a present-over-perfect practice

words and reflections from 12.31.16:

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It’s a quiet New Year’s Eve in our home. We are tired from long travels back from SC, and the inevitable letdown that comes post-Christmas. In the quiet of reflection tonight, I am choosing to believe that as 2016 closes and 2017 dawns, God will be faithful, kind, and loving, even to me – who can be ungrateful, unkind, ungenerous, way too stubborn for my own good, and fearful. I’ve chased a lot of perfection and dreams in 2016, and from the outside looking in (or what you’d see and what I posted on social media), it looked pretty good. But part of what I’ve missed in that pursuit is real connection with friends and family. So for 2017 … I’m praying for God’s grace to show up through less trying-to-act-perfect and more real-life-community. Through less idealizing and more getting into the nitty-gritty work of forgiveness, love, kindness, courage, and faith. Amen?

***

 

because we need hope, peace, & comfort

I have been writing and thinking and praying a lot about hope this fall. There are many reasons I crave hope this season. Like the headlines flashing across our screens and calling to us from the morning paper, and the usual stress of trying to balance home, church, and family life. (And our family’s life now includes our twin daughters going to kindergarten full-day. Despite the great school they attend, it’s been an adjustment for all of us!)

We have also experienced waves of greater-than-usual overwhelming circumstances in our lives and in the lives of our family and friends. Like a hurricane that “breezed” through (pun intended) and left a ton of chaos in its wake;  friends who’ve had miscarriages; a friend battling leukemia; extended family health issues requiring more care from my husband and me; the death just last week of my great-aunt Julie; and a bit more travel than usual for me this fall.

As I’ve tried to take stolen moments along the way to pause, be still, and know that God is God (Psalm 46), I feel how much I need comfort for my own heart. Not only does chaos swirl without, it also rises up from within. I need a peace that’s bigger than the messages I feel bombarded with and *wish* worked, but just haven’t – like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “look for the rainbow after the storm.” While I’m all about the rainbow and the strength needed to keep moving, I need something that lasts as long as the storm.

And the only thing I’ve found that can outlast the storm is the hope of a God who is there. A Jesus who meets us in the storm, and then rides it out with us. As I spoke to a group of beautiful women, including many family and friends, at my aunt and uncle’s church in Columbia, South Carolina, last week, I was praying hope over their hearts, and I spoke the words I myself need to hear – a few of which I’ll share below. May your heart be encouraged as well … in all the places where you find yourself in need of hope, peace, and comfort today. 

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Real hope for troubled times: Jesus knows

I woke up this morning to all the alerts: not only my own alarm, but warnings about flash flooding and plans rearranged and then the burden of these headlines:

  • Another shooting and more riots in Charlotte, NC – Lord, when will this end? Heal us, Father. We pray for justice to prevail  – for healing that is as real and as deep as the racial brokenness of our country. Give us ears to listen to one another in order to understand, not to judge. Break down all of our defenses through the strength of Love
  • More info on the terrorist suspected of massive plots in NYC and NJ – Father, I’m afraid. It could be our neighborhood next – or our mall. 
  • An apparently failed ceasefire in Syria – there was an attack on the aid convoy. – Lord, for all of those who need aid and help desperately, find a way. Give courage to the men and women risking their lives to deliver this aid. Let us who live comfortable Western lives not grow numb. Show us how we can help our neighbor, though that neighbor be halfway around the world, and keep us from being blind to the neighbor living next door to us or down the street from us. 

This list could go on and on. And our response (or at least mine) is to feel the fear like a pit in my stomach and the instant tension in my shoulders. I want to find a refuge to run to with my family where no harm can touch us, and where we can bring everyone else who needs help with us, too.

I’m not alone in this desire. And there is a refuge promised One Day. Because of this Future Hope, we take comfort in Jesus’ words from over 2000 years ago, and we can serve for justice and peace now.

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I want to read the promises side-by-side with the headlines. Jesus brings perspective and best of all – his presence in the promised Holy Spirit to all who find refuge by faith in Jesus.

