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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When The Holidays Are Hard

Some days I am still in the kitchen looking for napkins at that Christmas party. I can hear the laughter coming from the back of the house, my heart swells with the hope as the background music fades to the next track.

I immediately smile as I hear the younger version of myself laugh. Nothing was untouched by the lights that year, anything and everything was possible. All our troubles seemed miles away.

What I didn’t know was that by the next Christmas all of that hope would feel long forgotten and it would take years to get any of it back.

Fast forward to last week when I got a handwritten letter in the mail.

It was from a dear friend across the country and her words were full of that same kind of hope, risk, excitement, uncertainty. I found myself thinking about that Christmas party and about the year that followed.

I replayed what it felt like to let my heart grab on to things that were never meant to be. I let myself be taken back to those twinkle lights and the cold winter air. I let my heart stir in that hope that built me and broke me. While I can’t say I regret that time in my life, the memory of it sometimes still feels heavy whenever the holidays roll around.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. I get all warm and sappy whenever I hear it playing over the speakers in the mall, or when it greets me in the car on a dark winter morning.

I wish I could go back to the 40’s and sip coffee with the writers, Hugh and Ralph. I would ask them to tell me about the day they pulled that crumpled melody out of the trashcan. I would ask about the stories that caused them to write those words and that tune.

Let your heart be light…

Around this time of year, I have to remind myself not to get weighed down. It seems so much easier to get heavy when the days get shorter and the nights get longer. And there always seems to be so much pressure to get happier when the red ornaments come out and the big mugs of hot cider start getting passed around. The thick obsession with holiday cheer can weigh me down faster than anything else. I don’t want to miss it. According to every one and every thing, these are supposed to be my happiest months. I often feel rushed to get myself together before December slips away.

I’m figuring out that we need to learn to let our hearts be light, but that we don’t need to hurry it or force it.

Some days it is okay to remember the Christmas party that broke your heart and to grieve the chairs those people no longer fill. But then you have to let go of that weight, sweep the floors and make new invitations. Keep throwing parties and keep filling up those chairs.

Let your heart be light. Allow it to let go, allow it to hope for better years. Go and see the lights, sniff the fresh pine, watch all the best and worst Hallmark movies, help your grandmother decorate her tree, make plans to find the perfect wrapping paper. Let your heart be hopeful and expectant, even if there are hard memories and prior years that still bring pain.

Sometimes I feel like Dickens really got his stories mixed up. He really should have started off the Christmas one with that whole bit about how it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Because some days I’m still in that kitchen and I am heavy with the weight of what Christmas used to be, might have been, appears to be for everyone else. One minute, I am one pine-scented candle away from weeping in Target and the next, I’m singing Holly Jolly Christmas and flailing around in snowman pajamas.

Most days this really is the most wonderful time of the year. Still, Ralph and Hugh knew that there would be those holiday days we would need a melancholic song that would help us mourn, while simultaneously giving us a swift-kick-in-the-rear with a challenge like let your heart be light. 

I’m not sure if those guys knew it, but a different kind of Christmas light is the only thing that can help us with the heavy weight. That Light came in the middle of the night to a bunch of people on the run, who were probably crying over old Christmas parties, and whose lives looked nothing like Hallmark movies. He saw all the sadness, darkness, pain, loss, loneliness they were in and He came.

And when He took his first human breath, I think that was really the first time the world heard what are quickly becoming my favorite words of the season: let your heart be light.

 

 

Learning from Loneliness

I used to live in a house with some fierce women and we spent our evenings eating dinner in the kitchen floor while laughing, crying, yelling, or praying.

Now, I come home to a quiet apartment, to the hum of my refrigerator and the buzz of the light above my stove.

It’s cozy this time of year. I turn on my Christmas lights and wrap up in my chunky gray blanket. It’s quiet and peaceful; there is a lot of time to think pray. I do a lot of that these days, a lot of eating take-out food and talking out loud to the only one who can hear me.

There’s a lot of sitting with my own thoughts. I’ve learned more about myself in these months than maybe in my entire life. I’ve learned a lot about staying with myself, being patient, laughing at my quirky tendencies, forgiving my breakdowns, talking through my frustrations, trusting my gut.

It’s an interesting thing to see how you’ll react the first time you have to call someone from maintenance to repair something, or how you’ll respond if/when you accidentally forget to pay a bill. How hard you fight when everything starts pushing against you. You will surprise yourself and suddenly find out the kind of adult that the childhood version of you grew up to be.

