Quarter Life Chapters: A Birthday post dedicated to my Mama

Two weekends and three years ago, I saw one of my parents in an emergency room bed for the first time.  Dad was rushed to the hospital on a Sunday morning with chest pains. While we were thankful that Dad did not suffer a heart attack, I wrote a post called Emotional Coasters, Heart Attacks, and Tangled Necklaces as a response to the overflow of emotions and love shown towards my family felt during that time.

Two weekends ago, my mama was rushed to the hospital on a Sunday morning with chest pains. At 50 years old, she is incredibly beautiful, incredibly intelligent, and incredibly healthy.  She also endured a minor heart attack.

Prior to that Sunday morning, I had been my worst self with my family.  Nerves around plans made for the coming weekend had me acting more crazy than usual.  Petty concerns kept me asking for affirmation from my family members.  My parents say I can be “an emotional thermostat” in our home–I have the ability to manipulate the atmosphere with whatever my attitude is at the moment.  With that, I had set the thermostat way high with the anxiety and stress I was carrying, and my loving Mama, who always stands by me in my storms of feels, was also feeling the heat wave.

The temperature changed when Mama went to the hospital.  Suddenly, everything I had been so fixated on was washed away by the waves of the unknown.  I watched as my Daddy never left my mother’s side, completely surrendered to her and her needs.  I was paralyzed by the sheer number of people reaching out to me by text messages and Facebook messages and phone calls, offering up their homes, their time, whatever we needed. The selflessness of others convicted me of my recent selfishness.


The battle to put others before myself in my heart and mind has always been a life theme of mine.  I gave a retiring address to 4,000 FFA members with the message to “Get Over Yourself,” thinking then that I had discovered the key to being selfless in service and leadership because I had spent a year thinking I had done just that.

LOL.

As a PhD student studying Leadership Education at the University of Florida, I’ve joined the research conversation around the study of “Humility leadership”–leadership from a place of knowing yourself accurately, knowing your role in relationships with others, and knowing your place in the greater picture of the world (Sowcik, 2016).  And I’ve actually come to the table sub-consciously thinking I’m more humble than others just for studying and valuing humility.

LOL!

For 25 years, God has given me opportunity after opportunity.  He’s opened doors for me I would not believe, some prayed for, some as a surprise. And I’ve had the nerve to, on occasion, believe I was the one who made those doors come open, that I pushed open the doors and barged my way in to where I am now, that I might have even strayed away from what He might have intended for me because of my selfish bent for ambition and competition and getting what I want.

Free Will and God’s Sovereignty… another day, another post, but certainly not to be debated as if they are of equal power.


I can be pretty hard on myself (and EVERYONE WHO KNOWS ME WELL laughs here) when I reflect on my life thus far, decisions I would have made differently, people I would have treated better, places I should have went and explored.

But, there’s a few things I’ve done okay with. And a lot of those things are because of my Mama.

Mama is the MOST selfless leader and lover I know.  She gives and gives and gives and gives until she’s left with seemingly nothing else to give, then she finds away to give more through the overflow she receives from her Jesus.

Mama has all of my life sacrificing for me, from the months of being carried around in her small frame to the years (and years) of wiping my tears away to being there for the greatest moments of my lifetime.

Mama has taught me how to love people through both words and actions.

Most of all, Mama has taught me to choose Jesus always.

Hundreds of people prayed for my Mama when we were not sure what was happening to her.  Hundreds of people prayed because hundreds of people have been served by my Mama.  Hundreds of people have been served because my Mama has lived a life devoted to loving and serving others as a living offering to her King, Who she knows loves her with infinite love.


For my birthday, my Mama made this post on Facebook that made me smile.

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Her words also made me think.  As much beauty and grace and joy my Mama has brought to the world in her classroom, in her living room, in between the walls of a church or a counseling office, she would consider ME as a beautiful chapter of her life. 

Perhaps it was her recent health scare that has me really thinking about her words in depth, but to think her “life book” will include a significant chapter devoted to me has me truly humbled, especially considering my whole 25-year-life book right now makes up one-half of her 50-year-life book.

This brings me to this thought.  If I am to spend another 25 years on this earth, what kind of life chapter do I want written for myself?  For my Mama?  For the people I will come to love and be loved in return by?

There’s too many words I could use and be inspired by to write this life chapter, but here’s a few I think I would want to make sure are written, mainly because they are inspired by my parents who I admire so much.

I want to live the next 25 years fearlessly.

I want to love people without fear, pursue opportunities without fear, go after learning new things without fear, dream dreams without fear.

I want to be gracious and humble with what I am given, to be thankful, to expect nothing yet appreciate everything.

I want to see who God made me to be in the mirror and remember that girl wears a crown and should NEVER lower her head in shame.

(First and) Lastly, I want to be known by how I love others and how I love the Lord.

Regardless of what else takes place in the next 25 years, I know have this promise to hold onto:

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Hebrew 13:8

Love All the People.

MILLENNIALS.

They’re the worrrrrrrst, am I right?

(I actually disagree, but that’s a whole different blog post.)

Millennials are most known by the rest of society for how they are running the morals and values and beliefs held commonly by former generations to the underground.

But, there’s one thing this generation seemingly ‘gets’ and truly wants to be known for:

How we LOVE—

LOVE and understanding.

LOVE and acceptance.

LOVE and belonging.

LOVE and embrace.

LOVE and diversity.

LOVE and new ways of thinking.

LOVE and no exceptions…

that is

…unless you don’t love me back.

Then, it’s pretty much just HATE.


 At the end of the day, we all just want to be known and understood and then loved in return for being ourselves.  It’s when we’re not fully known and understood that we can feel less than loved or valued.

