Every year, my heart struggles to find somewhere to land in this sea of remembrance.
I always eventually drop anchor in deep gratitude for those who ran into harm’s way when tragedy and terror struck. Even in the face of horror, fear, pain, and uncertainty, love runs toward, not away.
And despite everything else I’m feeling today, this anchor holds.
// In memory of Michael Vernon Kiefer //
I began and abandoned this post a month ago. I couldn’t find the words—or the courage—to finish it. For so many reasons.
Then came the heartbreaking news of Robin Williams.
Which was quickly followed by a tsunami wave of God-awful responses from Christians, flooding the internet with harmful, ignorant, and abusive bullshit in the name of Christ.
So, it’s time to find my words and use them.
I think I was in seventh grade when he took his life. I didn’t even know the much-older boy in my school, but I remember being deeply shaken. I remember everything growing eerily silent when we were told the news.
I had questions I didn’t even know how to ask—or who to take them to even if I did.
“Join hands. Let’s pray.”
My Christian school didn’t know how to handle all the questions. The fears. The grief. The heartache.
How could they? How could anyone?
But for the first time, I heard the cruel whisperings that would echo the halls of my Christian culture-bubble for years.
And they echo even still.
The ones who say “suicide is selfish” and “if only he’d turned to Jesus” and “depression is a choice”… They simply don’t get it. They just don’t.
I know, because I used to be one of those ignorant people.
I grew up with a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps-of-faith kind of theology. We hid our realities behind platitudes and trite clichés and Scripture-quoting smiles.
We lived in denial, and called it faith.
We named it and claimed it, clinging to a Prosperity Gospel that of course covered even our mental and emotional health. Doctors, counselors, and antidepressants were for those who didn’t believe enough…
But we were never promised health, wealth, or emotional well-being in this fallen world.
All He promised was that He’d be with us.
What I know now is this:
Depression is real. Mental illness is real.
They don’t signify weak faith. Or distance from God. Or unresolved sin.
They can’t be willed away by words of faith, hours in prayer, deliverance, repentance, prayer lines, or praise songs.
In no way am I saying God never uses those things to bring healing. But the conclusion that He only uses those things is so unbelievably damaging.
God also uses doctors, and skilled therapists, and treatment centers, and supportive community, and medication to bring balance to instability and hopeful illumination into darkness.
He made light from nothing; He can certainly make it from Prozac.
I know what it’s like to want out…
I’ve been there.
I understand those feelings of hopelessness that suck all the air right out of the room.
The darkness that presses in close.
The nights that are so bleak it seems as though the sun will never rise.
The depression that sits so heavily on your chest, your lungs imagine they’ll never expand again.
I sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the empty bottle, tears staining my cheeks.
It was only my second year on the mission field, and life had suddenly grown impossibly hard. Inescapably dark. Everything caved in, and I saw no way out. No way through.
So handful after handful, I’d swallowed, wondering to myself exactly what a full bottle of ibuprofen would do.
I spent several days vomiting relentlessly.
Everyone thought I had the flu.
I didn’t correct them.
A decade later, I found myself in an even darker night of the soul. One that mercilessly persisted for years.
Clinical depression, the doctor said. Post-traumatic stress disorder.
I wanted to resist them—I could hear the echoes of righteous disapproval, reminding me that I should be able to praise my way out of my funk. But I didn’t have enough fight left in me to resist.
So I learned to swallow my pride each morning along with my Prozac.
And my eyes slowly began to see the abusiveness of some of the tenets I’d held onto for so long.
It is devastating to me when I realize again how many still see a conflict between faith and therapy/treatment. They are not at odds with one another, but when we imagine them to be, it doesn’t eradicate depression or mental illness. It only shames us into hiding behind a mask.
When we imagine them to be at odds, it keeps us from seeking help when we need it.
And it keeps those around us from seeking the help they need too.
