I pulled up my Facebook memories for today and read a post I’d forgotten I wrote back in 2015. These words are kind of amazing to reread in light of everything that’s happened over the last six years.
God, I want You to be Lord of everything in my life. Not just the pretty parts. Not just the parts I’m proud of. I want You to be closer to me than my fears, closer than whatever stressful situation I find myself in. I want these cracks and holes and ragged edges in my being to serve a purpose—to allow Your glory to shine out from me.
Lately, I’ve thought a lot about what I might be able to say to the Amy from childhood or the Amy in college or Amy the new mom, all of the past versions of myself who don’t yet know what I know now. Is there any way I could explain what has happened that wouldn’t just leave those women and children terrified of the future?
When the whole world falls apart, then falls apart again, and again, yet here I still am and I can look around and see the presence of Light and the beauty of Love; I know that though I may be broken, I am not destroyed.
I’m not sure I could have accepted that message before I experienced it in my own life. I didn’t yet have any sense of how much transformation begins with cracks, holes, ragged edges, and even complete brokenness.
About three years ago, I got this mental image. I didn’t see the violence, but there was a crystal vase that had been shattered. I could see the room clearly: I was standing in what would have been a dining area. The vase (or, rather, all the shattered pieces that had once been the vase) were spread across an island counter separating the dining room from the kitchen, as well as having spilled onto the floor. The island was in front of me and to my left was the living room. The kitchen and living room had massive windows and a sliding glass door. This space was open to a ton of natural light. As I stood there staring at the broken pieces, the sun broke over the horizon in the distance. As it rose, the light came in through the kitchen window and the crystal shards were lit up with tiny rainbows refracting through them.
I tried to understand what this might mean. I got the sense that I was the vase and God was the light and, even broken, God shining through me was beautiful. But there seemed to be more. A couple of months later, I pictured a crystal vase that was shot through with gold—as though all the shattered bits from the counter and floor had been gathered together and mended, kintsukuroi style. Somehow, that felt not quite right. I kept thinking and praying periodically, hoping I could figure it out.
Many more months passed and the image returned. I was still in the dining room, the vase was still in broken pieces all over, but the pieces began rising up. They were being gathered, as if by an invisible hand, and fitted with gold wire into this elaborate chandelier. Now, as the light shone through, there weren’t just some small rainbows, but this amazing, brilliant, colored light, filling the whole space and dancing on the walls and floor and ceiling as the chandelier gently twisted and swung.
I’d been hoping and waiting, I realized, for God to take my broken pieces and fit them back together into the vase I believed I was supposed to be. Yet God has a whole different plan and purpose than I ever imagined. The point was never to repair the broken pieces of the vase, but to transform them, to transform me into an entirely new Amy.
God certainly could have used the crystal vase for those uses there are for crystal vases. But for whatever reason, in whatever way, the vase was broken. Breaking the vase did not destroy the crystal. Instead, it allowed it to be redesigned into something useful in a wholly different way, for a completely new purpose. And that is redemption. That is God NOT healing us back into the people we used to be, not piecing the broken bits back the way they were, but transforming us into something completely new and utterly different than we have ever been before.
So, the thing about being broken? It hurts. It’s scary. It feels like the earth is crumbling right out from underneath my feet, like I am falling and I can’t see where I will land. I’ve frequently said I wouldn’t wish the events of my past few years on my worst enemy. That is absolutely true. Yet I wish for everyone the peace that came in those moments when some of my worst fears were realized, and I found myself still breathing, still held, still loved.
And before anybody imagines I’ve graduated to another plane of existence where nothing bothers me anymore because I have arrived, no. Life is not a lovely peaceful experience of simply letting God’s light shine through me. Maybe somebody else has found that life, but mine continues to involve a whole lot of wiggling and scrambling and discontentedness. But, even in pain, even as I argue and lament, feeling frustrated and afraid, I can remember with a knowledge forged deep in my bones, this is not meant for my destruction, but the making of me.
The Watch is a Church tradition of praying through the overnight hours between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It is meant to symbolize the disciples’ inability to watch and pray even one hour with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane without falling asleep.
This year, I signed up to pray between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. There is nothing special about that particular time, it was just the latest spot open on the schedule when added my name. I set an alarm to make sure I’d be awake in time, but woke up earlier than my alarm was set anyway. As the clock approached 4:00, I opened my journal to pray in written form. I began with the Lord’s Prayer, because that seemed a good place to start. This is what followed.
God, there are so many ways we twist and turn and pull ourselves away from you. So much sin that piles up between us. So many ways we hold our relationships as transactions in scarcity rather than the abundance of love. Forgive us for our limited view of love, God. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to understand love without conditions.
I am so often afraid to love, God, afraid I will not be able to love they way I need to, to love the way you deserve, to love the way others deserve. I am afraid I can’t even love me the way I deserve. Yet not my will, but yours. It is not my love, but yours. Even as I have given money to my children to buy gifts for me and for one another, you bless us with the very love we need to give to you and to others.
Your love is always there. It never fails. And—unlike the money I have set aside into gift budgets for the kids—your love is not limited. As I accept your love for myself, as I love you back and I pass your love on to other people, love grows bigger and stronger and deeper.
