Rending Hearts, Beating Breasts

DSC_4884.jpgThis semester I’m excited to be participating in a Bible Study at my church on the Sermon on the Mount. For today’s devotions, we focused on the first two verses:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. – Matthew 5:3-4

What was most fascinating to me was the study on what it meant to mourn. The workbook had us look at passages in Joel and James which talk about mourning in the context of repentance and grieving over sin.

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
“Return to Me with all your heart,
And with fasting, weeping and mourning;
And rend your heart and not your garments.”
Now return to the Lord your God,
For He is gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness
And relenting of evil. – Joel 2:12 – 13

In of itself, that is a powerful image. But this morning I also read from Luke 18 which gives the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. After giving a very unflattering portrait of the Pharisee’s prayer life, the Publican (ie. the supposed bad guy in the story) is cast in a much different light.

But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ – Luke 18:13

Accident it was not that I read both of these passages this morning. While the imagery in Joel is very powerful, it is a bit removed from me, staying in the realm of theory. Where as the passage in Luke tells a story and shows what rending your heart looks like in action. But it does more than that, it shows us how we can think that we are “rending our hearts” when we really aren’t.

The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ – Luke 18:11 – 12

Jesus tells us that it is the Publican (someone who would be considered the worst of Jewish society) and not the Pharisee (someone who would be revered as the best of Jewish society) whose prayer was answered and was justified in the sight of God.

What was helpful to me about reading these passages back to back was the reminder of how often I am like the Pharisee, how I compare myself to others and act like I’m better than everyone else and that God owes me something for my performance. Jesus’ parable in Luke helped me to see how I need to the Lord’s words in Joel seriously. I need to rend my heart and not my garments because Jesus is not interested in showy religion, but a faith that recognizes that I am a sinner and that I need the mercy of God.

It’s so easy to live my life as the Pharisee but I trust that as God continues to reveal to me my tendency towards self-righteousness and arrogance that He is going to shift my heart more and more towards the posture of the Publican who beat his breast and rent his heart.

 

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Starting Again

It’s been ten years since I first started the Fine Arts Associate program at Northampton Community College. Six years since I took my last class towards the degree.

Finishing my the associate was on my bucket list, something that I thought I would get back to when I was much older. But life throws us in unexpected directions and last week I found myself join the horde of students descending on the main campus to start again.

I’ve got five classes left to take before I complete my degree. This semester I get to take Drawing 3 and Digital Photography, so I’ll be posting a lot more about my art projects and the process. This is only the start of week 2, and my enthusiasm will likely die down some as the work piles up, but right now I am enjoying every minute of being back in the work.

 

For Drawing 3, we got to explore the woods on the campus and place an object somewhere in it. We then got to choose two compositions to draw with that image. Here is the first one that I am working on.

I love the vines. They remind me a lot of playing up the hill behind my house as a kid and also of something like out of the forests on Middle Earth.

For Digital Photography last week, we got to experiment with our camera’s shutter speeds and apertures…

 

…and take some selfies….

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(It’s an online class, so we used them as part of our introductory Blackboard post. It made sense, but I still found it amusing.)

There is so much for me to learn and I am really grateful that I have this opportunity to start again! Looking forward to what this week brings me.

Mistakes Are What?

Responses to this question get me a combination of enthusiastic chants and rolled eyes. Both for the same reason: my students know the answer very well.

Mistakes were first re-framed for me by the amazing Larry Silverberg in his first workbook in “The Sanford Meisner Approach” series.

“THERE ARE NO MISTAKES.”

That was the mantra he set in the first several pages of his book. (And yes, it was in all caps.)

“On stage,” he continues, “there are no mistakes, you must accept and embrace everything that happens!”

This was the first concept from my study of Larry’s work on Meisner that I incorporated into my training at my theatre. Working with young kids and self-conscious teens, the fear of doing something wrong is one of the most common and debilitating block to their enjoyment in acting and growth as actors.

So we started working on viewing mistakes differently — as opportunities!

I’ve found it really helpful to approach mistakes on the stage as a chance for me to have an unexpected new moment to respond to – something fun and exciting, rather than something to be feared.

While I certainly don’t encourage my actors to be flippant about their work and lazily use mistakes as a way of not putting in the effort needed to do their absolute best, I also don’t want their dread of “failing” and “doing it wrong” to immobilize them.

