You are NOT sorry.

I was invited to a dear friend’s home the other day and she kept on apologizing for the mess. In every room, I was offered a confession for the supposed sin of imperfection. There were a few dishes, some unfolded undies laying askew in the floor by the laundry basket, and a bit of food left on the stove. I could not have cared less. I was there to catch up and hear about her life, not judge her space in which her everyday thrives. Her tired eyes spoke more than her sincere apologies and it was then that I knew: she was trying and felt like her effort was failure.

Lord knows I know that feeling. Those days when no matter what you do, it is all still wrong. Those days when you don’t measure up to your unattainable standards. Those days when the harshest words you hear are the ones you whisper to yourself. Those days when your sorry doesn’t say so much about an apology but says more that you feel like you yourself are a sorry individual. 

Sisters, we do not have to live like this. Stop beating yourselves up. We are women who try and sometimes fail. This does not make us failures. We are women who say we are sorry. This does not make us sorry people. Let your laundry lay on the floor. Leave the spilled cereal on the table. Let the dog in, muddied paws and all.

Breathe deep. You are NOT sorry. You are fierce and brave and wonderful. And LOVED.

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To Grandma, With Love: Repost From 10.8.13

Friday, October 4th/Saturday, October 5th

Sweet Grandma, 

I am writing this from your hospital room, while you lay only a few feet away. I offered to take the night shift this night so that others could get a few hours of rest. All have been so faithful to never let you alone for a minute. When I came in, I relieved one of your sisters of her watch, and we caught up for a bit on your status and all of the little happenings that had occurred in the hours since I left the hospital this afternoon. She has gone home to sleep, and I am here to wait. And watch. And listen. I don’t know if you know what’s going on, but I pray that way down in the core of you that’s still alive you know you are deeply loved and cherished. We all keep watch. It’s all we have to offer until He calls you home. We offer willingly, a little helplessly, but lovingly all the same. 

No one told me it would start to sound like this as you reach this time in your journey to the end. I thought I might be able to nap, but I know now that sleep will be impossible. I lay down anyway, and watch your chest rise and fall, and listen hard to see if the sound grows louder. I call the nurses when it does, and they do what needs to be done, but still I cringe. I’ve heard it said that you cannot ever forget the sound – right now, I believe it. It will be with me always, in the back of every memory I have of this room and these days. Unsettling perhaps, but it’s all part of the privilege of caring for you. Holding your hand, checking the cloths we lay on your forehead, rubbing your arm, tending to the endless little duties we do to keep you comfortable….it’s all privilege.

I am struck in this moment by how very frail and temporary these human bodies are. Our frailty becomes part of what makes the glory and eternal presence of God that much more permanent and beautiful. I suppose He’ll be calling you home soon. Was it really just months ago that I was helping you with chores and eating your breakfast biscuits? How quickly it all fades, even an entire lifetime. The nurses look at me with pity this night, but I feel only joy. Joy for you. We’ll weep, but you will be united at long last with your King and Savior. Joy is all I have for that. 

Since you aren’t completely with us anymore, I wanted to tell you about the immense beauty I have witnessed during this week. I have seen far more laughter than tears in this room. So beautiful, and indicative of the life you’ve led. 

I love how your three younger sisters file in every morning, and gather in a circle to resume their daily vigil and tell their endless stories. They have vowed to remain until you leave, and find much to laugh about while they wait. One time they took a break and walked to the lounge for coffee. I followed them to fill my own cup, and a roar of laughter broke out behind me. It sounded so like you that I had to grip the sink and wait for the tears to tuck themselves back away behind my lids. I knew it was one of them, with the corners of their broad mouths opened wide to laugh that full laugh you all have.They are so different and so like you all at once. I’ve heard them compare their hands and hair and smiles to yours, and discuss how you all favored your parents. The connection you all have, sometimes having been broken and bruised but still intact, is unmistakably loud when they talk like this. 

Their stories make us all nearly fall of our chairs with laughter. Your sister Nancy said one day: “What we didn’t do wasn’t far off.” How true. I heard them tell about that time you girls and your younger brothers all went up to a herd of sleeping cows and grabbed hold of their tails, planted a foot on either leg, and rode the cows for as long as they would run. I know for a fact that cows don’t like their tails pulled, so I assume that was a great ride. I love hearing their giggles and saying your mama just didn’t know what to do with the lot of you girls. 

