Today I Saw God
Music has been hard for me for the past year or so. I know this seems strange coming from someone whose career is fully entrenched in worship, but at some point it simply stopped bringing me joy and singing started to feel like work. Music the medium from which my very soul and essence were molded no longer brought me alive. I drove to and from work in complete silence and rarely played songs simply for enjoyment while I cooked or cleaned.
This is the second time in my life when this has happened, and I know myself well enough to recognize that this is a cry for help from my soul. I should not be surprised, because last year was the year in which I faced something no one dreams of, yet many experience. My marriage came to an end.
Divorce is terrible. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis likens a divorce to the amputation of both of your legs. Like an amputation, you wake up feeling phantom pains of the parts of you that are now missing. However, rather than limbs, it feels more akin to the removal of part of your soul, your identity and your future. In a world that once felt secure, you suddenly feel completely off balance as your finances, living situation, friendships and identity all change in an instant. In marriage, you open yourself up to trust another human being with your most intimate and vulnerable pieces, so to realize that person is possibly someone else entirely creates a chasm that is incomparable to any other type of grief.
I've spent the last year alone as we worked through the separation. The year prior was spent in very serious spiritual discernment. This decision did not come lightly and followed years of counseling and professional guidance. I would not recommend or wish this outcome on anyone, yet I can say without hesitation that I have learned a tremendous amount about life, relationships, and myself through this journey.
I have learned that you should never judge another family's decisions, because it is very possible that you have no idea what is going on behind closed doors.
I have learned that some couples are able to work through hardship and breaches of trust, so long as both parties are committed to growth and true repentance.
I have learned that I do not have the power to change, fix or save anyone no matter how much I want to.
I've learned that no one knows how to act around grieving people, but really the best thing you can do is simply show up over and over again. Listen -love – repeat.
I am slowly learning the beauty of community and vulnerability. Unfortunately I walked a lonely path for a long time by isolating myself and carrying secrets that felt too shameful to share. However, once I opened myself up to sharing the darker parts of my life, I was able to find a community of women for whom this is also a reality. I found that I can in fact trust others with the darkest parts of myself and that this is what God wants for us. If you are currently harboring pain alone, I beg you to find someone you trust.
The past few years will not make it to my top ten list of favorite years, but I have hope for the next one. My goal for 2018 is to focus on rebuilding my life and becoming the person God intended for me to be. I hope to stop pleasing people and start pleasing God. I will strive to heal and recover from the brokenness I have experienced, and to use it to minister to others. As clich as this sounds, I truly need to spend some time getting to know who I am and learn to love myself.
Divorce feels like a death and I can't say that I feel fully alive yet. However, last week something beautiful happened. Alone in my new apartment, I turned on a gospel station on Spotify. Slowly, I found myself tapping my toes, then singing along, and eventually I was fully dancing to the music in my kitchen. I may not be there yet, but as the music, God, therapy and healthy relationships continue to heal me, I know that soon and very soon I will be alive again.
We had just finished a delicious dinner of rice, beans, pork and fruit, when Inervis, the leader of the camp crew, asked us to join her and the fellow staff members in the yard. It was our last night in Camp Canan, which is where our group spent the majority of our time during this 10-day mission trip to Cuba. Much of our journey included getting to know the people and culture of the country while sharing resources collected in America with a variety of small village churches. However, this camp served as our home base, and we generated a special bond with the staff.
Our group stood in a circle per Inervis' instructions, and I anticipated another fun evening of singing and fervent Cuban prayer. However, instead, I see our friends grinning at us with the anticipation of a surprise. After an unnecessarily kind speech thanking us for our time, they excitedly presented us with individual gift bags. Each of the twelve Americans in our mission group was given a Cuban souvenir. As I looked at my tiny pink and brown leather purse, I experienced an unexpected reaction. Rather than mere excitement or sadness as we neared the end of our trip, I felt almost frozen with shock and shame at the lavish generosity of our friends.
