When You’re Just Not Feeling the Joy

This morning I woke up with a pit in my stomach. It’s one of those mornings when things just feel off, and my heart is unsettled. Often I can pinpoint the cause, but sometimes it eludes me. I will try to distract myself or medicate it away with sleep, sugar, caffeine, mindless tv, or more sleep. I think this feeling is not uncommon, particularly as we get close to the holidays.

It’s supposed to be a joyous time of year, but sometimes we just don’t feel like rejoicing. Is there something wrong with us?

Let’s look at the messages we are taking in. We are bombarded with commercials that tell us that we are unhappy and that our lives are less than perfect unless we buy a certain product. On social media, people are posting holiday pictures and discussing family, but for many, it is not a happy time of year, and it can be magnified when we feel like everyone else around us is happy and festive. And to be honest, the state of the world and the amount of social and political unrest is unsettling, particularly as things become more and more divisive.

We can feel uneasy or unsettled at any time, not just during the holiday season. So this morning I am going through my mental checklist, because if there is something significant and I don’t deal with it, it will show its ugly head later, so it’s best to just deal with things now, if I can. Perhaps this checklist will be helpful for you as well. Here are some things to think about when you’re feeling unsettled and you don’t know why:

  1. Do I have unrealistic expectations for the holidays? Am I looking for THIS holiday season to make up for any unpleasant or unsatisfactory experiences I had growing up or in the past? Or is it something more basic, not necessarily connected to the holidays?
  2. Is it a gnawing conscience? Sometimes when there is this uneasiness in my heart, it’s because I’ve said or done something hurtful or insensitive, and I need to make amends. Have I been hurtful, unkind, or insensitive? Do I have unfinished business with someone, and my heart isn’t letting me ignore it?
  3. Is it shame? Did I say something out of turn, or behave in a way that I wish I hadn’t? Is it legitimate shame (where I have truly done something that I shouldn’t have) or is it misplaced shame, put on by myself or others, to make me feel ‘less than’? Is this a sign that I am looking for significance in the wrong place, or letting outside forces determine my worth?
  4. Is it undiscipline? Am I putting off a duty or responsibility that I need to be working on? Am I distracting myself from some things that must be done with things that are unnecessary? Am I spending time on things that I call ‘time sucks’ – like social media, Pinterest, mindless tv, binge-watching Netflix, etc – rather than prioritizing the important things that I should be doing?
  5. Am I not setting good boundaries? Have I said  “yes” to something because I felt obligated rather than called to do something? Have I said “No” to something or made excuses when my heart knows I really should have said yes? Have I let someone have more power in my life than they should? Am I allowing another’s actions or words to affect my sense of self?
  6. Am I placing my sense of personal significance in the wrong place? Am I basing how I feel about my own worth on the opinions of others? On whether or not I have convinced them how awesome I am? On how many likes or comments or views I get? On whether or not someone agrees and supports my opinion? Am I comparing myself or my experience with others online (whose real lives are likely completely different from what they portray online)?
  7. Am I connected and in community? Do I have people with whom I can share my heart? Am I lonely and missing loved ones? Is there unresolved grief? Is there loss that might feel particularly strong at this time of year?
  8. Am I living my purpose? Am I just going through the motions, or am I living a meaningful purpose, fulfilling what only I can do in this life? Do I know what makes my life meaningful? (okay, getting a little too deep, time to move on to the basics)
  9. If you still cannot pinpoint what’s causing you to feel unsettled, look at the basics: Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating healthy foods? Are you eating too much sugar (studies show sugar withdrawal mimics depression)? Are you getting outside and getting some exercise? Are you spending time in the sun? (or if it’s dark where you live, are you getting enough vitamin D?) Are you drinking enough water? Are you spending time with those you love? Are you working too much? Are you practicing good self-care? Are you spending time each day having fun? When was the last time you laughed? If you’re a spiritual person, are you staying connected spiritually by praying, reading, meditating?

Often just thinking about and labeling the cause will help to put things in perspective. It also helps me to talk to a friend – sometimes just processing things out loud helps you see things in a different light. I’ve found that sometimes the answer is as simple as taking a break from social media. I don’t think people realize the amount of angst it can create until you step away for a time.

