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In Anticipation of Death

Growth is a heady feeling. An intoxicating, soul-warming, heart-swelling wonder.

For a seed to grow, it first must die. I’ve been carrying around this seed within me, deformed from the effort it’s taken to keep it alive. Its name is self-preservation, and I’ve held on to it as tightly as I could since I was old enough to speak. I was taught that if I don’t fight for myself, no one else will. So to avoid the heartache of realizing that no one was fighting for me, I never gave anyone the chance to. I didn’t let myself need anyone. It’s just been me, behind my fortress, fully clothed in my impenetrable armor, shield raised, sword drawn.

In my early teenage years, my sword was my tongue. I was the bitch – the one with the death glare and the amazingly crafted insults that pierced through your chest and never left the corners of your heart. Then I stopped talking and started hiding – my sword of choice in the recent past has been to withdraw my affection. I figured that was better than saying the hurtful things I knew I was capable of speaking. None of it was malicious; I was merely doing as I was told. “If you don’t fight for yourself, no one else will.”

When I came out from behind my fortified walls, I thought I’d done it. I’d made the big leap – I was truly learning vulnerability now. That was back when I started writing this blog and learning how to take baby steps. I laugh now at my naivete, not because I wasn’t growing back then, but because I thought I had arrived at my [vulnerable] destination.

Two years later, I realize that I’ve still been carrying around that armor, still wielding my sword, still cowering behind my shield. Although I’ve stepped out from behind the walls, I’ve been so preoccupied with taking care of myself – with protecting my heart – that I might as well be back in that fortress I built forever ago.

And to discover that it was all from a warped view of God and His role in my life. The things you learn about yourself in therapy are eventually hilarious once it doesn’t hurt so much. As it turns out, I’ve been trying to play God my entire life, trying to take over His protective role. Instead of letting Him protect my heart like He promised to, I’ve been [ineffectively] doing all the work – wielding my sword unnecessarily and creating an incredible mess.

Oh, to have been taught that “guarding your heart” doesn’t mean building a fortress in which to cage your emotions, or living with a strict “three strikes and you’re out” mentality, but instead, radically entrusting your heart and emotions to God for safekeeping and taking your hands off the process. Freeing yourself to love and feel and be disappointed and break and be repaired, knowing that the hurts won’t kill you, and that the One protecting you is also able to repair you – what a wild, wild notion.

I’m not emotionally available to love or be loved because I’m much too concerned with being aloof and keeping my guard up. I’m always on the defensive, worried that if I’m too vulnerable, if I let you in too far, you’ll stick a knife in my gut and gloat as I bleed to death. I’m afraid of collecting more scars because I know just how long it takes for those wounds to heal. I ignore you and become stone cold when I’m romantically interested in you, because letting you know how I feel would be just as terrifying as running down College Avenue naked as the day I was born, screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!” I can’t cry around you because I’m afraid you’ll think I’m weak and overly emotional. Hell, I can’t even let myself be super fond of you because what if you aren’t just as fond of me?

What a shitshow. Pardon my French.

And then this week, I had a stunning realization. In the midst of practicing unconditional love (which I wrote about here), I discovered that it really is the nicest feeling to like a person for who they are without any expectation that they like who you are in return. And then it hit me: I’m growing. Sometimes I get so lost in my flaws and shortcomings that I fail to see that I’m not who I once was. I’m growing. My leaves are budding – and even though there’s a fall breeze outside, it feels like spring inside. It tastes like the beginnings of finally being free.

A few months ago, God promised that this new year would be one of rest; a Sabbath. I thought that meant that all the things I’d asked for for so long would finally be mine, and all the pain would magically disappear. But today, I think His rest looks a lot more like me surrendering my armor and my weapons and letting Him fight for me – letting down my guard in order to let Him be my guard. The pain is still there and maybe always will be, and the things I’ve asked for are still not mine, but in contemplating the surrender of my self-protective habits, I feel closer to rest than I’ve ever felt in my entire life.

