On the 20-something Prescribed Narrative, Change, and Freedom

I arrived slightly disheveled, sweaty from an 8 hour bus ride from Philadelphia, feeling like I could cry at any moment, when I received one of the warmest welcomes in my entire life. One of those welcomes in which the person drops what’s in his/her hands, looks you straight in the eye, and says sincerely, “First, welcome. Welcome,” pausing in between the two “welcomes” to invite you to breathe a full inhale and exhale.

An hour ago, I was at Union Station in New Haven crying on the toilet, grateful for the journey ahead while already missing the wonderful community that took a while to find. Now that I had it- after many lonely nights in which I wanted to move away- I didn’t want to let it go. I spent four years in Baltimore: 1 awful, 1 better and two amazing, going from a place I once near hated to a place I loved with a maternal nothing-is-going-to-stop-me-from-loving-you kind of love.

But now, I was moving to DC after a two week training at Yale to become a Program Manager at a small nonprofit that trains college athletes to become sports-based HIV educators in DC middle schools. This was a dream come true, as I spent many a torturous night writing sport for development papers longing to get into this field, but had no idea how to get there. It was going to be a great year. Though I was moving a mere 45 minutes south, it was still a big change for me. The words of a pastor I respected were helping me come to terms with this change:

Photo: MO 2015

Photo: MO 2015

“All change, even good change, must be grieved because change is a form of loss.”

I was likely never going to live in that same house with the front porch that invited you to take in the stars before coming inside each night. I was losing a spiritual community that took me a while to find- one in which we talked about social justice and spirituality over wine and genuine, vulnerable conversation. And all of this reminded me of the passage of time, which produces an almost sick sense in my stomach knowing that all of those memories will never again be in actual real time.

But now, here, one year later, I’m finishing my fellowship. Around February, I began having those nights in which you’re up until 2 AM trying to fruitlessly figure out your life. I’d light a candle by 2:15, sit Indian style with my palms facing upward, and simply connect with God. Not wanting answers. Not asking for anything but to simply be, and be open. After 5 minutes of stillness, I’d hop back into bed and laugh at myself for demanding answers to life that cannot be told ahead of their time. That is, until a week later, when I’d repeat the whole process. And the week after that. Until it’s late May and it’s hitting you that there’s two months left and you’ve done nothing to prepare for your next transition.

But then I had a moment on my bike. Friends and I were biking on our way from DC to Pittsburgh, and I could only see ten feet ahead of me, peddling in the dark with my headlamp. It occurred to me how many times I’ve tried tracing shapes out of the shadows, trying to figure out the contours of the future, when all I really needed- –and all that was beneficial— was right before me- those precious 10 feet of light wrapped in the ambiance of quiet, cool fresh evening air. In 2010, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a future focused orientation that detracts from the present. Since then, every change, every decision was often met with a system of checks and balances, wanting assurance from a world that cannot promise that. But here, on these quiet bike trails, this stream of light pouring from my bike reminded me of a new way in which I wanted to orient myself: I would figure out my next life steps through travel, one destination at a time.

It’s now a matter of weeks until my fellowship ends and instead of my usual M.O. of anxiety, I’m actually at peace. At peace with traveling the world for a few months without a job lined up. At peace with spending time with sport for development organizations in countries where I’m grateful to simply be able to say two sentences in another language. I’ve thought about traveling the world extensively for a while now, thinking that was the ultimate activity you were supposed to do as a twenty-something. I felt shame at 25, 26 when I wasn’t doing that, still living in a city near where I went to college. But I have hindsight now to see that any earlier was not the right time for me. I had growing pains to work through that could only be worked through if I stayed where I was until I could learn how to be present, how to use my own voice, how to create community, how to stop holding myself back from the life of freedom I was trapping myself from.

