Saturday, April 7, 2018

Humor and the art of inappropriate grief

It’s been a little over three weeks since I got the phone call telling me that my younger brother had been killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq. Almost a month has passed since my family earned our lifetime membership into the bereavement club. (Definition aside, bereavement is a terrible word.) It feels like it’s been both a minute and a lifetime since hearing the news. When you’re grieving, the minutes, hours, days and weeks get put into a time blender. There’s now a date on the calendar where life permanently changed.

Tomorrow I head back to Atlanta to get back to “new normal.” I have several comedy shows and speaking gigs this week, and today I spent most of the day distracting myself by writing an accordion parody about IKEA. You know, typical grief coping stuff. (I did have a line about being found shriveled up in a living room display three years after following the wrong arrows, but I came to my senses and replaced it with a less gruesome jab at Swedish Meatballs.)

As a comedian, laughter—and what causes it—has always fascinated me. Some of the best comics I know have trauma and loss in their past. As I’ve learned in recent days, death and tragedy alter your perspective on life and change the lenses you use to observe the rest of the world.

Before experiencing it on a personal level, I had a vague idea of how grief would look and feel. One thing I believed about tragedy and sudden loss was that laughter would be very slow to return. I was absolutely wrong. Everyone processes tragedy and loss differently, but for our family, laughter happened pretty much immediately.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about grief humor: it’s wildly inappropriate, morbid, and was--and continues to be--absolutely necessary for us to process Mark’s sudden and tragic death. We laughed at the strangest, darkest things in those first few days. 

Grief and lack of sleep absolutely destroyed my filters for the first week (and I admittedly don’t have the best filters to begin with), and some very blunt and dark observational humor regarding our circumstances escaped my mouth unchecked. (A/N: My deepest condolences to anyone outside my immediate family who was on the receiving end of my dark sense of humor during this time. I don’t remember a lot of what I said, but from what people have told me, much of it was intense. I’ve been told there’s no wrong way to grieve, but I may have pushed the limits on that belief, and someday may write a book for people who “inappropriately” process grief through sarcasm and dark humor.)

However “inappropriate” this form of grief, I know laughter helped us survive our tragedy. Anyone on the outside probably thought my family needed to be sent immediately to the nearest asylum, but our closest friends and family bonded and processed our sadness through the random thoughts, memories, and ironies about our situation we collectively found hilarious.

A couple days after the crash I began thinking ahead to the comedy shows I have on my calendar. Despite sarcasm and humor being my grief-handling buddies, I knew telling jokes on a stage in front of strangers would be different, especially since I have several jokes in my act about Mark. My opening joke right now is about moving to the south and getting matched with my brother on E-harmony.

I’m not sure yet what I’ll do with those jokes. Mark was always lobbying to have more jokes about him in my act. He came to a show last October—the last he’d attend before his deployment—and his one criticism was that I didn’t have enough material about him in my set. He had a very absurd, goofy, and random sense of humor and I know he’d love it if I made large groups of people slightly uncomfortable joking about him posthumously. Long term I’ll probably keep the jokes that include him (and who knows, maybe add more, but not to the point of making audiences feel weird about laughing) but right now I may shelve them. Most likely I’ll decide once I’m on stage.

I’ve heard people say randomly over the years how much they needed to laugh. How they were glad for a chance to take their mind off of the trials of life. I know what they mean now. I’ve consumed a LOT of comedy these past few weeks and I have a new appreciation for laughter as medicine. I’m a fan of comedy anyway, but I watched and listened to more comedy in the past three weeks than I typically do in two years.

Despite being horribly sad about my brother, I do not have the market cornered on grief, loss, and tragedy. Many of you reading this have known incredible loss, and many out there are suffering similarly. I know comedy and laughter heals. I took it for granted before, but I’ve experienced deeply the power laughter has to give us hope. Hope that death doesn’t win in the end. Grief is such a heaven burden, laughter lifts the weight temporarily so we don't get crushed. At the very least, venting emotion through laughter provides a nice break from crying.

I will never stop missing my brother. Grief will always be here, but Lord willing, so will laughter.

