Monthly Archives: March 2014

dearest ones,

May you know what it is to rise each morning with work to be done.

May you know the stillness of an afternoon with a space laid bare for thoughts to gather and be stirred into vision.

May you look for the dim light in the distance when you’re caught in a fog–may you chase it with stubbornness and wild hope.

May you sniff the air and know that snow is coming, hike alone to meet with God, and put all your senses into noticing a crackling fire before you.

May you know silence–may you enter into it gladly, eager for its lessons.

May you travel and fill your minds with strange and delightful newness, may you see things that bother you, ask questions, listen well and long.

May you be overcome with curiosity from an early age and feel freedom to find out where the rabbit-hole leads. And, may you know that in this life you have a True North, watching and cheering, waiting to hear all about it.

Live, babies. Live your questions and answers. I can only see God smiling over you.

 

Inspired by Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice.

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A Force Stronger than Fear: A Book Review

I downloaded my copy of blogger Elizabeth Esther’s memoir Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future on Tuesday morning. By Wednesday morning, I had finished the whole thing. This is not common (or even possible, usually) but her words were so riveting that I snuck moments in whenever I could. Throw in a load of laundry, read some, put the baby down for her nap, read some more, build train tracks with my toddler, read again.

The Girl at the End of the World

In her first book (and I hope there will be more) Elizabeth Esther tells the story of her childhood in a spiritually abusive fundamentalist cult called The Assembly, founded by her grandfather, and her slow escape from the cult as a young mother and wife. It’s not easy material to take in–I cried more than once and even stopped to beg-pray at one point. God, help me not to take advantage of the power I have over my children’s view of You. Please.

Power and fear are major themes in the book. At a young age, we see Elizabeth enduring “discipline” from her elders, and nothing but contrite submission and total surrender is accepted in return. She suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks related to her fear of being left behind if the rapture should happen and she hasn’t properly confessed all sin. Her family doesn’t accept mental illness as a reality though, so she never receives treatment. She believes, because she has been taught, that The Assembly is the way to God–and essentially this means that her grandfather and his followers are the way to God. The only empowerment is unquestioning obedience, because it will get her to heaven–even if it means her earthly life is miserable.

The motif of mothers and daughters is woven skillfully throughout the book. Tender and impulsive, Elizabeth learns to keep a safe emotional distance from her grandmother and her mother, as they are responsible for what seems like the majority of correcting her “character flaws”. She endures daily spankings–reminders that she’ll never be good enough.

Adulthood offers no freedom. Elizabeth marries a kind young man named Matt. The relationship offers some solace because the two are friends, and because Matt isn’t domineering, but Elizabeth soon realizes even their relationship isn’t safe from the scrutiny of The Assembly. Ultimately, they don’t have the power to make decisions about what their life together will look like.

I pray until Grandma is satisfied. She thinks I am weeping for my sins, but I am weeping because I finally realize that I will never be free.I see life stretched in front of me, and I weep for all the dreams I’ll never fulfill and for the children I will bring into this oppression. I weep for naively hoping my marriage could be different from all the other marriages in The Assembly. (Kindle ed, p. 127)

It takes motherhood to give Elizabeth the courage to leave, even though it doesn’t happen right away. In a pivotal scene, she’s expected to spank her daughter on her first birthday, a punishment for reaching for a bowl of chocolate. Children are trained to obey to the point that they won’t reach for sweets or toys without their parents’ pre-approval. Her mother dutifully fetches a wooden spoon, her grandmother looks on approvingly. Elizabeth shuts herself and her baby girl in the bathroom, torn between her own maternal intuition and the powerful pull of the cult’s teachings on child discipline–a misnomer because the purpose is to coldly break a child of any notion of preference or individuality.

She stares up at me, smiling and innocently unaware of what is happening. It is her first birthday. She is my baby, and I am doing this to her. I am training her the way I have been trained. Indeed, to break her will, I’d begun spanking Jewel at six months old.

Oh God. Help me. Help me now. I wait, the tears still coursing down my cheeks.

And there it is. A small shift. The tiniest point of light breaking through my darkness. It is revelation. You don’t have to break your daughter the way you were broken. (p. 137-138)

In this moment, the trajectory begins to shift. It’s the slow gathering of courage through Elizabeth’s relationship with her oldest daughter that builds into a new kind of strength over the years. She and her husband confront her grandparents for multiple abuses of power and finally leave the cult. They spend years acclimating to the outside American culture and trying to find a new way to worship and connect with God. She’s drawn to the safety and beauty of Catholicism, even though she strongly disapproves of it at first.  She finds strength through Mama Mary, explaining that when she couldn’t find Jesus, she went looking for his mother. She gains the strength to parent according to her own conscience, to be gentle with herself and seek the treatment she needs, and eventually even the strength for reconciliation with her parents.

As I read Elizabeth’s story, the goodness of God became more and more evident. I was reminded that we’re drawn to the Divine in many different ways, and what matters is that we bravely seek as we are led to. As she puts it so well:

God is big enough

This book shook me up, I’ll be honest. I’ve felt emotionally raw ever since I finished it. I think this is a testament to Elizabeth Esther’s ability as a writer to transfer her real life experiences to the page. Her voice is warm, candid, devastating, and at times hilarious (love me some King James-flavored humor) and left me feeling grateful and hopeful for the power of love.

