Catching My Breath

Happy 2015!

I think this last week has been one of the most chaotic in a long time. I just arrived back in the country from a wonderful two-week trip spent in Ireland and the UK, only to return to my internship as a counselor a matter of hours later. (Score one for my pure stubbornness in wanting to have as much time abroad as possible. Fortunately I was so happy to be reunited with my clients that I didn’t notice the jet lag until that night…) As I sit here writing this post in-between jotting all of my assignment due dates for my final semester of grad school (?!) and typing a draft of my final research proposal for graduation, it is suddenly hitting me just how much has happened this past year.

I am still working on the long post that I briefly mentioned in my last entry. The words aren’t coming to me like I had hoped, but to be continued!

But because it is a new year, I wanted to make just a few brief lists for 2015 goal setting. Definitely encourage anyone else to make their own!

MY WORD FOR THIS YEAR:

Last month I was challenged to pray about a word that God really wanted me to focus on. Before I even finished, the word integrity came to mind, plain as day. Integrity, for me, is needing to…

  • Stop trying to cut so many corners. This is something I am especially bad about in my schoolwork. Sometimes I get so involved and focused on my internship (which I love) and actually serving in the field, that I begin to resent my graded papers and assignments, and just do the bare minimum. I need to remember that I am in school to learn- I want to appreciate what time I still have left and commit more to the entire process.
  • Be more intentional. This is a really broad goal, but specifically, I need to be more intentional about studying the Bible and engaging in conversations about it. Although I don’t want reading the Bible to become a chore, and merely check it off each day, I tend to get lazy and make excuses if I go several days on end without picking it up. I need to be more intentional about setting aside specific time and generally use the “whenever I get around to it” statement less.
  • Be more direct with people. Working as an addictions counselor has definitely toughened me up, but my tendency in day-to-day life is to want to bend over backwards to make other people happy. I need to be upfront and honest more often if I am frustrated with a situation rather than just doing nothing about it whatsoever. Raised voices tend to set me on edge, which is why I need to practice and remember that caring confrontation does not actually have to involve yelling.

Gratitude List

Even though people tend to do this during Thanksgiving, a project I want to pursue is to actively keep a gratitude list. The quickest way to kill contempt is to tell God, or another person, things that you are grateful for. For me, this most often happens when I am driving. (I don’t know if it is because I suddenly have the angry desire to issue driving tickets via hand signals that are supposed to express “What are you DOING?!?!” in the car, and therefore actually think about being grateful more often, but this is usually what happens.) The other day in my head I just started telling God how grateful I was for heat. That gas is a whopping $1.99 all of a sudden. That I have a car. And suddenly my road rage was lessened a bit.

Highlights and Lowlights

This year was a great one. By God’s grace, I published a book (see tab at top of website), joined a church plant team in Ireland for three months (and met an Irish fellow I am quite fond of while I was there…), finished my first year of graduate school, and heard some really amazing teachings and sermons that made my desire to follow Jesus multiply. I am going to be the Maid of Honor in the wedding of one of my best friends, got to see two friends get baptized, celebrated a new birth into one of my favorite families, and traveled solo across Europe for a few weeks.

It was challenging at the same time. It was difficult not having access to income anymore, and I felt guilty spending any just about any money that wasn’t a necessity as it was all coming out of my savings. Although I have some amazing relationships in Charlotte, I also spent a bit of lonely time missing friends in other cities. My sense of time management became stretched thin as I began taking night classes and electives in order to graduate on time and complete my internship. This unfortunately meant that I could no longer attend a weekly Bible Study or a leadership training I was nominated for. This has actually been one of the hardest things to deal with in recent months.