I’m not free yet – unlearning decades worth of terrible habits is not something that happens in a month, or six. But now I can see what freedom might look like – that when I stop fighting for myself, I can finally be free to live. That there’s more freedom and rest in letting go than in trying so hard to protect myself. That I find my life only when I’m willing to lose it.

Maybe a year from now I’ll have learned what it looks like to let Him do the fighting – to be emotionally available, to wear my heart on my sleeve again, to cry in front of you when I’m awestruck by beauty or when my heart is breaking, to love and let myself be loved.

I’m not that girl yet, but I’m running towards that freedom with all that I have. Today, I’m celebrating a deeper understanding of unconditional love – and completely relishing my gooey affections that need not be reciprocated at all. And on the day I finally put self-preservation to death, I will throw a giant party. Because it would mean that I have finally chosen to let God be my shield, and my fortress, and my defense. And my soul will finally be at rest.

Soul Graffiti

My heart is a room in an old country home, spacious and open. At first, the walls were white, untarnished, gloriously pristine. But everyone who entered that room left it different than they met it, and eventually, my once pristine walls were completely covered. Some of the foreign matter was beautiful – vibrant reds and soothing yellows, sultry greens and cozy blues. But with the beauty came the grotesque. There were ugly words scribbled all over the once lovely paint, and it became increasingly difficult to see those vibrant hues through the hard words etched within.

The first words I read were etched deeply, filling up the room with their nauseating presence: you are not good enough. The author of those words spent time making deep carvings, ensuring that it would be a difficult task to undo what he did. And his doing opened the door for everyone else to follow suit.

Overcompensating for the damage done, I sent everyone packing and sealed the room off. But the fumes from the paint suffocated me, and there was no one in there to share in my suffering or remind me of the joy I once knew. I thought I had to protect myself; thought I had to be aloof and impenetrable to survive in a world where people gathered with their cans of spray paint and treated your heart like a train stopped on the tracks – painting their hurts and disease and brokenness and trauma on you.

I’m learning that instead of creating a concrete tomb to die in, all I need is a paint roller and my favorite colors. Sometimes people hurt others as a way to process through their own pain – it’s the way of broken people in a broken world. But some people bring joy and laughter and long, tight hugs on days when the pain threatens to topple you. And by trying to close out the bad, I also close out the good.

I want the good. All of the good.

So I’m purchasing a paint roller, and every time I find something ugly and hurtful being written on my walls, I’m going to paint over it with strong, confident strokes. And in its place I will write what’s true and good and lovely and pure. And I’ll let the only One who can truly protect my heart do His job – I’ll stop trying to help Him save me.

I don’t want a room with bare walls – that’s boring, safe, and not who I want to be. I don’t want a room covered in darkness and shame – that’s not who I want to be either. I want radiant colors and a beautiful story, and I want people to live out that story with. I want a heart that feels lived in. I want walls that tell a story of love, redemption, and triumph. And I want people. I choose people over my fears and self-defense mechanisms. I choose the possibility of hurt over the lifelessness of a caged heart.

I’m painting away, and today, everything’s a pleasant shade of summer squash. And the words being graffitied on the walls of my heart are ones of courage, and love, and wholeness.

It’s Not You, It’s Us: An Apology

I know. I know. It seems like we’re all hopping around on one foot, permanently holding the other foot in our mouths. It seems like we’re best friends with hypocrisy and married to self-righteousness. It seems like we haven’t fully comprehended the concept of Grace, or Love for that matter. I know. And I’m so sorry.

You see, we’re kinda like that one guy in that one story [which you may or may not have read] who gets pissed off that his rogue baby brother gets a party thrown in his honor after he squanders the family fortune and takes a piss on the family name. We say we’re humbled by Grace, we claim to be undeserving of the beauty of it all. But really, we’re just entitled older brothers who think that we somehow deserve the Grace we’ve been given because we’re not as bad as you. We’re not romantically interested in people of our own sex, therefore, we have more of a right to Grace than you do.

