Being born in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, you might assume I have some sort of inherent, natural tolerance, or even an affinity, for cold weather.
It’s no secret for those closest to me — I hate winter. I hate being cold. I hate scraping my car. I hate losing feeling in my toes. I hate lugging around heavy coats and hats and gloves. I especially hate having fewer hours of sunlight.
When I was 4 we moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. At 8, we moved to Missouri. For 8 years I had the moderate weather of the Midwest, where the seasons were pretty balanced. Then when I was 16, my parents and I moved back to the Rocky Mountains. No more balance — as the locals say in Gunnison, we experienced Winter and July.
I suppose it’s no wonder I packed a few suitcases and went 2,000 miles away to The Sunshine State for the next 6.5 years.
I just feel more at home in flip flops and tank tops on sandy beaches than in mountainous landscapes, even though I know they can be stunningly beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with that. I wouldn’t trade my time in Florida for anything. I’m not even sure I won’t go back someday.
But with my 26th birthday a few months away, I realize that I was escaping the winters in more ways than one by hiding out in the palm trees.
Last year, I found myself on a mission trip in Huntington, West Virginia from October to January. When I signed up, I didn’t know where I would be going, but I knew it would almost certainly be colder than Florida.
I was prepared for a difficult season of weather. I was less prepared — at least consciously — for an intensely difficult season of life.
Yet here I am in relatively small-town Indiana, thinking back on what I can only describe as a spiritual and emotional wilderness in Wild & Wonderful West Virginia, and I realize I wouldn’t go back and escape it even if I could.
There are parts that I lament, don’t get me wrong. Divorce is horribly painful. Hurting and being hurt by the ones you love most is never Choice A. I hope it goes without saying, but I am not “thankful” for divorce itself. Yet, the truth of resurrection and new life applies to all kinds of death, including the death of important relationships.
What I mean is: I finally accept that a life of only springs and summers is not sustainable. Or worthwhile.
Growing up, I was taught that God is powerful and God loves me. I’m thankful for this. I believe this. But at some point, it crossed the line from encouragement to the implication that God didn’t want me to suffer. Suffering must mean a problem of believing. Suffering should be avoided. And when talking about it in the future, we should only talk about the deliverance.
Here’s the problem… When I look back at the metaphorical and literal winters of my life, it’s painfully clear that they are what shaped me into who I am.
Just 4 months before my parents moved back to Colorado, I was at a peak of adolescent life. I had a solid group of friends, I was getting involved in clubs that I had a natural passion for, and I had a boyfriend that I was crazy about. Nearing the end of my sophomore year of high school, I was on track to get good scholarships and probably continue theatre, debate, or mock trial into college. I probably would have had a clear track to law school. There was so much promise.
On March 4th, 2008, one of my closest friends died suddenly in a car accident. I was shattered. In my grief, I had to take a break from my relationship. In April, before I could even get my feet underneath me again, my parents told me we were moving. In June, while I was at a 3-week “nerd camp” at the Mizzou campus, they moved to Colorado. I returned to Kansas City for two more weeks with my friends. I was supposed to be able to see my favorite band of all time live at Warped Tour. They were the last band to play, and they got rained out by a flash flood literally minutes before their set started, while I watched, drenched and heartbroken, from the front row. By mid-July, I found myself a resident of Gunnison, Colorado, where the elevation is higher than the population. Almost everyone there was white; a huge change from the diversity of Kansas City. I was the new kid in a graduating class of about 75 who had grown up together.
Needless to say, 2008 was the hardest year of my life up to that point. 2009 was kind of a blur. After trying to find any possible way out of high school early, I finally accepted where I was and put my heart into my studies. I knew education was my ticket to freedom in one more ways than one. By the new year I was knee-deep in college searches and in March 2010 I visited the University of Tampa with my mom. Without a clue how I was going to afford it, I knew I was “home.” By August I was on a plane with my dad. We spent a couple days clearing out the Wal-Mart dorm section with our little rental car before I sent him off with printed Mapquest directions back to the airport. We had done a practice run earlier that day, missed the exit, and done the classic 14-mile Howard Frankland Bridge turn-around rite of passage that I maintain all Tampa residents must do once or six times before calling themselves a local.
It’s not that the next 6 years in Tampa were without hardship. I struggled with two jobs, a full course load, and a leadership program commitment in college. I realized my first (and second, and third) groups of friends would not be the ones that really lasted. In December 2014 one of my college mentors passed away far too young. I was broke a lot. I was lonely at times. I had many of the typical young adult struggles and the newlywed struggles and the disillusioned young Christian struggles.
But these struggles were different than the winters of Colorado and what would be the winter of West Virginia. They were manageable struggles. Overcoming them made me feel accomplished and well-adjusted. And I never felt truly alone.
I think I really needed Florida after the winters of Colorado. My soul needed to thaw out. I needed the comfort of the nearby beaches to dive into my education and grow into my own person. But at some point, the comfort of the year-round sunshine turned into complacence. I started seeking safety more than truth and growth.
