Why Do I Do This? by Paul LeFeber

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Why Do I Do This? by Paul LeFeber

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


When I was 15 my friends and I started a ska band. That’s right, a ska band. Horns and everything. We played every church basement in town, and had an absolute ball doing it. It was a pure creative energy. 

When we were in our 20s we started to take the band real serious. We had dreams of playing for thousands and making a living. We made new recordings to sell and promoted ourselves to anybody who would listen. All of this of course meant we could no longer be a ska band. Who takes ska music seriously?

Toward the end we started to get pretty desperate. We wanted things to work because we loved it so much. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make it, earn money, to get to the next level. The glory days we experienced when we were younger never really returned. 

Eventually we signed up for a music competition. I know…we weren’t exactly thinking clearly. The television show “Showtime at the Apollo” was coming through town as part of a national talent search. You could win the chance to be on the TV show. Seemed like a good idea at the time.  

Alongside about 20 other artists we showed up to perform the night of the show. The hall was filled with several thousand people ready to either cheer us on or boo us off the stage. That’s how it works. It’s all about audience approval. 

Midway through the show we walked on stage and started to play. About 5 seconds into our song the audience started to boo. It started with just a few people, but it grew louder and louder until the sound was overwhelming. In all our dreaming we never imagined it would come to this, being booed offstage by several thousand people. It was humiliating. 

I kept it together long enough to gather up my gear and make it out to the parking lot. A friend who had been in the audience was waiting for me. He looked at me like I had just backed my car into a lake. He reached out to give me a hug and I started to cry. I remember well the words that came out choked. “Why? Why do I do this?”

In those days, had I been more honest with myself, the answer was clear. I wanted success and everything that comes with it. I wanted approval and respect. I wanted people to admire me. I wanted to stand out. I wanted to be important, someone people listen to. I wanted to matter. 

Does any of that sound familiar? 

The world functions on an economy of power, successes, and usefulness. The work of your hands either accomplishes something good and worthwhile - something useful - or it doesn’t. The message we get over and over again is to try harder, do more, produce, succeed. 

No wonder artists and creative types have a reputation for being moody. We often end up on the fringes of society. We’re prone to discouragement and depression. What good are we?

What is the use of a painting? What good is a poem? Why write a novel about pretend people’s problems when we’ve got a world full of real problems to deal with? Why choreograph a dance to communicate an emotion? Isn’t it easier to just use emoticons?

Ultimately, though, artists are at their best when they’re useless. It is in being useless that we find kinship with the useless people of this world. It’s in being useless that we allow God to be God, and us not. It is being useless that we understand grace. Art and grace live in the same house. They belong to the same space. Art is grace. 

I’d like to suggest a practice to help remind you that being useless is ok. Find that creative or artistic thing you love to do, and then do it. But do it simply for the joy of doing it. 

Write a poem, and don’t show it to anyone. Put on some music and just dance. Sing a song all alone. Get together with some friends and harmonize. Play your instrument just for the joy of playing it. Write about something you love to write about before you write something you “need” to write. Draw or paint something with no agenda, no preconceived notions of what you’ll use it for, or who you’ll show it to. 

Getting booed off stage reminded me how easy it is to forget why I do what I do. My sense of self and accomplishment were assaulted and I had to go back to the beginning. Why do I do this? To accomplish or succeed? Not in the beginning. When it all started I did it because I loved it, and that was more than enough.  


Paul LeFeber is a pastor in Portland, Oregon. He plays music and speaks regularly. He spends as much time as he can with his wife Mariah and daughters Adah and Junia. Learn more about the church where he serves at newhopepdx.org.

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Overcoming the Lies by Rebecca Olson

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Overcoming the Lies by Rebecca Olson

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


Last fall I started going to therapy. 

One year before, I left my full-time job to be home with my daughter more. Then, that spring, I launched a life coaching business with the hopes it would bring in the income we needed to sustain my staying home part-time.  To be honest, the whole change felt like we were walking the plank over deep waters. I was changing careers, choosing a life of less money and less security and there was no guarantee it would work out.  The song Oceans by Hillsong comes to mind, “You call me out upon the waters, the great unknown, where feet may fail…” It felt like I was being called out of a boat and very possibly I would fall straight into the sea.

Within a few months of launching my life coaching business, I felt paralyzed: Where would I get clients? How could I grow the business with a young toddler at home? What if I don’t make enough money? I struggled with what others thought of me. If they thought I was making the right the choice, if they thought I could even make it as a life coach. I feared failure and I feared hardship. 

These thoughts were not new for me. The situation they were surfacing in was new, but the thoughts were old and familiar and they halted all movement forward. There was no way I could grow my business with these questions and fears haunting my thoughts. I either needed to work through them or my business, and ultimately the stay-at-home life I was seeking, would fail. And so, I started seeing a therapist. 

Therapy is the beginning of a journey and you must be willing to face whatever surfaces in order to illicit change. My hope was that it would uncover hidden truths that might otherwise never come to light. I am grateful for what came out of my time in therapy. Though it was hard, I believe lasting change has taken place and I am better equipped to navigate the issues I face. 

Three main issues surfaced during my time in therapy: 

  1. I am a people-pleaser who looks toward others to validate who I am
  2. I need to always appear as an expert and will never do anything that might make me appear otherwise
  3. I am hyper-critical of myself and tend to subconsciously repeat my “failures” over and over in my head, which in turn, clouds any joy or success I may have 

After becoming aware of these three self-sabotaging mindsets, I had to make a choice: continue on as normal (where I would continue to be immobilized by these mindsets) or face them with the hope of lasting change. Of course, change doesn’t happen overnight, it would likely take many years to overcome a way of thinking that is deeply ingrained in me. It would be a journey. And so it began… 

To start, I did a few key practices that provided a foundation to begin uprooting my old way of thinking. 

Practice #1: Name the Truth:

Identify the lie, counter it with truth and find scripture to back it up. 

Lie: I need others to validate who I am. 

Truth: I am valuable because my God has deemed me so. 

Scripture: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet.” Jeremiah 1:5

Lie: I should always be the best at everything I do. 

Truth: It is ok to grow and get better at something. 

Scripture: “For the Lord gives wisdom, from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.”  Proverbs 2:6

I have come back to this practice often. My hope is to make it a habit so that as an old mindset surfaces, I am able to immediately counter it with truth. It also helps to read through the truths/scripture I have already stated so as to make the thinking more habitual. 

Practice #2: Prayer Coloring:

Write the thing or person you are praying for and then color in and around it, thereby creating a little prayer doodle for each item you pray for. I used Sybil MacBeth’s book, Praying in Color to provide templates for my prayer coloring practice. In this case, I listed out all the ways I could think that God had faithfully provided for me and as I wrote and colored each one, I remembered and thanked Him for His provision. The practice built up my trust in Him, allowing me to put my business and our finances just a little bit more in His hands. 

Since I started therapy last fall, my circumstances haven’t changed much and I still find myself asking the same questions: How will I grow my business? Will I make enough money at this? What do others think? But I have been able to counter these self-sabotaging thoughts with truth and trust and have thus begun to live a life in less fear and with more freedom. As I said, it will likely take many years to overcome mindsets that are deeply ingrained in me…but I am grateful the journey has begun. 

 


Rebecca Olson is a life coach, primarily working with mompreneurs who are seeking to grow their business while balancing life at home. She helps them create a vision for their life and business while setting manageable goals and navigating the challenges of motherhood. She is a mother of two in Albany, CA where she and her family love to walk the neighborhood. You can connect with her further at www.rebeccaolsoncoaching.com or on facebook.

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When My Words Ran Dry by Maria

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When My Words Ran Dry by Maria

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


I worked as a hospice chaplain for four months. I would divide my days between our fifteen-bed inpatient unit and visiting the dying and their families in their homes. I worked with a small team of nurses and a couple of social workers—compassionate people who had deliberately choosen to work with the dying. 

One day I came into work and found our small team rocked by a suicide that had occurred the night before. Our manager called us into the conference room, shared what was known about the situation, and gave us space to share whatever was on our minds and hearts. Most of the team was still in shock. I was heartbroken by the tragedy and overwhelmed by the grief I felt in the room. I listened as others spoke, tears filling their eyes. As our time drew to a close, the manager turned to me and asked, “Maybe we could close with a prayer?” 

I looked around the room cramped with red-eyed staff. I had only been there a few months, yet they were all looking to me for words to bring some solace in the tragedy. As much as I wanted to comfort them, I also wanted to nod my head no and refuse to offer a prayer. I felt like my words had already been spent praying for the dying and their families. All the images of hope and faith and love I had to offer had already been sent along with patients to the grave. Everything I had left was weak and thin and would only come out strained. Fortunately, I found the words to pray, words that seemed honest and spoke some light into the darkness of the tragedy. I walked out of the room spiritually exhausted. It wasn’t even 9am.

When I was interviewing for the job as a hospice chaplain, I wasn’t expecting how hard it would be to be surrounded by death and dying forty hours a week. I had worked as a chaplain in several hospitals and had become comfortable being with patients and families at the end of life. It was sad, yes, but I developed resilience and could go on. Hospice was different. Every patient I met and came to care about would eventually die. Every family I sat with for hours would eventually leave at the height of their grief, following their loved one out of the building to watch as their bodies were loaded into the funeral home van. The social worker on my team would simply say, “that’s what they came here for,” and move on. I couldn’t. The grief piled on and I found myself growing more melancholy. When called on to pray at the time of death, my words became stale and repetitive. My ability to find hope and joy in suffering had fatigued. My sense of God being present in the grief had dulled. I just didn’t have anything to say anymore.

A few days later I asked my priest if I could come in for a visit. I needed to talk. I knew, walking down the hall of our church to her office, that I would end up crying within the first few minutes of our conversation. The pain and the hopelessness were all right there, under the surface, ready to burst forth. She did for me what I do for others—listened with compassion and openness, undeterred by my tears and suffering. But then she asked about my own spiritual life. What did I do outside of work to stay connected to God? To find renewal? To engage hope? I told her the truth. After a day of spiritual heavy lifting at work, the last thing I wanted to do was engage in spiritual disciplines at home. It would be like coming home from a day of flipping burgers in a fast food kitchen only to be asked by your spouse to put some meat on the grill for dinner. It was the last thing I wanted to do.

She told me about one of her own spiritual practices—praying the Divine Office with a breviary. She pulled out a beautifully bound book, The Saint Helena Breviary, and showed me the pages filled with written prayers and passages of scripture. The Divine Office, also known as the Daily Office or Liturgy of the Hours, is the ancient spiritual practice of saying a fixed set of prayers several times a day, often morning, noon, evening, and night. The prayers change throughout the day and throughout the liturgical calendar of the church and are often guided by a breviary, the book that contains all the prayers and texts. 

There are a lot of great resources for praying the Divine Office, including The Divine Hours by Phyllis Trickle, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, The Missio Dei Breviary by Mark Van Steenwyk, and Celtic Daily Prayer from the Nothumbria Community. Many liturgical traditions have also developed their own form of the Daily Office. In my tradition, many use the Office contained in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer for their daily prayers and scripture reading.

Praying daily with a breviary did something for me that I was struggling to do on my own: It gave me words. On the days when grief and sorrow overwhelmed me, it spoke truth into my life through written prayers and passages of scripture. When I felt alone in my work, it connected me to a broader community of prayer, scattered around the country praying the same prayers with me each morning and evening. And on the days when my words ran dry, it connected me to God through poetic language, beautiful imagery, and hopeful theology that I could not create myself. 


