When It Doesn’t Feel Like a Wonderful Life

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna...

Is there such a thing as Holiday Baking Anxiety Disorder? Because if so, I definitely have it.

I made some pie crust on Wednesday night, and it came out tough and brittle, and I didn’t have time to redo it, and I kind of lost my mind. This comes on the heels of me flipping out over the failed caramel apples for Halloween.

And now I’m remembering many other failed batches of baked goods that I let ruin holidays. Cookies destined for care packages that melted all over the pan. A lemon cake for my little brother’s birthday that looked like it got sat on. No-bakes for a visit to a friend that crumbled in my carry-on bag.

In retrospect, of course, all these things seem totally silly. Baked goods are a way I like to show love, but when they flop, it doesn’t mean my love is worthless or unwanted. But ridiculous as it seems, in the moment, that’s how I feel.

It’s definitely a pattern with me. I hate showing external failure, no matter how small it really is in the scheme of things. And when I’m backed into a corner and can’t help but show it, I feel like my life is meaningless.

In those moments, I always wish for the angel to show up like in It’s a Wonderful Life. I want proof from God that my life does have meaning, that people are better off because I was here, that I have worth even when I feel like I look worthless to the world.

Well, so far God hasn’t sent an angel.

What’s up with that, God? How come only Jimmy Stewart gets one? How am I supposed to know you love me even when my feelings tell me otherwise?

Oh… I’m supposed to just believe it? You mean, have faith? Take seriously all those promises in the Bible about how God will never leave me or forsake me and loves me enough to have died for me? Keep perspective on the things that really matter, remembering that success without love is nothing and humility in failure will always be met with grace?

But that’s so much harder than in the movies.

In all seriousness, I need to stop waiting around for the angel. I can’t truly live if I’m addicted to praise and afraid of messing up. I may never be able to see the true worth of my life while I’m alive – and that’s okay. In fact, it’s even kind of normal.

Paul talks about this in Hebrews. He gives us this long list of Bible folks who did outrageous things because of their faith: Abraham, Sarah, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Rahab, Moses. Did any of these people get proof of the promises God made them while they were alive?

No! As Paul says, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised…” Their faith itself was the goal, the ability to believe things would turn out okay even when all signs pointed to worthlessness and failure.

We all need to have “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” That’s what helps us keep going when things feel too overwhelming. We need to believe there is hope, hope that is more real than our feelings of despair.

So I’ll try to see my Holiday Baking Anxiety Disorder as an opportunity to strengthen my faith and my patience. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Christmas cookie season is just around the corner…

Thankfulness and the Writing on the Wall

This image shows the view from the carpark &qu...

The carpark “Rest and be Thankful” near Arrochar in Scotland.

Confession: I’ve been seriously struggling with that whole “attitude of gratitude” thing lately. Ironic, I know, given the season.

It’s been quite a month at our house: a broken laptop, two pairs of broken glasses, a stolen purse, an ER visit, and a cold that’s come back three (3!) times. All of which, I hasten to assure any family members who may be reading this, seem to have turned out fine, or at least as fine as could reasonably be expected.

But still there’s this gnawing in my chest, this voice in my head that whispers, You deserve more.

When I show up at my colorless office, it’s hard to remember the things work has to teach me, easier to wish I was in grad school pursuing my dreams.

When my partner applies for job after job with no luck so far, it’s hard to hope, easier to worry about our long-term financial situation.

I could go on, but I won’t.

And I know that all these things are what we like to call first world problems. I have a job, a job that is not exciting but that ensures both of us have insurance and food and a place to live and some money left to give away to those who have less, and yes, even to have fun. But it’s all too easy to lose my perspective, especially in this consumer culture where cravings for More make the world go round.

Today I got a nice reality check: I volunteered at a free dental clinic, a huge one that happens once a year in my state. People camp out overnight in the cold like it’s Black Friday, but instead of a great deal, most of them are just hoping for some pain relief, for some friendly care they can’t get any way else.

I wasn’t that skilled of a volunteer, not being part of the medical community, but I did what I could, helping a few Spanish speakers navigate, fetching the dentists more gloves. But it was so amazing just being there, seeing the dental professionals pour themselves out for their patients, seeing the patients start to relax, to smile with confidence for the first time in a long time.

In the volunteer lounge, they’d pasted all these patient comments up on the wall. The comments from a single day plastered one whole wall and started to creep down another.

“Thank you for doing God’s work.”

“I can never repay you for what you’ve done for me.”

