Instead of Guacamole

A week ago I was searching for some medical records when I came across a sealed envelope with my name on it. It was a prayer I had written in the fall of 2012. I had just graduated, moved to a new city with no friends, was wrestling through the loss of a relationship, and felt so frustrated with God and so lost that I had to write out my prayers just to get a complete thought out. So much pain captured on one piece of paper that was hidden and forgotten for five years. But upon rereading it, I realized God had turned that pain into something greater.  

C.S. Lewis wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Pain in our lives functions as a wakeup call. Whether it is the sharp, stabbing pain of sudden loss or the less defined, stretching ache of emptiness, pain forces a reaction out of us.

Common reactions include distracting ourselves with busyness or comfort, offloading it onto others (consciously or subconsciously), or channeling it into something we consider “productive” that we think will either make us invulnerable to pain the next time around or speed up our recovery.

My favorite reaction involves Netflix and eating a tub of guacamole for dinner. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

My job description includes walking people through pain. Seasons of loss, questions about identity, doubts about what they believe. You would think this would prepare me for hard things in my own life. But I am an absolute child on the scale of pain tolerance (see Netflix and eating reference above).

Question after question filled the page of the prayer I found. Over and over the questions that surfaced began with “why,” “what,” “when,” and “how”–the questions we ask in suffering.

Why is this happening? Why are You allowing this?
What is going to happen next? What should I do?
When will You answer me? When will I no longer feel this way?
How could You allow this to happen? How do I move past this?

Some of those questions, five years later, have been answered. But for some, God has remained frustratingly silent. But as unsatisfying as it is to not have an answer, I must admit that in the face of pain and suffering–especially that which personally affects us–there is no such thing as a satisfying answer. Christianity is not faith in satisfying answers. It is faith in a Person.

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). [John 1:35-42, emphasis mine]

When the two disciples begin to follow Jesus, he cuts to the chase: “What do you really want?” And they ask him a question. But instead of giving them an answer, he gives them an invitation to his presence. He gives them an invitation to relationship.

I read that and think, there goes Jesus being awesome and witty and subversive. But when I ask him my questions and get a, “Come and see,” I find it much less entertaining. Just give it to me straight, Jesus. Why and what and when and how.

Come and see, he says.

Jesus knows the answers to those questions will never satisfy. Because even if they are answered for now, there will always be more questions. The answers will never satisfy–not if that’s the thing we’re looking for. We want a good answer, but we are only promised a good God. Only God will ever satisfy us, and we may get some answers in the process of looking for Him. But if we look for answers, we may miss Jesus altogether.

It is not the why or the what or the when that will placate us. Jesus doesn’t despise those questions or judge us for asking them. But we are missing out if we allow our faith to be defined by these questions. In the silence at the other end of the line, the nagging question that arises is: Who?

Who is God in the face of my pain?
Who am I when things that once defined me are stripped away?
Who am I becoming through this experience?

Who is God?

Although circumstances change, God does not. This is what I cling to when the past seems confusing and the future feels overwhelming. And who is He?

The God of my pain is “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). He is the God of the resurrection, who promises–as Frederick Buechner so beautifully penned–that “the worst thing is never the last thing.” He is the God who sees (El Roi–Genesis 16), the God who provides (Jehovah-jireh–Genesis 22). The God of all comfort (1 Corinthians 1:3-4), the Father who delights to give good gifts (James 1:17), the definition of love itself (1 John 3:16). He understands what we cannot (Isaiah 55:8-9). He simultaneously rules over nations and authorities and oceans and stars (Psalm 47:7-8) while still caring deeply about every sparrow and every flower He ever created (Matthew 10:29). He is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

And maybe in times of pain or suffering, you read all that and think, yeah right. I don’t know if I believe that anymore, or if I ever did. And that’s okay. One of the worst things we can do in suffering is shame ourselves or shame others for experiencing doubt. In Matthew 14, Jesus walks on water and calls Peter out of the boat to join him. “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus tells him, “Come.” Peter boldly steps out of the boat, only to be overcome by fear of the wind and the waves that surrounded him. He takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to sink, crying out to Jesus as the waters pull him under. And how does Jesus respond?

“Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’”

Jesus’s first response is not to teach Peter a lesson by letting him struggle. His response to Peter’s honest cry was immediate compassion. He gently rebukes Peter and asks him about his doubt–but I believe this is more for Peter’s understanding than anything else. “Why did you doubt? What happened? Who do you think I am, that I would let you drown?” Jesus wants Peter to wrestle with his doubt, not deny it. But his compassion and loving response came first.

It is easy to believe God is good when it’s smooth sailing. But storms have the potential to take our thoughts about God and transform them into an experience of God. And sometimes that requires using our last bit of breath to turn towards Jesus and cry out, “I am drowning”…and wait for a response. The beautiful thing about Jesus is that whatever we may believe about him, however we may feel towards him, he is still there–waiting, keeping watch, and eager to respond in compassion.

Who am I?

I could list all the verses that talk about my identity in Christ, but like our beliefs about God, we don’t know what we truly believe until it comes under attack. Pain has a way of revealing the fragility of all the identities and accolades we’ve spent our lives accumulating. When all is stripped away, the simple fact is this: who I am is not determined by me, but by God. The God I described above? That’s the God who loves me. That’s the God to whom I belong. Regardless of what I do, regardless of how I feel about Him in my suffering, regardless of whether or not I suffer well. The most defining thing about me is I belong to that God. A God who is willing to experience pain, humiliation, and death so I would know nothing can separate me from Him, and nothing can take that identity away from me. Not even my lack of belief.

Who am I becoming?

One thing I love to do with the women I work with is have them write out a vision for their life. Who do you want to be in fifty years? What do you want to be true? What do you want to be remembered for?

The funny thing is I’ve never had someone write things like “I am the hardest worker in my company” or “I am financially secure” or “I have a six-pack you could bounce quarters off of.” Yet these are the things we spend our days striving towards. No, what people want to be remembered for are things like faith, character, courage, and love.

I make them write their life vision in the present tense and in third person, as if it were true right now and as if someone else was describing them. “If this is who you want to be in fifty years, you can start becoming that person right now,” I tell them. “Put it up somewhere you can see it every single day, as a reminder to make your decisions out of who you are rather than what you fear might happen.” And I am trying to take my own advice, to make more decisions out of conviction than fear.

When Peter comes to Jesus, he receives a new identity and a new name. Jesus receives the man that he is and gives him a promise: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). There is a rather large gap between who Peter is in the present and who Jesus is making Him into. But Jesus is committed to filling in the gaps.

I’ve been praying lately, “God, make me the woman I’m supposed to be.” I used to pray this when I first started walking with Jesus in college. But then I think I got lazy, I became more concerned about what I was doing than who I was becoming, and I got swept up in the idea that I could change myself. I believe that discipline and a plucky can-do attitude can get you results, but only God can truly change someone’s heart… a lasting change at the deepest level of who we are–the stuff we want to be remembered for. And He uses the raw material of our lives to do it.

