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    Rest – Part 1

    Posted on February 19, 2018 by Jenn

    You let me catch my breath / and send me in the right direction. (Psalm 23:3)

    I was never one to choose a word to cast vision for the year, and I scoffed at the idea when others engaged in this practice,  mentally shutting myself down from a potentially life-changing practice.

    But something changed at the end of last year, and I think it was an new openness to experiences outside my understanding. In short, I was desperate, and so I gave up trying to figure everything out and relaxed into the unknown.  This is terrifying for those of us with tiny control issues, but I decided to try and prayed for a word.

    After a day of praying, last year’s word came to me, unbidden, as if from a dream: surrender, and it was incredibly timely and a practice I clung to for dear life.

    The year of 2017 was filled with joy and pain, and lots of surrendering to things outside my control, one of which were a couple of stints at a government-funded behavioral health agency. (Graduate school failed to prepare me for the depth and breadth of human suffering and how it can negatively impact healers.)  I took a step of out of direct care only to enter into an administrative context in which gossip, ridicule, slander, and ongoing criticism were regular fare for the work week.

    Depression, anxiety attacks, and nightmares became a regular part of my life, and I had to surrender to the sad truth that my expectations about this job could simply not match up to reality.  I imagined the position would allow me the chance to heal from working in direct care and pursue writing. However, I discovered to my great horror and dismay, that many of the sickest people I worked with were the burn-out healers whose behaviors suggested that the world was merely a garbage dump in which to dwell.

    They were so happy and peaceful about two percent of the time.  It was a real bummer.

    Life did not make any sense at that point, but capitulating to God and the truth reminded me that most things in my life are outside my control, including how other people behave, even especially if I behave respectfully towards them.  Sometimes a job does not work out, sometimes those in the helping professions grow bitter and cynical, and sometimes a government system is so toxic that it cannot be mended by all the efforts of one single person.

    I was reminded yet again of my tiny God-complex issues, and at the time, one of my friends in recovery reminded me sweetly, “Honey, another name for “God” is “Not me.”

    Who talk likes this, I ask you?

    I gave her my best disappointed-Kermit-the-Frog face and sighed out loud; she was right, of  course, and walking away from the poisonous job was one of the best things I ever did.

    ***

    And yet throughout the year of 2017 I noticed there was a darker side to my practice of surrender.  I found myself submitting to compulsive activity, not allowing myself to practice being still.  Even when I meditated, my thoughts drifted to my to-do list and ongoing evaluation of whether or not I was doing enough.

    You see, I had turned my word “surrender” into a Pharisee, a judge to endure instead of a balm to aide in times of trouble. As the year went on, I noticed I used the word “surrender” to give into commitments that I loved but even when I was exhausted and needed to just sit for a moment and catch my breath. I said “yes” when I needed to practice saying “no,” and tried hard to live up to self-imposed expectations.

    I had forgotten that God made rest for a reason.

    In his book “Sabbath,” Wayne Muller explores in-depth the much-needed practice that modern Americans struggle to set time for.  He writes that “Sabbath is more than the absence of work; it is not just a day off, when we catch up on television or errands. It is the presence of something that arises when we consecrate a period of time to listen to what is most deeply beautiful, nourishing, or true.”

    Rest does not mean that I relinquish all my duties, give up work, and stay in my house and hide from the world.  However, it does mean that I set the intention to find time to practice sabbath rest every single day.

    Perhaps the greatest thing to know about rest is that God modeled for us how to engage in the practice.  He created the whole world, and then he rested, allowing himself the chance to renew his mind.  He calls us all to do the same.

    And let’s be clear that we are all living in a world that is in deeply entrenched political, social, economic, and spiritual crises.  This includes the madman in office, the environmental catastrophes, and the breakdown of civility, all of which play a part in stressing out interactions with ourselves and each other.   So remember that in dealing with enormous cultural stressors like these, it is even more imperative to practice rest as a bold weapon of resistance to the pernicious lies that certain skin colors, busyness, more money and possessions, and more prestige will buy you happiness.

