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

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Announcements (Life Lately)

So…a lot has happened in the last month or two!

Update 1:

I began support raising for my trip overseas this summer, and can’t believe I leave in three weeks! I am flying solo to a small town in Ireland for three months where I will be joining a host team that has planted a church. Many hats will be worn by myself during my time there: helping out with the worship music, engaging in discipleship, leading Bible studies and youth activities, and just generally being the happy American who talks to everyone. I’m almost 100 percent fully funded (just about $200 to go!) and have been extremely blessed during this process. If you are interested in giving or receiving my newsletter, feel free to shoot me a message! I am not sure if I will do blog or email updates yet, but would love to hear from you.

Update 2:

I am finishing up my first year of graduate school, and have my last day of class tomorrow. Next week is my last few days working over at Byers before finals kick in. Next year, I am really excited to begin interning part-time at Dove’s Nest. I will be doing individual and group treatment for women in recovery from substance abuse. This was a placement that I really, really wanted. Definitely looking forward to learning from these women and having the opportunity to serve them the best that I can.

Update 3:

I have admittedly been a bit reluctant to talk about this subject up until this point publicly, just because I am still unsure of exactly what to say about it! Probably just being silly. But, here goes the announcement that isn’t exactly a secret anymore:

I wrote a book! It’s called The Good News Diaries (conveniently the same name as my blog), now available in print and for the Kindle on Amazon.com.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Good-News-Diaries-Encouraging/dp/1495399834/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1398282847&sr=8-1&keywords=the+good+news+diaries

I began writing this in college, and picked it up every now and then for the next few years. About a year ago though, I basically changed everything I already had compiled, and powered through it at the end of 2013. When the book was first released last month, I was mostly excited and grateful, but also felt a little…odd, to say the least! It was literally like I was putting something out in writing for the world to see that made me feel extremely exposed and vulnerable. Even though I have similar conversations to the text and this blog, this felt a lot more official. It was as if the most important thoughts and beliefs in my mind and heart were suddenly made extremely public for critique and evaluation. But, it was definitely something I had been thinking and praying about for a long time, and am thankful that it finally happened! The day it was released, all I could think was “I don’t actually care if five or 500 people read this. Whatever happens will be sufficient!”

 

So, those are three pretty big things going on right now…so excited to see what all is ahead!

Crazy Love

A couple of months ago I started this YouVersion app that would have me read the entire New Testament in 30 days.

(Did you catch that? A couple of months ago? Yeah. I fell a little behind.)

Anyway, in conversations in the past, occasionally people have posed the question “What is your favorite book of the Bible?”

I always felt, for some reason, like this was a trick question. Even though my suspicions were completely unwarranted, it felt like if I said anything other than one of the four gospels, that it would be looked down upon in some way. Suddenly a team of “real Christians” would come and give me this “…Really?…Ok.” kind of look. You think my thoughts are extreme? Try being in them 24/7.

But again, I digress. Even though of course it is difficult to pick a favorite, I am at the point in the Bible plan where I am now reading mine, if I had to pick one: 1 John. I have thought a lot about getting a tattoo for the last year or two (learn something new every day) and every time I think about it, I literally wish I could have this entire book written so that I would have to read it every day. I try and pick a favorite verse and it just can’t happen. But today as I was reading through it, one in particular jumped out at me that summarized so well what I have been thinking about lately:

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I named this blog post Crazy Love after a book by Francis Chan. In it he seeks to strongly convict us of about both how much we are loved, and what that means for our life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how Christianity is socially constructed in this culture to mean the same thing as “rules”. You can’t do this, this or this. And God forbid you mess up because the God who is watching you from afar is just waiting to beat you down with religious rhetoric while angels playing harps float around in the background.

When you try to look through this lens from the outside and you see rules and commands first, and God’s love second, then His love is cheapened. It doesn’t ring true, and quite frankly it doesn’t make sense. It feels like if you have to do all these things in order to qualify yourself in God’s eyes, then it definitely isn’t unconditional. I remember spending my teenage years in half-pursuit, half-panic over “What if I mess up? Are these thoughts okay? How much is too much of something? Where do I draw the line? What about this? Have I done something wrong to displease God? Is that why I am feeling this way?” and so forth. I was seeing God and Jesus through the lens of: going to church, singing songs, not messing up too bad, and celebrating certain holidays is what makes you a Christian. It wasn’t until late college that I really began to have more of an understanding of religion versus the Gospel.