I think I am more of the woman I am supposed to be today because of the pain I had to walk through. Do I wish I could’ve avoided that experience? Of course I do. But as I read the prayer I wrote five years ago, I was filled with a deep sense of gratitude. I am not the same woman I was five years ago. I have changed (hopefully in more good ways than bad ones), God has somehow made my heart softer where there was once bitterness, and I walk through pain differently than I did then. Still not very well, but better.

I don’t know why God allows painful things to happen. I don’t have an answer to how God used every instance of evil or hurt for good. But I do know enough about God’s character to be confident that He doesn’t despise broken things. And when there is more brokenness than you can handle, when the world looks at your circumstances and sees a wreckage, God rolls up His sleeves and holds out His hands and says, “I won’t let this be wasted. Just keep your eyes on me.”


Patreeya is a woman after God’s heart, a daughter of the one true King, the beloved of Christ. She leads a life of joy that is rooted in the wonder of the gospel instead of circumstances. Just as she is filled with the knowledge of God’s character, she knows herself and wields the life, talents, and treasures she has been given to decisively and strategically tip the scales for the Kingdom of God.

She does not make decisions out of fear, but out of faith and confidence in God’s goodness and sovereignty. She praises God for every good gift He has bestowed, instead of dwelling on what she does not have. She savors each moment, season, relationship, and interaction. She is brave, adventurous, fun, and free of shame, condemnation, and self-obsession.

Patreeya dedicates her life to raising up women of God, being a nurturing and safe presence for women (and men) to experience the love of Jesus. She is adept at seeing people through the Lord’s eyes and bringing out the parts of them that uniquely reflect His image. She is committed to sowing love where there is hatred, grace where there is injury, peace where there is discord, faith where there is doubt, hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness, joy where there is sadness. People feel loved and free in her presence because she loves them by faith in Christ. She loves the people God has given her to steward fiercely, generously, and without holding back. And, when love calls for it, lets them go. She leaves people better than she found them.

Come Alive

We are a forgetful people. The other day, someone asked me how old I was and I told them the wrong age. I had a three second moment of panic where I couldn’t remember, and I blurted out the first number that came to mind.

Monday is perhaps the most forgetful day of the week. We live much of our lives with this escapist drive toward the weekend, thinking those two days will fulfill all of our needs and fantasies. More sleep! More time to work on those assignments! A chance to have clean pants again! Time with people I like! Time with God! Time with my good friends Leslie Knope & Ron Swanson!

Then Monday rolls around. “How was your weekend?” someone asks. My mind goes blank. “Church was…really good,” I mutter. “What was the sermon about?” And the Monday amnesia hits me like a cartoon anvil. I remember the peace I felt. I remember thinking, this sermon was written just for me! And yet, I cannot truly recall why it was so life-changing.

As Christians, we have spent the past few weeks in anticipation of Easter. We prepared our hearts. We reflected on the cross and its significance. We felt the long, heavy pause between Good Friday and Easter Sunday–waiting for the discovery of an empty grave and a risen Savior. And then it comes. He comes. And then it’s Monday.

A New Normal

The temptation is to treat Easter like it’s an ending. The eggs have all been found, Jesus is risen (*raised hands emoji*), we went to church, I can finally eat sugar/watch Netflix/go on social media again…and now it’s back to “normal life.”

But nothing was normal after Jesus. Easter was a revolution. It was the day after which nothing was the same ever again. When a man who claims to be God rises from the dead, “business as usual” isn’t a thing. From that day forward, you spend your entire life either affirming that he is risen or denying it. Easter isn’t just a time to pause and reflect on some nice truths we tend to forget about the rest of the year. It is the entire crux of our faith. It is the only reason we have to hope.

Perhaps you’ve been feeling the trudge of April. We are a third of the way through 2017, and maybe the “blank slate” you thought this year would bring has already been tainted with disappointments, mistakes, failures. Why do we think flipping a page on our calendars gives us the ability for a fresh start? From experience, I know a new year rarely brings the willpower needed to finally stick to that exercise routine I’ve been promising myself for the past five years. January 1st may bring with it the conviction that I need to love people better, but it never brings me the sustained ability to do so. January 2nd rolls around–and I’m still the same old me who couldn’t keep those resolutions last year.

A New Life

But Easter. If there was ever a time for significant life changes, it should be the Monday after. Because Easter isn’t an ending. It’s a beginning. It’s THE beginning, the fresh start all of our hearts long for. It isn’t about fluffy bunnies and pastel colors–it’s about the radical death, relentless love, and revolutionary power.

The cross, the empty grave, and the resurrected Jesus not only give us a reason to hope for change–they give us the power to change. Rather than us trying to change from our own efforts, the resurrection changes us.

In Romans 8, Paul reminds us: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”

In 2 Corinthians, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

Easter Sunday is unlike any other Sunday. We come into the Monday after a changed people. Not because we finally got to catch up on sleep. Not because we feel shiny and new and different. Not because of what we have accomplished. But because of what was done on our behalf. Because Jesus’s resurrection gave us a new identity. My identity is not in the choices I make or what I accomplish, but in who Christ’s resurrection has made me to be.

A New People

The life of the disciples after meeting the resurrected Jesus reminds me of this. “On the evening of the first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” (John 20:19-20).

It was the first day of the week. The disciples had locked themselves away out of fear. Everything Jesus had taught, everything he had said or done…it all seemed like a distant memory now.

We see these disciples again in Acts 4, preaching to the Jewish leaders they had been hiding from. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13).

Something happened in that locked room that radically transformed them from fearful, anxious men into witnesses that would not be silenced, would not be ashamed, would not stop sharing what Jesus had done–even at the cost of their own lives. They began to live, not out of who they were, but out of who the resurrection had made them to be. Their encounter with Christ was so ingrained into their hearts and minds that they never forgot it. It was the story they told, over and over again, for the rest of their lives.

The resurrection was everything for them. The cross was the death of everything they had hoped or believed was true. But it wasn’t the end. It was the end of who they had been, and the beginning of who they truly were meant to be. When Jesus came back to life, they came alive.

As I sat on the floor at church yesterday, I closed my eyes and prayed, “Jesus, don’t let me forget. Please don’t let me forget.” Because I knew Monday was coming. It sounds strange, but my ambition is this: some Easter Sunday many years from now, I’ll be sitting in a corner watching my grandchildren running around, hunting for eggs. And someone will gesture in my direction, as if to ask, why does she look so happy? Then someone will shrug and reply, “That’s grandma. She’s not just like this on Easter, she’s like this every day. If you ask her why, she’ll say she met Jesus and that she’s never been the same.”

Winter

I sat down in the snow and cried. I’d spent so much energy and effort trying to learn, and all I had to show for it was a bruised tailbone, sore legs, and rentals I had no desire to put back on. As I watched people cruise down steeper slopes with such graceful ease, I took a deep breath and mentally rallied.

