A Deeper Story

11Feb

Miracle on Via Luigi Rizzo

Last week, I told Part 1 of our move to Italy—specifically, the part where I concluded that the whole thing had been a horrible cosmic prank designed to undo me. Part 2 has a decidedly different ending though, and I can’t think of a story I’d rather be sharing for my final post at A Deeper Story. 

Here be miracles, folks:

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

After a summer clinging to the kind of faith that leaps oceans, I had entered autumn and found that my grip was spent. I couldn’t buoy up my own trust anymore. I was weary and anxious and displaced, and I needed God to be the miracle-worker I saw on the pages of children’s Bibles, cloning loaves and fish for hungry crowds, calming the turbulent sea. I needed God to be Emmanuel in a very real way.

Instead, I found myself profoundly, terrifyingly alone.

The third morning after Dan flew back to the States to wrangle with bureaucracy, I woke up feeling like a puddle of my former self. Insomnia had done a number on me the night before, and two-year-old Natalie’s requests for me to get up! and make breakfast! and plaaaayyyy! ricocheted wildly against my veneer of sanity. I thought about our empty refrigerator, the dishes crusted into Seussical stacks around the sink, my husband’s absence, and the contractions squeezing into me and concluded that if I got out of bed that day, I would surely die. It was all too much.

I can’t do it, I told God, burying my face under the covers. I can’t go to the grocery store or take Natalie to the park or ANY of it. I just can’t. I don’t know wh—

The phone rang.

It was so unexpected, such a perfectly cued interruption to my woe, that curiosity pulled me out of bed. I choked back the panic I experienced every time I had to communicate in Italian and answered the phone. An acquaintance from our new church replied, speaking slowly enough that I could follow: “I was just calling to see if I could take Natalie out to the park this morning! Oh, and while I’m thinking of it, could you use any groceries?”

Now, by nature, I’m the kind of girl who’d turn down offers of help while lying semiconscious in the path of an oncoming bullet train because she doesn’t want to inconvenience anyone. Something switched in me that morning though. Desperation had dissolved my pride in self-reliance enough that I could see God’s choreography in the moment, and I wasn’t about to turn my back on it.

“Grazie,” I told the caller. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

When serendipity alights on your shoulder like that, you don’t expect it to stay. You marvel at its plume and the bright tilt of its head, knowing its attention is a rare and unforceable gift, and then you watch it leave with as much good grace as you can muster. I was amazed by the temporary relief I’d been given from my isolation and more grateful than I knew how to say in any language. However, exhaustion was pulling me under the surface of panic again by the next evening.

I don’t know how I’m going to cook dinner tonight. It feels like I just finished cleaning up from lunch, and I’m so weary, so utterly weary, and Natalie needs so much, and everything’s depending on me, and I just wish we had a pizz

The phone rang again. This time, it was a girl I’d met a few weeks earlier offering to bring over a hot pepperoni with olives.

The same thing happened every remaining day until Dan got home. I would start to crumble with fatigue and overwhelm at the sticky mess left on the floor after breakfast, and the phone would ring with someone asking to come mop for me. Someone else came to vacuum. Others washed dishes, cooked lunch, scrubbed the bathroom, played with Natalie, sent over care packages, and ran errands for me so I could rest, and each offer arrived at the precipice of my need. Serendipity was quickly becoming a regular at our house.

I’ve never made it all the way through The Brothers Karamazov (with due apologies to my World Lit. professor), but this quote from it still captures me:

“Miracles are never a stumbling-block to the realist… The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognized by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I realize that miracles are several centuries out of vogue, and I’m as predisposed to skepticism as a housecat. I have twitched while hearing about how God gave someone a front-row parking spot or made two hours of sleep as restful as eight or prevented some likely allergic reaction. I’ve imagined God shaking his head in amusement that his followers would see divine intervention where there was only coincidence.

I began to get a different picture of God during my week of small rescues though. I could have viewed those phone calls as “an act of nature,” I suppose, or explained them away as human kindness and nothing more. Maybe if I hadn’t felt so powerless against my circumstances, the realist in me would still be stepping over miracles as if they were part of the original landscape. As it was, however, I couldn’t help seeing the reflection of God’s smile in the steam coming off my pizza or in the just-scrubbed floor tiles. His presence filled that lonely little apartment every time someone stopped by to help, and the faith that had gotten me through the summer was still just sufficient enough for me to recognize myself in the presence of miracles.

I know that the mention of divine intervention opens up a can full of worms and questions and broken bits of people’s hearts. I don’t pretend to understand why God seems to alter some situations and leave others to run their courses. What I have learned, at least within the small scope of my experience, is that the existence of miracles in our day-to-day, twenty-first-century world has a lot to do with our ability to recognize them as such.

How we hear the ring of the phone when we’re drowning in loneliness… How we view the blooming of moonlight in the dark… How we interpret a front-row parking spot when our schedule’s turned urgent… How we mark the flutter of wings against our shoulders, serendipity alighting one too many times for us to keep mistaking it as chance. “Every good and perfect gift is from above,” writes James, and sometimes faith simply means letting our exhausted, lonely hearts believe it’s true.

image source

30Jan

When God Brought Me to Italy to Perish

You may have seen the recent announcement that Deeper Story is closing its doors. It’s hard for me to imagine the upcoming year without it, both from a reader’s perspective and as one of its writers. That site has consistently swept my generalizations and misconceptions of Christianity off their feet. It’s answered the question of why we believe what we believe through the medium of story, and I’m going to miss it like I miss Blue Bell ice cream.