I’ve found that when my actors can embrace the idea that mistakes are opportunities, they are much more relaxed and focused. (And as a byproduct, usually have fewer mishaps as they aren’t stuck in their heads!)

I’ve found that the lesson can be applied to other areas of my life as well.

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Untitled. India Ink, India Ink marker, acrylic paint. 2017.

The above is one of my favorite pieces of work, one that is developing through the mistakes I made on it. It’s not finished. This is merely the first draft. At some point, I will re-create this piece, some of the unintended aspects I will keep, others I will correct.

The piece came about in out a desperate longing to connect with Jesus and thinking about all the ways that C.S. Lewis makes parts of Him accessible through the allegorical character of Aslan.

I didn’t want to draw a picture from the stories (for one reason the illustrations to the series are already so beautiful); instead I worked to draw Narnia as I envisioned it then on that February day. Everything went pretty well, the trees, the lamp post, the snow, until I tried to add the imprint of Aslan to it.

The idea evolved from including a lion relief on the lamp post to making the shadow of the lamp post cast the image of Aslan, as though everything in Narnia is bursting to proclaim the King of Beasts, the one who sang their world into being.

(Even though the lamp post is from our world, I’ve got to think that the many years being in the woods, it has to have come to understand who Aslan is….)

I still am very found of the idea, but the execution…well, that’s where mistake number one and two come in.

#1 – The perspective of the shadow is not right, so it looks more like the black blob is hanging from the lamp post arm. (Or as my one friend described it, “Singing in the Rain meets Narnia”.)

#2 – Even though I watered down the ink, I didn’t water it down enough. It is too dark and looks much more like a distinct creature than a shadow on the snow.

Both of these mistakes ended up being really important for me. #1 confirmed for me that I have a lack of understanding about perspective and how to work with a light direction in a piece. Wanting to be able to avoid such mistakes in the future was part of what lead me to decide to finish my Fine Arts Associates.

Because the “shadow” ended up looking much more like a black blob than a lion, and because there was no way to go in with darker ink to add the detailing of the mane, face, and paws, I had to improvise.

Utilizing my gold paint was my solution. One I really liked.

While part of me wishes I had worked in small, incremental layering and done the shadow in a blueish gray like I did the footprints, I’m glad I didn’t. If I had, I might not have used the gold to make the suggestion of a lion. And I also might not have made mistake number three!

#3 – I was careless in squeezing out my paint, which ended up squirting out a large streak on the page.

At first I was mortified. This was a mistake that I could have so easily avoided if I would have just slowed down and gone through the extra effort of caution. (This is something I really need to work on. I am way to found of cutting corners.) But even the mistake borne from laziness (the worst kind of mistakes in my opinion) brought about something in the piece that I really like: lines of gold darting across the page.

When I get to work on my second draft of this piece, I will keep the gold streaks and detailing on the lion and fix the perspective and coloring of the shadow.

Until then I have it framed in my kitchen, to remember that sometimes you correct mistakes by learning how to avoid making them again, and other times you learn from them by embracing them and incorporating them into your work.

That’s much easier for me to accomplish in my practice of art than it is in my daily life.

Messing up in life causes greater harm, greater embarrassment, and don’t usually offer the chance to do another draft. Whether I make an innocent mistake or a full blown sin, the impact is not easily dealt with.

I think about the ways I have hurt my friends, overspent my money, wasted my time, rebelled against Jesus…I can’t just draw another version of those moments and throw away the reality of what I’ve done.

My shame of sin often gets in the way of my needed repentance and restoration. I’ve had relationships go through long periods of awkwardness or tension because I was so embarrassed by the fact that I had hurt or failed them (thus proving I was not perfect) that I often didn’t want to even face them. This did not help matters.

In the spring, I taught a Meisner class for my younger actors, and we often talked about how mistakes were opportunities. I like to apply as much acting technique to every day life as possible, so as our question and answer routine got hammered into us, I thought a lot about how mistakes provide opportunities in my relationships.

When I realized that my pride prevented me from being able to honestly face the ways I had hurt my friendships with people, I began to see how I needed to practice the humility of admitting I was flawed and to accept their grace and forgiveness.

Much like the first streak of gold that marred my drawing, my sin against others mars them. When I can put aside pride and seek to make amends and they are able to forgive me, that wound can get incorporated into our story in beautiful and amazing way.