You see, I had learned quite a bit from my Cuban neighbors during this time. I discovered that the average monthly salary in Cuba is a mere $25. Monthly! ( This includes doctors and professionals. I saw the humble two-room houses that most people shared with too many people, dilapidated buildings and infrastructure that was truly lacking. I strolled along a street with chickens, pigs and dogs that freely roamed the villages. I learned that electricity, hot water, air conditioning and window screens to protect people from mosquitoes were luxuries reserved for the wealthy. I saw the ration books used to provide each family their monthly allotment of rice and beans and discovered that only tourists were allowed to eat their precious beef. I learned that when a headlight in our van broke or we needed more tools or gasoline, it required a multi-day search around the island only to learn that these items simply did not exist in this country.
Resources are scant in Cuba, yet everywhere we went, the people greeted us with open arms, extravagant hospitality and a generosity I have never experienced or seen anywhere else. How could they possibly afford to give me this gift? I felt burdened with the thought of the sacrifices they had made, yet they seemed sohappy.
Once I returned home, I placed my new souvenir on display and began thinking about generosity differently. Often we get it in our head that we'll be more generous when we have more money. However, statistics show that the opposite is true. In 2011, those in the lower 20% give 3.2% of their income; yet people in the top 20% gave an average of 1.3%. If we wait to be generous with our money, we will simply accumulate more "stuff" which would require more money to maintain. Our Cuban friends had so little, yet they gave without hesitation. This inspired me to also give generously.
I thought about happiness differently. Happiness poured out of the Methodist Cubans that we encountered. Each and every person I met spoke of terrible hardships, yet maintained a spirit of joy that is often lacking amongst my American peers whose problems cannot compare. Once again, this goes against our culture, which teaches us that we just need to buy the right "thing" in order to be happy. However, I think the key to happiness is, in fact, living a generous lifestyle like our Cuban friends.
Many studies suggest that generosity has benefits to both physical and emotional health. An article in the Chicago Tribune says, "The benefits of giving are significant, according to those studies: lower blood pressure, lower risk ofdementia, less anxiety and depression, reduced cardiovascular risk, and overall greater happiness." (Chicago Tribune, 2017) In The Paradox of Generosity, researchers found that those who described themselves as "very happy" donated 5.8 hours of time a month, yet those who were "unhappy" only donated 0.8 hours. There was also a lower rate of depression reported in the group that donated 10% of their income.
While reading this statistic, the number 10% stood out to me, as this is the biblical rule of tithing. I get the impression that some view tithing as a way religion can suck the joy and money out of us, but perhaps God's intent was to give us true joy. Once again, God has outsmarted us and is trying to show us a roadmap to a healthier and happier life.
Honestly, I don't know why the Cubans' gifts surprised me, as this was our experience in every village. Generosity simply flowed from these beautiful people, and I felt incredibly honored and humbled by the purity of their souls. However, their gift had a significant influence on me. My hope for each of us is that as we enter into this season of gratitude, we can also look at ways to be generous with what we've been given. Yes, we have worked for some of our money and possessions, but truthfully it was pure luck that allowed us to be born into a system in which we can prosper. Perhaps if we give often and intentionally, we might actually have the happy life we all yearn for.
As I write this, I am sitting in a salon chair with pink dye drizzling down my neck. Once a year, my typically blonde hair is transformed to a new hue of bubble gum, and it tends to lead to raised eyebrows. Because of this, I thought it might be helpful to explain myself.
It started six years ago. A meeting ended and a fellow teacher turned to me and said, "By the way, I have cancer." Some might balk at the bluntness of this delivery, particularly considering the fact that she and I are such close friends that she was in my wedding. However, this is keeping in par with both of our personalities, as we each have a particularly dry and often dark sense of humor. In no way was this funny, but the directness seemed the only way for her to bring a little levity to the situation.
In the weeks that followed, we found that the news was much worse than we could have ever imagined. The hopeful, pink vision we typically have of this disease was quickly darkened as we were informed that it was stage-four cancer, which had spread to her liver, and she had only a few months to live. To say that we were devastated is an understatement. The school I taught in was a very tight-knit community of teachers who spent just as much time together outside of school as we did inside those concrete walls. Shannon was in her early thirties at the time and had been working at the school for more than ten years.
During those initial weeks, she began chemotherapy and the rest of us huddled together in classrooms to brainstorm ways we could help. Often when friends and family members face a life-threatening illness feelings of hopelessness set in as you realize you have literally no control over the cells that are mutating and taking away someone that you love so much. To combat this hopelessness, we began doing anything we could think of to help. We put together care packages for her in the hospital, made meals (that she really didn't need or want), shopped for wigs, made inappropriate cancer jokes and researched different treatments so that we might be able to understand the words that had now become a part of her daily life. Eventually someone had a new idea let's go together as a group to get pink hair extensions.
