Author Archive for Heather Caliri

Heather Caliri empowers people to set down uneasy burdens and find astonishing freedom in Christ. Get her free ebook, "Five Reasons Your Faith Feels Uneasy" when you subscribe.

I’m Ready to Lighten the Heck Up

Lighten Up

My first time in any serious therapy, my counselor told me I was depressed.

I laughed. It was kind of high-pitched, as if someone had twisted a treble knob too tight.

“I’m not depressed,” I tittered. “I’m the happiest person I know! I’m happy all the time!”

Thinking back to my cockeyed optimism, I wince, imagining twittering cartoon birds circling around my head. I mean, my denial was hackneyed it belonged in a bad YA novel.

Because I was depressed, no matter how cheerful I thought I was.

I have a weird relationship with my cheerfulness. That is, I can’t tell whether I should be cheerful or not. After that therapy session I saw, only too clearly, that I could be optimistic even while falling over a cliff. Into shark-infested waters. While wearing bacon pants.

I sure prefer to think of myself as happy-go-lucky. Learned or genetic, I’m usually chipper. I like optimism. Or, perhaps, I don’t like “wallowing”. I tend to downplay the hard parts of my story so much that it’s only through therapy and writing that I realize how much they hurt.

But for the last year, I have not felt cheerful. No: I have felt like a medieval crier, wandering around ringing a bell, and shouting, “WOE.”

It started when I faced the spiritual abuse I went through in high school and learned a whole lot of ugly things about it—like the malfeasance of a former pastor at my church at the expense of his own daughter. Or a parade of other churches who welcomed our abuser onto staff despite people from my congregation making phone calls and begging for him never to be in ministry again.

At about the same time, I faced the crap that happened in my family and decided I needed to be honest with family members after years of insisting everything was fine, wonderful, happy-all-the-time.

So last winter, I started having these horrible conversations with people I love. Every night, I felt a knot of nauseating fear in my stomach thinking of the next hard thing I had to say. I was terrified. I was afraid someone would commit suicide, or, more optimistically, I imagined people I loved falling ill from grief.

Facing each conversation was like  marching towards a door in a spooky, abandoned house, the screechy violins playing, the audience yelling at me to leave the damn door alone.

I opened them anyway. I opened door after door after door. And I don’t even watch horror movies.

Look: it was worth it. Opening those doors was resurrection. It was shedding years worth of shame and grief and bewilderment, and exchanging it for peace and the beginning of hard-won wisdom.

But can I be honest? It shredded me. It undid me. Facing the past means facing grief and pain. And every hard conversation underlined how much healing there is left to do in my family. I still get shaky thinking of all the work we have left to do.

So this last year, I have not written optimistic. I have not written cheerful or happy-go-lucky. I have written lament. I have written hard. I have written raw and sorrowful and brokenhearted. I told the story of erasing my brother and sister, and loving my parents, and facing abuse and the more I told my own story, the more I faced the awful fact that many people hold much grief in their hearts than I do. More sorrow. More brokenness.

Thinking of all that pain makes me want to wail.

Facing my story means recognizing how pain stalks all of us. It hurts even worse to realize how little, sometimes, we do about it—both corporately, as broken institutions, and individually, as frightened people.

And yet today, writing my post for The Mudroom, I see this theme: Resurgence. Restoration. Renewal.

I think, What do I say?

I worry about being emotionally schizophrenic here. Optimistic AND brokenhearted! Sunny and completely grief-stricken! The Cure + Abba!

But the truth is, after a year of lament, after a year of holding all that pain in my heart, I’m ready for sunlight. I’m ready to be optimistic. I’m ready to lighten the heck up.

It’s not that I want to deny the pain. I know only too well that there’s enough pain in this world to stay in lament. There is every reason to gnash our teeth.

But though Good Friday is the foundation stone of our faith, it’s not the resting place. No: I’m called to see stones rolled away from tombs, pierced hands reaching out to embrace me.

I am done with any Christianity that spackles over my sorrow. But oh, I desperately need the Jesus-saving that invites me to proclaim: “and yet—”

Because grief does not have the last word. No: it’s a guide, meant to lead us to restoration.

Last year, I opened the haunted houses of my past. To my surprise, I befriended grief and woe. And I discovered even the shadowy spirits whisper hope to me. They tell me that they are truthful, and that Christ is their friend. They tell me I do not need to fear them anymore. They hold my hand, shy and wistful, and invite me to share my hardest stories at the feast.

