Growth

Sometimes it’s cool to look back and see the path of how we’ve grown.

As I approach a lot of big transitions (among them the graduation of every student I’ve ever taught, the completion of several large work projects, and a job change), I found myself appreciating how my artwork captures my emotional growth over time.

2016

Today was a stressful day.

Between balancing two separate work clients, recently deciding to quit both of them to pursue more standard employment, trying to prepare for the transition and wrap up a couple major projects, begin my job hunt, AND, ya know, do the rest of life, all of a sudden it sort of came to a head today as I began to feel the feelings of overwhelm creeping into my body.

So I did what I know is good for my soul — I got out the ink and made some art.

stress no.2 - 2016

Any of you who have seen my art or follow my art blog know that my artwork is very emotional and impressionistic. And, knowing the state of my life right now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this particular image came from.

But it also tickled my memory, because I created a somewhat similar piece of art a few years ago.

2012

Four years ago, in the spring of 2012, I was struggling. I was 7 months into a teaching job that was *supposed* to be exactly what I had wanted in a teaching job — middle schoolers, racial and economic diversity, subject-based teams, even a decent starting salary. And I was sinking.

I hadn’t quite figured out why, but I knew that something was wrong, and I could feel myself drowning as I tried to keep my head above water in the classroom. But the overwhelm kept creeping in.

One day, in sheer desperation, my non-verbal brain took over and somehow remembered where I had buried an old sketchpad and a set of oil pastels, and I drew this:

stress no.1 - 2012

I literally hadn’t done any artwork since high school, really, but somehow my body just made this happen, in the middle of my crazy, crazy stress.

Growth

It’s interesting now to look back and compare the two pieces of art, the two snapshots of myself. There are some elements that are basically the same — the nondescript person, the blue spheres, the chaotic shapes outside — but even just looking at the art you can tell some things are different. In fact, the pictures can tell you nearly as much as I could by remembering.

stress 1 and 2

The person on the left is tiny, infantile, literally in the fetal position, as if seeking protection. She seems to be cocooned in a bubble, but the bubble is tiny and almost recedes into a pinpoint compared to the large, aggressive, jagged shapes that seem to fill the landscape. Inside the bubble is calm blue, but everywhere around are vibrant, loud colors and shapes that threaten to pop the bubble and cause the person to curl up tighter.

The person on the right is standing strong, holding a line. Some sort of energy emanates from her center, seeming to protect her, or at least help to hold the boundary. Outside the circle of calm, chaotic shapes and shadows swirl, but the warmth and the focus of this painting is on the person, standing firm, arms outstretched, exuding calm blue and hopeful yellow light. Although it seems that the bubble’s edge is broken in places, the person seems to still be in it, and a burst of dark and light around her right hand seems to indicate active resistance.

See? That’s just me psychoanalyzing my own artwork. (Lol.)

But since it’s my life, I can tell you the actual story.

Four years ago, I got broken by teaching. Totally wrecked. I felt like I had failed. Not only was I miserable at that job, but I had to live with the fact that I had studied for over four years and dragged my new husband to a faraway state — for nothing. I don’t know if I was actually diagnosably depressed, but it was a pretty low time in my life. I didn’t have a lot of emotional resources. I felt pretty helpless and hopeless, and you can see that in my drawing.

Today, I’ve got a few old scars but those are proof that I’ve come out the other side. Now that I know what it’s like to be stuck in a job that’s a terrible fit, I’m not miserable and I don’t feel stuck, because even the jobs I’m leaving are a much better match for my personality and skill set. Moreover, I know I have a sense of agency to change things if they aren’t good for me. And the transition I’m about to embark on will help me to grow even more, both professionally and personally, as I move on to the next thing I want to learn. Yes, I’m feeling stressed today, but I’m aware of my stress, I know why I’m stressed, and I can deal with it standing up instead of crumpling into a ball. (Most days!) Sometimes it breaks through and gets to me, but with a lot of hard work I now have deeper emotional resources to be able to fight back and keep moving through the overwhelm. (And sometimes, I know when I need to take a break!)

Anyway, I don’t really have like a moral to this story — I just am thankful for what I’ve learned and for such a vivid opportunity to reflect on one piece of growth in my life. And I thought I’d share with you all, because sometimes it feels like the internet sort of skims over the tough stuff in life. But the thing is, sometimes the tough stuff is the stuff you’re most proud of.

