I pray to God—my life a prayer—watching and waiting ’til morning (Psalm 130:5, MSG).
Last night I was startled awake by a nightmare about cancer and chemo treatments, and today I deleted online dating profiles. Welcome to 30. I typically love the fresh start of a new year, and I am one of those obnoxious people who loves coming up with a “word of the year.” This year, though, the inspiration has run dry. I am a dreamer, but I am tired. I want to eagerly proclaim “THIRTY WILL BE THE BEST YEAR YET!!!!!!!” But instead, I find myself sipping coffee and breathing through an unknown that I’ve come to be more suspicious of than eager to embrace. Anyone else?
In the movie Frozen 2, the whimsical snowman character, Olaf, repeatedly belts out the refrain, “When you’re older, absolutely everything makes sense.” That line struck me, and I wondered if children today believe it as much as I used to. I have only navigated 30 years on this harsh, beautiful planet, so maybe a few more years here will prove me wrong…but I found myself wanting to correct Olaf. No, Olaf, when you’re older, absolutely nothing will make sense.
I spent my first decade of life creating imaginary worlds under the sprawling oak trees of my Indiana home. My sister and I would make up the most remarkable “future houses” we could imagine, complete with beds on islands that required canoe transportation and rooms with trampoline floors. I was confident and full of joy in ways I am still trying to reclaim. Even then, 30 seemed the ideal age…the age when maybe the imaginary world I visited would become the reality I inhabited. I thought everything would surely make sense by now.
My second decade of life commenced an anxiety and perfectionism I am still recovering from. So many adults in my life preached a black-and-white reality that did not seem to leave room for questions I did not even know how to verbalize at the time. I learned that everything was supposed to make sense through a defined and rigid worldview, and if it didn’t, you were ostracized. At least, that was my perception. I had absorbed an existence that promised affection and reverence in exchange for the easy going, compliant, eager-to-serve version of myself I discovered most people in my life seemed to prefer. By the end of that decade, every piece of that black-and-white reality was shattered into a million pieces, and I was left sweeping up the mess.
I started out my 20’s in the throes of a shocking and unexpected grief, while most of my peers were partying and dreaming of ways to exploit their new-found independence. I was more at home with my Tuesday night grief group, an eclectic band of men and women all significantly older than me. We mostly just vented about the stupid and hurtful things people had said to us in the midst of our pain over unique (and yet relatable) losses, and I could think of no better place to be at the time. In an attempt to make sense of absolutely everything, I threw myself into service and walking alongside other people navigating their own pain and loss. I clung to Bible verses about how “those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy.” I wanted to believe that the heart-searing trauma I had just lived through somehow had a purpose. I craved meaning in the midst of the chaos that brewed in my heart and soul.
Now I am starting out my 30’s scraping together hopes and dreams as I face a new decade that, so far, is looking nothing like I dreamed it would when I was a starry eyed kid jumping into piles of raked leaves. I am buying baby gifts for friends whose weddings I smiled through and dressed up for in public (then went back home and cried into my pillow over) throughout the last decade. I am peeling back layers of that persona I donned in an effort to be loved and accepted. I am trying to make sense of the years and experiences I lost because I was instead navigating grief and loss, and the years and experiences I lost before that because I was so entrenched in a religious culture that rewarded a carefully curated (and others-directed) version of morality and “purity.” Nothing makes sense—and yet, maybe that is what makes the most sense of all.
As I look back on the last decade of my life, I realize that we do not get to choose the things we become certain about. For example, I am less and less certain that I will ever make it to that picket fence dream world where I get the house full of babies I’ve always longed for and a husband to laugh and cry with until we’re both old and wrinkly. I am less and less convinced that the dogmas I unabashedly preached as a zealous teenager are unquestionably true. I am less and less certain that the tears I cry will always and without fail produce a “harvest” of joy.
But. I am certain about a few things. I am certain that I am not promised anything, not even the husband and babies I believed for so long to be the direct result of a “moral and pure” lifestyle. I am certain that God is far more mysterious than I will ever comprehend, and there are people whose experiences with the Divine do not fit into those dogmas I used to cling to—and yet their own experiences with the Divine are no less true than my own experiences with God. I am more and more certain that, though I have no idea what the coming day, year, or decade will hold, it will undoubtedly yield both overwhelming joy and immense pain.
And so I sit down once again, weary but with pen in hand, and I write out a list of scrounged up hopes and dreams for this next year. I am weary but not defeated. I am jaded but not hopeless. I will continue longing for that picket fence world, and I will choose, again and again, to hope against all odds that I might get there some day. In the meantime, I will defend my right to grieve the life I thought I would have while those closest to me are celebrating that which I have always longed for…even if my grief and wrestling makes some uncomfortable. I will delete apps and establish boundaries around the people in my life who entice me to fall back into that false persona I used to put on to make myself more palatable to others. I will take up skiing and continue traveling to beautiful places, because I refuse to sit on the sidelines of life while I hope for and work toward the things I do not have. I will persist in seeking to understand and dismantle injustice, because I may be weary but I am not defeated…and I still believe to the core of who I am that humans were created to be bearers of Divine love and shalom to a dark and hurting world.