    The truth is that God loves diversity, which is why we have so many different kinds of people, animals, plants, terrains, and languages, to say the least.  As Pastor Greg Boyle writes, the dance of rest allows us to “aspire to a glad and delighting union offered every moment, right here, right now”

    Could it be that part of the promise of rest is that God actually wants us to take a step back and delight in creation, our joy, our friends, family, loved ones, the earth? Could resting actually provide us with a holy vehicle to remind us of our origins, our status as beloved children of God? 

    So the next time you decide to say okay to something when you really mean no, or keep performing and producing beyond your capacity, do me a favor and listen to the quiet voice inside that beckons you close and whispers “rest.”  Remember that the God of the Universe wants us to enjoy this life and thereby through resting we can savor life, to find the good in all our moments, even if the rest is simply breathing our very own breathe, the breath of the Almighty.

    PRACTICE

    Sit in one place daily, with your legs out and your arms relaxed lightly by your side.  This could be outside or laying down with your child or animal or sitting in your favorite chair.  Get into whatever context you need that will bring you a sense of peace and calm.  Have the cell phone on mute (or better yet have it turned off).  Make sure you are in a comfortable position, close your eyes, rest for fifteen to twenty minutes, doing nothing at all.  Farmers plant crops and let certain parts of their land lay fallow for a season because the ground needs to rest in order to produce nutritious, fortifying food.  We are like plants too. We require an ongoing balance of rest, time in the sun, exercise, and work to feel fulfilled, so do what one of my friends in recovery does every single day: lay down and rest.  Give yourself the chance to let your soul catch up with your body as the African proverb goes, and let me know how it goes.

    Bibliography

    Boyle, Greg. (2010).  Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. New York: Free Press.

    Muller, Wayne. (1999). Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. New York: Bantam Books.

    (Photo by Jonathan Fink on Unsplash)
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    Church of Nature

    Posted on February 13, 2018 by Jenn

    It is better to go skiing and think of God, than go to church and think of sport.
    – Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian explorer

    Yesterday morning, sleet and snow fell from the sky and the world for a while was drenched as the dark grey clouds scuttled quickly across the sky. My heart leapt inside my chest, happy and exuberant as a child seeing the first snow of the season. Eventually, the snow stopped falling, and disappointed, I drove to church, torn between the desire for worship and time in nature.

    After arriving at church, we waited at the entrance of the impossibly large sanctuary and listened to the trance-like music fill the air, which did not feel like church, did not feel like God at all. I am a loyal customer, a Christian since age nineteen, and the music at modern-day evangelical churches is loud and brash. (This is only my opinion, of course.) I do not come to a feeling of worship after a time at this kind of church, only of sheer exhaustion and annoyance, of loud cacophonous noise, of music so loud that my eardrums hurt by the end of the service.

    Are they doing this kind of singing to gain attention? To look holy? Aren’t the hikers and bikers at parks as holy as they explore the earth? Why do I feel like I just went to the movies?

    (I have a somewhat complicated relationship with the evangelical church, that is to say that I, most likely, complicate things with my mind, but I miss the old days of hymns, of sacred pauses between music and prayers. It is in these spaces that Spirit can wedge Herself into our hearts, I think.)

    So we fled church and left the trance music for the restorative quiet of nature. It takes awhile to get out of the city of concrete, but finally we arrived at the small deserted nature preserve park and noticed only two other cars in the enormous empty lot. This oasis is part of the Dallas Audubon Society, and is situated in the low hills of East Dallas and surrounded by fir and pine trees that look imposing and majestic against the blue bowl of the sky.

    The small ice pebbles gleamed shiny and white against the trail-head as we entered the forest, quiet and still. I snapped lots of photos as we walked on, amongst the small pine trees lining the trail, the slender mesquite trees, dark grey and barren. Eventually, I stopped taking photos and practiced being in nature, a temple, a doorway to worship.

    The ice pellets were in the shaded hollows of the trees and as we walked slowly and silently through the forest we saw saw tiny sparrows and wrens flitting down to the moist forest floor and singing. The trail twisted this way and that through the forest and the small wooden logs that formed man-made stairs were covered in white as we stepped gingerly down. The slowness forced us to pause and breath, which is a good thing to do every few years or so.