I am starting to see I am not one thing or another. I’m not only an optimist or only a mourner. Christ has created my spirit like a bird with varied plumage. I can celebrate both my darkness and bright colors with joy.

I see that regardless of my grief or optimism, the Savior invites me, always and forever, to take joyful flight.

Image Credit: 白士 李

The Biggest Hindrance to Creativity Isn’t Time

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Before I had kids, I got a master’s degree in creative writing at San Diego State. I had quit my job as a technical writer not long before, and my husband earned enough that I didn’t need to work. So throughout my degree program, I had all day to write.

You would think having that much time motivated and blessed me. Instead, it felt like I’d been dropped into the middle of a gigantic lake and told to tread water, indefinitely, for three years.

I knew, of course, that my anxiety about this abundance was just the teensiest bit ungrateful and whiny. That didn’t boost my productivity.

I’d get up in the morning and wander around in my pajamas and robe, increasingly cold, and increasingly loath to don real clothing. I dawdled at dishes and fussed over laundry, and finally brushed my teeth at eleven, telling myself I needed to get serious and actually write something.

Eleven. If that hour doesn’t wake you up to your procrastination, nothing will.

Currently, I have about ninety minutes a day to spend writing. I occasionally wonder if I should just spend my allotment inventing time travel. Why settle for meager minutes when, with a little research, I could hop in a DeLorean and get back unlimited hours?

I would be rich with that time I frittered away.

Except. Except looking back, I’m not sure I frittered it. No: Productive or not, I did my very best.

It’s so tempting to be impatient with my old self. Impatient that I did not use abundant time more wisely or efficiently. Impatient that I wasn’t braver back then, or a bigger risk-taker.

Easier still to be frustrated right now: that I am not as versatile a writer as I wish, that I’m not braver about submitting my work to bigger markets, or networking more intentionally, that I haven’t published a book, or even gotten a contract with an agent.

So easy to look at the opportunities that pass by, the hours, the skills, the chances—and tell myself a better writer would seize them. A better human. Shame.

That’s how I thought of myself back when I was frittering away my time. Shamefully.

I have no scientific proof (should I poll myself?) but I suspect that shame-filled attitude was exactly why I struggled to get anything done.

If you’re a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad person, there’s no hope things will get better. If you’re a procrastinator, a hapless schmuck, then good luck becoming someone worth respecting.

So often people ask me if I struggle to get something done with kids at home. And look, I do, a little. But the biggest hurdle to creative work is never time.

Never.

The biggest hurdle to creativity is thinking you’re a piece of shit.

Something about having kids birthed creative contentment for me. I think it’s this: I expected I would not be able to keep writing in any serious way. When I proved myself wrong, I was thrilled with my creativity for the first time ever.

I became content with the little my creativity could offer, and learned that contentment is a creativity factory.

If you read any good creativity books—Anne Lamott, Anne Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert, Stephen King, they say this over and over. Do the work. Do the work. Do the work.

Not try hard. Not aim high. Not compare yourself to other people.

Stop thinking so much. Stop worrying. Stop shaming yourself. Just sit down and do the damn work.

Doggedly doing your work frees up a ton of energy you once spent shaming and judging and comparing your sorry self with other people. The energy released will breathe freedom into you. Will make your brittle creativity resilient. Will straighten your shoulders and spine.

Doing the work doggedly, with gratitude, gives you kindness towards your fitful—and then improving—efforts. Will teach you that making things is a wonderful way to live. Will stop you dancing around your own fragile ego, and breathe into you a spirit of faithfulness and gratitude.

Will teach you that the only joy given to any creative person is the joy of showing up and getting started—over and over and over again.

 

Have I Repented too Much?

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The book I use for daily prayer, The Divine Hours, includes a lot of confessions, like this classic: Almighty God, my heavenly Father: I have sinned against you, through my own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what I have left undone.

I wince almost every time I read this prayer.

It’s cliché to wince at repentance, of course. We’re sinners, so of course we balk at kneeling. It’s why repentance is so necessary.

But my wincing feels different. (Is this self-delusion?)

I wince at repentance because I feel like I’ve repented too much. Repented for sins that weren’t mine to bear. Shamed myself for brokenness that I wasn’t responsible for.

To give a petite for-instance, I was involved in a campus ministry through college that was not a good fit for me. From the start, I didn’t like their views on women. I didn’t like their style of evangelism. I shoehorned myself into fitting into that fellowship for four years because—well, partially because I was afraid and lonely.