The Church should be an arms-wide-open safe place for the broken (and by “the broken”, I mean all of us). Instead, all too often, the Church holds stones in her hands, ready and eager to cast them at those already wounded.
Reaching out, getting help, taking medication, seeing a therapist… Those are not signs of weakness.
They are enormous steps of bravery. Of strength. Of courage. Of—dare I say it—faith.
Faith that acknowledges God can work through anything.
Let’s start being known for championing these brave, faith-filled steps. We need to shake off the stigma by speaking of them more often, more boldly.
Let’s begin being more honest about our own experiences and struggles and journeys. Let’s be people and communities who are safe for masks to be dropped and brokenness to be revealed.
Let’s be those who generously lend faith and courage to our fellow comrades who might need to borrow some. In our empathy, humility, and love, let’s shine the light on the next brave step someone can take.
God made light from nothing; He can certainly make it from us.
How different would things be if I approached each situation, each person, with bravery?
That’s the question that scratched away at my heart and made me choose brave as my OneWord365. I really wrestled with committing to a word like that, for—well—lots of reasons.
At least for me, brave is a big, scary, monstrous word. I have never felt brave. Ever. It’s not a word I would ever use to describe myself. I’ve done brave things at times, sure. I’ve taken some risks. I’ve made some choices others have deemed courageous. But deep down, I would never categorize myself as a brave person.
But I want to.
I want to be someone who’s life is marked by bravery.
Don’t hear me wrong… I don’t want to be known for living an adventurous life. I’m not trying to be edgy, or reckless, or thrill-seeking.
I don’t want to do brave things. I want to be brave.
And, I’m discovering, there’s a big difference.
It’s more about the posture of my heart than about my actions. It’s about changing my internal dialogue—the words I say to myself, about myself. It’s a willingness to lean into who I really am… and live it out wholeheartedly.
Six full months into the year, I paused to take stock. And I have to admit—I’m a little surprised by all the ways I’ve seen bravery come to bear in my life so far this year. It’s probably not been in ways that others might expect (or that they’d even call brave), but it’s usually the smallest steps of bravery which are the most difficult. For me, anyway.
I’ve opened my heart to possibilities. I’ve let myself enjoy the present without knowing what the future holds. I’ve let my guard down. I’ve let others in. I’ve leaned into relationships. I’ve used my words more. I’ve embraced hard truths. I’ve taken steps towards healthier boundaries. I’ve put myself first in areas I’d always put myself last. I’ve started going to church again. I’ve stuck my neck out work-wise. I’ve resumed regular writing commitments. I’ve made big financial decisions. I’ve intentionally dug into enjoying my now-life. I’ve faced a huge loss and didn’t fall apart like I once thought I would.
I don’t expect to feel like I’ve crossed some huge finish line in December, having arrived-at-last at being brave. But I do sense that I am already becoming brave. And that is what I want to feel every day for the rest of my life.
The process of becoming holds more value than the being, and I don’t want to lose the wonder and vulnerability of the journey.
So I take a deep breath, and I close my eyes, and I ask for an extra dose of courage for everyone and everything I will face.
And I choose to become braver today than I was yesterday…
:: :: ::
I’d love to hear about your OneWord365 journey at this halfway point.
If you blog about it, please share the link.
Otherwise, would you share a few thoughts in the comments?
Last night I stumbled upon The Traveling Wall. This half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC is in Nashville for the week. I slowly walked the full length of it, overwhelmed by the sacrifices of so many.
“Did you find all the names you were looking for?”
I couldn’t see him, but I followed his voice across the wet grass. As soon as the four older gentlemen came into view, I knew…
I shook their hands, looked them in the eyes, and told each one how grateful I am for their service.
They invited me to join them, so I sat down between John and Wendell and listened as they reminisced. John had been a medic in the war, and grew emotional as he described some of the things he’d witnessed. “I will never forget those children’s faces…” His voice trailed off as he looked away and just stared at The Wall.
There was a lot of solemn silence in our 30 minutes together.