Goals for This Year

  • In some ways, not knowing where I will be living or working in five months, after graduation, has caused me anxiety. In other ways, it has led me to appreciate more of what God wants me to learn and do here in the present day. One goal of mine is to focus more on giving up control to Him whenever I am feeling overwhelmed. Personally, I think the whole “God won’t give you more than you can take” notion is mostly false- I think He gives us a great deal more than we can take sometimes so that at the end, there is no question of who should take the credit for it.
  • I have already talked about the necessity of spending more time reading my Bible, but as soon as I have a spare evening again, I am very much looking forward to joining a small group again for Bible study. I am very much missing the provided accountability and friendship!
  • Continue to invest time and love into the Urban Eagles. Last month, due to my course schedule, I had to stop volunteering in Grier Heights. This was hard for me to accept (I think I was in denial for a bit that a new elective option would be added to a morning), but am so thankful to continue to commit to the Forest Hills neighborhood. These young girls give me some of the most joy all week, and the leaders are all now some of my very best friends!
  • Create boundaries. This is one I will not expand on here, but is certainly a continuous goal, especially for a social worker.
  • Above all, develop more of a passion to know Christ more so that I may be able to know and love others more.

Any prayers for me as I continue writing, studying, learning, and working are much appreciated!

Blessings. xx

The Offense Found in the Defense

Yesterday after church, I was in a small group discussion where we were talking about grace, and what it means to us. There was a statement made by one of the members that I have not been able to get out of my mind:

Christ died for me with absolutely no guarantee that I would return that love.

Today though, an additional part of the sentence was added on in my head:

Christ died for me with absolutely no guarantee that I would return that love so that I would never have to defend myself.

At first this sounds a little weird, even to me, seeing it in writing. It’s sort of like…out of all of the things you would put after that sentence, that’s what you chose?

It’s been on my mind off and on lately largely because of what I wrote about in my last blog post. My overall theme in that one was how draining it was for me to read or witness people arguing back and forth, particularly when it was pretty below the belt, and how with maybe a rare exception (? I didn’t see it at least.) no one’s mind changed. It just seemed to generally tick people off.

I had one of those moments today though where something just kind of clicked. I had thought about it before, but something happened where it just really hit home. I was chaperoning a bunch of middle schoolers on a field trip, and basically half of it, shockingly enough, was them all at each others throats, especially the girls. There was one particular moment where a girl hurled some insults and language at another girl, and she began to get so defensive that her threats and actions were becoming more of a problem than the instigator. Now, I have seen this happen hundreds of times with all ages of people, not just teenagers, but this particular time that I was actually the one helping break it up put a few things in perspective. Most of you can probably relate to this, particularly if you deal with kids. You know about that exasperated feeling that you get that basically boils down to saying to one of them “Stop it. You calm down and let me deal with this. I have authority here. Stop yelling and getting angry, or else you are going to get in just as much trouble.”

Christ died for me, with no guarantee of even my acknowledgement of that, so that I do not have to argue and defend anything to another person. The authority figure has spoken, He has defended me, and His opinion of my worth is the only one that matters. No matter what it is that you may be under attack for, whether it’s as small and insignificant as hair color or as large as your family or faith, there is always going to be someone who not only disapproves but has absolutely no problem with blasting their opinion without any regards for the consequences. But Christ’s love for you means that you don’t have to defend yourself or explain your point of view even a little, tiny bit. It’s so fascinating to me some of the criticism that the most influential people received. Based on different sources, here a just a few…

Billy Graham faced criticism from Christians of all races for holding integrated crusades during the 1950’s and inviting Martin Luther King Jr. to speak there.

In turn he, as is commonly known, was criticized by many African Americans as not being violent enough with the Civil Rights Movement.

Barbara Streisand’s mother told her that she wasn’t pretty or vocally talented enough to become famous.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, was berated and ultimately killed for his statements and work to fight against Nazism, meanwhile refusing to leave Germany so that he could help as many Jews as possible escape to Switzerland.

Mother Teresa’s humanitarian efforts were criticized as being fraudulent and hypocritical, even after she died.

And what is even more unbelievable, sometimes people think that Duke’s basketball team is better than UNC’s, and then make up false criticism about a blindingly beautiful student body.

The greatest of all these however is of course Christ himself. He spent his life being mocked, ridiculed, and criticized by extremely religious people for telling people that they did not have to be good or perfect to get to heaven. In his last day of life he could have easily defended himself in a second even one time by performing a miracle or making a huge speech that put everyone in their place…but he didn’t. He just let everyone heap insults on him. He was criticized as weak, a liar, a fraud, a coward. And yet these were the people who he was suffering for, dying for, and he never stopped loving them.

