Modern-Day Job

I’m struggling with something monumental – something essential to who I am and in whom I place my faith. It’s uncomfortable and messy and I’m only now beginning to process the things my heart has hidden for so long. I wrote about the moment when I realized that I don’t trust God, but that was only scratching the surface as it turns out.

To understand this place I’ve found myself inhabiting, there are a few things you should know about me. My childhood wasn’t one of ease and safety and freedom. I had to grow up fairly quickly because life’s circumstances forced me to – I’ve been referred to as more mature than my peers for as long as I can remember. I guess a hard childhood has its perks. I’ve been taught the ways of the God of the Bible since I was an infant, learning that He was the good father who wouldn’t abandon me like my earthly one did, and that He loves me more than anyone else ever can. I didn’t really understand those concepts until I arrived at college and began embracing – and flaunting – my independence from the ideals and culture I was raised in. And it wasn’t until I went to therapy post-college that I truly began to deal with the pain of my past.

Now, I believe that there is a God, and I believe the bible is inerrant and divinely inspired. In all my soul-searching, I’ve found those two things to be constant. The part I’m having trouble dealing with? My heart cannot reconcile a God who knew of and had the power to stop all the pain of my childhood with this God of goodness, mercy, and grace that I claim to be serving today. I don’t know how to deal with a God who is all-knowing and all-powerful, one who has the ability to stop injustice with one word, and doesn’t. I know that he can bring beauty out of the messiest situations, but I don’t know that I want to serve a God who is just a fixer. Why fix when you can prevent, you know?

It’s funny how it becomes incredibly easy for people to spout off pat answers about issues like this when they’re not directly affected. I was one of those people. Injustice in all its forms, but most especially sex trafficking, breaks my heart to pieces. Sitting safely in my apartment with both bolts secured, I can say that sex trafficking is horrendous but that God is raising up an army of his people who will fight against this atrocity and bring redemption to this fallen world. Why does he let it occur? I don’t know, but I choose to focus on the redemption and freedom that will eventually come. And then there are those precious girls who are told about Jesus after being rescued from the sex trade and they ask, “If your God is so good, why didn’t he stop those men from raping me?” How do you answer that question? When it isn’t just this far off idea, but an actual breathing, broken human in front of you, how do you answer that?

That’s where I find myself today. If I wanted a good Christian pep talk, I could give myself one. But that doesn’t suffice anymore, because those well-intentioned speeches give no comfort and sometimes drive the knife in deeper. Someone pointed out that I’ve never let myself be angry at the people who hurt me. I was taught to forgive and to bury it all away, but I was never allowed the space to be angry. So decades worth of anger have begun to surface, and I find that underneath the smiling God-is-good face that I wear, I’m really angry. At my father, at my brother, at my brother’s father, and as scary as it sounds, at God.

I’m not negating his goodness, or calling his entire character into question. In fact, I still regularly see his goodness in little things like sitting in the sunshine with my feet in the river, listening to the birds chirp. But in the singular occasion where he could have stepped in to save this fragile little girl years ago, he didn’t. And I need time to process that, to ask him why his arm of justice lay still when I needed him the most; to ask him if his plan for redemption and glorification was really worth that much pain. That’s where I’m at – asking hard questions like Job did, and letting myself be angry at the God of the universe.

One of the greatest things my mother taught me was that God isn’t scared of my questions and my doubts. I might terrify all the other good, unquestioning Christians around me, but he can handle it. So it’s just me and God, sitting across from each other, trying to mend my broken heart. It might take forever, and my heart might never be mended, but I sure as hell am not going to pretend like I don’t have these questions. If nothing else, he deserves my honesty; it’s the respectful thing to do.

When Jesus Isn’t Enough

These days I’m having a rough time with the concept of “enough”. What is enough? Who is enough? Is anything ever enough? I have this ongoing battle in my head, so overwhelming that it threatens to spill out into everyday conversations that should be, in fact, rather simple and lighthearted. Then again, I’ve always been the serious type. In my dilemma with the idea of “enough”, I find that this question puzzles me the most:

Is Jesus enough?

For being a Christian who incidentally is studying at a seminary and is mostly surrounded by other Christians, that is quite the terrifying question. Is Jesus enough? Is he truly all I need? I should probably clear up any misconceptions before I continue. I do believe that he is the source of every good thing. I believe that he is hope and joy, restoration and life. I believe that it is only in him that we live and move and have our being. Without him, none of the grandeur around us or within us would be.

