God Made Our Brains to Need Others (with Christianity Today, October 2017)

Today I shared over on Instagram about making our invisible suffering visible, and how we really cannot bear the weight of suffering alone. I hope this piece from last october can take you a bit deeper into considering that God made you to need others, even and especially in your suffering.

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As psychiatrist Curt Thompson has written, “To be human is to be vulnerable.” Suffering disinters vulnerability, illuminating a feature of our humanity we’d often rather ignore.

Some of us are forced to confront our vulnerability when tragedy strikes, when natural disasters hit, or when relationships crumble. For me, vulnerability crept up from within my own flesh and bone. Nearly nine years ago I became ill with a disease that would come to dominate my adult life. Everything turned out so different from what my 20-year-old self imagined. But in a life of changed plans, disappointments, and medical bills, the biggest surprise has been the joy.

I know it sounds strange. Chronic health conditions bring pain, suffering, and frustration—circumstances we feel powerless to control. My autoimmune disease continuously forces me into a position of vulnerability before others, allowing others to see the powerlessness I would rather keep hidden. In the exposure of learning to receive love in my most broken places, I have found the deepest joy.

Joy has come in unlikely venues, like the dingy cottage where my husband and I moved after placing his seminary education on hold to attend to my declining health. Due to joint pain, I struggled to walk across our home and do basic things like cook dinner or clean up the dishes. In the midst of my shame and humiliation, small acts of compassion stood out that much more.

One day a friend stopped by after she finished work to say hello. As she sat next to me on the couch, all I could do was weep. I was drowning in the sorrow of uncertainty, worried my life would never improve, but she wordlessly comforted me by coexisting with my suffering. By letting her see me undone, I realized I was loved even in such a broken state. The simple joy of being received by my friend, who refused to minimize my pain or try to fix me, created new life in the middle of grief. Joy’s coexistence with pain and vulnerability became part of my memory that evening.

Suffering internalized is dark and heavy, but suffering shared engenders courage and hope. In those early years of illness, I gave up on my survival strategy of withdrawal and self-sufficiency by bringing my helplessness and grief into the open. As I shared my suffering with friends, I found validation. The safe harbor of friendship gave me space to compassionately accept the pain, sorrow, and limitations sickness had introduced into my life. Honesty with others unlocked even more honesty with God, and I found the cry of my heart was echoed by many of the psalmists. I learned to embrace my suffering as a provocative gift for others to begin receiving healing validation for their own pain.

Read the rest over at Christianity Today.

Love these words? You’ll really love my monthly newsletter, Embodied, where I share a special subscriber-only piece of writing, updates, and helpful tidbits about living a life of hard things with courage and even joy. The October edition comes out very soon, and you can subscribe in a matter of seconds below:

The Painful Part of Wholeness (with Catalyst)

I’m excited to start contributing with Catalyst Leader. Here’s a preview of my first piece with them on how we can and must lean toward our pain to be whole. Read the rest via the link at the end.

They led a church small group. They opened their home every single week to a group of fifteen, making space for prayer, Scripture, and connection—which is why it shocked everyone when the husband shared he recently found out his wife was having an affair and didn’t plan to stop.The church’s pastors and elders were stunned; the small group was confused; no one knew quite what to do.

Shame and pain lurk under the surface of every soul, and most of us aren’t quite sure how to acknowledge the havoc they create. The more stories of hidden pain I encounter as a therapist and pastor’s wife, the more I am convinced there is no greater threat to the health of the Church than Christian leaders avoiding their own pain. And the even more sobering truth is that avoiding our pain, wounds, and sin is a subtle, often subconscious force impacting each of us more than we realize. It’s not just the small group leaders with secret marriage problems.

As leaders, we face pressure to project an image of being more than the gospel actually asks us to be. We languish in the tension between two powerful narratives: the alluring cultural narrative of strength as success and the more vulnerable narrative of weakness as the ground of both our greatest redemption and most powerful ministry.

Click to read the rest over at Catalyst.