    Everyone that we encountered seemed to be a part of the unspoken agreement to maintain the reverent quiet. No one said hi to us. Most of the hikers simply waved or only looked at us intently, eyes bright and alive. Perhaps they, too, sensed a kind of worshipful silence amongst the cold and quiet landscape.

    At one point, I looked up and noticed a slim fir pine tree which had bent its limbs across the trail path to meet another tree, as if they were holding hands, saw how their small emerald green limbs twisted together to form a union. What would it look like in spring, summer, and fall? How long would it last this way?

    Don’t ever stop wondering and wandering.

    And always remember to take lots of pauses and smile in the forest. Your heart will expand in lightness.

    The trail we took led us downward to a small pond, filled with turtles in springtime, surrounded now by hills of barren trees and a few bright evergreens. The oceanic sky turned from cloudy dark grey to pale blue in what seemed like the blink of an eye and we were bathed in light. One small man, all in black, broke the silence with a hand up and a cheerful “hi” and then we returned another way, walking up the trail surrounded by halos of dead prairie grass, white stones crunching under our shoes, and then back into the shady glen of the congregation of trees, of cedar and elm and mesquite, of oak and pine.

    Sometimes the only thing that restores me to my senses is a trip in nature. It is church for me, in the deepest sense of the word, of homecoming with the Divine, of knowing deeply that I did not create the forest but I can look around and know that a Great Someone did and longs for me to enjoy it. The great poet Mary Oliver writes “stepping out into the world, into the grass, onto the path, was always a kind of relief. I was not escaping anything. I was returning to the arena of delight.”

    Before we returned to our car that day, basking in the glow of pumping our legs against forest floor, delighting in the cold crisp air, we took another quick turn through the woods, and as we came out into a clearing, we saw a brilliant red cardinal fly to a barren cypress tree across the way. It looked at us, with those bright and alive eyes, and watched us watching it. The cardinal looked at us and did nothing as we stood and drank it in. It eventually turned and flew away but I knew I received the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, that day.

    PRACTICE
    Find time this week, if not daily, to practice stepping into nature regularly. This does not need to involve a cross-country backpacking trip but can be as simple as going to the local garden or the town river trails, the park across from your job, or your own backyard. Before you begin, take a deep breath and pray. Begin with thanks and walk slowly on the path, whether it be grassy, hilly, or pavement. Walk with your head held up and look at the trees, as they stand in bold relief against the brilliance of blue and white sky. Remember where you come from and whom you belong to, for the great miracle that you are alive today.

    Bibliography:

    Oliver, Mary. (2016). Upstream. New York: Penguin Press.

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    Untitled

    Posted on January 24, 2108 by Jenn

    It would seem that I am depressed.  There, I said it.  No one has died. No one has freaked out.  Not me at the very least and I’m certain not you either.  We have all been down and out at one time or another.  I believe Prince was right when he announced “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together for this thing called life.”  Life is part joy and struggle, trauma and freedom.  I wish it were not that way but it is.

    Is it wrong to for a therapist to admit she struggles with depression? I don’t have an answer for you.  Many counseling programs now openly welcome so-called “peers” in their programs, provide a safe place for them, offer counseling and encouragement.  (A “peer” is someone who has dealt with episodes of mental illness and is upfront about it with their counseling clients.)

    This is not a theoretical post but a real, hands down, dirty, bloody post about the struggles of living a real life in the midst of episodes of despair.  I struggle with bouts of depression with a fair helping of agoraphobia for good measure.  (Agoraphobia means “fear of the marketplace” and usually involves me being irrationally terrified to leave the house.  I’m fully aware that nothing bad will happen, but my feelings haven’t figured that out yet.  The urge to hide today is strong.)

    This one has been one of the worst in a long while.  I struggle to get out of bed, to believe that God loves me, to trust in the basic goodness which resides, I’m sure of it, in all of us, including myself.

    Is this post naval gazing? Is it me just going on about how difficult life is sometimes?  I am tempted to say it is, but I think this post gets to a more difficult question which is this: where do the helpers go when they are exhausted and reached their limits of providing services?  Is it okay for a helper to admit exhaustion and fatigue?