“I will be praying for you today and during your work tomorrow, that you can help many others like you helped me.”

“Everyone was wonderful. Thank you for being so kind to me and smiling.”

As I read their gracious, overflowing thanks, the lightbulb started, belatedly, to go on. An entire wall of thanksgiving for something so basic – something I took for granted: for care. Care for their flawed bodies and, maybe even more than that, genuine care for them as people, as dignified, beautiful human beings.

I realized it’s not the job and the food and the privilege I take for granted: it’s also the love with which God has blessed me. Some of it has come from friendships and relationships, some of it straight from the source. And I remember vividly specific times I wept and prayed for that love, prayers I didn’t even believe could work, prayers to a God I did not know.

And I realized, looking at that wall, that thanksgiving doesn’t just happen by itself. It’s a cycle that starts with giving: we give what we can, and we’re reminded how much we were given, and the thankfulness we feel overflows into even more giving.

May I actively seek an attitude of gratitude at this time of year and always – because it keeps the cycle going, because having so freely received, the only loving thing to do is freely give.

Broken and Blessed

English: Jesus healing the sick by Gustave Dor...

So remember that post I did about how I want to be healed?

Apparently I didn’t want it as badly as I thought.

In that post, I announced my intention to get a therapist and/or spiritual director to help with some pesky issues. But then I just didn’t do it.

I didn’t do it because I felt empty, lacking in so many things: time, money, energy to navigate The System of getting help. And I, by the grace of God, am not currently burdened with the kind of mental or physical health issues that can be such a huge drain on these things. Mine are just the normal demands of bills, job, and life.

In one sense, my lack in those areas can’t be denied. But aside from that, I think the issue is the very thing I outlined in the original blog post: I don’t want to ask for help. I don’t want to define myself as someone who needs help. In short, the real issue is my pride.

I love to be seen as someone who helps people, who prays for people. I’d rather see everyone else as in need of my help. I want to believe I can fix all my problems myself… with God, of course. But the thing is, if I could just do that, I would have done it by now. And the longer I wrestle with unhealthy relationship patterns and long-buried issues without any real solution, the more I and the people I’m close to suffer. Ironically, I become less and less able to help others. I’m so blinded by the stick in my eye that I cannot see clearly to help others with the things that blind them.

I so easily forget that Jesus loved needy people. He was always hanging out with them. Lepers, outcasts, untouchables: he loved them. And he said God loved them too, maybe especially so. In the end, we are all fragile, we are all broken, in different ways. Blessed, Jesus said, are those who know it.

It’s time to let go of the notion that I’m different from others, that they are the ones with the problems and I’m the one with solutions. The fact is, we’re all struggling at different levels, and we all need help. The time has come to root out my pride and realize I am a broken person… and my very brokenness is blessed.

Now to pick up that phone and call some therapists. But I may need help even for that.

So do you mind if I ask for your prayers: for healing, for wholeness, for the courage to seek it?

I Lost My Voice and Heard Unspoken Sermons

CDV of the Scottish poet and novelist, George ...

George Macdonald (1824-1905)

The call center where I work is a sea of voices. Many of our customers are elderly and hard of hearing, and we often have to shout to be heard over the phone line. Just yesterday I was wishing for some peace and quiet.

This morning I woke up with acute laryngitis. I called my supervisor and squeaked out, “Hi. This is Rachel.”

“Oh,” she said, immediately recognizing what was going on. She spent all of last week nearly voiceless herself; she’s probably the one who gave me this thing. Since 99% of my job is spent on the phone, she knew it was impossible for me to come in. “Get some rest. I hope you feel better soon.”

Alone in the apartment, I didn’t need to use my voice, but the silence was uncomfortable after awhile. I decided I’d look for an audiobook to listen to while I did some easy knitting to pass the time.

I settled on George MacDonald’s book Unspoken Sermons, which is in the public domain and freely available. I’d never read any of his stuff before; my greatest acquaintance with him was his role as C.S. Lewis’s fictionalized guide in The Great Divorce.

I listened to the sermons, starting at the beginning. At first, my muddied-by-sickness brain found it hard to follow his philosophical, highly logical arguments (easily showing one similarity between him and Lewis), but as I settled into the rhythm of them, I found them easier to grasp, primarily based on a logic of the heart. Each one begins with a tiny kernel of Scripture, then dives deep into it in search of what God meant it to teach us. He is obsessed with seeking the face of God, not content to leave passages as intellectual exercises or lists of rules to be followed “just to be on the safe side.” Everything is a love letter to him.

