Ancient & Slow in a Culture of Quick Questions

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“Quick Question!”

We hear it at the entrance to the train station.  On the street corner.  In the shopping centre.  On our doorstep.

“Quick Question!”

They know we’re busy, so they’ll be quick!  They launch in.

Whose your broadband provider?  Your electricity provider?  Do you like cats? Do you know anyone who has had a heart attack? Did you know…?

I heard it today as I walked through Belfast on my way to see my Spiritual Director.  It was accompanied with an exuberant bounce, a hand waved in my face, “Hello Miss! Quick Question!”.  I smiled, shook my head, walked on.

I wonder about this Quick Question Strategy – this belief that if they promise us speed then we will make decisions about service providers and charities, that we will set up direct-debits standing beside lampposts.  I wonder about this notion that we can meet their quick questions with quick decisions.

I don’t think or decide or budget or tithe like that.  I smile, I walk on.

*

There are Jehovah Witnesses near the bus-stop.  They stand in their place, unobtrusively.  They hold their pamphlets out in this open, gentle kind of manner that I like.  I see them every month on my way to meet with my Spiritual Director – same spot, same body language.  Quietly, but persistently, holding out what they have to offer.

There are a group of men singing in front of the City Hall – modern, lively worship songs. People are craning their necks to look at them.  When my bus comes and drives past the men, I crane my neck myself.  They are dancing and clapping and bouncing up and down.

On the bus there is a Bible verse, a framed King James snippet, contact details if I want to find out more.

*

It took me over 6 months to find someone I could meet with for Spiritual Direction.  We schedule appointments.  I organise childcare.  I get on buses.  We meet in a room, down a corridor, with the door shut.

My soul does not like quick questions, it does not like street corners.  To be honest, it doesn’t really like exuberant enthusiasm and it doesn’t like pamphlets, however gently they are offered.  It likes a safe space with the door closed and a candle lit.  It likes gentle questions, it likes time to answer.

*

On the bus I smile at the irony of it all – all these people I walk past, all these words I bypass – on my way to a place that is quiet enough for God to speak.  I don’t dislike the certainty of the singers or the pamphlet holders or the verse providers.  I am looking for some certainty myself, yet I am finding it in a place where there is room to say I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

I am finding what Parker Palmer says to be true, ‘The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.’

*

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

*

The soul is shy, Parker Palmer says, it’s like a wild animal.  ‘If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.’

I feel yelled at, in our culture, even from sincere sources.  I feel hurried, hustled, my attention fractured.  I see your offering and I cannot receive it.

*

In a room, down a corridor, that takes some effort to get to, I am learning to receive.

I am seeking God and someone is seeking God with me, and for me.

I choose this ancient, slow practice.  I listen for the still small voice.  Away from the lively activity, from the quick questions and the persistent pamphlets, I am paying attention here – to what surfaces in the quiet, to a God who is already at work.

 

 

Even the six-year-olds

Liv clambers into our bed as soon as she wakes, poking us with elbows and knees, wanting to know what they are doing in heaven today, to celebrate Good Friday?

She wants to know every single thing I don’t have an answer to.

It seems, these days, like Liv has taken those verses in Deutoronomy, the ones about teaching our children diligently, and turned them on their head.  My own uncertainty about what to do with God’s words in our home does not stop her.  She talks of them when she sits, when she walks by the way, when she lies down, when she rises.

*

Liv has an unflagging interest this year in Pilate.  (Asking what his name was again, trying to get her tongue around it, giggling a bit, Pontius Pilate).

She sits in her booster seat as we drive to Asda and asks her questions.

She is trying to work out his responsability, what he decided, what he really wanted, if he was good.

“I would have decided that Jesus should die”, she declares, “because it brought so much good, in the end.”

So she clambers into our bed this morning, it’s Friday, and she wants to celebrate, because she is certain this story is Good.

*

“Even the stones would cry out!” she told us, wide-eyed, a few Sundays ago.

Yes, I think, even the stones, and even the six-year-olds.

Hungry

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I was hungry.