    For the past few days, I have struggled to leave the house.  It’s after one o’clock today and I haven’t left, haven’t posted on social media, haven’t returned calls to friends.  I know what I need to do and yet I continue to do what I know I should not do, which is to hide and hide and hide from life.

    St. Paul wrote about this problem of resistance to the good, which is suffering, when he penned “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.” (The Message Romans 7:15 )

    Do I despise myself?  Nope.  What I struggle to understand is how difficult it is to do the things I need to do to function, how exhausting I am at the end of the day, how sleep is an avoidant lover and comes only sometimes despite all my best efforts, and how much I know things from counseling that help others that do not work for me.

    Can a counselor heal herself? Henri Nouwen, the famous writer/counselor/teacher/preacher, struggled his whole life with depression but freely sought out counseling, prayer, and support.  It would seem I have a role model in him.

    ***

    The key for me is to do the next right thing, which is to put on my exercise clothes and go for a walk, then shower, then eat lunch.  It is simple day-to-day things that come naturally for many.  But when you are in the midst of a depressive funk, these things take extra time, energy, and perseverance. Let’s be honest: it takes a lot of freaking work to live well.

    In her book Furiously Happy, blogger and writer Jenny Lawson hits the nail on the head of the struggle of mental health and illness when she writes “when depression sufferers fight, recover, and go into remission we seldom even know, simply because so many suffer in the dark . . . ashamed to admit something they see as a personal weakness. . . afraid that people will worry, and more afraid that they won’t.  We find ourselves unable to do anything but cling to the couch and force ourselves to breathe.”

    I know this will pass, that spring will come and thaw out the wintry silence inside my heart.  I know I will get through this with rest, prayer, meditation, baths, massages, time spent with beloved family and friends, playing with my cats, and work that brings me hope, but for now, I am just admitting that life (for today) is hard, no matter how many affirmations I say, no matter how many miles I walk, no matter what I do to fix myself.

    Perhaps a counselor can’t fix herself but fix her eyes on the Someone who is always there, as Frederick Buechner writes in Whistling in the Dark, “who unimaginably transcends the worst things as he also unimaginably transcends the best.”

    I’ll leave you with another passage from Furiously Happy because, well, it’s just that good. From “Note from the Author”:

    When you come out of the grips of a depression there is an incredible relief, but not one you feel allowed to celebrate. Instead, the feeling of victory is replaced with anxiety that it will happen again, and with shame and vulnerability when you see how your illness affected your family, your work, everything left untouched while you struggled to survive. We come back to life thinner, paler, and weaker . . . but as survivors.  Survivors don’t get pats on the back from coworkers who congratulate them on making it. Survivors wake to more work than before because their friends and family are exhausted from helping them fight a battle they may not even understand. (page xix-xx)

    I thank you for being here with me while we journey in this life together. I hope that you will celebrate your own victories over despair and fear and shame and remember to look for the good including the good you find inside your own beautiful self.  You are worth all the work and prayer and energies it takes to fight to see those things, to live a good and truly authentic life, and so, by God, am I.

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    Already Loved

    Posted on January 17, 2018 by Jenn

    Growing up I wasn’t good enough because my father and I were atheists, so I became a Christian to satisfy the people.

    Then I wasn’t good enough because I was (and still am and forever will be) a Democrat.

    Then I wasn’t good enough because I couldn’t convert my father who professed atheism until his dying day.

    Then I wasn’t good enough because I refused to evangelize my non-Christian friends, outright rejecting the whole notion of beating them with the Bible as it has been done to me.

    Here is the real deal: you will never be good enough for the religious people, the judges and juries who believe they are better than others because they have the real truth. You will never please them because the targets are always changing and trust me, the frenetic dance of their ever-changing goals never stops.

    I am through with imperial Christianity, done with trying to meet totally unrealistic expectations that are iron-made shackles, adding to the burdens of an already complicated and difficult human existence. I am already and have been since my birth, accepted and loved by God. No ifs, ands, or buts. Already fully loved and delighted in. The same is true for you. There are no exceptions.