But you know how sometimes you get an awful headache, and while Jesus is certainly the Healer, sometimes you still just need some aspirin? Or you trust God for good health and vitality, but you also still buy some running shoes and make friends with endorphins on a regular basis? What about when you lock your house or your car at night? Is it because you don’t believe Jesus is the protector he claims to be? Not at all; it’s just common sense.

We might all agree on the above situations, because they don’t necessarily deal with the issue of contentment. Well, what about the career of your dreams? What if you couldn’t pursue your dreams to be a doctor, or professor, or designer, or author, or – in my case –  a therapist? Wouldn’t there be an ache left within you for a life you don’t have but believe you were made for? Why do we desire career fulfillment even as Jesus-lovin’ folks? Shouldn’t loving him and making him known be the only career fulfillment we need? And why on earth do we desire relationships, romantic or otherwise, when we’re in a relationship with Love himself? Christiandom tells us that if we have these desires raging within us, we’re not sanctified enough. There’s something wrong with us. May I propose another theory?

“Jesus is enough” is a myth propagated by the Christian circle to shame us into abandoning our desires and living safe and boring lives.

I think we’re too afraid to truly want because we might not get what we deeply desire. And so to keep ourselves insulated from the pain of disappointment, we’ve come up with this clever, super-spiritual-sounding myth that claims that Jesus is all we should ever desire. I’ve sat through sermons where the explicit message was, “the source of your unhappiness is the fact that you’re searching for Jesus AND something else.”

Maybe I’m a heretic. Maybe I’m not Christian enough. But I’m starting to believe that this isn’t what he truly wants for us and from us. We’re so obsessed with this idea of sacrificial living that we offer unsolicited sacrifices to a God who only wants a broken and contrite spirit. Not our renouncement of our [healthy] desires, not our clever shaming of each other when we admit that we want something other than him. I think he might just want us to sit with him and say, “You are the love of my life, and apart from you I have no good thing. But I’m still lonely. And I’m not fulfilled. And I want you but I also want the job of my dreams and the man of my dreams.”

I don’t think he would be offended. In fact, I think it is in the honesty and rawness of our desire that he meets us most fully. Why else would Adam, living in the very presence of the living God and communing with him directly, still feel lonely enough that God created an exquisite creature to satisfy that ache? How else can you explain Jesus asking people who were clearly disabled what they wanted him to do for them? Duh, Jesus. I’m blind – what do you think I want you to do? But he still asked. He wanted them to articulate that desire, to let it envelope them until they weren’t ashamed to ask for it out loud. Did any of those blind men, cripples, or paraplegics say, “Well, I don’t desire anything else but you. Sure, I’m blind and lame, but I don’t need my eyesight and legs when I’ve got you, Jesus.”

Yet, that’s what we’re told today is the good Christian response. I don’t buy it anymore. I love Jesus with every fiber of my being. Sometimes his love for me makes me cry unexpectedly in public places, because it’s so big and beautiful and overwhelming and freeing. His love for me frees me to admit that there are many other things I want with equal fervor. I want Jesus AND a life that’s full of music and art and beauty. I want Jesus AND a career of helping people find wholeness and healing. I want Jesus AND a cabin that houses the man of my dreams, the kitchen of my dreams, and the children of my dreams. And there isn’t a single thing wrong with that.

Therapy Tuesdays

I went into our group counseling session on Tuesday expecting another mediocre class exercise that was supposed to teach me the foundations of effective counseling. We would take turns counseling and being counseled about real issues, and then we would leave and analyze our performance in a paper. The assignment this week was to simply reflect the client’s feelings without asking questions or leading the conversation in any direction. Pretty straightforward. Except the fact that this Tuesday wrecked me irrevocably.

It started when I didn’t give my usual surface-level response to the, “So, what would you like to talk about today?” question. Instead of talking about how I want to graduate with straights As, I took a risk and brought up my tumultuous emotional state regarding romantic relationships. He listened, nodded, and effectively reflected the explicit emotions in my responses. We were doing pretty well. Until he took a step past the explicit emotions and told me that the underlying emotion he was hearing was that my frustrations with relationships [or a lack thereof] stemmed from my desire to maintain control and my aversion to being dependent on others.

Well, damn. My immediate response was the nervous laughter characteristic of discomfort, and eventually, I curled up into a ball on the couch and said, “I’m ready to not talk about this anymore.” I certainly wasn’t expecting my classmate, who has received the same seemingly inconsequential amount of training that I have, to be able to look into my soul and deconstruct my frustrations in one sentence. I’m still reeling.