Before it closes though, I’m getting to share one last story. I wrote about it here on my blog back when the events were unfolding, but they’ve grown in significance and clarity since then, picking up new dimensions in their expanding context. This is the more complete story of our move to Italy. It’s also a study in modern-day miracles.

Part 1 of 2 is up today (Part 2 will go up in a few weeks before Deeper Story closes):

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

It’s not easy for me to think about the fall of 2007.

Actually, “not easy” is a wild understatement in this case. Opening pickle jars is “not easy.” Putting snow boots on a toddler is “not easy.” Willing my mind to revisit some of the most emotionally intense terrain of my life, on the other hand, is about two degrees this side of impossible. The anxiety is still there. So are the first discordant notes of depression. Upheaval, insecurity, a sense of displacement so strong I could drown in it—they’re all there, preserved museum-quality in the halls of my memory.

But then again, so are the miracles. And that’s why I’m here again, two degrees this side of impossible, willing myself never to forget.

/ / /

My husband Dan, our two-year-old daughter Natalie, and I spent the summer of 2007 in total life limbo. We’d moved out of our home in Delaware at the end of May, fully expecting to ship ourselves and all our possessions out on the next flight to Italy. It was all set. Dan had been offered his dream job in the country we had long hoped to adopt as our own, and our bags were packed. Every step of the process so far had been ridged with God’s fingerprints. But then the paperwork we needed the Italian government to send us for our move was “delayed.” (This, as we later learned, is bureaucracy speak for “never gonna happen.”)

The documents didn’t arrive by our move-out date, and they continued not arriving over the next two months as we camped out in friends’ guest rooms and stretched every dollar left in our checking account as far as it would go. We were surrounded by grace in those two months; our friends’ generosity kept us afloat, and we were led again and again to trust that God had our backs despite the maddening bureaucratic roadblock. My pregnant belly was stretching along with our disposable income though, and we had to make a decision: We could either scrap this new direction for our life, or we could book a flight to Italy without the right paperwork or any guarantees and try to work out the details once we got there.

We chose Option #2.

Looking back, I turn green around the gills thinking about all the risks we took with that decision. So much could have gone wrong, and the fact that we arrived without incident on the doorstep of our very own Italian apartment that August is its own category of grace.

This isn’t to say though that the worry and upheaval through which my mind had waded all summer evaporated. If anything, my anxiety grew thicker, muddled by the confusion of a new language and new cultural customs and new everything down to the way we told time. (Dinner at “twenty-one minus a quarter,” anyone?) This newness was a mental barrier as real and high to me as the historic walls of our adopted city. I was petrified by the enormity of what I didn’t know.

Also, I was now squarely (roundly!) in my third trimester of pregnancy. Any mama who has cared for a two-year-old while massively pregnant can tell you that staving off exhaustion in itself can be a full-time job. My body was as weary as my brain, and I felt like I was always skirting the edges of the preterm labor that had complicated my pregnancy with Natalie. I lay trapped awake by worry every night. If I’d had any illusions about being in control of my life before that autumn, they’d certainly hoofed it back to the land of make-believe by now.

Then two things happened simultaneously to kick the intensity notch of my world up to Level Orange. The first was that Dan left on an eight-day trip back to the States to take care of the paperwork we had been unable to file all summer. The second was a familiar tightening across my lower belly that started one evening while I was eating dinner. I was thirty-three weeks along, the exact point I’d been in my first pregnancy when I’d gone into preterm labor. I began to have contractions that were sporadic and harmless, but the timing was enough to send me spiraling imagination-first into worst case scenarios.

I couldn’t shake my fear that our baby was going to be born prematurely while Dan was out of the country. And what if things went horribly wrong for him and he was denied reentry? My terror was so acute that it spliced itself onto my sense of reality. I felt stranded in this place, so far from friends and family, unable to communicate in my own language, responsible for a two-year-old who needed more energy from me than I was able to give. I sympathized with the Israelites in Exodus who wailed that God had brought them into the wilderness to perish.

Hadn’t he just done the same to me?

Abandoned, abandoned, abandoned. The refrain began at the epicenter of my fear and was soon taken up by every cell in my body. I knew I was being dramatic. I knew that basing my understanding of God on my current circumstances was not only poor theology but straight-up idiotic. I had been so uprooted by the past few months though that my better judgment couldn’t find solid footing. As I saw it in those panic-stricken moments, God had lifted us over the stacked odds and deposited us safely in Italy only to pull that sense of safety right back out from under me. This was it then, the punch line of whatever cruel joke he was playing on our dreams.

I felt more alone than I had ever been in my life—relationally, culturally, and spiritually desolate—and I didn’t have the courage for whatever was coming next.

Only, what came next turned out to be as far from what I’d predicted as abandonment was from the truth.

/ / /

[Continue to Part 2.]

image source

 

8Dec

7 Years a Gentile

Come the first of December each year, our family calendar changes from a responsible and somewhat sickly matron into a party animal. There are get-togethers and game nights and recitals and celebrations, and we love winding down (up?) the year in the company of our friends and neighbors. Plus, holiday food here makes the herald angels sing. 

The holidays can be a mixed bag of emotions though (as everyone everywhere in the world knows from experience), and one particular source of mixed emotion for me is the fact that I’m so far from my own relatives and culture during a season devoted to both. December doesn’t so much pull me out of my element as remind me that I’ve been living out of it the past seven and a half years.

