December 17, 2014

Keeping Christmas Well

via awesomeimages.com


Christmas is a tough season. I get it. I am an empathizer in every sense of the word. Even when my life is going just fine, I hear your words, I see your pain, and I place it in my heart. I feel your hurt. That's why I write. That's how I cope. I see the world through the eyes of a million people and I spill words onto paper to figure out some sense of normalcy. Growing up, I had family members read my poetry and ask my mom if I was okay. They read the pain, the anguish, the abandonment, the eating disorders, the scars on wrists, the death, the heartache...they read all these emotions out of my writing and called my mom. But you see, I've had a pretty easy go of it. I know I have. My parents aren't divorced and my family has very few scars etched on their DNA. My childhood was consistent, with a few bumps and scratches, but only the type that build you and don't break you. My life has been fortunate to a point that I have nothing to complain about. This could change tomorrow. It could change in the next five minutes, but for today, I am thankful. Yet, I am an empathizer. I walked closely with friends whose lives were torn apart out of no doing of their own. I saw the scars and the black eyes, I hugged friends when death had permeated their lives and a hug was the only thing I knew I could give. I have loved deeply and felt strongly. In this way, I get it. Christmas is a tough season. 

This year, I have grappled with eternity. The purpose of the here and now. The anguish of the saints and the questions of mankind. Elaborate, astounding, old as time and frustrating as ever. The questions that always seem to go unanswered. 


Why her?

Why him?
Why now?
Why cancer?
Why death?
Do you hear me, God? 

This year, I have prayed to more ceilings and felt the weight of the words press back down on me more than I have ever prayed in my life. I have cried more tears on the drive home from work and cleaned them up before I walked in the door than I have ever cried. I have harbored more anger and tried to surrender it more times than I can count. 2014 has been a year of reckoning. 


Christmas is a tough season. As we celebrate the season of Advent, the thrill of hope, the quietness of a baby born in the night, the depth of joy found in knowing that we no longer live in darkness, as we celebrate all this and more...it's tough to see the joy through a lens of pain. Because the questions are still there. The why's, the lonely prayers, the anguish...it doesn't disappear when the calendar flips to December. If anything, it is magnified. 


Every year since I began blogging in 2010, I seem to scrounge up a few words around Christmastime. Often, they revolve around the Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol." This is no coincidence, as this is my favorite fiction Christmas story in all the world. Scrooge is my kindred spirit. He is my favorite, my homeboy, the BFF I've never met. Scrooge, to me, represents humanity so very well. Through Dickens' writings, we watch as grumpy, miserly Scrooge is confronted with the past, the present, and the future. We see his life; the pain, the hurt, the broken dreams and desires, we see how so many events and so many choices shaped him into the terrible old man that he is. Scrooge was given a bad lot, and after too many disappointments, he becomes something old and as good as dead. Yet, in this terrible state, he is given a second chance. In the most horrible of moments, during the most painful time of the year, Scrooge experiences an awakening. He becomes the most generous, the most kind, and the most loving man in all of London. 


Scrooge was better than his word.  He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.  He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.  


This story, this parable, stirs up Christmas in my heart. It's a rough season. I feel your pain. I know the heartache behind seeing all this holly jolly Christmas decor. I know the way it feels to look at a fireplace with one less stocking. It would be easier to just skip the holiday season, skip the traditions, skip it all and jump right into a new year with new days and put the old days even further behind us. 


~


Life is tough sometimes, but it is still beautiful. Redemption is beautiful. Second chances are beautiful. Joy is beautiful. Scrooge gets it, eventually. And for that, I love him. I love him because I see myself in him. In his redemption. In his reckoning. 

This year, you might be in a similar place. You might be reckoning with the world, with heartache, with God. You might be yelling to the ceiling, "Why?!" You might be crying on your drive home from work just trying to get through tomorrow. I don't know where you are, right now, on the dreary December day, but I have a good feeling that like so many of us, you are tired.

I have really, really good news.

Christmas can be tough, but despite the difficulties, no, because of the difficulties, we can celebrate it more completely and more beautifully than ever before. The pain, the heartache, the hurt, the tears, the tiredness...they are the reasons why we can look at this season with the blinders taken away from our eyes. In our desperation, without rose colored glasses on or the warmth of happiness wrapped around our shoulders, we get to see Christmas for what it is. A thrill of hope in the darkness. A glorious awakening in the world. We can celebrate Christmas more completely in our trials and through the rough patches of life then we ever can through the happy and the giddy moments because Christmas is here for the broken and the tired. We celebrate Christmas, truly, because we are celebrating the birth of Christ into a world that is so desperate for him. A world caked in sin, in despair, in darkness. He came at the worst of the worst moments. When hope had all but disappeared. When humanity was at a dire point, we celebrated the birth of a baby. Christmas, in the current Christian calendar, is an event that has already happened. Now, we await for the coming of Christ, once more, as we celebrate the fact that he has already come and saved us. We await the reunion and we celebrate the introduction. Christmas, while a beautiful season for so many reasons, is essentially a time when we are desperately aware that in the coldness of winter (metaphorically), hope came alive.

