My September Liturgy

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Since 2014, every September feels almost liturgical to me. Some of this is simply from my mind remembering and reflecting—I am an expert at reflecting—and part of this is from memories that pop up on my Facebook news feed. Trying to explain why I mentally go through this ritual might seem dark or strange to some because I am remembering the night I confronted my (now ex) husband, but for me it is a remembrance of who I was, how I’ve grown, and where I am today—that night, although emotionally catastrophic, was a catalyst for positive change. I don’t simply remember September 19th, I remember the time leading up to that date and the time after it; I remember the year of the confrontation (2013), as well as the previous and following years.

An example that came up recently was a family visit to Butterfly Wonderland on September 15, 2013—just four days before that *poop*-storm rocked my world. It’s ironic that we were among the butterflies because the butterfly is a symbol I had deeply connected to, so much so that I had gotten one tattooed on my lower back just three months prior (see cover photo).  Seeing that Facebook memory of the visit to Butterfly Wonderland reminds me of who I was at that point in time: living with mostly-suppressed emotional turmoil, unwittingly choosing to believe lies, enabling, and battling severe anxiety (which was mild PTSD). I also didn’t know how to bring my heart and my brokenness to God…but I was about to learn.

butterfly wonderland 9.15.13

In my September liturgy, I notice Bible verses and quotes I posted prior to that night in 2013, and I see those in the context of who I was. Then I think back to her, the me I was right before that time and say, “Girl, all that theology is about to get real. What’s left is what you really believe (because everything else is just what you say you believe).”

I look back to the days, weeks, and months after, and I see pictures of myself—no one knew, except my pastor, that I was barely keeping it together; I was like a volcano about to erupt from the pressure of holding so much inside. Everything felt dark, sad, and too heavy to bear. I didn’t know how I would survive and just wanted God to take my life…but then I thought of my daughter—she needed me.

God was faithful and helped me through that time, slowly and gently. I was happily busy in Young Life as a leader; my fellow leaders were like my family, and I needed all of the support I could get. By the time September 2014 rolled around, God had provided good for me. (In fact, I had a happy distraction every year from 2014-2017 on September 19th, and I didn’t work a normal day—or at all on that day—until 2018.) Young Life had a leader retreat around this time. I sobbed while journaling, processing my life up until that point. It was also in a forest, and I love forests. Not long after that, my daughter and I went to Louisiana for my dad and stepmom’s wedding on September 20th, with a light and lively rehearsal on September 19th, complete with a Nerf War set to James Bond music after we practiced the ceremony; I also gained four more step-siblings, which added to my joy (The bags in the picture contain our surprise Nerf guns and ammo, a gift from the soon-to-be bride and groom).

In September 2015, I attended two weddings. The first wedding was for a former student set in another forest. It was beautiful and early. The second wedding, on the 19th, was for a former Young Life student.  This became a group road trip to Southern California, and we stayed in a nice hotel—the wedding was right on the beach!

Each September has been an upward spiral of increasing emotional and spiritual health. God has scaffolded His intense closeness with me: when I was at my lowest, I most vividly sensed His presence and frequently saw His messages of encouragement to me. As I got healthier, there were fewer events, trips, and obvious little notes from God. I went through counseling during this time (fall 2014 through late winter 2016), and a few months after I finished counseling, I enrolled in Sustainable Faith’s School of Spiritual Direction.

On September 19, 2016 I technically worked, but I went on a field trip with my freshmen students to a university in the forest. It was like a little trip for me, and the forest always relaxes me. Then, a few days after that, I attended my first Sustainable Faith year-one module; it was the first time I shared my story in person with strangers. I felt terrified, loved, and heard.

In September 2017, I felt a bit more on edge. My dad had successful heart surgery, but I was nervous for him nonetheless. I took off on the 19th to be with him and my stepmom; I was grateful to be able to spend that time with them, even if it was in a hospital. Shortly after that, I had my first, year-two module for Sustainable Faith. Compared to who I was the year before, I felt significantly more at peace inside. I was blessed to have a cohort of friends with whom I had bonded and grown in Christ.