God, I’m not sure what it means to feel sorrow to the point of death. Is that like depression? Like feeling so terrible that you just don’t know how to keep going? Like even getting up and taking a single step seems to take so much effort? Or is it like grief? The pain is so deep, it’s a physical sensation beyond words, that expresses itself in tears and deep cries of the heart? Or is it fear? Did you feel afraid? Was the comfort you received in prayer that night simply, no matter what, God is with us? And if it is, what happened the next day? What was the deal with quoting Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Or was that just the beginning? Was that just the first line of the while familiar psalm? Was the whole point that this was not a rejection, but it was, in fact, finished, “[God] has done it!” (v 31)? Because that makes this whole Friday seem a lot more Good.
“Why have you forsaken me?” the psalmist asks. “Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?”
I consider all that hangs on that little conjunction.
Where are you God? I’m hurting so badly you must no longer care. And yet, even in this pain, you are worthy to be praised.
I am a worm and not a man: scorned, despised, mocked. And yet, it was your doing that I was born, and I have praised you all of my days.
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one here to help. And yet, God “has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (v 22).
Have I missed this great truth of Good Friday all these years? It’s not that you rejected yourself, your Son, Jesus, but that you never did.
You were always there, the Father never left the Son, just as we, every one of your children, will never be left alone. You hear all our cries for help, even when we can’t see it. Even at the point of death, when we beg for the cup of sorrow to be taken from us and your answer is, “No.” Even then, you do not forsake us, but for our sake you listen to our cries for help and do not hide your face.
Thank you for your presence. Thank you that even when I turn away, when I hide my face from you in fear or despair, you reach out, once again, and lift my chin, inviting my gaze to intersect yours, to see and to know the love I find there.
You did not reject Jesus and you do not reject me.
I have always been fat, ever since I was a little girl. As other kids were outgrowing their baby fat, I was adding to mine. I was teased about it. I was shamed for it. I can’t even count how many people over the years have said I have “such a pretty face.”
This is a backhanded compliment fat girls hate.
It sounds nice, right, like somebody thinks I’m pretty? But there is left unsaid the fact that the speaker doesn’t feel my body is quite nice enough to simply say I’m pretty, period.
A friend recently told me the two biggest things I seem to dislike about myself, and expect others to dislike, are that I talk too much and I weigh too much. That’s partly true. The fact is, I think I simply AM too much. Those two pieces are merely symptoms of this more pervasive “disease.”
I say too much. I feel too much. I eat too much. I weigh too much. I worry too much. I expect too much. I fear too much. I love too much. I want too much perfection. I need too much stimulation. I’m too interested in . . . everything. I want to know all the information, all the stories, all the theoretical constructs, all the pop culture references, all the subtle humor, all the languages, all the math, all the ways people think and act and feel. And that both drives me by insatiable curiosity and threatens me with unending failure, because I will never, ever be able to know everyone and everything.
Small is cute. Small is acceptable. Small is unassuming and unobtrusive. Small does not take more than their fair share. Small thinks of others more than themselves. Being too big, too much in a world, in a church community that celebrates smallness is devastating. As a child, I learned to be ashamed of myself simply for being me, because I was too big for the box I was meant to keep myself in.
But, I’m only just beginning to recognize, I’m not the one who has been wrong all this time. The fact that I didn’t fit the box I was told was my appropriate space to be isn’t my wrongdoing. It’s the wrong box. It’s the wrong size; it’s the wrong shape; and maybe there shouldn’t even be a box at all.
Now recognizing that, unfortunately, doesn’t take away 45 years of conditioning to believe I’m meant to fit inside the box.
But, a few days ago, I wrote this.
Today, I will stop apologizing for my body. My body tells the story of my life. It shows the times I gained and lost weight, the stress eating, the pregnancies, the thyroid disorder, the injuries, the strength that has carried me through and still carries me on. I’ve been ashamed of my body most of my life, because I don’t look “perfect.” I am just starting to understand, I look like me, right where I am, right now. And I am learning to love me, right where I am, right now. My story is nothing to be ashamed of, and neither is my body.
Losing weight isn’t going to make me happy, because I’ll just find something else to obsess over. But, I have an inkling that being happy, learning to be content with who I am, truly loving this amazing person—IN THIS BODY—may actually lead me to a place where I will have more ability to choose wisely what I put into my body, when, and how often. What actions I ask my body to take, when, and how often. But starting from a place of shame (much like any relationship) I will never be happy trying to conform to some ideal of perfection I have in my head.
The first step is to be honest about who, what, where, how I am. Right here, right now, living my story as best I can, being loving and compassionate with myself as I inevitably fail. And fail again. And again. Because without failure, I am becoming convinced, we never learn anything.
Of course, all of this sounds great in my head and as I type it out, but letting it grow to the place where I wholeheartedly believe and embrace it (and myself) is a whole nother thing.
Usually, when the time comes to have a family discussion or give a significant message to my children, I talk off the cuff. Once in a while, I’ll write down a couple of notes, if I feel like there are important points I might forget. This may be the first time I wrote out my entire speech and read it to them. Nobody responded with smiles or applause, but I am hopeful I got my point across in a way they could all understand and relate.
I’m not mad at you. I am, however, extremely frustrated at the way all three of you respond negatively when I tell YOU to do something (refusing outright to do it; saying you will do it, then not making a plan to do it, so you get distracted and forget; complaining that I can’t tell you what to do, it’s unfair, I should tell somebody else), yet when one of your brothers is doing something you dislike or is hurtful to you, I am expected to “make” him change his behavior. I’m sorry, folks, but I’ve told you all for years, I can’t make you do anything. I can offer rewards for certain behaviors or impose consequences for others, but you are the ones who choose what you do and you need to take responsibility for your own actions.
