Category Archives: Christianity

2015: A Lot Can Happen in A Year

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A lot can happen in a year.

Keep that in mind when you feel the singlest of all singles, are miserable in your job, have no money, don’t love the city in which you live, and lack a close circle of friends nearby. I’ll give you some insight into my 2015 as a pretty spot-on example of this truth.

Most of you know that in 2015, I met the love of my life, got engaged to him, and married him. But that was just the second half! (Wowza.)

During the first two months of the year, I reached a level of unhappiness that I could barely handle. I was struggling to get over an ex who broke my heart (shocker), pseudo-dating a new guy that was not at all ready for a relationship (neither was I), living in a house with people who had a different lifestyle than me (not bad, just different), lost in a town where I had no roots, and quickly approaching a breaking point with a job that was tedious (to me) and occasionally– due to one or two higher-ups– demeaning.

By mid-February, I [finally] started feeling the weight of hurt from my ex lift from my shoulders, had an awesome– albeit very single– Valentine’s Galentine’s Day with my roommate, and began delving back into my lifelong passion for horseback riding as a way to rejuvenate my love for life. With those little rays of light as fuel, I began actively choosing to be happier via deliberate change (my favorite mantra). From then on, things started falling into place.

I rededicated myself to church, prayer, and my relationship with God, all of which had fallen by the wayside due to my frustration with life and in turn, God. I took serious steps towards relocating, which led to an apartment and job opportunity in Virginia Beach. I said goodbye to an office full of [mostly] people I loved, friends that I valued very much (I had amazing friends, just not a unified circle), my favorite Starbucks barista (everyone has one…right?), and nearly two years worth of memories. A total life overhaul.

Most people don’t even realize that I lived in Arlington for two years. Everyone assumes I lived in New York City, then moved straight back to Virginia Beach. Sometimes my years in Arlington feel like a dream, when in reality, they were 22 of the most challenging and growth-filled months of my life. It was tough to uproot the little life I had created, but I was paving the way for so much more.

I met my future husband a few hours after I signed my new lease in Virginia Beach in April. The day after that, I landed a new job. A month later, I officially moved “home.” By July, I knew Aaron and was the man with whom I would spend my life. I was engaged by August, married by December. I’m still very close to some of my old coworkers/boss, live one block from the beach and five minutes from my loving family, am more financially secure than I’ve been in a long time, feel spiritually refreshed, and have an awesome circle of friends who all live on the same road as me. I still talk to all of my friends from NYC and Arlington (one of them for 3 hours last night), while also having more time to dedicate to this blog, singing, and other hobbies I love.

I started out 2015 in one of the biggest slumps I’ve ever experienced and ended 2015 happier than I knew was possible.

2015

My life is proof that, yes, a lot can change in a year. But you know one thing that hasn’t? How much I absolutely cherish this blog and all of you who read it.

In the last 365 days, I was stopped at my college homecoming, bars, and random events by the most inspiring and uplifting Generation grannY readers who wanted to introduce themselves. I received encouraging and heartfelt messages from people I’ve never met all around the country. I was told about friends of friends of friends who have discussions that spur from topics on this blog. My heart was absolutely overwhelmed with love and motivation!

There is no feeling quite like connecting with the dynamic, kind, and thoughtful strangers and friends who support Generation grannY. It has become something of a community, and “thank you for reading” does not even begin to cover my gratitude. Writing here brings me joy, and every time you share one of my posts, comment, send me a message, or tell me that you appreciated something I wrote, that joy is amplified and multiplied tenfold.

I love you all! I can’t WAIT to share with you some BIG changes for Generation grannY coming in 2016, and to keep growing this incredible circle of followers (official and nonofficial!). Cheers to a new year! Remember– there’s always opportunity to make it even more wonderful than the last!

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I Don’t Want to Die Alone

Ninety percent of the single, female population is worried they will end up alone. Maybe the other tenth is completely unconcerned about their romantic futures—and society clings to these emotionally blessed women to tell the other 90% how they are “supposed” to feel—but realistically, most women over the age of 25 want a steady, loving relationship. (I said most—not all. Don’t freak out.) And if they don’t have one, they’re concerned that something is wrong with them. One of my single friends is convinced that a troll lives in her lady parts, another thinks she’s doomed because she doesn’t like wearing bright colors (?), and I was the girl who was sure I had a chip missing—the one that makes people lovable.SIM card

I imagined the shape and size of this Love Chip. It was gold and looked exactly like those SIM cards in your smart phones. When creating me, God was supposed to insert it somewhere between my Frontal Lobe and Parietal Lobe, but He decided I could live without it. The exclusion was not a mistake. God does not make mistakes. He purposefully omitted this chip so that I would become an independent spinster who could channel all of her energy into writing books about some unidentified important subject that would inspire the masses. God knew I would learn to be okay with this, mostly because I’d have no other choice.

