The Church is Not Our Mirror

I should have written this a long time ago. Back when I felt it stirring in my heart. Back when the words began burning in me so hot I could barely stay seated. Back when it first kept me up all night. I apologize for making excuses and finding distractions. I’m writing it now.

When I look around the Church – general church, not any specific congregation – I see something troubling. Or rather, it’s what I don’t see that troubles me. I see a sea of faces, similar to mine. Families greeting each other, all resembling one another. Friends hugging and chatting and relating to one another as they embark on nearly identical life journeys. This is not a bad thing  – we are the family of God, and fellowship is a powerful thing. What troubles me is how alike we all are, mostly two-parent, white families of comparable socioeconomic standing. Again, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with being a white, middle class family, no apologies are to be made for who you are. But I know that this fellowship, this flock, is not a representative sampling of our city, of our world.

Where are the families of different colors, cultures?

Where are the single parents?

Where are the single people?

Where are the addicted, the poor, the broken, the unemployed, the homeless?

Where are the gay people? Where are the trans people? Where are the families with two moms, two dads?

THIS is what our world looks like. THESE are the people we don’t have sitting beside us.

Why?

The Church is not our mirror – it’s God’s. It was never meant to reflect our own image back to us, it was intended for God to see His reflection in us. If we only fill the pews with people like ourselves then we have not furthered the kingdom, we have only created a mirror. If the only people you know live lives exactly like your own, then please, meet new people. More people. Hurting people. Different people. People Jesus died for and longs for. People who He created with as much care and loves just as much as He loves you.

Here comes Justification Jones, ready to argue.

“But Jennifer, they are living a life of sin!”

Show me someone who isn’t. Show me a parishioner who does not struggle, who did not come to Jesus as a sinner. If you think being a sinner precludes anyone from meeting Jesus then I’m sorry to say you’ve read your Bible wrong. God knows when sin is present, He knows what His Word says. He does not need our opinion of His children. He’s not interested in our judgement of them, He’s interested in their hearts, He’s desperate for their company. Becoming a Christian, as you as Christians will know, does not make us perfect or suddenly insulate us from a world full of hurt. On the contrary, becoming a Christian means we are called to go out into the world and make His name famous. His blood was as much for their sins as it was for ours, and we are cheating His sacrifice on the cross by keeping it to ourselves.

A few years ago I shared a story on Facebook, an experience that really opened my eyes. I was photographing two beautiful brides, the southern tradition of bridal portraits, stunning blondes in gorgeous gowns. They posed fantastically and created some of my favorite images to this day. They were young, happy, and in love. Unbeknownst to the onlookers and gawkers around us, they were also sisters. Their weddings were not far apart, and it was a unique opportunity to capture their friendship during this special time in their lives. But what I knew to be two sisters sharing a memory looked to outsiders to be two women in a romantic relationship. Let me tell you, we got some looks. Pointing. Scowling. People flustered with their disapproval, not knowing what to do with the judgement that washed all over them.  Ugly looks. Mean looks. Mad looks. Attention is normal during bridal portraits, it comes with looking like a princess in an ordinary world, and ordinarily every bride is greeted with smiles and congratulations, maybe a few inquiries as to the big day. But not this day. Only one couple stopped to admire these ladies’ beauty and offer their congratulations – two men, arm in arm, out walking their dog. I don’t hate the Church, don’t misinterpret me. I love my God and His people and have been involved in full time ministry for more than 13 years now. I just want better from the church. That day I saw that we as Christians had been getting something very wrong. None of those looks, those scowls, not one furrowed brow or pursed lip made me want to go to church. I did not feel invited, welcomed. I felt judged, felt outside. I could see the disapproval on their faces and knew our company was not anything that interested these people. Their opinions of us were more important to them than our souls. Friends, we cannot hate anyone into church. We cannot judge them into the altars. We can, however, shun them to the point of preferring whatever eternity awaits them beyond the arms of Jesus.

We’re getting it very wrong when it comes to the LGBTQIA community.

“That’s a lot of letters, Jen,” says Justification Jones.

And Jesus cares about every single person they represent. If a new letter is added tomorrow, I will learn what I can about it so that I may better embrace the person who identifies with it. If a single parent, a gay person, mentally ill person or an addict gives me the time of day, I want to embrace them with all the love I have. I want to be able to say, “Historically my people have not been too kind to your people. Please, sit by me and get to know Jesus.” If a person comes to me and says they used to be a man but now they’re a woman, I will say to them that I once was lost but now I’m found, welcome to our church.

At some point, someone somewhere took it upon themselves to categorize sin and create something Christianese calls “lifestyle sins”. I’ve got news for you – that’s not a thing. It has no Biblical basis. When we embrace the adulterer and tax cheat but turn our hearts against the gay community, it has nothing to do with “lifestyle sin” and everything to do with moral superiority and relativism. The moment we start to compare sins we have stepped outside of the word of God and into our own opinions. It is not and never will be our job to excuse or condemn. Justification Jones will point out that the Bible gives clear instructions about confronting sin within the church… within the church. What good is it to confront a nonbeliever with words he doesn’t yet believe? The Bible is not a billy club and the gospel is not to be earned. It is free, to all. Spread His love and let Him do the talking.

When the woman was caught in the act of adultery and thrown at the feet of Jesus, it was by judgmental men who rebuked her every step of the way. She was brought to Him not to save her, but to condemn her! You know from the account how well it worked out for those who brought her – they left in their own shame, having become aware of their own sins and how little the woman’s affected them. The adulterous woman, escorted in judgement, left in freedom; the would-be jury came in haughtiness and left in humbleness.

The Church is not our mirror – we are His. We are vastly underqualified to decide who should and should not come to church. The judgement throne is not our pew, friends. We need more of the people outside of the church, sitting in our church. We need to check our hearts and pray for theirs. We need to reflect Jesus and stop trying to be Him. Heaven isn’t hiring, it’s welcoming. The job we were offered wasn’t that of judge and jury, but of missionary and mouthpiece. There is not one single justification that anyone can muster which would excuse someone from being invited to church.

We need to reach His people and serve His people. We as the Church need better divorce care, better single parent support, better foster family respite care, better, qualified, professional counseling services (expect another blog on this in the near future). We need multicultural congregations and multieconomical outreach. We need more welcomes and fewer stares. We need Jesus to be famous. We need the world to hear His good news. We need to open our arms, shut our mouths, and just hug any person Christ would….

and that’s everyone.

Measuring Others’ Pain

This post has been stirring in my heart for a while. It seems that almost every conversation I have had for the last few weeks has just confirmed the need for me to write these words down, even if only to humble myself into accepting them. I myself am guilty of what I’m about to write about, as many of us are, and I apologize.

We all, at any point in our lives, have a friend or loved one who is hurting. Death. Sickness. Divorce. Infertility. Special needs. Mental illness. The loss of a job. The loss of a child. The loss of a parent. The loss of a home. The loss of an ability. The loss of a friendship. Addiction. Affairs. Abuse. Straight-up drama.  We can all call to the front of our minds someone we know who is going through something painful. I can name a friend for almost all of the above-mentioned situations, and it’s sobering. Pain is all around us, even when it doesn’t directly affect us. We cannot always protect those we care about from experiencing it and we cannot walk this earth without at some point feeling it ourselves. Pain is a part of life, and a very important part at that. And while pain is, at some point, unavoidable, that does not make it dismissible.

My oh my, how many times have we heard the plight of a friend and commented to ourselves, “If I were in that situation, I’d……”, almost with a sense of superiority, as though our opinion of their situation held more weight than the situation itself?

“I’d never stand for that.”

“I’d never stay if he did that.”

“It’s been six months already, how has she not moved on?”

“I’d have seen a doctor sooner.”

“I’d go to college.”

“I’d get a better-paying job.”

“I’d never do that.”

“I can’t believe she stayed.”

“I can’t believe she left.”

“I can’t believe she’s still talking about it.”

We go on and on, offering our opinions instead of our support, proud of ourselves for having it all together and never realizing how lucky we are to be able to view the pain from the outside. Or we apply our own experience.

“When that happened to me, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps.”

“I worked hard, so anyone else can, too.”

“It worked for me, there’s no reason she can’t do it.”

“I was smart enough to leave.”

“I struggle, too, but you don’t hear me crying about it.”

“I never let my kids do that.”

“I had to pay, they should, too.”

The fact is, pain is not quantitative. There is no way to measure what another person is going through, therefore there is no way to compare what they’re going through.

There is no expiration date for grief, no way to determine when an appropriate amount of time has passed before one must “get over it”. Whether a pregnancy was lost in the early weeks or in the delivery room does not hold any weight to the pain felt. There is no “at least” that will bring comfort to the persons who have said goodbye to someone they love – “at least you were only 6 weeks pregnant”, “at least you know you can get pregnant”, “at least you had all that time together”, “at least they went quickly”, “at least you had time to prepare yourself”, “at least you had a chance to say goodbye”, “at least you’re young”, “at least they were old”…. there is no “at least” that is bigger than the hole left behind.