So here’s to you, weary dreamer, wherever you might be. May you discover in this next decade how powerful you really are. May you find yourself surrounded by an army of truth-tellers who refuse to accept things as they are just because they have always been that way. May you deeply lament what is broken and the life you thought you would have, and may you be loved and held in the midst of your grief. May you find the life you have instead to be one of adventure and community, because there is always joy and friendship to be mined from hardship and suffering. May you take up that tiny inkling of hope and wield it like a burning torch when it feels like there is no light left to illuminate your way. You are not alone, weary dreamer. Warrior on, and may you know that your battle cry matters and is needed in this world…even when it is nothing more than a whisper in the wind or a cynically muttered morsel of truth you are struggling to believe in yourself. We are in this together, and 2020 ain’t got nothin’ on us.
One of the most gut wrenching moments of my life was the minute AFTER my dad took his last breath. Those last days with my dad bleed together in my mind…time was both painfully slow, and also uncontrollably fast. And yet, after he took his last breath, it felt like time stopped. I didn’t know what to think, how to breathe, whether to cry without ceasing or sigh in utter relief that the waiting was over. But seconds after he sighed that last time—and failed to suck breath in again—one of my dear siblings ran out of the room and let out the most primal wail I have ever heard in my life. I have never felt…held…witnessed such deep pain. And yet, the next day—mere hours after experiencing the tsunami of a grief whose equal I have yet to meet—I found myself laughing with a friend in a movie theater. If my life were the movie, I as the viewer would have had a serious case of whiplash trying to connect the two scenes.
In the last few weeks, I have been processing what has to be one of the most defining lessons of my journey: Life is not just one thing. No, life is a maelstrom of color…of beauty AND pain, of joy AND sorrow, of hope AND despair. Sometimes at the same time. Perhaps our human brains struggle to reconcile the reality of such deeply conflicting experiences, but whatever the reason, we try so hard to conform this maelstrom of color into a binary of black and white.
Nothing has taught me this valuable truth to the degree that singleness has. And I want to share what I mean—Not necessarily to garner empathy or understanding (although maybe hearing my experience will give you greater understanding and empathy for single friends in your life?), but because I think the same general principle applies to, well, everyone. What in your life feels like a colorful mural of pain and beauty all mixed together? And how can you invite others in your life to see the full array of colors on display in that mural, instead of just reducing it to a black and white scribble?
For me, singleness has been the most beautiful, transformative stage of my life. And it has also been the most painful.
I can be both incredibly lonely, and also surrounded by amazing, supportive community.
I can be grateful I am not in a painful marriage, grieving alongside those who are, and also still long for a relationship.
To be gut-level honest, one of the hardest parts of my job are the nurse visits I do with newborns and their parents. I watch couples care for each other in the postpartum haze and delight over the new life they mutually brought forth into this world, and every.single.time. it produces an ache in my soul…because I have longed to be on that journey myself for years now. BUT. Those visits are also one of my favorite parts about the job, because I get to share in the delight of these precious families and help ease their concerns and fears during one of the most vulnerable stages of their lives. It is both/and—a maelstrom of color in a world we like to pretend to be black and white.
I can desire and ask to be treated as a full human being in the midst of my singleness—that I be sought out and cared for in friendship, considered for positions of leadership in both secular and religious spaces, and included in conversations even about sexuality, marriage, and parenting. I can desire and ask that you actually care about my WHOLE life, and not just my relationship status. AND, I can also desire and ask that occasionally those I love listen to my angst over how hard singleness is and how deeply I long to NOT be single.
I can celebrate the beautiful aspects of my life that exist purely BECAUSE I am single. I love that I have the flexibility and space in my life to drop everything in order to sit with a friend at the hospital. I love that I get to do life alongside friends raising their babies, helping to carry the load and even living with those families at times. I love that I can travel whenever I want to, make big decisions without having to consult another person, and prioritize my time and finances based on my own convictions and values.
AND. At the same time…
I can also hate making decisions alone and having no one to help shoulder the load of adult responsibility. I can long for a partner to come home to at the end of the day, knowing that person will answer when I call and always be ready to laugh or cry with me. I can also hate the fact that I am the default person asked to do x, y, or z simply BECAUSE I am unattached. I can feel so desperately deprived of human touch, wondering what it must be like to have a steady diet of physical affection.
I desire to be a strong, independent woman—and I also desire partnership and support.
I long for a relationship, and yet I also *hate* despise* loathe* the dating game (what it takes to get there).
Singleness has been the most beautiful stage of my life…and it has also been the most painfully transformative. It is not good OR bad…it is good AND bad. And everything in between. It is a maelstrom of color all swirled together.
