When Memories are Our God

I spent a good chunk of my early twenties regretting two days: an afternoon at a sushi restaurant and a night I spent alone watching Batman at the movie theater inside of the mall.

I didn’t realize it, but all those years I spent driving around my hometown arguing with God, I was trying to figure out a way to convince Him to turn back time. I knew if He would just let me do them over I could fix everything.

It wasn’t until last week with my forearms resting on a picnic table, young eyes and beautiful faces staring at me that I finally admitted the truth.

That day in the sushi restaurant and that night in the movie theater could no longer be my God. They could not be the thing I lived for–the thing that I leaned on to save my life any longer.

Later in the week I cried on the baking aisle at Kroger because I realized that until we decide to let go of those moments that we’re convinced changed everything, we will spend our entire lives making idols out of a day on a calendar that cannot offer you anything for your future.

Constantly looking at the past, at a moment, a hurt, a grief, a thing we cannot forgive–in ourselves or someone else– eventually makes it our God. When we obsessively expect or want something from it, analyze it in hopes for some kind of redemption or some kind of answer, we begin to worship it. When we obsessively believe that it will fix everything, if we get an answer or get “closure” from that moment, we make it our God.

Those two moments are ones I couldn’t forgive myself for. They are also moments I could not forgive someone else for. Within them were layered years of trust issues and excuses for why freedom was out of my reach. But anything that keeps you from freedom is your God. Anything that you are so locked into, given over to so fully, anything that has permission to take control of you without your ability to have yourself back–that thing is your God. 

For me they were my trust issues, that came with seeing that birthday bag hidden at the end of that table, and the words said to me when I was wearing that blue jacket. They became my God because I was so trapped in how they broke my heart. I gave them my mind, my heart, my trust. If they had gone differently, oh how my life would have turned out to be something else to behold.

When memories are our God, we give them our hearts, our best years of forgiveness and trust. Back when I was young and dumb, back before I knew that people were so cruel. 

We think our wisdom and better understanding of the world is what took our ability to just hand out trust and forgiveness, but really it was our idolatry of our memories. If we were honest, we’ve spent our years fixated, worshipping days of our lives, thinking that if we could get them back they would heal the deepest parts of our souls.

We have given credit where it is not due and thought if this day had not happened, I would be better than I am right now.

We exalt hours, minutes, or seconds; we worship the hands of the clock. We think it was moments that broke us, time that heals us, and will be at-first-sight seconds that save us.

But time is just a measure, a tool, a thing. If we could finally invent the time machine we’ve all been praying for, I’m convinced that none of us would be happier, healthier, better off. Because it would not change our hearts; we could change a moment, but we could not change what got us there.

Because everything that built up to that moment would not have changed. It’s cause and effect, my dear. That moment was built on a thousand other little things that made it what it was. The second you realize that is the second you might finally learn to forgive. Because the human heart is far more complicated that just one passing moment. We must stop holding it inside a prison of one split second, one long day, one complicated year.

Time and your memories are too small to be your God; they are too far gone to fix you, too fleeting to save you.

But if they hold your trust, have stolen your forgiveness, trapped your joy–you’ve made them your God.

If you’ve used words that sound something like: “But you don’t know what happened to me”, that moment, that sixty seconds, that day, that stretch of the earth spinning of the earth around the sun– that became your God.

It became the thing that you gave permission to break and name you. And if you’re honest it’s the thing you believe, if you could get it back, would be able to save you.

There’s a baking aisle in Kroger and it’s where I decided that the calendar wasn’t the thing I wanted to wake up next to every morning. I didn’t want to grow old with and give everything to a day or a year I had circled in red.

It’s where God became God again and time and its memories became a thing I finally stopped trying to change.

 

 

The New and Good Year

I think most of humanity is in agreement about one thing right now: saying goodbye to 2016 will not break our hearts. I’m pretty sure that the guy who started the campaign to save Betty White is all of us right now. We all feel that nothing was off limits to the insanity of the year, and we’re all just ready to do whatever it takes to get to 2017 without taking another big hit.

That being said, 2016 was a year that I think I learned more than most of my other years combined. When I look back, I think I could fill an entire stadium with pages of lessons I picked up along the way. I’ll leave you with a little bit of what this year taught me. Through the good, the bad, the really bad, the unimaginably tragic, the incredibly scary, the weirdly ironic, and the unbelievably shocking, 2016 left me with some things I needed.