Many times I look at situations and just can’t help but compare how much he endured to whatever minor thing I am frustrated or perplexed with.

You don’t have to defend your talents or what you feel like God is leading you to do. When you put any person, no matter how natural of a leader they are, on a pedestal, they are going to disappoint you. You make it a lot easier on yourself when you just do what you believe and let God handle the rest. Every second that you drain your energy arguing with someone or defending yourself to them is a second that you could be helping someone who actually wants it or developing a deeper relationship with someone you already know. This is something I am trying hard to remember during a particularly trying time. And just to end with one of my favorite quotes, “You have nothing to prove and only One to please.”

12 Years a Slave and the Bible

Last night I went with a group to go see the movie 12 Years a Slave. I had seen the previews a few months back, and was very excited to see what the whole product was. I had heard it was difficult to watch, and was prepared to see some horrific things on the screen.

But what I felt both during and leaving were much more powerful than I think I was expecting.

This isn’t meant to be a review of the movie at all, even though I think it was wonderfully done- I truly hope it gets the credit and awards it deserves. But there were several themes in the movie, one in particular, that I just can’t get out of my head. I remember when the movie version of Les Miserables came out last December, it was stated on the radio that there was one line of the whole movie that was stuck in everyone’s head (and out of 2.5 hours of singing that is saying something): “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Ironically, this was the quote that I posted right after seeing the movie myself. But anyway, similar to this experience, there was one scene in particular that really, really impacted me.

No spoilers or anything, but for those who don’t know, the film is based on the true story of a free Black male, Solomon Northup, in the mid-1800’s who was tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery down South. As the title says, he was a slave for 12 years. The very first scene after his kidnapping, it shows him chained up and bewildered. He hadn’t done anything wrong, anything illegal, nothing of the sort, and was desperately trying to tell the men who he was. They didn’t believe him, or rather, they didn’t care. There was then a very extended scene where it just shows them mercilessly hitting his back with a paddle over and over and over again. It seems like they are never going to stop, even when the paddles break from the force. Solomon is crouched over on the ground, crying out in agony.

During this scene though I had one really, really strong visual that came to mind. It was basically the same thing happening: this angry, hateful man representing the bad that exists in all of mankind beating a man, but this time that man was God. And instead of being crouched on the floor alone, He was laying over me saying “No, no no. This one’s mine. You can hurt me but you won’t take her. I’m not going to let anything happen to her.”

That’s when my eyes really started welling up. I think before that I was experiencing a lot of emotional pain thinking of how many people really did endure this kind of treatment not all that long ago, and how many still endure it today. But suddenly when I thought about how there are things in all of us, certainly myself included, that place attacks on love, grace, and purity, it sickened me. I had a sense of disgust with all the times when while maybe I haven’t hit another person or screamed obscenities at them, I have held on to anger towards them or acted out of my own pride and well-being. But just as I had these feelings of disgust, I had a sense of overwhelming gratitude that in spite of all my flaws and past mistakes, that I (and everyone) am so loved by the God who created the whole universe that He was willing to undergo public humiliation, unspeakable pain, feel the weight of every single person’s sin on His shoulders, die, and then overcome death. He overcame death so that not one person would have to ever experience it if they call on His name.

It was also difficult to see how the Bible was taken so far out of context during that time in order to justify slavery and treating other people like dirt. The word “property” was thrown around a lot in reference to the men and women who were slaves- aka, “less than animals”. But at the same time it gave me so much joy to see how even though the angry men were practically beating people over the head with the Bible screaming about superiority, punishment and abuse, those in slavery were singing songs of praise and hope from the gospel and what they were hearing preached. They sang of their souls receiving redemption, and the promises of freedom. They were able to listen to words of the Bible and look past the tone and image that man was giving it, and instead see God’s actual purpose. It made me think about how this is often still the case today: how some use the Bible as an excuse to be hateful, vindictive, or lazy. There are others who use it as a book that tells the greatest love story ever told. I pray that the second group remains faithful to that message. I pray that despite my failures I can be a faithful, loyal member of that second group. It can be so easy to look and see the people who claim that God is unhappy with this population, or this phenomenon, or whatever, when they are taking one line out of context of an entire book, message, theme, you name it, that is actually centered around love. When you know that God loves you no matter what, and that you can be guaranteed to go to heaven through no actions of your own, you can’t help but love others. But instead, so often we hate the sinner, instead of the sin.