I would make the argument based on the entire New Testament, but I will specifically reference the book of 1 John here, which is completely focused on love: People in general do not have an understanding of just how loved they are. This applies to me and everyone else, for that matter. When you are able to understand even just a fraction of how loved you are, suddenly the rules do not seem burdensome. You know that no matter how badly you mess up, you still win, not because of anything you have done in your past or that you have to do in the future, but because of what has already been done for you.

There was a quote that I heard once in a movie that has always stuck with me, over ten years later. Drew Barrymore plays a character who has a son when she is a teenager. One afternoon her and her best friend, who also had a child at the same time, are talking. Drew’s character says, in reference to her son, something to the effect of: “Sometimes I don’t know if I really love him, or if I just have to love him. You know what I mean?…..What’s wrong with me?” and the friend says “Trust me, you love him. Sometimes we love people so much that we have to be numb to it. Because in reality if we felt it all, it would kill us.”

I truly believe that if we actually felt how much God loves us, that it would kill us. Or at least, because that sounds kind of unintentionally sadistic, we wouldn’t be able to function.

I heard this sermon illustration recently, and I really liked it. It isn’t perfect of course, but work with me here, I am doing the best I can to remember it.

You are an Olympic ice skater about to compete. Any one, tiny, little mistake can cause your entire score, and years of training and sacrifice, to just go down the drain in one split second. With sports like basketball or soccer, you have the potential to come back as a team in order to beat the other team’s score in the end. Ice skating, though, is different. Everything rides on your performance and appearance. But before you get on the ice, the judges make an announcement: “We are still going to let you skate, but based off of the performance of this other guy who went before you, you are receiving a perfect score. You can also perform perfectly, or you can spend the majority of the song falling on the ice in your sparkly costume. But either way, you win. Straight 10’s.”

Now how are you going to go about skating? (Aka living your life?) Knowing that because of someone who came before you, you cannot lose. Regardless of the number of times you mess up, the pressure, guilt, condemnation and fear of judgment is completely gone.

It is all about a relationship now, rather than a performance.

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.”

Preaching to Myself Here: My Relationship with Social Media

So I have been back from my “social media hiatus” for about a week now, and it’s been…interesting.

For those of you who didn’t know, the day after my birthday back in December I decided to give up Facebook for a month to see how it went. I still used Instagram, so I think it still posted some pictures, but I wanted to see what it was like to not have in my life.

You know it’s really funny…I am one of those people that has had a love/hate relationship with technology and social networking. I love keeping in touch with friends who don’t live nearby, seeing pictures, hearing about an exciting announcement….but for whatever reason, and usually I just prepare myself for this around election time (har har), there seemed to be a LOT of opinions going around that were distracting me from the things that matter the most.

Around that time there were some big news stories that came out. Between Duck Dynasty and states passing marriage equality laws and the always fun “Is the true Christmas disappearing?” debate, everyone seemed to have really strong opinions. And there were days that it seemed like people woke up, sat behind their computer or smartphone, and really didn’t care who they hurt or how insensitive they sounded as long as they got their status or comment out to the world. Facebook became their own therapy session. I think a lot of the time we don’t realize how harsh something sounds in writing until we go back and read it. Suddenly, logging in to check my messages became something I was dreading, because I knew I was going to see people just attacking each other back and forth via comment boxes and like buttons.

But that was also the time that I began questioning just why it was getting under my skin so much. I would like to think that I am a nice person where maybe it was just that I didn’t like seeing people condemning each other, but I think there was also a deeper issue going on.

This is where my title comes in: I am preaching to myself here. I think sometimes the things that get me the most fired up, whether it is passionate or frustrated, are the things that I am the most angry or irritated at myself for.

Facebook and the media gave me the opportunity to see point blank, in writing, some of the most hurtful words imaginable. There were some people who I was sort of afraid to talk to afterwards. But I started thinking about all of the random thoughts that pass through my mind throughout the day that can be just as harsh.

I don’t like this ugly side of my heart. I like to pretend it doesn’t exist. I love meeting new people, learning more about them, hugging them (hopefully I don’t scare you away?) and just talking. When I get to have a really good one-on-one or small group conversation, it takes me out of my own head. Those are the moments I value the most in retrospect. I think that is part of the reason I am a social worker: I love focusing on other people and problem solving, trying my best to offer the love of Jesus along the way, and then just getting to learn from them and talk about what I too struggle with.

But in reality, just because I don’t always necessarily blast out my negative thoughts, particularly in writing, doesn’t mean that I don’t have them.

I still sometimes look at people and make snap judgments based on the way they are dressed, their accent, how their hygiene is, and so forth. If someone is screaming at another person in public, I automatically make assumptions about the state their life is in. And so on, and so forth.