Because of Jesus’ Presence, I can take a deep breath, go downstairs and hug my children and cook breakfast and serve in my little corner of the world.

Because of Jesus’ Presence, I can be fully involved in the here-and-now while also seeking how I can be part of the global concerns because they affect fellow human beings worthy of dignity since they’re made imago Dei.

Where do you take refuge in these troubled times? How do you balance the reality of the here-and-now demands on your life with the global concerns impacting us? 

 

 

Stories of shame: part 7/the shame spiral

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{Part 7 of a 10-part series entitled, “stories of shame.” Read the rest here.}

I knew the risks for a recovering people-pleaser in publishing a book. And a book about shame of all topics. I wrote about it in the final paragraph of Unashamed:

This book is a fruit of my own journey away from shame into the freedom of being clothed in Christ’s beauty. I am a people-pleaser by nature and practice, and writing publicly terrifies me because of the fear of criticism and judgment. I want my words to be beautiful and perfect. And yet – like every other part of my life – they won’t be and they cannot be. It is in offering my imperfect thoughts that I am practicing my freedom. It is in offering some of my failures and imperfect portions of my story that I hope to encourage you to do the same. Above all else, it is my unshakeable hope in the power of Jesus Christ to heal shame at its source that emboldens me to risk. For if you begin to taste the freedom of the unashamed in even one relationship, it becomes a seed that can transform your community. We need more neighborhoods, churches, homes, and workplaces where we live unashamed and give others space to live unashamed as well. Let’s be part of the movement away from shame into freedom, honor, and glory.

As in so much of life, nothing can prepare you for what will be hardest ahead of you in your journey – even if you can see it coming, know it’s there, and have walked through something similar in the past. When I stumbled upon a couple less-than-stellar reviews in the past few weeks, I went into a bit of a shame spiral.

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photo from Unsplash

  • I froze up initially. Meaning I physically froze. Time stopped. My morbid curiosity meant that I kept reading even when I knew it was a negative review. In that moment, everything else faded.

Curt Thompson in The Soul of Shame  describes the neurophysiological impact of experiencing shame: “…although the description of our experience of shame is often couched in words, its essence is first felt. Though I may say, ‘I should have been better at that’ or ‘I’m not good enough,’ the power of those moments lies in our emotional response to the evoking stimulus, be that a comment, a glance, or recollection of that day in third grade when your teacher pointed out in front of the rest of the class that you weren’t that bright. … A deep sense of self-consciousness emerges; cognition becomes fuzzy as our thoughts are disabled; words may be hard to find …; and the mind becomes caught in a vortex of images, sensations and thoughts that recycle and feed on each other at light speed, reinforcing the experience.” (pp. 24, 66)

  • I assumed my worst fears were realized. The mental soundtrack was like this: I’m a first-time author who doesn’t know what she’s talking about; I wasn’t honest/vulnerable enough in my book; I was too honest and vulnerable to be helpful; I’m not addressing a biblically nuanced view of shame.  And the list goes on from there.
  • I wanted to isolate and withdraw from community and relationship. Spending a day at home alone in my pjs became my definition of paradise.

Here’s the beautiful interruption to this shame spiral: It stopped there. I did something brave and risky – what I encourage my readers to do when experiencing shame: I talked about it. I started with my safest people: God, then my husband, and an email to a few close friends asking for their perspective.

What I didn’t do was to keep on reading and re-reading and analyzing the negative reviews. (I wanted to!) I shifted my focus. There was laundry to be done, so I threw myself into that task. I organized some long-unorganized corners of our home. I went for a walk. I read a good book. I played with my kids and read stories to them. I needed to shift my focus away from the shame to the many, many good gifts in my daily life that God’s given me. This helped tremendously.

Then, I took a bigger risk. I shared these experiences with a group of women who I trusted to be empathetic, truth-giving, and compassionate. I shared about the negative reviews in general terms. These women’s response brought even more healing. It wasn’t just what they said, but it was also the way they said it. They leaned in, listened closely, looked at me while they affirmed and encouraged God’s gift and calling he’s given to me of writing. One woman said, “I think that’s really brave of you to write – I couldn’t ever do it!” (And I would say the same thing about her in what she’s been facing lately in her life.)

