Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Death of the Good Girl


I was always a good girl.  A rule follower.  I took great pleasure in finding out what I was supposed to be doing and then doing it.  Of course, as a kid, I had my moments.  I had siblings, and we would fight.  I would pinch them or hit them ever-so-slightly.  (Real hitting was not allowed at our house.)  I told my mom I hated her once when I was about six.  I learned what soap tasted like after that.  I was not perfect, but I liked obeying the rules.  But I especially liked the recognition I felt when I did what I was supposed to do.  I liked the approval.  The pats on the back.  And since kids are little legalists anyway, it all fit right into my worldview.  The people who do good things are good people, and they should be loved and blessed.  The people who do bad things are bad people, and they should not be loved and blessed.  And though it was not always so black and white, this point-of-view carried me throughout more of my life than I care to admit.  It just felt true.

One of the great problems with this belief system is that at some point, we are all bound to fail.  Some of us in small, easily-hidden ways, but some of us choose more public failures.  And that is where things unravel.  Those failures are the things that send us spiraling downward until we begin to believe that we are actually one of the bad people.  And that's where I found myself in the summer of 2007.  Because of the story I told you about here, I had resigned my job as a Christian school teacher.  I had moved out of the little house I shared with my husband.  I moved into a temporary living space provided to me by a local church.  The little town in which I lived seemed to be buzzing about my failure.  Friends overheard people talking about it in restaurants.  There was nowhere that I could hide.  Everyone knew.  I had friends that would not speak to me.  In an instant, I had lost everything.  It felt like my identity as a good girl was erased in this bad decision.  All of those years of behaving were dead and gone.

One day I came home, and I found a card on my door.  I did not recognize the handwriting, and I was a little afraid.  It's a curious thing that sometimes people use your failures as the time to point out all of the negative they saw in you from the beginning.  I had experienced that already, and I was afraid that this would be more of the same.  I opened the card and cried as I read what was printed "If you ever forget how wonderful you are- Call me and I'll remind you".  My eyes scanned the page for a signature, and I recognized the name of a woman I barely knew.  Sharon Newman was a member of the church I had been attending, and we had met face-to-face just a few times.  To the side of the pre-printed message of the card, she had handwritten in beautiful cursive these words.

Julie,
God's opinion of us is revealed in the truth of His Word.  Our identity and position in Him is declared like this:

  We are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14)
  We are precious to God (Isaiah 43:4)
  We are cared about since our conception (Isaiah 46:3)
  We are Jesus' friend (John 15:15)
  We are chosen by Jesus (John 15:16)
  We are dearly loved by God (John 16:27)
  We are free from condemnation (Romans 8:1)
  We are a temple, a dwelling place of God's Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16)
  We are redeemed and forgiven of all our sins (Colossians 1:14)

Thankfully, our circumstances have absolutely nothing to do with God's ability to fulfill His Word.  He is always sovereign, always!

Then she signed her name and gave me two contact numbers, which I was always too embarrassed to call.  But, of course, as I read, I cried at the reminder of what God had spent almost a decade teaching me.  My worth and acceptance was not wrapped up in my performance.  It was not contingent on how well I followed the rules.  It was initiated and sustained in the fact that God created, loved, and saved me.  And maybe I had failed, but the failure didn't define how God saw me.  His truth defined me.  And his truth was unchangeable.  Unshakeable.  And it still is.

Last night, I got an message from a friend that was struggling with this, and I was happy that I could walk into the spare bedroom and pick up my little card to use in our conversation.  Maybe one day I will, but for now, I can't throw it away.  It's a reminder of where I have been and who I have been.  It's a reminder that someone was willing to speak the truth into my failure and let me know that I am loved.  And it's my reminder that I am responsible to do the same for other people.  So there it is, the truth about us.  Rest in it.  Stop trying so hard.  Forgive yourself when you scream at your kids.  Don't beat yourself up over the messy house.  Don't carry around the weight of your past failures.  Let the good girl die.  And let the truth live on.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thanks a Lot

Three weeks ago, I started teaching school again.  After a four year elementary teaching hiatus, I was nervous about getting back to it.  I was fearful that I would commit to a whole year of classroom time, only to find that kids had changed and were terrible and that I didn't like them anymore at all.  Or maybe that I had changed, and I was terrible.  My last year of teaching in Tennessee was a particularly hard one, dealing with a divorce and the grief of losing kids and the shame of my own mistakes.  I was the worst possible version of myself that year, and I still look back and feel guilty about those sweet little kindergarteners who really deserved a great teacher and didn't really get one.  So I felt like I left the profession unsuccessful.  It took a great deal of courage to take up my lesson plan book, clip board, and ridiculous, but very necessary, rolling cart and start again.

