What is Saving Your Life?

I’m not very good at listening to “weekly” podcasts. Instead I get in the mood and listen to like 4 episodes in a row. And then I won’t listen again for a few weeks.

One of the podcasts I listen to is “For the Love” by Jen Hatmaker, a spiritual/religious author. At the end of each podcast, she asks her guest a question that she stole from another religious author, Barbara Brown Taylor:

“What is saving your life right now?”

That’s a pretty good question.

This is an important question because I’m wearing down a little. To be perfectly honest, I was thriving at the beginning of quarantine. The sudden free time, the lack of commitments, the time to rest and catch my breath, it was all needed. I was tired, and quarantine was a relief.

But now I want to get out. What USUALLY saves my life is a live play, an orchestral concert, a ballet, a trip to the library, visiting local shops, grabbing coffee, trying new restaurants, going to museums, taking day trips, singing in choir. These are the things I rely on to save me when I’m worn out; now they can’t save me because we’re stuck inside away from everyone and everything.

So, this question has become a challenge, because my answer is different.

What is saving my life right now?

Reading on the front porch and watching the bunnies and deer eat.

The new Michelle Obama podcast. https://open.spotify.com/show/71mvGXupfKcmO6jlmOJQTP

Rewatching Jane the Virgin.

Horror movies.

Cooking good food and trying new recipes.

Christmas music.

Going to parks and taking pictures.

Streaming the local UU church on Sundays.

Anything Dolly Parton says or does, especially her pandemic song, “When Life is Good Again.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MejIAGuaiNM

These are normal, average every day things that aren’t specific to the pandemic. But it’s what I have at my disposal. I have get to draw my peace from this smaller, simpler list. I appreciate these little gifts that offer me a little peace and joy. I also know it is an immense privilege to have all of these comforts to indulge in, even if these are hard times. I am grateful. I want to take this lesson with me when “life is good again.”

We Can’t Force Things to Happen

I know we want “normal” back. I know we just want to go back to work, we want to get our haircut and nails painted, we want to spend time with friends and family, we want to go out for dinner and drinks; I know we really want to reschedule the concerts, the vacations, the graduations, and the weddings. I want to move forward. We all do.

But the truth is, this virus is going to keep acting like a virus regardless of how much we try to force life to be normal again. And unfortunately, we may be paying with the lives of our loved ones by opening too soon. Only time will tell, but there are always consequences for our actions.

Personally, in times past, I have tried to latch onto half-baked ideas and clung to dreams that had the life sucked out of them. I really had to have some goals ripped away from me and then spend some time without any long-term dreams and goals for a while. I tried to force my life to align with a vision that no longer fit me. It just held me back.

Then slowly, organically, new hopes for the future began to form on their own. It took a long time of having nothing to finally have something.

Yes, I am intentionally being vague. I am just going to keep my head down, do the work, and hopefully, the fruits of my labor will come to light. I don’t want to spoil the magic. But some of my new dreams are already coming true. When the time is right, I will share what I have been working on. But I am letting things naturally fall into place while working hard instead of forcing goals, dreams, and plans to happen before they are ready.

While we wait out this virus, it is okay to grieve and to long for better days. But, if we have the capacity to try, let us cultivate patience. If we make peace with the fact that our normality has been taken away, then we can sit with the “nothingness” we’re left with. This leaves space for new hopes to form organically, without us trying to force them into existence.

Takeaways Revisited

It’s been almost two months since my last blog. I had committed 2020 to be a reconstruction year after the deconstruction of 2019. So I have been quietly working on myself personally, professionally, and spiritually. While I have been doing this work, I haven’t had much to say here, though I had hoped to return once I felt ready. I am still not ready to blog regularly, but in light of the coronavirus pandemic, I am reminded of my takeaways from 2019. If you’ll remember they were “be not afraid” and “accept what is.” I am reflecting on these while living through very scary times.