And I’m glad it does. The experience I have had and continue to have as a foreigner has changed me for the better, shifting my field of vision and even teaching me to read the Bible like a proper Gentile (that basically means Muggle in ancient Jewish context). More about this, including a vocabulary tip you can use to scandalize your Italian friends, over at A Deeper Story today:

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

I suspect that the only difference between an expat and an immigrant is the amount of money a person brings with her into her adopted country… and I’m not entirely sure which one this makes me.

In 2007, my husband and I moved to Italy for work, but not for lack of opportunities back in the US. Admittedly, my English degree is in far greater demand overseas, but Dan turned down several good engineering jobs so that we could follow the invisible strings tugging our hearts across the Atlantic. This is where folks tend to look at us with envy (if they’re American) or with incredulity (if they’re Italian). Everyone, regardless of nationality, thinks we’re at least 65% nuts. Invisible strings? Riiiiight…

The truth is that Dan and I are weird hybrids of travel enthusiast and missionary, and if you’ll pardon a quick detour into Christianese, we feel called to this life. We find ourselves rooted to Italian soil by something so strong and so inclusive of who we are that it covers a multitude of bureaucratic headaches. Daily life is daily life pretty much anywhere on the planet, but when we stop to absorb what we’re doing on a deeper level, we’re overcome by gratitude that we get to raise our girls in the culture that brought us both the Sistine Chapel and the double espresso. We love this place we’ve chosen to call home.

Italian soccer game 2

That said, these last seven years here have stretched us. (That’s missionary code for “This shizzle is HARD.”) The fascist dictator Mussolini is quoted as having said, “Governing Italians is not impossible, merely useless,” and I’m convinced that he must have said that after going to his local DMV and seeing what passed for a line. Those bureaucratic headaches I mentioned earlier are no joke, not only because the odds of receiving the correct documents in a timely fashion are slightly worse than those of winning the Powerball but because “standing” in “line” is a contact sport here. My Type A soul needs a solid week to recover from each institutional errand.

And then there’s the language. Dan grew up in Italy, but my foreign language skills before moving here were pretty much limited to ordering from a Mexican restaurant. I learned Italian the sink-or-swim way, by diving into the deep end of dinner parties and doctor’s appointments and trying to keep my splutters on the dignified side. For an introverted perfectionist whose childhood dream was to blend in, immersion-style language learning was like running an emotional triathlon every time I stepped out of the house. It can still feel like that if I’m tired or in a new environment or if I’ve recently slipped and said “ano” (anus) instead of “anno” (year) to a new acquaintance. Why yes, my child does have seven anuses! How many does yours have? Goes over great in the pediatrician’s waiting room.

One of the hardest aspects of living here, however, has been adjusting to the idea of being a foreigner. We generally refer to ourselves as expats on social media, but it’s not the Expat Office we go to when we need to renew our sojourner’s permits; it’s Immigration. We shuffle along in a crowd of elbows and body odor, men in turbans and women in headscarves vying with us for the chance to hand paperwork over to the dispassionate officials on the other side of a Plexiglas window. We are the “stranieri”—the strangers. The strange.

And we are strange, no doubt about it. Dan and I share a sarcastic sense of humor that is zero percent funny to most Italians. We observe weird customs like fist bumping and putting ice in our water. He and I have the same last name, which confuses everyone and prompts fun getting-to-know-you questions like, “So you’re also brother and sister?” We have been known to wear flip-flops outside the home, and once I went out with wet hair to the enduring horror of every single person I encountered. Sometimes I even put butter on my pasta (shhhhhh). We’re odd and American, and that’s okay.

Foreigner has been a hard label for me to get used to though. It’s not that it doesn’t fit; it’s just that I’ve always thought of it as belonging to a whole category of “other.” Much like when I tried on my wedding dress for the first time, I’ve had to stare long at my foreigner status to absorb the fact that I am the one draped in it now. I’m the “other” now, the stranger, the splutterer, the one being stretched to fit a new context. If my life these last seven years were a game of Which One Doesn’t Belong?, the answer would be me.

Whether I count as an expat or an immigrant, the disconnect can hit close to home sometimes. Italian culture rests on a foundation of family, with people’s grandparents and uncles and fifth cousins twice removed usually living in close proximity and woven throughout each other’s lives like interlacing doilies. Someone’s always around to babysit or cook dinner or help fix what needs fixing. Granted, families themselves are sometimes what need fixing, but in a society built on interconnectedness, our stand-alone status is an additional spotlight on our other-ness.

This sense of cultural loneliness hasn’t been easy to bear. I’m grateful for it though because it’s shifted my field of view. I have at least a small idea now of what the immigrants I once regarded with indifference must go through in acclimating to a new home—every aspect of life suddenly different and they themselves considered the most different of all.

I’ve also started reading the New Testament like a proper Gentile. It’s not that I’d thought of myself as a Jew before, but I did grow up Southern Baptist, so I found myself identifying with God’s Chosen People more often than not. It was easy to imagine that the Bible was written for me, directly to my culture and worldview. Before becoming an outsider myself, I’d never considered what it would be to look in on this big happy religious family with VIP access to God and a stockpile of “Visa Denied” stamps for anyone else trying to get in. I’d never given the Gentile experience a second thought (or a first, for that matter).

I have a slim idea of it now though, which is why I can only read about Jesus’s inclusion policy from precarious footing on the brink of tears. When Jesus offers living water to a foreign woman whose culture and lifestyle put her lower than low on the Jewish totem pole, when Peter announces that God’s door is open to crowds of outsiders longing to be included, and when Paul writes to a primarily non-Jewish church in Ephesus, “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,” God meets me smack-dab in the center of my insecurity and isolation. He reminds me of the very real family that we have here in our church. He exchanges our displacement on the map with a borderless home base. He steps right over definitions like expat and immigrant and alien and poor and stranger and disconnected and “other”… and turns the whole system outside-in.

image source

21Nov

Jesus Gives (or, How Is This Thing Worth It?)

