Technology: A Distraction to Our Story?

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I have seen this image all over Facebook and it makes me smile and sad at the same time. I really love technology and wouldn’t want to go back to the card catalogue, encyclopedia era of days gone by. I love that I can watch a movie at home with my family, not having to pay close to $50 for the outing (thank you inventor of the DVD) and I can put it on pause (a big shout out to the inventor of the remote control) and look up where it was filmed (gratitude for Google). There are countless ways  technology has enhanced my life and enriched my experiences. As my son once said to my husband and I in an effort to campaign for more freedom to make some decisions in his life, “It’s not the food in a buffet that is the problem; it’s the person who lacks control and gorges himself.” Wise words, my oldest son. And yes, his argument won him the freedom he was campaigning for

But there are times when technology distracts us from our story. I see it all the time when I go to restaurants or grab a coffee at Starbucks – people sitting across the table from another human, texting, googling, instagramming, Facebooking, tweeting, twerping. They are together in body but not together wholly. I have been guilty of the same thing.  When I purchased my first iPhone, I boldly proclaimed to my husband that I wouldn’t be one of those people choosing technology over relationship. NOT! I have fallen into the trap and when I realize it, I give myself a time out, as well as my technology.

And our stories aren’t only diminished in the company of others, but it happens when we are alone. I sit at my computer to write/create and then I check my email, Facebook, look up the weather, check out an ad that pops up, and before I know it, I have wasted thirty minutes of the time I set apart to create.

I heard an author on NPR yesterday who spoke on this very thing. Sorry, I can’t remember her name. She talked about the key to determine if technology is in its proper place is in the word enhance.

en’hans: intensify, increase, or further improve the quality, value, or extent of.

Is technology enhancing me and my relationship to others? While I’m using it, is it adding to my experience and enriching my relationships? Sometimes the answer is yes. Our family has had some incredible discussions while using technology. I have  laughed until I’ve cried watching some videos on YouTube. I have learned things, discovered some incredible ways to create, read wonderful blogs, seen things, improve myself, and so much more.

And then there are the times that I missed relationships by being distracted. I’ve wasted time. I’ve been lazy. I’ve missed opportunities. Sadly, I think we all have.

So, my litmus test about the place of technology in any given situation of my life could be: Does it enhance or diminish my story and experience?

I will fail at times, but it will be a good question to ground myself when I find I’m being swept up into the swirl of technology, not living my story.

Held: the Power of a Name

Over the Christmas holidays last year, my husband and I went to see the movie, Wild. I was riveted, repulsed, intrigued, moved, heart broken, nauseated, but more than anything, I was gripped. Cheryl Strayed’s journey from grief to life pulled me in and spoke to me on so many levels.

After losing her mother, Cheryl went on a journey of self destruction and abuse (that was the repulsive, nauseating, heart breaking part), and at some point, after losing almost everything important to her, she decides to hike alone on the Pacific Coast Trail starting in the Mojave Desert and ending at the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon.

One of the important things she lost along the way was her husband in a divorce. They were amiable about the whole thing, but their marriage was destroyed and they decided to end it. Here are her words about the experience.

When we were filling out the divorce documents there was this line on which you could write whatever you wanted your new legal name to be. So much was ending and beginning for me then—I tell the whole story in my memoir, Wild. I knew naming myself was important and I set about it with great intention in the months before my ex and I finalized our divorce. I read the dictionary. I searched favorite novels and poems. One day the word strayed came to me and I knew it was my name…Strayed is the realest name I’ll ever have. It feels like my heritage.

Interview with Cheryl Strayed.

She was incredibly deliberate about naming herself. For her, the definition of strayed aptly described her life up until then – to move away aimlessly from a group or from the right course or place.

That act of naming herself so impacted me that I gave the idea a lot of thought and prayer. No, I didn’t legally change my name, but I did think about what it would be at this point in my life, if I could change it. And this is the name I came up with, Susan Held. In this season of my life, I feel held by God. I no longer feel like there is a relational separation caused by my sin or failure that I have to build a bridge back to through good works and performance. I am held because He loves me just the way I am, not because I am good but because He is good and I am His.

The truth is, we all could change our last name to Held right now because it’s true. He loves us not based on our behavior or our actions. He loves because that’s who He is. And He holds us in that love. Healing came to my heart when I started living in the reality that I am loved and I am held by Love. As it turns out my name could have been Susan Held all along because He has held me from the day I was born into this world. I didn’t always sense it, but He was.

