Sunday, November 10, 2013

Live for More

Last Sunday my church started a sermon series called Live for More. The first week was about volunteering, and they're encouraging people to interact via social media. Well, I decided that I have a whole lot to share, so I decided to write down some of my experiences (photos thrown in for good measure). You might want to grab some popcorn, because I am not a succinct storyteller.

I am something of a life-long church volunteer. I grew up attending church, and even as a kid I spent time volunteering.  When I was in college, I slacked off on church attendance quite a bit, but I had a lovely year when I volunteered for a Wednesday night kids' ministry (where at least twice I painted my hair as a reward for the team with the most points).

In my fourth year of college, I was diagnosed with major depression. Life was pretty awful for me for quite awhile. I had to leave school before I graduated, and I spent almost a year feeling pretty bitter towards God. The people who hurt me the most, who treated me like I was not worth much, were people who said they loved Jesus and made their lives about him, and it made everything feel confusing and painful. Towards the end of the summer of 2009 (the year after I left school), I realized how lonely I was. I had never really made friends outside of church or school, so I decided maybe it was time to give church a chance again. I had tried two different churches without finding the right fit when a friend recommended that I try Substance Church.

I remember how nervous I was that first Sunday. I had given myself a week to work up to it. I checked out the website, looked at a map to make sure I knew where to go and where the parking options were. Trying new things by myself when I know there will be a bunch of people is really hard for me. As I drove onto the Northwestern campus, I was greeted by the parking team. Oh, the parking team! At the other churches I had visited, I didn't know where to park or where to go once I got inside the building. At Substance, there were these crazy joyful people waving bright orange flags guiding me to a spot. When I parked my car, I sat for a moment fighting back tears. I hadn't even set foot in the church yet, and I knew there was a joy here that was unlike any church I'd attended before.

Substance has been my church home ever since that first Sunday. I spent my first few months attending lots of subgroups, trying to find friends even though all of the newness was so uncomfortable for me. In early 2010, I decided I was finally ready to volunteer. I was a little wary, but knowing that I wouldn't have to do it every week and that I could stop if I needed to, I took the plunge. Because of the impact my first visit had on me, I had no doubts that I wanted to join the parking team. I helped out on the last Sunday that Northwestern had only one service, and the next week when we jumped to two services, I began a three-and-half-year journey on the 1st service red team, part of that time as the team lead.

During the summer of 2010, I made a few connections during a volunteer party and found myself connected with someone who was running lighting. I started training for the media team, and for years I planned my schedule around the Sundays when I was either parking or running lighting (sometimes both in one day). I still run lighting regularly for Northwestern, The Well, and for other things like Deeper or Family Fun Night on occasion.

Being a volunteer has drastically changed my experience at Substance, and really my entire life. I feel such ownership; Substance is MY church. I know the staff, the pastors, the interns. I get up earlier on Sundays than I do for work on Mondays, and I'm OK with that. Best of all is the relationships I have made. The people volunteering with me are not just fellow volunteers or church members. They are my friends. They are people who have shown me grace when I have failed spectacularly. They are the people who encourage me when depression makes it seem like there is nothing good in the world. They pray for me when my faith is failing. In the past six months alone I have experienced support from so many of my friends when my car broke down, and they rejoiced with me like crazy when God provided a way to replace it.

Since my depression diagnosis in college, my life cycles through periods of normalcy and periods of bleakness. I think it can be hard for people without depression to understand how inaccessible God can seem when you're in the middle of a dark pit. My friends stick by me even when I'm doubting or angry. I am part of a community that wants health and wholeness but appreciates how complicated the journey to get there can be. I'm in one of those hard times now, and the late-night texts and conversations give me the strength to keep going. I find joy in putting aside the pain that I feel and serving others, even if only for a few hours a week. Volunteering keeps me connected with my friends, but also reminds me to look outside of myself, to try to keep perspective on the bigger picture of the Kingdom of God.

