The Stories We Tell (or Don’t)

Friday was one of those days that gave me a reason to stop and take stock of my life. It was a gorgeous Fall day and thus, not a bad day to park aways out and enjoy a longer walk across the quad at Sacred Heart. That was a good thing, because, as usual, there was precious little parking available. My stroll took me past the administration building where, five years ago, I had so nervously filled out an application to be re-admitted after having failed out at 19. There hasn’t been a single day on campus in these last five years that I haven’t felt the specter of the anxiety and sense of failure that plagued me all those years ago. When I dropped out of school in 1992, it wasn’t something I talked about. If pressed, I’d say I didn’t really want to go college or that it was more practical to earn my bookkeeping certification from a business school and go to work full-time. That was my cover story and I hid behind that for the next three decades.

Friday was special to me. Not just because I was enjoying one of my dwindling days on campus. It wasn’t that it was Friday the 13th and a full moon or that Halloween decorations are showing up everywhere (and I live for Halloween). No. This day was special because I was so keenly aware of being at a tipping point in my life. 12 years earlier, I had walked out of Superior Court with my copy of a restraining order and the filing for divorce in my hands. I had finally decided that after 12 years of abuse, I was done. I’d had enough and I wanted to build a new life for myself and my sons. I had no idea – none whatsoever – what that life might look like, but it had to be better than where I was.

12 years in. 12 years out.

Friday was the tipping point and I felt it with every step I took. I can still remember every moment of that day 12 years ago. Walking out of the courthouse. Taking off my wedding ring. Picking up my kids. Turning off my cellphone and turning on the new one I’d secretly purchased. Every mile on road was one more mile of safe distance as we went into hiding until the marshals could serve the papers. The deep breath I took as we crossed the state line felt like the first deep breath I’d allowed myself in years. And now, walking across campus 12 years later, watching the sun play across the bell tower of the chapel, every step was one more step out of that long, long shadow of my past. Every step now is beyond it’s reach. I’ve been out now longer than I was in, free longer than I was caged. I know what it feels like to dream again, to look ahead to what life might be in a few years, to allow myself to plan for a future rather than simply survive the present.

For the first few years after leaving, I didn’t talk much about what happened behind the closed doors of my marriage. I was afraid to for many reasons. It took me a few years to find my voice. But once I did, I learned there is power in these stories. What had once seemed an impenetrable darkness, ready at any moment to take over my life again, became a shadow that shrank back from the light of the truth. The flame of truth that I once feared would burn me alive instead became the light that showed me my way forward.

So why is that I don’t have that same profound sense of freedom when it comes to being back in school? Why is it that I’m still competing with a ghost? Why is it that I will obsess over the difference between a 98.01 and a 98.87 when ultimately, it will count as a 4.0 either way? Because, even now, I don’t talk much about those stories. I crack jokes in my classes about having the dubious honor of having spent two semesters simultaneously on academic probation and the Dean’s List. It’s my go-to “fun fact” about myself. But I don’t talk about the emotional toll that failing so miserably had taken on me. I walked out of one of the best high schools in the state ranked 32 out of 182 and felt like a total failure because I was outside the top 20. I suffered panic attacks on the college campus, missed classes, and when I fell behind, I gave up entirely. But that hasn’t been a story I tell.

Until now. This past week, during a break out session in my social work course, one of my much younger classmates asked me a series of rather point blank questions about why I’d come back to school at my age (translation: OLD), why Sacred Heart, how did I fail out, and when I told her my GPA from 1992, she asked, “Like, did you just not even try?”

I hadn’t gone to school Wednesday night prepared to make a confession of my academic sins, nor was it really a part of our discussion for class and yet, somehow I found myself sitting in the hallway, with a dozen much younger students, telling my truths rather than recycling my worn-out old cover story. I told them I had been through a lot of grief and trauma between 14 and 19 and it had taken a massive emotional toll on me. I couldn’t handle it and I didn’t know how to find help, so I shut down instead. And lo and behold, that old darkness of failure started to fade into shadow, losing it’s power in the light of truth.

There is a great deal of power and light and grace in our stories, even the ones that feel so overwhelmingly dark and shameful. There is strength and courage to be found in speaking the truth, even in the tiniest, shakiest of tear-filled voices. I can’t help but be reminded of listening to the stories of alcoholics when I attended an AA meeting as a guest of my best friend. I told him over dinner afterwards that I’d seen more of real church in that church basement than I’d ever seen in any church on any given Sunday. And as I listened to the gospel story this morning of the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to seek out the one who was lost, then returning with that formerly lost sheep on his shoulders, I couldn’t help but think that that lost sheep probably had one hell of a story to tell when she got back. I have to wonder: did she tell the other 99? I hope she did. I really, really hope she did.