But there was also sweet laughter, talks of fishing trips, jokes about the helicopter overhead, and the kind of adorable flirting only grandpas can get away with. (“Come to the fair in August, and I’ll treat you to a plate of concession food on me!”)
It was moving and wonderful and such a gift…
When I finally said goodnight, I walked away humbled and grateful for my short time with this band of brothers.
You were every bit thirteen: skinny as a rail, brace-face smile, unbelievably shy, uncomfortable in your own skin. But from the first moment you learned what a mission trip was, you wanted to go on one. As soon as you hit the minimum-required age, you signed up for a trip to Central America.
Funds needed to be raised, of course, and you got to the hard work of raising them. You baked. Babysat. Washed cars. Wrote letters. Your small, zealous church was puzzled, but supportive. You remember that church, don’t you? The one that met in the American Legion Hall, with children’s church in the hallway and nursery in the coat closet? They readily celebrated the gifts of the Spirit, but didn’t really have much concern about “going into all the nations.” But now, one of their own was wanting to “go.” And this—this—they could get behind.
You made a poster board map masterpiece with a movable airplane to track your progress as you raised support that would get you to Managua, Nicaragua. With sweaty palms and a shaky voice, you got up in front of the church and shared your desire to serve in a foreign land. Your nervousness was met with happy cheering, a side hug from your pastor, and encouragement from those who saw what a big step this was.
Your pastor took up a “love offering” for you. (You still laugh at that phrase.) And he did that every week for a month, with the church collecting all the funds to pass along before your financial deadline. You were blown away by the generosity of your tiny church family of tongue-talking misfits. Then when the time came for the funds to be sent to the missions organization, you made a painful discovery.
Your pastor decided to spend the money himself. There was nothing left for you. Nothing left for Nicaragua.
You were thirteen.
You were every bit nineteen: no longer skinny as a rail, curves had finally begun to find you. You laughed loudly and often, with a flannel shirt perpetually tied around your waist. Fresh out of a year-long missions internship, you had your sights set on Africa. You had six months to work, save, and raise money to move overseas.
Having graduated from the tiny Christian school at your church (a very different church from your previous one), your pastor knew you well—after all, he’d doubled as your Bible and pre-Calculus teacher. You loved him and the way he made you (and everyone else in the church) feel like family. And you knew he loved you too. He would beam with pride when he’d spontaneously pull you up on stage during a service to brag on something you’d done or said. You hated it and loved it all at the same time.
So when he said you were making a bad decision by pursuing missions, you were caught off guard. He told you that doing mission work was a waste of your time and skills, that you “could do so much better,” and that you “could do anything you wanted.” Of course you cried (as you always do when speaking about things of the heart) when you told him that contrary to his perception, you weren’t resigning yourself to missions out of some strange sense that it’s all you could do—but that it was, in fact, exactly what you wanted to give your life for.
Many tears and conversations later, your pastor agreed in the value of going to Africa “for a year, and then we’ll see….” He went so far as to commit to covering your monthly support in exchange for you volunteering full-time in the church office until you left for Africa. (You can’t help but roll your eyes at your 19-year-old self, stressed over raising $400 a month. You’d eventually be raising half a million dollars.)
So you spent those six months working as his assistant. It was a rocky road, that season of church work—like the time you had to challenge his integrity and stand up for your own when he asked you to write his thesis paper—but you worked hard, and kept your eyes on Africa.
And then came your last week in the office, when he told you he’d changed his mind. “I decided we’ll only cover half of your support. The church will give you $200 a month.” Amid tears, confusion, and disappointment, you reminded him that this whole arrangement had been based on them supporting your full amount.
“Well, it’ll be your word against mine, so…”
You were nineteen.
You are every bit thirty-five: still pretty uncomfortable in your own skin (which now curves in all the wrong places), but you also still laugh loudly and often. And, by the grace of God, you still somehow love Jesus, despite a lifetime of being taken advantage of by those who carry His name.
