When You Get Hosed, Part 2

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I’ve been avoiding this post. I wasn’t sure what to write.

When I created the first post, I thought I knew how I wanted to write the follow-up. The more I thought about it, though, the more I didn’t know what I wanted to say.

I toyed with the idea of talking about trust. Laying your life in His safe hands when you get the crap beat out of you. You know, the “when you can’t trace His hands, trust His heart” sort of stuff you hear in songs and sermons.

But I just couldn’t stomach the saccharine. There’s a problem with that approach. It assumes you trust God in the first place.

I can trust God with some things. My savings account. My freelance work. My future. Well, most of the time. But ask me to lay my daughter on the altar of trust, and I’ll be the first to admit my inadequate faith. God is not the problem. I am. And I don’t think I’m alone.

Tell a parent whose child has just died to “trust God’s sovereignty” and you’re likely to be met with biting tears at best, howls of grief and anguish and betrayal at worst. Does this indicate a lack of trust on that parent’s part? Or does their response merely acknowledge that a walk of faith and trust is a gritty, grungy, get-scraped-up in the process  sort of journey?

If trust is too much to ask—and sometimes I think we demand more than God asks of us—then what do you do when you get hosed?

Show up. Walk it out. Put one bloodied foot in front of the other and keep going.

That’s all you can do. And dare I say, that’s all God asks of you.

Lest I’m branded a heretic for not encouraging you to trust God more or to take a larger leap of faith….hang with me.

Job. The poster child of suffering. I love Job’s story, not because it ends neatly tied up in a bow. Yes, God blessed and restored him and  his family, but he still bore the scars. Those remained. I revel in the story because in the midst of Job’s questions and shaking his fist at God, God didn’t chastise Job for his lack of faith. God didn’t tell Job to put on his big boy robes and get up and out of the ashes. Instead He challenged Job to embrace the mystery of His nature and His workings.

May that’s what God asks of you and me when we get hosed.

The second story is found in the New Testament. One of my favorite people reminded me of it recently (thanks, Erin!). It’s in Mark 9— the man with a son who had been possessed by an unclean spirit. Talk about suffering. Watching your child endure the agony of demon possession. Doesn’t get any worse than that. The man tells Jesus:

“If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!”

And Jesus said to him, “If You can? All things are possible to him who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” —Mark 9: 22b-24

I believe. Help my unbelief. The battle cry of the wounded, worn out, suffering, beat up, and bedraggled.

Notice that Jesus didn’t rebuke the man. He answered the man’s prayer. But He doesn’t always choose to answer every prayer the way we’d like. So we keep walking it out. We keep praying and seeking and knocking and asking. We bare our souls to the Soul-Maker and keep going. One painful, faith(ful? less?) step after another. We go to work. We take the medicine. We go to therapy. We take the next step. That’s what the nameless man in Mark did. That’s what Job did. Walk. it. out. Show up. One more moment. One more hour. One more day.

When I was younger and heard sermons on finishing the Christian race strong, I pictured Hebrews 12 and the great cloud of witnesses cheering me on in some grand stadium as I completed one last victory lap. Having weathered a few more storms and the consequences of my own sin, I look at the end of my race differently. I think I shall arrive at the end limping. No victory lap. Just walking, sometimes stumbling, always scraping my hands and knees and faith. I think that’s how most of us will arrive.

When we get to heaven He will finally and completely wipe away the tears and anguish and pain.

Until then, we take one more step. One. more. step.

Doubting, questioning, and yet believing still.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When You Get Hosed, Part 1

sufferingA student my husband taught buried her 18-month-old baby last week.

A dear friend working through an apprenticeship with the promise of future employment just found out that her program has been put on hold—indefinitely.

A dear godly man suffering from cancer has prayed and prayed for deliverance, only to watch the disease march like Sherman’s army across his body.
_________________________

You and I could swap stories about friends, families, and Lifetime movie characters who have this one thing in common—they got hosed.

In more antiseptic Christian circles, the politically correct phrase might be “they are enduring suffering” or “bad things have happened to good people,”  but 1) those descriptions are woefully inadequate; and 2) that’s just not my style. In truth, those platitudes attempt to clean up the messiness left behind by the bombshell that has obliterated any sense of normalcy in their lives. They did nothing wrong. In fact, many of those  living through the darkest nightmares did everything right. They love Jesus. They tithe. They only drink one cup of coffee per day. And yet…IT still happens. Suffering. Hardship. Gut-renching agony. Injustice.

