WHY: Doing Life

This week I’ve been staying with two of my high school students from youth group. It’s amazing how your life disappears when two kids enter the picture. They have homework, school events, friends and youth group. There are guitar lessons, art club and exams. Not to mention emails and junk mail from colleges. They’re out the door at 645 AM after what I hardly consider to be a real breakfast and they’re home again at 235 PM with homework and hungry mouths.

Last night we learned together how to plunge an overflowed toilet.

Tonight we’re probably going out to see a movie.

It’s a wonderful life?

When their parents left, their mother said to me that she hoped I’d have some opportunities to speak into their lives. Well, last night we talked about drinking and college and I told them all the reasons that they shouldn’t drink to excess. But I have a feeling that’s not exactly what mom meant.

What does it mean to teach kids? What does it mean when their lives are so busy? Between guitar lessons and loading the car full of DJ equipment for youth group, I’m not even sure when we’ll eat dinner tomorrow night.

We pray together before they go to bed. I told them I was writing a paper about Jesus and coffee and the importance of work for the human identity and purpose. They stared at me like I’d grown two heads. But it brought up a couple of questions… what does the crema of espresso have to do with expanding the Kingdom? And why did you stop listening to Ke$ha or half a dozen other artists?

I thought how one of my other high schoolers is going for a run with me on Friday. She has questions to ask me, apparently. We’ve just become official as mentor/mentee and I’m freaking out with my own mentor because God knows I talk more than I listen; I am a Franks and Kormick by descent and there’s mistaking that when I open my mouth. I looked  at the coffee cup when she asked me, in the same shop where I found Ethan and my mentor and a new reason to live. I stared at the brown liquid, the soy foam dissolved into sweet joy. I told her the same thing that G told me years ago, before I lived with her and the family, before I learned what it meant to be at peace in the midst of chaos.

The kids aren’t home yet, but they will be soon. I’ll have to turn down Mumford and Sons while we do homework, all jammed into the office together. Tonight, after dinner, Ethan and I will read the daily liturgy and though it isn’t expected of them, I’ll invite the kids to join us. Ethan hasn’t been here, and I’ve missed our times of eating and reading together. This is what we do, after all, this is how we experience God, how we learn of Him, hear from Him and are challenged by the words of the fathers and the movement of the Spirit.

It’s like taking Rebekah running — where I can process and feel the glory of God in the pounding arteries beneath my skin and the bite of the cold winter wind on my face.

It’s like folding laundry with G while she told me about Jesus and peace and suffering.

We do life together. We invite people into our stories, our journeys. We walk alongside one another, holding hands, laughing and crying together and learning together along the way.

Perhaps there’s another way to teach, to speak into one another’s lives. If there is, I haven’t yet found it. But I’m no parent and so I am years away from knowing. I don’t make any claim to understanding what all this is about though I keep finding myself in the midst of it. There’s so much to learn, so much yet to find and discover. This is what I do know:

walking in the way that Jesus calls always creates reason for talking, reasons for speaking into one another’s lives as we grow into the people he has called us to be.

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Why: counseling

Well, cat’s out of the bag now. I’m in counseling, folks. I’ve considered blogging about this, and about my experience in particular, but for now I think I want to just offer some basic thoughts on why counseling is a really good thing — even for Christians.

Time and Intentionality
There’s never enough time for all we need to get accomplished. Trust me, I know this on a very personal level. I’m a full time student, I work three part time jobs to make ends meet, I serve in a youth group, I’m dating someone and I manage a fairly decent social life. I think in our activity obsessed culture (which is a standard mark of our Protestant roots) we are often bereft of deep, authentic relationships. Please don’t misread this. I don’t mean to say that everyone in our culture is “fake” and putting on a show (though certainly true for many). It’s that we simply can’t manage to sit down and have coffee with someone for four hours to discuss our marriages, our struggles with our jobs and our victories that are coupled with defeat. There’s a struggle to find the ability to invest in each other, not because we don’t want to, but because we simply “can’t” make the time.* Our kids play sports, we have small group, Awanas, work parties, gym memberships, work that we bring home with us and — oh yeah– sleep which takes up half of our lifetime. But when we don’t have time for each other to be real, honest and raw, we need to find that elsewhere.

