On Stories, Writing Lunch, and Jesus

I have long sensed that a strong connection must exist between God and story, but I’m only just beginning to put words to it. After all, story has always been the way civilization attempted to explain nature, ambition, good, and evil. Jesus himself chose story rather than lecture, and He often told stories rather than give answers.

Melissa, Lauren, Melanie, and I have been meeting for writers’ lunches for a few months now. One of the reasons I’m most grateful for these lunches is because of the way they’ve solidified and deepened our friendship so quickly. It’s not simply the consistent time spent breaking yummy Panera sourdough bread with one another–though that helps. I think our friendships have gone quickly to the deeper, stronger, more vulnerable places because we are telling our stories–quite literally. Each week, we bring a blog post (or something we might turn into a blog post later). We read them together, point out the typos, ask questions about the structure or meaning of phrases. More significantly, we affirm the truth the others are telling.

C.S. Lewis famously said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’” Melissa, Melanie, Lauren, and I have become further knit together each time someone says, “Yes. I totally understood what you were trying to say there.”

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(click for image source)

Right now, I’m reading Speak by Nish Weiseth. It’s simple and straightforward, without much flowery language or metaphor, but it is full of wisdom, and certainly lots of inspiration as far as writing and storytelling are concerned. I’m not quite finished with the book yet–maybe 2/3 of the way through it–but today, I found my thoughts wandering to our writing lunches.

Weiseth writes, “These shared stories and this retelling of ourselves are the things that build relationships. A relationship deepens when the stories get longer and more intricate, and a relationship deepens when the number of stories shared between people grows.” That is, quite literally, what’s happening when we meet for lunch.

I don’t yet know every detail of these girls’ lives, all the twists and turns their paths have taken, but we fill in the gaps with every story told (even the incomplete and the rough drafts–maybe especially those), and I’m learning I can trust these women like the oldest and dearest friends.

I think this must be why people trusted Jesus so easily when they met Him in-person: like the woman at the well, they could sense that He already knew their stories and loved them all the more for them.

On My Vacation

Tomorrow morning, less than 12 hours from now, I’ll go back to work after an entire week of vacation.

It seemed as if it had been absolutely forever since I had a vacation. There was, of course, maternity leave, but I only took a month off and there was, of course, a newborn and not much sleeping. In March, I went back to work full-time and despite the occasional sick day and my trip to Malawi, this was my first time off.

Six glorious days, plus weekends.

I love my job. I would continue to work in my department at our church for my entire life if God so willed, but even still, work is work sometimes, and I think that’s ok. Sometimes, the nitty-gritty details aren’t so life-giving. I don’t particularly love hanging up memory verse posters or hole-punching or restocking animal crackers, and goodness, all the e-mails.

And sometimes, ministry is stressful. Eternity is in the balance, and while I know Jesus is in control, there is so much riding on what happens on Sundays. I know that God can open a child’s ears even if the curriculum is not just so, and I know the Holy Spirit can soften an adult’s heart even if my welcome isn’t perfect. And yet. I just want to do my job so. well.

These days, my perfectionist tendencies have lessened their grip on my home life. I don’t mind that there are crumbs on the floor or that a frame on the gallery wall is hanging crooked. I don’t mind that I forgot to buy a cinnamon broom at Publix, and I don’t mind that we ate frozen pizza for dinner twice this week.

However, I haven’t been able to shake my perfectionism at work. I pride myself on working really hard, on accomplishing a lot, and on making things better. God has humbled me quite a bit over the past several years with that regard, but I still find myself desperate for approval and terrified of failure. It’s exhausting, and it often leads me riddled with guilt when I just can’t cross every item off the to-do list, fill every hole in the schedule, execute everything perfectly.

All that to say, I needed vacation. I almost cried tears of joy driving away from work that Thursday, because I needed rest and relief so badly. I felt it deep in my bones.

Before we left for Charleston, I purged my iPhone apps. I deleted Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, as well as the Gmail app. I deleted the only two games I play. I tried to remove everything that I go to when I need rest but doesn’t actually re-create or rejuvenate me.

