Shame was a language I learned early, right along with how to say “please” and “thank you.” There was an unspoken etiquette we learned growing up in the Southern United States. The tea should be sweet. You should address people older than you as “ma’am” and “sir.” I knew the taste of collard greens and banana pudding, as well as the proper use of the phrase, “bless her heart” to camouflage your disdain for someone in a prayer. We were known for our hospitality and kindness. We were always polite and proper—to people’s faces. Appearances mattered, often more than anything else.
I spent a good bit of my childhood being lulled into summer evening bliss by the rhythmic rocking of wooden chairs and the tinkle of the wind chimes hung on a long porch. My sister and I spent days down by the creek, running as fast as we could past our grandpa’s beehives. Our hands were stained from the red clay and black muscadine juice, calloused from shelling peas and stirring pots of beans.
But during those lazy afternoons on the porch, the stories flowed like molasses, sweet and sticky in the summer sun. Oh, that girl down the road the got married a little young. We all knew why. That neighbor had a liking for the bottle, everyone said. Shh, don’t say it too loud, someone might hear you. But wasn’t there a guy in school whose momma just got out of the hospital? You know, for taking too many pills?
If you stepped outside the cultural expectations, you would be the talk of the town. One thing I never learned was the language of grace. We were never taught to talk about all our failings or about the healing we can find when we say it out loud. We didn’t know what life could be like when we admitted our mistakes and asked for help. We just knew to sweep the dark corners of our lives under the rug, afraid someone would find out and whisper about us, too.
It was never said explicitly but the implications were clear. Don’t let people see your weaknesses. Manners matter more than transparency. And, for goodness sake, keep up appearances.
When I started attending church in my teens, I wrapped a new layer of right actions around me like a bullet-proof vest. I knew just what to say and do (and what and who to avoid) to appear like the best Christian. We talked all about a personal relationship with Christ, but what I really gained was another set of standards I needed to uphold.
Years later, after lapses that certainly made me the talk of all the good folks I knew in my church days, I longed for Jesus but I wasn’t so sure about his people. I knew I was a horrible mess and I was hungry for someone that could offer me more than appearances. I’ll never forget the kind people that poured into hurting students in the college ministry where I finally discovered a different dialect. They replaced the language of failure, shame, and secrecy with words like vulnerability, lament, mercy, and restoration...
When I first started practicing Centering Prayer in earnest, focusing on a sacred word to bring my thoughts back to the Presence of God, I daily focused on the word beloved. I was struggling to see anything good in myself. Borrowing from the teachings of Brennan Manning, I imagined crawling up in the lap of my loving Father. Something still felt amiss, though.
Living in Dhaka and learning the marvels of the Bangla language expanded my prayers in a way I never expected. The word for father in Bangla is “Abba,” that same loving name Manning uses for his Father God. “Amma” is the word for mother, but there isn’t a separate word meaning “parents.” Instead, Abba-Amma (or the more informal Baba-Ma) is used to signify parents, the combination of mother and father, the ones who are everything to the child. The distinct-yet-inseparable persons make up all the child needs.
I prayed in this way, calling God my Father-Mother, my good parents, my everything. And I breathed in the belief that I was their beloved.
For a long time, that’s all I could pray: “God, help me see you as good. God, help me understand your love for me.”
I don’t remember when the shift first happened. I just noticed when it had. I would see the face of others I loved while I sat silently anchored by the word “beloved.” I would hold onto the pain I knew a friend or family member was experiencing like I could take it away for a moment. It was as if I could sense God saying, “They too are my beloved; now help them see it.”
The sense of God’s love for me had seeped down deep into my bones and I didn’t need to ask God to show it to me anymore. I could hold out that hope for others. I could see the way we’re all connected to each other. I could clearly see, as Desmond Tutu said, that: “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life....”
It baffles my husband, how I can focus on writing amidst a room full of noise. I often get up before the rest of my family rises and write for hours on a weekend morning (I'm writing this now from Starbucks on a cold, rainy Sunday morning). Other people’s conversations fade into the background and I can hear clearly the words I am supposed to be putting down on the page.
When I chose the word “Still” to guide my year, I imagined a place more like the monastery I visit for retreats yearly than the coffee shops in which I write. I envisioned crafting a quiet place in my life to focus on God and the path ahead in another big transition year as we moved back to the U.S. from South Asia.
As is usually the case, that is not at all what I found.
This year was less like the holy quiet of the abbey church and more like the strange solitude of the writer in the middle of the noisy coffee shop. This year was the life raft somehow still upright while the winds of a squall raged around it.
