4 Nugz of Advice from 4 Years of Marriage

(I’m sure my Comms/Marketing friends would assert that no self-respecting person uses a slang “z” abbreviation in a title, but if you’re reading this, I got you anyway. Also, I couldn’t actually use the word “nugget” in the title without having to immediately die. So, here we are.)

Today is our 4th wedding anniversary.

Anyone desiring to get married, preparing to get married, refusing to get married, sad that they aren’t married, or already married should be reminded that getting married is one of the most counter-cultural things one can do. Fun fact: it’s not just having someone to keep your feet warm or someone to kill the spiders, though those things are good things. Getting married, in its truest sense, is standing before God and witnesses and saying, “whatever this man becomes, I am his.” And, “whatever this woman becomes, I am hers.”

And on your wedding day, you really don’t know what that means. Who can tell two married people all that they will face during their life together? Who can say who will grow sweeter with time and who will become embittered? What you’ll lose? What you’ll gain? Who can even tell you to whom you are getting married? Am I the same person I was the day we met? The day we got married? Yesterday? Do I look as youthful or laugh as much or have the same likes and opinions?

But the beauty of marriage is that it is designed to reflect the unwavering love of Christ for His people. Whatever we are, we are His. Whatever befalls, we are held. My “performance” as a wife to Caleb isn’t even really tied to Caleb’s “performance” as a husband to me. The way I interact with Caleb is a response to God’s call on me to be a loving, serving, and faithful wife. The stakes are pretty high and I fail often. But the call is still there.

Now, I’m well aware that 4 years of marriage does not a marriage expert make. I’m also aware that I am not a theological scholar, a therapist, or a doctor and cannot speak to the many spiritual, emotional, and physiological benefits of healthy relationships. (Obviously.) But there are some practical little things that I’ve learned in my marriage that I think position us well. And I want to share them with whoever is still reading.

No. 1: Feed the commonalities and foster the mutual weirdness.

I like to think of relationships as Venn diagrams. However miniscule, there’s usually always some common ground between two people. And as you grow in love for someone, it serves you well to invest in that common ground.

Perhaps you’ve heard the adage, “the grass is greener where you water it.” This can be lived out practically. Watch shows you both like. Listen to your spouse explain why he or she likes something you don’t understand. Champion their talents and hobbies. Take interest in the things that they are excited about. Like little kids who make up random nicknames for people and objects, have your own way of doing things and saying things that the two of you understand.

I remember confessing to Caleb recently that our harder times as newlyweds were largely due to the fact that I felt that we were two people who didn’t go together. I knew intellectually that there was no place for me other than the covenant relationship I’d chosen to enter. But living it out, I felt disillusioned. And perhaps he’s felt the same at times. But now, while we are still very different, there’s a sameness we have as husband and wife. We’re weird, but we’re each other’s. And there’s something intangibly precious about that.

Invest in your mutual interests, do those things together, and watch few similarities grow to be many.

No. 2: Come home in a good mood. 

I have repeatedly recommended this to married or engaged friends, and while I fail at it often, I genuinely try to do this consistently.

Your job may be horrible. The traffic where you live might be a nightmare. Your kids may be horrendous monsters. But when you see your spouse at the end of the day, be kind. Warm. Try to muster a modicum of general human kindness. And if you feel you have none left, say that gently and ask for a hug. No matter what happened during the day, be excited to see your spouse. That is wayyyyy better than walking into a crap storm at the end of the day.

No. 3: Big or small, make decisions about your home life together.

I envisioned a life of moving to a new city every few years, or at the very least, moving to a new city and starting life together as a family. Caleb is steady and rooted and would be content to live in the same place until we’re dead. Clearly, we have a difference in priorities. (Mine being novelty and his being all of the good things.)

So we’ve learned to set goals and projects together. Yes, at times one person has to compromise. But compromise is a lot more fun if you reach the end decision on the same team. We talk about what we want to save for next. What would we do to the house if we could afford it? What are our priorities with regards to this or that? What’s our stance on ______ going to be with Hazel?

But even if you’re not buying a house or doing home improvement projects or talking about parenting, you can carry this concept into the most mundane of tasks. One of the most precious things Caleb does for me is go to the grocery store with me. And it may be an inconvenience to him to have to spend some of his post-workday hours walking around Publix, but it means a great deal to me. It’s a chance for us on a small scale to make decisions together. To remember which kind of cheese we liked or why we don’t think it’s a good idea to get that cut of meat because this week we have this or that. In your marriage, it may be that you pay the bills together or set a budget together or actually cook together. I suggest finding the chores that you both are willing to do collaboratively and doing them together.

No. 4: Laugh and reminisce together as often as possible.

Caleb is not talkative, and I am. He’s never going to spill his feelings to me, because he’s not even certain he has feelings. So I’ve learned that I have to ask a very specific and surgically constructed kind of open-ended question to engage in what civilized people like to call “conversation.” I quickly learned that asking, “what’s your favorite ______” never got me a serious answer, and asking anything that could be answered in a single word, eye roll, or grunt wouldn’t get me anywhere.

So occasionally I’ll ask, “remember when ______” and see what he remembers about a certain place, event, trip, date.

It’s not uncommon that he’ll remember things I’ve totally forgotten. He’s made us both laugh uncontrollably and get carried off onto some rabbit trail of conversation where I’ll learn things about him that I didn’t know. Whether his vantage point makes us roll with laughter or pause in sadness, it is always rewarding to listen to how he remembers a certain event. He is, after all, the only other person in this marriage, so it’s good to know how he thinks it’s going.

And, though this isn’t officially a tip because I only wanted 4 – remember that this is all fleeting. Cherish it. I don’t know the number of my days, or his. We still have a lot of years that can get a lot harder than the 4 we’ve crossed. So I’ll try to notice and thank him for his sacrifices, however big or small. I’ll try to use my standing as the only wife he’s got to make his life rich with the good stuff. And I’ll pray for insight on how to love him well.

Happy anniversary, C. Hall. You are far better to me than I could ever have dreamed.

