living in tension

This week, I've reflected a lot on how paradoxical the world is, how such violence and evil can exist alongside extraordinary beauty, wonder, and goodness. It's wild, and wildness is not one or the other; it's that tension again, the strangeness of being both things at once.

I'm struck by the discrepancy in tone between my social media feeds. Twitter is loud, angry, demanding justice. Instagram is upbeat, beautiful, subtle. Both of those reflect parts of me, and if I'm not careful, I find myself picking one attitude at the expense of the other.

Sometimes, I get stuck in perpetual anger and righteous indignation. My heart is heavy with the weight of brokenness, and when it's all I see, eventually, it sinks me.

Other times, I swing the opposite way: such intense feelings can be exhausting, so I look for an escape—and I stay there. I turn a blind eye to the ugly things and I focus on beauty, on comfort, on what's easy.

Both things are true: the world is horrifying and the world is wonderful, and I think we all have a tendency to focus on one or the other. As you enter your weekend, choose to explore the opposite side.

If you've been overwhelmed and heartbroken by this week, let yourself rest. Breathe. Recognize that beautiful things still exist, and go surround yourself with them. (I know it feels wrong to take a break, but you are so much more effective when you aren't constantly traumatized or stuck in despair.)

If you struggle to wrestle with the hard, painful sides of the world, remember that seeing them doesn't negate the good things. The more aware you are, the more you can do to create more goodness and beauty. You can be part of creating change—but only if you aren't blinding yourself to what needs to BE changed.

“To be human is to live by sunlight & moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.”
- Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark
Brittany Stoess
where the light shines through: thoughts on 2016
“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”
– Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

Light: it’s a word that’s hard to capture. It has a depth that I’m still exploring, meaning I’m still discovering. And it would—after all, the electromagnetic spectrum is entirely made up of light, yet only the tiniest fraction is visible. (I read once that if the known spectrum was stretched out 2,500 miles, end to end, the visible portion would take up only one inch.) When it comes to light, there’s always much more than meets the eye. If we don’t have the means to see beyond the obvious, sometimes, light looks a lot like darkness.

 * * *

If I had to use one word to characterize 2016, my first instinct would be to say dark. In all of my conversations with friends, family, even strangers, it seems there is one thing we can agree on (perhaps the only thing): this has not been a happy year. From American politics to the war in Syria, the worldwide refugee crisis to Brexit, things have been hard. And with struggles with anxiety, depression, and general uncertainty, even in my personal life has felt darker than usual. My primary emotion over the past 18 months has been grief: deep, aching, soul-level grief. Most days, the darkness felt so heavy, too heavy—what good could possibly come from all this?

And yet.

Even amidst all this darkness, my one word for the year has been light.

 * * *

The Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” the 2016 Word of the Year. Dictionary.com chose “xenophobia.” The political climate, both globally and domestically, has been bleak. A lot of darkness has been stirred up to the surface, and it can be hard to know which way is up. We’ve found ourselves in a time when truth is seen as a nonentity, and we don’t know who to trust. And when truth is clouded, we cling to the next best thing: familiarity.

When you’re groping in the dark and bump into something you don’t recognize, it’s scary. It’s threatening. The human brain is hardwired for security, and without a way to evaluate what’s real, we choose to either flee or fight back—better safe than sorry. We choose “us” over “them.” We choose insulation over loving and welcoming our neighbor. We choose to believe that they’re the cause, not the victims, of the darkness.

As followers of Christ, we’re called to be the light of the world. Instead, we’re running scared—covering the glow with a basket, keeping it confined to our churches, our own people. We claim to know the truth, to have the antidote to all this darkness, but we’re clamoring to keep it shut up in our sanctuaries. We’ve entered crisis mode, and it has made us blind. We make our decisions based on fear, all the while shutting out the ones who desperately need the light.

We call ourselves persecuted as we turn a blind eye to those facing bombings, starvation, torture, death. We criticize, ignore, and downplay the fears of those who are afraid their children may not come home tonight because of the color of their skin. We cry out for religious freedom while affirming restrictive measures against Muslims. We say we feel bad, but we have to look out for ourselves, too. We can’t help everyone; it’s just not our responsibility. But if the Church is the body of Christ—the only physical presence of Christ on earth—and it’s not our responsibility, then whose is it?

 * * *

Manmade light—lamps and streetlights and city skylines—allows us to see our surroundings. It gives us a sense of certainty. And yet, the more artificial light we allow around us, the more we miss the night sky above us. We can see the immediate—but we lose the infinite. We lose the stars. [1]

The world feels like chaos these days, and it’s tempting to look for certainty. We flip on the lights of our own understanding to make sense of it all, because how can we navigate through this darkness with stars alone? This is the real world, after all, and His mysterious ways won’t solve real problems. Loving your enemy is fine when you’re talking about that annoying guy from work, but ISIS is a different story. It’s heartwarming to love your neighbor if you’re talking Israelites and good Samaritans, but foolish and impractical when it comes to Americans and undocumented immigrants from Mexico.

Yet here’s what I’ve learned: when it comes to trusting God, you have to be okay with uncertainty. You have to be okay with facing fear in the name of love and reaching out anyway. I’ve also learned (am learning) that when I orient my heart and choices around Jesus, the darkness starts to feel a little less scary. As much as I love the daylight, I’m learning that sometimes, the most beautiful light can be found in the dark—not in spite of the night, but because of it.