The other thing I realized was that my mistakes and sins in my day to day life are opportunities of remembrance. If I can get off my high horse and let go of my pride which insists on trying to prove how perfect I am, I can view my blunders as reminders of how much I need Jesus to save me.

Now, I’m not suggesting we should be flippant about how we hurt others or fail to worship God with all our soul, (The apostle Paul makes it pretty clear in Romans that grace is not a free ticket to do whatever we want) but I have found that in striving to accept the grace that Jesus and others offer when I fail makes it easier for me to actually learn from what I’ve done wrong.

Instead of my horror at my lack of perfection driving me to hide in shame, or trying to seek my own absolution by beating myself up for how terrible I am, I can be more focused on the ways that I have hurt others and Jesus, more concerned about them then any exposure of own imperfections. Accepting that mistakes and sin are opportunities to practice humility, to depend on Christ, make it easier for me to go to people when I have wronged them and be grieved by the wound I’ve caused. All this drives me to Jesus.

It’s tricky to both extol the grace that covers all my sin and at the same time strive to conquer my sin. It’s easy for me to either beat myself up over my mistakes or to view it as not a big deal because Jesus has paid for it all.

The past several months, I’ve struggled a lot with my binge eating again. And for a while, I was so convinced that I was finding something like life in over-eating that I did not want to change. I wanted to just sweep it under the rug because Jesus is so gracious.

But because Jesus is gracious, He began to show me how my binges ended up driving me away from Him. My decision to seek life in food instead of Jesus actual made it really hard for me to experience the grace I told myself I was living under by just eating however I wanted.

I realized that I need to learn from my mistake, my sin, of turning to food instead of Jesus.

Does that mean I’ve stopped bingeing? No. This past week in some ways has been worse than other weeks.

But as I’ve struggled this week with over-eating, sometimes successfully, often not, each time it’s a chance for me to reaffirm that I am not able to save myself. That’s something really needs to sink into my soul. And while I don’t want to purposely to show how desperate I am, God exposes my need of a Savior to me in the aftermath of my sin.

Another area of sin that God is using an opportunity to revel Himself to me in a deeper way is my anger towards Him. I struggle to trust God’s goodness, I doubt that He actually cares about me, and I have spent most of the last sixteen years of my life hurling accusations against Him, while at the same time desperately clinging to His grace and patience.

The last two and half years in particular, my anger and sometimes straight hatred of Him has given stark contrast to the fact that Jesus left the glory and grandeur of heaven to die for me, someone He knew would doubt Him again, and again, and again.

I wish that I had a greater faith in Jesus, that I could trust His goodness even when His sovereignty is hard and confusing. It’s something I pray about often and continually seek to grow in. But as frustrating (and sometimes infuriating) as my struggle with mistrust and suspicion of God is, it has become a reoccurring chance to remember that God is faithful even when I am not.

So as I go through life and seek to live in a way that honors Jesus and blesses others, I am trying to grow in the quick humility that recognizes sin, repents of it quickly, and embraces the reminders of my dependence on grace and God’s faithfulness.

What are mistakes? Opportunities: to learn, change, remember, lean on and magnify Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

Leaps and Bounds

First of all, I huge thank you to Athena Katherine who nominated me for the Versatile Blogger award. If you haven’t checked out her blog do so. She is a talented writer and has a lot to offer!

Getting a front row to seeing growth is one of the best things about my job. Last Friday we completed three out of our five summer camps. With each camp, I have gotten the thrill of watching my students (who I often refer to as my kids) working on scripts and characters for one to two weeks and then sharing that work with their family and friends.

With so little time, you’d think that not much gets accomplished. But sometimes growth happens in leaps and bounds. Often it happens unexpectedly. Students who I anticipated would struggle with a part proved me wrong by working hard to over their comfort zone or embarrassment. Kids we couldn’t hear from the front row on the first day could be heard from the back of the auditorium. Actors who have typically played it safe took a small role and ran with it.

Each week I have felt so much pride at their accomplishments, at all that they prove is possible with hard work. There are two more camps to go, and I know there’ll be much more to be proud of!

So thanks to all my kids who do the hard work of growing by leaps and bound and inviting me along for the ride. (And also to the staff and volunteers who make it possible!)

 

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“Holes” from June Camp
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“Mortification by Brocklehurst” from 1st July Camp
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“The Land of No Mistakes” from 2nd July Camp

 

 

 

 

The Impact of Art

Last Monday I got to speak at a homeschool conference about why art, in particular theatre, was important. Since one of the main things theatre has done for me was help me find myself, I wanted to share some of those thoughts here as well.