    Jesus said “I came to love the whole world, not to condemn it but to make things whole.” (John 3:16-17 The Message)

    This means that the spiritual abuse we received was not of God, but of humans’ desires to control, manage, and manipulate others to their liking. Notice that the illusion of control is not love. It is not peace. It is not of joyful delight in the human being right in front of you.

    Thomas Merton, Catholic priest and mystic, wrote ”the beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

    So for today go out and about your day and know you are already loved, already found good and pleasing and wonderfully delighted in. Get that truth in the marrow of your bones. Meditate on it. Know it as you know the sun will rise and also that the Son rises to meet your beautiful face each and every day, if only you would see.

    The Buddhists believe that the Great Buddha looks on everyone with the eyes of compassion. Every single person who was and will be is already accepted and met with unmerited grace and abundant mercy. Sounds surprisingly like Jesus, doesn’t it?

    So go out today armed with the truth and remember the Divine sees you, knows you, loves you, and accepts you. As is. Already.  There are no exceptions.

    Bibliography:

    Merton, Thomas. (1965). The Way of Chaung Tzu. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/718914-the-beginning-of-love-is-the-will-to-let-those.

    (Photo by Nathaniel Tetteh on Unsplash)

     

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    In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King

    Posted on January 15, 2018 by Jenn

    I grew up raised by a dark-skinned woman from New York in a small and dusty Texas town in the early eighties.  She had a neurological disorder that created tanned skin which browned to milk chocolate in summertime.  Mother and Dad met and married in Brooklyn, New York in the late seventies, but for reasons unknown to me, they traveled all the way down south and set up a home in the country, isolated and removed from their friends and family.

    Mother was a social worker in the City but gave up the profession to care for me while Dad worked at the machine shop in the nearest town, about an hour away.  I began to notice how folks looked at my mother and how folks treated me when I was five.  While we were out shopping for groceries, at the local five-and-dime store, or having an ice cream soda down at the drugstore, people would flat-out stare at my mother.  I never understood why because I just loved her.  It never occurred to me not to.

    When I was older, eight years old, friendly and social with everyone, I invited my friend Leslie over to play but she shook her long strawberry blonde hair and her face fell.  She sighed, looked down at her feet, and said quietly, “I’m sorry, but my mother told me I can’t hang out with you.  It’s because of your mother.  Her looks.”

    I don’t remember the tears, the sense of hopelessness and pure confusion I felt.  I was just eight years old and had already experienced my first racial awakening.  To say that it was heartbreaking does an injustice to the term.

    I am convinced that the only way we can fight systemic racism and oppression is to become friends with one another, to go over to each other’s houses and play together, talk about hard issues, and find ways to fight spiritual battles together.

    Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior’s seminal work on fighting racial injustice with civil disobedience is celebrated all over the country today.  Here is a collection of his sermons and speeches on YouTube that I recommend for learning how to fight the evils of racism in the world.  But I do warn you that you will not be able to stay the same once you listen to them.  As they say in recovery, you can’t unring a bell, so go and listen and take action.

    P. S. To be completely honest with you (and you all know me; being honest is my jam), I have not listened to all these sermons yet.  For some strange reason, it just never occurred to me to do so until Latasha Morrison, the founder of Be the Bridge, said to do it.  Sometimes we all just need a good push in the right direction.

    P. P. S.  The one I love so far is his “Drum Major” sermon in which he manages to fight racism, classism, and economic oppression in one prophetic sermon.

    P. P. P. S.  The husband and I are also going to watch “Selma” tonight (about Dr. King), and you can rent it on Amazon, especially because it’s cold outside and hopefully going to snow here in Texas.

    P. P. P. P. S.  I really do love snow and I am hoping that it snows at least twelve feet tonight, so that I can stay home tomorrow and listen to all of Dr. King’s sermon because I’m always late when it comes to finding out how to do these sorts of things, so join me in being late too.  Really, being late is all the rage right now.  So there, I just told you how to get trendy and fight injustice all at the same time.

    P. P. P. P. P. S. This is my last post script but you have to promise me that you will listen to at least one of his sermons.  Kidding! (Only sort of not really at all.) It’s very easy and you can do so while you drive to work, do the dishes, or take a walk. Trust me.  Information is not transformation but we have to have the information first in order to create awareness and then action, so go ahead and give it try.

