This past Sunday I attended a local church where the sermon centred on finding light in places of darkness. Since it was January 1st, it was quite appropriate for all of us to take some time and reflect upon what the past year brought us – both blessings and challenges. Almost all of us can attest to the fact that globally 2016 was not the best year. We received the sad news that many of our favourite actors and singers had passed away. We saw on the news that the rate of homicides in Chicago was at an all-time high. We continued to wrestle with the unrest in many Middle Eastern Countries. And we asked ourselves how it would be possible to find peace in a time of Trump. All of these global issues definitely can affect us at a personal level, but then there are also the challenges we ourselves face on a daily basis. Between December 30th and January 2nd many of my Facebook friends posted statues claiming that they were ready to burn 2016 and embrace 2017, hoping for the best. Many of my friends struggled with very serious health issues, unemployment, lack of job satisfaction, and academic distress this past year. Many of them stated that 2016 might very well have been the worst year of their lives.
But not for me. For me 2016 was probably THE BEST YEAR EVER! Well, at least the first 8 months of it were. You may have picked up from other blogs I’ve written on this subject, but being in Edinburgh, Scotland was pretty much the best thing that ever happened to me. And I was naïve enough to think that it was a “forever” type of thing, not a “one year only” type of thing.
Even though things did not seem promising for my return, it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that everything came crashing down on me and the reality set in that I really wasn’t going anywhere. This meant that although my 2016 started off beautifully, holding hands and singing Auld Lang Syne while watching the fireworks from the top of Calton Hill at midnight, my 2016 ended with me being sad and depressed about how the events unfolded. To further complicate matters, I received a job. But not just any job, a vocation. I finally was called to a church that I feel is an absolutely brilliant fit for me. I am excited to do the very best I can as a children’s pastor and I feel honoured that God has selected me for such a time as this. After all, it is what I studied, and I feel thankful that I was able to receive a charge almost as soon as I started applying (when so many of my other friends have had to wait over a year to find a place). Yet, as much as I look forward to this new opportunity of continuing to gain skills and professional development and hopefully ministering to the lives of many children and families, there is still a certain level of resistance and tension. I am trying to run with my arms wide-open into another ministry possibility, but I am still holding back, unable to say goodbye to what I thought would be, but is not. I am asking myself “how do I possibly deal with all this?” I am wondering how to bring closure to a dream I feel has been dashed, while still maintaining a positive attitude so that I can bring new life to my new parish.
This experience has been a lot like playing with playdough. Giving a lump to a young kid and asking them to make some sort of shape. The kid doesn’t really know what to do with it, so they end up just turning it around in their hands multiple times. I am that kid. I’m still working with playdough trying to see if I can turn it into a wonderful masterpiece, but it definitely is a work in progress. And because of that, I can’t offer you any cut and dry answers for how I have arrived at finding light in the midst of my turbulent time, but I will offer a few suggestions based on what I have learned, read, and talked with a mentor about in recent weeks. I hope they will be helpful to you in your present circumstance and offer you a place of healing and hope even when you feel your dreams and deepest wishes have been shattered.
#1: Permission to Feel
In my mind, I have a picture of one of those old school computer games that I played when I was about 12. Of course, kids these days, have much more exciting consoles than what I had, but I used to enjoy mission games where I was stuck in the middle of a tropical rainforest jungle and had to make it out with only 2 first aid kids, 3 pairs of clothing, a canoe, and a bag of food. In this game, the character was able to ask for various things. “Permission to speak, sir?” And if the commander liked you, he may have responded “Permission granted.”
Our life is a giant mission. And you will encounter your ups and downs. Sometimes when you’re feeling down, it’s important to be able to validate your own emotions. And sometimes, you need that added boost of having another person tell you it’s okay to feel sad. That’s why if you’re asking me “permission to feel?” I’d like to respond with “permission granted.”
