Africa, Genital Mutilation, Sexual Abuse, Training, Healing
Beauty and the Bitch book, control, redemption, restoration, femininity
black forest fire
Breaking Bad, drugs, Resurrection, hope
Conversations Journal Post
Friendship, Community, Limitations
grief, suffering, heaven
heaven, family, ryan steward, death, hope
transformation, grace, women's issues, Christianity, publishing
“Sometimes she rages, sometimes she simply raises an eyebrow.”
And so it begins.
Since posting a blog titled Beauty Trumps Bitch, I have been relieved at the response. As I mentioned, I was nervous. So far the people I have heard from are grateful, and appreciative of a glimpse into the content of the book Beauty and the Bitch. Well, this is from the people I heard from, anyway.
If you struggle with the title, I get it. There is a plethora of reasons to struggle. I did. I really don’t want the title of the book Beauty and the Bitch, to get in the way of people reading on, reading in, to the true message of the book, found in the subtitle: Grace for the Worst in Me. My publisher asked me to answer a few simple questions, which might help flesh out my writing process, and the motivation behind this book. Here are the questions, and my responses:
1. Why I am writing the book
I stood in the bathroom, drying my hair one day after a disheartening few weeks in my marriage. I felt so ‘less than myself,’ discouraged that I couldn’t quite find any sense of beauty as I tried to shake off a hardness that felt so, well - justified. I had not been raging, at least not in obvious ways. But I had been cold, withholding myself, like a little girl who tucks a treasure under her arms with a not for you look on her face.
I love my marriage. I’m a marriage counselor; and one who works toward inner transformation rather than from tips and techniques. I work with women’s hearts – married and single - all the time. I live in a community that values living authentically, from a whole heart. For over thirty years I’ve been given the most exceptional resources Christendom can offer. I’ve been mentored by the best, believed in and known by really great leaders, and I am grateful for a trustworthy, true reputation.
Blah, blah, blah.
As I stood before that mirror, I knew I was being a chronic bitch.
It wasn’t obvious this time (like the time I threw a cup). But it doesn’t take rage to make us ugly. As I have said to clients and friends, “Sometimes she rages, sometimes she simply raises an eyebrow.”
I literally put the blow drier down on the counter with the realization that, if other people could view how I was being in my home, I would not be thought of as beautiful. If a video of some of my recent behavior was played on 20/20, the viewers would think to themselves, “What a bitch.” This realization made me sad. It was at that moment that Jesus said to me, “I don’t think my love has changed. Is there grace for the worst in you?” It was so kind. So simple. It melted me. In that moment I knew I would write this book. I was certain other beautiful women become discouraged with the dark underbelly of their lives. I wanted to disarm the shame.
The reality is: True beauty comes and finds us and laughs that we were looking the other way. We as women have brilliant ways of looking the other way. Control. Fear. Rage. Pride. Addiction. Deadness. These giants rise in our hearts perpetually, surfacing in sophisticated ways when we are able to hide them and in humiliating ways when we can’t. And generally those tendencies get augmented by our stories and the scenes we have lived which make living from these unlovely and destructive places seem more than justified.
The good news is: Fear can be trumped by love, pride trumped by the hilarity of God, shame trumped by mercy, deadness trumped by creativity, rage trumped by kindness, and the demands of addiction trumped by gratitude and rest—if a woman discovers grace, and its power to release her truest beauty. Beauty will win if she can be caught off guard by Jesus, who celebrates her even though she doesn’t trust him.
2. Why you should read Beauty and the Bitch: Grace for the Worst in Me
If you are a woman, you should read this book if you love being beautiful, but are weary of trying hard to get there or maintain it.
If you are a man, it is not likely you will give this book to your wife or girlfriend as a gift. “Honey, I really love you and would love for you to read a book about how you are so much more than the bitch you become” probably is not the greatest avenue to intimacy (smile). I can tell you, though, that the greatest proponents of the book so far have been men. Men – all men – live with hard women sometimes. Even the most glorious, godly, compelling women disintegrate into sullen, controlling, unlovely beings sometimes. It seems good to admit this, to remember that the deeper things can’t be eradicated, even by the worst season of bitchiness or the worst effects of long-term hardness born of unhealed places. There’s hope for the women in your life because Beauty – the Life of Christ – is always accessible, waiting there to love her and release her back into who she really is, if she is willing to stumble home.
3. Why I am writing for Bondfire Books:
Oh my, this has been a process. I wrote a good portion of this book a few years ago, and my publishing agency (Alive Communications) was excited about its core message about the Life of Christ being inextinguishable in the heart of women whose lives have been ransomed by the love of God. Our zeal took a hit, though, when we received the same response back from just about every Christian publishing house: “We love the book, we love your writing, and we think this is an important message, but we can’t move ahead with this title.” I was in a dilemma, because I did not want to die on a hill named ‘bitch.’ We played around with different titles for a while “A Woman’s War,” “Beauty and the Beast” – no, wait, that’s been taken - ! - , “Beauty Wins” All the titles we played with were fine, but there a sense that we were trying to placate, to convince ourselves that reality isn’t as bad as it can be. It remained true: there is just no other word for who we become. There no other word, at least, for the meaning it has taken on in our culture (not the tender original moniker for female/mother animals). And there is no greater hope than knowing that the worst of us, the ugliest realities, can’t erase the deeper good stuff God wants to surface in us, despite ourselves.
The Christian publishing world is driven strongly by the acceptance of books into certain bookstore chains, which would not carry a book with this title. The shelves are filled with what I call ‘Christian culture books.’ Lots of books about ‘how to live a Christian life.’ But I have needed an internal transformation, change from within, not something pressuring me to become a better me. We need honest conversations, about our honest need. A ‘christian culture lifestyle’ isn’t attractive to most folks not familiar with the gospel of the beautiful kingdom of Jesus Christ. A heart changed, transformed and grateful to be in that kingdom – that is attractive. In addition, I have a strong visceral reaction to censorship which has the label ‘Christian’ slapped on it and is therefore sanctioned. I weary of the word Christian being used as an adjective.
