Bittersweet Manna

I think throughout our lives we wrestle with two overarching spiritual questions: Is there a God? Where is God in times of difficulty?

Our faith starts by first questioning if there is a God at all. Is there a power greater? Is there a bigger plan? Is there order in the chaos? For some, these questions need concrete irrefutable answers. For others, they look around their world and they feel there is substantial evidence there is a God.

Then I think we move into the stage of wondering if God cares and where He is in the midst of our struggle. Does He see me? Can He hear the cries?

After surviving a hardship, we resolve those questions. Yes, there is a God, and yes, He does see and care.

Inevitably heartache strikes again. But this time it’s different. This time we know God exists, we know there is a plan. This time we lean into the knowledge that we have not been abandoned in our pain. We learned all of that the last time.

This time is different because we see the goodness, the provision in the midst of the struggle. As difficult as things are, we see… We see the manna.

Manna. Translated literally it means “what is it.” The what is it nourished the nation of Israel for 40 years as they wondered in the wilderness after being set free from 400 years of slavery. They were instructed to gather what they needed each morning but not to gather more than that for it would rot.   Manna nourished body and soul. It fed belly and faith.

But it was 40 long years of manna.

Like the Israelites in the desert, we see and are being nourished by the manna that is coming down from heaven. We know and see all of this but… but our hearts are still breaking. Our stomachs are still sick. We are still aching with sadness and worry. The goodness and provision may be helping our external world, but our internal worlds are still in upheaval.

What do we do when we can see the provision, but we are weary with the journey?

Have you had this experience before? You can see the manna on the ground and have even started to really believe it will be there each morning so you’ve stopped gathering more than you need. You see the manna and it is truly amazing and you’re grateful.

But I think we can reach the point, like the Israelites in the desert, where we are tired of the manna and we just want to get to the end of the journey. We like to judge the Israelites for their lack of faith and ingratitude. I mean, God was providing a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, and manna to eat and fill them each day. How could they have been so weak of faith and ungrateful? It is easy to point the finger from the cheap seats.

It is so easy.

It is so easy until you have been journeying for 40 years. It is so easy until you realize the bittersweetness of manna. I don’t know if everyone gets to this point in their journey, but for those of us that do, we know the beauty of grace. We know the breathtaking, awe-inspiring experience of seeing the grace in the wilderness… of seeing how we are being taken care of in ways that far surpass what we expect.

But we also know that there are some days when the manna tastes bitter. And we find ourselves in the confusion of painful gratitude… desperately trying to remind ourselves there will be an end. Desperately trying to fix our eyes on the grace around us.

But I don’t know that grace is always meant to be a painkiller. Grace is what helps us keep getting up every morning. It is the oxygen we receive when we think we can’t take another breath. Sometimes, though, we have to sit in that confusing space where we feel every ounce of discomfort despite the presence of amazing grace. It is such a truly difficult place.

I think that is the tough part about faith and hope. We can’t keep going without faith and hope, but they aren’t exit ramps from the journey.

It’s like if I break my arm. I know that it will heal, that the doctor will put a cast on it, and eventually it will be good as new. However, that knowledge does not stop the throbbing pain of a bone split in two. My arm still hurts.

Our hearts are the same. We get to the point in our faith journey where we have traveled long enough in the wilderness that we know we’re not alone, but we’re tired and our feet hurt and our hearts hurt. That is the place of hard faith. That isn’t the Sunday School felt board faith. It is the tears streaming down your face, falling to your knees type of faith. You can’t get through the trial without faith, but faith doesn’t anesthetize our pain.

Still feeling angry, sad, hurt, wanting it to be over doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t grateful or you don’t have faith. It means you are human. It means the Israelites were human. It means we understand that God and Life coexist. God is God and Life is unfair.

What do you do when you’re not questioning if God exists or if He is there? What do you do if you are struggling to find comfort in the provision around you? How do you learn to rest in the green pastures of goodness while still honestly addressing the struggles in your life?

We can be grateful and wonder when this season is going to be over all at the same time. We can be grateful and have a broken heart all at the same time. If we are going to make it through the wilderness, we have to learn to hold those two opposing realities in the palm of our hand. We have to allow our souls to grieve and wail and our hearts to hope and heal.

What is the manna in your wilderness currently? How are you holding the two opposing realities of being grateful for the manna but tired of the journey?

August 2000, Crying in Church, and My Personal Saturday

Philip Yancey, in his book Disappointment with God, says that Good Friday, Saturday, and Easter Sunday, represent “the three day pattern- tragedy, darkness, triumph-… (that) can be applied to all our times of testing.” There is the unthinkable loss and tragedy of Friday, followed by the questions, grief, and despair of Saturday, and then the redemptive healing of Sunday.

We can talk about being bold and bright. We can talk about believing that we are worthy and that our worth comes from grace. We can talk about living brave and stepping into the arena. We can talk about all those things, and all those things are fine and well, but when you find yourself stuck in Saturday, when you’re in The Middle, that stuff doesn’t really matter.

I agree with Philip Yancey that the pattern of tragedy, darkness, triumph is one that is found over and over in our lives. The Fridays are so painful and the Sundays are so joyful. It seems over our entire life we cycle thru this three-stage period, but sometimes it seems like we spend a lot of our time in Saturday.

Years ago, I found myself in a prolonged Saturday. My life had slowly been tumbling downward until January 2000 when everything crashed. Over the course of 10 days my entire life changed… I withdrew from grad school, moved home, made a decision to leave my life in music, ended an almost four year relationship that left me lost and broken, and enrolled in a new university. The next 12 months were my Middle… they were my Saturday… and they were bleak. I was depressed; I was anxious. I rarely went out with friends. I stayed in my apartment, thought, and watched old episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 and Dallas.

I wrestled with God in a way that I had never done before. I went from being angry- very angry- and wondering where He had been over the past four years and why He hadn’t stopped this out-of-control-train-of-chaos that had become my life. I wondered how He could pay me back like this for those years of faithful church attendance, praying, and living a life that was above the norm.

