fear

On Shrinking

A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned off-hand that he was headed to the gym. He jokingly added that his mantra is, “Must get bigger.” I laughed and told him that I have never once in my life had that thought. We talked for a minute about the irony that (in general) men tend to go to the gym to get bigger while women go to get smaller.

This conversation played in my head over the next few weeks, and it occurred to me that my own mantra in so many parts of my life seems to be, “Must get smaller.”

I am talking about my body, of course. A body I have long struggled to love, and in fact, find myself hating more and more each year. But more on that some other time. Because I am also talking about the rest of me.

I’m talking about how much time I spend trying to shrink my too-big, too-wild feelings down to a manageable size. How I constantly fight to curb my too-loud, too-opinionated, too-clumsy, too-anxious self. How I leave most social engagements, and turn to Jonathan to ask, “Was I OK? Was I obnoxious? Did I talk too much? Did I embarrass you? Did I make anyone else uncomfortable?” *

I worry that my decisions are too-selfish. That my desires are too-frivolous. That my dreams are too-big. That my appetite for food, for life, for adventure, is too-much.  I am constantly aware of the space I take up and how often it feels like more than I deserve. And in sharing all of this, I now worry that I am being too-vulnerable. And that maybe all of this is just a product of my being too-selfish and too-whiny.

Of course, I want to cultivate truth in my life and to cut away the things that are not good for myself or for others. I’m not saying I should allow my worst qualities to run free. But how can I expect to grow when I spend so much time intent on shrinking myself down to fit into the limited space I am told I deserve?

I want to live a big life. A life where my love–for my family and friends, for my work, for freedom and justice, for the hurting, for beauty and diversity, and for the work of God in the world–is so expansive that it cannot be contained. I want passion and empathy and joy and grace to flow out of me and into whatever corner of the world I happen to be in.

I am tired of asking for permission to take up space. I am tired of apologizing because I have desires and dreams that don’t always align with other people’s expectations or are outside of their realm of understanding. I am tired of sucking in my stomach all day every day so I can pretend to have a more acceptable amount of belly fat. And I am tired of trying so hard to rein in all that seems unacceptable about me that I’ve been shrinking my soul in the process. I want to come to peace with all of my dimensions–from the circumference of my thighs, to the depth of my sadness, to the volume of my laughter. I want to take up space.

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*I’ve written before here about my social anxiety
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Learning to Trust the Church Again: a really long post about coming out of a bad church situation and learning to believe in the goodness of the Church again

This past Sunday was a celebratory day in the Dunn household.  It was Jonathan’s final day of work at Starbucks in Raleigh. Not only was this exciting because he has a new job and no longer has to make coffee for picky customers 6 hours a day, but most importantly because he will no longer have to work on Sunday mornings. Ever. Since arriving in Raleigh two months ago, there have only been two Sunday mornings when Jonathan was not working (despite requests not to…don’t even get me started.) Because of this we have been making slow progress on our search for a church, but now we are hoping it won’t be long before we are involved somewhere. We are (shudder) hardcore church-shopping.

I hate the term church-shopping. I hate the idea of church-shopping. I firmly believe that the purpose of the church is not to meet all of our needs, to entertain us, or to cater to all of our preferences. The church as an institution is here to facilitate believers living as representations of Christ to one another and to those in their community. A church should facilitate spiritual growth in individuals as well as corporate growth as a community. This requires active participation by the congregation. And since the congregation (and the leadership) are made up of fallible people, there is no way that any church can escape imperfections. And yet, past experience has taught me that, universal imperfections acknowledged, not all churches are equally sound. Not all churches are honoring to God. Not all churches are a nurturing and healthy environment. So the idea for Jonathan and I is not to find the perfect church, but to find a healthy church and a community we can share life with, even if we don’t love everything about it. A church whose growth and development we can become a part of. People we can love and be loved by.

As we’ve begun to explore churches in Raleigh I’ve been surprised to realize how much my past experiences in the church are carrying over into our search for a new one. In some ways, Jonathan and I are on exactly the same page. For us, the most important things we are looking for in a church are biblically sound teaching and a community we feel we can really be accepted into. But in other ways, our different faith backgrounds and particularly my experiences in the church I was raised in have really affected the way I view the church.