Maria is now working as a chaplain at a large university hospital and children’s hospital. When she’s not working or praying the Daily Office, she enjoys biking, yoga, backpacking, photography, and listening to podasts.

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Finding Hope in Unmet Longing by Nikki Dunham

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Finding Hope in Unmet Longing by Nikki Dunham

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


We all grow up envisioning what our lives will look like in the years to come. We fantasize and create expectations of what life will be like. But what happens when our plan is not God’s plan? What happens when the deepest desires of our hearts are not met?

Four years ago, my husband, Seth, and I decided to set out on the journey to grow our family. We eagerly anticipated decorating a nursery, cuddling with our baby, and creating traditions with our kids. These were all things we hoped and anticipated God had in store for us, but we could not have predicted the adventure he would take us on. After over a year of trying it was clear that this journey would not be as easy as we had hoped. The darkness began to set in. Questions began to fill our hearts. Simply facing the facts and scheduling an appointment with a fertility specialist was an act of surrender. But as we began testing and met with the doctor, a new hope began to sprout. It didn’t last long.

As each cycle of treatment failed, the darkness settled and began to choke out any hope. We confided in family and a few close friends, which slightly eased the pain, at least for a time. But the disappointment at the end of each cycle sank deeper with every passing month. Baby announcements and baby showers turned into monthly photo updates, which turned into yearly photo updates—each one marking the time in which we were still waiting. Mother’s days passed, each year yet another reminder that I was still not a mother. We began to feel isolated. While we had friends who had similar experiences, no one we knew had endured it so long, and all had come out on the other side with a baby in their arms. 

And yet, I knew that God would be faithful. He has been faithful through all generations, why would he stop now? It was in those darkest moments I had to combat the lies of the enemy with the truths of my Father.

“You’re all alone.”

“I will never leave you or forsake you, when you pass through the waters, I will be with you, when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.”

“You’re not strong enough for this.”

“I am the strength of your life, you are more than a conqueror through my son.”

“Your life won’t be fulfilling unless you have a child.”

“I am more than enough for you.”

“All of this is in vain.”

“I work all things for the good of those who love me.”

 

It was in working through these truths that I found my way in the dark. Jesus came before and was walking with me still. I wasn’t strong enough for it, but God was. I am not defined by my lack of children; I am enough, just as I am. I didn’t have to wait until it was over, God would begin redeeming it right then. It was the perspective that by going through this, I now had something to offer others who are or will be hurting in the same way. This was the light that began to guide me out of the dark. 

I started a journal. I wrote the details of our journey, emotions, prayers, and questions. But all too often, I couldn’t find the right words. In those moments I turned to the words of others. I opened the scriptures. I listened to lyrics. In the words of other believers who have gone before me, I found the cry of my heart. So I made their words mine, writing and illustrating the words and feelings I was experiencing. It relieved the pressure to come up with the right words. It allowed me the freedom to simply be in that moment. 

But the journal wasn’t for me. It was meant to be shared, to allow other young women going through infertility to know they are not alone in the feelings and questions they have. To share the poems, scripture, and lyrics that brought peace and hope. While I haven’t had the opportunity to share the whole thing with someone yet, I have shared pages or excerpts from it. Even that has proven to be rewarding. Although this journal was certainly an extension of myself and the grief I felt, it took the focus off me. It gave my pain purpose. It gave me hope. If through this I could ease the pain of other women walking the same path, it was worth going through. 

Too often when going through trials we become completely self-focused. But when we can’t see beyond our situation, we miss out on where God is working in the midst of it. So don’t ignore the pain, but embrace it, and move forward through it. As of today, we still don’t have a baby in our arms. Your circumstances may never change, but your heart will. His story is far better than whatever we have imagined for ourselves. Allow the story God is writing for your life to transform you and extend the offer of transformation to others. It will be worth it.

So when you find yourself lost in the dark, consider journaling for those who will come after you. Someday, another will be walking the path you are, in search of the right words. Your journal may be just what they need. You might even find that in writing it, it is exactly what you need.

What do you include in the journal?

  • Thoughts and emotions
  • Questions
  • Prayers
  • Poems
  • Lyrics
  • Pictures
  • Sketches
  • Anything that has brought you hope

 

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” 
[2 Corinthians 1:3-4]


Nicole Dunham lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband Seth. She works with the Women’s Ministry at Church at Charlotte and as an athletic trainer for Novant Health. She spends her time keeping their two huskies out of trouble and volunteering with the high school ministry. A recent transplant from Colorado, she is still trying to find the mountains people are talking about but loves camping and exploring the Appalachian Hills.

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It Didn't Use to Be Like This by Ben Sanders

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It Didn't Use to Be Like This by Ben Sanders

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


“It didn't used to be like this. I didn't used to be like this…”

It's the mantra that swirls in my mind when I'm having an anxiety attack. My neck lights up bright red and my brain starts shutting down. I feel my heart rate increasing and no matter what breathing techniques I try, I can't slow it back down. I'm so aware of it happening that I start grasping for things to say, questions to ask the people in front of me, anything at all so I can have a normal reaction with whoever is in front of me… but when it comes time to speak, my brain and my mouth aren't aligned, and even worse, my body is in a state near panic.

I didn't used to be like this.

Over the past decade I underwent the most dramatic internal growth spurt of my life. I was confident, funny, authentic, compassionate and didn't have to try so hard. I started my own video production agency, had great friends, great community, a wonderful wife, and eventually we started popping out wonderful children.

Once the kids entered the scene we were having the time of our lives in new ways, though those amazing times were also mixed in with some of the most heightened stressful times as well. Like when our oldest dropped off the weight chart entirely and we fought our gastrointestinal specialist on finding a different solution to weight gain than poking a hole in his stomach. The threat was that they would report us to CPS if we didn't comply with the only option the specialist suggested, even though we thought there was a less invasive alternative. They finally recommended a nutritionist instead, which helped get our boy back on the charts.

We had never experienced stress like this before, but even so, I handled it with relative ease.

Fast forward a couple babies later and the desire had grown to move back “home” to California. Some loss in the family sparked a renewed desire for our kids to live near their grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. We loved our families deeply but until then hadn't experienced a strong desire to live nearby.

We made plans and moved quickly because… well, because I don't have much patience when my mind is made up, but beyond that, if we didn't move quick, our preschooler would spend another year making friends at preschool, our roots would deepen even more, and uprooting ourselves would be even more painful. So the time was now.

We sold most of what we owned and moved across the country. Our family was loving and supportive, allowing the 5 of us to stay with them as we looked for a place to live.

We eventually got on our feet, but in the time being, some major shifts had happened in my video production business. I thought I was going to keep my Indiana office open while building a new California office, but the Indiana office quickly went into the red and unfortunately we had to shut it down. Everything now relied on swiftly and successfully starting up well in California. Welcome to the Bay Area.

It's in this season, with a combination of factors and stressors, that performance-based acceptance fired up in me in a big way, and with it came anxiety for the first time in my life (or at least the first time I was aware of it).

Performance-based acceptance lead me out of authenticity and into performing for approval. That meant it was rare for me to be living true to myself, and more common for me to be analyzing situations to figure out how I was supposed to behave. It was subconscious. It was automatic. It was new. Or was it?

I was in the thick of it. Life felt new in a bad way. I felt like I had entirely lost my previous decade of growth. I felt like I had no purpose except to exist and provide for my family. I felt confused and wandering and doubted my everything. I felt, most of all, shame about the totality of my being, and I couldn't even name why.

“I didn't used to be like this” swirled through my mind enough times to seek help.  My counselor helped me recognize what was happening within me and start tracing back the insecurity and anxiety I was feeling to their roots. I'm still unpacking that. 

So how do you keep moving when your internal world comes crashing down? Well, for me, I had to listen a lot. Deep within my soul, if I listened well, I noticed God speaking in ways that I've not often recognized as His/Her/Its voice. If I'm honest, I have to admit that I wish God would just text me. I would totally text back and we would be buds, even if God occasionally said something I didn't want to hear. But unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) that's not how God works.

I think God speaks to us all differently. I've heard people say that God speaks to them through the Bible. Not me. I've heard people say that God speaks to them when they pray. Not me.

I hear God when I simply shut the hell up.

But then I started learning that that was my new way to pray. Rather than trying to lead the charge with words that I say to God, I enter a space ready to listen. And when I do, God speaks. And when I hear, I try to continue the conversation in that direction. 

Sounds crazy right? Yeah, me too. But it's real, and that's saying something for a guy who has as many doubts about God as I do. But the more I listen, the less I doubt, because I hear and even more strangely, I see. I can't explain how God shows me my path forward, but the way forward becomes so vividly lit up that I've recognized this sense as a power beyond myself.

There are two new mantras playing in my head this year after being seared into my soul in a number of ways:

“Open yourself up to that which is beyond you.”

AND:

“God is out ahead of us, preparing the way for us.”

May it be true, and may I take the time to listen for the way.


Practice:

It's hard for me to recommend practices when I haven't mastered steady practice in my own life… but if you were to take a look at my business notebook you would notice that my business notes have been overtaken by personal journaling and messages I've heard from God. If you were to step into my bedroom, you would notice that my poor wife has to put up with a giant whiteboard that I hung on the wall to capture more of the soul messages I'm receiving. I also put my questions on that board, and jot down poems and stories I receive as well. 

So if I were to encourage you to do anything, it would be first, to listen. Listen for longer than you're used to. See how long you can listen for… 

My second recommendation would be to write.

It could be a word.

It could be a phrase.

It could be a story.

It could be your future.

It could be confusing.

Who cares. Just write.

One time I booked a conference room at work, closed the door, and wrote down every life event I could remember on a whiteboard. I found moments of my life that needed to be lamented, and I took some time for that. Other times I've hiked to a spot in nature, pulled my journal out and realized I have nothing to write. Then I accidentally listened, and eventually words flowed and new insights poured out. 

I can't explain it, but I know I need to keep listening and writing. Maybe it could help you, too. 


Ben is a husband, dad, and video productionist in the East Bay of San Francisco. When he's not losing wrestling matches at home with his 6, 4, and 2 year olds, Ben creates videos that help people #thinkfeelactnotice. In high-school Ben had a 32 inch vertical leap; now he struggles to roll out of bed. 

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Receiving the Gift of Sabbath by A. J. Swoboda

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Receiving the Gift of Sabbath by A. J. Swoboda

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


Nearly ten years ago, as a college pastor, I toiled nearly eighty hours a week doing the “work of the Lord.” Every crisis was my crisis. Every complaint my problem. Everything and everyone came to me. No boundaries. No rhythms. No intention. No rest. I knew there was a problem when I started hoping I would burn out. Burn out offered a way out to all the insanity. Though I had never thought it possible, I was, in Paul’s words, beginning to “weary in doing good” (Gal. 6:9). I constantly got sick, my marriage was struggling, and my ministry became misery as I went frantically from crisis to crisis. 

Flannery O’Connor has this little throwaway line where she speaks of a priest who is “unimaginative and overworked.”* That was me. There was only one problem: the ministry was thriving. People were getting baptized. Students were repenting. The group was growing. It all came to a head one Saturday morning. After an eighty-hour workweek, I scheduled an appointment with a student in our college ministry for 10am that Saturday. Having not slept well for over a month, I missed my appointment, not even hearing the sound of my alarm. I woke up to a voicemail on my phone:

“How could you miss this appointment? Pastors shouldn’t miss appointments. You have failed me.”