(Before I keep going, if one person reading this could just shoot me a message and be like “I struggle with this too!” I’d really appreciate it! Starting to get a little deep now.)

There are thoughts that I have that would be extremely hurtful to both myself and other people if I stated them all the time. I don’t think I really deserve a gold medal for just being able to keep my mouth shut. I get into less hot water that way, but also don’t believe it is realistic to ever say “My goal is that one day I will never think a critical thought about another person ever again.” Not only is that unrealistic, but it isn’t very productive either.

What I was thinking about today though was how God never ever condemns us. That is not from God. Sometimes He convicts us – if we are doing something that is harmful to ourselves or others, He may say “This has to end. There are some things that you need to be made aware of and change.” And sometimes we are convicted with a huge slap in the face, while other times it is a subtle comment that is actually a massive wake-up call. At that point we have to apologize, try to make amends, and change our direction. Sure, depending on the circumstances the consequences might follow us around. If you have spent five years abusing alcohol for example, then are able to make the decision to become sober, receive help, and stay clean for two months, there are still people who might doubt how long it will last. There are still people who will condemn you for your past. Heck, you could live a completely perfect life and there are people who will condemn you.

But God never, ever does. Any condemnation, accusation, or temptation comes from somewhere else.

I think that is part of the reason I love Sundays so much. I feel so, so blessed to be surrounded by people that the world sees as statistics. The teenage moms, the former drug addicts, the people battling cancer, the children of single parent households. The world knows them only by these titles. There are ways that I can identify with many of these people that bring us a joint sense of comfort that God loves us no matter what. But we are so much more than these classifications, stereotypes, demographics.

Now this is stuck in my head:

“You are more than the choices that you’ve made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You’ve been remade.”

-Tenth Avenue North

These people inspire me so, so much. Sometimes I can’t get over the fact that some of them are in the same room as me to worship after the way that some churches have treated them in the past. I love them tremendously as brothers and sisters.

But even with that love, when I am not held accountable within my own heart and by my friends, my thoughts and emotions can be ugly.

This is why I decided to take a one month break away from Facebook. I really wanted to step away from some of the accusations flying around over “Well you aren’t a true Christian if you don’t do this” or “You are just a Jesus freak, how can you believe in this, you are crazy” or “How can you vote this way and yet still do this?” and so on. It’s exhausting, and I decided that in order to become stronger and focus more on God, that I needed to break away and pray about the change that He wants to make inside of me instead of in the whole world all at once.

“Where you are today is no accident. God us using the situation you are in right now to shape you and prepare you for the place He wants to bring you into tomorrow. Trust Him with His plan even if you don’t understand it.” – Christine Caine

I still learn every day; I learn how to be more gracious and forgiving, and I learn more about the unconditional love that has been promised to me by grace alone. I will rejoice in the knowledge that there is nothing that can condemn me, and continue to fight against my own tendencies that do not act to glorify the one who chose me before I was born.

But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles. – Galatians 1:15-16

A Vision for 2014

About a week or so ago, I was in a team prayer meeting at my church. The girl who leads it was talking about how while many people make resolutions, she listed out very intentional, specific things to pray for and then a detailed reasoning as to why she wanted to see God work in that way. Even if it was something that seemed obvious, like for someone’s health to improve, it was a way to really examine and think about the meaning behind what she was praying for and expecting to see happen this year. 

This is my version of that. Last year, I intended to write a full goal post following the Making Things Happen format – I didn’t really do as well with that as I had hoped. I think in the past I made goals based on things that I wanted to do purely because I wanted to see it happen. For example, if I wanted to lose five pounds it was perhaps because of an insecurity, not from a desire to be more physically strong and healthy. There were things that I wanted to do that were more for the sake of being able to say that I had experienced them, or really, let’s be honest, I wanted to post them on social media as points of pride and excitement. 

I decided that for this year, I was going to follow Lara Casey‘s goal settling process much better and effectively than I did last year. Last January, a lot was still going in my head where I didn’t really know what I wanted for the year. Around March or so I think was when I really (in my head) made more of my intentional plans and progress. But that’s okay, better late than never! 

So without further ado….

Step 1: What worked in 2013?

2013 was an amazing year, possibly even the best one yet. It started off a little rough with some difficult decisions I had to make, but once that faded away, it cleared up time, energy, and my thoughts to be able to focus more on what matters and less on what I felt like I should be doing for reasons that I didn’t really know. Having the courage to create boundaries in friendships or other relationships gave me more freedom to be able to focus on the changes that I needed to make in my own life. I had an amazing housing situation with three of my closest friends. We made countless memories together and laughed til it hurt on many occasions. Living in Carrboro, working and saving money while still being in my college town made the transition after graduation back in 2011 a lot easier. 