Every relationship I entered ended with the words, “I think you’re perfect and here are all the reasons why you’re the greatest, but I don’t know why something is missing.” Okay, not every relationship ended this way. Only, like, five. And by relationship, I just mean people I dated for two months or more. Details aside, the red flag during these conversations was the laundry list of all of the reasons these guys said they “should” want to be with me. Anyone who has seen the real me (i.e. the hangry girl listening to unsolicited career advice from my father), knows that the word “perfect” should never, ever, under any circumstance be used to describe me. Obviously, I was trying too hard to compensate for the missing chip, so bachelors never saw my bad side, and therefore could not pinpoint the reason why they were ending things. I should have known that any behavioral efforts to be more lovable would be futile, however. No amount of determination can replace a Love Chip. Since the men were so perplexed about the break ups, themselves, the only closure I ever received was self-acknowledgment of this missing chip.

When Aaron told me that he loves me only two months after meeting each other, and two weeks after he first called me his girlfriend, I thought he was confused. This was partly because it accidentally slipped out when he was telling a random story over Mexican food, and partly because of my Love Chip predicament. With Aaron, I had not behaved in a way I thought to be ideal. Since I knew things would not work out in the long run—how else would I end up alone?—I gave in to my less than perfect ways. I rudely complained that he needed to pay for more meals because I was poor, I didn’t shave my legs every day, and I openly told him that my friends and I looked at pictures of his ex-girlfriend. I also told him that sometimes his wardrobe choices come across kind of gay. These are not tactics I would suggest to anyone looking to nail down a solid relationship.

Here we are, 68 days from getting married, and I’m beginning to believe that I have the Love Chip, after all. The right person just needed to flip the “on” switch. Aaron really, really loves me (and I really, really love him). He makes me a sandwich every morning before work and always puts my keys somewhere I can easily find them. He gives me a professional-grade massage once a day, forces me to go to the gym with him when I’m too lazy to motivate myself, and keeps a bag of potato chips in the car for emergency situations of unforeseen hanger. One time when I was stressed out, he pulled into a Rite Aid parking lot and asked me questions about pageants because he knew that would distract me from my angry tirade at the cars around us. I regret to report that it worked. Last night, he selflessly let me watch Dancing with the Stars as he fed me chocolate cake. Today, he’s taking my car to get re-inspected while I’m at work…oh, and he handily fixed all of the parts that failed the original inspection so that I wouldn’t have to pay those stupidly high labor rates. Honestly, I thank God that all of those other guys bailed. Aaron is an enigma, and a gift you unwrap for life. (Yes, I just quoted Ian from Kaitlyn’s season of The Bachelorette.)

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Don’t worry, I do nice things for him, too. I squeeze his biceps and encourage him in his career and ignore the fact that he has 23 squirrel carcasses in his freezer. (That is not a joke.) But this post isn’t about whether or not I’m capable of loving. It’s about the feeling so many women get when they’re single—the dread that plagues their hearts with fear of never being loved back.

I use Aaron’s love as an example of why you can never assume the worst. I can’t promise that every single woman will find a really hot guy who makes the best biscuits and gravy ever and also happens to be a gifted engineer who protects our country, but I can promise that everyone’s story is different. In a good way. Sure, it may sound more appealing to meet someone when you’re 23, therefore avoiding years of third-wheeling couple friends and escaping the dark hole that is online dating. But women who are deeply happy in their marriages all have one thing in common: they are happy to have waited as long as they did for the right person. I was 26 when I met Aaron. My sister-in-law’s sister-in-law met my sister-in-law’s brother when she was 29 (you follow?). My stepmom met my dad when she was 36. I know tons of couples who met in their 40s. Some met in their 50s. And I’ve read Chicken Soup for the Soul stories about couples that met at nursing homes in their 80s. I really hope you don’t have to wait until you’re 80, but at least we know that love feels just as magical at any age and any stage of life.

I hated when people told me “your time will come.” How do you know?? I know plenty of middle-aged women who are awesome and wanted marriage, yet never met the right person. Here’s the truth: We don’t really know if or when our time for love will come. Everyone has a Love Chip (activated or not), though, so instead of believing that God intended for you to be single forever, try believing that He is doing what is best for you. That could mean your love story doesn’t pan out as you imagined, but you can still be happy.

I’ll tell you this: Even though my “time has come,” as they say, I am not instantly without fear for my future. Now, I fear losing Aaron. What if he gets cancer when we’re 40? What if he gets hit by a car and forgets who I am? What if he stops enjoying sushi and is not the man I thought he was? Being engaged or married without trust in God is just as scary as being single without trust in God. Because—news flash—we will never know the future. We’ll never know if or when we’ll find someone, if or when we’ll lose someone, or if or when we’ll even see tomorrow. So, just as I wrestled with surrendering to a life of being single each time I was dumped or had no prospects, I wrestle with surrendering to a life without Aaron, in case that is God’s will.

The only thing that can possibly give us comfort during any stage of life and love is trusting in a greater plan. One that allows us to feel joy for eternity, not just in this blink-of-an-eye lifetime. That may sound depressing—but it’s not. We can’t do anything about the fact that the future is out of our control, so how fortunate are we that there is a consistent way to find peace? This isn’t to say that you won’t feel pain if you live your life alone, or that I wouldn’t feel despair if I lost Aaron, but at least there is always a way to find the light.

