The voices in our head: Why story matters

I relied on many voices to help me through the box of disorder. Of all the voices who share about their experiences, Rob Bell’s is one of the kindest, wittiest and most inspiring in my world, currently. Each week, when I listen to his podcast, I find myself agreeing, stopping to swear (which is apparently how I voice my agreement when it’s too strong to keep inside), or sending quotes and links to anyone who will listen. Most people aren’t as excited as I am, probably. Having felt alone for a very long time, I throw connecting moments out like candy from a parade float and hope it reaches someone who really needs it.

Anyway, I was listening to the Robcast recently, specifically, The Importance of Boredom (weeks later and this is still rolling around in my soul so maybe you would like it too). He tells the story his wife’s experience with pregnancy induced asthma, which was terrifying. After the trauma of daily fearing for her life, she would talk with Rob about her story: how it felt, what happened, what she thought, over and over. She talked about it every day until finally the experience was actually in the past instead of continually happening to her in her mind.

Trauma is like that.

It isn’t only mental. It’s physical. It’s on our cells. Scientists can find it in our hair and our fingernails months after the events themselves. We carry it, and often we carry it silently, pushing it down into deep dark corners and hoping it will just go away.

But trauma is not like that.

Trauma grows in dark places and secrets. It gets bigger, and hairier, and meaner. The only true cure for trauma is light and love. Light and love over time, sometimes a long time. Sometimes days and weeks and months of bringing our trauma out into the light until finally it begins to fade, never leaving us entirely, but certainly becoming more like all the other events that make up who we are instead of THE event which defines us.

Love and light and time.

I listened to this podcast within the first few days of deciding to write for one hundred days. When I heard this part about trauma I wanted to yell, That’s it!!! to anyone who would listen.

Over the last seven years, aside from my messy spiritual disintegration:

  • we’ve been kicked out of church,
  • lost our home,
  • filed for bankruptcy,
  • my brother endured his own trauma of stage 4 colon cancer,
  • my mom had a melanoma on her face,
  • two of my three children have graduated,
  • all three children have started college,
  • we’ve lost two close friends to suicide and
  • endured several episodes of “not the same, but feels the same” as my previous spiritual abuse.

But only some of these things are socially acceptable to talk about, or at least, that’s the message I received. The rest are private, or make other people look bad, or are bad for the church, or so many other reasons why it was simply easier to not tell my story.

So I didn’t. And in the dark spaces it grew teeth, and claws, and these things became who I am instead of just things that happened to me. Because I couldn’t put them in the past where they belong, they jumbled up and piled up, and stacked up, always in my face, always part of my present, always something I had to be afraid and ashamed of. Always.

Every single day.

Until I finally decided that the chips will fall where they will. It’s time to let my story out. Again and again. As many times as I need to share it, until finally, it becomes merely part of me instead of defining me.

So you’ll forgive me if you’ve heard this one before, but I’m not done telling my story yet. Even though it’s no longer happening, I’m still living it inside. I’m still understanding all the ways it broke me and strengthened me and changed me. Stories matter. They are how we heal, how we tell the voices in our head what really happened.

Maybe you have a story too. Maybe it’s big and scary and ugly and all up in your business day after day. I encourage you to find a safe space, a person who loves to hear the same story time after time, a recovery group, a therapist. Tell your story; bring it out into the light. Let someone love you right in the middle of that great, big, hairy-scary mess.

I promise, pinky-swear even, with light and love over time, it really does get better. It never goes away, but we learn to live with it. The weight becomes bearable, and we become ourselves again.

Minimalism and Flexibility: How to stay sane when everything happens at once

When I woke up this gloriously cool morning, I thought to myself , “Man it’s nice to have a slow paced Monday ahead.”  Then everything changed, and suddenly, I’m filling-in, rearranging, TCoB and all the other things that happen on a not-relaxing day.

And it’s ok. It really is.

One of the things that’s great about my life right now is my level of flexibility. Partially because I’m in an in-between season, but mostly I have minimalism to thank for the space to manage a day when all the unexpected things happen at the same time.

