Archive for Lifestyle

Not Everything is Terrible

Looking back over my blog, I realize that I often highlight the negative. If you only know me through this blog, you definitely see my struggles and my cynicism, but I’m not sure if you can see my joy. Perhaps joy is actually more difficult for someone like me to express in blog form because there can be something so ineffable about it, something hard to put my finger on.

After struggling through my last bad bout of depression two years ago I made some radical changes in my life (which I explain in my first ever Awkward Spinster blog “Life, Episode VI”). One of the things which has really helped change my outlook is learning to consciously realize not everything is terrible, and to actually put in work to change my focus from all the bad things to the good as well. For this pessimistic soul, this takes continual effort and does not come naturally.

Perhaps this shift in thinking doesn’t come naturally for you either, so I invite you to try out the following steps for a bit and see if they help. If you’re an optimist, that’s awesome, keep reading for tips for your not-quite-so-perky friends, or for the inevitable crash that will happen when things don’t turn out quite as brilliantly as you thought they would (Oops, my cynicism is showing a bit too much!).

So, here are the Awkward Spinster’s 4 steps to realizing that not everything is terrible:

Recognize the Excellent Times

Philippians 4:8 tells us: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

But how can we think on these things if we don’t even realize they’re happening? In the midst of hard times, it can be difficult to see past our struggles. The first step I have to take to overcome my pessimistic mind is first to even recognize that truth that not everything actually is terrible, no matter how much it might feel like it is. I must pay attention to and acknowledge the true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy things as they happen.

Last Monday, I got to spend an evening with two of my best friends. As we sat on the patio drinking good wine, eating good food, and talking I realized that for once, all three of us were happy. At the same time! For a few years now, we’ve each gone through some tough times personally, physically, and professionally, but in this moment we were all doing well. Instead of letting that realization pass by, I acknowledged it out loud. Somewhat incredulously, with a huge grin, I asked them “Wait a second, are all three of us actually happy with where we’re at right now?” They responded with big smiles as we toasted this precious moment.

You see, the three of us have picked each other back up from hard times, encouraged one another, and prayed with and for each other time and time again. It was important for us to pause and acknowledge this wonderful moment, to not let it slip past.

It’s also helpful for me, when trying to see the good things in life and not just the bad, to celebrate the excellent times in the lives of others as well. Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” I’m pretty good at weeping with those who weep, but we also need to rejoice with our friends and family in their good moments!

My little niece is so excited about birthdays and Christmas, pretty much any opportunity for gifts to be opened. But when my nephew had a little graduation party, she struggled to enjoy it in its entirety because she didn’t know how to rejoice with him when he was being celebrated instead of her. She is just beginning to learn the freedom and excitement of being genuinely happy for others’ good fortune instead of giving in to jealousy.

I have found soul-deep joy in the marriages and children of my dear friends, even though God has chosen not to give them to me. Enjoying when lovely things happen to those around us, even if things aren’t particularly great in our lives at the moment, can help us see past ourselves and remember there is good. Instead of feeling sad or bitter when we’re stuck at home while a friend goes on a lovely vacation, our love for them can lead us to feel happiness on their behalf, which spills over into our own lives.

Linger in the Sweet Moments

Once we recognize that we are, indeed, in the midst of a particularly sweet moment, we can do our best to linger in it. This isn’t always possible, as some moments of grace and goodness are fleeting. But I’m actually starting to realize that, even in the midst of my busy days, I have the ability to pause a little longer and change the course of my day ever so slightly by lingering in these moments of joy.

When we recognize that good things aren’t always big things, then even pausing on the walk from the car to the classroom to look up to the sky can help change my focus. After all, Psalm 19:1 tells us “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

I blogged a bit about my quest to find more beauty in life, and once I’ve found those moments I’m trying to stay in them a bit longer. I’m an efficient worker, so this takes practice for me. It can feel wasteful or hedonistic at first – but it is necessary and life-giving, bringing glory to God and peace to our souls.

This Sunday afternoon, my mom invited my brother, his wife, and son over after church for lunch. She told them that I needed to blog, so probably wouldn’t be able to stay outside with them for very long, but they were welcome to stay as long as they liked. But the minute we set up the little paddling pool and Benji jumped in with glee, my heart was filled with incredible joy.

Several times I tried to head back in to my desk to work on this post, but I kept ending up back outside with the family, laughing with my sweet boy as he splashed around with sheer joy. Instead of stressing me out because I didn’t get my writing done when I’d planned on it, I came back to my laptop after they’d gone, inspired and refreshed. Prioritizing that beautiful time, choosing to linger outside, helped change my perspective.

Be Grateful for all Good Gifts

Acknowledging and extending beautiful moments should naturally result in feelings of gratitude. Interestingly, even if these feelings don’t come naturally all the time, we can develop them with practice. On joyous occasions, our gratitude should bubble out of us like children at Christmas who can’t stop thanking their parents for getting them exactly what they wanted even though they weren’t sure they’d get it.

James 1:17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Each moment of beauty, each time of rest, each bit of peace we experience, each laugh and smile – these are all gifts from God.

When I watch my little nephew giggle with such pure glee from splashing in the water, when I see my brother and his wife laughing with him and experiencing so much pleasure watching him have fun, I am overcome by gratitude to God for giving us this moment.

As we recognize awesome times, and try to linger in them a bit longer, our gratitude should extend to others as well as God. By stopping to thank my mom for making us lunch and getting the little pool, it helps me appreciate the thought and effort she put in to making this day happen. By thanking my friends for having me over after a long day of work, making me drinks and cooking for me, I’m noticing even more little things which were gifts that night.

I’m learning that a heart filled with gratitude is a bit less easily darkened by depression.

Remember the Not-Terrible Things

My last tip is to fix all these little joy-filled moments in your mind to remember when things do get terrible again. Because they will. That’s not the cynic in me speaking, it’s the reality of this world. And for those of us prone more to negative thinking or even depression, it’s easy in the hard times to forget the good, it’s easy to feel like things will always be this bad. This is when we must preach the truth to ourselves over and over again – after all, Philippians 4:8 begins by telling us to think on “whatever is true,” it is the first thought on which all else hangs. And the truth is that God is good and he loves us.

If we’ve rehearsed thinking on these things – the times in our lives he has given us good gifts of children’s laughter, majestic skies, good meals with friends, an endless array of beautiful things both big and small – then in our darker moments we can remind ourselves that not everything is terrible, even if it feels like it is.

Psalm 116:5-7 states “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” Our souls can return to rest in these memories instead of letting the negative ones swarm over us completely.

These steps aren’t the magic bullet to contentment and happiness, there is no such thing. But they’ve helped me through the past couple of years. They’ve helped me this Sunday, as I struggled once again with trying to fit into a church family, yet ended up feeling like the bastard child yet again. Even now, I can choose to spend my mental energy replaying the difficult time I had this morning, or Benjamin’s laugh.

Not everything was terrible today, after all.