The impact that theatre has on my life goes way back, twenty years ago, when I was a withdrawn eight-year-old girl.

My older sister, Anna, was very theatrical. She was always acting. One year for a Christmas present, my parents signed both of us up for drama classes. I don’t remember much from that first class, but I do remember the recital.

Our drama instructor had put me in a scene (debating whether cats or dogs were better) and given me an Aesop fable to perform. The scene went fine, but the fable….

It was a lot of words for a shy, dyslexic girl to memorize and speak in front of a crowd of people. So many words in fact, that I wasn’t able to do it. So I performed it with script in hand, not at all disguised by the pretty paper we put on the back of it to look like a book.

Ashamed of my inability to memorize, I ran off stage crying before I had finished reading the fable. No moral for that tale.

After that day, I was certain I would never do theatre again. Obviously, I have since I now help run a theatre company. For one reason or another, I kept returning to it. Through the years of performing, I came out of my shell and found a confidence that I did not have.

Self-confidence is probably one of the most obvious ways that theatre can impact children’s lives.

But there are others. As an adult, when I think about why art is important to me it is not because of the confidence it brings, but because it is a mirror.

In Act 3 of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark says of acting “the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere a mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image and the very age and body of the time his form and presence.”

We use mirrors to see ourselves. We can’t get an accurate picture of our face without outside help. Art can be used to reflect a picture of our core being, our soul, our humanity. As I have been exposed to art in its many forms, I have found that can it challenge me, comfort me, affirm me, and give me hope.

I’ll start with a challenging example. I’ve talked about how I am working to change the subtle ways that I struggle with begin racist before. One thing that I did not immediately recognize when I first realized that I needed to repent of that sin was how dismissive I was of the extent of racism that minorities face today. It was easy to buy the line that the “mainstream media” was “exaggerating” things.

I gained a different perspective when I watched the movie “Dear White People”.

(As an aside, I have been upset by the controversy swirling around Netflix’s remake of it. Nothing about that movie was “anti-white”. Personally, I found it to be very fair and balanced. I fear those who feel like the movie was an attack, went in with the goal of being offended.)

The movie was a very eye-opening and disturbing look at how disrespected and diminished minorities are. In watching that movie, I had to wrestle with how easily I dismiss others pain “because I didn’t mean to offend them.” and realized that if I truly value a person, I am going to take their hurt seriously and do my undermost to understand that pain and seek to learn how to interact with them in ways that communicate respect and dignity.

 

Art can also provide great comfort. I’ve mentioned before how I lost a very good friend to suicide. In the first several months especially, I struggled with so many emotions that I didn’t know what to do with them, and I often pushed them aside and ignored them.

A few months in, I got to watch a one-act based off of a Greek play, “The Trojan Women”. In it, a mother is grieving the loss of her family and home. As I watched the actors go from tears to cold horror to screams of pain, I thought about my loss.

The tragedy of the play took on my tragedy. I found such comfort in seeing the tears that at the time I could not weep reflected back to me.

I found such comfort in seeing the tears that at the time I could not weep reflected back to me.

Art can also be a great affirmation of the beauty and hope that is in the world. The other weekend, I went to see the “Last Days of Judas Iscariot” performed by Northampton Community College. In the final scene, Jesus travels to hell to visit Judas whose appeal for release has been denied. Jesus goes to reassure Judas of His love for him, to offer him a way out if he would only take Jesus’ hands.

But Judas refuses. He instead accuses Jesus of abandoning him to his fate and literally spits on His face, screaming and swearing at Him to leave.

There’s a lot going on there to think about, but as I watched this struggle between the characters, I thought of my own relationship to Jesus and how I often scorn His love and help because I feel that He has abandoned me to my fate. When the character of Jesus was affirming His love for Judas, it reminded me of HIs love for me

When the character of Jesus was affirming His love for Judas, it reminded me of HIs love for me and His continual offer to free me from my doubt and bitterness that I struggle with if I would but accept His love and take His hands.

It was amazing to watch because though it looks different, I betray Jesus all the time. Yet He still loves me. He died for me. And He comes to me in my darkness to rescue me.

The reflective nature of art is why I think it is so important. It is why I wanted to keep my theatre going after my older sister stepped down. I want to invite others to have their own experience of seeing themselves more accurately because of a show, or a drawing. I want to encourage others to wrestle with the beauty and pain of life that we can often push aside.

