My Perfectionism Clashes With My Easter

The past two days, the mirror of self-awareness has been shoving my penchant for perfectionism in my face.

Okay, so it’s not merely a ‘penchant’.

It’s an all-encompassing, enslaving propensity which sends me into a debilitating spin cycle of self-berating; a default that switches on with the force of a tornado if it is not stopped; a merciless mental taskmaster that takes over my mind and heart, and scolds me, wagging its finger, until I have come up with a proper correction for my imperfection, or a fitting penance if no correction can now be made.

On Monday, after a bit of a rough morning, I had this nagging feeling that I just wished I could rewind the morning and do it over.  Because if I could, I would do four or five things better the second time around, and then the whole of the morning would have gone much smoother and I wouldn’t be feeling so silly.

Somehow in the midst of all that, I managed to stop myself and ask, “Why do you care so much about rewinding the morning and doing it over, doing it better?  Why can’t you just let it go and get on with your afternoon?”

And then, there it was in the mirror of self-awareness:  Because I was enslaving myself to perfectionism’s rule.

It wasn’t the actual events of the morning that were bothering me as much as the fact that I had not executed them perfectly.  I could do better.  And other people had seen me not execute them perfectly.  And I wanted these people to know that I could do better.  And I wanted them to know that I knew I could do better.

So, you can see, it was pride at the core, of course – the thing that perfectionism appeals to in us to secure its hook.

But in a moment of lucidity (rarer than I’d like), I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous!” and I went to Twitter and tweeted something clever, which then posted to my facebook page, which was then ‘liked’ by many friends.

But, for me, the victory was not won in 140 characters; the battle raged on in my head all afternoon and into the evening.  I had gained tremendous ground, mind you, in naming the thing.  But I had not conquered it.  I was constantly reminding myself of the Gracious Master that I serve, who, while perfectionism wagged its finger at me, telling me that I should be able to keep it together at all times and I should’ve done better, kept asking this little child (for that’s certainly how I felt) to come unto Him, crawl up on His knee, and accept His redemption for my mistakes and my transgressions as well as His guidance for handling things in the future.

Though, still not quite free, I wanted to wake up Tuesday and do better with my day.  But by the afternoon, I found myself in new circumstances where I was irresponsible, disorganized, unprepared, and unjust and ungracious with others, and the spin cycle started all over again.  Each day indeed has enough trouble of its own.  (With no intended insensitivity to singles, this is where it’s helpful and/or aggravating to have a husband that reminds you, as you berate yourself anew, about what you’d tweeted the day before.)

I once (in the quite recent past) had an actual boss like Perfectionism.  Two, actually – it was a married couple – so doubly worse.  And working for them was a nightmare – a kind of hell – of daily living out all the accusatory projections that my head manifests on its own.  You know all those things your head tells you about how you’re not productive, you’re doing everything wrong, you’re unhelpful, you’re worthless, you don’t measure up?  They actually told me these things out loud.  They would tell me one thing I wasn’t doing right, and so I would, much like a pathetic little puppy dog, fix it and try to do better, eager for them to see and applaud the change.  But instead of recognizing the change, they would then point out something else I was doing wrong, and I would set about fixing that thing, only for the cycle to start over.  I could never win.  I could never do enough.  I was always in trouble for something.

But I needed a job and I foolishly stayed (when I should have left and trusted that God would provide something not dysfunctional), until they fired me after six months.  As they well should have.  You shouldn’t keep on an employee who can’t ever be what you want.  And you shouldn’t keep on an employee who has absolutely no respect for you and loathes you with the core of her being, which was who I was after compromising everything I believed for six months to try and make this job work out.

Shortly after that disaster (lesson learned, I hope), God did faithfully provide a new job, and more importantly, under a new boss, who is everything they were not.  She is gracious and forgiving and works for the good of her employees, making sure we have what we need.  She deals with problems as they arise, not ignoring them, but addresses each with the appropriate level of gravity; that is, serious ones are taken seriously, but little ones are not blown out of proportion.  She thanks us and praises us for our good work, even as she is well aware of our particular weaknesses and goofiness.  She often tells me, even, in different ways, to stop being so hard on myself when I inevitably am over an error or transgression.  It has been incredibly redemptive and healing.