When love is communicated to us without first getting a sense of being understood, we may find ourselves questioning the motives or genuineness of the ‘lover.’

In efforts to fix the world of all its injustices and problems, us Millennials took it upon ourselves to perpetuate a simple yet powerful mantra of “LOVE” and acceptance within every realm we carry influence…

Surely if we just adopt a blanket covering of love for all walks of life, for everyone and everything, surely that’ll solve a multitude of issues…

The problem with this plan is that love without understanding, love without being fully known first, can often lead to more problems.

Worse yet, we often find ourselves being unwilling to love, or even unwilling to try to understand or know others, without first being understood, known, and loved.

But if this is true, then how can we be expected to understand everyone just so that we can love them–especially if we don’t feel completely loved ourselves at first?


Theorists and philosophers have argued that altruism–the idea of completely selfless service–is actually a myth.  They would assert that we as human beings serve others  knowing there will be a warm, fuzzy, pat-yourself-on-the-back feeling afterwards, and so we are motivated to do good and serve others with this expectation of good feelings in mind.

The New Testament uses two different words for love: phileo and agape.

Phileo is what love looks like among friends or two parties where both are beneficiaries.  (Think Philadelphia: the city of brotherly love.)  Phileo says, “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,” or “You treat me kindly and I’ll do the same.”

Agape is what love looks like when it is unconditional and not based on performance or even when it is unrequited or not returned.  Agape says, “No matter what, even if __________ happens, I will love you with an fierce, continuous love that just keeps on coming like a fire hydrant that can never be shut off.

“WITHOUT GOD we can only love with a selfish love–one that cannot be given if it is not received and returned.  However, agape loves regardless of the response.  This agape is the love Jesus shed when He forgave from the cross.”

John Bevere, “The Bait of Satan”


Stand where you may on this idea of agape, selfless love and where it comes from, but all this made me realize I have something real to confess to the world:

AS MUCH as I want to proudly tell the world how I’ve lived a life of love and acceptance–how even when I fell short of loving or accepting I always had the sincerest of intentions–I have to confess that I have often loved with a selfish love.

  • “SURELY if I learn how to love them better–maybe with an understanding of their love language or MBTI personality or what kind of baked goodies they like–they will learn to love me back.”
  • “SURELY if  I am known for my big, naturally loving heart, then others will just come to love me naturally.”
  • “SURELY if I love them, and love them well, they WILL love me well in return.”

This confession feels really gross to admit.

I don’t want people to know I have ever loved with hopeful intentions of being loved in return.  Worse than that, there’s a prideful part of me that doesn’t want people to know how badly I wanted to be loved by them.

And, for those who I unsuccessfully loved, for those who I tried to love with all I could give but they refused to love me back, well, what am I even supposed do with them?

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In “A Personality Conflict with the Creator”,  I talked about a recent Come-to-Jesus meeting where I had to face all my unforgiveness issues with a handful of folks from my past.  As I prayed for a new heart and strength to forgive and let go of these old hurts, God actually spoke this word:

LOVE ALL THE PEOPLE.” –GOD

Instead of “Love all the people who you want to love you back,” or

“Love all the people who are most like you and who ‘get’ you,” or

“Love all the people who you know love you,”

GOD was commanding I Love. All. The. People. Period. End of Discussion.

…What this looks like “on the reg” is, again, probably a whole different blog post.

But, as a takeaway, I do know now that loving ALL the people requires more than just a desire to be loved in return.  Loving all the people can sometimes mean we are not guaranteed any love back, even with our best efforts and intentions.  

I think that’s where God intends for us to love others with the continuous, overflowing love and unconditional grace He supplies us, because He knows our love is finite and can run dry if not replenished or returned.

Millennials.

Xers.

Boomers and Shakers.

Love All the People, yes.  But, be sure to Love with a Love supply that won’t leave you dry or wanting more in return.

Love All the People with a Love supply that does not require certain conditions because it was given to you freely and without condition.

Love All the People because GOD Loves you with more Love than you could possibly ever give to All the People.

She’s still here – An ode to Aggie Muster from a thousand miles away.

Aggie Muster is a time-honored tradition at Texas A&M University which celebrates the camaraderie of the school while remembering the lives of Aggies who have died, specifically those in the past year. Muster officially began on April 21, 1922 as a day for remembrance of fellow Aggies.
Aggie Muster Day
“We gather here to mark the day Aggies proudly stand.
To honor those who’ve gone before to the promised land.
Each name is called upon the roll, comrades answer Here.
Trumpets sound their sad good-bye to those we held so dear.
All heads are bowed in silent pledge never to forget.
While rifles fire their last salute echoes answer yet.
To their mem’ry we’ll be true; we will take their place.
One for all and all for one ever in Thy grace.
We’ll meet again another day, reunion while we pray
To ask Thy blessing on each one on this Muster day,
Aggie Muster Day.”
-Mrs. Earl (Margaret) Rudder

She wasn’t from around here, most locals could tell that.  Her giveaways included not buttering her flour tortilla at Tex-Mex restaurants and having two left feet when she was led in a two-step.  In fact, she was from a thousand miles away, from the land where most just go to vacation and others choose to live exposed to the sun’s unescapable rays year-round.

But when she first came here, it was like a religion gripped her to come and stay.  It was the traditions and the values and the shared culture of thousands upon thousands of current and former students that moved her to move here for school.

Because while “Some may boast of prowess bold – of the school they think so grand,

she came here because she was moved by “a spirit that can ne’er be told – it’s the spirit of Aggieland.


It was here she learned to greet everyone with a hearty “HOWDY” and how to throw up her fist and thumb to “gig’em” like the rest of ’em.

It was here she stood within the sanctuary of Kyle Field at 12:00AM before a home football game to yell with all of her 12th Man.