Last week I wrote about my obsession with moving and changing things (we have a new smaller bed arriving today, whoo hoo!). Seeing my stuff through a minimalist’s eyes has certainly reduced the amount of belonging in my home. But minimalism isn’t really about stuff. It includes stuff, and for me it began with getting rid of stuff. At it’s heart, minimalism is about making space for what’s most important, and embracing those things fully.

While minimalism may have started with my stuff, it became about making space for who I am. Minimalism is why, when I reached the end of my ability to function without some alone time last week, I was able to move everything aside and make space for self care. I’m not flexible because I have a clean counter-tops, but because the commitments I make on my calendar, to my family, with my friends and for myself are all things which matter most, instead of a jumble of possibly good opportunities with no real relationship to who I am. Breathing space matters, so I make room for it. I schedule it in, and I honor that commitment without guilt.

It takes some courage to apply minimalism to my schedule. It means sometimes I am generous with my No. For instance, we’ve filled May with delightfully fun and celebratory events for people I love deeply, including myself–BIRTHDAY GIRL! Plus, I have two weekly commitments for ministries in which I am heavily invested. Which means anything else that comes up is 99.5% likely to receive a no response.  Yes, I may disappoint people. They may feel I, somehow, let them down. Maybe, but probably not.

The thing is, I have a tendency to see myself with an inflated sense of self-importance. I like to believe I am needed by more people than I am. This isn’t to say I am not appreciated; I am and I know that. But in many instances, I am replaceable, and I believe it’s very healthy to realize this. It doesn’t mean I am not loved. It means I understand where I fit in the world. This understanding is a very freeing way to relate to everyone and everything around me. It helps me make decisions without guilt or resentment. My yes is yes, and my no is no. Those to whom I am irreplaceable, my husband, my children, my family, my intimate relationships, they are the ones who will receive my greatest focus. Other things may be important, but they aren’t permanent, and that’s ok.

All of this self-awareness is possible because minimalism encourages self-exploration and discovery. I know myself better, because I have made space to understand who I am and how I tick. Clearing away the clutter, physical, mental, spiritual and in my schedule, makes room for options and flexibility. It’s why I may feel some stress today, but not nearly crisis or meltdown level. I’ve made space to honor true emergencies, and still meet my most important responsibilities. Everything else is adjustable. It’s truly liberating to be able to say that and mean it.

Can I be Honest a moment? Thoughts from a disgruntled procrastinator

Can I be honest a moment? I really hate Georgia summer. I mean L-O-A-T-H-E with every fiber of my being.  I’m trying to convince myself that “at least the mornings are still cool; It’s not so bad.”  But we’re already running the air conditioning every day, and I’m super bummed about it.  If there is a hotter, more humid, more unrelenting place in the world, I never ever ever ever want to go there. Blech.


I started a modified whole 30 eating plan on Monday. It’s mostly ok until the evening rolls around. Then I want to eat all the things including actual non-edible objects.  I’ve eaten nearly a pound of pistachios in three days in an attempt to keep myself from throwing down cheese, or chocolate chips or rice or bread.  On Wednesday, I almost murdered every person I encountered including the people who are the actual lights of my life and my dog.  I’m over that now, but those evening munchies are hanging right on.

I can’t stop watching Gilmore Girls. Call me late to the party again, but I have never watched it before. I started in January (after we entered political bizarro world) and finally, I have made it to season seven.  It’s like I’m cramming for the world’s most caffeinated and cleverly dialogued exam. I’m binge watching six or seven episodes a day. Must. get. to. the. end. so I can live again. Yes, I will totally watch A Year in the Life. NO! No one has spoiled it for me, so keep your opinion to yourself, Missy! (Oh hey, there’s some of the Whole 30 anger).

I am the world’s worst procrastinator. It’s something I struggle with all the time, and while I have made huge strides with it, I still find myself putting off what needs to be done. Then I rush, rush, rush at the end and beat myself up for it. Isn’t that a mean way to be to myself? I’m just sharing this because it’s 6pm Friday night, and I am only now sitting down to write today. All day long, I knew I needed to do this but I didn’t. So here I am. This whole self-awareness thing, and finishing what I start thing, and being creative thing, it’s easier in the morning. Please remind me of that tomorrow.

