Needing the sun

I love my community and usually wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world – except that between November and February, it is so grey, damp and dreary here.

We react physically in our family and we tend to end up under a dark cloud emotionally too. If hibernation was an option, we’d climb into a blanket cave and come out when the sun is back in the sky. That’s not an option sadly, and so we muddle through.

This year we bought a special “happy light” – one that mimics the sun and is supposed to help our bodies get through when we are stuck in the darkness. The light is designed to be like a burst of sun – and to restore us physically, combat seasonal depression and give us physical energy. It’s a lot to expect from a little light!

There was a lovely, unmistakable juxtaposition tonight between our lit Advent wreath and our “happy light” shining on the table.

Jesus comes to be light in the midst of the worst of the world’s darkness. To restore us, give us life and meet our needs. My word, do I ever need a burst of the son this year.

Ready or not…

I always have big plans for the start of the Christmas season – despite all logic and evidence to the contrary, I somehow expect at this busy time of the year, to be more organized, more energized and totally on top of the kinds of details that typically escape me. Suddenly, because Christmas is coming we should have a cleaner house, a more organized schedule, and clothes that match – and be in a festive happy mood to boot!

As you can imagine, it never works out quite the way I plan. Despite all my best intentions, our house is still crazy, our schedules still keep us running at full speed and we couldn’t coordinate unified family Christmas outfits if we wanted to (which most of us don’t!). And, amidst all the hallmark movie expectations of holiday happiness, I grow frustrated, weary and disheartened at the very time I most want to be joyful, inspired and excited.

Advent started today… and this is often where my own unmet/unrealistic expectations and the frustrations of the season have their annual awkward first date. Ironically, its the very themes of advent – hope, peace, love and joy – that I tend to lose. So, I’m done trying to make our advent, and our Christmas season anything different than it is. Us. Just as we are. Not waiting for things to be perfect, or exactly right, or Hallmark worthy. Just the real us, celebrating in the midst our real life reality, with our real budgets, schedules, and limitations.

For the record, my house isn’t Christmas ready – and neither is my heart. That’s why I need a real advent season to prepare my heart for what’s to come.

Ready or not, advent is here – and we DO have much to celebrate. So, tonight, the advent wreath is out, and the two of us that were home lit the candle of hope. Our imperfectly beautiful advent has begun.

From emotional jello to functional human being in five (not-so-easy) steps…

I recently got hit with some news that threw me for a loop – it required logistical decision making, planning and action. Only one problem… any thought of it, mention of it, or attempt to move forward turned me into weepy emotional jello. It took a few days to realize that I had to separate any attempts to actually move forward into two catagories – heart issues and logistical issues. Sounds very neat, tidy and logical, right?

I mentioned to a friend that I really needed to deal with and get past the heart issues before I got into any of the logistics, and she looked at me kind of funny and asked how exactly I do that. I’ve never really attempted to articulate my emotional approach to functional life before, but exciting news – I do have one and it works for me!

Now, I am no expert. I’m not a counselor. I’m not a life coach. I am just an often overwhelmed, frustrated and sad single mom, who wants to be a functional human being. I want my life be more about joy than despair. I’ve seen several counsellors, I’ve read lots of books and I’ve consumed lots of chocolate and what I’ve realized is that I actually have developed a personal “system” that feels natural to me.

I’m thinking this might be helpful to someone out there who is stuck in the emotional garbage and thinks they have to stay that way… So, I’m doing my best to articulate the “Nellie’s 5 step system to move from emotional jello into functional human being” out into cyberspace in hopes it actually does resonate and help someone else.

(I already mentioned, I’m not a counselor and this is not professional advice, if you need to see a professional… please, please, please go see one! It can really help!)

STEP ONE – Wallow a little.

OK, so seriously, that sounds bad, I know. But, personally, I need to feel what I feel and sit with it for a little while. Not for long. But, for a time, I need to stay with whatever feelings I’m feeling. I need to give them space and room to overwhelm me a little and take me on whatever emotional bunny trails I need to be lead down to really understand what is making me upset.