Disappointment is not relative. A friend of mine delivered her first baby a few years ago and was deeply disappointed over the experience, as it had not gone as she’d planned and prepared for. In the middle of her tears she said, almost apologetically, “I know, at least I didn’t have to have a C-section like you, so I should be grateful…” NO. Disappointment is not relative. My disappointment being different from her disappointment does not make hers less, and does not make mine more. It’s okay to admit disappointment – it’s not the same as discontentment. And that old monster “At Least” has no place in disappointment. “At least” hints that the pain that is felt is too great, that the feelings experienced are not proportionate to the situation. But as grief cannot be quantified, there is no such thing as proportionate pain.

Mourning is not morning – it is not over at a specific time. A death, a divorce, whatever has ended has an effect, and your opinion of how long the process has taken does not speed it up. “Long enough” is not helpful, is not supportive. It does not push one towards healing, but rather towards isolation. If someone cannot share their pain with you because of how you attempt to measure or judge it, they will keep it to themselves and share the burden of their feelings alone.

While we are not meant to be sad, we are meant to feel sadness when it arises. One of the most powerful representations I’ve ever seen of its importance was, of all places, in a Pixar movie. If you haven’t seen Inside Out, go rent it tonight! The main character, Joy, obviously wants everything to be happy all the time, as do most of us. Social media, Pinterest, tv, Instagram… we’re surrounded by the most perfect and joyous of images and messages all day long, and we like it. We strive for it. But when something legitimately sad happens, Joy tries to push through, move on, gloss over it and pretend like it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. In the movie – and I promise you I paused immediately after this scene to wipe my tears and explain how impactful it was to my kids – Sadness sits down and talks about how sad it is. She lets the tears flow, admits that it is sad, and feels the pain of it all. Once this has happened – and ONLY after this has happened – are they able to move on in their journey. Sadness must be felt. We have to acknowledge how painful something is before we can begin to heal from it. To become stronger we must admit we were once weaker, and accept that neither is better than the other. Sadness, pain, grief, mourning, disappointment – they’re all very real emotions that will take place regardless of our opinion of the circumstances they showed up in.

Ah, the circumstances. This one is tough, because all too often the circumstances of one’s pain create an excuse for others to dismiss them. You never liked that friend’s husband so you’re not sad to see their marriage fail. You don’t do drugs so you have a hard time feeling compassion for those who lose everything to addiction. You would never let your kids behave so poorly so you feel justified when someone else’s teenager runs away. You know he cheated before so you have a hard time feeling sorry for your friend who stayed anyway when he does it again. You judged their spending habits or their low-paying jobs so you judge their bankruptcy or their pleas for help. You had success with a weight loss program so you are exasperated with your overweight friend. But our opinions, again, are not helpful. They didn’t protect anyone from getting hurt and they certainly won’t help anyone to heal. To put it plainly, it truly, 100%, completely, wholly DOES NOT MATTER what we think. We do not get to decide who is deserving of their pain. Not agreeing with another’s pain does not negate it. Just because you don’t agree with someone’s divorce does not mean you can drop off a casserole and hope it goes away. Your discomfort is not a factor any more than your opinion. People around us are hurting, and we are not called to sit in judgement of them. We don’t have to like what’s happening, only love the person its happening to.

That’s what it all comes down to, really – judgement. We think we know better, think we’d do better, feel we’ve done better. But the hurting ones around us are not asking for our expertise, they’re asking for our compassion. One of the most humbling experiences of my life has been to tell someone I love that I support their decisions because I support them, and then watch them make a decision I would not have made. So what am I to do now? Do I withdraw my support because I disagree, or do I swallow my pride and recognize that my opinion is literally worth nothing in such matters? Do I henceforth offer only conditional support to loved ones in the hopes that they’ll do what I want them to? Do I sit in bitter judgement and disbelief at their choices, or do I thank God that I am not in the same boat, having to make the same ones? Do I turn up my nose or lend them my ear?

Don’t misunderstand me, support is not the same as enabling. Enabling is offering your permission; support is offering your hand. Enabling is making something possible; support is making someone stronger. Support is propping up someone when they’re too weak to stand on their own. Support is listening to them, crying with them, praying for them. It’s offering your help, your ear, your time, your words when asked and your shoulder when needed. Only offering support when your opinions are followed is friendship on demand, it’s help for sale, it’s selfish. So when you find yourself beginning to judge someone else’s pain or reactions, as yourself, “How on EARTH is their pain about ME?”

It’s not.

So stop telling people to get over it already. Stop telling yourself you’d do any better. Stop trying to measure someone else’s pain and stop kidding yourself that you even can. Start listening without forming an opinion. Start acknowledging sadness when you’d rather stick your head in the sand. Start accepting that there is only so much you can control, and it’s even less than you think. Start being a friend instead of a jury. And for the love, stop telling people how to feel.

 

Common Criticisms of the Church: What Many Say (and What Few Know)

I have started and stopped writing this post several times. I had to make sure each time that I was writing it out of a desire to educate and not to be passive aggressive. I am human, after all. But know that this post is not directed towards anyone specific, only intended to address some common criticisms – and memes – that I’ve seen.

In 5th grade I began attending a church for the first time with any regularity. I quickly formed a deep bond with the pastor’s daughter and we remained best friends for years. There were months at a time where I actually even lived with them, my best friend’s family, the pastor of our church. When I met the (super hot) man who would become my husband, I was 16 and he had recently become the children’s pastor at our church. We married when I was 19 and he was on staff full-time at a very large church. Now, almost 12 years of marriage later, we are still in full-time ministry. It’s all we’ve known as a couple, it’s all our kids have known as a family. My experience with ministry spans decades and denominations, positions and places. I’ve both witnessed it and lived it for the majority of my life. I also live in this modern society. I see the posts, the memes, the comments, the assumptions. I hear the complaints and the criticisms. I listen, I do. I don’t dismiss them as the ramblings of godless pagans (sarcasm font). As someone who passionately loves Jesus, it does me no good to write off an entire generation of people simply for having different beliefs than I do. But also as someone who loves Jesus, it does me no good if I don’t try to present the truth about what seems to bring up such strong negative feelings in so many people – the church. I don’t want to argue. I don’t want to taunt. And I certainly don’t want to use this platform as a chance to passive aggressively discuss how hard ministry is – I’ll openly tell anyone that, haha! I just want to take this opportunity to do my part to dispel some rumors and myths about churches and pastors, to the best of my ability. I obviously don’t speak for all churches or pastors, and there will of course be some who don’t adhere to the same beliefs or practices. There will also always be some bad apples in a bunch, regardless of profession or location. So I ask that you read this with an open mind and an open heart, willing to hear some truth about an institution you may have been hurt by or misinformed about. My intent is never to attack anyone, only to help.

Common Criticism: “Pastors don’t pay taxes.”

We totally do. I’ve seen the meme making the rounds for years now, images of Joel Osteen’s or T.D. Jakes’ or Ed Young’s enormous homes, pointing out the assumed hypocrisy of their wealth and not paying any portions of it to the government like everyone else has to. And while I understand how many, many people would be turned off by those pictures, I guarantee you they paid taxes on whatever they earned to buy those homes. Pastors are considered self-employed for tax purposes and have to put aside their own taxes throughout the year, they aren’t automatically removed from paychecks. We’ve written our share of checks to Uncle Sam in April, believe me, pastors pay taxes. CHURCHES do not. Churches are nonprofit organizations – they literally do not turn a profit. Every cent that is given to a church is processed right back out of it, like the ACLU, Doctors Without Borders, NPR, American Red Cross, ASPCA, St. Jude’s, Make A Wish, Ted Talks, Ronald McDonald House, Planned Parenthood, PBS, the Mayo Foundation, AARP, American Heart Association, the Humane Society, Susan G. Komen, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, Habitat for Humanity, American Cancer Society, Amnesty International, and countless others. These foundations and organizations work on behalf of others using donations to operate, the same as a church. Employees of these organizations all receive a salary, but their salaries are set and are not impacted by the amount of donations received… unless the donations stop coming in. Just like a church. Simply to add more clarity and definitely not to defend, Joel Osteen does not receive a salary from the church he pastors. He, like T.D. Jakes and Ed Young, writes books. Books that sell millions of copies and generate a lot of taxable income. To summarize, pastors pay taxes, all nonprofit organizations do not.

Common Criticism: “Pastors are preying on people, always asking for money.”