 Seriously, what is up with Starbucks and unicorns? Why are people acting so shocked and appalled at this drink (which looks like fairy vomit if you ask me.)? I’ll sit down and drink a cup of Starbucks any day, but friends, all their flavored drinks are sugared up garbage. It’s fine if you like it because every person gets to make their own choices about what they put in their body. But let’s all take a deep breath and stop acting like Starbucks has crossed some sort of moral sugar line with their latest drink option.  If you thought it was healthy to begin with, unicorns aren’t the only delusion you may need to be concerned about.

Incidentally, I don’t know if it’s the dreadful advent of summer or the fact that I just watched a Christmas episode of Gilmore Girls–complete with snow–but today I listened to the first Christmas music of 2017. It may be a record. I swear it was only a song or two, but still. It’s April. My anywhere-but-here vibes are spilling over my holiday boundaries. Maybe I’ll just have a little mini-Christmas celebration each month on the 25th.

Just in case you thought I have it all together all the time around here, I thought I’d take a moment to be honest. Some days are good. Some are bad, and some you just lay your cards on the table and air the whole thing out. And now, I have another Gilmore Girl episode calling my name.

The Box of Disorder: meeting God on the Slippery Slope

Yesterday I opened a box will take time to unpack, for me as well as anyone else along for the ride. I shared about Three Boxes: order>disorder>reorder, specifically the box of order. Today I’m ready to tackle the box of disorder, I think.  Let’s find out.

 

Almost everyone has opened the box of disorder. Some of us flirt with it many times in our lives, but never dare to climb inside. Some of us climb in and never leave, unfortunately. Disorder isn’t an easy place to live forever.  Most people who do climb inside react one of two ways: by returning to the order box because of fear, guilt or shame (it happened to me), or by embracing disorder, eventually emerging to enter the box of reorder (this is currently happening to me).

 

Usually we face the box of disorder because something catastrophic happens in our lives. Illness, loss, tragedy, or a drastic shift in life circumstances can send our idols of order crashing to the ground. We stop being certain of anything; we aren’t sure where to turn.  The box of disorder feels like a carnival fun-house with unlevel floors, distorted mirrors and hard-to-find exits.

 

I’ve spent the last few years deep in this box, attuned to terms used to describe the experience: dark night of the soul, back sliding, crisis of faith, falling upward, and my personal favorite, the slippery slope. None of them are particularly appealing, with good reason.  In the box of disorder we are likely to lose our identity, our certainty, some of our friends and possibly the support of our faith community. It’s a messy, bloody process.

 

Sometimes, the box of disorder starts with a simple question: is that really true? You may have heard this question before. The serpent used it on Eve in the Garden of Eden. Did God really say that? Is it really true?  The story ends with disastrous consequences, and humanity has avoided the question ever since. It’s easier to simply accept what we are told without question and cling to order in an attempt to avoid pain.

 

I don’t say this in condemnation, having done it myself.  Sometimes the answer to the question, is it really true, is too big, too terrible, too full of unknown consequences to face.  When this happens, we retreat to the box of order.  Possibly many, many times, we open the lid of disorder to discover we can’t face what’s inside. So we retreat, again and again and again, until one day, we simply can’t accept the easy answers any more.

 

I believe my descent down the slippery slope began just this way, with one question that created a crack in my order box. I ignored the crack for a long time. But like a scab we can’t stop picking, I never left it entirely alone. Eventually more cracks appeared.  They became harder to hide. My box was splintering, drawing attention.  Like Adam and Eve in the garden, the consequences for my defection were swift and terrible. When the dust settled, I mended the box of order as best I could, climbing back inside as deeply as I could. I stayed there for many years, uncomfortable and unable to forget my questions, but terrified of what was in the next box..

 

Eventually, a series of difficult events created too much tension and discomfort to remain. Glue and duct tape, even my prayers and fears couldn’t hold the box together anymore.

I shattered.

 

I couldn’t stop asking the question, is it really true, of every belief, rule, relationship, person and experience I knew.  This is disorder.

 

But let’s go back to Adam and Eve a moment.  Yes, when faced with the question, ‘is this really true‘, they encountered disastrous consequences. However, the more I reflect on this story, the more I realize something very important. Ejection from the Garden of Eden is the best thing for Adam and Eve, and for all of humanity. Stay with me. How often, both in scripture and in other wisdom literature, in nature itself, do we see created things become stronger, better versions of themselves as a result of distress?  We see it in diamonds, gold, marble, trees, flowers even our very own bones?