Possibly the most significant search of my adult life has been for honest theology.

By that, I mean I’ve been seeking out ways of understanding God that don’t require me to shut down my curiosity, ignore my doubts, or twist pieces of the puzzle until they finally fit into the bigger picture. This isn’t to say that I’m against any sense of mystery in my spiritual journey. In fact, getting comfortable with not-knowing has helped me more than textbooks full of pat answers ever did. I just want to be sure that the experts who talk to me about God and the Bible and the difficult points of Christianity have wrestled their way through the kinds of questions that I do. I want my doctrine to come with rug burns. 

I’m sharing today at A Deeper Story about one such question and the grammar lesson that helped me toward an answer. There’s no expert advice here, but I can guarantee you this—

It’s honest.

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

My philosophy professor was a bright-eyed man with a Shakespearean sense of humor, but even that did not help me feel goodwill toward him the day our class discussion turned toward Jesus. It wasn’t that our views on Jesus were so very different. After all, we were at an evangelical Christian university with a strong Southern Baptist bent; folks there might disagree on whether the wine of Jesus’ first miracle wasn’t in fact Welch’s grape juice, but we all took as a given that Jesus was God incarnate and the basis of our faith.

It was the why behind my professor’s faith that made me feel as though a swarm of midges had invaded the classroom.

“We follow Jesus because he is The Truth,” my professor declared, all but dusting his hands with the certainty of his words. “Seeking truth is our greatest motivation in life, and God is true. That’s why Christianity has flourished throughout time. It’s why all of you are Christians today.”

I had to fight back an impulse to jump to my feet spluttering like a shaken can of Coke.

Instead, I raised my hand and explained—hopefully more calmly than I felt—that I disagreed. That not even God expects us to follow him out of a pure, Buddha-esque devotion to truth. That the Bible is full of incentives: healing, hope, blessing, joy, the divine trump card of salvation, even imperviousness to poison. That we follow God not out of some sense of philosophical duty but because he makes us an offer we can’t refuse.

My professor looked at me like I had just stepped off the madman set of King Lear, and I spent the rest of the class silent, fuming, and a little shocked by the intensity of whatever was fizzing around inside of me. So what if my professor approached spirituality as a quest for truth? Why should his view on the matter provoke such wild resistance in me?

The answer, as I was later able to articulate to myself in the privacy of my dorm room, was that I’d already experienced enough Truth to last me the rest of my life and then some. My childhood faith had been mapped out in the stark lines of right versus wrong. I’d learned to follow God because he demanded it of me, and how else do you react to a deity holding all the cards? You play along. You nod your head yes sir and no sir. You worship as instructed. You sing “I love you Lord” while trying to convince yourself that the emotion sweeping you isn’t actually the definition of holy terror.

College is where I finally began to extricate myself from the tyranny of Truth. Friends prayed with me weekly that I’d be able to absorb the idea that God loved me—really loved me, with the kind of crinkle-eyed affection that might just mean he liked me too—and I started to curate bits and pieces of a new perspective on Christianity that would welcome my heart and soul and experiences and emotions and curiosity in addition to my mind. I was only toe-deep into this process though when my philosophy professor declared that our ultimate goal is Truth and sent my fragile new setup spinning.

Why, REALLY? I wanted to ask him. My soul had been chafed threadbare by esoteric arguments; what I needed was for God’s goodness to be real, observable, woven through the fabric of everyday me. I needed someone to look me straight in the eyes and tell me what drew them back to Jesus when the costs began to mount. How was following God worth it?

/ / /

Just over a year ago, we moved from one side of our neighborhood to the other, a distance of about half a mile. My husband and I decided to move partly because it would reduce our rent by half (one small plus of the economic crisis) but also because we felt cut off from our purpose in the beautiful large house on the hill. The image that we felt ourselves projecting from that house was one of wealth, self-sufficiency, and pulled-togetherness, even if reality sang a different tune. To be honest, it was gratifying to be seen as people winning at life. However, we felt the hollowness of that as well, the vertical distance it was creating between others and us. Our pulled-together appearance was only an illusion, but it was an isolating one, and after four years there, Jesus’s words on social justice had stopped making sense to us.

So we moved. We found a fifth-floor apartment on the other side of the neighborhood that would meet our work-from-home needs, and we began to understand just how much of a difference half a mile can make. Where my writing desk used to look out over olive groves, it now faces a row of gray government-subsidized housing. Our girls play with neighborhood kids on the concrete patio beneath our building instead of in a private backyard. The cloak of respectability is worn thin here, and we see brokenness lived out on the public stage of our block every day—domestic disputes, child abuse, mental illness, shouts of “Whore!” and “Bitch!” reverberating through broad daylight.

We’re out of the bubble just as we’d hoped. We’re finally getting the chance to wrap our arms around neighbors in crisis and engage meaningfully with our community. The cost though… Oh friends, the cost. I’d anticipated the sacrifice of our time, our mental energy, and our convenience, but I hadn’t considered that we’d also have to let go of our expectations. I hadn’t realized that the happy ending clause I’d tacked onto my willingness to serve was going to be rendered obsolete almost immediately. I’ve had to face that, in all likelihood, the people I help aren’t going to reward me by getting better,and it’s shaken up old questions to splutter and fizz around inside me.