They do ask for money, in the form of tithes and offerings. As a nonprofit, a church cannot operate unless money is donated. Electric bills that ensure lights and air conditioning, phone service that allows people to call the church office, employees to answer the phones, clean the church, mow the grass, and, you know, minister. In addition to just the common operating expenses, churches GIVE. They pay bills for those who come to them in need, they support missionaries around the world, buy school supplies for single moms, foot the bill for enormous outreaches, food ministries, homeless ministries… the amount of people a church can bless is only limited by the funds they receive. Aside from the Biblical call to tithe, if a church member wants to experience church, they must acknowledge that it costs to run that church. If they want to see that church do more, someone has to give more. In our denomination – and I know not all operate this way – churches are autonomous. Our church does not receive funds from a central office or district manager. What our church brings in is what our church operates on. Many,  many churches are not supported by higher-up offices and do not have free reign or blank checks when it comes to spending, so if a church is going to pay a bill, it has to have the money in its own account.

Common Criticism: “Churches don’t do enough. They should spend all their money on the poor instead of giant buildings.”

It’s a proven fact – the bigger the church, the bigger the reach. A church that seats 5,000 can do more than a church that seats 30. Neither is better than the other, neither is more holy. But when a church is more visible, it reaches more people. When a church has more tithing members, it has more funds to give, to send, to share. When a church can hold more, there are more opportunities for people to find someone to connect with. When a church has a large operating budget, it can afford programs and ministries during the week. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to attend them, but mega churches are not inherently, automatically evil. A room full of thousands of worshipers is a mighty thing for a community, not a symbol of greed. It’s crass, but the bigger the church, the more money it brings in, the more it can do. Jesus preached to thousands and it didn’t make him a sellout any more than preaching to one woman in the dirt made him ineffective. Christian crowds come in all sizes and shapes and numbers, and their reach is greatly increased when those sizes grow. The less a church receives in tithes and offerings, the less it is able to do. Electricity is not free. Food to hand out to the homeless is not free. Childcare for single mothers is not free. This is one of the most frequent criticisms I see of the church, a list of things people think the church should do, and every single time it is in the same breath as a complaint about pastors asking for money. EVERY. TIME. Divorce ministries cost money. Bibles cost money. After school programs cost money. Blankets, hot chocolate, gift baskets, anything kind you could think to hand out to someone – they all cost money. Counselors on staff cost money. Events cost money. Easter eggs full of candy cost money. Even filling up a baptismal costs money. Churches have to have money to be able to provide the things and services so many think they should, the things and services the Bible says they should.

Common Criticism: “Pastor didn’t come to my _(insert private event here)_.”

This is one of the biggest reasons people leave a church – offense at the pastor. I even know a few friends who are vocal atheists who have said the turning point in their faith was something a pastor did. It’s a big deal when people are hurt by their shepherd, and I’m in no way excusing or condoning the actions of some very flawed people. But I will address this frequent complaint, if you’ll allow me.

I’m just going to say it – attending graduation/anniversary/birthday/lawn clipping parties is not biblical. The Bible has some very clear guidelines for those in ministry, and modern society has added on a very long list of expectations. It is impossible, truly impossible, to meet them all, to attend everything, to keep everyone happy. In addition to the wants of the congregation come the needs of a family. The Bible makes multiple mentions of pastors caring for their families, this isn’t selfishness. I can tell tales of 7am Saturday phone calls demanding my husband attend someone’s game, of graduation seasons when I don’t see my husband for weeks. There is always, always something to do, which means that pastors can’t always, always attend. They are very busy people attending to the long list of responsibilities and expectations laid before them, and sometimes items just have to drop off the list. Not because they don’t care, not because you’re not special, but because they just can’t do it. So I ask you, when you’re offended or upset that a pastor hasn’t done something or made an appearance somewhere, ask yourself if your offense is biblical or personal. It’s a hard pill to swallow sometimes, but it’s a lot easier than holding onto bitterness and offense.

 

Common Criticism: “Pastors don’t do enough. They just read the Bible and play golf.”

……………………

I had to take a break to compose myself, I was just laughing way too hard to type! Okay, I’m back.

One of the main questions my husband gets from young people is, “What do you DO, like, for a job?” They all assume that he works somewhere in an office, 9-5, and is able to toss together a service in his spare time. In truth, I don’t know of a single day he’s worked 9-5. Pastors are really freaking busy. When I lived with my best friend so many years ago, I was so surprised at the number of messages on the answering machine any time we got back from an errand. People calling at all hours for prayer, for help with a bill, hoping for a visit in the hospital, wanting to tattle on and complain about another church member. Two of my husband’s favorite hobbies are golf and fishing, neither of which he’s been able to do in a few years. Budgeting, board meetings, counseling, hospital visits, staff meetings, sermon prep, video prep, service outlines, more hospital visits, meetings with church members, taking phone calls, meeting people at whatever utility office they have an unpaid bill at, mission trips, outreaches, camps, event planning, volunteer recruitment, volunteer follow up, begging volunteers not to quit, visitor follow up, praying, not to mention the pastors who are responsible for cleaning the church, mowing the lawn, and doing the work in the community no one sees – there is not enough time in a week to be a pastor. If ever you’ve driven past the church and not seen my husband’s car, it’s not because he wasn’t working, it’s because he was out taking the church somewhere it was needed. We get phone calls, texts, and emails on “days off”, on our trip to Disney World several years back, and even during family members’ funerals. The work of pastoring is never complete and rarely seen. Recently my family left a church event we were enjoying because a man no one had ever met came through the doors in need of money for a prescription. We all loaded up and followed him to the pharmacy and paid for his medications… only to drive past his car in the parking lot of a restaurant a few minutes later. Pastors are always doing. During the first few months of school my husband is so busy that our kids can go days without seeing him – despite the church only being 10 minutes away from our house. The number one fight among all of the married couples I know who are in ministry, by far, is fighting over how much the pastor is gone. Pastoring. It’s a never-ending job, shepherding the flock, and the sheep rarely realize that the pastor is not with them simply because he’s with someone else. Definitely not because he’s on the golf course.

 

Common Criticism: “Pastors only hang out with an elite group. If you’re not one of the chosen few, your pastor doesn’t care about you.”

This has a smidgen of truth to it. Not that anyone is elite, not that pastors don’t care, but that pastors are a little hesitant. First, there’s the time issue – pastors have very little, if any, free time. Nights out with friends don’t happen. Going to the movies doesn’t happen. Guys’ camping trips don’t happen. There really isn’t much time to hang out with ANYONE, so they often fall back to the friends who have proven to be understanding of their schedules over time. There is also a fear of being a status symbol. A lot of people want proximity to a pastor, not a relationship with them. The same for their spouses and children. The number of people who have declared devotion to helping my husband, who have proclaimed a dedication to praying for him and being his “armor bearer”, outnumbers the actual number of people in our lives… by probably 20 to 1. It’s just a fact that not everyone stays in a church, and it’s a fact that people hold pastors to an often-impossible standard. Add in the fact that people are imperfect, and you have a lot of hurt pastors who are lonely and afraid to let new people into their private lives. The statistics on pastors struggling with depression and loneliness are staggering. The numbers on pastoral burnout are worse – the overwhelming majority of people who enter into full time ministry will walk away from it, for good. Pastors have their own struggles and are often unable to share them with friends for any number of reasons – fear of judgement, fear of their confidence being betrayed, fear of being used to boost someone’s social standing. No one in church is elite. There’s not a list of the members who give the most money, and tithing doesn’t buy an audience with anyone. It IS hard for pastors to find friends among the congregation, but usually because they’ve been hurt before, not because you’re not rich/cool/young/old/involved enough.

Common Criticism: “My pastor didn’t….”

I once met a woman who left her church because her pastor didn’t approach her son with whom she was feuding. The pastor had no idea the argument was ongoing, the son didn’t attend the church so the pastor didn’t know him, and the woman never asked him to intervene. While pastors do hear from God, they can’t read YOUR mind. If you need something from a pastor, let them know before you criticize them for not providing it. Pastors have jobs, families, commitments, all the things anyone else is juggling, IN ADDITION to being needed everywhere all the time. If your hope and expectations are always in your pastor, you will always leave disappointed. The goal of a pastor is to introduce you to Jesus, not himself. Jesus is way more available whenever you need Him, too.

Common Criticism: “Pastors make so much money.”

……………………………………..

Okay, okay, stop! I can’t catch my breath with these jokes you’re making! Whew, that was a knee-slapper if I’ve ever heard one!

Yes, some pastors make a crapload of money. Yes, some pastors live well. But most live very, very modestly. An enormous number of pastors are even bi-vocational – they work a paying job in addition to the low-paying or volunteer position of pastor. Most denominations do  not offer parsonages – I’ve only ever met one pastor who lived in one. Our housing is not free, our bills are not free. There have been many times where we’ve had to collect groceries from the church’s food ministry or food bank. We rarely get Christmas bonuses. My kids qualify for free lunch at school. All of our bills are due the same time as anyone else’s, we definitely pay taxes, we experience the same raise in the cost of living, yet many pastoral salaries have actually DECREASED over the years. Because of the nature of his work and the hours involved in always being on call, my husband cannot get a second job, and he does not earn overtime pay. I read a hilarious satirical article I’ll link here, and it will tell you everything you need to know about the attitude often held towards pastors and money. Without going into too much more detail, we really, truly, do not get paid a lot. Our salary is set by the board and does not fluctuate with attendance – though a downward trend in giving and membership will absolutely lead to a pay cut, simply because the money isn’t there to pay the staff. No one goes into ministry for the money.

