Lesson from a virus

'Day 57/365' photo (c) 2011, Nicole Abalde - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/For almost the entirety of the month of March I was in bed. This is what happens when you pick up a virus at the beginning of a month, keep up with your regular schedule for a couple of weeks even though you feel a little “off,” and ultimately find yourself at the end of the month too fatigued to even think about taking a shower. You find yourself unclean, in bed, and forced to rest. This is what happens.

This is a pattern now, even though I had to admit it. With far too much frequency, I run myself ragged until I get really, really sick and have to spend a week or more in bed resting.

Several years ago, I came back from a week-long mission-camp with the youth group fearful that I had strep throat like so many of the students had gotten while we were serving in Philadelphia. When I went to the doctors to get things checked, he sent me on my way with strict instructions to rest and a lidocaine throat gargle to use if my throat bothered me too much. Because I didn’t have strep throat, I had a random virus that just had to run its course. It took me 3 weeks and a lot of sleep to feel like myself again.

This time, the same thing happened again. And it took me a month to feel like myself again.

You would think I would know by now. You would think that I would be able to pick up on the triggers, to sense when I’m running too hard and staying too busy. You would think I would listen to the people who love me and know me – my parents, my best friends, my girls – and slow down when they tell me that I don’t seem like myself and they’re getting worried. You would think I would stop before I get really, really sick.

And yet…

I have a hard time stopping, slowing down, and resting. I spend a lot of time meeting this person for coffee and that person for lunch and this person dinner and that person for frozen yogurt after dinner. And I do this because these coffee and lunch and dinner and frozen yogurt dates usually revive my soul a little bit and help me to see God moving in the world a little more clearly. And I do these things because I like my people, and I don’t want to miss anything.

But, maybe I should work on saying no to occasional coffee or frozen yogurt, so that it doesn’t all catch up to me and I’m forced to miss a whole month’s worth of things because I have to sleep off a random virus.

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This makes me think that maybe this is why Genesis is so clear that God rested after He created everything. Because rest has an important place in God’s story from the very beginning, and we need to know that it’s important. And we need to know that if we’re modeled in the image of God, then we need to give ourselves permission to find time to stop moving and creating and just be still.

And if we don’t, if we get really stubborn about it, my experience is that God might just strike you down with a plague.

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I’m happy to report that April finds me well-rested, without plague, and feeling like myself again. Thank goodness! Because this week also finds me in West Michigan, catching up with my college buddies and attending the Festival of Faith and Writing in good ol’ Grand Rapids. It will be the best kind of busy for the next week. I will be with people more than I’m alone, I’ll be awake more than I’m asleep, and I’ll be in a perpetual bounce of one thing to the next. And truly, I wouldn’t want this week to be any different.

However, I promise to rest when I get home next week. Because it’s important.

The best yes

When I was asked to teach the youth girls Sunday school at my home church, I was 23, newly back to the area, starting a graduate program in counseling psychology, not sure if I even wanted to be at my home church, and had absolutely no idea what I was saying “yes” to.

I thought I was saying yes to an hour a week on Sunday morning, plus whatever time it took to prepare the lesson – which, honestly, in the beginning wasn’t much.  I’d read the plan from the book, read the verses, check the cross references, come up with a couple of questions and call it a day.  I thought it was going to be an easy ride that I totally had a handle on before I even got into it.

It took approximately four minutes after Sunday school ended that first week for me to realize that I had a handle on exactly nothing. Turns out,  I had said yes to giving out my cell phone number, being friends on Facebook, and picking girls up from school to take them out for cups of coffee or frozen yogurt. I had said yes to questions about whom I was dating or why I wasn’t dating, about what I was like in high school and college, about whether or not I thought their gay friends were going to hell. I had said yes to chaperoning other events, teaching even more Bible studies, and counseling in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

Turns out that when you say “yes” to working with teenagers, you say “yes” to being someone in their lives pretty darn quickly.

And hands down, it remains the best “yes” I’ve ever given in my life.

A whole pack of beautiful.

A whole pack of beautiful.

