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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 control and not having any.

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I never would have labeled myself a “control freak.” I’ll change plans at the drop of a hat, let someone else plan and handle all the details while I ride along, happy to simply be. I’ve been known to put my jeans back on to go out with friends after I was already snuggling in bed for the night.

But sometimes, real life gets way out of control. I didn’t have control over the presidential election when the candidate I voted for didn’t win, and I don’t have control of what the president-elect will do. I lost my job as an adjunct professor due to new federal regulations–can’t control that. I live in a world that, in many ways, is under the control of others, and their decisions don’t always make sense.

The fallback Christian answer–in the election season, in job woes, in relationships, etc.–is that “God is in control.” I’ve said it (and sung it) myself. I’ve heard so many people remind each other, “God is still God.” As if He can become something else.

But do I really believe that? With a dangerous man’s finger on the nuclear trigger and car and student loan bills coming in as fast as I can pay them off?

I’m not being rhetorical. I’m seriously asking. I don’t think I believe that enough to let Him have control of my life. I resist that with my whole fleshly being.

On the morning after the election, I woke up feeling like I was in a strange alternate universe where everything is wrong. A friend pointed me toward Psalm 23, and I was struck by the verbs in the psalm: he leads me. He guides me. He is with me.

I don’t understand the theological implications of the control God has in our lives, and I don’t necessarily want to. My finite little mind can only hold so much. But I know Who is leading me. I must try not to forget.

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.

Thesis Reflections: Stream of Consciousness

Social media is the highlight reel of a person’s life.

-Dr. Matthew Towles

Today, I defended my Master’s thesis. I have a few revisions to make, but the vast majority of the project is done.

That sounds really nice. From the outside, I think it might seem like it was a smooth, linear process that I accomplished with ease and grace. But you’ve only seen the highlight reels, and I’ve been living the outtakes.

Shoot, y’all. You didn’t see me staring at my computer screen in ugly tears because I felt like I was incapable. You didn’t see my bloodshot eyes scanning page after page of research. You didn’t see me sheepishly miss deadline after deadline because I felt stuck and indecisive. It wasn’t easy, and I think it’s important to remember that.

I kept a Word doc in my Thesis Research folder called “Stream of Consciousness.” In it, I jotted down my thoughts whenever I had a chance. I began recording my thoughts in the summer, when I was optimistic and excited to plan the project. I very, very quickly realized that I was in far over my head and, well…

I’d like to share with you most of my entries of my little thesis journal log as proof that my “behind-the-scenes” is a smokin’ hot mess, and nobody really has it all together.

*The thesis process inherently involves some profanity. Not my fault.

  • [Summer] Hey Carissa, this is an exciting topic. I want you to remember that you can tackle it. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in procrastination because you’re afraid you’re not going to do it perfectly. Instead, enjoy the research, enjoy reading the books, reread a really funny part, do whatever it takes. You’re not doing this project for your committee, you’re not doing it for your peers, you’re not doing it for your parents, and you’re not doing it for your friends. You’re doing it for yourself and your future. So don’t give up, and keep moving. Even if it’s slowly–keep moving! 🙂
  • [Summer] I know you’re scared, but you have to keep taking steps forward. You do know things, and you do have research skills. You can use them.
  • [Fall] What the f___ am I doing? Why didn’t I quit while I still had a chance? Not sure I can keep it up all year long.
  • [Fall] I’m not sure I was made for this kind of project. But in 6 months it will be over, and until then, it’s nose to the grindstone. I wish I had more motivation. Maybe it’s a sign that I’m not where I’m supposed to be.
  • [Fall] About 75% of me wants to walk into my committee chair’s office right now and quit. I don’t want to do this for the rest of my grad school career. This is making me miserable. I am miserable.
  • [Fall] I’m only miserable when I don’t ask for help.
  • [Winter] I love it when I’m doing it. Carissa, you f___ing love this when you’re doing it. Keep doing it.
  • [Spring] I’m very, very sure my friends are all lying to me when they tell me it’s worthwhile to finish a thesis. It’s a trap.
  • [Spring] Well, tomorrow is the deadline for chapter two, and you have written almost half of it. Just sit down and work until it’s done, I guess. Happy d___ Valentine’s Day to you too, stupid thesis.
  • [Spring] I’m scared I’ll fail at this. I doubt my ability to write with every sentence I put on paper.
  • [Spring] I’m gonna be okay, I think.
  • [Spring] Thesis deadline in four days. I’m panicked, and I’m scared, and I might fail at this.
  • [Defense Day] You did it. You DID IT. You did it.

2015 in Review

In a few hours, I’m heading out the door to a New Year’s Eve dance. And a few hours after that, the year 2015 will come to an end. At this time of the year, it’s fun to look back on the resolutions we’ve set for ourselves, but it can be discouraging to realize that once again, we aren’t the idealized versions of ourselves that we were so sure we’d be 365 days earlier. That’s one reason why I started a Reverse Bucket List last year and have been slowly filling it up.

This year was imperfect for everyone, myself included. But I was pleasantly surprised this year to find that, unknowingly, I had completed many of the resolutions I set for myself on December 31, 2014. Here are a few examples, not for the sake of bragging, but for the sake of giving myself, and maybe you, a little bit of a break:

Resolution: I’d like to give more meaningful gifts.

Gift-giving isn’t my love language. I’m not a good gift-giver, and I feel guilty when I receive gifts. But this year, I realized that gifts are a meaningful way to make someone feel special.

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I accomplished this goal by making many cards with my own calligraphy, and also giving my framed calligraphy as gifts.

Resolution: Be content, even if I’m single all damn year, and resolve my emotional dependence on boys. 