We claim to model our lives after Jesus, we claim to be living this totally transformed life that embodies everything He stood for. Yet we stand in line for hours to buy a chicken sandwich just to prove a point. A point that leaves you feeling alienated and unloved. Good grief, we deserve every name you’ve called us.

I don’t know where we get it from, this theology that demands us to be right all the time. It’s certainly not from Jesus. He never said we should only love those who agree with everything we believe. He never said to love only when it was easy or felt good. If that were His policy, He wouldn’t love me still. He wouldn’t love any of us still. And the Jesus I know spent a lot of His time with people that the uptight, religious folk of His day avoided and on occasion, stoned to death. He didn’t constantly surround Himself with people who thought the exact same as He did. He did crazy things like completely disregard the Law and save a married woman caught having an affair from getting stoned to death. Or letting a known prostitute kiss his feet infront of everyone. I mean, seriously, do you know the DRAMA that would ensue as a result of that today? A prostitute and a preacher? But that’s the Jesus I love and follow.

So regardless of what we’ve told you and, more importantly, what we’ve shown you, He is crazy about you. Just like He’s crazy about me. Just like he’s crazy about this painfully broken world. And His message isn’t one of tolerance. It’s one of Love. He doesn’t ask us to tolerate people who disagree with us. He doesn’t ask us to tolerate you. He says, “Love, as if your life depends on it.” You know how crazy that is, a Christian loving you so fiercely that it preserves their life? Oh wait, that’s right, you probably don’t because you’ve never seen it modeled.

We are so desperate to be right that we don’t care who gets burned along the way. We want to beat Jesus’ love into people. What a shameful contradiction. What a sad way of living. We’re the ones closer to death – the ones who never left home, never rebelled, and never left the corner of the party He threw for you where we glared – pissed that you of all people, get to share in our Grace. What a sham.

And it’s really not about you at all. We still find ways to alienate each other within the so-called family of believers in the same God. We hold everyone to our own standard of perfection – friend, foe, pastor, blog writer. Once they do or say something we don’t agree with, we write them off. I could list all of my shortcomings on here, but I won’t. You know why? Because my Christian readers probably would judge me for all my sins. You see, it’s not you. It’s us and our inability to let go of our pride and entitlement and our need to be right. It’s us and our inability to let Jesus change us in the most selfish parts of our being. Because selfishness and Love can’t coexist. Neither can self-righteousness and Love. Neither can pride and Love.

I’m sorry that we put proving a point over loving you. I’m sorry that we choose to tell you how much God hates your lifestyle a million times more than we show you how much He is completely in love with you. Not the you that fits into our definition of a good, Christian, never-do-anything-wrong-ever type of person, but the person you are now. Because unlike most of us, God isn’t partial, prideful, or self-righteous. And if He can still love me on the days when I all but flip Him off and do whatever the heck I want, then no one can convince me that He doesn’t love you just as ferociously also.

We’re in desperate need of Grace and Love, because the only type of people who are comfortable enough to disagree with each other without turning it into hatred and alienation are those living deeply from a place of Love and Grace. If we accepted Grace more open-handedly, maybe we would give it more freely too. We say we love God, but the truth is, we love ourselves just a little bit more. Clearly.

And here’s the thing: you are more than your sexual orientation. I’m so deeply sorry that we’ve turned you into a one-faced enemy.

“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone…” – Jesus

And Then the Fever Broke

I told my heart that we were fine, that despite the occasional waves of sadness we were going to be okay. I told it that if we smiled a lot and laughed a lot, we’d eventually stop feeling like crying. It shook its head at me and my delusion, grounding itself in reality. So I ignored it. For weeks. And the other night, it exploded. You know that feeling when your chest literally feels like it weighs a thousand pounds and you can’t breathe and all of a sudden you’re wailing into your pillow for no good reason?

