Celebrate Good Times, Come On!

When I was doing my chaplain residency I was assigned to three units, the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, the Cardiac Care Unit (level below) and a Mother/Baby unit. My supervisor heard nothing but positive things from the CICU and the CCU (well, except for the complaints that I was a woman). “she’s great in a crisis”, they said, “she listens well and is very warm and people respond well to her.”

At one of our meetings my supervisor asked me about joy, about celebration. “How do you feel about joy?” “Fine, I guess, why?” He had spoken to the nurses on my mother/baby unit and although I was great in  crisis, I (apparently) didn’t know how to respond when something good happened. I was always waiting for things to go wrong.

“Well, that’s really sad.” I thought.

He assigned me a task to start teaching myself to celebrate, to start shifting my thinking to a little more “glass half full” (I cannot tell you how infuriating that was) and yet it stuck with me, and I couldn’t stop asking myself the question, “Do I know how to celebrate?”

Truth is, I worked on it, and I became better and better at celebrating the joys in people’s lives. Here we are 15 years later and as a pastor and friend I love celebrating with people, celebrating their accomplishments, who they are, or when good things happen. There was still a flaw, however, I can celebrate the joys of others lives but not my own.

I guess you could say I struggle with this: Joy is for other people. 

Good things don’t just happen to me, or at least they don’t seem to, or, probably most accurately, I don’t really notice them when they do, I have to work at it, I have to work at celebrating the joys of my life.

Please don’t read this as ingratitude, I am extremely grateful for my life, my gifts, my friends, but I have a hard time celebrating. Celebration involves not just gratitude, but a freedom. And you can’t feel free when you’re constantly afraid the thing or circumstance that brings you joy will be taken away.

So I guard myself, I downplay my excitement, I keep joy at bay. Why? Because in my head if something bad happens, it will be easier to deal with when it’s gone. And frankly, it so often has in life, that my heart works overtime to protect itself.

When I became pregnant with my daughter I was on the phone with one of my dearest friends who understood loss of pregnancy and even children, but also the joy of two surviving. I was downplaying my excitement of the (very early) pregnancy. “It’s not a big deal” I kept repeating.

“Shannon! This is a VERY big deal” Mary shouted at me. She knew how many years I had wanted this, how worried I was when the doctor said, “this may not happen for you.” But she also understood my concern. After months of fertility treatments and a snowball’s chance in hell of getting pregnant here I was, pregnant, and there was one last hurtle, carrying to term, which statistically I had a 50/50 chance of.

I was afraid of the loss that didn’t happen, that wouldn’t happen, but that could happen.

This is a pattern I repeat today. I’m scared. I’m scared to be free enough to celebrate, to let all my fears go and enjoy. But I’m trying, and more then trying, I’m challenging myself to do just that.

I’m getting married in 10 days. It’s going to be a beautiful day surrounded by my closest friends and my beautiful children in a stunning celebration of, not only marriage and family, but one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced, hope after hopelessness and love after loss.

I am not afraid that it will rain or that I will look fat in my photos (okay, maybe a little on that one) or that some thing will go wrong because I would marry Derrick anywhere at anytime in anything. I could not ask for a more loving, caring, and sensitive partner, who listens even when what I’m saying is hard.

I could not be happier about it or filled with more joy and excitement. But I am holding it at bay, afraid of what it looks like that a 37 year old woman is giddy about her second wedding. (or just that fact that it needs a qualifier like “second”) I’m flighting against the cliche’s of marriage, “You only get married once!” or “It’s the best day of your life.”

I’m scared for it to be a big deal and for no other reason then “something could go wrong”, I won’t go into details, but there’s a list. It wouldn’t “ruin” the day but there are many scenarios in my head that could put a downer on the day. (mostly toxic people who will make all of this about them) But it’s time for me to put that in a drawer where it belongs and focus on the good.

It’s time to turn Kool & the Gang full blast and Celebrate. It’s time to free myself to feel what I’ve been holding at bay, the bliss of being in love, so madly in love with someone that I am willing to risk any “could” that might ever come my way again for the rest of our lives.

I still struggle with celebrating “me” but thinking about celebrating Derrick and our love, our commitment, and our family, which we have worked so hard for… well that’s easy. I’ll bring my good times, and my laughter too, I’m going to celebrate and party with you. Because I do know that you, reader, are happy for us, and celebrating with us.


Why Couldn’t We?

There’s a story in the scriptures that haunts me. (okay, more than one) but this one I return to time and time again. Here is an excerpt:

 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

“You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

Mark 9:14-29 haunts my dreams. I am possessed by a demon, one since childhood. It’s fear. I have spent countless therapy sessions and spiritual direction session trying to overcome this fear. I have spent years, decades, attempting to drive it out.

Fear can manifest itself in many, many ways. Too many to count. We have individual fears and communal fears. Our parents use fear in positive and negative ways to teach us lessons. Our teachers use fear to motivate us. Politicians use fear to manipulate us. We turn our fear on each other and act out in ways that hurt ourselves and others.

Then we rationalize it, say it’s to keep us safe. We say it’s for our own good, protecting us from harm.

I have attempted every way possible to drive out this demon over the years but have always fallen short.

As a minister I believe in the grace and mercy of God, of second chances (or third, fourth, well an infinite number) but as a human being who has for so long been possessed by fear it seem impossible to drive out.

I return to Mark 9 over and over again and am haunted by this exchange.

There are so many angles to this story I could preach on it for years, but where I lie today is at the disciples feet.

“Why couldn’t we drive it out?” They ask.

This is an all too familiar question. Why can’t I just make this go away. Why can’t we just stop acting out of fear, or better yet having fear at all? How do I stop this demon from controlling my life, where’s my magic wand, where’s my ability to drive this out for myself?

Jesus’ answer is one of the most frightening things I have ever heard. “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

It knocks the wind out of me. I ward off a panic attack. It’s the most frightening thing I’ve ever heard.

Why can’t we? Why can’t I do it? Why can’t I drive out the demon of fear in me that rears its ugly head when things should be left alone? Why can’t it’s demon twin anxiety leave me the hell alone? Why can’t we as a society recognize when it takes possession of us and we fling them into the abyss before we fall to the ground foaming at the mouth?

Jesus’ answer? Because this kind can come out only by prayer.

Do you know how terrifying that is? Fear is fed by our ego, our need to be in control, our need to be superior, and honestly for me, the insecurity that comes with being human and having relationship with other broken people.

Sometimes the motivation to not exercise the demon is masked in the rationalization of protecting ourselves. Just today there is fighting using fear as “protection” in our country over guns, Muslims, refugees, and immigrants. We have a war on women, a war on drugs, and must proclaim on a regular basis that #blacklivesmatter because equality is still a figment of our imagination. The amount of oppression we dawn as “protection” is just a way of feeding that demon of fear.

So why can’t we? Why can’t I?

“This kind can come out only by prayer” Jesus says. Love conquers all. I have to learn to trust myself before I can trust my neighbor. I have to first learn to trust God before I can trust myself.

I am ready to turn this demon over to God. I am ready to give it up in my personal life. I am ready to stop hurting myself and those that I love by pretending to protect when really I am hurting.

I suspect there will be regression and I ask for forgiveness in advance, but there it is, Jesus, I can’t do it alone, will you help me? Will you help my unbelief?