Trying to Fit Into Someone Else’s Clothes
You know that feeling, the burning desire to make it fit even though you know it won’t? You wiggle; you inhale, and you try just one more time.
Here I sit, a bundle of fur warming my side, basking in the warm glow of the Christmas tree—and it all looks picture-perfect. Yet, I’ve always felt like I inhabit the fringes of life.
Even as I round middle age, I feel like I fit awkwardly into this life I’ve worn for decades like a pair of hand-me-down jeans a little too long for my short legs and too tight around my wide hips.
This year I’ve spent a lot of time exploring who I really am, peeling away the layers of false selves I have worn over the years. We all put them on, that baggy coat to hide our flaws. That glamorous dress to divert their eyes from our insecurities.
Maybe it’s the don’t-care attitude I’ve heard we take on in our later years. Perhaps it’s the liminal space of being back in graduate school and wrestling with a twenty-year-old calling to ministry that has seen its share of detours, diversions, and dead-ends.
Either way, I’ve been throwing off the distortions and trying to find the right fit. And for the first time, I’ve realized I’m not the only fringe-dweller in the spaces I long to find a home.
Getting Naked In Front of Strangers
When I’m nervous and out of place, I ramble. I feel compelled to fill the awkward silence with a lumbering monologue instead. As anxious as I was, I spent a lot of time listening this year instead.
Forced to slow down and seek the wisdom of others as I entered the discernment process with my church, I found myself with others in the same uncomfortable limbo as myself. I was one of a dozen people who felt compelled to pursue a possible journey into ordained ministry. Thrown together in this vulnerable process, we stripped down to our barest selves in front of strangers.
We sat in Zoom rooms and conference rooms, the offices of our church leaders, and in intimidating interviews with Commission on Ministry members. We told our raw and unfiltered stories, with trembling and a few tears.
Trying Jesus on For Size
For me, it was a year of uncovering layers of my complicated history with the Body of Christ. I was a child who didn’t know who the Jesus figure that came out in manger scenes was. I knew there was something important about him and longed to know more. The youth group of my teens nurtured me and then discarded me like an ill-fitting pair of pants.
I was introduced to versions of Jesus who wanted me to do all the right things and ones who loved me like a best friend. There were ones who kept records of my sins in heavenly file cabinets, waiting to judge my failings—and ones who held no record of wrongs. I did my best to decipher who Jesus was when I wasn’t even sure who I was.
I thought I had it all figured out by the time I was on staff at the mega-church I’d spend a large portion of my life in. On the outside, I looked like a perfectly-polished Christian. Husband and two kids, the van, the Christian preschool, and obligatory Insta-worthy birthday parties. I looked just like everyone else so that meant I belonged, right?
Never mind the uneasiness that rattled around my soul, the lack of connection with the Jesus I longed to know intimately, and the theological issues I thought would go away if I ignored them.
It was a beautiful place; it was just not the place I belonged. And I knew it and pretended not to. It was easier that way—until it wasn’t. Until my desperate, dry, lonely soul cried out to move from the fringes to the place where the Spirit could live and move in me...
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I was falling behind, dragging them down. I glimpsed it on their little faces—the fear gathering in their eyes, the shock at seeing their mother so vulnerable. Wasn’t I supposed to be the strong one, always the one taking up the lead? The tears started to roll down my five-year-old son’s cheeks and my heart shattered.
We were in the middle of an exercise illustrating what leaders or counselors would call the transition model. As part of a training experience for our upcoming international move to work for a non-profit, we found ourselves navigating a wobbly obstacle course of yoga balls and uneven chairs, a literal representation of the transition bridge that anyone going through major change experiences.
My family of four was tied to one another with cords and then connected to other people who represented the fears that might hold us back. That one person over there was our family that remained back home or the person who critiqued our move around the world. Another personified our doubts, like the devil sitting on our shoulders whispering lies in our ears.
As the ropes tightened and we tried to cross the makeshift bridge, they yanked us away from each other. My husband, Lee was in the lead, already to the last chair, the one that finally sat on level ground. He pulled Nadia toward him but Aidan was stuck between the precariously placed balls and a chair teetering on two legs. I was in the rear, floundering to keep up and barely hanging on to the edge of Aidan’s jacket.
Everything we had been learning about how difficult transition could be was being enacted in our very bodies. Each fear I had about our family being ripped apart by taking our kids to Bangladesh seemed to come true in those moments. When we finally reached a stable place where we could hold onto one another, I pulled them tight and Lee paused to pray. As the tears fell, he asked God to give us strength and to remind us to hold onto Jesus and to each other amid the instability.
I cannot count the times in the past five years that I have remembered that moment, felt that same fear, and longed for steady ground. The amount of transitions we’ve crossed over as a family since that day has been overwhelming: five moves, life in a developing country, crushed dreams, family health crises, the shaky return to Georgia, unemployment, anxiety, depression, changing churches, starting new careers mid-life, kids stepping into adolescence amid reverse culture shock, and the losses and grief of a global pandemic. It’s been one long bridge spanning the expanse of half a decade of our lives.
A well-known model of the internal battle we go through during major change comes from William Bridge who outlines the endings, neutral zone, and new beginnings we experience in the process. I disagree with the neutrality the language he gives to the middle stage implies; that middle ground is the yawning abyss we experience when we are plunged into the unknown. It is chaotic and destabilizing; there is nothing neutral about it.
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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...
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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