You can do this, Patreeya, I told myself. You are made of tougher stuff than this. You don’t quit. You’re not a quitter. Just suck it up because you can do this.

Then I felt something else whisper: You can’t do this right now. And you don’t have to. You don’t have to keep trying harder. Who told you you couldn’t have limits?

And I knew that second voice was right. As much as I wanted to, as much as I thought I could mentally muster up the energy, I had reached my physical limit. I had reached the end of myself, and if I went back out there on sheer might alone, I was probably going to seriously hurt myself.

I hate admitting my weaknesses. I hate being faced with my limits.

I began seeing a counselor for anxiety in January. Although I’m a normally introspective person, towards the end of last year I found myself stuck in my head and trapped by my fears and my thoughts of worst-case scenarios. I’d feel myself spiraling–a weight in the pit of my stomach, a fluttering in my chest, and an inability to tell which way was up. Something is off, my soul was telling me. And now my body had finally caught up.

I wanted a quick fix. An Oh-just-exercise-and-take-some-vitamins-and-you’ll-feel-better kind of cure. But like all true healing, you have to dig deep to get the debris out. Sometimes you have to reopen old wounds or break things that have healed incorrectly. And there’s more brokenness before there’s restoration. There’s pain before there’s relief. It isn’t a bandaid sort of thing. And my anxiety was telling me, you’ve spent too much time on quick fixes and slapping on bandaids, and now you need to commit to some serious surgery.

So I’ve had to accept that this is the season that I am currently in. A season of limited capacity. A season where my makeup doesn’t often make it until the end of the day. A season where I have to relive things I never wanted to think about again, for the purpose of asking, Jesus, where were you in that moment? A season where I feel exceptionally weak, where I am confronted with my brokenness moment-by-moment, where I do things because “they are good for me” rather than “because I want to.” A season where I feel like my soul is laid bare before God and He is rearranging and removing the things that don’t belong.

A friend sent me this video about the necessity of seasons, particularly winter. It has brought me so much perspective and hope. As the woman in it shares, it is because the trees are barren that you can see so clearly. You can see the sun shining through the empty branches. You can see miles into the forest. There is less to distract you in winter, and you can see further than you could before.

I can see now. The irony is when I am experiencing anxiety, my vision is so distorted and one thing or one belief becomes greater than everything else. But between those moments, I can see further than I ever could before. I can see myself more clearly; I can see God more clearly. One of my favorite quotes from The Hunger Games comes when Katniss finds herself confused by losses and lies, and she reminds herself: “Start simple–start with what you know is true.”

So let me start with the simple things–the things I lose sight of in the hustle and bustle of never doing enough, never having enough, never being enough. The things I am forced to lean into with the full weight of my heart, mind, and soul in a season of waiting and stillness. The things I hold onto tight as a compass, when I am stuck in a snowstorm of thoughts and can see only an inch ahead. These are the things I couldn’t see before, things I knew in theory but am now learning by touch and taste and sound and smell:

  1. I am not my anxiety.

This has been a hard one to hold onto. There are days where anxiety has felt pretty incapacitating. I don’t always feel like I’m in control of my thoughts. I’ve also shared pretty openly with anyone who has asked about what this experience has been like. And so there is this fear that this–this struggle, this weakness–is all they see of me now. This may be stating the obvious, but I care a great deal about how people see me. More than I should. And now, gone is the Patreeya who was able to handle everything without batting an eye. Gone is the girl who prided herself on taking the lemons people handed her and making lemonade, lemon bars, and lemon meringue to pass out. Gone is the Patreeya who could care for other people without needing to be cared for herself.

At least, that is who I told myself I was and who I needed to be. But that has never been who I truly am. My value has never added up to how much I was able to do, how well I was able to hold it all together, or how many problems I was able to solve. But it’s a lot easier to hold onto false identities when they look so shiny. This other “identity”–the anxious girl, the one with the problems, the one who is needy–is not nearly as fun. Anxiety has forced me to wrestle with where my identity truly lies–and how neither my capacity nor my limitations define who I am. Neither make for loving masters. My identity must lie elsewhere.

  1. I am not the Messiah.

Similar to my first point, I have had to accept my limitations. I am not God, and I was never meant to be. I recently listened to a sermon about the gift of limitations, and the pastor shared about how John the Baptist knew his true identity. In John 1, when people were asking him who he was, he first confessed freely who he was not: “I am not the Messiah.” They kept trying to pin him down, asking if he was Elijah or the Prophet. “I am not,” he told them.

Finally, after they pressed him, he said, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.'”

When I live as if I have no limitations, I try to be God in my own life and in the lives of others. But I am not responsible for saving the world. Someone already did that. I am not responsible for saving myself. Someone already did that. And while I am called to steward my life wisely and to live it loving others, I cannot control how people think/feel/act. And that is okay. I am not the Messiah, I am simply a voice called to say what the Lord has told me to say.

I don’t have to be anyone other than who God has created me to be. I don’t have to be perfect. Which means even when I can’t hold it all together, I can trust that Someone Else already has that job description.

  1. I can trust God.

For most of my life, I’ve been fairly self-aware. Not only do I usually know what I’m feeling, I can also tell you why I’m feeling what I’m feeling, rationalize it, and spit it out in a coherent and relatable anecdote. But now–I don’t always know why I am fine some days and other days wake up with a slew of anxious thoughts. I don’t always know what has triggered the things I’m feeling. Sometimes I lack the words to explain it.

If you have spent all of your life trying to be “reliable,” being the one who gets things done, being the person you have always been able to rely on the most–then this is terrifying. This is why, even when I wasn’t immediately feeling anxiety, I was scared that the feeling would come back. I didn’t like feeling helpless. I didn’t like not being able to rely on myself.

But here is the beautiful thing about reaching the end of yourself: you realize that God has been there all along. Not only can I trust God–but God has always been more trustworthy and more capable than I have ever been. That seems so simple to admit, but how often to do I try to take back control of something, as if God will screw it up unless I do it myself?

The Lord has spent the last couple of months shattering my illusions of self-sufficiency. It’s like I’ve been living life in a room with a two-way mirror, unable to see God on the other side waiting for me to know He had it under control and had much bigger plans than for me to stay in that tiny room. But I put the mirror there. I was the one who wanted to do it by myself. I preferred the safety and predictability of the four walls I’d put up to the unknown and uncertainty of trusting a God and a plan I couldn’t control. 

Our need for control traps us. But He loves us too much to leave us there. And when you finally get to a point where you cry out, “God, I cannot do this,” He responds, “I know. I’ve been here all along. I’ll take care of you if you let me.” My eyes have been opened, I can see God in the room with me, I can see the door is open, and I don’t want to go back to living the way I did before. Under the illusion of safety and control, but in reality imprisoned by fear, burdened by things I was never meant to carry, and isolated by my own choosing. 