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I am afraid of getting sick. I have been sick 6 times since October. I’m still on a round of antibiotics now. I work with little ones and they pass on their germs pretty easily. I have been so frustrated with myself for not just accepting the state of things and refusing to give in to fear. I have also had old wounds from last year start to burn again. I have made so much progress personally, and all of this has felt like a setback.

But fear and grief are part of being human. Healing, growth, and progress are not always linear. There are ups and downs, falls and rebounds. It’s all natural to being who we are as people. So I am choosing to have compassion for myself. I am allowed to have complex emotions and still move forward in my journey. I encourage you to have compassion for yourself, too. This is a harrowing moment for the entire world! Don’t panic, don’t be selfish, but allow yourself to feel what is going on in the world around you.

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I truly believe that one of the reasons that we fail each other with compassion and empathy is because we often lack it for ourselves. Self-compassion doesn’t mean we selfishly hoard toilet paper and deny it to others who may need some…

But it does mean we appreciate our whole selves for who we are, acknowledge and validate our emotions and experiences, and give ourselves grace when we need it. When we are full of compassion for ourselves, it overflows to others. I have seen some of this compassion already! Like Italians singing to each other from their windows and Lin-Manuel Miranda releasing a secret Hamilton song to lift our spirits. (For anyone who knows me, Lin-Minuel Miranda is my celebrity crush and I am obsessed with all things Hamilton.)

So be not afraid if you can be, but if you are afraid that’s okay too. Accept the state of things as best you can. Have compassion for yourself and others.

What I am Doing with My Year

I know people go back and forth with resolutions for the new year. Some years I do, some I don’t. This year I am really focusing on the person I want to be after a year of deconstruction. In many ways, this is very exciting. I can really shape who I am, and that will tell me more about where I am going. At first, I was bitter about feeling like I had to start over with so much of my life after working so hard, but I have accepted that this is where I am in my life. I am excited to rediscover parts of myself and reinvent who I am. So here are my goals and resolutions for 2020.

  1. Read more fiction and poetry: Most of my reading for the past… 6? 7? 8? years has been theology and Christian nonfiction. From academic reading to more mainstream authors like Nadia Bolz-Weber and Anne Lamott, I have imbibed literature that centers on my faith and ministry career. I am very tired of the jargon, buzzwords, and church-talk. Eventually, it gets stale and repetitive even with the “new” and “progressive” ideas. So I am going back to fiction and poetry, my first loves, to stimulate my imagination and reframe my view of the world. Speaking of poetry…
  2. 2020 is the year of poetry: I have been writing poetry since I was a child, and now I am going to get serious about it. I am writing poetry and submitting it to literary magazines. I am also collecting some for a book to publish (maybe before the end of the year? Before I turn 30?) I am proud of publishing a book of sermons and 2 articles in 2019, but creative, poetic writing is my heart. I am returning to my heart.
  3. A new career direction: I don’t know where I am headed in ministry. I am not going to try to force anything to happen. I am going to let things unfold the way they need to. I felt pushed and pulled throughout my entire ministry career. I have never had time to just think, heal, discern, and just be. I want my faith to have space to breathe for a minute. This means I cannot wait around for ministry to be my full-time income. I have loans to pay. I want to travel. Ministry may be on hold, or floating, or slowly unfolding, or whatever, but my life must keep moving forward. So I am going to be getting a certification from the University of South Carolina in grant writing. I want to use my research and writing skills with my experience in nonprofit work to take my career in a new direction. This is worthy work and something I will be thrilled to spend my days doing, proposing grants for nonprofits and other organizations that need funding to help others.

So much can change in a year. I am a completely different person now than I was in January 2019. I can’t wait to see who I become at the end of the year as we enter a new decade (and I will be entering a new decade in November!) I wish you well as you embark on a new year full of changes.

My Two Takeaways from 2019

I am not going to focus on the difficulties of this year going into 2020. I’ve spoken at great length about them, and I am ready to move on. Instead, I am going to talk about my two takeaways from this year and how they will be my mantras for the next year. It’s a little heavy, but stay tuned for the end when I talk about the good things that helped me through this year. If you’re not feeling the “serious” lessons I learned, you can skip to the bottom and read about the good things that happened to me in 2019.