In precisely the same way, Perfectionism rules our minds, when we let it.  It is never satisfied, never satiated.  Never impressed, never applauds and gives us a break.  It always wants something else changed, some wrong righted.  Even as it tells us that we should be able to do what it’s asking, it tells us we can’t do it.  And under its rule, we try everything we can think of to please it, never succeeding, miserable all the while.  And then we come to loathe it and its cruel, unmeetable expectations, even as we keep ourselves enslaved to it.

But God provides another way, another boss.  He says we can’t do what we need to, too – and then He offers us atonement for our flaws, missteps, failings, in Jesus (He paid for them all so we don’t have to try to anymore), and His daily presence with us to guide us through life’s pitfalls, to enable us to grow in faith and character, and often when we’re at our worst or have done our worst,  to comfort and encourage us and clean us up and set us back on track.

I know that perhaps all that sounds Sunday School-y and trite.  But it doesn’t make it any less the reality.  I’m thankful for this clash in my head this week, especially this week.  Celebrating Easter year after year as a Christian, it’s easy to put on a new dress and show up at church and check off that I’ve celebrated.  But it’s a whole different holiday, a whole different celebration, when my heart and mind get confronted with such clear examples of my need for a resurrected Savior who conquered death and sin, and the glorious freedom that this reality brings to my every day.  Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty triumph o’er His foes!  And He empowers me to do the same.  I don’t have to be enslaved any longer to ridiculous masters.  I am still battling and learning…but most of all, I am rejoicing.

shaking off the snake

A few weekends ago I had the privilege of spending a Sunday morning at Hope Fellowship in Wilsonville, OR, and hearing my friend & spiritual mentor Jim Lincoln preach on the end of Acts Chapter 27 and the beginning of Chapter 28.

In these passages, Luke recounts the amazing tale of the Apostle Paul & friends as prisoners on a ship bound for Crete that gets overtaken by a storm.  The ship is tossed violently, then set adrift for two weeks, during which they nearly starve.  Paul’s valiant actions & faith in God’s promises throughout the ordeal save the lives of all on the boat and the 276 passengers make it alive to the shore of the island Malta.

Once ashore, and after all of that, we read, in Chapter 28:

2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

What Jim brought to light in his sermon, and what has stuck with me since, is this notion of shaking off the snake.

Although the islanders were obviously impressed, Paul wasn’t trying to perform a miracle and dazzle them.  He was merely dutifully going about the business of helping others in the midst of incredibly trying circumstances and he wasn’t going to let a little viper stop him.  He doesn’t freak out about being bit.  He doesn’t jump up and down screaming, or lie down and wail & moan and call for the aid of others.  There is no drama.  He simply flicks the snake off of him, casting it into the fire.

And, miraculously, somehow the poison transmitted in the bite does nothing to him, though it should cause him to die – or at least swell up.  Clearly, God is at work here.  But Paul, for his part, is reacting in a most remarkable manner, an example that humbles and instructs and chastises me.

He’s been taken prisoner, and has just been tossed & lost at sea for two weeks.  He’s persevered in faith, taken charge on the boat when no one else would to get them to safety, and then prevented the murder of all the prisoners aboard.  By the time they get to Malta, he’s got to be – at the least – exhausted and hungry, if not entirely emotionally spent .  He has every right to get to shore and just collapse.  To take advantage of the surprising hospitality of the islanders and let someone take care of him for a change.  Have his needs met.  Get some food, get cleaned up, get some sleep, some alone time.

But no, he’s out gathering brushwood, out picking up sticks.  Whether or not, as Jim said, this was his spiritual gift ;-).  He’s still serving.  He’s still being helpful.  He’s still looking out for the needs of others.

And even still, the trials haven’t ended.  As he’s going about being helpful, a viper crawls out of the fire and attaches itself to his hand.  I mean, come on, when does this guy get a break?  Talk about being kicked while you’re down!

