On Crying in Meetings

I confess. I have cried in professional meetings. Many times. In fact, three weeks ago in a meeting I cried so hard that I could barely speak.

A few things to keep in mind. First, I work in ministry. I’m not a PepsiCo executive sitting at a boardroom table crying over shrinking distribution numbers or a software engineer suddenly overcome with emotion because I screwed up a line of code.

Also, I’m not much of a crier in general even though my maternal family is full of criers. My grandpa can never make it through the dinner prayer if any of his grandkids are at the table. My mom has been known to cry during commercials and in restaurants. I may be equally tenderhearted, but I probably cry (the kind with tears sliding down my face) less than ten times a year.

So when I cry, it means something. My soul is engaged. Something I deeply care about is being probed.

As a pastor, I work both with people and for people, as an advocate. I regularly step into messy situations and respond to raw emotions. In 15 years of ministry, I’ve witnessed premeditated acts of hate and their aftermath. I’ve been a first responder to traumatic events like attempted sexual assault. I’ve been the person who showed up in the middle of the night, took the bottle of Advil out of shaking hands, and called for help. In my office, people process some of their most intense experiences — the effects of abuse, the loss of a loved one, rejection, mental illness, loss of faith, suicidal thoughts, and sexual issues.

This is not the kind of work you can do well and remain untouched. You can have great boundaries in ministry and still need to cry. Sometimes tears are the only way to expunge some of the toxins you’ve been exposed to.

My dearest hope is that my “work” reflects the deep love that God has for each and every human being. Since I ultimately serve God, it’s important to me that I strive for excellence in my work. I exercise best practices in counseling. I attend conferences for professional development. I read new research and consult the works of experts in the many fields that affect Biblical studies, ministry, and theology. I believe that ethics are as important to a ministry environment as they are to any other work setting. All that to say, I’m a professional. I try to be the best professional I can be.

But I still cry in meetings.

As a Christian pastor, the Bible is the most important book in my life. I believe its pages tell the story of God’s love for all people and reveal God’s plan of redemption for broken individuals. In a world that is slowly but painfully wasting away, I believe that the message of Jesus is the greatest news. His words are hope for the disillusioned and for aimless wanderers. They are a fresh breath of life for the suffering, the oppressed, and the depressed. They’re a warm light for all the people forgotten in the dark or dirty corners of our streets. God’s story and his life-giving words are precious to me.

Because I love God and his word so dearly, it can be tough to live in a pluralistic society that denigrates the church, the Bible, and the people who worship one God exclusively. Sometimes that makes me cry.

But I think it’s far more painful to be a Christian among other Christians. It’s disheartening to sit down with your spiritual family, to read the Bible together, and to have such divergent views of the same text. This is a book we all revere and cherish because it’s God’s. We are all sincere and loving, and we serve God well in our unique ways. We even love each other. So it doesn’t feel good when we disagree. It hurts to see smirks or eyes roll as someone shares their opinion. It’s painful when people make light of topics or passages that impact other people every day. It’s dismaying when we see each other’s blindnesses but we can’t find a way to gently expose them.

So this month I cried in a meeting.

But no matter who I am with when I cry in meetings, I usually walk away feeling a little embarrassed. Our culture isn’t very welcoming to public displays of emotion, is it? We’re even less accepting of emotions in the workplace. There’s an unspoken belief that strong emotions are a sign of immaturity, or weakness, or irrationality, or overreaction, or instability, or of (said in a hushed tone) being hormonal. And those things don’t fit the excellent or professional persona, so tears are generally unacceptable at the office. Instead, our culture champions clear logic, precise speech, and undisturbed rationality.

After I cry during a meeting, I worry that people think less of me. That they will regard me like a whiny puppy who just needs a pat on the head to be quieted. And I hate thinking that my tears may make others disregard my words altogether.

But here are some things that I believe are true about emotions. All human beings have them. We all have a wide range of emotions that we can experience: from rage to sorrow to utter joy. I believe God designed us this way. It’s we humans who choose to either express or suppress our emotions. Which way is healthier?

I also believe that God gave us brains capable of keen intellect, logic, and impressive creativity. The same brain that houses these things also houses our emotions. We are all both rational and emotional beings. Both things make us human. Both reflect the image of God.

