Honoring the Shadows

This weekend I stood beside two of my dearest friends as they pledged to love each other when they’re happy and sad, silly and mad, and for the 36 hour wedding whirlwind I was profoundly present, savoring each little detail as it came into focus around me.

Those of you who know me well know just how much I fight to be present. My mind rarely rests in one place or time, which is why, when we finished the rehearsal dinner and I realized that my mind had remained in the moment nearly all night, I wanted to jump, and dance, and tell the whole world!

This summer has been a crash course in surrendering my desires and ideas of what “should” be happening in order to savor what is currently in front of me. Savor is the word God gave me for 2017, and as soon as I received that word, I knew choosing to live it out would be much more challenging than choosing discipline was in 2016. To be completely honest, there have been large chunks of this year when I ignored the choice to savor because it just. seemed. too. darn. hard.

However, in the past moth I’ve had a breakthrough in my understanding of being present that is too good not to share!

It is as follows: in order to truly savor, you must honor the shadows.

Ryan O’Neal of Sleeping At Last wrote a song last June called “Joy.” In the process of writing it, O’Neal asked his followers on social media how they would define joy, and then he synthesized their answers to write the lyrics. Each line in the song reflects a different angle of joy, but my favorite line defines joy as “the honoring of every shadow.”

As people we’ve gotten too good at numbing and running, believing the lie that the only way to the good life lies in avoiding our pain. But the freeing truth I’ve found is that we don’t have to ignore reality anymore. Suffering and sorrow are unavoidable companions who will join us for segments of our journeys. If we ignore or repress them, they will unexpectedly sneak into situations and distract or even derail us. But, if we can muster up the courage to acknowledge them, we get to experience new depths of joy. Even if our situation hasn’t changed, our perspective is dramatically different.

Before I left for Ellisa and Cody’s wedding, I took some time to grieve a relationship that is not where I expected it to be. I also put time and forethought into how to best care for my quirky and unpredictable body on the trip, and packed a large bag of Kelly-safe food to bring along. I honored my shadows (which take shape in the form of unmet relationship expectations and my continued health struggles) and, in doing so, was released to enjoy the festivities. Sorrow and suffering were still present, but they didn’t clamor for my attention because I had already acknowledged them.

So tonight I want to offer you a challenge. What are the shadows you’ve been pushing to the fringes of your life, and how can you better acknowledge them? I can promise from recent experience that the pain of this acknowledgement is worth it. When, instead of fearing our pain we feel it, we finally get to discover the sweetness of being fully present.

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A Precious Gift

Last Tuesday, when I dragged myself across the finish line of my job as an on-campus custodian, I was completely burned out and used up. This summer was incredibly difficult, and I had hit the point where I had nothing left of myself to give, yet I knew that come Wednesday morning I was going to enter a new position as an orientation leader where I would need to offer myself freely.

Tonight, however, as I sit on the tail end of international student orientation leading, I can honestly say that if I had to choose one word to describe the past eight whirlwind days, I would choose joy!

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While it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I loved working with the new international students, I was caught off guard by how quickly and completely they stole my heart. They breathed new life into the parts of me that died this summer, and gave me a fresh perspective on my strengths.

When I was with my students, I got to simply be Kelly. Although I was playing the role of orientation leader, for the first time in months I felt valued not for what I could do, but for who I was.

As an orientation leader, my purpose was twofold. Firstly, I was to help the students complete tasks such as opening bank accounts, acquiring student ID cards, buying laptops, finding housing, learning English vocabulary, and paying campus fees, to name a few. Secondly, and more importantly, I was to help the students feel welcome, both at our university and in America.

Although taking care of the practical details of moving to a foreign country was an important part of orientation leading, in extending hospitality to the students I found the true sweet spot where my passions and abilities collided with their needs.

One moment I would be fielding a practical question such as “Where is the white paste for my salad?” And then, in the next moment a student would ask why people from her host family’s church celebrated when members of the church were dunked in a lake. For as useful as I felt explaining the location of the ranch dressing, it was when a student’s inquiry about baptism gave me an opportunity to share the Gospel with her for the first time that I realized the eternal weight and significance of what I did this past week.