I was hungry, and I needed a biscuit.

I needed it through the sermon, through the final hymn, through the benediction.

It was a small need, but a fierce one.

I had a plan to make a subtle kind of beeline for the church hall to get my fix, casual but quick.  It was almost Coffee Time.  I would be ok.

*

There is a gap between God and I.  It keeps me from the place where I can feel God, somewhere inside.

There is a bridge between God and I and it is broken.

“How deep are the cracks?” asks my Spiritual Director.

“They are deep” I answer quietly.

She draws it on her whiteboard: the gap, the bridge, the deep, jagged cracks.  She draws me in the middle: earnest, lonely.

*

There was a comedy of errors at Coffee Time.  I was delayed getting through the doors.  My children needed to pee.  My children ran off.  People stopped me to talk.

When I finally reached the biscuit plate it was almost empty.  My girls grabbed KitKats, and I paused, for a fleeting moment, to help them unwrap. A fleeting moment during which someone lifted the plate from beside my fingers and offered it around the room – out of reach.

It was obvious to nobody but me that I was about to eat one of those biscuits.  That I needed to eat one of those biscuits.

I watched them disappear with a literal lump in my throat.

*

There is a gap between God and I.  There is a bridge.  There are cracks.

I have skills at avoiding those cracks, at pretending they’re not there.

I have ideas about filling those cracks!  I have Thoughts!

I am always disappointed.

*

There was a man who had been an invalid for 38 years and he lay by a pool.  He lay with the sick and the blind and the paralysed, hoping for healing when the waters were stirred.

There was a man and he had nobody to help him. By the time he gets to the pool, “somebody else is already in.”

*

No one in the Church Hall would have begrudged me a biscuit, in fact any one of them would have gone to the kitchen to find me one, if they knew how hungry I was. But there was no way I could think of to communicate this need without sounding petty, and selfish, and ridiculous.

I resented my daughters their KitKats.  I felt personally defeated several times when more biscuits appeared across the room, always gone before I could get one.

*

James K.A. Smith says that “discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing” and yet we feel so embarrassed about our hunger and our thirst, like we are the only one with longing, like everyone else must already be full.

We see all these cracks in our knowing and our believing.  And we are embarrassed, or panicked, or paralysed.

“Do you want to get well?” Jesus asks, and it seems like such a stupid question.

*

I was still hungry and I still needed a biscuit as I headed to the car and someone called my name.

I was a little angry at the blond girl in my arms, chocolate smudged on her satisfied face, when someone called my name.

I was not in the mood to talk to anyone when my minister called my name.

“Do you want some?” he asked, holding out the Toblerone he had used in the kids’ talk.

Did I WANT some? 

He had no idea.

*

I slid into the car beside my husband, stuffing my face with triangular Swiss chocolate, and mumbling something about Emerson having just saved my life.

I was thinking, then, only of my immediate hunger and the unexpected Toblerone in my hands.

Later, though, as we look at the wonky bridge on her whiteboard, I tell the story to my Spiritual Director and she loves it and she tells me I need to write about it.

*

“He picked up his bedroll and walked off,” John tells us.

The pool wasn’t the source of hope after all.  Jesus was.

The man’s hope must have flagged time after time.  38 years.  Somebody else always getting in first.

The pool wasn’t the source of hope after all, but it was certainly part of the story.

*

“Do you want to get well?” asks Jesus.

“Do you want some?” asks my minister.

And it changes the story – the one where everyone else got a biscuit, the one where somebody else always got in the pool first.

*

There are some cracks in my knowing and my believing that my thinking can’t fix.

But I hunger and I thirst.

And I have this picture, now, of God – calling my name, offering me food.

Faith in the Dark

“She used to be afraid she was the only one in the world who could not make sense of things.”

[Lila, Marilynne Robinson]

Night-Driving-Synchroblog

I stood at the kitchen window recently, washing up the breakfast dishes, listening to Martyn Joseph, looking out at a familiar (gloomy and mizzley) kind of Northern Irish morning.