So now, I move forward and use the gifts and time God has given me to provide a little bit of healing to an increasingly hurting world.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Surviving your 20s in the 21st Century.

Recently, after a show, I spoke to a young woman in her early 20s. She was in school, working, and on a forward trajectory in life...she was also lonely, depressed, and feeling completely hopeless about everything.

"I'm sorry you're going through that," I said. "But just so you know, it does get much better. I don't know if this is encouraging or not, but what you're going through is totally normal for your age."

"It is?" she said. "I feel like I'm the only one."

"Not at all," I assured her. "I went through it, and almost everyone I talk to in their 20s seems to be dealing with some sort of quarter-life crisis."

"How come nobody talks about it?" she asked. "Everyone just acts like they have it all together and I feel like I'm the only one who can't figure life out."

So, in case there are other 20-somethings out there struggling to get their footing, please allow me to lay before you what is "normal" at this stage of life and share some survival tips. I'm not sure how helpful it will be, but at the very least perhaps you'll feel a little less alone as you figure things out.

First, it's normal for life to be hard.

Surviving this norm: I'm not sure the particulars of your childhood, but many of us grew up in homes where a lot was done for us. Things like making appointments, bringing cars in for repairs, arranging insurance, paying bills, etc. were all done through our teenage (and even sometimes through college) years by adults who loved us and had our best interest at heart. However, at a certain point we have to take over the daily operation of our own lives, and in our culture this seems to be happening in our early-to-mid 20s. It feels overwhelming to suddenly "adult" and figure out insurance plans, find honest car mechanics, dentists, jobs, loan payment schedules, and whatever else comes with being a fully-fledged grown up.

So, you need to recognize that this is a normal, good, and healthy transition to independence. To put it simply, you're now living in the "real" world. You learn by trial and error, and sometimes you lose money by making a poor choice on where to get your car tuned up. You're toughening up and wising up, and learning how to live with the consequences of your decisions and actions. The alternative to this transition is living a sugarcoated existence where your parents continue doing everything for you. So, while it may be a hard thing, keep in mind that it is a good thing and a normal thing. "Hard" does not necessarily mean "bad."

Second, it's normal to feel like you made all the wrong decisions.

Surviving this norm: Everyone second guesses whether they made the right choices. Roads look smoother from a distance; it's only when you get up close that you see the potholes. If you'd gone down a different path you'd be second guessing that one because you'd see the potholes. You may need to do some course-correcting if you made a really bad decision, but don't waste time and energy wishing you could undo the past. Focus forward and know that every class, menial job, and decision played a role in getting you where you are now, even if it was teaching you how to be a kinder or giving you a better idea of what you're good at.

Third, it's normal to feel lonely and depressed.

Surviving this norm: I'm so sad this has become the norm, but most people I've spoken with experience this on some level. Many of us experienced depression and loneliness in high school and had high hopes of this changing in college and beyond. Or, perhaps you were fortunate to have had wonderful community in high school and college, but now marriage, parenthood, work, relocation, or all of the above have made you feel isolated.

Making good friends and feeling like you're a valued part of a community can be difficult in our constantly changing, online-driven society. Friends are a gift we often don't appreciate until we don't have them. So, be proactive about making new face-to-face friends. Try new meet up groups or a new small group at church. Introduce yourself. Say hello to your neighbors. Bring them cookies. Look for ways to serve those around you. Keep your eyes open for others who may be lonely and without community. Think of friendship as something to give rather than something to get. By giving, you will automatically get, but this mindset will keep you from a place where you constantly feel slighted by other people. Also, keep in mind that you don't have to "click" with everyone you meet in order to be their friend. Lastly, pray that God will bring you some good friends. I'm not sure why we go through seasons where the friendship well runs dry, but keep praying and seeking, and you'll find some!

Finally, if you find yourself struggling with depression and anxiety, try to establish some good habits to help you with life. Exercise, eat well, get outside, volunteer somewhere, read new books, join a recreational whiffle ball league, etc. All these things will help your mind cope with the the stresses of life. It takes some action to get moving in the right direction, and the hardest thing is to take the first step out of a rut. However, if depression is a chronic problem that these things don't significantly help fix, or your thoughts turn very dark all the time, there is absolutely no shame in seeing a counselor or professional to help you heal your mind.