Yes, we live in a fallen world. I get that. I know that the Bible tells us to expect suffering. I grasp fully the truth that following Jesus does not insulate you from mental illness, a recession, searing pain, or horrible first dates. However, in an effort to let God off the hook, we (Christians) have defaulted to a less-than-honest approach to life’s hardships, as if to express honestly the reality of the mountain ahead somehow negates God’s sovereignty or reveals a lack of faith that the mountain can be moved.

However, God does not need me to be His defense lawyer, explaining away evil as a character-building exercise or the unfortunate consequences of a madman’s sin. God can hold his own. He can stick up for himself. That frees me to be honest about the situation without making light of God.

When IT happens—when you or I or your next door neighbor gets the phone call that changes life as we know it—what do we do? How do we respond?

I have two answers.

First, be honest. Denying the reality of your reality only compounds the confusion and chaos and keeps you from finding your footing. For me to placidly accept the suffering without confronting its ugly underbelly is to give the monster more power. Like Hermoine said in a Harry Potter book: fearing the name only increases fear of the thing itself. (Or something like that.) Adversity  is not off-limits to our most candid questions or fears. Name it. You’ve been slapped sideways by suffering. Claim it. It feels as if you cannot breathe, as if the weight of this ordeal may suffocate you at any moment. Accepting the fact that you are in the midst of a tempest does mean you are less-than-holy or rebelling against God, as if saying, “this is happening and it sucks” shows that you don’t trust God. If only to yourself and your favorite dog, please be honest. Own it. Calling out your suffering won’t make it go away, but you may feel better. Ignoring it certainly won’t help.

Second…

[to be continued…]

 

 

 

 

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Why You’ll Find Community at McDonald’s Instead of at Church

logoBeing a freelance writer, I get to choose where I work. If I’m hungry and haven’t had breakfast (and if I’m not going anywhere where the odor of french fries on my clothes might offend someone), I head to McDonald’s. Love me some yogurt parfait. And an occasional biscuit. Don’t judge.

In my vast knowledge of McDonald’s locations in the Nashville area, I have noticed a couple of things:

First, the McD’s inside Nashville are way more posh than the ones in the outlying areas, specifically the tiny hamlet of Kingston Springs. You won’t find any faux leather seats or flat screen TVs there. Just hard plastic booths.

Second, McD’s is a place to find community. Three groups of community, to be exact. At least in the Springs.

First, the senior men. They talk about men’s issues—the weather, politics, sports, local gossip. No emotional topics please. And no women, thank you. Another group  gathers on the opposite side of the restaurant—the hunter/redneck crowd. Which allows women, by the way. They’re almost always in cammo, always wear a ball cap, and talk about deer, fishing rods, and football. There’s always time to talk about football when you live in SEC territory.

The third group? The employees.

You might be thinking, sure, they take breaks together. Yes, that’s true, but the members of this circle come to hang out…even when they don’t work that day. These people will actually show up  just to be together—when they could be doing a dozen other things away from the smell of coffee grinds mixed with grease.

The group is a ragtag lot. Most are tattooed at least once. Some have body piercings. Most smoke. Their ages range from pimple-faced teens to senior adults who are working there because they need the income. Quite a conglomeration of cultures.

If you listen to their conversations (which I NEVER do), you might think you were in a normal office setting:

“How’s is your mom?”
“How was your doctor’s appointment?”
“My son is driving me nuts!”

Other times, though, you listen to their stories and realize WHY they are a community:

“My child support…”
“I can’t pay my rent until…”
“My partner and I…” (same-sex partner, that is)

They come to experience community. (They certainly don’t gather because they can’t get enough of the food.) They come because, in that space and place, they find acceptance. As is. They find the much-needed feeling of being understood. Of someone caring for them. Supporting them.  They gather because they’ve shared the same experience of being shunned in other places, even (especially?) the church.

Be honest: Would the gay cashier with his striped socks and funky shirts be welcome in your church—even when he starts talking about how to mix hair colors? What about the barely-adult woman who has had three children by three different men? What about the recovering addict who has to sneak out during worship for a cigarette?

What would you do if you found out if a visitor (or a member!) has a criminal record? Cheated on his wife? Had an abortion? Would you treat those people any differently? Would you invite them in to your community of faith?

Better yet, would you invite them eat with your family (or friends) after the worship service?

These people gather because they all have scars—and they all know it. There’s no need for pretense or pretending because everyone in that circle acknowledges that they’ve messed up and have no room to judge. They gather because they’ve found some sense of belonging in spite of poor decisions and sinful pasts.

In short, McDonald’s provides what the Church often does not—a place of flawed yet accepted humanity.