Common Criticism: “Churches are all full of hypocrites.”

Yeah, actually. We’re all imperfect, flawed, sinning people. We’re all doing our best. We’re all at some point in our spiritual journey – none of us are done. We’re all going to do the wrong thing sometimes, we’re all going to offend someone, we’re all going to stumble, fall, mess up, and look like the worst Christians alive. There is no such thing as a perfect Christian. So if you enter a church, be prepared to meet some seriously imperfect people. Me, especially.

Common Criticism: “My pastor’s wife….”

I’ll stop you right there. Homegirl is holding down the fort. She cannot be Your Pastor 2.0. Pastors have families, illnesses, bills, homes, tragedies, struggles, yards, laundry… they’re normal people. Just as the pastor can’t always be at everything, neither can his wife. Just as he will disappoint you sometimes, so will his wife. Just as he can’t always hang out with you, neither can his wife. They’re a team, no doubt. What he does couldn’t be accomplished without the help and support she offers at home. So again, examine your offense before you declare yourself to be wronged and ask if you had the same schedule and circumstances as she did, would you have been able to do what you expected of her?

 

Common Criticism: “This blog is too long!”

I agree. I’ve gone on way longer than I intended to (you thought pastors were the only ones to never stop talking?!), so I’ll leave you with this: Pastors are people. They struggle. Churches are trying. They’re made up of imperfect people. They do not erect walls with the intention to deceive or exclude anyone. Money is personal for a lot of people so I understand the reservations that come with writing checks. But please, what ever your criticism, what ever your questions, just ask. Pastors don’t go into ministry for the money, they go into it because they love and care about people. They want to help you. But because they are people, they can only give you what they have, in the form of time, money, or abilities. Please, ask. And if you’re a member of a church somewhere, remember that Pastor Appreciation Month is all of October. Wink wink. Your pastors could really use the boost… and a volunteer. 😉

 

 

 

The Bad Weather Friend

We all know about fair weather friends. We’ve had them, been them. We all have the the friend who is only a friend when times are good, fun, easy, carefree. Then life happens, the going gets tough and the fair weather friends throw up their deuces and are nowhere to be seen.

That’s not what I am.

I’m a bad weather friend. The friend you call when life gives you lemons. The friend you message when you’re broken-hearted, hurting, in need of some kind. I’m not the only friend like this, I don’t begin to be so prideful as to assume that, and I’m not always as available as I’d like to be during the storm. But us, the bad weather friends, we’re the ones in the background, the ones deep in the message inbox because your life has been going well and you haven’t needed us.

I used to resent it, being a safe place. “Don’t tell Betty Sue,” you’d plead to me, “She has no idea I’m going through this.” A week later I’d see you on social media out to dinner with Betty Sue, at the movies with Betty Sue, with nary an invite for me, the person you trusted in your state of vulnerability. “Please help me,” your message would start, “I don’t know what to do.” The next week I’d see the read receipt on my lengthy and well-thought-out response, the words I prayed over and poured into, and see that you’d read them days before without thanks. “I desperately need your prayers,” you cry, “my life is in shambles and I’m terrified of what is to come.” I hold you, cry with you, pray with you, and plead on your behalf at the feet of God, to hear through the grapevine later that everything worked out fine. This hurt me. I felt used, discarded, like a friend of convenience. I was who you turned to in times of need but not times of leisure, someone you knew would be a friend to you but not someone you were interested in being a friend with. I got bitter. I got discouraged. I got jealous.

Then I had to wonder – why would God honor my jealousy? Isn’t there totally something in the Bible about not being jealous? Whatever my experiences and emotions, jealousy is never holy or righteous on my part. Whatever Betty Sue has with you that I don’t, it’s not okay to be jealous of. Because you know what? Betty Sue obviously doesn’t have something that I do. Betty Sue may be fun and may get all the girls nights out, but she doesn’t get you at your worst, she isn’t who you turn to when you need someone you know will be there. Also, Betty Sue is a lot more available to go to the movies than I am – I don’t have childcare or spare cash lying around, so I’m glad you have Betty Sue. I couldn’t maintain the friendship that you and Betty Sue have even if I wanted to, so I’m happy to be your person, happy to keep your secrets and know sides of you that few others do. As for the unreturned messages, well, I’m glad you got them. Those words were for you and I hope they helped. I didn’t offer my help in exchange for thanks, and I’m sure that in the moment you read them you were experiencing the chaos you first messaged me about. Your life was obviously upside down in one way or another, so I couldn’t have expected you to behave as normal. You messaged me in desperation and probably read my replies in the same manner… or you just really hated what I had to say, haha! And when I prayed for you I didn’t do so to gain an invitation into your life. Yes, I would really like to hear the good news, or any news, to follow up and know how you are, because I’m genuinely concerned. But I also understand that I’ve just seen you at your worst – I know your deep, dark shames, I’ve seen you heave and snot and wail. I know about your husband’s infidelities and your boss’ activities, your addictions, your failings, your criminal record. I know things that you wish others didn’t, so it has to be hard to feel comfortable around me sometimes, when things are good and you don’t want to look in the eye of someone who knew you when they weren’t.

On any given morning, I wake to about 10 messages in my inbox, not including invitations to check out whatever direct sales company my friend has joined. It varies from car seat and cloth diaper advice to marital problems, mental health issues, secret cancer scares, legal problems, and more. I receive texts from many others. On any given day, I will most likely not be able to meet these friends for lunch, go out to eat, see a movie, or come hold them in their living rooms. But what I can do, what I can offer them, is being their bad weather friend. I don’t always know what to say and I don’t always have an answer, but they do always have a friend. They always have someone they know they can reach out to, and how humbled I am that they know it’s me. I could feel petty and jealous that they didn’t invite me to dinner, or I can feel honored that they did invite me into their struggles. I can marvel that sometimes after years have gone by without a word, someone will think of me when they need something, when they need encouragement or advice, and know that I’m the person they want. Because my friendship isn’t for sale – you don’t have to buy it with nights out or mani/pedi days or even “likes” on a Facebook post. I’ll keep doing my life and you’ll keep doing yours, and I’ll be happy to help each time you need me to. Besides, it’s just not possible to be best friends with every single person we know.

So we thank you, friends, we bad weather ones who are waiting in the wings. We thank you for trusting us, for turning to us. We thank you for your confidence you share with us and the confidence you place in us. Most likely you come to us because you know we will be there, because something in us wants to be there. We want to help, you’re not a bother. We’d like an update when you can manage and we’d like to share in some of your good times as well, but if we don’t get it we’re still happy for you. Sometimes, just sometimes, we may ask of you what you’ve needed of us – please don’t run. Sometimes we need a safe place, too. Sometimes we need a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes protecting everyone’s secrets gets heavy and we just need someone to sit with. Sometimes we really, really want to go out to dinner, too. So I ask, friends, on behalf of all the bad weather friends, don’t forget about us until you need us. Let us be all-weather friends. We may not be Betty Sue, but we’re here for you, we care about you, and we’re cheering you on from wherever you’ll let us.

Happily Ever After and Gestalt Theory


“Jennifer. There’s an egg in that picture.”

I know, I know. Bear with me. It’ll be explained soon, I promise.

 

I have been married for 11 1/2 years. I am in no way an expert, I don’t have it all figured out, but I am happy and I love my husband more today than I did 11 1/2 years ago when we began our journey into happily ever after. Cinderella dancing with her prince was our cake topper, we handed out glass slippers filled with candy, and played “So This is Love” at the wedding – when I say we were beginning our happily every after, I mean it. I grew up, like many of you, on Disney movies, love stories, princesses being swept off their feet by the handsome princes, romance, beauty, and musicals that always ended with the perfect couple living happily ever after. Also like many of you, I grew into an adult who had to face the harsh reality that there’s a lot of stuff not shown in those favorite classics. Whose castle did Aurora and Philip move into? What about their controlling parents? Did Cinderella have extreme PMS? Did Aladdin ever deal with insecurity over Jasmine bringing home more money than him? Did Snow White have some pretty gnarly morning breath after she woke up? Did any of them gain weight? Struggle with infertility? Have to squash an uprising in the kingdom? Were they separated by war? Really, what ACTUALLY happened after “happily ever after” scrolled across the screen?

A lot of you are married. You’ve begun your own happily ever after. You’ve faced the reality that you couldn’t anticipate – the arguments, the bills, the little nuances and quirks that grow ten times in size when you live with someone. You’ve had in-laws get into your business. Some of you have had strangers get into your bed. You’ve found yourself in the trenches and have begun to think of marriage as a warzone more than a fairy tale. Marriage is work, that’s for sure. It’s not a secret that a relationship requires communication, compromise, and naps. The further you get from the day you began living happily ever after, the less you think “happily ever after” is even real.

