Monday, November 14, 2016

About That Weight Loss

“Mom, do you have any good fat pictures of me?” is a question I remember asking and certainly not one I ever thought I would. Earlier this year my trainer was impressed enough by my weight loss to ask me for before and after pictures to show to prospective clients. I have never been asked to be a before and after model before, so I excitedly began to choose two pictures that I felt would do my weight loss journey justice. Looking through many overweight pictures was a humbling, and embarrassing, process for me.

I’m what you may call “appreciative of the culinary arts.”  I come from a long line of people who feel the same. With German and Irish heritage, I naturally have a somewhat stocky build that went out of style back when cavemen no longer had to chase after and fight over their food. I can look in the mirror and see a large ribcage, a high forehead, and skin so white I once recently looked at my legs while outside at night and mentally commented on how bright they were. These are things that I cannot change.

And then there was something I could change: my weight. And so it happened that earlier this year I had the notion to join a gym. This was not a decision made without some internal deliberation. I thought about how there are people all over the world without enough to eat and I was going to pay a monthly fee to walk on a treadmill. I thought about trying a personal experiment…. could I lose weight spending the amount of money a single person receives in food stamps and utilizing free modes of exercise such as running? (Disclaimer: I was well aware that it wasn’t a precise experiment; I certainly had privileges. For instance, I live in an area where it is safe to go out and run when I want to and I can afford an apartment community with a viable workout room.) My basic evaluation of the situation was no, I would not lose weight entirely on my own.

I think I will always be grateful I decided to hand over the cash and join the gym. I’m even more grateful I got matched with a fantastic personal trainer, which is funny because things like personal trainers were expenses I would have judged a couple years ago. A personal trainer seemed like a lavish luxury for the wealthy and contrary to what some may think, working at homeless shelters and for hospices doesn’t make one monetarily wealthy. 

 Despite my past misgivings, I had a free initial session with a trainer (that’s where they get ya, folks) and soon I was signed up for a 90-Day weight loss challenge. I approached this journey realistically. I knew that I wasn’t going to stop eating sugar; after all I never was one who thought you should eat dessert first because life is short, but that you should eat it first AND last because it tastes good. Except for the two weeks that I did a detox (nothing unhealthy, just organic, non-processed meats and vegetables and an absence of things like white flour, processed ingredients, etc. as well as some additional protein and fiber shakes) I snacked when I wanted to. The big change was I wanted to snack a lot less than I used to want to. Even the way I drank my coffee at Starbucks changed and I still maintain many of these habits.

At the end of the challenge I had lost 30 pounds. Of course, it’s easiest to lose weight initially. Since the end of that challenge I’ve lost almost another 20 and that second phase has taken six months. I realize the weight loss slowed for two reasons: I was past the initial quick weight loss phase and I was building muscle (and I’m friends with the candy bowl at work). Having a personal trainer has been invaluable. On my own I probably would have ran for hours on a treadmill with little to show for it, but I’ve received a lot of education from seminars at the gym and direct education from my trainer. Not only have I lost weight, but I’ve become a lot stronger and am no longer scared of strength training. I’ve had the opportunity to try new things (boxing, anyone?) and overall, it’s been a lot of fun. The accountability and camaraderie I've built with my trainer have been huge blessings.

Now, for the vulnerable part: When I first contemplated losing weight I was conscious of how being thinner could change my self-esteem and I wasn’t sure it would all be for the better. It wasn’t until I faced the prospect of losing this weight that I realized that I’d been wearing it like an uncomfortable security blanket. My concern was that if I lost the weight and was still single, it would validate that there really was something wrong with me. Newsflash: There is stuff wrong with me. There’s stuff wrong with everybody. In fact, there’s stuff wrong with every single married person (oh that’s a great play on words!) that I know because we’re human and flawed and that’s where grace comes in…. but that could be a whole other post.

I decided to kick my concerns to the curb and focus on being healthier. It’s funny the differences I notice now that I’m thinner. I’ve had instances of people I haven’t seen in a long time not recognizing me if I ran into them in public. Once I was waiting outside of a restaurant for my own parents and they couldn’t tell if it was me until they got closer. Other times I do feel noticed. It’s almost funny how when I was larger I almost felt invisible when it came to things like dating and now, it just feels different. A huge part of that is a renewed sense of confidence and that’s been one of the best results of this journey.

So, yes, I have spent money for a gym and a personal trainer and I wouldn’t go back and change that. I’m interested to see how God uses this newfound confidence because it really has been one of the best results of becoming healthier.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Beauty from Ashes

He says, "Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth." ~Psalm 46:10

That, my friends, has been my verse for this year. It's a message has been communicated to me over and over again these past almost twelve months. This year started off really difficult and in the midst of that I had someone tell me, "Just be still." The reminders to be still have steadily continued throughout the year and sometimes you know God is speaking to you.

Back in January I was driving one morning- something I would often do on Sundays before church- and I swung by the airport, which really is only about 15-20 minutes from my apartment and I drove past and looked at the terminals. Steven Curtis Chapman's song, The Glorious Unfolding, had been playing and I decided going to Belize was a good idea. I had been entertaining the idea of a mission trip with my church and I hadn't been back to the country since I last flew back to the US from there in January 2007.