I would love to tell you that I go to my favourite coffee shop and order something lovely, and sit with a beautiful journal and write out and deeply explore my thoughts. More typically, a thought cross my mind while I’m driving or doing laundry and it makes me mad or sad or angry and I pay attention to it and follow it, which tends to make me look like a crazy person with random bursts of tears or slammed washing machine doors or inexpiable consumption of ice cream…

STEP TWO – Get out the label maker.

Maybe, don’t literally make labels! For me to have any hope of moving forward, I need to actually stop (or take breaks from) my wallowing and label what I’m feeling. Am I angry? Am I scared? Am I jealous. Am I overwhelmed, frustrated, weary, sad? Does what’s happening now seem so incredibly unfair that I can hardly breath? Am I so weary that I want to climb into a coffee cup and stay there?

I need to intentionally do this. If I don’t then I’m probably going to stay wallowing and my emotions will completely consume me. This might not be true for you, but sweetie, its true for me!

This might be where that journal comes in, but for me its probably never going to be in a coffee shop. I don’t process emotions well in public! This is where I’m very blessed by drive thru coffee shops with large parking lots!

I’m likely to go for a very, very long drive and ugly cry while I talk myself through what’s really in my heart. Or just have it hit me in the small windows of time where I’m alone (I need to function in the midst of processing – I still need to go to work, feed my family, and do my laundry!)

I’ll probably rotate back to wallowing a few times through this step, and visit self-justification and pity too! I’m trying to make this into logical steps, but there’s definitely an ebb and flow here. And nothing I do is naturally neat and tidy anyway, so why would I suddenly expect my emotional processing to be!

This is also where I might talk to a friend about it. For me, I probably won’t actually “talk” in the early stages – it’ll be an email or a text to a friend, so they can’t see or hear me cry or curse.There is a rumour going around my church that I don’t know how to ugly cry – clearly no one has put a hidden camera in my car, bedroom or shower… just saying, we don’t all process emotions well with an audience! So, don’t assume that person who has it all (or mostly) together didn’t cry the whole way home in their car. Just sayin!

A word of caution about processing with an audience, if you are somewhere in the midst of this wallowing/labeling process… Sharing with friends can be very helpful, but just DON’T MAKE IT A FACEBOOK POST while you are still an emotional mess – that’s generally a very, very bad idea!

STEP THREE – Own it and make your decision

For me, this is the point where I get to chose. Am I going to wallow in self-pity, harbour bitterness or let unhappiness take root in me? Or, am I going to call it what it is and reject it. Now, a point of clarification. I’m not suggesting that my feelings aren’t valid or that they haven’t been well earned or deserved! I can almost always justify my feelings, and you can probably even affirm me for feeling them.

My life is hard. I am weary. This isn’t fair.  So, hear me well… many of my feelings are legitimate. And, I’ve had enough feeling spin out of control and take me bad places, that I know not ALL my feelings are true. Sometimes feelings lie and sometimes they can’t be trusted. That’s part of why I need to sit with them. But, I also need to own what I’m feeling and make a choice. I don’t want to keep feeling like this!

Now, it’s important to note that I am a Christian. I deeply believe that God is real, Christ loves me deeply and his holy spirit dwells in me and wants my best. SO, I’ve got serious help with this! I can immediately start owning these things in prayer. I can say “God, I am tired of all of this. I’m hurting so deeply. I’m angry and frustrated and overwhelmed. I just want… I just need… I’m ready to quit on…” This is where I pour it out. Often this it the time when I do grab a journal. I write out my prayers – because I’m forgetful and I might need to re-read them to remind myself what I rejected, turned over to God and asked for help with.

STEP FOUR – Repent (EEK!)