But it’s like it doesn’t even phase him.  A viper!  A poisonous, deadly viper!!  He just shakes it off.    He doesn’t let it affect him; he doesn’t let the poison seep in and reap its destruction.

I believe the story is depicting literal events, but – man – it’s powerfully metaphorical as well.  Jim encouraged us that morning to “shake off the snake” – and it was an encouragement for me, like an arrow to my heart.  I realized that in the midst of the trials of life at the time, a viper had snuck out of the fire and bit me – metaphorically, of course. And I was letting the poison seep into my soul.  The poison of lies about God in the midst of the trying circumstances.  Those poisonous thoughts that seep in if we don’t react quickly: “God is not going to come through this time”…”God is not looking out for you”… “God is going to let you down”… “Your life in God is always going to be frustrating”… “You’ve chosen faith, not sight, and it’s only led to difficulty”… “All that you’ve already had to deal with, and now this, you poor girl”…

We all face storms in life, we all feel adrift, or completely shipwrecked, at times – and let’s say we’ve still trusted God through this all.  We’ve even made it to shore, and we’ve even perhaps been content to continue on in the humble areas of service that He’s called us to.

But it’s those vipers we’ve got to watch out for.  It’s those small unexpected things that can creep out while we’re spent & vulnerable, that can bite & poison & even kill us, even while we’re doggedly going about the business of being faithful.   When the storms and shipwrecks don’t get us, when the post-trauma selfishness doesn’t even – by the grace of God – take over, we’ve still got those snakes to watch out for.

And we’ve got to shake them off.  And keep going about the business of being faithful.

Jim very clearly cautioned us not to use this advice flippantly or too broadly.  It does not, of course!, apply in all situations of trial & struggle & trouble.  In many cases, where our Christian family is suffering, it would be entirely theologically incorrect – not to mention horribly insensitive and offensive – to assert that someone is merely dealing with a snake that they can shake off.

But for those of us that are hit in the soul by the metaphor, we know what he meant.  We know exactly the kind of poisonous viper he’s warning us against.

The testimony to the world of someone who survives a shipwreck and dies from a snake is that we’re cursed sinners.  But the testimony of those who shake off snakes and keep going is that some incredible Power is at work.

And, indeed, an Incredible Power is at work.

Oh, God, let that be evident in us…in me.

The Way in a Manger

Merry Christmas, everyone, from my long neglected blog Life In The Tension.

I pray that you are experiencing the joy of God With Us this season!

Inspired by my dear husband’s thoughtful post on the “heretical” Christmas carol Away In A Manger (find his Christmas greetings and links here:, I decided to write my own version of the lyrics, to better reflect the occasion depicted in the song.  For God indeed did not incarnate into a serene, peaceful scene as the original lyrics suggest, but He came right into our struggles and tensions and hopelessness, into the very human, mundane details of existence in this world.

Can be sung to either of the tunes associated with this carol 🙂

Away  in a manger, no crib for a bed

The little Lord Jesus lays down His sweet head

Dirty and smelly, the family of three

Exhausted from labor and from their journey


The cattle are noisy, the poor baby wakes

Mary, still bloody, no pain meds she takes

She swaddles him up in the clothes that they brought

And feeds and burps him like Elizabeth taught


The rest of the town sleeps in homes and hotels

Ignorant of wonders the angel foretells

The shepherds arrive in amazement and joy

The last in the culture are first to the boy


The Way in a manger, the Truth and the Life

He enters right into the mess and the strife

A crib laid with diamonds and gold He deserved

He came to serve others, not to be served

Homespun: New Music from Me

Rather spontaneously, I have a new EP available at my website:

This project, entitled Homespun: Songs For Worship, is everything the title claims, a set of five original worship songs written, sung, recorded, produced, duplicated, designed, and packaged entirely by me (with much help from my dear Patrick) in our living room.

I had wonderful experiences recording my last albums in (increasingly) professional studio settings.  But situation & finances & less positive experiences (to summarize) left me yearning to do something more independent, more feasible, more raw & real, more me.  So Patrick found me a microphone and some recording software and I set to work.