I also decided that month I needed to focus on forming more of a social life in the Raleigh area. I had been living here for a little over a year and I wanted to be intentional about making friends locally. I have a tendency to try new things where I hardly know anyone (I think this started with my trip to New York back in '04) and I started attending a small group from a church I had never visited. For a few months I was pretty quiet and as is my usual fashion, I finally began to open up and I kind of have been talking ever since. These friends don't know what a lifeline they were for me.

This past February I watched my mom recover from another brain surgery. She's a pretty strong woman. She might disagree, but we can agree to disagree because she's been through a lot and she's still standing (although, it is almost 11pm, so I'm thinking she's not standing at this exact moment, but you get the idea...). 

May came around with a fantastic trip to DC to see a friend get married, complete with a night stay in a hotel in my home town and another night stay in a hotel even closer to the city. I met up with a cousin and friend I hadn't seen in a while and also spent the next morning driving around the town I grew up in, seeing my childhood home and favorite spots. I also got to explore some of my favorite museums in the city. Sure I got a speeding ticket during the trip, but that got worked out.

Then in July I realized I just couldn't find my passport. I looked high and low and finally came to terms that a trip to Atlanta was in my future. I worked half a day and then started driving from Chapel Hill to Atlanta. I stayed in a snazzy hotel downtown and ordered chocolate cake from room service off of my swivel flat screen because I could, and took an individual tour of Atlanta attractions after getting things with my passport squared away the next morning. It's a good thing I went too, because going to Belize was a huge God-given blessing.

Very shortly after getting back to North Carolina, I jetted off to Belize and really got to know some great people better. I am so incredibly thankful I went because later this year my pastor announced his retirement and I don't know if I would have received such a blessing of friendship from him and his wife if I hadn't spent those 10 or so days really learning what it's like to go on a mission trip with no agenda and an openness to serve. I shared a smallish room with four other women and loved it.

While waiting to disembark the plane once back from the trip it turned midnight and my birthday began. I turned 33 this year. I used to hear people comment on how they appreciate being in their 30s because they are more comfortable in their own skin. I used to think they said that to feel better about being in their 30s, but now I can see that they were right. I'm settling into this decade of my life and I think something I said to my dog, Chai, one day when I was having a hard time and shed a few tears says a lot. I said, "This isn't want I thought my life would be like, but I'm glad you're a part of it." Family and friends, you better believe that goes for you too.

I rounded out my year by completing my first 5k, obtaining my LCSW, learning I have an exciting and highly anticipated change in my career coming up that I am excited to eventually share, watching my favorite niece grow, grabbing coffees here and there with my mom, making new friends, attending one of my favorite church services- the Christmas Eve service- with my dad, and having a fantastic holiday season with the family.

This year hasn't been perfect. I've continued to struggle with an anxiety disorder, but also have experienced great strides in treatment. I've often felt lonely. I've cried. I've been bored at work sometimes. But I will tell you this: I have grown.

I really struggled at the beginning of this year, but God has made the ride of 2015 much more beautiful than I would have imagined. Many people are going through hard times and I'm not sure what I can say that would help much except this: God has a long history of making beauty from ashes. Let Him have yours and be amazed at what He does.

Check out the song, Glorious Unfolding by Steven Curtis Chapman. I love it and it spoke so much truth to me.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Workplace Worth: My Tendency Toward a Dangerous Trend

One of the first questions we ask a person upon learning his or her name is “What do you do for a living?” Perhaps it’s a simple ice breaker question; something safe, unlike religion or politics. Knowing what a person does for a living gives us a clue into who he or she is, what he or she is skilled at and frankly, it’s an easy and polite question to ask.

In Christian circles we may ask, “What is your calling?” And almost every time the respondent will answer with a vocation. Those answers aren’t wrong; God does call us to certain careers. My curiosity lies in the fact that the answer rarely seems to be anything other than work.

Lest I forget- there are those in the conservative circles who will remind women that their highest calling is to be a wife and mother. I disagree. A person’s highest calling is to be in relationship with God  and frankly, if being a wife and mother is every woman’s highest calling, could we assume Mother Theresa failed to fulfill God’s will for her life? Obviously not.

Regardless of the terminology used, we spend a lot of time talking about what we do to earn a paycheck. This question tends to lead to guilt on my part. I’m not saying it’s logical or correct, but since employment too often seems to be the epitome of a calling, I struggle with whether or not I am getting it right.

For instance, I once saw a Facebook sticker about how Marines never have to wonder if their job makes a difference. Maybe so, but I’m pretty sure if I were a Marine I’d still wonder. I’ve wondered when working with the homeless and I wonder now when working with the dying.

When people hear I work for hospice I get a variety of responses, usually along the lines of “That takes a special person.” What people don’t know is that sometimes I feel guilty about my job.  You read that right: sometimes I feel guilty for being a hospice social worker.

Why? Long story short: the job description included part social work and part chaplaincy and between my education and experience, it seemed a no-brainer to apply. I didn't fully understand the published job description was incorrect until after I took the job. I really struggled when I learned I would only be doing bereavement counseling and social work and then, due to financial issues, the organization didn’t replace a social worker who left and I was needed full-time in that department. So now, I’m a full-fledged social worker.