Sometimes, more intentionality can fill this vacancy. I plan my life about a month at a time — not because I like planning but because I have so much to get done and I want to preserve down time with God, with friends and with Ethan. We intentionally pursue certain people who we seek advice from and are honest with. Sometimes, however, this doesn’t seem feasible and one feels like they are drowning amidst obligations and shallow relationships that aren’t providing the ability to seek wisdom and discernment. It takes time to get to that point with someone and then time to maintain it. So, counseling can provide a place where those needs (for discernment, processing, correction, etc) are met. That has certainly been the case in my life.

Generations
Also problematic for finding someone to invest in you (and hopefully you investing in others) is that many of our churches are generationally segregated. Now, I’m going out on a limb here but I’d say this is not only a problem in churches via preference issues (music, clothing, etc) but is a standard issue across American culture where generations since the Boomers have decreasingly seen the importance of the wisdom of the elders. It’s something that needs to be combatted because there is a lack of wisdom for mentoring young folks if everyone is the same age! There’s no difference in life experience if everyone is on the same stage of life (young marrieds, new kids, teenage kids, etc).

I experienced the importance of having older folks in my life when Ethan and I recently snowshoed with a couple from our church who have kids older than the two of us. We took along their hunting dog and their little lap dog. Mathilda (lap dog) was slowing down about half way through so the other couple wrapped her up in a shirt and dropped her into the husband’s backpack with her head and two paws sticking out. Midway through the process, Cindy looked at me and said “this is what you do when you have kids, okay? Your life doesn’t stop. You adjust.” I need that. I need my married friends to wipe away the rose coloured glasses and assure me that arguments are normal, that marriage is compromise, that kids are cute but hard. Ethan and I are blessed to have many older couples around us who have been willing to take time out of their schedules and mentor us in a variety of ways (whether through snowshoeing or working on a house project with E). Unfortunately this isn’t always available to people in churches were the population is primarily made up of a single demographic. In this instance, I think counseling can again fill in a gap by providing wisdom both cerebral and hands on as people work through their issues (and this is especially true in marriages).

Spiritual Depth v Self Help
Finally, I think that as a Christian one ought to seek a Christian counselor. There’s this tendency in America to be obsessively oriented towards “self-help.” We can see this in our sermons, which are three points and commonly directed towards life change/behavioural modification. There’s a difference between self help and spiritual wisdom because self help, frankly, isn’t spiritual at all. It plays at the thought that one can change themselves to be better, healthier, more whole. While I believe one must cooperate with the Holy Spirit, I strongly believe that it is God who changes hearts. I think Christian counselors can make a huge difference here. They are trained to helping people unearth belief systems that cause behavioural issues — rather than putting someone on a diet, they help the person work through why they cope with life through food. A story might suffice here. My counselor and I have often talked about God and how my warped view of the Father has severely impacted my view of myself, E, and all of life (including my inability to rest and say no to people). My counselor and I recently discussed that I have terrible thought patterns (see previous post) and at some point I simply have to stop those thoughts right as they begin. What I didn’t say on Monday was that my counselor has also pointed out my need to memorize Scripture so I can speak truth in those moments of self loathing and doubt. You see? It isn’t self help, though that is what’s offered rather commonly in our churches and bookstores and relationships (a la, have you tried X, or tried Z?). What we need instead is a call to accountability and spiritual direction.

Considering…
Should everyone be in counseling? Well, at some point, yes. Not because we’re all horribly broken in a melodramatic way. No. But we all have pasts, we are products of the way people have treated us, the way we were picked on as children, manipulated by siblings, hurt by parents who didn’t love perfectly because they aren’t perfect. There’s sin in this world and we’ve all experienced it. I think, at some point, whether it is found in a mentoring relationship or a paid counselor, we’ve all got some ish to work through and we should do that as we pursue becoming who we already are in Christ and who we are constantly being transformed into.