And isn’t that the beauty of the community of Christ? We offer space, words, respect, affirmation, prayers, and “Jesus with skin on” to one another.

My final step for today is to write this post and to keep living my life with freedom and grace. To “stay in my lane” as Brené Brown says, referring to staying in your own lane when swimming in a race. She uses this phrase to remind us to focus on our path, our next steps, what’s ahead of us and in our lives, instead of anxiously looking around and/or getting worried that we’re not “swimming” [or working, writing, parenting, praying, cleaning, counseling, praying, etc] as well as the person next to us.

And Brown wasn’t the first one (although she is the most recent) to talk about focusing on running the race set before us. The author of Hebrews spoke about in decades ago when encouraging the new church:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 

Hebrews 12:1-3

What about you? How do you know you’re in a shame spiral, and what helps you to get out of it? 

 

 

when your friend has leukemia

I first met Jen at Myrtle Beach when we were part of a college ministry summer project. She was as joy-filled and gracious then as she has proved to be in the 18 years since. We later were roommates while we were both at seminary. She was a co-conspirator with my husband when we got engaged, leading me into New York City despite my initial resistance and saving my engagement pictures from the gaudy St-Patricks-Day-themed outfit I’d first chosen. She was a bridesmaid in my wedding. We were in Philadelphia for several years together. And then she got married, and they moved to a farm in New Hampshire to pursue their dream when Seth and I moved to Virginia. We were pregnant with our first babies at the same time, their due dates only days apart. After years of living states apart with sporadic phone calls and emails to connect us, reconnecting in person last year was as if no time had passed. When we caught up over lunch, she listened empathetically as I spilled out my heart that was on the verge of burnout. Just like she always does.

Then cancer came along into this beautiful mother-of-three-kids’ life. A diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukemia in March. It came out of the blue, one of those fear-inducing stories of going to the doctor because her back hurt and finding out that in fact the major problem were the bruises that didn’t go away. She pursued treatment, and it seemed to be working well until an unexpected turn into blast phase happened a few months ago.

Today she undergoes a bone marrow transplant thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor. (Did you know that you, too, could register to help another in this way? Go to “Be the Match” for more information.)  And the many, many of us who love her are praying for her today, day 0 as it’s termed in the transplant world, that this would be the rebirth of new, healed blood cells for this friend.

If you’re reading this, and you want to join along, we would all be honored if you lifted her up and asked for healing with us.

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WANTED: a Christmas miracle

Our world is weary, sorrow-laden, desperately longing for hope. And so are we. Last year I felt the weight of a friend grieving the loss of her mother (while she was pregnant with twins), a friend waiting for a friend-gone-missing to be found – in all of it, it’s the waiting that is so weighty.

This year is no different, although the burdens I feel are. They’re taking the shape of a friend who’s been recently diagnosed with breast cancer and awaits her prognosis/treatment plan; another friend who just made it through her mom’s year of cancer treatment only to find out her dad’s been diagnosed, too; a beloved leader who’s sitting in the question of what the spots on his mom’s lungs could be; and those are just the start, aren’t they?

Moving the circle a bit closer to home, I could tell you the story of a pastor-counselor couple who are on the verge of burn-out and desperately limping toward the gift of a sabbatical in February. It’s a story of seeking to find one another again after nine years of marriage and ministry, including five years of parenting twins. It’s a story that includes the expected dips and peaks of disappointment and joy that come with life. It’s a story with unexpected hope that shines light into the darkest moments.

And it’s a story that leaves me longing this Advent – this Christmastide – for the best and surest and most wild Christmas miracle that I could ask for: darkness-defying songs in our hearts and on our lips.

