It's such a small thing; it couldn't possibly have that big of an impact. It's just like the small bud of a flower, the ones we watch developing daily on the plants that grow in the nursery right outside the window of our fifth-floor flat. It's such a small thing—that negative thought. That complaint, that fleeting feeling of guilt or shame, that sideglance at the thing someone has done to annoy me.
But here's the truth about small things: They always grow. I find myself constantly admiring the vibrant pink tendrils of the bougainvilleas all over the city, which start small but take over whole verandas and sides of buildings. My thoughts have been doing the same thing lately. I started to notice it early in the month when my attitude turned sour and my insides felt raw. I was on the edge of tears whenever anyone said a word to me and couldn't understand why.
The next day I kept my mobile phone on me throughout the day and typed a quick sentence every few minutes. Wherever I felt my thoughts taking me, I took note of it. Reading over them at the end of the day, I felt as if I was beating my way through an overgrown path where thistles scraped at me and branches clawed at my skin. One negative bud had turned into a full-grown thought-life that brought nothing but death.
I was shocked at what I found when I took the time to slow down and look inside. Lies had woven themselves around my heart and crowded out the truth and joy of God's Word. Transitions are hard and painful things, to be sure. Five months into life in South Asia we are deep in the feelings of inadequacy and failure, of uncertainty and culture-shock. But I was letting all of those hard feelings define me and I knew it had to stop or they were going to choke the life out of me.
So even though it kind of felt like that old recurring dream of showing up in front of your entire class naked, I typed up a call for help on facebook. I brought the dark thoughts of failure and fear I was having into the light for all to see. I went to bed while most of my friends and family on the other side of the world were waking, into a deep sleep that never feels like enough these days. I woke with a vulnerability hangover. Ugh, should I have said those things? I groggily unlocked my phone and the tears that had threatened for weeks came tumbling down and continued throughout the day as the comments poured in. Over 40 friends in 6 different countries responded with messages of support, with prayers and encouragement, with "I've been there" and "Thank you for your honesty."
I'd love to say that one act of confession freed me from the shame that has wrapped itself so fully around my heart but it is a daily battle, a choice to speak the truth into the darkness and a discipline to find thankfulness in the midst of the monotony and loneliness that mark early expat life.
There's a simple exercise mentioned by Barbara Brown Taylor in her memoir Leaving Church and made popular again recently by Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy who says: "Even though most of us can easily articulate what’s killing us, few of us pay attention to what’s giving us life." Taylor asks the question: What is saving your life right now?
In the midst of countless little deaths every day (the convenience of driving a car or easily getting around a city, the access to outdoor space to play, the access to friends and family, the freedom to write in a busy season of language school), I have to stop living in the grief of it all and finding little joys, things that are giving me life, saving my life.
This week it's been as simple as taking a few minutes to have cha at a roadside stand with friends from language school, choosing to not study for a night and watch a couple hours of TV with my husband instead, finishing that Easter watercolor so that there was something of the season in our home, listening to Elevation Worship's Do It Again on a loop, and making myself get out of the house and go to a church service in the local language. I didn't understand many words but I raised my hands to the beautiful beating of the drum and the chaotic and heavenly sound of a roomful of voices lifted in prayer all at the same time. I felt closer to God at that moment than if I'd known every word that had been uttered that night. It was not just choosing to do those things but stopping to notice them, to relish in them and thank God for them.
Today when the darkness feels like it is choking out the life that is but a tiny seedling, I have to make the choice again and again. Will I let this hope be smothered or beat back the darkness? Will I choose to let joy grow?
Light filtered in the bay window, glinted on the freshly painted walls. I stood in the dining room of our first home, still in awe that it actually belonged to us. Five months pregnant with our second baby, I set out to clean every surface and set up each room just perfectly for our new arrival.
But the dining room table that had belonged to my mother-in-law didn’t fit in this shiny, new space. Thirty years of life had made deep scars in the surface of the table. The once beautiful dark wood now had deep gouges and dings, marring the whole look of the room.
I was thrilled when my dad offered to resurface the table, putting a new coat of paint over markings left by three children and the grandchildren that followed. My dining room would look perfect.
In our do-it-yourself culture, where those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps are celebrated, we don’t talk about it. Maybe there are whispers in a bedroom or across the table. But in our sanctuaries, in our living rooms, in our families?
Certainly it’s taboo to talk about in public, lest we be accused of judging others. Lest we appear as less than the shiny, perfect people we want others to see. We don’t name it sin. We don’t air it in front of others.
We hide the blemishes, gloss over them with another coat of paint. Those dings and gouges in our souls don’t fit into the glossy appearance we are supposed to keep...
Come to my dining room today. Sit a while and let's talk about the condition of our souls. Do you need restoration? Read on.
I have lived with a caged heart, raging inside of me like a bird beating its wings against the bars that confine it. I know Psalm 32.3-4 to be true because I lived it - "When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your heart of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat."
There was a sin that I held hidden in my heart for nearly two yeas. It was a rebellion against God and against someone I had loved. I reasons that since it was in the past and our relationship had changed, I didn't need to open an old wound. I knew in my heart that omission was a lie and I wouldn't be whole until I spoke the truth.
I confessed to God but there was still a heavy burden on my heart. I tried to put it out of my mind. Excuse it. Dismiss it.
The nagging pain in my heart kept coming back like that scab you continue to pick at, hoping it will go away. Only it needs to be mended, healed. I couldn't get the guilt out of my head. I couldn't pray anymore without it tugging at the corners of my mind, coming between me and God.
I finally choked back the shame I felt and wrote the letter I never wanted to pen. I showed the darkest parts of me to a person I had tried to present a holy front to.
I mailed that letter and though there was a twinge of fear at what he would think in the pit of my stomach, my heart finally felt free. I felt forgiven. Even though God had already forgiven me, the weight on me, His hand of discipline, demanded I make it right by the truth.
I later sat at dinner with this man and had a hard conversation about the past, and a hopeful one about the future. It wasn't easy but it was right. I could now live out Psalm 32.5: "Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, 'I will confess my rebellion to the Lord,' and you forgave me! All my guilt is gone."
The raging inside subsided. My heart was quiet again.
Whenever I feel a disquiet groaning again in my soul, I try to remember that time in my life and ask God to show me unconfessed sin that holds my heart captive. I know I will only experience freedom and a quiet heart when I am willing to confess.