So I kept looking. Truly not wanting to push the title, but also believing the content of the book holds life. Thankfully, Patton Dodd and Bondfire Books were unflinching with the title, and responsive and encouraging about the content. I’m grateful for the ethos of Bondfire – one that is author driven, very engaging and respectful of their process. They give room to both the author, the writing process. They desire to let the book become what it wants to become, not forcing it into a certain template, length, or tone. Beauty and the Bitch: Grace for the Worst in Me needs that kind of freedom in order to be written well.
It was a little early to light candles. I looked around the room and enjoyed the muted afternoon sunlight coming through the French doors. I liked it. There was a familiar comfort, this moment a few hours before a large group of dinner guests arrived to celebrate Christmas. I was happy with the clean hardwood floors. That could seem shallow perhaps, except that I love preparing for guests. I smelled the subtle scent of pine, and spied the bags and candles for the luminarias near the front door, ready to be assembled. I imagined the white lights on the Christmas tree at dusk, no longer hidden by daylight. There was still much to do, but in this moment I stopped to envision each person around the table, discovering and enjoying each other. A group of gold was coming to our home - funny, authentic, thoughtful, selfless folks. All so different. I couldn’t wait to see them.
I had been preparing food for days. I felt like Babette in Babette’s Feast, without the lottery. Visions of each course had rumbled around in my head, found their way into the freezer, and then near the oven on this day. I enjoyed every moment. I had been weary this year, going into the holidays, after a heavy event calendar. But this feast was going to be the final act before a nice long intermission over Christmas. And we had much to celebrate.
The morning had been a tough one. The day before, school children -little ones - had been gunned down like prey. The frayed fringes of goodness in our culture dangled chaotically. And not unlike Legolas’ statement in The Lord of the Rings, “Something stirs in the East,” every good heart had an awareness of evil, pressing in, intentional. Because of this, the thought of gathering for the party brought a balm. I imagined all of us hesitant to raise a glass with fervor, but we surely wanted to raise a glass in solidarity; a glass that stated that beautiful things cannot be erased, that there really is a table set before us in the presence of our enemies.
I moved toward the serving cabinet to get utensils, when I noticed I had missed a call. I placed the cutlery at the place settings, and wandered to the phone. My sister had called.
What is it that tells the heart all is not well, the intuition, the knowing? It was the Spirit of Jesus. Be prepared. I listened to my sister’s rended voice on a message, and I knew. I called and she quickly picked up, crying as I’ve never heard. “Ryan is dead.”
The words tumbled like an avalanche of heavy stone into my center, crushing it. My nephew Ryan’s face, his essence, was immediately before the eyes of my spirit, scenes from his life flickering past in rapid succession, landing on a walk we had with him by the Rio Grande in warm winter sun, just three weeks prior. I envisioned my sister’s eyes, and I crumpled to the floor.
I will not describe the words pouring from my sister’s heart. They are sacred words, words of passionate affection, longing and knowledge of her son. They cascaded from a heart shattered like glass. And I cannot describe the words that rose up in me to meet her words. Our cry rose to heaven, with him.
The party, the feast, the preparation, the pleasure, vanished into a fog. The room was swallowed up in shock. The warming oven, the bubbling cider, stopped. It did not dare move. Ryan was gone, and the rest of the world went silent.
The next nine hours were a heightened blur. Calls to cancel the party. Hurried packing. A call to our brother. A call to arrange care for the dogs. Steve and I drove South to New Mexico in the dark. Friends derailed from the party gathered instead to pray for my heartbroken family, and called along the way. The miles were like molasses, and we crawled through a high desert blizzard.
Ryan’s face was all I could see. I saw his wry three year-old face, certain even then of his attire, down to his choice of socks. I saw the slight tilt of his head, as his twenty five year-old penetrating gaze quietly inquired of me, curious about Steve’s software, my counseling work, our family. I felt his creative soul, saw his paintings, heard his writing. I saw the familiar, familial pain deep in his eyes, the cost of bearing a sensitive spirit in a harsh world. I saw his glimmering smile. How handsome.
We arrived. What I saw in the eyes of those I love can’t be articulated. It is something I never want to see again; looks not intended for this world.
The week spiraled into the realm of details. Cemetery plot. Funeral plans. An endless stream of kind friends, and some unhelpful Job’s counselors. Amazing how many people you want to slug, during grief.
It is hers to tell, and human words are paltry, but in the middle of it all my sister was given a vision. Not a wish, not a fantasy, not something she created - but a vision. It was a mother’s knowledge, yes, but much more than that. Jesus brought to her an understanding, a sight, into what Ryan now is, what he knows, what he’s doing. I wish that every human being could watch her eyes as she tells of it, the excitement, the joy, the pride. She saw Ryan, fully creative, his artistry and brilliance pouring from him, unabated. He is having so much fun. He is delighted at what he is accomplishing. Nothing is blocking him. He’s Ryan, fully, finally, Ryan.
Death does nothing but take. It removed the warmth of Ryan’s body, his strong, athletic arms, his scent. It removed the ability to touch him, hold him, to see clearly his eyes. It took his parent’s dreams of their son’s career, life with God, the beautiful children he would have brought into this world. Death interrupts and attempts to mock, tries to proclaim itself king. It is horrible, in all its collateral damage.
But it does not get to have a final sting.
Some of the most beautiful words ever penned came from Paul, whose life had been completely changed by Jesus. He once hated Christians; killed them. But he became the man who said, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” He’s not talking about some religious victory, some moral high ground. And he’s not talking about some ethereal cloud of disembodied spirits, rallying around the throne of God, like floating cherubs on clouds. No, the reality is “our bodies are buried in brokenness, but will be raised in glory. Our bodies will be transformed.” When you hear the term ‘good news,’ think mostly about the force that destroys death, that will renew us, deliver us into a new heaven, a new earth , a great party, a feast – literally – full of faces we’ve longed to be with, the warmth of hearth, fantastic wine, delicious food, the best dancing music, unencumbered by any hint of shame or shadow.
All of those things that keep us muted, covered over, slightly blocked – will be gone and we can enjoy being ourselves.
In fact, that is what Jesus is most excited about: “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. Look, I am making everything new!” (Rev. 22
We will – finally – be his people. Meaning, we will be who we were intended to be.
