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.

What's Your Theme Song? (plus an iTunes Gift Card Giveaway!)

I once read a quote that said, “Music’s the medicine of the mind”… well said.  Music plays such an interesting role in our lives.  When we hear music, it does something to our spirit.  It makes us want to move, to dance.  It fills us with energy.  It leads us to cry when we didn’t even know we were sad.  It makes us happy when we’d rather stay under the covers.  Music can have an amazing impact on our emotional being. But what I find so fascinating about music’s role in our mind and our lives, is how it bookmarks our story.  When I hear certain music, I immediately am transported back in time.  For instance, whenever I hear a marching band, my memory is instantly filled with the smell of fresh cut grass, the chill of a Fall night, all the sights and sounds of Tara Stadium, and I am instantly 16 again.  Or whenever I hear “Be Thou My Vision” my mind travels back to my wedding day and standing in the back of the church listening to my dear friend, Noelle, sing those beautiful words as tears streamed down my face.

It is always a fascinating trip down memory lane to scroll through my mental music library and recall the times and periods that I listened to certain songs or types of music.  I can listen to a song on repeat with the best of them.  What I’ve realized over the years, though, is that the songs that really draw my attention do so for a reason, and those particular songs become a sort of theme song for that particular season of life.   Now when I reflect back over my life, I have a sort of soundtrack that accompanies the chapters of my story.

I once listened to Lara Fabian’s “I Will Love Again” over and over after a really bad breakup.  No, I’m not kidding.  Yes, the song is as cheesy as the title sounds.  It is a club mix type song about a girl who will love again though [her] heart is breaking… stronger than before.   Let’s be honest, sometimes theme songs are neither terribly profound nor musical masterpieces.

As a very young 23 year old teaching students who were only a handful of years younger, I listened to U2’s “It’s a Beautiful Day” and “Elevation” every day on the way to work.  You can’t help but feel like you can conquer a class of 16 year olds after listening to those two songs!

And when I was preparing to leave that teaching job I dearly loved for my leap of faith into grad school and the counseling profession, I listened to Joe Cocker’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”   I imagined this was God’s message to me in those final months at Marist… when the road gets dark and you can no longer see, let my love throw a spark and have a little faith in me.

Years later, when I struggled with infertility and eventually went through IVF, my theme song was NewSong’s “Rescue.”  I can still remember sitting in the waiting room before my egg retrieval, and then 10 months later in the delivery room, with my earphones in trying to rest in the message that I was not alone and there was power and strength beyond my own available to me.

My latest theme song has been Sara Bareilles’ “Brave.”  I cannot get enough of this song.  It has been on repeat both in my mind and on my computer for the past several months.  It has been a cheerful companion as I have been facing little and big fears.  I love the words and sentiment of the song as it challenges me to see how big my Brave is.

Music encourages us, challenges us, and helps us tap into emotions we did not know were there.  We are drawn to certain songs during certain seasons of life for a reason, and those words and melodies serve as sources of inspiration and support when we feel we are paddling up stream.

Do you have theme songs in your life?  Do you have musical bookmarks that score your story?  What is your current theme song?  Having a theme song that you can listen to and find comfort and inspiration in helps you move through these unique seasons of your life.  Much like a mantra, a song is a wonderful way to center your mind and heart.  Music truly can be medicine to the soul.

I would love to hear the songs from which you draw your strength and encouragement.  In honor of our theme song topic and the power of music over our minds and hearts, I thought this would be a good opportunity for another giveaway! I am going to give away $10 iTunes gift cards to three lucky winners!  Just leave a comment below or send me a message to enter the drawing, and I will draw at the end of the week.  Look forward to hearing from you!!

Our Secret Codes of Perfectionism

Jack was conceived three years ago today.  Or at least this is the day I count as his conception date.  Before you signal the OVERSHARE alarm, let me explain.  Three years ago today, we did our embryo transfer. As I shared in an earlier post, we struggled to get pregnant for some time.  We went through the emotional roller coaster of infertility, doctors’ appointments, unanswered questions, and passing months.  Having both gone through the gamut of testing and months of fertility treatment options, our doctor told us he felt our next reasonable and realistic option was to do IVF.  This is exactly where we did not want to end up.  This was the route we were both hoping to avoid.  We struggled to know if this was the right course of action or if we should continue to wait.  Were we turning something into science that should have been natural?   Were we taking things into our own hands by doing IVF? Maybe we just weren't supposed to have children.  I wrestled with this decision like I have never wrestled before.