One of the greatest lessons I learned in L’Arche was this: you have the right to feel whichever emotions come to the surface in whichever way they come about. Even if your trial does not seem “huge” compared to what your other friends are going through, don’t downplay it. Live into those feelings. Don’t tell yourself a Christian “shouldn’t” feel a certain way. In fact, as much as possible, abolish the word “should” entirely from your vocabulary. Instead of saying “I shouldn’t feel badly about not going back to Scotland when I have such a wonderful job opportunity here” say “I am thankful for my new job and all it will entail, but I still sort of wish I was back with the Highland cows.” This shows thankfulness and hopeful expectation, but it also acknowledges the challenge with moving forward. Instead of saying “I shouldn’t feel sad about my breakup. The guy was a jerk anyways” say “That person was not the right individual for me at this time. I’m thankful for the times we could spend together, but also the protection God gave me not to further what wasn’t right for me. But I will still miss hanging out with him (or her).”
I remember going through a tumultuous time in my teenage years. For a long number of years, I struggled with severe depression. I am thankful that God has since alleviated this burden and provided me with sound health for over 6 years now, but I still remember those initial days of bitter struggle and they have provided me with more compassion for those who currently suffer. When I was 17, I met with a wonderful Christian doctor and told her what I was feeling. I then rebutted my own emotions by saying, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way because there are so many people going through worse things in life.” My doctor asked me “do you think you are suffering?” I said “No. Not compared to those kids who have no food and water.” And she looked me straight in the eye and said “you ARE suffering. Don’t let anyone tell you you aren’t.” And that’s what I want to say to you right now. It doesn’t matter how small or how big your trial is. You are suffering and I am so sorry to hear that. But I hope you won’t have to stay stuck in the suffering. I hope you will be able to see that even in the darkness, little cracks of light are appearing out of nowhere and little birds are whispering messages of hope, healing, and encouragement into your ear even when the Devil is trying to fill your mind with despair and loss.
#2: Live Into the Questions
Over the past 2 months, I have been doing a book study on the wonderful devotional “Univited” By: Lysa Terkeurst. In this book, Lysa addresses how to effectively deal with rejection (whether from family, friends, or being turned down from jobs or situations we had really hoped for). One of the best pieces of advice Lysa gives is to ask WHAT questions instead of WHY questions. Taking an example from my own life, I am tempted to ask WHY things with Edinburgh didn’t work out. WHY God gave me a passion for a very particular city, country, and culture then took it from underneath my feet. WHY God seemed to open a million and one doors, but when it really came down to it shut all of them. Yet, although I am tempted, I realize that to ask such questions would simply be to run around in circles. The truth is, that maybe God will reveal to me the answers to the WHY questions, but for now He is remaining strangely silent.
Instead, I have decided to shift my questions to WHAT. WHAT lessons does God still want me to learn here in Canada that I couldn’t learn over there? WHAT character traits does God want to instill in me that would make me a more effective minister if I ever did go back (minister here is used in the broad sense, not necessarily in the pulpit sense)? WHAT can I do in the interim while I’m waiting to “dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness?” WHAT can I do to effectively minister with the opportunities I have right here in front of me without daydreaming about what could be, but obviously isn’t?
I’m not saying it’s easy to come up with answers to all these questions or that it’s easy to retrain our minds to think differently, but I have noticed for myself when I shift my focus on WHAT I do have rather than on what I don’t have I become a much more content person.
Here’s another thing Lysa taught me. When a door shuts we often assume that it will be closed forever. When I found out that I wasn’t able to go back to Edinburgh for the next several months, I decided in my mind that this meant I was never going back. However, to be fair, God didn’t actually tell me that. The UK government didn’t actually tell me that. L’Arche didn’t actually tell me that. I told myself that. It is possible that your disappointment is the result of God’s protection for RIGHT NOW. For whatever reason, God isn’t providing you with a spouse, your “dream job” or the chance to go back to your favourite country, and there’s probably a reason for it. I know, if you’re like me, you hate hearing those types of Christian clichés, but they are so true. There is a level of protection in God’s divine plan for us, even when it seems like God is just being “mean.” He’s not mean! He’s the parent who withholds too many sweets from His kids because they also need some meat and potatoes.
#3: Being thankful in the moment.