Every morning, three days a week, I can be found lugging my guitar, a cart filled with children's books and instruments, a cd player, and a golden retriever puppet (that has yet to be named) into the red brick school building across town.  I go inside, hopeful that I haven't missed staff prayer time, and I get ready to start my day.  I go in and out of classrooms, setting up my guitar and my lesson plans and all of the silly things I need to teach kids about rhythm and dynamics and harmony.  We sing, we dance, we sometimes throw bean bags at each other instead of passing them, even though that's clearly against the rules.  Occasionally we cry because someone else got to play the triangle, and for whatever reason, everyone wants the triangle.  And every school day, I end each class with a simple little song.  I have the kids fold their hands, as if they are praying, and we sing our thanks for everything we have.  And each day, for these three minutes, I am reminded of how blessed I am.

It should be second nature to be grateful.  After all, I have been to third world countries.  I have seen poverty.  I have been to the hospital to see friends whose little girl has cancer.  I have cried with a friend when her dad died.  I have prayed for friends who are single and struggle with loneliness.  I have even been that friend.  I have experienced love and grace and forgiveness.  I have a thousand things for which to be thankful.  I have a husband that makes me laugh.  And sometimes scream, but mostly laugh.  I have a huge family that loves and supports me and keeps me from forgetting who I am.  I have friends, far and near, that I stay in touch with regularly.  We text and call and Facebook message, and we keep each other encouraged and accountable.  I have a ministry at church and school, and I love teaching these kids the truth of God's Word.  I love it.  I have a place to live and a car that is paid off and a plan to pay off the other one.  But some days it is easy to focus on the things I do not have.  The money I am not making.  The food I cannot eat, lest I get fatter.  And I grow discontent.

I have found that this helps.  This little song, sung three times a day at the end of each elementary class. It brings me back to all of God's provision in my life.  I am sure this isn't what Raffi* had in mind when he recorded this song.  Especially because the song seems to be directed at no one in particular.  But I know where good gifts come from.  So I know where to send my thanks.  And just in case I forget on the other days, I am glad to have these small reminders.  Thanks a lot.  Thanks for all I've got.




*If you have a child, and you love him, you should be listening to Raffi.  Children's music that doesn't make you want to cut off your own ears.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Godspeed


In 2002, the Dixie Chicks released Home, a very acoustic bluegrassy album that I just adored.  There were plenty of things I loved about it, but my favorite was, and is, track 11, a sweet little song called "Godspeed", written by the fantastic Radney Foster.  The second I heard it, I swore to myself that if ever I was a mother of boys, it would be my signature song for them.

In 2004, I became a temporary mother to my sweet nephews, Canaan, Cameron, and Connor.  Baby Cody was born and came to live with us the following year, and I kept my promise.  Eventually known as the "night-night song", "Godspeed" became the song they expected me to sing and play on my guitar most nights before they went to bed.  Once Canaan was old enough to learn the words, his crackly little singing voice could be heard hitting the high notes with me on the chorus.  I would change the words from time to time to adjust to whichever superhero was their current favorite.  Superman was almost always replaced by Spiderman.  Superman just wasn't cool enough.  And they would laugh, knowing that I was technically singing it wrong.  And I can see them right now, four little boys in pajamas.  Four pairs of scrawny legs dangling down from the bottom bunk, swinging their feet and enjoying the last few minutes of freedom before they would be forced to go to sleep.  And occasionally, they would get other songs out of me, depending on the time and how exhausted I was.  But "Godspeed" was their favorite.  It was the one they could count on hearing when they only got one.  It was my prayer for them.

Three years later- three years of diapers and bottles and potty training and hugs and sleepless night and the occasional spanking- my boys went home to Texas to live with their parents.  And five years later, it still makes me cry to think about.  But less than a month after they left, I attended a concert in Nashville.  And is usually the case in Nashville, musicians draw musicians.  So while I was standing in line, waiting to get into the venue, I noticed songwriter Radney Foster in line.  I was feeling brave, and I rarely am around famous people, so I went up and introduced myself and had my picture taken with him.  Later that night, I approached him again to talk to him about the song, and he told me his story.  He wrote the song for his son that was moving to France with his mother.  There was nothing he could do to prevent him from going, so he wrote the song for his son so that he would have a reminder that he was loved.  And I knew I had chosen right.  Of all the songs in the world I could have chosen, I chose the one that was written by someone who knew what it was like to let a child go.  To have no control over that last goodbye.  To fight and lose.