I joined a church in June of 2012 that wound up being a huge support system for me. I had kind of been “church dating” throughout my college years, never really feeling super plugged in to any one place in particular. At the time, I put more energy and time into my Christian sorority and campus small group versus a church. This wasn’t really a conscious decision looking back, but just that way things happened. Once I went to Calvary however, I felt like I could connect with…really just the whole package. The messages challenged me in a positive and necessary way, and in the spring, I decided to get baptized for the second time. My baptism was one of the greatest things from the last year. 

To be honest, if I wrote out everything I was grateful for from this past year and what worked, it would fill up an entire book. Here are just a few things therefore that I would like to celebrate, even though there are certainly more that I am grateful for! 

-I was fully funded (ahead of schedule!) to do a five week trip to Nice, France to live with and learn about overseas mission work and leadership. 

-In January, I stumbled across a YouTube video for the Urban Eagles, which was immediately placed on my heart. The staff in the neighborhoods were in my prayers a lot. Little did I know that two months later I would find myself led to moving back to Charlotte to get my Masters of Social Work (another celebration!) and, upon my return from France, began volunteering in the Forest Hills neighborhood with their young girls group. I love Jessica and Emily so much, and they have been wonderful co-leaders and friends the last four months! I still remember coming the very first week, and trying to conceal at least a little bit how excited I was to come back in case I came across as too eager and they didn’t want me to return because of how weird I was : ) We have since begun both an older girls Bible discipleship group as well as a fun girls night for all ages to make crafts and pray together. 

-I continued to develop a close relationship with Lara, Ari and Grace, and said my VERY bittersweet goodbye to them in May. I am grateful though that we have remained close despite being three hours apart, and love getting videos from Gracie saying “Hi Ms. Sue! I love you!” 

-I pushed myself to be more bold in my faith, and shared my testimony publicly on more than one occasion. The first time speaking in front of people, I know my face was bright red and I was shaking uncontrollably, but perhaps that made me more real (?) Haha, anyway, continuing to get comfortable with public speaking is something that is on my heart. This also included discussing my faith one on one or in small groups (which I am way more comfortable with!) in both religious and non-religious settings. This was something that was huge for me, as in the past I have often been weighed down by a fear of either coming across as condescending or just overstepping someone’s personal boundaries. 

-I did the contentment challenge for three months where I did not buy any clothing. To some people this probably sounds like not that big of a deal. It is a lot harder (at least for me…) than it sounds!! There were a few occasions where I did go to Ebay or a thrift store to buy a few things that I genuinely did not have that I needed for France (who knew you could get capris for three dollars?) but for the most part, I was really good. I am contemplating doing a stricter challenge for this spring in regards to more than just clothing. 

-Towards the end of my time in Chapel Hill, I began listening to Steven Furtick’s sermons on the Elevation podcast. I had read his book Greater, and really wanted to check out what was going on with Elevation’s church in Charlotte. While certainly people have their own personal preferences in regards to traditional versus contemporary services, I fell in love. I had been praying for months about finding a church when coming to Charlotte, and automatically got plugged in with a Bible study and on a volunteer team. I am a Next Level member, which means that I am who people come to when they need someone to pray over them (cancer/health scares, divorce, and drug abuse are the most common) or (even more often) when someone makes the decision to accept Christ. When they make that decision, they come to me and talk about their past and what they are feeling, then we talk about what accepting Christ means, and I lead them through that prayer and give them a Bible. It’s been unreal. I am technically only supposed to have to volunteer every other week, but I show up as often as I can. People think I am weird for looking forward to getting up at 6:30 am on a Sunday to volunteer for 7 hours. I take it as a compliment. : ) 

Step Two: What didn’t work in 2013?

This is actually a harder one for me because even the things that didn’t go like I had wanted or expected to probably in actuality turned out for the better. That just goes to show though that it isn’t so much about the events or the actions as it is the attitude. Really, everything that I felt like didn’t work can be boiled down to just two words:

Complaining – The words that I say and think do huge things. I don’t think I even realize how big they are. I recently read a book (as well as listened to the corresponding sermon series) by Craig Groeschel (my new favorite author) called Soul Detox. It was all about the ways in which our thoughts and words essentially contaminate our perspectives, outlooks, relationships, actions, decisions, and so forth. When we speak words of life, we build things or people up. When we criticize, self-doubt, complain, whine, or question God’s purpose or ability to provide for us, we basically just spin around in circles or tear things down. Complaining really never gets anything accomplished. 