If you’re single, there is nothing inherently wrong with you. (Still keep working on yourself—it can’t hurt.) And great guys do exist. Even if you don’t believe in God, I can assure you that those two statements are true. Cling to stories like mine or my sister-in-law’s sister-in-law or the 80-year-olds at the nursing home to keep your hope alive. Hoping for love is not a bad thing. Just remember that there is a greater purpose to everyone’s story. Sometimes we’ll see that purpose clearly, and sometimes it won’t be revealed to us at all, but it’s our choice to believe that it’s for some sort of good. It may be easier for me to say these words now, when I’m on a love high, but I also aim to believe them if and when I’m at a love low.

The most important thing when it comes to love is simply to acknowledge that we are not in control—and to stop fearing the worst about ourselves (or the dating pool). Instead, embrace your story. As long as you continuously strive for a positive mindset and faith, it’ll be a good one.

View More: http://abbygracephotography.pass.us/aaron-shannon-engagement

Loving this story right now ❤

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Parallel Bible App: A Social, Visual Bible

A picture is worth a thousand words.

The Millennial generation seems to agree. With Instagram precariously close to overthrowing Twitter as the new king of social media, and Snapchat clawing at its heels, digital communication continues to evolve in the direction of simpler, more visual mediums. What started with a Facebook status turned 140-character Twitter post, is now a well-timed photo to creatively capture an emotion, thought or event.

In order for a message to reach the masses, it must be presented in a way the masses are willing to receive — and that way has certainly changed in the last decade. This proves a particularly difficult challenge in religious circles where tradition and sacred texts are honored despite cultural changes over time. If religiously historic ideals and teachings are to reach rising generations, however, the communication medium has to shift.

Though words remain necessary in preserving the accuracy of authors’ intentions, a visual component to ancient script would ensure continued interest and personalized investment from devout followers in an increasingly secular world. Additionally, a social component that would allow these followers to connect with strangers and friends at their fingertips is practically a modern requirement for drawing widespread attention. For Christianity, that’s where Parallel Bible comes in.

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Parallel Bible is the world’s first social, visual Bible, according to co-founders and brothers, Andrew and Chris Breitenberg. “Think Instagram meets scripture,” they say. In short, Parallel Bible is an app that lets people interpret scripture through a less structured lens by connecting personal photos with passages found in the Bible. Users can share photos they’ve already taken, and either tag a scripture that came to mind when taking the picture, or search for a scripture to match what they captured on camera. Over time, much of the Bible will have pictures attached in display of individual and artistic interpretations. Besides scrolling through photo feeds (as seen on Instagram), Parallel Bible also offers the option to read the written text with its Bible Reader function, which includes all tagged images below each corresponding verse.

“We want to change the paradigm from just reading to participating with the text in a way that makes it more real. When the words become more real to people, they become more powerful,” said Chris. “It took Andrew and I a long time to feel comfortable reading the Bible and feeling a sense of ownership of the words and what they hold for our personal lives. It was a journey, and we want to help make that road more exciting and beautiful for other people.”

During his graduate work in Amsterdam, Andrew felt compelled to tackle scriptural analysis from a new angle. “Why is it hard to open sometimes?” “Why is it still rice paper and gilt edges and bound with glue and leather?” “Why, in a visual age, are there no pictures?” “Does it have to stay this way?” Though Andrew’s questions challenged the very nature of the Bible’s historical traditionalism, he knew the scriptures would reach more people if presented in a more contemporary, stimulating, and dynamic fashion.

Led by the hope to create spiritual conversation through artistic measures, Andrew moved to South Africa and began a street art initiative called Selah. His movement addressed the visual poverty of the Bible in its modern day form by working in the streets and slums of South Africa, painting scripture in vivid colors on dilapidated walls and structures. Through collaboration with residents, the projects were such a success in the townships that Andrew knew the next step was to create a social media platform where anyone could contribute to the illumination of a new, digital Bible.

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Selah art in South Africa

“The Bible was once an oral tradition and then became a written tradition,” said Andrew. “Our vision is to create the new social, visual tradition of the Bible — an entirely unique way of conceiving and sharing Scripture, putting it into new hands, and ultimately of changing lives.”

Chris came on board shortly after the idea was formed, and the pair eventually took the plunge to develop the app full time, purely out of passion for its potential to positively alter spiritual perspective.

“[Parallel Bible] is to see things in a way that we haven’t seen them before. Through the help of strangers, we might understand something that a pastor, a parent or a close friend could never explain. Maybe a totally random person who posts a picture of her daughter could speak to me in a way that a million sermons never could,” he advocated.

As society shifts into an ever-growing digital age, personal networks, businesses, governments, and even religions must make adjustments to cater to minds that are trained to communicate and absorb information through social media. When it comes to Christianity, the Breitenberg brothers hope this is only the beginning for a new wave of Biblical interpretation and expression.

“It’s not just an old book that’s complicated and esoteric and strange, but something that is alive in our lives and we experience in actions and emotions and pictures,” Chris explained. “We want to give people a connection to the text that is experiential, meaningful, and ultimately transformational.”

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Imagine

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2010 Miss Virginia send off party

I can’t even imagine. I’ve heard those words a lot this week.

