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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That Was The Night That Broke Me

Honestly, I didn’t think I would make it out alive.

I remember that the sky was black, the darkest I’d ever seen it. One hand on the steering wheel, the other holding the back of my neck. I was screaming and sobbing. I was fighting for my life and at that point, I felt it could go either way.

The streetlights were blurred by the ache in my head and burning tears in my eyes. My vision went in and out of focus. There were moments when the pain pushed through me so fiercely that I’d find myself leaning over the middle console, praying from the depths of my soul. There’s no earthly explanation for how I kept my car on the road.

My tiny foot ramming into the gas pedal, I was racing down I-85. All I knew was that I had to keep going. With every mile marker I passed, the pain grew worse and fear tightened his grip.

My phone battery was blinking, just a few minutes and my phone would be dead. I turned it off, trying to save what little life it had left. I just kept telling myself to get somewhere safe: anywhere but there. If I could just find a safe place, I could call for help.

I remember pulling into that restaurant parking lot, picking up my phone and shakily dialing. “This is where I am. I’m in this town. It’s at this exit, please come.”

Immediately after those few sentences escaped my mouth, my phone died.

That was the night that broke me. I convulsively wept until I was choking and gasping for air. I waited. For hours, I waited and I cried. I slept a little in my car. Then, I went inside the restaurant and I ate yogurt, drank coffee, laid my head on the table and mumbled a prayer of very few words.

I’ll never get that picture out of my head. The image is burned into my brain: the look on her face when she got out of her car. The pain, the worry, the relief on her face when she finally grabbed me in a tight hug.

When my eyes opened the next morning, I only laid there in my childhood room and stared at the blank white wall in front of me. For hours, I just laid there.

There were a lot of mornings after where I did the same.

In the months that followed, I remember mostly one thing: everyone just kept telling me to move on.

I’d tell my heart, my limbs, my head to listen to them, to strengthen themselves and to get up, to move on. But they didn’t and I couldn’t. And every single time I saw those old friends again, they’d say the same words: just get up and move on.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about my ribs hurled over that console, my head screaming at my body not to stop fighting. I just kept thinking about how no matter how hard my foot pushed, I couldn’t go fast enough. I kept remembering her face, that look that said, I wish I could have gotten here faster. 

It took a while to recover from that.

But there was one thing that never helped, that never eased my pain: someone telling me to “just get over it and move on”.

Yes, I know they were trying to help and that it killed them to see me in such grief and pain. I’m not even saying they weren’t right, but the truth is it didn’t help. 

So, I’m not going to tell you to get over it and move on.

Because I wasn’t there.

I wasn’t there when you went through your darkest moments, your longest nights. I wasn’t there when you felt your deepest pain, gave your hardest fight.

And maybe you’re like me, and you have a story that only you, God and a stretch of highway will ever really understand. Maybe there are some things you’ll never find words for, moments you’ve lived that you’ll never be able to whisper out into the world.

I’m not going to tell you that you have to tell that story.

Because you don’t. It’s yours, to hold and to give. You get to be the one to hand out permission slips, invitations for someone to walk in and know the details of your pain.

But what I will tell you is that,  I hope the day comes when you let someone in.

In the core of my being sits this certainty that every little thing we’ve gone through has powerful potential. If we use them, they can bring light to someone who is now sitting in that same place of darkness.

Our songs may never be the same, but the fear, the pain, the fighting and the rescue all have the same tune. We all, in some ways, live ours lives hearing the same melodies. Sometimes, we just need to sit together and share the different words.

So, I’m not going to tell you to get over it, move on, let go. Because I already know that day will come. You’re a fighter and grace got you this far. I’ll just grip my coffee mug and clench my fists and pray that the same God who undoubtedly drove my car down the highway that night, also grabs ahold of you in your grief.

Sometimes, it takes weeks before we can walk again. For some stories, it takes years to heal. I’m not going to be the one to give you an expiration date for your pain.