Have you ever been in counseling? What are your thoughts on it — useful, necessary, etc?

___________________________
*I will say that sometimes the time excuse is just that, an excuse. I don’t have time for everyone, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have time for some people.

Community and Truth

On Sunday nights I work as a children’s ministry director of sorts. It’s a small role at a big church but it comes with difficulties and joys all its own. Last night, parents were running late and I had a few minutes alone with one of my workers to catch up. She’s recently had a baby born with a developmental disability and a propensity to health issues. It’s been a hard nine months of pregnancy and an exhausting task to have a baby, have him hospitalized for 10 days then put on oxygen and manage to keep up the holiday glamour with her two older boys. The New Year for her is one of hope but also reservation. “I fit back into my jeans!” she exclaimed last night as she arrived, and I can see that things are evening out. But there’s the note of caution – “I can’t put him to bed without oxygen, I won’t sleep if I don’t know he’s alright.”

And sometimes, there’s simply isolation as the family walks through their brave decisions – “I want doctors to stop asking me why I kept him even though I knew he’d have issues. What matters is that he’s been born and I need to know how to care for him.” she sighs and adds, “we’re trying a new pulmonary doctor next week.”

I sit in the rocking chair, holding squalling baby or squirming toddler and I listen to her. I’m often saddened by the long journey they have ahead of them, but I’m always amazed by her grim determination. She hasn’t yet found joy in the undertaking that’s been put on them. But they are determined to see through what God’s entrusted to them in his quite unsearchable providence. We’ve cried together, hugged and traversed the trials of living after the fall. I’ve prayed, on many nights, that God would give me something worthwhile to say – something encouraging and actually helpful (she’s always getting shoddy, shallow encouragement from people in her faith circles—words that mask the fear of not knowing what to say).

Last night she was explaining her anxiety, her concerns about the future of the baby still tiny and hooked up to oxygen each night as he sleeps: oblivious to the world and the sorrows around him. I rocked, back and forth, an eye on the door where we check in children for the evening service. But all my attention was  given to her as she described, in her worry, something that I suddenly realized I knew.

 I asked her, when you’re thinking, is it obsessive? Is it cyclical? Does it wind into downward spiral? She nodded slowly. I have that, I said. I get a tight feeling in my chest, it’s an anxiety issue. I live with it, day in – and day out. Mine always focuses on E, and the fears, the worries, the mounting anxious thoughts.

I told her my story, I asked, is yours like mine? She nodded, amazed, “you too?” and her eyes red rimmed eyes full of emotion.

Me too. I’m in counseling. Every week. It’s getting better, slowly but surely. Because here’s what I was told to do:

When the black thoughts start coming and the anxiety grows at an exponential rate I pull myself up to a stop and I tell myself the truth.

I don’t have to live this way. I don’t have to have these thoughts. I don’t have to go down that path. I don’t have to live in fear, think this way, feel this anxiety. Because the truth is my God is good and he cares and he will not let your foot slip. He watches over you and he will neither slumber nor sleep.

I looked at my friend and I admitted, it isn’t easy and I still have dark days. But you and me, girl, we’re going to live in the truth and we’re not going to be dragged into the mire that is worry and fear. Because Jesus came, he sets us free: from bondage to sin and bondage to decayed thinking.

She nodded, slowly, tearful and I’d have hugged her but at that moment a child came, to play with toys and hear stories about the One who came to set us free while his mom and dad sang in church, songs of gratefulness and praise to that same One.

This is the thing about community. We are never alone in this fight against the way our sin has so permeated our lives, our thoughts, our being. It is crouching at the door and it will come in and eat you alive if you let it. But together we’re holding the door closed and pressing on in the other direction: towards Abba, towards Jesus, towards life in the Spirit of Truth and freedom.