*The fabulous “Not Everything Is Terrible” bandana pictured above was a gift from a dear friend, and was designed and screen printed by artist Janine Kwoh. You can find her fabulous work for sale at her Etsy shop: kwohtations

A Scattered Mind

It’s a rainy day in the desert, an experience made all the more beautiful by its rarity. And I’m having trouble focusing my thoughts to settle on one topic for this blog. These past couple weeks I’ve felt – SCATTERED.

My mind, like a butterfly, flits from thing to thing, alighting on one only for a moment before winding its way to the next. Laundry, school shootings, dream tattoo designs, my data entry job, taxes, blogging, book club, my tutoring job, the windshield wipers on my car, some necessary correspondence I keep putting off, my librarian job, Russian hackers, feeding the dog, the current state of Biblical Counseling, the Agatha Christie book I’m trying to finish, civilian lives in Syria, my new church, plans for spring break in a few weeks, Trump’s ceaseless tweets, doctor’s appointments, prayers for friends, doggy snuggles, conversations with mum, that poem I heard two days ago, gun control in relation to suicide & domestic violence, texts from friends, the gorgeous grey clouds outside my guest room office window . . . an endless stream of thoughts.

How do I UN-SCATTER? Is that even possible in modern American life?

I’ve listened to two different blogs about rest, honoring a Sabbath, and they have been filled with great ideas. Yet my mind has already added their suggestions to my infinite to-do list.

Often, when I feel this way, I just want to hibernate. Not face reality. Curl up in bed in cozy pjs, with a nice cuppa tea and a good book. Instead of doing that, today I am tackling that to-do list one entry at a time using my 2-highlighter system of prioritization. Blogging was in pink, so here I am trying not to half-ass it too badly. I already did my laundry and finished my latest invoice for one of my jobs, texted a couple friends, looked out the window, and snuggled the dog, so stuff’s getting done.

Next up – a cup of tea and taxes.

How do you un-scatter?

A Christmas Adam Ramble

Each vacation I have the goal of spending at least one day at home in my pajamas. Being sick in bed, as I was for the beginning of my time off this holiday season, does not count. So, today, Christmas Adam 2017, appears to be that day and I couldn’t be more excited. Let’s hope nothing comes up that will require me to put on clothes that do not involve elastic waistbands and cozy slippers.

I haven’t blogged for a couple weeks due to the aforementioned illness, still having to work both at the library and my tutoring job, and my usual battle with feeling pressure about what to write. But today I feel like blogging just for the fun of it, and I have given myself permission to do so. You see, in the past, I have always written a well-thought-out formal blog post each week and, to be honest, sometimes I just don’t have it in me. So I’ve decided to allow myself some more casual, off-the-cuff blogging from time to time. Feel free to let me know how you feel about this, dear awkward reader.

I do have a couple things on my mind about which to ramble.

First is how much I have been enjoying trying to observe Advent with my mum this year. As a single person, I honestly hadn’t seriously considered doing a nightly or even weekly Advent. Most churches I’ve gone to offer lessons you can do with your children, or other such family-oriented things, so I guess I sort of thought it didn’t really apply to me. But this year, mum and I decided to give it a go just the two of us. To be honest, since I got sick and then she got sick as I was starting to get better, we’ve missed more nights than we’ve done it. Still, when we’ve had the chance, we’ve truly enjoyed following along with “The Advent Project” by Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts.  It combines art, poetry, music, scripture, and a devotional for each day of the Advent season, and it’s beautiful. We’re also enjoying lighting the candles in our Advent wreath and opening the windows in our traditional German Advent Calendar we picked up in Solvang earlier this year, like we did when I was little. Any other singles out there trying to observe Advent as well this year? How about families? What’s working for you?

Next, I’d like to talk about one iteration of my ongoing struggle with hope. Each and every day for several months, I’ve been entering the Hamilton Lottery hoping that this will be the day I’ll win the opportunity to buy two $10 tickets to see a show I’ve been obsessed with since it opened on Broadway. Instead, each day I am told “Sorry you did not win this lottery.” Sigh. I must admit, it’s wearing me down a bit. And in my mind this has become a metaphor for my cynical little self. I started out a very optimistic child, and then was worn down over the years into the current version of Fawn who finds the idea of hope a daily battle of the heart and mind. Yet I keep entering the lottery, knowing I won’t win, and, by the grace of God alone, I’ll keep hoping in Him. This year was better on that front than last year, and I actually have hope that next year I’ll continue my slow crawl away from total pessimism.

Should I make that my New Year’s Resolution? To continue working on hope? I think that might be setting myself up for too high a fall. I’m not one to pretend serious, deep, life-changing New Year’s Resolutions like improving myself spiritually, or even dieting or exercising daily are practical as most studies suggest they fail by February. I mean, I’ve had some incredibly successful years, but those years my resolutions were to Watch More Television (after I graduated from college and finally had time to catch up on shows) or Drink More Wine (when I was in my last 20’s and trying to develop a more mature palette instead of just enjoying dark ales) or Learn About Whisky (in my early 30’s when I developed said palette even further) or Read More Books (many a year has happily met this challenge). I feel like Learn How to Hope is a much more elusive goal. Your thoughts? Any New Year’s Resolutions for you?

And the other thing I wanted to mention is that I liked “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” I realize this might make some of you no longer want to read my blog, as it is a divisive issue among the geek world. Many a friendship is in the midst of violent feuding over this very explosive issue. However, I am still willing to be friends with those of differing opinions. After all, not everyone can have taste as impeccable as mine. If you’d like to comment back about this, please leave all comments spoiler-free for those poor souls who haven’t yet had a chance to see the latest star war.

Right, how do you feel about my less formal, more stream-of-consciousness, blog? Is this something you’d be ok with now and then in the future of the Awkward Spinster, or should it just be a one-off we can chalk up to my still-slightly-stuffy head?

If you’re interesting in reading more serious blogs about the holiday season, you can check out a couple I wrote for my beloved former church, Cornerstone West LA, when I was on their writing team: “Holidays Help Us Number Our Days” and “Not So Happy Holidays“.

Happy Christmas to all of my dear readers, even the ones who didn’t like TLJ.

The Sacredness of Friendship

When I was a little girl, I saw good marriages and strong families as pieces of the sacred: special and consecrated to the divine in their own small, flawed ways. I assumed that, someday, I too would enter into this type of relationship; one dedicated to God, two people (probably plus some kids) mutually working for his glory. I don’t think I had a romanticized view of marriage and family, as I saw many a marriage and family fall apart around me, and witnessed time and time again how hard these relationships were. I knew they were work, knew they were messy, knew they didn’t always last. I am, after all, a rather pessimistic type. Yet still the sacred shines through in the ones that endure, my parents growing together until my father died, family members struggling through those first few tough years into beauty, friends who by God’s grace found second loves greater than their first, women and men who repent and forgive and strive to be better together. The sacred can be so apparent in marriage.

Like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.” Each year I understand more and more that the sacred partnership of marriage is something I will most likely witness from the outside alone. Does this mean I am, and other singles are, cut off from experiencing sacred, beautiful, deep relationships? Are the human bonds we make merely secondary, the most important one held out of our reach? Are we relegated to an inferior experience?