I had become a need filler—a Christian handyman, available to everyone and everything but the Lord my God. Standing there, I nearly broke my flip phone over my knee and threw it against the wall. I had been working tirelessly only to let one more person down. I couldn’t go on like I had been. By the sovereign grace of God, I had been reading a book by pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson. In the book, I discovered something I had completely ignored in ten years of Bible reading—this thing called the Sabbath. Peterson discussed how one day a week he would say no to ministry demands, and go on hikes, eat good food, read poetry, and meet with God. I was intrigued. Was this not a waste of time? Was he not wasting his time on selfish endeavors? Then it clicked.

Up until this time, I had thought Sabbath-keeping was selfish. And I thought that if I did it was a sign of weakness. Then, I had the epiphany of a lifetime: in helping everyone else, I had forgotten myself. I had become the preacher of the gospel who needed the gospel himself. Or, worse yet, I subconsciously thought God wanted me to forget about myself so I could serve others. But that is not the gospel. Jesus loves me too. I could love others only to the extent that I could recognize God’s love for me. I could only see to the needs of my community to the extent to which I admitted my own needs. I could only care for God’s people to the extent that I would allow Him to care for me. In forgetting all this, I had neglected to care for the body God had given me, the spirit He breathed into me, this soul which He molded with His own hand. 

Wisdom prevailed; I admitted my limits. It was one of the first “not goods” in my life where I recognized I had a deep, human, God-created need. In living for everyone else, I had been trying to be omnipotent and omnipresent; God had never intended me to be either. Jesus himself went into the mountains and prayed to the point that even his disciples could not find him. Jesus ate. Jesus drank. Jesus slept. He took care of himself. And never once was Jesus hurried from place to place, controlled by a busy schedule. Jesus lived a rhythm completely different than anyone around him. The rhythm of his life was, in itself, a prophetic act against the rhythms of the world. 

I became a workaholic chiefly because I hadn’t allowed the grace of Jesus to reside in the depths of the caverns of my soul. As I read Peterson, one question came back to me over and over again: How can I preach salvation by grace when my life is built on an altar of workaholism?** Sabbath is God’s eternal way of helping us worship our good God, not to worship the good work he has given us to do.

Sabbath protects us from what Hilary of Poitiers called irreligious solicitudo pro Deo—”a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.”*** Thus the Sabbath dissipates our desire to take ourselves too seriously by rightly taking God seriously in worship. Sabbath is that day we are reminded that we are full of God’s Spirit, not full of ourselves.

My family started to practice the Sabbath. In the years since taking this first step, my family and I have become avid, albeit imperfect, Sabbath-keepers. One day a week, my family turns all the screens off, lights some candles, prays, and invites the God of Sabbath to bring us rest. This practice, which we do far from perfectly, has saved my marriage, my ministry, my faith, and I might even say, my life.

Once you get a taste of Sabbath, there is no going back.


* Quoted in Flannery O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings, ed. Robert Ellsberg (United States: Orbis Books, 2003). 86.

** This is a question Eugene Peterson asks.

*** As defined in Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 109. I appreciate the words of Walter Brueggemann who connects God’s Sabbath with his own confidence: “The celebration of a day of rest was, then, the announcement of trust in this God who is confident enough to rest. It was then and is now an assertion that life does not depend upon our feverish activity of self-security, but that there can be a pause in which life is given to us simply as a gift.” Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2010), 35.


Dr. A. J. Swoboda is a professor, author, and pastor of Theophilus in urban Portland, Oregon. He teaches theology, biblical studies, and Christian history at Portland and Fuller Seminaries, including a number of other universities and Bible colleges. He is the lead mentor of a Doctor of Ministry program on the Holy Spirit and Leadership at Fuller Seminary. He is the director of Blessed Earth Northwest, a center that helps think creatively and strategically around creation care issues in the Pacific Northwest. He also serves as director of the Seminary Stewardship Alliance—a consortium of Christian higher-ed schools that are thinking strategically about Christian training in creation care. A.J. is the author of The Dusty Ones (Baker), Tongues and Trees: Toward a Pentecostal Ecological Theology (JPTSup, Deo), and Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (Baker Academic). You can find his website and blog at www.ajswoboda.com, or follow him on Twitter @mrajswoboda.

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Persevere with Kindness by Maya Smith

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Persevere with Kindness by Maya Smith

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


My mother loves to tell the story about a four year old Maya, riding a bus in Bucharest, Romania and loudly giving her opinion about the other riders on the bus. Romanian was my first language and my parents always told me that if I had something I didn’t want anyone else to hear, I would say it in Romanian. No one in Maplewood, NJ spoke Romanian so I was in the clear. At four years old, it was impossible to comprehend that there was a whole country full of people who spoke my secret language. As I remarked on how large the woman squeezing into the seat next to me was, my mother turned beet red and pulled me from the bus at the next stop. My parents immigrated from Romania several years before I was born and now here I was, embarrassing them, back in their homeland. I’ve only been to Romania once.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey and their story became romanticized and remains one of the most overused and hopefully, still powerful stories that I tell today. My parents became successful in their adopted country, they built a family and secured their version of the American dream and positioned my brother and I to do the same.

My secret language and my parents' story have shaped my life in many ways. I ask accented taxi drivers where they are from and ask about their family history, I interject in every Romanian conversation I hear anywhere in the world, I learned different languages, I traveled the world and my children will learn Romanian; right now they think the Romanian phrase “te poop” (I kiss you) is hilarious. I am the person I am today because of my parents. I have everything that I have because of them, and the person they made me into.

I attended a dinner in December with some executives from Silicon Valley and a family that had just arrived from Afghanistan. The goal of the dinner was to encourage cross-cultural understanding and connect the refugee family with resources and friendships in their new community. In this beautiful home in San Francisco, I sat across from the father, as he bounced his not yet one year old daughter on his lap. One well intended tech executive shouted a question across the table, in the “if you speak louder, they’ll understand” voice that I had grown accustomed to as the daughter of immigrants. He asked the father, “What’s your favorite part of America so far?” The father, a translator for the United States Army in Kabul, answered in near-perfect English, “I don’t have a favorite part yet, but I hope that one day my kids do.”

For the first time, I saw my parents sitting across the table from me. It wasn’t the polished, successful, American version that they had worked hard to become, it was their faces in those first months in New York City. Uncertain of their choice, uncomfortable in a world of new customs and strange people, unsure of how they’ll be able to pay rent but willing to do anything and everything to take care of their families. I saw my Dad clinging to his own daughter, who embodied his hopes for the future in this new country.

I composed myself and looked at the father and said to him; “If you think about it, in 32 years, your daughter will be my age. She’ll be – like I am – the daughter of two brave parents who did everything they could and things that they were certain they couldn’t do, for her future. In 32 years, and hopefully sooner, she’ll thank you and she’ll be so proud and grateful. It will be hard, I can’t imagine how hard it will be, but there will be kind people who help you and you’ll tell her about them and she’ll be kinder, braver, stronger and more compassionate because of you.” He translated to his wife and then turned to me and said, “You answered her biggest question about America.”

I’ve tried to write this blog three times already today. I’ve cancelled a call and ignored too many emails. Finally, as I get it right and finish this blog in Starbucks with 13 minutes before my next conference call on a hectic day, in another hectic week of a hectic life, I remember this story and take a moment to slow down and feel grateful, grounded and hopeful. I was asked to write this blog about my practice of perseverance and it is simple; when you are moving yourself forward, make sure you bring someone else with you. On the days when you can’t move yourself forward, move someone else.


Maya Enista Smith obsessed with sushi, coffee and thank you cards. She is proud mom to Hunter and Logan and happily married to Dave. Maya has the pleasure of serving as the Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to building a kinder and braver world.

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Running into Prayer by Caitlyn Littrell

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Running into Prayer by Caitlyn Littrell

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This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


In the spring of 2012, I got very confused about prayer. I had been praying my whole life up until that point—beginning with prayers at meals and before bed in my childhood, more conversational prayers that often steered toward a litany of requests in my teens, and moving into prayers of gratitude and confession influenced by my what I learned at my Quaker university. Through the progression and growth of my prayer life, a few beliefs held true: I knew God heard me, I knew he cared about me, and I knew my prayers mattered. 

But in 2012, a lot of my prayers went unanswered. And they were the most desperate prayers I had ever prayed. 

My sweet mama and best friend had been battling breast cancer for eight years. Myself and literally thousands of other faithful souls had been praying for her every step of the way. We had seen tangible, goose-bump-inspiring answers to hundreds of our prayers through those years. But by March, 2012, I could see that she was not going to win this battle against cancer here on earth. And I started being shy and unsure in my prayers.

Then in June, I found a lump in my breast. I was twenty-eight years old with three boys, my youngest only six-months and still nursing. Mama’s health was rapidly failing, and I couldn’t let my mind wonder what this lump could mean, so my husband and I prayed for a quick resolution. 

On July 26th, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. We prayed it would be contained in my breasts, and I had an emergency double mastectomy.

On August 2nd, we found out that it had already spread to my lymph nodes, and I would need six months of chemo therapy. We prayed that the scans would show it hadn’t spread anywhere else and that my mama’s new treatment would be the miracle we had still been stubbornly praying for.

On August 18th, my sweet mama died while I held her hand. I didn’t know what to pray.

On August 19th, we found out the cancer had spread to my liver; I was a stage IV metastatic breast cancer patient. Liver surgery, radiation, and several other surgeries along with the chemo were my best hope. Technically my cancer was terminal, but my doctor had hope this treatment plan could work. My prayers became something like, “I love you. I know you are good. Hold me close.” But every time I tried to form a hope or a request, my words faltered and nothing came. I still believed that God heard me and that he cared for me, but I couldn’t find my belief that my prayers mattered. 

Three months into treatment, I went in for a scan to show if the treatment was working. I had the scan on a Friday, and I knew I would hear the results by that Monday. On Sunday night, I couldn’t hold still. Although weakened by chemo, I put on my dusty running shoes and set out into the cold fall night for a run of desperation that would change my prayer life forever. 

My run that night was supernatural. Running faster than even on my healthiest day, I practically flew across the wet pavement into the sunset landscape.  I couldn’t breathe, because I was sobbing. I couldn’t fill my lungs, yet my feet moved forward faster and faster. I wasn’t praying or thinking, but I could feel God. I saw the vibrant colors in the sunset. The hard ground under my feet gave me confidence in my presence in this moment. I could smell the crispy fall air heavy with coming rain. My tears found my lips, and their salty trail connected me to myself. I was here, seeing and feeling all of this with God. I was not running in my own strength. I was held and carried by God who heard what I was not able to say.

I finally stopped, suddenly, and my breath came back. My sobs slowed. My thoughts caught up to me, and I said out loud into the night the words I had been scared to admit: “What if you hear me and you love me, but my prayers don’t matter? What does it mean to want your will more than my own like Jesus did in Gethsemane? If I submit to that idea, can I still pray that my scans show the treatment is working? Or are my prayers supposed to stick to the I-love-yous and your-will-not-mines? I want to live, Lord. I want to raise these boys you gave me and love this husband for many more years. Can I ask you for that?”

On my walk home, I recognized a shift in my whole body and soul. Although embarrassed for admitting to God what I wanted, I also knew that relationship building had happened between the God of the universe and me in that crazy run. 

I wrote about my run on my blog. My mentor and writing hero from George Fox, Melanie Mock, commented: “That run was your prayer, Caitlyn.” Reading those words released me into a new and liberating way of talking to my Savior. Their truth still takes my breath away.

On Monday morning, I got the call I had asked God for: my treatment was working! Now, five years later, I do monthly treatments I will continue for the rest of my life that have been keeping the cancer at bay. My prayers today are full of gratitude.

