My breasts and bottom were fair game for open discussion; I learned this early in life. I was small for my age and the youngest in my class so I was teased for being a “shrimp” and called “2×4” when other girls had already started to develop but I had not. “Just give Nicole two band-aids to cover up those mosquito bites on her chest,” a male family member joked. Everyone laughed while I died inside.
As I grew, so did the jokes. If I was too thin, I was mocked for not being enough. When my curves started to fill out and I worked hard in private lessons for a year to gain the position of drum major of my large marching band, it was still my body (and not my talent) that was on display. I was then seen as too much. Comments about my large bottom in my white uniform pants made me blush, but by then I knew this was just normal behavior. Family, friends, and strangers—anyone—had the right to comment on my curves and their proportion to what others expected me to be.
Before I’d barely begun to realize the difference between boys and girls, my admittance into the dance world sent conflicting messages about my sexuality. Dress it up in sequins and put it on display with high kicks and gyrating hips. It was normal for drunken men to gawk at my teenage body dancing at the Superbowl halftime show.
Hide it under a waif-like ballerina body, the carefully placed neckline, and perfect posture. It was normal for my friends to starve themselves for a role, to be the perfect combination of desirable but just out of reach. But always the message was clear – your body is ours to look at, to scrutinize, and to judge. It’s your weapon to wield. It’s our prize to view.
The church added to the messages my mixed-up teenage self kept hidden like the A-cup bra straps I needed to keep tucked away under modest clothing. I was told not to let my brother stumble but my brothers kept coming at me anyway. Their comments were acceptable. People laughed them off. But somehow I had to keep them at bay with longer hemlines.
The night I fell asleep next to a friend on the bus and woke up with his hand under my shirt, I pretended I was still asleep. I just let it happen because I was too ashamed to call my body my own, too naïve to know to call it abuse. It was just another normal step in a culture that gave others ownership of my sexuality but asked me to be its guardian...
I’ve lived on the banks of a river that is the stuff of legends—those storied waters that cradled civilization and was the bridge between life and death for the ancients. It is obvious why Egypt is called “the gift of the Nile” once you spend a couple months in the sandy, dry heat. No life could exist in such a desert without those blessed waters.
I conversely now live in one of the most lush deltas in the world. Bangladesh is situated in the fertile plain that lies between the melting Himalayan snow, the waters of the sacred Ganges flowing out of India, and the largest bay in the world. Here the 700 rivers mean life—and death. When the monsoon rains come and the rivers flow outside their banks, many people who have nowhere else to go in this overpopulated land, have to move and rebuild—again.
I’ve seen the same waters meant to bring life, carry destruction instead. How can it be?
I’ve always loved order. I think that is what drew me to organized religion as a teenager who hadn’t been raised in the church. I finally had a set of rules I could follow. There were lines in the sand dividing the good and the bad and I knew just what to do to stay on the right side of that line. It felt like freedom was in the certainty.
I didn’t act like someone who was free, though. I used my freedom to condemn, separating myself from those who didn’t stay on the side of the line that I called good. I became a stagnant, festering pool; there was no living water flowing through me to others.
So, I thought if rules brought death, I’d live free of them. I ran from the church of my youth. I pushed back against the limits to see what being boundless felt like. It felt utterly terrifying. I became a flood, destroying everything in my wake. That wasn’t freedom either.
I’ve lived with a carefully measured faith and no faith at all. Both were destructive. I searched every place I could for a real taste of liberation, but I still felt chained inside...
When I moved back into the fast-paced American church after being a part of the slower moving Middle Eastern church, I learned something crucial. I learned how to cover my pain with a smile. I learned how to say “fine” when people asked how I was doing, even if it wasn’t true.
On the inside, I was a mess of anxiety and shame, confusion about my place in the world and with God. I felt like a failure for returning to America earlier than I had planned. I doubted my purpose, my place in the world.
But people had little time to hear that story and I was afraid of what it said about me.
I was plunged headlong into the truth Sarah Bessey mentions in Out of Sorts - “Our culture makes little space for the mess. We are expected to have it all together. Don’t let them see you sweat, keep your dirty laundry and unsanitized stories to yourself, thank you very much. Be successful, look good, feel good.”