    Dr. King’s “Drum Major” sermon – This is Dr. King’s last sermon before his assassination in April 1968.

    Dr. King’s sermon “But If Not” – Dr. King takes the famous passage of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel and calls it an act of civil disobedience and gives a brilliant reframe to the whole story.

    Dr. King’s last speech “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” – This is Dr. King’s last speech to the sanitation workers, living out his message to be of service to all.

    Dr. King’s “The Negro Revolution” – This speech was given in Amherst, Massachusetts at the New School for Social Research in 1963.

    Dr. King’s “The Three Evils of Society”

    Dr. King’s “Birth of a New Nation”

    Dr. King’s “The Other America”

    Dr. King’s “Where Do We Go from Here?”

    Dr. King’s “Knock at Midnight”

    Dr. King’s “Love Your Enemies”

    **There are so many more of his sermons and speeches on YouTube.  You can type “mlk sermon” in YouTube and find an abundance of his work.  Don’t ever forget to listen to others with compassion.  That’s the first step towards unity.

    (Photo by Jerónimo Bernot on Unsplash)

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    A Christmas Reflection

    Posted on December 24, 2017 by Jenn

    Christmastime is one of the most difficult times of year, perhaps the hardest time of year for those of us who do not have the standard Hallmark-holiday family, a lie perpetuated by marketing companies and also, I think, born out of our deepest longings for security, control, and perfectionism. It’s totally unattainable, this seemingly perfect Christmas, and many of us drive ourselves nuts striving to achieve it.

    In Advent (the lead-up to Christmas), we are supposed to wait with joyful expectancy for the birth of Jesus, but it is also an exquisitely painful time of year for many of us.  The good news is often lost in the midst of manic shopping sprees, frenetic activity, and the nagging feeling of not feeling enough.  But the truth is that we always are more than enough to God, and this truth is one that I remind myself daily, especially during this time of year.  The other absolute truth is that “God is too busy loving us to be disappointed in us” (Father Gregory Boyle). And if God is so excited and thrilled that we are here and loving us on through our absurdities and insecurities, our self-obsessed minds and anxious hearts, then why is this truth so hard to grasp, especially during this time of year?

    ***

    When I was a little girl, I celebrated Hanukkah with my parents because my mother was Jewish then, and my parents felt it best to carry on the traditions of her family.  I remember the pretty lights on the silver and gold menorah, my mother lighting the tiny sky blue candles, one each night, and the small gifts of chocolate or trinkets I would receive.  It was a special time of year as I remember my parents silently agreeing to get along well for a few nights.   The ongoing fighting and repressed sarcastic remarks ceased temporarily, and there was an oasis of quiet in the house, something I dearly loved.

    But after my parents’ divorce, I began celebrating Christmas with my emotionally turbulent father, and Christmases were replete with his screams, my tears, slamming of doors, and his furious rage. Dad was a sober alcoholic, and just a little (read: very) angry, and he remained tortured by his own cocktail of gloomy self-hatred, hardened bitterness, and depressive rage.  Unlike many men I know in recovery groups and church, those who attend temple or who walk upright in their own spiritual practices, my father never sought out the help of others and indoctrinated me with a dangerous combination of paranoia, a hatred for people, and a complete dread of the future.  I gladly imbibed the lies he fed me; I did anything I could to get that man’s approval.

    And, of  course, being who he was, he did not grant me his approval and severed most contact with me at age twenty-two.  Apparently, this is not exactly normal behavior for parents, so let’s be clear about that.  It was abusive and unkind, one of the greatest betrayals of my life, and I still bear the scars on my psyche today.

    In spite of all this, I never forgot a promise I received when I was in college, wondering and wandering in the strange waters of my greenhorn faith, an unbreakable bond that would save my life over and over again because it pointed me to my real home.  Psalm 27:10 speaks specifically to the broken-hearted, the ones whose families reject them for whatever reason:  “My father and mother walked out and left me but God took me in.” (MSG). I went through some truly harrowing times of despair after I lost my father to addiction and mental illness, but I never lost my footing, not completely that is.

