Friday, January 27, 2017

My Hijacked Hypotenuse

“Sit in your circumstances.”

That’s what he said as I sat on the loveseat in my therapist’s office.

He might as well have thrown cold water in my face. He knew I tended to be a Type A, task-oriented kind of person. What he couldn’t have known was that I had recently bought a wall hanging with silver letters situated on a pale blue background that read, “Live life on purpose and with intention.” No wonder a favorite class of mine in college was Strategic Management.

Sit in my circumstances? 

You’ve got to be kidding.

Everyone knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And if you have spent any amount of time with me, you know I am always looking for that straight line. Be efficient. Be strategic. Be intentional.

Right triangles and I have something in common, there's a mutual love for finding the shortest path. It's called the hypotenuse.  

God bless the hypotenuse. It’s the path I would always choose to take. It’s the one I have encouraged lay leaders, pastors, mothers, home educators, and everyone in between, to take. The hypotenuse road is one of efficiency, of intention, of focus. It’s the one that makes sense.

Until it doesn’t.

The last 8 months, over and over again, I come back to this same disconcerting realization: Some things in life can’t be controlled or managed or time-tabled. No matter how hard I try, there are some things - like depression, like grief, like transitions - that lay beyond my ability to plan it, plot it, strategize it, choreograph it, or road-map it. Much to my dismay.

In some annoying twist of fate, there are some circumstances and seasons of life that require a round-about kind of path.  The shortest path (line ac in the diagram below) is inaccessible. The hypotenuse is marked “Road Closed” and we are forced to take the long way. (The long way being line ab and to line bc.)

These are the times when we don’t get to choose how long, how far, how much, or how difficult the journey will be. 

My first response to this unwelcome reality? 


Hence my therapist’s ever so wise instruction to park myself 


“sit in my circumstances.”

So, I’ve been trying. Trying to just relax a little, release the need to plan and know all things ahead. Trying to take each moment as it comes. And don’t think the irony of those last sentences is lost on me. It isn’t. There’s something hilariously dysfunctional about a Type A strategist “trying” to relax. It’s like saying I plan spontaneity. You can thus understand my struggle.

Peace has been elusive on a lot of days. I’ve beat my fists against the wall of control to no avail. I have resisted nearly every step I’ve taken on the journey, until I exhaust myself, and fall to my knees in surrender.

Sometimes the giving-up isn’t seen in a white flag, but in unseen tears. Sometimes surrender comes dressed in too many sleepless nights from a brain that won’t shut down. I haven’t rolled out the red carpet for the giving-in, because giving-in to the journey comes at a price I wouldn’t choose to pay on my own.

The hypotenuse has been hijacked, and I am forced to do what I am not wired to do sit in my circumstances and take the long, round-about, you-will-get-there-when-you-get-there path.

For the last 8 months, I have been learning to take each day as it comes. 

That has meant walking through a few months of depression when every day was a bad day. I would lay in bed and count it a win to get my feet on the floor. 
I weaned onto medicine painfully slow. With every increase, I suffered difficult side effects. I have come to terms with the truth that I did not choose depression and the fact that it being a part of my story does not reflect a lack of faith on my part. So I have discovered how to be kind to myself, and sit in my circumstances. 

For the last 8 months, I have been learning to take each day as it comes. 

That has meant giving grief permission to show up whenever it’s gonna show up. While my dad’s days were measured out on this earth is definitive measure, my grief is not. Grief is far from a scheduled journey, and doesn't make friends with logic or convenience. I can’t escape grief. I only choose my response to it. Losing my dad has been the most significant loss of my life, so I have owned every shred of it and refuse to patch it up with efficiency. So I welcome grief as an unpredictable visitor and sit in my circumstances.

For the last 8 months, I have been learning to take each day as it comes. 

That has meant making hard choices so my husband and I can honor the priorities of self-care, family cohesion, and authenticity. So we walked away from 18 years of service in one congregation. We lost position, relationship, identity, and certainty for the hope of gaining something greater. Transitions are hard, and even when you choose them they don’t always go as you desired or expect. They certainly tests one’s faith. In this current transition for our family, there are so many pieces over which I have zero control. I can wrestle and squirm and protest all I want, but it doesn't get me any closer to Peace. So, I loosen my grasp, fall on the mercy of God, and sit in my circumstances. 

For the last 8 months, I feel I have been walking a road littered with warning signs labeled:

And the truth is, sometimes, the only freakin' way we will take the long way is for the hypotenuse to be hijacked.

There is no shortcut for some things. No easy way out. No fast track. No insider tip. Just a sitting in the circumstances, whether you chose them or not.

----     ----     ----

Months later, while sitting with my therapist, I mentioned the parable of the lost son (Luke 15). After months of sitting with myself on the slow track to God knows where, I questioned for the first time whether I've read the intent of the lost son all wrong. I’ve always seen the younger son dishonoring and disrespectful, hearing his words laced with discontent, maybe with disdain dripping from his tongue. 