Two years have passed since my mom died. Two years since I was singing with my brother at the foot of her bed, watching her heart pump vigorously as it struggled to do its job. Two years since I fixated on the rise and fall of her chest for hours, nervously waiting for her breathing to change like I’d read about in hospice pamphlets. Two years since at 3:20 p.m., it changed.

After acknowledging the shortened breaths and gathering everyone upstairs, I held my mom’s right hand and choked out Jesus is Lord alongside my brother, sister-in-law, grandmother, stepdad, and I think a few others- though it’s hard to recall. I vividly remember sensing the exact moment that she left us, but I continued to sing and stare at her chest, willing it to move again. My stepdad finally broke in and said something along the lines of “You guys, I think she’s gone.”

At that moment, I thought something earth-shattering would occur. My mom was no longer here. I couldn’t laugh with her, ask her what to do, feel her hug me, or simply hear her voice. Surely, the world would shift. But nothing happened. Weirdly enough, instead of nothing being the same, everything was the same. I picked up my cell phone to call my dad, and the touch screen worked like it always had. Later that night, my brother’s in-laws made burgers, which tasted like burgers do. The next morning, I woke up early to see my little brother off to his first day of third grade, and all the kids darted onto the bus like normal. Everything was the exact same.

Just like the amazing people who comforted me this week, I couldn’t imagine losing my mom until it actually happened. Seeing the flickers of pain and imagined empathy on the faces of my friends jolted me back to when I was in their shoes, before those final moments I just described.

Imagining the unknown was awful- maybe even more awful than the reality. Don’t get me wrong. Losing your mother is terrible. Most definitely. That part is easy for everyone to imagine, though. What’s not easy to imagine, and what I want to share with everyone reading this, are the parts that stay the same…or even more surprising, the good parts:

I knew I had insanely dedicated friends before my mom passed away, but the amount of texts, calls, and random acts of kindness that I’ve received over the last two years is astounding. The more love I’ve felt, the more I’ve pushed myself to be a better friend in return. I’ve learned how to be effectively supportive of other people through following examples of active compassion shown me, which will undoubtedly make the rest of my life more meaningful, mentally expansive, and fulfilling.

I’ve never struggled with body image to the extreme extent that many young women my age do, but I’ve certainly had my insecure moments. Since losing my mother, however, the way I see my body is drastically different. My mom always made fun of her legs- muscular, short runner legs with varicose veins and calves so big that she could never wear boots. I remember rubbing my mom’s leg as she laid in her hospital bed and thinking how perfect it was. It was hers. They were the legs that I sat on when I was a little girl. They were the legs that jumped up and down when she got excited. They were the legs that patiently stood in the lobby after every pageant and performance as she waited to give me a hug. I now look at my imperfections through those lenses, knowing that my body is a unique shell that the people I love associate with my soul. Those who matter- myself included- don’t value me based on its “beauty” or “flaws,” so bring on the boat parties and makeup-less mornings.

My mom and I had an extremely close relationship, so she gave me tons of advice over the years. I am sure that I could have continued learning from her year after year, but losing the ability to talk to her has forced me to open up to other wise women in my life. I’ve learned far more from my grandmother, stepmom, discipler, and friends’ moms than I would have if I hadn’t lost my primary confidant.

These positives, along with others, exist as a result of losing my mom. Of course I wish she was still here, but life has a way of taking care of you. I still can’t imagine what it’d be like to go through tragedies different from my own, but at least in this case, I’ve found that with the right support system and faith, it’ll all be okay. The whole motivation for this post is the hope that someone, or multiple someones, finds that over-used and under-grasped phrase comforting. It’ll all be okay.

All that’s left for me to imagine about losing my mother is what it was like for her to meet God. I end with that, because it’s a pretty marvelous thing to imagine [<-click].

trust

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Square Peg, Round Hole

Yesterday, I read an entire book in one sitting. No, it wasn’t Where’s Waldo or Are You My Mother?, though it’s been too long since I’ve had a good Where’s Waldo challenge. Anyways, with my toes burrowed in the sand, the waves rolling dangerously close to my chair, and the sun wreaking havoc on my shoulders, I read a respectable 200+ page account of a fashion blogger’s life-altering accident when hit by a plane propeller. Her name is Lauren Scruggs, popularly known as LoLo. You may have seen her story on the news back in 2011, when the world became fascinated by how someone entrenched in an appearance-driven industry could exude such incredible positivity in readjusting to life without a left eye or hand.

Lauren "LoLo" Scruggs post-accident

Lauren “LoLo” Scruggs post-accident

I’ll admit, I’d vaguely heard her story and was under the impression that she was a jet-setting model who somehow walked into a propeller while exiting a luxurious private airplane. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a jet-setting model, but it’s ridiculous how the media misconstrues things about a person’s personality or circumstances. Lauren is not a dumb blonde super model who casually strolled into a plane propeller with a Louis Vuitton bag in tow. No, she is a young writer and entrepreneur in the fashion industry who was taking a joy ride in a family friend’s tiny two seater. She used the wheel as a stepping block to exit the plane, which landed her right at the front of the aircraft- near the propeller. When plane propellers are in motion, they spin so quickly that they are pretty much invisible, given that you can see right through them. Add that to dark, rainy conditions, and any one of us could have walked around the plane and not seen the edge of a propeller. Only 1/16th of an inch of metal hit Lauren, but her skull cracked and lodged into her brain, her hand was completely severed, and her left eye was split in two- among other crushing injuries. In her book, Still LoLo, she describes her life up until that point and how her faith in God prepared her to keep moving forward in the most incomprehensible circumstance.

