Category Archives: Personal Updates

Birthday reflections.

On the eve of my 24th birthday, with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, I’m in a reflective state of mind. As I think about everything that’s happened since my last birthday, one theme keeps coming back: God has been faithful this year, and He has kept so many of the promises He makes in Scripture.

Two books of the Bible I read through this year were Psalms and Isaiah; both books detail the ways that God is faithful to his people. And in my own form, I want to tell of the promises He’s kept as well.

Here are some of the most beautiful promises in Scripture that God kept to me this year:

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I will walk with you through the trials.

A few days before my last birthday I wrote these words: “I just can’t bring myself to feel anything positive … I don’t feel well in my heart.”

A year ago, I was weighed down by deep loneliness, aimlessness, and sadness. I cried in the bathroom at work and slept too much; I dreamed of crashing my car into the median on the freeway.

This season deepened my compassion for those who struggle with depression all their lives–not just through seasons. Not only that, but it also deepened the joy I felt when the springtime arrived like coming up for air and gasping for a breath.

And through every moment of that winter, this was the promise that the Lord kept to me:

Isaiah 43:2–3

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

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I am your most constant friend and companion.

In the midst of being thrilled about a promising new job and relocating to a new city, I gradually was forced to reconcile with an impending separation from so many close friends I had made through five years in one little city. After a cross-country road trip to the West, it was nothing short of heartbreaking to watch two of my dearest friends climb on a plane back to Lynchburg, leaving me behind.

Moving to a new city all alone will force you to realize who you are at the core. When everything is in flux–my job, my home, my friends–and I’m far from all that is familiar, what is left? I was constantly reminded that the answer truly is: Jesus.

Deuteronomy 31:8

The Lord Himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you or forsake you.

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I am enough for you.

Out of the blue, I had an epiphany yesterday, and it was this: I finally, finally am enjoying the season of singleness that I’m in. Not just tolerating, but enjoying. What a beautiful thing it is!

I have spent so much time in my teens and 20s on pining after some guy or another. And I do have plenty of moments when I wish for a companion. But what God has given me instead is big belly laughs with friends and deep emotional connections and so much time to invest in my career during my first few years of teaching. And I’m content with this reality. So I want to serve and give with all that I have with the abundant resource of time that I’ve been given in this season.

And that deep longing to be fully known and loved? Well, God has already seen it and filled it.

Philippians 4:19

And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.

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I have prepared a path for you.

This is the most mind-blowing promise that God has kept in ways I couldn’t have dreamed. Remember the difficult winter I had? Well, as winter thawed into spring, the Lord was setting into motion the answers to some of my deepest callings and longings.

He guided me to a school where I could fulfill my childhood dream of becoming a high school teacher. I don’t yet have the words to describe this, but it’s more than I dared to dream. He is so faithful to complete the work He started.

Isaiah 30:18

Your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.

I’m so deeply grateful for the lessons of year 23. My faith in God is sustained by His continual faithfulness to me; I know He will sustain me in the upcoming year. And I know He’ll sustain you too.

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On resting in the good news.

You know those videos where a marathon runner’s legs buckle moments before the finish line and they wobble to the ground, so other runners have to help carry them across the finish line before transporting the poor soul to the hospital?

That was me as a first-year high school teacher, stumbling from my third week of teaching into this 3-day weekend. Teaching is incredible and a fulfillment of my lifelong dreams, but it ain’t no joke, fam.

By the grace of God, a new friend was going out of town, and her beautiful waterfront home by the bay was empty for the weekend. She invited me to come rest. “Here’s the spare key. Make yourself at home.”

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My weekend view.

(This should probably strike me as odd, that a woman I’ve met just once in person would allow me to live in her house for three days. What generous and abundant hospitality. This is uncommon. Surely I don’t deserve this. But I know that when we love Jesus, He shows us how to love extraordinarily, and my friend is simply loving me with everything she has–including her home. So this humbles me and points me to Jesus, but it no longer surprises me.)