This season of my “HIjacked Hypotenuse” has given me a different perspective on some things. What if this journey, even though of his own volition, perhaps even begun in rebellion, was the very road that led the lost son to sit in his circumstances and be found? Maybe this round-about path through estranged family, short-lived wealth, fair weather friends, and pig slop was what could finally pave the way for the pivotal verse 17…“When he came to his senses.” Some translations say that this young man “came to himself.” It’s from a Greek word that means “to appear, to come into being, to be established, to become known.” What if this path, one I have judged and scorned in the past, was exactly the one needed to get the younger son right where the father had desired him to be all along - in loving relationship with him?

There’s something to be said about hypotenuse living, but some things just won’t travel that road. And I am beginning to realize that some parts of me would never come into being and be known if my hypotenuse road wasn’t hijacked.

I have made progress, much progress actually, over the last 8 months, but it’s not over - this sitting in my circumstances. I am still sitting. My hypotenuse road is still closed. I am not getting anywhere fast, and maybe that’s exactly the point. Maybe I am right where I need to be so I can get to where I need to be. Maybe getting nowhere fast is exactly the path that will get me there. 

If so, strategy must be put aside for trust. Intention must be traded for attention. The choreography of a well-laid plan is chucked for the experience of improvisation. And none of it has come naturally, but I am getting better at it.

I still fight for control, but I am learning to sit in my circumstances. And I believe, although some days my belief hangs by a thread, there will come a moment when I will awaken to myself. And when I have been graced enough to "come to myself", maybe I will find I am in a place I was always intended to be. 

But maybe, just maybe, it never would have come about without my hijacked hypotenuse road.

"We humans keep brainstorming options and plans, 
but God’s purpose prevails." 
- Proverbs 19:21 (MSG)

Friday, January 20, 2017

I am Beautiful

Two days ago, I didn't know it.

I know it now.

I am beautiful.

What I am about to share is deeply personal because it has deeply impacted my heart. It's a story that may not seem profound to some, but feels as if it has the potential to be dramatically life-altering for me.

What you need to know is that I have lived most of life believing my worth was determined by my performance. That perfection was the path to grace. That love was given when it was earned, and therefore withdrawn when it wasn't. I have lived being self-critical, seeing my faults and failures and believing they reduced my beauty. Add three children and many pounds, and to me even the outside seemed as unattractive as the inside.

It's a terrible way to live. In fact, it's not really living. And I know all the platitudes. I know the right theology on these matters. I know what I should believe about self-image and value. And if you are relating to my story so far, you probably know all those things too. Knowledge alone, however, never truly transforms anyone. At least, it hasn't changed me.

Place that broken kind of thinking into the culture we live in and it's a recipe for disaster. Society defines a woman's beauty with a size 2 and skinny jeans, no crows feet or muffin tops. 21st century America is a hard place to be a woman who sees beauty looking back at her regardless of what the mirror shows or the scale says or the payroll reflects. It's no wonder broken people stay broken in their thinking about being beautiful.

Simmer all of this in a pot of motherhood where I am raising two daughters and one son and constantly questioning how I can teach then to define beauty differently. I don't want my girls to worry about weight. I also don't want my girls to know I'm insecure about myself. I don't want my son to see a woman's beauty as skin deep. I also don't want him to see me give more time to my face than my heart.

If you had asked me two days ago if I was beautiful, 
my answer would have been no.

And it has everything to do with the kinds of mirrors I hold up to myself. The mirrors I hold up are more often like ones you'd find in a Maze of Mirrors at the county fair. The ones that distort your image. You know the kind, right? The mirrors that give you a giraffe neck with short, squatty body in one and next you're stretched side to side like a taut blanket. At a carnival, you exchange a ticket for what you know will be skewed representation and we laugh and giggle our way through knowing what the reflection shows is not as reality is. 

But what about in life? 

We hold up our Fun House mirrors and forget we should expect distortion.  These mirrors have a convexness has been conditioned by our failures, so the object in our mirror seems smaller than actual size. And we begin to believe it's all true - that we are small, insignificant, and hold little value. 

Or we wash our mirrors down with concave fantasy and see the blemishes magnified. Every mistake and flaw brought to light and gives way to thinking that we are the sum of broken pieces and failures - physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

In all of this, there has still been an exchange to peering into these mirrors, but this time the cost is much higher than a few tickets and moments of fun. Instead, we choose to believe these mirrors show true reality, and so we exchange a peek at these distortions for our peace, our joy, our hope, our self-worth, our confidence. 

It's a high price to pay. For some many of us, myself included, we have gotten lost in that carnival maze without even knowing it. So, you ask a woman if she knows she's beautiful, and you know what you'll hear most of the time? A small, timid, ashamed "No."

But not for me. Not as of two days ago. 

My mirror changed dramatically and I believe, therefore, I have been too...

My 12 year old is a natural writer. She has wanted to tell stories from the time she could talk and put them to paper from the time she could form her letters. And she's good. Really good. Lately, she's been working on a book. (Yes, a book. I love her chutzpah.) Anyway, she asked me to read her first two chapters. I had been putting it off, and finally sat myself down to honor her request. 