It was here she also gathered at 2:42AM on November 18th with her student body to remember the 12 students who lost their lives at Bonfire and their families.

It was here she fell in love with the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band, who’ve been “winning halftimes” since its inception.

It was here on the first Tuesday evening of every month where she followed hundreds of silent students through campus for a tribute of Silver Taps held for the fellow students who had recently passed.

It was here she received the most precious piece of gold she owns, a ring shielded by symbolism and personalized for her own skinny finger.

It was here she discovered her sincerest passions and deepest dreams.

It was here she first learned how to love herself, flaws and faults, and how to love life, free and fearlessly, and how to love people, fully and ferociously.

It was here she graduated and turned her ring outward so the world would see she, too, came through here.

And, it was here she left so that she might go on a new adventure and grow in different ways.


So, here she finds herself once again a thousand miles away from here.  And with her fellow former students she gathers on Aggie Muster Day so that she might remember the fallen and echo for them “Here.”

Because even though she’s no longer hereshe must and will say “here.”

Because even if she never returns to hereshe will always be here.

Because the spirit of Aggieland reaches even hereshe’s still here.

A Tale of Three Automobiles

I couldn’t remember if I unplugged my 2.75 inch barrel curling iron.  Surely I did.  But it kept bothering me that I couldn’t remember placing my hands on the cord.  I whipped around in the parking lot of my apartment complex, disturbed that I was risking my chances of being perfectly early for my first facilitation presentation in my new job role.

But alas, after parking my car in front of my apartment building and turning off the ignition, my car continued to run…  Not exactly run.  More like squeal at a pitch I’ve only heard in movies with alien spacecrafts.  I prayed out loud:

“In the sweet name of Jesus, please make my car work.  I can’t be late today.”

But as I prayed the entire hood of my car began to fume with dark smoke, more smoke than I have ever seen come from a vehicle.  I quickly grabbed my purse and presentation materials and Yeti cup with the agility of Batman escaping a bomb while wearing high heels.

And just like that, Toyota Camry was gone.  Her passing was met with water being poured on her by a long-haired, twenty-something dude who happened to walk by and see a frantic girl in a suit and heels clenching her multiple bags and whimpering on the sidewalk.  And then another twenty-something blonde girl who was walking by showed up to her funeral with the recommendation that water not be poured on her for fear of breaking something car-related.

Too late, Blonde girl.  Suit girl was well beyond her clear-thinking capacity to save Camry.

(In her defense, Camry has been trying to die for a while.  I was hoping to wait until this very month to put her out in greener pastures, but she was long ready to go.)

After making the necessary phone calls, it was arranged for me to take a university department vehicle to my presentation destination.  I just had to first get to campus.

It’s spring break here in Gainesville, America.  No. One. Is. Here.  And if you are here, you were probably working like a responsible adult instead of waiting for a frantic Suit girl to call you for a ride.

Unless your name is Michael and drive for Uber.  Upon downloading the app for the first time and figuring out how in Gonzo’s name do you even work this app???  I finally had a ride secured.  I even called Michael thinking I had to talk to him first to convince him to pick up a poor Suit girl whose car almost caught on fire, but he quickly assured me he was already on his way to me because of the app.

Michael arrived within minutes in his black Fiat.  The ride to campus was awkward and quiet, except for a few sporadic deep sighs from the back seat.  I prayed intensely for my car not to blow up in flames while I was gone.  Boy, Michael sure was taking his sweet time driving me.  As I started to pray for time to stand still and the Fiat to move faster, it occurred to me that this could be the one and only time I would ever speak to Michael the Fiat Uber driver.

“Pray for him. Ask him if he knows Me,” God urged. 

“God, seriously now???  I’m so upset about Camry dying and possibly burning my building down, and you know I have that presentation in an hour that I have been praying to you about for days.  For the love of You, don’t make me jump into ‘super Christian mode’ right now.”

I muttered something to Michael about being a “God-send” and said “God Bless you” as I tried to tip him while exiting the Fiat.

What a comfortable Christian move on my part.  Geez, Val.  How brave.

I shuffled in my heels with all my baggage in tow to retrieve the key to the department vehicle, a white Chevy Equinox parked outside my office building.  As I slid into the driver seat, relieved that I would finally be in route to my presentation, I said this prayer:

“God, please protect me while I’m driving this vehicle.  And please protect this vehicle from me while I’m driving it.”

Three different automobiles.

Three different prayers praying for the vehicles themselves.

Mostly selfish in nature.

And I didn’t even attempt to pray for Michael.  Or Long-haired dude who tried to save Camry.  Or even Blonde girl who also tried to save Camry.

I had showing up late on my mind.  I had my presentation on my mind.  I had my more-than-likely flub-ups and presentation blunders on my mind.  I had my fears of disapproval from my audience on my mind.  I had the critiques from the event coordinator to my boss on my mind.  All of those things seemed to be more important to dwell on than the spiritual implications of my hurried morning in three different automobiles.


The presentation went as well as it could have went, and I arrived home safe and sound thanks to the Equinox.  As far as a day-on-the-job goes, it passed by with minimal notable comments other than my rough start.

But as trite as it sounds, my tale of three automobiles had me reflecting on the drive home how I missed a day-on-mission because I was too worried about my day-on-the-job.

That’s when this scripture I’ve been chewing on came to mind:

“Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” -John 1:16

Grace upon Grace.  That was the story of my three automobiles.  When I needed grace most, God was sure to provide it steadily, continuously, as much as needed and more.

And while I feel convicted about my missed opportunities to share this grace I’ve been shown, I am so thankful that God pours out this ever-flowing, over-flowing grace on me so that I can try again tomorrow.

Because guess what?  God’s already provided me a ride tomorrow!  Grace upon Grace.