This week, I spent time reading and scrapbooking. I cleaned or did laundry only when I felt like it. I desperately ignored the word “should.” I went for walks, which is, admittedly, something I have to talk myself into but know is worth it. I got a pedicure and a frappuccino, using gift cards I had saved expressly for this purpose. I took lots of photos with my nice camera, I added more stuff to our “donate” pile, I decorated for fall. I took naps. I wrote.

I am going back to work tomorrow more refreshed than I have felt in a long time. I know, without a doubt, that I will be able to do my job better this week–more focused and more energized–than I have in a very long time.

Here’s the deal, though: I had to fight off the guilt every. single. day. Every day, I needed to pray.

Jesus, help me walk in freedom and not guilt. Help me remember that my worth does not lie in my job. Help me remember that You are at work in our church whether or not I am. Help me value important over urgent. Help, help, help. Thanks.

He helped.

As He does.

The Presence of Rain

A long, long time ago, Angie Smith told a story that stuck with me. It was in the aftermath of her sweet Audrey’s death, and she mentioned that she recognized ringing church bells as a reminder of God’s presence. They seemed to ring at random times, just when she needed them, and she took it as a gentle reminder from God. “I’m still here.”

That story stuck with me, and a few weeks later, I decided that for me, rain is the thing. I don’t recall the exact timing and what was happening in my life at the time, but I needed God to show up, and it rained. Since then, I’ve noticed the rain on days I need it most. I think it’s Jesus, with His gentle hand on my shoulder.

“I’m still here.”

It’s ironic, I suppose, considering God used rain to annihilate almost every living creature at one point. (Why, again, have we turned Noah’s ark into a warm and fuzzy children’s story?) It was when the rain dissipated that Noah and His family received their promise of God’s goodness, faithfulness, and constant presence. Still, I have always loved the rain, and in a turn of God’s redemption, we need it. We need it for refreshment, rejuvenation, and growth.

Last winter, I was driving home from work on the day our former pastor passed away. I was more angry with God than I had ever been before, and though I looked, I could not find the evidence of His goodness in that situation. For the first time in my life, I found myself asking, “Are you actually even here right now? What were You thinking? Where is the redemption You’ve promised, in this?” I drove home the back way, winding through a neighborhood, and slowly yet all at once, there it was: the rain. It wasn’t enough to warrant turning on my windshield wipers, and it didn’t answer all my questions, but it followed me all the way home.

“I’m still here.”

Yesterday was one of the most refreshing days I can remember in a long while. I know that staycations tend to get a bad wrap, but we should give them more credit. Yesterday was wonderful, and just what my soul needed. And as I left Starbucks in the afternoon, there it was again.

Here in central Florida, I think it rained, quite literally, every single day in September. (My husband just informed me that we had 4 days this month without rain. Four.) Our backyard is completely covered with the leaves and branches that fall from our oak tree during every storm. Our ceiling started leaking, along with a few windows, as if our entire townhouse suddenly decided, “That’s it! I’ve had enough of the rain. I give up!” Somewhere along the way, the rain just faded into the background, and I stopped noticing it, except that yet again, I noticed my damp window sills and pant hem.

I know that it is Florida, and I shouldn’t be surprised by the rain. You can set your watch by the summertime thunderstorms, I know. But it never gets old for me.

It want Jesus’ presence in my life to be like the rain: arriving like clockwork, steady and constant, continually seeping in from everywhere. I don’t want to be surprised by it, but I don’t want to be immune to it either. I want His presence to be, not an undercurrent, but a backdrop, against which everything else shines more clearly, wet and dewy, always reminding me.

“I’m still here.”

Fine Lines

Motherhood is a fine line.

I didn’t straddle it very well yesterday, so lunchtime with Ian devolved into a total meltdown. At the end, I walked upstairs, plopped Ian into his crib, handed him his blanket & pacifier. Right now, he is just sitting quietly in his crib, rubbing the blanket on his nose, fighting sleep.

As Ian still refuses most solid foods, mealtimes are a fine line between encouraging him to try new things and him becoming so frustrated that he never wants to taste a new food again. He flips from cautiously and skeptically putting a bite into his mouth to TOTAL MELTDOWN in mere seconds, at the drop of a hat. There is no recovering after that: only baby food will do, and sometimes, not even that.