 

  1. “Accept what is.” This is something that I have been working on for years but had no choice but to learn this year. The world is unjust. My past pain happened and can never be undone. I cannot force people to be who I want them to be. God is who God is. Suffering happens even when you make the right choices, even when you work hard to avoid it. I have wished, prayed, and worked for things to be different, from my circumstances to the people in my life. But I can only change myself and my response to the world around me. This sounds like a basic thing that most people already understand, but my word, is it almost impossible to truly accept reality. I think this is in large part based on my faith. My faith informs me that the world is not as it ought to be, that I am tasked to work for the Kingdom of God, and that one day God’s Kingdom will be fully realized and all will be made right. I do not have to sacrifice these beliefs to accept the reality of the world. Denying how things are only hurts me in the long run, and hinders my mission. If I accept what is, accept my pain and my past, accept who people truly are, accept that God will be who God is, accept who I am and who I am not, then I can find peace in that while also holding hope for a better world and doing my part in being a force of good.

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  2. “Be not afraid.” This is a tough one because it’s not as comforting as it sounds. In the past when I would think of angels or messengers in the Bible greeting people with “Fear not!” or “Do not be afraid” I took it as a message of, “It’s all going to okay.” I think of the Julian of Norwich quote that gets passed around, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Or the hymn It is Well with My Soul. These phrases are used to soothe the anxious soul, but the truth is really terrible stuff happens. And it’s scary to think about when those times come. It’s not always “going to be okay.” It won’t always “work itself out.” I have had experiences completely consume me and change the very core of who I am. And I have come out of the other side. I have been down to rock bottom, and I found a new path out of it. Whatever comes next, I have seen some pretty ugly things, and I am no longer afraid of them. Also, I am no longer afraid of an angry God who is eager to punish, as I was taught to believe. I am not afraid anymore because I have descended into hell so many times, and here I am. So I will not be afraid, not because I know it will all be okay, but because I know that there are many times it will not be okay but I am still here. I can be consumed, survive, and find a new way to move forward.

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So now let’s take a breather and hear about the fun things that happened in 2019! I am so grateful for a wonderful husband who makes life an adventure. We can survive so much together.

In January and February we knew we wouldn’t be spending much more time living in Florida, (where we never wanted to live in the first place) so we took several day trips around the state to Orlando, St. Augustine, Gainesville, Mount Dora, Deland, New Smyrna Beach, and Tampa.

We had been dying to move to North Carolina, and we were able to here in March. My baby nephew was born and I have gotten to love all over him!

I got to go back to the theatre world and stage-manage a production with a local theatre. We took a day trip to Winston-Salem. I began attending a nice church. For our 6th anniversary, Andy and I enjoyed a nice dinner and the Charlotte Symphony. Then we spent a few days in Charleston.

In July we visited historic Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. We celebrated Andy’s birthday. We got to see author John Pavlovitz at a PFLAG event. For Halloween, we saw “Then There Were None” at Theatre Charlotte, we enjoyed the two Mint Museum locations to see art, and we spent my birthday at Biltmore in Asheville.

In December I had my holiday concerts with One Voice, we enjoyed Christmas lights in Mount Holly, and saw the Christmas lights in Christmas Town USA (McAdenville, NC).

No matter how difficult things get, Andy and I make time for us and we do special things together.

Here’s to living into the wisdom I have gleaned this year while leaving room for adventures.

 

Christmas Songs Part Two

As the Christmas season continues and the year draws to a close, here are my other three favorite Christmas songs. My very favorite is the last piece.

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

My favorite verse:

Flocks are sleeping, shepherds keeping
Vigil till the morning new;
Saw the glory, heard the story,
Tidings of a gospel true.
Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow;
Praises voicing, greet the morrow:
Christ the babe was born for you.
Christ the babe was born for you.