Then after some months of being angry and realizing that was getting me nowhere, I realized that God had not necessarily abandoned me, but baby step by baby step I had abandoned Him. I had ignored the red flags. I had refused the help. I kept pushing against a brick wall wondering why it wouldn’t move and then getting mad that I was battered, bruised, and tired.

It was during this period that it was hard for me to be with God. I felt that I had ruined everything. The relationship was damaged beyond repair. You can only ask so much of God, right? And then He eventually throws His hands up in frustration, right? And then He takes everything away, right? It’s the twisted version of the parable of the talents.

All I wanted during this time was to be free. I did not know what freedom looked like, and a large part of me believed I would always be damaged, but there had to be some sort of freedom from this Middle.

One Sunday morning in August, I was standing in church and a song came across the screen:

You are beautiful beyond description Too marvelous for words Too wonderful of comprehension Like nothing ever seen or heard Who can grasp you infinite wisdom Who can fathom the depth of your love You are beautiful beyond description
Majesty enthroned above




And I stand, I stand in awe of you I stand, I stand in awe of you Holy God to whom all praise is due
I stand in awe of you.

And when I started to sing the words of the chorus, I just stopped. It was like someone was squeezing my throat and I couldn’t sing. I stood there, hung my head, and started to cry. All I could think was, “I am not in awe of you right now. I’m not. I’m hurt and angry and broken and I just want this pain to stop.”

We go through phases with God during the Saturdays of our lives. We wonder where He is. We rail against Him. We shake our fist and blame Him for our plight. Or we blame ourselves. We don’t feel good enough to come to Him. We don’t know how to come to Him because we don’t know what to say.

What we discover, though, when we get to the other side is that Saturday, The Middle, changes us. There is no going back…thankfully. There is only moving forward.

I drove home from church that day numb not really knowing what to do or where to go from there. As I drove home I had the strangest feeling that I was not alone.   And later I realized that I was not the only one crying that Sunday morning.

In the Gospel of John, we read that shortly before the Crucifixion Jesus received word that his dear friend Lazarus was sick. He made his way to the home of his dear friends, Mary and Martha, where he learned that Lazarus had died four days prior. Mary and Martha were grieving; others in the town were grieving. Jesus knew what was going to happen. Jesus knew he was going to bring Lazarus back to life. He knew the end of the story. Yet we have that most famous, shortest verse of Scripture: Jesus wept.

Jesus wept, not over the top, demonstrative tears, but the translation says silent tears as he saw his dear friends sadness and grief. This image tells us we have a God who loves us to the point that He aches for us. It’s like a parent who sees their child sad and brokenhearted but knows that there will be another tryout, another boyfriend, another opportunity. But their heart aches because their child’s heart aches regardless of the fact they know this disappointment is temporary. God’s love for us is similar… times a thousand.

I think God weeps with us. I do not think He sits idly by, unemotional, untouched. I think His heart breaks when we feel we can’t come to Him, for whatever reason, and we want to. I think His heart breaks when we mourn and grieve even though He knows the rest of the story. And I think on that sunny August morn, God wept with me.

I take great comfort in that thought… that I was not alone that day or in those months and years. I was not alone that Sunday in August, but yet not fully able to take hold of that which was being offered. That would come a few months later. The redemptive healing of my Sunday came one October morning when I finally surrendered and let my old self die so that my new self could be born.

I learned in the months and years later that I had not damaged by relationship with God. I had not pushed Him so far away that He never wanted to come back. He had never left me in the first place. I was not broken beyond repair.

I realized that no matter how long your Saturday may seem the redemption and restoration and resurrection of Sunday always comes. You are never left. You are never alone. That is the promise and the hope of Sunday.

Have a blessed Easter, friends.

I'm a Quitter

If you follow me on Facebook, you know that I love those pictures with quotes on them. Recently, I was scrolling through my News Feed and saw one that said quitting is never an option. Immediately I heard Eye of the Tiger in my mind and images of Rocky and football teams practicing in the rain and the U.S. Hockey team doing that skating drill over and over in Miracle flashed through my mind. (I LOVE sports movies. I am in no way an athlete, but sports movies and documentaries move me to chills and tears.)

After I came to from my movie montage daydream, I thought about how often we hear statements like that. Never quit. Never Give Up. Those statements are indeed inspiring and encouraging. We do have to learn to keep going. We have to push through, hang in there. A life of always giving up ends up not being much of a life.

But this time when I read this quote, I didn’t think Yeah charge the mountain, fight the good fight. Instead, I thought…

I’m a quitter.

I thought for a few more moments and decided yep I’m a quitter and I am totally okay with it.

We think of the word quit as one of the worst four letter words out there. It’s right up there with lose and lazy. You never want to be a loser. Heaven forbid someone call you lazy, and you never, EVER want to be seen as a quitter. We run from these labels as if they were ghosts chasing us in a dark forest.

But you know, as I think about all the things I have quit in my life, I have to say I’m pretty thankful that sometimes I’m a quitter.

I’m thankful I quit certain toxic relationships. I’m thankful I quit blaming myself for things that weren’t my responsibility. I’m thankful I quit music so I could pursue teaching. I’m thankful I quit teaching so I could pursue a career in counseling. I’m thankful I quit being afraid to leave my comfort zone and started taking leaps of faith. I’m thankful I quit wrestling with certain decisions and took action. I’m thankful I quit being angry with certain people. I’m thankful I am working on quitting worrying about what people think of me. I’m thankful I have been a quitter.

I think most people fall into one of two camps- There are those that quit everything and never push through the difficulty of hard work, uncertainty, and disappointment. And then there are the people who never quit and stay long past the point of healthy dedication and perseverance. They never quit because they don’t want to be perceived as a quitter, and they’ve developed a distorted sense of loyalty and commitment. They never quit because they are afraid. They never quit because they have lost all sense of self and what is right and wrong and how they deserve to be treated. They never quit, and instead their spirit slowly dies.

Yes, sometimes it is okay to quit. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can do is quit. Sometimes we have to become broken enough to discover we are strong enough to quit. Sometimes quitting is the thing that will save your soul.