 

A Personality Conflict with the Creator.

In this recent massive survey of millennials, it was found that above listed traits such as eyes, intelligence, *ahem* buttocks, and a myriad of other characteristics, both men and women ranked a person’s personality as the most attractive quality to be had.

I often tell folks I’m only a wizard at, like, three things in this world: using hair products & hair appliances, writing make-you-cry-so-heart-felt notes, and understanding personalities.

(This one time, I  went on a first date with a guy and attempted to impress him by guessing his Myers-Briggs personality type over frozen yogurt…don’t ever, ever do that.  It’s not cute.  It’s creepy and under-appreciated.)

Any whoooo, the point is I love to talk about personalities.  I love to “type” people in my head within minutes of meeting them and engaging in conversation.  I love understanding people better and responding in ways I think they need from me.

Most of all, I love believing that somewhere in the world  a personality description is written that says I am understood, valued for who I am, and capable of being amazing because I’m me.

But, I’ve found that people who are secure in who they are, people who know the unconditional love of their Creator and love themselves for who He has made them to be do not need personality assessments.  These individuals find personality theories to be either very interesting or simply unnecessary.


 

I’m pretty fragile these days, and I’m pretty sure most everyone can tell because I’m about as secretive as Tom is with his intentions for Jerry. Right now I’m a long, long way from my element.  What exactly is my element?  Where do I feel like “Valerie” is actually the best version of Valerie?

Well, I like making people laugh on a daily basis if possible.  I like making people feel good about themselves.  I like directing outdoor summer camps for kiddos and running around like a banshee.  I like teaching to a classroom full of college students who are all just trying to figure themselves out while in the mean time passing a leadership course.

Really, I love to empower and love-on people with the purpose of helping them grow.  It all really goes back to having an “ENFJ” (extroverted-intuitive-feeling-judging) personality.


 

In my quest for discovering reason(s) why God brought me back to Florida, it was revealed to all 3 of my immediate family members that God intends to deal with my deepest feelings of unforgiveness, shame, and broken self-concept, feelings I did not let Him touch so much while I was in Texas.  (And here I had just been hoping maybe God brought me back to find a husband closer to home. Bummer.)

Sure, God allowed me to experience in Texas what it is like to feel free and loved for who I am and to love those around me unconditionally.  He gave me a taste of what it is like to be Valerie and love herself for being her.

And, in recent weeks, I started the long, long path of forgiveness by choosing to forgive anyone and everyone I’ve ever felt hurt or rejected by, intentional or not.  These were the folks I blamed for my lifetime of confidence issues, for why I could not love myself and be okay with who I am at the end of the day.

Faces of the oldest wounds flooded my mind, and words of the sharpest tongues rang once again in my ears; but, as I sat on my daddy’s lap crying heavy tears of anguish and praying for God to help me forgive, the God of the Greatest Love told me to “Forgive All The People.”  But, here’s the real kicker:

As much as I needed to release the folks who made me feel so much hurt,

as much as I needed to release the lies I was fed about myself because of the hurt,

I really needed to release the Guy who I blamed for why those folks hurt me,

the Guy who made me who I am with the personality I have,

the reason why I believed I was hurt in the first place.


 

I never knew it, but from even as early as 5-years-old my heart has been shaking a small fist at my Creator with these words:

“God, they called me weird.  You made me weird.”

“God, they ignored me.  You made me ignorable.”

“God, they called me fat/ugly.  You made me fat/ugly.”

“God, they didn’t understand me.  You made me unable to be understood.”

“God, they rejected me.  You made me reject-able.”

“God, they don’t love me.  You made me unlovable.”

This is now what I understand as a long-standing, serious personality conflict with the Creator.  And usually, when it comes to wrestling with God, I like to draw my fights out with long-going contemplation, arguments, and fits of denial before finally coming around to surrendering to Truth.

But, this time, something rather magical, dare-I-say-miraculous, happened when I recognized just with Whom I had entered the wrestling ring.  Once I heard aloud the angry, hurtful words I have been saying to God my whole life, I immediately heard God speak back Truth directly from His Word. 

It felt like being sucker-punched. It felt like being freed.

Psalm 139 O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.

13 For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.[a]
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
    I awake, and I am still with you.

“She’s like Texas” (…or at least she wants to be)

It’s been 10 months since I moved to the Republic of Texas from the Sunshine State.  10 whole months of living in Texas, U.S.A.

So, in honor of those 10 months, here’s 10 of the best lessons I’m learning while I’m here: 

(accompanied by related excerpts from my favorite quote by Marianne Williamson) 


“Don’t Mess with Texas.”

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…”

DMWT

Texans have nerve.  Even the most passive of natives that I have met since moving here have been quick to defend Texas as the greatest state on earth.  Texas Pride is a real thing, folks.  And you don’t dare mess with it.

It’s really ironic that the girl who’s greatest pet peeve is arrogance and who perpetually struggles with confidence ended up in the proudest state of them all.  It’s almost like God was up to something funny…

Side note: Texans are some of the only folks I know who actually wear apparel that promotes their own state.  (Seriously, Florida folks: Have you ever bought anything that says  “I ❤ Florida” from a tourist shop at the Turnpike station? Me neither.)


“The Stars and Stripes are out Tonight (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP) Deep in the Heart of Texas!”

“…It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?”

ae00b814a3d9494feb2a7b6a2686307d

Teaching my students here at Texas A&M has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  It’s awakened gifts and strengths of mine that I forgot I even had.  I’ve been affirmed by students and faculty in ways that I had never been affirmed before.

During my first semester, I felt highly inadequate to teach students who were basically my age (or even older).  But, with time, I felt myself grow more confident in my ability to connect with students and meet their needs.  My students and advising professors have helped to light a fire deep in my heart, and it grows brighter every day that I am put in front of a class audience. 