  • There’s a moment to grow up. You’ll know when that moment comes. You finally stop making decisions that are magical and start making decisions that are fruitful. You start realizing your decisions need to require you to think about other people, about investment. You learn that your feelings, your whims, your desires are not the most important things in the world. You can’t live for them or make your decisions by them because the consequences have never been and will never be worth it.
  • If living alone is possible in your single years, do it. It’s pretty wonderful to live in a house full of people laughing and splashing coffee all over the countertops, but there’s something invaluable about learning to grow into your own space. There’s something about coming home to silence and sitting with your thoughts. There are prayers you pray in that quiet that you’d never pray with other people running in and out of rooms. There are moments you can slide down and sit on the hardwood floor with tears in your eyes and without fear that someone is going to come barreling through the door. There’s just a peace and safety to work through all the questions in a real and raw way. I think solitude is one of God’s favorite medicines.
  • Your experiences are not always the truth. Your experiences are true because they happened, but what you believe about them and the stories you tell yourself may not necessarily be true. We fill in the gaps and the holes of our hearts with stories that make us feel better, and sometimes that’s the only way we know to survive. We tell ourselves the relationship ended because we loved them too much and they just couldn’t handle our love. We tell ourselves that our parents left us because they hated us, because we were never enough for them. We fill in those things left unspoken with stories, and the emptiness we sit with starts to feel less daunting. If I can figure out the story, I can craft a solution or write a really good ending. But sometimes, you don’t know what that story really is. Learning to accept that and letting go of the need to answer those questions brings a lot of freedom.
  • There is a fine line between conviction and stubbornness and one of them means standing alone. A convicted person knows that they do not stand alone, that they are accompanied by God and by truth. A stubborn person fights everything and everyone (sometimes including God and the truth) to be proven right. Whenever you find yourself in an argument ask yourself if you’re being convicted or if you’re being stubborn. And if you’re being stubborn, you’ll most likely end up standing alone.

  • There is no substitute for time. My sister told me this years ago and I think I’ve learned it more in the past few months than ever before. You cannot rush the process, you cannot shortcut your way to growth. There is no Miracle-Gro formula for your health. You can try all the juices, cleanses, whole30 diets, quick-fix fads, but the reality is that consistency will always be key. Time produces change, growth, and results. You can’t rush health and anything that pressures you to probably won’t work.
  • You become what you behold. God and I had a very serious conversation about this last night on the way to Target. I am a chronic fixer, and it is something we’ve been working on for quite a while now. I see pain in another person and bless my well-intentioned heart, I just cannot take my eyes off of it. I want to help them, to see them through that pain, to love them right on out of it. But what if I just started choosing to see the good in them, to call that out, to love on that part of them with such a fierceness that it grows and pushes out the pain? What if I really just believe that it’s light and Love that drives out the darkness, not my problem solving abilities? Because you know what I’ve learned? Focusing on the problems in other people just weighs me down with problems, but focusing on the good in and around them brings out the good in me. If we focus on pain, hate, differences, sin, heartbreak… that’s what we become. We become consumed with that very thing that we obsess over and it takes over our lives. But if we fiercely grow and water the good, it always overtakes the darkness. Love always wins. True, time-taking, good-loving, turning away and not focusing on condemnation love is always gonna win.

2017 is just around the corner. It’s going to have its problems, it is going to have its battles. There might even be moments when the Twitter and Facebook explode with some kind of disagreement that makes 2016 look like the year of child’s play. But 2017 will become whatever you focus on. This year, I’m praying to focus on the good and I’m praying that I’ll learn what that word actually means. Today it meant a hug from a stranger, a really good salad, and a walk downtown in a city that I would have never thought I’d end up in. There was good in 2016, and I hope for these last few days of the year those are the things I focus on.

Nevertheless, God protect Betty White.

 

 

 

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.

This Thing Isn’t Going to Last Forever

The subject line of her e-mail was: Please help me.

I read her words and my heart felt their weight. Just a few short years ago I was sitting in a similar place myself, reaching through the darkness for someone to give me something to hold on to. Her e-mail reminded me that there are so many people who need words of hope today. These are the words she inspired me to write:

I realized a few days ago, sitting in a cold white room, just how quickly everything can change.

I was reminded that fear is an intruder, he isn’t a gentleman. I was reintroduced to pain and brokenness, and let me tell you, they don’t always have the friendliest faces.

Not everyone realizes that I went through a long season held hostage by fear. Not the kind of fear that comes and goes; it was the kind that chains itself to you. You feel its breath against your neck every second of every day and it feels like there’s nowhere you can go that fear and his friends don’t follow.

It was a dark time, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t turn off the loud speaker in my head: the one that was dedicated to blaring that voice of doubt, fear, anger, and defeat. No matter how much I prayed, it didn’t seem to work.

