Hello, my name is Lauren Shaw, and I’d like to share a part of my story with you. I am a performer. Not the kind of performer who steps on stage and wows audiences with my ability to play an instrument, recite a monologue, or create a work of art. Rather, I am the kind of performer who gets things done and meets expectations. Much of my life I’ve been able to perform in a way that earns me enough praise to make me feel good about myself, and that achieves enough for me to stand out.
Today I want to tell you a little about my performances and about some times when the curtain rose and for one reason or another I could not get on the stage. I also want to tell you about the freedom I have found from the need to perform, the freedom to live a life without being chained to expectations and demands, applause or approval.
I grew up just outside of Chicago, and was raised in a loving and supportive family. I am the oldest of three children; I have a sister named Katie who is three and half years younger than me and a brother, Jacob, who is almost six years younger. Katie is married and teaches third grade, while Jacob is in grad school. My father is a therapist and my mother was a stay at home mom who now works part time as a church secretary.
Just like in all families, I learned some wonderful things from my parents. I watched my parents love each other and love us. I learned the importance of honest communication, forgiveness, openness, and humor. I also learned some lessons from my parents that I think we all wish that I had not learned. My father (who we call Papa) is a very hard-worker, and from watching him I learned the importance of devoting yourself fully to whatever task is in front of you. However, I also learned to work when you are sick or tired or need a break. He worked well over 40 hours a week, and I watched and learned. One of my clearest pictures of my mother is that while I was growing up is she was always active, always doing something. To this day, she rarely sits still! We may be watching a movie, but she is always doing something else too- folding laundry, reading the paper, or hemming pants.
I am not blaming my parents for my orientation towards performance- my younger brother has never struggled with the need to achieve! But somehow who I am and these lessons that I learned mixed together and I grew up feeling the need to achieve and accomplish. And so, I worked hard to accomplish more and achieve higher. I earned straight A’s, all though grade school, high school, college, and a PhD program. I was president of every organization I was a part of, whether it was National Honors Society in high school or the Association of Graduate Students in Psychology in grad school. I played the flute and piano, acted in school plays, led the volunteer services organization, and tutored multiple subjects. Where there was an opportunity to get involved, I got involved, and inevitably ended up in some sort of leadership position. There is nothing wrong with these activities, and much of what I did I enjoyed and would do again. The problem was my heart. In the quiet moments when I had to stop and think about my life, I felt terrified. What if someday I couldn’t measure up? What if I let someone down, didn’t get the grade, didn’t live up to someone’s expectations as a leader? I was scared to death of what would happen if I quit performing.
And then, I was forced to quit. I have had chronic asthma since I was a small child, and although there were occasional flare ups, doctors appointments, and hospital trips, my asthma was relatively well controlled. However, early fall my sophomore year of college, I seemed to always be struggling to catch my breath. What a perfect metaphor for my emotional state at the time! I ran a low fever for several weeks and just felt run down. To most people, this would be a cue to see a doctor, head to bed…at the least take a break and drink more fluids. But I felt so much pressure to perform, to keep going. When would I fit being sick into my incredibly busy schedule? I tried to push through the discomfort, but one day I was studying with my best friend, and she noticed that I could hardly complete a sentence without gasping for air. I had already used my inhaler several times, and we decided that I needed to go to the hospital.
In the days and weeks that followed it felt like my life was beginning to unravel. I was hospitalized and diagnosed with pneumonia. I attended Huntington College in Indiana, about four hours from where I grew up. When I was hospitalized, my parents came to stay at a hotel near my school, and when I was released from the hospital, drove me and several suitcases back home to rest and recover. I was forced to take incompletes in my classes, withdraw from my various commitments, and hand over my leadership roles. Being that sick is, in itself, terrifying. However, for me there was another piece to it. I was left unable to perform, just me without any accomplishments or achievements to hide behind. I felt naked and vulnerable and scared and alone.
