Friday, February 24, 2017

Living in the Ampersand

Several years ago, I was involved in a ministry that asked me to write for them. At the time, the ministry had a gal in it who had a communications background. She and I sat down and went over some things I wrote and she pointed out some things I did. For example, when I started a note of appreciation with something like, I just want to tell you..., it sounded like I wanted to tell someone something, but may or may not tell them. I also used words like that, just, and really repetitively. In addition, I often softened my opinions and thoughts with the words, I feel...., when in actuality what I was saying wasn't a feeling at all. It was a thought or an opinion I was afraid to own. 

After I entered counseling, I realized I used words in ways that influenced my feelings and belied the fact that I had personal power and could make personal choices that would help me develop a happier state of mind. Some of the words I used often were, I have to, I can't...., or I must. I learned to reframe those kinds of phrases with phrases that expressed the choices I did have and found I felt more powerful and less stressed. I realized I could fully own the decisions I made and I felt more content with them. So, over time, I must became I desire to or I want to. I can't became I won't. I have to became my goal (desire) is to

A couple of years ago, a sweet friend of mine gave me an ampersand that sits on my desk where I can see it. The ampersand has special meaning in the counseling world and recently I realized it has become quite a popular cultural symbol. Some people get tattoos of it and others buy one and use it as a decoration. Right now they come in all sorts of colors and mediums--wood, plastic, clay, and metal.

Over the last few weeks I've been contemplating how the ampersand has impacted my life. As a child, I developed a Black-and-White way of thinking, which impacted just about every area of my life. It impacted my relationship with God, but I was too full of shame over the questions and confusion that arose out of that thinking to discuss them with others. You know, the questions that roll around in the mind about God and His goodness, His power, and His will in the face of great suffering. The Black-and-White Thinking also carried over into my relationships with others. People were either all good or all bad. They could be good for a while and then become bad when they hurt me. That thinking also carried over into how I viewed myself and my recovery from an eating disorder. One slip with an eating disordered behavior and I was a total loser, failure, defective person--even though I had made it through weeks without using an unhealthy behavior. It carried over into how I viewed life. Life was either really good when it was easy or it was really bad when I was going through something hard.  

In recovery, I began to realize things really aren't so Black and White! By that I don't mean I don't view sin as sin, I mean that I don't view things as all good or all bad. The word that I first began to use in my head was, "But." It came in the form of things like "My friend is suffering, but God is still good." "My husband hurt my feelings, but I find I still love him." "I ate a cookie and feel like a failure, but I am still a child of God." "This trial is really tough, but I hope to grow through it." I realized for me the word "but" is a bit of an expression of resistance and a little bit of protest and left me feeling unsettled. That may not be true for everyone but it was for me. 

It was okay for a season, but I wasn't content to live in the “buts.” I wanted more. To get the more I often had to journal and talk about the “buts.” The first time I did it I wanted desperately to forgive an abuser. I started out writing:
I forgive_________for__________, but they hurt me. I simply repeated the exercise over and over until I had run out of buts! I hate to admit it, but it was quite a long list! In that exercise I went from wishing I could forgive to being able to say "The abuser hurt me, but I forgave him." 

That was okay at the time, but to be honest it still didn't feel finished. It felt I was forgiving because I had to, but reserving the right to protest a little that it happened. It felt like I was forgiving, because I wanted to minimize the impact that it had on me. It also felt like I was forgiving, because I wanted others to think I was okay. As I am writing now, I glanced at the ampersand on my desk and I find myself smiling because I realize over time the something more I wanted was found in the "and!". When I say my abuser hurt me and I forgave him I feel this sense of peace wash over me. The "and" means to me that two things are equally true. The "and" doesn't minimize either truth and for some reason, for me, the "and" doesn't minimize the feelings on either side of it. The "and" is like a picket fence that allows me to see the past and not be controlled by it!!!

The "and" has helped me view God, the gospel, and redemption more accurately. Jesus is all powerful and Jesus is meek. Jesus is the Lion of Judah and Jesus is the Lamb of God. Jesus is merciful and Jesus is just. Jesus is God and spoke the universe into being and Jesus became a man rubbing shoulders with His creation. Jesus spoke and His words pricked stubborn hearts, calmed turbulent seas, cast out demons, healed broken bodies, forgave sin, caused soldiers to fall back and Jesus remained silent in the face of illegal trials to lay down His life for us. 