Today is September 19, 2018. I was reflecting on finishing this post today, and the reminder of this day’s personal significance felt so much more intense that I even accidentally wrote “2013” when I wrote the date on my board before school this morning; one of my students pointed it out in second hour. For some reason, this year has been more emotional as I have reflected on my annual September journey. Perhaps I’ve been more emotional this year because I have fruitlessly gotten my hopes up a few times in the last few years; I am still waiting on God to fulfill His promise to me that He made some time in September 2013, after that fateful night. I thought His promise was going to be fulfilled in specific ways over the years, and I have been wrong each time. In spite of that heartache, I am in the best place I have ever been. I am thankful for how God has continued to heal and grow me from September to September, and I can truly echo the hymn, “It is well with my soul” as I conclude this September liturgy.

September

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When Your Undoing Remakes You

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September 19, 2013 was my watershed moment, although I didn’t know it at the time; I even later got the date tattooed under a butterfly tattoo I already had on my back, which represented my hope for God’s renewal of me.  This day was not my only trauma in life, but it embodied the day my life switched tracks.

Some of you know my story because I either told you, or you read about it a couple of years ago in my post, “My Unexpected Life.” For those of you who don’t know my story, here is a summary of it. At the time of my watershed moment, I had been existing in my (then) marriage for many years, not allowing myself to grasp that I was living with a porn-addicted husband who preferred men. On the night of September 19, 2013, I had the opportunity for a non-negotiable confrontation when my (then) husband’s phone received a sext while laying face up on the kitchen counter as I was standing right next to it; he was out of the room. With an immediately racing heart and shaking hands, I nonchalantly picked up the phone, walked to where he was, and whispered in his ear that we needed to talk upstairs “Now.”

That moment sent me quickly into a dark hole that took me years from which to emerge. I was face-to-face with a pattern that, for about thirteen years, I couldn’t acknowledge existed, even with plenty of evidence. It was not my first confrontation I had with my (then) husband, but it was the only one, up to that point, where I held my ground and wouldn’t accept any legitimizing stories that were used to try to excuse his behavior. I didn’t know how to operate in this new way; I felt completely alone, afraid, and many times, despairing—even though every ounce of me wanted direction and intervention from God.

That was when I felt the most desperate in my life, and I think it was my sheer desperation that God used to begin to change me. I already had a relationship with God, but everything in my life was operating at my lowest common denominator. I desperately didn’t want to be alive, living in that nightmare (even though I didn’t want to actually kill myself). I desperately wanted to hear from God, to know what to do (Divorce was not an option I was even willing to consider for months and only after speaking with a counselor and a few others). I desperately wanted to protect my daughter from emotional damage resulting from divorce, or from living with parents who had an unhealthy and then bad marriage. I desperately wanted to be done confronting, but that was not to be the case. I desperately wanted help.  And then I desperately wanted to express how I felt, to be heard and known; I was exhausted from hiding what was inside of me.

It was all of this desperation that slowly drove me to begin to live differently, to start to become healthy.

I started finding more trusted and safe people to talk to. I never realized until my life fell apart that I lived in almost complete isolation. I wasn’t a hermit (My ex is an extrovert, so I didn’t have the opportunity); I never revealed my heart to people until the end of the marriage—I don’t even think I was aware I was doing that.

During the immediate aftermath of that evening in September, I quickly realized that I was an emotional wreck. I started reading books, we saw a marriage counselor four times before he recommended divorce, and a couple of months after I told my (then) husband to leave, I began a year-and-a-half of counseling.