Family Vacation, Hall Edition

We just got back from a mini tour of North Georgia and the surrounding areas, which was special for a few reasons: first, it meant we could bookend our trip with weekends in Atlanta to see my parents; second, we were gifted a stay on the gorgeous private property of some beloved family friends in a town very sentimental to my father; third, it meant we could relax and wander and do outdoorsy stuff, which Caleb loves; and last, it was our first vacation as a family of three.

Hazel was a really good girl, I was a mildly good girl, and Caleb was very patient with us both. (TMI side note: In the weeks leading up to the trip, we tried to transition her to formula so we could leave her with my parents. Was not successful. I’ve never seen a human so precisely forbid drops of liquid from sliding into her throat. She wouldn’t take a drop. So we decided we’d keep her with us, pump throughout the week, and drop her off for a single night of alone time our last night at the cabin. After handing her off with bags of milk, we learned the next morning that she’d literally refused a bottle all night until we returned. Like … our infant just sustained herself by her iron will and rice cereal alone. She told us later that she’s training for SEAL Team 6.)

Not that anyone is planning a trip to the North Georgia area right now, but I wanted to document and share our random itinerary. I’ll tell you right now that most of our trip consisted of recommendations from Wander North Georgia. After a family friend sent me the link, we were instant fans of what they’re doing, and we are happy to say that pretty much all of what we saw/did/ate per their recommendation was spot on. So here it is – Family Vacation, Hall Edition:

Friday-Sunday:

  • visited some spots in downtown Alpharetta, where the average ticket price for a slightly upcycled tchotchke is 1.4 million dollars.
  • remembered on Sunday night that we’d been minutes away from the Music Midtown Festival happening all weekend but didn’t have tickets.

Monday:

  • hiked down to see the falls at Tallulah Gorge on our way to Clayton, GA.
  • upon arrival, I realized I would not have cell service all week and it was actually really awesome.

Tuesday:

  • explored downtown Clayton; dropped in to buy some Wander North Georgia merchandise and talk to some of those guys.
  • visited the architectural salvage yard in Otto, NC. (I wanted to link to the site, but Google is telling me the link may be compromised so now I’m weirded out.)
  • returned to Clayton to eat at Fortify, where one of us got a grit bowl, one of us got filet mignon, and one of us screamed and ate pureed prunes. Can you guess?

Wednesday:

  • got our coffee at White Birch Provisions; drove up to Highlands, NC per the recommendation of their barista.
  • stopped to walk down to the Dry Falls outside Highlands; I let a biker take a picture of us on my phone and then I bathed my phone in hand sanitizer and asked if Caleb was proud of me for being nice to people.
  • continued to downtown Franklin, NC – where literally every store has a random animal roaming around. Almost got killed by a white cat in a used bookstore; Caleb decided to buy a rolling pin from a kitchen goods store so we could learn to make homemade pasta; waited to hear back from a guy about a fly fishing lesson.
  • Googled places to eat and somehow ended up at a BBQ place called Fat Buddies, where “Bacon & Cheese” is literally listed as a side on the menu.

Thursday:

  • ate at Clayton Cafe, where my great grandparents used to eat when they had a home in Clayton for several years. I chose the most private booth in the empty restaurant to feed Hazel and a man came up and sat right next to me. He had a 100% clear line of sight under my nursing cover, which was obviously the only place in the restaurant to sit.
  • visited the Osage Farms market and bought pickled Okra, spiced apple butter, and a dozen apple cider donuts. An old man held out a dollar for Hazel to grab. She did. Then tried to eat it.
  • met my mom halfway to Atlanta to hand off Hazel. Googled the closest movie theater and realized they were all several hours away. (We wanted to visit the Tiger Drive-In, but they only show movies on weekends.)
  • drove to Helen, GA and questioned everything; spotted a black bunny in a parking lot and then realized black bunnies were surrounding us; saw a man standing in a patch of grass in a parking lot with a live hawk on his arm next to small children and also next to a sign that said sports were prohibited in the grass. Apparently you can’t play a friendly game of pick up soccer but you can have a live predator next to tiny humans.
  • retreated to the cabin to spend our night alone catching up on all of our fall shows on Hulu and eating the overpriced chocolates we’d purchased in Helen. (Parenthood is sexy!)

Friday-Sunday:

  • returned to my parents’ outside Atlanta, where we met some family friends in Avalon (which Caleb calls a creepy oasis for white people) and I ate dessert three times. (If you’re ever in Avalon, go to El Felix.)
  • watched football, ate spaghetti and homemade meat sauce, saw Magnificent 7.
  • enjoyed a gathering at Passion City Church; said goodbye to my lovely parents.
  • stopped at Ponce City Market to explore; ate Cuban food from Super Pan and got some Spiller Park Coffee, where this was a real conversation I had: “Do you have almond milk?” “No, but we’re doing a local Georgia pecan milk for a $2 up-charge.” “Perfect!” (?!)
  • visited Caleb’s aunt in Columbus, GA; Hazel screamed the entire way back.

Below are some pictures of our week on the road. For most of this trip, Caleb was holding Hazel while I juggled my phone camera and my real camera, so that’s what is reflected below. I’m no photographer, but I’m happy with what we captured from this trip!

(For the privacy of the owners, there are no pictures of the inside of the cabin we stayed in but it was AMAZING. The beautiful sunset with the stream near the bottom is on the property.)

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Adulting.

At 18, I assumed that by now I’d have multiple advanced degrees from elite schools and some killer job in a big city; I’d be changing the world while making great money, living free from the humble entanglements of childrearing and homemaking. (I was basically envisioning the jazzy opening montage of every early 2000s romantic comedy.) But instead, I went to a large public university, majored in Creative Writing, never left my college town, never pursued writing, took random desk jobs, and settled down. Today, at 26, I have no Masters degree, I’m married to a frugal wilderness man who would never move us to a metropolitan city, we own a fixer-upper in a town to which I never wanted to come, and I’m about to leave my full-time job to be a stay-at-home mom. Let’s just say things aren’t going as I’d planned.