Fight on, fellow warriors. Fight on.

stress no.2 - 2016

A Note about Fixing Holes and Not Being Okay

It’s been really cool to see the responses to my testimony and tattoo. There are lots of us recovering elder-brother-types out there, I guess. =)

There was one series of comments that particularly struck me:

Facebook shame books comments

I thought this was particularly ironic — as did my co-conversationalist — because in talking about shame and shininess and how I (we) struggle with striving to measure up to legalistic standards of perfection we can’t attain, our go-to solution — and one I endorsed, too, I don’t at all mean to dump this on the other person — was to read two books that One Should Read To Better Oneself. Because what “worked” for me is totally a “rule” that will “work” for everyone else. And because this whole thing is totally “fixable” — right?

The problem with us elder-brother-ish rule-followers is that we think we can just find a 3-step process and make everything better. (Or at least make everything LOOK better.) But figuring out all of this shame and older brother stuff is not about fixing yourself. The fact is, we are broken and we can’t fix ourselves. It just isn’t possible. We cannot attain perfection. Our shiny whitewash can only hide the holes, not repair them.

What this process of dealing with legalism is really about is the continuing, ongoing, neverending struggle to realize and admit and embrace our brokenness. It’s not our job to fill in the hole. It’s our job to stop covering the hole that we can never fill. 

This is a hard thing to do when your life has been about presenting the appearance of a completely intact wall. We can even begin to be legalistic about not doing a good enough job of uncovering the whole. We just switch our legalism and shininess to the new goal of shinily uncovering our faults. And then we beat ourselves up for not being vulnerable enough or not being fixed enough or not healing fast enough.

Let me be clear: We will never “achieve” vulnerability. We will never “achieve” freedom from shame. We will never “achieve” honesty, or healing, or peace. (Short of some sort of Jesus-miracle, anyway.) These are not check-boxes; they are STRUGGLES. They are BATTLES, some days. And some days, they are mountains to be climbed, but off in the distance — later — not today.

It’s good to stop covering up the holes — that’s an important shift to make — but it’s also good to just rest sometimes. It’s good to stop striving for a new standard of “perfect brokenness”.

Or, as a really great blog post put it, “IT’S OKAY TO NOT BE OKAY.”

Or, as Daniel and I tell each other when we’re struggling to be “productive” self-employed workers, “I love you even when you derp.” (aka don’t get anything productive done all day) “I would love you even if all you ever did was derp.”

The shift I keep trying to practice in my brain is that nothing I do can change my value. Just like nothing I can do can change how long it takes sunlight to reach the earth. God made it that way and it’s stuck. If I went out and murdered a bunch of people (NOT GOING TO HAPPEN, by the way), God would still love and value me the same. If I went out and cured all the world’s suffering (also not going to happen, but less terrifying), God would still love and value me the same.

So when I feel like I should be better at this vulnerability thing, or when I feel like I should have figured out how to balance marriage time and work time by now, or even when I slip back into old habits that I feel are so “elementary” I shouldn’t have to deal with them anymore, here’s what I do: (And feel free to say it with me, if you think this one blog post means I have my poop in a group!)

  1. Stop that. All lies.
  2. Have grace for yourself — don’t feel bad.
  3. Now that you feel bad for feeling bad, give yourself grace for that too.
  4. Say it with me: “It’s okay to not be okay. God loves me even when I derp.”

Little House / Wounded Knee: A Pine Ridge Post Script

Hello, dear readers.

Yes, it’s been over a week since I got back from my trip to visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. And no, you haven’t missed anything — I haven’t written about it yet. In all honesty, I haven’t really been sure what to write.

There is so much input in my brain — so much that happened that affected me so deeply — that I’m not really sure how to process or express it yet. But here are a couple things I can tell you:

1. Seeing Mount Rushmore again was really weird.

Mount Rushmore - before & afterI’ve been to South Dakota / Mount Rushmore twice before. I figured going there again would be pretty run-of-the-mill — you know, been there, done that. But actually I was surprised at my reaction. After spending the previous day just looking at the natural landscape of the Badlands and the prairie on the Rez, when we finally got to where we could see the sculpture portion of Mount Rushmore it felt really unnatural. I mean, I had already been admiring all the natural rock formations and the faces and figures I already saw carved by the wind and the rain — the hands of God, if you will. To then see the strangely too-white, polished, tiny (compared to the rest of the mountain) faces of four little American presidents slapped up there… jarring.