My life is my prayer and my way to talk to God. Since being diagnosed, I have become so aware of how integrated I am with my body and soul all enmeshed and entwined. So God often communicates to me through what is happening in my body. One of my treatments has given me advanced osteoporosis, and movement had been painful for four years. But recently, I was running and noticing that my bones weren’t hurting anymore. My bone treatment was working! Yet I sensed God wanted to show me more than just a reason to be immensely grateful, so I thought about how different it felt to run with strong bones again and listened to what that meant. God showed me that my bones are the perfect example of how he works in me. What was broken and fragile is now strong and capable. What hurt before feels like a solid foundation enabling me to move forward and do more. Yet it took time. I ended this run convicted I need to let pain and healing take the time they need. Then I must recognize and praise Jesus when healing and restoration have taken place. I hadn’t said any official sounding prayers, but God and I had communicated just the same. 

Now I know these things to be true about prayer: God hears me, God cares about me, and my prayers do matter. I also know that my prayers extend beyond my words. They happen as my lips gratefully touch my sweet boys’ heads at night, when I stretch my body and feel my scars pull, and when I close my eyes in trust at night. 


Practice: God speaks to us and invites us to speak back in ways that don’t necessarily fit into our typical prayer practices. When I’m not sure what to pray, I ask myself these questions no matter what I’m doing: What does this feel like? Taste like? Look like? Sound like? Smell like? Even washing the dishes turns into a prayerful experience when I do this faithfully. Finally, reflect on what the answers to those questions reveal about the God who knit you together.


Caitlyn lives in the East Bay with her wonderful husband, three sons, one of her two amazing brothers, and her Golden Retriever, Harper (who is the only other girl in the house!). She is the Pastor of Kids and Family Formation at her church and loves to read, do anything outside, and watch movies with her family and friends. Connect with Caitlyn at everydayglimpses.com. "I love to help women who find themselves dealing with cancer. Please feel free to email if you need someone who has been walking this path for five years. :-)"

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Unpathed by Corbitt Howard

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


It’s embarrassing that an errant relationship has come to define so much about me, but here we are... 

My life can be bifurcated into two distinct periods. Before The Person and After The Person. 

Before, everything unfolded like a novel, just the right amount of intrigue and drama, just the right amount of resolve, just the right amount of seeing the path laid out ahead of me before moving on to the next chapter. That included this Person. We met and fell in love, just like the book said we would, it was destiny, it was complicated, it was tough, but see: just the right amount of drama, and eventually it was all going to have just the right amount of resolve and we were going to very clearly see just the right amount of the path ahead of us then move on in to the next chapter. Until we didn’t. Until she left. Following a year long bloody and botched schism, all of a sudden there were no more pages in the book. 

I became rudderless. In a tailspin that had the unintended consequence of knocking me off all of the paths I was following, not just with this Person, but my Life path, Career path, Home path. Community path. There were no more constants. 

The beginning of the After The Person epoch shall be known as The Lost Time. The Lost Time found me in a car, driving, going anywhere, Austin for a few months, Los Angeles for a few months, Florida, Maryland, I was giving it all a try. But also I wasn’t. I wanted the work to be done for me. I wanted to land somewhere, and this magical place comes prepackaged with lots of friends and purpose and no more waking up in the middle of the night gnashing my teeth while indignantly talking out loud to myself about how this Person could abandon me.

And then there's the God path. God WAS there, silently tagging along. If you’ve ever played Mario Kart you know there's a little creature that follows you around floating in a cloud with a fishing rod, and whenever you wreck your kart so horribly as to be beyond the point of getting back on the road yourself, this creature floats over, picks you up by the fishing rod and rights you on the track to drive another day.

This was how God felt. I knew He was there, I knew He would pick me up if it got so bad, but until then I would ignore Him. 

Eventually (fortunately) there’s no more money and the charity of your friends has worn thin, and you realize nothing but time can make the pain go away. So you stop. I ended up back in Los Angeles, a city that is so challenging in every conceivable way, you don't have time to worry about your Person. But I had a new problem. I bailed on my path. I was now in a thick rain forest of unknowability, hacking away at it with a machete. Goodbye sidewalk.

Cutting to the one thousand word chase, my particular rain forest was about 7 years thick with little clearings and temporarily stimulating ancient ruins scattered throughout. 

And the rain forest is scary. You've lost your place. Your purpose. Your contribution. For me, and my tenants of Christian spirituality, that's a bad feeling, being in service of nothing. I'm the wayward Dad that swears every weekend is the weekend I'm finally going to take my little girl to the carnival, then the carnival leaves town, and for some reason I keep swearing I'm going to take her anyway -- it's a mess. 

Each year that passes, each day really, is another day you aren’t going to get back. That’s it. It's gone (unless, I guess, reincarnation is a real thing, but even then...). The good thing about being purposeless is you can never forget it. Yes time slips away (especially in California...sure, sure, no seasons, all that sunshine, I get it, but to me its like one long Groundhog Day) yet that little tug of emptiness is always there, nagging at you. 

Eventually the nagging turns into panic and the panic presents you with an ultimatum, because no matter your stamina you cannot panic forever. You must make a choice. Jump or Jump. You’re standing over the abyss on one side and...a different abyss on the other. 

You tell your panic to shut up, you need to think. You sit and you imagine the rest of your life unfolding, but not in the path-like way from back when you were stupid and happy -- a moving airport walkway giving you a tour through your life. This is an emotional unfolding, you picture a series of feelings you’d like to have, and wild images in your mind that you’d like to breathe into reality. And this is horrifying because there is no carrot on a string this time, it’s you, and you're in control.  

Then you remember, silly you, you're out here living like you don't have a cloud floating creature with a fishing line that catches you EVERY single time. No matter how far behind in the race you are. This guy is not some hitch-hiker that you allow to float around your go-kart race. He's your partner, and oddly, everyone else's partner as well. With no interest in winning or losing, so much as keeping you in the race.

Alright, snap out of your Mario Kart fantasy you weirdo, you're standing over an abyss with some choices to make! 

.....

At the end of the course of your life, when your consciousness is fused with the higher power, I think the thing you're going to want to bring with you from this finite part here on earth is not, did you follow the path that was laid out in front of you, but did you dig down deep inside yourself, really reach into the depths, and pull up all of you into your life, spilling it out onto the grounds and to your friends and to people you’ve never met, putting into the world your little contribution of truth. 

So you think about that and you jump. And I jump. And as I’m falling, as I'm currently falling typing this, it feels a lot like flying. And maybe, unlike the path mentality, this life isn't leading to one nice and tidy destination, but a wide-open expanse that has to be viewed from above to be made sense of.

And how small-minded it is to think of God as a creature in a game who only operates with you after you are ruined. God is that too, of course, but also the abyss and the panic and the air around me as I’m falling/flying and the choices, and the purposelessness. When you’re following the path, life is simple and things work. But when you break out of the line there's a terrifying wisdom, a new spectrum of color, a truer self, a purpose and a divinity you could not know otherwise. 


PRACTICE:

  • Give yourself permission to freefall. 
  • Feel the wind of uncertainty whipping past your face. 
  • Wig out. And doubt and be angry.
  • Don’t be afraid, God has that fishing rod at the ready. 
  • Allow the crazy journey to work its magic. It will change your life in ways and give you a perspective that maybe at first you didn't know you wanted but eventually you'll never again wish for the era of stupid and happy.
  • You will want to minimize the negative space created by Lost Time. This is tricky, because feeling too guilty about the Lost Time can fire up a vicious cycle of more Lost Time, but feeling too good about the Lost Time can kill the momentum that’s going to lead you to your colorful new outlook. The quick answer is do something, anything. It all counts. Everything is a poem if you consider everything a poem.
  • When in doubt, remember, no matter what, you have a beautiful circulatory system.

Corbitt Howard is the creator of Campfireball, an immersive storytelling experience. Recently he mailed a single potato chip. He is still waiting to hear if it arrived unbroken. Follow along @campfireballer on Instagram.

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Finding Truth During Grief by Katie Novak

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Finding Truth During Grief by Katie Novak

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This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


On a Friday morning, at 23 weeks pregnant with our fourth child, I went to my OB for a routine check-up. She couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat. The ultrasound confirmed that our baby had died sometime in the previous couple of weeks.

My husband hurried to the hospital, and we endured the long and devastating next 24 hours together. Having given birth to three healthy babies in the last six years, the labor and delivery room was familiar, but everything happening was all wrong. All our emotions were inverted.  Instead of waiting with anticipation to meet our new baby, we were waiting with grief to deliver the child we would never know this side of heaven. I had never felt so heartbroken.

Early Saturday morning, we held our stillborn daughter for a short time and said a few words in prayer. A song by Sandra McCracken, “We Will Feast in the House of Zion,” came to my mind. It was one that had been meaningful to good friends of ours after they had endured a similar loss. 

The image of Zion in the Old Testament seems to describe a reality where life is spent with God forever. In the song, Sandra points to a time when “we will sing with our hearts restored.” As we cried, we listened to her earnest declaration of hope in God and her encouragement, “In the dark of night, before the dawn/my soul be not afraid.” I think that in the midst of such intense grief, I was desperate to hold on to the fact that one day we would be able to sing of the great things God has done in making all things new—even this child’s life. We named our baby Zion.

One of the dominant thoughts I had as I returned home and waded into my grief was that I wanted to “grieve well.”  I wanted to do it “right.”  People told me that there was not a right way to grieve. And although there was some comfort in that, it conflicted with my innate desire to learn the correct, or best, way to do something and then follow a plan to enact that best way. The problem was that this was my first experience with this kind of grief, and I didn’t know how to do it or what kind of plan to make. We had recently moved to a new home, in a new community, and were attending a new church—new territory all around. I did not know what I needed.  

In addition, I think that during times of grief, we become extra sensitive to, well, pretty much everything. Every regular comment or experience, from people who knew of our loss and from those who knew nothing of it, was filtered through my lens of grief. Something even as simple as hearing the upbeat Raffi song “Everything Grows” come on for the kids in the car made me burst into tears. “No, not everything grows,” I thought. “The baby that was in my womb stopped growing and died.”

We did not know why our baby had stopped growing, why her heart had stopped beating. The doctor assured me that it was not anything I could have prevented. I could accept not knowing; after all, tragedies happen every day with no apparent reason except that we exist in a fallen world, not the Garden of Eden in which we were intended to live. But as I stood in the unknown, I wanted to find something that I did know.

I wanted to speak rightly of God; however, during my grief, I found it was difficult to read certain verses in the Bible, and difficult to say words to prayers and hymns that used to be comforting and familiar. One such hymn for me was a childhood favorite: “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” I chided myself for being so self-focused, but all I could think about was how Zion’s death was not a sign of God’s faithfulness.

Yet, here’s the thing: I knew Zion’s death did not change the fact the God is faithful.  We proclaim God’s faithfulness not because all is right with the world, but because it is true. It is what scripture tells us (Lam. 3:22-23). About a week after I delivered Zion, my dear friend Jenny texted me that she was praying for me with the line, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,” also from the hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” These were the new words I clung to while listening to this song. I could not sing the line, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” without sobbing, but I held out hope that someday I would. For right now, I sang, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow” with all my heart. This line resonated truth for me. God was continuing to provide strength for one day at a time, and glimpses of a better tomorrow. I did not know why Zion died, but I did know God was near to me in my grief (Ps. 34:18) and that was surely a sign of God’s faithfulness. I thought back to the song we played as we held Zion’s lifeless body, and it reminded me of some more things that I knew to be true. There will be a day when, as Sandra sings in the chorus, “We will feast and weep no more.” In the book of Revelation we read John’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth when God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). This was a truth about the future to which I could hold.

