Expecations


They are often what we look forward to the most about the holidays. They are the things we have done since we were little, moved to where we live now, got married, had children, etc. They are wrapped up in the cookies we bake, the ornaments we hang, and the candles we light. They are the familiar and expected, yet they are special because we only do them during this time of the year.

At the same time though, they are what cause us to write lists (even if we aren’t list people)–of addresses for Christmas cards, people we are getting gifts for, things to get for the Christmas party (at work, at church, with friends, etc.), and food to buy for each special meal. They are why we make the same layer cake or baked ham that we have made for the past three years–because people would miss it if we made something else. They are what cause us to pop antacids because not only did we eat too much at our fourth Christmas party, but we are overwhelmed by the fact that our lists are getting longer.  On top of that, “Susie next door” gave us a present, and we didn’t even know we were close enough to exchange gifts! (…Add her to the list).

I will stop before I begin to sound like Scrooge, but of course, I am talking about traditions. They have the ability to bring family and friends together, to make a Holiday feel really special, and yet they can also bring about a lot of stress.

As I shared on Monday, I am feeling some anxiety along with my excitement that Christmas time is upon us. And so I have decided to begin this season by asking what are the trappings we have added to the Holiday that we don’t really need?

What can we let go of this Christmas, without losing its true meaning?

Last week, my friend posted on Facebook that her family’s plans fell through for Thanksgiving. She went on to say she was about to gear up to make a turkey, when her husband said that he would rather go to the Chinese Buffet. As I read that, I thought, “why not?” The Chinese Buffet is a feast, and the most important people in my friend’s life were going to be with her–why can’t that be her Thanksgiving?

My friend’s post and my own anxiety about the holidays has made me realize that sometimes, we need to question our traditions. Sometimes we need to test them, to see if they are bringing more life or more stress to our holidays. What may have once brought happiness to us and our family or friends–may now be something we have outgrown. What may have once brought joy, may now feel like a burden or obligation.  When this happens the whole meaning of Christmas and being with those you love, is lost.

So, before December even begins, may we reflect on Christmases past, may we feel the freedom to question what has been, and discuss with those closest to us how best to celebrate this Season. May worn out traditions die, important ones be resurrected, and new ones begin. 

Okay, I’m just going to come right out and say it: A lot of women secretly hate Christmas. Now, don’t get me wrong. We love that picturesque moment in which the tree is lit, the fire is crackling, and children outfitted in matching candy-cane pajamas dance around the living room to Tchaikovsky, showing off armfuls of new toys while a twenty-pound ham bakes in the oven; we just hate the anxiety disorder we developed while attempting to produce it.

Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Christmas is my favorite time of year. Unfortunately though, as each year goes by, I find myself experiencing both more excitement and more anxiety as the season approaches. This past weekend, as my husband and I continued our tradition of going to a local tree farm and cutting down our Christmas tree, I couldn’t help but notice some apprehension sneaking in amongst the joy.  I think its because as we unwrapped ornaments to hang on our tree, I began to remember that the Christmas Season means:

Feeling like there isn’t enough time to do everything.

Shopping in overcrowded stores.

Eating too much.

Traveling in busy airports

Seeing family (which is both awesome and messy)

And perhaps most troubling:

It will go by too quickly.

Christmas also means going to really fun Christmas parties, baking/making fun foods, seeing friends, and that the scent of pine fills our apartment. Most importantly, for me it is a reminder that the God of the Universe didn’t abandon us in our brokenness. The true meaning of Christmas goes way beyond presents and egg nog, yet I get anxious that in all of the stress and work to make Christmas special, I will forget the one thing that makes it actually special.

What used to be one day to celebrate the Hope of the world, has now become over a month of preparation/celebration. With the help of Martha Stewart, large retail companies, and Pinterest, we have dressed Christmas up like a supermodel to make it look like an unattainable image. And I don’t know about you, but when I try to keep up with that image, I don’t end up enjoying the day and the time I have with the people I love–or remembering why we celebrate Christmas in the first place!

So, as I fight the tension of anxiety and excitement, I have decided to welcome the season, by asking not “WWMD?” (“What would Martha do?”), but rather:

What can we let go of this Christmas, without losing its true meaning?

Call me a minimalist or optimistic, but I am hoping the true spirit of Christmas will emerge.

Just last week, one of my former students tweeted:

“I wish everyone would stop asking me what I am doing after graduation!”

I felt, almost tangibly, her frustration. Then I remembered that in life, even after we decide what we are doing after high school, the questions about our future keep coming:

What are you going to do after you graduate college?

Where are you going to work?

Are you dating anyone?