So why is laughter safe and respectable in a meeting, but tears are not? Why do we prize rationality but look askance when people express their emotions? And why do we always talk about rationality and emotions like they are the opposite ends of a spectrum? They may be closer together than we think. We might be wise to consider that they are linked.

There have been times in meetings when I was crying and thinking clear thoughts at the same time. Imagine that! Now, sometimes it is hard to verbally articulate my thoughts amid the stirring emotions, but that doesn’t mean I am just a puddle of messy feelings. My identity is not reduced. Instead, what you are witnessing is a powerful moment of realization, something deeply true that finally crystallizes, or a strongly held belief that’s been triggered. Such moments are rarely emotionless.

When I cry in a meeting it’s because my mind is engaged. In these moments I am, perhaps, more fully human because I’m experiencing and expressing thought and emotion at the same time. My brain is firing on all cylinders. You may think it looks messy, but maybe you could learn to see the beauty too.

When I cry, I hope you will learn to read my tears. This is what my tears might say — this is a very important topic to me. What we are talking about has very real implications for me, or for you, or for people who we love. That thing you just said? It was either deeply true or it missed the marked, but it certainly moved me to respond. Sometimes my tears say that I’m grieving. Sometimes they say that you’ve caused me pain. Emotions are a language all their own.

So rather than avoiding eye contact or patting me on the head, would you offer me an equally human response? When you see my tears, would you sit up and pay better attention? Would you consider, or even ask, what my tears are saying? Would you be patient if it takes me time to get the words out? And would you offer me more compassion than I’ve come to expect, and not think less of me?

I cry during meetings. When I was a young professional I would apologize profusely, swipe away the tears, and try to tamp down my emotions. I rarely do that anymore. I’ve learned to be kind to myself and to not be ashamed of being a human being who feels. I’ve come to accept that this is just a part of who I am.

I love and serve a God who grieves when his people suffer, and when they wander far from him. I think my tears are often a reflection of the heart of God. 

When I cry, when I express any emotion, I’m being human. I’m resisting the tight bindings of cultural norms because there are just some things that need to be expressed. Triumphs and tragedies call us to respond. I want to be the kind of person who listens and responds well to the needs of the world around me. I hope my tears invite others to be and do the same.

I cry in meetings. If my tears make you uncomfortable, so be it. I’m being real. I probably won’t stop any time soon. And we might all be better for it.

New Year’s Reclamations – 2015

In the past two weeks I’ve moved away from Hawaii, celebrated Christmas in Phoenix, bought a car and moved to California. It’s been 11 days of constant motion, packing and unpacking, traffic, goodbyes and hellos. So yesterday I took my Sabbath and went out exploring with no particular agenda. I ended up at the largest Starbucks I’ve ever seen and bought a latte. As I waited for my coffee, I noticed that every single person filling the twenty-odd tables had some kind of screen in front of them. People were sharing tables but no one was talking, making eye-contact, or smiling. It struck me as odd, for a room to be so full but so devoid of life.

I grabbed my latte and went to sit outside in the sunshine. For thirty minutes I watched the parking lot bustle with activity. Drivers zoomed in and out of parking spaces with the nonchalance of stuntmen. They took corners like NASCAR drivers and I feared for the lives of pedestrians weaving toward their cars. Between bouts of fear, I finally had time to think about the new year and all the opportunities ahead.

I’ve never been into New Year’s resolutions. I’m naturally suspicious of trends and resist doing things just because scads of other people do them. I think it’s healthy to do some inner housekeeping and improve habits, I just wish resolutions didn’t come with a side of shame. I want to do things because I truly want to do them, not because someone or something has made me feel bad about myself. So instead of resolutions I likely won’t keep, I’m making a list of reclamations – practices I believe in, things that I can lean into in any way, and at any pace, I choose. With reclamations there’s no pressure of quick mastery, no measuring stick for success and no quotas. It’s just me inviting myself to pursue positive, meaningful things with a spirit of curiosity, hope and freedom. So here are my reclamations for 2015…

FACE TO FACE TIME – Screens are everywhere: tablets, smartphones, video games, and e-readers fill our hands. TVs have taken the place of art in waiting rooms, restaurants, and church lobbies. I’ve even seen TVs at the gas pump, in elevators and some public restrooms! While these devices can offer important information, entertainment and even some quality educational programs, they also snatch away my attention from living, breathing, human beings.

girls on their phone

When was the last time you had a conversation with a friend or loved one without distraction? A meal or date night without texts read and answered? Family time that excludes scrolling through your Facebook feed? Actual words with friends rather than a scrabble game online? These are distractions that we choose over building and maintaining emotional intimacy with our loved ones. We choose screens over souls.