But our stories, if we let them, have light to give. When people come broken, I don’t want us to simply tell them to get over it and let it go. My hope is that we grab ahold of them, and that for whatever stretch of time they limp, we let them lean on our shoulders.

May we be unafraid to tell our stories, and may we use them as a light. May we selflessly help others through the dark places in which we ourselves have already been.

The Fight You’ll Never Win

I wish someone had told me back then that love is not a competition.

I wish someone had come to me and said: “If there ever comes a time when you’re thrown into the ring and told to fight is to prove yourself, to prove your value; if you feel the need to make people think you’re something different than you are, that’s the time to throw your hands up and bow out.

Maybe then I would have known I was throwing and taking punches in a fight that never crowns a final winner.

Growing up, I was too skinny. My curly hair was out of control. My thick, but beautifully arched eyebrows were called unruly. These days, those attributes are coveted. Everyone wants to be skin and bones, every woman I know owns a curling wand. The new trend is for girls draw in thicker, more full eyebrows than what they already have.

The rules are always changing. That’s something I wish I had known.

Just when you’ve finally saved enough for the right pair of jeans, or have hit your “target weight” or have perfected your beachy waves hairstyle: all the rules change.

Decide now, just to be a rule breaker. Because your jokes are funny. Your hair is perfectly fine the way it is. The size of your jeans won’t make the world stop spinning.

Know that there will always be people who slide on their gloves and taunt you to get in the ring.

There will be people who will kick you with insults that are wrapped beneath a sticky sweet condescending smile. They will steal your jokes, your witty one liners and sign their name at the end. They will be better than you at volleyball, dancing or baking, and they’ll make sure you and everybody else knows it.

But they can’t take anything from you. No one on earth can put their feet in your shoes and go the exact distance and route you’ve gone. No one could ever be better at being you.

So, stop apologizing for the things that make you weird, or the things that nobody has ever complimented. Stop trying to be a competitor in a contest that seeks to make us all look and act the same.

I spent years trying to throw those defining words away.

Like those leftover mashed sweet potatoes that stayed in my fridge for far too long, like the junk mail you never remember subscribing to, like the tree limbs that fell in last week’s ice storm.

I. Wanted. To. Be. Done.

I wanted to be done with syllables, sentences, paragraphs, that had been tossed toward me like I was dog begging for scraps. Words that someone else used to tell me who I’m supposed to be.

And if I’m not careful, I’ll start carrying them around again. 

Back then, I learned how brace myself like I was a balloon in the hand of someone whose other hand held a needle; he made me think that he held the power to drain me of all my worth. Be the best. Speak softer. Have less opinions. Look prettier. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be the pick-of-the-day.

But I never saw how he carried his own disappointments like a wildfire, until they nearly burned me to the ground.

Breeding defeat and disappointment were his specialties and I ordered them every single time.

Believe me when I say that I paid for it, over and over again. It took months on top of months until I maxed out and finally heard PAYMENT DECLINED. That day, I fell to my knees and prayed for the next person who would someday get in over their head in his kind of debt.

Someone should tell you that love does not require repayment. It doesn’t send out itemized statements, rules, or lists of demands.

The envelopes that hold those bills are the personalized stationary of Misery and Selfishness. You need to consider an address change the first day they stamp and mail something your way.

You don’t have to compete for love. Your fight isn’t one to prove you’re enough. You don’t have to be anyone or anything other than yourself. And people who take swings at you, or try to measure your worth: know that those people are burning in their own disappointment. Chances are they’ve had their share of people use harsh words to tell them who they’re supposed to be.

Figure out your own standards. Don’t let others become your measuring stick, the thing that says whether or not you’re enough.

Know who you are and stop apologizing for it. Learn to love all the parts of you, even if each one of them breaks all the rules.

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

Blood shot eyes, I just sat there with my face soaked in tears. Hands beneath the table, I was clenching that elegant white table cloth, praying we could just get that meal over with.