And I felt so at home.

Literally, figuratively.

If my husband had been about his ears would have picked up at the gravelly tones of the Welsh man.  He goes on ‘pensive alert’ when he hears me listening to Martyn Joseph.  (What is she thinking about NOW?)

The rain is a strange kind of friend, he sings.  Lost my soul in the sound of the rain again.  My strange friend.

I stood at the kitchen window, feeling at home.  Pensive.  A little melancholy, even.  And I thought that THIS is what faith feels like to me now.  And I realised that maybe it always will.

*

There is a verse in Jeremiah that reads like this in the Message:

“The light you always took for granted will go out and the world will turn black.”

The light you always took for granted.

Doesn’t that line resonate deeply with any of us who grew up careless in our certain faith, whose favourite songs were about light, about letting it shine?

I once danced in a conga line around an Eastern European university campus singing “We are marching in the light of God.”  I know, now, that a novelty dance paired with a protest song (true meaning then lost on me) wasn’t an expression of true faith, or light.  But still, it’s easy to look back and say my faith then was strong, and my pensive, rainy-day faith is not.

*

A few years ago, when my children were at their tiniest and I couldn’t find a place for my tiredness and neediness at church on a Sunday morning, I found it on a Thursday night in a Belfast pub.

We got a last minute babysitter, drove through the November dark and rain, to slip in to a gig that was half over, just in time to hear Martyn Joseph sing “are you down to your last ray of hope?”.

And I thought how hard it could feel, when you slip in to the back row of church, but how good it felt, here.

I thought how, maybe, if those were always the opening lines we heard in church, then more of us would stay.

*

In Eugene Peterson’s introduction to Jeremiah he explains how in a time when everything that could go wrong did go wrong, Jeremiah was in the middle of it all, writing it out.  He says:

“Anyone who lives in disruptive times looks for companions who have been through them earlier, wanting to know how they went through it, how they made it, what it was like.  In looking for a companion who has lived through catastrophic disruption and survived with grace, biblical people more often than not come upon Jeremiah and receive him as a true, honest, and God-revealing companion for the worst of times.”

Today Addie Zierman’s book Night Driving releases, and people are writing out their stories of faith in the dark for her synchroblog.  I first stumbled across Addie Zierman one tired morning when my youngest was a newborn and her post, Come Weary, was simply the best thing I could have read. Then I discovered she was writing about cynicism like it mattered, that she was de-constructing Christian clichés and reclaiming a faith that had been oversimplified.  From then on I read everything she wrote. For me, reading Addie provides company, breathing space and a way forward in this faith journey.

Addie says that one of her least favourite things about Christian culture is how quickly we skip over the dark spaces of our stories to get to the redemption and beauty and light.  And so she is telling the truth about her own darkness (most often Depression) in her new book, and holding space for others in her synchroblog.

Darkness, for me, comes from not being able to make sense of things, it comes when I think I am ‘the only one’, it comes from the world outside our stained glass windows, and, some days, it just comes from the ‘tired thirities’.

Faith in the dark, though, is a hopeful phrase to me.  It sounds right. Stubborn.  Persisting anyway – scouring sponge in hand.  It’s not a faith that dances the conga, but it’s listening and looking, and it has found companions.

When I think of faith in the dark I think of those companions.  Jeremiah, MJ, Addie, my friend Rachel.  And if the hardest thing about seeing the light you always took for granted grow dim is that you feel you are somehow letting the team down, well then the best thing is that you become the companion when others find themselves in the dark.  I am not going to be leading any revivals, but I am the girl people text when they’ve fled to the church foyer choking back tears or shaking with anger, and I think I’ve learnt that’s important, too.

 

Now the clowns and clairvoyants are aiming at true
In the babble, the rabble, I’m still headed for you
Those masters of war never did go away
And though the bleak sky is burdened I’ll pray anyway
And though irony’s drained me I’ll now try sincere
Cause whoever it was that brought me here
Will have to take me home…

Martyn Joseph

 

 

 


 

PS! These are some of my favourite posts from Addie: More Than You Can Handle, God-Shaped Hole, Anywhere, Anything: On Worship and Hyperbole, Making Your Faith Your Own, An Open Letter to the Church: How to Love the Cynics and The Church & The Cynics: Some Final Thoughts.

