I Am Vain

Gospel of Snark blog post from this time last year. The tally of complete emotional/spiritual unravelings in the process of planting, nurturing and then letting go of Four Creeks Church stands at 3. I felt during each one that I was going to die. I was right. Over the last year my laziness and vanity were finally starved into oblivion. Jimmy and I are so very, very relieved to be on the other side among the dead-living and immune to the bites of the living-dead.


 

In preparation for facilitating a new round of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, I’m going through the little twice-daily devotional book Day by Day (formerly The Daily Office) for the third time. This morning I came across one of my favorite quotes that I strongly related to the first time I read it 3 years ago.

“I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands of my time are proof to myself –– and to all who will notice — that I am important…I live in a society in which crowded schedules and harassed conditions are evidence of importance, so I develop a crowded schedule and harassed conditions. When others notice, they acknowledge my significance, and my vanity is fed.

I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. It was a favorite theme of C.S. Lewis that only lazy people work hard. By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for us.” – Eugene Peterson

Scazzero, Peter (2013-03-26). Daily Office (Kindle Locations 346-347).  Kindle Edition.

I AM LAZY

My entire adult life in church in ministry has been miserable and drowning in busyness and physical and spiritual exhaustion because I am a lazy ass. We’re talking pathological here. I’m extremely passive as a result of equally heavy doses of nature and nurture. I was raised in a culture with a double whammy of indoctrination from both family and church that the “right” (and only) way to live was to abdicate “the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals” and to let authority (parents/church) do it for me.  For the most part, having a naturally passive personality, I was happy to let others dictate life for me because it was easier, because…I am lazy.

My laziness is rooted in fear – fear of facing the discomfort of conflict. It’s much easier for me to conform and play by the rules in a system I have no responsibility in making than to take responsibility for my own, because…what if I get it wrong? What if someone doesn’t like it?

Rejection and criticism wreak havoc in the life of a comfort junky. It is deeply, desperately ingrained in me never to be/act/think wrong. It’s the worst. I feel the worst. I am the worst when others think I’m wrong. It’s not that I have a need to convince anyone that I’m right…no, no, no. I just want to avoid at all cost the risk of anyone thinking or believing I am wrong…because in the system I come from, the wrong person is not respected; the wrong person is not worthy of love; the wrong person must be stopped, condemned, corrected and made right immediately or forever rejected because – THOU SHALT NOT BE WRONG.

I am lazy mostly out of fear of being wrong.

Comfort and safety are my #1 inherited family idols that I was taught to hold up as supreme and noble motivation. Over time, they insidiously morphed into a lazy, dishonest, hot mess of an inner life while I feverishly expended energy maintaining a squeaky clean, socially acceptable, respectable outward life. I became grossly church busy for 18 years as the wife of a minister at the expense of my family, my health and my sanity because…I am lazy.

I repressed and denied my true thoughts and feelings and allowed people to direct me down soul-sucking paths I didn’t want to go because I have tremendous safety lust and…I am lazy.

It’s taken me every bit of the 3 years I’ve been working in EHS “going back in order to go forward” in order to identify and unpack this baggage. To no longer be conformed to the pattern of my world and be transformed by the renewal of my mind is an intense and prolonged process – a gnarly, epic wrestling match.

My entire Church World experience had sold me on an alter call, some tears, and a one-and-done prayer and doubling down on the rules as the answer to all Christian struggles. God loved me enough to utterly break me before I was ready to get over myself and my laziness in order to stop buying (and selling) the shit substitutes. But wow did that love feel like death…because it is; death of SELF in order to live as Christ.

THE SCARLET “W”

The planting of Four Creeks Church saw my worst fears realized and magnified on a personally horrifying scale. We stepped out of the established church system in which we’d worked and served faithfully our entire adult lives and set aside it’s comfortable human traditions and secure structure to embark on a grand experiment to see if a church that preached and taught and modeled Jesus alone and the exclusive inclusiveness of his Gospel of Grace could fly.

