“I just wanted you to know I hear you. I see you.”
I received this voice message from a friend in response to a long, rambling complaint I sent the day before.
“In walking with people through grief and loss, I’ve recognized how powerless I am to rescue anyone, said Aubrey Sampson. “And I’ve been surprised (and humbled a bit) that people rarely look at me for rescuing. Rather, they’re desiring to connect, to be validated that their suffering or the injustice they are facing hasn’t somehow disqualified them from personhood,”
In that moment, I felt like a person again because I knew someone—even if separated by two time zones from me—saw me.
I could identify the feelings of sadness, anger, worry, and general angst. I could name a laundry list of circumstances in my and my extended family members’ lives. But I couldn’t let myself really pull apart the factors that had multiplied to equal this current spiral into infinite sadness.
With all the moving variables of emotions, there was but one constant: shame.
How could I ramble off an assortment of hardships when others I love have lost so much more? How could I complain about not having enough when not having enough meant being unable to afford a vacation for my kids for spring break? For others, not having enough meant not putting bread in the hands of their children every day.
I felt the anger at myself deep in my core, multiplying the hurt.
I was comforted by my friend’s assurance that I was not alone, but it didn’t help the guilt I allowed to seep into the ground of my being. It tripled the worthlessness that howled in my ears.
Another notification dinged on my phone. She proceeded to name issues she knew to be present in my life— ones I hadn’t mentioned the day before. Ones that ran deeper than the kick in the gut of a hefty financial blow or the frustration of parenting-working-schooling life that never seemed to add up to enough.
She knew the anniversary of the loss I faced, the loved one just out of surgery, the parent in pain, the inability to help loved ones drowning, and the struggling child. She named the yawning unknowns I faced and the dreams I’d lost.
“It’s a lot,” she said. “Anyone would be struggling under the weight of all that. It’s like you are a pillar holding the weight of your own life and the lives of everyone around you, and you’re cracking under the weight. Really, it’s so much,” she echoed. I didn’t quite believe her yet as I continued to weigh my pain against that of others in this always-lose game of, “whose suffering is worse?” But I tried...
Despite the gentle sound of the waves and the cool evening breeze descending over the lake, I couldn’t help but feel disturbed. The sunset over the Sea of Galilee should have soothed my soul, but my mind wouldn’t stop turning the story over and over.
I sat there on the eastern shore recalling the day and the place that had so rocked me. Not far from the quiet Kibbutz where my tour group was staying, we had trekked up into the Golan Heights. Tucked away in the hills were the remains of a Byzantine monastery, identified by tradition as the place where Jesus performed what is called “the Miracle of the Swine” or “the Healing of the Gerasene demoniac.”
It was a story in the Bible I had never given much thought to, tucked away among the other miracles Jesus performed around Galilee. But that day, standing among the ruins, the story came alive for me. That night I lay in a hammock listening to the sounds of celebrations drifting across the water from the far shore. The western shore, the Jewish side of Galilee in Jesus’ time, was alive that night with music and lights.
Change, even for the better, is never uncomfortable or easy. Restoration comes at a cost.
Here on the Gentile side, all was quiet. It would not have been those many years ago, as the sounds of the tormented man echoed out across the waves. The disciples would have heard his cries from the other shore, that strange man in the foreign city. Surely there were stories about him circulating. A good Jew wouldn’t dream of crossing to the other side of the Jordan into that unclean, strange land on a normal day. But with a madman roaming around the tombs—unthinkable.
Yet, that is exactly what Jesus did, his disciples in tow. He initiated their journey to the other side, rowing into the storm and knowing what would await them on the other side: a naked, screaming man who said he was possessed by a legion of demons.
As soon as the man saw Jesus, he knew something the disciples did not just moments earlier when Jesus calmed the storm. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me,” he cried out. He knew precisely what kind of power Jesus held, and he wanted nothing to do with it.
The people in this area were ruled by fear and superstition. The tombs were believed to be the home of demons, which is why the man was there—not in the Decapolis, the ten Greek cities directly to the South, where he was from. The caves around the tombs were a refuge for people who had been cast out by society. He was utterly broken, an outcast, the lowest of low. Jesus sought him out with the power to heal. Yet he begged Jesus not to torment him any further. Why?