As I continue the waning half of my twenties in a totally different realm than I’d imagined, I am seeing the truth of John 1:16 – that God has given us one blessing after another from the fullness of His grace. A lover of the cinematic, I am delighted to find that the great Architect of the universe is also the intricate Artist attentive to the smallest details. He weaves all of our stories together with time as His soundtrack. Not only does He know the number of our days, He knows what will fill each second of those days and how those moments intertwine to bring about His glory and our good. John Piper has said that “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life and you may be aware of 3 of them.” It’s quite exquisite to think about.

Real life has a way of uniting people as more and more of us walk together with limps. The sharp edges of our youthful ambitions become smoothed and rounded by reality or disillusionment or closed doors. We see college friends find out they can’t have children. We see classmates pass away. We see older couples lose the children they worked so lovingly to raise. We see wise people struggle and sturdy people fall and things rebuilt in beautiful ways. We find that we may not agree on big picture issues with friends or spouses but that those things never would have come up before. We are able to spot a dead man walking and empathize with wounds we don’t (yet) have, because we know the secret weight of our own wounds. We learn to treasure the friends who will say the hard things, even as we fail to be that friend in return. We become disillusioned with this or that or everything, we forget people we used to be and cannot forget things we’ve done or said and cannot erase. We see old Facebook pictures of ourselves and shudder to think that in some ways we have nothing in common with that former self but in other ways we have not grown up at all. We feel that we are the lone impostors parading around as normal, sane human beings. We love ourselves and hate ourselves every single second of every single day. We encounter the reality that there will always be someone smarter, younger, more enthusiastic and qualified once we find something we love to do and that being the best at everything isn’t real. We see single friends long to be married and married friends long to be single. We get horrible news we cannot remedy. Our priorities change. Our personalities change. Our talents change. We give up on dreams, we get new ones. Fun and games give way to responsibility and commitment. We see lower lows – and, in many ways, higher highs – as life “happens” to us and to those around us.

When I reflect on the past and the present, I become increasingly aware that God is not faint-hearted. He’s the God of steadfast love. When things aren’t pretty, when everything seems lost, when our appetites eclipse our desire to follow Him, still He is there. In control. He’s not the shallow acquaintance that would recoil at the sight of our messy kitchen or Instagram post that didn’t rely on strictly natural light. He’s the one who knows each thought before we think it and hears each word before we say it and chooses us still. He’s the brain behind tears and tastebuds and friendship and intellect and mathematics and color and flavor and hugs and music and emotion and all the glorious things it means to be human and to feel and to want and to hurt and to learn.

About 8 years ago, I stood on a stage at my high school graduation and gave a speech about all of the grand things we could all accomplish. (I vaguely remember also reading an excerpt of a letter from my best friend that was very obviously about my ex-boyfriend being a jerk.) And I wholeheartedly believed that I could be anything and do anything and master anything. And perhaps I can. But today, I didn’t wake up in a fancy apartment in Central Park West and go to my corner office to spend the day as the youngest-ever editor of The New York Times. Nope. I woke up at 3:30 AM to feed a baby and then washed some bottles and put a meal in the crockpot and ate two Double Stuf Oreos from the freezer and drove to work in the dark and clocked in at 6:30 in my cubicle in an office park in Tallahassee, Florida. Tonight I’ll take dinner out of the crockpot and Hulu something with Caleb and tomorrow probably paint our kitchen. I have, by some standards, nothing significant to show for these 8 years. I am still here, still not ‘there,’ still this person, still not ‘that’ person. I have failed in every category that I had set for myself. But: I am abundantly blessed beyond measure. I am held. I am chosen and pursued. I am being polished and refined with each seemingly mundane task and layer of responsibility. And so are you. I have none of the things I wanted as an 18 year old and yet everything I need and more. Even just from my day job I’ve seen abundant blessings: For 3 years, I’ve held a job that has enabled me to learn and grow and think and be good at things and lead projects and travel enough to satisfy my wanderlust but not enough to ruin my life. I’ve been able to contribute to a team and be corrected and realize I’m bad with people but moderately good with Excel. And now I get to take on a new job as a mom to my baby girl. I get to become the expert in what her cries mean and how she likes to be held and in a few years I’ll get to attend her impromptu meetings about tea parties and field her questions about 7 million things a day. God has provided me with friends I don’t deserve and a family that gives me too much love and a voice to serve my church in music and a husband that is better to me than I could ever say and a precious little baby who needs the power of Christ in me to love her and teach her and make her smile and be there for her. Not to mention an employer willing to let me log part time hours from home so I can be a mom and still help pay our bills. But even if I had none of these things, or if they disappeared overnight, He has blessed me with more than I could ever comprehend. I have His presence, His power, His promises. All of the tangible blessings are simply manifestations and reminders of how good He is. God has me here, right now, and is calling me to trust and seek Him in this place, in this season, in these roles as wife and mom and friend and daughter and sister. My daily life is a call to worship and lean on and thank Him; it is not mundane drudgery.

By nature, I’m competitive, insecure, proud. I want to win or I don’t really want to play. I’m content to come across cold or boring if it means I don’t have to try, fail, and be embarrassed. I want to have all the accolades and feel worthless if I don’t. I’m Caleb’s worst nightmare.

But I’m seeing a transformative force at war against my personality: grace.

Everything that’s ever happened to me (and to you) is a blessing from the Giver; may we only have eyes to see it. Everything softer than I deserved, sweeter than I’d hoped. Praise God through whom all blessings flow.

sponge brain

Confession:  I used to be a borderline iPod legalist.  As a kid I would look up the lyrics to every single song in my library and delete any that had questionable messages.  True story.  Little 14-year-old Giana would do this.

She wanted to protect her mind.

But somewhere in the years since then, I’ve become lax about it.  I ‘trust myself’ enough to be able to listen to things and not absorb them.  I don’t listen to heinous gross stuff, but a lot of the music I do like preaches idealized views of life and love and relationships that aren’t really healthy or realistic.  I usually write off these differences, telling myself that I don’t have to agree with the singer to like the song.  But, truth be told, I’ve learned about myself that I need to be careful what ideas take root in my mind.  Half-truths can be pretty insidious.  Now, please hear me, I am NOT claiming that every Christian needs to have the same surgical sweep of their iTunes library.  But we need to know ourselves and run from things that make us sin.  And for me, it’s idealism.  It makes me discontent and broken and The Worst Ever.  Caleb once referred to me as a “dreamer without a dream.”  And it wasn’t a compliment. (Although it makes me picture Kermit the Frog sitting atop a rainbow dangling his little feet while whistling.)