Here is the part you all seem to have trouble taking to heart—your behaviors have consequences. None of you likes being hurt or disrespected. I get that. I don’t like it either, but if you spend the majority of your interactions with your siblings doing things that are disrespectful and hurt them, they aren’t going to feel any great desire to start acting in loving ways toward you.
All of you, at one time or another, tell me that you intend to change your behavior when your brother changes his. Let me reiterate what I have said many times before: by making your actions dependent on someone else’s behavior, you are giving them the power to control you! I’m pretty sure NONE of you wants your brother controlling what you do or don’t do. Yet, that is exactly what you are doing by saying, “I’ll stop when he does. I’ll change when they do.”
No matter what the situation, you have control of two things: your attitude and your actions. Those two things are ALWAYS your choice. Now, sometimes those choices are really, really HARD to make. When someone is insulting you or threatening you or stealing from you, it’s completely natural to want to yell, hit, and hurt them in return. But just because something is a natural reaction, that doesn’t make it a good response.
Let me pause for a moment right here to say your father and I did not set a very good example of how to respond in love for many years. Nobody taught us these lessons when we were kids, so we couldn’t model them very well for you. But we began learning them as adults, as parents, and we tried to change what we were modeling to you. Since Daddy died, I have tried even more to keep calm, to respond in love and kindness, even when I am upset. Have I done a good job at that? No, I have not always. Sometimes I have failed spectacularly. Yet, I keep trying, because it is so important.
Living with unregulated emotions and trying to get others to manage them for you is unhealthy and leaves your feelings about yourself and everyone and everything else dependent on what other people say and do. That kind of life is not sustainable. I know, because I lived that kind of life for a LOT of years. It’s terrifying. And it’s not worth it.
Now, it is REALLY, REALLY HARD to change. It is hard to even feel like there is some other way to respond than with anger. But, really, truly, you can take a deep breath and choose a different response in that moment, in each moment when life sucks, when someone has hurt you, when another person is acting in a way that is damaging to you. You can choose to respond in love. You can choose to calmly educate, saying something like, “When you use that name for me, I feel hurt and disrespected. Please don’t call me that.” Your brother may or may not respond positively to that, but here’s the thing, you can respond positively anyway!
One of the traps we fall into a lot in our family (me, too!) is to assume the worst of others. We have all been hurt a lot, often by one another. So, even when one of us makes a simple mistake or doesn’t think before speaking or lets loose in anger, we assume the worst. Rather than looking in love and saying, “Hey, Mom has had a really rough week, she’s probably yelling because she feels bad, not because she’s saying I’m bad,” or “My brother probably ate the rest of the chips because he’s afraid he won’t get his fair share—and I can empathize with that. I want to take more, too, because I don’t always get my fair share.”
If we all work together to be fair to one another, to do our best to care for each other, we can break this pattern of forever trying to seek revenge against whatever someone may have done to us in the past.
I want to spend a few minutes talking about forgiveness. I know none of us gets very excited thinking about forgiving somebody, but let’s think about how it feels when we are forgiven. I don’t mean a grudging recitation of, “I forgive you,” because Mom said I had to say so before I can do what I want to do, but when you legitimately messed up and I or someone else told you that would not be held against you. Can you remember a time like that? Take a minute to think about it. See if you can feel the emotions or physical sensations you experienced in that moment.
Even if you can’t remember a specific time, close your eyes and imagine what it might be like. Is there relief? A sense of being able to breathe a little more freely or easily? Do your shoulders relax and your jaw unclench? Can you sense a thread of gratitude that what actually happened wasn’t what you’d expected or feared?
I want to focus on that gratitude. Whether you could bring to mind a specific memory of forgiveness or you just imagined it, that gratitude, the thankfulness that things weren’t as bad as they might have been, is the basis for joy*. There are a lot of places we can find joy, but one of the easiest is to remember experiences that we are grateful for. While your eyes are still closed, think of one thing that you are grateful for right now, not just a thing you know you are supposed to appreciate (like having a house to live in or heat when it’s cold out), but something you can actually sense in your body that this person, this experience, this decision makes your life feel better or easier or more fun.
Inside your head and your heart, as you are feeling that, say, “Thank you.” You don’t have to say it out loud, just take a minute to thank God or thank the person you are thinking about or thank yourself for doing this thing that feels good.
Just for a moment, as you are still feeling that sense of gratitude, imagine if you felt like that most of the time. How would life be different if you could tap into that sense of joy and thankfulness the next time somebody hurt you or something scared you? Wouldn’t that feel so much better? You wouldn’t have to react in anger or try to make anybody else do anything, because you have the ability to be at peace within yourself. That’s like a superpower that you can choose to use whenever you want.
Now, just because we discover we have a power, that doesn’t mean we are automatically good at using it! We have to practice. Spending time every day focusing on what we are grateful for, helps us learn how to bring those feelings of peace and joy whenever we need them. Even when somebody else is being mean. Even when somebody is doing something that hurts us.