IF YOU LIKE PIECES LIKE THIS, YOU’LL LOVE MY MONTHLY NEWSLETTER, EMBODIED. THE NEXT EDITION COMES OUT SOON. YOU CAN SUBSCRIBE IN A MATTER OF SECONDS BELOW:

The Education I Never Signed Up For (with Fathom Magazine)

I’m honored to be contributing with Fathom Magazine today in their September issue focused on education. Here’s a preview of the article and a link at the bottom to read the rest:

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In college, I spent hours among the earth-toned desks and warm yellow lights, wafting in the musky, alluring scent of old books. As an odd midwestern kid who grew up with more books as friends than friends themselves, college was an invitation to realizing my dreams and the sense of belonging I never had. 

My small, Christian liberal arts college offered safe harbor for my eager love of learning. Instead of creating distance, books connected me to others. As a homesick freshman, I had found my first friend over coffee and the realization we both loved John Donne. The following year I spent hours with other enthusiastic nerds in the wooden booths of the cafeteria after theology lectures musing the mysteries of God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence, the syrupy cafeteria coffee almost pleasant in the presence of such good company. By my junior year, I was a resident assistant, charged with being a spiritual and emotional support for a group of nearly thirty college women. For the first time in my life I began to feel like I almost belonged.

But midway through junior year, my health failed. I woke up one day unable to grasp a pen, my hands coiled into fists of pain and immobility. Within days, I could barely walk.

The body that had effortlessly carried me through the winding, steep paths of my mountainous college campus could now barely hold itself up in bed. The limbs that climbed limestone cliffs between classes now struggled to walk fourteen steps to the bathroom. 

I couldn’t even open the books that held the currency of my connection to others. In my newly weakened body, the promise of education was quickly becoming a taunting memory…

Click to read the rest on Fathom Magazine.

If you like pieces like this, you’ll love my monthly newsletter, Embodied. The next edition comes out soon. You can subscribe in a matter of seconds below:

An Unexpected Celebration & Two Other Announcements

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Announcement 1: Yesterday was my writing day, but it turned into my “celebration of writing” day.

After seeing a new friend on the edge of town nearest the Gallatin River, I felt the sudden gravitational pull of cool water and quiet mountain air. Instead of driving to the library, I curved my way through a sea of green. 

At a turnout, I scrambled down to the river’s edge, eager to behold the pristine aqua current. Alone, I found my voice loud with praise:

“Jesus be the center of my life

Jesus be the center of my life...” 

I had finished my book proposal Monday, and hadn’t yet had a chance to properly mark the occasion. But when I turned to leave, I realized, the celebration I most needed was worship. Not a nice dinner or affirmation. I needed the echo of my voice against the mountain stream, both crying out the majesty of the God who made them. 

After writing 12,000 words/33 pages, and being closer than ever to this book becoming a reality, what I most needed was to thank the God who wrote my story and filled my heart with the courage and ability to share it.

Together with the ancient rocks and water, I felt the relief and joy of joining God in telling the story of redemption.

He invites all of us, not just writers, to join our voices in telling his good story.

We tell it in our work--in choosing faithfulness in the ordinary tasks that keep the world turning. We tell it in our hope--in believing our lives can change and believing others can change, too. We tell it every day in sleepy prayers and dinners made and smiles given. You and I join with all creation, every tree and stone, eager to see the redemption of all things in Jesus Christ. 

I hope in reading about my little celebration of hard work that, really, you can acknowledge yours. Your labor is not in vain. By the way, this song (and the whole album that goes with it) is the most beautiful reminder of this.

Announcement 2: I was on a podcast!

I had the pleasure and honor of being a guest on Love Thy Neighborhood Podcasts' Enneacast this week, where I was interviewed about childhood wounds and healing for each Enneagram Type. You can listen here.

Announcement 3: I started a monthly newsletter!

I recently started a monthly newsletter named "Embodied" to offer more space to reflect on the intersection of theology, psychology, and spiritual formation. You can read the August edition and subscribe here!

