Mercy in the Darkness

What does mercy look like when the person who did the hurting doesn’t acknowledge it? Doesn’t remember? Maybe chooses not to remember? What if knowing that he was hurt too isn’t enough?

See, every year about this time, I feel a contradiction. The weather gets cooler even in Texas (eventually) and the leaves change color.  The pumpkins start showing up among the produce. And I love all that. But it’s also the time of year when ragweed grows. And my body reacts to its harmless pollen as if it is attacking me. As if it can hurt me. My head aches, my eyes water, and I blow my nose until it’s chapped. I try to laugh it off. Try to convince everyone that I’m actually not a carrier for the plague as I sneeze and reach for another tissue.

And I’ve started to wonder if there’s more to it. Is my body remembering old wounds? Times when something that seemed innocuous suddenly wasn’t? Is that even possible?

I don’t know. But now more than ever, I know that the body isn’t disconnected from the soul, from the spirit.

And either way, I’m trying to keep breathing. To have the courage to feel what I’m feeling and remember what I’m remembering. Which is stuff that’s devastating and that still has tentacles that touch today. Stuff that’s easier to put in a closed drawer and leave there.

Somehow, being honest about what happened when I was too young to know how to speak up for myself helps mercy matter. It doesn’t make it easier–I don’t think it ever gets easy. But it makes it more real. It makes it a battle worth fighting again and again. Not because it feels like justice. The part of me that wants retribution is still there. But there’s something underneath. Something truer. Something sacred. Something pure. I think it’s grace.

Postscript.

I was sitting in my living room gazing at my screen one Sunday evening after liturgy last fall. I hit save and considered whether to keep writing or call it a night. It was getting late and I was tired after a long day. Then the doorbell rang. After ten o’clock. Which was a little weird. My heart beat faster as I pushed my barking dogs aside and looked out the front door. A young man was bending to lay down on the porch, muttering something I couldn’t make out. 

Kyle left for the airport hours before so I was alone. With obviously empty houses on either side of mine.

My mind assured me that he was most likely harmless. Just someone drunk or high or confused. I pondered what to do as he moved to sit in one of the chairs on the porch, ringing the door bell again, still mumbling. Who was he talking to? Probably himself. But were there others out of sight in the shadows? If another person were home with me or if I could text my old neighbor Lobo to come over and see what was up, I’d have asked him if he was lost or needed bus fare. But as it was, it seemed better to let the police talk to him; make sure he wasn’t a danger to anyone including himself or me. So I dialed, heart pounding. As I spoke to the dispatcher, he rang the bell again and again. And again. The woman heard through the line. “Is that him ringing again?” It was. At this point, I figured, it should be obvious that if people were home, they were choosing not to open the door. What was his deal?

Finally, the police came. Made him take a sobriety test. And, a very long while later, they drove away without a word to me. It was after midnight by this point. I couldn’t tell if they’d taken my visitor or not and when I called the police to check, no one knew. So was he down the street? Would he be coming back? They’d ask one of the officers to call and let me know. I tried to sleep. And I wondered…

Coincidence? Maybe. But sometimes, it seems, the darkness talks back.

And yet. And yet. I don’t believe the shadows win. There is another Voice that speaks. Another invitation remains to mercy that is extravagant.

“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…” 2 Peter 1:19

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Love & Marriage

This time last year, Kyle and I were on a trip to celebrate a quarter century of married life. I’ve been married longer than I’ve not been married. Which is kind of crazy. We married very young. I’m sure many thought we wouldn’t make it. The odds were certainly against us. 

But we loved each other and God and made a life together even without much support or community in those early years. By the time we were in our early thirties, we’d helped plant a church and numerous ministries. People were regularly asking us for marriage advice and telling us how they wanted their relationship to be like ours–full of laughter and partnership and mutual respect. But the truth was that there were some chinks in our relationship. Many of which we didn’t recognize ourselves. And they widened into a chasm during a series of devastations. We both felt like failures. We both felt abandoned by the other. Trust was broken in various ways. Life was turned upside down. It was a time of unspeakable darkness.

