Reporting live, once again, from the Messy Middle.
I’m just gonna go ahead and capitalize that phrase, since it’s become a helpful marker for wherever the heck I am right now. I’ve been writing to you over the last few weeks about this idea of being in the midst of difficult circumstances. I am not at the beginning, but I am not at the end either, and that means I am smack-dab in the interminable middle, which seems to be undefined and unresolved.
From the conversations I’ve been having with many of you, I am — surprise, surprise — not the only one who is in some sort of Messy Middle. The hard part is that we want to be airlifted out of the middle and safely delivered to the other side of things where at least there is some clarity and closure. And wouldn’t you know, we just have to be here, where we are, in it. Or as my dear friend Linsey said the other day, “You have to go through it in order to be delivered to it.”
I really didn’t like her for saying that, though I know she’s absolutely right. Ugh.
This morning, I was reminded of a story I shared in Breathing Room, about a friend who was feeling completely sidelined in life because of protracted and chronic health issues. A man said to her, in a sort of prophetic moment, “You are not on the bench. You are actually on a bridge. You feel completely stuck and like you’re going nowhere. But you are actually on an important path that is leading somewhere significant.
Many of you are in the midst of impossible circumstances. And you are suffering in silence, maybe even in shame, and I’m writing this down today for you, giving voice to your experiences that perhaps no one sees, no one knows.Or at the very least, no knows how very ongoing and unresolved your situation is. No one knows that it still hurts, still wakes you up. You’re still in it.
In my own way, I see you. And I believe that these sacred bridges do, in fact, exist in our lives and where they take us is hard won and nearly impossible. Except . . . except some how the hardest things bring forth the craziest beauty. The kind of beauty that would have never existed unless there had been suffering.
We don’t always know what God is doing from beginning to end. And that is practically impossible. I so get it. And he also set eternity in our hearts, and so we are hard-wired with this desire for wholeness and for transcendence. We aren’t hard-wired for Messy Middles. Yet, these are the times we find ourselves entirely dependent, which is uncomfortable and also where God really shines. In our weakness, the Divine Mama Bear is stronger, more expansive, deeply protective. This is our hope, the source of peace that passes all understanding.
We turn our eyes on God, and the things of earth grow strangely dim. Circumstances aren’t solved, but somehow our souls find an inch or two of rest. And that’s really, really something.
Someone once told my mom, “No matter what you’re going through in life, you always have music and you always have flowers.” She shared that with me last week, and I thought it was one of the more gorgeous things I had ever heard. No matter what we are going through, we have the capacity to be moved and healed and touched and held by Beauty. (That’s because he set eternity in our hearts.) I find great comfort currently from Hillsong’s “What a Beautiful Name” and always, always, always from my beloved hot pink bougainvillea, which is a constant reminder that we are meant to live, bold and brazen.
So, here we are, in the Messy Middle together, joining hands on the sacred bridge that is taking us from something to something, believing (even just for today) that something brave and enduring is being galvanized in us.
Today’s mantra, in the words of our beloved Dr. Maya Angelou, is simply this:
STILL, I RISE.
There are a lot of different ways to be homeless, to feel displaced in your own life. Relationally homeless. Spiritually homeless. Physically homeless. Professionally homeless. Even emotionally homeless, as waves of tragedy and violence fill this world we are trying to live in and love in.
Homelessness is disorienting. Where do I belong? Who are my people? What belongs to me? What is my place? Where can I rest? Those of us stuck in the midst of one of life’s seemingly interminable messy middles feel this acutely, lurking in no-man’s-land.
What do we do when we don’t feel tethered, grounded, placed?
The above Scripture from Psalm 68 has long been a favorite of mine: “God makes homes for the homeless.” What a beautiful piece of poetry. Have you experienced this? Radical displacement followed by God finding you, reaching out to you, and building you a shelter? Maybe the shelter wasn’t the mansion on the hill you were hoping for. Maybe it was a lean-to, cobbled together out of the most unlikely sources. But extraordinarily beautiful in its own way because it was something made from nothing. Resurrection.