On the contrary, John 15:12-17 records Christ speaking to his best friends, his disciples. Here he uses sacrificial, selfless friendship as the picture of the greatest love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”

Jesus did not marry and have children, nor did he emphasize that as necessary during his teaching on earth. Instead, Jesus formed deep, beautiful friendships. His relationships with Peter, James, and John, with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, with the rest of his disciples, were powerful and God was glorified through them. They were sacred, set apart for the purpose of service to God. Indeed, the Bible is filled with holy friendships that bring glory to God; look at Moses and Aaron, David and Jonathan, Elijah and Elisha, Naomi and Ruth, Mary and Elizabeth, Paul and Timothy as well as the many other friends Paul calls on by name with great love in his letters.

In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis defines four kinds of human love: affection, friendship, eros, and charity. The dust jacket claims Lewis depicts friendship as “the most rare, least jealous, and, in being freely chosen, perhaps the most profound” form of human love.

In his article in Christianity Today, “The Way of Friendship,” Colin Duriez looks further into C.S. Lewis’ view on friendship. He claims “Lewis took a classical and Judeo-Christian view of friendship, seeing it as “the school of virtue.” Properly lived out, friendship could open one’s eyes to previously unseen aspects of reality.” Using The Inklings as an example, Duriez reveals “Lewis’s belief in the restorative and perception-changing nature of friendship.” If this doesn’t describe a sacred, set apart, consecrated bond between people then I don’t know what does.

Here are a few things C.S. Lewis found in friendship that he did not find in any other kind of human love:

Sacred friendships are actually created by God, not us.

“But in Friendship, being free of all that, we think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting—any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing.”

― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Sacred friendship helps us form and hold fast to our views and standards.

“Alone among unsympathetic companions, I hold certain views and standards timidly, half ashamed to avow them and half doubtful if they can after all be right. Put me back among my Friends and in half an hour – in ten minutes – these same views and standards become once more indisputable. The opinion of this little circle, while I am in it, outweighs that of a thousand outsiders: as Friendship strengthens, it will do this even when my Friends are far away. For we all wish to be judged by our peers, by the men “after our own heart.” Only they really know our mind and only they judge it by standards we fully acknowledge. Theirs is the praise we really covet and the blame we really dread.”

― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Sacred friendship is not jealous, but generous, drawing others into relationship.

“But two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best. And the reason for this is important. . . In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. . . Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, ‘Here comes one who will augment our loves.’ For in this love ‘to divide is not to take away.”

― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Sacred friendship is built upon humility, equality, and affection.

“In a perfect Friendship this Appreciative love is, I think, often so great and so firmly based that each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before the rest. Sometimes he wonders what he is doing there among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together; each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others. Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us after a hard day’s walk have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out toward the blaze and our drinks are at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life — natural life — has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?”

― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Last winter while I was in England for a few months, I had the opportunity to go to Oxford twice. Both times I made the requisite pilgrimage to the Eagle and Child pub, the main gathering place for one of my favorite groups of friends, The Inklings. My “fly on the wall” moment has always been to be able to observe these men mid-debate, 2 or 3 pints in, on a cold English night. The first time I went to the pub by myself, and actually got a tiny table in a corner of the the Rabbit Room, right next to the bench at which these writers, teachers, and theologians would have sat. For a couple hours I nestled there with my beer, shepherd’s pie, and journal, yearning for something like what they had. I knew when I got back to the States everything would be different for me. Most of my dearest friends would still be in LA, and I would be starting almost-fresh in my hometown. My greatest longing was for creative, intellectually stimulating, challenging, deep, Christian community and I knew that would be hard to find.

These days, back in the US in my hometown, instead of yearning for the partnership of marriage, or pining for the close community I had in my church in LA, I am learning to appreciate the friendships the Lord has brought into my life both in Los Angeles and here. I am working to grow these friendships, to create space and carve out time for them. For some of us, these times and spaces may come organically through mutual friends, work, church, Bible study, or other weekly activities. For the rest of us, we may need to create groups that meet monthly or quarterly so we can cultivate these friendships on a deeper level. Singles in particular need these bonds; they are not secondary or superfluous but valuable and, as Lewis claimed, “perhaps the most profound.”

May we all find sacred friendships and draw others with us; may we create time and space in our lives to find warm places to gather like The Bird and Baby, and create stimulating friendships like the Inklings.

The Skint Spinster’s Guide to Gift-Giving

As a follow up to last week’s A Single’s Survival Guide to the Holidays, this week I’ll be getting into how we singles can still manage to give gifts for the holidays while on a tight budget and without the stress.

We don’t have husbands or wives depending on us for the Most Awesome Christmas Gift Ever. A lot of us don’t have children relying on us to channel Santa Claus and bring The Perfect Present. Instead, we have friends and flatmates, siblings and parents, nieces and nephews and godchildren, coworkers and bosses and neighbors, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins, Bible study and book club members. . . an embarrassment of riches for whom we are truly grateful but also truly feeling the gift-giving stress of the season.

Here are my tips to help make giving gifts this year an enjoyable, fun, meaningful experience and cut out the anxiety and pressure.

Make A List and Budget Early

One late November day a few years ago, I realized that my list of names for Christmas gifts had grown exponentially from what it once was. See, when you’re single, everyone just has to get one little gift for you. But then people go and get married and have kids, and all of a sudden instead of the 1 friend you bought a gift for, you have their husband, adorable kids, and even in-laws.

I thought to myself, I can’t afford my friends getting married and reproducing! It’s just so expensive! I mean, I already bought the bridesmaid dress, shoes, jewelry, weird wrappy shawl thing that always falls off, bridal shower decor, food, and gifts, bachelorette party accoutrement, wedding gift, baby shower gift, kid’s first birthday present, etc. and now I have to get 3 Christmas presents? There’s just no way I can afford it. So, early on, I made a deal with myself that I don’t have to buy presents for friends’ spouses or kids, coworkers, extended family or acquaintances unless I absolutely want to and it is financially feasible.

Sit down and make a list, on paper or in your phone, of all the people you’d like to give Christmas gifts to. Then go through and ask yourself if you actually need to get gifts for every name on the list, because I guarantee you don’t. Say this with me now, “I don’t have to give gifts to everyone!”

When you have your pared-down list, realistically look at your bank account and figure out how much money you can spend on gifts this year. Be honest with yourself, don’t inflate the amount. Then, if there is money can can afford to spend, divide it by the number of names on your list. Don’t forget tax! There you have it, the dollar amount you can spend on each person. I try to stick to around $10-15 per person each year, not more. Well, my mum gets a bit more because I stuff her stocking, but she’s mum so she deserves everything.

Then, here’s the most important part, stick to your budget like MacGyver stuck to a paper-clip and duct tape. Seriously.

Be Thoughtful and Creative

How in the world does one stick to a tight budget when gift-giving? Well, find little things that fit the person well. I love little things – was so the kid with the sticker collection who adored scented pens or an animal shaped eraser when everyone else wanted the big-ticket items. Little things can still bring a lot of joy to both the giver and the getter. So, be thoughtful by keeping these people in mind as you are out and about, in case you run into something they might enjoy. This is one reason why starting to gift shop a bit earlier is better as you have time to stumble upon awesome things at affordable prices.