3 Ways to Find Your Enneagram Type that are Better Than Some Online Quiz (with RELEVANT Magazine)

Hope you enjoy my latest with RELEVANT Magazine. Here is part of the article, and you can click through to read the rest!

A white-hot anger swelled up in me. Twenty-eight years of feeling misunderstood was rising to the surface, and I sat stunned in the bewilderment and promise of seeing my true face for what felt like the first time.

A year prior my husband, Ryan, and I had started a two-year program called the Soul Care Institute led by Crosspoint Ministry. There we learned about the Enneagram, an ancient tool for spiritual formation. From the framework of a Trinitarian understanding of personhood, I began to see the Enneagram as a profound tool for transformation. Today, you probably know it as a popular personality typing system.

RECOGNIZE THE DITCHES IN THE TYPING PROCESS

We were the first of our friends to deeply engage the Enneagram, so we unwittingly blundered through the typing process. My husband and I careened into two separate ditches, ones I’ve seen countless others stumble into as well. We’ve since crawled out and both have come to more deeply respect and empower one another in our respective journeys. But illustrating our fall into these ditches might help you recognize and navigate your own...

Read the rest on RELEVANT!

Why Learning to Breathe May Be the Best Way to Pray (on RELEVANT Magazine)

I am a therapist, and my job often entails sitting across from hurt-hardened humans on their last leg of hope. 

Sometimes their exasperation momentarily silences the hope in my soul; their seething hostility clouds my sense of wisdom for what could possibly shatter the block of ice keeping them arctic and separated.

But then I remember—I can breathe. In through my nose, out through my mouth: Lord, have mercy.

PRAY WITHOUT CEASING

At any moment, whether in a tense therapy session or in the peril of hitting every red light on the way home, if I remember to breathe, I can access the loving heart of God. Breath prayer, an ancient Christian prayer practice with origins in the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, is a vehicle we can use to live out Scripture’s call to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

There, in my therapy room, when I silently turn my attention to the most basic function of living—breathing—I can acknowledge my great need for God to equip me with wisdom and courage. Breath prayer simultaneously relaxes my overwhelmed body and fills me with confidence in being a conduit of God’s love and mercy.


How the Enneagram Can Point You to God (on RELEVANT Magazine)

Everywhere I turn someone is talking about personality tests, and more and more they are talking about the Enneagram. Our culture craves self-knowledge. Tell me my spirit animal or Hogwarts house, and you know I’ll share my results on Facebook.

I find it both surprising and ironic that the Enneagram has so quickly gained popularity in the culture while some evangelicals remain suspicious of the tool. After all, it is a system that robustly affirms our sin and brokenness. As Western Seminary professor Chuck DeGroat recently reminded skeptical conservative Christians, “The Enneagram has people of all stripes talking about besetting sin patterns. Can you imagine that? It takes sin far more seriously than any contemporary psychological tool, perhaps so seriously that it’s shattering behavioral sin paradigms that give people a false sense of control.”


Read more of this article at RELEVANT Magazine, where it was originally published on April 19, 2018.

I am writing a book.

I recently announced on Instagram I have started writing my first book. I waited for months to finally announce it publicly, trying the terror of uttering the words, "I'm writing a book" on for size with my family and friends first. For the record, both saying and writing the words still feels scary.

Suffering has been a larger part of my life than I ever could have imagined. As most of you know, I became ill at 2o years old as a junior in college. Though illness has not been the only thing in my life since then, it has dramatically shaped and formed my experience for nearly nine years. 

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A story about illness sounds depressing, right? But a story about the multiplying joy of Hope in the mire of suffering—that’s a story I cannot keep to myself.

In a culture allergic to grief, we are often loathe to find hope articulated honestly enough to fit the contours of our private suffering. But the longer I live with pain and the comfort of knowing Jesus, the more I know I have to share my story as boldly as I am able. 