Making the Wild Things Straight

Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced. While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream.

[Matthew 1: 19-20 The Message]

Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let him – whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend – be our companion

[Henri Nouwen]

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When Liv pukes in the car on her outing to the Christmas tree farm, we deal with it the way we always deal with mess. I am ready at the back door for them getting back, alerted by text. Cleaning supplies at the ready. She is stripped down on the door mat. Clothes straight into machine. Wipes straight into plastic bags. Chris cleans the car mats outside, I clean the child and by the time the washing machine is spinning and the mats are back in place and the sudded up child is watching Charlie and Lola, you wouldn’t know anyone had puked.

We think we are dealing with mess and vomit, but really we are dealing with machines and convenience materials and waste disposal. We pride ourselves on our efficiency. Eliminate the smell and the lumpy bits. Sanitise. Straighten up.

*

When we traipse round the muddy Santa trail in the dark we think we are earthy, outdoorsy kind of people. No shiny shopping centres for us! We return to the car caked in mud and smelling of camp fire. The girls are sticky from toasted marshmallows and spilt hot chocolate. But we deal with the mess the way we always deal with mess. Layers removed before they can touch car seats. Wipes used and bagged up. Welly boots straight into the box that’s ready in the boot.

*

For those of you who know Chris you can imagine what he is like trying to straighten a Christmas tree.

I watch him out the kitchen window pushing and prodding the branches, trying to make a wild thing straight.

*

I am attracted to words like ‘wild’ and ‘messy’, words like ‘discomfort’. I think I love them.  I gravitate towards other messy mums and to people who talk about their faith as messy, especially at Christmas.

Yet I often struggle to tolerate mess, wildness and discomfort.  I struggle with everything that is unresolved, even though the poets write so beautifully about it.

I want it bagged up, cleaned, or discarded.

*

When I watch Chris carefully bend those branches, watch him fully lost in ‘Operation Christmas Tree’ (how to acquire, transport and set up a Nordman Fir in your home with minimal mess and zero unanticipated moments), well, I wonder about Joseph, what kind of a man he was.  Was he a man like Chris… one who liked a plan and order, one who just, always, wanted to do the right thing? I imagine Chris having to deal with angels and an unexplained pregnancy. I can imagine they might have said about him, later, that he was a noble man… described him trying to deal with things quietly, trying to figure a way out.

*

I often find myself, in December, imagining the characters in my own life right into the nativity script.  I know my imagination doesn’t come close.

I often find myself, in December, saying I love the messiness of the Christmas story, the wildness, the humanity.

But, truthfully, isn’t it hard to tolerate?

When can we move on to the bit where everything is cleaned up, straightened or discarded, washing machine whirring comfortingly beside us?

I understand how some of our songs and traditions have sanitised Christmas.  I understand the urge to try to make the wild things straight.

*

I often find myself, in December, reflecting on the year with frustration at my messiness and humanity, at the things I haven’t manage to discard yet.  In January I pick a ‘word for a year’ and in December I have to make peace with how that’s worked out for me!  In December I want to apologise for the ways I’m still messy, for being so human as a wife and a mother and so on.

In December I come back to this crazy story and think of how we would all try to get out of it, how often I am trying to get out of it still.

But Henri Nouwen says that the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation is that we are not alone on our journey.  “God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving towards the house of peace and joy…  The challenge is to let God be who he wants to be... Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost.  Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone.”

And so for everything that we cannot straighten, or tolerate or really admit to, there’s the great mystery of Christmas: we are not alone  on our journey.  I find myself here every December – messy, chagrined, comforted and consoled.

Story

‘What if we agreed that there is always more to us than one essay, one conversation, one moment, one admission?  People are nuanced and complex; we are not just the organizations we lead, the coalitions we identify with, the drums we beat, the churches we belong to, the friends we keep, that one thing we said or did.’ 