And so I stumbled into a practice that helped me mourn and look forward at the same time: listening to music; music that reminded me of what I believed about God and held true to my current experience at the same time. When I started to get swallowed in all the unknowns, I needed to surround myself with words that I did know to be true. So, I gave my husband a few ideas—songs that had words and phrases that I could embrace because they were true but not in opposition to my very tender, broken heart—and he made a play list for me to listen to during my days at home with our three young boys. Many mornings it felt like a battle not to relive the trauma of our heartbreaking weekend, and the curated songs in the background helped me fight that battle, as I scrambled eggs, changed diapers, and folded laundry. It certainly wasn’t a complete plan for journeying through the grief, but choosing to turn on songs of hope and love helped me put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time. 


Invitation to Practice

The Question: How do we listen for and hold on to truth from Scripture during times of grief, confusion, or doubt?

The Longing: To acknowledge real emotion, particularly of sorrow, and to hold it hand in hand with good biblical theology of God’s character.

The Plan: Make a playlist of songs that speak to the season and emotions you are experiencing.  Or, better yet, ask someone who loves you to make the list for you—a spouse or a close friend. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and choose songs carefully; find music and lyrics that are honest to where you are.  Don’t rush to make a play list that works as a “pep talk,” pulling you towards feelings that don’t accurately portray or acknowledge where you are.  There is no reason to rush a grief process.

What it looks like for me:
For me, the idea of finding and putting together a list of songs was just too overwhelming. (I tend to identify songs by saying, “you know that one song that one group sings with that line about sowing seeds?”)   So, I asked my husband to make a playlist of songs that I could listen to while I was home with our young children. Here are a few songs that spoke to me as I worked to put one foot in front of the other in the days after I delivered our stillborn daughter.

  • “Healing Song” by Bebo Norman (“I don’t know if you can tell, but Love is pushing me along/I’m pressing up against the veil”)
     
  • “I will Praise Him Still” by Fernando Ortega
     
  • “Psalm 126” by Bifrost Arts (“Although we are weeping/Lord help us keep sowing/The Seeds of Your Kingdom/For the day you will reap them…All those who sow weeping/Will go out with songs of joy”)

Katie Novak spent six years teaching and adventuring in the Los Angeles area followed by four years at a slower pace in rural Michigan, where she tried out her new hobbies of sewing and gardening.  Now Katie and her husband Joey, a Presbyterian minister, are back in their hometown of Flint, Michigan, raising three lively boys—there’s rarely a dull moment!

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Practice Makes Present by Paul J. Pastor

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Practice Makes Present by Paul J. Pastor

Why the timeless Christian discipline of listening is timelier than ever.

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


Heating with a woodstove is a gift from heaven. The crackle and snap of the dry logs, the smell of pine sap and woodsmoke, that radiant, deserted heat—it is wonderful. 

Until you have to do it. 

Downed trees to cut with a never-sharp-enough chainsaw. Rounds, knotted, to split with maul and wedge, all the time thinking just how much time each piece will take to season and how little to burn. Scraped fingers, smashed fingers, filthy fingers, splintered fingers, tired fingers. The constant math of cordage and BTUs as winter creeps up your calendar: I think we have enough wood. But it might be extra cold this year…

The woodshed fills, so does the kindling box. Your kids scurry the autumn woods, gathering up dry twigs to pad out the supply. I could have just called someone and bought some stinking wood, you think every year. But you never do.

But for all the romance of the fireside, and all the work of woodcutting, there is a third thing that the woodstove brings into your house. Rhythm. What most of the developed world does with a thermostat, you do over months and weeks. You eye dead snags in the woods. You find yourself knocking on stranger’s doors, leaving your pickup running, pointing to the tree the arborist just dropped. “You gonna use that?” 

The woodstove brings gifts of inconvenience into your house. And the gifts of inconvenience are not to be despised. 

.....

Truly being in the place where we are seems to be a dying art.

We are trained from birth in America to value the fast and easy. We have, after all, some kind of collective national destiny we’re supposed to be about (Living, and being Liberated, and frantically Pursuing Happiness). This, as you know already, creates minds warped against the true curves of time. So great is our focus upon our personal futures, that we find ourselves straining like horses bridled to a millstone—always pulling forward, in the same gritty circle. But it is our lives we are grinding away. 

In such a circle, we disdain the past and fear the present. We are never at peace. In the rare moments that we brush something truly larger than ourselves (such as True Love or Cancer), we awake for a moment. We hurriedly take stock of our lives, pledge to never again live “out of touch,” post some Rumi quotes on Instagram, and then, when the feeling wears off, return to the old Stockholm host—the promising bondage, the constant pull, the constant strain, the slow, never-landing leap forward into a future that never lets us land. 

This is all a long way of saying that we all love sitting by the woodstove. But how we hate the slow, everyday hassle of feeding a year-long fire.

This propensity creates A.W. Tozer’s “monstrous heresy” at the center of our modern religion. It is the lie that “noise, size, activity and bluster make a man dear to God.” 

How vicious this lie is! It cuts the good pith out of life and faith. It allows the shell to remain, while our insides drain away, leaving an ever-growing spiritual façade, and an ever-shrinking life to fill it up with. Like Sarah Winchester’s madhouse, we are forced to never stop building. But it is only and always for show; to divert attention from the shivering thing that crouches within. We are afraid to be alone with ourselves. We cannot stop. We must not. Who knows what will find us if we do? Forward. 

And slowly, the stone crushes out the things that call Christ into our lives, that make us wholehearted and pure. The things that make us happy.

The solution to this may be stated without many words. We must practice presence. We must assert our true selves—the selves that Christ and the truest parts of his Church seek to whisper out of us—against the lie of the age. We must gather what powers of attention are left us, and reclaim seconds, minutes, and hours from every day. Out of these pieces of time, true life may be rebuilt.

To be present is, at its root, to be attentive. To truly see, to truly hear. It is not only to listen, but to have the capacity for listening. It is not only to hear, it is to have ears for hearing. Against the lie of the constant future, we stop, we listen for a voice that can only be heard in this moment. And in that irrelevance, we find timeless life (but it is very slow, and not often impressive, and rarely yields quotes to pad the Twitter feed).

Lawrence the Carmelite found this practice in his monastery’s dishwater. So, I hear, does Ann Voskamp. For me, it has been the woodpile. For others it will be a commute, washing out diapers, weeding. Curiously (I do not know what to make of this), it is the chores that do this better than any “quiet time.” The only word for such a crusty, splintered kind of presence is surely “practice.”

Practice does not make perfect. At least not without a lifetime or so. But practice of this kind can make present, and present (fortunately) is the goal. God cannot be known in the past that we disdain. And we will never reach him in the future, no matter how hard we strain forward. We can only know him now, in the ever-present Present. We can only know him in the place where spirit meets life as it is, and (instead of forcing forward) invites God to say hello. 

God, in his own way, answers. 

To me, his voice usually sounds like popping wood and it smells like the dusky smoke of many pines. 

What does it sound like to you?


Practice:

Find some small rebellion against efficiency to insert into your daily schedule. Walk, don’t drive. Write a letter, don’t text. Make the coffee at home, don’t do the espresso drive-thru. 

Allow yourself to be present in the inefficiency. 

Ask God to speak through that time. 

Listen.


Paul J. Pastor is author of The Listening Day: Meditations On the Way (Zeal Books). Find him at www.pauljpastor.com. Twitter: @pauljpastor. Mailing address: P.O. Box 36, Bridal Veil, OR 97010.

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This Is My Body by Mariah Lefeber

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This Is My Body by Mariah Lefeber

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This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


I grew up in Nebraska, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a music teacher. When I was a little girl, like many of us, I took the world I grew up in for granted – unaware that my life might be different from anyone else’s. It was only as I got older, and especially after leaving home, I began to appreciate this churched, midwestern world that was my early existence. I also began to examine and understand the emphasis and sacredness on liturgy and ritual that defined my own religious upbringing. 

As I started thinking about writing this post, I realized that my message was set to be released during Holy Week, on Maundy Thursday nonetheless. This felt so fitting, with the Lenten season of the church year overflowing with the sacredness of ritual. I thought about growing up celebrating Palm Sunday with the waving of cool, real palm branches, practicing the Passover Sedar, and my father’s heavy Bible slamming to signify the solemn end of the Good Friday service. And above all, I thought about communion – during Holy Week and every Sunday – with the reminder always echoing in my ears: this is my body, broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.

With the workings of the church woven into my very being, my own journey has also been one of creativity – and specifically – of dance. Pursuing my love for this art form, and in the midst of working towards my undergraduate degree in dance, my father was diagnosed with cancer. Many years later, I still don’t have the words to sufficiently describe the pain of his three year battle, of horrors that a hardly twenty something (let alone anyone) should never have to endure. Even now I struggle to grasp all that cancer stole from me, but because I didn’t know // couldn’t know how to press on without it – all throughout the chemo treatments and the surgeries and the pain pumps – I kept dancing. My own creative practice held and grounded me during that season, as it has in difficult seasons since, in a way that I came to understand only in retrospect.

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Just two months after my father’s funeral, I moved to Chicago to pursue the studies in dance/movement therapy I had deferred a year prior. During this pivotal time, drowning in grief and drinking from the fire hose of graduate coursework, I realized that at some point I was going to have to integrate my journey of faith with my world as a dancer. Unfortunately, the words of John Gordon Davies (1984), rang far too true in my own life: In Western culture, relatedness, whether to God or interhuman, has been conceived and practiced in terms mainly of the spoken word. Acknowledging that we are communicating beings, stress has been laid on verbal communication. From this has stemmed an undervaluation of the bodily aspect of the dialogue.  

The church, while steeped in deeply rich traditions of many kinds, hasn’t always done a great job of reminding us of the holiness of the incarnate experience – whether our own bodily and physical experiences, or God’s desire to enter the incarnate experience through Jesus’ life and death. Jesus reminds us – this is my body, broken for you – do this in remembrance of me. Once I was able to recognize and honor the sacredness of the incarnate experience (even amidst its brokenness and suffering) in my faith, I was able to fully understand how the practice of dance allows me to feel more connected to myself, to the world, and to God.

Much like the church I grew up in, the culture of dance is thick with rituals. A culture that is home to me, I forget at times that my willingness to be barefoot anywhere or my proclivity to hug or touch even strangers makes me a bit of a foreigner in the other worlds I inhabit. Yet the truth is that the marley floors of the dance studios of my life are just as much church to me as the sanctuaries where I’ve received communion. My body laid out in a giant X shape across the cool floor, I’ve surrendered my weight into the ground below me, trusting it will support me and hold me up – again and again. The ritual of dance class, of turning off the racing chatter in my brain in order to let my body take over and just be in the present moment, has reminded me repeatedly of the beauty of the incarnate experience. 

I know that for me, personally, great healing happens when I enter the sacred space of the dance studio. I’ve also learned in my work as a dance/movement therapist about the uniqueness and relative nature of each of our personal journeys. Our embodied experiences and needs are vast and varied. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury to practice that which our body wants or cries out for; even knowing what that might be is in itself a luxury. Yet, a practice that sustains me, and that I hope can do the same for others, has the potential for simplicity. I’ll break it down like this:

  1. Know that your incarnate experience matters. Yes, your thoughts and your mind matter – but equally sacred is your bodily, felt, lived experience. 
  2. Listen to your body. Your body is very wise. Take a minute every day to be still and to listen. Inhale and exhale slowly a few times. What do you notice in your body? When you think back to that meeting at work, that important phone call, or that argument at home – can you remember what you experienced in your body? Where you felt something? What are the messages your body is sending you right now?
  3. Respond to you body. Turn on your favorite song and dance it out. Take a run and pound into the pavement with every ounce of strength you can muster. Lie on the floor in a big X shape or curl up in a ball and let the tears flow as they may. Trust that the ground below is there to hold you up, and that God is too.