We made an evening of it with Shannon. First dinner, then we each took turns having a pink extension clipped into our hair. Local salons offer to do this in October, and in turn part of the proceeds are donated to cancer research. Were we saving lives that night? No. But it gave us a moment to simply enjoy one another and feel as though we were a part of something together.
Throughout the next few months we were amazed as Shannon continued teaching, only missing one day a week for chemo. Then more time passed and we realized that the treament was actually working. This gave us a bit more drive and determination to start getting to work. We organized a fundraiser to raise money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. A local restaurant donated their space, my band offered their services and t-shirts were ordered. You will never see an event come together as quickly and efficiently as you will when you have a group of type-A teachers working together for a cause. Before we knew it, there were hundreds of people spilling out the doors and we had raised more than $10,000, all of which went directly to an organization with an A+ charity rating.
Amazingly, the next year Shannon was still responding to treatment, so we loaded in the car and put in another pink extension. We began plans for a second fundraiser and raised an additional $5,000. We watched Shannon as she attacked every day like a boss. Her hair began to grow back, and she continued to serve children in the classroom through every step of this process. It was beautiful.
Six years later, Shannon is still rocking life. In fact, we celebrated her birthday just last week. We witnessed a true miracle at the hands of her doctors at Georgetown University Hospital. However, even though those days seem far behind us, I still continue with the pink hair.
Sadly I learned the hard way that cancer is not always pretty in pink. My first real experience with death came when I was eight years old, when Pam, a beloved family member, passed away from breast cancer at a tragically young age. Pam had a young son and often cared for my sister and me while my parents were at work. She was a tenderhearted soul who cared deeply for her family. It was heartbreaking.
Again in my twenties I was forced to learn that often lives are taken from us too soon by this awful disease. My dear Joanie, a woman who had been like a second mom to me for years, also passed away due to breast cancer. I felt as if a hole had opened up inside of me as this vibrant and passionate women went home to be with God after years of remission.
It might seem odd that I feel as though pink hair honors them. However, what I've found over the years is that when I suddenly change my hair color, it opens the door for a lot of conversations. Children, congregation members, colleagues, people on the elevator, and strangers in a grocery store – it gives me a chance to share the stories of love and loss, of triumph and heartbreak. I can tell others how warm and loving Pam was or that she had the coolest Christmas lights ever. It allows for memories of butterscotch pie, vacations, holidays, and cool iced tea on the back porch with Joan to resurface. I can speak with strangers of the awe I feel every time I think about the grace and dignity I have witnessed from my friend who received a diagnosis much too early. And it helps me remember that you can honor God both in the way you live and the way you die.
Could this money I spend on dying my hair be spent towards more research? Probably. Please be assured, I also see the value of donating to these worthy organizations. However, I also feel as though honoring their stories is important. I have spent my life surrounded by steadfast, strong women, and it is an honor to be able to share their lives with others. This is why my hair is pink.
I never knew that Mexican food could become a part of my spiritual practice, but growing up I began to equate chicken soft tacos with church. In a small town, there aren't many restaurant options. However, during middle school we were finally blessed with a restaurant named "Little Mexico." I'm not really sure when it happened, but at some point it became understood that Little Mexico would be the central meeting place for most people in town following Sunday church services. My sister and I would (occasionally) grumble under our breath about our Baptist pastor's lengthy sermon, for fear it might cut into our precious lunchtime. "If he doesn't wrap it up, the Methodists are definitely going to beat us to lunch and hijack all the long tables." Somehow week after week, they were always victorious in the race to lunch.
Often my family would grab others from church to join us, and the one-hour meal stretched to two or three as we casually strolled from table to table chatting with friends in the community. For a while, our ritual was so predictable that servers stopped asking for our order. They already knew exactly what we wanted. Sometimes we re-hashed the sermon or dissected musical choices, but mostly we simply laughed, shared stories and fought over cheese dip.