I haven’t been actively involved in youth ministry in over a year. I haven’t chaperoned camp, or retreat, or a Friday night game night in more than twelve months. I haven’t prepared a lesson, or made notes on a white board, or shushed someone for talking too much.  But, I don’t think I’m any less their teacher. And I think they still have a thing or two to teach me too.

I tell my girls, most now in college, that the time we had in youth group was special – a gift from God that He used to grow us all up. And it seems to me that He’s not done with that particular task just yet.

Because the texts messages I get from them wanting to tell me a funny story about their days haven’t stopped.  They still want to get together for coffee to talk about the boys they like, and the fights they’re having with their friends, and the ways they are or aren’t seeing God moving in their lives.

Because I still pray for them all the time, their names always on the tip of my heart.  I still always want to hear their funny stories and boy dramas. I still want to sit with them as they’re figuring out who they are in their relationships, and who they are in the world.  And I still want to know what they’re thinking as they think about God, and church, and this whole faith thing.

Some of my girls helped me get old.

Seven years ago in that Sunday school class we built a little community. And God’s still showing up in it.

He’s showing up even though we’re in different churches, and in different states, and in different life phases.  He’s still using us to encourage each other, and to pray for each other from the deep heart places, and to prod each other forward in this race that is life.

Seven years later, they’re not teenagers anymore, but they’re still my girls. And I can’t think about them without crying, because apparently part of my growing up is becoming mushy and because I’m so grateful for the gift of our little community.

I’m grateful for the questions they ask that challenge the things of God I accepted just because I was taught them as a kid. I’m grateful for their abilities to laugh easily and loudly, and I’m grateful that they’ve taken it on as a kind of game to make me laugh until I can’t catch my breath.  I’m grateful for the wide open way that they love, often expressed in hugs that are more like flying into each other. I’m grateful for their honesty, and the ease with which they ask for help.  I’m grateful that they know me well, and I’m grateful that even after all these years they know sometimes I just need time all to myself. I’m grateful that they blow up my phone with text messages and tweets, and I’m grateful that as they move into adulthood that they still want to include their old Sunday school teacher.

Mostly though, I’m grateful that when I said “yes” seven years ago that they said “yes” to me.

Yes, we have things to learn together. Yes, we want you here. Yes, you’re welcome here.

Now, I’m just thinking out loud here, but…

What if the church at large starting saying a similar “yes” to the world at large?

I think maybe that would be the best “yes” ever.

Finding courage: When the only way forward is open

I’ve been challenged over the last couple of weeks to be more honest in my writing, to share more of the hard pieces, not just the “God lessons” that are coming from these stories that comprise my life. Although the God lessons are good and necessary and keep me moving forward, do I have the courage to tell a story that I don’t know the lesson of yet?

What about a story that doesn’t show me at my finest?

I’ve been long impressed with Addie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire. And while so much of what she writes resonates with me, because she confronts the things about growing up in the evangelical church that rub raw in the adult world, I’m most impressed by the honesty with which she asks her questions and tells her story.  She shares the pieces that don’t show her at her finest.  Six months later, I’m still asking myself if I have the courage to do the same.

I’m not so sure that I do, at least not yet. But, after a not stellar weekend in which I had one of my not finest moments, I’m realizing a couple of things.

First, that even asking if I have the courage to tell those hard stories is the first step in finding the courage to tell them.

Second, that what my friend Beth said a couple of weeks ago when I was recounting a moment from another hard weekend is true – “The only way forward is open.”

Beth, over the course of a twenty year friendship, has earned the right to call me on my stuff.  We sat again at our favorite coffee shop, laptops open but no words being typed because the conversation was more important. She told me that in the aftermath of this recent breakup that she was afraid for me.  She was afraid that I would let this be something that I used to justify building back up the walls that I had worked so hard to take down. She was afraid that I would become angry and isolated and depressed, as I had after every breakup before.  And she grabbed my hand, and looked me in the eye, and she said, “For you, the only way forward is open.”

I’m realizing that this is a life lesson, a God lesson actually. (Sometimes figuring that out comes simply as I write. Funny that.)  C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves,

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

I keep thinking about this, about how right Lewis is – “To love is to be vulnerable.” It sounds a whole lot like my friend telling me – “The only way forward is open.”