Sometimes the feeling of being unsettled can signal anxiety or depression. This can be temporary, but if the feeling doesn’t dissipate, you may need to look at outside help and get some counseling and see a medical doctor. If you need to seek help, do it. You’re worth it.

Wishing you a holiday filled with love. And joy.

 

I Really Want to Love Advent

*Disclaimer: Writing about how sometimes I don’t love Advent does not mean that I don’t love Christmas. Just as writing about my longings for changing the church does not mean that I don’t love Jesus. Just as writing about how my marriage could improve does not mean that I don’t love my husband. Just as writing about my hopes and dreams for my children does not mean that I don’t love them. You get the idea.

I want to love Advent. Really I do. It is not something we practiced growing up. In fact, I had never heard of Advent until I was a young mother, and heard a talk about it at a MOMS group as a meaningful alternative to the commercialization and Santa-frenzy of the Christmas season. It sounded good. Taking time out of the chaos of the holiday season to focus your heart each week to prepare for the spiritual reason for the season – the coming of Christ.

Oh Lord, let my soul rise up to meet you as the day rises to meet the sun.

What is Advent?

It is part of the liturgical church calendar, beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas (this usually falls the Sunday after Thanksgiving). The season focuses on the expectation and the anticipation of the coming of Jesus. Often there are four candles placed around an Advent wreath, with one candle being lit each week on Sunday, representing hope, love, joy, and peace. There is sometimes a candle placed in the center to represent Christ, and that is lit on Christmas Day. As each candle is lit, there are readings, hymns or songs, and scriptures for each week, often meant to be read together as a family.There are variations of the practice of advent, but those are the basics.

It sounds lovely, and it can be. There are times that I really appreciated being reminded to push pause and reflect. I particularly loved getting up early Christmas morning and lighting the center candle and just spending some quiet time praying and reflecting before everyone else got up and the busy day began.

But honestly, it often felt like one more thing to do during the Christmas season. And three little boys weren’t particularly keen to sit quietly and participate in readings (unless it was their turn to light the candle). Most of the time I was unprepared when that first Sunday of Advent rolled around, because not only did it mean putting away my fall decorations, it meant finding and putting out my Christmas decorations, or at least my Advent wreath. To add to this pressure, two of my boys have birthdays the first week of December, so we often put off decorating for Christmas until after we celebrated their birthdays. And when I finally got my act together and had everything set up, it often felt like a forced ritual, rather than a meaningful time of reflection. And if I’m truly honest, it was sometimes a source of pride and self-righteousness that I was practicing Advent and down-playing Santa. Yes, that is the ugly truth of it.

O come, O come, Emmanuel : and ransom captive Israel

So as I’ve started my search for the sacred, I am trying to look at Advent with new eyes. And evenso, I was not ready for the first Sunday of Advent. We moved across the country this summer, and I had to find my Christmas boxes among the piles of boxes up on the third floor. (And also, the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead was on). Ummmm. Yeah, so there it is.

But by the first of the week I had found my advent wreath and bought my candles and started reading each day. In my journey to discover the meaningfulness behind the church calendar, I have been reading Common Prayer: a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, and I am trying to rid my life of some of the distractions so that I can learn to focus on what is important.

Praise to you who lift up the poor : and fill the hungry with good things.

Which is truly difficult for me – I am strongly ADD and my life is centered around distractions. I thrive on them. So this learning to be still and focus and remove distractions and have discipline is scary, uncomfortable, and very, very difficult at times. It does not come easily for me, but I am slowly learning.

There are many readings that go along with Advent – some are quite formal, others a little more laid back. If you have never practiced Advent, or like me, sometimes just went through the motions, I encourage you to look at Advent with fresh eyes and an open heart. There is something truly sacred about pausing and reflecting, not as a duty, but out of a sense of wonder. This year, along with the readings from Common Prayer, I am following Sarah Bessey’s writings for Advent. I love her writing  because she speaks hard truths with a sweetness and gentleness that draws me in. So if you’re a late starter, like me, you can begin here:

Week One:  Hope

Week Two: Peace

You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face” : your face, Lord, will I seek.