Why continue? Why carry out Jesus’s directives to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and love the enemy when I don’t get to claim any [immediate or measurable] benefits? How is following God worth what it’s costing me? What gives, Jesus?

For better or worse, I’ve always needed to know what God offers in terms I can wrap my hopelessly practical mind around. “Fire insurance” isn’t a good enough reason for me; neither is the search for truth or the promise of heaven or any number of moral pats on the back. My impatient streak takes over and requires that I know exactly what Jesus is bringing into my here and now.

Which brings me to the major difference between my questions twelve years ago at college and my questions today: an answer.

A few years ago, I was reading through Raising Hell by Julie Ferwerda when a certain paragraph stopped me short. In it, the author points out that John 3:16 was originally written in the present progressive tense instead of the future one that most of us are familiar with. (Any of you allergic to grammar, just bear with me a second.)

“For thus God loves the world, so that He gives His only-begotten Son, that everyone who is believing in Him should not be perishing, but may be having life age-abiding.” (Concordant Literal Translation)

Ferwerda argues that the use of the present progressive—is believing, not be perishing, may be having life—is intentional and meant to convey that both salvation and soul-death are current processes. “Think of it like a green plant thriving by a water source, or withering away for lack of water,” she writes. Spiritual life or death now. Heaven or hell here. Salvation not as an insurance policy but as an active component of the life I lead every day. Kingdom, come.

The name Immanuel has been breaking me open and putting me back together lately because I really can sense God with me, setting the world right through touches of divine nonsense–my door opened to a neighbor who’s not going to change but who needs love anyway; a neighbor’s door opened to me even though my savior complex is showing; grace in the present progressive for us all. This grace is the why for me, the offer I can’t refuse. It’s what redeems the everyday moments and the cost of persistence. It’s the truest evidence of Immanuel to me, the truest expression of healing and hope and salvation-in-real-time, so true in fact that even I might be persuaded to call it The Truth.

 

image source (art by Banksy)

13Oct

Body Renaissance

When the first line of this story swooped out of the sky at the running track and imbedded itself in my brain, my first reaction was NO. Out of all the personal topics I explore in my writing, body image is the hardest. It’s like an elephant with a nervous disorder standing in my kitchen; true, I would be unwise to ignore such a thing, but one wrong step or unmodulated noise on my part could trigger a rampage. Tiptoeing in wide arcs around the issue feels much safer. No risk of stirring up shame-based emotions.

That’s why I *had* to write about it in the end—because shame doesn’t get to call the shots anymore. I am participating in my own redemption story, and this is one chapter of it:

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

No one told me that running a marathon would turn me into a Renaissance painting. Sure, I’d had a hopeful inkling or two that all those months of training runs would leave me with a model’s physique, but I’d been thinking more Bündchen and less Botticelli, if you know what I mean. I’d taken it for granted that turning in my couch potato card for a marathon medal would result in a slimmer, svelter me, preferably one with Gwen Stefani abs.

Instead?

Well, based on my experience, here’s an entirely subjective rundown on how the human metabolic system works: If you don’t exercise, your body won’t burn enough calories and your waistline will resemble a popular baked good. If you do exercise, your body will try to store as many calories as possible in anticipation and your waistline will expand in much the same vein as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. If you attempt to diet your way back to normalcy, your body will clutch every spare carbohydrate to itself (in the waistline region, of course) and defend its extra fluff to the death. And if you think you can use reverse psychology on it, put that plate of snickerdoodles down right now because it won’t work. Your friendly neighborhood muffin top is here to play. Forever, and ever, and ever…

I’m exaggerating, of course. Hyperbole is one of my great loves in life and pretty much the most fun you can have lamenting minor suckitudes. The honest truth though, the one that I’m plastering over with jokes and Ghostbusters references, is that within two months of running a marathon last fall, I had to buy new jeans. I couldn’t squeeze, shimmy, or pray myself into my old ones anymore… and if you think that prayer in this context is irreverent, then you haven’t stepped on a scale one morning and seen a number fifteen higher than the last time you’d checked. You haven’t found yourself inhabiting a body that feels as foreign to you as thrift-store coveralls. You haven’t seized a handful of your own flesh and presented it to God through tear-stung eyes as proof that fearful and wonderful no longer apply to you. Maybe just fearful, though “ashamed” would be the more accurate term.

I have spent the whole of this year in a body that feels like a mistake, something I should be able to backspace away. I have worn my new jeans as an act of spite. I have stocked my fridge with bitterness, resenting the daily recurrence of hunger, hating the familiar joy of ripe watermelon or fresh bread on my tongue. I have put on baggy workout clothes and run with a heaviness not fully attributable to extra pounds. I have hidden.

This isn’t easy for me to write. Exposing a source of shame never is. Shame thrives in the dark though, in the un-telling. It coaxes us into cellblocks of secrecy and grows in power the longer we let it hold the keys. I’ve let it hold many keys for me throughout my life, so I know what it is to cower against the lie of my own unworthiness, but I also know what it is to take back a key and let myself out into the light. It’s participating in my own redemption story.

I read An Altar in the World for the first time this summer and felt my breath log-jamming in my throat when I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s take on the spiritual practice of wearing skin:

“This [loathing and hiding from yourself] can only go on so long, especially for someone who officially believes that God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.’”