From the beginning, we’d promised never to say the word divorce. But I said it. Because it felt increasingly impossible to imagine a way back. On our twenty-fourth anniversary, I was in a hotel room alone in a far away city. I needed space to search out how to move forward and discern what God’s invitation was. Our marriage felt broken beyond repair. I didn’t know what to do but I knew it felt dishonest to celebrate a wedding anniversary that year.

We had so wanted to be different. We believed in marriage that lasts a lifetime. Still do. But we were naïve, idealistic. I can see at least some of the mistakes that led to that day. Kyle was an incredibly hard worker (good) but left precious little time for family and self and sabbath (not good). I believed in him and us and the work we were each pouring our lives into. But I didn’t speak up about my concerns loudly and often enough. And there was lots of ignorance in both of us about how commitment and relationship really work. See, we are both persisters. This is a good thing but without wisdom it’s dangerous and eventually toxic. I think we thought commitment had to be something something dogged and hard. But love doesn’t work that way.

We were the teachers. We were the role models. We had a plan and could talk about it clearly and passionately. But it was too much head and not enough heart. It was too much vision and not enough laughter and play. Too many scheduled meetings (more often than not to go over our calendars) and not enough just being. Too much focus on the why rather than simply living the what. 

And yet somehow the pieces began to come back together. Because of God’s love and mercy. Because we didn’t stop fighting. We kept seeking wholeness with God as individuals and with each other. Kyle began to seek health in some important ways for him and for our relationship.

And a year ago, trust and friendship and romance were being rebuilt. We were laughing together again. And so, to celebrate renewal, we took a trip to an island neither of us had heard of before. It was fun and beautiful.

On our anniversary, we spent some time reading all kinds of wedding vows. We needed to make some new promises. The old ones didn’t resonate anymore. We chose the traditional Quaker vows from a 1675 London meeting and added some nontraditional vows that were relational and felt sustainable and wise. And then on a deck overlooking the ocean and the stars, we spoke those vows to each other. We promised to love each other and embrace mystery together. We promised to respect each other and honor differences. We promised to face change together. We honored an assembly—in this case of trees and stars and waves and of a cloud of witnesses of our brothers and sisters that have gone before us and felt nearly tangibly there. We promised to be loving and faithful. We spoke our trust in divine assistance, knowing now more than ever the degree to which it is our best and only hope.

1988

1988 in East Texas

Off Dominica

2014 in Dominica

In Champagne

2015 in Champagne

Terrible Beautiful Things

Last night I dreamed of spiders.

I was in this odd space. It was a neighborhood that was also a sort of camp or community. Everyone had chosen to live there because they worshipped at the same church. They’d gather in this community hall for dinners together in front of a huge stone fireplace. And I know what you’re thinking. But it totally wasn’t a cult. I think.

I was visiting a friend who had a lot of kids. I headed toward the back door as I arrived. And as I walked I kept seeing these spiders. They beautiful actually. They looked like Mexican sugar skulls. They were black and velvety with pink and blue and acid green markings like icing.

My friend’s kids were playing in the courtyard and they were surrounded by webs. They were on gutters and eaves and doorposts. But the kids didn’t seem to notice them.

I asked my friend about them. Yes, they’d bite but they couldn’t kill you. It’s not that big a deal, really. If one attaches, you just tap it and it’ll drop off. You’ll lose some fluids (something clear, not even blood). Nothing to worry about. Oh, just don’t pull at them or they’ll rip off some skin, too.

I went to the room where I was staying. In the dream, I kept imagining spiders biting me. It felt like I was covered in them. And it definitely didn’t seem like no big deal. It seemed like it would hurt more than my friend was willing to admit.

Something terrifying and painful was being made normal, even trivial. They were just living with the spiders when they should been fighting them. How could they just let their kids get bitten all the time? Why were they content to be surrounded by these horrible things just because they weren’t deadly?