But also? There was a lot of pressure to shoehorn myself. A lot of pressure. From lovely, well-meaning people. But pressure nonetheless.

For a long time, I berated myself for not being strong enough to resist the pressure. For going along with something I disliked. For allowing my faith to be damaged by four years of conformity.

But the people exerting pressure on me, however well-intentioned, had more power than I did. I didn’t have a lot of strength at that point of my life to resist. (And thanks be to God—I’ve sought one of them out, and she and I were able to figure out what happened, and why, and she apologized for pressure that she did not intend).

But for a long time, I thought I was the only one to blame. Blaming myself has injured me. That’s why I wince at repentance.

I repent for others’ sins because I struggle with a kind of moral perfectionism. Some people have called it scrupulosity—an anxious internal pursuit of righteousness.

I assume every sin can be laid at my own door. That means I’m too ready to explain away others’ sin against me, and swallow toxicity whole.

Scrupulosity means I use repentance to cudgel myself. I twist confession into a shame-fest. I blame myself for everything, and my spirit is ready for me to stop.

In other words, I need to repent for using repentance against myself. I know this.

But sometimes, I see confessions, and I want to not have feel scrupulous any more. To just relax. To not be slave to this internal moral abacus of mine.

Sometimes, I am tired of groveling.

Lately, I’ve been wondering, though, if thinking of repentance as groveling is the whole problem. Maybe, instead, repentance about honesty. About crying for help. Maybe repentance is a hand lifting my face out of the mud, not pushing it deeper in.

When I pray about what I have done, what I have left undone, I remind myself that the whole point is that—blame whoever you want—I am in bondage. Often, I am in bondage to myself, and confession helps set me free from my hand-made chains. Confession is not saying yes to shame. Repentance is not turning towards self-loathing.

Can I confess to you that I find this very hard to believe?

I am trying to re-learn how to repent. I’m trying to trust Jesus when he describes it as a return home to a beloved parent. As a rejoicing of angels. As saving, as help, as rescue.

I trying to believe that every time I repent, a door to heaven opens in my heart—and I’m given a warm welcome into freedom.

When “Career” Is a Messy, Beautiful Chaos

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When I was twenty, I got a Rotary scholarship to go study literature at the University of Buenos Aires for a year. At the time, I only knew was that UBA was a public university with an excellent reputation. Later, I’d encounter its chaos: professors who chain-smoked without ashtrays in class, roving political party members soliciting donations, graffitied profiles of Che Guevara, and, what shocked me most, no toilet paper in the bathrooms.

But I got a hint of the chaos early: after asking for admission, the university sent a letter saying they’d enroll me if I sent transcripts. But after I sent my records, I heard nothing. I called the administrative offices over and over, but the official the receptionists directed me to was never there.

Desperate to figure out how to make sure my time in Argentina was not a fiasco, I scrolled through UBA’s very rudimentary website, finding cryptic links, Spanish educational jargon, and as I got more frantic, page after page of names in an enormous, badly organized staff email directory.

The educational jargon stuck. One word reminds me of that ugly, frustrating site: carrera, Spanish for degree or career; also, journey, ladder, race. In some Spanish Bibles it’s the word used here: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

The word stuck because it felt odd to think of college as a career. It sounded so grown up.

I emailed random people in the staff directory. My Spanish sucked so much that I could make no sense of their replies. I had more luck contacting my Rotary sponsor; he asked a friend who knew someone at the university, who said, sure, I’d have a place when I showed up. I was reassured, though not certain, that I’d be able to register.

I arrived. I enrolled in classes. I managed to pass them, managed to start understanding enough Spanish not to embarrass myself.

But the chaos, uncertainty, and frustration continued. There was never, ever a moment at UBA where my carrerra felt slick, confident or clear.

When I went back to my private American university, its coherence and ease struck me as almost comical.

It wasn’t long after I returned to the States that I started writing seriously. At the time, I imagined my creative career in nervous, but illustrious terms. Maybe I’d write memoir like Anne Lamott. Maybe I would write about my childhood like Sandra Cisneros. Maybe I’d experiment with perspective like William Faulkner.

I knew a writing career would be a journey, but I thought there would be a clear pathway, a ladder of achievement to climb. I thought it would be a race. I thought I could see a finish line.

Just like my American university, these ideas seem comical to me now.

Instead, what my writing career most resembles is those dirty halls of UBA. There is coherence, yes, and real beauty, but it’s a muddle, a terrific chaos of incomprehension and happenstance. I’m not a native speaker; I don’t feel sure of my place.