  1. Spring will come again.

Two months ago, I never thought I would thank God for my anxiety. It felt like a curse, like something I had to go through alone. But there is a beauty in the harshness of winter. There are gifts in every season. 

My prayer life has always been a struggle. But I have been praying more than I ever have, praying in faith and hope, simply because it is all I can think to do. Sometimes, it is all I can trust to help me see clearly. I have also been memorizing more scripture, carrying around a stack of flashcards like a vampire hunter carries garlic, because I am clinging to the promise that God will renew my mind and guard my heart. I am clinging to the knowledge that trusting in Him is far more powerful than leaning on my own understanding. I am clinging to the hope that He is creating in me a pure heart, one that is not stockpiling hurt and distorted thinking, but one that is clean and whole and knows Him better than anything.

I’ve received love and kindness and tissues and a listening ear from people in my life who love me in my weakness. I’ve realized some of the beliefs I have about God are untrue and even detrimental to experiencing who He really is, and am forced to do the hard work of confronting them head-on. And I’ve experienced moments of a deep awareness of God’s love and presence in my life that are punctuating and rewriting my story into something deeper, something sweeter.

And because of these things, I would not trade the last few months for anything.

Don’t get me wrong. I am still sitting, staring up through the empty branches of winter and waiting for signs of life. And it sucks, it is exhausting, it is not fun. I wanted to punch that dumb groundhog for predicting more winter. Everything in me is longing for spring. And I know it will come.

But God is still present in winter. So I will sit here with Him and ask that He would help me see Him clearly. That I wouldn’t waste this season. That I wouldn’t forget when spring comes. 

Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.

Hosea 6:9

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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

2 Corinthians 12:9

 

We Found Love in a Hopeless Place

I grew up surrounded by unhealthy relationships. Up until the age of ten, I thought it was completely normal for dads to sleep on the couch and moms to cry in the closet. So I have spent my whole life trying to figure out what love is.

Disney ruined me early on with its picturesque happily-ever-afters where there’s a handsome prince and a beautiful princess and all they have to do to get together is defeat a dragon or an angry town mob. This is love, I thought: beautiful, perfect people finding each other in a hopeless place.

But in all the friendships and romantic relationships I’ve been in, I’ve found the biggest obstacle to happily ever after isn’t outside of the relationship, it’s within. The hopeless place is inside of me–it’s my mess, it’s the other person’s mess. And when two messy people come together, it doesn’t make for a perfect fit. If anything, two messy people magnify each other’s messiness.

There is nothing like relationships (familial, romantic, platonic) to make you realize just how flawed you are. Finding love can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack with both hands tied behind my back and the wrong contact prescription–I end up getting poked in the eye a lot and nursing a headache the rest of the day. Love is already messy, and I bring into it an even bigger mess of my beliefs, insecurities, expectations, desires, and habits that distort how I see others and how I see myself.

So rather than giving you my personal, distorted definition of what love and healthy relationships look like, let’s look elsewhere:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins

1 John 4:7-10

This is a pretty audacious claim, that “God is love.” Whether or not you believe that to be true, we can still find two key elements in the passage that help us understand what love looks like.

Commitment (AKA “What we all want but are scared to give.”)

God demonstrates His commitment towards people by initiating even after He had been rejected time and time again. God sent Jesus not because we loved him (in fact we did the very opposite), but because He loved us and was committed to us. And moreover, it was not a one-time decision to commit, but a consistent action. It says that because of what Jesus has done “we might live through him,” implying an ongoing relationship rather than a one-time transaction. God’s grand gesture of dying on the cross isn’t just about a one-time forgiveness of sins or a get-out-of-hell-free card… God’s love comes with an invitation; He doesn’t force His love on anyone but recognizes both parties have a choice. They have to choose to be in this ongoing, committed relationship.

We have so many relationships built on convenience or passion—we became friends because we have five classes together, we fell madly and wildly in love, we’re family because we share DNA. But if you’ve ever moved and seen close friendships disintegrate, or realized that shared DNA doesn’t necessarily make for a good relationship, or had the painful experience of falling out of love, you’ll know these things aren’t enough.

Commitment says, “At the end of the day, I’m still in this. I am choosing to be in this. And even if circumstances change or you gain twenty pounds or have a really bad day or bad month, I’m still going to be here.” And in healthy relationships, both parties are equally committed. Not just once, but day after day, they choose to be dedicated to the relationship.

Commitment is a scary word in our culture, because it isn’t easy and comes at a cost. But I think, deep down, we all desire to know that there is someone at the end of the day who won’t walk away, no matter how hard things get.

Vulnerability (AKA “I want the ground to open up and swallow me, please.”)

Vulnerability is risky because it means giving someone the ability to hurt you. It is where you let yourself be seen, flaws and all, not knowing how the other person will respond. For me, vulnerability is allowing someone to see the parts of myself that I hate the most—the insecure, the selfish, the ugly–the parts I don’t even have the capacity to love.

Vulnerability is also risky because you are investing–time, emotions, money, effort–without the assurance of a return. It means giving, not to get something in return but out of love for the other. It is putting the well-being of the other person above your own, seeking to honor their needs above your own. The problem with this is I usually only like meeting the needs of others if my needs are met first. But vulnerability means investing and giving and allowing yourself to be seen–no strings attached.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we grow up collecting data about what it takes to be lovable. Be kind. Be beautiful. Be strong. Be independent. Be accommodating. But rather than having to do/say the right things to earn love, the Bible’s definition of love says that it is freely given. While we were huge messes, seeing all of our ugly, Jesus still chose to come and love us and pursue a relationship with us. And not only did he acknowledge and accept our vulnerability, but he brought to the table his own: God allowed us to reject Him, call Him names, to put Him on a cross. And being God, He knew that was going to happen. He chose to love, knowing that he would be rejected–I don’t think there’s anything more vulnerable than that.

Healthy relationships exist when commitment and vulnerability are present in equal measure from both parties. No relationship is perfect. Because we are imperfect and broken people, we are bound to slip up, to be selfish, to make mistakes, to fail each other. That’s why the best relationships, the most rewarding ones, will take a lot of work. But it pays off.

In healthy relationships, two things happen:

1. The best relationships leave you better than before.

This isn’t the “Man, I wish he would stop wearing socks with his flip flops” kind of change, or the long list of things we find annoying about the other party. I believe love does change people for the better, but true change never comes from the other person demanding it. It’s only when we have the security of knowing we are loved in spite of our imperfections–only when you can let go of who you think you need to be for people to love you)–that you start becoming who you actually are.

In a healthy relationship, the best parts of you get magnified, and the rougher edges get smoothed out. You change, not superficially, but in the deepest sense—you become a little less selfish, wiser, kinder, more hopeful, more aware of your passions and purpose and place in this world.

