what really happened when I wept in a room full of strangers

Friday, November 8, 2013

I wrote a story for Middle Places today.  But I just reread my post, and I disappointed myself.  I mean, I love Middle Places.  I'm honored to be a part of them, and if you haven't been following along, there are some beautiful stories this week you won't want to miss.

But as usual, I ignored my emotion.  As usual, I smoothed myself over, tamped it down, tried not to offend anyone.  As usual, I swayed under an emotional boulder and insisted it wasn't that heavy, really.  I am working hard to stop downplaying and dismissing my life.  So now I'll tell it like it really happened.

In a room full of strangers on Wednesday, I cried.

Big, embarrassing tears.  There were no misty eyes, no quiet, quivery voice.  This was not a cute cry.  It was a face-contorting, ugly, loud, sobbing cry.

In the middle of what is certainly a coffee-and-donut room on Sunday mornings, in a church I'll likely never see again.  The metal folding chairs were lined in a horseshoe,  I was in the center of the dip, and I was stuck.  I couldn't even slip away discreetly to cry alone.  So I just sat there, undone, crying my ugliest cry, while twenty or so women attempted not to notice and the speaker stammered, hoping to undo whatever she had just done.

It wasn't her, it was me.  They were a sweet group of women, all open and chatty, an easy group to enter as a stranger.  The speaker was just a run-of-the-mill Evangelical speaker, saying what they say.  She looked like Beth Moore and I suspect she wanted to, she was passionate about "encouraging women in the Lord" and "giving us tools to overcome the enemy" and "pointing our little ones to the Lord" and ... she was so sincere, they were so sincere, everyone sitting in that horseshoe was earnest and hopeful and sincere.

And I was profoundly uncomfortable.  I couldn't relate to a single thing she said.

I used to.  I used to be the one in the middle of the horseshoe, saying it.  Now I can't follow the train of thought, can't string the words together into meaningful sentences.  It feels like a house of cards, their whole theological world stacked together one on top of the other, and her talk began in the middle of the stack.  The problem was, the bottom cards were yanked out from under me a long time ago.  I can't start in the middle, I have too many questions to answer before we ever get there.

Still, I listened politely, took a deep breath, and focused on the good.  These sweet women, their earnest faces, the passion and hope of the Beth Moore-ish woman in front of me ... I would never take that from them.  God bless you, sweet Evangelical women.  May no one ever grab the cards out from under you, may you be happy and well.

And it would have been fine.  I could have faked it until she finished talking, I could have nodded and sipped my weak coffee in my styrofoam cup and all would have been well.

Until she said the fated words.  "The most important thing we can do for our kids," she said in her most earnest voice, "is to show them their need for a Savior.  When we point to their sin, they understand their need for God."

There it was.

She pitched a grenade she didn't even know she was holding, poor sweet woman, and she had absolutely no way of knowing it would explode in my lap.  I thought of my husband, my passionate emotional artistic husband.  My musical husband who led worship for twenty years, who no longer plays guitar because every song reminds him he isn't good enough for God.  My naturally emotional husband who so internalized the idea of humankind's wretchedness that he no longer knows how to pray, and is only now beginning to believe that maybe he, too, is made in the image of God.

This language - this theology that keeps us navel gazing and focused on how bad we all are.  It stole his passion, disregarded his emotions, insisted he was never good enough to serve or be known.  Our infants are cursed, our toddlers are sinful, and there is nothing good in any us, no one who is righteous, no, not one.  He swallowed every bite of that poison apple.  It colored his parenting, his career, his view of self, and it damaged every single area of our lives.

The Evangelical earnest speaker in front of me can't possibly know any of that.  But there it is.

And I cried.

Bad, ugly, big tears.  She had hit a nerve I didn't realize I still had.  I thought I was over this.  I thought I was okay.  The truth is I'd shut a door on that part of my life and called it healing.  That's not healing.  It's denial.  I am so, so good at denial, until a sweet earnest Beth Moore-ish speaker throws a grenade and blows off a scab I didn't know I still had.

I miss going to church with my family, I miss sharing my faith with my husband.  And I miss that emotional, passionate man, the one who'd held a guitar in his hand for as long as I'd known him, the one who plays no more.

