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Last Thursday was my birthday. I turned 34, which means I’m now at an age where high school and college students think I’m old-ish and ignore me when I’m present in a room unless required to interact with me, children have started looking at me as the peer of their parents, and older friends constantly remind me that I am, in fact, still an infant.

I’m not generally an incredibly introspective person. Most of the time I would say I’m “practical”, a term which I use to indicate that on the majority of days I stay in the present world of action and motion rather than dwelling in the world of thought, or of the future, or of the past. But recently I’ve been discovering something new in my journey of faith, and so I’ve been analyzing my own thoughts more than usual and I’m sharing them here on the chance that they might encourage or benefit someone else.

Sometimes a birthday is a celebration of what is in the future years, and sometimes a birthday is a celebration of having made it through the past years. And those two celebrations are very different things.

So many of my birthdays have been about the future. 13 was terrifying because who knows what being a teenager is like, and who wouldn’t be a little scared to find out? 16 was filled with excitement because in high school pretty much anything that isn’t an outright tragedy is exciting. 18 was marked by a trip to my first year of college and all the wonder and terror that went with that transition. 21 was filled with laughter and the knowledge that the official drinking age is a bit less significant for those of us who don’t drink, but it still seemed like a pretty good year to look forward to. 28 was my mental entry into the “late 20s” – a world which was scary but somehow filled with promise of more maturity and less self-esteem issues. 30 was an entry into a new decade, and I found myself welcoming it with open arms despite the strangeness of leaving the 20s behind.

But this 34 is a birthday marked not by looking forward, but by looking back and allowing gratitude to build until it infuses my outlook for what is ahead. Because this past year of life – these past few years of my life – have not been easy, but they have been marked by the faithfulness of God and some very uncomfortable but healthy growth.

I have been a believer in Christ since I was 4 years old. I mean that sincerely, not as a cute thing or as a joke. I was a child who was aware of the world around me even at that young age, and when I heard my pastor ask if I wanted to give my heart to Jesus, the One who loved me and had died for me, I knew even as a 4-year-old that I absolutely did want to make that choice. I wanted to be His, and that decision marked my life in a way that was significant and true.

And when I was 26, and life had happened, and I had made the bad choices that pepper all of our lives, and found myself ashamed and guilty and longing to return to a place of joy and holiness, I came back to Him and chose that Walk again, and Jesus welcomed me with the open arms that were always there for me, even when I’d chosen not to see Him there with His love spilling out. It’s true that I have spent more years of my life trying my best to follow God’s will for me than I have spent ignoring His voice. But this life is not about a checklist, and development isn’t measured in years or months or days. My spiritual maturity is not measured by a pro and con list.

In recent years, I have gone through what I can only describe as accelerated adulthood. I chalk this up to the fact that I have experienced an intense round of life experiences that has felt as if about 10 years of life were compressed into only a few. Over the past few years I have moved from one state to another. I have experienced a major and unexpected career shift. I have been a bridesmaid for three of my best friends as they got married. I have watched my father go through severe back pain and surgery, only to suffer with ongoing chronic pain again post-surgery. I have watched my sister face a cancer diagnosis, major life-altering surgery, incredibly difficult months of chemo, and the unbelievably frustrating and debilitating after-effects of chemo in the months that have followed. I watched my grandmother experience the impact of severe dementia leading up to her death. I watched my grandmother’s husband suffer the grief of losing his wife, followed by his own cancer diagnosis and subsequent death. And I have, myself, faced the reality of a chronic illness which has developed over the last few years and is now requiring me to have various medical procedures and take daily medication.

I wish I could say that I think I’ve handled all of this well. If the criteria for handling it “well” is “continuing to function and stay upright” then yes, I’m there. But, basic functionality aside, it has been so, so difficult. I am not a person who likes to live in the land of extreme emotion – again, that essential practicality usually wins out and I find myself pressing on no matter what is happening. But when life gets this intense, I don’t think anyone can really move forward without being moved.

One of the worst downsides of this practicality I have is my tendency not to process emotion when I’m having it. Over the years I’ve come to realize that this is unhealthy for several reasons, not least of which is that it can lead to emotional explosions if bottled up for too long. In college I once shut down an entire class period because I started sobbing loudly and uncontrollably over a story the professor was telling that just happened to parallel a situation I’d experienced the year before. Too much emotion held back for too long. This was my pattern for a long time: Maintain composure, ignore emotion, keep moving forward in seeming strength…and then completely combust at some point.

But now, I am learning to live within emotion and still live. I’m finding, in fact, that this is the only way to live. It can be painful, or wonderful, or terrifying, or delightful, but what it really does is help me to be more sensitive and more aware. Because that bottling up of emotion that I tend to do in the name of practicality creates distance, and a wall, and a barrier between myself and whatever the situation is. It’s the thing between me and anything that might hurt me. And it makes me incapable of reaching out with an open heart to anyone else for fear that their pain might burst the bubble I have formed around myself.

Here is what I’ve been learning in these years: This thing that we talk about in church all the time, that we talk about as believers, this “doing life together”; it is a painful thing. It is a complex thing. And it is a beautiful and a joyous thing. But at no point is it an easy thing. It requires an open heart that is willing to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice, not after the fact or at a safe distance, but in the moment and in the middle of the storm and the tumult and the chaos and at the times when everything is the ugliest. It requires actively choosing to participate in the deep emotions of others. But we cannot be heart-open to others if we are not first willing to experience our own jumbled and often overwhelming emotions fully and allow God to show Himself faithful within all of it.

Although self-protective function can seem like the most useful route to take through the most troubling times we face, it is not. I am learning that the way through these times is not to deny my emotion, but to allow myself to admit that I am angry or sad or afraid, and in those moments of my helplessness to cling fiercely to the promises of my faithful God. Because God is love, and His love is perfect, and perfect love casts out fear. We are only capable of living out this necessary open-heartedness when we are able to accept that love moment by moment, experience by experience, day by day. These years of change and fear and grief and pain have reminded me that in myself I have no resources to handle this kind of emotional tsunami. If I try to survive in myself I end up retreating from life rather than advancing. But God’s love for me is fierce, and He is not threatened by anyone or anything, and He is not put off by my feelings or my deepest emotions. I can choose to be vulnerable because He is strong, and I can be afraid because He is that perfect Love that casts out my fear. This is a daily walk. Faced with chaos, life becomes a matter of small moments that feel enormous. And the discipline of living this open-heart life is in learning to hand every one of those tiny/huge moments over to God’s care. This isn’t a one-time decision I made a couple of years ago. It is a choice I am making over and over in the immediate present. And every single time, God is there.

The years leading up to this 34 have been a fight. And I have not walked through them unscathed or unchanged. I have had moments of panic and doubt and deep fear. But I look back at these years and I am so wildly grateful because through them I have learned and am still now learning that feeling deeply does not ultimately have to lead me to a place of hurt, but can instead become a place of healing when I enter into it with a full reliance on the love of my Creator God. 34 is not an ending, but it is for me a signpost marking a place of gratitude, a place along the timeline of my life where my faith developed in a new direction.

And now…on to 35.