And that has to count for something on the Sundays you can’t bring yourself to step foot inside a church.
I’ve walked through the Valley of the Shadow. Many times over.
So have you. This I know.
Your Valleys look different than mine. Or maybe it’s just the Shadows that are different. Either way, we all experience the same-yet-different sorrows, pains, and troubles that come in this life. We are all human. Our bones break. Our hearts hurt. Our loved ones die. We face illnesses, rejections, addictions, losses.
Yet the faith culture I was raised in didn’t leave room for acknowledgment of the Valleys. Emotions were indirectly declared evil—the kind of theology that emphasized that Jesus is all we need, so whatever we might be feeling is invalid.
Because to grieve a loved one’s death is to disbelieve that they’re in a better place.
To be disappointed in your now is to doubt that, in Romans 8:28 fashion, it really is for your good and His glory.
To express sadness means you distrust that He is in control.
To feel hurt by the doors slamming in your face is to disbelieve that He has something else better for you.
To be frustrated by your financial position is to forget Jehovah Jireh, God your provider.
To question, to doubt, to say “I don’t know” is equivalent to not believing at all.
The end result of this sort of theology wasn’t a faith community that didn’t feel negative emotions. The end result was a faith community that hid them. We wore masks that plastered artificial smiles on our faces. We spouted out platitudes and trite answers instead of being honest.
I finally realized, as I traversed the Valley of the Shadow yet again:
That’s not faith. That’s denial.
Faith is most genuine and true when it acknowledges the current reality and still says, “Lord, I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.”
I’m struck by the story of Jesus when He visits the grave of His friend Lazarus, four days after he’d passed away. He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but right then, right in that moment, Jesus still felt, acknowledged, and expressed deep grief over His loss.
Grief doesn’t negate faith.
Even though He knew that in just a few minutes He would hug his friend again, Jesus wept.
Just as they did for those with Him that day, His tears give me permission to not only feel what I’m feeling, but also to express it. He validated my emotions. All of them.
He’s the One who gave me them to begin with—even the ones that are all mixed up and “negative” and un-faith-filled. He put inside me a heart that feels, and He handcrafted me eyes that cry…
So right here, right this moment, right in your Valley, He gives you permission to feel what you’re feeling.
Face it. Feel it.
He’s right there, weeping with you.
(photo credit: jayRaz)
There is something so healing and redemptive about spending an evening surrounded by South Africans… The languages, the laughter, the easy fireside conversations, the familiar sights/sounds/tastes/smells, the sense of camaraderie, and of course the abundance of meat on the grill, makes me feel home. Makes me feel hope.
There is also something about it that stirs up old demons—insecurities, failures, hurts—and leaves my heart feeling raw and exposed. I am reminded of all that I miss, of all that I lost, of all that (and those) I failed, of all that was but will never be again. I am reminded of a life gone by, a life that I loved deeply.
Bittersweet, yes, but I’m thankful for the vulnerability my heart feels in those moments. Because it’s proof of life. And it makes the contrasted sense of redemption that much more beautiful.
Much has been lost, but much has been redeemed. Tears and all, my heart feels at home. Thankful for my newfound South African community here in Nashville…
I’m sure this isn’t something I’m supposed to admit. At least not out loud. I’m sure some would even consider it sacrilegious or something. But nonetheless, it’s true.
I hate the Proverbs 31 woman.
:: looks around for lightning bolts ::
But seriously. What’s not to hate?
She wakes up early. Every single day.
She makes things from scratch—clothes, bedding, meals, everything.
She gardens and farms and seems to rather enjoy getting dirt under her fingernails.
She’s a successful businesswoman, wife, mother, and leader.
She despises idleness (which, I’d imagine, includes Netflix-viewing marathons).
She’s wise and tactful. Always.
She’s a domestic goddess.
She laughs in the face of adversity.
She’s in great shape. Ugh.