The room froze.  A few moms looked down at their nursing babies, a few looked away.  Nobody knows what to do when a stranger weeps inappropriately, and I empathized.  I didn't know what to do with this strange emotion myself.  A few deep breaths, a few more sips from my styrofoam cup, and I raised my shaking hand.

"The most important thing we can do," I croaked, "is tell our kids how much God loves them."  Another deep breath.  "I'm 35 and I still sin.  I don't have faith because of how bad I am.  I have faith because of how good God is."  From across the room a single earnest face made eye contact and nodded  emphatically.  Thank you for your solidarity, stranger.

I continued.  "When we tell our children how bad they are, they hear that they are never good enough.  I won't send them out into the world believing that.  I will tell them how much God loves them, or I won't say anything at all."

The speaker agreed and backpedaled, her voice gentle.  She did her best, and I smiled a weak thanks.  She didn't know she was launching grenades.  If you have never lived in a spiritually damaging environment, you probably don't even know grenades exist.  Before my life imploded I didn't know either.

Still.  Now I know, and I can't ignore the power of those words.  Children don't need to hear about sin, they need to hear about love.  Sin drives us toward desperation; love inspires us to find its Source.  For years I covertly disagreed, never biting the poison apple but never fighting against it either.  I won't be a silent accomplice anymore.

Please friends, reject the poison with me.  Tell your kids God loves them.  Tell your spouse they are accepted by God and created in His image.  Reflect on His great goodness, remember His unfailing love.  It is not your sin that draws you to Christ.  It is His gentle, compassionate love calling out to us all.

And if you see a woman crying inappropriately in your next mom's group, find her a Kleenex or something.  She is going to need a little grace.


  1. So much truth to this! Thank you!

  2. Amen, my sweet young sister in Christ. It is dangerously easy for us to get so caught up in the rhetoric of "the truth" that we completely lose sight of the THE TRUTH... that is, we were created by God for the purpose of loving Him and for Him to love us. If God was motivated by love to create us, shouldn't it be love - rather than guilt, fear or anything else - that motivates us to know, serve and love Him?

    1. Exactly, Summer! Thanks for commenting. Good to "see" you!

    2. My thumb went to hit the like button and then I remembered this wasn't Facebook :) well said!

  3. I made a comment and it disappeared. Did you see it?

    I will retype.

    It kills me to hear Brian isn't playing. I watch as David turns to his piano more and more. It is his place of solace. It connects him to both his heavenly father and his earthy one. I have to fight to keep Haydn from ruining it for David. So, that hit me hard, Brian not playing, the spiritual bullies stealing a place of solace from him. I am going to make his music a prayer focus. May the notes find him and hold on until he lets them back in.

    1. Thank you Heather (and thanks for retyping! Blogger can be temperamental).

  4. I'll bring the kleenex. We'll drink the grace togetger.

  5. Oh my gosh. Come to Austin and sit on my back patio and drink coffee with me.

    1. Missy, the next time I am in Texas, we will make it happen. So much to talk about ...

  6. My friend Liz McDaniel sent this email, and asked me to include it in the comments:

    I can't ever seem to leave a comment on your blog - it never accepts it. Weird.

    Anyway, I needed to say that the last blog, the not so glossy version, was incredibly powerful. It made me cry. It made me think back to Quest in Kentucky, and how that is what they did - they pointed to my Sin, not my Saving Grace, and how it almost made me lose my faith. I left Kentucky spiritually broken. Had it not been for the Tao Fong Shan community in Hong Kong, I'm not sure healing would have been possible.

    What I see and hear Brian going through, I get it. My journey wasn't as painful or as deep as his, but I get it. I understand why. And I'm grateful you found a way to put words to that poisoned apple.

    All that to say - don't gloss over it, continue to be real. That is the most beautiful, powerful and healing thing you have to offer.

  7. Wow,powerful stuff,so glad I got to read it!!!

  8. Thank you Stephanie. Thank you for the courage you demonstrated in that group. I have lived and believed those foolish words and experienced their destruction. I "reject the poison" with you!