 

The more I experience life and God, the more convinced I am the Garden, like the box of order, is a beautiful beginning, but not a place we are meant to stay. If we want to become more like God, we need His Spirit within us, which isn’t possible in the Garden. We know and love God best when we also experience that which is not God. Inside the Garden, there is no choice for us to make.

 

Disorder does not reduce. It refines. We become more wholly ourselves when we experience doubt, disorder and yes, brokenness.

 

If we believe, which I do, that Jesus isn’t Plan B, hastily initiated because of our screw-up, then it is true that our salvation, enacted because of the Fall, was always the best possible way for us to become God-like. We didn’t accidentally fall, we were created to fall.  In falling we are finally swept up into the exhilarating, awesome, unfathomable grace of God.

 

Unless we leave the Garden, the box of order, there are ways and faces of God He cannot reveal to us. And He wants to; He’s literally dying to because He wants to be known.  His love is so enormous, so all-encompassing that He desires to unfold and unfold and unfold again each and every time we ask, is this really true?  But we must find the courage to ask. When at last we do, He pulls down all the false and comforting constructs we only thought were true one by one.

 

So we slide down the slippery slope tail-over-tea-kettle, meeting God at every tumble, looking right and left and seeing him tumbling beside us all the while, and when we finally reach the bottom, if we ever actually do, we also find him waiting there to catch us in His wide open arms and ask why we waited so long to fall.

 

The box of disorder is the scariest, loneliest, hardest, most beautiful, most miraculous, most invigorating place I’ve ever existed. Like Adam and Eve, I can’t go back to the Garden where order reigns. The way is closed, not as punishment, but as blessing. The wide world lies open before me, and God Himself inhabits every inch of it, even me.

 

Is it really true?  Yes, but not at all the way we thought it was. Life, faith, love, God, meaning, death, loss, grief, pain, all are so much bigger and more beautiful than we ever dared dream when we lived in the Garden.

Why order is necessary: Breaking down the three boxes

I sat down at my keyboard today and wondered, Is it ok to write about writing? Do people want to read that? Which is a silly question because I have five readers, and obviously you are the five I can’t chase away no matter what I write about. We’re stuck together for life, and I’m very ok with it. But then I considered the layers beneath that seemingly innocent duo of questions and peeked at a familiar theme. What is expected of me? Am I upholding those expectations? That’s the voice of codependency and trauma. What are the rules and how do I follow them perfectly? Those questions tell me instead of writing about writing, it’s time to break down some boxes, starting with order.

I learned about the concept of three boxes from Richard Rohr, a formative voice for me over the last several years. He breaks the universal faith journey into three boxes: order > disorder > reorder.

In the interest of brevity–and because you can read more at the linked article–let’s call the first box the box of immaturity. It holds the foundational tenets which we are taught from the moment we draw breath. Whether or not we are talking about church or religion, we begin with certain rules, ways of explaining how the world works. This is a good thing. In fact, it’s a necessary process enabling us to grow in an emotionally stable environment. One of our most basic needs is security. Foundational rules keep us safe and provide order: the stove is hot; the street is not safe; God loves us; the sun will rise every morning.

These rules create order and provide the framework for reality. Without them, the world is a Salvadore Dali painting, skewed, unstable and unpredictable.

All of us rely on rules daily. But most of us don’t follow them blindly once we gain maturity. For instance, the rule we used to follow about going into the street. It is true streets can be dangerous. But when I take my morning run, I frequently run in the street if the sidewalk is bad because all streets are not dangerous all the time for all people. The principle is true even if the practice isn’t always true.

When I run in the street, I leave the box of order and venture into disorder (the time I went in the street and was nearly wiped out) and eventually reorder (carefully assessing traffic patterns before assuming street safety).

Religion can be a very first box oriented endeavor. We make rules because we want to know and understand God, which is good. A god who is too big or too mysterious to understand is a force of power with which we can never connect. Knowing and understanding are key to a relationship, therefore God makes Himself knowable and comprehensible because He desires relationship. However, there are parts of His being which are not immediately knowable and even those which are essentially unknowable due to the limits of human understanding.