That’s my prayer for the future, and for every day- that even just one more person today will come to know the love of Christ, and not what people so often make Christianity out to be.

Reflections on Baptisms…

Instead of going into all of the things going on in my life right now however, I want to just free write on a subject that has been a big topic of conversation lately: baptisms.

Many of you readers know that I was baptized this past spring- you can read that entry where I wrote out my testimony here. It was so nerve wracking for me to publish. Openly sharing things that I would often prefer to just forget with people who I had never met made me feel very vulnerable, but in a good way. It was an opportunity for people to see a little bit of how I got to where I am now, and I wanted to take the risk that some people might be critical or skeptical for those who would find it meaningful for making decisions in their own lives. It was someone else’s online testimony that inspired me to write my own, and I wanted to continue the chain reaction. To date that entry has something like seven or eight times the views of my next “most popular” entry, which blew me away!

After I was baptized, which for me was a public declaration of who exactly it was that I belonged to, I was quickly affirmed (as in probably like, 5 minutes later) in something that I have since heard time and time again: baptism doesn’t actually make you do things right, or even better, for that matter.

I think a lot of times people fall into this misimpression, often without even being aware of it, that after you make that decision and go through the act of becoming baptized, suddenly you will become full of the Holy Spirit and be kinder, more loving, get rid of perhaps any addictions or constraints, and just generally be full of freedom. At Bible study recently (I am so happy to have already found one in Charlotte!) we discussed the baptisms that are currently going on at church (see footage here– it was amazing to witness in person how much joy there was!) and what our own (if we had done it) meant to us.

This was something that was so good for me to both hear and talk about without even knowing it. I loved hearing others’ testimonies, sharing in the sense of relief and peace that they felt coming out of the water, and how despite the fact that baptism did not actually change their current struggles or perhaps the number of mistakes they made in a day, that it represented how none of it mattered when their past and future was washed clean.

When the old self is drowned in the water, and instead you have something new come out.

Something that will live forever, long after the world is gone.

This seems to be the point that some cite when they say they do not know yet if they want to take that next step to become baptized. Sort of a “I need to get my life more together before I can take that step. I need to be more progressed in my faith,” and so forth. It makes me wonder about all of the different ways in which people perceive baptism. Whether it’s just something ceremonial, or whether it really is something that can mark the day for you when you made the decision that it was time for a change.

I wasn’t even close to perfect when I got baptized. Let me just say that I am fully aware of that right now. I am sure there are people who will vouch for me. Probably a lot of Duke fans. (just kidding… bad joke.)

But despite the fact that the act didn’t actually make me a better person, or wash away the consequences of maybe mistakes I had made in the past or things that I was still in the middle of working out, it was a moment that I knew nothing could take away from me. And from talking to the other young adults in church who made that same decision, it sounds like we are on the same page there.

Here is my attempt at an example, despite the fact that I have no practical experience as a wife.

The act of getting married doesn’t mean that your love has peaked, everything in your relationship is perfect, and you have 100 percent faith that it is going to hold that same level of perfection for the rest of your lives together. But it is a symbol saying “I choose you”. It is making the statement and declaration in front of the world that they now know who you belong to in that context, and that you will not pick another man or woman over your spouse. Your relationship will, however, continue to change, grow and develop over the course of your entire marriage.

This is the best way I know how to describe baptism: something that is not the end, and in some ways even, not the beginning, as there are many people I know (and I was one of them) who accepted Christ awhile before they were actually baptized. People fall in love before they get married, too. And likewise, exchanging rings doesn’t mean that suddenly you or the other person will become a better partner in that relationship, or even that things will change at all from that point forward.

It is a public announcement of your love and commitment to another person.

Baptism is a public announcement of your love and commitment to God by knowing who you are in Jesus Christ.

Who are you in Jesus Christ?