The church I grew up in was mid-sized, but growing fast, charismatic and non-denominational. From that church I had more or less been led to believe that people in non-charismatic traditions were in a spiritually dry place and were not passionate about their faith. I actually had really well-meaning people caution me when Jonathan and I started dating that his Presbyterian background could result in us being unequally yoked because of our different beliefs about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When I got to Wheaton, and particularly after Jonathan and I started dating, I encountered people from all different denominational backgrounds, many of whom were very passionate believers who understood things about Christianity that I had never even considered and were from mainline Protestant backgrounds. These were people who were excited about their faith, they just didn’t express it in the emotional way I was used to seeing. Not only that, but I found that while I had assumptions about them being dry and passionless, the prevailing attitude was that emotionally expressive, charismatic churches lacked depth and substance. Suddenly I was the anomaly.

Over my years at Wheaton it became clear that some of the things I had been taught in the church I grew up in were just plain wrong. Not just differences of opinion or a different interpretation, but bad theology. Worship had become a concert given by the most talented people under the guise that we were “pursuing excellence”, appearances were more important than real relationships, and the concept of “spiritual authority” led to abuse in the leadership. The church declared itself to be a “family,” but there were very strict rules for how the members of the family were expected to act. The teaching was that this church was God’s family and that any deviation from the way that church was running things was rebellion against God himself. If you disagreed with something that was said from the pulpit, it was up to you deal with your sinful inability to handle offenses. In words, no one would ever have said, “This is the perfect church,” but in practice, anything that was contrary to what the pastor wanted or said was rebelling against the “spiritual covering” God had given us in our church and pastor. Although they hadn’t started out that way, sermons had subtly changed to focus on what God can do for you or on how obeying God “opens to door for his blessing” which led to the underlying idea that if you hold up your end of the bargain, God will hold up his and that if you are not experiencing God’s blessing perhaps you need to be more obedient in some area of your life. Imagine the pressure of believe that God’s goodness is conditional based on your own goodness. Yikes.

As I grew in my intellectual knowledge of Christianity and my understanding of who God is I started to identify some of these things. I was startled by how many lies and unhealthy attitudes had been ingrained in me and the ways they came out in the way I thought about God and the world. As I began to identify these things, the result was that I started to push against anything that reminded me of the church I had grown up in. Not just reminded me theologically of it, but reminded me of it at all. For example, I somehow got the idea that because the church I’d grown up in had had amazing musicians and singers leading worship which eventually led to a “concert” like atmosphere, that truly holy worship must necessarily be really crappy music. 🙂 The church we attended at Wheaton had a  worship team made up of a rotating group of volunteers, many of whom were not the best singers or musicians, and the music they chose was more often than not CCM music from the late 80’s and early 90’s. It wasn’t the best quality, but it was heartfelt.

Part of my rejecting the tradition I’d come out of resulted in my becoming highly critical when it came to sermons and teaching. While I think it was good to come to a place of examining what was being preached in the light of Scripture and not just accepting anything that was spoken in a church, in some cases I actually became overly critical to the point that one small thing I wasn’t sure about caused me to reject an entire message or service. I was afraid of being deceived, but ultimately what happened was that I became too critical to receive much of anything. I would spent the entire service on the defensive, looking for something I disagreed with. I had started out on one end of the spectrum and then, like a pendulum, swung wildly the other way.

Gradually, through two very genuine and god-honoring churches we attended in Wheaton and in Naperville I began to understand how God can work through an imperfect church and speak into our lives, even when the worship isn’t the most beautiful or the sermon is less than riveting. And in the same way, I shouldn’t reject a church with a very talented worship team or a very engaging pastor just because that is similar to the church I grew up in. The key is not rejecting anything out of fear or accepting anything out of ignorance, but instead trusting that the Holy Spirit alive in me will direct me and that I can fully trust him, even if I’m not sure about a particular church service.