So here I am, on a sister in Christ’s back deck overlooking the water. I’ve consumed one million bajillion calories this weekend–all of them empty, many of them alcoholic, all of them delicious–and I’ve finished three books that have sat on my shelf half-finished for months. This has been the perfect setting for Skype dates and phone calls to maintain relationships that are now separated by thousands of miles. The quiet has opened enough space for Jesus to whisper gentle reminders to me on the breeze.

Rest is so healthy and allows us to recharge to do our work to the best of our abilities. Jesus modeled this rhythm of rest and commanded us to follow His example. (This is essential doctrine, people. That’s why there are so many books and articles on it.)

And as I rest, the reminder that the Holy Spirit keeps impressing on my heart is simple: you are already loved and cherished. You cannot earn God’s love or favor. You’ve already got it.

This is hard for me to wrap my mind around as an academically-minded lifelong student with an all-American work ethic. From grade school to grad school, I constantly performed for grades and constructive feedback. As a teacher, I’m consistently being observed to ensure I meet expectations. I’m always watching the state standards to make sure I’m aligned with them. I never stop trying to prove myself to my students and even to myself.

But not so in the kingdom of God. Like the lamb in the parable of the lost sheep, I’m helpless on my own; I can’t earn the rescuing of the good Shepherd. Like the lost coin, I can’t help myself be found and treasured. Like the prodigal son, I can never do enough to prove my worth or make my Father love me.

We’re already valuable and treasured because our Father has a reckless love for each of us. No performance review will change that–either for better or worse. No failure is enough to change His love for us or change the fact that we are children of God. Yes, we should work hard to use the gifts He’s given us well, but when we mess up, He doesn’t back off.

So I don’t have to hide in shame, for His love is not contingent on how good of a teacher I am or how loving of a sister or friend I am. There are no standards I have to meet, no tests I have to pass. Thank God!

And this is true for every single person: you are already welcome at the table. Despite your screw-ups and awkwardness and history of running away. Despite your background, and despite all you’ve ever done. Even despite official church statements that determine whether you do or don’t belong.

You don’t have to have your membership up-to-date to partake in the love of God. No one but Jesus can decide who’s welcome at the table, and He has already said that everyone belongs: Jews and Gentiles, men and women, sinners and saints. He welcomes us into His presence, knowing that His words will draw us in, transform us, reorient us.

We don’t instinctively think this way. In his new book Whisper, Mark Batterson talks about how we won’t hear God’s voice if we don’t set aside time to hear it, and it won’t happen by accident. It takes deliberate rest, and deliberately seeking to know the truth through God’s Word and through His whispers.

That’s why I’m thankful for the privilege and the discipline of resting this weekend. And even as I return to another week of hard work as a teacher, striving for excellence as I living a life that I’d only dreamed of just a few years ago, I’m thankful that nothing changes how wide and deep and vast God’s love is for me.

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2016 in Review

How do I summarize a year like 2016?

It brought me to new cities like Baltimore and Charlotte, as well as familiar cities: Washington D.C. and San Diego, Manti and Salt Lake City, Roanoke and Charlottesville. I stood on the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, dipped my toes in Smith Mountain Lake and a river through Zion. It was a year when I marveled at the Grand Canyon and witnessed people I love marry the loves of their lives–both wonders in their own respects.

It was filled with big accomplishments: the completion of my thesis and Master’s degree, earning recognition as English GSA of the Year, running over 300 miles and finishing two races (the VA 10 Miler and the Deep Hollow Half Marathon), starting a new full-time job. I taught dozens of people to dance–high schoolers, college students, senior citizens–and over 60 college students to write.

It was also filled with small accomplishments: investing in the community, eating locally, hosting friends and family. These things add value to the big ones. People turn experiences into moments.

Last year, I wrote a blog post documenting the ways I had achieved my 2015 resolutions as a way to celebrate completing them instead of lament foregone goals. I added to my Reverse Bucket List and set simple goals for 2016: pray hard and host well. I couldn’t have dreamt how much depth I’d find in fulfilling both of those goals.