I think what happened at church this morning sums up how being a volunteer has made my life more than just going through the motions. I volunteered to park this morning, and when we were done, the four of us stayed backstage talking for the rest of the service. We talked about really deep things, shared parts of ourselves that we probably don't share with just anyone. And the only reason we even met each other was because of volunteering. Between services I went up to the media booth to say hi to my friends. I mentioned that I hadn't actually attended first service but wasn't sure I was going to stay for the second service, and someone joked about how me coming up to the media booth was church for me. It really is, in a way. In my time volunteering at Substance, I have made friends who make my life richer. These people value me, they assure me that they do not define me by my mistakes, and they appreciate having me be part of the team. The people at Substance aren't perfect, but they continue to show me a love that keeps me going even when everything else is telling me I shouldn't exist. There are days when I fully intend to show up, put in my time serving, and go home, but every single time I am reminded by the people around me that life is so much better when I engage and choose to live for more.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The View from the Booth

For over three years now I've been a volunteer on the media team at my church. My main area is lighting, but when it comes to The Well (our women's ministry), I do a little bit of everything. Tonight was our fall kickoff, and I was thinking about how differently I experience church in general when I'm in the booth.

Being a media volunteer is interesting in that there is both a deeper involvement with the service and a sort of detachment. I get to see the worship band sound check, I get to help set the mood for worship with lighting colors and visual backgrounds, and I get to join the worship team and leads for pre-service prayer. At the same time, during the actual service I am somewhat disengaged from actually worshipping because I am paying attention to changes in tempo, transitions between songs, and making sure that when the MC comes up there is appropriate lighting on stage. Tonight during the message I was helping my amazing VO operator be prepared to put the right slides up on the screen. I hear what's being said, but I don't always retain very much.

As a church volunteer and leader, I know that I can't always get filled up or fed spiritually during weekend services. I have to be intentional on my own time to focus on God, and it can be hard to make that happen when things are busy or I'm tired or I'm just feeling depressed. That's why it's really neat when I make connections in a different way.

Some of the most honest conversations I've ever had have been while I've been in the media booth. There's just something about being in a small, quiet room with just one or two other people that invites you to blurt out things you might not say otherwise. Sometimes it starts with a comment about the service, sometimes it's more intentional. Tonight one of my dear friends was working alongside me, and even though she wasn't feeling great, she stayed late after the service to sit and listen while I spilled what was going on in my life. She gave me the wonderful gift of just listening.

By the time we wrapped up our conversation, most of the people had left. I typically miss most of the after parties at The Well, and that's entirely on purpose. By the time I've been planning all week and then running the service, I'm pretty tapped out. Big crowds of people exhaust me, and I sort of hate meeting new people in general. When I finally emerge from the booth, I am able to spend a little bit of time with my friends who are still there to clean up and shut down the building. I like being useful and helping to tear things down and get the space cleaned up.

Sometimes I think about how nice it would be to get to join in the worship and not have to focus on anything but my experience with God, but mostly I'm thankful that I've found a way to engage in the church without constantly feeling uncomfortable or out of place. Most people probably have no idea what I'm doing, but I know that I'm useful. I like getting to be part of the action in a more hands-on way. And I'm really thankful for the amazing friendships I've found because of my willingness to sit in the back and work hard. There is a special joy in serving alongside people you love.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Envy and Worth

Sometimes when a friend is doing something amazing, I feel genuinely excited for them. I cheer them on, send encouraging notes, and try to be a good friend all around. But sometimes, something good happens to someone I know, and it happens. I feel it creep up on me, sinking its ugly teeth deep into my soul. Envy worms its way into my heart.

Envy is not about wanting what other people have. It's about believing deep down that because someone else has something that you do not, you are less valuable. For me, envy says that because she is married and I am single, I am worth less. Because he is more respected than I am, I am worth less. Because she is prettier than I am, because she can act better than I can, she is more valuable than I am.