Fourth, it's normal not to feel fulfilled one hundred percent of the time.

Surviving this norm: We're fed this idea that our work and life are only worth something if we feel fulfilled, but that's simply not reality. No one can feel fulfilled 100% of the time. I've certainly never felt overwhelmed with fulfillment while teaching students scales and making sure their technique is correct, but I do it because it's how you create great musicians and singers. However, I do feel fulfillment when my students perform, land parts, and grow as artists and humans. The knowledge that I'm laying the foundation for this keeps me going when the fulfillment isn't there.

Fulfillment is something that is earned through commitment and hard work. It will come, but right now you're laying the foundation for a fulfilling life. No one likes watching cement dry, but it's needed in order to create a strong foundation for the rest of the home. Ultimately, sometimes the fulfillment of a job or task is in knowing you're being a responsible adult.

Fifth, it's normal to have your expectations challenged.

Surviving this norm: I've often joked that adulthood is 80 percent managing expectations, 20 percent looking for a pen, and 100 percent finding a pen and realizing it's out of ink and having to search all over again. Life isn't going to go as expected. Sometimes it will be better than you expect, sometimes it will be worse. You're learning how to "go with the flow" and appreciate today for what it is, not what it might lead to tomorrow. No matter how many inspirational memes you may read each day on Instagram, these are lessons that can only be learned by living.

Some final thoughts...

First, don't compare your life with others. You've probably heard this one before, but it's worth mentioning again because it's such an easy trap to fall into. Life will be hard for different people in different ways and it will be easy for people in different ways. Some people will be born with the ability to sing four octaves, some will barely be able to hold a tune. Some people can handle huge amounts of stress, while others need a significant amount of calm to function. Remember, social media only shows you one part of the story. You're not in a competition with the rest of the world to see who can have the best life. It's not a race, there is no prize. Take a breath. Put down the phone. (After you finish reading this blog, of course.) Eat a cookie. Carry on.

Second, train yourself to focus on eternal things, not immediate things. It's so easy to lose sight of why we're doing what we're doing. I don't care if you're parenting, working, or just pursuing hobbies, you need to remember why any of it matters. Ultimately, what you're doing brings glory to God. You are made in His image, and you were created to love and serve Him. One way you do that is by cultivating the earth and make it an organized, functional, and beautiful place. We serve a God of order and creativity and by doing anything that contributes to those two things we're reflecting His image. Unloading the dishwasher? Order. Writing a novel? Creativity. Changing a diaper? Order. (And sometimes creativity if you're on a plane.)

Third, it will not always be this hard. Sometimes it will be, but not always. Right now you're setting a track record. You're plowing the field and planting the seeds for your life. You're figuring out an education, job, relationships, friendships, marriage, babies, and whatever else comes with being a new adult. Things will be difficult, but you'll pull through and then the next time you go through something difficult you'll remember that you've done it before, and that'll give you the confidence that you can do it again. (Even if you really don't want to.)

In my 20s I had about $48,000 in debt, numerous low-paying part-time jobs that I didn't enjoy, no clear picture of what I wanted from a career, no discernible natural talent, and my personal trend was to quit or ghost when things got hard or uncomfortable. But, it was in my 20s that I learned how to work hard, develop skills, fall and get back up, navigate insurance deals, (That never stops being frustrating. You're welcome.) eat cheaply, shop at thrift stores, make friends, let things go, forgive, and stay in touch with people. I learned many of these lessons the hard way, through gut wrenching humiliation and sleepless nights. I survived, and I'm stronger and wiser for it.

I'm 33 now. I have no debt, too many wonderful friendships to count, and I not only love my job teaching music, but I'm good at it, it pays fairly, and it's work I find meaningful. On top of that, I frequently get to travel the country telling jokes and speaking. I couldn't have planned this life in my 20s when I was , but everything I did in my 20s prepared me for it without my knowing what it was going toward. Life isn't perfect, but it's nowhere near the anxiety and pressure I felt in my 20s. I wouldn't trade the wisdom I gained in my 20s for any amount of youth, no matter how much our society worships it.