So, I started asking my absolute favorite question. Why? (Side note: The best part about this profession is that it allows me to ask this question all the time, and even encourages it – as long as it’s phrased creatively. I’m fascinated by stories and uncovering why it is people act and think the way they do. If you aren’t excited about conversations about why serial killers exist, or why women tend to feel entitled to a man’s heroism, then we probably won’t end up being really great friends.)

Back to the topic, I sat down with my journal and asked myself why I was desperate for control in this area of my life. Why am I compulsively self-reliant when it comes to relationships? At first, the answer was because I didn’t trust that someone would actually show up. When the responsibility lies on me to show up and play my part, I trust myself to do it. I show up. I make things happen. I set goals and I work towards their achievement. Not so with other people.

And then I asked myself why I believed people were inherently unreliable. This answer was much easier to get to: there is no precedent for reliability. No man has ever shown up with intentionality, determined to make things happen. This dates back to an absent father and a severely troubled brother. How can I possibly believe in the dependability of the male species when my life’s experiences have taught me otherwise? Well, we’re getting close.

Next, I asked why I could relinquish control in other areas of my life that show no precedence for good yet struggle so terribly with this one. The answer to this question stole the breath from my chest and I collapsed on the table, unable to keep writing. I don’t trust that God is reliable with the protection of my heart. I don’t trust that God is reliable. I don’t trust God.

Me – the supposedly healthy, fresh-out-of-therapy girl who knows who she is and what she wants; the pastor’s kid who can speak Christianese like it’s her native tongue; the former-ministry leader at her old church. Apparently, amidst all that, I don’t trust God. It’s easy to psychoanalyze myself and come up with reasons for my distrust. I grew up around failed relationships – from divorced parents, to relationally incompetent family members, to watching abusive husbands wreck their wives. And in the midst of the mass chaos that is my dysfunctional family, it never seemed like God showed up. Or like he even cared that so many people were hurting, broken, desperate for redemption and healing. He never showed up in the way I expected the all-mighty, all-powerful God of the universe to. So why should I believe he’ll show up now that it’s my turn? Why should I depend on him? Why should I trust in his goodness when I’ve never experienced it in this particular area?

I didn’t know how to process it all, so my favorite ladies and I took to the foosball table and let out our frustrations on the innocent inanimate object. And after that didn’t seem sufficient, we sat around my coffee table for hours talking about expectations and relationships and gender roles. The blessing of being friends with other future therapists is that we’re all terrible at small talk, so our conversations always cut straight to the heart of the matter. It feels like we’re constantly in therapy even in our non-school-related conversations. Yet, even after all the words and laughter and encouragement and conviction of our appropriately dubbed “Therapy Tuesday”, I still feel overwhelmed.

I’m a goal-oriented person. I want to set “Trust God about relationships” as a goal, and then create five steps to get there. But while my head wants to race ahead to practicalities, my heart is stuck and sinking. I’m heartbroken because I know how much my distrust must break his heart. I’m heartbroken because I keep discovering that my brokenness is entrenched so deeply it sometimes feels like I will never be mended. I’m heartbroken because my beliefs about God are so influenced by my experiences in this messy world. If only my trust in God were separate from my development. But it isn’t. And I must wrestle with reconciling what I feel and what I know, what I’ve experienced and what I am promised. I don’t know how to do that yet. Who knows if I ever will. But I have learned to never underestimate the power of a silly class exercise when God is involved. He wrecks you in the most devastatingly beautiful way.

Seminary is Killing My Soul

There were a lot of things I was expecting when I moved here for school. I expected everyone to be uppity, gliding around piously on their high horses and looking down on me because I have a potty mouth, I drink whiskey, and I wear pretty tight jeggings. I expected everyone to be insincere and inauthentic, spouting off Christianese lingo and being completely unapproachable. I expected God to feel closer. After all, I’m at a seminary.

Contrary to my expectations, everyone seems normal, aware of their incompetence and brokenness, and openly seeking growth. Maybe it’s unique to the Counseling department, since we’re all drawn to broken people anyways, but I haven’t met a single person yet who fits my expected stereotype. And in like fashion, contrary to my expectations, God seems farther than he’s been in a long while.

I’m surrounded by Christians all the time – a culture shock, to say the least. And other than the family I work for, I don’t get to have conversations with people who don’t share the same faith I do. You’d think this would be spiritual growth heaven, instead, to borrow the words of a friend, I feel like seminary is slowly killing my soul. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been to church in about a month thanks to unavoidable circumstances. Or maybe it’s that I’m so focused on being productive each day that I write off my formerly habitual morning coffee, Bible, and journal time. I think it’s really because I have an aversion to living in this holy huddle, and the only way I know how to get some air is to avoid the one Being who controls my breath.