-Comparison – “Don’t compare your behind-the-scenes to someone else’s highlight reel.” I love this statement…and it is so true. Sometimes I feel like every feeling of defeat or sadness stems from comparison. This doesn’t even just happen with the more materialistic things like houses, vacations, bank accounts, clothes, nor with relationships, like the “If one more friend announces they are engaged or pregnant I am going to Ben and Jerry’s every day for a month” thought pattern. Comparison leads to discontentment. Every season of life has a blessing, and every one has a struggle, even if it is not visible to others on the surface. If the grass is greener on the other side, water your lawn. It also happens with what I personally call the “Christian comparison”:

My ministry isn’t as widespread or noticeably powerful as theirs. Am I doing the right thing? Am I supposed to be doing something different? 

Why am I not getting as much praise or attention as this other person? Why am I not being recognized for my leadership skills?

Wow…he read the entire Bible in 60 days. I am on the year plan. Is he more committed or passionate than I am?

Just like complaining, essentially, comparison is worthless. Also like complaining, it basically does nothing but question whether or not God has provided you with enough to be able to do His will, or if He has blessed you enough.

Are both of these things bound to happen? Probably every day. Are either of them helpful or productive? Nope. I want to focus on doing both of them less, and if that means that I have to give up social media etc altogether, then I want to be that extreme for awhile! I’d rather work my way back in to the online flow rather than be half-there-half-not in terms of commitment to changing my thought patterns. Also, when people use Facebook or Twitter as a way to vent or be mean to each other without having to be accountable, it stresses and tires me out. 

Step 3: Get Visual

This step I am actually skipping because I do not use Pinterest : ) But if anyone reading this does, once again here is the link to Lara’s goal setting steps if you’d like to do your own!

Step 4: What did you learn from what worked?

This one is a little hard! I think the biggest one really is just trust God. There were times when I was support raising (a lot of times, actually) when I kept thinking of my “Plan B”. My “this is how I am going to pay for the remainder of what I don’t support raise.” There were a lot of times where my “what if’s” would get the better of me (you can read that blog post here). I would have these what if’s over where I should go to grad school, if I was supposed to go to France, if I should leave Grace, Lara and Ari and my housemates, church and friends to move to Charlotte, if I should live with people I had never met before, if I should take out student loans or use savings, and so on. There is always a new what if, a mental breakdown of all of the backup plans for what to do in case of emergency if things don’t go well. While I do like to plan, and certainly encourage responsible decision making (!!) I feel like things this past year have taught me that God has a plan, and the best way that I can see those plans and lessons happening around me is if I just surrender my need for control. God can do whatever, whenever, but I can make decisions that will either make myself a greater part of that plan or distance myself from it. There have been things this past year that, if I over-thought them too much, I may not have done; I may have just taken the safe route. But there were things that God placed on my heart to do that I didn’t want to ignore. I want to continue to grow in my obedience. 

Step Five: What did you learn from what didn’t work? 

I didn’t realize until I just typed this step that what did work and didn’t work actually taught me the same thing! The challenges, failures, mistakes, successes, joyful moments, and new relationships all directed me back to the same point which is acknowledging that God is:

Faithful

Gracious

Loving

Forgiving

and that He is far too creative to tell the same story twice through a person’s testimony. 

I did, however, learn more about my own frustrations and limitations through what didn’t work. It emphasized to me how much I need grace, and also how much I don’t want to come across to people like I have it all figured out or am totally put together. I always appreciate encouragement or compliments from people (I am beyond a doubt the “Verbal Affirmation” love language person) yet at the same time, I want to make sure that I am being honest, genuine, and real. I want people to respect me for my weaknesses as well as my strengths, and to have all of them point back to the glory of God. I don’t want to forget that God is changing me every day, and that His opinion of me is the only one that matters. 

Step Six: What fires you up?

-Seeing people respond to a message or testimony inviting Christ into their lives. This was our Christmas experience. (I was one of the people in the black shirts passing out the Bibles. I was so fired up that night. About 250 people at my location alone stood up. Tears were necessary : )) 

-Witnessing baptisms (also these videos NEVER cease to make me cry. I got to be a part of the Raised to Life experience this August). 

First Video – I Have Decided

Second Video – Raised to Life

-You have probably noticed from my video posting that anything creative fires me up. Bright colors, sense of humor, dance, music, photography. I need it around me. 

-Laughter. When it is late at night especially. These are the times when the littlest, dumbest, most random things can make me cry I am laughing so hard. According to my housemates, this is also when I get really philosophical, and start initiating deep conversations that they like to tease me about later.