Before this gets weird for everyone, I’m NOT talking about “Christian” music vs. “secular” music.  I do NOT think non-Christian music is forbidden or that musicians are in any way setting out to undermine your personal beliefs.  I mean, maybe they are, but that’s not what I’m saying.  What I am saying to the Christian is that your favorite indie band is probably not comprised of theologians.  So their beautiful song about a complicated relationship they had one summer as a 17-year-old is not gospel truth about how to be attached to people in a healthy way.  You feel me?  I’ve said it before, and I think it bears repeating, that all our favorite artists are just humans trying to make sense of feelings.  But those messages are powerful, and they can shape us if we let them.

Let me give this a little bit of context.  Caleb and I see the world in very different ways.  We are very different people.  But we also have very different media input, and those choices broaden that chasm.  This was made tremendously clear to me a while ago when we were driving in the car and had gotten into an argument about my discontentment.  It’s a problem for us.  Most of the days that he’s been married to me, he’s had to remind me why he already said I shouldn’t buy that thing or get a tattoo or have a baby right now or get a septum piercing or tint my ombre hair lavender.  This time it was about moving.  I wanted to ditch all our commitments and just move somewhere “cool” and start a new life.  Which, he, as a sane human, didn’t understand.  But immediately after that conversation, we sat in silence while my iPhone played song after song of weird, destructive stories of just shipwrecking a life and starting over.  It was super awkward, but it became supremely obvious what had been feeding my weirdness.  Look at some of these lyrics from songs I love and thought were harmless:

Here’s some Muse:  “Far away, this ship is taking me far away, far away from the memories of the people who care if I live or die.  Starlight, I will be chasing the starlight, until the end of my life, I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.”  –Starlight

And here’s an old fave from The Postal Service:  “I want to take you far from the cynics in this town and kiss you on the mouth.  We’ll cut our bodies free from the tethers of this scene, start a brand new colony — where everything will change, we’ll give ourselves new names, identities erased …”  –Brand New Colony

Sentimental?  Sure.  But super healthy?  Nehhhh.

We love songs and movies and stories about people “brave” enough to shut out the world and start a new life, especially if it’s with someone else.  It sounds nice; it sounds like it makes much of love.  But that’s a dangerous road to idolatry.  Not only that, but for the Christian, it’s a blatant rejection of our calling.  My discontentment boils down to a worldview centered around me:  I want to experience things, I want to accomplish things, I want to be things, and sometimes I want to run from hard things … but that’s not a life surrendered to Christ, is it?  Remember that part where I was supposed to die and am now living for Christ?  Our actual calling involves real people with real needs and real struggles.  It involves real community and real commitment.  I have wasted so much energy mourning lives I’ll never get to live and people I’ll never get to be.  But all of that time, I’m practically spitting on all the things God DID give me.  And I think maybe I’m not the only Christian who is seriously hindering personal ministry because we’re hooked on some dream life that isn’t real.  We’ve misplaced our identities.

I know that no song or movie or book created the sin in my heart.  It was already there.  But I think the stories I choose to admire and believe in can definitely feed that sinful discontentment.  So what is it for you?  What normal, neutral thing is skewing your personal convictions in a way that isn’t going anywhere good?

what TV is teaching me about me.

Caleb and I are going through a dizzying time of cliff-hangers.  It’s messing with our heads.  Not only are various elements of our “real life” at a crossroads, but also this year we’ve gotten hooked on a few shows that have us waiting on the edges of our seats.  And while it’s borderline-sad to be as hooked on characters as I am, it’s actually been a season of learning for me.

A prime example is our guilty-pleasure show, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  The show is a spin-off from the well-known action hero comics series with new characters and story lines, so it’s a perfect show for Caleb (who knows all the Marvel back-stories) and me (who knows nothing about the Marvel back-stories) to watch together.  The show is really well cast and we absolutely love all of the characters.  One in particular, played by the dashingly-handsome Brett Dalton, has surprised us all by being a part of a major plot twist in the last few episodes.  I don’t want to write any spoilers, but basically everything we knew about the character turned out to be untrue, so much so that the writers didn’t even tell Brett about his character’s ‘true self’ until 1 or 2 episodes before the reveal.  You can imagine, then, that none of us saw it coming.  The writers are really tugging on our heartstrings for these last episodes, with cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger leaving us itching for answers from week to week.  We’ve got a few more episodes until the season ends, and all I can say is that the writers have some explaining to do! Which means they are awesome at their jobs, because Caleb and I will certainly be watching every second of every remaining episode.

In such a media-saturated culture, we get hooked on characters.  We’re invested.  We love them.  When their lives get messed up or a dark part of their past is revealed, we reach in harder, waiting to cheer them on for the climb back up.  Even in comedies, small situations have big consequences and we stay tuned in to wait for the resolve.  I can remember how badly I wanted Jess and Nick from New Girl to get together, and now that they are already broken up, I’m wondering what the writers are thinking.  And who can forget that longing feeling we all had when the writers of The Office screwed with Jim and Pam’s marriage in the last half of season 9?  As invested viewers, we’re basically unable to rest until some resolution occurs.

The truth about Brett Dalton’s character in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is that there is really no dark thing he could do that would ruin our image of him.  We’re believing the writers to bring redemption, but if they don’t, we will still love him and feel empathy for him.  Why? Because unlike those bad guys that start and end with no dimension, we got to see the intricacies of Agent Ward before we knew there was really any darkness in him.  So now that we’ve seen the good in him, we can’t forget it’s in there.

It got me thinking– I’m obviously supposed to love real people that way.  Yet, if I’m honest, do I?

Instead of chastising myself for getting so interested in characters, I’m challenging myself (and you) to channel that feeling and pour it into the real people in our lives.

What if I had the same empathy for the ups and downs in the lives of my friends as I do for my favorite characters?  What if I was invested in redemption instead of just writing off someone else’s needs or complications?  What if someone could casually tell me about something that’s coming up in their life and I could actually remember it enough to follow up? What if the people in my life could know that I will never stop loving them, no matter what they do?  What if I was truly invested in the stories being written all around me?

