Saturday, November 30, 2013

Empowering the "Good Girl": a Disney Princess I Can Get Behind

I don't go to movies often as I would prefer to curl up with a book, but checking out the latest Disney movie, "Frozen", seemed like a nice family activity to wind down Thanksgiving.  I had heard positive reviews of both the movie's message and music, but I was still surprisingly blown away.  This may become my favorite Disney movie of all time.  While the animation was lovely and the characters were charming, I resonated with the themes of the story as they connected with a book I've been reading.  After savoring Emily P. Freeman's latest book A Million Little Ways, : Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live, I began reading her earlier work, Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try-Hard Life.  

I'm a self-proclaimed "good girl", and was often derided as a "goody-two-shoes" in my younger days. Performing well at school and at church became a mask for me, a way of creating an image of having it all together.  The outer shell of "perfection" hid the fears and chaos I held inside.  Somehow I had received the message that if I did all the "right" things then I would find happiness.  It's still a battle I fight daily, balancing my Pinterest ideals with a lovely (but not perfect) reality.  I struggle with my inner critic and the voices of a culture that sells me the idea that I must buy more and do more to be more.  There are the societal norms that regulate what I "should" say and how I should act as a woman, and religious dogma that sometimes narrowly defines (and denies) my role and call as a woman in ministry. 

I've hidden behind my "good girl" persona, doing what I can to please others, be nice, and do what is expected of me.  I've hidden and apologized for my anger and have not spoken up when I should have.  I've relied too much on myself, as Emily Freeman describes the good girl in her book, "Hiding behind that good-looking mask, her arms are folded too tightly to give and receive grace, or to fall into an embrace from a God who sees beyond her good reputation" (Grace for the Good Girl, p. 45).  It has caused me to keep others (and sometimes God) at a distance, and has allowed fear to make too many of my decisions.

This is where I most connected with the movie "Frozen".  The story centers around two sisters, who being Disney main characters are, of course, princesses.  The elder sister, Elsa, has a special gift of creating snow and ice just from her touch.  This provides magical snowy playscape for the sisters until Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her powers.  Elsa feels guilty and afraid and vows to hide what she now sees as a curse.  When she is unable to control it, she ends up hiding herself away, putting distance between the sisters.  After their parents die in a shipwreck (why do parents so often meet an unfortunate end in Disney movies??) and Elsa is preparing for her coronation as queen, her magic is unintentionally revealed.  In fear, and for others' protection, she runs away from her home, creating a new castle for herself out of ice (there's a strong metaphor).  She is alone, but finds freedom in finally being able to be who she truly is without hiding.  She is surprised by the beauty that results.

At this point in the movie, Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel of Wicked fame), sings "Let it Go".  Here are some of the powerful lyrics:

Don't let them in, don't let them see,
Be the good girl you always had to be.
Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know.
Well now they know.

Let it go, let it go
Can't hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn my back and slam the door
And here I stand and here I'll stay
Let it go, let it go
The cold never bothered me anyway

It's funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me, can't get to me at all.
Up here in the cold thin air, I finally can breathe.
I know I left a life behind, but I'm too relieved to grieve.

There are twists in the plot that keep the movie from being a traditional Disney story. In fact, the movie pokes fun at the idea that the females need to be rescued, or that all is made right with "true love's kiss".  In the end, it's the bonds of sisterhood that are the evidence of true love, and the strength of the female characters save the day.  Love is the cure for the power that has become destructive, and it restores everything to wholeness and beauty.  Elsa learns that there is power and freedom in letting go of the walls she has built and seeking connection with others.  Her strength comes in learning to embrace and use her gift, viewing it through a lens of art instead of fear.

What if we could all do the same?  What if we could break through the places where fear has frozen us and find the empowerment to be who we were created to be? 

Perhaps I should take my tea bag wisdom seriously.

Check out the soundtrack version of "Let it Go" in the Demi Lovato video below: 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Art and Vulnerability

"Vulnerability" seems to be the buzz word these days.  Most notable in the work of BrenĂ© Brown, it's also popping up in many of the books and blogs I read.  Recently I enjoyed a getaway to an event hosted by Emily Freeman of Chatting at the Sky, based on her wonderful new book Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live.  Emily shared that we are all made for art; after all, we were created in the image of the great Artist.  

Our art may take different forms (writing, music, parenting, or work in any field that springs from our passion), but we each have an unique artistry to offer the world.  Even though this art is at the foundation of who we are, creating it is not simple or easy.  It takes courage to offer our gifts, particularly as we deal with inner and outer critics.  Sharing our true selves and deepest desires is vulnerable stuff...what if others don't accept it?  What if we give all we have and find that it's not enough?  Do we have anything uniquely special to give?