No one asked.

I think that had to be one of the most monumental moments of that year. Sitting at a table in some of the deepest pain I’ve ever known, and the people I thought were closest to me never even asked.

He was gone. Not gone on vacation, not moved away. He was really gone and at that moment being prepared to be lowered in the ground.

I could have tapped my glass, stood to give a toast, and at the end tacked on: “and with this sip of water, I toast to the life of a childhood friend who isn’t simply moving away, but who no longer has breath in his body.”

I didn’t, thank God. My mother gave me the sense to know that doing those kinds of things wouldn’t have changed what had already occurred. Still, sometimes I lie awake and wonder if it would have been an alarm clock to a room full of people who claim to love me.

I want to be the person who asks, even when I don’t want to, even if it’s uncomfortable. I want to see brokenness and not be afraid of it. I want to love people so much that even if their arms push me away, I push harder to let them know that it’s okay to not be okay.

I think sometimes we’re just all afraid to dig deeper, to ask painful questions. We’re afraid of what could occur if we light a match next the pile of dynamite pain. I don’t want to be standing too close if and when this explodes. 

“I’ll let them come to me.” We tell ourselves, “When they’re ready to talk about it… they will.”

Sometimes that’s true, but most of the time it’s an excuse.

We sit at fancy tables with white table cloths and we just try to shield our eyes from the person dripping tears into their lap. This isn’t the time or place. Can’t they just get it together until the time is more appropriate? I’ll ask them later, when there are less people around, when I have more time.

We give them a little side hug, buy their food, a little pat on the back, but we steer clear of words and apologies. It’s easier just to not ask, to say a little prayer and hope that God handles it and we don’t have to.

We’re always waiting for better moments to love people. We’re waiting until we’ve changed into lesser clothes before we sit down in the mud with them.

I’m not sure when it became embarrassing or improper to not be okay. As though it were a choice, or as if it could be controlled. We treat it as though little bandaids can hold back the blood of gaping wounds. Just put this over it, put on a little smile until it’s more convenient, but don’t break, not here, not in public.

Sitting at that table on that Sunday afternoon where no one asked, I nearly bled out. While faces were turned and entrees were served, I felt almost everything drain out of me.

I wondered if that was how he felt. Had he been stabbed with that same feeling over and over again? Had he just sat in room after room, at table after table while no one asked? Did he feel inconvenient, weak, shameful? Is that what caused him to end his life? Did they watch him bleed out, never willing to put their hands on his wounds and call for help?

You can’t save people. Those words have been said to me over and over again, I know they are true. But I can scream, I can yell, I can make a scene to say that you are loved and you are not in this thing alone. I may not can save them, but I must be willing to push people out of the ways of trains, away from cliffs; to bring flashlights to them on dark paths where it seems like there’s only one end.

I can’t save people, but that can never be a reason not to fight for someone’s life with all the fierce love inside of me.

I want to dig my heels in and say “It’s alright if you make a scene, let it out, be angry or broken. You are not an embarrassment. I don’t see you as a fragile or useless person when you’re not okay. It’s okay to not be okay.”

Pain is not a gentleman. He pushes himself to the front of the line, knocks displays over, and wounds others in his way. He does not wait patiently on the porch. He bangs his hands brutally against your door and barges in before you’ve even had time to fix your hair.

Pain shows up and there isn’t always a warning, a phone call to say what time he’ll arrive, he shows up with guns blazing. Pain is not proper, so Love is does not wait for convenience.

Love doesn’t care if her dress is wrinkled or her eyes are bloodshot. Love doesn’t mind weeping in public or knees hitting the carpet. She doesn’t really care what the onlookers at the restaurant think of her or the one she holds. She doesn’t keep a watch, doesn’t wait for quiet, isn’t afraid of words or silence. Love has no expectation, no requirement, no desire to wait for a better time. 