In an interview at Catalyst 2013, film-maker and activist Jason Russell spoke about a humbling moment in which he felt like God was saying, “you think you’re the greatest storyteller? I’ve got 7 billion stories going, and I love every single one of them.”

There are stories being written in the lives of your family members, your classmates, your neighbors, your Starbucks baristas, your professors, your bosses, your taxi drivers, your waiters.  So tune in to those stories.  Be a fan and a friend and an encourager.   If you’re a Christian, you believe in the God who invented redemption; the God who lovingly created every person you’ve ever laid eyes on.  In Christ, our stories meet redemption, and everything finally makes sense.  And He’ll never stop loving us, no matter how we fall.  People need to know that a love without condition exists for them.  People need to know that their story matters.  That they matter.

Have you ever marveled at the fact that a song written by a stranger can make you cry, or that a scene involving fictional characters can make you feel things?  Life is kind of encompassed and understood through people and their stories.  And our ability to feel empathy is a gift that we shouldn’t take for granted.  So let’s use it to connect with people, not just characters.

 

 

marathons.

One of my most deep-seated fears is that everything I do is ticking down to a moment in which all grace will be taken away.  As if I’m on some kind of limited-time free trial in every relationship I have.  I have always felt like other people’s acceptance of me was based on a certain number of strikes– as if one more mistake or embarrassing comment or failure meant I’d lost my chance at friendship with one more person.  And as strange as it sounds, this thought is constantly present in the back of my mind.

I moved a lot as a kid, so I didn’t ever have to impress people for very long.  With each move, I got a clean slate where I could practice learned behaviors of what was and wasn’t acceptable to my peers.  In high school, the boys I dated were usually older than me, so they would graduate and it usually ended there.  There wasn’t a single person outside of my family who closely knew me for five years straight. Until now.

This summer approaches my 6th year of living in Tallahassee.  In addition to living in the same city for such a long time, I’m involved with the same ministry, the same team, the same friends, the same boy, the same everything.  And it’s getting harder every day.

There is so much that I’ve learned about community since I’ve been here.  So much I’ve learned about friendship.  But even still, there’s so much I’ve learned about not really letting people get close to me.  I have tons of acquaintances, but a very small circle of people that I trust with all of my messiness.  Sometimes that inner circle includes about 4 or 5 people.  Sometimes 2– me and Caleb.  But most days, my inner circle is just me and my tireless, critical, fearful mind.

By looking at me, you can tell I’m not a marathon runner.  And by looking at my real life– the one behind closed doors– you’ll see that I’m just as out-of-shape in long-lasting relationships, too.  At best, my life has been mostly sprints, but now I’m tangled in about 7 long-distance races that have no end in sight.  All of these are good things– a marriage, a role in a thriving ministry, a career, fantastic friendships with people who are having fantastic little children that I want to be friends with forever.  But I’m still getting used to the new pace.  As much as I’m content with smiling at acquaintances and never letting anyone in, long-lasting relationships are the stuff of the Gospel: God has loved us eternally; our marriages are to last “until death do us part“; we are called to love other believers as “brothers and sisters in Christ“; and our faith is a race until the end.  We’re not supposed to be a flash in the pan.  Our lives are in every way called to point to an everlasting God.

And that’s not easy.

I always want real life to be like film.  I want my seasons of growth to be warmly-lit montages with “Sweet Disposition” playing in the background.  I want to fast-forward to the part where the good stuff happens.  I want hints of how things will tie up nicely in the end.  But in real life, training is hard.  Growth is hard.  Staying is hard.  Sticking it out is hard.  Whatever the challenge is, we don’t go from losers to winners in one song. We just don’t.

But our God provides.  It’s amazing to see what God has given me as He transforms me into something beautiful.  He has surrounded me by people who are nothing like me.  People who make me so uncomfortable because they love me.  He has given me a church family that is characterized by dedication to one city, until everyone in the whole place knows Jesus Christ.  He has given me a driven and faithful husband who is known for his strength and commitment.  He has given me friends that don’t quit.  He has given me an insatiable desire to know Him.  And thankfully, He gives me this amazing thing called grace, which reminds me daily that He chose me. And He’s chosen you. And no matter if we fail or stop running or take forever to cross the finish line, He’s not changing His mind.  I’m not on a trial period with God’s love.  I’m on an unlimited plan that never expires.

It’s so strange, what love does to you.  Knowing that I’m loved in spite of myself makes me want to keep running, even though there are cramps, and setbacks, and possibly bloody sneakers.  Although the race gets hard, I have no choice but to persevere.

Beth Moore gives a hauntingly beautiful illustration of this.  Hebrews 12:1 says,  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” If you’ve ever heard that verse, maybe you’re envisioning the people in your life who are watching you.  But Beth muses that at this point in the early church, the “great cloud of witnesses” might very well be those early Christians who had already died or been martyred, who were now cheering from Heaven at the Father’s side, proclaiming the very glorious and true reward of trusting in Christ.  It’s a romantic thought, but think about that!  If God is calling me to a disciplined, long-suffering race, I know that no matter what happens, He’s at the other end.  And that’s all I want, out of anything in the entire world.  That’s really all I want.  To be with Jesus.

If you’re like me, you want your life to be characterized by victory after victory, visible progress, a well-written plot, and a freaking amazing soundtrack.  But think what we can accomplish if we stay through the rough cuts and the unflattering extended scenes with no post production.  We love the high of a “happily ever after” scene because we think that those kinds of moments are all we need.  But the truth is, those moments are the result of perseverance, honesty, trust, and a skillful director.

Don’t get hooked on sprints when you should be engaging in marathons.

Turn to Christ.  He doesn’t get tired.  He’s even strong enough to carry you.

“Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”  Isaiah 40:28-31, NIV.

 

#pinning.

This is something that I’d usually just tweet about, but 140 characters seemed too few to really address this issue, and I want to be clear that I’m writing in love. Nonetheless, I’ll try to keep this blog post short and sweet:

Girls, let’s be careful how we “pin.”