Along with every other human being on the planet, I have experienced ups and downs in life. What I’ve found is that ups and downs don’t necessarily reflect the difficulty of circumstances, rather the mental state in which I’m capable of coping with whatever hardship I face. People would probably assume that the hardest thing I’ve ever coped with is losing my mom to cancer. Oddly enough, that’s not the case. Yes, losing a parent is an overwhelming experience that never fully ends, but for the first few months, I only cried about once every other month. Thanks to the support and closeness of my last relationship, I now allow myself to truly miss my mom about once a week. It’s a bit tiring, but therapeutic to be in a space that I’m not brushing over any thoughts fear of being sad.  Although dealing with that loss is far from easy, my ability to cope has been made easier by my mom’s faith and the concrete separation- knowing there is nothing I can possibly do to get her back.

What leads me to my lowest valleys, even more so than dealing with my mom’s death, is losing people who are still here. Whether it’s a break up or natural growth away from close friends, I am not mentally capable of handling those partings as healthily (even though they’re not “technically” has devastating). If I’ve loved someone- friend or otherwise- I’ll always love them. I have never had a falling out with a friend or held a grudge towards an ex. This, in theory, is great- but also makes it difficult process why certain people can only be part of my life for a season. I want to love everyone forever! Each time I have to accept that a friendship/relationship is no longer what it once was, I become profoundly upset- even angry. Why do we become so close to other people, only to wake up one day and barely know them? What’s the point? And why would God bring people into your life, only to take them away?

These questions may garner cliché responses like “Everything happens for a reason” or “You learn lessons from each person who comes in and out of your life.” Those things are probably true, but Still LoLo helped me remember that sometimes the surest way to peace is accepting that we’ll never fully understand why hardships are placed upon us or why we handle certain struggles better than others. Part of Lauren’s story was written by her parents, who were married for 10 years, divorced for 7, then remarried to each other. Reading about their divorce and remarriage reminded me that although things may certainly feel devastating at the time, God is great enough to bring people back together in the most unforeseeable ways.

Aside from her parents’ story, I was so enthralled by Lauren, who is my age exactly, as she walked readers through the insecurities and questions that came with her new disabilities. She only kept moving forward because of her faith-based support group, comprised of people who constantly led her back to trusting God. Sometimes I plainly don’t like trusting Him because His rhyme and reason is rarely made clear in this lifetime. How frustrating. My friends and family know that nothing rattles me more than not understanding something. I’d rather keep thrusting my square-shaped plan that makes sense in my head into the circular hole that is my life’s path, instead of patiently waiting for God’s circular plan and my circular path to come together nicely.

For the past three months, I have been so frustrated with not understanding circumstances that I have blatantly been shoving my square peg into a round hole, thinking that at least that’s better than blindly sitting around wondering when God is going to do His big, bad thing. But the whole essence of faith is not understanding, and trusting anyway. I’ve gone through enough questioning to know that I definitely believe in God, so it’s about time I stop getting mad that my beliefs require me to be okay with not understanding. That’ll just be endlessly exhausting. I can either decide that God must not exist (which I’ve tried but, sorry, I’ve concluded that He does), or just “let go and let God.” I know I’ll never be really good at the latter, but thanks to a great beach read, I’m back on the right track. And hopefully, this blog will help you get there, too!

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God Is Good. All The Time.

Religion is a touchy (and huge) subject. We fear dissention, judgment, defensiveness, and all other negative reactions to or consequences of stating a belief that alienates other ideologies. Shake all that weirdness off your back before continuing to read this post, because I am about to address my personal experiences with God, church, and Christians I’ve encountered.

Christianity has been the most directly influential part of my life, but I rarely speak- much less write- about it. Why? Because my crossjourney has been unconventional, extreme, painful, negative, and at points, embarrassing.  It has also been positive, lifesaving, comforting, and uplifting. I’ve never wanted to speak of what I’ve been through because much of it revolves around mistreatment and poor leadership from the church in which I was raised. Talking about what happened in that church doesn’t sit well with me because I in no way think that the large majority of members harbor poor intentions, controlling tendencies, or mean spirits. I also don’t want my story to reflect poorly on God, in whom I fully believe and trust. Whether you’re reading this as a member of the church to which I refer, an ex-member, or have no idea what I’m talking about, I hope you keep in mind that my intentions are not to blanket an entire congregation.

Legalism seeps into organized religion because churches are made up of people. And people are inherently sinful. We mess up. We are not perfect. We easily become prideful, hypocritical, and selfish. For Christians, this is the whole reason Jesus existed- to nullify the unavoidable sins of human nature. Why are we surprised that churches make mistakes and at times hurt their members? After all, a church is nothing more than a body of individuals- and no individual, even a church leader, is exempt from poor choices.