The center stage of the gospel is at the cross. It was the place where His holiness shone the brightest and it was a place where man's sin was its ugliest. It was the place where man's hatred screamed loudest and it was the place where God's love was most fully demonstrated. It was the place where sin in all of its ugliness was imputed to Jesus and it was the place where His goodness in all of its beauty was imputed to us. It was the place that resulted in death and it was a place that resulted in eternal life. Jesus was God and Jesus was man. Jesus died and Jesus was raised. 

Ah! Those "ands"--they even trickle down to me. I am a sinner and I am saved by grace through faith. I was an enemy of God and I am now His child seated at His table. I was in bondage to sin and I am now a bond servant to the living God. I was wounded and I am continuously being healed by the Wounded Healer. 

The ampersand--it seemed to remove the shame I experienced over being human and the shame I felt for being in the throes of living a redemption story that in the beginning was characterized by sin, woundedness, and fear. It seemed to relieve the shame I bore for living with both the flesh that craves to do wrong and the spirit that desperately wants to live victoriously close to God. It also relieved the shame of having believed I was too much, not enough, and unworthy of being loved and being captured by His love that ran deeper than the deepest wounds in my heart. I still believe the "but" was an important step of my journey, but I like living in the ampersand where two seemingly conflicting truths can co-exist and can open my heart more fully so I can trust God who is bigger and more complex than my mind can grasp and who loves with a love so deep my heart will never be able to fully comprehend it in this life I am living. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Was That Fun?

When our kids were young, we decided to treat them to a day at Disney Land. Our youngest child was four, but so tall he could get on any ride the older children could. As we entered the gates of the park, the older children led us to Space Mountain because their friends had said it was the best ride there. So we got on and all of a sudden me and the littlest were hurling through the dark space on a crazy roller coaster. The little guy suddenly seemed so tiny and I held him tight, fearing he could fly out of the car, all the while wondering what had possessed me to traumatize him. He didn't whimper or cry. He just pressed his little body harder and harder into my side. As soon as we stepped out of the car, the other kids came running up, excitedly declaring how fun the ride was. I looked down at the littlest's sweet face and he looked back at me with eyes wide open and asked, "Was was that fun?" The other kids of course responded that it was and as I glanced up another mom locked my eyes and we shared a knowing look of sympathy for the little who wasn't sure he would define that experience as fun. He asked repeatedly through the day if rides were going to be fun?"

It reminded me of the early years of my marriage when I was having our babies. For about 8 years, it was not uncommon for me to be awakened by a child to either nurse or who needed comfort following nightmares. This was many years ago and at the time, there wasn't much on TV after midnight. So, I watched a Christian station. I was just learning to study the Bible and I wasn't super grounded in the Scriptures yet. There were some pastors on the station that taught that if life was hard, all one needed to do was come to Jesus and life would be happy and problem free.

Well, I had Jesus, but those years were really tough years. I loved being a mom, but I went through really difficult things during those years. My parents divorced and no one told me about it until my dad called to tell me he had remarried. We had a furnace that blew and just about burned down our home. Then I awoke one night with a strange man standing over me during a pregnancy, surfacing old traumas and PTSD. Next we purchased a home with a certain kind of loan and the government froze the funding for those loans and we sat in limbo, waiting to see if we would be allowed to continue living in the home. On top of that, the lack of sleep because of the break resulted in a postpartum depression that darkened my life and my thoughts and deepened the loneliness I experienced as a grad student's wife. And then there was the add the normal kids fighting, the stress of baby sitting additional children to help make ends meet, extended family dysfunction, and broken relationships I grieved. All the while I had a past  crying out to be healed, but I didn't have the resources for the help I needed.

However, the worst thing about it all wasn't the things I went through, but the feeling of failure and the toxic shame that dug its roots down deep into my soul because I wasn't feeling happy as a believer. I experienced happy moments, but I was struggling to keep my head above water and feeling overwhelmed by dark thoughts and feelings I didn't understand.