 

Small, Faithful Minority

candle_in_the_darkEvery man is called separately, and must follow alone. But men are frightened of solitude, and they try to protect themselves from it by merging themselves in the society of their fellow-men and in their material environment. They become suddenly aware of their responsibilities and duties, and are loathe to part with them. But all this is only a cloak to protect them from having to make a decision. They are unwilling to stand alone before Jesus and to be compelled to decide with their eyes fixed on him alone.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – “The Cost of Discipleship”

And then Jesus spoke to the disciples saying: Go forth and become the majority. Build for yourself a great nation. Create laws and ordinances to ensure that all of the nation obeys the precepts of that you, as the church, shall create. And those that do not obey or seem a threat, you shall punish, ostracize, and ban them. And I shall pour forth blessings upon that nation and they shall inherit the earth.

Wait… What?!  That’s not at all how scripture reads. Jesus came into this world 2017 years ago and we’re still fighting petty moral battles, much as the religious authorities were during biblical times. Why? Because we human beings are a damn stubborn bunch. We are also social creatures and thus, we seek safety in numbers. We prefer to be surrounded by like-minded people, with similar goals and aspirations. As American Christians, whether we admit it openly or not, we hope to secure our moral authority through attaining a majority rule. Somewhere a notion has arisen that we must establish a Christian nation. Is that really what Jesus taught? I don’t know about you but as a follower of Jesus, I don’t go to bed at night reciting the Pledge of Allegiance nor do I awake in the morning to meditate on the Bill of Rights.

Jesus told the disciples that they are salt and they are light. The kingdom of God is a tiny seed and a small bit of yeast. God has chosen the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised. Those who are blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who desire righteousness (note that says desire, not enforce), the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers (again, not enforcers) and the persecuted. Do any of those sound like a majority?

One uses a bit of salt to flavor the whole dish. If the whole dish were salt, it would be inedible. One lights a lamp to light a dark room. If the whole room were filled with flame, everything would be burned. Mustard seeds need room to grow into large bushes. Planted in a clump, the plants would be stunted, and likely not survive. Yeast alone cannot produce bread. It must be a tiny portion mixed into the dough.

It can be hard when the darkness becomes powerful and we begin to feel overwhelmed to remember that we were never told to subdue or conquer the darkness. Our calling is to stand against the darkness and we may fail at times. And when that minority feels impossibly small, we must remember that Jesus started, not with a conquering army, but with a wandering band of 12 average men who brought the flickering light of hope into a dark world. You can look around for the secure religious majority or you can decide with your eyes fixed solely on Jesus. Love God. Love your neighbors. Love yourself. Love your enemies. Do good to those who curse you. Defend the widow and orphan. You are light that holds back the darkness and gives hope to the people in darkness around you. Or not. Your choice.

 

Salt and Light

I’ve been know to ask (beg, plead, whine, demand, politely request) God to be a bit clearer at times. An email would work. Three foot flashing neon sign would be nice. Text message would be awesome. Ha ha – right? I mean, God doesn’t work like that. Except that all three of those things have happened to me over the years that I’ve been writing this blog. God speaks through the people and the world around me in ways that never fail to catch me off my guard – and that is impressive because I’ve had a tendency to be fairly guarded.

The thing is, little by little, God has been undermining my defenses in a thousand little ways and while I’ve noticed, I haven’t resisted. Does that count as surrender? I don’t know but it’s about as close as I get to it. I’ve learned that God actually does answer me – not on my timetable and not in ways I expect – but answers nonetheless. So I’ve learned to watch and listen and while I’ve cracked the joke to friends that God has picked up a megaphone lately, I suspect the truth lies less in God’s megaphone usage and more in my being open and paying attention.

So paying attention to a bunch of little things stretching all the way back to last Easter led me to these words on the twelfth day of Christmas:

‘Ye are the salt.’ Jesus does not say: ‘You must be the salt.’ It is not for the disciples to decide whether they will be the salt of the earth, for they are so whether they like it or not, they have been made salt by the call they have received.

The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

And in case that wasn’t quite clear enough…

‘Ye are the light.’ Once again it is not: ‘You are to be the light,’ they are already the light because Christ has called them, they are a light which is seen of men, they cannot be otherwise.

The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Ever read something that so rocks your world, you have to put the book down and talk a walk?  Yeah. This was one of those. I’ve spent so much of life trying to grow into or step into or become some ideal that I’d made up in my head. I had some vision cobbled together from a hundred different sources but not one of them was Jesus. And having realized my error and going to the only source that mattered, I was now reading as direct an answer as I could have dared to ask for. By virtue of following Him, I am salt and light, whether I like it or not, and cannot be otherwise, even when I can’t (or won’t) see it in myself. That means all that work of “becoming” really isn’t up to me. Which also means I’m not really in control of it. That is both a relief and scary as hell. Relief because I have been known to make my life way more complicated than it needs to be. Scary because… well…control.

Mary Schmich once wrote: Do one thing every day that scares you. So I made up my mind to do same thing every day until it no longer scares me. I will trust the One I’m following.