Some nights you will get texts from other friends or see pictures online of everyone eating meals together and you will feel the sting of not being there. There are responsibilities you carry now: work, school, freelance, bills, groceries, laundry.

It will hurt. You will learn to sit with yourself in the pain of working through loneliness and it will hurt. You will reflect on all the times in your life when you weren’t alone. You will regret all the times you chose to be alone when you could have called on others. Because now you don’t always have the choice.

You will think about the movie you went to see by yourself years ago, how you bragged that you were so independent. You will think about the person who told you, I would have gone with you” and you will hate your youthful pride. The pain of wishing they could say that to you now will settle deep into your bones.

You will put up your first very own Christmas tree and it will make you squeal with joy. You will be proud of it. But no one will will stand next to you to share that joy. You will sit alone and you will learn something beautiful about yourself in that moment. 

You love Christmas. You love trees. You love making things beautiful. Beauty can and should still be enjoyed alone, you’ll learn that a lot. You will instantly remember all the times in your youth when you acted like Christmas and decorating was an inconvenience. When you had other things you needed or wanted to do and you will realize that you never want to be that person again. You never want to be the person who thinks celebrating comes too early and who hurries to get it over with.

Loneliness can be one of the best things and worst things to ever happen to you. I’ve found out that I am one of the funniest people I know. I am the worst grocery shopper on the planet. I hate laundry with a fierce passion. Washing dishes calms me. I am the kind of person who has a junk drawer. It is necessary to have 7 shampoos in the shower at once. Bonefish has really good Sunday brunch. I feel weirdly guilty when I use paper towels. I use a lot of paper towels. I like wearing tennis shoes. Every night get really sentimental and teary when I’m turning off all the lights and getting ready for bed. I enjoy myself. I’m learning to stay with myself and to fight for the person that I’ve become and am hoping I’ll turn out to be.

I’m sorry I didn’t ask you to come to that movie.
I really love Christmas.
I might be looking to hire someone to do my laundry.
You should all invest in stock in Bounty.
Sit with yourself, stay with yourself, fight to become the kind of person that sometimes only loneliness can teach you to be.

 

 

I have one less pair of pants and I now need to hide underground, but it will all be okay.

The ceiling literally caved in. I came home a few weeks ago to big chunks of my ceiling laying in the floor.

Then came final exams, a crazy list of things to-do at work, a roach in my bathroom, getting incredibly sick, and then accidentally and unintentionally stalking an old(ish) man.

Then came the world’s worst migraine that lasted for a week, which led me to an allergic reaction, which then led to me throwing my pants away (of which I have no recollection of).

Needless to say, my life over the last several weeks could have been a sitcom. I seriously think television networks could benefit from following me around.

In the middle of all of it, I found myself exhausted, terrified, frustrated, mortified, and amused.

But I also came to find out that the world didn’t end.

Somehow all the assignments that needed to be finished were completed, the speeches that had to be composed were written. The designs, deadlines, and e-mails were all taken care of.  I woke up this morning to realize that though I have one less pair of pants, and I now need to hide underground for a few years after the stalking mishap, that it is all going to be ok.

I think sometimes I forget that God works things out. He makes a way. Granted, I have to do my part sometimes, I have to be responsible with my time and my energy. I have to cooperate with wisdom, but it always gets done and works out. And even when I screw it up, His grace can and does still meet me.

I so easily take that for granted. I have a crazy and stressful week, I survive and then I just move on. I don’t always stop to mark the moment and say, the next time everything explodes and I’m a wreck of a human being who is staggering into doctor’s offices and beating a roach with a broom at 2 am, I should remember that God was with me this time and it all worked out.

I guess what I’m saying is that you’re going to be okay. Whatever the weeks and months look like for you right now, you’re going to make it and you’ll make it through the next time after that as well.

Think about all the times that you swore it wasn’t going to work out, you wouldn’t finish it all, you wouldn’t survive, you wouldn’t be okay. You’re here, you’re breathing, you made it. Maybe it didn’t all turn out the way you thought it would, but the world didn’t end and you’re still moving.

Take a minute, just stop and remember that you can’t control it all and that you don’t have to. He’s got this. The one who is in control of everything has always and will always have you, and He will work it out. 

On becoming a cheerleader for the people who broke your heart.

My knees sunk into the carpet and I found myself crouching down in the tiny space between my couch and coffee table.

