind of conversation that will tie everything up, but sometimes, you just have to make your own closure.

We just sat next to the window, staring at one another. Both of us instantly realized that those words were an earth shattering secret for growth.

You don’t always get the punctuation mark you want. Sometimes you don’t get the period (the final statement). You don’t always get the exclamation mark (the words that are worthy of everything you carried). Sometimes, you get the question mark. Or sometimes, it all stops mid sentence.

Still, you can flip the page, start something new and move forward.

And maybe you go back there one day. Maybe you finally get to pull that person, that time, that place back into your story. Or maybe it was always just a chapter to build you, grow you, teach you how to value yourself.

Her brown eyes looked dead at me and she said it so firmly, “You’ll know when you have to move forward.”

I threw up my hands and asked her a million questions. I wanted specifics, I wanted the location of the neon signs that would tell me when to let things go.

“You will know. If and when that day comes, let go and run for your life.”

She didn’t say it to scare me, but because her shoulders are well familiar with the consequences of carrying heavy things for far too long.

I started thinking about the last time I had to let go and move forward. What got me there? How did I finally empty my hands and pack my bags? I remembered it was a friend who handed me a permission slip by saying these words: it’s not on you anymore.

It’s not on you anymore.

I had done the thing—the hard thing. I had given until I was somewhere far past empty and well into starving and feeling gnawing hunger pains. But even so, I needed someone to look me in the eye and recognize that I couldn’t let go on my own. I’ve never been able to pull my aching fingers and white knuckles from things that I so desperately want to keep. I wanted to fix it, to leave things better that I found them.

So, when you’ve done all you can, grab hold of this permission slip I’m offering you: it’s not on you anymore and you can make your own closure. 

We try to make movies out of our heartache. We want the dialogue that cuts, closes, makes sense of the story we’ve been walking through. Don’t wait around for that. Don’t hold on and keep trying because it hurts too much for you to think that things could end this way. Don’t drag out any pitiful stories that become thieves of your joy.

I got a permission slip from God the other day. I was vacuuming the carpet when He reminded me of my blue rubber band. I first decided to wear it around my wrist for one specific purpose: to pull at my heart when I wanted to settle. Because I am known to do that. 

I am a chronic settler.

But I figured out that summer what I wanted. I realized what could be mine if I would hold on, work hard and wait for it. For months I wore it and on days when things felt impossible, when I wanted to settle for something less, that blue rubber band would dig its point deep into my heart. There’s still more. This isn’t all there is. Keep holding on.

God brought that back to me the other night when I asked him what He thought about the things I’ve been holding in my hands.

Make your own closure.

Three cups of coffee in and I knew that those would be words to change my life. You’ll know when it’s time to let go and when that times comes, don’t bleed yourself dry waiting for closing conversations, loose ends tied up nicely, apologies and best wishes. You should walk on toward better things, because tidy endings don’t always come.