If I have to leave you with one final piece of encouragement, it's this: God is already in the future, and things will be much less scarier when you're actually there. You is smart, you is kind, you is important. Now, get out there and live.

Monday, July 10, 2017

God's Will Is...

     Yesterday I returned from almost two weeks in Lima, Peru with Big World Ventures. (Next year they're going to Guatemala. Right now my plan is to be there, and you should definitely consider sending your teen or coming as a family. It is truly an incredible ministry that changes the lives of teens, and brings a lot of encouragement to the communities in the countries they visit.)

     While in Peru I spoke about the will of God to our group. I've noticed most high school and college students stress about whether or not the choices they're making at this stage are "God's will" for their life. 

     The evening before I gave my talk our group attended a church outside of Lima. I sat in the back of the church (I'm a back row sitter in every culture) with my bilingual friend Dave, asking occasionally for a translation of what they were saying, and reviewing my notes for the talk. In this warehouse in the middle of Villa el Salvador, where rows of plastic red chairs were set up, motorcycles parked behind seats, and cats roamed freely among the congregants, I watched cultures collide and kneel before the God that created them both. It was loud and chaotic and occasionally a wad of toilet paper would be passed down a row to someone who hadn't brought any. (Most bathrooms in Peru don't have toilet paper so people supply it themselves.) Worship lasted almost an hour, sermons and testimonies were given both in Spanish and English, friends were made through short conversations of remembered high-school Spanish, Facebook requests sent, and the whole 3-hour service ended with a clean-up dance party.

During the service I wrote this short reflection on God's will and shared it at the end of my talk.

What is God's Will? 

           God’s will is every act of mercy you show, every chore you do obediently, every kind word you say.

            God’s will is walking away from gossip, sitting in silence with a hurting friend, putting your head on your pillow at night and thanking God for the day.

            God’s will is getting up at 5am to make it to your job on time. It is loving your spouse through good times and bad. It is saying, “I’m hurting and I don’t understand,” and continuing to serve anyway, trusting your Heavenly Father will work even this for your good.

            God’s will is opening orphanages and bringing clean water to impoverished countries. It is handing out bulletins and greeting new faces at the church you’ve attended since you were a small child. It is organizing the church potluck and making sure the best casseroles aren’t all brought out at once, so that everyone gets some and not just those whose spiritual gift is being first in line.

            God’s will is writing a best selling novel. It is being president of a company and leading it with integrity. It is bringing people their food and tipping out when you go home at the end of the day.

            God’s will is celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. It is mourning the death of a spouse, child, or friend. It is saying, “Lord, I don’t know how I can get through this,” and waking up every day to God’s new mercies. It is realizing that when you weren’t strong enough to hold on to God, He held on to you.

            God’s will is being single and childless. It is taking what the world tells you is a deficiency and watching God turn it into a beautiful story. It is going when called, witnessing miracle after miracle, and living each day knowing Christ is enough.

            God’s will is repentance, humility, and obedience. It is feasting on His word and praying prayers both short and long. It is casting your burdens on Him because sometimes they’re too big for us and our backs get tired. It is reaching the end of the days He’s numbered for you and hearing God say, “Well done my good and faithful servant. Enter in to the joy of your master.”

Monday, January 16, 2017

Anatomy of a Kindergarten Music Class

My kindergarten music class the first week of school. 
What I said: "Listen close because the music is very soft!"
What they heard: "Please dog pile by the speaker."

I've taught music, mostly private lessons, off and on for my entire adult life.

This past year I decided to try something new. I took a job teaching music classes at a small elementary school here in Colorado Springs.

This job has pitched me one of the biggest learning curves I've experienced in a long time. This learning curve happens weekly on Tuesdays at 1:45pm, when sixteen kindergarteners walk, run, bound, roll, pout, hug, twirl, and ninja-chop their way into my classroom.

