Archive for Christianity

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

When Sunday Is the Most Difficult Day of the Week

It took me two tries to make it to church this Sunday. I woke up tired, my mom woke up still feeling the last lingering effects of the cold she had last week. I didn’t get out of bed as quickly as I should of, so was running late. I knew the lesson my small group was going to go over today would be a struggle for me, and I’d either have to speak up and be the one voice of dissent or bite my tongue the whole time, so I decided to just go to the service late and then come home instead of going to group after.

Coffee was spilled on a dress in the car on the way there. The Jeep we parked next to had a Bill O’Reilly air freshener hanging from its rear view mirror, I kid you not. Other cars greeted us with their not-so-friendly NRA and AR-15 stickers. Because we were late, it was hard to spot empty seats. It had already taken everything we had to get to this point, so we left and went home. In this struggle, I was very much The Awkward Spinster.

Knowing full well that a large part of this struggle was my own attitude and feeling convicted, an hour later, we headed back for second service early, got seats, and made it through the whole time. The service was fine.

John 13:34-35 records Christ’s words during the last supper. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Why is this so difficult? Humans, that’s why. We are so bloody difficult. I am difficult. And, as a single woman who is almost 40 trying to integrate back into a city I happily left in my 20s, I am finding it more arduous than ever. Being with my family is fantastic and quite easy. My prayer group of family and a couple close friends is lovely. But church? Church is the hardest part.

And I think I’m failing right now. I’m not really loving the people in my church because I don’t feel like I’m actually part of my church. I feel like the weird spinster aunt who’s just visiting so everyone puts up with her. You know, they all tolerate her odd ideas because she’s just the slightly wild one who never bothered to get married or have kids and actually thinks universal healthcare is a good idea.

I don’t really have a lesson in this or a solution to my problem. This is just the reality of an issue I’m in the middle of. And, since this blog is meant to openly discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of the life of this particular Awkward Spinster, I didn’t want to dodge this aspect of single life.

I do think church is hard for everyone, not just singles like myself. I know many a married mother and father who also struggles with church community, especially in the current political and social climate. But as someone who experienced singleness in the context of an imperfect yet loving, embracing, supportive, empowering church family for years, that makes starting over again even more painful. I don’t have a husband to hold my hand when I’m upset in church, a partner in the awkwardness and pain. It’s just me, sitting in small group surrounded by people, feeling utterly alone.

Sick Days and the Blues

You may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging as regularly over these past few weeks. You see, I’ve been ill, and between sinus, eye, and now possibly ear infections, my uterus trying to kill me, anemia, dizziness, and exhaustion I haven’t been able to stare at a screen for very long without my head getting floaty. Sigh.

But in the midst of this, today, I still want to blog. Because this is real life, right? We get sick. Our bodies rebel against us. We have to miss work sometimes (I HATE missing work) and we have to rest sometimes (which is not nearly as fun as it sounds if you’re not feeling well) and we have to trust that God is still at work in our lives when we are quarantined and can’t go anywhere or talk to anyone in person.

Today, on top of the illnesses and weaknesses, I am feeling blue. One of the benefits of being ill is I’ve been sleeping in and have missed my usual morning podcasts. I’ve been limiting my screen time so I don’t get dizzy, and therefore haven’t been paying as much attention to the news. But this morning when a local city voted down California’s Sanctuary City laws, and Christian men that I know and respect posted about it in glee, I was done. The tears I’ve been holding in for weeks fell. Seeing Christians celebrate harming people, separating children from their parents, and turning against the beauty that the word “sanctuary” supplies, which should be part of every Christian’s life, just broke my heart. “What happened to compassion?” my mum just breathed in a deep, soul-wrenching sigh.

I tweeted about it, but daren’t post on Facebook because I’ve gotten some brutal backlash there before for posting my “liberal” ideas and I honestly don’t have the energy to deal with that right now.

The battle within me about whether or not I can remain a part of the white evangelical church rages continuously.

A friend’s recent experience at a Biblical Counseling conference in her city isn’t helping. She was texting back and forth with me throughout the day, part excitement for the excellent talks given on anxiety and depression, and part dismay for her experience as a single woman there. She went up to speak with the youngish male director, and right away his wife came and joined the conversation very awkwardly.

She texted “I feel like in some Christian settings girls can’t talk to guys. Like I felt awkward when she joined in some way. Like I can’t control that I am a girl or that I don’t have a ring on my finger. But I am not a threat and I felt that perception in that moment. And if I was a guy with an MABC [Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling, which this friend and I both have] they would be thrilled.”