I hope to weave together three important narratives to empower others to experience joy in their own suffering: 

  1. My experience of chronic illness illustrates the power of relationships to mediate meaning and hope in the midst of suffering. 
  2. As a therapist, I find my experience of transformative relationships echoed in the insights of interpersonal neurobiology: our brains thrive most in empathic, secure relationships, so much so that our brains retain the ability to heal from trauma and pain in response to relational attunement. 
  3. My story and the insights of interpersonal neurobiology are ultimately brushstrokes of the larger picture of God's mysterious love toward humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. Within God's Story, our stories of suffering gain unparalleled meaning and life-changing hope. 

Suffering can catalyze joy. And it happens through relationships. I hope and pray my story touches your own, bringing possibility alongside your great sorrow. 

Realistically, writing a book on suffering while continuing to suffer with illness and pain means this book could take a long time to write. But I will press on. I'm closer to the beginning than end of this process, but I am glad to have started and to be including you.

Your pain, whatever its source, moves me. And the joy of Christ propels me. I pray we can find and dwell in Joy, and that my writing in some small way might draw us further into the love of the God who is coming again to make all things new.

Physician-Triggered PTSD, Grief, and the Joy of Looking to Christ

My body has been through so much in the past few weeks. I've wept and cried in anguish, but I've also sung for joy. I've enjoyed the heights of paddleboarding on mountain lakes and journeyed the depths of a pain which chained me to my couch. 

I've experienced two disease flares, one of which was excruciating to the point of tears, two chemo injections, one chemo infusion, my damn period, a pelvis x-ray, and a daunting rheumatology appointment. And that's just the disease stuff.

Yesterday my rheumatologist quelled some fears regarding my diagnosis and future treatment. To understand the import of said conversation, you have to know I have what one might, only half-facetiously, refer to as "physician-triggered post-traumatic stress disorder." (PTSD)* Anxiety courses through my body as I face doctors appointments. Where I can generally easily access calm, I am instead in fight-or-flight mode. (If you ask my husband, he'll tell you it's mostly fight-mode. I can get real feisty when it comes to protecting my health with medical professionals.) I have been treated horrendously by doctors in the past, and I resultantly wear a cloak of mistrust to every medical appointment. 

Will you harm me? Will you question the veracity of the pain which has so rocked my life? Will you threaten to take away the treatments which are the primary thing standing between me and disability?

My cloak of mistrust feels like a necessary protection after several soul-killing surprise verbal attacks by arrogant doctors. I've been blindsided one too many times and no longer enter medical appointments with any assumed safety.

And yet, not all doctors are asswipes. Some actually listen. Really, many doctors truly listen and care. In my 8.5 years of being sick, I have probably seen over 50 doctors. Less than 10 have been total jerks. Fewer than 5 have damaged my soul. Funny, isn't it, how a semi-small handful of traumatic experiences can affect your life?

I am especially able to take off my cloak of mistrust if I am accompanied to appointments by a supportive person. In most cases, this is my spouse. Sadly, because medical appointments often take up a significant amount of time in any given month, I have grown accustomed to attending them alone. In many ways, my posture toward medical appointments is a emblematic of a larger attitude toward myself, others, and even God in light of long-term illness. Doctor's appointments are one of the hardest places to practice what I preach about community. It's much easier, in a sense, to go by myself than to inconvenience others to come to mid-day, often long, appointments. However, in going alone, I leave myself unnecessarily vulnerable. What seems convenient is actually, in most cases, unwise and unkind toward my sensitive, somewhat-traumatized soul. 

Yesterday, because my husband accompanied me, I was able to take off my garment of mistrust. And, amazingly, my doctor showed himself to be trustworthy.

Today, I am carrying both gratefulness and grief from yesterday's appointment. I'm in awe that my rheumatologist cares about my life and believes my pain. But I'm also grieving the reality that I may have some additional health conditions impacting both my quality of life and future plans. 

I grieve for my body, for the pain, suspicion, and anguish she has had to endure. I grieve for the losses, the difficulties, and the harrowing hazards my body has and does face. I grieve for her and simultaneously marvel at her strength.

Facing my physical fragility and fortitude draws my eyes to Jesus. My body of pain illumines His Body and the inexplicable pain He endured in His life and death. Cosmically, Jesus held my pain in His body. In his pierced hands and side, the offending wrongness of chronic illness as a result of the Fall was forever atoned. 