And we’ll see Jesus as he really is. Finally we’ll see the one we were getting to know, to varying degrees, the one we suspected was real midst the ridiculous counterfeit renderings of him. It will be his land, after all. He rules it, and proclaims that we get to be ourselves, finally ourselves.
I want to ride horses with him, thanking him for keeping my heart alive through all the times I wanted to despair. And I want to play with children. A young woman I know wants to talk to him a long time, giving him a chance to explain some things to her. I think of myriad girls and boys enslaved in the sex trade who will, for the first time, be able to even think about what they want. We’ll be so glad that we were restored and made new, that we won’t think about worship. We’ll worship by being ourselves.
This stuff is either real, or it is not. I am telling you, it is real. There’s a party coming, and we get to show up as ourselves.
We drove back North to Colorado, to our house, too soon it seemed. The place settings were still on the table, the cider on the stove, food thrown haphazardly in the freezer. There were remnants everywhere of an intended party.
And that’s where we find ourselves. Waiting for the party to be restored. All good parties point to it, give us an idea of it. Ryan’s there. Mom and Dick are there. Brent, Jim, and Mark are there. I can’t wait to see how my mom is helping Jesus tell people who they really are with a glint in her eye. I can’t wait to see Dick exploring the mountains and making people laugh. Brent is enjoying the best cigar and fishing the sweetest river.
I can’t wait to see what Ryan has been working on. I can’t wait to see the pleasure in Jesus’ eyes as he invites his boy to show him, and us, his latest creation, something that, as his dad says, ‘would make the flowers sing.’
What a great thing to do before sitting down for some really good food.
I threw a cup.
There, I said it. Actually, I think I had better say it again, because I do not believe it as I read the sentence. I threw a cup. It was my momentum veritatis, and the milk splattered on the wall was witness to this truth, my foolishness.
And Steve was witness, of course. He was both witness and object of this hardness. I looked up and saw in his eyes something that, truly, I would never want to see. His eyes, though angry from our argument, held a bewildered disappointment. He was in disbelief. It killed me to see it. This was not the woman he married. I was not the woman I am. I was an absolute bitch.
There's no other word for it. I could call it childish, I suppose, but that is too anemic. I could say I was ‘wound up’ or that I lost my temper, or I could find myriad other ways to tone down the abject meanness of it, like we do, when we want to hide. The fact is, I was in a hot rage. I can tell you that it was a triggered moment for me (which is accurate, and a fairly important concept, by the way, for any of us who have known trauma – that would be all of us). But the fact remains: all through that day, through a long series of exchanges with Steve, I had been picking, prodding, complaining. And bitch upon bitch hours in a day cascade into class five rapids of bad.
Thankfully Steve remembers who I am. I don’t want to tread on that, of course, but - hush - hallelujah. He meets my controlling nature with strength, while still remembering who I really am. Life with Jan includes crazy cup moments simultaneous with drinking deeply from the admiration I extend to him, in my unconditional acceptance of him. He loves the lighthearted but intentional nature God has crafted in me. He watches, he says, with delight as people come to drink of the beauty Jesus has grown in me. As he tells me this, we delight in it together. I blush a bit, but can enjoy it because we both know how it can disintegrate, even with the raising of an eyebrow.
Somehow Jesus makes the fragile treasure of beauty in our hearts unshakable. Oh, cultivating it takes Conviction. Change. Intentionality. Choices. Turning from Self. Resisting Temptation. But Jesus is the one who is most committed to surfacing the treasure. He loves to surprise us with his personality, his nature. And he loves to show up in my eyes in kindness, surprising me, after I’ve found myself so far from home.
We are not always beautiful. So oh, when we are, all heaven and earth collide to say Amen. And we intrinsically know that the Amen cannot be forced. We grow weary of trying to either “manage the beast” – trying to make her good, or trying to repeat mantras of truth to make her go away. It doesn’t work. Something else has to come and wash over our beast, calming her and eventually replacing her. Unless a woman’s beauty, the very life of Christ within her, rises, then the beast will rise and cause her to feel like there is no beauty in her at all. The wonderful surprise is this: His beauty will always rise.
I love it when I’m there. Can I say it this way: some days I feel like I am the most beautiful woman in the world, and Steve relishes what he receives on those days. But the hidden truth is that on bad days I am also the woman who harps on him over many things he does and the choices he makes about how he will spend his day. I never thought I would be ‘that’ woman, but I am that woman on steroids. I am tempted, as I tell you this, to laugh about it, to make light of it. But I can’t. I am just beginning to see the impact my controlling nature, better said my controlling choices, have on Steve’s heart. If he was not the man he is, loving and strong enough to stand in my way when I’m like that, he would end up feeling only demeaned, emasculated and condescended to. He should. I treat him as if he needs me to think for him. Not exactly what causes a man, or anyone for that matter, to come alive.
You wouldn’t be able to discern it if you came to our home, but I have left a little bit of that splattered milk on the wall. It is a monument of sorts; an Ebenezer, my pile of stones, to the impact of a hard heart.
If all of this sounds too confessional, I understand. But it seems important for us to remember the full story. Our restoration is daily. And our surgeon is skilled at pinpointing the cancer in order to remove it, with kind precision.
I’m writing this as we head into Advent. In fact, I had the privilege of facilitating an Advent Day for a group of women yesterday. It was lovely, a good time, because something bigger, greater, more powerful always rises. The Spirit of Christ, the coming and coming again of Jesus. Without this convicting, releasing, healing power, we’d be a group of plastic Christians, singing songs of joy while our hearts remain sullen, manipulative and fearful. But the true life of Christ comes, so we find ourselves, surprisingly, beautiful. And we wait for even more.
I just read the above to Steve, asking him for his permission to tell the world what he lives with. He said, “Yes, but that is not who I live with.” That’s the point, isn’t it. There’s more beauty there than we know. What good news: Beauty Trumps Bitch.
It is this good news that has me working on a new book, Beauty and the Bitch: Grace for the Worst in Me. It will be published by Bondfire books early next year. I’d be lying to say I’m only excited about it. I’m nervous (not entirely sure I want you to know the truth)! And I struggled with the title, just as some publishers did. But there is just no other word for what we can become. Exploring how the deeper thing, Beauty, always wins…well, I look forward to that.