Moreover, it felt… futile. And petty. Like kids playing “King of the Mountain” on the playground. I found a plaque on a display of a giant motor that had been used to help fuel the blasting of the mountain rock. It said, “…this is a testimony to the power it took to carve a mountain.” When I read it, it came out in this pompous windbag voice in my head… It just felt so… conqueror-esque and dominating. Like “Look at me, I carved this mountain! Take that!” Just so childish and immature and pointless, like peeing your name in the snow.

I’ve thought of our American culture as a lot of different things before, but I’d never before seen so clearly such childish self-glorification. It reminded me of the poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away. (Percy Shelley, emphasis added)

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.” (Ecclesiastes 1)

2. The Rez was both more awful and more wonderful than I expected.

Until this trip, I had never been to an Indian Reservation. I wasn’t sure WHAT to expect, really — but I had read and heard a lot about poverty and suicide and hopelessness. So I guess a part of me expected it to be awful — ugly and dirty and full of dirty, sad people. We did see some of that. We drove briefly through the “town” of White Clay, Nebraska — hardly far enough over the border to notice a difference — where there are no houses, one gas station, and four liquor stores. It was early in the month, when people had gotten their checks, and although we only spent about 2 minutes driving down the street we probably saw 20 adults — all Native — sprawled everywhere, ostensibly drunk. The legacy of “manifest destiny.” It was… a soulless place.

hope on the reservationBut at the same time — the Rez was beautiful. The land was some of the most beautiful land I’ve ever seen. And some of the people we met are some of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever seen. I’ve never felt so welcomed by total strangers, especially when I entered with such apprehension and such an expectation of UNwelcomeness, because of what I know about the history of how people who look like me have treated people who look like them in this country. In a film we watched during our stop at Pipestone, MN, the narrator commented that despite all the death and oppression that has been unleashed on Native peoples here, “the people survive.” I was struck over and over again at the incredible strength of a people whose spiritual and cultural center is their connection to sacred God and sacred earth.

I began this trip expecting to feel grief and pity. Instead, I felt admiration, humility, and gratitude.

3. I don’t have many tangible takeaways right now… but I felt lots of feelings!

As our group shared some of our experiences with others from my church, I just kept feeling myself butting up against a fog in my head. So I said, “Well, when we started out talking about this trip we said it was a little nebulous and hard to describe exactly what our purpose was. And now that I went on the trip, I find it’s a little nebulous and hard to describe what happened.”

The trip was unquestionably powerful. We laughed, sang, drove (a lot), conversed, ate good food, worked together, shared stories, met people, cried, sweated, and took in both the hopeless and the hopeful on the Rez.

But as for how it changed me…. I’m still trying to figure that out.

I can tell you about some of the places we went — Pipestone, MN, a sacred site where many Plains tribes came and still come in peace to quarry stone for their sacred pipes; the Badlands, a beautiful and arid chasm of strange mountains in the middle of a treeless prairie; the Black Hills, a lush and rolling place where there are faces and images in the beautiful rocks (and also some white guys carved in a stolen mountain); Red Cloud Indian School, which began as a white-washing boarding school and is now a prestigious prep school where Natives can get a great education; Wounded Knee Creek, the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where the surviving soldiers from Little Bighorn mowed down women and children who were fleeing US artillery fire.

I can tell you about some of the people we met, or the people I traveled with and came to know — a gentle, grandfatherly man who became a mentor to the whole group; a strong, practical woman who learned deeply about what womanhood means; a thinker whose faith journey reminds me strongly of my own; someone (all of us, really) who wants so badly just to be a good human being; a collective of folks who are experimenting with ways to help the earth and help their people.

I can tell you about clouds for miles, or seeing a herd of buffalo on a not-so-distant hill, or feeling incredibly safe as we prayed together in an unforeign-foreign language in total darkness. Or receiving deep hospitality like we’ve never seen before. Or crying when I didn’t expect it.

A lot of stuff happened on our trip. But… I can’t really explain it. It’s just inside of me.

I feel disoriented… “unsettled”, as Pastor Jin says, maybe even a little like an “un-settler.” And maybe that’s a step in the right direction.

….

[Edit: P.S. If you want to embark with me on my next reading project about colonizing the land, you can check out the first post here.]