2. Healthy relationships multiply your capacity to love others.

They don’t leave you drained with no energy to give to anyone else or demand all of your focus and attention. They don’t leave you more insecure about who you are and what you have to offer. The healthiest relationships are the ones that give you energy and hope and purpose that you want to share with others around you. They don’t just exist for the pleasure of the people in the relationship, but they are about a shared purpose, vision, or passion. A healthy relationship doesn’t just transform the people in it, but it transforms the world around it, leaving it a place that is a little more hopeful, a little more loving, a little less weary.

I believe the best sorts of love we get to experience—through family, friendships, romantic relationships—are really just echoes of a much greater love that we are invited into. I’ve been in a relationship with God for thirteen years now, and I can truly say that there is nothing like it. And when I’m faced with chaos that is in my own heart and the world around me, God’s commitment and demonstrated love for me in the midst of my mess gives me hope for all the other relationships in my life.

Freeze Tag

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.

1 John 4:18

I was a child raised by fear. I am the daughter of calculated risk and safety. Ever since I can remember, I have been cautious, reserved, fearful.

Maybe I inherited it from my parents or maybe my story has rewired my brain to more easily see the dangers in life–or maybe it’s both. Either way, fear dominated the way I made decisions growing up. The people I hung out with. The hobbies I took up. The sports I played (or rather, didn’t play). The things I said. The person I wanted people to think I was.

When an opportunity presented itself, I always searched for the dangers, the pitfalls, the worst-case scenarios. When people showed up in my life, I treated them with suspicion and examined their motives–waiting for them to either hurt me or leave. I always asked, “What might I lose?” rather than, “What could I gain?” Even when I took risks, it was out of fear that I would miss out or that an opportunity would pass me by.

Fear became a safe space to me, drawing boundaries to keep the bad things out. But what I couldn’t see most of the time was that my fear grew into a cage–it kept the bad things out, but it also locked me in.

I don’t think I always knew when fear was taking the reins. When the movie Inside Out premiered, some friends and I had a lively discussion about which emotion ran our “command center.” When my turn rolled around, one friend said nonchalantly, “Oh, that’s easy; you’re fear.” And I felt so exposed.

Now, I’m not talking about the healthy fear that warns you when something isn’t right… like the fear of a burning building or the fear that eating a package of bacon by yourself every morning might result in some complicated health issues. In some ways, we might even call that brand of fear “wisdom.” But I’m talking about the fears that are always there, regardless of the circumstance–fears about who you are or about others or about God. Those fears that you sometimes don’t even register because their voices are so familiar you mistake them for your own.

I am afraid of living my life out of that sort of fear. Ironic, isn’t it? But the more I examine my life (and something about January 1st makes you examine life a little more than usual), the more I can see the veins of fear running through it.

The fear of missing out.
The fear of what others think.
The fear of getting hurt.
The fear of letting people down.
The fear of failure.
The fear of being unlovable.
The fear of the future or the unknown.

These fears have been my loyal companions throughout the years. They have dictated what I say yes to, who I date, what I wear, what I say, who I hang out with. They are intimate voices in my head, telling me when I have screwed up or missed out, telling me the worst will always happen and people always leave, telling me control and comfort are the safest places to land.

But the more I look my fears in the face, the more my loyal companions begin to look like prison guards and my “safety” and “comfort” start to resemble bars of a cage. A self-imposed prison.

I am learning love and fear cannot coexist. I used to think they could at least be mild acquaintances, sitting on opposite sides of the room at an awkward party, sipping punch and yelling across people about the weather. But now I see fear cannot tolerate love. And love will cast out fear.

Because fear is about me. And that’s what makes it so seductive. We love when things are about us. And fear loves to talk about me. She talks about what I need to do to stay safe. She tells me what other people will think. She helps me do a thorough analysis–always grounded in the most objective research, of course–of all the things that could possibly hurt me or go wrong in each situation. She warns me to stay safe, because the world is a scary place and people are unpredictable and only looking out for themselves. And I listen, and I thank her, and I keep coming back.

But love. Love is not about me. “And this is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). Love is laid out for us on the cross. Love is costly to the giver. Love values the good of the other above personal comfort, safety, or preference. When we love, there is always a high possibility of getting hurt. Which is why fear seems like the better option. If it weren’t for the cage and bars and all.

Because the only thing that will free us from fear is to experience love. The only thing that will emancipate us from a life of looking out for ourselves and our best interest is to know that someone else already is doing those very things–with no strings attached. And Jesus says, “This is what love is. That I gave up my comfort and my safety and my rights so you might experience the comfort and safety of knowing that you are loved more than you could ever imagine. Now go, and do likewise.”

Love is what will set us free–cliche as that sounds. It is the long-awaited tap on the shoulder in a game of freeze tag. We stand there, frozen, locked in our own little worlds, unable to live lives of unshackled generosity and grace because of what we need from people or what they might think of us or what it will cost us.

And then love crashes into us and yells, “You are free! You are free to go and live and see and fail and get hurt. You don’t have to stand frozen any longer. You don’t have to be afraid. If you get frozen again, I’ll come back for you.” Love frees us to go and liberate others, to tap on the shoulder those who have been standing frozen in fear. And if enough of us are running around unfreezing others, then fear will never win.

So this is me, hoping to live more of my life unfrozen. And I know the fears will come, I know the voices will continue to whisper to me. But here I am, giving you permission to tap me on the shoulder if you see me standing still.

But for now–tag, you’re it.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners…

Isaiah 61:1

…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

2 Timothy 1:7

After

The morning after is always a letdown.

You look forward to something big–an event, a milestone, a day. Anticipation and expectations soar. And after it’s all over–things remain disappointingly unchanged.

No matter who I kiss on New Year’s Eve or what massive lifestyle changes I resolve to make, the person who wakes up on January 1st is still the same person who failed to keep those resolutions the year before, whose resolve crumbles as soon as chips and dip are placed in front of her.

I used to look forward to my birthday all year long when I was little, but the day after was the biggest disappointment. My birthday came and went, and now I was simply one step closer to “old” and 364 days away from more presents.

We spend all year looking forward to Christmas. Advent calendars count down to the long-anticipated coming–of Santa or of Jesus, or maybe both. But the day after Christmas is an awkward one. Wrapping paper lies crumpled in the trash, presents have been opened, played with, and have already started to lose their shine, and festive decorations a day ago have now become clutter to pack and put away until next year.

December 26th feels hollow: the magic has come and gone, Santa ate all my cookies, I am one day closer to going back to work/school, and I didn’t get you for Christmas after all.

I can only imagine what it must’ve been like in Bethlehem after the Magi came and went. The frankincense and myrrh sat opened and untouched, while Mary and Joseph were left with a newborn baby who kept them up at night, who cried and pooped and made messes, who landed on a hit list that forced them to pack up and flee.

They left the presents and took the baby. December 26th is the day where we tear down the trappings of Christmas and find ourselves left with the real deal: Emmanuel. God who is with us, whose arrival we celebrate, but whose presence fills our lives every day thereafter.