We (The Allender Center and Ellilta, Women at Risk) have been offering the couneling/trauma portion of a comprehensive training for twelve African practitioners for the past several years. We just returned from a research trip, to gain a greater understanding of what counseling and care practitioners in Africa actually need in working with those who have been sexually harmed, in order for a training center in Addis to be created for this need. Please see theallendercenter.com for thoughts/writings/updates from Dr. Dan Allender, Becky Allender, and Abby Wong - the little team with whom I was so privileged to trek.
The dilemma in trying to write about this, is that even in our own Western hyper-sexualized culture, we don’t talk about what is most sacred, true, worshipful and designed to display the image of God. And even in most therapeutic practices, so little actual story is discovered, meaning so little of the actual assault on a person’s body and the conclusions made in the midst of the harm – the shame, the accusatory whispers of evil which are connected with specific moments in time.
I imagine some of you reading this and thinking, “Seriously? Is all that really necessary, especially for folks who might be struggling more with simply getting a good meal that day?” All I can say is: a body is a body, and a human heart is a human heart. Our research conversations seemed to bear that out. As you read this, you will no doubt believe it to be hyperbole. Perhaps, but in a way similar to Paul’s writings in the book of Acts – describing the impossible always sounds a bit dramatic.
When I left for this research trip, my husband Steve reminded me, ‘You guys (Dan, Becky, Abby, me, other therapists who work in this realm) talk more openly and pursue these realities about sexuality here is our own culture in ways most people never talk about. The barameter is way off in terms of normal conversation.” It was an important reminder that I have been called into a crazy realm. I did not ask to live and work in the realm of sexual harm. So off we went to meet up with other crazy people. I appreciated being pulled aside by Jacob (see Dan’s writings to understand this courageous Nigerian man’s story) who said, “I want to thank you most of all for something you said to all of us a few years ago. You looked around at all of us and said, “You guys are crazy.” He threw his head back with knowing freedom, and said, “It is so true – but we didn’t wanted to admit it. We are crazy. I am crazy. And isn’t it so that God is crazy in the way he works with us.” But the thing is, Jacob and all these African friends live their crazy callings in ways that can cost them their lives, and most certainly their standing in their communities and churches.
The women in my research group were all West Africans. As I fumbled nervously with the microphone, trying desperately to take appropriate notes while timing each interaction, I found my therapeutic soul frustrated. But slowly the momentum built, and it felt safe to dive in. Soon these women did not want to stop. After the allotted research time was completed, they simply did not want the time to end. They had tasted a freedom seldom given, and they wanted to feast. What began to pour out were waters of weighty sorrow. It was too much. It was too much for any heart to bear well, and yet these are the waters they swim in every day.
One woman described the deaths of three young prostitued girls due to AIDS in Chad, young women she described as ghosts. They had been taught a distortion of Inshallah (a surrender to God’s will) such that they had completely resigned into a state of shadow, the attempts to find their hearts, their desires, was like reaching into the mist.
We heard story after story about the assaultive practice of female genital mutilation. The practice is couched in Ethiopia in the thinking that girls must be kept from temptation, so this is only way to preserve her. In Western African cultures the practice seems to flow more from an attempt to simply keep a woman under control. Either way, it was story after story which showed, as Cherry said well, “Evil is smart.” They spoke of needing, at times, to walk the girls and women through actual anatomy charts so they could understand exactly what was done to them, as most of them have never thought it important to know.
Several courageous conversations arose in response to this, and to the teachings on evil’s accusations, and our agreements with evil’s interpretations of our stories. These conversations took my breath, rended me. Genital mutilation is such a direct, frontal assault on God’s beautiful design for a woman to know pleasure. Somehow it never crossed my mind that the practitioners themselves might have experienced this in their own stories. But of course. My goodness, of course. Why would I think differently? Because these are my friends. We’ve traveled a sweet road together, how easy it is to forget that we come into this work because of our own stories. That’s the point of our whole curriculum up to this point. But I still held a refusal to see, to really believe, that those I love would be so harmed. I walked away from those conversations furious. And I walked away so proud of their courage to name, some for the first time, such a direct frontal assault on God’s beautiful design for their lives.
A common theme ran through all of the stories. I had to press and press to see if what I was hearing was accurate, but they assured me it was. In Western Africa, any form of sexual harm is blamed on the victim. This is true for the rape of women, but it even true for children. There is a common thought that men should not be asked to control their desires, so of course the harm occurs. The depth of the ‘this is just how it is’ mentality took the oxygen from the air in the room as it was described.
As you can imagine, I was more than ready to hear about some of the rituals and practices used to heal and restore. It was gorgeous to hear of the prostituted women taken on trips to the beach, where slowly, around the fire, with food, the long, slow process of story telling could begin. Wonderful to hear of the expected war of “don’t make me dream!” in response to visionary conversations of small businesses and education. More wonderful still, to hear of the breaking down of fear as the women came to understand that practices of voo doo and witchcraft had no ultimate hold on their hearts.
On the final day we were tired; we looked like we all had been hit by a truck. I was longing for some Amharic worship (the past few times we had been there, the Women at Risk team had led us all in what seems, to all of us, to be the true worship of heaven). There is a quality to Amharic worship which must be experienced to be understood. I sat for ten minutes while writing this, trying to find something to compare it to. It can’t be done. All the other Africans acknowledge it, revere it. It has been in the culture since before Christ’s birth. It begins very low, a bowing and bending, a humble swaying before a holy God. This is not done as beggars, but as those who acknowlege the presence they are approaching. It cresendos with jumping and hollering and delight, then returns to a quiet, humble gratitude. It is pure, and utterly human.