The days your precious older sister came to see you were achingly special. Her sad, wrinkled eyes looked longingly at you across the room. She is so dignified, that one. Quieter than the rest, with her neat white curls perched on that high forehead of hers. I kissed those curls and held her a moment longer, thinking all the while that no woman should have to bury her little sister.

Your niece, the one that loves you so, and cares for some of your physical needs as she can with an authoritative but gentle manner, has been a great comfort. She’s already seen much pain in this life – perhaps it is what makes her so calm and wise when she visits each day. She brings along her mother: your tiny, adorable sister-in-law, the one with Alzheimer’s. That dear old woman has known me, and most other people in the room, since we were in diapers, but she shuffles in every day with a happy smile and meets everyone all over again. Her innocence reminds us to be joyful and acknowledge one another with a hug. I always give her two hugs in case she forgets the first. 

In the first day, when you could only move your left arm, I saw you clasp the muscled hand of your only son without a sound. But recognition was in your eyes, and that will have to do. I’ve seen your two daughters ease the wrinkles of pain in your forehead with soft caresses and even softer words, though you were no longer responding. I’ve watched your youngest daughter do what needed to be done when the nurses weren’t fast enough – she does so with a quiet sort of tender grace. You would be so very proud of all three of your children. I’ve watched so many loving hands stroke your gray hairs across the pillow, the hairs you always cursed in the humidity and tucked under your trusty old ball cap when you went to do chores. 

The hospital staff has been incredibly kind. They ask us always if we need anything, and stop in the middle of their work to stroke your high Cherokee cheekbones. They call you “sweetheart” and “sweet pea” if they even think they might have caused you pain. The precious teenager who came to clean the room today stopped on her way out to say, “I hope things get better for all of you” in her little voice. The doctor kept a short watch with me as we stood with bated breath early in the dawn, watching for you to breathe. Then we breathed with you. 

While I am deeply grateful for all of these scraps of life in these days of impending death, I don’t believe I’ll choose to remember the shriveled shell in the bed, the waiting and watching, the way your sisters set their strong jaws to keep the tears at bay, how your children leave the room to take strolls and grieve. I choose to remember you in life and the way you lived it. 

I choose to remember your strong, muscled arms – always well-equipped to hold a grandbaby or wrestle an ornery steer. 

I choose to remember that time after your second husband received his grave prognosis from the oncologist: you strapped on a bonnet, hopped on the tractor, and rode off into the pasture to tend to the cows. Nothing could stop you. 

I choose to remember an afternoon I spent at your house just a few scant months ago. You, me, your beloved youngest brother, and the farrier talked and laughed for a couple hours in the pasture while we took care of the donkeys’ hooves. Your sweet brother is a male version of yourself, and the giggling that ensued was contagious that day. 

I choose to remember how you made magic in the kitchen. It was usually in the form of biscuits, but you found other ways, too. You would feed an army without blinking an eye, and often send the eater home with a bag or two of food for later. No one left your table hungry. Ever. 

I choose to remember your hands and feet at their unceasing stream of work. You have patted backs and birthed calves and rubbed shoulders and buried two husbands and raised three outstanding children and milked cows and planted gardens and canned food and mended fences and walked a thousand miles of pastureland, all with the same determination set in your sturdy little shoulders. 

I choose to remember your belly – the one that carried three babes and shook full and jellied when you laughed. 

I choose to remember that time I asked you what you thought of Jesus Christ. You told me about your own salvation story, and how you liked to imagine God as a big crock jug of water, so that every time you needed Him, you just tipped it over and took a big long sip. And how anyone could “drank and drank” of Him and never get enough. I’ve long loved that imagery. I suppose it won’t be long now until you meet the One you love and Who loves you. I cannot help but be hopeful in these days as I will see you again one day. Soon and very soon.

With love. 

Day 7 of 30: Repost From 10.28.13

7. Where you are in your life vs. where you thought you would be at this point.

When I thought about it as a teenager, where I thought I would be is in Tennessee with my UT-educated husband, cheering on the Vols with our six little blonde boys in our little yellow house in a quiet neighborhood tucked deep in the Appalachian Mountains, attending the church I grew up in, and having the folks over on Sunday. A sappy sweet dream, really. 