-Pretty dresses. Anything that twirls. Anything that is lace. Silly, I know, but it’s true. 

-Seeing people I love truly happy. 

-Working in the Urban Eagles community, my social work field placement, and just being in that environment of remembering your blessings constantly and talking about the love and grace of Jesus with kids (and adults of course, but kids are usually more entertaining. They help keep me going sometimes. And they also ask questions harder than ones on a seminary exam). 

-Traveling. It never gets old, especially when I am blessed enough to be able to leave the country. 

-Receiving and giving words and actions of affirmation and praise. 

Step Seven: What is your 2014 vision?

The funny thing is….this was the whole point of the exercise really, and yet this is also the biggest question mark for me.

-My first one is a little vague. I want to not be afraid to ask for big things. In the past when I have prayed, particularly when I was in my teens and early twenties, I would ask for things that I thought were “feasible”. Things that I wanted to happen. Things that people asked me to pray for for them. I didn’t really go above and beyond in this area. Reading books that talk about praying audaciously, as well as books like Crazy Love by Francis Chan, have challenged me to re-think the way that I talk with and ask for things from God. There have been certain situations where I just accept something as the way it is, and probably always will be, and then formulate my prayers and actions based on that. Instead of that mindset, I want to ask for big things. Things that seem impossible, improbable, and so forth. I want to make preparations for the big things in life that I expect God to do (for His glory and not my own selfish ambition) versus what could happen (in my mind at least) by my own effort and hard work. 

-My mission is to share the word of God through my prayers, lifestyle, actions, and words to others. I am hard on myself when I fall short of this, which is often. I believe that often I am better at extending grace to others than to myself. These are things that I want to push myself on this year, not to the point of exhaustion of course, but to the point where I am just slightly uncomfortable. I want to be vulnerable for God to use me in situations that I would have been more timid or passive in in the past and just love on people. 

-This is still the very, very early stages, and I have not made the official announcement yet, but before I had even left France I was corresponding with my mobilization agency about opportunities to serve overseas this coming summer. More on that very soon, but that is one of my main visions right now. 

-I want to see the members of my small groups, my Next Level team, the girls in my UE discipleship group, and my friends all become more confident in who God made them to be (I am including myself in this obviously as well!). There are still insecurities that I work through because of things in the past, but I want to see them be transformed. I have so much faith in my friends and love them to death, and want to see them feel more secure in God’s love as well this year. I also want to be aware of showing them more gratitude for being in my life.

-Even more so now that I am back in Charlotte, I want to focus on being a better daughter, sister, cousin, and granddaughter. I am blessed to have so much family (and all healthy, no less!) within a very short living distance, and I want to be more intentional about spending quality time versus distracted time with them.

-Finally, I want to be more appreciative of the season that I am in right now. As a girl in her mid-twenties with no income, a year and a half MORE of school (wasn’t I supposed to be done?!?! I remember throwing my cap and everything…), who has just moved, thrown herself into becoming involved in a new community, church, school, and peer group, I have experienced a lot of unknowns and changes in the last year or so. Most have been very positive, however I also find myself occasionally looking at the life events of other people and imagining what my own life would be like if I was going through the same thing. Envy is not pretty, flattering or useful. As I said earlier in this post, every person is fighting a battle, and I want to appreciate all of the positive aspects of being in my situation, age, and so forth. 

Step 8: What are you saying NO to in 2014?

I am saying no to:

-Limiting my expectations and goals

-Becoming easily frustrated with the actions or complaints of others

-Caring about criticism for things I am passionate or care about

-Becoming discouraged when things do not go the way I had hoped, and instead acknowledge that something better is ahead. 

-Wishing that I was already done with school so that I could do my field work 5 days a week instead of just two, and make the most out of the experience. 

-Being lazy and sleeping for too long.

-Wasting time by half-working, half-relaxing.

-Excessive time spent on social media. 

Step 9: What are you saying YES to in 2014?

-Blogging more as a way to communicate my thoughts with people. Being more specific about topics, and setting a goal for myself of writing at least every other week. 

-Spending more quality time with friends and family. More face to face, or at least google hangouts : ) and less texting.

-Continuing to develop my ability to let God use my in instances such working on the Next Level team and praying over people.

-Eating healthy. I bought a juicer a month or two ago, and loved it, but the holidays have sort of gotten the best of me with having so many sweets around. Too much sugar, not enough vegetables. Need to kick start myself back up again!