    So now I consider Advent now as a time to reaffirm my resistance to despair and hopelessness, a rejection of the lies that say I am not enough, things will never change, and the tearful “trance of unworthiness” that Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach writes of.  The most remarkable and bizarre story happened over two thousand years ago because God was trying to tell us something, a lesson He is still trying to relay, if only we would listen:  He will go to any lengths to get us back and turn our greatest suffering into joy.  If we are truly loved as deeply as scripture suggests, then this love that is for us, is here in us, and rooting for us despite our past mistakes, our current failures, and our future brokenness.

    So today I turn towards that ridiculous and holy truth, that Christ came down in the beginning of creation, as the Gospel of John records, (John 1:1-3a ), and at Christmas as a Jesus, so he could be here with me and you and teach us how to love and serve others, to practice the giving of peace and the embrace of pain, to teach us how to befriend the poor and marginalized, both within ourselves and out in the community.

    This is the great good news of Christmas – that I was never alone, even in my most broken and hard moments.  That means that you, dear reader, are not alone now, even in the midst of shipwrecked relationships, the loss of dreams, the pain of mental illness or addiction, or the just the ordinary occurrence of the boredom and strangeness of life.

    I hope that even in the midst of the darkness you face that you will remember that the light that cuts through the darkness is for you.  I hope you will acknowledge your suffering, surrender it to God, and trust.  Let yourself cry and be a good neighbor to yourself. Remember that when Jesus said “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” he means you too, and remember that our Buddhist friend Dr. Kristin Neff reminds us to “remember people close to you, your family and friends, remembering that they to suffer and want to be free of suffering, including yourself.”  Find solidarity with the poor within and after you have had a good cry or laugh, go out to the world and show them your real, messy, and beautiful self and be of service.  We need all of you to join us, to ring in the Feast of Christmas, because that’s also the Good News of the Resistance, that you are worthy as is and who you are is a gift to the world, that your gifts matter and can help change the world.

    Remember that the God is the Great Someone who runs toward us with total abandon, who sticks His fist to the bullies, who laughs at injustice and seeks to make things whole, who loves the poor and oppressed, the sex-trafficked, the factory workers, the men working construction, the prostitutes begging for sex and love, the folks in jail and in nursing homes, the lost children and adults to addiction and mental illness, the plundered earth and its animals, the pain-in-the-ass relative, you and me, and calls us to do the same.

    (Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash)

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    5 Ways to Deal with Insomnia

    Posted on December 20, 2017 by Jenn

    When I’m sleep deprived, I feel like everything in my immediate environment is too garish, as if the blades of green grass or the sheer coral trumpet vine near my house dance in front of me, and I’m completely overwhelmed by the enormity of life. Often, I get like this when I’m too tired to rest, and sleep feels like a battle I must win. But I’m learning that in those moments early in the morning, when I’m wide awake and wondering, when my mind is whirring with the excitement or fear, that God is there and holds space for me.

    This is a bold idea for a girl like me, a girl who grew up in a household in which I was forbidden to talk about God. I joke around with my friends when I say I was raised by an angry Communist, but the hard truth is that I was. My father’s worldview irrevocably shaped my early life and how I came to understand God; to ask for God’s help in the darkness now feels subversive and holy.

    Darkness is the time when my mind (often) wakes up and whirs with activity. I call it “busy brain” but others call it racing thoughts or worry. I have suffered from it since I was a little girl and sleep came only fitfully then. Now, though, it comes more easily thanks to some tricks I have learned over the years.

    The other night, after several nights of restless sleep, I finally emerged from my bed to meditate on God’s love using a guided meditation produced by The Liturgist’s. I was angry and afraid but after twenty minutes or so, my mind calmed down long enough to allow me to go back to bed and rest, and then I finally fell asleep, calmly and quietly. (Dear reader, take note: this does NOT happen every single time I have insomnia.  When it doesn’t happen, and I stumble to work in a daze, I cut myself a lot of slack because, after all, sometimes sleep is hard to come by.)