What in your life do you find to be both miraculous.beautiful.hopeful—and also excruciatingly hard? I would guess you can relate. If not in singleness, then in any number of situations you might be navigating. I have friends who are walking through grief, health challenges, infertility, faith shifts, parenting challenges…the list could go on and on. And I suspect each of those friends could easily highlight both very painful experiences unique to their lives, AND beautiful, life-affirming moments that only exist BECAUSE of the hard.
What if we gave each other permission to live into the non-dualistic nature of this life? To cry AND laugh—sometimes in the same breath. To respect the pain AND acknowledge that sometimes we want a distraction from the fire we are walking through (case in point? Me going to a movie the day after my beloved dad breathed his last…the friend who held space for that strange day is a saint). What if we embraced each other as we are, while also holding space for who we are becoming?
To do so would require intention…continuing to check in with each other…refusing to assume that what looked like joy and hope yesterday indicates the dissipation or resolution of pain and grief. To do so would require a practiced empathy—seeking to understand a hurt that may not be consistent with your own experience. To do so would be incredibly messy. After all, fingerpainting with a thousand colors could never be neat, clean, or simple. But the artwork we could produce together would be breathtakingly stunning, I think. And I believe that our communities, homes, and world would be more safe and whole if we could learn to make space on our walls and in our lives for the brilliantly spectacular artwork that is the both/and of this journey called life.
My body has always scared me. I have a distinct memory of laying in bed one night, my heart pounding and my palms sweating. I was probably around eight years old, and I was convinced I was dying. I had been told that my lips and hands would turn blue if I was having a heart attack, so I pulled out my trusty flashlight and handheld mirror (conveniently stored under my pillow) to check. They were pink, but I was not reassured. My heart continued to pound loudly, a sound that reverberated in my ears. My body was trying to communicate something to me, but the physical sensations it was using to do so were so foreign and unwelcome to me that I truly thought my moments were numbered.
I grew up and became a nurse, and while the fear I have of my body these days is much less irrational and out of control, the mistrust is still there. I have learned the art of repressing most messages my body tries to communicate. Hunger? Not to be trusted. I am only allowed to eat at specific times! Physical cues of deep internal emotions? Shut them down. After all, fear, anger, and even elation are unacceptable. Desire of another body? Depraved! And yet, the very faith tradition in which I was raised worships a God who put on flesh and became an embodied human being—A man who satiated his hunger with good food and flipped over tables in anger. A man who sweat with exertion and incredible pain. A man who touched women, even and especially women who were marked as scandalous by the society in which they lived. A man who wept (or more accurately, “snorted like an angry horse”) over the death of his friend. When I read about Jesus now, it is impossible for me to ignore just how deeply embodied and human he was while walking on this earth. I wonder if he was perhaps even more human than most of us living today (in a culture that does everything it possibly can to shape, cut out, and contain the human body).
It is this journey to understand my embodied humanity that has led me to wild and wonderful places in the last couple years. I have beheld a wide and mysterious diversity of bodies who have embraced, led, forgiven, and challenged me. I have also become increasingly aware of the ways in which we police and exclude others whose bodies look differently than our own. It has always been this way, hasn’t it? The embodied Jesus was ultimately crucified because he dared to embrace, eat beside, walk with, and touch the bodies of men, women, and children who did not fit in the cultural or religious tradition of his enemies. He challenged a status quo that called some bodies “good, loved by God, and holy,” and other bodies “unclean, unacceptable, unholy.” He dared to love and embrace all kinds of human bodies equally, calling out the essence of the Divine in each one. And his enemies ultimately nailed his body to a cross because of it.
There are thousands upon thousands of churches in this country who gather on Sunday mornings claiming to worship and follow this God-become-man, all the while calling some bodies “good, loved by God, and holy,” and other bodies “unclean, unacceptable, unholy.” The irony in this is becoming increasingly hard for me to ignore. We don’t know what to do with bodies that look and act differently than our own, and maybe they scare us a little. But rather than sitting next to those bodies—touching them, holding them, laughing with and learning from them—we draw lines between us and them. We ask them to conform themselves to our likeness, and if they refuse, we push them outside and slam the door behind them. We refuse to listen to them, to genuinely try to understand how their bodies are experiencing this world. And how can we honestly pretend to understand their perspective or experience if we won’t even shut up long enough to listen?!
Part of my journey toward a greater understanding of my own humanity has been awakening to the deepest parts of me I have repressed. I am more than just my mind and spirit, the parts of me I was taught to trust implicitly. I am a human body, a body that feels magnificent sensations. A body that loves deeply with her hands and cradles life to her chest. A body that experiences hunger, arousal, and gut-churning sadness. A body that laughs deep in her belly and sometimes sobs rivers of snot.