In my dream, I was a little troubled by this but nothing like I would be in real life. Even though I had this vague sense there was a problem, it was like everything was a little hazy. Like I (and everyone else) was a little drugged or something.

Lots of other things happened. An old woman dressed in pink came to see me for spiritual direction. She was lovely. That part was wonderful. It was a meandering kind of dream.

And then I woke up. And I couldn’t stop thinking about those terrible beautiful sugar skull spiders.

Oh, God. There have been so many spiders in my life. Terrible things that don’t look so horrifying on the surface. I have been lulled by darkness into not trusting my instincts. The evil and brokenness and pain have been real. There have been horrible things wearing terrible beautiful masks. And I’m scarred by them. And too many people in my life have told me–with words or with silence–to live with it. To call it small or unimportant.

I need Your help to call things by their true names. I need Your help to know when to fight and when to run. I need Your forgiveness for the times that I’ve been the one telling someone it’s no big deal. How could I? I’m so so sorry.

So, my prayer? It’s that You will help me and heal me. That You’ll love me and not ever leave me. That You’ll fight for me.

And please let me be a healer, too. Please show me how to fight for people in a way that sets them free.

Amen.

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{photo cred}

identity theft

Sometimes I am ok with taking their own time. Some days I can celebrate process and journey. I have a sense of grace that reminds me of goodness and growth and God’s kindness even through suffering. Other days, I’m distracted and impatient. I’m frustrated that I still have so many questions. So many things I don’t understand. So many things that I should be over by now. But then I realize.

Maybe it isn’t surprising I’ve had a hard time figuring out who I am, who I’m meant to be, who I can be. Because of things like this–>When my dad remarried, he and my stepmom had a son together. They gave him the name that I would have had if I’d been a boy. And get this. He was born on my birthday. The poor kid actually stole my birthday. What are the chances? I’ve told people that strange story over the years and no ever seems to know what to say except ‘wow…weird.’ I have always hoped someone would help me figure out what it means.

But what it feels like is simple and clear. I was replaced–edged out–erased. It felt like I became nothing. Forgotten. A girl.

I remember going to visit my dad once. I was in the 4th or 5th grade. I wasn’t invited often even though for most of my childhood he lived fifteen minutes away. But on this day, I was there for some reason. I think my mamaw (that’s east Texan for grandmother) might have been in town. Dad wasn’t there when I got there. He was hunting or fishing with friends. I remember a lot of people around when he arrived.

I was excited. I couldn’t wait for him to notice me–I thought he’d be so happy and surprised since he wasn’t expecting me. He was distracted by showing the fish or deer or whatever it was and was talking happily to everyone there. Everyone except me. As the moments passed it became clear he was ignoring me. He was embarrassed I was there or something.

I was crushed.

Finally, a friend of his named Chris whose sandy blond hair was stylishly 1980-something short said, ‘Barry, aren’t you going to say hello to your daughter?!’ You’d think that would have made my humiliation even greater but it didn’t. I was so grateful to her. She saw me. And she made him see me.

As a kid, a lot of times I tried to disappear. It seemed like that was what I was supposed to do. It seemed safer to blend in.

But sometimes, I’d take a chance. I worked so hard to get my dad (and others) to notice me. To be proud of me. To like me. To find something worthwhile in me. Writing this made me realize I’ve bragged more to my dad than any person I’ve ever known.

Dad, my favorite color is the same as yours. Dad, I’m a good Christian. Dad, I’m a good student. Dad, I like books and music like your wife does. Dad, I’m graduating with honors. Dad, I’m getting a pool. Dad, I’m a good cook. Dad, I travel like you. Dad, my house burned down. Dad, I wrote a book.

And the answer is the same as it has always been. Silence.

And I get it. (In theory at least). This is my experience. His couldn’t have been easy, either. I’m sure he had his own hurts and confusion and conundrums. Maybe he felt shut out of my life. Maybe he thought it was best to let me connect with my new family.

