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.

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You Will Know, When You Know

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At my first church I moved only a few hours from my Aunt and Uncle whom I didn’t really know. My parents were the older siblings in their families and had children young, my sister and I are almost a decade older than our cousins. My aunt, then having small children watched as I officiate Easter Worship and interacted with my congregation. I was 25 years old. I had been married for 2 years and she could not fathom how “grown up” I was.

“You have a very adult job” she told me. I really wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or a criticism (in my head I heard “you’re playing with fire, you cannot handle this”). I did have a very grown up job, and I was (and still am) good at it. Sure, there are times when my “youth” equates to poor judgement, but as I get older, it’s simply moments of poor judgement, guess what? Who has two thumbs and is human? This chick.

But it is scary for all of us. How do we know we are saying or doing the “right” thing? Sometimes I have to impart wisdom in life or death situations and it’s scary. Yet, I can say this with confidence, I’m a smart girl, I actually do have a lot of wisdom to impart (through the grace of God), despite the fact that I am only 36 years old. So… here’s some tidbits.

When you’re mad at God, it means that you love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul. Scenario: I am a chaplain in a hospital. A family is trying to care for their mother who is dying, it will be hours, not days. She is cursing God, she is in pain, she is grieving for her life. The family (a more conservative type of Christian) is sincerely worried that she will die and “not be right with God” and therefore go to hell. They believe this despite a lifetime of Christian service and faith. I sat with them, I talked through it with them, and then I asked them a question. When is the last time you were angry at someone, I mean really angry? Was it with someone you knew casually? Or was it someone you loved?

The last time we were truly mad is not over the guy who cut us off on the interstate.  The truth is, we only are truly angry at the people we love most. Our partner, our children, our parents, our friends, ourselves. When your mother is cursing God, it’s because she loves God, if she didn’t she wouldn’t care.

I know it hurts, but that’s how you know it is love. Scenario: I had trouble getting pregnant and high risk pregnancies, so much so that I became friends with the ultrasound tech. For over a year I saw this woman bi-monthly, weekly, and then bi-weekly. Each time we would talk for about a half hour. When I went back for baby #2, she had just returned from maternity leave with her first. “I’m scared all the time, and I cry, constantly, at everything, does this ever end?” Yes, sometimes, no- no it does not. Yes, the hormones subside and you will cry less, but this feeling of dread, fear, and hurt? This feeling that you no longer have full control of your heart? No. She looked at me with massive amounts of dread.

It’s the consequence of experiencing real love. Any relationship involves risk, it’s the nature of relationship, but putting yourself out there in the most vulnerable ways possible and allowing yourself to experience real love, well, there is always a fear of losing. I have said this with new parents, with people grieving for someone who died, and to people at the end of marriages. When the pain is so devastating, so raw, so real – that’s when you know it is real love.

You will know when it’s time. Scenario: A woman sits before me in kidney failure, she is tired of dialysis, she is exhausting her children and she hates it, she has been talked to about hospice over a dozen times. “What do I do?” she asks me. Of course I can’t answer that, so I say to her what I have said a hundred times in the past.

When it comes to life and death, you’ll know. And when you know, you know, until then, you’re not ready. When it comes to life and death – of a person, of a marriage, of any relationship – if you don’t know (no matter how hard and painful it is) then you’re not ready. Because when it comes to a death, you and the ones you leave behind have to know, beyond a doubt, in the midst of their grief that they did everything possible and that you are sure or they simply will not be able to live with themselves. I have seen it time and time again, the moment where the wrestling ends and every fiber of their being knows what to do. 

All these scenarios happened within the first 5 years of my ministry. They are words of wisdom I have repeated time and time again. They are not “new” and I did not “think of them” they were gifts of the spirit. Moments in which I got to be the incarnation of Sophia (God’s wisdom). Yesterday I was reminded of them again and I wanted to share. Love to you all.

Safe Space

Everyone needs a safe space, a space they can be themselves in, completely free. No filter, no judgement, no worry, even just for a small time.

In a safe place we can actually talk a lot of the pain of life, the pain of the past, self-loathing, existential crisis. We can also talk about joy, no doubt, no question at all. But in our pain we receive support from this person/group; love, caring, a sense of community that we all long for. Scratch that, it is not a sense of community, we receive community if it is truly a safe space.

No one is going to tell on you, no one judge you badly. There may be push back, lively discussion but we will not turn on each other. I admire that our Jewish sisters and brothers have kept this in their use of theology. Argument is key when discussing faith and scripture. For them argument leads to divine revelation. For us, argument is bad, Christians imply there is one right way and answer.

So we hide our thoughts and our feelings, all of us, on some level, because we are not “safe”. I spent most of my seminary days feeling like they were going to kick me out because I wasn’t “sure” if Christ was “the way the truth and the life” I had no idea what exclaiming what “Jesus is Lord” meant. Hell, I’ve never really been to Sunday School!

So I kept those thoughts to myself, those thoughts (among others- including what I thought about justice, women, sexuality, etc.) became secrets, a secret identity. The problem with secrets is this: they eat at you, they are shame’s lover. They imply you’re doing something wrong.

When I was married I kept secrets from my husband. My husband knew about my past, I didn’t keep details from him, he knew about my problems, what I kept secret from him is how they affected me. When issues of past trauma would arise (as they inevitably do for all of us) I would keep those feelings secret and hide them from him. Letting him into the details is not the same as letting him in.