And He is holding you now in His love. It may be hard to accept or believe, and that’s okay. I lived a long time unable to believe this. I didn’t do anything special to live in this awareness. I simply started asking Him to convince me of His love for me. It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s happening and it’s changing me. Everyday I live, He continues to convince me. I don’t need to convince myself. He is able.

So, when the story of my life is finished and you see the name Susan Held on the cover, I hope you’ll remember it’s me.

31 dAYS

Friends: People Who Think You’re Wonderful

What kinds of friends have you surrounded yourself with? It’s a really important question to ask and the answer might say a lot about how you view yourself and others.

Years ago, a dear friend of mine and her family started attending a different church. We were good friends and had been through a lot together – homeschooling, ministry, leadership, starting a church. Anyway, after a couple of weeks, she gave me a call to catch up on family stuff and life. The subject of her new church came up, and she was eager to share some of the wisdom she had learned there.

She began her discussion about her new church with, “Our pastor encourages us to surround ourselves with people who think we are wonderful.” I was silent. I was waiting for the laughter, the disagreement, the scorn, but to my surprise, she was all on board with this fresh insight. She continued, “He told us if you have people in your life that want to change you, you don’t need them.” I remember saying words like wow and really in response. We spoke for a while and finished our conversation after sharing stories of church and family. We stayed in touch for many years and had a couple of other shared experiences after that. The funny thing is, she was really one of those people who thought I was wonderful, and I felt the same way about her.

Anyway, fast forward seventeen years, and I still remember those words. The only difference is, I am now finally convinced her pastor was right.

Let me explain. I always struggled with liking myself. I think I was born with a self improvement book in my hand. I actually avoided reading fiction for over twenty years (with the exception of homeschool related fiction) in favor of self improvement books because I wanted to be better. I felt like I needed to improve myself so that God’s opinion and the opinion others had of me would improve. So, I found myself gravitating towards people who I thought were either better than me (a model I could aspire to) or people who wanted to change me (a job I thought was very much needed). The thought of anyone thinking I was wonderful was ridiculous.

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Guess what, I am finally starting to believe I am wonderful. And so are YOU.

In Psalm 139, the Psalmist proclaims, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well.” He was literally convinced of his value and worth.

Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, “ For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” This means we are a one of a kind original created by the Creator. As far as I am concerned, that makes our value PRICELESS.

And right from Jesus’ mouth he says, “I no longer call you slaves, because the slave does not understand what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because I have revealed to you everything I heard from my Father.” I am a friend of God.  Can there be anything of more worth than being His friend?

A wonderfully made creation, a masterpiece, a friend of God is not an improvement project for people to take on. God likes you just the way you are. If you read all the self help books available until He returns, it would in no way change His opinion of you. Yes, He is transforming you into His image, the image man/woman was initially made in, but He doesn’t need any help from your friends. He is enough. He alone can change you, and what’s more, he isn’t in a hurry to do so. And here’s the biggie, He’s not doing the work of sanctification so that He can stand to be around you. He loves to be around you. He just sees your potential, and knows you can live in that place.

So, it turns out that her pastor was right. We do need to surround ourselves with people who think we are wonderful because God thinks we are wonderful. Any person who has a lower opinion of you than the God of the universe is not the kind of person you need as a friend. Your group of friends in your story might be small but that’s okay. Jesus hung with a small group himself.

31 dAYS

Are You Trying to Make Your Story Look Like a Christian One

I am not a big fan of Christian fiction, and frankly, I feel the same way about Christian movies. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll give them an E for effort. Yes, there was a time when E, not F, was the lowest level of the letter grading system.  Authors and screen writers passionately want to share their faith with the world and strengthen the faith of those already professing, so they create works that are dripping with the Gospel. And I want to say for the record, THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT, NOTHING AT ALL. On so many levels, I get it, but I don’t have to like it.