In all my years of teaching I've never had a kindergarten class. They're much, much different than older grades. They're fidgety, wiggly and squirrelly. They have the same filters as drunk people. I often feel less like a music teacher and more like a judge that specializes in cases on line cutting. Also, I get end-of-the-day kindergartners, so by the time they come to me they're in dire need of some protein and a nap.

Let me give you a sample of a typical kindergarten music class:

1:45--Kindergarteners arrive at the music room. I tell them to line up quietly so they can get the entrance code. (A short rhythm or melody they repeat back to me to gain entrance into the room).
Amy and Mindy completely ignore me and continue talking loudly, Adam does donkey-kick-spins on the hallway floor, and Veronica shouts that Collin cutted in line. Collin claims he didn't cutted in line, he just really wanted to be in that spot. I tell Collin it's not nice to line jump, and instruct him to apologize and go behind Veronica. I ask Adam, who is now punching the wall, to join the line. He complies with a ninja move into the line and accidentally hits Sarah in the arm, who begins to cry. I tell Adam to apologize and put his hands in his pockets, then comfort Sarah and examine her owe-y. It's determined she will live.

1:47--I try to get everyone's attention by spouting off a "1-2-3 eyes on me!" This has never worked in the history of me using it (which is approximately 100,000 times), but I try again anyway because so many teachers I know swear by it. It doesn't work. Then I sing "class class!" and about 90% of them respond with the appropriate "yes yes!" Close enough. They get their entrance code and are instructed to go into the room and sit in a circle.

1:48--They begin walking into the room. Sascha, who always comes to class pretending to be a cat, meows at me as she enters. Three of the kids stop to hug me on the way in. Collin offers me a booger, and I tell him to go get a tissue. He departs the line and heads next door to the bathroom.

1:50--Half of the children sit quietly in a circle as instructed. Adam is swinging across the coat hooks like monkey bars, Annie hides behind the desk, and Amy and Mindy sit off to the side talking. Sascha climbs on a chair and meows loudly. A couple of the boys roughhouse on the other side of the room.

1:52--I loudly praise the children who are sitting obediently. This gets the attention of the delinquents and they join the rest of the class. As soon as everyone is in the same area they begin rearranging their spots in the circle. Veronica wants to sit by Amy, but Amy wants to sit by Mindy, but Mindy wants to sit by Sascha, but Sascha is between Ben and Liam cleaning her paws. No one wants to sit by Adam because he keeps saying "pooooooop" under his breath. Tucker, Sarah, and Eli all want to sit in my lap and fight to push each other out of the way. (It's the most flattered I feel all week.) Wyatt sits in his spot and loudly says, "teacher look at me! I'm sitting the goodest! Teacher! Aren't I sitting the goodest?"

I acknowledge that Wyatt is sitting like a champ, as are Jake, Tanya, Liam, Ben and Annie. I tell the rest of the kids that they have until I count down from three to find a spot and be quiet. It's amazing how this works. They all feel the pressure of the countdown. By the time I reach "one," we're in a circle. The first big task of the day has been accomplished.

1:56--We sing our "rules song" and do a rhythm game. Everything is going smoothly until I realize Collin never came back to the room after going to get a tissue. I panic and tell the kids to sit quietly in their circle while I step outside. I check the hall and the bathroom. No Collin. Uh oh. I go across to the art room to see if he wandered into that class. Nope. On my way back to the music room I spot Collin in the lunchroom, sprawled out under a table eating crumbs off the floor. I instruct him to come along back to class. He puts one more crumb in his mouth and follows.

2:09--Collin and I go back to the music room. The orderly circle I left has turned into a tiny human dog pile. Collin doesn't miss a beat and hurls himself on the top of his classmates. I'm not sure if this is characteristic of all kindergarten classes, but we tend to have at least one dog-pile per class. I make a mental note to ask their classroom teacher if this is normal behavior for this age.

2:14--I break up the dog pile and we gather around the keyboard to do the Do-Re-Mi song. Adam and Walt detach from the group and try to scale the radiator. (Our building is more than 50 years old. If the kids don't kill me, the asbestos probably will.) They get a warning and return to the group. We continue learning movements to the Do-Re-Mi song, but  I look up to see Adam back on the radiator. I send him to the time-out corner and return to the song.