Think of your friends and family and start to curate your go-to stores and websites that have things just for people like them. I am a geek in a family of geeks, so the vast majority of the gifts that I give (and receive, incidentally) are found in bookstores, websites like ThinkGeek, Etsy, or Amazon, in Hot Topic or BoxLunch, comic book shops, World Market, or the Disney store. In past years, I did most of my Christmas shopping on Cyber Monday online because I am so not a Black Friday kind of shopper.

I also buy things on a credit card that gives me points and then pay the card off right away. This way, I get a little more for my buck but can still be responsible financially and not run up debt.

This year, I asked my girls in LA if it would be ok for us to not exchange gifts at all, but to hang out together instead. I realized that I can’t afford to both go out for coffee, lunch, or drinks with them AND get gifts, and the former is so much more important to me than getting more stuff. I was nervous asking this, but they seemed just as happy with the idea as I was! So, when I’m off for a few days at Christmas time, I’ll spend my budgeted money on gas to drive back down to LA and on being able to go out with them and spend some quality time together. To me, their time and company is so much more awesome than things.

Another option for thrifty yet thoughtful gift giving is make stuff. I remember one year when I was totally skint in college and couldn’t afford gifts for anyone, even mum. Instead of presents, I made homemade cookies and candies (my classic chocolate chip cookies are to die for), put then in little plastic baggies, and gave those out with great love. Yeah, it wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world to get, I’m sure, but I was still able to express my great love and appreciation for those that mean the most to me. I have a lot of friends and family who are artistic and many of us would love to get a drawing, sketch, little painted card, knitted scarf, photo, or other crafted object than any store-bought thing from them.

And never underestimate the power of words as the perfect gift. Some of the random objects I’ve received over the years don’t even last a year, but I’ve kept every letter and note I’ve gotten my entire life. Handwritten letters, poems, anecdotes, favorite verses, affirmations, and notes of appreciation are truly valuable to humanity. If you gift some personal words of thanks and encouragement, they may turn out to be that friend’s favorite present.

Have fun

One of the benefits of being the single friend or family member is that we are very rarely anyone’s main gift giver. What an amazingly freeing thought this is! I don’t feel the pressure that this will be the most important thing someone gets this year. That’s usually on the parent or spouse! Ha! We can just embrace the fact that whatever we give anyone is like the sprinkles on the cupcake, but not the cupcake itself. It’s the fun, colorful, crunchy bit, not the base! Awesome.

So now you know you don’t have to overthink anything. Just take the time to look around until you find something that reminds you of that friend, and makes you smile or laugh thinking about them opening it. Or turn up the Christmas music while you make a mess in the kitchen baking snicker-doodles. Or dig out some old stationary and just enjoy the deep freedom that comes from pouring out your gratitude to someone else through words as a gift. Again, there’s no pressure. It’s all just extra fun, extra blessing. So no more stressing.

But if you happen to be one of those incredibly wealthy individuals who still really wants to lavish all your friends and family with expensive gifts, just DM me and I’ll get you my student loan payoff info. 😉

Singles and Self-Care

Somehow, I got it into my head that “self-care” is a dirty word. Not for other people, just for me. I’ve always encouraged friends and family to take care of themselves: to rest when they’re tired, see the doctor when they’re ill, care for their injuries, be gentle with themselves when they’re depressed or grieving, and to say no to other plans when they’re overwhelmed. Yet, when it came to myself, I was relentless.

I’m the girl who sprained my ankle more than 20 times and yet never went to a doctor about it. The one who worked 70 hours a week, and still agreed to volunteer at church or help out with the school play. The person who always answered her phone, texted back right away, or responded to emails at all hours of the day and night. The teacher who edited student college essays via Google Doc even on vacation, or after they had graduated and were at community college, and who never said no when asked to write a college recommendation. The insomniac counselor who could always chat at 2 in the morning when my counselee was in crisis.

That’s who I was, mostly defined by my lack of self-care. And, in the Christian community, this was seen by most as good, godly even. I got Teacher of the Year and was constantly praised for what a great role model I was. I was commended for my commitment to my counselees and students. I was encouraged to keep up the good work, and expected to do so. And all the while I was growing more and more broken inside – constantly sick, frequently injured, always exhausted, emotionally drained, depressed, and forever worried I’d disappoint everyone.

I know I developed these expectations myself, that I am responsible for living my life this way for so long. But the thoughts that this is how a Christian single woman should live her life were planted and watered somewhere.

When you grow up in the evangelical conservative church, there is often an emphasis placed on one side of Christianity or the other: grace or righteousness, faith or works. If asked, the pastors and teachers I had would have said that the Bible teaches the importance of both; however, the culture of these institutions, and often the sermons and lessons, tended to highlight righteousness and works over grace and faith. My Christian school’s motto was “Excellence in everything,” and, little straight A student that I was, I took this to heart probably a bit more than I was meant to. In my head, the idea that I needed to sacrificially serve everyone in my life, do everything in my power to help those around me, even to or especially to my own detriment, was ground in.

I remember last year Googling “do all things with excellence” when I was looking for the verse that’s found in, since my church and school taught it so fiercely, and was shocked to find there is no verse that says this. The closest one, Colossians 3:23 actually says “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not men.” Some translations say “work at it with all your heart,” “do it enthusiastically,” or “work from the soul.” This has a very different connotation than doing all things with excellence. You can work heartily, or do things with all your heart, and still suck at it. It’s freeing, actually! I can work from my soul, doing my job and ministry for the Lord, and still not be the best one at it, and that’s ok! It’s actually God-glorifying! I can’t even find the word “excellence” as my school defined it as necessary for us. We are told to excel still more in many of the epistles, but the vast majority of them tell us to “excel” at love for one another and for God (Philippians 1:9-10, 2 Corinthians 8:7, 1 Thessalonians 3:12, 4:1, 4:10). Nowhere does it say we have to excel academically, at sports, as missionaries, as wives and husbands, and in all other aspects of life. We don’t have to be superior in these areas, we just have to work heartily at them. We can and will fail, and it’s not the end of our faith. There is a big difference there, this is beautiful and freeing.

My mum tells a similar story, how growing up in the charismatic church as she did made her feel like she was never doing enough for the Gospel. Missionaries were held up as the gold standard for Christian living, and since she was merely a mother of 5 and a teacher, she didn’t quite make the grade. The motto at her parents’ churches was “burn out rather than rust out.” When I look at her life, I see nothing but service to her family and students, to her friends at church and her coworkers, but for her she still fights an inward battle of feeling like it’s never enough.

This weekend, I had the great joy of having afternoon tea with one of the young women I met in my term at English L’Abri last winter. During our reminiscing, we touched on this topic, remarking that many of the students ended up at the Manor House with similar questions: Is it okay to rest? What does that even mean? What is the balance between living a godly life of obedience and grace?