So why does that make me feel guilty? Because I was ordained and I feel guilty that I am not in vocational ministry right now. Is that a valid reason? Probably not, but part of me feels like I’m failing. Don’t I owe it to the church to be in ministry? I went to divinity school and then grad school for a social work degree to compliment the MDiv, not to replace it. Am I not living up to my calling because of my current job?

That leads me to again ask the question: is my calling more than  my job? My divinity school dean used to say, “A call to ministry is a call to prepare” and that statement supported the importance of theological education. I ask myself, am I still preparing?

When I was ordained I was serving as a chaplain and already planning to go back to school to work in an urban ministry one day. As I’ve already mentioned, my current job didn’t pan out the way I planned, but does that mean it isn’t part of my calling? I have learned so much in this job that I know will benefit me in ministry and I truly believe I will be a better minister because of my current experience. Add to that, my current jobs pays very well. Could it be that this gives me the opportunity to pay down some debt so I can be freer in a lower paying urban ministry job? If I could get rid of some student loans, I would be under a lot less stress with a minimal paycheck. Could it be that this job makes sense for me right now? Maybe my preparation isn’t quite over yet. And maybe, just maybe, my calling is to a life of ministry and it is still valid even if at this very moment I am not in a vocational ministry position; maybe it's that that part of the calling will come later.

I look forward to the day I'm in vocational ministry, but I also realize that my calling isn’t limited to my job; rather, it encompasses my whole life. It’s about my relationship with God, my obedience to Him, and my love and compassion for others. That calling doesn't change based on my job title. 

Regardless of how I feel about my work right now, it’s not the epitome of my calling. My pursuit of God is the epitome. And the cool thing? He pursued me first.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

On Having Less

I am my mother’s daughter, after all. This became all the more apparent this past weekend as I combed over my apartment, getting rid of multiple items I no longer- or have never- worn or used. My mom thrives off of decluttering and those who know me best know that organization is not my strong suit.

I’ll say it again: I’m not an organized person. Oh, I do alright in life. I’m not of the variety that can’t pay bills on time or has been written up at work for failure to meet deadlines. It's just that pictures of rigorously organized closets with color coded clothes and little cubbies for each sock stresses me out.

Despite the fact that I'm successful, even though I have a tendency to forego strict organizational rules of thumb , I often feel “less than” for my lack of organization. Many in our culture thrive on it. We proudly proclaim how OCD we are (soapbox moment: you can have OCD, but you cannot be OCD, unless you are calling yourself a mental disorder) because we like to keep a clean desk. And then there are those of us who are lucky to just know what’s in the piles on our desks.

This past weekend I entered one of my decluttering moods. Shoes Chai chewed up, but for some reason still sat in the back of my closet? Gone. Cute dress I bought two years ago that I never wore anywhere? Donated.  Random assortment of 1990s Christian cds I forgot I had? Thrift Store.

Prior to this cathartic cleaning spree, I had perused the website of The Container Store where you can find shelving, drawers, dividers, boxes and bins to suit all your organizational needs. I made a list of the items I could buy that would help me.

And then it hit me: I was planning to buy more things to hold the things I already have and I already have more than enough things. (See that last sentence? Dr. Seuss isn't the only one with skills.)

I don’t consider myself a minimalist, but I appreciate living simply. If I didn’t have so many things, I wouldn’t need to organize them. There are entire companies making money off people having too much stuff. So I decided to downsize.

I realize many people enjoy organization and cherish hours spent in stores with rows upon rows of baskets to hold craft ribbon, and that’s great…. that’s just not me. I’d rather have less than have lots neatly stored away. And I absolutely recognize that you can live simply AND buy organizational supplies… I’m just sharing what works for me.

Maybe it’s my 19th century loving self, but when it comes to my wardrobe sometimes I feel like I just need two pairs of pants, two shirts, a skirt, and a sturdy washboard. Now when I peer into my closet post-cleaning spree weekend, I realize I don’t have a ton of clothes…. and I’m ok with that. (Don't worry, I still have more clothing articles than the aforementioned list.)

After my experiences in Waco, Chicago, and Belize, I’ve changed how I perceive owning things. I don’t think we need near as much as we think we do and when I compare my apartment to what those in third world countries have, I realize I don’t need a giant house.

I realized that for me, owning less is more valuable than buying organizational tools. And let’s face it: buying boxes and bins is not going to solve my tendency to let clutter accumulate; they would just be more items to declutter.

I am not dismissing the importance of organization or the need to continue to improve in this area. Rather, I am realizing that I'd rather have less to organize. 

When I see something at a store- even the thrift store- I really try to consider whether or not I like it enough to give it space in my home. For me, it doesn't make sense to spend lots of money buying more things to hold the stuff I already have. There’s something freeing about owning less.

Now if only I could apply this love of less is more to my Starbucks trips.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Being Still Even When My Hands are Shaking

“Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” ~Psalm 46:10 (NIV)

2015 has been a somewhat crazy year. It’s just the first day of the third month, but already I’ve had my heart broken, have dealt with a family medical issue, and am experiencing severe burnout at work (compassion fatigue, anyone?). Oh yea, I also am experiencing a side effect of a medication that sometimes makes my hands shake. It’s a very awkward conversation piece.

I have been deeply in need of rest.