I can report this to you: the Christmas miracle we need is coming to us. Because it already came — wrapped up in a baby, in the most unassuming of places (a stable in Bethlehem) and to the most scandalous of families (a pregnant unwed mother whose fiance hurriedly married her as soon as he could to prevent scandal and out of radical obedience to God). Because God took on human flesh, I can shed the shame that cloaks me (when I think about my failure to celebrate this season as I should/could/desire to) and the depression that wants to own me. I can take on a new identity: life, joy, peace – that are real. And I can follow our five-year-old daughters as they lead the way in worship of our newborn King. As they gleefully proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest!” even when out of context (in response to news that they were going to get to watch TV while my husband and I chatted with dinner guests). As they spontaneously break out into choruses of “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” and “Away in a Manger,” while we’re driving through the December schedule of gift-buying, Christmas programs, and generally-trying-to-fit-too-much-into-Advent.

Jesus came as a baby, and his life was prophesied by Isaiah this way: “A little child will lead them.” (11:6)  And in following Jesus, we will be led by the children in our midst in surprising ways at times. Our daughters are leading us into the Christmas miracle our weary hearts need – which is a miracle of joy.

 

the glittering mess of Advent

Every December, it surprises me. Meaning, the juxtaposition of “the most wonderful time of the year” with the reality of how far I am from being able to fully embrace the joy proclaimed to me in every Christmas song and story and glittering decoration. I know I’m not alone in this. For I  hear your stories – maybe not yours specifically, but in sitting with multiple stories of suffering and disappointment and hope deferred throughout almost a decade of counseling and a few decades more of friendship and family relationships, I have a fairly good sense of the ways life breaks us.

And for some reason, I find myself each Advent/Christmas season battling to find the hope that surrounds me like no other time of year. I struggle because at the deepest part of who I am, I know that Jesus’ coming as a baby changed everything for the better (while I also see so much that doesn’t fit with a redeemed world). I find deep comfort that his incarnation – God with us – was a literal game-changer for the human race. That Jesus was “born to set Thy people free/from our sins and fears release us/let us find our rest in Thee.” That I am to “fall on [my] knees/O hear, the angels voices/O night divine/O night when Christ was born.” And I crumble inside with the best of you at the emotion of it all – of God being made like us, like a tiny baby, utterly vulnerable to the ones he created.

But then I begin to get angry and sad. For if Jesus was born to set His people free, why on earth are we so chained up to others’ expectations and our own inward voices of shame? And why do we Christians hurt  each other in the church when we are all simply trying to love one another the best we know how? Why do “Christian” politicians infuriate the culture-at-large with offers to pray in the wake of tragedy and apparently no (or minimal) actions behind these prayers?  Why do news headlines daily proclaim a new form of terror?

And to bring it home and make it more personal: why do I have friends still struggling with infertility?

Friends grieving parents taken too soon?

Friends who have suffered unspeakable tragedies of abuse when they were children who could not protect themselves?

Why are friends stuck in marriages that feel lifeless? (Or why are there friends who are newly divorced despite months/years of trying to reconcile?)

Why does cancer still strike in the most unexpected of ways and times to friends in the prime of their life/ministry?

And if I dare to be courageously honest, I have a few questions of my own. Like how did I get to be so battle-weary and exhausted when I thought I was fighting for the gospel of justice, truth, beauty, and light in the name of Jesus, in the strength of his grace, and for the sake of his glory?

Why does every recent December feel depressing, as a time when I am more likely to feel the weight of the world’s sorrows instead of the hope of the Savior’s joy?

Why does Christmas seem to come up short from how I remember it as a child?

I am beginning to realize anew that the only answer to these weighty, angst-filled questions is in trying to hold in my feeble hands the glittering mess of Advent.

It’s not unlike the abundant blue glitter that one of my 5-year-old daughters sprinkled with abandon around her room earlier this week. There was literally a path of blue sparkle that looked like a rug placed on our white (!) carpet. A glittering path that led to their mini-Christmas tree. As I vacuumed it up, I surprised myself by beginning to laugh instead of growing more angry and frustrated. I laughed because it was beautiful. Any of you who have ever had the *privilege* of vacuuming up large quantities of glitter know exactly what I’m talking about. It glitters and sparkles and changes in the light, and as I vacuumed clean white paths through the blue, the vacuum cleaner began to sparkle, too. (Because it has a see-through compartment.)