2:21--Adam comes out of time out. We're about to move on to a game of Freeze Dance when Eli screams, "Emergency! The shoes on my feet are not mine!" I ask him where his shoes are. Apparently he traded shoes with a first grader during recess. I tell him to stop by the 1st grade classroom after music and trade his shoes back.

We play Freeze Dance, and then a game I invented called Musical Meerkats. Amy, Veronica, and Mindy get separated for talking. Amy argues that she wasn't talking, only answering, and there's a difference. She throws her two "best friends" under the bus and suggests they get punished instead of her. Mindy and Veronica declare they're no longer her friends and Amy starts pouting.

I look over to see Adam sitting on the top shelf of the music cabinet. He goes back to the timeout corner.

2:34--I decide we've had enough games for the day and decide it's time to move on. This week is Beethoven week, and I have a book to read them about the composer. They sit on their lines as I get the book. Ben complains loudly that he can't see the pictures. I assure him it's because I haven't opened the book yet.

I start by telling them that we were going to learn about Beethoven, who was a famous song writer and musician. Collin immediately interrupts me and informs me that he knows I'm lying, because dogs can't write music. I tell him that the dog in the movie Beethoven is named after the Beethoven we're going to learn about. This answer satisfies him.

We get about halfway through the book with little drama. Adam gets released from his second timeout. When I get to the part that talks about Beethoven's performance in Germany, Sarah blurts out, "your mom goes to Germany!" I tell her to sit quietly and not to make jokes about other people's moms. Tanya says, "She was talking to me. My mom's in Germany!"

My bad.

2:45 We finish the Beethoven book and it's time to line up. I tell them Liam is the line leader. I catch Collin trying to cut in front of Liam to claim the spot as line leader, and I send him to the back of the line. We sing "following the leader" as I escort them to their next teacher. As they exit, they bombard me with hugs, and Veronica tells me she loves me, and they run off to PE.

As I walk in silence back to my classroom to await the arrival of my 2nd graders, I am exhausted and overstimulated, but for some reason I can't wait until next Tuesday at 1:45 when I get to do it all over again. They may be sticky and crazy and loud, but they have a way of worming their way into your heart.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"You're drinking water again? You need to live a little."

Water is my preferred beverage. With the exception of a cup or two of coffee in the morning, I typically go to water. I like it. It's my favorite. Both my doctor and the Internet say it's good for me.

I've learned that in social settings, however, consistently requesting water puts a target on your back for comments, questions, and assumptions.

...why don't you drink?
...are you against alcohol? just need to find a drink that you like.

And my personal favorite...

...don't worry, it's safe to drink here. We're not those kind of Christians.

I don't care what kind of Christians you are, but I do find it a little ironic that you're judging me for assuming that by drinking water I'm judging you. I'm not trying to make a statement. I just prefer water. 

I do drink other things besides water, including alcohol, but it's not my norm. I don't care for the texture of carbonated drinks and I find most other beverages too sweet. I've sampled dozens of beers and mixed drinks and have yet to find an alcoholic beverage that I truly enjoy. Furthermore, I have a long list of things to accomplish in life that take priority over "acquiring a taste" for alcohol.

For a while I'd order a non-water beverage simply so people would leave me alone. I'd sip it slowly, secretly pining for the cool, clear familiarity of water. Recently, though, I decided I was getting too old for that nonsense. If people can't see past my bottle of water, those people probably aren't my friends.

I finally decided to stand up to the water-bullying when someone told me the following:

"You're getting water again? You need to live a little."

Excuse me? I need to live a little? 

You want to play the "live a little" card?

Fine. Let me give you a little glimpse at my hand.

I've jumped out of a plane. (WITH a toothless, smelly hippie strapped to my back).

I just want water. 

I've gone scuba diving in the ocean. At night. With an Israeli soldier. 

A simple water, please.  

I've experienced the rush of wind and adrenaline peeing above tree line while hiking up a 14er. 