Pain will surely come, most times in a loud and unruly manner. When he does, may he be met with Love, who never minds a mess and isn’t afraid of making a scene.

The Church Didn’t Teach Me The Gospel

Sitting around that worn wooden table, we just glared at one another.

These glares often followed an outburst of saying some things our mothers would not have been proud of.

I never turned to see how many people were staring at us during the times when we would scream at the top of our lungs. Night after night, this happened, inside a room that often held so many people that everyone was forced to sit or stand shoulder to shoulder.

We were finally far enough away from home. Finally, we were an ocean away from the hell we had been in for the last two years. At last, we felt free to say some things we had learned to swallow and choke back down, whenever they had threatened to come spewing out.

No need to whisper anymore, it wasn’t necessary to peek over our shoulders and make sure the coast was clear. We could slam our fists, raise our voices. We could use names, dates, places. No need for discretion, no desire to filter, just brokenness laid bare on the table before us.

I was done with secrets, at least for those few weeks. The strength in my voice had finally cracked under the torturous pain that those secrets had bore into my skin. Bloody and bruised, I gave up the fight to appear brave.

For me, the last leak of light had disappeared. I stopped trying to mask the wretched smell of my own blood, my infections; the way the pain and hopelessness had cut me and left me unbandaged and left for dead. My hands clenched the dirt that my once joyful face now lay on, I knew I could hold out no longer. I knew, then and there, that I was absolutely and undeniably finished with pretending like I could crawl another inch.

These are the things I never said when I came home from that trip.

This was the story that I left at the airport before I boarded the plane to come home. I decided to live by the whole line of what happens there, stays there.

But I didn’t come home healed, clean, or pretty. I managed to bring all of the agony to the surface and then when I stepped foot back home, I felt that sense of urgency to tuck it all away again. I needed people to believe that I had done my holy duty, I had given “our kind” a good name. I wanted the church, my friends, my family to believe I had taken flight, changed the world and come home a little more cultured, a little more experienced, a little older and a little wiser.

The reality was, I’d come home a little more reckless, a lot less reserved, and panicking to pretend like I didn’t see the worst version of myself when I looked in the mirror.

Because the reality was, in the year before that trip, I had seen more death, more defeat, more bitterness, more failure, more ruin than I’ve seen in all my other years combined. There had been things done in that time that had been so hurtful, so downright selfish and toxic. I had seen certain glares of evil that my once naive heart could have never even fathomed. But rather than turning on the light and staring those monsters right in the eye, I had kept my knees to my chest and sat with eyes closed in my bed. In the middle of the darkness with all its demons, I just remember thinking to myself, daylight always comes. It won’t feel this way forever, it can’t last forever.

I would remember thinking about that verse that said, though pain comes in the night, joy will come in the morning.

But when I would wake up in the morning, it was still dark. It was still painful, I was still shaking.

These are not things you expect when reading a Christian blog. These are not the things we paint for you on our stained glass windows. These are not the things I bring up at the breakfast table, or chat about over coffee on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

But this was reality. I cannot say I reached a point of depression to which I could not function. I cannot say that I internally dealt with thoughts or ideas that many people I know have. God kept me from places of self-hatred, of losing my will to live, or of decisions that could have ruined mine or my family’s lives. I was protected from those places, I was kept safe from those corners of darkness. But nevertheless, I faced fear that the church never taught me about. I came face to face with things that no mentor, minister or televangelist had ever fully admitted to walking through.

I had heard lines like, “I’ve gone through some dark times, but the Lord brought me out.”

But no one ever told the details of that darkness. No one had been authentic enough to pour out the gory and raw specifics of what it takes to hold on when you’ve worn out all your black dresses from going to funerals. I hadn’t heard stories of how dim it could get before dawn would come. My Bible sing-a-long songs had never told me that I would feel abandoned, forgotten, paralyzed. I had no grid for what life could look like when I had “done all the right things” and “made good choices” and was still attacked and assaulted by evil.