In this time, I became closer to God than I had ever been in my life, and more importantly, He seemed even closer to me than He had ever been. I really started to recognize His “still, small voice” because I kept running into the same messages repeatedly without even trying; this lasted for about one-and-a-half years. For example, one repeated message was from Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I would have to find my journal that documented all of the specific details, but I ran into it six times in about a week. Someone read it at a Bible study. A parent of one of my students gave me a card, and on the back was that verse. Another friend of mine invited me over for tea, and my tea “happened” to be served in a mug that had that verse on it (I documented that on Instagram).

Another, more attention-getting example of God interrupting my daily life with goodness happened a little over a year after that September confrontation. I shut my phone off and on, and when the screen reloaded, I had a different lock screen with a picture that was not saved in my pictures—“my phone” changed the lock screen by itself. It had the following verse in Isaiah 46:4, “I am He. I am He who made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” I’m pretty sure that if God can speak through an ass (It’s in the Bible), then He can change my lock screen to reassure me that He IS taking care of me in my (then) hellish life; I also documented that lock screen on Instagram.

Within a few months of stopping counseling, I was invited to learn more about Christian spiritual direction; it was an interest meeting for Sustainable Faith’s School of Spiritual Direction, and one of my friends had just completed her first year of their two-year program. It was a perfect fit for me. I witnessed the difference spiritual direction made in my friend’s life; she was calmer and no longer living the frantic life for God. So, instead of waiting a year (my initial thought), I signed up to begin that fall. I sensed that this was the next stage of my healing journey, and in retrospect, becoming a Spiritual Director was almost a side-note to my healing. As I healed more, I felt called to spiritual direction because God was using my pain to help others, and I had a greater capacity to listen without judging people because I now had a story that others could easily judge.

Today it’s been a few months since I completed my own two-year journey in Sustainable Faith’s School of Spiritual Direction. I learned about listening to God and others, instead of simply listening in order to have something with which to reply. I practiced vulnerability with my cohort; we each shared our own stories and ongoing struggles, something that I needed, but it terrified and embarrassed me to show what felt like filthy stains on my life.  I recognized some of my own emotional blind spots and compulsions when we delved into the Enneagram. I learned that conversations are the foundation on which relationships with God and others are built.  I also saw that there are predictable stages in our journey of faith with God; my stage was easily recognizable because it looked like a wall. But most of all, I realized (and am still realizing) just how loved I am.

I lost my life and the trajectory I was on since birth, but the life I gained in return had a substance and richness that was never there before. My life with God gained a depth that I only had glimpses of previously, and I saw that God really does work everything for good for those who love Him; I saw for myself what it meant to give thanks in all things and to rejoice in suffering. These aren’t part of my personal statement of faith; I lived these. I am far from perfect; if you heard me cuss, especially in prayer, you’d probably call me a hypocrite. I just know who I am and Whose I am.

The Dark Christmas

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I originally wrote this on Christmas Eve last year. I didn’t want to “publish” it at the time, but I’m in a much better place than I was then. The darkness was so heavy; I suppose it was a despair about my life’s circumstances. Circumstantially, my life is relatively similar. As I type this my house is empty, and I am contentedly enjoying the silence with the clock ticking in the background. My desires remain the same, but I have peace because I’m better able to trust what Christ has for my life right now; He loves me more than I realized (or can realize), and He is with me. He is Immanuel, and it’s not just a Christmas thing.  I still have my moments, but they are moments, not the undercurrent of my life.

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“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5, ESV).

In my mind I keep referring to this Christmas as The Dark Christmas. For last Christmas (2014) I was newly separated with a divorce in progress. It was the first time I wouldn’t have my daughter with me for every aspect of the holidays, which left an empty void in me when she was with her dad. The overwhelming feeling I had was, “I just want to move on with my life” because the events leading up to my separation were excruciating and crazy enough. I guess last Christmas I was still in a state of limbo, not knowing what to expect.

