Wednesday, December 30, 2015

"That's Just the Way It Is..."

"...Some things will never change."

I am quoting Bruce Hornsby for a reason here, I promise. 

"Thanks for the shout-out, Cory!"
Everyone I know, including me, likes to think big around the New Year. We recognize that the New Year is symbolic and not a literal new beginning, but we've built enough ceremonies and rituals around New Year's that it's now part of our culture. Our sense of renewal is very real. 

When it comes to making resolutions, we like to go big. For example, going from almost no exercise at all to hitting the gym five days a week. Or, quitting a vice we've held for decades, cold turkey. Or, most irrationally, deciding not to eat butter, even though it's the most important meal of the day. 

"Dinner is served!"
With this caliber of resolution, it's no wonder we fail. Maybe we visit the gym regularly for three weeks, but then we realize that five days a week isn't sustainable, so we cut down to three days, then two days, then none.  

And then we feel bad. But we shouldn't. It's ambitious and admirable but totally insane to make such a big decision about the rest of our lives, especially when the proposed lifestyle change is so monumental. We might as well say, "From now on, I will play in the NBA." 

I think we should start thinking smaller. I'm all for bettering ourselves, but when people make "overnight" changes in their lives, these changes usually seem to be the product of several smaller changes that slowly happened over time. Someone who is 100% sedentary doesn't just wake up one day and say "Now I run marathons." They wake up one day and say, "I'm going to go for a walk." Then, they wake up the next day and say the same thing. Then, six months later, they might wake up and say, "I think I'll try running." 

"This is great fun!" said the LIAR.
Making personal changes isn't a sprint, or even a marathon; it's a crawl up a steep hill, with your old habits grabbing at your ankles, trying to pull you down. When it doesn't work out like we'd hoped, we feel that we've failed. But, if we learn even one thing from our journey, I'd call it a success. 

We also give ourselves unrealistic timelines. What sounds more reasonable: losing 100 pounds this year, or eating a healthy meal for lunch? When we set the bar too high, we are sabotaging ourselves. We need to think in terms of today. Not eating Doritos for the rest of my life is impossible, but I can avoid them today, and that is a victory. 

Maybe just one.
One final thing I've noticed about resolutions: They often come from a place of self-judgment, rather than a place of self-love. We think, "I'm terrible at money so I am going to quit being such a slacker!" instead of "I deserve to be financially stable, so I am going to treat myself right." It's semantic, sure, but we believe what we say about ourselves. 

This New Year's, perhaps the most important resolution is to love yourself without condition, failures and all. Cut yourself some slack. Make changes out of respect for who you are, not loathing. 

I know it sounds impossible. I'm terrible at it, too. But we deserve it. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Blue Christmas

The holidays are fickle. 

As we celebrate Advent, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve, we are stressed, broke, exhausted, overbooked, and anxious. We attend church and celebrate, and when we go home, we are reminded that we still need to go Christmas shopping and arrange our holiday travel. After a decadent and delicious meal with loved ones, we promise ourselves that going forward, we'll finally watch what we eat and cut back on wine. 

We begin imagining our ideal selves, which will somehow materialize in the new year. It's a lot of pressure. We're only human, and yet, we say, "I made mistakes and failed in 2015, but 2016 is going to be different. That's going to be my year. In 2016, I am going to spend more time with family, eat right, and quit my vices. I'm finally going to muster up the courage to take a risk and move past what's been holding me back. Then, I'll be happy." 

We think this way, and in doing so, we set ourselves up to be disappointed. 

Our feelings of inadequacy are only amplified by the spirit of the season. The holidays are a time for gratitude, celebration, and love. So why is it that a group of angelic kids singing a Christmas carol makes us downright resentful of ourselves? "What's wrong with me?" we wonder. 

We don't know the full extent of others' struggles and demons; we only know our own. We look around and see people who seem to have it together--way more than us, anyway--and we wonder why we can't get our lives in order. "Why can't I be healthy like Jason? Why can't I afford to go on vacation like Amanda? Why does Eric's family seem so stable?" 

Of course, when we do this, we are comparing our actual, flawed selves to others' superficial selves. It's the same thing we do every day on Facebook. We have a rough week, perhaps filled with heartbreak and sadness, and we log into Facebook, only to see that our attractive, successful, and insufferably kind friend has taken yet another vacation to Spain, and it's just not fair. 

What we don't take into account is that our friend is recently divorced and feeling lost. They're dealing with the death of a parent. They've been trying to have kids for years, and it's just not working. 

"I think that tree is making me feel better!"
It's tempting to avoid all of this nastiness during the holidays. Who wants to bum everyone out at the office holiday party? Who wants to expose themselves for the messed-up, insecure human they actually are? Why would you want to reveal to your kids that it was a huge struggle to purchase them modest gifts this year, for reasons they wouldn't understand? 

But to avoid confronting these realities is to further magnify our perceived feelings of failure. 