This song gives me the same warm fuzzies as “Away in a Manger” but isn’t as over-played/sung. There’s nothing terribly profound, just a simple nativity song. It’s sweet and familiar, but that’s often what we want on Christmas. Preachers are reminded not to get too theological or too cerebral for the Christmas sermon. Just tell the story, preach the Gospel. That’s why the church is packed out; people just want to hear the story of Jesus. This song is an excellent example of sticking to the story and preaching the Gospel.

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Still, Still, Still

My favorite verse:

Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.
While guardian angels without number,
Watch you as you sweetly slumber.
Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.

It’s a lullaby for baby Jesus and a lullaby for us. Sometimes as an adult, we long to be comforted like when we were children. The world hurts, we hurt. We have to be strong and face it. We can’t hide. We are no longer kids. But this song gives us permission to rest in the peace of Christ. It soothes and comforts, making us feel safe and warm, even if just for a moment.

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Before the final song, here are the honorable mentions. Give them a listen, and maybe you’ll fall in love too:

Coventry Carol

Once in Royal David’s City

The Dream Isaiah Saw

 

Finally, we have to round out my favorites:

Child of the Stable’s Secret Birth

My favorite verse:

Child of the stable’s secret birth,
The Father’s gift to a wayward earth,
To drain the cup in a few short years
Of all our sorrows, our sins and tears –
Ours the prize for the road he trod:
Risen with Christ; at peace with God.

Every word of the song is gorgeous. The poetry brings me to tears. This is my absolute very favorite Christmas song. I was introduced to it in my junior year of college while singing in choir, and it has remained with me since. It is a very humanizing song to characterize Jesus, reminding us that Jesus decided not to be in a far off place to observe our suffering, but came down and became one of us. Also, the song’s implication of the “second Advent” that we are in now are profound. We are in the second Advent, awaiting the second coming. This song reminds us that one day all will be reconciled in God, and this first coming of Christ has set in motion the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. Christmas is all about God’s promise fulfilled, and the promise of yet to come. This song is a declaration of faith in what has happened, and what will happen; it is a poetic narrative and creedal statement enrobed in a gorgeous musical arrangement.

A blessed Christmas season to you. I wish you light and love as we approach Epiphany.

Disappointment, Better Headspace

I was going to post an Advent blog series, but my heart is not in it this year. Instead, I am working hard to prepare my heart and mind for healing and a new year. I will have some “New Year” insights on a later date, but for now, I feel myself moving into a better place so I think it’s better to reflect on that.

I have been shocked by how quickly my support from those who checked in on me at the beginning of the year has dried up. When I needed tangible help in spreading the word about Tales of Glory, few people even responded to my cry for help. I also have been getting lots of rejection letters from publishers. I’ve wondered if my ambition has been a dead end. I’ve thought my talents have fizzled out. I’ve contemplated giving up on the dreams that I have worked years and years for. I’ve watched others succeed and cheered them on but wondered if I will ever see the success that they have.

My hope had evaporated.

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I posted in an earlier blog about how I have been singing with One Voice Choir. We worked so hard to memorize our music. I had 2 colds, a sinus infection, and laryngitis, but I worked through them all for the concert. I focused on the music. In the meantime, I kept my head down and did very little socializing. My heart has just been closed for business. I just wanted to sing and survive the day.

I went on autopilot to get through the day. I felt like my dreams were dying, so life stopped flowing in me the way it was supposed to.

This weekend our concert finally arrived. I was terrified that I wouldn’t have a voice, but my vocal cords healed in time. Throughout the week I was with the choir several times and I finally began conversing with other people. I didn’t hide in my phone. I was feeling open. I realized how kind the people around me were, and how others had also been hesitant to socialize until now as well. And then we performed our concert three times to audiences who loved our music. Getting to perform again was magical. I had truly missed choir in my life.

Getting to be a part of the Charlotte arts community has done some healing work. I have hope again. I feel like life has started flowing again.