The other day, that voice came back for just a moment. I promise you, I thought I was going to have a break down in the middle of Target (which is where I always seem to be when tragedy strikes).

And I did the one thing I knew to do… I picked up the phone. I dialed the number of someone that I trusted, and I asked them to help me silence the fear. I asked for them to tell me I was going to be okay and that this moment wasn’t going to last forever. I needed to hear that it was temporary.

It took me back to nights sitting in my bed, rocking back and forth. With my back pushed against the wall and knees pulled close to my chest, I would just sit there for hours and ask God over and over again to please, help. I wasn’t sure He was hearing me, but over and over again I would beg.

I just kept telling myself night after night, it can’t last forever. It won’t last forever. 

It didn’t feel true. Nothing about those words felt true. I had no evidence that my pain was going to lessen or that the fear would shrink. I had no reason to think those nights that haunted me would start to fade in my memory. None of it felt true, but I had to keep telling myself it was. It was the only way I knew how to keep going.

This is the thing I can tell you: you’ve got to keep believing. You have got to keep listening to God when he tells you that it won’t be this way forever.

And when you’re breaking down and you’re on the edge of causing a scene in a department store, sometimes you’ve got to pick up the phone and drown out that voice of hopelessness and despair, even if it’s only for a second.

One thing I’ve learned to be true is that the only way we get through the pain is to have those little moments of peace along the way. We need moments of refuge where we let God and let people speak louder than the fear and the brokenness. Even if we don’t fully believe the words, we have to give ourselves just a few minutes every single day to hope. To hope that tomorrow will be better, and that maybe even a few weeks from now we’ll find ourselves laughing again.

Hear me when I tell you that this thing isn’t going to last forever. You may never fully lose the painful memories, but they will lose their power over you, because goodness will come again. And goodness and love always win, they always overpower the darkness, hate, and violence.

Love is a blanket and it covers over the worst things, I promise you that.

I know you might not see Him yet, but Love is there, even if you’re still shaking from the cold. Love is still wrapping you up. Sometimes you’ve got to sit in that love for a bit before the warmth starts to seeps into your bones. You will stop shaking though, eventually you’re going to feel the warmth return to your fingers and toes. You’re going to unclench your jaw and finally breathe again.

Just keep holding on. Keep telling yourself truth, even if it doesn’t seem true today. And if you can’t hear God right now, pick up the phone and let Him use someone who loves you to speak the truth. Let His truth be louder than the lies, even if you can only do it for a minute each day.

In the long run, that minute will make all the difference. That minute of breathing will help keep you from drowning.

And know that you are not alone and this won’t last forever. 

It won’t. It can’t. Because fear and his friends aren’t powerful enough to win against a God who can never lose.

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.

Time and Space

We were talking about small victories, about the little choices we make along the path of finally moving on.

She and I both have our stories. We have our chapters where we had everything we thought we wanted, and turned the page to find out that those were the things we could not keep.

My fingers pressed the buttons and typed a sentence that I didn’t even know was true until after it had been said:

“I tried to make time and space my healer.”

I became the person who thought miles and state lines would be the medicine I was desperately seeking.

Sometimes I’m both the fight and flight type of person. When it comes to others, count on me to fight. But when it comes to my own pain, you’ll usually see me headed toward I-85. So, I learned the art of leaning into time and space. I put them on a pedestal and just knew that they would solve all my problems.

So, imagine my surprise when I found myself crying over a bowl of salad and asking one of my best friends if we’d ever stop having this conversation. I begged her to tell me that one day I would wake up to find that the clock’s hands had finally been able to repair all the holes in my heart.

She didn’t promise me that because she knew better. Time and space had not repaired any more of me than the last time we sat across from one another, back when Christmas lights lit up our hometown.

Time and space can sometimes be the tools in His hands, but they are not the one who can fix your brokenness. And the second you think they will, God will set them down and tell you that He’s not going to let you depend on them, you must learn to only depend on Him.

We keep thinking that age and life experience are the things that will save us. They’ll fix the pain and they will make us stronger, healthier, more reliable, less insecure. Eventually, we’re just going to grow up and get it together.

But we’re fooling ourselves when we tell ourselves that God is intimidated by our allegiance to time. We often think that if time doesn’t heal us, He’ll eventually just break down the door and say it has been long enough, I’m just going to fix you and get this over with.

We forget His patience. We forget His willingness to let us work it out and wait it out. God is not threatened or moved by our idolatry of waiting and growing up. He knows that eventually we’ll figure out that time and all its experiences don’t fix a broken heart.