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One of our most difficult tasks in life is learning to discern the difference between when we should keep moving forward and when we should lift our hands in the air and say I’m done. How do we know when to quit, move on, try a new direction, and how do we know when to stick it out, pursue, and persevere? There is not a formula for deciphering this equation. Every situation breeds a different answer.   Every story requires a different ending. Finding a balance between quitting and persevering in your life is the mark of health and maturity.

If you quit everything, then you will never learn the beauty of hard work nor will you learn the depth of your own strength and faith.   Conversely, if you hold onto everything, you may never know the power of healing and the exhilaration of letting go and trying something new.  It is emotionally dangerous to live under the notion that quitting is always wrong. Quitting can be the doorway to freedom and wholeness.

Yeah I’ve been a quitter in my life, and I’ve also been a keeper on-er. Knowing when to hang in there and knowing when to surrender have been some of the hardest decisions I have ever made.   I’m thankful for those times when I haven’t given up and hung in there, and I’m also thankful for the times I reached the end of myself and quit.

The new year is just days away, and as you are contemplating resolutions and major and minor life changes, think about where in your life you need to persevere and where you need to quit. Ask yourself if you need to quit something but are afraid to do so. Challenge yourself to wisely discern the difference between when you need to dig deep and find extra faith and strength and when you need to quit. My friends, here’s to knowing when to hang on and knowing when to quit in 2015!

What do you need to quit as you wrap up 2014 and prepare for the new year? What have you quit in your past that opened the door to healing and new opportunities? How do you discern when to quit and when to persevere?

The Truth About Pain

Sometimes when I scan my bookshelves I have to chuckle because I’m rather sure Amazon must think I am a pretty troubled soul.  My bookshelves and my Amazon Wish List are filled with titles about loss, disappointment, and pain.  I suppose it is a liability of my profession, but even before I became a therapist, I was drawn to reading and understanding how we deal with and overcome pain in our lives.  I realized a couple of years ago that I think one of the reasons I keep reading about the darker side of life is that I keep searching for new answers.  I think deep down I’m holding out hope that maybe someone has found a new take on heartache or new research that shows how we can avoid pain or make pain stop once it starts.  I think I secretly hope that when I click on those articles on Yahoo that promise 5 Easy Steps to Let Go of Resentment and Disappointment that there really will be five easy steps that I haven’t heard before. Sadly, that is never the case.

Several years ago, though, I did read something that changed how I saw pain and the purpose of pain in our lives.  Yes, I said the purpose of pain.

In Philip Yancey’s Where is God When it Hurts, he talks about the work of Dr. Paul Brand. Dr. Brand worked primarily with leprosy patients.  Probably like most people, my understanding of leprosy has been shaped by what I learned in Sunday School as a child.  In my mind, leprosy was this horrible skin disease from back in “Jesus times”, and lepers had scabby skin, open wounds, and had to shout “Unclean, unclean” if anyone came near.

I was surprised to learn that leprosy is not a skin disease.  Leprosy affects the nervous system, and it takes away a person’s ability to feel pain.  It makes a person completely numb to pain.  Consequently, when they injure themselves they may not realize how significant the injury, which leads to further harm, infections, gaping wounds, and eventual lost limbs.

Their inability to feel pain actually makes their life and health worse.

Interesting.

To aid his patients, Dr. Brand and his engineers developed a type of glove with sensors that signaled a warning when the patient was unknowingly hurting himself.  Initially the signal was a loud alarm, but Dr. Brand found that despite the loud noise signaling the patients to stop what they were doing, they would continue in their activity even though they knew they were hurting themselves.

Dr. Brand then tried using a flashing light and eventually resorted to using a slight electric shock to get the patients to stop their unintentionally self destructive behavior.  He discovered, though, that patients started switching off the shock feature when they really wanted to do something that they knew would trigger the warning.  Self-will proved stronger than self-care.  He eventually gave up on the project because it proved too costly and completely ineffective.

Philip Yancey said in conclusion, “By definition, pain is unpleasant, enough so to force us to withdraw our fingers from a stove.  Yet that very quality saves us from destruction.  Unless the warning signal demands response, we might not heed it.

Pain forces us to stop.  Pain forces us to listen.

Physical pain is the body’s alarm system. If you sprain your ankle running, pain tells you something wrong has occurred and gets you to pay attention to the wounded area so you don’t keep hurting yourself.  Pain tells us something very important.  It tells us that something has happened and that something is wrong.

Emotional pain is our heart’s alarm system telling us something is wrong and that something has (or has not) happened.  Heartache and disappointment, the forms of pain we wish to avoid most in life, force us to stop and re-evaluate.   Emotional pain signals to us that we need to do something differently.  Maybe the signal is telling us to try something new.  Maybe it’s telling us to pause and wait for more information.  Maybe it’s telling us to move on entirely.

Pain can serve a purpose.  Sadness, disappointment, discouragement can serve a purpose.  These difficult experiences force us to pay attention and to re-evaluate our actions, our choices, and our decisions.

Pain is the siren of our heart and the validator of our life experience.  It signals when something has happened and it validates that, yes, it was a big deal.  Pain says Stop. Mourn. Grieve. Rage. Weap.  What happened to you mattered.  What is happening IS a big deal.  Don’t minimize it.  Don’t brush it under the rug.  Don’t numb it.  Don’t avoid it.

Without pain- without heartbreak, loneliness, disappointment- we sometimes would not know when to stop and we may end up doing ourselves more harm.  We wouldn’t know when to get out of the relationship.  We wouldn’t know when to leave the job.  We wouldn’t know when to say no and set boundaries.  Pain can actually be a great teacher and instigator of change, if we let it.  Yes, we may convince ourselves that numbing, ignoring, and avoiding are the better options, but they are not.  Being emotionally numb does not lead to NOT being hurt; it just leads to NOT knowing when the hurt is being done.