I broke in a way that life had not allowed until that moment. I broke for the younger version of myself, the one who became numb in order to survive the pain. I wept for my present self, for the person who was now overcome with years of emotion that she had hoped somehow vanished over time.

I was angry. I was relieved. I was a combination of every emotion imaginable and none of them felt acceptable. It seemed too late to feel it all; it seemed somewhat irrelevant to my life now.

But the initial pain had been so daunting and threatening when it first arrived. It had all come on so quickly and so strongly that I felt myself falling into a hole. Back then, I feared that I would never survive if I allowed myself to feel it all.

So now, years removed, there is safety to let myself grieve those painful conversations, lost years, absent friends, and dead dreams.

But when it all surfaced, I needed to know that it wasn’t going to kill me. I needed to know that I wasn’t going to drown like I once feared.

I needed to feel it in a healthy and productive way. I needed a way to let myself process years of pain without becoming so overwhelmed that I laid down and never got up again.

I decided to process all the emotions in a way that produced something.

Because pain is a shovel and you can let it be used to bury you, or you can grab hold of it and break new ground.

So I went to Walgreens and printed pictures of the people and memories that are painful. I grabbed a pack of magnets and proceeded to hang them on my refrigerator. Around them I’ve begun to post prayers and promises. I pray for God to fill their hands with good and enduring things.

And what I’ve quickly learned is that real forgiveness looks like becoming a cheerleader for the people who broke your heart. 

It doesn’t look like sweeping things under the rug or tucking them in drawers. It looks like not being afraid to look at the hard things, but teaching yourself to pair them with good and kind thoughts. Forgiveness means choosing to fight for truth over the current facts.

I’m not going to pretend that that first week wasn’t torturous. I woke up with an aching heart; the last thing I wanted to see through my bloodshot eyes was a reminder of what I had lost.

But little by little, looking at those photos has gotten easier. And now each morning as I brew my coffee, I am slowly creating a pattern of no longer associating those names and faces with pain.

Because people are not the pain they’ve caused you. They’re worth more than that.

Believe me when I tell you that it’s becoming incredibly hard to hold back forgiveness. When every day you see someone’s bright blue eyes surrounded by words of forgiveness and grace, it’s hard to stay angry. Something in you starts to change when you’re constantly saying good things about them over and over again.

Sometimes we think forgiveness is just this intangible process that happens over time. But forgiveness requires participation and action; it requires doing something productive and positive with your pain.

Print the pictures. Post them with notes with prayers of grace. Wake up, brew some coffee, and say a prayer. Then, please come back here in a little while and tell me about all the ways you’re learning to love again.

You Don’t Have to Let Them Go

I’ve always been in love with the blue hour.

The blue hour is that little span of time before the sunrise and after the sunset when the sun is sitting far below the horizon. It’s when the sky is trying to hold on to both morning and evening. It can’t let go, but it knows it has no choice but to change its position.

Our culture is obsessed with the idea of letting go.

My inbox is full of people begging me to tell them the secret of how to get over it and move on.

I found myself drowning in nostalgia today. I was choking on these memories of things that I wanted to change and thinking about people that I haven’t learned how to let go of.

“Everyone says I need to let go, but I can’t let go!” These are the words I told God as I gasped for breath and wiped my face with a pile of napkins I’d shoved in my console.

“There are some people that you’re not called to let go of. You can hold on; I’m telling you to hold on.”

I felt blindsided by His words, by this idea that letting go wasn’t the victory podium after heartbreak.

You have to change the way you hold them, but you don’t have to let them go.

You can hold people differently. When they can’t be the thing for you that they used to be, it doesn’t mean you have to let them go.

What we’ve been taught about heartbreak and broken relationships is that you’re healed when you can walk away.

But there will always be people that life, geography, and God, just won’t let you walk away from. Because the goal can’t always be learning to let go. Sometimes the goal has to be endurance and learning what it means to stay for the long haul, years after what you thought should happen is out of the realm of possibility.

Sometimes it’s okay to carry them–carry them in your prayers, in your laughter. Hang them on your refrigerator. Keep their notes and gifts tucked beneath your bed.

Maybe that person or group of people can’t be what you once wanted them to be, but maybe you can still both be something the other needs. Maybe the test of growth is when you can shove aside the selfishness that says: I only want you on my terms. You have to fit perfectly in all the places I once carved out for you. 