And guess what? I am a sexual being too. Frankly, the religious community I have served, loved, and been raised by over the last 15 years has never known what to do with this aspect of my humanity. In my experience, sexuality has been (and is) treated as a secret club you are not allowed to join until you enter a heterosexual, monogamous relationship sanctioned by the church with a “stamp” of approval (usually an expensive public party). If you are not in that “club,” you are expected to ignore the fact that you are a sexual being. The very few conversations surrounding sexuality that I have been invited into in a church context have all revolved around what I need to do to repress arousal, cover my body, or figure out how to join the “club” (by becoming, well, NOT single). This narrow view of sexuality reduces an embodied essence to a physical act. If this is my experience as a white, heterosexual, cisgender female (read: part of the privileged power-holding “elite”), I shudder to think the Church believes itself qualified to direct societal standards of sexuality for bodies who do not look like or experience life in the same way ours do.
I am just now embarking on a journey toward understanding the ways in which the Imago Dei—the essence of the Divine—resides in my embodied humanity. But already, this journey is opening my eyes to the exquisite beauty of bodies that do not look like my own or experience the same kinds of hurts, longings, or hopes that I do. Already, I am realizing I need to shut up and listen. I am learning that it is not my place to exclude a body without having held it, to judge a body without having experience the joys and sorrows it has lived through, to tell a body what to do or not do without having cherished and walked through fire alongside it. It is not my place to say some bodies belong and others do not. Because perhaps the one human being who could have made that distinction instead spent his years on this earth tearing down and removing every barrier and distinction that was erected with the intent to exclude. When others moved away from bodies that looked, acted, or thought differently than their own, Jesus pressed in. When the religious elite picked up stones, Jesus said “I do not condemn you.” When tradition barred some front entering the presence of the Divine, the Divine put on embodied flesh and instead entered the lives of the excluded.
I want to follow the example of the Jesus who willingly walked away from privilege and belonging and made community with the outsiders…holding their deepest sorrows, touching their physical wounds, eating good food in their homes, and calling out the Divine essence in each of them. And to be completely candid, I no longer have any time or patience for a theology, political party, or elite club that declares the bodies of a privileged few worthy of love, protection, and belonging and all other bodies unacceptable, unwelcome, and unworthy of being seen and heard. I have come to know a God who calls my physical body—yes, the very one that has always scared me—very good. And I believe your physical body—all her joys, sorrows, and deepest longings—is very good too. Even and especially if you look and experience life differently than I do.
I will never forget that day. We sat in an old, rusty truck and held hands, looking out across the gravestones reaching as far as our eyes could see. I’m not sure if I understood the weightiness of that moment, the fact that your life was numbered in days, not years or even months. We sat next to stories past, perhaps not considering that yours would soon join theirs. Although, maybe you were thinking about your numbered days? I was 19, and I was too distracted by concerns and questions that now feel so petty. You didn’t brush them off, though. That was the kind of dad you were…always holding my dreams and ponderings tenderly, no matter how small or silly they might have been. You wanted to go for a bike ride, but the bikes remained in the bed of the truck because your pain was too great. So we sat and talked, a memory that I now cradle as one of the most precious.
Dad, I was thinking about you a lot yesterday. I wish that I could sit next to you in the oppressive summer heat again…here, ten years later. I wish I could tell you about the questions and concerns I have now. The world feels even heavier now than it did all those years ago, and sometimes I don’t know what to do with the weight. Somehow, holding your hand made me feel less afraid to stand up tall, to fight for justice and compassion and love. I am changing, dad, and sometimes I wish I could talk to you about that too. I wonder what you might say about my shifting understanding of the world, myself, even God. I wonder what insight you might share for those of us who are sad and angry about the brokenness of this world we live in but don’t know what to do about. I suspect I know what you might say, but I wish I could sit down next to you and look into your gentle eyes while you pour forth the wisdom you always shared so generously.
Here’s what I think you would say: Live with intentionality and faithfulness where you are. You cannot carry the weight of the world, but you can help bear the weight of someone’s world. Love extravagantly. Give generously. Remember that what you see, feel, believe is not all that is. Hold tightly to the Light of the World who is always breaking into what feels at times like overwhelming darkness.
I have a feeling we would disagree about some things now, Dad. My understanding of faith and life has shifted so much from that day we sat next to each other ten years ago. But I also know that the best parts of Today Me were deeply shaped and impacted by you. You left your handprint on my heart and life, and even the fact that I have changed so much is a credit to the way you encouraged me to be a strong and passionate woman. You taught me that the best kind of leader is a humble, hardworking servant. I hope that I will always pursue the kind of leadership that cleans toilets, sits with the outsider, picks up trash, and mostly just loves quietly and without fanfare. I hope that I will always strive to be a leader who can admit to being wrong and laugh at my shortcomings. I hope that I will always carry on your legacy of being faithful in the small things until they become the biggest things.