James 2:14-17 teaches about obedience:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Ephesians 2:9-89 says this about grace:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The Scriptures are filled with verses about both of these sides to our relationship with Christ. I’m not saying I have the perfect answer to the questions listed above, but I do know it’s important to remember both the incredibly loving unending grace of God as well as showing our gratefulness to Him for his sacrifice by worshipping Him through trust and obedience, not just one or the other. While I do know there are some churches that emphasize the grace part without the works, I’ve always gone to ones that have done the opposite, telling us to glorify God without reminding us of the second half to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “and enjoy him forever.”

So here I am at 39 taking the time out of life to try to sort through what is actually expected of me, not by myself or what I think other Christians expect, but by God. And I’m realizing that the one thing God seems to want more than anything else is my love; for me to love him and love others (Matthew 22:36-40). And, as counter-cultural as this is for many in the conservative evangelical church to believe, I’m learning that one of the best ways for me to love God and love others is to be a bit less broken. This means that I am allowed to, even encouraged to, take care of myself.

I am better able to love God and others, to spend time in his word and prayer, to reach out and help my friends and family, if I am well rested, alert, and in as little pain as I can be. Getting rid of pain isn’t the goal of my life, but if I can rest my ankle by saying no to a few things the first couple weeks after I sprain it, then I will be able to say yes to more things later because it might actually heal for once. If I get more sleep, I can actually focus on conversations with my friends who are hurting or need encouragement, and I’ll be more patient with my students and more loving. My enjoyment of this incredible world around me helps me start to overcome my cynical views, and enjoy God even more.

Our culture in America today, especially in the cities where being overworked and tired is worn like a badge of honor, pushes us past what we were created to do. We were created with limitations and yet we think we can overcome them by working more. We work hard and play hard – even our free time is “hard.” The church seems to take this one step further with its obsession with the Puritan work ethic and martyr worship. And for singles, we get caught up in this without a partner to help us try to balance it all out.

Single people may die younger because of it – with no one to urge us to see a doctor, care for us after procedures, or give us companionship as we age, some studies have shown that singles, on the whole, die a bit earlier than our married counterparts. As much as married people struggle with this too – wanting to sacrifice everything for their kids or work more hours to provide for their families, they often have their husband to tell them to rest so they can be a better mother tomorrow, or to come home right away after work so they can spend time with their kids as a better father. It’s incredibly rare to hear Christians telling single men and women that they need to go home to take care of, well, themselves, that they should probably say no to this new ministry opportunity because they already need a break to just be alone. Yet, this might be even more necessary since the single person doesn’t have a spouse to pressure them into necessary rest.

Though I was taught that loving our neighbors as ourselves means we already love ourselves too much, so we need to work hard to get our love of others on par with that, I’m learning this might be the wrong view of Mark 12:31. I agree that we should not be selfish and make self-care more important than everything else in life to the point we stop caring about others; however, I do now think self-care is necessary and can actually be a beautiful part of our walk with God. It is humbling to admit we are broken and can’t do everything, to ask others for help, and admit we can’t be quite as active in ministry and work as we used to be. It takes a lot of reliance on God to follow doctor’s orders and sit on a couch, ankle on ice, instead of working overtime when finances are tight. It opens up a new kind of vulnerability in friendship when I, the counselor, tell my friends I need their help instead of the other way around.

I’m learning that I was not created to be Wonder Woman, as much as I yearn to be; instead, I am just me, a 39 year old single lady with foot problems and insomnia, a cynic who has struggled with depression, prone to sinus infections and back pain, whom God loves and cherishes and created for a community of believers in which we mutually love and help one another. In this weakness, there is beauty and true grace.

2 Corinthians 12:8-10 states:

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

So, my dear single readers, take care of yourselves, not the point of being unloving to others but to help you be able to love and enjoy God and others all the more. And my dear married readers, do the same, and try to encourage your single friends to go to the doctor when they need to, or go home to rest, or say no to some activities when they’re stressed, or just carve out time to be alone without some task to do. Remember, they might not have anyone else counteracting all the voices in their lives that tell them they have to do more and be more. Be that voice for them.

When the World Expects Too Much

I decided to take last week off blogging since it was the first week of school. Always a hectic time, it was particularly insane this year as I was opening a school library for my first time ever, getting out consumables (workbooks) for every kid in the school (4-7 books per kid for over 1,100 students), and I had to do it all on my own as my partner had transferred to a different school and they haven’t replaced her yet. I’m trying to give myself permission to say no to things more often, but it’s still a struggle.

The thing is that I care . . . a lot . . . about a lot of things. I care about my students and teachers. I care about my family. I care about my friends. I care about my community, especially the poor and underrepresented, the voiceless and the weak. I care about my fellow Christians. I care about my country and my world.

But it’s just not enough.

As much as I tried, I didn’t have time for a kind word to each and every one of my students, many who really needed to be seen and appreciated in the first week of school. Even though I worked for hours and hours on the schedule, I still made a mistake and was unable to accommodate a couple of the teachers right away. Even though I prayed for energy, endurance, and patience I still complained more than I should have, still struggled not to cry at the end of a rough Friday. Even though I wanted to spend time with my brother and his son, I sat out their zoo trip on Saturday and stayed home instead because I felt like a giant walking bruise. Even though I followed the news all weekend and posted condemnation of the racist violence of the alt-right and the equivocating weak rhetoric of our president, I couldn’t actually make anything better. Even though I wanted to try hard to get to know people at my old/new church, I felt closed off and defensive Sunday morning at a church which seemed to act like nothing had happened, like America hadn’t just experienced horrible sin and violence.

It’s just not enough. I’m just not enough.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much our modern world demands of us and how much we demand of ourselves because of these expectations. As work got more and more stressful this week, I thought of every single person I know and realized not one of them has a job which is not frequently stressful. This brought up the question, are all jobs stressful? Is it a requirement to our survival (financial, physical) to be constantly stressed out?

Since Genesis 3 promises post-Fall humanity pain, sweat, and toil just for us to be able to eat, I suppose the answer to this is a resounding “Yes!” Which I find utterly depressing. I get that we can find rest in the Lord and all that, I even wrote a previous blog entry about that sort of thing, but some days I just can’t figure out how to practically do that in this difficult world of ours.

When I think about what the world expects of me and what I expect of myself, the only logical response seems to be feeling overwhelmed. Let’s break this down.

