Braids, Burnout, and Obedience

I work for an incredible organization. And this week I had the privilege to travel to the field to visit the coworkers and farmers with whom we partner.

On trips like these, the words I crank out from 9 to 5 take on life. Take on faces with wrinkles and smiling grandpa eyes. Take on braids and crooked smiles and school uniforms.

On Monday morning I joined with hipsters and surfers and college students from San Diego to plant trees with mothers and fathers, farmers and pastors and mayors from a tiny, rural town called Zumbador in the Dominican Republic. In case you missed my thoughts on planting trees at Life Before the Bucket or in Relevant Magazine, planting trees with the rural poor is something very close to my heart.

Together, we planted orange trees in what will soon be a thriving agroforestry plot. As Leoncio, a farmer I have written stories about from my desk in San Diego, placed a small seedling, the very symbol of new life, cool and damp in the palm of my own hand, the tears sprang hot on my face.  A holy moment of holy grace. 


There was a time when I couldn’t read or listen to stories of Plant With Purpose’s work without crying. Literally. From videos to newsletter articles to hearing the Executive Director share his stories from the field, I was a regular waterworks.

The tears were triggered by something beyond me, or perhaps within me, an unconscious reflex. A sign of God at work.

Before I started praying again after I swore off the church and God. Before I even knew how my writing skills and experiences with both rural and urban poverty—and the connection between the two—would line up with the exact needs and role I would later take on at Plant With Purpose. Before any of that, I knew that God was moving in those tears, in the passion behind the tears. I knew that in this passion, this stirring, this calling, was where I would find God. Where I would be used beyond my wildest dreams. Where I would be given the gift, the privilege, of sharing the stories of hope and transformation and restoration that are occurring in rural areas around the world as a result of Plant With Purpose’s work.

Over the last year, the tears have been plentiful. But these tears haven’t been the tears of a passion so strong my eyes could not stay dry. Instead they were tears of pain, of grief, of defeat.

Sometime in the last year, I hit burnout pretty hard. Really hard.

If you’ve never experienced burnout, I am grateful for you. It is one of the most harrowing trials I’ve ever gone through as a writer, as an employee, as a person.

An article by Psychology Today describes burnout as “a cunning thief that robs the world of its best and its brightest by feeding on their energy, enthusiasm, and passion, transforming these positive qualities into exhaustion, frustration, and disillusionment.”

I don’t claim to be one of the best or brightest, but I know I once had an energy, enthusiasm, and passion for my job that I could not contain. And I know that after three years of pouring myself into my work, I woke up to exhaustion, frustration, and disillusionment. It seemed overnight the job I once loved, the job I literally lived and slept and breathed, the job that gave me life—that was my life–, became a burden, suddenly unmanageable and simply un-doable.

I tried to push through. I took time off. I changed my job description. I set better work-life boundaries. I changed my job description again. I started this blog. I prayed and prayed and prayed.

I haven’t shared this struggle on this blog because I’ve been embarrassed. I’ve feared the voices that would tell me to just try harder. To just suck it up. To just get over it already.

But even without writing it, those voices were screaming in my head. Telling me it’s a tough economy and I have a job that helps people and has flexible hours and occasionally sends me to really cool places around the world and I must try harder to make it work. 

The voices told me I was entitled and greedy for wanting more.  For wanting the passion to be reignited. For wanting rest and revival.

If you follow this blog, perhaps you can recall my posts on trusting God through the darkness and the storm and the bad days and all of those metaphors of persevering through difficult seasons in our lives. My darkness, my storm, my bad days have been burnout.

And through it all I have been praying, seeking answers, seeking comfort, seeking joy. And God has been silent, mostly.

But He has been faithful. In the darkness He has been moving. Passing by. Making a way.

Ann Voskamp in One Thousand Giftssays, “When we look back, we see God’s back. Wasn’t that too His way with Moses?

“When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back” (Exodus 33:22-23 NIV).”

She asks, “Is that it? When it gets dark, it’s only because God has tucked me in a cleft of the rock and covered me, protected, with His hand? In the pitch, I feel like I am falling, sense the bridge giving way, God long absent. In the dark, the bridge and my world shakes, cracking dreams. But maybe this is true reality: It is in the dark that God is passing by. The bridge and our lives shake not because God has abandoned, but the exact opposite: God is passing by. God is in the tremors.”

This last year I have felt too many tremors to count. Spilled too many tears to tally. Clutched too tightly to the shards of cracking dreams. 

But He has been faithful. He has been moving, protecting, passing by.

He has been calling me out of the job I love to call me in to something new. And I have waivered, pouted, thrashed, and tried to divine the answer from the rod of my own casting, instead of trusting His divine wisdom.

I have failed and flailed and I cannot do it anymore. I am surrendering to His calling out. In the end of June I will be leaving my job at Plant With Purpose.

Tomorrow I will share where I will be going and what I believe God is calling me into. Tomorrow I will share how God has made a way for joy to be restored. I will write of His faithfulness.

But today I sit in joy and pain, together. Relief and sadness, together.

Today I mourn that I am leaving. I mourn the limits of my brain and body and my own efforts. I mourn the burnout. I mourn that this last week was my last trip to the field as a Plant With Purpose employee.

As yet more tears (I didn’t think I had more to shed) slide down my cheeks, I mourn. I mourn and give thanks together. Give thanks for the time I’ve had, the role I’ve had. Give thanks for the smiling grandpa eyes and the girls with braids and crooked smiles and school uniforms.

I give thanks even in the mourning because I trust the One who will turn my mourning into dancing.

4 thoughts on “Braids, Burnout, and Obedience

  1. If God is with you, then nothing can stand against you as you move with him. I can't wait to hear more about how he's guiding you. And I pray that you find peace in this touch transition.

  2. Aly Lewis says:

    I am writing that verse down to put on my desk. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement, Adrian.

  3. K Woolsey says:

    Why is it that your writing makes my cry and rejoice and feel like you have written for me? Vividly, I see you sitting in the dark, before the curtain rises, knowing God is moving everything in place so at the right moment the lights come on. He knows the plans He has for you, to give you a hope and a future.

  4. Aly Lewis says:

    Ah, thanks Kathleen. I like that image, too. I am ready for the show to start!!

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