Psalm 46:10 seems to be a recurring theme for me this year. In talking with friends and reading books, the idea of being still has been preached to me numerous times. Obviously, it’s time to listen and going on a spirituality retreat with my church in Greenville seemed like a great opportunity to be still. I’d been on this retreat before, but had forgotten about the banner that is displayed at the front of the sanctuary. It reads: “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

Got the message.

Throughout the weekend there was ample time for silence and solitude. We read passages from a devotional classic, “The Shepherd Psalm” by F.B. Meyer and then would take significant time to be alone, pray, and reflect on what we read.

I joked with my small group that I live by myself so I already have lots of solitude….. but there’s no spiritual rest in watching the Bachelor on Monday nights. The point was, you can have time alone and still not be restored; restorative solitude must be intentional.

This weekend it was very intentional. Saturday morning I put on my Chicago boots and coat and walked to the prayer chapel. Situated at a camp and conference center in a part of the state where mountains are beginning to dot the landscape, the chapel has glass windows that overlook the forest. Dusted with snow, the scene was beautiful. I took a seat on a rustic wooden bench in the back and when the other person present left, I took a seat at the front. I looked out over the outdoor scene and prayed…. and cried. I said out loud, “God, I’m struggling.” I realize it was supposed to be a time of silence, but I think that cry from my heart was entirely appropriate.  

I didn’t receive a distinct answer to my prayer, but I did experience the communion that comes from pouring out my heart to God, something that comes strongly recommended in one of my favorite verses, Psalm 62:8. Though brief, that time in the wooden chapel brought with it rest and restoration for my soul.

Other quiet times involved curling up on a couch or in a chair and reading over the book excerpt and then praying, letting the tears fall if they came.

I reconnected with friends I had grown to love during my time in Greenville and enjoyed the fellowship that comes from talking in groups while grazing a giant pile of snacks, or resting on a couch and remembering retreats past. The community was simple, and so much more restorative than my normal get togethers with others, which generally consists of dinner out or a movie. No one was rushed….well, maybe the retreat leaders.

The time of solitude, sweet community, and times of worship were greatly needed and I’m back in Apex, feeling a little more restored than I was last week.

This was a weekend of healing in various ways. It was not without its humorous times, such as when I went to light a candle symbolic of my prayer for my broken heart and after trying the wicks on about three different candles, could not get them lighted. Slightly exasperated I practically thought, “I just want to light a candle for my broken heart! Can’t I just do this!?” (That was the first night of the retreat…. not as much rest was had at that point!) I finally did get a candle lit.

This retreat brought the conviction that I need to focus on being more intentional about solitude and seeking God on a regular basis, instead of running myself ragged until the next retreat at the end of February. Maybe this year I’ll follow through on it. I know lately I have had some struggles that have brought me closer to the heart of God and I want to continue that spiritual growth.

I’d love to hear what others do to connect with God and  experience rest and rejuvenation. I know it’s not a method, but a process of just being. Just being still and knowing that He is God.

So, that’s something I want to focus on. I’d say work on, but well, it’s not about doing, but about being. Being still can be hard for my extroverted self and even if my hands shake, at least my soul can be still.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Healing After Trauma: When Forgiveness is More than Just Letting Go

Five years ago this March I went through one of the hardest experiences of my life. I had been in a new town less than a year, living way too close to an ex from a toxic dating relationship, and trying to forge a career path. The last two years had been difficult; filled with working at a Bojangles with a master’s degree, then working two part time jobs while completing a chaplaincy internship that involved 24-hour on calls at the hospital, and figuring out how to move on from the aforementioned ex.

I had finally landed a new job and I could breathe. The job only lasted a year, but that was ok. I could take some time, regroup, and figure out my next step. Little did I know I walked into an environment way more toxic than any dating relationship I'd ever have.

I’m not going to go into details about what happened or where it happened, but I want to share the hardest lesson I’ve ever learned about forgiveness. For some brief back story, I was working at a large organization in a department with a history of dysfunction. False accusations were made, I found myself out of work on leave, and navigating a government system I never thought I’d have to figure out. People I thought I had befriended turned out to be anything but friends, and my heart was broken. It cost me and it cost my family.

I remember the day my supervisor told me what had happened and I wasn’t even sure of the meaning of his explanation. As is custom with me, the news didn’t fully hit me until later. That day I felt somewhat numb, even able to laugh about the situation. Pretty soon my almost constant tears replaced that laughter.

I was out of work for a while and struggling with how people could do this kind of thing. I talked with my pastor, my family, my friends, a counselor….. but the anger and hurt seemed to be a constant in my life at that point. I cried a lot, I had bursts of anger, and I carried around a massive weight of anxiety. I started hanging out with a friend more often and drank more than I ever had in my life. My friend in no way pressured me and he provided an extreme level of support, but if wine was available, I drank on a regular basis and it was my decision. For some people it probably would not have been significant, but since I don’t have a history of drinking, it's clear something was up. I am so thankful I don’t have an addictive personality and when this whole situation started to rectify itself, I stopped trying to act out to deal with my pain.

As things began to clear up and I went back to work, I felt like I was treated like a leper. I had people- even within my work organization- who offered their support and solidarity, but I still felt watched and judged by others for something I didn’t do. Ironically, the hardest part of this ordeal was just getting started.