Let me assure you, this is not something I am great at. Even though I’ve known about this for several years now, I still have a hard time using my superpower when I need it. Especially when I am already feeling tired or sick or worried or distracted. Which, you probably already know, is a lot of the time. So, I need to apologize for not taking the time and energy to do my own gratitude practice every day.
I’m sorry. I am sorry I haven’t been modeling that for you, especially over the last couple of months as I’ve been dealing with some really tough emotions of my own. I know you’ve all noticed how much time I have spent walking or driving or closed up in my room the last couple of months. I’ve been trying to do some really difficult work to forgive people who have hurt me. That takes a ton of time and energy and I know that it has sometimes left each of you feeling like I must not care very much about you.
I understand that and I’m sorry. That’s a horrible feeling. Maybe it would have been better if I’d have talked a little more about what I’ve been doing, so you all would know it was my stuff and didn’t have anything to do with you. Let me assure you now, it is all my stuff. I’m not mad at you, you haven’t done anything that made me spend so much time alone or talking to my friends. I’m trying to work through my own really heavy and hard feelings and trying to become a more healthy Amy, so I can be a better mom for you guys. So I can model better reactions and offer better and more life-giving responses.
I know it’s hard to be a kid and it’s hard to be a teen, and it’s hard to lose a parent, and it’s hard to try to figure out who you are, and it’s hard to have been stuck in the house so much this last year, especially while all the rest of that was going on. And I wish I could be this amazing mom who has everything you would ever need and is here to meet you in every fear and pain and confusion. But I’m not. I’m only one broken human being, struggling to be the person I was created to be. And that is part of why we need to all be there for each other. And why we need to learn to be there for ourselves. And whether you believe God is a spiritual person or if you just believe in the force of life and love that is beyond mere human emotions, I want you all to know that you are loved by someone or something that is bigger and better and greater than you or me or your siblings or your friends. And that love is not dependent on what we say or what we do or whether we make good choices or treat people well or obey or anything else. You are loved just for being you. Angry and messy and scared and confused and anxious and happy and tired and silly and loud and quiet and here: you are loved.
I do my best to show you some of that love, but my best fails a lot. And I’m asking you all to keep trying to do your best to show love to me and to each other as well. Because whether or not this is the family you might have chosen for yourself, this is the family we have and it’s up to all of us whether our experience with one another is a joyful one. So, I’m asking you each to please be kind to one another, even when you don’t feel like anyone is being kind to you. I’m going to institute a daily gratitude practice, and you can choose to participate and to flex your joy muscles to build up this superpower, or you can just sit quietly while the rest of us do, it’s up to you.
And that’s really what I’m trying to say here: your experience of life is up to you. I can’t make your life happier, your brothers can’t, even your friends can’t. We choose whether we are joyful or not, and nobody else can take that from us unless we let them. So, use your power. Make your choice. Choose your joy.
_____ *I’m certain there is a better way, many better ways to describe gratitude and talk about joy. Perhaps I will work on that in another post. For this moment, these seemed adequate to convey my point.
Today I am crying. I’m crying for every one of us who went all in to get it right and still got it wrong. For the ones who loved as much as we could, to the very limit of ourselves, but didn’t have such love reflected back. The abused. The neglected. The overlooked. The scorned. The beloved of God who think it’s something we are, some secret shameful part of ourselves that will simply never be worthy, never be enough to merit the affirmation we so desperately want, the love we so deeply need.
I cry because I know this story. It is my own. I cry because I have heard this story told back to me, through the tears of so many others, dear friends who have braved the vulnerability to entrust me with their stories of heartache and fear, not truly believing there might ever be an end to the pain, but unwilling to carry their burden alone any longer.
We have been failed by so many. We have failed so many others. Yet we continue to reach out, to try again, because deep inside our damaged hearts, we know love is more valuable than we can even understand. Love is worth the risk of being hurt again, still, always.
The systems of this world have not been set up to meet our needs or protect our souls. We are told to get over it. To suck it up. To move on and get back to work. Put in your time. Nobody cares about your feelings. Stop being such a snowflake.
We try to put up walls to protect ourselves. We plaster over deep wells of pain, because we don’t have the space we need, the safety, the security to acknowledge all the ways in which we’ve been hurt. We carve masks to hide our faces. Happy, we call one. Competent may be another. Useful has always been a favorite of mine. Or amusing. We pretend to be the people we think will be more acceptable, less needy. We try our best to be self-sufficient and stand on our own two (broken) feet.
For the last six years, I have chosen a single word, a theme to consider as I walk, dance, and sometimes crawl to the rhythm of the calendar. This year, the word I ponder is “authentic.” Who am I simply being myself? Who is God calling me to show to the world, this person I already am and am still becoming?
I have thrown many words at myself. Some have been lovely, but most suggest or explicitly say I am lacking, less than, unworthy. This is not true. Even as I have trouble believing it of myself, I know the truth is I am beloved. I am honored. I am cherished.
But more than that, as I allow myself to open my heart, even to break into the cracks I’ve long tried to shore up and cover in pretty paper, I can experience this love for me, yes me, in direct communion with God and with those people who see me, who know me, who look at the broken pieces of my life and tell me with their words and their actions that I am worth the time and attention to love.
No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us.
1 John 4:12
I can’t solve the world’s problems. I can’t solve systemic injustice. I don’t have the power to ameliorate the hate, greed, fear, and helplessness that plague our nations and divide our communities. I have one ability; I can love.