Vulnerability comes with great risks, and yet, I'm learning that the ways we live without it can cause even more damage.  I believe that the swing we're seeing away from the "I'm just fine, thank you, and I can do this myself" mindset to the longing for authenticity and community comes from the pain of wearing masks for too long.  It's hard keeping up an image and pretending things are okay when we feel broken inside.  It's difficult managing appearances, controlling our situations, environment, and those around us so that we can have the semblance of perfection that we crave.  We can work so hard to keep it together and just feel empty inside.

I started this blog as a way to be vulnerable, to force myself to peel back the facade a little and come to terms with a life, that while beautiful and full of blessings, does not always match the picture I have in my head.  I spend far too much time bemoaning how my children won't listen and too much energy trying to force everyone into submission.  I grew up in a very loving but unstable household, and I developed controlling tendencies as a way to compensate.  I want to be the perfect mother and wife, and I have unrealistic expectations of what that means.  When I inevitably fail, I feel guilty and am convinced I will always be a failure.  I have a hard time expressing what I need, and then grumble when I don't get my unspoken wants.  It's been an exhausting way to live (for me, and my family, too, I'm sure).  I'm slowly learning, though, that through the power of sharing how I feel, I'm more likely to get what I need.  Others are accepting of the "real" me as it frees them to be authentic as well.  They are not looking for perfection in me, and they are relieved to know I'm not expecting it from them either.

This retreat weekend came about when I told my husband I wanted to attend, and that I wanted a night in a hotel to relax and process the experience.  He was happy to oblige as he is always encouraging me to take better care of myself (and stepping in to rescue me when I don't).  I'm still working on not feeling guilty as I know the time away makes me a happier mom and wife, and I'm even excited to return home and spend a few solo days with the kids as John leaves to go hunting, and then we enjoy the chaos of the holidays together with our extended families.  "At the Barn" was a lovely time of listening and connecting.  Many shared dreams from their heart, and shared their honest struggle through tears.  Others offered encouragement through their on journey of having been there before.  As an introvert, I sat and took it all in. 

As I listened and appreciated the openeness, I realized that it is often missing in the larger world.  While we live in a culture of oversharing (instagramming every meal, tweeting every thought), there is a fine line between authentic vulnerability and a plea for attention.  The former leads to empathy and intimacy (I feel with you, "me too"), while the latter screams "see me".  Do we reach out in connection and community, or as a way to market and promote ourselves?  I have struggled with that line due to my engagement with social media (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, blog).  Am I sharing to join in with others or to create and maintain an image?  Will my "friends" feel encouraged or overshadowed?  As it's more difficult to generate true community these days, it's also harder to know how to reach out without oversharing  and without being pushy or disingenuous.    

It was a message for me to ponder, seeking how I share myself.  Am I sharing who I really am or crafting an image or brand?  What is my art and how will I offer it to others?  It forced me to confront the demon of comparison that often blocks me from sharing my art.  It's easy to give up and think that I will never be there, and maybe that's okay.  For now, I'm grateful for the time to explore these questions and tend to the seeds of dreams planted within me, and nurturing those who share the garden with me.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

When Life is Like "Breaking Bad"

It's been two weeks since Sarah Bessey commented on my "When Baptist Women Go Wild" blog post, and I've been too terrified to write until now.  Sometimes the things you dream about actually happen, and instead of giving you courage, it just intensifies the voice of the inner critic.  I've always wanted to be known for my writing, to have a voice that can connect with and encourage others.  I love the power of story, as a listener and a writer.  But my doubts whisper that I have nothing meaningful to say, that the affirmation I've received is a fluke, unmerited, or a dangerous precursor to pride.  When I began writing, it was for me, yet I felt alone.  Now that others read my thoughts, I struggle with the temptation to become something I'm not, to lose myself to gain the appreciation of others.

When I get overly stressed, I tend to get sick and lose my voice.  It has always seemed to be my body's (or God's) way of getting my attention when all else fails.  As a minister, I need my voice, but the loss of it forces me to stop working and care for myself.  There are times when fear results in me losing my writing voice, a sickness called writer's block.  And so I have forced myself to sit and put the words on a page, returning to the practice, the spiritual discipline of writing as the creative urge was initially born in me.

It's been a dark couple of weeks, filled with news of violence and death.  It's not out of the ordinary these days, sadly; but these incidents have hit closer to home.  My students have recently lost family members, a student at a nearby university was killed, our church community has suffered through loss and tension, and the local news is filled with senseless acts of brutality and pain.  We are surrounded by reminders of gratitude and thanksgiving, but our hearts are heavy.