Do I walk away, until on his own, he comes around? Do I acquiesce, content to try again tomorrow?

And what if really, all of this is simply because he’s teething, those one year old molars poking through, and it just actually hurts to bite down?

I never know.

At playtime, it is a fine line between teaching and discovery and simply enjoying.

On Monday mornings, there is a fine line between walking fully and confidently into a job I love and feeling guilty for not being home with my boy.

At day care drop-off, there is a fine line between trusting another woman to love my son well and declaring, “Nope. Hands off. This is my job. Give him back.”

As a child, I was always afraid to attempt the balance beam, and as an adult, I’ve always joked that I would fail a sobriety test without a drop of alcohol.

Walking fine lines is not my strong suite.

I’m learning to recognize that walking a fine line is not a matter of precision, but nuance. It isn’t about sticking to the line perfectly for fear of falling of the precipice on either side. It’s less like a tight rope and more like a dance. I need to take a deep breath, release the pressure, and just start moving my feet. I’m learning that it’s the small adjustments along the way, like breathing in and breathing out, that will carry me through.

What I’m Into: September 2014 Edition

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This week, I’m linking up with Leigh Kramer to share what I’ve been into this month.

Truth be told, I have lots of bits and pieces of blog posts swirling around in my head, but no energy to hash them out into something coherent and interesting. So, this seems like a good way to keep my fingers typing, keep words flowing, and do the work of writing…but less pressure. So here it goes.

(I wrote that a few days ago, waiting for Leigh’s official link-up. In the meantime, I travelled to Charlotte for The Writers Barn, hosted by Emily Freeman & Christa Wells (at The Nester’s barn). It was the best. I have a few posts coming down the pipes about it.)

What I’m Reading:

Interrupted (Hatmaker). Y’all. This book has messed me up. I am still processing, but I do know this: I will never look at church the same way again. (And for someone who works at a church…well…yeah. All the thoughts. All the feelings.)

Books in progress:

Jesus Feminist (Bessey): I’ve had a little more trouble getting into it than I expected, which is surprising and a little disappointing for me, but it’s definitely worth finishing.

Writing to Find Yourself (Vesterfelt): SO helpful and great! It leaves me feeling inspired to pick up a pen. I was lucky enough to catch it when it was available for free, but I’d say it’s well worth the $3.99, and I’m only a few chapters in.

Goblet of Fire (Rowling. Of course.). No rush to finish this one. Though I do need to return it to its owner.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Lewis). Here’s the deal: I need light and easy fiction to read before bed. Any recommendations? I grabbed this off the shelf because it met both of those qualifications, and I want to finish the series, but I’m not really sold on it, as far as bedtime reading is concerned. I’m also finding it less engaging right off the bat than the other Narnia books.

Celebration of Discipline (Foster): Our connect group has just started reading this. I haven’t yet read a book about the spiritual disciplines, so I’m excited to dive in!

What I’m Listening To:

Music:

I’ve been listening to a lot of Christa Wells. I started gearing up for the barn, and I’ve only wanted to listen to her more since.

I’ve also been sticking pretty closely to Phil Wickham, Ellie Holcomb, and All Sons & Daughters this month. Me and Jesus needed the time together.

Podcast episodes:

Andy Stanley on the Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast: Andy Stanley is so wise, but completely down to earth. I need to go back and re-listen to this with paper for taking notes.

Annie Downs on the Happy Hour with Jamie Ivey: I love Annie. She is hilarious and humble, and I also think she has her finger on the pulse of what teens and young adults in the church need. (Her insights here on hook up culture and mentoring college students are so interesting.) But, this podcast is also just full of fun.

Amy Schubert on the Sarah R. Bagley Podcast: This idea about not knowing what I want to be when I grow up resonated with me. Even though I have always known what I wanted to be when I grew up, my career has already changed multiple times, and I feel like I’m dabbling in so many different things. Good conversation here.

BEST podcast interview I heard:

Jeremy Courtney of Preemptive Love on the RELEVANT podcast: Preemptive Love is working in Iraq at a time when everyone else is leaving. This interview is both informative and significant, and it gives an excellent account of what’s happening in Iraq, from Christians who are experiencing it first hand. (Lecrae is on this episode too!)