This is how I want to move forward, from this not stellar weekend and from my stupid decision and in my life in general.  I don’t want to be ashamed to tell my stories, the ones replete with God lessons and the ones that are just ridiculously human.  I don’t want to live so worried about what people are thinking about me, about what they’re holding against me every time I have a drink or get a tattoo or pierce my nose.  I want to lean into the people who hold me accountable without casting judgments.  I want to figure out what forgiveness is really about, as others offer it to me and I offer to others and I offer it to myself.  And I want to remember on my not finest days that tomorrow is another day to try again.

Because the only way forward is open. And probably a little bit more honest.

Lean on your people

“This isn’t working,” he said as he dropped me off after our date on Friday night.

We’d been out for coffee and were having a perfectly normal time…until we weren’t.  He fed me a lot of lines about how I was nice person and he wasn’t opposed to hanging out in the future, but it definitely felt like he was trying to save face as the nice guy as he left. He had decided that things weren’t working, and that was that.

The details of it all aren’t really the point.  The point, I think, is that this weekend I was dumped, and I cannot recall a time that I felt more loved.

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(Side note to any of my girls or any other woman in your twenties or thirties reading this that is single and dating and making the decision not to have sex: I’m proud of you.  Making a commitment to anything is bound to cost you something, and making a commitment to this is probably going to cost you a relationship or two along the way, and it’s going to hurt. And it’s probably going to make you question why you made the commitment in the first place. Go ahead and ask yourself again, because I think what you’ll find is that trading in your conviction on this is not worth it, however great the guy might be.  Your friends may not understand why you’ve made this decision, and that’s okay too. Because this is between you and God, and you have your reasons, and that’s really all there is to it. I know it’s not an easy conviction to hold, but I know it’s worth it. From me to you, by the grace of God, you are strong and you’re going to be okay.  )

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Late Friday night, once I was inside my house and had sent BJ on his way with the assurance that we would indeed not being hanging out in the future, I called in reinforcements.  I leaned on my people.

Cristina and Meredith_lean on your people

Two of my people are my parents. I told them what happened, what he had said and how I had responded, and they told me they were proud of me.

Thank God for supportive and affirming parents.

I called Danielle, and she said all the things that I pretended I didn’t need to hear, but really did – about how being my friend is a gift, about how great I am, about how walking away from me was really his loss.

Thank God for girlfriends who know what to say.

I crashed at Danielle’s on Saturday, and we ate fried pickles and drank margaritas, and she let me talk as much or as little as I needed to.  And her mom made a pot of tea and lemon-poppyseed scones, because they are warm and comforting, and I ate three of them. And when I was falling asleep on their couch at 8:30 that night, they sent me to bed in the guest room and told me to get sleep.

Thank God for friends who take you in and treat you exactly like family. 

I called Joy, my college roommate, and she told me how sad she was that she was so far away. She quoted that line from Sex and the City about how your girlfriends maybe can be your soul mates, and she told me that she loved me. And she made me laugh in spite of myself.

Thank God for girlfriends who keep you laughing.

While I was on the phone, Nickie texted with a slew of questions which I didn’t get to answer before her last message came – “Forget it. I’m on my way over.”  And at a little after 1 AM, she rolled up in front my house and we sat in her car for two hours, plans to find a still-open coffee shop abandoned as I told her about what had happened.

Thank God for girlfriends who come with listening ears at all hours.

At 5:45, I got a text message from Jesse assuming correctly that hadn’t slept, and the offer to come over right then if I wanted it. I did, and so at 6 AM, I walked into the BFF’s house and she hugged me hard, and we sat on her couch drinking coffee and eating leftover apple pie right from the tin.  And she told me how proud she was of how I was handling myself in this, how different it was that I was letting people in, how much good change she had seen in me over the years.  And when Amy showed up later in the morning, without knowing what Jesse had said, she affirmed the exact same things.

Thank God for girlfriends who stay in long enough to see changes.

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I told my mom Friday night that I figured I had two ways I could deal with this break-up. I could do what I always do, allowing this to be something that pushes me deep into darkness and builds walls to keep people out. Or I could do something different, looking for the ways that God was showing me love and grace in the mess.