Starting out, we honestly thought we had the full support and partnership of our home church. If anyone had told me we’d end up completely rejected and unsupported just 9 months in, I never in a million years would have been on board to sacrifice so much or take such a personal risk for myself and my family – absolutely not my M.O. as a comfort junky and safety slut.

And why were we rejected and dropped like we were hot from the fires of hell? Because we were wrong in the eyes of a few influential and very vocal church people. Our teachings on prayer, worship, love, how to be the church and do life were all wrong. It didn’t matter if they were all taken straight from Jesus’ own words and example – it challenged the long established system, which, in Church World, is the ultimate in WRONG.

Rather than be associated with anyone or anything that had a reputation for being wrong, even the nicest and more sane personalities in leadership distanced themselves from us and let us go, out of sight and out of mind, to fend for ourselves so they could try to get back to safe and established business as usual without being sullied or inconvenienced by our scarlet “W” of wrongness.

WAKING UP ANGRY

I’ve heard it said anger is a secondary emotion and that it’s really an expression of underlying fear or hurt. In my case it was a massive sucker punch of both. I’ve also heard it said, “Jennifer seems angry in a lot of what she writes and shares on Facebook.”

Um…yeah…and DUH.

You don’t open up the flood gates of a lifetime of repression and resentment and get a gentle trickle. When my eyes were pried open and I saw things clearly for the first time, I woke up angry, terrified and in a tremendous amount of pain, and very, very much on my own with God alone to figure out how to deal with it. What intimacy and reality in relationship with my Father I have found there.

Pardon my French (or don’t…I truly, honestly no longer care), but since one of the first things that earned us the scarlet “W” was me using the wrong words, I’ve freed myself up to use all the words that best express my frustrations and to try to get across just how much of a cluster mind fuck this experience has been to have everything I thought I knew, every system I’d ever trusted, every rule, every certainty utterly and completely destroyed in order to build new and completely different…in faith.

I AM VAIN

The laziness, the repression, the grief, the bitterness are all quite familiar traveling companions to me at this point. I’ve worked very hard to honestly identify, embrace and submit them over the last 3-4 years. But, as EHS has a way of doing, a brand spankin’ new layer of dysfunction was brought to the surface and made visible to me this morning.

I have had such a hard time with bitterness because I am vain. I am most vain when you mess with or challenge…

My family
“I can’t believe those gossip-mongering, power-playing church biddies said such things about my husband and actively campaigned to put us into financial crisis. Could they really not see how amazingly good my own children are and what obviously fabulous parents we are to think we could possibly be a bad influence on anyone? How could anyone in their right mind with any compassion in them whatsoever justify doing that to any family, much less one so *perfect* as mine?!”

Oooh girl, that’s some hardcore bitterness coming from someone so *perfect*

My work ethic
“None of you understand how I’ve worked my ass off apart from church as a corporate peon, full time for 13 years; working holidays, even weekends and then exhausting myself 3 services on Sundays plus rehearsals, all with my family in tow. I never got away on weekends for family fun time. Why did I do that for so many years only to be rejected the second we stopped entertaining you? Not only did you not appreciate my sacrifice, you went above and beyond to treat us like shit. Ungrateful assholes.”

Oh so much bitter…even if I alone am responsible for making myself the lamest martyr on the planet fueled by my own dysfunction. It’s a lot easier and even feels kind of good to resent church people rather than myself. Ick, it’s a lazy and vain combo. That’s unattractive and thoroughly anti-Christ. Way to be Jen.

My intellectual integrity – 
“Oh no they didn’t! They did not just haul out the most tired and ratty scripture sound bite out of context to try and shut me down and shut me up.”

I suffer from the delusion that if I just explain myself clearly enough, citing sound evidence and reason about how I got to a certain view of scripture, that people will accept it (and me). I’m so very cool if you hold a different view…just don’t ever, EVER, denounce me as wrong for holding mine unless you want a deluge of scripture references explaining their context and blog links to help make my point and justify myself. I’m learning, albeit slowly, that hardly anybody appreciates that the way I do, and that hurts and then starts the whole sick bitterness merry-go-round spinning again. I’m getting better about not buying a ticket for that ride, no matter how tempting it is to justify myself, but vanity is a true beast in this scene. It just can’t handle people accusing me of being wrong in the name of God on the internet.