He knows we will eventually have waited beyond what we can bear and will throw ourselves at Him once we finally remember that He’s the only healer there is.

Until then, we bury our heads in our work, our social lives, our gym memberships and keep telling ourselves that eventually we will feel better, be better. After some time we will have moved on and the pain will have lessened.

But the reality is, that the pain doesn’t lessen, we just get used to feeling it and it becomes our new normal. And in this new normal, we’re able to call ourselves better and healed not realizing that we forgot what it was like to live without it.

I’m sometimes glad God keeps me in front of my pain and heartbreak. That He rips down the altars that I build in front of time and space. He lets me cry into bowls of salad, and all the way down I-85. Because time doesn’t heal wounds, and when I think it does, I’ve made it my god.

And so, no… we’re not going to wake up one day and suddenly no longer feel the heartbreak. We are not going to just grow out of this stage of pain. We will either lean into Him as healer, or wear ourselves out counting on clocks that hold no power.

A God Who Caves

When 2016 came rolling around, I had one resolution:

Fight God less.

That’s what I decided. I fought Him so much through the years of 2013 to 2015 that I was determined not to spend this entire year in the ring with Him.

I sat down with my coffee and journal and told Him I was resigned. I was waving a white flag. I was done fighting.

Then He went and let life press all of my buttons.

Every single thing that could possibly set me off happened in the span of just a few weeks. God knew that my first reaction would be to come out swinging and that’s exactly what I did.

I kicked, screamed, ate cake, blasted my radio, drove over the speed limit. I reverted back to the days of being ten years old and thinking that the I’ll-stick-my-tongue-out-and-show-you mentality would actually work on the most patient being in existence.

As you guessed, it was a total waste of time.

The harder I fought, the firmer He stood. It was just me punching the strongest and most stable thing in my life. He wasn’t going to budge. No matter how hard I hit, no matter how much I told Him I wasn’t putting up with it anymore–God wasn’t going to budge and He wasn’t going to hit back.

So in those few weeks, there I was throwing the biggest fit you’ve ever seen and I realized why He was letting it happen.

He was giving me what I asked for.

I wanted to fight Him less and so He was going to wear me out sooner. He was just going to let it all drop at once so that I’d just throw everything I had in the ring right in these first few months of the year. He was breaking me, wearing me down, exhausting me to the point that I’d have no fight left in me.

I’ve always been a little defiant, a little mouthy, always ready to take and throw a punch when necessary. It’s never been something I’m proud of and thankfully I’m learning how to mellow out as I get older.

Nevertheless, in my final moments of defeat, I spend every little inch of energy trying to come back. I’ll give it all to win what’s an impossible fight. Even if I don’t have a shot, I’ll go down swinging.

I guess you could say that I am the John Kasich of arguing.

So, in the last round of this fight I got an e-mail. It was from one of my readers and she was asking me about hurt: “I know God is there, but it’s easy to question where He is in the middle of our hurt.”

I was laying on this crummy twin mattress trying to figure out how I was going to tell this girl the truth. How to tell her the thing I love most and least about God:

He’s right in front of you.

He’s like the parent that hovers when you’re newly sixteen and trying to explore all of your newfound freedom.

He’s the clingy Dad who’s standing there and saying “I love you too much to let you have all the control.”

Because He knows I don’t want my version of freedom. I don’t want to do whatever I want. I want the freedom of living a life that is worth living–one that’s defined by pursuing the best. And only God knows what’s best.

So I wanted to find that girl, sit her down, and tell her the thing that she’s probably been told a million times: God is there.

He’s standing in your face. He is staring you down and saying, “You know it doesn’t matter how bad this gets. It doesn’t matter how much you hate me. It doesn’t matter if you threaten to run away from home, I’m going to do what’s best for you.”

I can make my choices, but my choices won’t change His. He’s going to do what’s best for me. Whatever that looks like. Whatever fight I put up.

The pain, the anger, the heartache, the moments of agony are not a product of God’s wrath or of His absence. They’re a product of us crazy humans throwing our punches and thinking that we can do this thing without Him; it’s a product of all of us thinking we know better.

We don’t want a God who gives us what we want. We don’t want a God who caves, who gets tired of hearing us cry and then shuts us up by giving us something that would ruin us.

He’s the parent who stands there, watches us with love, hates our pain, but says “I love you too much to give you the things you think you want.”

Our deepest pain comes not from circumstances, but from the frustration that comes with thinking that we could have or would have done things better if we had been God.

If we could see what He sees, if we could know what He knows, we would be so thankful; and raising our fists to fight Him would never even cross our minds.