My body has been through a lot in the past few weeks. But only in Jesus' Body is there enough space to hold the weight of the grief and joy in my life. And there is room for yours, too.

Look to His Body; look to His suffering. Find peace in the mystery that your pain is known, carried, and forever conquered in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 


*No, I do not have a PTSD diagnosis. Yes, I do respect the seriousness of such a label. And yes, I do genuinely believe I experience serious symptoms of trauma when it comes to some of my medical experiences.
If you are concerned about your own experience of trauma, I highly recommend you seek the advice of a medical professional, particularly a counselor. I offer Denver-based counseling services and would love to support you in the hard work of living with illness or suffering of any kind. 

When All is Well, and It Hurts.

I feel better than I have felt in eight years.

Please don't miss the gravity of this simple statement.

I am at the closest place to remission I have ever been in the eight years I have lived with autoimmune disease, and it is a simultaneously sacred and scary place.

Since graduating from my master's program in May I have been thoroughly soaking up the wonder of being well. My husband and in-laws generously gave me an inflatable standup paddleboard as my graduation gift, something I have lusted after for years, and I've since spent most of my free days paddling on open waters, dwelling in the sun and fresh air and capacity of an unencumbered body.

I have been experiencing a season of nearly unparalleled freedom, and I have embraced it with my entire heart.

Embracing the joy of today comes with a willingness to accept the grief of tomorrow. Because of some life decisions my husband and I are making, I know this season of wellness could end in a couple months. This season of wellness is quite possibly limited. For several weeks I have chosen to dwell in the joy of what is rather than the impending anguish of what is to come. There is wisdom there, and I am proud I have allowed myself the space to dwell in the present. And yet, as I drove across town last night, I remembered the soft tap of my soul and the Lord: "you need space for sadness, too." Praying, the question I knew I needed to sit with was, "What do you need to grieve?"

What do you need to grieve?

I can't say I completely know the answer to my question. Through attending to my story through the tool of the Enneagram, I know I need to grieve several places where I historically felt unseen and misunderstood, and where my emotional world was invalidated from childhood through the present. I also know I need to grieve some painful experiences from graduate school.

But, today as I stepped on the bathroom scale for the first time in a month and realized I had lost ten pounds, I stopped. The ten pounds in many senses does not matter, but what it symbolizes does. Ten pounds symbolizes activity, life, movement, and change--an effortless physical freedom I have not known since I was a 21 year old.

For a moment I danced my naked body, rejoicing at what I saw in the mirror: stronger legs and arms, tone where tone has been lacking, the curve and shape of my former self. I danced to the thrilling reward of days in sunshine with a moving body and an uninhibited heart. 

But plans. Planning means choosing the substance of our days. And in the late summer and early fall, that means choosing the probability of a smaller, more holistically-arduous existence. This is a hard concept to relate with or without details (some of which I, frankly, am just not ready to share). Outside of being me, it is easy for others to simply think that since I cannot know what the future holds, I should only hold out hope for it being better than I imagine. But I do know my body, and I do know how, like a well-oiled machine, my body needs particular ingredients in order to thrive. Take one of those ingredients away for even a week, and it screams in pain and refuses to move without great struggle. Thus, I hold out hope for the potentiality of a better future than I can imagine, and I live in the reality of knowing impending pain is both possible and probable. 

I will not borrow trouble, but I also will listen to the voice of the Lord telling me to attend to the grief in my heart. I will hope. I will thrive. I will glide across the lakes of Colorado with joy illuminating my very presence. And I will bring stillness to my heart, strengthening my soul for whatever lies ahead. 

When all is well, and it hurts, I simply have to be present to it all. The joy of my season in life right now is so expansive it almost physically hurts at times. And the sorrow of now in relation to where I have been and where I might be headed hurts as well. But if there is anything the past eight years of dwelling with God in sickness has taught me, it is that joy and sorrow are necessary friends. One cannot survive without the other, and I will accommodate them both.