A flat water, thank you. 

I bartered passage on a supply boat to get to a small island off the coast of Honduras. 

Water, no lemon. 

I got parasites eating at a roadside restaurant while in Honduras. 

Water, extra lemon. 

I've told jokes in big cities, small towns, prisons, Canada, bowling alleys and taco shops. 

I'll take a water, please.

I've bombed jokes in front of hundreds of people. 

Water takes the edge off life. 

I've killed it telling jokes in front of hundreds of people. 

Water can be a celebratory beverage if you make it one. 

I've made friends with strangers on airplanes, at bus stops, in grocery stores, at comedy clubs, bars, in churches, and on the sides of mountains.

Please just let me have water. 

I've failed big, succeeded big, and had my heart broken big. 

Yes, I'd like a water. 

I've written books, mentored teens, written for popular blogs, deflected trolls, taught countless children how to play musical instruments, and produced music shows and comedy nights.

Show me the water!

I've traveled to nine other countries (not including Texas), rafted down rivers, hiked up volcanos, and found amazing hole-in-the-wall diners, pubs, and food trucks. 

Agua, por favor.

 I've run marathons, completed triathlons, swam in the Mediterranean, eaten an entire pizza by myself in one sitting, and consumed a record number of Chipotle burritos. 

If it's not too much trouble, I'll just have water. 

If you drink, I'm not judging you. (Although watching drunk people doesn't necessarily make me regret my decision to stay sober.)

I won't give you a hard time for drinking a fluorescent blue drink if you won't give me a hard time for drinking something naturally found covering the majority of the earth.

If you see drinking alcohol as the only way to "live a little," then I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree on what it truly means to live.

This rant is over. You are free to carry on with your day.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Singleness & the Art of Family Friendships

Recently I've had many similar conversations about singleness.

There seems to be a growing awareness that, despite all evidence to the contrary, single people are complete human beings deserving of attention and respect. I'm thrilled these conversations are happening.

These discussions have revolved around navigating friendships with those in different life stages, how marrieds can help singles not feel ostracized, and what the church can do to help. I have an incredibly diverse set of friends. They're all over the map in regards to age, occupation, and life stage, but they graciously share their life and wisdom with me.

A number of families have invited me for dinner, game nights, to the zoo, to hop in their open van seat to see Christmas lights, and extend open invitations to drop by any time. (Which I take them up on--especially when I "happen to be in their area" at dinner time.) I attempt to convey my gratitude, but these families will never fully know how much I'm blessed by this sort of inclusion.

Based on my observations, I've compiled my advice** to marrieds, singles, and the church on how to cultivate these relationships.

For the marrieds:

Please, please invite us into your chaos.

With a few exceptions, most of my relationships with friends who are married began with the line "you're welcome to come over, but just so you know, things are a little crazy here." (Side note: If you think I have it all together, just look in the back of my car. That mess comes from just me. If/when I ever have kids I'm gonna need to get a trash compacting suburban. If it doesn't exist I'll invent one.)

Don't be afraid of letting us into your mess. We can handle it. If we don't feel up to handling it we can say no. (That's a perk of being single.) Don't feel like you have to entertain or impress us. We're not there to judge. (If we do judge, that's on us not you.) I've had many deep conversations while helping someone fold laundry or unload a dishwasher. For me, it gives me a sense of belonging. Look for ways to include us at gatherings, seek us out at church, and invite us to sit at your table.

Please give singles patience and grace. 

My friends have been so good at extending grace. They listen to my problems, which are so very different than their own. In fact, my problems may seem petty to a sleep-deprived parent who spent the night waiting for their child to pass a quarter they swallowed. Yet they offer encouragement, advice, and, very often, a cup of coffee and an invitation to stay for fish sticks and buttered noodles.

If singles seem ungrateful for their season or trivial in their complaints, please listen anyway. Our problems are real to us, and when we're married with a circus of our own we'll reflect back on how good we had it during our single days.

For the singles: 

Accept/Embrace/Encourage the chaos. 