Loved

Forgiven

Chosen

Someone who has their whole past, and future, wiped clean of mistakes

Fought for

Cherished

Just to totally top off my analogy here, I am pasting the lyrics to a song I love by Tenth Avenue North called “Beloved”, which is written as if it were Jesus saying his wedding vows to us:

Love of my life
Look deep in my eyes
There you will find what you need

Give me your life
The lust and the lies
And the past you’re afraid I might see
You’ve been running away from me

You’re my beloved
lover I’m yours
Death shall not part us
It’s you I died for
For better or worse
Forever we’ll be
My love it unites us and it binds you to me
It’s a mystery

Love of my life
Look deep in my eyes
There you will find what you need

I’m the giver of life
I’ll clothe you in white
My immaculate bride you will be
Come running home to me

You’re my beloved
lover, I’m yours
Death shall not part us
It’s you I died for
For better or worse
Forever we’ll be
My love it unites us and it binds you to me

You’ve been a mistress, my wife
Chasing lovers that won’t satisfy
Won’t you let me make you my bride
You will drink of my lips and you’ll taste new life

You’re my beloved
lover, I’m yours
Death shall not part us
It’s you I died for

For better or worse
Forever we’ll be
My love it unites us
and it binds you to me
It’s a mystery

Defeating the “What If?”

I haven’t gotten the chance yet to talk about my time in France so far, so I will be doing that in a post within the next few days. I actually wanted to talk about a subject first that has been on my mind a lot recently.

Before flying down to Florida, probably the biggest thing that I was still going back and forth with a bit can be summed up by these two words: “What if?”

These are the words that basically define fear. They spin around in your head into dozens of possibilities and situations that imply…

You do not have control.

You are not prepared.

You may not be happy in the future.

And on and on….

Mine were admittedly not exactly what I would classify as debilitating concerns or ones that can take over your life, like “What if the economy collapses?”. I was very excited about what was to come, and just a little nervous. I am going to share with you, though, a few of the what if’s that went through my mind in the months preceding my departure overseas.

What if I get there and find that my teammates and I do not mesh well?

What if my very limited knowledge of the french language renders me completely useless?

What if I get sick, or something happens and I do not know what to do? And on that note, what if my stomach issues start getting out of control again?

What if I am so emotional from being separated from Grace (who I had been the nanny for up until this point) that I am not an effective team leader because I am such a wreck? And then everyone thinks I am a freak because not only can I not express myself in french, but I can’t even keep my emotions in check? I am going to set an even worse rep for Americans than we have already.

Okay, enough of that now. I exaggerated just a tad. But, for the most part, one or more of these thoughts would occasionally pass through my mind as I was going through the process of fundraising, saying goodbye to my friends (who have basically turned into family) in Chapel Hill, and moving to Charlotte. Having lived there for five years, that was another “what if”…a What if I am supposed to stay here after all?

Once again in Florida these thoughts would occasionally occur to me while externally I was busy trying to meet everyone, remember their names, and get as much as I could out of the seminars and discussions.

Side note- I just glanced down at my playlist, and realized the album title of my current song is “Nothing Left to Fear”. It’s getting me pumped.

Anyway, I believe it was the day before we were flying out that I watched a sermon on my computer from Elevation Church called “Running From Your Life”, from the Room 101 series. I highly recommend watching it sometime, as Steven Furtick does a fantastic job of explaining everything. I admit it’s kind of funny that I watched a sermon on my break between what were, essentially, sermons, at orientation.

So basically the funny story goes like this: the messages from Elevation are typically somewhere around 50 minutes long. (They go by shockingly fast.) I was able to get about halfway through this particular one before I knew I had to leave for the next session. I hadn’t been taking notes really, but honestly was thinking of restarting the whole thing all over again later because I was getting so much out of it. At this point my thoughts were something along the lines of “Man! I don’t want to stop listening to this! Oh well, I need to try and focus on this new, upcoming message instead.”

This is where God’s timing gets pretty interesting. You recall how above I said that the what if’s were my primary concern when entering in on this trip, and I had been continuing to think about them? And now that I didn’t really want to have this first sermon interrupted?

Well, essentially, it wasn’t.

I entered into the chapel only to hear a message from a pastor named Mitchel Lee, who, in terms of his age and so forth, is similar to Pastor Furtick. They both have a lot of energy, do not use many notes, are young and expressive, and guide churches in their own walks with Christ.