I started off leaning into the stillness. Shortly after we returned to the U.S., I spent a beautiful weekend in the holy quiet of the monastery in my first fully silent retreat. I lapped up the silence like a parched animal. The path before us felt hard but full of possibilities.
But as our transition wore on and reality set in, I couldn’t run away to quiet places removed from the new life we were supposed to be building. And stillness in the middle of that kind of chaos wasn’t just hard to find; it was painful. It showed me that I thought coming “home” would fix a lot of broken things in my own heart. But like you can’t run away from yourself, you can’t expect her to be waiting for you in a place you left. I longed for answers and thought I’d find them in the quiet. I found more questions, more tender and broken places that needed tending.
We encountered renovating a home, joblessness, a family that looked very changed than when we left them, a new school, a lack of community (people changed; you change), and a whole lot of aching for what we left behind in South Asia. After a couple of months when the ache hadn’t left and the stumbling around in the dark remained, it was time to face that we weren’t going to walk into a new beginning and find wholeness. We found things a lot more shattered than we had left them, instead.
It felt like every person in my life was bearing the same kind of weight as I groped around for hope: caregiving, chronic illness, mental health issues, financial, job, or marriage strain. I stacked these weights upon my own and felt my knees buckle. Continue Reading
Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had. – Richard Rohr
My sense of the self I try to project, the name I hope to make for myself, started to unravel one day when I was deep in my own thoughts, walking down Road Number 5 toward the market. I reached into the chest pocket of the bag where I kept my small bills, a habitual response to the rhythmic cry of “Allah, Allah” from the lady hunched over by the mosque entrance.
She smiled her crooked smile and started to say a prayer of blessing for me when I felt eyes on me besides hers. Four men sitting across the street, prayer mats neatly tucked under their arms, had their gaze intently fixed on me.
Their stares following my every move jarred me out of my daze and I looked up around at the bustling street. My mind started racing and I felt a flutter of worry. What did they see when they looked at me; what did my interaction with this woman who was begging communicate about me? What about all those times I was in too much of a hurry to stop and walked right by someone on the street? People were watching then too.
After that day I noticed it everywhere like that tiny loose thread on a sweater that turns into a hole once you start picking at it. I would often get in a rickshaw that would turn down our street before I said the directions; most people knew where the white family lived. I became acutely conscious of the assumptions people made about me and knew everyone was watching.
I also noticed my reactions to the attention —the way I could craft what they thought about me by the local clothes I chose to wear or the kind of places I frequented. I knew just how to act to be what people expected me to be in my various identities: non-profit worker (do-gooder), a follower of Christ (devout), family member (devoted), writer (deep), and on and on.
But there were only a handful of people who really knew all of me. It felt terribly lonely.
All of our lives are on display everywhere. From the people who interact with us at stores and on the street, to our online profiles, and in our own homes, everyone is making assumptions about us. And we are busy carefully molding our identities in their eyes by the choices we make and the things we say, by the parts of us we allow to be seen and the parts we keep hidden. We’re busy making a name for ourselves...
My love quickly turned to a need to please and my feelings of being loved to a fear of failure.
I remember feeling overwhelmed by love when I started following Christ, but the feeling didn’t last long. Like a hamster on a wheel, I started performing. I learned all the right things to say and do, the places and people to avoid, the ways a Christian is “supposed” to look.
I was overtaken with a fear that I wouldn’t measure up. There was a story that was read to us one day in youth group. The gist of the story was a man who found himself in a room full of file cabinets. On the cards in were written every sin, every evil thought and dark place inside of him. Jesus read them all and then canceled them out with his blood, showing the man he was forgiven.
Looking back, I know the intention was to show us that we can be forgiven but all I heard was the part where every horrible thing I ever thought of doing was laid bare before Jesus. I spent so much trying to please him and when I failed, I ran the other way instead.
After years of running from Christ, so tired of that endless race of striving, I found myself sitting again in a room of students. A woman passionate about us wayward college girls was trying desperately to convey God’s love to us. She read us words from the book of Romans telling us that no matter what we had done it was forgotten forever.
“No condemnation,” she said “for those in Christ Jesus. Literally none. Your sins are completely gone, remembered no more.”
Brick by brick the walls I had built up to protect myself came tumbling down and I crumbled before her in tears. I had lived so long in fear of my own failure.
Through my tears, I cried out, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this sooner?”
Fifteen years later, I still struggle to remember this truth, still fighting my tendency to be motivated by fear instead of love.
I sat in another room of students last week, a very different kind. A gathering of writers, we all came to the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing to learn about growing our craft and to connect with other writers. Continue Reading
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