His primary concern is to show that the character of God is reflected in the whole Bible, consistent with itself and with the noblest instincts he’s given us humans, instincts toward love. To him, God is truly all-loving and all-powerful and uses everything for our good, even though we may not be able to see it. His answer to the question, “How could a loving God send people to Hell?” shows his genuine wrestling with the question and his own compassion for the whole human race.

You can tell I love a book if I never forget where I was when I read it (for instance, I remember reading The Great Divorce on a single plane ride about ten years ago). I think this is going to be one of those books. Today, although I was sick and lethargic, was a wonderful day, bathed in beautiful and insightful words from a man who truly loved God.

Jesus Was Not Nice

Christ cleansing the Temple

Christ cleansing the Temple (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

I don’t know what to do with the idea of repentance. I’m no long-bearded old man with a sandwich board crying out about the end of the world. I’d rather be more like Jesus, loving, humble, gentle. A man whose mercy didn’t let him quench a smoking wick or break a bruised reed. A man who did not lay burdens on others, but lifted them.

Here’s the thing though: Jesus was loving, absolutely. Humble and gentle with all his heart. The Master of Mercy with an easy burden and a light yoke.

But Jesus was not some kind of watered-down nicenik. In his love, he was sometimes very, very angry. He turned over the money-changers’ tables, sick with rage over their greed. He told one of his closest friends, “Get behind me, Satan!” He spoke of a place of outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I quake at this. I want the nice Jesus. I want us all to just get along. I was raised to say “I’m okay, you’re okay.” But sometimes things are not okay, and I can say that with love. I can be angry with a merciful anger, a loving anger, a humble anger.

I can be angry without hating people, not a single individual who is precious to God. My fight is not against flesh and blood. Instead, I can be angry the dark cycles people are born into and don’t know how to leave. I can be angry at how this broken world breaks people, and how I’m a part of it.

I can burn with a productive anger, a helpful anger. It’s the difference between a disastrous wildfire and a controlled burn. I can realize that sometimes, when people are crushed under the weight of their burdens, the most loving thing I can say is, Change, repent, put down the rock and walk away.

Others have loved me this way and I’m now happier for it. Jesus has loved me this way, has told me as I wept, I can’t carry your burden unless you give it to me. Choose to change, or you choose the burden, like you have your whole life, over and over.

Sometimes I love you sounds like Stop this now.

I’m learning to hear, and speak, that rough but beautiful language of love.

Year One of Forever

I like to call it the smorgasbord approach to life.

Others might call it lack of attention span.

I like everything bagels and pizzas loaded with toppings. I’ve taken classes in ballet, modern dance, ballroom, bellydance, lindy hop and Argentine tango, most for a year or less. And, needless to say, I loved liberal arts college and took a little bit of everything, from Classical Latin to Latin American studies, from geomorphology to poetry.

All this to say, I’m not great at sticking to things sometimes. I love starting something new… but after a year or two, it gets old.

That is not the case with this blog. I can hardly believe it’s been a year since I pressed “publish” on my first post (not counting the introductory one). I’ve done a hundred and twenty-three posts in total, and I have never once wondered what to say. In fact, I have a ton of ideas I haven’t used yet.

For me, this is huge. I have found something I truly love doing. I still have so much to learn about blogging, and I know my blogging will change (I’m planning some exciting changes for this space soon, in fact). But writing about what following Jesus looks like in my life, how I wrestle with the Bible, the Spirit-dreams I hope will shape my future? I’ve only begun to dive in, and I hope to go deeper and deeper.

I got a little closer to my vocation this year, through all of this. I learned that I want to be a truth-teller, to fight my tendency to fear and worry by retelling stories that lighten people’s burdens. I want to share the goodness of God, not out of obligation but out of joy, like holding out a cupcake to my friend and saying, “Taste this. It is so good.” I want to be healed, to take the stick out of my own eye so I can see clearly to truly help others.

Thank you to everyone who’s left an encouraging comment, left any comment, just joined the conversation. Your presence has been a true blessing. I hope the future will bring even more conversation and connection.

But ultimately, aside from comments and hits and likes, even from friendships and connections, I wanted to do this for sheer joy. And I have, and I am, and I will. There is so much glory in dark corners and on forgotten pages, and I want to keep proclaiming it more and more, telling it with stories and essays and conversations and hopefully with my life.

I could do it forever. And maybe I will.

For Those Longing for Light (An Exciting Announcement!)