I spent many therapy hours talking and crying over this situation and like the abstract thinker I can be, continually questioned what forgiveness meant. I remember saying to my counselor, “So they can just ask for God to forgive them and He does, but I still have to deal with all of this?” Even as I asked it, I knew God had forgiven me of my sin, but I still felt indignation that they could so easily “be let off the hook” as I saw it.

So, what did forgiveness mean? Did forgiveness mean getting over it? How could I do that when I occasionally had a dream about the situation, I still walked around under a cloud of anxiety, and I could see certain triggers in public that would put me in a tailspin of anxiety? I became concerned that anybody else could do the same thing and even called 911 once to tell my side of a story involving getting angry at another driver, so he couldn’t call and make up a lie first. I didn’t always think rationally about others because I was afraid. I’m not going to call it PTSD, but I am going to say it was the faintest traces of it.

People say forgive and forget…. surely they can’t mean literally. How can you force yourself to forget a scarring event? So maybe it’s figuratively, as in living your life as if it had never happened…. but considering my stress levels, I didn’t see how that was a possibility either. It’s not that I refused to forgive, but I didn’t exactly know what it meant in the midst of my pain. I could say I forgave, but I would still carry around the emotional scars in a way that controlled my life.

I went back to grad school after that experience, a move that wasn’t popular with my family, but I figured I could make my own decision after what I had gone through and my previous extroverted and talkative self was suddenly an awkward, reserved, non-participatory classmate and I’m pretty sure I may have been eyed as a pretty weird person. That’s ok; grad school was a time to relax. It was my second master’s degree, I knew I could do school well, and so far the working world had been ridiculous. Going back to school for a degree I had wanted anyway seemed like a great movie; and it ended up being so.

Eventually I began to regain some sense of normalcy and reenter the world of extroversion, but the question of forgiveness still hung in my mind. How did I let go of everything that had happened when I was so damaged and afraid?

I was in a Bible study at the time and we had a discussion on forgiveness. One of the people in my small group shared that they had once heard that forgiveness is being willing to live with the consequences of another’s person’s actions. That was probably the best- and most freeing- definition I had heard since this whole thing started. I didn’t have to stop working through my emotional issues, I didn’t have to stop talking about it in therapy, and I didn’t have to try to forget it all in order to forgive. I could still work on me, work on my feelings about all that had happened, and still be in the process of forgiveness. I could forgive AND still focus on it; because the focusing was for my healing.

The healing process took a while….. over the course of the next few years I was able to let go of it a little more at a time. I came to a point when I prayed that I forgave those people, but even after that I dealt with anger and hurt. Maybe forgiveness isn’t about just letting go right away, but being willing to work toward forgiving, even if you aren’t quite there yet. Like grief, the process of forgiving came in waves. Some days I felt further along and the next day I felt like I took some steps backward.

I saw one of those people out in public a couple times since that job. The first time I burst into tears and the second time I didn’t. It was a little bit of progress.

So what is forgiveness? I think only God has the perfect definition, but I can say that I no longer think it means just letting go. If I had tried to just let go of that situation, I wouldn’t have dealt with my emotional baggage. Forgiveness involves a choice. It’s not about refusing to forgive because of your pain, but being willing to work to get to the point where you can forgive, in spite of your pain. Even if I hadn’t reached forgiveness right away, I was willing to get there. And I think that’s a big part of the process.
A while after the incident had happened I remember saying to my counselor that I didn’t feel like I would ever stop being angry. He said to me, “Are your bouts of anger less frequent than they were a few months ago?” I affirmed that they were and he reminded me that was progress.

Life is hard; people will often hurt you. Please never confuse forgiveness with ignoring the healing you need to move on. You can focus on the issue and forgiveness simultaneously. There is no perfect formula for what it means to forgive and heal, but the willingness to get to that point is a prompting of God that reminds you He is good….. and despite who has hurt you, he has also blessed you with so many people in your life to remind you of His goodness. 

Please watch this video for Ten Avenue North's song, Losing, and really listen to the lyrics. It's the best song I have ever heard that could describe my experience through the journey of forgiveness.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Valentine's Day Pretty Much Equals Earth Day

St. Vallie’s Day is coming up and the boxes of chocolate have been rolled out. Regarding this holiday of love, I recently told someone, “Valentine’s Day is kind of like Earth Day. You know it’s happening, but it doesn’t really affect your life.” (Environmentalists: please don’t yell at me!)

I’ve never had much of an issue with February 14. It was always a friendly day; my dad got me chocolates growing up, my middle school friends bought me candy grams, and it’s just not a sad day to me. When I was a senior in high school I didn’t feel like staying at home Valentine’s night, so I took myself out and quickly realized that if all singles did the same thing, we’d find each other!

But my heart goes out to those who feel the sting of rejection, disappointment, envy, or a myriad of other emotions on Valentine’s. Unfortunately, this is one area in which the church does not often provide an alternative to our culture’s view that everyone’s life purpose should be to find “the one” (which is more a cultural term than a factual one, anyway). Singles are often treated as something “to fix” because people want singles to be happy. That’d be great…. if being single meant being unhappy!

Maybe the reason Valentine’s Day isn’t a sore spot for me is that I’ve never had a date on Valentine’s, so I’m not comparing this year to last. There’s a time I may have been embarrassed to admit that, but why? I’ve dated and gone out with different guys, just not on February 14. Some people might wonder if there’s something wrong with me, but then I wonder what’s wrong with them that they judge someone’s worth by whether or not a date was had in mid-February.