And I didn’t make it easy for him. I was annoying and bratty and way too eager to talk about me, me, me whenever we were together. And when I was older, I started to vaguely say ‘yeah, let’s get together.’ But then I wouldn’t call. Just like him. But my word is my own. I could have called. I wish I had.

At first, he was young and probably didn’t know what to do. And when he wasn’t young any longer, the patterns were established. Inertia is a powerful thing. And it’s not his fault. Many things have conspired to make me believe all kinds of terrible things about me besides this.

But it happened and it matters and it’s the story I’m telling today.

The darkness has tried so very hard to make me disappear. To make me be quiet. To make me afraid and alone and ashamed. I guess that’s what I was supposed to get out of the whole half-brother-with-my-birthday-and-almost-name scenario. And the dad who didn’t want to be part of my life. But it hasn’t taken, somehow. The light keeps calling me. It keeps telling me my name.

And you know what’s great? I’ve always loved my name. I like the sound of it. I like the way it’s spelled. Most of all, I love what it means. It’s earth in Latin. Ground, soil, womb of life. I know we’re supposed to get a new name in heaven and I have to admit I’ve always been a little sad about that.

Some how, against all odds, I know who I am. I know I belong to the Light. I know (I can’t deny that I know) that the Center and Origin of all things calls me by my name. And loves me. And likes who I am. Even as he is making me new. Even now.

“But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in his name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

If this story sounds like your story, you should listen to this song by sleeping at last.

littleterra

The Daughter I Haven’t Met

We would have received our referral for Camilla on this date in 2011. We still miss her, love her, and wish things could have been different. Lament is as important as laughter so I’m remembering her and acknowledging loss and sadness today.

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too late and too soon

Three years ago I became a mother again.  At long last, we got the referral letter for our Chinese adoption.  That meant it was finally time for us to be matched with a child who needed a family.  We’d been waiting five long years for this email.  But it came too late.

For reasons I am only beginning to understand, it was clear that with us was not the best place for this precious girl to be.  She would have been somewhere between 6 months and a year old.  She would have been small for her age after spending her first months in an orphanage and she’d have had dark, almond shaped eyes and shiny black hair cropped short.  We would have scurried home from the airport where I’d read the email to wait for our adoption agency to send more about her.  On the…

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Guess What Didn’t Lead to a Perfect Life?

My wonderful daughter Torey wrote a guest post continuing the dialogue about modesty and sexuality. She is one smart woman and I’d be glad to be a part of her life even if we weren’t related. Check it out::

My life isn’t perfect because I didn’t have sex before marriage. Seems like a straightforward statement. One that most of us would proclaim we believe. However, many of us who grew up in evangelical churches might find ourselves counting purity before marriage as the only key to success. As look around to my peers, mentors, and the church as whole, I find this message running rampant through Christian culture and ideology. The fact that we don’t seem to recognize it is even more disconcerting. As someone who has experienced the pain that comes out of operating under this ideology, I owe it to myself and to you to dispel it.

Recently, my mom wrote an amazing piece on modern-day modesty in the Christian church and in it she discussed my experiences in a 21st century church youth group {Aw, thanks, Torey. Here’s that essay if you want to check it out.}. She described a culture and message that idealized sexual purity and “covering up” the parts of us only meant for our spouse. After consistently hearing this message, it became part of my theology without me realizing. My actions and daily thoughts began to form around this perceived truth. With my rebellious tendency towards rules I perceive as arbitrary (don’t get me started on the tax code), I started to toe the line instead of letting my actions being informed by the spirit of what Jesus wanted when he commanded us to be pure.  Even though I spent my high school career in a uniform, I rolled up my pleated khaki skirt as soon as I got to school to make it shorter. And even though I never had sex, I went farther with high school boyfriends than I wish.  That is my sin and mine alone. However, I’ve wondered if part of that rebellion was against the model Christian church’s culture which idealized purity.