That’s just it. The staff for Women at Risk are truly human. You can search for the stifling religious spirit, but you won’t find it among them. Many of them rescued from forced prostitution themselves, they are too grateful for that. They have a fluidity about them that the other African practitioners have traveled far to learn from. Their success rate for providing an environment of restoration is 96%, meaning only 4% of the women they work with return to the streets. That is unheard of in any culture. They work with humility, precision, and a deep dependence on the Spirit of God. The most glorious thing was to hear what they asked for. Wonde said, “We need prayer to be able to name more specifically our own shame, so that we will be able to address the shame in the women we serve.” By the time this was expressed, the cost of such a request was utterly clear. It could have been paraphrased” “We need prayer to move against our culture in a way that will cause us to be hated, we need courage to dive even deeper in to the spider web of evil’s accusations against our human hearts, so that we’ll know how to do helpful surgery when freeing others from the web, we need patience to plow into soil so hardened that the earth will shake, literally, when the ground finally gives way....”
One day every tongue tribe and nation around the only truly beautiful Throne. Surely we’ll laugh at the crazy ways we lived, surely we’ll lament the way we assaulted his loving intentions for our sexuality. He’lll wipe our tears, and we’ll dance with Amharic humility and Joy.
How all of this will impact the nature, nuance of the curriculum developed for a training/learnig center in Addis remains to be seen. But we are grateful we had a chance to be instructed by these, the gold of the earth. I’m writing this missive having just been assaulted by a barrage of political ads on CNN. I have returned to a culture of The Bachelorette and Whatever Her Name is Boo Boo (oh, yes.. Honey). How each of our cultures perverts, despises and assaults beauty was immediately seen. I also have been reminded of conversations in the counseling office which show the damaging effects of extreme moralism, the attempts to legislate morality. We may not mutilate, but we shame with a similar need for control and power. The intentions of God get lost so quickly, by all of us.
Coming home on the plane I found myself having flashbacks – literal flashbacks – of story after story after story of trauma my mind and body took in after the Asian Tsunami in Sri Lanka. When those stories surfaced from beneath the stories we ingested during these African conversations, I realized again how much secondary trauma is real. We were just doing research, offering a bit of teaching... right? No. Eden is a distant memory, but a deep memory nontheless. We are not designed for this assaultive, more than fallen place. My body, as all of our bodies, hold these broken stories with deep grief and a sense of not knowing what to do with it. Abby’s beautiful teaching on PTSD and self-care, though familiar, was imperative for me as I headed back into my life in Colorado. I think of beautiful Ugandan Eunice, who described a ritual she has developed as she takes a shower, to literally wash off the stories she is not meant to carry. This frees me to know I must not chide myself for my exhaustion and need for a good, long massage. I will do so, holding my friends, but releasing them, their sorrow, and all we have suffered corporately, to Jesus. He’s the only one big enough to carry it.
A friend of mine died a while back. She took her life.
It’s impossible to capture her wild, flamboyant, exuberant, troubled, thoughtful, generous life. But all of us who gathered for her memorial service tried. We brought bits and pieces, shadows and rumors, of her. We heard her laugh. We recalled her kindness. And we lamented the insidious, heavy visitor that tracked her, catching her, pulling her under. Depression is so cruel.
The service gave me a gift, one I didn’t know I needed. It was the gift of honoring seasons of friendship, and honoring limitations. It was a breeze that slowly unfurled the subtle shame I had been carrying, even as I drove to the funeral. I knew the shame was there, but couldn’t articulate it clearly. During recent years as I stepped into a new era - new marriage, learning and loving my step-daughters, new town, maintaining my calling - I have felt self-focused, unable to keep up with the needs of those with whom I have history, those I genuinely care about. I felt ashamed of my silence, my absence. I suppose this is where shame is exposed as predominantly self-focused or prideful (how could anyone think they could love all people, perfectly?), but when it is born of the conflict with genuine love, it is a bit of a mess.
I loved my friend, and had an intense season with her, years back. Her bellowing laugh filled that season, but also middle of the night calls of despair, doctor visits, relentless prayers, fights for life itself. And then, in a blink, many years went by without much contact. My friend’s death punctuated more than my unplanned silence in her life. It invited a musing about the seeming string of friends I have left behind, friendships untended, not pursued. I say ‘seeming’ because I know the truth about how my heart holds those friends – cherished, with great affection. So how did that fit with being out of touch? I felt sad and justified at once, but with a slight shadow on my face.
The pastor who spoke at the memorial service is someone for whom I have great respect. I paraphrase, but this is what she said: we all did what we could for our friend in our own way, in our own season, we all gave what we could give, we all did our best, and we all failed and none of us failed.
The breeze came. And with it a few reminders that set my heart free.
Community. What a loaded word. The thought of it makes me happy, and makes me want to run. I smile because it is the thing that always makes up for my lack. It makes me want to run because it exposes what I lack. And I make it more than it is supposed to be. Sitting in that memorial service with so many who loved my friend before, during, after, simultaneous to my season with her, reminded me that community is imperative, and saves everyone who is a part of it. She could not have fought her battle without any one of those people. And every one of those people could not have fought, over time, without the others. Our friend’s life fostered that community. God’s love expanded that community. The community was enough, and of course it failed.
Limitations. This is similar, but important. The Hebrew word Shabath is of course the notion of Sabbath. Rest. It has a multi-tiered meaning: ‘cease or desist,’ ‘to stop,’ ‘to take a break.’ My favorite, which will be no surprise, is ‘to celebrate,’ which means to have a party as we admire what we, and God, have created. But there is another tier to the meaning of Shabath: ‘to suffer what is lacking.’ Think about that for a minute. When you think about taking just one day away from all that pulls on you, shabath is exactly what is being asked of your heart. Jesus, in his love, is saying, “Please allow something to be lacking. For just a little while don’t consider yourself imperative to the progress of the world. And don’t consider yourself complete without me.” As Sally Breedlove says, “We find rest in the incompleteness of what is and as we trust what is needed for the future at the proper time.” As I wrote in Listening to Love, I often “refuse to suffer what is lacking , because I figure nothing should be lacking as long as I’m around.” Yeah, no pride there. As I suffer what was lacking in my love for my friend, I find rest.
I still hope to be a better long-term, historical, loyal person. But today I am glad I knew my friend. I love what we had, when we had it. She was my friend in death as much as my friend a while back. I loved her. I am grateful to say I failed, and by grace, I loved her well.