In general I’m a pretty content person and that’s not because of- or in spite of- being single. My relationship status doesn’t delegate my level of satisfaction with life. Is it harder sometimes than others? Yes. Are there times I’ve had a really rough day and just want a hug? Of course. Do I sometimes feel that if I talk about how overwhelmed I am that other parents will roll their eyes and say, “Wait till you have kids”? Absolutely.

Yes, I want to get married one day. I want to have children and that’s one of my dreams. I’ve often joked that I have a platonic shield in front of me. I have a lot of guy friends (I’ve even joked that I collect guy friends like some people collect baseball cards) but it doesn’t seem to go further. I’m emotionally aware enough to know that there isn’t any one reason for my singleness. It’s not that guys just don’t like me or I’m so messed up. I realize that I just haven’t met the right guy and that I contribute to my “platonic shield” by my lack of vulnerability with guys and my efforts to deflect attention if someone flirts. One of my fears is being vulnerable with a guy and baring my heart, only to have the guy give me a look of rejection and say “Really? Um, no.”

I’ve learned that if I have unreciprocated feelings for a guy, it doesn’t mean that he’s a step above me and he doesn’t feel the same because I’m not up to his level. That’s a subconscious thought I’ve had for years and it’s unhealthy. What it really means is that guy and I are on the same level, but it’s just not the right match. A rejection doesn’t mean that I am not good enough; it just means that he and I are better for other people.

Why am I so open about such a private matter? Because for too long I felt like my singleness was something to be kept under wraps, something to not draw attention to, and something to work as hard as I could to change. Essentially, it seemed to mean that I was undesirable. I now know that is wrong.

Historically, I’ve been pretty hard on myself and it was only in recent years that I realized that… and it took other people pointing it out for me to see it. As I’m working to accept myself more and more for who I am, I realize that I can be open with some things I used to want to hide. My hope in writing this post is that someone else can begin to let go of inappropriate shame or sadness for where he or she is in life.

Whatever messages you do or do not receive this Valentine’s Day, you are worthy, you are amazing and you are loved.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Politics of Poverty and My Questions About Modern-Day Social Work

**Disclaimer: This blog post is way too long to be considered very well written. Plus it sort of rambles. If you do get through it, I’d love your comments. I’m extroverted and like to process things with others, so I’m not presenting answers (which is obvious since I hardly have any), but am mulling through personal thoughts and experiences. What I love about engaging others in these topics is that others can help me see things in a way I may not see on my own.**
When I was a teenager I remember walking one of my family’s dogs around our roughly 1,500 house neighborhood and daydreaming. I wasn’t usually the one to daydream about weddings; I tended to daydream about curing cancer. It was usually very specific… I was on the Today Show discussing how I discovered the cure specific to breast cancer, but only if it had been detected within a certain number of months. It was specific, but a breakthrough that could lead to more! (As a creative writer, I had very detailed daydreams.)
As a teenager I also became very interested in politics and thought about going to grad school for a Masters in Political Science. Combined with my Public Relations undergrad, the idea of being a political speech writer intrigued me (one could even say the creative writing skill would come in handy- ok a sad, but somewhat realistic, joke). For my undergrad degree I even interned at the North Carolina headquarters for a particular political party. I loved to write and I loved politics and it seemed like a good path. Yet, God had a different plan and that involved divinity school.
Divinity School is probably where I had the first inklings of giving up my desire to save the world and instead just focus on loving my neighbor. Some of the best parts of my education were spent outside the classroom…. a summer in Waco, Texas that was revolutionary in my life and involved attending church under an interstate overpass, another summer in a bilingual church when I didn’t know Spanish and had a small glimpse into what it feels like to be marginalized, a winter on the West Side of Chicago, and a trip to Belize that opened my eyes to one of my spiritual gifts. By the time I graduated from divinity school in 2008 I had very different views of the world than I previously had. It’s very hard to talk about the poor in an objective sense, essentially viewing an entire segment of America as a statistic, when you’ve played Scrabble at the homeless shelter and realized your tablemates weren’t strangers, but somewhere along the line had become friends.
I eventually pursued a Master of Social Work, but it was always in the pursuit of a biblical view of social justice. I wanted a social work degree to aid my Master of Divinity degree. The combination of theology and social work is dear to my heart and if you read the Bible- really read the Bible- you’ll see the message woven throughout that Jesus commands, as opposed to suggests, that we care for our neighbors, particularly the vulnerable.
I’m now a practicing social worker working toward my full license, but the purpose of social work is something that often rattles around in my brain. I think of Jane Adams and the Hull House of Chicago and consider that most modern-day social work barely resembles its origins. Social work was about challenging unfair systems and being relational neighbors with others. In fact, the origins of social work are very biblical. Now, social work seems to mean being a government employee with all the benefits thereof.
These thoughts came to the forefront of my mind as I listened to a well-accomplished social worker speak recently. She had wonderful advice and had done a lot for people. However, she discussed that the state had received more money and now DSS could hire a good number of intake assessment workers to help people determine eligibility for benefits.
I sat in my seat wondering, “Is this the right response?” Is it reasonable to see a need and solve it by hiring more people to distribute resources as solutions? Are these solutions sustainable? How do we reconcile an economy with a supposed budget with the well-being of our neighbors? But the main question that flooded my mind was, “Why is the solution to hire more people to assess for benefits? Why don’t we look at society and seriously consider why the need is growing? If social work does what it intends to do, we should get to the day when others don’t need to have their incomes assessed to get by. Doesn’t the system often seem to encourage us to see others as objective statistics?”
It would be absolutely awesome if I had answers to these questions. The truth of the matter is, there aren’t enough people who care to address the problem to rid the need of government involvement. And if my faith informs my life, and the Bible is clear about caring for the poor, shouldn’t I vote in a way that focuses on the marginalized? After all, the abolitionists could only do so much without the Emancipation Proclamation.
But then I think about what a classmate in divinity school once said about how Jesus never told us to vote a man into office to give out cloaks, but to give our own cloak. How do I reconcile that statement of blunt truth with the severe need in our nation and the lack of personally invested people to partner in those needs? How do I reconcile my personal views of social justice with what society says it is?
One of the ways my faith involves my social work practice is that I fully believe relationships are the point of life. We were made to be in relationship with God, and then with each other. The Bible is the story of our Creator pursuing us for relationship. Personal change doesn’t happen because someone was accepted into a program with an income assessor; change happens because someone entered a relationship with another person who was a neighbor, and ultimate change happens when someone enters a relationship with the living Christ. So then the question ceases to be so much about how programs are run as much as it is about who I am in relationship with others and what greater Hope I point toward.
One of the reasons everyone seems to have a different view of what is appropriate social justice is that we all see the world through the specific lens of our experience and if that’s all we’ve known, we have to work to consider other experiences. For me, growing up in middle-class America with a military father, I learned what I call “the boot camp mentality.” You have to start at the bottom and you may get treated unfairly and get overloaded with grunt work, but its part of the process of growing in a career. My father is a hard-working man and I learned a lot from him. As I’ve grown into an adult, I’ve seen that my boot camp started at a higher level than many others. My parents worked hard to provide for our family and I got to start at a middle-class boot camp; not everyone starts there.