Here’s where the egg comes in.

One of the summations of Gestalt Theory of psychology is by Kurt Kaffka, who said, “The whole is other than the sum of the parts.” Often it is quoted as “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Either way, here’s what it means – the pieces of something are not what it is. If you take an egg and crack it open, you have a yolk, an egg white, and an egg shell, all sitting before you. Totaled up, the sum of the parts are an egg. Yet the pieces of an egg are not the same as holding an intact egg in your hand. The egg you hold in your hand and the egg pieces that lay before you are, actually, two different things. It seems sketchy until you need an egg to bake with, then you realize the difference. While what makes up the egg before you is all present, it is not the same – nor does it have the same worth – as the egg as a whole. The whole (the intact egg) is other (different) than the sum of its parts (the broken egg, shell, yolk, and egg white). Here’s how it applies here:

Marriage is the whole. Happily ever after is the whole. Unemployment, cancer, foreclosure, infidelity, bankruptcy, deployment, infertility, boredom, selfishness, kids with special needs, surgery, depression, hormones, toilet seats, dirty dishes, addiction, fatigue…. those are parts. Whatever you have faced together in your marriage, those are the parts of it. They are not the whole. Marriage that faces the strain of miscarriage is not exempt from happily ever after. Marriage that bends under the weight of financial ruin is not prohibited from happily ever after. Marriage is much, much more than the sum of the parts. Marriage has mountains to climb, but it also has beautiful views from the top. Marriage has hand holding on the couch, Netflix binges, laughing over dinner, inside jokes, snuggles, cuddles, tickles. It has memories of who you were when you met and memories you’ve made together since. Marriage is a promise, not a circumstance. Marriage, as a whole, is greater than the argument you’re having now. Happily ever after is the whole, it’s the combination of the laughs and memories and kisses and fights and resentments and bills and exhaustion, and knowing that beyond this moment, beyond this hard, hard time you’re facing, you still love your spouse. Yes, they’re a butthead in the moment. Yes, living in a small apartment while pinning ideas for a large home is hard in the moment. Yes, not seeing your plans come to pass is crushing in the moment. But beyond this moment, you love your spouse. Beyond the pain, on the other side of it, you love them and they love you. That’s the whole. That’s the happily ever after. It’s not letting a day, a month, a season define your marriage because it’s only a day, only a month, only a season.

Not once was I shown debt-free ever after. I’ve never heard of a princess who lived healthy ever after, employed ever after, fertile ever after. What we wanted was happily ever after, and at the end of the day, when observing the whole, that’s exactly what I have.

I know, I know. There are some who will look at me and say, “Oh, Jen, you young whippersnapper, 11 1/2 years is nothing.” Some will say, “Wow, Jen must be pretty old to have already been married for 11 1/2 years.” Guess what? It doesn’t matter. I don’t live “comparatively ever after”. I’m not concerned about living “happier than…” ever after. It’s my husband and I, just us, and our happily ever after isn’t determined by the happiness going on around us. We’re not happier because we’re not facing what someone else is, and we’re not unhappy because someone else is having an easier time. Our marriage, between us, is about happily ever after, every day. We’re not in a contest, we’re in a covenant. And we are proud of our 11 1/2 years, we’re excited by them. We can smile and laugh and celebrate not because we haven’t faced some hard times. We’re not rich. We’re not famous. I don’t weigh what I did on our wedding day. We’ve walked through some dark valleys and some hot fires, and I’m not so naïve as to think they’re all behind us. But I know I’m not alone. I know that whatever has happened and whatever awaits is not the whole of my marriage. I know that a chapter isn’t the whole story and the pieces are not the same as the whole. And I know that deep in the mud, covered in tears, with hurt feelings and disappointments and insecurities abounding, I will still be in love with him, he will still be in love with me, and the whole of us is greater than that momentary piece.

So I encourage you, friends, take a step back and observe the whole. Don’t hold on to pieces and call them the sum of your marriage. Don’t think that because you’re unhappy right now you won’t ever be happy again. Don’t get caught up in the idea that it being difficult means it’s not right. Don’t misunderstand and believe that happily ever after means happily every day after. It means ever after, in a continuing line, you can observe the journey and see, as a whole, that it is a happy one. Your very own, very real happily ever after.

The (New) Stages of Grief – and How We’re Doing it Wrong

The (new) Stages of Grief - and How We're Doing it Wrong

Our world is grieving right now. World events, news, relationships, health, wealth, dreams… there’s a lot happening every day to process and mourn. And faster than we can heal, there’s another breaking news story, another blow, and we’re left reeling and feeling all over again. Grief is not new to this divided world – it’s been felt and studied and survived since the beginning of mankind. In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the world to what are now widely accepted as the 5 stages of grief, basically the 5 steps to how one copes with extreme sadness and loss.

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

These stages aren’t always experienced in this order, and sometimes a person may skip a stage entirely, but in general this is the best way to understand the way that grief moves through us and how we, in turn, respond to it. This does not minimize the experience, rather it is comforting to know that, if nothing else, there is acceptance at the end: You will make it through.

However, at some point in our culture, we’ve begun to rework these stages, tossing out some, renaming others, and really just making a mess of Elizabeth KR’s work. A very powerful, very moving, and very, very destructive step was added and it began to eat away at the other steps, as well as us. It has taken over and assumed the role of trailblazer when we’re faced with grief, leading the way and dictating our actions and reactions from the moment we first hurt. The stages have been whittled down to only the one remaining, distorted stage that doesn’t allow for acceptance on the other side.

Blame.

It’s not a new concept. It’s not always an undeserved one. But it has become the sole obsession of our world when faced with tragedy. Politicians, religion, parents, culture, schools…. Read any single news story shared on social media – seriously, any – and then check the comments. You will find blame. Finger pointing. Assumptions, judgements, name-calling, armchair quarterbacks, “experts”. People who claim they would never have allowed such a thing to happen to them, people who claim such a thing would never have happened if someone else had been in charge. People who blame mothers for accidents and parents for crime.

Blame abounds where pain confounds and comfort – what of comfort? There can be no peace where blame exists. Blame is the exact opposite of acceptance – it is projecting responsibility onto someone else, literally putting your ability to heal into the hands of another person. Blame is justified bitterness. Blame being the opposite of acceptance means that acceptance cannot be achieved, one cannot heal, get over, get through, get better, so long as they blame someone else for their pain.

“But this isn’t my fault!” No one said it was, friend. Sometimes tragedy is just tragedy. Sometimes bad things happen. And never in the stages of grief is “blame” listed as healthy or necessary to the process. Sometimes there’s no one to blame, only feelings to feel, and those feelings are really hard to deal with when you feel alone in them. You can feel powerless, weak, exposed. Blame creates a false sense of justification, of power, as though blaming someone else enables you to rise above the waves of grief with the dignity of someone who should not have to experience them. Blame is a bandage, a temporary fix, an attempt to curb the very real pain without aiding in any actual healing. Blame fuels the fire, makes it easier to feel indignant than hurt. Blame is a poison disguised as a defense mechanism that will, eventually, fill the void with bitterness – something much harder to rid yourself of than grief.

Blaming your husband for your lack of finances, for the long hours he works. Blaming your kids for your lack of free time or loss of happiness. Blaming your friend for the breakdown in your relationship. Blaming your pastor for your offense. Heck, blaming your pastor for religion. Blaming your boss for your career path. Blaming world leaders for tragic events. Blaming parents for their children. Blaming your ex for… well, everything. Blaming an entire group for the actions of one. Blaming society for the actions of one. Blaming God for the actions of one.

As I type, my 3 wild kids are just feet from me, doing one of their favorite things: all out wrestling. Seriously, tripping, grabbing, pushing, rolling, all over the floor, it’s wild and chaotic and they LOVE it. They’re all giggling and smiling and having a blast… until someone knocks a little too hard or a fall is a little worse than expected. It happens, every time, and every time the crying kid is pointing at someone, blaming them, and the guilty kid stands over them, defending themselves. Through the tears, the scratches, sometimes even the blood, they are more concerned with whose fault it is than helping the hurt kid feel better. And always, before I hear opening statements from both parties, I have to remind (force) the accused to get down on the level of their hurt sibling, apologize for them being hurt, and see if they can help. Sometimes it’s an accident. Sometimes it’s on purpose. But no matter what, someone has been hurt and the important thing is to help them. Someone is hurting and needs to heal, and assigning blame has yet to be proven to help.

Sometimes there is someone to blame. Sometimes there is a systemic breakdown and a societal failure. Sometimes imperfect people act imperfectly and really are buttheads. But they still can’t heal you. And blaming them implies that they have control over your emotions, blaming them puts the responsibility for your wellness in their hands. There will be a time for assigning blame where blame is due, but I urge you not to give into the temptation to allow blame to become your first reaction, the only step in your grieving process. Do not allow blame to create a false sense of righteousness in you. Do not believe that your opinion of another is their reality. Heal, friend. Feel. Pain and tragedy are so, well, painful and tragic, that it’s easy to want to avoid them. None of us are immune. That doesn’t mean we’re deserving. That doesn’t mean the person to blame gets away with anything. It means you’re human, and you’re getting through it.