You can celebrate Christmas in the joyful seasons of life. Indeed, Christmas is easiest and wonderful in these moments. But if you've had a tough year, if Christmas is tough this year, I challenge you to embrace this season with open arms. It was made for you. It won't be easy. Pain and heartache will cast their shadows still. But I have good news..."The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" (which means "God with us"). Matthew 1:23. This is the season when we step back from wherever we are and recognize that God is with us, indeed. In the hardest moments of life, in the mourning of grief, in the difficult questions with no apparent answers, God is with us. Christmas was made for the tough moments. 

December 11, 2014

Keeping This Covenant - Redemption


One of my all-time favorite stories is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. Throughout the story, we watch as the bratty boy Eustace lives in selfishness and pride. Then, by a terrible choice, Eustace is transformed into a dragon. He longs to be human again. To undo his mistakes. To take everything back. Alone, dragon Eustace cries hot heavy tears. It is in this state that Aslan meets him and leads him to a pool of water. To be free from his scales, Eustace knows that he must bathe in the water, but Aslan tells him that he must be undressed first. In vain, Eustace scrapes his scales, once, twice, three times...but they will not come undone. He cannot shed his dragon skin on his own. 


“You will have to let me undress you,” says Aslan the Lion.
Eustace's pain and loneliness was so great that he set aside his fear of this great lion and allowed him to undress him from his scales. As Aslan scrapes his scales away, the previously bratty boy Eustace said, “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart.”  Tossed in the water, scraped clean, a boy emerged from the pool. Redeemed. Restored. Forgiven. Eustace was never the same after his encounter with Aslan. 

Re-birth is painful. Breaking free from bondage and breathing clean air has a steep price. Your old life, your old habits, your old patterns...they must be ripped away for a new thing to take place. To be restored you must acknowledge that you are broken. To be renewed you must put aside the old. To be re-born you must die. 
~

Marriage brings out the dragon in me. The selfish, prideful dragon who blames everybody but the true culprit. Living closely with another human, keeping a home with another human, has peeled back every layer of false decency I have ever possessed and revealed a roaring dragon who likes to get her way. Before a husband was ever in my wildest dreams, I knew the dragon existed...but oh how easy were those days when I could hide behind my walls and never let anyone see just what really lies beneath the surface of my heart. In marriage, I am no longer afforded the luxury of retreating into myself and hiding away. I am exposed, and my flaws are revealed. 

I have scraped and scraped these scales away. Clawed off layer after layer, only to reveal another layer of scales that will never budge. On my own, all of these efforts have only led to frustration and hot, heavy tears. On my own, I have been left with sleepless nights and a million questions, blaming everyone but myself and seeing problems everywhere but where they truly exist...beneath my layer of dragon scales. To be free from the burden of selfishness and greed, to love others without the limits of self-interest, to be re-born and restored... what an awakening this process entails. 

Within these words, I mention marriage because it has been the mirror turned on my face, revealing an ugly side I never even knew existed. I mention marriage because it has revealed just how selfish we can be, even in the best of relationships. I mention marriage, because vowing your life to another, binding your world onto theirs, forces you to be unselfish, and the process is much more painful then I ever would have imagined. I mention marriage because it has been the vessel in which I have seen myself more clearly. 

Indeed, marriage is the mirror, but in itself it does not heal. I don't buy the "self-help" hype because I don't buy the idea that we exist purely to exist and create the best possible world for us. My core identity, my theology, my DNA is interwoven with the belief system and the faith that we were created for so much more. We were created. And if we were created, then I believe that there is a Creator, and oh how that story is so fantastic and so marvelous that my words will never be enough to explain it all. Needless to say, I believe that the Creator can redeem and restore when my hands cannot. He can scrape away the dragon scales, piercing my very heart, to reveal a new person, a new heart, a fresh page. 

It is through marriage that the depth of redemption is being revealed in my life. Through this union that I am seeing just how far my husband will go to forgive me. Just how far I will go to forgive him. Through this union, I am catching a glimpse of just how far God has gone to forgive us. To redeem us. To scrape off the old and make us new. Through this [painful] process, I am learning that this covenant we have made completely depends on the third wheel to survive. On our own, we would continue to fail over and over again. But with God, all things are possible. With him, we can embrace the forgiveness and the redemption we have been offered and somehow, in the smallest of ways, learn how to extend it to each other. 