The beginning of the Lenten season always brings forth memories of the yearly imposition of ashes – the ritual of my father marking the ashen cross on my forehead and reminding me, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. There is great freedom in recognizing the impermanence of our broken, earthly existences – and great beauty in embracing them in the meantime – the messy, holy, incarnate experience that is being in our bodies for today. May you find the freedom to dance in the interlude.


Mariah LeFeber is a dance/movement therapist and counselor who lives in Portland, Oregon, where she has killer living room dance parties with her husband Paul and their two daughters, Adah and Junia. You can learn more about her at mariahlefeber.com or find her on Instagram @mariahdancing

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Wake up!

Last fall, the political atmosphere woke me up. I’ll stay awake, I promised. I’ll fight myopia; I’ll read the news; I’ll care about the welfare of people outside my immediate circle (and more than just theoretically).

I subscribed to a news magazine. I read a book or two. I joined a group of people committed to one small action for the good of the world every week.

And then I fell asleep.

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said.

“Stay here and watch,” he said.

“Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray,” he said.

“Are you still sleeping? Enough! The hour has come. Rise! Let us go! Here comes by betrayer!”

I have always looked down on Jesus’ closest friends because of this moment. It is the night before his death, and Jesus is crying out to God in desperation, sweating blood into the ground, about to be tortured and killed. He asks his friends to wait with him. To watch, to pray, to wait with him in this moment of near despair. And they fall asleep! As he cries out, they nod off. He wakes them with grace (“the spirit is willing, but the body is weak”), and again they return to slumber.  How could they do this? How could they forsake their friend on the eve of this ultimate forsaking?

I was convicted absolutely last night by what Dave Kludt said at Open Door. I was woken up once again. Keep watch! Witness the brokenness in this world. Stay awake! See how God is moving and join in the renewal of all things! I, too, have fallen asleep, as I always do. But I am invited to be restlessly attentive to how God is moving in the world.

Jesus understood his vocation, absolutely. He came to die. He came to triumph through death, through what looked like failure. And this story is the hope of the world.

So what does it look like to stay awake? To witness suffering and actively bring love and goodness to a world desperately in need of it? To be honest, I’m not certain.

I had a friend in college who regularly worked himself to the point of exhaustion. When he couldn’t go on, he would take a “nap” by sitting in a chair with his keys in one hand, hanging over the arm. He’d close his eyes, and the moment he fell asleep the keys would fall and the noise jolted him back awake. That was all the nap he needed to keep going.

I’m not condoning this nap method, nor working to the point of exhaustion. But what I wonder is this: What are the keys in my hand? What can I set in motion to wake myself up when I (inevitably) fall asleep again? 

Here are a few ideas:

  • Have a few people in my life committed to being my wake-up call.

  • Pay for a news subscription so I’ll actually read it.

  • Light a candle in my kitchen to remind me to pray (as my grandmother used to).

  • Write reminders in my calendar for a month from now and six months from now to stay awake.

  • Sell what I have and give to the poor—find creative ways of giving to people on the ground. (I keep hearing good things about Preemptive Love Coalition.)

  • Pray:

God, forgive me for falling asleep.

Jesus, go before me.

Spirit, wake me up!

I would love, just love, to hear your ideas. 

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Maybe God Doesn’t Light Up the Future by Christiana Rice

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Maybe God Doesn’t Light Up the Future by Christiana Rice

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


On a walk with my daughters the other morning, we passed a group of men drinking coffee together on the front steps of an old Victorian home. After greeting them with a tender smile, one of my girls leaned in quietly and asked, “Is that another men’s recovery home?”

“Yes baby,” I said, “this one’s just like the home across the street from us, where women and men are brave enough to admit they need help and choose to live in community.”

“That’s so brave,” she responded.

Just then we passed a beautiful young woman who had overheard our interactions. She stopped me and thanked me for speaking honorably about people in recovery and teaching my daughters to see them in a positive light. The woman herself was a resident of one of the recovery programs on our street and confessed that she often feels like an unseen character in our neighborhood. We stood together on the sidewalk for a few moments, exchanging gratitude and introducing ourselves as neighbors.

Our simple neighborhood stroll that day had turned into a divine encounter, as if the Spirit of God had been leading us to that moment all along. The guiding presence of God was like a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.

In 1984, Amy Grant released the Song “Thy Word,” co-written with Michael W. Smith, taken from Psalm 119:105, “(Thy)Your world is a lamp to my feel and a light to my path.” The song brings back lovely, nostalgic sentiments from my childhood. “Nothing will I fear, as long as you are near. Please be near me to the end!” Amy sang, with her raspy voice and unforgettable anthem-like melody. For years, I’ve found comfort in these words as I trust God to shed light on the path out ahead of me. The metaphor of the lamp and the light has been, for me, about forward movement and helping me find my next step. Yet the further I’ve walked, the more I’ve come to realize that God’s word is more than just a guiding force ahead, or an assistance when we’re lost. 

Perhaps the illumination that the psalmist refers to here is an experience of the very presence of the Spirit of Christ with us, awakening us right where we are and leading us deeper in life, rather than further.

My girls and I walked the rest of our way home that day, talking about all the people and places in our neighborhood that we’re prone to overlook. Like the elderly, the alleyways, the houseless community, the hidden structures and signs and the people who look different from us. I told them about Psalm 119:105 and how we had experienced God on our walk, like a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.

So here’s an idea, take a listening walk in your neighborhood, maybe with friends or family. In some creative way, write out Psalm 119:105 and carry with with you. As you walk, listen and look for what God might be illuminating along your path. Walk slowly, skip, look in unusual directions, sometimes stand still or lay in the grass and when neighbors pass, look intently into their eyes. Practice an awareness of God’s light shining on the present moment. And as you do, remember that God’s wisdom in the scriptures guides us and guards us and helps us see. God’s breath clears away the dust around our feet so we can know the ground we stand on. 

May the word of God, like a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, draw us deeper into the fullness of life.


Christiana Rice is an on-the ground practitioner and visionary voice in the missional movement, serving as a coach and trainer with Thresholds, a community of player-coaches who help people create and nurture neighborhood expressions of church. She is the co-author of To Alter Your World, with Michael Frost, and leads an intentional Christian community in urban San Diego.

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Fruitful Sacrifices for Wholehearted Joy by Carrie Graham

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Fruitful Sacrifices for Wholehearted Joy by Carrie Graham

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


I’m with seminary friends and their spouses on a sunny LA afternoon. It’s our first year, but already my study buddy group has gelled. Today no sirens sound and no announcement is made, but I quietly know my party job: “Make friends with the wives, Carrie. Just make friends with the wives.” My hope was to gain their trust since I was spending so much time with their husbands. But within minutes at this gathering, it occurred to me that since I thought my classmates were cool, their female counterparts might be even cooler. I was on the right track. The author of A Good Way Through is a prime example.

The trick was the men congregated in one huddle and the women circled up in another one. If you took this image to an aerial view, and pretended we made a human Venn diagram, I was the only one in the overlapping middle. While I did ultimately have some female classmates at seminary, this aerial image is a fair metaphor for my life since seminary. Sometimes it acts as a warm spotlight; other times it is the ugliest of mush pots. Cue the life of a single, female, millennial, childless, thirtysomething, entrepreneurial minister in Texas. 

The fantastic way to see this is that my experiences provide me a distinct angle to view the world. I also relate in part to many people’s experiences. The underbelly of this means others have trouble relating to me. The more strongly drawn I am to creative, experimental, high-risk endeavors in ministry, the more both my demographic and passions disconnect me from relationships built on shared experiences. Sometimes it plays as my own personal “Upside Down,” where I often feel like Barb from the Netflix show Stranger Things. Maybe I am a strong single female, but sometimes I feel so alone and lost that I might never make it out of the darkness.

American culture does not make it easy for adults to find good friends, no matter how unique my situation may feel at times. I have had moments where I have reached out and failed to find connection in difficult seasons, only to find myself in the fetal position on my kitchen floor, crying and not knowing what else to do but to keep breathing.

Because of the particular set of cards stacked against me when it comes to meaningful connection and support, it is often tempting to leave ministry, much less Christianity. But one of the single most compelling aspects of Christianity to me is the Incarnation of Jesus. It’s pretty darn Christian-y, this beckoning idea that a mysteriously unified and interdependent Trinitarian God chose to define Love through God-With-Us. Loaves and fishes could’ve rained down from the sky. Garments did not have to be touched for people to heal. Jesus didn’t have to stand face-to-face with Legion in order to drive out the demons plaguing him. Nobody needed to be around for God to raise Lazarus from the dead. Yet Love put on human flesh and showed us by example that Love is expressed at its core via “withness.” This is the core lens through which I experience loneliness among human communities. This assures me in two ways:

  1. I am not built to be alone because of what I have learned from the example and even existence of Jesus as Messiah, which makes my struggles both understandable and shared with other humans around me. This is a legitimate need, and the struggle reveals its great value.
  2. I am not truly alone. Even in feelings of utter loneliness, I retreat to Scripture for stories of people of faith that have gone before me, outlining all the ways in which God doesn’t abandon us, continues in relationship with us, works with us AND behind our backs for our good. Christ sees me, understands me, knows who I am and calls me by name.

We need humans to be the hands and feet of Christ that demonstrate our own interdependence. We need each other. Yet when our limitations prevent this, we are not left with nothing. God is alive all around us. (See Krissy’s poem in the (DIS)CONTENT chapter!)

I am drawn to certain experiences without blueprints. That’s part of who I am. God grants me fantastic joys in it. I have come to accept the “challenge accessories” to life pursuits as vital formation on my life’s road. When I do come across connection and support, it is fully as myself, with my whole heart. Finding companionship without forsaking who and how God made me is a joy I would not trade for 1,000 forced connections. There is abundant life to be received here indeed.

This path demands I trust God, who retains control of all this mess, in order to be wholehearted in my life and service. Yes, this means I will live a life of sacrifices. We each have crosses. I accept my endeavors may often be uphill both ways; below is a practice that helps keep my heart in line for wholehearted joy along the way.

Practice: The Living Priority List

I regularly take time in imaginative prayer to assess my life-and-call’s priorities. Knowing I am committed to pursuits that involve big challenges, being intentional with a living priority list helps me best sort out the difference between worthy sacrifices and empty ones, faithful desires and cheap cultural scripts I don’t have to follow. Knowing why I am sacrificing x, y or z helps ensure that any challenges involved are more pruning than damaging, meaning they hold the possibility for growth rather than unjust damage to myself or others.

Instructions:

1) Sit with God in prayer - be true to yourself, your calling. Don’t initially think of the how, the limits, the scariness, etc. Only think of where your heart desires for your life to go. Listen for God.

2) Start writing down what you want to get out of your life, whether next week or before you die at age 157. You may find yourself writing about what you want for your family, your hobbies, your travels, your money. Resist the temptation to categorize the list by topic or timeline. It all goes in one single page, in order, in reasonably-sized handwriting. The list may in part sound as abstract as “live in simplicity” or as concrete as “pay off my debt by the time I’m 35.”  Get it all out on one page, then transfer it to another one in order of importance. 