Art often gets dismissed as unnecessary, an extra activity that can be removed if there is a lack of money or time. I strongly disagree. I know everyone is different, but in my life, art has been one of the most powerful tools to help me bloom into the person God made me, either in giving me confidence or giving me understanding.

Have you had similar experiences with art? What about it is important to you?

 

 

Uprooted

“There’s no place like home.” – Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz

I’ve never been a huge fan of The Wizard of Oz, but that statement has always run true for me. I’ve been a homebody all my life. There is something about home. Here I mean more the feeling, the sense of security and belonging, of home than a physical house.

Over the past four months, my idea of home, security, and belonging has shifted. To help process it all, I’ve been compiling a Spotify playlist which acknowledges one or more of the myriad of emotions that I’ve been struggling with. One of those is “Lost at Sea” by Jimmy Needham. There’s one line in particular that I belt out with him.

(The whole verse is so good, I’m going to quote all of it.)

Ride the wave, wave goodbye, by the way did I mention today
That I don’t know the way home
So could you take me by the hand and lead me to the dryer land
So I can finally breathe again instead of sinking like a stone
And now I will diligently and not religiously but affectionately come
Before the throne of your grace in this place and seek your face
For all eternity and then some
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“Reaching”. Carving. 2008.

 

Sometimes, the home there is earthly; sometimes it is a longing for the heavenly one. Either way, this song captures so well how lost it can feel to navigate a difficult time. The last month I haven’t been able to blog because of the upheaval of my life.

One of my more recent posts was about the process of pruning that sometimes happens in our lives. In the last month, in particular, I have felt that a more accurate description of my life right now would be being uprooted.

Or being uprooted and pruned at the same time.

(I take great pleasure and pride in my ability to be melodramatic.)

As I’ve been trying to settle into my new normal, the idea of putting down roots has been often been on my mind. I think the typical process involves becoming sure in your place, joining a community, and impacting your sphere of influence. For me, I have been realizing the need to put down roots in something more stable and lasting than any of those things.

I need to be rooted in Jesus.

The cynic in me shouts that that is not as simple as typing seven relatively short words.

It’s not. But I believe that it is the only hope I have in this world and the next.

What does it look like to be rooted in Jesus? For me, it is the cross and the empty tomb. Two years ago, when my mentor killed herself, I nearly gave up on following God, but Jesus kept putting the cross in my way.

One of my many struggles as a Christian has been the issue of God’s sovereignty in the face of evil and suffering. I like to describe my relationship to Jesus as a wrestling match because I feel like I am always fighting for the right to run my life my way.

When my friend died, I could not understand how God could abandon her to such a dark place when He said He loved her.

God never really answered that question. Instead, He pointed me to the Cross.

If anyone has been uprooted, it was Jesus. God became man, transplanted from the glories and splendor of heaven to the squalor of grief of earth. God the Son came to bring restoration to the world. The cost of restoration was His death.

On the cross, an innocent man hung in a criminal’s place. More than that, Emmanuel, God with us, died in my place, taking the punishment of my sins.

It is a horrific scene, an evil scene, an unjust scene, a scene that has Jesus calling out “My God, my God, why did you abandon Me?”

(If anyone had the right to ask God the Father that question, it was His Son.)

But the cross is also a beautiful scene, a scene of love, the place where mercy and justice kiss, a scene that allows God to pull us in His embrace.

That moment in history is one of the greatest clashes of all time. Horror and beauty. Evil and love. Justice and mercy.

And God ordained it all. He ordained it so that He could rescue me.

I wish that truth impacted me more emotionally. Maybe I’m too tired. Maybe I’m still struggling too much with believing in His goodness. But regardless of my emotions, the cross keeps me clinging to Jesus, allowing Him to take me along life’s journey (or even carry or straight up drag me at times.)

If the Trinity had devised a means of saving humanity that did not weave together the allowance of evil and the victory of love, I don’t know if I could even attempt to trust Jesus.

As I look to Good Friday and think about how Jesus was uprooted for me, as I get overwhelmed by the waves that crash around me, as I feel lost and uncertain of where I belong, I take a deep breath and pray “Jesus, restorer of my soul, help me to find my home in You.”