“Keep Austin Weird.”

“…Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God…”

smart - car2go 2009

This saying makes me laugh every time I hear it.  For my non-geography literate friends back home, Austin is the capital of the Republic.  It’s also referred to as the most liberal part of Texas.  And yes, this means the people of Austin are often referred to as hippies, yuppies, and just plain weird by everyone else.  Yet, the saying remains: “Keep. Austin. Weird.” Who really wants to change Austin?  No one.  (Well, no one has said it out loud anyways.)

There are parts of us that are just plain weird, and we should embrace these parts.  This probably sounds like the end to a Dr. Seuss book.  But, sometimes we I need to remember to appreciate our my weirdness, because God made me and loves me this way.


“Everything’s Bigger in Texas.”

“…Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you…”

see_and_remember_this_-_buc-ees_800

…So there’s this magical place called Buc-ee’s.  It’s like Wal-Mart and Cracker Barrel gave birth to a gas station that grew up to serve the people of south Texas like no one has ever served them before.  At Buc-ee’s, you can buy a 48 oz drink, a deli sandwich, a grill, various Texas-themed furniture, some homemade “beaver nuggets,” an outdoor fireplace, and a Buc-ee’s T-shirt or stuffed animal all while filling up your pickup truck!  What a deal!

But seriously.  Buc-ee’s would not be near as great if it tried to “play it small” for all of the surrounding gas stations…


“The Road Goes on Forever and The Party Never Ends.”

“…We are all meant to shine, as children do…”

robert-earl-keen

RED DIRT MUSIC.  It’s like the country music I’ve been listening to my entire life was a lie, or the Diet Coke version compared to the real deal (I love Diet Coke, but follow me here).

Fiddles and string music mixed with classic rock sounds make for great dancing music.  And even though I can’t hardly dance 5 seconds straight without looking around to see who’s judging my lack of rhythm, listening and dancing to red dirt music has made me feel really young (which is a big deal when you were born with an old soul).  No matter where I end up, I hope to take this genre with me just to remember the joy of being 23 years old and feeling like I was 18.


“You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

“…We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us…”

fesshead

Harsh words, Davy Crockett.  (He said them, not me.)  I’m just going to emphasize Davy’s audacity and courage here, because that’s what I think of when I hear this saying or read it on people’s bumper stickers.  Similar to the Texas Pride idea, I know that my time in Texas is teaching me how to live out what I say I believe, unashamedly and without apologizing for it.  (I’m likely to say “I’m sorry” for breathing wrong around you, so this is huge.)


“The eyes of Texas are upon you…”

“…It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone…”

WALLPAPER - CHUCK NORRIS

While I have been in Texas, the state has faced an Ebola outbreak, devastating flooding, and currently Tropical Storm Bill.  And while I admit to being absolutely terrified at various times (I mean, I read “The Hot Zone.”  I drive a low-riding Toyota Camry.  I have every right to be afraid), facing these fears alongside my fellow Texans has made me realize how important community is. 

During #Ebola2014, I can remember crying in my office one morning because I FULLY believed that my recent trip to Dallas had spread the outbreak and I was going to single-handedly take down all of Texas A&M with me.  My dear friend and office mate calmed me down and reminded me that I wasn’t the only person to visit Dallas that weekend.  This is the same friend who also offers to drive me around town whenever it’s too rainy for my liking.  God has provided her and others to take care of me, and I am forever grateful to them.


“Remember the Alamo.”

“…and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same…”

alamo

My office mate once told me that she highly supports Texas seceding from the Union at any point.  There’s something to be said about an educated Texas college student who thinks secession makes sense.

Going hand-in-hand with Texas Pride is Texas Independence. Independence is attractive.  Strength is attractive. It’s something to be celebrated and admired.  I somehow missed this truth during my formative years when it seemed better to demonstrate dependence and weakness to the boys I dated.  I think I thought that being independent meant I would end up alone.  But that’s hardly the case.  Being independent only attracts others because they are attracted to your strength.


“The Texas Sky is the biggest one I’ve seen, but it still ain’t big enough for you and me.”

“…As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

2a

I can remember listening to Miranda Lambert’s “New Strings” over and over again during my first week here in Texas.  The song talks about leaving a doubtful boy and loving parents behind for a new adventure.  At the time I could relate all too well to the song, but I really kept it on repeat just so that I could remind myself of all the possibilities ahead of me.

When people ask me about moving back home to Florida, I usually say something like “yes, eventually.”  But, to be absolutely honest, I feel too liberated to ever consider moving back forever and always.

I can’t really tell you how much longer I will be here in Texas.   Some days I find myself longing for Florida, longing for the family and friends I left behind, longing for ocean views within an hour’s drive, and longing for the ever so incredible PUB SUB. 

…But on other days, I just can’t imagine myself ever leaving.

Staying Soft in a Hard, Hard World.

All my life, people have told me that I was too sensitive. And they were right. I cry about everything.

One of my first memories of being picked on for my soft heart was at a fellow classmate’s birthday party at the roller rink. We were all a bunch of kindergardeners with Winnie-the-Pooh overalls and velcro, light-up tennis shoes. We were all dorky-looking, snot-faced, and yet adorably small and innocent. And we were all just trying to stay on our feet as we worked our way around the rink with our chunky rollerblades, clinging to the sides and using the walls to propel us forward at the speed of Houston traffic. Except I wasn’t having as much fun moving so slow. So instead, I found where the music was blasting through the rink’s speakers and had myself a dance party! Just me and I, dancing with all that I could give. Spice Girls couldn’t handle my moves.