What September was All About:

You know that Zora Neale Hurston quote, about how some years question while others answer? September was a month of questions. Among them where, “Why is still 9o degrees outside?” and “Will it ever stop raining?” and “Why is our ceiling leaking?”

But more significantly, I was asking questions about how to do my job well without losing my mind, how to better navigate this tricky work-life-motherhood balance? And I have been trying to figure out  how all these disparate parts of me–children’s ministry, motherhood, business, writing–fit together.

By the far, the most wonderful thing about September was The Writers Barn. It was one of the most beautiful days I’ve ever been a part of, and I’ll share more about it soon. It brought up more questions but lent answers too. I think the most significant thing was this: learning to own the idea that yes, I am a writer. Not I want to be a writer. But I am.

That was September.

A Prayer for September 11

Jesus,

Today, please be who Scripture says You are: a God of comfort, a God of peace, a God who mourns alongside us and draws near to the brokenhearted.

The brokenhearted are many today, Lord, because for each of the thousands who were lost thirteen years ago, many thousands more are grieving. You know each of them, and you love them all.

Today, may we look and love more like You.

May we seek reconciliation over revenge.

May we seek community rather than answers.

May we be united not through patriotism, but through a deep understanding that we are all your children, mourning and remembering together.

Lord, flood our world with peace so tangible we immediately recognize it as Yours.

Come, Lord Jesus.

On Purpose

Since coming home from Malawi, I have really wrestled with purpose. 

I know it’s the nature of a mission trip, but we woke up every day with a very clear purpose: get to know this family, become familiar with this village, hear the stories about this children’s home, teach a seminar about formative assessment. Every day was laid out, and the purpose was clear.

What’s more is that there was so little distracting us from that purpose. With no wi-fi, no cell phone signal, I was never wondering what I might have missed on Instagram. I didn’t think about making a run through a coffee shop or if I should rearrange my bookshelf again. No push notifications about rent payments or daycare payments or emails needed a reply. Of course, I didn’t have to go grocery shopping and while I once hoped to wash some clothes, we didn’t have running water that day.

When we had some downtime in the afternoons or evenings, my options were as follows: walk around and take photos, write in my journal, talk or play cards with my group members, talk to the secondary school students on campus, read book. Go for a walk. Perhaps shower. Perhaps.

In my first few days at home, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the number of choices inherent in every decision. I would buckle myself into the driver’s seat and need to choose: radio, CD, or iPhone? Then, Pandora, Spotify, Songza, or podcast? At dinner time, do I choose the nonstick frying pan or not, and on which size plate should our meal be served? The next morning, it would be time to get dressed, and good grief, my closet. And all of these choices pale in comparison to the complete paralysis I have felt looking at my to-do list and calendar.

While Malawi was certainly emotionally and spiritually overwhelming, it actually felt restful. Life was simple, by necessity and circumstance. I was continually aware of Jesus’ presence in a very tangible way, the Spirit weighing heavy like a blanket, and I know that indeed, He offers rest.

Before we left, my good friend Melissa told me, “You will sense both God’s presence and the world’s darkness more strongly in Malawi. I don’t know why that is,” she said, “but it’s true.”

I’ve been mulling that over since coming home, praying that Jesus will help me feel Him closely again and make me more aware of the need in my own backyard. At times He has, but you know what I think? I think I noticed Him more in Malawi because there were no distractions. No push notifications or tweets to pull me out of each moment, and no caramel macchiatos or craft projects to numb me to brokenness. 

As I’m going about my days, I’ve becoming painfully aware that I do so without much purpose. I float from one to-do list item to the next, and I rush from home to work and back again. Don’t misunderstand me–I know that cooking dinner for my family isn’t without purpose. (It’s a grace gift, these two God has given me to love and care for.) Yet, the significant things in my life are mixed in with and overwhelmed by so much meaningless junk and unnecessary excess that I hardly notice them.

I desperately want to eliminate all that excess, so that the things that matter most will no longer suffer under the weight of what matters least. I want each day imbued with purpose, even if the tasks themselves are mundane. I want Jesus, as close as my own breath, He and I, the Vine and the branch.