So is the answer that people just need to work harder? Logic and reason say to work hard and you’ll work your way to the top. I think most of us have lived long enough to realize people are more complicated than logic and reason. Psychology, though it may be a soft science, is one of the most powerful and insightful fields of study. People are a messy combination of reason, emotions, fears, defenses, hopes, confusions, and complexities. Our environment shapes the way we see the world. It’s as if children get a pass until they turn 18 and once that happens, they should know better. We say children didn’t choose to be born and yet, somehow, with poverty and the messages received growing up, we expect them to magically become adults who resemble us; who act and think like we do. It doesn’t work that way.

How do we hold in tension the various factors of poverty: environment, early childhood influences, a history of oppression in our country, and the psychology of what it means to grow up in a neighborhood different than I did? We want to sift through the populous and crown the worthy poor; those who we determine to deserve the aid. And yet, Jesus was all about us- who aren’t worthy at all, but receive his grace.

So, with all the factors of different experiences, legitimate system abuse, and need that doesn’t seem to be shrinking, what is the marriage between the broader scope of the government to handle issues and the private and church population? I’m a proponent of separation of church and state, but that doesn’t mean the approach to poverty can only be one or the other.
In terms of politics I like to think I’m middle of the road (talk about bi-partisan, in 2008 I donated to the Obama campaign and then decided to vote for McCain). I am under no illusion that a man-made political party can remedy all of our nation’s ills. Nor do I think the government is the sole answer. I’ve run HUD programs for the homeless and they are full of ridiculous notions that make it easy for someone to stay in poverty. I’ve actually once said out loud, “HUD breaks my heart.”

Realizing my views of poverty are limited in that I’ve never been in poverty, I’ve come to the conclusion that government involvement has the potential to be a good thing. Programs aren’t either all good or all bad, they help some people, but they’re also dysfunctional. I can’t support some of the ways HUD runs things and frankly, programs like food stamps barely resemble what they were intended to be (check out the history of food stamps being a means to meet the needs of hunger and farmer surplus and that people took ownership in the program by investing in it with their own money and getting a return that they couldn’t have gotten with their original investment alone).

I still haven’t been able to answer my own questions and the more I try to answer them, the more questions I have. There’s valuable experience I have and so much that I don’t know. Perhaps answering the questions isn’t the point. I so easily focus on what I should be doing, what the government should be doing, what the church should be doing, and forget to remember who we are supposed to BE. Regardless of whether government programs exist or not, it doesn’t change my responsibility to live out my faith in a way that cares for the least of these. I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter if HUD has policies that are blind to reality or food stamps and social security aren’t currently what they were intended to be. My calling is to love God and love my neighbors. That’s the call. The way in which that call manifests itself is different for each person. Some are called to challenge policy, some are called to address the needs of poverty in other ways. But all of us are called to be relational neighbors.