She did a great job at drawing in the reader and incrementally introducing details that keeps their attention. I could also tell she worked hard at giving details so the reader can feels as if they know the people and spaces of the fictional world. For instance, in her second chapter, she describes the protagonist's mother this way:

"Mother had beautiful brown hair that went down to her shoulders. 
She also had wavy bangs that made her look even more beautiful than she already was. "

I remember reading that and thinking again about the lovey way she wove detail into this short description. I also thought it tender how she lovingly describe the mother's looks. Then I kept reading.

"Dad had short, spiky black hair and oval-ish glasses. He also had a goatee. 
You could see his gray hairs better in his goatee than you could with the hair on the top of his head."

It was at this moment, I had to stop reading. If you know my husband, you know that how she described the father was my husband to a tee. In a second's time, I remember thinking, "That's Paul. She's describing Paul. Oh my goodness! When she described the mother, was she describing me!?! Is that how she sees me!?!"

I kept reading, and found the younger blond-haired, blue-eyed brother was the spitting image of her own brother. And it was then that i knew she had given her fictional family the same physical characteristics as her real family. And I was floored. 

"My daughter thinks I'm beautiful. My daughter thinks I'm beautiful."

And a warmth flooded my heart. In that moment, I saw myself differently. This tween walks everyday life with me. This is the one who has seen me cry more tears in the last 9 months, then the rest of her life cumulatively. This is the girl who's asked her daddy why I am so sad. Who's told me I seem so serious. Who's looked at me in surprise when I joke and laugh along with my family these past few weeks. This very one, who has seen the very best and the very worst of me, sees me beautiful.

And the still, small Voice whispered in my ear, "It's how I have always seen you."

And I knew in that moment I felt more beautiful than I ever had.

I knew I was beautiful.

And I knew I would never forget that moment. 

Maybe we just need to chuck the mirrors that get us lost in a maze of self-loathing and comparisons. Maybe we should look into the eyes of our children, of our spouses, of our loyal friends and allow them to be the mirror we choose. Maybe we can write ancient words on our hearts, etch them so deeply within, that they are the mirror of God's love for us (1 John 3:1).

I'm turning in my ride tickets. I'm leaving the fair. I am choosing to correct my vision.

I am beautiful. 

And I know something about you.

You are beautiful too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Religion's Underbelly (a poem)

I wanted you 
to be delivered 
Small, medium, or large - it didn’t matter.
Just prove predictable,

Should you arrive early, 
I’d be tempted 
to set you aside 
for my readied willingness to catch up 
Should you be late,
I might demand
a partial refund of faith
write a poor user review,
warning of 
potential disappointment.

If dimensions 
aren’t right,
no worries.
I can trim you 
down to size.
Funnel the love 
until it seeps, 
at a manageable pace.
Whittle the edges of mystery 
with a lathe 
of certainty.
Accept only rules 
of engagement
that grant privilege 
and safety.
I’ll be sure to discount 
the grace, 
stocking the shelves 
at the five and dime,
so that demand 
never exceeds supply.

but you.

of all people;
so irreligious
in your holiness.
Unrighteous piety
that's frivolous 
in love;
on charlatans,

in anger
toward those 
of the sanctuary.
The liars, 
the chancers,
the cheats.

with dirty feet
unclean hands.
Touching prostitutes
crossing the road
to bandage 
the dying.

a derelict
of the very system 
to explain you, 
make you plain, 
bring you close,
make you attainable.

Worked my fingers 
to the bone,
beat my head 
against the wall,
and decoded 
all I could,

because you.

an ever-moving target,
to manipulate; 
an uncontrollable 
mighty wind.

a blue-hot fire,
burning flame.

I never know if trying to explain my writing is helpful or a hindrance to the work itself. In this case, I shall give a short postlude. I have grown increasingly discontent, over the years, with the workings and ways of the American church. We are so tempted to analyze our success according to easily measurable numbers (attendance, building, and cash). And while these metrics can be helpful in assessing growth, they are far from taking into account the intangibles of true discipleship (increased virtues, deepening love of God, self, and others). The latter is much more difficult to gauge, and so we return to the things that most quickly define us as a congregation - our size (in people, facility, and dollars). 

This poem is part of my own processing as I consider the unsolvable nature and mystery of God. It's a product of my own wrestling in this last year of a changing hermeneutic in my life about the place of certainty in my walk with God. The god I knew as a child was finite, fully knowable, and predictable. As I age, I recognize that "seeing through a glass dimly" means there will be great and unsearchable things I won't know this side of heaven. Things about God's character, His stance of controversial issues, and the full matter of salvation. And I am becoming more and more comfortable, perhaps even delighted, in the uncertainty.

So, this piece is like retrospective in part, and still a current autobiography, as I seek to live resisting the urge to reduce God to a definable, fully comprehensible entity. He's much too lovely for that. But the malady of the church is that we often, quite belligerently, defend the certainty of our point of view. The people of God, who on some level know God is mystery, choose to diminish this mystery for the sake of our own comfort. And herein lies the irony - religion, which is developed to grant people access to God, is often the most guilty of culprits in denying people that very proximity of grace. It's the weakness of religion, because God was never meant to be contained.

What if believers walked in a certainty of God's goodness, seen most vividly in Christ, and a willingness to admit uncertainty in most everything else?