But this Christmas is different. I know what it is to have shared time with my daughter—it’s a heart-breaking process. This time I feel like I know what my life is (as much as a person can fathom her life in a moment), and this time it feels empty. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade my dark emptiness for my old life of co-dependency, of not facing the grim reality that my marriage was built on lies. But the hope of what I desired then is still there: a family (a husband who loves Jesus, loves me and my daughter, and who demonstrates godly fatherhood to my daughter); this is not to discount the love I know my ex-husband has for our daughter. This hope for what I desire and don’t have creates an emptiness and a heavy darkness in my heart; that situation I want is silently, yet loudly, not there.

I’m thankful for that verse I started with (John 1:5). Even though this Christmas feels like the Dark Christmas, I am encouraged that the darkness I feel inside of me cannot overcome the light, the hope I have in Christ.

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Last year I believed the hope, but this year I also feel it.

Fences and Stillness

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It’s so much easier to live behind a wall or fences, not to be seen or known. It’s my go-to defense mechanism. While I do need a lot of alone time, there are times when I pull away because I’m hurting. Besides coping with hurt, my life has been getting quieter. Although I like quiet, it can at times feel empty; I feel like I’m always processing life with God. I recently told my friend that it feels like removing layers of wax off of something—God removes a layer, and there’s still layers below it; it’s so slow and painful.

I recently participated in inner healing prayer at my most recent module in my Christian spiritual direction training. I told my cohort (who watched my prayer process) that at the beginning I imagined  a giant blanket towering high over my head with me hiding behind it because I didn’t want to be seen (even though I volunteered for this)—I have a difficult time allowing myself to express my emotions in front of others. However, it was worth it being vulnerable with them; I was able to deal with a deeply painful area of feeling abandoned by God on the night I confronted my (now ex) husband a few years ago. In my time of prayer I saw that Jesus was holding my hand in that traumatizing and terrifying moment. After the prayer, I felt more settled and relaxed, instead of feeling alone and abandoned as I always had in that memory. Those feelings of abandonment had painted some more recent events with the same color; the sense of abandonment felt just as real. I anticipate being more able  to cope now that some core emotional memories have been dealt with—another layer of wax removed.

Overall, in the last several months my life has been in a state of transition: I had to put down my old (and sick) dog in February—she was 14, and I had had her since she was 6 weeks old; I bought a house last spring, which makes me feel more physically settled and has solidified my single mom life, instead of feeling like a nomad who is constantly moving; I dated a man I re-met and connected with over the summer; I moved churches; my cousin became my roommate; my work content/contexts have changed; I began Christian spiritual direction training, and the 2016 election was exhausting on multiple levels.

Some of those transitions have simply been change (and I like routine), but others were deeply painful. I’ve discovered over the last couple of months that when things feel too painful, I retreat from my heart into my mind, and then I detach from my emotions until an emotional nerve is hit, at which time my emotions leak out. During those times of detachment I can’t write because I can’t access my heart; I’ve walled off my emotions from myself.

The pain of my change is real, but the slow realization of God’s tender love for me is also real. As a Christian, I know God loves me, but I have learned that our reactions reveal what’s really going on inside of us. Susan Scott (in Fierce Conversations) refers to this as the “official truth” versus the “ground truth;” “ground truth” is what someone believes as revealed by their actions, while the “official truth” is what someone says they believe, but reality (or their actions) contradict this. My ground truth revealed I didn’t believe God truly loves me, and I still wrestle with making it part of lived belief system.

Reflecting back throughout my year, I know that my changes have produced good. I feel physically settled because of my move and because of a gradual introduction of quiet, as well as more healing in my life. I’m learning the difference between my needs and my distractions; I’m learning to just be, to be still and know that God has this. Psalm 46 speaks of God’s peace in the context of chaos: natural disasters, tumultuous seas, war, nations falling, and in that, the psalmist learns that God is with us, that He is a refuge. In these similar circumstances in our lives (all of which originate with change), we can rest in the peace of God when we know who God is—the One who can stop wars, enemies, and tyrants; the One who provides refuge; and the One who helps us.