Sometimes growth is rearranging the space in your heart and figuring out how to fit someone elsewhere. Because it would be sad to spend your days without their contagious laughter or strong words of advice just because they no longer fit on that old shelf. You may have to let go of what you needed or hoped they would be, but that should not always synonymous with letting them go.

C.S. Lewis once said, “It’s not the load that breaks you. It’s the way you carry it.”

I think he’d probably agree that the load could be people.

And maybe it’s not always just the people that broke you, maybe it was also the way you carried them.

Maybe all the expectations you stacked on them, the misunderstanding you layered them with, maybe that wore you down even more quickly.

But maybe they’re your God-given load, for better or worse, maybe they are your people and you’re going to have to carry them. So, when that is the case, learn to carry them differently.

I’m figuring out that the victory podium isn’t for the first one who figures out how to shove someone out of their life and heart. The real victory belongs to the ones who learn how to throw out the expectations, unforgiveness, demands and conditions in order to make room for the people who were always meant to be there.

 

When Reality Isn’t Romantic

My first warning sign should have been that he took me to a really horrible buffet and I said nothing. That being our first time out, I should have questioned whether or not I was on a dead-end road.

But I’ve always been someone who can find a way to make the dullest things seem enchanting.

So, I figured I could probably spin a story about gloopy Chinese food (at a place that looked like a prison cafeteria) into something romantic…right?

No. Sometimes bad Chinese food is just bad Chinese food. Sometimes a walk in the rain is not a cinematic fairytale. Sometimes it’s awkward and you end up coming inside to a house full of people staring at you while you’re dripping all over the carpet.

Sometimes the things we tend to think are charming and glamorous are actually just incredibly tragic if we step back and open our eyes to reality.

In reality, I was stuck in a weird “relationship” that was nothing more than a sad attempt to live inside of a story that, from the outside, would have made a great Nicholas Sparks novel.

But if I had chosen to have some hard conversations earlier, I would have saved myself so much time.

We keep growing the wrong things.

We grow the story, the attraction, the picturesque moments that make all of our friends swoon. But we don’t grow the roots. We don’t grow the foundation. We don’t inspect or toil the ground we’re planting in. We don’t stop and ask why someone is taking us to the worst Chinese buffet on the planet…we make an excuse and romanticize it.

We do this because reality isn’t always romantic. Reality is, if a man takes you to a really bad Chinese buffet, there will probably be a whole other list of questionable decisions that follow.

Rather than talking about it and pulling at the loose threads, we hold on to the hope that maybe there’s some kind of glamour to be salvaged or spun from a very weird and awkward scenario. But if we were to pull at those threads, we’d see that poorly crafted “relationships” fall apart at the slightest bit of tension.

“The griefs that punish us the most are those we’ve chosen for ourselves.”

Knee deep in studying, I read that line the other night and let my heart steep in those words. The stories we tell ourselves, the things we make up and choose to believe, those are the things that punish us the most. The threads we ignore, tuck away, and pretend aren’t there.

Because we know if we pull at them, it will all unravel and we’re not ready to let go. We know when a relationship is cheap, but we hold on because it’s something. Maybe it will change, and at least for now it staves off the loneliness.

But we need relationships sewn together with hard conversations, painful truths, and choosing one another long after the rose-colored glasses have gotten foggy. We need to stop constantly romanticizing the difficulty of walking next to another human being. It isn’t just something to Instagram, it’s something to grind through with blood, sweat, tears and lots of prayers.

It’s cheap to push aside those hard conversations because we’re afraid of spooking the butterflies. We have to stop clinging to that fairytale idealism we were told was necessary to keep love alive.

It seems we’ll do anything to keep our fairytales (even choke down a greasy knock-off version of General Tso’s chicken).

We ignore the threads that could so easily unravel the relationships we claim to value most. We don’t ask the question of why someone doesn’t respect us (or himself) enough to take us to a restaurant with a passing sanitation grade. Instead, we smile our way through it because we’ve convinced ourselves that the kind of relationship that lasts is one where no one rocks the boat.

But rocking the boat and pulling the threads is the thing that shows us where the leaks and tears are, where to mend and where to rebuild. We must learn how to be painfully aware of another’s imperfections, unafraid to expose our own, and the value of choosing the other with eyes wide open.

Because love is not passive. Love is not blind. Love that lasts is the kind that sees everything, is given a choice and chooses to say something; it chooses work it out and stay in spite of everything.