This was a moment of a relationship ending, and I had put myself all in the relationship, and it would be easy to believe that I am worth walking away from, because this is one of my greatest, ugliest self-thoughts.  BUT…

I have this community that happily counters that lie at every turn.  They tell me that they love me, and then they show up to prove it.  They feed me, and they listen to me, and they affirm and challenge me.  They invite me into their homes, and they let me sleep in the guest rooms, even though I’m not a guest anymore, I’m family.  And in doing these things, they remind me over and over, at every turn, that I am deeply loved.

And their love is grace.

This is why we need to be in community. This is why we do the hard work of friendship.  Because there are people who will let you down and bail on you or break up with you, but…there are people who will show up.  And these are the people you lean into.

Because their love is Grace.

Text message tears

Reconciling text messageSometimes a message like this, from the right person, is enough to reduce you to a pile of tears. Because you miss the person who sent it to you, and because you’ve missed them for more than a year, and because you haven’t known how to reach out yourself, and the person just made the hard first-step.  And because you’re so sure that God is in every word, emoticon, and exclamation mark that sets up coffee the next time she’s in town.  And because that’s a coffee date you’ve been waiting to have, and you know it’s one you will keep.

And because somehow, it all feels like grace.

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Last week, I sent an email to one of my friends from Bible study, one with whom I’m emailing on the regular to talk through the gratitude lists we’re making, and I told her that I’m grateful that God is in the business of reconciliation.

Somewhere in the last year, in the leaving, I lost sight of that.

Or maybe a better way to say it is that I lost sight of the ways that God was moving and working in the lives of the people who made up the other half of my relationships.  I was guilty of disbelieving them, of casting them in the roles of Pharisee – people who were religiously trained, but weren’t living it well.  I was guilty of assuming the worst, shutting my eyes to the possibility that God was making them new too.  I was guilty of thinking them “wrong,” sure that they would never be first-step makers, sure that I would have to fall on my sword if I wanted things to be “okay” again.

And I think I’m generally guilty of taking on the whole responsibility of the making sure things are okay between me and the people in my life – forgetting that they are doing work too, forgetting that God is in fact leading both us.

And I’m so glad for the way that He leads.  Because sometimes it means you receive a text, and an invitation to coffee, and things are righted just that quick.

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I was reminded of God’s business of reconciliation again in church this morning when we read the latter part of 2 Corinthians 5. This is the part of Paul’s epistle that reminds us that we’re new creations, and we’re new creations because Christ reconciled us to God, and our charge now, in order to demonstrate this kind of grace that God showed us, is to reconcile with each other.

 And this is what I love about God and church and community – it always comes back to grace.

God gives us grace, and we give each other grace, and it’s this big, beautiful cyclical thing that means you might cry when you get an out-of-the-blue text message.

When my friend sent the text message, she wasn’t just making plans for a coffee date; she was making the first hard step to restore our relationship. And she was showing me that she is in Christ, a new creation, who can forgive that there hasn’t been contact in over a year and reach out in kindness.  She was showing me grace.

Because it always comes back to grace.

Grace upon grace, even.

Double high-fives

'High-five!' photo (c) 2009, Nick Webb - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
For the last couple of years my favorite guy has been the one that’s no taller than my knee caps, the one that is the son of my BFF.  Until this year, he was the only one to send a Valentine’s card, the only one who lit up when I walked into a room, the only one who provided a little sunshine on even on the worst days.

Of course, the neph-in-love is still one of my favorite guys, but he’s not the only guy in my life. And I think he’s having a hard time of it.

This weekend we met some friends for dessert to celebrate my friend Mike’s birthday, and I walked in first and BJ walked in behind me.  The neph-in-love saw me, and giggled a “hi” with a smile that overtook his face, his hands raised open for a hug. That quickly changed when he realized I hadn’t come to the party alone, and the smile melted to tears and the “hi” became “no, no, no” and the arms waved BJ out the door.

It was a dramatic reaction, but it wasn’t all that surprising.  He is two after all, and he had done something similar a couple of weeks before when we were seated at the dinner table. His face turned sour when he realized BJ was eating with us, and he looked at him and pointed right at the front door and said, “Go!”