But pain is never pleasant.  As much as I have read and heard “Rejoice in your suffering,” that is often a hard pill for me to swallow because pain hurts, and my survival instinct says avoid pain, numb pain, reject pain.  My survival instinct says all those things, but the seeds of truth and wisdom that try to take root in my mind remind me that pain can have meaning, it is not eternal, and every wound can be bound up and healed.

What is the truth about pain?  The truth about pain is that it always hurts and it is never comfortable, but pain can tell us something.  It can tell us something we need to hear and that just might save us from our own destruction.

What is your pain telling you today? What has your pain told you in the past? How can you embrace your heartache so that it shapes your life rather than stops your life?

Choosing to Dance

Earlier this week I wrote about how it is easier not to.  It’s easier not to try.  It’s easier not to think before your lash out.  It’s easier not to connect and let people really know you.  But as I said in the earlier post, when we choose not to, we miss out on the blessing.  We miss out on seeing what our life can be about and what we can do.  We miss out when we choose not to.  As it would happen, Monday night I saw something on TV that beautifully illustrated this point. Before we go on, I should tell you that I am a huge Dancing with the Stars fan.  Huge.  I usually cry at least once during an episode.  I vote weekly.  I may or may not have tried to do the quick step around my house.  I often say the only reason I would want to be famous is so I can be just famous enough that I can be on Dancing with the Stars.   The show strikes a chord with me because quite frankly I think it is amazing that these people, who usually have little to zero dance background, learn these beautiful dances.  I love seeing people try hard, and I just love seeing these people totally step outside their comfort zones and dance.  After all, dancing is the very definition of vulnerability. (And I like the sparkly outfits too. :) )

This season, though, is like none other.  This season paralympian Amy Purdy is competing.  At 19 years old, Amy contracted bacterial meningitis and both of her legs were amputated at the knees and she lost one of her kidneys.  In this week’s episode, Amy talks about learning to walk again and her father’s gift of life twice in that he gave her one of his kidneys.  Amy shares how painful it was learning to walk with her new prosthetic legs and how one night, upon hearing a song on the radio, and she got up and danced with her dad.  She said she thought, “If I can dance, then I can walk.  And if I can walk, then I can snowboard.  And I can live a great life.” A great life indeed.  (Click here to watch Amy share her story.)

Amy and Derek’s dance this week depicts the story of her learning to walk again.  It is one of the most moving two minutes and thirty seconds I have seen on television.  This young woman who was given a less than 2% chance of even surviving the meningitis and who lost both of her legs below the knee is… dancing!  It literally takes your breath away and brings tears to your eyes as you see such an amazing display of courage dance across that stage.

No one would have faulted Amy for choosing not to.  Out of her control and without her say so, her life was forever changed fifteen years ago.  But Amy Purdy did not choose not to.  Amy Purdy chose I can and I will.

Friends, it is easier not to.  It is soo much easier.   And yes, the alternative is hard and sometimes hard is scary.  But when you choose not to, you miss out.  You miss the chance to dance.   I hope we all start choosing to dance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjb3u1IqhAw#aid=P7YuYtLOmRg

It's Easier Not To

Several months ago I was feeling particularly overwhelmed by some work related responsibilities and deadlines.  The to-do list kept growing and growing and my energy reserves kept shrinking and shrinking.  One day I thought, “It would just be easier not to.” Isn’t that so true?

It’s easier not to.

It’s easier not to try.  It’s easier not to change.  It’s easier not to put yourself out there, not to speak up.  It’s easier not to be vulnerable, not to take the risk of uncertainty and exposure.  It’s easier not to unpack the baggage that keeps tripping you up.  It’s easier to quit when it gets hard.  It's easier to believe you can't.  It’s easier to keep doing the things you’ve always done even though you know they are bad for you.  It’s easier not to choose health.

Or is it?

I’ve thought about this phrase a lot since that day.  I’ve thought about how true it feels, yet how dangerous this belief is.  Yes, it is easier… in the short term.

In the short term.

That’s the key.

It’s easier not to in the short term.  But in the long term, that easy path turns into a pothole filled road.  Choosing not to rarely leads us to where we want to be or who we were created to be.  Choosing not to leaves us outside the arena looking in.  And when we are on the outside looking in that is when we are most likely to be judgmental and critical of those who are on the inside.

Isn’t that the kicker?  We choose not to, but then we resent those who choose YES over NO.  When we choose not to, we end up staring through the window and watching as people pursue new adventures and opportunities, as they unload their cumbersome past, as they make healthy changes that bear sweet fruit.  We end up staring through that window as we wrestle with the most uncomfortable of emotions- resentment, regret, fear, and frustration.

No, it’s not easier not to.  It feels like it in the short term.  It feels like it, but although our feelings are valid, they are not always true.

Everybody has those days when it feels easier not to.  That’s normal.  The challenge is how do you keep picking yourself up and dusting yourself off.  How do you keep going?

We keep going by learning when we need to sit and be still and when we need to move.  Sometimes the very thing we need is rest.  Stepping away from the problem and doing something totally unrelated might be the very thing that gives you the perspective you need.  Giving yourself compassion and validation that this is a tough mountain to climb is often just what the doctor ordered.  More often than not, sharing your frustration, concern, and anxiety with a trusted loved one gives you the ounce of energy you need to keep moving forward.  We keep going by refocusing on why is this so important to us anyway.  Why does this matter to us?  What do we feel called to do?  When you push through the temptation to choose not to over I’m going to, you move closer to your unique purpose and farther away from your fears.  Yeah it may feel easier not to.  But when you choose not to, you miss the blessing.

I hope this week you give yourself the rest or compassion or time with loved ones you need to continue in your journey.  Choose long term over short term.  Choose purpose over fear.  Choose the blessing.

Do you ever have those days when you think, “It would just be easier not to”?  How are you learning to choose “I’m going to” over “not to”?  Which path are you choosing today?

Spring Always Comes

I turned the page of my calendar earlier this week and noticed that Spring officially starts on Thursday.  The back and forth of our weather lately certainly has most of us anxious for consistently warmer temps and sunnier days.  I love Spring, and I love Spring in Atlanta.  It is really quite breathtaking.  One of the reasons I love Spring is because  with this changing of the seasonal guard, we literally witness in nature one of life's most important lessons. Just when we think there is no way life and beauty could emerge out of the cold, dreariness of our lives, Spring always comes.  