I think Christmas is a lot like a wedding. A grand day to gather with loved ones and celebrate and commemorate. But always bringing with it the dangerous temptation to elevate the day and miss the person. The wedding isn’t about the wedding. It’s about the marriage. It’s about the morning after the wedding. And the morning after that. And the lifetime of mornings you now get to spend with this person.  

December 26th is a letdown when we elevate the day and miss the person. Christmas isn’t about the day you open presents and gather with family and sing “Joy to the World.” Christmas is about the morning after. And the morning after that. And the morning after that.

Christmas is about God’s relentless, undeterred pursuit of us, His commitment to be with His people, His commitment to love His people that led Him to make His presence known–and permanent.

God is with us on December 26th. And every day after that. He is there when the lights are taken down. He is there when your tree is dried up and becomes a fire hazard. He is there on the days that aren’t so filled with cookies and glitter and bows. He is there when “Christmas cheer” has worn off and we are petty, disappointed, disillusioned, or selfish. He is there the morning after, and the morning after that, day in and day out–and even death can’t part Him from us.

So let’s celebrate December 26th with as much gusto as we do the 25th–because it’s the morning after, and He is with us still.

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:16-19

Messy Christmas

This morning I woke up to a rush of questions racing through my mind: Why isn’t God answering any of these prayers? What if this thing I really want doesn’t come? What does my family really think of me? Am I failing at being a friend? Why do I feel so alone? And while insecurities are a normal, everyday battle for me, the exceptional resilience of my fears and discontentment brings me to one conclusion: It must be Christmas.

There is something extraordinary about the way the holidays bring everything to extremes. They intensify every emotion, heighten expectations, and bring the worst and best out in people. Lattes become extra sweet, dull topics become especially controversial, Christmas songs go from eliciting smiles to bringing forth groans in about the span of two weeks. Your heart can experience overflowing generosity and overwhelming stinginess at the same time. And something about holidays can make messy things messier and hard things harder.

Singing “all is calm, all is bright” can feel so very hypocritical when it’s not all calm and bright in us and certainly not in our world.

Yet we feel the pressure to make Christmas merry. “Joy” becomes “I just want to feel good.” “Peace” shifts into “I don’t want to deal with this right now.” “Hope” is distorted into “I won’t be complete without this.” But focusing on the “merry” will make us completely miss Christmas.

Let’s not do Jesus the dishonor of sanitizing and sprucing up Christmas. In preparing our hearts for the arrival of Jesus, let us not clean up our acts, iron our slacks, and trade in the weight and burdens we carry for lighter, more sparkly things. Because nothing will prepare us better for the arrival of Christ than the deep awareness of our need for him.

In reality, “happy” doesn’t come before “Christmas.” But Christ has come to restore true joy. He has come to bring hope to even the messes where there is no “merry” to be found.

And how has he come?

Christ came as a vulnerable babe, so that we might know that we can approach him in our helplessness.

He came homeless and rejected even in the womb, so that we might know that our true Home is not characterized by perfect decorations and smooth family dynamics, but by his presence with us.

He came to be misunderstood, denied, and betrayed, so we would know he understands our most crippling fears and insecurities.

He came to be bloodied and scarred, so we would know that he is the Healer of our deepest and our most painful wounds.

He came to die and come back from death itself, that we would know we are never so far away, too lost, that he cannot reach us.

Jesus came quietly on that silent night, but the first Christmas didn’t consist of him surrounded by a turkey dinner and a well-lit tree with all of his relatives beaming at him (although he could have chosen that). Instead, he chose a mother shamed, a father ridiculed, a tiresome journey, an ungodly trough, and an isolated barn to set the stage for the birth of the Messiah, the One who was rejected from the moment of his conception. He came into that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (John 1:11). And that day was called holy, and that is the day we celebrate—because the only perfect thing about that Christmas was the One who was born into it. 

The holidays are about joy and traditions, family and friends, giving and receiving. But they’re also about the hard times and loneliness, change and sorrow, heartache and loss. Because Jesus is Lord over all of those things. We don’t worship a God who only cares about happy, cheerful hearts; we worship a God who made it His business to come and save the sad and destitute ones, and who understands the weight of their burdens.

And he is coming again, to bring real justice and real peace to our world, to wipe away every tear, and to take the pain and suffering of this life and redeem it and make the joy and light of this life even brighter.

So as we await his coming, both for Christmas present and Christmas future, as we sing carols and wish friends a happy holiday, may we remember that Jesus’s definition of a “merry Christmas” is not one without sorrow, longing, or messiness–but one that is infinitely sweeter because he is there with us in all of it it. In laughter and rejoicing, he is there. In my moments of fear and doubt and loneliness, he is there. From manger to grave and back again, he is God with us.


He grew up before him like a tender shoot,

    and like a root out of dry ground.

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,

nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind,

a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.

Like one from whom people hide their faces

he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain

and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God,

stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,

he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him,

and by his wounds we are healed.

–Isaiah 53:2-6

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

–Luke 2:9-12

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

the everlasting Light,

the hopes and fears of all the years

are met in Thee tonight.

Seven Excruciating Seconds

I proposed to a boy on my first day of kindergarten. His name was Conrad (Hi, Conrad–hope you don’t remember this), and he was the cutest boy ever. I schemed my way into sitting next to him at lunch and laughed a little too hard when he told me a joke…probably something involving animals, or whatever the kids are joking about these days. And that’s when it happened. “Want to hear something funny?” I asked him. He nodded eagerly. “Wouldn’t it be funny if you and I got married?” I said in a five year old’s version of coyness.

What followed was seven seconds of excruciating silence. Seven seconds of wanting the ground to open up and swallow me alive. Seven seconds that made an alarm go off in my tiny heart that screamed, ABORT! ABORT! THIS ISN’T GOING WELL! And even though I laughed it off and quickly changed the topic to my favorite artist at the time, Britney Spears… those were seven seconds of free-falling vulnerability that–two decades later–I have never forgotten.

Brené Brown says vulnerability is “the courage to show up and let myself be seen.” And though I wasn’t even tall enough to reach the kitchen sink, I knew I had done the unthinkable and opened myself up to rejection, criticism, & failure.

I’m rehashing my childhood heartbreak because I’m pretty certain we all experience those seven excruciating seconds all the time. Whether it’s when you tell that guy/girl how you feel, when you share something deeply personal that is met with silence, when you feel alone in a crowded room with people who seem to be best friends, when you’re home on a Friday night browsing social media…

Those seven seconds (or minutes or days or months) ARE. THE. WORST. It’s the slow ride up to the top of the rollercoaster. It’s the feeling that all eyes are on you–and not in the “I just showed up to the club looking goooooood” sort of way. It’s the recess before the verdict is announced. It’s the vulnerability drumroll.

Vulnerability is painful because we spend most of our time crafting what we want people to think about us. We cultivate our social media accounts, go on diets, listen to bands we think we should like, say things we’re expected to say. Vulnerability is the simple admission of reality. It is “showing up and letting yourself be seen” as you really are in this very moment, not the you five months from now or ten tacos fewer from now.