When I start wondering about why I am working so hard for x goal, I get out the list and remind myself of why it is so worthwhile to give up y for x. Or it helps me realize it is not worthwhile anymore, and I seek God's help in discerning new changes to the list.

3) Know that God doesn’t ask us to be challenged by choosing empty, fruitless endeavors, such as treating ourselves as less than beloved. Injustice may happen to us at times, but it doesn’t mean to opt for it as if life can’t be hard enough without our help. To that end, God doesn’t ask us to devote ourselves to anything out of anxiety or fear.

Life is not about safety nets, nor is it about convenience. Fruit is on the pathway of abundant life we have been given in Christ, fruit from both pruning and from belonging encountered fully as ourselves. On your path, I pray you will feel fully alive, as your lows and highs weave together to form a secure rope of abundant life in Christ.


Rev. Carrie Graham is founding pastor of The Church Lab, a non-profit community that explores and empowers innovative paths to spiritual growth. She spends much of her time faciltiating inter-religious dialogues and pastoring folks through how this experience invites spiritual maturity. Her passion is to help equip Christians to creatively meet unmet spiritual needs in our shifting religious landscape. Carrie loves to sing, dance, travel and hang out with her dog Addy. You can find her on instagram at @thechurchlab or by e-mail at carrie@thechurchlab.org

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Writing Saved Me by Cara Meredith

Writing Saved Me by Cara Meredith

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


Ministry was not supposed to break me. 

Ministry was supposed to point people to Jesus. Ministry was supposed to be my call, the place that took my strengths and weaknesses and used them for Kingdom purposes. Ministry was supposed to be the place I grew old in. 

Ministry – with all its bells and whistles and the hard parts that nobody but people in ministry talk about – was my identity. It was, in a nutshell, me. 

And then I had a baby. 

Up until that point, I swore, over and over again, that I wouldn’t be one of “those women” – you know, the kind that leaves the traditional workforce to stay home with her child. Instead, I would work full-time, which in my context, meant that I would continue as director of a local youth outreach ministry. But as a woman in (that particular) ministry, this also meant I would take my newborn son along with me everywhere: to coffee shops and to the office, to local cafes for breakfast dates with potential donors, and to the high school campus for afterschool tutoring sessions. 

Within a week of claiming myself more than capable of such double-duty responsibilities, and trying my hardest to be all things to all men (and to all babies, namely my own), I knew it was time to hang my cape up to dry. 

Ministry superhero, I most surely was not. So, I gave notice. 

I gazed at my baby lying on the floor of my office, and said, “We’re really going to do this! We’re going to step into a new adventure. Mama’s going to take care of you, and she’s going to become a speaker and a writer. And, we’re not going to be so tired anymore!” 

I was full of exclamation points. 

But in the midst of excitement, over what felt like the best decision, the right decision, the clear calling out of what I’d been called into in the first place, tears began to creep in. 

Who would I be when nobody looked to me as a leader anymore? 

Who would I be when being a Professional Christian and leading others in the way of Jesus wasn’t my job anymore? 

Who would I be when it was just my baby boy and me, when nobody read the words I painstakingly posted into the vast wasteland of the Internet?

That’s when the tears started to flow – and that’s when the tears continued to flow for the next year, as I wrestled with questions of identity, as I sought to figure out who I was apart from a ministry title. 

It’s easy, as I type these words and as I read over what I’ve written, to discount my own story. It’s easy for me to say, “Well, leaving a job in ministry and stepping into full-time motherhood and becoming a speaker and a writer isn’t really grounds for suffering.” But then I think about how I wrestled with God, how I questioned him time and time again, for my loneliness, for my identity, for my calling. I think about how I looked for Christ’s presence, when I questioned whether I’d made the biggest mistake of my life, when darkness seemed to pervade a previously happy, shiny, ignorant me. 

And it’s then I know that suffering is a part of my story, too. 

For me, healing began to enter the story when I sat with my words. I suppose if you don’t call yourself a writer, it’s easy to read that sentence, and feel like you’re sitting in a too-small desk, staring at the black board in ninth grade English. 

But power exists, for every single one of us, when we commune with our words. 

I started writing out my story – a tale of grit and glory, rooted in the name of Jesus. Sometimes, after writing pages of words, I’d read over a paragraph, and a single sentence would catch my eye.

What do I really mean in this sentence? Why did I write these words? 

Even though no one saw my journal, I oftentimes found myself writing what I thought other people wanted me to write and feel and believe. So, I began to press into truth, into the truth that was mine alone. I began to read between the lines, between lines I’d written and created in the first place. I began to let myself feel anger and sadness, to feel the weight of leaving, the loss of friendships, the hardship of transition. And I began to find what I really thought and believed and felt, apart from the ministry that birthed me and that I’d called home for nearly twenty years by that point. 

I suppose you could say that writing saved me. 

Maybe, in places of theological certainty, we change the sentence to point to God. We change the sentence to more reasonable declarations that God found me and met me and comforted me in my grief when and as I found my words. And that, too, is true. 

Whatever it is, perhaps this is your moment to step into the creative act of writing, to find and to discover and to reunite with your Creator through the holy act of pen and paper. No one has to see it. No one has to read it. No one has to read the depths of your soul engrained onto the page in front of you. 

But I bet, along the way, you’ll be found in a new way. You’ll find a small amount of healing, a teaspoon of comfort for your suffering, when you enter into this creative act. 

At least, that’s how it was for me. 


Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker from Seattle, Washington. She delights in large amounts of guacamole and dinner around the table with people she loves. You can find her on her websiteFacebook and Twitter. 

Healing and the White Rag by David Hasegawa

Healing and the White Rag by David Hasegawa

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


It’s all I have left, stained beyond recovery, shredded and almost formless I wave the white rag above my head and cry out in my distress, “Jesus, I surrender, have mercy on me and save me.”

At nine years old I overcame dyslexia and learned to read. At last, I could read like the other kids. I didn’t feel any less stupid, but at least no one could tell I was stupid. In college I discovered that even though I was stupid, I could outwork the other kids and get good grades. If I just battled hard enough, I could overcome whatever was in front of me.  If I overcame, then people might like me. Maybe they wouldn’t notice how inadequate and pitiful I was.  That belief metastasized into my spiritual life and I began to believe that God would reward me for my labors – especially if they were in his service! In my heart I said, “God, I got it now, I’ll take it from here.”

A decade after college, I partnered with a good friend and started a non-profit to help widows, orphans and sojourners. I was earning my white robe, a veil to disguise how disfigured I felt on the inside. But God loved me too much to let me continue in blindness. He used the greatest crisis of my life to bring me to a point of complete breakdown, where everything I thought about myself and about him was broken apart.

An inappropriate relationship landed my friend in jail, ended our ministry, wreaked havoc on our unsuspecting church and destroyed any good we’d done in the lives of the people that we worked with. In the middle of the worst of it all I remember lying on the floor sobbing and crying out to Jesus for mercy over and over again. That white robe I’d worked so hard for was revealed as nothing more than a dirty rag. I was forced to look fully at my life and I hated what I saw. I saw how I’d failed to stand for truth, failed to be obedient to God’s leading, I saw a coward and a hypocrite. I spent that entire night sleeping for a few minutes at a time and then waking up and crying out to Jesus again for help, for hope, to show up and save me. And he did.

Three years have passed since the worst night of my life.  God unveiled that even though my sin and inadequacy are despairingly deep, his grace and love are marvelously deeper.  The greatest grace he has given me has been my beautiful wife, an amazing woman of faith.  

So after three years, am I set? Not at all. God is interested in far more than pulling me out of crisis and disaster. When I surrendered my life to him he set out to bring about true healing. God healed my whole being and spiritually, emotionally and physically transformed me.

As I surrender my fears over to God a strange physical transformation occurs. To illustrate, I always wondered how people went up and down stairs without staring at their feet. Even though I tried to look up, my eyes stayed locked on that next step. Over time I discovered that my pelvis had been locked up, as if I was trying to walk around in a fetal position. I realized that through this posture I’d been trying to protect myself from the judgement of others. What an amazing reminder of the grace of God as I go up the stairs at work and see the faces rather than the feet of the people I pass.

For me, the process looks like this: recognition, confession and finally surrender. Today as I drove to work I could feel my morning coffee a little too strongly, and it dawned on me that it wasn’t a nice caffeine buzz I was feeling, instead I was anxious about an e-mail I had to write.  “God, I gotta admit, I’m a little scared about this e-mail.” I confessed out loud. By the time I exited the freeway I had begun to let go of my anxiety and surrender in faith to the goodness of my God.

I find trust in God to be less a product of my will and strength, rather it is a surrender of what I’m holding onto. As I have acknowledged the goodness of his character, his love and his grace, he has literally straightened my physical being and brought incredible spiritual and relational healing to my life.  What an amazing and awesome God we have!

An Invitation to Practice Surrender

What are you worried about? What is it that you hold onto when God calls you to trust him? What do you need to acknowledge of his goodness and character?

When you feel worried, try this prayer: God, I am worried about _____. Help me to remember that you are _____.


David and his wife Rebecca live in Boise, ID with their feline compadre Kiddo. The three of them enjoy coffee, Netflix and bacon. Find him on Instagram: @dekuhlrov

Reaching Through by Hailey Joy Scandrette

Reaching Through by Hailey Joy Scandrette

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


About a year ago, after years of experiencing low energy and over a month of unexplained chronic pain, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). I had just turned 22. I’d hoped to finish college in December, 2016. I had just allowed myself to start getting excited about what life post-graduation might hold. The diagnosis threw a giant wrench in my hopes and plans. 

Fibromyalgia and CFS are chronic illnesses with overlapping symptoms such as severe fatigue that doesn’t improve with sleep, nerve and muscle pain, executive dysfunction (brain fog, lack of focus, memory problems), and anxiety. Stress, viral sickness, or overexertion can exacerbate these symptoms, causing “flares” that can put you on bedrest for a few days. The medical causes of fibromyalgia and CFS are unclear because serious research on them has only begun in the past few decades, but there are a number of theories based on what treatment has been found to be most effective. Treatment options range from lifestyle changes (stress management, dietary adjustments, low-impact exercise, etc.) to prescription drugs to manage pain or regulate sleep. Most people find that a combination of medications and lifestyle changes is most effective in alleviating their symptoms and improves their quality of life and daily functioning levels. That being said, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue are almost always life-long conditions. 

In some ways my diagnosis helped my life make more sense. I’d felt for years that I couldn’t do as much as other people my age. I hadn’t had enough energy to cultivate a rich social life in addition to staying on top of my coursework and doing basic everyday activities like commuting to school and feeding myself. I’d struggled with depression on and off since beginning college. For years it seemed like there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t do what other people could do, and I thought it was my fault. Discovering that there was something wrong with me, but that it wasn’t my fault, was a huge relief. 

However, as you can probably imagine, relief was not my primary emotion. In January 2016, I had been perfectly healthy, or so I thought. By the end of February I’d been almost completely bedridden for three weeks, I was experiencing consistent pain in my back, hips, and legs, and I could only manage to do about 3 hours per day of any activity that wasn’t sleeping or watching Netflix. So, being told that my condition was chronic was painful in a whole new way. My doctor assured me that we would find a treatment plan that helped to alleviate my pain and fatigue as much as possible, but this would be a matter of trial and error, and I would most likely be treating these symptoms for the rest of my life. I was heartbroken. I felt an intense sense of loss when I’d think about how I’d imagined my life before my diagnosis. I’d pictured myself being full of energy and life, always working on projects I was passionate about, always creating community for my friends and neighbors, going on long hikes on the weekends, always working hard and loving hard. That life seemed completely out of reach after spending a month in bed with so little energy I could barely read. 