In the middle of believing I had to appear I had it all together, I was starting to believe lies about God, too. My view of Him shrank to someone I had to please instead of someone who loved me without limits. I went through the motions of what I saw around me, what I thought I was supposed to be doing.
I had a “quiet time” and participated in Bible study like I had always been taught to do, even though I didn’t feel like I could hear God in my time in Scripture. I dove into serving in the church when I was probably not healthy enough to be serving anyone. I thought if I did these certain things I would be who God wanted me to be.
I used to think I had to perform for God, to measure up to some standard of holiness to be a part of His church. Then, I found myself in the middle of a community that lived fully in the mess of life together.
I had been in small groups the entire time I had been in the church. This one was different. Most of us were young couples with growing families. At one point we had a baby shower every other month because there were so many children adding to our ranks. Our lives were anything but neat and tidy.
But we pressed into life together, moving families into new homes, bringing meals to new moms, having late-night coffee and sharing our hearts with each other after the kids had drifted off to sleep. We prayed. We were honest. We were all messes and we all loved each other and discovered together that we didn’t have to say “fine” when we didn’t feel fine.
We cried together and laughed together. We watched each other overcome anxieties and move into the life that God intended for us. We carried each other to Jesus when we couldn’t make it there on our own.
When I saw church again as a place for real people, sharing their pain, carrying each others burdens, welcoming those who don’t have it all together – my view of God started to realign.
I realized how much the people of God shape people’s views of God. It is a heavy responsibility but is made so much easier when we are just real with people.
The Jesus Sarah Bessey talks about in Out of Sorts is the Jesus I found in that small group.
“God is much bigger, wilder, more generous, and more wonderful than you imagined,” she says and I found this to be true.
I used to think I had to clean up my act to come to God but now I think that only God can make me clean.
And I think we, as the Church, need to be the place where anyone at any place in life can feel like they can come as they are.
The broken and the whole.
The confused along with the certain.
“I hope we change,” says Sarah of the people of God. “I hope we grow. I hope we push against the darkness and let the light in and breathe into the Kingdom come. I hope we become a refuge for the child and the aged, for the ones who have been strong too long. And I hope we all live like we are loved.”
This is what God did. This is what the People of God should do.
May we keep growing into living like we are loved and loving like we are His.
Buy Out of Sorts now (This isn't an affilate link, just me sharing a book with you that I believe will speak life to your soul!)
Join me next week as I continue to discuss Out of Sorts
Respond with your own stories of evolving faith. "I used to think _______ but now I think _______." Leave your response in the comments below!
I sat in the middle of people I had called brothers and sisters for the past three years. I had shared my life with them and forsaken my own family, who weren’t followers of Christ, for this family of God. I had believed they had all the answers. I thought I just needed to align my life with their theology and practices and everything would be okay.
In the sticky summer air, they laughed too loud and excitement filled the air as we rounded the bend into our senior year. But I didn’t fit anymore into their midst. I felt exposed among them, like I wore my broken heart on the outside. People I believed could show me clearly who God was had betrayed me.
Those practices I thought I just needed to emulate to be a “good Christian” were murky now. I saw one thing in the church building, another in school.
I was heart broken over a broken faith in God and in the people of God. I walked away into the humid night and away from all I believed. I thought if I didn’t have all the answers then I didn’t have any at all. All I thought I knew was wrong.
I wish someone had been there to tell me then “I know you feel a bit out of sorts. We all do sometimes. It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. You are so very loved. I pray you would remember it, know it, live it, breathe it, rest in it: beloved.”
Those words came in the form of the book Out of Sorts. I joined the launch team for Sarah Bessey’s second book (releasing November 3, 2015) after falling in love with her words on her blog. The gift that fell into my hands was this raw, real encounter with a faith that is evolving over time and a permission to question and grow into the truth of who God really is.
Out of Sorts, in Sarah’s own words is “about embracing a faith, which evolves, and the stuff I used to think about God but I don’t think anymore...This book is my way of leaving the light on for the ones who are wandering.” It is for those have ever felt “Out of Sorts,” like everything they “once knew ‘for sure’ has to be figured out all over again.”