That is NOT how God sees things. Jesus told a story of a lost sheep where a shepherd left the 99 he had to go look for the missing one, and when he found it he rejoiced. Jesus told a story of a father and his two sons, and when one son screwed up big time and the other had a bad attitude, the father loved them both. He did not rebuke his sons but declared his love in a way that showed there was nothing they could do to make him love them less.

Yesterday I texted a friend some thoughts about how great it is that God does not have a finite number of blessings. This friend and I have both been in similar areas of need, and I thought about how great it is that she doesn't have to worry that the fact that God provided a computer for me does not negate his ability to provide a computer for her. God isn't up in heaven crunching the numbers and feeling bad because he already used up his computer blessing quota. He is not picking and choosing blessings giving only to the perfect favorites.

My thoughts are a little scattered, but I feel a need to remind myself (and maybe you) that "Beloved" is not a title we can lose. It is not a name God hands out on a whim and takes it back when we are bad. We are each God's favorite, we are each worth so much to Him that he sacrificed His son for us. I don't pretend to really understand that or even believe it very well, but it bears repeating: God rejoices over us even when we're slinking back to Him ashamed of where we've been. He will not give up on us, he will not neglect us. God loves us more than we can comprehend.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Who I Am

Last night was the first meeting of the summer book group in which I am participating. We're reading "Girls with Swords," by Lisa Bevere. We've only hit up the first chapter, but its about choosing who you will be. Will you be a hero in your story, in other people's stories? I'm pretty excited about it, and we had a great group of women there.

Today I finally remembered to look up a music video that a friend told me about weeks ago. I'm already on the 3rd 4th 5th listen through, and I wanted to share it.

This is a constant struggle for me, to discern if the things that have been said to me are truth or lies. It's especially hard when some of the most awful things people have said or done to me are by people I was supposed to be able to trust, people who were supposed to be looking out for me. I am trying to embrace the truth that I am a daughter of the most high King, that I am loved, wanted, cherished. In a world where people grow, change, and move in and out of seasons of life, it can be really hard for me to accept that God does not change. He does not love me more or less based on how I act. He doesn't get tired of me and move on, or get married and have no time for me anymore.

This is where it gets hard for me: I FEEL like God doesn't love me, or none of my friends care about me. It can be really hard for me to acknowledge that my feelings do not determine how others feel. That's why I still have birthday cards up on my VCR. They (and the kind words inside) are tangible reminders of the friends I have, things that I can't deny. And when I focus on those, my feelings start to change, to line up with the truth that I have amazing friends who love me.

That's why I started trying to memorize the book of Ephesians earlier this year. Sadly, I dropped the ball, but I intend to pick it back up and keep going. Meditating verse by verse, even sentence by sentence, helps the truth of God's love to sink in deep down. As a wise friend pointed out to me yesterday, sometimes what I really need is to take my problems and hurts to God first. It's ridiculous how easy it is for me to forget how healing being in His presence can be.

I am a beloved daughter of Christ. I have been purchased at a high price. I am God's masterpiece. I am a warrior. I left normal behind and am now covered in righteousness.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Desperate Prayers

Last night a good friend of mine preached at our church's midweek service. She talked about desperate prayers, and while I don't remember the five points of her message, I hope I always remember the prayer I prayed afterward. There were about 40 minutes after she finished where there was time for prayer and worship, and I thought about all the things going on right now where I am trusting because that's all I can do. This is what I ended up praying:

I can't.

Over and over again, I prayed that. I can't. I. Can't. You HAVE to, because I can't. YOU have to, because I can't. I can't heal sick family members. I can't replace my car or my computer or save enough for retirement. I can't save the people I love. I can't run my life by myself.

Last night I felt some of the desperation of realizing that I cannot live my life without God. I stopped trying for a moment, stopped clinging to the edge of the cliff, stopped trying to string my life together. I stopped picturing myself struggling to piece my life together when I'm 75 and alone. I let go of the cliff, free falled, and told God that He has to because I can't.