I remember when our family moved overseas with two toddlers and a new baby on the way, and the reality of displacement burned in my chest every day. To the point that I felt desperate at times. While we were there, God found me in the strangest possible ways. Hot pink bougainvillea. Handmade rugs. A tiny Ethiopian nanny. A friend. A new baby born in a room where a huge arrow pointed to Mecca and a prayer rug hid in the bedside table.
He has the wildest ways of finding us. Of sheltering us. Of building us a home when we are refugees in our own lives.
After dropping my kids off at school this morning, I parked in the driveway and passed one of the two potted bougainvillea flanking the garage door. The one on the right is blooming, healthy, abundant. The one on the left, pictured here, is scraggly, boney, maybe even dying. But at the end of a long brown lifeless limb, was this cluster of irreverent fuchsia blooms.
How is this possible? I don’t totally know or understand, except to say that I think this is somehow one of the most important things we can learn in life: He makes beautiful things out of barrenness. He makes homes for the homeless. And he often does it against all odds.
If you are feeling homeless today in any way — not sure where you’re going to live professionally or relationally or emotionally or physically — you’re not alone, and God has not forgotten. He can spin beauty out of dust. That’s his way. And, personally, I’m holding him to it.
Love to you,
I spoke to an amazing group of women this weekend. we talked about the word BRAZEN and how it literally means “unashamed” and “unapologetic.” We talked about receiving our identity, reclaiming our voices, and recovering our souls, which is all a part of the brazen work of coming out of hiding and honoring who we are created to be.
HIDE or HONOR. We get to choose, but I believe God is always inviting us to honor the gold in each of us. Genesis 3 is the story of the fall, and it’s easy to forget that the story starts two chapters earlier when God formed us from dust. The shaming Soul Bullies want to keep us small and hidden and they want us to live the Genesis 3 story every single day. But I don’t believe the most essential thing about us is that we are flawed.
I believe the most essential thing about us is that we were made in the image of God. On the day of creation, God put his hands in the wet concrete of our souls and said, It is good. Actually, it is very good.
If you’ve been reading my writing for any amount time, you likely know that bougainvillea is special to me, especially the gorgeous fuchsia variety. I love that color with my whole heart, and when I see bougainvillea, I am reminded to be brazen. I am reminded that I am invited to talk back to shame, that it doesn’t get the last word on me.
So, when I walked by this huge, flowering, bougainvillea this weekend–and I felt like she was practically cheering me on–I had to stop and get a picture with her. “You don’t have to be afraid of who you are,” she whispered to me. “You don’t have to silence your own voice or bury your gifts. You don’t have to squeeze yourself into the smallest space possible in this world. You are not a liability.”
I’ve been writing here a bit about a “messy middle” I’m in the midst of in my life right now. You can go back and read the last few blog posts for more. Some of you have raised your hands, so to speak, and said “me too. I’m in the midst of a messy middle, too. And I’m not sure how to navigate my way through.” Yep, I get it. This weekend, God gave me a sentence that I’m holding onto. A counter-spell to shame, and a reminder of who I really am.
He said, “Leeana, YOU are not your circumstances.”
And I want to pass that along to you as well. Your circumstances do not define you. God does. So no matter how messy the messy middle is that you’re in right now, I believe there is a part of you that is deeper and more essential than anything you are going through.
“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23). And it is with unending hope that I repeat Lamentations this Monday morning. Because of God’s great love, we are not consumed. Circumstances cannot consume us. The Soul Bullies cannot consume us. Shame cannot consume us. Fear cannot consume us.
Something deep and original and enduring in us exists apart from all of the ick and insanity of life. And when we forget, when we forget that our story started in Genesis 1 with God calling us forth and calling us good, we can call upon his new-every-morning mercies to help us remember who we really are. Created. Beloved. Brazen.