The backlit river was kind, as she can be, so
I strategically found my seat on cool, curved granite to make room for
her to swallow up the sullen shadow which
had encroached into my exuberance– when? - lately. Subtle days or decades, I wasn’t sure.
When had I become that woman on the trail stepping aside
for an entourage of youth, faces ripe with the sap of sexuality, smiling as a recollection of my luster gave way to the
mocking creak in
Wait. When am I the one to say wait.
It’s too fast, I said, aware that even alpine chill did not penetrate
mottled skin as my hand traced
the frigid water. I felt a foreign sorrow,
panic born of gravity. Then!
Peripheral vision is a keen pairing of words, isn’t it? Both happened.
His molasses and chestnut fur – is it fur? – glistened as he showed up to help -
His waddle over river stone
rolled under the shadow of the bridge as he disappeared into what I knew
was the water dark. Gone, I suspected.
Come! A deafening command allowed no choice but to rise from the
tomb, to exit the monument to my shimmering past. Familiar voices, my cloud, these witnesses, said we are so sorry, keep going. Go!
Scrambling, frantic, I exhaled relief at the sight of him. His wake in the glass water so slight, I swear I heard him laugh. He beckoned with buck-toothed humor, pulled me, light-footed in a timeless quest over old-growth wood scattered with red berry bushes, in a serpentine trail along the lake edge until the forest quiet
was pierced with the inextinguishable squeal of a curly blond, pig-tailed, freckled girl.
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I don’t know about you, but I often fast forward through CDs and ipod songs, until I come to rest on my favorite lyrics. Impatient, maybe, but the truth is, I’m mining for treasure. Music has shaped my soul. Major themes; perfect harmonies sustained (sus). Minor chords; which, at times, seemed like they would not resolve… until they came to rest (R). It would not be too strong to say that, in those times, music held the dissonance of my life.
A vinyl record soundtrack in the corner of my bedroom when I was five years old brought the scratchy lyrics “I surmiseyou’ve never seen your eyes, they’re the only thing your eyes can’t see. You’d see them I suppose, with the pupils in your nose, now that sounds logical to me.” This little ditty made me giggle with my sister in our bunk beds. The same was true for You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd by Roger Williams. Oddities like that awakened the comic in this little heart. Later on, Dan Fogelberg’s Netherlands provided a lovely background to peaceful drives through Jemez mountain wildflowers. The harmonies wove themselves in, with delight.
Fast forward to the minor-themed edge of a chaulky, high-desert cliff on a hot Summer afternoon in New Mexico. A heavy cloud of despair, the ‘loneliness birds’ as told by Peekay in The Power of One, had come to rest in my heart. I came very close to driving my little car over the edge into Los Alamos Canyon. Midst a powerful depression, there was no logic to the fact that my dad bought me the little car two days before, in celebration of my high school graduation. In that moment, all I experienced was pain, and I wanted the pain to stop. Evil was waiting, opportunistic. A song from the radio gently penetrated the demonic fugue. It was Matthew Ward’s other- wordly voice singing “like Summer Snow, you were an unexpected sight. A blazing Sun, you came shining in the night. I never could have known…that you’d be coming Home.” The beauty pierced me, allowing healing tears to flow. I decided to live, literally for the God behind the beauty of a song like that.
Fast forward to a young twenty two year-old woman, critically ill on a crooked little cot cramped into the corner of a little hovel filled with love in the Philippines. I had contracted the strain of Dengue Fever which debilitates and often takes lives. The smell of dried fish and eggs were in the air, providing a familiar atmosphere to my delirium. My temperature had spiked to 105 degrees (F) and there was already the odd rumbling of the ‘broken bone disease’ rash. In the hazy fog of fever, I saw Pastor Dalisay and his children creep into the room, then felt them gently lay their hands on me to pray. I saw the children leave, but Pastor Dalisay remained in the corner of the room. I slept. I awakened hours later to find him, still standing there, quietly singing ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow.’ He kept a major key vigil for me through that minor key night. Now, if even a hint of that song hits my ears, my soul soars to the heights of healing and the depth of suffering which is in all of our lives, if we’re honest.
Nkhosi Sikelela Afrika drifts through my mind as I fast forward and envision the hazy, rolling hills of Swaziland, as I returned there following a sobering, naïve jaunt to visit a Zulu friend in the Apartheid Era township of Soweto.
Fast forward a decade to Summer evenings on the family porch of my friend, Brent Curtis, before his sudden death. Trembling aspen danced in a sweet Colorado breeze (a song itself) as we debriefed some of the rending stories of people we were privileged to walk with in our shared counseling practice. The words from David Wilcox’s Show the Way gave us the Larger Story to live in:
In this scene set in shadows like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us,
But its Love who wrote the play
For in this darkness Love will show the way.
Midst the body-strewn, stench of death, Asian Tsunami zone, I took in the vacant eyes of children who held to trees as the wave washed away their parents and homes. Coldplay’s Don’t Panic (“We live in a beautiful world”) somehow drowned out the silence of disbelief. The Spin Doctors’ Little Miss Can’t be Wrong is, well…a humorous call back to me to once again partake in the Lord’s Supper after being a prideful, know-it-all of a wife. Equally, I need A Mighty Fortress is Our God as a re-alignment into strength. Gabriel’s Oboe, the haunting song crafted by a Guarani Indian child in the movie The Mission, carried Steve and I through our courtship and into our wedding. And performed by Yo-Yo Ma, it sent chills unto heaven.
And it is heaven, after all, to which all this points. There we’ll sing a new song, and sing about a New Song: ‘Jesus, You are worthy…with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.’ (Rev 5). The full music in us, there, will confirm what partial music, here, always helped us suspect: this New Song saves our life, brings us to rest, wipes our tears, and carries us up into the crescendo of being loved. If that resolution seems too much, that’s okay. I’m guessing The Blues will be there, too, just to mix things up a bit, keeping us hungry for more.
Early Spring in Colorado can be maddening. A warm day can beckon like a lover, but the invitation is a nervous one; her frost is sure to follow. The offer of fledgling blossoms and birdsong is predictably withheld in the next blanket of snow.