And she’s been held up as the bar of godly womanhood my entire life.
Maybe I would have actually tried to live up to the standard she’d set, if it weren’t so laughable. Instead I’ve just quietly resented her, stuffing down my hostility and attempting to mask my eye rolls.
But I realize my disdain is misplaced. Because she doesn’t really exist.
She’s a figment of the Church’s imagination—poetic symbolism transformed into a mirage of the woman that we should all strive to be. The beauty of the character traits she displays—loyalty, wisdom, diligence, servanthood, faithfulness, compassion—got lost as I measured myself against the yardstick held out for me.
I could never measure up.
Never have. Never will.
The yardstick became a weapon of shame, telling me again and again and again: You are not enough. It echoed the message I already had on repeat in my heart—one that was reiterated with each rejection, each abandonment, each failure.
My journey of the past few years has been one of moving toward understanding and accepting my enoughness, simply because God says I’m enough.
Whole. Complete. Nothing missing, nothing broken.
So it shouldn’t matter what the measuring stick of this fictitious chick says about me. It shouldn’t even matter what the Church thinks of me.
He says I’m enough—
even though I like to sleep in,
would eat out every meal if I could,
don’t really enjoy the outdoors,
love lazy Saturdays,
and have jiggly arms.
He says I’m enough—
even though I say stupid things,
fail at loving others well,
doubt, question, curse,
don’t pray or read the Bible very often,
and make mistakes (big and small).
He sees me and knows me and still declares me enough. Actually, He declares me good. “God looked over all He had made, and He saw that it was very good!” (Genesis 1:31)
So it’s time to let go of this grudge I’ve held against the Proverbs 31 woman.
I’m good just as I am…
He asked if I could explain my swirling thoughts.
“I’m waiting to find the words… and the courage to say them.”
And then I sat in silence a good long while. He didn’t seem to mind. His shared silence gave me a dose of bravery. I took a deep breath, and shook my head, and words clumsily stumbled out of my mouth. I rambled for a few minutes, covering my face at times, wiping away tears at others. My stammerings weren’t eloquent or even complete sentences, but he said they made sense.
“I’m really scared actually.”
Just saying those words out loud made me, somehow, feel a tiny bit less afraid. Maybe because what’s named can no longer lurk in the shadows, like a coat rack impersonating a monster.
“I don’t know what to do with all of this…”
His words, full of grace and patience and wisdom: “Maybe you don’t have to do anything with it all just yet. Maybe all that’s needed is to name what you’re feeling, and just let yourself feel those things. Maybe simply acknowledging it, like you just did, is enough for now. ”
Maybe it is.
Maybe it is.
I can barely remember that season when words came easily. It seems like ancient history—those mornings when I couldn’t start my day without scribbling some heart thoughts… those nights when I’d gladly stay up way-too-late to clothe my wandering wonderings in letters and words and paragraph breaks…
I like to think that season of willful writing was because of the context of my life. I only half joke that there wasn’t anything else to do in Africa, so my free time was effortlessly spent blogging—and now I have restaurants and city streets and front porches to enjoy. But I know that’s really only a fraction of it…
My life was also bursting with experiences imploring to be expressed, thoughts demanding to be declared, and heart stirrings begging to be shared. My gritty life in glorious Africa was so much larger than myself that I couldn’t contain it if I tried. It pressed and prodded until it broke free. In inadequate syllables, it gave my heart wings to see and to say and to listen and to learn…
Inspiration doesn’t seem as readily available anymore. I have to forcibly seek it out. Make time for it. Create space and even, more often than not, the desire for it. I have to shake the tree until inspiration falls like ripe apples to the ground, waiting only to be collected and enjoyed and shared.
But I’m realizing how much I crave it—both the inspiration and the writing—regardless of how much effort and exertion and force it requires. The free therapy of “thinking out loud” through written words might be just what my broken Icarus wings need…
And so, I write.
Even when it’s only about my difficulty to find words…