[Jen Hatmaker]

‘Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.’ 

[Anne of Green Gables]

I love that C.S.Lewis quote ‘We read to know we’re not alone’.  It is a powerful thing to find company in the pages of a book.  It is why I read a novel every single night in bed. It’s why I read memoirs and poetry and blog posts and the psalms.  It’s why, as a special needs English teacher, when people tell me the most important thing is ‘functional literacy’, I say no, the most important thing is story.

We read to know we’re not alone.  We read for the relief and hope of “Me too”.

Anne Lamott says “Me too” is the most  powerful sermon in the world. I know I am always listening for it, looking for it, measuring how worthwhile a book or conversation is, right up against it.

It’s a powerful, beautiful thing.  I thought I was the only one. I’m not. 

And it’s the same when I write.  I discover I’m not as alone as I thought I was.  All the filters I had about who could relate to me were wrong.  When people say “me too” it’s a powerful, beautiful thing.

But there’s another powerful thing: when we can’t say “Me too”, but we pay attention to someone’s story anyway.

Last weekend I wrote about struggling in a big church. Two nights later the minister of that big church sat in my living room and asked questions and listened and made me feel known.  Some of our conversation centred around Rachel Held Evans‘ new book ‘Searching for Sunday’ which he is reading and which he, quite rightly, recommended to me.  And here’s the thing: he is reading it even though her experience is different to his.  He says it’s not his story, but he can understand it.

I love that – honouring someone’s story even when you don’t feel the “Me too” – listening, noticing, realising it is important.  He told me to keep writing, even though I wrote something that disheartened him the first time he read it.

Brené Brown has influenced  me a lot in recent years and I love this quote of hers:

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Owning our story is hard.  The recovering people-pleaser in me wants a different one, maybe one they could use in a glossy church brochure.  Telling our story is hard.  As I have written before – we don’t want anyone to laugh at us or raise their sceptical eyebrows or to simply not pay attention.

But Brené Brown is right, it is worth it, and not nearly as hard as running from it.  I have been blessed with the healing “me too”, both in what I read and what I write.  But this week I have been blessed with something else too, and I wonder, do I look for like-mindedness too much?  What do I lose, or miss, in my quest for ultimate compatabilty? 

Sometimes I read something that is beautiful and healing, but then I pick it up like armour, like an argument. I use it as cement to set my part-formed feelings against some other way of thinking. What-she-said-not-what-he-said-kinda-thing.  My story’s more valid than your story.

I remind myself of the recurring rally-cry of the West Wing: “Let Bartlet be Bartlet.” I remind myself  that politicians, leaders, ministers, all of us, lead best and live best as ourselves.  So I believe in owning my own story?  Then,  I believe in others owning theirs, too.

This week Connie Hunter owned her story with courage and made public a blog she began writing 3 weeks after her husband Craig died unexpectedly.  It is worth carving out some time and reading every entry.  Her writing is a gift to anyone who can relate to her pain, they will feel less alone.  But her writing is also a gift to those of us who can only imagine.  You can read it here.

*

I will always read to know I’m not alone (my go-to-writers with their fragile faith, anxious thoughts and unconventional ways). But I also read to be stretched, informed, enriched, changed and provoked. I read to be moulded. I read to add something to my character, and experience. I read to have access to other souls and other minds.  I read to access collected wisdom.  I read to know what it’s like for someone else.

What about you?  What helps you to own your story? Do you default towards stories that comfort or challenge you?  How can we honour each other?

Ask for the Ancient Paths

‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls’

[Jeremiah 6:16]

crossroads

I can’t quite seem to swallow the lump in my throat when it comes to church. I can’t seem to sing, at the end of church, without feeling the burn of how weary I am. I stand there, not singing, heavy with disappointment in my tired, needy, letting-the-team-down-self.

This is not a criticism of the particular church I have been going to. It’s just, I tell my husband, I have to work really hard to feel like my faith matters.