When I found myself in love with a man at 22, I thought that by now I would be married with three or four children and stay at home while he worked, and we would spend time with the same friends we had had in high school.

When my life disintegrated soon after and everything as I knew it was taken away and I learned some hard and fast truths and sailed away (literally), I thought that by now I would be married to a missionary and living in the deeps of some far-flung region in a tent, always with a few kids of our own and a few we had adopted along the way, sharing Christ’s love as full and deep as we could every single day.

I have always wanted to be a wife and a mother. Always. I cannot remember a time that I didn’t want that for my life. As an adult, I have cultivated practices that would minister to a family with love. I long for it. Sometimes I ache for it. The dream still eludes me. 

That said, where I am is exactly where I am supposed to be. It might be my forever, and it might not. I do not have the adventurous fellow, or the children (preferably sons, Lord, if you are reading this!), or the little house, and my fractured family lives miles and miles away – much too far and much too scattered for family dinners. But I have more love in my life than I ever imagined. And more beauty around me than I could have dreamed up.

I have met amazing people to whom I would still be a stranger if it were not for the fact that I am single. I have had the privilege of holding the hands of people at every hour of the day or night to simply listen to them. I have laid down on floors to make a family feel safer. I have held so many babies who did not belong to me in an effort to give tired mamas a break or to soothe a neglected little one. I have cried over loss and loved ones and broken hearts, and I have laughed uproariously with those who have found freedom from the bondage of their own hearts. I have enough adventures and stories in me for a lifetime, and I hunger for many many more. I have learned much about love and how to love well in these past seven years. I have failed, and I have succeeded, at this. These are not boasts but, rather, examples of how the Lord has let me live my ordinary instead of my dreams. Where I am is grateful. I wallow in it, I drink it up, I dance in its welcoming arms, I relish the moments where it seems like nothing extraordinary is happening because that is exactly when something extraordinary IS happening. Where I am is grateful. ‘Tis a good place. 

Day 18 of 30: Repost From 11.5.13

18. If you could have a conversation with yourself in high school, what would you say?

I would have much much much to say, but it cannot all be said here. The following, then, is an abbreviated version….

Dear 18-year-old Dana, 

Life must seem so big right now. You have a lot of friends, a lot of activities, and a never-ending stream of laughter in your wake. I bet it feels pretty awesome most days. Enjoy those days, my darling. You have had enough pain for a lifetime already. That’s the secret, though, isn’t it? The laughter you share is to keep from crying because all you tell people is that your parents got a divorce a few years ago, and then you moved. You don’t have to tell them everything. I know they wouldn’t have the space to understand you right now. But someday they will. You’ll see. 

I want you to know most of all that it is okay to cry, and it is okay to let people see you hurt. Not everyone will hurt you the way you’ve already been hurt. I promise you that. Now, that’s not to say that this is the worst it will ever be. You have some tough things ahead, but you have already been to hell and back. Let those experiences shape you for the better, because they can do that for you. But you have to let them be redeemed. (I’ll get back to redemption in a moment.)

Let’s assume that my writing this will not change the path your life will take. I would like to give you a few guideposts, if you will, to navigate these waters.

– Life has been such that your insides are already old. It’s okay. This does not make you bad. It makes you wise. But remember to not rest in your own wisdom. You have much to learn yet. Be teachable. Life will not go the way you hope it does. That’s okay, too. Let it happen as it will. 

– Friends are an interesting part of life. I know that quantity is what counts to you right now, and that the number of people in your life is the basis of your self-worth. That will fade with time. One day, quality will be what matters, and you won’t be thinking much about self-esteem at all because you won’t have time for it. God will take care of all of that, and He’ll lead you to some amazing people, sweetheart. Enjoy them for the gifts that they are. They will be so beautiful. 