Expectations of the Awkward Spinster:

As a 39 year old, educated, Master’s degree carrying single adult woman

  • I should be doing quite well in my career by now.
  • I should be earning a decent wage with a retirement fund, savings account, and health insurance.
  • I should be either finished or almost finished with paying off my school loans and car.
  • I should be a leader or mentor at work at this point, helping newer younger coworkers find their way.
  • I shouldn’t just be writing a blog, but should be also working on my book and speaking career to go along with it.
  • I should have close relationships with the women in my church and be a vital part of a weekly Bible Study as well as my biweekly global prayer group.
  • I should be an involved aunt, a role model to my little loves, a reliable help to their parents.
  • I should be a helpful daughter to my mother financially, physically, and emotionally.
  • I should be a mature Christian woman who reads her Bible and has a significant time of prayer every day, memorizes scripture, journals, and processes it all.
  • I should somehow be both strong and meek, quiet and confident, submissive and yet a teacher.
  • I should be a dedicated biblical counselor, helping my church to set up a counseling training program, mentoring newer counselors, while counseling as many people as I can for free.
  • I should be active in my community, helping those in need with donations, volunteering, etc.
  • I should be an involved friend to those who’ve poured into me throughout my life, keeping up with them by writing e-mails, letters, text messages, social media comments, inviting them over, and talking to them on the phone.
  • I should be an involved member of the human race by keeping up with the news, being aware of what’s going on, and finding ways to help.
  • I should continue to be a passionate advocate for my former students and clients, encouraging them as they go off to college and careers and families, letting them know they are still loved and supported.
  • I should be an expert in my fields, keeping up with the latest in literature, writing, education, and biblical counseling.
  • I should be creative, writing poetry and journaling, blogging, and creating.
  • I should be a student of the world by traveling each year.
  • I should be a patron of the arts and news, things that matter to me and the world.
  • I should help around the house with cooking, cleaning, & maintenance. 
  • I should support my friends in the mission field through letters, prayer, and finances.
  • I should visit my friends and family out of state at least once a year.
  • I should spend time with my friends in LA by visiting once a month at least, and yet still be able to make new friends in my current town and invest in them too.
  • I should be a good doggy mamma and take him for walks and to the park.
  • I should keep up my geek cred by watching the latest Marvel or DC movies, reading the latest comic books, and going to a convention or two.
  • I should try online dating again and be open to possibilities.
  • I should lose weight, eat healthy, go to my doctor, and exercise daily.
  • I should march against white supremacy, protest the cruel regime shaping America today, stand up for the little guy.
  • I should, I should, I should . . .

This list never ends. I’m sure if you make a list for yourself, it will be just as long and overwhelming. Now, many of these expectations come from the world around me, what people expect of me, while some of them are what I expect of myself. It’s hard to parse through this list and separate them as many are intrinsically linked; I expect things of myself because I think others expect them of me.

It’s too much.

Wonder Woman #15 art by Terry & Rachel Dodson, story by Gail Simone

After a weekend like this one, when I wish I could just chuck everything else and go be a freedom fighter for a few months, I don’t even know where to start.

Which things are the most important of all? I am a finite human and cannot do everything. So where do I begin? In Mark 12:28-31, a scribe approaches Jesus and asks him,

“Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Since many, if not most, of the things on my list of “shoulds” are related to trying to love God and love others, I’m still struggling my way through these top two commandments. The practical application of theology is rarely straightforward. This is not one of those blogs where I post a question and then answer it at the end. I’m still scratching my way to the surface on this one, still overwhelmed, still confused. Just thought I’d put this out there because I’m pretty sure there are a lot of us in this predicament.

So, if you’ve got any answers for me, please comment away. In the meantime, I’ll be looking through this list of mine trying to figure out where these expectations come from, which ones really matter, and which ones take priority. Prayers, encouragement, British chocolate, and scotch are appreciated along the way!

Teach Us to Number Our Days

From before I was born until I was out of college, my mother made scrapbooks filled with photos of all the major and sometimes more minor events of the year. In her lovely calligraphy, surrounded by stickers, she began most of these tomes with Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

This week, I turned 39, entering the last year of my 30’s. Many single men and women I know panic at this point, ashamed of how old they are, refusing to reveal their age, downplaying birthdays, and sometimes even experiencing bouts of anxiety and depression around this annual date. They see the end of their 30’s as a closing door on hopes of marriage, family, and whatever other milestone they think they should have accomplished by now. For a celibate single Christian woman, these ages do have biological significance as the likelihood of us being able to have our own healthy biological children decreases with each year. And we get to that point in our lives when every time we meet up with friends we’re comparing medical issues and talking about how tired we are.

And yet, I still love birthdays, they may be my favorite thing to celebrate, my favorite kind of party. Not a fan of baby or wedding showers (those games are seriously torturous, you guys), and a firm believer that some weddings are just way too awkward and long (and if I hear one more horrible toast about how “relieved they were that the bride FINALLY found her man and now maybe they’ll get grandchildren” I might smack someone), my extroverted introvert self can look forward to celebrating birthdays with minimal to no dread.

Psalm 90:12-17 gives us part of a prayer of Moses which influences how I see marking a new year in each of our lives.

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

I grew up with this refrain ringing in my head, maybe that’s why I’ve always loved birthdays no matter how old we all get. Each year I wear the new number like a badge of honor. I survived another year. God has granted me another year. I have learned more about life and myself and God in this year. I pray that my heart has grown more wise this year. My dream is that I’ll just get better with age, like a fine wine, or Maggie Smith.

“Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!”

Yes, the past year of my life has included some incredibly tough things as well as joyous ones. So even in the midst of celebrating another year of life, I do still desire the Lord’s return – more for our stricken planet than just  me alone. I grow weary of this world and the sin in it, affecting all of us from the little ones to the oldest of my loves. I have lost people that meant something to me. I grieve the state of our nation, its attitudes toward the poor, weak, and broken. Rejoicing in another year of life does not mean we have to ignore or forget the hardships we’ve had in that same year. As much as I celebrate another year of life, I do long for the redemption of the earth and God’s children.

“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

I can rejoice and be glad no matter what has happened in my last year because my satisfaction comes from God’s steadfast love above all things. The unchanging, eternal love of my heavenly father is where I seek my contentment, and out of this spills joy and celebration.

“Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.”

In the hardest years, the ones filled with more loss and pain than others, only God can make us glad to celebrate more days. If you read Psalm 90 in its entirety, you’ll see that it actually starts by comparing our limited time to God’s eternity and emphasizes God’s anger and wrath at the sin of man. It’s actually a pretty pessimistic prayer, which might be why it appeals to my cynical realist heart. As much as I am grieved by the sin of the world, my own included, God sees all of it and is angered, and he will bring it to justice. And yet, Moses prays for God to “make us glad” for all of these days and years! We are meant to be both heartbroken over the sin of the world, and joyous for each and every day of our lives. I think only God can give us that joy.

“Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.”

How can we be glad for more days in which there might be suffering and evil? By seeing what God is doing. Each year, we can look back and remember God’s work in our lives and those of our friends. We can see his power and mercy, his love and beauty. This is why birthdays excite me so, I can look back and see God’s presence in my life over an entire year! There is so much for which to give thanks even in the toughest of years. And, if we are having trouble seeing this, like Moses we can pray that God’s work and glorious power be shown to us, that we may celebrate.

“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!”

My favorite birthday wishes end in blessings, and that’s how Moses ends this Psalm. He prays for God’s favor to be upon us. He prays for everything we have worked hard for to last. I love this. Each new year of my life, I hope for the favor of the Lord to fall upon me and those I love, and I hope that the things that mattered, the work I put into my relationships, my jobs, and trying to help those around me, I hope it endures.