In which I brag on my high school girls…

Today when I met with the group of 10th grade girls I mentor we talked about our goals and plans for the year. As a part of planning some of our discussions, I had each of them brainstorm quietly on a piece of paper a few topics they’d like us to address. When I brought them home and started to read them, I was BLOWN AWAY by not only the depth of their thoughts but the breadth! I love to brag on these wonderful ladies, so I thought I’d share my compiled outline of their thoughts. I’ve reworded and done a tad of fleshing out (like on “sin”) to make it be a proper outline, but all the ideas are theirs — there is not a topic here that doesn’t come from what they wrote down!

Suggested Discussion Topics for 2013-2014

1. Who Is God?

  • Character & attributes

2. How do we experience God?

  • Do you have a personal relationship with God?
  • Do you ever think God’s not listening or you don’t see him in your daily life?
  • Talking to God (Prayer)
    • What is prayer?
    • Why should we pray?
    • How should / do we pray?
    • What experiences do we have with prayer? (Is God answering your prayers?)

3. Why does God matter to us?

  • Sin.
    • What is sin?
    • What does God think about sin? / How does sin affect our relationship with God?
  • Salvation.
    • How does God “fix” sin?
    • Repentance, Forgiveness, & Reconciliation.
      • What does it mean to “repent”?
      • What is forgiveness?
  • Predestination vs. Free Will

4. What does it mean to be a Christian? / How do we respond to God?

  • What is a Christian?
  • Church history / denominational family tree
  • What does the Bible say Christians should do / be like?

Love God

  • What is worship?
  • How can we love God (more) ?
  • How do I be more Christ-like / How do I live out my faith?

Love Others

  • What does it mean to love my neighbor? / Who is my neighbor?
  • Loving my enemies
  • The body of Christ: Community, Encouragement, etc.

General

  • What is the Bible? How should / do I read it?
  • How to be an example / mentor
  • Dealing with tough stuff (e.g. death, depression, loneliness, etc.)
  • The female body: body image, modesty, etc.
  • School: Managing time wisely
  • How to be a light at a Christian school (dealing with disagreement / hypocrisy)
  • Revenge
  • Witnessing: Being a light / telling others about Christ
  • What does the Bible say about how to be a righteous woman?
  • Being a Christian even in the midst of “coolness” / Dealing with peer pressure
  • Healthy relationships
    • Family
    • Romantic
    • Friends
    • Dealing with conflict
    • Gossip / accountability

Ok, folks — there is PREDESTINATION on there! I am so impressed. (Not to mention my other mentee / friend, who just started her own blog with the question “What is sin?” I mean really — how do I get to be friends with all these fantabulous humans???)

The Light shines in the darkness…

Ugh. I feel so gross.

This morning there was yet another school shooting.

At an elementary school.

Mostly in a kindergarten classroom.

Apparently perpetrated by a 24-year old dude who had a thing against his mom, since he shot her and many of her 6-year-old students.

UGH.

This is SICKENING. How could anyone ever ever EVER get to a point where they think it’s a good idea to massacre kindergarteners???

Gross. Gross. Gross.

My soul feels all dirty and I just long so much for heaven, where children will run and never tire, laugh and never cry, and definitely not get shot just for showing up to school on the wrong day.

When tragedies like this happen, I always start to see the world as one big  juxtaposition. And at the time the horrific events occur, it always seems in my mind that the bad outweighs the good, and I say “quickly come, Lord Jesus!” with more longing than usual.

However, having gone through this several times now recently, I know that eventually the emotional overload will pass and this day will become just another horrible part of our nation’s history, and I will remember how people can be good again. And today, I was reminded of the goodness of people in advance.

This morning I met with my group of eight 9th graders. We meet every Friday as a part of their Christian high school’s discipleship program to spend time together, chat, laugh, pray and figure life out together. Today was the last meeting we have before Christmas Break, so some of the girls brought in treats and I had planned for us to have a little “Christmas story time” by watching Charlie Brown Christmas. So we sat down, grabbed some munchies, opened in prayer, and began our usual round-robin of updates.

This week, instead of our usual highs and lows, the girls wanted to share what they were doing for Christmas and in what I’m sure was a moment of Spirit-inspiration I added the question “What’s something that’s been on your heart lately?” I began by sharing my Christmas plans and then explaining how lately my heart has been worrying about future plans — what is my purpose in life? what am I put here to do? — but that God has been helping me learn to have peace even in the not-knowing. The girls nodded, and as we continued around the circle I found that there was quite a lot on our hearts recently. A best friend’s mother with an unknown illness. A grandmother with severe Alzheimer’s. A girl who had made some changes in her life and regained trust with her parents.