However, there was another lesson I had learned from my parents, one far more significant than communication and humor. My parents had raised me in a family where we went to church, read the Bible, and prayed before meals and bedtime. Most importantly, they taught me the importance of a relationship with God. They had taught me that I was created by a perfect God who loves me more than I can imagine. They taught me that daily my thoughts, motives, and behaviors separate me from the perfect loving God who made me. I actually didn’t need a lot of help understanding this part- my scared, sometimes angry, heart confirmed that I did not deserve the love of anyone, least of all my Creator. I understood that if God was perfect, than I would have to do more than I was capable of doing to earn His love.
But my parents also taught me that the things that I did that were displeasing to God were not the end. The part of my heart that told me that I needed to do something to set things right, to earn approval and acceptance, was partly right and partly devastatingly wrong. Something needed to be done, yes, for my shortcomings separated me from God and from true intimacy with Him and with others. Yet I was unable to do anything to set this right. But God, in His love, sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to do something to make it right. I did not deserve an intimate relationship with the God, but Jesus did. He died on the cross and three days later He rose again, conquering death, and restoring a right relationship between my heart and God. I learned that all I needed to do to receive forgiveness and restore perfect intimacy between my heart and God’s heart was to accept the forgiveness that I was offered. I needed to acknowledge that I could not do anything about the distance between God and me, but that Christ’s death and resurrection offered complete and total forgiveness and restoration, and offered me freedom from the need to perform and measure up.
When I was just a little girl, about five years old, I accepted this gift. My mom was reading me a Bible story before naptime and she shared with me that God loves me and wants to have a relationship with me. I believed what she said with all sincerity, and with a child’s heart. Together, we prayed a simple prayer. I told God that I knew that I did not deserve His love and approval. I said that I believed that God sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross and rise from the dead, all because He loved me and wanted a relationship with me. I thanked Him for sending Jesus and for loving me, and I accepted the forgiveness and approval that He offered.
As I grew, my understanding of what this gift meant also grew and changed. When I was fifteen years old a mentor challenged me to read a chapter from my Bible every day for 30 days and see what happened. She promised that I would see changes, and said that if I didn’t, it was only a month and not that much lost time. I agreed, and was amazed to feel changes inside of me. Perhaps the most shocking was when my mom commented that she was noticing something different in me. My mom, who had many times said that if I could only be as polite and well-behaved at home as I was in public, was noticing that I was more willing to help, kinder to my siblings, and more respectful to her. Even after my 30 days were over, I continued to spend time reading the Bible, writing in my journal, and praying the God would make my heart more like His.
And so, in the months during college when I was on bed rest with pneumonia, completely unable to perform, when I felt scared, vulnerable, and alone, I knew that I really was not alone. I was forced to look at what my need to perform and achieve really meant, and I realized that a part of me was trying to work to earn what I already had – the knowledge that God loved me just the way I was. Somehow, a part of me still believed that if I could achieve enough I would deserve love and approval, not just at a human level, but from God Himself. I was forgetting about the love and approval that I already had in Christ. And so those months of bed rest became both some of the hardest and dearest in my life, as I began to learn how to stop performing and accept the love and freedom that was already mine.
This is not a journey that I completed in those months during college; rather it’s a daily process of living in a relationship with the God who loves me. And, of course, there are highs and lows in that journey. I still struggle sometime with my asthma, and it’s a constant reminder that I cannot allow my worth to be based on my achievements. After college I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee to work on my PhD in Counseling Psychology. Although it took some time to adjust to a new part of the country and to learn to deal with the demands of graduate school, my time in Knoxville was a tremendous blessing. Soon after moving, I declared to my mother that there were no decent men in the area and that I planned on spending the next five years with my head in the books, focused on school and career. Several weeks after that, I was volunteering at my church and I met a handsome young man with the greatest smile I’d ever seen. Week after week we kept bumping into each other, and soon after that he asked me on a date. About two years after that we were walking down the aisle on a cold and snowy December evening. My husband Jim is a man who loves the Lord and has a gentle way of bringing joy and hope to the people he comes in contact with. I’m learning that, not at all unlike my relationship with God, my relationship with Jim is a journey, with surprising and unexpected turns, hard times, and so many beautiful moments.