In Notting Hill, Julia Roberts plays a grossly famous movie star who falls in love with an average, slightly pathetic bookstore owner (although, how average can you be when you’re Hugh Grant). Julia shows up to Hugh’s bookstore to tell him how she feels–only to be turned down because of her celebrity. And in an iconic moment of vulnerability, she reminds him: “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

Cue tears and retching noises. This, ladies and gentlemen, is life. And in a day and age when people can sniff out inauthenticity faster than you can say, “hashtagliveauthentic,” we intellectually know that vulnerability is a good thing, know we can’t escape it, and are even drawn to it.

But what to do with that pesky knot in your stomach? As much as those seven seconds when you’re waiting for Conrad to answer absolutely suck, I think we must embrace vulnerability because it reminds us of two things:

First, that we are seen AND loved–flaws and all. In Luke 8, Jesus is summoned by a synagogue leader to heal his daughter. Along the way, a woman who was considered unclean and an outcast because of a chronic illness sneaks up to touch his cloak under the cover of the bustling crowd. But Jesus calls her forward.

“Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.’” She didn’t want to be seen, but she did want to be healed. The irony is that she could only truly be healed and restored (not just physically but also emotionally and socially) if she let herself be seen. Jesus, knowing this, pauses to recognize her and calls her “daughter”–a new identity so she would know who she truly is.

Second, there is no love without risk. There is no true connection without vulnerability. How will others be able to love us if we do not allow them to see who we really are? The greatest example of this that I can think of is God Himself. Omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, yet willing to reveal Himself to us through His Word at the risk of being deemed unjust, cruel, irrational, hateful. The definition of love Himself, yet allowing us to choose whether or not we will love Him back. Eternal and without sin, yet willingly taking on flesh and the sin of the world so that He could die in our place, betrayed by those He loved. What is more vulnerable than that? Who is more vulnerable than a God who says “I love you” first, no matter what we say or do back to Him?

So let me embrace vulnerability, knowing that in doing so, I become like my Savior. Let me choose to show up and be seen as I am, knowing that His love for me is the most important thing about me. Let me love first, let me love more, let me love at great cost to myself, knowing that Jesus has spared no cost in His love for me.

“O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”

-St. Francis

Breathing is Optional

“I need to breathe, but I don’t have the time.”

My Facebook status from seven years ago popped up on my feed last night, a reminder of college essays, all-nighters, messy friendships, unattended Bible studies, and unrequited crushes of my sophomore year of college. (Also, a reminder of when I posted every thought as a Facebook status without any sort of filter).

I gave a painful laugh upon reading it, amused by the irony that seven years later not much has changed. I was sitting on my couch, debating whether or not to go to my church community group, on the verge of tears as I shared with my roommates how stressed I felt, how busy I had become, how tired my body and my heart were. And it was blanketed by this heavy resignation: I don’t know what I can do to change it.

Go, go, go, go. This has been the pace of life lately. And in the moments where I pause or try to slow down, it feels like my mind starts outrunning my body, my heart threatens to beat right out of my chest, and my soul feels jerked back, like when someone suddenly slams on the brakes on the freeway.

Ironically, I think my faith makes me more tired.

On top of being a good friend, a good daughter, a good roommate, a good human… I feel this overwhelming burden to be a good Christian. Somehow my belief in God’s love has translated into the word “more.” I need to do more good, care more about things, love more people, go to more things, read more of my Bible and spend more time with Jesus. If I am being completely honest, I have often equated the voice of the world (“You are what you do–and you aren’t doing enough.”) with the voice of Jesus, a lovingly stern boss who looks at progress reports, shakes his head, and looks at me with a resigned disappointment (which, as children, we learn is so much worse than anger): “Not bad, but I want you to do better next time.”

So I soldier on. I evaluate my progress and I say to myself, more is better, so I will do more! I just need to manage my time better, sleep more, wake up earlier, stay up later, spend more time with friends, read more Bible, and then I won’t feel this hurry in my heart all the time. Rarely do I realize I’m moving so fast that I can’t tell the real voice of Jesus from the words I’ve put in his mouth.

The real Jesus in John 10 calls himself the “Good Shepherd.” The real Jesus warns against other voices, against the thief and the robber who will try to convince the sheep they are the real shepherd. Real Jesus says: “The thief comes only to steal and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

I don’t think Jesus meant full lives in the sense that we would always feel we were bursting at the seams, our schedules so full and our hearts so tired that just one more drop of anything will break the fragile dam that holds our mess together. Jesus came to give us the fullness of life, not the fullest life.

I am tired of being tired. So, last night, I did the unthinkable and I stopped. I stopped and told God I was done running and trying to be better by doing more. I stopped and told God I wanted the real thing, the real Shepherd. And I heard the Good Shepherd say two things:

“You don’t have to be perfect.” I know this intellectually, but I don’t live it. I sat and wrestled with why that is, the fears I have about letting people down, about letting God down, about needing to earn love and acceptance and worth. I remember my anxiety in school went like this: if I fail this exam, I will fail this class, and then I won’t get into grad school, and I will never get a job, and then I’ll be homeless, and then I will die alone. Now, it goes a little something like this: if I don’t finish this task or meet this person, they will never know Jesus, and then I will have failed at my job, and people will stop giving financially, and then I will end up homeless, and then I will die alone.

But the voice of the Shepherd says, “And I will still love you. Even if the mountains crumble into the sea, even if the worst of the worst happens, I will be your strength, your refuge, your family.” My unbelieving self asks, “But is that enough? If all I have is God and none of my accomplishments or the love of others, will that be enough?” But the only way to find out is if I stop chasing after those things.

“You don’t have to do this alone.” This is the difference between a soldier and a daughter. As a soldier or an employee, my relationship with God is dependent on what I do for Him and how well I complete the mission; every task is a chance for a performance review. As a daughter, my relationship with Him is already secure, and out of that He invites me to a life of adventure and trust. Instead of failure or success resting squarely on my shoulders, God takes my hand and says, “Let’s go on an adventure. I want you to be a part of what I’m doing.” Instead of living in paralysis, or fear of failure (which is why my tendency when I’m stressed is to either overwork or binge watch Parks and Rec), I can love people, write things, plan events, have hard conversations, share my faith, and do good work knowing that Jesus doesn’t send me out to do it on my own and that He won’t leave me or be disappointed if I fail.

I’m still learning what this looks like practically, how I can joyfully embrace the rhythms of work and rest without being defined by my productivity or confined to a life of empty rest. But I think it starts by making the time to breathe. In the moments where it feels like I’m so busy that I can’t stop, to do the unthinkable and stop. To exhale and release the burdens I hold: the world will not end if this doesn’t happen, my life will not be over, my identity will not be changed. To inhale and remember: I can be imperfect, messy, incomplete, in-progress and still be absolutely loved by a God who calls me “child.”