The churches we went to in Wheaton and then Naperville were both very stoic in terms of being expressive in worship and very conservative in terms of their theology. In a strange way, these traditional, conservative churches have really been a stretch for me. Because I grew up in an environment where people were very expressive in church, a service that is very quiet and worship that is very stoic are actually as uncomfortable to me as loud worship with people jumping around is to Jonathan. Because everyone is quiet and still I feel conspicuous if I clap or lift a hand. I feel that my expression of worship will distract those around me, whereas in an environment where people are generally more expressive, no one is going to notice if I sway to the beat. Through those experiences though I have learned firsthand that just feeling uncomfortable does not mean something’s wrong. Being out of my element does not mean I should shut down and reject everything I hear. And in the same way, being somewhere that I am more comfortable doesn’t make everything right.

By God’s grace I believe I am now in a position where I can see both extremes of the pendulum and am praying that God will help us find a healthy medium. I want to be able to trust where I see God working and to be able to receive with discernment but without fear. I would love to find a place that I can worship expressively and still be taught the challenging truths of the gospel. I want to find a place that serves the community and allows Christ to be the most attractive feature rather than displays of opulence, but that is concerned with being relevant. I want to be an active part of the miraculous, living body of Christ without fear of being hurt or rejected or deceived. That’s far more important than what the music sounds like or how entertained I am by the sermon or how technologically savvy the illustrations are.

So, in a very long-winded way this is me saying, OK, Lord, whatever you have for us, I am ready to receive it. My sails are flung out wide, let your winds guide us where you want us to go!

Face Your Fears

My sophomore year in college I lived in a suite with three other girls. The rooms were set up as two bedrooms with an adjoining bathroom, but it was fairly common to “super-suite” the rooms so that all of the beds were in one room and the other room housed desks and a couch or some type of living area. We had done this to our rooms, but had the beds set up in a unique configuration that was the envy of the whole dorm. In all fairness, I can’t take any credit for it. Two of my roommates (Julia and Christina) had arrived a day or so ahead of me and Taylor and had managed to assemble a masterpiece of bunk beds, desks, and dressers. Three of the beds were triple bunked, but the middle bunk, rather than being directly between the top and bottom bunks, was lofted perpendicularly with one end supported by the top and bottom bunk and the other end propped on top of a dresser. The fourth bunk was lofted high on top of two desks with bookshelves so that it was even with the top bunk of the triple-decker and left room for two people to sit back to back at their desks underneath. Those two highest beds were so high up that after crawling into them, there was only 12-18” between you and the ceiling. To this day I cannot figure out how those girls did it without any help.

From Left: Julia, Taylor, Christina, Me. Because it's cool to take pictures like this at 19 and think they're cute

Being very accident prone and generally afraid of heights along with my propensity to get up and pee at least 2-3 times on an average night, I happily slept on the very bottom bunk all four years of college. Except for one fateful night. I had been at the library with my then boyfriend (now husband) until it closed at midnight. As I stood outside my door, digging through my bag for my key card a note on the outside of the door caught my eye. “Face your fears,” it read in Christina’s distinctive handwriting. Having no idea what this meant, I laughed a little. Big mistake. I went in and stumbled around in the dark getting ready for bed. I had pretty much forgotten about the sign until I made it over to my bed. Just as I was about to collapse into it I realized…there was someone in my bed. Christina. I tried to move her, but was unsuccessful. I shrugged to myself and climbed up a level to Taylor’s bed. There was someone in Taylor’s bed. It was Julia. I did not consider moving Julia because it had now become completely clear to me what was going on. “Face your fears.” This was what it meant. Shaking, I climbed up a level to Christina’s bed. And there was Taylor, sound asleep. Which left Julia’s bed, vaulted to the ceiling and still missing the extra long ladder we had ordered for it. I knew I had a choice. I could have turned on the lights and yelled. I could have pushed Christina over far enough to wedge myself next to her in my own bed. I could have slept on the slightly skuzzy couch in the next room. But this was my moment. Life had handed me an opportunity and I was going to seize it. I was born for such a time as this. So, I crawled over the sleeping Taylor into Julia’s bed in the stratosphere and wedged myself between the wall and my mattress, using my (thoughtfully provided) pillow as a barrier, should I begin to roll in my sleep. The morning came as mornings do and I woke up, stiff, but victorious.