March 27, 2012 was a pristine tease. I had a few free hours before work, and gardening, walking, reading outside were all options. It was gorgeous. But another whim rose in me. A winter film had grown on the windows of our home, and I wanted it gone. I wanted the fractured light to stream in, un-muted. So with the warm temperature cheering me on, I began a chore which I actually really enjoy: washing windows.
I filled my bucket and went around to every window in the house, removing screens, wiping glass, as beads of sweat formed on my brow. I made great progress around the outside and now inside. I felt full, my satisfaction growing. I remember musing on the proverb, “Her arms are strong for her tasks.” I liked it.
I reached for the corner of the highest indoor window, set above our stone fireplace mantle about six feet. I do not remember my foot slipping. I do not remember knocking the rags and cleaners to the floor. I do remember the corner of the heavy, wood coffee table, coming toward me in slow motion, as the full weight of my body fell long to meet it like a heat seeking missile. Just prior to impact, I had a molasses- paced thought, “This is going to change things for a while.”
I have never felt such pain.
I crawled like a broken inchworm across the floor until I found my cell phone. I do not remember, but my husband Steve can tell you of receiving only a whisper into the phone, “Come… home.” I knew something was terribly wrong, but I did not know that I had broken five ribs on one side of my body - three in front, two in back, with one in back broken in two places.
Thus began my altered reality: a three day hospital stay, and six week convalescence. And more opiates than I ever thought I would ingest. I don’t know about you, but I never thought about my ribs, until they made their presence known, shrieking with every breath, every movement. I can tell you this: ribs matter. Each trauma doctor repeated the same mantra: there’s nothing we can do except manage your pain, the ribs have to heal on their own, we can’t bind them in any way for fear of inhibiting your lungs. And this will take a long, long time.
So, I’ve had some time on my hands to think. Even in a drug fog, I could sense some things becoming clarified for me. I offer them, with hope that you’ll never need them.
1. Comparing Suffering Is Not Helpful. To say this was a vulnerable experience would be like saying Victoria Falls is a quaint stream. It was an exercise in trusting the bones to somehow ‘find’ each other again, while they moved with my movement. I slept sitting up. The pain often broke through like a jack hammer. By week four I found myself gripped with fear, wondering if the pain might be present throughout my life. I was mindful of those I know whose bodies have been taken from them; for whom pain is not recoverable. A friend in a wheelchair, soldiers coming home without limbs, a courageous woman who endures chronic pain, the brother of a dear friend as he lived into dying of a brain tumor, my own brother’s skeletal form as he was racked with pain in the last stage of esophageal cancer. But I have learned it is not helpful to compare our own suffering with the suffering of others. If the baseline for our suffering is not the suffering of others, but Eden, then we can be kind to ourselves for the way we, too, suffer in this world. I was reminded of other seasons of my own suffering: the pain of confusion as mom slipped into mental illness, the two years a lethal form of Dengue Fever had me debilitated, and the pain of a broken heart. Remembering their pain, as well as my own, helped me bear it when I could not roll over in my bed. So does this mean that, in our suffering, we are to be self focused? Oh no. The Apostle Paul captures the communal nature of suffering, how the comfort given to us is then meant to be shared when he said, “Jesus comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” My dying brother comforted me as he would quote the book of Isaiah from memory, something he cultivated in the bedridden last days of his life. My friend’s dying brother comforted their family with his humor midst the fearful experience of losing his brain functioning. I don’t know what it will look like, but I have a feeling I’ll comfort more, better, from having to extricate myself from pain medications.
2. You Can't Hide when You Can't Move. Nouwen said, “Entering a private room and shutting the door does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force.” No kidding. And he was referring to the Spiritual Discipline of Solitude, not the forced aloneness of broken ribs! I love being alone. Throughout my life it is in solitude that Jesus has spoken most clearly. But I swear I had no idea the amount of internal chatter that would surface as I was forced into quiet exile. I mentioned being afraid; the truth is, I was gripped with fear. I became aware of how much my thoughts of the future are fear based, rather than presuming the abundance of love which is my inheritance. And honestly I realized how often I feel justified in the big rocks I pick up to throw, even in my mind, because stones are not big enough. Try not moving for a while…and introduce yourself to your need for the communion table.
3. You Cannot Stop Life. Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics are helpful here. The law of the conservation of mass – energy tells us:
“When Einstein discovered the relationship E=mc (in other words that mass was a manifestation of energy) the law was said to refer to the conservation of mass-energy. The total of both mass and energy is retained, although some may change forms. The ultimate example of this is a nuclear explosion, where mass transforms into energy.”
All I will say on this point is: as my life took the form of being still on my bed, the energy inside of me remained the same. And I wanted to explode. But slowly, over time as I simply had to let go, all that energy got transformed into a kind of contentment I cannot explain. Einstein and the Spirit of God, my mass-energy friends.
4. Love hovers over those in pain. Basil, bishop of Caesarea, crafted the first treatise on the Holy Spirit in the latter part of the fourth century. I think he must have felt like a charlatan, trying to bottle beauty. Seriously, how can the Spirit be put into a document? But his thoughts captured the fire that fell on Jesus’ friends and his own enjoyment of utter love, and they originated much from his love of the book of Genesis, where God’s hovering over His creation is shown as loving, fun, and kind. When he returned to the Hebrew language he realized that the Spirit “is like a bird that covers her eggs with her body and by her body’s warmth imparts the vital force that will give them life.” Steve and I have chickens, and they are so sweet as they nestle down on their eggs. Yet Jesus exposes our resistance to that kindness: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God's messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn't let me.” (Matt 23:37). I experienced that hovering. It was the only thing that got me through, even when I fought it because I was mad that I was missing my gardening, gathering with friends, or work with peoples’ hearts. God was kind and often comical; a blanket of healing over my pain and complaints.
5. Only non-self-righteous care helps. We’ve all experienced it. Open up and share a bit of your struggle at your small group, and usually the response is either an awkward changing of the subject, or immediate advice-giving. Annie Dillard would say that’s when we should “put on our crash helmets lest the true God wake up and find us.” But loving is not about cures and advice. The most helpful friend is the one who, as Nouwen says, “can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” Casseroles were welcome. I appreciated those who cleaned my house. But it was when Steve simply sat with me that healed my heart.