-Exercising. I know that a lot of people have weight loss goals, but for me it is really just about the way that I feel and how much energy I have. I am at a clothing size already that I am perfectly fine with, and want to improve my endurance as well as continue with my strength training. One thing that I did this year was go through a few months of boot camp, where Lauren lovingly and affectionately kicked my butt. In an awesome way though. I would like to see if I can make time for that again!

-Random acts of kindness. Coming up with ways to show love to strangers creatively and anonymously. 

-For that matter, intentional acts of kindness. Coming up with ways to develop relationships in deeper ways through a bunch of laughter and, really, probably food will be involved as well. 

-Seeing how God can work in any situation no matter how depressing it may seem. 

-More time reading the Bible- I am on a YouVersion plan, and need to be held accountable!! (Anyone want to volunteer?) 

-Having fun and enjoying my blessings. 

Step “Bonus”: My word for 2014:

If I had to use a word for 2013, it would be Praise. I really wanted to focus on praising God and rejoicing in all circumstances. For 2014, I want to use a word that I have already used several times in this post: Intentional. I want to be more intentional with my time, words, actions, everything. This isn’t to be confused with controlling or obsessive. I don’t want to have everything planned out. I just wanted to be more focused on making things that matter happen instead of just seeing what comes my way. 

Step 10: Plant seeds

What seeds can I plant in others lives? One of the reason that I love volunteering so much is that it gives me the opportunity to do things I wouldn’t normally get to be a part of. Recently I have done work with Habitat for Humanity, Operation Christmas Child, Project Lunch Bag, The Dream Center, and a few others. I love getting to be a part of a greater vision. I love the idea that just my super small snippet of work is able to keep a project or goal going to become achieved. But mostly I think it gives me the opportunity to work with and hear from people who give these organizations and missions their all day in and day it. They inspire me. They help me focus on what my own passions are and what I want to do with my life and where I want to see God take me. By taking part in these activities and goals, I can plant seeds that others will reap the harvest from. 

Step 11: Define Your “Radical”

For me, picking one thing to do “radical” is a challenge, because I like pushing myself in as many areas as I can. I tend to take on a lot of things, and don’t really have one particular area of my life right now that is a large obstacle. There are many smaller things that God helps me jump over, but nothing specific that is just really weighing on me. I think in that sense, radical for me is just growing to become less dependent on things. Those things are:

-the opinions and feedback of others

-material items, clothing, makeup, and so forth

-the need to please people

-my own ambition

-money

and so on. I want to give away more, invest my time wisely, and live my life in a way to where some people question how I do it. 

Step 12: Sing a Song

I couldn’t help but laugh as I read that I would need to select a song for this year, because recently I have gone on a major music binge. I have collected dozens of CD’s from the library to put on my iTunes and just constantly listen to. I love music. 

If I ABSOLUTELY had to pick one….and by one, obviously I mean two, because I have to do a “get fired up” and “get emotional” song. 

Get Fired Up: Tell the World – Lecrae (Live version from Passion 2013. Better than the CD version. Chills.) 

Get Emotional: Burn Away – Meredith Andrews

So many more. Just in case you are looking for song recommendations, the ones I have on repeat right now are:

Awake My Soul – Chris Tomlin ft. Lecrae

When Mercy Found Me – Rhett Walker Band

Oceans – Hillsong

Set a Fire – United Pursuit

Love Does – Brandon Heath

We Believe- Newsboys

Restless- Switchfoot

Step 13: Review

First of all, I can’t believe I have been working on this post all in one sitting, in one position, with my laptop on my legs. I think I need some water or to run around or something! I am worn out! But this is good! I am being productive with my time : ) 

I am reviewing this all in my head, and…..

OKAY! LAST STEP!!

Step 14: Set Good Goals

1. Finish my book – This has been a LONG time coming. I began writing a devotional book when I was 19, and now, after several rewrites, I am almost done. It is nearly 400 pages, and I have no idea what will happen with it, but I am choosing to continue to edit, and rewrite, and edit more, because I feel like God is going to do something with it, even if only five people read it. I am choosing to believe that if I continue to work and put my time into it, that God will give me the words, even when I feel like I am being repetitive. Pray for me on this! My goal is to be done this month, and I am so close I can taste it haha. 

2. On that note, try to get it published – I have the opportunity to self-publish through Amazon, which may be the best option anyway, but I want to try my best to see what I can do with it through other agencies. I feel like other agencies could provide greater resources to get it in the hands of more people, and really, I am not looking to make much (if any) money off of it. This is just something that has been on my heart for a long time. 

3. Eating right and exercise – I explained this already in an earlier step, however I want to be able to be more physically strong to be able to volunteer with certain organizations and just not get tired so easily. What I was eating had a huge impact on how drained I would feel, and I want to go total opposite of that. I want to be able to use my energy and time physical strength to bring God glory, and whether that is through sports ministry, manual labor, or whatever, I want to be prepared for that. 