I used to feel bad about this, used to tell myself I needed to do better, figure everything out. I searched for jargon, for clues, for someone who could clear up my confusion. For the ladder I had missed, the pathway marked with pebbles, the race whose starting gun was ready to fire.

I learned things in my quest. I found companions, maps, even a few steps up. But I have never, ever found the easy competence I once hoped for.

I still don’t know if my race to “success” is ever going to start. I’m not sure, exactly, what “success” looks like anymore, unless it’s what I’m doing now: writing this essay.

To my relief, I don’t need success in the same way I once did. What I need, what I’m addicted to and joyful for, is the miracle of creating something beautiful out of chaos.

That race I was afraid of missing? It’s long over, and I’m learning not to care about the results.

Image credit: Linh Nguyen

Revelation is Not a Guarantee

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For a three-month stretch when I was seven or eight, I tried to learn how to pray.

When I couldn’t sleep, I’d pull a children’s prayer book down from the shelf and move it to the crack of light that shone in from the hallway. I opened it up to the Lord’s Prayer and read through the words, hoping that praying would do something.

Anything.

About a year before, my parents had sent my older brother to a Christian children’s home called Sunshine Acres. Then they put my older sister in a psych ward at a local hospital. In about a year, she’d join my brother at the Acres, permanently.

I was praying in the eye of a hurricane that was not quite finished destroying life as I knew it.

At the time, I didn’t really know I was praying because of the chaos in my family. I didn’t connect those dots. I just felt like something was wrong, was scary, and hoped prayer would help me stop feeling afraid.

Looking back, I am astonished that my first instinct was to open up a prayer book. We weren’t going to church right then. The Presbyterian church I had been before we moved to a new city was nice, but like many churches, its niceness seemed like the niceness of school: lovely and wholly unconnected to terror.

I prayed anyway.

If this story had a nice tidy Christian bow on it, I would have opened my mouth and had it filled with sparkling revelations.

But when I prayed, I didn’t hear anything. Not a whisper of comfort. Not one trumpet blast.

But I didn’t give up. Not right away. I did it again the next night. Silence. Again. Silence. Again. Silence.

After a few weeks of this, I stopped getting the book off the shelf. I stopped trying.

I didn’t decide God was a fairy tale. I just assumed my technique was lousy. I had no problem believing that God could fix me. I just thought I needed to try harder for me to hear him talking.

Look: I am so grateful I did not take the silence as confirmation that I was alone in the universe. (I wish I had not decided that it was my fault.)

But my heart aches that I got nothing audible back from my prayers.

This isn’t just a “pie in the sky” wish. As an adult, I’ve prayed and sensed God’s presence and direction so powerfully that it might as well be an audible voice. I have been enfolded in safety and protection and love and had my whole outlook change.

But it makes me ache, ache, that when I was little, I didn’t get any of that. I had no idea that Jesus was with me.

I have to be honest: I have no idea why.

Why wouldn’t God give me a taste of revelation when I was desperate and without any power? I mean beatitudes, anyone?

Why did it take so long for help to come?

Why is it that so many children suffer so much, with so little done about it? Why are they alone in the dark in the first place? Why do little kids often get the least help when they have the fewest resources?

I don’t know. I really don’t know.

I know that I survived without God’s revelation there in the dark. I know that somehow my heart stayed tender towards Jesus and other people, and that when I had enough theology to reach out again, I did it eagerly. I know that in the end, I got the revelation, and it saved my life again and again.

You know what, though? I’m allowed to grieve with that young girl in the dark.

Maybe I’ve learned this: revelation is lovely. But it is not the same thing as salvation. I wish I had sensed God’s presence with me as a child—oh, I wish I had known he was there with me. But me knowing or not knowing it did not change the fact that God was with me in strength and power with every one of his angels. He was there.

It does not take away the ache. But it helps to know that what I took as absence was only silence.

It can take a very, very long time for us taste salvation. In the meantime, it can feel like God is not coming.

Even blessed, desperate, helpless children have to wait.

Is this good news? I don’t know. But it helps me to say it out loud, because it’s both the truth, and the only antidote for the “try-harder” lie I internalized as a small child.

If you don’t hear the voice of God when you are praying, it is not because you are doing anything wrong. I completely understand getting pissed off at God about this. Feel free. But please, don’t get pissed off at yourself.

Revelation is not a guarantee, and it is not doled out because we’ve earned it. Revelation, like so much else about God, is a grace-filled mystery.