    However, the sleep I got the other night did feel like a small miracle, that in the midst of the madness of insomnia, I found an oasis of peace and rest. Miracles are often thought to be enormous, like a burning bush or the parting red sea. We often discount the so-called ordinary miracles like falling asleep, practicing self-care, or laughter, but they are no less amazing than the big miracles like the Incarnation and the Resurrection, a loved one getting off drugs or alcohol, your birth or mine.

    Sometimes I wish I were normal, that I could sleep peacefully and wake up feeling refreshed and restored daily like some sort of magic sleep fairy. What I do know is this: I am not that person, and, most likely, never will be. I remember the universal truth that all of us are a great big mix of mess, power, addictions, beauty, and mental illnesses. Life is weird and sometimes we can’t sleep. I avoid analyzing myself too much these days and offer myself self-acceptance (grace) because sleep is not something that we can command our bodies to do. It is truly an act of surrender.

    Having insomnia has given me a strange and beautiful empathy; after all, I am the girl who wakes up scared and prays, who knows what suffering is, who can relate to her counseling clients who have poor sleep and lament their imperfect bodies. I tell them, honey, I understand. I get it. Not sleeping totally sucks but here’s where I’ve found hope and you can too.

    Here are some of my favorite go-to strategies for dealing with a sleepless night.

    1. Take a break from technology two hours prior to bedtime. Being hooked up to our computers, iPhones, and tablets are fun and engaging, but our brains need time to disconnect and relax. In fact, some research suggests that the light from our phones and tablets keeps us awake, which only increases our risk of insomnia. Practice detaching from technology as an act of resistance to our culture of frenetic productivity and rest. (See article in the UK’s Telegraph for more information.)

    2. Make a quiet space in your house to go to and listen to a guided meditation when you awake in the middle of the night. In my house, I go to the study with a small nightlight to see by and listen to a collection of guided meditations on my computer. The meditation called “Centering Prayer II” on the Liturgist’s “Garden” album has relaxed me many times. See www.theliturgists.com/garden and check it out for yourself.

    If Christian meditations are not your jam, then check out Dr. Kristin Neff’s self-compassion guided meditations. A practicing Buddhist and research psychologist, Dr. Neff wrote Self-Compassion, a much-needed book for cultivating self-kindness, and her guided meditations are a relief for those of us who struggle with a propensity for self-criticism. Check out Dr. Neff’s guided meditations and experience some peace of mind.

    3. Practice staying in your bed and reciting the ABCs of gratitude in your mind. This practice is straightforward, and I find that I usually don’t get to the end of the alphabet when I’m up at night and my mind is flinging things to get me worried. Here’s how you do it. Think of one word that begins with the letter A (or perhaps all the words you can think of) that you enjoy, repeat the word internally, and your mind will send forth an image of the word. Then move on to the next one!  It’s sort of like giving your thoughts a chance to exercise and most of the time this wears them out and then you can rest.  Gratitude is a go-to balm for those of us with tiny issues with fear or anger or sadness, which (of course) is really every human being on the planet.  I’m not naming names or anything, but this one really works for me.

    4. Get creative. Jenny Lawson, the fabulous comedic writer and blogger from the Bloggess, often shares her late-night dramatic dress-ups on Instagram. If your brain will not let you sleep, journal, dress up, write or sing to yourself and see if you can get out some of the energy that is keeping you awake. Sometimes I get my best writing done at 4am. See Jenny Lawson’s latest post on insomnia and writhe with laughter.

    5. When all else fails, and I mean you have tried to meditate, pray, write, get creative, and you have been suffering from insomnia for longer than one month, go see a doctor and consider taking a sleeping pill. As a therapist, I can’t prescribe medications (much to my clients’ disappointments), and I’m not in favor of medicating EVERYTHING, but not getting consistent sleep is a serious problems and can increase the likelihood of recurrent depression, anxiety, car accidents, manic episodes, and a host of other problems. I certainly won’t judge you as I know from personal experience how bad it feels to get poor sleep. There is no shame for taking good care of yourself and if someone is doing that, then consider taking a break from the friendship or critical voice that’s beating you down.

    So how do you deal with insomnia?

    (Photo by Maria Freyenbacher on Unsplash)

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