My husband revealed to me that he genuinely believes that girls using Pinterest can be as harmful to marriage as men looking at sexually explicit images online.  I looked up from my phone to give him “you crazy?” eyebrows, but as usual, he was equipped with a full, wise, and painfully logical explanation.

1. It creates and cultivates a spirit of discontentment.

Aside from materialism being a threat, there’s a real breeding ground for discontentment, and even spousal dissatisfaction.  There’s a temptation for us to wrap ourselves up in an imaginary life. This is the city I need to live in, these are the outfits I need to have, these are the kinds of stylish people I want to be around, this is the kind of guy I like, this is the way I need to look, this is the life I wish I had… Instead of the life I really have.

2. It creates opportunity for unhealthy fascinations upon physical things.

I’ve seen single girls dedicate pinboards to the way they want their future husbands to look and dress.  Wives, if you have boards of husband-inspired things, gifts, or outfits, pin away!  Just be careful that you’re not creating an image of your dreamboat that is nothing like the man you actually married.  It’s easier to do that than we think.  For example, I think Caleb would look really attractive with tattoos, but he hates them, so I’m not going to pin a bunch of tattooed bearded hipster guys onto a board and call it “Caleb,” because that would be idolizing a made-up image of a man that isn’t my husband.  Make sense?

(Side note: Girls. If you’re not engaged, do you really need a wedding board? Why? Even if you’re dating, you don’t really know who you’ll marry.  And your wedding is not about you being a fantastical fairy princess for a day.  It’s about you and your husband engaging in the most serious and sacred covenant known to man.  So if you don’t yet have a ring on your finger, you don’t know who your husband will be.  And if you’re just going to plug him into the dream wedding you’ve already made for yourself, you might be focusing on the wrong things.)

3. It promulgates a double-standard.

My husband made a blatant comparison to if he did the same: if he browsed the internet trying to upgrade his life by looking at pictures of something different than what he had.  How would I feel if he went shopping for a better life than the one he has with me?  How would I respond if he created an account on Pinterest and starting pinning pictures of models onto a board called “My Girl.” Or if he had a board of outfits he’d like me to wear because they look pretty on someone else.  I’d be so mad! Because he’d be looking outwardly to improve upon what I bring to the table — all in the name of his personal enjoyment.

I’m sure people reading this right now may think this is crazy, or that I’m being legalistic in writing this, but the reality is we’ve got to flee from things that cause us to sin, and if this does, safeguard yourself.  Yes, there are many healthy, harm-free ways to use Pinterest and other social media platforms. Maybe you are never tempted by material goods, lavish homes, attractive people, nice clothes, or even a glorification of what it is to be a good housewife.  Maybe you simply use Pinterest to find recipes, organizational tips, or whatever.  But for most of us, the idea of what we want our life to look like can be a real stumbling block in our attempts to live with our minds set on Christ.  Not to mention the fact that the Bible has lots to say about our attitudes towards money, outward appearances, and material things.

I saw a meme (on Pinterest, of all places,) making fun of the absurdity of our obsession. It said:

“This is a thing…  I like this thing…  I want you to see that I like this thing…  I want you to be impressed that I like this thing. = Pinterest.”

There is a long and dangerous road at the other end of never being satisfied with people or things. So, let’s use Pinterest and other social media platforms to engage in real life.  Use Pinterest for its intended purpose —  to assist you organizing links to helpful things.  Don’t use it as a temple for things you wish you had.  Caleb and I want to travel, so sure, I can pin boards of places we’d like to go.  Caleb and I want to build a house, so sure, I can pin tips for home-building or design.  Honestly, I like to change my haircut and color, so I use Pinterest to keep track of those kinds of ideas– I’m not saying it’s wrong for girls to look at hair and makeup ideas.  But it would be sinful of me to use Pinterest as a shrine to my fantasy life.  Just as it would be a sin for Caleb to go prowling around for visually appealing things that aren’t his, in the hopes of filling some kind of void.

Let’s be people who aren’t tethered to the dream of having every material possession we ever wanted.  Let’s be people who love deeply those real people surrounding us, and let’s be people who don’t crave the “next best thing.”

Healthy marriages.  Healthy friendships.  Healthy thoughts.  Healthy desires.

“Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.'” Hebrews 13:5, NIV.