Psalm 46 (NIV)

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’ The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

 

The End of a Season in Life

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A couple of weeks ago I finished a nearly two year journey through counseling. I had been anticipating this day since I began counseling, knowing that it was just for a time, but I didn’t know when my season in counseling would be over.

It was painful to stand face-to-face with my pain, to look it in the eyes, to name it, to describe my reactions to it, to forgive it, and then to reflect on my healing. I first worked through my divorce and the toxic marriage attached to it, and then I worked through my childhood sexual abuse. There were other, smaller issues my counselor and I tackled together with God, but those two were the biggies. Am I fully healed? Nope. That will not happen until Heaven, but I am in a good place. Do I still have hard days? Yes. Usually the hardest days are (weekly) on the day my daughter goes to stay with her father for a few days. When she’s gone I struggle with loneliness because I miss her deeply when she’s not with me. I am also forced to acknowledge and hold hands with the fact that I am not in control. That day is also the day I usually battle the most with anxiety and depression, ask God the hard questions, and usually comment on my life with, “WTF?”—except I actually say the words. I say them less than I used to, but it still happens.

GASP! I’m sure some of you now think I’m not a Christian, or that I’m a bad one. I believe in being honest with God, and He knows what I try to hide in my heart, far away from my mind. It’s easier to lie, put on a smile, and pretend that life is fine. But we can’t cast our cares on God if we won’t acknowledge our cares, or if we try to minimize them. Jesus didn’t die for me so that He could make me into a smiling liar who lives in denial of reality. It’s easy to go back to denial or that lying (usually while smiling), but my goal is to be real, continue healing, and grow in God.

Back to my story: During the duration of my counseling I kept a journal in a spiral notebook, and I went through three such notebooks, as well as part of a fourth. Each of my journals had a different color, which seemed to match the place I was at in life when I began it. My first journal was black with a few stickers containing Bible verses of hope; I was in a very dark place that was saturated with hurt and anger. At that point in my life, I regularly battled despair, and in God’s strength, I hung onto Him in hope. My last journal was green, which goes with trees and other growing things: life.

The closing session of my counseling ended with prayer, preceded by me shredding my journals that I kept specifically for counseling (I knew that I would be doing this at my last counseling session from day 1, and I couldn’t wait for that day). Shredding my journals signified a finality to issues that had been thoroughly prayed through, discussed, written about, cried over, and dreamed about. I wrote tirades, letters to others that were not to be delivered (as well as some that were), confessions, descriptions of events and struggles, what I dreamed about at night when I could remember my dreams, my hopes for the future, reflections, lists—just about anything. It’s interesting…as I shredded those journals and my counselor prayed, she played Hillsong’s Empires album on shuffle softly in the background. When I got to my last handful of pages, I heard, “It is done; it is done”—those words were being sung in that moment, and we couldn’t have planned it! After the shredding, my counselor asked me, “How do you feel?” I replied, quoting the song lyrics we just heard, “‘It is done, it is done…’”

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;  a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8, ESV).

I’m Buying A House

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Right now I’m in the process of buying a home. It’s not the first time I’ve bought a home, but it’s the first time I’ve done this as a single woman, which has been exciting and unnerving. It makes me feel very adult in the I’m-18-and-I’m-freaking-out-because-this-high-school-gig-is-up kind of way. I didn’t freak out when I was eighteen, but as a high school teacher I’ve seen some high school kids who start to grasp the whole becoming an adult reality prior to graduation. The exciting aspect of buying this home is to be expected; it’s like a physical manifestation of my new phase in life.  I finally get to live in my own space: get a dog, paint, design my back yard, have a little garden, plant rose bushes, redo cabinets, etc. Most importantly, I want my daughter to feel a sense of permanence, instead of upheaval; her life has been chaotic enough in the last couple of years, and my heart breaks for her.