By simply being myself, my all-in, empathetic, passionate, intuitive, culture-loving self, I became a familiar face and a safe space to land for students who came here not only seeking an academic experience, but also seeking spiritual fulfillment from a God they have not yet had the chance to encounter.

The truly incredible part of orientation leading was that in giving my time and energy to the students, I was able to receive a precious gift. In accepting me as Kelly and allowing me to live into my strengths, my students gave me a renewed chance to believe that God didn’t make any mistakes in His creation of me. Do I have rough edges and areas in need of improvement? Absolutely! But when others give me encouragement and more importantly, when I give myself permission to let go of who I “should” be and live into my true identity, the result is pure, unadulterated joy!

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In the Middle

Today I’m going to go out on a limb and say something that often gets left unsaid.

Life sucks sometimes.

And I’m not saying that to be pessimistic or garner your pity. No, I’m saying that because I’m in a hard season of life right now, and I’m done pretending to be ok because I know that some of you reading this are also in a hard season of life, and you probably need someone to gently remind you that it’s ok to not be ok.

Have you ever noticed that people are reluctant to share a story unless they know how it ends? They say “I dealt with depression for four months, but I went to counseling and I’m better now,” or “we knew that God was calling us to move to a different state, and we didn’t yet have a house or know a soul, but now that we’re settled in, we can totally see God’s provision in this move.”

Don’t get me wrong, stories like these are incredible testaments of God’s faithfulness and absolutely should be shared! But what about the stories that don’t yet have neat or tidy endings? And what about the ones that may never have a resolution on this side of heaven?

The danger in only telling our glossy, polished stories is that when our story isn’t pretty, we feel like we’re the only ones not living in a fairytale.

When I only hear the completed stories, my sense of aloneness even extends to what I read in the Bible. I begin to see David, and Paul, and Noah’s stories as flawless, forgetting that they lived messy, imperfect lives. I forget that Abraham, a man known for his faith, doubted God’s promise of children, and even slept with his wife’s servant to produce an heir and regain control of his story.

Here’s what I like to imagine. Abraham has been given a promise from God that he will have descendants too numerous to count, but as the days of waiting for the fulfillment of this promise turn into weeks, months, years, Abraham has mornings when he wakes up and says, “No, God, I can’t. What’s the point in believing in your promises when my daily reality doesn’t match what you’ve told me? Can I just be a bear today and hibernate until this is all over?”

Ok, maybe the bear part is more how I think than how Abraham would’ve thought, but I’m sure Abraham had days of doubt, confusion, frustration, even despair.

And that’s ok.

God does not call us to pursue perfection. He knows we can never be perfect, because if we were, we’d be God. But while God does not call us to be perfect, He calls us to be brave.

So here’s my challenge to you today – step out in courage and share your unfinished story with a trusted friend.

It takes bravery to look at your life and admit that “what now?” lies much closer to the surface than “happily ever after.” But who knows – maybe your brave act of vulnerability will grant someone else the permission they need to be raw and honest about the unresolved stories in their life.

And maybe, just maybe, by sharing from the middle of the story instead of only from the end, you’ll find some freedom to live your life as it is, instead of how you think it should be.

 

I Want My Life to Matter

(Written on June 21st.)

One year ago today I rode an elephant.

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We awoke at dawn, sleepily dressing in big headbands or hats to keep the spiders out of our hair, and donning our comfiest pants to avoid unnecessary chafing. After a quick ride in the van with our quirky driver, Krishna, we used wooden platforms to climb onto the backs of elephants, four girls per animal. A Nepali man guided our elephant for an hour and a half through the jungle, pointing out deer, boars, storks, peacocks, monkeys, mongooses, rhinos and even a tiger footprint! It was a magical and utterly unforgettable morning.

Fast forward one year.

I yet again awoke at dawn, routinely dressing in an old t-shirt and my zip-off pants. After a ten minute walk to the heart of campus with my housemate Kaylee, I spent eight hours vacuuming hallways, scrubbing toilets, and wiping out drawers. Our custodial team was lively per usual, joking and singing, but you could tell that, just beneath the surface, many of us were either stressed by life’s conundrums, or nauseous from the smell of the new carpets in the otherwise decrepit dorm. It was just another day in the life of a summer custodial worker.