“Always we begin again,” St. Benedict tells us. Great is God’s faithfulness. Inexhaustible grace. Unending love.
Remember who you are,
If you’d like to read more about my journey of receiving my identity, reclaiming my voice, and recovering my soul, you can pick up Brazen here, available in paperback, kindle, and audio.
Yesterday at church, we sang the line “You are the beginning and the end” over and over again as a chorus to one of the worship songs. And it took me right to this thought: Even when we are in the midst of a messy middle in life, and I am (and some of you are too), even when we are so far ashore we cannot see the end from the beginning, God holds them both. Our unresolved, protracted, murky circumstances are contained in him. He is the beginning and the end, even when we feel like no such boundaries exist anymore.
I hope this somehow comforts you as it did me. To know that something bigger and beyond holds our stories, contains all the missteps and questions and ambiguity. And if we believe this, that we are held even in the midst of the mess, then the best thing we can do is surrender to that held-ness. I’m not saying we can’t scream obscenities into a pillow now and then, I’m just saying that perhaps after we do that, we might want to just fall into being held. Sink into it. Drop our shoulders and breathe. Allow something/someone that is stronger and wiser to take over.
Exodus 14:14 says it all:
This doesn’t come easy or naturally to any of us. We have to choose to be still, like a practice, especially when life is handing us extraordinary circumstances. Our fight-or-flight bodies want to spring into frantic action. Our black-and-white minds want decisive resolution, a strategic plan. Our broken-and-bruised hearts want to be fixed . . . immediately. But I’m wondering if the best thing we can do for ourselves is light a candle, breathe, and be still, trusting that the Beginning and the End holds even the messiest of middles.
We can use this passage as a breath prayer if needed: Pray “God is fighting for me” as you inhale. Pray “I can be still” as you exhale. Practice the breath prayer if you can’t sleep or if you feel anxious. Use it to calm your body or your mind.
It’s ironic, isn’t it. The most productive thing we can do is be still. Totally counterintuitive. And yet, this is what trust looks like. Allowing ourselves to be held; acknowledging our stories are held.
Main task this week: breathe and be still.
All my love,
If you need a companion in the messy middle, Breathing Room is a friend in the overwhelm.
I talked in my post last week about how being still, being right where we are, often takes more energy than jumping up into frantic action. We want to “be present,” but we underestimate how much discipline and grace is required in returning, over and over again, to today . . . especially if today is some kind of unresolved “messy middle” that is very much still unfolding.
I am doing this work right now in my own life, resisting the urge to jump ahead of a messy middle that I’m in. Of course, I do jump ahead. I forecast and I fantasize and I forget all this great wisdom. My heart starts to race and my chest gets heavy and I know I’ve launched into territory that isn’t helpful. Grace, in that very moment, means I simply begin again instead of bullying myself for messing up. Ugh.
Something that helps me be where I am is what I call “holding both”– allowing space in our souls for opposing emotions to simultaneously be true. For example, glorious beauty & a well of sadness. Possibility & regret. Peace & worry. Trust & fear.
As I’m writing this post, I can see the window pictured above. It’s a vintage stained glass window, and it’s broken. Both beautiful and broken.
Anxiety, desperation, trauma, and scarcity thinking force us to choose one experience. That person is either bad or good. This situation is either bad or good. I am either doing a good job or a bad job handling this. The past is either bad or good. The future is either bad or good.
I can’t even tell you how unhelpful this all is. Holding both isn’t magical thinking. It is a spiritual discipline, in my opinion. We do the work of looking for the nuance instead of allowing ourselves to be backed into a corner.
One thing we learn when we go through difficult seasons (if we will do the work of getting help and support instead of getting stuck), is that they will actually expand us instead of reduce us. They will give us more capacity for empathy, love, and trust. They will expand our faith. They will give us more capacity for holding both.