When I look back to the moment I began a personal, intimate, life changing relationship with God, I remember so wanting my life to drip with the Gospel of Jesus Christ because I wanted everyone to know Him. So I started to learn the language. I picked up a few Christian words and phrases stewardship, under the blood, answering the call, repent. Then I asked some older, more seasoned Christians what I needed to do now that I had joined them. They gave me the top five:

  • wake up early to pray and read your Bible
  • go to church whenever the doors are opened
  • tithe on what you earn
  • study the Scriptures
  • Don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or listen to secular music (Honestly, I had to look up the word secular. I had no idea God had an opinion about music).
Now I was ready to drip with the Gospel. Everyone would know my story was a Christian one because I was following the top five behaviors and was becoming fluent in Christianese. I went home to visit my mom and sisters and tried my new language on them. My mom had the most confused look on her face when I opened my mouth, especially when I quoted Scripture whenever it seemed appropriate and when it wasn’t. And then they got a front row seat to my new behavior, complete with crack of dawn devotionals and free verse prayers which omitted the catholic sign of the cross. I honestly think my mom thought I had lost my mind or had joined a cult, or both.
My intentions were sincere – I wanted the world to know Him and by acting and speaking like one of His followers, they would want to know Him. I can tell you this, my behavior and language didn’t necessary draw many to the faith. I was preachy and to be honest, a little odd, at least to those who knew me before. My mom and sisters didn’t want to be like me in any possible way and thought I had jumped into the deep end of crazy. I am happy to report no humans were deeply hurt in the early years of making my story, and despite my best/worse efforts, my family has a loving and intimate relationship with God.
Not all new converts live out their faith like I did. Some beautifully allow God to transform them and focus on loving Him, allowing any behavior or speech changes to happen organically. And I am not here to bash Christians. I am one. But what I want to say is if you’re a believer in Jesus, then your life is a Christian story. And if you live in relationship with Him, He will do the transforming in your life and in the life of others. You don’t have to worry about making your story look Christian at all. If Christ lives in you, your life will drip with the Gospel – the Gospel of grace and truth. Your mouth doesn’t have to drip with the Gospel like a faucet that never shuts off.
Your life without all the props of language and religious looking behavior is a beautiful, authentic, redemptive love story and you don’t have to manage it. No two stories should look alike because each is an original. I’m glad because I am really into original, and I think God is too.
31 dAYS

A Comedy or a Tragedy

I don’t have an enormous DVD collection and this is by design. I decided a long time ago, only movies that hold a special place in my heart will be added to my personal collection. Steel Magnolias (I quote lines from it on a weekly basis), Fried Green Tomatoes, Sense and Sensibility with Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, Braveheart and The Patriot, About Time (a must see), the four and a half hour BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Return to Me, Good Will Hunting, Hook, An Unfinished Life, Mr. Holland’s Opus (on my must buy list since VHS is a thing of the past), and the list goes on. These are like special friends and I feel like a heel right now because I didn’t mention all of their names.

One movie I return to over and over again is Stranger Than Fiction. Every time I curl up on the couch to watch it, I see things I never noticed before which further endears me to this film. Below is a trailer for the movie to give you a quick idea of what it’s about.

The entire premise of the movie is absolutely brilliant. The idea of a writer discovering that the fictional character she has been creating isn’t really fictional at all makes everything she writes of value and great importance. Anyway, in the film, Harold Crick solicits the help of a college English professor played by Dustin Hoffman to come up with a way to stop his impending death currently being planned by the author, and the professor decides that Harold first needs to figure out whether his story is a comedy or a tragedy – if a comedy, then a good ending and if a tragedy, well you get it. For the next several days, he keeps a journal, making tally marks in the tragedy verses comedy columns based on the circumstances of his day. His mood changes depending on the tally count. At the close of the test, he determines his life is indeed a tragedy, so his death is almost a certainty.

Circumstances really do impact our lives and it’s easy to give them power over how we view our day, our week, and our lives as a whole. We tally the events of the day, and in the end, whichever column has the most marks determines whether it’s a tragedy or a comedy, a good day or a terrible one, a waste or worth every minute.

I would like to challenge the tally mark mentality. I find, when I evaluate a day by a collection of experiences, I am missing the now, the moment I am in. Focusing on a overall judgment concerning my day diminishes each and every second I am experiencing in the present.

Our stories can’t be judged as good or bad because our stories are taking place in the NOW. Right this minute, as you live and breath, your story is being written. Yesterday is behind you and tomorrow is out of your grasp. You only have now. Don’t be focused on how you will evaluate it once it’s over because then it will be out of your reach. Be in the moment.

Is my story a comedy? Sometimes it feels like it and I really like it when it does. Is my story a tragedy? It has had some incredible heartache and loss and at the time, it felt crushing. Right now, I’m evaluating less and living more. Some moments are better than others, but with every moment I am living my story.

For now, I will leave the evaluating to the critics that read my story when I am long gone.