From the first shot you give yourself until the day you take a pregnancy test, an IVF cycle takes 40 days.  Forty days.   The spiritual significance of that length of time was not lost on me.  For 40 days, I prayed thy will, not mine and that our sense of peace, joy, and worth would not be based on the outcome.  For 40 days, I tried to surrender all the anxiety, angst, and planning that accompanies infertility.  Although there were certainly moments of nervousness and anticipation, I have to say that during that period I felt more at peace than I had felt in years.  I had finally let go of the nagging thought that not getting pregnant was somehow a failure or a sign that I was missing some mark, and I had accepted that getting pregnant was out of my control.  I didn’t necessarily feel confident we would be decorating a nursery any time soon, but I felt at peace.

The embryo transfer was scheduled for Sunday, July 25th.  Although I was praying daily and repeating all sorts of surrender mantras, I read the instructions for what I was supposed to do that day over and over.  I had two responsibilities: show up on time and drink 40 ounces of water before the appointment. That was my part that day. The morning of the transfer I carefully measured my 40 ounces.  I started drinking.

When we arrived at the doctor’s office, the nurse did an ultrasound to check my bladder and she casually said, “Oh you don’t have quite enough water in you.  You need to drink more water.”

I instantly felt my throat tighten and my eyes start to burn with tears, and as clearly as if someone was speaking into my ear, I heard…

You didn’t do it right.

I was stunned.  I was shocked.  I was so shocked that I wanted to ask my husband if he had heard it as well.  It was water…it was water!!  It wasn’t going to make any difference on whether or not I got pregnant.  All I had to do was drink another Solo cup of water.  Where was this thought coming from?  I thought I had given up all the self-blame and high expectations.  But there lurking in the shadows was that old thought that if only I could do it right then everything would be okay.

I just want to do it right.  This thought had been setting the tone of my inner dialogue for as long as I could remember.  It applied to most everything I did and every decision I made.  For you see, I just want to do it right was my secret code.  It was my secret code of perfectionism.  I knew it wasn’t possible to be perfect, but I wasn’t trying to be perfect… I was just trying to do it everything right.  Because if I did everything right, then everything would work out.  Right?  Right?!?

 

Isn’t that what our secret codes of perfectionism convince us to believe?

Everyone has a secret code.  Everyone has a secret code that masks his or her attempted perfectionism.  We readily say that perfection isn’t possible; rather, we just want to do our best or we just like things done a certain way or we really prefer to work hard.  But there is a difference between perfection and preference.  Perfection is rigid and unforgiving while preference is flexible.  When we get honest about our secret codes, then we can get honest about the root lie behind our attempted perfectionism.

Perfection is protection.

Or so we think.

Perfectionism is all about protection.  If I can be perfect, if I can do it right, if I can keep everyone happy, then I will be protected against failure, criticism, hurt, and rejection.  If I can always make the right decision, then maybe I will avoid pain and disappointment.  If I cross every T and dot every i, then what I am afraid of most won’t happen.  Everything will work out because I did it right.  This is the lie that perfectionism tries to convince us is true.  This is the lie that keeps us up at night wondering what more we could do or where we missed the mark.  This is the lie that pummels our spirit and fills us with blame when things don’t work out.  This is the lie that robs us of peace.

The problem with this lie is that it lures you down a never-ending dark alley of overthinking, overworking, overscheduling.  You start to think, whether consciously or subconsciously, that how you look, how charming you were on the date, how you completed a certain daily task can change your life.  You start to think that you can control your destiny with just enough hard work.  The reality is you can do everything right and still not get the guy, the family, the job, the promotion, the love.  You can try and forecast every worst-case scenario and there are still going to be things beyond your control.

 

After I finished drinking my water, our doctor and the embryologist came in to discuss the transfer and next steps.  I sat there trying to take everything in.  Trying to take in everything the doctors were saying, trying to understand the significance of hearing that old thought for the first time in a while.  Sitting there, I realized this wasn’t about being perfect and this wasn’t about science.  This was about something Greater.  I started to fight back tears again but this time for a different reason.

That day I came face to face with the damaging power of my secret code.  I also came face to face with the abundant peace that comes with surrender.   Surrender is the antidote to perfectionism.  Surrender is recognizing what you can control, what you can’t, and having the wisdom to know the difference.  It is recognizing where you end and where God begins.  Surrender means embracing the mystery of faith.  It is not defeat or giving up; instead, it is peace and freedom.