* * *

I’ve discovered light in the unlikeliest of places. I’ve found it in project housing, and in a roomful of women—Iraqi and American; Sudanese and Russian; Methodist, Muslim, and Mormon—sharing food and exchanging gifts. I’ve found it in the sparsely decorated living room of a Sudanese refugee family, as I help a new friend study the driver’s handbook. I’ve found it in laughing and adventuring with that same friend, while walking half a mile to find my car because I parked in the wrong lot. I’ve found it in waiting rooms, in Twitter conversations with strangers, and in stacks of books that make me shift uncomfortably, then change me.

Choosing uncertainty is hard, I know. Turning off the lights is disorienting at first, and maybe it seems darker than ever. But as you give yourself a moment to adjust, and turn your eyes heavenward, you’ll see: the light is infinite, even here in the darkness.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
– John 1:5
Brittany Stoess
castles in the sand.

We are the American church. We’ve been working tirelessly, building beautiful castles on a foundation of sand. They are built by the book, with precision and accuracy. They are strong, perfect, and have served as safe havens in the drought. We sit inside them and pray, pray, pray for rain, for the Spirit, 

Then the storms come.

The rain we’ve prayed for so faithfully is shifting the sands, causing our castles to crumble. We stare in shock at the rubble that surrounds us. How can this be—all our work and years of faithfulness brought to the ground in a single storm?

It’s tempting to immediately start rebuilding. We want to re-erect what has served us well for so long, that has brought us safety and the illusion, at least, of stability. After all, it was all built to code—we know our work was good and right and true. But deep in our hearts, we know that if we rebuild in the same way, another storm will come and destroy us over and over again.

First, we must dig. Dig down deep, past the sands that are covering up our collective past. Dig up the sin and suffering we’ve buried underneath for so long, things we didn’t even know were there.

It’s hard, I know. It’s painful to realize that everything you’ve built your life around has a faulty foundation. We will rebuild—but we have to dig up the past before we can lay a solid foundation to reconstruct what was lost. Without the foundation, we will fall every time.

“As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”
– Luke 6:47-49
Brittany Stoess
who do you want to be?

Lately, I’ve been basing most of my decisions off of one question:

“What kind of person do you want to be?”

It’s the kind of question that doesn’t leave much room for fear or excuses. It forces me to be intentional about my choices and think about the kind of life I’m creating for myself. It was the question that led me to go camping by myself this summer, and to go hiking alone a couple of weeks ago, even though I had anxiety-induced stress dreams about it the entire night before. It’s the question that keeps me sitting here, fingers to the keyboard, writing this right now (when honestly, I really want to distract myself with something meaningless).

I don’t want to be a woman who is controlled by fear. I don’t want to be a woman who lives her life solely in daydreams; I want to be the woman who takes those dreams and puts them into action.

I want to be strong.
I want to be intelligent.
I want to be kind.
I want to be loving.
I want to be brave.

I want to be the kind of woman who tries new things, even if they’re a little intimidating. I want to be a woman who challenges herself to push a little harder, go a little farther, climb a little higher. I want to be someone who creates beautiful artwork that means something to people, and who writes with passion and vulnerability. I want to be the kind of woman who is full of adventure, hope, and strength.

Usually, that means doing things I’m not completely comfortable doing. It means feeling awkward and a little unsure of myself. It means not being perfect, but putting myself out there anyway. It means taking action, even when I don’t feel like it. The choices I make in this moment are what determine the person I become in the next.

And step by step, it becomes a little easier and less scary. The things that once felt foreign start to feel familiar. I start feeling like myself again—stronger and confident in my new skin.

Originally published on Adventure & the Wild.

Brittany Stoess
a time to speak
“[There is] a time to be silent and a time to speak.”
– Ecclesiastes 3:7b

I’m going to be honest: I’m a little afraid to jump back into the whole blogging thing.

I used to share my writing publicly all. the. time. It used to feel pretty natural and not scary at all. Unfortunately, the internet is a different beast than it was 5 years ago, and people are less kind than they’ve ever been. It seems like it, anyway. That’s especially true when it comes to controversy, and my thoughts on things have been nothing if not controversial these days.

For the past 3-5 years or so, I’ve largely remained silent in the public sphere, at least as far as things concerning spirituality, social justice, and politics go. I’ve been active on Adventure & the Wild’s social media channels for the past year and a half, but other than that, I’ve opted to listen and observe rather than add to the noise.

Over the past few weeks, though, I’ve felt a strong impression that it’s time for me to speak. I’m hesitant, because the last thing I want to do is make the world noisier than it already is. At the same time, there comes a point when silence does more harm than good. I’ve seen too much injustice, too many misunderstandings, too many assumptions presented as fact, too many complex, nuanced concepts that have been oversimplified to make them seem ridiculous, and I can’t stay silent.

I can’t solve the world’s problems, as much as I wish I could. But if I fail to even try to do my part, to use what I do have to offer, well, that’s on me. It’s not my responsibility to do everything, but it is my responsibility to do something. And so, I will write the truth as I see it. Even it’s uncomfortable and not as simple or flattering as I would like. 

Ultimately, I want to create space for love and understanding, even in the hardest conversations and sharpest disagreements. Not in a naive, feel-good, head-in-the-clouds kind of way, but in a very real, very concrete, often difficult kind of way. The kind of love and compassion that Jesus called us to, over and over again. It’s rarely easy, but it’s always—always—worth it.

Brittany Stoess