THE PERFECT VULNERABLE STORM

All of my weakness and vulnerability is tied up and on display at Four Creeks, not the least of which my laziness and vanity. I had what amounted to round two of an emotional breakdown last month. Thankfully, it wasn’t anywhere as debilitating as round one had been right after we launched Easter 2012, but alarming enough for Jimmy to panic a little and text the older children, “Mom is losing it again guys…help?” Poor guy is just not okay when I’m not okay. I love him so.

Here we are almost three years in and in more dire straights financially than ever. We had some people leave. It was a long time in coming and it needed to happen, but it was still very, very scary. For the first time in all this I entertained the possibility that we just might be forced to fold this thing and quit at a time when the few faithful people we do have are beginning to really catch on and run with us. Oh how the bitterness welled up fresh out of me as I wrestled with that thought. I love these people and what we are doing together so, SO much. The thought of having to quit now after enduring so much was too much. Then the thought…what on earth would my life be like not being in ministry, not even going to church for that matter. I just couldn’t see myself going back into a traditional evangelical church setting ever again as a free person. That was mind blowing to consider.

I spent a few sleepless nights and a lot of tears trying to wrap my head around those possibilities. A lot of crying out to God these words, “What more do you want from me here? I’ve done everything I know to do, said everything I know to say and now slammed up against yet another wall. Seriously God, WHAT DO YOU WANT?” Silence.

Then the bitterness welled up in me more fierce than ever. “It shouldn’t have to be this hard. None of them see. None of them care.”  Jimmy was off driving for Uber in those awful wee hours. I was truly feeling tormented and utterly alone and unseen. In those toughest moments of panic came a whisper…

“I see you. Until that alone is enough for you, you’ll stay stuck.” 

The fog of fear lifted a few weeks ago, but it all made sense this morning when I realized it is my vanity that keeps God alone from being enough; His provision from being enough; His acceptance and love for me being enough. Vanity feeds off people providing those things, and my vanity, having been brutally kicked in the crotch, spawned quite the formidable bitterness monster. The only way to kill that nasty beast of SELF?

Faith.

Laziness and vanity have a hard time putting down roots in a life of faith. Faith perseveres and strains and sacrifices without need or desire for human recognition or approval. Faith is aiming for a much farther and grander target than instant gratification. And as my two biggest and oldest vices starve and wither the deeper in faith I dare to go, the more familiar I’m getting with the bravery and humility that are my new traveling companions.

Dreams of Rejection

My dearest silly little Love, why are you crying now that you are solidly on the path with Me with both feet? I was totally up front with you that this is the straight and narrow road so many ignore in favor of the wide and glitzy one. Why do you grieve and mourn that you were rejected and maligned and abandoned for pointing to and following Me? This has always been exactly the gig I call anyone who can and will to accept…and you did! I’m overjoyed and ridiculously proud of you.

Rejoice, you darling girl! Dance, sing, celebrate on this road together with Me! You are swimming in more gorgeous fruit and abundant life than you’ll ever know what to do with.

Dreams of Rejection

All The Way

Go all the way…

That’s all They’ve given me – this Invitation to Die.

Be careful what you ask for in earnest, Child.

They will give you the desires of your heart. They’ve always made Good on Their Word.

Will I even recognize it?

Maybe the falling is all there is on this side of life.

What I mistook for arrival was a series of ledges.

Just enough time to catch my breath after having the wind knocked out of me.

Then…another free fall into intangible.

I’ve flinched and flailed in the darkness, losing my grip on ALL THE THINGS.

Now?

I anticipate nothing.

Done grasping.

Done fighting.

Done blaming.

Done explaining.

Done asking.

Done.

There is only nothing.

Falling.

Release.

There’s no way back, Child.

You crossed that threshold long ago when you asked for this.

Don’t try to resurrect yourself. You’ve come this far.

Now go all the way.