31 dAYS

 

The Lost Character in the Story

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This is a question I started asking myself a couple of years ago. It seems ridiculous to ask, doesn’t it? After all, if it’s my story, I must be the main character, the protagonist, the leading lady. Practically speaking, however, I lived more like a secondary character most of my life.

To say I’m the leading character felt selfish to me. Yes, it’s my story, but as a Christian woman, isn’t life about making my story about others – my children, my husband, the neighbors, my family, people in need? That sounded right to me. My role was to love others above myself, to elevate their story and make it the best possible version it could be.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved serving, loving my family, giving to others, but after a long stint, I started feeling empty, used up, and exhausted. I didn’t think my story mattered at all. I didn’t think I mattered at all. I thought my value to God was found in making the stories of others more important.

But God has a different opinion. When asked by the Pharisees what was the greatest commandment of all, Jesus answered, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.” And I spend a lifetime trying to do this.

Loving our neighbor as ourselves is where a lot of us get it wrong. We love our neighbors, our children, our family, the lost, the church, but we don’t love ourselves. We skip the last part of the command, as yourself . He told us to love others as we love ourselves. That means we can only love those characters in our story when we love ourselves.

And part of loving ourselves is recognizing that we are indeed the main character of our story, and we matter. Our opinions, our likes and dislikes, our dreams, our tastes all matter. God loves us wildly and lavishly. He loves to dream with us, plan with us, give us the desires of our heart. He is intimately present in our stories and He made each of us the main character of our story. As we learn to love ourselves, then we can love the other marvelous characters we get the privilege of knowing.

Being the main character of your story isn’t selfish; it’s loving. Learning to love yourself will profoundly change you, and that love will overflow to others.

31 dAYS

Lessons from a Blank Page

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Today is day thirteen of the 31 Days blog challenge, and I am sitting in front of my computer with a hot cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee, just staring at a blank page.

It’s funny how some days I can’t wait to pour out my heart on a page. Thoughts swirl and grow during my morning journal time on the porch. I practically run upstairs to get to my computer. Once my fingers are poised on the keyboard, they sprint trying to keep up with my mind running at break neck speed already with a huge head start. I love days like that.

And then there are the days when I sit and stare and nothing inspires me. Today was like that. The blank page was a bully, a demanding boss telling me I have a deadline to make, a commitment to keep. My fingers felt sluggish and unmotivated because my minds was motionless and uninspired. Instead of waiting for inspiration, I sat, forcing myself to produce.

This morning I learned something staring at that blank screen. The blank page in front of me is either a friend or a foe depending on my perspective. When I reduce my writing to a have to, a product that must be manufactured, then it becomes a drudge, a nag, a bother. But when I see it as a friend, then the possibilities are endless.

What if the day before each of us is like a blank page? What if we have a choice to allow it to be a bully or our friend? Instead of filled with demands, what if it is also full of possibilities? What if the demands could be seen as opportunities waiting for our creative touch, turning them into art instead of products?

Today, the blank page started out as a relentless bully. Then she transformed into a wise teacher, and now I’ve decided she’s going to be my friend. The day before me may have some demands, but I choose to see the endless possibilities waiting for my creative touch.

 

Familiar Strangers

I am not ashamed to admit I used CliffsNotes from time to time during my high school career. Well, maybe I’m a little ashamed. Back in the day when our research tool of choice was the card catalogue, not Google and Bing, it was easy to go to the 800 section of library and find those yellow and black skinny paper booklets. Most classics on the high school reading lists were found there. Inside was a wealth of information – chapter summaries and analysis, major themes and symbols, and a character list with descriptions.

Because we are all trying to live our story, it might be a little premature to write the CliffsNotes version of our life, at least I hope it is. But if each of us could start one, where would we begin? Perhaps with character summaries? Don’t each of us have or have had some incredible characters in our stories. They’ve shaped us, loved us, encouraged us, and at times rub us the wrong way, but they all contribute to our life and to each of us as the protagonist of our story. They are the best and sometimes the worse part of it.

One morning while pondering the idea, I came across this:

Friendships and relationships suffer immense numbing through the mechanism of familiarization. We reduce the wildness and mystery of person…Familiarity enables us to tame, control, and ultimately forget the mystery.