Apparently, neither could my 5-year-old peers. I don’t remember what words were said to me, but I do remember how they made me feel: rejected, outcasted, henceforth declared too weird and different. When my mother finally came to take me home from the party, I was a puddle of sobbing tears. My at-one-time friends had taunted me even more once they saw the tears start to flow. And tears meant I was a Cry Baby.

As I grew older, that name followed me. In elementary school, boys at church would pick on me until they made me cry. In middle school, girls on my basketball team teased me for being such a ‘good girl’ until I would cry with frustration. How embarrassing it was when my basketball coach had to pull me aside to tell me that I needed to “grow a thicker layer of skin” to cope!

Tears became my trademark in high school as I dealt with the typical set of issues that most teenage girls go through. Just looking into a mirror and seeing my own sad eyes looking back at me would make me weep with self pity. (I know, I was a little pathetic.) Even during my undergraduate career, there were times when my emotions became too much for me to bear, too much to manage all at once. The logical, callous intellectuals around me would snort and scoff at me–she who was capable of shedding actual tears but incapable of controlling them. 

Cry Baby.

Tender-hearted.

Too Sensitive.

Get Thicker Skin.

Suck It Up.

Toughen Up.

Stop Caring So Much.

Put Your Big Girl Panties On.

I have heard all of this from people who hated me and from people who loved me. It always felt like a slap to my face, like being told that I was defective somehow–like being a broken toy from “The Island of Misfit Toys.” And yet, somehow, at 22 years old, I have remained soft in a hard, hard world.

In spite of being told time and time again to become different, I’ve developed resilience in my sensitivity–stubbornness in my softness–steadfastness in my flux of emotions. For many, this is both puzzling and irritating. My tearfulness is considered a real weakness, a flaw, something to look down on me for. And that’s okay. Really. You want to know why? Because my soft heart allows me to love others more deeply.


Today, I am a lowly graduate student, attempting to earn a master’s degree at a huge university from a huge department with bureaucratic values. I have to keep up with my classwork and help produce research to publish. I sit in an office at my own little desk doing desk-type things. It can all seem pretty hard. No room for tears here. But wait. There’s more.

I get to teach a few classes. I get to have my very own students. College students studying leadership! And I get to love them. I get to show them all the care and support I can possibly give. I get to email them words of encouragement. I get to talk with them in my office about their life and struggles. I get to cry with them when they lose a grandparent or parent. I get to hurt with them when something doesn’t work out like they hoped. I get to be their Champion. I get to be a Cry Baby for them. 

In the last month, I’ve been told separately by multiple individuals in my department that what makes me different, what makes me stand out is that I “actually care.” That I deeply care about everything and everyone. These comments are always met with my sincere surprise that my behaviors are noticeable and that my sensitivity would actually be praiseworthy instead of abhorred.

(It’s true, by the way. Staying soft has a price—and it’s being hated by those who won’t ever understand the paradox that great strength can come from great weakness and great love from great pain. Cheesy and classic, but nonetheless true.) 

Realizing that my soft, little heart has somehow stayed in tact over the years despite being broken many times and despite being told to change so much has made me wonder why my soft heart is thriving now in this stage of life instead of being my downfall like it has always been before?


(I believe that there are two freeing lessons that I’ve learned here in the Great State of Texas that have kept my heart soft-yet-oh-so-steadfast.)

  1. Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You, Even When __________________.

(We as people would much rather live by our own amendment to the Golden Rule–justifying our behaviors towards others based on our own guidelines and judgments. But, in order to keep a soft heart, one must be willing to disregard these justifications and act EXACTLY as how we would like to be treated, period.)

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

Matthew 5:38-48

  1. Care Deeply For Others, But Don’t Be Offended By Them—That Way, You Can Keep On Caring For Them Deeply.

(Being offended by someone can be the root of a long line of sins. It’s the “Bait of Satan.” To avoid bitterness and the hardening of one’s heart, one must learn to give up the right to being offended. FYI, you have no right to be offended. You hurt people too. Side-step being offended by others by simply caring deeply for others and forgiving them without haste.)

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:10


You know, all my life, people have told me that I am too sensitive. And they are right. I cry about everything. But I also care about everything. And if that means I’m going to shed a few tears, then so be it. Stay soft in this hard world, friends. It’s worth it.

50 Shades of Pure

(If you are a Christian who has this whole purity thing figured out and locked down, then this blog post won’t do much for you. If you are a Christian who gets offended easily when you’re told you can’t do something, ESPECIALLY when it comes to this purity business, then this blog post might not do much for you either. But, if you are a Christian who has at some point questioned what purity is all about, then you might just enjoy this…)

As we close on a week since Valentine’s Day weekend, also known as the opening weekend for the trending movie 50 Shades of Grey, I find myself weirdly inspired to talk about a subject that I’ve seen circulating on the internet near recently. Blogging and social media have kept this conversation going for a while now:

“What the Church didn’t teach me about Sex…”

“Misconceptions about Sex and Waiting…”

“Why I wish I had not waited until my wedding night…”

Meanwhile, I’ve wrestled with my own inner conversation about what purity has to do with sex and the Christian life. You see, for a long, long time I wanted to use the words “purity” and “virginity” interchangeably. I am a virgin; therefore, I must be pure.

Not quite.

My mentor once said it best to me in this way,

“There may be a definite line between sex and not-sex, but there is a much, much grayer area between pure and not-pure.”

So what does this mean for the girl who was sold the lie that ‘technical’ virginity is purity? What does this mean for the girl who gave away her virginity years ago and has rode the roller coaster of emotional damage ever since? What does this mean for the girl who has her purity ring from that night at youth group but can’t decide if she’s worthy to actually wear it?