If Jesus were alive today, I’m pretty sure He’d stop by the Kingston Springs McD’s…

…and He might even eat a biscuit.

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Death: Beautiful, Sacred, and Painful As H-E-Double Hockey Sticks

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I watched a family lose a beloved matriarch last week.

She was a family friend, and here in the South, that means she was more family than friend. Which made her family my family, too. Like those relatives you love but get to see only on rare occasions. Like weddings. Or bedside vigils. Or lottery winnings.

As it so happened, I had gone to the hospice where she was living out her last remaining moments. I wanted to check in on her daughter, who is in my ragamuffin support group called a Sunday School class. Her granddaughter is the resident clown/leader-in-disguise in my youth group. And I went because I’ve been there and I get it. I know the sting of death all too well. That’s a blog post for another day. Or maybe a book.

When I got to the hospice, I made the rounds with family members, casually making jokes and trying to break the monotony of watching someone die. That’s another blog post, too. When someone is in hospice, you know the End is near, but only God knows how near the End actually is. With that framework in mind, I’d intended to stay a bit and encourage as I could. Offer my prayers. And my feet. Run to Cracker Barrel. Get tissues. More Diet Coke.

But then, as life often does, life happens. Or in this case dying happens.

Within an hour, I witnessed the Matriarch’s family standing around her bedside, tears of grief mixed with relief and joy as she took her last breaths. The agony of losing a part of yourself. The relief that suffering didn’t win out and her pain was gone. And joy knowing that she was meeting her Savior face-to-face at that very moment.

It was a sacred, holy experience.

And it still hurt like h-e-double hockey sticks. That’s the Southern way to say hell, in case you’re still working out the grammar.

Even in the visitation and funeral, I kept bouncing between the holy and sacred to “this really sucks.”

I envisioned the Matriarch meeting my father-in-law, who no doubt was planning a practical joke while she was in hospice. I envisioned her meeting my friend, Sara, who passed away all too recently. I thought about my mom, who died from cancer, too. But most of all, I kept wondering what the Matriarch was experiencing. Since none of us knows on this side of heaven what it’s really like on that side of heaven, we are all left wondering. I could only imagine. (Cue Mercy Me song here).

I wondered and I ached. I ached for the family who would no longer see her smiling face or curly hair. For the grandchildren who could only rely on pictures and stories to know her. For my friend who can no longer talk to her mom every day. I ached for myself and my own losses. Her death was a painful reminder of them, too.

Watching someone pass from this life to the next is a sacred, mysterious moment, when deep beauty dances with gut-wrenching, take-your-breath-away sadness. I have felt both in the last week. And I can say with certainty (most days) that when the music stops and the dance is over, even when the grief threatens to suffocate you, life still wins out.

Maybe not right now, but someday.

Until then, I grieve and I hope.

And I eat a lot of chocolate.

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When Us Versus Them Became We: My Dinner With a Gay Couple

tug of warI ate dinner with a gay couple recently.

I met them while on a trip to see a friend. She’s gay, too. Don’t judge. I know you’re tempted to.

In all candidness and transparency, I was nervous about meeting them. I created outlandish scenarios in my head of what the interaction would be like, all of which, I must confess, were of the worse-case variety. I live in a Southern, “religious” culture that has demonized people who do not conform to the expectations of acceptable belief and behavior. Labeled them as weird, sinful, abhorrent, liberal, militant, demanding, and destructive to society. I’m afraid to say that over time, this underlying current of prejudice and smugness has permeated my own thinking, like chemical runoff poisoning a stream.

When the couple first arrived, I tried to treat them as I would any heterosexual couple at a dinner with my husband. I asked questions about their careers (one was an teacher, just like my husband). I asked how they met. I asked about their families and their favorite meal at the place we were eating. I asked about their marriage (in California). While my questions were innocuous, my interest was more like investigating a culture I’d never encountered before, like a sociologist who discovers a previously hidden civilization. Nell meets Star Trek meets National Geographic. It was us (me, the conservative Christian [minister]) against them (the liberal gay). I’m not proud of my attitude. Not then, not now. But the lines were drawn by my assumptions and arrogance.

Then it happened. Us against them became we.

The shift was subtle and unexpected. One of my (seemingly) innocuous questions was “What plans do you have for the weekend?” I was not expecting the answer I got. One of the women had lost her brother just a few weeks before, and she and her partner were driving to a special place to spread his ashes.

In that moment, my dinner companions were no longer specimens in a jar to be observed (don’t tell me you don’t do the same thing); they became we—fellow human beings who are more like me than different.

I’ve lost a sibling. And her ashes have been spread in a special place.