Change, even for the better, is never uncomfortable or easy. Restoration comes at a cost...
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...
“No one is excused from the conversation. Instead of hate, we choose subversive joy and indefatigable faith. We hope for another way, for new paths forward, for healing truly to come to our land.” – Cara Meredith
For a long while I’ve excused myself from the conversation on racial justice in America. It’s not my place, I said as a white woman. I don’t want to overstep my bounds.
Living in the Middle East and South Asia, I involved myself in learning from my Muslim neighbors. Working in non-profits coming alongside local workers who are leading the way in issues of poverty, slavery, women’s rights, education—these were my chosen conversations. I spent my time immersed in the needs of the majority world, so I excused myself from taking a look in my back yard.
For the last year I have lived outside of the US and watched from afar as old divisions grow wider and discussions grow hotter and more hateful. And this feels like my life as a whole—watching from afar, not truly engaging.
But I have been watching. I’ve quietly widened my social media circles, the books I am reading, and the news sources I am taking in. I’ve written for a couple years for a magazine whose primary demographic is women of color and I have poured over the articles by the other writers, wanting to know. Wanting to listen.
Cara Meredith is one of those voices I’ve been hearing at the periphery of my life for the past few years, nudging me—telling me just silently watching isn’t enough. We met through common online writing circles and I’ve watched her journey and growth as a smart, engaging woman who is leveraging her voice and experience to call us all into new depths.
You see, Cara is married to a man whose father who had a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. She is a white woman who has chosen to walk into the conversation of race, not just out of love for her husband and sons, but because she has seen that it is her journey too. I knew all this when I read her new book The Color of Life: A Journey Toward Love and Racial Justice. I was ready to listen some more, to hear her story. What I didn’t expect was to see that it is my story, too.
I read her book in large gulps, enraptured. I was taken in by her personal story but then I was hooked by the history as well. As Meredith fell in love with her husband, she learned about the legacy of his father. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard the full story of this incredible man, James Meredith. Maybe his life was a blip on the radar of black history month, but his was never a story that I’d truly known before. I was ashamed of this.
“For too long I refused to let myself see history’s one-sided affair, listening to and learning from the stories of my past, stories told from the point of view of the oppressor,” says Meredith. These words echoed in my heart for weeks.
At the same time I was reading in The Very Good Gospel the account of a racial reconciliation pilgrimage Lisa Sharon Harper had taken part in. One of their stops was in Dahlonega, Georgia where the American government began passing laws in 1828 to strip the Cherokee of their land when gold was discovered in the north Georgia mountains. This led the way to the removal of “nearly forty-six thousand Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole men, women and children. The illegal deportation cleared twenty-five million acres of land for white settlement, mining, and ultimately slavery.” I vacationed regularly in these very mountains as a child where some of my ancestors lived (and I know that some of my forefathers were, indeed, slaveholders). This was another story I’d never been told yet this is part of my history, my story.
As I thought about what I would say about The Color of Life, I knew it had to be my story. Another reason I’ve stayed out of the conversation is a common excuse: fear. What if I say something offensive? What if I make everything worse for people who have already been so wounded? But really, it is self-preservation. What if I am embarrassed? What if my own bias and ignorance shows?
Like Cara Meredith bravely told her family’s story and how she has journeyed closer toward reconciliation because she realized her place in the bigger picture, all of us have a place here in this story of our shared humanity. I hope I can find a place next to people like Meredith who say “I cry out against the chains of oppression because although we are equal in our status in human beings, we have not all been found equal in the eyes of society and in the eyes of each other.” All of us need to do what we can to understand our history…and our way forward toward truly seeing the image of God in all people.
If you aren’t sure where you fit in this conversation, if you aren’t sure why all this talk about race right now even matters—read The Color of Life. Meredith weaves theology and history into a compelling story with the humility and compassion of a mother struggling how to understand how racism will impact her own sons. This book is a place to start and especially if you are a white brother or sister, I hope it is a start indeed. We have a long way to go and we can only do it together.