John O’Donohue, Anam Cara

Yikes. Maybe the exercise of writing a summary can’t be done. Maybe what I think I know about the people in my story is viewed through the lens of  familiarity. What if people can’t be summarized, can’t be wholly known? What if all the characters are full of mystery and thinking I know them is just a way to tame and control what cannot be fully understood? When I think I know someone, I may be unconsciously eliminating their wildness, their mystery. Maybe I should live more in wonder and be open to the surprise of who they are.

And then I read on.

…consider yourself for a little while as a stranger to your own deepest depths. To decide to view yourself as a complete stranger, someone who has just stepped ashore in your life, is a liberating exercise. The meditation helps to break the numbing stranglehold of complacency and familiarity. Gradually, you begin to sense the mystery and magic of yourself. You realize that you are not the helpless owner of a deadened life but rather a temporary guest gifted with blessings and possibilities you could neither invent nor earn.

Maybe the characters in my story aren’t the only ones hidden behind the façade of familiarity. Could I be full of mystery as well? Could you? I love the idea of viewing myself and others as strangers who have just stepped ashore. Of course, I love the comfort and ease of the familiar, but the thought of the unknown brings new excitement to the relationships I am already experiencing.

For now, the CliffsNotes version of my life will have to wait. To be honest, living my story is a full time job. And now I’ve realized I have more to discover about the characters in my story. Living with their mystery and mine should hold a lot more surprises ahead. I sure do love surprises.

31 dAYS

I Write Because….

I wish I could give credit to the one who first penned the line, I write because I must, but after an extensive Google search, I am no closer to the answer. Suffice to say, it is a popular sentiment embraced by many. If I were to complete the line I write because …, I would have a far different answer.

I write because it helps me process life. I wake up every morning with literal blank pages before me bound in a leather cover. After grabbing my cup of coffee with pages in hand and a book I am currently reading, I retreat to my front porch, one of my favorite places, and sit in my rocking chair to think and write about life. I may read a little or just sit and sip from my cup. And then, I write and write and write. Some pages are filled with rants and others with gratitude. Some days I tackle the deep philosophical or cultural issues of the day and others, I jot down a to do list. I complain. I pontificate. I question. I dream. I dread. The pages have coffee stains, blurry letters from tears, rips from being dropped, doodles from daydreams, but every word is my way of processing the story I am living – the twists, the turns, the mystery, the characters, the changing setting.

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For me, these pages aren’t monologues. They are a conversation between me and the One who sees and knows it all. I pour out my heart, sometimes with snot flying and tears dripping and sometimes with laughter flowing or sarcasm oozing. And when I write until I can’t write another word, I wait.

And almost always, God speaks to me. Some days he uses words that seem to bubble up inside of me, and then there are days when He uses birds, neighbors, books, a phone call, and Scripture to give me understanding and offer peace. I can’t explain it completely, but I have discovered, He is always speaking. And over time I’m listening more.

I write because I want to process my life. But maybe on a deeper level, I write because I like having chats with the One who knows my story and enjoys living it with me. That seems like a good enough reason to me.

31 dAYS

Characters

Every story, good or bad, is propelled by the intricate interaction of plot and characters. However, you can have the most compelling plot, but without a character, not much can happen. It’s like having a sentence with only a verb. Stop! Listen. Go. Wait. These sentences are powerless without a character to carry out the action.

Characters give the story context and meaning. I have a box full of photographs in my garage I will probably never throw away. The characters in that box have changed throughout the years, and the photographs have chronicled those beautiful, and sometimes not so beautiful, transformations. Those two clueless twenty-something year old kids who fell in love hiking hand in hand in the North Georgia mountains, that doe-eyed newborn who looked up into my eyes, making love at first sight an actual reality, and the three others who followed causing my heart to profoundly grow, not divide – these are some of the memories contained in that treasure box of developed film.

And then there are the other images, shots with no characters at all, just flowers, trees, landscapes. For the life of me, I have no idea where or when they were taken. Ah, but when I see the same scenery with a child in the foreground, suddenly I remember the event or the location.

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This is what people do. They give meaning, context, and beauty to our stories. The shared experiences remind us that life has happened and someone else remembers what took place. When I look at images of red stained mesas, I remember that Kevin and I stood breathless together, hand in hand, looking out into the divine artistry of the southwest. We did that together. We do a lot of ordinary life together too – dishes, paying bills, driving, drinking coffee, reading. My family, friends, and others are characters in my story and I am one in theirs.

I am so very grateful for the characters in my life and wait in expectancy for the new ones who will appear on the pages yet to be filled. I need them and they need me for the plots and twists that are to come.

31 dAYS