We use these revealed truths as cornerstones on which we build our theology. God is good. God created the universe. Jesus is real. Jesus died to restore humanity. We can be like God, and He desires this for us. He helps form us in His image. These beliefs matter. They create order in our chaotic reality.

The problem is sometimes we see the rules as immovable constructs for all time rather than starting point for a long conversation. Yes, the stove is hot and may burn us. However, the stove also allows us to create an endless variety of food, which may lead to conversation, laughter, togetherness and community. What is true about the stove is not ALL that is true about the stove. It’s a starting point, but there is more to the conversation.

The same is true of our religious beliefs:

God created the universe, but the is more to the conversation.
Jesus died to restore us, but there is more to the conversation.
We can be like God, but there so much more to the conversation.

And honestly, sometimes the more to the conversation is scary. Sometimes, the stove burns your house down; the street proves deadly. Sometimes theology goes horribly, maniacally wrong.

At this point we face a sort of crisis, is it easier to continue the conversation, or do we revert to the basic tenets and never deviate? Do we conform to the rules and reject anyone who does not or cannot conform to them, calling them a heretic and casting them away from us for our own safety? Do we even dare question if the original rule might not be a true rule to begin with?

Now we’re in uncharted territory. It’s not safe, not secure, not popular, and definitely not easy. Which is why so many of us never leave the safety of the rules. If a thing is always true, we always know what to expect. We always know the outcome. We never have to worry about consequences. So we live this way for years. Some of us live this way forever. It isn’t inherently wrong to live our entire lives in the box of order, but it’s an extremely exclusive way to live. If a set of rules is true, then every other set of rules must be wrong. There can be only one set of true rules.

The box of order is safe, but it breeds superiority, contempt and disassociation. At its extreme it is completely anti-community. There can only be us and them, and we are always completely right.

Order is necessary, but there is more to the conversation.

**I didn’t start this as a series, but it has rapidly become one. Stay tuned for further installments.

Mindfulness: learning to embrace boredom

More and more over the last five years, I’ve stayed aware of the church calendar. As much as I have shared about change recently, I also deeply love rhythms and patterns. I’m drawn to them even more when everything around me feels so unsettled. They remind me of mindfulness. In the church calendar Easter will always follow Lent, which follows Epiphany, which follows Advent, which follows…year after year, an unchanging journey with the life of Jesus. For all of the struggle I have with church, I am enamored of Jesus. Following the church calendar keeps my eyes on Him and following Him keeps me grounded in loving God and neighbor.

This year for Lent, I gave up mindlessness. Yes, it is a broad category. In February, I felt overwhelmed and purposeless. I was drifting without much direction and avoiding any self-searching with news, social media and “advice from experts.” I relied on others to tell me what was critical and important, how I should feel about every single situation. Since everyone has an agenda with their own crtically urgent items, I was drowning in a sea of voices.

Whenever this happens, it’s time to reign in the information flow and create space for my self. Mindfulness never happens unintentionally. To become more self aware, I must clear the stage for my soul’s more mundane voice. Generally this means turning off screens, or going outside, or occasionally staring out the window at nothing for chunks of time. When it looks like I am doing the least, my soul is probably doing its deep work. But like everyone else, at the first sign of boredom, I tend to grab a screen and find some information to take in rather let my soul surface.

I drift towards scattered and unfocused behavior when I am in the grip of mindless living, starting too many books which I never finish. I grab this shiny idea and that shiny concept, but can’t decide what to do once I snag them. When everything is marked as urgent, I am paralyzed by choices. Busyness is my god, and it requires incessant feeding with frivolous and unimportant matter. I seem very productive during these times, but I’m merely spinning my wheels, going nowhere. Remember when I said I was the queen of the grand gesture? That tendency goes hand in hand with worshiping the productivity gods. “Look at this great, big change I made in just a few hours! I clearly have it all together! See me work so hard!!