I’m no fitness expert (pause for laughter), but I do know that muscle is built by creating small tears that then heal to be stronger. You go to the gym, do werk, and are sore. You’ve created tiny tears in the muscle that now need the opportunity to heal in order to grow. Feel the burn, some might say. No pain, no gain. Well, at the risk of sounding super cheesy, the heart is a muscle. You have to be able to heal to get better. Blame is nothing you want any part of when it comes to healing. Blame is acid on the wounds, a distraction, and a missed opportunity to care for your self.

So please, the next time something comes across your path that is heartbreaking, pause. Feel the sadness. Allow the grief. Watch Inside Out to see how necessary sadness is to the healing process. Cry. Mourn. Be vulnerable. Don’t judge. Don’t react. Let yourself feel so that you can sooner heal. And get a hug if you can.

 

This Blog is Not About You – Which is Why You Should Absolutely Read it

I like blogs. I like reading them. I long for the time to write more of them. I see blog posts shared multiple times a day in my social media feeds. A bunch of them are open letters, which I tend to skip most of, but blogs are an enormously untapped source of information, perspectives, encouragement, and personal journeys. Whether it’s renovating a home or educating on a childhood disorder, there are blogs by anyone and for anyone. They exist to share information, for free, quickly and easily. Yet they go largely unread.

A friend texted me a few months ago, a friend who has children with special needs and regularly shares blog posts pertaining to those needs. She asked if I thought anyone ever read the blogs she shared. I told her, sadly, that there were probably very few who do, because they think it doesn’t apply to them. Not having a child with those particular struggles, they see the title and move on, figuring there’s nothing for them to gain.

After a big news event, there is always an influx of blog posts (especially those open letter ones). Gorillas, guns, Miley Cyrus…. everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to share theirs. Which is totally fine. They’re as free to share their opinion as I am to share mine. I won’t turn this into a rant about how many of these opinions are about assigning blame rather than dealing with the issue. I won’t. But I will address the issue I take with these opinion pieces: we’re not reading them. We see the title, decide we disagree, roll our eyes and move on. It’s not for us, so we don’t click.

Here’s the problem with that: we don’t learn. When we don’t read anything new, anything that is outside of our own perspective and experience, we fail to grow, we miss the opportunity to learn how we can support someone else. We cannot be so arrogant as to believe that our perspective is the only one and our opinion may as well be fact.

A major part of blogging for me is the catharsis that comes from giving my thoughts words, sharing my experiences, and hoping that someone else who is in a similar situation can find some encouragement in at least knowing they’re not alone. But another reason I do it is in the hopes that someone will read my words, stop, and think, “Wow, I had no idea that’s what it was like.” I want to educate others on topics that are important to me, topics that I don’t see discussed. When my friend shares a blog about children with mitochondrial disease, I read it. I can’t relate to it, but it helps me understand her struggle a little better. When my friend who lives in Australia shares links to the political happenings in her part of the world, I read them. I can’t vote down under, but it helps me gain an understanding of her beliefs, and keeps me abreast of world issues. And far more sensitive, when my friends of color share blogs about their experiences, about what it means to be black in America or the discrimination they face because of their religion, I READ THEM. And you know what else? I really, truly, learn a lot from them.

Unbeknownst to me, I grew up in a bubble. I was surrounded by people who believed similarly to me and lived similarly enough to me. I came of age at birthday parties where I was often the only white girl, and since I truly didn’t see color and my friends didn’t seem to mind my lack of it, I thought racism was dead. Because we got along I assumed we had similar lives and nothing was different for us. I live in a town now that is pretty devoid of melanin, but my feelings never changed, so when the term “white privilege” first started popping up I rolled my eyes. In my bubble, there was no such thing. Then a friend of mine, a brilliant sociologist, shared a blog that I thought I at least should check out. I gave a deep sigh at the title and prepared myself to come up with a biting defense, but the words were so…. true. I wasn’t racist, but my experience as a white woman was far different from that of a woman of color. I could not presume to know what it was like to grow up not seeing people like me on TV. I’ve never gone to a doctor’s office and been unable to communicate my symptoms because no one spoke my language. I get stereotyped and people make assumptions about me, but that doesn’t mean we’re the same. Equal as humans, yes. But our experiences are not the same, and me dismissing that fact was never going to help anyone. Not agreeing with it doesn’t make it go away, and acknowledging it doesn’t make me a racist. In discussing parts of the Black Lives Matter movement with a very dear friend, who is black, I went from annoyance to understanding. No one was saying other lives didn’t matter. No one said Black Lives Matter More. They just were saying, “SEE us. ACKNOWLEDGE us. REALIZE that our experience is not the same as yours.” Because every time we dismiss the notion, we tell them that black lives, in fact, do not matter. I’m not here to discuss riots or shootings, only people. People who are trying to tell us something that we are too entrenched in our own beliefs to listen to. Admitting that our experiences are different is not admitting to being a racist. It’s listening to someone and expanding your horizon. It’s caring about someone else and doing what you can to make sure they know they’re heard.

Your friend who shares a personal post about the struggles of parenting a child with autism – read it. You may not be dealing with special needs in your home, but it will never hurt you to learn what her experience is like. Did you realize how much she spends on therapies? Did you realize how many different therapies she schedules? Were you aware that some schools have no programs in place… or that some states will pay for private school if your district cannot meet the child’s needs? Do you know how little sleep she gets and how badly she needs a pedicure date? Do you know what a big deal it is that her son finally took a shower without screaming? It doesn’t apply to you, but learning these things sure do help you in empathizing with her, in understanding more about her experience. It cost you a few minutes to be a better friend, and she’s better for having someone who hears her.

Your cousin shares ANOTHER link to homeopathic treatments, or FDA conspiracies, or essential oil cocktails. Read them. They are sharing because they are caring. They genuinely believe they can help people, they have seen a change in their lives and want others to experience it. You don’t have to give up your ibuprofen, but you could stumble upon a nugget of information that could boost your energy, or give a name to a symptom you’ve been experiencing, or help you find an entirely new way to treat an ailment that you’re tired of dealing with. Just like when someone blessedly shares some glorious cheesy bacon chicken something or other recipe, they see something great and want to share it with others. They say, “This is AWESOME, I have to make sure everyone knows!” You may think they’re off their rocker, and sometimes they may be, but they want to help and are offering you tools to try something new.

There’s that post again, the one about foster kids sleeping on the floors of offices. I don’t have foster kids, so I don’t need to read it. Except that children need homes, and you may be the one to offer it. If nothing else, understanding their heart-breaking circumstances can give you a new purpose in your prayer or giving. You may have thought foster kids just slept in bunk beds and carried everything in their backpacks. You may have thought it looked like Annie. But when you take the time to read about the plight of these children who did not ask to be in such dire straits that an office floor is preferable to home, your heart can grow. Those kids deserve to be known about. Clicking the link won’t get you a knock on the door with unruly teenage foster quads, but it will offer you a look into a life you know nothing about.

Your friend posts a blog entry that is going viral, you’ve seen it a few times already, and haven’t read it a single time because of the title. It’s political, and you can already tell you won’t agree. But let me challenge you – how do you know you won’t agree? Unless you read the words, unless you take the plunge and consider another perspective, how do you even know that your opinion is truly yours and not just a collective opinion formed by the people you surround yourself with? Until you’ve seen all the sides, how will you know which one you land on? One of the reasons we send our children to – gasp! – public school is because  I want them exposed to different people, different songs and ideas than they’d get at home. I want them to come home and talk about them with us, so that they can form their beliefs and KNOW WHY they believe them. I don’t want my children to blindly follow my opinions, I want them to think, listen, and form their own. So I challenge you, friend, read that blog. Read it even if it makes your blood boil. Know what’s going on beyond your own bubble, beyond your own viewpoint. You don’t have to agree with it. You don’t have to enjoy it. But challenge yourself to test your opinions against the perspectives offered by others. Because we do all have different perspectives. We all have our bubbles we’ve grown in and the internet has given us the amazing ability to pop them. Sometimes it’s shocking, sometimes it’s enfuriating, but sometimes it’s enlightening. Get out there and LEARN. Funny enough, the more you learn about another opinion, the more educated it can make you about your own.