Mixed Messages

I’m sure everyone can relate to parts of this regardless of gender. It’s not about any specific people or situations, just a composite of mixed messages I’ve received over my lifetime as a female. It’s been quite the task to undo a lifetime of conditioning and learn to listen to the only voice that gets to tell me who I AM. God declares that I am inherently very good.  But in the eyes of most humans (many times myself included), I have to attain and maintain these things in order to be acceptable:

  • Be pretty. No, be prettier, whatever you have to do at all times to be prettier…unless we feel intimidated and want to justify indulging our own insecurities or we’re just not in the mood to exercise any self control or basic kindness, and then it’s on you for showing off too much pretty. Be just attractive enough to where it’s effortless for us to like you without any of the hard work of actually knowing you and respecting you.
  • Be smart, but don’t you dare think. Always work to be smarter, but do not show us just how smart you are ’cause, ya know, that intimidation thing again. You want to be liked, don’t you?  Use your smarts to figure out how to show just enough smarts without being too smart and you’ll be fine. Don’t ever expect us to work to understand you. Dumb it down for us without making it look like you’re dumbing it down for us. Here, we’ll help you by putting you down, then as you’re scraping yourself off the floor everyone can see you having to come up to our level. There’s a smart girl now.
  • Be bold and courageous. Come on honey, come out of your shell and show us the real you…except when it’s challenging in any way, then you’re just a bitch.
  • Be honest. We applaud this wonderful virtue, except when you expose parts of you that aren’t pretty or are (again) too smart or too vulnerable.  Some of that spotlight might accidentally get on the rest of us, threatening to expose our dark and messy places. We can’t have that now, darlin’. Yes, be honest, but learn to recognize when it starts to become inconvenient or uncomfortable for us and then be a good girl and STFU.
  • Work hard. We’re perfectly happy to take every last drop of your soul, just start pouring and don’t ever stop. We’ll dictate to you exactly what and exactly how and when we dump a shovelful of shit on your head, we expect you to smile and accept our criticism like a shower of rose petals. We’ll think you’re wonderful (if we think of you at all) as long as you remain that steady, quiet, compliant worker bee and keep producing for us. But the minute you trip or fall or die and can’t any more? Well, that’s on you, stupid girl. Shame on you for not being enough to meet our expectations for you and not having what it takes to stand up under the weight of all we projected on you.

Challenge us or make us uncomfortable in any way and we can instantly paint you into the ugly, stupid, arrogant, frigid, ungrateful bitch we need you to be. One word. One second. That’s all we need. Remember that.

Now go be the pretty, smart, courageous, industrious woman of integrity God intended you to be!

Or else.

So This is Forty-Something

To my beloved fellow quadragenarians, pull up a chair, grab your favorite beverage (for which you will most likely never be carded again), put your swollen, achy feet up and sit with me a spell.

This is an invite to take a break from our usual Facebook political ranting, swapping tales of the hardships of life before the internet, or bemoaning the depravity of Miley Cyrus and how far the VMA’s have strayed from the wholesome days of Madonna. Let’s stop for just a moment to reflect and check in with each other.

How the heck are you? For reals…how are you?

IMG_20150905_211706Can you believe we’re here already solidly in the middle-aged demographic? Does life look anything at all like you imagined it would be? Or rather, do you think the teenage you (who had much more exciting things to do than contemplate the future harsh realities of adulthood) would be overall happy or horrified if they could see you now?  I don’t know about you, but I am not as old as my parents were at this age, though I hope to be as young as them at 70.

7T-midlife-crisis-1

Have you navigated your midlife crisis yet? Maybe you are smack dab in the thick of it. If you haven’t had at least one yet, you are either overdue or in denial, my friend. Come on now, take another swig of your beverage and get honest with me. Maybe you were lucky enough to have a very mild version that was easy to pass off and move on from, but I don’t see how any of us get through these middle years without some kind of forced reflection and spiritual restructuring. I actually feel quite sorry for anyone who denies their humanity enough to resist such a natural life progression.

I was an early bloomer and got my first adulting-is-impossibly-hard breakdown out of the way in my early thirties in the midst of a health crisis when some trauma I’d experienced in my twenties took advantage of the situation to catch up with me.