My response: “Yeah. Being a mature, single, educated Christian woman in evangelical circles can be so awkward. I kinda want to wear a sign saying ‘I’m not trying to steal your husband. Calm down.’”

Friend: “I feel like sometimes I am only seen as a threat or someone with ulterior motives or a temptation instead of a person.

Me: “We should make t-shirts!”

Friend: I was going to Master’s Seminary library once. I had to write a 20 page research paper and only the seminary had the books I needed to check out. And the ladies at the circulation desk made a comment about me finding a husband and I felt like as a non-seminary wife, everyone there would think that I just wanted to look for a husband instead of purely intending to study the Bible. I wanted to wear a ring on my ring finger to avoid that perception and awkwardness.”

Me: “Yeah. They did that when I had to work the Shepherd’s Conference. Sigh.”

Friend: 

One of the many sad parts about this conversation with my incredibly intelligent and very conservative (way more conservative than me!) friend was that instead of discussing the wonderful resources for anxiety and depression she’d learned about, or expressing her joy for being accepted into the new Biblical Counseling center as a potential counseling volunteer, she left feeling awkward and unwanted, and possibly even like a threat.

Welcome to how so many of us often feel around other Christians these days: awkward and unwanted, and possibly even like a threat.

But instead of despairing completely, I’ve reached out to some of my closest friends for prayer. My dog snuggled me until I laughed again, not leaving me alone until I was smiling. Our roses and primroses are blooming, and I can enjoy them because they’re some of the flowers my sinuses are cool with. I’m brewing a cup of my favorite apple cinnamon tea. And I will remind myself of God’s love and goodness, remind myself that God does not look at refugees, immigrants, and unmarried women like we are awkward and unwanted, but with compassion and deep deep love.

Psalm 9 speaks to me today. It is long, so I’ll leave you with verses 1-2, 7-11, and 18:

“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High . . . But the Lord sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness. The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forgotten those who seek you. Sing praises to the Lord, who sits enthroned in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds! . . . For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.”

When Memories Come

Today, as the communion cups were finishing their rounds, I sat looking at my hands holding the tiny plastic cup filled with grape juice. And in that moment, I remembered my father’s hands holding a similar cup. Large, strong, tan fingers dwarfing the delicate glass (they were glass back then). As a child I used to watch him, fascinated by how graceful he could be, the cup balanced in his left hand as the finger of his right hand swirled around the rim over and over again. I wouldn’t blink, not wanting to miss if he would spill a drop or get any of the red juice on his finger, but he never did. Now I hold my communion cup just like him, in my left hand as my right hand absently traces its thin plastic lip, unintentionally echoing my father. One of the many ways I’m like him without even meaning to be, I suppose.

Lately, memories like this have been flooding back unbidden though not unwelcome. Little specific moments of time past keep popping up in my memory, brought on by sights, sounds, even scents. Unexpected and strange. While the world changes around me, flowers blossom, trees leaf and grass turns green again, my mind keeps remembering people and moments past.

It’s hard to describe.

I’ve been reflecting on how odd it is that my limited human brain has the capacity to be the only place a specific version of a person exists anymore. Often, my memory is spotty or nonexistent, but then there are these pieces of people, vivid and real, that I will never forget.

An old boyfriend who was once young and sweet and kind but became violent, racist, and angry. I don’t think of him often, but as I stumbled across a video from “The Phantom of the Opera,” which he loved back then, memories came flooding back of the sweet him, pieces of him that no one other than me will remember.

My last serious crush, a funny, witty, complicated man who died a few years ago, suddenly and way too young. A picture of him appeared on Facebook this week, unattached to anything in particular, he just seems to be on more than one person’s mind lately. And in my mind he will always be laughing, beer in hand, twinkle in his eye, trying hard to make sure everyone around him is comfortable and noticed, including the socially awkward me.

Childhood friends I used to spend so much time with who slipped out of my life when I switched schools in the middle of my freshman year. The church I’m now attending is a newer version of my old church, so familiar faces from my past surround me, recognizable but not really known because of over two decades of interruption. I knew them in awkward youth, and they knew me. I wonder how much of that version of me they see when I walk into the room now. I wonder what I’ve missed about them in all these years, what has been lost or gained.

And when one of my former students posted online that he wonders why God took his dad away, didn’t answer his prayers to spare his dad’s life, I think of my dad. And I can tell him I know how he feels, because I was almost the exact same age, because I prayed that same prayer, because I had those same questions. Because I still miss him. And in my mind, beautiful bits and pieces of him still live on.