Perhaps the best way we can measure how well we lived as twenty-somethings, or thirty-somethings, or seventy-somethings for that matter, is not by the number of miles traveled, or the archetypal narrative you think you’re supposed to be living, but instead, measure it by the moments in which you did something you never thought you’d have the courage to do. Measure it by the growth you see: in yourself, in the plants and trees around you. Measure it by the number of days in which you have no journal pages, because the days were simply too filled with beauty to be penned. Measure it by the numbers of conversations you had in which you walked away challenged, questioning the framework with which you always viewed the world.

That’s how I’ll measure these next several months after my fellowship. I know I’ll have anxious nights along the way, but maybe, just maybe, I will recall those words from that pastor that subconsciously gave me permission to grieve—and celebrate— change in whatever way I need to- be it in tears at unexpected places, or at 2 AM alone in my room, unsure of where I’m going. I’m learning that dances in the dark with Change’s shadows at God foresaken hours will be a part of my evolution. I’m learning to let go of the death grip I wrapped around the false security of detailed next steps that leave no room for mystery, wonder, surprises, hard challenges that are only there to show you how strong you really are. I’m learning how to ask, “What’s life trying to teach me?” instead of “Why the hell is this happening?” Learning that there are many narratives we can choose for ourselves, and that timeframes are truly a custom-fit, not one-size-fits-all.

It would make sense, then, to share with you that I’m writing this on one of my wandering mind til 2 AM nights- because I still wrestle and fight and muse in the midst of every change, even good change. I’m almost ready for the go-back-to-bed-and-laugh-at yourself part. Maybe tomorrow, if you see me, we can laugh in person, or in spirit, and we can unclench each other’s hands if they drift away from open palms, together living these changes, free, free…free.

.

Photo: MO 2015

Photo: MO 2015

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Toilet Paper on Our Shoes (and other thoughts on brokenness and healing)

I keep running into these moments, like a giant rock that I continually trip over. Maybe you know those moments. When it’s just you, alone somewhere with your thoughts. Perhaps it’s nighttime and you’re driving back home and it’s just you, the car, a bumpy road, and God. And the light that was once green has now transcended from yellow to red. So you’re sitting there stuck at the red light, going nowhere, and it’s just you, these thoughts, the feel of the steering wheel, and this ominous presence in your car with you, speaking through the windshield, or next to you, or through a crack in the window, oh, I don’t know. And you can’t run, you can’t hide anywhere; you’re exposed. Your running and distracting and avoiding and fearing are called out. You can’t resort back to your usual mechanisms of escape because it’s just you, stopped at the red light of sameness or change.
It’s as if you have no other choice but to face the music of your life soundtrack. And it’s a CD mix you’ve never heard before, so you don’t know which songs are the fast tracks, and which ones are melancholy. And as the next track begins playing, you realize the music is a sad and somber tune and all you wish is for the next song to be of joy and merriment because life is short, damn it, and shouldn’t we be living in carpe diem every moment? So you try and focus on the things that make you happy and get you thinking “it’s all good,” “it won’t be so bad,” and you minimize that it’s about to get hard. But then this snowball from the past comes flying in your face and all you can feel is its wet sting as it slides down your face and into your coat, slowly melting frozen snowflakes onto your chest like butter on toast. Trying to tell you that spring will never come until you deal with whatever it is you have to deal with. Oh sure. Things change. The next day you’ll wake up and you won’t be alone again and you can go back to distracting yourself with friends and people and tasks and to-do lists. Spring will come anyway, because seasons change and evolve. But the degree to which we fully enjoy each of these things, unfettered, comes from our willingness to throw away the toilet paper dragging from our shoes. Maybe you’re in such a hurry that you don’t even notice the paper trail from your soles, which the whole world can see bright as day. And maybe, just maybe, there might be one tender-hearted person who pulls you aside, alone, privately, safely, waking you up to the toilet paper on your shoe, without embarrassing you or belittling you either. Because we all have had toilet paper on our shoes before and we all have monsters in our closets that sometimes like to reappear. I mean, it’s not about the toilet paper. It’s those conversation that say, “Hey, I’ve noticed something about you.” And someone asks you if you’re really happy and you just let out a confused cry. And that’s ok. That’s enough for that moment.