When are you guys going to get married?

When are you guys going to have kids?

Often these questions come from well meaning, caring people in our lives who are just interested in our future.  But what they often don’t realize is the amount of panic they induce, when we don’t have an answer.  

“Great Aunt Bee” may be just trying to show some interest in our lives, but what we hear is “Why haven’t you picked a college?” or “Why haven’t you gotten a job yet?”

And as we are trying to come up with a good-sounding, “I am not wasting my life away” answer, all we keep thinking is “as if we aren’t already asking ourselves these very questions, each and every waking moment!”

Recently, I have found myself in such situations.  After resigning a job I had for over seven years, and being out of work for over nine months now, my “favorite” question that I get asked by friends and family is:

“Sooo, what are you doing these days?”

To which I have to respond with the brilliant, accomplished sounding answer of:

“I am writing a blog.  Oh, and learning how to bake bread.”

I don’t have a better answer than that. Yet what I am realizing, by lacking an impressive answer, is how much we tie our worth and sense of success, to our answers for these questions. There is the impression that if we don’t have great sounding answers like:

“I started this job where I make double the money I did before.”

or “I am getting a lot of scholarship offers, so I am waiting to choose where I go to college.”

or “I just started dating this guy; he is a Pediatric Surgeon, who saves babies.”

Then somehow we are failing. Yet none of the answers to these questions tell others if we are kind, if we are hard workers, if we are good people, and if we are more than just what one finds on our resume or Facebook profile. None of our answers to these loaded questions are supposed to define us, but for some reason, we believe that they do.

Also, I am learning that by believing I need to have a perfect sounding answer, I am trying to rush through the process of finding the right answer. During the past nine months, there are things I have begun to understand about myself and my past that I wouldn’t have learned had I rushed into a new job. And, the things I was looking for in a job then, aren’t necessarily the things I am looking for now.

Finally, I am finding that the people who truly know and love me, are going to hang in here with me, even if my answers to their questions aren’t fancy or inspiring.

What loaded questions are you avoiding?

One of the websites I am reading the most lately is She Loves Magazine. Today they are hosting a synchroblog on times of awakening, and I thought it would be fun to join in, and at the same time, share a little bit more of how this blog has come into being.

I have never fully known the feeling one gets when they see a baby and everything goes gushy inside. I have never experienced the emotions that fill ones body, when the little white stick says “pregnant.” And I have yet to hold a new born that is my own, smell his/her head, and wonder “can I do this?”

I have, however, sat in the audience of a painfully-out-of-tune middle school Christmas pageant, holding my breath, as my student performed his solo.  I have anxiously waited for a student to show up on a Sunday morning to tell me if they made the team, survived math class this week, or got a part in the school play.  I have spent hundreds of hours leading Jr. High girls’ small group bible studies, praying for those light-bulb moments when one would say “God cares about that stuff? He cares about me?

My heart has filled to overflowing, when as a single youth pastor, my hand-me-down dinning room table fit fifteen girls around it for ice cream sundaes and Apples to Apples.  And I have been over-the-moon excited when after they start college, those same girls come back and say “remember how you always told us…”

But now, after seven years of full-time “my-heart-has-adopted-hundreds-of-teenagers” ministry, the past year has felt like God took a sharp turn and my life is heading in a new direction.

At first, when I resigned from my ministry position nine months ago (after a year of struggling to free my heart), I felt like “Ok, God. I can take some time off. I can pursue writing–but then you will take me back, right? Someday, I will go back to youth ministry?”

But He was quiet. He let me grieve the loss of the kids and volunteers I loved. He let me wrestle with my “what ifs.”  And then about a month ago, as I was baking in my kitchen, He softly impressed on my heart that I won’t be going back into youth ministry, at least not in that form.

A new grieving began, yet this time it was different.  I felt God was re-writing my story–making it completely different than the picture in my head. I was confused, and I wanted to be angry with Him. Then I realized, wait, God doesn’t “re-write.” He doesn’t change his mind as to where our stories will take us. He always has a plan, and it is us who try to re-write, re-direct our paths.

For the past eight years, I was so sure I was living one story when in reality I was living a different one. I was really on a journey that led me to a greater knowledge of myself and God’s love for me. Part of my story was being in youth ministry–meeting incredible people, traveling all over the world, making some amazing friends and meeting my awesome husband. But youth ministry wasn’t my whole story.

I thought I would love teenagers forever through church ministry–but I am finding God’s path is taking me in a different direction.  He has given me this season of grieving, yet in the midst of emotions that sometimes feel like death, new life has begun to spring up. 