Sunrise

(Photo credit: mathstop)

Does anyone else feel like things got very dark very quickly this month? Maybe it’s just me; I didn’t grow up in a place with Daylight Saving Time, and I still find it a bit of a novelty. The fact that it came so late this year (why is that?) made it feel all the more sudden. All at once, I’m walking to and from work surrounded by darkness, and it feels like I’m living in a world of night.

The darkness around me makes me remember that the season of Advent is coming soon. In a world of darkness, we wait for light to return, and in the spiritual world, the same is true during Advent. For us Christians, it’s a season of longing for Jesus – realizing how different the world would be without the Incarnation, and celebrating how much of a difference his presence on Earth made.

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve been working on something very exciting – and I’m so happy to share it with you all at last.

Through the website Vibrant Faith @ Home, which offers faith-building activities and programs for people of all ages and stages of life, I’ve been offered the opportunity to design and facilitate an online advent retreat for young adults. It’s called Illuminate Your Everyday Life, and it will focus on just that: welcoming the light of Jesus into our lives together, our whole lives, even the parts that seem dark, confusing, or mundane.

Participants in this retreat will receive three emails a week for four weeks (December 1st to December 26th).  Each email will include a brief written reflection from me as well as questions, activities, and practical ideas for seeking more of Jesus’ light during this Advent season and our whole lives.

There will also be a Facebook group where we can have some great discussion about the reflections. But if you don’t have Facebook, don’t worry – that part is optional. You can still enjoy the emails and explore the questions and activities on your own. I’ll also be doing a live webinar as part of the retreat on December 3rd!

I’ve been asked if this retreat is for only young adults. Not necessarily! I wrote the reflections from my perspective as a young adult and with a young adult audience in mind (post-high school, pre-kids), but that doesn’t mean other adults couldn’t get something out of this too. Anyone who wants to show up and journey with us this Advent is more than welcome!

The price of the retreat is only $9.95, counting the entire month of twelve reflections and participation in the discussion community. If you’d like to join us, you can see an overview of the entire retreat and sign up on the Illuminate Your Everyday Life webpage. Registration will stay open through November. I’m so excited to journey through Advent with this retreat, joining with others who long for the light of Christ to touch the darkest parts of their lives.

I hope you’ll join us, share the retreat with your loved ones, or just pray that we’ll have an amazing Advent experience. Thank you all!

Lies and Truth in the Desert

English: View of the Sonoran Desert approx. 30...

I’m not sure I’d know the Enemy if he chased my soul into the Sonoran desert to cross-examine it. For better or for worse, I’ve never been a Christian who thinks much about the Devil.

But if he is rightly called the Father of Lies, I know some of his children oh, so well.

I grew up repeating the lies to myself, chanting them over and over until I knew them by heart, and I can still recite them with only the slightest prompting.

I will never be loved for who I am. I cannot lose, cannot look stupid, cannot be vulnerable, cannot doubt, cannot choose wrong, cannot fail at anything, or I might as well give up and admit I am worthless. And if anyone senses my essential weakness, criticizes, condescends, or misunderstands me, they are a threat and I can do to them what I wish. I must keep my life on the right track, the successful track, so people will be fooled into loving me.

So many lies learned, ingrained, repeated, defended, lived.

Enough. Time to call them what they are.

And better yet, time to learn the truth instead. To repeat that over and over to myself, even when my feelings say otherwise, so it becomes the song I hum to myself without realizing it:

I am loved for exactly who I am. In my weakness I am strong. Despite my inability to measure up, I am chosen and treasured. Because of all this, I need see no one as a threat. Criticism, condescension, misunderstanding: they cannot change the fact that I am essentially protected, respected, and understood. My life is on track even when I can’t see where it’s going, and love is at the end, always.

This is why I read the Bible, pray, try to renew my mind. Because it’s hard to hold on to the truth in the gritty day-to-day. Too easy to slip, to feel I’m hanging on by my fingernails.

But faith is the thing I dig my fingernails into. Faith that the truth is not always what it appears. Faith that even when I’m wandering in the desert, I will find a way out. That all my desert hungers will be satisfied in the fullness of time.

What Is Worship? (Why I Go to Church, Part 3)

In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 of the Why I Go to Church series.

Not long ago, the question came up in my church community: What is the difference between worshiping Jesus and following Jesus? When our community gets together on Sundays, is what we’re doing worship?

To my surprise, a lot of people immediately said no. They had a lot of negative connotations with the word worship. To them, to call our services worship meant Jesus wasn’t present in our lives except on Sundays.

Now, personally, I love worship and I have no issue with calling it that. So this discussion got me thinking: what is worship to me, and why do I love it so much?