As I went to college and met the man who is now my husband, I wanted to do things differently. Although we weren’t perfect, we waited. I remember thinking how much better off we would have it than friends who hadn’t waited to have sex or who had gotten closer to the line than we had.  We would enter our wedding night as God intended, and were therefore destined for marital bliss.

Those of you who are married know just how wrong I was. After the honeymoon, Craig and I had to face the harsh reality that our lives and our marriage we not perfect simply because of something we withheld from each other before it started. Don’t get me wrong–sex is awesome. It’s fulfilling and exciting.  But it isn’t even close to the majority of what our marriage is based on.

Marriage is more than a list of do’s and don’ts. It requires a deep understanding of what the other’s needs are and fulfilling them to the best of your ability. Even though we have only been married for a year, I love Craig more every day. The sweet times we spend together in the evenings talking about our days over a glass of wine (or beer for my man) are the best part.  He consistently amazes me by the way he demonstrates Christ’s love in the way he serves me whether it be turning on Gilmore Girls for me to help me get through my most hated time of day (morning) or leaving me a sweet note in my purse. To me, those little acts of service and love are what have made our marriage great. I love Jesus more because of my marriage to him.  Craig is my partner and best friend and I am abundantly blessed.

Despite that I have been surprised by how normal life after marriage is. Don’t get me wrong, I love it and thus far, besides knowing Jesus, it is the best part of my life. My point is that the troubles and trials of the world do not go away because you enter marriage sexually pure. Jobs still sometimes suck, relationships are still hard, and money’s still tight.

I guess I’m saying all this to remind you that sexual purity and modesty cannot save or sanctify you. Only Jesus can. His grace is sufficient to cover a multitude of sins. He wants the best for you and remaining pure IS God’s best for you. It protects you from a world of hurt and pain that you weren’t meant to experience. Sex within a committed marital relationship is unparalleled.  But for those of you that struggle with purity or modesty, know that you aren’t alone. And that your sin isn’t worse than any other. You are not doomed to a failed marriage if you have made sexual mistakes before. Marriage and your walk with God are dependent on much more than what you have or have not done in the past. Fall into his abundant grace—knowing that it alone can save you. Speaking from experience, that is the most freeing feeling. I’ll say it again. My life isn’t perfect because I didn’t have sex before marriage.

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A Rose Is A Rose

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I love that issues of modesty and shame and sexuality have been stirred up for discussion recently. It’s well deserved attention. But I’ve been surprised by the passionate–and sometimes disturbingly defensive–responses to these articles.

All the talk of selfies and bathing suits and hem lines (and even darker recurring question of whether things like date rape is maybe really the victim’s fault) made me wonder how my daughter felt about her experience growing up as a southern church-going woman who’d spent most of her teens wearing a private school uniform.

An abuse survivor myself, I spent a lot of time and prayer making sure Torey was safe and protected as she grew up. We talked about sexuality from an early age and how it was best expressed within a committed relationship. We talked about modesty. A lot.

During her early teen years, this conversation often got hung up (get it?) on one or two items that were in style but that her dad and I weren’t comfortable with her wearing. Of course, all the other girls’ moms let them wear it, whatever ‘it’ was. The denim micro mini was my absolute nemesis. I simply couldn’t convince my sweet daughter that a wardrobe malfunction was a near certainty in that thing.

I don’t regret fighting for her modesty, but I wish I’d emphasized that it’s actually a good thing that she is a physical and sexual being more–that she didn’t need to be ashamed of her femininity. I wish I could go back to that American Eagle dressing room (with that ridiculous skirt). I’d tell her she’s original and special and doesn’t need to dress like a clone. Instead of being frustrated and in a hurry to leave, I’d take that thirteen year old face in my hands and remind her that I know she feels awkward and ugly and unlovable but that it’s not true–that she’s more amazing than she could possibly imagine. I wish we’d talked more over the years about how to carry herself, dress, and simply be in a way that celebrates who she is. Don’t get me wrong, we did discuss these things. But I see now not nearly enough.