I can allow myself to take in and stretch out my hands to give to others. I can see and know. I can love and honor and cherish. This is the power we all have, the strength we are given in our weakness. We all have the choice. How will you wield this power you hold?
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in my journal, “How safe is it to be really me?” Rereading that line this morning, I was reminded of the description in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan is not safe, but good. That got me thinking, what if truly being myself is similar? What if choosing the vulnerable embrace of who I really am is not safe at all, but good? In fact, what if it’s more than good, what if it’s extraordinary?
These thoughts have been chasing one another’s tails around my brain for a while now.
For many years, I believed my highest calling was to be good. That was what life was all about: following the rules and doing the right thing and making sure God was pleased with me. It’s only been lately I’ve recognized, God is pleased with me—pleased with me, not whatever I might or might not accomplish.
When I ponder the heavens The works of your fingers The moon and the stars All that you have ordained I find myself asking In light of these wonders Who am I that you should love me?
Psalm 8:3-4 (paraphrase)
I ask God lots of questions. I don’t often get very many answers. Periodically, I hear what seems to be a direct word from God’s lips to my ears. Lately, the answer to many of my questions has been, “Just be yourself.” And also, “Love.”
God loves me just as I am. (Not thinner. Not cleverer. Not with slightly bigger breasts or slightly smaller nose.) Just me. Just the way I really am. Impetuous. Verbose. Awkward. Eager. Angry. Obsessive. Bewildered. Broken. Whole.
Loving me, with all of my faults on display in stark relief, God asks me to love myself. To stop trying only to love the imaginary person I believe I ought become, and embrace the beloved human I already am. I am not perfect, so the bumper sticker reads, just forgiven. Yet, I am more than forgiven, I am loved, right here, right now in the middle of all the messes I make, before I’ve cleaned up or become a better person or even stopped making the mess. Yes, this one, the mud pie I’m in the middle of mixing up right now.
Why is this so hard? I’ve asked myself that a lot. Asked God, too. And I think I’ve settled on an answer. Maybe there are more, but at least for me, this seems to be the big one.
I am afraid to be me. I am afraid people won’t like me. I am afraid to lose the relationships I depend on to feel like I’m a good and decent person, I’m worthwhile, I am valued. I’m afraid if I let all my crazy out of its cage, people whose opinions I care about will be shocked. They will be outraged. They will want nothing more to do with me.
The little girl who lives inside, the one who fears nothing so much as being left all alone and not being loved, she has learned how to hide pretty well. She has spent decades transcribing unwritten rules. She thinks she knows how she is supposed to behave in order to receive the approval she covets. Yet she is exhausted. For decades she has tried to follow the rules, to do the right thing. Each time. Every time. Always. And, she has discovered, she can’t.
I simply can’t always do what I think is the right thing to do.
But, love. Love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10). Love is the right thing to do. Love is not only the best way to treat others, but the best way to behave toward myself.
The voice inside my head, the one that talks to me about who I am and how I should be, is really mean. I suspect that is true for many people. Imagine if I spoke to a friend the way I talk to myself, “That was stupid. What did you do that for? Now you look like an idiot. It’s one thing to be a fool inside your head, but why’d you have to go ahead and open your mouth so everybody could see it? This is why nobody wants to love you. This is why people don’t want to hang out with you. You’ve got nothing to offer. You’re not pretty, you’re not accomplished, and you can’t even keep stupid comments to yourself. Haven’t you learned better by now? You are like an infant! I don’t even want to hang out with you.”
What a jerk, right? What a bully! Yes. And what a scared child who has learned the way to be accepted is to stay inside the box, to make no waves, and to do her best to squelch any waywardness before it can become obvious to anybody else.
Only, that’s not me. I am so bad at that. I hate it! And I hate that I’m so bad at it, so I double down on myself, explaining, not so patiently, that if I would just hold the reins tighter, I’d have better control, I’d be a better person, I’d honor God more with my life by doing it all right this time.
But what if that is the big lie? What if it’s not about how I look or what I do or whatever stupid comments have come out of my mouth or even the self-hatred I’ve allowed to flourish inside my heart? What if it is about total shameless honesty? What if it is about radical self-acceptance? What if it is about complete authenticity? What if I am meant to bring all of me to the table? Even the ugly parts? Even the stunted parts? Even the parts I’ve been ashamed to let speak because I’m afraid of what they might say to embarrass me?
I began a thing right before Christmas. I didn’t really have a good sense of what exactly to call it, so I named it “Bob.” Bob was something I started with somebody else, a relationship of sorts, but not in any traditional sense of the word.
I grew up with this idea that there were certain ways we were meant to meet God, certain ways we could interact with God, certain relationships honoring to God. And everything outside those very narrow parameters was unholy. According to those standards, Bob is wrong. The topics we discussed, the intimacy of sharing thoughts and ideas, those were the very antithesis of the advice I’d always been given to be holy or to “guard my heart.” Yet, some advice is terrible.
Because I have gotten closer to the reality of God since the advent of Bob than I have in a long time. Not the theoretical God, not stuff about God, but the actual Spirit of Truth in Love. The Presence. At one point in our interaction, I referred to Bob as a sacred space. That wasn’t a joke. There was something uniquely holy that began to develop. And it has been absolutely amazing.