The better thing to do is to name it. It won't make our problems go away, but it opens up the door for honesty and empathy. I guarantee you that, if you told any one of your friends that you were having a tough time this holiday season, they'd be able to share with you that they, too, were feeling overwhelmed or sad or empty. 

When we call our fears and shortcomings out, we take away their power. We make them commonplace and manageable and unmysterious. When we hold them in, they become big scary secrets that thrive in a vacuum. Admitting them makes them normal--almost boring. 

Wrong kind.
Our wise and loving churches and pastors know all this. Your pastor would be the first to tell you that during the holidays, the number of people who need extra pastoral care skyrockets. Our churches aren't in the business of assuring and downplaying; they're in the business of naming and discussing. And a number of churches are taking it one step further. 

If you are especially in need of God's light during a bleak holiday season, consider attending your church's Blue Christmas service. If they're not holding one this year, consider asking them to put it on the list for next year. Consider driving to a nearby church that is holding one of these services. If nothing else, consider talking to your pastor. Send them an email or drop by their office. Through empathizing and opening up with one another, the light grows brighter within ourselves. 

This holiday season, consider cutting yourself some slack; consider loving yourself, flaws and all, instead of trying to be perfect. It's not your job, and it never will be. Do your best, and take solace in the fact that you are loved. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Vista Grande's Radical Welcome

You may have read recent articles about what's happening at Vista Grande UCC. Their story (in particular, the story of member Patricia King) has been featured by the Colorado Springs Gazette, National Public Radio, and most recently, the New York Times

King is a parent, a member of the US Army (infantry), and a transgender woman who came out earlier this year. She joined Vista Grande this past summer. 

Rev. Clare Twomey (left) and Patricia King grabbing dinner
Her story is fascinating, especially considering her circumstances. Colorado Springs is home to several conservative religious organizations and mega-churches. Add that to the fact that she's in the military, and there's some serious bravery involved here. 

Fortunately, she found a spiritual home at Vista Grande. Even though the church is Open and Affirming, it had little previous experience with transgender members. When Patricia joined the church, it gave them an opportunity to walk the walk--and they did, magnificently. 

In the articles linked above, Patricia's story is told beautifully. Coming from a place of strong faith, she wasn't sure she'd be accepted in any church as a female. But, when she attended Vista Grande and felt radically welcomed, she knew she'd found a home. "The goal is to be accepted and celebrated," she told me. 

About a month ago, I reached out to Vista Grande's pastor, Rev. Clare Twomey. What began as a 20-minute phone call evolved into an hour-long conversation. She offered so much helpful information, but after we talked, I just felt more curious. 

Clare graciously invited me to attend Vista Grande's Thanksgiving service so that I could meet Patricia and the rest of the congregation. I was honored to accept. (They also held a Thanksgiving potluck that day, which was amazing. I'd like to think they made those carrots just for me.) 

During my visit, I experienced amazing community. Rev. Twomey tempered her warm and authentic message with wonderfully dry humor. The service was interactive; she asked the congregation non-rhetorical questions and wanted honest answers. The choir and accompanist were stunning (there are some serious pipes down there in the Springs). After someone answered a question of Clare's, Clare laughed and responded, "How am I not surprised you would say that?" 

The potluck that followed was the highlight for me, because we had a chance to interact with members of the church. I met with new and familiar faces alike, one of those new faces being Patricia. 

Something surprised me when I spoke to Patricia: I didn't think about her gender much at all. I'd like to say that it's a positive reflection on me, but it had much more to do with the fact that Patricia, like anyone else, speaks about herself as a human being first.  

While we talked about her career in the army, her children, her decision to come out and transition, and her relationships within the church, I didn't think about the bravery it must have taken to come out, and about the adversity she must face every day. It didn't occur to me until later that she likely gets stared at and judged, all the time, everywhere she goes. She was so kind and honest, and the environment was so natural, that I forgot about the harsh realities that exist outside of the church's walls. 

Her bravery isn't lost on me today. She was the first openly transgender army infantry soldier. Think about that for a second. That's insane. But when we talked, she spoke about her relationships with the people of the church and her passion for her career. She talked about loving the after-church social every week, because that's where she experiences community the most. She talked about how much she loves Clare and her sermons, and about the people who've recently joined Vista Grande because of Patricia's story. She also talked about food in Louisiana, which made us both hungry. 

All of this is to say that Patricia's narrative is powerful and inspiring, but her gender is simply a fact about her; the real story is about Patricia the person, and about all of the other people at Vista Grande. 

Before we left, Patricia said to me, "I know that you're writing a story about me, and that's fine, but this is really about the church." If I had to extrapolate on that further, I would say that Patricia and Vista Grande have experienced parallel journeys. Patricia's was personal, Vista Grande's was communal. 

It's easy to imagine a church that would have suffered division and splintering because of Patricia joining. This kind of happens all the time. But instead, Vista Grande became stronger and even more radically welcoming after Patricia arrived, and Patricia was affirmed in the process. That's pretty incredible.