– That boy over there who you call one of your closest friends? In four years, you will fall in love with him and then he will break your heart. Actually, he will more than break your heart; he will shatter it to smithereens and you will be left to pick up the pieces. You won’t get to say goodbye or have a fight. He is just going to walk away one day and never come back because he is a coward. This might sound crazy, but fall in love with him anyway. Laugh at his jokes, hold his hand, and go on those dates. Let him break your heart. It will shape you in ways I cannot quite express here. But it will ultimately be used for God’s glory. Let it happen. It has to, or else your story and your redemption will not be as rich to you in the days to come. 

– In less than 3 years, your father will fall in love with a tiny woman who will rock your world. You’ll hate each other at first, but then something crazy will happen to everyone in your family in one wild and uncertain spring and you won’t be able to live without her. It’s okay. Stepmothers and stepdaughters have a special bond, and yours will be especially precious one day. She’s an amazing woman, I promise. Hug her even when you don’t feel like it. And hug your dad, too. He’s worked so hard to take care of you and Steve, and he could use a helpmate in all of this. She’s the one. 

– In that aforementioned spring, you will very nearly lose the two most important people to you in the world. Up to this point, they have been your heroes. But they are not gods, Dana. Death will come too close for comfort. Your family will be changed forever. You yourself will experience physical pain, too, and will be bound to a wheelchair for a season. Don’t lose heart. Remember to pray, and to trust in those days. God will not leave you. In fact, He’ll use that spring to make you grateful. 

– In just five years from now, not too long after the heartbreak from losing a love, you will go on a journey that will crush you so thoroughly you will not be able to stand. At least not on your own. You will be broken as you need to be broken. I know you’re strong, but you’re also brittle. Your bitterness will be washed away in an ocean, and you will never be the same. You will see the best and the worst day of your life. Do not be afraid. Just live it out. Go ahead and wake up too early to see those sunrises. Go ahead and let those friends in your heart, even if it scares you. Go ahead and get those tattoos. Just live it out. It will be the greatest tale you will ever tell. Just remember – this has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with God. This is His story. HIS story of YOUR redemption for HIS glory. 

– The next twelve years of your life are going to be a wild ride. Just go with it. Recognize that you are learning lessons of grace and gratefulness and love. Be gracious and be kind. Don’t mess with flippancy, charm, or other careless words. You will get a lot of things wrong in the coming days. Be gracious with yourself. Be even more gracious with others because they will get some things wrong, too. It’s okay. Be gracious with your mother, and your brother and your stepmother and your father and your friends. Like iron sharpens iron – I know you don’t understand the verse reference yet, but you will. Don’t forget it once you learn it. And be grateful. Be grateful for all of it. This matters more than you could fathom right now. Great big heaps of gratefulness will mark your life and seep into your bones and carve the smiles in your face. I am so excited. 

My darling, you are deeply loved. You don’t know this yet. I know for a fact that you would not believe you are loved even if you were told all day every day. Your heart is too hurt. People have been too hard. But you ARE deeply loved. I am excited for you, for the day when you know God’s love. I am excited for the day when you love people again because you have been shown such love that you cannot contain it all inside. You cannot keep up your masks forever, Dana. I know they make you so very tired. And one day, all will be redeemed. You’ll see. 

Much love from your 30-year-old older and wiser (but not that wise yet) self.

Sometimes Redemption Takes Awhile: Repost From 11.21.13

I meet with a little girl weekly for mentoring/tutoring, and she’s always been pretty standoffish when it comes to me. Until this week. 

I knew something was wrong the moment she walked in the room. Her normally impish grin was just a grim line, and she wouldn’t look me in the eye. I asked her if she had anything exciting that had happened so far this week. “Yes,” she said. “You came to see me.” I felt the tears pricking my eyes but managed to keep them back. 

A few minutes later, I asked her if she was excited about Thanksgiving. She shook her head no and started punching her sandwich with her tiny fist. When I pressed further, she told me that her daddy wouldn’t be there, and when I asked her why, she hung her head and said, “He’s in jail. For no reason.” That’s when it hit me: that aching for being useful and letting dark days be used for light. In an unexpected moment, that aching was going to be answered yet again.