Hard word, I know… But, almost always, in almost every situation, there is something that’s my part of the problem. If it’s legitimate, I’ve gotta own that too! Sometimes, I need to confess that I’ve given bitterness a place to take root in my mind. I need to say outloud that I’ve got jealousy in my heart. I need to ask for forgiveness and reject those things as sin myself.

I tend to write those things out in the same prayers. It’s both humbling and freeing – and if it’s in writing, I can go back and read it over and remind myself to reject those same behaviours and habits when they creep back in the next day, or the next week. I’m a bit of a creature of habit. If I let bitterness be a habit, I’m going to have to fight hard to stay free of it! If I seek comfort in self-pity, I’m going to have to stand on guard against that too!

STEP FIVE – Stamp some truth on it

OK, so as I’m writing this I realize how non-sequential this particular step might be. I need to have truth be my go-to source to combat my emotional roller-coaster rides. So, often I need to grab hold of a Bible verse or two (or six) at some point in any given situation – and really, the earlier that happens the better.

In my most recent situation, I was still a wallowing emotional mess when God brought a scripture to mind and that was the piece that helped move me from wallowing to labeling and owning it. Other times, it’s the scriptures that I’m reading or wrestling with that I grab hold of when writing out my prayer and reaching for repentance. So, darn it, my neat formula isn’t quite as neat as I thought!

However, I’m keeping this as the last step for now, because if it hasn’t happened naturally already – don’t finish off without it. You need to grab hold of some truth before you close this door. Bible verses are a great go-to, but realize that truth can be communicated in many forms.

You might be so wound up that its hard to hear, hold or be confident in truth. That’s when asking a mentor, pastor, or counselor might be your very, very best decision. Don’t be afraid to seek the help you need. You might just need a friend’s affirmation. If you are struggling with finding your own value, truth might look like a friend reminding you how much you are loved. You might need to directly ask a friend to speak into your situation, or it might be that you save notes or cards or emails over the years and look back at what’s already been said. If you feel incompetent, it might be making a list of all the things you actually are good at. Sometimes it might be writing a list of all the things you are thankful for or getting out in the fresh air and looking for signs of joy or hope…

For me, the most powerful thing is definitely God’s word. I’d love to have it so entrenched in my heart and mind that the verses just pop up, but I’m often googling “verses for when you are…” and then I see where God and google lead me.

As I mentioned already – I’m not a counselor or a life coach. I’m no professional. If you need professional help to deal with the emotions you are experiencing, then by all means, SEEK IT! I’m not suggesting that this is a system that will work for every situation or every individual, I’m just sharing what works for me and praying that for someone out there, this might help them too!

This is my story, this is my song

I love those moments where God shows up, where something just can’t be coincidence and where I am left assured and reassured that God really is the God who sees me, who knows me and who loves me… That happened this weekend, but it’s going to be a longer kind of post to explain it… if you are curious though, and willing to read awhile, I’m happy to share the story with you.

I have been divorced a lot of years! My divorce did a number on my mind – it made me question my value, created incredible insecurity and gave me lots of windows to question how on earth I could still fit into my traditional, marriage-honouring church family (and how my kids could possibly fit too).

I have always processed better and heard things better when they fit with music, as opposed to straight reading of text, and in those early years of questioning, I seemed to hear much better from really old music and found incredible comfort and reassurance and truth in old hymns. (Seriously, the list of hymns that I could write similar posts about is LONG! Don’t get me started…)

One of the songs that really spoke deeply to me in those really hard early years was “Blessed Assurance” and I don’t think I have sung it in a corporate worship service at all, but thanks to my old hymn book collection and the joy of the internet, I haven’t needed to sing it with anyone else to have it be a core part of my private worship times.

The most meaningful piece of that song to me is the chorus “This is my story, this is my song, praising my saviour all the day long.” Over the years I have realized the most powerful thing I can bring to my church family is just that – MY story and MY song are different than anyone else’s in that place. God has shown me just how beautiful MY story and MY song are because of how he has used them.