Dad, I wish you were still here. I wish you could hold your grandkids and spend hours mowing the pasture and take long walks while whistling from the overflow of your joy-filled heart. I wish you could meet the people I have come to love who never knew you. I wish we could still sit in cemeteries together, even though I always thought it was strange you liked those places so much. There are so many things I wish were different, but here we are, ten years later, and I don’t think you would want me to spend too much time longing for what isn’t. You would instead give me a firm hug, then say, “Ab, just show up. That’s the hardest part. The rest will follow.”
So I’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other, holding onto memories and the rich wisdom you instilled in me so many years ago. And I’ll keep sharing stories about you with people who never had the privilege of knowing you, hoping all the while that they get a glimpse of who you were because I bear your handprint on my heart.
Last fall, I drove a familiar stretch of highway with the radio blasting and my mind tallying to-do list items. Suddenly, a peculiarity on this route I traverse every day caught my eye: The ground of the median, typically green and well-tended, was now black and charred. A fire had claimed this small square of land too. Over the next couple of days, though, green sprouts quickly popped up between the black blades, and it didn’t take long for the signs of destruction to completely disappear. New life, after all, is stubborn and persistent in its glory.
We giggled together as we watched her baby toddle across the room. “He’s walking!” I exclaimed, marveling at how much he had grown and changed since I had last visited. I imagined my friend as a young child, struggling to care for her little siblings and wishing the kitchen cupboards greeted her with something other than emptiness. The well of beauty and goodness inside of her could not be tamed, though. I again stood in awe of the tenacity and grace she exuded, this beautiful woman who was once a young child fighting to survive. The Imago Dei, blooming unfettered in and through her: New life is stubborn and persistent in its glory.
I held his hand and stroked his brow, occasionally reading to him passages of scripture he had long ago memorized. He hadn’t spoken, to me or anyone, in more than a day or two. His breathing was still steady, though, a testament to the strong and steady cardiovascular system keeping his body alive even in spite of the cancer ravaging his body. For some reason, his difficult and labored dying reminded me of the painful contractions that usher a squalling baby into the world. My family and I sat in a vigil around him, waiting for the death contractions to cease and the mystery of new life to find him with his last breath. The waiting, lingering in the painful reality of death looming heavy, was excruciating. But, new life is stubborn and persistent in its glory.
The end of February found me suspended in darkness…weary from physical darkness, and overwhelmed by a darkness of spirit. But, as it turns out, even darkness has a purpose in new life. Scientists have discovered that plants store up essential proteins in the dark, so that when light returns, the plants have everything they need in order to grow and bloom. It seems we often avoid and flee the dark, but I wonder what essential elements we need from darkness so we can grow and thrive in the light. I decided to press into the dark, to listen to what was stirring in my spirit and scoop up what seemed essential for the journey forward. And sure enough, the snow began to melt and the sun beamed more brightly. The darkness prepares us for light, because new life is stubborn and persistent in its glory.
And so, I want to say this to you—you glorious human being perfectly crafted to embody and spill forth the persistent spark of the God-flame: What feels charred, hopeless, dead, and dark might actually be the incubation of new life. The labor process can be excruciating. The darkness can be terrifying. The charred landscape can feel hopeless. But new life is stubborn and persistent in its glory. Never cease to look for signs of budding hope…for where there is darkness, goodness is being stockpiled for growth in the light.
She is almost a teenager, but when she looked up at me with eyes hooded by fear, I wanted to scoop her up into my arms and cradle her like a newborn babe. “My brain feels crazy,” she whispered to me. She is pushing through a darkness that feels insurmountable from the other side. But then again, sometimes my darkness feels insurmountable too. She has lived more brokenness and pain in her short life than most people will experience in a lifetime. The weight she carries—the darkness, the “craziness” that overwhelms her brain—is certainly more than I bear. But in that moment, I wanted to curl up next to her and cradle our unique and individual darkness together. I wanted to say, “Ahhh, sweet girl, my brain feels crazy too.”
There are days when I crave the easy answers of my childhood, when I long for the concrete, black-and-white thinking that defined my faith for so long. It is hard to imagine now, but there was a day when I could not fathom any shade of grey in my understanding of the Divine.
That was before I watched my dad shudder his last breath.
Before I crumbled, listening to my brother wail over the loss of his best friend.
Before my dreams were shattered and a deep well of longing was left empty.
Before relationships exploded and prayers were greeted by silence.
Before I was confronted by expansive need and the deliberately chosen ignorance and greed that continue to ensure the gaping lack remains for some.
Before I smoothed the brow of little children traumatized and assaulted, many of whom will likely become the “they” that are so quickly judged and dismissed by even the most religiously pious.
That was before.