I told her then that when I was a girl, my mommy went to jail, too. She looked up at me with those eyes and asked incredulously, “She did?” So we talked about it for awhile. She stopped punching her sandwich and started looking at me when she spoke. By the end of our lunch, I had finally received a grin. When she ran to the door to check if her class was leaving for recess, as she always does, she ran back and surprised me this time with a hug. That little tiny mite of a girl with too much in her heart for her scant eight years, the one who could barely sit still long enough to hear my instructions for her reading lesson, held on tight and wouldn’t let go for a long moment. I promised her that everything would be okay, and off she ran to the playground.

I’ve been praying ever since.

It’s funny how a little one’s words can make my past come rushing forward without warning. I’ve never had reason to tell that story until this week. How amazing that the Lord would redeem that particular memory after all these years. How amazing that He would choose to use it now, when I had all but forgotten about it.

I’m starting to understand why I was paired up with this sweet girl. Maybe it was just to have that one conversation. Maybe it was just to give that one hug. Maybe it was just to share in the misery of a sorrowful little kid with a hard story inside. Maybe.

Sometimes redemption takes awhile. It is worth the wait. 

I Don’t Want to be a Christian Anymore: Repost from 12.15.13

I have been thinking long and hard lately about courage: courage to get past the fear, courage to take the leap, courage to do the hard thing, courage to do the right thing. In this case, courage to say that I don’t want to be a Christian anymore. I suppose it’s been a long time coming, and my reasons for it are numerous. I’m not walking away from the church or God or truth. I am, however, shedding the label and the association. Ultimately, I just want more for my life and more for my faith than this: 

1) WE AREN’T ALL THAT GRACIOUS. We talk a good talk about grace, we sing songs about it, we admonish our friends to “extend grace” (whatever that means), and we claim to be the grace-filled people of God. But we rank pretty low on the grace metrics. I have seen angry staff members not allow for the mistakes of church leaders, and split a whole congregation only so they could be right. I have heard stories of people turned away at small groups because they made a brief, but devastating, error in judgment. I have watched youth exploit the sins of other youth so that only an angry outcast exists where there was once a pretty good kid. We say grace over meals but we don’t live grace in the moment. Not even with ourselves. 

2) WE MOCK THOSE DIFFERENT FROM US. I was sitting in a presentation by a well-respected Christian business leader, looking forward to the information being disseminated because it would aid me in my work. At one point, he shared some crucial data and said it would only hold true if we weren’t dealing with any “dough-head agnostics.” The people sitting around me, also professing Christians, started laughing. I started swallowing hard so as not to throw up. I am disgusted by the ease with which we poke fun at those who believe differently. We so often miss the point and honor of respecting our fellow humankind and seeing them as created in the image of God. 

3) WE EMPHASIZE THE IN-CROWD. A friend recently told me that he was fed up with the cliques at his church and had decided to leave. I was shocked by his admission and his brutal vulnerability. I knew what he was talking about, but I was confused as to why a person who was one of the in-crowd, by all outward appearances anyway, would recognize the issue and want to leave. It all came down to the fact that while he enjoyed his status as “one of the cool kids”, he no longer felt fulfilled by being part of the problem. I have mad respect for that man – he took a huge, unpopular leap and is now where the Lord would have him. I see the boundaries all the time – in the pew, in the small group, in the worship team, in the youth, in the Sunday school classrooms, in the Bible studies. We are nice, but don’t try to get in on your own. We’ll let you know when we decide you’re welcome. 

4) WE DON’T KNOW THE FIRST THING ABOUT CONFIDENTIALITY. I have heard Christians use prayer requests as a means of spiritual gossip – like a sacred Twitter feed, complete with hashtags. I myself received a phone call this week from someone (with absolutely no place in my life and no right to know what’s going on) who wanted to know about a deeply personal matter – information which had already been received from someone else with whom I had shared in strict confidence. I know too much about other people’s struggles and deep-seated issues, things they never told me and things they don’t know I know, all because someone else deemed it appropriate to share with a large circle of comrades. We don’t know how to keep our mouths shut and we really hurt one another with this one. 

5) WE ARE UNCOMFORTABLE WITH BEING UNCOMFORTABLE AND HONEST. We have our churches and our small groups and our potlucks and our prayer meetings and our Bible studies and our coffees and these things bring us into constant communion with the broken and hurting: ourselves. But something about the scarred that show up deep and raw and bleeding, something about the homeless and the refugees and the smelly and the toothless and the drunks and the depressed and those chained deep in sexual bondage, something about them just makes us queasy. A few exist who are willing to go there and listen and be kind, but they are few and far between. For some reason, the blood and pus and shit and honesty of real life is too much. Like we have it all together. 