Like I said, it would be inaccurate to say that life has been perfect, or even easy, since I have begun to learn to walk in the freedom I have in Christ. Rather, I frequently face challenges that force me to step back and take notice of the fact that I am performing again, trying to walk by my own strength and the strength I gain from the approval of others. About three years ago I started having a strange combination of unusual symptoms, ranging from fatigue and difficulty sleeping to constant sinus infections and a racing heartbeat. I initially credited it to the stress of graduate school and working full time, however I soon realized I needed to see a doctor. After two doctors told me that I was just “stressed out” I found a doctor who took me seriously, did some blood work, and diagnosed me with Graves Disease, a treatable autoimmune disorder.
Around the time that I started having symptoms, Jim and I decided that we wanted to start a family. We felt we would time it just right, so that I would be pregnant during my internship year and give birth a few months after graduation. However, when I received the Graves Disease diagnosis, I was told that it could be very difficult for me to get pregnant because of the impact the disease had on my hormones. I can so clearly remember sitting in the doctor’s office, sobbing as she told me we would have to put our plans for a family on hold while I went through treatment, and then may struggle with infertility.
The treatment involved radiation, and once again I was forced to take unexpected time off of work, take a break from my classes, and stay home. It felt like déjà vu, except several things were radically different. This time, I did not feel as alone. I knew that God was right there with me, giving me strength and comfort even when I felt scared and alone. I also did not feel like I needed to hide my pain or my fear. I was able to be honest and open with my husband and friends, and receive support from them that helped me through a very difficult time. That is another significant part of my story: I’ve learned that sometimes life may be painful and difficult, but that I am never alone in the midst of that pain, and that God is always bigger.
About two years ago, life’s journey led us to move to Vermont, where Jim grew up. Having spent the majority of my life in the Midwest, this is quite a change. Everything feels very spread out, rather quiet, and definitely much chillier! Jim and I had a strong support group in Knoxville, and it was very difficult to leave such dear friends behind. I believe with one hundred percent conviction that we are where God wants us to be. And now, we’re in the process of finding out what God has for us in this new part of life. Jim has a job that he loves, and I recently accepted a position at a Christian counseling center opening in Lebanon, NH. I work part time, and am excited to see how God will use me in this new job. Slowly, I am meeting new people and finding new opportunities to volunteer and connect. At times it is lonely and it is almost always difficult to be so far from my family.
However, very early into our move to Vermont we were surprised by God’s goodness. Before all of our boxes were even unpacked, we found out that we are expecting our first baby. I had to take four pregnancy tests before I actually believed it was true! It was clear that despite my health problems God had plans for our family. It’s hard to describe how thrilling it was to hear that fast little heartbeat for the first time, and begin to imagine what it will be like to hold my child in my arms. At 11:53 on May 7, 2009, Travis James Shaw was born. I know I’m biased, but I’m pretty sure he is the sweetest baby ever! J
If I’m honest, I still struggle sometimes with the need to perform. This is particularly difficult right now, when I do not have a job and my opportunities to perform or excel feel very limited. I’ve found that I can turn almost anything into a performance…even motherhood! I can choose to base my sense of self-worth on how well my child sleeps, how happy he is, or how early he learns to crawl. So, I daily have the opportunity to remind myself that I do not need to do anything to earn God’s love. I think it’s hard for us not to struggle with the need to perform, especially as women in this culture. There’s the pull towards thinking if we are thin enough, if we dress well enough, if we can do it all – be wives, mothers, friends, professionals – then we can finally find the approval and acceptance and love that our hearts long for. What I want to tell you is that I have found what my heart longs for, and that I believe that you can find what your hearts long for too.
As a little girl I prayed to accept Christ’s love and forgiveness. Maybe you can identify with my need to perform, my sense of not being enough. Maybe you long for the love and acceptance I have found. If so, I’d like to invite you to join me in praying that prayer I prayed long ago. “Dear Lord, I know in my heart that I don’t measure up and that I do not deserve a right relationship with You. I also believe that You sent Jesus to set things right between us through his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. I accept this free gift that I can do nothing to earn or deserve. My heart rejoices in knowing that I am forgiven and free! Amen.”
If you prayed that prayer today than you have the promise to spend eternity in heaven! And, we have the guarantee that we have the freedom to live a life without being chained to expectations and demands, applause or approval.
- Lauren Shaw