2013: What My Entry Level Job Taught Me About the Gospel and Corporate Greed

     When Caleb and I got married, various people told us this: “In marriage, if you think you won the fight, you lost.”
     Well, based on my experience, the same principle is true as a Christian in the workplace: If you think you’re “getting ahead,” you’re probably not completing your mission very well.
     As a twenty-something girl living in the 21st century, many of my peers are growing their own businesses or building social media empires. People with marketable skills are networking, and people with no marketable skills are either working very hard or learning how to do their makeup well and pretend like they’re an expert at something. The internet has created opportunities for people to gain acclaim, or at least business, from people they wouldn’t have otherwise met, and now more than ever, a remarkable number of young women are able to make a living doing things they love. But what about the rest of us? Those of us who have to do the unthinkable: Work. A. Desk. Job.
     In March of 2013, I quit a job because I was convinced my life was meant for more than keeping a desk chair warm.  I wanted to finish grad school or do freelance writing or convince Caleb to let us have kids so I could stay home and make my own schedule (I’m sure moms are laughing at the thought of that).  I also wanted to do everything I felt like doing.  I wanted to wake up late, go shopping all day, redecorate our house, and go out to dinner every night.  And while I knew that wasn’t reality, I thought I saw so many other people my age making it happen for themselves– many of them Christians, no less.  Christian girls all over the place were getting to use their craftiness or talents to create beautiful things and make a living and all the while seem so full of picture-perfect joy in Christ.  I was jealous.  And still am, some days.  Frustrated with the task of working a day job I’m not passionate about.  If I only get one life, shouldn’t I be doing something “better” with it?
     It’s no secret that this is a poisonous mindset to have (fueled by jealousy no less), so I’m not claiming innocence in my discontentment.  In fact, my church does a fantastic job of teaching on what roles Christians are to play in the workplace, so I always knew the truth of the matter in the back of my mind.  So many Christians question career choices, and long for purpose in our jobs, and here it is: We are “Called, Not Employed,” wherever we work.  No matter how trivial or celebrated your job title is, you are there to glorify Christ.  Whether you’re a janitor or a film director or a high school principle or the leader of the free world, you are there to share the Gospel, obey Christ, love on people, give selflessly of yourself and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, be an example of what peace and security and joy Jesus brings.
     So there I was, jobless by choice, with a weary husband wondering, 3 months into marriage, how he was going to support my discontentment for the rest of our lives together.  It’s a lot, huh?  Thankfully, I was given another chance to try out the “contentment in the workplace” thing, and within a month of quitting my job, was offered another.  It offered great benefits, slightly better pay than the old, and a five-week trip to New York City beginning on my hire date.  Sold.
     But as with most things in life, the grass was only slightly greener.  The problems I’d run from at my other job had just followed me to this job.  Why?  Because I was the problem.
     On the “called, not employed” front, here was the environment:  Everybody knew I was a Christian, and in the first few weeks, I’d even had a co-worker tell me that I’d made Christianity seem pretty good.  Which is kind of huge.  I invited my team to come to church, and several of them did on various occasions.  We got along well and laughed and had things in common, which is vastly different than my relationships with my previous co-workers.  My boss liked me.  Liked my work.  Was impressed by my work ethic.  Thought I was bright and capable of taking on responsibilities well above the job I was hired to do.  Continued to give me more and more responsibility and admit that he was impressed by my ability to rise to the occasion.  It wasn’t the battlefield that I experienced at other jobs or in school, and my co-workers often asked me questions about my faith, giving me opportunities to share the glory of God and His Gospel.  But with each passing day, I began to forget Jesus at the door and think that I could do it alone.  I could be a shining star of an employee, and I could be a witness for Christ through being excellent at my job.
     I went from wanting to never work again a day in my life, to being enchanted by the thought of corporate success.
     But on the let’s-be-real front:  I found in myself a very ugly monster rising up to rear its head.  I hadn’t seen it since the last semester of high school, when I thought the world would end if I didn’t graduate first in my class.  Under my shy, good-girl persona, there was a lot of unhealthy jealousy and competition.  I genuinely felt back then that I deserved the first spot, and sadly that sense of entitlement gets triggered in me still.  It’s horrible and extremely effective in crushing my witness.  But it wasn’t personal to my classmates, it wasn’t about them at all.  It was about me.  And who I thought I was.  And who I thought I had to be.  Which was first.  Perfect.  The best.
     And that’s a very terrifying thing to need.  Because it’s hard to get, and if you can even get close, there’s only one way to fall.  And all of that is aside from the fact that it’s indicative of a LOT of heart issues.
     So, in the workplace, this was the situation:  In a matter of months, I went from being the shy Christian assistant to the bossy girl in charge of several projects, overseeing my coworkers, some of whom have actually told me they are afraid of me.  What?  It all happened so slyly.  A little bit of positive feedback here, a little encouragement there, and boom– I was power-hungry and even cocky, although I still championed the Christian name tag wherever I went.  Needless to say, I haven’t done a great job at loving on people, I just got preoccupied by being somewhat good at something.  But was my attitude the result of the circumstances?  Or was it already in me?
     It’s not hard to find this “chicken or the egg” phenomena all over the place.  Daily, there’s a news story about what crazy things rich or famous people are doing to get attention or to escape attention, and to us, they seem to be losing their minds.  But is it mentally unstable people who are drawn to fame, or is it the fame that makes normal people go crazy?  I tend to believe the latter is true.  There’s something about fame that triggers some kind of latent God-complex in a lot of people.  And, in a way, that’s what happened to me with the most minute modicum of success in the corporate work environment.  Keep in mind, my job title is at the bottom of the totem pole in the firm where I work, and there’s nothing about my day to day activities that would impress anyone else, so my pride was not at all justified, but there’s something about success that’s intoxicating to most people.  And I am one of those people.
     C.S. Lewis said, “It is the comparison that makes you proud, the pleasure of being above the rest.”
     It’s nothing personal, it seems, with prideful people.  It’s not that I had to be better than YOU.  It’s that I had to be BETTER than you.  And you.  And you.  And all the rest of you, too.  Because if I’m not the best, then what do I have?
     Yikes. It’s ugly.
     As a Christian, I have to come to the initially terrifying reality that my life is not about what I get to do before I die.  It’s not about climbing as high as I can go, or making as much money as I can make, or even utilizing my talents to their “full potential,” whatever that means.  I love to sing, but if I’m never a professional vocalist, did I waste my life?  I hope not!  Our gifts and talents are ways for us to glorify Christ in different spheres and in different ways.  But they cannot be allowed to define us.  To put it in perspective, I was in a car accident in December.  I could have sustained an injury that gave me brain damage or took away my ability to sing.  Would I still be valuable as a human being?  Would I still have a reason to live?  Of course!
     As long as Christians let our lives be focused on success in any arena, we’re missing the point.  Especially in the workplace, where pride can undermine the whole reason we’re there.  Am I thinking about how to serve my coworkers if I’m preoccupied about securing my position or getting ahead?  No, I’m not.  Am I demonstrating to my boss what it looks like to be a servant of Christ if I think I’m better than certain tasks I was hired to do?  No.  One glaring incident opened my eyes to this firsthand, when I came fuming into my boss’s office about some trivial task someone else asked me to do, and my boss calmly replied, “Christian, where is all your humility?”  Wow.  I have never felt like such a failure.
      Christians are called to be in every line of work (well, almost every line of work), and glorify Jesus, not ourselves.
     The reality for me, right now, is that this job is a blessing: providing a paycheck, financing my ability to live in Tallahassee and serve in the band at City Church, building friendships with people that I wouldn’t have otherwise met.  It is teaching me valuable skills that I’ll carry to any job in the future, teaching me how to succeed, how to fail, how to manage several projects at a time, how to write for business, how to interact with clients and vendors and attorneys and leaders in our company and how to do it properly.  Furthermore, I get to learn how to crawl towards humility and repair friendships that might have been damaged in my time here.
     One of my favorite songs by All Sons & Daughters says, “I am a sinner, if it’s not one thing it’s another… but You are a Savior, and you take brokenness aside and make it beautiful.”
     That’s how this year has felt for me.  I am a sinner, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.
     I learned that the Gospel is about Jesus, not about me being good at stuff, and He’s still here, teaching me one lesson after another.  I learned that I am susceptible to every manner of sin, but I don’t have to stay there.  I’m susceptible to being a lazy bum on the streets, and I’m susceptible to being a greedy egomaniac running a company, but I can’t blame my sin on my circumstances.
     Corporate success is just one of a trillion things trying to take my focus off of Christ. In March, it was laziness and jealousy, in June it was discontentment, now it’s entitlement.  I could have a calendar.  A deadly sins calendar.  I’m sure Spencer’s would sell it.  Anyway, in this life there will be temptations or triggers that expose the ugliness of our hearts, but that’s not an excuse to give in or give up.  I’m still figuring out how to glorify God with the things I love to do, and maybe someday I’ll get to sing or write for a living, but if not, I’m in good company.  Paul, the writer of most of the New Testament, funded his missionary trips by being a tent-maker!  But who remembers Paul as a tent-maker?