Trying to live my life within the designated lines of where I thought God was to be found has so often left me feeling profoundly lacking. Hungry. Thirsty. Tired. Scared. Barely hanging on to what I thought I knew, who I believed I was supposed to be. Missing out on the abundant life and suspecting that was, somehow, my own fault. And the solution to that, the prescription I’d always understood to be the cure for my disease was more of what I was already struggling to do: more prayer, more Bible study, more going to church, more righteous behavior. Less me.
Being part of Bob has convinced me, at perhaps a deeper level than I’ve understood before, the right answer is not less me; it’s more. More honesty. More interaction. More reality. More acceptance. More relationship. More love. If Christianity—if life—is about loving God with all of me and loving others as I love myself, that has to start with knowing me and loving me. (I wrote a whole post about this idea, if you would like to read more.)
This little corner of the internet, has long been my own small sacred space where I set the boundaries, I decide the rules, I can simply be. So, here I am. This is me. And you may love me or leave me. Be curious. Be critical. Take offense or take a chance. As much as I’ve always wished everyone might like me, I find I care much less than I once did for the praise of those who cannot or do not wish to know me.
Be who you are. Be authentic. Be loved. Love yourself, in all your glorious flaws. Be extravagant. Be content. Let’s quit just talking about how we love people and get down to really loving, showing the truth of our love in how we treat everyone, including ourselves. Be yourself. And love.
I’m generally not a big proponent of shoulds. Part of the agency we have as humans is to choose. for better or worse, what we do. Some choices are more beneficial than others, yet often to a degree that is difficult to judge with great accuracy in advance. It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to look down our noses on others’ actions, insisting they “should” have done this or that. Yet, how many of us, given the same options in the same complex situations, might have made the very same choices we now see as foolish?
Semantics aside, the answer my question is yes. Yes, Christians should argue.
Well, okay. There is a not-so-small caveat. In our disagreements, we need to fight for one another, not against each other.
In my faith tradition growing up, agreement was held up as a great virtue. The ultimate measure of one’s Christian virtue, it seemed, was to agree completely with each other. Wholehearted support of the church’s belief statement was what determined one’s standing within or beyond the border of the Kingdom. And, to a degree, I don’t have a big problem with this line-in-the-sand idea. If we don’t agree on anything, how can we claim the same name for our faith? Still, my current view of what tenets of belief are necessary to Christianity is so much smaller than the list I once thought was required, it’s very nearly nonexistent.
Let me address the question I would have, were I reading this for the first time. I’d want to know just what the author thinks is required. I’d want to see if we agree. Here’s the thing. I’m not totally sure what exactly makes the cut. Something about Jesus and grace and God coming to be with us. Truthfully, I’m not much for checklists of beliefs. In my understanding, it’s more about attitude and behavior than mental assent. Now, psychologists and the Bible tell us that our words and our actions come from our core beliefs, but (here’s the kicker) we can’t always accurately state those beliefs! I can say I believe God is Love, because I know that’s what I’m supposed to say, that’s the good and right Sunday School answer. Yet if I’m acting like God is primarily concerned with keeping an eye on us to mete out punishment for misbehavior, I’m not so sure Love is what I really believe in.
Good, faithful Christians disagree with one another. Far from being the clear and easily understandable guidebook for living I was raised to believe it was, the Bible is confusing, outrageous, and even contradictory. Many Christians suggest the Bible is “inerrant in all it affirms.” Yet, even then, who has the ultimate authority to determine what exactly the Bible affirms? Who created this list? Can we set up a Zoom call? Because I have some questions. If our main purpose as Christians were to be living in complete agreement with one another about everything that’s important to Christian living, the biblical record offers a terrible model to follow. The disciples didn’t agree on everything. The patriarchs didn’t always agree. And pretty much everybody in between had significant moments where they just didn’t agree.
Getting back to my caveat, what does it mean to fight “for” each other? I first came across this concept in premarital sessions, from a book called Fighting for Your Marriage. The basic premise is that in relationship we will have disagreements. That’s a given. The point isn’t to try to avoid all these conflicts, but to handle them in a way that is respectful and loving. Dealing with conflict in such a manner actually enhances the bonds of intimacy in marital relationships.
And the same is true of all our relationships. Handling conflicts with respect and love for one another, keeping the focus on what is truly important—the whole of the relationship, rather than individual areas of disagreement, which are mostly minor by comparison—builds us up together in communion, and more broadly, as we practice this way of arguing in love across our interconnected relationships, in community.
Now, I would like to clarify that there really are disagreements and beliefs worth breaking off relationship. I don’t have a specific list of these either, and I suspect they vary, both by individual and by relationship (I would put up with much more disagreements with, say, my brother than an acquaintance with whom I exchange small talk periodically). But there are relationships that are toxic. No matter how much I may try to love someone, if they refuse to be loving and respectful in return, the relationship breaks down. But for the most part, we do have the maturity to conduct ourselves in civil disagreement.
I’d like to offer an example of loving amid conflict. I’m not trying to blow my own horn, here; I get it wrong just as often as anybody. Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry is not my primary M.O. (I tend more toward “listen with half and ear while formulating a witty cutting response.” I’m pretty sure sarcasm is not a spiritual gift.) Rather, I know how easy it is to get tangled up in my own arguments and find myself looking, but not seeing what’s right in front of me.