I found myself asking the question our son asked--Is this fun? When I reached the end of my proverbial rope, I found the courage to talk to our pastor and there was several things he and God did that were helpful. First, he cleared up my misconceptions about the Christian life. He did this through his teachings and he did this through a crash course on the Bible verses dealing with suffering, making sure I understood the things and feelings I was experiencing were simply apart of life; not a reflection on me, my salvation, or a reflection of what God thought of me.

And God, He provided a spiritual mom, spiritual sisters, and such sweet Christian friends that loved, supported me, and cared about the things I was going through. Sadly, the shame had caused me to hide what I was experiencing and at first no one knew what I needed. But once they knew, they helped in many ways. Friends came by often. They either brought food or came and cooked dinner for my family as I caught up on chores. Friends came and read to my children so I could fold the mountain of laundry that accumulated over the week. Friends kept me company as my husband studied. Friends loved on my babies so I could rest, breathe, and just laugh. My spiritual mom called me every morning before she went to work, listening, advising, encouraging, and evoking at least one belly laugh before she'd hang up. There were other ladies whose kids were older who visited both by phone and in person, helping me learn to be a better mom and to trust God in the hard. And there were peers who threw pot lucks and discussed Scriptures and those conversations helped me fall in love with the Savior.

On top of that someone told me about a ministry called Bible Believer Cassette Ministry and I listened to all sorts of great teachers as I washed dishes including, Jill Briscoe, Elizabeth Elliot, James Dobson, Charles Stanley, and Chuck Swindoll, As I write this I can still hear Jill's voice echoing in my head like it was yesterday.

I think sometimes even us strong believers take verses out of context and slap hurting people with them. I think of one woman who shared her fear of facing her second round of cancer and chemo, being told she was sinning as they quoted the first part of Philippians 4:6, "Do not be anxious for anything..." As someone who has struggled with anxiety, I know it is sometimes hard to settle the mind and go to prayer and I wonder why the person didn't acknowledge the fear being confessed with grace and and offer in the moment to go to prayer with her. I also wonder why she didn't do as my friends in Mississippi did and check on her repeatedly as she walked that life-and-death journey.

I remember being told in a conversation over a broken relationship that the tears I was shedding were proof I wasn't as close to God as she was. I was shamed at the time, but now I know those tears were a sign of God's heart actively working in me. He is a God grieved by children struggling to love well.

There are those who have dealt with miscarriages, infertility, infidelity, and kids with heart defects and cancer who have been told to just trust God more, when what they needed was someone to cry with them in their grief and to walk with them in their long season of suffering. There are those who have been told their child isn't healed because their faith wasn't strong enough. Maybe what they needed instead of judgment was someone to pray with them for the endurance, the courage, and the hope that needed to get through the next day, the next week, the next year, or even the next decade.

I have come to believe God wants His people to not just do acts of service, but to emotionally connect. That means we have to be willing to feel and to love as He loves, which includes weeping with those who weep, and rejoicing with those who rejoice! That means being willing to emotionally enter the mire of others' lives, sharing in their suffering. It means letting them empty their minds of the questions, dark thoughts, and doubts so that God can renew their strength and we can earn the right to gently remind them of what is true, honorable, just, pure, and lovely.

Suffering with Jesus is always redemptive, especially when we don't shame those who are suffering. Suffering allows us to know Him. The Bible tells us there are crowns given for remaining steadfast in trials and I know if I earned crowns it was with the help of friends and I want to do that for others so we can all lay our crowns at the feet of Jesus!

Paul talked about the importance of suffering in Romans 5:3-5, "...but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." We want to be sure our responses to others suffering do not add additional suffering or get in the way of God producing His endurance, His character, and His hope through their suffering.

I recently had a conversation with a friend from a former church who had gone through a year of severe suffering. He told me that he never felt so close or so blessed by God in his whole life. He and his family were loved well through the long year, making it possible for God to complete His work in that season of His life. What a testimony he, his lovely wife, his children, and his grandchildren are to the faithfulness of a great big God who did His loving work in our friends' time of suffering suffering.

"Was that fun?" Maybe that isn't the best question for us Christians to be asking. A better one might be, "Is there joy in the journey?" Joy comes from knowing Him and from the fellowship of suffering as He suffered.


Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!