When you put June 21, 2015 side-by-side with June 21, 2016, the contrast is startling. And I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t wake up this morning and wish that the 5:00am alarm meant it was time to ride an elephant.

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I’d also be lying if I said there haven’t been days this summer when I have absolutely ached to go back to Nepal. As I watch six of my Nepal teammates travel internationally again this summer, the comparison bug bites hard.

However, in my moments of discontentment, God is always faithful to remind me what I most need to hear. A few days ago I was wrestling with not being back in Nepal, so I decided to look at my journal from last summer to see what I had been doing on this day one year ago. I flipped through the travel-worn pages to find the right entry, and when I did, this is what I read:

“Today was a hard day. I spent most of it in bed with a  fever. I’m fighting to give myself grace, still feeling some numbness, not wanting to eat ever, and am so overwhelmed.”

Hmm, on the day when I’m feeling most discontent, God chooses to remind me that Nepal was not all roses and sunshine or peaches and cream. I tend to romanticize travel, I know I do. But in recalling that day in Nepal when I was so dehydrated that I couldn’t even get out of bed, I also remembered a fundamental lesson that I far too often overlook.

In the words of Ben Rector “life is not the mountaintops – it’s the walking in between.”

Every life has big days – the day you graduate from college, get married, run your first marathon, have a baby, or move across the country. However, in between these big days are hundreds of seemingly insignificant little days. Days when the most exciting event is receiving a letter from a faraway friend; days when you wake up running, and don’t stop until you fall into bed; and days when life feels like an endless cycle of go to work, do the laundry, prep food, take a shower, repeat.

And yet, in the midst of the mundane, life is bursting with purpose and beauty, if only we have eyes to see it. Learning to cook alongside my roommates, having vulnerable conversations with my custodial teammates, singing as I clean, helping a new housemate feel welcome in our home, praying for my missionary friends – all of these things feel so small in the moment, and yet, when I step back and view them together, these are the patches of fabric that piece together to make the beautifully rich tapestry that is my life.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Shauna Niequist, an author who has taught me so much about celebration in the midst of the nitty-gritty of everyday life.

“This is it. This is life in all its glory, swirling and unfolding around us, disguised as pedantic, pedestrian non-events. But pull of the mask and you will find your life, waiting to be made, chosen, woven, crafted.

Your life, right now, today, is exploding with energy and power and detail and dimension, better than the best movie you have ever seen. You and your family and your friends and your house and your dinner table and your garage have all the makings of a life of epic proportions, a story for the ages. Because they all are. Every life is.

You have stories worth telling, memories worth remembering, dreams worth working toward, a body worth feeding, a soul worth tending, and beyond that, the God of the universe dwells within you, the true culmination of super and natural.

You are more than dust and bones.
You are spirit and power and image of God.
And you have been given today.”

For Those Rough INFJ Days

Hello Friends, 

It’s been longer than I’d like since I last truly sat down to write, but I’m learning to give myself grace. Life’s been full, in a really beautiful way, but now that I’m on summer break, I’m renewing my commitment to sit down and just write for goodness sakes! In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote for my Magazine and Feature Writing class on the INFJ personality type. I know that some people don’t like the way the Myers-Briggs personality test categorizes people, putting them into boxes, but I have honestly found so much freedom in knowing my personality type. More than anything, it has helped me understand why I act and speak and think the way I do, and it continually reminds me that while I’m usually the odd one out in social situations, I’m by no means alone. Even if you’re not an INFJ, I hope this post encourages you to live into your God-given strengths, and bravely be your quirky and wonderful self. The world needs you, just as you are!   


Dearest INFJ,

Today’s been difficult, hasn’t it? You feel misunderstood, walked on, and so darn tired of marching to the beat of your own drum. And trust me, I understand. You and I are in the 1% together. So sweet INFJ, this letter is for you. Because I know firsthand that, in our continual introspection, we tend to focus on our weaknesses, and sometimes we just need someone to remind us that our personality is good and we are not alone. So here are three things worth remembering about your personality at the end of a difficult day.