 

After witnessing the magnificent reds, yellows, and oranges of Fall, Winter begins to set in. The lingering signs of Fall's grandeur appear on trees here and there, and sometimes those leaves trick you into believing that maybe winter will not come this year.   Like those leaves hanging despite being whipped around by wind and rain, you hang onto the remnants of your Summer dreams and Fall glory days.  You hang onto the relationship hoping the other person will change.  You hang onto the hope that your job won't be cut.  You hang onto the hope that this time, this time, things will be different.

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But Winter does come.   One day you get the call or the text or the email, and you realize it's done.  You've been given your answer, and it is not the one you wanted.  There's nothing left to hang onto.  The relationship, the dream, the plan is gone... dead.   You're not sure what to do next or where to turn .

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And you start to wonder where is this road going and when will it end.   All you know is that your winter of discontent feels extremely isolating.  The loneliness of this journey simultaneously fills you and drains you.

Road to Wegrow

 

 

But one day, you lift your head and you see it... you see signs of life.

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You sees signs of life, signs of hope.  You discover buds of new found hope, of new found energy.  You start thinking of a new plan.  You start putting yourself out there again.  You come out of hibernation and you start slowly living again.

 

With each step forward, that cold, dark endless road turns into a beautiful, lush path.

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With each step forward, you feel more alive and more like yourself... except not your old self, but a new, reborn self.  Your reborn self is stronger, livelier, and bolder.  You learn your Winter was not the end; it was just the end of that season.  Your Spring means another chance to fulfill that dream and a new opportunity to reach that goal.

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No matter how cold or dark or lonely your winter was, Spring always comes.  Light always follows darkness.  Each year, Spring teaches us that gardens do emerge out of deserts, life does emerge out of loss, and sometimes letting something die is the only way that it can be reborn into a beautiful, vibrant, life-giving  creation.

Are you ready for Spring?  What is being reborn in your life right now?

Are You in Exile this Christmas?

When I was little, my favorite Christmas carol to play on the piano was O Come, Come Emmanuel.  I loved the contrasting textures in the music, and when it came time to play those glorious chords of Rejoice, Rejoice, I tickled those ivories with all the passion my little fingers could muster.  A few weeks ago, I was singing this same hymn in church and the words of the first verse struck me in a way they never had before. O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.  Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. 

Mourns in lonely exile…

Exile…

Waiting to get out of Exile…

Emmanuel shall come to thee…

 

What does it mean to be in exile?  To be in exile means to be away from one’s home, to be in foreign territory.  Although political and physical exiles are still realities throughout the world today, I am going to venture to guess none of us have ever experienced that type of exile.

Instead, our experience with exile is less obvious and a little harder to explain.  What does Exile look like in our lives today?  It looks like feeling far from “home”- far from where you would like to be, or thought you would be, in this stage of life.  It looks like struggling in relational exile where there is broken fellowship and no clear path on how to forgive and rebuild trust.  It looks like wrestling in spiritual exile where you wonder why and how long and what is the meaning of all of this.  You feel far from God. You question more and more and soon your questions give way to silence.

We feel our Exiles much more keenly during the Christmas season.  It’s unfortunate, but true.  Just ask anyone in Exile.  Christmas seems to shine a big, blinding spotlight on our Exile.  Maybe it is the marking of another year and the evaluation that inevitably comes alongside.  Where am I compared to where I was a year ago?  Did I do this?  Did I accomplish that?

Or maybe it is because we all have in our minds the picture of what our lives and relationships are supposed to look like at Christmas.  When your “Christmas Card” doesn’t look like everyone else’s it can feel like nails screeching down the chalkboard of your heart.

Or maybe this is your first, or fifteenth, Christmas without your loved one or that someone special or the answer to your heart’s prayer for a child.  It’s hard to feel the wonder of Christmas when we keep tripping over the gaping void of an absent parent, spouse, or child.

We don’t choose our Exiles.  We don’t choose the timing or the circumstances, and we really don’t get to choose when they end.  We can choose, though, how we move through them.  Your Exile can make you bitter or it can make you better.  That’s the part you do get to determine.  So if you are in Exile this Christmas, here are two things to ponder.

Keep living.  Keep showing up in your life. When we are in Exile our temptation is to either passively wait or find a shortcut.  Passively waiting keeps you from growing, and searching for a shortcut keeps you running in circles.  Keep living.  Don’t delay some decisions or choices in your life because you are waiting for other things to happen.  Waiting for your Exile to be over before you start living your “real life” is not always the smartest choice.  Keep showing up in your life and taking care of one day at a time.  The Israelites had to wander for 40 years in the wilderness, but they kept walking!  You have to keep climbing the mountain no matter how many times you slide to the bottom.  The slides to the bottom are not losses- they are opportunities to climb again. Only this time you know the paths that will and will not work.

Know what you KNOW When you are in Exile you have to remember what you KNOW- not what you feel or what you’re presently telling yourself, but what you KNOW.  What do you KNOW?  What is your hope based on?  I KNOW I cannot always see the big picture.  I KNOW that I am not alone.  I KNOW that everything can be redeemed.  I don’t always feel these things, but I KNOW them.  Some days what you KNOW feels like a great comfort that lifts you high above the clouds, and other days it is just the mustard seed of courage you need to keep moving forward an inch at a time.  Do you know what you KNOW?

 

Are you in Exile this Christmas?  Yes, whether it is your first or fifteenth year without your loved one, your realized dream, your restored relationship, or your answered prayer, this year may feel especially difficult.  In years like this it may feel challenging to rest in the Good News of Christmas.

What is the Good News of Christmas?  The Good News of Christmas is that we do not stay in Exile.  It does end.  There is freedom. There will be big, banging chords of Rejoicing.