Misguided 

What’s worse is that she was receiving messages I had no idea about. I’m not talking about photoshopped magazines with impossibly perfect bodies. That was covered. I showed her what Barbie’s ridiculous proportions would be in real life. I’m not even referring to the terrifyingly easy access to pornography introduced at increasingly young ages to both boys and girls. This is also deeply troubling but it wasn’t a taboo subject in our home.

No, the communication I’m talking about came from church youth groups, camps, and weekend retreats. If I’d known she was being told these things, I would have countered the messages. I would have confronted foolish and misguided youth leaders. But I simply didn’t know it was happening. And Torey, for her part, understandably assumed that if I was dropping her off at these gatherings, I both knew and approved of all the content.

The object lesson that best captures what I’m talking about is apparently a common one involving a rose. A perfect rose is held up to be observed and then passed around a circle. The kids are encouraged to touch the petals, feeling how soft they are and smelling their perfume. When it’s made the rounds, the leader holds up the now bruised and mangled flower and compares the damaged petals to a young woman who’s been with multiple partners. It’s apparently always focused on the females of the group because, as everyone knows, women are temptresses and men are helpless against their wiles, bearing no responsibility for their choices. Such nonsense is (I hope) never explicitly articulated but it is loudly implied when co-ed discussions of this nature are aimed at women only.

As absolutely infuriating as I find all this, I understand what they are trying to communicate. Sexually is tender and precious and a young woman’s (and young man’s) body should be set apart until they are ready for a relationship that works best when they have more maturity and life experience. I get it.

But the problem is that this isn’t the only message that comes through. It’s not even the loudest one. The first problem is that women are singled out for responsibility in an issue that, by definition, includes two people. And what if a young girl hears this and has already been intimate? What if, God forbid, it was non-consensual? The heartbreaking reality is that it’s nearly certain most groups will contain victims of sexual violence. As the mother of a daughter, I’m emphasizing women but here but recognize that men are also sadly vulnerable to such abuse.

Where is the space for grace or for restoration in this object lesson? Once a rose is damaged, it can’t be undone. Thankfully, our bodies and spirits and emotions are much more resilient. And what about mercy and forgiveness and second chances? Jesus allowed a former prostitute to anoint his feet with perfume and led those who were about to execute the woman caught in adultery to put down their stones. He actually has a lot to teach us about how to treat women–it’s no accident that he was the first rabbi known to accept female followers.

Made To Be Delightful

Modesty is really important. Clothing should leave something to the imagination and to make it possible to sit, stand, and move comfortably. It should communicate both self-respect and concern for others.

But the other message is just as crucial. A woman needs to feel free to embrace her own unique beauty and femininity. Her body is fearfully and wonderfully made and she should be encouraged to celebrate it rather than be shamed for having it. And the same is true for men–their bodies and sexuality aren’t gross or dirty, either. (Unless they are teenage boys who haven’t learned to care about hygiene. In which case, they should take a shower and use lots of deodorant immediately. Which has nothing to do with their sexuality but is a very needed public service announcement.)

That all being the case, a woman should dress in ways that make her feel good about herself. And while she shouldn’t share the most intimate parts of herself with any old person (in words, deeds, or attire), she also shouldn’t hide her light under a bushel. After all, a rose isn’t meant to be shoved into the back of a closet. It’s meant to be enjoyed and celebrated. It is made to be delightful.

And Torey? She’s living on her own now with a master’s degree, a husband, a job at a non-profit, and more friends than she can count. Miraculously, she made it through the dumb things people taught her and her parents’ many mistakes relatively unscathed. She is smart and funny and modest and beautiful inside and out. I couldn’t be prouder of her. And I love that she has a great sense of style. A girl after my own heart, she would never pass up a chance to visit Anthropologie’s sale room. She’s in good company–we come from a family of bright and classy women who are truly ladies.

I hope it’s clear to my wonderful daughter and all the other amazing women in my life that they can and should enjoy being in their own skin. I hope they know they are lovely and valuable and exactly who they were meant to be. And I hope you do, too.