And today I feel like a weight has been lifted off me.

It's not that I won't ever struggle or worry. I'm human. But I think I have begun on the path of learning to truly put my life in the hands of God, of trusting that He will care for me for my entire life. Somehow I had this idea that when my parents were gone, when I get old, when the people I love start to die, that there would be no one to care for me, to care about me. I somehow managed to believe that God could only take care of me if certain people were in my life. How freeing to realize that God is bigger than that, that while God shows his love and care through people, he does not require the planets to align in exactly the right way in order for Him to be able to provide and care for His children.

I still have some really big things going on right now that have not yet been resolved. And when there is finally resolution, I'm pretty sure I'm going to be celebrating like crazy. In the meantime, I am holding on to the big picture of God's life-long provision and care. I am remembering how God provided manna and quail in the wilderness. I am remembering how God has cared for His people through all kinds of dire circumstances. I am choosing to claim victory over my life.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


It was late, and I was hungry. So I went to a nearby fast food drive thru to get a little something to eat. The wait was a little long, and by the time I got home I was all set to dig in. Except my food was wrong. And it wasn't the sort of wrong where I could sort of fix it and eat it anyway, so I hopped back into my car and drove to the restaurant. I went through the drive thru, told them how my order was messed up, and they corrected it. When I got home, I was crabby. And my food, while technically correct, was thrown together sloppily. I was so irritated. I went to the company website and sent in a complaint. They hadn't even apologized for their mistake! They owed me.

And then today I got a call from the manager. A voicemail, actually, since I was at work, and he asked me to call back because he'd like to give me a free meal. I thought about it before I called him back. I've worked in fast food. I know that there is a chain of people who deal with each order and it's not everyone's fault. I know that it's stressful and crazy. I also know that I did in fact get what I paid for, and since it's close to where I live I'll be back again. After all, the woman who's usually on drive thru in the late afternoon is really nice and great at her job.

I called the manager. He apologized, and I told him that I used to work in fast food. I get it. And I told him that I knew the customer experience was important and figured they'd like to know what was going on. He said that they had just hired a handful of new people and were still training them. I told him I'd be back as a customer because it's nearby.

When this happened, I was actually sort of angry that they didn't reimburse my meal right away. Today I realized that I don't need it. I don't want to be the sort of person who feels entitled to compensation for every mistake that someone makes. I need to have a little (or a lot) more grace when it comes to dealing with people. After all, I want them to have grace for me when I make mistakes. If I were to find a wallet, would I feel entitled to a reward for returning it? I hope not, because the motivation for doing the right thing should simply be that it is right. Life shouldn't be about what we can get, it should be about what we can do.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Learning to Embrace My Puzzle Piece

If you know me well, you know that I enjoy quite a few rather nerdy hobbies. I enjoy quiet, solitary things, and one of them is jigsaw puzzles. I'm sure I inherited this trait from my dad, who used to spend hours and hours on a huge puzzle in our basement.

Tonight at my small group we were talking about the Kingdom of God, and what that means in the here and now. We talked about how we are to let the Holy Spirit flow through us, and when we do that, God is reflected uniquely in each of us. We all play a part in the Kingdom of God, and no one is the same. It's like we're all puzzle pieces.

Have you ever put together a puzzle only to find out that the last piece is missing? It's incredibly frustrating. I once put together a 500 piece puzzle, but there was a problem. There were definitely 500 pieces, but two of them were the same.
Somehow I got a duplicate piece in my puzzle. Hope I'm n... on Twitpic
When I got to the end of the puzzle, I had an empty space and an extra piece that was of no use to me. As I was thinking about our small group conversation, I realized how important it is not only to realize that we reflect God uniquely, but that we need to realize that we shouldn't try to be just like someone else. It's easy for me to wish I looked like that person or had a more fun personality like this person. But if I change who I am, I not only leave a hole where I was created to fit, but I could steal the spot of someone else. I need to remember to work in my own strength and let other people find their places.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

It's like magic

Last night I met with a group of people who is interested in bringing spiritual depth to our church culture. My friend has been wanting to do this for six months, and last night he was vision casting. He said that one time as a part of a fast, he sought to bring God into every single thing he did. So at one point when he was thinking about cars (he's a car guy), he stopped to ask God what He thought. My friend now has a huge network/group of people who are into cars, about half of them Christians.