The pain of loss, combined with the experience of daily, constant physical pain was intensely isolating. I’m convinced that isolation is the worst part of pain. Although my family was supportive and caring, I could barely leave the house except to attend classes, and in class I was too tired and distracted by pain to socialize with my peers. I didn’t have a lot of friends, and was worried that the friends I did have would soon get bored of hearing about my health problems and visiting me when I couldn’t do anything fun. It was so tempting to just not tell people what I was dealing with, especially because the meaningless platitudes that some people offered were almost worse than the isolation. Being told, for example, that “God is in control” when you’re in constant physical pain, doesn’t really make you feel any better about God, your pain, or the person trying to reassure you. In my experience, it just makes you angry. 

Despite this, I’d learned in previous seasons of life that community and connection to others is one of the most important ways that God offers me comfort when things are difficult. So, I challenged myself to be open with people about what I was going through, and (even more important and terrifying) to ask people for support and comfort when I needed it. I started with practices as simple as texting a couple of my closest friends on days when the pain or fatigue was particularly bad and asking them to pray for me. Sometimes this was easy, sometimes I felt so anxious about being a burden, or boring people with my problems that I cried for an hour before getting up the courage to ask for support. The results were almost always good. My close friends would text back or call and offer support, prayers, a listening ear, and even reassurances that they wouldn’t get sick of hearing about what I was going through. More publicly, I wrote about my experiences, shared ways for people to support me if they wanted to, and clearly defined the boundaries that I needed respected. Sharing honestly about what I was going through made me feel like I was free to experience it without pretending to be more okay or more hopeful than I was. 

Reaching out to friends started as a practice and became more and more habitual. Sometimes I still feel anxious, or self-conscious about being a burden, but practicing vulnerability has made my close friendships safe places for me to feel those worries and to voice them. Intentionally practicing vulnerability by sharing my experiences and asking for what I need helps me to feel less alone and to feel God’s presence even through pain and grief. 


Hailey Joy Scandrette is the editor in chief of Ignited Magazine, an online community for young adults seeking to practice the teachings of Jesus. She is also a senior at San Francisco State University studying US History. When not ears deep in primary source analysis and note taking, she enjoys thrift shopping, writing, climbing trees, and going on long walks with her friends and family. She is passionate about social justice, living incarnationally, loving and serving others, and almost anything else that she has any opinion on. More of Hailey's writing can be found at ignitedmag.com and at haileyjs.wordpress.com

Art from Ugliness by Mandy Smith

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Art from Ugliness by Mandy Smith

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


A few years ago our family went on a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion trip to my homeland of Australia.  While there, my husband had many meetings about jobs there so, after fifteen years away, I gave myself the luxury of calling the sea and the kookaburras mine again.  But after we returned to our life in inner city Cincinnati, and heard that the job had fallen through, I fell into a dark place.  The simplest tasks took all my energy and I could hardly get out of bed.  The part of my soul which waits and hopes shriveled into a bitter lump.  And all around me, instead of birdcalls and beaches, I found urban ugliness.  As I walked the sad streets, my beach-combing habit continued but instead of shells, I filled my pockets with bits of broken glass and rusty bolts.

Around this same time, a friend asked me to make art for his inner-city counseling center.  I wanted to make something hopeful but not sugary sweet, honest but not cynical.  It had to acknowledge both brokenness and healing because the kids who visited the center would see right through any attempts to gloss over the challenges of life and certainly didn’t need any more darkness than they already had.  So the natural medium for the art was the growing pile of junk by my back door.  With a bit of care and a lot of glue, green wire twisted its way into leafy tendrils and smashed amber tail-light covers were reborn as golden sunshine.  And somewhere along the way I got dragged into the whole rebirth thing.  The habit of forcing myself to find beauty and meaning in brokenness leaked over into my life.

But the story goes on.  While I was working on these junk creations, a young woman in our community (I’ll call her Sophia) was savagely attacked in inner-city Cincinnati.  Her sister visited me and tearfully shared her family’s story and suffering.  In the weeks following the attack, Sophia was too distracted to read and too disturbed by violent images to watch TV.  Drawing on the healing I was beginning to experience, my first question to her sister was “Does Sophia make anything?”  As I looked at the city around me, a city with a struggling school system, ongoing racial tension and more than its fair share of pollution, I knew I had to make the process available to others.  And so I created a city-wide art project which I called The Collect.  

For two months, all Cincinnati was invited to drop pieces of junk (we called them "artifacts") at local coffee shops.  Cincinnati responded with bike wheels and sunglasses, doll parts and Christmas ornaments.  Somebody gave an entire collection of watch-bands and someone else emptied out their camera lens case.  People provided stories with their pieces:  “This is a shoe that walked me through my college years.”  “This is the rusty hoop that tripped me up and made me smash my teeth on the pavement.”  Then I gathered all the "artifacts" and laid them out for one of the most unusual parties ever to take place in the basement of a church.  Seventeen artists had finger foods and mingled as they picked through what looked like the remnants of a very dismal yard sale.  In their eyes, the rusty jetsam became teapots and aliens on bicycles and all manner of marvelous things.  And off they went, with boxes of junk under their arms, with the summer to work their magic.

In the Fall, my church’s cafe hosted the most motley and meaningful art-show I’ve ever seen.  There was a delicate porcelain doll torso with a corsage made of old keys, a concrete table inlaid with a tiny nest filled with jewel-like eggs and a purple foot-bridge made of an old shoe.  The grand finale of the month-long show was an auction event with free food and live jazz where all the proceeds went to ArtWorks, an urban youth art program.

There was no doubt that the artwork positively glowed with the message of brokenness reborn.  But, of course, for me the best art from ugliness was the faith and friendship that was born in broken human hearts.  At least, in this broken, human heart.  Throughout the course of the six-month project I’d heard so many stories and made so many friends.  In the eyes of junk-collectors, café owners, and artists, I’d seen a dogged determination to find meaning and beauty.  It became apparent to me that the greatest work of art was the community that had formed around all this resurrection until eventually Cincinnati once more was safe and, to my surprise, home.


Originally from Australia, Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church, a campus and neighborhood congregation with its own fair-trade café in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today publications and the Missio Alliance Blog and the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry and Making a Mess and Meeting God. She is also the creator of The Collect, a citywide trash-to-art project. Mandy and her husband Jamie, a New Testament professor at Cincinnati Christian University, live with their two kids in a little house where the teapot is always warm.

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Grace in the Mess by Leah Renee Chambers

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Grace in the Mess by Leah Renee Chambers

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This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


I remember sitting at an unknown burrito place with a good friend, perched at a hightop table, feeling so desperate. After several years of trying to get pregnant, undiagnosed infertility, and a failed bout with foster care, I had almost completely lost myself. We were trying to have an important conversation, about me, about us, and all I could think was, how is my face

Is it appropriately sad? Is it too sad? Am I scaring her by revealing too much? Am I sitting up straight enough? Am I holding my head right, are my gestures normal? Do I seem erratic? Should I tell her I’m not doing ‘fine’? Is this going to be the end of us? Does she still want to be friends? Does she see me as a diminished version of myself? But, wait. Was that self really myself? The one from before? If not, does that mean that THIS, this now, this self is myself? Because, oh God, if that’s true, what do I do now?   

Navigating life had always been easy for me, but it seemed desperately hard now. 

"Breathe" by Leah Renee Chambers

"Breathe" by Leah Renee Chambers

It seemed to me that all the ways I used to interact with friends, family, and God, had shifted without my permission—shifted to the point where the logic of them failed. Before, I would say this and they would say that, we would spend time talking and our friendship would grow. After, I would say something and they would respond strangely. We would go out to lunch and I would cry in the car afterwards, doubled over with tears and slashing pain. 

With friends, they would ask how I was doing, and I would freeze. I would try to be honest, but I never knew whether to answer for that particular moment, for the week, for my life? I would scare them sometimes. They really just wanted to hear that I was better, that things were looking up, that God was giving me peace. I wanted to tell them those things, but I also wanted to be truthful. I would try to be honest. Try to let them in. Try to be gracious in my pain. But most times, I would just get a side-arm hug and a “hang in there” as they walked away…as if I was radioactive. I knew that no one knew what to say, but I longed for them to say just that—that this situation was awful, and terrible, and I didn’t deserve it. That it was okay to be broken, okay to mourn, okay to be in the “middle” and not at “the end.” I wanted them to carry hope for me, assuring me that I was mendable, and my mended self would be breathtakingly beautiful. 

Mostly I just wanted them to say that they would be with me…no matter how ridiculous or awkward or broken I got. 

With God, I would try to worship. Try to pray. Try to read my Bible. Try to ask. Seek. In the past, that would have “worked,” and I would have grown closer to Him or found peace or hope. But in the midst of this clouded season, nothing seemed to do the trick. I wasn’t readily finding what I had always found in the past, and I also was thinking things about God that weren’t quite in line with the way I had thought before. If I remove myself from the standard faith responses of my younger self, what is left? What do I think God says? What promises can I cling to? What does it mean to have hope…real, godly hope? How much does He care?

All questions I couldn’t really answer. And God didn’t seem to be getting any closer while I floundered. 

"Grace" by Leah Renee Chambers

"Grace" by Leah Renee Chambers

One day, while walking through San Francisco on my morning commute, I had this urge to write a poem. So, before I could really think about it, I snapped a picture of the rainy street corner in front of me, typed three lines of un-rhyming verse onto it, and posted it to Instagram. 

And my soul breathed. 

In that single moment, I gave of myself fully. To myself I offered a valid space to be, without explanation, detailed analyses, or caveats. To others I offered a glimpse into my pain and my creativity. To God I offered an invitation, a longing, for Him to find me exactly where I already was. 

Startled and excited by that brief sensation of lightness, I started desperately looking and writing. Every day I would take a picture and attempt to put words to this life I was in the midst of. Many were dark, some were bright, and a few didn’t make any sense to anyone but me, but they were all true. 

Slowly, slowly, God found me there. I would see something that brought me joy, or I would hear a whisper of hope as I wrote a poem about my pain. I could physically feel the tightness start to loosen, and my soul seemed slowly won over by gentleness. I started to feel gratitude. And I started seeing, feeling, and sensing grace. 

I believe that was God doing His work…while I practiced offering myself, in gratitude and grace.  

A Practice

Take a moment today, to find your own glimpse of hope and beauty and truth. You don’t have to go anywhere special—stand in your kitchen, on your street, or under the sky. Breathe. And then look, and appreciate what you are being offered in this moment.

"Awake to Hope" by Leah Renee Chambers

"Awake to Hope" by Leah Renee Chambers

Stand there, and consider how you feel.  

How does your body feel? Is there a lightness in your feet? A heaviness in your chest? Do you feel grounded? Does your breath flow smoothly in your lungs?

Stand there, and look around you. 

What do you notice? What stands out to you? What do you hear? What is beautiful in your eyes? What isn’t beautiful? What does it offer to you? What might God be saying to you?

Take a picture and write a few words. 

The picture can be anything—your feet, a shadow, the sky, the corner of a cabinet. Try not to judge what words come up for you. Write them down. Appreciate them for what they are. Give thanks, and allow yourself to accept grace.  


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Leah Chambers is an artist and creative in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her poetic works call attention to the beauty and hope that exist in spite of the darkness. Find her at ontheflypoetry.com and on Instagram as @leahreneechambers.

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