Picture Perfect: Leaving the Mask Behind
We were a picture perfect gathering. A camp of people around the bonfire, nestled along the rocky lakeshore. The cool blanket of air signified that summer was coming to an end in these New York woods. A sweet aroma of roasting marshmallows wove into an atmosphere of singing, acoustic guitars, and unadulterated laughter. Each person was arranging his or her plans to return home to the daily grind. The grind of alarm clocks,dishes in the sink, and the hamster wheel of errands. As the glow of the fire lit up our faces, these lovely new friends would ask what I was doing next. I didn't know. Maybe I did. I thought I knew. It was partially exhilarating to not know but mostly drove me up the wall.
Once upon a time, I always had a security plan. A plan carefully organized in increments of the next day up until at least the next year. Once I walked down the aisle and said, "I do," the events of my life resembled a roller coaster. But not the kind at Six Flags where it is neatly painted with a definitive start and finish. More like the kind that you may see at a roadside casino with chipped paint where you pray that the ride lands smoothly.
Two weeks after our wedding, my father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer. This was followed by my mother losing her job and eventually my childhood home. Following this - a devastating miscarriage. Eventually, my father-in-law’s death led us to pack up our beloved little home in Tennessee and head out to Iowa to help with the family farm. What I thought would be a few weeks turned into a few months, which led us to Upstate New York to a Bible camp. An opportunity we thought would be followed by long term missions training.
When that very last part fell through suddenly, we realized that we would be forced to be completely dependent on God for our next step and believe. Believe that He would work all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). That He was with us (Isaiah 41:10). Believe that He was going before us (Deuteronomy 31:8).
The wilderness, the darkroom, the place of disillusionment is a place where God does a great work within us. We feel as if we are going nowhere and nothing is happening. It's a cutting-away process - emptying out everything that is cancerous to our ability to bear fruit. And at the same time, it's a nourishing of our soul.
I would have it no other way. My desire is not to be like a plant that grows quickly overnight and can be mowed over the next day. I want to be the tree that must take root, fully feel the hit of the rain. The tree that meets the scorching sun, digs deeper into the soil and endures the seasons. And finally blossoming in long-lasting strength.
It has been a humbling and necessary process for me. I've come to a sobering recognition to where I can clearly see pride, bitterness, entitlement, selfishness and a plethora of other character deficiencies. The reality is that these attributes have rested far beneath the surface where they were hidden from myself. They have always been there. Yet, as the pressure increases, the impurities continue to surface.
The first to go was comfort. Then familiarity and then status and then material possessions. The symphony continues to play as The Lord whispers, "lower still, deeper still, closer still." Then, somewhere in the wrestle, surrender, find-joy-in-all-circumstances cycle, I begin to look like the person I was actually created to be.
Although I am thankful for a God who continues to grow and transform me, I must confess that more often than not, it looks less like Mary's, "Behold, I am the Lord's servant; let it be done unto me". More like one of those underground wrestling matches that you may see in the opening of a superhero movie- cue the broken chairs, twitching lights and redneck audience.
I would love to have the attitude of sweet Virgin Mary. But I can openly admit that I'm just not there yet. The problem is that sometimes I pretend that I am there. A lot of people, even a lot of Christians pretend to be. If they ever do expose their messy process, they may hang it up as a presentation. After the fact labeling it as "that thing I used to struggle with" or "a part of my story that brought me here today."
My favorite terminology for this concept is Writer and Professor: Carl H. Klaus's book title, "The Made-Up Self". In the book he unpacks the concept that people (specifically writers in this case) subconsciously present a rehearsed version of themselves. Rather than presenting their real thoughts and emotions.
I've lived a good portion of life as the made-up self. It's exhausting and also a disservice to others. I once asked a good friend of mine how she thinks her parents managed to raise seven children with strong faith and character. Her assessment was that her parents were completely transparent about their struggles and shortcomings and apologized for their mistakes.
By that same token, how do we fully represent the Christ that we call "Lord?" Is it by presenting ourselves perfectly polished and possessing all wisdom? Or is it by exposing His grace working in us as we grow into His image? Author Donald Miller says in his book, Scary Close:
Grace only sticks to our imperfections. Those who can’t accept their imperfections can’t accept grace either.
I would even add to that the fact that if we cannot accept grace ourselves, we cannot possibly extend grace. Then show people a very rigid, unforgiving God.
I am so grateful for a Bible that exposes leaders and prophets who did not have it all together. Ones who sometimes doubted God and His promises. Abraham, out of impatience and fear took the promise of being the Father into his own hands (Genesis 16:1). Elijah was ready to throw in the towel and asked God to let him die (1 Kings 19:4). The Psalms are a book of David's ups and downs. This is a faith I can trust in, because unlike other religions, it was never a story of perfectly righteous and polished people. But of a truly gracious God despite the imperfections of the people. This is what people need to see more of.
The desolate places are the times to lean into the "It is written" and the "I will never leave you nor forsake you" and the "He will lift you up in due time". But they are also the chances to unmask before others. Bond deeper and grow together.
A mentor of mine once said, "Community is a greenhouse for the soul". I am fully convinced that if our communities looked less like an elite tearoom and more like a messy mud room, we would be a people who would flourish. A people without masks who endure far less loneliness and experience full joy together. Simply because we have joined in His sufferings with one another.