This next year, I have more simple goals for the way I want to live in 2017. I don’t know what big accomplishments this year holds, but I know I want to spend the year cultivating habits that will make the time worthwhile.

Rest well. This year, I want to learn more about the biblical practice of resting. My framework for biblical rest was redefined in 2016; I want to rest by spending intentional time with people and without my phone, soaking in quiet contemplation, and practicing mindfulness, not mindlessness.

Be strong. Thanks to running, eating locally, and preparing to teach a new JumpFit class at Jump Lynchburg, I feel healthier than I’ve felt since I played high school sports. I want to get stronger, run farther (1,000 miles!), and live healthier than I ever have this year.

Read books. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but when I graduated with my Master’s in English, I lost all interest in reading books. If I have to write insightful notes in the margins of one more academic essay, I will scream. But this year, I want to rediscover my love of stories: the stories in the Bible, ancient stories, modern tales.

You were likely a part of this momentous year, so I thank you for joining me on the journey. Let’s grow (and run, and rest, and read) together in 2017.

On solo road trips.

I drove a total of 8 hours this weekend. I was alone, so no one was around to judge me. That changes now. Presenting: the many stages of a road trip with Carissa

  1. Faithfully listen to the audiobook that I faithfully downloaded for this specific road trip.
  2. Stop for a burger and fries at Wendy’s. Because I’m on a road trip, and I never eat fast food, and I deserve this.
  3. Eat the burger. Wallow in self-hatred after the first two bites. I knew I should have ordered the double burger, not the triple burger…
  4. Make a mess of the last quarter of the burger because it’s dark and I can’t see whether I’m eating the paper the burger was wrapped in or the bottom bun, and really it all tastes about the same. And there’s ketchup. Everywhere.
  5. Get bored of audiobook. Turn on 2016 Top Hits and sing very loudly while eating cold fries. Pretend this is a scene out of a movie. Life will never be better than this moment, flying down the highway with the sunroof open and the volume all the way up.
  6. Notice a sign that says that I’m on the eastbound freeway. Panic. My heart starts pounding because I’M GOING TO VIRGINIA BEACH AND THE BEACH IS TO THE WEST. Turn off music. Take next exit. Sit in gas station parking lot trying to find accurate directions. Remember I’m on the east coast. Get back on highway.
  7. Accidentally shuffle to a song that always makes me cry. Cry a lot. I’m alone, so I ugly cry. I do not know why I’m crying. It doesn’t matter.
  8. Drive through a town with the same name as the town in Washington where my mom grew up. Call my mom. She doesn’t answer. Resume crying.
  9. Turn on the audiobook again because I’ve wasted quality listening time and I paid money for this audiobook.
  10. Stop at Walgreen’s because I forgot deodorant.
  11. Arrive. There are still 45 minutes left on the audiobook.

When I started college, my dance experience was limited to Wii Just Dance, the Cha Cha Slide, and Zumba.

So when my roommate and I decided to try swing dancing during our first week at Liberty University, we had no idea that it would change our lives. But here I am, four years later: I have traveled to several cities and states to dance, many of my close friends are swing dancers, and I’ve even taught lessons at my local scene in Virginia.

Swing dancing is a social activity that has made a societal comeback and now attracts dancers of all ages and places. Since joining this community, swing dancing has taught me lessons that apply to life, and ultimately, it makes me a better person. Here are a few principles I’ve gotten from swing dancing.

1. Laugh at yourself.

Too often, people are afraid of looking silly. And learning to dance sometimes makes us look… well, ridiculous. Beginner’s luck does not apply to dancing, and all beginners look awkward. Your shoes will slip off (and fly across the dance floor). You’ll stick your elbow in someone’s eye. If you take any risk at all, you’ll probably do something that will make you feel completely embarrassed while you’re on the dance floor. Doesn’t that make you want to find your nearest venue and give it a try?