My birthday wish this year is for all of you to be able to celebrate your lives and the lives of those around you. May the favor of the Lord be upon you, and may the work of your hands be established.

Just Another Manic Morning

I wake up each morning to the chimes of my cell phone alarm, roll over, and hit “cancel” (which always takes 3-4 tries to turn off in my not-yet-functional state). In those few seconds, when my brain is not yet awake, I see news alert after news alert – tweet-sized headlines that appear on my lock screen – causing my first thoughts as a sentient human to become “Damage Report!” Because I’m waking up on the west coast, it is 3 hours later than Washington DC, New York, and let’s be real, Florida, whence much of the news that concerns me these days emanates. It’s amazing how much can already have happened in those 3 little hours. Ten minutes later, still lying in bed staring at a screen, my brain struggling to string words together into reality, I realize I’m well on my way down the rabbit hole and that, if I don’t shut my phone off now, I’ll be late for work.

The tone of the morning is now set as sadness, anxiety, and often anger seeps into my consciousness. As I shower, the morning’s headlines race through my mind. As I make my coffee and down breakfast, I’m pondering the possible ramifications of the latest article or blog topic. On my drive to work, it takes all my self-control not to check headlines at the red lights and stop signs. And then, there I am, in a library full of my fabulous little children and I have to somehow immediately switch my mode of thinking into work mode.

When my insomniac self goes to bed at night, instead of reading a novel (I’ve been ⅓ of the way through Belgravia for weeks now) lately I’ve been back on social media and news sites on my phone. I think it’s good to be informed and know what is going on, even taking part in the online conversation here and there to try to help push forward justice and overcome evil. Still, my poor anxious brain is having trouble winding down so I can actually sleep (something my body already struggles against).

This is not okay. I know most of you have probably already figured this out, but it’s pretty new to me. You see, for years I was a teacher, which meant I got to school in the morning before most people were even awake. There wasn’t much news yet because, well, it was often still dark outside. Then, during the election season of last year, I was staying in a tiny English country town which had little to no internet connection so I had a bit of a buffer. But now, having 3 part time jobs, my day starts later and I have bits of time here and there throughout the day. Into those minutes goes my smart phone, always ready to tantalize me with the most recent shocking thing, always ready to grieve this non-Republican heart disgusted by the greed, hatred, and lies permeating America today. I find myself missing the days before our president could tweet his every thought multiple times a day, missing the times when I used to have to actually turn on my car radio on the drive to work before I knew what was going on. Missing having to wait for the newspaper or news hour after school or work for a recap (yes, I’m older than many of you, and thus didn’t have a cellphone until after my undergrad years at university).

I have to admit that the accessibility of news and the particularly extreme and divided nature of politics and society today is testing my faith. I am often worried. I am often heartsick. I am often devastated. There seems to be no escaping my ability to get news anywhere and anytime!

And then, at the end of this week, I had an epiphany. Again, one many of you have probably already had, but what can I stay, I’m stubborn and cynical and things take me awhile. I realized that my 10 minutes of online news binging here, 15 minutes of Facebook there, and 30 seconds of Twitter there is adding up to drastically more time than I’m spending in both Bible reading and prayer put together.

This brings me back to some of the passages of scripture so common to biblical counselors, ones I should remember and apply more than I have:

Philippians 4:4-9.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me [Paul] – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Psalm 1:1-3
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”

I have not been rejoicing in the Lord as often as I used to, nor delighting in His law. I’ve been withering a bit, to be completely honest. So, how do I find a way to still be aware of what’s going on in the world, still be engaged in the important global and national conversation, still do my best to give voice to the voiceless, help the weak and poor, and champion justice, without becoming overwhelmed by it all?

Here are some of the intentional steps I am taking to change my focus a bit and give Christ and his teachings prevalence:

  • Join a global prayer group – Twice a month I meet with a small group of Christian women who pray for the things going on in this world which concern us. Instead of feeling like we are outsiders for being some of the rare non-Republican Christians in our area, we decided to band together and bring our concerns to the Lord. This is not a space for us to rant or discuss political issues at length, but to present our concerns to each other, then pray together, “letting our requests be known to God.” We also drink tea and have snacks. We actually started out meeting once a month, but doubled it when we realized how much these nights were helping us.
  • Set an actual alarm clock – I just now took the time to figure out how to set the alarm on the speaker I usually use for my phone. Though it was harder than assembling IKEA furniture, I think it will be helpful for me to no longer wake up to a screen. My goal is to do what all the sleep studies say, to plug my phone in across the room so it’s inaccessible, and not use it before bed or when I wake up. I hope this will allow my mornings to be filled with prayer and worship, as they used to be.
  • Put my phone in a different room when I’m reading my Bible – It’s just too easy for my mind to be fragmented the minute an alert pops up when I’m in prayer or in God’s word. I want to be single-minded for once in my life, not multi-tasking while studying and meditating on my Lord’s teachings.
  • Reassess all of the alerts on my phone – I do want to know if something serious occurs so I can keep my students safe, pray for what is occurring as it happens, or know to look into something further when I have time. I do not, however, need to read every single tweet by our president as it’s posted. That is a recipe for madness.
  • Carve out time and space for meditation on God’s word – This was so much easier at L’Abri, where 3 hours a day are set aside for study. I need to apply this to my daily life, to actually put on my calendar and schedule time. To figure out a space where I can truly be alone for a few minutes with God.
  • Pray in my car as I drive to work and drive home – I used to do this as a teacher, pray for the specific classes and lessons I had ahead of me that day, for specific students who were on my heart, for coworkers and the school in general. By the time I got to work, my heart and mind were already engaged with the tasks I had before me, with hope. Praying on the way home instead of listening to the news allows me to lift up any concerns from the day to God, and prepare mentally and spiritually for my next job, or for spending time with family or friends. I need to get to that place again.

These are just a few of the things I am trying or will be trying in order to try to calm my manic mind and spend more time with God and His Word than my news apps or Facebook linked articles. If you have any other ideas that might help me or others like me, please share in the comments!

Embracing Being Human

When I stepped out of the taxi into the English rain, I took a deep breath to calm my nerves before walking through the front door of the manor house labeled with a small sign that said “Welcome, L’Abri Fellowship, Please Enter.” I was exhausted from so much more than jetlag. 15 years of working in industries that care for and help others, often in the hardest circumstances of life, had worn me down so much more than the jetlag ever could, and I was seeking rest. Leaving my bags in the front hall, I did as I was told on the phone and headed toward the voices I could hear floating from the dining room. I walked into the wood paneled room, shaking with nerves as my social awkwardness hit its peak (no matter how many times I enter a room all on my own, it still freaks me out), to see smiling faces look up at me, and multiple voices in accents from all over the world offer me a seat, a cuppa tea, and a bowl of warm homemade soup. This was to be the beginning of my self-funded sabbatical, a time for God to teach me how to accept help from others, how to rest, slow down, and how to find the beauty in being human.