***

I have been spending some time with Jeremiah’s words since I listened to this podcast (scroll down) a few months ago.

I listened to it again this morning in the quiet of my kitchen, all of it bringing rest to my weary soul. The kitchen is quiet because my daughters and husband are at Church. Truth is, in this season of life, that’s a gift to me. My husband and daughters are at Church. I am also at church – the kitchen, the quiet, the podcast. I hear that criticised, sometimes, those of us who claim church in the quiet, on our own. But this morning I heard Jeremiah say ‘Stand at the crossroads and look’, which is what I’m doing, and it may take some time.

***

I have written before how healing Adam S McHugh’s book Introverts in the Church was for me.  I bear it in mind a lot when I have All the Feelings about church. I remember that I over-think and am overly sensitive.  Reading the book has helped me understand my own reactions and given me tolerance for feeling out of place. It has also given me permission to practice Christian spirituality in ways that fit who am I – like this morning, like the kitchen.

Because I went through a ranty season, toward Church in general, I can struggle, now, to voice my discomfort. I don’t want to be critical! But I couldn’t quite swallow the lump in my throat so I decided to be honest about it, and I have started to feel like I might know which way to go.

***

I love the chapter in Philip Yancey’s book ‘What Good is God?’ about AA where he shares his friend George’s shrewd observation that while people feel uncomfortable to arrive late to church, that in AA if a person shows up late “the meeting comes to a halt and everyone jumps up to greet the latecomer, aware that their tardiness may be a sign that the addict almost didn’t make it.”

It is easy to rant about Church, I know. Church isn’t about finding our ‘perfect fit’ and it does our souls no good to pick and choose and rate like consumers.

Yet. Some of us almost don’t make it. And when we turn up, if there’s choice in the matter, shouldn’t it be somewhere we have room to breathe? And might that look different for me from how it looks for you? Might it be true that the mass of worshippers in the big church are authentic and the decisions they make as they get out of their seats for the Altar Call will change them, but at the same time, I am not called to force myself to worship there, God isn’t asking me to get into the aisle.

***

Yancey writes about how some of George’s church friends tire of his ongoing struggle. ‘Aren’t you done with that issue yet?’ they ask. And this is what George says: ‘I realise that for the rest of my life, I can go to AA meetings and nobody will ask me, “Aren’t you finished with all this talk about your alcoholism?” They will just say, “Keep coming back – glad you could make it.”

The sign at the front of the little Church we have started going to says “Welcome. We’re glad you are here” and I believe it. Who knows why my soul finds more rest here than somewhere else? Maybe it’s the ways in which it (ironically) reminds me of the church I grew up in, maybe it’s the old wooden pews, maybe it’s the winding country roads, maybe it’s the trees. Maybe it’s the people who notice us and the minister who sits in our living room and tells us his own story.

***

I love these words from Galations in the Message: “Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.”

I think about that a lot. I’m going to think about it more this year. Making a careful exploration of who we are is important. Doing the creative best we can with our lives is important. (These verses are like a biblical recommendation for Myers-Briggs!)

This year I’m trying to take more responsibility for being an INFJ and explore how that impacts my life at the intersections of motherhood, work and faith. I think the creative best can apply to where we worship, too… that exploring who we are also relates to church and allows for differences between us. And let’s not miss this: Don’t compare yourself with others.

***

I started this blog-post many Sunday mornings ago.

After standing at the ‘crossroads’ for some time we started heading for the country roads and sitting on the wooden pews.

Do you remember that old Jewel song we used to love? Life Uncommon? My daddy had it taped repeatedly on an old cassette and we used to belt it out together in the car. Now he has it on his iPhone and every time I’m at the old homestead I hear it floating down the stairs:

“Lend your voices only to sounds of freedom, No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from”.  

To be fair, dad drowns Jewel out and I feel, always, he’s singing it for me.

Stand at the crossroads and look.

Do not compare yourself to others.

Honour the lump in your throat.

No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.

Find your mega church or your country church or your podcast or your support group. Sink yourself into it. Find rest for your souls.