I’ve lost a lot in the last four months. But not as much as Jesus gave up to be able to “prepare a home” for me. Why did God need to make me feel like I was “Lost at Sea”? Only He knows, but I am striving to believe that no matter how dark the situation seems, love is in, underneath, and around all of it.

Some of it is a matter of perspective. Some of it is a matter of trusting that no matter what God might take away from me in this life, I will always have my home in Jesus, and everything else is inconsequential compared to the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.

Is it easy to believe and trust? I really wish I could say, but that would be a lie. I think sometimes, Christians feel like we have to make it seem like being a Christian is a breeze, but it’s not. At least not in my experience. Paul the apostle compared it to a race, a fight, a war.

I like to compare it to a wrestling match.

One that I know Jesus will win. Because he loves me, even when I don’t love Him. Because He died and rose again and is coming back for me one day to take me Home.

Slow and Steady

Time for a writing update! In the midst of the difficulties and upheaval of feeling like God is taking sheers to my life and pruning every branch of my life, I’ve been trying to press on in my writing.

I had quite lofty goals: finish the first draft of Mercy and Justice by the end of 2016, polish Chrysalis by February 28th, query Chrysalis in March, in addition to revising my three plays and work on writing a new one.

Sometimes my ambitions are…rather ambitious.

Especially when I am going through a hard season.

I’ve had to drastically scale back my expectations of my writing output. For the past few months it’s been easier to draw than to write, and since I couldn’t get the “correct” word count in per day, I gave up on it entirely for a time.

Until someone encouraged me to do small steps. Instead of expecting to write 1,000 words each day, I bumped it back to 100. I did that for a time and then bumped it up to 400. It’s slow but it’s steady work.

Over the last couple of weeks of writing 400 words, I’ve finally crept past the 90K mark for Mercy and Justice, leaving me with less than 20K words to go. It’s taken a while, but I feel like I can see the finish line.

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This would not have happened if I kept pushing myself to do 1,000 words each day. The number was too daunting for where I am right now. I may have written at that word count in the past, but it is not doable for me at this moment.

I’ve learned that even though I’m writing fewer words in a session, I am getting more done by consistently pecking away than I would if I kept trying, and failing, to write more. This way, I don’t burn out, don’t feel guilty, and I enjoy (usually anyway) the 20 – 40 minutes it takes to get the words out.

Somedays 400 words become 900 or even 1,500! Yesterday I didn’t wasn’t able to get the words in, and I was exhausted, so I didn’t push myself to write because I had gotten enough words down on Saturday to make up for it. Today I’m excited to get back to it. Maybe I’ll stop at my quota, maybe I’ll get more down. Either way, I will be 400 words closer to “The End.”

Sometimes, slow and steady is the only way to press on.

 

Surviving Pruning

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They say pruning is good for the health of the plant. I bet the plant feels differently.

Despite the glamorous alternate reality that is sometimes hailed as possible from the big and small screens, the truth is that life is hard. I find myself remembering the words of the great Dread Pirate Roberts:

Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something. – From The Princess Bride

Not that life is only pain. Far from it. But there are definite periods where it seems like the only reason you know you are still alive is the pain. People, especially those in religious communities, call these periods by different names.  The last several months as I’ve been going through a painful phase of my life, I’ve been thinking of it as pruning.

When I repurposed my blog I decided to focus on encouraging others to pursue blooming in all areas of their life. Unfortunately, in order to promote the growth of new blooms you’ve gotta prune.

Why? It helps prevent disease, allowing for better circulation which reduces the risk of black spots and powdery mildew. Things we’d all like to avoid.

It’s easy to justify the need to cut dead and diseased branches off a rose bush. The need for drastic action is clear to us. It’s harder to understand when life cuts something, or many things, from your life.

I know for many Christians, the belief in God’s sovereignty is a constant source of encouragement. For me, the doctrine of His sovereign will and care is more a mixture of confusion and comfort. Sometimes the one is stronger than the other.

Even though I know in my mind, and often believe in my heart, that God is using the pain He has allowed and/or brought into my life for good, I can’t help but ask the questions:

Isn’t there another way? Couldn’t you bring out about whatever good you are working to accomplish with something less difficult? Or maybe even something pleasant?

I got reminded by my brother that Jesus asked similar questions of God before He went to the cross.