Do I believe that God loves flesh and blood? I truly hadn’t considered the possibility before. Actually, I’d always been under the impression that flesh and blood were necessary evils in the divine scheme of things, our bodies meant as vessels for reproduction and mortification (in multiple senses of the word) and little else. I’d certainly never thought of a curve of skin as something holy. That God might treasure the freckle constellations on my arms, the set of my truth-telling hips, the fault lines of pregnancies past, the traces of age spots to come? It’s a notion at once sacrilegious and stunning to me.

That’s exactly how it must have felt, I realize, to the long-ago woman who had been hemorrhaging for so long that her gynecological plight had become public record. By Jewish law, any person or even object she had touched over the previous twelve years had been rendered impure by association. Her body was socially toxic. When she snuck out to touch Jesus’s hem, desperately hopeful rebel that she was, and he not only healed but also affirmed and blessed her body, how sacrilegious must the encounter have seemed? And how beautifully, preposterously sacred? How must it have felt to learn for the first time in her shame-seeped life that God cherished her body as well as her soul?

Not too different from how I’m starting to feel, I expect.

The understanding that my body is loved by God is like a sun-shadow on the back of my eyelids that holds still until the instant I notice it and then flits toward my periphery. I primarily notice it in my reading, when Rumi writes to the “soul of my flesh” or Paul calls the body “a sacred place” or Ann Voskamp points out “Your skin is the outer layer of your soul,” and I glimpse the connection for a dappled instant. Every now and then though, I feel it in my body itself—a sudden physical inclination toward reverence, an impression fluttering across the surface of my skin that what I have here was never meant to be despised. In those moments, I can feel the thread count of Jesus’s hem.

I’ve debated with myself about whether or not I should scrap the earlier joke about turning into a Renaissance painting; the last thing I want is for my story to cause offense or hurt. I ended up keeping it though because it’s more apt an analogy than I gave it credit for at first. Botticelli and Tintoretto and Raphael and Michelangelo, like all gifted artists, kept their souls tuned to the frequency of beauty. Their sensitivity to it and ability to transmit it to others are why, five centuries later, we find ourselves vibrating at the same frequency when we stand before one of their paintings. We see the human form as they did, in all its vulnerability and power, its peculiarity and mystique. We see rolls of flesh celebrated in perfect brushstrokes. We see the contours of our own soul’s address right there on the canvas, and we call it what it is, what it’s been from the moment our Artist-God breathed life into clay:

priceless.

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23Sep

Prayer is Not My Prayer Language

When I began this blog back in 2007, I in no way intended to write about my spiritual life. In fact, I intended not to. Marching into the depths of my topsy-turvy faith with a notepad was a prospect so scary that I rarely even attempted it in the privacy of my own company. I planned to blog about parenthood and living overseas and maybe, occasionally, the quirks in my personality, but not spirituality. Never spirituality.

As you might have noticed, that resolution has held up about as well as a toilet paper kite in a thunderstorm.

It hasn’t gotten any less scary for me to write about my evolving relationship with God, just so you know. Blogging requires significantly more pep talking and espresso than I originally conceived, and I go into full-blown vulnerability hangover mode at least once a month. The freedom to share what’s going on behind the scenes of my heart, though, is worth every bit of discombobulation (as is the opportunity to use words like “discombobulation”), and I’m honored to the depths of my quirky soul that you’re here to read this.

Today I’m confessing to a new bit of unorthodoxy over at A Deeper Story, where I’ll join you once I’ve issued myself another pep talk or two. You bring the coffee?

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

 “Sometimes, when people ask me about my prayer life, I describe hanging laundry on the line… This is good work, this prayer. This is good prayer, this work.”
– Barbara Brown Taylor

Rarely do I call on God’s intervening powers more fervently than when someone looks around the circle and asks, “Whose turn is it to pray?”

Mine. It’s almost certainly mine. In fact, I’ve been shirking my pray-aloud duties for so many years that I probably owe the Christian community about 3,708,000 consecutive blessings at this point.

The Bible study leader or head of the holiday table knows this and looks straight at me, but I have retreated into my one and only evasive maneuver: the Preemptive Head Bow. I close my eyes and fix my face in a half-smile as if I’m already agreeing in spirit with whoever is chosen to pray. NOT ME. God, for all the love you bear me and my remaining scraps of soul dignity, make them choose NOT ME.

It usually works. Most people are reluctant to call on someone who looks to be already busy communing with God. Every now and then though… “Bethany, we haven’t heard from you in a while!” I then whisper to God the most honest expression of my soul in that moment, which is Dammit.

It’s not that I don’t know what to do in this setting. I grew up a worship leader’s kid in a Southern Baptist church. I know how to pray aloud, from the first “Father God” to the final “in your name we pray,” and I can still whip out a passable blessing under social duress. The problem is that every word of a proper prayer feels like a stumbling block in my throat. The corners rasp against my lips even as I will myself to sound ardent, bad acting made all the worse by my complicity in it.

No one has ever pointed out that my prayers tend to come out like strangulated haikus—Dear God thank you please / something on togetherness / in your name amen—but I still project my unease onto those listening. I imagine them getting together later to compare notes and plan some kind of spiritual intervention for She-Who-Tries-To-Avoid-Praying. I wouldn’t blame them either. After all, what kind of Christian doesn’t want to talk to God? That’s like being the kind of chef who refuses to touch food, or the kind of Red Sox fan who just shrugs when the Yankees win.

Something fundamental is clearly missing. At least, that’s what I used to think.

I kept an uneasy truce with prayer—accepting it as a necessary discomfort, a kind of religious underwire—until my college years. Like many students, I found the gift of unknowing in lecture halls. My professors challenged me to question and research, to unclench my perspective so I could learn. And I determined I would. I marched myself into Mardel Christian Books one Texas-bright morning and left with a stack of prayer guides as deep as my desperation. This collection of expert theology, surely, would activate my latent prayer gene.