You Notice

In this fast-paced modern world where so many people are harried, hurried, or simply indifferent, you notice. You are keenly aware of the needs of others, and your intuition and empathy aid you in identifying with their emotions. While it can be draining to absorb the emotions of others, it is a trait that can be turned into a means of blessing those you love.

The key to using this trait for good is to do what it takes to care for your own emotional health. You may be frequently mistaken as an extrovert, but INFJ, you are an introvert through and through. I know our personality type struggles to justify self-care, but if you create space in your life to be alone, doing the things that fill you up, you will be much better equipped to pour into those whose emotional needs you’re prone to absorbing.

Fellow INFJ, you have a propensity towards being kind that is desperately needed in our harsh world. It’s easy to feel utterly powerless in the face of the great injustices that ravage our planet; however, in the words of journalist Charles Kuralt, “The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines.” Sometimes kindness is painted as weakness, but I’m here to tell you that choosing kindness takes great courage and strength. So INFJ, keep noticing the needs of others and responding with kindness.

You’re a Contemplative Activist

Nelson Mandela, a man purported to be an INFJ (along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi) once said, “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” As idealists, INFJs often have a heightened awareness of the life we are capable of living, and as activists, we are known for relentlessly pursuing our potential.

16personalities.com describes it this way, “When INFJs come to believe that something is important, they pursue that goal with a conviction and energy that can catch even their friends and loved ones off guard. INFJs will rock the boat if they have to, something not everyone likes to see, but their passion for their chosen cause is an inseparable part of their personality.”

In Heidi Priebe’s article “7 Reasons Why INFJs Could Rule The World And One Reason Why They Shouldn’t” she describes INFJs as idealists with follow-through. We’ve also been categorized as contemplative activists, and dreamers who do. The downside of our ability to get things done is that we often have tasks delegated to us that are not within our area of expertise. It can be frustrating to feel like we have to spend our time doing the work of others, but if we can learn how to say no to those things that are simply not ours to do, our capacity to turn our passion into action can be a valuable asset. So INFJ, keep enthusiastically dreaming and passionately doing, while remembering to say no when necessary.

You Add Depth and Dimension

A nearly universal trait amongst the INFJs I’ve interacted with is an acute feeling of being misunderstood. We simply view the world from a different angle, and while this is not at all a bad thing, it can lead to feelings of isolation and frustration. Belonging is an innate human need, and some days it can be very difficult to feel like the ultimate square peg in a round hole.

Last summer, however, my wise friend Kristal told me something that has forever changed my view of marching to the beat of my own drum. She said, “When you march to your own beat, it doesn’t create dissonance. It adds depth and dimension. And I find it to be refreshing and beautiful.”

Think of an orchestra. If all the musicians played the same note, how long would we want to keep listening? It’s the variation that makes music rich and complex. Honestly, without the harmony would we even call it music, or simply label it noise?

So INFJ, keep marching, keep drumming, and keep adding variety and beauty to the collective symphony in a way that only you can.

Sincerely,
Kelly, Your Fellow INFJ

Growth Isn’t Linear

For the past three months I’ve been stuck in a word desert. Since I’m not in a creative writing class, I’ve rarely needed to write for school; my journaling has been limited to once a week; and I’ve blogged a grand total of twice this entire semester. I’d love to say that my lack of words stems from being busy, but that’s simply not true. For the past seven years I have made space in my life to write, busy or not. The truth is that I feel like my words have completely dried up.

However, in the midst of my word desert, God has led me to the blog of someone who is able to say the things I’m struggling to articulate. Her name is Kayla Zilch, and she’s a World Racer. (For those of you who have never heard of the World Race, click here.) A few weeks ago I randomly read one of Kayla’s blog posts, and then another, and another, until I finally went back and read them all. A common theme that runs through all of Kayla’s posts is a unflinching commitment to proclaim the truth about God, herself, and the world. Her posts tend to hit me where it hurts in the best possible way.

In this tough season of medical issues and unanswered questions I have really been battling self-pity, but Kayla’s posts have given me the Kingdom-perspective I need so desperately. She’s pulled me out of my little world, and helped me look past my own suffering to see a broken world that needs Jesus, the one who makes our suffering bearable.