I’m just now fresh on the other side of another particularly debilitating emotional/spiritual derailing that defined my early 40s. Now at 44, I sincerely hope (and do believe I am) done with crisis mode. Ain’t no peri-menopausal woman got time for that.

We’ve all got a significant chunk of life, love and loss under our belts resulting in a mixed bag of dreams. Some materialized beyond our wildest imagination, others fell short of our expectations. By far the hardest thing to come to terms with are the dreams that will either never be reality or have been permanently ripped from us. That is reality for us all.

cut-off-timeTime, that heartless beast, just doesn’t seem to care one bit about you or me or our desires and dreams. It relentlessly marches forward and takes us with it whether we go somewhat gracefully or dragged kicking and screaming.

Our forties are prime wrestling years, juggling all the responsibilities of maintaining the good stuff we’ve built up over 4 decades while simultaneously being forced to deal with all-to-real, in-our-face losses and limits. I’m certainly no expert, but I’m a big believer in sharing lessons learned. Somebody somewhere can relate and find value. So, here are a few survival tips I’ve learned through my own ungraceful navigation of my midlife crises.

BE KIND TO YOURSELF

Being kind to yourself while in crisis is hard to do as it is overwhelmingly tempting to despise ourselves in our weakness. The most unsettling thing about a MLC is when everything we’ve depended on that had worked well for us to that point grinds to a halt. Working harder, pushing back, stuffing things deeper just – doesn’t – work – anymore. In our panic, rather than look at and deal with the painful realities being forced to the surface, we get mad at ourselves for being weak and allowing the security breach at all; mad at the loss of control as our failures and weakness break loose for all to see and judge. “Stupid self! How could you let this happen?”

Be kind to yourself because there is nothing new under the sun. You are not alone in your failures, losses, disappointments, and you are certainly not alone in your desperate desire to present a got-it-together, smiley-faced imposter version of yourself to the world. When the mask gets ripped off, no matter how disoriented and terrified you feel, remember above all else to be kind to yourself. The real you being exposed is neither failure nor freak. You are sharing in one of the most common human experiences. Though this process initially feels like death, it is actually a great gift of enrichment of your humanity. The ultimate act of self-kindness is in allowing yourself to receive this painfully precious gift rather than resisting it.

BE PATIENT

It is a process. Remember the relentless Beast of Time. Not only can you not turn it back, but it also cannot be rushed. You’ve got 40+ years of patterns of thinking and behaving that are being unraveled and rewired. It’s going to feel horrible for a while before it feels better. That’s just reality. Again, remember to be kind to yourself as you move through a tortuously slow-moving and unwanted season of life. You aren’t going to be able to MacGyver yourself out of this one. Remind yourself that important restructuring is happening to enable to you move forward into something new even though you feel intractably stuck.

CLING TO HOPE

My mantra upon waking up every Sunday morning starting Easter 2012 was, “It’s not always going to be like this.” I had no idea for how long I’d be mucking through severe anxiety and depression related to our church saga, but I did know whether through “failure” or “success” (hard to tell which is which anymore) there was a day in the future waiting for me when I could look back and say, “Well done, Chicka. So worth it.” That day, 3-1/2 years later, is now.

As long as you are given one more day, cling to a future hope that it won’t always be like it is now. Whether your circumstances fluctuate between good, bad, tragic or meh, you will be different 6 months from now – 3 years from now – 10 years from now. The you of the future will have a unique and invaluable perspective because of exactly what you are experiencing right now. Today’s grief and confusion is the crucible in which fine gold is being refined. Endure the process. Hold out for the day you’ll be able to look back at this time and comprehend its value. You’ll get there, and you’ll know it when you do.

HAVE COURAGE

There is a lot of strength and power in your forties. You’re not done yet. No matter how colossal your failures to this point have been, you’ve got a relative amount of health and energy to accomplish big things along with some hard-earned wisdom that a 20-something couldn’t touch. Do you need to make some changes in your life to optimize your health? Do you need to finally say “no” to career/things/people who suck soul and “yes” to what builds you up and makes you fully alive? Well, I’m with Shia on this one…

There’s never been a better time for you to take direction of your life as well as so much opportunity in each day to experience peace NOW while building a future worth looking forward to. Take advantage of the sweet spot you are in even if it feels anything but sweet right now. Balls to the wall while you’ve still got ’em, you fierce Forty-Somethings. If you are being kind to yourself and clinging to hope, you will have the necessary courage to just DO IT!!