The process was exhilarating and frustrating.  There were times when I felt like I was really getting somewhere, and then other times when I was completely done with trying.  Computers can do amazing things and they can also be the bane of our existence.  In fact, by June, I had almost given up entirely on any kind of tangible results from all my Saturdays of banishing Patrick to the bedroom and closing all the doors & windows and recording & editing & experimenting like a mad woman.  But something in me was still stirring to give it a try.  I ignored it for several weekends, but I could still feel its stare.  So just before July, I dusted it off one more time.  More frustrations almost broke me, but then within 48 hours, it all came together and I had an EP.

And I decided to be brave and let other people hear it.

It’s entirely ‘homespun’:  the cover art is a quilt my mother made in the 70s; the many vocals are all my own; the only guest musicians are my husband and the birds from our Pasadena balcony; the CDs were burned/printed by our home computers using burners from; the jackets printed at our local Office Max and lovingly cut & glued & packaged by yours truly at our dining room table.

My other studio projects were great fun; I thoroughly learned from & enjoyed the collaboration and others’ expertise & gifts.  In the years since I returned from France in 2004 and began a rather unexpected journey into the world of independent Christian music, I have had all kinds of opportunities & played in all sorts of amazing places and with all sorts of amazing people that I never would have even begun to dream up.  But alongside all that, there was a lot of negative that shaped my perspective as well.  A lot of unsolicited opinions & critiques, a lot of naive (or just plain bad) advice.  A lot of people wanting more attention for themselves than glory for God, wanting more profit or fame than Holy Spirit-led influence in lives.  A lot more ladder climbing than foot washing.

And so there was something wonderfully freeing for me about this project.  It’s not polished and perfect and fancy, but neither am I.  It’s not an expensive endeavor, but Patrick & I are financially strapped newlyweds.  It comes from where we are, where God has us now.  I felt strongly that my ability to express myself as a Christian & artist, which I pray will serve to inspire others’ worship of God, should not be inhibited by how much cash we can invest into it.  So I did what I could with what I had, pushing against those voices that told me it needed to be more, better, fancier, because those voices don’t actually know what they’re talking about.

This project is for those who know that, too, and who will appreciate the intimacy.

All that said, and I truly mean this, thanks be to God for bringing me to this place.  In celebration, Homespun: Songs For Worship and my other CDs are all on sale for $5.00 at

reading/writing challenge…or (will it be?) challenged.

I confess, I am not a reader.

I have often been mistaken for a reader because I am an introvert and got good grades in school, and – for whatever reason – people have (you would be surprised how often) assumed that because I am an introvert and got good grades, I read a lot.  For some reason, people imagine that if you are not energized by people, all you do is read books.

That is the only option.

People are not very imaginative, in the end.

But, that aside, I don’t read a lot.  I hardly ever read, in fact.  Whenever I have free time, it is very rarely reading that it is the first thing on my list of things I would like to do with it. I don’t feel good about that fact, and find it a bit ironic, considering I am married to an academic, an author and a voracious reader. (They are all the same person, in case you were worried that I’m into polygamy.)

I have an active case of non-reader’s guilt:  I wish I read more.  I wish I read faster so that I would read more and find reading more pleasurable, but I am slow at it and don’t get very far when I try to read.  I find myself looking at the clock when I read, anxious to be doing something that feels more tangibly productive.

This was all brought to light yet again for me yesterday when I finally moved some books from the living room to a bookshelf Patrick had set up for me in our bedroom, which was to be for my books, but has sat empty for weeks now.  I decided that the top shelf would be for the books I’ve read, and the second shelf would be for books I’ve yet to read.  I will not tell you how many are on each; I will only tell you that it was very depressing.  I have books that I’ve been meaning to read for years, and I’m not exaggerating.  YEARS.  Like upwards of ten, in some cases.  When I let them, they burden me, taunt me,  inspire new waves of non-reader’s guilt.

To add to that, I recently read a quote by Madeleine L’Engle, who I have (only) recently come to adore, as I am (slowly, so slowly) working my way through her Crosswicks Journal series, though I am proud to say that I have started on my third (which is actually the second) of the four books, having started with the fourth, which was part of a wedding gift from my friend Becky, and then reading the first because I liked the fourth so very much.