Out of all things created, the human mind is the most astounding to me. As the flowers in my backyard and in my favorite garden blossom back into life, my mind somehow resurrects people from my past. It’s a kind of haunting – memory – and not totally unpleasant. Sometimes it’s nice to wipe a tear or two away as each vignette slips by, to remember those I have loved and lost, to realize how bizarre life is because, though people are not permanent, they can stay the same forever in my mind.

I wonder, when I’m gone, which memories of me will haunt those who love me. What song will always whisk them back to a concert with me? What scent will remind them of a Disneyland trip with me? What odd mannerism will reflect my influence? What book will forever be associated with my name?

Until we meet again in heaven, what pieces of me will survive in minds and hearts? I will leave behind no children to bear my name, my legacy, just memories.  I pray they’ll be beautiful and silly, sweet and uplifting. May I live my life in such a way that my memory leads to a couple sweet tears instead of bitterness, to small smiles and deep sighs instead of anger, to joy and, ultimately, to thoughts of the love of Christ for each of us. A girl can dream.

Of Toddlers and Time Travel

My four year old niece is just beginning to grapple with the concept of time. When told by her parents that she will be going over to grandma and Auntie Fawn’s house tomorrow, the wheels in her little brain start spinning as she tries to figure out what tomorrow is. “One more sleep?” she asks, as the equation that tomorrow=the next day clicks into place. She smiles about this. One sleep is understandable, perhaps even two or three more sleeps until the weekend makes sense now, and is more easily awaited.

But, when her parents say they’re going on a vacation this summer, this little girl can’t quite figure out how to process this information. It’s too many sleeps for her to count on her fingers, too many more sleeps than her forming brain can process at this point. So some days, she is as excited about this trip as if it’s tomorrow, other days she completely forgets about it, and yet on others she is horribly frustrated with the waiting. Summer can feel to her four year old self like a lifetime away.

Even though I’m almost forty and can calculate exactly how many more sleeps I have until the next thing on my calendar, I can understand her perspective. It’s even worse when the answer to my questions of when things will happen is “someday, probably a long time from now” or “I don’t know” or perhaps “quite possibly never.”

  • When will I get married? Quite possibly never.
  • When will I finally be content? Someday, probably a long time from now.
  • When will I overcome this fear? I don’t know.
  • When will I stop struggling with this? I don’t know.
  • When will I be financially stable? Quite possibly never.
  • When will I stop feeling this way? Someday, probably a long time from now.
  • When will I stop yearning for things I can’t have? Someday, probably a long time from now.
  • When will I understand why? Someday, probably a long time from now, or perhaps, quite possibly, never.

And, like a toddler, my mind fights these concepts of time. It wants something it can measure, can grasp, can rely upon. It wants to know exactly how many more sleeps until these things happen.

As a lifelong fan of science fiction, the idea of time travel always appealed to me. If only I could wrinkle time by tessering, hop into the flying DeLorean or TARDIS, set the controls for the future, and jump ahead. If only someone could come back and tell me when. But, as all great sci-fi fans know, this often doesn’t end well. No, it is better to now know your own future, but to live it out by stepping one foot in front of the other, like everyone else.

2 Corinthians 5:7 reminds us that, as Christians, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” Hebrews 11:1 goes on to describe faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” My sister and her husband can see what they have planned for the summer; to them it is not so far away, they are booking flights and making arrangements. And my niece is learning to trust them – so even though she cannot see that far ahead, she has faith in them that this will happen and be amazing.

How much more so can my God, my Father, see everything he has planned for me? I don’t know what is going on behind the scenes, what he’s orchestrating for me, what arrangements are being made. But, like my niece can trust in her parents because she knows they love her as they always say they do, and they’ve reliably proven this to her throughout her four years of life thus far, I can trust my God because I know he loves me as he says he does in his Scripture, and I can look back on a lifetime of evidence to this fact.

So I’m trying to make my peace with time. Trying to let it unravel without knowing what lies ahead. Trying to both wisely plan for the future while also letting it slip through my fingers with a loose grip. Trying to be okay with questions that may never be answered, at least not in this lifetime.

There are still moments when, like my niece, I can feel my face scrunching up in disdain when no one can tell me exactly how many sleeps it will take before something I want to happen occurs. There are still moments when I wish I could throw a tantrum, beat my fists against the ground, kick and flail a bit when I realize the answer isn’t the one I wanted. But like my sister and her husband, who love their little girl even when she’s imperfect, I know God is there with me in the midst of my disappointment and fear, just waiting for me to turn to him with faith for my future. And today, that is enough.