I figure things will even out eventually, and I think maybe it’s already happening since Noah gave BJ two high-fives when he was saying goodbye after the party, but still…

Things are changing.  And he’s two, and he’s having a hard time of it.

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I’d gotten pretty comfortable in my single life, I can’t lie. And there are some parts of this whole being a relationship thing that are making me want to throw my hands up and say “no, no, no” – not because BJ’s not great, because he is, but because there’s so much of this that makes me feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, and that I can’t plan for, and that is…I don’t know…just so new.

Having someone who wants to come to dinners at my friends’ houses is new. Having someone to sit with in church is new. Having someone who wants to make me dinner is new. Having someone who thinks I’m pretty and who looks in my in such a way that I know that’s what he’s thinking is new. Having someone who just wants to know me, the real me, is new.

And perhaps for me the newest piece of it all is the okay-ness I feel in it.

Because I like this guy, I like who he is and how he operates in the world. I like that he wants to know my friends and enjoys having dinner at my their houses, even if sometimes the neph-in-love asks him to leave. I like that he comes to church and takes communion sitting next to me.  And I like that he cooks for me, careful always about the weird adult-onset food allergies I have. I find it unnerving sometimes when he looks at me and tells me I’m pretty, but I’m learning to accept the compliments, and that is no small thing.  And with every defensive wall I bring down to let him in to know the real me, I find that I like having the wall down.

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Things are changing, and sometimes it’s hard but most times it’s pretty easy, and either way it’s okay. Because, guys, I’m growing.

Double high-fives for everyone!

Anywhere other than home

'snow day' photo (c) 2011, Chelsea Gomez - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

It’s Thursday. I’m not in Mexico. And I’m not going to be in Mexico.

I’ve gotten tagged in some Facebook photos already.  My friends made it just fine while I am snowed in eating grilled cheese sandwiches and drinking lots of tea.

Someone commented about how impressed they are with how well I’m handing my cancelled vacation, and I think there’s nothing to be impressed with. Honestly, I’m not that upset.

I’m sad, of course, not to be with my friends as they sit on the beach and laugh and soak up the sunshine. I’m sad to miss out on the memories that they’re making, and I’m sad to not be a part of the stories that will be told about the trip years down the road.  I’m sad to miss out on the laughing and the sharing and the time together. Because I’m only now realizing how hard those moments are to come by in adulthood, and I know the moments in Mexico would have been the good ones, the ones that are cherished in deep heart places forever.

My dad reminded me, though, that there are things going on in my life now that weren’t going on when I made plans for this trip with my friends.  He said it with a kind of wink, his subtle dad-way of acknowledging the guy I’m dating without actually having to talk about it.

And this week is Valentine’s, and this year is different.

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“Different” is probably an understatement.

Perhaps the world’s worst dater, I am constantly surprised by this man I’m seeing now – by his kindness, and his consistency, and his want to know me better.  I am surprised by how much I like having him around, by how empowered I feel by his support, by how not scary this whole dating him thing is.

So when I walked into his apartment last night, a surprise Valentine’s dinner all prepared, I was taken aback.  And I’m pretty sure it took me a solid ten minutes to come up with words other than “thank you.”

Who needs flowers when you have a man who’ll make you meatloaf?

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A year ago having my trip cancelled would have floored me.  It would have put me in a bad mood for days, and no one would have wanted to be around me because I would have had only snarky responses to anything that was said.  I would have spent the week wallowing, thinking of nothing else except the good time I was missing out on and bemoaning how bad things only happen to me.   A year ago I would have wanted to be anywhere other than home.

But…things are different now and no one is more surprised than I am.

I will miss my friends, and I hope they have a wonderful time in Mexico. But, it’s okay with me that I’m not there this time.

My plane ticket will be reimbursed.  I have a Valentine for the first time ever. I am snowed in with my friend and her family. Next week, I’ll drive to Delaware to visit with Danielle. And I’ll hang out with the BFF and the neph-in-love, and with Amy and the niece-in-love. I’ll have Bible study, and dinner with my parents, and things will continue in the same rhythm of home that I have only recently started to truly enjoy.

And maybe that is what’s most different. I’m not in such a rush to be anywhere another than home.