A way to practice holding both is to write down some of the opposing things you’re thinking about or feeling right now. Pair seeming opposites if you can with a big fat “&” between them:
Empathy & Anger
Heartbreak & Hope
Lost & Found
Beauty & Brokenness
And let’s be real clear that it takes A LOT of energy to hold both. So we might need a nap or a long walk or we may not end up being as productive as we’d like to be. That’s OK. It’s worth it. Dualistic, either/or thinking is what gets us completely stuck in bitterness, rage, self-protection. Holding both is what allows room for grace, movement, resilience, the work of the Holy Spirit.
I hate that life can be, in the very same second, both broken and beautiful, but it can. And it is. Allowing space for both will keep our souls from souring. I believe this wholeheartedly.
Love and grace to all of us who are holding both today,
I’m currently in the midst of a messy middle in my life. Here’s what I mean by that: I’m not at the beginning of a hard situation, but I am not at the end either. You know that feeling of wanting to be “through” something, of wanting to just know how it’s all going to reconcile, how it’s all going to look on the other side?
And what I’ve been reflecting on lately is that sometimes being right where we are is the hardest work. Sometimes it takes more energy to *be still* than to spring into frantic action. Being “present” is all the rage, a buzz word even, but we don’t always acknowledge the spiritual, emotional, mental, physical discipline required to stay present, especially when the present is uncertain or unresolved. For me currently, being right where I am, today, this week, is the invitation, instead of trying to figure a way out.
But, let me be clear, I don’t like this. I don’t like it one bit. Because it takes so much energy to stop, surrender, let go. More than expected, even.
Whatever “middle” you’re in today, I understand the urgent temptation to want to push through the process, grasp for control and certainty, and resist the invitation (maybe even the mandate) to be still. It doesn’t matter if the messy middle is financial or relational or professional or physical, the interminable-ness is exhausting and makes us edgy.
So here’s what’s helping me:
— Taking life in 12 hour increments.
— Welcoming all the crazy feelings. I cannot say enough about this. Instead of driving away all my frantic thoughts and insane solutions, instead of judging myself for being so out of control and adolescent, I make a point to welcome it all. That doesn’t mean I act on any of it. I just acknowledge all the ways that I want to jump forward, which seems to relieve some of the pressure.
— Resisting the urge to make anything urgent. So much of what I think must be decided and figured out, doesn’t. It needs to unfold.
— Remembering to be good to myself, like I would a friend. Understanding. Empathetic. Patient.
— Beginning again. If I get too far ahead of myself, I recommit to the present. This moment. Now. Over and over again. This is what it means to give myself grace.
Here’s another bit of gold: Your issues are not your identity. THANK GOD. Something runs deeper in us than any circumstance. So WHERE you are right now, WHERE I am right now, is not WHO we are. Isn’t that everything. Our messy middles don’t define us. And maybe if we can remember that truth, we can hang in a bit longer, commit to being still for another three seconds. And then another. And then another.
I lit a candle this morning, a reminder to myself to be still long enough to let God sit by me. Right here in my messy middle.
Love you all,
If you need a kind companion to walk with you while you are in the midst of a messy middle, check out Breathing Room, a book about letting go even when we are overwhelmed. For some insane reason, it’s only $6.99 on Amazon right now. So, Id’ say that’s a sign. ;)
As much as I have thought about, written about, and talked about the idea of learning to be a companion to myself, I am as certain as ever that self-companionship is a practice . . . something we must get up each day and decide, yet again, to participate in. Will be on our own team, or will we allow the vicious voices to coax us back in the ring with ourselves?
I’m afraid that sometimes you’ll play lonely games too
Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you
-Dr. Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go
We are in the midst of an entire country-worth of big feelings right now, and we can easily punish ourselves for not doing more, knowing more, speaking out more. As always, I believe we do not punish ourselves into change. We do not demean ourselves into meaningful action. We do not bully ourselves where we’re trying to go. Instead, we believe ourselves there. We companion ourselves there. We finally realize we deserve something more.