There are many days, now, that are defined by grey space. And honestly, it can feel far easier to sit down next to someone else with a paintbrush full of grey, to swirl our questions and doubts and greys together, than to engage with the black-and-white painters with whom I used to feel at home. That sweet little girl? I can sit down next to her with my “crazy” and feel known, accepted. There seems to be many a black-and-white gallery where the greys are not invited. The questions, the doubts are covered over with a splat of black paint. Even still, I do sometimes miss those days of black-and-white.
You know what has been deeply comforting for me in the last several days, though? Some words, crafted by someone centuries ago…someone who, far as I can tell, was also swirling paint on a canvas and trying to understand the God who had defied his black-and-white too.
“You hem me in, behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me…Where shall I go from your Spirit? Where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” —From Psalm 139
I imagine this God, the God I tried to paint with black-and-white for far too many years, the God who I’ve now been trying to understand in shades of grey…THIS God is an expansive, brilliantly colorful God. A God I cannot flee…or contain.
“If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” Even in the depths of darkness…in chaos and the swirling, scary unknown…even there, God resides. Other painters may be put off by the shades I am throwing on the canvas, but I can never scare God away. In fact, I think so many of us are trying so hard to contain this God on a canvas that we can see and understand and whose edges we can define, and yet God is continually trying to break free. I wield my paintbrush with a new shade of grey—a new question, a doubt I have been too afraid to name—and I imagine God handing me a pallet of exquisite new colors carefully stirred and mixed and crafted. “Try these,” comes the whispered encouragement. Other painters beside me may snicker behind their hands, may give me the side eye that silently says “you’ve stepped too far outside the lines,” but I will take the pallet handed me and dip my paintbrush anew.
There have been days when I have longed for the black-and-white, but the reality is, paint-by-number would never satisfy me anymore. I can’t look at that sweet little girl, a precious child who has trusted and been harmed, and give her the black-and-white. The black-and-white could never contain or tend to her gaping and bloody wounds. Instead, I want to bring her a breaking-off-the-canvas God, a God who took on the colorful costume of humanity and who put on brokenness because of Love. I want to bring her the brilliant shades of a God who cannot be contained by the black-and-white canvas, the God who is somehow present no matter how far I wander or fall. I want to bring her the God who can cradle her pain, who can take her yelling and hitting and “how could yous” and not try to convince her to dismiss or forget the shittiness of it all. I want to bring her the God who loves her deeply and unabashedly with a no-ifs-ands-or-buts kind of love.
Yeah, my canvas is changing. And sometimes I look around the room at all the black-and-white canvases and think it would be so much easier to forget the colors and shades I’ve learned and added to my canvas. But really? As often as I say I wish I could go back, I really don’t. I want to know the breaking-off-the-canvas God who is present no matter where I fall or land. If that means I have to find new galleries and work rooms to practice this painting craft, so be it. I will press on, apron splattered with new shades of the breaking-free God who is finding me in the spaces and places I never knew I could wander.
My first car was an old Volvo wagon. It was a family car, but I drove it from the time I got my license as a 16-year-old until the summer after I graduated from high school. It wasn’t long before I paid $2,000 for a gray Mazda, and I have had my own car ever since. Sure, I’ve had to call friends or family to bail me out when I found myself on the side of the road with a flat tire or some other vehicular malfunction. But I’ve never been forced to rely on public transportation or my own two legs to get me from place to place.
I don’t think she has ever owned her own car. She grew up in a big city and is extremely proficient at navigating bus schedules and public transportation routes. She plans her days around when she has to be at a particular bus stop. I will never forget the day she asked for a ride across town. She had a kid home from school with a fever and sore throat. After walking her daughter to the hospital a couple miles away to be evaluated, she returned home with prescription and school excuse in hand. She called me, asking if I would be willing to drive her to the middle school so she could turn in the school excuse. I readily agreed because I was already on that side of town and free for the next hour. As we drove the 15 minutes to the school, she casually mentioned that a trip to and from the school would take upwards of three hours by bus. My jaw nearly hit the floor.
I have always had a car. And nearly every day I forget what a luxury it is to have easy access to personal transportation. She and I are the same age, but our lives are so incredibly different. I don’t have to worry about how long it will take to get to the bus station and switch buses. I don’t have to structure my life around the availability of other people to drive me to the store. I complain about oil changes and car repairs, but the truth is, I am privileged to worry about such things.
Recently, I stumbled upon some research that was rather alarming to me. According to the Barna Group, evangelicals are more likely than the general population to select as friends people who are like them. This is especially true in regards to religious beliefs, ethnicity, and political views. In fact, 91% of evangelicals report that their friends share mostly similar religious beliefs. Due to a number of different reasons I won’t get into here, I do not self-identify as evangelical anymore. But I still find this statistic to be concerning. Put as bluntly as possible, we have a relationship crisis, my friends. Barna states, “friendship with those who are different to us increases empathy and causes a shift in our views toward them—in very positive ways.” Read: Evangelicals are NOT experiencing this positive shift, but are instead cloistering themselves in an echo chamber.