Inside each of us lies an innate longing for everything to be ok. And anything we can latch onto to show us that things are going to look up, get better, be ok… we cling to, perhaps for comfort, perhaps as futile attempts to block out change. To hold on when we should really let go. Sometimes I just want more than a verse that states, “but I’ve given you a future and hope.” I need more than that. I need to see, oh how I want to see. Oh how I want more assurance. Because everything inside of me screams, begs, demands for everything to be ok. And the longer I can’t see how it’s all going to be ok if I make this decision, or if that happpens, or if this occurs, the more I pine for assurance, signs, and control. Because everything seems so out of my control sometimes and quite frankly God,  sometimes it seems like you’re up there doing nothing.

And so some days, we find ourselves in Churches or other places of worship. I wonder sometimes, for every service I went to at that megachurch back in college, or at that Bible study event filled with a bunch of people smiling, talking about praying, and Evangelizing, and all that joy-in-the-Lord-is-our-strength stuff… was just a show. A bunch of BS. A bunch of people, but certainly not all, who were too afraid to speak of the monsters in their closets, the toilet paper on their shoes. A bunch of people who walk around “happy,” but deep down feel far from the abundant life to which we’re invited. A secretly empty population walking around just hoping to emulate a veneer of “the good Christian.” No. That would be a tragedy. My, my I don’t think we were ever created for the pretending and the “everything’s fine,” and the pity-filled, “Oh I’ll pray for you-s.” We were never meant to, perhaps, smile at every single worship service. What we were made for is community, authentic community. We were invited in, promised with, the opportunity to be a part of a community that says we’ll share our bread and our cup and your tears and my tears and together, we’ll taste something so rich and beautiful, we won’t understand why we ever used to settle for less– the excessive smiling and covering up of pain and doubt.

I know I can be a cynic, but I do know that not everyone of these circles are pretentious. And maybe all those people I saw were joyful and happy in the Lord. Maybe every single one of them was. Maybe.

I just wish I had more influences in my life then like I do now where we sit down at lunch and cry in front of each other. And talk about what depression meds we’ve been on. Where we admit that we too aren’t so sure about the messages we’ve been reiterated about hell or gender or any of those things that Jesus doesn’t really talk a whole lot about. And then where we get really excited and creative about all the ways in which we can find new ways to love, which Jesus talks a whole lot about. More people who go to counseling too and we laugh about how crazy we can be. More one on one conversations in which the two of us admit that we actually have no idea where we’re going with life right now or where this journey is taking us. More people who knew that Jesus could be worshipped on top of a hay bale as you and a friend live out his words to “learn from the birds” as they migrate Southbound, in strength and beauty, letting out a few drops of poo too. Lucky them; they don’t have to worry about the toilet paper-shoe part.

I’m grateful for all of the people in my life who’ve shed away their false layers, remaining open and transparent, as if secretly giving me permission to drop by guard and do the same. I’m grateful for these moments of brokenness in which God stops me, has my complete attention because I’m now shivering and crying alone in my room. “Why do you cause such tears to fall from my eyes and why this pain in my heart!?” I implore You. Though hard to recognize in the moment, I know it’s possible to choose to perceive these tears as a gift. I know Your words to be true when you hold my hand and whisper back, “Because I love you. And there is something good to come from this mess, but you won’t be able to see it yet.”  Some pains are just a part of this world; events that God never intended, but will warmly hold your hand and cry with you, yes, that’s His/Her hands embracing you. There are those other pains that grow- the consequences of our own actions or in-actions- and God looks you in the eye, puts a hand on your shoulder and says, “My child. Is this the only way you’ll slow down? Is this the only way I can gain your full attention before you hurt yourself even more?” And S/He swoops and breathes hope into our breaking hearts that things won’t always be this way. I just can’t expect to see these moments disappear if I don’t start dealing with the broken pieces I’ve tried to hide under my bed, or under my seat, or in my private thought life that no one but God can access. It’s as if S/he enters in, and takes you by the hand, and says, “Well go on now!” Cry. Mourn. Confess. Forgive. Heal. But refuse to sucumb to the notion that you’ll never get through this,” whatever the “this” happens to be at that moment.