More often then not, we are asked to wait. And wait. And wait. We are asked to believe salvation is already here despite evidence to the contrary.

I think the waiting must be necessary. It’s not a punishment or a trick to goad us into performing like trained monkeys.

I won’t pretend to understand the mystery of God’s silence. I won’t pretend it does not give me pain.

Regardless: even though I ache when prayer feels like a brick wall, I trust God’s holy stillness has its own purpose. Perhaps a long wait, helpless and hopeful, is the revelation we have been dying for.

Sometimes, silence is the most holy place.

Endurance is Not Cold Tolerance

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When I was a new mom, I read that children go through periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium that last about six months each.

I kept hoping my daughter was nearing the end of a period of disequilibrium. After all, my sweet girl had been pushing all my buttons for months with expert grace, and she was about to have her birthday.

The only problem with that theory is that instead of things getting better after we celebrated, they got worse.

Imagine her writhing on the floor the other day while I held her ankles so she didn’t kick or hit me, hurt her sister, or break something. Also imagine me saying calmly, ridiculously, “It looks like you’re feeling angry right now.”

One does not feel successful as a parent while uttering calm banalities as a child tries her best to hurt you.

Of course, the same day, at bedtime, I moved my hand off her back while I lay next to her in bed, so I wouldn’t keep her from falling asleep.

“Mama,” she said, “Would you put your hand back? I like it.”

Oh dear girl, yes. Forever and ever, yes.

There in bed, struck by her sweetness, I considered also our struggle. I realized I had been looking at our period of disequilibrium as something to endure. As a time that—if I waited long enough—would go away. As such, I was offended when it lasted longer than I’d bargained for.

I realized that endurance was not working.

Or, at least, my definition of endurance was not working.

I realized I had come to the point where I wasn’t enjoying my child. Endurance, in my case, had come to mean a kind of cold tolerance.

Honestly, kids are like little emotional wi-fi receivers. I would not be surprised if my frustration only solidified her button-pushing. After all, if I felt only tolerated by the people who love me best, I’d probably be writhing on the floor, too.

But cold tolerance is not endurance. When we think of a work of art that endures, a rock formation that endures, we are talking about a thing of beauty that keeps taking people’s breath away. That speaks into successive generations with lasting power. That transcends a particular moment in time because of its wholeness.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need my parenting to be a work of art in every moment. I’m not going to be transcendent on cue. But I do think that focusing on beauty is a better approach than getting through this next phase.

When I am inspired by how I want them to remember my parenting, what life-long lessons I’m hoping to teach, I always get a little closer to them and try to see their beauty and vulnerability, writhing, or sweet.

The day my daughter both frustrated and enchanted me, I remembered again my call as a parent: to choose to come nearer to her. To examine whether I’d been getting down on her level, and enjoying her. To think intentionally about how to do so each day. To stop taking her growing pains personally and grow up a little myself.

I think of Paul, exhorting the church to put on the whole armor of God so we might be able to stand firm. Not coldly endure until Jesus comes back, but draw nearer in love to hurting people, be intentional about showing love to everyone around us.

The whole of creation is in a long, long period of disequilibrium. We are invited to draw nearer to that suffering—not simply wait, indifferent, for the struggle to be over.

Surrendering to Communion

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“Asking is, at its core, a collaboration.”

                        Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking

It only took nine unsubscribes to undo me.

I use some software to manage the subscribers to my blog, and if there’s activity—people signing up (yay!) people un-signing up (sigh!), I get an email.

Lately, I have been sighing more than normal. Even so, the day I had nine unsubscribes caught me off-guard. I was so proud of the posts I’d been running, and they weren’t particularly offensive (like that time I posted about abortion).

I wanted to shake the people who left. Then I felt lame for judging them. I unsubscribe from email lists all the time. There’s a lot of content out there; I get overwhelmed too.

But much as I tried to argue myself out of discontent, I was in a funk.

When I get into these writing funks, I know I need to think about the vision I have for my work, how I’m serving and encouraging my readers, and how I can clarify and hone all those things to make them easy to communicate.

But this clarification feels more fraught lately because I am working on a book proposal. A proposal is basically a business document about why your book is needful, and how you’ll sell it to your thousands and bazillions of subscribers.

On a day where some subscribers exit unceremoniously, the whole dream of publishing feels ridiculous.

What I’ve realized about seriously putting my work out there is that it involves a whole lot of asking.

Asking for readers’ attention.

Asking for their support for my projects.