It was wrong on so many levels.

Secrets breed fear. I was ashamed of fears, I was afraid he wouldn’t handle them (note: not couldn’t handle them, wouldn’t). I was afraid he would tell me to move on, get over it, suck it up. This would not be the first time I would have heard these things, but coming from him they would have been devastating. I needed a safe space so badly that I secluded my way out of one.

I needed safety and freedom and I was my own worst enemy in destroying it.

Oh, he said plenty of stupid things, did plenty of stupid things, no doubt. But there is a difference between keeping my stuff private and keeping things secret. In privacy we may not be ready to talk about it, but we can at least speak our realities to ourselves, not push our feelings away, and perhaps, allow someone else to take care of us, even if they don’t know all the details of what is happening.

If you keep it private you have the opportunity to mourn without shame, you will struggle without fear, you don’t have to you are choosing to. You will be transparent in vulnerability. In secrets you will stuff them down until they are like water on pavement, they will find every crack and crevice. They will find their way out.

I am learning, slowly, to be good to myself, allow myself to be loved in order to receive the benefits of a safe space. My friends, who love me, are forming me to do this, calling me when I try to hide from them. Having a safe space is not devoid of hurt, it means hearing painful things or retelling painful things. But it is also an honest, open relationship, even in it’s private.

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She Loves Me…

She loves me not…She loves me… She loves me not.

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“I love you” They’re the greatest 3 words in the world. I love you, SO much. There is nothing sweeter to hear or as sweet to say, I love you.

I type these words through watery eyes, tears streaming down my face. I’m learning an important thing about myself. I need someone to love.

It is common wisdom today to say that one cannot love another without truly loving themselves. Do you agree? I’m not sure that I do.

When I first fell in love I had no love or self-respect for myself. See this post if you missed it. I loathed myself, but seeing myself in the eyes of another helped me to fall in love with myself. But it’s not enough.

I’m alone, I’ve hit several “rock bottom’s” over the last year. I begged and pleaded my husband not to leave me, not to leave our family. I offered to compromise myself and my beliefs just to keep it together. I’ve gotten drunk and had a couple “close calls”. A voice in my head told me to have some self-respect, but it hurt too much. I don’t know how to love myself without someone to shower that attention on. Even as I write this there is a voice in my head saying that isn’t really love, it’s selfish, but I’m not so sure.

I need to love. It’s not like a drug or alcohol in terms of need, it’s a need as in my need for air.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; … 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. –1 John 4:7, 11-13

I do love myself, I do respect myself, but I do it through acceptance of people I know and trust, people whom I love and whom love me. I learned to love from their love. It’s the incarnation of God, it’s the movement of the Spirit, it is the nature and essence of love. I need someone to love, and not just anyone.

Today I’m in Atlanta, I’m taking another doctoral class. It’s called The Bible and the Ecology of Wonder, cool, right? right… so… yeah.

In the middle of class today we were watching a video of astronauts talking about their awe of the moments they were in space looking at the earth and the “heavens.” As you can imagine they were describing deep and profound senses of wonder and awe, even if they didn’t use the words, they were describing an experience of God, the experience of something so vastly beyond themselves, yet felt so rooted and deeply connected to it.

I started to get emotional during the video, like… really emotional.

I suddenly realized I hadn’t been standing in wonder recently. “Wonder also requires courage” our professor had said in an example of one definition. I kept rolling and rolling around the idea, staring at the astronauts from their suits and shuttles and lunar modules. Wonder also requires a safety, a grounding, I pondered.

You have to feel free to wonder, but in order to truly feel free, you have to feel safe enough to allow your mind, your heart, your imagination to soar. If you are paralyzed in fear you are not wondering. You have to move past the fear in order to feel free enough to be in awe, reverence, or curious. You have to have the courage to let yourself go.

I’ve cried most of this afternoon knowing that I do not feel that freedom, I am paralyzed in fear. I am afraid to allow my imagination to soar because I no longer have my net, I no longer have my grounding, I no longer feel courageous. Because I no longer have a person to pour my love into that I knew, or at least thought, that I could always count on. That I had exposed myself to on every level. Who knew every dream, every fear, every flaw. Even if he didn’t, he did.

I had someone to love, who loved me, or so I thought, to allow me the sacred gift of feeling safe in order to allow myself to soar, in order to allow myself to move beyond fear.

Some will tell me I have to find that grounding in myself, but here’s the simple truth. I don’t want to. And I don’t think I’m meant to. I want to share my life, I’m meant to share my life.

I can love my kids and they can love me, but I cannot make my kids my life partner. I have a best friend whom I love tremendously and she would help me bury a body if need be, but she cannot be my everything either. Not only would the body we bury have to be her husband’s, but we would end up miserable for a variety of reasons.

There’s a song we used to sing to the kids in VBS:

“Love is something when you give it away, give it away, give it away, Love is something when you give it away, you end up having more.”

I miss wondering, being curious, and exploring – my faith, myself, another – it was an ongoing mystery, a courageous adventure, a wonder. I miss being allowed to love and expose my inner most self to someone fully. I feel incomplete, less human, sad without it. It’s not that some magic soul mate is going to come along and “complete me” it’s that in loving them, myself, and loving us love is perfected. For if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us.

This is not just my faith, this is my experience, and my truth. This is who I am. I am a child of God, meant to share my life and my love.