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If you let your pride get in the way of your dancing, you won’t enjoy it. You’ll quit before you have a chance to learn the needed skills to enjoy social dancing. And if you make a mistake? Keep going! You will get better, but you must always stay humble enough to learn from your errors.

Once, I was dancing with a sweet teenager who was just learning to dance. Though I was enjoying the dance, he got frustrated that he couldn’t remember the steps, so halfway through the song, he said, “Sorry, I can’t do this” and began to move off the dance floor.

In the middle of our dance.

I knew he needed to persevere. So I dug my fingernails into his palms and pulled him back. His eyes widened, but he finished the dance with me with a smile. And you know what? He wasn’t that bad.

So you might feel like you’re absolutely terrible, but no matter what, keep going and don’t give up. Like in life: laugh it off, enjoy the ride, and keep going, because it’s worth it!

2. Communication is everything.

Swing dancing is a partner dance. Each partner has a role: and the leader’s job is to guide the follower through a series of moves and patterns. These actions are communicated with nonverbal cues, and actively listening to each other is paramount. Paying attention to communicating with your partner is the difference between a dislocated shoulder and a smooth move.

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If either dancer refuses to listen to the other, the dance will look and feel uncomfortable, and no one will have fun. Needless to say, good communication is a skill worth learning, both on and off the dance floor. Listen well so that you can communicate successfully. And if you have a miscommunication, swing back to #1 and laugh it off.

3. Investing in experiences is worth it.

I have met amazing people and traveled so many places because of my love for dancing. I have spent long nights losing sleep and laughing and joking and jamming with people who mean a lot to me, and I believe that’s incredibly valuable. The money I have paid for events and gas and shoes is worth every penny because of these people.

I’ve watched my swing dancing friends get fall in love and get married and experienced the community coming together around tragedy. Swing dancers have become my roommates, my confidantes, and the people I rely on. It’s more than a dating pool or a hangout: it’s a community.

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So if you love something, invest in it. Your money is not wasted on experiences and relationships.

I would love to go back to high school and tell my sweet, awkward self that someday, she would step confidently onto a dance floor, asking men she’s never met to dance with her and spinning across the floor without abandon. That young girl would flash a metallic smile through her braces and probably stammer and shake from talking to someone older than herself. Dancing has changed me, and I am eternally grateful for the community and the skills that I have found, as well as for the lessons that it has taught me.

On Ecclesia: How Jesus Brought Me Back to Church

It took twenty years of weekly church attendance and sinking to rock bottom for me to figure out what the point of church is, and what the Bible really means when it talks about the body of Christ. But I know that the Lord is a Redeemer, and He has redeemed my legalistic thinking about His church and showed me how the Gospel operates in my life—here and now.

It all started with the rock bottom. I welcomed New Year’s 2014 fighting a small legal battle against an ex-boyfriend—skipping class for meetings and phone calls with police officers, spending my evenings filling out paperwork for a restraining order and sinking into the pain of the end of an abusive relationship. It wasn’t how I’d planned for my senior year of college to go. This wasn’t really what I’d planned for my life at age 20. I was on an externally successful trajectory as I finished college and was accepted into grad school, but I was hurting and lost and alone; the relationship had caused me to lose most of my friends and fade from the religion I had grown up on.

I hadn’t “lost my faith,” necessarily. But my life didn’t reflect that I knew the Lord in an everyday sense. I did not trust in Him as “my Rock, my Fortress and my Deliverer” (Psalm 18:2) through my pain or in my new season of life. Even though He was always close to my broken heart, like he promised in Isaiah 43:2, and He never left my side, I’d pushed Him away. I wasn’t going to church, and hadn’t gone consistently or intentionally in several years. And suddenly, I looked up and noticed that I had no community—anywhere. I graduated college and enrolled in grad school, hoping for a fresh start.

That’s when I encountered Ecclesia Communities in the fall of 2014.