I hadn’t sung that song in a good long time, and a Youtube version of it popped up on my facebook newsfeed on Friday – got seriously stuck in my head. I was singing it so loudly in the hotel room that one of my kids asked me to keep it down, and I shared the video on my facebook feed saying, “It’s ALWAYS a Blessed Assurance kind of day.” In my world, that’s true.

The very next morning, I went to register my daughter for the kids program at the Margins Conference we are attending. Now, I think one of the main things that drew me to work so hard, and save so much to scrape it together to be at this conference was the concept of training and studying about doing ministry on the margins – my single mom status having caused me to feel like I’ve been the poster person for ministry on the margins of the church itself in the past few years…. Want to feel like you are marginalized within the church, try being a single mom in ministry, but… I digress…

ANYWAY, we are here in Toronto at a national conference filled quite literally with mostly pastors and church leaders, and I went down to register my youngest daughter for the kids program. Somehow, she was registered for the program using my last name instead of hers, so the name I gave and the name in the system didn’t match. It wasn’t a big deal, it was just an administrative glitch, we dealt with it and moved on, and I wasn’t treated poorly in anyway, yet as I turned to go upstairs, it was like the emotional scab had been disturbed, and the mental questioning began – I wonder if she’s the only one down there with a different name than her mother… am I the only single mom in this whole place… does it make her sad to have a different last name than me … is she going to feel out of place… am I out of place… why are we even here?

Five years ago, that would have rendered me an emotional disaster, but yesterday it just tweaked a nerve which I determined wasn’t worth nursing further. I knew that if I nursed the insecurity, it would grow like a weed, and so I intentionally stopped myself from going there! But, none the less, the nerve had been tweaked!

I shelved all those thoughts, and walked into the conference centre. My tweaked nerve did, perhaps, cause me to notice immediately all the married couples worshiping together… Again, I wasn’t rendered a mess, but I was much more aware of my fit (or perhaps, my lack of fit!)

Ever wonder if God is really speaking? Well, I almost fell off my chair when the band started playing Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine… I’m going to tell you that I believe without a doubt that all of those pieces together weren’t coincidental. When the chorus came up – “this is MY story, this is MY song, praising my saviour all the day long” – God was reminding me that even in this place, I needed to live my own story, and sing my own song.

My story really is about His glory. And, in this world where people really need some good news, the fact that God can take a divorced single mom, and make her life and her family about His glory, well, that actually is good news. And, I perhaps needed a reminder of that.

Waiting not…

Ever have words jump off a page, or leap out of a song, and stop you mid-thought. Words that could cut through logical reasoning, self-justification or momentary chaos and imprint deeply enough on your brain or your heart to actually generate change?

One day, I was driving with an old hymn CD playing, quite literally as background noise, and I found myself completely drawn into the song “Just As I Am” – the second verse knocked me right over the head with truth. Charlotte Elliott wrote the words “Just as I am, and waiting not, to rid my soul of one dark blot. To thee whose blood can cleanse each spot. Oh Lamb of God, I come, I come.”

Immediately, it hit me, that God actually, honestly and truly, was wanting me exactly as I am today, like literally right now – to come to Him, to live for Him, to do stuff for Him – now… not later. I am always feeling stressed or guilty over what isn’t done in my life or what isn’t how I’d like it to be… And, as a busy mom and a bit of a scattered thinker, there are ALWAYS things that aren’t done, and there are always things I want to do differently, do better, or change completely.

If I wait until I have myself together, my to do list is completely under control, my month’s meals fully planned, my house exactly how I want it to be, my laundry done, or my car fully paid off and my finances completely under control to actually start doing the things I think God is calling me to do, I will wait so long that I’ve missed it! And that, will be sad.

So, my new plan… is to be completely ready and content just as I am… Stressed, frazzled, weary, worn or whatever. To quote Popeye – “I am what I am and that’s all that I am!” I want to own that, be content with that, and not buy into the desire to wait to come, fully to the table, until I clean up all my own dark blots. Its definitely high time to start waiting not!