After moving to northern Virginia, there were times when I would experience intense cravings for Little Mexico. "Why?" I wondered. By culinary standards, it is not necessarily the best Mexican cuisine I've ever tasted. (If you are reading this from Big Stone Gap, I apologize, but I speak truth. Okay yes the cheese dip wins). However, I would still rate this as one of my all-time favorite restaurants. I believe it is because of what it represents. This average strip-mall eatery is symbolic of the importance of a shared meal. It is communal and tugs on a primal need we have as humans.
Early Christians understood the importance of a shared meal, and Jesus often used these as opportunities to teach. Jesus dined with the unholy, causing outrage amongst religious leaders yet providing a shining example for inclusion. He did not adhere to social norms of hierarchical seating arrangements. Rather, he used this occasion to teach the importance of humility. Some of Jesus' most interesting miracles involved providing large groups with the opportunity to eat and drink together when there simply didn't seem to be enough food. It should not surprise us that Jesus, knowing he was going to be betrayed by his disciples within hours, still chose to spend his last evening dining with them. He then gave us a precious gift of communion, which allows us to remember him. Breaking bread together is important.
We've read all the studies that tout the benefits of family dinners. Most of these focus on how important this interaction is for the development of children. However, I think we neglect to realize adults also need to commune and dine with others to keep our soul healthy. A shared Sunday meal could be a continuation of our church experience that is missing from our spiritual practices.
Unfortunately, I believe this is where northern Virginia pales in comparison to its rural, small-town counterparts. In an area in which busyness is currency, we simply don't have time for such a weekly ritual. Travel soccer and swim meets dictate entire family schedules for weekends and holidays. In a transient community such as our own, state lines and even oceans split families so the common practice of meeting at Grandma's house isn't always an option. Our church has grown to a size in which even something as simple as a Sunday potluck after a service is no small feat, and it requires extensive planning and logistical efforts. For me, Sunday begins with a 5 a.m. alarm, and I usually don't see my home again until 8 p.m. I get it. Sundays are hard.
However, I think we must make space in our calendar to dine with friends and family, so, how do we bring Sunday Supper back? Here are a few suggestions:
- Plan a meal after a service with members of your small group. If you aren't a part of a small group, now is a great time to join!
- Join Dinner for Eight, or a similar program if your church offers such a thing. The dinners might not take place on Sunday, but it will still be a great experience to share a meal in someone's home. If your church does not have this program, look into starting one.
- Ask if any parents in your child's Sunday school group are interested in starting a Sunday lunch bunch.
- Offer to host a meal at your house after a service. (This is where a slow cooker or Instant Pot will come in handy)
- Plan a progressive meal with members of your neighborhood or apartment community on Sundays. This way you are only tasked with creating one dish.
- If you are part of a ministry team in your church, ask the leader or other members if they would be interested in dining out together after your service has ended.
- During meet and greet, invite your "pew neighbors" to grab food afterwards. Super awkward, right? Who cares! The worst they can say is, no. (Disclaimer: if you are single, you may want to present this as a group option. Otherwise, it might make someone uncomfortable.)
This fall, I've decided to put my money where my mouth is. Members of our music ministry team have lobbied for this exact occasion, so we are implementing "Second Sunday Supper." If anyone would like to join us after the 5 p.m. service once a month, we'd love to get to know you! Feel free to contact me at the church or come see me after a service for more information.
I love food. But most importantly, I love sharing food with others. Maybe it's the Southerner in me, but I think our stomach is an integral part of our faith journey. This fall, I hope you will find ways to incorporate this into your life. And if you're feeling really adventurous, maybe we can make a carpool pilgrimage to Little Mexico someday for the best cheese dip of all time.
I was in second grade when the Disney version of "Beauty and the Beast" debuted in theaters. It was also shortly after this time when a girl in gymnastics class told me I was ugly. A more self-esteemed girl might have coughed up a nasty comeback, but I found myself paralyzed with this new truth. Up until then, I was fairly oblivious, but it was at this time that I realized that there was an appropriate way to look, and I was not it. A slew of Disney films in my childhood only solidified this new worldview. As I recapped my favorite movies"Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast"I realized that the epitome of womanhood was to be beautiful and loved by a man. Unfortunately as I looked in the mirror, I didn't see myself in any of these beloved images, and I realized that I might just not be pretty.
As a thirty-two year old woman, this is the moment when I am supposed to tell you how much I've grown since then. How I realized that there are so many parts of me that are beautiful and God wouldn't want me any other way. However, if I said that, I would be lying to you, because the truth is I'm not there yet. Instead, I'm going to say the thing that some women think, but we aren't supposed to say out loud after a certain age.