Although I’m a very analytical person at times, for me, worship is an emotional and on some levels mystical experience. Consequently, anything I try to say about it will necessarily be incomplete. But since that’s never stopped me before, I will share some reasons why I love worship and don’t want to part with the word.

The word worship comes from the Old English weorthscipe, meaning “respect” or “worthiness.” Starting my week with a formal worship service reaffirms that God is the center of my life, the most important part, worthy of my love and devotion. And believe me, I need lots of reminding of this. When I put my own desires in the center of my life instead, I give myself implicit permission to hurt other people if my desires aren’t met, and that’s where all the problems start.

Now a little about specific elements of the worship service. I love Catholic worship and other highly liturgical services in particular because they present all my favorite elements all the time. A balanced meal, so to speak.

Things get started with congregational singing. Now, I like singing in my own, in the shower or at karaoke, but there’s really nothing like singing with an entire room of other people.  I mean, not to get too literal about Heaven, but apparently praising God loudly is most of what we’ll be doing there. It feels so good to just sing out your love at the top of your voice in a crowd of others doing the same.

Then, of course, there’s liturgical prayer! First, we declare that we are a community in Christ. Nothing but Jesus brings us together. Despite all of our differences, we are all part of the same Body, which is just as much of a miracle as anything else, if you think about it.

Then we confess our sins as a community. I know a lot of people think this must be horrible, and to be honest it’s not always easy, but with the world as messed up as it is in so many ways, how can we neglect to acknowledge our part in that through the things we’ve done and the things we’ve failed to do, and also voice our desire to change? And as with any apology, when I work up the courage to offer it, and even more when it’s accepted, I feel a great weight lifted and I’m all the more ready to celebrate…

… which is exactly what happens as we raise our voices again to glorify God! This is worship in a nutshell: saying out loud how much God is worth to us and recounting the many blessings we’ve received through Jesus.

Then there is reading out loud from the Word. This is another thing I love about services with more traditional liturgical structures: you get some Old Testament, you get a Psalm, you get some New Testament, and you get some Gospel, every time. This gives you so much valuable food for thought in terms of how they are all connected. And hearing the Word spoken right here and now is such a different experience from just reading it to yourself. The best readers amplify God through their reading, telling it to you like a riveting story, both beautiful and important.

And then there’s the preaching on the Gospel and how we can apply it to our lives. That is amazing because professional preachers know so much more than me! Some of them are scholars and have great knowledge of the historical and cultural context of Scripture, bringing it alive in new ways. Some of them are truly wise and experienced in serving in radical and humble ways. Some of them are just great at communicating the Gospel and reminding us why it’s such good news. The best are all three! But even taking into account preachers’ imperfections, as long as they are speaking the Gospel, it’s Good News to my ears.

Then, typically, there is a profession of faith of some kind, often in the form of a Creed. Now, often we don’t do this at my current church, although sometimes we do. I think some people in the community are uncomfortable with it in the same way they may be uncomfortable with the word worship: to them it conjures up images of something forced and confining and exclusive and joyless. I respect that, although for me, Creeds are very joyful, a way of expressing unity with other parts of the universal Church, and honestly not all that different from when we affirm our core beliefs in other parts of the service or in songs.

Then there are the communal prayers for the Church and the world. We pray the big prayers: for the Church to actually be Good News to people, for our Church leaders (and our world leaders) to be responsible peacemakers, for God’s presence in the overwhelming issues of the moment and the human response to them. And we also pray the smaller prayers, like for members of our community who are suffering, and for us to carry out the specific mission God gave us.

Then there is Communion or the Eucharist, which of course deserves way more space than I can possibly give it here. To me, this is the most beautiful, most joyful, and most real part of worship. That we get to literally taste and see that God is good! That we get to metabolize God into our bodies, mysteriously! That we get to all be mystically connected in this sacrament! I will never get over what a miracle this is any way you look at it.

And of course, in the middle of the Communion rite we say the Our Father (or the Lord’s prayer, if you prefer) – the oldest and best prayer, from Jesus’s own mouth! And then we get to share the peace, which ironically sometimes makes me quite anxious, since I am an introvert who loves people. However, in my current community I know almost everyone and we’re all very comfortable hugging each other.

As we conclude, the pastor prays for all of us to grow closer to each other and God through communion and worship. Then we are sent out in peace to proclaim the Gospel and bring God’s kingdom nearer. And then, more singing!

Truly, worship is worth it. I can’t think of a better way to start the week.