Lord, help me to learn to turn from the many distractions that, although they may be good, serve to distract me from the best. 

Lord, help me learn to be still and quiet, so that I can hear your voice. 

Lord, give me open eyes to see truth, and a mouth that can speak truth in love as well as hold its tongue for the sake of grace and peace.

Google Search: Hipster Church, Louisville, College Kids

I can’t pinpoint the day when church made me want to run screaming, but it did. For many years. There are reasons that I won’t elaborate on, but it has to do growing up in a performance-based church with a legalistic upbringing and little experience of God’s grace, as well as some deep church wounds that were difficult to heal.

And even though for a time I couldn’t walk into a church, or stand to listen to people talk ‘Christianese’ at me, or sometimes even listen to others pray,

I still longed for community, I longed to be a part of the body of Christ that loved one another.

I just didn’t see a lot of it. And I became very cynical, so that even the genuine and grace-filled people in my life became tainted in my mind with the pain from my church wounds. My faith, at least in terms of ‘organized religion’, had been deconstructed. I wanted no part of any of it. And I know that countless others feel that way, too. I hear others talk about it all the time. Believers are disillusioned, and non-believers feel that their judgements of believers are confirmed as they see some of them behave in ways that are anything but loving. (A post I wrote a year ago, “Why Church Breaks My Heart“, was my most popular blog post to date.)

But my heart still clung to Jesus, even though my face was turned from his people.

I was (and still am) so disgusted by the beliefs and actions of many who claim to love Jesus. But I slowly learned that the church is messy, and that it’s just not going to always be beautiful messy as I had hoped. Sometimes it is even ugly messy. And what was I going to do about that? Stay away forever, or jump in and get my hands dirty?

To be honest, I still don’t know that answer to that question. But my wounds are healing to the point that I can talk about my God once again. I can listen to people pray without cringing. I can listen to people talk about their faith without judging them and doubting their sincerity.

It was quite the ugly place to be.

I feel like I can once again have hope for God’s people, for his Church. I have found other people of faith who are open and exploring social justice issues and are trying to  truly discern what it means to Love One Another as opposed to just towing a certain political line. We don’t always agree, but we can agree to disagree and listen to each other. And once again I can believe that Love Wins.

We had found a church in Portland, Or that we thought would be our church home – they were involved in helping the homeless, improving race relations, serving refugees.

And then we moved from the Pacific NW to Louisville, Kentucky –

the middle of the Bible belt, the heart of Southern Baptists, which sometimes represents the very type of ‘Christian’ that I had been trying to distance myself from. How could we ever find a church home? Did we even want to? We weren’t even sure that we were going to stay in Louisville, so was it even worth trying to find a place?

I talked to people about their churches, at work and in my neighborhood. We live in Clifton, a close-knit neighborhood, and I really hoped to find a church close to home. Like within walking distance. We tried a few, but they didn’t seem like a good fit. I attended a book study with women from a local mega-church, which was okay for a small group, but I really wanted to steer away from the mega-church mentality. I started googling the terms that were important to me: missional, social justice, homeless ministry, addiction support. One thing I was also hoping for was a church that was integrated – not just a bunch of white people. This is a very diverse city, but the churches we had attended were not diverse.

It is fortunate that most churches now have their services online, so you can ‘try out’ a church by listening to their podcast before attending. That won’t tell you everything, but it’s a start. My husband and I really have a heart for college kids, and I liked the Portland church’s vibe, so I googled

“Hipster church, Louisville, college kids”

Yes, seriously.

I scrolled past the extra-large churches and came up with a couple of names. (Honestly, I’m not sure how I found the names, because if I google it again, I don’t come up with the same results). I listened to their sermons, and one of the pastors, Matt Ness, did not make me want to run screaming. So we decided to try that church.