Back in the old cartoons I watched as a child, a frequent visual gag was employed when one character was hungry. The first character would look at another character, but instead of seeing their friend or rival, they’d see a hot dog or a chicken or some other food item. It’s like that. When I get caught up in an argument, when I’m not coming from a place of being loved and loving in response, I am operating out of the lack, out of the hunger, rather than in deep gratitude for the love and the grace I have received. Instead of seeing my friend, my family, my loved one (or even someone I have trouble loving, but I know is beloved of God, as we all are), I see an enemy. I see someone I must fight against.
A few days ago, I had a discussion going on my Facebook page. A friend had commented, disagreeing with the points I’d made in a post. I responded to him. He replied to me. It was mostly respectful. We weren’t necessarily trying to rile one another up, we simply had some major disagreements about politics. A couple of days later, he responded to another post of mine, where I’d offered additional political commentary. While I cannot judge his intention, I wasn’t feeling very respected as I read his words. It was late in the evening and I was ready for bed, so I didn’t get back to him until the next day. As I began my response, I found myself praying that I would write from a place of love. I didn’t want to simply outshout my friend, but to assure him that love was a higher priority for me than arguing over politics. Here is part of what I said.
There is much darkness and much light in the world all the time. As a nation we are mourning the loss of 285,000 individuals since March, just from COVID-19. This is on top of all those who have died from other causes. Hundreds of thousands of people are out of work, unable to pay their bills or even purchase food for their families. There is much darkness. Yet my faith is not in the leaders of our nation, the opinions of right-wing or left-wing pundits, or the strength of our military. My hope is in the Light of the world, the God of love who does not stand apart from human suffering nor deny human frailty, but in compassion, literally has come to be with us.
While I have strong political opinions and support various candidates and policies, I do not worship at the altar of our government. I worship the God who came to the humble town of Bethlehem, who was laid in a feed trough because the guest room was full, whose glory was recognized by shepherds and kings. I worship the Lord who honored women and children; who brought healing to those broken in mind, body, and spirit; who spoke to the outcasts and called them blessed. I worship the God who offered to die a terrible death to show us all just how powerful and how costly is grace.
You don’t have to agree with my politics, but in choosing to worship Jesus as Lord, I call you my brother. Our opinions need not be the same, but our love for one another must be such that all those who see it might recognize the power, the strength, the devotion of the God who loves us both to death and beyond.
If you would like to continue discussing the differences in our views on the current administration or other political topics, I would be happy to do so. Yet, if we cannot shine the light of love in the midst of our disagreements, perhaps it is best to lay them aside for now, rather than continue to try to convince one another that one of us is fully right and the other is completely wrong. May you know peace and hope in this season of Advent, honoring the birth of the One for whom we wait.
Yes, Christians can and perhaps even “should” fight. We should test our mettle with one another to build up, rather than tear down. We should challenge each other to be our best, most authentic selves rather than discouraging, disparaging, denouncing. And when we can’t, when we find ourselves more emotionally invested in winning the argument than in caring for each other, we should step back and reevaluate our position, and our priorities. And then, we might argue again, when our goal is to fight, in love, for one another.
We have entered the season of darkness and light. Around the world, we celebrate with candles this time of year: Advent, Diwali, Hannukah, Kwanzaa. For those of us north of the Equator, the darkness is quite literal; our days are shorter and nights are longer as we approach the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. For many right now, darkness is metaphorical. The outlook is bleak. Their candles burn so low, the puddle of light doesn’t seem bright enough to make out the next step.
For hundreds of millions this year, darkness has come in the death of loved ones. Many of these deaths, tragically, were preventable. Not all, certainly, not even most, but so many vulnerable individuals among us have been served poorly, even negligently, by neighbors and relatives and local, state, and federal leaders—and sometimes even themselves—all we who are called to take better care of us.
It has been almost a year and a half since I watched Adam struggle for his own final breaths. I am incredibly grateful I had the opportunity to be in the room, standing right beside him, as he gasped one final time. My heart aches for those who have been denied that opportunity, for their own safety, in the darkness of the coronavirus pandemic.
Just over two years ago, right in the midst of what I took to calling “this crazy carnival ride” of life in cancerous tumor treatment and functional brain therapies, I was thinking about death. We’d had a couple of long, intense months to get used to the idea that Adam was very likely nearing the end of his journey on the earth. I was terrified. I had no idea how I might walk forward without him. At the same time, one part of my mind held on to strangely detached thoughts. These ideas were emotional, but I had no space to actually experience them. The feelings came later, in the down time, in the quiet moments when the carnival closed for the day and everything I had been unconsciously holding at bay came rushing toward me like ghosts finally free for a night of haunting.
One of those philosophical meditations, the thinking of thoughts about feelings, came too early in the morning. My family slept, but I found myself awake, needing to sort and label and categorize and organize everything swirling around inside. As I have learned is often the case, my reflections tumbled over one another to arrange themselves into lines of poetry.
In those months, Adam and I didn’t talk much about death. We’d spent a few hours writing out wills and setting forth some practical plans, but we didn’t share very many discussions about the emotions of very likely racing ever nearer toward the cliff’s edge at the end of his life. We seemed to have tacitly agreed it was time to focus all our attention and energy on healing rather than allowing free reign to our fears that healing would not come as we desired. Because our conversations centered on other topics, after I wrote this poem that early October morning, I tucked it in a file and never read it to Adam. I suppose I had imagined it might be something I’d share with him later or read as part of his memorial service one day, but I never did.