But the unnerving part of home buying has really revealed my deep insecurities. I desire certainty to an unnatural degree. Yes, I’m newly divorced, my former marriage was emotionally traumatizing, and I’ve moved six times in the last seven years (even when I was married). For those familiar with MBTI, I’m an extroverted feeler (No, that doesn’t make me an extrovert). I can read other people’s emotions (often without even realizing it), and I sometimes feel like a mind reader—but I’m not. Despite that, or because of that, I’m incredibly good at detaching from my own emotions; I can describe my personal experiences like a third person narrator without trying. It takes a lot of effort to connect with how I truly feel because I’ve had a lifetime of not allowing myself to go there. I usually don’t know my own feelings until I feel them in my body or talk them out with a friend, and right now my shoulders are stiff like steel. I’ve had daily headaches for over a week, but thankfully today has just been tension, rather than pain. My anxiety has also been my ever-present shadow. Thankfully, I haven’t had any anxiety attacks recently, but my anxiety has another physical side, dizziness. My counselor and naturopath have separately observed that I exhibit symptoms of mild PTSD, which is connected to this dizziness.

In all of this home buying, I desperately want to do the right thing. I want to provide the best environment for my daughter, and I want to make wise financial decisions.  I’ve prayed a lot before and during this process, I’ve had other people pray too, and I’ve seen some answers to prayer. I know that I’m doing the right thing, but as in every experience in my life, I’m scared. What do I do when I’m scared? I pray a lot, although never enough. I read my Bible, but not because I have to—I want to. One fear I have gotten over is the fear that God is ready to hit me or punish me if I screw up. I grasp His love so much more than I used to; I know He’s not ready to punish me because I’m His. He just wants me to know Him and to let Him know me. Talking with Him and remembering His character and promises calms me down. I still have a long way to go though.

~Christine

A Little Looking Back to Look Forward

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A Little Looking Back to Look Forward

Today I had an appointment across town, near where I lived when I was married for the first three years. After the appointment was over I drove by my old townhouse. It still looks dilapidated, as do the other properties in that association. The units still have bars on the windows and doors on the first floor. The asphalt is still crumbling around the complex. The exterior wood siding located on the back side of the units by the parking is still falling apart with paint peeled or peeling. The entryways, which no one really uses, are differing shades of cream or tan. The place still exudes hopelessness because of its look of disrepair. I thought to myself, “How did I live like that?” It felt symbolic of my crumbled marriage, which was unknowingly falling apart before it ever began. I didn’t like living that way, but it was what I had. Prior to us purchasing the place, I should have voiced my opinion more strongly, “I don’t like it here. It’s falling apart, it’s ugly, and it feels unsafe.” But I didn’t. Typical of how I usually operated then, I just went along with it, even though I didn’t like it.

It was good to revisit that place. It’s been almost sixteen years since I lived there, and being there reminded me again that, that chapter of my life has closed. I felt both sadness and relief. The sadness was for what was—what I endured, what I battled, and what could have been but never was. The relief was for the reminder that I am no longer imprisoned; it’s good to be free.

After driving through there I even drove past my childhood home. I haven’t driven by it in many years. The neighborhood I grew up in has significantly changed. The houses look a lot older, and some look really run down. My own childhood home looks quite altered as well. The exterior was redone after my parents moved from there when they were divorcing, and sadly the trees in the front yard are gone. I remembered where different friends lived, where the community pool was once located, and wondered how my immediate neighbors’ houses looked inside. (I could have stopped by because I still know them, but I needed to get home before my daughter was ready to come over.)

All of the looking back at my childhood and the majority of my adulthood encouraged me to look forward. I wonder what God has for me? Where will I live? Who will my husband be? What will my life be like? Will I ever get to the place where I don’t have to work so that I can just write and edit? I don’t have the answer to any of those things, but I know that God does and that He loves me deeply. I know He has plans for my good and to restore the years that have been covered with a locust-type of destruction (Jeremiah 29:11-13 and Joel 2:25-27).