All I Do Is Lose

Love is a game. At least, this is what I learned at the ripe age of six from watching the movie Clueless. With the help of Cher and her lipsticked posse, I learned the game of love has a lot of rules: getting love requires a wide selection of outfits and a plan, you don’t show all your cards, you can’t text back too quickly, shopping heals most wounds, and you only want the people you can’t have.

Of course, I can watch this movie two decades later and enjoy it with much more thoughtful commentary. But some lessons are pretty hard to unlearn.

As a single, twenty-something Christian, I have to sort through a lot of mixed messages about romantic love. On the one hand, I believe that marriage isn’t the end-game of life. I believe that you can live a happy, fulfilling life as a single person (after all, both Jesus and Paul stayed single). I believe that truly fulfilling love comes from God and can be experienced through multiple channels including your immediate family, friends, the Church. And, let’s be honest, getting to decide how you spend your free evenings without consulting anyone (and actually having free evenings) is pretty darn nice.

On the other hand, most of my best friends are married (to some of the best guys I could’ve ever handpicked for them) before the age of 24. I work for an organization that highly values family, in which work conferences seem like a tongue-in-cheek mingling session for singles. I’m plagued with ads for dating apps (thanks Facebook), previews of chick flicks (my guilty pleasure), and #mancrushmonday posts. And personally, I do hope to be married someday.

Tack onto this the different messages about HOW to date: just wait on God’s timing, be open, but don’t be too open, initiate, don’t initiate, wait for the guy who sees how awesome you are, just be awesome and don’t worry about it, text him first, wait three days, don’t be too eager, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable…but guard your heart!!

Picture a robot internally combusting from an overload of mixed programming–because this is what singleness feels like. How can I be a woman who loves Jesus, is content and thriving in life, desires to be married, but isn’t waiting for a knight-in-shining-armor to show up at her door?

Um, when you figure that out, could you let me know?

Donald Miller, in his book Scary Close, suggests that we are all designed with sensitive antennas, receptors designed to receive love, and we often get our signals mixed up and confuse our need for love with our need to perform. He carries on this metaphor to assert that how we detect or receive love is dependent on the experiences that have shaped us, have messed with our antennae. I think how we approach romantic love may be the most telling indicator of the messages we believe about who we are and what love is. After all, romantic love is not the love that is assigned by which pair of arms takes us home from the hospital (although this love in our broken world is not a given, either). It’s not something we crave when we’re learning to walk. But it becomes something, through experiences we have and messages we hear, for which we develop a concept, a belief system, and a strategy.

My belief system about romantic love was influenced by my cultural upbringing, my family history, and my early relationships. I grew up in a culture that, frankly, idolizes romantic love…soap operas preach it, matching T-shirts display it, songs on the radio wail about it. Love is the ultimate prize. In Thai culture, it is not the norm to move out of your parents’ house unless you get married, so there is a lack of that Western independence and pride associated with being a single young adult. Love is freedom and self-fulfillment. Growing up, I saw a culture that idolized loyal, unwavering love, but was permeated with the reality of unfulfilled promises. To take a mistress is not uncommon. Cheating is accepted as a highly likely outcome, a reality that I saw play out in my own family. Winning is when you’re the first to leave.

From my first romantic relationship, I learned similar messages about how you play the game. This relationship ended three times. And while he was a great guy, I recognized this pattern of love being a chase…something that was exciting and captivating until it wasn’t anymore. I learned that the person who cares least has the most power. And I learned that that person usually wasn’t me.

I’ve dated and been in other relationships since, healthier, unhealthier, some I’ve ended, some I didn’t. But each time has been either a confirmation or an uphill battle against those messages I learned all my life.

My relationship with Jesus has radically rewritten the way I see love. But dating has always been the truest test of my theology–because how do you show sacrificial, Christ-like love in a system that seems designed to end in disappointment, with a win or a lose, with the person who cares less being the one who gets to pass “Go” and collect $200?

You have to be okay with losing.

And this has always been my biggest fear with dating: that I am a loser. We learn early on that the loser is the one who “can’t get over it.” When someone rejects us, we retort that we didn’t care anyways. We play it safe, we ambiguously hang out until we are sure our affections are returned. Because somewhere along the way, showing that you care too much, too soon, became terribly uncool. Showing you care more than the other person became incredibly foolish. Because it leaves us vulnerable. So we build up our defenses, we hide how we feel, we shove emotions down, we belt out some Beyonce, we learn not to cry in front of others.

I have been told that I care too much (not just in the realm of romance, but about everything). This isn’t one of those “flaws-turned-into-something-positive-for-a-job-interview” observations, but rather a crippling acknowledgement of one of my biggest insecurities–that even how I love people is inherently broken.

This comes out in a myriad of ways. I feel personally responsible for people’s experiences and emotions (read: bad boundaries). I hold on for far too long after a breakup. Sometimes, I feel an almost irresistible impulse to buy things, bake things, fix things, share things. Usually followed by immediate panic of whether or not I did too much. Because showing your cards means that you’ve already lost the game.

But what if the stakes are much higher than being the last one who texted or the one who says “I love you” first? What if dating wasn’t just about convincing someone to love you because you’re cool and out of their league and a challenge…but what if the stakes are really about the person you become in the process and who the other person becomes as a result of your interactions with them?

Donald Miller writes about performing for love and what drew him to his wife, Betsy: “She said I didn’t have to perform for her. She didn’t have to say that. I knew it was true. Who else do you marry but the person who pulls you off the stage?”

I don’t think we can really win until we are willing to fold, to leave the game and remember that love is much bigger than a power struggle. Otherwise we approach romance with fear, with insecurity, with a need to control and predict, with armor on.

One of my favorite quotes is: “Be the one who nurtures and builds. Be the one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart, one who looks for the best in people. Leave people better than you found them.”

And so what if, as a single Christian woman, dating finds its rightful place under my calling to “go and make disciples”? What if my goal wasn’t to win the game, but to leave people better than I found them–better loved, better experiencing their identity as a child of God, better equipped to love others? What if I was willing to lose, rather than making sure I care less and leaving people further rooted in their insecurities, convinced they need to earn affection, committed to rehearsing their acts and their lines for their next performance? I don’t want to leave a trail of broken people behind me in my quest to win at love.

I’m a mess of distorted beliefs, defense mechanisms, and insecurities. Go ahead and ask the people I’ve dated! But I’m trying to remind myself that I don’t need to live out my singleness in a mindset of scarcity, competition, and fear. After all, my view of love is based on a man who willingly gave up his life to love the very people who had rejected him.

Maybe I lose, but maybe that’s okay.

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.”

– John 13:34


Note: I think there is wisdom in having healthy emotional boundaries in dating, that love is different from obsession, that you shouldn’t voluntarily place yourself in situations where you will be used/manipulated, and that the most loving thing sometimes is letting people go. But that’s another post, for another time.