Mindfulness is slower with infinitely less braggadocio. On mindful days, the most grand gesture I make is to show up, no fanfare or flourish, just a gentle immersion as entering a pool of deep water. Being mindful requires focus and reflection. For me, it also requires frequent use of timers. I settle to a task for a certain period of time, and once the time is set, I can focus solely on the task at hand. I have permission to immerse without the monkey brain constantly asking, but what about this issue? But what about that problem? What if we forget to do this very important thing? The timer takes care of it all until I finish the task at hand. My notebook makes a handy companion, as well. Once words are on paper, they can stop twirling incessantly through my head.

Mindfulness forces me to stop engaging escapism, my biggest battle with online time. The internet is here to stay, and in many ways, it’s highly beneficial. It also creates a doorway for me to check out. I scroll away the hours waiting for someone to entertain me rather than dealing with the things my soul keeps bringing to my attention. I repress and distract. And oh, I love the gold stars when someone compliments my wit, my intelligence, my insight. A good ego stroke is only as far away as my next witty tweet.

These are the things my soul shares with me when I finally let her take the stage. They are neither pretty nor flattering, but they are true. They are true and conquerable, but only when I’m paying attention.

As Easter, the official close of Lent draws near, I’m even more reflective. Have I succeeded in my lenten fast? What are the results of my journey? How has it affected me? These are complex questions with layers and layers of response. I am succeeding, though perhaps not in a measurable way. I’m more self-aware and less anxious. I am also more open-minded and less embittered, and most importantly, less likely to avoid dealing with bitterness when it arises. It’s too early to talk about results, and perhaps results aren’t even the point. The process is well begun with a lifetime of improvement ahead. We’ll let the results wait for the judgement; they aren’t mine to judge anyway.

I will continue to unpack how this affects me in the weeks to come. I am changed and aware of the process. For today, this is enough.

Something fun Sunday: building new habits

I’m currently at odds with Sunday. Yes, I experience conflicting emotions about days of the week. Welcome to my world. On Sundays, if I have experiences I find difficult, I try to regain balance by also doing something fun which restores rather than depletes me. Over the last year, I’ve begun to embrace the narrative that self-care is not selfishness.

As a church go-er, I find myself faced with two conflicting messages. The first says, die to self. We do this by giving up our needs, desires, wants, personality traits, and ideas and conforming to cultural norm of Christianity. Individuality and self-care are ranked beneath meeting others’ needs and a long list of behavioral expectations.  The second says, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. It challenges us to fully embrace our quirks and personalities as evidence of the Divine Creator. Yes, we all have rough edges to smooth, and issues to redirect, but we were designed to be who we uniquely are.

The first message has always been the loudest in my life. The second is newer and scarier. It leaves room for growth and error, and is definitely not one-size-fits-all.  By granting love and acceptance, it shifts responsibility for my life from a religious institution to my own imperfect shoulders.  While I do not disagree with the concept of dying to self, I’m so tired of only believing there is nothing good in me.

Ironically, the more self-aware I become, the more balanced my view of self is. Yes, there’s dross worthy of the trash heap, but there’s some amazing material, as well.  My personality and desires, the things I love, the ways I relate and relax, these divinely inspired pieces aren’t inherent flaws.  I am, all at once, random splices of DNA, a construct of my environment, and an unquenchable, creative being, utterly unique in the entire universe.  I exist as I am for a purpose.

Embracing this narrative hasn’t been an easy journey.  I lose sight of the revelation often, caught up in the cycle of perfection and approval again. It’s true that old habits die hard, but they do die.

Which brings me back to being at odds with Sundays. When life presents us with difficult circumstances, sometimes we can just pack up and walk on.  If we can’t escape, we turn to coping mechanisms to diffuse emotionally charged experiences. Whether these coping skills are healthy or unhealthy depends on tools and self-awareness. Personally, I have my share of unhealthy habits which have done me no favors.

Instead, as part of my 100-day writing project, I’m starting a new thing: Something fun Sundays. I don’t know about you, but left on its own, my mind tends to spiral downward. But if I retrain it to watch for something fun, and share these things with you, I get quadruple the enjoyment. I get to anticipate, experience, remember and share.  I can’t escape an emotionally entangled situation, but I can, perhaps, reframe it by surrounding with things I enjoy.  If Sunday can’t be my favorite day of the week, it can at least be one I look forward to and savor.

What strategies do you use to cope with emotionally charged situations?