If you’ve ever read more than two Christian how-to books in your life, you already know how the next part of this story goes. Prayer is an exercise in blind persistence, the first book told me. No, no, no–prayer is a magic spell, said the second. If you have enough faith, God will give you your own prayer language, insisted the third. Yo knuckleheads, stop bothering God with all this talking business and just listen, countered the fourth.

I’m simplifying, of course, but the whole thing felt far from simple as I abandoned book after book in frustration. Prayer was supposed to be the baseline of any Christian’s relationship with God, but I couldn’t even do it in the privacy of my own mind. I couldn’t come up with words that rang true for me, much less ones that would transport me to the park bench where God was waiting to chat. And forget about a personal prayer language. I knew five-year-olds who could speak in tongues, but God was obviously not wasting that gift on me. It was just my voice, stammering in plain old Christianese, and the answering silence.

I never felt further from God than when I tried talking to him.

So finally, several years and several hundred arid please-and-thank-yous later, I just stopped. I stopped trying to untangle the telephone cord between God and me. I stopped forcing words into the blank space between us. I stopped pretending, at least to myself, that I was the kind of person who could start a meaningful conversation with “Dear Father in heaven.” I wasn’t. I didn’t know how to be, though God knows I’d tried. For whatever the reason (was I not sincere enough? did my soul come with a manufacturer’s defect? did God just straight-up not care?), prayer had never worked for me, and I was done trying to act like it did.

And there, in the dusty aftermath of doctrine, is where we had our first heart-to-heart.

I was in the kitchen reaching for something in my baking cabinet when an impulse swept down into my arms, a sweet, warm rush that brought my fingers to life before my brain quite realized what was happening. I knew, without knowing, that I was making brownies to take to my neighbor suffering from homesickness. More than that, I knew that I wasn’t alone.

For the next fifteen minutes, I sifted cocoa and flour, whirled sugar into butter, and greased baking pans, and every motion was a prayer. I could feel my neighbor’s struggle like a heavy and precious weight against my ribs and God as the lifeblood pulsing between it and the whisk in my hands. Not a single conscious word interrupted our rhythm. Our care, mine and God’s, went into every stir of that brownie batter, and I sensed the full truth of Jesus’s words: “At the moment of being ‘care-full’, you find yourselves cared for.”

My body was the spiritual conduit that my mind had long failed to find.

These days, I still pray best through baking. Mixing up carb-loaded comfort is my liturgy and taste-testing my sacrament. Hold your eye rolls for one second while I tell you that the secret ingredient is love. (And butter. But mostly love.) This isn’t the only way I’ve found to interact with God though. We communicate when I photograph mountain wildflowers, when I lie back to watch the stars, when I cuddle my sleepy daughters, and even when I go running—each physically emotive act expressing my soul better than words ever did. I’ve come to realize that this kind of physical-emotional intentionality is my personal prayer language, the completely unconventional way that God has chosen to connect with me.

I still haven’t figured out how to explain to Bible study leaders that I only pray with my body, sorry. People tend to think I should be more orthodox as it is. One of the most wonderful surprises of my adult life, however, is that God always meets me in my unorthodoxy. When my wounded heart can’t bear a certain interpretation of the Bible any longer, God meets me outside denominational lines with a new perspective. When who-I-am fails, once again, to fit religiously sanctioned roles, God affirms my identity, the unique image of [her]self that I have to offer the world. When I admit that I can’t talk to God, he gives me a prayer language that doesn’t require words. That he would meet me in the wilds of my baking cabinet, far from the park benches of conventionality and the rhetoric of experts, says more to me about his love than a by-the-book spirituality ever could.

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12Aug

Depression, Robin, and You

So much is going on in the world right now, so much heaviness, so many strings wrenching our hearts in all directions. Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza… It’s all so much to take in, and I have absolutely nothing constructive to add to the discussions on international policy taking place. I do know depression though, and waking up this morning to news of Robin Williams’s death reminded me what an important topic this is… especially from a practical point of view… and especially especially for members of the Christian community. I’m sharing my experience at A Deeper Story and would love if you’d read along:

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

“Waking up feels like getting socked in the gut. I feel instantly strained, smothered, vaguely panicked. I have trouble breathing through the tightness of trying to hold myself together, trying not to cry or yell or fly into a million little pieces. The simplicity of my life seems unbearably complicated, and even the tiniest decisions—which sweater should I wear?—are draining. I blink back tears from an urgent but indefinable sadness. The day feels like a sheer precipice, and I can’t see the footholds. I can’t see the top. I can’t even tell what type of stone is blocking my way. I recognize that I have no reason to feel unhappy, no reason at all, but I stumble through various shades of sadness all the same. I wake up with the wind already knocked out of me, and I choke on the idea that there is no solution.”
– From my journal, January 30, 2008

“It’s like this,” I explained to my husband in halting whispers, engulfed in the dark of another sleepless night. “It’s like we’re at a party with everyone we know, and there’s dancing and food and laughter. Everything would be perfect, except that I suddenly find myself locked in a steel cage in the middle of the room. I didn’t see who locked me there. I have no idea where the key might be. All I know is that I’m ashamed to find myself captured, so I try for a while to laugh along with the partygoers, hoping they won’t notice the bars.