I hate stereotypes. I hate assumptions. I hate being lumped together with a group of people based on the way someone else views me. The longer we resist learning about the experiences of others, the more we allow stereotypes to perpetuate. Having a child with autism isn’t just a kid who rocks back and forth and won’t look you in the eye. Having a kid with severe allergies doesn’t mean she has to live in a bubble. Having a gifted child does not mean the day is full of chess and math (I mean, there’s chess and math, but there are a lot of struggles that come with it, too). Having a parent with an illness doesn’t just mean a retirement home is in order.  Being black today is not the same as being white today, and ignoring that fact won’t make it change. A lot of posts about modern feminism aren’t for me, but I’ve learned a lot of facts that are. I’ve read new perspectives and theories and my mind has been opened to learn. People need and want to talk about what they’re going through. All they’re asking is that we listen.  Not every movement is one I want to join and not every political party is one I want to jump on board with (seriously, there are NO parties for me to claim now). But I can still learn, educate myself, consider other perspectives and strengthen my own position.

It’s hard having a newsfeed with so many differing ideals.   It’s hard to see those memes you hate and statements that sting. It’s hard to see yourself lumped into a group who someone just made a joke out of, and it can make you pretty rage-y when disrespect is paid towards a topic you are passionate about. But we’re also adults. I hope I never find myself back in my bubble, sealed up with only people who agree with me and concerned only with things that relate to me. My wonderfully diverse group of friends have introduced me to countless ideas, shows, songs, foods, perspectives, struggles… all because I was willing to read them. I still know who I am and I still know what I believe. I have not been swayed to join any dark sides and my head did not explode from reading about a presidential candidate I’m particularly fearful of. Debates have happened, and we’ve all survived. I don’t unfriend anyone for disagreeing with me, and I’m delighted that most of my friends don’t, either. We’re all so much bigger than one topic, anyway, it’d be a shame to lose out on what else I could learn from them just because we disagreed on an article. Surround yourself with like-minded people, yes… but be open to considering far different-minded peoples’ perspectives, as well. Just read the stuff. Learn the stuff. Be prepared to be wrong sometimes, or at least lacking in knowledge. Embrace your friends’ experiences. Take an interest in something other than your immediate surroundings. Push yourself to take it in, then prove yourself as an adult by loving them all anyway. The people with differing opinions, the people who are in very different places from you, the people who don’t share your beliefs and the people who bash your beliefs – love them anyway. They don’t have to agree with you, either. Though, hopefully they’ll have read this blog and will and least respectfully consider your stance.😉  In this age, in this climate, in this election year and this country constantly divided by one thing or another, be the one who is big enough to reach over. Don’t let yourself be part of a split. Don’t let your friends’ experiences go unnoticed. Read. Learn. Consider. And then move on and have a great day. Because it’s not about you. It’s about a better, more considerate, more educated, more sympathetic you. Go you.

Mind the Hazard Lights

I should be embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until I became a driver myself that I knew what the hazard light button was. I remember noticing it for the first time in my stepmom’s little red Civic, the newest vehicle I had ever been in and thus the epitome of technological advancement in automobiles. I saw that red triangle button on the dashboard among dozens of other doodads and whatnots I didn’t understand, but the imagery of it was such that I instinctively knew it meant “DANGER”. This could only mean one thing, of course: an eject and/or self-destruct button. Like Batman. I was always very careful in the front seat, afraid that I might inadvertently hit it while changing radio stations and send us both flying into oncoming traffic. This story doesn’t really have an application, I just wanted to share it.

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I was reminded of it when my own daughter asked a few weeks ago what the red triangle button meant. “They’re for when you have a problem, ” my husband explained, “so people know to move away from you.”

This struck me.

My husband is the most selfless person you’ll ever meet, so this isn’t a reflection on his character, only on what the hazard lights have come to mean: when did “I’m in trouble” become “move along”? Hazard lights are intended to alert the other drivers that something has gone wrong with the car or driver, that they can’t go on as normal or at the same rate as the others on the road. Their distress signal has become an annoyance to others. Rather than pulling over to offer help, the other drivers see the blinking red lights and move off to the side in an attempt to get past them quicker. We see the trouble and worry only about how it affects our commute.

I once sat on the side of a highway for more than 6 hours with my hazard lights blinking. 6 hours. I’d experienced a tire blow-out going 70 miles per hour and miraculously maintained enough control to safely come to a stop on the shoulder, yet I did not have the knowledge, skills, or tools to change the tire. I made phone calls until my cell phone died (the car charger was still years away from being common), I missed all of my college classes that day, I was starving, exhausted, scared, frustrated, angry. I waited and waited while hundreds of cars passed me by, not one stopping to offer assistance. Could they have been a crazy axe-murderer who wanted to chop me into tiny bits? Sure. Those exist anywhere. But could they also have helped? Yes. But no one did. Despite the very obvious signs I was giving that I needed it.

“But Jennifer,” you say, “I don’t have time to stop and help a stranded motorist!” Well, friend, I can promise you that the stranded motorist probably didn’t have time to be stranded themselves. They had work and appointments and responsibilities still waiting for them, too. How much faster would they get to where they were headed, how much faster would the flow of traffic be restored if someone took the time out of their own schedule to just help?

“But Jennifer,” you say, “I don’t know how to fix a car!” Well, friend, sometimes just having someone there with you can ease the stress of a motor emergency. My stepdad was in a car accident a while back, a bad one. It was raining and he was alone, trapped. I can’t imagine how scared he must have been, let alone hurt. The wreckage made it impossible to reach his cell phone to call for help, he must have been there wondering if anyone saw, if anyone noticed, if anyone was coming, if anyone would help. Alone. Until some wonderful Samaritan took it upon themselves to climb in there and keep him company, keep him calm, until help arrived. Someone took a detour from where they were headed, got out into the rain, and comforted someone who was very much alone. Someone saw the hazard and responded.

You probably see by now that I’m not just referring to car troubles.

It applies across the board to life. The depressing social media shares, the mother juggling groceries and children in the parking lot, the elderly neighbor who can’t start their mower, the overweight first-timer at the gym who can’t figure out how to start their machine. People need HELP. Hazard lights are blinking all around us. Yet all too often we just rubberneck the wreckage, slow down long enough to see how bad it is, thank God it wasn’t us, and move on. We glare at the man whose car won’t start in the middle of an intersection, as though he didn’t already know he was inconveniencing the people behind him, when getting out to help him push the car would be much more impactful. We silently judge the single mother who can’t pay her bills when a helping hand, a tank of gas, or a night of babysitting would be much more helpful. We hate the way our depressed acquaintance makes us feel so down when they’re around, when helping them feel better when we’re around could be the difference between life and death. The mom you’re scoffing at for using formula – did you offer her breastfeeding support? The man you’re taking cell phone pictures of because his pants are slipping down – did you tell him and save him the embarrassment? The friend whose marriage is crumbling – have you offered an ear or just observed the wreckage? The relative who is battling a disease – have you visited, listened, helped, or just thanked God it wasn’t you?

People all around us need help, every day. It could be as easy as sharing a post from a friend’s business or as involved as taking in a family.

“But Jennifer,” you say, “I’m having car trouble, too.” I know, friend. Depression and anxiety are all around us. Financial struggles, relationship battles, health troubles, existential crises, kids, school, work… we’re all struggling. I know. And sometimes all you can do is climb inside the broken-down car and cry together. Acknowledging someone else’s struggle does not negate your own. There’s no way to measure who has it worse, nor should there be. We’re all in this together, all traveling the same road, and we all benefit when someone in need is helped.

There’s an actual, documented phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect. In a crisis, individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim the more people there are around. Seriously. The MORE bystanders there are, the LESS likely anyone is to offer any help. Victims will wait and wait for help that doesn’t come because everyone around them assumes someone else will do it. It’s mass apathy. It takes someone taking charge and giving specific instructions to specific people to get anything done. You can’t just yell, “Somebody call 911!”, you have to point to a person and say, “YOU, call 911.” While I’ve seen this portrayed several times on the always-accurate Law & Order: SVU, I recently witnessed it first-hand. I was in a situation that required police interference, and people just stood there. Watching. Some were in disbelief, some had their cell phones out to video. I had to be the one to call the police, because the bystander effect was in full force.

This idea, this stopping to help when others don’t, it’s important enough to have made the Bible. In Luke 3 we’re told of the Good Samaritan, the man who stopped and offered assistance when so many others before him didn’t. Jesus Himself offered up everything He had for the good of all of us. You may not have riches, you may not have influence, you may not have extra time, but if the Son of God can offer Himself to help everyone, even the jerkiest jerks and the buttiest buttheads, who are we to just keep on driving by? When did “I need help”, when did “love your neighbor as yourself”, become open to interpretation, prioritization, and impassivity?

We cannot live this way. We cannot allow our dependency on others to rid us of any responsibility. We cannot see flashing hazard lights and shrug because they don’t affect us. People need help, WE need help. So what are you going to do about it?