Anyway, the quote…

“I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. There are three things that are important: First, if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour — write, write, write.” ~Madeleine L’Engle~

…which has been haunting me since.

As you can see by quickly scrolling the dates of posts of this blog, I’m not much of a writer, either.  And, for the record, I also don’t keep a journal.  So I’m 0 for 3, as they say.  But, for some reason, I inwardly yearn to be a writer.  I am often thinking of writing, thinking of stories and songs and blog posts, but I am rarely doing it.  I have thought about this a lot since I read the quote, why it has bothered me so much.  I mean, maybe I’m just not a writer.  Maybe that’s okay.  Maybe I can just lay down that whole expectation and just walk away from it and be okay with myself, that is, be okay with the fact that I do other stuff.  But I haven’t yet been able to convince myself.

Hence this post today.  Since I can’t let it go, I figure, I’d better do something about it.  I’d better do some more writing (I’ve logged one journal entry to date :/ ).  I’d better do some more reading (looking forward to upcoming plane & train trips for that).  And I’d better do some more blogging, since it’s been a writing stimulus before (one point for today’s blog).

And now I’ve said it “out loud”.  So this blog keeps me accountable.

We shall see.



the most romantic book dedication. ever.

My husband’s new book How Long?  The Trek Through The Wilderness has made it to the printer!  The official release date is coming up: Monday, April 25, 2011.  However, due to some glitch in something somewhere, started selling copies early – and they’re available now!  Get one while they’re hot!

My intention is to share snippets here on my blog, to whet your appetite and promote purchases ;-).

First, we begin with part of his introduction, the part that contains the most romantic, swoon-inducing, “awwwww” inspiring dedication you (I submit) have ever read:

“My  most recent wilderness experience lasted quite a while.  I lost hope at times.  I felt darkness overwhelm me.  But I continued forward, because I heard music playing far in the distance.  Over the last few years, this music became much more clear.  As I continued to walk in the wilderness, God seemed to lead me toward an oasis, and in this oasis I heard a woman singing and playing a guitar.  She was singing words to God, and singing with all her soul.  I asked her if she would dance with me.  She replied, ‘Of course.’  She reminds me every day to continue to hope, to continue to seek, to continue to dance.  Our hope is not in vain.  Because God does work.  And when he does? Wow.

This book–this book of looking for hope in the midst of wilderness–is dedicated to her, my wife, the love of my life, my best friend, Amy.”



under construction

Unfortunately, in the last couple weeks, we had a bit of a file deletion problem here at Life In The Tension.  That’s why most of the historical posts are currently absent – and we’re severely lacking the free time to repost them all.

The posts were saved – hurrah! – and will be reposted eventually.

Sadly, the comments from over the years were not able to be kept intact.  Alas!

We forge on.


How I Spent My Summer Vacation by Amy Gustafson (part six)

Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of a friend springs from their heartfelt advice.  Proverbs 27:9

At His “Come on in!”, the door opened to reveal the guys from my band, looking a bit anxious as they peered around the door frame, as if they weren’t sure what they were going to see.

I caught His eye; He smiled warmly and nodded.  “It’s okay, guys!” I smiled, really glad to see them.  “He said I’ll be outta here in time for all of our gigs!”

Relief swept over their faces.  He excused Himself, leaving the four of us to get caught up, and the guys made themselves at home in the visitor chairs.  Soon we were joking and laughing just as if we were in the church sanctuary rehearsing and not in an operating room.

I gave them a brief overview of the events since I’d been checked in, and they updated me on how they’d been.  We also talked about the upcoming shows and made some tentative plans for rehearsals.  And after awhile, sensing my growing fatigue, my drummer offered to pray for me, and they left me to rest.

During the visit, the incision in my chest had begun to ache.  So, after they left, I looked around to see if there were any kind of pain pills in sight, thinking He might have left some for me on the cart or something.  But no such luck.