We break free from our secret codes of perfectionism by getting honest about what they are and getting honest about what we think they will protect us from.  We break free by daily, sometimes hourly, laying down our expectations and attempts to control the unknown.  We break free by learning to embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty of life rather than fearing it.   Fear not, friends, there is abundant peace ahead.

What are your secret codes of perfectionism?  How do you use attempted perfectionism as a form of protection?  What are you trying to protect yourself from?

 

 

The Club

I have never been big on clubs.  They simply have never appealed to me until I came upon a club that kept denying me membership.  There is one club that no matter how much you want to be in it, no matter how hard you try to join, membership is determined by one sole requirement:  The Motherhood Club. Several years ago, my husband and I spent Mother’s Day with his parents.  At brunch, I noticed we were the only group in the restaurant without children.  I immediately became keenly aware of the absence at our table, and I leaned over to ask my husband if he thought people thought it was odd there were no children at our table.  He looked at me matter-of-factly, smiled, and said that he doubted anyone was giving us that much thought.  I welcomed his loving dose of reality.

Dr. Brené Brown, in her book I Thought It Was Just Me, says motherhood is a sensitive topic for women, whether they have children or not, because we often believe that motherhood is “inextricably bound” to our sense of what it means to be a woman.  She goes on to state that motherhood, and everything having to do with it, is one of the top shame (aka feeling not good enough) triggers for women.   It is so easy for motherhood to become a determining factor of our worth as a woman.  It is so easy for the number of children we have or what they are doing or not doing to become a grading scale we use to measure ourselves.

That Mother’s Day, I felt every ounce of emotion that comes when you find yourself on the outside of The Motherhood Club trying to get in.  As I sat at that brunch, I felt self-conscious and inadequate.  I felt the whole restaurant could see what I wasn’t talking about and so desperately wanted to not be true: we couldn’t get pregnant.  Over the course of our infertility journey, I waded through all sorts of feelings- disappointment, frustration, confusion, envy.  I feared being left… being left with this mixture of sadness and resentment… being left behind.  I wondered why it was so easy for some and so difficult for others.  I wondered why I had to be in the latter category.

The Motherhood Club is an interesting one.  The membership form has so many questions:  When?  Why?  Why not?  How many?  It seems most, if not all, women wrestle with these questions.  For some, the answers come easily.  For others, the answers come after a long inner debate.  And still for others, they don’t get to decide the answers at all.  Whether you always knew you wanted to have children, you chose not to have children, or circumstances out of your control chose for you, motherhood touches each of us differently, and the journey is filled with a dizzying array of emotions.

Even once you become a mother, the questions and fears do not automatically subside.  There are now new concerns and ponderings.  Am I good mother?  Am I making the right choices for my child?  How do I protect my child without being overprotective?  How do I know if I am messing up?

My hope for you this Mother’s Day is that wherever you are in this journey, you will give yourself the space and Grace to be there.  If this is your first Mother’s Day and you are wondering how it’s possible to feel excited, grateful, tired, and overwhelmed all at the same time, give yourself the space and grace to feel all of those emotions.  If this Mother’s Day you are experiencing a particularly difficult season of motherhood filled with many questions and concerns and heartache, give yourself the space and grace to feel all of that.  Or perhaps this Mother’s Day you are wrestling and wondering if you will ever be a mother, and this annual marker only reminds you of what you do not have.  Wherever you are and whatever you are feeling, give yourself the permission to experience every ounce of that sadness, disappointment, joy, frustration, or gratitude.

But regardless if you have made your decision regarding motherhood or if you are still waiting for an answer, I hope you will remember the following:

Our worth as women is not determined by how we answer the question “Do you have children?”  Our worth as women is determined by something greater and more innate.  We are natural nurturers whether we have children or not.  We are natural creators whether we reproduce or not.  We bring beauty and life to all we touch.  Motherhood is a part of being a woman, and motherhood might be part of your journey.  But whether or not you are a mother does not determine your place at the table of love, belonging and worthiness.  If you have zero children or if you have a dozen, your worth as a woman remains the same.  You are a beautiful creation put here to fulfill a unique role and purpose.  May you find comfort and freedom in that truth.  May you rest in that blessed assurance.

 

 

Brown, Brené, Ph.D., LMSW. (2007). I thought it was just me (but it isn’t). New York:  Gotham Books.