I grew up in a nondenominational church my mother joined in 1991. The church was an international, evangelical movement with radical practices to ensure that its members followed the Bible’s commands. With what I am positive started with the honest objective to separate themselves from “Sunday Christians,” my church quickly lost sight of grace and love. Instead, deeds and rules became the focus.  Many of the members wanted nothing more than to love God and humbly live for Him, but a culture of extreme accountability, harsh rebukes, and guilt-driven requirements led to the suppression of those good intentions.

I went to church on Sundays and Wednesdays, bible talk on Mondays, and devotionals on Fridays. I met with my discipler (a person older in the faith assigned for accountability and mentorship) once a week. I participated in prayer groups, bible studies, quiet times and everything in between. If I befriended anyone outside of the church, I was told that I was being sinful unless I convinced them to join our church. Dating was to be only within the church, given permission from leaders. I had a dress code that included t-shirts and shorts at the beach, was constantly hounded to confess things that I did not necessarily feel or do, and felt pressured to alienate myself from anyone not within the church. These constraints and expectations were intended to keep us away from temptation, but only fueled people-pleasing, rather than God-pleasing, tendencies. I wanted so badly to delight God- truly- and was trained to do so by adhering to mandates of church leaders.

My mother never succumbed to raising me with a controlling hand, so none of these rules were of her making. My father was not part of the church, so naturally he did not enforce (or support) the legalism either. Eventually, my mom chose to leave the church in order to marry my stepdad- a man of extraordinary faith who the church did not permit my mom to marry since he was not baptized within their congregation. Her faith was not shaken by breaking ties with a man-made church, but my brother and I continued to attend since neither of us wanted to lose the world in which we lived and found comfort. After all, we distinctly separated ourselves from “the world” (non-members), so leaving the church would mean finding ourselves in unfamiliar, vast territory. My mother did not want that anxiety placed on us, knowing that the fragile teenage psyche could be easily devastated if rejected by the only community it’s ever known. Thus, she let us forge our own spiritual paths with God and this church, trusting in Him in a way I never appreciated until years and years later.

My older brother left the church after his first year in college. A rising senior in high school, I was told over and over how “strong” I was for being the only one in my family “left.” People who leave church are called “fall-aways”- and I was surrounded by them. Towards the end of my senior year, I remember telling my discipler that I wanted to move to NYC to pursue musical theatre, but was met with disapproval since my career passion was “too self-indulgent.” Mind you, a brilliant friend of mine in the church at the time wanted to go to medical school, but was told to pursue a less demanding academic track so that he could be trained for church leadership instead. Anything that was not about the church was considered wrong. Following the advice of church leaders, I accepted my admission to Christopher Newport University and focused on how I could best serve God through the campus ministry.

The summer before my freshman year at CNU, I was being rebuked for something I had done wrong (admittedly…after all, I was 18 and human), and for the first time, felt a twinge of “wait…is this actually how I should be treated right now?” The woman verbally punishing me for my sin asked “What do you think about all of this?” when she finished her spiel. I said, “I know that you’re telling me this out of love, and I just want to repent.” I meant it. I vividly remember her saying, “You know what, Shannon? I don’t even know if I’m doing this out of love. But I’m doing it because it’s right.”

Wait, what?

I chalked my initial offense at this statement up to the fact that I was being prideful. I had sinned, so who was I to focus on someone else- particularly my spiritual superior- doing something wrong towards me?

Despite other small instances nagging the back of my mind (ex: being told not to sing my prayers as I enjoyed doing because that relied too much on loving the sound of my own voice…here I was thinking I was given my voice to praise Him…?), I entered my freshman year with a strong desire to become a campus leader and bring as many people to the church as possible. A few months into my first semester, I met a sophomore guy who, well, I liked. I invited him to church and he became a member, but we secretly started dating since the church did not approve of our relationship (he was “too young of a Christian”). The lying and deceit to keep our relationship under wraps only spiraled into more and more sin until I couldn’t take the double life any longer. Just when we were on the brink of being exposed (my best friend had a hunch that something was going on), he and I confessed to everything.

It escalated quickly.

First, we were instructed to have no contact whatsoever until the church decided how they would handle the situation. In my boyfriend’s case, they called into question whether or not his conversion was legitimate. For me, they had to decide if I would be “disfellowshipped” (excommunicated from the church) since this was not my first offense. For two weeks following our confession, I met with leaders to be rebuked, questioned, and challenged. Leadership decided to tell the entire church body of my transgressions (based on Matthew 18:15). When reading that scripture, keep in mind that I still wanted to live for God and most definitely was listening to the church. But that’s a different matter.

I sat in front of everyone I knew as the leader behind the pulpit called me out by name and said that I’d been “immoral.” Immoral=had sex. Me in the audience=virgin. I swallowed the blow and decided it didn’t matter since only God was important. I needed to be humbled in front of the church. This was good for me. A few days later, I sat in a room in CNU’s Student Union and listened to a leader tell me over and over how stupid I was. “Shannon, you’re just stupid! You don’t lie and have a secret relationship unless you’re stupid. It’s one of the stupidest things anyone can do. You are stupid!” Super productive language. Among the countless meetings, only two or three people showed me any love or compassion.