And one of those new shoots is this blog. God is breaking and expanding my heart for our plight as women.  He is revealing to me His love for us, the women of this earth, and impressing on me a need to write; similar, I imagine, to the burning Jeremiah must have felt in his bones.

I am not sure what is in store for this blog or where this path that God has me on is going to lead.

“I am lost.” I told my friend a few weeks ago. Then two days later, in the midst of worshipping at a Hillsong concert, I felt God speak to my heart:

“You are not lost, I know exactly where you are. Even though you do not know what is ahead, I do.”

I have always been the type of person who wants to plan everything out–and know “the plan.” He is teaching me to trust His path.

Where have you felt like your life is being “re-written?”

Where have you felt the loss of a dream?

Do you know that wherever you are at, God knows exactly where you are?

 

“For Far too long we have been seduced into walking a path that did not lead us to ourselves. For far too long we have said yes when we wanted to say no. And for far too long we have said no when we desperately wanted to say yes.”

–Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds

Have you ever heard or said the words: “Well, she’ll have to learn the hard way”?  I heard them a lot growing up, but being the overachiever, play-by-the-rules type, they weren’t usually applied to me.

Enter Adulthood.

As I shared in my last post, I came into my first two jobs with the strong impression that to be successful I had to strive to be the best and to fulfill other people’s expectations of me.  However, no where factored in that equation was a healthy balance of taking care of myself.  It was a system that worked really well in school–having only to please my professors–but worked miserably in the real world.

I only began to realize how badly my system worked, after I turned twenty-five.  At that point, I had been at my second real job for about a year and a half, when all of a sudden, it seemed, everything went to crap.  My boss was moving up, people were resigning, and all of a sudden I felt like the duck on the Aflac commercial–who, when he discovers that he is on a sinking boat, thinks it is his responsibility to plug all of the holes.

Though I wasn’t alone, I was going down.

Two months of “plugging holes” went by, when our team was blessed by two new additions to our staff.  All of a sudden the boat seemed to be floating again, and I thought everything was going to be OK.

Then November came around and I got bronchitis.  I lost my voice for at least a week.  Imagine trying to run a program and teach 60-70 Jr. High students, without a voice?  Yeah, I am sure many people have done it, but:

December: bronchitis and no voice for a least a week

January: bronchial pneumonia and no voice.

February: bronchitis and you guessed, no voice.

March: it was getting old.

On one of my many visits to the doctor for antibiotics, I asked her “is there anything I can do to not get sick this much?”  She looked at me with a blank stare.

One thing that isn’t talked about enough is that when we stop listening to our inner voice that’s telling us to take a break, our body often starts speaking in a voice we can’t ignore.  By February and March, I knew I couldn’t live this way.

I had been journaling and praying to God about all the changes that were still happening in my job, my recurring illness, the feeling that I was still carrying so much on my own, and “oh, Lord, I am still single, remember?”  Finally, in March, I reached my breaking point. I didn’t want another date with my doctor in April,  and I was ready to hear what God had to say:

YOU’RE NOT GOD, Melissa

Ok, He didn’t exactly say that, but close.

As I sat in bed, journaling–home sick for what felt like the millionth time–I began to feel God showing me that I was trying to live into impossible expectations.  There were things that I thought people expected of me that they didn’t, things I expected of myself that superwoman couldn’t achieve, and expectations that some people had for me that weren’t healthy–and I was trying to succeed in them all! 

As I thought all of this over, I began to feel God show me one more thing. He said:

“Live into my expectations.”

All of a sudden, my “to do list” and “people to please list” shrunk significantly. All I had to do was begin to ask the question “what is God expecting of me?”

Some of you may be thinking: “easier said than done” and maybe “yea, like God is going to give me a to do list every day?”

But as I thought about His simple words, I realized a few things:

  1. Because God created us, He knows what we are capable of, even better than we do–so His expectations are going to be doable.  
  2. When we are in relationship with Him, everything that He expects of us, He expects us to do with His help.  
  3. The second commandment is to love others–if I am doing my best to love (not please, there is a difference!) the people God has put in front of me, I am living into His expectations.
  4. God created us to be in community, so we don’t have to “do and be it all.” I had people in my life who could help me not only plug holes, but help our ministry thrive.

Now, these truths freed me–but not overnight.  (A few months later, I landed myself in the hospital with a gallbladder issue and acid reflux). I needed the help of friends, mentors, and a counselor, to begin to undo all of the patterns of striving and people pleasing that were part of my way of doing life.  I needed to learn how not to live into the unhealthy expectations others and I had placed upon myself.

Whose expectations are you living into?

 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

–Jesus, Matthew 11:28