Advent: The Valley Is Deep

Life is a balance of holding on and letting go.fullsizeoutput_7ec7

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Both phrases come to mind today as I sit and think, process, work, wonder, cry, sketch, scribble, pray, process, worry, fret, ponder.

(How many words can I list to describe the swirl in my soul?)

Following is a stream of consciousness that will hearken back to the days when my writing in this space was much more prolific and raw; unedited for consumption, heedless of reputation or position. In short, I’ve clamped up a bit in the last few years, ever mindful of Who I Am and What I Do (and yes, I struggle with an 0ften-ridiclous notion of self-importance…) Not that some wild rebellion is at hand, but the editing seems to be less needed at this point, and the price I’ve paid has created a deficit in available resources. So I’m just going to write my truth here.

I’m having a hard time sorting things out.

I am known for this, to some degree; my boss and friend will testify to the fact that eleven years of working together bears witness to a remarkably consistent cycle of Incredible Productivity followed by A Great Falling Apart. My husband bears witness to the same. Usually every six to eight months, sometimes longer; the Falling Apart is generally just a loss of self, of purpose; a need for recalibration and somebody outside myself to remind me who I am, why I matter, where to stand. I’ve often chalked that up to the frailty of my identity, the remnants of a high-achieving, Type-A, deeply insecure self. I’ve established a routine by which I can be okay with not being okay, mostly due to an incredible support system and a handful of deeply trusted people who are willing to indulge me at my neediest and bear with me until I can stand again, until I can produce effectively.

I’m having a hard time now, and – as always – after a few weeks of pondering/processing/crying, etc., and some well-placed conversations, things are beginning to sort themselves out. My head is clearing, my soul is feeling a bit more alive. But this time has been different, in that I found myself in the depth of a reaction I hadn’t yet experienced in terms of my emotional response to Not Being Okay. Usually it’s just about me and my insecurities, my feelings of failure or not being enough.

This time, that road less taken led me to a clearing in which only one option remained, one sign, one conclusion: I was done. 

I wanted to quit.

Not life; this is not the despair of life itself, but the despair and exhaustion of living life at this pace, which is to say my life, my race. My job. My work.

There’s this phrase from a letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians, found in the New Testament of the Bible; it’s something I’ve heard taught frequently, particularly in the old days, the fundamentalist teaching of my younger self. It’s been lodged in me since then, and it seems to be an unspoken tenet of my ministry work:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Run. Run hard. Win.

Surely there is context here; surely, there is a nuance to this text that makes room for seasons and situations. I know that to be true. But the bottom line is this; I have been running for the prize, taking to heart even the prior phrase, when Paul writes, “…I have become all things to all people…”

I have tried to be all things, to all people, running for the prize. Running hard.

And I am exhausted, empty-handed; offering pretty much nothing to anyone that is authentic. There is no prize in sight.

At least that is the way I feel right now. And I have learned this well; feelings lie. They must be tested against evidence. Feelings are not always fact.

But still, they matter.

For almost two years, I have tried to be all things to all people. I essentially took on three full-time roles at my workplace, which is not unusual. We are a church – a rapidly growing church. We take care of people. There is always, consistently, more work than there are people in place, and for my entire career here, everyone has pulled double or triple duty. It’s not a new thing.

(And let me add here, for clarity, that I place no blame for this on anyone or anything – not my boss, not my team, not my church. This is nobody’s fault; it is simply the recent reality of my life – and, I suspect, of others’ as well.)

I’ve always had more than one job to do. But this latest venture, for me, was different. It required more presence, more energy – and there was no room for stepping back. The leadership mantle was weightier – at least as I understood and interpreted it. I put my head down and worked hard and tried to do all that needed to be done.

A few months ago, that season ended; I handed over those leadership reins to an extremely qualified, gifted, anointed man. There is no doubt in my mind that it was the right thing at the right time. But the recovery process; the resulting shifting of tides in my soul and spirit – well, that has taken me completely by surprise. Something new unfolds every day, and I am caught off guard by just how great a toll was taken.

I’m not sure it’s necessarily worse than other work-surge experiences I have had, but I am different these days. In some respects, this year was filled with grief and sorrow, some of which has gone unprocessed. There are some things I learned about myself that shift the axis of understanding.

The biggest thing I think I am seeing now is this: That in these past few months, I learned what it means to not only follow Christ, but to live with His people. This may seem a ridiculous notion – I can see you rolling your eyes, DUH –  but hear me out; I am introverted, I am artistic, I am insecure, I struggle. I hate parties and small talk. I’d rather sit home all day and read than do anything else, and often I am tempted to do just that. If following Jesus meant a duet – one in which I got to play the piano and just chill in the corner – I’m totally, completely in, and extremely comfortable.