Today as I was reading some Harry Potter, I recalled this conversation. Somewhat amused, I thought to myself, "I wonder what God thinks of Harry Potter." I realized that our love of magic, our desire to see the amazing, the impossible, is something put in us by God. God spoke, and the universe formed. Out of nothing. Jesus spoke and raised Lazarus from the dead. If we didn't use the word miracle, we'd probably say it was magic. Our love of creating is because we are made in the image of God, the creator of everything.

How cool would it be if heaven is where we get to create like God does? What if instead of painting a sunset, I could actually create a sunset? What if instead of sketching a seascape, I could actually create a cliff and rocks and waves? How amazing would that be? I have no idea what heaven will be like. It's just too much to imagine. But when I paint, when I create, it's a little bit of heaven on earth.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A New Year

It's a new year. Yes, 2013 is newly upon us, but it's also a new year for me, as I turned 27 yesterday. This is the time of year when I take a little time to reflect on the past year and think about what I'd like to happen in the future. To that end, I made a vision board.

I got the idea for a vision board from a blog I read, Woulda Coulda Shoulda. She made a collage out of magazines, and I liked the idea of having something to help focus my thoughts and desires. I brought home some old issues of magazines from work (perks of working in a reception area), and I spend some time paging through them and cutting out whatever caught my eye. When I assembled my collage, I used a few pictures from calenders to get started, then I just started adding things. I have a mix of pictures that I liked--things I thought were pretty or fun or just me--and words or phrases that encompassed the direction in which I'd like my life to head. Here's a picture (click for a larger version):

There is one thing that I purposely did not put on the collage, although it's still sort of a goal of this year. Boyfriend. I thought about it, but I didn't want to make it into something that I check off a to-do list. At my birthday party, however, my friends asked what one thing I'd like to happen in this next year. I thought about it, trying to decide how honest or serious to be, and I decided to just go for it. "I'd like to go on a date," I said.

I have never been on a date. I have hung out with guys who are friends, but I have never been on a real, actual, maybe-this-will-turn-into-something-romantic-down-the-line date. At this point in my life, I don't want to go on a date just to finally say I have. I can't picture myself as much of a casual dater. I have been giving a lot of thought lately to what I can do to get closer to my dream of marriage and kids. My counselor suggested that maybe I should start being more flirty with guys, like maybe post on a guy I admire's Facebook wall. One day I was on Facebook, staring at the profile of a guy I know, but I couldn't think of anything to say. Somehow writing "My therapist told me to post something flirty on your wall" didn't seem like it would get me many dates, so I just chuckled and moved on to something else. After a week of trying to figure out how to be flirty, I decided it's just not me. Neither is online dating. I sort of tried it, but my heart just wasn't in it.

The past few years I've been working steadily on becoming a better me. Because, as Andy Stanley puts it, "Am I the person the person I'm looking for is looking for?" And really, that's what my collage is about. Yes, I want to get married. But what if I don't? I still want to be a better person, a more whole, healthy person. I want to work through my inner demons, I want to enjoy my life and fill it with joy. I want a romantic relationship, but I don't want to put my life on hold in the meantime, nor do I want my happiness to revolve around my relationship status. It's really hard sometimes, especially on the days when loneliness creeps in. Whether or not I find love in 2013, however, I want to find joy and peace in my life. I want to learn to love myself, learn to love my friends, learn more about God's love, and maybe, just maybe, I'll find a little romance along the way.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What Is Normal, Anyway?