Asking other writers to read my rough drafts, contribute to my blog, blurb my book.

Asking an agent, and then an editor, to believe in my book.

Asking to guest post to spread the word about my blog.

Asking readers to shell out real money for my books, self- or conventionally published.

Asking for ideas for marketing for friends and (gulp) listening to their critique.

Asking, asking, asking.

Asking makes me want to hurl. Asking makes me feel like a beggar peddling pitiful wares. Asking makes me shiver and curl up into a little ball.

I used to hate calling to order pizza. It made me feel too vulnerable.

How in the hell did I think it was a good idea to market my story?

Right in the middle of my funk this week, a book I’d requested came into the library: The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer.

She’s a musician and artist. She asks at the end of a concert on tour if anyone in the audience will put her up for the night. She asks family and friends to front thousands of dollars for her latest creative project. She asks strangers in a bathroom for a tampon.

Basically, she’s my inverse doppelganger.

The book sounded like an interesting concept back when I requested it. When it arrived in the middle of my funk it made me incredibly itchy. I wanted to run away screaming.

But I was curious enough to open it and start.

About fifty pages in, I liked it, in a this is helpful sort of way. Then I got to the quote I put at the beginning of this piece.

Asking is, at its core, a collaboration.

I burst into tears.

It was that word: collaboration.

Reaching out a hand and expecting, hoping, wishing someone would take it and help you—

That is the fear that undoes me. The fear that I will reach out my trembling hand, and learn that no one is interested in collaborating.

Suddenly, my funk about those nine unsubscribes opened up like a little instruction book.

I was terrified of readers unsubscribing because I don’t trust anyone will be interested in what I have to say.

I don’t trust my own voice to be worth the effort it takes my readers to read, buy, or participate.

I don’t trust that I know how to collaborate with or encourage the incredible people who read my stuff.

I’m afraid of pestering other writers. I’m afraid of seeming needy, desperate, or like I’m using people.

I am afraid of being honest about how bewildered I get sometimes, deciding what to write. I am afraid of writing posts like this one (they terrify me about as much as writing about sexual abuse, ironically enough) where I pull back the curtains on my uncertainty and fear.

Here’s the truth: I need to collaborate with other people. I need feedback, attention, help with marketing and editing, help to understand my own brand, and, that squiggliest of squiggles, money.

I wish I did not.

I wish I could do what I do best: scurry into a room, figure it out on my own, and emerge, confident and collected, my project collated and color-coded, using only my very own hard work.

I want to be Teflon-coated.

Asking for help throws my life into disarray. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know whom I can count on. I don’t know if I’ll be left hanging.

I do not know how to surrender to other people helping me. I do not know how to surrender to the overwhelming reality of my need.

I know I’m not alone in this. I know every other writer and artist and creative person and parent and Jesus-follower and spiritual person struggles with this too.

But that doesn’t make surrendering to collaboration any easier.

After I stopped crying about the Amanda Palmer quote, I realized that this kind of surrender is my next big experiment.  A few years ago, it was saying yes to things that scared me. Recently, it’s been accepting an easy-yoke faith that is all about dependence on Jesus and not about my faith looking like I expect it to look. But I think surrendering to help—surrendering to my need—surrendering to communion—

That is where God is leading me. It’s where I need to unfold and practice.

I have this sneaking suspicion, despite my fear, that being faithful in this area will bring joy. Will bring connection. Will bring togetherness.

Will bring my dreams into reality in a way that makes my soul sing.

Are You Willing to Listen to the Darkness?

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I used to have a kind of waking nightmare.

It started in college. I’d be alone in the dorm bathroom, my toiletry caddy in hand, going down the aisle of shower stalls, their white plastic curtains like ghosts’ hems, all in a row.

All of a sudden, the dread of what lay behind those curtains would seize me. I imagined the worst: serial killers, malformed monsters, a cold fog with a black hole where a soul should be. I imagined the horror waiting for me to choose wrong. I imagined my scream of panic when I did.

Screwing up my courage, I’d yank a curtain aside, to see—nothing.

But my heart would chuckle, saying you never know. You never, ever know.

That dark fancy lasted more than a decade. But recently, I realized I don’t have it any longer. We have a shower curtain in my house and I’ve never once hesitated to open it. It doesn’t seem frightening to me anymore.

I’ve started wondering why.

At the time, I thought my fear was stupid. But my dismissiveness, I think, was wrong.

There wasn’t something behind any particular curtain, no. But there was lots of things hidden behind the surface of my life I was too afraid to confront.