6) WE DON’T LOVE VERY WELL. This is the hill on which I am willing to die. We don’t love very well and frankly, we often don’t love at all. My dear friend and her husband, who both grew up in the church and have since turned to atheism, once told me that I was the only Christian they had ever met who was nice. Ever. They have about 40 years of church attendance between them (!!!!) and I am not always very kind – I know this. I was horrified by their statement. But I knew what they meant: when it comes down to it, we are a pretty cruel and hateful bunch, dark smirks cloaked ever so slightly in measured kindnesses. The problem stems from not truly believing in the full and deep love given to us by a good God. When we do not accept this love, we neglect to love ourselves and others. In so doing, we miss the privilege of being a mighty vessel, a cup spilling over, a wild river, of love in abundance and excess. We miss out. All the time. Every day. 

No, I don’t want to be a Christian anymore. I want to be a fellow traveler. I want to be a servant. I want to be a disciple who tells others of this Savior I long to imitate. I want to be a lover of others. I want to be a wildly abandoned worshipper of the Lord. I want to be a bringer of joy. I want to be a compassionate friend. I want to be a listener. I want to be a holder of hands. I want to be a helper of the brokenhearted and downtrodden. I want to be a God-seeker. But I sure don’t want to be a Christian. 

Day 12 of 30 // I am alive. : Repost from The Single Woman Blogging Challenge (2013)

12. Your proudest accomplishment?

My answer to this question does not make me proud so much as it makes me humble. Yes, I know that sounds anything but humble because here I am waxing poetic about it through social media and I just pointed out my own humility, which is usually a sign of some intense narcissistic pride. I promise, though, that this is real humble.

My proudest accomplishment is that I made it out alive. My childhood was a mix of strained silence and chaos, barely cloaked as normal. We moved a lot. My parents tried hard with what they had, but they didn’t have much. Adulthood hit hard and fast at age 14 in ways even I have not yet found words to fully express. High school was a blur of being a woman/child and never fitting in because of it, but masking it well. My dad was a cool suddenly single dad who did the best he could. My brother was my best friend through those years. My early 20s were streaked up one side and down the other with heartache and loss. And then I sailed away on a sailboat with a handful of fellow travelers and wound up in a hostel in Venezuela and came back up for air and real life 6 months later, all broken at last, as I should have always been. Some say that you can only keep up a ruse for 3 months. I managed to do so for more than 23 years. And so I returned home that summer to rebuild my life and my relationship with my dad and stepmom and I went to college finally and I did well. Then I found myself moving to Northwest Arkansas to finish school, and then I had to decide between seminary or work, and I chose the latter, and I am still not sure if I made the right decision. (It remains my only regret to date.) Along the way, I got super serious about not dying from obesity and I busted my tail and dropped a whole person in poundage and I still have a long way to go, but the doctor laughs when he sees my perfect lab reports and rejoices with me. And every morning I push through the bad, creaky knees and the early hour and I hit the pavement because I will not go down without a fight. It’s been 3 years since I started fighting – I will quit when I’m dead, I’ve decided.

So here I am, living quietly on the outside, but burning burning burning on the inside, serving college students and laughing in ways that I could not have laughed if I hadn’t sailed away all those years ago. And I am plotting new adventures all the while. I have the privilege of loving others as I have been loved by the One who loves best. And I think the people in my life are gifts I do not deserve. My life should have/could have/would have gone very differently than it did. It blows up every few years and I pick up the pieces and keep on moving because I don’t know anything but love and survival these days. I take no pride in how I’ve lived or not lived – what a waste of my time that would be.

When I think on the whole of my life through these 30+ years, I drop to my knees. It humbles me that I am here, that I have my past adventures and that more are to come. I am grateful for all of it, every little thing. The good, the bad, and the ugly brought me to HERE. All the failures, which are far more numerous than my successes, just feed the fire to keep going. I hurt deeply those I love, and still they forgive me, much to my amazement.

I am little. I am small. I am insignificant. But I am alive. That’s something.