The first time I walked in the front door of the home where Ecclesia gathers, I came as an uncomfortable guest and left feeling … still rather uncomfortable. After months and years of keeping to myself — even within the pews of a church — I’d met an onslaught of new people in a very personal setting. It was the cozy, welcoming home of a family I’d never met. Believers of all ages filled their kitchen table with food, poured ourselves coffee, and ate breakfast together in their sunroom.

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I’d never seen “church” done like this. We shared a meal together, sang together, and opened the Word of God together, but it slowly dawned on my nervous soul that there was no schedule. There wasn’t even a bulletin or, at that point, a website. Instead, when the Lord impressed a verse or a praise on someone’s heart, that person spoke up for the benefit of the group. It followed the model in 1 Corinthians 14, in which “each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” It was different.

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But I was intrigued, so I went back. The second Sunday morning, I was greeted by name when I walked in the door, and several people asked how my week went, how specific classes were going, how my roommates were doing. They remembered me. And I was welcomed into the family in a way that I had never experienced before.

 

John 13:35

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Ecclesia represents to me the body of Christ in motion. These are the people I turn to when I have a need, and I’m constantly aware of theirs. They’ve helped me move, and I’ve helped them move. They’ve fed me and provided for me, and I’ve fed and given to them. They’ve asked me tough questions, challenged me to think, and they’ve prayed for me, and I strive to do the same for them. The family of Ecclesia has taught me about Jesus—and how He would have acted if He were on the Earth today.

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I don’t remember making a conscious decision to keep attending Ecclesia, to integrate myself as part of this body, but with the passing weeks and years I am more and more convinced that this is the body of Christ in motion.

Call it what you may: house church, missional community, simple or organic church, or simply following the Old Testament model. But Sunday isn’t the point; it’s not the religious pinnacle of the week. Wherever I am with other believers is just as powerful for edification and growth as a Sunday morning gathering.  But the result of my participation in this body of intentional believers is that I began to view the Church as a part of my life, restoring my relationship to the Church as well as to the Lord.

In praise of seasons.

Transitory. That’s how I’d describe the past few years of my life. I’ve moved between many homes, traveled cross-country, worked new jobs, and met new people. This summer is the first in four years that I haven’t moved living situations, but I have changed jobs after I completed my Master’s degree last month, and with that comes an onslaught of the new. With each change, the rhythms of my life adjust accordingly, but it seems that I am only just getting settled in before something shifts.

Of course, constant change can bring a sense of insecurity, if my sense of security is found in earthly things. But I’m learning that these changes force me to realign my gaze with the one constant in my life: who God is and who I know him to be.

As a result of this forced realignment, I’m growing with each new season. As I go, I learn, and I collect more wisdom and truth and practical skills, assembling it all into a collage of who I am. I hope to never go through an entire season of my life without leaving as a changed person, more in tune with who God is in each situation. Whenever friends see an old photo of me with long hair, they comment on how much I’ve changed physically. I hope that my soul is changing just as radically.

I think this process honors God by allowing Him to move and work in my life. The Bible uses the metaphor of a potter and his clay several times; God as the Potter must shape away pieces of my life that don’t align with the creation he’s transforming me into. If I trust that He is a good Potter–the most excellent–and is crafting something beautiful, then I will allow for even difficult moments of shaping. Oswald Chambers says it well: “Allow the Potter to put you on His wheel and whirl you around as He desires. Then as surely as God is God, and you are you, you will turn out as an exact likeness of the vision.” I hope to always submit to this process with humility and grace, knowing that even difficult changes shape me into who God wants me to be in order to best glorify Him.

Ultimately, the changes in seasons reminds us that everything around us is transient; this world is not our home. 1 Peter 2 calls us “sojourners and exiles.” The only permanent identity we have is in Christ: we’ve been called “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” In the midst of change and decay on this earth, God has promised that our souls can hope in Him who does not change. As we await eternity, may we be transformed into His likeness, leaning into the God who cannot be moved.

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