Three weeks after the initial confession and plenty more cases of harsh guidance, my (ex?) boyfriend texted me to simply say that he was having a hard time. I didn’t know what he had been experiencing in those three weeks, but I figured if it was anything close to what I had, he must be pretty low. Without thinking, I responded “I’m really sorry.” After I pushed send, it hit me that I’d have to lie about sending that text if I didn’t want to be disfellowshipped. The whole point of confessing was because I didn’t want to lie anymore. I had one of two choices: Leave by force or leave on my own.

I wrote a letter to my roommate (a church member) and to the campus leader, then left town for the weekend, not wanting to be around for the reaction. I received emails and voicemails saying, “We know you’re with [ex-now new-boyfriend]. What is wrong with you?” along with an array other choice words. When I returned to campus on Sunday night, my roommate had moved out since she could no longer associate with me. A fall-away. I’d known her since I was eight.

Within the next few days, the only people I had ever been close to in life defriended me on Facebook. I later found out that a random married man in the church who I barely knew had messaged everyone on Facebook telling them to defriend me. Why did he care so much? Honestly, as I look back, it kind of creeps me out. Anyways, on top of losing all of my friends, I was scared of God. For nearly a year, I was convinced that a mailbox next to me would explode and I’d die and go to Hell. I thought that God hated me for leaving His church. I believed everything the church had taught me about fall-aways- and now I was one of them. Unlike many people who leave the church, I did not lose faith in God. I believed in Him. I just thought I was going to suffer eternally.

The members of the church sure didn’t help that notion. Ten days after I left was the Virginia Tech massacre. My ex-discipler- a campus leader and pastor’s daughter- texted me to say that it could have been at CNU, it could have been me, and I would have gone to Hell. I was terrified.

My boyfriend and I stayed together for about two years after leaving the church. I joined a sorority and an all-female a cappella group in order to develop new friendships. The women I met in those organizations showed me more unconditional love than I’d been taught in the 15 years I attended the church. I could trust that they weren’t talking about me behind my back under the pretense of “how Shannon is doing spiritually,” I knew they’d love me even if I left their organizations, and they forgave me for all of the things I did wrong.

Time went on and I became less fearful, but I also bottled-up a lot of my turmoil surrounding how I’d ever feel loved by God again.  I chose not to think about Him because I figured my demise in Hell was inevitable unless I returned to the church- and I simply did not plan to do that. Here and there, people popped up in my life that inspired me to accept God as loving and forgiving rather than jealous and wrathful, but I couldn’t fully get past the fact that these Christians did not belong to THE church…were they just watered-down and emotional followers? I grew up never trusting anyone’s faith outside of the church, so grasping outsiders’ hearts for God was far from easy.

After six years of no involvement with any sort of fellowship, my mother’s battle with cancer brought God right back to the forefront of my mind. Her faith during her five month ordeal was extraordinary. No one in the room with her during those last few weeks could deny God’s existence. Even my family members who were agnostic or atheist started believing in God because of the Holy Spirit that surrounded her. Awe-inspiring does not begin to cover it. Though my faith had never completely disappeared, I could no longer live without addressing it. When I held my mom’s hand as she passed away, my first thought was that she was meeting God at that very moment. How could that kind of comfort be ignored?

Over the last year and a half, I’ve slowly but surely refocused my life around God. It did not happen overnight, and I most certainly do not consider myself a “strong Christian.” But maybe that’s a term from my past that needs to stay in my past. I am a Christian. Period. I believe in God, strive to live within His will, and trust in the sacrifice of Jesus to cover over my multitude of sins. Mul. Ti. Tude. That’s for sure. I do not take advantage of His sacrifice, but in accepting my need for it, I think I fully understand its magnitude more so now than ever before. I know that my deeds are not what save me- it’s Jesus and my faith in Him. Yes, my deeds should reflect my faith, but that does not mean that I’ll never give into temptation or that I need to self-loath if I do. As my new spiritual mentor (dare I say…discipler?) recently explained to me- I am as pure as snow in God’s eyes each moment I repent and ask for his forgiveness. It’s as simple as that [snap!]. Again- this is not something of which to take advantage, but a concept that demonstrates how open God is to accepting our love and showering us with his own.

I am grateful for my time in “the church.” In it, I developed the foundation for my faith, learned the scriptures, stayed out of way more trouble as a teenager than had I been “normal,” and made amazing memories with people I still care deeply about. One of my best friends is still a member- she even had me in her wedding despite some protests from members who disapproved. I’m telling you, many affiliates of the church are wonderful, Godly people. Most importantly, I absolutely know that my involvement was for the greater good of my relationship with God, and that is something I can and will never regret.