I recently finished watching the TV series "Breaking Bad" with my husband.  We went through the five seasons in about a month and a half, riveted to the premise that a "good guy" could turn so bad.  I kept searching for signs of redemption.  I connected with the characters early on and wanted to know there was hope for them.  Sometimes it was realized, and other times I had to live in the tension.  It's a lot like life (not the meth part, but the tension between good and evil, light and dark).  We walk through dark times, searching for the light.  The greatest tragedy is when we lose all sense of hope and get sucked into the darkness.  But I'm realizing more and more that the light is always within us.  As a Christian, we claim the calling that we are to be people of light.  We are reminded that the "light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).  Jesus is that light and is the source of our hope, the example that resurrection is real.  The very desire to seek the good and lament the bad is evidence that there is a greater hope that calls to us.  So shine brighter, you lights; recognize the light within and set the world ablaze with the promise that the darkness will not win.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Things you learn in June (synchroblog)

This post is part of a synchroblog at Chatting at the Sky:

I've dreamed of becoming a writer my whole life.  My pride was somewhat deflated in seminary when a professor returned a paper with the comment, "You could be a good writer." It seemed more like pointing out my failure than praise.  After struggling with fear, doubt, procrastination, and downplaying my own work while uplifting others', I'm finally claiming the title writer after having a few things published over the past months, the latest being an essay in this fantastic compilation:

I also had an essay included in this book, released in November:

In spite of these and writing on this blog for several years now, I was hesitant to label myself as a writer.  I don't know what I was waiting for (the worldwide acclaim is unlikely to happen).  I suspect it's that inner voice of fear that I'm not good enough or won't be taken seriously.  But the message I keep receiving time and time again from different venues is that fear doesn't win; love does.  I need to start listening and living like I believe that.

I saw something on Pinterest that said "too many people undervalue what they are, and overvalue what they are not."  I compare myself to others and feel defeated, and yet the only one I should be comparing myself to is me.  Am I reaching my goals and God-given potential?  Am I serving authentically in love?  Am I engaging my passion?

Writing for me is about expression and connection.  It is a release that helps me to find meaning (and God) in the chaotic messiness of real life.  It is a need, and much as rest and sustenance.  I write because it is part of who I am...a writer.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

When Baptist Women Go Wild

I am an ordained Baptist minister, chaplain at a women's college, mother of two, and I am a Jesus Feminist
(a community sourced Facebook project of Sarah Bessey )

I've been a pretty committed rule follower for most of my life.  I loved school with its structure and predictability, and the rewards that came with doing what was required.  My mom would tell you that I never gave her any trouble as a child, and although this isn't quite true, she did try to encourage me to rebel, telling me that I had earned a little fun.  But I found comfort in meeting expectations (mine and those of others), and liked the accolades that came with it (it was the consolation prize for not earning the popularity I truly desired).

It's no surprise that I grew up in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church where rules and roles meant so much.  Going to church, learning my memory verses, and helping out earned me gold stars and praise.  Church was a place of connection for me, so I was there often and fell naturally into leadership roles--teaching, singing in the choir, and leading Bible studies.  My volunteering was encouraged, especially as women did most of the work of the church, but without receiving much acknowledgement.  Men were the ones in the official positions of power and leadership (pastor, committee chairs, and deacons). I never thought much about it as it was the only thing I knew, but my mom would tease me about how I would have to learn to be a submissive wife one day.  

Who would have thought that my big act of rebellion would come in going off to college and studying science?  My church had a slight anti-intellectual bent (being Bible based and Spirit-led) and science was posed as being anti-God.  Although my research career didn't pan out, I discovered something even better: ministry.  My call to ministry was the first thing that truly made sense, a connection to my passion and my background of church service.  My family was church, not so much.  It seems that women can't be called to true leadership roles in the church based a literal reading of 1 Timothy 2:12--"I [Paul] permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent."

This affected me about as much as my mom's comments about how a man should be the head of a family: I ignored it.  I had not yet learned about the context of the scriptures that were being thrown at me in rebuttal of my calling, but I knew deep down that the still small voice had called me to something greater.  That calling had clicked in my head and my heart, bringing a sense of peace and contentment that I had not felt before.  With each step towards my new vocation (seminary, ordination, internships), my gifts were affirmed and my faith grew even through the challenges.  I began to lean instead on verses like Galatians 3:28--"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

Fast forward 14 years and I am an ordained minister (in the tradition that tried to deny me), the wife of an ordained minister turned coin dealer and stay at home dad, the mother of two (a feisty little girl and a strong-willed boy), and the chaplain at a women's liberal arts university.  The feminism that excluded me in my home church is now practically a job requirement as I mentor young women and prepare them for the challenges ahead.  I am a member at a Baptist church that has a female senior pastor and many women deacons, and yet I know there is still much work that needs to be done.  The reminder comes every time I share my occupation and there is a moment of shock or disbelief.  It is having to explain that I am not "that kind" of Baptist.  But sometimes, I revel a little in the rebellion of doing something I'm not "supposed" to be doing and still feeling God's gentle acceptance and affirmation.

I look forward to reading Sarah Bessey's new book Jesus Feminist because I believe that the all-inclusive love of Jesus looks beyond gender, bringing us all into acceptance and service in the family of God.

This post is part of a synchroblog at