Holy week I plan on writing a blog post devoted to the importance of the Cross in my faith, but here’s a sneak peak:

God told Jesus “No” in order to recuse us because He loved us. A “Yes” would have meant ease for Jesus but judgment for us. Knowing that God has used great suffering to bring about immense good in the past helps me trust that when He says “No” to me, He has my good in mind, even if it doesn’t look like it.

Why is pruning necessary? Isn’t there another way one could promote growth?

I don’t have solid answers, but I have experience. While pruning is far from fun, I’ve seen how it has shaped me. It’s much easier to say when the experience is past and you’re basking in the glow of new growth.

It’s harder when you are in the midst of things. If you’re anything like me, it’s especially hard when it seems like everyone else around you is flourishing.

With this pruning session, I’ve been finding myself asking less of “Why did You let this happen?” and more of “How do I survive this?” These are some of the things I’ve learned from family, friends, and counselors.

1) Reject labels

It’s easy to feel as though my particular struggle is written on a sticky note and posted to my forehead, demanding attention every moment from everyone I interact with. And while some of my well-meaning friends are tempted to operate that way, for the most part, my community has encouraged me to remember I am more than what I am struggling with.

It’s taken a while to believe that, and while there are still times when I feel like all I can focus on is which branches God is cutting back, I’ve had days when I’ve been able to focus on areas that are particularly strong right now, like my desire to draw.

2) Take the work of recovery seriously

The last several months have been very difficult for me and the process of working through things has brought about a period of depression. Since I struggle with putting my identity in how much I accomplish in a day, it’s been very discouraging to experience weeks where I feel like I get nothing done, or to consider a “good” day when I get a couple solid hours of work in.

My depressive episodes are better or worse depending on my to-do list. This can cause massive spirals if I am feeling down and then have a less than productive (by my somewhat excessive standards) day.

The other week my counselor told me that recovery is work. I’m not a master gardener (or really any kind of gardener) but from what I understand, rosebushes typically don’t get pruned when they are in the height of blooming. They are cut back when they are finished with their season and can rest, get stronger and grow.

Even though they aren’t producing buds or blooms, they are still working.

In periods of sorrow, trials, and difficulty, sometimes the greatest thing you can accomplish in the day is pressing on. That takes work and tenacity and is being productive. I don’t need to compare myself to what I was able to get done before or to what others are accomplishing now. With God’s help, I can push myself to do what I need to do and trust Him enough with everything else if I need to spend my time journaling, or resting, or talking.

3) Live moment by moment

Try as I might, as I gaze into the future and try to plan my life or guess at how the issues I am facing will resolve themselves, I cannot know how God is going to shape me.

That often frustrates me. I wish God would just tell me: “This is what life is going to look like. This is how I am going to bring something beautiful out of this pain.” But He doesn’t.

That gives me two options: I can worry and fret, or I can trust Jesus with my future and focus on one day at a time.

This is probably the one I’m struggling with the most right now. I am a fast results gal. Waiting around is not my style. What I’m learning, and trying to remember, is that I don’t have to wait around. Even in the face of uncertainty, I can be proactive throughout my days by focusing on what I need or want to get done that day, living moment by moment instead of getting lost in the face of the unknown.

When I do that, I get writing and drawing done, compose e-mails and grants, read books and take naps, or some combination depending on my energy. The amount of writing, e-mailing, and reading is still less than what my peak was before, but at least I’m still making progress, instead of wallowing in worry.

4) Encouragement from others is vital

My sister has written a very honestly about mental illness on her blog The Doctor DancesShe has been such an encouragement to me. In particular, she pointed me to this TED Talk video “How to get stuff done when you are depressed”. I’ve never met this lady, but listening to her speak was extremely helpful in figuring out how to even attempt to function at this difficult time.

I strongly recommend it.

Whether it comes from a youtube video, a sister, or close friends, getting support and encouragement from others is vital.

5) Pruning as a way of thriving

As I said, I don’t really know why God chooses to allow difficulty to come into our lives to teach us things. The typical reasons don’t satisfy me. But I am trying to embrace the reality that pruning is a good thing, even if it hurts.

Even if I don’t understand it, I can survive it, and with God’s help, I will even thrive in it.

I hope that this post is an encouragement to you if you are in the midst of difficulty and feeling overwhelmed by it. None of these lessons have changed my situation, but they have helped to change my mindset and attitude which has made the pruning more bearable.

Here’s to when spring (or summer, depending on the variety of rose) comes in its fullness and brings us back to a season of blooms!