Life without winter wouldn’t have been sustainable forever.
I left Tampa in September 2016. West Virginia was simultaneously the best and worst times of my life. What I gained in community I lost in certainty. I saw my gifts and my sin in equal clarity. I saw the relentless hope of the gospel, but I saw it through the disillusionment of the indescribable suffering of the world.
Addiction. Mental illness. Poverty. Religious imprisonment. Broken families. Disease.
My heart was on fire with mission and yet my head had to admit that I was completely ill-equipped to be much tangible help. Cookie-cutter answers weren’t delivering anyone. Many of them had already been to church and left, often several times over. Theologically, socially, and emotionally, I was in over my head.
All I could offer was my presence, my love, and my own fragmented testimony. With God’s help, this was enough to do some really good things. But it wasn’t enough for me. Not forever.
I’m just now barely making sense of some of last year’s winter and I’m already staring this next one in the face. I have more questions than answers in many ways. I’m as uncertain as ever about my future.
But here’s what has changed for the better:
- I finally know Jesus instead of just knowing about him.
- I’ve acknowledged my own freedom to wrestle with faith, with purpose, and with identity.
- I’m learning to set healthy boundaries for myself and learning to respect others’ as well.
- I’m more committed to process than outcome.
- I have accepted my emotions and disciplined myself to work through them productively.
- I’m working on mastering myself through different types of fasting.
- I’ve seen the beauty of the body of Christ, and the goodness of all compassion whether religiously motivated or not, in glorious new ways.
- I’ve stopped turning away from the evil and suffering of the world and started asking God to help make me stronger and wiser to stand against it.
- I’m absolutely okay with saying “I don’t know.”
- I’ve committed to all my current relationships because I want to, not because I have to. I’ve learned to value every person in my life for who they are and not what they can do for me.
None of these lessons would have come to me in the comforts of summer. I never would have known the power of hospitality and grace without being the lost one. I never would have searched for emotional healing and resilience without being broken. I never would have realized how much I need to learn and grow if I want to truly be a minister without seeing the brokenness of others that I couldn’t fix.
My winters have been painful but cleansing. They are necessary to the rhythm of life. As I’ve said in previous pieces, I would rather fail than succeed at the wrong thing. And winters suffocate my idols and my complacency.
But the best thing about them is that they don’t last forever.
There were moments this summer when I thought about running away from Indiana before the winter. Instead, with a lot of love and patience from my family, I’ve accepted where I am. I know God has something for me here, and I don’t want to run from it. Instead of escaping, I prepared as best as I could, and I am adapting every day.
Refusing the seasons means refusing the change that comes with them.
I’m tired of being safe and complacent. I want to be scared and authentic. I want to show my allegiance to Jesus instead of just my agreement.
God didn’t leave me when I ran away from winter; I won’t leave Him as He leads me through it.
I talk about my growing faith a lot, but I haven’t really been specific. Here are a few things that have helped my faith shift from thinking I can/should be able to defend the entire Bible to a more holistic intellectual, historical, and social worldview:
—The science of fine-tuning (the earth’s capacity to sustain life). A literal interpretation of Genesis has never seemed like a solid place to stake my tent in regards to how old the earth is, evolution, etc. Lord knows religion has opposed science in ignorance and greed. But when I look at the earth, I see design. I see a capacity for life that has to be more than an accident. If I’m wrong about God and we are just fish in a fish tank, it’s one hell of a beautiful and sustainable fish tank. Either way, we should be better stewards of it.
—The historical and historiographical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus.
—Viewing the Bible as a collection of scriptures instead of a regular book. Studying the context of the different writers, time periods, audiences, and the responsible ways to apply the ideas from the different scriptures in today’s world.
—The history of the Christian movement from its birth 2,000 years ago to now.
—The ways the gospel can answer or respond to the needs of the world, from individual struggles to systemic injustice.
—Looking back in my own life and seeing how God never gave up on me and how humility and trust has changed me.
—The power of the spiritual disciplines to bring freedom and agency in my life (meditation, prayer, confession, simplicity, solitude, worship, etc).
—Understanding the Kingdom of God. Acknowledging that the ultimate purpose of knowing God isn’t to reach a certain level of happiness but to stop participating in the evil of the world and start participating in the healing of it. Paying attention to what people are already doing to change the world for the better. Giving up the comforts of apathy and cynicism and taking up the cross of engagement. Owning my privilege.
Resources that have helped me:
Books about Christianity:
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
Life with a Capital L by Matt Heard
The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel (movie version to save time!)
Books about Emotional Health:
Rising Strong by Brene Brown
Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown
Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend
Watermark Church Tampa: http://www.buzzsprout.com/5343 (I recommend going through the Galatians series)
Starting Point Series by Andy Stanley: http://northpoint.org/messages/starting-point-series/