I was afraid of the stories I was afraid to tell, the questions I was afraid to say out loud, the parts of my personality I tucked away as too offensive, too risky, too scary to share with others.

I didn’t even realize how many skeletons I’d hidden in my closet until I started pulling them out, one by one.

It was crowded in there.

But now that all that stuff’s gone, I don’t feel what’s behind curtains anymore.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she talks about nightmares stalking her. Someone recommended that instead of trying to avoid the dreams, she should ask it what it wanted.

She did, and instead of a monster, she found a part of herself that was waiting to be heard.

Often, the darkness has something to tell us.

Are we listening?

I wish I had taken my waking nightmare seriously. Not so I could have gotten everything in my inner-life spic and span, but because I spent so much time and energy telling myself I was dumb for being frightened. I told myself, over and over, that I was over-reacting, that I was a scaredy-cat or a drama queen.

I deserved better. My psyche was right on the money. I had something very real to be afraid of.

It undoes everything when you face your demons. It’s not for the faint of heart. There are often very good reasons why we stay stuck, why we make excuses and put off seeking healing. Facing our shame, our fear, and our inertia means being ready to let go of everything that has protected us in the past.

It’s easier to tell yourself you’re silly than get honest about why you’re filled with dread.

But you know what? We deserve better than to tell ourselves we’re just silly. We deserve better than impatience towards our shortcomings. If they’re crutches, we are crippled for good reason. Can we have a moment to respect what we’ve had to survive in order to get our limps?

It might seem easier to dismiss yourself, be curt and frustrated with your tender, shivering self.

But the part of yourself that is frightened is also incredibly resilient. Start taking it seriously, listening to its fears with real attention, and you might be surprised what it’s capable of.

If you dread something, stop telling yourself you’re silly.

If you give in to your weaknesses over and over, ask your weaknesses what they’re protecting you from.

Make friends with the darkness. Listen to what it has to say. Look dread in the face and see if you can read its lips.

I am ready to stop second-guessing what my psyche has to tell me. I am ready to start making friends with my dark places. I am ready to believe that even when it’s broken, my precious self is working as intended.

I am ready to live out this truth: a true nightmare is keeping our whole selves hidden. I am ready to affirm that a half-life is a bigger nightmare than anything hidden in the dark.

The Night I Almost Stopped Being a Christian

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The night I almost stopped being a Christian anymore, I sat alone, at midnight, in the living room of the house I shared with three other women. I was twenty-two, almost six months out of college, depressed, and despairing.

I’d discovered I was depressed in my therapist’s office the summer before. The revelation was like a pin to my natural, balloon-like buoyancy. When my happy-go-lucky image of myself popped, my life imploded. I looked at everything and everyone with suspicion.

Family first. But after that, God.

My faith had been so cheerful, so earnest right before my therapist exploded everything. I thought the Bible was an instruction manual I should follow. I thought if I was filled with the Spirit, rooted in Jesus, immersed in God’s Word, sharing the Gospel, praying without ceasing, and taking every thought captive, nothing could go wrong.

I thought earnestness about Christian things came with a guarantee.

To discover that they did not filled me with rage and bewilderment.

I’d kept going to church, and even to a local twenty-something’s group. I was looking for someone to prove my suspicion wrong. I was looking for God to prove me wrong. I was looking for—God, I didn’t even know what I was looking for.

Perhaps I was looking for hope.

The night I sat alone at midnight, it was almost Christmastime. Christmas had always been painful: as a child, my brother and sister visited for a week around the holiday, bringing their usual absence into sharp relief. As a teenager, when my siblings mostly stopped coming home for the holidays, Christmas emphasized that my “family” was more idea than reality.

Now, estranged from my parents, too, I felt a complete void.

I was alone.

Was God going to do anything about that? Were any Christmas platitudes worth a damn? Was faith just so much whistling in the dark?

I don’t have to be a Christian anymore, if I don’t want to, I thought. I can choose to be something else.

This thought filled me with terror, of course. I’d thought Jesus was going to save me, was going to change everything, and now to admit to myself that he might be a figment of my imagination was like a cold knife in my heart.

But it also filled me with an incredible sense of power.

If I didn’t like this faith anymore, if I didn’t believe it, I could choose.

Can I mention how compliant I’d always been? In high school, when I heard a party I was going to would have alcohol at it, I insisted my friend take me home before we even arrived. I asked my mom for permission before cutting class, and when she said no, I stayed in school.