I could identify with her grief and her pain. I knew from experience how she was feeling, weeks after the death, when everyone else moves on with their lives and you just can’t seem to move. She wasn’t liberal, demanding, or destructive. She was hurting. And every human being, regardless of your political or religious views, can identify with that. At least I hope so.

Not long after that, I was listening to a sermon from a pastor in Colorado. The minister (or preacher or whatever the label in that denomination) made a statement that rocked my theology: Whenever we create an “us against them” scenario, we typically put ourselves in a superior position and the “them” in an inferior one. We’re wiser and holier. More enlightened and informed. “They” need to learn the truth, and we are just the people to tell them exactly what the truth is. Think through your “us versus them” labels; none of them makes you the one in need of change, right?

Conservative versus liberal.
Sinner versus saint.
Straight versus gay.
Stay at home versus working mom.
Homeschool versus public school.
Immigrant versus citizen.
SEC versus the rest of the world.

Whatever side we choose to identify with becomes the morally (or spiritually) superior role, and we in good conscious must enlighten and educate (judge) the other side.

Except that we as believers are not called to judge. We are called to love.

Remember when the expert in the Law (i.e., superior morally) asked Jesus which commandment trumped everything else? “Love the Lord your God…and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Luke 10:27). Love Him. Love others.

When Jesus commanded the disciples to go into the world, He commanded them to make disciples, not to judge sinners. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say, “Make sure that people who disagree with your politics, theology, or lifestyle know just how much God will judge them for their sin. And it’s best to do that by making them feel like crap.”

I’m not saying that homosexuality is ok. What I am saying is this: There is no “us vs. them” at the foot of the cross. We are all the same. I have no stone to throw. I have no right to play judge and jury when I am one of the guilty. The gospel is for all of us fallen creatures, and I am not in the position to determine whether my brand of sin is morally superior to someone else’s.

I have long wondered what would happen if the Christian community would rise up and love others with the same intensity and ferociousness that we’ve used in judging them. The addict. The man who beats his wife. The homeless. The Wall Street swindler. The slacker who skips Sunday night church to watch the Superbowl.

James said that mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas. 2:13).

Maybe, hopefully, one day I’ll be able to see it in action. In my own life.

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I Have a Mental Illness

brainThis week, the world mourned the loss of the irrepressible genius actor, Robin Williams. Typically, the death of celebs leaves me a little sad because I know I will miss their gifts. With Williams’ death, however, I grieved. Not because I knew him personally, although his acting made all of us think we did.  I grew up loving Mork & Mindy, learned to seize the day, and saw the beauty of flawed humanity in his movies.

Mostly, though, I grieve Robin Williams’ death because I am like him.

I have a mental illness. It’s called depression.

I grieved for Robin Williams’ death because I understand his struggle. I know all too well the feeling of drowning in a sea of emotions whose pull drags you to the depths of despair and won’t let you breathe. I understand how easily your thoughts and feelings can become warped by a combination of brain chemicals and difficult circumstances, leaving you unsure of what is true and what is the myth told by your feelings.

I know I’m not alone. The CDC estimates that about 1 in 10 people report a depressive episode at least once in their lives. My symptoms started showing up in seminary. I’ve taken medication for it the majority of my adult life.  Like millions of others, I take the medication because my brain is just wired differently. It’s a brain disease, just like epilepsy or ADHD.

When you see me on a regular basis, you’re not likely to see any signs of depression. That’s because, like epilepsy, it doesn’t shout out its presence. For me, depression can be managed with medication, therapy, and self-care. However, like epilepsy, depression can be triggered by any number of factors, but for me it’s usually a combination of them—stress overload; loss; sleep deprivation; poor eating and exercise habits; working too much and playing too little; having no margin in my life for stillness and quiet; ignoring my needs and emotions.

Unlike epilepsy, when depression is triggered, it doesn’t wave a red flag and say “Hey! I’m here! Deal with it!” The slide into depression is insidiously deceptive. Slow. As imperceptive as a decline down a low-grade hill. If you are not vigilant to notice the signs, some of which are unique to each person, you can find yourself being pulled toward that black hole of despair, and it feels impossible to resist its gravitational pull.

Sometimes the fog of depression is too thick to be able to find our way out. And so we get help. We see a therapist (mine rocks, by the way, highly recommend her) to talk things through. We adjust the medication. We try to take care of our bodies by getting adequate rest and exercising.
At times, though, giving in to your feelings and thoughts—as misinformed as they may be—feels much easier and less exhausting than fighting back.

And on Monday, Robin Williams stopped fighting.