Scripture makes it clear that we are to flee from sexual immorality, a term that I think really covers any of the “what about…” scenarios our justifying minds can come up with. Scripture reminds us that our bodies are not our own, that we are temples of God purposed to glorify him and not ourselves. And yet, faced with our culture and flesh nature, we find ourselves stumbling all over the “gray area” that separates purity and impurity. Or, out of frustration, we give in to our temptations and completely ignore this gray area to save ourselves the headache of trying to figure out what’s actually “permissible.”

Aren’t we taught that it’s better for us to ask for forgiveness later rather than permission upfront?

I really believed this for a while with God. I thought that it was better if I relied on God’s unconditional, unchanging grace for later when I knew I would return to Him seeking forgiveness than it would be if I came to him each and every time I was tempted to dance on the gray area of purity.

I know that some would argue that this gray area is not nearly as gray as I’m making it sound right now—they are the ones who author books about christian courtship and only holding each others’ pinkies until marriage. (Forgive me for what I’m about to say: You are almost as extreme as 50 Shades of Grey is considered in today’s culture. Your ideas are not realistic but rather perpetuate the frustrations that come with being bound to a set of rules to follow. If you really want to help save our generation from sexual sin, you have to first meet us where we already are.)

I argue instead that whereas virginity is a biological state of the human body, purity is a practice that must be practiced continuously in order to improve. Purity is a practice that can become a glorifying art. Although purity is not so much relative, I do believe it is personal and like other spiritual disciplines requires having personal conversations with God to determine how it can be practiced in your life to glorify Him.

For example, the single woman who loves a good romantic comedy might have to be mindful of what images she allows to enter her mind based on convictions from the Holy Spirit. Or, the married woman who finds herself reminiscing on past relationships might become aware from the Holy Spirit’s promptings that her thoughts are the breeding grounds for sin. Or further, the bubbly girl who catches boys’ attention with a few, strategic giggles might have to listen closely to when the Holy Spirit reveals that her flirtatious nature is causing no good. None of these examples involved sex. Yet, all of them dance on the gray area of purity.

To practice purity, we must be willing to do the very things that we as Christians are told to do for every other part of our lives. We must be willing to walk closely to our Savior, holding His hand and listening for his whispers of kindness that lead us to repentance. When we do this, when we are willing to be sensitive to his nudges when we find ourselves near the gray area of purity, we can be guided away from it without harm.

To practice purity, we must be willing to have the hard conversations with our loving and patient Father about the behaviors that He considers impure and damaging rather than pure and glorifying.

To practice purity and make it an art, we must accept that purity is a beautiful expression of our heart’s desire to see God more clearly in our lives through our actions. Purity is not simply a list of sexual don’t-do’s. It is an active practice of looking to God in our obedience to His guidance on all matters of the heart. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Matthew 5:8

And what if we find ourselves in a shade of gray area that looks more impure than pure?

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9

Seriously, if you had the time to read this blog post, then you need to take 7 minutes and watch this video.

“…I tried to TOLD YA’LL.”

Do the Impossible

Today is one of those days where I need God every hour. As I sit here trying to read through several research articles for my graduate assistantship, I find my thoughts wondering with every minute that passes–thoughts that sound more like groans from an overwhelmed soul who knows its own inadequacy.

My prayer this morning: 8am

“Jesus, I need you. Jesus, provide. Provide whatever I need. You know my tired heart. You know my thoughts, my weaknesses. Please give me whatever I need to get me through today.”

My prayer this morning: 8:30am

“Jesus, provide. I have to find a parking spot.”

“Turn down there. Yes, there. See? My Grace, child. My Grace.”

(SIDE NOTE: Some of my most favorite moments here in TX have taken place in Lot 100 across from the Agriculture and Life Sciences building. When I have been most desperate for a parking spot, I have pleaded with the Lord to do the impossible, and He has always pointed me down the perfect aisle to the perfect, almost unreal parking spot. Some of my most honest worship praises have been heard from that lot.)

My prayer this morning: 9am

“Jesus, provide. I can’t focus on my work.”

And again: 9:30am

“Jesus, provide. I’m so sleepy and today will be such a long day.”

And again: 9:45am

“JESUS. I don’t know if I can do this. My list of things I have to get done keeps growing, and there’s only so much time in the day.”

But with my Grace, Val. My grace is all you need to do these things–to thrive where I have placed you–to do what you believe is impossible to do. Take my Grace, child. Do the Impossible.”

Emotional Coasters, Heart Attacks, & Tangled Necklaces

I love roller coasters. I think they’re one of the few things in life I love because they scare me.

However, I do not love roller coasters outside of theme parks–in other words, when my week feels like a series of emotional roller coasters, I want no part of them. This week had enough emotional roller coasters to make Islands of Adventure jealous.

Sunday: Brandon McKee and I roll up into the church parking lot, five minutes until church is supposed to start (we’re preacher’s kids–what do you expect?), when we see both of our parents hurriedly walking to one of their vehicles. Extended family members trail behind them. Dad was having chest pains and they were heading to the ER. 

Over the next 48 hours, I think it is safe to say that well over half a thousand different individuals were praying for our family and for my dad. People reposted my updates on social media about my dad’s health. I received countless texts and messages asking what could be done to help my family. While both my parents were calmer than I have ever seen them, the farthest extensions of our networks of friends echoed roars of love and support for my dad and our family. 

Dad later passed all his tests, including his stress test on his heart. The doctors are still trying to determine the cause of Sunday’s scare (gallbladder is their guess for now).

Tuesday: I had to give a presentation for a college class. This presentation was probably my thousandth presentation ever, and it was probably for the smallest audience I’ve ever presented in front of. And yet, I was unnerved by it. Perhaps I was afraid I wasn’t going to “make the grade” (figuratively and literally). Perhaps it was the topic; the research I gathered about the education crisis in Syria made me realize how much my heart breaks at the thought of the needs of disadvantaged and damaged children. Realizing this particularly scared me because it made me completely question my direction and focus regarding my future career.