And that’s when it came to me.

This is a metaphor for Advent’s tension between the beauty that will be (which began to break through in the incarnational mystery of Jesus) and the mess that we continue to make with this beauty.

These broken places of grief, betrayal, loss, and deferred hope – they are real and they are tragic in an exponentially greater way than a 5-year-old glitter tantrum (oh – did I leave that part out? The reason that she created such a display was out of anger that she was in time out – it was a mess intended to annoy me.).

But this I cling to – in hope against hope – that the mess twinkles, sparkles, glitters in the light of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree that became our salvation as it became a cross. This tragedy of the tiny babe grown up and offered up willingly as the most tragic of sacrifices for the most unworthy of offenders. You and me.

Ann Voskamp says it well in her Advent devotional:

The Cross stands as the epitome of evil. And God takes the greatest evil ever known to humanity and turns it into the greatest Gift you have ever known. … If God can transfigure the greatest evil into the greatest Gift, then He intends to turn whatever you’re experiencing now into a gift. You cannot be undone. Somewhere, Advent can storm and howl. And the world robed for Christmas can spin on. You, there on the edge, whispering it, defiant through the torn places: “All is grace.”

 

 

because Christmas is about giving (an opportunity)

I am still working on how to convince my 5-year-old twin daughters that Christmas is about giving not getting. Perhaps because I, too, have a hard time really sinking into the reality that it is more blessed to give than receive. I, like them, love (and prefer) what’s shiny and new. My “toys” are more “sophisticated” – and expensive – than theirs, but I, too, have a bent towards thinking first about what I want to get instead of what I want to receive.

And so I would like to turn our eyes toward the meaning behind the songs and the shiny decorations and the twinkling magical lights – and I want to do so by also giving you an opportunity to put it into action.

Allow me to introduce my friend “Sara” to you (pseudonym used to protect the sensitive nature of her work). Sara is preparing to embark on one of the bravest adventures I’ve ever known, an adventure and a battle against one of the worst present-day places of evil, darkness, and injustice in our world: human trafficking. I’ll let her tell you in her own words:

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Called to Battle

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Ephesians 6:12

The Battlefield

Everything you might imagine about a South Asian city is true of K. Noisy all hours day and night, chaotic traffic, decaying colonial architecture, smells ranging from urine, curry, body odor, jasmine and cinnamon- this city has it all. What you might not know about K. is it is also the exact opposite of all of those things. K. is a place of laugher and bright white smiles, vibrantly colored saris, pastel painted walls and doors.

Surprisingly, amid all the audible and visual noise there are small elements of calm. One of my favorite things is to see the city wake up for the day. Older men sit near the corner chai stand and read the paper, gossip and watch the city come to life. Other men and youth bathe in the communal taps that seem to be on every street and always running. Store keepers sweep the filthy sidewalk in front of their stands, a seemingly unending and unfruitful task.

The Fight

South Asia is also an area of darkness- oppressive heavy darkness. Darkness that can be felt and where evil lurks under its cover. In K. there is an area known as S-chi. It is no wider than a few city blocks wide and not many more long.

This small area is one of the world’s largest red light districts. A staggering 10,000 women work here daily.

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Some have been trafficked across this country, or from other countries. Others have been tricked by husbands or family members. Still others saw no possible means for providing for their family so they chose to join the forces. Each has a unique story. Their stories might differ in details, but common threads are woven throughout. These women have been led to believe they have no voice, no worth, no value, and no hope. Their only worth comes from what they can sell to others; their body. All have been fed lies about who they are and what they have been created for. Dignity and freedom has been stripped away, things we take for granted.