And this is the beauty of truth. It leads us to Him and He is always for us, always for freedom, always for our joy and glory in Him alone.

WHY: work matters

Four walls, three a blank cream just off the colour of pure white–which is, of course, the absence of all colour, creativity, and imagination. The fourth is blue and thank God, it’s the one we face. For six hours each day this week, seated at tables drawn into the shape of horseshoe collecting luck, this is where we sit and theologize about work.

Not about what you’d call vocational ministry, though that’s been a small part. After all, most of those 20 people in class are going into some kind of ministry as vocation, so the topic surfaces now and then. For five of the six hours, though, we’re not talking about the task of preaching, exhorting, comforting, evangelizing or doing otherwise “ministerial” work.

We talk about factories, the grinding sound of machines ringing in ears as the rivets go in, and in, and in, and in again. The same droning task, day after tedious, long day.

We talk about cooking, about chasing after little ones and putting those same littles to bed where they feign sleep in mid-day sun. We talk about cleaning, washing, teaching, disciplining, day after exhausting day.

We talk about working land, digging in with dirt beneath nails, with cracked worn creases and rough, hard callouses that are used to working until the light’s gone, until the work is done, until we’ve done all we can and turn to hope for good weather and God’s blessing.

We talk about the desks, the ivory towers, the glassed-in cages full of meetings with people who know too much and say too little (or very often the opposite). We talk about the hours, the consumption, the temptation for work to become all consuming.

And what does it mean–this work? What does it signify or do? Is there meaning, importance or is it just a means to an end? On my dresser there’s a framed manuscript from Stratford-Upon-Avon where a woman rages that all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Is that what will become of our work?

Even if that was the end of our work (and I don’t think it is–but more on that later), would our work still have meaning?

Yes.

There is something deeply human about working. It was commanded before the Fall, though certainly the curse has driven a thorn into something which was once so beautiful. Even still, it is good and useful and purposeful.

In the beginning of our world, our collective imagination and understanding of life, in the beginning of all that God created. He rested on the 7th day and somehow, in this workaholic culture, that often becomes the focus. But there were six days before that, six glorious days when God in His beautiful community of Trinity worked.

And He told us to work.

As the imago dei, as the representatives of the divine, we were told to work. Because to do something with the world, to look around, to see things and to make something is a great and glorious way to act like the creative One whose nature we reflect.

So your work, and my work, this blog, the book on your bedside table, the job that pays you on the 15th and 31st has meaning. In some ways, the products may have meaning but that is because they come from you. And you are the image of God, the image bearer who creates, constructs, designs and puts the final flourishes on that latte art, that blue print, that tea bag on the conveyor belt. So you, by your reflection of divinity, give meaning and dignity to that work, that act of creating, changing, adjusting and beautifying.

Your work matters, it has work and value– because you matter. However often we fail to fully reflect God and live out the imago dei, we still are because it isn’t something in us, it’s something we’re in. And when we lend that to our work, it has meaning.

So your work and mine–whatever it may be–has meaning.

Work work work

I’m sitting on the floor of my room, fighting my way through 200 pages of Miroslav Volf and looking forward to class tomorrow which will consist of another 6 hours on the Theology of Work. I have a headache, an upset stomach, a hurting ear and a very un-vaccuumed floor. The tea in my mug disappeared in moments, that milky brown colour of black tea with soy and my computer is very nearly dead after 13 pages of typed notes during class today. Have I lately said that I love school? Because I do, it’s simply fantastic. Someday, I’ll even learn how to not be so anxious on the first day of a new class, but for now, I just love it so much I’ll endure the nerves as I walk into the unknown for the next couple of weeks while we settle back into spring semester.