There is a point to this story (I think.) I was reminded of it because in some ways I think God has been asking me to face some fears in the last few weeks. Fears about where we’ll end up, if we’ll have good jobs, if we’ll have enough money, if we’ll be happy. Even fears about God himself and whether or not he really is good, true, and faithful. Whether or not he really has a plan. Sometimes when you are confronted with a particular fear, you realize that it really isn’t as frightening as you thought it was (i.e. me and the really high bed.) And sometimes, you realize it’s every bit as frightening as you thought it was. But that doesn’t change the fact that deep down at a core level there are things that can never be taken from you. If the worst thing that you can imagine actually happened, then what? S

ee, a lot of my fears stem from the one big fear that I will not be allowed to have good things or that the good things I have will be taken from me. And it occurred to me as my husband and I walked through this decision about moving and jobs that I am trying so hard to hold on to my good things that I don’t even recognize that I already have the best thing. I have the love of a God who poured out his life for me, regardless of whether I am in a moment of belief or of doubt. Because even if I lost all of these things I so desperately fear being separated from—my husband (not that he’s a thing:) ), my home, my family, my friends, a career, living a place I love, dreams for the future—this I could never be separated from. Nothing can separate me from the love of God. Not even me.

We have decided to stick with our original plan and move to Raleigh. Although the other opportunity offered a lot more security, we ultimately didn’t feel a strong sense of God’s calling towards it. We are scheduled to move right after the Fourth of July, but the rest is largely unknown. Thanks to all who have listened and loved and prayed. You are all evidence that when God asks us to face our fears, he doesn’t ask us to do it alone.

Burn Out

I think I have finally reached the point of total and complete burnout as far as my job is concerned. After months of struggling with a sense of purpose in what I’m doing and some frustration with the monotony of it, I’ve finally reached a point where even the weekends aren’t enough recuperation and nothing seems to encourage me. While I genuinely do love the kids I am with, I am tired all of the time and I am bored out of my mind. I am completely out of patience and feel that I cannot answer one more question. Except for naptime in the afternoon, I spend 7-8 hours a day entertaining and verbally responding to a preschooler and a toddler and half of that is correcting, cajoling, convincing, rebuking, or coming up with creative and interesting things for them to do. I’m worn out. I’m committed to this job until the end of May. Intellectually, I know that’s not forever. But right now, it feels like forever. And every morning when my alarm goes off everything in me screams, “NO!”

Jonathan and I continue to wait for good news from the schools he’s applied to, but so far there hasn’t been any. We’ve begun to discuss where we’ll go and what we’ll do if school isn’t on the table for next year. It’s somewhat exciting to think about moving somewhere new based on nothing more than an interest in the location, but it can also be overwhelming and frightening. Mostly though I am frustrated and feel defeated. I am so tremendously proud of my husband for applying to these programs that are highly selective and are evaluating your creative work which is often so deeply personal. I think he is so brave for pursuing something like this and it took a lot for him to even allow himself to pursue it simply because he felt it was impractical. I am frustrated with God because I don’t understand why he would have given him this dream and given him the courage to pursue it if it isn’t even going to work out.  And I feel completely at a loss as to how to encourage him in the midst of this. I don’t know how to make him believe that whatever the outcome, he is tremendously talented and gifted and that I respect and admire what he’s done so much. Just saying the words doesn’t seem to be enough.

I also had a tremendously selfish conversation with my husband in the midst of all of this where I whined about not being seen as a writer or taken seriously for my writing. It was juvenile and pathetic and the truth remains that I have not produced anything new creatively in almost a year. This is my own fault. No one sees me as a writer because, well, I don’t write.

So friends, this isn’t a witty, endearing, or uplifting blog post, but it is an honest post. I feel like I am failing. I am failing as a nanny. I am failing at being an encouraging, supportive wife. I am failing as a writer. I feel empty. Like I have nothing left to give. But this one promise keeps echoing through my mind. A voice that says, “My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in your weakness.”