Well, on this particular morning they both also had pretty much the exact same sermon in common. And later when I told Mitchel this story with a laugh, he was pretty blown away and wanted to hear the Elevation version as well.

They both were based around Daniel 3:16-18, talked about the What Ifs and fears, how God has shown us unconditional reserve, and how the two words to conquer these thoughts are “Even If”.

Daniel 3:16-18:

“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. 18 But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”

This verse right here pretty much sums up the definition of faith, if “what if” defines fear: God has the ability and the desire to save, but even if He doesn’t, because our interpretations of what would rescue us are not always the best ways in God’s eyes, we will worship Him regardless of the benefits it brings us.

Often people go back and forth between objective and subjective praise and faith. We view God in different lights depending on whether good or bad things happen to use. We offer praise in certain circumstances or situations, and do not in others. A wish of ours turns into an expectation, which then with time turns into a demand. And then, to continue the pattern of using two words, this is where the “If Only” comes into play.

“God if only you would give me a husband/wife, then I would have the support I need to _______.”

“God if only you would let me get into this school, then I would be able to do great things for your ministry.”

And so forth. Essentially, our contingency plans, conditions and desires cover up our lack of security, and our need for constant reassurance and love that only God Himself can provide. But we don’t want to take risks. We don’t want to give up the control. I am generalizing here, I realize, but as a group, humans don’t want to just flat out say “God, I am not enough, and I need you. I can’t meet all of my needs based on my own efforts no matter what I try, it seems, and I want to rely on you.”

The question to ask yourself is “Even If”.

Even if I never get promoted, am I willing to stay in this rather mundane job because it allows me to do something for the glory of God?

Even if I never get married, will I still follow God with my whole heart?

Even if I never have children, will I fulfill God’s instructions by pouring out my love and affection to others who desperately need it?

And so forth. Hearing this same message back to back within about a ten minute time frame, it was really emphasized to me how much I needed it. I need to play through my what if’s in order to conquer them.

For example, just to pick one from the spring:

What if our team doesn’t get along, and this causes friction or unpleasantness for the summer?

Well, then I guess we will just try and find each other’s strengths, delegate responsibilities, and try and agree that we are all working towards a common goal. We wouldn’t have to be best friends, but would always try to show each other courtesy and respect. God does not call us to like everyone, but we are called to love everyone. And at the end of it all, it is only for two months, and then we can go our separate ways, hopefully having made accomplishments as a group.

(Not trying to say that my team doesn’t get along right now :). Just using it as an example.)

I realize that this was a very minor fear, and most things are not quite so short-term or simple. The same concept applies no matter what the situation, because fear is simply the absence of putting your trust in God to handle things.

Even if _____ happens, I will worship God.

Even if I go through _______, God is with me, and while I may not be immediately delivered from it, He will get me through it.

This means having the strength to say that no good or bad experiences will make God any less glorious, any less good, or any less loving.

It means having the trust and faith that God will use you exactly how He wants when you open your heart, ask Him to come in, and make the changes He wants to see in the world happen through you!

Grateful.

This is going to be a very short post, but I just wanted to take this opportunity to say how grateful I am for the response I got on my last post on my testimony. It had about five or six times the number of views that I anticipated, and the support that I received was very overwhelming. Thank you so much! I am very grateful for your encouragement.

Currently I cannot give too many details on the situation I am in, as I am in training to go overseas. We are about to learn in the next few days about online security, and what kind of information we can give about the program and our location for safety reasons. What I can say however is that I have learned so much more already in the last 72 hours than honestly even I had anticipated. It’s been really challenging, but in a good way. I am having to pump myself up with caffeine to keep up with the pace, as even sleep is not doing the trick for keeping up with the 7 am – 10 pm schedule : ) But once again, I am very grateful for this experience. It could end tomorrow without the weeks spent overseas, and I would feel like God had already made this experience incredibly valuable.

I am not sure how often I will be able to update my blog. My hope is often, but I will not find out exactly what my duties/activities will be until arriving in my host country. Any prayers you could offer my team, whether in the moment or over the course of the summer, would be greatly appreciated. If you could also pray for me as the leader of that team, as I am learning how to do that piece as well!

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. – John 15:5