Brokenness is a powerful tool for change. Even though as a kid in middle school youth group, I would sing, “Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for,” I would never ask for it to happen to me, willingly. But every time it does, I am always amazed at how God uses it to reveal something new about who S/He is, who I am, and where I still harbor my insecurities. God uses it to show us we’re stronger than we think we are if we would just face whatever it is that won’t stop pestering and festering.

And so tonight my candlelight is still burning. And I’m still feeling a bit of that brokenness and confusion about where and when this mess will intersect with beauty, but I do know this: I am not as alone as I initially felt I was. We have a God that will keep us from the lie we’re alone in those times of brokenness and healing. There is a God who can create something good out of something so hard, or ugly, or untimely, or even as trivial and embarrassing as toilet paper on our shoes.

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20 Proverbial Gems Guiding My Twenties ((That Look a lot like Freedom and Open Spaces))

20. On learning to do crazy things with life:
       Love Life. Be Brave. Play Hard. (Found this etched on a necklace in Kohl’s once)

19. On learning to give myself permission to experience freedom:
                    There is life here in the wide open spaces.
          When you stop waiting for permission from anyone but God,
       You’d be surprised how many of us there are  here, waiting for you.”
     -Sarah Bessey, In Which There Are More of Us Than You Might Think

18. On questioning what I’ve been taught:
“Life in the tank made me think of how we are raised at home and in school. It made me think of being told that certain jobs are not acceptable and that certain jobs are out of reach, of being schooled to live a certain way, of being trained to think that only practical things are possible, of being warned over and over that life outside the tank of our values is risky and dangerous…
It makes me wonder now, in middle age, if being spontaneous and kind and curious are all parts of our natural ability to swim.
Each time I hesitate to do the unplanned or unexpected, or hesitate to reach and help another, or hesitate to inquire into something I know nothing about; each time I ignore the impulse to run in the rain or call you up just to say I love you—I wonder, am I turning on myself, swimming safely in the middle of the tub? -Mark Nepo, Life in the Tank
(I was at a yoga class in January and our yoga instructor read this to us at the end of class while in corpse pose. I started crying warm tears, right there, on my yoga mat in the middle of a gym in Baltimore City and looked up at the ceiling. I realized that I was currently living my life in a fish tank. I was rarely present each day, but in that moment, I was. And the present hurt and required some healing and changes to make. I was the only one keeping myself there, stuck. I had long dreamed of a life “outside the tank” but what I really wanted, I was too scared to seek, and knew that others wouldn’t approve of me and would disagree with my choices. That scared me. But tasting those tears, I knew, from a stillness deep inside that I was going to commit to doing those very things because indecision, people pleasing, and fear have robbed my life for far too long. I made a commitment to reclaim life-not existence or going through the motions- and get brave, one shaky new beginning at a time.)

17. On learning how to use my voice instead of quake in fear:
Stop holding your breath, hiding your gifts, ducking your head,
       dulling your roar, distracting your soul, stilling your hands, quieting your voice,
dulling your mind, satiating your hunger with the lesser things of this world.
       Stand up, shake the dust from your feet if you need to,
and look outside, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?
        There are a lot of us here, waiting for you, in the open air.”
        -Sarah Bessey, In Which You Are Loved and You Are Free