I am an arms dealer.

Stephen Miller: “The songs we sing today are for warfare. Don’t equip your people with flimsy, gospel-less songs, but with weighty weapons.”

As much as a tweet can cause one’s heart to leap with joy, that one did mine.

I have had the privilege to lead worship at City Church alongside Todd Doss, Chris Pope, and several other amazing guys and girls since 2009. In my years participating in this band, God has really pressed me to understand and take seriously the role that worship leaders have. There’s no doubt that music is powerful, but it is crucial to understand the Biblical implications of various roles within the church. What is mine? Do I have a leadership position?

Beyond of the first obvious leadership aspect of being in a physically front-and-center role within a church service, church band members have two main responsibilities: remembering that church isn’t about us—submitting to the leadership of the pastor and striving to remain humble and in the Word—and secondly, taking seriously the powerful tool and platform that we have to affect change and bring hope to the congregation.

When I read Stephen Miller’s tweet, which had been brought into my newsfeed by a retweet from my pastor, Dean Inserra, I was so excited to see that someone views musical worship the way I do.

Sometimes when I’m on stage, it takes every bit of control that I have not to burst into joyful tears, or prayerful tears, at the words we’re singing, at the faces I can see, some whom I know are struggling, some whom I don’t know at all. Music not only feels powerful, but when paired with the unchanging, eternal words and promises of the One Living God, music is an explosive glimpse into what Heaven will be like. Leading worship isn’t about manipulating the emotions of a congregation. Leading worship is about presenting with excellence the truth of the Gospel, preparing hearts to hear the message of the Cross, and allowing time and melodic remedy for broken and healing people. Singing worship music specifically, however, is more than that. It is Stephen’s quote. It is handing the congregation words they can fight with. Fight against sin with. Fight against fear with. Fight against selfishness with. Fight against doubt with. Fight against Satan with. And ultimately, fight for the truth of Jesus Christ to be active in our lives for the good of the world.

This Sunday, as we sing, let us musicians remember that we are arms dealers.

We get to take part in handing out weapons to defeat sin.

We get to hand out shields and swords in the form of God’s promises and declarations of His glorious character set to music. Tender, heart-rendering music. Loud, bass-driven music. Fun music. Deep music. Haunting music. True music. Gospel music. Eternal music.

We’re not plugging in our instruments and playing a couple songs and singing some harmonies. We’re giving broken wives weapons of strength to keep loving their husbands. We’re giving confused teenagers weapons of peace to wage war against an enemy that wants to drag them away from the Lord. We’re giving placid, bench-sitting Christians a weapon of urgency to take action on the truth.

We’re singing words based in the truth of the God who created the Universe and will never fail. Never lie. Never change.

Next time you sing, “no power of hell, no scheme of man, could ever pluck me from His hand,” sing it like you really mean it.

Next time you sing, “my name is graven on His hands, my name is written on His heart. I know that while in Heaven He stands, no tongue can bid me thence depart,” sing it like you really mean it.

Next time you sing, “and as He stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me, for I am His and He is mine,” sing it like you really mean it.

Next time you sing, “what can wash away my sin? What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus,” remember that He’s already paid for it all. Cling to that. Cling to the truth. Hum it, sing it, speak it into the darkness when you’re afraid or uncertain. Use it as a weapon, because it is.

Music is a tremendous gift, and congregational worship is such an incredibly powerful thing not to be taken advantage of or perverted.

I’m Giana Hall, and I’m an arms dealer.

To Matter, Part 2.

A few weeks ago, I blogged a post about the struggle I have with pursuing things I love.

It’s called “To Matter” and you can read it here, if you want this post to make any sense to you. 🙂

I wanted to clarify some things about that post. I don’t want to delete it, because I think there is stuff worth sharing to anyone who struggles with insecurities the same way I do, but I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea about our time on earth.

The days are evil, the Bible says, and our time is running out to tell the world about Jesus and what He’s done. I was in no way encouraging people to spend their lives pursuing what they love for the sake of themselves. I was encouraging people to use their time and talents to praise God passionately.

There is a lot of gray area, and a lot of prayer and wisdom are required to navigate this tricky life when we’re guided by the Holy Spirit residing in our evil hearts. Sometimes it’s very difficult to determine which voice is speaking.

So please don’t interpret my aforementioned post to mean that I’m encouraging Christians everywhere to try to achieve everything they can and do all the things they want to do before they die. Our lives belong to Christ. But He did give people different skills and gifts and passions and those things can serve a number of purposes:

They can glorify God when we whole-heartedly worship Him through those mediums.

They can give us an audience of friends who are interested in the same things and who need to be loved and told of the glory of the Gospel.

They can demonstrate to the world what it means to be a determined hard worker who is not seeking fame or money but exhibiting a caliber of work that is held by the standards given in Scripture of working for God and not for men.

I am not the authority on this, obviously. If you are struggling with what to do with your life or what to do with your passions in life, seek the Lord through prayer and reading Scripture. The Bible is His authoritative Word on all things.