My boys have grown up a lot.  They are no longer toddlers.  Canaan is almost 13, and his little brothers are not far behind him.  They live about an hour away, and I see them at our family get-togethers.  I am lucky to get a hug out of them when I see them.  They pretend to have outgrown hugs, and I am pretty sure they have outgrown the song.  When they come to stay the night, they don't ask for it like they used to.  And that's okay.  Because in my head, it's all still there.  And though they may not hear it anymore, my prayer for them has never changed.  Godspeed, little guys.  Your Aunt Julie loves you.






Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Blocked: A Tale of Shame

Photo and blog title are both courtesy of Caryn Thexton, who blogs (not nearly as often as we'd like her to) right here.


I remember the day it happened.  I was driving from Texas to Tennessee, and it was my birthday week, normally the most celebratory week of my year.  I checked my Facebook, and I saw the news on a friend's Facebook that the guy formerly known as my BFF was engaged. Engaged? Really?  So I picked up the phone to call him, because even though we had not been talking much because of his new relationship, we had wanted to remain friends. And now he was engaged and all of Facebook knew before I did.  I dialed his number, and that's when I heard it "The person you have called is not accepting calls from this number". So I went back to Facebook and searched his name, and that's when I understood what was happening.  I had been blocked.  Shut out.  Cut off completely. And so I cried.


I was already slightly familiar with the feeling.  After all, my ex-husband had also blocked me on Facebook, although I believe that was to prevent me to see what he was up to during our divorce proceedings.  And I kind of understood that.  Divorce is an unpleasant, tricky thing.  And misunderstandings can easily occur.  It made sense to me, mostly.  But this new blocking?  This was a new level of humiliation. This felt like I couldn't be trusted.  I felt like a punished child.  And a thousand things went through my head.  What was he afraid I was going to do?  Stalk him?  Send him annoying daily messages? I am still not sure, but I was sad for weeks.  I was embarrassed for even longer.  Friends would ask "Hey, did you see that [former BFF] is [insert life event here]?".  And I would have to drop my head in shame and answer that I had no idea what was going on in his life.  I had been friend dumped.  I had been Facebook blocked.


Fast forward a year or so, and I broke up with my boyfriend. After over a year of dating, we decided that we should go our separate ways.  And as with most breakups, we tried to keep things ending on a good note, but there are always hurt feelings and sensitivity.  And within a few weeks, he blocked me, too.  I told myself it was temporary.  He needed some time to get over things.  And maybe that was how it started, but here we are a couple of years later and I am still blocked.  


On an ordinary day, I wouldn't even know that I have been banned on Facebook.  It doesn't enter my thoughts, and it does not affect how I go through my day.  But occasionally, a Facebook friend will post a picture or a status, and then there will be twelve comments by the original poster, seemingly having a conversation with himself.  And then I realize, one of my blockers has commented and being blocked, I am completely unable to see it.  It makes the original photo or status poster look like a total nut, which is mildly amusing to me until I remember 

a.) I am the only person who sees it this way and 
b.) the feeling of rejection that comes with the fact that the whole Facebook community can see something, but I can't.

And maybe it will last forever, or at least until the end of Facebook.  Then we will move on to another form of social networking and I will wait to see if I am blocked there as well.  (Google +, anyone? No? Yeah, me neither.)  But in the meantime, I will live with the shame.  If you need me, I will be keeping my nose in the virtual corner, wearing a scarlet letter on my shirt*, and taking my punishment like a big girl.


* Probably a B for blocked instead of an A


For those of you unfamiliar with the embarrassment that is Facebook blocking, here is what it is: Blocking allows you to prevent most interactions with someone on Facebook. People you block won't be able to find you in searches, view your timeline, or contact you with pokes or personal messages. In addition, they will not be able to see your timeline posts, comments on mutual friends’ timelines, or that you are a member of the same group as them.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

My Story

Some stories are easy to tell.  They are silly with funny punch lines and they make people laugh and mostly they don't mean anything.  The stories that are worth telling are harder.  They require opening up a little bit more, and they require being vulnerable to criticism and judgment.  They leave you with the echoing question of what will people think of me?  Those are the ones that make the difference, though.  They are work.  And they hopefully connect with people.  And maybe even change people.  That's my hope, and this is my story.