16. On trying something different:
“Someday, sometime, you will be sitting somewhere. A berm overlooking a pond in Vermont. The lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset. A seat on the subway. And something bad will have happened: You will have lost someone you loved, or failed at something at which you badly wanted to succeed. And sitting there, you will fall into the center of yourself. You will look for some core to sustain you. And if you have been perfect all your life and have managed to meet all the expectations of your family, your friends, your community, your society, chances are excellent that there will be a black hole where that core ought to be. I don’t want anyone I know to take that terrible chance. And the only way to avoid it is to listen to that small voice inside you
that tells you to make mischief, to have fun, to be contrarian,
to go another way…”
 -Anna Quindlen

15.  On Christian Unity:
“We finally meet one another not in our agreements or disagreements,
but at the foot of the cross,
where God is faithful, where Christ is present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one in Christ.” -Bishop Mark Hanson

14. On how to live with my heart on my sleeve in reckless abandon:
To love at all is to be vulnerable.
Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.
 If you want to make sure of keeping it intact,
you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.
Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements;
lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.
But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken;
it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” -C.S. Lewis

13. On learning to love:
“I will love you like God, because of God, mighted by the power of God.
I will stop expecting your love, demanding you love, trading for your love, gaming for your love. I will simply love.

I am giving myself to you, and tomorrow I will do it again. I suppose the clock itself will wear thin its time before I am ended at this altar of dying and dying again.
God risked Himself on me. I will risk myself on you.
And together, we will learn to love, and perhaps then, and only then, understand this gravity that drew Him, unto us.”
-Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

12. On travel and exploration:
“And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn’t it?
It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out.
I want to repeat one word for you:
Leave.
Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be.
And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back.
It is you who will have changed.
” -Donald Miller, “Through Painted Deserts”

11. On remembering that my faith journey is actually supposed to enjoyable:
“I was not experiencing the joy or contentment Scripture promises us in Christ.
I was unhappy, frustrated, overworked, and harried.
God had brought me into the Christian life with the offer,
My yoke is easy and my burden is light‘ (Matt. 11:30),
an invitation to a free and abundant life.
 -Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

10. On accepting change:
“Change is not a function of life’s cruelty, but instead, a function of God’s graciousness.
If you dig in and fight the changes, they will smash you to bits. They’ll hold you under, drag you across the rough sand, scare, and confuse you. But if you can find it within yourself, just for a moment, in the wildest of seasons, to trust in the goodness of God, who made it all, who holds it altogether, you will find yourself drawn along to an entirely new place and there is truly nothing sweeter. Unclean your fists. Unlock your knees and also the door to your heart. Take a deep breath and begin to let God do his work in you.” -Shauna Niequest, Learning How to Swim

9. On letting go of people pleasing:
“A good woman knows she cannot be all things to all people, and she may,
in fact, displease those who think she should just be nice.

She is not strident or petty or demanding,
but she does live according to conviction.
She knows the Jesus she follows was a revolutionary
who never tried to keep everyone happy,”
-Lynne Hybels, “Nice Girls Don’t Change the World”

8. On freedom from narrow Biblical teachings:
“They believe that they believe the right things and so they’re ‘saved,’ but it hasn’t delivered the full life that it was supposed to, and so they’re bitter. Deep down, they believe God has let them down. Which is often something they can’t share with those around them, because they are the leaders who are supposed to have it all together. And so they quietly suffer, thinking this is the good news. It is the gospel of the goats, and it is lethal.
God is not a slave driver. The good news is better than that.”
-Rob Bell, Love Wins

7. On letting go and holding on:
“True wisdom is knowing when to hold on and when to let go.” (I’m sure someone more well-known has said this, but it’s something that keeps mulling over in my mind. Life is a series of holding on and letting go. And sometimes we hold on for longer than is safe, than is wise. And sometimes we let go too soon, when all we really needed to do was to hang on a little tighter and fight a little harder.)

6. On learning that love and freedom cannot exist without each other:
Love gives freedom. (A theme of “Love Wins”: That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.)