The Avenue Church started about five years ago as a ministry to University of Louisville students. They hold services in space in the middle of an office building/small business center. We walked into the small room with less than 100 people, where we saw a stage with a background of pallets, blue lights, and a pole in the center of the room. I was intimidated at the small size of the group, and I might have left, but Craig said “Let’s stay”. During the welcome time (and can I just say – WHY do churches still do that? but I digress) the pastor introduced himself and told us a little about the church. They recently decided to merge with the church that meets in the same space directly after them – a church called The Soul Center. This church is predominantly black, and the two pastors and congregations had decided to combine the two and become an integrated faith community.

How cool is that?

The two churches are forming a new church together, which will be called One Church. And it is just in the beginning stages – the first official combined service was to be in a few weeks (which will be this coming Sunday, December 6). AND they are involved in helping the community. They support an organization called the Family Scholar House, which helps single parents attending college. The Family Scholar House states their mission is “to end the cycle of poverty and transform our community by empowering families and youth to succeed in education and achieve life-long self-sufficiency”. AND they are involved in an organization called Eyes That See, which works with women in Ethiopia who desire to leave the sex industry.

From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of college kids and families. Not a lot of us ‘mature’ couples (yikes) but maybe we can offer something to this newly formed church. For the first time in a long while, I am excited about attending a church, being part of a church body, and finding a church community.

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes . . .

 

Simply Love, and Love Well

A couple of years ago, my life was in chaos. I felt broken. I felt wounded by the church. I couldn’t enter a church without wanting to run screaming, so I stopped going. I could barely stand it when someone spoke “Christianese” at me.

My relationships were broken. I had hurt one of my best friends, and she refused to forgive me after multiple attempts to reconcile. A family member had deeply wounded me. To create safe boundaries, I had cut off communication for a time in order to build healthy boundaries and not be revictimized.

But God had a plan for this chaos. Broken, my heart was humbled as I saw the devastating consequences of my actions as well as others. I started counseling again for the first time in many years, and started healing anew. As this emotional healing progressed, my spirit was also beginning the healing process. I determined that the story I was living could not continue. I wanted to live a better story.

Eventually, relationships were restored, although the wounds remain. Not as an open source of pain, but a scar that serves as a reminder to love gently and purposefully. While I had turned my back on the “church”, I never felt far from God. Slowly, the contempt I had for organized religion was replaced by a longing for community, to once again find my place in the body of Christ. That is an ongoing process, but I don’t want to run screaming any more (at least, most of the time I don’t).

This week I had the luxury of solitude. I decided not to travel with my husband on business, so I had a blissful week alone. This became a mini-retreat that allowed me hours upon hours to process what I learned at the Storyline conference, and to spend time reading, praying, and journaling. I was able to organize all of the things that had been weighing heavy on my heart. I developed goals for the coming year – specific and purposeful goals. I created a theme for the year that will help guide me and help me focus on those important things that will help me lead a better story.

Simply love, and love well.

Love God. Love others. Love yourself.

Love God –

I will spend more time learning, reading, studying, praying, and journaling. And yes, I am going on a silent retreat next month so that I can learn to be still and listen. And I think I have found a church here in Louisville that doesn’t make me want to run screaming.

I considered the five major roles in my life (wife, family, friend, neighbor, writer) from Storyline’s Creating Your Life Plan, and set goals for each one. I also took into account the concept of the relational atom

Love others:

  • as a wife, be a partner in creating memories and building a home of restorative community

  • as a family member (daughter, sister), love purposefully and practically

  • as a friend (this includes just my inner circle of friends), also love purposefully and practically, and work to maintain relationships though we are at a distance; be ‘present’ even though I am not present

  • as a neighbor (this includes the people in my neighborhood, extended family, my outer circle of friends, co-workers, and church friends) , show God’s love with purpose and presence

Love yourself:

as a writer and creative soul; care for myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually

In light of this new focus, there will be some changes for my blog. I will just be posting a couple of times each week about this journey. In setting some boundaries so that I can be more purposeful in my relationships, I want to spend less time on social media and more time being actually present. My ‘new year’ will start at the beginning of the church calendar, on the first Sunday of Advent  (November 30 this year). I hope you will continue with me as I learn to Simply Love

What have you done to live a better story this past year? Share your answer on my Facebook page.

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