CONNECT, CONNECT, CONNECT

This is by far the most important. As humans, we are all hard wired for connection. A midlife crisis is a significant dis-connect as we wrestle with our losses and limitations to come up with a new way forward. The gift of the MLC is that the disconnect is not permanent or without purpose. The old system is in process of being re-wired for optimal emotional/spiritual functioning as we transition into the second half of life.

It is critical that we stay connected with others as this disruptive process does its work in us. Part of remaining connected is allowing ourselves to be completely honest, first and foremost with ourselves. We need to be honest about just how much we hate where we are, how scary it is, and how isolated and overwhelmed we feel. For the very real love of God for you – Let those closest to you, those you love and trust, see and hear it all. No matter how strong the instinct may be, do not push people away and go it alone, whether it be a matter of pride or reluctance to disrupt the status quo or inconvenience anyone. Your life IS disrupted. Be honest about it or you will lose the most critical connections in your life at a time when you most desperately need them.

just-do-itIf at all possible, seek professional help. If you can afford a therapist, DO IT NOW! If you can afford one but won’t, then give to Four Creeks Church and earmark your donation to go to me so I can afford professional therapy. I’m only half kidding. As it is, I do a fair amount of leaching off my friends’ therapy sessions and their breakthroughs and insights and healing. You don’t have to be in full-blown breakdown to benefit from therapy. Every single one of us, just by virtue of being human, needs help and connection and tools and encouragement. A professional therapist is skilled specifically to give you the necessary tools and support to navigate and work through emotional crisis and dysfunction as well as help you communicate effectively with the safe, vital connections in your life. They can also identify if you might require medical intervention to aid in achieving health and balance. Do it. Do it now.

EMBRACE REALITY

All relational dysfunction is rooted in rejecting reality in favor of an easier, more comforting lie. Breakdowns happen when the facade inevitably crumbles and we’re forced to deal with reality but are ill-equipped to do so. Breakthroughs happen when we learn how to embrace and live in absolute reality.

Reality is, no Forty-Something actually knows if they are truly middle aged. For all I know, I could have just eaten my last meal and kissed my children goodnight forever. That’s not a reality we ever look ahead to for ourselves when we’re 17. It’s hard enough to accept even when tragically experiencing it numerous times as we get older.

Reality is, we had a mini high school reunion over the summer and it was a spiritual renewal of sorts for me. We’d all long since grown out of cliques. We’d all been beaten up by life enough to have nothing left to prove to anyone. We were simply glad to have made it, thankful to have each other to share the journey, making the most of what became a sacred opportunity to hug the necks of dear old friends and even dear new ones (social media rocks, don’t it?) and to be able to express face-to-face what we mean to each other.

Reality is, I saw one of my most cherished friends struggling, obviously entrenched in a whopper of a midlife crisis. You know who you are and you know this is for you. Don’t make me go Shia LaBeouf on you again. You know I love you enough to be that pain in your ass until my last breath.

Reality is, I was moved to write this after searching through my high school yearbook for a picture for a friend’s memorial earlier today. He’s frozen in my mind as that skinny kid with the brilliant smile and gentle soul. Reality is, he died not being able to perceive the reality of just how much he was loved and needed and mattered.

Reality is, Forty-Something Friends – You do infinitely matter. You are infinitely loved. You are accepted and wanted, completely and unconditionally simply because YOU ARE. Each day with you on this planet is a precious gift.

Reality is, most days are a struggle for any of us to perceive and accept that reality.

Reality is, reality doesn’t stop being reality even though we may lose our ability to perceive it.

Reality is, we’re all in the same boat and no one needs to go it alone. Link arms, pull in tight, and let’s rock tomorrow and the next day together, connected and strong, fierce Forty-Somethings.