5.On creating a more equitable and just Christianity for both genders:
“It’s time for Christians to do what they say they believe when it comes to giving voice to those who have been silenced, and to empower the marginalized, even if that subjugated group makes up more than half of the world’s population. ” -Christian Piatt, On Rachel Held Evans and Why ‘Vagina Gate’ Matters

4. On taking risks and getting out of your comfort zone:
“Make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt... The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy.
But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning
and its incredible beauty.” ― Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

3. On making new friends (particularly ones who encourage freedom):
        “You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you.
                 You have to go to them sometimes.” -Winnie the Pooh

2. On being able to stop holding my breath in conversations about the Bible:
        “The Bible is meant to be a conversation starter, not a conversation ender,”
                              -Rachel Held Evans, “Asking Better Questions”

1. On recognizing that this is my year to experience full freedom and doing so
may cause others to disapprove of me
:
      Piss a few people off and sing freedom to the rest.” –Sarah Bessey, “Fearless”

Thoughts on Change

6.28.11

I recently moved to inner city Baltimore and moving day spurred up some emotions within me about change. This is a little snapshot of what I feel like God is teaching me about change.

•••

I’ve often heard that God is unchanging. Which is a good thing. But I’ve come to believe that while this is true, we also serve a God who knows change. No one stays in a flood when there’s an ark to carry you. No one stays in exile when you’ve got your God calling you out of slavery. No one stays a baby, born in a stable…

Take a look outside. Flowers need pruning. Rain needs to come to water gardens, fill oceans, and satisfy thirst to every living creature. All things must change, all things must grow. Our Savior knew that. Our Savior did not stop changing culture through radical love of all people -even the love of enemies- despite questioning commentary from the people around him. He didn’t stop touching Lepers, who would never have otherwise experienced the uplifting gift of touch just because of pointed-finger rule keepers. In fact, Jesus came to bring about change, despite the opposition he faced. When his days were closing in, Our Savior did not give up in the garden of Gethsemane. Our Savior did not stop when people mocked him and spat on him. No public dismay, nor disapproval, nor pain would change his plans nor thwart him. He pressed on; he moved forward. Though doom and death faced him, Sunday came, and a new beginning arose. None of this would have happened; the climax of the story would have occurred had our Savior not pursued the plans and dreams God had put on his heart. And if Jesus, the redeemer of the world, can go through change- pretty drastic change-, then so can I, then so can we.

Change is like a double-edged sword: I don’t like it, but it’s the very thing that moves me, that escalates me, that God uses to grow me. When it comes to that impelling moment of impending change, God reminds me it’s time. It’s time to move. It’s time to move forward. It’s time to know that the days ahead are going to come, regardless of whether I resist them or embrace them.

It’s not easy. Change is never easy. Maybe because most change isn’t meant to be about ease or convenience; change is meant to be about growth. Change is looking on the other side of the mountain, up high, from the top, knowing you would have never seen this incredible view had you stayed where you were, had you never began your climb. Change is GOOD. Change elevates us. Without change, we become trapped. Trapped to our surroundings, trapped to familiarity. We don’t grow; we become stagnant, stuck, indifferent.

Are there changes going on in your life? Could it be time to make a change? No matter how big or small, Jesus is present. If it’s not time for change, are you staying in your circumstance out of fear? Out of comfort, out of familiarity? Jesus can carry you to the next destination. Let change move you. Let change grow you. Be a part of what God is doing and don’t resist it. Throw your hands up in the air if you have to, and say, “God, I don’t get it.” Tell Him and tell Him and tell Him over and over again if you have to; but know that this doesn’t change who He is and what He can do with an open and willing heart. Be open. Be willing. Be present.

                                                  Forget about what’s happened;
                                                don’t keep going over old history.
                                                         Be alert, be present.
                                            I’m about to do something brand-new.
                                              It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?”

                                     -Isaiah 43:16-21 (excerpt) –The Message