This series is titled, "Keeping this Covenant." It is the real-time journey of my walk through marriage. I am not a wizened old pro sitting in a smoky room offering elusive advice. Rather, I am sitting in a 750 sq. ft. apartment watching a football movie and embracing the joy that comes after a tough moment has broken through. Good weeks, hard weeks, joy, and pain...we feel it all in our daily lives. Today, I am embracing the topic of redemption. This is my heart on the subject, these are the lessons I am learning. 

Redemption will take your life. On the path to a holy marriage, it is in the painful painful moments when I glance back and see just how much I have lost. I have lost the ability to answer only to myself, making decisions that will only affect me, choosing roads that I can only walk down alone. I have lost the ability to hold onto bitterness without letting anyone know, the option of being selfish and not letting anyone see. Through marriage, the old is exposed, through Christ, I am being redeemed...together, in marriage and in Christ, I am being transformed. The old life is slowly slipping away. I hold onto it often, my fingers clench onto my selfishness and it takes much prying to loosen them up, but I can feel the process happening. 

Redemption requires you to die to self. One of the definitions in the dictionary for the word redemption is, "the buying back of something that has been lost." To live in sin is to be lost. To choose selfishness over love is to be lost. To live for self is to be lost. We have been bought back at a steep price so that we may no longer be lost. Soak those words in. Read them over and over again. We have been redeemed so that we may no longer be lost. In today's world, marriage isn't esteemed very highly. The act of marriage is old fashioned and the vows of marriage are antiquated. Often, it seems as though marriage is a ceremony that ends before the couple cuts the cake. I choose to believe that there is more to this covenant than this. I am choosing to see the beautiful joy found in honoring another person with your life. In serving God with your hearts and your hands. I choose to see how we, two broken individuals, are being redeemed by God's grace and folded into a story together that is greater and more beautiful than we ever could have imagined on our own. We have been bought at a steep price, but we don't have to be lost any longer. 


Redemption is different than forgiveness. In the hurt that comes with marriage; the family hurt, the personal hurt, the life hurt... there are so many chances to forgive. People screw up all the time. Deeply, personally, our lives have been changed by big choices and massive consequences. The act of forgiveness, telling someone that you forgive them, and really meaning it, is freeing. The longing for redemption we feel in those moments, when it is denied, is heartbreaking. When we long for redemption, we long for things to be made new. Sometimes, often, other people aren't willing or ready for that renewal. So we live in the forgiveness, forgiving them over and over again even though they may never change and the deep process of redemption is denied. In this small way, I wonder what the heartbreak of God must be like. To love us deeply, to forgive us over and over again, and to be denied the renewal that restores relationships. I can't control what other people do. I can't control the consequences of other people's actions or the ways in which they will affect my life..but I can control what I am willing to offer, extend, and accept. I choose the heartache of rejection. I choose the sorrow of a lost relationship. I choose forgiveness. I choose the hope of redemption over the hurt of bitterness. Forgiveness is the action we take to extend grace, redemption is the restoration of what was into something new and beautiful. 


~

I am thankful for marriage, thankful for this mirror being held up to my life and allowing me to see just how many scales need to be peeled back. The dragon still roars, clinging to a lifestyle that honors me and find the path that is best for me, but daily I am thirsting for the painful process of re-birth. I want to be scraped clean from the things that hinder my relationships. I want to be sensitive to the breath of God and the nature of his heart. Marriage is teaching me, daily, what it costs to die to self. Just as we joined hands and became as one, so we are one with Christ through his redemption of our sins. Just as I am daily seeking forgiveness and renewal within my marriage, so I am in this holy union and relationship with God. Just as Christ has offered freedom to us, so undeservedly, so I see freedom offered to me by my husband so undeservedly. I see Jesus through this journey. It's tough at times. Re-birth usually is. It's scary, difficult, and painful...but I will continue to pray that we may be ever aware of our need for redemption, our scaly nature, and more importantly, the freedom that is waiting just a breath away. 


Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.
2 Corinthians 5:17 

December 4, 2014

Keeping This Covenant - Loneliness



Loneliness. The very word conjures up images of a cloudy day and an empty home...save for the one poor soul who was left behind, again. Or a playground with laughing children...except for the quiet child in the corner whom nobody seems to notice. Dramatic, intense, and depressing...loneliness is a difficult topic to handle.