As we arrived at the last girl, she began with a deep breath and it became clear that something was weighing on her heavily indeed. “Well… things have been really tight financially in my family this year… my dad lost his job and we’re running out of money and my parents are really worried… they say we might only have one or two presents this year… and it’s hard because I don’t know if I should quit my sport… I just want to help, and I know it costs a lot…”

And then something amazing happened.

As Jessica (not her real name) poured out her worries, the others began to share their stories too. Stories of times when their parents were struggling financially, and when they didn’t know what to do.

Sensing a bit of the overwhelm, I said, “After all that I feel like I want to pray. Anybody else feel like they want to pray?” Silence. “Well let’s pray for a little bit and I’ll just leave some time and then I’ll close when we’re done.” I opened briefly and then just sat and listened.

“Lord, please be with Jessica and her family and help them to find more money so they don’t have to worry as much…”

“God, please help Jessica and her family through this hard time because we know that you don’t do this on purpose to be hard on them, but to teach them…”

“Father, give Jessica strength and comfort that you are there with her, and that you love her and her parents love her and that this isn’t her fault…”

By the end, Jessica was sniffling and my heart was bursting with love and appreciation for these wonderful, caring, supportive, strong, thoughtful humans. We didn’t even get to watch all of Charlie Brown — the bell rang literally 30 seconds before the Christmas story recitation scene (and the whole point of the movie)… but as I listened to Linus proclaim the story from Luke 2, I realized that we had seen the light of the Christ child anyway.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

 

Scenes from Exodus Four: Part Two

In Exodus chapter four, God is preparing Moses for the eventual outcome of Pharaoh’s hard-hearted resistance to God’s commands: the death of the firstborn. I’ve always struggled with that particular plague, since it seems like an awful lot of death on account of one man’s stubbornness, but this time around I noticed a passage that changed my understanding:

“Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'” (4:22-23, emphasis added)

Somehow I never noticed this line before, but it illuminates the Exodus story in a whole new way for me.

Israel is God’s chosen people, his heir, his family, his children. And Egypt (represented in and personified by Pharaoh) has been killing God’s heirs, working them to the bone during 400 years of slavery and sometimes even targeting them outright. In fact, the mass murder of Hebrew sons is what set the scene for Moses’ whole life story, and those “deaths of the firstborn” draw a clear parallel with this plague. Because Egypt has been killing God’s “sons”, in return, Pharaoh and all Egypt will lose their sons.

It’s still a lot of death — the “eye for an eye” mentality prevalent in the Old Testament is much heavier on justice than my little grace-saturated brain likes — but when I stop and think of how many Israelite men and boys (and women and girls) were killed over the space of four hundred years, and the intense suffering the Israelites endured, and the sorrow and despair into which I imagine the Israelites sank, it makes a little more sense that the Egyptians would be made to have some empathy and understanding for what they put God’s people through.

What parts of the Bible do you struggle with?

In Which Job Gets a Little Cranky…

Today I read Job 6-9, and I am mainly struck by the stuff Job gets away with saying to/about God! Yesterday (Job 1-5) he cursed the day of his birth, but he stayed pretty respectful to God. Today, however, Job

  • wishes he could take God on in court to argue his own innocence.
  • implies that God torments people for “no reason” (9:17).
  • says that “when a land falls into the hands of the wicked, [God] blindfolds its judges” (9:24).
  • asks God why he won’t leave Job alone “long enough for me to swallow my saliva” (7:19, literally).

Wow! That’s some pretty harsh stuff! If Daniel said anything like that to me in an argument, I would be pissed! Job is cranky, and he offers up some pretty stiff questioning to God — but he never curses God, just complains and wonders about God’s motives. And all this is apparently okay because he’s still righteous in God’s eyes at the end of the story, and he’s described as having great “perseverance” elsewhere in the Bible.

SO the moral of the story for today seems to be that it’s okay to get mad at God, to complain, to question, to speculate about God’s motives… as long as you don’t curse/reject God. And that sounds pretty easy to me right now. I’m like, “Sweet, I can do all those things? And I just have to avoid that one thing? Awesome!” …BUT (a) I’m not really in tough circumstances right now, and I bet it’s a lot harder then, and (b) as evidenced by Genesis 3, we humans don’t really have a great track record of obeying the one thing we’re forbidden.

All the same, I find it comforting to know that we can really let God have it — all our cranky non-understanding — and that’s totally okay.