So Fear not, my dear friends, I bring you Good News of Great Joy, which shall be to all people…. There are plans for you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future… for this holy night the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

That’s the Good News.  May you have a blessed Christmas.

Ungrateful

We’ve eaten turkey, we’ve said our thanks, and now we are headed full force into the Christmas season. November seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye, and it’s hard to believe Christmas is less than a month away.  Although Thanksgiving struggles not to be engulfed by the ever extending Christmas season, I like that both of these holidays mark a period of intentional gratitude. Gratitude.  Great thinkers, philosophers, researchers,  and spiritual leaders alike will tell you that the key to peace and joy in your life is a practice of gratitude.  It makes sense… if we spend time pondering what we are grateful for, it cultivates contentment rather than discontentment, and we are less likely to ruminate over life’s shortcomings.  It is an obvious and practical life lesson.  Recently, I started keeping a gratitude journal, and I am sincerely amazed at the difference in my spirit after I sit and write for a few minutes.  This gratitude stuff is no joke.

But let’s be honest.  Sometimes- often times- we aren’t that successful in maintaining a practice of gratitude.  The annual holiday marker of intentional thankfulness comes and goes.  We make resolutions about how we are going to practice more gratitude and concentrate on all we do have rather than focusing on what we we don’t have.  We know having a thankful spirit is good for the soul, and what is good for the soul is good for the body.  We know this.  But let’s be honest… sometimes our ingratitude swallows any sliver of gratitude.

Are you ungrateful?

What are you not grateful for?

What are the memories in your life that you wish you could squeeze your eyes shut and make go away?  Who are the people in your life that you wish you could snap your fingers and they would vanish?  What are the experiences in your life that make you want to shake your fist and cry out in sadness and despair, “Why, God?  Why?”

Sometimes it’s hard to feel grateful, and I don’t think that is necessarily a shortcoming on our part.  I think it’s because sometimes life is unfair and difficult.

A few years ago, my little family was going through a particularly difficult season with no end in sight.  I remember feeling as if there was a battle going on inside my mind as I tried to practice gratitude for all we did have while at the same time wanting to scream, “Someone take this cup from me!  I do not want it and I did not ask for it!”  I became exhausted by the clash of voices.  Then a third voice entered the frey which told me that life wasn’t so bad and a lot of people have it worse and what was wrong with me that I couldn’t just be grateful.  Why couldn’t I just be grateful?  The guilt I felt over my seeming ingratitude felt more oppressive than the trying circumstances I was facing. I felt painfully stuck.

Gratitude is the pathway to joy, indeed.  But comparative suffering and self shaming are not the pathways to gratitude.  Shaming yourself into gratitude is not healing.  Using gratitude to silence and bypass your sincere grief and pain is not helpful.  Sometimes- often times- the healthiest thing we can do is to admit I’m unthankful for this.  I don’t want this.

Yes, we are called to be grateful, and, yes, gratitude fosters contentment and joy.  But we cannot use gratitude as a tool to silence our despair.  That is not the purpose of gratitude.  Admitting you are not thankful for the diagnosis, the unemployment, the loss, the failed relationship is the first step in surrendering those burdens you were never intended to solely bear.  You cannot surrender something you insist upon denying exists.    It is important to acknowledge and speak your sadness and anger because it is only then that you can let go of them.  It is only then that you can be free of them.  It is only then you can cultivate true and honest gratitude.  We can feel grateful for the healing and still not feel grateful for the hurt.

During this holiday season you may have so much to be grateful for, but you also may have some true heartache that occupies every thought and moment.  What are you ungrateful for today?  What life event are you unthankful for?  Silenced hurt metastasizes; shared hurt heals.  Speak the heartache.  Surrendering your hurt by admitting and sharing it with someone begins the healing process and opens the door to freedom and thanksgiving.

Having trouble feeling grateful?  Ask yourself, “What do I need to surrender?”  What do you need to acknowledge today so that healing can begin? 

Gumball Lessons: Learning to Embrace the Good and Bad in Your Story

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking on the power of embracing our story.  What does it mean to embrace our story?  What are the obstacles we face in trying to embrace our story? Embracing your story means that you understand how the twists and turns, the expected and unexpected, the good and the bad work together to create your unique purpose and life direction.  To embrace your story, you have to face your story.  Facing your story means dealing with the tough parts rather than trying to deny or ignore them.

But what if you don’t want to deal with the past?  What if you don’t know how to deal with the past?  How do you make sense of the past when there have been so many ups and downs? 

How do we wrap our minds around this thing called life that can be so breathtakingly beautiful and heart wrenchingly painful?

I think this dilemma is one of the biggest obstacles we face in embracing our story.  We run from the past because we don’t know how to reconcile the good and bad.  We don’t know how to hold onto the good and still call out and address the bad.

Maybe most of your story is really good- good friends, good life experiences, good memories- but there are a couple of chapters, or maybe even some characters, that have been really difficult.  These chapters or characters have created some true hurt in your life.  You don’t know how to include them in your story because you feel if you spend time talking about those painful scenes then you are discounting, or aren’t grateful for, all the good in your life.  And so you ignore or deny the impact of the chaotic home life, the addicted loved one, or the neglectful parent because you simply do not know how to reconcile the good and the bad.

Or maybe you are on the other end of the spectrum.  Life has been very hard.  From start to present, life has been one challenge after another.  And because life has beaten you up so, it is hard to hold on to the good.  It is hard to let yourself feel excitement and joy.  It is hard to believe that joy and good things really do, and will, happen to you.  So you live ever protective of your battered heart, constantly preparing for the worst and never letting yourself rest in joy.  It’s the same problem. You don’t know how to reconcile the good and the bad.  You don’t know how to hold them both.

The challenge in life is learning to accept the good and bad and give them each the credit they are due and the healing they deserve.  We must learn to hold the prickly and the smooth parts of life.  We must learn that sometimes life is like holding two gumballs.

This gumball is smooth, full of color, and if you bit into it, it would be sweet.

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This gumball is prickly and lackluster in color.

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Both are round. Both are gumballs.  But they are very different experiences. The sweetness of the one gumball does not cancel out the prickliness of the other.