(That’s really how I wrote the resolution. My 2014 self apologizes.)

And I was single all damn year. I wasn’t always content being alone at the beginning of the year, but as the year has progressed, I’ve realized that I am absolutely capable of being single and thriving. Choosing to go to counseling really helped me work toward this goal and understand why I have always sought attention and gratification.

Resolution: I’d like to live more simply.

I didn’t realize how much simplicity and minimalism would impact my life this year. I read a book that changed everything: 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess by Jen Hatmaker.

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Since reading this book, I have been driven to own only what I need. I especially accomplished this goal by cleaning out the closet full of junk that I had left in my parents’ house, and by bringing about 5 boxes and bags of items from my apartment to Goodwill.

Resolution: I’d like to not waste money… if I manage my money better, I can use it to help others more.

This was the year that I established a budgeting system and stuck to it! After trying my hand at spreadsheets (and being really bad at it), I started using Mint.com to keep track of my accounts, and I have finished all of the past six months I’ve used the site under budget. Just gimme an envelope and call me Dave Ramsey!

And as a result of knowing exactly where my money went and budgeting space to give, I have been able to give generously to my church and those around me who were in need out of my meager little abundance. As I raised support for my trip to Las Vegas, I also saw the Lord provide through others and was truly blessed by them. (Thank you again.)

Resolution: Dance a whole lot.

And I did! I rang in the New Year 2015 with a dance event, and I’ll do the same this year. I danced in DC, Virginia, and Salt Lake this year; I learned from John Lindo, I danced with Markus Smith, and I taught regular lessons! I think this resolution will be a recurring one… 🙂

I am truly proud of many of my successes this year. I encourage you to think about how you achieved your resolutions, or to list the things you did this year that you’re proud of before you kick yourself for all your messes this year.

Above all, to God be the glory. He provided the finances, the contentment and peace, the physical health, and so many blessings this year.

For the next year, I have two resolutions:

Resolution 1: Pray hard. I learned a lot about the power of prayer this year on a ministry trip to Las Vegas, evangelizing in Manti, UT, and preparing and leading a trip to Pittsburgh. This year, I want to put it in action. Prayer changes things, and I want to join the battle.

 

Resolution 2: Host well. In the past year, I have experienced the blessings of being a good host, as well as the connections forged when others host. I want to cook a lot for other people (hm, or order takeout) and develop deeper relationships in the comfort of home.

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Happy New Year, my friends. It’s been a good (and sometimes messy) year.

What happens in Vegas… proves that God has won the battle.

We can’t lose the war against evil when God fights for us.

Before I spent a week in Vegas, I might have told you that Vegas is probably one of the places where God is the least present. But Vegas is the place where I felt the presence of God more strongly than anywhere before, and it filled me with awed fear of the holy God.

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Continue reading What happens in Vegas… proves that God has won the battle.

A tale of some cherries.

“If they ask, tell them we don’t have any cherries,” Dad said as we reached a standard California border checkpoint. We were headed towards San Diego from Utah, with Utah license plates branding our car as a suspect for inspection.

“You mean you want us to lie?” Mom said incredulously. Mom was always the one who kept our morals in check. “If you’re going to tell them that, you’re talking, not me.”

We were ushered into a stall by an officer wearing a reflective vest and Mom rolled down her window. A young Latino man with a name badge and a tan uniform greeted us, surveying the contents of our car. When he saw the cat carriers in the middle seat, he eyed them warily. “Uh… You guys bringing any pets across today?”

We paused, confused, then realized how suspicious a large pink cat carrier in the backseat must look to him.

“Oh, no… we’re returning those to a friend.” Great, we were already in trouble with the law and we didn’t even do anything. I shook the cage for good measure and the handles rattled.

Not much more convinced, he proceeded to his next standard question. “Do you have any fruit or plants with you today?”

Good old dad decided to be honest after all. Mom’s peer pressure had gotten to him. He leaned across the seat and answered, “Yes, we have some cherries with us.”

“I’m going to have to take a look at them.” We  expected that much, so we opened the cooler and pulled out a grocery bag filled with cherries. They were dripping wet from the ice in the cooler, and they splashed all over Mom’s lap, then onto the officer’s hands. He took them and set them on the table next to him, pawing through them and pulling one of them out. He examined it closely and looked back at Mom.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. You can’t bring these through,” he said. I wasn’t convinced that he really was sorry. However, we paid a dollar for each of the four bags of cherries, and we weren’t about to leave them there, especially after Mom asked what the people were planning to do with the cherries.

“We crush them to look for maggots,” he replied, very of matter-of-fact. “It’s a specific species that is causing problems in the south.”

Immediately, I could tell that everyone in our car thought, Our cherries don’t have maggots! How dare you accuse our cherries of having maggots? Eww, have we been eating maggots? No, our cherries most definitely don’t have maggots.

Spitefully, we asked if we could just pull over and eat them at the checkpoint. He showed us where we could park the van, as long as we brought back all the uneaten fruit and the seeds. We parked and divided up the bags, everyone taking a fistful and passing it along. When we had all eaten until we all were sure we would be sick that night, Mom walked the bag of pits back to the checkpoint’s office and dropped them off.

“Pick on someone your own size,” Mom grumbled as we drove away.

I picked up the cat carrier as we were driving away and the top came off, spilling the contents of it onto the seat. A few crumpled pieces of newspaper tumbled out, followed by a heavy, wet plastic bag. I picked it up and exchanged a look with Hannah. We both smiled. There, in the cat carrier, was half a bag of cherries.

“Here… let me have those. I’m still hungry.” And Dad finished them off.