If you only had faith…

It’s enough to break my heart.

worried womanMy client sits across from me and admits that they’re sure that God hates them or is angry with them or is ready to give up on them. Because they’re anxious. Because they’re depressed.

And well, if they were just a better Christian they wouldn’t feel this way.

Which, of course, is poppycock. Usually (but not always) I say it in nicer ways. It’s just not true. God doesn’t base grace on how chipper we are, which is one of the reasons that it’s called grace. As Frederick Buechner once said, we don’t have to do a blessed thing and that’s the blessedness of it.

Still, if you’re a Christian and you battle anxiety, it’s hard not to feel a little guilty for it After all, there’s that whole “the Bible says ‘Fear not’ 365 times so you have one for each day” picture on Pinterest. You know you shouldn’t feel anxious.

But you do.

We don’t help our anxiety by beating ourselves up for being anxious. If anything, that fuels the fire. We do help ourselves when we can take a step back to understand it, to pay attention to what’s going on in our spirits and in our brain. Once we understand it, we can use tools for changing it.



“They’re not handling things well”

“They’re not handling things well”

pic-lossA client or friend tells me they’re concerned about someone whom they love, a family member, significant other or friend. “They’re not handling things well,” they tell me. Sometimes that person about whom they are concerned is their very selves. Because words mean different things to different people,  I ask them to explain.

Usually it comes down to this. The person has had a significant loss. They are sad. They are grieving. They may even be a bit depressed. I point out that such reactions are perfectly normal given the situation.

We have a skewed idea of what handling things well means. We praise people saying, “She did so well. she never cried during the funeral.” Excuse me, but aren’t most funerals at least little sad? You miss the person and your going to be missing the person the rest of your life.

Having a feeling doesn’t mean you’re not handling things well. Now if you cannot get out of bed or your anger is peeling the wallpaper off the walls, then we need to talk. But simply being sad because you’ve had a loss comes with the territory.


Losses come in all shapes and sizes. Join me on my free webinar (late January/early February) as we talk about other kinds of losses and why they matter.

If Nobody Died Why Am I Grieving? More info and registration here 

Looking for the Lament Band

Looking for the Lament Band

From time to time I look over listings of ministerial job openings, mainly to make sure none of them are saying, “We need Peggy Haymes to come and let us pay her a large amount of money which she will be happy to tithe.” Haven’t found that yet.

I do see, however, music ministry openings whose requirements include being able to lead the Praise Band. I’ve heard of lots of churches that have Praise Bands. I keep looking for one that has a Lament Band.

There’s no reason not to, if you think about it. If you keep track as you read the psalms you’ll find that there are many more psalms of lament than songs of praise. The psalmist gives thanks but the psalmist also pitches a fit, wails in deep sorrow and directly questions God.

Both the praise and the laments of the psalms create a container for the realities of our lives. There are times when we can say with glad and grateful hearts, “God is good.” And there are times when we must shake our fists at the heavens and scream, “If you are so good, God, then where are you?”

Why do I suffer?
Why do I lose what’s most dear to me?
Why do the bad guys get to win, running over the good guys time and time again?

This hymnal of the church doesn’t provide easy answers. But it lets us know that there is no part of our human experience that is off limits to our faith and no feeling that we need to express that God cannot hear.

So maybe I’ll get started on that Lament Band.


My latest book, I Don’t Remember Signing Up for This Class: a life of darkness, light and surprising grace” is now available for Kindle. The print version will be out in September.

“Don’t just stand there despairing.”

It’s been a rough week on this corner of the planet. A boy is killed, apparently for the color of his skin, and the long simmering racial divides of a community erupt into what looks like a third world uprising: unarmed protesters against authorities in full military gear. And we wonder how it will be different.

A man who was obviously enormously talented in moving us both to laughter and to tears as well as making our hearts soar (and who was by all accounts a lovely human being) takes his own life. We try to imagine – or try not to remember – the depths of such black despair and we wonder how it will be different for others.

In other parts of our planet centuries of conflict are being played out with weapons old and new. Hatred stoked by the centuries erupts into killing and cruelty, and we wonder how it will ever be different.

Along the border of our own nation there is a struggle between too much and not enough. Children fleeing from too much danger, abuse and hopelessness find themselves rebuffed by communities feeling already over-stretched by not enough resources, not enough answers for the problems they themselves face. We wonder how it can ever be different.

There were events in my own life this week that didn’t make the news. A former client shared an email with me that she’d sent to her friends, “outing” herself as one who has struggled with the great black dog of depression and who now consciously chooses to live her life in ways that allow the light in. It was a brave and heartfelt email, and a reminder that for her, life is very different.