Just this week, I listened to the vicious voices, the Soul Bullies, in my head as if they were the only voice to listen to, as if they were the truest truth, as if they were the voice of God. And it got me nowhere. Those voices offer no way out. They offer a tangle.
As soon as I realized who had my ear, I had to do the difficult and holy reparative work of coming around the table and sitting next to myself as I would a dear friend. I had to ease up and back off and breathe. I had to forgive myself and begin again, which are two tasks that feel impossible when we’re listening to the Soul Bullies.
Last weekend, I was part of a workshop for about 25 women. The closing question we posed at the end of the workshop was this: What are you serving that isn’t serving you?
I would invite you to sit with this question. I can promise you that if you are serving shame, it is not serving you. I can promise you that if you are serving self-loathing, self-destruction . . . these endeavors are not serving you. They are bottomless pits, closed loops, that will keep taking from you and they will give you nothing in return.
However, I have found in my own life that as soon as I can—because of God’s deep grace and love for me—access a place of compassion and care for myself, I can begin to see a way forward, a way out.
Pushing, punishing, scolding, cornering, comparing, bullying, ignoring, overriding, silencing, shaming, blaming . . . these behaviors do not lead to anything productive. And we cannot in our own power just simply banish them once and for all. We need to see self-companionship as a practice we will commit to. And when we falter, as is inevitable, we will recommit to being on our own team. We will not serve the god of shame and its empty promises.
Self-companionship is not self-worship. Let me be clear. Self-companionship is about being able to see our beauty and our brokenness alike and to hold them and allow God to heal them instead of needing to hide our own wonder or our own wounds.
This is transformation.
What are you serving that isn’t serving you?
All my love,
These words of Parker Palmer’s are the words I’m taking with me into the New Year. With them are: congruence, wholeness, and listening (listen is my word for 2017). The beginning of this New Year will be an intensive writing time for me, which means the call to integrity and honesty is resting on me anew. Joining that call is the conviction to burn down those false mantles that are heavy and contradictory to my soul. In a word, paralyzing. It’s a call to trust myself more deeply as inklings surface and as desires deepen. And it’s an invitation to run headlong into offering that which I’ve been given. Gifts are best given. I was reminded of that recently.
I’m sharing all this with you because I wonder if you, too, feel like you lose your way about every week or so, that all the popular wisdom is confusing you more than it is helping you, and you are longing to live “divided no more.” I don’t know what that looks like in your life. I barely know what it looks like in mine. But I have whispers and ideas and thoughts and I feel compelled to tease those all out. And I want to encourage you to do the same.
Of course, integration requires listening. To ourselves. To God. Listening is a lost practice. And I’m going to rediscover it this year. No matter what this year has held for you — glorious or gutting — we must begin again. Always we begin again.
All my love,
I instinctively rolled up my denim shirt sleeves before I started this post, a ritual that signifies getting to work, digging in, getting down to business. I think, in part, because it feels like things are a bit of a mess and there’s work to be done. Maybe you too are feeling helpless like you don’t know where to start, what to think, how to begin.
I sat in a circle of dear friends last night and there were so many tears. So many tears. So much frustration and rage and confusion. So much exhaustion. So much honesty and fear. So much beauty, too.
Whether you were startled and speechless by election results or you were unexpectedly affected by recent online announcements from voices you follow or whether you feel as though you have whiplash from the backlash of all the sides raging and shouting at one another . . . I get it.
The narrative shifted. And when that happens, it’s confusing, tiring, and it takes us some time to catch up. Meanwhile, our bodies are sore, our sleep is interrupted, our hearts are very fragile. All of this makes sense to me. If you, like me, are a deeply feeling and empathetic person, it does not matter where you land on any of these issues, the sheer weight of dissent and discord and rage is enough to make you want to wear Ugg boots and no make up for the foreseeable future.