I’m taking a risk in writing this blog. It may not be received with grace, especially in the Christian community, I’m sad to say. I fear the backlash from fellow believers who wrongly assume that I don’t have enough faith or am not relying on Jesus enough (you’d be surprised at how many people think that). Unfortunately, depression goes largely misunderstood. It’s not just a matter of having a rough few days. It’s not a ploy for sympathy or an excuse to lie around the house. It’s not a lack of faith or a sign of sin. People who suffer from mental illness—from depression to anxiety disorders to anorexia—still love Jesus and find their hope in Him.

It’s hard for us to reach out to family and friends. We think you’ll judge us; we think you won’t understand (and you can’t completely unless you’ve been there); we worry that you’ll look at us funny and treat us as if we have ebola. And so we suffer in silence. Talking helps us but we can’t talk. It’s a nasty irony.

Why am I writing this blog? In all truthfulness, I’m not sure. I think maybe because I’m tired of hiding this part of me from my family, friends, and colleagues. I think partly because I am weary of the stigma attached to mental illness and want to destroy its stereotypes, even if just among the few people who will read this.

Mostly, though, I am telling my story because I seek to be authentic and real in my faith journey, and doing so requires that I be transparent about all of my struggles, not just the socially acceptable ones. You know, the fears and worries that are safe to share as prayer requests in church—a sick uncle, a job interview, traveling over the weekend. I want to challenge my fellow believers to stop playing church and start living like authentic Christians, and that means I must model it first.

I struggle with depression. And I love Jesus. The two are not mutually exclusive.

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http://www.cdc.gov/features/dsdepression/

 

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My morning: A haircut, super glue, Elmo hands, and ostrich poo

watchI knew my day would require good time management. Yeah, that should have been my first clue.

My “always wants to be at school earlier than the other kids” decided that today was not that sort of day. Behind 30 minutes.

When I took off my ball cap from taking her to school (I know I’m not the only one, so don’t judge!), I had reached THAT point. Getting a trim became a necessity in order to preserve not only my sanity, but the safety of all others around me. So I took the chance and got a trim at one of those fast-cut places. It was fast, but I was still behind another 30 minutes.

The aforementioned fast-cut place did a fair job on my hair, but apparently they don’t do styling this early in the morning, so I had to stop at Walgreens for some quick hair gel so I didn’t look like a total dweeb while eating lunch with a friend. Behind another 10 minutes.

Unfortunately, my thrifty gene kicked in and I chose a travel-size gel I’d never used before. Same brand. Different formula. Like the difference between Elmer’s Glue and Superglue different formula. So I’m sitting in my car with my hands plastered together with goop that only a jack hammer or blow torch could separate. I decide to wipe off the layers of goop onto the closest victim in my car: my favorite jacket. Unfortunately, that jacket is fuzzy. Yeah, you know where this is going.

My water bottle must be sacrificed, lest my hands resemble Elmo. Ten minutes later and an entire bottle wasted, I can at least feel my skin enough to take off the rest of the hair gel by using an entire bottle of hand sanitizer. I have the cleanest hands in the metro area. Ok, my morning has been shot, but maybe I can manage a little work before my lunch date. I get out of the car and circle around to the passenger’s side to grab my laptop for a little writing. Then I see it.

Apparently, ostriches can now fly. Because a herd/flock/gaggle has apparently made its way to Pegram. And apparently, these birds ate something that disagreed with their finicky stomachs. The amount of ostrich poo on the passenger’s side of the car was astounding. Impressive. And absolutely gag-inducing.

I am supposed to pick up my friend for lunch, but I would never subject my worst enemy (well, maybe at Redskins fan) to the sight or smell—never mind the feel—of it because it’s all over the car handle. So, I have to stop at a car wash where I spend 20 minutes trying to power-wash the poo from my car. I think it must be the same consistency of the hair gel. I’m sure my friend will buy me lunch for this sacrifice of time.

If you’ve ever had to power-wash poo from your car at close range, then you know what happened. Yep, blow back. I finally got the poo off, but now the right side of my body is soaking wet and smells like a cross between dish detergent and car wax. I hate to be cold and wet, so the next stop was the nearby McDonald’s, where by the way, I saw the black Elvis selling newspapers again.

I commandeered the hand dryer in the bathroom for roughly four hours (or it seemed) until my clothes didn’t feel like I’d been through a car wash.

Guess what time it is? Yep, time to go pick up my friend for lunch.

Hopefully, the morning wasn’t completely wasted…I’m hoping it gave you a little laugh. And a little gratitude that your morning wasn’t as crazy as mine.

 

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