4. Commit to making the most out of my field placement. – I have been interning for course credit with A Child’s Place, and have loved it. I want to continue to be resolved in learning as much as I can from both my supervisor and from my own experience so that I can be more competent and well-rounded in the field of social work. 

5. Pray about leading a Starting Point class at church. – I have been going through a Starting Point class at church, which is essentially a small group for new believers, in order to learn more about it and be able to share what it teaches with people I pray over. I have really enjoyed the discussion and topics, because even though it is formatted for people who are very new in their faith, the questions and conversation of course never get old no matter how much you know about the Bible. I would like to move into a greater leadership role in my church, and want to pray about whether or not this would be the right opportunity to partner up with someone to lead. 

6. Take more pictures. This is one that I feel like I say every year in theory, and it just never happens. Instagram has helped slightly, but I really want to commemorate memories and experiences by taking pictures in order to reflect on special times. I have a camera as well as a smartphone, so I really have no excuse to not do this! 

7. Read the Bible more. I want to have read the entire book, cover to cover, by the end of the year. This is a goal that I want to finally make happen!

8. Donate more things – This past year I made a lot of donations, as my clothing size went down some and also just because I felt it was necessary. There are still so many things though that I could give away. While I want to be sure to keep and value gifts, I want to be more aware of the things I buy and keep myself. 

 

Overall, I feel that my other specific goals were listed periodically throughout this post, rather unintentionally! 2013 was an amazing year, but the best is always yet to come. I am excited to start a new beginning with a New Year, and am excited to see what God brings in my life. 

Where Do I Go From Here?

So today, in honor of the fall break from my grad school program that I have through tomorrow, I have been working on a project that has been ongoing for quite a number of years. I was making some notes when I wrote one sentence that actually stopped me from continuing:

“Where do I go from here?”

Without thinking about it, I had written one of the most fear-ridden questions that people ask themselves every day.

I have done _______, so now what?

Is this all over?

Will I ever see this person again?

What does this mean for our friendship?

When I was leaving my mission field this summer, this was the main question that everyone was constantly talking about. Our leader wanted to know if we had any goals for ourselves once our team returned to the states. A huge part of the debriefing process in Orlando with Pioneers was connected with this question of, essentially, “So…now what? Is it all over?”

A few weeks later, in mid-August, me and about 45 other people were hit with that question again as we started a grad school program in social work. “Congrats! You got through the application process. Welcome to the university.”

So…now…where do we go from here? What specific area of social work are we going to be doing? It felt weird being back in school again- I had apparently gotten used to having income and free time! (strange, right?).

I have found through my experiences though that the largest things that can cause me to let fear creep into my mind does not really concern my circumstances, environment, or even my future as much as the people who are in my life. Going back to this summer again, when I left for France I had moved from Chapel Hill, where I had spent the last five-six years, back to my hometown of Charlotte just two days before my flight left for training. I arrived overseas, in addition to being jet-lagged and disoriented “mourning the change”, so to speak. And by leaving this place that for years had provided a sense of security, friendship, and support through my church, I wasn’t just going to a different city; I was going to a different country, language, peer group, and so forth. If I wasn’t ready to leave Chapel Hill yet, I was certainly going out with a bang.

“So…what do I do now?” definitely ran through my head. More than once. I won’t attempt to count the number of times, actually, but it is a safe bet that it was well into the double digits. This sudden immersion of not necessarily knowing how to communicate with people combined with me just plain missing my best friends and job led to me not really quite being myself for the first few weeks.

I have already summed up my experiences in France in former blog posts, so I am not trying to reiterate the past constantly here. But the question of “Where do I go from here?” is something that has constantly weighed on my mind.

Something that going from living in three different cities in the span of a few months did for me though was help me to realize how sometimes you are taken out of your comfort zone to grow in your dependence on God. There are questions that I have about my future where if I could just ask God “Hey, when is this going to happen, will I ever get married, where am I going to be working” and so forth, and then receive an answer, I would be a lot more content internally. Things would certainly be a lot easier.

But that approach, even if it was possible, does not require any faith. It is just me impatiently demanding for answers.

When I ask “Where do I go from here?”, I have found more with time that instead of a clear answer, I meet people, have conversations or go through experiences that slowly shape my decision making and future in a way that I would not have understood had I even been able to see the future.

What can be taken from this is that my confidence doesn’t lie in where I am going, or even how I am getting there, but who is leading me along the way.