I mentioned yesterday on IG and FB that we happened to pull up right behind a car that had “F@$k Trump” painted in huge letters across the back of the windshield. And Lane immediately begins sounding out the sentiment for all of us. “What does F@$k Trump even mean, Mommy?” she asks.
And we—right there on the corner of Avocado and Fuerte—had yet another conversation about this election, people’s very different perspectives on the very same issues, and how so many people are angry and hurting right now.
As we were talking, I wished that my 7 year olds and my 4 year old didn’t have to learn the word F@$k right then. Because now they know it. I wished all the feelings of being unhinged would just evaporate. And I wished rage wasn’t pouring down our streets for my kids to witness.
And yet, here we are. So what do we do? In times like these I turn to two people primarily: The “magnificent madman, Jesus” (a perfect term from Vincent Harding) and Maya Angelou, of course.
First, Maya. If she were still with us, I believe her word to us all right now would be: Continue, which is the title of one of my very favorite poems of hers. Here is a selection:
My wish for you
Is that you continue
To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world
With your acts of kindness
To allow humor to lighten the burden
Of your tender heart
In a society dark with cruelty
To let the people hear the grandeur
Of God in the peals of your laughter
To remind people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you
To put the mantel of your protection
Around the bodies of
The young and defenseless
To take the hand of the despised
And diseased and walk proudly with them
In the high street
Some might see you and
Be encouraged to do likewise
To ignore no vision
Which comes to enlarge your range
And increase your spirit
To dare to love deeply
And risk everything
For the good thing
I think the soul bullies want to convince us that to continue, at this point, would be such a waste of time, such a foolish endeavor. But we cannot let them convince us to remain sidelined, silenced, small.
And then our magnificent madman, Jesus, who subversively found the third way in every conversation with people who “knew” it all. When asked to choose a side, be black and white in his rhetoric, Jesus always seemed to give a third way. Are we looking for a third way these days or are we entrenched on “sides”? The entrenching will get us nowhere, I’m convinced. We’ve got to come out from behind our barricades and start looking together for a third way.
I have a hunch the third way begins with serving. Especially serving those God has put in our lives, right here, today. And then looking up together and asking how we might continue the work of love and service in whatever way God has invited us to love and serve. Rhetoric keeps us safely distanced from each other. Serving forces us to roll up our sleeves and stand shoulder to shoulder, which somehow feels terribly, uncomfortably right, right now.
Mother Teresa said, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” Do you know how honorable and vulnerable it is to start with the people right here in our homes, to serve them and cherish them and witness their lives? We can so easily look past the people around our table—the family God has assembled around us, be them blood related or brought to our doorstep—and focus entirely on the big picture. Let’s not miss out on the love in our own living rooms.
I wonder if we are to also serve ourselves: empathizing with, caring for, loving even our confused and vulnerable selves. Read beautiful writing. Stare at nature. Light the expensive candle. Gather ourselves so that we can be of some good to those who need us most.
And then wrap our arms around all the children. Every last one of them: “Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them the daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. . . . Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged form the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms” (Mary Oliver). YES. Especially the line about giving them peppermint to put in their pockets.
And as we spend time with the children, who Jesus always, always, brought to his side, we gain some kind of miraculous perspective, I’m convinced. And we will know the next breadcrumb we are supposed to follow, the next meal we are supposed to serve, the next hug we are to dole out, the next kindness we are to bestow. And we will continue. Until somehow, some way there is a kind of relief that comes from the inside. Nothing whatsoever may change on the outside. But we, my dear friends, can begin again on the inside.
Sheila, please email me at leeana (at) leeanatankersley (dot) com and provide your mailing address and a copy of Kristen’s book will be on its way to you!
And THANK YOU to Kristen for responding to all of the entries personally. She’s just gold like that.
Stay tuned for more posts from some of my favorite Brazen Voices along with book giveaways throughout the fall!
Love and more love,