This time, I’m not running from him and he’s not hiding from me. I know without a doubt that he’s only one step away – all I need to do is move. But I’m not ready. I don’t want to move. I fear that taking that step would mean that I become that person who only listens to Christian radio, only watches Fox News, and hands out tracts to strangers. And I desperately do not want to be that person.

Maybe it’s completely selfish and sinful, my desire to remain separate from the holy huddle. But maybe it’s because I believe I’m called to bring light to dark places and right now I feel like a candle in the middle of a sunroom at noon. Where I was expecting to feel alive and free, I feel restless, caged, and numb. In the two months that I’ve lived here, the closest I’ve felt to God was in the middle of wandering around in the most beautiful blizzard of last week. Something about the complete quiet and minimal visibility spoke words to my soul that my morning quiet times hadn’t been able to speak in a long time.

But the blizzard is now in the past and once again my heart feels distant, restless, and caged. I need to somehow simultaneously take two steps in two directions, one toward God and one toward people who are not like me. Or maybe only one step is necessary, and I’ll find him in the faces and eyes of those people, contrary to my expectations. That wouldn’t surprise me at all.

 

Gardens in the Desert

Every day of this brand new year, I’ve marveled at the person I’ve become in comparison to the person I was a year ago. The differences are outstanding. Remarkable. Almost unbelievable. 2012 was the hardest year of my life in terms of the challenges and pain it brought me, and the relationships it cost me. But the character it wrought, and the growth it brought are things that have marked me irrevocably. And I am wildly excited about this new year simply because I am such a new person.

I start my first semester of graduate school in twenty-three short days. I admit that I love school and acquiring knowledge, but I’m not counting down the days because I’m a nerd. I’m counting down because in twenty-three days, I’ll be one step closer to making the dream in my heart a reality.

I’m going to be a therapist. If accurately transcribing the smile on my face were an option, I’d do so.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a teacher. Then, I fell in love with the idea of being a musician. Soon after, I was determined to run a successful event planning company. It took me twenty-three years to find the purpose hidden within the fabric of my story: I was born to work with women who’ve suffered trauma and abuse. Nothing breaks my heart more. Nothing makes me want to wield a sword more. I feel powerful and broken, helpless and capable. I am the most beautiful oxymoron.

Maybe it doesn’t come up in every single conversation I have, but I am the most passionate about helping people find their worth because I never knew mine. Only within the last year did I accept at a heart level that I am worth knowing, worth choosing, worth loving. Nothing strips you of your sense of worth like sexual abuse. Nothing makes you feel unheard, unwanted, unknown, unclean, and unloved like having your innocence stolen from you. I would know – mine was stolen at thirteen by a trusted family member. So even though I wasn’t sold into sex slavery, I know the damage just one encounter can have on your soul. I know how hard it becomes to trust anyone ever again, I know the feeling of being constantly on guard, I understand the temptation to appear hard and untouchable, I’m well acquainted with the lie that it was somehow your fault, and that you’ll never be good enough for a good man. I understand the difficulty of the path to healing, and the allure of the old chains when freedom seems unattainable.

But I’m also well acquainted with the unrelenting, infinite Love of a good God who sought me and brought me from darkness into marvelous light. One who taught me to breathe again, to feel again, to trust again, to live again. This journey didn’t happen in isolation; rather, it involved many people who showed me time and time again that I was worth choosing, knowing, and loving until the truth sunk into the depths of my soul and echoed loudly from within. I know how glorious it feels, having walked through the hardest months of your life with a therapist, to hear him say, “Your heart is healthy and beautiful and free.”

So that’s all I want to spend the rest of my life doing – partnering in this redemptive work, watching brokenness be transformed into beauty, and documenting the phenomenal stories I get to be a part of. To have found my purpose so young is a blessing I do not take for granted. To have the opportunity to begin pursuing it full-time without the constraints of a husband and kids or enormous student loans, I can’t even fathom.

I believe that beautiful things can arise from even the hardest earth. I believe that everyone’s story is worth telling. And I believe that no one is beyond repair. I’ll gladly give the rest of my life in the pursuit of creating and telling beautifully redemptive stories.

So while I think new year’s resolutions are laughable, I’m setting a goal for this year: to live an incredible life, because I serve an incredible God who has wrought an incredible work in my heart. 2013, here I come.