I figured distraction might be a good alternative to drugs, so I picked up one of the books that He’d selected for me.  It was, of course, just what I needed to be reading.  It was a story about a woman who’d also gone through this operation, and much of what He’d said to me, He’d said to her, but personalized to her situation.  It was so good to read this–such a good reminder of His words, and she was such a good example for me of internalizing His words and rearranging life according to their implications.

But as much as I was encouraged and amazed by what I read, the pain in my heart began to worsen to sharper and more persistent, to the point that I couldn’t focus on the reading any more.  So I put the book aside and laid there, holding my chest.  “Is there nothing I can take for this?” I moaned, no longer able to hold back the tears.

I heard His voice in my head.  “You need to feel this.”

That implied there was a reason.  I sighed.  It helped to know there was a reason.  I didn’t know what it was–not yet, anyway–but knowing there was one somehow helped the pain seem bearable just then.

A memory came to me from years back when I was working as a residential counselor in a group home for delinquent teenage girls.  I had taken them to one of the weekly Anonymous meetings (I think this one was Narcotics).  The evening’s speaker was an earnest, sweetly broken woman, and as part of her story, she shared about painful events in her life since she’s been clean and her amazement at how, because of this program, she could get through them “without taking anything”.

That phrase had been stuck in my brain since.  At the time, I might’ve prided myself on a lifetime of abstinence and thus a lack of ability to identify.  But now, I laughed at myself and my innate response to my pain:  Just take something and make it go away.  “That’s what we do with pain,” I was reminded, “but that’s not what He does with pain.”  The ache still intense, I was smiling now.  Somehow everything just seemed so right in this moment…pain and all.

My thoughts were interrupted by a rapid series of light taps at the door.  Before I could say anything, the door burst open, shouts of “Aunt Amy!” rang through the air, and three whirlwinds shaped like my niece and nephews came barreling towards me.  I was soon the happy victim of a noisy group hug, their little arms seeming to possess a powerful anesthetic, for the sensation of pain in my heart was instantly squeezed out.

My sister came in behind them, carrying my newborn niece who did me the honor of smiling and cooing.  My sister instructed the kids to play quietly and then pulled a Gladware container of contraband homemade soup for me from the diaper bag.  She pulled up a chair and, as I ate, updated me on their activities of the week, the kids filling in details wherever they felt necessary.  Then I told her a bit about the operation, until the baby couldn’t sit still anymore and it was time to go.  After a rousing round of goodbye hugs, they were all on their way.

I wasn’t quite tired enough to fall asleep, so I decided to explore a bit.  Grabbing my cell phone and adjusting my bathrobe, I made my way out into the hallway, which was very long and dark.  Way down at the end, I could see a window with some light pouring in so I set out for that, dialing my mom’s number as I walked.  She didn’t answer, so I left a message.

I arrived at the window and stared out at the night sky.  It was a solid sheet of black, save the moon which was only showing about a third of herself.  I sighed.  As I watched her, I saw stars appearing all around her, the more my eyes got adjusted to the scene.  My back now to the hallway, I heard light footsteps behind me just then.  I turned to see Him coming toward me.  He wrapped His arms around me from behind and pulled me gently into Himself, like a mother hen pulling a chick up under her wing.  My whole body sighed.  After a few moments, He whispered, “Good night,” and let me go, turning down another hallway until He was out of sight.

I made my way back down the long, dark hallway to my room.  As I walked, the darkness played viciously with my thoughts.  I found myself stopping a few times, short of breath, this simple stroll now a fierce battle.  I fought back with His words, feebly at first, and then with more force.  When I finally made it to the room, I found red roses on the bedside table and the bed remade with clean sheets.  I laid my heavy head on the pillow, wearily drinking in the sweet scent of roses and fabric softener.  Tears of gratitude running down my cheek, I smiled myself to sleep.

She’s Back

“WOW,” she said.  “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the moon so huge and so golden.”

“I told you so,” He said.

So she went back inside feeling much more hopeful about things to come.

Quote of the Day

“If you don’t respond positively to this, I will personally come out there and kick your a$$.”
Mindy Boyd

Sorry, SAM, I couldn’t resist…