Last Saturday I also attended a meeting of the Steering Committee of Baptist Women in Ministry, NC. As we talked about next year’s meeting I thought back to the first meeting I attended so many years ago. Thirty, maybe forty people huddled together hoping for hope that locked doors might be opened. Our theme, taken from a song lyric, was “One by one, truth will grow.” As we met on Saturday I thought about how different things are now. We provide not insubstantial scholarship money for a woman student at each of the Baptist Divinity Schools in NC. And in recent months women have become pastors at both Watts St. Baptist in Durham and Riverside Church in New York City. One by one…

This week I’ve been reading John Philip Newell’s book, The Rebirthing of God. In it he quotes Nobel Peace Prize winner (and Mayanmar activist) Aung San Suu Kyi who has spent most of the last twenty-five years under house arrest. “Don’t just stand there despairing. Do something.”

It seems as good a word as any for this week. Don’t know how to resolve the Middle East or global warming or immigration or race relations or the scourge of depression? Do what you do know. Do one thing. You may think you’re only touching one life but you do not know how many other lives that one life will touch and how many lives those lives will touch. You may only write one letter but you do not know if yours will be the letter that’s the tipping point. You may only clean one stream or befriend one person who is of another race or political party or from the other side of the tracks. But you do not know where those steps will lead.

Don’t just stand there despairing. Do something.

Sometimes I struggle as a counselor…

Sometimes  I struggle as a counselor…

I’ve been doing this work for over ten years now, and sometimes I struggle. I struggle because we live in an increasingly clinical world and I see therapy as both dance and art… as well as clinical wisdom. I struggle because I believe that a diagnosis may open a window into a client but will never tell the whole story of them.

There’s a checkoff on one of my online record keeping forms that I am to check if I think this treatment is medically necessary. And I never know what to do with that, because isn’t all my work medically necessary? As people heal old wounds or stop beating themselves up or punishing themselves or trying to make the entire world happy, their bodies are able to let go of heavy and powerful burdens. As we get healthier emotionally we tend to get healthier physically. But I’m not sure I can whip out an evidence based study to prove it. I just know it in my soul from all of the people whose journeys I’ve been privileged to share.

Some days my work is in asking the right questions. Some days it’s simply sitting and listening and really hearing the stories they’ve been too afraid or too ashamed to tell anywhere else. Some days I reassure clients that they are not crazy or hopeless, they are simply in the midst of the grand rhythm of life, a rhythm that brings birth but also loss, and that loss can take a thousand forms, from the husband you lost to the childhood you never got to have. I remind them what their bones know, that grief is not a thing to be done but a journey to be lived, and there is no going back to the place where we used to live.

A little while ago I just read a powerful blog about the journey of grief; or, more accurately, one woman’s journey of grief, and all of the misunderstanding she faced from those who thought they had the right clinical box to put her in.

It is a deep and powerful story and I cannot commend it to you enough.

You can read it here

“But, when a child dies, even “good therapy” doesn’t cure or fix. Good therapy is merely joining the sufferer in their pain, non judgmentally with full acceptance and compassion.” Bereavement and snorting seaweed, by Dr. Joanne Cacciatore

Stray dogs and Strange People

Stray dogs and Strange People

Maybe you’ve seen the video. A shelter dog is scheduled to be put down. Absolutely terrified of people, he’s not exactly a great candidate for a family who wants a cuddly pet. But then something extraordinary happens.

The dog who was scared of people

As  I watched the video I thought of my own Ralphie. We don’t know exactly what he’s lived through, only that he showed up in a rescuer’s yard wearing a choke collar with a clothesline tied to it. He’d chewed through that line to get away.

Now a happy dog
Now a happy dog

He still has the occasional moments of fear and even terror but mostly he’s happy dog who’s at home in this world. In fact, he’s even gotten a little full of himself at times. It makes me smile to see him happy and relaxed and  to see his utter and overwhelming delight in visiting the dog park.

But I also thought of people whom I’ve known. Some of them I’ve worked with in various capacities and some have just crossed my path. In my younger years, before I’d spent untold hours listening to people and their stories, I would have judged these people harshly. I’m not proud to admit it but I would have been put off by whatever made them different. I’d wonder what in the world was wrong with them that made them unable to look me in the eye. Or why they didn’t take care of themselves better. Or for heaven’s sake, why were they so angry all of the time?

And then I began listening. The more I listened the more I realized that we’re all just trying to get through this life the best way we know how. Sometimes our path has been made easier by a kind family or great opportunities. Sometimes we have fallen into functional and socially acceptable ways of surviving.