A quick snapshot of my life now: I attend an awesome congregation in Northern Virginia that is full of people with deep beliefs and convictions. A woman whose faith and love reflects that of my mother (that is some high praise!) is my spiritual guide, and I am grateful for her every single day. She never berates or condemns me, but challenges me in areas of my life that she sees need to be more hinged on God. I know that she prays for me and trusts in God to will my actions, not in her own wisdom (though she has a stunning amount). I have friends that are both believers and non-believers, and I love them all equally. I love singing- mostly at karaoke these days- and drinking wine (Jesus turning water to wine is by far my favorite miracle, obviously). Guilt sometimes threatens to plague me, but with each day that I pray for God to remind me of His love and grace, that guilt is slowly turning into pure gratitude. All in all, I’m happy. Not because I give into doing whatever I feel like, but because everything in life has led me to a place where I get to lean on a perfect, loving, and forgiving God who will never leave me or forsake me. And as my mom said in her final hours- He is good. All the time.

god-is-love

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Mom

I’ve had a few people ask me to send them the eulogy I read at my mom’s funeral last week, so I thought I’d share it with everyone in hopes that we can all remember how truly amazing she was:

Many people say that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I think it’s safe to say that in this situation, that is not the case. We didn’t have to wait until my mom left us to recognize her extraordinary faith, genuine charm, breathtaking beauty, and selfless heart. My mom’s ability to light up her patients’ classrooms, our home, her offices, and her church was undeniable. Everywhere she went, she was easy to love. Not just because she was so incredibly pretty to look at and easy to talk to, but because her number one motivation and joy in life was her relationship with God. With a faith so strong, God’s light could be seen through her without her even needing to mention His name…though she did that often, too. Even during the last weeks, as we watched the unthinkable unfold before us, my mom’s unending belief in God’s unfailing love gave not only her complete peace, but those of us who love her so dearly. Her faith was her biggest gift to all of us and allows us to celebrate her life in trust she is with her precious Father, rather than mourn a concrete ending.

That being said, my mom’s time here was truly something to celebrate. I could talk about her adventures skiing in Vermont, riding elephants in Sri Lanka, climbing the ancient Pyramids in Egypt and Mount Fuji in Japan, or parasailing in Thailand, but instead I’m going to celebrate the time she spent in life as my and Jim’s mother. And I can say confidently that it was her favorite time in life. Mom said that the moment she held Jim in her arms 26 years ago, she had never been so happy and in love. Twenty-one months later, I arrived and she embraced being the most giving and energetic mother to both of us. Recently, she so beautifully explained to Jim that when you have more than one child, your love does not divide, it multiplies. Her unconditional devotion to raising us as confident and happy children manifested itself in outrageously time consuming homemade birthday cakes, Halloween costumes, and mother/daughter matching dresses on Easter. She was an amazing sewer- she even made my prom dress from scratch.

mom2

Turkey Trot 2011

Fast-forwarding through the terrifying years of raising two teenagers (I don’t know how she still loved us after those ones, but she was a woman of true strength), my brother and I have both been able to get to know my mom as adults in the last few years. Jim and my mom would spend every single Saturday morning that he was home from college, Richmond, or New York together, drinking coffee on the porch and discussing God, life, and, as Jim often reminded me- how to help Shannon survive in the world. She came to New York for Thanksgiving last year and taught Jim’s wife, Lindsay, how to make a Turkey and we all ran the five miler Turkey Trot as a family.  My mom was the only one in good enough shape to not be sore the next day. Jim got married in April, and my mom couldn’t have been prouder as she watched her perfect son marry a woman he loves so deeply. She and Jim took dance lessons to prepare for their dance at the wedding and, through the chemotherapy, exuded radiance as she celebrated in Jim’s happiness.

mom

Jim’s wedding

In my life, my mom has been my rock. She and I have always been close, and for these 24 years I could not be more grateful. My mom knew my heart in a way no one ever will. For instance, she sent me dog sledding for a week in negative 20 degrees with ten people I’d never met when I was going through my first real heartbreak, teaching me that stepping out of your comfort zone and pushing your limits will always bring life back into perspective. She supported all of my crazy endeavors, from pageantry to horseback riding to musical theatre. My mom had stage fright and she hated horses, yet she came to every single one of my pageants, bought a horse when I was in middle school, and could name most Broadway musicals. Pageants, in particular, she even got really into. I remember always having to hide programs in my house from any pageant friends who would come over because I didn’t want them to see all of the scores my mom would write next to each girl’s picture. I always got 10s. My mom and I talked nearly every single day in my young adulthood, and only my mom will ever actually enjoy listening to me go on and on about my feelings as much as I did. She also loved listening to Jim and I sing more than anyone else in the world. She never got sick of it. We sang to her nonstop the day she passed and eventually sent her off to meet God with our voices.

These 24 years, and 26 for Jim, with the best mother on earth are more valuable than a lifetime with anyone else. We will miss her so, so much. Her times of excitement when she’d practically jump up and down and clap with her giant smile, her times of advice-giving when she’d always end up saying “I just want you to be happy,” her serene face during her daily run through the neighborhood, and her tremendous example of living as a woman of God. But I know she is with Him, celebrating, running on streets paved with gold, and watching over us as one of God’s witnesses.

Proverbs 31:28, The wife of noble character

28 Her children arise and call her blessed;

    her husband also, and he praises her:

29 “Many women do noble things,

    but you surpass them all.”

30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;

    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,

    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

How honored I am to have called Kathy my mom.

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