When you're at a house with kids, prepare to get interrupted, crawled on, or have a child shoot past you in the kitchen on roller skates. (Whenever this happens I get a little jealous that it's no longer socially acceptable for me to go around the house on skates.)

Offer to help make dinner (stirring things is one of my spiritual gifts), hold a baby, or fold clothes. Meaningful conversations (however fragmented) happen in the mess of life. It's easier to build friendships when we desire to be included, not entertained.

Give the benefit of the doubt and a lot of grace.

I've felt the sting of being excluded from small groups and other gatherings simply because everyone else was married and I was not. It's understandable to feel left out when events are constantly geared toward families and Bible studies happen in the morning when most of us are working to pay our bills. (I see this often with women's Bible studies.)

Keep in mind, though, that these folks typically aren't trying to exclude singles. In the case of the morning Bible studies, these mamas are at a point where their free time happens in the morning. In the afternoon, when kids return from school and husbands get home from work, it's more difficult to run off anywhere. Let's choose to support and encourage the parents in our congregation, even as our hearts ache to be where they are.

In short, people aren't going to handle things perfectly. We're not always going to be included, valued and remembered. However, I'm convinced one of the most destructive attitudes to the body of Christ is the subtle grumbling about how we're being overlooked. Be quick to forgive, and turn your energy toward seeking out others who may not "fit the mold."

For the church: 

Including singles isn't a matter of putting on more events specifically for them. 

In my opinion, church leaders have the most difficult challenge in providing fellowship for single members. Because "singles" is such a broad category (age, divorced, widowed, career, etc.) it's difficult to lump us into one Sunday School class or event.

Rather than focusing on events geared especially for singles, focus on events that include everyone in your church. Make it a point to provide, as much as you can, an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable, valued, and included. If necessary, give the families in your congregation a little push to take initiative, be intentional, and invite singles into their world. (Much of community happens on this level. The church can facilitate opportunities, but individuals ultimately need to take these steps.)

Be sensitive to your tone when talking about marriage to singles.

I used to joke that the church's message to singles was:

"Get married--it's great! You'll hate your life, but it's the good kind of hate that God uses to sanctify you."

It probably was unintentional, but in my twenties I heard a lot of negative things about marriage from the church. (While they were encouraging/scolding me that I needed to be making it a top priority.)
I became very cynical about love and marriage. (It didn't help that I was knee deep in standup at the time and was constantly hearing comics--even Christian ones--portray their marriage and spouse as a regret.)

It wasn't a sermon or book that softened my heart toward the idea of marriage. It was watching my married friends grow closer to each other and God through the ups and downs of life, and living on mission together for the gospel. It's been through hanging out with my married friends that I've seen the honest truth: Marriage is difficult, yes, but the blessings far surpass the sacrifices.

Generally, the pendulum in the church's presentation on marriage swings between it being a sanctification torture chamber (I once heard someone say "the first year is awful, but at least you get to have sex.") and a perfect fairy-tale ending.

In conclusion (I know, finally!)

Rather than keeping score on how we're being served, let's seek out ways to bless those around us, no matter how different their life looks than our own. Life is hard. For everyone. Each life stage comes with different trials and different blessings.

My biggest hope for singles and marrieds in the church is that we'll avoid the "us" vs. "them" mentality. We're all on the same team and we need to encourage and support each other. Sometimes that means stepping out of your comfort zone, other times it means giving someone space. In all situations it means offering up a lot of patience and grace and choosing not to be offended.

I can't wait until I wake up with a husband, six kids, a dog, a turtle, a couple of fighting beta, and a list of responsibilities that accompany those things. More than that, though, I can't wait to see God's will for my life. I don't know if it includes a husband, half a dozen kids and a pet store, but I know that life is made richer when you're surrounded by people who challenge you. And that includes people walking a different path.

What's your life stage? What would you want others not in your life stage to know? 

**Please keep in mind when taking any advice from me that I teach children music during the day and tell jokes at night, which essentially makes me an adult Hannah Montana.

Teaching my friend's new baby play piano.

With my sweet friend Lisa and her family (everyone in the background, basically) at a Balloon Festival.