Furthermore, I already felt completely defeated for the week as I listed all the things I had to do by Friday. While juggling my many commitments, I started my week by “dropping the ball” multiple times.

And, I received news that I was offered an assistantship at UF in my department for graduate school, news that was expected but produced feelings of anxiety as I was told I only have a short window of time to make my decision about accepting the offer. (Long story short–I’m waiting on letters of acceptance/assistantship offers from other schools from out-of-state, schools that I’m still not 100% sure are where the Lord wants me to be.) I was emotionally wrecked, like an emotional roller coaster that had fallen off the tracks and crashed in flames.

And, may I add that the reality of my not-ready-for-swimsuit-season body hit me like the horrific memories of my teenage years, further irritating my self-image and judging my worth beyond just what I wasn’t capable of accomplishing that week. 

Brandon called me that night to share some disheartening news…which was worthy of a few more tears shed…until he called again later to share an update that was enough to restore my faith in humanity and give me a glimpse of hope for my own life plans. He’s class valedictorian, by the way. I’m so proud of him.

Thursday: I finished everything I needed to get done. I was satisfied with my class presentation (for the most part). Dad had an out-patient procedure done to check out his gallbladder. I even had enough energy and time to clean my room….and then get distracted by a couple necklaces I found that I had allowed to become completely tangled.

If you have ever attempted to untangle jewelry, you may share in my sentiments about such a task. Feelings of disappointment in myself for letting the pieces of jewelry become that way mixed with feelings of determination to undo my wrongdoing. Suddenly, my fingers began to work the same way that the fingers of a master rubiks cube solver work at his favorite toy.

The task? Seemingly hopeless from the look of the chains and links wound up in knots. There was no way I could strategically and consciously untangle the mess and thus produce my own sense of hope through a plan. I just had to commit to working on it for however long it took until hope showed itself as sections of the pieces of jewelry became free.

With my mind on autopilot, I discovered that my commitment to the task was all that was necessary. Within ten minutes, I freed one necklace and had just one more to detangle from itself. And somewhere around the 15 minute mark I realized how much the necklaces resembled how I saw my life and emotions.

Over the last four years, I have sought diagnosis after diagnosis for what I consider my deepest issues–the causes for my cyclical-but-ever-present depression, my lack of self worth, my sense of hopelessness, my doubt and lack of faith in what was once considered spiritually elementary to me. And yet, here I am. Unchanged, if not worse than before. 

Did I do what I was told to do to fill my spiritual crevices? Did I do the follow-up work necessary after moments of breakthrough? Did I practice blind faith in said breakthroughs and live out the work of the Holy Spirit? No, not really.

“Duh-doi, Valerie. That’s your answer.”

…Sure. Maybe. Yeah.

But, before we rule out other possibilities, let me process the symbolism of the tangled necklaces.

Those necklaces were so badly entangled from being left to tumble and twist that there was no semblance of two separate articles of jewelry. I look back at all that has happened in the last four years, consequences that I brought upon myself, conclusions that I decided without critically assessing their truthfulness. My experiences coil together like chains wound together so tightly that beginnings and ends are lost somewhere deep in the middle. 

And yet, where my head was faithless and full of doubt, my hands were determined and willing. Note that I did not say that my hands were confident and self-assured. My fingers did not just pull on sections of necklace; they stroked and followed sections, being led by blind intuition instead of foreknowledge.

It’s been so long since I knew for sure I was hearing from the Lord. But, I think I heard Him whisper to me as I worked at my necklaces. I think He whispered the similarities between how He sees me and uses me now and my knotted neck jewelry.

If I wanted to, I could have still worn my necklaces; they just would have looked rather silly and may not have been as functional as I’d like them to. In the same way, God wears me around His neck to display His glory, but my emotional knots keep me from shining brightest or functioning as the glory of God. 

But, unlike how I viewed my necklaces at the time, God doesn’t bat an eye at the thought of still proudly displaying me as His glory. I think this is because He doesn’t see me in my current knotted state. He sees me in my future state, detangled and free-flowing of Glory.

My diseased mind immediately combats this image with the painful question, “What if my free will on earth keeps me from one day becoming detangled?” Hopelessness returns to me like a warm, familiar blanket that had been removed briefly.

God replied to my doubt, “No matter what you restrict yourself from becoming on this earth, you will always have the eternal hope of one day being free because you have the hope of heaven and an eternity spent with Me.”

And just like that, the joy of heaven returned to my soul. No matter the deep emotional tangles that form over my lifetime, I will one day be free from them. And I have a hunch that if I commit them to God with the same mindless determination that my fingers had untangling my necklaces, hope of being free in this lifetime will present itself just as it did with my jewelry.

So do I still need to do all those things I’ve been told to do all too many times before to fix my spiritual woes? Sure. Yeah.

It’s just that now I’m going to try to be a little more mindless (less in control) about how I go about letting God in. No more strategic attempts. No more biblically-inspired books with the expectation that they hold the coded answers. No more heavy talks with myself about what God is doing or not doing and what I am doing or not doing to the point of crying fits of anger and self-hate.

Just mindless, blind commitment to believing God will help me work out my knots and kinks and carry me through the emotional storms alive.

Is that how a child believes? Is that what Jesus meant by “childlike faith”?

I think that it’s the same kind of faith kids put into roller coasters, whether they love them or are terrified by them or love to be terrified by them like I do. Maybe I’ll learn to love to be terrified by emotional roller coasters after I get used to the idea of God riding with me and promising me peace.

That’ll be something.

(Look at me talking in the future tense like I have hope or something! It’s not even Friday yet!)