My decision to resign from L’Arche Cape Breton was not an easy one. I knew it was the right choice and the best way to respect both myself and the L’Arche movement, but still L’Arche was all I really knew. I had worked with them for the past 3 years and loved living in intentional community. I didn’t know what it meant to have to find my own place or go back to job searching. Living into that transition was hard, so in order to curtail any sense of depression or anxiety for my future, I began posting three things I was thankful for every day on Facebook. Forcing yourself to think of the positives in every circumstance (no matter how crummy) actually ends up being a double-blessing. First, we train our minds to pick up on the positive so throughout the day we are subconsciously aware of the good things that are taking place. Then, at the end of the day when we write them down, we are reliving those happy memories. Thus, our serotonin (or happiness) levels spike twice, and thus we experience the positive not once, but twice (for more information on this read “The Happiness Dare” By: Jennifer Dukes Lee).
I first started this practice in Edinburgh after attending one of our Tyndale chapels where one of our students talked about her “gratitude journal.” Yet, this exercise has ended up being a smile-saver in the midst of what could have ended in disinterest and disillusionment after my disappointment with Scotland.
I still wish I was near a castle and listening to Scottish brogues, but I started playing a game with myself to try to come up with some reasons why I am here. As of today, I have 195 entries (3 for the 65 days I’ve been home). Here are a few of the blessings that could only have taken place in North America (not in Europe):
- My brother is getting married and I was able to meet his fiancée’s parents and brother. I also don’t have to worry about how I could financially afford to attend their wedding and the complications of flying home and then flying back to Edinburgh to complete another term.
- I was able to attend a local young adult’s group where I made some new friends. Since I haven’t lived in my hometown for about 15 years, I virtually had no one (except my parents) to come home to. Now, when I come back for periodic visits, I will have lots of friends to meet up with!
- I was able to work on “self-improvement” and had some down-time which I likely will never get another opportunity to have in quite the same way.
- I was able to spend a week with my university friends in Toronto where I went to the Christmas Market, discovered the best burger place in all of Newmarket, and randomly ran into my pastor on the train ride home.
- Although it was born out of pain, I was able to have many good discussions with friends who were also facing disappointment because of doors they felt God had closed to them. I am thankful that we were able to mutually edify and build one another up.
- I was able to spend 2 months as an intern at a local church and this ultimately resulted in me getting a position as a children’s pastor at another church. I learned so much about kid’s ministry and was able to pour into my passion of working with kids who have special needs.
- I was able to have more time for my writing
- I was able to spend Christmas at home with my parents
- I have developed a more spiritually mature view of God and have had time to wrestle with some tough and important theological concepts.
There are just a sampling of the many blessings and opportunities God has given me since I arrived home. It doesn’t make the disappointment any less, but it does help me process my grief in a way that is more productive and less destructive.
If you have not taken up this practice for yourself, it is something I’d really like to encourage you to do. Find at least one positive thing in every circumstance. It doesn’t matter how big or how small. If you can’t find at least one blessing or crack of light in the darkness, it might help you to word things differently. In “Uninvited” Lysa suggests asking the question “what does not accepting this position free up for me?” Yes, going to Edinburgh would have been great, but being in Canada has freed up my familial obligations that would not have been met in the same way if I were abroad. Yes, being in Edinburgh would have been fun, but being here in Canada has protected my relationship with my brother and sister-in-law in a way that being over there wouldn’t have secured. So when someone hands us a bouquet, we have to decide to not stare at the thorny stems, but to look up and see the beautiful roses.
Oftentimes we are convinced that we know ourselves better than anyone else, but I’d like to suggest that is not necessarily the case. Our Heavenly Father knows us the most intimately because it is He who made and formed us and He wants what is best for our future. If you’re faced with heaps of disappointment right now, you may not be interested in mere proof-texting, but let me urge you to do this: find a quiet room, pour your heart out to God and allow yourself to FEEL all the feelings without rationalizing them. Live into your hurt and disappointment, but then don’t stay stuck there. Ask yourself what you can learn from the situation and move from being a victim to being victorious. Challenge yourself to see the positive outcomes in the negative situation, and thank God for any hints of protection not receiving your wish will bring to you. The healing may not come easily and it will definitely take time, but in the end it will be so worth it, because you will realize that for each challenge, there is a blessing, a rose, just waiting for you to take hold of it.