 

 

It Fades but never Passes

IMG_0922
“Judy” Drawn in 2015 as part of my grieving process.

Grief.

It leaves a permanent mark on you. But I no longer think that’s a bad thing.

(Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire persuaded me that it was okay)

Wednesday will mark two years since the death of my good friend Judy. As the days have slowly crept towards her anniversary, she has often been on my mind. The crawl to February 22nd has been both weightier and lighter than last year. Lighter because I do not dread it with the anticipation that plagued me for her first anniversary. Weightier because I miss her so much more.

There have been a lot of songs, and poems, quotes, and scripture passages that have helped me cope over the last two years. Here are some of my favorites.

From Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire

Becca: Mom? Does it go away?
Nat: What?
Becca: This feeling. Does it every go away?
Nat: No. I don’t think it does. Not for me, it hasn’t. And that’s goin’ on eleven years. It changes though.
Becca: How?
Nat: I don’t know. The weight of it, I guess. At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out from under. And carry around – like a brick in your pocket. And you forget it every once in awhile, but then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is: “Oh right. That.” Which can be awful. But not all the time. Sometimes it’s kinda… Not that you like it exactly, but it’s what you have instead of your son, so you don’t wanna let go of it either. So you carry it around. And it doesn’t go away, which is…
Becca: What?
Nat: Fine… actually.

“Playing Hard to Get” by Rich Mullins

You who live in Heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt

Do you remember when You lived down here?
Where we all scrape to find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away?
Well I memorized every word You said

Still I’m so scared, I’m holding my breath
While You’re up there just playing hard to get

You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that’s not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then

Did You ever know loneliness, did You ever know need?
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on and Your friends fall asleep
And don’t see the blood that’s running in Your sweat

Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You’re up there just playing hard to get?

And I know You bore our sorrows
And I know You feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained

And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow
All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can’t see what’s ahead
And we can not get free of what we’ve left behind
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret

I can’t see how You’re leading me unless You’ve led me here
Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led
And so You’ve been here all along I guess
It’s just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get

*Lamentations 3:31-33 

31 For the Lord will not reject forever,
32 For if He causes grief,
Then He will have compassion
According to His abundant lovingkindness.
33 For He does not afflict [j]willingly
Or grieve the sons of men.

*Really the whole chapter but it would be far too long for a blog post, but I strongly recommend you read it in its entirety.

If you are in a period of grief, I know something of your pain. I hope the above selections are a comfort to you as they have been for me.

The Danger of Pressure

20170205_12075122This is my first blog post written in a hospital. Last week, I wrote about my slow processing of learning that there is a lot of value to taking things slow and easy, working in layers and steps instead of pushing to get to the final product all at once.

That idea is being reinforced with hospitalization.

Last Wednesday I got to take a boxing class. For those of you who know about my quest to find appropriate expressions for competitive aggression, my desire to take up boxing will not surprise you. It was glorious. The instructor was very intense, pushing us all with an extreme workout that lasted an hour, with me nearly throwing up at the end, and leaving me with extremely numb arms.

I was the only girl there that day, and even though I had determined before the class started that I was not going to try to prove myself–after all, I was there to learn, not impress–I still gave my all.

Several days later, both of my arms are swollen, my right one very much so. Saturday night I finally went to the ER for what I assumed would be a quick visit to confirm that everything was okay and maybe the dispensing of some muscle relaxants.

I laughed when they told me I had to get admitted to the hospital. The overuse caused some kind of toxins to rise in my blood and they wanted to keep me overnight for observation while they flushed my system.

The ER doctor asked me if I was “hardcore”. I answered, of course, yes.

I didn’t realize it during the boxing class, although maybe the numbness in my arms should have given me a clue, but I was putting too much pressure on my body. I was working too hard, not giving my muscles time to adjust to a kind of workout that it wasn’t used to.

And that’s the danger of pressure. When you want to be Superwoman, it can be easy to push through or push harder and not realize when we need to lighten up or to just be patient with ourselves!

So here I am, in the hospital, on night two of trying to clean out my system. I’m thankful that God designed our bodies to have warning signs for problems and for the good and kind care. Now, I’m hoping that I will remember that too much pressure can be a bad thing, in drawing, in exercise, in everything.

My Mom tells me my motto needs to be: Be Kind to Yourself!

So to me and to you who are reading, let’s try to be kind to ourselves and ease up the pressure so we can avoid its dangers!