And then there are those other folks. If we knew the whole story we’d realize how wrong we were in thinking they weren’t doing very well. Indeed, they have been walking a hero’s journey. Sometimes the fact that they’ve gotten out of bed and been willing to try for one more day is as great of an accomplishment as anyone could be expected to achieve in one single day. Sometimes they are angry or scared or standoff-ish because life has taught them to be that way. Sometimes they think so little of themselves because everyone else in their lives has had the same opinion.

We cannot always create the kind of swift transformation seen in this video. We cannot always rescue, or even help other people rescue themselves. But at the very least we can, as best we can, walk through this world with kindness.  For all that we see there is much we will not know.

And sometimes, just sometimes, a little patience and a little kindness makes all the difference.


Boomers, Suicides and Church

Several news organizations have had recent stories about the sharply increasing number of suicides among baby boomers. In this story by the Washington Post a number of factors are examined: the relative ease of our childhoods, the emphasis on youth that has led to an inability to accept aging, despair about a world that didn’t turn out like Woodstock envisioned.

I have some of my own theories which the Post didn’t address. As I work with people who are struggling, a common theme that I hear is a lack of meaning and a lack of community. People feel isolated and lacking in connection with anyone. They may have hundred of Facebook friends but few middle of the night friends – people you can call on at any time when your husband has left or your mother has died or the lab report wasn’t good.

Some of the clients  I see at midlife are struggling with depression and/or anxiety. A large factor in their struggle is a lack of a sense of meaning. They don’t feel connected to anything bigger than going to work and paying the mortgage and maybe getting a round of golf in on Saturday. They may not know just how to articulate it but they know they need something more, something bigger than just them. They need to be challenged to give something more of themselves than just a check to the United Way.

Community and meaning are what helps us weather those storms of life. They give us a way to ask the hard questions when life gets hard and a context for working out answers that are at least bearable.

This is not just psychological theory on my part. I’m working my way out of a challenging four year period in which I suffered a significant accident and had to navigate (thankfully) a temporary disability as a single person, moved my parents into a retirement home, lost both parents (one suddenly and unexpectedly and one by inches), grieved the death of several friends (both unexpected and anticipated), lost both cats, cleaned out our family home of fifty years, found a new office and moved… and tried to keep figuring out how to keep functioning as a business owner in the midst of it.

I cannot imagine how I would have made it through had it not been for faith and community. Faith gave me a place to land and to learn and to vent when it was all too much. Faith gave me the perspective that even in the worst of grief and suffering, this was not the whole story and there was yet light and grace being held for me. Faith allowed me the grace of being less than perfect, even on the days when I felt perfectly useless.

My faith community stepped in to do the things  I could not, like fix dinner and mow my grass and change a light bulb. To be sure, neighbors and other friends helped but I knew I could depend on that community.

If you think this is an evangelistic post directed to all of those people out there, then you’re wrong. This is directed at the church. We have what people are dying to have but too often we’ve put our energy into debating and arguing about who qualifies for admission and who gets the best seats of power and who should be allowed to minister in Christ’s name. If you’re drowning, I don’t think you really care if the person who throws out the life ring is man or woman, gay or straight.

People are dying because they can’t see any meaning that gives meaning and all they hear from us is how upset we are because they changed the doxology. People are dying but what moves us to take action is our outrage at the service going past noon on Sunday. People are dying and God knows they aren’t going to come through our doors because we’ve ceded the Jesus talk to fundamentalists so all these people know of Christians are the very things we don’t like either.

As people of faith we have such a feast. If the starving people outside find their way to us and come through our doors, we’ll welcome them (well, most of them.) But God forbid we take this feast to the world.

I don’t have the answers as to how this is done. But boy, I’d rather us spend our time on that question than debating whether or not a woman like me could actually be a minister (I went to seminary 30 years ago – can we just move on already?) or what color the carpet should be or who makes the coffee on Sunday mornings. People are dying while we debate the questions they’re not asking.

Anne Lamott tells the story of going dress shopping with her best friend, Pammy. Pammy was undergoing treatment for cancer, the disease that would later kill her. Lamott describes her friend sitting in her wheelchair, “her Queen Mum” wig on her head. Anne comes out in a dress that’s quite different from her usual style, which, as she says, is a bit like John Goodman. Shyly and self-conciously she asks if the dress makes her look fat.

“Annie?” her friend replies. “I don’t think you’ve got time for that.”*

As a church, I’m not sure we have time for much of what we spend time on.


*I tell this story from memory. I am fairly certain that it is from her book, Operating Instructions.