I choose screens over souls.

The more we look at screens rather than faces, I fear we will lose our ability to inspire each other to change and grow, to notice when we’ve hurt someone and seek forgiveness, to mourn together and to celebrate well, to get each other through the hard times and the doldrums. I want real connections with real people rather than sitcom characters. I want to read a friend’s facial expressions, to notice if they look tired or anxious, to offer them encouragement with my eyes as well as my words. If I want to reclaim connections with people, I have to rethink screen time.

Realistically, I know that screens are here to stay. I’m not starting a screen rebellion or going cold turkey with my electronics, but I do want to bring the wisdom of self-control to my screen time. I hope to thoughtfully create screen boundaries that will promote and preserve my relational and emotional health.

LIFE AT SANDALS PACE – Being back in California after living in Hawaii is a shock to the system. I went to college here, but I’d forgotten the hurried pace at which Californians move. Highway driving here can be downright scary – honking horns, wild lane changes, people intentionally cutting people off. Yesterday’s Starbucks parking lot was over-stimulating. Even as I sat drinking my coffee with nowhere to go, I couldn’t completely relax with everyone clipping along.

In contrast, Hawaiians seem to move with the gentle flow of the wind. Everything seems to meander in the tropics: traffic, work, people, turtles. Drivers are extremely courteous and always wait for pedestrians. Meetings start on “Hawaii time” – that’s like saying Africa time, or late – because you’re expected to pause and greet and maybe even catch up with the people you see on your way to the meeting.

No one seems to rush in Hawaii except paramedics. No one runs between 16 different activities. (To run in sandals is to risk your life, as every adult knows.) There’s always time to take the long way because it’s scenic, to point out a rainbow, to go to the beach, bury your feet in the sand and watch the sunset. Not all islanders live this way, but this sandals pace is a choice just like any other.

sandals

As I settle back into life in California, I want to live at a Hawaiian pace. I’ll try to keep my schedule from getting too full so the time I spend with people is unhurried. So I can be attentive. So Sabbath won’t be an adrenaline crash.

DO A WHAT-WHAT – Once a week as a school chaplain I served lunch to the 1st graders. One day, three of the girls were randomly touching their fingertips together above their heads like ballerinas in fifth position. They caught me looking at them, so I winked and mimicked them. They giggled and suddenly it became a game. They’d put up their arms and I’d improvise a little dance in the food line.fifth position

One of the girls asked me what I was doing. I responded, “What does it look like I’m doing?” She said, “Being silly!” Another girl piped in, “You’re doing a what-what!” Clearly that was new to me, so she added, “A what-what is something fun and new you make up. It’s something you’ve never done before and maybe no one will ever do again.” (How cute are six-year-olds?!)

During my seven months in Hawaii we had two hurricanes blow through. Both were downgraded to tropical storms before they hit Oahu, but we still had to stay inside for a few days. Before the rains came, I went shopping for supplies. When I discovered there wasn’t a flashlight left on the island, I wandered into Barnes & Noble. I bought two jigsaw puzzles, a sketchbook, and a hug set of colored pencils.

I’ve never taken a drawing class in my life. I can’t even remember the last time I tried to draw something with any serious concentration, but I surprised myself by spending hours attempting to draw a turkey. (Thanksgiving was coming.) I looked up some pictures on the internet and then did a what-what on paper. It was an experiment in shape and color and blending. I had no idea what I was doing or how it would turn out, but that didn’t matter. It was new, intuitive, playful, and full of freedom. I shocked myself to discover that I can draw something that looks real.  My what-what turkey may not be gallery worthy, but I’d say it’s pretty good for a newbie.

Turkey

I want to reclaim creativity in 2015. I want to feel again the pleasure of surprising myself with a skill I didn’t know I had, to fold new experiences into the every-day and expected.

So here I am, four days into a new year, ready to live more free, to be more attentive, more playful. I’m hoping to take the long way, to meander and make time for creativity on my way to some really great discoveries.