Also: I kept quiet about our family’s secrets. I kept so quiet about my own feelings I didn’t even realize I had any before I started therapy.

The idea that I didn’t have to be a good Christian girl anymore made me sit up straight and take notice.

Did I want to do all those Christian things? The Bible reading, the evangelism, the beliefs that choked me like a vise? Did I want to carry that heavy yoke of obligation on my back?

The truth was, I didn’t. I couldn’t bear that yoke anymore.

Before that night, I’d sat on that couch in the dark a few times, wishing I was dead. But this midnight, oddly, I saw an open door up ahead, filled with light.

The sign above it said YOU HAVE A CHOICE.

It was then that I had this thought-not-from-myself.

You don’t have to do anything. it said. You don’t have to do anything ever again. All the Christian things. You’ve done more than enough already. You can just be with me.

The thought didn’t blame me for my traitorous ideas. No, it seemed to understand exactly why I wanted to jump ship. I felt its grief for everything I had tried to carry.

Everything of mine is available to you, it said. No matter what you decide. I’m not leaving, no matter what you decide.

I hiccupped, and began to weep.

I’m not leaving, no matter what, it repeated.

The room, so familiar in its insomniac darkness, lost its menace. My terror about Christmas receded a few paces. My life, which in the span of six months had shriveled into something pathetic and shameful, took on the luster of black volcanic glass.

I could choose. I could choose to stay with Jesus without boxing up my heart. I did not have to change into a better person. I did not have to get my act together. God was with me, no matter what.

I wept for a while, and thanking God in the dark. Wondering, with awe, what life with Him would be like if I could be exactly who I was.

Wondering, with a spreading sense of peace in my chest, if this was what real hope felt like.

Why Does Twitter Terrify Me?

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Why does using my words terrify me so much?

Let’s start out with a confession: Twitter terrifies me.

I got my handle a few years ago. The day my friend Melissa explained to me how she manages her twitter account, makes lists, what she posts, and what a hashtag is, my heart thudded in my chest, dully as I listened.

It’ll get easier, I kept telling myself.

Sometimes, this is true. It’s like cold swimming pools: steel yourself to dive in and start moving, and voila, you forget your shivers.

So I set goals: post this often, on these topics. Make sure to prioritize promoting others’ work, which makes me feel like less of a douchebag. Be funny! Be sincere! Ask questions! Say something!

But Twitter still frightened me much so that I had a nightmare about it.

The day after the dream, I wrote this down in my journal: Why does Twitter terrify me so much?

And there are a lot of reasons. Introversion, not liking to speak off the cuff, and feeling overwhelmed scrolling through others’ feeds.

But the main reason is this:

I assume no one is interested in my words.

No, actually, I don’t just assume. I am positive no one is interested in my words. Why the hell would they listen to me?

I grew up hiding. The day my parents took my brother to the children’s home where he lived for three years, I hid behind a rocking chair. I don’t even remember the day my sister left. In elementary school, when I started trying to write a required journal entry every day, I choked because I worried my true feelings might come through my words.

I practiced the over-and-over art of keeping quiet, of burying my true self under layers of goodness, performance, and smiles.

I have to remind myself to tell my husband about my interior life. Unless he asks, I find it hard to convince myself he’s interested.

I have to force myself to ask friends for help. Unless they offer, I assume I’m imposing.

I practically bit my tongue clean off in childhood. It is hard to start using it now. The irony of me writing for a living does not escape me.

My silence is not just about protecting my heart.

It’s about shutting other people out.

I want to learn to trust people to care about me. To honor my words. To be curious about what I have to say. To show love in their attention to my inner life.

The other day, I opened my computer and set a petite goal for myself. Five tweets.

I decided to pretend I was writing the tweets to my friend Shoshana. She was my roommate after college for a few years.

I wanted to be her friend because the first day I met her in our post-college Bible study, she said, quite unapologetically, that she missed having sex. I was a very nervous virgin, but I liked her chutzpah.

She helped me believe that Jesus loved people who were bracingly honest and riotously funny. She helped me believe I could be both.

Navigating to Twitter, I imagined penning Shoshana a very short note.

I imagined her forgiving my navel-gazing, considering my questions, clicking on my links. I imagined her needing encouragement. I imagined her instead of a black hole.

The truth is, the more I connect to people online, the more I see I’m not alone in my aches, my anxieties, or my desperation to speak up.

I use my voice not just to work through my own issues. I use my voice because I want to affirm—to everyone who hides—that it’s okay to let our desperation show.

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