It was April, springtime in Tennessee. My husband (now ex-husband, of course) had just gone to jail for the second time for domestic assault.  For the 30 days between his arrest and his appearance in court, I could not legally talk to him, and when I finally could, it wasn't pretty.  Our struggling little marriage was barely hanging on.  Spiritually, I was feeling great.  Throughout the previous seven months, he had been gone for four of them, leaving me to work full time and raise four kids on my own.  I had struggled with so much anger and resentment, but from all of my wrestling with God, something new and alive and real had been birthed.  I was reading my Bible and praying consistently.  God had been speaking vividly and clearly to me, and I felt like I was learning so much.  In my weakness, God was definitely my strength.  It was one of the most spiritually alive times in my life.  My life was chaos, but I had found peace in the midst of it.

Then it came.  A text message from the father of one of my second grade students.  An innocent text message to thank me for performing at a local fundraiser that would eventually go to benefit his family.  I responded nicely, and it opened a door that I didn't even know existed.  One text message led to another, and before I knew it, I found myself checking my phone regularly, hoping that he had texted me.  It was casual conversation.  Funny things that didn't mean anything.  We were just being friendly, I told myself.  After how difficult my life had been, I deserved some fun conversation.  I confided in a friend after a few weeks and I told her about the "friendship" that had developed.  Of course, she encouraged me to cut things off.  No professions of attraction or affection had been exchanged, and she said that it was not too late.  Just end it, she said.  And I told her that I would.  Except after a few weeks, I didn't want to.

These situations happen to other people.  Other people that put themselves into the wrong places.  People that don't have proper boundaries.  They don't happen to people like me.  I was a second grade teacher at a Christian school.  I led worship for elementary chapel and school events, and I loved it.  I did children's ministry at our church, and was surrounded by a community of people that loved me and prayed with me through my marital struggles.  I had so much love and support and encouragement.  And yet, it did happen to me.  And it happens all the time to people just like me.  People who love God and want to do what's right.  People who genuinely love their spouse.  People who let their spiritual guard down for just a second because it feels nice to have attention.  People who are tired of feeling like the bad guy.  People who are lonely and want to feel normal again.  Young again.  Attractive again.  Funny again.  Oh, it happens all the time.  

I don't have to tell you how this story ends.  Mostly because there is only one way that it could have.  Badly.  Very, very badly.  You cannot choose to go outside of God's laws and guidelines and sow seeds of disobedience and expect anything less.  I will tell you what you can expect.  Pain, sorrow, regret, heartbreak, mistrust, to name a few.  And a mess.  You can expect a mess.  There is always debris in the wake of disaster, and it can take months, even years to clean up.  The good news is that there is also restoration and forgiveness and grace and redemption and growth.  Huge amounts of those things.  But even in those beautiful things, there is a tinge of sadness.  There are lingering feelings of guilt that must be fought off.  There is a reminder of blessings from obedience that were missed.

I tell you my story because it's a common one.  It's just not commonly told.  It happens all around us every single day.  And when we do hear of these things, and if you are like me, you say to yourself that won't happen to me... I would never do that.  I would never open up my heart to someone other than my spouse.  And I hope that you won't.  But let me tell you this, you are capable of it.  It's one of the biggest truths that people do not believe.  If I had believed that I was capable of that kind of betrayal, I would have certainly been more careful.  I would have protected myself.  I wouldn't have allowed for it to creep in like in did.  Instead, I thought I can handle this.  It's under control.  And it wasn't.

So let me help you out here.  Let me tell you how it starts.  One text.  One Facebook message.  One email.  One phone call.  One conversation.  One meeting.  And in the beginning, it will be innocent.   Your intentions will be pure.  You will think it's no big deal.  You are just catching up with an old friend.  You are simply enjoying conversation.  You are just meeting for coffee.  And sometimes, it will be fine.  I have had wonderful, pure Godly relationships with male bosses and friends and coworkers.  But the second the Holy Spirit nudges me, the second I get the feeling that maybe I should hide this, the second that I feel that familiar something's not right here feeling, I escape.  I tell an accountability partner.  I tell my spouse.  I run for the hills.  I have been there before, and I don't want to go back.

I am thankful for my new marriage.  It is precious, and I am desperate to protect it.  And just a day or so ago, I got a message from an old friend.  And that something's not right here feeling was there.  And so I deleted it.  I didn't respond.  I felt bad, but I would rather feel bad than go there again.  I will keep the vow that I made... forsaking all others.

So this is my story.  I tell it knowing that it could invite the judgment of others.  It might become table conversation for some.  There is certainly a huge part of me that longs to keep it secret so that no one's opinion of me will change.  But some stories are so life changing, they are meant to be told.  And in the center of them, we see God's goodness and forgiveness and his unconditional love.  We can also see how easy it is to make one bad choice and where it could lead.  So this is my story.  I tell it for many reasons, but mostly I tell it so that it will not be yours.

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