I think I have a mouse. I haven't seen one, but tonight I have heard two short squeaks that make me think there is one somewhere in my closet. I was immediately filled with dread, feeling like I just can't handle this. Because at my last apartment, I caught over 40 mice in less than two years. It was horrendous. And this weekend, when I pulled a wooden spoon out of my drawer and found two tiny bugs on my hand, I tried really hard not to freak out. Because at my last apartment, I had a horrible roach infestation for the last two months I lived there (yes, my last apartment building was not a happy place by the time I left). When I see signs of some pest in my living space, I start to panic, because I've seen what happens when they take over. What I try to remember is that it's probably normal to have a few pests now and then. 40 mice? Not normal. 1 or 2 a year, especially when it's cold? Probably normal, though not fun. A few bugs now and then? Normal. I mean, we always had ants in the summer growing up, and I never freaked out like I did with the roaches. In the southern states, it's weird if you DON'T have a bug guy to treat you for various pests.

It's so hard to keep an objective view of what normal is when you're in the midst of something. I remember clearly that I didn't think anything of the roaches at first, just figuring it was summer and it was typical to have some bugs. But then I realized they were roaches, and that there were a ton of them, and all of a sudden it felt so overwhelming. It crept up on me. I can't even remember which mouse it was when I went from "this is annoying" to "this is ridiculous" to "this is NOT right." You get in survival mode, and when you're focusing on surviving, it can be really hard to gauge where you are. When I was first diagnosed with depression, I was relieved to have someone tell me that it was NOT normal to feel as awful as I did for so long. I sort of knew that, but I had felt that way for so long and just kept pushing through that I really wasn't sure sometimes. I should have known something was up a lot sooner, when my grades started to suffer. For me, it was not normal to have learning be so difficult. It was like a flip switched, and all of a sudden I felt stupid in school. I would stare at a computer screen for hours, having no idea what to write for papers.

I think this is one of the reasons it's so important to have close friends. We all need to have people who know us intimately, people who can tell us when they start to see us veering off the path. I think having accountability like this can help ward off certain problems with habitual sins before we get far down that path. For example, if you are the sort to drink alcohol rarely or only moderately, if your friends see you start to drink frequently and heavily they can say something. It could be so easy to justify it to yourself. After all, don't we see on TV and in the movies that college and even high school students do it all the time? Don't we sometimes see grown adults being functional alcoholics presented as somewhat normal? We need people in our real life to give us perspective, to be honest with us. It's not easy. If you don't have a relationship built on trust and mutual friendship, it can be really easy to feel judged and get defensive. If you're hearing this kind of truth from someone you don't know well, it can be easy to say "What do they know, anyway?" and ignore the truth in what they spoke.

I have a friend who lives across the country, and we contact each other about once a week for some accountability stuff. We have a few specific things, but it's nice just to know I can be honest about everything. She's a safe space for me. And when I've been doing things that I'm not comfortable sharing with her, that's a really good barometer of whether or not I should be doing them. Because if I know she won't be happy to hear it, I know I shouldn't be doing it. We've talked about all sorts of things, and it goes both ways. We've also struggled with some of the same things, which helps with the whole not feeling judged thing.

It's a new year. I'm not big on making New Year's Resolutions, but I do like to look back and reflect a bit on the previous year. 2012 was filled with apartment/pest drama, but otherwise it really was a pretty good year. I've made some wonderful friends in that time, I've done a lot of things that I loved. I got to see some amazing shows, I read a lot of books, and I laughed a lot. I'm really happy to realize that my normal has shifted to a place that is mostly contentment and thankfulness. I'm so thankful for my job, my church, my friends, my family. I'm thankful that depression isn't my daily normal, even though I struggle with it sometimes. I'm thankful for fresh starts and forgiveness. I'm thankful that normal can change for the better, that there is always a bend in the road. Who knows what exciting things lie beyond?