These are lies the Evil One has led the ladies, their culture, and largely the world, to believe. Their reality is a heartbreaking confrontation with Evil. Our battle is not against the rulers and authorities, but against the dark powers of this world. We are all called to fight against the darkness and bring light to the world.

We have a God of hope and freedom in the midst of this darkness. We are called to bring this hope and freedom to others that haven’t yet seen or experienced with their own eyes.

 

The Battle Plan

In K the team has started a Western Style Bakery.Through the bakery they are able to offer alternate means of employment and tangible glimpses of hope out of unimaginable circumstances.

The goal is to provide life skills, job training, empowerment, confidence, dignity, worth and freedom to women who have never dared to imagine these things for themselves.

We are there to help them dream and claim the promises God has for them!

How can we expect to see justice in this situation? The scale of need is so great, where to begin? One woman at a time. One fumbling Bengali conversation after another until something clicks and there is a personal connection. One western smile meets an Asian smile. One exchange haggling over a market purchase. One life, one story, at a time. This work hinges on relationships. It begins and ends there. One life that is changed is a life changed! From there change is contagious, the lives of the immediate family change, then the extended family, then a village. God is mighty to move nations, and he uses individuals to do so.

My role on the team will be social justice coordinator. I will have a foot in the bakery, walking alongside ladies transitioning out of the demands of the district and into life as a baker. My other foot will be firmly planted in the district looking for opportunities to talk to ladies, getting to know them -learning their stories and stories of their culture, and sharing life.

The Army

Encouragers: I need to be reminded of the gospel and of God’s promises. It is as much for me as it is for the women that don’t yet know Him.

Physical: My target departure date is March 2016. I have to have pledged $4600/ month of financial support to get to the field, and one-time gifts of $40,000. I have only $26,000 left in one-time gifts.

[Heather’s note: Whatever you are able/can give will make a big difference in this balance of $26,000. For example, if each of you, my faithful readers, gave $25 we could help Sara with over half of her one-time balance – bringing it down to just under $10,000 remaining.]

Intercessors: This work cannot be done without the power of committed prayer, and willingness to enter into oppressive darkness.

I am very excited about this journey. I have committed to long term service of five years with the sending organization. I am not taking this journey alone. I need an army of supporters and givers willing to join me in the battle against the dark forces of Evil in this place. I am committed to being the eyes and ears on the ground and connecting you to work God is doing on the other side of the world. Will you step into the battle with me?

You can give online to Sara by going to www.serge.org/give/ and entering her designation number #54410. [This is a secure field, and she is not listed directly on the agency website.]

To be connected with Sara’s team of intercessors and encouragers, leave a comment below and Heather will pass it along to her.

 

 

 

Five Minute “Friday”: weary

I hear sirens screaming through our city streets, but I think nothing of them. Or very little. They’re likely rushing to a minor car accident, or someone set off a fire alarm.

But in Paris – what many thought were fireworks at first became the background to scenes of horror as their fabled city was simultaneously attacked by terrorists in multiple locations. It shakes us to the core in the Western world. For we live isolated and cocooned from the reign of terror that is normative in the Middle East.

And I am weary from it all. I am weary for the inevitable tragedy and trauma that is expected in our lives. Yes, terrorist attacks of this magnitude still (and should) shock us, but there is part of me that says – oh, of course. But to carry the weight of the fears of what ifs? That is what has made me most weary in the past.

Instead, I choose to cast my cares on the one who cares for me (Jesus).

I choose to take on his light burden and easy yoke in exchange for my hard one of trying-too-hard-to-be-self-sufficient.

I choose to fall hard in the arms of a Savior who will catch me, comfort me, hold me – hold all of us as we grow weary of our burdens and those of the world.

And how is he already doing this? Through you, my friends and community. You remind me that weary is ok – because it is the very first step of being supported, refreshed, strengthened. 

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Five Minute Friday is my favorite of writing link-ups hosted by Kate Motaung. Her description draws me back every week, and the community of FMF keeps me writing – “This is meant to be a free write, which means: no editing, no over-thinking, no worrying about perfect grammar or punctuation. Just write.”