God has used quite a few of Kayla’s blog posts to speak into my life, but there is a line in one of them in particular (called Jesus Wants You to Nap) that I keep coming back to. The line is, “Don’t worry about what other people think when they see you taking what you need.”

Just a quick caveat, I often struggle with the word need because all too often in our culture we confuse our wants and our needs. So, just to make sure we’re on the same page, when I talk about needs in this post, I’m referring to those things that are essential to my physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being. Things like an extra hour of sleep, or a day where I take a break from homework, or a morning run, or a heart-to-heart with a dear friend. These things may not be absolutely necessary for my survival, but they are key ingredients for me to thrive.

Now I don’t know about you, but oftentimes I struggle to take what I need. I am a hard worker. And I don’t say that in a “look at how great I am” way. No, that statement comes from a place of “I need help because I don’t know how to not work.” I have always prided myself on my work ethic, and in many ways it is a wonderful trait that has served me well, but at the same time, my inability to stop working has often pushed me into a very unhealthy place.

For several years now God has been teaching me about the importance of Sabbath. In Exodus 20:8-11 He says:

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

I’ve always known that Sabbath is a commandment, but the more I live, the more I see why God built Sabbath into the rightful order of the world. We need it! But that doesn’t mean resting is always easy. In our modern world resting (or taking what we need) has to be an intentional choice.

As hard as it is for me to take what I need, I am learning. Some days I fail. I let expectations, deadlines, perfectionism, and stress rule my life. But growth isn’t linear. The path I travel is meandering, and much more circular than I want it to be. But whenever I get disheartened at my apparent lack of progress, I can look back and see that, over the course of time, I have grown.

And honestly, every day I am presented with a choice. So today I’m choosing to be ok with taking what I need. I’m going to fully feel the joy of being in the Midwest with some of my favorite people on the planet. I’m not going to constantly apologize for having such a complicated diet right now. I’m going to do some homework, but then set it aside to write, or hang out, or just be and not feel guilty about not spending every spare moment working. And I’m going to embrace this season, even when I’m struggling to make sense of it, because there will never be another season like this one, and I don’t want to miss a minute!

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A Holy Dark

This morning I woke up early. And by early I mean 5AM, which I know is not as early as some of you greet the day, but in my neck of the woods, on these late October days, 5AM is two hours before the sun rises, and therefore, early.

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Although the rest of my house was still asleep when I cozied up in our living room, far from feeling alone I felt surrounded by a comforting crowd of early risers. I thought of my friend Anna who lives in Pennsylvania, and routinely rises before the sun to go to her seamstress job. I thought of my grandparents who have always lived by the motto “early to bed, early to rise!” I thought of all the mothers awake before the dawn to hold their precious, fussy babies who refuse to sleep through the night. And I thought of my own mother who has always preferred the peaceful morning hours to other, faster paced moments of the day.

Now, I don’t normally get up at 5AM, but last night I had a stomachache, and chose to go to bed by 9 o’clock, which meant the only way to complete my homework was to wake up before the sun. But although my purpose in getting up early was to work, I found a holy stillness in those pre-dawn hours. I took great joy in my steaming bowl of oatmeal, the twinkly lights in our living room, and listening, for the first time this year, to the Thanksgiving music my mom and I so deeply enjoy.

For the past two years my life has been full of really exciting experiences. First I moved out of my childhood home to a new city, then I ventured to Eastern Europe, next I entered and exited my first serious relationship, and then I spent an exhilarating six weeks in Nepal, with plenty of smaller excitements in between. These experiences have been good, and hard, and stretching, and beautiful, but most of all, they’ve been big. After returning to the states from Nepal, I distinctly remember thinking, “I could use a season of quiet, simple, undramatic everyday life.” And that’s exactly what this season has been. Somehow the big experiences have helped me better appreciate the little beauties hidden in every day. The older I get, the more I realize that I don’t want to take any blessing for granted, no matter how small. As a sweet 92-year-old woman reminded me yesterday, every day is a good day because I am alive!

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So Father, thank you for the Holy Dark I experienced this morning. Thank you for using it to energize me, refresh me, and remind me that your mercies are truly new every morning.