Growing up in the church, we often look at our humanity with all its limitations as fallen, broken, messed up. We can spend our lives trying to overcome it, trying to be better than human. When we have the perfect God-Man as our example, asking questions of ourselves like “What would Jesus do?” can become more than inspiring, it can become a obsessive search for perfection. Verses like Matthew 5:48, “you therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” weigh heavily. Even when we’ve had it explained in a complete biblical context, it can be the refrain in the back of our heads, impossible and crushing.

We are taught that God came for the broken, that he loves the lost, that we can never be perfect, we will always fall short, which is why we need God in the first place. Yet, this is often not the way the church actually lives. There can be an unspoken pressure placed upon each Christian to somehow be more than human. The “Puritan work ethic” comes to mind, as we learn from youth that “all hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23). We’re taught the Proverb of the sluggard and the ant, which ends with “a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come upon you like a robber and want like an armed man” (Proverbs 6:10-11). We are told by parents, teachers, and pastors alike “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23). Even in the best of circumstances, when we are taught these things in balance with the rest of scripture, it can be hard to not focus mostly on this part. The work hard part. The never rest part. The give 110% to everything you do part.

As a single person at work and in ministry, I expected to be able to work and serve non-stop. I remembered hearing “if you work in your own strength you’ll get tired, but if you work in God’s strength, you won’t ever get weary!” I remembered Ephesians 6:7-8, saying “serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does.” Paul, one of our examples of those in ministry, made sure to point out that he worked a day job while he preached, saying “we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:7-8).

I don’t know about you, but after reading all of these verses, I almost despair because it seems impossible. I’m exhausted just thinking about them.

I think every Christian deals with this at some point, but the single Christian has a particular expectation. We are meant to minister. This is why Paul says, after all, that singleness is better, “to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). I sometimes felt I was expected to work longer hours at my jobs, show up to more things, always be on time, never leave early while my married coworkers had to race off to pick up sick kids, or come in later because their spouse had their car, or drop out of a weekend event because of family priorities. Instead, I had “free” time and everyone knew it. If we aren’t using every moment of our “time off” for work or ministry, we can feel judged, guilty.

So what happens when you already work with kids all day and just don’t have it in you to work with more of them on the weekend by helping in the church nursery? What happens when you are just exhausted? What happens when you really need time with friends or family or just to rest?

I realized during my time at L’Abri that a lot of these expectations were actually placed there by me. Somehow, after years of hearing in church and in staff meetings that we needed to work harder, this became the Main Thing in my brain. I don’t think my pastors and bosses meant for this to be the Main Thing. But I’m like the stressed out straight A student in a class of non-motivated underachievers, when the teacher chews out the whole class, it’s kids like me who will get anxious and feel they have to work even harder, even if that isn’t the teacher’s intention.

Some of us need to hear the “work harder” message repeatedly, but some of us need to hear the “rest in his grace and mercy and love” message every day. Every moment.

Last winter, I set out to study rest and discovered, to my surprise, that humans, limitations and all, were created that way Before The Fall. It seems that needing to sleep and eat, only having a certain number of hours in the day, and needing rest, are NOT actually the result of sin and death entering the world. We were, in perfection, created to need rest and community. We were created to be limited. We were not created to be little gods, but to be echoes of His image. We were created human, and it was good. Then, if we add all the new limitations to our humanity after sin and death entered the world – health issues like illness and injury, more laborious work, mental and emotional health struggles –  we need to remember grace all the more.

Yes, we ought to implement the principles found in the verses above and work hard, but we must also embrace our limitations. Humans need moments of rest and relaxation, that ever-elusive “balance.” These are gifts to help us enjoy God and each other all the more.

Consider God’s institution of the Sabbath. I don’t think I really understood what a true Sabbath was until I spend some time in Israel with modern Jews who still honor this day wholeheartedly, preparing in the days before so they could do no work but spend time worshiping God and enjoying their families and friends. Exodus 10:9-10 says “six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work.” and Mark 2:27 tells us “the Sabbath was made for man.” Hebrews 4:4, 9-10 claims “for he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’. . . So then there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.”

The Sabbath was a gift to us, and though we no longer are under the Old Testament laws that require us to eat a certain way, celebrate a certain way on that day, the idea of one entire day of complete rest, without ANY work, is beautiful and good and meant for man’s good and God’s glory. True rest is necessary and good, not just a day we go to church, then race home to run errands, clean house, carpool the kids to 5 different activities, answer texts and emails, or in my case – blog or work from home, then end the day by plopping down on the couch to watch Netflix. I’m not saying doing these things is wrong, sin, but I am saying we need to reassess what is actually restful to us. And we need to realize it’s not just okay to rest, but it is good. We’re created for it. For lazy days of family conversations, reading books, watching TV with our roommates, taking walks, exploring the new eateries in town, and letting our minds wander to God.

I am a broken human. I am limited. I get tired, overwhelmed, and sometimes a bit lost. But I have a Father who says to me “come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). I have a Savior who, in the midst of one of the busiest, most successful times of ministry, told his apostles to “come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). In fact, Christ himself frequently took times of rest alone, going to the mountains to talk with his Dad. And we often find him reclining at table with friends, eating, drinking, and discussing topics of the day. Much of his ministry seemed to be quite personal, just hanging out with people.

One of the best lessons we can learn by embracing our limitations as humans is that we need God. When we are busy every moment, it is tempting for us to think we have some kind of control over our lives, our futures. This can lead to arrogance and a ton of anxiety. Stepping back from it all to rest reminds us that we’re not actually the ones in charge, reintroducing humility and also the peace and joy that flows from allowing God to be in charge. Paul wrote of his limitations to the church in Corinth and, instead of talking about how awful they were or how he was trying hard to overcome them, he rejoiced. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 states “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

So, no, we don’t have to agree to do every single thing asked of us. We don’t need to add extra pressure onto ourselves, expecting to be able to work 15 hours a day, 7 days a week and not wear down. We don’t need to feel guilty when we are sick or tired or just want to relax for a few hours. Yes, this can be taken too far and there are indeed those who are sinfully lazy, but the single people I know who live in LA and the surrounding area tend to be the opposite. We tend to work and work hard, with our careers becoming our identities. We can put pressure on ourselves to do more, be more, and our bosses and friends and families and churches can often play into this by adding more demands, more expectations. Since we don’t have to leave work on time to get home to husbands and wives and kids, since we live alone or with roommates instead of people for whom we’re responsible, it’s easy to feel like taking time out to rest is bad. But that Wednesday happy hour or coffee break with the girls or guys during which we discuss how we’re doing, hold each other accountable to living godly lives, and encourage and lift each other up is just as important as the married couple’s family dinner. We should be using up all of our vacation days, not buying into the workaholic culture that so often prevails in America today. We need to stop bragging about how much overtime we work, how many jobs we have, how many hours a night/weekend we spend on jobs and start encouraging each other to rest. To heal. To recover. To focus on God’s grace and glory.

Stop expecting humans to be more than we can be. And stop expecting singles to give everything we are to our jobs and ministries. Allow for rest and joyful times with family and friends. Eat great meals together. Actually get enough sleep. Remember, God created us this way – limited and yet somehow still beautiful.