I offer this today to the mourners, the bereaved, the grieving, those who face empty spaces where the ones we love are not. As we who remain wend our way through this current season, may these few words shine a candle’s flame of light here against the dark.
Death Cannot Stop True Love
When you die Your light is not extinguished But passes along To each of us whose lives You’ve touched and held and brightened The flame of your passion Does not flicker out But burns on Among we who have been inspired
Confidence and arrogance are not the same thing. Sometimes they look the same from the outside. It can be hard to tell one from the other, at least sometimes, at least for me. I want to be confident in who I am, confident that I am loved, confident in the hope that I will never be left alone. Yet when I say things without prefacing my statements with “I think” or “I believe” or “in my opinion,” I am afraid I sound arrogant. Prideful.
Pride was indisputably a bad thing growing up. I didn’t recognize at the time the word pride actually has multiple meanings and they aren’t all the same kind of pride I was taught goes before destruction (Proverbs 16:18). Haughty arrogance isn’t the same as a sense of pride in being who I am, feeling confident in me. It’s not the same as being proud of something I didn’t think I could do, but I tried hard and managed it anyway (or tried hard and failed, but know I did my best). It’s different from the pride I feel watching my children learning and growing and discovering themselves for who they are, rather than simply taking in everything the world around us tells them to be.
When I was a kid, watching church leaders do their thing, I understood confidence to be unwavering belief in what was right. Being confident in Christ meant we never doubted what we knew was true. But in my experience, it didn’t really work that way.
Confidence is not always claiming to be right. It’s not putting forth my opinions as though those are the only possible ideas that could matter. It’s not taking my favored interpretation of what a particular passage of scripture means and stating that must be, without a doubt, what it really, truly is saying. No, that’s not confidence; it’s arrogance.
As I continue to watch and listen and read and interact with more people outside the narrow subculture in which I was raised, I’m beginning to recognize a difference I hadn’t really noticed before. There is a distinguishing feature of confidence that arrogance simply doesn’t have: humility.
Someone who exhibits healthy confidence is humble. A truly confident person knows that they don’t know it all. They recognize they have been wrong before and will be wrong again and may well be wrong about what they are saying right at the moment they are saying it, but their understanding and study and belief has brought them to this place at this point in time and they want to share what that has meant to them, because they hope it may be meaningful to others as well.
Most of the time, I am bad at humility. Being humble feels like weakness and vulnerability to me. Not the good kind of vulnerability, opening my heart to know and be known, but like a chink in my armor that leaves me open to attack. Of course, those are both the same kind of vulnerability. It’s just a matter of whether I am placing my trust in the protective gear I’ve put on or in the dangerous God who whispers, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And recognizing that, all over again, leaves me wanting to cry. I so want to be safe. I want to cling to my armor, because I’ve fought hard just to get it on. I’ve put all this effort into bearing its weight. It will protect me. It must protect me, or I’m wasting my life carrying it around with me everywhere. Rather than being a necessary defense, it is merely a burden.
Sitting here with this pile of armor I’ve accumulated—the righteous indignation, the blame, the sense of superiority in my own understanding of the obvious lies others have clearly mistaken for truth—I find myself left with a question I’m not sure I want to answer: Am I trusting in the strength of redemptive love or am I trying to shield myself from the pain, the fear, and the damage?
Too often, it’s the latter rather than the former. I expend so much energy trying to avoid being hurt. I want to find peace. I want things to be nice. But instead, I end up missing the reality of the choice we have.
Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
William Goldman, The Princess Bride
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
Jesus of Nazareth, John 16:33b (NIV)
Life is hard. Life hurts. Despite the modern Western culture of creature comforts, there is no getting around the fact that life involves a substantial amount of pain. We don’t get to choose whether or not to face pain. The choice we do have is how we will deal with it. We can accept that pain is instructive. If we allow ourselves to feel the crushing weight of being hurt, to learn from it, we have the ability to grow and move beyond that experience of pain.
Otherwise, we can try to avoid pain whenever possible. If we strap on heavy armor and carry around a tall shield, maybe we can ward off some of the weapons and manage not to be hurt by the world, at least some of the time. Yet, at what cost? How much does it hurt to be dragging our defenses with us everywhere we go? How much pain will we experience by virtue of the sore muscles, the chafing, the heat exhaustion of spending every minute of every day desperately trying to shield ourselves from being hurt? And as we fight to protect ourselves, how much will we be inflicting pain on other people?
I wish I had a good solution, a way not to get hurt at all. I wish I could say I’ve found another route that detours around the pain and if you’d just follow me, you, too, can skirt the damage and the trauma. As far as I can tell, that isn’t an option we have been given. All I have to offer are words like together, unity, community, intimacy, love, relationship.
We will get hurt. When we do, the best advice I have is to hold on tight, not to the protective gear we have accumulated, but to each other. Because building those bonds of love with one another brings us into the presence of God. And that’s not just my idea; Jesus said it first.
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.
Matthew 18:20 (NIV)
The world, the nation, the Church is starkly divided right now. We have aligned ourselves for combat, armor secured, shields up, swords drawn. Yet, the battle we are so anxious to fight against our friends, neighbors, relatives . . . are we confident that is what will lead to the peace we really seek? Or are we just being arrogant?