Yet, we have all felt it. In a crowded room or an empty house, often the emotion has very little to do with external circumstances and everything to do with the state of your heart. Loneliness is magnified in sadness and highlighted during the difficult moments of life. Often, we enable its presence and pity ourselves for its existence. We stand in the crowded room, feeling alone, and whisper, "Oh, does no one understand me? Does no one know how...lonely it is standing here?"

Within marriage, all excuses for loneliness disappear from the outside world. After all, marriage in itself is the joining of two lives, two worlds, into one. Even when your significant other cannot attend your company party, your coworkers all know that he will be there when you return home. Marriage, in essence, seems to guarantee the presence of the most significant person in your life to be there with you at all times. "How dare you be lonely?", cry the voices of the outside world. "You have your spouse, are they not enough? Your bed is not empty, why can you not appreciate what you have?" And so easily, loneliness is buried under a layer of guilt as the dearly beloved try to figure out, secretly, why they are indeed...lonely.

I believe that the very word "loneliness" and its meaning within our society do not do the emotion justice. We all seem to be acutely aware of the fact that a crowded room can still feel very isolating, but we do not extend that grace to married couples. I believe that there are several key things we must remember about the qualities of loneliness. In this way, may we ever be compassionate to those (myself included) who may feel lonely.

1. It's okay to feel lonely. Whether you're married or not, you are a unique individual with specific moments and memories that no one else in the whole wide world can claim. You are beautiful. You are extraordinary. You are fantastic. And it's okay if you feel lonely when everyone else tells you that you shouldn't.

2. Change is hard. Internal change. External change. I have a whole slew of blog posts just sitting in the pot covering those topics. I'll dip my toes into a small one real quick if you don't mind. I just graduated college a few months ago. Two days later, I started my first full-time corporate job. Oh, and this happened a week after moving back from Central America. Lots and lots of change has happened. Somewhere in there, I've been trying to process it all. This transition into the next phase of my life is sometimes hard. For myself and my recently graduated peers, we're all going through this weird transitionary period of life that can feel isolating. I'm surrounded by an amazing friend group and it's still odd. It would be odd if I were single, it's odd despite being married. The loneliness that can come through periods of growth is often painful, but on the other side, you look back and you see just how far you've come. Allow yourself to know that change can be lonely, but it will be okay, and we're all walking this road right along side you.

3.  Loneliness is not isolated to the single, the abandoned, or the forgotten. We are all humans and we are all capable of feeling deeply. If you are able to approach all people with compassion, not condemnation, you will begin to see that their capacity for hurt, anger, joy, and love are very similar to your own. Never underestimate the power of asking good questions and empathizing with sincerity. Often, lonely people just need someone to ask them what's wrong and someone to care enough to try to help. Don't assume that just because someone is in a relationship, they don't need a friend.

4. Friends are important. Like I previously mentioned, I am a fairly new graduate. In my past life (8 months ago), I was an actively involved student who honestly never felt alone in college. Even in the midst of internal growth and struggles, I found engaging conversations around every corner and a slew of friends who were all living life right there with me. The post-grad life has far less interactions. An 8-5 schedule leaves little time for mid-day coffee shop conversations or after midnight Taco Bell runs. I don't know what phase of life you're in, whether you're like me and figuring out life after school or if you've been married for 35 years, but I think friends are crucial in our lives. They provide a sounding board and present new ideas when you're overwhelmed. The crazy ones can bring out new sides of you that enrich your life and the true blue ones can sit in a quiet room with you and make you feel better without saying a word. I love the best friend I go home to every day, but we both need friends outside of each other. Thankfully, we operate on a similar wavelength and kick each other out of the house often enough to go meet up with our respective friend groups. It keeps us sane and it cultivates an enriching life. Loneliness usually creeps into my world when I draw back from these much-needed relationships.

I began writing this post trying to express my thoughts on loneliness within marriage. After writing, deleting, writing, deleting, and writing some more...I began having conversations with my friends. Slowly, my thoughts have churned from the "marriage" thoughts to the "this is just life" thoughts. There are so many circumstances that bring about loneliness in our lives, and there are so many different types of loneliness, it would be cliche to offer a 3-step article on how to beat the blues. While marriage offers a complexity to the emotion, because living with someone who knows your heart intricately seems like it should diffuse the loneliness, so very often, it doesn't. Life continues to move forward, good things happen, bad things happen, and as change sweeps through and situations are altered...we have to discover for ourselves how to take the next step. In my conversations with friends,  I have been struck by the thought of how often we discount people who have a significant other. I wish that would change. If anything, I wish we could pull away the veil of marriage and stop seeing it as a divider between the "singles" and the "marrieds", and instead, recognize that as humans, we are on this journey together. That, I believe, in the first step in recognizing that you are, most definitely, not alone.