I am disappointed in the way things have been going for me. I have no idea if my hard work will help me truly fulfill my ambitions. But after this weekend I feel like some healing has finally happened and that I am moving into a better headspace. I can get off of autopilot and realign my vision for the future.

Ungrateful is okay.

It’s Thanksgiving. So we give thanks. Supposedly.

Christians, all Christians but especially evangelical Christians, capitalize on this holiday to talk about how bad we are at giving thanks to God and how we need to do better. The church often trumpets about how we’re never praising God enough, heaping guilt on someone receiving chemo and not simultaneously erupting in praise or shaming someone who can’t make ends meet for the month and not bursting out in song when their electricity is cut off. Apparently, an attitude of gratitude gives you the strength to persevere.

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That may work for some, but please, for God’s sake (yes, I mean that literally), stop telling people how they should suffer! If someone wants to weep through physical therapy as they have to relearn to walk and they can’t summon gratitude, then it’s never, ever your responsibility to correct them and direct them to do so!

DO NOT start a sentence with, “Well, at least you…” They don’t need to have a change of perspective to see that “someone always has it worse.” Listen, but don’t give advice. Encourage people when they go to therapy. Stand by people when they have mood swings from their depression medication. Cry with them. That pleases God so much more than demanding they constantly give thanks when they see little to give thanks for.

God doesn’t stand over the stranger, the orphan, and the widow and demand that they forsake their tears and praise God. God gets down on the ground and weeps with them.

So if you’re struggling with gratitude this Thanksgiving, it’s okay. Don’t pile more guilt and shame on yourself because your sighs are too deep for words. If counting your blessings doesn’t cheer you up, then don’t worry about it. Just survive the day, take the next step, and take care of yourself. Don’t wound yourself more by living up to the religious expectation of unabashed praise. It’s okay not to be okay, even on Thanksgiving. God is patient, and God would rather have genuine gratitude over “fake it until you make it” praise.

Titles

“What do you do?”

Ugh.

I’m hating this question these days.

If we are only going based on what I officially do for payment, then I am an after-school teacher. But I know that I have trained for other careers, which bring other titles. I’m an ordained minister, but not pastoring. I want to write and publish more, so am I a writer? I have a degree in theatre and I’m trying very hard to pursue a career in biblical storytelling. Can I call myself an actress? An entrepreneur?

What do I do? What do I call myself? Am I allowed to use a title that I am not being paid for?

We, as a society, are really not comfortable with living in a transitional state. We have to have a title, or a position, or some category to make us “official” in our jobs and careers. When I say that I do theatre, people ask me which theatre and what show I’m working on. When I say that I do ministry, people ask me what church I work at. Then it gets weird and complicated to explain what type of acting and ministry I do…and how tough it is to get something new off the ground. Instead of encouragement and understanding, the other person quickly changes the subject. It’s as if it’s not real if I’m not getting paid yet.

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But I am out here doing the work. I’m hustling hard. I am living my titles.

Is a farmer not a farmer while they are tilling the ground, sowing the seeds, fertilizing the field, and watering the earth? Or can they only be called a farmer when the wheat, fruits, and vegetables are grown, harvested, and sold?

This is a tough season. I have spent almost a full calendar year in transition. I thought things would be a bit more tangible by now. But I keep at it. Every time I want to give up, I take a break. Then I do one good thing for my ministry. Even if it’s just a social media post or an email sent out. I wake up and do the work of a minister and an actress. I am both of those things. Those titles belong to me. I am a writer. I am a practical theologian.

So why is this important? I think we deserve the recognition and the credit for what we do. Titles serve the practical purpose of identifying our professional role, but the reality is that we live in a world where professional doesn’t always equate the paid work we do 40+ hours a week. We get to have these titles to validate our work, even when our work isn’t properly compensated or celebrated.

My work is valid. I must remind myself of this every day. I hope you remind yourself that your work is valid too. You deserve your title.