But this sacrificial, disciple life is not about comfort, and what I learned in these past two years was to embrace the messy discomfort of people who are, day in and day out, part of the fabric of life, as well as part of my responsibility in that as a pastor, I am called and ordained to represent the presence of God in a leadership role.

I learned to be a pastor in these past two years, and I learned that I could live in that place and feel woefully inadequate, markedly incompetent, and wildly full. The contradiction is, I think, the very essence of what Jesus means by offering an abundant life, because we can’t ever quite get away from the crappy parts of our existence here, and yet we can indeed live out of an abundance, a posture of receiving and redemptive gratitude.

Eugene Peterson says:

If we are going to enjoy and celebrate and live this gift of place in which the Lord God has placed us, we are going to have to embrace the people around us with the same delight as we do the hawks soaring above us and violets blooming at our feet. Men and women, children and the elderly, the beautiful and the plain, the blind and the deaf, amputees and paralytics, the mentally impaired and the emotionally distraught – each a significant and sacred detail of nature, of God’s creation. Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places

Yes.

I’ve been a worship leader – a musician; we stand on the platform and lead in front of the congregation. But as a pastor, I stood WITH people. I learned to live in this place, and I learned  to not be afraid of having people as community; I discovered what it meant  to be part of a tribe and to wear the pastoral robe and to be okay with failing in community, with others, rather than just in front of others. For the first time in my life, I walked into a place without my children in tow, without the identity of Oh, you’re Sarah/Shannon/Sydni/Daniel/David’s mom and your children are so wonderful and how do you do it all??  I walked in with nothing but myself to offer, and I was accepted and welcomed and I thrived and I felt at home.

There is another “DUH” element to this, isn’t there? This is probably a normal, accepted thing for most of humanity. But it was new to me; new and fresh and affirming and exhilaration – all the while, exhausting and disappointing. It was real. 

And obviously, this is part of what is necessary for healthy life, for a soul to thrive and expand and thrum with possibility. It is core to that abundant life, that we do it not in abstraction, but in truth and with daily discourse and conversation. It’s obvious; but in my line of work, it is a challenge, to say the least.

And so my transfer of roles, my changing position as a result of the growth and expansion of the organization and the ever-present demands of 52 Sundays a year, has resulted in so much more than new job, a new department, an altered organizational structure. There has been a very real loss to my soul, to an expanded part of what I discovered about living as intended, which – as Peterson says – should be to the glory of God, and cannot be done abstractly.

I don’t know who my people are now. They are there, surely; they have answered texts and phone calls and sent emails and hugged me. But the essence of a weekly gathering for a communal celebration of the fact that we made it through another week, that there is grace, that mercy found us again, that we are still walking in light, that we are loved, that we know one another; I have lost this.

It will be found again, I am certain. There is an unrelenting sense that God has tugged me into this place, that although I am distressed, I am not abandoned. There is something ahead of me, something that will require saying Yes to that thing and No to many others. I am not alone in this valley. I am secure in this wilderness.

Just this morning, out of nowhere – because we haven’t talked in weeks and she doesn’t know the state of my heart – a friend sent a song link to me in a text. She wrote, I double dare you to listen. The song is titled I’m At Peace, and it started with a woman standing alone in a field, and then there was a grand piano in the field with her, and that was a bit odd, I admit; but the point was made. The invitation was there. I am welcome to open my arms and claim that truth.

I’m struggling, with all that I’ve outlined here, and other things that weigh upon me; family, the future, finances, a broken oven, a pile of recycling that needs to go to the dump. My kids. My parents. Etc. I’m not okay at the moment.

But, in a bizarre paradox, I am okay. Because I am here, and I am working out my salvation with fear and trembling, and I am embracing the not okay with the firm conviction that whatever is stirring up the murky depths of my soul will find release. Upon its leaving, another layer of this ‘brutiful’ life will be revealed, and my soul will be grounded once again.

Until the next valley.

But that’s okay. There is peace to be found.

Fear not, keep on; watch and pray / Walk in the light of God’s highway…

I’m holding on You, Lord / You’re holding on to me…

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3 Comments

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  1. Dear Beth,

    Know that you are loved by so many and missed by so many. I will pray for you and be grateful that we had you at Riverside for a season. It was one of the best years there for me. I pray you will find what you are looking for, and that may be something different every day, It is for me sometimes. My love goes out to you. You have a special place in my heart.

    Merry Christmas!!!!!

    Linda

    ________________________________

    Like

  2. I’m feeling the same,yet it’s more of a loss,and a feeling OF abandonment,nothing is the same and my heart aches.LOVE you Beth and and deep Void is felt…

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  3. I think I understand what you’re talking about here about the loss of identity. As I am starting the very first, very intangible, very unfocused thoughts regarding retirement, I find myself looking for something to do with my life that involves the kind of identity I want. Who knew that would be so important?! Best of luck as you work through this. I hope the pieces fall into place just as they should and that you love the big picture they create.

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