Loving the Mentally Ill

I’ve written, deleted, and re-written this blog for months. It’s a tough subject, and it’s hard to be honest without offending, or encouraging while still being truthful. But in light of everything that’s being said about the recent suicide of a beloved actor, I need to write this. Again.
You see, not much offends me. Things anger me, confuse me, sadden me, sure. But not a lot hurts my feelings. But I’ll say it: I’m offended at some of the reactions to the death of Robin Williams. Straight-up offended. As if it’s our place to pass judgement on a man’s death. As if our opinions on the circumstances surrounding his life and death hold any weight. As if our own experiences give us any modicum of expertise with regard to the experiences of another. I’ve seen a lot of people who claim they overcame depression, so someone else should be able to, as well. As someone who has battled depression and anxiety for decades, I still have no ounce of justified judgement towards someone fighting a similar battle. I’ve seen even more complete misunderstanding and disregard for mental illness. The fact is, depression is an illness. Sometimes it’s temporary, like post-partum depression or seasonal affective disorder. Sometimes it’s based on circumstances, like bills or illness or difficult relationships, and can thus change with the situation. Sometimes, though, it’s chemical, it’s through no fault of the sufferer, and it’s STRONG. Chemical depression CAN be overcome with prayer, but just because it isn’t sometimes doesn’t mean the person suffering has no faith. It doesn’t mean the person is weak, just as requiring insulin says nothing about a diabetic, other than the fact that they’re diabetic. Depression is a symptom of a chemical imbalance that must be corrected and observed constantly, or else it will quickly overwhelm. Depression is an ILLNESS, not a choice, not a lack of appreciation or contentment, not a weakness or a fault, and it most certainly is not selfish.
Ahh, selfishness. This is what so many of the judgements I’ve seen seem to get caught up on. The selfishness of the sufferer who chose to end their life. Does suicide affect so many more people than just the one who decided to take their life? Absolutely. But how quick we are to forget that mental illness affects the family and friends of the sufferer in life, not just in death. How quick we are to dismiss the suffering of the depressed or mentally-ill person. I’m not here to argue the theology of suicide, nor do I believe that death by one’s own hand brings about a poetic release or freedom, but I will say, LOUDLY, that mentally ill persons do not think logically. We can think logically, yes, and using our working, non-muddled-up brains we can look at the circumstances surrounding someone’s suicide and decide that it wasn’t worth it, it wasn’t that bad, or they were selfish cowards. But just because something doesn’t seem to make sense to us doesn’t make it untrue. Just because you’ve never been so overwhelmed by darkness that you thought death was the only life for you DOES NOT MEAN it did not appeal to someone else. In discussing mental illness recently with a friend, she said that mental illness “gummed up” her brain, and it was the best description I’ve heard yet. Your brain may work, firing on all pistons, using logic and reason and recognizing cause and effect and multiple escape routes. But a mentally ill person’s brain does not. I need glasses to see clearly and you may not. This does not mean that because I need help to see, your eyes are better than mine. It means I need help to see.
I’ve lived my whole life with mental illness in the form of a bipolar mother. Is it hard? YOU BET. Do my struggles with her illness change her? In no single way at all, ever. It’s been a long road, and a very difficult one. Sometimes she does things that just make no sense… but they don’t have to. Just because I cannot empathize with her suffering does not mean her suffering is any less real. My confusion does not heal her. My frustrations do not heal her. Even my hurt does not heal her. Because SHE CANNOT HELP IT. No matter how much I want her to not be mentally ill, it won’t change the fact that she is, so I can either love and embrace her as she is, or I can live life constantly disappointed. A few times, in her darkest of days, she has even tried to hurt herself, and as a young girl who did not understand mentall illness, I was offended. My feelings were hurt, I was mad, and I thought her selfish. But just as a thirsty person will drink, a mentally ill person will do what their body is telling them to. Someone with Tourette’s or Parkinson’s cannot control every movement their body unwillingly makes any more than a mentally ill person can control every thought or action they take. Cop-out? To someone who does not have understanding or empathy with regard to mental illness, maybe. The fact remains that no matter how hard it is to love someone who is mentally ill (and it’s okay to admit that it’s hard), our suffering does not negate or outrank theirs.
Robin Williams, specifically, also dealt with addictions many times during his life, further proof of his suffering, his inability to control himself, his inability to behave like a “normal person” or think clearly. Robin Williams suffered a great deal more than any of us will ever understand, even those of us who have battled the demon of depression and stepped back from the ledge just in time. The truth is that we don’t know what he was going through. We don’t know what he thought or felt or lived or saw. We do know that he made us laugh and cry and quote a lot of movies, and we should be grateful for the impact he had on our childhoods. But we should not and CANNOT pass judgement on the very last choice he made, no matter how much that choice hurts us. Because it hurt him, too. Because it may have been, in his gummed-up brain that just wouldn’t submit, the only choice he had.

***EDITED TO ADD***
If we continue to publicly pass judgement and name-call those who are suffering from mental illness, especially those who are no longer alive to explain their pain, we will make it even harder for someone who needs help to have the courage to speak up, reach out, and get what they need. Stop making it NOT okay for someone to suffer. Have some sympathy and maybe save a life.

Are You Makin’ A List, Checkin’ It Twice?

Last night, while doing the final before-bed Facebook scroll, I saw about 4 posts of ladies referring to their list of Perfect Man Attributes. You know the list. The list of qualities that your future husband HAS TO HAVE, that you pray over and ask God for and measure every guy up to (until you meet one who is just so flippin’ cute that you want to bend the “rules”). You totally made one in middle school. And another in high school. And one after every church camp. Maybe when you got to college. Maybe after watching The Vow or something, I don’t know. I TOTALLY had one. And not just a puny list, it was accompanied by a drawing, colored in with map pencils, and ranked by importance. This fictional man that I prayed so earnestly for had blue eyes, dark hair, was 6’4” (I’m tall, the struggle is real), played baseball (not because I was an avid sports fan, but because I was a lustful teenager), and loved Jesus with his whole heart. My husband of more than nine years DOES have blue eyes and dark hair, but he doesn’t wear baseball pants, and, while taller than me, is not 6’4”. Does this mean that God did not honor my requests, that He wasn’t listening? No, it means my list was stupid.

I am a wedding photographer. I’ve lost count of how many couples I’ve had the honor of photographing, but I do know that I have not photographed a SINGLE bride and groom smiling, holding up their checked-off lists, giving a thumbs-up. I also have a degree in counseling, and I tell ya, either I missed the day our professors went over comparing lists in premarital counseling, or the topic just was not covered in the Marriage Preparedness and Strengthening units.  Jacob didn’t consult his checklist when tricked into marrying Rachel, he just knew that she wasn’t Leah. I don’t know how the phenomenon got started, but I can’t find anything to support it.

Don’t get me wrong, us gals deserve good things. And yes, God wants to give us the desires of our hearts. But how about instead of creating a list to mentally compare every guy you meet to, you compare every one to Christ. Does he love? Does he extend grace? Is he chasing after the Father? Consult the checklist in 1 Corinthians 13. Is he patient? Is he kind? Does he rejoice in wrongdoing? You are not shopping for a car. You are making yourself available to someone who you will spend your life with. Don’t set up parameters that can come and go like trends, measure him by the Word of God. Jesus would never slap you around. Jesus doesn’t get drunk and blow the rent money. Jesus doesn’t care about swag. God said He would never leave you nor forsake you. THAT’S what you need until you are parted by death. That’s someone who will stick by, in sickness and in health.

I have had several friends who have met incredible men, but were hesitant to pursue a relationship because of a deal-breaker from their list. “But he has a child from a previous relationship.” “But he has a giant face tatoo.” Listen, I would hate to think of how many times I would be deemed “unworthy” because of how I fell short of a list my husband may have dreamed up. Thank God He doesn’t count me out because of my mistakes. Thank God He doesn’t count me out because of ways that I don’t measure up. Stop worrying so much over the present circumstances of your ideal husband, and start praying over his future. Stop daydreaming about his physical qualities and start praying over his HEART. Don’t worry and fuss over the things he does before you meet him, but begin praying for him as your HUSBAND. Pray that he would exercise wisdom with your finances. Pray that he would lead your future family after God. Pray for your husband, not for God to make the hot guy who brings his guitar to youth camp INTO your husband.

But you know what list you should make? Make a list of the qualities YOU want to have as a WIFE. Pinterest has made weddings so romantic, but after that one single day, you’ll be a wife for the rest of your life. After you’ve found the guy, you’ll need to make it work every day after. Make a list of qualities you’d like to exhibit and pray over THAT. Compare to THAT. Will you be a patient wife? Will you support your husband in any career he chooses? Will you speak kindness over him? Will you publicly cheer him? Concern yourself with BEING the right person more than FINDING the right person.

God knew you before you were born. He knit you together. You are His masterpiece. The same goes for your future husband. God made him long before you put pen to paper. Open yourself up to Him, trust that God knows what He’s doing. In theory, if you are looking for The One, then every single man you meet but ONE will be him. Billions of no’s. Billions of Not The Ones. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t waste your energy and set yourself up for disappointment by comparing every man to a list. Pray for this unknown man’s heart, pray for God to prepare yours, and open yourself up to His will.