Is it any wonder, then, that evangelicals are statistically considered to be the least likely to believe the United States has a responsibility to welcome refugees? It is difficult to empathize with someone else’s experience when you have no proximity to him. It was easy for me to stand in judgment of people like my friend, to ask naive questions like, “Why don’t they (the infamous THEY) just get a job? Why don’t they just take the bus?”—before I actually KNEW my friend and experienced the joys and challenges of her life. It was only through relationship with her that I discovered just how hard she works for her family. She taught me how difficult and complex it is to navigate systems that are created by people in power to supposedly “help” people like her.
In his book White Awake, Daniel Hill shares about an eye-opening experience he had, in which a friend asked him to list the most influential voices in his life in the categories of friends/mentors, authors he reads, and theologians he learns from. As he tallied his lists, he realized how homogenous they were. There was no diversity of voice in his life. He encourages his readers to take the same inventory. From whom are you seeking advice? With whom are you spending time? What voices are you listening to and learning from? If you find that you are primarily listening to and learning from people who are just like you, maybe it’s time to widen your circle.
But how? I readily acknowledge that intentionally integrating more diverse voices and experiences into your life is not as easy as snapping your fingers. But it is valuable, necessary work. Here are some ideas to get you started:
1) Volunteer. Find organizations in your city that empower and come alongside people groups we have historically (and presently) marginalized and oppressed. Don’t volunteer with the intention of “serving” someone. Instead, try showing up with an attitude of curiosity and a desire to learn from people who have a different life experience than your own. If it is difficult for you to find time to commit to doing so, try doing something that is more flexible, like writing letters to a person in prison. I will share more about this soon, but I just mailed my first letter to my pen pal through The Death Row Support Project. What an incredible opportunity to learn from someone whose experience I do not understand! I don’t know what it will look like for you, but be intentional about putting yourself in a place to learn from someone who is different from you religiously, ethnically, socioeconomically, etc.
2) Increase the diversity on your bookshelf. Read books written by people of color. Here is a list compiled by the ECC for Black History Month to get you started. Seek out authors, artists, film directors, and podcast curators who come from a faith background, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and/or sexual orientation different from your own.
3) Get curious. When you find yourself standing in judgment of someone else, or dictating what you think another person should do or be, take a step back and ask questions instead. Listen to people’s stories. Ask someone how they came to a particular conclusion. You might find that getting curious and seeking to KNOW people is far more enlightening and transformative than arguing politics from a distance.
In his book Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle says, “Here is what we seek: A compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” Friends, let’s pursue that kind of compassion. In my experience, doing so usually requires PROXIMITY and PRESENCE. In the way of Jesus—who ate with the outcast, touched the diseased, talked to the easily dismissed, and kept company with the unpopular—may we seek to widen our circles and lengthen our tables. I think you will find, like I have, that it is YOUR life that will be changed and enriched. ❤️
“Can you take her to the grocery store to buy diapers and formula?” The caseworker looked at me expectantly from across the table, her eyes imploring me to say yes. I glanced over at the new mom needing a ride two miles down the road to the grocery store. I hardly knew her, and yet our stories intersected that day in a way I would marvel at for years to come. “Uh, sure!” I answered hesitantly as the sweetest toddler climbed up into my lap.
That day, as I sat in a stranger’s apartment and cradled her newborn, poverty became a face in front of me. “Pro-life” became a choice, not a box to check or a stance to champion. Systemic racism looked like a single mom profiled and accused by a government agency. Suddenly, whether or not I was “called” to fight for the impoverished, to tackle systemic racism, or to advocate for life became utterly irrelevant…because if I said “no” to giving her a ride to the grocery store, this woman’s life—her family’s trajectory—would be impacted for months (and even years, possibly generations) to come. Her children would be placed in foster care, and the trauma of being ripped away from a deeply loving and committed mother would no doubt leave a lasting imprint on their developing brains and tender hearts. And who knows what the trauma of losing her children, her very reason for existing, would do to her??? Suddenly, this woman’s survival depended on me taking thirty minutes out of my day to drive her to and from the grocery store. If I had said, “I just don’t feel called to this,” the consequences would have been real and lasting in her life and the lives of her precious children.
I cannot possibly count the number of times I have said, “I just don’t feel called to that,” or, “I think God is calling me in a different direction.” Honestly, I think I genuinely believed those words when I said them, and I am quite sure the intentions behind them were pure. But now I cringe when I think about the opportunities I shirked with those words and the lives that were changed because I smoothly gave a masked “I don’t want to.” Having been involved in nonprofit work for several years, I have now been on the receiving end of these words more times than I can count. And today, I’m just going to say it: I believe this idea of “not being calling” is often just a culturally acceptable, Christianese excuse masking all sorts of very real fears we don’t want to acknowledge.