6. Pain is horrible, but a gift. Physical pain is awful. The only place it doesn’t exist on this earth is in a colony for leprosy patients: “where people literally feel no pain, and reap horrifying consequences. “ Dr. Paul Brand’s work with leprosy patients in India convinced him that pain truly is one of God's great gifts to us. He was referring to the ability to sense when there is danger. I mean it in the way that Jesus comes to us, so tenderly, in our pain. That is a mysterious gift.
I’m (sort of) coming to believe it.
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I am a reluctant blogger. But I do want to share with you the following excerpt from a current writing project, Her Shalom.
Beauty changes things.
In my upbringing, it was unexpected beauty which saved me countless times. And in my adult life, when beauty seeps out of my heart, words, touch, presence, it often comes as a slight shock. I'm caught off guard when I allow myself to be the way I was meant to be: open, vulnerable, settled, strong, fierce, playful, receiving of my husband's gaze. I somehow know these treasures are mysteriously unlocked from a place set in me, memorized by heart, in the land I love.
The stunning terrain of the high mountain desert, in which my heart was shaped, was balm to a bewildered and confused young girl. It allowed me to lean into something safe, steady, always there. It told me I could be open and vulnerable, playful - myself - at least in the presence of the God who gave it to me. I could count on the comfort it provided, and I needed comfort.
My mind wanders to the familiar trek our family would take to the little village of Chimayo, nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Santa Fe. We were a limping and bleeding family, but when we loaded up the car to head to Rancho de Chimayo for a special family dinner out, all was well for a while.
Coming to the crest of the meandering road, the fire of golden cottonwoods smoldered in the valley floor. Chimney smoke carried wafts of pungent pinon into the arroyos, weaving through juniper and sagebrush. Chamisa was blazing, adding dots of mustard to the perimeter of the village. Maple splashed red here and there. The sun was long over the creviced mesas, accentuating every eroded pocket in the hillsides, its finger stretching to the top of Truchas Peak. Even if I had never heard a word about the Spanish and Native American beliefs in the sacredness of this territory,I would have intuitively known that where we lived was holy. The land itself asked you to contend with God.
The land told me the truth. Its beauty allowed me no other conclusion but that goodness always exists, even when my heart sputtered for breath. No amount of internal struggle, rage, fear, bitterness, confusion or conflict could remain intact in the presence of this land’s sheer proclamation of something more.
We passed the old wood sign carved outside the church, ‘El Sanctuario de Chimayo.’ Tales of this place were passed around our world – how the holy water, or was it the ground itself, held special healing properties. Good Friday, every year, found thousands of present day pilgrims donning Gap or Banana Republic attire alongside piercings and tattoos or frilly dresses, walking the perimeter of the interstate or on country roads, trekking with minds set on Golgotha, a hope set on this little village under a new Spring sun. Together in sin and individual hope for healing. One year I was jolted to see some of these pilgrims – a small sect called the Penitentes – dragging themselves, bleeding into the dirt and rock, and flogging themselves and each other with leather straps along the way. I felt helpless and feeble as I watched. It was in moments like this that it seemed we lived a world away from most people, and I liked that feeling.
We pulled the Ford into the gravel parking lot. Wood shutters on adobe, red geraniums cascading against clay from window boxes – it took me someplace other. I anticipated the chatter of Spanish conversations spilling from the kitchen, mixing with our own very white conversation. I always loved coming here because a sampling of all of New Mexico showed up here – Hispanic, White and Pueblo Indian. But we were all New Mexicans. We blended and commingled and never gave it a thought. It was striking, though, how we could walk into this place and immediately know the families, like us, who had driven the forty minutes down from the hill, Los Alamos. There was a bologna sandwich quality to us when you threw us in that sea of color. We had a slightly stuffy, subtly stiff quality. Maybe it was the bolo ties our men tended to wear – it was almost like we were trying too hard. The ties may have been silver and turquoise, but they were donned on men who had spent the day with laser technology or plutonium processing, not out harvesting a field or laboring until sweat beaded on bronze skin. Maybe it was the way our women fretted over their food choices, or wore large brimmed hats to protect them from the harsh sun. Whatever it was, was unmistakable.
As we entered the ancient structure, we found warm, quiet conversations alongside tables filled with laughter were inside, and small fires lit the corners of the rooms. The earthen walls were splashed with intricately woven rugs, certainly from the Ortega family, who had done refined weavings in this valley for generations. The rugs looked like paintings, tightly woven and carrying the colors of the earth. Red chile ristras and wreathes packed with pinecones and sage and berries hung close by. I noted that these wreathes would look out of place in any other home, any other environ. Here, they celebrated the arid but robust land, and somehow joined the chant, “Sit down, have a drink, and eat something hot and flavorful.” The smell of a deep fryer filled with sopapaillas produced an instant anticipation of the fluffy pocket bread and honey alongside green chile enchiladas or chili rellenos.
As we were seated, I savored the moment because I knew the power of this place. Here we gained the ability to have kind conversation, a family bantering around the food we loved. A culinary salve holding our fractured family together for one more day.
Moments like this highlight what T.S. Eliott (quoting Julian of Norwich) said, ‘All is well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.” At Rancho de Chimayo, all was well. There was Goodness – the table beckoned our family to sit across from each other regardless of tensions, to commune around food which exhilarated, to glimpse each other as we walked the foothill paths around the ranch property, as we stepped from shade to scorching sandy dirt. And there was Truth. I looked across at my mother, a woman tortured by the demons of her own body’s war with manic-depression and the unspoken shame in her own story, and I saw more than a woman in torment – I saw sweetness, I saw a light in her eye which soothed all of us, her children. I looked across at my father, a stoic man of few words, a man for whom I ached for connection, and as contentment softened the features of his face, I felt peace. This table intrinsically invited us away from our disappointments and the conclusions we made about the emptiness of our lives, and we were reminded again that there is something bigger, greater, more real, than the smaller stories in which we live.
So beauty finds us. It simply shows up. It shows up in the terrain around us, as it shows up inside our heart. The question we must ask ourselves is simple: will we allow ourselves to recognize it, and will we be changed by it, when it comes.