Except I had good reasons – I had just chosen to ignore them. I’m really good at feeling only what I want to feel. And what I want to feel is the good, light as a feather, bubbly feelings. Even the quiet, whispery feelings are welcome so long as they don’t bring with them the dark, unwanted emotions I’m always running from. And crying? Only acceptable as a by-product of joy. None of that wussy, dissolve-into-tears-when-life-gets-hard-because-it’s-good-for-you nonsense. You admit that life sucks, then you dust yourself off and keep moving. No time to feel anything other than determination.

The last few weeks have been long and lonely, despite my plastered-on smile. Apathy became my best friend – if you don’t care, you don’t hurt. But I cared, and I hurt, and eventually I broke. Today, after three hours of nonstop journaling and pouring out my frustrations and letting myself feel all the feelings I didn’t want to feel with the One who gave me the ability to feel, the fever broke. I asked Him,

“Why am I constantly seeking external validation? Why can’t I truly rest in who You say I am? Why isn’t that enough? Why can’t I let You be enough for me? I don’t know how to do that, do I? I have to prove my own worth, my own value, and You’ve tied my hands so I can prove neither. Would I really become a person obsessed with proving to herself and everyone else that she is worthy of love and affection? Have I still not realized that I can’t prove that?”

Sometimes, He is silent and seemingly distant. But not today. I asked a lot of questions and He had a lot to say. When you narrow down the list of things you want to a whopping two, then present them to God, and He grants you neither one nor the other, you could respond with trust and faith. Or you could throw a fit. Or you could become slightly depressed and silent. And when you eventually take your frustrations to Him, you know what He ends up saying?

“You’ve been trying to define your own identity instead of discovering it with Me. So if I gave you either one of those two things right now, you’d hang your identity on them. You would become the girl who works there or the girl who’s dating that guy. Not the girl whose heart is at rest in who I say she is regardless of where she finds herself.”

Sometimes, I wish He didn’t speak quite so directly to the root of the problem. It’s so much easier to blame Him than to take responsibility for my sin. But He wasn’t done talking. He proceeded to reprimand me:

“You say you want My best for you, but really, you want your best for you. I don’t ever give you second best – what I give you everyday is My best. But because it’s not your imagined best, you choose discontentment.”

Ouch. He wasn’t kidding about that “disciplining the ones He loves” business. That one caught me by surprise. Today – this bland, uninteresting life – is His best? But if it were indeed His best, I’d be getting my second degree in Mental Health Counseling and working with women rescued from the sex industry and bouncing off the walls excited to go to work everyday and dating a Ryan Gosling lookalike whose love for God was contagious and whose style was impeccable and yadda yadda yadda.

Just because I have an overactive imagination that conjures up my version of the “perfect” life doesn’t mean God isn’t good to me. And just because I tell God that I want His best for me and then slyly insert my picture perfect life into the “God’s Best” folder, doesn’t mean I’ve fooled Him into thinking my best is His. He still wins. And His best is still better. And His best is right now. If I don’t see where He has me right now as His absolute best, nothing will ever be good enough. My imagination gets wilder with age, and it will always come up with something “better”. Maybe, like Paul, I have found the secret to contentment?

In the wake of this breaking and bleeding and healing, I’ve made a commitment: to not complain, not even once, about not having the two things I want the most for the next month. (In fact, in a moment of nothing but sheer madness, I told God to not give me either of those things anytime soon because I’m most certain I would idolize them immediately). Instead, I’m keeping a journal of everything I’m grateful for each day. I want to exude thankfulness and peace – to look for the little joys in every single day. I want to find rest and joy, not in a circumstantial change, but in a deep trust in who He says I am. And if you happen to encounter me anytime soon and hear me make some grumbly protest about my life, please [gently] slap me across the face in love. I can take it.

In true Fatherly fashion, he scolded me and then showered me with more love than I expected: He gave me this gorgeous sunset on my right and a rainbow on my left. At the same freaking time. It felt like a giant celestial hug and I finally let those tears come. Turns out, I didn’t lie to my heart. We really are going to be okay. 

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