It’s stronger than fear. Praise be to God.

You can pick up a copy of this book herehere, OR leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy, on me! You can just say hello, or share a thought on this post, or maybe tell me about a time you were brave in your spiritual journey. I’ll pick a winner on Monday.

*UPDATED: The winner of the book is Erica B, who left a comment on my Facebook page. Congrats Erica! Look for more reviews and giveaways soon.*

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mystic

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes–
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

-Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Lately I see this gorgeous bit of verse everywhere.

I listened to a sermon about beauty yesterday; about how the Wise Men didn’t know they were looking for Jesus specifically, but they followed beauty and so they found him, eventually. The point was this: if you follow beauty all the way back to its original source, you will find Jesus, because anything and everything beautiful is from Him.

I love this. God seems more beautiful than ever when I think of Him this way.

I suppose it was the exact thing I needed to hear, because I just stopped what I was doing and built a pile of stones right there. I prayed, curled up on the couch while Silas tinkered, about beauty and seeing, really seeing, and melancholy and anger and making decisions that are fear-based, about my heart-dreams and my sins against my own heart. About love and regret and persistent pain.

I leaned against my dearest Friend, and wondered why at times I cannot trace all this beauty back to its Source. Why I am satisfied to tiptoe around these burning bushes. In the ordinary of our lives, there is such loveliness. There are whispers of what could be, of the true potential of all of us made in the image of the One who transcends it all. I need to remember this, in all of my interactions. I need to ask more people what they are dreaming of and where they see beauty.

Fear is strange because we fear our deepest desires sometimes. I fear becoming real, like the Skin Horse, because it means being worn down, but I’m worn down to exhaustion from retreat and withdrawal. Could there be anything more wonderful than being real? When you meet such a person, you remember. I sometimes think heaviness is my own personal thorn; I can’t comprehend all this energy and lightness around me except for the brief moments when it flickers over my head. I don’t seem to have many answers, but I recognize beauty, and I can give thanks for it.

Looking around is a good starting point.

I may never understand my own holding back. I may never deem myself worthy of such wild, limitless love. Oh, but may I continue to know it anyway. May I somehow point the way to the Source, gasping alongside the rest of creation at the glory all around us. May I be brave enough to believe it all matters.

I invite it. I want to be a mystic, taking my shoes off in ordinary places.

*originally posted December 5, 2012 on Noting Now.

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differing graciously

Last night, Ricky and I had the opportunity to hear Brian McLaren speak with Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist in DC, as part of their Compelling Conversations series. Brian’s books have had a meaningful presence in our lives for quite a few years now, ever since our friend Heath lent us his copy of A New Kind of Christian. I didn’t know at the time just how much I would come to appreciate progressive Christian voices, or how much of a lifeline they would be for me.

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The conversation centered largely around the tension between evangelical American Christianity as it’s more commonly practiced and the folks who have grown increasingly uncomfortable with it…emergents, progressives, post-evangelicals, or whatever else you want to call them/us. I had to laugh when Brian mentioned that when people accuse him of heresy or falling down the slippery slope, he can only respond, “it’s much worse than you think.”

It’s been painful but liberating to realize I’ve spent most of my life entrenched in two types of Christianity that tend to fancy themselves the only type of Christianity: fundamentalism as a child and evangelicalism as a young adult. Those systems are not all bad or all good, of course, but there are good things outside of them. There are other ways to be faithful, to seek, to serve. I think that’s good news for all of us.

I’ve realized something big lately–I desperately want to be understood, especially by my friends who are still “in” systems from which I’ve stepped out. This desire grew so much over the years that I wanted to scream out my thoughts sometimes. Brian spoke some words last night that helped me to see how I might handle this better.

He offered this suggestion: when a friend, family member, etc. says something that you disagree with, maybe even find wildly offensive, say this: Wow, I see that differently. Then, leave it alone. If they ask you to explain, do so at another time, but not right away. In this way, you show that you’re willing to speak up but you don’t have to try to convince them of anything. It’s refreshing, and it opens up some space for dialogue. I think my favorite line was this: it’s really a gift when you can be different and not uptight about it. I have some work to do in that area.

In the same vein, he spoke of what an African theologian once told him: “Have the courage to differ graciously.” Brian noted that because this man approached theology from an African perspective, it might be called African theology, as when a woman approaches theology it might be called feminist theology, or when a gay person approaches theology it might be called queer theology, but a white European-based male approach is simply called theology (probably with a capital T). People approach theology differently, but some think their way is the way. We differ, meaning we are able to voice our disagreements, but we do it graciously, not defensively, not to prove a point, but as an effort to build something over time.

Not everyone can or will acknowledge their own bias and influencing factors. We should try to, and we should have grace for those who can’t see it yet. We should have grace for all the things we haven’t realized yet, too, as well as all the obtuse things we may have said in the past (yeah, that would be me).

I think I need to work on contentment with this: I am understood well by a few people. That is a gift, and it is enough.

Listen is my word for 2014. I’m learning that there’s nothing passive about listening–it’s a daily choice to acknowledge that whoever I come into contact with has a point of view that their life has given them, and to treat that gently. It doesn’t mean hiding my disagreement, but it does mean seeking to understand, and discerning well when to speak and when to refrain.

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