I don't like the way I look.
This is when many people rush in to give some sort of quick gushing compliment, as they assume my statement is a passive aggressive attempt at gaining attention and flattery. Nope. Not the case. It's simply my dirty inner secret. If you were to ask me what is beautiful about my physical appearance, I would probably stare blankly at you then quickly devise a joke to change the subject. Yet if you asked what I would like to improve about my physical appearance, I could easily list at least ten unsavory attributes in less than thirty seconds.
Before you all start rushing to find a therapist for me (don't worry, I have one), be assured that as it turns out, God is starting to work on me in this area a little bit. Recently I was asked to complete a project as part of a group I'm participating in. We were focusing on self worth, which is a surprisingly easy topic for me to preach to others or teach to the fifth and sixth grade girls I used to teach. "All of you are beautiful!" "Look at your gorgeous eyes!" "Girl, be proud of yourself let your light shine!" However, in a clever and evil twist, we were forced to examine our own self worth.
I decided to cheat and write it as a song. As I sat down with my guitar to write about my self worth (insert gagging noises), I strummed aimlessly for a few minutes, got up to pluck my eyebrows, came back, remembered that plant I never watered, then decided I should probably vacuum my pillows. After organizing my refrigerator, I finally ran out of distractions and returned to the empty pages. Why was this so hard? I realized that it was almost impossible for me to speak kindly to myself about how worthy I am because my self-talk is littered with repulsion and negativity. This is great for self-deprecating humor and entertaining the masses, but kind of terrible for self-esteem.
Luckily I remembered that there's this book that God uses to say nice things to us every once in a while, so I pulled out my laptop to Google Bible verses about self-worth. Lo and behold, there was Psalm 139 the Psalm that has been haunting me through various venues, devotions and sermons over the last six months.
"I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made
Wonderful are your works;
My soul knows it very well
My frame was not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
Intricately woven in the depths of the earth."
Boom. There it is. Thank you, King David, for giving me a hook for my new song. I realized that last line was begging for a melody. Finally I had a starting point and I weaved lines into verses, a chorus from the hook, and even settled on a decent bridge. However, I realized God kept pushing me to change a line that I did not want to. I argued, erased, rewrote, possibly rolled my eyes. Finally I relented and finalized my new chorus.
"Intricately woven in the depths of the Earth
I've adorned you with beauty and worth
Stop trying to hide who you are
Your shine is designed to exceed the stars."
God, let's be reasonable. I cannot sing that. Seriously, the whole line about beauty is justtoo much. It feels so wrong coming from me. "Your shine is designed to exceed the stars?" How egotistical is that? I kept trying to change it back to my original words, but God has this nagging habit of getting his way.
The unfortunate reality in writing this as a song is that it came with a melody, which then got stuck in my head. I found myself singing these phrases over and over to myself. Occasionally, it would even sneak its way in while I was busy criticizing myself over my appearance or a mistake I made. Over time, I realized this song was a gift for me from the Big Guy in an attempt to begin the process of healing.
If you are like me and you don't love your reflection, I hope that you will be a little kinder to yourself than I have been for the past thirty years. I have some ideas for you this coming month.
- Try to imagine what God would say to you. About how beautiful, delicate and awesome you are. Or if you're simply more programmed to respond to critical self-talk, imagine what God would say about you talking trash about one of God's fearfully and wonderfully made creations. "Not cool," God would say with a little tsk tsk.
- Each day for a month, look in the mirror and name something out loud that you like about yourself. It can be a physical characteristic, character trait or spiritual gift. However, make sure it's a different something each day.
- Research Bible verses on self worth and write your favorite on a sticky note. Slap that bad boy on your mirror so you see it each morning when you drag your slobbery morning self in to brush your teeth.
Sadly even after my song experience, I still don't quite see myself as pretty. However, the beauty of this crazy Christian life of sanctification is that I know someday I will. I'm going to personally try all three of these things for the next month and sing my little song to myself each day. This song will repeat until I scream, then God will replace it with a new song or affirmation. Then that will continue until eventually one day I look in the mirror and start to believe that maybe I am a beauty underneath this beastly low self-esteem.