“I don’t feel called to _______.” These words roll off our tongues pretty easily when we are removed from the weight of them. It was effortless for me to say, “I’m not called to help the homeless population,” when the beautiful faces I now see every week were just a statistic. It was pretty easy for me to say, “I’m not called to advocate for those in prison,” before I received a letter from a person who suffers under the unjust and racist structures that are almost tangibly imbedded in the walls of our prisons. And it was pretty easy for me to spout off prideful and ignorant words about a pro-life “stance” before the result of that stance was sitting in front of me and needing a ride to the grocery store.
“I don’t feel called to _____.” I think these words are a red herring, meant to distract us from the very real people suffering under the oppressive systems we are knowingly or unknowingly perpetuating. Listen, I get it! I am not naive enough to believe that every person can “champion” every “cause.” Heck, there are probably thousands of very REAL injustices that I am unaware of and perpetuating. Certainly there are opportunities for sacrificial love that I turn down in pursuit of something or someone else. But can we just be honest? Can we stop throwing “calling” around like candy in a parade and say what we really mean? Something like:
“You know, that really intimidates me.”
“I am scared about how that [person, opportunity, etc.] will affect me and/or my family.”
“I don’t want to spend money on that right now.”
“I would rather invest my time elsewhere.”
“I don’t understand that issue or why I should want to help that person.”
“I am actually really excited about ____ right now and want to work on that.”
Let’s commit to being really honest, because it is only when we are candid with ourselves and others that genuine conversation can be had. And let’s not continue reducing human beings in very real need to an issue or project you can feel “called to” or dismiss just as easily as a party invitation. We ALL need to reckon with the reality that our actions (or inactions) have consequences.
I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s reflection on the Parable of the Good Samaritan in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech: “The first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
What would change if we started asking THAT question? What if, instead of quickly and easily saying, “I’m not called to that,” we asked some real and probing questions of ourselves? Questions like:
If I say no to this, what will happen? Who will suffer?
What opportunities for learning and growth will I miss if I say no?
Do I have a relationship with a real, live person who will be affected by my action/inaction?
What other perspectives am I not considering?
What does my ability to walk away from this say about my privilege?
I believe our families, our friendships, and our communities will benefit from the kinds of conversations that could result if we replaced “I’m not called to that” with honest dialogue. My life has been transformed by people who refused to settle for this response and instead pressed in and asked hard questions. Regardless of whether or not you end up saying “yes” to the need in front of you, you may be surprised by what you learn about yourself or someone else by honestly confronting your hesitations. And who knows what you might end up developing a passion for by getting curious and putting yourself in a position to learn?!
***I know there are theological issues I am not addressing here, specifically related to calling/gifting/the leading of the Holy Spirit, as well as the sovereignty of God. I get it…being “called” is not always an excuse or distraction. I just think that it often is. Maybe let’s consider what could be beneath the response before we immediately start arguing theology 🙂
I realized today that I have been an Instagram user for nearly six years. As I looked back over the hundreds of images I have shared in that space over the years, my heart squeezed because I realized how a longing of my heart has been fulfilled in the most unexpected way.
I have always longed to be a mama. I was the weird girl who played with baby dolls for far longer than was socially acceptable. I never imagined I would be nearing three decades of life without a growing brood of kiddos who share my last name. I always imagined I would be a foster mom by now. But here I am, and none of that has happened. And I would be lying if I said the ache for that is gone (it’s not). BUT. This role I have gotten to fill these last several years, that of “auntie,” has been one of the greatest joys of my life.
I have cradled, fed, played with, taught, rocked in the middle of the night, and chauffeured kids who share neither my last name nor (for most of them) my blood. I have been a pediatric nurse for the last six years, but most of what I know about kids and mothering has come from hands-on, blood-guts-and-tears experience alongside other parents in the trenches. It has come not from textbooks and physician mentors, but in living life alongside moms and dads doing the hardest job in the world.
Honestly, I could not have lived and loved these kiddos if I was where I thought and hoped I would be by now. I have lived with families (or my own makeshift family of girlfriend roomies and Safe Families kiddos) for the larger part of the last decade. I am “auntie” or “Aberdabber” to now dozens of kids (…turning into adults 😳).
My point, and best piece of advice? Don’t wait.
If you long to be a parent and (for whatever reason) can’t right now, find some kiddos to nurture and some parents to link arms with. Become an “auntie” or “uncle,” and be the best one you can be. Babysit, teach Sunday school, mentor foster kids, or even get licensed as a foster or Safe Families parent. Volunteer at an after school program or local school. Coach a youth sports team. Inquire about rocking babies at the hospital. Don’t just try to survive with this desire gnawing at your heart and no balm to soothe that space.
Do I still long to be a mama? Of course. But I have loved and been loved in ways that have impacted my world and, hopefully, the lives of so many little (and now not-so-little) ones. And I believe your life will be transformed in all the best possible ways too, so don’t wait. Find ways to use that gift of nurture to change the world, one little life at a time.