Life is colorful and smooth and sometimes very sweet.  Life is also prickly and dark and a pain to deal with.

Sometimes, out of self-protection, we want our lives to be either all good or all bad because the back and forth, up and down can feel exhausting.  We want to know what we can count on because we want to feel in control of our fate.  So we decide that life is going to be all good, and we force a smile to hide any bad.  Or we decided that life is going to be all bad, and we lash out or reject anything that tries to convince us otherwise.

We struggle to embrace our stories when we want them to always make sense, follow a pattern, and not have any unexpected plot developments.  We struggle to embrace our story when we only want to hold onto one gumball.

The challenge is to learn to hold them both.

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The painful and difficult and negative events of your life do not cancel out all the good in your life.  Equally, the good in your life does not wash over and erase the hurts, abuse, or loss you have experienced.  Just because you’ve tasted the sweetness of life, does not mean you can’t still call out the bad.  Just because you know the prickliness of life, does not mean that is all there is to life.

It takes courage to have joy and hope, and it takes courage to grieve.  It takes courage to hold both gumballs.  Embracing your story means you accept the hard, prickly incidences just as you accept the sweet, colorful ones.  You accept that both experiences contribute to your unique story and life calling.  You learn to hold them both.

Do you struggle to reconcile the good and bad in your story? Does it ever feel like the bad overshadows the good in your life?  Do you stay quiet about the dark moments because you are afraid they will tarnish the bright ones?  Take the courageous step and start giving voice to all the parts of your unique and powerful story.

 

 

Thoughts for Thursday- Getting rid of the pain

Heartache, sadness, grief, anger, and hurt can feel scary and overwhelming.  Stubbed hearts really do hurt.  These feelings are hard to understand, and so often when we don’t understand something we just want it to go away.  We have all sorts of ways we try to make our feelings go away- we work more, we eat more, we drink more, we busy ourselves with more to do lists.  These methods seem to work for a while, but eventually we realize ignoring the pain won’t make it go away.  Instead, all the pain that we sweep under the rug builds up and we eventually trip over it.

We do more harm to ourselves by fearing and avoiding our feelings than by sitting in them and trying to learn something from them.  Your feelings will not swallow you whole.  They will not take you over.  Our feelings tell us something, and they tell us something very important.  If we ignore or avoid them, then we miss the lesson.

Feeling the pain is how we let go of the pain.   It is in feeling the pain that we find strength.  Strength is not avoidance.  Strength is letting yourself look into the pit and know that if you fall in you have the wherewithal to climb back out.

What part of your pain have you been avoiding?  What feelings make you feel the most uncomfortable?  What needs to happen in your life to help you start feeling the sadness you have tried to sweep under the rug so that you can truly let go?

Stubbed Toes, Stubbed Hearts

We’ve all been there.  Maybe it’s the middle of the night or the middle of broad daylight.  You’re walking along minding your own business following a path you have taken a thousand times.  You’ve walked in and out of this room and around this furniture at least a dozen times that day already.  But this time you cut the corner a little too close and… BAM! You stub your toe.

Pain instantly starts coursing through your toe, up your leg, and across your body.  You simultaneously suck air through your teeth, howl, and unleash a torrent of choice words.  You wonder why anyone would be so foolish as to put a dresser in that location.  You wonder if the offending dresser has perhaps taken a life of its own and turned against you in reaction to not being dusted lately.

Yep, we’ve all been there.  Think for a moment about what you do right after you stub your toe.  What is your natural physical reaction?  For most people, they will instantly bend down and try to cover the injured piggy with their hand as if they are trying to protect it in case the corner of the dresser decides to strike out in anger again.  You hide the injured toe under the shadow of our palm as if the slightest breeze or sliver of light might do more damage and increase the pain.  You cup the toe protecting it from further harm.

You hide the injury.

You protect the hurt.

Toes aren’t much different from hearts.  We’re traveling along a path that is well known.  We’re content in a job we’ve had for years.  We’re satisfied in a relationship we’ve been in for decades.  We’re living life, minding our own business, and then BAM!

We stub our heart.  A stubbed heart can bring the strongest soul to his knees.  The hit comes out of nowhere.  We wonder how things all of the sudden changed.  The hurt and anguish moves through our body, taking our energy, our sense of safety, our joy, and it leaves us with anxiety, insomnia, and unanswered questions.  A stubbed heart throbs with pain.

Much like that stubbed toe, our natural inclination is to protect our stubbed heart.  We want to hide and cover the heart wound.  We don’t want to let anyone see.  When we have experienced loss or heartbreak of any kind, we naturally react by withdrawing and isolating.  It is too painful to rehash the events.  It takes too much energy to put words to the disappointment.  No one may understand why our feelings have been so hurt and by trying to explain we might end up being more hurt.  We hide our stubbed heart under the shadow of our silence and retreat.

The only way to assess the hurt done to that stubbed toe is by removing the protecting hand and letting light shine on it.  Then you can see the extent of the damage.  Then you can see where the toe was hit.  You can see what needs to be done to fix and heal your injured toe.

The same can be said for our stubbed hearts.  The only way we can begin to heal our broken hearts is by allowing the hurt to come out of hiding.  We move out of our isolation and our silence, and we let light shine on the heart wound.  We talk about what happened.  We let others see the injury and come alongside us to offer support and empathy.  We let light shine on our stubbed hearts because then we can see where and how we were hurt and what we need to do to heal and repair that emotional wound.

When you experience hurt, loss, grief, or disappointment, it is so easy to retreat into yourself and keep all of that inside.  You tell yourself no one will understand or you don’t want to be a burden or some other self-defeating reason for why you should stay silent.  Pain and heartache will happen in life- it is the most unfortunate guarantee in life.  There is no amount of careful stepping that will protect you from loss and hurt.  But coming out of hiding, letting light shine on your loss, and talking about your hurt will diminish that pain.  Your stubbed heart may be throbbing today but removing that covering of silence and isolation will place you on the path to healing.