As Ethan merrily set out this morning to work (yes, we’re still sharing a car, it’s easier now that he lives close and  still a nice way to start the day), I was dreading class, feeling grumpy and in general overwhelmed. We did one of those “tell us why you’re here” introductions and why the class interested us. I had about ten minutes to formulate my thoughts on why I had decided to take a class that satisfies a requirement…. When the discussion finally rounded the corner to our section I heard myself talking about the man who’d dropped me at school after a a rather frustrating drive.

My man, I said, builds houses. He owns a construction business. Some people don’t think that’s ministry, but I do and I’m not quite sure why. I just think that it is. I want to talk about theology of work because there’s more to vocation and calling than being a pastor and, after all, the Jews didn’t have pastors so why do we seem to think that’s a high and mighty thing when Jesus was a carpenter, a tradesman, a blue collar man like mine? But I want to learn about this whole idea of “theology of work” so I can better explain to the people who look at me and seem to pity us as though we’re doing something less holy by building homes for people to live in rather than preaching to an already over-educated-glassy-eyed-elite.

I didn’t finish with that snarky of a sentence because one of the two professors teaching still sort of terrifies me despite several conversations with him which have assured me of his humanity.

You see, we sometimes elevate certain “careers” or “vocations” as though God calls people to higher work than others. We fawn over people becoming pastors and denigrate those who are lawyers. But what about assuring that children are placed with the right parent after a divorce (no matter how sad the reality of divorce may be)? How is that any less important than counseling that same child as a later adult and leading them into a healthier marriage than the one they saw fall apart? How is building homes and tilling the land any less than exegeting the scriptures about the importance of the resurrection–the rebirth of life that we see each year on a farm, in nature, cultivated by man?

Those are my questions going into the course and I’m looking forward to developing my thoughts about E’s work, about my work, about how we are building the kingdom in our apartments, our conversations, our businesses and our writing. Maybe, by the end of the week, I’ll have something a bit more articulate put together; something about work being ministry no matter the field.

For now, however, I’ve got to get back to Volf so I can get started on that paper. . .

Day One

It’s freezing in this room. I sit under a blanket and the space heater’s light blinks merrily as if to say he’s still pushing out warmth from between his panels of radiator style heating but I’m doubtful. E has gone of to a local pub with a dear friend, a man of fly fishing, wild mushrooms and family. He’s a man that E has learned a lot from, a man with a good strong wife whom I simply can’t get enough of. But I’m at E’s, finishing the last of six laundry loads, reading homework for class which hasn’t even started and freezing beneath the blanket I knit many years ago.

The New Year dawned bright this morning, despite stubborn clouds that failed to bring us snow as we rang in midnight and said goodbye to 2012. Today, Ethan sat at home and did paperwork, receipting, cataloguing business expenses and other end of year tasks. We made soup, did laundry, sorted, read, talked and cried.

2013.

What’s the year to be?

2012, someday I’ll write about it, I know my absence from the blog was long and abrupt. It was a hard finish to the year, missing family, crying for lost children, fighting the continuous battle for hope and joy amid a world that sometimes seems bent on pain and sorrow.

I don’t have new years resolutions–I’ve learned better than to do that at this point. But with the year ending on such a note of anxiety in my personal life and indeed in the world at large, I texted one goal to a friend: the same one I’ve pursued through months of prayer, counsel and late nights with E.

On this first day of 2013 I have decided to go forward in confidence and hope: God has given me so much and I am choosing to hold onto the peace of Christ that is sometimes harder to grasp than the fear I’m so well acquainted with.

Ethan’s laptop has played Celtic tunes all afternoon while I’ve read, cleaned and fought the battle for hope in my mind and heart.There’s a fiddle playing alongside a pipe and an instrument I can’t quite pick out. It’s full of cheer and hope. It encourages my soul even as I’ve told E that sometimes I don’t believe He has a plan to give us a future without harm but rather one with hope and prosperity. He hugged me at the door tonight, kissed my forehead and smiled with confidence. “He loves you,” were his words as he squeezed my arm.

The sweet simple words, the soft reminder.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” [wildly out of context, but ever still the truth]