Where do you consider yourself in the conversations happening today around racial justice? Where would you like to be? What obstacles do you need to overcome to get there? What motivates you to dive deeper?
How have stories you have heard shaped your views of racism? Do you feel you need to shift or broaden the narratives you are taking in?
Utterly alone, you don’t believe anyone could understand the way you feel. Lost, you don’t know how you’ll ever find your way back. And then…a friend calls at just the right time. A song says the words you needed to hear. You read a line in a book that might have been taken out of your very journal. Suddenly, you know there is hope. You aren’t alone. If someone else has felt this way and found their way forward, so can you.
Liz Ditty’s book God’s Many Voices: Learning to Listen, Expectant to Hear was my friend calling to console me, the song to my heart, the “me too” moment that spoke hope into my weary soul. Though I’ve had the joy of meeting Liz, fellow Redbud Writer’s Guild member, in real life it was through the words of her book that I realized just how valuable her voice is to anyone longing to see God more clearly.
I was thrilled to support a fellow author in her book launch and get an early peek at her new book. But I mostly wanted to read it hoping it would meet me in the way I so desperately needed. I knew Liz to be dynamic speaker and spiritual director and I so longed to hear from someone like her that would walk with me to the Father I felt like I had lost touch with.
“It’s possible to seek God’s voice but not seek God. We won’t find Him if we are moving toward our own goals and desires and trying to see Him there. God is who He is, and if we want to hear Him, we have to come to Him in our own broken desire to love Him. Listening should be an act of love, not a grasp for certainty. We have to move only toward Him and His love, not toward His wisdom or blessing or direction.” - Liz Ditty
My early life of faith was lived out in an evangelical tradition that places a heavy emphasis on hearing God through Scripture. I am so grateful for a tradition that instilled a hunger for God’s Word in me. But over the years I’ve been exposed to many other traditions—from the Episcopal church of my college years to the Coptic Church of my time in Egypt, the traditional church of South Asia to the Benedectine Monastery where I discovered the daily office, and the contemplative prayer of fellow authors and friends. I’ve learned that we have many ways of attempting to hear God and I feel like I’ve dipped my toes in the water of many disciplines but never gotten very far in actually listening through any.
In the wilderness I have found myself in after our international move, I knew God hadn’t stopped speaking and I was trying to listen. I just wasn’t hearing anything. I kept going back to the ways of my youth – read more, study more, try harder. Nothing. For nine months now a still voice has been whispering, “Listen. Just be still.”
As I read God’s Many Voices all those How is Liz in my head? moments showed me this: In all my movement and all my attempts to know the answers of why I was drowning in depression, how to get out, and what should come next—I was looking for answers, for a fix. But not for God.
The book gives you opportunities to sit with what you’ve learned and practice it in various sections, reminding you that God’s voice doesn’t just speak through Scripture. Liz focuses on God’s voice as He speaks through Scripture – yes. But also through Prayer, Community, Our Daily Lives, Coincidences and Interruptions, in Beauty All Around Us, and in Desire, Waiting, and Silence.
“If you are wandering in the meantime of waiting, God is with you. He has something tender to say to you here and a profound purpose for what may seem like wasted time. The promised land will be sweet, but God is not withholding good things from you now. He has good things for you, and He is doing good things in you, right there in the wilderness of waiting.” - Liz Ditty
Maybe you are in a season where God is speaking to you more through nature or through a community. Maybe you are growing and hearing from God or perhaps you too feel a bit lost. And reading Liz’s book has reminded me that all of those places are okay. We all have seasons of listening well, of not really hearing, of silence, and of hearing God’s voice differently. It’s the ebb and flow of life and growth and, I believe, also the creativity and diversity of our God. Right now I am in am a wilderness wanderer, telling myself daily that God is with me in it and holding onto words of people like Liz who tell me He is working even when I don’t see it.
Wherever you find yourself, I know you could use a helping hand to guide you. I encourage you to pick up God’s Many Voices and keep listening. Because I believe if you do, you can expect to hear. I look forward to hearing what God has to say to you.
Listening with you,