I was in a war, they told me I had weapons. They handed me verses about armor. They said I’d be able to fight. They never prepared me for the repulsive and vile face of the enemy standing on the other side of that battlefield. They made me think he was a little cartoon with shiny red horns and a laugh like the villain of a Disney movie.

The church did me a disservice when it came to teaching me how to grip hope when darkness would steal so much of the rope that there was not enough threads left to “tie a knot and hold on”.

I finally understood why so many sanctuaries sit empty and the rate of substance abuse, suicide and war were on the rise. We disarmed our best soldiers by training them with a simulation of stories with fluffy vocabulary about “trials and storms” when the reality is they will come face to face with an enemy who doesn’t fight fair and only plays dirty. He can come with excruciating beatings, cause agony with the twisting of his knife, spin hurricanes that knock down everything they pass.

I had been trained to believe that if I read my Bible, sang my songs, quoted my memory verses; then I would “weather the storms”.

They told me God was my shield, but they never told me what I’d need him to cover me from. They said He was my strength, but they never told me how weak I could really get. They said he’d be my joy, but they never really told me how that I’d need it because I could become utterly hopeless.

They used their Christian terms, their catchy (and not so catchy) praise songs. They didn’t tell me the truth. To the ones they raise in their four walls, the sheltered ones, they shut off from the world, they never tell them what it’s really like when they push you out of the nest to “Go to the nations” or “Go make disciples”.

I write this with absolute certainty that many will judge me. I don’t care. Because there are other believers out there, sitting in their pain and believing that for some unknown reason; they are the only Christian to ever know such pain. They are not. You may lie to them, you may dress it up with pretty pictures and a Jesus with a shiny robe and silky soft hair. I will not.

The reality is, I rarely listen to “Christian songs”. Because they’re perky and make me think that I’ll just keep walking on and pumping my fist and quoting Philippians 4:13 and that that is how I will “overcome”.

They write songs about how His love is warm and cuddly and will cause me to be able to do the aforementioned things like skip through life and shine my little light.

When the reality is that His love is not a sunny day that will make all the clouds disappear. It is a fierce and devastating force to be reckoned with, it is what stands up in front of me and fights violently for me when I am face down in utter ruin. When my body and mind are so battered, bruised and broken that I cannot stand, that I can no longer cry, that a whimper would require more strength than my mouth may possess.

And His Word is not a little butter-knife that will trim off bad habits and bad behaviors. Life isn’t just as easy as writing in my prayer journal to add a warm delightful topping to my “daily bread”.

His Words are a sword that cut lies and mutilate evil and dismember the limbs of the ones who come to murder me when I sleep.

This is the Gospel and this is the God I’ve come to know this year. This is not the sing-a-long song that I carried around in my little cassette deck. This is reality, this is the truth. This is what we’re up against. This is my victory. This is what I know about this battle. This is how He won it. This is why I’m a Christian. This is why He was on a cross.

It was not so I could have little arm floats to hold “little ole sinful me” while I splashed in the kiddie pool. It was so that when I hit the bottom of the darkest, deepest nightmares of my life that I could grip an anchor that would bring me back to the place where he could breathe life back into my water-filled lungs and with his scarred hands pump a rhythm back into a heart that stopped beating.

This is the reality. This is hope. This, in all its scandal and controversy and offensive imagery is the Gospel and it is not the one I’ve heard in most churches.

But I have not given up on the church, even so. Even in her disservice to me, I love her more now than I ever have. I do not say these things to start a rebellion, to sway someone to never again darken her doors. I say this to open the platform, to pull back the curtains, to call her higher,  and to challenge her to speak truth. This is to stir up authenticity, and to apologize for her wrongdoings.

I say this to remind her and myself of our first love, of the Man and God who still pursues us. To charge us, to love him back… for who He is, not the Hallmark Movie Hero we tried to make Him out to be.

I say this to say: let’s tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth… so help us, God.