Maybe it’s time I stop letting myself get distracted with the arguments about politics and social work and into what they have evolved. It’s easy to get distracted by a think tank type of mentality and argue theories, yet I’ve come to realize that my call to love my neighbor  has very little to do with what it means to be a social worker; it’s about being a follower of Christ. I need to stop being distracted by what doesn’t matter. The method, whether it be social work or not, isn’t the point. The relationship is. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Just So My Friends Know

I've been in the Raleigh area for a little over a year. It's finally starting to feel like home. I often drive back to Greenville for meetings and I realized the last couple times that it no longer feels like home; it no longer feels more familiar than Apex. I find myself having to think a little harder about the fastest way to get across the crowded streets of Greenville when before the traffic-evading routes seemed almost mechanical.

A little over a year.

It was hard to leave that Eastern North Carolina town. I can't say all my reasons for moving there were the best and I can't say the first year wasn't somewhat traumatic, but despite all of that I can see this mosaic in which the pieces God has designed fill out and give meaning to the rugged shards of glass that I sometimes experienced during my early years there.

The day I moved into my Apex apartment, I remember standing on my parents' driveway, getting ready to make the quick trip in my car, with dad in the U-Haul, and something about our plans changed slightly. I don't remember what it was, but it was enough to bring on the tears over emotions that had been building up. There, in the middle of my parents' concrete driveway, I began to cry. Mom asked what was wrong and with words that could have belonged to a five year old I replied, "I like my friends."

Greenville was the first place I really built an adult life post-college. I made some really strong friendships and as much as I love being closer to a city, I have to admit, I'd rather have a mid-size town surrounded by people I love than a city of isolation. Of course, one could argue it IS possible to have friends in the city (let me know if any of you want to rent a place in Chicago!).

I'd like to say there's a profound reason I wrote this post; that I had some grand insight I needed to share with others. But the truth is, I think I just needed to let my friends know how much they mean to me. I've been blessed with wonderful friends in Apex, but there were also times I longed to hang out with many of you in Greenville.

So friends from Greenville and Apex and other places where my life has crossed paths with good friends, I appreciate you. I love you. And I suppose to communicate that is the grand reason for this post.

Monday, October 20, 2014

When Church Made Me Cry

I admit it: I've cried in church.

This time I'm not talking about the soft cry of thankfulness or the more forceful cry of repentance.

I'm talking about the quick tear of loneliness and self-pity.

It doesn't happen often. I think the most recent was Father's Day. On Mother's Day Facebook seems to blow up with comments and articles about how unfair the day is and how the church should recognize it can be painful for childless women, and so I pretty much feel like society has got my back. Father's Day, though? No one seems to comment on the pain of men who desire to be fathers but aren't, and maybe my tears that day were some kind of stance of solidarity with that forgotten group.

Whatever the reason for the occasional teary eyes, church is one of the places that I can feel the most lonely. Take for instance the two words that can instill nervousness in me: Church Directory. When I was a kid I liked to look at all of the pictures of families in the church and found it a little sad when a person was in this family-oriented photo album by his or herself. I can confidently say that if my church came out with a photo directory next week, I would be listed in black ink under the heading "Members Not Pictured."

I'm a pretty extroverted person, so asking to join people in a pew or around a table isn't a problem. Sunday School can be a little tricky though. I go to a church with very few young singles and often find myself listening to conversations about high school activities and dealing with adolescent attitudes.

Then I put up my own barriers.

My intermittent feelings of isolation aren't related to my singleness as much as it is to the messages I've come to believe over the years. In churches we break a lot of things up by stages of life, which can be incredibly appropriate. Singles groups, married with young kids, senior adults.... it's a great opportunity for fellowship and building relationships with others in similar walks of life. But sometimes it's easy to get pigeon-holed into those labels.

I absolutely love the church I've become a part of since moving to Apex, but I haven't been immune to my self-made barriers here either. I stopped going to Sunday School because I didn't know which class I would really fit in with (I went to a single's movie night.... I was the youngest by at least 20 years), I even got a little panicky when I thought about joining the church; walking up front and wondering if people wondered what my deep issue was and then discovering I was joining the church and wondering if those people thought it was a little sad that I had no family with me (like I said: my self-made barriers.... and my imagination).

But this past Sunday, things seemed to click. I came to believe a little more what I already knew: church isn't about me. It doesn't matter if I bring a family or not, I bring myself and that's enough. Church is about believers coming together and worshiping our Creator; that's the main point. It's about having a servant's heart and caring for others, particularly the marginalized in our society. If a church has various Bible study and fellowship options for various age groups and backgrounds, that's wonderful. That's a fantastic addition to the corporate worship of the church, but it does not take the place of the larger unity of a church.

The enemy would love for me to focus negatively on my marital status, my childless state, basically completely on me and my perceived deficits. As long as I'm focused on what I don't have and what I feel I should, I am not focused on the gifts God has given me and the integral part of the body of Christ he has made me. Feelings of isolation are very much a product of my own beliefs about what I should bring with me to church. And I really don't think other people are nearly as focused on my marital status as I sometimes am myself. I'm ready to trade those self-doubting thoughts of seeming isolation for greater community with my brothers and sisters. After all, being married if you're over 30 was never a requisite for following Jesus.

Church has nothing to do with whether or not I have a spouse. It has everything to do with God.

I'm not saying I won't have occasional tears in the future or that it's wrong to feel momentary sadness over dreams waiting to be fulfilled, but I am saying I had a pretty powerful a-ha moment yesterday.

I'm excited about next Sunday.