  9. i haven't gotten through all of this yet because it's so so much but we've experienced the same exact thing. the complete resistance to do anything associated with who we once were when we were going to change the world for god. it killed us, we lost nearly everything, and our rebirth has been rocky, curious, sometimes majestic, and sometimes terrifying. and now that we've recovered the tiniest bit and are maybe ready to belong to a church again, we cannot find one that isn't hell bent on striving, striving, striving to be good enough. our hearts race, our fists clench, and we just can't go back. i find myself sometimes reverting back, and usually it's because either i've been triggered, or because it's what's comfortable and i find it really hard to carry on with life believing god just wants my happiness, and is ok with us deciding when and if to go, to move, to quit, to start. guilt. it's lingered, it may be the only thing that survived our crash and burn, paralyzing and taunting us with its accusations of trying to find joy and happiness when what we really need to be doing is working, working, working. the church is confused. wholly. there is a strong under current of shame and complete disillusionment of who god is and who we are. they teach the schizophrenic thoughts ransacking my mind that we are good, but no we're not. we've lost touch with our own goodness. i have 4 kids adopted out of foster care and i'm watching the devastation that happens to the human psyche and spirit when they've constantly been reaffirmed over and over that they aren't good enough. it takes years to undo that. and even then, that pandora's box has been opened, and it remains there leaking whispers of worthlessness. raising them has helped heal my husband and i because where it's almost impossible to think of yourself as beloved, it's the easiest thing in the world to remind a child how good god is and how good they are. which makes me look myself square in the eye and ask the if the same is true for me. this is longer and windier than i thought it would be. navigating discipleship IN LOVE rather than fear or shame has forced me to wrestle with everything i ever thought about god, and initially, like you, i just needed to be done with him for awhile. i couldn't reconcile his goodness with my goodness so i focused on mine and let all the bible studies and blog writing and women's conferences go. there's this verse translated into the message that says,"They found grace out in the desert, these people who survived the killing. Israel, out looking for a place to rest, met God out looking for them!" God told them, "I've never quit loving you and never will. Expect love, love, and more love!" That's God. Thanks Stephanie, your words are profound.

    1. Peace to you, Brittany. As I read this I had chills. We've walked similar paths.

      I have found so much healing in liturgy, in meditating on ancient truths of who God really is. It grounds me, gets me out of my own head and the circular thoughts of bad theology. Without it, I would have no way to relate to God at all.

      I pray you too will find a place to worship that does not feed those old lies.

  10. I found myself thinking of you often this week.

  11. I know all about that life imploding thing. It is the dark night of life sometimes that we experience according to St. John of the Cross. Thankfully, I have come almost all the way through it with my faith intact. But I can tell you emphatically that I did not experience a God that was accusing or tsk tsking at me for the failure of a marriage I tried so hard to hold together. I clung to the God who showed up in the dark days with boundless love, mercy, and endless strength. He is nothing but goodness as you say.

    This loving and unfathomably merciful Lord God has answered prayer after prayer for my husband who has fallen so low into deep sin and dreadful change of character. He is blessing him with new things with each week that goes by. God is not nearly as focused upon our "badness" as He is with His love for us. He is not shocked or surprised by our weaknesses or faults. He knows His children well. It has been called "our happy fault" which gained for us a Savior so wonderful.

    In Genesis he declared his creation as Good. Man is the pinnacle of His creation.

    We are made in God's very image. How can that be bad?

    St. Therese of Lisieux discovered that she could glory in her weaknesses and faults because they kept her protectively and lovingly in the embrace of our tender heavenly Father. She learned to trust Him like a small child does. His greatness stoops to our smallness. He desires only our willing and loving attention. He can take care of the rest.

    God bless you. And yes, He loves You, your children, and your good husband with an infinite Love not based on inherent goodness or hindered by our unworthiness - but because we are His.

    oh, sorry for the preachiness. Just felt pulled to respond to your hurt.

    1. I love this. What a beautiful response, and I wholeheartedly agree! I love that you continue to pray for your ex-husband, and see God's work in his life. It says a lot about your faith and love that you keep looking for such things. Also, I find myself saying exactly what you said above all the time: We are made in God's very image. How can that be bad?

      Thank you for your response!



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