Has your heart been stubbed lately?  What would it look like to uncover that wound and let light and openness begin to heal it?

Thoughts for Thursday

 

I have had this quote hanging in my office since I became a counselor.  It is one of my favorites.  So true.  So wise.

We cannot always choose the circumstances of our lives, but we can choose how we face those circumstances.  Your past, your pain, your disappointment do not have to define you.  Instead, you can let that pain or that grief or that sorrow shape you.   You can choose how you are changed by your circumstances.

What are you working on today?  Are you working on being miserable or are you working on being strong?

Take care!

Seeing the Big Picture

Several years ago, my husband and I drove to New Orleans to attend my cousin’s wedding.  For whatever reason, we did not have anyone to pet-sit our beloved miniature dachshund, Lucy, so she joined us on our venture south.  While driving to NOLA, we decided to stop by “the loveliest village on the plains.”  My husband is a proud graduate of Auburn, and over the years, I have adopted his alma mater and its spirited traditions with great enthusiasm.   Obviously, I could not resist stopping for some priceless photo ops of Lucy at some of the famous Auburn landmarks.  We parked our car and let Lucy walk around the manicured grounds of Samford Hall while I wildly snapped pictures.

At this point in our story you should know one unique fact about Lucy:  she is terrified of cars.  She is so terrified of cars that she actually refuses to go on walks and hates being anywhere near moving traffic.  Cars and busy streets are Lucy’s kryptonite.

As much as I was enjoying our family outing, poor Lucy was having a mild anxiety attack as cars were whizzing past her on College Street.  Eventually we decided to walk back to the car, and knowing Lucy would have none of crossing the four lanes of traffic, I picked her up and started walking across the street.  Lucy trembled and shook with every step across the street, and I leaned down and said, “Lucy, it is okay.  I am not going to let anything happen to you.”  As I said that, I realized my perspective of what was going on was very different from Lucy’s.

Lucy stands about eight inches off the ground.  This is what the world looks like to Lucy…

 

With her four-inch legs, she feels every vibration and rumble.  Wheels are huge and cars are so big they take up her entire sightline.  Everything seems gigantic and overpowering.  Everything seems intimidating.

By contrast, this is what I saw that day…

I could see much further.  My viewpoint was much different.  I could see farther down the road, if trouble was coming, and when it was going to pass.  My perspective made it very easy for me to trust and believe that we were safe.  Lucy’s perspective, on the other hand, was limited and narrow.

As we crossed the street, I thought how often am I like Lucy.  How often are we all like Lucy?  We only see what is right before our eyes, and it seems intimidating and scary.  We feel totally overwhelmed by what we are facing, and sometimes we are sure it is going to overtake us. We fear being trapped and doomed to permanently reside in this place of uncertainty.

How often do we forget that we are not alone in our journey?  How often do we try to rely on our own shortsighted vision and strength?  It is so easy to be consumed with worry and fear.  It is so easy to forget there is a bigger picture, a larger vision for our life that we cannot fully imagine.   It is so easy to forget we are not alone, and we will not be left in our troubled, fearful state.   Lo, I am with you always…

Your current heartache, although deeply painful, is a portion of your picture, but it is not the entire portrait of your life.  You were not created to reside in the valley of your troubles; you were created to pass through the valley.

 

What would it be like today to trust that there is a bigger picture for your life that you cannot yet see?

How would your life be different if you believed you are not alone on this journey?

How would that type of hope change your life?

Crossing Kansas

The summer after my freshman year of college I drove from Atlanta to Aspen with a friend of mine.  I had never driven cross-country, and have not since, so this is my lone example of the “epic” road trip.  Although a good trip, it was not all that epic- no great stories of mishap or tomfoolery.  We were on a tight time schedule so there was no sightseeing.  There are only two things I remember about the drive: the St. Louis Arch and Kansas. If you have ever driven east to west across Kansas, you know that there isn’t much to see.  Literally.  Sitting in the car with the Kansas heat beating through the windows, I was amazed anything could be that flat.  I was in awe of how blank the horizon was to my left and right and how the scenery seemed to never change.  There wasn’t a hill, a tree, or a shrub for miles.  One mile felt like ten.

If you have ever driven east to west across Kansas, you also know that as you approach the state’s western border you see the Rocky Mountains.  It is as if they appear from nowhere.  Beautiful.  Magnificent.  Imposing.  After hours and hours and miles and miles of barren terrain, you feel energized and motivated to keep going.  Those majestic mountains seem to beckon you onward- “You can do this!  You made it!”  You made it through the desolate flatness.

What you do not realize, though, is that while you are traveling across that seemingly flat landscape you actually are climbing in elevation.  When you finally see those grand Rocky Mountains you are several thousand feet higher than when you started your journey.  The flatness is deceptive.  The barrenness is misleading.  Hour by hour, mile by mile you are not just moving forward, but you are moving upward.  You are moving out of the desolation and closer to the mountaintop.

 

The difficult seasons of our lives can be a lot like Kansas.  It’s the same ole, some ole.  You don’t seem to be making any progress.  Nothing is changing except the days of the week and the months of the year.  You keep applying for jobs.  You keep showing up to a job you hate. You keep going to doctors who have no answers.  You keep searching for love and coming up short.  You keep putting one foot in front of the other hoping to see some ounce of progress, some evidence that you are closer to the end of this difficult season.  It doesn’t feel like anything is changing, and you wonder how much longer.

And then one day, almost as if from nowhere, something changes.  Things are different.  You get the job.  You find out about a new career opportunity.  You meet with a doctor that has a new approach.  You realize you are lovable and find love in the process.  You catch a glimpse of the mountaintop, and you know you’ve made it. You know it may not be smooth sailing from here- there is still more traveling to do- but the barrenness and desolation are behind you.  You feel hopeful.  You can see the other side.

Sometimes change in our lives is imperceptible to the human heart, yet we are still growing, still healing.  Step by step we get to the other side.  Sometimes life is a lot like driving across Kansas.   Have you ever had a Kansas experience?  What did it feel like when you saw your Rockies?

 

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