“Food is pushed under a slat on the floor, but eating alone is not the same as lingering with friends by the buffet. You and the girls come by to talk to me, but it’s not the same as hugging each other with unrestrained arms. The music still plays, but my cage is too short for me to dance. I may be in the middle of the room, but I feel as though I’m watching the party from outside.

“My resolve to put on a good face finally breaks down, and I tentatively call to a few loved ones for help. I know they aren’t the ones who locked me in the cage, but my hope is that they can search the room for the key since I’m unable. I also wish a few of them would come sit with me, hold my hand through the bars, reassure me that the cage is real and that I didn’t put myself there. I call again, hesitatingly, torn between wanting them to see my desperation and not wanting them to think me crazy. ‘Hello? I’m a little stuck here…’ This time, a couple hear. They stop for a moment, call, ‘Yeah, come on out and join us!’ and go back to dancing.”

“I see strange shadows inside my eyelids these days, as if everything familiar has become frightening. Writing requires me to rip words out of dental cavities, one at a time, and I don’t have the pain tolerance to finish what I manage to start. Smiling takes even more effort. I feel horribly alone, but I still crave loneliness. The freedom to hide. Not having to fake sanity for my family’s sake or to force insanity so someone will help me. I want a respite from the world’s problems, starting with my own brain.”
– From my journal, March 3, 2009 

I can’t read my journal entries from the fall of 2007 to the spring of 2009 without shaking. The pain of that time was so sharp that it cuts me even through the protective layers of all the years since. When it first started, I thought I was just struggling to adjust to our recent move to Italy. Then, my second daughter was born, and I latched onto postpartum depression as a likely culprit. The months continued though, and the world inside my mind continued growing darker.

I had only the tiniest shred of strength with which to help myself, and I used it primarily on holding my shit together in front of my two little girls. I couldn’t think what else to do, how else to fix myself. More than that, I didn’t feel worthy of being fixed. I felt like a black hole sucking those I loved down into my emptiness, and more than anything else in the world, I wished for backspace button big enough to delete myself.

Eventually, helped by a kind friend and my husband, I talked to three different doctors, all of whom brushed aside my condition after verifying that my blood results were normal. “You’re just having trouble adjusting to life in a new country,” my endocrinologist insisted, and I didn’t have the heart to argue, just like I didn’t have the heart to argue with Christian self-help sites that said I could pray the blackness away. They had no idea how hard I had already tried, how desperately I had prayed, how much it had taken for me to seek their help in the first place.

“I can no longer differentiate between physical and mental symptoms. This is not a development I was expecting, but I understand the progression from panic tickling the back of my neck to instinctive breath-holding to riotous stomach-and-back-and-head-aches. And not just that, but insomnia and desperate confusion. I have spent the entirety of the last two days in bed, somewhere between sleeping and pinching my breath shut, and I can’t account for it. ‘I don’t know,’ I respond when Dan asks me what’s wrong. How I feel. What that twitchy expression on my lips forebodes. Why I’m suddenly crying over a grapefruit, my only concession to lunch. What he can do for me.”
– From my journal, March 22, 2009

Here is what I learned about depression during my year-and-a-half-long battle: It is not a place for self-help.

I could not shoo away the darkness by starting a new workout routine. I could not slip into peace by praying. I could not diagnose myself within the maze of WebMD. I could not summon the energy to pick myself off the bathroom floor some days, much less pick up the phone and ask for help. The few friends I reached out to over the months all answered the same way: “What can I do to help?” And my answer was always, unfailingly, “I don’t know.”

In the end, I found depression’s exit door by accident. One day in early spring, I stumbled across an online forum of women claiming that my brand of birth control pill had caused their depression. I stopped taking it that day, and I was feeling more whole within a week than I had been for the past eighteen months.

I’m not going to pretend the answer is that simple for everyone though. Whatever the individual causes, depression is a real illness, as debilitating and painful as physical ones can be. It’s also a highly stigmatized one, particularly within Christian circles. I was reminded of that the moment I turned on my computer this morning and saw the tragic news of Robin Williams’s death—a rumored suicide—after his years’ long battle with depression.

Social media was full of beautiful tributes to the actor, but I also saw plenty of remarks to the effect that his depression would have been healed if only he had known the Lord. I recognized that the people making these remarks were grieving in their own way, but they were also making two very weighty assumptions:

1. That Robin Williams did not know God. (This, I strongly believe, is not something we have the authority to determine.)

2. That prayer is always enough to cure depression.

Can prayer cure depression? Yes, I believe so. But it doesn’t always. This is an important distinction, because until we stop viewing depression as a spiritual deficiency, we can’t help those in our communities take those first steps out.

And make no mistake—we are needed. You are needed. If someone you know is drowning inside his or her own head, you are needed to function as lifeguard. You are needed to call her up and tell her you’re taking her kids to the park for the day and cooking dinner besides. You are needed to tell him you found a doctor who can help and will be picking him up at 10. You are needed to do the Googling, to pick up the prescription, to find the health food store with the particular supplement, to refuse to give up until a solution is found. You are needed for your perspective and energy and insistence on your loved one’s worthiness. Your presence can be vital, sometimes in the most literal sense of the word.

I might have found the cure to my brand of depression on my own, but friends and family are the reason I made it that far. A year and a half is a long time to be treading water in the dark, and I don’t think I could have done it alone. Even when loved ones didn’t know how to help me, their encouragement and nearness propped me up a little more, gave me just enough of a respite that I could keep on going.

“Carry each other’s burdens,” wrote Paul in his letter to the Galatians, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Having been for so many months in the position of the one who was carried, I couldn’t agree more.

Dead Poet's Society

Rest in peace.

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